Break: A Spirituality of the Eucharist in Four Parts

(This is the third post in a four-part series.  To see my intro from Part 1 about my inspiration for this series, click here.)

Break

As I was praying for insight regarding the meaning of “breaking” in my own life, two ideas came to me.  First came the memory of those moments when things just happen to us, and in those moments even time itself becomes broken, in a sense, from their experience.  There is only a “before” this event, and an “after” this event.  Those moments may include things like the loss of a loved one, the end of a friendship or relationship, or the relocating of our families.  But there are also times where we notice we need to “break open” in a sense to new thinking and new ways of seeing others and ourselves.  It is this latter type of “breaking” that I want to illustrate for you today,  because these moments are very often moments of “subtraction” and the “second half of life” experiences that I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

(Note:  In the interest of full disclosure, the story I’m sharing today was originally posted on my blog in November 2012 under the title “I Will Always Be a Rule Breaker,” but even now it best illustrates, I think, why we can find reason to give thanks for those moments where we find ourselves broken…and humbled…and perhaps in the truest sense of the word, “blessed.”)

Over the years, through a process of prayer and discernment I’ve become more aware of how I judge others.  Don’t let the word discernment intimidate you.  Discernment is really a fancy name for taking notice of our choices in life, and asking for (then interpreting and following) God’s advice.  In many cases, it’s where our gift of human reason gets sprinkled with some Divine Intervention.  Through this process we learn a lot (sometimes painfully) about others and ourselves.

One painful experience I had with this process took place a few years back.  I was waiting to pick my kids up at school and saw a young mom standing with a child on her hip, waiting for her other children to be dismissed from school.  On her shoulder, I noticed a tattoo of a giant feathered wing of some sort (I presumed part of an eagle) and some writing as well.  I couldn’t read the writing at all, but upon seeing this enormous (and, in my opinion– obnoxious– tattoo) I did a mental eye roll and turned away at the sight of it.

Ugh.  Tattoos!  I thought , Why do people think they need these??  And what kind of mother goes around with a giant one on her shoulder, like that?

It was that second sentence that, moments later, stung me the most.

As the woman moved closer to me, I could make out the words on the tattoo.  It turned out the wings were not those of an eagle, but of an angel.  And the letters spelled the name of her dead son.  I knew his name because it was unique, and I’d noted it as I’d read about him in the newspaper only a few weeks before.  The article had been about his battle with brain cancer, and their family’s struggles as they balanced jobs, three other children, and his illness.  It ended with his losing the battle before he’d celebrated his second birthday.

In that moment, my own thought came back at me with a stinging slap and I realized exactly “what kind of mother she was.” 

She was “the kind of mother” who had experienced depths of sorrow and grieving beyond anything I could even imagine.  She was “the kind of mother” who had seen her infant son’s face twist and wrench into pangs of terror and shrieks of agony beyond anything humanly imaginable.  She was the “kind of mother” who had to answer the difficult questions of “why” from her three other children, as they struggled with the loss of their brother,  when she herself couldn’t even really know.

And I wondered why I’d thought it logical and acceptable to cheapen and limit the depth of her motherhood all because of a tattoo.

In that moment of facing my horrible judgment of another, I realized I had a choice.  I could either dismiss and defend my thought by saying to myself something as ridiculous as, “Well, even so, I would never get my child’s name tattooed on my shoulder!”   (I mean, while that’s probably true because as a matter of preference I still don’t like tattoos–I also don’t like skinny jeans or crocheted toilet covers– that was hardly the point).   The point is that her tattoo, in memory and honor of her angelic son, was also a simple matter of her personal taste. 

The fact that I’d tried to judge her personal taste to be a reflection of her ability to parent, was my problem not hers.

I could only think of one thing to do.

I searched deep within my heart and asked, What would You have me do now?   And the answer came so swift and sure, I had no doubt:  pray.

So I did.

Every time I saw her.  (And, not by accident I’m sure, I saw her nearly every day).

Of course, I’d see her mostly at school pickup, but sometimes randomly around town, too.  And each and every time, no matter what kind of frenzied pace I was keeping in order to conquer my day’s activities, I would slow down, at least for a moment, and pray.  I prayed for her, for her children at home, for her spouse, for their health, and for their son in heaven.

I also prayed for me.  I prayed for forgiveness of my petty judgments (including those yet undetected), for the blessing of motherhood, for the gift of healthy children, and for the need to be reminded (often!) of the fact that despite our personal tastes, despite our harshest criticisms of others, the truth of the matter is
that most of the time we’re all just doing the best we know how with the cards we’ve been dealt.

As a result, I no longer worry about “breaking” the rule that says, “Do not judge.” (Mt 7:1)  In my fallen human state, I doubt I’m any more likely to follow that law to the letter than I am of driving the speed limit.  Instead, I do the only thing I know to do:  I observe my judgments as I become aware of them, and I ask in the depths of my heart, What would You have me do now?

And what I get in return is never the finger-wagging reprimand with a harsh command to stop judging, that I feel I deserve.  No.  Instead, I most often get the simple gift of seeing how my harshest, pettiest judgments can be turned into loving actions for others (and even myself).

And that is a “breaking” of a whole other sort.

It is judgment transformed.

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Sewing a Cushion for My Pity Pot (And Other Prayers of Gratitude)

Like most of yours, my summer has been flying!

I was pretty sure that when I posted way back in May that I’d write blog posts every Monday, I could hear God laughing hysterically with other plans. Turns out I’d heard right. It’s been a whole month now since I last blogged.  And today isn’t even Monday.  So, evidently my plan went all to pot.  (Shocker, I know.)

