Friday, March 7, 2014

I'm doing just fine...

Remember the old saying, "I'm on the right side of the dirt; I'm doing just fine"? I've modified it to say "My intestine is on the right side of my belly; I'm doing just fine". Thank you, Jazzman.

I went to see him Wednesday after the Lent service at church. I had the smudge of ash on my forehead as a stark reminder of my own mortality. In the car, driving to the hospital afterward, I caught a glace of myself in the mirror. No doubt, there was a dark cross shaped smudge on my forehead. We're told to leave it for the day, but I struggled with that idea.

"What's the difference between me wearing a dark, obvious smudge on my forehead and walking into a public building than the man who stood on the street corner praying?" I asked Cameron as I drove. Seems to me that, like the man praying loudly on the street corner, I would be rewarded like that man by drawing attention to myself: "See how pious I am. I went to Lent service at church." That attention being a reward rather than a reminder of my own mortality.

Moreover, I was going to visit a possibly dying man. It's one thing to remind myself of my own mortality. It felt wildly inappropriate to remind Jazzman of his. He already knew.

Nowhere in the bible does it state we should paint ourselves with ash. We use it as a custom to remind ourselves of Jesus' sacrifice for us. We use to become mindful of our own eventual return to ash. Within a community of believers, the ash is shared and we are all sinners and saints together. However, I felt that venturing into a hospital wearing ash on my forehead would be like the man who prayers publicly on a street corner to draw attention to himself. So I wiped it off.

I was quite relieved to have done so, after gaining my first glimpse of Jazzman's intestine on the wrong side of his belly. Bear in mind, his cheer and kindness. The nurses are all fond of him and brag that he's the most gracious patient on the floor. He's a true gentleman.

There's nothing in my life that's all that bad today. I have my intestine on the right side of my belly.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

From Ashes to Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday. The first ten years of my life, I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. We attended church at Fairview United Methodist Church. Being so close to the school, we benefited from many amazing musicians. I remember sitting with my grandparents, looking up at the pipes for the organ in awe and listening to the chorus.

Then my dad decided to take us to North Central Church of Christ. The loss of music, incense, candles, alienated me. I liked those symbols. The austere building, the loss of an actual altar and the loss of children's church confused me. People around me talked about those symbols as if they were bad. No wonder I love the ritual of Wicca. Or that I delight in my current Episcopalian home.

So today Cameron stayed home with contractors and I used my comp time to get off work early for services. Oddly enough, both religious experiences seemed to come together today. Of course, the priests still wore robes. But there was no chorus. A silence, a kind of peace, filled the church today. I found the service powerful.

As the priest smeared the ash on my forehead, he said, "From dust you were made and to dust you will return." Dust. Mortality. Death. My own death. It brings a solemn hush. Three clients were in my office at different times this morning speaking of death. A mother dying of cancer. A brother dead 21 years ago of Down's Syndrome. A cousin dead of a motorcycle accident a week shy of his 19th birthday. But always we spoke of someone else's death. Grief. Bereavement. Those things no one but a counselor will talk about. A place of sacredness only equaled by birth.

Of course, Christian faith centers on resurrection and judgement day. I tend to keep my rather heretical thoughts to myself, because I do believe in reincarnation. This very interesting site explores such thoughts: Christian Reincarnation: The Long Forgotten Doctrine. Nevertheless, death has walked with Cameron and me these last few weeks, as seen my previous blog. So the service touched me deeply as I reflected on Walt and our family dealing with suicide.

I called Cameron on the way to the service to talk about why we have Lent. Cameron pointed out a great many people see it as a time to recognize what Christ went through for us and to offer our own kind of solidarity by fasting or giving something up. Indeed, a co-worker had posted on her Facebook this morning, "What should I give up?" Cameron offered an interesting column entitled: Don't Get Caught In The Lent Trap. Father Mike talked about the things that distance us from God, and about how giving things up isn't always the answer. Some people choose to add something to their spiritual life. Now, this makes sense to me.

I must have channeled Walt Monday when we went to visit Jazzman. It's not usual for me to drive to a hospital on the other side of two towns over to visit a stranger. That is, however, the person I want to be. And I kept thinking about the things Walt did that mattered. Moreover, a bible verse keeps playing over and over in my head:

'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36).

There were no flowers in Jazzman's room. There were no cards and no visitors when we were there. And in that moment of compassion we met a good man. With an intestine on the wrong side of his belly, Jazzman was able to laugh and cry with me as we talked of differences and similarities. Of dreams and wrongs. A man who, like me, was caught by the descending arc of the IT world and after the last job, ran through savings accounts, the 401k, and ran the unemployment out and lost, or has nearly lost, everything. Funny, intelligent, well-read, and able to keep me on my toes regarding politics and philosophy, and culturally completely different from this lily-white-assed northern transplant. I found a brother. Family of choice because we all need tribe.

Safely tucked into my warm bed with a job to go to tomorrow, I ask, "What is the point of the day?" The point is, I think, I am on to something. The next step of my own spiritual development and growth is this service to others. I carry with me a renewed awareness of my own mortality. I turned 50 in September. Even if I live to my great-grandma's age of 92, I'mg more than half done. As I watched the predominately gray-headed crowd move toward the altar for communion, I was reminded of the lack of kindness to the body that aging brings. The drooping shoulder, the walkers, the canes and the damage of the years wearing on each face. Mortality. So what do I want to do with this time I have, however much the Spinner of Destiny allows?

