Saturday, May 28, 2011

I've been working on another book. This one is a bit different from Ginger's. In some ways it is much easier as the lady who wrote the manuscript, Jean, has been able to write it on her own without me having to transcribe tapes and piece together disjointed episodes. Earlier this evening I was writing an email question to Jean's daughter, the one who had contacted me about editing her mother's memoirs. I had recalled something that she had said about her mother being a bit egotistical. Hmmm. Aren't we all? Just a little bit?

As I was writing the email, though, I had an epiphany of sorts. This past week I'd watched Oprah's final show and also a repeat of her Master Class program. In the Master Class she talked about who she was, where she came from, what she learned, how she used those experiences to her advantage ad how she learned to be both herself and successful in her chosen profession. Now granted, Jean's no Oprah, but I saw something that connected the two in my mind: both are/have been strong personalities and both have/had accomplished a lot more than could have been expected given their circumstances, albeit in different ways. Both of them spoke of the triumphs and failures, the incidents that changed their life journeys and the people who helped or hindered them. Both of them weren't shy about speaking of their accomplishments, spoken in matter-of-fact terms, each recital building on the ones that came before.

Watching Oprah from time to time, I'd sometimes felt she was bragging about what she'd done and somehow it made me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it was jealousy, or maybe envy was a better word. At any rate, reciting one's accomplishments felt like bragging, something I noticed in Jean's autobiography just as I'd noticed it in some of Oprah's reminiscences. And then tonight it hit me, an insight that comes from seemingly out of the blue with the impact of a hammer.

They aren't bragging. They are reporting their circumstances, their experiences and their truths—as they saw them and as they experienced them. They are simply reporting, telling their story and the things that influenced them and helped form them into the people they became.

Now I know people who do brag. They want the world to know what great human beings they are, what terrific things they've accomplished, how well they live and what value other people place on their words and actions. That's gratuitous reporting, recounting the glory days as a way of inflating their own egos without really having a reason to do so in the context of a conversation and with no real objective but to impress their listeners. I may not be the greatest judge of character, but it seems to me there's a palpable difference between those who brag and the pair of women I'm thinking of now. Yes, perhaps there is a little vanity in the telling, but on the whole, you can tell the difference—if you really listen.

I was raised not to brag about what I'd done because it just was not proper to do so. Long before I heard of the 12-step principle of doing a good deed every day, doing it quietly and if anyone found out then it would not count as the day's good deed, I saw it played out in the lives of people around me. Maybe they didn't shout their deeds from the housetops, but the small things, the little kindnesses and helping hands, made life better for someone. Oftentimes we would never know of these little actions until the person's funeral when someone would mention some deed the deceased had done or some help that they had given. The family would often be surprised because the dearly departed had never mentioned it, but then, that would have been bragging. They were simply doing what they saw needing to be done without looking for praise, repayment or even thanks.

So now I have a new insight to work with, one that demands that I look more carefully and attentively to not only what people say but how they say it. Is it to praise themselves or is it to illustrate how a single decision, word or deed can change a life? How am I speaking of my own life? What is my motive? What result am I looking for by the telling? What does it mean to my own life, being and journey?

I think I need to learn to listen also with more compassion and assumption of good intent. Perhaps someone is bragging, but perhaps they are doing so because they never heard praise and encouragement from others and learned to provide it for themselves. And perhaps they are reporting so that I can see their footsteps in the sand and follow on the solid path, avoiding the pools of quicksand just below the surface of ground that appears safe.

And that's my insight on this Saturday night.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Goodbye to a Chapter (The Last Oprah Winfrey Show)

Like umpteen million other people, I watched Oprah's last show yesterday. I've had a love/hate relationship with Oprah for years, everything from instantly changing the channel at the mention of her name to wishing I had her for a good friend. I've had a lot of "AHA!" moments, sitting in front of the TV listening to her and her guests, and I've also wanted to throw my iced tea glass through the screen at times. Oddly enough, when I look back at it, the shows I absolutely despised were probably the ones I learned the most from. They made me think about and see things that were wrong in my own life, just as they showed a lot of wrong-ness on the part of the guests (and very, very occasionally, perhaps Oprah herself).

