Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Empty nothings

How then will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood. Job 21:34
 
Sometimes it seems I’m walking through this process so slowly that I barely perceive any progress. Yet, when I look back I can see how far I have come. I still have so much to learn about grief, about what it really feels like—for myself, at least—and my insights, my perspective keep evolving.

I’m attending a church-sponsored grief support group that has been so enlightening, so much comfort. When I hear the stories of other group members whose losses have been more recent, I remember the numbness and the utter heartbreak of my earliest days. We recently discussed how others may try to give us comfort but fall far short of true empathy. I suppose I should not be so critical of others who are trying to help those of us who are grieving, but it often seems that the well-wishers just can’t bear to see our pain and want us to “move on” and get back to our lives. They often say exactly that. What they don’t understand is that there may be no old life left, that what we need is to create is a new life without the person we have lost, to find a new normal. That process takes a lot of time.

Many in the grief support group have had the experience of someone telling them that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. I’ve had this happen, too. I had a friend hand me a homemade laminated card that said, “Remember that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I threw the doggone laminated card across the room and said, “Well, then, God is wrong. This is more than I can handle.” I probably frightened her and seemed ungracious, but it’s true—sometimes God does give you more than you can handle.

In the Book of Job we read of the unbelievable trials of a good man named Job. Some people added to Job’s troubles by giving him laminated cards that said God wasn’t giving him more than he could handle. Others comforted him—thank you Lord, for sending other people to walk beside us, to be our friends in the darkest hours. And Job’s ultimate comfort came from faith in God, from trusting Him.
 
Sometimes I lose that trust in a good God. I think God has abandoned me to face all of it alone. I think if He is all-powerful then He would fix things, that He wouldn't let people I love die, and He wouldn't allow wars and an endless stream of human heartbreak. But that's not the way it works. We are human. We have broken hearts and broken lives. Gradually we learn that grief is the cost of loving someone. All the while He is with us. Even when we think He has given us more than we can handle.

 
 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Who do you love?

A few days ago I was having a conversation with a friend about whether, under any circumstances, I could ever get into another relationship. Like with a man. (I’m breaking out in hives just thinking about it.) She posed to me a series of questions:

Could I love a man who is much older than me? “How old is much older?” I asked. She throws 80 years old out as a theoretical possibility. Nope, not going there. My mother is in her 80s and I go to her senior residence all the time and see those old men. No appeal. I don’t want to be taking care of a very old man, no clipping hairs out of his ears or wiping drool off his chin.

Could I love an obese man? Oh, Lord, this is tough. “I need to be able to get my arms around him,” I reply. Honestly, I don’t care if he’s a little overweight but obese? I’d worry about his health. I don’t want to fall in love with someone who I expect to die soon.

Could I love a man from another race or culture? “Yes, absolutely. That might actually be a plus. I may have reached my limit with white Anglo-Saxon men.”

Could I love a man who was dull or a little slow intellectually? “Nope. I want to be able to talk to him. Lively, intelligent conversation is an incredible aphrodisiac.”

Could I love a man who was a Republican? Oh, no, not the Republican question. In my mind I scroll through the Republicans that I know. John Boehner? Mitch McConnell? Dick Cheney?!! Surely there are other Republicans, people whose political philosophy is Republican but who have hearts, who are kind and generous, who don’t tie their dogs on top of their cars, who aren’t smug and obstructionist. I don’t know if I could love a Republican. That’s a really tough question. You can judge for yourself if you think these men are loveable.


 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shower curtain festival

Don't ever accuse me of being shallow. I think I heard somewhere (I'm lying) that the Tuesday before Thanksgiving is National Shower Curtain Appreciation Day. So in honor of this important day I'm having my own private shower curtain festival. I know how to have fun.

I decided my guest bathroom needed a little spiffery. I've sewn shower curtains before and I was going to make shower curtains for the little bathroom that previously only had a simple white plastic curtain that looks like lace. The fake lace has been fine for years but when I get the bug to do a house project I won't rest until it's done. But instead of finding the fabric and getting out the sewing machine, I found these at World Market. Can I just say how much I love World Market? So--voila!--they are up. I've got this thing for having two curtains because I think it makes the room look much more done. The functional plastic curtain is on a separate rod just behind the one with the fabric. You might be able to see it peeking out.

So go out and buy yourself a shower curtain and have a happy day.



Friday, November 22, 2013

Raisin oatmeal pecan cookies




I felt obligated to undo the nausea I induced with my last post. I am repeating a recipe that I posted before. It's Ina Garten's recipe, my photo. These cookies are incredible.







Raisin Oatmeal Pecan Cookies

1 1/2 cups pecans
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup granulated sugar
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1 1/2 cups raisins
 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the pecans on a sheet pan and bake for 5 minutes, until crisp. Set aside to cool. Chop very coarsely.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar together on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. With the mixer on low, add the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla.

Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt together into a medium bowl. With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture. Add the oats, raisins, and pecans and mix just until combined.

Using a small ice-cream scoop or a tablespoon, drop 2-inch mounds of dough onto sheet pans lined with parchment paper. Flatten slightly with a damp hand. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Transfer the cookies to a baking rack and cool completely.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Jello with sausage


Since it's almost Thanksgiving and you normally eat way too much I want to give you some help in curbing your appetite. Maybe you just need to look at this lovely dish called Windsor Sausage in Jelly. If merely looking at the photo doesn't kill your appetite from now until sometime after 2014 rolls around, then perhaps I need to list for you a few of the ingredients: gelatin, luncheon sausage, hard-boiled eggs, and Worcestershire sauce. It's not complete without the radish and parsley garnish. Yes, I have the full recipe, and if you really want it, you can beg me. Bon appetit!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Arnold's cranberry sausage stuffing


This recipe is legendary. I've been searching through my cookbooks because I could swear that somewhere in those shelves of books I saved the actual recipe cut from the plastic bag that contained the stuffing cubes and tucked it between some pages. Somewhere. It was handed down through generations of a family (for illustrative purposes only, let's say it was the Mueller-Scharffenberger family). I've been making this recipe for many years and everyone who has it says it's the best stuffing they've ever had. Turkey is overrated; the stuffing is not.


Arnold’s Cranberry Sausage Stuffing

1 (15 oz.) Arnold's stuffing with seasoning
2 eggs, slightly beaten
4 medium onions, finely chopped (1 ½ cups)
6 stalks celery, finely chopped (2 ½ cups)
1 lb. pork sausage, pan fried and drained
1 can (8 oz.) jellied cranberry sauce (beaten until thin)
1 to 2 cups apple juice

Mix the stuffing mix, cooked sausage, onions, celery, eggs, and beaten cranberry sauce. Add apple juice a little at a time, until entire mixture is dampened but not mushy. For less moist stuffing use less apple juice. Stuff 18 - 20 pound turkey. Roast turkey as directed for weight. Extra stuffing can be baked separately in covered casserole for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.


 
 

Friday, November 15, 2013

A strange melancholy

"At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance . . . To these causes must be attributed that strange melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance, and that disgust at life which sometimes seizes upon them in the midst of calm and easy circumstances." Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol 2, published in 1840
 
The term “strange melancholy” has been stuck in my brain. I saw the words used in a slightly different context and decided to track it down to its source.

Yes, I remember learning about Alexis de Tocqueville in American History classes but I recall no details of his observations of the American people in the early years of our nation’s independence. Although he wrote nearly 200 years ago, what he wrote in 1840 could have been written today.

I live in a very affluent area. I’m a leftist evangelical Christian, slightly crazy woman who shops in thrift stores and hangs laundry on the clothes line. I paint furniture and sell it. I’m surrounded by wealthy conservative CEOs and diplomats who have personal shoppers and laundresses. My little community is what I call “the cheap seats” and the value of my townhouse is well below the average for the surrounding area, where it’s hard to find a house for under $1 million. Parking lots here are full of fancy Range Rovers and high-end sedans. Women wear fur coats to the grocery store. Skinny teenaged girls with perfect smiles and perfect skin talk about being bored while they flip their perfect hair. They have designer clothes before they are old enough to drive. I see them drinking lattes at Starbucks in their riding clothes. Their mothers look perfect too.

But I overhear snippets of their conversations with friends at the coffee shops or on their cellphones. They don’t seem happy. In the midst of abundance their focus seems to be on what they still need, their frustration over what they can’t control. In the midst of abundance, many of their hearts seem strangely empty, their lives untethered.

I sometimes envy their material wealth, their beautiful houses, their vacation homes by the sea, their gorgeous clothes, their toned bodies, and their fancy parties. I envy them until I smack myself upside the head and remember that those things that I sometimes covet are just empty trinkets. The abundance that truly fills the heart is so much more than trinkets.

So Alexis de Tocqueville got it in 1840. Some things haven't changed. He saw that people can have seemingly abundant lives, full of material things, and still be sad. They chase their tails, trying to get more things, more abundance, and don’t find contentment. I can’t claim perfect contentment either, but I think I’m beginning to learn that the source of true abundance is not of this Earth.

Philippians 4:11-13 “ . . . for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
 

Friday, November 8, 2013

A closer walk

I am weak but Thou art strong;
Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I'll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

 
From an old traditional hymn, Just a Closer Walk With Thee

God is sovereign, powerful beyond my mere mortal understanding. And I am weak. Even my weakness is beyond my mere mortal understanding. Can I draw close enough to Him to absorb by osmosis (or by some other means that I can’t understand) just a scintilla of His strength? Can I touch the hem of His garment and get all I need?

