Friday, October 31, 2014

Better in Person

Sue and I on a hike at Silvercreek Falls
I sat across from Sue at one of my favorite places to eat breakfast – the meal I most enjoy sharing with a friend. Though a work day, Sue had the day off (mostly) and I enjoy a flexible work schedule. As the woman I work for had commented to me just that morning, it was great to be able to shift my work around for such things – a perk I know not everyone has. Still, I was deeply grateful for the gift of time with my friend as we had both been going through very hands-on lessons of how short life can be and we appreciated having each other there. 
In the last two and a half years, I have lost four grandparents, a great-great aunt and a great-uncle who was very much a part of our family. Death has come intimately close. A month ago, I was also helping friends who are very much family cope with my two year-old niece’s frequent hospital stays to treat a newly-discovered heart condition. Just two weeks before my niece’s first hospital stay, Sue’s parents-in-law were involved in a head-on crash when another car crossed into their lane, likely due to the other driver suffering a stroke. Her mother-in-law, also named Sue, is also a friend of mine and is sunshine and love itself. Both her and her husband suffered grave injuries and I cried for those first few days until we knew Sue especially was going to pull through. My friend and her husband traveled for weeks between hospitals in two different cities while living in a third. Pretty soon after both parents were finally back at home, Sue was told her dad has cancer and is going through a dangerous surgery in a few days. (Please join us in praying for him.) 

So there we sat looking at each other, knowing full well what a gift breakfast between two friends can be and how quickly we can lose those we love. Going through such times, you learn to take a different perspective on life, conflicts, and the petty squabbles and differences that can so plague our lives. We both knew it. We both share it. We’ve both had recent conflicts with people that upset us but we now look at those issues and shake our heads for we’ve seen what’s precious and taking time to engage in those conflicts is not it. Working things out with those we love is one thing, arguing over inconsequential issues never is. 

What we told each other we do want to invest our time in, is love. While fully acknowledging we both have jobs and responsibilities, we talked about how we also have to make time to be with those we love no matter how busy we are. We have to make time for what is truly important or we will forever be chasing after busy nothings letting life dictate to us what we need to be doing instead of us deciding what to do with our lives. Sue told me the lists will always be there. There will always be more things to do, more work to complete. But the people who are important to us can be gone at any time. Each moment with them is a gift and it goes all too soon.  

I look at those I love and am constantly in awe of how beautiful they are. It’s extraordinary – like lifting a flap, as pretty as it is, and seeing this breathtaking soul underneath. It amazes me every time and inside, I just fall to my knees in gratitude for getting to walk with them here. Every minute I get to spend with them is the best of my life. When I think of what I’m grateful for, it’s nearly all faces. No matter what else I have, it is absolutely incomparable with the worth of another person and getting to share love with them? Wow. I am so humbled by the friendships God has given me.  

I know many of you while reading this will wonder how in the world I make time for people as, at least on Facebook, I always seem so busy. It’s not true. Yes, I have activities I go to for part of an evening, but you don’t see the other twenty-two hours of my day. There is always time for people. It’s one of my life rules. If my hobbies or my job interferes with my relationships, then it’s time for a change. No matter how busy I am, I strive to keep God and my friends as my #1 and #2 priorities. I may have to schedule out a little bit but even while juggling multiple jobs and hobbies, I know what is precious and those people come first.  

And here is something also incredibly important: Facebook doesn’t count. It’s nice to keep up with people I normally wouldn’t see as they are acquaintances or those people who live in other parts of the country or the world. It takes more planning to visit them. By all means, like their posts and comment on their photos. But if that person is important to you, you need to pick up the phone and call them. Texting doesn’t count either. Arrange a time to see them face-to-face! Hold them in a hug. You have little to no idea what is really going on in their lives unless you sit down with them. I never posted about any one of my six family members dying. I only shared that with close friends in person. Don’t think because you’ve seen photos from their vacation or texted them hello that you are investing in the friendship. Relationships, just like plants, need time and attention to grow. In person. 

We are heading into the time of year that most aggravates me as far as this topic is concerned. Culturally, this time of year has a special emphasis on spending time with those we value but we rarely actually do it. We are so busy doing things for people, we forget to be with people. I listen to friends say how they’ll have so much more time to get together this next month or next season, once “this” is over, but I hear you say this every month, every season, for every event. It will never happen - you will always have something more to do and will never have that time for those you love, friends especially since they are often left out, unless you choose it and make time for them. If you really value them, you will make time for them. It’s that simple.

