Sunday, December 26, 2010

Oh, Oh, Oh, _____ on Fire!

When it rains, it still doesn't put out the fire. What was going to be a blog about finding the right wall color soothing, or being motivated for the right task to work through sinus pain, or reading the right meditation when one needs re-centered on something other than oneself... it all ended up in something altogether different.

My writer friend, Maura posted something about 2010 being fired. Bad year. Ditto! For me, it's been up, and down, then back up. Now it's down again. At the end of a year where my bathroom leaks with every precipitation, and my thirty-six year old husband was admitted to the hospital with chest pain, I was just reminded again: it's really not about me.

My husband is at his sister's across town. Her ex-husband, father to her three children and good friend, Jeff, died at forty-nine this year. He died of pneumonia and lung cancer, one week after it was diagnosed.  Right now, her house is on fire. Our parish council president, Dianne, lives around the corner. She brought them coats and called my husband at the end of Vespers. Her husband Bill answered my worried call. From his front porch he could see the firemen's shadowy figured hacking. He could see 'quite a bit of smoke yet.' He heard chainsaws earlier. They are homeless on the day after Christmas. They are one of THOSE people whom tragedy strikes at the holiday.

I just called my brother-in-law and brought my children downstairs to tell them. First to know, then to pray. The prayer we just offered says, "Oh, Lord, help us to find in knowledge, wisdom, not just information." Before we gathered at the family altar, our place of prayer, I was scouring the first floor for the lighter. We call it the flame thrower and that seems funny, till your sister-in-law's house is burning. The kids don't want the risk of fire at moment. Understandable.

"There is good fire and bad fire, right?" I say to my son. He's reading Tales of the Kingdom with me. In it Amanda keeps a dragon who lights Great Park on fire with its breath. Dragons are forbidden for the threat of fire they promise with each exhalation.  They are flame throwers. Burners.  The fire in Tales comes in two kinds. The dark fires that the evil one uses, and the Great Circle Fire, which transforms the broken, the lame, the scarred, sick, scared, ugly, normal, into princes, commanders, knights, and beauties, The Royalty of the King, who also appears as his true self within the safe and transforming flames. One who has sinned is singed upon passing through the ring of fire, but in the King's embrace is forgiven and healed. We're talking about how this is like Divine Liturgy. It's echo is in every pre-Communion prayer, which talks of the Eucharist as one thing that burns and purifies.

"Will you join me in faith that this is the good fire of prayers rising before God?" Where do these words come from? Where does such wisdom emerge to talk my children through these hardships? At least to talk my nine-year old through it; my fourteen year old heard me say fire and ran upstairs like the tragedy had bereft her of a best friend. Extracating life's highs from emotions is hard for adolescents, at least that's what the latest brain research suggests. I'm keeping my pulse on the research to help me negotiate, or cope.

Liam lights the candle. I put it in the vigil lamp where it sways as we pray intercessions. My daughter's arms never come uncrossed from her chest and she remains ten degrees twisted from the icon of Christ. This leap of faith is not hers, yet...

The kids go for snacks, and reading, not TV. Thanks be to God for that. I decide to finish writing.

I grab Julia K. Dinsmore's book, My Name is Child of God... not "Those People" off my shelf. There's a passage here that struck me when I first read it during year one of seminary. Before we left, we had payed down our all but our house debt and one of my last college loans. We worked hard to be sound before leaving for Northeastern PA, but we couldn't sell our 1874 Victorian. We didn't know it was the first glimmers of the housing crisis. When we bought it five years before, it had been on the market for three years and our neighbor's house next door was up for sale six months before ours. Theirs took another year after we moved to sell.

We'd already delayed our move because I couldn't find a teaching job out east. The month before we moved, we pulled it off the market and put up a for-rent sign. Now we were renting it out to a family of four, which grew to a mother-in-law, an uncle, a dog, another  baby and finally some miscellaneous others migrating from south of the border to find work in Indiana.

Renting was smooth for nine months. One hour before Bridegroom Matins began on Holy Saturday, we got our first call with problems. I had a hunch that the trials had begun. We were forewarned by the Dean of the seminary, by fellow seminarians, and, as usual, something in my recent readings- this passage by Dinsmore.  The first thing was the furnace. It was snowing and 30 degrees out. There was a newborn. The furnace that stopped working was a bum unit for us for the next four years. On again, off again. It died finally this summer. We replaced most of the HVAC unit. Back then, it was the appetizer. Last June, my husband calculated twelve of our twenty thousand dollars of debt racked up in the past four years came from the house troubles alone. Still our troubles have never  been the equivalent of others I know. Our debts might have been worse except for the generosity of our parish, our father confessors, the seminary, friends and family as well as other church groups who rescued us, just enough each time.

