Let Go, Let God — for Addie Zierman’s LinkUp

So, this whole ‘let go and let God’ cliche from so many voices in the evangelical world. I’ve written about and around and through this whole idea from lots of different angles over the years, most especially as this cliche morphs with others — like, ‘he must increase, I must decrease,’ or ‘more of Jesus, less of me.’ There’s something about the whole ‘dying to self’ mentality that has gotten more than a little bit twisted over the decades. The longer I live — and clearly, that has been a lotta years now — the less I like any of it. In truth, I believe that this particular worldview has done far more harm than it has good.

When we advocate for the annihilation of the self — and at its core, this phrase is advocating for exactly that — we are lying to people, big-time. We are teaching something that is diametrically opposed to the kind of life Jesus invites us to live, the kind of life Jesus modeled for us, the kind of life we are designed to inhabit. We are, in a word, deeply devaluing the Incarnation. God took on our flesh — that’s how deeply we are loved. That’s how valued human flesh is — every single human-fleshed person ever exisiting — every.single.one.

Please hear me clearly here: I am not in any way disparaging the sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross, nor am I saying that we are destined for an easy, comfortable life. If the gospel shows us anything, it is that a life lived well is a life lived with generosity, kindness, tolerance, joy and acceptance. It is also a life marked by suffering, loss, sorrow, grief, tragedy and sometimes unspeakable horror. We are human persons, living in a world of beauty and of terror. Life lived here will always be a mixed bag. Yet we are promised joy in the midst of all the mess and mayhem. How is that possible?

Well, it doesn’t happen by abdicating our selfhood. It doesn’t happen by waiting for some kind of robotic activity within our zombie-like bodies under the strange spell of a god who is outside of us and chooses to use us like puppets on a stage.

It does happen when we are open to the possibility of partnership.

When we say ‘yes’ to the sweet voice of the Spirit who woos us with an invitation to join the dance.

It happens when we spend time, energy, effort — and money, as needed! — to discover who we are and how we’re wired. It then becomes our ‘job,’ if you like — our primary task in life — to experience God’s delight in us and to realize that it is God’s delight that both invites and empowers us to use our unique mix of gifts and talents in service of the kingdom dream. And that is going to look different for every single one of us.

There are no duplicates in God’s design. And we will never, ever become clones of anyone, not even Jesus. Hopefully, there will be in us — as in an old, married couple — an increasing similarity, striking ways in which we begin to resemble one another and our elder brother. But letting go of who we uniquely are at the core of our being is not what is required. Not at all. On the contrary, it is when we discover and release our ‘who-ness’ that God is most delighted and most honored. Ireneaus got it right, all those centuries ago, “The glory of God is a human person, fully alive.”

There will always be things to let go of, oh, yes, there will. Most particularly, we must learn to release all the accretions of time and choice that are keeping us from knowing and being our truest selves. Things like pride, fear, obsessive drives of any kind, besetting sins. Those things we must part with — or at least, keep working on!

But that center piece, that true blue, loving, imago dei?  Oh, no — not that. Not ever that. YOU are designed in the image of a loving, creative, hard-working, knows-when-to-call-it-a-day, merciful, justice-seeking, lovely, kind and joyful GOD. A God who sends some spark of divinity right into each and every soul that draws breath on this planet. A God who sees, knows, loves, and draws forth that spark, over and over and over again. A God whose desire is for our good, for our growth, for our mutual embrace. A God who — beyond our power to reason, imagine or sometimes, even believe — wants human beings to jump into the circle and DANCE.

Don’t ever let go of that.

Joining this reflection with Addie Zierman’s, “Let Go, Let God” link-up. Oh YAY for link-ups!

Out Here, on the Brink — SheLoves, September 2018, “Edge”

It’s lonelier than I imagined, this aging thing. I remember being impatient with my dad when we pushed my parents to move from their much-loved last home, built 15 years earlier, into a retirement community a little bit closer to us. He was suffering from Parkinson’s and atherosclerosis and my mom was wearing herself out as primary care giver. We thought the move would provide extra help for her, a bit of respite care. At that point in time they were 85 and 81. As I tried to help my mom get herself organized for the move, Daddy slipped into a quiet much deeper than his usual taciturnity, muttering, “Those places are where you go to die.” I tried to reassure him they were places you go to live before you die. He was having none of it.

I get it now. I’m still a decade behind where they were then, but I can smell the 80s coming at me and I’m not a big fan of that scent, to be completely honest. This is not a culture that values elders, generally preferring those past 75 or 80 to stay out of the spotlight and keep quiet. Part of me is keenly aware of the reasons for that truth: I discover, on an almost daily basis, that the inevitable effects of time and life are sometimes painful and humiliating and not particularly fun to watch. And I get that, too. But still . . . it feels lonely from time to time, out here on the doorstep of eternity.

Don’t get me wrong — there are definite benefits to being ‘retired.’ Opportunities to travel, to read more, to binge on Netflix as needed, and to serve in capacities suited to advancing years and garnered wisdom — these are gifts of this season. But let’s face it, I am on the edge — the edge of the end — and everybody knows it. Maybe I’ll live past my 100th birthday like my maternal grandmother. Maybe I’ll be gone next month. Who knows? And which is preferable? That, too, is open to debate!

