The Hard-to-See Stitches

I spent the past week alone on Cape Cod as I’ve done every year for the past several years. Long before I left, I had reached the point of burnout and I suppose it was that feeling of having way too much coming at me that prompted me to start up a needlework project in early February. Starting something that I know will easily take me months to finish seemed a little crazy but at the same time pulling a needle through fabric has long been a way for me to find order and calm when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the chaos around me.

As I prepared to leave for the Cape, I made the decision that I would not take any homework or school reading with me. I brought my bible, my journal, a novel and my needlework. I also brought my little Peter Rabbit and that Tale of Peter Rabbit and the Tale of Benjamin Bunny with me. I also made a promise to myself that I would listen to what I was feeling. I would rest when I was tired instead of trying to push myself to go see everything I possibly could in the time I had on the Cape. I knew I desperately needed some downtime, both mentally and physically.

img_6822Much to my delight, the townhouse I had for the week faced due east. I could sit by the sliding glass doors in the early morning sunlight and it was warm enough most days to open the doors in the morning and listen to the flock of blackbirds who lived in the marsh grasses. I spent several hours every morning working on my needlework, using the abundance of natural light to work on the lighter, harder-to-see colors and saving the darker colors for the evenings. By the third morning, I sat down to stitch and needed to work in nearly 100 white stitches, which barely even showed up against the pale ivory fabric. Given that these were the edge stitches between a pale yellow sunbeam and a bit of blank fabric, I pondered whether or not they were really necessary. They were very hard to see and seemed to serve little purpose. But after working over 1200 stitches over the course of the week, I noticed those 100 barely-there hard-to-see white stitches added texture and light in the larger scheme of things.

Sunday afternoon, as I sat by the ocean on a hidden gem of a beach, it occurred to me that maybe the time I spent every morning in my favorite pink hedgehog pajamas, sitting with my feet up, soaking up sunshine and birdsong whilst sipping my tea was just as important as the time I spent doing anything else. What might be considered wasted time actually added texture and light to the rest of life. And those four or five hours a day spent quietly pulling thread through fabric was time spent with mind and body at rest, time when prayer didn’t involve me reminding God of all the things in life that needed fixing. Instead, it was time simply spent in God’s presence. It was precisely that kind of time that I desperately needed.

img_6777Maybe that was what Peter Rabbit showed up to teach me. He sat in the chair opposite me the entire week and was rather pleasant company. I re-read those old stories every night and remembered when life wasn’t so complicated. And by the end of the week, I had realized that maybe it was okay once in awhile to flop down on the sand and rest or to go to bed early with a cup of tea when my own misadventures have me feeling worn out. Peter’s mother wondered what he’d be up to, but she didn’t get upset with him for losing his coat or his shoes. Instead, she took care of him. God certainly wasn’t upset with me for showing up worn out. Instead, God drew closer to me and cared for me as I rested in God’s presence.

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Work in Progress

 

God Will Not Be Distracted

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As the Fall semester was winding down, I spent weeks working on a unique project for one of my classes. I was in an independent study called Theology & Ethics of Death and Dying. At my professor’s suggestion, instead of a typical research paper, I crafted a pair of prayer services. One was written for patients with a chronic or terminal illness. The other was written for their caregivers. In addition, I included a short paper on why these services were important and should be a regular fixture in the ministry of the church.  This project started off in early October as a way combining what I was learning with my passion for invisible people while at the same time channeling my creative side. it quickly became so much more. It became a way of addressing what I was experiencing at home.

I’m the main caretaker for my mom, who has advanced congestive heart failure. Some illnesses progress in a roller-coaster with dramatic upswings and sudden drops. CHF is more like a Slinky falling down a flight of stairs. It may pause for awhile, but it never goes back up. Over the last year or so, I’ve found most people don’t understand the progression of the disease unless they’ve been through it with a family member. Over the past few months, I have politely and gently answered the repeated question: “Is she doing better?”  with an explanation that no major improvement is to be expected. But after months of this, I find myself wanting to scream “Didn’t you hear me the first 30 times I answered you?”  On one hand, I try to remind myself that the person asking cared enough to ask but on the other hand, I have reached a point in life where I’ve realized that it’s the not the people who ask that I count as friends. It’s the ones who listen to the answers. It’s also the ones who follow up with a question on how I’m doing and won’t accept my favorite lie, “I’m fine. ”

Working on this project gave me a way to acknowledge the isolation and inherent loneliness that comes with a chronic or terminal illness. I chose scripture readings that acknowledged loss but also conveyed hope in God who sustains all things. I found hymns that brought me strength and prayers that offered comfort. But even as I assembled and wrote, I realized I was struggling far more than I was willing to admit. The emotional impact of trying to be a a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend, a good employee, a good student, and still maintain enough detachment to be a good caretaker and medical proxy had pushed me to the brink of burnout. Simple everyday things, some days even getting out of bed, became emotionally taxing. Okay – so maybe I was past the brink. But what was I going to do? Everything still needed to get done and some things simply can’t be delegated.