In an effort to get you all caught up on things that have been happening with me this past month (because I’m sure you’re dying to hear), allow me to bring you up to speed you with my abbreviated list of our summer happenings:

  • 2nd week of July :  We entertained these adorable family visitors ↓↓↓↓

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  • Aren’t they sweet?  Couldn’t you just eat them up?  (I should probably mention that they brought my in-laws with them…all the way from across these great United States).  Long story short, we had all kinds of fun with everyone the entire week.   Life was SO GOOD!
  • 3rd week of July:  We sent our family visitors on their way (along with my in-laws) and almost instantly became bored with life.  It was very confusing.  One day we had three dogs and two extra people and the next day there was …just us.  I was sure we’d get over it.   I planned some things to get us back on track,  (but I think we’ve determined already  how well things work out when I make plans!)  (Did I hear laughter, again?)
  • 4th week of July :  We trudged through the mundaneness of wide-open summer days with nothing to do.  On top of it, I had NO energy.  No oomph.  Meanwhile, I watched my friends traveling on fun, exotic, and exciting vacations (I know this because I stalked casually observed them on Facebook about every 3.5 minutes).  (They were always having fun.) I, on the other hand,  was bored.  B-O-R-E-D bored.  And also tired.  And maybe a little bit disenchanted with all things fun.  And also all things God.  (Yes, I said it.)

And, as is the case when all of life becomes boring, the days and weeks get longer.  For the rarely occurring 5th week of what had become a painfully long, boring month, I STILL had nothing to say on the blog.  So, to pass the time I guess,  I took a seat up on my Pity Pot (which, to me, looks a lot like those five-gallon buckets with a lid) and started  feeling  sorry for myself.  Everyone else is having fun.  Everyone else is rich and can take exotic vacations.  Everyone else lives a better life than me. (Can I hear a “Debbie Downer” mwomp-mwomp, please?)

Trying to find inspiration, I went back to my blog to read my last post.  To my astonishment, very little had changed.  In many respects, I was still the full-of-myself older brother of the prodigal son… and I was still missing the party!  Though I tried to pray my way through it, most days the best I could do was muster a big sigh and expel the word “God.”  (Except it sometimes came out as the more blasphemous sounding “G-a-a-w-w-d,”  I’m not gonna lie.  It was kind of ugly.)

Still, I kept looking for little bits of light on any given day, even if all I could see was a glimmer.

Eventually (and by eventually I mean yesterday, or maybe the day before), I realized that this whole Pity Pot thing was getting out of control.  I wasn’t even enjoying the complaining anymore!

So, I spent some time focusing on that image of the older brother, standing outside the house (or more accurately sitting outside the house…on his Pity Pot, of course!)   I imagined the feelings  of the older brother, watching the party going on inside the house.  And realized this was very similar to watching all my friends take exotic vacations, and fill their lives with joy and laughter.  And I found some words for a question I threw at God, Why do they get to have all the fun?  (No response.)  Why can’t I go inside?  (A response this time:  You can).  I ranted on, Oh, you’d just love that wouldn’t you?  It’s bad enough watching and listening to all the fun from here, but to go inside and watch them have  fun right in front of my face?!?!  No thanks!

It was about this time that I remembered that the older brother’s being outside had been his choice from the beginning.   In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father comes outside and pleads with him.

Now I realized not only had I refused the father like the older brother had, but I was starting to blame the father for my being outside as well.

(Oh, goody.  I’m sure that story ends well.) (*Eye roll*)

I put myself back in the image and tried again.

I watched the party some more.  I finally asked a question that was not about the others and the fun they were having, but about me….Why am I so bored?

And with that question, I felt something change inside me.  It is difficult to say what exactly…A softening?  A shift in focus?  A change in perspective, perhaps?   I decided to just accept the possibility– for just a minute or two– that sitting there on my Pity Pot, watching the party going on inside was exactly where I was supposed to be. 

And I waited.

And as I did, the evening sky grew dark around me and the party lights from within glowed in bright contrast.  The moon and stars looked beautiful in comparison and the birds sang their evening song and the crickets chirped in harmony.

It was a very peaceful image.

I realized I didn’t mind the party at all now.  Instead, I felt a little sorry for everyone missing this glorious night sky!   And I realized I wasn’t bored anymore.  There was nothing mundane about what I was seeing and feeling.   I felt calm.  I felt peaceful.  I felt relaxed.

It occurred to me then that perhaps God and I had different words for the same experience.  What I called boring and mundane, God saw as an opportunity for me to rest and relax.  I had a choice in the matter:  I could fight it and complain (like I’d been doing) or,  I could take and accept his gift of rest and relaxation which—ironically–I always complain about never getting.

Something had changed me.   I was no longer the hard-hearted fool I’d been before.  I was now aware that even there on my Pity Pot, I was loved.

With a new heart, I sent up prayers for those partiers inside, happy for them that it was their time to party.  Joyful for them and grateful to God for allowing me this time to sit outside …yes, on my Pity Pot… and rest.

I laughed to myself when I wondered, could I sew a cushion for my Pity Pot ?  Maybe post it on Pinterest?  I would title it, My Summer Project , and it would be God’s and my joke to share.

I’d forgotten what a difference it makes when I ask God to share His vision for my life’s plan.  In this example, with His vision, I understood instantly that my “boring” life was really an invitation for me to rest.  I also realized a second truth about my life and God’s plan.  This second truth was about my future and some long-forgotten prayers about His using me for a greater good.

