Still Showing Up

A few Sundays ago I walked out of church a discouraged and disheartened woman. The rumor I had heard and hoped wasn’t true had been confirmed: the only two things I have enjoyed about attending this church have been or will be taken away.

Sunday School was nixed at the beginning of the summer, and it is not coming back. The pastor’s new plan to stop the church from continuing to bleed members is to force the congregation to attend more than once a week, in hopes that it will build “community” (a buzzword I’m a little tired of, to be honest). All classes that would normally be “Sunday School” are now going to be “Wednesday Night School.”

Small groups, which have been meeting on Sunday evenings, will now be moved to Wednesdays also. I love our small group. But, due to our work schedules, weekday evenings simply don’t work for us. I understand what they’re trying to achieve, and I approve of the desire to foster real relationships in the church. I hope it works the way they think it will—but we can’t be a part of it. Moving everything to Wednesdays leaves us even more on the outside than we have been until now. So far our small group is still meeting on Sundays, and I can’t help hoping that continues.

Now despite what it may sound like, I’m not trying to moan or elicit sympathy, and I certainly don’t expect or hope to be accommodated in any way. But this turn of events has forced me to ask myself, not for the first time, why I still go to church. Nothing ever happens in the Sunday morning service that would make me want to go back. Nothing. It has been many, many years since I experienced a situation where church was a meaningful part of my social or spiritual life.

Likewise, it has been many years since I had any expectation of getting something “out of” church attendance. In our last church, I at least was able to put something “into” it by teaching children’s church and then later doing the music (which I loved). At our current church I don’t see any place where I could contribute in any meaningful way at all, even if I had the time, which I don’t right now.

For most of my adult life, we have not had close friends in the churches we’ve attended. Yet we have doggedly continued going, even when our kids were being secretly (and then not-so-secretly) systematically bullied by the other kids, even when our kids were shunned and rejected by adults who should have loved and accepted them, even when church services made me want to weep because the music was so far from what I enjoy. I struggle with the number of Christians I know who have chosen to “step away” from church or who have told me that they’re in “a different season of life now.” Yet when so many have made the choice to just quit going to church altogether (a nationwide phenomenon), I still show up. Why? Am I just really stupid? Don’t answer that.

First of all, I can’t get around the Biblical admonition found in Hebrews 10:25: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another . . .”

My personal thought is that if the Bible says it’s important to gather regularly with other Christians, then . . . it’s probably important. I can’t think of anywhere in the Bible where it says that church is supposed to be fun or enjoyable (although ideally we should enjoy worshipping our God) or full of programs that we’re pressured to participate in. The important part is to spend time with other believers and to “exhort” one another. Exhort means to “strongly encourage or urge someone” to do something.

Now, I think my primary spiritual gift is one of encouragement. So, my second reason for continuing to go, even though I’m not close to anyone at church, is that someday, somehow, I like to think I might be a safe place for someone else to land. Someday, perhaps, I will see someone who’s hurting or needs encouragement, and will be able to step in and reassure them in some way, and in fact maybe that’s the only reason for me to be there at all. I think it’s an important reason, even if I have to wait years for that moment. Maybe a child will need help or encouragement. Maybe it will be an older woman who feels as left out by the worship service as I do. Maybe it will be an international student who is struggling with our culture. I don’t know. But I do know that being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference in the world to that one person who is in need of a safe person to talk to; and as an introvert I know how very important it is to feel safe when talking to someone else about the things that matter to you.

So, I’ll keep going. I’ll keep getting dressed up on Sunday morning and sitting through the service and keeping my eyes open for someone whom I could be of use to. I don’t begrudge or resent the fact that it may take some time, because whether or not opportunities to be helpful present themselves, I know I’m not forsaking something that, as a believer, I’ve been instructed not to forsake. How about you? Do you go to church? Why or why not?

Postscript: After working on this essay for three weeks and then reading through it one more time, it occurred to me that some might read it as an admonition of sorts to “tough it out” and stay in an abusive church setting. No, no, no. Please no. If you are in a congregation where you are being physically, emotionally, or spiritually abused in any way—GET OUT. Get out now. And then get help. If you are young and you ask for help, and you aren’t believed, don’t give up. Tell someone else. Fight for yourself. Keep going until you find someone who believes you and is willing to help you get help. And please believe that not all churches are like that. When you’ve had some time to heal, I hope you’ll be willing to look for a body of believers who will embrace and enfold you and pour grace and love into your life, because that’s what church should be like.

Nine Nights

Several years ago, I entered this essay into a contest, and it only came second, so I never published it. Today, before you read my next post, I’d kind of like it if you read this essay.

Nine Nights

“There goes Jonathan,” Dad said. He opened the car door and climbed out without another word. My mother also got out, but then leaned back in and told the three of us to stay in the car. “Do not get out of the car,” she said.

We sat there in stunned silence for a few seconds before realizing what must have happened. We hadn’t even noticed the sound of screeching brakes or the sickening thud my parents had heard. The reality hit all three of us at once and we screamed in unison. I was eleven, Matt was almost nine, and Greg was four.

We screamed for what seemed like hours before subsiding into tears, and then waited in vain for someone to come tell us what was going on. The huge double decker red bus behind us blocked our view of the street in the northern English town of Carlisle. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m going to go see what’s going on,” I said. “You two stay here.”

After getting out of the car, I ran down the sidewalk past the big bus. All traffic had stopped. My brother Jonathan, Matt’s twin, lay limp and motionless in the middle of the street in a pool of blood. I knew he was dead. I started running to my brother’s side, but a formidable bus conductor wrapped her arms around me from behind and jerked me back. I kicked and fought to get loose. “He’s my brother!” I screamed.

She hauled my writhing body back to the sidewalk. “Now then,” she said, “didn’t your parents tell you to stay in the car?” Sobbing with grief and anger, I had no choice but to let her drag me back to the car and shove me inside with my other two brothers. She stood guard next to the car, her intimidating demeanor a deterrent to any further plans of flight. I told Matt and Greg what I’d seen, and we all sobbed together, knowing Jon must be dead.

An ambulance arrived, and after what seemed like an eternity, Dad returned to the car and we followed the ambulance to the hospital. He didn’t have much to say, other than that our brother was still alive and that Mom had gone with him in the ambulance. I wondered if he said that to keep us from freaking out.

At the hospital, Dad disappeared and left us in the waiting room, but we didn’t stay there long because we kept hearing screams of agony and we couldn’t bear it. I led my brothers out to our rental car in the parking lot and we knelt down in the back seat and prayed like we’d never prayed before.

Dad found us in the car and explained that surgeons were operating on Jon in hopes of saving his life. He had broken both bones in his lower right leg and had a very serious head injury. No one knew what the outcome would be, but we needed to find a place to stay.

We ended up at a small family-run hotel. Dad got us supper and then took us to our room and told us to go to bed. Our room had three beds and huge windows to let in the light, which didn’t fade until after 10:00 p.m. We went to bed but not to sleep. Instead we prayed.

Long after darkness fell, the door opened to reveal my parents silhouetted in the light from the hallway.

Mother’s voice sounded shakier than I’d ever heard it. “He’s going to live, but he’s in a coma and we don’t know when or if he’ll wake up. When and if he does wake up, he may be nothing like the Jon we remember, because of his serious head injury.”

Lying in bed, I wondered what it would be like if Jon wasn’t himself anymore.

###

The next morning we began a new routine. We had breakfast at the hotel before my parents left for the hospital. Dad took me aside and explained he was entrusting me with the job of entertaining my brothers all day, and making sure we all were clean and in bed by 8:00 p.m. He would come at lunchtime to get us some food, and then leave again. I organized games and helped my brothers do puzzles from the hotel’s collection. We played with the resident Afghan hound and petted the pony that served as a lawnmower for the hotel’s lawn. The day dragged on as anxiety gnawed at our minds.

