Remembrances of My Father

                                                          Phil Matejczyk    1937 - 2018

 Phil Matejczyk  1937 — 2018

Phil Matejczyk  1937 — 2018

My father wasn’t athletic, or even interested in sports—anything involving a ball would compel him to pick up a book, and I’m not 100% sure he knew whether the Chicago Bears was a football team or a baseball team—but he did like being outdoors. He was the type of man who conquered knots. He used them to string backpacks up in trees so bears couldn’t get them and hold a sailboats in a slips so they wouldn’t rub a dock in a storm.

The infamous bowline: Bunny comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back into the hole. It’s a good one to know. The greater the pressure on the line, the tighter the knot gets.

My father and I weren’t close; he wasn’t very affectionate, but I did know he cared about me—recently, I’ve even heard he’s bragged about me, which is pretty fabulous to know. I’ve heard that men grow softer as they age and he did. I hold a very unscientific theory that with age, (and all of its attending troubles), people tend to grow either softer or more bitter. He grew softer. It’s what I’d hoped would happen and I’m glad it did.

He also liked to take pictures; not interesting ones – close ups of flowers and pictures of hydroelectric dams. When he showed them to me he’d explain each one and I thought I was going to jump out of my skin I was so bored. The pictures would float around the house for years. In bowls on the coffee table, drawers, some of his favorites hung on the walls. My mother’s still trying to put them into albums and I’m still trying to convince her to not bother.

And he loved binoculars. There was always a pair around his neck.

On vacations he would look across quiet, expansive lakes. When we were canoeing in the boundary waters he’d peer through them until he found an inlet we were supposed to be headed for. He would have his compass and laminated map spread out and look through his binoculars until he was satisfied we were heading in the right direction.

Sometimes, after we’d set up camp, he’d use them to look across the water, and if he saw a loon and I was close by he’d hand them to me and point to where I should look, and if it was still enough I could hear its 2 step call—a mid-range, breathy, low to high sound—that felt like it came from eternity and was going back to eternity.

I now own 3 pairs of binoculars and 2 cameras. His hand me downs.

I have a Canon A-1 with a broken mirror and grains of sand in the crevices. I took that one to Africa with me. I also have an Olympus OM-1 with likely exposed film still in it. I can’t imagine what’s on it—maybe a tulip, or a crocus.

The first pair of binoculars he gave to me had lenses the size of jelly lids. They were enormous and heavy. I used them from time to time, which I enjoyed, but my arms got sore. The second pair was great, and the third pair was greater. Sometimes I sit in our backyard in our Adirondack chair and look through the trees and it feels like I’m in some kind of green and uncontained Netherworld.

From a distance and with the bare eye—although you might not realize it—things appear 2 dimensional, as though the trees are a mush of flat green, but through a good pair of binoculars the images become layered. A tree in the distance is clearly in front of a house, and so forth.

It’s a fascinating precision we’ve been able to manufacture for ourselves with these binoculars, but when you start to see birds through them it blows your mind. I know every bird in our backyard, what they look like and what they sound like. For awhile I called myself a birder until I found out real birders travel to South America to see obscure birds barely anyone’s ever seen. When a real birder sees a rare bird it changes their lives. They live on a different plane after that.

I discovered the birder thing late in life, after my father gave me his binoculars.

Although he often seemed more interested in his hydroelectric dams and knots than me, even when I stood right next to him, I’ve come to believe his affection was there, only the way he expressed it was by pointing out a loon or showing me how to tie a bowline. He wanted me to see what he saw and isn’t that a way people connect?

I was standing beside him. He wasn’t looking at me, but he was aware of me and wanted me to join him, be a part of his life.

One of the most precious things for me these past few years has been to see him become interested in what I’ve been looking at almost my whole life, what I’ve been focused on, as though now he was taking the binoculars hanging around my neck and searching for what I was seeing.

And I’ve been staring at birds. But I’ve also been staring at Christ. For years.

I’ve been staring at God, through Christ, and I’ve seen the wonder of his love and his grace and the ways he takes things that are dark and horrible and flips them around so that they become bright with truth. I’ve experienced the miraculous wonder of growing familiar with his voice across the waters of my life and studying his ways with me. Discovering his love in the tiniest things.

The last few years of my father’s life, he began to see what I’d been focusing on for so long and because of that he began to know me better, he began to care about what I care about. He began to see God’s love and mercy.

And now I’m going to commit—especially for a writer—the sin of all sins and insert a platitude in this remembrance because it serves me well and I want to: I believe that my father is in a better place. I’m sure that now he sees more clearly than I do the grace and love and relationships that are found in God through Christ. I’m sure he wants me to know all of it, I’m sure he wants me to see what he sees.

 

 

 

Botox and The Elevens

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Brachioplasty reduces skin-fat that droops downward from flaggy upper arms, that waddely part of the arm that grandmothers sometimes have—the all-in cooking kind of grandmother who kneads dough for hours, turns on the oven, sweats, wipes her brow with a dishtowel covered in flour, ladles up whatever, and makes you feel just the tiniest bit guilty as you’re enjoying the most amazing Bolognese you’ve ever tasted.

Brachioplasty is also called an arm lift. You can get your hands lifted too. Or rejuvenated. I have no idea how I know these things

When I was 14 and my world existed primarily of Saturday night babysitting gigs for whatever coins a dad had in his pocket (hopefully quarters), or an occasional walk to the town’s water tower to imagine how I would absolutely most likely pretty much climb it if only the ladder came all the way down, I began noticing certain commercials and advertisements in magazines—and according to them, I had the option of making myself look a whole lot prettier.

If you were a white girl in 1979 you couldn’t be pretty without blonde hair, and I wanted nothing more than for my unfortunately named mousy brown hair to be honey blonde. The color of sunrises and sunsets. Cheerleaders. Things like that.

So, with newspaper ads fogging my adolescent brain, I began browsing the aisles of a pharmacy. I picked up bottles of Jean Nate After Bath Splash, Sun In hairspray, Lip Smackers from Bonnie Bell. They were all over TV—so many commercials for Sun In and Jean Nate and Breck Shampoo were woven through Mash and Marcus Welby MD that I felt obligated to buy them, like it was a coming-of-age ritual for the American teen.

So one day, after loitering in the makeup and hair aisle far too long, I compulsively did what I’d been thinking about doing for weeks. I purchased a bottle of Sun-In, went home, sprayed my hair wet, lay on a towel on the back deck and pleaded with my mousey brown hair as though I was pleading for mint chocolate chip ice cream: please turn blonde, please turn blonde.

At school, I told people my blondey-orangey hair was from lemon juice because at that time lemon juice was okay but peroxide was cheating. And there was actually a slice of lemon on the label. So. My goal was to look like a film negative, everything dark would be light and everything light would be dark. My Sun-In and Coppertone Tanning Oil. Life was good, Jack.

30 years and 40 age spots later and Big Sky Artificial Intelligence, through some combination of quantum physics and supernatural mysticism, notices on my computer that I’ve been giving in to a bit of clickbait; Premiere Cosmetic Solutions. Ultra non-surgical procedures, Therma Peel . . .

 Last week was Mother’s Day. I’m an empty nester now, and according to popular opinion in America this period of my life is finally my period of my life, I deserve to rejuvenate my sun damaged skin, so yes, I did it. A week ago when I was searching for the original Hebrew meaning of Hallelujah and an ad for Premier Cosmetic let-us-change-your-life Solutions popped up, I clicked on it.

My compassionate and loving husband and children have noted that I don’t need such things but they do love me. And, as it turns out, a physician grade chemical peel with Groupon is almost as affordable as a bag of 1979 beauty paraphernalia from the pharmacy. So . . .

Cosmetic Solutions requires a consult first.

There are enormous cushy loveseats in the waiting room and when I sit in one I feel like I’m surrounded by sleeping puppies. There are tiny white speakers at the ceiling that fill the room with some Michael Buble-like song that reminds me of my (if I had one) sister’s wedding. There’s an album on the coffee table with laminated pictures of chins before and after. Chins and eyebrows and one picture of a bum in a thong. In the first picture the bum has cellulite and in the second picture, there’s not so much. 

A (presumably) young woman leads me to a room and motions to a comfortable padded chair that can be tilted back. She asks me if I’d like anything to drink. I tell her I’d love some water and she promptly goes to get it. As I wait, I can feel the chair beginning to heat up and it makes me relax. I think about going to sleep, so when the presumably young woman returns and hands me a bottle of Voss Artesian Water I’m somewhat disappointed.

When the cosmetic physician comes in she sits across from me and asks what I’m concerned about. I tell her I have some sunspots and mention that I have a Groupon because that’s what the site that I got my Groupon from said I was supposed to do. I turn my head to the side and point at the result of my 1970’s obsession with blonde hair and dark skin. She says yes, a peel could help with that and gives me a rundown of what to expect; my skin will be a little red and then peel and I’ll need a week or so of downtime. Not a big deal, I work from home. I make an appointment for 2 weeks later to get a chemical peel.

As I begin to gather my things to leave, she tells me she’ll be right back and returns with a syringe and a couple small plastic medical looking cellophane packages and says, “Okay, let me just lower the chair a little.”

“What’s this?” I say as she’s tilting the chair back.

“Your Groupon includes a few units of Botox.”

Wait, Botox is the mother of all vanity. It’s the heroin of cosmetic procedures. Two years from now my lips will be the size of plumbs. “What will it do?”

“It’ll get rid of your elevens.”

I don’t understand what she means by this. “What are elevens?”

“The perpendicular lines between your eyes—they’re from squinting, or frowning.”

“Really? I have them?” She gently lifts my chin as she holds the needle in her other hand.

“Most people do at your age. Just a prick,” she says, and inserts the needle between my eyes and gently swabs the area. “You might not see a difference for a few days, everyone’s different. Exercise the area for 60 seconds. Squint and frown, it will spread the Botox around. Most people do it on their way home.

She says it was nice to meet me, that she’ll see me in two weeks for the chemical peel, then reminds me that the peel will cause my face to shed and will require some downtime. This time she adds that my skin will shed somewhat like a snake.

As I drive home I squinch my eyes tight and frown as hard as I can and begin to feel the place between my eyes resisting the movement, like a large thumb is pressing down on my forehead so that only my eyebrows can move. I look in the rear view mirror. When I raise them they look like they’re yanked up toward my forehead. I look like Michael Keaton in Batman. I start planning what I’m going to do in two weeks, how I’ll stay inside while I shed like a snake.

