Monday, January 31, 2011

The Accidental Bath

The move to my permanent apartment was over. I was weary and needed a shower, but I was too exhausted to hang my shower curtain. I just wanted to lie down. I knelt in the tub intending to throw water over myself, but then I thought, why not take a bath. So I did. I lay down and let the water flow over me. I almost fell asleep it was so soothing. It was exactly what I needed.

It had been years since I had taken a bath. My interim apartment had only a shower, but all the apartments before had bathtubs. My daughters had always taken advantage of them, but I very efficiently only showered. Rarely had I allowed myself to even linger.

Two days later I hopped a train to attend my father’s treatment conference with his oncologist in Pennsylvania. After examining him, she discussed the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment protocol. Next we went to another room where the nurse educator outlined the length of treatment, the chemotherapy medicines and the probable side effects. She explained that Daddy would not be allowed to drive himself home after treatment and that his nutritional needs would change.

Before I left Washington I had stopped at the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage at the Cathedral where I was greeted by a stunning arrangement of three huge sunflowers bobbing in a tall clear vase. To me sunflowers have always symbolized hope and life. I tried to photograph them with my BlackBerry but failed. When I arrived in Pennsylvania, I asked Greg to photograph the entire arrangement with his iPhone. I smiled when I received it.

As the nurse educator discussed the side effects of the treatment, Daddy assured her that I would be there to monitor them. When he said this, a thought began to grow in me. Almost at the same moment I looked above the nurse educator’s head and saw a calendar with a painting of three sunflowers. I smiled. When I noticed an arrangement of artificial sunflowers sitting on top of the bookcase to the left of the calendar, I nearly giggled. The thought grew.

I stayed with my father for another week and reveled in the familiarity of my childhood home: Listening to the choir of crickets, cicadas and birds chirping at night (I had sworn it was the stars twinkling). Hearing the creaking of the steps as we walked up and down them. Feeling the wind circumnavigate the open windows. Wrestling with doors swollen with heat and humidity.

I also experienced the frustrations of being in a former steel town that time seemed to have forgotten: Twenty miles to the nearest Starbucks. Public wireless that either didn’t work (McDonald's) or was very slow (the local library). Driving across town (albeit a short drive) to my cousin’s to get a Broadband connection. No contemplative community within 50 miles.

I couldn’t argue with what drew me: Fresh tomatoes from Daddy’s garden outside the kitchen door. Sugar sweet corn at the local farm stands. Stars (not satellites) that you could actually see at night. The loping pace of a rural county seat. Time to listen to my father’s stories.

As I rode the train back to Washington all of these conversations, images, sensations and realities converged upon me. By the time I arrived at Union Station, I knew what I needed to do. I spoke with my program directors and made plans to take leave for the semester while my father was in treatment. I left, however temporarily, my beloved community, sources of income and opportunity, my cherished God’s lap and a beautiful new unpacked apartment.

I have been in a place that seems to operate in much the same way—or, frankly, much worse—than it did when I left almost 40 years ago. Still, like the bath I experienced last summer, in some ways it has felt soothing and like exactly what I needed. It has both re-rooted and formed me in unexpected ways. In Benedictine language, my being here has been a surprising mixture of conversatio morum—change of life—and stabilitas—being rooted in one place.

The day of Daddy’s first treatment, we were to meet with the oncologist in the same treatment room where she had initially examined him. As we sat waiting for her to come in, I noticed for the first time the painting on the wall: three pitchers of summer flowers.

Thinking of the sunflowers, once again I was bathed in certainty.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Three Movements

I struggled with whether to write a post this week. I decided to because the witness of my readers helps move my thinking forward.

My beloved father has been in the hospital with pneumonia that may be an indication of a more serious problem. Daddy has been in remission for almost 20 years from prostate cancer that had metastasized. His doctor 19 years ago, described the cancer as being “all over him.” Through the miracle of chemo by mouth, the cancer was arrested. Now it may be back. Or not. We’re waiting to hear the lab results. We do know that one of his lungs is not expanding because of a hard mass.

Despite the cancer, until recently Daddy experienced fairly good health except for low back pain due to a growth near his spine. He has lived to watch my children grow up and attend university and to meet his first great-grandchild. Until the pneumonia he daily took walks, read two newspapers and enjoyed a cold beer. He also traveled to family reunions, tended his tiny garden, attended jazz festivals and watched my brother, a blues musician, perform.

