Responding to a Pandemic Situation

It’s been a weird month as I’ve watched COVID-19 draw closer to our area. I work for a hospital so information has been ongoing and helpful. It’s been much easier to sort through what my hospital tells me than navigating our news cycles. While it took time to understand this new virus, I have always felt more threatened by the reaction of people than the virus itself.

Some move into panic prematurely. Others ignore good information and common sense. My hope is that most of us fall somewhere in between those two extremes. I was encouraged to see most of my fellow grocery shoppers to have 10-20 items in their carts at checkout. They were calm and good-natured. There was the occasional cart filled to the point of overflowing, often with items that seemed more dangerous to one’s health than the virus itself. But that was the exception.

Difficulty reveals aspects of who we truly are. I have been reminded lately that I am impatient with what feels like hysteria. I loathe a lack of common sense. While those aren’t bad things, my responses can sometimes feel unkind. I’m thinking about that as I practice some social distancing. I’m considering what would be helpful to those feeling frightened or being dismissive, or at least better understand what is not helpful in those situations.

I also realize how important it is to have that circle of people who don’t need you to be careful, who allow you to be who you are. They don’t expect me to be perfect and can say to me what they are thinking and feeling. This is particularly helpful in times of stress and strain.

In my job, I am reminded daily of the fragility of life. Most people deny that and I understand why. But knowledge of that reality does help in times like these. I don’t try to convince myself that if I try hard enough, I can prevent a bad outcome. I know that bad things happen even when everything right had been done. Instead of being paralyzed, I try to embrace the moment I am in and the opportunities it presents. I try to practice gratitude. These actions really do make a big difference in my ability to stay informed but not be overwhelmed; to prepare without falling into a deep sense of dread.

I know the alarmists and the deniers are the noisiest at the moment. It can be hard to turn the volume down. Those of us working to stay calm are simply trying to do our part rather than be heard. Yesterday I spent time helping a friend then planting some flowers. Today I will take a hike. Tomorrow I will go back to work and help my healthcare system continue its important work. It’s a balancing act of doing for others and taking care of myself. Both are important, especially now.

This pandemic virus will pass, just like ones before it. The cost may be high, but does not need to be at the expense of our humanity or the care of our community. Be smart. Stay informed. Wash your hands regularly for a good 20 seconds each time and don’t touch your face. Be kind and patient. Take good care of you and those around you. Make sure those who are vulnerable have what they need. Stay home if you’re sick. Help those whose jobs are being impacted by closures or don’t have sick pay.

Isn’t this what we should be doing all the time anyway?

My Favorites

Sometimes I am with people who seem to bring out the best in me. Sometimes it’s the opposite. The people I’ve learned to hang onto are the ones who see the best in me. It’s not that they overlook my faults. But they see my strengths – my love, loyalty, deeply-felt feelings, intentionality, humor – in spite of my shortcomings – impatience, pushiness, tendency to correct whether one seeks a correction or not. These people are My Favorites, the ones I love more than life itself.

I think it’s a choice, that we can actually authentically be who we are regardless of who we are with. But that is a hard, maybe lifelong skill to learn. It’s normal to allow insecurities or uncertainties or hurts or anger to adjust our demeanor. In fact it’s really hard not to be defensive with someone you don’t trust. But what My Favorites teach me is that I can be my authentic self no matter who I am with. They remind me I am worthy, and in turn can make others feel worthy too, of love, of friendship, of kindness, of gentleness, of patience though God help me with that one.

Life feels very different when I am in that place of grace, even though circumstances might be exactly the same. My perspective softens. Hope is a bit more tangible. And with my ongoing existential crises, I’m deeply in need of both.

On March 5th, I’m getting my first tattoo. I’m 51 years old. I never really wanted a tattoo. I had a hard time imagining what I would want on my body for the rest of my life. And then my daughter, Liv, told me she was getting a tattoo of a flower drawn by one of My Favorites. I knew immediately that I wanted that tattoo as well. It felt right before the thought even fully formed. I asked Liv how she felt about her mom getting the same tattoo. Thankfully she thought it was a pretty great idea. March 5th, 2020 will mark six long years of Catherine being physically gone, a reality that still hurts so much.