Oprah made me confront the genteel racism (yes, I do believe there is a genteel form of that evil) that was part of my growing up. The times when I felt she was "uppity" were the same times that made me consider why I thought that. My upbringing was in a segregated south, a place where people of color were "nice" (those who worked hard, often at menial jobs, kept their houses and yards neat even if their neighbors had unpainted and sometimes decidedly rickety houses) or -- well, there were the ones we referred to by the N-word. Of course, there were also white folks (people who worked hard, sometimes at menial jobs, but who kept their houses and yards neat) and what we called "po' white trash," white people who lived in houses that needed repair, with unkempt yards and frequently yards full of rusting bed springs, tin cans, junk autos and the like. The place I grew up was definitely a racial and cultural dichotomy. I saw a lot of good in it, but Oprah made me think about the worst parts of it and change the way I thought (and reacted) to someone who didn't fit preconceived stereotypes.

Oprah expanded my world. The program I perhaps remember most vividly of all came on one afternoon in, I believe, 2004 or 2005. Oprah's guest was a British woman who sat upright in her chair, hands clasped in her lap and who spoke of things I'd never imagined. Dr. Catherine Hamlin and her late husband had gone to Ethiopia and eventually founded a hospital devoted to women with fistulas, holes in the body and organs, particularly the intestinal, urinary and vaginal ones that caused constant leakage of blood, urine and feces. The fistulas was caused by pregnancy and delivery, usually in very young women whose bodies were not yet mature enough to be ready for such a trauma, and whose tradition dictated that they give birth totally alone, without nurses and doctors, midwives or even a sympathetic woman to assist in the birth. The result was often a dead child and a woman with a disgusting leakage; her punishment was not just the fistula but the ostracism brought on by the byproducts of the injury -- the smell and the offal. This hospital was their last chance, and Dr. Hamblin spoke of and for them just as she helped to heal them and taught others to do the same. Before that show, I didn't know such a thing existed. What Oprah did for me that day was open a window to see a totally foreign world but a world where women I should be calling "sisters" were suffering and dying because of a patriarchal (and often connivance of the matriarchy) desire and cultural dismissal of women having any rights, even rights to the most primitive of medical care and help. That show started me on a journey that may not have produced much fruit but which has expanded my consciousness about the world and the plight of many who live in it.

Recently Oprah branched off with a network of her own, the OWN network, one with, I think, a very prophetic acronym. I really resented the OWN network -- which took over a favorite of mine -- and determined it wouldn't be something I'd watch. Then I saw several episodes of the "Master Class," hour-long dialogs with people who had something to teach the world from the lessons life had taught them. The first one I watched was done by Maya Angelou, a woman I admire greatly. She spoke of her life, the difficulties and challenges as well as some of the bright spots, and in that monologue/life lecture, I saw and heard things that resonated with my soul. The next one I watched was a double episode with Oprah herself, talking about her life as a whole and the lessons she had learned and sought to pass on. Comparing the two women, both so successful in their chosen professions and lives, I saw the similarities, the struggles that were common to both women long before they became mentors and friends. It gave me a perspective I hadn't had before, one that said that all of us have struggles to deal with, and how we learn to cope with them and use them determines how well we succeed (or how badly we fail) at the one life we have some control over, namely our own. While circumstances may happen to us that are out of our control, what is within that control is how we deal with it and move on, taking responsibility for our actions and decisions, learning from them and using those experiences to shape who and what we are ourselves. My self-esteem should not depend on what others think of me but rather what I think of myself. I alone can build it up or tear it down. I am responsible. I know that lesson has sunk in mentally --- it's at the gut level that I still have to work on it, and work on it very hard.

So, Oprah, thank you for the insights, the experiences shared, the stories told and all the examples of life overcoming odds. Thank you for the education in so many forms, and thank you for believing hard enough and deeply enough to want to make a difference. Please don't stop, even if people (including me) sometimes think it's "uppity" and disturbing. You have a way of reminding me that "uppity" is a two-way street and that by judging you (and others), I'm being the very worst kind of "uppity."