To my friends who know me as more than a writer – I love you. I really hope you know it already. I hope I’ve had the courage to tell you out loud. I hope you can feel it when I’m with you and I hope you can feel it when I’m not for in my heart, I often think of you, hold your face in my hands, and wrap you in love. You are the best of my life.

Let’s get together soon and often, for I love you and love is always better in person.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Wolf Howl of God

This is the assignment for the Spirituality and the Senses class I'm auditing at George Fox Evangelical Seminary: Where is God in Our Sense of Hearing.

The river was quiet and the night cool. From my vantage point standing in the back of the boat, I peered through the darkness trying to spot any trees or rocks poking above the surface — clues there was far more hazardous material lurking underneath needing to be avoided. During a night practice, it is not an easy task. Though the lights of the city illuminate the slough to some degree, it’s not enough to make the dangers obvious. But that is my job, my sole responsibility: to keep the twenty paddlers and caller safe. Though for this reason the authority on the boat is ultimately mine, I only give commands when I have to. Most of the time, I watch and listen. Some people may wonder why I largely gave up paddling to till but the truth is, looking around at the river and the sky, hearing the birds and the breeze, I have the best seat in the house. During this particular night, we were paddling in the slough and my ears were tuned to the noises of the night. That’s when I heard the owls. They were soft and gentle and hearing them “whooo” from the trees was magical for me. I asked the paddlers in front of me if they had heard the owls’ call but they had not. I was the only person who heard them because I was the only person who was listening. Hearing the owls has since been a living reminder to me to listen deeply, to appreciate what may not be heard right away.

When choosing what kind of hearing experience to try, I decided to focus on what would be the most stretching for me and what I finally came up with was to sit quietly for a long period of time. As ironic as I know this is being part of the Friends’ church, I have a horrible time sitting quietly. When traveling around among unprogrammed Friends, I can only be quiet for so long before silently writing in my journal. I would much rather move and discuss than sit in a silent room — too polite to leave yet not polite enough to leave my journal in my bag. Even on the boat I have a job to do, a till to guide through the water. Knowing how busy my life is, I do take at least fifteen minutes in the morning to sit silently with God in my favorite chair. There’s no music, no journal — just God and I having a talk or sitting in each other’s company. It’s a needed time to just be. For this experience, I decided to stretch the fifteen minutes to an hour and to try it two ways: once with music and once without. Both were hard.

The first night I tried it with music. Knowing intuitively I needed something more meditative, I used a CD from the library called “Wolf Song”. It starts out with forest sounds — birds, a river, trees creaking, and wolves howling. Having just gone backpacking at an open sided shelter deep in the wilderness the weekend before, the sound of the wolves sent shivers up my chest. The thought of having such power so nearby and me being so vulnerable was frightening and thrilling at the same time. Wolves are humbling. Such intelligent creatures and yet so fearsome. This is how God also is – immensely powerful, uncontrollable, ready to strike in ways we may not like and this scares us.

Along with the wolves’ howl, the sounds were interspersed with musical interludes laid over the forest sounds. First there was a focus on the wolves, then the music, then the wolves again. I tend to focus on the musical side of God – thrilling and heart-soaring, enriching and beautiful, full of color and life, comforting to the soul. But there is also this other side to God – this wolf howling at the moon side I too often neglect to see. This haunting illustration of the fearsome dominance of God chills the heart in its tracks and makes one forget all shallow pretensions before God’s awesome show of power. Staring into the eyes of a wolf, one is both caught in the wonder of the moment so rare and yet also scared out of their mind at what the wolf could do. The angels in the Bible had to keep telling people to “Fear not!” Encounters with the true God, not an image, leave people trembling from head to toe.

One of my favorite books on the images of God is Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos. In the book, the main character interacts with a wide variety of Jesus images until finally in the end, he meets the real Jesus but instead of being face-to-face with “I AM,” he is kneeling and Jesus comes up behind him and lays his hands on his head. He never sees Jesus’s face. He never captures a new image – it’s the silent power and the lack of an image that finally speaks the truth of who Jesus is. I’ve had so many images of God in my faith journey and they have each been valuable and taught me something in turn. They’ve been the musical interludes to my relationship with God, the comforting moments, the healing hands, the loving words. They’ve all been immensely valuable yet it’s been the times when God has stepped in without my asking – speaking my name, coming to me in a dream or reminding me how un-knowable he/she is, the times when God has howled like a wolf in the night that I tremble before this God I cannot control or truly begin to comprehend.