In the meantime, I am trying to practice saying ‘yes’ to whatever life remains to me. My father’s choices shut him off from us. Part of that was disease driven, but part of it was his lifelong pattern of choosing isolation when things got difficult. I don’t want to do that. I’d like to dance myself off the cliff, if at all possible, so I’m trying to figure out what that might look like in this aging body, with this aging brain.

 

Please join the conversation (and the conclusion of this reflection!) over at SheLoves by clicking here. 

Redefining Terms — For SheLoves, May, 2018

Anyone who has read my work for any length of time will know that the content of this month’s essay at SheLoves has appeared, in slightly different form, here and in an ebook I put together about five years ago. It’s a BIG topic for me, essential to my spiritual and emotional health and sanity and I’m happy to have another venue in which to speak it true. I believe this to be one of the most important truths of our faith, one that can help us navigate any misguided theological input from our past. I’d love it if you would click over and join in the conversation at SheLoves.

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When I was a little girl, faithfully attending Sunday school each week, we had a little saying that went like this: “Jesus, Others and You – that’s how you spell JOY.” And I inhaled that sentiment like it was the sweetest of perfumes. YES! We should always be last on the list, giving ourselves away to Jesus and to other people. That’s how you live like Jesus, right? That’s how you are a good girl, a truly good girl.

As I got older, that simple phrase became a little more complicated, and the scent of it a little more cloying. This time, it went something like this: “He must increase, I must decrease,” lifting the words directly out of the mouth of John the Baptist near the end of chapter 3 in John’s gospel. From there, it morphed into, “More of Jesus, less of me,” and the older I got, the more terrified I became when I heard those words.

I didn’t recognize it as terror initially. In fact, I didn’t know how deeply this message had affected me until I began to be interested in spiritual direction. I first learned about direction by reading a series of novels, of all things. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, British author Susan Howatch wrote a great bunch of stories about priests in the Anglican church and I devoured those books when I was in my 40’s. They were earthy, to be sure, but they were also rich and filled with beautiful tidbits of theology and ecclesiology. Throughout the entire series, some of my favorite characters were spiritual directors.

So I began to look for a director, and the first woman I interviewed handed me the beautiful Prayer of Abandonment by Charles de Foucauld. It’s a beautiful prayer, filled with love, joyful submission, and trust. But I could not pray that prayer.

I tried, but I’d get to the word ‘abandon,’ and start gulping great gasps of air. I prayed about it, I talked it over with the woman who had given it to me, and her immediate response to me was this: “Diana, you need therapy. Not direction.” (Did I mention I was in seminary at the time and beginning to hear God’s call to professional ministry? What??? Pastors might need therapy? Well, that’s a great big YES.)

I spent the next twenty years trying to unpack what happened inside me as I read that prayer and, in the process, I have taken a long look at that old Sunday school saying and the use (or mis-use) of that verse from John 3. And I’ve done a TON of personal work on all kinds of important things. . . all because I gagged on the word, “abandon.”

There is lots more to these thoughts — come on over and join us at SheLoves!

4:38 p.m.

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They tell me there was snow on our mountains for about five minutes this morning. I never saw it, but I believe it was there.

I know in my head that my mother has been gone for exactly one year today, but my heart does not yet fully comprehend this truth.. It seems I am able to believe in the snow without ever seeing it, but unable to wrap my head around tangible things right in front of my face, like a clock or a calendar. 

Even though it is the way of things, even though death comes to every one of us at some point along the journey, even though my mother’s death was, in many ways, the very best way for death to happen, this losing a much-loved mother is hard and it is painful. At times, it still feels strange, unnatural and weirdly disorienting. Tears spring at the oddest times. Some small piece of decor or clothing will catch  my eye and I realize I am smiling sadly, even nodding slightly, as if offering a brief moment of homage to the force of nature who was my mom.

One year today.

We walked her last journey together, she and I, and it was not an easy one. I remember lovely sunlit moments along the way — sitting by the pool at her residential facility, each of us in a large sunhat, drinking in the ocean air, bird sound, and bright blooming vines that surrounded us. I remember laughter, her wonderful, rich laughter. I remember a smile as big as whatever room she was in, welcoming one and all. I remember how beautiful she was, even as age and disease slowly ravaged her.

I also remember deep confusion, the devastation when she no longer knew I was her daughter, her tears of frustration and of fear when she tried to make sense of something that was no longer within the sphere of her cognitive ability. I remember trips to the emergency room, her terror and embarrassment when strapped to a gurney she did not want or need. I remember deep bruises from falls, and the firm conviction that, ‘this is not my room, I’ve never been here before in my life.’ I remember a growing disconnection from things like seasons, days, time itself. 

I also remember her leading my Brownie meetings, teaching my 11th grade Sunday School class, bending over her beautiful stitcheries, and I remember with glee her bawdy sense of humor. I was deeply aware of how thirsty she was to learn, to read, to discuss, to ponder and wonder and observe. I remember how feisty she could be — and how volatile!

I remember how much she worried over me. Oh, my, how she could worry!

