Time And A List Of Books

I slept for eleven blessed, peaceful hours last night.

This morning, I am moving slowly. My hand reached for the coffee cup with smoothly rounded edges, aware that I’d have time this morning to sit and hold rather than throw back and gulp.

That’s a morning, right there.

So I am listening to a little Hezekiah Walker, proclamations that Every praise is to our God!! ringing loud and clear, my mind at ease, because gospel music is never boring (hello, key change! hello, crazy atonal transition riffs! hello, ANOTHER key change!!!) and nothing stresses me out more than boring music.

It is a gift, this morning. No stress, for the moment.

My friend Dianne created a list of her twelve favorite books and asked me to create a list of my own. I’m not sure what the rules are (only fiction? only ten?), but I don’t really care.

Here are some books I really like. I recall them like favorite friends, and hold a piece of each close to my heart.

The Bread of Angels – Stephanie Saldana
The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
The World According to Garp – John Irving
A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving*
The Stand – Stephen King
11/22/63 – Stephen King
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt**
Travelling Mercies – Anne Lamott
An Altar In the World – Barbara Brown Taylor
The Cloister Walk – Kathleen Norris
I Am Charlotte Simmons – Tom Wolfe***

Bel Canto – Ann Patchett
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Neon Rain – James Lee Burke****

I read everything Patricia Cornwell writes, but it’s kind of like eating M&Ms; they’re really good in the moment, but they don’t have a lot of staying power…

*(I could actually make a list of all of Irving’s books and be done….)
**(of course)
***(detest most of the characters and the plot, but oh, how this man can write…)
****(Burke is one of the most underrated authors of this generation; the Dave Robicheaux series is brilliant)

Carpe Diem

This has been a hard summer, hasn’t it?

For us, at large. For innocent men, women and children, suffering the terror of radical hatred.

Young men who die on a country road, much too soon.

For people on planes that fall out of the sky, and those left behind.

A disease that breeds panic and fear as it slips across borders, death in its wake.

Children living in the in-between, needing a chance at life.

A country, divided and polarized, with screaming and shouting at both ends.

And then today, the loss of an American film and cultural icon; an actor whose particular brand of mania drew an affectionate and faithful audience. The death of Robin Williams is shocking and sudden; it jolts us out of our comfort zones, where our entertainment comes on our terms and timing. We were not expecting this, were we?

To learn that his death was at his own hand opens up an entirely new package of sorrow for us, and as it scrapes against the heart it is difficult to withstand the pull of despair.

There is so much darkness in this world, so much pain and tragedy. We are numb, and we numb ourselves in 90-minute chunks of cinema and music and television, opening ourselves to anything that might put off the inevitable; that still small voice that breaks through the quiet to point out, with a clear voice and a firm hand, that life is hard.

And there is so little we can do.

The Yazidi people in Iraq run for their lives; hiding on a mountain, they are starving. The children are dying of thirst.

An airliner is shot out of the sky; and so it goes. There is little that can be done. A gaping hole remains.

Parents send their children off to a foreign country for a chance at a life with purpose, something other than survival – which is not guaranteed – and a hotbed of conflict arises, while the kids remain homeless, loosely tethered to the midway seam that binds hope with despair.

Depression takes hold and roots out, finally, the willingness to persevere.

We are helpless, and we are hopeless, and sometimes there’s little to do but rest in truth.

Tonight, I called the kids around me and said, “We are watching this movie.” Dead Poets Society came out the year before my first child was born. I was already a teacher – but this movie set in stone before me the reason why I was a teacher. Robin Williams – always and forever – will be John Keating, to me, and Robert Sean Leonard’s later role in House was always tinged with grief in my eyes, because he was Neil, and he had died. This movie set a course for many things around the perimeter of my life.

Most of all, I remember this story, how I internalized the truth of a small New England prep school and the boys and the teachers and the era and the profound impact of lives changed by literature, and words, and passion, and a teacher who cared. This movie, this story, helped me believe.

As Robin Williams first appeared on the screen tonight, it was wrenching. He is not mine to grieve; that is for his family and friends and those whose pain is infinitely beyond ours. But he planted something in this world, left pieces of himself behind – both 20-odd years ago and again tonight, and over and over and over again when he stood on a stage or in front of a camera and offered his gifts to the world. Tonight, all over again, I was profoundly impacted by the power of this story and William’s talent.

I cried.

My eldest son sat behind me tonight, he who leaves in four days to begin his life outside of our home. He goes in pursuit of a teaching degree, and I can think of no finer instigator towards the power and privilege of being one who makes a difference than what we watched tonight.