Yesterday was rough for me, especially last night. I was thinking about Mike, thinking about the early days, and I followed it through to how it ended, how he died loving me. And I cried, nostalgic tears but also tears of gratitude, tinged with sorrow. I thanked God that I could still be grateful, despite the grief.

This morning I sat at my kitchen table in prayer. I had a feeling that I can only feebly explain—it was an incredible sense that the Lord really was there, listening to me, being with me. I began to pray, not in a distracted, detached way, but with real fervor, almost a sense of urgency. I realized that I had clenched my fists and told myself, no, I can’t clench my fists, I can’t try to be strong on my own; I must be with Him and rely on Him from a position of receiving. So I prayed with open arms.

I poured it all at His feet, told Him I wanted to draw closer and closer to Him, to rely only on Him. I can’t do any of it on my own. My ideas for what I expected my life to be have not materialized. I want to believe in Him with all my heart and I want to know that my truest joy will come with unwavering trust in His plan for my life, not my failed plan. I don’t want to fear the winds of change or fear facing the rest of my life alone. I want to be able to withstand the grief that life throws at me, knowing there is something much better beyond this frail human existence.

All the while, my arms outstretched in supplication and tears running down my face, I still had a nagging doubt about my sense of God’s presence. Was it real? And the words, “I am with you always,” came to me, unbidden, like vapor in the air. And I felt compelled to open the Bible.

I opened my big ESV study Bible—thousands of pages—to exactly the page in John 16 where I read these verses:

 “Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. 33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:32-33

 It was such a moment of pure grace. I have never so strongly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. “It’s true,” I said. “It’s really true—God exists. How could I ever have doubted?” I laughed and cried, thanked Him, and asked Him to let me keep this assurance until the end of my days.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Barabbas

 
 
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I come that they may have life and live it abundantly. John 10:10

 
 
 
 
 
I once saw a person with “I am Barabbas” tattooed on his arm. Perhaps we should all be called Barabbas.

The Gospels describe the scene as Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, awaiting his sentence. It was the tradition during the festival time that the governor (Pilate) asked the crowd to choose one prisoner to be released. Pilate gave the crowd the choice of Jesus or Barabbas, a notorious prisoner who was imprisoned for many crimes. The chief priests and the elders had stirred up the crowd to release Barabbas and destroy Jesus.

And he (Pilate) said, “Why what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” Matthew 27:23

It is impossible to know what Barabbas did after being freed from prison. Did he go to Calvary and see Jesus crucified? Imagine Barabbas seeing Jesus nailed to the cross. That torturous death should have been his fate, but he drew the “get out of jail free” card. Did he take to heart the fact that an innocent man died in his place?

God saved the world through the righteousness of one man. Jesus’s sacrificial death paid our debt in full. Aren’t we all Barabbas—guilty as charged? Aren’t we all notorious sinners, not worthy of the death of the son of God?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Uphill



It’s a perfect fall day. The sky is deep blue and the leaves are in full glorious color. I decided it was a good day to screw on my courage and take a walk in the old neighborhood.

I used to walk various routes through the neighborhood nearly every day when I lived there. But it has been fourteen years since I moved out of the house, and although it’s only about a mile from where I currently live, I have seldom dared go there.

I loved the house—it was an extensive renovation and rebuilding project that I designed and managed. When my divorce was finalized the house was sold and I had to leave. In past years, being in the neighborhood reminded me of what I lost and seeing the house made me cry. It was just another grief.

So today I parked several blocks away and started walking. Funny, I thought, I don’t remember the hills being so steep. I’m fourteen years older now—have I aged that much or did the hills grow? I walked past the house. It’s still beautiful and the landscaping has matured. It was okay—it didn’t occur to me to cry. I felt proud that I had created it, that a big part of me is in that house, whether I live there or not. The neighborhood streets were familiar and I took comfort in being there. It was almost triumphant. I've reclaimed that part of my life in a new way and I think I'll be walking through the neighborhood often from now on.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Moments of grace

Yesterday started out rough—I was feeling the heavy weight of grief, depressed, lonely, angry, withdrawing. I questioned God’s role in all of this, wondered if He really hears my prayers. Yet I prayed, fervently pleaded with Him to be all I need Him to be. I said I was just going to place my pain at the foot of the cross, that this was one of the times I couldn’t carry it alone, and asked Him to take the weight of my heavy heart.

I muddled through the day, periodically saying, “Lord, please get me through this. I can’t do it alone. Please, do something.”

And late in the day I got a couple of encouraging e-mails from a woman I know who has experienced deep grief. One of the things she said was that there are blessings to be found in all things, that I just need to open my eyes to see them.

