Joy of Faith (and ice cream)

One of my doctors suggested I try a Mediterranean Diet after I had been diagnosed with a spontaneous carotid artery dissection. “Spontaneous” is the operative word here because it just happened and no one knows why.  It’s rare for people my age without some kind of underlying genetic disease or physical trauma like a car accident.  I had neither.

I have nothing against the Mediterranean Diet.  I like to eat fish and appreciate a plan that includes red wine.   For a few days, I considered it.  I wanted to be excited– to have some new regimen that would fix the broken parts of me.  I read a few articles that outlined the diet.  I even ate some walnuts. While I desperately want to heal, my diet is not the problem.  Whatever caused my artery to spontaneously dissect had nothing to do with what I ate.  I thought about the years I spent as a vegetarian, my almost-daily exercise routine, the half-marathons I had run, and the complete randomness of what happened — I realized I was basically that cliché of the uber-healthy person who drops dead.  Only I didn’t die.  By God’s grace, I am still here.

What I need most is not a new diet but to accept that we can’t control or fix everything (or sometimes much of anything). I’ve spent so much of my life not being spontaneous – thinking that if I followed the rules, the outline, the diet, and the plan, then I would be safe.  Of course, these things matter and it’s important to not be reckless with our lives or the lives of others. It’s just that we can easily get so focused on the regimen that we forget the reason for it.  I knew it wasn’t legumes and olives or even wine I needed.  It was ice cream. Read more

Faith in Quarantine

I don’t know if I am going to mentally survive the isolation of quarantine.  The number of people testing positive for COVID-19 is skyrocketing here in Florida.  I am considered at increased risk for severe illness if I get the virus because of yet another dubious gift of 2020, severe stenosis caused by a dissected carotid artery.  Trust me, I wouldn’t want COVID-19 anyway, but I certainly don’t want to do anything to tip the precarious situation I am already in.  So, I stay at home.

I have a lovely home which I have gone to great lengths to find perfect throw pillows for but I am sick of being here. It feels like jail, only with comfy, well-coordinated pillows. Being quarantined reminds me of the birds we had as pets when I was growing up.  My friends hated to spend the night at my house because they would squawk and squeal like angry alarm clocks way before our teenage bodies were ready to wake.  And, no wonder the birds were angry – they existed in a cage of monotony.  Quarantining makes me feel somewhere between an inmate and a caged bird.

When it turns noon, I pretend my nightgown is really a sundress and carry on with the day’s inactivity.  And to add to my disdain, I get frustrated with myself for being so whiny about having no life when the whole reason I am doing this is so that I can have life.  So, I cram peanut M & M’s in my face and watch with envy as the hummingbird outside the window flutters from flower to flower in a fury of freedom.  I can’t help but wonder if she knows anything about the caged bird (not the one that sings – the angsty, squalling bird that tormented tired teenagers). Read more

Marlboro Reds and MRIs

Way back when kids actually went to school, I won the award for perfect attendance for not missing any school days in a year.  My mom always told me I was her healthiest kid.  I think she appreciated that I didn’t get sick on road trips or require multiple trips to the ER to be sewn back together from running into walls.  Discounting late-night runs to the border for Taco Bell’s Nacho Bell Grande and a fog of other questionable college choices, I have mostly lived a healthy lifestyle.

So after going through two ultrasounds, an MRI, a cat scan with angiogram, a needle biopsy in my neck, countless blood tests, visits with an internist, endocrinologist, neurosurgeon, vascular surgeon, rheumatologist, and a neurologist –  all in the span of three weeks, I considered buying myself a pack of Marlboro Reds to puff on as I rode off into the sunset on a horse that would likely buck, leaving me concussed in some cornfield wondering what became of that little girl’s certificate of good health. (Yes, that’s a long sentence but it’s been a long few weeks friends.)

