Today I Choose

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Because I can…

 

Today I choose gratitude,

because no matter how tough life is, there is always a reason to give thanks.

Today I choose grace, for myself and for others,

because God has shown grace to me.

Today I choose authenticity,

because all I can be is myself, and for those who love and appreciate me, that will be enough.

Today I choose reconciliation,

because in reconciling myself—to others, to my circumstances, to my own conscience—I will find restoration.

Today I choose peace,

because the world outside is filled with conflict.

Because I CAN

Today

I

choose.

 

From The Twelfth Floor

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Reading between the blinds…

It has been a week of turmoil for our family, and of mixed emotions for me. Even as something wonderful happens, there is a crisis which more than counterbalances the happiness I feel. But as the old saying goes, when it rains, it pours.

I write this from room 1217 in our local teaching hospital, looking at a grey, drizzly and cool almost-autumn Saturday. My Bonus Mom was admitted a week ago tomorrow after an impacted wisdom tooth below the gums became abscessed, resulting in excruciating pain and a raging infection. (She’s had dentures for decades; who even knew there were unremoved teeth in there?!).

Because she suffers from Lewy Body dementia, sometimes she can’t quite articulate exactly what she wants to in the way she wants to. And because her and my father’s general practice doctor is WAY more general than practiced (another story for another blog), her initial complaint of jaw pain was diagnosed as a sinus infection weeks ago. A round of antibiotics seemed to help, but when that course was completed, the infection came back with a vengeance. So an issue that could have been addressed earlier with a little detective work and a scan of her head turned into this debacle of torment for her and my dad, a day in the emergency department/late night hospital admission and emergency oral surgery in the wee hours of Labor Day, a serious decline in her overall condition, and now, the prospect of placement in a 24/7 skilled nursing facility, at least for the the time being.

Yes, I am angry. And frustrated. And very sad. Infections like this can wreak havoc in dementia patients, and she has been no exception. Her personality and perception became so altered that for days she was in restraints, both for her protection and that of hospital staff. She was hostile, using language she never would utter in her right mind. While her personality and demeanor are much more “like her” now that her infection is clearing and the pain has been addressed, her mobility and spatial perception are markedly impaired. Some of that may never recover, and we are having to come to terms with some pretty heavy possible scenarios regarding her care and well being.

All of this comes just as I received a promotion at work, and the increased responsibilities that come with it. I will have time to be happy about it later. Right now there are more important things to attend to, like family issues and the actual responsibilities of both family and workplace.

Most of what is going on around me isn’t ABOUT me. But these circumstances do provide a chance for some perspective, serving as a lesson in humility. We are also living a cautionary tale on many fronts, hoping to take lessons from the choices made by our elders. In putting off making a decision, we are actually MAKING a decision. My father turned 85 this week with his second wife in the hospital and them looking at the need for possible very long long-term care for her. He has always been the one who preached to everyone else the importance of having finances and legal matters in order, even as he has neglected some of the most important of those items for him and my Bonus Mom. Forms were acquired and started, but not completed. That complicates matters.

I need to get my own affairs in order. My living will is done and my wishes are known to anyone and everyone who might need to know them. I have life insurance that is unconnected to a job so that, in the event that I predecease my husband, he will be protected financially, at least for a while. I need to finish my “dead will” also.

Forewarned is forearmed. Knowledge is power. Sooner is better than later. As I read between the blinds in this hospital room, I am making a list of all the loose ends I need to tie up so that my husband is not the one left dangling if something catastrophic happens to me, knock wood and Lord willing.

Where Do I Begin?

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It’s been a long time…

I have not written a post in what feels like forever, and many changes have taken place in my life over the past several months. The primary change has involved my work in the Knox County Public Library system. In March 2022, I moved to a different branch which has involved expanded duties and more hours than I was working before. My branch manager, Heather, has been a joy to know and share the work with, and the schedule at the branch will allow me to return to singing with the Knoxville Choral Society soon. I am reading more books than I have read in years, especially fiction, and I am rediscovering the pure joy of immersing myself in stories, universes built by gifted creative minds so different from my own.

