remembering the saints

On a recent Sunday at Church of the Advent, we celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  All Souls remembers those who have died.  All Saints celebrates saints today and past, known and unknown.

We sang: I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green;
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

Our Rector, Tim, told the congregation they had sung that favorite hymn at parishioner Anita Jones’ funeral a few months earlier.

He read the names of the recent dead, including Anita, and including Jean Jones, my mother-in-law.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
and his love made them strong;
and they followed the right for Jesus’ sake
the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
and there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
why I shouldn’t be one too.

In Florida, as my mother-in-law lay in a coma, newly off life support, hospice social worker Jennifer told us, “we help you in your new relationship with your loved one.”

Perhaps the new relationship will be better than the old? (But that is the stuff of future posts.)

They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store,
in church, by the sea, in the house next door;
they are saints of God, whether rich or poor,
and I mean to be one too.

For now we sit in silence, writing, reading, awaiting a delayed aircraft to take us back home after the memorial service.  And we consider the lives of saints.

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Books and more books

I found this survey on one of my favorite blogs: A moon, worn as if it had been a shell, by Elizabeth Aquino. She got it from Maggie May who found it on Lindsey’s site who found it on Katie Noah Gibson’s blog (another one I read!) and so on, back to Jamie, only 27, how can that be, who originated the survey. What a wonderful circle of readers and women. (No time for edits; this is going up and I’m off to the airport — with books, of course.)

Author you’ve read the most books from (the grammar nerd in me has to say:from whom you have read the most books): John Irving, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Edward Eager, Robert Farrar Capon, Annie Dillard

Best Sequel Ever: I don’t read many series, but after reading The Hunger Games, was eager to see what came next. But Mockingjay was worthy of the trilogy.

Currently Reading: Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

Drink of Choice While Reading: Coffee, but only before mid-afternoon.

E-reader or Physical Book? Physical books..

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School: Holden Caulfield. (Really?)

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance: I read Steppenwolf for a class in college. I think I was the only one who finished it. I would hate to think I’d miss the music of the spheres.

Hidden Gem Book: Incendiary by Chris Cleve. Who knew a book about Osama bin Laden could be so powerful.

Important Moment in your Reading Life: 1.) Pulling books from my parent’s bookshelves to read in 8th and 9th grades: Joyce’s Portrait, Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. These turned me into a book-lover for life (as well as a dedicated Anglophile.) 2.) Ian Ousby’s Modern British Lit class at the University of Maryland. First, who could not appreciate Dr. Ousby, with his English accent, elbow patches and pipe? Reading Joyce’s Ulysses with the class brought it to life. I’d never have been able to tackle it on my own. That, plus Lawrence, Eliot and Yeats – this class was my idea of heaven on earth. I haven’t read Joyce and Lawrence lately, but Eliot is one I return to time and again.

Just Finished: Dancer by Colum McCann

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read: Romance novels

Longest Book You’ve Read: Probably Les Miserables or Anna Karenina

Major book hangover because of: Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Number of Bookcases You Own: Six

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Preferred Place To Read: In airports and on planes. But in my daily life, in the den. In my past life, in the bath.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read: “We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret.  Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.” (Little Bee by Chris Cleve)

Reading Regret: That I didn’t love Anna Karenina as Vivian hoped I would; and that I never got far in Meg’s recommendation, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. May try those two again one day.

Series You Started And Need To Finish (all books are out in series): I can’t think of one; I don’t read many series.

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books: Let the Whole World Spin by Colum McCann,  Run by Ann Patchett. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Unapologetic Fangirl For: Chris Cleve

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others: Just looked at Amazon for spelling of Ann Patchett and saw that she has a new release Nov. 5, 2013. Can’t wait.

Worst Bookish Habit: Buying more books than I can read.

X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book: In the living room: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; in the den: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, brother of high school friend Tammy.

Your latest book purchase: Just got the latest Indiespensables shipment from Powell’s bookstore: The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee. Indiespensables is an expensive but oh so much fun book club: http://www.powells.com/indiespensable/

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late): Rick Steves’ Spain 2013.

Category that should have been included in this survey — best book from film: Remains of the Day (or A Room with a View or Dr. Zhivago?)

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sins and cell phones

Somewhere over the Atlantic, Delta flight attendants handed out customs declaration cards.

“As you go through immigration and customs, put your cell phones away,” they warned.

“Put your cell phones away – or they will be confiscated!” they warned again later.

