How Do I Answer Her Tough Questions?

Ash and Me

When my daughter was three years old, we commuted together on one of the busiest interstates in the country to my job as a teacher and to the daycare center where she spent more waking hours with care providers than she spent with me.  Despite the stress of having my precious cargo in a hellish commute with me, I loved sharing that time with her.  She chattered away and asked a million questions, even though we left home while the sky was still dark.  I knew that I needed to prepare myself for a lifetime of tough questions when she asked me, “Momma, how did God get all those stars up in the sky?”

That night, I read to her from James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation”:

Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,

And God rolled the light around in His hands

Until He made the sun;

And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.

And the light that was left from making the sun

God gathered it up in a shining ball

And flung it against the darkness,

Spangling the night with the moon and stars.

Then down between

The darkness and the light

He hurled the world;

And God said, “That’s good!”

I remember being happy that she had asked me that question and not the daycare providers.  I remember feeling guilty that I couldn’t be a stay-at-home mom.  But now, she can’t remember the names of the people who cared for her, and I’m sure that she thinks more about all the things I’ve taught her than she thinks about anything that any of them said to her.

That doesn’t mean that she always agrees with me.  She views the world through the lens of her own experiences and ideas. And when she does, she isn’t shy about telling me that she doesn’t agree with me or share my view of the world.

And so today, she sometimes openly challenges my thinking in ways that I never challenged my own parents.  My father was a Republican who only once voted anything other than a straight ticket.  He was a child of evangelicals who never in my lifetime stepped foot into a church except for the funeral of a close friend.  My mother registered as a Republican and gave Dad a second vote in every election until he died, when she changed parties and cast the last vote of her life for Barack Obama.  She was a devout Christian who never worshipped in a church and who worried she might be going to hell because she didn’t accept the faith of her parents and in-laws.

I never considered registering as anything other than a Democrat.  I became eligible to vote in March 1974, a few months after Nixon had declared that he was not a crook.  But I never told my dad that I didn’t register for his party.  I never once discussed religion with my father either.  And after being a practicing evangelical for all of my teenage years and young adulthood, I chose a denomination that messily debates every social issue of the day. And I eventually chose a church that shared space with a Jewish congregation and ordained a gay minister.

Like many 20-somethings, my daughter doesn’t go to church as often as I do.  And she is far more accepting than I am of friends who have political views that differ from her own.  On many matters of politics and religion and life, she shares my views.  But she is much more quick to challenge people at the two extremes than I am and much more quick to offer her friendship to people whose views diverge from her own.

And maybe that’s a good thing in a world where we could use more people who can listen and really hear people who disagree.  The danger of teaching our children to think for themselves…is that they will.  But perhaps it’s our hope for the future, too.

Surrounded By the Flood?

Rain in Front Yard

Surrounded by the flood?  Not yet.  But the electricity just flickered for the first time…and when an official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that we’re about to see a storm we’ve never seen before–a “billion dollar storm”–we pay attention.  So here’s the view from my front porch, and I’m wondering how many of those leaves–and those azalea flowers, which aren’t even supposed to be blooming at this time of year–will be left by this time tomorrow.
 
“Yeah, yeah,” you say, “you and everyone else in the path of Sandy are blogging about it while you still have electricity.”  And you’re probably right.  But I wonder how many of the people who’ll blog about this storm will read the Common Lectionary for the day and tilt their heads at the coincidence.
 
Here’s the thing:  I follow my church’s Common Lectionary to center myself at the beginning of each day.  (And I’ve recently started exploring the holy texts of some other faiths as well, and it’s surprising how often our texts tell similar stories or say the same thing in truly poetic ways.)  The Common Lectionary readings are chosen by leaders of a number of denominations as a two-year cycle of readings for personal reflection.  And the Old Testament reading today–chosen long ago as part of a two-year cycle–is from the Book of Jonah, and it says, in part:
 

“You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me….The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.” (Jonah 2: 3, 5-6)

 
Now I don’t believe that God is some master puppeteer who is up in the ether pulling the marionette strings and watching us dance.  But that coincidence does make me tilt my head and go, Hmmm.  It makes for interesting conversation with my friends who are thinking evangelicals…and even my friends who are deeply reflective atheists.
 
One of my friends texted this to me recently after reading an earlier post:  “I still don’t know the who or even if I believe the ‘is’ of God, but I do know that my life is enriched by your existence in it.”  And I feel the very same way about her.  And I find that sort of honesty much more rational and logical than the false prophets who’ve been warning us for thousands of years that earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis are God’s punishment for our transgressions.
 
