Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Hello, me. Nice to Meet You


Today is the last day of Indian Summer. Tomorrow, the cold will blow in and stay for four or five months. So I went for a walk. The sky is blue, the sun warm, and the colors of the autumn trees glowing. And I find myself in the most unexpected place: home. 

I shouldn't be surprised. During my entire 50-year adulthood, I have never chosen my own place to live. Not once. Until now. For a long time, I called no place home. There were places I lived happily, some very good places, and people I loved there, and things I learned. But here, this place, this house--it feels like a prolonged hug. Warm, familiar, like I'm tucking myself into the last void in the puzzle. A perfect fit. 

So I walked by the river today and along the way found a store. For the first time since I was  child, I find myself in a real neighborhood rather than a distant suburb or on a country lane framed by punishing hills. But there it was, a real store well within the reach of a comfortable stroll. So I tested it and bought an egg salad sandwich. That's always the test, after all. It passed. The bread was fresh and made with unbleached flour, mayo-ey eggs squeezed out the sides, and the lettuce still had a satisfying crunch at 2 in the afternoon. 

 I sat by the riverside to eat, then, on the way home, reveled in manageable, gravel-less sidewalks, and actual blocks with crosswalks and street signs that announce your arrival.

That's my car in the driveway. Yes, I have a driveway, too, and rather than a metal shed, an actual garage with an opener. I have garbage pickup and, finally, finally, a window on the second floor. I'm there now, looking out and watching a world that's at last the right size. The pine tree in the front yard is swaying in the wind and down below, right under where I'm sitting, October roses resolutely bloom.

It's said that living is like walking a road. If it is, then I've come full circle only to find myself at the end. Who would have imagined? Oh yes. Of course. Thank you, God.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

My Elijah



I never thought of you as a priest before today. My priest. My Elijah.

There are others, of course, several of them. Two Davids and a Norwegian. But never you.

The living with you was clouded by passion, I think. Love and living every day hid that part of you just enough to recede into the background until you were gone. The man of high blood and towering mind was all I could see until, well, until it wasn’t and only the supernatural remained—that, and the sudden understanding today that the priest had been there all along.

Elijah made me see. The prophet, the leader, the seer, the sublimely wise beloved. And the parting.

Come with me here and there, he said. To Jericho, to Bethel, to the Jordan. I am leaving. What do you want of me?

A double portion of your spirit.

Elisha didn’t ask for Elijah’s body to remain, but his spirit, and twice what he once had, enough to last a long time, enough for the rest of his life.

This is what you’ve given me. You and the God who put it in you in the first place. By His grace and by your love, your spirit remains in me, and a double portion made available through freedom from life’s repetition, necessity, and error. Your going away made you more available, more wise, more kind.

So you stand by the Jordan, raise your arms, and the waters part. I watch you walk across and vanish from sight by flaming chariot. There is nothing else now to do but pick up the cloak that lies empty on the bank of the river.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Old Soul, Young Soul

It's said that some children have old souls. Quiet, understated, and probing, they ask unexpectedly deep questions and have a rare thousand-yard stare. They just don't quite fit in with their carefree peers. Like my granddaughter, Ella. She moves differently than her friends, talks differently, thinks that some of the things they do are silly when they are actually quite normal for ten-year-olds. She would rather go hiking in a park than to a carnival, cook rather than play a video game. She actually likes playing with her sister. Her mother says she has an old soul and I can see why. Some of the pictures taken of me as a child have that look.

But the thought made me souls have an age?

Souls, after all, are a reflection of our prime of life--the best of us. They're what God made in Eden. They're us as if we were Adam and Eve--strong, capable, and agile. It's hard to spot the difference between body and soul in mid-life, because your body and soul are near the same age. Seriously. 

I always thought I was one thing. Yes, I knew that I was made of a natural and a supernatural part, a part that would die and one that would live forever. But it was hard to tell which was which. Everything worked pretty much in unison. Now I'm starting to understand more easily that, yes, body and soul really are two distinct parts of what makes us. The body is a big skin sack filled with blood and bone. The soul, well now, the soul is different.