This is why I love my husband

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When responding to the encouraging words of a friend who had just read my memoir, Notes On Orion, my greatest-husband-in-the-world wrote these words:

"Your most welcome, I’m so glad it was encouraging. The synopsis you sent was divinely all that Kate had hoped to achieve in writing and living it. Read something today. Some aesthetic philosopher. To be aesthetically courageous consists in the refusal to only heed those features of a natural scene that most readily come together in a familiar pattern or which yield a comfortingly generalized emotional quality. It involves taking the repeated risk of drawing a blank, of finding oneself unable to hold the various elements together as a single object of contemplation. It is an expansion of context, it is the movement toward more complex and comprehensive synopsis.

Spiritually speaking it’s like taking the wilderness of moral and spiritual ambiguity and taming it.  Bringing the disparate moral and spiritual facts into the gravity of a coherence field that makes sense out if, expanding the moral and spiritual ecosphere by integrating and synthesizing what others have left as uninhabitable wilderness. I’m rambling now, but I think that’s what she does, I think you do that to. You tame (cohere) the moral and spiritual ambiguity

Of the world in what you create."

You are the courageous one, my love. 

SO YOU WROTE A NOVEL, WHY?

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There were certainly moments when I asked myself this very thing—especially when I was a few chapters in and my characters were about as exciting and complicated as astro turf. However, when something I'm working on starts to gain traction and the characters, rather than standing in line waiting their turn to make it to the page, begin splitting off in their own directions to do their quirky things—one guy takes a leak in the middle of a street at midnight, another can't stop applying for a spot on The Cupcake Wars—I honestly start to have a blast. It's fun. I like writing. 

All of this said, writing a novel—or book of any kind—is very hard work. And it's important to develop your craft first. In other words, learn to write—and write well. if you're pleased with your craft, with the way you write, an empty page isn't something to scare you but an opportunity. And then it's a matter of keeping your butt in the chair. No discipline, no book. 

I write in the mornings. I get up and go through my routine: 1. Bowl of cereal or granola bar. 2. Cup of coffee. 3. Sit down. 4. Pray. 5. Read chapter in Bible. 6. Open computer and write. Easy peasy. Oh, and no laundry or brushing of the teeth or email or that sort of nonsense. I stay off line. And yes, it's true, I don't brush my teeth before I write.  

Personally, I don't use an outline. I read somewhere that Faulkner began his novels with an image, for example, a girl climbing a tree in a dress, a boy standing under the tree able to see her underwear, and I find myself doing the same thing. My novel, Can You See Anything Now? began when I imagined a 42 year old woman trying to drown herself in a lake. It was a clear night and there was a canoe floating around. As I thought about this image I couldn't help but think it would be a hard thing to do, drown yourself in a lake. Kind of funny, but then so sad.

There's a lake in the neighborhood I live in now. It's a small lake and I pass it every afternoon when I take a walk. I usually try to pray while I'm walking but then my mind will wander because there is so much beauty around me. About half a mile into my walk there's a short bridge that crests at a hill and once over it a valley suddenly appears and you see the lake, like an enormous silvery puddle, before you.   

There's also a swimming raft in the middle of it. So there it was, the beginning of Can You See Anything Now? 

I was young when I began to write. When I was about three years old I drew a baby carriage. My mother saved it because it was a three dimensional drawing and everyone was all no way! over it. I did end up being pretty good at painting and drawing, but I loved to write too. My mother also saved a poem I wrote when I was around seven: In this little box of mine/you'll find a feather, very fine./an olive from an olive tree/a mirror that looks just like me . . .  Oh Pulitzer! Oh Booker Prize!  

But I was horrible at math—I mean terrible. I failed algebra and was in tears during summer school as my teacher leaned over my desk and tried to explain fractions to me. I don't know my times tables. I have to count out months on my fingers to remember what comes next. Military time is far beyond my skill set. 

So I was a way odd kid. One time in preschool I was sitting for circle time and as the teacher was talking I tilted my head back and looked at the ceiling and my mouth hung open, my jaw slack so my tongue just kind hung there half out of my mouth. I must have been like that for a long time because eventually the teacher came over and asked if I was all right. 

And while I wouldn't recommend staring at the ceiling in a corner Starbucks, I do think writing fiction is about becoming fascinated with the ordinary. I think writing fiction has a lot to do with seeing, observing. Conversations. Images. People and places and things. 

But too much self disclosure perhaps. 

Oh, and FYI: I'm also working on a memoir that will be published in 2018. It's about when our son overdosed on heroin. And it's about me.  

 

What's up with Ecclesiastes 12:12?

There's a verse in Ecclesiastes that’s horrified me for years, and for two reasons: I love to read books, and I love to write books. And apparently, it turns out they’re meaningless. Not only that, but they ‘weary the soul.’ Oh crap.

Rick is presently engaged in the herculean business of writing a dissertation for his doctorate in the philosophy of religion. Never mind that philosophy of religion seems a misnomer to me, he just told me that every dissertation ever written is published. Who reads these published books? So far his footnotes take up half of each page and for the love of god, who reads footnotes?

In The Library of Congress there’s a beautiful domed ceiling painted with designs in gold leaf. Beneath the domed edifices, encircling high above the floor of the reading room, are nine statues of authors: Demosthenes, Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne, Scott, and Dante. They look down, as though observing long reading tables with desk lights so you can check out a book from the stacks and spend an afternoon reading. I wonder if Demosthenes, Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne, Scott, and Dante would care if you’re reading their work or if they’d get all irritated if you were reading someone like Jane Austin. What a lightweight. Smut, complete smut. Pride and Prejudice, put that garbage down…

Sometimes important books are on display, books like The Grapes of Wrath, by Steinbeck, and Tim O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried. They’re open to important pages, where the author’s gift to the world of letters can be appreciated and cherished. Someday I would like to have a book on display open to an important page. Adults would stroll by and point to it and whisper my name to their children who would have no interest in me or my book and are only biding time until they get the ice cream they were promised after they go through this one last museum. But still. I would like that Awesomeness.

Rick and I have talked at length about his dissertation, and while sometimes I’ve had to tentatively raise a hand like I’m in Philosophy 101 for him to repeat himself or at least stop using the word perdurantist, I’ve learned a lot. In fact I’ve made a few good points myself, after which we both pause and say, hmm, that is a good point and I feel super smart. These conversations always take place in the mornings, before my Adderall wears off. If he refers back to the conversation later in the day I bring up dinner or a TV show, something to distract him because I no longer feel super smart.

A week ago, after I told him I thought it was ridiculous that there are all those dissertations floating around out there that no one reads, Rick said something interesting. He told me that every dissertation has to have a new slant, some way of approaching a new topic, something that’s never been examined before.

But dang, that means that PhD candidates have to come up with narrower and narrower things to write about because, as Ecclesiastes points out, there’s no end to the books already written. How do you find something that’s never been written before? The problem of evil? Crud, Augustine got to that one first.

I wonder if when Ecclesiastes says books weary the soul, it’s alluding to the fact that there are so many books written about stupid things that don’t matter when there are so many things to write about that do matter, or read that do matter. Stuff that makes contact with redemption in this day and age in a unique way, or circles back to the problem of evil, only this time instead of the unjustness of leprosy, the backdrop is violence in the Middle East or metastatic brain tumors.   

But then there’s still Jane Austen and John Irving, writers who’s work is a blast to read, but it might be a stretch to find any deeper meaning. However, if you think about it, I suppose Austen made a point about the silliness of ‘marrying up,’ and Irving has an awful lot swimming around in his talented head. I’m not sure there’s a funnier book than A Prayer for Owen Meany, but it’s definitely not just a funny book.

So. Hmm. The problem of Ecclesiastes 12:12.

Perhaps I’m looking at the verse wrong. It doesn’t say reading or writing books is pointless, it only says that there are an awful lot of them and they can ‘weary the soul.’ Trying to get through all of them would weary my soul—and trying to figure them all out would certainly weary my soul.

But reading the Bible, reading Ecclesiastes or the Gospel of John, doesn’t weary the soul. In fact it will lift up your soul. There’s meaning in the non-fiction parts and the figurative parts, there’s meaning in every sentence. Jesus healing a blind man really happened, but it's not just about healing a blind man. It also opens our eyes to the bigger, beautiful story—the story to end all stories. John Irving, Willa Cather, Harper Lee; good job, really, I should hope to write so profoundly, but I’ll never approach something as important as one crossed T of the Bible.

In the end I think it’s a priority thing. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Ecclesiastes 12:12 as:  

But regarding anything beyond this, dear friend, go easy. There’s no end to the publishing of books, and constant study wears you out so you’re no good for anything else. The last and final word is this:

Fear God.
Do what he tells you.

Fifty Shades of Gray notwithstanding, there's nothing wrong with a good beach read, but I also love a rich story, where I'm struck by subtexts and deeper meanings, and wonder about the author’s intent and accidental narratives. But I need to remember I shouldn't make it my life’s work to study books when the book to end all books is on my bedside table.

I’m pretty sure that’s the point of Ecclesiastes 12:12. Makes sense to me anyway.  

And on that note: I wrote a book. It’s a good book. Buy my book. Read my book.

Here’s my book.

 

 

Oh, The Irony!

When I was 13 or 14 I discovered the word ‘ironic’. It was a mature word. A complicated word. It rolled off the tongue, and in using it I would be characterized as intelligent and erudite. It had literary heft. I would use it in conversations and people would be in awe of my grasp of the English language.

I didn’t always use the word correctly. While I might find it ironic that T.S. Eliot spent years in banking while his degree was in philosophy, a discipline that spent valuable time and energy arguing about whether or not numbers existed at all, I could just as well lopside the word into sentences like ‘Wasn’t it ironic that Mr. Lester served cupcakes today.’ 

I often referred to modern art as ironic, which was a safe bet since most of modern art is nothing if not ironic, intentionally or otherwise (Pollack with his splatters of nonsense paint, Duchamp and the urinal: The shock! The outrage!).

There were other words I didn’t understand; like malleable and ethereal and phallic (I kid you not, no clue), but I used irony the most. It was my favorite even though it took me a while to master.