The question I come to is, “Can I truly trust God if I am constantly making up who he is?” Yes, it’s comforting to imagine God sitting up in a tree beside me talking things out or just enjoying the moment, but if I stay up in the tree with him/her, I’ll have missed much of the point of who God is. We can’t ultimately name God nor is an image of God ever going to be complete. I am slowly learning to let there be space between the images, to stop in the silences and hear the wolves howling in the shadows, feel the trembling vibrations in the blowing breeze and to go further inside myself past blood and bone into my soul where my deeper wisdom tells me I have knelt in the woods myself and howled along. This is the God I want to know – the one I can’t direct, can’t grasp, can’t begin to draw or paint. Yet, at the same time, I am driven to try. As a writer and artist, I am drawn to the musical interludes, the beautiful expanses of song coloring in who God is and I long to take up my own watercolor pencil set and sketch out a few pictures of my own. Perhaps we are allowed to do this as long as we respect the silences and know we must ultimately lay our pictures down to hear who God really is.

Laying the music down and embracing the silence was difficult in its own right. Instead of the music being a bit distracting, my thoughts stepped in with the grace of an orangutan playing a drum solo. Trying to calm and quiet myself in the midst of all this noise was slippery at best and downright impossible at worst. The waiting I have endured for several months is playing at a fevered pitch for two to three more weeks and I’m now having a hard time breathing. I know this is a time when I most need to sit quietly with God and, in fact, when I wrote about my struggles breathing as a conversation with God, they did ease a bit for a day. Even so, I laid down in God’s arms and got to talk with him about my fears and concerns about all these changes going on in my life. I told him I feel like I am suspended in mid-air unable to get down and unable to move on. I’m just hanging there. It was also hard to put down the to-do list yet a relief at the same time. I have often thought in the mornings that fifteen minutes is just not enough time with God and our time often does go over. I’m hoping with a different work schedule I can take more time in the mornings to sit with God.

Out of all five senses, hearing seems to me to be the most direct to God. Though I know God is closer to me than I am to myself, I have to remind myself everything I know with my other four senses is, in fact, God present. But with hearing, whether inwardly or outwardly, I hear God and I know it’s him. You can’t mistake that voice – not when you’re standing on a beach and hear your name or you’re standing on the back of a boat gliding through the dark and hear a whisper. There are times I question if it was God and there are other times I just know. It’s at those times my body shivers for I’ve come face to face with a power unfathomably beyond myself, a love far more ferocious than I’ve ever felt, and a voice far more addicting than any other I’ve ever heard. Though I cannot tell from whence it comes, it speaks, and it speaks to me. This wild wolf howl of God echoing in the woods comes from somewhere and everywhere and invites us to set aside our preconceived notions and listen anew. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Where is God: Looking for God in the Hood

This summer I'm auditing a class at the seminary I graduated from - "Spirituality and the Senses", a course I've been wanting to take for a long time. I'm loving the class. A part of our coursework is looking for God through five experiences focusing on our different senses. For my sight experience, I decided to look for God in my own neighborhood. This is what I found.

I have gazed on the enormity of the bells in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, looked down from the top of Multnomah Falls, and climbed every step in the Eiffel Tower. I’ve seen God in the performances of Cirque du Soleil, in the saunter of the giraffes across the African savannah, and in the juxtaposition of death and life on the island of Alcatraz. Around the world, there are amazing places where you can walk up to the face of God, sit down, and gawk at the vastness of his wonder. In my life, I have been very lucky to have traveled, tasted these experiences for myself, and to know they are, indeed, good. Within the beautiful scene of deer grazing in a sun-drenched meadow where the wildflowers sing in chorus, it’s hard not to notice God. But I wonder — what about in the unlovely? What about in the unpleasant places, the old and the abandoned? Is God in the dirt, in the garbage, in the scenes where hope seemingly has no place to go? I’ve seen so many beautiful places but have never stopped to look in the grime of the gutter. Can God be just as present and noticeable where we never stop to look? This is the question I set out to answer.