And my soul is seventeen years old.

I've always know this. As I matured, it was like I was stuck there. Like part of me got that old and no older. As the years passed, the contrast between how I looked and how I thought I should look got wider. As did the difference between how I feel now and how I used to feel. I've never stopped being startled at my reflection in the mirror. Somewhere in there, my hair is still brown and my face unlined. Somewhere, I can still do an hour of aerobics and bench press 200 pounds. I know that because when the radio plays just the right song, I'm back there on a summer day, driving down Lakeshore Drive, wind in my hair, singing. Nothing's changed, really it hasn't. But actually, it has. That's obvious.

So, it's just memories, I thought for a long time. And then Dave died.

That's when I understood that there are times when we break, when parts of us are torn away. We can feel it, like when someone tugs at old fabric and it comes apart strand by strand. Afterward, we know we've lost something that was once part of us, part of flesh and blood, part of what made us.

Well, it's happening again, but this time I recognize the process.

There's the 69-year-old me, with heart issues, and weird blood pressure, and a neck that hurts every morning and muscles that need to be coaxed into cooperation, and yada, yada, yada. Then there's the 17 year old me who can do absolutely anything without effort or pain or looking over her shoulder. And that's how I finally spotted who she really was. The absence of regret.

It was easy to imagine my entire self transcendent when body and soul felt like one thing, when they both soared strong and together. But now that we don't anymore, I'm reaching out to her. She had to be 17, before betrayal, before defilement and brokenness, before disillusionment and settling, before desertion and ambition, before regret and grief.

I'm getting old, and my flesh ages just like everyone else's, but the space between body and soul is getting wide enough now to see the difference. I feel the separation and am far enough away that I can actually stand back and look at that 17-year-old soul and admire her. The tearing, the dividing of body and soul that ends in death, began long ago and I missed a lot of it, not knowing what to look for but now that it's getting closer to complete, well, it's a lot harder to miss. It's a good thing. It's a putting in order, a getting ready. After all, some day I'll have to leave the old body behind, but now I know that when that day comes, I can be 17 again. Not perfect, but prime. Young. Clean.

I like that girl, after all. We live companionably together these days, separate, but like friends who understand one another completely without explanation. I am content with her. It's OK that the body doesn't match. This is life and what the living of it inevitably takes, given enough years. I'm happy to be able to carry a young soul in me as I walk. She makes me smile.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

I Won't Be There

I’m tired of writing about missing you. It’s like an old song losing its charm because it’s played on the radio too often and no longer brings productive emotion, just the wretched, wrenching kind that leaves one breathless, but no better off. I want to know the worth of these days, not those—to hold the gentleness of early breezes moving curtains and the mourning doves calling in the first sun and the rain dropping easily from grumbling skies. I want to plan a trip or even a day without looking over my shoulder for you. I want to look ahead and find something worthwhile waiting there.

I wonder whether it’s good that you’re not here. What would you have done in this plague, this virus? Would you hide silent in lockdown or disregard it as irrelevant and cast yourself into the hands of God? You often surprised me with your reaction to situations like these—cautious sometimes and rash others. Now, though, you left me to make my own fate in it, trying to sort out what is the loving thing to do not only for my own sake but for the well being of the people around me.

But I’m still writing about you. I don’t even really want to, but nothing else comes out with any degree of passion. Almost everything falls flat in pale comparison. Almost.

There is Florence, though. Florence has never paled. It’s been two years since I last rounded the corner of the Via de Neri and strode into Duomo square, gasping,

 two years since days began with cornetti and blood orange juice, two years since I watched the sculptors through the alley window, two years since the bookshop and the street violinists, two years since eating al dente spaghetti beside the medallion recording the death of Savanarola in the Piazza de la Signoria, two years since the poodle on the train, two years since the Arno at sunrise,

 two years since holding the head of Christ in my hands at the Opera Museum.

Maybe that’s how I exorcise you. Maybe that’s the way I regain my freedom, to allow today to step in front of yesterday. You are, after all, part of yesterday. I woke up this morning and you didn’t. You are either always awake or not at all, but I still cycle through days in repeating rhythms of work, rest, and sleep.

