Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Crèche at the Courthouse

Restraint is not a quality I exhibit well. The fact I am writing this now – after Christmas – is proof that I have a measure of restraint. But the holiday is over. Waiting is done. And, please  note: If you are someone uncomfortable with contemplating faith expression or why people do what they do, please stop reading. Your time will be better spent elsewhere.

I have wanted to write about seeing the nativity on our courthouse lawn since a few weeks ago when I drove past and saw it there. It sits where it sat last year. And one more Christmas season has brought one more year of people asserting they have the right to place it there.

I am not certain when this practice began; however, I am certain I am not alone in my annual distress over it.

I am also certain that I am not the only person who believes it is inappropriate to place a religious symbol that favors one faith expression on public property that is to serve all citizens regardless of faith. At least that’s the indication I got from others during various conversations these past few weeks. I am also confident that those who share my view feel it is futile (or folly?) to complain or to do what I nearly did a few weeks ago – write a letter to the editor of the local paper. To a person, each friend in my Bible study of 14 years advised against a public display of discord.

“What will that do, Joy? What do you hope to accomplish? You will only tick people off.”

There are historical grounds for their predictions for that’s what happened in 2007 when someone – not me – complained and alerted the ACLU. People got ticked off that a complaint about the crèche had been filed, yet as a result of the complaint county officials removed the crèche, donating it to the local ministerial association.


Undaunted, a group identified as “Christian Congregations of Winnebago County” affixed a sign to the manger and placed it back on the lawn. This time – because of the sign – the crèche was able to remain as a sponsored placement, enabling the county to adhere to our government’s separation clause.

Details of what happened in 2007 and also last year when the crèche was left on display for three months after Christmas are recorded here (Winnebago supervisors say Nativity scene issue is settled, ACLU disagrees).

Four years later, these questions remain: What is the point of having a crèche on a courthouse lawn? Why does our county need to display a crèche at Christmastime when not even all of the 26 Christian churches in the county do?

I anticipate this answer: To celebrate Christmas and the birth of Christ.

I also anticipate this response: If people of other faiths want to place something on the courthouse lawn, they are welcome to do so.

But I doubt that.

I doubt that Wiccans, Buddists, Muslims, Jews and others are truly welcome to display items of faith on the courthouse square in recognition of their high holy days. I also doubt that members of those faiths want to do it. Overt displays are typically part of the Christian witness and not usually the way that people of other faith expressions publicly share.

Government holidays, retail sales promotions tied to holidays, movies and television shows with holiday themes – even boycotts of businesses accused of not honoring holidays with the respect some believe appropriate. In our nation, Christians have a monopoly on all of the above. County governance is no different.

According to a 2000 report on Congregations and Membership in the United States, only 1 person in Winnebago County named a faith expression that wasn’t aligned with Christianity. The faith listed was Baha’i. Full report: Congregations and Membership in the United States 2000. Nashville, TN: Glenmary Research Center.

Yet, I know people who have lived or who currently are living in my county as permanent residents that claim Judaism, Buddhism, and atheism as their faith expression. (And I don’t mean to offend atheists by labeling atheism a faith expression.) Evidently these individuals fell outside the scope of such a report.

But what would it matter? Those who live in this county are aware they live in Christian territory. Should there be any doubt during the month of December, all they need to do is look toward the courthouse. The lighted crèche marks the courthouse lawn for Christians as effectively as our neighbor’s dog has marked our lawn.

As a person who spiritually identifies as a Christian, I am grieved that plastic figurine symbols have displaced the good news they profess to proclaim. Being a Christian has become the right to display a crèche on a courthouse lawn rather than individuals displaying acts of mercy and grace and unconditional love – behaviors that should be the most reliable identifier of a person’s chosen belief.

Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans named this inclination to stake out Christian turf through overt signs of celebration as “entitlement.” This week she reposted her December 8, 2010, blog “Blessed are the entitled?” Her thoughtful dispatch provides context for her provocative conclusion:
Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I wonder if the best thing that could happen to this country is for Christ to be taken out of Christmas—for Advent to be made distinct from all the consumerism of the holidays and for the name of Christ to be invoked in the context of shocking forgiveness, radical hospitality, and logic-defying love. The Incarnation survived the Roman Empire, not because it was common but because it was strange, not because it was forced on people but because it captivated people.

Let’s celebrate the holidays, of course, but let’s live the incarnation. Let’s advocate for the poor, the forgotten, the lonely, and the lost. Let’s wage war against hunger and oppression and modern-day slavery.

Let’s be the kind of people who get worked up on behalf of others rather than ourselves.

That’s exactly it.

Let’s not fight for our right to display a crèche on the courthouse lawn. Let’s become the good news the crèche represents.

Figurines are figurative. Faith is real. Faith is love in action. It has nothing to do with a crèche on public display unless you are feeding the hungry from its manger or sheltering the homeless in its shadows or advocating for those of all faiths alongside the angels of your own.

Only 11 months remain before the advent of Christmas 2012. I need to get busy. If I don’t become the change I seek, I will be but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal; for if my faith is real, I must move beyond symbols as well.

So here’s to a new year filled with provocative questions that are answered through acts of abundance.

Let’s start with this one: What do I have that can be given to someone in need?

And guess what? Good news. No restraint is required.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Hope for the Soul

In August I participated in a Circle of Trust Retreat led by staff from the Center for Courage and Renewal. The mission of the center, founded by Parker Palmer, is "to nurture personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it." They accomplish this by leading activities that help people reconnect who they are with what they do. It's an individual activity done - amazingly - in the midst of others who are busy doing the same thing.

I had hoped my time at the retreat would be as as productive as a deep house cleaning. Instead, I took first steps toward such. I had not considered the condition of my soul and its lack of readiness until - in the noisy solitude of thought - it tentatively presented with dings, dents, and stains. Fully intact, yet worn and tired.

It was wounded. It had been waiting. It needed more than a rest and refuel.

I had to wrestle with the concept of a chronically wounded soul - a life lived amid conditions so overwhelming that role and soul exist in a perpetually entwined state. Not life-giving like the interwoven roots of giant sequoias but entangled like a sapling grown into barbed wire.

Attempting to diagnose the severity of my woundedness became my priority.

Had I been wounded beyond my capacity to heal? Had my soul been so constricted that it could never again fill with regenerative life? If I was able to heal, did I want to?

No. No. Yes.

A soul - I discovered - is resilient beyond a human's capacity to comprehend, but it needs help.

Time and tenderness.

Affirmation.

Encouragement.

This week encouragement arrived in the form of a card from the Center for Courage and Renewal. Tucked inside was a quarter-fold paper with a piece by Victoria Safford taken as an excerpt from "The Small Work in the Great Work" in The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear edited by Paul Rogat Loeb, © 2004.

I read it word by word, feeling the crescendo of a wildly exclaimed "Yes!"

Victoria Safford knows my soul. She understands the loneliness of truth-telling and the paradox of joyful struggle.

She gets me. See sees what my soul has seen and what it hopes to see again.

I offer her words to you. May they resonate with truth and joy and light. And, in them, may your soul - like mine - claim hope.

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope-not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of "Everything is gonna be all right." But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truthtelling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we're seeing, asking people what they see.
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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Boys, Baseball and Barbie Dolls

The summer my dad’s high school baseball team went to the state tournament, I learned that high school boys didn’t act like the men I believed them to be. I have my Barbie® dolls to thank.

I was five years old and had my Barbies in various states of undress (none fully dressed) on the floor of our living room when our doorbell rang. I looked up and saw through the glass of our large, lace-curtained window the figures of about three or four high school-aged boys, all wearing baseball caps.

They must be my dad’s players, I thought.

My mother, making the same assessment, headed to our front door while calling an announcement to my father that he had “guests.” Too young to adequately interpret the slight inflection in my mother’s voice as she said “guests,” I got excited that my dad had some other men coming to visit our home. They were the young men I watched playing baseball when my dad coached, and from what I could tell, they acted just like the Dodgers my dad liked to watch on TV. I also understood them to be grownup versions of the boys I played with during recess and in our neighborhood after school.

A pint-sized feminist of the 70s with a tinge of tomboy, I found boys absolutely fascinating as future men. I loved competing with them on the same kickball team or against them in foursquare. I especially liked the challenge of their counter play and their mysterious mannerisms.

