Friday, August 28, 2009

Mothers Meeting

Chris lives in a magical place, just above a Great Lake. She prepared a delightful lunch for us and then we walked down the path through the trees and as far as we could on the beach with her chocolate lab Harry, whose enthusiasm for plunging and re-plunging into the water after a piece of wood does not wane.

We shared in some detail our stories of motherhood shattered by unexpected destruction. Chris's only daughter Sarah was lost two years ago to the rocks and raging waves off the Cinque Terre, a place of utter tranquility when my family had walked there a few years earlier. We described those first days and weeks after the deaths of our children to one another and, in her case, the extraordinary warmth and graciousness of the Italian people, both when her daughter died and a year later when Chris and her family returned to the spot where Sarah died. It's now marked with a plaque and a copy of the beautiful painting of Sarah created by an Italian artist from one of the last photos (which graces the front page of Chris's blog) of that adventurous, creative, gifted girl. Chris shared some extraordinary photographs and videos with me, and we talked about what it is like to have had experiences like these and what it is like to go on, to rebuild lives in the face of mystifying devastation.

Today I began reading a remarkable book, about which I'll write more after next week. However, since my friends know I always read the end first, I will conclude for the time being with the final paragraph, which applies, regardless of the form of loss, to heartbroken but still standing mothers, walking the beach and wondering . . .

Love is selfless, firm, intense, and even dazzling. Its strength outlasts death. Its bond overpowers loss. Its courage defies inhibition. It has no end. . . . I carry with me a strength that comes from survival and a tenderness that comes from loving, losing, searching, and remembering.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Quieting Down

Over at my other place, I'm settling in for this upcoming anniversary week.

I have a big week-end ahead first, as the program in which I've studied spiritual direction for the past two years has its annual retreat starting tomorrow, with Sunday marked by our class certification ceremony.

This having been our internship year (upon which, for obvious reasons, I took my time embarking), I haven't had much to say in public. A spiritual direction relationship is such a confidential one that it seems to me that it would violate someone's trust to say anything even vaguely specific (an oxymoron if ever there was one!) about it. But I can say that I have done a considerable amount of direction work this year ~ some regular monthly direction, some one-time meetings, and a variety of personal retreat work, meeting with people every day for a church or college sponsored week, every week for a Lenten retreat, and every week for the full-blown Ignatian Exercises, which take close to a year.

St. Ignatius referred to his work as "giving" the Exercises, rather than as "directing" someone. He had, 450 years ago, a nuanced sense of collaboration and an understanding that what he had to share was truly a gift ~ the gift of presence to the journey of another. It has been a wondrous gift to me this year, to discover that even among the rocky shoals of my own life, I still have something to offer others.

And so ~ I have one more post to write about today's wonderful meeting with another mother, assuming I get the photos uploaded tomorrow, and then I'm going to spend a couple of days away, and then it will be quiet around here for awhile.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Health Care Rationing

Yesterday Teri Gross offered an excellent interview with writer T.R. Reid, who visited health care providers in several countries to assess their provision of health care. Among other things, he compares and contrasts their responses to a shoulder problem he presented. I have yet to hear the entire thing, but I'm going to try to listen today.

The section that struck me: his assertion that we, too, already ration health care ~ in response to the argument raised against reform to the effect that we will follow other countries by imposing a rationing system.

True enough, a country like great Britain rations specialized care, as he discovered when he sought advice about his shoulder. However, the trade-off is that basic care is available to everyone across the board.

We do somewhat the opposite. For some of us ~ my husband and I for example, thanks to a corporate health care package that costs us out-of-pocket "only" about $4,000 a year plus deductibles and co-pays ~ extensive and sophisticated medical care is easily available. We live within two miles of two internationally recognized and university-affiliated hospitals and we have eye and dental coverage. Our daughter's minor surgery last spring, for which the bill ran $14,000, added about $1,000 to our annual out-of-pocket costs, but it was performed by a world class surgeon who was easily accessible to us, as he had been when she had had the original surgery 18 years ago.