This morning I’m realizing the tattoo will mean so much more than an homage to one of My Favorites. It will be my reminder to see myself as she saw me. It will be my reminder to be my best self no matter what. I think she’d like that a lot. I just wish she were here with me, but so continues the journey. She will always be one of My Favorites.

Milestones

This past week my daughter graduated from high school. I was able to spend time with my adult son and both of my parents in addition to my husband and daughter. I had lots of time with friends too. One of the things that struck me was how many of us had different takes on this milestone’s meaning, what was important or not as important, what to celebrate and might come next.

I got to thinking: Who is right? Should I have been sadder than I felt? Should I have enjoyed the pomp and circumstance more? Was I wrong to relish most the time spent with those I love? What did I miss? What will I think months from now when I look back? The process of exploring my perspective along with the perspective of others is another reminder of how much I value diversity of thought.

We live in a time where most of us find diversity scary. Our ideological differences are at odds with what feels like potential significant changes in outcome. And when we think of those differences in big arenas such as politics or religion, diversity doesn’t seem feasible. One side must be right and the other side must be wrong. One side must be chosen and the other rejected. There will be winners and losers. But the reality is, most of life isn’t spent in a large arena. Most of life is spent doing our jobs, loving our loved ones, talking with our neighbors, spending time with friends, raising kids, taking care of pets, supporting those in need. Most of our time is a collection of small, seemingly insignificant acts, decisions, thoughts and responses each and every day.

I was reminded of this poignantly with the suicide of Anthony Bourdain. He was a man who spent time understanding and learning from others. I admired his approach, which felt both simple and profound.

“We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions,” [Anthony Bourdain] said, “we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”

His questions allowed anyone to enter into the conversation, regardless of background or experience. That in and of itself is noteworthy. But then, and probably more importantly, he listened. Listening – really listening, deeply hearing, staying curious, open, respectful – is what allows diversity to not only be feasible but rich and rewarding.

And yet Mr. Bourdain failed to find the hope to live one more day. The stories poured in following his death, of how he made people on the margins feel heard and valued. What he was able to do for others, he was unable to receive for himself. I wish his life hadn’t ended with suicide. I wish he could’ve let someone in, really let them in, the way others let him into their lives.

I could mark the milestone of my daughter’s graduation by how the ceremony went, by who came and didn’t come to various events, by the event in and of itself. Or I could commemorate it with the nearly 18 years of life and all of the countless, insignificant decisions that led us to this milestone. All of the good things and all of our failures and everything in between brought us to this place. I had prepared for the milestone as best I could, was present in it to enjoy it as much as I could be, and I learned from others through their thoughts and experiences.

Graduation is a big deal. But when you think about it, isn’t every day a big deal? An important milestone? Each day has value. Life is an ongoing, marathon-style, do-your-best-because-that-is-all-you-can-do kind of experience. Be proud of what you do well. Learn from and let go of what you wish you had done differently. Listen to others. Share with others. Don’t measure your life or worth against another. Instead, celebrate what is worth celebrating and work on what could be better. I’m not suggesting we diminish the value of a milestone but rather we see the countless opportunities in every day to take one step forward, which is in fact a milestone.

This picture was taken right after her graduation ceremony. But honestly, with the exception of her attire, it could have been taken on any given day. And whether graduation ever came or not, that is one of the most important milestones of all.

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Gently Woke

After four days at the beach, my husband, daughter and two dogs were heading home. I have the luxury and privilege of staying behind for a few more days all by myself. My husband wanted to get on the road early in hopes of avoiding as much holiday traffic as possible. Before my daughter got in the car, we hugged and said our goodbyes. She then added, “You may as well stay up and watch the sunrise.” I watched them leave and waved, then headed back into the house looking forward to a few more hours of sleep. I am not a morning person and in the nearly 30 years I have been coming to my mom’s beach house, I don’t remember ever getting up to watch the sunrise. I think what my daughter was trying to say was, “The only way you are ever going to see the sun rise is if you are already up. So stay up and watch it.”