I already knew I wanted to marry a boy one day – but a day long into my future - after I had learned to bring home bacon and how to fry it in a pan. I had even picked out the kind of boy I would like to marry: a real-life version of astronaut Tony Nelson on “I Dream of Jeannie” or the real-life Bobby Sherman or David Cassidy should either of those gentlemen be willing to wait for me.

With that doorbell ring, I now had high school versions of men almost inside my home. The last place I wanted to be was sitting on the floor playing with Barbies when my mother opened the door to greet our testosterone-driven visitors.

I only had time to scurry down our hallway, taking sanctuary just inside my bedroom doorway – the closest position I could maintain while listening without being seen. I also knew I would be able to peek unnoticed from there. So, after my mom left them alone in our living room to see what was keeping my dad, I peeked.

The young men filled our couch while one perched in a chair. They looked uncomfortable. Nervous. Then they saw my neglected Barbies, and one of them quietly said something that made them all laugh.

I was horrified.

Then the one that had said something picked up a naked Barbie, grabbing her by her stiff, tight thighs. He rotated his wrist so that she appeared to dance in front of the boys on the couch. The other boys started to giggle and talk funny, and one more Barbie was picked up by a boy on the couch, and he forced the Barbies to pose breast to breast. Then they spread the Barbies’ long, unbending legs.

I didn’t want to keep looking, but I was afraid not to. What was happening to them- the Barbies and the boys? Why were they laughing? And why did I feel that something naughty was going on?

I was scared for those Barbies and their Barbie friends on the floor. I was also scared – somehow – for me.

Those boys were not the men I thought. Or were they? Is this what grown boys were like? If so, they had a dark side I had not encountered during kick ball or foursquare.

I thought about stepping into the hall to see if they would act like the men on the ball field again. I wanted to rescue my Barbies – to see if I could make the boys stop. But fear outweighed the passion that palpated my heart.

I remained frozen. Fearful.

The boys heard my dad coming the same time I did. When they quickly dropped the Barbies, my fears took on fuel. Those boys didn’t want my dad to see what they had been doing. It had felt wrong to them too, and yet they had done it anyway. That left me more afraid.

I stayed in my bedroom while they talked to my dad, my heart beating faster than it had before. I thought about my abandoned Barbies, wishing the boys away. When they finally did leave, I headed straight to the living room and dressed each Barbie in a complete outfit – dress, shoes, hair accessory. Each ensemble restored a bit of my courage. I wanted my Barbies to know I was sorry. I hoped for inanimate forgiveness.

With the last artificial woman fully clothed, I approached my dad – only 10 years older than his players – with accusations of abuse. He heard how I had watched the boys manipulate my dolls with as much detail as I could muster. Then he looked at me, and then at the ground, and then back at me. I knew he was trying to think of words to say. I couldn’t understand why it took so long.

His slight pause held my anger. His chosen words dissected my passion for justice into measured pieces.

“Boys can be like that,” he started. “I’m sorry.”

Then he shared more words about boys and how they get goofy about girls and girl things. He acknowledged that what his ball players did was not right. But somehow I understood my dad didn’t regard what they had done as punishable. He wasn’t as worried about those boys and their futures as much as I was. Or was he? I couldn’t tell.

Maybe he was worried about something else. Maybe my dad – in that moment – began to worry about the grown up version of me. Now a parent myself, I can imagine that as possible.

Girls playing with dolls. Boys playing with dolls. Girls playing with boys who played with girls as if dolls.

Maybe Tony Nelson had a dark side too.

Fortunately, I never had to find out. My high school suitors always behaved as the gentlemen I aspired them to be, and my husband – even as a future husband – far exceeded my Barbie-shaped imaginings of life with a husband and a home of my own.

I now have two sons - boys of my own to raise. One whose notions of marriage may forever stay in the idyllic place I resided prior to the Barbie harassment incident and another who is the same age of the ball players who committed the Barbie abuse. The oldest is a man-boy, locked by disability in a place that will hold him forever young. The youngest is but a few years from becoming a man, as near as I can tell.

I remain uncertain about manhood – how and when this fascinating phenomenon occurs. I have heard it can happen to a boy when in he’s in high school or maybe only begin then but not take full affect until later. It doesn’t happen the same for each person born male and, for some, it might never happen at all.

Some boys cannot grow up.

Some boys choose not to.

Some boys grow into men at the cost of their childhoods.

Some boys grow as men by maintaining the best of childhood.

Some boys fight their way into manhood.

Some boys attain manhood despite themselves.

I still wonder if the boys in my parents’ living room that day became the men I had believed they were. I want to believe they did. And I want to believe that they got married and had little girls who played with Barbies, and that they helped those little girls dress their dolls when the outfits were unruly, using the utmost respect and tenderness.

That’s what men who once played a gentlemen’s game would do once they had grown past childish games.

At least that’s how I imagine it in my grownup Barbie world.
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Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Forest Theater's Last Show

Our family said farewell to a community friend tonight: The Forest Theater. For 57 years, the Compston Family made it possible to watch first-run movies at a price everyone could afford. When we moved to town 18 years ago, admission was $2.50 per person and popcorn was $.50. Tonight our tickets were $4 each, and Gary Compston, the theater owner, was handing out popcorn for free.

In many ways, Gary was the theater. He set the tone - a collegial, neighborly atmosphere where he soon remembered your name and maybe even your usual order at the candy counter.

Going to a movie at The Forest Theater meant you would automatically attend with friends, because people you knew were waiting to pay for a ticket with you, standing in line for popcorn and candy with you, and sitting in seats around you as a small child (who Gary had chosen from the concession line earlier) started the movie by pushing two buttons inside the theater office. When the ads for local businesses began showing on the screen, you remembered why the town now felt like a hometown.

What I'll remember about The Forest Theater:

• Driving by the theater during the day to remind myself of what would be playing there that night.
• Being able to enjoy a date night for less than $12, movie munchies included.
• Being able to walk to and from that date night so the magic lasted just a bit longer.
• Listening to the change machine and watching the 50-cent pieces roll down its slide after handing Gary $3 for a $2.50 admission.
• Sitting in the cry room with my infant son, wondering why all movie theaters didn't provide such a gracious spot to watch a movie with a restless or tired little tyke.
• Hearing Gary tell patrons with a large concession order how to carry the items so they won't spill.
• Hearing Gary caution patrons not to spill when it seemed he doubted their ability to carry items to their seats.
• Joking along with Gary every time he told me I owed him $40 or $50 for the $16 admission for our family entourage.
• Watching children and youth (mine included) fight for spots in the front row.
• Listening to the paper popcorn bags nearly drown the beginning sounds of movies with quiet opening scenes.
• Listening to Gary and Mark talk after the show about changes occurring in the movie industry because of the digital revolution.
• Watching my oldest son glide down to his spot in the front row as his wheelchair coasted into position, and then rhythmically push his tires when it was time to ascend the full length of the aisle's incline after credits had finished.
• Wondering what six movies would be on the next flyer to grace our family refrigerator.

Thanks for the memories, Cathy and Gary Compston. You missed taking a lot of vacations so we could escape for a few hours - week after week, month after month, year after year. May you enjoy each of those trips you have planned as a way to launch into retirement. You have left our community quite a legacy. I hope someone dares to step forward and carry that legacy into our community's future.

You will be missed.

You will not be forgotten.
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Note: I hope the video helps you feel like you were there on the last night. I particularly enjoyed having Gary show off the projector room one last time as the last movie rolled. Seemed incredibly historic. With the advent of digital film, that machine will likely never roll a film again. I loved hearing the tick of the reels. Pretty poignant.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Oh, Poop ...

As regular InjoyBlog readers know, I'm not in the practice of using words like "poop" in the title of a blog. But I'm challenging myself as a writer. (I think.) I'm debating whether or not to write a blog about my recent experiences with - well, you can guess. You can also guess that I'm not really debating whether or not to discuss it. More like bolstering my courage.

Moms of kids with special needs (particularly adult children who are incontinent), take note. I will soon dare to discuss a topic that isn't easy table conversation or coffee conversation or any type of conversation held in any venue other than a medical office, really.

This is your warning. Get ready.

