Take Courage! (and know when to ask for help)


“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
Maya Angelou
     Self-reliance is one of the character traits most often touted by writers, philosophers, and self-help book publishers.  But is courage the SAME as self-reliance, or are they completely separate character traits?
     As someone who has had to ask for help from others recently – which in itself, is a humbling experience – I would argue that courage is separate from self-reliance. 
     Maya Angelou, a world-renown poet and civil rights figure, has some things in common with me – an organic, down-to-earth relationship with God; a “rising-up” after a “falling-down” from a childhood trauma; a gritty, no-nonsense understanding of love and compatibility; a belief that you should “make sure that what you say is the truth, but don’t tell everything you know.”  I have always loved the courage of Maya’s poetry, her refusal to follow a rote, predictable, poem style; and her ability to speak of the hard things, the grime and the wonder of life, and the way that she surrounded herself with a small circle of beloved and trusted folks but left her heart vulnerable to the pains and the beauties of this world. 

Self-reliance is “I can do all things, on my own, under my own steam, and I don’t need nobody’s help to get there.”
Courage is “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me; and when I am not able, I can – and will – ask for those who are around me, to reach a warm hand out to me and come alongside me.” Courage is recognizing the value of strong people in your life, who can and will help. Courage is seeing that a sense of compassion should extend to your self. Courage is knowing that you can – and will – reach a hand out – or down, as soon as you have recovered your self; but when in need, won’t be afraid to say, “I am not able to do this alone.”
There’s nothing more frightening, in a way, than a self-reliant person to reach out and say YES, I will let you help me. There’s nothing less familiar to a strong mother. There’s nothing more humanizing than being on the other side of the outstretched hand.
I think Ms. Angelou would approve.


In this, I am a hypocrite


Image(meme courtesy of:  http://www.manonfireforchrist.tumblr.com)

     So, yeah.  Somedays I do well, loving others and not letting my mouth get away from me.  And sometimes I. AM. A. Hot Mess!  I am emotional, passionate, hot-headed, opinionated and smackable on my worst days.  If I am to be honest, there are things that set me off or set the stage for my Hot Mess Mama days:  extreme heat, extreme cold, PMS, being rushed, feeling dismissed or disrespected, not eating healthy foods for a few days.  I’m like those pullback toy cars that a kid pushes backwards on the ground a few times, and then: LET ‘ER RIP! 

     In the moment, I feel justified in letting my emotions run away with me.  Especially if there is a legitimate, offensive thing that is said to me, that shouldn’t have been said; or done, that shouldn’t have been done.  In the moment, I feel like a super-hero swooping in to save myself.  BANG!  CRASH!  POW!  And verbally, I walk away dusting my hands off afterwards, thinking – they totally deserved that. 

     The problem is: I am a child of Christ.  I should be acting like Him when I am offended or when I feel hurt; I should simply say something that is soft, direct and loving, and then walk away.  I shouldn’t engage the other person in verbal sparring, as if they are my enemy.  I shouldn’t stay on the phone (or, help us all, on TEXT) for fifteen, twenty minutes in order to prove my point.  I should respond like Jesus (Luke 14:3) when he heals a man with dropsy (edema typically occurring in the feet or legs):  “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”  And later: “If one of you has a son that falls into a well on the Sabbath…will you not immediately pull him out?”  These questions were meant to direct the Pharisees back to the point: that to operate from LOVE should be our goal.

     I am eagerly looking for Jesus to help me, heal me, fix me, soothe me, challenge me, and comfort me.  To show me how to not be a hypocrite.  To be a good P.R. person for Christianity.

     I am hoping that He will pull me from the well of my own self-righteousness, anger, need to be “right” or justified, or to selfishly win an argument.  I am hoping that each little discovery of where I need to be “tweaked” in order to be closer to God, will drive me towards Jesus and His answers.  I am seeing that each foray into Scripture mystically leads me towards answers that I need to wrestle with – like Jacob wrestling the angel (Genesis 32:24-30). 

     I am examining my conscience, to see where the work needs to be done; to be a critical examiner of my own motivations – and the consequences of my inadequacies in this area; do I look TOWARDS Jesus and take a quick inhale before I respond; do I use loving words to address hard issues, or is the verbal sparring something that I use to indulge my selfish whims?

     Jesus, reach down into the well and save me!  And self – my self – get out of your own way!




