Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reflection on an anniversary of sorts

Two years ago, sometime during the night, my world changed dramatically. It's not that it was a totally unexpected change; it had been foreseen long before yet that morning I had awakened to the usual thought of "Is today the day?" Normally at night the answer would have come, "No, not today," but two years ago I went to bed with the same answer only to receive a different one when I awakened the next morning. I got the answer, "Yes, today is the day."

No matter how expected, it was still a difficult time. While I didn't feel as fogged as I had anticipated, I still found it overwhelming. There was so much to take care of, so many things that needed to be done, so many things to go through and so many decisions to make. Even my old standby of "take one small step to the next thing that needs doing" didn't help as well as I'd experienced before. My two best friends kept reminding me, "Just remember to breathe" and sometimes even that seemed overwhelming. The tiny things got easier but the bigger things still loomed, daunting in their complexity and frightening in their uncertainty. Again, people helped to get me moving in the right direction, some opportunities came that I hadn't anticipated and so here I am, two years later, looking back at a time I would never want to relive again.

Despite my uncertainty and, at times, timidity, I found that I had learned some things, done some growing, and had some experiences that I had never had before and some I hadn't had for years. From the smaller things, like learning to shop and cook for one instead of two and how to cope with locking the keys in the truck without being able to call for someone to bring the extra set to the biggies like buying and moving into a new residence or deciding where and when to get major truck repairs done, it took some doing but I did it. Sure, there were lots of friends again to help, a wider pool than I had imagined, and with their help, I did it.

A book I'm reading, George A. Bonanno's The Other Side of Sadness, has been giving me things to think about that I'd never really considered. One is that what may be perceived as a normal method of grieving, even a well-known and accepted one such as Kubler-Ross's five stages, is not necessarily prescriptive or normative. In TV police dramas, law officers called to the scene of a dead body, even one lying in bed, often express feeling if not direct words about having to take a closer look at the widow because she just doesn't act like someone who'd just lost their husband or who had just found her husband dead on the floor. By the same token, there's always suspicion if there is too much emotion flowing around, like it's a put-on job designed to hide something nefarious. What's normal for one is quite abnormal for someone else. Thank heaven the police who came to my house were kind and courteous as were the paramedics and the coroner's investigator.

Another thing I learned from the book is that it's not just okay to laugh or find things amusing so soon after a death or traumatic event, it's quite common -- and very healthy. Life goes on, no matter how great the loss. People in New York after 9/11 got on with their lives, some sooner than others and some a little more successfully than others but people did get on with life. Katrina was another horrific event that changed lives forever yet for most, even if it meant transplantation or struggle to maintain even a modicum of normalcy, yet people used music, community, faith and laughter to get through an unimaginable situation.  If they can do it and get through the tough times, then surely it must be okay. I could smile the first day but it was a little forced. It got easier over the coming days, for the most part, and I could enjoy joking around or enjoying a laugh with friends and family fairly quickly.

The major lesson I've learned from the book really isn't something I learned from the book, it just gave me the word I needed to describe how I feel about myself, my life, and the whole shootin' match -- resilient, the ability to bounce back. While I don't see myself hopping around on a trampoline, there have been many times I've felt I couldn't get much lower-- mentally, physically, emotionally or financially -- and survive. It hasn't been pretty, most of the time, and quite often I've felt that I've been lurching from lamp post to lamp post, getting bruised and battered by situations that had to be dealt with, but there have been periods when I felt my head was above water and life could be dealt with if not enjoyed. Being able to put a name to that process helps put it in perspective. Life's not going to be a bed of roses but even when I run into a thorn patch, it can be gotten through.

So here I am, two years on. I still talk to him as if he were in the other seat in the truck or seeing what I'm seeing but that's okay. I still miss coming home and not having to do things he would have done while I was out (like take out the trash). Even though our financial situation was far from totally stable, I still struggle with things like balancing the checkbook or keeping track of what needs to be paid other than regular bills -- like taxes and truck insurance. Those things may never change but I know I can survive if not thrive. I am a widow -- but I am not helpless or hopeless. I grieve - but I am not incapacitated by it.

