As If

Early television commercials are both interesting and humorous. Interesting, in that they show us how people dressed in those days, how they thought, what was funny to them and what were serious topics. The commercials are sometimes humorous, because they seem “corny” and old-fashioned. Some of the norms and mores have certainly changed.

The phrase “woman of the house” makes some cringe nowadays. There she was in a dress doing her housework, pearls around her neck, sending junior and little sister off to school. The 1950s kitchens were floored with colorful linoleum and the counters were edged with chrome. The 1970s kitchens appliance colors changed from a rusty brown to avocado green and harvest gold.

We were promised in the 1950s by Westinghouse that the latest refrigerators, washing machines and other appliances would make life infinitely easier and we would have so much leisure time in the future–(sigh)–as if it were true.

Has technology made life easier? In some ways, yes, very much so. From my professional standpoint as a nurse, radiology reports can be read in minutes by a radiologist miles away from the hospital, EKGs give an immediate general interpretation, documentation is not only faster but also keeps patients safer when medications are administered and accounted for. There are positive aspects that each of us from our different professions and walks of life can rattle off in just a few minutes. But has the promise of increased leisure time come true? Is life itself easier?

From the standpoint of a physical laborer, work has eased with newer heavy equipment or robotic factory equipment. But is that person vacationing more? I think many have been forced to look for more employment. I’m not implying that new appliances, equipment and technology are bad, no. Amazing advances open up great possibilities. We just can’t ignore the negative potentialities.

Computers and the internet connect the world easier and faster, yet they also bring an enormous amount of data into our brains. In many ways our culture is on overload. Watching recent events on televised news or reading about them in electronic bytes makes me wonder if human kind is devolving. De-evolution–is that even a word? Isn’t that what brought down ancient “advanced” civilizations?

The children’s movie Wall-E presents a picture of humanity that has advanced beyond its ability to take care of itself, the people incredibly unhealthy, floating around obese in their hover-loungers. Not even interacting face-to-face with those beside them they stare forward always on their holographic computer screens. The 1970s movies Soylent Green and The Planet of The Apes portrayed the world after humankind pretty much destroyed it.

We need to think about such things (minus worrying about talking Apes) in order to avoid devastating mistakes. Many people are panicking these days or at least hopeless, but we each have a choice to give up or to focus this day on a step in the right direction. One tiny step informs the next step when we feel stalled or afraid. Those battling chronic, debilitating pain take a day at a time; goodness, some a minute at a time. They know what I am getting at here. And caretakers will also, as they go one meal at a time, one treatment…it can seem pointless, yet it is not. The journey is key.

How did Victor Frankl, Corrie ten Boom, Maximilian Kolbe, Harriet Tubman, prisoners and slaves get through their tragic circumstances? The first three infused great hope in their concentration camp fellow prisoners, and Harriet Tubman escaped slavery to go on to help thousands of other slaves escape with the Underground Railroad. In the movie Freedom the elderly Adira remains positive, hopeful and inspirational in her family’s escape from slavery, despite living through and witnessing the most horrible events in her life. How did these people do it? How did Mother Teresa remain hopeful in a place where the infirm and old and lower castes were treated worse than dogs? Did she become incensed and complain and raise her fist? No, she did what she could with her unique gifts and helped one person at a time.

Hopelessness. We will all feel it from time to time, but we must not give in. We must find that next right thing to do, as if the battle has already been won.

Time Travel

Einstein conjectured on space and time. Yeah–a bit too heady for me. But time travel is for many a very entertaining concept. Some favorite movies of mine are based on the concept: Back to the Future, Frequency, Terminator, Click, Kate and Leopold, Midnight in Paris, The Lake House, and more. Popular today are the Outlander series and Dr. Who. There are so many that the appeal seems to be universal.

It is said that certain saints (bear with me, again, theological perspective can be suspended) were able to travel or bilocate while in deep prayer. Could it be that Einstein scratched the surface on a science that we simply do not understand yet, and time travel will be possible in the future? I suppose that if that were true we would already be interacting with such travelers. If we are, they are really good at not hinting at their true identity.