Carpe diem, son. Those who have gone before you have set the world ablaze and burned as long as they could. Go, and do the same.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams. We are grateful for your life. I pray you are in the arms of your Creator, and that all is well with your soul.

Source here.

Nine Years Later

Nine years ago this month, I took a huge step of faith.

I didn’t feel worthy. I wasn’t sure how I’d begin to do what I was being asked to do.

But these things, I did know:

  • I was born to create music.
  • I believe that a local community of spiritual seekers – a church – is the hope of the world.
  • Working in the same community as my kids’ schools would be better than working – for more money and better benefits – 45 minutes away.
  • Somebody believed in me, even when I didn’t much believe in myself; and that mattered.
  • In the deepest, most secret parts of my soul, I’d always yearned to be ‘in ministry’. 
  • It was the right time, and the right place.
Even now, I marvel at how it happened. It was an odd set of circumstances, most of which had nothing to do with me. And yet, there I was, in a place where the things I did know propelled me into a place I was not yet sure of.
Last week I was having A Very Bad Day. I have learned that often, a Very Bad Day, left unchecked, can internalize into a dangerous spiral of depression and negative thoughts. Then, The Very Bad Day can turn into An Awful Weekend and people get hurt and lots of time gets wasted.
Here’s the thing: If you know you’re starting a downward spiral, and you know that the right word at the right time from somebody you trust can help put the brakes on, it’s okay to ask. It took me a long, long time to be okay with that; it seemed selfish and self-absorbed to say, “Hey, tell me something good about myself. Tell me I’m awesome. Tell me you still like me. Tell me you’d marry me all over again. Tell me you still want to be my friend.” And maybe it is childish and ridiculous, but really? I DON’T CARE. 
I have figured out how to cope and, in most cases, how to stave off The Very Bad Feelings. So, I simply ask. For help.
I sent a text to a very good friend, one that I trusted not to think ill of me (or, if so, to have the good sense not to say so).

And my friend took the time to reply, by sending a barrage of photos.

Each picture, so precious to me. People, lives, that matter. Stories that I know, that are still unfolding. Lives, changed. Beautiful people. What I see in these photos is the tremendous privilege and opportunity I have been given, a window seat into the richness of all the joy and sorrow of life. It matters.

A few words followed as well. It helped.

One of the dreamers who works
alongside us; he makes
numbers beautiful.

The truth is, nine years ago I took the job offered to me by Brian Hughes, an invitation to work alongside him, his wife and a handful of other dreamers in a crazy, inspired attempt to bring hope and healing to a rural community. I had few qualifications and was, frankly, an emotional wreck. 

But it was exactly where I needed to be.
Nine years later, I have had my share of Very Bad Days. Life is complicated. Church work is not easy. But I cannot imagine doing anything else with my life. Our team has grown to include a much larger staff, lots of people sharing the joy of making a difference and working together to bring light to an often-darkened world. 
Today, four people who are dear to my heart in ways that I can’t even express took charge of our staff time together to read words of affirmation (and slight ridicule; I was told I was “nuts”. They wore scarves they found in my office stash and mocked me for the strange collection of junk I hoard.) Underneath the words the spoke, my dear friend Matthew noodled, a skill he has honed under my tutelage for the past year or two. I could not imagine a finer tribute.

It was perfect and sweet and I was just. so. proud. 
I am thankful for nine years of serving a church that matters, in a community that cares; the same place that has nurtured, loved and educated my children has become my home. On The Very Bad Days and The Awesome Days, there’s no place I’d rather be. 
Today, I am grateful for ten years in this town, and nine years at this place of hope and healing. 
Amen.

Rearranging The Furniture

I have self-identified as a Christian – a follower of Jesus Christ – for some thirty years now; truly, all my life. I’m one that “grew up in church”. Yet the label and the theology began to hold a deeper meaning for me during a time of change and growth in my early twenties, and since that time the influence of the church, the Bible and the teachings of others about the Bible have had powerful sway over my beliefs, my attitudes, my sense of place, my values, my relationships and my focus.

I’m far from perfect; in that regards there are glaring examples to be found in the details of my life experiences and history thus far. Hello – in MY DAILY LIFE. But I am not claiming – or even in search of – perfection.

I am, quite simply, following.

And an interesting thing is happening lately, a ‘morphing’ of sorts; something that feels new and fresh and vigorous and yet, in fact, is nothing more than the connective blooming of all the past years of attaching myself to the things of the church and spirituality and Jesus.

