Thursday, July 13, 2017

if only I woof known, I'd have done this sooner

So, it turns out I might not need to maintain that fitness club membership. It served its purpose, got me moving, helped me loosen up the bad knee—but what I really needed? An active dog.

We recently adopted a female Vizsla. She came from friends, so it wasn't a completely clueless adoption; we had met the dog several times, had even spent a few days with her when we visited with said friends after Christmas last year. However. I still had some reservations. This type of dog is a particularly energetic breed known for running all day and hunting to exhaustion.

A high-energy, boundless beast? Probably not what I would have chosen for our family. I was thinking of something small, harmless, fuzzy and lazy.

And yet, the plan had been laid; after much preparation and many texted Q&A sessions between the previous owners and us, we brought the dog home. She was confused, we were confused, the already-tiny house suddenly seemed to shrink by half... What had we done? The dog alternately fetched a newly purchased squeaker ball and paced, barked at us a bit, quivered with fear the first night, and seemed generally lonely and depressed. I had doubts, my husband tried to assuage them, and our son watched it all with raised eyebrows.

Fast forward three-and-a-half weeks, and we are all adjusting rather nicely.

She's a lovely girl, well-behaved, polite, unbelievably pretty, and extremely expressive. Her light brown eyes can convey an expansive array of feelings, she accepts a biscuit in the dainty fashion of a fine lady, and we are all three of us completely smitten. The energy level is there, no doubt about it—but heck, we needed some shaking up, right? Who wants to sit around and do nothing? I've been outside more than normal, have been back in the woods and on farms, have smiled more, and have solemnly pondered life and the world much less. Pros, all of those things.

And the timing? Perfect. My son is old enough to help care for her. She gives our little family something else to hug, a warm wriggly body when I want to snuggle my son and he wants only to be left alone. And when he needs comforting or feels cuddly but doesn't want to compromise his newly discovered independence from his overly affectionate parents? There's the dog, begging for a belly rub.

Isn't it funny—and wonderful—how God gives you what you need? Even when it wasn't what you asked for, He knows best.

So, it's been an eventful month at our little homestead. Blessings abound. I have always believed that animal companions lend much warmth to a home, but this darling dog has exceeded my expectations pleasantly.

P.S. Learned the hard way to proactively repel ticks. On her and on us. Also? She's going to cost us a fortune in food, toys, and various accoutrements. Oh, well. I'll get back the fitness club fee, I suppose...

Monday, February 27, 2017

Going back on my word

I don't like to do that, truly—to go back on my word. Say what you mean, mean what you say, or shut up was my phrase of choice for years. Many times, however, I fail to adhere to my own mantra. Thankfully, if I've learned little else, I am finally figuring out that I should never say never... unless I want to end up doing exactly what I swore I wouldn't do. We little humans preach and predict, and God smiles gently and then proceeds to completely rearrange every detail of our lives. He likes to keep us on our toes, I suppose.

I was never going to have kids. (Yeah, I have one.) I was never going to teach again. (Although I'm not currently instructing, I did end up teaching Sunday school after that brash promise to myself.) We were never going to buy another small house... and our current dwelling is the smallest yet (although I do console myself by oft and silently by chanting Location, Location, location).

And I was never, ever going to become one of those smug, smarmy, fitness-in-your-face folks who belonged to a gym. No way. I had the whole world around me, and I could walk and jog and run errands at top speed and that was the only workout I needed, thank you very much. As IF I would pay someone to go tread on a mill with tens of other people, staring sightlessly alongside my treading companions, all of us going nowhere. So silly, thought I.

And then, my metabolism tanked. And doing what I had always done was no longer sufficient. I was forced to up my game, to be more intentional about taking more steps and taking them more quickly. And it seemed to be working (albeit taking what felt like aeons...)

Then? The knees. Especially the left knee, that troublesome bugger. The hands-in-pockets fall I took a few years back must have caught up with me. Suddenly, I found myself gimping around like an old woman, moving at half my normal speed, avoiding stairs, excusing myself from long walks, putting off laundry (washer/dryer in basement, you see). My heart went out to all the people I know who suffer chronic pain combined with weight problems. In a matter of a weeks, it all made sense to me, and new compassion was born.

But I'm not old enough to have these issues! Maybe, thought I, if I found a swimming pool, I could do aqua exercises to loosen the bad knee and rebuild strength lost during my gimp season... But the nice community center with a pool that is nearest me was private, thus expensive. And it was only January; waiting many more months for hot weather, all the time watching my weight creep higher, was not an option.

So I ended up at one of the biggies: one of those clubs that have multiple branches in every major American city. Happily, I chanced to stop in one day before the no-initiation-fee special kicked off. I joined, and after convincing the trainer that I was not willing to pay beaucoup bucks to become a professional bodybuilder, I did begin attending water aerobics. And that helped, a bit.

