A whole heart in a broken body

mom-the-nurseThe first time Len introduced me to his mom was in January of 1987. I was nervous and awkward…she was poised and gracious. Four months later when Len and I married, mom and I began our journey as in-laws.

Mom and I were very different. She had a place for everything while I had everything out of place. She was a gifted seamstress while I duct taped the hems on my boys pants. She was a meticulous cleaner while I nurtured dust bunnies under every appliance. But she never made me feel bad. Instead, she loved me “as-is” and we bonded over the thing we had in common— our love of family.

For Len and I, some of our fondest memories were when we would jump in the car with Walter and Jack and head to Mamma and Ghee’s house. In five short hours we could be sitting at the long counter at 101 Matthews Drive stuffing our faces with mom’s shrimp po-boys and frosty Barqs root beers. We laughed, lounged, and played games. If the whole family was gathered, inevitably someone would say, “remember the time…?” The siblings would laugh and embellish and argue about details until mom reminded them of the facts. Mom also had a deadpan way of telling stories that made them even funnier than they were.

There was something about being in her home that made you feel like you could go off duty. (Guess that’s because mom had been on duty preparing for two weeks prior to our arrival.) We descended on them like the proverbial plague and left them, as mom liked to say, “ruined” by the end of our visit.

How someone who liked things “just so” endured the chaos we dragged into her house is a testament to mom’s love. We were loud and messy. And while the three-ring family circus swirled in her living room, she was quietly observing…taking the emotional temperature of those around her to make sure all her babies, actual and grown, were all doing well. We might have been a unruly brood, but she had a mother’s intentional heart—saying or doing just the right things to encourage us individually.

We were fortunate to have so many good years with mom. We’re blessed with memories of celebrating birthdays, holidays and countless significant life events. And we could write volumes about the times mom and Jack rode in like the cavalry (if the cavalry pulled Airstream trailers) to help us out with a home repair, a new baby, or a crisis.

The years flew by as we raised kids and tried to make ends meet. We slept a few times and all got older. It’s just that the same number of years added to mom and Jack’s stack of time shifted them into a stage requiring more help.

The decisions families are forced to make in the face of aging and declining health are brutal. There are no great options. For mom this meant moving to Ruston in 2014 to be near Len and I. It was a move from a city she had called home for 50 years, from a husband of 37 years, and from a whole community of her people. She was understandably upset and confused.

The three of us spent the first months trying to learn our new normal—Len and I adjusting to caring for someone who used to care for us and mom out of her element and out of control. She was lonely…but refused to leave her room for activities or meals. She obsessed about “going home” to the point of packing her walker to make an escape.

photoBut eventually we found a rhythm. She would always be surprised and thrilled when I walked in the door. My first order of business was to fetch her a “good cup of coffee.” We would visit, running through the same talking points everyday. She was happy to sit in her favorite Lazy-boy recliner and watch the nursing home world parade by her open door. In true Southern style she would kindly speak to the people when they reached her doorway, and then, speak about the people after they passed.

It took a while for me to change my perspective from the sadness of mom’s condition to recognizing the beauty of this stripped down version of a person. There was no pretense or distraction. No yesterday or tomorrow. Only the moment we were sharing. I couldn’t change her situation, but I could ride it out with her.

For all of the downsides of dementia, these past two and a half years I’ve had the privilege of watching the cream rise to the top of mom’s life. The qualities she spent a lifetime cultivating couldn’t be squelched by her mental foe. They might not have presented in a way we recognized at first, but there they were: loving, helpful, orderly, purposeful, thankful, and a lover of God.

On more than one occasion during this difficult transition, mom would suddenly close her eyes, bow her head and pray. While I was busy fretting or raging against some new obstacle, her default mode was to go to the source of all comfort and hope. Even in her confused state, her faith put me to shame.

Before mom lost her ability to communicate, she would often protest fretfully that I was doing so much for her and she couldn’t do anything for me. I would remind her that she had already done so much for all of us through the years and now it was our turn to help her. She would give me a puzzled look and say, “I did?”

I would run through an abbreviated list of the countless, selfless ways she had loved our family. I would tell her of our visits to her home in Slidell and how she would roll out shrimp, “mamma chicken” and ice cream pie. She listened like a child hearing about Santa Claus for the first time —with pure wonder.

We tell stories with our lives—with our words and actions—and pass them down to the next generation. And then when we can no longer remember our own stories, our children tell them back to us.

One of the last coherent things mom said to me was, “You’re a good carer.” It was tender and precious. But it was really the story she taught me with her life. It was an honor to remind mom of her story for the past two and a half years.

She lived a great story.

The day reality got real

Last Friday as I was leaving the nursing home, the parking lot was full of residents holding American flags as they hobbled and rolled to the curb. They were waiting for the Blue Angels to fly over in honor of Veterans Day.

 

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I drove past the group and waved. With minds held captive by dementia, many stared blankly back at me and waved their red, white and blue on the cue of their caretakers. To keep from driving off the road in despair, I had to focus on positives: 1. These residents were once vital contributors to society—mothers and fathers, teachers, businessmen, pastors, nurses, engineers and veterans. 2. It’s an honor to care for such trailblazers.