We as a nation are able to achieve the above because we ration health care at the outset: we simply eliminate entire groups of people from even the most basic preventative care. Our son, a restaurant server in a job in which his supervisors carefully ensure that he not work the hours that would require his employer to provide benefits, pays about $100 a month for a catastrophic plan that provides no well-person care and covers no pre-existing conditions, including any that occue under a period in which he has been covered by said plan. Actually, I'm sure that any serious illness or injury in one six-month payment period would ensure (pun intended) the loss of his minimalistic coverage and prevent him from obtaining it anywhere else. If he gets an infection that requires antibiotics, he will no doubt be out another $200 for the urgent care visit and meds. Despiter those two fabulous hospitals down the hill, he has no regular doctor as, I have heard, is the case for a huge percentage of Americans in their 20s without fulltime employment with one employer. Why would he? He can't afford the $200 I (or rather, our plan) was charged for an introductory visit to a new internist.

And he's actually in great shape ~ he lives at home and has parents who, even if he didn't, would foot the bill for his care to the extent that we could. (As we are probably about to do for flu shots, but could not do for, say, cancer.)(When my brother was 21 and uninsured, he was treated surgically for cancer; no chemo or radiation involved. The total bill at that time, more than 30 years ago, was $15,000. What might it be today?) Our city is full of people, young and old, who can't afford the $100 a month and have no one to pick up the slack for extras.

So yes, we do ration. Extensively.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Live-Blogging Mad Men

The Lovely Daughter in response to Ann-Margret's singing in Bye Bye Birdie: Did people like that noise?

Pete has to bring up his illustrious great-great-grandfather.

LD: Why does Pete have Paul and Ken has everybody else?

Gregarious Son: Don can sell a woman in a white dress a ketchup popsicle.

Pregnant Betty drinking wine and smoking a cigarette.

GS in response to Peggy's imitation of Ann-Margret: Peggy doesn't like it so much now that the guys are treating her like one of them.

LD: I'd rather be treated like a guy than a secretary at that place.

GS on Ann-Margret: She's very good looking; I don't think anyone cares what she sounds like.

LD and GS during commercial break discussing gender and laundry.

GS: So Don has made his wife feel better and gotten his brother-in-law's family out of the house and he doesn't have to pay for it and his father-in-law's house will be untouched. Don is VICIOUS.

Oh please, tell me Peggy is not going to risk another pregnancy.

Betty's father is back in Prohibition.

Peggy's into one-night stands now?

Everyone in our living room, looking at Don looking at teacher: Uh-oh.

LD: Independent brunette women are his downfall.

GS: I don't know about his downfall.

None of us get the ending.

Approaching Church

This morning I will worship for the first time in a church new to me, the church at which I will spend ten or so hours a week in the coming year to meet my field education requirement. It's a very old and historic church in the heart of the city, with a magnificent sanctuary, many outreach ministries, a dwindling congregation, and a new pastor.

A couple of years ago in my home church, we talked about what it might be like for a newcomer to experience one of our worship services. We are a vibrant suburban congregation with a long history of social justice work in the local and broader community, a senior pastor who has been there for 20 years and an associate for five, a sophisticated and diverse music program, a multi-generational and enthusiastic congregation. I have friends from other cities who tell me that if they could find a church like ours they would go, and friends at seminary who express surprise at the breadth of our educational offerings and the openness and eagerness of our members to learning and discussion. And yet we do not grow.

When we had that conversation some time back, we talked about how many roadblocks a new visitor with little or no experience of church, or even just of a Presby church, might find in a first visit. Even the bulletin, intended to be helpful, contained words like processional, confession, pardon, assurance, commission ~ I counted once and found 22 words that someone unfamiliar with our service might not understand in our context. (I just looked at last week's bulletin and see that in this past year in which I have been mostly absent, many of those words have been excised in favor of more familiar ones and/or short explanations. Very interesting.) There is a visually appealing brochure in the pews which tells about the history and internal activities and outreach of the congregation, but there is not, to my knowledge, anything which explains the design and purpose of the sanctuary. If you were to visit, I think that you would feel most welcome, but I'm not sure that you would have much of an idea of that to which you were being introduced.