We have had him with us far longer than any one could have expected. Still I‘m reluctant to think about letting him go. He has told me several times in the past months, “I can’t live forever. I’ve got to go sometime. I’m 80 years old. I’m tired.” And well he should be.

Daddy was born in Jim Crow-era Newnan, Georgia, to a sharecropper father whom he watched cheated repeatedly as he sold his cotton to the powers that were. A leader in his community, my grandfather was reduced to less than less-than. He dared not protest nor hint at any anger for fear of losing his life as well as his livelihood. Unfortunately he turned his rage on his family. When my father was a teenager, my grandmother, tired of being battered, walked to the train station and headed north. Her six children soon followed.

My father didn’t find the North much friendlier. After serving in the Marines, he worked in Ohio steel mills. Black men received the worst jobs in the mills; Daddy worked in the lowest, hottest parts. Workers were frequently laid-off which made it difficult to pay the mortgage on our little house. During the off-times he worked at a car wash to support us. Other times, he worked as much overtime as he could. He often worked seven days a week to help pay for my university tuition and extras like a short trip abroad.

Despite his hard work, Daddy was not afforded the dignity he should have received. Bankers refused to cash his paycheck—even though it was drawn on their bank. Toward the latter part of his work life, when he drove red-hot steel on tractor-trailers between mills, his loads were often refused at the gate. He would have to wait 8 hours or more to unload and reload; paid by the load, this cut into his pay. And when he had to take disability retirement because of the cancer, he was denied one of his pensions.

If anyone deserves rest, it is he.

Because summer is almost over and it’s almost time to move again, I have slowly begun moving small loads into my new apartment. It’s a beautiful place with views of the Potomac. In the winter I’ll be able to see the Washington Monument and the Kennedy Center clearly from my windows. At first I wasn’t sure about moving to this particular place, but after seeing it I know it’s the right place for me.

Moving now holds more emotional urgency because of my father’s situation. I’ve already moved into a place of gratitude for the gift of time I’ve had with Daddy. Most of his brothers are gone, and, as he recently told me, “All the guys my age are dead.” I know when I see him tomorrow I’ll have to move to a place of acceptance: of his fragility, his suffering and his refusal to be treated for certain conditions. When I protest, my friends remind me to ask him what he wants. It is his life and he can live it—or not—as he will. I have to remind myself of what I’ve told others, “People choose the time of their death.” That could be 10 years away. Still when the end does come as Daddy so often reminds me that it will, I imagine my final movement will have to be to a place of grace beyond imagining.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What is Noise

Despite last week’s post, I received a message from the universe that I hadn’t gone far enough.

I was walking at the edge of campus in the shade while reading the latest news on my Blackberry. I was so absorbed I didn’t look up until someone tried to pass me. Then I heard a voice saying, “Vikki, didn’t you hear me calling you? I’ve been calling you and calling you.” And she didn’t mean on my phone.

It was my program director. Apparently she had been following me trying to get my attention. I had no inkling that she had been behind me. I neither heard nor felt her presence, so absorbed was I by the tiny screen in my hand. I was stunned.

Last week several articles popped up online (where else?) about people’s absorption with technology and how it affects their quality of life. One of the articles included a sidebar with a test for internet addiction. Of course, I took it, and, I’m embarrassed to say, I passed (or would that be flunked?). As someone who prides herself in getting through the 60s and 70s without imbibing in anything, I was undone.

I talked with my spiritual director about it, and she asked, “Do you think you are?” I responded with the classic addict’s line, “I can stop anytime.” She, a recovered alcoholic, gently laughed and said, “For a good week, and then you’ll start again.”

During our weekly Benedictine Life and Prayer meeting, we talked about our attachment to technology. Fearless Facilitator Greg explained that he refuses to engage with anything electronic before his morning prayers: no TV, radio, internet or iPhone (lucky guy). I knew he had refused to join Twitter (he’s the one who gently guided me toward blogging rather than tweeting) and has consciously disengaged from Facebook. I also know him to be someone who very carefully guards his time, and I understand completely why he does.