I’m pretty sure I have the word down now, perhaps mostly because I’ve been reading the gospel of John. I’ve come to believe that irony is one of God’s great creations; as light-boned and winged-miraculous as the chickadee that right this very moment is eating from the birdfeeder outside my window. Whether we can label it or not, it’s one of the ways he reveals to us the miracle of God become man.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my favorite gospel (if we’re allowed favorites) is the gospel of John. It uses all sorts of literary devices and is beautifully poetic in the way it communicates feelings and the senses; I can feel the list of a boat heavy with fish, I smell the smoke of fires.

And it's a book full of irony, or perhaps more precisely, it is a book of irony—

My handy desktop dictionary defines irony as “the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for . . . emphatic effect . . .”  

A few of my favorite examples of irony in the gospel of John: 9:4: “What? Are we blind too?” (actually, you are), 3:13: “the Son of Man must be lifted up” (To Heaven! oh, wait, on a cross?), and my favorite: 19:19: “Pilate. . . wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (yeah, well, he kinda was).

Of course even though God created irony and passed it on to John to skillfully communicate the truth of things in his gospel, it certainly exists outside of the Bible. Shakespeare had a knack for it: Romeo and Juliet, Othello.

  John uses verbal irony, which often makes use of sarcasm. One example of this might be in 11:16 when Thomas, before Jesus raises Lazarus, says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” He also uses dramatic irony, which I like to think wasn’t necessarily visible until after the fact, like the disciples in retrospect were able to look back and say way cool, that time he turned water into wine? That was nothing compared to his blood spilled out for us… I imagine for the rest of their lives the disciples—like us—continued to spot ironies that God had created.

But even with all the ironic situations and concepts peppered throughout scripture it’s hard to miss the big one; the most miraculous irony of all time; The One True Irony John was pulling out all the literary stops for: Jesus, King of the Jews; Jesus, hated by Pharasees; Jesus, broken so that we might be healed…   

What Satan meant for evil, God meant for good. Woah, step aside Shakespeare.

And there’s all these little ironies in my life: the way God has taken my own sin and turned it on itself and used it to bring humility which brings healing from the very sin that caused my brokenness.

The way my physical ailments have brought spiritual life.

And I often spot comic ironies in my life (in the same way one might experience a stiff, internal snigger over Romeo and Juliet even while bemoaning the sorrow of it all) such as the fact that I have like a thousand ticks (half-blinking eye, a random flexing of my wrist) all while I like to wax on about being still and knowing that God is God.

In fact, as though God was nudging me to not forget The One True Irony, just this morning I found myself in the swing of another one. I was marking up a section of Charles D’Ambrosio’s book Loitering, a chapter where he talks about how back in the day he was anal about his books and how he wouldn’t let anyone borrow them because he was afraid they’d mark them all up. And here I was this very morning marking one of his books up, folding pages, underlining unfamiliar words, so I could look them up later to find out what they mean.

 

Why I hate Proverbs 31

Proverbs 31, yada yada yada…

I’ve often thought that if I were one of the disciples in the boat getting tossed around by a storm, Jesus asleep on a pillow, I might have been afraid with the rest of them, but then I would likely have shrugged, said to the disciples desperately trying to furl in the mainsail, “you guys deal with it,” gone to the back of the boat, held out a hand to Jesus and said, “pass the pillow.”

I don’t belong in America. I belong in some other culture – not a hot and difficult country where women walk miles with baskets and buckets of water balanced on their heads – but one of those cultures where people just, you know, sit around in each other’s homes and talk and then go to bed and sleep. Surely they exist, places like this, no?

My constitution is duly unfit for our hard working, forward thinking culture. I’m not one to rise early and “burn the lamp” late into the night. I look on other American women in shame. I volunteered to be a room mother once, as an understudy to a real Proverbs 31 woman, which meant that I could pretty much lie back, show up for stuff, lick icing from a cupcake, and let her do all the work because she loved making 24 nametags with turkeys on them, or at least I told myself this.

Okay, let me correct myself. All of this makes me sound lazy. In defense of me, first off, I’m an introvert, so my energy comes from being alone, and I need to read and stare at walls or my mind turns to mush (how odd…), and honestly, God is teaching me to spend a lot of time in prayer. So there’s that. And I do laundry. And make dinner most of the time, alright fifty percent of the time, or forty percent. Something like that. Whatever. Frozen pizza has the tomato sauce and someone once told me tomatoes are a vegetable or a fruit or something. Thank you Jesus.  

The one verse in that awful chapter of Proverbs that I have gravitated to is verse 25. …she laughs at the years to come. I would like that. Very much. No fear. Trust. But that would mean storing up purple linen and baking bread and in present day parlance, having one of those gigantic freezers in the basement filled with pork chops and lasagna. Lot’s of pork chops and lasagna would enable me to laugh at the days to come, but I just can’t get my butt to the grocery store and buy the freezer bags, much less label them and date them so that no one gets salmonella and ends up in the emergency room.

I’ve developed the habit of paging past that last horrifying chapter of Proverbs. The guilt can sink me. I fall way, way, short. I always give a wide berth to Joanne’s Fabric and can’t imagine ‘spinning wool’ or any madness of that sort. You might as well give me a bilateral mastectomy as send me looking for pillow inserts. When I was married, some well-meaning church lady who still dressed to the nines on Sundays gave me a framed print of Proverbs 31. I tolerated it for a few years then finally snatched it from the wall and stuck it in the garbage under the sink, which likely had a couple frozen pizza boxes folded into it and was in need of emptying.  

Last Sunday our pastor spoke on Proverbs 31. Oh, crap.

And then Rick passed me a note that changed my life forever.

It said, in his tiny barely legible handwriting that slants down to the right, the wife in Proverbs 31 is a metaphor for Wisdom. Capital W. My son, seek Wisdom. My children seek Wisdom. Wisdom “plants a vineyard (vs. 16)” and Wisdom’s “husband is known at the gates (vs. 23).” While I’m sure there’s intended meaning for literal women—because they are wise—caring for their families, Wisdom with a capital W, it makes sense to me. I can swallow that a lot easier than 24 Thanksgiving goodie bags for a classroom of kids.

Wisdom is personified as a woman. Throughout Proverbs Wisdom is present as a female entity. Why it’s a female entity, I could care less. What matters to me is that it’s not me.  

That ubiquitous wife who’s been at my heals ever since I said ‘I do’ isn’t in fact a wife at all, she’s Wisdom, and every husband (or wife or single person or child) will do well to remember that Wisdom provides the purple linen, the beautiful things that clothe us. The turkey name tags in America. Home-room mom, she’s not what any of us, or our husbands, should be aspiring to. Proverbs 31 tells us we should be sidling up to Wisdom. And if we really want it we really can have it. (James 1:5)

This. Wisdom gets up early, Wisdom sews purple cloth, Wisdom blesses us at the town gate. Wisdom allows us to laugh at the days to come. Perhaps because of the way God has made me, wisdom will come through thunderstorms that shake the windows and afternoons spent ‘scything’ at a state park.

Maybe Proverbs 31 will arrive at my door, purple linen in hand, beautiful and clear as its own perfect metaphor. I will open the door wide and offer her a glass of tap water because I don’t have anything else; I haven’t gone to the grocery store in a week. I’ll welcome her in because I’m already in a fit, confused and frustrated, having slept only 7 hours and not my optimum 9. She’ll sit me down and calmly explain that it’s not about me, it’s about her.

 

 

 

 

 

Are You a Sentimental Christian?

 

I once wrote a short story that was edited by a very gifted, well-known editor. My story ended with the words “and she entered in to her death, her very own death,” which I thought was a wonderfully emotive ending. I was very proud of myself and couldn’t wait for this gifted, well-known editor to reach the end of my story. Surely it would bring him to tears, surely he would be so taken with my story that he would pass it on to other gifted, well-known editors so that they would all be blown away. Hot damn. What masterful writing.

After getting back my story with his comments, I eagerly thumbed through the pages, which did have many coveted checkmarks in the columns (in fiction writing, checkmarks are like ‘likes’ on Facebook, they can elicit that happy place inside of you to do a little prideful jump). However, after getting to the last page, where I was sure I would get a checkmark, maybe two, likely with a ‘Wow!’ as well, the well-known gifted editor had penciled a very sad, discouraging wavy line that means, basically, ‘it sucks, take it out’ under the last words of my story, the words that said “her very own death.” Next to the wavy line there was no check or ‘wow,’ just his scratched in words, “sentimental flourish.”

He was right of course. The ending was far better as just “entered into her death.” What I had done was take the natural movement of the story and tacked on bland words in hopes of making the reader remember back to what I thought were the ‘beautiful words’ I had written already, instead of the story that in effect was still taking place. His comment, as much as it stung, rang true. The last line of my story was indeed sentimental flourish.  

This morning I was reading what I believe is probably the best devotional ever, My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers, and I was struck by the words “If you get out of the light you become a sentimental Christian,” sentimental being closely related to nostalgia: always looking back, remembering a past goodness, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes over and over, that provides a needed nudge, an elbow in the side that says to you, oh yeah, remember how great that was?

 What Chambers was getting at was that if you fade in your ability to hear God’s quiet voice day to day, you will be left only with nostalgia. That day you were saved, or those college years when you trusted him for everything, when your roommate came to understand Jesus’ love and salvation, that talk you heard that brought you to tears because it was like God was speaking directly to you. Those were the days, and surely they are enough to carry you through to the end of your life. They are enough. I’ll read my Bible every day in honor of them. Those days are my testimony.

But testimony is a declaration or affirmation, and while testimony is a beautiful word to use when describing how you came to Christ, we are to continue to declare and affirm God’s work in our life. We are told to listen for God’s still, small voice.

But how? I’ve often heard these words and thought ‘how do I do this?’ Sitting in a quiet room doesn’t work for me. Staring at the beautiful trees in my backyard and thinking about him doesn’t really work either. It might for some, but for me I can be left feeling even more empty. I didn’t get any voice, small or otherwise. What’s the matter with me? Christians say all the time ‘God told me to, etc. etc.,’ and God doesn’t tell me squat.

But what I’ve slowly learned is that in wanting to hear his voice, in actually trying to hear his voice, I’ve been seeking him with as pure a heart as I’m able. As I’ve sat in my back yard under the trees and heard nothing, I’ve at least hungered to hear his voice and that is the beginning. He knows I hunger. And in telling him this and expressing my desire to hear him and trusting that he wants me to hear him more than I want to hear him, then—and it might look different for you than others—he’ll be there.

