criticism and confession

One evening a couple weeks ago, Tim and I relaxed in front of a recent sci fi movie (which I won't name -- but spoiler alert for reading further). Afterward, Tim categorized it as belonging to a trend. This trend involves people seeking aliens, but the twist is the aliens are us. I noticed the same feature in the new X Files series (we just saw the first episode), only, the movie we'd watched made the idea positive, while in X Files the revelation of humanity carrying out alien activity was a dark development.

How like my pondering journey this is. As obsessed with truth-seeking as Agent Mulder, ready to lift off into space if ever I could (yet I'd likely lose my lunch in orbit), I've been alternately enraptured and enraged by recognizing we are not (nobody is) alone. Something views me from a different plane of existence. Is this dimension of which I'm so ignorant the natural world of plants, animals, earth/space/time? Is it the chambers of angels, the dominion of God? Perhaps somehow it's all of these. I wish to understand.

But I'm engaged here and now, in traffic and on the computer, with the broken blindness of mankind. From early childhood, my psychology has found a way to cope with other humans. I fear them picking, probing, bullying, ramming me -- and of course it's been only rarely that someone has physically or even verbally abused me, seeing as I grew up in a grove of kindness -- but those outside my shelter; well, I've experienced hurt myself, or I've watched those I love maimed by some of their thoughts and internalizations. These dark inner ideas mainly have come out as criticisms, words that are supposed to never hurt me but are only another form of hurled sticks and stones.

I learned a way to cope, analogous to Jack London's "law of the wild": Eat or be Eaten. I learned to criticize first. Mostly inside myself rather than out loud. But mostly all the time and with everyone.

This way of reacting to other human beings, this learned (and imitated) defense system, takes a lot of time and energy. A lot. First I must analyze the other person crossing my path and imagine what they've done, are doing, or may do that offends me. Then I have to deal with my whole self in reaction, often in justifying blame. This habitual process may be instantaneous or drawn out, but it's always draining.

No wonder I lose out on what I'd much rather be doing: studying reality; putting the evidence I've discovered/been given to the test; seeking to draw near to the Ultimate.

As clearly as I'm seeing my criticalness today, I have only begun to become aware of it due to an amazing gift: the Orthodox Christian mystery of confession. For nearly five years I've practiced speaking my failures aloud to God in the presence of an ordained witness, my priest. And it's really something.

Like the Old Testament practice of animal sacrifice which prefigured New Testament confession, I have "killed" the bull (I've first repented in my heart), and now I drag its carcass to offer up. Like the old sacrifices, this practice isn't for God's benefit; it's for mine. Over time in confession I hear myself repeating things, such as anger and more anger. I yelled...I swore...I criticized.

Five years in, I can finally see something new regarding my sudden choice to study the Orthodox (made during a prayer I breathed, repenting of -- what do you know -- anger, in which I was flabbergasted to recognize this church might contain something real). The new thing involves my grief over losing my friends, the people I shared ideas in common with for eleven years. I've felt like they rejected me -- not because anybody said anything to me about what I chose, but because I imagined their rejection, their criticism of me as a person.

But today I recognize the alien, the criticizer, and it is me. Before I became Orthodox, I thought critical things about people who, becoming Orthodox, deviated from my views. When I took that same turn, I was hurt by my assumption that others were thinking the same negative things about me. Whether anybody was or not doesn't matter now; I forgive them if they were. It's easier to forgive the complexities in another person than to be cleansed of self-inflicted pain, the soul-destroying type.

This pain is eased at last, though, by help (and, so help me, I believe this fully now) from another dimension: the creative space of goodness where hearts and minds are revealed; a Personal, rescuing reality comprised of love and freedom.


entering in: a birthday story

Probably to my daughter's relief, I'm not writing this post about her. Victoria is in it, she's a significant character, certainly, and today is her birthday. But there's more I'd like to tell, all of which I've told before, though not quite in this fashion.

