THINGS DON’T always LOOK THE WAY THEy ARE

 Machetes used in Rwandan genocide

Machetes used in Rwandan genocide

This afternoon I had my final reconstructive operation. By now Dr.______ is well aware of my desire for small whatchamacaltits and couldn’t resist saying to me, needle already sunk deep in my vein, “Now, you want double ‘D’s right?” Which was not funny at all because at that point, half anesthetized, I could barely talk, and as they wheeled me into the operating room I wasn’t so scared I would die or wake up a vegetable or something benign like that, but that I’d wake up to the realization that I would now have to shop at Sears for bras with hooks the size of a deep sea fishing boat’s.

As I write this I’m feeling a bit loopy if you can’t already tell. My chest is bound like a Geisha’s feet, which might have something to do with the book I’m reading, a not particularly happy book: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. Loopy is a good state to be in when reading a book called We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. No, not exactly a coffee table book.

The book is about the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. With the exception of a movie, Hotel Rwanda, that gave it a spike in the public conscious, the whole affair has long since lost airtime to other more pressing world catastrophes that these days seem to occur every week and a half or so, or maybe it’s always been this way; every generation thinking the world is most definitely coming to an end, evil growing in width and depth. World War I. World War II. The whole Middle Ages for that matter.

We wish to inform you . . .  is a distressing book, much of it chronicling the massacre of more than a million men, women, and children.

Very long story short: the genocide was related to a culmination of political corruption and hate that had become embedded in the Hutu people for the Tutsi people in Rwanda. The Hutus formed a group called Hutu Power via propaganda and whatever human gene is responsible for killing massive amounts of its own kind throughout history, and propagated the murder of every Tutsi in Rwanda. After practicing the art of machete and gun in dress rehearsals for the big day – sometimes right outside of the homes of the intended Tutsi victims – Hutus finally went at it and killed every Tutsi they laid eyes on regardless of sex or age.

But enough of that. I knew most of this already. What I didn’t know is that eventually the Hutu’s, while still engaged in the rampage, were driven out of the country in large quantities by a small faction of, how shall I put it, angry Tutsis. They entered Zaire en mass, and almost immediately began dropping dead in a cholera endemic. As luck would have it, some young somebody had a camera and a load of film (1994 remember) and took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, shooting film of the plight of Hutu refugees.

The scene of Hutus suffering was broadcast worldwide and immediately help poured in. Relief organizations, doctors, nurses, bottled water, tents, money. In effect, the mayhem on TV provided a magnet for something like school lunches, apple slices and all, for a large group of people who had just spent months killing innocent people.

Of course there’s much more to it. It was a complicated time in Rwanda. Every Hutu wasn’t bad and every Tutsi wasn’t good.

Here, you might think my point is going to be something about the drats of social media these days, but I’m thinking the opposite. A story has the opportunity to be told from all angles in a way that wasn’t as easy to do in 1994. Granted, the stories we see on Facebook and the like aren’t stories at all, but bites. Short little ditties for us to figure out. But at least the bites are there and we realize we have the opportunity, if so inclined, to put in the time to figure out what’s really true and what we really think.

There’s a recent short video online about Syrian refugees that made me cry and want to sell our house, move to Turkey, and help pull rafts out of the water.

There are videos of persecuted Christians.

There are videos of people who need food.

There are many, many, videos of people who need Jesus.

If the Rwandan genocide had happened today smartphones all over Rwanda would have grabbed every imaginable – and unimaginable – picture and posted them to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Add the right filter and good chance CNN would give a few of them a prime time nod.

So. My point. Do I need a point? I guess if you force my hand: the end of the world is coming. Do your research. Figure out who Jesus is. Don’t vote for Trump.

 

                 Oh, and here's another angle on what I just wrote about.

 

If I could punch someone in the face, I wouldn't

There is a bookcase in the room. It has informative books on cancer treatments and ‘beauty after chemo.’ Wigs and such. On top of the bookcase are porcelain figurines of angels. All sorts of angels. There’s even a snow globe of an angel. When you shake it there are stars. Except for a bit of pastel blue here and there, all the angels are white and women. In light of hurricanes—until recently—being named after women, it occurs to me that women tend to be perceived as either really, really good, or really, really bad. How odd. Above the bookcase a small quilt hangs on the wall with a white angel on a blue background.

There are a few Bibles tucked into the shelves. Whew. I think about tucking a few tracts here and there – yes, tracts. I became a Christian because of one. The good ones are awesome.

I’m not getting chemo and I’m holy thankful. I look at the people in the comfortable chairs with footrests that pop out and IV drips. A few of them have family or friends with them. I feel guilty again that I won’t lose my hair.

Chernobyl.

I’m a bit of a guinea pig. My hormones need to be shut down pronto, but because of medication I’m already on, if I have the usual hormone blockers I could die of a heart attack, so, well. The oncologist decided the best way forward would be shots of some sort and a pill every day.

A nurse heads over to me holding a syringe up in front of her with a strange look on her face. She taps it a few times. “We’re having a problem with your medication,” she says. I feel like a passenger on an airplane and a flight attendant has come out of the flight deck with a concerned look and said, “We’re having some trouble with our right engine.”

I need to come back tomorrow, after they get a new batch.

I head over to Dr. ______’s office. Good old Dr. ______. Always a crowded waiting room, but a great place to people watch. Usually I like them and often I pray for them, but today a woman next to me pulls out her smart phone and starts playing some Youtube short over and over again, loud. It’s some sort of workout pop song music video and she laughs and then plays it again. I want to punch her in the face.

I’m scared about tomorrow and the shot. I’m afraid it will knock me into a depression. I’m terrified, actually. I’ve “researched,” if you can call surfing the World Wide Web for alternative treatments for depression research, other possibilities. There’s always ECT, which usually works. They put you out now, so you don’t have to lie on a cot with a cork between your teeth as they hit a lever, sending I don’t know how many volts through your brain and extremities so your body jolts up involuntarily. Whups, too many movies. Time to reign in the imagination.

There is a baby sitting on a woman’s lap. The baby, having recently learned the art of waving, waves at a bald old man with dark splotches covering his scalp. The old man smiles and puts his wrinkled hands over his eyes and plays peek-a-boo with the baby. The baby laughs and laughs.

This morning I got a text from a friend who works with breast cancer patients that said she hasn’t found depression to be a concern with women taking the medication I’ll be on. Thank you God. Working on it. Thanks for lots of stuff. The guy across from me with the wrinkled hands playing peek-a-boo with the baby, our amazing kids, my friends, fall, Rick, parents who care about me, our dog, my son’s dog, dogs in general. Even cats I guess. Okay, thanks for cats too.

The woman with the smart phone is talking with her elderly mother who sits next to her. She smiles and her mother smiles back. I no longer want to punch her in the face.

 

 

 

 

The Bone Scan

I decided to title this blog post like I would title a short story – The Bone Scan. Literary, rich with possibilities as to what Bone Scan symbolizes. Anton Chekhov. “Chekhovian”, critics could call it. They could sit back in their chairs and sigh after reading it and say things like, “It’s a very Chekhovian piece.”

Do what you will with Bone Scan, but I’ll stick to the basics. Kind of.

Today, two hours after getting radio active die shot in my veins, a woman in scrubs pushed a few buttons and slid my now very flat body into what, for lack of a better word, I’ll call a ‘scanner.’ In my head I was calling it a hungry, white, bastard mouth. That’s what I was thinking. But it was definitely a scanner or an MRI machine or something like that.

All morning I’d been morbidly humming to myself, with a sort of crazed half-smile, that Sjufan Steven’s song, Casimir Polaski Day: Goldenrod and the 4H stone/ The things I brought you when I found out/You had cancer of the bone…

 30 minutes later when the whirring finally stopped and I was slid back out to the oddly comforting fluorescent hospital lights, I looked at the technician’s face for ‘signs’. Did she look concerned? Dutifully blank? Overly cheery? I held back, but there was a decent 5% chance I was going to yell at her sweet accommodating face, DO I HAVE CANCER IN MY BONES????? Instead, I timidly asked her if she could tell anything from the scan.

“The doctor should have something today or early tomorrow.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said, “I’ll wait to hear.

I left the hospital mouthing her words in mock tone, someday today or early tomorrow, someday today or early tomorrow… Whatever. Lunch.

At times my mind whirrs too, like the Hungry, White, Bastard mouth, but I’m learning to reign it in. An overactive imagination has plagued me for years, and this cancer diagnosis has significantly upped the ante. I’ve been misusing my imagination, the same one that has at times served me well. It might be responsible for my D in high school Spanish, but I sure enjoyed the class, my desk sideways  against an enormous window looking out on a cul-de-sac of trees. Poetry flew back and forth from one hemisphere to the other in my underdeveloped brain and kept me good and happy for 40 minutes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

I had learned the art of settling my face into a faux look of interest and engagement regardless of what Mr. Jimenez was scratching out on the chalkboard. I usually passed my classes because the teachers liked me. I wasn’t paying attention but they thought I was. Which, in light of my poor test grades, meant they must have assumed I was pretty stupid or had a learning disability, which I probably did.