Open your eyes under the tree and open your eyes when you’re driving to pick up the kids and open your eyes when you’re at CVS and when you’re a crazymaker doing dishes before the guests show up. Pray and expect. Every day can be a testimony and declare and affirm his plans for you.

His story of you didn’t end after that prayer way back in college. In fact right now you’re standing in the best part of the narrative but if you don’t want to know about it you won’t. However, if you do, he knows this and he doesn’t want you to miss it.

In the short story I wrote my failure was in leaving what was really happening—the arc and the plot—and patched on sentiment at the end because I had left the real story and no longer trusted it. I had left that place where, as a writer, every word is carrying you forward.

Oswald Chambers reminded me this morning not to leave the real narrative that God is telling because my own words, “her very own death,” fall flat compared to the power of his word to raise my dead soul and make it into something beautiful. 

Does beauty even matter?

A few weeks ago, against my better judgment, I wandered into a Target and decided a few outfits were worth the trouble of trying on. My first mistake was pulling them off the rack two sizes too small, something I tend to do, somehow stuck in the period of my life when I used to climb the high dive at the public pool without the least bit of self-consciousness and muster enough wherewithal to jump, however awkwardly, into the deep end, swimsuit riding up my butt and all.

The term, Bonfire of the Vanities, while well known because of the book by Tom Wolfe, originally refers to an actual bonfire set on February 7th of 1494 by religious fanatics for the sole purpose of burning objects condemned by authorities as occasions of sin. This included art, cosmetics, and books. I am a condemned soul.

The clothing I tried on at Target was two dresses and one pair of jeans. As I shoved one leg into the jeans I remember thinking about the J.Crew catalogue I had thumbed through that morning and may have had something to do with my trip to Target. Wandering mind. Jean. Pant. Catalogues always refer to pants in the singular, although the rest of the world acknowledges there are two legs to the piece of clothing and refer to them as pants. I imagined trying on clothing in one of the attractively lighted J.Crew stores and asking the helpful customer service associate to please get me a size 10 instead of an 8 pant. I’m looking for a khaki pant.

Target mirrors have been nabbed from some carnival fun-house. I’m sure of it. Spectacularly distorted, if not sadly reflecting my own body, I might laugh. I become a floating bifurcated image, splitting into some comedy of myself when I turn around, left or right, glancing and wincing as I look into one of the three (three!) mirrors.   

Unlike J.Crew, florescent lights and no customer service associate in sight to reassure me, however deceitfully, that the black pant I’m trying on has a slimming effect and looks wonderful on me, I continued to yank one leg into the jeans which on the rack didn’t look like skinny jeans and not mom jeans either, but somewhere nicely in between (who on God’s green earth thought skinny jeans should be included in the 2003 Paris runway-or-whatever fashion show?), looked in the mirror, and peeled them off. I didn’t bother with the two dresses. I left them hanging on the door, exited the dressing room, passed my red Target cart with the leatherette belt I had taken a full 20 minutes to pick out, and half ran out of the store. I may have had a few tears in my eyes but whatever.

And it’s not the size of my clothes so much as the way my white legs have shifted direction, like the way antique glass in an old home ever so slowly slops and gives into the waves of time. I remember as a young girl seeing my grandmother next to a pool in a swimsuit. She loved to swim and appeared perfectly comfortable in her time weathered body, which had folds and sags that I had never seen in an older woman before.

I don’t imagine I’ll be like her as I continue to age. Even now I decline my critical vitamin D needs and refuse every sun kissed environment that requires swimwear. Even Land’s End doesn’t cut it, as hard as they’ve tried. And I do appreciate that. Don’t get me wrong. Thank you Land’s End. Really. You tried and that’s the least you could do.

I am a vain, vain, woman.

I have found myself, and this is very hard to admit, in front of the bathroom mirror, thumbs at my temples, pulling my facial skin into a slight smoothness, to see what I might look like if Dr. _____ did a little extra something-something while I was under the knife one last time to correct thing number one and thing number two, which by the way at present have the unfortunate look of an older Pontiac with those sort of closing-flap headlights they used to make, one flap stuck half up in a sorry wink.

Art, cosmetics, books.

Not sure what they were thinking with the art and books, but the cosmetic part, no, yes, no, I know I should say yes, but no, really, no, please don’t burn the cosmetics. Never mind a possible future of being hung in front of the townspeople or burned at the stake, I’ll jump, arms out over the flames, in an attempt to keep whatever precious vial passed as a cosmetic in 1494.

There are rejuvenation spas, and mini neck lifts, and chemical peels, and God bless you Botox (and nope, if you’re wondering, but someday?).

Estrogen has been called the fountain of youth. Every day I take a cancer pill that depletes my body of estrogen. Every nook and cranny where I imagine cappuccino size dregs of the scared little hormone might be hiding. Forget Menopause, all the estrogen. All of the fountain of youth has dried up like a hard cement well and I’m, okay, kind of scared. It’s a sick thing that losing my younger looking face is my greatest fear and not the cancer returning. What is the matter with me? And it might come back. It really could. But I might be ugly. And that’s really something. What the heck?

I always wanted to be one of those super confident women who grow their hair long and grey and compost and tend their vegetable garden, go inside, and write a few poems before lunch. But, alas, I am a vain, vain, woman. In 1494 I would have been burned at the stake.

And, seriously, I have been walking with God some 30 years. I thought these things were taken care of. In college, at the tender age of 19, I changed my route and began focusing on things that really mattered like, say, eternal life and love and my father in Heaven who will one day introduce me to real beauty. However, beneath all of these lovely things was a deep murmur of insecurity that would peak up above the water like an ice burg. There was a huge mass of self-doubt underneath the sea of my young life that took the form of a bad hair day or a half-gallon of ice cream already in my stomach so it was too late to do anything about it. Everything looked pretty cool on the surface. All that estrogen and Sun In and those awesome Levis 501 jeans . . .  

But now. Smearing CVS products on my face every night doesn’t work, and outwardly—as far as talents that would make up for the aging me—I can feel like there isn’t much. I can’t sing like Nora Jones and have a proclivity to barfing strings of nonsense words whenever I find myself nervous, and on occasion cups will randomly fly out of my hands like a poltergeist. This was very cute when I was 19. It is not cute at 51.

But here we go. And this is a very true thing. God’s aware of insecure me and he’s right here and I’m his child and what child, especially to their father, is not beautiful? It’s a matter of paying attention, I think. Of not doing the idol thing. I have a foundation, if you’ll allow me, that’s not on my face and I would have said I had this wrapped up years ago, but apparently not, and as my pretty, tan body on the high dive recedes further and further into the past, I’m earnestly, and with all hope, beginning to finally, really, count on my loving God to unveil my true beauty.

It can feel like those many moments in the gospels where Jesus—almost oddly—says “I tell you the truth” over and over like he knows beforehand we’ll keep forgetting something important he told us years ago and begin again to try to obtain some kind of beauty from a Target mirror instead of from him.

2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit.”

I will one day be beautiful and it will have nothing to do with the tightness or youthfulness of my physical face and everything to do with my reflection of him, my God, my Father, my savior.

All praise to the great healer of my soul and my body. I am his bride and he will have the most beautiful bride.

So I’m glad, in the end, for my estrogen-less body and all that comes with it. It’s such a polarity that much of my beauty in Heaven depends, at least for me, on my fading physical beauty. The less attractive I become in the world, the more attractive I become in his eyes, because in cutting off my estrogen he is cutting off my idol. He is pruning me and even though I might have to wait a bit, it’s worth it because I’ll just be so freaking pretty.

 

 

What If I Actually Saw God?

If a welder forgets to pull down the lens of his helmet before welding joints on the steel of a bridge or skyscraper or what have you, he can develop ‘arc eye,’ a condition caused by glimpsing intense sparks of light as he works. It’s a really crappy thing to get; pain like sand has been rubbed in the cornea. The welder lies in bed that night closing and opening his eyes. Everything is pink, he closes them again. There are remedies that have been passed on through the years: sliced potatoes on the eyes, pouring milk on them, eye drops. In the end they have to wait it out.    

 In the Bible God never actually, really, appears right in front of anyone. I suppose the closest anyone gets to seeing him is when Moses is allowed a glance at his back. Other than that he’s in a cloud, or smoke, fire, wind, stuff like that.

It’s considerate of him to turn his back on us—if we actually saw his face there’d probably be some kind of pop and sizzle and we’d be finished. He’s too big, too staggeringly magnificent. Watch a Nova show on relativity and the cosmos and think about God and it will blow your mind. One night, after watching a Nova milky way-universe-black hole-scientists with enormous telescopes and computers show, I couldn’t sleep. I was out of my wits scared. We’re insects, beasties, skinny dweebs compared to him. It’s a crazy thing that he loves us.  

A couple days ago I was reading about one of those times in scripture when he gets alarmingly close to showing up and it made me think about an egg. Of all things. Annie Proulx, (she’s a writer I used to read a lot because she has a wonderful eye, very descriptive. In one of her books she describes a person’s remains (I know) that were in a suitcase (I know again) that had been floating in the ocean and then washed up on the shore and she describes it as “gelatinous.”) She also describes the headlights of a car in the middle of the night as looking like “eggs.”

To be honest I thought headlights in the middle of the night looking like eggs was a little much, but I got her point, the key factor being that the eggs had to be cracked into a pan. Yellow yolk in the middle and then the hallo of white. So yes, I’ll give her that; there’s the headlight itself that you can barely look at it’s so bright, and then the white luminesce around it that visually thins out like the irregular edges of the white of an egg.  

But God showing up. I was reading about The Transfiguration in Matthew 17 when Jesus becomes so bright it’s hard to even look at him. He takes Peter, James, John and his brother up a high mountain—and that alone has some kind of story behind it that we’ll never know but could have fun imagining; did it take days to get up there so they had to camp on the way? Only an hour or so to the top but climbing over rocks so they were still breathing heavy when Jesus changes before them? Hungry? Tired? Scared? Bored? Regardless:

“ . . . his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Moses and Elijah were there too, but let’s ignore them. They were there. Okay. So what. I have no idea.

If Jesus’ face shone like the sun then he was impossible to look at. Light is wonderfully crazy that way.

