Oh, The Irony!

When I was 13 or 14 I discovered the word ‘ironic’. It was a mature word. A complicated word. It rolled off the tongue, and in using it I would be characterized as intelligent and erudite. It had literary heft. I would use it in conversations and people would be in awe of my grasp of the English language.

I didn’t always use the word correctly. While I might find it ironic that T.S. Eliot spent years in banking while his degree was in philosophy, a discipline that spent valuable time and energy arguing about whether or not numbers existed at all, I could just as well lopside the word into sentences like ‘Wasn’t it ironic that Mr. Lester served cupcakes today.’ 

I often referred to modern art as ironic, which was a safe bet since most of modern art is nothing if not ironic, intentionally or otherwise (Pollack with his splatters of nonsense paint, Duchamp and the urinal: The shock! The outrage!).

There were other words I didn’t understand; like malleable and ethereal and phallic (I kid you not, no clue), but I used irony the most. It was my favorite even though it took me a while to master.

I’m pretty sure I have the word down now, perhaps mostly because I’ve been reading the gospel of John. I’ve come to believe that irony is one of God’s great creations; as light-boned and winged-miraculous as the chickadee that right this very moment is eating from the birdfeeder outside my window. Whether we can label it or not, it’s one of the ways he reveals to us the miracle of God become man.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my favorite gospel (if we’re allowed favorites) is the gospel of John. It uses all sorts of literary devices and is beautifully poetic in the way it communicates feelings and the senses; I can feel the list of a boat heavy with fish, I smell the smoke of fires.

And it's a book full of irony, or perhaps more precisely, it is a book of irony—

My handy desktop dictionary defines irony as “the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for . . . emphatic effect . . .”  

A few of my favorite examples of irony in the gospel of John: 9:4: “What? Are we blind too?” (actually, you are), 3:13: “the Son of Man must be lifted up” (To Heaven! oh, wait, on a cross?), and my favorite: 19:19: “Pilate. . . wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (yeah, well, he kinda was).

Of course even though God created irony and passed it on to John to skillfully communicate the truth of things in his gospel, it certainly exists outside of the Bible. Shakespeare had a knack for it: Romeo and Juliet, Othello.

  John uses verbal irony, which often makes use of sarcasm. One example of this might be in 11:16 when Thomas, before Jesus raises Lazarus, says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” He also uses dramatic irony, which I like to think wasn’t necessarily visible until after the fact, like the disciples in retrospect were able to look back and say way cool, that time he turned water into wine? That was nothing compared to his blood spilled out for us… I imagine for the rest of their lives the disciples—like us—continued to spot ironies that God had created.

But even with all the ironic situations and concepts peppered throughout scripture it’s hard to miss the big one; the most miraculous irony of all time; The One True Irony John was pulling out all the literary stops for: Jesus, King of the Jews; Jesus, hated by Pharasees; Jesus, broken so that we might be healed…   

What Satan meant for evil, God meant for good. Woah, step aside Shakespeare.

And there’s all these little ironies in my life: the way God has taken my own sin and turned it on itself and used it to bring humility which brings healing from the very sin that caused my brokenness.

The way my physical ailments have brought spiritual life.

And I often spot comic ironies in my life (in the same way one might experience a stiff, internal snigger over Romeo and Juliet even while bemoaning the sorrow of it all) such as the fact that I have like a thousand ticks (half-blinking eye, a random flexing of my wrist) all while I like to wax on about being still and knowing that God is God.

In fact, as though God was nudging me to not forget The One True Irony, just this morning I found myself in the swing of another one. I was marking up a section of Charles D’Ambrosio’s book Loitering, a chapter where he talks about how back in the day he was anal about his books and how he wouldn’t let anyone borrow them because he was afraid they’d mark them all up. And here I was this very morning marking one of his books up, folding pages, underlining unfamiliar words, so I could look them up later to find out what they mean.

 

Why I hate Proverbs 31

Proverbs 31, yada yada yada…

I’ve often thought that if I were one of the disciples in the boat getting tossed around by a storm, Jesus asleep on a pillow, I might have been afraid with the rest of them, but then I would likely have shrugged, said to the disciples desperately trying to furl in the mainsail, “you guys deal with it,” gone to the back of the boat, held out a hand to Jesus and said, “pass the pillow.”

I don’t belong in America. I belong in some other culture – not a hot and difficult country where women walk miles with baskets and buckets of water balanced on their heads – but one of those cultures where people just, you know, sit around in each other’s homes and talk and then go to bed and sleep. Surely they exist, places like this, no?

My constitution is duly unfit for our hard working, forward thinking culture. I’m not one to rise early and “burn the lamp” late into the night. I look on other American women in shame. I volunteered to be a room mother once, as an understudy to a real Proverbs 31 woman, which meant that I could pretty much lie back, show up for stuff, lick icing from a cupcake, and let her do all the work because she loved making 24 nametags with turkeys on them, or at least I told myself this.

Okay, let me correct myself. All of this makes me sound lazy. In defense of me, first off, I’m an introvert, so my energy comes from being alone, and I need to read and stare at walls or my mind turns to mush (how odd…), and honestly, God is teaching me to spend a lot of time in prayer. So there’s that. And I do laundry. And make dinner most of the time, alright fifty percent of the time, or forty percent. Something like that. Whatever. Frozen pizza has the tomato sauce and someone once told me tomatoes are a vegetable or a fruit or something. Thank you Jesus.  

The one verse in that awful chapter of Proverbs that I have gravitated to is verse 25. …she laughs at the years to come. I would like that. Very much. No fear. Trust. But that would mean storing up purple linen and baking bread and in present day parlance, having one of those gigantic freezers in the basement filled with pork chops and lasagna. Lot’s of pork chops and lasagna would enable me to laugh at the days to come, but I just can’t get my butt to the grocery store and buy the freezer bags, much less label them and date them so that no one gets salmonella and ends up in the emergency room.

I’ve developed the habit of paging past that last horrifying chapter of Proverbs. The guilt can sink me. I fall way, way, short. I always give a wide berth to Joanne’s Fabric and can’t imagine ‘spinning wool’ or any madness of that sort. You might as well give me a bilateral mastectomy as send me looking for pillow inserts. When I was married, some well-meaning church lady who still dressed to the nines on Sundays gave me a framed print of Proverbs 31. I tolerated it for a few years then finally snatched it from the wall and stuck it in the garbage under the sink, which likely had a couple frozen pizza boxes folded into it and was in need of emptying.  

Last Sunday our pastor spoke on Proverbs 31. Oh, crap.

And then Rick passed me a note that changed my life forever.

It said, in his tiny barely legible handwriting that slants down to the right, the wife in Proverbs 31 is a metaphor for Wisdom. Capital W. My son, seek Wisdom. My children seek Wisdom. Wisdom “plants a vineyard (vs. 16)” and Wisdom’s “husband is known at the gates (vs. 23).” While I’m sure there’s intended meaning for literal women—because they are wise—caring for their families, Wisdom with a capital W, it makes sense to me. I can swallow that a lot easier than 24 Thanksgiving goodie bags for a classroom of kids.

Wisdom is personified as a woman. Throughout Proverbs Wisdom is present as a female entity. Why it’s a female entity, I could care less. What matters to me is that it’s not me.  

That ubiquitous wife who’s been at my heals ever since I said ‘I do’ isn’t in fact a wife at all, she’s Wisdom, and every husband (or wife or single person or child) will do well to remember that Wisdom provides the purple linen, the beautiful things that clothe us. The turkey name tags in America. Home-room mom, she’s not what any of us, or our husbands, should be aspiring to. Proverbs 31 tells us we should be sidling up to Wisdom. And if we really want it we really can have it. (James 1:5)

This. Wisdom gets up early, Wisdom sews purple cloth, Wisdom blesses us at the town gate. Wisdom allows us to laugh at the days to come. Perhaps because of the way God has made me, wisdom will come through thunderstorms that shake the windows and afternoons spent ‘scything’ at a state park.

Maybe Proverbs 31 will arrive at my door, purple linen in hand, beautiful and clear as its own perfect metaphor. I will open the door wide and offer her a glass of tap water because I don’t have anything else; I haven’t gone to the grocery store in a week. I’ll welcome her in because I’m already in a fit, confused and frustrated, having slept only 7 hours and not my optimum 9. She’ll sit me down and calmly explain that it’s not about me, it’s about her.

 

 

 

 

 

Are You a Sentimental Christian?

 

I once wrote a short story that was edited by a very gifted, well-known editor. My story ended with the words “and she entered in to her death, her very own death,” which I thought was a wonderfully emotive ending. I was very proud of myself and couldn’t wait for this gifted, well-known editor to reach the end of my story. Surely it would bring him to tears, surely he would be so taken with my story that he would pass it on to other gifted, well-known editors so that they would all be blown away. Hot damn. What masterful writing.

After getting back my story with his comments, I eagerly thumbed through the pages, which did have many coveted checkmarks in the columns (in fiction writing, checkmarks are like ‘likes’ on Facebook, they can elicit that happy place inside of you to do a little prideful jump). However, after getting to the last page, where I was sure I would get a checkmark, maybe two, likely with a ‘Wow!’ as well, the well-known gifted editor had penciled a very sad, discouraging wavy line that means, basically, ‘it sucks, take it out’ under the last words of my story, the words that said “her very own death.” Next to the wavy line there was no check or ‘wow,’ just his scratched in words, “sentimental flourish.”

He was right of course. The ending was far better as just “entered into her death.” What I had done was take the natural movement of the story and tacked on bland words in hopes of making the reader remember back to what I thought were the ‘beautiful words’ I had written already, instead of the story that in effect was still taking place. His comment, as much as it stung, rang true. The last line of my story was indeed sentimental flourish.  

This morning I was reading what I believe is probably the best devotional ever, My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers, and I was struck by the words “If you get out of the light you become a sentimental Christian,” sentimental being closely related to nostalgia: always looking back, remembering a past goodness, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes over and over, that provides a needed nudge, an elbow in the side that says to you, oh yeah, remember how great that was?

 What Chambers was getting at was that if you fade in your ability to hear God’s quiet voice day to day, you will be left only with nostalgia. That day you were saved, or those college years when you trusted him for everything, when your roommate came to understand Jesus’ love and salvation, that talk you heard that brought you to tears because it was like God was speaking directly to you. Those were the days, and surely they are enough to carry you through to the end of your life. They are enough. I’ll read my Bible every day in honor of them. Those days are my testimony.

But testimony is a declaration or affirmation, and while testimony is a beautiful word to use when describing how you came to Christ, we are to continue to declare and affirm God’s work in our life. We are told to listen for God’s still, small voice.