Keep preaching, Oprah, 'cuz we sure need the kind of sermons you lay on us. It will be interesting (and, I'm sure, enlightening) to see where your journey leads you. I'm betting there will be a lot of us watching and listening --- and turning around to follow and to do. That, I think, will be your greatest legacy.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Lesson in Anatomy -- and More

It started out a normal day, for a Saturday. No rush about getting going (other than the mandatory cat-feeding as soon as I can wobble to the kitchen and open the can), I didn't have to be anywhere at any particular time, I didn't even have to get out of my pajamas until I was good and ready (which some days is the next morning). I was working on the latest biography project and struggling with getting the formatting done first rather than last (which I did last time and swore I'd never do it that way again). Just a normal Saturday, toasted bread and cheese for breakfast and then back to the book.

Then the phone rang.

It was a friend of mine, not one I know exceptionally well but one I have known for a few years. They were calling to see if I'd like to go with them to an exhibition called "Body Works" at the Arizona Science Center. At 8:55 on a Saturday morning they want to go see cadavers and body parts who have been plastinated, carved up, dissected and posed. Did I want to go? Heck, why not? Beats doing housework, getting cat food and the haircut that can wait until next week. Lord knows, I'm not the spontaneous type but this time I decided what the heck and went with it.

The exhibition was fascinating. Yes, subconsciously I knew these had once been living, breathing people who had willed their bodies for scientific study and education of both physicians-in-training and lay people. The texture, however made it seem more like an infinitely painstaking carving -- until I noticed the lips, bits of hair, eyelashes and eyebrows. Somehow then it was easy to remember the humanity that had been theirs. Still, they gave a look at a human body that most people would never see, much less pay to see. It was an exercise in seeing how very intricately formed and made we are, how the multitudes of parts all work together, how absurdly tiny some things are (like the bones of the inner ear and the capillaries around the head and face), and even what the sciatic nerve that causes so much pain actually looks like in place. There were embryos representing how they grow from about 4 weeks' gestation (when they're about the size of a newly-hatched fly larva) up through full term. even at 12 weeks, three months' gestation, they're still smaller than a long fingernail. From these very tiny beginnings each human being comes, no shortcuts, no detours. It's mind-boggling.

I wasn't too sure about how well I could handle an exhibition of this type; I'd tried to go through the medical museum at the Smithsonian back in my teens but could only go a little way before it overwhelmed me and I had to leave. This exhibition, though, made me think about how it all works together, what can go wrong, and what it looks like when it goes wrong. I saw the lungs of a smoker and realized that mine probably look about like that. Gallstones? So that's what they looked like before the surgeon took them out for me. A fetus at 38 weeks? No wonder it felt like my son was using my bladder for a soccer ball and my ribs for punching bags. this exhibition wasn't just about someone's search for art in strange places but about who we are, including me and this person and that person, the guy in the wheel chair, the child with the big eyes, the medical- and pre-med students comparing notes, and even some elderly people looking at their diseases as they appeared in someone else's body.

Under the wrapping of skin that makes us look different from our sibling, our next-door neighbor or the guy halfway around the world, we're all very much the same. Remove the skin and it's hard to tell one person from another. Yet we don't look at the inside, the similarities; we look at the skin, the shape of the eyes, the color of the hair, the shade of the skin and make judgments about them based on those characteristics.

Why would anyone want to be displayed this way, to be carved up and shown in odd ways? Immortality, of sorts? As a curiosity factor? A postmortem narcissism? Who knows. When I look a them, though, I remember the words of the Psalmist, "For you created my innermost being; You knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."(Ps. 139:13-14)

I didn't realize the bones of the middle ear were so small, yet look at what they do to enable us to hear the sounds of music, the voices of loved ones, the cry of the oppressed. Just moving a finger requires a number of muscles plus nerves and blood vessels. Think of eating an ice-cream cone. Think of each separate action that has to happen to get the ice cream from the cone in the hand to raising it to the lips and then the tongue extending to take a long swipe at the cool treat as the hand holds it up to the mouth. Every action requires so much that I never think about, I just do it.