My egg image is entirely inefficient and falls apart when compared to The Transfiguration, but there was Proulx’s image of headlights (somewhat similar) and then her liking them to eggs (entirely deficient). My mind betrays me. Pardon. Deep-six the thought.

At this point Peter begins a monologue that rivals your aunt or uncle at Christmas. He starts talking nonsense, about tiny houses and whatnot, until he is interrupted. By God.

“He was still speaking when behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’”

And this is when everyone freaks out. They are terrified by the Word of God more than the light of Jesus. They fall on their faces like their knees had turned to water. Jesus transfigured was enough to bring Peter to a boil of soliloquy nonsense, but it didn’t scare him into a mess on the ground. They were hearing the word of God. He, the God of exploding stars and nebula, was communicating to them straightaway and what could they do but try to hide themselves?  And then:

“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”

Eggs aside, I can picture Jesus, my Christ, resting his hand on my shoulder so that I am reminded of his love and able to once again lift my eyes to see my Lord and my God.

Nova, with the power of today’s telescopes hints at how vast our God is, how powerfully magnificent beyond our understanding, to the point that my thoughts of him can keep me up at night. But Jesus is God, Jesus who touches me on my shoulder and shows me that God is not so far away after all, and that someday my legs won’t turn to water when I see him. My ears will hear his voice and I will be changed.

 

 

The Festival I Thought Would Be Different Than it Was But I'm Glad it Was What it Was

I’m used to the flat roads in the Midwest, as strait as the sight-lines of rifles. I grew up there: Costco, CVS, Comfort Inn, Oil Lube. The roads are ribbons of cement disappearing into the horizon like they’re making their way fully around the earth: Canada, Russia, Mongolia, China, each franchise accommodating the language; Yangzha Huandao (KFC), and then circling back to America. I don’t like roads like this, but with the ease of large, earth moving machinery, cities and towns have managed the flat Midwest into sanctums of greenery and hill. Plant a couple dozen trees, build a handful of architecturally interesting buildings, add a few curved walkways in between, and whoop, you have a mild scent of gardens and streams. A man made Middle America sanctum is now an institution, a conservatoire, an academy. Let the learning begin.

And so I headed west: to the great Festival of Writing—moleskine in hand—to sit at the feet of greats. Pulitzers and Whiting Awards. Authors who make my skin tingle and my bottom lip sag . I will be, almost, one day, perhaps, a kin to them; I think this in my most solipsistic moments. I will offer them coffee and scones and we will open beautiful books together, we will talk of Bellow and Cheever and Flannery, our first name friend, because she is gorgeous and she is humble and we love her like we love ourselves.

But my bag didn’t arrive with my plane.

This is unfortunate. The plane was small and my bag was big (I know, shut up. It was important I look my best.), which as far as I know was tossed into the hull of the plane but wasn’t. Yes, unfortunate. Very. Lost luggage meant lost medicine meant lost me.

Oh and I was. I tracked my bag (medicine) through the night. Philadelphia, Charlotte, perhaps Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia (yes, Philadelphia again). Rick said fly home. I thought CVS might have pity on me. I ended the long night lying in a booth in a darkened restaurant of the hotel weeping into my phone. But I have to have them, it’s a medical emergency . . .

In the end, CVS did take pity on me, I scored a couple of meds, which left me lacking only one. I was a bit unstable, a bit dizzy, but that wouldn’t be much of a bother. I showered, left my room, and headed down the hall half sliding against the wall like a cat back-scratching itself on a couch. But I was fine, really, I was fine.

My brain, I thought, was perfectly okay, however was not. I decided, before I really decided, to approach the editor of editors, the man of the blessed and praised journal I had yet to be published in but someday with prayer and petition might be. I stuck out my hand and said, “I love you.” I said this. My mouth before my brain. I handed him my business card, which I had printed with one of my oil nudes on it, thinking at the time that it would be artsy and all that nonsense. I turned to leave, I had said I love you!, and dropped every pamphlet, card, and paper I was holding. They flew out of my hands. I had nothing to do with this, they flew like the words from my mouth did, spitting white brochures and fliers in my cognitive fog across the carpeted floor. I had no control. I was no longer me. Did he mumble to his assistant as I walked away, “you meet all types at these conferences . . . “? This might be true. It really could be. I have no idea.

I ate a granola bar that was a chocolate bar in disguise. It made me feel a little bit better, but then The Event.

When you go to a parking lot you usually need to step off a curb. It’s possible as well to fall off it. Or sort of skid off, trip—no that’s too mild. Dive. I would say that’s the correct word. You can dive off a curb if you want to, or even if you really, actually, have no desire whatsoever to, you can dive anyway: asphalt met my fingers in an awkward bend, then knee, shoulder, and thank you Lord for sparing my head. Already enough damage there.

After The Event my fingers swelled like a white Mickey glove. It felt like I was wearing an enormous, foam “we’re # 1” finger at a football game. If I had tapped someone on the shoulder they would have startled like Janet Leah washing her hair in the shower of the Bates Motel.

I resisted the urge to sign my name to email lists and whatnot because it would necessitate pulling out my hot dog fingers, focusing on the paper, and concentrating like I was wiring some kind of bomb. It seemed a pointless thing to be there. My hand hurt and I’d already missed the first day.

So I didn’t, in light of The Event, see Zadie Smith, or Paul Harding, or Tobias Wolff, or any of the greats. Many of my writer friends might see this as a travesty but it the end it wasn’t. I gave up on the conference and spent two days on the grassy man made berms and lovely curved sidewalks of the celebrated Festival of Writing praying a little bit and getting to know people and even writing. Thank you hot dog fingers, and night in the hotel lobby, and American Airlines operated by American Eagle. Oh sweet lost luggage and pebbled asphalt. You thought you won but I did.

Sometimes I think our temperature, our Jesus Love, is like an enormous curve that follows our soul and heart and strength, like America’s wide avenues on roads of heat and skid. Just down the road another mile or two maybe you’ll finally get to Costco or Marshalls or whatever. It’s like the ships when ships creaked with their ropes and wood and the people stared long at the horizon. Today there are the yellow lines that shoot forward and it can feel like bullets pinging in your ears.  

And then off to the side, just over the grassy hill, are the curved sidewalks. Turning your head to see the beautiful stuff just as Payless is whizzing by is hard, but if you think about it the shoes aren’t real anyway. Some kind of rubber and glue. We look down the road and grab things as we drive and head toward the horizon but it disappears, always. We circle the globe and then try again.

But over the rise the trees are beginning to flower. The hill and slope of grass and the sidewalks and architectural lovelies can become a place where you actually, really, learn if you pay attention. The burden of tires spinning on asphalt fades as you sit on a bench and write in your moleskine and think about how funny it is that you just made a fool of yourself like ten times in a row. You can laugh with God your Father and he’ll laugh with you—you’ll both laugh while Zadie Smith is inside a concrete building reading from one of her recent books, maybe the one called On Beauty, her beautiful dark face and glorious words silent to you in the garden, but like so many other things, it's okay.

 

Abraham, Isaac, Fire, and Love

We have longings for things not known to man. The things we see and smell fade out when we allow ourselves the cursory glance toward what is inconceivable, beyond our wildest dreams and wildest fears.

God called a father to face a longing he didn’t want and couldn’t see when he said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering . . .”

This craziness is a real thing. It’s in the Bible. Genesis 22.

Whenever some sweet soul has asked me what the deal is, what kind of a God would say something like this, I’ve artfully feigned ignorance, looked out the window, put an expression on my face hinting that the passage is really, well, according to Biblical Scholars um . . . I look the other way, try again; well, it’s not that important, particularly, and there was the context of the thing, like, you know, their culture was different, and it wasn’t that we know, Abraham, was a, faith, and then of course, and God wasn’t so concerned, because, Mt Moriah, and then Isaac, well, we know now that, and there’s a passage, the passage in, well, love, right and, can I interest you in another chocolate chip cookie?”

Genesis 22 is out of this world intense, and us Christians tend to avoid it. We tiptoe around the whole scene like it’s not something we’re really supposed to pay much attention to, like so many impossible to pronounce biblical names, and yet in light of the heartache the passage produces, if we dare to read each sentence like it happened—really happened—it becomes clear that it’s there for a reason, and perhaps the very reason it’s there is to make us feel just that; heartache. 

“Abraham bound his son, his only son, and ‘went up to a mountain.’”

Yes, God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac up Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering. We are allowed access to almost everything. Abraham gives Isaac the wood to carry, and takes the fire and the knife and leads his son up the mountain. And then this:

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.”

This is a difficult thing to read. And while we see Abraham’s faith in his response, we also understand that if God doesn’t come through for him he is fully prepared to sacrifice his only son on an altar.

But here’s the thing, and this is something I just thought about recently; even though God commands Abraham to do this, he seems even more sorrowful and heartbroken than Abraham does. What caught my attention as I was reading it is that each time God refers to Abraham’s son, he doesn’t stop at “your son,” he goes on to say, “your only son.” “Take your son, your only son.”

There is a unique sorrow God seems to feel when he tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, as though it is his own son. It’s mournful the way God says over and over “your only son.” Abraham doesn’t say this, God says this. He seems to be experiencing the day ahead, when he will essentially say “my son, my only son” as he sends Jesus to the cross. The heartache. The heartache God must have felt watching his beloved Abraham lead his son up Mount Moriah. The heartache God must have felt watching his son, his only son Jesus, led to the cross.

Abraham raises the knife, even still trusting God, if not to stop the knife, then to raise Isaac from the dead. Then God does stop him. As though a mighty hand grabs Abraham’s wrist mid-plunge, the act is halted and a ram appears. God’s only son appears in the form of a ram. Isaac is saved and Abraham is saved from heartache.

How can a God who would do this be a horrible God? Read it again. See love not hate. It is incomprehensible, this love.

Jesus did a mighty thing when he went to the cross. “My Father!” he said, then his hands were pierced and he hung naked before the world.

“Here I am, my son.” And his father mourned.

 

 

on My trip to the UPenn Psychiatric Behavioral Science Facility

The elevators at the Upenn Psychiatric Behavior Science Facility are very strange (yes, I can write about depression forever unless I am depressed, during which time I lay in bed forgetting everything except sometimes the dog’s name and who is winning the republican primaries).

The waiting room is always full and always appears to have people who appear to have been shoveled off the streets of Philadelphia and into the room with the torn flyers and pamphlets advertising such things as yoga that the people shoveled off the streets have never done or considered doing.