Okay, I digress. It is easy to do so with this topic, and it is entertaining; however, I am as fine with letting it stay in the realm of fun as I was when just a little girl. My brother Chip and I would play with our Dad’s intricately built model of The Constitution. We pretended to miniaturize ourselves and go below decks to explore.

Back to reality, I realize I do have the ability to travel through time–in books, with my favorite movies, and in this cup of coffee beside me. Oh, the elixir of wonder…

Black Coffee. To some, bitter, but to me exotic and complex–a well-brewed roast, that is. Visually entrancing, the edge of foam clinging to the inside of the cup, the wisp of steam curling up mysteriously. The feel of the mug in my hands, hot porcelain easing the achy joints. The second sip is better than the first which serves to prime the senses…here it comes!

Fond memories return in nearly every cup. My husband Bruce first brewed the best black for me. Long ago now, two single parents of two little girls each. We found love over coffee. I think back to those times and the same feelings return.

Memories of Grammy Wiedefeld are evoked by a cup of coffee; we drank it together regularly at her kitchen table. She was an amazing woman, one of eleven children who worked hard through the depression and kept a positive spirit and outlook. Grammy boiled her concoction on the stove in an old aluminum percolater and laced it with the half and half always present in her refrigerator. She would serve it in a blue and white china teacup and saucer. Perched on that saucer was always a little block of Hershey’s chocolate. Hershey calls them “Nuggets” now, but for years they were called “Treasures.” I still believe that is a more fitting name; there are a treasure of memories in such a pairing.

To this day when I am missing Grammy I will drink my coffee in a very similar cup and saucer, and find a silver-wrapped Hershey chocolate to enjoy, eyes closed, momentarily transported to her kitchen. I sip the coffee and travel back in time.

The Forgotten Verse

Are traditional roles less valued these days? Some would say yes, but I would say the answer depends on with whom we surround ourselves. I am thankful for friends who have very different lives and beliefs than mine. They help me to understand others better, as I realize I can still be egocentric or ethnocentric. My thirst for knowledge includes wanting to understand others more fully.

Humans tend toward confirmation bias. It makes sense in that our brains work to organize information into understandable sets and subsets. When we surround ourselves with primarily like-minded folk we become complacent in the thought that most people must think like we do. I see this in my politically divided friends as well as my religiously divided friends. To be aware of this tendency perhaps can fuel us on toward seeking more information and understanding.

I have seen a distaste for traditional marriage services when the bride is asked if she will “obey” or “be subject to” her husband. “Wait a minute–hold on right there! That is antiquated and dominating and…” a host of balking descriptors follow.

We are a more civilized and advanced society, and even if we have light-years to go in eradicating racism and prejudice of every sort, we can agree that the imposition of one’s will with the intent to intimidate, dominate or enslave another is morally wrong. So why would anyone in this day and age agree to “obey” a spouse?

The answer lies in the context of the liturgical reference. The pledge is taken from the book of Ephesians in the Bible. The fifth chapter is all about Christlike love. What is that? Well, most agree that Jesus did live. It is who he was and who he claimed to be on which people differ–but that does not matter in what I am reasoning here. Whomever he was, he died in a sacrificial way for his followers and beliefs. Selflessness was “the way.” The ultimate sacrifice of his life to save his friends was a culmination of this way of life, of turning the other cheek, of giving, and of putting the needs of another first.