But I promise, no action photos.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Invisibility

I have been contemplating invisibility -
the difference between things seen and unseen.

And I have wondered how some things that can be seen
exist unnoticed.
Invisible by default.

How is it that people can live invisibly -
by choice or by chance?

How is it that being seen can be empowering,
while living invisibly can be empowering too?

By choice
and
by chance.

Can invisibility be recognized?
Not by those who are looking.
Of course not.
But perhaps by those who are looking for it.

Empty nothingness that pulsates with power.
Impossibilities energized with potential.

By choice
and
by chance.

Unseen by chance, empowered by choice.
Maybe.
Answers come with the choice to be seen.
Perhaps.

Yet some things that can be seen exist without being noticed.
Invisible by default.

Invisibility is real.
It doesn't matter if others see it or not.
Therein lies its power and its peril.
Whichever you choose to see.
Whichever you choose to be.
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Monday, October 31, 2011

Reformation (Thank You, Martin Luther)

Please don’t read my next sentence as any type of proselytizing (that would be out of character for a Lutheran anyway). But …

I love Lutheranism.
Love it. Particularly the ELCA variety.
The Luther LoveFest (my term) that we observed in worship this morning reminded me how much I do.

In honor of Martin Luther’s most recognized and lasting legacy, we Lutherans pulled out all the stops (literally, I believe, for the organ) to observe Reformation Sunday. Our music director even specially arranged an incredibly creative third verse of “A Mighty Fortress” for the congregation, adult choir and Waldorf College brass ensemble. I have always found that verse, which speaks to Luther’s notion of the earth filled with “devils,” fascinating. Today it was even more so. The director’s version had demonic choral sounds, bold brass fanfares, dramatic organ glissandos, and an abrupt finish – as if “one little word” had “felled” it.

Then we launched into the final verse: Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.

During this iconic hymn, I filled with so much emotion, so much gratitude for Luther’s kick butt, tenacious faith, that I found no extra room in my throat for music to come out. I simply couldn’t sing any more. I could only take in the fullness of the moment and hold on to one thought: I am at home.

I am a Martin Luther sort of follower – at least the historical Luther that has been championed by scholars and theologians for centuries. The Luther who identified corruption, spoke truth to power, wrote volumes of spiritual musings, and aspired to live serving others.

So why not pull out the stops? It is Reformation Sunday, a bit rowdy and rebellious with large doses of passion and pride.

But, of course, I am prejudiced. I am a baptized Lutheran, who – after two separate sojourns into other denominations – returned to the reformer’s road each time. Once via a liberal arts education at Lutheran college, and once via a move that found my husband and I choosing a Lutheran church as our comfortable, spiritual home.

While a young woman at Wartburg College, I, perhaps like many in the mid-16th century, began to read scripture with a mind more connected to who I was than to who those reading it from the pulpit wanted me to be. Through scripture, I met a personal and relevant God who wasn’t nearly as complex and rule-oriented as authoritarian theologians proposed God to be.

My mind transformed – renewed – without the benefit of a personal 95 Theses moment. Not even an outburst of spiritual rebellion. My personal change – my reformation if you will – occurred more subtly. In fact, it continues to occur; I hope it never stops.

As far as Martin Luther’s Reformation, I recognize that my Lutheran tainting may leave me incapable of objectivity concerning how he changed the world. I may also be too enamored by change itself to be objective.

The way I see it: The world changed in an instant because of what happened on October 31, 1517, and yet it took years for that change to be realized. After Luther nailed his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, temple curtains did not tear and graves did not open with the dead suddenly raised to life. But a barrier of authority had been broken and minds began to open. People had greater opportunities to encounter God personally. To think. To use their minds to challenge prevailing beliefs about God. To pray and meditate on scripture they had read themselves in a familiar language.

Luther helped get the church out of God’s way. It’s a feat I continue to regard as worthy; it’s a goal to which I often aspire. Reformation.

Today we celebrated with red stoles on the usually stole-less pastors and assistants, red flags hanging from the interior buttresses, red orbs on the communion servers and, yes, red wine. All of them witnessed to the presence of the Holy Spirit and what can happen when people get out of God's way and faith gets real.

I am seeing red today, but only the best shade of this powerful hue. For at the end of the day – any day – no matter what has happened or is happening or may happen, none of it matters. God’s truth abides. God’s kingdom is forever.

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
- Martin Luther’s response to the Diet of Worms on April 19, 1521, after having been asked to recant his writings on the previous day.
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Friday, October 28, 2011

Lessons Learned About School

This column first appeared in the Fall 2011 Newsletter of the Spina Bifida Association of Iowa.

Just as a child’s physical needs change from year to year, so does his or her academic needs. The school year brings ongoing opportunities for parents to learn how to academically support their children. Stross is now 20 years old and taking one to two classes a semester at a local college. After two decades of learning – his and mine – I continue to value this advice:

1 – Address physical needs separate from academic ones. Sometimes teachers and parents – out of eagerness to accommodate a learning obstacle – fail to fully break down an academic issue into physical and academic components. In first grade, Stross began arriving late to his classroom after lunch. The teacher, believing his trek to the cafeteria using his walker was too taxing, allowed him more time. Stross continued to be late. My diagnosis: He was enjoying his time at lunch more than the lessons that followed it. Once we addressed the academic issues and provided a learning incentive, he made it back on time, walking – and learning – on pace with his peers.

2 – Break through teacher barriers. Teachers may have preconceived ideas about what it will be like to have your child in his or her classroom. They may also have used methods and accommodations with other students that they assume will work equally well with your child. Each child has a unique learning profile. That remains true for children with special needs. For our family, that once meant constant, polite reminders that our son with spina bifida (and an assortment of learning disabilities) was different than the boy with cerebral palsy (and his own set of learning issues) that she taught the previous year. Communication is a must. Talk regularly with teachers about your child’s interests, and share stories about ways that he or she learns best at home.

3 – Keep using methods that work. Proven learning methods or tools keep working, but you may need to help teachers adapt ones that you know work well. For instance, Stross played a stellar game of Barney Concentration as a preschooler. I helped his middle school science teacher (and his paraprofessional) see how helpful that skill was when learning the names of elements on the periodical table. One weekend of Chemical Elements Concentration helped him earn a perfect score on his test that Monday.

4 – Support social aspects of learning. Children with special needs must reintroduce themselves to their classmates year after year. Because their uncommon life circumstances fall outside “the norm,” they need to help friends understand how the changes that they are experiencing differ. You may need to encourage your child to have conversations with their friends about uncomfortable topics and even practice conversations about things such as why they need to use a bathroom on a regular schedule.

5 – Enjoy each year. Your child – and you – build on accomplishments from one year to the next. Your child’s ability to be successful in the future is tied to the successes he or she experiences now. Enjoy what you are learning, individually, and together. The future is yours to create.
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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Disillusioned

I have lived with an illusion for most of my life – one I may need to let go.

The illusion is that if I can explain something well enough, I can help others understand that something – and not just understand it but empathize with those most affected.

Faith in my communicative power and capacity to unleash empathy has been great – greater than it is today. And I am not certain of what has made it less now or even how the lessening happened. I am also not sure whether it is a temporary or permanent condition.

As I said, I may need to let go of an illusion or simply ride out a bout of disillusionment.

Perhaps chronic egotism is to blame: I believe I have the power to impact change. That belief alone is not egotistic, for every life impacts change, and such change occurs both actively and passively. It just does. But I may also harbor arrogance about my capacity to influence change.

May? Delete that word. I do.

I arrogantly believe I can influence change for the better, and I believe I can use the power of language – descriptive words and storytelling – to help someone transcend apathy, misinformation, disbelief and denial. I believe in the power of communication. I believe communication aids understanding, and that understanding births empathy. Empathy moves people to action. Maybe.

I am not too hard on myself for holding these beliefs. For I have made a career of persuasive writing. It’s what respected public relations practitioners do with intention and integrity. I hope I am respected by those with whom I have worked. I hope so.

I know that I could not write about a company, an organization or a cause that I didn’t believe in. I could not. Integrity requires me to align my soul with my role. More likely something greater than integrity should be credited, yet I lack the word for what that might be. (So much for my language skills.)

Imagine my thrill when I have made a positive impact – when I have helped increase attendance or donations or supporters for something I believe in. Or greater still: understanding.