As many readers know, I have often attended Catholic mass this past year, in an effort to worship quietly and anonymously. Even though I was somewhat familiar with the mass, it took a number of visits for me to feel comfortable. I have gone to mass in four different places and, with the exception of the Jesuit retreat house earlier this month, there has never been anything in place to clue a visitor in to what goes on. No welcoming announcement except, in two of them, an announcement of who the presider is and, in the case of the retreat house, the homilist, as that is usually someone else. No bulletin. No one in the pews or seats who talks to you. These services have suited my purposes, but they are clearly designed for those who already know what happens and what its significance is.

So, in a couple of hours: a new place, which no doubt will strike me as glorious in some ways and nudge me with doubts in others. It's a dark and dreary day outside. I have not slept well in nearly a year and last night was no different. In other words, there is nothing outside or inside to foster the openness of spirit I need for this morning, nothing except the Spirit herself who has led me to a new place in spite of myself, and the longing for a God who has remained mostly hidden for a very long time. A new kind of new beginning.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

My Great Housekeeping Triumph

After two weeks of procrastination, today I ventured down into the dungeon, I mean basement, to begin the massive reorganization and cleaning it requires. With two hours of work, I produced a couple of bags of clothing and a pile of backpacks and shoes to give away, and a fairly respectable pile of trash.

And I have found a leak in the pipe where the water comes in from the city system. Water water everywhere ~ at least all over the floor in one corner of the basement. I would not have known about it for at least several weeks if I had not been inspired to clean.

OK, so the photo is a tiny bit of an exaggeration. But still:


This is why our living room has not been painted in 25 years.

Whatever. I am off to the vet to buy that expensive prescription food that has kept a certain dog out of the ER for the last two years, before she calls the Animal Planet cops to report that her cupboard is empty.

I will think about the leak later.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Color Where There Is No Place to Put It

A couple of nights ago I stayed over at church as one of the hosts for an IHN week. If your community has an Interfaith Hospitality Network, then you know it's a program designed to offer a tiny bit of a homelike atmosphere to homeless families. Shelters are usually segregated by gender, which tends to split up spouses and divide parents from children. Through IHN, families stay overnight, in their own rooms as much as possible, in participating churches and synagogues for a week at a time. They spend their days at the IHN center, from which children are delivered to school and where parents find phone banks and other resources for housing and job searches.

Most religious communities host IHN families about four separate weeks each year. It's a high people-intensive committment: volunteers are needed to set up and take down, welcome and say good-bye, provide breakfasts and dinners, act as hosts during the early evening hours - mostly to supervise the younger children so the parents can have some privacy, and stay overnight. I figured I could about manage an overnight, with the minimal interaction it would require with either the families or my co-overnighter.

I didn't miss the irony that I was spending the evening with four families who have no homes at present at the same time that I was writing about extravagant home decorating ideas. An odd thing has happened recently in that several possibilities for serving the homeless have suddenly materialized in my life. A friend and former colleague is taking me with her next week to a huge men's shelter where she does poetry workshops. A man is my spiritual direction program is planning his internship around offering spiritual companionship to the homeless. This Saturday I'll be spending some time at the church where I'll be doing my internship this year, on a day when lunch is provided to the homeless. And if I get my act in gear and send an email today, there may be an opportunity for me involving spiritual direction and the homeless in the city in which I attend seminary.

In the very dark days of last winter, my own former spiritual director, working in another city these days, sent me without commentary a short article about Jean Vanier and L'Arche, the communities Vanier founded in which those who are developmentally disabled and those who are not share homes together. Why did you send me this? I asked. I don't know, he answered. I thought about writing something, but I decided to let it take its own course. I can't say that I felt suddenly inspired to anything beyond my own survival, but it did occur to me then in a vague kind of way that perhaps he was trying to tell me that my own life having crashed and burned did not mean that I was forever lost and precluded from helping others.