Ephesians chapter five is about living in love and about the giving of oneself to others and to God. Wives are asked to be subject to their husbands–yet here’s the catch, the forgotten part– and the husband is exhorted to treat “his wife as Christ is the head of the church, its Savior.” There is more about how the husbands are to behave, to “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her…husbands should love their wives as their own bodies…” In its whole it is about introducing total (self-donative) love into marriage. For the unmarried or those in other relationships, the call is no less; it is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Taken out of context, the phrasing hints at domination. Taken in context, it alludes to self-sacrificial love, of wanting the best for the other. Sure, humans throughout the ages have messed it up and misapplied the words in dreadful ways. But it is neither the words nor the truths intended that are messed up, it is the people who chose to ignorantly use them. Such a love should should flow both ways, though at times one must decide whether or not to continue to give when the other in the relationship is habitually not doing so. If someone in a relationship is being taken advantage of or is abused, that person should seek help and counsel. Abuse is not love.

My husband and I are “subject to each other” in our shared lives. We make mistakes, we go to each other for advice, we critique each other–in love. Perhaps you have heard the saying “Iron sharpens iron, and so a friend counsels a friend.” That comes from another verse in Proverbs, and it applies here. Sharpening hurts even when done in love, but done so in love makes us grow and stretch and become better persons. We can choose not to help our friend for whatever reason, but in the end would that be loving?

All is hinged in this traditional pledge, and perhaps in life itself, on a forgotten verse that comes from a dynamic chapter describing and exhorting us to love each other the best way possible: selflessly not selfishly.

Power in Choice

Humanity has weathered difficult and tragic times throughout history. During each period of unrest the word unprecedented could have been used. What can we learn about endurance from those past events?

My husband has used the phrase “This, too, shall pass.” He does not mean to discount the suffering involved (it is usually in response to a lament of mine); rather, he implies that there is hope ahead. These times will pass. What many are afraid of is how the future will be affected.

I know good people who are so caught up in one theory or another that hints of conspiracy–or is rife with it. There are many theories out there, but do they actually offer help, or do they simply present a narrative by which to interpret or make sense of what is going on? Preppers are prepping and reclusives are reclusing. Social media is blowing up with nastiness. There seems more an epidemic of fear than a pandemic of virus. And where does it get us?

I do believe in educating oneself and in ferreting out truth. It must be taken into account that facts will change according to research, time, and increased data, and thus a flexible outlook is wise. I explain to my children that each person on a proverbial bus may have a different map or smart device to determine which way to go, but this may or may not influence the bus driver. There are more civil ways to convince him of a better route than belittling him, yelling, running up to the front of the bus and grabbing the wheel. The latter causes more potential damage and a possibly crashed bus, than a wrong turn might.

How do we deal with the fear?

In college we learned about Erickson’s psychosocial stages of development . There are stages in life through which we progress and a key developmental task ideally attained in each. That task is named with its alternative as “x versus y.” In infancy the task is “trust vs mistrust,” and in adolescence the task is “identity vs role confusion.” I look at what we are experiencing in the world through the eyes of an adult, and the current task I face is “generativity vs stagnation.” When I am elderly, the task will become “integrity vs despair.” Of course this is all psychological theory, meant to be a framework for describing and understanding behavior; but I believe it can point the way for healthy behavior in this time of social distancing and changing policies.

In order to work through this time of isolation and avoid fear, it may be healthy to back off of social media that only serves to upset oneself. Certain sites or upsetting people can be “snoozed” or blocked. News can be learned from alternative sources. The flow of information can become more reasonable. Instead, phone calls, emails or even snail-mail letters can be written in order to stay connected.

Generativity means that we create, generate, or accomplish something. Many who are unable to work or do what normally occupies their time must reflect on what they can apply themselves to here and now. One friend of mine has painted her house, another refinished furniture, and other has embroidered artwork for her relations. An elderly friend has enjoyed going through boxes of old letters and has, little by little, organized her garage. Still other friends who own cows or horses have continued feeding, caring for and exercising their animals. Some have found ways to donate time and money to charitable organizations. I have planted so many flowers in our garden that my husband who lovingly waters them has asked me to stop. Though actors have been unable to act and produce plays and movies, I will wager that authors and screenwriters are prolific with all of this time. Each of us has desires and talents and so these activities will look different from one to another.