Now, at this late stage of my own life, I know all of that was because of her deep love and concern for me, but then? Then, it felt suffocating, limiting, inhibiting. She worried over my height, my weight, the way I walked, the fact that I might be “too smart to ever catch a good man.” She dragged me to multiple dermatology clinics because of my dry and sensitive skin,  she always wanted me to be ‘more social,’ and regularly encouraged me to invite classmates over to hang out. She also wanted me to enjoy athletics, something she was good at and I most definitely was not.

We found our way together, yes, we did. I was her first child — longed for and loved and cherished. As does every first-born, I bore the brunt of her inexperience and the leftover wounds of her own, sometimes chaotic, upbringing. But she was smart, my mom. And she was good. She learned from her mistakes, she apologized easily, she loved deeply and well. We found our way to one another during my adolescence by reading books together and writing each other notes about them. And we laughed. A lot. 

We also shared a deep love of beauty, in all its permutations. Today, on this anniversary, and as my computer clock tells me it is now exactly 4:38 — the moment of her death, one year ago — I want to remember and reflect on that most of all. She was the embodiment of beauty in so many ways — in her face, surely. But even more so, in her spirit. Yes, she could be ugly, too. Aren’t we all? But the beauty of her is what I cling to now.

Gasping at a glorious sunset, tenderly arranging flowers for the dinner table, creating a cake or a sketch, looking for and finding the beauty of others, even eventually encouraging me to reach out past the boundaries she herself had always drawn around me, as a female child. She didn’t fully understand my call to ministry at midlife, but she supported it. She wept when I told her — through my own tears — that I never could have considered going to seminary if my husband didn’t make enough money for its cost to have no impact on any other person in our family. She wept because she knew that wacky belief came directly from her own fears and prejudices, her own false picture of what it means to be female in this world. 

My mother learned. And she kept on learning, right up until dementia moved in to stay. And while she learned, she continued to love us all so very well. I thank God for her every day of my life. And I thank you, my dearest Mom. I miss you more than words can say.

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Undone: SheLoves — February 2018

Well. The theme this month is “hidden,’ and what came out of my fingertips surprised me. True confessions time, friends, that’s what this one is. Start here and then click over to SheLoves to finish reading and to tell me about how you choose to come out of hiding . . .

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In my therapy session this week (yes, I talk to a therapist every week, have done so for 25 years), the word that emerged was this one: ‘undone.’

Exactly right.

The entire session had felt like a chaotic purge of some sort, one story after another, tumbling out, seemingly unconnected. And yet, as she so often does, at the end of it all, my therapist said to me, “Diana, you are talking today about things that are undone, starting with yourself.”

Ouch.

SO on target, and exactly what I needed to hear. Over the course of my L O N G years of living, I have learned that it often takes this kind of unfettered babbling for the underlying truths of my life to emerge. Why? I think it’s because much of the time, we are hidden people, tucked away, even from ourselves, and turning the spigot of story-sharing to ‘on’ loosens the fences we have built. This is especially true when we are feeling under siege, which has been my default mental setting for many months now. Hard thing, after hard thing, after hard thing — and as I have struggled to make sense of it all, I retreat behind this huge, self-protective bunker.

Sometimes that kind of hidden is a good and necessary thing. When life goes crazy, we need to marshal our resources and hunker down. Pulling in every excess emotion and lining them up in a safe place enables us to more forward, offer help, stand next to others who are fighting similar battles.

But in the long haul, remaining hidden becomes a liability, not an asset. We need to come out from behind the barricade and take a good, long look at everything that is happening — outside of us and inside of us. And for me, this week, that meant admitting that way too many things in my life are in a state of undone-ness.

There are at least two ways to define that word, seems to me. Undone in the sense of incomplete, and undone in the sense of unraveled. Both are true for me — and my guess is, for most people — at multiple points along this journey called life. There are projects to complete, relationships to tend, ideas to make real. And then, there are people in terrible trouble, decisions that cause chaos, and situations that appear hopeless.

Incomplete and unraveled, yea and amen. That is me right now. . . 

Follow this link to continue reading and to join the conversation . . .

Flickers in the Dark: SheLoves — January 2018

Our writing theme for this January is, “A Little Light, Please.” Looking for it in he midst of a horrific tragedy in our central coast community. Follow the link at the bottom to get to the rest of this reflection:

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We taught Confirmation again this morning, my husband, Anna, our student ministries director, and I. We have done this every Sunday since September of last year and it is a task we love. On the attendance roster this year are 17 middle school students, full of energy, kind-hearted, generous, funny and smart.

Today, however was different. There were only eight students around the table at 8:45 this morning, much quieter than usual. I brought homemade granola, fresh berries, coffee cake and OJ, which they gratefully inhaled, and today, we sat together and talked. No lesson this week — at least, no lesson from the binder that contains our two-year course of study. The topic for today was, “Resurrection, Jesus Lives!” and we did reference that powerful part of our shared story during our time together. But a lesson plan, with discussion questions, art projects, readers’ theater or any of the other rich resources that are available to us each week? No, there was none of that.

Instead, we shared stories. We began with stories of devastation, loss, terror and sorrow. In the early morning hours of the previous Tuesday, our community was hit by a deadly combination of events. A rainstorm of record-breaking intensity fell on mountainous landscape that had just been scraped and seared by the largest wildfire in the history of our state.

And the mountain came down.