When thinking about where to go on this search, the image of a nearly empty lot a block away from where I live came to mind. I live on the north side of downtown Salem in a neighborhood with a reputation for poverty, crime, and overgrown yards surrounding falling apart houses. Though the neighborhood has improved a great deal with the building of an independent movie theater, a large building known as Broadway Commons which includes a jewel of a coffee shop, the “hood” still has many rough edges, broken sidewalks, and the occasional gun shots, or so I've heard. Personally, I love it. I love my apartment (most of the time), my neighbors have good hearts, and it’s within biking distance to so many of the places I love to go. Yet there is so much along my route that is not pretty which I never look at and I wanted to know if God lives in the Highland and Grant neighborhood as well as the African savanna and the grand cathedrals of the world.

In search of my answer, I started at the nearby abandoned lot and then worked my way to downtown. Wanting to cover ground but also wanting to be close to the world, I took my bike, a notebook, and my camera so I could take pictures of what I found.

To imagine this lot where I started, picture a rather large rectangle of ground covered in grass, weeds, and blackberry bushes, with a little cement walk leading from the sidewalk to front steps which are guarded by two green bushes on either side. That’s it. Just the steps and the bushes. There’s no house, just the remnants of a cement foundation under the weeds and the cracked front steps leading off into the broken dreams of someone who once lived there. I pass it nearly every day and it is an eerie sight. To the left of the steps is the old driveway with weeds growing in the cracks which are as plentiful as the garbage littering the ground. Leaving my bike laying in the grass as the kickstand wouldn't work on the uneven mounds of dirt, I explored what was once a tiny house and an even smaller garage. Then I noticed the tree. In all the times I have ridden by, how could I have missed it? This tree, this incredible tree, is growing between what was once the cement floor of the garage and the six inch wall of cement surrounding it. Coming through a gap about an inch in width, the trunk is squeezed into an oblong shape but then reinstates its round nature for the rest of the trunk. 

What intrigues me most about this tree is its sheer determination to grow. Not only did it find one of the most unlikely places to sprout, but it managed to go through great adversity and remember its true nature. In similar manner, God’s power shines through no matter the struggle and difficulty. We can be going through the toughest of circumstances and it in no way impedes God’s ability to be the gardener in our growth. Even if we are squeezed to our breaking point, the true nature of our souls as beings of light always wins out and we will always ultimately remember our true nature as God’s image. The tree also reminded me that God’s miracles are everywhere and there is beauty and amazement in something old and abandoned just as there is in the largest church. Just because we can’t see all the wonders of God doesn't mean they aren't there. Perhaps we are too busy to look or we don’t expect to see God in that place, that theology, or that person, but there God is extending life through the cracks of our awareness.

The other thing that intrigued me about the abandoned lot is when I looked around in the weeds, it was the garbage and not the green growing plants reflecting the light. We are too quick to dismiss what we deem to be unimportant, trivial, mundane. God looks at the small, the throwaway, the things we pass by on our way to find religion and uses those things to make the Divine presence known. Some of my “mistakes” in life have led me to the greatest gifts, my pain, struggles, and questions transformed into healing balm for others. At one house I passed by later on, they had turned broken pieces of granite into a mosaic in their yard. They saw the beauty in what otherwise would have been thrown away. It is only when we stop concentrating on our destination and pause to look along the road, perhaps even leaving the trail and wandering through the field, we become aware of the eternal wildness of God in everything we see. 

To put into practice this new awareness of stopping to see what I normally pass by, I stopped on the sidewalk along my route on Broadway Street to look at a creek. As I was leaning my head on my arms watching the water flow below, a voice spoke up behind me, “It’s flowing faster today than yesterday. Yesterday it was only flowing two to three miles an hour. Today it’s probably about five.” I looked behind me to see a teenage boy with blond hair wearing a black shirt and white shorts with an ipod in his ears walking along the sidewalk. I commented back to him it was probably due to the rain we had the night before and he replied while still walking, “Yeah, and it’s also getting warmer and the snow in the mountains is melting.” I looked after him for a few seconds as he walked away and got the sense I was watching the back of God. After all, how many teenagers with an ipod notice and can measure the speed of a creek? It was as if God decided to take a form to talk to me like in the old show “Joan of Arcadia” to tell me about the creek I was looking at, how he noticed it intimately every day and wanted to point it out to me. Even now, the experience has stayed with me. I think God likes showing up like that with a “Here I am!” under the words. God likes to walk past and leave us with puzzled looks on our faces wondering “Did God just do that?” Whoever it was, God was still there and was also in the yellow dragon fly that flew in front of me when I turned back to look at the trees.