As soon as the sun set, the doorbell started ringing—trick or treaters. Sweet little kids and teenagers and many parents who stood behind at the sidewalk. They were all polite and full of joy. By 7:30 I had run out of what I thought was a huge amount of candy. My brother was with me and we kept count—our tally was nearly 250 kids. So, with no more candy to distribute, I turned out the lights. Yet the doorbell rang. It was a group of young teenage boys. I told them I was sorry, but I had run out of candy. They were polite and started walking away. I said, “Well, I can offer you a can of cat food or a package of dried beans.”

A kid with braces, dressed as a Rastafarian, or perhaps a white Bob Marley, walked back up the steps and said, “Wait! You have beans? Cool! Beans are healthy.”

So the Rastafarian came back up the steps and I gave him a bag of heirloom dried beans. He told me he knew how to cook them and accepted them gladly. Then he hugged me.

I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by a Rastafarian after I gave him a bag of heirloom dried beans. Thank you, Lord, for reminding me that grace is all around me.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Chicken sweet potato chili with kale





The search for the perfect chili is never-ending. I think it should stay that way, ever searching for perfection. I think I got this one from a friend who entered it in a chili cook-off. She graciously shared the recipe with me. The unusual addition of sweet potato and kale is quite interesting and delicious.
 
I've got a note on this that says it has been revised and I revised some more, but the original source was Cooking Matters. Give credit where credit is due. My photo.
 
Chicken Sweet Potato Chili with Kale

Olive oil
2 pounds ground chicken breast
1 large onion, chopped
1 large unpeeled sweet potato, washed and cut into chunks
4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
2 large red bell peppers, seeded and cut into medium dice
2 stalks of celery, sliced into bite sized pieces
6 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
2 cups chicken stock
2 15 ounce cans of kidney or black beans, drained and rinsed
2 28 ounce cans diced tomatoes
1 bunch of kale, washed, dried, stripped from the central rib, and cut into ribbons
Handful of okra pods (0ptional)
4 tablespoons chili powder (or more to taste)
2 tablespoons ground cumin
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Optional garnish: Lime wedges, jalapeño slices, sour cream, or fresh cilantro
 
Place a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat and pour in about a tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil is hot, brown the chicken, working in batches until it is nicely caramelized. Remove the chicken from the pot and place in a bowl.

Add more olive oil if necessary, then add the onions, carrots, and sweet potato to the pan until the vegetables have started to soften, and the onion is golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Add the garlic, celery, and red pepper and cook another 4-5 minutes. Add the chili powder and cumin and stir.

Add the beans, tomatoes, browned chicken, and chicken stock to the pot and bring it to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook gently for about 15 minutes. Add the sliced kale and okra and cook another 10 minutes or so, or until the carrots and sweet potato are just tender.

Check for seasoning, adding more chili powder and salt and pepper as needed.

Add garnish if desired.


Serves 10-12
 


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fadda, Fadda

“Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.” Titus 2:3

Uh-oh. Fail. Suppose it’s too late to get a Bible that does not include these instructions to older women, a group that includes me. I was trying to grasp all the finer points of this, trying to figure out how to improve my behavior to live more in line with the teachings of scripture. I thought back to all the times in Catholic school when one of the parish priests would come into our classroom to teach religion and the students got to ask the priest questions. And I imagined what it would be like if the priest came before a group of “older women” who got to ask questions about this passage from Titus.

Father O’Brien reads the passage from Titus 2 and all the hands in the room go up. “But Fadda, Fadda,” they say in unison.

Father: “Yes, Mary Margaret.”

Older woman: “Fadda, can you tell me how much wine this means? It doesn’t mention beer, vodka, or pomegranate passion margaritas with salt. Can we just let our conscience be our guide?”

Father: “Perhaps we need to discuss this in the confessional. Next question? Mary Anne?”

Older woman: “About teaching younger women to love their husbands and children. Do we teach them to love the ungrateful slobs when they smoke those stinkin’ cigars in the house and walk all over my clean carpets with muddy shoes and—"

Father: “Perhaps we need to discuss this in the confessional. Next question? Mary Catherine?”
 
Older woman: “This self-control thing, Fadda. My idiot sister says I have no self-control when it comes to jelly doughnuts. How do I tell her with loving Christian kindness that it’s none of her damned business how many jelly doughnuts I eat?”

Father: “Perhaps we need to discuss this in the confessional. Next question? Mary Theresa?”

Older woman: “I need you to clarify the pure thing, Fadda. What about Isabelle McCafferty when she wears those tight skirts to the K of C dances and sits on all the men’s laps?”

Father: “Perhaps we need to discuss this in the confessional. Next question? Mary Frances?”

Older woman: “About this working at home thing. Fadda, I work my ass off at home [muffled giggling in the room]. Oh, sorry, Fadda, I shouldn’t have said ass in front of you. [She makes the sign of the cross.] Except for the mornings when I drink my coffee and the afternoons when I watch my stories on the TV. I’m exhausted. How much work does this mean?”

Father: “Perhaps we need to discuss this in the confessional. Next question? Mary Kathleen?”