Grieving Well


     Our family pet of 12 years recently died of cancer.  Lacey the cat developed a tumor on her side which grew very slowly for about four months.  When she started acting strangely (eating less, sleeping more, restlessness), we took her to the vet and she had two injections, one an antibiotic, the other a steroid.  The vet told us it would just be temporary relief; that it was definitely cancer; and there was no point in putting her through an operation, because the cancer would just grow back.  She did very well for two or three weeks, and then the tumor grew larger, and more aggressively.  We did everything we could to make her more comfortable; she wasn’t in a lot of pain, but it was difficult for her to do steps because a finger-sized portion of the tumor had grown from her side into her joint.  We carried her up stairs, moved her food and water to the kitchen, and each of our family members made a point to spend more time petting and talking to her. 

     In the midst of all of this, I was getting testing, going to doctors, and processing through the diagnosis of a benign brain tumor.  I would have dreams about going to the vet for shots.  I joked to my husband that Lacey and I were “tumor twins.”  I reminisced about how we had adopted Lacey from a no-kill shelter; she had been the best pet we had ever welcomed into the family.  Her sweet disposition was evident to everyone who met her; and on those nights when I was too anxious to sleep, or the headaches got bad, she somehow knew that, and would come to comfort me.

     On April 23rd, I sent my son to the basement to find her.  I hadn’t seen her for five or six hours, and knew she had gone down to the basement at some point to use the litter box.  While carrying her upstairs, the tumor ruptured.  A hole about four inches deep opened up in her side, and she was clearly uncomfortable.  Even the color of her eyes changed, went from clear and piercing yellow to a cloudy and muted yellowish-green.  We knew it was time to have her put to sleep, but there wasn’t anyone at either of the local vet clinics and she wasn’t in horrible pain, so we decided to wait until the next day.  She sleep fine that night, but didn’t move from her spot on her blanket on the couch. 

     We had each of the kids say goodbye to her that school morning, and took photos with each of them next to Lacey; my oldest daughter had a stomach ache, so I let her stay home and keep Lacey company while I got ready to take her to the vet’s office.  We walked down the hill (we are temporarily a one-car family) with Lacey in a 31 bag, and checked in to the office.  My daughter cried from the moment we walked in there, her eyes just leaking tears, so I tried to comfort her by reminding her of all the funny stories of Lacey and her playful/spooky ways.  She really was going to miss Lacey, because our cat had been around for as long as she could remember.  In her old age, Lacey would often wander the house in the evening, often ending up on my daughter’s bed while she read books.  There was a kindness in her that is common in old, wise cats; she was gentle with the kids, even when they were toddlers and would chase her around, or pull her tail before I could get across the room.  My children have each spent time reading books out loud to Lacey, and she always stayed for the ending.

     After asking the vet if it was okay to stay, my daughter and I came back into the room after they gave Lacey her Propofol injection, watched her relax; we nervously laughed when her tongue popped out of her mouth and wouldn’t go back in. The vet and her tech then returned and gave her the final injection that would stop her heart.

     We petted Lacey as she slipped away.  My daughter and I were very sad; she and I are kindred spirits, we have always had a love for animals and their place in our life’s journey (she was my kid who refused to eat meat for a few years, starting from when she was a toddler; it was probably a texture thing, but I liked to joke it was because she knew where meat came from!).  The vet asked if we wanted her cremated, but we had already found a spot in the backyard for her.  We bundled her back into the blanket, placed her into our fancy bag, and walked back home.  We decided to wait until later in the day to bury her, and to have a short ceremony.  My daughter decided to write a poem for the event.  After safely depositing Lacey’s remains in the shed, we walked to a cute little Italian place for lunch, and spent some time together, talking about anything and everything.  It was a lovely segue to the rest of the day!

     We had our funeral for Lacey that afternoon (we had had other ones in the past, because of how short a life that hamsters have!), we had a nice, subdued dinner, and that was that.  The end of a pet era.

     This experience (the first time I had ever had to have an animal put to sleep) made me reflect on some things: the role of tradition in the transitional moments of our life (birth, puberty, marriage, death); what it means to grieve “well”; how to fit the reality of death into our spiritual concepts and beliefs, and what life means because of death.  I believe that most Americans do not grieve “well.”  Many people avoid funeral homes and funerals, instead sending their regrets via card or flowers.  Many families do not bring their children to churches and funeral homes for the ritual of sending a loved one off to their eternal rest.  Many people do not speak of death at all; maybe it’s superstition, maybe it’s upbringing, maybe it’s fear or avoidance. 