Reflection, writing, journaling, meditating, painting, praying…these keep us positively generating and maintaining integrity. Ruminating, complaining, lashing out…these do the opposite and stagnate us, causing despair.

These times will indeed pass. We will either be fortified or we will be weakened. In this we have the power of choice.

Think On These Things

A resurgence in Covid-19 cases has convinced our governor to mandate face masks in public places. We will find out all of the details over the next few days. Many people are feeling stress over the prolonged restrictions. I don’t have to go into detail about the peripheral fallout and negative effects of the virus on our society and economy. There are tragic aspects and yet I must believe that we are also learning so many things that will prove beneficial. Medical practices are honing telehealth procedures–something we have been saying we needed to do for years. And academia is finally being convinced of the value of distance education, creating lesson plans, curricula and programs to keep students on track, and to keep their schools viable.

I wonder if we will ever go back to what was normal just a few months ago. Will my five-year-old granddaughter sporting a colorful mask in a photo text ever know what life was like before…kids playing happily in the neighborhood, in and out of houses freely, visiting museums or going out to movies without masks? Well, a day at a time, I tell myself. They will grow up with their normal, as each of us did.

In the meantime, I think happy thoughts and relive memories of my own childhood. I wouldn’t say that it was without challenge or suffering, but all-in-all, I know that I was fortunate.

As a little girl I dreamed of horses. I was not quite as horse-crazy as Velvet Brown in National Velvet–but I was close. I had magazine clippings of Secretariat and Northern Dancer and all of the greats taped to the carnation pink walls of my bedroom. My Malibu Barbies rode “Dancer,” their brown plastic horse. Truly, my dreams were so vivid, climbing often onto the back of a silver horse and picking up speed to a gallop. I awoke one morning after dreaming that my Dad had told me in the middle of the night that he won a pony at the church raffle. It couldn’t be true, could it? I walked into the kitchen that morning and Dad was up, smiling–it certainly was true! We drove later in the afternoon to see the pony with my friend Amy and her Mom, who would board the pony for me. I would work on her farm in order to pay for that board.

Alas, the poor creature was very ill. Amy’s Mom, an assertive horsewoman convinced the owner to make good for this little twelve-year-old redhead. He substituted a finer, healthy pony, a two-year-old Welsh-Thoroughbred filly. I thought she was beautiful. She was a shiny Blue Roan which is essentially a black horse peppered with lots of silver-white hairs. She had a bright white star in the center of her forehead. I named her Seamist at first then changed it to Mystic Trinity, as I’d recently received the Children’s Living Bible and was learning about God. I called her Misty for short, and over the next year with Amy’s help I trained her, eventually showing, eventing and Pony-Clubbing.

I have wonderful memories of trekking to Pony Club, of playing chase in the field with friends on horseback, of jumping practice and trail rides, and most of all of the love that only a sweet pony can give.

When I outgrew Misty in high school I sold her to another little girl who showed her successfully. Years later, after many ribbons she was retired, and Misty aged into a silver-grey mare, her star no longer visible in her overall brightness.

I look back over decades of owning and riding horses since then, and though I cannot ride anymore because of my degenerative back condition, I am so thankful for the many memories that bring a smile to my face. I don’t have to dream about horses like a little girl, as I remember with clarity each one.

Amidst the strife of the present day, a verse I learned long ago in that little chunky Bible rings true:

…Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about. Keep putting into practice all you learned…and the God of peace will be with you.

Phillipians 4: 8,9

Caroline Leaf in Switch On Your Brain discusses the research and scientific support of the healing effects on brain neurochemistry when we think positively. Social media is rife with arguments and name-calling depending on one’s view of how the Covid-19 crisis and other social problems are handled. I have my own informed opinions, and will be socially active as well as I can. In order to avoid feeling down, I will take short breaks and close my eyes. I’ll think positive thoughts. I’ll see Misty once again, and climb onto her back for a ride through the sunny green countryside.