I spend a good deal of time entrenched in music – for the weekly church meetings I help to lead, but also for my own soul. When given the opportunity, I stand in gatherings and sing – loudly – and express my spiritual longing with my body, engaged in lifting hands and waving arms and swaying a good bit and some sort of white-girl, mildly inhibited ‘dancing’. It’s ridiculous, and I need a little space around me or I’ll likely hit someone. We call it ‘worship’, loosely, but it’s breathing and presence and exhaling and inhaling deeply. It is fuel for me.

Sunday night services – new this summer – have given me this opportunity on a regularly basis – to be part of a gathering with little thought to my responsibility for it (which is not always the case in church work) and simply engage. I’m grateful.

But not just because it was a nice moment, or because it felt good or satisfied some emotional need. It’s all part of working out this life I have been given, walking out my opportunities to grow and understand and reach and dig deeper and live. I return home after 13-hour days on Sunday feeling utterly spent; and yet totally filled. These unique worship experiments are engendering change in me, a freedom and freshness that is welcome and needed and causing things to grow.

Also, I am recently reading voices other than the usual (in my experience) cultural icons that pervade the evangelical culture. Compelled by a dissatisfaction that I can’t really circle, I’m looking. Seeking. Searching. At other times in my life, this search would have be on the surface – looking for some filler of the human variety. Different friends, new relationships, a new job, a new church. I am prone to rearrange the furniture in the house frequently, in search of a better fit, a new approach; I’ve done that in my life too often, as well.

It is not always a good thing.

But those days have passed, at least in terms of friends and jobs and the major contents of life (although I still rearrange the living room furniture every few months. Because change…) I am content, settled, at peace. Something in my soul has been satisfied and filled with trust and a necessary acceptance of self.

And yet I am still searching, and it has become an exploration of the depth and breadth of spirit and the point of community and church and Jesus and worship and all such things. I stand on solid ground and yet I find myself cartwheeling off the cliffs on a weekly basis. There was a time when the thought of jumping would terrify me; today, it is a joyous explosion of energy.

I always land, safely. That is my understanding of the depth and breadth of God, the Creator, the One who was and is and is to come. It is solid.

I’m reading a good bit of Richard Rohr these days, and quoting him in various settings; but mostly reading and reaching for the bits of bread left behind on his journey, because somehow I know that I am walking an unfamiliar yet well-populated path, and that he is one of many who left the midway of theological culture with all its bright lights and fancy prizes earned by valiant efforts to win and win and win again to walk slowly, carefully, wildly, desperately toward the eternal something. It spirals downward and upward and from side to side – but always, the anchor holds.

Mixing up these metaphors and influences is drawing all things together in my soul that I can feel but can’t quite articulate or understand just yet. The infusion of ‘grace, every day’ that has marked by journey since 2003, the relentless reciprocation of grace in the form of honest, authentic people working out their salvation with fear and trembling; the steadfast harmony of the hymns of the saints and the determined request for a relentless, fire-filled God. These things come together in my days and nights, wrapped in the words of a writer whose hot pursuit of God leads to statements that mark my mornings; it’s like I watch the interactions, the songs, my thoughts, and the indefinable sense of something coalesce into a brilliant “Yes!”.

“God hides, and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming of our fallings and failures. Sin is to stay on the surface of even holy things, like Bible, Sacrament, or church.” – Richard Rohr, Falling Upward

It’s fascinating, to me; there is indeed nothing new under the sun, and yet to experience identification and validation to what I am sensing in my soul brings incredible joy and excitement. I am a seeker, and the road stretching before me pulses with the very real energy and experience of those who are up ahead. There has never been a time in my life where I have been more excited about the promise of the journey ahead. I am not speaking of maturing and growing older and grandchildren and all of the wonders that await my daily life – although certainly the realization of those things within the circle of my family fill my heart and soul with indescribable joy, and are likely deeply connected to the deeper, spiritual tugging in my soul.

Grace and divine love; it is so much bigger, so much beyond – and yet completely and totally encapsulated by where I am right now.

I Thought I Was Dying

In the back of my mind, I’ve always held a tiny bit of anxiety about my health. Issues in the past included oddly tingly feet (when I used to run more frequently), chronic tension in my neck and shoulders, and a weird, something-doesn’t-feel-right thing with my heart.

The tingly feet complaint was explained away by shoes; bad shoes, to be exact. The neck and shoulder concern has been attributed to excessive computer use (really? Raise your hand if you’re surprised…) The heart matter required a stress test that revealed nothing, so I think we decided to go with general anxiety and indigestion for that one.