I used to be more like Greg. My daughter, Fod, who works for Verizon Wireless, decided when we switched to her company that I should get a Blackberry. I hated it but found that it made it very easy to read the news or check my email on the run. Slowly and insidiously it worked its way into my life. Now I understand why people have nicknamed it the Crackberry (likening it to the highly addictive form of cocaine, called crack, that plagued the inner city in the 80s). Before I began using it, I used to laugh at people hunched over their phones everywhere. Then I became one of them.

I’ve since realized that receiving input at all times of the day is antithetical to the life I want to lead. It is noise, to use a communication term. In this context noise is not just sound; it is anything that interferes with a person’s ability to listen. Noise can be visual—such as the bright beckoning screens of electronica.

What Greg does—and what I used to do better—is to reduce the noise. When I do I can more clearly listen for God and to God. Checking my emails, text messages or the news first thing often sends me in a direction I don’t want to go. By the time I sit to listen, my mind is often so crowded with the day’s tasks that it’s hard to be still and acknowledge what God might have to say to me or even what emerges from my best self. And those are the two reasons why I joined this life of radical balance.

Obviously, I won’t stop using technology; I can however put it in its proper place. It’s a struggle, but I have been experimenting with different ways of dealing with it: Recharging the phone across the room instead of near my bed, using a dead PDA for my alarm, forcing the Blackberry back into my pocket or bag when I’m tempted to read while walking, or simply just saying No to the little red stars that pop up on my screen all day.

Benedict did not have technology to contend with, but he did make provision in his Rule for the many interruptions that life would bring. He emphasizes that when the bell rings for daily prayers (seven times a day!), the monk should “immediately set aside what [is] in hand … ” because “… nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.” (The Rule of Saint Benedict 43:3)

Certainly not a 2.44 inch screen.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ear-ily Familiar

Last week I took some long-neglected hearing tests. My children had complained that I couldn’t hear them. Fod had gotten so frustrated she told to me that she didn’t like talking to me on the phone anymore—which is one of the main ways we communicate since she lives in another state. Fyd got tired of having to repeat herself. Finally, last fall as the classroom became nightmarish when too many students spoke at once, I asked for a hearing exam.

What could be the cause? I wondered. I didn’t use ear buds or headphones. (Someone had told me when I lived in Japan in the age of the original Walkman I was not the kind of person who should use it out and about. I would get too lost in the music to function safely.) I didn’t go to loud concerts in my youth (my older brother practicing with his band in the basement excepted). I had suffered through a couple of sinus infections throughout the cold months that seemed to go straight to my ears, but still.

The audiologist remarked that I had tiny ear canals so she used pediatric ear buds for my tests. (When she took them out after the final test, I wanted to take a fork to them, my ears itched so badly.) That explained the impactions I had endured as a child.

"Your hearing is excellent. It’s like a 10-year-old's," she announced. “Then why can’t I hear?” I practically sputtered. “It could be that you have a lot going on or you’re easily distracted. If you’re not getting enough sleep or under a lot of stress your hearing may suffer,” she replied.

That explains it. I've said I haven’t seen my bedtime for the past four years. Due to my chaplaincy duties I am often up past 10 p.m. which is my optimal bedtime. Even when I don’t have those duties, I have gotten into a bad habit of going to bed late. And when I do get to sleep, I am easily awakened—no doubt also due to my excellent hearing. Who knew? Add that to my peripatetic life—teaching here, on-call there, meeting somewhere else, maintaining up to 6 email accounts. Yes, I had a lot to be distracted by, and, especially last fall, I was carrying a load of poorly managed stress.

I started thinking about what I teach students in my Communication classes: Hearing is involuntary and physiological; listening is voluntary and psychological. Listening takes more energy than hearing. So I was hearing people—that’s why I was so easily awakened—but because of my reduced energy from lack of sleep and rushing about the city, maybe at times I wasn’t able to fully listen.

And what was the first word of the Rule of St. Benedict again? Not hear, but “Listen.”

As usual when I have self-diagnosed an ill, I had looked up the treatment. Over and over the advice to people who are hard of hearing (or who think they are) was: pay attention.

The latest iteration of my personal rule includes something about rest and, more specifically, sleep. Sister Joan in her commentary on the Rule seems to be writing just for me, “Pay attention to the instructions in [your] rule and attend to the important things in life.” (The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, p. 19)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What is Fun?