But how? I’ve often heard these words and thought ‘how do I do this?’ Sitting in a quiet room doesn’t work for me. Staring at the beautiful trees in my backyard and thinking about him doesn’t really work either. It might for some, but for me I can be left feeling even more empty. I didn’t get any voice, small or otherwise. What’s the matter with me? Christians say all the time ‘God told me to, etc. etc.,’ and God doesn’t tell me squat.

But what I’ve slowly learned is that in wanting to hear his voice, in actually trying to hear his voice, I’ve been seeking him with as pure a heart as I’m able. As I’ve sat in my back yard under the trees and heard nothing, I’ve at least hungered to hear his voice and that is the beginning. He knows I hunger. And in telling him this and expressing my desire to hear him and trusting that he wants me to hear him more than I want to hear him, then—and it might look different for you than others—he’ll be there.

Open your eyes under the tree and open your eyes when you’re driving to pick up the kids and open your eyes when you’re at CVS and when you’re a crazymaker doing dishes before the guests show up. Pray and expect. Every day can be a testimony and declare and affirm his plans for you.

His story of you didn’t end after that prayer way back in college. In fact right now you’re standing in the best part of the narrative but if you don’t want to know about it you won’t. However, if you do, he knows this and he doesn’t want you to miss it.

In the short story I wrote my failure was in leaving what was really happening—the arc and the plot—and patched on sentiment at the end because I had left the real story and no longer trusted it. I had left that place where, as a writer, every word is carrying you forward.

Oswald Chambers reminded me this morning not to leave the real narrative that God is telling because my own words, “her very own death,” fall flat compared to the power of his word to raise my dead soul and make it into something beautiful. 

Is Beauty Important?

A few weeks ago, against my better judgment, I wandered into a Target and decided a few outfits were worth the trouble of trying on. My first mistake was pulling them off the rack two sizes too small, something I tend to do, somehow stuck in the period of my life when I used to climb the high dive at the public pool without the least bit of self-consciousness and muster enough wherewithal to jump, however awkwardly, into the deep end, swimsuit riding up my butt and all.

The term, Bonfire of the Vanities, while well known because of the book by Tom Wolfe, originally refers to an actual bonfire set on February 7th of 1494 by religious fanatics for the sole purpose of burning objects condemned by authorities as occasions of sin. This included art, cosmetics, and books. I am a condemned soul.

The clothing I tried on at Target was two dresses and one pair of jeans. As I shoved one leg into the jeans I remember thinking about the J.Crew catalogue I had thumbed through that morning and may have had something to do with my trip to Target. Wandering mind. Jean. Pant. Catalogues always refer to pants in the singular, although the rest of the world acknowledges there are two legs to the piece of clothing and refer to them as pants. I imagined trying on clothing in one of the attractively lighted J.Crew stores and asking the helpful customer service associate to please get me a size 10 instead of an 8 pant. I’m looking for a khaki pant.

Target mirrors have been nabbed from some carnival fun-house. I’m sure of it. Spectacularly distorted, if not sadly reflecting my own body, I might laugh. I become a floating bifurcated image, splitting into some comedy of myself when I turn around, left or right, glancing and wincing as I look into one of the three (three!) mirrors.   

Unlike J.Crew, florescent lights and no customer service associate in sight to reassure me, however deceitfully, that the black pant I’m trying on has a slimming effect and looks wonderful on me, I continued to yank one leg into the jeans which on the rack didn’t look like skinny jeans and not mom jeans either, but somewhere nicely in between (who on God’s green earth thought skinny jeans should be included in the 2003 Paris runway-or-whatever fashion show?), looked in the mirror, and peeled them off. I didn’t bother with the two dresses. I left them hanging on the door, exited the dressing room, passed my red Target cart with the leatherette belt I had taken a full 20 minutes to pick out, and half ran out of the store. I may have had a few tears in my eyes but whatever.

And it’s not the size of my clothes so much as the way my white legs have shifted direction, like the way antique glass in an old home ever so slowly slops and gives into the waves of time. I remember as a young girl seeing my grandmother next to a pool in a swimsuit. She loved to swim and appeared perfectly comfortable in her time weathered body, which had folds and sags that I had never seen in an older woman before.

I don’t imagine I’ll be like her as I continue to age. Even now I decline my critical vitamin D needs and refuse every sun kissed environment that requires swimwear. Even Land’s End doesn’t cut it, as hard as they’ve tried. And I do appreciate that. Don’t get me wrong. Thank you Land’s End. Really. You tried and that’s the least you could do.

I am a vain, vain, woman.

I have found myself, and this is very hard to admit, in front of the bathroom mirror, thumbs at my temples, pulling my facial skin into a slight smoothness, to see what I might look like if Dr. _____ did a little extra something-something while I was under the knife one last time to correct thing number one and thing number two, which by the way at present have the unfortunate look of an older Pontiac with those sort of closing-flap headlights they used to make, one flap stuck half up in a sorry wink.

Art, cosmetics, books.

Not sure what they were thinking with the art and books, but the cosmetic part, no, yes, no, I know I should say yes, but no, really, no, please don’t burn the cosmetics. Never mind a possible future of being hung in front of the townspeople or burned at the stake, I’ll jump, arms out over the flames, in an attempt to keep whatever precious vial passed as a cosmetic in 1494.

There are rejuvenation spas, and mini neck lifts, and chemical peels, and God bless you Botox (and nope, if you’re wondering, but someday?).

Estrogen has been called the fountain of youth. Every day I take a cancer pill that depletes my body of estrogen. Every nook and cranny where I imagine cappuccino size dregs of the scared little hormone might be hiding. Forget Menopause, all the estrogen. All of the fountain of youth has dried up like a hard cement well and I’m, okay, kind of scared. It’s a sick thing that losing my younger looking face is my greatest fear and not the cancer returning. What is the matter with me? And it might come back. It really could. But I might be ugly. And that’s really something. What the heck?

I always wanted to be one of those super confident women who grow their hair long and grey and compost and tend their vegetable garden, go inside, and write a few poems before lunch. But, alas, I am a vain, vain, woman. In 1494 I would have been burned at the stake.

And, seriously, I have been walking with God some 30 years. I thought these things were taken care of. In college, at the tender age of 19, I changed my route and began focusing on things that really mattered like, say, eternal life and love and my father in Heaven who will one day introduce me to real beauty. However, beneath all of these lovely things was a deep murmur of insecurity that would peak up above the water like an ice burg. There was a huge mass of self-doubt underneath the sea of my young life that took the form of a bad hair day or a half-gallon of ice cream already in my stomach so it was too late to do anything about it. Everything looked pretty cool on the surface. All that estrogen and Sun In and those awesome Levis 501 jeans . . .  

But now. Smearing CVS products on my face every night doesn’t work, and outwardly—as far as talents that would make up for the aging me—I can feel like there isn’t much. I can’t sing like Nora Jones and have a proclivity to barfing strings of nonsense words whenever I find myself nervous, and on occasion cups will randomly fly out of my hands like a poltergeist. This was very cute when I was 19. It is not cute at 51.

But here we go. And this is a very true thing. God’s aware of insecure me and he’s right here and I’m his child and what child, especially to their father, is not beautiful? It’s a matter of paying attention, I think. Of not doing the idol thing. I have a foundation, if you’ll allow me, that’s not on my face and I would have said I had this wrapped up years ago, but apparently not, and as my pretty, tan body on the high dive recedes farther and farther into the past, I’m earnestly, and with all hope, beginning to finally, really, count on my loving God to unveil my true beauty.

It can feel like those many moments in the gospels where Jesus—almost oddly—says “I tell you the truth” over and over like he knows beforehand we’ll keep forgetting something important he told us years ago and begin again to try to obtain some kind of beauty from a Target mirror instead of from him.

2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit.”

I will one day be beautiful and it will have nothing to do with the tightness or youthfulness of my physical face and everything to do with my reflection of him, my God, my Father, my savior.

All praise to the great healer of my soul and my body. I am his bride and he will have the most beautiful bride.

So I’m glad, in the end, for my estrogen-less body and all that comes with it. It’s such a polarity that much of my beauty in Heaven depends, at least for me, on my fading physical beauty. The less attractive I become in the world, the more attractive I become in his eyes, because in cutting off my estrogen he is cutting off my idol. He is pruning me and even though I might have to wait a bit, it’s worth it because I’ll just be so freaking pretty.

 

 

What If I Actually Saw God?

If a welder forgets to pull down the lens of his helmet before welding joints on the steel of a bridge or skyscraper or what have you, he can develop ‘arc eye,’ a condition caused by glimpsing intense sparks of light as he works. It’s a really crappy thing to get; pain like sand has been rubbed in the cornea. The welder lies in bed that night closing and opening his eyes. Everything is pink, he closes them again. There are remedies that have been passed on through the years: sliced potatoes on the eyes, pouring milk on them, eye drops. In the end they have to wait it out.    

 In the Bible God never actually, really, appears right in front of anyone. I suppose the closest anyone gets to seeing him is when Moses is allowed a glance at his back. Other than that he’s in a cloud, or smoke, fire, wind, stuff like that.

It’s considerate of him to turn his back on us—if we actually saw his face there’d probably be some kind of pop and sizzle and we’d be finished. He’s too big, too staggeringly magnificent. Watch a Nova show on relativity and the cosmos and think about God and it will blow your mind. One night, after watching a Nova milky way-universe-black hole-scientists with enormous telescopes and computers show, I couldn’t sleep. I was out of my wits scared. We’re insects, beasties, skinny dweebs compared to him. It’s a crazy thing that he loves us.  

A couple days ago I was reading about one of those times in scripture when he gets alarmingly close to showing up and it made me think about an egg. Of all things. Annie Proulx, (she’s a writer I used to read a lot because she has a wonderful eye, very descriptive. In one of her books she describes a person’s remains (I know) that were in a suitcase (I know again) that had been floating in the ocean and then washed up on the shore and she describes it as “gelatinous.”) She also describes the headlights of a car in the middle of the night as looking like “eggs.”

To be honest I thought headlights in the middle of the night looking like eggs was a little much, but I got her point, the key factor being that the eggs had to be cracked into a pan. Yellow yolk in the middle and then the hallo of white. So yes, I’ll give her that; there’s the headlight itself that you can barely look at it’s so bright, and then the white luminesce around it that visually thins out like the irregular edges of the white of an egg.  

But God showing up. I was reading about The Transfiguration in Matthew 17 when Jesus becomes so bright it’s hard to even look at him. He takes Peter, James, John and his brother up a high mountain—and that alone has some kind of story behind it that we’ll never know but could have fun imagining; did it take days to get up there so they had to camp on the way? Only an hour or so to the top but climbing over rocks so they were still breathing heavy when Jesus changes before them? Hungry? Tired? Scared? Bored? Regardless:

“ . . . his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Moses and Elijah were there too, but let’s ignore them. They were there. Okay. So what. I have no idea.