And my heart skipped a beat.

And I gripped my Pity Pot with anticipation and excitement (and some fear and trembling, too).  Because suddenly more questions come What is it that I need to be rested for?  What will God call me to do?

I called my questions out to the night sky.

Not yet, the stars and moon sing down to me.   Not yet.  Sit a while longer.

And I know they are right.  Because… while I may anticipate changes coming,  I do not know how much those changes will take of my focus, my time, my energy (my sanity?)  So…

Not yet.

Trust me.

And I do.

I sit.  And rest.  And watch.  And celebrate.  And pray.

And I thank God for this lesson.

Because if God wants me to rest for something that I cannot see coming?  Believe me, I want to be rested.

Because God’s invitation to rest?

Is also an invitation to be ready.

Using Marriage

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Eighteen years ago today, I was a young bride walking down the aisle to promise before God and everyone that I would “be true” to the man I’d fallen in love with “until death.”

Like most people, Ted and I can’t believe how the years since that day have flown.  How that day seems as though it were both a lifetime ago and only yesterday.

This got me to thinking about  what I would say to someone if they asked  what our “secret” is to staying married.  (For the record, no one has asked, but isn’t that why I blog?)

The first thought that came to mind is that I could point to two shining examples among many in our families.  This 18th year of marriage for us is bookmarked neatly between two other anniversary milestones in our families:  my parents’ 45th and his parent’s’ upcoming 50th.  Through our parents (and grandparents–Ted and I were dating at my grandparents’ 60th anniversary!), both of us have witnessed great examples of  how to struggle through the difficult times, suffer through the painful times, and celebrate the joyful times–always together.

I also always liked the answer I saw on a Dr. Phil episode once.  (Eye roll.  I know.  Dr. Phil).  Still, I thought it was a good answer.  He said a woman who’d been married 60 years was asked what her secret was, she said, “I guess we never fell out of love at the same time.”  I think there’s truth to that, too.  Even if it’s a little depressing to think about.

Most recently though, I’ve come across an answer I like best as it best fits Ted and I.  It was a story about how in the Orthodox faith there is first a civil ceremony that is celebrated in the public arena for all to see, and it’s followed by a second sacramental ceremony.

You do not have to do the second ceremony.

But in order to celebrate it, you have to make a choice to enter into it.

The article said that the second ceremony is the celebration of the choice to have that marriage, which is already a marriage, “crowned by the wisdom, glory and meaning of the cross of Christ.”

Now, as a Catholic, I could argue that because our wedding took place in a Catholic church, where marriage is taught as and considered a sacrament, that Ted and I made that choice and had the public and the sacramental marriages combined into one.  And it wouldn’t be entirely untrue.  But, if I’m really honest, the truth for me is that I wasn’t thinking about any of that back then.  I was thinking about how much I liked wearing my white dress, how neat my manicure turned out, and how fun our reception was going to be.

I wasn’t thinking about sacraments  (or even God for that matter), much at all.

But, I believe that somewhere in our eighteen years, we’ve both made the decision to enter into that second ceremony.

Through the years we have “washed each other’s feet” in service to one another.  (Not literally.  I don’t do feet.  But you get the gist).  We have celebrated the “eucharist” of marriage by taking, blessing, breaking and giving parts of ourselves to each other in ways that only two people who have trust, and faith and love for God, for each other, and for themselves can do.  And we have taken parts of ourselves that we’ve  loved and we’ve witnessed their painful “crucifixion”.  We have struggled, and suffered and let parts of us die for the betterment of the other.  For the betterment of the two of us over the one.  And while one was suffering an inner crucifixion, the other of us has stood by as witness, holding on to faith, standing by in hope, and letting go in love, trusting the process for the other, willing them on to endure the pain to witness the healing and joys of a “resurrection,” a new life, on the other side.

For me, the answer to staying married is to be willing to go “all the way.”  Now, to any 20-year-old that expression has a very shallow meaning and can be complete in a five-minute interlude on the wedding night (or in many cases before).

But, for me, our only “secret” to a lasting marriage is that each of us, in our own way, and in our own time, has made the choice to use our marriage and enter the Mystery.

Marriage as the Mystery of the Cross.

Marriage as the Mystery of Christ.

Marriage as the Mystery of Love that is God.

Marriage as a daily choice.

It may not be what you were looking for.  It may not sound romantic.

But, after 18 years, that’s the only “secret” I have to offer.

When God is Silent

I’ve been uneasy lately.

This time of year is always difficult for me, and I can never put my finger on why that is exactly. I think it’s a combination of nostalgia for all the days and years gone by as the kids grow so quickly, mixed with excitement for the wide-open calendar of summer and all the various activities we’ll likely fill those days with.

It’s also a time of year where, very often for me, God goes silent.

Or I get too busy to hear.

Or both.

Today, I felt there was only one solution.  I took a walk along  Baxter’s and my favorite trails this morning for the first time since my solo memorial walk after his death.  It was muggy, warm and overcast, as we are expected to get rain later today.  But God has been silent around here, and so I went off looking for him in the places that I used to hear him best–nature.  Immediately as my feet took to walking, I heard the call of the birds, I saw wildflowers blooming, and I thought of all the miles Bax and I covered along those trails as I huffed and puffed my way through the hills and valleys.