For I am fearfully and wonderfully made ---- no matter what I think my physical flaws are, or my deficits, or even my unrealistic expectations of what I should be or look like.

For I am fearfully and wonderfully made --- and it took some plastinated and dissected cadavers in various poses and with various structures pointed out, to make me remember that.

Friday, May 13, 2011


The bishop sent out his monthly email today. He was addressing a series of meetings, "Rector/Vicar Round Tables" and the purpose was to think of "work to grow the church." The part that got to me was where he introduced the report from 815 about the demographics of the church and what it means for the future. Part of the email said this:

Given the bleak picture presented by the demographers of the larger church, I expected these meetings to be filled with either apathy or denial as the seriousness of our situation, but I found neither. That does not mean that we should not take these warnings seriously. Unless things change, there is a very
really [sic] possibility that the Episcopal church will go out of existence in the next twenty years or so due to the death of its members (the average Episcopalian is 62, so you can do the math).

Yes, Bishop, it's clear that the future of the church belongs to younger people and what they feel they need as a form of worship. I don't disagree with that -- I just have some reservations.

The first thing that went through my head was, "Aren't we dying fast enough?"

Ok, that sounds really snarky and cynical, I know. I'd apologize but I just can't right now. It hurts too much for me to give any kind of adequate apology for what I feel.

I know how the whispering and murmuring goes on around the "old" folks who go to the 8am service at the parish, the service where they use Rite I, don't sing much, and coffee hour is a protracted sacrament after the service. Their numbers are falling as age claims them one by one, but they have a community that they treasure, a liturgy that they love and in a parish that they have given countless hours and dollars to build, nurture and support. They know how their disinclination to attend other services with Rite II, Rite III or experimental liturgies and music ranging from 1985 - era choir anthems to pop Christian ("Lord, I Lift Your Name on High", "On Eagles' Wings," etc.) to Taizé (which I actually like, really) make them objects of suspicion or even dislike, but they don't care. It's their church too and they're not backing down.

I've done a lot of reading and I know that the church has never been static. It may try to give that impression but while the basic beliefs may have been "the faith once delivered," the manner of expressing those beliefs has changed from culture to culture and century (or decade) to century (decade). I know change is inevitable, but why does it have to feel like either we have to embrace all the changes or be more or less edged out of the pews and through the doors on the way to the cemetery?

I've been through changes in the church. Any of us who have been around more than 5-10 years have seen quite a few -- women priests and bishops, moving the altar from the back wall to face the congregation, exchanging pipe organs (or even electronic ones) for guitars, keyboards and karaoke mikes, turning from Shakespearean language to something you hear on the streets (minus a lot of expletives, that is), girl acolytes, lay readers who can wear bras and not just jockey or boxer shorts, and more lay involvement in leadership. Maybe it was easier to embrace change when I was younger even though I've always been a firm believer in traditional language, music and formality in liturgy. It took me a while to get used to the 1979 prayer book after having come into the church under the 1928 but I adjusted. I missed morning prayer, even when it was changed from most Sundays to maybe the fifth Sunday if the month had such a creature. Now almost no church really does morning prayer as a part of worship on Sunday much less any other day; it's become something that seminarians might be introduced to but most congregants won't be.

In a way I'm sorry to be the age I am. I don't want to be or to feel old. I crave familiarity in a world that grows continually more strange every day. I really want to feel safe and secure, at least in my worship, because so much else in my life leaves me unsettled. The fact that I can follow the service and do the responses and prayers without having to resort to the prayer book where the type seems to be getting smaller every time I look at it is comforting to me. Sometimes it's hard to know whether "And with thy spirit," or "And also with you" or some other response is the correct one. Even PowerPoint doesn't always come out as clearly as it might, but when I can follow along with the liturgy just from memory, it gives me a rock I can hold on to, a familiar harbor in a strange and sometimes turbulent sea.