But it doesn’t always work. And sadly, it often doesn’t work when something important is at stake. Like helping someone of power or influence understand how his or her thoughts shape decisions and actions that affect the lives of those more vulnerable. Like persons with disabilities. Especially children and adults with both intellectual and physical disabilities.

When financial decisions are at stake, when laws that regulate care are at stake, when attitudes about what might be possible are at stake, who has the power to communicate? What – exactly – is at stake? Quality of life – both for those living with disabilities and for those fortunate not to be.

When I attempt to communicate on this topic, language often fails me. Rather I fail at using the only language I know. And the process of even trying feels muddled. The weight of the potential impact is crushing.

And then passion congeals with frustration.
Anger mingles with aggravation.
Good intentions ramble past impact.

Finally, failure fuels futility.

It is never about fairness.
Yet, somehow, what is at stake should my words fail isn’t fair.

I want to tell you what it is like raising a child – now technically a man – whose life will forever be shaped by what he can and cannot do because of his birth condition. And what I can and cannot do for the same reason.

I want to communicate to you my lack of regret over his life and my great regret about circumstances that others cannot understand. I would hope you could understand without bearing the stigmas and prejudices and injustices that come because of those circumstances. But I am not sure that is possible.

I want you to care about things you do not know.

But I carry no illusion that is possible. Not anymore. Still, I don’t want to be so disillusioned that I quit trying.

Sometime soon I will tell you about spending the night with my 20-year-old son during his sleep study at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. How I laid awake for an hour listening to him breathe and listening to the gaps of time when he wasn’t breathing. And how I wondered if the doll he still sleeps beside will outlive me and continue to remain close to him. And how I imagined bestowing that doll with mystical power so it can watch over him and keep him safe. Especially when his father and I cannot be around.

Sometime I will attempt to share that.

Or maybe I just did.

I carry no illusions that what I want you to know and feel is possible for you to attain. But I want to try. And if words fail me, perhaps moving pictures will do.

I don’t know. I can only try. Because I certainly am not good at letting go.
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Vaulted into the Future via a 2012 Volt

Disclosure: I was provided a $5 gift card to a local coffee shop for test driving the Volt, the same incentive provided all others who test drove this same Volt during the month of October.

I test drove a 2012 Volt on Wednesday, and I swear the car made me smarter somehow. Thank you, Lichtsinn Motors, for a driving experience I hope to enjoy as an owner one day.

Keeping the Volt’s spinning green-leaf circle centered on its efficiency target became my new way to drive. Part overachiever and part video game competitor, I wanted to drive better, and that happy spinning green ball let me know when I was in the efficiency zone. For most of my time in the Volt, I was. Whether accelerating or decelerating, I felt in sync with the car and proud, even, of the efficient way we glided to our destination together.

Smooth, quiet, comfortable and, yes, capable of impressive speed and power on the freeway, the Volt gave me a glimpse of my future. At least that’s what I said to my husband, Mark. My actual words were: “This is our future. Now, how do we afford it?”

If I had any doubt about the Volt’s futuristic role, the newest driver in our family, our 16-year-old son, Skye, blew it away. He slid into the driver’s seat with a huge smile and a “ha-ha” type of masculine giggle. Taking the steering wheel into his hands, he looked at me with pure delight and declared: “This is the future.”

So it is.

And I like this version of the future. Very much so.

From the Jetson-like sounds of the “power on” function to the near whisper of the motor, I took in the multi-sensory experience of the Volt as much as possible. I drove it on quick errands around town and then rode as a passenger on a date with my husband. City driving, highway driving – regardless of circumstance – the Volt felt more like a companion on a mission than a mode of transportation. We had places to go and a way to get there more efficiently than we ever had before. Our family's biggest hold up: Our oldest son, Stross, uses a wheelchair, and this hybrid vehicle simply isn't large enough for us.

What – specifically – I liked:


Green Leaf Circle – I have already gushed about that. Need I say more? Be assured it wasn’t a distraction. Its location by the speedometer made it as easy to keep track of as my speed.
Power Flow and Efficiency Screens – I absolutely loved keeping track of whether I was using battery power or engine power or if the regen battery power was at work. And between stops, I regularly checked to see my efficiency ratings and mpg, amazed at how little fuel I was consuming. I would love finding out if the novelty of this ever wears off. I hope not.
Speed – Both Mark and I were pleasantly surprised at the Volt’s speed and power. And we both had to remind ourselves to keep checking our speed. Because the Volt runs so quietly, it’s easy to accelerate past the speed limit without hearing that you have asked the engine to go faster. Gliding. That’s what I kept thinking. I am gliding more than driving. As I said earlier, I felt at one with the car.
Braking – Not sure what I expected about the feel of the braking system, but I liked it. Gentle to the touch when decelerating with just the right amount of tension when I needed a fast response; and, when I needed my brakes to avoid a driver who was turning through an intersection on a red light, I got them. Confidently so.
Seating (front) – Mark and I both enjoyed the comfortable bucket seating and legroom of the passenger and driver front seats. I would describe it as a nice mix of sports car and sedan styling.
XM Satellite Radio – I am a news junkie, so having CNN inside the car was a treat. Same for the MLB Network. We were able to catch the last innings of the first game of the World Series on our way home last night. (Congratulations, Cardinals!) Our sons had their own favorite channels, of course. (And, no, they were not on our date.)
Keyless entry – I really enjoyed being able to walk away from the car and then approach it again - locking and unlocking with the mere push of a button. As long as the key fob was as near as my purse or pocket, I was good to go. Who wants to dig keys from the bottom of their purse on a cold day, anyway? Wonderful feature!
iPad/iPod Compatibility – I was treated to one of my husband’s playlists from his iPad for our date. Nothing helps make a car feel like it belongs to you more quickly than having it play music of your choosing. What a treat.
Bluetooth – I ran out of time to check out the Bluetooth function but already believe I would like it.

What – specifically – I hope gets improved in 2013:

Touch Screen Console – I would love to see this become more like an iPad with screens that scrolled with a touch. The buttons on the Driver Information Console already feel outdated despite their clean and aesthetically pleasing design. I got an iPad a few months ago and found myself wanting to scroll to the desired screen rather than remember the exact touch area or button. Touch scrolling would greatly improve the driving experience while reducing potential distractions.
Headlamps on Dim – The dim setting for the headlamps has a distinct and low sightline horizon. At night I kept feeling like I needed to duck my head lower to see farther. I also found myself looking forward to opportunities to return the lamps to bright.
Seating (back) – More room is needed for back seat passengers somehow. Mark, at 6’ 2”, had a claustrophobic moment. His head had to be positioned inside the rear window bay, and his legs soon felt cramped. He tolerated a drive around the block, but after few minutes in park, he was very ready to get out, and – unfortunately for him – I had yet to learn how to override the child safety locks. Rather than searching the console, I got out of the parked car and ran to free him. I can’t imagine him willingly sitting there again anytime soon. My 5’ 11” teen tolerated the back a bit better, but only because he wasn’t claustrophobic, merely cramped.
GPS – The system was easy to use but when I headed out on well-traveled back roads, it didn’t know where I was. This issue is common with GPS, yet I dream of a day when updates occur automatically. Wouldn’t that be great?


Chevy Runs Deep
Chevy runs deep in our family. The car my dad learned to drive first was a beautiful black and white ’55 Chevy that his parents bought new. It was the car he and my mother used to bring me home from the hospital. My husband learned to drive in a ’78 El Camino his father purchased with only a few hundred miles on it. We drove away in that vehicle on our wedding night and now our 16-year-old drives it to school. A 2007 Uplander, now approaching 100,000 miles, is the workhorse for our family. It’s the vehicle best capable of carrying the four of us, our oldest son’s wheelchair and any cargo we might have. If hybrid technology came van-sized, we would aspire to own that vehicle.