In the midst of this, prayer had become more difficult. In the same way I felt withdrawn or removed from people around me, I also felt withdrawn from God. I simply had nothing to say and quite frankly, I didn’t feel like listening much either. And yet, God was the only one not demanding my time and undivided attention. Our time spent at the beach every morning became the only quiet in my days and yet even there, I couldn’t quite take a deep breath and relax. I showed up anyway because I really didn’t know what else to do.

As Christmas break approached, I had time to read whatever I wanted and I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison. My younger son questioned my choice of reading materials. After several conversations, he finally said to me, “Mom, you’re going to get your head stuck. You need to stop reading shop [theology and/or religion] and read something like normal people read. You can’t be a good theologian if you can’t see with fresh eyes and you can’t see with fresh eyes if you can’t look away.” And so for Christmas, he and his brother bought me a light, fluffy non-religious novel. I’ll have to admit that it helped to crawl into a book for a few days and escape for awhile. I bought another by the same author, which I also burned through in a few short days.

By the time break was coming to a close, I went back to reading Bonhoeffer, but as my 16 year-old predicted, I read with fresh eyes. At the end of particularly long, difficult day, I read the following:

“I’ve learnt here especially that the facts can always be mastered, and that difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf:

With sorrow and with grief…
God will not be distracted.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge
Written from Tegel Prison
Christmas Eve 1943

In that moment, after weeks of feeling disconnected, invisible, and often unheard, I suddenly felt very much understood and embraced. While I had been distracted, God was not. God heard every word I hadn’t said, followed every line of thought I’d not dared bring to completion, knew every feeling I’d pushed away and then, ever so gently, God let me know I was not alone.

I’m back in classes as the Spring semester is in full swing. The demands for my time and attention are no less than they were before. I still find myself feeling detached and removed. But my time with God at the beach in the morning has again become the one time and place that I can take a deep breath and relax, even for a little while and I know that I will be heard, even when I have nothing at all to say.

My Refuge

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Trust.

Ah, the great dreaded T word. I don’t like that word. It makes me twitchy all over, inside and out. Why?

<Sigh>

Trust.

I don’t like the word trust because for me, it’s not just an abstract or a feeling. It’s very real and it has had some very real consequences in my life, not all of them good. It’s not that I don’t trust God because I do … now … most of the time… I think. Okay, honestly, are there people in my life that I trust? Yes. Do I trust God? Yes. But it takes a lot of self-reflection for me to be able to say either one of those things.

I get so hung up on that one stupid word because I have seen it misused and abused, both in word and in action. It’s easier to say I have trust issues or that it takes a damn long time to earn my trust. But that’s the thing about God: God has all the time there is … or ever will be. God has been perfectly content to wait me out. And despite all my mouth, gradually over the last ten years I’ve been moving to a place where, if I’m really honest with myself, I trust God more than I ever believed was possible.

Do you have any idea how hard that was to admit out loud? And yes – I do mean out loud because I talk to myself when I write.

Refuge.

I never really had feelings on the word refuge. It was an abstract idea for me. It made sense on some intellectual level, I suppose. It’s a strange feeling when something you’ve been reading your whole life, something you think you get, suddenly becomes very real and very tangible.

You see, lately, I find myself in a place when I have more roles to fill than I have of me to go around. I’m a parent and a caretaker, an employee and a student, and most days I have to be all of those things simultaneously. Everyone is demanding something from me every waking moment of every day. It’s like I’m juggling knives…except I never learned how to juggle.

I finally hit overload. The stress and fear I’ve experienced over the last few months finally caught up to me. What I refused to grapple with in my waking hours took over my sleep in the form of nightmares. After several weeks of nightmares, it progressed to night terrors. If you’ve never experienced that particular horror, count your blessings. The dream continued even though I was awake. I knew I was awake but I wasn’t sure where I was, what was real and what wasn’t. It wasn’t until I had walked through the entire house, checking on everyone else and finding them all sleeping peacefully, that I was finally able to calm down. I was awake the rest of the night. That’s the kind of night that makes me afraid to ever go to sleep again. I can assure you, that would not have been a good time to ask me if I trust God.

