This is my first blog post since everything has changed. Everything. So where to start? To begin with, today I am not going to talk about the politics of it all. I wanted to lay out the sequence of events so that I can remember them–where I was, what I was doing. Reflections will come later.
In February, we heard the word Wuhan for the first time. I recall Sarah mentioned it in passing, and I remember replying, “Oh, ok, uh-huh,” without stopping what I was doing. Throughout that month and into March, I may or may not have clicked on updates from China that came across my news feed, but since it was not a topic yet related to U.S. politics (my preferred topic), I likely kept scrolling. Then came March.
On March 1, there were 75 confirmed cases in the U.S. On March 9, the day Sarah was to drive to South Florida for a math conference, there were 704. On March 10, we cancelled a cruise we had booked with Sarah’s family and church pals. Then on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. By March 12, the day she decided to come home early, the number was 1,697 (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/ ). By the way, COVID-19 is the specific strain of coronavirus (a general group of viruses); to call it the Chinese coronavirus is not only inaccurate, it’s racist. Yep. You may not care for the Chinese government, but those folks over there got sick like us folks over here. See?
By mid-March–which sounds and feels like a decade ago as I write it–online news sources had special COVID-19 pages/links, where you could see all news updates related to the virus in one place. The 2020 Democratic primary was affected. Super Tuesday was pretty much overshadowed. Candidates and other politicians–including the president, who thrives on rallys–began cancelling. The last Democratic debate–like all late night shows–were held without live audiences. I must admit I approve of the format for debates–for Stephen Colbert, not so much. As early as Saturday, March 7th, Kennesaw State University had begun to develop a “continuity plan” in the event face-to-face classes were suspended. It was essentially a plan for all courses to go online.
Unexpected issues started cropping up, too. For example, what would students do if dorms and dining halls were closed? What about homeless students (and all universities have them)? What about students who did not have computers or notebooks, but only their smartphones? The news channels began to have question and answer programming where viewers sent in questions for experts to answer. We submitted our plan to the university president by March 10th, and then we waited. It truly felt like a calm before the storm, eerie silence and all. By the evening of Friday the 13th, announcements came that public schools and universities would go online the following week. Church services across the country scrambled to find ways to make virtual worship meaningful. This was also the day that everyone in America went to the grocery stores for toilet paper.
Monday, March 16, was the day the stock market had its worst day since 1987. It was also the day we started setting up our home offices. Sarah had worked all weekend preparing to teach three in-person classes completely online–and have office hours virtually. I brought home monitors and books from the office after having one virtual meeting on my laptop. Honestly, I need the 2 monitors so I can do other things during the meeting, like look for social distancing staples online. You know you do it too, which is why it is on one of the 10,000 blog posts called, “Good Virtual Meeting Etiquette.” I have so far had five virtual meetings this week. It got so bad, one group had trouble finding a time–from home during social distancing!–to schedule our next meeting. A well-meaning colleague suggested meeting early–8:30 or 9:00 am–so that people would be free. I told him it was obscene to start that early. Because we are at home does not mean we are always “on,” which he was NOT suggesting. But it’s something to think about.
So, it is Friday, March 20, and we are caught up with the basics. I have learned how to change my Zoom background and so far have been at the Grassy Knoll, the White House, Graceland, and inside the Tardis. We have cooked more this week. Sarah has started an outdoor garden–so far with mainly carrot tops from our increased vegetable consumption. My office is a thing of beauty, and I am about to run out of diversionary tactics related to rearranging it. I have so far ventured out twice–both times to the office and thrift shop. I took wipes and sanitizer. I have taken a walk. We are ahead of the laundry. I have read Scripture and Sister Joan Chittister’s take on The Rule of Benedict every morning.