Hmmm...I've already answered that question, haven't I?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Random Acts of Kindness

About a month ago Cameron and I attended church and experienced an opportunity to visit briefly with our friend Walt. He told us a story of going to the post office and getting out of his car to see a man nearby, sitting in his car with the door open. The man appeared heavily burdened, so Walt being Walt walked up to see if he could help. The man told Walt his wife had died a few days before, and for a moment let Walt help him out of the car, and just leaned on him with tears streaming down his cheeks. I can imagine big, tall, graying 70-year-old Walt holding the old, grieving man in his bear hug. Walt told us how it touched his heart and what it meant to be a part of the man's life for those tender moments.

Put that on the back burner.

Last Saturday I attended Walt's funeral. He'd had a heart attack during the recent winter storm. His wife couldn't even make it the hospital the first day as he lay in intensive care.

Put that on the back burner.

Walt was the kind of man that when a young couple, obviously impoverished, showed up on Christmas eve to sit on the back row of the church, took up a donation for them. Right there, during the service, there's Walt walking around getting money...and people gave. They left with a wad of 20s in their pockets. Walt told the congregation they were angels visiting and it was our responsibility to care for them on Christmas. That was Walt.

Stirring it together.

Adding a side story.

21 years ago my Vietnam Vet husband David died alone of suicide. We had separated a year earlier because of my fear that he would commit homicide and suicide. It was a hard decision, but I later learned that his cancer had gone to his brain, bringing about dangerous mood shifts and behavior. In the months leading up to his death he began calling. I knew what he was saying couldn't be true, but I loved him and made plans to go see him. I never made it see him alive. David committed suicide on New Year's Eve. I borrowed money from everyone I knew to get to the funeral. I was so focused on getting there I didn't have time to begin the grieving process. He was Catholic, so the memorial service was in some random chapel. He'd been cremated by necessity. I was in shock, sobbing, and kept staring at the box holding his ashes trying to figure out how they got his long legs in that tiny box. It took days to realize it was simply ashes.

So there I stood in our church, 21 years later, staring at tiny box holding ashes. I couldn't look, couldn't imagine how those long legs fit. Later, a soldier played Taps and a flag was folded for the grieving widow. And I gave thanks to Walt one last time, for relieving me of a heavy burden of when the last time I stood in cemetery, listening to Taps and watching my husband's ashes being interred.

And the next story to stir in the mix.

Family violence touches the people we know in the shadows and in secret. Even when you know there's a problem, you never know how bad it was until the story ends. It ended last weekend in a memorial service in the backyard of a family we love dearly. Out of respect, I won't say too much about the details. But I was grateful, as I stepped into the role of a priestess, for David's spirit. He'd taught me to love my children. He'd taught me sobriety. He'd taught me a work ethic. And in his final gift, he taught me how to cope with a suicide. How to face the blood on a mattress and do what is needful. And how to be okay doing what was needful.

The next chapter.

I listen to Phoenix Rising Radio and read Going Global: East Meets West regularly. A gentleman by the name of Jazzman calls in regularly and I've always found him delightful. He stopped calling in last fall, and Phoenix put out the word for him to call. Phoenix reported back he eventually had made contact, but didn't reveal why Jazzman was out of touch when I was listening. Last night, I was listening when Phoenix announced that Jazzman was in the hospital. He wasn't doing so well last week, but was showing improvement. Jazzman had requested his hospital location and phone be made public. Looking on the website, I was surprised to see it was within 30 miles of where we live. So this morning we drove downtown to the hospital. There we met a good man.

Jazzman is about 10 years older and, in his words, a person of color. He was rather surprised and extremely happy to meet two lily white people from Phoenix Rising Radio. In that first moment, he later said, he couldn't figure out who would know him as "The Jazzman". Tears streamed down his cheeks unashamed as we hugged. He clung to both of us in turn. And we talked. About religion. About sexuality. About culture. About family. Even about Cameron's being transgender. And we were touched, deeply touched. If you are curious about Jazzman, this is a blog entry from several years ago: Who's Afraid of Cancer.

I asked him what brought him to the hospital. He said last Wed he was dying. Judging by what I heard and saw, yes he was. He's somewhat improved, but facing a difficult path. He has to heal enough to have surgery again as he has a blockage in the intestine and it doesn't look good. Nevertheless, the three of us visited and it became a powerful, frank, sacred space. I was blessed to be there.

On the way home, we stopped at the local Taco Bell for a quick supper. A crew member not yet on duty started chatting about the rain and her granddaughter who has asthma. We visited a bit, and a few minutes later when she heard me say I didn't get my chips, fetched them unasked. What a lovely random act of kindness.

A short while later, a middle aged man at the next table struck up a conversation, telling us about serving in Desert Storm and his struggle with PTSD. He hugged us, two total strangers, before leaving. I thanked him for serving our country.

So many stories. Stirred together, it becomes a montage of surprising encounters, unexpected blessings, and random acts of kindnesses both given and received. I'm still catching my breath, but I can't shake that feeling the Divine has noticed and blessed us.