Eventually I discovered coffee and learned to compensate. Awesomeness. Then I went to art school, which was more awesomeness. It was like a free pass to finally use my imagination and I went a little bit crazy. It’s possible in a painting class I discovered the glue gun and glued a bunch of books onto a huge campus, painted it all white, called it Trinity, and got an A+. It ended up with a lot of admirers but I don’t think anyone came to Christ because of it.

The thing is this tangled mass of dendrites and folds is undisciplined, constantly poaching reality, not only with ‘what ifs’ but whole narratives of alternate worlds. Left unchecked, my day becomes not only you have bone cancer, but you have bone cancer, so obviously God wants to use you to tell everyone in the hospital about him and then he’ll give you just enough time to write a book about it, which will be amazingly good by the way, and everyone from here to California will read it and hear about how good God is even though people get cancer, which will be great, but then you’ll die because the book will go on to win the Pulitzer and if you won the Pulitzer you’d get all proud and that would be bad, so God will have you die from bone cancer because you’re just not humble enough to win the Pulitzer and walk with God both at the same time.

 Like I said, I suspect I have a learning disability. I also might be an over-sharer.

I’ve come to realize my imaginative vignettes about what God might do are rooted in a desire to control God. I recently had a conversation with my daughter, who fortunately and unfortunately inherited my predilection for staring out windows. She had begun to worry she would lose her job. She thought that if God had her lose her job then she’d be forced to go into ministry and wanted me to assure her that he wasn’t going to do this, right? God wasn’t going to cause her to lose her job so she’d go into ministry?

“Of course not,” I said, speaking to myself as much as her, “Sometimes God does that sort of thing, but you’re just imagining this because you’re trying to figure out God. He’s much bigger than that.” I went on and told her a little story about when I was young and Rick traveled a lot. “I used to worry that Dad would die in a car crash and then I would write a book (always a book) and God would use the book to tell people about him.”

There was a silence.

“Actually,” she said, “I was kind of thinking that you might die of breast cancer and then I’d write a book about it.”

Yeah, so. My daughter and I both have the whole thing turned around. God decides what’s best and then shows us his loving kindness in and through it. He gently takes our hand and we go from strength to strength as we discover his great plan. And it is great.

We don’t write the book, he does.

 

My Body, Your Body

This morning, once more in my (I’ve begun to think of him as ‘my’, we spend a lot of time together) surgeon’s office, instead of looking down at my phone or the one Good Housekeeping I’d already checked out ten times, I realized I was staring off into the middle-distance at a small potted plant. The plant had 5-7 leaves and was beginning to materialize in my foggy mind as marijuana. I thought, oh, right, medical marijuana, but then backtracked, I live in PA not Boulder, and came to: I was in the surgeon’s office for my shot of weekly silicone. I gave myself a virtual whack on the head in hopes of smacking my mind back to reality.

An hour later I sat in my car looking over my grocery list as I waited in line to pick up a prescription from the CVS drive through. I pulled up to the window, and when the pharmacy employee asked for my name and date of birth, I said, “Two boxes of Rice Krispies.” True story.

My own whack on my own head had obviously failed me, but God’s far gentler reminders of my wayward mind have been taking root like nosedives into soil.

It’s interesting and unexpected that what I’m learning most in this whole breast cancer thing is, not only that my Father in Heaven loves me more than I thought, but in tandem with this reality, how deeply embedded my own sin is – wait, lets not even use the term ‘sin’. That’s too innocuous, let’s call it what it is: jealousy, hate, selfishness, vanity, and my all around solipsistic tendencies. Turns out they go hand in hand, God’s love and my sin. (Eureka!) This is the crazy-maker of the Christian life. As I understand the weight of my sin, I understand the weight of God’s glory and love.

So I’m getting pruned. Metaphorically pruned. Breasts chopped off and Frankenstein stumps in their place. And perhaps my ovaries shall get the axe as well. It hurts but all’s good. I don’t always feel like it’s good, but it is.   

I sometimes meander around the body of Christ trying to fit in everywhere. It’s a fearing man not God thing that inclines me to do this. Appearing awesome to everyone. I’ll be the feet, the strong shoulders, the beautiful smile. Everyone will love me and think I’m great.

But then the axe comes down on my breasts and it just plain hurts and all of a sudden the rest of the body becomes essential. I need you body, give me a hand over here (arrggh, unintentional pun)

And you are, stunning Body of Christ. Your help is sober love to this hang-head soul and it’s blowing my mind.

There’s a bottle of perfume next to my bed. You gave it to me, Body of Christ, sweet humble woman who sits in the back of church Sunday mornings. When I wear the perfume it reminds me of you.

Your meals in their Tupperware and foil.

And your cards! They are beautiful and They sit on my bookcase and sometimes I spread them out and read a few of them and I remember again that I belong to you and you belong to me and we are a body. Blessings to you strong Body. I couldn’t live without your beating heart and able hands and I love you more than ever. I didn’t realize how important you are until now and I’m sorry.

Your notes, your cards, are full of Kings and Queens and Aces, not Ones. You courageous Royal Flush; you Full Flush and Full House. I’ll set you down on the table when the time comes. I’ll look my opponent in the eye, the one who cheats me and bluffs me, I’ll spread you out like flowers open to the morning and say, “See? Turns out I won after all.”

 

 

 

 

 

My Ovaries Too?

Dr. Singer slowly pressed silicone into my stitched up section of chest with a large syringe the size of a bicycle pump. He mentioned he liked my shoes. He does that. Every time I see him and he’s examining my chest or pumping artificial sweeteners into me, he mentions my shoes. I guess it eases the awkward situation. It applies conversation about the body parts that are as far away as possible from the body parts that he’s actually attending to. I’ve begun wearing different shoes every visit and thinking too much about which ones I will wear. Yesterday I wore really cute ones. Wedges with wide leather toe straps. I might invest in something metallic for next week. So fun.

After he and the nurse left, I deftly untied my gown (I’ve become quite good at hobbling those things on and off quickly) and draped it over a chair. As I replaced my bandages and pulled on my sport bra, I heard a woman in the room next door. She was likely by herself and kept repeating what, for the purpose of appearing virtuous, I will call the word ‘quit’. The word she used rhymes with ‘quit’. She kept saying it; quit, quit, quit. I assume she hadn’t quite mastered the hospital gown yet. I wanted to encourage her; quietly knock on her examining room door and assure her that it gets easier, putting on that gown, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that might not encourage her at all. As in; is your point that I’ll be spending every day in this godforsaken place!? Quit! Quit! Quit!

 I’ve written about being a part of a tribe of cancer patients now, which has been nice and actually sort of empowering if you’ll allow me to use that term. But strangely, I’ve also noticed some of my middle school timidity returning; wait, maybe I don’t belong. Maybe the pink ladies don’t want me to be a part of their group. Maybe if I’m not wearing a knit hat they’ll think I’m only in here to get a nose job, or worse, a breast augmentation for no reason!

 Yesterday, as I was leaving church, I yelled across the lobby to a kind breast cancer survivor who has been encouraging me, “We’re bosom buddies now!” At this point a little middle school timidity would have proved beneficial. I have lost all sense of social niceties. I’m a dervish of systematic nonsense and if you are a true friend you will pop by tomorrow and duct tape my mouth shut. 

But I’ll refrain from more breast jokes. They’re getting old. Let’s get to the important stuff: uteruses and ovaries. Both of which I very well might be kicking out of my (former?) female self as well. 

Shortly, I might be the first female to involuntarily undergo a sex change operation. No breasts, no ovaries, no uterus. My name is Kate so it only makes sense that post-op you refer to me as Bruce. This isn’t funny. No, wait, it is. Nope, not funny. I mean, kind of. It’s kind of funny.

Turns out the type of cancer I have responds well to hormone blocking therapy (yay!), which can be achieved by scooping out all the important baby-making stuff (boo!), which means I just might make it under the wire without chemo (yay!), which means I won’t lose my hair (yay!), which means my family will assume I’m perfectly healthy and stop cleaning the kitchen for me (boo!).

Either way I’m grateful. Absolutely grateful. I’ve prayed that I wouldn’t need chemo. I’m praying for many things right now, but mostly that God will keep depression at bay. No hormones can bring on depression, and the type of therapy I need might require me to chuck a few pills from my nightly cocktail of antidepressants. Depression is my most vicious enemy and some days I can feel it nibbling at my heels like a not quite hungry yet lion. I get despondent when I’m depressed. I’m of the Sylvia Plath breed and could stick my head in an oven if it were still possible to snuff out a pilot light. 

This morning I read an essay by Randy Alcorn that said, “Satan is a lion, yes, but a lion on God’s leash.” After that, Alcorn quotes Charles Spurgeon, who suffered terrible bouts of depression:

“It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity.”    

When I was 19 a woman shared a little booklet with me – a tract – that said, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” This was the key that unlocked the door. It’s all I ever wanted and I somehow knew at the time, even with my limited 19 year old faculties, that it could be quite a ride. But I signed up anyway and I know where it ends and I’m trying really hard to keep my eyes focused on that place where I’ll ease into the station all blooming and healed, filled with joy over all that God did.  

Oh, Spurgeon, we might not be bosom buddies, but you are my brother and you made it through okay by my lights. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. 

Did I cause this?