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Before Baxter, I was never really one for the great outdoors.  I was content to slide my thermostat from the warmth of 68 degrees for the winter to the refreshingly cool 72 degrees of summer.  It wasn’t until I had Bax that I suddenly had a reason to be outside every single day, even if only for a moment sometimes.   Because let’s face it, with a dog, getting outside is necessary.  This morning, it was time to admit to myself that I’d been avoiding walks ever since his death.  Without Baxter (or at least without having another dog) the walks seemed pointless somehow.  And I suppose there was at least a small part of me that felt like I’d be betraying him if I walked his favorite trails without him.  Still, God had fallen silent and it had reached a point that I knew I’d need to get back out into nature in order to hear him again.

It didn’t take long.

As I felt the warm breeze on my face, I was reminded of the fiery, windy, breath-filled Spirit of God of Pentecost (which we celebrated this past weekend).  As I stepped into the shade under the canopy of trees on the hills, I was reminded of St. Catherine’s meditation, and I thought about my life and how the Tree of Me must look.  As the sun beat down on me in the wide-open blacktop as I passed over the parking lot, I remembered that this is still  the same sun– so many thousands of years later– that shined for Noah after the flood, working with the sky to make a rainbow of God’s promise that the world would never be destroyed.  (This took my thoughts to animals going in two by two, of course, and I was reminded again of Bax.)  I suddenly realized, though, that while I missed my walking partner terribly, I was happy to have my feet moving again.  The whole process this morning seemed to be nature’s way of saying that things must change.  Life is moving on, and I can either go with it, or resist it, but it’s moving on all the same.

It’s an easy decision.

I’m going with it.

And as I heard the birds calling to each other in the treetops, and watched the squirrels hurried movements up and down the trees, I remembered that while I can get caught up in my head with all kinds of to-do lists and nostalgia and plans for the future, the truth is,  life is always only happening right now.

Yours and mine.

And I took a deep breath.

And I felt the silence.

And I breathed in nature’s perfume.

And I remembered I AM.

Something’s Gotta Give

May day!  May day!

Yes, it is the first of May.  And my introductory shout is both a celebration of that long-lost holiday of putting out flowers on doorsteps for others, and also that call of desperation we hear from captains of the air and sea when they are in trouble, and their ship or their plane is out of control.

Today I feel both a reason to celebrate, and a need to get my “ship” back in control.

The most obvious celebration in our household today is for my middle son, who turns 11.  Eleven!  As usual, my mind screams where did the time go?  It seems like only a few years at most that my husband and I were celebrating both the blessing and the bewilderment of having a second  healthy boy (11 pounds and 6 ounces of healthiness to be exact!) Still, celebrating him and the young man he’s rapidly growing up to be is so much to celebrate!

Then, there’s my call for help.  It’s to get me out of my own mess.  I keep reminding myself these are really and truly only problems faced by people privileged enough to live in First World countries like the good ol’ US of A.  So, please know that as I complain, I am also grateful.

The last month or two for me has been a ton of ridiculousness of volunteer activities and the like.  Not to mention anything that can go wrong seemed to go wrong for my husband at work, which meant later than usual nights for him as well.  It all ended last weekend in a big hurrah when I decided (only about a week beforehand) that being part of our neighborhood garage sale was also something I should do.

That makes perfect sense when you’re already exhausted from too much chauffeuring of kids to lessons and activities, volunteer commitments at their schools, and not disappointing the tens of people who look forward to my thrice-a-week blog.

Yes, when better to do a garage sale?  Oh, and a lemonade and bake sale put on by the neighborhood kids, along with my kids.  At my house.

Of course, I should do that, too!

So, Friday was a flurry of activity here trying to set up and price items for Saturday’s sale.  (No time for blogging that day).  Saturday morning the doorbell rang at ten to eight with the neighborhood kids raring to go. (Not entirely unrelated to my whole theme of the post today, their sale was *mostly* for charity–they each kept $5–and they ended up raising over $50 for Autism Speaks, so their story, too had a great ending!)

Anyhoo, then there was me, bleary-eyed and staring through the steam on my mug of hot green tea as I opened the garage door and the car loads of bargain shoppers swooped in.  And,  while most of the whole sale is a blur, I do remember this:  I remember having to use the calculator for a woman who was buying $6.70 worth of clothes and miscellany because she gave me a $10 bill.

I know.

(I know.)

As I slowly punched the numbers in she blurted out, “$3.30My change is $3.30!”

Yes, I know monkeys can do math better than I do.  But, my question is, can they do it on about four hours of sleep and with so many distractions going on around them?  My garage was full of people milling about and every other second one of the kids was asking me a question!   Anyway, luckily for me,  at the moment she told me what her change should be, my calculator simultaneously concurred.

And that’s when I realized I had no dimes or nickels for change.  (I’d planned on only pricing things in quarters, but obviously changed my plan without consulting my brain).

Lovely.

Anyway, it all worked out.  I told the lady to take the two 10 cent items for free.  She quietly thanked me and then, very kindly went to her car and returned with a dollar and 20 cents worth of dimes to not only pay for the two 10 cent items, but to also provide me with future dimes for change.

What is my point, you wonder?

I have no idea.  (I’m still really tired and it’s now Wednesday).

Which kind of is my point.  I had reached a point where nothing much was making sense at all anymore.  Why was I doing all this volunteering?  Why was I adding more things to do to an already overworked brain and body?  Why was I continuing to say yes to things, even though the most obvious answer should have been to say no?

I’m still not entirely certain, but I do know this:  no matter how hard we try to do everything and then some, we all have a breaking point. And at that point something’s gotta give. And, unfortunately, in my life, that usually means my husband and my kids have to put up with a tired, cranky wife and mother.

Sound familiar?