If Jesus’ face shone like the sun then he was impossible to look at. Light is wonderfully crazy that way.

My egg image is entirely inefficient and falls apart when compared to The Transfiguration, but there was Proulx’s image of headlights (somewhat similar) and then her liking them to eggs (entirely deficient). My mind betrays me. Pardon. Deep-six the thought.

At this point Peter begins a monologue that rivals your aunt or uncle at Christmas. He starts talking nonsense, about tiny houses and whatnot, until he is interrupted. By God.

“He was still speaking when behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’”

And this is when everyone freaks out. They are terrified by the Word of God more than the light of Jesus. They fall on their faces like their knees had turned to water. Jesus transfigured was enough to bring Peter to a boil of soliloquy nonsense, but it didn’t scare him into a mess on the ground. They were hearing the word of God. He, the God of exploding stars and nebula, was communicating to them straightaway and what could they do but try to hide themselves?  And then:

“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”

Eggs aside, I can picture Jesus, my Christ, resting his hand on my shoulder so that I am reminded of his love and able to once again lift my eyes to see my Lord and my God.

Nova, with the power of today’s telescopes hints at how vast our God is, how powerfully magnificent beyond our understanding, to the point that my thoughts of him can keep me up at night. But Jesus is God, Jesus who touches me on my shoulder and shows me that God is not so far away after all, and that someday my legs won’t turn to water when I see him. My ears will hear his voice and I will be changed.

 

 

The Festival I Thought Would Be Different Than it Was But I'm Glad it Was What it Was

I’m used to the flat roads in the Midwest, as strait as the sight-lines of rifles. I grew up there: Costco, CVS, Comfort Inn, Oil Lube. The roads are ribbons of cement disappearing into the horizon like they’re making their way fully around the earth: Canada, Russia, Mongolia, China, each franchise accommodating the language; Yangzha Huandao (KFC), and then circling back to America. I don’t like roads like this, but with the ease of large, earth moving machinery, cities and towns have managed the flat Midwest into sanctums of greenery and hill. Plant a couple dozen trees, build a handful of architecturally interesting buildings, add a few curved walkways in between, and whoop, you have a mild scent of gardens and streams. A man made Middle America sanctum is now an institution, a conservatoire, an academy. Let the learning begin.

And so I headed west: to the great Festival of Writing—moleskine in hand—to sit at the feet of greats. Pulitzers and Whiting Awards. Authors who make my skin tingle and my bottom lip sag . I will be, almost, one day, perhaps, a kin to them; I think this in my most solipsistic moments. I will offer them coffee and scones and we will open beautiful books together, we will talk of Bellow and Cheever and Flannery, our first name friend, because she is gorgeous and she is humble and we love her like we love ourselves.

But my bag didn’t arrive with my plane.

This is unfortunate. The plane was small and my bag was big (I know, shut up. It was important I look my best.), which as far as I know was tossed into the hull of the plane but wasn’t. Yes, unfortunate. Very. Lost luggage meant lost medicine meant lost me.

Oh and I was. I tracked my bag (medicine) through the night. Philadelphia, Charlotte, perhaps Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia (yes, Philadelphia again). Rick said fly home. I thought CVS might have pity on me. I ended the long night lying in a booth in a darkened restaurant of the hotel weeping into my phone. But I have to have them, it’s a medical emergency . . .

In the end, CVS did take pity on me, I scored a couple of meds, which left me lacking only one. I was a bit unstable, a bit dizzy, but that wouldn’t be much of a bother. I showered, left my room, and headed down the hall half sliding against the wall like a cat back-scratching itself on a couch. But I was fine, really, I was fine.

My brain, I thought, was perfectly okay, however was not. I decided, before I really decided, to approach the editor of editors, the man of the blessed and praised journal I had yet to be published in but someday with prayer and petition might be. I stuck out my hand and said, “I love you.” I said this. My mouth before my brain. I handed him my business card, which I had printed with one of my oil nudes on it, thinking at the time that it would be artsy and all that nonsense. I turned to leave, I had said I love you!, and dropped every pamphlet, card, and paper I was holding. They flew out of my hands. I had nothing to do with this, they flew like the words from my mouth did, spitting white brochures and fliers in my cognitive fog across the carpeted floor. I had no control. I was no longer me. Did he mumble to his assistant as I walked away, “you meet all types at these conferences . . . “? This might be true. It really could be. I have no idea.

I ate a granola bar that was a chocolate bar in disguise. It made me feel a little bit better, but then The Event.

When you go to a parking lot you usually need to step off a curb. It’s possible as well to fall off it. Or sort of skid off, trip—no that’s too mild. Dive. I would say that’s the correct word. You can dive off a curb if you want to, or even if you really, actually, have no desire whatsoever to, you can dive anyway: asphalt met my fingers in an awkward bend, then knee, shoulder, and thank you Lord for sparing my head. Already enough damage there.

After The Event my fingers swelled like a white Mickey glove. It felt like I was wearing an enormous, foam “we’re # 1” finger at a football game. If I had tapped someone on the shoulder they would have startled like Janet Leah washing her hair in the shower of the Bates Motel.

I resisted the urge to sign my name to email lists and whatnot because it would necessitate pulling out my hot dog fingers, focusing on the paper, and concentrating like I was wiring some kind of bomb. It seemed a pointless thing to be there. My hand hurt and I’d already missed the first day.

So I didn’t, in light of The Event, see Zadie Smith, or Paul Harding, or Tobias Wolff, or any of the greats. Many of my writer friends might see this as a travesty but it the end it wasn’t. I gave up on the conference and spent two days on the grassy man made berms and lovely curved sidewalks of the celebrated Festival of Writing praying a little bit and getting to know people and even writing. Thank you hot dog fingers, and night in the hotel lobby, and American Airlines operated by American Eagle. Oh sweet lost luggage and pebbled asphalt. You thought you won but I did.

Sometimes I think our temperature, our Jesus Love, is like an enormous curve that follows our soul and heart and strength, like America’s wide avenues on roads of heat and skid. Just down the road another mile or two maybe you’ll finally get to Costco or Marshalls or whatever. It’s like the ships when ships creaked with their ropes and wood and the people stared long at the horizon. Today there are the yellow lines that shoot forward and it can feel like bullets pinging in your ears.  

And then off to the side, just over the grassy hill, are the curved sidewalks. Turning your head to see the beautiful stuff just as Payless is whizzing by is hard, but if you think about it the shoes aren’t real anyway. Some kind of rubber and glue. We look down the road and grab things as we drive and head toward the horizon but it disappears, always. We circle the globe and then try again.

But over the rise the trees are beginning to flower. The hill and slope of grass and the sidewalks and architectural lovelies can become a place where you actually, really, learn if you pay attention. The burden of tires spinning on asphalt fades as you sit on a bench and write in your moleskine and think about how funny it is that you just made a fool of yourself like ten times in a row. You can laugh with God your Father and he’ll laugh with you—you’ll both laugh while Zadie Smith is inside a concrete building reading from one of her recent books, maybe the one called On Beauty, her beautiful dark face and glorious words silent to you in the garden, but like so many other things, it's okay.

 

Abraham, Isaac, Fire, and Love

We have longings for things not known to man. The things we see and smell fade out when we allow ourselves the cursory glance toward what is inconceivable, beyond our wildest dreams and wildest fears.

God called a father to face a longing he didn’t want and couldn’t see when he said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering . . .”

This craziness is a real thing. It’s in the Bible. Genesis 22.

Whenever some sweet soul has asked me what the deal is, what kind of a God would say something like this, I’ve artfully feigned ignorance, looked out the window, put an expression on my face hinting that the passage is really, well, according to Biblical Scholars um . . . I look the other way, try again; well, it’s not that important, particularly, and there was the context of the thing, like, you know, their culture was different, and it wasn’t that we know, Abraham, was a, faith, and then of course, and God wasn’t so concerned, because, Mt Moriah, and then Isaac, well, we know now that, and there’s a passage, the passage in, well, love, right and, can I interest you in another chocolate chip cookie?”

Genesis 22 is out of this world intense, and us Christians tend to avoid it. We tiptoe around the whole scene like it’s not something we’re really supposed to pay much attention to, like so many impossible to pronounce biblical names, and yet in light of the heartache the passage produces, if we dare to read each sentence like it happened—really happened—it becomes clear that it’s there for a reason, and perhaps the very reason it’s there is to make us feel just that; heartache. 

“Abraham bound his son, his only son, and ‘went up to a mountain.’”

Yes, God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac up Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering. We are allowed access to almost everything. Abraham gives Isaac the wood to carry, and takes the fire and the knife and leads his son up the mountain. And then this:

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.”

This is a difficult thing to read. And while we see Abraham’s faith in his response, we also understand that if God doesn’t come through for him he is fully prepared to sacrifice his only son on an altar.

But here’s the thing, and this is something I just thought about recently; even though God commands Abraham to do this, he seems even more sorrowful and heartbroken than Abraham does. What caught my attention as I was reading it is that each time God refers to Abraham’s son, he doesn’t stop at “your son,” he goes on to say, “your only son.” “Take your son, your only son.”

There is a unique sorrow God seems to feel when he tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, as though it is his own son. It’s mournful the way God says over and over “your only son.” Abraham doesn’t say this, God says this. He seems to be experiencing the day ahead, when he will essentially say “my son, my only son” as he sends Jesus to the cross. The heartache. The heartache God must have felt watching his beloved Abraham lead his son up Mount Moriah. The heartache God must have felt watching his son, his only son Jesus, led to the cross.

Abraham raises the knife, even still trusting God, if not to stop the knife, then to raise Isaac from the dead. Then God does stop him. As though a mighty hand grabs Abraham’s wrist mid-plunge, the act is halted and a ram appears. God’s only son appears in the form of a ram. Isaac is saved and Abraham is saved from heartache.

How can a God who would do this be a horrible God? Read it again. See love not hate. It is incomprehensible, this love.

Jesus did a mighty thing when he went to the cross. “My Father!” he said, then his hands were pierced and he hung naked before the world.

“Here I am, my son.” And his father mourned.

 

 

on My trip to the UPenn Psychiatric Behavioral Science Facility

The elevators at the Upenn Psychiatric Behavior Science Facility are very strange (yes, I can write about depression forever unless I am depressed, during which time I lay in bed forgetting everything except sometimes the dog’s name and who is winning the republican primaries).