I have to decide. I have to intentionally move from this place to that. I’ve been lying in bed waiting for you to come back for more than four years. I can’t do it anymore. I have to swing my foot out, put my weight on it, and take a step. See—I’m doing it. And I’m not looking back. I can’t imagine where you’ve gone, but I say this to you, wherever you are: Don’t reach for me. I won’t be here.

Friday, April 10, 2020

What Jesus Never Said Out Loud

Jesus is man. Jesus is God. Never more one than the other. Always both fully and in equal measure. And yet....sometimes, in certain situations, more of one than the other seems to come forth. When He changed water into wine, or when He foretold His death, or when he proclaimed I AM, He was so God. But Jesus seems so man.

A lot of the time when we think about Good Friday, we remember the legality of it all--the exchange of Christ's life for ours, the redemption not only of mankind as a whole, worthy and unworthy, but of us--the personal negotiation by which we have the hope of heaven. That is very God, too. No one else could have done this, but it is also very distant. It requires effort to summon up an understanding of the transaction that resulted in our opportunity to engage in a life of sin and still end up in eternal reward with the very God we offended. Mind-blowing. Not human at all.

But give Jesus real live hands and feet, mind and emotions, and He becomes something else entirely. He becomes someone we know, echoing  the pain of hurt.

For me, it is very real. I did something once that made my husband cry. Not the gentle tears of sympathy or compassion, but the wrenching, groaning, excavation of deep betrayal, of untenable destruction. It was the visible and audible manifestation of a relationship tearing asunder under pressure that even the strongest man I knew could not withstand, a hurt that struck at the very heart of him.

And then there's Jesus. Jesus the forgiver. Jesus the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus the gentle, patient healer. Jesus the betrayed man. I met Him in a new way this morning, reading the Roman Catholic Good Friday Liturgy. In the midst of all the worship, and all the thanks, and all the reverence, come the reproaches of the man that resounded with Dave's misery. Did you ever think of Jesus saying this?:

My people, what have I done to you? Or how have I grieved you? Answer me!
What should I have done for you and not done?
Indeed, I planted you as my most beautiful and chosen vine and you have turned very bitter for me, for in my thirst you gave me vinegar to drink and with a lance you pierced your Savior's side.
I scourged Egypt for your sake with its firstborn sons, and you scourged me and handed me over.
I led you out from Egypt as Pharaoh lay sunk in the Red Sea and you handed me over to the chief priests. 
I opened up the sea before you and you opened my side with a lance.
I went before you in a pillar of cloud and you led me into Pilate's palace.
I fed you with manna in the desert and on me you rained blows and lashes.
I gave you saving water from the rock to drink and for drink you gave me gall and vinegar.
I struck down for you the kings of the Canaanites, and you struck down my head with a reed.
I put in your hands a royal scepter, and you put on my head a crown of thorns. 
I exalted you with great power, and you hung me on the scaffold of the Cross.

Think you haven't done these things? Think again. Every time we do something we know is wrong, we press in the thorns, we pound in the dreadful spike.

He never said this out loud, but did He feel it? He cries for us, mourns for what was lost and the way He has to buy it back. He knows what we could have been, what He created us to be, and what we chose instead. He knows what He has to do, but it still hurts. He trades His life for restoration. For the joy set before Him, He suffers.

This is the essence of how humanity fixes what is so very wrong. With our world, with our relationships. And it works. Sorrow retreats in repentance. Wounds heal with forgiveness. It worked for Him. It worked for me.

Image: Video Hive

Friday, March 20, 2020

Thanks are not Enough

She started out telling me all the things that could go wrong.

"I might make you crazy."
"You're probably going to have to tell me to stop talking."
"I won't let you boss me around. I have to be in charge. Remember, I'm taking care of you, not the other way around."

And all of this coming from one of the gentlest people I know, and the one who volunteered to care for me at home post-open heart surgery, the one who stepped up without ever being asked so that I wouldn't have to go from the hospital to a nursing home to recover. And now she was giving me second thoughts. Well, I'd been warned. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.

