The road ahead

Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it. I want to become acutely aware of all I've taken for granted. (Sylvia Plath)
I've fallen for the promise of a mirage a hundred times. Ran toward it, only to have it escape me like a handful of smoke or dreams. And so I've learned to live here in the now instead of staring at the road ahead. I suppose graduate school trained me to always look ahead - and of course, work demands it, too. Life demands it. But not every moment of every day.

I used to daydream while I worked. My mind rarely came back although my hands were hard at work. I watch my students, in the lab practicing skills, in clinical helping real people. It's all so new to them, they are completely absorbed by the mental part of the task before them.

I teach them life is messy, even nursing. It's better to make a mess on the floor and clean it up later than it is to endanger a patient. I think this goes for all of life: people, relationships, they are always paramount. When I was a young mom, I had to have a perfectly clean house to have a friend over. How many visits did I miss because I was focused on the mess on the floor instead of the face of the person begging for my attention?

The children come with when we go to the lab on weekends. They take blood pressures, they do CPR, they like to put tubes in and out of the "fake people". It is their favorite place at the university (well, maybe 2nd only to the vending machines). They are here in the now but also hard at work on their futures.

I am on a road to change. I can see the vista in front of me is quite different than I imagined. And the mirage? Yes, I'm tempted to run pell-mell toward it, leaving all else behind. But this time I'm wiser, older. I'm walking slowly, testing it out. Is the freedom and peace I seek really there in front of me? Or is it perhaps beside me in these moments, just waiting for me to notice.

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When a Christian Blogger Doubts: Stained Glass Memories of Hope

The leaves fall silent deaths in rivulets down the forested valleys. Walking is the fall activity of choice...feet swishing, kicking at the swirling blanket, or silent as a fox creeping on the carpet of damp watercolors strewn laissez-faire across the forest floor.

I stare at painted skies and huge questions float as heavy and thick as clouds through my subconscious. Where did this all come from? What is the purpose of this beauty? Why do I get to see it, here, today?

The older you get entitlement falls off you like the ill-fitting garment it always was. Replacing it is a new awe for the holiness of life. The sacredness of each and every thing we take for granted: warmth, light, growth, tenderness, affection, strength, courage, justice, breath and heart beat and a working brain. The sun rising and setting each day. The seasons turning like clockwork every year, from winter's storehouses of snow watering the spring earth to this suicide of the leaves in autumn that flames bright as a lit match and just as briefly as the coming cold paints the earth dark and slimy and dead. From death springs life and all life acquiesces to death in the end.

Buddha observed it - the "enlightened one", Siddhartha, a prince whose compassion was picqued by the tragedy of poverty in his kingdom. The starving prophet who teaches of kindness and justice and mercy and a long, winding road of meditation and searching to get to that place of understanding. Just another man, another prophet in a world full of prophets. Maybe it is the magic of the singing bowls and their endless single note of reverbration that gives a glow to Buddhism. Maybe it is the very soul of the man whose mission in life was love, shining pure through the ages?, through the pages of the Sutras, through the words, chanting voices, bowing bald heads of the lamas and monks who follow in the way to dharma

From my Christian viewpoint, Buddha has always towered like an unfamiliar Solomon, the king of the Jews who asked God for wisdom instead of wealth.

The Qur'an reads unnervingly similar to the Bible - the Old Testament, death and destruction, obey or else. Parts of the Psalms and Proverbs of Christianity are echoed almost word for word. I remember slogging through the Qur'an one winter when I took care of a Muslim child who was dying. His mother, devout Sufi, questioned her faith in the face of such tragedy. She had not yet been to Mecca, she did not always say the 5 daily prayers. She called this struggle the "greater jihad" - the struggle to maintain one's faith in the face of adversity. This jihad had nothing to do with killing others and everything to do with ravaging one's own soul with worry, doubt, and constant inadequacy. We often had the Bible, Qur'an and Torah open in front of us as we talked late into the night, I hovering over her sedated son. I remember her telling me, a few hours after he died, that to consider a life without Allah was too hopeless for her to fathom. She repeated Muhammed's words, the words he said when he lost his own son, "The eyes shed tears and the heart is grieved, but we will not say anything except which pleases our Lord." As she says this, I hear the echo of David's words when his infant son died, after days of supplication for mercy, days of weeping. The child died, he picked his disheveled body up off the dirt floor of his home, ate, dressed, slept with his wife. When his servants asked him why he had ceased to grieve for the child as soon as he died, David replied, "While the baby was still alive, I fasted, and I cried. I thought, ‘Who knows? Maybe the Lord will feel sorry for me and let the baby live.’ But now that the baby is dead, why should I fast? I can’t bring him back to life. Someday I will go to him, but he cannot come back to me.”