The waiting room is always full and always appears to have people who appear to have been shoveled off the streets of Philadelphia and into the room with the torn flyers and pamphlets advertising such things as yoga that the people shoveled off the streets have never done or considered doing.

It is very important for me not to mumble when I’m in the waiting room, having finally figured out the elevators after traveling up and down via some invisible pullies and weights in an elevator shaft inside the building of Upenn’s Psychiatric Behavior Science Facility for a good 15 minutes so that I began to sweat about missing my appointment and thus missing my meds and thus having to go down the white halls to the rubber room that I imagine still exists like the Clockwork Orange movie I saw when I was 22.

So I don't mumble because I am not crazy like the people shoveled off the sidewalk even though I am late and couldn't figure out the elevators. I enunciate my words carefully and throw in a few extra complicated words that I’m not even sure I know the meaning of but I am pretty sure the receptionist doesn’t know the meaning of either so it doesn’t matter anyway. I believe I have an appointment with Dr. Christanchio for the purpose of descrying my future situation, and my co-pay is…

 I am an intelligent depressed person so I don’t mumble.

But the elevators. You push one button and … 

Along with the people shoveled off the streets of Philadelphia, there are a few people wearing white coats. The very smart people. They work at Upenn’s Psychiatric Behavioral Science Facility and I would like to have one of those white coats. I would like to have one so much that I consider for a moment finding one hanging on the back of an office door and stealing it. I think about this for one very, very short moment until I experience a flash of anxiety because it occurs to me that the thought might have come, not from my own brain, but from a voice that is other than me which would mean that when the psychiatrist asks, because he always does, if I ever hear voices telling me this or that, I will need to fess up that yes, on occasion I do. And then would come the white hall and the rubber room.

But the elevators. There is a lit up screen. It has the numbers of every floor in the building and when you push one of the buttons an arrow appears that directs you to the correct elevator that takes you to the correct floor of UPenns Psychiatric Behavioral Science Facility. In the bank of 8 elevators, each elevator is designated for a floor, so that it doesn’t stop on any other floor except the one that the arrow directs you to. I am supposed to go to floor 4.

This is unfortunate.

There are 12 floors in the building and I notice that all of the people in the white coats are pushing the button for the 10th floor. There exists in front of the screen for the 4th floor a cluster of people who have been shoveled from the streets of Philadelphia. They take turns pushing the button for the 4th floor. I do not want to push that button and be like the shoveled people. I do not want to mumble. I push the button for the 6th floor instead. I will go to the 6th floor and then take that elevator down to the 4th floor so that no one will see me when I arrive at the receptionist area where the shoveled people sit mumbling.

I imagine the 6th floor is for the really smart people and contains rooms with rats with electrodes embedded in their skulls and important people with lab coats peering into cages and writing numbers on spread sheets and then going to computers with reams of paper and abstracts of previous studies that are informing the studies being pursued on floor 6.

I used to peer into cages with rats and electrodes too. I used to write abstracts about longitudinal studies of patients with schizophrenia. Once I wrote a paper titled Backward Masking in Patients With Schizophrenia. I had a spreadsheet and waited in a room for the patients and then had them sit in front of an instrument called a tachistoscope and tell me what they saw. The patients mumbled. They were shoveled off the streets of Queens in New York City.

The place where I did the experiments is now one of those places where kids go Urban Exploring and post photos of their explorations on Instagram. Back then, if I wandered down the wrong hallway there were shower stalls where they hosed down patients and dressed them in elastic clothes with no ties and put them in rooms with gray paint halfway up the walls. Now those hallways have pigeon crap and upside down chairs and peeling lead paint. I wonder if the patients ate the lead paint and then heard voices coming from closets and under beds and out of pieces of toilet paper, or if they heard the voices before they were shoveled off of the streets of Queens into Creedmoor State Psychiatric Institute.

Clockwork Orange.

When I get to the 4th floor there are people there who probably know what the word descrying means, which I find comforting, although they likely did not take the elevator to the 6th floor and then try to get to the 4th floor and realize they couldn’t do that so they went back to the mezzanine level and pushed the button for the 4th floor anyway. They are probably secure and confident and feel no need to do this. I like them but I have no right talking to them or sitting next to them. I also don’t belong with the shoveled people. I hover in the middle somewhere.

I wish again that I had a white coat.

I go down the long hall to my psychiatrist’s office and he looks at his computer and writes my prescriptions and I leave and go back down the long hall. I push the button for the mezzanine level and pull out my iphone and text my friend about her really good soup and try not to look at the other people in the elevator and keep looking at my phone and the elevator stops and I make my way out the revolving doors of the Upenn Psychiatric Behavioral Science Facility and onto the sidewalk with all of the people going wherever they’re going.


The Face of Depression

Arthur Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud

I don’t know how I got the scratch, but it’s suspiciously on my wrist. No feeble attempt to off myself here. It’s just a strange scratch. Probably from our dog. But yesterday when I had to get some blood work done, and pulled up my sleeve for the phlebotomist, there it was and we both sort of winced.

I could have put a band aid over it but that would have been even more suspicious.

The problem is, and what was both alarming and embarrassing, is that the ordering doctor was a psychiatrist, and the sweet girl with her needle, and tubes with their rubber corks, and elastic band to make my veins bulge, could see that right there on the forms I gave to her. Psychiatrist. Then she saw the scratch on my wrist. So.

I tried my best to act normal and un-depressed. She tried her best to act cheery. We were quite the team, both of us reacting to the short line of scab, feigning in our own ways a different scenario, where my blood would be spun in a centrifuge for the purpose of tabbing my cholesterol, and not whatever brain chemicals a psychiatrist wants to know about. Norepinephrine, seratonin, dopamine. Plutonium for all I care, just add some fuel to my brain so that I can see again.

J.K. Rowling said, “Sad hurts but it's a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”

There are a lot of cool people who have had depression. Maybe you’re one of them. The coolest ones are Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, J.K. Rowling, James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace, and of course Spurgeon because for him it ended well – better than well, because he took his depression, flipped it over, and forced it into some kind of love for his savior and his God. I would like to be like him. I would like to write like David Foster Wallace but I would like to be as godly as Spurgeon. But I imagine they’re probably mutually exclusive.

I’m not godly like Spurgeon, but someday maybe I will be. I kind of hope so. But if it means I have to be depressed and take a ream of paper to the phlebotomist with words like major depressive disorder, mood disturbance, and bi-polar spectrum, and then try to act perfectly normal and watch her act overly cheery on my behalf, maybe I’d rather just be someone placid and optimistic, as happy as Mr. Rogers watching toy trains with puppets in them go through tunnels. 

And speaking of tunnels. Right. There’s a reason they’ve been the go-to metaphor for decades. There is a light but it’s so scary when you can’t see it. Of course you have to trust that’s it’s there and everyone keeps telling you it’s there but you can’t even see the people, who are your friends and care about you, and how much longer is the ride because you are the puppet and it’s not very freaking fun.

I changed my mind. I don’t want to be like David Foster Wallace.

There are a lot of cool people who are not depressed. Maybe you’re one of them. Do not fall for the lie that creative people are depressive people, cursed with some mysterious power. If there’s a link it’s a chicken and egg thing. If you spend long hours thinking of how the earth turns and the people walk on it like bugs you’re bound to experience some form of craziness.

And my cancer has nothing to do with my poor mental health. This is no new malady I have. It’s as familiar as bread, and qualifies me for research studies and longitudinal analysis and every once and a while a whiny poem if find I can lift a pen. The suicidal poet, Sylvia Plath, said her depression felt like she was in a bell jar, like a glass jar had been placed over her so that everything around her was muffled and unable to be heard or felt. A lack of reality. I just say I’m in a bubble. Not as poetic, but gets the point across.

I know I’m an over-sharer but it just never bothers me to be one. My depression is just as easy to write about as my cancer, and while yesterday, my Lord, I felt a pressure like the salty ocean was pressing down on top of me, today I can breathe again.

It’s snowing right now.

Coming down fast, and I can see it and even feel it. Thank you people who prayed for me. God is answering.

When you take communion—when you take the wine—you have to tilt your head back so that, for one small moment, you find yourself looking up to the Heavens. The cup is what Jesus didn’t want to take and I don’t really want to take it either in whatever form I find it in, but it helps to think about Jesus in Gethsemane sweating blood because when the ocean’s on top of me, and the glass jar has been lowered, it helps to think about my first love, the one who knows me, and that even though he didn’t want to, he tilted his head back and drank the wine, so I can to. And it will be good. That cup of wine and that tilting of my head will lead to very good things.

Here’s a poem by Sylvia Plath. Read it, be well fed, it’s brilliant. Then toss it in the garbage for me, okay?

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I Touched Death and then it Flew Away

Funerals are a breeding ground for platitudes. More than a few have snuck out of my own mouth: “Well, he’s in a better place . . . ” oh crap, I just said something stupid and insincere, must switch direction quickly “ . . . Well, there’s a lot of people who are waiting to conjole you . . .” oh, crap again, did I just say the word ‘conjole’? what does that word even mean? It means nothing because it’s not even a word . . .  And after barfing out my string of nonsense words I want to go and knock my forehead against the narthex door. I am full of platitudes and insincerity and it would have been better if I had just stayed home.

But it’s not about me. This past week I attended two funerals. The first one was for Rick’s dad, my father-in-law, Pop pop, Thomas Alan James in the obituary, the man who didn’t like the way I fed my kids and thought I should have our family photographed by Olin Mills once a year at Christmas and bought every electronic possibility when our kids were way too young and couldn’t stop telling us we needed to have our chimney cleaned or our house would go up in flames.

I loved him very much.

He spent the last two weeks of his life in hospice, dead to the world yet breathing and warm. His body had become emaciated and white, and yet he kept breathing. Every day seemed like his last but still he held on. Late in life he had become a Christian and he didn’t seem to fear death, so it was hard to understand this clinging he was doing, this half-life he held onto.

I was the last one to see him alive. I spent the day with him in hospice to give Rick a break. I sat at the edge of his bed and held his hand and found myself crying, sometimes weeping, for this unexpected father God had given me. His face was turned toward me and his mouth hung open. For some reason, one of his eyes was half open but he didn’t appear to see. I talked to him a lot because the people at the hospice said that before they die people can still hear and hearing is the last thing to go, although this made no sense to me because none of the hospice people had ever died so how in God’s good name did they know this?

I didn’t believe them. I thought maybe he could still see out of that one half open eye, so I leaned over the bed and tried to put my face in his line of vision. I told him how much I loved him. I cried. Snot poured from my nose, which of course for a woman and maybe a few very secure men, is a sign of real crying. I hoped he could see—or hear—me crying because then he would know how much he meant to me.