Looking down into the waters, I realized I didn’t even know the name of this creek flowing through my neighborhood. I later went online to Mapquest to look it up and found it is the last portion of Mill Creek before it empties into the Willamette River. I knew Mill Creek wound through Salem but didn’t realize this was the same body of water. Wondering where the water came from, I followed it on the map but there were so many bodies of water coming off of it along the way and it spread out to so many other towns, fields, and forests, you can’t actually tell where it comes from as it comes from everywhere and touches so many places and people. Isn’t that just like God? We as churches camp out on the banks of God Creek and tell each other that only this view of the creek is the correct one. Only a creek going through a city or farmland if we’re in the country is the right one; perhaps we only believe a creek watering a forest is the real creek. But wherever we’re at, however we relate to God, we as a church tend to stay in our theological box. I bet God laughs at our attempts to contain him/her. I bet God is there inviting us into a boat to try the creek for ourselves and to take a look at all the different places God inhabits. I wonder, what do the places look like I have not yet seen? Where do I refuse to see God? Where have I not yet found her?

Just past where I stood looking at the creek is a short dead end road with a few small houses and postage stamp yards. Though I have never visited him, I know a fellow dragon boater lives on this street and since I had never taken a closer look, I decided to check it out and planned on turning around where the road ended to resume my route. Along my way, there were lovely crimson flowers and a few kids playing in front of one house. Arriving at the end of the road, I was surprised to see that instead of the dead end I expected, underneath an arch of trees was the opening of a bridge beckoning me on. Through the trees, the bridge arced over the creek below and I stopped halfway along to gaze down into the water. A duck played along the left bank, it’s emerald green head shimmering in the dappled sunlight. Not only was there no dead end, but there was life, abundant life! In my explorations of God, a year ago I was on an interesting but relatively predictable road of knowing God, as predictable as such a road can be, when a friend made an observation about me which lead me in a whole new direction of how I saw myself, what I considered my soul to be, and a great deal about how I saw God. I initially thought to just check things out, see what was there, but at the end of the road, God gave me a bridge to walk over and there around me, just when I thought I was playing out of bounds of mainstream orthodoxy, I found abundant life. I came to value who I am as a soul, to bless the mystery of myself, and to see things from a larger perspective. Respecting my own power and decision making abilities, I now have greater respect for God’s power. There is a peace now knowing God will make a way for me when I don’t see it from this human perspective though there are many times I need to be reminded of this truth again and again. Still, I have learned to see beyond the apparent limits yet with greater understanding of how much I do not know about God—and myself—and because I’ve been given this gift of not knowing, I have greater trust in God to be whatever he/she is. Taking that bridge changed the entire course of my explorations in my neighborhood and I saw many beautiful things on the other side of the bridge I had never seen before.

Exploring my neighborhood, I discovered things are never truly abandoned. There is never a place without God shining through. Even if we choose to leave and not see it, even when it seems to be a dead end, God’s truth remains and hope dwells within. Besides all the seemingly beautiful places I’ve seen, I’ve also seen God in the depths of the Kibera slum, in the rotting carcasses of the buffalo left on the savannah, and now in the garbage and rundown places of my own neighborhood. God’s light is not dependent on our presence or our awareness. But when we stop to look, stop to really see, God likes to show up at a creek we’ve never really seen to remind us she sees its beauty, knows it most intimately, and to encourage us to keep on looking.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Need Help?"

(I found this draft for a blog post of mine while I was cleaning out some files. Enjoy!)

“Need help?”  Responding to that little voice, I turn around and see Amy sitting in the snow, her blue snowsuit keeping her 2 ½ year old body warm, her skies splayed out to one side.  She is calmly looking up at me, knowing I will momentarily reach down and pull her to her feet.  

I love this little girl.  Amy is a child who will wiggle her way deep into your heart faster than it takes her to choose a book and wiggle into your lap.  She is bright, articulate, affectionate, and adventurous. She is a delight.  Since she was born, her parents take her on “adventures”- swimming adventures, snow adventures, library adventures, among many others.  Her first hiking adventure came at six weeks old and she has been on the trails ever since.