It's probably premature even to speculate about this turn of events, since all that has happened is that a few seeds have been scattered into my life. But it does make me wonder whether I am moving in a completely unexpected direction. I have a roof over my head and a loving family living in it with me, and yet in some ways as a consequence of the past year I feel completely adrift and homeless. New qualifications, perhaps.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Colors - Third Post, and Almost the Final One

It will probably be no surprise to long-time readers of this blog, although it was to me (isn't that always the way?), that when I began to look at the colors I like now, the words that popped up in the various descriptions were along the lines of retreat and reflective.

Some synonyms for retreat (as a noun), thanks to

haven, hermitage, hideaway, hiding place, port, privacy, refuge, retirement, safe house, safe place, sanctuary, seclusion, security, shelter, solitude . . .

and for
reflective, via its synonym contemplative:

cogitative, introspective, lost, meditative, musing, pensive, pondering, ruminative, speculative, thoughtful

The colors ~ all variants on blues and greens and purples, all the colors of the ocean which you may not fully realize, if you haven't stared at is as often as and long and in as many places as I have, offers an endless variation of hue. What I don't know (and as Ruth wisely pointed out in the comments below, I should take my time (even if finances did not mandate a leisurely pace!)) is: do I mean pale tones, colors reflecting the beginning and end of the day? Icier tones indicating a certain degree of reticence and withdrawal? Or do I mean the deeper jewel tones, the ones that work best for my wardrobe?

Wardrobes and homes are different venues for color, of course. Despite my (originally) dark hair and eyes, my skin is quite pale, and so deep colors rather than washed out tones look much better on me. (My daughter's skin is pale as well, but her blue eyes and blond hair practically mandate pastels.) I'm not in the least enamoured of today's multi-print styles; my idea of a great look is something more a la Kate Hepburn ~ tailored black trousers and a cobalt blue shirt.
For my home, though ~ I'm not sure. As I was reading blogs the other day, this wonderful mix of colors on Mary Beth's blog caught my eye and I thought: the perfect interior. Then I thought: too much. Maybe the perfect interior would be a paler version of same, with the deeper colors for accents via glass and artwork and the occasional pillow or even chair.

In the everything-is-connected department, the cooler, icier, paler colors are clearly reflective of my personal life and movement toward ministry. The former hostess of Christmas dinners for 40 is no more; these days, I struggle mightily in conversations involving more than a few people (and I say some of the most astonishingly inappropriate things when I get confused about the tenor of the group), but I do love to spend time with a (very few at a time) friends. The preacher and teacher and public speaker are still here, but I am told that I am very present to people one-on-one in a way that I think is not possible for me, at least not now, from the front of a sanctuary or meeting room, and so I feel a definite move toward a focus on chaplaincy and spiritual direction manifesting itself.

And so, I think that I am seeing our home more as a place of refuge and reflection, as a place for quiet conversation and small and simple gatherings, for others as well as our family, than as the place through which soccer players tromped and in which multiple chefs spread massive Christmas buffets. Those days were wonderful, but we have been quite changed, and perhaps what we have to share has as well.

(Illustrative colors courtesy of the Atlantic Ocean off Iona.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Colors, Part the Second

I can see from the dearth of comments on the post below that no one is interested in my reflections on color. Unlike Portia, who received 14 comments (including mine) on the post that inspired me. Does that reflect something about the age and life experience difference ~ she and her friends are at the beginning, full of optimism, moving from the bridal shower to baby shower stages, while I and mine are in the middle, reeling from life's disappointments and trying to rebuild? There is not a single one of my close group of ten or so friends who has not faced a life-altering confrontation with loss and, in several cases, true disaster, in the past decade. Why would we care in the least about bedroom color or living room decor, you ask?