I have returned to singing and serving in a church choir as well, which has contributed more to my vocal, spiritual, and even physical recovery from long-haul COVID than I ever hoped for. I have some lingering issues with my body and brain that I did not deal with prior to my illness, but I can also see measurable improvements from a year ago. So I am both grateful and optimistic, nurturing a hope that for a long time did not exist.

This week drained me more than I would have liked, and my energy is pretty much gone. But when I look at the week and where my energy went, it was worth spending all day today on the couch trying to recover.

The choir at church gathered again for Wednesday practice after taking off during July. There were hugs, smiles, laughs…and there was music, lifting spirits and voices to Heaven.

At the library, we continue to assist people who are in genuine need. Jesus said that if we even give one of His little ones just a cup of cold water in His name, we will certainly not lose our reward. (Matthew 10:42). I think that same idea must apply when we offer tissues to a crying widow or single mom as we help fill out assistance requests. As my manager said, we are truly helping “the least of these”.

We had the fun of a lunch delivery this week when two former library ladies came to visit, celebrating one of their birthdays and catching up on each of our lives. We shared triumphs and challenges, and I made a new friend. Our special “Friend of the Library” brought us flowers and candy recently. A butterfly landed in my path as I offered prayers for a friend’s job interview (she got the job!). Little things can lift our spirits so greatly, whether we receive or give them.

BUT…

Here’s the thing: Some days are just hard. People are struggling everywhere. We struggle with our own troubles, frustrations, pain of all sorts. But each day also holds the potential for such great joy. So as I type this from the relative comfort of the couch that has cradled my exhausted body all day, I give thanks. I give thanks for the body that carries me through my life, even when it hurts. I give thanks for the gifts of music and literature that nourish not only me but the entire world we all inhabit. And I give thanks for the people…the ones I know and love, and the ones who pass through my days with their tears, providing me an opportunity to slow my frenzied process down just enough to offer a Kleenex, a gentle tone of voice, and a silent prayer for their circumstances.

Bare

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When the paint comes off…

I’ve enjoyed playing with makeup and skin care since I was a teenager. Experimenting with formulas, blending colors, learning how to shade and highlight…all fun techniques which allow me to pretend that I am an artist, and my face is the canvas I alter and, I hope, improve.

God gave me my face and features through my gene pool, and I can look at the pieces of myself and see my forbears in the mirror. There’s the chin that came from my Mamaw Massengill through her family, the Dunns. My dark hair and deep hazel eyes resemble Dad’s coloring. My body type, short, with ample hips and breasts and a tendency to be WAY too large, comes from Granny Williams and her people, the McGills. My pale skin tone is a bit of a mystery, though. I have always been the lightest-complected person in the family, on either side, and in family photos I sometimes appear to glow in the dark!

As a young teen I battled with acne for a time, but with good skin care (and obsessive habits!) the pimple problems never became as serious as Dad’s had been at that age. I guess the Lord figured with the boobs and the bulges to deal with, I didn’t need blemishes for a trifecta! Even now, at age 57, I still get the occasional Humility Pimple. You know the one. It shows up exactly when I need to look good for an occasion, concert, interview, you name it. Cosmetic intervention has saved many photographs over the decades! I’ve written about The Humility Pimple on my weight-loss blog:

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But when the paint comes off, it’s still my face that I have to face in the mirror…naked, exposed, and bare. Sometimes that face looks at me, my choices, my relationships, and seems to say, ”You are more blessed than you have any right to be”, or, ”What on Earth possessed you to make such a stupid mistake? YOU KNOW BETTER!”

Sometimes I can barely stand my own reflection. Turning away from the mirror doesn’t change anything; it merely gives me a break from having to face my face. All I can do is strip off the paint, come clean, and try again tomorrow to…put my best face forward. (You knew I had to write that.)