We disagreed about a lot of things but he let me know that I was special to him and his love for me was real. The day after I spent with him, he died. I was sad, but I was thankful for my last day with him, which was a beautiful thing. I like to think he held on so we could hang out together although I’m not so sure that’s true. At any rate, God gave me that time with him and God is the one who decides the timing of such things, so that’s cool.

The second funeral I went to was for the husband of a dear friend of mine. It took me a while to get there because it was held in a beautiful white church in the country. The church was very old, and had those wavy glass panes in the windows that went practically all the way to the ceiling. It had pews with little wooden half doors that you had to open to sit down. There were a few lighted candles up front, and as the priest said his sweet homily I stared out the window at sloping fields with faint tree lines. It was a cold, sunny day, and through the old, wavy pains I could see for miles. There wasn’t a building in sight.

His casket was beautiful if that’s okay to say. It was a simple, Shaker-like wood box and was absent of bling, like if you were buried in it you were making the point that the earth was a temporary thing and nothing went with you. Kind of the opposite of those Egyptian kings with their pyramids and gold. Having known my friend’s husband, I was sure that he had chosen it if not made it himself. It was a beautiful, beautiful funeral, nicer and simpler than a hipster wedding and far more meaningful.

After the service, we followed the casket out into the sunshine and a small graveyard next to the church with centuries old gravestones. I had to force myself not to stop and look at them. Worn old half broken ones that folded life in half and made reality clear and concise and truth like something I could touch.

And a week earlier I had touched death, or at least touched approaching death, where the throat gets all gravely. Death rattle, they used to call it, but like to pretend doesn’t exist in our clean swept, Apple 6 iphone, 21st Century. It exists on our TV’s but that doesn’t really apply to us, that’s just about gore and our morbid curiosity.

Death is a super-real thing, and I think that God wanted me to come close to it when I sat with my father-in-law, and honestly, if it wouldn’t have been so weird, would probably have crawled up onto his bed to be close to him before he died.

These last two weeks, as the palm of death quickly left my periphery and moved two inches from my face, the strange but very, very, cool thing is that what I’ve really seen is God’s goodness: his joy in allowing me to spend the last day of my father-in-law’s life with him so I could grasp how much I really did love him and vise versa, the joy of beauty, of a beautiful white church in the country with it’s old gravestones extoling the security of those who knew him.

But the darkness of it. The worldly, undeterred, pharaoh like bling that—ironically—makes us want to fight it tooth and nail, flies away when Jesus Christ is present.

At the second funeral, when we were standing in the cold, waiting for the simple, beautiful wood casket to be lowered into the ground, I looked across the field and saw a stag, mighty horns and magnificent chest. It just stood there, and then it leapt across the field in long strides and disappeared. The whole scene could have felt like a bad poster, the way sunsets and rainbows have been dumbed down to meaningless crap. But the stag was put there by God, and if it’s from God it’s not a platitude.

 

   

I have nipples now. Yay.

Got me some nipples now. Yay.

The lack of an exclamation point here is intentional. My last (I hope) surgery was Monday and from the looks of my body they treated me something like a steak on the operating table. It’s like they flipped me over and pressed certain fatty areas for doneness, smeared a little BBQ sauce in the form of that orange disinfectant that medical personnel of all types like to believe keeps every e-coli or boli at bay, and then dabbed at the bloody spots with napkins, I mean gauze. I have bruises and stitches as complicated as the Middle East.

Sorry if I’ve grossed you out. Not sorry. I’m venting. I have no doubt that when everything’s said and done, I will look, if not like Angelina Jolie (who was her surgeon anyway?), at least better than I did at the start of this detour into freaking Lady Macbeth’s Netherworld.  

As they were prepping me for surgery, I tried to make small talk. Something I’ve found myself doing a lot. I don’t know why, maybe because I think it will endear myself to the doctors and this will make them all the more careful and precise when I’m under the knife. I’ll be a real personality, like a cousin or a co-worker, as though the threat of a lawsuit isn’t enough. In my latest attempt, I knew Dr.______ was an Eagles fan, and even though I knew they had lost the night before, I thought it might be just the sort of connection that would move me up a notch into the realm of person not thing. I don’t watch football and in truth don’t know the difference between a tight end and a wide receiver, so I said what surely, had to impart, a safe, football-ish alliance, something that must have happened at some point in the game; I said, “Did you see that catch?”

He didn’t smile. Crap. Of course, there was a fifty percent chance the other team had had a phenomenally good catch. It had been a risky thing to say and from the looks of Dr._____’s face, I lost. Before I could add a disclaimer, I mean it was obviously a bad call, a nurse was pressing some half-loopy mix into my vein and it was too late to correct myself. As I began to fade I went for the last option and mouphed a floggy pform of the owny phing I could phing of, lawphoot, lawphoot, and… I’m out.

The reason it’s not only the two quarter sized areas on my chest that have been traumatized is that Dr. _____ needed to fix a few things. (Honestly, he’s a good guy.) Plastic surgeons by nature are perfectionists and I guess that’s a good thing. This entailed taking a bit of fat from where fat tends to accumulate and placing it where it doesn’t tend to accumulate and surgeons do that with, basically, turkey basters. Turkey basters attached to electronic sucking machines that leave bruises the size of braided challa bread wrapped around your torso, and it’s really weird that I used that example because I’m not Jewish. Sorry, I’m grossing you out again.

So yes, I am approximately ½ inch thinner below and ½ inch fatter above, and before any of you prone to vanity (I realize that’s everyone reading this) experience even a spark of jealousy, I assure you, if I were to take off my clothes—which I won’t, I promise—your jealousy would dissipate into pity in a matter of seconds.

My oncologist told me I’m supposed to feel for lumps under my arms.

And she wants my blood work done every few months to make sure there’s nothing in my bones.

And MRI’s for the same reason.

And I could get a blood clot, or a heart attack, or depression (check. Even as I’m writing this, the monster’s right at my feet).

One of the things about going to the oncologist is that when I get my shot I have to go to the room where patients sit in the big, comfortable chairs as they are fed poisons that decimate cancerous them in hopes of saving personal them. It can make my knees weak to see these people. Not so much because it could be me, but because I imagine their personalities, their names; and the names of their parents or husbands or wives or children.

Yesterday I was thinking about names. Revelation 2:17 says that God will give us a white stone with a new name on it known only to the one who receives it. Jesus renamed a few of his disciples. Simon (shifting sand) became Peter (the rock). It would be such a kick to be renamed by Jesus. All the goodness, even if not realized yet, is prophesized to be by the one who loves us more than life (remember, he gave his own life for us).

I won’t just be Kate. I’ll be Kate the victorious, or Kate the pursuer, or Kate who sees. I don’t know exactly what my name will be, only that it will be. I am not a piece of meat or someone here only to say what I think others want to hear. I am my father in Heaven’s child and he’s oh so carefully chosen exactly what he will call me and it’s different than every other one of his children and it will make me so happy to hear him say it, like he’ll speak it in both a whisper and a shout so that, my God and my King, Abba, Daddy, I am yours and you are mine.   

 

 

What's the real threat?

Rick and I recently watched two documentaries. The first one was narrated by a guy named Roger Scruton, a world renown philosopher who studies aesthetics. After watching it, Rick and I waxed on about art and whether beauty was subjective or not and whether form following function is too utilitarian. We never figured out any answers to these questions but we were quite pleased with ourselves for wondering.

The second documentary we watched was about the rise of ISIS. Not much beauty there. The video began with clips of the now ubiquitous turreted tanks, rocket propelled grenades, and Black Islamic State flags flung around the Middle East in swaths of palpable hate. Five minutes in and our erudite conversation on art seemed a million miles away and very childish.

Sure, God has blessed us with beauty and love and all sorts of earthly things to enjoy and that give us memorable tastes of himself to thank him for. But the reality—and this is what Paul in the New Testament spends most of his time talking about—is that this world is passing away (quickly!), we are to long for a new earth, rejoice in our future glory, and look forward to Christ’s return when he will make all things right.

Breast cancer has helped a bit with this, where death has tiptoed out of my periphery and stands, still pretty harmless, within my sight line. But the reality is that even though cancer kills a lot of people, and even though my cancer is invasive, God made sure it was caught early, and science has learned to obliterate those deformed reproducing cells fairly well. In a word, I don’t expect to die any time soon.

The real “threats” of this world aren’t really threats but opportunities. This is the way I’ve been trying to think of it anyway. ISIS and breast cancer aren’t threats, they’re opportunities to remember the real stuff.

The way I try to see it is that if there’s a real threat that I should be taking seriously, it’s the threat of falling away from my first love, of forgetting the one who saved me, of freaking out when I turn on CNN rather than thanking God that my purpose here, in this ugly world, is a powerful and good one and handed to me by my Father in Heaven, God, who created whatever beauty still surrounds me, and looks me in the eyes and speaks my own personal name and has no need or desire to wave some stupid flag around so I’ll pay attention because his love is so obvious to those who want it, it’s impossible not to notice. 

Peace With Death My Ass

I’ve never understood the saying, ‘peace with death’, I’ve ‘made my peace with death’. Who are these people who make peace with death? First of all, is it even possible? Death being the Grim Reaper, at least that’s how I see it. Horror films, Greek tragedies, sad love stories, they all depend on death being a horrible thing. So this stupid saying, peace with death, by my lights, is not only an anomaly, it’s a lie, and anyone who thinks it’s possible to utter peace and death in the same sentence, as in death = peace, is either deceiving themselves, trying to deceive others, or perhaps in actuality mean ‘peace with saying goodbye,’ which is a topic for another essay, because I’m not so sure that’s possible either.

The human race is at war with death. It has been since recorded history. And while I’m sure there are many deathbed examples where the pain of being alive precludes the fear/finality of death, I think my point still stands.

Every religion that I can think of exists in an effort to fend off death: Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, even atheism, where dying means ceasing to exist (or being frozen beside Walt Disney so you can both be unfrozen sometime around 2070 and resume your respective creative endeavors), Egyptian kings and princes buried in massive tombs who tried to take all their gold stuff with them. There must be a way not to die. Death makes no sense, because what are we if not alive. I think therefore I am. I love therefore I am. I am loved therefore I am. I am loved therefore I am. I am loved therefore I am. I am loved…

From a very young age I was afraid to die, in fact, probably more afraid than most kids: I was afraid of microwaves (cancer), airplanes (failed engines and bolts coming loose), tall buildings (I was pretty sure they could randomly tip over), elevators (duh, the cables could break!), and hot dogs (yes, cancer again and I know, ironic because I now have cancer and have always avoided hot dogs and microwaves).