Thirty years as a parent is a milestone, the thought of which doesn't slumber easily at 4:00 a.m., even though the cat whose meowing woke me is already curled by my feet snoring. Memories dance past of that Christmas morning on which I felt the first, real tuggy twinge and knew this was it. Tim drove me in his 1966 Ford Falcon (the same one he'll drive later this morning to work on things at the church), under brilliant blue skies, from Vancouver to the Portland hospital. Later there would arrive my parents and brother, we'd open presents in the birthing room, and then my labor would become intense, while Dad blasted Space Invaders via Tim's Atari in the waiting room and while Tim's three-inch TV on the bedside table played Barney Miller's theme.

This all came about, I ponder now, not because I invented an adulthood of marriage and family exploits, but because I entered into commitment and struggle, pain and process.

I couldn't have done any of it alone. There's never been a doubt I had help from above. The regular, ordinary doubt about what occurred has remained pretty constant -- doubt of myself, of my interpretation which is faulty at best. But that which made itself known to this failing being is that which comprises faith -- the acceptance of what is not yet seen and the surety of what is coming.

In purely human terms, however, I had help from the man I married, the man with whom I signed divorce papers before our fourth anniversary. The day we signed, we hadn't yet had children. I already lived with someone else. As divorces go it was more tidy than some.

But then it didn't happen. We couldn't make our divorce work, because that day we signed the papers we prayed. Tim asked me to. I grudgingly granted his request (I suppose I decided I'd give him a last gift). And then I was quietly amazed. Astounded. That afternoon I told the man I'd been living with I had to leave him, and I did, never seeing him again. I went home to my parents. Later that summer, Tim and I were back together.

I knew that while praying with Tim I'd been invited into something. I gained the strongest sense God considered our marriage a living thing, and He didn't want it to die. I'm aware I may have had a psycho/emotional reaction to something. There are likely a million possibilities. But the facts of the story remain: I had tried to do the "right" thing a thousand times before this, and I failed. Finally, firmly, I had left my husband, and that was that. It was, anyway, right up until the moment, two years before I gave birth to our daughter, when I accepted the invitation to enter in.

On Victoria's birth day (three minutes past midnight, December 26th), I still hadn't learned the whole story. I knew Tim was convinced throughout my pregnancy that we'd have a girl (no ultrasound confirmation back then). He had never wavered. When our baby was a couple months old he told me more about his doings the year I left him.

For a few months Tim stayed near Portland with his aunt and uncle (he'd just been hired by KPTV). I was out of the picture, back in Coos Bay with someone else. At first, Tim was stoic. All right, leave me, I don't care, this has been more mess than I asked for, anyway. Then he started praying. One time, as he prayed, he "saw" me pregnant. He knew then that if we got back together I would have a daughter. He was given no guarantee we could work things out. But he was encouraged to try.

I tell this story, this time, because I've been coming to see reality as something each person is invited to enter into (each in wonderfully differing ways), for the benefit of all. The most genuine stuff, of which tree-boughs sigh and bullfrogs croak and incoming tides thunder, is really all one story. Its endless variations sing repeated hardship and trial, but they encourage the sufferer to undergo them, to discover the surprising interactions. Like a gift on Christmas neither Tim nor I could have imagined, a daughter who would bless our lives. She would grow up to discover an odd church with onion domes and bells, a foreign land, and she'd invite us to visit. And the rest is another chapter, another verse, in a single tale, continuing.



For years we paid a little each month for secondary health insurance. My primary plan has a high deductible, so I hoped the secondary, supplemental policy would give me great help to pay my bills. While hospitalized I'd sensed those dollar amounts mounting with each blood draw and electrocardiogram.

The supplemental plan didn't offer me a cent. The evening I read the company's denial I groaned. I tried not to resent the people I'd talked to on the phone and worked so hard to please with all my gathered statements and doctor's notes. "Just send everything," they'd told me. "That's the only way we can determine your eligibility."