My True Colors

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Work and play…

I’ve always envied people who can draw, paint, and sketch.   Those aren’t areas of talent or giftedness for me.  And we always seem to wish for that which we don’t possess.  It’s human nature.

But I don’t let it keep me from enjoying the process of playing with colors.  Right now I am coloring in part to regain some fine motor skills that my COVID process has affected. So it’s both occupational therapy/work, and fun/play. 

A while back I bought an inexpensive but fairly comprehensive set of colored pencils to play with.  I also found a similarly inexpensive sharpener, with a USB cable!  Modern and high-tech for such a simple hobby.  Sharpening my pencils this week when I needed to proved a bit zen like, a meditative, almost hypnotic task, watching the shavings accumulate in the container.  Even the shavings resulted in a beautiful image.

Blending colors sparks my imagination and frees my mind to wander to other areas of my life, sometimes helping me to unravel the tangles of my day to day concerns.  I can settle into my couch, busy my hands, and end up with some surprising color combinations I wouldn’t typically put together, and perhaps come up with an unexpected solution to a life issue in the process.  No rules.  It’s liberating.

There has been a lot of time recently for me to think about my life, and how I want to live it moving forward.  Proper priorities, balance, authenticity, and simplicity are the things I want to embody from now on.  It is a tall order. 

Lord, help my true colors to shine forth, glowing with a vibrant reflection of Your plan for my life and how I can serve the people You place along my path.  Amen.

The Broken Year

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Chaos in progress…

It feels like forever since I wrote a blog post.  I didn’t consciously intend to give it up; there was just no energy to write and not much positive for me to express, for many months.  I thought that 2019 had been a difficult year, with losing my longtime job and embarking upon the adventures of temporary employment.  So much upheaval and stress, uncertainty and anxiety.

I actually looked forward to 2020 for a fresh start, even writing about My 2020 Vision.

We see how that turned out.  

The year 2020 had begun with promise.  I completed a temporary part-time work assignment with The Oak Ridge Public Library, an enriching, fun position that lasted far longer than its original duration was to be.  #TempLife was going OK. I was thankful for the opportunity to work there and surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  The next week, I began a different, full-time assignment with a local non-profit whose mission and work I strongly believe in, and it turned out to be a good fit for me in many respects.  I was learning new skills in an office environment, a setting where I did not have much experience.  Gradually my supervisor gave me more tasks to try, and my job became a more rounded kind of experience, with enough variety to be interesting, and enough routine to be fairly comfortable.  I was fortunate also to be able to work actually in the office, preserving some semblance of normalcy as the coronavirus pandemic raged everywhere else, forcing untold numbers into the “work from home” workforce.  Until the middle of December, when the pandemic invaded my household, and my body.  That’s another story.

Aside from the pandemic…

The remainder of 2020 was riddled with the deaths of 6 people in my various circles.  My feisty, precious Aunt Helen, a Guardian Angel who was throughout my life a fun, inspiring, positive woman, and someone who was ALWAYS in my corner, no matter what, died on March 4, 2020.  On April 27, two valued and insightful connections from my unit of CPE died.  These two men encouraged me to continue to determine  and develop my prophetic and pastoral gifts, believing that I had them in the first place.  My #FirstEverWorkHusband Martin died the next week on May 4, 2020.  I am still processing that death and how it came about.  Next, after a 2-month break in the deaths, my college voice professor, Dr. Thomas Swann Teague, passed away.  Another person in this circle of people who believed in me in a unique way, his legacy of training in all things both vocal and human continues to this day.  I have long stated that every time I open my mouth to sing, I owe him a debt of gratitude.  Finally, on November 11, Veterans Day, our friend and my husband’s coworker, Billy Kidd, area radio icon and institution, died unexpectedly and suddenly at age 62.  His death on Veterans Day seems fitting, as he loved and respected our vets greatly and did many benefit events over the years for them.  Our whole community was shaken by his passing.

A family member was diagnosed with cancer.  Another’s battles with dementia came out in drips, drops, and then a flood.  Anxiety attacks began to happen in still another family member.  It became relentless.