Since tomorrow I have to go to work and perform as if it were any normal day, I have decided that today will be my day of reflection, of allowing myself to think, feel and review where these past two years have brought me. I will remember but not drown in those memories. I will be good to myself, remember to breathe, take the next small step and give thanks that I am able to do this.

Rest in peace, Ray. In many ways, you'll always be here and I'm glad of that. It's my turn to say "thank you." I know you'll understand that.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Thoughts on a Sunday Morning

As usual, I've misplaced something I later (and not too much later) wanted to see/use/read. Usually it's something simple like my car keys, cell phone, specific book or the like but this time it's an article I read on my newsreader this morning about Haiti. I know, there are millions of words being written about Haiti right now but this was an article that spoke of the Haitians who, in the middle of the death, destruction, fear and chaos, lifted their voices in hymns and songs of and to God, Catholics and Protestants joining together to affirm their faith in God and their faithfulness. When the city goes dark at sundown, the voices sing to banish fear and feelings of isolation. I find it amazing and also tremendously touching.

I wonder, if such a thing as the earthquake demolished a whole city and devastated an entire area -- say Texas or New York or Los Angeles -- in the way Port-au-Prince and Haiti have been devastated, would the Americans have the same reaction? Would they be camped in parks and empty spaces and would they meet together for prayer and sing hymns through the night?  Somehow I sort of doubt it.

Faith seems to be tremendously important in Haiti. I'm sure many take comfort in the knowledge that there is a God and that God has prepared a heaven for them which will be very different from what they experience and endure on earth but I think that they may find remembering the first commandment (and the first of the two Jesus put out) a lot easier than maybe most of us do.  Maybe a lot of us, me included, let "stuff" get in the way. Oh, I know I send up arrow prayers when I get in a jam and then usually remember to say "thank you" when it's over, but other than that I seldom go beyond grace at meals and sometimes prayers at night when I can't sleep and I think of someone I know or have heard of who is in trouble of some kind. When something good happens i don't jump up and down and cry "Praise Jesus!" or "Thank you, Father!" or even start singing "Alleluia." No, I might be looked on as some sort of religious fanatic and embarrass others around me with my actions. It's just not part of my staid, solidly (and sometimes rather stuffy and joyless) Protestant upbringing, the kind that tells you to keep your chin up and have faith in God just don't go talking a lot about it.

At times it makes me ashamed that I'm so quick to forget God when things are going decently and also so quick to call on God to fix things when they go rotten. Somehow I don't seem to remember to thank God for just everyday things like air, food, water, shelter and care. I don't seem to thank God for the ability to do certain things, even if they are physically painful just as I don't thank God when I wake up in the morning or lie down at night. I don't know that I could thank God for the draft around my feet even though it meant I had a house that left the rest of me draft-free. I'm not sure I could praise God if all I had were the clothes I stood up in and no certainty of food, shelter or medical care anywhere. It makes me feel tremendously lacking in something.

The Jews have a way of remembering what's important. There are countless prayers that all begin the same way, Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha‑olam, "Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the universe" and which continues on to extol something that God has done for the people, from giving them candles to light on Shabbat to releasing them from captivity in Egypt. It gets the order right, praise God for some gift that benefits individuals and humanity in general, or even in times of trouble like hurricanes or earthquakes. It acknowledges that God is to be praised even when rotten things happen because God has a plan, God is in charge, God is God.

Béni soit l'Éternel, Baruch ata Adonai, Blessed be the Lord God the eternal who has given us life and hope  in the midst of the unthinkable, or even the mildly uncomfortable.