Death: the unquestionable final barrier between life as we know it and a space and place we cannot fathom, understand, or confirm. Is it streets of gold or a cold grave we never even feel? Can a soul, which is invisible matter, disappear entirely and cease being?

The room was hushed and quiet as I helped her bathe her son's small body with scented water, white flowers floating like little life rafts in the bowl. She called this absolution, the washing. She said all Muslims do just so to prepare to pray. Her quiet voice punctuated the deep and reverant silence of the room with a sacred melody of both longing and abiding faith. She brought beautiful hand-embroidered white sheets from the mosque, and we wrapped him slowly, the kafan of the sheets a cocoon where he would wait for resurrection. I asked her about her silence. No tears. No weeping. No gnashing of teeth or asking why in that last lap to death and now to her cold son wrapped in his kafan. She would never see his face again on this earth. Her black eyes glinted for just a moment while her jaw clamped and unclamped. I will never forget the forced breath, almost through gritted teeth, with which she said, "I am compelled to believe, else I will follow him from heartbreak. This cannot be the end. I must believe my son is with Hazrat Izrael, alaihis salaam*." Her son's death, the final separation, cemented her decision. She could not face a world in which death is the end. She could not face life without hope.

The Jews say Jesus was perhaps a prophet. Not a messiah. After all, does it seem like the world has been saved? Christians argue that in some eternal, unseen way, yes, we have all been saved if we will only accept Christ's rule over our hearts and bodies.

I remember the first time I saw the bald head of an Orthodox hasidic Jewess: in the overly warm confines of her son's ICU room, full of the smell of his failing body, she sadly tilted her head to the side as she sighed, pulling her shietel from her shining hairless scalp. I had no idea she wore a wig. She saw my curious stare, and she said quietly that she shaved her head to avoid tempting her husband with the beauty of her hair. I watched her for months, praying 5 times a day, reading in Hebrew to her other children, the quiet submission she put on like a heavy black cloak when her husband was present. She was a spitfire, a real female dynamo: she often engaged in screaming matches with one of the harshest physicians, arguing with him that her son would live, his rotting flesh would transform and renew, that G--, whose name she could not speak aloud, he prospers and rescues the faithful. Around Jewish men she was silent; she even moved quietly and meekly. She was steeped so heavy in the laws of the Torah that she wept each night in agony that her unconscious missteps might be causing her son's agonizing death from leukemia.

When he died, they called him go-sess, a person who has passed into a sacred time of life to prepare for death and eternity. Because he was unconscious - blessedly - his father left the room to gather a minyan, a group of ten upstanding Sephardic Jewish men who could say the Vidui, or final confession, in the dying boy's place. This series of Yiddish and Hebrew prayers and chants went on for hours, accompanied by the wailing of the women. No sanction from the nursing staff could quiet them. Wailing is part of the process, the rabbi whispered to us outside the room. As the moment of death approached, each space between breaths becoming longer and longer, the teenager's body growing colder and darker as life ebbed away, the displays of the women became more and more dramatic. They tore clothes, dragged nails across skin as if by wounding themselves they could buy back time, buy back life, buy back a world they could understand.