The other pandemic task I worked on this week was connecting. I realized that part of my own continuity plan should include staying in contact with people. As an introvert, it’s saying a lot that I should have that as my concern, but I am aware that I self-isolate enough anyway–imagine when it is mandatory! So, I hit the Facebook and made “Friends” with people from all parts of my life: colleagues, church folks, family, old classmates, scholar friends. I paid attention as people started setting up “Hangouts” and various groups and web meet ups. There have also been plenty of news and blogs encouraging people to take precautions to avoid loneliness, which will be very real as this thing goes along. Speaking of blogging, it’s another way I feel connected, and I’m planning on doing it more. There should be plenty to write about. One thought I had this week, during my containment prep, was how aptly named the blog is, Just Keep Swimming. If it was appropriate up to now, it sure is as we move forward. It is, for me, a hope-full idea: hang on, keep going, do the best you can. That’s the plan, anyway.
Growing up, when I thought about forgiveness–which is ever present in a practicing Fundamentalist Christian’s life–I thought first about God so loving the world that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. For our forgiveness. When I thought of forgiveness apart from the Cross, I thought about Jesus’s quip to Peter about forgiving an offender 70 times 7 (Matt 18:22). I remember calculating it in my mind, which Peter probably also did.
This semester I took a class with Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, whose new book, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation, brings Womanist Wisdom “to describe how race and racism work, what reconciliation really looks like, and how faith can help us work toward it” (https://drchanequa.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/my-book-is-coming/). When you stop and think about it, each of those concepts–forgiveness and reconciliation–are huge. So full of meaning and implications that it was and continues to be daunting to me. My classmates and I spent 15 weeks grappling with texts and ideas; now I find it less daunting than profound. What I mean is that it is important to put forgiveness and reconciliation in practice and help others to do so, too. I know it was a good class because we are leaving it with more questions than when we began. Success is often measured by knowing enough to know what you don’t know. Our final project was to create a curriculum on forgiveness and/or reconciliation.
From the time the project was assigned, I began to have trouble with it. I had writer’s block for curriculum development. I realize I still have some sorting out to do with the two-in-one concept, since, as Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I don’t know what I think until I red what I say.” In this post, I will briefly sketch an overview of an introductory segment on the concepts Forgiveness & Reconciliation. Should spaces for dialogue ever come up, here is where I would start.
First, it is important to note that Forgiveness & Reconciliation is a whole field of study with a growing body of literature. Typing in the words, “Forgiveness & Reconciliation” on Amazon, for example, yields 437 results. Type in those same words in Google, and more than twelve million results pop up. To be fair, “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” by themselves are intermingled with results for the pair. I found this to be the case in our class, too. The topics overlap, bleeding into each other, as it were, to the point where it is hard to see where one stops and the other begins. Entangled, jumbled. This is not inappropriate.
Dr. Walker-Barnes organized the course into engaging topics, and you can see the intricate threading throughout: Theologies of Forgiveness; Theologies of Reconciliation; Remembrance & Repentance; Power, Apology, & The Limits of Forgiveness; Trauma, Anger & the Failure of Reconciliation; Reconciliation or Liberation?; Reconciliation as a Spiritual Journey; and Psychological Perspectives on Forgiveness. We read texts by Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis; John Paul Lederach, Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians, and Everett Worthington, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. There was a lot to read and talk about. If I were guiding a book talk on the subject, I would use some of the helpful strategies and models from these texts, developed by peace workers who walk the walk. Dr. Walker-Barnes’ book was published after our class had begun, so we only had a teaser chapter from it. It’s now on my Christmas break reading list!
The semester was spent painstakingly unraveling meanings. Here are some key points.
- Christians not only have an obligation to practice forgiveness, we also have a model. God forgives us.
- There are distinctions between forgiveness and reconciliation, even though they are a good matched set.
- Both forgiveness and reconciliation have important and often frustrating limits. If we know them going in, we will not have our expectations dashed.
- Historically–both within Christianity and without–forgiveness and reconciliation have been abused, misused, oppressive, and suppressive. Survivors of interpersonal and/or systemic trauma/conflict narrate the journey to forgiveness and reconciliation. Survivors remind us of the high stakes involved in forgiveness and reconciliation; their voices are critical to how we practice.
To further muddle my thinking, you have to consider forgiveness according to its various levels. Are we talking about forgiving another person? Groups of people? A whole country? What about reconciling? Couples reconcile (or don’t). Friends can too. Different cultures can reconcile–like in South Africa. People can be reconciled to God. I have to reconcile within myself. The scope is incredible.