This winter, Amy’s mom Melody and I have taken her on several snow adventures complete with little skis that strap onto Amy’s feet.  Unlike nearly every other child I know, Amy is content to sit in her car seat and look at books for hours of driving, or just look out the windows.  Arriving at the snow, Melody and I strap snowshoes to our feet and the skis to hers.  When we first started teaching Amy to ski, Melody and I each held one of her mittened hands and pulled her along, sliding her along in the snow.  We then taught her how to “poke-poke” with her poles for balance but as she has gained experience, she now prefers not to use them and can even slide downhill a little bit.  For rests, Melody pulls behind her a little sled but Amy usually prefers not to use it, she would rather be on her skis or walking in the snow, taking “deep snow breaks” periodically.  We ask her if she wants help once in a while and she replies, “Ski by myself?”  She is not asking for permission.  She ends her sentence in an upward inflection but we know she is quite determined in her decision.

Periodically, Amy falls and we hear her say, “Need help?”  Leaning over or walking back, one of us cheerfully takes a hold of her snowsuit and pulls her back to her feet.  I have learned so much from these two words of Amy’s and our response to them, that it has made me see myself and God in a new way.  When Amy falls, we never hear her say, “Idiot?  I keep falling?  I’m a bad skier!”  Nor do we ever tell her, “Amy!  Why can you not stay on your feet!  You are a terrible skier!  I am not picking you up again!  You are on your own!”  Once in a while, we do encourage her to try getting up on her own and she is learning she can do this at times but we never reject her or refuse to be there when she needs us.  We delight in her learning process, we delight in her joy.  Cameras in hand, we tell her, “Good job!” CLICK CLICK.  Falling doesn’t bother us.  Melody and I don’t see it as a bad thing, it’s simply a part of learning how to ski.    

Monday, October 21, 2013

Just Say No to the Phone

A few weeks ago there was a needle that broke the camel's back. I had been thinking I was becoming  addicted to checking Facebook or looking to see if anyone had sent me a text message, but one final phone call induced me to leave my phone off and in my desk drawer. I have been far happier since.

Have you been sitting at a table with friends who all have their phones out sending texts or checking their Facebook accounts? You might have even been one of those people yourself. I have been in that position many times and I can tell you from personal experience, it makes me feel unimportant to them, that whatever random think being posted on Facebook or whatever texts sent, are more important to them than the person sitting right across the table. We spend more time looking at screens than at faces. It feels like we have traded gold, our relationships with each other, for a cheap imitation, silly updates we can always check later instead of invested time with another soul.

For myself, I realized I live on an edge, subconsciously wondering if anyone sent me something on Facebook or  wondering when the phone is going to ring. I also realized how much time I waste on Facebook checking updates when I could be doing something far healthier for myself such as writing, reading or designing a book, or taking care of household chores. I also realized this is not the kind of life I want.

Ever since I started leaving my phone at home a lot of the time, I have noticed how many people walk around looking at their phones or who neglect to turn their phones off during a meeting. We let technology overtake our waking lives before stopping to think if we wanted it to.

Ask yourself, are there really that many phone calls coming through you would need to take right away? If you are truly honest with yourself, the answer would be no. Think back to what we did before cell phones, before Facebook, before text messages. We called our friends to see how they were, we wrote out our maps, we planned more time together, we even wrote letters. When is the last time you wrote someone a letter and mailed it? When is the last time you went out with someone and turned your phone completely off or better yet, left it at home? We miss so much when our attention is divided. What is going on around you is more important than what is possibly going on online.

Leaving my phone at home in my desk is still a struggle sometimes and sometimes I do need to take my phone with me. But I'm working on not picking it up so often, remembering to pay attention to the world immediately around me, and not being so attuned to Facebook. I'm learning to just say no to the phone.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Nowhere Else to Be

My grandmother is dying. Normally, something so personal to my family would not come up in my public writing but I feel the need to write about it today. This afternoon, I sat by my grandmother's chair holding her hand. I didn't understand a word she said midst her groans and I don't even know if she knew who I was but she gripped my hand like a vice. She looked at me through half closed eyes and I told her she looked good in yellow. Did she know I was the same person as the baby pictured above her bed? To me, it didn't matter but it did matter to me and perhaps to her that someone, whoever she thought they were, cared enough to sit beside her and give her affectionate touch. And though she couldn't ask for it, I thought it would be alright to send her soul the feeling of peace and of being loved. It is all I can really give to her - my presence and a sense of peace as she lives how many ever days she has left on earth.