We all have gods, I heard a preacher say more than once. Love of money. Fellow man. Liberty. King and country. Family. Education. Career. Fame. True love. Some claim Allah, some claim God, some are too afraid to claim a name out loud, and call it shem shalo - "the name that is his". We are all on a path from birth to death, so far universally inextricable circumstances about which many of us have formed or adopted elaborate mazes of protective reassurances. Some seek enlightment. Some heaven. Some nirvana. Some seek Truth. Some seek equality. We all want to believe there's a reason for us to be here. We all hope for something that transcends the eat-poop-pee-sleep-sex-work-illness-loss-joy ordinary of life. A reason for being. A reason for suffering. A reason for dying.

Is it wrong to believe something just to comfort yourself? Is it possible that God and the whole story is a figment of our collective imagination, a construct for the world that allows us to keep the dark mysteries of the universe at bay? All who turn to the skies for answers, all of us the world over, we are part of a pulsing ache - the same yearning for a perfect divinity who is master of the universe and is pulling the puppet strings on our behalf.

The only ones who can answer our questions are those who can no longer speak. Perhaps they speak through the very dirt their bodies return to, as their lost lives feed this flaming world of beautiful dying. They are the life that feeds the maples turning. Can it be enough for me, to see the beauty and to see the pain, to hold close the helpless truth that I can alter none of it except for my actions while I am here and breathing?

I call this radical acceptance. I call this the never-ending river of questions that runs through us all and rushes loudly in some souls more than others, demanding attention, demanding answers. When there is no answer, how do we continue on?

Two verses from the very book I'm doubting press gently on my back, nudging me to walk on. Faith without deeds is dead. Put your hand down, nurse, on the suffering hand before you. Open your mouth, teacher, and guide others toward justice, peace, love, sacrifice, fulfillment. Extend your arms, mother, for embraces here may be part of the answer. Soften your heart, lover, and find the path your partner is plodding along, find the hand that has given up hope of holding yours. Even if it is just this moment, even if there is nothing else, love matters. If all we have is each other, and there is no commander in the clouds, love is everything still. 
Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.

Wisdom seems to swirl around like a dust devil in the prairie wind, a tumbleweed moving too fast along the dust to chase. In the moments just before the dawn, my eyes search deep into the black night outside my window. And a single phrase, Spanish, comes to mind, and I can rest. "Y si nada nos libra de la muerte, al menos que el amor nos salve de la vida." It is a line from a poem by Javier Velaza, written for his book Torn in 1963. In my language, this dusty Latin professor from Universitat de Barcelona says, "If nothing saves us from death, oh that love would save us from life."

the pain itself 
crosses the threshold 
of fear, 
with your arms 
a lifeguard, I sink to prevent 
the grievous, lethal plummet
-would that I could almost hope- 
not a word well-remembered, 
you manage my forgetfulness and the gift of unconsciousness, 
which shelters me from my worst enemy 
and more tenaciously, you grant grace, 
even lie - 
because everyone is lying 
and yours is pious - 
which seals my eyes 
and tells me it is over, it's over, it's over 
and comfort me that
nothing happens, because nothing is past, 
is past, 
is past, 
is past, 
is past. 
And if nothing frees us from death, 
oh that love would save us from life.

(from El Salvavidas, "The Lifeguard")


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*(from above): "Hazrat Izrael, alaihis salaam," means "the Angel of Death, peace be unto him"

Good news comes

The sunlight cascades through the woods and the whole world is magical, time suspended. The carpets of yellow, gold, burgundy like fairy paths under foot. I am learning to see beauty in a whole new way: appreciating it just for it's existence, for the joy it brings me. Not trying to figure out from whence it came or whether I am witness to something personal or universal. It doesn't really matter.

Good news came like a bolt of lightening yesterday, elecrifying the air and sending me skipping back out to my car and back to work. I had my cancer check-up yesterday, as I do every 3 months. At this appointment, I was expecting to get the news that I would need radiation this autumn and winter. My tumor marker in July was 4.9; at 5, we treat the cancer aggressively again. But instead of climbing past that ominous number, my tumor marker dropped. It was an unbelievable 0.02! Almost undetectable, the lowest it's been since December, 2008.

And so we are celebrating - my family, my coworkers, my friends. The every-3-month check-ups will continue for now. I will keep refusing dessert because the diet is obviously working. I've begun doing yoga daily again and hope to continue that practice. I am learning mindfulness - being present in the moment. All these things, might they be helping? I don't know. But I do know that TODAY I am still in remission, and I will not need treatment that would separate me from my family this year of 2013. It is a good place. I'm thankful to be here.

