Epitaph

A dear friend recently lost her mother unexpectedly. Via Facebook, she allowed her friends to be bystanders to this tough chapter of her life. From the rapid escalation of her mother’s sudden illness, to the moving poem my friend wrote and read at the funeral, to the emotional task of disposing of the house and furnishings of her childhood, we got a tiny glimpse into the life of an amazing woman. But one of my friend’s most recent posts posed a question I hadn’t thought of before:  have you ever wondered who would write the epitaph on your tombstone?

I have to admit, I hadn’t. While I don’t think I care much about what’s on my tombstone, I do care, a lot, about what I leave behind. As a mother, I want to leave behind happy, well-adjusted children who know God and how to laugh. As a leader, I want to leave behind lives I’ve made just a little better for having touched them; corporate America can be a stressful, degrading, even soul-sucking desert…it can also be an easy place to hold up a candle. And as a human, I want to live my whole life having never given up seeking God. I struggle and fall…every day…but I believe that God expects only that we get back up, dust ourselves off, and sincerely try again. I’m getting to my feet now – today’s a new day.

“And were an epitaph to be my story, I’d have a short one ready for my own. I would have written of me on my stone:  I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”  –Robert Frost

 


Balance

I’ve lived an unbalanced life for most of it. Driven, restless, and easily bored, I’ve spent way too much of my time and energy on work. Thankfully, I discovered the error of my ways–late, but not too late.

While my journey toward balance began with a jolting reminder of my mortality, that was just the beginning.  I began to slowly tear down destructive habits and thought patterns, and gradually add back newer, healthier ones. My husband’s health issues added the first brick in the new life I was building, spurring me to exercise regularly, something I still loathe. After not very long, I realized that I was feeling better and was less stressed. The stressors hadn’t disappeared; I was just better equipped to cope. I still hate exercise, but I’m hooked. Next, I cut down on caffeine. I haven’t eliminated it completely, but my daily six pack is now a two pack, and I don’t drink it after noon. I found that I was getting more restful sleep. Just as I began feeling physically better, a life-changing inspiration caused me to start writing a book on faith. Something I never intended to do, writing gave me my first real hobby and a creative outlet that doubles as therapy. It also gave me my first mental focus outside of work,

I’ve had a lot to learn about this hobby business, especially the creative aspect. While it was a bit scary to begin writing, it was flat out terrifying to even think about sharing the final product with others. I knew that I didn’t have to share it, yet somehow I needed to. I’m grateful for the family and friends who gently supported my writing “coming out”. As I’ve slowly built this therapy into my hectic life, I’ve learned three principles that I believe apply to any hobby.

1. Do it for yourself. This may sound obvious, but it somehow wasn’t to me. Its critical corollary may have been my greatest struggle, that it’s actually ok to do something for yourself. Us guilt ridden working mothers especially need this permission.

2.Do it when you feel inspired. If you’re doing it for yourself, don’t turn it into a chore. It’s ok to put it down for awhile when you just don’t feel it.

3. Build it into your life. For some, this comes naturally as they easily prioritize time for what they enjoy, but working mothers often place themselves last. It took me a long time to realize that I could care better for those I love when I take care of me, too. Then it took time to figure out how to squeeze what I needed for me into my busy life. It absolutely can be done.

I write this from the treadmill. Work has been unbalanced lately, with long evenings and weekends and not enough sleep. It would be easy to skip exercise to squeeze in more sleep, but I’m not about to give up my hard won lessons on balance. The stakes are too high. This is my life we’re talking about.

“Without balance, a life is no longer worth the effort.”  –Olen Steinhauer


Hope

The Facebook support group that I belong to, dedicated to Megan’s rare disease of HLH, has been a blessing through her illness. I’ve written before about this special group of people; the only downside of membership is sharing in their grief, as some are inevitably lost to this monstrous disease.

Belonging to the group these last couple of weeks has been pure joy. I’m not sure what triggered the first story of hope…a child, fully recovered from this cowardly disease which attacks mostly children. That first story led to a rapid succession of others, including my own opportunity to share Megan’s glorious recovery. The stories were wonderful:  children and adults restored to health and normalcy after months, or even years, of needles, chemo, procedures, and suffering. After months of my own fear and worry, it was gratifying to read about dozens of complete victories, just as Megan steadily moves through recovery herself. However, it is impossible to forget that the reason these stories bring hope is that not all HLH stories have happy endings.

Hope is crucial to human existence. History and the evening news are filled with the very bad things that people are capable of doing to each other when they have no hope. I know how critical it is to my own emotional well-being. Life is difficult enough when I have hope…hope that my family is well, that we have a bright future, that I’m loved. When Megan was clearly dying and no one knew why, the only thing that kept me from complete collapse was the divine Hope that if we couldn’t take her home, her Father would. Knowing that God loved my baby even more than I did gave me peace in the middle of terror and chaos. I can think of nothing more powerful than that.