Due to the pandemic, performances of music shut down.  Singing became unsafe, as did gathering in groups to practice or perform.  Changes in how we all were conducting worship services altered and damaged how I was using—and not using—my own voice.  I began to suffer the effects of neglect and improper/lack of use.  I could have, and should have, been practicing diligently at home.  That is my own responsibility, and I will own the role I played in my decline.  

There was just no energy to do it.  Depression and anxiety drain a person’s resources under normal circumstances, and the #Damndemic multiplied those issues exponentially.  This is not an excuse for my lack of will to practice, merely an explanation.

Any one of these sets of conditions would have been enough to drive me into a severe depressive state on its own; the totality of them all converging in the same year just…broke me.  BROKE me.  

Mid-December brought sickness to the house, and we had a COVID Christmas.  My husband started with sinus-infection symptoms, and my own followed in a day or two.  He received a drive-through COVID test never believing he had the virus.  I received my test the day he received his confirmation call for coronavirus, and I received my confirmation call the next day.  I bowed out of Christmas music at church at the literal last minute because of my own illness and their safety.  (I learned later that the soprano they replaced me with was WAITING FOR COVID TEST RESULTS!!! She was positive but apparently is all right now). Work bosses and contacts were informed in a flurry of messages and emails.  

My husband’s case was quick and fairly mild, and he made a remarkable recovery.  Thanks be to God!  I have become a “long haul” COVID patient, unfortunately.  The good news is that I am improving daily, and hope to be released from restriction soon by Dr. Awesome, who has kept me out of the hospital.  I have chosen to share parts of my COVID process in my social media, in hopes of helping someone else who might experience some of the things I have, as well as to gain insight from those who contracted #ThisDamnableVirus before I did. The COVID process may get its own post later on.

For now, I begin to write again, nearly a month into 2021. More uncertainty stares down the barrel as we move forward. But despite the chaos, the forward motion must progress.

Someone Else’s Story

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And what chapter do you contribute…?

I have not written a post here in two and a half months.  In that time frame, 3 valuable people in my universe died.  Two of my connections from Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) died, both on Monday, April 27.  Randy, our unit supervisor, was a mentor, coach, sensei, cheerleader, buster-of-chops-and-rejoicer-in-successes.  John, a member of our peer group, was a United Methodist pastor on sabbatical, a warm hearted man of insight and humility.  These losses came to all of us as a shock, and for me, a gut-punch as I was still reeling from Aunt Helen’s death, which I shared in my last post here.

One week later, on Monday, May 4, my beloved friend, #FirstEverWorkHusband and Person, Martin, died.  I have written several times about him, his kidney failure, and our friendship in this blog.  We had just texted shortly before he passed, and his death appears to have been a fast and massive heart attack.  I can’t really write much about that right now; it is still pretty raw and I continue to process a great deal.

But the circumstances surrounding his passing left me inconsolable.  When I could manage to sleep there were dreams (which are to be expected and I know there will be more to come); various types of crying, from leaky moments to wailing, sobbing jags.  Finally as I stood in my yard, I spoke out loud, to Martin, to God, to The Universe, asking, pleading for…something.  A sign.  I said, “I need something to know that Martin is OK, so if he is…if you are…please, let the next feather that comes my way be either white or red.  I will take that as my sign.”  I didn’t specify that I needed to be the one to actually find the feather, but I didn’t give that much thought.

Flash forward a few weeks to a Thursday evening after work, when I reported to my church to record the service for the following Sunday, since we had not yet been cleared yet for in-person worship due to coronavirus.  On my music stand was my music for the service, and an envelope with my name on it.  I opened it to find these beautiful #featherblessings from my #ChoirBoss, Carroll, courtesy of his neighbors who had collected them on a walk with their dog.

 

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As gorgeous as the spotted feathers are, it was the red one that brought me to tears.  It was the sign I had begged for.  After we had finished recording the service, I thanked Carroll for his gift, explaining to him, with choked-back tears and a breaking voice, what the red feather meant to me, and how it was the first semblance of comfort I had received since Martin died.  I thanked him for unwittingly playing such an important role in someone else’s story…in my story.