I did resent them, though they were only doing their job. All I could do was send a cancellation letter and try the next option, the messier one: dealing with every billing office, while applying for the hospital's financial assistance program.

We had received many promises of prayer from people far and wide, especially from our church friends, and this gave me real comfort. As church treasurer, I've observed generous, sacrificial amounts given by parishioners after they dedicated time to prayer for the needy.

For this reason, I wasn't super worried. I think, though, that I shrank from the reality of being needy; I preferred figuring a way out of trouble myself. And so I applied for jobs, being interviewed by the post office for holiday work. I wasn't hired. (Now, as rain pours and parts of Eugene flood, I wonder how long it would have taken me, had I been hired, to end up back in the hospital.)

Surprisingly, I enjoyed almost every conversation with medical office bookkeepers. Their work's not so different from mine, and I could commiserate when their computers did strange things. I managed to complete the hospital application, and then we simply had to wait to learn whether or not they'd reduce my bill. In the meantime, one church friend offered to organize a bake sale. I baked gluten-free brownies and brought them that Sunday, expecting a few other goodies would arrive and we might receive a few dollars. Every bit would help, so I was grateful.

People actually made a big deal of the sale, even auctioning off two pies. Money came in. More came from people just giving us checks. Just because. It added up fast. I was (still am) overwhelmed.

At Tim's parents' for our usual Sunday evening shared dinner, Mom H. told an involved story about how they'd been planning to help Tim's sister with a substantial bill. It turned out the bill was cancelled, and since they'd already subtracted the amount from their checkbook...She handed me a check. More overwhelm.

As you may have guessed, the hospital helped, too, reducing my bills by 40%. Most recently we learned that an Orthodox group's benevolent fund is granting me $2000.

My bills are pretty much covered. My heart, squeezed a few months ago by excessive fluid, now sings a merry, dark day tune. Slipping through puddles to the church bookstore for my volunteer shift, I anticipate strange things my computer may do as I enter numbers. I listen to volunteers working hard on the nave's messy renovation, and I compliment them on how great the church is really starting to look. They glance at the floor and shrug and tell me, "Well, it's all a process."


open the file

My father-in-law bought me a laptop. I've said I'd never own one, because I wished to leave the demanding internet at home. But I'm not complaining now.

I'm actually learning that having the laptop close by -- at the kitchen table, or, like this past week, with me while keeping my mother-in-law company -- I am given many more chances to work on my memoir. It's easy to open the file, since it's right there. The internet commands my attention sometimes, but it gets old fast, and anyway I'm kind of on a writing roll. Whoop.

A year ago I attended Bob Welch's writing workshop and found a focus for my book. My three words stating this focus became "My theology changed." Which has happened throughout my life and in a fairly dramatic way in 2011. But the problem, I realized as I wrote about it, involved interest. Who, besides me, might care that my theology changed? A better aspect of the subject could possibly be my expression of why my theology changed. Especially when it was likely to provide echoes of others' experiences. A lot of people in our culture have recognized within themselves soul quakes, the shifting of their understanding. This has led many to leave traditional churches. This, I'm thinking, is the meat of the story of my faith journey.

I stayed with my mother-in-law this week and was startled by early morning quackings of mallards. They happily promenaded in the rain; I happily clicked my keyboard. In fact, a few times I meant to do other work but was compelled by the urge to open the file, so I did. Now my first chapter is completed. Not finished, of course -- not reworked and polished and mulled over ad nauseum -- and chapter two is in tatters, but the first one sounds pretty good.

I would so like to accomplish this effort. Especially when we're threatened with collection agencies by medical groups (we've also had people give us money to help pay bills, bless their hearts), but, hey, this is good impetus to sit down once again and open the file.


working along

This year's autumn has consoled me.

It's amazing once in a while to recall nights and days in the hospital, just three months ago. Wondering if I would survive, and then whether or not life would return to normal. Well, at this point, it pretty much has. Thank God. I can walk and sing and even go for job interviews. Which I'm doing. Must pay the dear hospital.