I went into the house and checked my phone. It was just after 6 and the sun was supposed to rise at 6:44. That felt like a long time away. I filled my cup with coffee and checked the view from the deck. I wasn’t 100% sure where the sun would first appear, but I have seen plenty of sunsets here and assumed it was 180 degrees away from that point. That means I would not be able to see the sun from the deck due to shrubs and trees. I would have to venture to the dunes. I put on some shoes and headed down the path. It was dark, but not pitch black. I got to the walkway which goes over the dunes, and stood with the house behind me and the ocean in front of me. Crickets were still chirping. My coffee tasted good.

Slowly light began to appear.

As it did, birds began to chirp. Dragonflies began to flit about. The light was soothing. I was grateful for being eased into its presence. I thought of how often waking up is rarely a gentle process. Waking feels more often startling with my mind trying to rationalize how to get out of my morning obligations and my eyes squinting, longing for the darkness to return.

The light continued to grow, slowly and softly.

Birds began moving to the waters edge, looking for their breakfast. The crickets were beginning to quiet down. I noticed a few people on their deck a few houses away. I looked in the other direction and saw a man on his deck with a camera. “Do people get up every morning to watch this?” I wondered. I found my heart beating a little faster as I began to anticipate the arrival of the sun.

And then it appeared.

What beauty! It was magnificent and bold and stunning. No wonder ancient civilizations worshipped this big ball of burning gas. Its appearance was a religious experience. My eyes teared up. This actually happens every morning? Of course people get up to watch! Perfectly orchestrated in every way imaginable.

As my heart rate returned to normal, I continued to process what I had just witnessed. I was struck by the lack of fanfare leading up to the sun’s appearance. It was gentle and sweet. I could have missed it if I was lulled back to sleep, which was my first instinct. But I stayed, waited and watched. I was moved by how simple it was to witness an event that felt nothing short of miraculous. I found myself feeling particularly hopeful that each day begins this way, whether or not we are awake to bear witness.

These days, very little seems subtle. In our efforts to be heard or validated, we scream and cry. Sometimes we bully or dismiss or ignore those who are different or who disagree. Even our piety and humility are feeling larger than life lately, in a way that seems to counter these qualities. I hope I have the fortitude to get up for a few more sunrises while I am here this week. I think there is a lot more to learn about being gently woke.

On this Mother’s Day Eve…

A pattern is emerging in my journey of these last several years. I am increasingly becoming uneasy, dissatisfied, and even resistant to limited thinking and exclusionary expression. I first noticed it in my journey of faith, and write about it often. Nearly all of my posts under the “faith” category name this directly or indirectly. Religion has created a small god which continually seems to underserve the big God I encounter in my life and reading and interaction with others. While I am grateful to have started with a smaller god in order to understand, dig deep, and find my footing, I am now realizing limitations of what I know or think I know. My understanding is but one grain of sand on a beach that runs eternal. And while on some days that is frustrating, more often I am grateful that my job isn’t to know and explore that beach in its entirety but rather to be the best little grain of sand I can be as I mingle, explore, learn and interact with other grains of sand.

Two years ago, Mother’s Day was expanded in my thinking as well. You can read that marvelous post here. On this eve of Mother’s Day, I am reminded of my need to experience tomorrow in a way that is meaningful for me without doing so at the exclusion of others and their experiences. In fact, I want to not just avoid exclusion but to find ways to include more than what I bring to this Mother’s Day.

Tomorrow my grown up child will be home for a day, for which I am so grateful. I love him in ways that I cannot put into words. He is my first born, my first experience of someone part of me yet separate from me. I am immensely proud of the man he is.