I attended the wedding reception of two dear friends his past weekend. They are a young Ghanaian couple who did a distinctive first dance as husband and wife. Afterward we had fun toasting them and dancing to Ghanaian music. The best man, who supplied the music from his ipod play list, kept it playing as we piled into cars to take bridal party photos at various D.C. landmarks. He told me that if we had been in Ghana, the celebration would have gone on until 4 a.m. the next morning. That sounded like—fun.

Fun is not a word you will find in The Rule of St. Benedict. I looked. It’s not there. Life and times in the 6th century were probably too hard for common people to think about what today we call fun. Fun is probably more of a 20th century concept. Actually, according to Oxford Dictionary Online (yes, word nerd that I am, I looked it up), the word is:

late 17th century (denoting a trick or hoax): from obsolete fun 'to cheat or hoax', dialect variant of late Middle English fon 'make a fool of, be a fool', related to fon 'a fool', of unknown origin.

I remember fun being a watchword among my more bohemian friends in the 70s at my conservative Christian university. Other friends couldn’t understand why everything had to be fun or why fun even needed to be pursued. Still most of us were convinced that the administration did everything in their power to intercept any fun our young minds could devise.

So I was surprised when my spiritual director, an associate of a monastery and a married vowed solitary who had previously been an attorney and most likely had much fun in her day, looked over my emerging Rule of Life, and said, “There’s no fun in it.”

Oh. I had thought cultivating friendships and seeking beauty covered fun. Under that part of my rule I had had lunches with friends, gone to a couple of concerts with my cousin and seen a play with an erstwhile prayer partner. I thought those were fun.

I had been accused of being too serious or taking myself too seriously in the past, but I’ve laughed more—mostly at myself—within that last 10 years than I have my whole life. Ask the community; I’m a veritable crackup during our weekly meetings. Maybe funny doesn’t come under fun. Maybe only you can decide what’s fun.

So I thought about my past experiences of fun: Being swept across campus by my friend, Randy, as we sang the lyrics to the Follow the Yellow Brick Road; trying to learn card tricks from my floor residents; playing hand games with my students from the Caribbean; FYD and I playing a board game on a blanket on the lawn on a lazy summer afternoon when she was six; her sister, Favorite Oldest Daughter (FOD), inviting her whole sophomore class to our apartment for a dance party after vespers (don’t tell their parents, please); the three of us singing along to 70s tunes during road trips. And, of course, playing with my Favorite Only Granddaughter (FOG) has always been fun. (Hmmmm, fun often seemed to involve people younger than I. Without them, apparently very little fun would be had by me.)

I was looking forward to having fun with FOG, for a couple of days this past May, but due to a confluence of circumstances I saw her for only about 45 minutes.

FOG was soaking wet after their long drive from Tennessee. Her mother was hungry, overwhelmed by the heat and disappointed that I wasn’t ready or able to go. FOG’s father was annoyed that he’d had to come into the city and lose their driving momentum. I was angry at myself for miscalculating my readiness for both the move and spending the holiday weekend with them. FYD was nowhere to be found.

My apartment was full of half packed boxes and everything else was everywhere but where it should be. It really wasn’t a safe environment for a toddler. Since we needed to get FOG washed and changed, I carried her through the mess to the bathroom. Meanwhile FYD had arrived to help carry things I was giving (back) to FOD to the car. She was the only person happy about us not spending the weekend with them. She had thought doing so would spoil her weekend fun.

As we walked back through the living room, my granddaughter looked down and spotted, in midst of the chaos, a tiny orange basketball I had unearthed from some box. "Ball," she said (the first word she had spoken since she arrived) reaching for it. So I gave it to her. I marveled at how quickly and easily she had found an object associated with fun among the physical and emotional chaos that threatened to bury the four people who loved her most.

FOG held onto the ball as she was carried to her stroller, as I hugged her good-bye and as she was lifted back into her car seat. Her mother said she played with it until their dog claimed it as his own.

At the car FOG’s mother, father, FYD and I smiled and hugged each other—something we hadn’t done when they first rolled up. (It’s amazing what a little fun will do.)

If fun is the “enjoyment, amusement or lighthearted pleasure” that the Oxford Dictionary defines it as, I know of four adults who, led by a two-year-old, experienced a bit of fun on that last Friday in May.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Moved; Un-settled

Two weeks and two days ago I discovered that moving day was in 24, not 48 hours. I switched into panic mode—which for me is instant mental and physical paralysis. According to my Favorite Youngest Daughter (or FYD, introduced in the Teen Travails post), I would slowly pick up something, stare at it and set it down. Apparently I did this several times.