I have not and never will make peace with death. But then many people seem to have made peace with death; intentionally given themselves over to a greater cause. I think of John the Baptist, St. Stephen, Bonhoeffer, who, spiritually speaking anyway, all appeared to have it together and didn’t seem the tiniest iota afraid of death and darkness and whatnot.

All three of these examples are Christians, and I do realize there are those who have chosen death who aren’t Christians, like Socrates. But very quickly and very un-thoroughly, here are my thoughts on that: perhaps the way they deal with the death thing is to basically skip over it. It doesn’t exist and you just disappear, or it entails virgins and cold craft beer in large refrigerated bins, or unrefrigerated bins if you live in Scotland, or waking up surrounded by gold necklaces and bracelets and maybe a favorite mummified dog.

But Christians skip over the death thing too. And this is why I became a Christian. I think Jesus Christ really conquered death. Obliterated it. He loved me so much that he couldn’t imagine being without me; I am loved therefore I am. He, he, died instead of me. God died instead of me. What the hell? How does that even happen?

I have no idea.

But I’ll try to explain it like a tract would because—don’t judge me—I kind of like tracts. However, first, before I get to the good stuff, let me just say real quick what being a Christian is not:

-It doesn’t mean you go to church

-It doesn’t mean you’re pro-life

-It doesn’t mean you think Putin is the anti-christ (good possibility, but whatever)

-It doesn’t mean you are anti-gay

-It doesn’t mean you dig wells for impoverished villages

 

All of these things may or may not be true of you, or might change with time, but if you’re a Christian, what most certainly is true, is this:

 

1. God loves you and wants you to know him. He has a wonderful plan for your life (not necessarily film star, run marathon stuff, and not always easy, but still, a wonderful plan.) —John 3:17, 17:3.

2. People are sinful. Come on, seriously, people are sinful, or mean, or selfish, even if they try not to be which, all rolled into one, means they’re sinful. —Roman 3:23

3. People are separated from God. God is perfect. People are crappy even if they try not to be crappy. God can't hang out with crap. I always think of it like God is so light – like the sun – so any darkness can’t be near him, darkness can’t exist next to the sun. —Romans 6:23

4. Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through him alone we can know God personally and experience God’s love and plan for us.  —So back to the sun example, since we are dark (sinful) we can’t get close to the sun (God, perfection) so Jesus became a man, only he was perfect, because he was God, and died—a horrible death, I might add, which shows how deeply he loves us—in our place so we could be perfect—not that we’ll be perfect in this life, we won’t, we’ll still be plenty crappy—and be with God. Oh, geeze, It’s actually really simple, I hope I'm not making it sound complicated. — Romans 5:8, 1 Corinthians 15: 3-6, John 14:6.

5. So this wonderful plan, God’s love, all of it, God wants you to know him. Basically, all you have to do is say yes. You can pray and just tell him you want to know him.—Revelation 3:20.

If you want to find out more go here: everystudent.com It’s great, and far more clear than I just made it.

I am loved therefore I am.

Peace with death my ass.

 

 

 

The Trail of Misery

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So you have suicidal ideation? That’s what the doctors ask you. This is to make sure they shouldn’t send you off to some “home” where they take the shoelaces from your shoes and make you color pictures of sunsets and apple trees to make you happy.

Last week I began my day lying on the couch with a small mixing bowl on my chest, guiding mac and cheese to my mouth with a fork. This would not be due to some stroke of pain and lack of luck, where my stomach hurts from meds or my stitches are popping sore. My situation of low morale and willful decline had no reason other than I just didn’t feel like doing much else.

I started to pray. There were so many people who needed prayer. I prayed. I didn’t want to pray. I stopped praying. I stabbed a piece of macaroni with my fork and as I guided it to my mouth it fell and landed on my shirt between my very fake and very stitched up boobs. I stared at the noodle, picked it up, and was about to stick it in my mouth when I thought it might be a good idea to get out of the house.

Valley Forge National Park is all about George Washington. It’s where He kneeled in the snow and prayed, or where we feel good thinking that he kneeled in the snow and prayed. As if our nation was birthed in that moment of pain and longing all coming together with his one knee up like he was ready to take off on a sprint. Perhaps this really was the case; his constitution in the most obvious of ways being more articulated than a woman with a noodle halfway to her mouth.

Pleading, thanking, asking, I don’t know what he was talking to God about as he knelt there in the snow, sword tucked snugly into his breaches or knickers or whatever pants were called in 1777. The dates of colonial America are an utter fog to me but I do know about that winter spent at Valley Forge because there’s a museum. I should have home schooled my kids. It would have taught me all sorts of things I didn’t learn the first time around, like what lingon berries look like, how far we are from the andromeda galaxy, and my multiplication tables.

Now at Valley Forge, with the exception of a few cabins, there are trails. People walk and jog and bike all over the same hills where the American troops starved and froze that winter of 1777.

When I got to the park I looked at the different paths I could take. There were so many. Maybe right here, on this very spot, is where Washington knelt. I walked up one of the paths. Maybe it was here, where he could see the encampment. It was good that the macaroni and cheese fell on my chest. It was very good. And God called it good.

The path forked as paths tend to when you’re in a ruminating mood and trying to work yourself out of a funk. There was a sign with arrows, one pointed left and one right, uphill and into the woods. The one pointing right said The Trail of Misery. That had to be where Washington prayed. Of course. I headed up The Trail of Misery.

As much as I’m all about metaphor, The Trail of Misery isn’t metaphor. It really is miserable. It’s a steep climb with a lot of stones and not much to grab onto. And mosquitos, because they orbit my ears every month of the year except January. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t happy lying on the couch with macaroni on my chest and I wasn’t happy climbing The Trail of Freaking Misery.

And George was a show off, kneeling in plain sight so that someone could paint a picture of him praying and trusting God and all that. I just plain climbed, winded and depressed with mosquitos dive bombing my ears. There’s a place, a restaurant, called The Smith where I took my daughters the last time we were in NYC. Avery ordered pancakes. Eight of them piled on top of one another. This is what I thought about as I climbed the Trail of Misery. I wondered if George Washington wasn’t praying about the war or his troops but about pancakes and how much he wanted some. Or hotcakes. He would have probably called them hotcakes in 1777.

When my daughters and I were in NYC we saw an opera, Turandot. Some people say you’re not supposed to pronounce the T, other people say you are. It seemed a pretentious thing to care either way so I just called in Turandie because I’m like that, which if you think about it, is pretentious. We sat in the very top in the very last row of the MET. They call it the “family” section, which is a thoughtful and unpretentious thing to call it and where it seems pretty okay to wear jeans or whatever. I was wearing heels, so by my lights I was rockin it.

From where we sat the stage was the size of a thumbprint, but if we focused really hard and then turned our heads a tiny bit we could kind of see the costumes before they faded from our peripheral vision. The music, however, traveled the walls and ceiling in golden rivulets and fed the music straight to us, sitting in our jeans and turning our heads this way and that trying to see what was happening. It was beautiful, the music. It sounded like we were sitting right there in the orchestra pit.

Turandot is about a man who loves a woman and only gets her if he can figure out the riddle. He gets three tries. If he doesn’t figure it out he dies (gallows, I assume, but it was hard to tell from the family section). Operas need prodigious amounts of love and death to justify voices flung up to rafters so that we get to hear their beauty and power.

The riddle is a hard one. My riddle is a hard one. I can’t figure out the answer. What’s more, no one’s going to hang me from my head if I don’t get it so why bother?

When I got about halfway up The Trail of Misery, I found an old stone foundation to what had been a large house, actually a mansion. It was big enough to explore inside. There were archways and a stream right through it. I saw some sort of creature dart back into a stone well, probably a rat, but for whatever sanity I had left, I decided it was a squirrel.

From one of the windows I could look down on The Trail of Misery that I had already climbed. I know it would tie a nice bow on this story to say that from the perspective of the window (and what an awesome metaphor that would be!) everything made sense, that I could see God’s hand in all of this, however The Trail of Misery didn’t look any less miserable. I didn’t feel any great sense of accomplishment that I had ‘made it that far’ or ‘going down will be so much easier,’ or any of that nonsense. In fact, leaning out of the window, the trail only looked uglier, muddier, and I didn’t feel much like doing anything, much less picking my way down a muddy trail of rocks and branches. I was depressed, remember. An hour earlier mac-n-cheese wasn’t even hitting that sweet spot because there was no sweet spot and I wasn’t sure there ever would be again.

So, the riddle. I can’t figure it out. Job, in the Old Testament can’t figure it out, and his friends, try as the do, most certainly can’t figure it out for him.

That day lying on my couch dropping noodles on my chest did accomplish something though. Strangely, it wasn’t a beautiful vision of a meadow while leaning out a window, or wow, you’ve come so far, just keep fighting and it will all come together. Instead, today, this very day, without knowing the future I am just a little bit like Job. A tiny bit. Not a real Job where everything, absolutely everything, is taken from him, but some sort of jobishiness. Small ‘J’ with the squishiness at the end. And it brings me hope.

My difficulties have been more than breast cancer, much more, but I still think I only qualify for the lower case jobishness. Job with a capital ‘J’ is common in other parts of the world. I don’t think that I could handle that big ‘J’. But if I found myself there I would have to I suppose. Nothing would change about my God.

Nothing would change about the one I deeply love who deeply loves me. My whole house could get caught up in a tornado, my family could die, and I could be forced to eat lima beans for the rest of my short life, but my God — the one who allowed this puzzling life — allowed me the need to figure this thing out, gave me the comfort of the real Job and the comfort of the real Jesus, who suffered eons more than Job or jobishness, 

So I will kneel with Washington and pray for more than pancakes and ask for the troops to be fed, but even if not, I will agree with Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,

Nor fruit be on the vines,

The produce of the olive fail

And the fields yield no food,

The flock be cut off from the fold

And there be no herd in the stalls,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord;

I will take joy in the God of my

Salvation.

THINGS DON’T always LOOK THE WAY THEy ARE

Machetes used in Rwandan genocide

Machetes used in Rwandan genocide

This afternoon I had my final reconstructive operation. By now Dr.______ is well aware of my desire for small whatchamacaltits and couldn’t resist saying to me, needle already sunk deep in my vein, “Now, you want double ‘D’s right?” Which was not funny at all because at that point, half anesthetized, I could barely talk, and as they wheeled me into the operating room I wasn’t so scared I would die or wake up a vegetable or something benign like that, but that I’d wake up to the realization that I would now have to shop at Sears for bras with hooks the size of a deep sea fishing boat’s.