But a bigger part of me wanted to punch the accelerator to speed away from this preview of all our futures. I tried to fill my mind with all the urgent tasks I needed to accomplish. But something within me knew I had to turn around and share this important moment with my unlikely adopted community. And so I did.

I turned around. I parked. I walked from my car and joined the huddled geriatric masses slumped in their wheelchairs. Out of the 15 facility residents who are veterans, only one made it out for the festivities. The activities director moved him to the front row. I kneeled down and thanked him for his service. He gave me a nod. I’m not sure he could hear or understand me. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. We were all just united…Americans celebrating the freedom we enjoy.

To have this experience on the heels of the bloodiest (political) battle since Antietam is not lost on me. Last Tuesday we all watched—some with excitement, some with horror, and all in disbelief—as Donald Trump was elected our next President.

I’m not gonna lie…I spent the better part of the Fall burying my head in the sands of entertainment. My biggest nail-biter, while eating Skittles and watching back-to-back episodes of Say Yes to the Dress, was hoping Pnina Tornai could come through for the picky bride and her overbearing mother.

But even with my news fast, stories about the two candidates seeped into our house like black mold. Hillary left me with huge trust issues and Trump just made me sick. No amount of mental gymnastics would allow me to pull the lever for either one. So armed with my conscience and a handful of sugar high, I voted third party.

Whether the former Celebrity Apprentice star really meant to win or not, November 8th is the day reality got real for us all. The negative fallout was immediate. I was extremely proud and encouraged when Hillary Clinton and President Obama urged our country to come together and give the new President-elect a chance to lead. But unless acceptance looks like riots and #notmypresident, a lot of people are still pretty worked up.

Here’s the deal…Contrary to the inflammatory rhetoric on both sides, I think people just voted for whomever they felt could better help them survive their daily lives. And on lots of days for lots of people, just surviving is a bitch.

My biggest take away from this election cycle is that we have become a nation that has lost the ability to communicate. Screaming obscenities over police lines or firing verbal bombs from social media bunkers doesn’t count. I’m talking about face-to-face conversations…asking questions and actually listening to each other’s answers. It’s a lot harder to demonize someone when you’re looking him/her in the eye.

It’s normal for us to filter everything through the grid of our own realities. For us it’s self-employment and trying to squeeze life-blood from our bank account turnip while holding a health insurance letter saying our premiums will just about double in 2017. But guess what? Our needs are only two out of 318.9 million.

I recently learned that we have a poverty rate pushing 40% (according to census.gov) in our little town of Ruston…40 percent!!! What? (Randy has never mentioned that on Say Yes to the Dress.) Aside from our inherited involvement with eldercare, a few years volunteering at an elementary school, and annual holiday drive-by good deeds, I’ve been oblivious to the needs of others.

So while I’m watching and praying that President-elect Trump will have an attack of humility, I’m going to focus on my own need for change and engagement. No politician can fix all our nation’s ills. We each have a responsibility to be a part of the solution.

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Back in the parking lot, it was all a blur. “I see them!” someone yelled. “Wave your flags!” Old hands held up Old Glorys as the Blue Angels screamed by and dipped their wings. Set against the backdrop of a brutal election, this was a freakin’ Hallmark commercial—these aerial symbols of freedom zooming past our living heirlooms. The only thing that could have added more emotion to the mix was if the Angels had air-dropped a box full of cute babies and puppies.

I stumbled back to my car and ugly-cried for a few minutes. But then, I felt hopeful. When you get right down to it, we all want the same things—safety, respect, and a little compassion. Surely we can work at making that a reality for everyone?

What to do when you can’t fix what’s broken

 

elycefeliz, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/28PeRYr
elycefeliz, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/28PeRYr

Everywhere I look I see things in need of fixing.

I don’t mean the ceiling fan in my bedroom or those potholes in the parking lot at my health club.

I mean friends who are sick and may not recover. I mean parents who are heart sick over wayward children. (God knows if a father’s sighing and a mother’s weeping could “fix” rebelliousness, every long-lost prodigal would be back home by now. Alas, such things can’t; consequently those kids aren’t.)

I see moms and dads who are wallowing in so much personal dysfunction, they don’t notice the kid in the bedroom down the hall who is in major trouble. I see job seekers who have diligently beaten the bushes and the streets and their heads against the wall. And what do they have to show for all that hustle? Unemployed hearts that are beaten down and beat up all at once.

When I was little and bumped up against a broken edge of life, my mom would sometimes say, “If I had a magic wand, I’d fix it.”

Later I became jealous of Jeannie the genie. Remember that sitcom? Remember the cute blonde in the bottle who could blink her eyes while giving a quick nod…and instantly rectify any problem?

This week while watching cable news I had this thought: I’d like to be a Presidential candidate if for no other reason than I would be able to fix ANYTHING.

Gun violence, discrimination, terrorism, joblessness, Wall Street’s woes, the national debt, illegal immigration, melting glaciers—apparently there’s no problem on earth these aspirants for the Oval Office can’t fix.