There's always something going on, construction of the soul. At our church, renovation continues within the walls.

We're gaining a more beautiful space for prayer. But dust must settle, and it's a long haul getting there.

I ponder in wonder the spaces inside of me where dust gets kicked up all the time. Thanks in a very large part to prayer. I never knew what prayers were, really, until I came to this church. Yet the path of prayer, of stillness in quiet, dusty spaces, has shown itself in glimpses throughout my life. Since I was a wee thing.

Lately I've thought again about my memoir, which I never stopped writing. I also thought about an episode from my wee life, and I recognized the moment, in 1963, when I entered into church-ness and discovered I loved church. It wasn't during a service. I was, actually, trapped inside the church we went to. Night had fallen. Silence gently settled, and I sang a hymn, waiting for my father.

So now I'm writing a book with the subtitle "My Heart's Journey Back to Church." It will likely contain pieces of all the work I've done up to now, but it has a destination: the readership of those interested in our "unchurched" times. A lot is written about people who've left churches but who are Christian. I'm definitely one of these people, though now I'm someone journeying within walls being fashioned in the shape, perhaps, of identities in God-space.

I'll blog more later about my job hunt. Or if I don't post for a while, you can guess I'm doing something, for once, that earns money.



At last I've trundled a ways down the river path again, in shiny sun.

After a pause at the water's edge I wandered on into a familiar tree-lined corridor, even though I felt the burn of unused muscles. I was ready to turn back for home, but I couldn't help thinking how one never knows, in the brief warming autumn hour, exactly whether there will be another chance to push a little and go there.

My summer's experiences inspired this thinking.

The sun shone hot in late June the day Mom drove me to emergency. (This was to be the first of three ER visits, along with two ambulance rides and two hospital admissions, plus surgery, ICU, and lots of hours spent in the cardiac wing of Riverbend hospital.) Intense pain and difficulty breathing naturally made me wonder if today I might die. I recognized clearly that I wasn't ready.

Of course I was unready to leave family and friends. But in that moment I became very aware of my unreadiness regarding the end of this life, my spirit's separation from my body and experiencing what's next.

I didn't think about this in a despairing way. I prayed, as I've practiced many times, "Lord have mercy." Not considering God's mercy in the deep, judgemental-sounding voice of British actors in films where gallows victims prepare to hang: "May God have mercy on your soul." My belief is that mercy triumphs over judgement and is a free a gift, as free as sparkling ripples in the Willamette.

I wasn't terrified, but I was sorry. I knew I hadn't been paying attention half as often as would be beneficial. I was like a hiker who's signed up to trek the Pacific Crest Trail, looking forward to the gift of closer sky and the crunch of boots on dirt, the scents of cedar and campfire and the amazing vistas, none of which I created or imagined, all of which lie ahead to be experienced. But I was also like the person who prepares for this backpacking adventure in spurts, distracted often by everything else, unacquainted with maps and tools, hoping it'll all come together okay, anyway.

When a person has decided something is important, to the point of talking about it in anticipation and making some room in life for its approach, and then the person sees herself still pretty lackadaisical about the thing, there are options. One is to turn away from it altogether. Another is to seek help from others to make up for her lack. A third is to lunge into this impending appointment with everything she has, stumbling through mistakes and hardships to achieve her goal. There are more, I'm sure.

While in the hospital I faced into several options as I saw them regarding my heart's beliefs about life and death.

It was good for me. I feel, on the one hand now, like sharing on this blog every humanistic and theological nuance that arrived within my muddled waters. But trying to do so gets rather preachy and bogged down fairly soon. I'll say, for the moment, that I made a definite decision. While life is always changing, I'm not always aware of it. This summer, I knew my life changed again. I was brought to the point of seeing this, and I'm grateful.