Yes. In a word, you did. I chose to have hormone therapy (strong correlation between hormone therapy and cancer). And what’s more, in one way or another, I’ve caused most of the pain in my own life. I would put all of these things in the “if only” camp: If only I’d been a better parent, If only I hadn’t insisted on hormone therapy, if only I’d given my life over to God in high school, if only I didn’t decide I would impress everyone in gym class in 1982 (a bad year for me!) and take the turn on the track too fast, I wouldn’t have wiped out and—humiliatingly—been taken, head back and moaning in what had become my signature Kate James is in pain bellwether, to the nurses office in a wheelchair.

If only I had given over to God the crap other people had done to me earlier. I could be like Joseph and say cool stuff like “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many souls.” (Genesis 50:20) Come on, Joseph, really? Aren’t you Mr. I’m-so-sood-and-godly-you-should-probably-write-it-all-down-for-other-people-to-read-centuries-from-now. Geesh.

Regardless of the chain of ‘if onlys’; the causal lineage we’re all entangled in, even if we have to go back to the apple and the tree there’s most assuredly someone or something you can point a finger at. And it feels good to point a finger. It feels good to point a finger if it’s pointing away from you. If it’s pointing at yourself, not so much.

I point my finger at myself all the time. I can feel like everything is my own fault. And I know that even as I write this, friends and family are already picking up their phones and shooting off emails to convince me otherwise, I say to all of you—tongue in cheek of course: get behind me Satan (Matthew 16:23).

Sin is sin is sin. It’s a real thing. Recently, as Rick and I have been praying for situations and people, we’ve been asking God to do what he’s so very good at doing. It’s like his signature maneuver; “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8) and all of the complicated ways the evil one produces evil: our own sin, other people’s sin, hurricanes and floods. Destroying means much more than just defeating, or winning, or even take that evil. Destroying means flipping stuff around. Using the very thing that was intended to derail us to provide the extra fuel to hit 270 mph, that sweet spot that only the most innovative transport—like Shanghai's magnetic levitation train—barrels along at.

 Turning evil on its head means turning something very very bad into something very very good.

And of course, as an aside and to address those who might misunderstand me in all this, yes, I believe God can and does prevent sin, hurricanes, and floods, but perhaps sometimes the ‘destroying evil’ is, in a strange way that we’re unable to comprehend this side of Heaven, *worth the sin, hurricanes, and floods. Maybe, like our savior hanging on the cross, sin being flipped into good is just so freaking amazing that it becomes worth it.

But while this might make perfect sense, when it comes to my own sin I have a tendency to disregard all of it. The bad that I suffer because of my own bad seems nothing but punishment. To be completely honest, it reeks of penance: of me taking the place of my savior on the cross. As if!

However, even my own stupidity and foolishness and stubbornness is not immune to God’s great work. If I had married some guy because he had all sorts of worldly awesomeness (I don’t know, had a yacht and cool hair or something) instead of a husband whom I respect and loves me and loves God, and he turned out to be a tool and have affairs and stuff and go to that Ashley Madison sybaritic (you can look that word up) site, even then—even though it was my fault for marrying someone for the wrong reasons—God could overcome it, turn even my brainless decision into something beautiful and eternally good. I love that word eternally. It’s not just good here in earthly ‘time,’ but good forever. Sometimes, as Hebrews 11 makes clear, we don’t see much of the goodness here, but I’ve come to believe the eternal goodness that God produces when we confess and say "Help me, I really screwed up!" ends up worth the pain of taking a turn on the track too fast or loading myself with estrogen because it made be feel good at the time. Cancer shmancer. God’s got my back—and my dumbass ways—all figured out.

And it is good.

* of course keep in mind Romans 6:1 "What shall we say then, are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? . . ."   There's nothing good about sin and evil. But it is cool to watch God destroy it.    

 

 

Mastectomies, sexting, and very good friends

 these are kind of cool, no?

these are kind of cool, no?

Last week, waiting for an appointment with my reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Singer, I sat across from a woman who was obviously of my tribe. I could tell because she was carrying the ubiquitous breast cancer tote bag that says SHINE! on the front with a star shooting across it. The UPenn health system gives the bag to every breast cancer patient. I realize it’s a thoughtful gift and all, but it’s not something you want to see the nurse carrying as she’s coming down the hall. Nooooo!! It’s the breast cancer tote bag! The bag comes packed with resources, pamphlets and stuff. A thick manual with diagrams and flow charts explaining things like the pros and cons of Biological Response Modifier Drugs.

SHINE! in my mind, is in the same camp as those retirement homes with names like Sunrise Assisted Living, and Summit Care Retirement Village, as though in giving them polar opposite names for what they’re really all about, they might fool everybody. Old age is not, in fact, when the sun is setting, but when the sun is rising. Who knew? Cancer is not reason for concern, it’s a reason to SHINE!

The woman across from me seemed happy enough though. She was wearing a knit hat. Ten years ago I would have called it a skullcap—one of those things skaters wear—but in light of the circumstances that seems an unfortunate term. Knit hat. She was wearing a knit hat.

Men can get breast cancer too, if you don’t already know. I think about that. What if the woman sitting across from me was a guy? Would he get the SHINE! tote bag too? That seems like rubbing salt in his wounds. Maybe prostate cancer patients get a tote bag only it’s more masculine, something athletic looking that could pass for a gym bag. If the guy, in fact, has breast cancer, they could still stick the breast cancer manual in there, and the pamphlets, but with the gym bag tote he could save a little face. It would give him that at least.

Yesterday I sexted my sister in law. I’ve been looking at breasts a lot lately and recently I was admiring a friend of mine’s upper half.  I wondered out loud if I could bring her with me to my next reconstructive appointment. She smiled, and then hesitantly said, “I could take a picture . . .”

Since she obviously is the best friend ever, she snapped a couple front and centers and shot them over to me. I have a passcode on my phone, so I figured there would be no danger in our son or any of his friends accidentally seeing what they would have referred to as Mrs. ______’s breasts.

My sister in law has lovely breasts as well. Cute, small, and although the general consensus of my small breasted friends is that no, you still have to wear a bra for nipple obscuration purposes, I haven’t been detoured in my resolute determination to end up with smaller breasts.

When I sexted the picture of Mrs.______’s breasts to my sister-in-law she admired them but them reiterated the problem of the protruding nipple. She texted back You could just have a flatter raised bump nipple rather than a pea nipple. I liked that term, pea nipple. I would tell the surgeon I would like small breasts but please don’t give me a pea nipple. It would get the point across but not be overly uncomfortable.

As I sat in the waiting room I flipped through a copy of Good Housekeeping. Even though we never said a word to each other, I liked the woman across from me with the tote bag. She was young. She had two of her children with her, grade school kids. They pulled out homework from their book bags, sat next to the coffee table, and began working on math problems.

Behind the receptionist’s desk I saw Dr. Singer paging through files, doing things that surgeons do. He seemed pleasant enough, but I was getting nervous. How could I talk to him about this stuff? Weird, weird, weird, weird. But this is my life. This is my mangled chest. For heaven’s sake, I can’t even stretch my arm out straight anymore because I have lymphedema for the rest of my life, another term, like Biological Response Modifier Drugs, that’s explained in the manual in my SHINE! tote bag.

I must stand up for myself. I must be strong. I must be courageous.

I looked up. Three women walked into the waiting room wearing pink shirts, the color I’ve been eschewing since this whole saga began. One of the women had a pink ribbon embroidered on her pink shirt. They stood in line waiting to sign in. I liked them too, these women. We were a team, I thought. We were of the same tribe. And for the record, I welcome the occasional dude with a breast cancer manual tucked into a gym bag. I mean, we’re not talking about your nipples, but still, I get it.

I put down the Good Housekeeping, took out my phone and pulled up Mrs. ______’s breasts. I’ll be strong and brave about this and use the term ‘pea nipple’. After that I’ll run a few errands: grocery store, Target. Maybe Target will have a pink shirt that’s not too obnoxious, one that’s loose and doesn’t draw attention to my upper half.  

 

 

In Situ

By Kate

There’s a peculiarity in medical waste.  It’s not dirty, quite the opposite. It’s clean – too clean. It’s been preserved inside its body of origin. Never touched the out of doors; earth, human breath, the red plastic bags in hospital containers, although one is led to think so, don’t protect you, they protect it. ‘It’ being all manner of ugly guck that once had great purpose; greater purpose than most things in the world, in fact. The appendix notwithstanding, so much of what is physical inside of us is important. Except cancer. No one wants that monster truck riding the muscles and bones and squishy-nesses inside us.

A week ago I waved a half-hearted goodbye to my breasts as they were wheeled down the hall on a metal cart in a red bag marked ‘medical waste.’ My wave was a medicated one, so likely involved no more than two fingers at best and very well could have been nothing but a dream altogether, but the sentiment was there. They were my breasts. Or were. And had proven quite useful in their day. Maybe got me that first notice from Rick (although he would probably say it was my bubbly personality), fed my babies, gave me the extra motivation to get an awesome dress, perhaps even got me in the running for homecoming attendant in 1982, although I didn’t win. Not that my breasts were anything special. They really weren’t. And I’m mostly cool with them gone.

I have four drains taking their place. They hang from my chest like hand grenades. I’m wearing a “bra” that’s more like a suicide vest (forgive the metaphor, there might be a touch of anger I haven’t tapped into yet). It’s thick and tight and zippered up. Nothing underneath there now but stitches and hoses and stuff.