And yet… the following night when I went up to bed, I prayed. I asked for refuge for the night, a safe place to rest. You see what I mean about trust? That’s not the kind of request you make of someone you don’t trust.

Refuge.

An odd choice of wording. But that was what came out of me in that moment.

Refuge.

That word comes up a lot in the bible and, up until the other night, I don’t think I ever really understood it. I mean, I knew what the word meant, obviously. But I don’t think I ever really connected God, who I can’t see or touch, with something quite so solid.

That night, as I slept, I found myself in a yet another dream. Rather than anything scary, this time I was in a big, old building with many rooms, like an old tenement apartment building only beautiful and well-kept. All the doors were closed as I went up the stairs and wandered the hallways. Waiting for me was a room that I had all to myself where I was quiet, alone, and most of all, safe. It’s a decidedly strange thing to lay down and go to sleep in a dream but that is exactly what I did. When I woke up around midnight, I rolled over and went back to sleep and had the same dream, only with a twist. I was back in the same big, old building with it’s many rooms but now all the doors where thrown open. People wandered in and out of rooms and congregated in the hallways and open spaces. People from every walk of life had sought and found refuge here.

I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d finally gotten the rest I so desperately needed. As I sat at the beach that morning, I was a little startled to find myself able to be still. It was the first time in months that I’d been able to sit and be still. When I took the time to write down my dreams, I realized as a I wrote that God wasn’t in the building. God was the building. God was that safe place where I found rest.

God is my refuge.

I know what that means now.

Scary Conversations

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Death and dying. Not the topic most people would choose to spend their Saturday discussing but that is precisely how I spent yesterday. I had the opportunity to attend a conference on palliative care at Sacred Heart University. Attendees including students and working professionals from across several disciplines including doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, and hospital chaplains as well as caretakers and family members from the community. What struck me most was that one of the biggest obstacles to obtaining palliative care for patients is fear. In the medical community, there is fear that referring a patient for palliative care means giving up and that “it’s too soon” – an attitude which often means patients suffer needlessly. For families, there is a fear that the suggestion of palliative care means death is imminent, which is often not the case. While education can dispel the myth that palliative care is the same thing as hospice care (it’s not), I’m not quite so confident that it can easily dispel the fear.

In a breakout group that focused on the spiritual aspect of making end-of-life health care choices, the same theme came up over and over. Families are terrified by the prospect of talking about death, whether it’s at the beginning of a serious decline in health or when death is staring them in the face. In some cases, families will do anything to keep a patient alive, despite knowing that death is inevitable. Some families want to extend life as long as possible,  holding out for a full physical healing miracle to happen. Their prayer can become so frantic that it is less about a relationship with God and more of a magic ritual. In such cases, families cannot seem to accept that the miracle may come in the form of a peaceful death. People who believe so deeply in a God who heals seem to struggle when it comes to believing in a God who is waiting to welcome their loved ones who will be released from their illness through death.

After listening to the war stories told by several of the chaplains and social workers, each one of them questioning how we change a culture that is so hung up on death avoidance, one of the young nursing students spoke up. She said that she’s of Finnish descent and in their culture, death is accepted as a unique part of life. Death is talked about and embraced as part of life from childhood. No one tries to hide from it or avoid it. People talk about their final wishes with family, including young children. She went on to say that her grandmother had called her last year to let her know that she had taken a woodworking class with another family member. The grandmother had designed and built her own casket and she wanted to make sure everyone in the family knew where it was being stored so when the time came, she could be buried in it. This is clearly a lady who is at peace with the reality that she will die one day.

I have to admit, as I listened to that story, the image that popped into my head almost immediately was of the third brother in the Tale of the Three Brothers from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  (If you’ve never seen it you can watch the short clip here.)

The third brother didn’t see death a power to be wielded or as something to be conquered. Rather, he lived his life well, knowing that death was inevitable, and when the time came, he greeted death as an old friend.

If we truly believe in the God we say we believe in, the God of everlasting life, isn’t that the way we should live? Let’s be honest here, death is inevitable for every single one of us. Wouldn’t it make more sense to talk about it? Rather than kicking and fighting death all the way to grave, wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge that death will come? Wouldn’t it simply be sensible to plan for the care we wish to receive to keep us comfortable and to maintain the best quality of life for as long as possible, while knowing that quality of life is not about extending life as long as medically possible. Admittedly, it’s much harder when illness strikes a young person, but knowing that death comes for every single one of us, why are we so afraid to accept it, to embrace it, and to talk about it?