I got "the call," you know the kind, about seven months ago last spring when my mom told me my grandmother had suffered a stroke. I visited her at the hospital and then a nursing center. She tried being at home with care but that didn't work out, so my mom and older sister found a great assisted living home for her close to my mom. Since she started there, we have had to keep moving her to higher and higher levels of care to where she is now in the memory unit. Over the summer, we went through her whole house and sold what we could via garage sales and advertisements. The rest is spread out between my mom, older sister, and I.

Eight months ago my grandmother was living independently in her own home and still driving. Now she is in a memory unit unable to really speak or do anything for herself. It still blows me away. Two visits ago, I showed her the video of me on the flying trapeze in Seattle. She could still carry on a bit of a conversation at that point and she asked  me, "What was it like?" I'd never heard my grandmother ask that question before and for a moment, we got to connect on a genuine level, a level we hadn't connected on since I was a little girl, if ever. It felt like a break in the clouds of blue sky on an extraordinarily rainy day. Such a little thing, a short conversation, but to me, it's a memory of gold I will always treasure.

I know that next call, the final one, can come any day now. We suspect her fast decline is due to a series of small strokes and you just never know with those. This might sound unfeeling, but I'm thankful her decline has been fast. I used to work in nursing homes and saw first-hand how lingering in this state for a long period of time can truly be worse than death. It is not the kind of death I would wish for myself and I do not wish it for her. Death can be a release. Still, I cry to think of it.

Up to the age of thirty-two, there hadn't been a lot of death in my immediate family. I remember my mom and grandparents going through my great-grandfather's house when I was a child though I don't remember him and I have a scrap of memory of my great-grandmother for whom I'm named, but as a child, the only other close death was my great-uncle, my grandmother's brother. He died when I was a teenager. At nineteen, I lost my most beloved cat, Emily. She came into our backyard when I was four and I was instantly in love. We were connected in a deep way from that point on and I still believe she was an "angel" sent by God to be with me. It wasn't until I was twenty-four I lost a grandparent. My grandpa, the one I was closest to, the one I look so much like, died at the Veteran's home. Going through all the things at his and my grandmother's house this last summer brought much of that grief back to the surface for me. Then, just over a year and a half ago when I was thirty-two, my step-grandfather died. Nine months later, my paternal grandfather died. Five months after that, my great-great-aunt died (I'm friends with her son, my cousin). Aunt Grace's funeral was the last time I saw my grandmother outside of a hospital or nursing home. Weeks after that, she had her stroke. Two months after that, my step-mother's mom died. During this time, I've also experienced loss in other ways: loss of relationships, loss of trust, loss of old beliefs and ways of thinking. In short, it's been a lot of loss in a short amount of time.

I have a question I answer every month: "What image, piece of music, word or two, or color, describes what life has been like lately?" This month, I think my answer is going to be sitting in front of a gravestone. I've been digging a lot of graves lately and burying a lot of what was once precious to me. It's the season of loss. I'm letting go, pulling roots out of the ground, standing beside a funeral pyre watching the flames rise to the stars, knowing that the empty feeling inside is exactly what it's supposed to be. In a strange way, those strands of loss around my soul are even comforting. Like a good cry, such loss empties you out and you are left by the riverbank with the rain falling on your face and nowhere else to be.

Post Script: My Grandma died this morning, September 24, 2013, two and a half days after this post was originally published. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Gift

I reacted without even thinking – jumping up and down, squealing with delight, amazed someone had gone out of their way to do something that generous for me, that they had really heard me and did something about it.

It all started two days before at a dinner party where several friends and I were talking while we cooked. I don't remember the context of the conversation, but I confessed to them something I had never told anyone before: that for years I had wanted a basketball of my own so I could shoot hoops. I loved trying to make the basket and letting my mind just think and ponder over whatever was going on in my life. It was my way to meditate but I only got to do it when I was on my own somewhere with a basketball and something to put it through – a rare occurrence.