I wish I had a better answer.  All I know for sure is that along with my kids and husband, I suffered for taking on so much.  I didn’t want to be grumpy.  I didn’t want to be so tired.  And I didn’t want to be doing anything on the weekend besides enjoying my family (which I was not at all able to do because of all my “yeses” to other things).

So, when Monday came, I worked all day on some of the other volunteer things I’d committed to doing, and as I was able to cross more and more off my list,  I started to feel a sense of peace.  (Even though I had to sacrifice the blog again to get them done).  I started prioritizing and making a punch list.  Tackling one thing at a time.  And bit by bit my load has lightened.  And I have found stillness and peace and quiet again.

And yesterday, there in the stillness at the bottom of all of it, was God.  Waiting.  Holding it all up with me (or for me).  Reminding me that every decision I make impacts others.

Every decision.

It’s how I’ve come to understand what Catholics call “original sin.”  Our decisions have a ripple effect: on ourselves, on God, and on others, even  through the generations.

It’s a tough row to hoe, knowing this.

Still.

There is hope!  And my hope comes from knowing this:  that the ripple effect is also true of our good deeds, when we follow the promptings of the Spirit.  I remember having a conversation with my priest at my last parish in Wisconsin, and he told me that following the Spirit is like throwing stones into a pond.  We let the Spirit carry out our work like ripples on the water…and sometimes?  Sometimes, they touch something and bounce back to us!

And that’s why I have hope.  Because, while I know that my crabbiness and crankiness has a ripple effect, I believe that my good deeds do, too.  Otherwise, why would the lady who was only minutes earlier yelling at me about her change (and hinting–not so subtly– at my idiocy) return with not only payment for items I’d offered her for free, but also with change to spare?

It’s the miracle of mercy.

And it is why I have hope that when my earthly life is over, those who have known me will  remember me not for the stained and blotted effects of my thoughtless,  hurried and sometimes cruel choices, but rather that they will feel their hearts flooded by the loving and heartfelt goodness that comes from the light of the Spirit within me.

Because it shines in us all!

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  John 1:5

In Three Months’ Time

It is amazing to me what can happen in three months’ time.

Which is how long it’s been since we lost our beloved dog, Baxter.

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And still how my heart grieves!

Slowly, over the three months since his unexpected departure, all the things around the house that were his (and there was literally something in every room…EVERY room!), have been packed up, put away, tucked out of sight for now.  To look around here, you would not know this house has known a dog’s love, a dog’s wet, muddy paws, a dog’s endless loss of fur.

Which makes me sad.

When will we be ready for another dog?

That’s the question on my mind today.  Especially because I was just on a field trip with my son’s middle school class (hence this late afternoon blog post) and spent the better part of the day with a teacher who had been incredibly supportive when Baxter died.  At that time,  I sent an email to all his teachers letting them know what my son would never be able to put into words–that he was grieving the loss of his first dog.  While all the teachers were supportive and kind in their replies, this teacher was especially touched–moved to tears even–by the story of Baxter.  And so today she was eager and excited to hear what we’d done “since then.”

And it was a bit awkward because I wanted to say, “It’s hardly been that long!”

But to some people, when it comes to losing a dog,  three months is three too many.

But it doesn’t help answer the question…what is the “proper” amount of time for me?

People seem to really want to know.

(Nobody wants to know more than I).

All I could tell her was, “The time will be right when my heart is ready to let the new dog be who it’s meant to be, instead of wishing it to be another Baxter.”

For some people, that is almost right away.

For me, it is…not yet.

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At the same time, I believe that the healing won’t be complete until a new dog is ours.

Somewhere in the depths of my heart, I know this.

In a way, that belief was confirmed for me this past weekend when we had the unexpected joy of having my husband’s uncle and aunt drop in on us with none other than their own beloved pup!  Such a treat!  Never have the kids been so excited to have a dog back in the house!  We got out the water bowl and all the toys (and I noted how quickly we found them all.  They are still at arm’s length, it seems.)

Of course, as soon as they left, it was hard not to run right out and pick the first dog that caught our eye.

But, no.

Still my heart is not ready. (It certainly doesn’t seem to mind taking a look on the internet for available dogs, though!)

From a practical standpoint it makes sense that we wait to introduce a new dog until we know our travels will be few and far between.  But, with summer rapidly approaching,  and a few trips planned, that is one reason why right now is not such a good time for a new pup.   Still…

When?  my heart screams.  Because I want desperately to pet a furry head, to step over a furry lump on the kitchen floor, to walk again with leash in hand.

So…when?

I knew  I’d heard some words of comfort in a poem that my good friend and spiritual advisor shared with me right after Baxter passed away.  So, when I got home from the field trip today, I searched for the words and was able to find them without difficulty.   (Thank you, internet!)

“[There are] days when you have your heart back,

You are able to function well

Until in the middle of work or encounter,

Suddenly with no warning,

You are ambushed by grief.

It becomes hard to trust yourself.

All you can depend on now is that

Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.

More than you, it knows its way

And will find the right time

To pull and pull the rope of grief

Until that coiled hill of tears

Has reduced to its last drop.

Gradually, you will learn acquaintance

With the invisible form of your departed;

And when the work of grief is done,

The wound of loss will heal And you will have learned

To wean your eyes

From that gap in the air

And be able to enter the hearth

In your soul where your loved one

Has awaited your return all the time.”

-An excerpt from For Grief by John O’Donohue

I don’t know how else to say it.

The answer to “the right time” is somewhere in these words.

All I know for sure, is this…

For me?

Three months’ time  is not enough.

