Ode to Oliver

The cat on my lap
wears a gray cape and cap.
He keeps them remarkably clean.

“You are what you wear!,”
he would seem to declare.
For without them, he’d never be seen.

(Sometimes, you just need a silly cat poem. And Dad liked it and repeated each line after me, which made it all worthwhile.)

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Walking the Grassy Knoll

I walked the hill in my parents’ backyard, picking up sticks and limbs that a recent thunderstorm brought to the ground. Mom had been mowing the grass earlier. Taking a break, she came into the house where I sat with my father. She said there were lots of sticks out back and would go back out and finish after a break. She sat in the recliner drinking a beverage, then lifted the foot of the recliner and said, with her eyes closed, “I guess I shouldn’t have sat down.” So, I went out to pick up sticks.

I walked the grassy knoll. And it really is a grassy knoll. Not everyone can say they had a grassy knoll to play on as a child, but I did. I walked the grassy knoll and started picking up sticks and small limbs and carrying them over to a large pile of other sticks and small limbs that have been collecting over the past year or two. They lie in a spot where my father used to burn such items. But no burning has happened recently. The pile grows higher and has likely become a welcome home for some backyard critters. Perhaps a snake has taken up residence. That’s where I’d want to live if I were a snake. Or maybe some small rodent has moved his family in there, cozy and warm in the winter snow and shaded from the summer heat. I would hope someone would check for such inhabitants before setting the pile ablaze again. Dad would want that, I think.

As I walked, feeling the familiar earth under my feet, I felt my father walking with me. He would have loved walking that grassy knoll with me, picking up sticks. Or planting. Or mowing. Or fixing a fence. Or pulling weeds. Or repairing the toolshed. Or picking apples. Or playing with his grandson. Or just taking a walk on his well-tended land.

But he can’t.

Life has turned on him. All that it ever gave him, it is now slowly taking away. While I pick up sticks, he sits in his recliner. Something he would never have spent any time doing a few, short years ago. He has always been a doer. He always had a project or two going. Never an idle moment. Of course, he would stop to eat a meal or watch a Tennessee football game on TV. But then he would go right back to some productive activity. Tending, fixing, learning, cultivating, creating, practicing, reading, or walking.

Walking. That was his favorite. He walked everywhere. The post office. The barber shop. Anywhere that he could reasonably argue against using a car. Sometimes, he would just walk aimlessly, wandering down some street or path he had not traversed before, just to see what was there. The road less traveled. Some of my fondest memories are of taking walks in the soft, spring rain with Dad. Perhaps that’s why the rain feeds my soul. Now, I take walks with him from the den to the bathroom, and it is a long, arduous task that requires the assistance of a third person. Crossing the threshold of a doorway might as well be crossing a busy street, blindfolded. Every step is uncertain. Gravity is the enemy.

His eyesight, hearing, and cognition all conspire against him in fully engaging the world around him, and yet the past can be shockingly clear at times. The other day, apropos to nothing in my own awareness, he stated that Gunga Din contained one of the best lines from literature. He worked it over in his mind, uttering a few of the words as he struggled to remember their order. Then, he quoted,

Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

The human brain is a truly remarkable and puzzling thing. Much of what Dad had said earlier in the day had not made much sense. Then, out of nowhere, he quotes poetry … perfectly.

I knew nothing about Gunga Din, so I looked it up. Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem in 1892. It is written in the voice of an English soldier about an Indian water-bearer who saves the soldier’s life but is ultimately shot and killed, making the soldier lament the way he had treated his savior. Dad commented on Gunga Din being of a low caste, a remarkable detail to remember. I think Dad has always championed the underdog. I found a copy of the poem online and read it to Dad. “Yep, that’s it,” he said. I also discovered that Jim Croce, one of Dad’s favorite singer-songwriters, wrote a song based on the poem. I found a recording of it on YouTube, which I played for Dad, providing him a few minutes of nostalgic enjoyment, I think. I hope.

“You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!” A lot of men would probably say that to my father. I’m pretty sure a few have. “You’re a better man than I am, Bill!” He has given of himself to others in a lot of ways over the years, modeling kindness and humility along the way. He has to do a lot of receiving now. It is an excruciating process for a giver to become a receiver.