My nearly-grown-up child will be with me part of the day. She is my daughter while growing into one of my dearest friends. She is my joy and my delight and probably the only person I could travel with around the world and not drive crazy.

I will have part of the day with my husband who helped make these children possible. He is my partner and my friend. He makes me laugh when I am in desperate need of it.

And I will have time with my faith community who lifts me up, loves me, supports me and believes in me – things we all need from our “moms”.

I will not have time in person with my mom. I am sorry I cannot say to her face-to-face how much I love her and how much I have learned from her and how grateful I am for her. But here is a picture of her and me from a little over a year ago:

Thank you, Mom, for, well, everything.

I won’t be able to see many women who have influenced and loved me, due to distance or time or no longer being on this planet in bodily form. And there have been many men too who have been like mothers to me in their care and nurture and life-giving ways of loving me. To all of you, thank you.

And for the ways in which I cannot fully understand or will not experience tomorrow on Mother’s Day, I seek to make space for you here. I wish to find ways to honor you so that you know you are not alone. I hope others join me too in this.

To you moms who have lost a child, I have seen your pain in a hospital room, a mother unable to put into words what she is feeling as she looks upon the body of the child she has just lost. Whether you are 25 or 95, that pain is palpable and deep. May you find comfort in this day, some how… some way. May you know that your mothering continues in so many ways.

To you who are hurting, who are angry, who feel lost, who have been let down, who have had to say goodbye, who live with regret… may you be found by others in your pain, your anger, or whatever it is that you are feeling. May you know that you are loved and you are lovable.

May we all join together in our need for a mom and in the ways we have been, are, and will be “mom” whether to our children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, pets, relatives, neighbors, friends, or even strangers. Happy Mother’s Day.

“Magic Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest One of All?”

I imagine Lent for you and for me as a great departure from the greedy, anxious antineighborliness of our economy, a great departure from our exclusionary politics that fears the others, a great departure from self-indulgent consumerism that devours creation. And then an arrival in a new neighborhood, because it is a gift to be simple, it is a gift to be free; it is a gift to come down where we ought to be.

 

“Oh,” I thought, “So-and-So could really benefit from these words. If only (s)he could read them and let them really sink in…” And then began my strategic thinking of how to get these “helpful” words into the minds of those who, in my humble opinion, needed to hear them. Perhaps I could share on Facebook as “words that meant so much to me this morning.” I went from feeling inspired to convicting others within seconds, and without giving much thought to my own learning or shortcomings.

And therein lies a significant problem in the Christian faith today – the desire to use my convictions to convict others. It is not a new concept. And in fact it plagues probably all religions for as long as those religions have existed. “I know what is right/best/true/needed, and you need to follow me/my understanding on how to live that out.” Even those religions that claim not to tell others what to believe spend ample time complaining about those that do. It’s inevitable. It’s human nature. And I think it can kill a life of faith that is meaningful and transformative. Or at least seriously maim it.

I started thinking about Snow White’s stepmother who regularly consulted a magic mirror to confirm her wonderfulness. Or her fairishness. She wanted affirmation of what she thought was fabulous about her. And when the mirror gives an answer that contradicted what she sought, she plots to destroy who is in her way of being the fairest of all. She doesn’t seek to learn why Snow White is more fair. Instead she assumes that by killing Snow White the stepmother will once again be on top. Blame. Destroy. Discredit. Remove. Discount. Distance. Pointing fingers does that, doesn’t it? It makes me feel better because at least I’m not like her. It affirms me because I’m not part of the problem like he is. 

Looking in the mirror to see how I am part of the problem? That takes time. That is painful. Yet that is exactly where change begins. Real change. Lasting change. And not just the change within me but the change around me.  So back to that initial quote. If I’m going to take it seriously and really give it its due, that means I’ll need to read it, digest it, and ask myself how I am greedy, how I can be antineighborly or exclusionary or fearful or self-indulgent. If I actually want to experience a better world, I need to live better in it. It means not  moving past those questions too quickly or passing them on to others for their edification. It means assuming that there are probably a number of areas where I can learn and grow and do better. Be better. Ugh. Not comfortable questions. And yet if I begin to figure out how to truly live simply, freely, lovingly and generously, that just might begin to change the world – the world for me and those around me.