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What Surrender Looks Like: Lessons From a Vole

As I sat in my basement office one day struggling to string words together for the church presentation I needed to make in only a few days’ time, I became distracted by a vole.

Do you know voles?  I tend to think of them as the ugly cousin of the field mouse.  Or, more positively, the better looking cousin of the mole.  I found a picture of one to post here for you, but to be honest, the ones we’d see in our back yard weren’t as cute as this one.

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Anyway,  the vole had fallen down into the window well of our basement office window.

The window next to the desk holding the computer where I sat trying to create my presentation, thank you very much.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it fall into the window well.  I got up to glance at it and see if it was OK (to be honest, this was not an unusual occurrence).  I saw that the vole was fine, and I made a mental note to go outside and rescue it once my presentation was more complete.   But, to my surprise, the vole began clawing his way up the window screen trying to get to safety.

Yeah.

It was creepy and distracting all at the same time.

 Well, I thought as I tried to ignore him, because, after all –PRESENTATION!– maybe I won’t even have to save him.  But no.  He got to the top of the screen and could not scale the expanse between himself and the grass where he needed to be.

So, fall again, he did.

(Total sidebar here, but I can’t help but think of Yoda with the way I just strung those words together…can you?)

Anyhoo, my point is, this climbing and falling went on not two or three more times, but probably half a dozen or more.  And the whole time I sat there, further distracted, each time hoping he would save himself, so that I could continue with my creative process.  Finally, defeated,  the vole stopped trying.

And I thought, Great!  Now I will finally be able to GET SOMETHING DONE in the peace and quiet.

But, I couldn’t. stop. thinking. about. that. stinkin’. vole.

So, in a huff and with a sense of complete disgust, I went upstairs, grabbed a bug net, and went out to the window well and rescued the vole.  I  released it out into a part of the yard where I thought he would be much more happy–near the wood pile.  (And since he didn’t reappear in the window well, minutes later, I can only assume he was happier there.)

By the time I got all done with that whole exercise, what little sliver of a creative process that I’d had up to that point,  was now completely lost.

I sat there staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen and had nothing to say.

As the cursor blinked away at me,  my thoughts became jumbled with the laundry list of things I needed to get done in addition to my presentation.  And I began sweating at the thought of it all.  Come on!  Come on! THINK!  I’d shout internally.  Give me the words, God!  I’d scream inside.

But my thoughts would always go back to the vole.

WHY CAN’T I STOP THINKING ABOUT THAT VOLE?!?!!? 

And then, though I’d barely realized that I’d asked a question, an answer formed in my heart with  these words, It wasn’t until he stopped trying to save himself, that you rescued him.

Hmmm.

Maybe the reason I couldn’t stop thinking about that vole, was because that experience was a lesson meant for me about trying to force the creative process, especially when I’m trying to force it for God.

Lesson learned.

I realized then and there that I can think (part of the creative process) about what I want to say while I’m doing just about anything else.  And I can write down notes (also part of the creative process) as the thoughts come to me.  And I can sit down and write more when the time is less forced (creative process again!).

And you know what?

It all worked out.

My presentation got done with time to spare.  The house and kids didn’t suffer (too much, anyway) as a result of my neglecting ALL OTHER THINGS for the sake of the presentation.

I can’t tell you how often, still, I think of that vole.  But, I definitely think of it anytime I feel that creative process being forced in me (which is often).  And it’s that vole that make me think of ways I might be able to surrender myself a little more to the circumstances of my life and trust that all will still be well in the end.

Yep.  That vole sure knew a thing or two.

Because, three years later, it hasn’t failed me yet.

Down and Out

I just wanted to let you know, I’ll be taking a break from blogging this week.  My daughter is down and out with Rotavirus.  So I’m busy with my fair share of dumping buckets and doing laundry and such.

She’s better today, but still needs to rest.

And she likes me to be right there with her when she does.

And I may not be too smart in a 1000 different ways, but I’m smart enough to know that sitting with her is my most important job right now.

So, thank you all for waiting until I can get back you next week.  In the mean time, you can always check out my friend Anne’s blog here.

And until then, stay healthy!

The Post I Didn’t Think I’d Have to Write

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This is the post that, two weeks ago, I really didn’t think I’d have to write.

I really thought our miracle dog was going to somehow rise above it all and provide me with some miraculous (and hopefully funny) stories to share with you about the tremendous odds he’d overcome to stay with us.

Instead, two weeks ago today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I had to take Baxter yet again to the vet.  He was in bad shape this time, having thrown up three times that morning between my getting up at 6:00 AM and the vet’s office opening at 8:00 AM.  I was able to get him in at 9:40 AM for another appointment, but he threw up again before we left.  He also barely moved.  He just laid on our bathroom floor, not complaining, not whining or whimpering, but looking miserable all the same.  And, most disturbing to me at that time, weird as it may sound, was the fact that he wasn’t trying to eat his vomit.  That’s when you know your dog is just not even able to be a dog.  I mean, come on, on their best days a normal dog would eat ANYONE’S vomit, not just their own!

Not wanting to alarm the kids (who were all home for the national holiday), but also wanting them to understand the severity of the situation at hand, I told them that they might want to take some time loving on Baxter and wishing him well before I took him to the vet, because I didn’t think things looked good.  They, not surprisingly, grew sad and anxious, and each of them quietly cried at the news.  “I could be wrong!”  I kept saying, perhaps more for my benefit than theirs, (because I was hoping like crazy I was).

“I want to go with you,” said the oldest.