When FYD told me this I did what I do best: initiated a plea for help. “Janice,” I cried into the phone, “Remember when you said you could help me with packing?” Janice is a colleague and the mother of seven who had moved several times including while pregnant, with all seven children and/or without her husband present.

Janice came in, surveyed the apartment, and perceiving my nearly catatonic state, asked my permission to pack boxes. Her energy broke my paralysis. Seemingly within minutes the kitchen, the bedroom and the closets were packed. In addition, she helped me decide that:
1. FYD could be responsible for her own things.
2. The items in my plastic stackable drawers (my kitchen had no drawers and little storage space) could be taped closed rather than removed and boxed.
3. Things that needed to be sorted or tossed (less actual garbage) could be packed and reorganized later.

Before the point at which paralysis set in, I had been so overwhelmed that I was ready to either set everything on fire (but that would have made me an arsonist—not a good thing for a chaplain) or walk a way from it all (umm, not good stewardship).

Suddenly I began to see the wisdom of Saint B, who wrote:

… without an order from the abbot no members may presume to give, receive, or retain anything as their own, nothing at all—not a book, writing tablets or stylus—in short not a single item … For their needs, they are to look to the prioress or abbot of the monastery, and are not allowed anything which the prioress or abbot has not given or permitted. (RB 1980 The Rule of St. Benedict in English, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1982, Chapter 33, p.56)

I outlined in green and surrounded the above passage with huge question marks in my copy of The Rule. I hadn’t liked it when I first read it in seminary nor when I bought the book in 2007.

Still as I attempt to sort through the boxes that came with me (most of my things—I hope, it’s most—are in storage until my final move), not having to be responsible for material objects seems like a great idea.

Not only do I have sort through my things, now I also have to find different places for them. FYD and I are constantly reconfiguring arrangements of things. We’ve moved the electric coffee maker three times. She’s put things away; I’ve pulled them out and rearranged them. I’ve decided not to hang the art objects I thought I couldn’t live with out, so I’ve arranged them on a dresser that’s been moved within this apartment three times. FYD has zipped together and hung two hoodies to block the light that glares through her window at night. I’m on my second arrangement of window dressings for the same reason. Some things we simply can’t find to arrange. We also have to adjust to new routes and routines for laundry, trash disposal, banking, transportation and grocery shopping. And we’ve moved less than a city block away!

I’m not complaining; I’m grateful for the change and the added space (I can now look up at pictures of my granddaughter from God’s lap. I had never thought of putting them directly across from me rather than beside me). I’ve just forgotten what an enormous amount of energy it takes to move and settle in.

That’s probably what Saint B knew even in the 6th century. Just moving yourself and the clothes on your back was simpler than having to sort through, pack and unpack your possessions. New monks could more easily slip into the routine of the monastery with no things to rearrange.

Since I don’t have an abbot to direct me, my sorting and repacking will have be executed with settling in as my goal. I might just accept Janice’s offer to help again too!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Moving, Moving, Moving

I am in the process of moving from one apartment to another within the next week. It will be the first of two moves this summer. It is unsettling to say the least, but I am reminded that movement--conversatio morum, change of life, "continual conversion and ongoing transformation"--is as much a part of Benedictine life as stabilitas, stability. It is all part of the opus Dei, the work of God.

The quote above is from Benedictine scholar Esther de Waal's book To Pause at the Threshold. I read this book four years ago at this time when I was contemplating a change after receiving my first seminary degree. (A notation I made in the book even reads "5/06.") I've re-read the portions I had highlighted almost yearly since then. Today the following jumps out at me:

"Our God is a God who moves and he invites us to move with him. He wants to pry us away from anything that might hold us too securely: our careers, our family systems, our money making. We must be ready to disconnect. There comes a time when the things that were undoubtedly good and right in the past must be left behind, for there is always the danger that they might hinder us from moving forward and connecting with the one necessary thing, Christ himself. ... I am called upon to move forward to hand over the past freely, putting it behind me, and moving on with hands open and ready for the new." (p. 55-56)

So amidst the boxes, packing tape and markers, I am preparing to do just that--both inwardly and outwardly. The next time I write, it will be from a new place in all senses of the word. Stay tuned.