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”  –Vaclav Havel


Five Things I Learned In Prison

Kelly J. McCleary:

Powerful and thought-provoking.

Originally posted on The Boeskool:

Bringing light into dark places. Bringing light into dark places.

I celebrated my birthday in prison this year. Our Church is part of a ministry called Timothy’s Gift.  They go into prisons to remind the inmates that they are human, that they are not forgotten, and most importantly that they are loved by God–Not because of anything that they have done, but simply because of of who they are. When they invited people to go on the trip, my wife asked me if I wanted to go. I told her I would love to, but I had to work, and we really didn’t have the money. It was a four-day trip that took place over my 40th (I know, right? Crazy) birthday, and she knew I didn’t want a big party, so she devised that she would surprise me with this trip as a gift for my birthday. She made a “Send Chris To Prison” GoFundMe page, and within…

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Favor

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A friend recently did me a small favor, replacing a small but important item. The replacement was nearly identical to the original, but for one tiny difference. That tiny difference has turned out to be profoundly important, turning my friend’s small favor into a much larger gift.

For nearly three years, I’ve worn a pin on my ID badge at work, picked up at a company PRIDE event. It’s a very simple design: a rainbow with the word “ally” underneath. It fell off a couple of times before I Gorilla Glued it to my badge, afraid I would lose it for good. It was interesting to wear it everywhere I went at work, sometimes noting eyes lingering on the pin. A fellow associate even stopped me on the elevator one day. A stranger, she thanked me for my support. I was startled and don’t remember what I said, but I know I smiled, right then and for awhile afterward.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. I removed my badge at the end of the day, and the pin was gone. When it didn’t turn up after a few days, I sent a note to a friend, asking if PRIDE had any more of the pins. A few days later he brought me a replacement from his own personal stash. There was the familiar rainbow, but alone, without the ‘ally’.

I got out my Gorilla Glue; it felt good to have my badge back to normal. Except it’s not normal. Just as I’d noticed others’ reactions when I first began wearing the ally pin, I’ve again been noticing their reactions to the rainbow pin. But I shouldn’t: I’d long ago stopped being aware of a reaction to the first pin. Something’s different, something so subtle I can’t describe it. It must be the length of time someone looks at it, or the way they then look at me. It doesn’t happen with those who know me well, and it doesn’t happen with everyone. But it happens.

The gift of the rainbow pin is becoming more than a kind favor from a friend. It’s becoming instead an opportunity to walk, if only for a split second, in someone else’s shoes. I grew up white in a white world. I’m not disabled, and I’m not LGBT. My LGBT friends must choose every single day in every single circumstance whether it is safe to be who they are and face potential judgment. My friends of color in this country don’t have even that “luxury”, instead facing the constant possibility that someone will instantly judge them based solely on how they look. All I know is that discrimination is flat out wrong. I’ve since found my lost ally pin, but I’m not going back. I’m planning to buy a whole slug of rainbow pins for when my Gorilla Glue next fails…let me know if you want one.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” –Elie Wiesel


Vampires And Castles

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The most amazing place I ever visited was someplace I would have never gone on my own. I spent two weeks in rural Romania for work, but the weekend trip into the mountains of Transylvania was spectacular. Part of my awe came from the contrast to the stark scenery on the rest of the trip in one of the poorest countries in Europe, but that wasn’t all of it. The other reason for the awesome trip was the people I met.

I arrived in Bucharest alone, my first trip to Eastern Europe. I’d grown complacent with travel in Western Europe where people spoke English and getting around was easy. My team, in Podari ahead of me by a few days, sent me a note: bring cash…lots of it. Their American credit cards weren’t working. Unfortunately, by then I’d already left the Bucharest airport with just what I needed to get the 200 km to meet them. I made my way to the train station with the first of many cab drivers who didn’t speak a word of English. I later learned that knowing Russian would have helped me, not that it mattered to learn that. Once at the station. I spent a nerve-wracking five minutes trying to communicate with hand gestures that I needed to go to a small prairie town by way of a second class ticket, to preserve as much of my precious cash as possible. I was eventually successful, guaranteeing that I would spend the next three hours traveling with average Romanians. I moved into the station to find a place to wait the hour for my train. The only place that looked comfortable, or even safe, was the McDonald’s–bright, well-lit, and cheery. I nursed a Coke for most of the hour until I realized that I’d better find a restroom. Turns out this was the only McDonald’s I’ve ever been in without one. I left in search of a WC sign, finding one at the top of some narrow steps into the basement. The tiny restroom was all that was down there: dark, dank, and cramped. It cost me a pittance of my precious cash, but there was no choice. It was the second worst restroom I’ve ever used in my life, just behind a filthy hole in the floor in an unlit closet in a government building in remote China. I finished as quickly as possible and boarded my train.