Caretaker Fatigue

In England they are called “carers.” Here in the USA they are called “caretakers.” Studies have shown that those who are responsible for an ill family member are subject to “caretaker fatigue.” Caring for another without replenishing oneself adequately can lead to exhaustion and illness.

Ask most mothers and they can list what they’ve gone without for their children. The same can be said of empathetic folk without children. Sacrifice for others is necessary and honorable, but it can get out of hand.

I think of Jesus when he was here on the earth. He did not heal the whole world in a completed sense, and yet he could have. It was a temptation to do so, implied by the devil after Jesus had fasted for forty days in the desert. Yet he did not…it was not God’s plan yet, perhaps because there were millions of more people yet to be born. The lesson I learn from this is that, much as I would like, I cannot nor am I expected to save everyone. Unless I sleep through some storms, as Jesus did, unless I cry sometimes with grief, as he did, unless I meet with friends and be cared for at times like he did, then I cannot function optimally.

Caring is stressful. We need help and sometimes we need help to think things through with a therapist, to help discern our feelings, vent our frustrations. We need support in order to take breaks and to care for our own health.

If you are a carer or a caretaker, I pray that you will not forget to fortify yourself. If not for yourself then for those for whom you take care of, who need you to be healthy for them.

Through the Garden Gate

His eyes were closed, peaceful. Pale and gaunt with a few days’ stubble on his chin, he lay in his living room of forty years, on a bed contracted by the hospital equipment company.

“Is he gone?” asked his wife, standing just behind me, her voice quiet.

My left hand on his, my right pulled the stethoscope from his chest. I nodded, “He is.”

A deep sigh caught briefly in her throat and then escaped raggedly, “And what do I do now?”

I straightened and offered her a hug. I had never met her before this early morning and though I never assume that a hospice patient or family is comfortable with displays of affection, it was clear by her eyes that she was in need, and desired some human contact. I considered her question rhetorical as she weekly hugged back, leaning into me.

I was there to address the here and now, and she told me that she had called the funeral home. Though five in the morning they would be there within an hour. We both straightened up the room and made her husband look more comfortable. No morbid pulling up the cover over him; no, that seemed disrespectful and dismissive. He was still in his home and his wife would need to wait an hour before the painful event of seeing him taken away.

She told me all about their home and how they had done all of the work to it. They married later in life and were very happy. It was a comfortable and sweetly decorated cottage. I could not find it when I first arrived. It was down the hill from the parking area at the end of a lane. I had been told to go through the gate and follow the path down to the house and so that is what I did. Through the wooden, rough-hewn gate there was indeed a path, very quaint and winding. It led to a fairy-like world of honeysuckle, red cockscombs, purple-blue allium, petunias and hostas, to a small stone porch and dutch door.

Hospice nurses help patients in their final days of life, and their families through some of the most difficult times they will ever face. Had I been their regular nurse I would have known more about them, but I was on-call this particular weekend.

She made coffee. It was the only cup I had ever said yes to, as normally there are questions and documentation and duties to perform at a death. But all was done and her suffering required some sort of routine, personal caring and connection, and thus the comfort of a hot cup of coffee. We sat and she told me that her friends would be over after the funeral director left. She told me about how she dealt with and viewed death as a Jehovah’s Witness. In that hour which could have seemed uncomfortably long, we bonded. I have not seen her since then, as my family moved soon after and I stopped working for that hospice. But I will always remember her.

Her religion, views and life were different than my own, and yet humans will each experience the death of a loved one at some time, and we shared that. I could comfort her and help her to explore both the immediate and rhetorical inferences of her question, “What do I do now?”

Though we all have small and great differences, I am not sure I would use the word “tolerate” in how we are supposed to deal with them. I would use words and phrases like: listen, seek to understand, make some common connection, find a point of agreement, and compassion. That morning a woman experienced one of the very hardest things in life. I learned about that life, her love, and her faith over a cup of coffee. Soon the gate built by her loving man would open to those who would soothe her at his leaving.