Still, I can’t help but feel immense gratitude.  If I hadn’t noticed a lump in my neck that led to the thyroid biopsy and a diagnosis of a multinodular goiter then I wouldn’t have seen my doctor.  I wouldn’t have told her about the chronic headaches and cluster of bizarre symptoms that prompted the MRI.  She was as surprised as I was when the results showed severe stenosis in the carotid artery.  And on the day that I received the official diagnosis from the cat scan of a dissected carotid artery with greater than 70 percent blockage, I was terrified.  I called a nurse practitioner friend to ask for her opinion.  She just happened to live across the street from a brilliant and compassionate neurosurgeon who agreed to see me that day to explain the diagnosis and treatment. At the time, none of it felt like a miracle.  It was hectic, confusing, sordid, and surreal that this 3-inch space on the right side of my neck had not one but two separate and unrelated diagnoses. Each made more complicated by their proximity to each other. Read more

Be You: But Not All About You

We toured colleges with our son last spring.  In every tour, in every talk, we heard a similar spiel: “We want to get to know you — get a sense of who you are.  The best applicants are the ones where students are themselves.”

I hate to be cynical, but all the “just be you” enthusiasm made me skeptical since most of these schools admit like 5 new students a year.  Statistically, it doesn’t seem like being oneself is as important as SAT scores, GPA, or any other metric that funnels the throngs of applicants into a thread of coveted acceptance letters.  Highly competitive schools with high performing applicants humanizing their cut-throat admission policies with a warm, fuzzy, encouragement to simply be oneself, and as surely as the sun rises in the east you will shine.

Of course, we have all heard the same messages in our own lives.  It’s not a bad message either – to just be yourself.  In a day when diversity has become a means of deliverance, individualism has become an art of self-love.  Still, one can only play Mirror, Mirror on the Wall for so long without becoming utterly bored or an utterly boring narcissist.  Loving others has always been where it’s at – where we truly feel full, alive, and connected.  So, yes, be you but don’t be all about you. One of the things I love most about God is he loves unconditionally and universally.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (Galatians 3:28).  The world may classify its people into hierarchies, but God has none of that.  He made each of us unique and yet loves all of us the same.  How fun is that?  No competitions or emphasis on what makes you so special.  He eliminated that pettiness when he died on the cross for our sins.  It was the great leveler that gave each individual that has ever been or ever will be the same unequivocal opportunity for redemption.  Of all the world’s laws, treaties, pacts, covenants, and alliances I don’t know any that compares to him dying on the cross so that each and every one of us can have a shot at eternal life.

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Too Small Coffee Table; Too Little Faith

I am trying to center myself so I can do what I need to do and be who I need to be.  This never seems to have anything to do with my daily tasks that are so time-consuming.  Regardless of how centered I am, I still have to scoop kitty litter and make supper.  I have to do life.  Yet often, life feels more adrift than this anchoring I seek.

The need for centering pulls at me reminds me that my busyness isn’t my primary business. I sit with it sometimes and try to make sense of what is so urgent.  It’s uncomfortable and I have to fight the urge not to get in my car and drive to the store to look for a new coffee table.  I’ve decided my coffee table is too small for my living room and even though that involved a small measure of math, it makes sense to me.  This centering that I crave – not so much.  I know it’s God by its persistence and truth be told, it makes the distraction of the coffee table seem like a welcome muse.

Then, of course, I question why I can’t sit with this God I adore and listen to what I need to do and who I need to be.  Why do I resist?  Why do I let myself succumb to distraction?  God probably doesn’t think the six-inch difference in a coffee table is paramount to his plans for me.

So, I still myself.  It chafes this stillness that God commands.  I listen to the emptiness of this space and try to discern what is so relentlessly nagging at me.  Is God in the quietness?  The busyness?  The mundane?  The despair?  The spiral?  The spaces between it all?  “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”  (Proverbs 15:3).