Lighting my own flame

I pre-ordered my friend's book, even though I didn't want to read it. I pre-ordered it right in the middle of losing my own faith, her book about losing her faith...and finding it again. Faith has long since ceased to be a cultural acoutrement of habit, tradition, stand up-sit down formalities. It survived thousands of years that way, by being necessary to people. Necessary because they couldn't read for themselves perhaps, necessary because whole nations grasped desperately at religion as a form of collective salvation from unknowns both here and in eternity. In the performance-driven, every man a minister evangelical movement, we are no longer silent participants in a army of anonymous believers who join us for that hour and stare forward. Then you could hear the rumble of hundreds of hands dropping hundreds of kneelers, the scratch of a thousand shoes tucking under pews, the awe of the silence when every head bowed in confession.

Norms shift and traditions change. We have always lived in a society where questions were welcomed. You get to choose, the Pilgrims said. We have never been Catholic or Protestant solely based on geography here in the new land. Everyone seemed to politely ignore that we are still born into faith, held there by the glue of family and social pressure. Many of us silently protested, our shoes slow to scrape under the pew. Our heads the last to bow.

Evangelicals pull you out of your seat and demand your participation. I suppose that's how I, perpetual doubting Thomas, got brought into the fold finally in my 20s. I had held church and especially church people at a distance since I was raped by one at 7 years old. My acceptance came grudgingly, and really I only laced my fingers into the church's embrace because I wanted to support my beloved little brother.

I lobbed fireballs of religion along with the rest of the church crowd. I did so out of fear. I didn't want to be alone. I didn't want life on earth to be the end. I didn't want to be barred from some place of joy just because I was stubborn and unconvinced.

Does it count to believe if you hold part of your heart back, as afraid of faith as you were of not having it?

Yes, I was on fire once. I turned off parts of my mind and my heart and I jumped right into the flames on purpose. It was my last-ditch attempt to belong. I got 10 years. A decade of wearing the right clothes, keeping a daily prayer list, reading through the Bible according to this plan and that. Wearing the pages out in my search for answers. I walked the walk, I talked the talk. I didn't know what to say to the pain in the eyes of my friends, so I leaned hard on phrases like, "Let go and let God," "Be still and know," "We'll have all the answers in heaven." My girls wore dresses. I wore my hair longer. I tried to smile more. We spanked. We "trained them up in the way they should go" with no regard for who they were, the children gifted into our marriage. I wasn't a steward. I was a matriarch standing proud on the promises. Part of being on fire is knowing the right answers, being so sure of yourself (because it's God telling you how to be) that no one outside the church can question any of it.

Through cancer, grad school, my daughter's brushes with death, losing a son in the midst of the worst of it - the flame of faith stayed lit. It was my only hope in those days. I was clinging with desperation. I consumed whole books of the Bible on sleepless nights praying to get the WHOLE answer, not just little crumbs of it from this passage or that. Some of the tissue-thin pages ripped where tears landed over and over again.

I remember the subtle soul shift that happened the night I was diagnosed with cancer at 28. I was in excruciating pain that God apparently didn't care to relieve. I had begged - everyone I knew was praying, in fact - that it wouldn't be cancer. This couldn't happen to me. But it did...and after I wrestled myself down back into the dark bottle sealed up at my center, I opened my hands and said I accepted it.

I thought trials would be the stepping stones on the way to the top of the mountain. I was numb to the erosion that was happening every time bad news rained down on us. Like a movie-set town in the 1950's, the sets were slowly collapsing in the bad weather. I pushed on them delicately at first, picking parts of my life I hoped I could change on the down-low, without the church noticing.

I quit wearing dresses. I started letting my kids decide what to wear. I started grad school and talked about becoming a nursing professor. For a while I stood still in the stream. Then, I took one brave step against the current.

As I've walked back up the stream, back to where I started when I was just me, the fire slowly went out. There are many reasons. Some of which could be temporary. I'm not a promise-maker at 34. I know how little I know. I am okay with only having answers for today and letting tomorrow arrive, come what may.