I will end my overview with this: our participation in the divine life, that is, how believers exist in the world, is wrapped up in the tremendous Mystery. The gift and responsibility of forgiveness–and yes, reconciliation, too–are part of that mystery. And it is part of most believers’ theology. For example, while there are many subjects Jesus never mentioned, he was explicit about forgiveness: do it. So, as complicated and perplexing as forgiveness and reconciliation can be, it helps to approach them as sacred process.
Below is a picture of our white board from the last day of class, where we summed up what we had learned. In my next post, I will summarize them in talking points.
I remember as a young girl my Daddy pointing out the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom comes with age, he said. Well, he finished, it ought to. It occurs to me—I am trying not to worry about it, really—that because of life’s circumstances, there are many “words of wisdom” I have not taught my children and may not ever have the opportunity to tell them. Help me, oh God, put some of them down here.
Be happy with how you look—love your body; it contains your beautiful spirit. Your body will change as you get older; help it along with kindness. You don’t ever have to think of unpleasant or embarrassing moments from your past; banish them as soon as they enter your mind if they bring you pain. Try to forgive your parents; they are deeply flawed. Know that you are loved, and it’s ok to feel the love from generations before you. Fill your life with non-human animals; you already know they love you unconditionally. You can feel it. Carry yourself with pride without being prideful; it just means admire yourself with humility. If you have children, teach them the Bible stories and make them learn some verses; if you have forgotten, learn them again. Don’t be afraid of the dark; don’t be afraid to fly; don’t be afraid to travel. Stay away from negative people; trust your instincts if you have doubts about someone’s integrity.
Never settle when it comes to a partner; never be with someone who is settling for you. Go outside. Go see some old ruins. Go to New York City and Washington D.C. and New Orleans. Go to the Pacific Ocean. Go stand in an old cathedral and an old country church in the woods. Remember to look up at stars. Find a job you like and stick with it. Save enough money, but don’t worry about not having a lot of it. Don’t accumulate a lot of things; curb your desire for things. Let yourself be enthusiastic. Let yourself be awed. Remember that children are raised to grow and go—whether it is you or your children. Read. Pray for guidance when making decisions: let your litmus test be, Will I regret more if I do it or don’t do it? Sing. Learn to do something fun that you are proud of. Eat dessert now and then. Keep a journal. Know that when most people say “happy” they mean “instantly gratified.” Those aren’t the same: be happy. Be kind. Let yourself be a nerd when it comes to learning. Never stop learning. Have integrity. Look at some art, and learn something about it. Take care of earth however you can; we’re using it up and won’t get another. Help people. Take help from people when you need it. Learn poetry. Believe in God so that you can know that God is with you and has been there through all of it.
This is my prayer, God, for my children. Amen.
Here’s what you’ll see on my About page now.
When Sam Phillips’ secretary at Sun Records, Marion Keisker, asked Elvis who he sounded like, he replied, “I don’t sound like nobody, ma’am.” Writing can be such an isolating activity, that I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like I don’t write like anybody else does. I sure don’t feel like my writing is a neat fit in most other places. Blog writing feels right. First, it isn’t traditional academic writing like I’m required to do as a professor. I cheat at that usually–it’s such a formulaic, forced disciplinary exercise. When I do it, I write my narrative first and then sprinkle in the theory. Don’t laugh~~it earned me a Ph.D. and tenure. Thing is, the narrative is all I ever want to write.
For the purpose of categorizing it, I’m going to call it personal essay and memoir writing. It’s personal, and it’s narrative.
It’s not exactly essay, if by essay we prescribe more gatekeeping formulas. Same with memoir. It’s not storytelling exactly either, not like fiction. It is storying, though. For example, here’s a true one. Back in around 2003, Miss Dorothy Allison came to LSU while I was working on a doctorate in education. I just love Dorothy Allison, especially her Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature. I was lucky enough to participate in a writing workshop one evening, lucky because most of the spots were taken by English majors.