UPDATE: Not 5 minutes after I posted this I found the article. You can see it here.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

An Accidental but Fortunate Find

Went into the dollar store yesterday to get a box of garbage bags so i could put away the Christmas tree. I didn't need a big box of them -- only one which was large enough to hold my little 3' tree and keep the dust off it while it's on its hibernation in the shed outside until next Christmas. Anyway, the dollar store was close, the prices were certainly good and I knew they had what I needed.  Turns out they had more than just the garbage bags, TBTG.

There was a small table with books on it. Ok, normally I don't do my book buying at a dollar store but I usually look. This store seldom had anything much but what the heck. Lookin's cheap, ain't it? 

First I saw a book called "The Secrets of Judas."  Ok, that looks mildly interesting and for a buck, what the heck. Then I saw it -- or rather, several copies of it. I found Jan Karon's A Continual Feast, One of the Mitford books but the book that was different. "Words of comfort and celebration collected by Father Tim." I nearly danced in the aisle as I grabbed a copy as if it were the last one in the world before slightly more sedately heading for the aisle where the much more prosaic (but still quite useful) garbage bags lived.

 A Continual Feast was a key book for me about 2006 when the book came out. I'd enjoyed the series of course; it was like being back home even though I was about 2370.23 miles away, more or less. Opening the books I could just about smell the grass after a rain, the heady scent of magnolias and honeysuckle, the tang of wood and over it all, the faint hint of salt air from the river just over the hill and down the bluff.

A Continual Feast,  however, was a book of sayings supposedly collected by Fr. Tim. Bits of wisdom from this or that writer, theologian, poet, humorist and the like fill the pages, each of which is set either in a handwriting font or as if typed on a typewriter (complete with strike-outs to remind us that this was from someone who didn't have a computer but rather something like an old Remington that didn't self-correct. It is a book I can open to any page and find something that resonates with me, succinctly put and full of profoundities. See why I was so excited to find it?

It even prompted me to keep a small journal of things I ran across that made me think or that I wanted to be able to find again (there's no chance I could remember them all).  That little black composition book, small enough to fit in my purse but usually there on my desk or bookcase, The quotes cover all kinds of things and I used to use the book frequently for blogging or for when I felt i wanted to write something but didnt' really know what to write about. My little book, inspired by Fr. Tim's (and sometimes using Fr. Tim's) provided me with a lot of inspiration -- and probably more than enough words.

So it's not a high-brow literary giant like, oh, I don't know,  Fr. Raymond Brown's immensely in-depth study of the New Testament or the Oxford Encyclopedia of Christianity, or even something lighter on the order of Molly Wolf's essays or my copy of Julian's Cat but it still has things to say to me that I need to hear.

The quote on which my eye fell when I opened it just now?

God allows us to experience the low points in life in order to teach us lessons we could not learn in any other way. The way we learn those lsessons is not to deny the feelings but to find the meanings underlying them.  -- Stanley Lundquist, Professor of Psychology, Cal State U.

Then there was:

Life is God's novel. Let him write it. --- Isaac Bashevis Singer

Maybe the book I found at the dollar store is my spur to start adding to my own little book of famous quotes, maybe even to start another. I only have a dozen or so blank pages left out of the 80 sheets in the book and lots and lots of things I've read that I want to remember. And maybe it's time for me to open the book and look for things to ponder. It's a sure-fire cincch there's something in there somewhere.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Letters to the Editor

I work at a local newspaper. I've been a reader of the paper since it first started 20-something years ago and began working for them over 5 years ago. I read the paper because (a) it covers our local area in more depth than the big daily from downtown does, (b) I feel I ought to since I work for the organization and (c) it's free. I never fail to read the obituaries, otherwise I might not know when someone I know (or a relative of someone I know) has passed on to greater glory and usually most of the stories, including the column by an assistant editor I'm not always that fond of. Mostly, though, even though it often feels like I'm in a train wreck, I never fail to read the letters to the editor.