Older woman: “Fadda, you said women should be kind and submissive to their husbands. My late husband, Mr. McGuire—may he rest in peace—drank like a fish, played cards, and never lifted a finger to help me. He was a good man. But he told me to stop nagging, to get off his back, to leave him alone. Should I have been kind and submissive or should I have kept trying to straighten him out?”

Father: “Perhaps we need to discuss this in the confessional. I must go now and tend to my priestly duties. Have a blessed day, ladies.”
 
Older women, in unison: "Thank you, Fadda."

Hmmm . . . I seemed to have strayed far from the Titus text. Perhaps I need to discuss this in the confessional.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A prayer for God's existence

The thing about grief is that it doesn’t really go away. You may feel reasonably happy, content, at peace with the loss. Then another wave hits you. After time part of the sorrow becomes knowing that it’s just going to be this way forever. Maybe it will wane in intensity, but what you’ve lost won’t come back. It’s the human condition.

This morning I awoke with a heavy heart, a remnant of some dream that I sensed in my gut but could not recall the details. So I prayed, trying to praise God for His glorious grace, trying to thank Him despite my heavy heart. I just needed some comfort.
 
“ . . . as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” 2 Corinthians 6:10

I walked deeper into the pit. I prayed, pleaded with Him to exist, to make my faith stronger so I can hold on to Him—without doubt—during these waves. I needed to feel God’s presence, needed something as tangible as to see Him walking into the room. He didn’t appear.

Could it be possible that there is no God? What are these prayers if He doesn’t exist? Just a lot of noise in the constellation? The whining, pitiful pleading of an old woman in Virginia, planet Earth? Where do the prayers go if there is no God? Like a child’s letter to Santa Claus—written with love and belief and yearning—do they go to the dead letter office at the North Pole? Does some parent, in an attempt to keep up the charade a little longer, write a response in Santa-like penmanship?

I will not accept that God doesn’t exist. I look at the sky at night, see the Rocky Mountains, look at the miracle of my five grandchildren, and I have to believe there is a power that created all of this. I see how things have been designed—from the order of the cosmos down to the intricacies of the smallest organisms—and I have to believe, want to believe it is the work of a good and sovereign God. No, I don’t simply want to believe it, I plead to believe it.

Please exist, Lord. Please let your plan of salvation be real. If my prayers are going to a dead letter office I don’t want to know. Let me be full of awe, full of faith, confident that there will be a happy ending to this story. Let me hold on to your promise to the end of my days.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Be still


Sometimes we can find God quite easily. Sometimes not at all. Sometimes our heart is like the sun. Sometimes the heart is like a stone. Such loss is among our deepest griefs. Some say we can never find God, but only be still until God finds us. Only “be still and know.” Unattended Sorrow by Stephen Levine

Last night I read that passage. Funny how these things pop up that echo my current thoughts. I have been living especially quietly in the past week or so, trying to hear the voice of God, trying to discern His will. Reading this reaffirmed my instinct that I don’t need to be banging around, beating my head against a wall, wondering what I should do.  This is not something I figure out by planning and thinking and mulling over options ad nauseam. (My primary concern is leaving my church and finding a new church.) I just need to quiet my mind and wait for God to find me.
 
Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Uniform dating code

In my little world it seems lately that everyone is telling me a story about someone who met the love of their life through an online dating service. “Perhaps,” they suggest, “you should try it.” I turn red, shrink down in my chair, and start to whimper. How do I tell them I have tried these match things and I have horror stories to tell about my misadventures.

You could argue that my point-of-view is skewed. Maybe I just had bad luck and maybe I just don’t understand the world of dating. I have had little experience dating. When I was 20 years old, I married the first guy I dated. Before that I went to a Catholic girls’ school. I practically had to hire an escort to take me to my high school proms. So when I met an eligible guy, a good-looking, intelligent young man with a future, I married him. Don’t get the wrong impression—I loved him and, despite lots of heartache, I don’t regret it. But after 30 years of marriage he left.

What does a single woman my age do if she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life sleeping single in a double bed? Soon after the divorce, everyone kept telling me that there were lots of wonderful men out there, men who would love to meet me. (I keep hearing the Rolling Stones singing, “They’re just dyin’ to meet cha.”) Some of these people claimed to know these eligible men and promised to fix me up with them. It never happened. Later these same friends coaxed me to try dating services or personals ads.

Nearly two years after my husband left, with the voices of the coaxers in my ears, I began to scan the personals ads in the back of Washingtonian magazine. Back then, before Match.com, it was the thing to do. For a couple of months I did nothing more than look at the ads and circle the ones I thought were interesting. Finally I got up enough nerve to call one of them and left a message and he called back. His name was Bob, he was an accountant for a company that makes household appliances, and he had never been married. He was vaguely interesting on the phone and seemed harmless, so we agreed to meet at the bar in the lobby of a local hotel—a very safe public place. Bob’s only distinguishing characteristic was that he was so bland I can’t remember what he looked like. Maybe he had brown hair, average height, average weight.