There is a little flame flickering again. It's different. It's not blowing over me like wildfire in California and I dry tinder in it's path. That's religion. To say I've lost faith because I ran away from the wildfire is to say I've lost an element of the human experience entirely. I still have faith. I just believe in something other than the church.

I believe every person is beautiful just the way they are.

I believe violence is the product of our blindness to someone else's value and beauty.

I don't believe in predicting the future.

I believe my value and my importance are inherent in my humanity and displayed when I love others. I believe the same thing about every one.

I believe in equality. Freedom to be just who we are.

I can't make myself believe in an entire cosmos unseen, a benevolent creator who is all-powerful, ever-present, interested in each of us to such an extent that we receive daily punishment or grace from this god.

The fire that lights me now is tended by my own two hands. It is my own fire. I built it. Nothing is consuming me from the outside. No more wildfires. Because I am on fire for something new, humane. And fire can't pass over the same ground twice.

Visit my friend Addie's website to view more synchroblog entries

Simply human

The neighbors probably think I'm crazy. I tried to keep my voice down. It came out in tight, painful whispers that had all the pressure of a scream behind them. I shook my fists, I shadow-boxed in the dark like a real fighter. I kicked the dirt so hard my shoe flew off. I flung myself down on my back in the ditch and looked up at the stars and they seemed so cold and far-off and inconsequential. I've never thought that about the stars before.

I've shouted at God to answer me. I've begged him to make me see if he truly is there. I've shaken my fists and poured out my angry heart, and the sky stays silent. The wind blows steady against my face. There are no shapes in the clouds. There is nothing at all. No answer. No acknowledgment. Not even a sense of peace as I stare into the vastness of the universe.

If it is all just empty. If this is all we get, this life. If it's lies or miscontrued ancient teachings or inspired writing or an extension of a set of laws invented in ancient Jewish history. Because it doesn't read "God of mercy" or "God of perfect love". He says perfect love casts out fear, but I am afraid of him. I am afraid of his supposed standards and how my very being defies them. How does one live with those questions? How does one write a "Christian" blog when god and christian just got demoted to lowercase letters?

I don't know what I like to wear. I don't know who I like to make friends with. I don't know how I like to spend free time. I don't know how I ended up where I am, here in the lonely now with 4 kids. I don't know if I like my hair, or whether or not I want to keep wearing make-up, shaving, using perfume.

Giant questions spewing out everywhere with no easy answers. I try to be gentle with myself, trust that it will turn out, somehow. I have begged the sky and received only darkness in return.

I ponder scientific laws and Bible verses, the words of Rabindranath Tagore and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I wonder how much has changed from the Hebrew, the Greek - what has survived and what has been altered, adulturated to meet the standards of the time in which it was revised. How culturally embedded is our Bible at this stage of history?

Funny thing is, I'm sleeping great. And so far I haven't been struck by lightening. 

Sometimes life does go right

The memory of the "before" is as visceral as an instinct. Your baby face floats up from the soup of all the yesterdays I've saved for a rainy day. Chubby cheeks, unquenchable smile, stubborn as a mule. Your spiky blond hair that became paintbrush ends when I put it up in pigtails. From the moment you were born, I had you pegged:


We named you Amelia, which means "hard working", Irene, "peace". Our last name is an old low German phrase that means "unusual amount of hair". Which is hilarious. Thousands of years later, Thuls are still sprouting copious amounts of crazy hair. And you, my third daughter - you were the girl who was peaceful, hard-working, and crowned with the craziest hair of all my kids.

People who meet you now don't understand why you're still sucking on a pacifier. They stare when you morph from intelligent, well-behaved 7 year old to the moans of a pre-verbal infant when we're out in public. And I think this is cool - the stares, the confusion on the faces.

It means you are so normal, my sweet girl, that most people can't tell anything was ever wrong.

I watch the "before" and I cry. Everything was so....normal. So expected. Lock-step with everyone's plan. Evolving plan, yes - but planned. You were a natural extension of your two sisters, and I thought we were doing fine. I thought we were doing right. I thought it would be like this forever.

