Sunday, May 26, 2013

Aroma therapy and smelling salts

May 26, 2013

Dear friends,

The week, thankfully, contained neither crisis nor emergency. However, it did contain an overly-generous amount of the common frustrations of daily living in an aging body and an imperfect world.

I lost (misplaced?) a number of items that I needed—none of them could be called essential, but their absence proved exceedingly annoying. I dropped my coffee cup and spilled coffee on the newly cleaned carpet. I forgot to bring in the garbage can which during the night promptly blew into my fastidious neighbor’s yard—the neighbor was not pleased. One morning I overslept my alarm and as a result greeted my first client wearing a truly splendid case of “bad hair." I packed for a trip, then picked up my suitcase without zipping it shut and spilled all my carefully folded garments on the bedroom floor. I went to the grocery store and left my list on the kitchen table. I—well, you see what I’m getting at. Literally, if recorded in detail the story of the week would exceed War and Peace in length, but the content would contain only a boring description of the tyranny of trivial trouble.

There was “no blood” as my nurse friend says; the week’s measure of trauma was certainly not life-threatening. In the long account of life events none of it merits remembering. Unwisely, however, I permitted the events to cumulate in an adult version of the frustration recounted in the children’s story about Alexander’s terrible, no-good very bad day. Alexander’s proposed solution to problem days was to move to Australia as you may remember. Fortunately, Alexander’s  mother  was quite wise. As she tucked Alexander into bed that night, she reminded him that in life there are days like that, even in Australia. Knowing this, nevertheless I permitted the week to leave its mark. I was not conscious that the mark showed, but it did as you will see.

On the third Saturday of the month I meet regularly with a small group of women. We share breakfast and our experiences as women of faith—our joys, our struggles, and the epiphanies God has provided. It is a rich time, a small island of communal caring and support in our busy lives. I look forward each month to our time together. Each time I find myself challenged, taught, listened to, cared about and strengthened.

This week’s meeting proceeded as I had anticipated—good food, warm friendships and the challenge of learning. We talked  about the love and gentle persistence of God in faithfully seeking to shape our daily lives. We celebrated the ways in which over the last month we could see God’s concern demonstrated in the minutia of our lives, as well as in major events. We thought about the mystery of the ways in which God “inhabits the praise” of his people.

Then as we were preparing to close up shop for the month, one of the women remarked with gentle concern, “Gay, when we came this morning your face was drawn and gray and tired. Now you seem more alive somehow—you look different. What do you think that’s all about?”

I think it’s about one of the mysteries of our faith.

Somehow being in the presence of these women changes me. Hearing their stories, warmed by their faith, encouraged by their strength, I am enabled to take into myself new energy, new hope, new strength for my journey ahead.

Paul knew this phenomenon: he wrote to the Corinthian church:
But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are. . . the aroma of Christ. . . the fragrance of life. . . . 2 Cor. 2:14-16.
I think these women provided "aroma therapy" for me.  They carry the very DNA of God within themselves, and in their presence I caught something of the fragrance and strength of life lived in the spirit of Jesus.

But these women did more than comfort and console. They provided, so to speak, sanctified smelling salts.  Into the residual fatigue and spiritual dullness that had resulted from my unwise response to a stressful week, they brought the sharp, reviving sting of a spiritual "sal volatile"  that stimulated me to wake up and respond to the presence and the goodness of God in my life.

I am still thinking about that combination of tranquillizer and stimulant.

Jesus talked about salt when he talked about the impact he wanted his followers to make on the world. Today I am paraphrasing this part of my kingdom job description in this way: I am to serve as sanctified smelling salts for a spiritually dull world, but to do so in a way that carries the aroma of Christ, the fragrance of life itself.

See you next week.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Going home again?

May 19, 2013

Dear friends,

Thank you, all of you who have sent comforting messages regarding my fatal incompetency in use of the “green house.” There was something deep and quiet and reassuring in your response that is difficult to describe in itself. I can, however, report its impact. I have decided to do three things: buy a thermometer so that I have some tangible way to measure the temperature of the interior of the “green house” when closed; remember that plants, like people, require ventilation, and, three, try again. Are you pleased?