We buried our cell phones deep in our bags, and went through without trouble … except for that jar of thick Basque honey that looked like jam on the x-ray but may have been meat (seriously guys?) forcing us into another line.

It was not until we were home and checking the news did we learn of the US policy that DSCN0816prompted the flight attendant warning. According to U.S. government files released that very day, Homeland Security is able to seize and search the data on privately owned electronic devices at the border without a search warrant. Yes, your cell phone may be confiscated.

We had just returned from a trip to France and Spain, brimming with love for French pastry, Spanish wine and tapas, broad beaches, and newfound friends. Local city guides added depth to our understanding. (Did you know the bayonet is named for Bayonne, France? And just ask me about the Basque love of pelota/jai alai.) The local guide in Guernica darkened the lights in the bomb shelter and played sirens, as our small tour group imagined the horror of Franco and Hitler. Two days short of 9/11, as we stood looking up at the vast tile representation of Picasso’s Guernica, our Spanish guide and new friend, Francisco, spoke of the horror we together had experienced in September, 2001.

DSCN0808

Then we spent a half day walking the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim path, the Way of St. James. Francisco told us the path is broken into four stages that correspond to birth (a sudden push into the world in the Pyrenees), the highs and lows of youth, the long stretch of adulthood, and old age and the end of life. We walked stage three, through flat farmer’s fields, over rock-strewn paths, with endless vistas and unforgiving sun. It’s the path that leads through marriage, jobs, children, friendships. We have time to review our lives, to seek forgiveness, to learn and grow and leave our sins behind, in piles of rocks at the side of the trail. Stage four awaits us, alive with green beauty and the hope of salvation, offering abundance at the end of life.

I’m not sure the linear path of the Camino is the best representation for life. TS Eliot writes “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” (Four Quartets) What was and is and is to come. In the beginning was the Word. Creation abundance surrounds us now, not just at the end or in the next life. Eternal life can’t begin at some future point if it’s truly eternal. We inhabit the Kingdom of God, with all our flaws and faults and piles of stones.

the market place, Guernica (remembering April 26, 1937)

the market place, Guernica (remembering April 26, 1937)

The bells resounding over the rooftops of Paris, elbowing up to the counter for pintxos in San Sebastian, stumbling over rocks and shedding sins on the Camino – perhaps that story doesn’t belong here with Delta flight attendants and Homeland Security. But I can’t shake the notion that these stories are somehow interwoven. I can’t shake the notion that we are so flawed, and that our institutions are so flawed, that the nation who helped free Europe from the stronghold of the Nazis now wants to take our cell phones.

P1000753Picasso’s Guernica includes no identifying marks that tie it to place and time. The horrors of war are universal. The wounded horse, the dead soldier, the mother wailing over her dead child live in every time and place. But almost unnoticed at the bottom of the painting, the dead soldier who clutches a sword also holds a small flower. A sign of hope? Hope that wars will cease? Hope that our institutions can better reflect the ideals we hold dear? Hope that we can harness the power of Creation in our daily lives?

Next time I pass through immigration and customs, maybe I’ll bring flowers instead of Basque honey. I’ll leave them with the officials who want my cell phone, like daisies in the rifles of the National DSCN0838Guard. A wish that we can learn compassion. That I can learn compassion. With a whispered prayer that hope will abound as we leave our sins in piles of stones at the side of this winding road we walk together.

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caring conversations

 “Mom tried to call you four times last week at your old number,” my dad said to me in a stage whisper from across the living room. “I think we made a mistake not moving into assisted living when we had the chance.”

Later, mom asked, ”how old are the dogs?” From the viewpoint of an outsider, it looks like my mother and I are having a perfectly normal conversation. Only I know that it’s a repeat, and she’ll ask again in a couple of hours.

I’m in Pittsburgh for the weekend visiting my folks, hoping to have some conversations with them about the future.  At the hospice provider where I work, we have signed on to the conversation project. It offers tools that help us have conversations with family and loved ones about our end of life wishes – and theirs. It’s never easy talking about the end, but ask anyone who provides hospice or end-of-life medical care, and they’ll tell you it’s crucial to do so.

I knew that many years ago my parents had created Living Wills that made clear what end-of-life medical treatments they wanted. And I understood that with my mom’s declining memory, she might be unable to dictate her own medical care. If my dad was also unable, others would make decisions for her. I needed  healthcare power of attorney so that I could speak for them if necessary, but that meant asking my parents to face the possibility that they will die. That seems easier to face when one is twenty and death seems an impossibility, than when one is 87 and facing recurring cancer and dementia. Death hovers all too near.