Nighttime brought a new challenge. I made sure we went to bed at 8:00, while the sunlight still streamed in through the windows and our parents kept vigil at Jon’s bedside. No kid could sleep in that bright sunshine, and certainly not kids whose brother hovered between life and death. Fear permeated that room as powerfully as the rays of the evening sun.

I knew, if we were going to make it through the next few days, I would have to come up with a powerful distraction. For some time, I had been telling my brothers stories at night when circumstances forced us to share a room. Now I knew the time had come to tell the story of all stories, a story so engrossing it would banish worries about Jon, if only for an hour or two.

I created characters rather like ourselves—four siblings traveling in England. At first, I stole shamelessly from the plots of Enid Blyton “Famous Five” books I had read, but I soon had to make up my own material, because my self-imposed task was to keep going until my brothers became tired enough to sleep. That first night, when darkness at long last seeped into our room, I left my intrepid heroes in a life-threatening predicament. My brothers begged me to keep going, but heartless big sister that I was, I insisted they go to sleep, after promising them another installment the next night.

In truth, I had gotten my characters into a crisis I didn’t know how to resolve, but I had all the next day to work it out in my head. All day my brothers talked about the story and speculated about what might happen next. They asked me countless questions, but I only answered questions about the part of the story that had already been told. Their fascination colored our whole day and made everything about it more enjoyable. That night, I had no trouble getting them to bed on time. As soon as we snuggled down under our blankets, the boys implored me to continue the story.

With my head full of the new plot twists I had dreamed up during the day’s activities, I began to spin my tale again. My brothers hung on every word. Somehow, by the second night the story had become the world we all lived in after bedtime. Even then, at age eleven, I knew stories had power. When I was five or so, my Russian grandmother decided the best way to ensure I would never go near the furnace was to make me afraid of it. She told me a terrifying story of the evil man who lived in the furnace. If I even went near it he would jump out and grab me, pulling me into the furnace where I would burn to death in agony.

My five-year-old self believed every word. Not only did I never go near the furnace, or into my dad’s workshop, but going into the basement at all terrified me. My grandmother’s little story succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, and now I saw my own story working its magic during our family crisis.

###

On the fourth day after the accident, my brother Jon woke up from his coma, remembering nothing of his accident. We were not allowed to see or visit him. To some degree, we felt abandoned by our parents, who spent every waking moment at the hospital with Jon while we were on our own at the hotel. Jon got new toys and we did not. Our only consolation was the story we lived in every night. Every day as we participated in various activities, my brain went into overdrive planning thrilling plot twists for the story, and my brothers couldn’t stop talking about it. Every night when we went to bed I could hardly wait to take my spellbound audience with me to our world of adventure.

Jon remained in the hospital for nine days. For nine nights my other two brothers and I lived in a world of my devising, a world full of intrigue and adventure, and conspicuously lacking in serious injury. On the last night, when we knew Jon would be released the next day, I  gave our characters a happy and triumphant ending. When we reunited with our injured sibling the next day, the first thing Matt and Greg told him was that he had missed out on the best story of all time. This bothered Jon much more than his injuries did. The boys talked it up so much he felt bereft and deprived, and begged me to retell the entire tale for his benefit.

Matt and Greg talked about that story for years, even well into adulthood, and Jon continued to grieve over having missed it. It was far too convoluted for me to remember or repeat, but that never bothered me, because that particular story had one purpose. The story had been a weapon, a mighty weapon, the only weapon I had to fight against fear and anxiety for nine long nights. When the crisis ended, I laid that weapon aside.

Events like my brother’s accident change lives. It changed mine. Not only did I realize how much I loved my brother, but lying there in our light-filled hotel room every night, I learned how compelling words can be. My words created a world we lived in, a world where we shared the lives of the story characters. We cared deeply about them. When they were in peril (which was every night) my brothers worried about them all the next day. When the characters were betrayed, my brothers wanted to defend them, rush to their aid, and rescue them. When the characters succeeded at something, my brothers rejoiced and felt invincible themselves.

For nine nights, the darkness of fear was held at bay by nothing but the power of words, words that told a story. Stories are one of the most powerful things in this world. They bind us together as families, as ethnic groups, and as nations. Whether it’s a family telling the same old stories around the table at Thanksgiving, or a tribal elder telling the legends of his people, or an elementary school teacher telling her class about the winter at Valley Forge, stories are the threads that stitch our lives together.

There are some who believe that fiction is somehow not wholesome or edifying, and therefore not fit for those who follow Christ. Yet Christ himself used fictional stories to teach powerful lessons and deep spiritual truths. God made us in His image and that includes His creative power. Stories–good stories–teach us to care for others, because if it is a good story, we all but become the main character and want the best outcome for him or her.

Stories can make us brave and strong. There’s a reason so many stories are about someone who is small or weak and yet achieves great things. We read those stories and they give us courage to follow our dreams or to set right something that has gone wrong. At the age of eleven, after nine nights in a hotel room in Carlisle, I knew all of this. Most of all, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life telling stories.

The End

Blindsided

Grief is a strange and slippery phenomenon. By now we’ve all learned about the stages of grief, and we take note of them as we work our way through them. “I’m at the anger stage,” we remind ourselves. “I’m depressed.” “I’ve reached acceptance.”

And then we think (or maybe it’s just me) that once we’ve reached the “acceptance” stage, we’re more or less done. The ocean of grief that threatened to overwhelm us has been tamed. A membrane has formed over the surface, and before long, we find we can step all over that part of our internal scenery without even being consciously aware of the deep sea of sadness lurking below.

One day—it might be years or decades later—you have a dream, or you see a face that reminds you of that face; or you hear a laugh; or you smell a scent that brings back a memory; and suddenly, with no warning at all, that shard of memory falls like a dagger into your interior landscape and pierces the placid surface of your equilibrium. Now once again your soul is awash with sadness and you have no defense against it.

This happened to me this past weekend. I nobly offered to go to my brothers’ high school class reunion in Dallas, because it was close for me and because they couldn’t go, and I thought I’d go and take some photos for them and it would be great. And in a lot of ways, it was great. Most of the people in that room were people I hadn’t seen in almost 43 years. Everyone was so kind and friendly and made a real effort to include me even though I was from the class that graduated two years before theirs.

What I had forgotten, what I hadn’t even considered at all before driving over there, was that my brothers’ class was also my friend Jill’s class—my dear friend Jill who died the summer I graduated from high school, in August 42 years ago. And since I hadn’t thought about that, it never occurred to me that Jill’s roommate might be there—but she was.

I was already anxious when I walked into the room, but when I saw that M was there, it was like being sucker-punched in the gut. I had not known M well in school. I had known her solely as Jill’s roommate, to be honest. So when I saw her, all I could think of was Jill and how much I still miss her. The longer M and I talked, the more I wished I could tell Jill all about it, about seeing her old roommate and getting caught up on her life. I just wanted so badly to see and talk to Jill, even after all these years.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that M is herself grieving the loss of her brother, who died in a plane crash a few months ago. So I worked very hard to hide my own grief even as the waves continued to crash onto my internal shore.

This wound was so unforeseen, so unexpected, that it seemed like a fresh loss. I had planned to listen to an audiobook on the way home, but I couldn’t. I was, as my daughter likes to say, too “emotionally compromised.” It may take some time for that membrane to reform, but meanwhile, I’m learning to let the waves of grief wash over me instead of trying to resist them. Sooner or later, this too will recede and I’ll be left with the dull ache that is “normal” for anyone who has suffered loss. And the thing I always hang on to is this: I was so fortunate to have known her, to have been her close friend, to have walked all those miles at her side, to have succeeded in making her laugh out loud so many times. The grief is the price I pay for that. It’s worth it.