Boulders larger than small houses, century-old trees, automobiles, even entire homes, were swept downstream toward the ocean, taking twenty human lives away forever and injuring scores of others. Four of those killed were children. One of those rescued from a six-hour burial in thick, viscous mud, was a member of our youth group — the same age as the students around that table. Her father died, her brother is still missing, her mom is in the hospital with multiple injuries, expected to recover.

All of this happened in the dead of night, in a pouring rainstorm, on narrow, windy roads with limited access in the best of times. Swiftly moving debris caused a gas main to explode, destroying one home, scorching parts of several others. That blazing torch provided an eerie light in the midst of all the destruction.

In every other way, it was very, very dark. . .

To read more, please click here.

Wretchedly Familiar: When Life Feels Unfair — SheLoves, November 2017

Have you ever had a really bad day, or an even worse week? How about a terrible month? Try multiple months? Yeah. That’s kinda like where I’ve been this year. So I did some reflecting on that over at SheLoves this month. The theme this month? “Return.” Please come on over and join us!

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Wasn’t it just two months ago that I wrote about lament in this space? I checked, friends, and yes, it was. In September. Today, I find myself needing to return to those songs-in-a-minor-key for a while longer. October’s theme opened my sad heart to a season of rejoicing, for remembering all of the gracious things in my life for which I can joyfully and loudly thank God.

But at this moment in time, as I sit down to write for November, I find the syllables of lament are oh-so-necessary. I am returning to the language that lets me enter my own sadness, that gives me permission to fully experience the pain of this moment on the journey that is my life.

One month ago yesterday, an ER doc told me that I had blood clots in both lungs and that one of them had caused an ‘infarct,’ which means tissue death (!!), thus causing the sudden, severe back pain of the previous 30 hours. He sent me home that evening with a new blood thinning medication, to be taken twice a day for the next month. I was also told to visit a long list of specialists, including the hematologist who had been working with me for the last seven years. He would prescribe a new drug at a new dosage to try and prevent this from happening again.

Because, you see, it had already happened once. Which is exactly why this particular ‘returning’ was not on my bucket list. The first event in 2010 put me on the only blood thinner available back then – Coumadin, a drug difficult to manage and which complicated my life for five years. In 2015, I managed to tear a muscle in my abdomen, causing significant internal bleeding and sending me to the hospital for two days. At that point, they reversed the effects of the Coumadin and took me off blood thinning meds, hopefully forever. Hooray!

Now, I am back on them — this time, for good. There are newer versions today, easier to manage, but not without risk. That is sobering. I am seeing a long list of specialists to rule out any other kind of damage to heart or kidneys and must take it easy for another couple of months. And all of it feels so wretchedly familiar. I did not want this to happen again, but . . . it has.

So now, what do I do about this particular ‘return’ in my life? Part of me wants to put on my big-girl pants and suck it up. That’s my go-to, life-long pattern. It feels familiar and even a little comforting. But the reality is, I am now seven years older than I was the last time this happened. And I’m in a season of grief and loss. SEVEN people close to me have died since my mom’s death in April. Two others (three, if I include myself) have received difficult medical news, all involving ongoing treatment, one with a terminal diagnosis, most likely in the next few years.

I feel inundated by sadness, overwhelmed by all the pain in the world at large and in my circle of family and friends in particular. And far more than action, or even re-action, I find that what I need is . . .

Click right here to discover what is helping in this season . . .

One Last Good-Bye

 

It’s been a weekend.

Yesterday, we held a memorial service for my mother. My brother was well enough to travel south and as soon as he, his wife, Sandy, and their daughter, Rachel, arrived at our home on Friday night, I put the women to work creating this wonderful photo montage for the reception after the service.

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Both of them are talented artists and I was relieved to pass along this last task connected to what was a grand day of celebration and thanksgiving. About 75 of us gathered in the chapel at The Samarkand. Together, we worshiped God and celebrated mom’s life. It was a gift and a privilege to share stories, to laugh, to tear up from time to time, and to mark the passing of this valiant, vibrant woman, the last of her generation to leave us.

I’m including the words of remembrance that I shared yesterday so that family members who could not be there can read and remember with us. Some photos from the day, too.

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A lovely collection of snapshots covering several decades of mom’s life.

“For the first few years of my life, she was ‘mommy’ to me. From about the 3rd grade on, she became simply, ‘mom.’ And during these last, hard years, the name that most often came to my lips was, ‘mama.’

“I think that choice was the natural one because she had become so very frail and ‘mom’ seemed far too robust to use. I also think it came naturally because it has a tender sound, a diminutive feel. She became smaller and smaller over these last four years at the Samarkand. With each move, we re-distributed more and more of her material belongings until little was left. Her life, her surroundings, became smaller and smaller. And she herself began to shrink away from us. As she stopped even wanting to eat, she gradually became quite tiny, almost wraith-like.

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Eileen, Harold, Ruth, Al, in the back. I think Mom was about 12 in this picture.

“The irony in that, of course, is that it was her lifelong desire to be smaller than she was! Oh, how she wrestled with her weight. And she passed that wrestling right on down to me, in all kinds of ways — some of them undoubtedly genetic. But some of them, having a lot more to do with appearances, with wanting to please others, with a deep yearning to be something, someone, other than who and what she was.

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Days gone by (long gone by!)

