Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Off Balance

This is the weirdest experience. 
Maybe a sorcerer transported me. Maybe I’ve been cast in the TV show “Once Upon a Time” where characters travel back and forth between their fairy tale lives (Snow White, Peter Pan, etc.) and modern reality.

In the past, if I heard that someone’s husband had been diagnosed with brain cancer, or was in some other dreadful crisis, I’d feel sick for them and wonder how they could function at all. Wouldn’t they be on the floor raving with pain or fear?
I’d eye grieving spouses at funerals, chatting with guests, appearing “clothed and in their right mind,”* and think,
“You must be part of an entirely different species. I could never cope the way you are coping.”

Now, here am I, down the rabbit hole. 
Even our considerate and careful surgeon referred to the pathology reports with the comment, 
“It doesn’t get much worse than this.” 
But who can believe such news? How can we imagine that death may actually be approaching much sooner than expected? Or that disability might increase to unbearable degrees? 
So far our lives continue normally…but not.

As I monitor pill-taking and chauffeur my cheerful husband who always preferred the driver’s seat, I feel disoriented. 
Last Sunday I went to church and spoke calmly to friends about our new situation. I laughed at the jokes in a discussion group.
But my dear neighbour looks so serious as she hugs me after hearing the news. 
Why are people bringing us generous surprises of home made meals? I’m not sick – and then suddenly, tears of stress well up. I am sustained by such kind comfort food.
Yes, I hauled the snow tires to the mechanic’s for the first time - no problem - but then, when I dropped them off, I didn’t know the answers to questions he asked. Seasonal tire-change hadn’t been my job.
Who’s supervising our money? My almost fine CFO husband who’s always been a controlling comptroller of our family finances? Money-know-nothing me? Newly designated helpers? I’ve never found group assignments easy.  This is so confusing.

A word that comes to mind is “liminal”. Besides liking the word’s texture in my mouth, its meaning feels familiar: in between, like having one foot on either side of a threshold. Am I in or am I out? Neither and both. Most of us are in between in some sense, never quite there, but on the way. Waiting and uncertainty are the norm in liminal-land. 

Of course this is exactly where Christian faith takes us whether we like it or not (NOT). God’s ideal for a healed and peaceful humanity burgeoned in Jesus, but how can this miserable world be governed by a loving God?! Look around at the crowds of wounded souls, bleeding out despair or revenge, some wreaking havoc in their pain. 

The preachers say that God’s peaceable kingdom is “now and not-yet”.  Such nonsensical but precisely accurate description can make you feel like tearing your hair out. 
And yet, compassion and beauty abound even during brain cancer.  Why is there peace and gratitude in my frustrated, scaredy heart?  Only God knows.

*An expression from Luke 8:35, used casually by my fundamentalist parents whose primary literary reference was the Bible.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Beat Goes On

Thank goodness for funny moments.
I suggested to my husband that, as we waited another day for news about his brain illness, we listen to a significant CD together. 
He thought he’d lie down on the couch to hear it. It is a very touching CD by Steve Bell, with music and thoughtful words about dark times. Soon after the album began, as I was grabbing kleenex to wipe my tears, I heard my husband snoring, fast asleep. 
Off to bed he went for a nap while I continued to hear the CD’s wise comfort. 

A few years ago this Canadian musician put out the album called “Solace”, at the suggestion of a dying friend. The music CD comes with a second CD of Steve’s radio interview with several people. They discuss the difficult issue of Christian belief in an all-loving God who allows suffering. Obviously this conundrum has been a puzzle for the ages and comes without any solution, no matter how much faith we have.

During the show, besides a chat with my nephew Dr. John Stackhouse about his helpful book, Can God Be Trusted?, Steve also talked with Lydia Harms. Years ago she was widowed and left to raise four young children by herself. As a long time devout follower of Jesus, she was furious with the way God had let her down by allowing her husband to die so young. 
Not being a shrinking violet she responded aloud to some of the mindless comments people made in their awkward attempts to be polite or helpful during her grieving. One poor man at the funeral wished her, “All the best”. 
“All the best?!” she responded, “I just buried it!"
I think she refrained from actually hitting him.

I need no lesson about raging at God. S/He and I are long comfortable with that kind of honest relationship; God’s love has proved unconditional. 
What I found interesting was Lydia Harms’ admission that her fury at life’s injustice and at God’s mysterious silence in response, still erupts from time to time, even many years after her husband’s death. 
Her mixed and even paradoxical experience of celebrating God’s goodness one minute and feeling angry hopelessness the next, mirrors my own. 