Sixty Things I’ve Learned in Sixty Years

  1. I’ve learned to invest in my relationship with God. No other activity has yielded more beneficial results over the course of my life.
  2. I’ve learned that the church is very important—even if you don’t feel like you “fit in” to the one you’re attending. (I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like I’ve fitted in.) Finding a way to be an active part of the church’s ministry has brought me a great deal of satisfaction over the years. And when I’ve needed help, fellow church members have pitched in to help, even when they barely know me.
  3. I’ve learned the value of reading through the whole Bible. I’ve followed all manner of reading plans, but my favorite is still just to read it through from Genesis to Revelation. I always find things I didn’t notice before. I find I really enjoy reading the Bible with a specific goal—say, to find out everything that God has to say about ministry, or raising children, etc.
  4. I learned the importance of memorizing Scripture—and then I dropped the ball. I was forced to memorize five verses a week as a child, and I consider one of my most serious adult failures is that I haven’t imposed a similar discipline on my own children—or continued to memorize new passages myself. Nothing compares to having Gods’ word in your heart and mind, accessible all the time.
  5. I’ve learned to love and memorize hymns, and that love has only deepened over the decades. The old hymns of the faith are full of spiritual “meat” and have sustained me time after time when I found myself in deep waters. If you know them by heart, you will be able to hum those lovely old tunes and hear the majestic words in your head even if you don’t sing them out loud (although I often do sing them out loud anyway).
  6. I’ve learned that friendship is worth the risk. No matter how many times I’ve been hurt or betrayed, it’s still worth it to invest in friendships with others. My friends are among my most prized treasures. My Christian friends and family members have the unique distinction of being the only treasures I can have in heaven!
  7. I’ve learned that when I have a friend, it is most rewarding if I just assume it will be a lifelong relationship. I put effort into maintaining the relationship—even if most of the effort seems to be on my side. And now, after all these decades, I have a host of friends that I share a long history with. It’s so worth it.
  8. I’ve learned to cultivate kindness. From childhood, I tried very hard to be kind to others because others so often were not kind to me. Kindness does not cost anything. One kind act or word, however, can make someone else’s day! One of the best compliments I ever received was when a childhood friend told me the main thing she remembered about me as a kid was that I was kind.
  9. I’ve learned that a close sister of kindness is compassion. All of us, every single one, has hidden pain and I am learning to see it in ways I haven’t seen before. I’ve discovered that often someone who is quiet and reserved may also be miserable and lonely, and I want to reach out to that person.
  10. I’ve learned not to let people get on my nerves. The older I get, the more tolerant I’ve become. Not of sin or evil, of course, but of those little quirks that used to drive me crazy. I wish I had developed this skill earlier. People who are fussy, fearful, or boring used to really irritate me. Now I am usually able to look past annoying behaviors and just love and care about the person behind them. Life is so much more enjoyable this way. People are still just as irritating—I just don’t mind so much anymore.
  11. I’ve learned to forgive people who have hurt me (still a work in progress!). If they aren’t repentant and don’t desire a restored relationship with me, I still forgive them for my own sake. I can relinquish that pain to God and move on with my life.
  12. I’ve learned not to hold on to hurt or resentment from the past. If I allowed it to, it could poison my whole life. I have many things in my past that could have crippled me as an adult. No one would blame me if I still suffered from these past experiences. But that would be letting “them” win. No one who has hurt me in the past is going to be allowed to continue hurting me now because I can’t let go of the bitterness.
  13. I’ve learned not to let anyone steal my joy in the present either. If someone is scornful of something that brings me joy, I just remind myself that different people like different things and the other person’s scorn does not in any way diminish my worth as a human being. Why should I let anyone else make me feel ashamed about an innocent preference?
  14.  I’ve learned that if someone is cruel or unkind to me, I should resist the desire to lash back. I remind myself that people who act that way 1) are probably in pain themselves, and 2) really, really need a demonstration of God’s love, not human retaliation. I try to remember to pray for that person instead of responding in kind.
  15. I’ve learned to value loyalty in myself and others. A loyal friend is one of the greatest gifts on this good earth, and I can give the gift of loyalty to those I love. I try to make sure my friends and family know I will stick by them through thick and thin. I want to be the person they can always count on.
  16. I’ve learned something that so many people seem to have forgotten lately: that you can have opinions-even really strong opinions—and choose to keep them to yourself. And if I do keep certain opinions to myself, it allows me to remain friends with people whom I dearly love and who do not share my opinions on certain things.
  17.  I learned early on to avoid gossip. Every now and then, I pay attention to what I am actually saying about others when I get in a conversation. The two questions I always ask myself are: Is it kind? Is it helpful? When others start gossiping, I try to put a stop to it. I say something like, “Oh my goodness, I would really hate to think that anyone was talking about me like that!” Then I put in a good word for the victim. I now have a reputation as one who won’t listen to gossip.
  18. I’ve learned that reading is the greatest gift of early education. If you can read, you can learn anything else. If you don’t love reading, keep doing it until you do love it! Reading has enriched my life like nothing else.
  19. I’ve learned to read as much as I can, on any topic that interests me and also on topics that I thought would not interest me. More than once I’ve been pleasantly surprised!
  20. I’ve learned that the really great stories are worth re-reading. I would love it if everyone could read Les Misérables, for instance, at least twice in their adult life. There is so much meat and food for thought in that one novel that it’s worth wading through Hugo’s bloated prose.
  21. I’ve learned the value of reading aloud to my children, even when they were long past the age of being able to read on their own. I look forward to doing the same with grandchildren someday.
  22. I’ve learned to keep on learning. I’m not afraid to learn a new skill. In fact, I try to make a point of learning new skills! They say it will keep your brain young.
  23.  I’ve learned to stay curious, to ask questions. I’m willing to make some effort to find the answers.
  24. I’ve learned that I thrive on the mental stimulation of discussing things with smart people who are not at all like me and see things from very different viewpoints. I love my book club for this very reason. I love being made to think and re-evaluate my own beliefs.
  25. I’ve learned to hang on to my sense of wonder. So many things still amaze me, whether it’s the natural world or another person’s story.
  26.  I’ve learned to cultivate a sense of adventure (although to be honest I think I was born with it). I try to take every opportunity to go somewhere new and try something I’ve never done.
  27.  I’ve learned to appreciate other cultures, and to let go of the idea that our culture is not just “different” from others but also “better.” Different is interesting!
  28.  I am still learning to let go of perfectionism. If I enjoy something, it is okay if I’m not perfect at it. My watercolor efforts are a perfect example of this. And if it brings joy to my heart, then it is a valid thing to do.
  29.  I’ve learned to treasure my family—both the one I was born into and the one I gave birth to. They can and should be your lifelong best friends. I like to focus on what we have in common (including years of shared experience), not on what they do that drives me crazy.
  30.  I’ve learned to talk less and listen more. I like to ask people about themselves and find out what makes them tick. I have made quite a few new friends this way—and also gathered memorable material to use in my writing. . . .
  31.  I place great value in being dependable. If someone asks me to do something and I agree to it, I make it a priority and make sure it gets done. I am gratified that I have so often been told I can always be counted on to follow through on my commitments.
  32.  I’ve learned to say no—and I keep having to relearn it. I rehearse my priorities from time to time so that when I am asked to do something, even something “good,” I know when I can and should say no with a clear conscience.
  33.  I’ve learned not to allow myself to begin doing something that I know is habit-forming and unhealthful, even when I am pressured to do so. So I’ve never smoked a cigarette or acquired a taste for beer, for instance. And if you’ve followed my health journey, you know that because of my addiction, I can never eat food containing sugar again.
  34.  I’ve learned not to underestimate my own or someone else’s stupidity. I accept the fact that from time to time I will do stupid things. Possibly I will do some extremely stupid things. I’ve learned accept this fact and to laugh at my own stupidity and forgive myself for it. And when others are stupid? I forgive them too, because really, we’re all in this together.
  35.  Just because I do stupid things does not mean I am a stupid person, however, and I ignore anyone who tries to tell me otherwise. We all are entitled to regular and frequent withdrawals from our LSA (Lifetime Stupidity Allowance).
  36. I think I’ve learned—finally!—not to turn to food for comfort. No amount of food in the world will heal a broken heart, comfort a lonely soul or dissipate rage. Instead, I try to remember to pour my heart out in prayer or focus on doing something positive.
  37. I’m so glad I learned how to garden when I was young. There is something ridiculously satisfying about eating something you grew yourself or seeing a vase of your own flowers on the table. I’m glad I went to a school where “gardening” was actually a required activity that everyone had to do.
  38.  I’ve learned to make music part of my life. Not just popular music, but classical music that has stood the test of time. Some of this music is absolutely sublime, and it will enrich your whole life if you welcome it into your world. If my ship ever comes in, you’d better believe I’ll have season tickets to the symphony!
  39.  I’ve discovered that listening to music is wonderful (see above) but there is nothing like making it myself. I wish I had learned to play an instrument sooner!
  40.  I’ve learned the joys of creativity in every sphere. Creating something with my own hands satisfies a need that can’t be met any other way. I write stories, sew garments, knit, crochet, and create new recipes. I enjoy it all!
  41.  I’ve learned to treasure time spent with kids. I no longer have any young kids of my own, but I regularly borrow them from other moms in hopes of teaching them stuff. Kids are so wonderfully energetic and positive and enthusiastic and imaginative. They are an antidote to so much of what goes on in adult life. And childhood flashes by so quickly—when it comes to doing something with kids, you just can’t “wait till later.” When “later” comes they’ll be in college!
  42.  I’ve learned to work hard at being content—at “blooming where I am planted.” This is something I have learned from children, by the way. A child can be happy anywhere—why can’t I? I try not to live in the past, no matter how wonderful (or traumatic) it was, or in the future, when I hope all my dreams will come true. I try to appreciate the gifts and joys of each day while I’m in it.
  43.  I’ve learned that part of contentment is loving what I’ve got. Comparing my modest home and possessions to someone else’s is bound to end in dissatisfaction and envy. To remind myself of this, I sometimes walk around my house mentally saying, “I love our comfy old couch! I love our big dining table!”
  44.  I’ve learned to appreciate teenagers. In fact I adore them. Sure, they come with massive amounts of drama included, but they’re also smart and funny and curious and inventive and fun! They are my favorite age to teach because they really think about things and there’s nothing more exciting than engaging a young person’s mind.
  45. I’ve learned that gratitude is one of the most powerful forces in the world—and I’m so thankful to have Someone to be grateful to! But I’ve also learned that gratitude must be expressed in order to have any impact. So I have become very intentional about thanking people in my life, from wait staff to checkout clerks to friends and family. I’m so thankful for everything they do!
  46.  As a young girl in boarding school, I had to learn to write letters. I love modern technology and the immediacy of e-mail. But a real letter on real paper trumps an e-mail every time. Many people feel this way, so I’m trying to remember to take the time to sit down and write notes to people I care about from time to time. I know how much I love to receive mail!
  47. I’ve learned that a sense of humor can help you get through almost anything—but a joke at someone else’s expense is deplorable. I prefer humor that doesn’t hurt anyone.
  48.  I learned to be hospitable by growing up in a hospitable home—but it’s something that can, of course, be learned at any age. The Bible says we are to be “given” to hospitality. It doesn’t add, “but only if you’re rich and have a perfect house and are a gourmet cook.” I cringe when I think of how my house has sometimes looked when I invited someone over—but I still don’t regret it. And I never invite someone over with the expectation of a return invitation. I just pray I’ll be a blessing to everyone who walks through my door.
  49. I’ve also learned, actually, to make a point of having people over that I know will not be able to reciprocate—singles and college kids who are far from home and family. Or young families with multiple kids who virtually never get asked over for dinner. It’s an enjoyable way to minister to someone else and be a blessing. And it motivates me to keep my house from deteriorating any further than it already has.
  50. I’ve learned not to stop dreaming. I’m trying to be better at following through, at writing down the steps I need to take to reach some of my goals—and then doing them.
  51.  I’ve learned to never go anywhere without a pocketknife and a pair of scissors (the scissors can be part of the pocketknife).
  52. I’ve learned to not turn the TV on just to see what’s on. TV is an incredibly effective time waster, although I feel a little less guilty about it since I am always also knitting.
  53.  I’ve learned that video/computer games are in a league of their own when it comes to wasting time. I loathe them in all their permutations, but also understand that very few others agree with me.
  54. I have learned there is no gift on earth more precious than the gift of having your family together and watching them revel in each other’s company.
  55.  I’ve known for a long time that pantyhose are evil and I never wear them anymore.
  56.  I’ve learned that for me, sugar is both evil and addicting. I have proven repeatedly that I can’t eat it in moderation, so I avoid it completely now. No serious person would claim that sugar has any nutritional benefit. Its primary function seems to be to make food taste so good that you just keep eating and eating and eating . . .
  57.  I’ve learned that high heels are also evil, no matter how attractive they may appear. And they are so very bad for my messed-up, arthritic feet.
  58. I’ve learned to love spending time outdoors whenever I can, even when it’s hot, cold, rainy, or windy outside. God created this planet just for us and it is full of ever-changing beauty that I will miss if I just go from building to car and back again.
  59.  I’ve learned to stop and watch as many sunsets and sunrises as I can. God provides them for free every single day.
  60. I’ve learned that when all else fails, and even if nothing has failed at all, I can still make myself a cup of tea, and savor every sip!