I am one who marries plans. I don't date them, I cling to them as if they are my very lifeblood. And when they change? It tears a piece of my heart out, most times.

And then there was after. There was the day you woke up and you could talk a little. You couldn't walk, you couldn't sing, you couldn't play, but you could talk. The infection that had ravaged your brain unchecked while doctors struggled to put a name to it, it stole the Amelia we knew and loved and gave us a new and very sick little girl to care for.

Vaccine-related encephalitis. Even at one of the premier hospitals in the United States, it took months for them to correctly diagnose your problem. 

And now it is 4 years later, almost to the day. World Encephalitis Day was just announced for next year: February 22nd, 2014.

You are a survivor. You are a champion in this story. So many days they said would never happen? They've come! The day you walked again. The day your partial seizures stopped and you began to grow. The day you learned your letters once again. And, at 7, just like every other little kid in the country, you learned to READ.

I love you now more than ever. I am thankful we have had these 4 years. I can't imagine my life without you.

For all the wrongs, you are one right in the universe.

Click to learn more about encephalitis

Ampersands and semicolons

The wind is cold and my swollen eyes take in the Monet-by-midnight landscape of 4 a.m. A city glows pink over the ridge. Mist has just begun to drift upward off the wet grass. I draw in a breath of the air, all crisp like an apple sour-ripe from the short summer.

Sitting here means staying. Shutting down and clinging with eyes squeezed shut. It's everything that could be disintegrating back into the stuff of dreams like sunrays being swallowed by mist. After all, you still don't know who you're running from, or what you're running toward.

Prudence demands you wait, then, stuck in a mountain of remnants of life like an incomplete sentence, a hanging semicolon, a song ending in the middle of a verse.

The whole earth is violent in her beauty, the last flame before death and ice and winter. Sap runs dry and leaves scream red-faced as they are drained of life. The green trees yet to starve of moisture as water recedes deep into the earth's skin, they are silent witnesses to the bloodbath. They speak only in whispers brushing each other in the morning breeze.

The next hour the mist returns to mute the bold display unleashed by the rays of light breaking through. Rain descends, a surrender of the clouds to the dying earth, spiraling away from light and life, shot out of the slingshot of the sun's pull, path marked out and measured before we are far enough from her again that she will begin to pull us back, her fingers drawing spring from the fleshy brown earth as she reaches through emptiness to bring us back into the embrace of the universe.

The rain rushes down like a wounded woman's weeping, surging and quelling, as if each drop is an apology for how rain will behave in the earth in the colder days coming, splitting her and heaving her upward, expanding and gnawing up out of her wrinkles and scars.

I stand up from my swing, and realize that the rushing sound in my ears is not the wind bringing the rain ever toward us over the invisible hills. It is a cascade of words about something that is nothing - now in this time of everything. Why write about nothing when there are so many things hovering unsaid in the space between us?

I suppose words have always been the blanket I pull over myself like chain-mail against the world's evils. Falling down in typewritten font from the creased vanilla of old, sturdy pages...literature and plays and poems, whole volumes ravenously devoured in a single afternoon. Stories written that plumbed the darkest sides of twisted lives and left adult readers shaking their heads and wondering how a little girl with an innocent face got that in her head. Poems unwritten rattling around in the racing mind on walks through the forest. Lyrics to songs never recorded scribbled on the backs of receipts and in notebooks and journals. Now today it is the clickety clack of typing, the orange publish button hovering, a day when every authoress can read her words in print and it seems as though we're more connected and more isolated than ever before.

I swim in the proverbial primordial soup of self-awareness and here there are puzzle pieces of my life floating about me - Indian music and pages of a Bible and the words of a prophet that have always caught the ear in their foreignness. I can't begin to decipher where this return to the beginning will take me. Like the song that's playing broken record in my mind - I don't know where this journey will end, but I know where to start...

I am afraid of encouraging anyone with false hope; I hold my heart like a poker hand closer to me. No one is going to get a chance to break it this time around.

Five Minute Friday
Prompt: "Write"