Thursday, September 27, 2012

Portrait of a Neighbor

It's a gloomy morning here in central Pennsylvania.  When I heard the rain hard and steady on our roof window first thing this morning, I decided to delay my run and opted instead to go downstairs to reflect or attempt to do something productive.  A short time after turning on our living room light, the doorbell rang.  Knowing the reason for our early morning visitor, I opened the door to find Marisol and to hear the news about my neighbor Charlie.  He passed away at 3:45 this morning.  Marisol appeared tired and sad, but perhaps a bit relieved.  Charlie was ninety-two, and he'd been bedridden for the last several years.  We all thought he'd seen his last days this summer, but somehow he summoned strength and made it to his birthday and then some.  He was a fighter, continually showing us more of his his strong will and determination.

Bev, one of Charlie's caregivers and closest friends, stopped by last night to let me know that Charlie took a turn for the worse.  When I asked to come and visit later in the evening, she warned me that he no longer looked himself.  She was right.  His already-thin body now even more slight after days without food, his breathing was shallow and erratic.  He wasn't conscious.  But Bev and the hospice nurse there reminded me that hearing is typically the last thing to go and encouraged me to come and to talk.  My words to Charlie were few.  I asked him to be at peace, and I told him that I love him, something that I've vocalized to only a few people.  During episodes when he struggled to keep breathing, I prayed silently and held his arm.  (I think that the holding did more to comfort me than to comfort Charlie.)

While we sat with Charlie, Bev and I shared Charlie stories.  We talked about his being born in Philadelphia and living most of his life in and around the house that he shared with his wife Dolly on Church Street.  We remembered how he called my kids Natalie Mae and Andrew Jackson (even though Andrew's true middle name is David), and how he helped to build the deck and backyard fencing at our house many years ago.  We recalled how he lovingly cared for Dolly when she had dementia and was bedridden.  We listed his favorite market items: the small bags of Utz potato chips, the sugar cookies with raisin in the center, avocados personally chosen by a favorite standholder, pickles, chicken pot pie, local and in-season tomatoes.  We laughed about his lack of modesty and attitude -- Charlie went through a stage where he'd answer the door wearing only a shirt and an adult pull-up.  Charlie was particular about what he wanted and when he wanted it.  If you did what he asked, you were on his good side.  Show him any disrespect, and you'd quickly make an enemy.  We wondered about his experiences as a soldier in World War II and what kind of impact they had on his thinking and actions.  We talked about how he made us angry and how he made Bev cry.  Actually, he made a lot of people cry, but he was also deeply caring.  If you gave Charlie a chance, if you found the time and patience to try to understand him, you'd find a brave and loyal friend.

Charlie was a man of few biological relatives who somehow managed to gather a community of people around him, an eclectic group including a couple of long-term caregivers, a doctor, a banker, a boxer, some Lancaster City policemen, and a few neighbors.  How did Charlie, with his fierce temper and sometimes entitled attitude, manage to endear himself to us all?  Maybe it was that he was authentic.  He was human.  Often apologizing when his temper got the best of him, he'd be the first to admit he wasn't perfect.  He let people into his life.  He was brave enough to ask for help.  Though he could be exasperating, we all loved him.

Charlie brought me face-to-face with my own humanity.  I'll be the first to admit that I didn't welcome all of his phone calls and requests for help over the years.  When we moved to Church Street ten years ago, we did so with the hope (and at points, arrogant confidence), that we would be a caring presence for all of our neighbors, responding to every need and invitation.  The truth is that, despite my best efforts, I'm really selfish.  I'm not a perfect neighbor or perfect in any way for that matter.   The ways that I responded, or didn't respond, to Charlie demonstrates this.  I write this not to be self-deprecating, but to be real.  Sometimes I feel like I can't hold my own life together, that I need a lot of help myself.  Maybe we all feel at least a little bit this way, even those of us who appear to be superheroes.  Charlie's presence, his imperfection, his invitations were such a gift to me.  He showed me that it's OK to be needy and to ask others for help.  And he showed me that it's possible for others to love you even after letting your true self show, adult pull-up and all.