My Diabetes Miracle #23: A New First

Last Tuesday, as I believe I reported, I had my book club meeting, followed by an open art session in the same location. The book club starts at 3:00 and the art time is scheduled to go as late as 7:30 p.m.

So, during the art time, we three ladies were busy with our painting, and our hostess asked me if I needed some food, because she knew I’d been there since midafternoon. I assured her that I was fine, and explained that I didn’t necessarily eat every day and in fact was currently fasting.

So the other lady piped up and said, “Oh! Is that how you stay so trim?”

Friends—I had a moment there. Never in my entire life has anyone ever described me as “trim.” Not once. Interestingly enough, you don’t tend to get that kind of comment when you are morbidly obese.

Now, I realize that my artist acquaintance was flattering me. I am not yet “trim,” but I’m the trimmest I’ve been in several decades. I’m still getting used to it. In my head, I usually still think of myself as obese. So I was genuinely staggered to hear someone refer to me as “trim.”

This tiny exchange was such a huge boost for me. Especially with Easter coming up, I knew I’d be sorely tempted to stick my toe over the lines I drew for myself two years ago. But I also knew that no treat in the world tastes as good as hearing someone else call me “trim,” let alone feeling so much better and having so much more energy to live my life. I honestly believe that eventually I will be trim for real, and that I’ll be able to stay there—and that is worth all the effort I’ve been putting forth for over two years now.

The Mint Lady

An experience I had a few days ago keeps bothering me, so I figured I should probably write about it. I went to Hobby Lobby to buy some beads I needed for my sewing project. I had Lucy with me, so I told her I’d be in and out very quickly while she waited in the car.