We never know the importance of a seemingly small gesture.  Something we may do or say without a second thought can make all the difference in another person’s life.  When you get an impulse to reach out to someone, don’t ignore it.  You never know when you might be writing a chapter in someone else’s story.

 

Weirdest Lent Ever

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A church service and a phone call…

This year on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, our choir at Ebenezer UMC did not assist in the service there, so I took the opportunity to attend the service at the last church where I sang and served.  It was a joy to worship with the congregation at Messiah Lutheran, one of my church homes, and folks I will always consider family.  My patient husband was chauffeuring me around at the time because my vertigo had flared up, and we agreed with the family doctor that I probably shouldn’t drive until I was feeling better.  So Sweet Pea picked me up from work, we shared a tasty supper at PF Chang’s, then headed across Kingston Pike to the church.

”You are dust, and to dust you shall return…”

It was a beautiful service, contemplative and solemn…and just as we were leaving the church my silenced phone began to vibrate.  My cousin Hazen was calling to tell me that Aunt Helen was in the hospital and her situation looked pretty serious.  “Aunt” Helen is actually my first cousin, but because she was so close in age to Mama, and because they had grown up like sisters, we always called her Aunt Helen, just like all the other Aunts we were blessed to know and love on Mama’s side.  It was probably late in grade school before I figured out the actual family math on that relationship.  But she always functioned as an Aunt for me.

Because my vertigo was flaring I knew that a drive to Johnson City on my own was not possible, so I asked Dad if he might be up for a visit with Aunt Helen in the hospital on Sunday.  My cousin Stacy had told me that we should probably visit soon if we wanted to.  So Dad, bonus mom Carole and I made the brief trip up on The First Sunday of Lent, in beautiful sunshine and coolish temperatures.  Signs of spring were evident along the roadside as the landscape began to green up.

We arrived to find my cousin Lisa talking with the doctor, and Aunt Helen’s frail frame in the bed.  She was awake and recognized me before I fully made it into the room.  We exchanged “I-love-you’s” and I asked the questions I always ask at such a time as this.

”Are you afraid?”  She said no.

”Are you in pain?”  She said yes.

And I swear, it was like seeing Mama in her hospital bed, living that scenario all over again.

In the days that followed, our phones blazed with text messages and calls.  How was Aunt Helen doing?  Was Lisa eating?  Did anybody sleep last night?  Might they send Aunt Helen home?  What exactly would hospice entail or provide?

That Tuesday night, Aunt Helen went home with hospice care.

Wednesday morning, Hazen called again to tell me that Aunt Helen had died about a half hour before. Stacy was texting while Hazen and I talked.  I was at my newish job learning a very new task, and Amy, my trainer, who was aware of Aunt Helen’s condition, let me have her office for a while to make phone calls and cry.  It was a kindness I will always remember.

The Second Sunday of Lent was Aunt Helen’s memorial service.  Years ago she had asked me to do her eulogy, and I agreed.  My cousin Lisa asked if I could sing as well, which I also agreed to do.  I never sing well at funerals.  But I do it anyway, with the understanding that, while it won’t be beautiful, it will be loving.  I’m doing the best I can.

Rumors and speculation about coronavirus had already started to churn, and looking back now, I am grateful that we had the chance to gather as Aunt Helen’s family, by blood and choice, to honor and remember her.  I was able to hug my people, cry, sing, and laugh.  The church was packed with others whose lives Aunt Helen had blessed.  If a couple more weeks had passed, we wouldn’t have had the chance to be together like that.

The remainder of Lent saw us all self-isolating, exercising caution, and avoiding crowds as much as possible.  Many of our workplaces shut down, or drastically curtailed their activities and staffs.  A trip to the store became a major event. Toilet paper, of all things, became almost impossible to find!  And our church buildings have sat empty.