I used to typeset the letters that came in through the mail and needed to be typed on the computer so that they could be inserted into the copy going to the printer and then to the hands of our readers. Oftentimes I found myself talking back to the writer, especially in the case of letters that were written poorly with bad spelling and grammar, letters from people with viewpoints with which I disagreed and vitriolic letters from people upset about everything, usually the paper's coverage of local politics, criticisms of the then-government and disgust with the paper's "leftist agenda" in printing other letters critical of something the writer held almost sacred.

I live in a fairly conservative, flag-waving, mostly Republican area. They generally favor the war in the Middle East, capital punishment, get-tough, manly guys like our county sheriff and dedication to "family values" including marriage and equal rights for heterosexual American-born (or at least naturalized) citizens only. There was a time I'd have felt perfectly at home here as it would have reflected the person I was growing up and in the area I grew up. I'd have been for what they were for, agin' what they were agin' and not too tolerant of anything else. I, like them, would have agreed with diversity -- so long as it consisted of only people who believed and thought kinda sorta almost nearly exactly like I did. Oh, others would be tolerated --- barely-- but they weren't REAL Americans, flag-waving, church-going (mostly), good Christian (pretty much, well, except for **** who everybody knew was... well, never mind) folks who feared God, loved the country and kept their own side of the street swept.

The letters to the editor in the paper I read now generally don't reflect who I am, what I believe or even what I consider Christian (a lot of the time, anyway). They may quote scripture but it is scripture selectively chosen, proof-texted to prove their point rather than contexted to show what the verse actually means. Words like "liberal" are often thrown in like bombs, not scattering germs or bacteria but feeling like whole clumps of stuff usually found in the barnyard or cow shed were contained inside. There are times I close the paper feeling dirty, and not just from the printer's ink rubbing off on my hands. My soul feels dirty and my heart hurts. Again I am convinced that for a lot of people here, diversity means only those who are just like them, something I'm not and can't be.

I grew to be who and what I am by a long process. Traveling and living in various parts of the US and the world has given me a view of the world as a whole quite different from that of the folks who still live within 50 miles of where they were born and never lived further than 200 miles from that spot either, only occasionally heading for the "big city" somewhere else for a short visit before scurrying back to their accustomed home. I've learned that skin color is not a measure of moral character or intelligence. I've learned that national origin and the consistent use of a language other than English is not a signal that the person is an illegal alien. I've learned that equality is more than a word, it's something that should belong to everybody, not to just those who already have equal rights( or most of them, anyway) but not to those who have been excluded because of their race, national origin, religion or (here it comes) sexual orientation. I've learned people who look like me can be just as ornery and cantankerous and sometimes vituperous and downright nasty in how they speak of and treat people just as those who look so very different can be kind, thoughtful, caring and downright willing to stick their neck out, give you the shirt from their back and help you out any way they can.

I live in this area and so I am forced to deal with the fact that I may be a left-footed ill-beotten offspring of the accidental cross between a horse and a mule in the view of many of my neighbors. Even on the internet there are places I feel more comfortable, places where people think sort of like I do and believe sort of like I do. There are places I don't go because I don't like the way they make me feel, namely dirty, unChristian, and heartsore that someone could know so little about me and people like me that they use words that are sharper than a serpent's tooth. Of course, they undoubtedly feel that places I feel comfortable are just about exactly the same way to them so we end up in an impasse. I can try to moderate my words, use "I" words to describe what I think and feel and try not to take things personally but my skin isn't always that thick.

I do believe in diversity. God created it and we need it. Most of all we need to deal with it. How can I make someone who thinks, feels, believes very differently than I do feel comfortable around me and people like me? Should I expect them to go to similar efforts to make me feel comfortable in an environment that doesn't reflect me or my thoughts, feelings or beliefs? If I wrote a letter to the editor, what would I say that would make my point clearly and honestly without ruffling someone else's feathers, stomping on their cherished beliefs or even making them feel like dirty scumbags because they think/feel/believe the opposite of me?