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Under the Tree: Overrated

It was Christmas Eve and I couldn’t wait for Santa to come.  I am not even sure I believed in Santa at this point in my childhood, but I believed in presents and that was good enough.  I had trouble sleeping, and hearing the rustle of last-minute gift-wrapping upstairs only heightened my anticipation.  During the weeks leading up to Christmas, I prowled the attic, my mom’s closet, and any other place I could think to snoop. The idea of being surprised was overrated.  Practically speaking, I could just as easily be surprised by looking inside a plastic bag while standing barefoot on the attic’s plywood floor.  I felt certain that I had watched enough television to feign astonishment on Christmas morning.  I even fantasized about my Emmy-award winning performance.  It would be as bright and colorful as the lights on the tree that would spotlight me.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for during all that prowling but that’s part of the journey of discovery, right? It’s the thrill of seeking, of what could be, — maybe even of finding something better than we imagined. In my case, what I found didn’t compare to the curated wares hawked in the Spiegel catalog I carefully perused as a pastime. There was a Tootsie Roll piggy bank filled with chewy chocolate jerky.  Meh.  Fun socks — as if those two words could possibly go together.  Toys that were obviously for my brother.  I certainly had no use for G.I. Joe.  He was too short to use as a suitable partner for Barbie.  Then there were a few miscellaneous clothes that I hoped were for my sister because they weren’t quite cute enough for me.

I wanted a fur coat like the one I lovingly pet in the department store inspiring a lecture from my mom on animal cruelty.  What seemed crueler was her begrudging me this accessory that I was certain would make me look as glamorous as Sue Ellen on the Friday-night soap-opera, Dallas.  (If they didn’t want children to watch such smut, they should not have run it after an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard).  I would have settled for a rabbit’s foot keychain like some of the other girls at my school had.  They were supposed to bring good luck.  Who wouldn’t carry around two inches of a dead animal foot in exchange for a little luck?

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Hearing: It’s Not 400 Children and a Crop in the Field

I was in mass listening to the cantor sing the responsorial hymn, “These are the people the Lord has chosen, chosen to be his own.” I thought, “Seriously? Really, God, these are the people you chose to be your own?  Was no one else around? It must have been some seriously slim pickings.”

I know this sounds rather cynical, but truly, we can be scary people:  mass shootings, human trafficking, abortion, sexual predators, greed, self-glorification…. well, just pick any day and read the headlines.

And I do believe people are good.  I do believe they mean well. I even think when someone claims they don’t believe in God that they really do – it’s just a little deeper inside – right beyond where they have looked.  And I always have hope that they will look a little farther someday and come to know what they believe.

Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone deliberately choosing our hot mess of a people that makes up humanity.

I peeked over to look at my husband’s missal wanting to read the words for myself. That’s when I realized, I misheard the lyrics.  It’s like when Kenny Rogers sings “Lucille.”  You may think he’s singing, “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, with 400 children and a crop in the field.”  But it’s really not 400 children because that would be excessive, even by Catholic standards.  It’s four HUNGRY children! (Although, by either account, that was harsh of Lucille.)

What the cantor was singing was not “These are the people,” but “Blessed are the people that the Lord has chosen to be his own.”  Reading this, I felt the kind of relief that Kenny would have, had Lucille shown back up with a bucket of fried chicken, some biscuits, and a heap of cousins to harvest the crop.

It made more sense to me to contemplate the blessings of him choosing us.  “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9).  Yet, he didn’t just choose us as an entirety of humanity but as individuals who he loves and longs for intimacy with.  “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me,” (Isaiah 49:16). Read more

Vanity: I Look Like a Basset Hound

Lately, when I catch a glimpse of my face it appears to be melting like candle wax or colorful taffy in the hot Florida sun.  It evokes the hollow horror of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.” Since I haven’t taken any LSD, I figure this droop must be part of aging.  I spoke with my doctor about the way my origami shaped eyelids are folding in on themselves, and she said that she thinks I could qualify for the medically-necessary surgery to put them back in their proper place so my vision isn’t impaired.  I didn’t know whether to feel validated by her comment or virtually hopeless.