I’ve noticed that though they aren’t long on specifics, they are strong in tone of voice. To hear them tell it (i.e., yell it), help is just ahead. Sounds like no matter who wins, we’re only months away from having an omni-competent commander-in-chief who is equal parts MacGyver, Einstein, Mary Poppins, and Dear Abby.

Political exasperation aside, I see behind our fixation with fixing things, underneath our attraction to self-proclaimed “fixers,” an uncomfortable reality: Our fix-it powers are minimal.

Ceiling fans and potholes are one thing. But healing a culture, curing an addiction, rescuing a marriage?

Here’s the brutal truth: You and I can’t fix our own messed-up hearts, much less mend the brokenness all around us. We can’t make the world problem-free and pain-proof, not even for those we love most fiercely. But we try, don’t we? Our quixotic forays into a cancer-filled world, armed with our little boxes of band-aids.

In all my years of life, I still haven’t met anyone with a magic wand. (I suspect because God never meant for us to be in charge of outcomes.)

However, I am discovering this:  Even if we don’t have it within us to fix big things, we can at least facilitate the fixing of those things. We can do the little things God assigns us to do—then step aside and wait for Him to do the big stuff only He can do.

We can pray, for example. So I do. My rambling conversations with the Almighty…daily making a case for those I love…trying to remember that God’s heart is good and His ways are higher than mine…struggling to trust that He is working even when I don’t see how.

With the broken, I can do other small things. I can check in with them, sit with them in their pain, listen, nod a lot, be a friend, encourage (hopefully without offering up warmed-over platitudes).

Those are pitiful little band-aids, I know. But ask any kid. Band-aids have a strange power. Even though they don’t actually “fix” anything, they can make a bad thing a tad more tolerable.

The other day, a guy fixed my badly cracked Camry windshield in 40 minutes flat. “You’re fast!” I marveled. “Piece of cake,” he mumbled.

Now if I could just find out which candidate has a plan to fix the problem of flying gravel on our nation’s highways.

How to enjoy the beach 35 years of cellulite later

IMG_2205Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a middle-aged woman like these two words: Swimsuit Season!

So tell me: Would you rather have your 20 year-old body,  or the current broken down version you drag out of bed each morning? What fool wouldn’t choose the younger, more energetic model? Until my recent trip to the beach, I would have knocked you over to get to the front of that trade-in line.

The last time I took a substantial beach vacation was about 35 years ago. Patty, Renny, Kathy, Gaynelle and I hopped into Patty’s Ford Mustang with our bikinis, hairspray and our bank rolls of money saved from donating plasma. (There’s every parents dream for their kid!) The Knack blared on the stereo while we banged our hairbrushes in time on the dashboard.

I wish I could tell you our trip goal was to appreciate God’s beautiful creation…looking over the waters to marvel at dolphins diving in and out of the surf. Nope. We drove 972 miles to Daytona Beach to do exactly what we did everyday in the spring back home in Indiana—lie out in the sun, listen to music, and drink. But in Florida, we could drink legally while acquiring second-degree burns. So unless a dolphin cruised up shoreside with a tray of Tom Collins on its back, we had bigger fish to fry.

Renny was always the first to crisp up. Wanting to get her money’s worth of sun, she would dip herself in a vat of baby oil and fall asleep on the beach the first day. She spent the remainder of the trip lying on a lounge chair looking like the invisible man in sweats and sunglasses to protect her blistered skin.

Mid-week, we strutted along the beach with our toned, tanned bodies like seaside CEOs, sniggering at the older people ruining our youthful view. Middle-aged women hid their bulges under skirted swimsuits while their husbands sported bermuda shorts, black socks and sandals.

I cringe a little when I think about those trips. But mostly, I smile. We were in a stage of life…a self-centered, irresponsible, potentially dangerous, necessary stage of life. Most of us are not “born older“ like George Bailey, so we do time wasting time, talent and resources.

A couple of weeks ago I climbed into another Ford and headed to the beach. This time it was in a practical, family-friendly Edge owned by my friend, Julie who graciously invited Tisdale and I to join her on a trip to Orange Beach. Since I prefer the mountains to the beach and since I have developed a raging case of “hermit“ these past few years, it took some serious persuading to get me on board.

If they didn’t question the wisdom of my inclusion when I texted the night before our departure to inform them that I didn’t even own a beach towel, they certainly did when we made our first trek out to the water.

They walked out of their rooms looking like page 42 of the Land’s End summer catalog—cute beach bags, classy coverups and straw hats. I walked out of a Kurt Cobain music video with my gym shorts, a baggy, gray tank, and a previous vacation’s souvenir-equivalent of a reusable grocery bag.

IMG_3118I think Julie tried to set up her chair a distance from mine making it plausible for passersby to think we weren’t together. I inched my chair closer to hers. Soon, the great equalizer of our post-child bearing bodies and minds made the experience of lying half-naked in the world a lot more comfortable than it was all those years ago when we actually had the goods to flaunt.

Our conversations drifted toward our children and our hopes and dreams for them as they make their way in the world. We talked about politics, healthcare, bills, and our failing memories. With bladders that hang by a thread, we even stood in the waves and warmed the ocean. It was that or spend the week doing stair laps up to the condo bathroom.