It is very important for me not to mumble when I’m in the waiting room, having finally figured out the elevators after traveling up and down via some invisible pullies and weights in an elevator shaft inside the building of Upenn’s Psychiatric Behavior Science Facility for a good 15 minutes so that I began to sweat about missing my appointment and thus missing my meds and thus having to go down the white halls to the rubber room that I imagine still exists like the Clockwork Orange movie I saw when I was 22.

So I don't mumble because I am not crazy like the people shoveled off the sidewalk even though I am late and couldn't figure out the elevators. I enunciate my words carefully and throw in a few extra complicated words that I’m not even sure I know the meaning of but I am pretty sure the receptionist doesn’t know the meaning of either so it doesn’t matter anyway. I believe I have an appointment with Dr. Christanchio for the purpose of descrying my future situation, and my co-pay is…

 I am an intelligent depressed person so I don’t mumble.

But the elevators. You push one button and … 

Along with the people shoveled off the streets of Philadelphia, there are a few people wearing white coats. The very smart people. They work at Upenn’s Psychiatric Behavioral Science Facility and I would like to have one of those white coats. I would like to have one so much that I consider for a moment finding one hanging on the back of an office door and stealing it. I think about this for one very, very short moment until I experience a flash of anxiety because it occurs to me that the thought might have come, not from my own brain, but from a voice that is other than me which would mean that when the psychiatrist asks, because he always does, if I ever hear voices telling me this or that, I will need to fess up that yes, on occasion I do. And then would come the white hall and the rubber room.

But the elevators. There is a lit up screen. It has the numbers of every floor in the building and when you push one of the buttons an arrow appears that directs you to the correct elevator that takes you to the correct floor of UPenns Psychiatric Behavioral Science Facility. In the bank of 8 elevators, each elevator is designated for a floor, so that it doesn’t stop on any other floor except the one that the arrow directs you to. I am supposed to go to floor 4.

This is unfortunate.

There are 12 floors in the building and I notice that all of the people in the white coats are pushing the button for the 10th floor. There exists in front of the screen for the 4th floor a cluster of people who have been shoveled from the streets of Philadelphia. They take turns pushing the button for the 4th floor. I do not want to push that button and be like the shoveled people. I do not want to mumble. I push the button for the 6th floor instead. I will go to the 6th floor and then take that elevator down to the 4th floor so that no one will see me when I arrive at the receptionist area where the shoveled people sit mumbling.

I imagine the 6th floor is for the really smart people and contains rooms with rats with electrodes embedded in their skulls and important people with lab coats peering into cages and writing numbers on spread sheets and then going to computers with reams of paper and abstracts of previous studies that are informing the studies being pursued on floor 6.

I used to peer into cages with rats and electrodes too. I used to write abstracts about longitudinal studies of patients with schizophrenia. Once I wrote a paper titled Backward Masking in Patients With Schizophrenia. I had a spreadsheet and waited in a room for the patients and then had them sit in front of an instrument called a tachistoscope and tell me what they saw. The patients mumbled. They were shoveled off the streets of Queens in New York City.

The place where I did the experiments is now one of those places where kids go Urban Exploring and post photos of their explorations on Instagram. Back then, if I wandered down the wrong hallway there were shower stalls where they hosed down patients and dressed them in elastic clothes with no ties and put them in rooms with gray paint halfway up the walls. Now those hallways have pigeon crap and upside down chairs and peeling lead paint. I wonder if the patients ate the lead paint and then heard voices coming from closets and under beds and out of pieces of toilet paper, or if they heard the voices before they were shoveled off of the streets of Queens into Creedmoor State Psychiatric Institute.

Clockwork Orange.

When I get to the 4th floor there are people there who probably know what the word descrying means, which I find comforting, although they likely did not take the elevator to the 6th floor and then try to get to the 4th floor and realize they couldn’t do that so they went back to the mezzanine level and pushed the button for the 4th floor anyway. They are probably secure and confident and feel no need to do this. I like them but I have no right talking to them or sitting next to them. I also don’t belong with the shoveled people. I hover in the middle somewhere.

I wish again that I had a white coat.

I go down the long hall to my psychiatrist’s office and he looks at his computer and writes my prescriptions and I leave and go back down the long hall. I push the button for the mezzanine level and pull out my iphone and text my friend about her really good soup and try not to look at the other people in the elevator and keep looking at my phone and the elevator stops and I make my way out the revolving doors of the Upenn Psychiatric Behavioral Science Facility and onto the sidewalk with all of the people going wherever they’re going.


The Face of Depression

 Arthur Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud

I don’t know how I got the scratch, but it’s suspiciously on my wrist. No feeble attempt to off myself here. It’s just a strange scratch. Probably from our dog. But yesterday when I had to get some blood work done, and pulled up my sleeve for the phlebotomist, there it was and we both sort of winced.

I could have put a band aid over it but that would have been even more suspicious.

The problem is, and what was both alarming and embarrassing, is that the ordering doctor was a psychiatrist, and the sweet girl with her needle, and tubes with their rubber corks, and elastic band to make my veins bulge, could see that right there on the forms I gave to her. Psychiatrist. Then she saw the scratch on my wrist. So.

I tried my best to act normal and un-depressed. She tried her best to act cheery. We were quite the team, both of us reacting to the short line of scab, feigning in our own ways a different scenario, where my blood would be spun in a centrifuge for the purpose of tabbing my cholesterol, and not whatever brain chemicals a psychiatrist wants to know about. Norepinephrine, seratonin, dopamine. Plutonium for all I care, just add some fuel to my brain so that I can see again.

J.K. Rowling said, “Sad hurts but it's a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”

There are a lot of cool people who have had depression. Maybe you’re one of them. The coolest ones are Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, J.K. Rowling, James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace, and of course Spurgeon because for him it ended well – better than well, because he took his depression, flipped it over, and forced it into some kind of love for his savior and his God. I would like to be like him. I would like to write like David Foster Wallace but I would like to be as godly as Spurgeon. But I imagine they’re probably mutually exclusive.

I’m not godly like Spurgeon, but someday maybe I will be. I kind of hope so. But if it means I have to be depressed and take a ream of paper to the phlebotomist with words like major depressive disorder, mood disturbance, and bi-polar spectrum, and then try to act perfectly normal and watch her act overly cheery on my behalf, maybe I’d rather just be someone placid and optimistic, as happy as Mr. Rogers watching toy trains with puppets in them go through tunnels. 

And speaking of tunnels. Right. There’s a reason they’ve been the go-to metaphor for decades. There is a light but it’s so scary when you can’t see it. Of course you have to trust that’s it’s there and everyone keeps telling you it’s there but you can’t even see the people, who are your friends and care about you, and how much longer is the ride because you are the puppet and it’s not very freaking fun.

I changed my mind. I don’t want to be like David Foster Wallace.

There are a lot of cool people who are not depressed. Maybe you’re one of them. Do not fall for the lie that creative people are depressive people, cursed with some mysterious power. If there’s a link it’s a chicken and egg thing. If you spend long hours thinking of how the earth turns and the people walk on it like bugs you’re bound to experience some form of craziness.

And my cancer has nothing to do with my poor mental health. This is no new malady I have. It’s as familiar as bread, and qualifies me for research studies and longitudinal analysis and every once and a while a whiny poem if find I can lift a pen. The suicidal poet, Sylvia Plath, said her depression felt like she was in a bell jar, like a glass jar had been placed over her so that everything around her was muffled and unable to be heard or felt. A lack of reality. I just say I’m in a bubble. Not as poetic, but gets the point across.

I know I’m an over-sharer but it just never bothers me to be one. My depression is just as easy to write about as my cancer, and while yesterday, my Lord, I felt a pressure like the salty ocean was pressing down on top of me, today I can breathe again.

It’s snowing right now.

Coming down fast, and I can see it and even feel it. Thank you people who prayed for me. God is answering.

When you take communion—when you take the wine—you have to tilt your head back so that, for one small moment, you find yourself looking up to the Heavens. The cup is what Jesus didn’t want to take and I don’t really want to take it either in whatever form I find it in, but it helps to think about Jesus in Gethsemane sweating blood because when the ocean’s on top of me, and the glass jar has been lowered, it helps to think about my first love, the one who knows me, and that even though he didn’t want to, he tilted his head back and drank the wine, so I can to. And it will be good. That cup of wine and that tilting of my head will lead to very good things.

Here’s a poem by Sylvia Plath. Read it, be well fed, it’s brilliant. Then toss it in the garbage for me, okay?

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I Touched Death and then it Flew Away

Funerals are a breeding ground for platitudes. More than a few have snuck out of my own mouth: “Well, he’s in a better place . . . ” oh crap, I just said something stupid and insincere, must switch direction quickly “ . . . Well, there’s a lot of people who are waiting to conjole you . . .” oh, crap again, did I just say the word ‘conjole’? what does that word even mean? It means nothing because it’s not even a word . . .  And after barfing out my string of nonsense words I want to go and knock my forehead against the narthex door. I am full of platitudes and insincerity and it would have been better if I had just stayed home.

But it’s not about me. This past week I attended two funerals. The first one was for Rick’s dad, my father-in-law, Pop pop, Thomas Alan James in the obituary, the man who didn’t like the way I fed my kids and thought I should have our family photographed by Olin Mills once a year at Christmas and bought every electronic possibility when our kids were way too young and couldn’t stop telling us we needed to have our chimney cleaned or our house would go up in flames.

I loved him very much.

He spent the last two weeks of his life in hospice, dead to the world yet breathing and warm. His body had become emaciated and white, and yet he kept breathing. Every day seemed like his last but still he held on. Late in life he had become a Christian and he didn’t seem to fear death, so it was hard to understand this clinging he was doing, this half-life he held onto.

I was the last one to see him alive. I spent the day with him in hospice to give Rick a break. I sat at the edge of his bed and held his hand and found myself crying, sometimes weeping, for this unexpected father God had given me. His face was turned toward me and his mouth hung open. For some reason, one of his eyes was half open but he didn’t appear to see. I talked to him a lot because the people at the hospice said that before they die people can still hear and hearing is the last thing to go, although this made no sense to me because none of the hospice people had ever died so how in God’s good name did they know this?