Well, after reading Portia's post, I spent several hours playing around on websites related to color choices. (Where did I find the time? As it happens, I accomplished a great deal earlier this week but, as I have related and has been repeatedly affirmed to me, grief is exhausting. I have spent the past four days in something of a stupor, recovering from the previous three. Online playtime was practically a necessity.) The information was fascinating and, indeed, therapeutic. Possibly also boring to others, since it's about me me me, so I'll shave it down to three quick observations, with some conclusions in another post.

When we bought our home 25 years ago, the decor consisted of then very-fashionable colors and wallpaper in muted country colors and patterns: rusts, beiges, and sage-type greens found in an endless sequence of tiny prints. (You might notice that none of these colors are featured in my previous post, except as rejects.) But during those early years, as we began to recreate the house in our own image, we deepened but did not steer far from those colors, going toward yellows and blues and some reds. Not being Portia, I gave no thought whatever to any of this, but it seems clear now that my subconscious was steering me toward the creation of a home that beckoned with warmth and welcome. My personal wardrobe, interestingly, was based upon navy (interestingly, attorney Portia's favorite ~ and yes, I know the origin of the name Portia). A website tells me that "Navy carries the blue symbolism of importance, confidence, power, and authority. Darker blue, like navy, is associated with intelligence, stability, unity, and conservatism." Leave out the conservatism and you've got it ~ my approach to life as a young lawyer and then stay-at-home mom and community volunteer.

A few years ago, having recognized that our home no longer reflected our lives, I did a previous set of those House Beautiful type quizzes, one that asked about favorite clothing, geography, art, etc. It became clear that the beach and its colors should be my decorating focus. I thought that perhaps my ideal would be something light and airy and colorful: think Carribean and the covers of Coastal Living. However, we live on the Great Lakes in a home closing in on 100 years old, a home which features dark mahogany and oak woodwork and brass fixtures. I decided we would be better off focusing on the blues and greens of the coasts and waters of the north, Maine and Oregon ~ and even on the interior woods and lakes of Algonquin. I was still thinking warm and welcoming, however, as I was beginning to imagine the utility of this far-too-large-for-us house in terms of adult children and their spouses and children.

The past year has been an excursion into another realm entirely. I wrote a post last winter, I think, about my difficulties in choosing clothing, a dilemma echoed by one of my newly-widowed best friends. Who are we now, we wondered, a son and a husband missing from our lives? The houses raise the same questions as our wardrobes do. Our living room is the one room in our house that has undergone no changes at all in the time we have lived here, and I've been gazing at the walls in increasing desperation. That tiny rust print has no place in my current identity, and it's out of date and dark and not clean. This past week, unable either to stand it or to trade it in for a beach cottage, or even to afford to paint it (maybe soon), I went off to Pier One and purchased some dried plants to add some height and interest to the mantle arrangements. It now looks like someone gives a damn, but the colors are still all wrong. What am I to do? I don't think I'm a warm and welcoming person anymore. What kind of person am I? What kind of home should I keep?

Enter Portia's post,
House Beautiful, and this week-end's obsession with color. More to come later, but let me add one thing: if it seems as though I am channeling QG's daughter, I want to say that that girl, without a word about church or prayer or God, has performed a serious ministry to me this week. In writing about something that at her age I would have found baffling and somewhat frivolous, she has opened the door to some serious reflections about identity, loss, and self-expression. Who knew?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Colors, Part The First

Quotidian Grace's daughter, known by the nom-de-plum Portia, has a fabulous blog ~ here. Like the me of long ago, Portia has begun her professional life as a corporate attorney; unlike me, she has a flair for design and style. And she put together a great post in response to a color and personality quiz in the current issue of House Beautiful, a post which I, functioning completely out of character these days, decided to emulate.