In Situ is a Latin phrase that translates literally into “on site” or “in position”. Oncologists use the term to refer to malignant cells that have not metastasized or spread beyond the membrane of where the tumor was discovered. As far as breast cancer goes, if it’s not in situ, it’s considered invasive. When it comes to cancer, actually, when it comes to a lot of things, the word invasive is unsettling. It conjures up monster trucks and the like. My breasts, getting pushed down the hall of Chester County Hospital, were invasive, or more correctly, invaded. And for that reason, even though they might have had something to do with getting my picture in the school newspaper in 1982, I was more than happy to see them go.

I’m not a fighter. I’m not brave. I’m not strong. I’m not courageous. The favored school bus torture game in the 1970’s involved someone yanking your arm back until it hurt so much you said “uncle.” “Uncle” being the only way to stop the torment. I’m sure there are contemporary versions that aren’t so randomly strange. Having established myself as spineless, the other kids didn’t even bother pulling my arm back. Not much fun in tormenting someone who screamed before you even touched them.

In the first chapter of Joshua, twice God tells Joshua to “be strong and courageous”. Sometimes I wonder if Joshua was naturally weak, like me; not a fighter or brave or particularly lionhearted, and that’s why God kept telling him to be strong and courageous. I imagine that certain people, like those Navy Seals who can hold their breath for a couple hours, hop out of the ocean, yank a few trees out of the ground and haul them to the top of a mountain to use as cover in a dog fight don’t need to be reminded as they fall backwards into the ocean loaded with flippers and masks and harpoons to be courageous. Don’t forget now, be courageous! You can do it! 

Yeah, so. Me and Joshua. I know I’m taking liberties here. Perhaps he was of the Navy Seal ilk, but for the purpose of making my point, let’s go with it.  

I don’t like Nike commercials. They make me a little nauseous, and not because I’m watching some woman in spandex run miles, jump walls, check her watch and the like. It’s the end that drives me nuts. Just Do It. And there are so many other commercials that follow suit. In essence, they’re saying be strong, be courageous.

 Which is exactly what God said to Joshua.

But that’s where the similarities end. As far as Nike goes, told to Just do it, and even though feeling quite supersonic in my hot pink spandex I would still turn around, look the commercial-director-guy in the eyes and say “How?”

Joshua 1:9 would be the perfect answer, although I doubt commercial-director-guy would think of it.

       Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened and do not be        dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

The “how” as well as the “because” is that the Lord my God is with me wherever I go. Told to hop in the ocean with flippers and a harpoon, I’d still be ‘uncle’ terrified, but with my father in Heaven there I would say, “okay, if you say so,” grab his hand and fall backwards into the icy water.

Living, dead, happy, sad. Always—even if my cancer isn't—my life is In Situ. It’s in position. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.  –Psalm 16:6

I love that. It makes me happy.

 

 

 

Rick thinks about Flannery O'Connor while Kate's in the operating room

Katie is home from the surgery (a double mastectomy) and doing well but still in a god bit of pain. It is truly an epic procedure, like loosing a limb or perhaps two of them. Two of the nodes they removed tested clear of cancer (we’re waiting to hear on the third) so we are very encouraged that what they removed is all there is. She was so very brave. Brave and gritty.

As I sat in the waiting room last Friday, I read a short story by Flannery O’Conner. O’Connor wrote about the South, post World War II, pre-civil rights. That historical epoch when Andy Griffith ruled the Confederacy. But O’Conner, born and raised in Georgia, is without nostalgia and in her version of the South, Mayberry is run by the Ferguson Police, Sunday worship is at Westboro Baptist, and Aunt Bee is all-a-bother about “blacks” drinking from the “white” water fountain.

This particular story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” centers on the matron of a southern suburban family who has insinuated herself upon her son (Bailey) and his family; the mother-in-law who came to stay; a singularly selfish woman.

The family heads off for a vacation of sorts (Georgia to Florida woohoo) and granny and her cat (Pitty Sing) are stuffed into the backseat with the children, John Wesley and June Star.

The old woman’s whining leads them to exit the highway and get off on some excursion in the Georgia backcountry. A sharp turn springs Pitty Sing from Granny’s lap and the cat latches onto Bailey’s head like tree bark. Seconds later, the car is flipping end over end comes to rest in a ravine. But everyone is alright. Sort of.

Through snippets of news and conversation the reader is aware that a sociopath named Misfit runs loose in the back country of Georgia, so when an ominous black car pulls up to lend a hand, there’s little doubt about the driver. It’s Misfit and two hillbilly companions (Hiram and Bobby Lee) straight from the movie set of O Brother Where Art Thou.

It’s here that O’Conner’s humor turns dark. Misfit has his companions take Bailey and John Wesley back into the woods and moments later two gun shots are fired. (Why am I reading this story in the hospital?) Next, the wife and daughter are taken into the woods and then more gun shots.

Even as her family is being disposed of one by one, the grandmother’s only thoughts are toward self preservation. But as Misfit turns his attention on her, something kind of wonderful happens: her heart melts with compassion for the killer, offering him mercy and hope of redemption. Misfit recoils at the sight of goodness and shoots her three times. (Didn’t see that coming.)

Staring at the dead woman’s body in a heap, Misfit offers this stabbing epitaph: "She would have been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

"She would have been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life:” good gracious, that is an ending to all endings. It seems to me that cancer and tragedy of the like can do exactly that for people—put a gun to their head and make them rethink their lives. The day before her operation and all the days since she got the news, Katie has done nothing different. No rethinking or reordering. For the last 30 years of marriage, she has lived with a thoroughly eternal view of life: what matters and what doesn’t.

Friday night after the surgery, lying in her hospital bed, wildly medicated, Katie said to me: “all day long I’ve been going through my to-do list in my head as if I were still at home.”

I said, “What was on your to-do list?”

She said, “Finish working on the birdhouse, make up the beds for the girls, fear God and not man…I thought that last one would be a good thing to have in my head going through the day.”

Who keeps a to-do list like that? Katie. That’s why last week looked like every other.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” —Proverbs 9:10

Thoughts from the husband of the woman who found a lump in her boob

So, my dear, precious Katie has breast cancer. In homage to the woman I adore, I will write a post for which she has been asking for the last 6 months. It’s entitled “Husband of the woman who found a lump in her boob.”

So I accompanied my dear Katie to the doctor, a facility I like to imagine was called, “The Grand Medical Institute of Womanly Things and Magical Thinking” but I think was called Labcorp. Walking in, the receptionist greeted Katie with a warm smile and no doubt me as well, but I imagined a glance that said “thanks for prying yourself from the sports bar long enough to escort your deathly ill wife to the doctor. We’ll see if we can’t squeeze her in during half-time and get you back to the game.” My imagination comes from some kind of free-floating generational hysterectomy guilt husbands have to deal with: angst that some male descendant committed their wife to an asylum for menstrual cramps.

We checked in and walked over to the waiting room, which I think was postered with Georgia O’Keefe prints but they may have been real flowers or perhaps just a chart of female reproductive organs. It’s hard to remember, but I do remember grabbing a People magazine from the coffee table and it springing open to a photo of Kate Upton and her boobs. Is this a joke? Am I being filmed? Blackmailed? What sort of Philistine sits with his wife in a breast cancer ward thumbing through pics of over-endowed women. Kate Upton looked like one of those balloon animals. Turn the page, Rick, turn the page. I turned the page and Kim Kardashian came spilling out all over. This really looks bad. I had to will Katie to look in the opposite direction while I flipped to some G-rated pages. An article on Caitlyn Jenner, perfect. Whoah, fake boobs, not perfect, keep turning. Just then a nurse came out and called us back, so as far as I know the affair remained secret.

After a short wait in one of the holding tanks the doctor came in and spoke with us. After answering a few questions and explaining a few procedures, she then turned to Katie to examine her.

“Should I stay?” I asked.

“It’s up to you,” said the doctor.

It’s a test. If I go to the waiting room she’ll label me Mr. Hysterectomy. So I say, “Sure, I’ll stay.” I’ve played this game before, years ago, during childbirth: “The baby’s crowning would you like to look?” Sure. “Want to cut the umbilical cord?” Sure. “Want to touch the placenta?” Sure. “Want to see a foot after it’s stepped on a land mine?” Sure. I can go all day. All day, my friend. No one is going to label me Mr. Hysterectomy.

Alas, the conversation turns to mastectomy. The concept is conveyed to the man in a language he understands, “this is the operation Angelina Jolie had. She had both removed.” Ah, yes, the day the music died. Now I understand. Now I know what you mean. Now I get mastectomy. What those blaggards did to Angelina, they’re gonna to do that to you. Got it. I said “Oh” because it seemed safe and ambiguous, like “Who is the Angelina Jolie of which you speak?” They got nothing out of me. Angelina Jolie, Angela Merkel, all the same to me. I’m as blind as justice.

So somewhere in the cancer conversation, comes the mastectomy conversation, comes the implant conversation. A world, within a world, within a world. After a couple minutes talking, Katie and the doctor look at me for my input. And what in the world am I supposed to say, “Small. Small is the new big. Small is how I like them. Smaller the better. Small like a Russian gymnast. Small like Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan. Yessir, I like my women like I like my celery—just a straight fibrous stalk.” They have protocols for everything dealing with cancer. Ought to have one for that question so no one gets hurt.