And yet I find that the older I get, the less I fear death. For me it’s not a matter of faith, or at least not only faith. Rather, if feels as if Creation itself is preparing me (and perhaps all of us who live into middle and old age) by allowing the gradual breakdown of the body, despite exercise and good nutrition. Watching my parents face the end is helping me face my own end.   

An ad for a hospice provider in Great Britain says, “your last moments should mean as much as your first.” Now is the time to consider what will make their last moments bright and pain-free and filled with love. Perhaps what I learn from their experience will help me face my own death. I don’t expect any of this to be easy. But when my grasp fails, I am forced to let go.

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remembering the dead

I say the names, over and over, as I stuff envelopes with letters asking families to tell us their story of hospice care or send a donation to help pay for community  grief counseling programs. I name the living as I work, all the while thinking of the dead. I feel embraced by a cloud of witness as I move from letter to letter, swallowed up by a cloud of sorrow and of grace.

I work in fundraising at Hosparus, the regional hospice provider. We offer quality end-of-life care from Louisville south as far as Bowling Green and north into Indiana. Our teams include medical staff, personal care associates, social workers and chaplains. We serve nearly 900 people every day. We order walkers and wheel chairs, call in prescription refills, help with bathing and, at the end, call the funeral home. Our volunteers sit with the dying because no one should die alone.

The work of our caregivers astounds me. I sit at a computer most days. It seems so easy compared to caring for the dying. They say the work is rewarding and life-giving, yet I know of a nurse who lost five patients in one week. How do they do it?

As I read the names on the envelopes I stuff, I remember that they are people who have lost loved ones: mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, partners, friends and neighbors. Each living name points the way to one who was lost.

And so I name them as I work, on and on, in endless spreadsheets, on endless envelopes and — always and forever, living and dead — in countless hearts.

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summer day in may

My teenage neighbor blasts the radio as he washes his car. It’s a weekly event, and our house reverberates with the bass. He usually plays some rap-like contemporary stuff, and I’m just as happy to feel the pound of the music but not catch the lyrics. But not today. No rap today.

I can’t help but smile as the familiar words fire synapses in my brain: Everybody’s gone surfin’/Surfin’ USA … All over La Jolla/At Wa’imea Bay. I’ve been to the beaches, watched surfers at Wa’imea Bay. But not when I was his age, not when I first heard the Beach Boys. Not when Hedy and I rocked in the top of the bleachers at Jadwin Gym. Not when my reference point was the Jersey Shore, and later Ocean City MD. Not when the boys I dated wore their hair below the collar. Not when newspaper clippings taped to my wall announced the end of the war, when my music was James and Joni and the Who, when my mailbox held college acceptance letters addressed to me.

Today I’m sitting in the sun on the porch at the Louisville condo, watching the world go by, listening to the Beach Boys, watching a boy wash a car while Dory plays with a twig.

Today is a summer day in May.

Today I am 15. Today I am 50. Time is a circle without end.

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Creation Abundance

Spring comes to Houston in dribs and drabs, starting in January and lasting until the hundred degree temps of summer set in. Flowering trees bloom here and there, but never all at once, at least not until the crape myrtles explode hot pink in mid-summer heat.

When I moved to Houston at Thanksgiving in 2003, I found Encore azaleas blooming in the late fall. Encore! What a great idea, or so I thought. But I missed Virginia’s banks of narcissus and azalea, Georgetown’s English cottage gardens, and Cleveland’s lush perennial borders. January, February, March in Houston all felt and looked the same.

Spring in Louisville, after our first never-ending, colder-than-average winter, has come in one thundering burst.

This is the picture of creation abundance. Pink-tinged magnolia petals blanket the grass while cherries and redbuds color the early morning air.

Dory, the terrier who still relishes walks after nine months with a hoarder, stops to sniff double ruffled daffodils. One day she finds a black walnut and carries it home, where we throw it into the garden’s mulch. She spends the next few days inspecting every rock and clump of soil hoping to find it again.

When I stop after a walk to pull a few weeds under the weeping cherry, the dogs collapse on the grass, soaking the sun and sniffing the breeze.

I brush the winter’s soil from chairs on the porch. Perhaps it’s time to add geraniums to the window boxes. But for now I am content to sit for a few moments and soak in the magic of a Louisville spring.

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