As I wander through the new set of circumstances foisted on me recently, I might sound to others like either a determined spiritual pilgrim, in my gratitude for God’s faithfulness, or like an expert at distraction (three cheers for Netflix), or like a loser Christian who doesn’t really believe any of the bible’s Easter story when things get rough. And yup, that’s exactly what I am, all three of those. 

I am not ashamed of this admission. Only if God is truly greater than our weakest weakness, is there any point to Christian faith.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Sweet Storm

Soup, muffins, candy, banana bread, chili, lemon pie, salads, strawberries and more soup. The way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach. 
As my family and I wait in limbo, one minute laughing at TV comedy, the next crying in a neighbour’s tight hug, my heart needs all the comfort it can get.

I have done nothing to deserve the gifts that keep arriving during the onslaught of my husband’s brain cancer 
(Shh, don’t tell the surgeons. We’ve already guessed the truth that they won’t mention before test results confirm).
Sometimes I wail with fear at this unfair disaster storming in on my family. Other times I tear up at people’s kindness and generosity. 

Our neighbours cleaned out our eavestroughs and carried the leaf debris to the ditch.
A church acquaintance dropped by with baking and the kind of perfect empathy that only her own painful experience could offer.
Encouraging emails greet me when I click open my inbox, every single one an injection of optimism, to counter my default perspective on life.
A longtime friend of mine repaired a seam on my favourite sweater as my mind buzzed, “Will I need it for a funeral outfit? Will it be cozy in cancer treatment waiting rooms?” 
Others have sent gorgeous flowers and an amaryllis bulb sprouting toward red blooms.
One of our daughter’s friends added insulation to an attic corner so that my husband wouldn’t worry about that item on his to-do list.
A loving relative mailed us a magazine from The Gideons, its glossy pages filled with quotes from the Psalms and peaceful photographs.
The list is so long it’s bound to be incomplete.
Visits and phone calls and concert tickets …

It’s hard to ignore a little demon that keeps hissing in my ear,
“But what did you do for them in their hard times? They’re being so much nicer, behaving so much better than you ever have.” 
I'm tempted to feel ashamed of myself and embarrassed by all of this sweet attention.

Thanks be to God that such destructive thoughts disappear under the flood of lovingkindness provoked by this unwelcome storm. I have earned none of this caring support. I guess it’s called grace.

Bono’s best song, “GRACE”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsFRQoYVzHc 
Sorry but you’ll need to copy and paste until one of you shows me how to enter a live link ;-) and furthermore, this song starts with a long instrumental intro, so be patient waiting for the exquisite lyrics.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

We Are Not Amused

How did I get on this ride? 
I didn’t buy a ticket, or get in line. I’m not even tall enough to qualify. Someone made a huge mistake. I’m not at all sure the seat belt and roll bar will keep me from getting hurt. It’s going too fast. I hate this swooping feeling in my stomach.

Three weeks ago we were floating along as usual in our peaceful retirement years.
Today, with gritted teeth, I pulled free two large bandages from my husband’s scalp, cutting any hairs that stuck to the adhesive edges. Good job I have a degree in nursing - not.
Underneath was a six inch long curve of bumpy skin puckered by a row of staples that held his skull together.  Frankenstein monster’s incision is behind his left temple. Bits of dried blood and antiseptic lotion remain. Showers aren’t allowed yet. Gross.

This is his first day home after brain surgery to remove as much as possible of an anomalous growth that had suddenly affected his speech. Ever ridden in an ambulance? First time I’ve dialled 911.

The tissue has gone off to a lab somewhere where someone will test it and do their best to report specific information to the surgeons. There is also a fourth (fifth? sixth?) MRI test being read and analysed by someone else somewhere else. Don’t ask me.

No one knows the diagnosis yet, let alone the prognosis. Three weeks ago we were whisked willy-nilly to these monstrous carnival grounds where nothing makes sense, and dragged onto a nasty midway ride controlled by complete strangers. Each healthcare carny politely tries to answer our stunned questions but the answers conflict and one worker is soon replaced by a new face on duty.

Who’s the manager here? What’s going on?

Hang on, my friend, just wait and see.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Sumach Thanksgiving

In an autumn meadow, sumach saplings crowd together, their thin stalks fuzzed like adolescent antlers. The young shrubs sprout horizontal branches, each bearing two rows of delicate oval leaves. Like pennants, varicoloured in lime green and olive with sunset streaks of orange and violet, the leaves hang in opposed symmetry.
Older sumachs above stretch longer limbs draped with wine-red flags.