I know I must move aside and let progress progress. Nothing is static, even rocks and liturgy. I just wish it could hold of just a little longer. Maybe that's selfish, but I'm going as fast as I can. I just hate feeling it isn't fast enough.

Is there a 12-step group for "Anachronisms Anonymous"?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thomas the Verifier

When I started a download that was guaranteed to take a while, I clicked "OK" and went to take a nap (Being part cat, I never miss a chance for a nap) while it did its thing. I didn't have a moment of qualm about the whole thing. i do remember hearing the little noise the computer makes when rebooting, but i didn't really think anything about it until I got up and found it was one of those "Update 3 of 3. 0% Completed. Do not turn off your computer" messages. The meter never went above 0% and the computer rebooted every few minutes but never advanced a single kilobyte. Something was clearly wrong.

The upshot? Something was irretrievably broken and the only solution was running a recovery program that effectively erased whatever was there. So I bit the bullet, put in the disk and figured I would lose a little data but I'd set my all-in-one Norton to back up specific files and the same with my Windows security program. I had them on automatic backup so I had nothing to worry about ------- or did I? They both told me they'd been backing things up regularly so I trusted what I was told. Duh.

Well, they weren't doing what I thought they were. In the two external hard drives where I'd assumed (yes, ass-u-me) my stuff was being stored things were missing. The annotated bibliography that I'd just updated and which had 182 entries now only showed 150-something when I retrieved it from storage. All of the EfM stuff I'd accumulated through the past two years was kaput except for the bits and pieces I'd stored on my laptop. Thank God I'd backed up Ginger's book in at least 4 places including two thumb drives so I didn't lose that! But everywhere else I looked, stuff was gone, needed to be replaced, repaired, rebuilt, recovered or I would have to become resigned to its permanent loss. I'd trusted my programs would do what I intended; I should have checked.

The world, part of it anyway, wants photos of Osama bin Laden's body to verify that the SEALS really did get him after ten years of hunting. Was it really him or was it just another body? Or maybe it was a big hoax to encourage a higher approval rating for the president whose last name is so uncomfortably close to bin Laden's first name that often even professional newscasters and commentators use the wrong one in the wrong context. Most trust that what we are told is true but others want undeniable proof.

As this train of thought was going through my mind I thought of Thomas, the disciple who wasn't really convinced when the others told him that Jesus had risen and appeared to them right in that very room, on that very spot right THERE. You gotta admit, it was rather a preposterous story, especially for people who weren't really believers in resurrection, even after heard of/and seen Lazarus's coming out of the grave or Jarius' daughter's miraculous resuscitation. I think about any of us could slip into Thomas' place with hardly more than a blink or two of the eye. Sure, in these days of modern medicine, people declared dead have been resuscitated, some of them anyway. It's true, but it's still enough to make you question and want to make undeniably sure it really happened.

That was Thomas, the original "Trust but verify" guy. In a way, Thomas is the guy I can most identify with because when something seems impossible or even too good to be true, I want to make undeniably sure it really is. I've been bitten too often by impossible, improbable or even highly dubious things that promised they were real, true and guaranteed to work for me to trust lightly until I know for sure. Occasionally something proves right no matter how impossible, but those are very few and very far between. So with Thomas. "I'm not gonna believe anything until I see it for myself."

Well, Thomas had his chance. I love this Caravaggio painting of Thomas putting his finger in Jesus' side and peering closely as if to check to make sure it wasn't really just an illusion or photoshopped image. "Hmmm. It appears okay but....." While I'm sure he trusted Jesus, this took a bit more convincing before he could make an authentic confession of total belief.

Good ol' Thomas. He articulates his doubts in much the same way I would like to now and again, no matter how strong I think my faith is. He's skeptical but also willing to be convinced, even if it required something more than someone's word or even a personal appearance.

When it comes to my computer, I'm not trusting the programs to save what I believe they should save. Rather, I'm going to verify by manually backing up files where I know I can find them again.

I trust Jesus but backup programs ain't him. I trust Thomas has answered my question even if I didn't already believe it was true. I trust, he verified.