Dad has lived life exceedingly well, filling it with all the things he loves – family, travel, gardening, art – and doing what he could for others. If he could, he would keep living his life that way. If I thought it would work, I would pray for a miracle. I would pray that Dad would be healed and able to do all the things he used to do. But I just don’t think that’s how it works.

I have been asked if I am angry with God. I am not. I harbor no ill will toward God because I don’t think God is taking my father away. I don’t think that’s how it works. God does not take. God gives, and God receives. I feel God with us every day, holding us up as we move through this hellish, unfair, cruel period of Dad’s life. And God will receive Dad when life finally lets him go.

I am angry at times, though.

Sometimes, the frustration comes from having no one to beat up. There is no one to blame. No target for my anger. There is just some ethereal bull’s eye that my angry arrow cannot find in the thick, soupy cloud of chaos and grief.

Dad is so ready for life to release him, but life keeps holding on. He doesn’t understand why life just keeps going and going, holding him hostage, and we have no answers for him. Just the reassurance that we will be with him through every damn minute of it. And we will.

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Uncomfortably Comfortable

I am employment-challenged at the moment. And I am uncomfortably comfortable with this fact. I could get used to not going to an office every day. If it were not for the need to pay a mortgage and eat, I would be totally on board in a heartbeat. But alas, grown-up responsibilities hover around me like gnats on a summer day.

The uncomfortable part of my comfort is that practical side of me, saying, “Why are you not in a blind panic about this? You don’t have a job!”

So, I apply for jobs every week, as the government requires I do to deem me worthy of the unemployment benefits I have been paying into for years. They are the only insurance benefits that require that you prove your worthiness to receive them. When my home insurance gave me a new roof after a hail storm, I did not have to prove that I was doing all I could to live in a non-hail situation. Apparently, being downsized does not come with the same benefits as a hail storm. According to the unemployment office, you are either employed (i.e. a worthwhile, contributing member of society) or unemployed (i.e. time to get the big red L tattooed on my forehead proclaiming my Loser status).

After six months of unemployment, I have determined that there are likely no existing jobs out there that I am supposed to be doing. There are a few jobs I am qualified for, and I apply for some of them, but the very thought of accepting those jobs makes me want to melt into a puddle of tears. I spend my time hoping those jobs won’t come calling because I don’t want to answer that call. So, I also apply for jobs that might not seem like a perfect fit, but that might not make me want to cry when I wake up in the morning and head to an office. Some of them could even make me sort of happy. Now, there’s a concept. These jobs, however, appear to be few and far between.

On the plus side of unemployment, I have more time to spend with people I care about. My father’s health is not good, and my mother takes care of him. Unemployment gives me the opportunity to give her some relief from her care-taking role, and it gives me precious time with my sweet father. It has also allowed me time to make some new connections, which I have found surprisingly enjoyable since I am the poster girl for introversion. I guess there really is a plus side to most situations.

When I was downsized (a term I find particularly unnerving), I was not expecting it but I also was not entirely surprised. I was even a little relieved. That job, while a decent one that I did well and was paid somewhat sufficiently for, no longer felt like it fit. Actually, the company never really felt like a good fit. Early in my tenure there, I determined that I move through the world in an entirely different way than the people who surrounded me. Not a better or worse way; just a different way.

During that period, I went back to school and got my Master of Arts in Spirituality. Now, I am training to become a Spiritual Director, which feels oh-so comfortable. I’m heeding a call. I just don’t know exactly what I’m being called to. I sense a path I am supposed to be on, but there is a fog diminishing my view of the road ahead and I can’t quite see which way to go.

As I have been moving through this journey, those who know and love me assure me that the right opportunity will come my way because I have so much to offer. God has something special in store for me. Even the new people I am connecting with are asserting my worth and my potential contribution to the world. And while I feel supported and held by those comments, I also think, “Really? Can you put a timeline on that for me? Could you ask God to speak up and give me a hint or provide an outline I could follow? That big red L isn’t going to get any smaller on its own.”

I have determined, after some soul searching, that what I am looking for is not necessarily the right job, but the right work. That is the answer I currently give people when they ask me about my job search. And I even have some ideas about what that work might be. It is scary to say it out loud. But saying it out loud makes it real. It creates an expectation, and that is important for me. It takes the ideas out of my head and makes me face them as a reality. The “right work” is not going to be presented to me like my favorite meal on a silver platter with cushy benefits as the side dish. It is becoming clear that I am going to have to create that work. And that scares the you-know-what out of me.