Charlie, I love you.  Thank you for the life lessons you've taught me.  I hope you're dancing with Dolly, laughing with the other loved ones you met during your life's journey, and eating to your heart's content.

Have you never heard?  Have you never understood?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth.  He never grows weak or weary.  No one can measure the depths of his understanding.  He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.  Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion.  But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.  They will soar high on wings like eagles.  They will run and not grow weary.  They will walk and not faint.  Isaiah 40:28-31

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

An Invitation to the Deep

For our family, the local public pool is like an oasis, a welcome diversion and a life-giving place in the middle of an otherwise over scheduled summer.   The pool serves as a meeting location for impromptu gatherings with friends and provides a time for Andrew and Natalie to get more deliberate attention from Dave and me as they work on their swimming skills.  Both kids had their yearly 2-week swimming lesson sessions earlier this summer and have made notable progress, with 6-year-old Andrew now able to swim underwater and 4-year-old Natalie blowing bubbles underwater and kicking those legs.

Yesterday, in an attempt to beat the forecasted thunderstorms, we arrived at the pool early in the afternoon.  Considering that it was the weekend, it was a quiet day there.  Though unfortunate for pool business, I prefer days like this, when fewer swimmers means that I can easily spot my kids in the water and that we have the space to try new things.  Noticing an empty spot in the deeper water next to two lifeguards and a ladder, at the far corner of the pool, where the shallow waters quickly become deeper, I jumped at the chance to get the kids out there to work on their swimming skills and to increase their confidence in the deep water.

“Do you want to come to the deep with me?” I asked.

Andrew wasn’t interested, but Natalie came willingly, hugging my neck and riding on my back, her leg kicks acting as her contribution toward our forward movement.  With some effort, I was able to encourage her to jump into my arms from the poolside.  After several jumps, I saw the depth marking on the side of the pool.  Three feet, six inches.  Andrew is at least four feet tall now I thought.  I’m sure that Andrew can stand in this water.

I waved at Andrew, who was back at the other end of the pool, motioning for him to join us in the deep.  He waved back at me, indicating that he wanted me to come to him.  I waved with more force and enthusiasm.  This time, Andrew started moving in my direction.

“Andrew, the water’s only three feet, six inches here,” I shouted.  “I’m sure you can stand here.”

“No I can’t.”

Coming closer, I tried again.  “But Andrew, you’re at least four feet tall now.  I’m sure you can touch the bottom and keep your head above the water, even if it means standing on your toes.  It will open up a whole new world of possibilities to you.  Come on, let’s go and try.”

“I don’t believe you.  It will be above my head.”

“Trust me.  Come on, I will carry you.”

Reluctantly, he agreed that I could pick him up and carry him back to the deeper water, where I left Natalie hanging on the ladder.  Andrew allowed me to slowly lower him into the water, his rigid body revealing that he was still very afraid.  Chin down, he looked into the water and pointed his toes, hoping to touch the bottom.  When he first sensed the bottom of the pool, Andrew smiled, and he laughed.  His tension ceased, and joy emerged.  He started trying out his series of swimming skills, stroking down to try to touch the bottom, then quickly swimming to the surface and grabbing the side of the pool. 

“Now in the pool I can go wherever I want, right Mommy?”


The deep of the pool reminds me of my own deep, that vast expanse of unknown out there waiting for me.  I see it.  It’s just barely out of reach.  I sit in the shallow end, listening to the joyful screams and laughter and gazing at the life happening out there.  Most of the time, I’m content to watch.  After all, I like the shallow end, which has its own charms.  I can easily stand here, and things are familiar.  But sometimes, I long for the opportunity to venture in to the deep, without knowing what exactly will happen there, but with expectation and hope that it will be something truly amazing.
When I receive invitations to the deep, I have my handy list of responses ready: I’m not smart enough, pretty enough, good enough, fast enough.  I’m not capable.  I don’t have enough money or the right skills or resources.  I’m too busy.  I don’t like being out there where everyone can see me.  I have young children to take care of, and I’m tired.  But sometimes, the right person or situation convinces me to say yes.  I can make it to the deep with their help, and more than just make it, I can stand there, toes reaching the bottom.  I can practice my own swimming skills, growing in confidence and finding new joy.  