As it turned out, though, we'd both underestimated pretty much everything. We could never have guessed how sick I'd be, how long it would last, or how much help I'd need but more than anything else, how beautiful it would all be.

Carol had already moved in by the time I got home from the hospital. Her pillows sat puffed and waiting, her bedtime fan sat on a table, the oversized cosmetic bag she took everywhere had found a place to land in the bathroom, and her clothes hung in the guest room closet as though they'd always been there.  Cupboard and refrigerator already held her own food supplies. She'd brought in her blue fleece blanket and her coffee pot. Almost everything but her cat. She hadn't brought her cat.

I didn't care. I didn't even notice most of it for days. I was thinking about something else.  After all, I'd been filleted like a fish, then sewed, glued, and wired back together, and sent home with pages of instructions specific to what I couldn't do for the next twelve weeks. And what I was forbidden fell entirely to Carol. She had to do them all.

I took awhile to digest. Like so many other changes, these new patterns emerged gradually and by accumulation in one venue at a time. I needed her in far more ways than I ever anticipated. I needed her in the shower--to guide me into the chair, soaping what I could not, leaning me into the flow of the water she'd already tested and proved just hot enough, rubbing so carefully with only soft finger pads into a grateful scalp, maneuvering the towel over and around, ignoring self-consciousness. I needed her to help me dress--to guide feet that couldn't find the leg of pajama bottoms and arms unable to reach the appropriate holes of a shirt. I needed her to prepare every meal, to run every errand, to entertain every well-wisher, to track and compile every medication, to absorb every phone call, to monitor every nurse's visit, to hover nearby when I tried to walk, just in case.

But those were just things--just things people do in situations like that. Like any healthcare worker. Like any well meaning friend.  Days went by before I knew that what Carol was doing was different--not like a nurse, not even like a friend.  It started with the singing, I think.

She didn't have to sing, but she did. Every morning, I heard her before I saw her, unfailingly cheerful, greeting not only me but a world she was happy to meet. Nothing seemed to ruffle her--not groans or confusion, not weakness or surly impatience, not even my stubborn insistence that I could do something she knew I couldn't. No, I could not have Bible study here yet. No, I could not go to line dancing. No I could not yet go safely to church. She mother-henned, but didn't insist on any of it, giving just enough space for me to discover the wisdom to agree.

Even after these, though, it was the smallest things she did that, when I think of them now, still astonish. The blanket she relocated from place to place as I moved through the house because it was softer and warmer than any other. The day she made tater tots for meal after meal because it was all I had a taste for. The towels she warmed in the dryer before showers. The milkshakes she made when absolutely nothing else tasted good. The day she made a special trip to the grocery for fragrance free laundry detergent and rewashed clothes and bedding because the smell of my old detergent made me sick. The bird feeders she hung on the back deck to bring in Spring's first robins. The beds she made up all over the house every single night because she knew I could rarely sleep in the same place two nights in a row. The daily laundry, trash, and dishes she dealt with so that the house would always be clean and smelling fresh. The hugs and encouraging words, and laughter that never seemed to stop. The true delight she brought into my own awkward pain and failed patience.

And she never made me crazy. Not once. Instead, she astonished me. Not only for what she did, but that she did it so easily. After all, both she and I have already lived most of our days. We don't have all that many left, so the giving away of these dwindling days has become a huge gift. Well, Carol gave me a whole month of hers, and I grabbed them up with eager, greedy hands like a lifeline. I had no idea I would need them, or her, so much, and she never once made me feel selfish for it.

If the measure of our life's witness is the degree to which we can turn ordinary days into holy moments, and through them, become living beacons of faith, well, this experience showed me what that looks like. If true faith means behaving like Christ when we think no one is looking, I got to see that great faith in action. Thanks is not enough. Learning how to do the same for someone else, though, might be a good start.

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.--Maya Angelou

Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love. --Mother Teresa

Whatever you do for one of the least of these, you do for me.--Matt 25:40