A note about the Volt’s accessibility: The carriage height and front door openings on the Volt are wonderful for manual wheelchair transfers. Unfortunately, the only way for the wheelchair to be transported in the vehicle is with both back seats down, and the wheelchair folded in half. Even then, the lift height necessary to put it inside the rear hatch was a bit of a stretch for me – easier for my taller husband. Oddly, the Volt was comparable to our El Camino as a two-seater mode of transportation for Stross as a passenger. And while we – on rare and only in-town occasions – tether his chair in the open bed of the El Camino, the Volt made it possible for the wheelchair to ride enclosed. When we don’t need to take the whole family somewhere, the Volt would make a wonderful second car for our family. If you'd like Stross' positive take on it, just watch the video below. (I find his comment after his ride rather charming - and hopeful.)

During my test drive, I felt vaulted into the future somehow and found myself wishing the automotive industry’s transition to hybrid technology comes as surely as the broadcast industry’s transition to high definition. We are smarter now, capable of driving more efficiently than ever before. I eagerly wait for the day all our family’s vehicles are primarily battery powered. (Well, we will likely still have that ’78 El Camino, as some things are simply too deep to give up.) Until then, let’s start vaulting into the future, allowing cars like the Volt to get us there.

The 2012 Chevy Volt – It’s just a smarter way to drive.
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Saturday, October 15, 2011

9/11 - Never Forget

The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is now one month and four days past. Prior to the many local, state and national observations – and especially on Sunday, Sept. 11 – numerous people repeated the refrain “Never Forget.”

It seems fair to question: Have we forgotten?

The answer depends on how well we identified what we wanted to remember, doesn’t it, and I don’t think we attained consensus that. I only remember consensus on the desire to “never forget.”

Is that the only thing we are to never forget?

During 9/11 celebrations last month, some people petitioned audiences to not forget that our country has enemies. They mentioned who they believed those enemies were and warned that those enemies wanted to destroy our country. It wasn’t always clear if all Americans agreed on the content of the enemy list.

Others implored us to not forget what it means to be an American. Yet with possible definitions as diverse as the nation that 312,423,954* citizens claim as their homeland, I don’t think we have consensus on that topic either.

Still others pleaded to not forget the sacrifices made by our service men and women. On that, all agreed. We have consensus for gratitude.

So, again, what are we to never forget?

Something I have not forgotten is how my youngest son, Skye, then six-years-old, brought me a drawing less than one month after the four separate planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. He had gotten a fresh piece of computer paper from my printer and drawn what I could only guess was his tribute to America. His drawing depicted the four presidents of Mt. Rushmore and what he imagined they were thinking as they sat atop the mountainside.

Washington was thinking of ancient Indian drawings, Jefferson was thinking of the Statue of Liberty, Roosevelt was reflecting on the Badlands, and Lincoln was thinking about “when the bad men crashed the plane into the New York skyscrapers.” With Skye’s permission, I added his descriptions as he told me about his artwork (which has Roosevelt and Lincoln in each other’s position on the monument). I was so proud of my little patriot. I still am.

Skye, now 16, didn’t remember he had made this drawing until I found it and showed it to him tonight. He had forgotten. We didn’t talk much while looking at it. He was too focused on his evening plans. Life has moved on for my American teen in a semi-predictable and traditional way. But sometime I would like to know what his picture of America looks like now. What stories of our country’s history are most prominent in his mind? And what factors have most shaped his concept of what it means to be an American? What does it mean to him that more than 10 years ago some Islamic militants executed a coordinated plot to inflict terror within the United States of America, taking nearly 3,000 lives?

If he cannot remember the drawing he created in October of 2001, I am confident he cannot remember the pre-9/11 America of his birth. And that’s probably as it should be. Life has no reverse. Even those of us who remember that version of America can do nothing to return society to those innocent and naïve days.

Other countries had known such terror before us. Had we forgotten? Is that what we now should never forget?

My most enduring memory of September 11, 2001, is how the world came together to grieve all we had lost – nearly 3,000 lives, iconic structures and a way of life. Not only had we lost that version of America, but they had lost it too. That shared grief and a solidarity against terror are what I will never forget and what I regard as 9/11’s most enduring legacy.

I hope we are able to experience that type of unity again, but not because an act of terror or war brings it about. I hope we remember that unity can come through acts of peace as well.

What will the America of 2021 be like? What will those presidents atop Mt. Rushmore be contemplating in the minds of any young grandchildren I might have by then?

I can only wonder what they will attempt to never forget, and what Skye will continue to remember. Thanks to him I will always remember this drawing and how it gave me a perspective that spanned beyond the conflict of the moment. He connected me to America’s proud past and a future still full of possibility. I'm already proud of his generation, and I will never forget that.


• According to the U.S. population clock at 10 p.m. on October 15, 2011.

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Crumbs Under My Table

All were invited to come to communion near the conclusion of our church's worship today. Rather than kneeling, we formed a line to be served continuously with worshipers making their way forward to servers - one tearing off and handing out pieces of bread and another handing out small cups of wine or juice.

Always a gentleman, Mark stepped from the pew and into the aisle wide enough for me to assume a position in the line that was directly in front of him.

I was served my portion of bread with the words "The body of Christ, given for you," but missed receiving it fully into my hands. Instead, my bite-sized bread of life wafted through my index and middle fingers. Looking at it on the carpeted floor, I contemplated bending down to pick it up, or simply asking for a new piece. I mean, the body of Christ was freely given. Why not get a fresh portion?

"Sorry. May I have another?"

I cannot remember who picked up my fallen piece - me or someone else. I can only remember the activity of it being retrieved, the movement of the woman serving bread as she pulled off a new portion, and the smiling face of the wine server now patiently waiting.

As I took my cup - "The blood of Christ shed for you" - I heard Mark behind me.

"That's ok. I'll just take this one."

I turned just enough to see him bypass the fresh piece of bread being offered to him in exchange for my discarded portion, now lying on the palm of the server's hand in a position as far as possible from the main part of the loaf.

"If I don't take it, it will just be in your way as you serve others," he said.

Nothing like a concrete reminder of what humility looks like while coming to commune.

The metaphors present in Mark's sensible supplication are numerous. I find no need to enumerate them here. I simply wish to share what I encountered when I came to the table today and was reminded, once again, of my humanity - and of my husband's.
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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thank you, Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs died today. I learned of his death from a friend’s Facebook status as it appeared on the screen of my MacBook Pro. Stunned, I scrolled through status after status, each broadcasting Steve Jobs’ name along with sentiments of gratitude for his life.

Then I reached for my iPad 2, and my CNN app pop-up told me that Steve Jobs had died and asked me if I wanted to learn more. I did, for my future – a future without innovative products that have been born in the mind of Steve Jobs – had arrived. Just to be certain, I typed Apple.com into my browser. When the homepage loaded, I cried.

I cried. About Steve Jobs’ death. But why?

Steve Jobs and Apple, Inc., have been synonymous for me. I trust the products I rely on for work and personal enjoyment because I trust – make that trusted – Steve Jobs. Maybe I trusted Steve Jobs because I had discovered that I could trust the products he envisioned and then brought to life.

In the 90s, when savvy business minds were predicting that the company Jobs’ had co-founded would crumble because he was no longer at the helm, I somehow believed that simply could not happen. I believed he had created a product that – even though it enjoyed a small market share at the time – was the creative lifeblood of industries that millions relied on for entertainment and design pleasure.

Therefore, Apple couldn’t die. The movie industry, the design industry, the advertising industry, even school teachers loved what could happen because of what Apple made possible.

But Jobs, a human and not a company, could die. I knew he had been fighting pancreatic cancer for years and had mentally prepared for his death long ago, soothing myself with thoughts that Apple, Inc., was greater than one person’s life. Even Steve Jobs' life. I had reassured myself that the company (and it is just a company) would survive long after his passing. But I had not calculated how much gratitude I would feel for Steve Jobs – gratitude for all the ways the fruit of his labors have enriched my life.

I have a lot to be grateful for.