But here is what I have I learned as I have walked with my mother through this last, long part of her journey on this earth: the truest thing I know about my mother is that she was BEAUTIFUL, in every way I can think of. The saddest thing about my mother is that she never really knew that.

Oh, how I hope she knows it now!

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Al passed away in his early 50’s, but mom and Harold and Eileen lived long and stayed close.
Mom was the last to leave us.
My dad’s distant cousin, Jan Baylor (whom we called Earleen – her middle name, after her father Earl), was a fun friend for mom, especially during the middle decades of her life. She’s in the bottom left photo and the very bottom one,  which you can barely see — in identical swimsuits (unbeknownst to them until mom visited Jan at her trailer near the beach!)

My mother radiated light. At her best, she was the most fun person I’ve ever known. She had a bawdy sense of humor and a great laugh; she took delight in her children and her grandchildren, adored her husband — even when he frustrated the daylights out of her — and she particularly loved seeing and creating beautiful things. She had an artist’s eye for color, enjoyed a minimalist, mid-century sense of décor, and could become rapturous over a sunset, a seascape, a forest or a tiny baby.

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See that look of delight on her face? Yeah, we saw that a lot at Christmas! That’s my brother Tom, back in the day . . .

Every once in a while during these last years, I would catch a glimpse of that great sense of humor and it always delighted me. Here are two small stories I recorded in my journal, one from Christmas of 2014, the other from April of last year:

Story number one, from Christmas Lunch in Heritage Court at the Samarkand:

“After lunch, we went back to her room, and she asked the same set of questions that she’s asked the last few times we’ve talked. And when I answered I tried to speak clearly. But her hearing is so bad, that she struggled to understand. Finally, the third time she asked me to repeat myself, I spoke very loudly, very slowly, very distinctly, and she looked at me, smiled and said, ‘THANK YOU,’ at the top of her lungs! It struck me as something the ‘old’ mom would do. And it made me laugh out loud. I was so tired and emotionally vulnerable — I got started laughing and couldn’t quite stop. And I remember thinking, ‘well, it’s better than crying.’”

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Goofing it up at a Christmas spent in Tom and Sandy’s cabin in Julian CA

And another story, from a year ago April, during one of our twice-weekly lunches out:

Today’s theme song was, “The Old Rugged Cross” and she sang pieces of it through our entire time together. I was able to find a couple of versions of it online and play them in the car as we drove south toward the water.

She does love taking this drive. She comments on the cars, on the houses, on the large numbers of people. The confines of her world these days are very restricted, very limited. When I take her out into the wider world, she is struck with wonder.

It is good to see where I live through her eyes, as I too often take it all for granted. We ate at Longboard’s, overlooking the harbor. And there was a cruise ship in town today, unloading its throngs of people to sit on various tour buses and populate the local seaside restaurants. The wait staff was extremely slow because of the increased numbers, and as we were waiting for our food, she said, rather than sang these two lines from the day’s theme song: “so I’ll cling to the old rugged Cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.”

And then she said, “And sometime between now and then, I’d really like a little something to eat!”

And we both busted up. These sweet moments are flashes of the mama I have always known, and I am so grateful for them.”

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There were two of these glorious arrangements for the service. We left one for the chapel service this morning and took this one home to re-use it as table decor for the family dinner that came after the reception at The Samarkand.

She was, as I told the staff here and at Hospice, the most flaming extrovert I have ever known. She loved people, was a caring neighbor and built friendships that lasted for decades. A friend reminded me the other day that on that first Valentine’s Day after my father’s death in 2005, she went to CVS and picked up a half dozen small boxes of chocolates to take to all the widows she knew at Hillcrest, their retirement community in La Verne CA. She knew their sweethearts would not be remembering them on that day. She kept up the chocolate-giving until she had to move into assisted living in 2012.

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Each of mom’s grandchildren participated in reading scripture for her service. Our three are in the top photo, doing the Old Testament readings — L to R, Lisa, Eric, Joy
The bottom picture includes Jacob Gold and Jeremy Morgan, my brother Ken’s two sons, and Rachel and Dylan Gold, Tom and Sandy’s two children.

The disease that took her life is a cruel one, a thief with no mercy, slowly stealing memory, cognition, discernment, even personality. But in my mother’s case, dementia was never able to destroy the core of who she was.

And the core of my mother was her faith.

From about the age of fifteen, my mother was an ardent follower after Jesus, wanting to go deep, to learn, to practice resurrection from day to day. Even though her background was conservative, she and my dad somehow managed to grasp the truest things about the Christian faith and to let go of much of the judgment, fear, simplistic jargon, and insider/outsider mentality that has come to characterize too much of the modern church.

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It was a beautiful and VERY WARM afternoon for an early dinner, planned and executed by my three kids and their spouses — thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to each of you.

She was grateful for her roots, for the women at Trinity Methodist Church who befriended her and encouraged her leadership skills, even paying for her to go to a special training event put on by Henrietta Mears, one of the first women leaders in the Presbyterian church of the 20th century. But she was always searching for more – and she read widely and well in order to learn more. She was not a perfect person — who is? But, man, she was a good one.

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Our funky but fun covered atrium entry greeted guests with bright colors, wooden signs . . .