Except that I wasn’t. I found my beads quickly enough, and made my way to the front of the store, only to find that there were very long lines at the two open checkout lanes. I took my place in the closest line, and found myself behind a lady who was quite obviously a church lady. You know the type—a woman of my own vintage, nicely dressed and radiating moral superiority. She was buying two bags of mints for a bridal shower, which she made sure everyone knew right away. I think maybe she was hoping someone would offer to let her cut in front of them, but no one did.

After explaining the reason for her mint purchase, she went on to complain about the fact that you can no longer get these mints in grocery stores. (I have also noticed this phenomenon and have wondered about it.) The complaining escalated from there. This woman did not want to have to wait any longer to buy her mints, and she let everyone at the front of the store know about it.

She loudly commented on the incompetence of the store manager. She criticized the courteous young clerks who were checking people out so slowly. Her frustration and displeasure leaked out in one toxic remark after another. My own desire to get out of the store increased considerably because I just wanted to get away from her.

A clerk who was about to go off shift saw the situation and opened up another lane next to my lane. She started picking people from my line that she thought she could check out quickly, since she had to leave soon. She did not pick the mint lady. She picked a couple of people who were in front of us, and then she skipped over the mint lady (who was now almost to the front of the line) and picked me.

While I was being checked out, the mint lady finally made it to the cashier and checked out about the same time. She flounced past me on her way out of the store, broadcasting her offended sensibilities all the way. My sweet clerk called out to her to have a great day, then turned back to me and rolled her eyes as she handed me my receipt. I think everyone in the front of the store breathed a sigh of relief when that woman walked out the doors, sparing us any more of her pernicious pronouncements. I’m kind of surprised no one applauded her exit.

I was tempted to apologize to the girl who checked me out: “I’m so sorry, but that lady does not represent me as a Christian, and I hope you don’t judge churchgoers everywhere based on her behavior.”

I returned to my car feeling discouraged. That woman, who should have been radiating God’s love and compassion, instead went into a mildly annoying situation and made it unbearable for everyone around her. People who had been patiently waiting in line became desperate people whose goal in life was just to get away from the mint lady.

Although I don’t think I’ve ever been as verbally obnoxious as this woman, I know there have been times when I have sighed in frustration when stuck in a long line. I now regret those times. It’s nobody’s “fault” when a bunch of people need to check out at the same time. Nowadays, I am more likely to let people in front of me if they seem to be in a hurry, because if it’s that important to them I’m happy to help them out. I’d much rather cheer someone up by letting them go first than have them simmering with impatience behind me.

The older I get, the more highly I value kindness, compassion, and patience. Did the mint lady’s mints taste any better because of the way she behaved in the store? Of course not. But a rather large group of people had to endure several very unpleasant minutes because she couldn’t just chill out and wait her turn.

Think how different the experience would have been if she had been positive and friendly; if she had been polite and appreciative of the young cashier instead of trying to humiliate him. She would have left a wake of smiles behind her as she exited the store, instead of disgusted eye-rolls. As I always remind myself—kindness and courtesy are free! It costs nothing to brighten someone else’s day. I hope I never am the “mint lady” in someone else’s life.

Christmas Club

Back in the Neolithic Age when I was a newlywed, my husband and I were very impoverished. I worked three jobs (and was a full-time student) and he worked two jobs and we barely were able to make ends meet. In fact we kind of had to force them to meet.

Our first Christmas we had no money to buy each other gifts, but a couple of years later we signed up for our credit union’s Christmas Club. This was a special savings account specifically for Christmas spending. We had a little booklet with payment coupons, and every month starting in January we paid $10 into our Christmas Club account. After nine months we had paid in $90. In November we got a check for $100 to spend on Christmas (the extra $10 was the interest). $100 was a lot of money for us back then. It enabled us to buy each other simple gifts and also to get a few goodies for Christmas dinner.

We continued to use the Christmas Club every year for several years, but eventually I realized I didn’t need the credit union to do that for me. It’s been several years since I explained my holiday savings plan, so I thought it might be time to go over it again before it gets any later in the year.

We have always had a budget that we have lived by. Always. As our kids came along, we gave up things we could no longer afford—but we always had enough to buy little gifts for birthdays and Christmas, and we always had a generous dinner for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Anytime our income or circumstances changed, I reworked our whole budget. One of the items on the budget is my “year-round gift fund,” and another is “holiday food savings.” Sadly, a little bit of math is involved, but it’s not hard. I add up the total number of family members (currently there are twelve of us), and then add in extended family and a few close friends that I buy gifts for. Then I figure out what we can reasonably afford to spend on each family member (it’s not much) for both birthdays and Christmas.

So, let’s say that there were only four family members, and I knew I couldn’t afford more than $25 each for their birthday and for Christmas. That would be $50 in gifts for each person that year, giving me a total of $200. Then I’d figure out what I could afford to spend on extended family and friends. Let’s say that with a few extended family members and a few friends, I could spend a total of $100. My total annual gift budget then would be $300. Starting in January, I would budget $25 per month for gifts. That money would accumulate in months that don’t feature a family birthday, but would be available when needed. I would be able to start Christmas shopping as early as July, taking advantage of sales and special deals. By the time Christmas rolled around, I’d have enough money to cover any gifts that I hadn’t bought ahead of time.

The holiday food savings work the same way. We eat very frugally all year (and we virtually never eat out), but each month I set aside a budgeted amount for holiday groceries. Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to be when we have the most family members here, and as you know, I hate the very thought of anyone going hungry in my house. By November, I have saved up enough to feed my family bountifully during the week of Thanksgiving and again at Christmas—and I don’t have to borrow money or go short somewhere else to do it.

If you find yourself going into debt at Christmas time, it’s not too late to start your own Christmas Club!

When Ignorance ISN’T Bliss—It Could Be Dangerous

I want to talk about my hospital stay again—specifically, about the food. My surgery took place starting at 7:00 in the morning, and I didn’t make it to recovery until after 11:00, so I wasn’t offered anything until suppertime—not that I would have wanted anything. My supper tray was a grim array of “clear liquids,” consisting of apple juice, broth, sweet iced tea, a grape popsicle, and jello. The only thing on that tray I could safely have was the insipid and lukewarm broth, which I drank and then threw up later. The girl who brought the food felt bad that she hadn’t known I was a diabetic, and promised I’d have something more appropriate for breakfast.

Meanwhile, my sweet nurse hunted down a sugar-free popsicle and brought it to me because she felt so bad too! Although I normally avoid artificial sweeteners completely, the cold treat really appealed to me, and it hit the spot—until it came back up.

I had vague hopes of bacon and eggs for breakfast the next morning. What I received was a bowl of wheat-based hot cereal, some milk, and another bowl of (regular) jello. The food delivery girl was quite dismayed when I told her I couldn’t eat any of it. She wanted so badly to bring me something I liked! She offered to find me some sugar-free jello. What could I say? I also avoid artificial sweeteners, so any kind of jello is right out for me.

By the way, this is an interesting phenomenon to me. My last hospital stay was in a completely different hospital, but at both hospitals the only “constant” presence during my stay was the food lady. I never had any repeat of nurses, even when the same shift came around again. It was new nurses all the time. But the same lady delivered all three meals a day, every day.

By lunchtime on Thursday, I was really in a bind because I had to prove I could keep food down, and I had failed miserably so far. The girl showed me the meal options and I picked grilled chicken and broccoli, which looked pretty safe. It also came with pasta, but I told her to leave that off.

Now please understand, I had told her I was diabetic so she could only bring me what the hospital dietician approved of for diabetic patients. I got a grilled chicken breast, some broccoli—and a big wheat bun and banana pudding. It was at this point I began to get angry. Not at the sweet food girl, who just delivered the meals, but at the person who was masterminding this atrocious mistreatment of diabetic patients. My lunch meal probably contained more carbohydrates than I would normally eat in a week.