I wonder what kind of response I would get if I sent this to the newspaper as a letter to the editor? Would the Christians "get" that Jesus hung out with a diverse group who only slowly came around to his way of thinking and doing (not to mention that Jesus wasn't a Christian himself)? Would the Pagans and agnostics (maybe even an atheist or two) hear what I said and think that I might be a Pagan/agnostic/atheist sympathizer even though I may label myself "Christian" and have something to say worth reading? Would the Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and Buddhists find something in my words that, even if they didn't agree with me, would make them stop and think in a different way about an issue, a point of view, a place to stand?

I'll read the letters to the editor as soon as I get to work (my driver always delivers the paper after I leave for the office). I'll possibly be irritated, frustrated, aggravated, hurt and maybe even downright angry but then too I might be pleasantly surprised to find someone with whom I can agree in principle if not in specifics. What I have to remember is that true diversity allows for all sorts and conditions of humankind. In order for me to have my say I have to allow others the same right. Once in a blue moon someone who writes to the editor even makes that very same point.

Oh, and I don't have to worry about sending this to my editor. The word limit for letters is 300 and I'm well over that. But at least I've had my say -- just like the people whose letters will get printed in the next edition.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year, New ???

It's January 1. I'm glad to see it finally get here; 2009 was pretty much a wash with lots of house repairs, truck repairs, aches & pains (which aren't going to go away, I think, and which wil probably increase), etc. I can't say 2010 is going to be a whole lot better (I'd settle for a little better) but I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

I'm feeling a lot of resistance to taking down the Christmas tree I wasn't all that eager to put up just last month. Adding the little fake crystal ornaments seemed to have set something free in me that I hadn't really realized was so caged. I guess that was the Christmas present God had for me this year.

I also feel a sense of accomplishment to have added book #156 to my annotated bibliography I've been keeping since 2002. Harry Potter and Precious Ramotswe aren't on the list but just about everything else I've read is -- at least the theological/religious/spiritual books. A lady at church that I really have very little in common with suggested I keep the bibliography when I remarked that I couldn't remember books I'd read or often what was in them even if I could remember the title. I have thanked her many times for suggesting this as I've been able to revisit things I've read and have some idea of what books to look in to find something I vaguely remember.

I don't make resolutions. I've found that that's a sure-fire way to fail yet again. When I finally came to the conclusion that I had to stop smoking because I simply couldn't afford to buy cigarettes any more I had to go cold turkey. This was in December, too early (or too late) for a New Year's resolution. Six years and almost one month later I look back and see the journey. I didn't say anything to anybody --- that fear of failure, especially in the eyes of other people. I didn't even tell Ray. Oddly enough, nobody even noticed for almost a month. There have been times, lots of them, I would have killed for a cigarette but aside from one puff about 5 years ago I haven't succumbed. I've even reached the point where stale smoke smells nasty (although fresh smoke still smells fairly good). If I have to make a resolution this year I will do it quietly, hoping I can accomplish the goal but knowing myself well enough to expect failure.

Some will call me a defeatist but I prefer to think that I know myself far better than anyone else can. Friends have faith in me and would encourage me IF I let them know what I was doing but shoot, I'm better at encouraging others than getting encouraged. I've told several people that I'm their #1 cheerleader and it's how I feel. I can encourage them and feel pride in their accomplishments that I never feel in my own.

I should probably resolve to lose weight (like just about everybody else in this country), eat more healthy food (and conversely, cut back on the pizzas and burgers), pray more, study more, go to church more, control the inner anger I feel (and sometimes show in inopportune moments), try to see the bright side, spend less on "stuff" and save more $$, but somehow saying on paper that I am going to do any of these feels like a setup for failure. Like faith, I guess I just have to go on "as if" and let God take care of me in whatever way God wants while trying hard not to get in God's way myself.

I may have a bad case of acedia but I guess the only one who can pull up my socks and get on with my life is me. With God's help.

That's about as much of a resolution as I can make on this day, January 1, 2010.