I believe, in the deepest part of me, that what I saw in my mom as she slowly faded away from me, was a reflection of the light of Jesus. She always let it shine. Always. Just about 40 hours before she died, she reached out to kiss my hand as I straightened her bedding. Days before she left us, she offered that beautiful smile and those kind words — ‘thank you so much!’ ‘You look so beautiful today.’ ‘I love your hair.’ By that point, almost nothing else she said hung together with any kind of sense. But those short, kind compliments? They remained. They remained.

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. . . and some glorious blossoms, too.

Now Tom and I could tell you tales of tears, of anger, explosive and sharp, of deep-seated insecurities that often made her fearful and sometimes harsh. But you know what? As hard as those days were for us — and they were — over the span of our lives and hers, they amounted to so little. As she grew in her faith, as she and dad grew more deeply in love over the years of their marriage, and as she experienced more and more of the Love with a capital “L” that she and I believe is the power that sources our entire universe, those hard days became less and less frequent.

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My dear brother, Tom, with his amazing and talented wife, Sandy.

I had the gift of a good home and that enabled and instructed me in creating what I hope was a good home with Dick for our kids. Over these last years, I have been struck again and again by how central my mother was in my own formation and ultimately, in the formation of my kids, and now my grandkids. She came from such a place of damage, with an alcoholic father and a mother who worked full-time. But she was found by God and loved by the aunts who helped to raise her, by those women at Trinity Methodist, and then by my dad. And that made all the difference.

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Although our brother Ken passed away in 2009, his kids were part of the day — R to L,
Christina and Jeremy Morgan (I had the great gift of marrying these two five years ago; they have an adorable baby boy who did not make the three hour drive with them); Jacob Gold and his fiance, Kevin Herrera. 

Of much deeper importance than the scars I bear from my early life, are the graces that mark me because of my mother. She was the primary spiritual influence on me for many years and I am so very grateful for that truth. She modeled the honest, searching spiritual journey. She also modeled loving hospitality, and a great sense of fun and creativity.

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Our eldest grandson Ben, who arranged for some fun home movies to run on the TV in the reception hall at The Samarkand and made a video of the service, catching up with our son-in-law, Marcus

What rises to the top is her goodness. Her generosity. Her great good humor, her searching intelligence, her love for us. My brother Tom said it on Facebook this last Mother’s Day, “Ninety-five years with us. Loving, smart, funny. Give me a choice of all the mothers in the world and I’d choose the one I had.”

Yup. Give me the choice of all the mothers in this world, I’d choose the one I had.

In a heartbeat.

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Several long-time friends from Pasadena made the drive north and stayed for dinner.

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A gaggle of granchildren

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I discovered this sweet note which I believe was created by the 11-year-olds and signed by a couple of the older grandkids. And late last night (after I had collapsed into bed!), my youngest granddaughter had her mom send me a text telling me she was sad that my mama died and that she loved me. I discovered it on my way out the door today to lead in worship — another story I’ll post about later this week. It was a rich, rich weekend. But. . . we’re really, really, REALLY glad it’s over now.

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One of the best things about memorial services is the reunion piece. It was wonderful to see cousins re-connect at three generational levels, to sit and visit with old friends, and to savor the beauty of a life, well-lived.

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We miss you, Mama. But we had a GRAND time saying good-bye. You would have loved it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honoring the Body — Remembering Ruth Gold: July 6, 1921 – April 19, 2017

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Beautiful Mom, about 1948.

For most of my life, my mother was my best friend. As she began to leave us, almost a decade ago now, the inexorable blade of dementia sliced her memory into ever smaller pieces. During these years of decline, I often wondered how I would endure, who I would become without her richly textured presence in my life. What I witnessed was remarkable: the very essence of who she was became ever more finely distilled, until only a small but brilliant shard of light remained. Slowly, I began to understand — it was enough. Even though I no longer had access to all the pieces of my mother, the stories and memories I had come to know over the decades, what I did have was lovely. In truth, it was a strange and beautiful gift. Not a gift that either of us would have chosen, but a gift nonetheless.

Not every dementia story unfolds the way my mother’s did, a truth which makes me grateful on multiple levels for this particular and exquisite experience. For the last five years, I have wandered through grief, shed copious tears, railed at God for the cruelty of this growing epidemic in our land and across the world. I have also fallen to my knees in gratitude for the shining core of her, that glorious flame that blazed up and out and into the core of every single person she encountered. As the limits of her world grew larger and darker, as she lost the desire to eat, to drink, to walk — even then, she found a smile, a sweet word of gratitude, an exclamation of complimentary joy. “You look so beautiful today!” she would say. “Thank you so much for your help.” Not one other syllable made sense toward the end, but those words of kindness remained.

Ruth was born in Duncan, a small logging town on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, the second child and first-born daughter of Harry and Elsie Hobson. They gave her a long, cumbersome name, which included the names of some female relatives who eventually left mom two small diamonds. She gave those to me — and I managed to lose them both. Mom’s full name was Edith Lemody Ruth Hobson and she was a beautiful baby. They called her Ruthie.