One of the exercises was to free write for a few minutes. She asked for volunteers to share, and I, having a huge student crush, shot my hand up. I truly think my writing is not half bad, and have been told as much. So I shared. Did I mention that almost every other participant was an English major? English majors take their critiques of writing very seriously. The most scathing was from a very serious woman who accused me of attempting to replicate Miss Allison’s style, which honest to God, had never crossed my mind. You know how crushing it is to the soul when someone looks at you–and you recognize the look as one of pity? Miss Dorothy Allison looked at me like that.
Still, it’s–this–is the kind of writing I want to do. The kind that, try as I might, is what comes out. I still don’t think it’s half bad. That’s why I’m putting it out here. If not another soul reads it–or if English majors do and snicker like the Prufrockian Eternal Footman–I like seeing it here.
Two words concerning prayer life resonate with me this week: intention and attention. I sometimes fret about my prayer life, especially when I hear my fellow seminarians openly talking about theirs; I even have a professor outside of this class who returns our attention to prayer life. This week’s reading reminds us that naming our longing to be always in relationship with diving (intention) and by paying attention to where we see God in our daily life (attention) remind us of divine presence and grace.
Reflecting this week, I sought connections between my praying self and embodied self. I realized that an important connection is the esteem in which I hold my spiritual and physical being–or the regrettable lack thereof. So I would like now to discuss body issues and return to embodied praying.
I came across two pictures of myself a few months ago. The first was of myself on my wedding day, taken by my new husband. It was a snapshot, and I was looking at him over my shoulder. My first thought was how young and beautiful I was–and at the time I did not realize it. I was never not weight conscious. Realizing the many gaps of pertinent information here, I will say that my husband, who struggled with his sexuality throughout our marriage, had no words to express his inner turmoil; however, he did have words to turn his issues around toward me. One example: I never fixed a plate of food for myself in sixteen years that he did not look at and comment about my weight. As you can imagine, this affected me deeply. I have apologized to the girl in the first photo.
The second photo is of me at about age 37. I am bloated and look unhealthy. No longer married, working on my doctorate, in a new relationship, starting a great adventure in a new state–my body tells a deeper tale. It is one of insecurity, uncertainty, and a different kind of unhappiness. More gaps, I know, but I was struck by this picture in which I looked like a completely different person, one who was dancing–and apparently eating–as fast as she could. I apologized to the beautiful woman in that picture, too.
Reaching middle age–I am 55–has forced me to communicate with my body. I am aware of new aches and pains; it takes me a few seconds of walking before the muscles catch up (I call it having a “hitch in my getalong'”); and I am having to become acquainted with the grayed and wrinkling woman in the mirror. Thing is, I know this body has fewer days left than it has experienced, and that’s ok. When I do see that lady in the mirror, I assure her that she is beautiful and that I appreciate her–that face, that body. I promise her to live in such a way that I will mindfully value her now, in this moment, so that I never look back with regret at failing to do so.
This is what praying with my body feels like–gratefulness to God for my body as a presence in God’s divine creation–no fear of scales or mirrors or photos. Just thankfulness for this familiar likeness.
Coda: I read somewhere that 65% of women report that they have cancelled a doctor appointment because they do not want to step on the scale at check in. I myself have done this. Yes, read that again because it is in fact incredulous. Last week I had my check up. In I walked with the nurse who held my chart and directed me to the scale. “We have to do this,” she said, “but don’t worry, it’ll be over in a minute.” I boldly stepped up on the scale, keeping my shoes and jacket on this time. “It’s ok,” I replied, “I’m good.”
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak WaltonThis is a place for peaceful contemplation inspired by story. What is spiritual mindfulness? For me, it is remembering to feed my spirit. This blog is a spiritual practice~~storying the soul, if you will. Most sites I find on either one of these topics focuses on meditative and wellness practices. Maybe that’s what you are expecting here. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised as instead you find a narrative approach to exploring spirituality, mindful of the everyday. That’s what I do–I write. For almost two decades I dedicated my time and energies (a lot of mental energy, i.e. worry) to academic writing. Here’s how I did it: I would write my narrative essays about place, religion, gender, sexuality, white privilege, etc., and then cite the requisite sources (that’s the academic part). But a funny thing kept happening. People would approach me after a panel presentation and say, “You know, you really ought to write a book with just your stories.” Which is exactly what I wanted to be doing. The problem is, I am an academic; thus, the academic writing. This is a period of discernment and transformation in my life. Of course, that’s part of what you’ll find here too. I started to seminary and had to make some life choices. One was to step back from academic writing and do the kind of writing I really do enjoy–and that’s what you are reading now. I invite you to come along on my journey as I nourish my own spirit through story telling, being mindful of every, every minute, as Emily in Our Town would say. It is my hope that my stories offer you nourishment of some kind too. The writing here comes from observations that dawn on me as I go about living life with as much intentionality as I can muster. That’s the mindfulness part. What makes it spiritual? Well, that’s the part of me where the words come from—the part that hopes to connect us to, as Paul Tillich would put it, the ground of our being. One.