So, appointment over, land mines cleared, trip wires evaded, just the walk to the car and I’m home free. Just 200 feet without saying something stupid or insensitive. I can do this. 100 feet: whatever you do, don’t try to FIX it: no action points, no aphorisms. Almost there buddy, bring it in for a landing. And opening car door….annnnd were out. Nice work everybody. That’s wrap.

I’m proud of myself; I behaved well today. And that, if I must proffer some take-away, is something of the husband’s struggle. You’re trying so damn hard to behave sincerely, that you can’t sincerely process anything. Protocol delineating male sincerity (how to care, how to listen, what questions can be asked) effectively precludes it, furthering the distance from head to heart.

But enough of that. My head and heart adore my Katie. There is no one I have ever met that I respect more than this woman: her mind, heart, humor, courage, perseverance, creativity … I adore my Katie and adore my Christ, and the two are so very intertwined.

 

 

 

 

 

I found a lump in my boob

Soooo . . . yes, Looks like it’s cancer.

It all began as I was sitting in the doctor’s office on the paper lined bench where you can swing your legs because the floor is like ten feet away, which makes you feel like you’re six again and totally out of control, which you absolutely are given your possible diagnosis. As it tends to in stressful situations, my mind wandered; What if I said I found a lump in my boob…  that would just be weird. I practiced saying it right. I found a lump in my breast. I found a lump in my breastWhat if I die? What if I have to go through chemo and lose my hair? If I need new breasts should I go big or small or just like they are now? Can they at least perk them up a bit? What if I die? What if I go through chemo and we think everything’s fine and then it comes back and then I die? What if because I was so vain about the breast thing, God says well now you’ve done it! If only you loved me more than your breasts I would have let you live…

Spurgeon once said that no prayers have been truer to the feelings of the hour than those that atheists have offered when in fear of death. I’m certainly not an atheist, and what with Jesus saving me and everything, I’ve always valued my lack of fear when it comes to death, so the fact that my mind went there so quickly was disturbing to say the least.

I’ve been thinking about that. I’m not afraid to die. Wait, I am afraid to die. Okay, well let’s just see how things play out…

I had made an appointment with a nurse practitioner because she was a woman and I didn’t want to have to guide some dude’s hand to where the lump was. I couldn’t imagine her being able to tell me much, only that yep, there’s a lump, and here’s a script for a mammogram.

I don’t even like pink. I kind of hate pink. And now, if I want to live does that mean I have to like pink and run marathons, or at least stand on the sidelines of marathons and cheer people on, and wear pink shirts and stuff if I want to survive breast cancer? Will all of the research that’s been gathered to find a cure not apply to me because I’ve been in rebellion over the color pink? I mean it’s not a terrible color. And it’s definitely coming back. So.

The nurse sent me to radiology. They saw the lump on a screen. They sent me to ultrasound. They saw the lump on a bigger screen. A doctor came in and said, “hmm, yes, I see it.” The doctor explained she was going to do a core biopsy. She gently moved me around and told me what she was doing and numbed me and turned the screen so that I could see what was going on (which I appreciated) and stuck a needle the size of an awl into the lump and said the lump was foggy so it was hard to see and then, “oh yes, there it is.” I got dressed and the nurse took me to a little room with tissue boxes and no windows. She looked at me and smiled softly, and said, “Are you all right?”

I said, “Apparently not.”

The next morning a phone call confirmed this.

Two days later I sat in front of a reconstructive breast surgeon. So far this was the only male doctor involved, which of course makes perfect sense. He gently asked if he could examine me, which only weirded me out more. I opened my blue gown and he scooted closer on his doctor stool. And just looked. Stared. I guess he was envisioning, I don’t know, whatever. All of a sudden it occurred to me he could be picturing larger breasts. Like BIG ones. I felt the need to make it perfectly clear I wanted them on the small side, which was awkward in it’s own right. I just kind of swept my hand over my chest area and said, “Can you make sure they aren’t too big? Um, on the small side?” I said it more than once.

But still, I didn’t trust him. What guy ever chooses small breasts over big ones?

And then there’s the question of nipples, which I got up the nerve to ask about. “You won’t be able to tell the difference,” he said, “I have a great tattoo artist I use. She’s great.”

???

Tattoo artist? What sort of crazy Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole have I fallen into?

And so it begins. I have breast cancer and all kinds of lab work to get back, and here I am back on the old airplane again in a nosedive.

I’m hoping it pulls up at the last minute. Either way, everything will absolutely be okay.

 

 

 

 

 

I adopted a trail at a state park. Here's what happened. . .

By Kate

I was spending the day at a park in prayer, and for some lunatic reason thought it would be a lovely thing to adopt a trail, which entails clearing brush from a two mile section once a month. Decent chance I was in one of my ‘hypomanic’ states (see previous post), and feeling overly ambitious and in love with God’s Great Creation and overlooking entirely God’s Great Providential Will, which means that, ironically, while spending the day in prayer, I failed to pray about whether “adopting” a two mile section of trail in a state park would be a wise thing to do.

Still elated with my decision and perhaps slightly out of breath, when I got home I practically ran up to Rick, “I adopted a trail at Ridley Creek Park!”

            “How much did it cost?”

            “What do you mean? It didn’t cost anything.”

            “You adopted it. Doesn’t that mean you own it?”

            “It means I take care of it,” I said.

            “Why would you want to take care of something you don’t own?”

            “I think I might be a better person than you.”

            “Yeah, maybe,” he said, and went back to writing a Bible study about God’s love.

A few weeks later I was stunned as the murders in Charleston hit the news. I felt the need to be alone, so I grabbed a scythe the park ranger had given me and drove to my (my!) trailhead. It had rained a lot so the trail was overgrown. I walked over to the dirt path and began sweeping over the weeds with the scythe, slicing through the brush, careful to beat back any thorns or poison ivy. I wore old jeans tucked into my socks to ward off ticks.

About 20 minutes in and already sweating profusely, I heard voices and noticed a group of young children rounding the corner. They were laughing and all memory-making happy, poking stuff with sticks and swinging water bottles like windmills. Awe, so sweet. I remember my own kids about that age. Precious. Two moms followed them. They were pretty, in diet trim, and chatting about who knows what, gossiping probably, because that’s all moms have to do at that age. Especially stupid ones who don’t care about what’s going on in the world and have nothing else to do but talk on their smart phones and go home and eat gluten free yogurt. I kind of hated them. Sort of. I should admit that I guess.  

I paused and smiled. They walked past, still talking, and steered their kids around me like I was some kind of criminal assigned to community service. It’s possible I was wearing a t-shirt with a bit of neon, but still. I went back to whacking the weeds.

Then, as they walked away, I thought—before I could even register the thought, like it was from some alien being who had taken over my mind because I was exhausted and beginning to regret every altruistic trail adoption notion I’d ever entertained—I thought to myself, ‘that’s right, don’t even notice me, go on ahead with your little iphone 6’s and jogging bras, even though you’re walking, while I whack at weeds to keep ticks and poison ivy off your kids. You keep going with your lily-white butts (I know, strange. I’m white.) and Nike sneakers and enjoy your day while the rest of America mourns the loss of 9 sisters and brothers killed as they studied the Word of God.’

I whacked at the weeds with my scythe.

It was hypocritical of course. Because God knows, I’ve ignored plenty of people, walked around many people, more interested in me than them. As the reality of what I had thought dawned on me I confessed my hatred, because that’s what it was. It felt good to repent. God is good. I’m so sorry.

Two other women came down the path. They wore the same kind of spandex stuff that hinted at iphones (FYI I have an iphone) and whatnot. I was about a half mile down the trail at this point. Having spent so much time with my own thoughts, I had begun to turn ‘scythe’ in to a verb. I was ‘scything’. I scythed. I didn’t look up. The women stopped next to me. Probably for directions.

            “Thank you so much,” one of them said.

            “This is volunteer work, isn’t it?” the other one said.

            “We love this park,” the first one said.

            “Yes, it’s so beautiful,” the other one said.

            “And the brush, it’s so overgrown,” the first one said.

            “Such hard work,” the other one said.

            “Well, thank you, thank you so much,” they both said, smiling.

            Yes, of course, no problem, I said, enjoy the park, it’s a gorgeous day; and I’m an idiot God, a selfish one, sorry again, thanks for the reminder and yeah, I know, when I had young kids I wouldn’t have paid any attention to me either, over here beating back the weeds. I love you and you’re amazing and your creation is amazing and even though sometimes nothing makes sense and people kill each other you don’t, you save us so that someday everything will make sense, so thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let My People Go!

Blood, frogs, gnats, flies, dead livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness. Nine plagues God struck Egypt with before the Passover, the final, and only effective one. I would have added lice to the mix. If Moses had struck Egypt with lice, any mother of a girl with long hair would have pleaded with Pharaoh to let Israel go. They would have picketed the palace with signs and chants: Now to lice say no/ let the people go! But I digress.

 The last plague, before the Passover, is darkness. Sometimes I think that the world is entering into a virtual darkness right now, the kind that hints at the real thing and causes eyes to grow wide in search of light. But then I think of World War II, and Hitler, and how only a few generations later and here we are so far from it it barely makes a dent on our conscience, and I think maybe not; the human condition appears to be capable of far more evil than we can so far comprehend. I’ve never bought into the whole ‘humanity is inherently good’ maxim. Experientially, it doesn’t ring true to me.