But The Church has, in many cases, been more vibrant and active than it was before coronavirus flipped everything sideways.  Technology has allowed us to stay connected to our church families via live streams and Zoom calls, for example.  I was privileged to assist my own congregation in worship on Palm Sunday and Easter, with a few other musicians and our pastors, from our mostly empty sanctuary, properly distanced from each other.

I miss hugging people.  I miss sharing space with my church family and my kinfolks. And Lord, how I miss Aunt Helen.

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(My last photo with Aunt Helen, February 2019, during #OperationTakeAMinute.  She was my first stop on a month-long road trip, and the days and nights I spent at her house are memories I will cherish forever, especially now that her New Home is someplace I can’t visit.  YET.)

Waiting

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Once upon a time…

It was Saturday, the Eleventh Day of April, in The Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand Twenty, and the day before Easter Sunday.  Known in many Christian traditions as Holy Saturday, this day was, for me, a bit different from the fifty-plus Holy Saturdays in my life that preceded it.  Our world was in a quieter state than most of us had ever experienced before because of a viral pandemic called Coronavirus that ground much of our activity to a standstill.

It hit me even as I typed the word “standstill”…

STILL.

Not moving, suspended, stationary.

But not inactive.

As with the first Holy Saturday, our world seemed on this day to be holding its breath, waiting for something.  A change.  A revolution.

A revelation.

As I found myself waiting on Holy Saturday in The Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand Twenty, I reflected on exactly what it was for which I was waiting…Easter Sunday celebrations, of course, even though I knew my church’s building would be nearly empty.  But we would connect through the gift of technology for which we all gave thanks.  The glory of Jesus and the hope of new life through Him would still be preached and revealed.

But I also waited for my world to return to “normal”, whatever that meant now.  My suspicion was that my definition of normal would never be the same.  Gone were the days of long-range planning for…anything, really.  Life was now taking place in real time, one day at a time, heartbeat by heartbeat and breath by breath.

And I imagined the body of Jesus, lying in that small, dark space that was both tomb and womb, having experienced death, waiting to rise up and emerge into a world that would be changed forever.  Good Friday was about Death.  Easter Sunday was about New Life.

Holy Saturday was about Waiting.

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Church On My Couch

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It’s not about the building…

This morning I went to church.  On my couch.  The flippant, sarcastic, class-clown side of my personality wants to call it:

The Fifth-Sunday Singing Service at The First Church of St. Social Isolation.

The trusted-Jesus-in-my-childhood side of me knows that it is, in truth:

The Church Is Not About The Building.

My childhood church had a motto that was printed on our bulletins.  It read, “Enter to Worship—Depart to Serve”.  That is ringing more true to me in these days of social distancing, self-imposed isolation, safer-at-home.  Thanks to the Interwebz, we can still participate in worship, work from home, see about our friends and family.  We can stay fairly well connected.

We can donate to causes, including the local church, that are working to provide necessary resources to our neighbors in need.  We can share music, humor, insight, and even our own original thoughts, in an effort to keep our loved ones engaged, lifted up, and encouraged in the days of COVID-19.  We can drop non-perishable necessities off onto our neighbors’ porches.  We can call, text, Zoom/FaceTime/Messenger Chat to stay connected.  I think that all of these efforts are “church”.

I completed an extended unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in 2012.  The ages of my peer group ranged from mid-40s to late 60s.  The eldest member of our group was participating at the recommendation of a ministry of his church, a well-established, well-heeled, and well-respected faith community here in Knoxville.  Toward the end of our time together, Bob remarked that he was “seeing more church happen inside the walls of the hospital” than he had ever seen at “church”.

Which illustrates the point, once again, that it’s not about the building.

Church is loving our neighbor, whoever they are, wherever they are, however we can, without trying to judge whether or not they are worthy.  When we are unable to gather face-to-face, church can still happen.  Loving our neighbor from a distance is still love.  Prayers, financial support offered online, front-porch drop-offs, whatever we can do…we can still love our neighbor.

We can be the church.

We ARE the church.

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