We discovered that we had grown up within a few miles of one another; that I went to the local Catholic girls’ school while he went to the large public school; and that I was two years older than he was. “I always wanted one of those older Catholic school girls, the uniforms were sort of a turn-on for me,” he confessed with not a hint of shame. Never in all my years wearing uniforms did I ever imagine that any of us were exuding a scintilla of sexual allure. What was this man thinking? What would the nuns think if they knew this about the boys who sat in cars in the parking lot back in the 1960s? The nuns called these boys “freshies”; surely there would be some nuns rolling in their graves if they heard this about these boys’ sexual fantasies.

Perhaps he had a right to his own harmless fantasies, but a first date was not the ideal occasion to reveal his attraction to teenaged girls in parochial school attire. This little tidbit was the least of Bob’s faults. After less than 45 minutes, when he ordered his seventh beer, I walked out of the hotel bar. He tried to follow me to the car and tried to kiss me before I explained to him exactly why I was leaving. “In-ap-pro-pri-ate,” I said, enunciating each syllable. Maybe he was too drunk to understand the comment. I just drove away.
 
So, what were these uniforms that stirred the lust of at least one teenaged boy? We wore camel’s-hair wool blazers with the school emblem on the pocket, white shirts, and brown skirts that were required to touch to floor when we knelt, which happened frequently. Our feet were clad in sexy brown-and-white saddle shoes with white bobby socks. On the final day of senior year, many of those saddle shoes were strung up the flagpole in front of the school. The uniform enforcers constantly battled with the rebellious girls who rolled up the skirts at the waist to make them shorter. For some reason the skirt rollers didn’t care that they ended up with a fat roll of fabric at their waists as long as they could expose a little knee.

We wore this day-to-day uniform every day for four years. But on a few very special days, perhaps once each year, we were instructed to wear our “formal uniform” to school. This special privilege was reserved for the high holy days at Regina High School, the days when Mother Provincial came to visit the school. Mother Provincial is like the Dalai Lama, the pope, the Queen Mother all rolled into one, the nun who rules all the other nuns. So when Mother Provincial came to town, we scrubbed the school from top to bottom and wore the fancy uniforms. The special uniform consisted of all the elements of the everyday uniform—blazer, skirt, blouse, socks, and saddle shoes—but with two notable additions—we added white gloves and stockings. The white gloves looked pretty silly with the heavy woolen uniforms, but the stockings were the piéce de résistance. This was an era in women’s fashion before the introduction of pantyhose, so nylon stockings were worn with a garter belt. It was the only way to keep up the stockings in the 1960s. Keep in mind the fact that these stockings were worn under the bobby socks and saddle shoes. Quite fetching.

On the 45-minute date with Bob, I didn’t tell him about the stockings and garter belts. Considering his lusty attraction to Catholic high school girls in frumpy brown uniforms, it’s probably a detail best kept from him.

And here's an old photo (my graduating class) that shows the basic uniform with prom variation.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Simply

“Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” Bob Seger, Against the Wind

You know you’re getting old when you start yearning for the good old days. Lately an entire industry has popped up to try to teach people how to simplify their lives—books and magazine articles, workshops and websites. Isn’t that what life was like in the 1950s?

Imagine this—no one could get in touch with you by telephone if you weren’t at home. And that’s if your mother or the people who shared your party line weren’t already using the line. Callers got a busy signal. I love busy signals so much that I recorded one and use it as my alternative message on my answering system. There were no cellphones, iPods, pagers, or GPS devices. People couldn’t track you down—such peace.

We had one car—the family car. I never had my own car until I was grown and married.

My family went out to eat about once a year at the Hot Shoppes where we ordered a hamburger or liver and onions with a milkshake. Otherwise we ate at home—every night my mother cooked pot roast or Hungarian goulash or tuna noodle casserole. We always ate our vegetables and we always had dessert. During dinner the whole family sat together around the table and we listened to my father’s stories about his day at work. We didn’t fret about the nutrition standards in the school cafeteria because there was no school cafeteria. We brought lunch in a paper bag from home and ate at our desks in the classroom and there was no talking during lunch.

There were no artificial hormones in the milk because we got it delivered in the milk box on the back step by a local dairy farmer my father knew from his school days. There was no fluoride in the water. We got a lot of cavities and no one had braces.
 
My clothes consisted of a school uniform and a few other things. The other things included one or two church-appropriate dresses and maybe two pairs of shoes and a coat. By the time I got to high school I also had a navy blue wool skirt and a white blouse and a pair of blue jeans. Then the blue jeans didn’t come worn in. They were stiff as a board and you had to wash them and wear them over and over and over again before they got that vintage, worn-in look. (I finally got that look just in time for the protest movements in the 1960s—perfect timing.) Now you can’t even buy stiff jeans like that unless you go to a western store that sells clothes for cowboys.