It was exactly this ignorant approach to diabetic dining which led to my diabetes getting so bad so fast. If you are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and you follow the standard medical advice about diet, you are guaranteed to get worse and worse, until the day you finally have to ask your doctor, “Why do I keep getting worse and having to take more insulin when I’m doing everything right?” And if he or she is honest, like mine was, the answer will be, “Because your pancreas is wearing out.”

And I feel I should point out here that even from the time of my diagnosis, I followed a stricter plan. The diabetes educator in the hospital told me to aim for 150 grams of carbohydrates a day (!!!) I kept it well below 100, and aimed closer to 50—but it was still too much. My blood sugar continued to rise, and it took more and more insulin to control it. I knew I’d soon begin experiencing complications with my eyesight, neuropathy in my feet, poor circulation, etc.

So back to this recent hospital stay. The food girl really wanted me to have a supper I could be happy with. She showed me the menu, and one of the things on it was “Chicken Caesar Salad.” This is a pretty safe choice for me, so I was thrilled—but when I told her I wanted the salad, she said that as I was diabetic, I would not be allowed to have the Caesar dressing and would have to pick an alternate lowfat dressing. I was dumbfounded. I could eat a healthy salad, but I couldn’t dress it with a healthy high-fat dressing.

I realized the hospital is still going with the failed model of a diabetic diet that is high in carbohydrates and low in fat—when it should be the other way around. This was confirmed when I discussed breakfast with the food girl. She cheerily offered me French toast! I wanted to say, “You’re joking, right? Do you even know what diabetes is?” Instead I brought up the fact that I am not only diabetic, but also gluten free. I was offered sweetened gluten-free cereal instead. I reminded her I can’t eat anything with sugar in it. Finally she asked, “Well, what can you have for breakfast?” Eggs, I told her. She brightened up a little. Clearly eggs were something she was allowed to bring me. But when she asked what I wanted with my eggs, and I said sausage or bacon, her face fell. Sausage and bacon were not allowed for diabetic patients.

If I hadn’t been in such a very weakened condition, I would have wanted to march down to the kitchen and speak to someone about this outrageous approach to feeding diabetics. It’s not just less than optimal—it’s downright harmful. If you are diabetic, and you eat from a hospital’s diabetic food plan, you will get worse, not better. Your blood sugar will not be controlled. Yet this is the eating plan that has been endorsed and promoted by the American Diabetes Association, which is why hospitals follow it. It’s like intentional ignorance.

My many long hours of research have turned up exactly two ways to deal effectively with Type 2 diabetes. The first way is to adopt a very strict, very low-fat vegan diet that is also sugar free and involves periodic fasting. I’m glad that is an option for those who really don’t want to eat meat, but it’s not for me. The other way, the one I’m following, is to go with a ketogenic diet that is high in “good” fats, moderate in protein, and very low in carbohydrates (less than 20 grams per day), and also includes fasting. In fact I’d say that a certain amount of fasting is really crucial to getting your diabetes under control, as is avoiding sugar completely.

It infuriates me that these two proven dietary approaches have not been accepted by doctors and hospitals yet. I know one reason is the belief that most people just would not be willing to follow either restrictive plan. I think they would, if they understood the alternative—the long slow death brought on by diabetes complications. The other, more sinister reason is that nobody makes money from people using food to heal their own bodies. The medical diabetes industry is a huge money-maker, and if people can learn to do without all those drugs and related products, that industry will suffer financial losses. So it’s not in their interest to tell you the truth—that you can do without drugs and reverse your diabetes by making smart food choices. I have not heard of one single person who reversed their diabetes by following the plan endorsed by the American Diabetes Association. There are thousands like me who have turned their health around by following one of the two approaches I mentioned above. The results don’t lie.

I wanted to cry when I thought about the newly-diagnosed diabetes patients in the hospital, who trustingly believe they are being fed an appropriate diet for their condition. I was like that several years ago when I was diagnosed with diabetes at the time of my emergency appendectomy. Following the ignorant instructions I was given led to my diabetes raging out of control after only eighteen months! I’m so glad I learned the truth two years ago and have taken charge of my own health! If (heaven forbid) I find myself forced to stay in a hospital again, I will go knowing that I won’t be able to eat the food there, and plan accordingly. If you live near me, I might even hit you up to smuggle in some contraband bacon or avocados.

The Devil’s Friend

I have been planning to write about this topic for months, and I’ve put it off because it’s a hard thing to write about. Then this week, I learned some unexpected news that made me realize I can’t put it off any longer.

Let me start by telling you about my friend Matt. I met Matt during a period of my life when I was overcome by despair and grief. I had returned to the USA from Africa and had lost everything I cared about. Furthermore, I was going to a very strict university that felt like a prison and the man I thought I would marry had dumped me in a craven and cowardly manner. And then, the one close friend I’d made there ran off to get married. I felt utterly bereft and alone in the world.

One of the quaint features of that school was that we had assigned tables at suppertime. We would get our table assignments and would have to sit at that table with those same people for three weeks, at which time we’d get a whole new assignment. We all complained about it, but I met some interesting people that way, and Matt was one of them.

I learned he was an art major, and I loved art, so we talked about that a lot. He was so knowledgeable and thoughtful and unassuming. He had a different way of looking at the world, which I’d never encountered before. He turned many of my naïve assumptions upside down, yet at the same time he was the most “normal” person I’d met there.

I was so sad when I had to change table assignments. I knew chances were slim that I’d ever see Matt again. But as luck would have it, shortly after that the school had what they called “Reverse Courtesy” weekend. This was a weekend when girls were allowed to ask boys out instead of the other way around.

Now remember, I was deeply grieving the loss of a relationship. I had no romantic interest in anyone. However, I was very interested in having a chance to talk to Matt again, so I asked him out. There was a very rigid system in place that required dating to be arranged by notes. So I wrote him a note asking to eat lunch with him during Reverse Courtesy weekend.

As it happened, I had several casual friends in the dorm who were also art majors, and one of them asked me if I had asked anyone out, and I said that I had asked Matt. And she and her friends literally gasped in horror. They then told me how incredibly clueless and stupid I was. Matt was a senior. I was a freshman, and therefore beneath his notice, and not just because of my youth. Turns out he was basically considered the king of the art department. The other art majors were so intimidated by his prodigious talent, they would never dream of approaching him to ask a simple question, let alone for a date. “He won’t even answer your note,” they said.

But he did answer, and he accepted my invitation. I was wracked with insecurity. Maybe he had no idea who I was. Maybe he thought he was accepting an invitation from someone who was actually worthy of his company. I almost chickened out, but when the day came I walked on shaky legs to the agreed-on meeting place.

He greeted me with his quirky smile and I immediately began apologizing for my existence. I specifically mentioned the fact that I was a lowly freshman, whereas he was a senior. He just grinned and said, “Everyone’s got to start somewhere.” That was the perfect thing to say. After that, I could enjoy our conversation.

Our conversation ranged over a huge variety of topics, but art of course came up often. He invited me to come up to the art department sometime and look around. He had some paintings on display there, and he said he was usually up there painting in the evenings.

Shortly thereafter, I couldn’t resist going up to the art department to check it out (it was on the second floor). Because my departed friend had also been an art major, I actually knew quite a few people up there. I looked in on people creating etchings, sculpting, and shaping ceramics in a room full of potter’s wheels. I saw no sign of Matt.

Finally, there was one room I hadn’t yet looked into, because the door was mostly closed. Cautiously, I pushed it open a few inches and peeked into the large room. On the far wall hung a huge canvas, and Matt sat on a stool in front of it, painting. There was no one else in the room. I wasn’t sure what to do. If he was busy, maybe I shouldn’t interrupt him.