Her husband’s soul would rise up the garden hillside through that earthly, wooden gate and on to a celestial one, opened because of the way he lived his life.

The paths of two women with different lives converged for a moment in time, and I am fairly sure that I was the one helped more.

Jigs and Ashes

Who is disciplined enough to read one book at a time? Rarely have I ever, but then I normally have a dozen partially finished projects going on at any one time in my house. Perhaps it is just me.

I am currently reading O Ye Jigs and Juleps by Virginia Cary Hudson, Call The Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle by Mary J. MacLeod, and re-reading Middlemarch by George Elliot (pen name for Mary Ann Evans) and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. I enjoy working through Julia Cameron‘s books during my morning journaling/quiet times, and right now have her book, co-authored with Emma Lively, It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning of Middle Life and Beyond. I’ve written about Cameron before and highly recommend her works.

Though O Ye Jigs and Juleps and Angela’s Ashes are both historical narratives, they were each published with clearly different intent. O Ye Jigs was was taken to press by Hudson’s daughter who saw innocence, beauty, humor and even genius in her mother’s writing and was compelled to share it. As a little girl in the early 1900s, Hudson stuttered and was too embarrassed to speak in front of the class. Her schoolteacher encouraged her to write essays. Angela’s Ashes is a biography written by McCourt about his mother and his family’s life during the Depression. Hudson’s parents were wealthy and lived in Kentucky, while McCourt’s parents were poor, on the dole, in Limerick.

There are unexpected similarities in the writing styles of McCourt and Hudson. Both write in an energetic, run-on style heaped with detail, conversation and deeper meaning. The stories are simple in delivery, and the humor raw. McCourt delves into the more tragic aspects of life, and so alternating between the two provides me with a respite from the harsh reality of poverty, racism, and prejudice–these clearly know no boundary of country or time period. Hudson’s work is a glimpse into history through child-sized, rose-colored glasses, yet it does not try to hide inequities.

Hudson rides her pony and plays for hours on end. Her friends organize a game of “Baptizing” one day and accidentally drop their volunteer two-year-old convert into a rain barrel–he is unharmed, thankfully. Hudson is mentored by an older woman who appears in a few of her stories. She throws a garden party for the little girl and her friends who include young boys who work near the railroad. To an adult, the injustice in the boys’ lives is clear, yet the innocence of their friendship without care of class or money is sweet. The children dance and eat cake and enjoy the adults whom they pull in to join the fun.

I remembered that my mother owned copies of Hudson’s works in the mid-60s. They were best-sellers at the time and Hudson’s family was from Louisville, where we lived. I am sure that is why my mother read them. I had not thought of them until recently, when in the book by Cameron I was encouraged to write about different time periods in my life. Hudson’s book resonates deeply to the generation raised before Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, streaming, and even DVDs, BluRays, VCRs and Cable TV. We had seemingly endless hours which made school breaks not boring but adventurous. Only rain would force us indoors, and sometimes not even that. We created our fun, and that is probably why the storytelling of Hudson and McCourt are so entertaining and even familiar.

Hudson is an Episcopalian and McCourt a Roman Catholic, and both poke fun at their churches. Having been a member of each of these churches at some point in my life, neither strike me as offensive. Hudson muses about the differences in the next-door Baptist church, while McCourt’s relatives from Northern Ireland during tumultuous times, heave insults about Protestants. Hudson remained Episcopalian and spoke at churches as an adult, while McCourt clearly lost his faith in later life. His family lived on the dole, some tragically unable to survive hunger and illness. The unfairness in life and the hypocritical nature of society wore his family down. McCourt wrote more about this in his sequel ‘Tis.

Both authors offer glimpses into history and lives unlike our own. As with any historical narrative they are best understood in context. This was their lived experience. By understanding diverse perspectives, even those imperfect or in error, even those which marginalized and allowed for human suffering, we can learn and understand and strive to improve the world by working together. We can be more forgiving and less reactive; more creative in solutions and therefore effective in reformation.