- For the 1985 Macintosh computer that arrived in the journalism lab just in time for my senior year of college. I got to step into desktop publishing from a typesetting foundation that matched Jobs’ love of typography.
- For the Apple IIE and the resumes and cover letters I created on it. They led to a job I loved so much it became a career.
- For the Apple PowerMac that powered my fledging freelance career and for the fleet of them that my husband, Mark, turned into a fully integrated multimedia lab for a small college with big dreams.
- For the Apple magic that allowed Mark to build a digital radio station and a digital television station while supporting print, web and photography applications. He had the privilege of living what he loved. Steve Jobs did too.
- For Pixar. "Toy Story" is the first movie my youngest son can remember. It remains his favorite. The Pixar legacy is the cinematic record of his childhood. If I ever doubted that, "Toy Story 3" clearly cemented the fact when I began bawling as Andy left for college.
- For the iPod incentive that coaxed my youngest to sell more magazines than others in his class so he could own one of the first iPods in town. He learned what it felt like to set a goal then enjoy the reward of achieving it. And he taught the rest of us to want an iPod of our own.
- For the MacBookPro that made it possible for me to get an online masters degree.
- For the iPad my son bought with his confirmation money.
- For the iPad 2 (bought with my birthday money) that taught me to hope again because its intuitive interface let me know that I still have a capacity to learn and even apply what I learn within a few clicks.
- For things like iPhoto and iMovie and Flip cameras that allow me to capture the very best moments of our family’s lives and then turn them into gifts for other members of our family.
- Finally, for the iPod Touch and PowerBook that have made it possible for my oldest son, born with intellectual and physical disabilities, to point and click his way into connections with a world that exists outside his limitations. When he learned of your death tonight, he took out his iPod and read about your family. He wanted to know if you were married and had children. He wanted to know who was most sad tonight because you had died.

He gets it.

Steve Jobs. My life is richer because you lived your passion and dared to bring what you were able to envision to life. You anticipated ways to improve people’s lives, and then introduced those ways to us before we even knew we needed them.

I think that is why I cried. While you were alive, I felt reassured that I wouldn’t miss out on incredible ways to encounter my future. Now I won’t know what I am missing because you are no longer here.

Thank you, Steve Jobs. Well done. May you rest in peace.

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Added: Oct. 6, 2011 - 3:25 (CT)

I just have to add Mark's tribute to Steve Jobs. What a wonderful image. Since this multimedia lab was first built in 1994-95, countless college students have engaged in an enhanced educational experience because of what Steve Jobs helped Apple do for education. They carried that home with them and then, literally, across the world. What a privilege to have been part of it.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Testimony

Stories of life.
You have yours.
I have mine.

Stories for sharing.
You share yours.
I’ll share mine.

Who will listen?
Me to yours?

Of course!
Please go on.

Now
will you listen?
If you do
will you hear?

This story is fully yours.
I offer it to you.
It is mine, only mine to share.

My story.
My testimony.
My life.

What in God's name do you hear?
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In case you missed it: Nice.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Nice

It’s nice when you no longer cry
at remembering
some thing
or someone
you could not forget if you tried.

You have discovered that
attempts to make sense
can create order
even when there is no sense to be made.

No tears.
No anguish over disorder.
You have let go
for good.
Your falling finally fell into place.

Nice.
A worn word that fits well.
Finally.

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In Case You Missed It: Dear Iowa Visitor (Sept. 13)
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Dear Iowa Visitor,

Thank you for asking me what there is to see in the western part of our state. I like knowing that you want to experience more of what our fine state has to offer as you climb into your Winnebago to head back to California. I trust you will enjoy the cities and sights I suggested experiencing as you make your way to Omaha by tomorrow evening.

I also hope the restaurant owner and I have convinced you to return someday to enjoy the eastern side of Iowa, particularly the northeast section of the state. The bluffs along the mighty Mississippi tell stories of Native Americans who navigated the waterway in birch bark canoes, and fur traders and river boat captains who did the same with similar skill but much less grace.

The scenery along the highways and byways as you head east is lush. You joked about it likely being "just field after field of corn." Yes, there will be cornfields, but I think what you'll see most as you ride the ridges in northeast Iowa are the coulees and deep, rolling meadows that are tucked in-between the fields of corn and soybeans and alfalfa and hay. And you'll be enchanted by the cows that graze the hillsides in poised, artful poses. And you'll find your gaze wandering across the horizon connecting silo to silo, barn to barn - amazed at the number of farms, the number of families, who claim this beautiful land for their home.

When you return, you will again experience the "uncommon kindness" that you said has impressed you so much about our "clean and friendly" state.

One last thing: I regret that I forgot to encourage you to begin driving west about 30 minutes before sunset tonight so you could see the incredible purple, pink, and peach hues that paint our evening sky. The sun becomes a red hot ball, irresistibly inviting to look at through muted treetops and corn stalks and silos. Its fading haze diffuses and blends the last rays of the day's color. An Iowa sunset is virtuous. An Iowa sunset is honest - an invitation to another day, only hours in the making.

Iowa Visitor, it was lovely to talk with you today. I hope our paths will cross again, perhaps at the intersection of roads that separate cornfields in the middle of NE Iowa. Safe travels as you venture to Omaha tomorrow, and then across the Great West to California. You'll see incredible sights and journey through incredible places to be sure. But nothing like quite like Iowa.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Guest Blogging: Week in Review

I've been home from the ELCA's 2011 Churchwide Assembly for little more than a week. A total of 1025 voting members represented our 4.4 million member denomination for this biennial gathering in Orlando. They attended as representatives of 65 synods; I attended because of my role serving as chair of the Advisory Committee for The Lutheran magazine.


Each day, I recorded my thoughts in a blog. They convey my reflections as a first-time attendee of such a national gathering. I invite you to experience my week as well. Be sure to scroll through all six entries. The Thursday post about worship has links to videos that will allow you to share in the experience more fully.


Blog: ELCA 2011 Churchwide Assembly


Even nine days after the closing worship, I still feel proud of the unity evident amid the beautiful and expansive diversity of the ELCA. All are welcome. All are part of the mission we share: doing God's work with our hands. We have been freed to serve.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tuesday as a Guest Blogger

Have you been reading along? On Tuesday, members of the ELCA enjoyed opportunities to hear what is happening because of mission work within the United States and in areas around the world. I touch on a bit of it.

The Lutheran

Here's a brief video to give you a taste of our group's spirit of mission: Mission Encounter

Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Monday as a Guest Blogger

I am enjoying my week as a guest blogger for The Lutheran while in Orlando, Fla., for the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. I invite you to join along. If I can figure out how to accomplish it using only my iPad, I hope to begin including photos and videos. I am optimistic about my ability to overcome my technophobia, but I guess only trial and error will determine if my optimism is warranted.

What a wonderful week for our denomination. I hope you enjoy.
The Lutheran Blog

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Soon

While I still don't know what I will write about for my next post, or when I will be compelled to write it, I sense the words will be arriving soon.

I have been collecting my thoughts, ordering my ideas and waiting to become intentional about my time. The waiting is the strange part. Evidently I am not ready to make time to write. My mind would like to, but my soul hesitates. I am not sure I understand why. My best guess is that it is not prepared for the flood of emotions that are certain to come with whatever finds its way into written form.

I have not only been collecting and ruminating over words. I have also been collecting images as well. Snapshots of time that focus my thoughts on life paradoxes - like this image of fireworks lighting up a night sky in celebration. It's as if these explosions of color attempted to dwarf the moon. Yet their moments of explosive, momentary brightness were no match for the constant, persistent brilliance of the full moon.

In the photo, the moon appears a small dot of white in the far lower right portion of the frame (not the light on the edge). And throughout the 15-minute fireworks display, the moon kept rising and gaining luminance, demanding recognition. It didn't take long for the moon to rise higher in the night sky than any of the fireworks could have attempted.

And that's as it should be, yes? It is the moon, after all. A reflection of the sun's incredible intensity and maestro of each day's tides.

I look forward to what I might reflect in the coming days, weeks, months. Perhaps I'll even reflect more on the moon.

Perhaps I'll do so.

Soon.





Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Day of First Awakening (aka, Loss of Naivete)

I want to honor this day - July 11 - somehow. Not because I am experiencing any sense of deep emotion or nostalgia. And not because I am grieving. I would recognize grief. Grief has not been part of my day. Yet each year on July 11, I wonder if I should be grieving.

This wonderment is an intellectual exercise that begins the first time I see or hear "July 11." It causes me to remember that this date is supposed to be significant to me somehow. And eventually I remember why. I always do.

July 11 is the anniversary of our miscarriage. Well, it is the anniversary of the day our miscarriage began. July 12 is the day a doctor performed a d/c to wipe from my uterus a pregnancy that was medically noted as "a blighted ovum" and "an incomplete spontaneous abortion." That was in 1990, 21 years ago; and for more than two decades, I have always taken note of this date without grieving what might have been. I can't explain why I don't grieve. I simply know that is what occurs.