And so, my friends, at the end of this storm may we all find that the great is has kept us through the storm and that, as Jonah was spewed out onto dry land in today’s reading, so may we find ourselves–safe and dry.  And if we are not, may we dismiss those voices who point accusing fingers and arm ourselves with compassion and courage to face the aftermath of the flood.

What’s Your Favorite Color?

Tree at FPHC

What’s my favorite color?  When someone asks me this question, I can never give a definitive answer.  Is it the azure blue of the sky?  The bright pink of a spring azalea?  The emerald green of the hummingbird that hovers near the feeder on the deck?  Are you talking about clothing?  If so, I love to wear black and cherry red and royal purple and…
 
…never is my answer in any shade of orange.  And yet this tree, surrounded by the pumpkins our church’s youth sell every October to fund their mission trips never ceases to make me hold my breath in awe when I see it each fall.
 
And when I see this tree in all its splendor, it makes me wonder how often we miss out on something spectacular because we look first for the shades of life that we already know we like–the colors that are comfortably pleasing to us.
 
It occurs to me that human beings come in all sorts of intriguing colors–not skin colors–though those, too, can come in all sorts of interesting shades.  But what if I looked for the spectacular “colors” in the personalities of the people I meet–the people who don’t necessarily fit the rainbow spectrum I love at first sight?
 
It’s an interesting question.  And I suspect I’ll never like olive drab or lime or fifty shades of gray, but I think I’ll commit to looking more closely at the shades of orange.
 
What’s your favorite color?

Bad Hair Day?

Estelene No Hair

Moist air day = bad hair day, I thought as I looked into the mirror this morning and watched the corners of my mouth turn down more each time I released a lock of hair from the round brush to find it still wavy despite my efforts.

Sighing and clenching my eyes shut, I put the brush down on the vanity counter and realized, not for the first time, why it’s called a vanity.  I’ll admit it, I’m vain.  I want my hair to look the way it looks when I walk out of my stylist’s salon with it freshly colored and cut.  But this morning, I looked at the gray roots and didn’t even bother to use the color wand that my stylist had given me to get me through those last few days before each appointment.

Now here’s the thing–nine years ago this month, I was about to learn what it was like to have no hair.  And one would think that after spending four months with no hair and another year waiting for it to grow back, I’d really appreciate having a bad hair day…because it means I have hair.

I had surgery for breast cancer in October 2003 and my first chemo treatment on December 4.  I remember that because my oncologist told me that unless I was among the lucky 1% of patients who do not lose their hair, I would start losing my hair three weeks to the day after the first treatment.  Now I can hear you Christians–and maybe even some of my non-Christian friends–out there calculating when that would be.  And you guessed it.  I got into the shower on Christmas morning, put shampoo into my hand and rubbed it between my palms, forgetting what my oncologist had said.  But I remembered the moment I pulled my fingers through my hair and looked down to find clumps of hair wrapped around my fingers.  I stood in the shower and cried, my tears mixing with the water from the pulsing spray from the shower head.

I stepped from the shower and wrapped my head in a towel.  When I unwrapped the towel, I found more clumps of hair stuck to the terrycloth fibers.  I pulled the wig I had bought with a friend’s help from the styrofoam head at the top of the closet, placed it on my head, and walked out of the bathroom and into my husband.  He looked at me sympathetically and hugged me.  He didn’t need to ask what had happened in the shower.

On the day after Christmas, I called On the Edge Hair Studio, my salon, and explained what had happened.  I knew that this was their busiest time of year, as clients came in to get their hair done for New Year’s Eve galas.  I asked Cathie, the receptionist, if I could possibly come in and have my hair stylist, Angie Cassagnol, shave my head.  I told her that I just couldn’t stand day after day of having my hair come out in my fingers.  “Oh, honey,” Cathie said, “you know that Angie will take care of you.”

And so, two days after Christmas, I trudged into the shop, blinking back tears as I walked toward the window lined with blinking white lights and green garland.  Cathie and Angie greeted me with a smile and complimented me on the human hair wig that cost me a year’s worth of appointments with Angie.  I smiled half-heartedly and sat down in Angie’s chair, as I’d done for years.  I looked at Angie’s thick, dark hair enviously and wished I had her talent for doing her own hair.

I took a deep breath and pulled the wig from my head.  Angie gasped, and her eyes filled with tears.  “Okay….okay,” she said.  “I’m going to have to cut it short before I can shave it.”

I made myself breathe.  “Okay,” I said, closing my eyes.  I heard the sound of the scissors snipping and finally found the courage to open my eyes.  Tears streamed down Angie’s cheeks, and I found that I could stop crying, perhaps because she was crying enough for both of us.  “It’s okay,” I said.  “You’ve told me lots of times when I was afraid to change the style that it’s only hair and that it’ll grow back,” I smiled.