If you believe what the Bible says, there’s a coming darkness that we can’t possibly grasp. Revelation 16:10 is pretty clear on it if you’re inclined to look it up. I appreciate Rick Warren and many others who state it something like this: Go through your whole life saying you don’t want to have anything to do with God, and you’ll eventually get your way. Hell means total separation from God. “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be separated from God — lost forever!” (1 Corinthians 16:22) Warren’s a true evangelist and a true lover of people to say it out loud. What kind of love would lead someone who believes in hell to remain mute on the subject?

But if you do look up references to darkness in the Bible, make sure you hit a few of the more optimistic ones. Under ‘darkness’, my concordance lists far more references referring to, not just light, but interestingly, a lack of darkness: Ephesians 5:8, I John 1:9. These are awesome; in him there is no darkness at all… stuff like that. 

The opposite of darkness is light, but more precisely, it’s love. And we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). He does, you know, love you. I felt his love once. Really felt it.

It’s hard to describe. It felt like liquid tongues of love. It came unexpectedly while I was lying in bed in a dark room feeling sorry for myself. I was surrounded, but it was personal. He was personal. He was my father and he was tucking me into bed and his love was so intense I had to call him off; it was too much.

Interestingly, my first response wasn’t “I love you back,” but “I don’t deserve this.” Remember, I was feeling sorry for myself at the time and caught up in selfish scrap. I was fully engaged with sin. In retrospect though, I think this reality is what made his love so powerful to me. If I had just preached Jesus to one whole ‘people group’ his unconditional love might not have been quite so apparent. As it was, great in mercy, God blessed me at what I would have considered the most inopportune time. I was entirely unprepared and feeling butt ugly.

Of course this is where the gospel is. In our underserving state God, through Christ, loves us, saves us, and cracks the door open so that light floods in, and our little twin bed in our little four-walled room becomes so brilliant we have to squint in his presence. In a word, we find that we are most certainly not alone.

I often think back to that sweet undeserved moment. I’m not one to feel God a whole lot. I virtually never feel “touched” by him or compelled to follow some direct revelatory commandment to go to this or that place and meet so and so and there will be a yellow car so get in it and say ‘the Lord told me’, etc. etc. My love for God is a choice, and even if it’s only to avoid gnats and bloody rivers, it’s real.

Moses was a man with a staff and a burning bush as his sweet undeserved moment. He took off his shoes, while I felt the hands of God gently tuck me in, but we're walking the same story. It's a long one, but then it's so very short. So simple. God is bigger than we could ever imagine, his power is greater than we could ever imagine, his love is deeper than we could ever imagine; so deep that he reached down with his mighty right hand (Jesus Christ), gently looked us in the eyes, and said "I love you."

He first loved me and he first loved you.

 

 

 

 

Rubber Bands and Baby Birds

How do I connect these two very significant things in my life. They both carry such meaning, such poignancy. I could marvel. I will marvel.

This morning a friend showed me a nest of baby birds tucked up in the wisteria shading her deck. From our vantage point below, the only thing visible were their baby bird heads. At first I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at, because they didn’t look like baby birds. It was strange. Honestly, they were a little ugly. In nature, I’m a fan of the pretty things. I realize some people can study snakes and spiders for hours, blown away by God’s Good Creation, but this part of God’s Good Creation makes no sense to me. Mosquitos seal the deal as far as I’m concerned. Derrida (he promulgated relativism) has nothing on mosquitos. There’s nothing “relative” about them. They’re wrong, and evil, and that’s that. For those versed in the natural world, yes, I realize they feed the bats, but, well, this proves my point, no?

Back to the birds. Not willing to accept that any baby bird could in fact be ugly, I came home, sat in a chair in our back yard, and figured it out. It was their mouths. Their mouths were at such an enormous stretch, maws open like they could suck in the universe, that they, in fact, looked grotesque. It was like staring into goo. Goo with a little bit of spittle mixed in. Stuff that can kill an appetite.

Of course they were waiting for mamabird with the worms. I always assumed when baby chicks open their mouths for food it was a temporary thing. They open them, but then they close them and chirp a little, then open them again, etc. In fact, what I witnessed this morning was just ugly open mouths. Those mouths weren’t gonna close until the food came.

Which brings me to rubber bands.

Rick has an uncanny ability to accept God’s love for him in all of its unique manifestations. For years, when spotting a coin on the ground, he’s been picking them up and whispering some sort of prayer thanks God, I love you too. No kidding. He does that. To be completely honest, I’ve found it a little irritating. Really? Is that God saying he loves you? Coins are all over the place. 

About a month ago I needed a rubber band, probably to wrap up a bag of rice or something. Eventually I found one, solitary, in a drawer, and quietly thanked God for helping me find it. No big deal. Later in the day I found another one. Also no big deal. When I don’t need rubber bands they’re all over the house, getting stuck in the vacuum cleaner and in drawers mixed in with pens and coupons. However—and I don't know what got into me—this time I thought, why couldn’t rubber bands be my love language and God could use them to remind me that he loves me? I prayed, in my head if not my heart, so here’s the thing, from now on show me your love with rubber bands. And remembering he was God, I quickly added, of course if you don’t want to, that’s perfectly okay, absolutely, you do whatever you feel is best. Smiley face, smiley face emoticon, praying hands emoticon, big-wide-teeth sweaty face emoticon.

No rubber bands. Zero. Let it go Kate. It was stupid anyway.

That night I went to dinner with my God-loves-me-so-much husband, and we ordered chips and salsa. We were hungry so we went through one basket of chips and ordered another. We finished that basket (very hungry) and then Rick kind of laughed and pointed to a rubber band sitting in the bottom of the basket. I quietly stuck it in my pocket and said Thank’s God, I love you too. Yeah, so there’s that.

 At this point some of you are like, no way! That’s so great! Others—maybe more like me—are thinking, yeah, and, so what? But I’m telling you, since then, if I’m praying, asking God for help, peace when my son pulls out of the driveway on his motorcycle, for example, or when I just plain don’t know what to say to someone, more often than not I find a rubber band and I thank God and I tell him I love him back. I know it’s hard to believe, but I decided rubber bands should be my love-language and he said okay, will do.

And those baby birds with their eager baby bird mouths. This is another one of those crazy examples in nature where God, in a physical way, demonstrates something beautiful and profound. Those birds need their food. They need it so bad they aren’t shutting their mouths until they get it.

It’s a beautiful thing. I was “opening my mouth” in search of God’s love sometimes but then sometimes not. I’m starting to learn, geeze, how he really, really, wants me to get it, get his love.

It's awesome. I’m starting to recognize it when I see it. 

 

 

 

 

Be Still!

Our son, Will, just got a motorcycle. Not a small one. Not a dirt bike or mini bike or Vespa, which I told him would be much more practical, or better yet, a plain old bike that has plenty of reflectors and flashing red things for riding in the dusk and a helmet with special foam inside designed to reduce impact. His motorcycle is a large one with a gas tank that holds enough gas to get a minivan to New York and back, and muffler that get’s really hot the size of one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s legs.

Next week he’ll be jumping out of an airplane with a parachute that hopefully will open and if it doesn’t open, hopefully the reserve chute will open as long as he remembers it exists and pulls it and he’ll land safely as long as the lines don’t get tangled and send him in a swirling mass of ropes and nylon to his death in some field in a rural area where helicopters will finally find him and notify his next of kin. That would be me. I’m his next of kin. I assume he puts my name down on the forms he has to fill out that say things like in the event of . . .

 This past weekend we drove to DC to visit his sister for Memorial Day. I was driving.

He and my husband, Rick, were playing some sort of game, looking down, engrossed.

The traffic slowed and up ahead there were two fire trucks, an ambulance, police cars redirecting traffic, and so many flashing lights they could cause a seizure. As we drew closer I saw an SUV with a slight indentation on the passenger side door, and then, spread out on the asphalt, a motorcycle: handlebars half visible, and a guy or half a guy or part of a guy lying on the road surrounded by medical personnel with plastic stuff and needles and oxygen and a gurney, one paramedic, I swear, administering CPR. It’s possible I imagined the paramedic administering CPR, but honestly, I swear, I think he was.

“Oh, my gosh, look!” I pointed out the window and turned my head to get Rick’s and Will’s attention. “You guys, look! A motorcycle crash. It doesn’t look good . . .”

They played their game.

“It doesn’t look good,” I repeated.

Heads down, they pressed their little electronic contraptions. One of them said, “Ohhh, almost got it.”

“Seriously, Will, Look!” It was a sign from God, obviously, and I did everything I could to get his attention, but that damn game was just too damn important.

Stunned, I drove the rest of the way to DC in a daze, half praying, Please, Lord, please, make Will sell his motorcycle . . .”

 Having come so close to losing Will a few years back to septic shock, it doesn’t take much before the old claw-of-fear begins to grab at my throat and the oxygen thins in my brain. On the whole I’ve done fairly well, keeping my hand open and trusting God. He loves Will, he loves, me, he’s in charge.