I didn’t believe them. I thought maybe he could still see out of that one half open eye, so I leaned over the bed and tried to put my face in his line of vision. I told him how much I loved him. I cried. Snot poured from my nose, which of course for a woman and maybe a few very secure men, is a sign of real crying. I hoped he could see—or hear—me crying because then he would know how much he meant to me.

We disagreed about a lot of things but he let me know that I was special to him and his love for me was real. The day after I spent with him, he died. I was sad, but I was thankful for my last day with him, which was a beautiful thing. I like to think he held on so we could hang out together although I’m not so sure that’s true. At any rate, God gave me that time with him and God is the one who decides the timing of such things, so that’s cool.

The second funeral I went to was for the husband of a dear friend of mine. It took me a while to get there because it was held in a beautiful white church in the country. The church was very old, and had those wavy glass panes in the windows that went practically all the way to the ceiling. It had pews with little wooden half doors that you had to open to sit down. There were a few lighted candles up front, and as the priest said his sweet homily I stared out the window at sloping fields with faint tree lines. It was a cold, sunny day, and through the old, wavy pains I could see for miles. There wasn’t a building in sight.

His casket was beautiful if that’s okay to say. It was a simple, Shaker-like wood box and was absent of bling, like if you were buried in it you were making the point that the earth was a temporary thing and nothing went with you. Kind of the opposite of those Egyptian kings with their pyramids and gold. Having known my friend’s husband, I was sure that he had chosen it if not made it himself. It was a beautiful, beautiful funeral, nicer and simpler than a hipster wedding and far more meaningful.

After the service, we followed the casket out into the sunshine and a small graveyard next to the church with centuries old gravestones. I had to force myself not to stop and look at them. Worn old half broken ones that folded life in half and made reality clear and concise and truth like something I could touch.

And a week earlier I had touched death, or at least touched approaching death, where the throat gets all gravely. Death rattle, they used to call it, but like to pretend doesn’t exist in our clean swept, Apple 6 iphone, 21st Century. It exists on our TV’s but that doesn’t really apply to us, that’s just about gore and our morbid curiosity.

Death is a super-real thing, and I think that God wanted me to come close to it when I sat with my father-in-law, and honestly, if it wouldn’t have been so weird, would probably have crawled up onto his bed to be close to him before he died.

These last two weeks, as the palm of death quickly left my periphery and moved two inches from my face, the strange but very, very, cool thing is that what I’ve really seen is God’s goodness: his joy in allowing me to spend the last day of my father-in-law’s life with him so I could grasp how much I really did love him and vise versa, the joy of beauty, of a beautiful white church in the country with it’s old gravestones extoling the security of those who knew him.

But the darkness of it. The worldly, undeterred, pharaoh like bling that—ironically—makes us want to fight it tooth and nail, flies away when Jesus Christ is present.

At the second funeral, when we were standing in the cold, waiting for the simple, beautiful wood casket to be lowered into the ground, I looked across the field and saw a stag, mighty horns and magnificent chest. It just stood there, and then it leapt across the field in long strides and disappeared. The whole scene could have felt like a bad poster, the way sunsets and rainbows have been dumbed down to meaningless crap. But the stag was put there by God, and if it’s from God it’s not a platitude.

 

   

I have nipples now. Yay.

Got me some nipples now. Yay.

The lack of an exclamation point here is intentional. My last (I hope) surgery was Monday and from the looks of my body they treated me something like a steak on the operating table. It’s like they flipped me over and pressed certain fatty areas for doneness, smeared a little BBQ sauce in the form of that orange disinfectant that medical personnel of all types like to believe keeps every e-coli or boli at bay, and then dabbed at the bloody spots with napkins, I mean gauze. I have bruises and stitches as complicated as the Middle East.

Sorry if I’ve grossed you out. Not sorry. I’m venting. I have no doubt that when everything’s said and done, I will look, if not like Angelina Jolie (who was her surgeon anyway?), at least better than I did at the start of this detour into freaking Lady Macbeth’s Netherworld.  

As they were prepping me for surgery, I tried to make small talk. Something I’ve found myself doing a lot. I don’t know why, maybe because I think it will endear myself to the doctors and this will make them all the more careful and precise when I’m under the knife. I’ll be a real personality, like a cousin or a co-worker, as though the threat of a lawsuit isn’t enough. In my latest attempt, I knew Dr.______ was an Eagles fan, and even though I knew they had lost the night before, I thought it might be just the sort of connection that would move me up a notch into the realm of person not thing. I don’t watch football and in truth don’t know the difference between a tight end and a wide receiver, so I said what surely, had to impart, a safe, football-ish alliance, something that must have happened at some point in the game; I said, “Did you see that catch?”

He didn’t smile. Crap. Of course, there was a fifty percent chance the other team had had a phenomenally good catch. It had been a risky thing to say and from the looks of Dr._____’s face, I lost. Before I could add a disclaimer, I mean it was obviously a bad call, a nurse was pressing some half-loopy mix into my vein and it was too late to correct myself. As I began to fade I went for the last option and mouphed a floggy pform of the owny phing I could phing of, lawphoot, lawphoot, and… I’m out.

The reason it’s not only the two quarter sized areas on my chest that have been traumatized is that Dr. _____ needed to fix a few things. (Honestly, he’s a good guy.) Plastic surgeons by nature are perfectionists and I guess that’s a good thing. This entailed taking a bit of fat from where fat tends to accumulate and placing it where it doesn’t tend to accumulate and surgeons do that with, basically, turkey basters. Turkey basters attached to electronic sucking machines that leave bruises the size of braided challa bread wrapped around your torso, and it’s really weird that I used that example because I’m not Jewish. Sorry, I’m grossing you out again.

So yes, I am approximately ½ inch thinner below and ½ inch fatter above, and before any of you prone to vanity (I realize that’s everyone reading this) experience even a spark of jealousy, I assure you, if I were to take off my clothes—which I won’t, I promise—your jealousy would dissipate into pity in a matter of seconds.

My oncologist told me I’m supposed to feel for lumps under my arms.

And she wants my blood work done every few months to make sure there’s nothing in my bones.

And MRI’s for the same reason.

And I could get a blood clot, or a heart attack, or depression (check. Even as I’m writing this, the monster’s right at my feet).

One of the things about going to the oncologist is that when I get my shot I have to go to the room where patients sit in the big, comfortable chairs as they are fed poisons that decimate cancerous them in hopes of saving personal them. It can make my knees weak to see these people. Not so much because it could be me, but because I imagine their personalities, their names; and the names of their parents or husbands or wives or children.

Yesterday I was thinking about names. Revelation 2:17 says that God will give us a white stone with a new name on it known only to the one who receives it. Jesus renamed a few of his disciples. Simon (shifting sand) became Peter (the rock). It would be such a kick to be renamed by Jesus. All the goodness, even if not realized yet, is prophesized to be by the one who loves us more than life (remember, he gave his own life for us).

I won’t just be Kate. I’ll be Kate the victorious, or Kate the pursuer, or Kate who sees. I don’t know exactly what my name will be, only that it will be. I am not a piece of meat or someone here only to say what I think others want to hear. I am my father in Heaven’s child and he’s oh so carefully chosen exactly what he will call me and it’s different than every other one of his children and it will make me so happy to hear him say it, like he’ll speak it in both a whisper and a shout so that, my God and my King, Abba, Daddy, I am yours and you are mine.   

 

 

What's the real threat?

Rick and I recently watched two documentaries. The first one was narrated by a guy named Roger Scruton, a world renown philosopher who studies aesthetics. After watching it, Rick and I waxed on about art and whether beauty was subjective or not and whether form following function is too utilitarian. We never figured out any answers to these questions but we were quite pleased with ourselves for wondering.

The second documentary we watched was about the rise of ISIS. Not much beauty there. The video began with clips of the now ubiquitous turreted tanks, rocket propelled grenades, and Black Islamic State flags flung around the Middle East in swaths of palpable hate. Five minutes in and our erudite conversation on art seemed a million miles away and very childish.

Sure, God has blessed us with beauty and love and all sorts of earthly things to enjoy and that give us memorable tastes of himself to thank him for. But the reality—and this is what Paul in the New Testament spends most of his time talking about—is that this world is passing away (quickly!), we are to long for a new earth, rejoice in our future glory, and look forward to Christ’s return when he will make all things right.

Breast cancer has helped a bit with this, where death has tiptoed out of my periphery and stands, still pretty harmless, within my sight line. But the reality is that even though cancer kills a lot of people, and even though my cancer is invasive, God made sure it was caught early, and science has learned to obliterate those deformed reproducing cells fairly well. In a word, I don’t expect to die any time soon.

The real “threats” of this world aren’t really threats but opportunities. This is the way I’ve been trying to think of it anyway. ISIS and breast cancer aren’t threats, they’re opportunities to remember the real stuff.

The way I try to see it is that if there’s a real threat that I should be taking seriously, it’s the threat of falling away from my first love, of forgetting the one who saved me, of freaking out when I turn on CNN rather than thanking God that my purpose here, in this ugly world, is a powerful and good one and handed to me by my Father in Heaven, God, who created whatever beauty still surrounds me, and looks me in the eyes and speaks my own personal name and has no need or desire to wave some stupid flag around so I’ll pay attention because his love is so obvious to those who want it, it’s impossible not to notice. 

Peace With Death My Ass

I’ve never understood the saying, ‘peace with death’, I’ve ‘made my peace with death’. Who are these people who make peace with death? First of all, is it even possible? Death being the Grim Reaper, at least that’s how I see it. Horror films, Greek tragedies, sad love stories, they all depend on death being a horrible thing. So this stupid saying, peace with death, by my lights, is not only an anomaly, it’s a lie, and anyone who thinks it’s possible to utter peace and death in the same sentence, as in death = peace, is either deceiving themselves, trying to deceive others, or perhaps in actuality mean ‘peace with saying goodbye,’ which is a topic for another essay, because I’m not so sure that’s possible either.

The human race is at war with death. It has been since recorded history. And while I’m sure there are many deathbed examples where the pain of being alive precludes the fear/finality of death, I think my point still stands.