We played with our siblings and kids in the neighborhood. We built clubhouses and organized our own horribly dysfunctional carnivals. The boys tortured small animals that they captured and the girls ran and told their parents. The boys played sports and served as altar boys; the girls weren’t allowed to do such things. We went to the local high school on Saturday mornings for classes that included hula dancing and baton twirling—skills that I still find useful (ha!).

At Halloween we went to every house in the neighborhood without adult supervision because we knew all the neighbors and we never came home with razor blades or poisoned candy; though often we came home with crumpled cookies and loose popcorn in the bottom of our bags. On Valentine’s Day we gave a card to every single one of the 50+ kids in our class, even the unfortunate Thomas Wojick who had the giant tooth in the middle of his mouth and weighed 200 pounds in 4th grade. It was just the right thing to do. I hope Thomas Wojick didn’t save the valentine from me, thinking I was his sweetheart.

Surely our parents had financial woes, family spats, and work issues. But my father went to work at the telephone company immediately after World War II and worked there until the day he retired 40 years later. We moved once—just a mile away—because we needed a bigger house as the family grew.

There was stability, predictability, some might presume boredom. Certainly there were stories of abuse and unkindness in our community that people hid from one another. There were diseases, now easily treated, that killed people back then. Fathers dropped dead of heart attacks and mothers died in childbirth. There were scary priests and squirrelly neighbors but we just considered them part of life.

The one thing that I miss about that time is the simplicity. We didn’t know life could get so complicated. We didn’t know how dangerous it could be. We didn’t know that whole groups of people could hate other whole groups of people. Our elected leaders governed with civility. We weren’t bombarded every waking moment with images of war and the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man.

I suppose the former children of my generation have to let our children raise our grandchildren differently in order to protect them from a dangerous world and to prepare them for an increasingly complicated world. I just wish they didn’t have to work so hard to make it simple.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Losing my religion, part two

Last week I wrote a post on this blog about leaving my church and after about two days I deleted the post. I deleted it not because I have changed my mind, but because my words were too harsh. I loved my church and the people in it. I just have a strong difference of opinion with the leadership on the issue of forgiveness. And now I ask forgiveness for my harshness, for lashing out in anger. It was wrong.

Today is my first Sunday without my church and I feel lost. I have had a string of deep, deep losses in the past three years and my faith and the support of my church and my close friends has pulled me through. And now, not being part of the church is another huge loss for me. The rhythm of my life—going to worship service on Sunday morning and to community group on Wednesday night—has been changed. Already I miss celebrating the births and the marriages, the affirmation of new life.

I ask the Lord to bring me through yet another big loss. The image of the woman touching the hem of His garment, trusting that she would be healed, has been on my mind. I don’t have Him here, can’t see Him performing miracles. Can I have that kind of faith without something tangible, something I can see and touch?

Luke 8:48—“And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.’”

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Heart of stone

 
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  Ezekiel 36:26 ESV


I’ve never seen an actual gallbladder, though I’m almost certain I have one somewhere in my body. It hasn’t given me any trouble. Lucky for me. But I can imagine what a gallbladder looks like—all sort of gnarly and wrinkly like a jalapeno pepper that has been in the vegetable drawer too long. And if it has the dreaded gallstones, it’s gnarly and wrinkly with big ugly lumps. I think that’s what my heart was like before the grace of God brought me back from the land of the heavy hearted.

(I know, I know . . . the jalapenos look good to me too. I just thought it was a more appealing photo than a gallbladder.)
 
Often I find a verse in the Bible that had never caught my attention before, and today this verse from Ezekiel is the one. This is what God has done for me—given me a new heart and a new spirit. God has renewed me. I was caught up in self-loathing, self-pity, self-absorption. My heart was broken and that was all I could see. Too much self didn’t make life better; it just kept me swimming in the same putrid slime of anger, bitterness, hurt.
 
I can’t claim my journey is complete. Every day I need to do it again, turn it all over to God, put it at the foot of the cross, and ask Him just to be with me. Life is good when my heart of flesh has found solace in faith in a merciful God.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Self mutilation

I'm writing this post about self mutilation just because it seems such an unlikely topic for me.

Can eating a dozen doughnuts, washed down with a pitcher of margaritas (with salt--human beings cannot exist without salt) be considered self mutilation? Surely it's not good nutrition.

Can getting multiple tattoos with incompatible themes be considered self mutilation? I'm thinking a ginormous Our Lady of Guadalupe on my back with a Frida Kahlo sleeve on one arm and a peacenik collage on the other arm. A banjo on my right calf and a flock of butterflies on the left. Maybe a crown of thorns around my neck?