“To the vet?”  I asked.  He nodded.  I sighed.  My real concern at that time was that Baxter’s stomach had somehow twisted in the night and he seemed to me as if he were suffering some of those symptoms.  I thought he was either going to need another surgery, or he was going to have to be put down.  I was hoping for the former, but bracing for the latter.  I wasn’t sure if the kids would really want to be there for that.  But then again, I thought, me leaving the house with their dog and coming back without him, wouldn’t exactly be a picnic for them either.  Plus, I could remain stronger if they stayed with me.

“OK,” I said.

“Me, too!”  piped in the middle one.

“And me!” said the youngest (which is a good thing, because if the other two were going, she wasn’t old enough to stay home by herself anyway, so I’m glad she was able to make the choice).

I let out a long slow, breath, praying for strength, courage and wisdom as we got ready to go.

Trying to keep the mood up, I asked Baxter in my usual peppy voice, “Wanna go for a walk?”  to which Baxter dutifully thumped his tail on the tile, but made no move to get up.  I showed him the leash.  He didn’t even stand.  I scooped him up (all 75 lbs.) and walked him down the stairs to the garage.  I noted to myself, that while I rarely carried him, he felt heavier than the few times I’d lifted him in the past.  Outside, he wouldn’t step into the van either.  Normally this was no problem whatsoever, since he was consistently of the mindset, Wherever you go, I go.  But this time he just stood there, looking helpless to step up.  I lifted him again.

He threw up a fifth time on the way to the vet.

At the vet’s office, Baxter and I had become such regulars that our arrival reminded me of when Norm walked into the bar on the old TV show, Cheers.  It was as if the whole team of workers looked up and, at the sight of the dog they couldn’t help but love, let out a warm sunshine chorus of “Hi, Baxter!,”  but I could see their faces turn to concern as they took him in this time.  They saw what I was seeing:  his eyes a bit distant and his gait a little “off.”

They ushered us into a room and when the doctor came in, he tried so hard to be positive.  He didn’t want to believe any more than the rest of us, I’m sure, that after all the hard work that had gone into “putting Humpty Dumpty back together again” he would already be falling apart.  Baxter was again laying on the floor and wouldn’t stand to greet anyone (which was just unheard of, because a person walking in the room meant a new crotch to sniff, which was the creme de la creme for Baxter).   The doctor and his staff looked Bax over asking me questions, checking his eyes, and mouth for signs of dehydration and shock, taking him temperature, etc.  Nobody knew for sure what was wrong at that point, but when the doctor pushed on Baxter’s abdomen it made a very disturbing sloshing sound.  Like he’d just poked a water bed.  And the doctor got real quiet.  “I think,” he said, “we need to do another x-ray and see what’s going on in there.”

So, the kids and I said our goodbyes to them and to Baxter, and in a last-minute flourish, I took a bottle of  holy water out of my pocket (my intuition led me to grab it before I left the house) and gave Baxter a blessing.

And I’m so glad they went with me… because that was the last time we saw him alive.

It turned out he had internal bleeding, and though they tried their best to repair and correct it, in the end he’d just lost too much blood and his heart gave out.

But, through our taking him to the vet together, I was able to assure the kids of one thing: that Baxter knew we would never leave him until we had to. And for a dog who suffered from severe separation anxiety, we all knew how much that meant to him.

As a family, we’ve spent the last two weeks grieving in our own way.  We’re making a scrapbook of Baxter and we have a paw print and a swatch of his hair to remember him by, among other things.  His cremains arrived last Wednesday, and we put them on the bottom shelf of the end table in the front office.  He spent most of his time on the floor in here at my feet anyway, so it seems fitting.

But we still struggle with the emptiness.

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The quiet.

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The space that is the *lack of* Baxter.

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But, as I continue to work through the many stages of grief (denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and– eventually–acceptance, I’ve read), I’ve held on to one thing through it all:  the outpouring of kindness, understanding, support and love from those people who know and love us and who knew and loved Baxter.

He was a DOG, I keep thinking.  Not a PERSON–like a grandparent, or parent, or  (God forbid) a child.   But still, a part of our family all the same.  And so many of you know that that means a part of my heart that I didn’t even know was there until I had a dog, is now experiencing a loss. 

And I hold tight to your words and your kindness as time marches on.  Each day is a bit better, the quiet a bit more peaceful, the emptiness a bit more bearable, all because of YOU.

  • Thanks so much to the doctors and staff who did their best to save him.  Your efforts were heroic and your love and concern for Baxter were clearly visible.  We have no regrets entrusting him to your care.
  • Thanks so much to ALL the dog lovers whom I’ve come to know through Baxter, the trainers, the behaviorists, the kennel workers, the pet store staff, and my circle of friends–old and new–who have cried with me, sent a card or enote, left me a message or lent me their ear to bend for awhile with my stories, or lent me their shoulder to cry on (or both).
  • Thanks to my family for understanding that Baxter was so much more to me than “my first dog.”  He was a childhood dream realized, he was a reflection of “my own soul with fur,” my trusted spiritual advisor, and my loving and faithful confidant–even though, from time to time, even I would refer to him as “the damn dog.”
  • Special thanks to my brother for turning one of my favorite pictures of Baxter into the beautiful and loving memorial above.
  • And, finally, thanks to Agape Pet Services for their understanding of our loss, and their loving care of Baxter’s remains.  I am perhaps most grateful for the words they found in Scripture that I have always believed to be true, but have found most comforting all the same:

“…in His hand is the soul of every living thing…”  Job 12:10

Because, now, it is only through the power of His loving hand that my soul is able to know and feel Baxter still.