But those who know me well know I’m a weanie and scared of a lot of things. If I’m in San Francisco the earthquake will hit. The Holland Tunnel needs refurbishing, and soon enough there will be a leak and the leak will cause a crack and the crack will cause a split and in a matter of moments water will gush in and swallow cars whole. This will happen when I’m driving either into or out of New York City.

The title of this post is from Mark 4 when Jesus calms the storm. He says, and I quote, “Peace! Be Still!” He’s saying this to the sea, telling it to settle down already, but when I read it this morning I knew he was saying it to me. I like the exclamation points. Nice touch. I’ll try God, I really will. Thanks for the reminder.

Writing it down helps. 

Lessons from The Pitch Pine

Yesterday I was at a memorial service for the mother of a dear friend of mine, and the pastor told us about the pitch pinecone. Just like around 99% of the rest of nature, I’d never heard of a pitch pine before. It’s a vast world out there. I imagine the bottom of the sea is home to unimaginable things: things never named but that crawl along the floor of the ocean with dozens of antennae for sight, fish with bulbous eyes and fins that breathe hydrogen, glowing things, flashing teeth, gelatinous fingers somehow alive, screaming eels that can’t be heard.

The pitch pinecone is unique. In botany-talk it has epicormic shoots and is protected by a cambium layer. I don’t know what either of these words mean, but from what I understand, the pitch pinecone stays closed so that the seed stays put and doesn’t fly out and cause baby trees. This isn’t true for most pinecones, which are open and consistently distribute seed.

The pitch pinecone is activated by heat. Heat causes it to open, which in turn releases seed so that those baby trees can take root and sprout. The ideal condition for this tree-copulation of sorts is during a forest fire. The fire burns, the pinecone opens, and walah.

If you haven’t yet made the spiritual connection, I’ll clarify for you; it’s all laid out for us in 1 Peter 4, which talks about fiery trials. If you’ve ever experienced one, welcome to the club, and did you not find that during your “fire” a seed or two got loose? Maybe you can already see something that resembles a sprout in your periphery. Unfortunately for us humans, the fire is necessary. Looks different for everyone, but no one can deny the heat.

Having already experienced my share of the heat=open=fruit equation plenty of times, when I heard about the pitch pinecone my mind went to other things. Mainly those creatures at the bottom of the sea, and then to the Hubble Telescope and it’s pictures of a universe so vast it terrifies me, and then kangaroos with their baby Bjorns, and my God, those birds, those beautiful birds!

We are privy to so little of God’s creation. Even though we’ve mapped the human genome, there are a whole lot of other things to map. Our brains, for instance. Christof Koch, from the Allen Institute, says the brain is “by far the most complex piece of organized matter in the known universe.” The plain fact is that we will never, ever, know more than 1% of what God has created.

Which begs the point; why, if we will likely never appreciate so much of what he’s created, did he bother? I know this is ethnocentric of me (if you will allow me to use that word in terms of species), but it kinda is about us is it not? We’re created in his image after all…

In fact, as is clear with the pitch pinecone, there’s a lot of stuff that we’ll probably never see that actually applies to our walk with God and our understanding of the way he works; not just in nature, but in our lives, our hearts. Jesus has much to say about gardening, but there’s a ton we’ll never know. What’s the point of all of this awesome stuff if there’s a good chance we’ll never see it?

Isaiah 55:12 says “all of the trees of the field will clap their hands.” Being a visual person, this makes me think about the way trees—with a cool sweep of wind—will turn the undersides of their leaves up to reveal the lighter green. The branches become arms and the leaves, like a wave at a football game, fly up with the wind in their multitudes and then settle content until the next gust. This happens whether we're looking or not, whether we're even aware that there was a wind, in a certain field, in the hills, of a never explored part of the earth.

After all, Jesus says in Luke 19 “Even the rocks will cry out.” I guess in some ways it’s not about us, or maybe it will all come together in Heaven, who knows?

. . . AND SISTERS

The powerful love of God for women

The ESV translation of the Bible, the most recent translation and widely used because of it’s closeness to the original Greek, even though footnoting every mention of brothers (Acts 12:17: “tell these things to James and to the brothers…”), with 'Or brothers and sisters', continues to translate the Greek only as brothers. In fact, in this particular passage the brothers were gathered at a woman’s home, Mary’s, who no doubt had already scrounged up the first century’s equivalent of a few bowls of chips and guacamole to feed the brothers.

Chips and guacamole example notwithstanding, I’m not bashing men here. If you think I am, you’re an idiot. 

I’ve developed the habit, after years of faithfully scanning down the page to assure myself that yes, the closest translation is indeed “brothers and sisters,” of translating the passage in my head to include the ‘sisters’ part, of inserting my gender, because, well, I’m included in this big, wondrously mysterious story, and I like to remind myself of this. It’s a visceral and not an intellectual thing, I’m well aware that women are included in all these passages, but it makes me feel good to do this. It just does.

Historically, women have had to fight for what they want. They were pernicious and persevering. They held the objects of their love tight to their chests and fought like a young David (i.e. with great faith) to preserve it.

Rahab, Ruth, Mary Magdalene, the Syrophoenician woman (“even the dogs get the crumbs from the table”), all wisely and intelligently understood the glory of heaven and the only thing that satisfies. Two of these women, with great faith, preserved the lineage of the messiah, two the gospel itself. And far from taking off their shirts and bras—this, the seventies version of feminism—and waving them around above their heads in an act of proud defiance over years of oppression, they took their case humbly to the Lord—again, with great faith—longing to experience their rightful place among the saints. Acting with both powerful silence and loud, full-bodied strength, they made their way through history towards the goal of their desires; the love of God displayed in Christ Jesus.

It’s my belief that God loves women uniquely, and in a crazy, nonsensical way that I think somehow involves passion, even “more” (please don’t misunderstand me here) than men. God has given women the honor of a nonpareil fight: a fight that involves an awful lot of faith and a deep desire for him.   

Historically, Satan has fought long and hard to deplete the feminine voice. Just look at a woman in a burka. Mute beneath a carpet of dark, she’s lucky if she can see out. In fact, often burkas even hide the eyes. A thinner, see-through cloth covers them. At least she’s able to navigate enough to keep her kid from the fire and herself from smacking into walls. Yay. Forget driving a car or going to school.

And for a western bent on the same general idea, add the sexualizing, the objectification. Same scheme, different tactic. Women become nothing. They are distilled down to a body. Just a body, no feelings, no brains, no soul. Perfect. The lineage of Jesus, the kingdom of Jesus, stopped short.

Praise the woman who let down a basket over the city wall and saved her family. Praise the woman who followed her mother-in-law into uncertainty and obedience because she was devoted to her mother-in-law’s God. Praise the woman who knew that the love and power of God was strong enough to forgive even her own, despicable sin. Praise the woman, the humble woman, who was willing to take anything she could get because she knew crumbs were better than nothing at all. Praise the child who grew into a woman, who developed breasts, and didn’t flinch when she found herself nursing the God of the universe.

Women are strong and they love God. They love God. If you are a woman and are reading this; go, be strong and courageous, and go. 

Are you a Pig or a Sheep?

I’m not 100% sure if sheep are cuter than pigs. There are these miniature pigs now that I assume some entrepreneurial soul has bred into existence to meet the western world’s hunger for cuteness. Facebook sometimes has snippets of pig-cuteness: running and snorting, startling the housecat, eating from a little girl’s hand. Cute, cute, so very cute.

And then there are sheep: lambs to be more specific. Lambs jump on all fours when they’re small, like some kind of bouncy floor is under them, like they have Reeboks on with mechanical springs.  They just hop, all at once. I don’t even know how basic physics allows this. Lambs, too, have been exploited on Facebook, much to the delight of stay-at-home moms and bored employees stuck in cubicles everywhere. 

If you don’t already know, pigs are super-smart, like smarter than dogs, and lambs are super-stupid, and I was thinking about the esoteric reality of this in church this morning as our pastor spoke on Luke 15; the parable of the lost sheep (sometimes my mind wanders).

Okay, so this is a stretch—theologians don’t judge me—but remember when Jesus casts the evil spirits out of the crazy man in the graveyard (Matt 8)? Remember where the evil spirits go? They go into a bunch of PIGS. Yes, that’s right, PIGS!

Again, anyone with an M.Div. or above, you can plug your ears now; my wee little thought about other genus’ intelligence got me thinking about how it’s the stupid lambs Jesus is always saving, and then in Matthew 8 he sends a (flock? herd? whatever a bunch of pigs are called) over a cliff to their death. I always thought that was just a little bit mean, by the way. They didn’t do anything wrong, those pigs, but whatever. 

So the pigs go over the cliff, and the lambs are carefully cared for, down to the last one. The lambs are cradled and fluffed and fed and carried on the shoulders of a very, very, kind shepherd, whom we all know to be Jesus. The pigs, on the other hand, plunge off a cliff in a snorting, squealing mess.

What preceded my theologically inferior pause as I listened to the sermon, was that suddenly it occurred to me that just as we, God’s beloved children, are saved, perhaps because of our stupidity, or at least our understanding that we need a shepherd or we likely will wander off and get our head stuck in a fence, pigs are used as fodder for demons. The smart animals in the larger world of animals that have the equivalent of a M.Div. or a PhD (sorry again theologians) are the ones headed for, well, the cliff. The smart pigs don’t seem to understand their very real need for a shepherd to stop their fervent, yet very blind, stampede.