College graduation ceremonies for my sister’s younger grandson were held this weekend on the college campus where I too completed my undergraduate work. A friend made it possible for me to attend. I returned home tired not only from the travel and the crowds but from the range and intensity of responses I experienced. There was, of course, joy and pride in the achievement of the young man who has reached this important life goal. There was sadness too that my sister’s death had preceded this special day. We missed her in thousands of ways throughout the joyful celebration we shared as a family.

But I also experienced a sharp sudden sense of recall and disorientation that was personally my own. The memory was triggered by a notice regarding summer school classes that was posted near the entrance to the auditorium in which the graduation ceremonies were held. I glanced casually at the notice as I walked by, then after a step or two, I suddenly became aware that in May, 1949, sixty-four years ago, I had first come to this same campus to begin college by enrolling in summer school. I was  young, naive, frightened; I was deeply uncertain about my capacity to learn and poorly prepared for the social challenges that lay ahead. I was, nevertheless, determined somehow, someway, to find my way and someday graduate. I was the first in my family to earn a college degree. When in the course of the ceremonies those graduates who were first generation graduates in the class of 2013 were honored, my eyes filled for a moment with uncontrollable tears.

I can’t yet explain the tears. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity and the amazingly sound education this undistinguished college made available to me. And I am astonished at times when I consider where my journey that began that long-ago summer school  has taken me over these nearly sixty-five years.

In appearance nearly everything has changed.

We came to the campus by way of the new freeway at a new exit marked as University Way. We entered the new gate to the new auditorium parking lot.  But yet . . .

In the distance I could see the giant old cottonwood trees that still lined Big Creek’s meandering path. They too had survived the changes and the passage of the years.

Not sure what I’m thinking today. . . Perhaps I am thinking what those trees are thinking as their wind-twisted gnarled old limbs lift tender young greening leaves once more into the spring sky.

See you next week.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Good intentions

Blog, May 12, 2013

Dear friends,

It appears that spring has come, or at least is beginning to come. Two whole weeks have passed without snow so there is some encouragement in that. I know this performance is not promise, however. In Colorado snow has appeared on patios more than once in early June. Nevertheless, I have purchased potting soil and begun to set out plants.

There is something fundamentally comforting to me in the smell of earth and the miracle of seeds and roots and green and growing things. I have been amazed at the resilience of some small perennials that emerged in the “silly season spring” we experienced in early March (70 degree temperatures!), then survived the ice, snow and freezing winter days that April brought. I have grieved the loss of my perennial snapdragon. It survived the cold of January and February, was putting up brave small green leaves in March, but could not recover from April’s winter storms. There has been enough weather-induced trauma to encourage both plants and gardeners to proceed cautiously.

I had expected that this flurry of activity and spring weather would somehow produce the makings of a cheerful helpful blog—silly me! What it produced was a practical reminder of one of the sobering realities of relationships as you will see.

The weather confused even experienced nurseries, and plants were shipped according to the frost-free dates established for a given planting zone rather than the reality of the weather occurring at that given destination. My order arrived via UPS, delivered by a driver openly puzzled by his assignment to deliver nursery plants in a snow storm. I understood his response.

When the carton was opened, I could see that the plants were clearly in severe shock and required emergency care. I carefully set them up on every available counter space in my warm kitchen. I faithfully watered them and talked to them encouragingly. Despite my care, two plants died. The others, although frail and shaky, appeared to have survived their dangerous journey.

Shortly after the arrival of my plants,  I went shopping with a friend and found a marvelous bargain—a planter with four small shelves and a clear plastic cover that could be zipped up to form a make-shift greenhouse. I purchased it with the intent that my struggling plants placed in this safe ‘green-house’ could grow happily on my back patio protected from the wind, warmed by the afternoon sun. I could recover the use of my kitchen counters. Win/win.

The initial move went well. The first day was cool and rainy, and the plants looked perky and pleased with their new home. The next day was warm and cloudless with the high sky and clear sun that mark the high desert climate of our mountain foothills.

I went about my day’s work thinking that by virtue of my good provision my plants were prospering safely on the back patio enjoying the sun.