As tends to happen with a really good conference, the questions asked raised more questions to take home and ponder for awhile. The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: How do we change the culture? One point that every professional and every speaker drove home was the same one: We need to start talking about these things. We need to help people understand what end-of-life care looks like before they get to that point. And in order to do that, we need to meet people where they are, which for many is stuck in a fear of death and dying. I think, for many, ultimately the fear of death is not so much a fear of the end of life as it is a fear of what comes next. And for Christians, what comes next is a face-to-face with God.

At the end of the day, I went home and, in classic introvert fashion, changed into pajamas, brewed a good strong cup of tea, and curled up with a new book. Eleven pages in, I came across this:

“I was afraid to make decisions for my life that would lead to greater happiness because I was afraid I’d get it wrong and end up on the wrong end of God’s wrath…

For those of us who get stuck in fear, we reach a point where indecision is no longer a plausible option if we want to truly live. The months and years of running from fear and abdication our full engagement with faith and life have a way of catching up to us. Eventually the walls close in. The trail ends. The sun dips below the horizon. We reach a point where we either have to close our eyes and spend the rest of our lives pretending we’re not dying or we need to embrace a bold authenticity about who we are and what we believe. We need to embrace life itself.”  [Benjamin Corey, Unafraid]

And it struck me that if we’re really going to meet people where they are when it comes to end-of-life care, we need to start talking about fear. Fear of illness. Fear of weakness. Fear of pain. Fear of dying. Fear of death itself. And especially, fear of what comes next. Because as Christians, we say we believe that God is love. And if we truly believe that, and if we truly believe that God walks with us through any illness, pain, suffering, and even dying, then we can trust that God will help us overcome our fear of talking about death. We can help our families to overcome their fears by talking about our own. And if we find that the fears people have are not just fears of dying but of God’s wrath, of hellfire and brimstone, then we need to start talking about that too. Because all of this fear is keeping people from living well and from dying well.

Walls: Inside and Out

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There are popovers in the oven right now. Because somehow the smell of rolls baking is comforting and, to be honest, a hot popover drowned in butter and a hot cup of tea are probably as close as I’ll get to communion today. Yesterday was a tough day. Last night was a long series of disjointed dreams and I woke up just as exhausted as I was when I went to bed. My prayer on opening my eyes this morning was, “You know what God, I am not in the mood the deal with you today.”

Despite that, I drove to the beach as I do every morning to spend an hour or more with God, although it was more out of habit than desire this morning. The remnants of Harvey had waves crashing over the seawall and the air was full of salt spray and misty rain. My boots happened to be in the car and a walk in the storm seemed more fitting than the idea of going to church because being surrounded by love and joy and music and people was way more than I could handle.

It has been something of a theme of 2017 that life is too short, too precious, and too fragile to be wasted on fakery of any sort. We always think we have time and the fact is, we never have as much as we think. Part of my foul mood this morning was that I resented feeling like I needed to get up, be presentable enough and pleasant enough to show up in church to be around people who don’t even really know me. That they don’t know me because I intentionally haven’t put down roots anywhere is a post for another day, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t up to the shallow pleasantries this morning and God knew that.

God knows this black mood of mine quite well. It happens that sometimes that life gets to be more than I can handle and I pretend like I’m completely fine when I’m really not. And that goes really well until I suddenly find myself feeling about as social and lovable as a pissed off hedgehog with a bad attitude. But every time I sink into this toxic sludge of a space, God meets me there. Today was no different. I walked until I ran out of beach, which given the tides and the storm waves, wasn’t much of a walk. But standing with my face in the wind and the waves crashing at my feet, I felt the power and grace of the Creator who is so much bigger than the storm that was raging inside. That was enough to drive the darkness back to tolerable levels of gray.

So as it turns out, it’s not that I don’t feel up to dealing with God today. I didn’t feel up to dealing with church this morning. And that distinction is one I need to get better at making. God was the only one who was going to understand the tangled mess of emotions I was feeling today because even I don’t know what I’m feeling. God knew that too. Maybe what I needed today was outside the church walls because what I needed, more than anything else, was to meet God inside my own walls, in the spaces where no one else is allowed.

Love Is…

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Love is a cup of tea of the front porch.

Love is the hug you didn’t know you needed.