Prompt from Mindfulness: A Journal (Price, 2016)
Make a list of ten everyday activities that you find relaxing or soothing–even those as small as calling a friend or making a cup of your favorite tea. Try it! Do one of the activities on your list and write about your experience.
The List, in no particular order:
1. read–theology, queer theology, JFK assassination theories
2. watch television–documentaries, period pieces, docu-dramas, biographies
3. having my afternoon cup of espresso made with my luxury-item coffee maker
4. playing piano
5. tidying up
7. listening to music, which kind of music depends on my mood
8. reverie, including porch time with close friends
9. meditating with my Calm app
I realize this is probably a sad little list for many people. I can’t even think of a last item offhand. But I think my simple list hints at my capacity for finding joy in the simplest of experiences, noticing a blue bird, for example. This capacity, in turn, points to my state of being generally, happy. I have, though, always had a facial expression that belies this inner state; I found out it has a name: bitchy- or angry-resting face. Challenge enough, without the surly-resting face that Bells Palsy begat. These days I have to work to put my best face forward.
It has almost been a year since Bell’s Palsy took over the left side of my face. I’ve written about it~the depression and frustration and then hope-full-ness. So, after a year I realize that I have some important takeaways from the experience. The most important is when God wants to get your attention, God finds a way.
What else have I learned? Well first, people look instinctively at the face for a clue as to how any given interaction is going to go, whether it is saying hello or engaging in conversation. I have learned to flex my smile muscles when I’m walking down the hall or into someone’s office or into a meeting. Otherwise, I can see in their eyes that they’re bracing themselves. This is different than before the BP~~now I can actually feel the muscles pull when I try to look pleasant, or when I smile. If, as the author of The Surprising Psychology of Smiling, below, is correct and smiles tell you something important about the wearer, I must intentionally craft a message of authentic friendliness if I expect folks to tell my important thing!
I don’t have a poker face; I cannot remain neutral whether I am pleased or aggravated. The other day I learned the term for this: microexpressions. A microexpression is an involuntary facial expression that occurs in around 1/25 of a second and exposes one’s true emotions. Wikipedia tells us that they occur when a person is trying to conceal all signs of how they feel about an interaction or situation. Microexpressions seem to be universal; everybody has them. People with good social skills learn how to recover from them faster than others. Still, I am not sure there is much “micro” about my expressions. They go directly to macro. Now I actively practice relaxing my face so that it can achieve a neutral expression, and I savor the feeling of the muscles at peace.
My face isn’t always doing what I think it is. This is particularly noticeable in the morning when my face is waking up with the rest of me. It takes a second of extra effort to raise my left eye completely. One morning I looked at myself in the mirror while I was singing. The sound was coming out as usual–I sounded like myself. But only one side of my face was animated and expressive; the left side was still lagging behind. My mouth looked more like a “D” than an “O.” I’ve really had to practice this one. During choir, I have to work those same smile muscles in both my mouth and my eye while singing. And while it feels from the inside like I have a pageant smile on my face, it’s actually forming my old singing face. This reminds me of how you have to exaggerate expressions and voice on the stage during a play. It may feel like over acting, but it comes out sounding natural.