I certainly grieved on that day. Mark and I both did, and we were deeply grateful for a way to manage our grief together. It came as a gift of an overnight trip to the beautiful city of Pella, courtesy of a friend and coworker named Becky who had given birth to her first child a few months earlier. In Pella only days after our miscarriage, Mark and I had a wonderful dinner together, and then saw the movie "Pretty Woman." We sat side-by-side in the dark theater, crying over storybook story lines that only seemed possible if shaped by a director in Hollywood.

We grieved the loss of a dream, more than the loss of a child. We grieved the loss of our innocence. Holding each other in the hotel room that night - crying in the dark with no words shared - we simply wanted things to go back to the way they had been before. A romantic do-over. A rescue. Our own "Pretty Woman" fairytale ending.

Prior to July 11, 1990, Mark and I had lived without fully comprehending that bad things that can happen to good people. As good people, we had lived with simplicity, appreciating the good things of life and offering thanks for the fact that we enjoyed many such things. But then something bad happened to us, and we learned that any plans we made were subject to change based on what happened in and to our lives.

We also knew that what had happened had not been ordained by divine decree.

God had not caused our miscarriage. God had not zapped our lives with a dose of reality in the form of an aborted pregnancy. The comments people had shared that attributed circumstantial providence to God rang false to us then, and such comments continue to ring false to us today.

Bad things can happen to anybody, and they are likely to happen unexpectedly. We became keenly aware of that on July 11, 1990, and became even more aware of it on May 5, 1991, when our firstborn child arrived with multiple, severe birth defects.

And so my personal Day of First Awakening - July 11 - should be honored somehow, I think. That must be why it always resonates with remembrance.

I am choosing to honor it this year by writing this blog, and by posting my recounting of our miscarriage as it appears in Chapter 2 of Involuntary Joy. I offer it to you with gratitude for the lessons life has so beautifully taught me. Lessons about resolve, resilience, courage, trust, joy, shared humanity, grief, anger, faith, hope, and yes ... love. Of course, love! The very stuff of life.

I also feel it's important to affirm this: I plan to keep moving along on my journey, while maintaining faith that there is much in store - and far more good things than bad. I not only believe that about my life, but about yours as well, whomever might be reading this.

As I heard on that day 21 years ago, "let's be on with it."

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Hold on. A new day is soon here.


Excerpt from Involuntary Joy
Chapter 2: Becoming a Mom


Stross would forever be my first child but not my first pregnancy.
I’d come of maternal age nearly one year earlier. Something had
not felt right then either. No matter how hard I’d tried, I could not
imagine having that child. I had wanted to believe a baby—that
baby—would be, but I had been apprehensive then too—mostly that
I would never have a baby—especially that baby.

The opening sentence of a journal I kept while pregnant the first
time reads: “I have a difficult time believing I’m pregnant.” And the
last journal entry foreshadowed that pregnancy’s outcome: “I can’t
help but be anxious about the health of this little ‘critter.’”

I’d attributed those feelings to watching a coworker and his wife
experience a miscarriage. Their loss had justified my fears. But when
I’d mentioned my fears to other women—especially women who
were mothers—they had brushed my feelings aside as the jitters of a
first-time mom. I had never mentioned those fears to Mark, deciding
it was in his best interest to sit out my private dance of fear.

It was bad enough he’d had to endure my hormonally induced
mood swings. One day I’d be thrilled about becoming a mother
and nearly ready to believe I had a life growing inside. The next
day I was an anxious, emotional mess. Nothing was as I dreamed
it would be. There had been no inner glow, no thoughts of nursery
patterns and baby names and no sense of oneness with my child. I
had wanted to believe in the promise of life, but believing I’d be a
mother someday seemed the most difficult thing of all.

A few weeks after my coworker’s miscarriage, I walked down
the street with a friend from work, a new mother herself. We talked
about the other couple’s loss, and I cautiously confessed my feeling
of emptiness, of my inability to believe that life—that anything
really—was growing inside.

“That’s normal,” she assured me with the authority of a veteran.
“You’ll know it’s real soon enough when that baby is keeping you
awake at night kicking.”

It won’t be long now, she assured me.

Eleven weeks into my first pregnancy things did start to feel
almost normal. I was resigned to the fact that pregnancy wasn’t
going to be the same as I’d vicariously lived it before. So I wore
my uneasiness proudly and comfortably since “that must be how
pregnant women feel.”

My body had acted pregnant. Mornings were spent near the
toilet, my breasts ached, my pants were snug, and I had cravings—
mainly for Wisconsin cheese curds. For a brief time parenthood
looked promising. I had believed if anything were to happen, it
would have happened before I’d attained this level of comfort. I
could see the second trimester on my desk calendar, yet one nagging
fact remained. The doctor had not heard a heartbeat.

Then on July 11, 1990, I became a woman who’d had a
miscarriage.

That day I’d left work in a hurry in order to get to church
early. Typically a Wednesday night meant directing the youth choir
in rehearsal and leading a Bible study on a topic like dating or
friendship or God’s grace. Mark and I worked as a team in this parttime
job that helped us afford our urban professional lifestyle.

This Wednesday, no youth activities were scheduled, only the
church’s monthly business meeting, which meant I had a report to
type. So I slid my tiny, but growing tummy under the secretary’s
desk feeling, for the first time, like I might have a glow.

I wore no maternity clothes yet—just an outfit that was loose
enough for strangers to wonder. Only one pair of summer slacks fit
comfortably, white ones that always showed any speck of food or dirt
accumulated during the day. Mark was working late shooting video
on location somewhere, so I indulged in baby conversations with
anyone who asked how I was feeling. I welcomed every diversion.

“Yes. My clothes are getting tighter.”

“Well, the morning sickness disappeared last week.”

“Yeah, it’s beginning to sink in. I guess. I’ve never been
pregnant before.”

“Yes, Mark will be an incredible dad.”

Ten minutes into my typing-talking phase, I felt a warm gush.
My first thoughts were of embarrassment about stained white pants,
not of loss of life. I had not worried like a protective mother-to-be.

Instead I tingled with raw anticipation. Something had gone wrong
just as I’d known it would.

Miscarriage.

It was real. I could believe it, and as it began to happen, I felt
myself relax into it even as my heart began to beat faster. I felt
my breaths coming slow and deep as parts of my body began to
contradict themselves.

A quick trip to the bathroom confirmed my diagnosis, and I
shook uncontrollably, feeling very alone as I sat in the dark bathroom
stall. Questions raced in my mind, but only questions about me, not
about any baby who may or may not be fighting for life.

How was I to act now that my body had betrayed me? Should I
just wipe everything away and walk into the hall as if nothing life changing
was happening?

One, maybe two full minutes went by as I held my forehead on
my knees thinking. I had felt fine moments before, but I wasn’t fine.
I’d thought I wanted someone to come find me, the right someone—
a woman who would notice what was wrong just by looking at my
face. She could then assure me that I had overreacted. I needed a
woman who had been where I was headed and knew what to say.
But as busy as our church was that evening, no one came in. So I
breathed a prayer for guidance, lifted my forehead, straightened my
clothes, took a deep breath and stepped beyond the bathroom door.

This, without a doubt, had been the beginning of some end.
Only years later would I reinterpret that day as the preface to a
greater beginning, for I’d faintly acknowledged a voice I recognized
as God—not as coherently as I would in years to come—but clearly
and directly: “Get down the road. There is much in store for you, so
let’s be on with it.”

My crying waited for rushed good-byes to the church staff and
reassurances to them that: Yes, I could drive home. Yes, I could
locate Mark. Yes, I would keep them posted. Yes, I knew spotting
could be a normal part of pregnancy. Then I’d headed out the door
and toward the reality I’d unconsciously expected.

What I’d neglected to tell them was something I felt deep within, deeper than I’d ever felt before. I didn’t tell them what I, in fact, knew: I was a woman having a miscarriage.

The next day I stared at an ultrasound screen realizing what the
technician couldn’t—wouldn’t—tell me. My amniotic sac contained
nothing of importance. No embryo, no fetus, no baby—just a tiny
spot, a speck really, where I’d assumed a baby should have been.