So, I guess I need to put my big girl panties on and make something happen.

My word for the year is liminal. That wonderfully mysterious place between this and that, here and there, one world and another. It is an uncertain space that is absolutely pregnant with possibility and peace – if you allow it to be so.

It is a scary time, but it is an exciting time, too. I have a certain degree of peace with it, and that is comforting. But as I said, being comfortable with all of this can feel really uncomfortable at times. So, I do my best to remain in the gentle hover of that lovely liminal space, trusting that swimming in its mystery will eventually guide me toward my path.

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Goggles? Check!

I am afraid of being brave. Bravery is scary stuff. Brave people do things like free fall from cliffs into deep blue, bottomless lagoons. Or embark on solo treks around the world to climb snowy mountains and eat raw squid. Or take on impossible social causes, taking names and righting wrongs. Or write.

Brave people write.

Well, I guess not all brave people write. But all writers are brave people. They stare down the abyss of the blank page. They plunge head first into that sea of glowing white. They swim through a murky ocean of thoughts and swirling waves of emotions. And they emerge, suck in a deep breath, and exhale a story, a poem, an essay, a truth. Their truth.

Meanwhile, I hold my breath.

I swim those murky depths, my eyes closed to the sting of the water, bumping into jagged rocks, brushing past scaly creatures. I emerge, gasping for air and kicking wildly toward shore, hoping no one notices my splashing, inelegant strokes. A fish out of water.

I am in awe of writers.

Faced with the blank page and a heart and mind full of thoughts, emotions, fears, joys, and sorrows, they write a word. Then another. And another. Until, they have a sentence. And that sentence says what they wanted to convey. Someone reads those words, and they conjure up thoughts, emotions, fears, joys, sorrows. Someone else reads those words and sees herself or who she wants to be, could be, should be, aspires to be, or never in a million years would want to be. And it all started with a writer having the courage to put a word on a blank page.

Brave people write.

They claim their truth and put it out there for the world to see. And judge. And criticize. Truth-telling is just down-right scary. Truth, the telling of it, requires vulnerability. And vulnerability, as Brené Brown would attest, requires courage. Vulnerability exposes us to criticism, ridicule, challenges. To write, you must be brave. And being brave is hard. Yet, writers do it every day.

Why? Why do they do it? Why are they willing to burst out from the depths and into the light, exposing themselves? Why do they dare to exhale?

Perhaps it is so they will not drown.

They plunge into the depths with their eyes wide open, avoiding the jagged rocks and dodging the scaly creatures. Or perhaps they wear goggles. Protected from the blinding sting of the water, they can see clearly that the jagged rocks are actually a colorful coral reef and the scaly creatures, a beautiful school of fish. Or maybe they come face-to-face with a shark or a moray eel or the poisonous tentacles of a jellyfish, and frantically, try to swim the other way. But they took the plunge.

When we dive into the murky waters of our life experience, there are scary things all around. Maybe we escape harm. Or maybe we lose a limb. Maybe the shark is a job loss, depression, an abusive relationship, a family secret, an a-ha moment, a life-changing event, or day-to-day drudgery. But while darting away from the shark, we might pass that coral reef and find some beauty, delight, peace, or wisdom before emerging. The point is, a writer emerges. And lives to write about it.

Brave.

I suppose there are safe ways to write. By just skimming the surface, the beauty of the water and its refreshing spray, the wind and sun on your face all offer ample fodder for pleasant prose. By keeping one’s head above water, some of the scary stuff can be avoided, but some of the best stuff stays submerged with it.

Bravery accesses the best stuff.

Yes, I am afraid of being brave. But I think maybe I am more afraid of being safe.

Time to put my goggles on and dive deep.

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Kids

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St. Thomas

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St. George

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The man praying near the altar (below) made his way from the back of the sanctuary on his knees with his rosary in hand. It felt kind of invasive for us to be there while he humbled himself in this beautiful way, but our presence definitely didn’t seem to hinder his time of prayer. He was completely committed.

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