Oh what a lenten season this will be…

(The quote is from Walter Brueggemann’s A Way other than Our Own, page 5 of the 2016 paperback edition.)

 

Being Rescued by an Ark

What to do when one doesn’t know what to do? For me, the answer often is to read, process, pray, read, pray, listen, read, respond, pray, read… You get the idea. I try to both find my footing and discover my next steps. The more overwhelmed I feel, the heavier my feet feel. Today I turned to a sermon by Frederick Buechner, who writes more like a poet than a pastor, titled A Sprig of Hope.

In it, Buechner talks about humanity’s insatiable lust for doom. “Despair and destruction and death are the ancient enemies, and yet we are always so helplessly drawn to them that it is as if we are more than half in love with our enemies.” While reading, I affirmed that this certainly seems to be true as I thought of people who embody this lust. (If you are thinking that I am pointing fingers rather than looking within, you are correct.)

Woven in his sermon is the tale of Noah’s Ark, the dark and foreboding story of the destruction of virtually all of the earth. With our penchant for doom, Buechner poses the hypothesis: Perhaps the story of Noah isn’t about how God destroyed the earth with the exception of those on the ark, but the story of our own destruction. Maybe it is not that God doomed the people, but that the people had already doomed themselves. In other words, the flood was not God destroying the wicked, but cleansing what had already been destroyed. It is a subtle but significant theological difference.

Buechner doesn’t gloss over the destruction, but neither does he pretend to understand it. He sees the ark as God’s small provision in the midst of significant despair. “God knows the ark is not much…” I stopped reading with these words and said out loud, “It is not enough, God.” I sat at my kitchen table feeling overwhelmed by the lust for doom these days, and I found God’s offering of an ark to be unacceptable. You must do more, I thought. There are women, children, refugees, immigrants, wildlife at risk… Do more, God. An ark is not enough.

Then I returned to the sermon. “But the ark was enough, is enough.” I stopped and wept. I wept for my lack of faith. I wept for my own lust for doom. I discounted the ark, whatever that ark might be. I was so busy focusing on the doom, I nearly missed the opportunity for hope.

After a good cry, I went back once again to the sermon.

“The ark is wherever human beings come together as human beings in such a way that the differences between them stop being barriers…”

“The ark is wherever people come together because this is a stormy world where nothing stays put for long among the crazy waves and where at the end of every voyage there is a burial at sea.”

“The ark is where, just because it is such a world, we really need each other and know very well that we do.”

“The ark is wherever human beings come together because in their heart of hearts all of them dream the same dream, which is a dream of peace… and thus ultimately a dream of love. Love is not as an excuse for the mushy or innocuous, but love as a summons to battle against all that is unlovely and unloving in the world. The ark, in other words, is where we have each other and where we have hope.”

Thank God I went back to the sermon.

My lust for doom wasn’t in my desire for it. My lust for doom is giving in to it through a lack of faith. The ark isn’t for someone else to choose or reject, with me to live out that choice’s consequence. The ark is my choice. Every day.

What may not feel much like good news should not be surprising news at all. Of course we choose self-preservation. Of course we choose fear. Of course we choose to close our eyes to what seems to be beyond our control because ignorance feels easier in the moment. This is the story of humanity, time and time again. But in the midst of this narrative is an ark. We have a choice: to drift in the water of doom, or to jump on that ark and choose hope, to choose life, to choose peace, to choose love. Even when we have jumped back into the water again and again and again, the ark is there.

May we who seek peace, find each other. May those of us who feel summoned “to battle against all that is unlovely and unloving in the world” keep doing that work. May we not grow weary. And may the sea be filled with arks.