I glanced at Mark to make a quick assessment of his emotional
state and realized that he, too, had made a similar diagnosis.

“What is that?” I asked the technician pointing to a dark watery
sac the size of a quarter. I’d wanted to hear her say “an empty
amniotic sac.”

“That is your amniotic sac,” she dutifully replied, offering no
information about its contents, lacking or otherwise.

I didn’t ask the next obvious question: Where was the baby? Instead
I let my inquiry float, unspoken. I needed no official verification.

As the technician finished, she swiped her gooey wand across
my abdomen, wiped up her trail with a handful of tissues and then
left Mark and me to our private thoughts.

I looked to Mark.

“There’s nothing in there,” I said.

I’d spoken about my body as if it belonged to somebody else. In
a sense, it had. The only problem was, the person who’d inhabited
it was no longer there. She, or he, had stopped growing a few days
after conception. A blighted ovum, we’d been told, a condition that
sounded more like a plague than a pregnancy gone wrong.

“Mark. I’m having a miscarriage.”

My spoken thoughts broke the silence. My words acknowledged
that what had begun remained incomplete. The end of that pregnancy
would fully come hours later—only after a doctor surgically scraped
away something that had hardly been there in the first place.

“I know,” Mark said and touched my hand. His smile conveyed
love mixed with pain, and his eyes betrayed his heart. I felt stunned
by his ability to look at me and express empathy without speaking.
He managed to say “I love you” and “I hurt for you” through softened
eyelids and the down-turned corners of his mouth.

“I’m a woman who has had a miscarriage,” I blurted in a matter-of-
fact tone. “That’s who I am now.”

My announcement sounded almost like a warning. It was as if I
felt the need to reintroduce myself to Mark. Sort of, “Hey, I’m your
wife, but there is something you really need to know about me. I
have had a miscarriage, and I’m not sure what that means about me
or our future.”

In that instance I’d redefined who I was. I was human, which
meant I was susceptible to human afflictions, human pain. I had
a body that could betray me. Until then I had not realized how
superhuman I believed myself to be.

That was the first day Mark’s and my future became different
than what I had imagined it to be. The miscarriage made all coming
moments unpredictable. In the darkened ultrasound room, there was
only Mark and me and my empty womb.

“We are a long way from Carvers,” I told him.

He offered a half smile and squeezed my hand.

“A long way,” he agreed.
Carvers Restaurant had been our Camelot, the magical location
of our first meeting and subsequent courtship. Every Friday and
Saturday night during our junior year of college, we donned tuxedo
aprons and sang our way into each others’ hearts as singing waiters.
No matter how many dined in the restaurant’s Chalet Room those
glorious evenings, I could always count on one pair of eyes to lock on
mine across a finely laden sea of glassware and candlelight. Mark and
I had not cared that our infatuation was obvious. We were intrigued
with each other and excited about our newfound friendship.

At Carvers I’d never seen pain in Mark’s eyes. But sitting in
the exam room where we learned of our miscarriage, I could see
his pain—feel it even. Had it been possible, I’d have transported us
back to the place where our dreams had essentially begun—back
to a time when he was the tenor with a huge smile, and I was the
flirtatious alto who always managed to be near him when a song
required a male partner.

Had we been able to go back then, perhaps we could have navigated away from the place we found ourselves on the day of Stross’ birth. For if a miscarriage could turn Carvers into a faraway land of distant memories, perhaps Stross’ birth would cloak all our happy times in a fog dense enough to obscure a lifetime of happiness.

But our earliest connections couldn’t be so easily dismissed. As
friends and then as a dating couple, we had wrestled with big topics,
drawing energy from impassioned conversations that bordered on
debates. Day after day we’d offered important topics to each other
for full examination: our families—his spiritually conservative,
mine politically active; our manner of addressing conflict—his
silent avoidance, mine loud confrontation; and our concept of
spirituality—his an exclusive relationship that defined a means to
an end, mine an open relationship that invited definition.

When our dating turned into an engagement, we also discussed
career aspirations—his connected to the music and audio industries,
mine on a path to a corporate vice presidency; our desire for
children—his a family of four, mine a family of two; and our regard
for marriage—for us both, a partnership.

Our courtship had laid the groundwork for our relationship,
just as our miscarriage had prepared us for the extraordinary
circumstances of Stross’ birth. I could tell we remained partners and
that Mark’s pain and fear were catching up to mine.

I’d written off my earlier fears as oddities of pregnancy—like
a baby who rarely kicked in utero. In fact, our baby—Stross—had
been unresponsive even when Mark or I attempted to jostle him into
a reaction. His unresponsiveness while in my womb had haunted
me—and now I knew why.

Now I knew why my baby—Stross—had laid quietly in my
womb for hours at a time, never moving or shifting positions. A
paralyzed baby cannot kick against its mother’s womb.

I’d learned one more important thing: I could carry a baby to
term. I had given birth to a living, breathing son.

• • •

Saturday, July 9, 2011

That's Big

For weeks I have avoided thinking about or even visiting my blog. A certain brand of sadness has kept me from doing so. As I last wrote, I have been nursing writer’s malaise. Tonight the fog is lifting and words are rolling in to weave a watchful witness of a memory that connects me with one of the earliest manifestations of my soul – my self.

So I find myself watchfully wondering about the condition of my soul. Not “soul” as in the goal some make of eternal existence, but “soul” as in the essence of who I was, who I am, and who I will forever be. That is my witness.

Soul … Self. How are you tonight? I have vowed to keep watch with you, and I have invited words to provide me company as I do. One word in particular: big.

“Big” is the first word I can remember associating with God.

I was four years old, sitting near the top of the 15- to 20-some concrete front steps of the church of my childhood on a beautiful, fall Sunday morning. Sunday school had ended, and I was waiting for my parents to either join me in attending worship or to come take me home. Normally I waited inside the church, just inside the main doors at the back of the sanctuary. On days my parents came to church with me, that was the door they entered, so meeting them there was efficient - not a word I would have used at four years of age, but a concept I understood well.

However, my parents had begun to not join me at church – to just pick me up instead. Their pattern had become consistently inconsistent, so sitting on the front steps of the church had become more efficient once the worship service had begun and the congregation was singing its first hymn. Robust organ music with melodic vocalization was my cue. It signaled that the time was now past my parents’ comfort level for a late arrival to worship. It was time to move my from waiting inside to waiting outside on the steps.

If I sat on the concrete steps, the ushers wouldn’t see either my father or my mother – whomever was picking me up – dressed in non-church clothes and looking a tiny bit uncomfortable about their intentional non-attendance. I waited on the steps to spare my parents – and me – such an embarrassment.

It also helped with another embarrassment. My outdoor waiting spot made it impossible for the ushers to see tension on the face of the parent who had come to collect me. That tension told me my parents had been arguing about something at home in the previous hour. I assumed it told the ushers that as well. While I had been experiencing the holy mysteries of the Sunday school hour, they had – evidently – been experiencing a holy war.

I witnessed a great deal while watchfully waiting.

While sitting on those steps, minutes masqueraded as hours. The pulsing of our church’s massive pipe organ was the only thing that kept a beat consistent with human time; for my heart, my mind, the impulses of my little girl spirit were on divine time, taking in the holiness of a Sunday morning. Me and God sitting on the concrete steps, waiting.

Big stuff.

I was being a big girl.

I was being held close by a big God.

A God big enough to be fully present and to feel as real as I was. Big enough to wonder with me about what else was real in the world. Big enough to be a topic my parents would argue about.

Should our family worship at the Methodist church like my father’s family had done when he was growing up? A church similar to the one whose steps I sat on. Or should our family worship across the street at the Lutheran church like my mother’s family had done when she was growing up? The congregation where I had been baptized only four years earlier.

God certainly was big.

Big enough to turn faith into fighting.

Big enough to be felt in the heart of a girl sitting in solitude one Sunday morning, actually, a series of Sunday mornings.

Big.

My soul waited for the Lord, while my self waited for a parent. Neither my soul, nor my self, were ever disappointed.

I am on new steps today. And as I wait, I know I am not alone.

That’s big stuff. Soulful stuff.

And I thank God for it.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. – Psalm 130:5-6
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