As I write this I’m feeling a bit loopy if you can’t already tell. My chest is bound like a Geisha’s feet, which might have something to do with the book I’m reading, a not particularly happy book: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. Loopy is a good state to be in when reading a book called We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. No, not exactly a coffee table book.

The book is about the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. With the exception of a movie, Hotel Rwanda, that gave it a spike in the public conscious, the whole affair has long since lost airtime to other more pressing world catastrophes that these days seem to occur every week and a half or so, or maybe it’s always been this way; every generation thinking the world is most definitely coming to an end, evil growing in width and depth. World War I. World War II. The whole Middle Ages for that matter.

We wish to inform you . . .  is a distressing book, much of it chronicling the massacre of more than a million men, women, and children.

Very long story short: the genocide was related to a culmination of political corruption and hate that had become embedded in the Hutu people for the Tutsi people in Rwanda. The Hutus formed a group called Hutu Power via propaganda and whatever human gene is responsible for killing massive amounts of its own kind throughout history, and propagated the murder of every Tutsi in Rwanda. After practicing the art of machete and gun in dress rehearsals for the big day – sometimes right outside of the homes of the intended Tutsi victims – Hutus finally went at it and killed every Tutsi they laid eyes on regardless of sex or age.

But enough of that. I knew most of this already. What I didn’t know is that eventually the Hutu’s, while still engaged in the rampage, were driven out of the country in large quantities by a small faction of, how shall I put it, angry Tutsis. They entered Zaire en mass, and almost immediately began dropping dead in a cholera endemic. As luck would have it, some young somebody had a camera and a load of film (1994 remember) and took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, shooting film of the plight of Hutu refugees.

The scene of Hutus suffering was broadcast worldwide and immediately help poured in. Relief organizations, doctors, nurses, bottled water, tents, money. In effect, the mayhem on TV provided a magnet for something like school lunches, apple slices and all, for a large group of people who had just spent months killing innocent people.

Of course there’s much more to it. It was a complicated time in Rwanda. Every Hutu wasn’t bad and every Tutsi wasn’t good.

Here, you might think my point is going to be something about the drats of social media these days, but I’m thinking the opposite. A story has the opportunity to be told from all angles in a way that wasn’t as easy to do in 1994. Granted, the stories we see on Facebook and the like aren’t stories at all, but bites. Short little ditties for us to figure out. But at least the bites are there and we realize we have the opportunity, if so inclined, to put in the time to figure out what’s really true and what we really think.

There’s a recent short video online about Syrian refugees that made me cry and want to sell our house, move to Turkey, and help pull rafts out of the water.

There are videos of persecuted Christians.

There are videos of people who need food.

There are many, many, videos of people who need Jesus.

If the Rwandan genocide had happened today smartphones all over Rwanda would have grabbed every imaginable – and unimaginable – picture and posted them to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Add the right filter and good chance CNN would give a few of them a prime time nod.

So. My point. Do I need a point? I guess if you force my hand: the end of the world is coming. Do your research. Figure out who Jesus is. Don’t vote for Trump.

 

                 Oh, and here's another angle on what I just wrote about.

 

If I could punch someone in the face, I wouldn't

There is a bookcase in the room. It has informative books on cancer treatments and ‘beauty after chemo.’ Wigs and such. On top of the bookcase are porcelain figurines of angels. All sorts of angels. There’s even a snow globe of an angel. When you shake it there are stars. Except for a bit of pastel blue here and there, all the angels are white and women. In light of hurricanes—until recently—being named after women, it occurs to me that women tend to be perceived as either really, really good, or really, really bad. How odd. Above the bookcase a small quilt hangs on the wall with a white angel on a blue background.

There are a few Bibles tucked into the shelves. Whew. I think about tucking a few tracts here and there – yes, tracts. I became a Christian because of one. The good ones are awesome.

I’m not getting chemo and I’m holy thankful. I look at the people in the comfortable chairs with footrests that pop out and IV drips. A few of them have family or friends with them. I feel guilty again that I won’t lose my hair.

Chernobyl.

I’m a bit of a guinea pig. My hormones need to be shut down pronto, but because of medication I’m already on, if I have the usual hormone blockers I could die of a heart attack, so, well. The oncologist decided the best way forward would be shots of some sort and a pill every day.

A nurse heads over to me holding a syringe up in front of her with a strange look on her face. She taps it a few times. “We’re having a problem with your medication,” she says. I feel like a passenger on an airplane and a flight attendant has come out of the flight deck with a concerned look and said, “We’re having some trouble with our right engine.”

I need to come back tomorrow, after they get a new batch.

I head over to Dr. ______’s office. Good old Dr. ______. Always a crowded waiting room, but a great place to people watch. Usually I like them and often I pray for them, but today a woman next to me pulls out her smart phone and starts playing some Youtube short over and over again, loud. It’s some sort of workout pop song music video and she laughs and then plays it again. I want to punch her in the face.

I’m scared about tomorrow and the shot. I’m afraid it will knock me into a depression. I’m terrified, actually. I’ve “researched,” if you can call surfing the World Wide Web for alternative treatments for depression research, other possibilities. There’s always ECT, which usually works. They put you out now, so you don’t have to lie on a cot with a cork between your teeth as they hit a lever, sending I don’t know how many volts through your brain and extremities so your body jolts up involuntarily. Whups, too many movies. Time to reign in the imagination.

There is a baby sitting on a woman’s lap. The baby, having recently learned the art of waving, waves at a bald old man with dark splotches covering his scalp. The old man smiles and puts his wrinkled hands over his eyes and plays peek-a-boo with the baby. The baby laughs and laughs.

This morning I got a text from a friend who works with breast cancer patients that said she hasn’t found depression to be a concern with women taking the medication I’ll be on. Thank you God. Working on it. Thanks for lots of stuff. The guy across from me with the wrinkled hands playing peek-a-boo with the baby, our amazing kids, my friends, fall, Rick, parents who care about me, our dog, my son’s dog, dogs in general. Even cats I guess. Okay, thanks for cats too.

The woman with the smart phone is talking with her elderly mother who sits next to her. She smiles and her mother smiles back. I no longer want to punch her in the face.

 

 

 

 

The Bone Scan

I decided to title this blog post like I would title a short story – The Bone Scan. Literary, rich with possibilities as to what Bone Scan symbolizes. Anton Chekhov. “Chekhovian”, critics could call it. They could sit back in their chairs and sigh after reading it and say things like, “It’s a very Chekhovian piece.”

Do what you will with Bone Scan, but I’ll stick to the basics. Kind of.

Today, two hours after getting radio active die shot in my veins, a woman in scrubs pushed a few buttons and slid my now very flat body into what, for lack of a better word, I’ll call a ‘scanner.’ In my head I was calling it a hungry, white, bastard mouth. That’s what I was thinking. But it was definitely a scanner or an MRI machine or something like that.

All morning I’d been morbidly humming to myself, with a sort of crazed half-smile, that Sjufan Steven’s song, Casimir Polaski Day: Goldenrod and the 4H stone/ The things I brought you when I found out/You had cancer of the bone…

 30 minutes later when the whirring finally stopped and I was slid back out to the oddly comforting fluorescent hospital lights, I looked at the technician’s face for ‘signs’. Did she look concerned? Dutifully blank? Overly cheery? I held back, but there was a decent 5% chance I was going to yell at her sweet accommodating face, DO I HAVE CANCER IN MY BONES????? Instead, I timidly asked her if she could tell anything from the scan.

“The doctor should have something today or early tomorrow.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said, “I’ll wait to hear.

I left the hospital mouthing her words in mock tone, someday today or early tomorrow, someday today or early tomorrow… Whatever. Lunch.

At times my mind whirrs too, like the Hungry, White, Bastard mouth, but I’m learning to reign it in. An overactive imagination has plagued me for years, and this cancer diagnosis has significantly upped the ante. I’ve been misusing my imagination, the same one that has at times served me well. It might be responsible for my D in high school Spanish, but I sure enjoyed the class, my desk sideways  against an enormous window looking out on a cul-de-sac of trees. Poetry flew back and forth from one hemisphere to the other in my underdeveloped brain and kept me good and happy for 40 minutes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

I had learned the art of settling my face into a faux look of interest and engagement regardless of what Mr. Jimenez was scratching out on the chalkboard. I usually passed my classes because the teachers liked me. I wasn’t paying attention but they thought I was. Which, in light of my poor test grades, meant they must have assumed I was pretty stupid or had a learning disability, which I probably did.

Eventually I discovered coffee and learned to compensate. Awesomeness. Then I went to art school, which was more awesomeness. It was like a free pass to finally use my imagination and I went a little bit crazy. It’s possible in a painting class I discovered the glue gun and glued a bunch of books onto a huge campus, painted it all white, called it Trinity, and got an A+. It ended up with a lot of admirers but I don’t think anyone came to Christ because of it.

The thing is this tangled mass of dendrites and folds is undisciplined, constantly poaching reality, not only with ‘what ifs’ but whole narratives of alternate worlds. Left unchecked, my day becomes not only you have bone cancer, but you have bone cancer, so obviously God wants to use you to tell everyone in the hospital about him and then he’ll give you just enough time to write a book about it, which will be amazingly good by the way, and everyone from here to California will read it and hear about how good God is even though people get cancer, which will be great, but then you’ll die because the book will go on to win the Pulitzer and if you won the Pulitzer you’d get all proud and that would be bad, so God will have you die from bone cancer because you’re just not humble enough to win the Pulitzer and walk with God both at the same time.

 Like I said, I suspect I have a learning disability. I also might be an over-sharer.

I’ve come to realize my imaginative vignettes about what God might do are rooted in a desire to control God. I recently had a conversation with my daughter, who fortunately and unfortunately inherited my predilection for staring out windows. She had begun to worry she would lose her job. She thought that if God had her lose her job then she’d be forced to go into ministry and wanted me to assure her that he wasn’t going to do this, right? God wasn’t going to cause her to lose her job so she’d go into ministry?

“Of course not,” I said, speaking to myself as much as her, “Sometimes God does that sort of thing, but you’re just imagining this because you’re trying to figure out God. He’s much bigger than that.” I went on and told her a little story about when I was young and Rick traveled a lot. “I used to worry that Dad would die in a car crash and then I would write a book (always a book) and God would use the book to tell people about him.”

There was a silence.

“Actually,” she said, “I was kind of thinking that you might die of breast cancer and then I’d write a book about it.”

Yeah, so. My daughter and I both have the whole thing turned around. God decides what’s best and then shows us his loving kindness in and through it. He gently takes our hand and we go from strength to strength as we discover his great plan. And it is great.

We don’t write the book, he does.