And this is where my attention snapped back and I heard our pastor say something to the effect of when did you realize that you were truly, profoundly, lost? For me, it was when I realized that I was super-dumb and hopeless, and given my less-than-helpful freewill, would soon get all tangled in barbed wire and bleat like a babylamb (I like babylamb more as one word). The antithesis being a pig that maybe doesn’t realize it needs a shepherd until it’s launched off a cliff.

 I like my little thought about pigs and lambs.

Gratefully, I discovered that I was truly lost and stupid over 25 years ago. And, honestly, since then I’ve discovered it over and over again. I’m glad for this. Sweet, holy, Jesus, I keep wandering over to the quicksand and the wire; thank you for getting me—and for all those rides on your shoulders in the moonlight and the dawn. 

 

 

I Took a Crazy-person Test and Failed

About a month ago I took a crazy-person test. I wasn’t sure my cocktail of tricyclic’s and SSRI’s was doing its thing anymore. My metaphorical sky was bleak and low, like there was only a foot of airspace above my head and not much wiggle room. Something kind of specific finally got me to the psychiatrist…  

I was sitting in our church lobby next to an enormous plate glass window, the kind built in the 1970’s that are sometimes taken over by an internal fog. It was morning and the sun was streaming in, although it was unbearably cold outside. The chair I sat in was covered in a shiny striped fabric that for some reason, right then, I hated.

            Rose, a large woman in her late 20’s, schizophrenic, and riddled with mental malfunction, sat down next to me. I had just turned 50, but that didn’t bother me. I welcome aging, I have no problem with it.  “How was your holiday?” Rose said, head hanging, lips relaxed and open with a little bit of spit about to dribble out.

            “It was okay,” I said, “how was yours?”

            “It was okay.”

 

This was my trigger, this short conversation with a woman whom I really do care about. It floored me, the pointlessness of it, this woman who loved me who I could barely love back. Two weeks later I took the crazy-person test. The test was supposed to give the psychiatrist more information about me, like an MRI for the psych. We talked for an hour and a half and she asked me questions about medications and my history, the sort of questions I’ve grown used to answering. After that, I was led into a small room with a florescent light and a computer. An assistant showed me how to use the mouse to respond to the questions in the test, which were all True/False. The test took two hours.

By that time I was on a roll. The psychiatrist had suggested I might be bi-polar with rapid cycling. Manic-depressive, only with super short ups and downs, and mostly downs. In an hour and a half I had convinced myself I was in a hypomanic state, something not quite so fierce as pure mania, where someone, convinced they’re the next Cohen brothers (not just one of the Cohen brothers even, but maybe both of them at the same time), goes out into a city street and tries to gather a group of extras for a scene in the movie she wrote the night before which is sure to win an Academy Award. Hypomania is more socially acceptable. Hypomania means productivity and optimism until the next lowering of the bleak sky, and I embrace it entirely. I was hypomanic 10 years ago when I borrowed a friend’s nail-gun and   built our son a loft in his bedroom in a matter of hours. I might have been hypomanic when I rented a chainsaw and cut up a fifty-foot oak tree that had fallen in our front yard.

So when I took the test I was on a roll. I leaned into the questions like I knew them before I read them: I like to watch small animals suffer? (False.) Sometimes the government monitors my emails (False). But then the questions got harder. Sometimes I feel hot all over (Well, true, I’m 50. Hot flashes, no?). Sometimes my body feels tingly (Well, I mean, true, but I have spinal stenosis, my foot tingles. It’s a pinched nerve). I have never seen a vision (False. Uh oh…). And then there were the infamous hope vs. despair questions that I’ve become used to: I sometimes feel life isn’t worth living (True, I mean, I’m depressed, right?). My future is bleak (False!). I am guilty of many things (False!).

And this is where, as far as crazy-person tests, my psychological profile can lean toward crazy. These tests aren’t designed for Christians. They actually work quite well for most religions. Generally speaking, for someone who sometimes feels like life isn’t worth living, the future looks bleak as well.

But my future isn’t bleak, and I’m not guilty. It’s the wonderful paradox that the Christian lives with. No matter how awful we feel, we are told: “I know the plans that I have for you, plans to prosper you and give you a future.” And as far as guilt? If I really believe what Christ did for me, then I’m not guilty. If I believe I’m guilty, then Christ is either a liar or not powerful enough, and these just aren’t options.

I got the results of my test in the mail. My heart sank: The client responded by claiming to be unrealistically virtuous (e.g. guilt free), This attitude weakens the validity of the test and shows an unwillingness to disclose personal information, This pattern of uncooperativeness shows distortion and neurotic adjustment.

Yikes! I am crazy!

But the pills are working, so that’s good. Gotta go, I’m in the middle of a bathroom renovation.

 

 

 

Beheadings and Such

by Kely Staples

Here's something a friend of mine wrote recently. She's a brave girl. She lives in a place I've never been to. Sometimes it's scary.  

Recently I've been thinking a lot about what it would be like to be beheaded. Not in a sullen teenager trying to be macabre, kinda way, but in a, this could happen and I wonder what it would be like, kinda way.

I think it's natural to separate yourself from disaster. Call it a superman complex or a fear of our own mortality, but I just don't like to believe something bad could happen to me. I think it's one of the reasons why people have such a strong inclination towards victim blaming. We want to believe there was something different, something unique, something preventable, about the victim and the situation that separates us from it. Then we can rest assured we are safe because we surely aren't that stupid, slutty, reckless, or whatever fill in the blank you want. This is why, when I see disasters or tragedies in the news Ieither voluntarily or involuntarilyrun through a list in my head of why it couldn't happen to me. Bad neighborhood, reckless driving, poverty stricken. Not me, not me, not me. The list saves me. It's a buffer between the dangers of the world and my sense of security. And then the list runs out.

About a week ago there was report of ISIS kidnapping a female aid worker a couple countries over from where I am. She's American, around my age, has a family back in America, and is serving in a country thats very similar to mine and geographically very close. The gap between her and myself seems closer every time I think about it.

I don't know what to do with this.

I feel like she could be my friend. We could have coffee and talk about how crazy it is that we live where we do. We would then vent about how difficult Arabic is and laugh about the funny cultural things we never expected. I'd share how one of my friends told me not to walk on tile in bare feet because it would freeze my ovaries, and she would share something equally ridiculous.  We would talk about the things we hate about our countries and the things we love; how hard it is to be away from friends and family, and even harder to explain to them why we left. I would understand her in a way most people cant, how difficult it has been for her and how its changed her for the better. I think it would feel like I was looking in a mirror. Theres that strange bond you have with other expats. Even if youve just met, theres an instant understanding, an instantly formed kinship.

And now she's dead.

Even though disasters in my part of the world are endless, I don't know how to separate myself from this one and it terrifies me.

I wish I could be a better missionary about all of this, trusting in God's sovereignty despite the bleak circumstances, forging ahead without a care in the world, and I have to admit, sometimes I do.  But sometimes I just stuff the fear away because its easier. Its easier to feel nothing because Im running late to a meeting and frankly I dont have time to be scared. And then it's 4am, I'm awake, and the fear comes back with a vengeance.

This is where I am right now, awake in the middle of the night. Afraid.

Im thinking about that girl. Im thinking about myself, wondering what it was like, being kidnapped. The uncertainty. Those final hours. Those final seconds. Was she scared? Was it different than she expected? Did she also, like me, wonder what it would be like? Did her pondering seem dumb in light of what the reality was? What it really felt like to be struggled into a car and see her future disappear in an instant?

I've only had my life threatened once while over here. It was a family member of a young woman I was training. She recently became a believer and there were members of her family that weren't too thrilled about it. An uncle stood in front of us and threatened to kill her, as well as me. He hit tables and walls, he was up close and personal, trying to intimidate. It was the first time I thought to myself this could get out of hand, quickly. But then something strange happened. I don't know if it was adrenaline, something's snapping in my brain, the Holy Spirit, or a combination of the three, but for some reason I wasn't afraid. Or maybe the fear left. Actually, I think it was replaced, thats probably the best way to explain it. All of a sudden I had this confidence, bordering on cocky, about the Lord. To the point where, in my head, I said go ahead, try and kill us, see what Jesus will do. I dont know how to explain it except to say that it was not from me; except to tell you that immediately after the situation calmed down and the Uncle left, my real self took over and I went and threw up in a squatty. That's apparently how I handle that kind of situation, but who that other person was? I don't know. All I know is in that moment, with a man violent in my face, I wasn't afraid.

I don't know what it would be like to be murdered or martyred, but I don't believe I would feel the same as I do right now, fearful, in the dark and small hours of the morning. I don't think I could handle martyrdom, not by myself. I would recant. I'm almost certain of it. At least this is how I'm feeling right now. And this is where the comfort is, realizing that if I ever get taken, find myself facing a small army wearing black, I will not feel the way I do right now. If the time comes the Holy Spirit will press in, because what Jesus says is true:

"And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say."

And maybe that takes its own kind of trust in the Lord, understanding that if the time comes, He will provide. He will provide the strength and the peace to override my own self.  Maybe this is where I need to trust. Where I can trust, and the only thing that's going to let me to go back to sleep tonight.