I don't recommend this as a pastime unless you have at least a full hour or more to spare. However, if you are, for whatever reason, struggling to regain your footing after a life event that has stomped your former identity into oblivion, and if you are a tiny bit into the recovery phase, this little quiz actually has a very therapeutic effect. I'll have some more to say about it in a future post but for now, just for fun:

1. What color do you see when you wake up? WHITE ~ but not quite like this!

2. What color are your eyes? Dark BROWN ~ and I do find brown interiors reassuring.

3. What color do you wear most? BLACK, but seeing it in interior design form has me re-thinking that.

4. What color do you never wear? ORANGE ~ my Woodstock prom (see below) was a different era and a different me.

5. What color do you wear when you want to feel sexy? Who knew that you could google COBALT BLUE dresses and there it would be? Kind of Mad Men, don't you think?

6. What color gets you the most compliments? Jewel tones, usually BLUES and now some PURPLES.

7. What color is your lipstick? Generally in the PLUM range. I was thinking that there was little connection between my lips and my house, and then I found this plum-blosson rug design.

8. What color was your living room when you were growing up? Hardly so elegant, but ICY BLUE.

9. What color was your bedroom when you were growing up? PASTEL JUNGLE ANIMALS. I adored my wallpaper, and this furniture would have been a perfect match.

10. What color are your sheets? No consistency in my cupboard, but BLUE-AND-WHITE are by far the favorites.

11. What color was you favorite crayon as a child? BLUE-GREEN. In the process of putting this together, I learned here that Bondi Blue is a color, identical to Crayola's Blue-Green, and is the color of an Apple Computer named for the color of the water at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia.

12. What color is your car? CRIMSON. My own little midlife statement.

13. What color was your prom dress? ORANGEY-BROWNY-YELLOWY? Think 1971, India Imports dresses: Northampton Massachusetts.

14. What's your favorite gemstone? OPAL. A glassy and shiny version of the ocean's colors.

15. What is your favorite flower? TULIPS. Multicolor possibilities, from richly deep blacks to the palest whites, raucous reds and yellows to the most exquisite pinks and oranges. Delicate but tough and much too short-lived.

16. What color makes you happiest? YELLOW. It practically shouts summer, warmth, family, friendliness.

17. What color depresses you? RUST. What could there possibly be to say about it?

18. What color calms you? I'd call it SEA GREEN,an almost indefinable color that the ocean sometimes rolls out.

19. What color makes you grind your teeth? MAROON, which I used to love and which, I am sorry to say, is the color of the slipcover hiding the million sins of our [dog's] couch. These days it makes me think of a set for Bleak House.

20. What color would you like to try, but are scared to? VIOLET, which is totally not me and puts me in mind of my grandmother, but has a certain soothing quality to it and might be a nice accent for those icy blues and grays.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ignatius the Pilgrim Statue Explained

I've been asked why I'm so taken with the statue of Ignatius which stands in the garden at the Guelph Retreat Center (photographs in the two posts below).

Ignatius often referred to himself as a pilgrim. A soldier who experienced a profound conversion during his recuperation from a battle injury, he traveled a great deal in the next several years as he sought to discern God's direction for his life. No doubt he would have preferred the great mission adventures for which his colleague Francis Xavier is famed, but he spent the final portion of his life in Rome, writing the constitutions and letters which formed the documentary backbone of the Society of Jesus. Thus the word "pilgrim" ultimately had for Ignatius the same metaphorical connotation of journey that it does for all Christians.

Replicas of this particular statue are scattered around the world.
Here's a description from the plaque at Creighton University (which might be identical to the description of the almost identical statue at Guelph, but I'm not sure), with a good explanation of why I like it so much:

“St. Ignatius Loyola, the first Jesuit, leans into the winds blowing from the ends of the earth, manifestations of God’s power and the wonder of the Incarnation. The letter in his hand symbolizes the need that all humans need to communicate with one another and to discover Christ in each other. Adventurous, yet reflective, St. Ignatius meets God’s challenges as the contemplative in action finding God in all creation.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ignatius the Pilgrim

I'm very fond of this statue at Guelph.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


So . . . I didn't last long on retreat. What can I say? ~ It's a harrowing time of life. Disguised in the ordinary.