Every religion that I can think of exists in an effort to fend off death: Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, even atheism, where dying means ceasing to exist (or being frozen beside Walt Disney so you can both be unfrozen sometime around 2070 and resume your respective creative endeavors), Egyptian kings and princes buried in massive tombs who tried to take all their gold stuff with them. There must be a way not to die. Death makes no sense, because what are we if not alive. I think therefore I am. I love therefore I am. I am loved therefore I am. I am loved therefore I am. I am loved therefore I am. I am loved…

From a very young age I was afraid to die, in fact, probably more afraid than most kids: I was afraid of microwaves (cancer), airplanes (failed engines and bolts coming loose), tall buildings (I was pretty sure they could randomly tip over), elevators (duh, the cables could break!), and hot dogs (yes, cancer again and I know, ironic because I now have cancer and have always avoided hot dogs and microwaves).

I have not and never will make peace with death. But then many people seem to have made peace with death; intentionally given themselves over to a greater cause. I think of John the Baptist, St. Stephen, Bonhoeffer, who, spiritually speaking anyway, all appeared to have it together and didn’t seem the tiniest iota afraid of death and darkness and whatnot.

All three of these examples are Christians, and I do realize there are those who have chosen death who aren’t Christians, like Socrates. But very quickly and very un-thoroughly, here are my thoughts on that: perhaps the way they deal with the death thing is to basically skip over it. It doesn’t exist and you just disappear, or it entails virgins and cold craft beer in large refrigerated bins, or unrefrigerated bins if you live in Scotland, or waking up surrounded by gold necklaces and bracelets and maybe a favorite mummified dog.

But Christians skip over the death thing too. And this is why I became a Christian. I think Jesus Christ really conquered death. Obliterated it. He loved me so much that he couldn’t imagine being without me; I am loved therefore I am. He, he, died instead of me. God died instead of me. What the hell? How does that even happen?

I have no idea.

But I’ll try to explain it like a tract would because—don’t judge me—I kind of like tracts. However, first, before I get to the good stuff, let me just say real quick what being a Christian is not:

-It doesn’t mean you go to church

-It doesn’t mean you’re pro-life

-It doesn’t mean you think Putin is the anti-christ (good possibility, but whatever)

-It doesn’t mean you are anti-gay

-It doesn’t mean you dig wells for impoverished villages

 

All of these things may or may not be true of you, or might change with time, but if you’re a Christian, what most certainly is true, is this:

 

1. God loves you and wants you to know him. He has a wonderful plan for your life (not necessarily film star, run marathon stuff, and not always easy, but still, a wonderful plan.) —John 3:17, 17:3.

2. People are sinful. Come on, seriously, people are sinful, or mean, or selfish, even if they try not to be which, all rolled into one, means they’re sinful. —Roman 3:23

3. People are separated from God. God is perfect. People are crappy even if they try not to be crappy. God can't hang out with crap. I always think of it like God is so light – like the sun – so any darkness can’t be near him, darkness can’t exist next to the sun. —Romans 6:23

4. Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through him alone we can know God personally and experience God’s love and plan for us.  —So back to the sun example, since we are dark (sinful) we can’t get close to the sun (God, perfection) so Jesus became a man, only he was perfect, because he was God, and died—a horrible death, I might add, which shows how deeply he loves us—in our place so we could be perfect—not that we’ll be perfect in this life, we won’t, we’ll still be plenty crappy—and be with God. Oh, geeze, It’s actually really simple, I hope I'm not making it sound complicated. — Romans 5:8, 1 Corinthians 15: 3-6, John 14:6.

5. So this wonderful plan, God’s love, all of it, God wants you to know him. Basically, all you have to do is say yes. You can pray and just tell him you want to know him.—Revelation 3:20.

If you want to find out more go here: everystudent.com It’s great, and far more clear than I just made it.

I am loved therefore I am.

Peace with death my ass.

 

 

 

The Trail of Misery

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So you have suicidal ideation? That’s what the doctors ask you. This is to make sure they shouldn’t send you off to some “home” where they take the shoelaces from your shoes and make you color pictures of sunsets and apple trees to make you happy.

Last week I began my day lying on the couch with a small mixing bowl on my chest, guiding mac and cheese to my mouth with a fork. This would not be due to some stroke of pain and lack of luck, where my stomach hurts from meds or my stitches are popping sore. My situation of low morale and willful decline had no reason other than I just didn’t feel like doing much else.

I started to pray. There were so many people who needed prayer. I prayed. I didn’t want to pray. I stopped praying. I stabbed a piece of macaroni with my fork and as I guided it to my mouth it fell and landed on my shirt between my very fake and very stitched up boobs. I stared at the noodle, picked it up, and was about to stick it in my mouth when I thought it might be a good idea to get out of the house.

Valley Forge National Park is all about George Washington. It’s where He kneeled in the snow and prayed, or where we feel good thinking that he kneeled in the snow and prayed. As if our nation was birthed in that moment of pain and longing all coming together with his one knee up like he was ready to take off on a sprint. Perhaps this really was the case; his constitution in the most obvious of ways being more articulated than a woman with a noodle halfway to her mouth.

Pleading, thanking, asking, I don’t know what he was talking to God about as he knelt there in the snow, sword tucked snugly into his breaches or knickers or whatever pants were called in 1777. The dates of colonial America are an utter fog to me but I do know about that winter spent at Valley Forge because there’s a museum. I should have home schooled my kids. It would have taught me all sorts of things I didn’t learn the first time around, like what lingon berries look like, how far we are from the andromeda galaxy, and my multiplication tables.

Now at Valley Forge, with the exception of a few cabins, there are trails. People walk and jog and bike all over the same hills where the American troops starved and froze that winter of 1777.

When I got to the park I looked at the different paths I could take. There were so many. Maybe right here, on this very spot, is where Washington knelt. I walked up one of the paths. Maybe it was here, where he could see the encampment. It was good that the macaroni and cheese fell on my chest. It was very good. And God called it good.

The path forked as paths tend to when you’re in a ruminating mood and trying to work yourself out of a funk. There was a sign with arrows, one pointed left and one right, uphill and into the woods. The one pointing right said The Trail of Misery. That had to be where Washington prayed. Of course. I headed up The Trail of Misery.

As much as I’m all about metaphor, The Trail of Misery isn’t metaphor. It really is miserable. It’s a steep climb with a lot of stones and not much to grab onto. And mosquitos, because they orbit my ears every month of the year except January. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t happy lying on the couch with macaroni on my chest and I wasn’t happy climbing The Trail of Freaking Misery.

And George was a show off, kneeling in plain sight so that someone could paint a picture of him praying and trusting God and all that. I just plain climbed, winded and depressed with mosquitos dive bombing my ears. There’s a place, a restaurant, called The Smith where I took my daughters the last time we were in NYC. Avery ordered pancakes. Eight of them piled on top of one another. This is what I thought about as I climbed the Trail of Misery. I wondered if George Washington wasn’t praying about the war or his troops but about pancakes and how much he wanted some. Or hotcakes. He would have probably called them hotcakes in 1777.

When my daughters and I were in NYC we saw an opera, Turandot. Some people say you’re not supposed to pronounce the T, other people say you are. It seemed a pretentious thing to care either way so I just called in Turandie because I’m like that, which if you think about it, is pretentious. We sat in the very top in the very last row of the MET. They call it the “family” section, which is a thoughtful and unpretentious thing to call it and where it seems pretty okay to wear jeans or whatever. I was wearing heels, so by my lights I was rockin it.

From where we sat the stage was the size of a thumbprint, but if we focused really hard and then turned our heads a tiny bit we could kind of see the costumes before they faded from our peripheral vision. The music, however, traveled the walls and ceiling in golden rivulets and fed the music straight to us, sitting in our jeans and turning our heads this way and that trying to see what was happening. It was beautiful, the music. It sounded like we were sitting right there in the orchestra pit.

Turandot is about a man who loves a woman and only gets her if he can figure out the riddle. He gets three tries. If he doesn’t figure it out he dies (gallows, I assume, but it was hard to tell from the family section). Operas need prodigious amounts of love and death to justify voices flung up to rafters so that we get to hear their beauty and power.

The riddle is a hard one. My riddle is a hard one. I can’t figure out the answer. What’s more, no one’s going to hang me from my head if I don’t get it so why bother?

When I got about halfway up The Trail of Misery, I found an old stone foundation to what had been a large house, actually a mansion. It was big enough to explore inside. There were archways and a stream right through it. I saw some sort of creature dart back into a stone well, probably a rat, but for whatever sanity I had left, I decided it was a squirrel.

From one of the windows I could look down on The Trail of Misery that I had already climbed. I know it would tie a nice bow on this story to say that from the perspective of the window (and what an awesome metaphor that would be!) everything made sense, that I could see God’s hand in all of this, however The Trail of Misery didn’t look any less miserable. I didn’t feel any great sense of accomplishment that I had ‘made it that far’ or ‘going down will be so much easier,’ or any of that nonsense. In fact, leaning out of the window, the trail only looked uglier, muddier, and I didn’t feel much like doing anything, much less picking my way down a muddy trail of rocks and branches. I was depressed, remember. An hour earlier mac-n-cheese wasn’t even hitting that sweet spot because there was no sweet spot and I wasn’t sure there ever would be again.

So, the riddle. I can’t figure it out. Job, in the Old Testament can’t figure it out, and his friends, try as the do, most certainly can’t figure it out for him.

That day lying on my couch dropping noodles on my chest did accomplish something though. Strangely, it wasn’t a beautiful vision of a meadow while leaning out a window, or wow, you’ve come so far, just keep fighting and it will all come together. Instead, today, this very day, without knowing the future I am just a little bit like Job. A tiny bit. Not a real Job where everything, absolutely everything, is taken from him, but some sort of jobishiness. Small ‘J’ with the squishiness at the end. And it brings me hope.

My difficulties have been more than breast cancer, much more, but I still think I only qualify for the lower case jobishness. Job with a capital ‘J’ is common in other parts of the world. I don’t think that I could handle that big ‘J’. But if I found myself there I would have to I suppose. Nothing would change about my God.

Nothing would change about the one I deeply love who deeply loves me. My whole house could get caught up in a tornado, my family could die, and I could be forced to eat lima beans for the rest of my short life, but my God — the one who allowed this puzzling life — allowed me the need to figure this thing out, gave me the comfort of the real Job and the comfort of the real Jesus, who suffered eons more than Job or jobishness, 

So I will kneel with Washington and pray for more than pancakes and ask for the troops to be fed, but even if not, I will agree with Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,

Nor fruit be on the vines,

The produce of the olive fail

And the fields yield no food,

The flock be cut off from the fold

And there be no herd in the stalls,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord;

I will take joy in the God of my

Salvation.

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.