I saw poverty growing up. I grew up in it a bit but my parents were thrifty. Dinsmore outlines a world I've been glimpsing.

Consider this: The American Psychological Association conducted a study on life stressors, the big ones-- losing a job, moving, loss of health, death, etc. They were able to determine that average middle-class Americans can experience major life disruptions if one to three stressors occur over a short period. The same study wen ton to say that poor people, regardless of race are experiencing on any given day from six to eight stressors, often with little or no interruption between onsets.

This is not me. My aunt and uncle have been in ministry twenty-five years and I can count so many health crises with their children and their bodies, now job loss, insurance loss, pay cut and all while defending an under-age girl victimized by a member of the church. My aunt asked me last week if our parish would support us through my husband's hospitalization. Unquestionably, we are supported. It's tiny as a group but, it feels, as generous as the widow's might.

I keep thinking of this student of mine. She has more that two life-altering physical conditions and a toddling sister dying of the rarest condition. She can't finish most school assignments because she's constantly supporting her sick mother and helping take her sister to therapy and doctor appointments. As school employees, we are bound by law to report her for truancy and possible neglect. I can't help but wonder if I showed up at her home, would it be the disaster that Dinsmore, or the McCourts, or Jeanette Walls records in accounts of poverty? Would I walk up to the house and that stuffy smell roll down the sidewalk fifteen feet from the door? In middle school,  I had a friend whose house reeked like that every time I visited. Would there be a car outside to get someone to the hospital, if needed? My friend's parents rarely owned one. On again, off again. Most of the time her mother took the bus to her job at Harvest Food Bank. Sometimes, I think I recall, her dad rode motorcycle to work.  This is how poverty works. The stink of hanging onto things we don't need to the expense of what is necessary. We spent the week before Christmas making twenty buck last. I went hog wild when the paycheck came in, stuffing our freezer with holiday frivolities relieved to have money to spend on food.

It's been over an hour. I haven't heard more. My kids are on pins and needles. My post is run dry. Now is the time to leave  behind the over-thinking and go to a poverty of mind, a quietness of heart, and to call my husband to find out more. Oh, Lord, Have Mercy.

PS. The important stuff was untouched- pictures,  Bible, and Jeff's ashes were safe. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hugging the Theotokos

This may make you squeamish. Or not, depending on how you feel about connecting with dead people.  I don't mean to make light of Orthodox Christians' relationship to the Saints-Gone-Before, but one could say, with all our veneration of icons, that we 'see dead people.'

If I was curled around my husband's heaving body one morning this week, and curled in a scared ball the next morning, then curling up like one of those potato bugs is about to become the metaphor of my mind. I think in metaphors. I feel in them. I find theology in stories, mostly of the lives of saints and the redeemable wrecks I find in memoir and fiction.  I wrap my consciousness around them. I think of LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea where the true name of something is hidden. It's shroud is lifted only for the right purpose because to name something is to identify truth.

And the truth sets us free.

In the past four years, I've tried to wait for the true name of something to come out, rather than rushing to label it myself. If we were paying two house payments, sinking into debt at eight and nine hundred dollars some months, or if, in a freak storm, my van spun out of control on the interstate, I waited. I think I startled a few people with my calm. I didn't rage or cry or despair. I may have buried my head a bit, but thought that the reckoning was something I could face. Eventually. Whenever asked, "How are you doing?" or "Do you need anything?" I couldn't name how I was doing, or what was needed. I waited to see how my husband was doing, how my children were doing, how my job review was glowing, and if my friends were interested in returning to vulnerable authenticity around me.

I felt little and reasoned my circumstances via the metaphor of the image of the Pilgrim who wandered over twenty miles daily, pinching salt with plain bread and repeating the Jesus Prayer. Stasis is the word that I keep using. I was weary with the emotional metaphor of my youth. In that I was a dirty, suffocated soul. I saw myself, splayed face down in muck, choking on the dirt, waiting to be lifted by God, to be found worthy. In spite of a lifetime of shame and repentance, I never felt clean, never freed by Grace. Oh, I had some swooping highs when I burst forth with joy for feeling of God's presence after a Psalm 51 moment of penitence. Yet I was nagged by the suspicion this is just an emotional high. Turns out, it probably was.