From Jigs to Ashes, and on to a truly better world.

Old Friends

Each person interacts with others in their own unique way. Social scientists and theologians will agree that humans are social beings, with their best performance “in community” with others. We’re all different when it comes to friends. Some are outgoing and seem always to be surrounded by peers–the life of the party, the center of a group or a key part of it. Others prefer to watch from the sidelines, or to interact with a smaller group, or one-on-one. Most of us make a few good friends throughout life. Have you spoken with yours recently?

My Dad Arnold with a friend and a cute pup in the 1930s

Life gets so busy and we may realize that days have gone by, perhaps years, since we spoke with an old friend. Two of my oldest friends and I got together a few years ago for a “girls’ weekend” and had such a great time that we vowed to do it every year. One is a busy college professor, the other a specialty dental hygienist. We each have children and one nursed an aging parent; we are still trying to plan our next get together. We are, happily, in touch more regularly since that weekend.

My Dad was more extroverted than I. He had some great friends and he was loyal to them throughout his life. I blogged about him, his life, and mentioned his best friend Jimmy from the Korean War. Dad was a gifted athlete and was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds. His career was tragically cut short by an accident early in his first season but he remained in touch with some of the greats of that time.

I remember one sunny day in the early 1970s at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Dad took our family to an Orioles game. Our seats were not too far up from the visitor’s dugout. We arrived early and the Milwaukee Brewers were warming up. Dad walked us kids down to the dugout and leaned over the side, waving. A man jumped up with a hoot, arm outstretched, “Arnie!” he called to my Dad, “How the heck are you?” So many questions overlapped each other as the two reached over railing to hug and pat each others’ backs.

Dad introduced us proudly. “Kids, this is Roy McMillan, first base coach for the Brewers.” Roy shook our hands then asked Dad as he looked up in the stands, “Where’s Lizzy?” Dad pointed up to our Mom a dozen rows up, juggling cotton candy and hot dogs. She immediately waved the food in the air with a great big smile and Roy shouted up unabashed to onlookers, “Hey, Liz!” Then Dad and Roy filled in decades those few minutes before the game. Who won? No idea. But that’s like me to simply remember the joy of it.

Years later we kids put on a surprise 40th Anniversary party for Mom and Dad. We invited as many of their friends as we could get in touch with. It was a blast seeing them reunite, some they had not seen for years. It is fun to see your parents in a different light. Old friends can do that to us, bring out the kid in us. The stories were really fun to hear.

These old friends stayed a week in their RV to have time to fill in the decades…
Arnie and Liz, 1993
Arnie and Liz, 1953

In this past year, I learned from my Mom’s two living brothers, 83 and 91 years old, how they both looked on my Dad as their best friend in life. Dad passed away twenty five years ago. Each man shed tears reminiscing about him. I cannot describe the feeling. Something inside me was so moved, so proud. This is the stuff that life is made of. Enduring bonds and old friends.

Pearls Beyond

Last night I learned about the Isenheim Altarpiece, a depiction of Christ on the cross painted by Matthias Grunewald not long after the Black Plagues. Painted in a hospital chapel, Christ is covered by pox-like, communicable disease sores inflicting many at the time. The artist thought that our suffering could possibly make more sense united with Christ’s. Perhaps those suffering would feel that He took these wounds on also, and suffered. If Christians are called to imitate Christ, then self-sacrifice and suffering, offered to him and for others, might bring more sense to what seems so very senseless.

If given a choice…would it help us to endure suffering? I often think allegorically, in visualized concepts, and through story. This came to me yesterday:

As though awakening from a dream, she gained consciousness. Something was different–novel, unique. All around her was bright yet she felt no need to squint. There was music in the air, something like birds or wind chimes. All was filled with a great yellow-gold shimmering light. A pastoral field lay before her and it seemed that every blade of grass, every flower shone of it’s own source. Beautiful. Puzzling.