 

My Body, Your Body

This morning, once more in my (I’ve begun to think of him as ‘my’, we spend a lot of time together) surgeon’s office, instead of looking down at my phone or the one Good Housekeeping I’d already checked out ten times, I realized I was staring off into the middle-distance at a small potted plant. The plant had 5-7 leaves and was beginning to materialize in my foggy mind as marijuana. I thought, oh, right, medical marijuana, but then backtracked, I live in PA not Boulder, and came to: I was in the surgeon’s office for my shot of weekly silicone. I gave myself a virtual whack on the head in hopes of smacking my mind back to reality.

An hour later I sat in my car looking over my grocery list as I waited in line to pick up a prescription from the CVS drive through. I pulled up to the window, and when the pharmacy employee asked for my name and date of birth, I said, “Two boxes of Rice Krispies.” True story.

My own whack on my own head had obviously failed me, but God’s far gentler reminders of my wayward mind have been taking root like nosedives into soil.

It’s interesting and unexpected that what I’m learning most in this whole breast cancer thing is, not only that my Father in Heaven loves me more than I thought, but in tandem with this reality, how deeply embedded my own sin is – wait, lets not even use the term ‘sin’. That’s too innocuous, let’s call it what it is: jealousy, hate, selfishness, vanity, and my all around solipsistic tendencies. Turns out they go hand in hand, God’s love and my sin. (Eureka!) This is the crazy-maker of the Christian life. As I understand the weight of my sin, I understand the weight of God’s glory and love.

So I’m getting pruned. Metaphorically pruned. Breasts chopped off and Frankenstein stumps in their place. And perhaps my ovaries shall get the axe as well. It hurts but all’s good. I don’t always feel like it’s good, but it is.   

I sometimes meander around the body of Christ trying to fit in everywhere. It’s a fearing man not God thing that inclines me to do this. Appearing awesome to everyone. I’ll be the feet, the strong shoulders, the beautiful smile. Everyone will love me and think I’m great.

But then the axe comes down on my breasts and it just plain hurts and all of a sudden the rest of the body becomes essential. I need you body, give me a hand over here (arrggh, unintentional pun)

And you are, stunning Body of Christ. Your help is sober love to this hang-head soul and it’s blowing my mind.

There’s a bottle of perfume next to my bed. You gave it to me, Body of Christ, sweet humble woman who sits in the back of church Sunday mornings. When I wear the perfume it reminds me of you.

Your meals in their Tupperware and foil.

And your cards! They are beautiful and They sit on my bookcase and sometimes I spread them out and read a few of them and I remember again that I belong to you and you belong to me and we are a body. Blessings to you strong Body. I couldn’t live without your beating heart and able hands and I love you more than ever. I didn’t realize how important you are until now and I’m sorry.

Your notes, your cards, are full of Kings and Queens and Aces, not Ones. You courageous Royal Flush; you Full Flush and Full House. I’ll set you down on the table when the time comes. I’ll look my opponent in the eye, the one who cheats me and bluffs me, I’ll spread you out like flowers open to the morning and say, “See? Turns out I won after all.”

 

 

 

 

 

My Ovaries Too?

Dr. Singer slowly pressed silicone into my stitched up section of chest with a large syringe the size of a bicycle pump. He mentioned he liked my shoes. He does that. Every time I see him and he’s examining my chest or pumping artificial sweeteners into me, he mentions my shoes. I guess it eases the awkward situation. It applies conversation about the body parts that are as far away as possible from the body parts that he’s actually attending to. I’ve begun wearing different shoes every visit and thinking too much about which ones I will wear. Yesterday I wore really cute ones. Wedges with wide leather toe straps. I might invest in something metallic for next week. So fun.

After he and the nurse left, I deftly untied my gown (I’ve become quite good at hobbling those things on and off quickly) and draped it over a chair. As I replaced my bandages and pulled on my sport bra, I heard a woman in the room next door. She was likely by herself and kept repeating what, for the purpose of appearing virtuous, I will call the word ‘quit’. The word she used rhymes with ‘quit’. She kept saying it; quit, quit, quit. I assume she hadn’t quite mastered the hospital gown yet. I wanted to encourage her; quietly knock on her examining room door and assure her that it gets easier, putting on that gown, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that might not encourage her at all. As in; is your point that I’ll be spending every day in this godforsaken place!? Quit! Quit! Quit!

 I’ve written about being a part of a tribe of cancer patients now, which has been nice and actually sort of empowering if you’ll allow me to use that term. But strangely, I’ve also noticed some of my middle school timidity returning; wait, maybe I don’t belong. Maybe the pink ladies don’t want me to be a part of their group. Maybe if I’m not wearing a knit hat they’ll think I’m only in here to get a nose job, or worse, a breast augmentation for no reason!

 Yesterday, as I was leaving church, I yelled across the lobby to a kind breast cancer survivor who has been encouraging me, “We’re bosom buddies now!” At this point a little middle school timidity would have proved beneficial. I have lost all sense of social niceties. I’m a dervish of systematic nonsense and if you are a true friend you will pop by tomorrow and duct tape my mouth shut. 

But I’ll refrain from more breast jokes. They’re getting old. Let’s get to the important stuff: uteruses and ovaries. Both of which I very well might be kicking out of my (former?) female self as well. 

Shortly, I might be the first female to involuntarily undergo a sex change operation. No breasts, no ovaries, no uterus. My name is Kate so it only makes sense that post-op you refer to me as Bruce. This isn’t funny. No, wait, it is. Nope, not funny. I mean, kind of. It’s kind of funny.

Turns out the type of cancer I have responds well to hormone blocking therapy (yay!), which can be achieved by scooping out all the important baby-making stuff (boo!), which means I just might make it under the wire without chemo (yay!), which means I won’t lose my hair (yay!), which means my family will assume I’m perfectly healthy and stop cleaning the kitchen for me (boo!).

Either way I’m grateful. Absolutely grateful. I’ve prayed that I wouldn’t need chemo. I’m praying for many things right now, but mostly that God will keep depression at bay. No hormones can bring on depression, and the type of therapy I need might require me to chuck a few pills from my nightly cocktail of antidepressants. Depression is my most vicious enemy and some days I can feel it nibbling at my heels like a not quite hungry yet lion. I get despondent when I’m depressed. I’m of the Sylvia Plath breed and could stick my head in an oven if it were still possible to snuff out a pilot light. 

This morning I read an essay by Randy Alcorn that said, “Satan is a lion, yes, but a lion on God’s leash.” After that, Alcorn quotes Charles Spurgeon, who suffered terrible bouts of depression:

“It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity.”    

When I was 19 a woman shared a little booklet with me – a tract – that said, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” This was the key that unlocked the door. It’s all I ever wanted and I somehow knew at the time, even with my limited 19 year old faculties, that it could be quite a ride. But I signed up anyway and I know where it ends and I’m trying really hard to keep my eyes focused on that place where I’ll ease into the station all blooming and healed, filled with joy over all that God did.  

Oh, Spurgeon, we might not be bosom buddies, but you are my brother and you made it through okay by my lights. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. 

Did I cause this?

Yes. In a word, you did. I chose to have hormone therapy (strong correlation between hormone therapy and cancer). And what’s more, in one way or another, I’ve caused most of the pain in my own life. I would put all of these things in the “if only” camp: If only I’d been a better parent, If only I hadn’t insisted on hormone therapy, if only I’d given my life over to God in high school, if only I didn’t decide I would impress everyone in gym class in 1982 (a bad year for me!) and take the turn on the track too fast, I wouldn’t have wiped out and—humiliatingly—been taken, head back and moaning in what had become my signature Kate James is in pain bellwether, to the nurses office in a wheelchair.

If only I had given over to God the crap other people had done to me earlier. I could be like Joseph and say cool stuff like “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many souls.” (Genesis 50:20) Come on, Joseph, really? Aren’t you Mr. I’m-so-sood-and-godly-you-should-probably-write-it-all-down-for-other-people-to-read-centuries-from-now. Geesh.

Regardless of the chain of ‘if onlys’; the causal lineage we’re all entangled in, even if we have to go back to the apple and the tree there’s most assuredly someone or something you can point a finger at. And it feels good to point a finger. It feels good to point a finger if it’s pointing away from you. If it’s pointing at yourself, not so much.

I point my finger at myself all the time. I can feel like everything is my own fault. And I know that even as I write this, friends and family are already picking up their phones and shooting off emails to convince me otherwise, I say to all of you—tongue in cheek of course: get behind me Satan (Matthew 16:23).

Sin is sin is sin. It’s a real thing. Recently, as Rick and I have been praying for situations and people, we’ve been asking God to do what he’s so very good at doing. It’s like his signature maneuver; “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8) and all of the complicated ways the evil one produces evil: our own sin, other people’s sin, hurricanes and floods. Destroying means much more than just defeating, or winning, or even take that evil. Destroying means flipping stuff around. Using the very thing that was intended to derail us to provide the extra fuel to hit 270 mph, that sweet spot that only the most innovative transport—like Shanghai's magnetic levitation train—barrels along at.

 Turning evil on its head means turning something very very bad into something very very good.

And of course, as an aside and to address those who might misunderstand me in all this, yes, I believe God can and does prevent sin, hurricanes, and floods, but perhaps sometimes the ‘destroying evil’ is, in a strange way that we’re unable to comprehend this side of Heaven, *worth the sin, hurricanes, and floods. Maybe, like our savior hanging on the cross, sin being flipped into good is just so freaking amazing that it becomes worth it.

But while this might make perfect sense, when it comes to my own sin I have a tendency to disregard all of it. The bad that I suffer because of my own bad seems nothing but punishment. To be completely honest, it reeks of penance: of me taking the place of my savior on the cross. As if!

However, even my own stupidity and foolishness and stubbornness is not immune to God’s great work. If I had married some guy because he had all sorts of worldly awesomeness (I don’t know, had a yacht and cool hair or something) instead of a husband whom I respect and loves me and loves God, and he turned out to be a tool and have affairs and stuff and go to that Ashley Madison sybaritic (you can look that word up) site, even then—even though it was my fault for marrying someone for the wrong reasons—God could overcome it, turn even my brainless decision into something beautiful and eternally good. I love that word eternally. It’s not just good here in earthly ‘time,’ but good forever. Sometimes, as Hebrews 11 makes clear, we don’t see much of the goodness here, but I’ve come to believe the eternal goodness that God produces when we confess and say "Help me, I really screwed up!" ends up worth the pain of taking a turn on the track too fast or loading myself with estrogen because it made be feel good at the time. Cancer shmancer. God’s got my back—and my dumbass ways—all figured out.

And it is good.

* of course keep in mind Romans 6:1 "What shall we say then, are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? . . ."   There's nothing good about sin and evil. But it is cool to watch God destroy it.