Perhaps this is what each person is doing along the path toward the ending we all face. Taking steps toward seeing what's going on inside, being a bit chased sometimes by what happens, in order to be able to pause and make definite choices. Free beings that we are, let's push ourselves a little in the warming hours and go there, and decide. We don't know exactly whether another chance will be.


gladdened mourning

Beautiful equinox, tangle of light behind blushing leaves, and yet I grieve summer's end.

Last Monday, an early call. Mom's quick assurance, and the news. "Dad and I are okay. But Uncle Larry is gone."

That fast. His dear wife left alone in the seconds between stumble and floor, breath and stillness.

At the wedding reception he and I had hugged. Same old Larry, trademark half grin and quiet smile until that burst of laughter. Photos capture others; he takes it easy in the background.

Mom and Dad's new-to-them van breezed the miles to their home on the Columbia. I had strength to drive, which wouldn't have been the case a few weeks back. All things worked together -- Tim came up Friday with James and Kimi for the service. My brothers and their spouses, other family. Hugs and music and cookies and food spread and campfire at dusk.

Home again this week, I sigh in the weather's chill, catching up some. Light, though shining fewer hours, slants easy in the garden, the background.

There is mourning and there is mourning, I suppose. It's all related. I miss summer. I miss Uncle Larry. The night he died, he had just finished supervising a chimney's completion -- his house fully finished after a quarter century. Our extended-family home now lacks something, someone substantial.

The Christian faith I've come to embrace gives me a narrative, a reason for mourning. Blessed are the mourners, pausing in life's background, watching rays slant and smoke rise, yearning for a turn from photo negative to the full spectrum: flavor, music, texture; the delight of joining together again.


bright tympani

Rain didn't fall in Eugene for several months, until right after James and Kimi's outdoor wedding reception. My nail-biting beforehand wasn't necessary -- there were three or four hours between the party's end and the first lightning flash.


Their wedding Friday morning charmed everyone. Both of the day's events were truly DIY, with nobody hired to cater or direct. The photographer, whose work will be available in a couple weeks, is a talented young friend building her portfolio.

 My shoulders feel lighter. I lived so long thinking, "What's next to do before the wedding..." that even on Saturday, roaming the mall with Tim and Victoria after a movie, my mind kept going there. "What next...oh, yeah, it's done!"

Some people really love planning events and making them happen. I think one reason I wasn't sure I'd ever have children  was my reluctance to carry out social obligations. Tim and I are nerdy, and so are our dear kids (each of whom I'm quite glad came along), and so are our friends. If not nerdy, they're different in ways that don't fit well with party planning.

And, especially now, we're not people with money. Yet we aren't so far removed from social conventions that we don't worry about having enough food (when the reception is only vaguely planned as a potluck) and about table arrangements and drinks (although we didn't worry enough there: the lemonade ran out).

But with a bride who's nearing completion of her baking degree, we knew the cake at least would turn out right. It was even gluten-free, tasting as good as it looked.

I guess weddings most always just somehow come together. There is joy and tension, lilting steps amid work. There are kind surprises, in the gift of family and friends helping. We were greatly blessed in this area. People who know how to think under pressure arrived and started setting up early. Some even stayed long after the bride and groom's bubble-blown exit, and so we were able to take most everything down before it poured.

I'm left this week afterward pondering marriage. Someone spoke to me Friday about their ambivalence toward the whole deal, the fuss, the to-do. I think this person was saying they didn't think James and Kimi needed to formalize their obviously caring relationship.

I responded, "But it's a blessing."

The support of others comes from true caring, expansive in beauty as the sky. When something as enduring on the planet as marriage sprouts to make a new beginning, the heavens can't help but gather their giving forces, displaying the rain of love, the bright tympani of affection. Though afterward this flow might seem to dry up for long stretches, mundane and difficult, its sudden abundance won't soon be forgotten.

The first flash at 2:00 a.m. Saturday delighted me. Thunder shook the neighborhood like laughter; then there overflowed the symphony of rain.


three and two

It's three weeks today since I came home from the hospital and a bit more than two weeks until James and Kimi's wedding. Whee, what a summer.