One day nasty weather pushed us off the beach and to the Outlets. Julie and Tisdale force-fed my dressing room with skirts, pants, and dresses. (Guess my beach attire had them worried about what I might wear out to dinner?) The public mirror of three angles of bad was the worst. Is this too short? Too tight? Too young?! Nothing says you’ve aged out of fashion like feeling out-of-place at a chain clothing store. I even caught a mannequin rolling her eyes at me.

Back in the safety of our condo and my boxers, I crawled into a stem of chardonnay and realized how thankful I am to not be the 20 year-old on the beach. I don’t mind my saggy, wrinkled body. I’ve earned it along with the wisdom that comes from every trial, success, and humbling experience of my life.

They all add up to that blob on the beach who can watch the new young thing stroll by like she owns the place, and feel nothing but gratitude.

I’m thrilled to be past her stage of life. I’m sure she looks at me with the same pity I felt for the old couple back in the 80’s. But for one moment when our eyes met, I caught a glimpse of the insecurity and fear that bely the confident beachcomber. Who knew the exposing of our skin was only a cover up?

My college friends, current partners in crime and I are all older now. The exhausting business of keeping up a youthful facade is behind us. It won’t be long before we’re asking, “Can you see my Depends through this suit?”

I’m just happy I can still adjust my cellulite to fit on the lounge chair.

Watching Trump and Hillary play kickball at recess

I don’t know how it was at your grade school, but in Slidell, Louisiana, in the late 1960s, we had certain playground customs.

Photo by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/24Ibb0K
Photo by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/24Ibb0K

So, for example, if you decided to choose up teams for kick ball (or play a game that required someone to be “it”), nobody—at least at Florida Ave Elementary—began with, “One potato, two potato, three potato, four…” That was, well, so fifties.

We had far cooler “selection rhymes.” My friend Craig usually went with:

“Engine, Engine #9, going down Chicago Line…if the train should jump the track, do you want your money back?”

“Yes.”

“Y-E-S spells yes, and…(pause for Craig to do word math in his head, trying to figure out how to manipulate the outcome and subtly stop on the kid he either wanted on his team or wanted to be “it”) you are definitely…going to…be…the one…who is IT!”

I preferred a rhyme I learned from my friend, Cheese:

“My mother and your mother were hanging out clothes. My mother smacked your mother right smack in the nose. What color was the blood?”

“Green.”

“G-R-E-E-N spells green and you are…not on my team…this game…but YOU are!”

After the game got underway, that kid nobody liked would run up and ask which side he could join. If we didn’t resort to lying — “Sorry, but the principal said we can’t have more players than this” — someone (or several someones) would yell emphatically, “Tick tock, the game is locked!”

Inclusiveness was not our strong suit. The girls, jumping rope on the far side of the schoolyard usually went with the far more literary, but equally exclusionary: “Criss cross, applesauce, no one else can play with us.”

In races, if you got to be the “starter,” you would abuse your power by saying things like: “On your MARK…get SET (dramatic pause for tension while kids leaned forward until they were almost parallel to the ground)…SMOKE A CIGARETTE!” This resulted in making everyone look foolish—false starts, bodies collapsing in a heap. Such tricks were almost always met with a punch or two in the arm, and it was still totally worth it.

If, during dodgeball, let’s say, you declared a kid “hit” and told him to get out of the ring, he might threaten, “Why don’t you make me!?” To which you were expected to say in a snarky voice, “I don’t make trash, I burn it!” or sometimes, “You’re already made and too dumb to know it.” (Bam! Ten-year-old tough talk at its finest!)

If he resisted—bowing up or resorting to name-calling—one of your cohorts would step forward and speak of the cheater in third-person, “He thinks he’s hot snot on a golden platter. But he’s really cold boogers on a paper plate.” (A disgusting image, I know, but you have to admit: As put-downs go, that’s Hall of Fame-type material.)

Most times, the chastened kid would then turn to the “Old Faithful” of childhood comebacks, “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!”

Then, if he still refused to leave the circle, someone might threaten, “C’mon, get out of the circle… or I’ll hit you so hard, I’ll kill your whole family!” Possible replies included “You and what army?” or “Better bring your lunch, ‘cuz it’s gonna take you all day.”

When everyone got bored with all this dumb bickering, we would call a temporary peace, lock arms and begin steamrolling across the playground like a row of German Panzer tanks, disrupting other games, tromping over any innocents in our way. Our chant? “We won’t stop! We won’t stop! We won’t stop for a lollipop!”

Then, smelling like a flock of goats and snickering proudly at all the carnage we’d inflicted, the bell would ring. Our teacher would appear, we’d line up by the door, and some kid, the class knucklehead usually, would blurt out some crass, off-color joke.

Maybe something like, “What’s brown and lies by the fence? (pause for maximum comedic effect, then the punchline) Gomer’s Pyle!” All the girls would scream,“Gross!” All the boys would hoot with laughter. The teacher would glare at us and shush us into the building.

DonkeyHotey, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WmMaac
DonkeyHotey, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WmMaac

I don’t remember what made me think of all this. But I think it may have been the result of watching the evening news about the 2016 Presidential campaign.

Feel free to draw your own parallels and conclusions.