When I say yes to the invitation and travel to the deep, I feel alive.  And I feel empowered to try new things too -- maybe say yes to the next invitation instead of relying on my typical excuses.  I invite others to join me, longing to see their excitement when they discover that they too can play in the deep.  I want my kids to experience this with me: my decision to say yes to invitations that aren’t safe or easy, my struggle in attempting things unfamiliar, and my joy in discovering new and empowering truths.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

City Life

(Over the next few weeks, I'm taking an online writing class.  I'm looking forward to all that I will learn!  I will post some of the writing here.  I do plan to get back to writing more about running and water, maybe even as a part of this class.  Thanks for taking the time to read!)

My friends will tell you that I’m passionate about city life.  On some days, I’m smitten.  I felt that way, especially in the beginning, when everything was new.  I arrived in a small city called Lancaster a couple of years after graduating from college.  It’s a mysterious place, smack in the middle of hearty Amish country and acres upon acres of farmland, but with a diverse population including whites of German ancestry, African Americans, Latinos, and more recently, refugees from Southeast Asia.  And then there’s my husband and I, who twelve years ago were newcomers to Lancaster County and its unique culture, a culture that is evolving as more “foreigners” like us have reason to come and make lives for ourselves here.

In the beginning, walking to market, testing different running routes, finding favorite restaurants, and meeting new friends quickly became treasured activities.  During any one of these pastimes, I could be with people from many different backgrounds.  I loved the discovery and the learning.  It was all so very new and fun and interesting to me.

When my husband and I purchased a house, I started to see Lancaster as our home.  On our block were several neighbors who had lived on our street for years and years and were eager to tell us about their city life experiences.  We’d often meet one of these neighbors, an elderly gentleman named Charlie, on the sidewalk as he was preparing to make his weekly trip to market.  We’d exchange pleasantries, talk about the glorious farm and Pennsylvania Dutch goodies that Charlie was about to purchase, and discuss the latest neighborhood news, which often involved someone parking in someone else’s space or a complaint about Peggy storing her scooter in their shared alleyway.  A few years later, when Charlie was no longer able to make the trip to market and I started to make frequent stops there, complete with stroller and kids, I’d get a list from Charlie: fresh tomatoes, a dill pickle, two half pints of chicken pot pie, four beef hot dogs, and three small bags of Utz potato chips.  When I’d return to his house with his food and his money, he’d always be sure to hand back some change for the kids’ piggy banks.  It was the same song and dance every time.  Initially, I’d refuse the money, but he’s always been more stubborn than I, and eventually I’d receive his gift and thank him.  

This is city life at its finest: opportunity for relationships with others not like me, shared experiences (good and bad) leading to solidarity, helping one another.

I often say that the city can bring out the best and the worst in people.  After a while, the things that once made city life so fresh and invigorating started to wear on me.  Excitement about being with people of other backgrounds lessened as I realized that it is easier to be around people just like me.  The running routes, restaurants, and routines became old and tired.  And then there are the other small annoyances adding up over time: people hitting our cars and neglecting to leave insurance information, missing porch plants, escaped pets and stray cats in our backyard, a stone through our living room window, limited living space.  Friends are moving on to their bigger homes with spacious backyards.  I feel cramped, stationary, and angry at that stranger who just took the parking space right in front of our house!

Even relationship with Charlie is strained.  Bedridden now, he calls at night wanting me to adjust the temperature control on his heater.  He calls to complain about his nurses and our neighbors.  He calls asking me to visit.  When I don’t visit as often, he calls to check whether my phone number has changed.

When I stopped getting phone calls from Charlie, I went down to his house to check on him.  He didn’t recognize me that night.  He was confused and cold to the touch.  The next morning, surrounded by close friends that he has collected over the years, it was clear that the end was near.  Or so we thought.  Charlie is as stubborn as ever, even in death.  Waiting with Charlie binds us together.  Despite my weary and sometimes bitter description of city life these days, times such as these, the precious moments and relationships, keep me holding on.  Gratitude for both the sacred and mundane city life experiences results in hope.  This hope causes the frustration to dissipate, at least temporarily, and allows me to tolerate the closeness.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Loss: Someone Else's Gain

Yesterday was my birthday, and on my birthday, I am reflective.  I crave time to rest and remember, to gain perspective and seek direction for the year ahead.