I have learned to take cues from my face. When I become frustrated or irritated, I can feel the large muscle in my cheek–the one that runs from my eye to my mouth, which makes it a serendipitous mindfulness check. Stress almost certainly triggered the BP in the first place, so I use its manifestation to my advantage. And, I continue to search for a spiritual meaning in it all. For example, one charge to Christians is to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet, which is another kind of mindfulness cue~~one toward compassionate service, of love. I like the thought of this, of seeing the face of Christ in ourselves and others, but Jesus’s expressions were not just happy ones. He suffered from emotional, psychological, and physical wounds. Jesus got mad; he too was under stress. I guess that is really an important lesson I had not thought of~~to accept my new natural face. If ultimately this is the most muscle control I ever recover, which I reckon to be around 87% (when I can whistle properly, I’ll round it up to 90%), then I must lovingly cherish my face, deliberately, as I have not had to do before. I mean, of course I used to wish that my nose were pointer and my smile bigger, but it was my face and I loved it. I am learning to love it again now, and in the process I am learning so much more.
You make your plans, and God laughs. That’s what happened to me over the weekend. Let me go back, though, and start with discovering the Atlanta Freedom Bands, which I wrote about here in November 2014. I recollected how finding the band made me realize how much I had missed making music, marching in parades, performing in concerts. How after more than 30 years, finding the AFB was like discovering a new, yet long lost treasure. Last year, I marched my first season of parades in various Atlanta community festivals. It was wondrous. And at Christmas, I performed in my first concert playing French Horn in 35 years. Last Saturday morning, I marched mellophone with the AFB in the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day parade. Afterwards, members of the band had lunch and drinks and fellowship at a local restaurant, which is the custom with this group.
Saturday night, kept waking up with what felt like a neck cramp. When I woke up early Sunday my speech was slurred, which I chalk up to needing a little more sleep, so I went back to bed. When I woke up again, I couldn’t blink my left eye. I ended up Sunday at the emergency room in Marietta. After they have ruled out a stroke, which was probably the best news I have ever received in my life, they told me I had a textbook case of Bell’s palsy. After a lot of googling I found out that it’s caused by virus, kind of like shingles. Likely because I had the flu, and that virus was in my system, it ended up attacking my facial nerve, causing it to be droopy and paralyzed. Like shingles, it was likely triggered by stress. In addition to facial paralysis–a word, like biopsy, fills me with terror–I have heightened ear sensitivity in my left ear, so loud noises, including my own sneezing, amplify like I’m standing in front of a Bose speaker. By all accounts, I will (should?) regain use of my facial muscles. Most well-wishers report success stories. It is totally unrelated to a stroke, and contracting it one time does not mean I will get it again. Those are the things I know. The worst part is that I can’t blink, so my eye gets dry and irritated. And that can lead to all kinds of trouble. I have to keep eye drops in it and wear a patch. Having only one eye affects depth perception and means I can’t drive. I can’t whistle or smile or buzz my lips. And buzzing one’s lips is essential to playing a horn.
Even though I realize I am very blessed in that this could’ve been so much worse, I’m still having to learn to deal with it. There are lots of adjustments I’m having to make pretty quickly. I’m learning how to have meals with straws and napkins. I’m learning how to turn my head in order to see better with an eyepatch. I’m learning to enunciate words using one side of my mouth. I’m learning how to encounter other people whose first response is to look away from me. I tried to go to the office yesterday, and by the end of the day I was exhausted from having to compensate physically in order to get from point A to point B, or participate in meetings. Talking and looking took a lot of energy that I had taken for granted. Part of the dealing with is going through my own stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Sunday and Monday I was in denial. I jokingly made a list with Sarah of one eyed characters for costume parties. We go back and forth with one-eyed jokes. In case you didn’t know, there are many one-eyed one liners. Believing the doctors that taking the meds would speed up recovery by months, I thought, Well if I can’t play horn, I’ll just break out the old flute and play that! I tried for half an hour to form the embrasure to blow air across the mouthpiece. I waited to blink at any minute. I planned to go to choir. Tuesday night begin my descent into anger. I kept a dinner engagement with some visitors to campus, old friends from my curriculum world. When I entered the restaurant, Marlows Tavern, which I had been to so many times over the past few years, the hostess looked at me and then looked away. Same thing happened when the waitress came to take my drink order. I realize now that I do the same thing automatically–probably most of us do. The next day, I mentioned choir to Sarah, who slowly turned and looked at me and said, Honey, you’re not going to choir. When I looked back at her in one-eyed disbelief, she started singing a little bit of the Hallelujah Chorus, which we’ve been working on for a month. I thought my left ear would blow out. No, I wasn’t going to choir. When she dropped me at the office, just walking from one building to the next took all my energy to keep my eye covered so it would not dry out. I had two meetings where it was very important that I be able to speak, and that was extra energy. My colleagues, wonderful people, tried very hard to look at me in a normal way–and for that I will forever be appreciative. Nevertheless, I feel different, I talk different, I look different. And that was psychological and emotional energy spent that I wasn’t used to spending.