Yesterday, I feared we had finally crossed the line into the type of neuro-muscular illness that my tingly feet, tight shoulders and weird heart had been indicating for years. After puttering around the kitchen for a while in the morning, I went into the bathroom to get cleaned up. I washed my face and almost immediately noticed a burning, pins-and-needles fiery pain. It localized under my left eye and around the left side of my mouth.

I realized, with the hot water on my face, that my hand hurt as well – my left hand only. My fingertips felt like they were being poked with hot needles.

I know that I occasionally have issues with the nerves in my left shoulder and back; a chiropractic adjustment helps. But this burning pain was something new…

I went about my day and headed to the gym. After my workout, I hopped in the shower; the moment the hot water hit my face and my hand, I remembered the pain of the morning. It was still there – and the heated water exacerbated the pain, to the degree that I quickly turned the temperature down and got out, immediately.

I cleaned up and headed home; but while in the parking lot, I took the opportunity to enter a google search:

Pain like needles only on one side of body hands and face

I’ll save you the trouble of doing it yourself; here are the top few results:

Stroke
Multiple Sclerosis
Hemiplegic Migraine
Paresthesia
Shingles

I drove home, chewing on the inside of my mouth, because that’s what I do when I worry. Home, I did another search on the computer and read a little deeper.

Shingle was my best bet, it seemed, although I’d have to wait for a rash. Thoughts flashed back to a story someone shared a few months ago when I had hives and / or poison ivy, about a friend of a friend or a family member who had shingles around their eye, resulting in blindness.

Since my pain was on my cheek, right under my eye, I figured I’d be blind soon.

This was all somewhat disconcerting.

I could end this post by telling you about my diagnosis, asking for prayers as we deal with this next challenge in life.

But instead, I’ll tell you another story, one that includes breakfast and generous people and, I daresay, a fair amount of foolishness on my part.

It starts with this, a bounty of vegetable goodness. A large part of this cornucopia of deliciousness was
left in my office Thursday afternoon, by an anonymous farmer, I suppose. Friday morning I looked over the goodies, washed them up, and decided to make an egg and veggie burrito. Then I decided to throw together a batch of pico de gallo for breakfast and the rest of the weekend.

So I chopped and mixed the fresh (delicious!) tomatoes (my favorite thing about summer EVER!) and onions. I threw in the cilantro. I reached for the jalepeno, saved for this occasion…and realized that it was gone (probably used for Sarah Brawley’s delicious enchiladas earlier this week). Initially frustrated, I realized that I could probably substitute the little pepper that was left by The Mystery Farmer – it was probably hot. It would probably work.

Here’s what I found out later, when I did even more research on Google.

“The habanero pepper is one of the hottest varieties of chili peppers. The Scoville unit of measure is directly related to a chemical called capsaicin. The higher the number of Scoville units, the greater the concentration of capsaicin. The habanero pepper measures from 100,000 to 500,000 Scoville units compared with a jalapeno pepper, which measures 5,000 to 15,000 Scoville units. According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, capsaicin can be used as a treatment for a variety of medical disorders. Because of the high concentration of capsaicin, consumption of habanero peppers can promote several health benefits.” (source here)

Look again at the beautiful variety of vegetables in the photo; see the cute little red things at the top right?

Yeah. Those are habanero peppers. ONE OF THE HOTTEST VARIETIES OF CHILI PEPPERS ON EARTH. I CHOPPED UP ONE OF THE HOTTEST THINGS GOD EVER MADE AND PUT IT IN MY PICO DE GALLO. AND ON MY EGGS. AND IN MY MOUTH.

AND ALL OVER MY HANDS.

I knew it was spicy when I ate it; it really added some pop to my breakfast! I added some bona fide fire to my morning meal; and I’d gotten the capsaicin from that little guy all over my hands.

I had washed my hands – three times, in fact – knowing that I’d been working with peppers and onions. But capsaicin oil is persistent.

Now, I know this. But yesterday, it seems, I did not. Or I forgot. Apparently, most people who work with peppers containing high amounts of capsaicin wear gloves.

BECAUSE IF THEY DON’T, IT MAKES THEIR SKIN BURN AND TINGLY AND THEY THINK THEY HAVE A LIFE-THREATENING ILLNESS. 

If I helped just one person avoid the pain of the lowly habanero pepper, my stupidity will not have been in vain.

But, yeah. Yesterday, I was pretty dumb.

And my health seems fine. Because now I know “…because of the high concentration of capsaicin, consumption of habanero peppers can promote several health benefits.”

I might add that if you rub it all over your face, that’s good, too.

I hope.