When she finished, I had a boy cut.  And at that moment, we both knew that we couldn’t go on.  She had performed an incredible act of love for me, and I knew that I would never have another hair stylist.

Ultimately, it was my husband Matt who found the courage to shave my head–one of the greatest acts of love of our 21 years together.  And six months later, the hair started to grow back.

But even though I remember the pain of having no hair, which in some ways was worse than losing my breast because it was so visible to the world, I still get frustrated on bad hair days.  Until I remember to laugh at myself and thank God that the world has people like my husband and Angie, who love me even when I’m having a no-hair day.

Who Really Works Hard?

 

Spending time at the hospital with my husband this week reminded me that this time last October, I spent the night by my mother’s bedside and wrote this piece as she slept:

“I work hard for my money,” you said from the next table in the country club dining room.  You wore an expensive Bobby Jones polo shirt, casual slacks, and Tiger-style Nike shoes.  Swirling your second glass of 25-year old Scotch, you admired the amber color as it slid in gentle arcs around the glass.  You wafted the glass under your nose and sipped before continuing, “And I don’t want the government to take more of it to give to people who are too lazy to work.”

I think of you now as I sit by my ailing mother’s bedside and watch her work hard to breathe.  I know you from a distance, enough to know that you own a lucrative company that packages health insurance for businesses.  And that you spend many afternoons golfing while those for whom you’ve created jobs in your small business work in an expensive suite of offices nearby.

My mother coughs, and I watch her labor to take in the oxygen that flows through the only clear tube attached to her body.  She has labored all her life—mostly for no money at all—as the mother of five children and the wife of a coal miner.  She refused to put my father in a nursing home, taking care of him for four years as he slowly died from the black lung he developed as a result of 30 years of hard labor in a West Virginia coal mine.

Her nurse, Redheem, rushes into the room for my mother’s 2:00 a.m. vitals and medications, takes two gloves from the dispenser inside the door, and slips them on quickly as she crosses the room.  But when Redheem reaches the bed, she slows her pace and touches my mother gently, waking her from sleep.  I watch the nurse’s face, perfectly framed by the tightly wrapped hijab that catches the light from the hallway.  She disconnects the tube that drips from one of the four bags hanging on the IV pole.  Then she works efficiently to add pain medications to the IV and to check all the wires before going to the computer to log her work.  She tells my mother that she will return at 4:00 a.m. to check her again and give her a bath, which she does—with the same gentle touch I’ve watched Mom use on her newborn grandchildren.

As Redheem works, she asks me, “Does your mom have all girls?”  She has seen only my sister and me at our mother’s bedside.

“No, just my sister and me…and three sons.”  Unwilling to disturb my mother’s peace by talking about my brother who died of a drug overdose, I turn the conversation.  “Do you have children?”

“No,” Redheem answers.  “I take care of my parents.  They live with me.  And my sister.  I’m paying for my sister’s college because I don’t want her to have loans.  My parents paid for my college, so I’m paying it forward.”

Ready to change the sheets on the bed, Redheem calls for a nurse’s assistant to help her roll my mother from side to side.  Mom grimaces but does not complain.  Redheem repeatedly apologizes for disturbing her.  They finish promptly, cover Mom, and ask her if she needs anything.  As they leave, Redheem thanks my mom and turns to me: “Your mother is so sweet.”

Exhausted, my mother looks at me and smiles. Her jaw slackens as she quickly returns to sleep.

Brian, the nurse’s assistant, comes into the room and, like Redheem, he dons the blue gloves in the time it takes me to notice his entry.  He approaches the bed and stoops to examine the bag at the end of the long catheter tube.   He tilts his head and nods, satisfied, then waves to me quietly as he leaves.

The room is still again, except for the ticking of the heart monitor and the soft swishing of the suction devices.

My mind drifts back to the table at the country club.  I wonder if you have ever sat by the bed of a loved one who receives the gentle and attentive ministrations of the countless Redheems and Brians who work so hard.

And I see again your golf partner’s discomfort with the conversation you initiated, not for the first or the second or even the third time.  And then I wanted to cheer as I watched his response.  He squirmed in his seat and, with resolve, he met your eyes above the Scotch glass and asked for the first time, “How much is enough?”

Am I Really in Your Thoughts and Prayers?

Every time someone in my family has faced a health crisis, I’m reminded of how wonderful human beings really are.  A friend said to me recently that she hated it when people told her she was in their thoughts and prayers because she was certain that very few people really did pray for you or think much about you when they said it.  She placed the comment in the same category as the greeting, “How are you?” to which we are obligated to respond, “I’m fine.  How are you?”

