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.