I'm working on teaching my children that "I'm sorry" is a mere opening. Even if they say, "I'm sorry" with the grudging tone of voice that intimates "I'm only saying this 'cause Mom said I must"-- it should be accompanied by "What can I do to make it better?" A plan to fix the error must be implemented.

On the way home from Dayton yesterday, my husband whipped out Met. Anthony Bloom's Living Prayer. To paraphrase what he read, true repentance merely  begins with apology. If we walk away with a cozy feeling of tears shed and forgiveness offered, we've only broached emotions. We feel pretty dang good about our penitence, but the work of change is incomplete.

Aaack. This accuses me. During this week of hospitalization, of slowing down and being in the present with my husband, my support network and God, I felt pretty good. It felt like an impetus; I was inspired to get real.-- No Doctor Phil intended! I had been de-humanizing each moment of my life, even phone calls to my beloved friends and family. No more. This sickness showed me something. Just before we got of our car in Dayton, restless and board, I was thumbing through a copy of Bread, Water, Wine & Oil by Fr. Meletios Weber. I read his chapter on sickness. I was struck at his comment that it reminds us we cannot do this alone, on our own power. Within twenty-four hours, I was reduced to total dependence because of my husband's illness. Cannot drive myself to the hospital with him. Cannot make a decision about taking him to the ER. Cannot pay the bills that will come. Cannot care for my son while caring for my husband. Cannot call all the people who need to know.  Cannot name or process my emotions.

Thanks to the ministrations of one friend, a new metaphor was written for me. A form of curling. The form of the Theotokos. The image of a friend whose own experiences gave her credence to name my state of being. It was named in a metaphor and a story. She wrote, as icon writers do. She spoke of truth in curling around the icon of the Mother of God in her weakest moments. She wrote of falling asleep with the icon against her chest. The Mother of God, who stored all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Two dozen years ago, I loved that line in Luke- "She stored these things up and pondered them in her heart." Seven years ago, when I became Orthodox, the Theotokos hung to the left on the iconostasis and I thought it strange to venerate her. It was a put off and I could no longer understand this woman who pondered. Why did the Orthodox Church like her so much? What was so great about her? Mother, indeed. I had so much to learn. I chose as my name's saint, Mary of Egypt, who was affronted by the Theotokos in her holiness and didn't understand, but became a Christian anyway. I chose Mary of Egypt for the echo of the response to the Theotokos, and for her years seeking in the desert. I thought she was waiting on grace too. I've spent the past few years, waiting for rest, wandering for grace, seeking a plan for true repentance. I've found the other side of the Jordan. It's dry here. It's hot. Unlike my patron, I'm not severed from weekly Eucharistic sustanance, but I've felt like I was fleeing towards grace.

Surprisingly then, my Father Confessor, Bishop Michael, asked me to consider the grace that Mary of Egypt has. I hadn't thought of that. I hadn't thought of her finding the grace and being in the desert for the purpose of living out that grace. Whoa. Not flat-faced in the mud at all. She was aloft, desert sand floating in her face, praying.

Then he tells me to turn to the Theotokos, Mother of God, to consider her prayers for her children. For a momma always measuring my identity against my children's emotions and growth, against my husband, against those to whom I'm called, I need a momma too. I have a very literal one. I haven't talked to her this week, but if there is anyone I know is my steel, my rock, and has a heart full of heavy love for me, it's my Mom. So too I have the Mother of God, the icon of motherhood and love.  I have someone to call at all times. When I'm alone, in the dark, curled up, I can curl around her icon, pray and the grace of God will be with me.

I am so blessed.

Thanks, Lorraine.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Curled Up and Not Crying

Twenty-four hours ago, I was curled up under the covers, huddled against my husband, whose breaths were steady finally. I reached for my iphone to check for any sign of a callback from the doctors' paging service. No missed calls. No voicemails. No google voice emails with the transcript.

Fifteen years of marriage and I've never curled against him for more than fifteen minutes. This night I am spooned around him, breathing a cadence I want him to breath. Slower breaths. Deeper inhales. Like John curled around Yoko in those iconic Rolling Stone pictures, I wrap myself against his cold torso, sharing my heat and holding the shaking arm still against me.