     I believe that death is as much a part of life as LIFE is.  That the reason we should cherish each day that we are allowed to have, is because tomorrow may never come.  That each time we leave a person, it may be the last time we see them, so we should try (TRY) not to leave them in anger, or with angry words or thoughts.  I myself have broken this rule many times…but there are things I have experienced that have reminded me of the fragility of life.  The death of the mother of a good friend, in her sleep: not getting to say goodbye.  The death of the child of a good friend in an accident: not knowing it would be the last time she would see her vibrant child, not getting to say goodbye.  My father having a stroke, all of us frantic that he wouldn’t make it back to the States in one piece, or as he used to be; and the fear that created in some of his children, things left unsaid.  The death of my grandma Nunni in a hospital, on Mother’s Day many years ago (I think I was 12?); not getting to say goodbye.  The death of my husband’s aunt in Wisconsin, a lovely woman who had always welcomed my large, boisterous family into her home; the last phone call to her, but not being able to hug her properly before she passed away. 

     At the University of Wisconsin, I graduated with my B.S. but also a certification in Gerontology.  I learned during that long, hot summer of endless classes many useful things: how to recognize (or create) family traditions around death and dying.  How to come alongside others as they grieve loved ones.  What NOT to say to a family member after the death of a loved one. 

    I took a course at university that focused on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief, and how NOT to short-cut them.  D.A.B.D.A. : Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.  I learned to recognize the stages.  I learned that grief is not linear, but a circle that loops back on itself, and that stressors can knock you back into a previous step that you thought you had mastered.  I learned again what I already knew, which is that death is a much a part of life, as living is.  That everything lives, eventually dies; that accepting that, feeling the pain when it is happening and not burying it with busyness, substances, or food can substitute healthy grieving.  That grieving well is an art, not a science.  That coming alongside another person AS they grieve, can be as much a transformative experience for you, as it is for the person who has lost a loved one. 

    That to children, animals are people.

    That telling them HOW to believe about animals and their deaths is probably not a good idea, or how and when to grieve.  

    That the deaths of beloved pets and family friends is practice for the inevitable death of close, loved ones whom your children will have to grieve.

    That talking to your children about death AHEAD of time (using teachable moments, such as coming upon wildlife that are dead, and explaining the natural end of ALL life) will open up the door to communication about life, death, God, eternity, and our role in ecological balance and stewardship of the earth.

     That death is neither unnatural nor to be feared, but to be understood and accepted.

This will be a gift to your children, one that they will pass on to their own children.  Wrestling with the concept of life and death, talking about it openly, can become a family ritual for you.  If you are ready.


Finding A New Favorite Author


   When your favorite pastime is reading, it’s very difficult to find a favorite writer.  You find yourself automatically gravitating towards your old standbys, in the hope that they have written something fresh.  About two months ago, I picked up a book that my (young) old friend Lisa had given me years ago.  Somehow it got lost in the shuffle of the piles and piles of books that she has given me over the years…and the author has become my new favorite!

    Tana French is an Irish author who has lived all over the world and has a very fresh voice.  An author’s “voice” is the style, genre, or tone in which they write a majority of their books.  Tana’s voice is homey yet mysterious, fresh though familiar.  She writes murder mysteries set in urban and rural Ireland.  Her debut novel is “In the Woods.”  It was released in 2007,  and won the Edgar Award that year for Best First Novel.  It is a breathtaking first offering!  I stayed up many nights past midnight in order to finish it.  In fact, I never read it during the day; it seemed as if reading it at night after my whole family had tucked in and was sleeping, lent the book greater mystery. 

    “In the Woods” tells the story of a traumatizing event involving Detective Rob Ryan.  He was playing in the woods as a child when two of his friends were kidnapped; this event links him to a current murder that he and his partner are called upon to solve.  He avoids recollecting this childhood trauma during the investigation, and even hides the connection when he is questioned by others who remember the kidnapping.  The plot is twisty, and vacillates between urgency and thoughtful recollection of Detective Ryan’s past.  I found myself wondering whether Ryan himself was involved in the murder!

     I am in the middle of French’s fourth novel, “Broken Harbor”, and this one also keeps me breathless.  French’s humane description of detectives and their personal trials, and suspects and their broken lives, holds me captive.  I am so happy that she has a new novel coming out in September of this year…but then I remember that I am almost done with this book and wonder what I will do with my summer while I wait!  Perhaps I can dig up the latest Michael Chabon 🙂

     Check out Tana French’s books at www.tanafrench.com and hold your breath with me!