“Come with me,” a kind voice resonated from a familiar face beside her, like a lifelong companion. Each moment in time was no longer strung together but compounded, melded, and each brought clarity as well as more question. “Am I dreaming?”

The comforting companion led her forward, gesturing toward a greater light. “You will choose…though most are not offered to do so.”

A choice? The realization was dawning…something very great, or grave, had happened.

Flooding into her consciousness came a rush of memory. As though an instant, an enormous download, her entire life was seen distinctly and simultaneously–young, old, joys, sorrows, playing as a little girl in the grass, marrying her husband, receiving her first soft kitten and the scent of it(!), the babies, the surgeries, losing her father, crying over the struggles of her teen, the wedding of her oldest daughter. Happy memories as well as sad, the latter of which were acknowledged as such, yet the pit-of-stomach pain was absent. All simply was. And the realization of “was” in past tense brought the dawn of understanding of her death. She felt–joy.

This great download of her life, even the sorrowful times could be seen not in all their complexity and meaning; no, they were seen as gift.

Far ahead she saw the others. They were blissfully perfect and in communion with one another. They were illuminated with light and though unrecognizable she knew that her Mom and Dad, her grandparents, and friends were among the souls. She felt pulled to them with a magnetism that held no fear.

The companion halted her at the entrance to this place, this bright tunnel that led to paradise. It was in her very soul that that she knew this to be where we are all drawn, when all becomes complete, makes sense, and returns us full circle to what we were intended all along. The circle itself was the gift–and no perfectly drawn circle, anyone’s. Twists, faults, pain, suffering intermingled with happy events. Her circle could now be completed. It felt so perfect, and yet…

“Choose.” Her companion looked on her lovingly, patiently, and expectantly.

She thought for a fraction of a second, “Why?’ Why go back for more pain, more suffering? To disability and the grief which would surely come from continued loss. To all that she saw and remembered clearly, there would be more. Why go back?

In the same moment of the question came answers: “More gift,” “for others,” “for your children and grandchildren,” “for more work that only you can accomplish, though you will not see it nor understand it at the time.”

“Can you trust in Me?” The companion was now recognizable. “Either way, I love you dearly. There are things I can accomplish through you.”

In this place, this absence of time as we know it, she saw the glory of the heavens when Mary responded “Yes” to Gabriel’s question, and she realized that Mary understood that her choice might entail difficulty and suffering she could not fully comprehend. But Mary responded affirmatively, wanting what her creator asked of her more than what she wanted of her own life. Her future was unseen, her God unseen, but He asked and she responded, “Yes.”

The Lord spoke again, “Will you go back for a little while longer, for My glory? For others?”

The last few years of her life had been filled with increasing pain. She had cried out many times to Him to save her from it, and here He was asking if she would go back. There was no wrong in going forward. No sense of guilt in it. The sensation of being pulled forward to the light had not lessened.

“Will you accept more gift before you are here with us always?”

She felt the love of her children, of her husband. She knew that they must be grieving. It was not with anxiety that she felt it, as she knew fully that the Lord would comfort them. But she could hear their prayers. They were calling her back. If this was a choice offered not to every soul, then God had reasons. The companion spoke once more, “I will always be with you, even in the confusion, and in the grief and difficulties ahead. But there will be joy such as you have never fully known. Trust in Me.”

“I do trust you. Yes, Lord.”

In that moment came a joyous sound from ahead of her, almost deafening; in the same instant a weight returned in her chest, and all of the sensations of physical reality. There was pain again. Noise. But there was also calm–a peace which truly passed all understanding.

She would endure. Farther ahead would be that miraculous place; she knew this with all certainty. Yet for a little while longer, there was this earthly life, this gift. More to the circle, to the necklace of life which held jagged edges yet also shining pearls. She would continue adding to that necklace, her circle of life. She would continue not for herself, but for God’s work. To finish stringing all of the pearls. To love.