I’ll let you know when I’ve moved from anger to bargaining. Till then, in order to work through some of that anger, in order that something generative and therapeutic might come from it, I decided to pick up the blog again. It’s always been my favorite, preferred mode of writing. Academic work is important, but it isn’t accessible, and it limits my flow of thinking since I have to measure my tone and phrasing as well as the thoughts themselves. Here, I can have a conversation, if only with myself. Plus, Sarah approves of it since it will help keep me out of trouble–like trying to do home-improvement projects with one eye that doesn’t need to get dust in it. Most important, this is all helping me put my life in perspective and put the parts of my life in priority. It isn’t an overnight revelation, but I realize that stress is counterproductive and can be harmful. I reaffirm that life is always already about the people in it. That being present and being mindful is living. I am intentionally choosing hope and happiness. Hope and happiness are not default properties, and being intentional about them makes a difference. As I think about it, coming to this place is a kind of bargaining. I will trade impatience for writing, frustration for processing, sight for insight.
|Band friends at Sr. Patron’s|
|A mello-photo bomb|
When I was in fifth grade at Littleville Elementary School, something magical happened. One day, our teacher announced that the band teacher from the nearby high school would be coming to Littleville to talk to kids and their parents about joining the band. It was 1973, and resources for extra-curricular activities–heck, resources for curricular activities–were limited. I remember in previous years, our musical exposure at school had been the on the rare occasions when our teachers had brought out a box with mostly percussion instruments and let us play with them, mostly trying to keep time while a record was playing. This was different. This was band. I could hardly wait for the meeting. When the evening came, the band director, Mr. Wright, brought a variety of instruments so that we could try them out and, with his advise make our selection. I realize looking back that, of course, he wanted a well rounded group of instruments, which is probably why I became a flute player. From that point on, I was in love.
I went to high school in a football town, and a football town doesn’t scrimp on its band. We were the Marching 100. I remember the day I was issued my uniform. I remember band camp and big, chartered band buses, chocolate sales and Homecoming parades. I can still remember how to play The Horse–if you have ever marched, you know The Horse. I remember our signature parade song–a marching mix of China Grove and Smoke on the Water. I still remember–and feel–lining up on the sideline for the halftime show, and I can feel again what it felt like then standing on the field, horn up, knees slightly bent, leaning back to hold the last note until the crowd stood and cheered. And they did. Every time.
I quit the band just before my senior year for a very, very bad reason. It’s a story for another time, because this one is about joy. But I must say–for the rest of it to make sense–that over the next thirty years I had recurring dreams about being back. Sometimes, they would let me join them again for just one performance. Sometimes, in my dream, it was entirely acceptable for an alum to join up years later. Whatever the scenario, I slept happy. Then woke. It was not unlike dreaming of someone who has passed then waking to sadness when you realize it was only a dream.
The cat hated everybody. Everybody, that is, except me. And Sarah, of course–but she had owned Sarah for seventeen years, so that was to be expected. I only knew her for five months, and I didn’t really expect her to warm up to me. More than that, I never expected to warm up to her. So when we helped her to her final sleep on Monday, the last thing I expected was to feel what I felt and react how I did.