(Note: To read this sermon in its entirety, check out Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner.)

What Just Happened?

Every once in awhile, something happens that leaves me utterly speechless. It is as if someone has stolen my words before they were formed, leaving me with what feels like a vacuum in my mouth. I can open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Maybe it is the introvert in me, but at times like this, words can feel profane. As if somehow filling that vacuum with forced sentiment might actually accomplish something. But perhaps that is because I have no words. Instead I sit in the silence, which feels somehow like a scream. Silently screaming, or screamingly silent for what has occurred that is both unimaginable and utterly heartbreaking.

If you have the luxury of comfort tonight, pray for those who need to feel peace in the midst of chaos. Pray for those who need to feel love and comfort in the midst of heartache. Don’t be a self-centered, self-seeking jerk. Not tonight. Instead think of those who are desperate for something, whether that is physical, emotional, or mental. And for God’s sake, if you can help, offer. Don’t ask yourself if they deserve your help. Just do it. Life is too short, my friends.

Friday Favorite, 6.19.15

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

These are the words of Nazi concentration camp survivor and Nobel Prize winning author Elie Wiesel, and they ring true deeply in my soul today. I am praying for wisdom in how to best stand with those who need an advocate, a friend, an ally.

Finding Peace in the Past

The problem with being reflective is that you eventually encounter the long-buried, unresolved shit in your past. Just when you think you have made great progress and acquired some wisdom, you are smacked in the face with a realization so significant that it nearly brings you to your knees. It is a reality that has become so intertwined with your thoughts and actions that at first it is hard to tell where IT ends and YOU begin.

For me it was a hurt of sorts. It wasn’t a traumatic event; those are easy to recognize. This was a quieter sort of thing. Not one event but something that unfolded over time and took its toll. If I told you what it was, you might just shrug your shoulders in confusion.

I am now seeing clearly all that has been impacted over the years, like the ripples in a lake after you have thrown a stone into it. As the ripples keep rippling, knowing it is too late to take back my stone’s throw, I am left with only one choice. I have done too much work to deny its effects any longer. And so I sit by the water’s edge, figuratively speaking, and watch the ripples grow. I feel the feelings that come with those ripples and I cry as I realize the impact. I cry for the years I had tried to protect myself. I cry for how ineffective that protection really was. I cry for what would never be. I cry for what I had lost…

I suspect some can relate. Whether it is a hurt, a regret, a lost love, a do-over you would give anything to have, there is a similarity among the experiences. It is either deeply embedded within, so subtle that its presence is hardly known, or it haunts and never lets one forget. Or maybe it is a bit of both. The ripples keep coming whether we watch for them or not. And when we periodically get a glimpse of a ripple that we intuitively know is connected, we close our eyes or look away. Or we rationalize. Or we reinterpret to suit our logic.

I was aware for a long time of the hurt I held, although I would not have called it a hurt. I had a very rational, reasonable explanation for what had happened way back then. But I irrationally denied its impact. And thus I was shaped by it far more than I realized. I can now see the hurt that was caused by outside forces. But what is both freeing and horrifying simultaneously is how the lasting impact of that hurt has been largely my doing. My rationalization might have satisfied my mind, but the little kid in me still continued to seek healing. Thus I carried the hurt with me like a heavy carcass, which impacted nearly every step, nearly every turn, nearly every perception. And I did so subconsciously.

Now I sit with it as it is. And although I am watching the ripples, they seem to be smoothing themselves out. By bringing the hurt into the light, or simply by naming it for what it is, I am disarming it. I can feel it losing its grip on me. It’s like the space between the unknown and the diagnosis. You hold your breath anticipating what will come. As soon as you know, it doesn’t go away, but you now know what you are dealing with. I hold my breath for just a moment, whisper what I have been feeling all along, I make peace with myself and my past. No more excuses. No more reframing. No more denying. It happened. It is part of me. And I am going to be okay.