Why it’s okay to be an indecipherable mess

If I have the stuff inside me to make cocoons—maybe the stuff of butterflies is there too.

Trina Paulus, Hope for the Flowers

Photo by Alyson Hinkie
Photo by Alyson Hinkie

Some people enjoy a butterfly life.

Colorful and carefree, they flit unpredictably about the world eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs.”

What a sweet life! Flying from one beautiful place to the next, sampling exotic foods, always looking good and turning heads.

When butterfly people land in your life (or on your Facebook or Instagram or blog feed), they are something to behold. But you have to look quickly. Blink and these winged flowers are gone, off to the next thing.

Other people are like caterpillars. Grounded rather than gorgeous, you won’t find them trending on Twitter or winning gold medals. No, while the butterfly people are enjoying the view way up where the flowers brush against the sky, the caterpillar folks are down below, engaged in a lot of tenacious clinging and relentless climbing.

At first glance caterpillars never “wow” you. Only when you pay close attention do you realize how fascinating they are. How do they do it? How do they keep all the wiggly parts of their lives together, inching toward the goal?

Aleksandar Cocek, Flicker Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WQCu6a
Aleksandar Cocek, Flicker Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WQCu6a

There’s a third group of people that neither soar on the wind nor scuffle about the earth.

They’re hard to spot. This is because Life has decreed they enter a kind of “time-out with the lights off” in order to undergo big change. During this strange season, their sole job description is not to be pretty or to be busy. It is to be come.

Every fourth-grader knows about metamorphosis. A caterpillar hangs from a branch and spins a cocoon around itself. What happens next, inside that temporary place, is nothing short of miraculous.

It’s the marriage of chemistry and mystery. Bidding farewell to its former existence, the cooped-up caterpillar releases enzymes that actually cause it to dissolve into a kind of chunky “worm soup.”

The chunks are called “imaginal discs.” These clusters of cells are the embryonic parts of the creature’s glorious future. (They’ve been there all along, we just couldn’t see them.) It’s these elements that will come together to produce a butterfly.

What powers this remarkable transformation? The protein-rich “goo” that, quite literally, was the creature’s life as a caterpillar. In other words, the past is the fuel for the future.

As metaphors go, an ugly caterpillar morphing into a beautiful butterfly is hard to beat. (Which explains why writers and motivational speakers use it more often than Geico airs insurance commercials.) But few focus on that mysterious in-between time. And what a shame that is, because it’s in the transition that all the magic happens.

Think about some of the big transitions we have to undergo in life:

  • From toddler to little kid — “You want me to use a toilet? What’s wrong with these handy things called diapers?! …Go to school? But I love my life the way it is!”
  • Adolescence — You’re no longer a little kid, but you’re also a long way from being an adult—even if you’re through puberty and shaving by age 12. (Personal testimony: No group—as a whole—feels more like a “chunky soup of goo” than acne-plagued, hormone-filled junior high & high school students.)
  • From college to the workplace — Who knew… that monster.com would replace YouTube as your new favorite website? … that a 15 hour class load is like a beach vacation compared to a full-time work schedule? … that so much “life” happens before noon?
  • From one career to another — More and more people are switching careers late in life, and often not by their own choice. They’re watching old jobs dissolve. They’re having to reinvent themselves and acquire new skills that can help them compete in the new economy.
James Jordan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1ZqDixK
James Jordan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1ZqDixK

Scientists can’t tell us what the experience of metamorphosis “feels” like for an ex-caterpillar/butterfly-in-the-making.

They don’t need to. We know how our own life transitions feel. It’s unsettling to find yourself in the dark. And most transitions seem like a colossal waste of time: How long is this going to take…because I have a LOT to do! Experiencing the dissolution of your old life is unnerving—and painful. You don’t know who or what you are anymore. If you feel like a mess, it’s because you are one. But that’s okay. Becoming is always messy business.

The message here to beautiful butterfly people and to dutiful caterpillar people is, “Carry on. You’re doing great.”

The message today to all the amorphous “cocoon people” is, “Hang in there (heh, heh)…you’re doing great too.” Life’s in-between times aren’t fun, but they are the necessary crucibles that make us into the people we were created to be.

Today, if you feel like you’re disintegrating and that the life you once knew is disappearing forever, resist the urge to resist the process. Submit. In fact, embrace it.

How else will you get your wings?

Love in the human lost and found

Once upon a time, before I came, you cried and cried and watched TV all day, until you were a zombie. But then I zoomed down from heaven, through skylight, into Room. Whoosh-pshew! And I was kicking you from the inside. Boom, boom! And then I shot out onto Rug with my eyes wide open, and you cutt-ed the cord and said, ‘Hello, Jack!’

Room

The movie Room is the story of Jack and Ma. When Ma (Joy) was seventeen, she was abducted and locked in a garden shed. Jack, was born out of the horrendous actions of her captor, Old Nick. The film opens on Jack’s fifth birthday, seven years after the kidnapping.

In order to protect him from the ugly truth of their plight, Ma allows Jack to believe the only real world is their tiny room and its contents. Jack narrates his understanding of the world:

There’s Room, then Outer Space, then Heaven. Plant is real but not trees. Spiders are real and one time the mosquito that was sucking my blood. But squirrels and dogs are just TV, except Lucky my dog that might be some day. Mountains are too big to be real and the sea.