However, the following morning when I went to water the plants, I discovered to my astonishment and dismay that the green-house (I had not thought to open it for ventilation) had become so hot in the afternoon that my plants had died in the uncontrolled heat. Every one.

I was reminded again—graphically—that intentions do not control consequences. If for no other reason, this fact makes mercy a basic staple commodity in my life rather than some abstract theological additive.  I need—daily—both to give and receive mercy, since the results of my behavior (and that of others too) do not always reflect the motives of the heart.

Learning to live with the awkward truth that my “good intentions” do not invariably produce good results.

See you next week.


Sunday, May 5, 2013


May 5, 2013

Dear friends,

This is the last story (I think) from my rehab adventure, at least for now. This story is complicated and fragmented as, indeed, all the rehab stories have been. This story was particularly difficult to catch, however, and, even after thinking long about it, that portion of the story I can tell will require you to make the story’s meaning out of your own life journey.

In my mind I named the staff member who played an important role in this story “Irish.” She was, I would guess, in her early fifties. Her face was beautiful—even the wrinkles that had begun to show were beautiful. She had typical Irish coloring, although her once red hair was now threaded with gray, and her freckles showed only as a faint cinnamon dusting across her pert nose. She moved with a dancer’s poise, energy and balance; she was graceful even when she was tired.

When Irish was at work on the unit, laughter came more easily. Hope seemed more possible—perhaps the hard things could become better. We knew that Irish thought that they could. That was, in part, the reason that she came to be with us.

The residents watched for her. They knew her schedule. The segment of the story that I caught began when Irish moved from morning to afternoon shift, and involved a resident I had seen in passing but whose name I learned only much later. Irish appears first in the story because she was the person I could most easily see. Only near the end of the story did I come to understand that the story truly belonged to this man whose name I did not initially know.

The man whose story this is was wheelchair bound. He was probably in his mid-forties (I guessed). In therapy he was working with fierce concentration to gain strength and skill that would enable him to transfer from his wheelchair to a chair independently. He had been handsome once, but his face now was lined, troubled and tense; his eyes were angry. A scar pulled the corner of his sensitive mouth slightly downward. I did not see him smile.

 His preferred place in the dining room was a small table in a corner area. He did not talk with anyone in the dining area or in the activities room. As I observed him, he appeared to live life in a brooding bitter silence that isolated him. He journeyed alone, and clearly communicated that he wanted it that way. Except—well, you will see.

Nights were difficult for me at the center, and I was often wakeful and restless. My room was near the outer door into the parking lot so that when my door was open I could see staff from the afternoon shift as they left. When Irish left, a scattered chorus of hushed “good nights” drifted down the quiet hall. But as I sleepily watched the daily pattern of the evening exodus, I became aware that as Irish left each night she would turn, look back down the hall and say clearly, “Good night, Tom. I’ll be here tomorrow.”

Who, I wondered, was Tom?

I eventually discovered that Tom (not of course his real name) was the silent brooding man in the wheelchair whose face had so interested me. And the part of the story that I had caught was this: Tom, who showed nothing but a therapy-focused interest in any person or event, made it a nightly ritual to sit where he could see Irish out the door. He waited for her “Good night, Tom,” and her reassurance that she would return. I did not ever hear him say a word in response.

What did it mean for Tom to see Irish go, to watch the door close behind her? What work was Tom doing as he watched Irish leave his world, listening to her gentle “Good night”, then waiting to see if after the darkness she did indeed return? What work was Irish doing for herself as she persisted in speaking night after night into the hard dark silence of Tom’s life?

Obviously, life events have differing levels of significance—not everything that happens is a ‘big deal’, as street language would put it. Nevertheless, I have come to believe that there is little if any trivia in this world—there are only those things that we fail to see as part of someone’s story.

 I wonder if Jesus was thinking about paying attention not just to God but also to each other when he said,  "Let him that has eyes to see see." Thinking with you about the needless injury we  inflict when out of self absorption we trivialize any segment of any human's story.

Seeking to be a faithful storycatcher of the commonplace.

See you next week.