LOVE IN ACTION and THE FAMILY DOG

It’s important to me that you understand something. When I embraced SIMPLIFY as my theme for 2013, it wasn’t my intention to never blog again. That would be OVERsimplifying, which I almost never do. In fact, I had intentions to blog at least every Monday, and then add a second day to each week next month.

The thing is (as is often the case), Life had other plans for me.

So, in my case, instead of blogging, Life has kept me preoccupied by playing nurse to my golden retriever. In an attempt to keep the story SIMPLE, let me just outline for you the past two and a half weeks of my life:

  • Left Dog in kennel for vacation.
  • In an attempt to escape and find us, Dog tried to secretly eat his way out of the kennel, but told no one.
  • We returned from vacation and brought Dog home.
  • Dog was happy, but had trouble sleeping and seemed unable to relax. Since, in our presence, Dog can easily be confused with a throw rug until you say the words, “walk” or “yum-yums,” this had us concerned.
  • Dog went to vet and was treated for acid reflux.
  • Dog slept like a baby that night, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
  • Symptoms returned for Dog the next day and we took him back to the vet.
  • Dog was given a special “cocktail” to soothe his stomach and “clear things out.”
  • Dog slept like a baby, but refused to eat the next morning.
  • Dog went back to vet to undergo x-ray.
  • X-ray revealed a mystery item in stomach that would not move.
  • Dog had surgery to remove the “largest mass of foreign body” our vet has ever seen in his 20+ years of vet medicine. They saved a “small fraction” of it for all of us to enjoy (it’s a gallon-sized bag, just so you know):

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  • We feel Dog deserves a plaque like on Man vs. Food that announces “Food Won” (or in this case, “Foreign Body Won”), but I guess the vet thought we were joking because no such plaque has yet been presented to Dog.
  • Dog seemed much better.
  • The next day Dog got worse again.
  • Dog has been at the vet two of the past three days and was treated for gas and other things.
  • As a result of trying to guess what all may be wrong with him, I get to give him all these meds at least twice each day. On a good day he’ll take them wrapped in the cheese slices, but he hasn’t had a good day yet this week:

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  • To date Dog is still eating very little and/or refusing to eat altogether.

So, I’m at that scary place right now where I don’t know how the story will end. And so I don’t want to write, because it’s difficult to write when you’re in the middle of something scary and painful.

But that’s kind of why I realized I had to write. Because I want you to show you how my mystic mind has learned to deal with scary, painful times.

Here’s a punch list of how I’ve been dealing with this:

  • I write down the things I’m grateful for every day. It can be as simple as “The dog pooped!” and as deeply sad as, “I am so grateful that if I have to experience a loved one suffering it is my dog suffering and not my children, husband or other  human loved one.”
  • I lower my expectations for the day. I don’t expect the world to understand how much my dog means to me. But I know our story. I know how much he means, and so I know I need to hold myself more gently right now. I’ve cleared my schedule so that if I need to stay busy, I get busy with housework, and if I need to lay low and watch TV for a bit while the dog walks around backwards into things (which he’s been doing a lot), then I can watch him and use the TV as a distraction.
  • I stay focused on what matters. This is, for me, at least, much harder than it sounds. I get distracted so easily with thoughts of “what if’s” and “then what’s” that I tend to miss the big picture of what these series of events will mean in my WHOLE life. Yes, it’s hard to watch my dog in pain. And yes, it is EXPENSIVE. Yes, it’s hard to think of having to let him go (if it comes to that). Yes, it would be sad…BUT…Yes, my kids are healthy. Yes, my husband is still gainfully employed so we can pay those bills. Yes, when you can fix a problem with money it’s really not the biggest problem you’ll ever have. Yes, in spite of however this ends, I am still so happy and grateful and better for having known my dog that I would do it all over again– even if the end of our relationship comes much sooner than I’d expected.
  • I (force myself to) practice what I preach. I’ve embraced a new mantra, and when I do that, I know from experience that Life has a way of testing me on it. My new mantra has been this: THERE IS NO BLAME. And these are the words on which I’ve tried to focus this whole episode. The people who supervised my dog at the kennel where he ate the stuff? They are not to blame. The doctors who didn’t have x-ray vision and know that my dog ate something? They are not to blame. The dog who should just KNOW BY NOW how to be calm in our absence? He is not to blame. And that leaves me with the one person left I like to blame the most for things going wrong: Me. The old habits are hard to break: I should have known….I should have said…I should have told them…I should have been more diligent…. But if I go down that road, I’m not helping anyone. Not the doctors, not the kennel workers , not my kids and husband who are just as concerned and hurting as I am watching our family pet suffer, not my friends and family who have called to check on his progress through this seemingly endless journey, and– most especially–not the dog.

In the meantime, I’m waiting and watching and praying. These acts are the silent language of LOVE IN ACTION that my dog understands. And whether these past few days end up being but a bump in the road of an otherwise long, enjoyable life with him, or they end up being his *gulp* dying days, it is most important to me that he see his life lesson has not gone unnoticed, that his message for me has been received, that his purpose for being has transformed me.

And I feel the Spirit within smiling and nodding and bringing me peace with this SIMPLE revelation:  Through the ages, few earthly beings have been more consistent about the message of LOVE IN ACTION than the family dog.

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Closing thought: If you have a family dog that you love and have learned some of life’s SIMPLER lessons from, feel free to post his/her name (or names if you have more than one) in the comments section below. I will know through that SIMPLE act, that you are joining your hearts with ours in prayer for a speedy recovery for our beloved Baxter.

xx oo

Lisa