In an effort to make some space for pondering on my birthday, I began my day with a run.  Lacing up my shoes, I included some money for a stop at our local farmer's market on the way home.  Cool morning breezes and abundant sunshine met me as I got on my way.  Feeling grateful for the beauty of the day, I wondered if it was too self-focused for me to believe that God was celebrating me and giving me a gift in the weather.  My steady pace and hopeful thoughts were interrupted when I stopped to confirm that my market money was still in my shoe and found it missing.  I stood there, careful to check both shoes and the sidewalk at my feet before jumping to hasty conclusions.  But I was right the first time; the money was nowhere to be found.  This had been my practice -- including money for market in my tight shoelaces -- on many runs, and I never managed to lose money before.  As I turned to retrace my steps, a vain attempt to find the cash on city sidewalks already dotted with pedestrians, the feelings of shame welled up inside.  How could I be so stupid as to run with money in my shoe.  Why didn't I tie my laces tighter?  These kinds of thoughts went on for a little while.  Maybe the thinking was a bit extreme, given that it was only $16 that I had lost.  But I guess loss does that to you.  Loss brings on all of these intense emotions -- disbelief that something is permanently gone, shame that you failed to make a decision that would have kept this from happening, sadness when you realize that no matter how hard you try you can't recover what is gone, and fear that something like this will happen again.  The next time I run with money, I'll be determined to hold onto it.  It will be in a tight pocket, or better yet, in my hands, where nothing can take it away from me.  The fear of loss causes us to think some crazy thoughts.

As I continued my reflective birthday run, which turned into a reconnaissance mission for my money, I remembered a time when my sister lost her market money.  I felt so badly for her at the time and offered to help her look for the money, but she shrugged, and in her thoughtful and gracious way replied, "maybe there was someone who needed the money that I lost this morning."  When I considered this possibility, it lifted the weight of my negative thoughts.  Maybe someone else needed my money.  My loss will be someone else's gain.

Thoughts of lost money turned to thoughts of lost life as I attended a funeral for a friend's son later that morning.  Only 20-years-old, he died as a result of a motorcycle accident last week.  Stories shared about him provided evidence of a full life -- one of adventure, relationship, ingenuity, and care for others.  One that had no room for fear.  Donating vital organs to multiple recipients, he was full of life even in death.  Bittersweet this is.  His loss, his family's deep and painful loss, becomes someone else's gain.  Others gain life because he lost his.  

Despite the weight and severity of a physical death, a loss that makes missing money seem so trivial, I couldn't help but wonder if real loss occurs in a life that is too protected.  When you get on a motorcycle, you know the risks that are involved.  You've seen the accident reports in the newspaper.  You've heard stories from friends.  Perhaps you even know someone who died on a bike.  But you still get on and enjoy the ride, despite the risks, because you are fully alive when you're out there negotiating a tight turn or feeling the wind against your face and hair.  If you never get on the bike at all, you're never fully alive.  In this case, you don't have much to lose.  But is this really a worthy consolation?

So a question emerges during my day of reflection, a day marked by birthday festivities, missing money, and a funeral.  What kind of life are you living?  Is it one where you cling to the securities of material possessions or accomplishments, hover over your children to ensure their physical safety, and attempt to control how others feel about you?  What kind of life is this?  I want to get out on the road, attempt a difficult turn, and feel the wind through my hair.

** This story made me think of the Jesus's caution, recalled in the gospels.  Jesus said“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. 36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul?"  -Mark 8:34-37

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Should I keep going, or should I stop?

It's a familiar scene:  I'm out for a run, enjoying the scenery or the conversation, and holding a good pace.  Minutes later, I start to get fatigued.  My muscles feel tired, and I'm starting to drag a bit.  I try to stay with it, to think about how I will push through this discomfort, but fears and weariness start to set in.  Soon, I am afraid that I might burn out or injure myself.  I'm not enjoying this anymore, and I wonder why I keep running anyway.