Two years later, the Hobsons gathered up their little family and boarded a train, with siblings and cousins, and emigrated to southern California. Two little boys, my little mom, a second daughter ‘in the oven,’ two parents, three maiden aunts, a cousin or two, and an elderly grandfather arrived in 1923 and settled into a variety of Los Angeles neighborhoods. Mom rode the street car, roller-skated or walked all over what is now Hollywood and graduated from Hollywood High School in 1938. She went to UCLA for two years, and then quit when her family ran out of money; she always regretted never finishing her college career.

Mom’s father was a difficult man, and her mother worked. My mom became a surrogate mom to her siblings and found safe harbor in a local Methodist church. She met my dad there and they married in 1941 when mom was 20. I was born four years later, while they lived in San Diego. My dad taught math and physics at a military academy in that town during WWII — he was deemed entirely too spindly to join the army. In 1947, my brother Tom was born in a tiny town in central California where dad had an in-between teaching job while he waited for an opening at Los Angeles City College. When that job opened, we moved back to Los Angeles and bought our first house — a small, post-war tract home in North Hollywood. I was four years old.

All four of us attended that old Methodist church in downtown LA for the next eight years. I loved that place. My dad was the pianist, my mom sang in the choir, my brother and I went to Sunday School. It was at Trinity Methodist that I began to love choral singing — at the tender age of six. My mom made lifelong friends in that community and was the last one left from the old gang when she died last Wednesday afternoon.

Everywhere we lived, everywhere we worshipped, my mother made friends. Fast friends. I described her to the caregivers where she lived as, “The most flaming extrovert I have ever known.” Her gregarious and compassionate nature made her an excellent neighbor, an even better friend. In the earliest days of her dementia, I discovered that she regularly purchased small boxes of candy to take to her neighbors, to let them know she was thinking about them, to tell them they were loved.

In 1955, when I was almost 11 and Tom was almost 9, our youngest brother Ken was born. One month later, we moved across town to a different valley, from San Fernando to San Gabriel, buying an English Tudor style home in Glendale, CA. I endured (and enjoyed) adolescence in that home, learned to drive on the curvy hills of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and drove off to UCLA at the age of 17. Wanting to get my youngest brother into what they thought was a better school district, my parents moved to north Glendale while I was in college. That house was never my home in the same way that the previous two had been. I married a year later, graduated six months after that, and then my husband and I sailed off for two years of living and working in Africa.

While they lived in Glendale, my parents were active members of Glendale Presbyterian Church. Each of them served on Session, my mom on at least one pastoral search committee. They thoroughly enjoyed the Sunday school teaching of Paul Jewett, then a theology professor at nearby Fuller Seminary. My mother read widely, with a lively sense of curiosity and a commitment to growing in her faith. She read everything ever written by C.S. Lewis, Catherine Marshall, and Paul Tillich along with a long list of fiction writers. She instilled her love of language, reading, writing and beauty into the core of me at a very young age. 

She was also a ton of fun. She had an earthy sense of humor, loved to laugh, introduced us kids to British humor early on (anyone remember the “Carry On” movies??), and threw grand parties. She also decorated our homes on very little money, made most of my clothes and baked great birthday cakes. One of my daughters said to me last week, “One of my strongest memories of Momma was that she was always, ALWAYS, so happy to see me.” And that was real — she took delight in her family. De-light. Yes, she worried about us (especially Ken, whose life was difficult at many points and who died eight years ago.) But she loved us all and we knew it. Deep down, we knew we were loved. It was like oxygen — something that surrounded us always, something that gave us energy and life.

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Five generations – from lower left – Elsie Hobson, Ruth Gold, Diana Trautwein,
Lisa Fischinger, 
Ben Fischinger — taken in Orange County, 1991

My parents worked hard to create a good home for the three of us. There was one salary in our home, and that one a teacher’s salary, so we didn’t do fancy things. But we listened to all kinds of music on my dad’s home-built hi-fi set (or from his fingers at the keyboard), we camped all over California, and we enjoyed extended family gatherings on both sides, especially gatherings at some of the beaches along the southern California coast.

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Mom, doing what she loved more than almost anything else: boogey-boarding, Huntington Beach,
sometime in the 1980s, I think. She would have been in her early 60s.

Toward the end of his career as a professor and administrator at the junior college level, my dad had some serious health issues that required them to move out of the valley and closer to the sea. They lived in Oceanside for two years, then settled into a lovely town home in Mission Viejo, in Orange County. They loved that community and lived there for about fifteen years. In 2002, we moved them to a retirement community in LaVerne CA. My father died two and a half years later in February of 2005. My mom lived there independently until 2012, when Alzheimer’s put her into assisted living. The next year, we moved her to The Samarkand dementia unit, just ten minutes from our home here in Santa Barbara. 

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My parents, when they lived in Orange County

While they were in Orange County, I took the train south once each month for a long midweek visit. After they moved to LaVerne, I drove south monthly, then twice monthly, and stayed with our daughter, who lived about 30 minutes from there. All of those visits were an attempt to be as present as I could be with the two of them, and then with my mom, while their bodies breathed earth’s air.

Those bodies of theirs were holy to me, often in ways I didn’t fully understand. They had birthed me, loved me, tended me when mildly wounded or critically ill, clothed me, fed me and gave me away to my husband. (Yes, that is an outdated term, one that I no longer use, but it’s the truth of my lived experience in that season of my life.) I was with my father three days before his death, praying the blessing of Aaron over his unconscious, frail frame, telling him how much I loved him and how grateful I was for his care for me. When my brother called to tell me he had died, I asked that his body remain in the room until I could get there. Our bodies are supremely important collections of cosmic dust; they bear the image of an invisible God, they carry our stories, our selves. I wanted to honor him by honoring what remained.