First of all, I am not a cat person. I had a cat once, and I despised it. Yes, my cat-loving friends will be shocked at that. Kitty was part Siamese and was mean. Worse than that, she caused me to lose sleep every night. If she was outside, she wanted in; if she was inside, she wanted out. Day in and day out. Why didn’t I just leave her in or out, you might ask? Well, I believe if you ask that, YOU are not a cat person. She would come to my bedside and claw at the blinds until I was awake. If I shooed her away, she’d wait till I lay back down and begin again. When she was outside, she would come to my bedroom window and claw on the screen, which is not a sound conducive to sleeping, especially as I lay there envisioning a trip to Home Depot to replace yet another screen. When I moved from Louisiana to Georgia, I gave the neighbors a bag of cat food and $20 to take care of the cat. I drove the U-Haul truck away as fast as I could so that Kitty couldn’t somehow attach herself and hang on for the cross-country trek. I was free of cats. Until Diana.
Sarah called her Hissing Ball of Fury because that’s what she turned into whenever anybody tried to touch her. Over the months, as I met Sarah’s friends, they all asked, “And how are you getting on with the Little Cat?” Only they don’t say “Cat.” They had learned the hard way. “Oh, she’ll like ME,” they had said, one by one. “I’m good with animals,” they had said, one by one. And one by one, they had approached Diana talking softly and reaching to pet her, only to have her turn into Miss Fury. Diana had been banned from veterinary practices in two states because she bit. I witnessed this myself when we took her to the vet three months ago. Two young techs had assured us, “Oh, she’ll be fine with us,” only to bolt from the room to fetch the doctor to do this first-year vet school procedure himself. “Diana bites” was written in bold red letters across the top of her chart. And so she did.
So what was my secret? I think it was that I let Diana be Diana. I let her come to me. When she sat with her back to us, which was her usual position until she got ready to be petted, I let her be. I only spoke to her when she looked at me, and never reached out to touch her. Then one day when she came to Sarah for her evening head-butts (Diana was a head-butter), she walked right into my hand. Then one morning I awoke with a cat sleeping on my head. On my head. She only hissed at me once. I had reached down to pet her as I walked by the couch where she was lying, foolishly thinking that we had bonded over the head-sleeping. “Don’t get to comfortable with me, old gal,” she seemed to imply in that hiss. “I come to YOU.” I only picked her up once. It was the day before she died. That is how I knew it was over.
The vet must have felt the same way when he picked her up on Monday morning and said, “This is the first time I’ve really gotten to examine her completely.” He gently felt her frail body and asked Sarah if she was sure of her decision. She was. We had set up what Sarah called “Kitty Hospice” at the bungalow over the weekend, administering IV fluids and concocting what looked like an awful mess but was evidently a cat delicacy Sarah called “duck soup.” Diana would take a little, then lie on a pile of Sarah’s clothes and her old teddy bear, Ted, until we took her outside to lie in the grass warmed by the sun. The fluids never pepped her up as Sarah had expected; she was that far gone. So we fed her duck soup and let her be outside as much as she wanted. She even hissed at a stray cat once. We had one brief second of hope, then watched as she turned away all but a bite of food. I am glad we had that weekend. As we watched Diana, I watched Sarah say goodbye to her friend of seventeen years.
I think things happen for a reason. Like finding an abandoned kitten two weeks ago–one that has pretty much taken over our lives by blessedly taking up our attention during the last week. I’ve heard the old saying that we don’t find pets–rather, pets find us. This one was put in our way at precisely the appropriate place and time. Just like Pastor Kim’s prayer in church on Sunday. As I sat there in the choir loft during the service, the words startled me out actually praying, hoping that it might in some way bring Diana’s human some comfort. Give us the courage and grace to live through the dying season, was the prayer. The grace to understand death, as well as life, even though the dying–the perpetual winter–dims a light in our souls.
As we sat outside with Diana Saturday, Sarah told me that she had chosen her name from Edith Hamilton’s famous book Mythology. It is appropriate–and somewhat ironic now–that her name had come from that book. In it, Hamilton quotes from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon:
Drop, drop—in our sleep, upon the heart
sorrow falls, memory’s pain,
and to us, though against our very will,
even in our own despite,
by the awful grace of God.
Aeschylus describes the process by which we come to the understanding for which the pastor prayed. Drop by drop upon the heart by the awful grace of God. How profoundly simple that it might come from the great blessing of being owned by a pet. But, if you are a cat person–like I am now–that is no surprise.