As outsiders with the benefit of understanding there is a larger reality, it’s shocking to see Jack’s relative peace with his existence. But his stability lies in his mother’s love, not in his surroundings.

None of us have a vote about the family into which we’re born. Many families muddle through, managing to grow their broods to adulthood relatively unscathed. But far too many children find themselves in homes that are tenuous at best and downright dangerous at worst.

In the fall, I sat in a tiny courtroom with two little boys, their biological parents, and my friend who was their foster mom. I watched as the birth parents relinquished their parental rights. Products themselves of poverty, abuse, poor role models, and addiction—compounded by their own unfortunate choices—led them to this decision. The situation was not sustainable.

In Room, Old Nick’s threats force Ma to confront their own unsustainable life. Jack is their only hope to pull off a plan of escape, but she can’t send him out into a world he doesn’t believe exists. She comes clean about the truth of their life in the shed. He responds to the news with confusion and anger.

Jack: “I want a different story!”

Ma: “No, this is the story that you get!”

After many tears and much discussion…

Ma: “You’re going to love it.”

Jack: “What?”

Ma: “The world.”

The plan is successful and the two are finally free. Even though their rescue is the best possible outcome, the new reality for Ma and Jack is overwhelming. Their simple, co-dependent world built for two is now stretched to accommodate life outside of the room. Jack’s observes:

The world’s like all TV planets on at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen. There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. 

On April 19, 2016, I entered the same court that sanctioned the demise of a family in the fall. But this time I got to witness the legal rescue of the same little boys. A judge signed adoption papers making my friend their new forever mom. Whoosh-pshew! A new family was born. Love in the human lost and found.

The three year-old was playful and smiling. The five year-old wore uncertainty like the Halloween mask he wore on the fall day that set this arrangement into motion.

He loves his adoptive mother and his new life with her and his brother. But like Jack, his rescue from a simple, but broken life with his biological family leaves him with a confusing mix of emotions.

His forever mommy is willing to lean into the tension of a life that includes the birth parents so the boys will know they were loved on all fronts. But still he is left in an emotional wrestling match of one—trying to sort out where his allegiances should lie.

Jack’s Ma gets pinned by her formidable re-entry opponent and tries to tap out with a handful of pills. While she is recovering in a hospital, Jack continues his acclimation with the care of his grandmother, Nancy. As he becomes stronger, he wants to offer some of his strength to his mother.

In true Samson fashion, he decides to cut his five year-old mane and send the locks of bravery to his mom.

Jack: “Do you think this will work? Can my strong be her strong too?”

Nancy:  “Oh. Of course it can. We all help each other stay strong. No one is strong alone.”

AdoptionMy friend, the new forever mom, has spent most of her life wondering why she has experienced so much pain, disappointment, and disillusionment. Wondering what God could possibly be thinking? I have sat with her, cried with her, and listened. “Doesn’t He care? Doesn’t he see my pain? If only it had a purpose.”

It did. And He saw. He sat with her through it and then looked past it to two little boys who would need her to understand their pain. All the struggle and counseling and wrestling with a life that did not go as planned uniquely qualified her to welcome two tiny souls now battling the same questions. Her trials prepared her “for such a time as this.”

If we could choose our stories, I would guess these brothers would not have picked this scenario. But this is their story. The beautiful thing is, while there are wounds to be healed and hardships to overcome, there is hope.

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes:

Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness—mine, yours, ours—need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.

Two little boys burst into the room of my friend. It was unplanned and messy. The truth was ugly and sad. But after the truth comes love. Lots of love. Together, they saved each other.

7 passages I wish were in the Bible

Smiling Jesus

Why doesn’t the Bible mention Jesus laughing?

We see Christ weeping. We see him getting furious with hypocritical do-gooders. What about him cracking a smile, or better yet, cracking up?

There’s no such passage. But surely Jesus laughed. Consider: He loved kids and vice versa (this isn’t true of grim people). He was a master storyteller (and raconteurs are always amusing). He was an A-lister at the dinner parties of the irreligious crowd (Sticks-in-the-mud don’t get such invitations).

Throw in all the incidents in the gospels with comical aspects—civic officials climbing trees to get a glimpse of Jesus; a small group vandalizing a stranger’s roof in order to get their sick friend directly in front of the Great Physician; Jesus feeding thousands with one boy’s Happy Meal….It’s impossible to see how anyone could face a daily stream of these kinds of situations and remain straight-faced.

I maintain that Jesus, Creator of all things—which would include humor—was both fun and funny. I submit to you that Jesus chuckled, chortled, guffawed, and even ROTFLed.

I just wish the gospel writers had mentioned a couple of these incidents.

For example, in the story of Peter walking on water, wouldn’t you love to read a couple more verses: “Back in the boat, Jesus grinned at the waterlogged Peter, high-fived him, and said, ‘Three and half steps! Not bad for a first-timer!’ Then he threw back his head and began to hoot uncontrollably. Later, when the boat scrunched up on the shore, the Lord was still doubled over.”