He can't breath. His chest is crushing him. We are in Dayton, staying with my family. My phone is clutched in my arm. We are waiting for a reply to the first of three calls to the doctors emergency paging. At four-fifteen am, I call again. I call again just after five am. I rest my warm feet between his cold soles. I doze as his breathing slows. I start awake again and again checking to see if the breaths are still coming. Like a mother worried about SIDS.

It occurs to me this might be more than GERD, or a reaction to something he ate or an infection. It might mean widowhood, but it isn't being alone that startles me awake over and over until six am. It's the end of his breath. I give up on the doctor's callback. I just want a sleeping husband. It is a sign that the crush that he says radiates through his shoulders, up his neck and crushed down hard on his chest, that the pain is subsiding.

At eight-thirty he is breathing steady. I thumb type an email on my phone to a presvytera in Macon. I wonder if I should call my sister. I have several close friends and family who are clergy families and I need their advice. Who to ask in what order? This is a new dynamic. I don't just have a sick husband and children to shield. I have a parish family who might worry about the young priest they just welcomed. He's thirty-six. We're here for the long-haul. We're fresh from seminary, just six months from graduation and placement.  This is not supposed to happen.  What if I reveal this and it worries them beyond what they need. If he is fine, I've been over-emotional, and hyper. If the worst... when do you tell them. Not when he is dead, certainly. It's been five hours since he woke me. He could, if he were going to, die and I'm the lynchpin who is either protecting him, caring for him, or being something less than a true help meet.

I thought of calling my trusted clergy wives, my family, or just running. I run 15K a day and it's relatively warm here in Dayton the week before Christmas.  I could actually run outside. I feel frozen and unable to decide.
I did what all little girls do. I called my dad.

But I forgot my long morning prayers. My father helped me clear out the hair-brained scheme to send my husband, via plane, back to Pennsylvania, where we are covered by medical insurance, unlike Indiana where we live or Ohio, where we are visiting. I started repeat dialing the medical office, angry at the lack of callback. I got them forty minutes later and had to shout into my phone. It woke my husband.

I was shouting, and the receptionist was interrupting, "Take him to the hospital."  I demanded a doctor and my husband was heaving again. The doctor asked, then said, "Take him to the ER." We go to the ER at nine-thirty or so. I pray there. I curl my scarlet prayer bracelet around my thumb and forefinger over and over. My uncle drove us here and he's clergy. He prays with deep and simple conviction when my husband leaves triage for the trauma room. This is bad, we think. I stay for a while, then go to call the children, the parish, my mother-in-law.  So much for discretion and protecting others from worry. Little mama don't know what to do. This is the best I can think of. Within thirty minutes, the parish council president knows. My teen daughter was spending the night at her house. She calls the council and the Church Dean and the retired priest. I call my brother-in-law, my mother-in-law, my dad, my sister, and my fourth call to my gal in Macon. We pray.  Then I go into stasis.  Survival mode replies. Facebook updates. People deserve to know. And, like a typical day, the prayers seem to fade from consciousness until night. This is the poverty of my busy days. Where is God and my heart once the busy-ness kicks in?

Twenty-four hours later, I'm curled up under covers, wondering what to do this morning. Should I get a little exercise before calling the hospital? Another day of sitting in a vinyl chair, rubbing his arm and restlessly wondering what to think and feel and do makes me edgy. Maybe I should write an update? I couldn't do that last night. The computer froze. So did I. I hate using cellphones to type messages and emails. They are short and cryptic. This does not satiate the praying and waiting public.

I have cried- as much as I do, which is not much. I don't have many emotions. I wonder if this is dispassion, but I doubt it. Sometime in my first year supporting my husband through seminary, I stopped writing more than an occasional poem. My feelings slowed. It was hibernation. There is a link there, between my creativity and my feelings. My primary self-expression is confession and I've learned to be silent. This is not what others expect now. They expect tears. What they really want is a strong momma, who knows what to disclose and assures them it's all going to be okay.  They want permission to feel. They want something between the other leader of the house and an empathetic model. No one expects silence now, when my husband has been on a round of heart-monitoring for the past day. They want to know if Father is okay. He will be up and running, right? I have to tell them what I know. I went to bed knowing the tests yesterday were promising. They were confirming an infection around his heart, but not a heart attack.  I need to be sure they know this.

Then I need to call my husband and make sure.  I wish I could curl up around him again. I should have done that many more nights in the past fifteen years. Will this shake me from my coldness and my cocoon to become the little mother I should be at this moment?