Last week, I had the privilege of doing the same thing for my mama. Her journey took eight days, and every one of those days, I was by her side. Most of the time, I sat in front of a window, using only natural light. I put Pandora onto a hymn station and played it for hours. I finished a large crochet project. I called for more meds, as needed. I got up and blessed her face, stroked her shoulders. I ate the lunches I packed, I took occasional walks. I thanked every one of the Hospice team who came and cared for her so lovingly. One woman offered sponge baths, one offered quiet company, another brought her guitar and sang. The nurses were supremely skilled and compassionate, as were the caregivers at the facility. My pastor came twice, my friend Sherry, Samarkand chaplain for over twenty years, came daily.

Room 62 became holy ground during those long days.

At 4:32 p.m. on Wednesday, Sherry and I stood beside her and my friend said, “Look! Her eyes are open!” Those eyes had been closed for most of the previous five days. Her breathing was quite labored at this point, but as her eyes flew open, the noise stopped. She gasped twice and looked right into my eyes as I blessed her, thanked her, loved her. And she flew. I mean she flew to Jesus in those moments. I had been visualizing my father, my brother, her siblings, her parents and so many of her friends all around that room for days. And I do believe that in that moment, she saw them. And she was not afraid.  

All those dear ones welcomed her home — with love, joy and laughter. This I know, in the deepest part of me, this I know.

We will bury her on Tuesday morning, dropping her earthly remains into the grave plot she will share with my dad. We will hold a special service of worship to celebrate her life on May 20th at 2:00 p.m. in The Chapel at the Samarkand, the place that she called, ‘my church.’

Over and around the fatigue that I feel at this end of the journey, the strongest emotion in my heart is gratitude. It absolutely overwhelms me at some moments. There is sadness, yes, there is sadness. But over and around and in between everything else, there is thanksgiving. For 95 years, she graced this earth, 72 of them with me in the center of that grace. 

Thank you, Mama. And thank you, God.

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November, 2015, last formal portrait

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April 7, 2017

Parsing It Out: Sacrifice or Duty? SheLoves

It’s time to write for SheLoves once again, and the theme this month is “Willing Sacrifice.” This one gets pretty personal and you can finish it by clicking on the link.

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My beautiful mama, picture taken  yesterday, week three on hospice care.

What is it that makes a sacrifice truly sacrificial? Seems to me it has to be the modifier chosen for this month’s theme at SheLoves — willingness. I’m not sure that one idea can ever be successfully separated from the other, to tell you the truth. Choosing to give something up for the sake of someone else is what makes a sacrifice real. If the giving-up is not chosen, but forced — by pressure, either external or internal — then it becomes a demand, a duty or an expectation. And that is not the same thing at all, is it?

But sometimes, learning how to parse out that difference is one of the hardest parts of our journey toward becoming mature, loving, insightful and empathetic human persons. I have spent a good portion of my later adult life trying to peel away the multiple, nuanced layers of my own story, looking hard at the motivations behind a lot of my choices over the years. This business of learning to own your own crap is hard work!

I suppose the most central piece of the story for me is my long and complicated relationship with my mother. I’ve written about the last decade of our journey together in multiple places on the internet, including here. The hard, sad loss of this once vibrant woman is filled with pain and sadness, yet even this last stage through dementia has shed some light on who she is, on how her childhood both nourished and scarred her and how those scars had an impact on me. The act of writing things down has involved some hard, deep work and none of it has been easy. My mom was the very best mom she could be, loving me and my brothers well, providing care, concern, fun, beauty, color and laughter for us all. I am deeply grateful for her and to her and love her very much indeed.

But she was far from perfect. No big surprise there, right? Only been One person to walk this earth in perfection — the rest of us muddle along, wounding and being wounded, falling and getting up again. Just today, in the midst of her confusion, I heard these kinds of phrases: “I’m trying to be a good girl.” “I hope it’s not my fault.” “I think I did it right.”

Breaks. My. Heart. These are the wounds of early childhood, worming their way to the surface of a 95-year-old, deteriorating brain, even when nothing else she says makes any sense whatsoever. How can this be?

From about the age of seven, my mother took on the responsibility of protecting her mother from her father, who was given to binge drinking and gambling. Mom cleaned up his messes, stood up to him in her 7-year-old righteous indignation, and worried over her younger brother and sister. She had an older brother, too, but he was the crown prince of the family and apparently could do no wrong. It fell to mom to be the family guardian and watchdog.

And she passed that message, that burden, that responsibility . . . but not that sacrifice . . . to me when I was about seven. “Daughters take care of mothers, “ were her words and they came right into me, body and soul. I’m here to tell you that age seven is way too young for anything to be ‘chosen.’ Instead, the act of care-giving becomes part of your very DNA. Seven-year-olds are not, and cannot be, willing participants. Assumptions are made, expectations are parceled out and burdens are borne.

But for too many years, none of that was what I would call a willing sacrifice. . . 

Read the rest of this essay by clicking over from this link right here.