Earlier that day I was speaking with a friend who is teaching a class on the Book of Ecclesiastes and he mentioned its humanistic view of vanity which goes beyond society’s obsession with appearances.  The only thing I knew offhand about the chapter is the passage that begins “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

It reads like beautiful poetry, a cadence of simplicity making sense of a senseless world: “a time to be born and time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,” (Ecclesiastes 3: 2-3).    A time to be young and cute with body parts in their proper spot and a time to have your eyelids tied up with thread so you can see every new crevice of decay.  Somehow that line must have been edited out.  I suppose for the sake of brevity, not lack of validity. Read more

You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Virginia Slims cigarettes used to have an empowering ad campaign directed at women, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”  If we ladies had come a little farther they would have left off “baby,” but it was the seventies and that’s as far as we had come: an anorexic cigarette, marketed specifically to our gender, empowering us to “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.”  (That was another ad campaign for Enjoli perfume).

Personally, my idea of “coming a long way” has nothing to do with being someone’s baby or frying bacon.  Our world perpetually bombards us with messages meant to define the standards by which we measure our worth, success, value, and attractiveness.  These cultural norms permeate everything from what we put in our coffee to what we ink on our bodies.  A renaissance woman’s body would be considered chubby by today’s trends, just as the waifs of the eighties are considered a wisp of the athletically acceptable body type of today’s ideal woman.

And where is the God in any of it?

Would he measure how far we have come by what we smoke?  Or how we smell? By how we look in a pair of lululemon leggings? Or how capable we are of having a successful career while we fry bacon for our families?

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Mercy at the Bus Stop

I was doing my teenage Uber driving duties and thinking about the advice that encourages parents to talk to children in the car.  After all, they are a captive audience, don’t have to make eye contact (because God forbid, we have any of that), and both parent and child are physically restrained –that might not have been among the reasons listed but it does seem worth noting.  We were on the return portion of our journey into silence and I was lamenting the misery of it when I looked out the car window and saw a man sitting on a bus stop talking to himself.  Our eyes met and for a moment he silenced.

He was smoking a cigarette in the mid-day Florida heat.  I checked the temperature on my dash and it read 98 degrees.  I considered my relative comfort in the air-conditioned car and the ice cream in my freezer I planned to eat when I arrived home as a consolation from both the heat and the unwelcome hush of angst that tormented my drive.  I recalled the smoking man in the intolerable heat, sitting in solace, speaking to himself.  I thought of that moment our eyes met, and how for the first time that day I felt seen.  It mattered not to me what I was seen as or how I might have looked or what he might have thought of me. The moment reminded me of the universality of God’s mercy at a time when I felt somewhat desperate for connection.  I don’t know what he saw when he looked at me, but through him, I saw a reminder that suffering is not the only thing that is universal, God’s mercy is too.

While I consider my circumstances are likely better than his – the reality was at that moment, I felt as miserable as I perceived him to be.  It’s easy to compare ourselves to others.  We have standardized what we consider justifiable levels of loneliness, pain, emptiness, and grief, and if it doesn’t fall on the spectrum of horror or woe that we heard on the latest podcast then we feel like we need to buck up and go write in our gratitude journals.  Before I understood the mercy of God, I would have thought the same thing.  There were so many times that the pain and challenges in my life became a wedge in my relationship with God because I didn’t think I had the right to seek his mercy.  I didn’t bring God what appeared to be trivial and trite by the world’s definition of suffering because it felt too small and I had been given too much.  The problem with that thinking is that it separates us from God and from the mercy that heals, comforts, and forgives the wounds in our heart.  We may not be worthy of God’s mercy or deserve it.  Regardless, it pours out of him – a gift of unfathomable consolation that we choose whether to accept.

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