Understand, I don’t need the Bible to say something like that. I just wish it did.

This got me thinking about other issues I wish the Bible explicitly addressed. Not that I’m suggesting we need to add to God’s revelation, but don’t you agree the following passages would be helpful?

  1. “In the last days, social media will be a thing. But this doesn’t mean I’m okay with you being anti-social around living, breathing people. Also, know this: Even if you go by an anonymous username like CheekyMonkey, I know who you are, and I see everything you’re posting. One day, we will have a talk about all that.”
  1. “Blessed is the person who stops looking for non-existent ‘spiritual formulas.’ There are no formulas, only these facts: You should expect constant surprises. Jesus is your huckleberry. He will lead you home.”
  1. “Jesus continued, ‘So that’s the right way to pray. And here are some ways not to do it: First, unless you happen to live in Elizabethan England in the early 1600s, stop saying “thee” or “thy” when you talk to our heavenly Father. That’s weird. Really, “you” and “your” are fine. Second, you don’t have to keep asking me to be with you. I AM! For the record, there’s never been a single moment when I wasn’t right there.’”
  1. “If anyone desires to study theology, he desires a good thing. But woe to the one who argues angrily and arrogantly about such matters. I will crash that man’s hard drive and bring wrath upon his Logos Bible software.”
  1. “Truly, truly I say unto you, he who has ears to hear, listen up. Pay close attention. My plan is NOT for all my children to: (a) think and believe exactly the way you think and believe; (b) care about all the causes you care about; (c) come to your church (believe it or not, I actually have a few followers at other churches who know and love Me); (d) have identical spiritual experiences—so please stop comparing yourself to others and others to you; (e) always be healthy and wealthy and successful (at least in the ways the world defines those terms).”
  1. “And, now about this worship tension in the church…to you older saints I say… ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’ means exactly that. Quit grumbling about all the fresh praise choruses the kids are coming up with. At least they’re wanting to praise God! Turn down your hearing aids and join in gladly! Remember God loves loud, enthusiastic spiritual songs! To you younger believers I say, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’ doesn’t mean every song has to be new. Learn and sing some of the church’s rich, old hymns. Remember God enjoys more reflective music too.”

I should stop. Lord knows I’m messing—mostly—when I say these things.

(Hopefully, he’s smiling?)

 

Squinting our red eyes at the hope of a new day

Photo courtesy of jdurham, morgueFile, http://bit.ly/1WkFEiE
Photo courtesy of jdurham, morgueFile, http://bit.ly/1WkFEiE

Do you ever get the sense that life is a series of red eye flights from birth to the grave? Darkness and light duking it out over the course of 70 or so years.

Thanks to some insomniac in the 70’s, airlines realized they could maximize their fleet’s productivity/profit by using their planes to transport freight overnight from the west coast to the east coast, thereby arriving in time for morning deliveries. Additionally, this repositioned the aircrafts for the morning flights heading west.

From there, a few over-achievers discovered they could work all day on the west coast, hop on board this night flight, fly during non-business hours, and arrive on the east coast rested* and ready for a new business day.

*About as rested as Gulliver on Lilliput Airways.

Bi-coastal executives magically appeared at morning meetings with eyes redder than a baboon’s butt. Thus the red-eye was born.

A confessed wanderer, I see travel metaphors at every turn. Sitting in church a couple of weeks ago I pictured the whole motley lot of us sharing the flight of life. We inch forward on our individual paths all week and then meet up to travel collectively for a couple of hours aboard the Sunday flyer.

Our altruistic side wants to be there because we desire to worship a loving God who chose to “save a wretch like me”. However, if the communion cups contained truth serum, many of us wretches would confess our attendance is tied more to the hope of an express journey over the dark, difficult passages of life to a brighter destination. A spiritual red-eye.

In church circles,  darkness refers to spiritual obscurity or deprivation of light (insight). Daylight refers to life, salvation, goodness, and truth. Who wouldn’t love to sleep through the dark, scary stretches and awaken to the hope of a brand new day?

The circumstances that lead each of us to the pew will vary, but the question we’re asking is the same: Why is my life not working out like I thought it would?

So I squeeze past the mission-minded, home-schooling, self-sacrificing, high-tithing cats in the first class section of the congregation on my way to the business class of sinners. Sometimes I spend the first few moments of the service sizing up my traveling companions.

If I strain hard enough I can compare myself not only to the present company, but to spiritual heavy hitters through all of human history. Surely up in that front row, just beyond my view, Moses and Paul are wiping their faces with hot towels, clinking mini bottles of champagne, and eating their pre-ordered kosher meals.

It feels like there is a holy/unholy separation of the population there in the rows, but there is no division. Only broken people in need of forgiveness, grace, and acceptance. Even Moses and Paul were a mixed bag. Two murderers who by God’s grace “broke good”.

CongregationThe church has to take us in. The liars, the abusers, the adulterers, the gossipers, the self-righteous, the embezzlers, the addicted, the prideful scum of the earth. You know…you and me.

Call it crazy hope, wishful thinking, or last-ditched effort, people are searching for illumination. Some of my darkest times in life were a result of bad experiences within the church and with people claiming to represent God. But even then, I didn’t know what else to do except show up in the place where, in the end, there might be some light.