In the midst of most training runs, regardless of what my training plan says, I find myself debating whether I should push the pace or back off.  Easy runs can become interval workouts and interval workouts can become easy runs depending on the dialogue that ensues in my head.  (Just a side note: are there really "easy" runs?  I rarely feel that a run is easy!)  The questions that I ask myself in this situation are the same as the questions that I ask myself when making decisions in so many other areas of my life when things start to feel difficult or uncomfortable:

How do I know if my fatigue or negative feelings about my _________ mean that it's time to stop?  Or quit?  Or leave?

Should I keep going, or should I stop?

When this happens with running, there are many factors that determine my next move.  A caring spouse, running partner, or race spectator may encourage me to keep with it.  I practice positive self-talk.  I set goals to get to the next phone pole, next quarter mile, next hilltop.  I try quickening the pace to see how my body responds.  On the other hand, a nagging injury, bathroom emergency, or just plain weariness may force me to stop.  It's always difficult for me to choose to stop, even on those occasions when every fiber of my being is telling me that it's the right thing to do.  I'm not a quitter, or at least I don't think I am.  I don't like to admit defeat.

When this happens in other areas of my life, it often seems that there's much more at stake.  How will my decision impact my family, friends, coworkers, or others?  How will it impact my future?  What will others think about my decision?  What will God think?

So today, as I ponder the decisions in front of me, I look back over my life, searching for a pattern, for some wisdom to give me direction as to what to do next.  What I think I truly need is some time with God along with the courage to be honest with myself about who I am, how I feel, and what I want.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Brokenness - first draft

I'm back!  I put off posting for a while because I feel the pressure of having an awesome, polished story worthy of the 6-month wait.  The truth is that I've been super busy, and in all of my busyness, I've neglected some of the things that seem unnecessary.  The reality is that some of these things, like writing, are so very life-giving.  They are necessary.

Anyway, I need to get back in to the practice of writing, so here goes.

As I type this, a tall, kind, black man named Marvin is shattering the glass in one of my front windows.  He arrived a bit ago, ready to repair the window, which has a gaping hole in it from a rock that came through it yesterday.  The rock-throwing incident occurred when I was sitting in the living room, fixed to my computer with a solid, 3-hour block of time to get something accomplished.  The rock ruined my morning.  After it happened, I felt scared and vulnerable.  Who would do something like this?  And why?  Will it happen again?

This incident is just one in a line of others where I've felt that our home has been disrespected by others.  Some would consider our neighborhood unsafe.  So all of these negative feelings about our living situation again started swirling in my head.  Some days, I just want out.  I want an escape to a place that feels safe.  I asked God why He doesn't keep us safe and why I don't feel safe in my own home.  I began to think of some things to be thankful for in the situation: my children weren't home when this happened, no one was hurt, I have awesome and encouraging neighbors.  Maybe something good could come from this annoyance.

When Marvin arrived and began to pry the storm window out, I started apologizing for things: my curtains are dirty, I don't know how to get my windows apart, my windows need to be cleaned too...  

He replied with a high five and the words, "you don't need to apologize.  Jesus loves you."

These words spoke to my heart, and I began to cry.  I've been doing a lot of apologizing lately for not knowing enough or giving enough at my job, for not spending enough time with my family.  Every day, I strive for perfection, but the reality is that this striving leaves me broken and depleted.  I never feel enough.  I'm always apologizing.

As he worked on the window, Marvin, who I learned is a chaplain at the local prison, continued to speak.  Wisdom poured from his mouth.  He preached about how God imparts value to us and about the ministry opportunities that we have in our own neighborhoods.

"God doesn't wait until you are ready to show up."  Isn't that the truth.  My life feels really messy right now, kind of like that broken window.  I wasn't expecting to see God in the middle of my need.  I wasn't expecting God to show up in my house this morning and show me his love and care.  But he did through Marvin, who is Jesus in the flesh to me today -- speaking words of truth, asking me not to worry, reassuring me that things will be alright, fixing my problems.