Love is the prayer you didn’t have to ask for.

Love is the laughter at an inside joke.

Love is the text message and the phone call that says, “Are you okay?” and Love stays on the line until you are.

Love is showing up.

It is the steadfastness of an old friend.

Love does not leave you in your darkness. Nor does it abandon you to your imagination.

When you would choose to withdraw from all around you, Love is the breeze that caresses your face and keeps you present.

When you would choose to be alone, it is the bird perched on the windowsill who keeps you company anyway.

Love is understanding. It is compassionate. It is empowering.

Love is healing.

Above all else, God is Love.

Big Ideas

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When I was a kid, my father once told me that I was too damn smart for my own damn good. It wasn’t a bad thing or a good thing really, more of a general observation. It was an observation I didn’t fully understand until my younger son Eugene was about three and gave me a detailed explanation of why God must be blue. God is in heaven. Heaven is in the sky. The sky is blue. We can’t see God, so God must be the same color as the sky. Ergo, God is blue.

I lectured the same child for acting up during Easter Mass when he was five. As I buckled him into his car seat, I gave him the standard lecture about how he was going to sit in his seat and think about what he’d done. He said nothing the whole time I was buckling him in but after I climbed into the driver’s seat, this very self-assured little voice piped up, “You can’t control my mind. Only I control my mind. I can sit back here and think about anything I want.”

At seven, he left me talking to a friend after Mass while he cornered one of the priests to debate of the existence and potential whereabouts of the Holy Grail for the next thirty minutes, much to the delight of a circle of adults who had gathered around to listen. I’ll never forget the seriousness of his little face as he challenged a Jesuit to “Define mythological.”

Over the years Eugene has been insulted that Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter without asking him first. Maybe Simon was named after his grandfather and he really liked his name.  And then Eugene wanted to know what the apostles drank with dinner at the Last Supper because during Mass, the priest very clearly says “AFTER dinner he took the cup…” so what about during dinner? He insisted on having  “all of creation” on his First Communion stole because Noah’s ark was his favorite bible story. When I explained that a Jesus story would be more appropriate and that Jesus wasn’t on the ark, he stared me down and replied, “No, but God was and you can’t have one with the other two.” I gave up. I wasn’t debating Trinitarian doctrine with an eight year-old.

Too damn smart for your own damn good. Oh yeah, I get it now Dad. Boy, do I get it. I have no doubts that my father is on the other side watching this all unfold with a great deal of amusement.

Eugene is now fifteen and he’s as likely to challenge what I’m learning in my theology classes as my professors are. This past week, I was supposed to be reading parts of St. Augustine’s Confessions for homework. But at the same time, I was also reading Henri Nouwen’s Discernment just because it crossed my path and a page or two was enough to pull me in entirely.  Anyone who has ever been in my car can tell you getting into the passenger seat usually means waiting for me to move a notebook, a journal and a book or  maybe three. So my son wasn’t surprised to have to move Discernment out his way when we went out to run errands earlier this week, which resulted in the following conversation:

Eugene: It’s a God book isn’t it? No wait – don’t tell me – it’s a ‘find-yourself-but-in-a-spiritual-way” kind of book.

Me: Yeah kind of. Like who you are in relationship to God and understanding what God wants in your life.

Eugene: Soooo yeah it’s a ‘find-yourself-in-a-spiritual-way’ book. Why are all religion books like that?! I mean why can’t they just be – you know – straightforward. Like the Bible. That’s not a “find yourself” book. That’s more like a history book – but with … with… spice!

Me: Spice???

Eugene: He’s raising people from the dead! I’d call that some spice! And not that stupid Starbucks pumpkin spice stuff either.

This comes on the heels of a conversation earlier in the week on the Greek mythological themes in the new Wonder Woman movie. He told me he couldn’t understand the recent fascination with humans vs. gods movies when the humans always won. “Who wants to worship a god they can beat?”

Nouwen talks about hearing God in the people around us and cultivating spiritual friendships. I have been blessed all my life to have people around me who were comfortable with big questions about life, about truth, and about faith. Usually those people have been friends who are older and wiser than myself. But then, just to mess with me, God also dropped into my life this little bombshell of an old soul in a young body. Sometimes this kid, who is not so little anymore, with his big questions and his own very distinct ideas on God and the world, has more to teach me than anyone else. If nothing else, I have learned that there are times as a parent when my job is to simply shut up and let my son talk through his big ideas and questions and leave it to him and God to figure out the answers.