Creative artistry and all sciences fuse here. Think fractals, solar system, architecture and synthesis. Think...

The wild field’s treasure includes tiny yellow snapdragons and miniature white daisies. Here and there, unmown clover plants have spread into fountains, each stem capped with a purple busby. Khaki grasses stand toe to toe by the thousands. 
Rustling trees swaying high against the grey sky, play a soundtrack for October's sensory feast.

Look closely.
Not one petal or leaf is perfect, flawfree; there is brokenness and scarring all round. Indeed, Nature is preparing her annual graveyard.
But oh, the irresistible beauty. 

"The Spirit of God
Is a life that bestows life,
Root of world-tree
And wind in its boughs.

Scrubbing out sin
She rubs oil into wounds.

She is glistening life
Alluring all praise,

(Hildegard of Bingen)

Blessed Thanksgiving Day to All!

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Hidden Majesty

Once upon a time, behind an ordinary house in an ordinary neighbourhood, there appeared an art installation of gasping wonder. 
High above an old wooden deck the piece spanned a metre of thin air. It was anchored by invisible guy wires attached to the leafy branches of a so-called “junk” Manitoba Maple tree. 

The exquisite weaving glistened silver in the morning light.  Its complexity was dazzling. 
Fine threads formed a delicate hexagonal plane that slowly undulated in the soft breeze. Dewy moisture lit each strand in hope that humanity might notice Nature’s impossible design.  

Two lucky people stood beneath, heads tipped back, eyes startled wide, hearts burning within them.  An hour later evaporation made the wild, wet web disappear. 

"You are worthy, our God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they exist. " 
Psalm 104

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Charlotte Strikes Again

Between my house and my neighbour’s there is only a narrow walkway. Every time I carry my gardening tools from the garage along this short route to the backyard, I get “pranked”. Apparently the small gap between buildings is an ideal span for stringing up a bug-trapping web; every single time, a cobweb catches me in the face. I frantically brush away the sticky gauze, hoping that the spider itself isn’t now lodged in my hair or clothing. It’s an unwelcome surprise but it always makes me laugh at myself. 
“Oh Charlotte, you got me again.” 

My perception of spiders changed after reading the touching children’s story, Charlotte’s Web. Since then I have looked at spiders fondly, even as I occasionally dispatch an unwelcome one in my basement. Sometimes my inner Buddhist can’t be bothered releasing anthropoid intruders outdoors. These spider mothers reproduce too prolifically to qualify as house pets.

In the story, a spider named Charlotte is a wise advisor and faithful coach for Wilbur, the doomed pig who shares her barn. She encourages him by spinning legible compliments like “Some Pig”, “Terrific”, “Radiant” and, finally, ”Humble”.
When her dying time nears, she teaches him that all life is bound to a cycle of birth and death. He must soon say goodbye to his beloved friend. Sob. The bittersweet story ends with Charlotte’s many babies newly born as spider friends for Wilbur.

Like Charlotte, my husband and I are well into our senior years; we need wisdom and encouragement for facing this stage of multiplying changes. We’re reading aloud an excellent book by Lewis Richmond, speaking of Buddhists, Aging as a Spiritual Practice.
In the same tone as the bible takes in its remarkable third chapter of the book called "Proverbs", Richmond reminds us that though we cannot control the changes life brings, we can rest in the fact that we are deeply and reliably loved. Although he is a self-proclaimed atheist he heard "someone" in his mind assuring him of this eternal truth.

If we can hang on through his described “lightening strikes”, learn to “accept” our current reality, and make the necessary “adaptations,” we can win through to  the peaceful and positive stage of “appreciation”. 

Christianity aligns here. As one church minister emphasized, it was neither Christ’s good works of justice and mercy nor his resurrection that best epitomized what God is like. When Jesus willingly surrendered to an agonizing execution, God's glory (essential nature) blazed the brightest. In his refusal to fight hatred with force, he showed God's limitless love for humanity. Even while asserting, "Don't you understand that I could have asked my Father to send armies of angels for help?" Jesus accepted God’s upside-down, counter-cultural way. 

Life's changes are part of a vast wind that cleans and refreshes. We can trust God that every loss is followed by new life, just down the way.
The next time we get a messy web in the face, may we wipe it off bravely and look forward to the better surprises ahead.