Before I could withdraw, he turned around and saw me. His face lit up with a smile, and he invited me to come see what he was working on. He pulled up another stool so I could sit beside him and watch him paint.

This might be a good time to mention the fact that he was primarily an abstract artist. Before I knew that, I had blurted out that I didn’t like or understand abstract art. He was not in the least offended. He didn’t argue with me. He did something so much better. He spent many hours over several months letting me into his world and making me fall in love with what he did.

From that very first night, he kept up a constant dialog explaining to me what he was doing, what the painting meant and why he made the choices he did. I was gobsmacked. I had always thought abstract art consisted of aimlessly throwing paint at a canvas and then charging obscene amounts of money for it. Now I saw how much thought and care went into every stroke. Watching him work was an escape from all the grief and stress that filled my life during that time.

After that first visit, I went back to the dorm and my art major acquaintances wanted to know what I had been doing up in the art department, because a couple of them had seen me there. I told them I had been watching Matt paint, and they had a group conniption about it. “You can NOT disturb Matt when he’s painting!” they said. “No one ever goes into that room when he’s in there working. You cannot disturb a genius at work. Don’t ever do it again.”

I did do it again. And again. I was hooked. I had to go to the art department almost every night, because I had to see the progress on whatever project Matt was working on. I raced through my homework so I’d have time to go watch Matt paint. He always greeted me with joy and kindness, and he always kept up a running commentary on what he was doing. We talked about many other things too, of course, but mostly about art. Looking back on it now, I’m stunned that he was able to be such a good conversationalist while creating art at the same time. I mean, nobody better try to carry on a conversation with me while I am writing! But he did it without any apparent effort.

In all the hours I spent watching him paint and listening to him talk, no one else ever dared to come into the room. I am so glad I was too clueless to know it was an unwritten rule that Matt could not be disturbed. I have no idea what he thought of me and my interest in his painting. If I annoyed him, he certainly never let on. In fact, I think he might have been kind of lonely. Maybe he even welcomed my company.

One day in the spring of my freshman year, I received the news that my grandfather had died. I had always been close to my grandfather, and he had made it very clear to me that I was his “favorite.” Now I am not in favor of the practice of having “favorites,” but it’s not too bad when the favorite is you!

I was devastated by this news. I cried out to God. “How much more are you going to take away from me?” I’d lost my home, all my friends, the man I loved, my one new friend, and now even my grandfather. I dragged myself through my classes that day blinking back tears. All I could think about was getting through everything I had to do so I could go see Matt and tell him about my grandfather. Matt was the only person I felt “safe” talking to.

That evening I dragged myself up to the art department and into the room where Matt was working. He greeted me with his usual smile and his usual question: “How’s life in the academic world?” Although he was a college student, he didn’t see himself in any way as being part of academia.

We exchanged some trivial small talk. I was kind of waiting for a chance to broach the subject of my loss, but the chance never came. I believe Matt saw the pain leaking out of my eyes, saw how close to tears I was, and he took action. He talked as he painted, and he kept up a constant stream of words, leaving me no opportunity to say anything.

A funny thing happened over the next hour or so, as I watched and listened to my friend Matt. Somehow, he managed to pour peace and comfort into my soul without appearing to do so. The threat of tears receded. The magic of art drew me away from my grief and made me realize that joy still existed and could be found, and that I had been so blessed in so many ways. By the time I headed back to the dorm to beat the curfew, I realized that he had found a way to comfort and encourage me when I needed it most desperately, even though I never even told him about losing my grandfather.

I realized that somehow Matt had become my lifeline. I don’t think it’s exaggerating at all to say that for the second half of my freshman year, he kept me alive. I certainly had not wanted to stay alive for some time before meeting him. His unique point of view perked me up and forced me to look at everything with new eyes. What a gift that was.

The school year came to an end. Matt graduated, and I left for home without having a chance to say goodbye to him. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back, and of course he’d be gone anyway. There was no Facebook, no way of staying in touch unless you exchanged addresses, and we certainly never did that. I wasn’t even sure he knew my last name.

I stayed out of school to work a year, and then came down here to Texas to attend LeTourneau College (now a university) where my husband still works. The following spring, two years after I’d last seen Matt, my future husband flew me out east to attend his sister’s graduation from nursing school. I had the nerve to ask him to let me go a couple of days early, so I could visit friends at my old university.

I stayed with my former guardians and of course I couldn’t resist going over to the university and up to the art department. It had been my “happy place” during that dark, dark time in my life. I wondered if anyone I knew would still be there. It was the middle of the afternoon and not much was going on. There were a couple of ceramic artists at their wheels, but the floor seemed all but deserted.

The room where Matt used to paint was silent, the door ajar, so I knew there was no class going on in there. I couldn’t resist peeking in one last time. Imagine my surprise when I saw Matt there, sitting on his stool and painting a large canvas. I couldn’t believe it. He turned around and saw me, and welcomed me as he always had. He gave no sign he was aware that two years had passed. It was as if I had seen him the day before.

Like a girl in a dream, I walked in and he started his usual running commentary. He was working as a graduate assistant while doing graduate work at another university, which is why he still had access to the facilities. He was getting ready for his first big exhibition.

After talking to me about his current painting, he said, “Do you want to see the others?” Of course I did. He led me back to the room where all the paintings were stored upright in cubbyholes. He pulled out painting after painting, like a little kid excitedly showing off his favorite possessions. As he displayed each artwork, he explained it to me, and eagerly watched my reactions. It was like opening gifts on Christmas morning. Treasure after treasure.

That afternoon was one of the most joyful experiences of my life. How I wished I could afford to buy one of his paintings! They were dirt cheap back then, but I was also dirt poor, and could never scrape together even $30 or $40 to get one of his smaller paintings. It’s one of my big regrets.

After that visit, I never saw or heard from Matt again. Every now and then, I’d do some online searching to see if I could find out what happened to him. Nothing ever came up until last year, when I finally found his website and Instagram account. I was stunned to discover that he had spent a couple of decades painting in New York City. He had never struck me as a big-city kind of guy.

I scrolled through the photos of his paintings, wishing so badly that I could hear his voice explaining them to me. I didn’t try to contact him personally. I have no reason to believe that he’d remember me.

Early this week, I checked his Instagram account to see if he’d posted anything new. He hadn’t, but a comment on one of his pictures struck fear and dread into my heart. The implication was that Matt had died. It took days of fearful searching to find any confirmation. I hoped and hoped it was a baseless rumor. Someone else named Matthew Baumgardner had died recently. Maybe the commenter had got the wrong Matt.

But last night, I finally found the truth, posted by one of Matt’s own daughters. Matt did indeed die on November 20, and by his own hand. It didn’t surprise me, but it wrecked me. Oh, the tragic irony of discovering that the friend who kept me alive could not, in the end, keep himself alive. Even after all these decades, I’m devastated.

I’d guess that no one reading this has ever even heard of Matthew Clay Baumgardner, a kind and gentle soul, a gifted artist, and a radiant human being. Now maybe you have a tiny inkling of what the world lost when it lost him. Oh, Matt. I am so, so sorry. I’ll never not miss you.

***

There’s a line in Don McLean’s classic song “American Pie” which says, “Fire is the devil’s only friend.” It sounds cool, but it’s not true. Fire may indeed be the devil’s friend, but it’s not his only one. Oh, no. The devil has many friends. Let me introduce you to a few of them. Have you met Hypocrisy, Ignorance, Cruelty, Sarcasm, Pride, Dishonesty, Envy, Greed, Bitterness, Lust, or Rage? They are all very good friends with the devil, along with all their loathsome relations.