I had forgotten about the conversation by the time I walked into our aerial class the following Monday night when my friend suddenly pointed at me and shouted, "You!" I wondered what I had done or what she wanted me for when my eyes followed her pointed finger now directed at the desk where sat a brand new basketball still in its box. My reaction was immediate and involved my whole body as I squealed and jumped around – enthusiasm personified. My wide grin lasted the entire class. She even lent me a sharpie so I could write my name on the ball, not that I'll let it far out of my sight when playing with it. I even took it in with me to proudly share with friends at a Mary Kay party after class. Even now, that grin has just not gone away.

Though I thanked my friend profusely for this wonderful gift, the best way to thank her was to actually take the ball out and use it. The basketball would still mean something to me if it sat at home, but that is not what the basketball was for. If I really wanted to appreciate her thoughtfulness, I needed to go out, play with it, and live my dream.

Thus the ball got "baptized" at a friend's house – I was so excited to put it through a hoop! I then looked around for a basketball court near my apartment and found one close by that's rarely busy. Tonight I headed there to really break it in. It was everything I've dreamed of! I shot hoops, made some baskets, ran after the ball, pondered, thought, enjoyed being outside, enjoyed the time alone just thinking and playing and being. It was bliss.

But what if I hadn't taken it outside to play with it? What if I had left it in my apartment and didn't use it? What if I decided that even though my friend gave me this gift, she had not actually meant for me to use it? That sounds ridiculous, I know, but isn't that what we do with some of the gifts God gives us? God gave us each a human life and we spend it being angry and afraid, fearful and timid, unforgiving and bull-headed. We don't take risks. We play it safe. God gave us each a body and instead of fully living and expressing ourselves in it, we detest our bodies, find all kinds of faults in them, park it on the couch and feed it crap. Is that the way to treat a gift? To not only neglect the gift but abuse it, ignore it, be afraid of it? We are meant to live the lives God gave us, to delight in our bodies! We are meant to take chances, leaps of faith, to challenge ourselves, and do things we never thought we could! We are meant to exercise and play, to respect our bodies, treasure them, and care for our bodies with love. Instead of sitting around, we need to get out and enjoy what God gives us! I think it breaks God's heart when we take the gifts he gives us, the ones he meant for us to enjoy, and we hide them away or ignore the gifts, doing anything but delighting in the joy she/he means for us to have.

There are also gifts in our own souls we don't fully understand; times when we discover things about ourselves that don't fit with our preconceived notions of the world, our beliefs, or our own sense of self. A gift or an ability, a characteristic or thought, rises to the surface into the light of day and our immediate reaction is to ignore it or run away from it, condemning this gift as a bad thing simply because it doesn't fit with the boxes we've known.

Is it possible we could step back for a moment away from those boxes of belief and theology, take in the view of the larger picture, remember we actually know only a tiny fraction of what is in this world, and take a risk with the Gift Giver? Can we acknowledge that just because a gift is beyond our comfort zone, that it could still be a gift given by God who is calling us to stretch and grow? Can God call us to let go of what we've known before so we can embrace a new thing and transform? If we truly believe God is greater than all created things, then we must also acknowledge we do not know or understand everything. We have to be willing to be taught even when that teaching might be unacceptable to what we and our friends have known before. Following God's voice, trusting his gift and the way he leads us on, we need to understand the gift of who we are is given for a reason, that the Creator does not make mistakes and that if this is who you are, you need to learn how to live out that gift in the most loving way possible.

Whatever your gift is, you need to learn to live it out. Whoever God has created you to be, dance it in love and joy! God does not make mistakes and if God created you that way, you are going to have a much easier time with yourself if you simply accept who you are and learn to flow with the gift instead of trying to squelch it down. These gifts of ourselves are meant to be enjoyed, played with, delighted in, and used. God did not give you that gift if he/she did not mean for you to live it out.

My basketball now has a special place in my living room where it constantly reminds me how much I love taking it out and using it. It is harder to remember to use the gifts inside myself, the ones God gave me, but I have learned they are a part of who I am and to be truly at peace with myself, I must accept them and learn to use these gifts as well in the most loving ways possible.

Being true to yourself and who God created you to be won't always make the people around you happy, sometimes quite the opposite. Even so, living out who you truly are will release you in ways you never thought possible. Once you get a taste of that freedom, that inner peace, staying inside the boxes no longer matters once you know what it's like outside of them where your soul has room to breathe and play and live. Then, you in turn become a gift God opens and gives to the world. Live the gift.