This past week, I skipped the Sunday “flight.” And in a true rebellious preacher’s kid move, I even cut the grass during God’s business hours. I half expected illumination in the form of a lightening bolt from the clear blue sky. But nothing happened.

Turns out God does not take attendance. Showing up is for our benefit not His. What I really missed was the collective weekly reminder: There is hope. I’m not alone. There’s something about being crammed together with a bunch of forgiven losers that sets the tone for the rest of the week.

It comes in handy when stumbling out onto the tarmac of Monday squinting our red eyes at the hope of a new day.

How “more” and “faster” can kill your heart

UltraMarathon
Shannon Dizmang, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1UJiSl7

Last week I met an ultra-marathoner (i.e., one of those people who thinks running a mere 26.2 miles is for wusses).

This guy once ran 100 miles in 28 straight hours—and not because he was delivering a life-saving vaccine to a remote, disease-ravaged village. He ran all that way (on purpose!) because, apparently, while some running is good, more running is better.

When I asked about the toll this feat took on his body, he stifled a smile, hung his head and softly admitted it took him “a long time to recover.” (Note: Since that race he mostly competes in little 100k runs. Wimp.)

This week when I got an email promising to show me how I can “get more done” and “be more productive,” I thought about my new friend who can’t stop running.

Being productive is the new rage. In fact, the only phrase in the world more popular than “doing more in less time” is “at the end of the day.”

In the last month, I’ve received no less than 10 such emails. They tell me that if I would only—

  • Read a certain book
  • Follow four steps
  • Sign up for an on-line course
  • Subscribe to a certain efficiency guru’s newsletter (take your pick)—

I could basically transform myself into a real-life version of an ultra-marathoner. I suppose I could learn—metaphorically speaking—to run 200 miles in a mere 22 hours!

Something in me is drawn to such offers. After all, at the end of the day, it is a competitive world. And the people who accomplish the most typically get the best rewards. Praise, press, promotions, better pay—who doesn’t want all that? What’s more, if robots really are taking over the world, our only hope as humans would seem to be to increase our output (lest we end up part of a ragtag resistance force fighting the A.I. overlords).

Another—larger—part of me cringes at all this “get more done in less time” hype. God knows I’m not against making plans and accomplishing goals. I believe in hustling. I know being proactive is preferable to being reactive.

But what if I don’t want to become a productivity machine? What if I want to enjoy my days instead of trying to wrestle them to the ground? What if I don’t want to come at my life with a whip and a chair, constantly trying to back it into the corner to show it who’s boss?

When was it decided that “more” and “faster” is automatically preferable to “less” and “slower”? I’ve experienced enough life to know that “efficient” doesn’t always equal “good.” In the effort to “do a ton and do it quick,” I’ve seen well-meaning people (including the guy whose face I shave most mornings) morph into busy, harried, task-oriented tyrants. “Getting busy and getting lots done” can make you feel important; that pursuit can also wreak havoc on your soul—and your neighbor’s.

“Hurry” isn’t all it’s advertised to be either. Did you know that if you don’t dilly dally, you can leave Denver at 4 a.m., drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park, take a selfie, then hightail it to the Grand Canyon for another sunset photo op, and be asleep in Las Vegas by midnight? That’s some serious tourism productivity. (Or the road trip to hell, depending on your point of view)

I’d like to see productivity marketers required—like pharmaceutical companies—to disclose the downside of striving to squeeze more accomplishment out of every second of each day.

“Possible side effects of Productivia include disappointment (not all users achieve these same results; in fact, many report feeling like schlubs when they don’t). Some experience stress of other kinds—relational detachment, less frequent moments of wonder, and high frustration levels at the end of the day when their productivity plans get torpedoed by unforeseen events. In certain cases, Productivia has resulted in headaches, bouts with diarrhea, calendar rage, and gross insensitivity to others.

Today while hundreds of doctors attend seminars to learn how to see more patients in a day…and countless students practice speed-reading techniques so they can churn through more pages at an ever quicker pace, I will ask this question: Should helping others or acquiring wisdom be a race? Call me lazy, but I’m skeptical to the claim that hurtling through life is the route to love and joy.

Photo by Meagan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1Xi4mP0
Photo by Meagan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1Xi4mP0

I heard a story once about a research team that went to Africa in the early 1900s. These scientists hired a group of natives to carry all their gear. On the first day of their expedition, they made such great time and went so deep into the bush, the men had hopes of arriving at their destination several days ahead of schedule. They were elated.

The next morning, however, the tribesmen sat on the ground, refusing to budge. Inquiring about their strange behavior, the researchers were told that the natives believed they had pushed much too far and too hard the previous day. Through a translator they said, “When our souls catch up with our bodies, we will resume.”

If you find an app, a book, or some time management technique that enhances your life and makes it more joyful, God bless you! Use it (and let me know about it). I’m just saying, don’t believe everything you hear.

As crazy as it seems, sometimes less is actually more. And sometimes slower is better. Three or four good things done today with love will always beat a list of 38 checked boxes, a weary heart and a trail of wounded souls in your wake.