Can a pair of size 7 (on size 9 feet) stilettos be considered self mutilation? Especially if they are pink patent leather with studs and platform soles? A far, far departure from the sensible shoes I normally wear. I couldn't walk half a block in such shoes without some sort of permanent damage.

I've been thinking about piercing my nose because it's such aberrant behavior for me. Would AARP approve or would it be considered self mutilation and, as such, improper for a woman my age? I've never, ever seen an ad for nose piercing in an AARP magazine. That makes me want it even more.

Truth is. When my husband left me and I was in the depths of misery, on a few occasions I wrote things on my arms with a Magic Marker. I'd get really, really angry and distressed at night, couldn't sleep, and I would write on my arms--words that cursed him and what he did to me. I can't really coherently explain why--I think it was just that I wanted some sort of visible, tangible witness to my pain. It was so immense and I was sure no one else understood. I didn't have the nerve to cut myself but writing on my arms seemed like an acceptable substitute. It was crazy sad. I was crazy sad. I would wake up in the morning and have to scrub off the writing so I could go to work. It was indelible ink and wasn't easy to scrub off.

Truth is. I don't mean to be flippant or to make light of those who harm their own bodies. My heart breaks for those--mostly young women--who cut themselves in an attempt to make their pain tangible. Their twisted thinking somehow leads them to believe it will relieve their anguish. It doesn't relieve the emotional pain. It just leaves scars on their bodies, scars that can be seen when the scars on their hearts can't be seen. With some effort I scrubbed off the words I wrote on my arms. The scars from cutting can't be washed off, can't disappear so easily. Take care of yourself. Please. I'm praying for you.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

iPod-induced meltdown

Maybe it’s time to throw my beloved iPod in the trash. I had a meltdown today when Mason Williams’s “Classical Gas” came up on the random rotation. It got just past the intro, when it’s still solo acoustic guitar, when that damned riff pierced my heart. I wasn’t even thinking about it, wasn’t in the missing-Mike zone, when I heard that little musical phrase. Instant tears. By the time the trumpets and all that doggone excess instrumentation got going I was on my knees, weeping, begging God to make my sorrow go away. (I deplore what all the excess orchestration did to that song—it’s so beautiful when it’s just guitar. But this emotional flood was not an overreaction to the arrangement flaws.)

Mike was an incredible guitar player and he played “Classical Gas” for fun, just to warm up. I never heard him play it in public. He didn’t think his version was worthy, but I thought it was better than Mason Williams’s original. So the sound of that little hammer-on, pull-off thing that Mike did so well seemed to skip right through any cognition in my brain and punched me directly in the heart.

“I know he’s not coming back, Lord,” I said. “That’s why it hurts so bad.”

Next song in the iPod rotation comes up. It’s John Gorka singing “Love Is Our Cross to Bear” followed by Marc Cohn singing, “True Companion.” Oh, come on, this hateful iPod has become an instrument of torture.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Praying with attention deficit

Sitting at the kitchen table, eyes closes, coffee getting cold, open Bible in front of me. I’m praying but saying nothing to the Lord. Just listening. I hear the hum of the refrigerator, an occasional car passing by, the cat slurping her water. I’m just sort of beaming my heart to Him, confident that He already knows everything, all of my concerns, all of the gratitude.

Finally I pray aloud: “Use me Lord. Use me quietly so I’m not tempted to boast.” And I return to silence, listening to Him. My mind starts drifting off to my grocery list.

So I open the Bible and read Psalm 103 and start singing the worship song “. . . bless the Lord, o my soul, o my soul, worship His holy name . . . for all your goodness I will keep on singing, 10,000 reasons for my heart to find.”

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Mike for a nanosecond

Yesterday morning—when I was still half asleep, maybe three quarters asleep, or maybe I was dreaming—I said to myself, oh, good, it’s Friday so Mike will come here tonight. A couple of weeks ago, in the grocery store, for a fleeting second I thought about buying some pork chops to grill the way he liked them. And just this afternoon I was unloading things from the car when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mike coming around the corner in his pickup truck. The driver looked like Mike but the pickup truck was white, not grey like Mike’s. It wasn’t Mike. He has been dead now for a year and a half.

I don’t know whether to curse those fleeting seconds when my head is back in the old life, when he was alive, or whether to find some joy in those nanoseconds. In my old life I took it all for granted. He came over, I cooked, we played music, we talked and talked, and we kept loneliness at bay for one another. In my new life he is simply gone. In those fleeting, unconscious moments when I forget that he’s gone, I still have the sense of the routine and I take it for granted that he’s a big part of my life, that he’ll always be there. It’s hard to savor that brief amnesia when the reality hits me so quickly, with such finality. It makes it sting all that much more, knowing that nothing will recapture that time.

Mike has ridden off into the sunset. In a sense time does heal. But I still miss him--time hasn't taken that away.