In light of Matt’s death, however (and several others in the last two years), I’d have to say that one of the devil’s most powerful friends is Despair. The first thing you need to know about Despair is that she’s a liar. Everything she says is a lie, but she makes it sound so convincing. “You’re stupid. You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough. Everyone knows you’re incompetent. You can’t do anything right. Everything that happens to you makes your life worse. You are wasting your time. Nothing will ever be better than the hell you’re living right now. You’ve never accomplished anything worthwhile. They don’t care about you. No one cares about you. The world would be better off without you.”

Sound familiar? Despair and I have been acquainted for a long, long time—but I never really questioned our unhealthy relationship until the day I shared my discouragement with an older friend who was also a spiritual mentor. She grabbed my shoulders, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Discouragement is a sin, Linda.”

Well, that was shocking. It had never occurred to me that I could refuse to listen to Despair and her lies. I never stopped to think that I had a choice. Now I understand that Despair is often invited in by Depression, and if you are suffering from clinical depression, as I often have, it may be impossible to see Despair’s lies for what they are. Why do you think the devil loves despair so much? She does so much of his work for him.

There have been many helpful things written about suicide prevention lately, and I am thankful for that. But what concerns me is that so many people are still falling through the cracks. Everybody says, “Get help. Call someone. Reach out.” Yet that is exactly what is so hard to do when Despair has moved in with you. When Despair is calling the shots, you don’t think anything can help. You don’t believe anyone could care. So you don’t reach out.

I’d like to see the burden of help shifted more to the people in a person’s life. How can you tell if someone is suffering from suicidal depression? Well, I’m sure it differs according to personality, but here are some things I’ve noticed. They may be very quiet. They may be kind and sweet, but if they are also quiet and withdrawn, that may be more than introversion. They may smile with their mouth but not their eyes. Most likely, they will not laugh, even when you think something is hilarious. Their energy will be low. They won’t be motivated to go out and socialize or participate even in activities they claim to like. They may not care about what they eat or what they wear. They may give away even valuable possessions with no sign of regret.

All of those characteristics are things that I experienced during that hard, hard time in my life. I believe that Matt, with his different way of perceiving things, somehow figured out that I was not only in deep distress but also in danger, and he took action. He befriended me, and opened up at least some of his private world to me. I may not have been all that important to him, but at the time I believed I was. I certainly was not important to anyone else in my life at that time. That one person made all the difference in the world. He never talked to me about depression, but he somehow managed to lift the gloom a little every time I talked to him. Oh, how I wish that someone had done that for him in these last few years. Maybe he’d still be around.

Maybe we could all put more effort into really noticing what’s going in our friends’ lives, and intervening with love and kindness when we see a cause for concern. Whoever you are, we need you. Please stay.

A Bucket List Experience

Have you ever been outdoors on a bitter cold day, and happened to look through someone’s window into an idyllic scene of warmth and tranquility? Fireplace, Christmas tree, adorable children—maybe someone playing piano and people drinking hot chocolate. And you felt more than a little envious, perhaps, of their warmth and social-media-perfect life? Last night, I felt as if I was transported into that magical fantasy, if only briefly. I can never belong to it, because I wasn’t born to it, but I’m still glowing from the warmth of it. It’s one thing to know about it, but something different to experience it.

It’s Sunday afternoon and I have at least a thousand things to do, that MUST be done, yet I want to stop for a few minutes right now and record my reaction to last night’s doings. Last night I checked an item off my bucket list. I participated in a small town parade.

I had agreed to do it without giving it much thought at all, but as the day grew closer, and I put a LOT of time into practicing the songs on my autoharp, I realized that I was a little nervous. Parades are not something I grew up with overseas. I mean, when I think back to my childhood, my primary parade memory is learning about King Caractacus of Britain being paraded and humiliated through the streets of Rome in the first century.

And because parades of any kind are not a part of my past, I never thought to take my kids to a parade. We don’t have television reception or cable, so we never watch parades on the screen either. Parades, then, have not even been on my radar at all.

Yet, there was that bucket list item. I had this yearning to participate in the community event that is a small town parade, to see what it was like—to find out what the appeal is. What I didn’t expect was to be reduced to tears by the beauty of it all.

I got into the only Renaissance garb that I can still wear without it falling off me, drove up to  Mount Pleasant, and arrived at the appointed parking lot while the float was still being assembled. I was told to set my chair right up against the Christmas tree that formed the front of the float, facing toward the back. I covered the chair with a blanket and a cloak so it wouldn’t look “modern.” I set up my music stand and brought my autoharp. I even had a little magnetic light on my stand so I could read my music in the dark.

Just to be clear, our float was to promote the Canterbury Renaissance Festival, which takes place in Mount Pleasant every September. The middle of the float had a table and benches, with an inflatable turkey dinner and a couple of candelabra on the table. At the back were two thrones for our king and queen.

There were some frantic preparations as the deadline approached. The king and queen got into costume and sat on their thrones. Then a rope barrier was strung up behind them so they couldn’t fall out! Which meant that I was trapped on the float for the next three hours, because the only way to get on and off was over the side rails,and I knew my knees probably couldn’t handle it. We moved into position in another parking lot, where we’d be waiting for an hour and a half until all the floats were ready to go, and until it was dark.

Rum and mead were being passed around but no one became obnoxious or incapacitated. We sang some carols and I realized that all my practicing had been in vain. The lights on our float were powered by a loud generator that was concealed under the table. No one could hear the autoharp at all, including me, so they certainly had no way of knowing what key I was playing in and I had no way of keeping up with them because I’m not skilled enough to find and match a key that someone is already singing in.

In a way, this was a huge relief. All I had to do was fake playing and the stress was gone. I could just enjoy the parade. I looked over the parking lot at the other floats. There was everything from a castle to a local high school Christmas “king” and “queen”standing in the back of a pickup. There was a high school marching band. It was wall-to-wall classic Americana. It was glorious. I choked up just looking around at all the floats and all the good people running around to help.

On our float we had eleven people and one dog, a very elegant greyhound with a chainmail collar and a green velvet covering that matched my dress. He was right beside me and was so well-behaved. We had a dozen or so others who walked along beside the float and passed out candy and free faire passes to the crowd.

Finally, we got going. We were toward the front of the parade. Mount Pleasant is a town of about 16,000 people. I naively thought the parade would be maybe five or six blocks long. I don’t know how long it actually was, but it took an hour and a half!

There were several hundred people in the parade, of course, but I’m pretty sure that all the other residents of Mount Pleasant were in the crowd lining the parade route. I was gobsmacked. I honestly had no idea. This is a facet of American life that I have had no exposure to—small, tightly-knit communities that come together for group celebrations like this. I bet everyone in the crowd knew at least one person who was in the parade. Everyone in the parade was trying to put on a great show for their friends and families. It was so charming, so heartwarming, so deeply American. I was in tears for much of it.

We sang Christmas carols, waved, cheered, and yelled “Merry Christmas” at the crowd—the wide-eyed little children, the young folks in the backs of pickup trucks and SUVs, the older folk with their folding chairs and warm blankets. One young girl who was with our float kept dashing into the crowd to pass out hugs and greet people. I was enchanted by all of it.

Sometimes lately, I’ve been very discouraged by the way some things are going in our country. The bitter dissension between different political groups and racial groups and income groups sometimes brings me to despair. I don’t understand it and I don’t see any “cure” on the horizon; certainly not a political one. Sometimes I wonder if what’s left of this great country is worth preserving, but last night I knew the answer was yes. Small town America is something precious and amazing and it deserves to be preserved and encouraged. Little towns like Mount Pleasant are, in my opinion, a national treasure—a treasure that should be fiercely defended and encouraged. Now I’m crying again.

If you, like me, have never gone to a small-town parade, you should.

Parting Shot:

My view of the float before it got dark.