Our back yard is in its glory, thanks to James.

His satellite dish grape arbor is really producing. Sweet, seedless grapes, yum.

I've been walking and sleeping and eating and sleeping. Protein has to happen, or I get dizzy. I haven't sat much at the computer, due to pain, but that's starting to improve greatly. So I'm getting caught up on some church treasurer things, while watching a lot of medical bills add up on my hospital and insurance websites. At least we have some insurance, good for discounting charges. We've almost hit the high deductible, and then we'll see...

The best part of everything is this wedding coming up. Well, I'll tell you, the Best part of everything is the inner life of sorrow and joy, but I think that's what makes the upcoming wedding so wonderful. People sorrow and work (Kimi in bakery school; James in the ever-uncertain world of plants and farms), and there is great joy in the adventure of joining together in love.

Our dear ones recognized a while ago that they neither one feel comfortable vowing in front of everybody. So their ceremony will be close-family and attendants private (yet including a photographer) in the morning. Then that evening: the party. Wearing their duds and welcoming family and friends. I'm glad they can know themselves and work with what they've got, life having handed each of them a few terrifying moments already. They're so young, and yet, wait a minute. They're both grown up. Amazing.


spoonfuls of water

I'm recovering from surgery and 12 days in the hospital. I wish to write a long, or at least a well-done, post about my adventure (which started soon after I returned from New York). At present, though, I don't have the strength to sit at my computer long enough to do it. I've jotted parts down on paper, but putting stuff together to publish is proving too difficult yet.

Still I wanted to mention, for those not on Facebook, that I haven't abandoned your blogs apurpose. I'm just healing. And healing is a wonderful thing.

Early morning view from my hospital room.

My malady drew a lot of interest from many doctors, but no one discovered definitively what it was. Some weird virus picked up in an airport on my delayed flight home, probably, or else it was an auto-immune reaction to a garden variety virus. Whatever the case, it made me, in one doctor's words, "a head scratcher." They tested for everything they could, and it was nice, I suppose, to rule out cancer and anthrax.

I really never have felt so on the brink of this life's end as I did a couple of times the past month. This likely has to do with the procedures done near and around my heart (there was a big fluid build-up throughout my body, and the heart is not happy, especially, to be squeezed by liquid). Despite it not being fun to stare death in the face, I hold a good deal of gratitude for going through it. As someone who spends many hours pondering "ultimate" things--the soul, the reasons we're here, what will happen after death, and so on--I was suddenly dealing with things on a less conceptual, much more experiential, level. My further ponderings and conclusions will no doubt weave their way into future posts: you know me.

Pretties from my cousins.

James grew these flowers, and Kimi made the arrangement; so cheering.
 Throughout the journey, I continued spiking a fever most days. The fluid inside me made food, especially the usual things, sound totally gross. Worse than morning sickness. Then, when at last the surgery was over and the fever was disappearing, my digestive system turned on me, and I couldn't eat or keep anything inside after doing so (lovely picture; sorry). What finally made me know I was healing was being able to suck ice cubes and beginning to love the feel and taste of water again. So I kept the nurses busy refilling my styrofoam cup (may I never drink from one again) with ice, and when it melted, I dipped my plastic spoon in for dollops of water. And they refreshed me. Just as the bouquets people brought, of flowers, of themselves in kindly groups cheering me forward, of cards.

Another bouquet from friends.

From the people at Tim's TV station.
 My mom has had way more than her share this year of hospital trips and care-giving, yet every day she smilingly gave her time to me. (Dad came to visit, too, when he could.) Timothy did mountains of work and visited me twice a day. He is the guy to have on hand in a crisis; I was reminded of this blessing again and again.

Now having spent too much time upright, I'll go grab another nap. I'm drinking Kombucha, and eating all the healing foods possible. People have brought us much food. They're wonderful. I look forward to blogging and visiting and walking along the river again soon.