 
But when I had Stage 3 breast cancer (nine years ago this month), I thought a lot about that very comment, and I figured that if only some of those people actually did pray for me, then I was certainly the stronger for it.  And people I had considered only acquaintances cared for me in wonderful ways.  One woman sent me a card almost every week during the entire nine months I was undergoing therapy.  My colleagues took turns bringing meals to our home for the eight weeks I was on leave after the surgery.  My students made up a basket of their favorite books and games and snacks.  My four doctors, all women except for the plastic surgeon, learned to read the look on my face and know when they needed to stop and spend a little more time listening to me.  And when I asked the oncologist’s nurse how she could stand to work every day with cancer patients, many of whom died, she told me that she loved talking with these people who had learned what was truly important in life.
 
This week I’ve been reminded again of how we are made strong in our weakness–how we see the face of God in the people who take care of us.  My husband–the love of my life–had surgery on a lumbar disc yesterday, and the surgery turned out to be a little more complicated than we thought.  Again, friends and acquaintances rallied, texting and sending Facebook messages and letting us know in a hundred little ways that we are not alone.
 
And while our healthcare providers were all professional and attentive, one nurse at Georgetown University Hospital won our hearts and our hearty thanks.  We had seen the hospital’s commercials that advertised it as “the magnet nurses’ hospital,” but we had never thought twice about what that meant.  But when my husband was moved to the neuro wing, Sarah Belden greeted us with efficiency and smiles, despite the fact that every bed was filled, some with patients who were demanding and difficult.  I watched her sprint from one room to another, but every time she approached my husband’s bed, she slowed her steps and gave him careful attention.  She apologized when she caused him pain and asked repeatedly if she could do anything for him.  She engaged him in conversation and laughed at his jokes borne of the fog of anesthesia and a quirky sense of humor.
 
So when he was released from the hospital earlier today, and we learned as she was filling out the paperwork that she was only 23 years old, I was also reminded of how many of us set out to make a difference in the world.  And then far too many of us go into our professions and let the unpleasant people and the cynics jade us.  Or we get so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s need that we let our work drain us and forget to enjoy life.
 
And so, Sarah Belden, thank you for your bubbly cheerfulness and your kind care.  You have reminded me, yet again, that human beings are wonderful and that the face of God shines upon us even in the dark places.

For Whom Do You Think I Should Vote?

Wrong question. My former teacher would say that’s a hatrack question. I know who’s getting my vote, and I’ve tried to use my head for something besides a hatrack in making it. I’ve ignored the ads that assault me every time I turn on the television. I’ve read articles and opinions in both liberal and conservative newspapers, though I avoid the media outlets at the two extremes, who are not credible to anyone except the people who share their point of view. I’ve looked at the candidates’ records and at which candidate has the most potential to lead, to be honest, to care about the least among us, to put the good of the country above his desire to be elected.

 
But, hey, I’m the girl who boarded the Two Americas bus and emailed all my friends to tell them that I believed that John Edwards was the answer. My endorsement has absolutely no credibility. And my friends frequently remind me that they think of me every time they see his face in the media. So I’m convinced that the best we can do is try to use our heads to look beyond the clamor of the two extremes and hope that we’re electing the best our country has to offer.
 
So tell me…what are you doing to ensure that you’re making the most informed decision you can make? How are you making your political head something more than a rack for a politician’s top hat?
 
Please tell me HOW you’re making the decision, not the person for whom you’re voting. Any endorsements for particular candidates or rants about the opposition will be deleted.

Who Is God?

Is he the vengeful God of my childhood faith–the one I followed out of fear to avoid the fiery hell that I was told awaited me?  The one who exclusively male preachers told me would hound me until I gave up everything I wanted so that I could do what he wanted?  The one with whom we must constantly struggle to surrender, beaten down again and again so that we could somehow be lifted up if we managed to survive a battle that was impossible to win?

Or is the Spirit a god of grace, both father and mother, who nurtures me and teaches me to love by loving me no matter how many times I fail?  The one who cheers me on and helps me develop my best talents–to do well what I am passionate about doing, to see the face of God in the people who journey with me in this life?

I choose the God of Grace, the one big enough to parent all the different children as they look for guidance–the one who has as many ways of finding us as there are children on this earth.  Playwright Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager says in his playOur Town:

We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal…All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it.

So come now…tell me your stories of the Eternal Something–of the God big enough to love us all and bring out the best in us.  No matter what your religion, I invite you to share a story of what is best about your faith, your God, the one who is big enough to love us.  Let us come together, drawn by the light that is in each of us, and see the face of God a little more clearly in one another.

Please do not use this space to try to seek converts for your faith or to demean the faith of someone else. Any posts that proselytize for a religion or tear down the beliefs of others will be deleted.