Though the car wasn’t crowded, an elderly babushka chose the seat right next to me. She wore a colorful scarf over her very white hair, which matched her very deep wrinkles. Her heavy black overcoat covered her dumpy frame, and hose-covered, thick ankles ended in sturdy black shoes. She attempted conversation with me right away, a futile effort. She was clearly disappointed as we settled back for our long ride. Proud of having navigated this far through the alien environment by myself, I settled in to read and watch the Romanian countryside go by. It looked amazingly like my native Kansas, with fields of sunflowers and grain elevators punctuating the flat land every 20 minutes or so. It was no coincidence that it looked like home; this was exactly the kind of place the agricultural company I worked for would locate a plant. After an hour of quiet, the old woman startled me by suddenly speaking to me again, quite animatedly. I was at a loss until, through gestures, I realized that she was lecturing me about crossing my legs. She pulled down one of her thick, woolen stockings and pointed at her varicose veins, chattering the whole time. She clearly didn’t want me to meet her fate. I sat with both feet dutifully on the floor until she got off on her stop 20 minutes later. I crossed my legs defiantly the rest of the way.

The work part of the trip was uneventful, beyond the unexpected September heat wave which made for uncomfortable sleeping in our un-air conditioned hotel, and one drunk taxi driver who decided to punish us with a 120 km/hour ride though city streets for some imagined slight. Another taxi driver who chased me down made up for him, however. I had left my fanny pack in his car. My passport, credit cards and phone were in there; I owe that humble man a lot. But the weekend trip to Transylvania was truly unforgettable. A colleague secured a van and local driver who spoke English. He was amazing: personable and passionate about showing us the best of his country. He succeeded. We saw castles and silver domed monasteries and gorgeous mountains and brightly painted gypsy carts next to campfires. It was truly magical. Our guide was a single dad who had lost his young wife to cancer. Quality health care was not available. Devoted to his young daughter, he had since fallen in love, but was working unsuccessfully so far to convince his prospective in-laws that he was a suitable husband. I have hoped for the five years since that he did.

He and the other Romanian people I met on the trip, while frustrated at their “lost 50 years” from Communism and the slow pace of reform since, were immensely proud of their beautiful country and their heritage. They should be. Some of the coolest things happen on the journey you’d have never taken on your own.

“How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.” –Bram Stoker

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The Power of Love

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We now have three dogs. We never intended to have three dogs. We actually never intended to have two dogs either, but that’s a story for another day. Our newest dog, Lady, is another golden retriever, our fourth. The first three have been absolutely wonderful dogs; we had no reason to believe she would be any different. We had no idea, however, what she would really become to our family.

No one is exactly sure how old Lady is. Our vet estimates between seven and ten, and that’s consistent with her history. She belonged to the aunt of a friend for most of her life, until the woman passed away last year. Until then a doted upon only child, Lady suddenly became an orphan, at an age when that can be dangerous for a dog. Her late owner’s sister–my friend’s mother–took her in temporarily, but she needed a permanent home. My friend posted her picture on Facebook asking if anyone was interested in taking her; one look, and I knew we were doomed.

We didn’t say yes right away. Megan was still in the hospital in Cincinnati, being assessed for a bone marrow transplant, and we couldn’t really think about it then. But Megan’s somewhat sudden recovery also made Lady suddenly possible. I called my friend. “We’re not sure you really want her”, we were told. She sleeps a lot, is partially deaf, has repeated ear infections and a cyst on her eye…not terribly different from our 11-year old golden. “Two half dogs should make a whole” was my response…we’ll take her.

My friends volunteered to make the entire drive themselves. When you live in Minnesota, you’ll take any excuse to get 700 miles farther south in the winter. We coordinated a date for her arrival and waited. Megan solved the concerning problem of not knowing her birthday by declaring that her arrival date into our family would now be her birthday: December 29. Lady arrived to birthday cupcakes in her honor; she was home.

Lady has spent the weeks since her arrival settling in. The three dogs moved from suspicion to truce to the affection of buddies. The humans, however, have been fond of her from day one. She’s a sweetie…mellow and well-behaved. But none of us took to her like Megan did. From that homemade cupcake on her first day here, Megan has doted on her. Her affection has been returned. Lady follows her everywhere, sleeps at her feet, is sad when she leaves. I don’t know if Megan’s recent ordeal has anything to do with their bond, but they seem to need each other. As Megan observed, they’re both even growing their hair back out together, after Lady’s trim to remove the mats in her thick fur.

It wasn’t an easy decision to take a new dog into our family, especially at her advanced age and after the overwhelming stress we all just passed through. But love–the fundamental belief that every creature deserves it, no matter their circumstances–won out. Just one more example of the incredible power of love and what can result when you give in–with faith–to its power.

“If nothing saves us from death, at least love should save us from life.” –Pablo Neruda


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