The whole club culture cracks me up, though. I spent the first few visits just looking around me, watching, waiting for someone to figure out that I was a complete poser. I knew nothing about the machines, I didn't have a lock for my locker, I was worried whether people were watching me get dressed, I felt awkward because I was the youngest person in the water class... I got over all of it. No one is paying attention to me—they're too busy worrying about themselves, watching the big TVs in front of the treadmills, checking out their biceps in one of the countless mirrors, making sure they're wiping the equipment before they use it (because, you know—other people's sweat). The club even has its own soundtrack, every song thumping a beat and featuring often suggestive lyrics... Boom, boom, boom...

And I said I would never join a club. Pshaw.

Anyway, I worked, I rode, I tried. And not much happened. The workouts became a bit easier, and I started having an easier time in general keeping up with the routine, stepping up my speed on the bike... But the knee pain stayed. Some days, it got worse. So, after a clear x-ray, and an unrevealing MRI, I went back on my word yet AGAIN and agreed to a cortisone shot.

WOW!!! That works! I'm back, baby, jogging up steps again, keeping up with laundry, feeling like I should at my age. It's incredible.

But I'm still at the club. Turns out it's not so silly after all. I'm pals with a couple of ladies in their 80s, and I bumped into a neighbor a couple of weeks ago who says she's been coming there for years. I think I'm a tad better at blending in these days. I've even dropped a couple of pounds at last.

My advice to you? Swear you won't do something only if you really want to do it. The Big Man is listening; He might even be smirking.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The choices we make

Last evening began as any typical evening might in our house.

I arrived home, fretting about a jerky driver in front of me at a stoplight who'd been distracted (looked like he was texting), then proceeded to flip me off out the window when I beeped my horn at him. My hubby was in a state of anxious consternation about how to deal with a strange situation in which he's become the unwitting, unwilling liaison between two acquaintances who don't see eye to eye. And my son was in a snit because he'd gotten in trouble at school for horsing around in the hallway with a buddy.

We were all quite justifiably off-kilter as we huffed about the kitchen—or so we thought.

And then after dinner, I received an online notification.

A woman we know had died unexpectedly.

A woman I've spoken to, sung with at church, whose two children are close to the same age as my child.

A woman who was younger than I.

These past couple of months have brought a lot of bad news within my circle of friends and family, mostly news of sickness and death. Each time, though, I've been able to find comfort because those who had passed were older, and had lived good, full lives. Their existences hadn't been perfect or painless, but they'd been satisfying and successful overall. The passing of those people is still sad, but there is much to celebrate as well.

But this loss? A young wife and mom? Without warning, without any chance for loved ones to say goodbye?

This loss is a sobering reminder to me that I must stop giving energy and effort to the wrong things. Each day when I wake, I need to choose gratitude. Each time I start down the path of worry, anger, or self-pity, I must instead think of the opportunities I have been given, the gift of another day. The chance to make things better, to buoy others, to pray for them and extend kindness.

Not one of us knows the hour or day when life will be snuffed out. Our time will come, and our souls will leave this mortal coil and go... on. I must choose joy, and life, and the pursuit of good. I must choose to be thankful for every blessing, and to praise God in all circumstances. I want my life to matter. We're here for such a short time, even those of us who are granted many years of life; a centenarian is also a mere spark, truly.

In the interest of eternity, I urge anyone reading this to think about what will happen to us all, and to prepare. If you don't know Jesus, I hope you'll seek Him and let Him in. A great place to learn more is the book of John in the New Testament of the Bible. He is real, He is alive, and His presence in your heart will change you literally forever. The young woman I know who left us suddenly? She knew Him, and I am so thankful. I hope to sing with her again someday, because as you might know, there is a whole lot of praising going on in Heaven.

Whatever you choose in matters of faith, I hope you will choose not to waste time and life on trivialities; to do so is to squander our precious moments. While I'm sure I'll forget that lesson many times, I trust that God will remind me over and over again. Should I miss His reminders, I'll still be forced to revisit this realization every time someone I know passes on. And seriously? it shouldn't take a death to help me embrace life.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Fissures and closure

I have wanted for weeks now to write about the past presidential election. Happily, I've waited, rewritten, reconsidered, and have shortened my rather bitter diatribe. I guess God's hand reached down and helped me erase the hurtful things I'd written in reactive haste; hopefully what I've penned more recently will be a more intelligent, sensitive response to how I've been feeling.

But still, the election. Wow. Sordid stuff overall. The entire experience has left an aftermath of division and hard feelings on all sides. Such an ugly campaign leaves behind a foul flavor in the mouth of every decent human being, and also a slew of destroyed friendships.

Now, some of the lost were "friends" (insert emoji or thumbs-up icon here). And most of those lost friendships don't hurt much. It's upsetting, yes, but I'm guessing that most of you, like me, can't feel too distressed over the loss of someone with whom you rarely (or never) spoke.

The lost friendships that I write about today are the at least somewhat genuine friendships. The people with whom you have a history other than online. These are the folks you are quite likely to see in the real world again, maybe even on a frequent basis. The ones you might have actually enjoyed talking with. When members of your meaningful circle dump you? Yeah, that stings a bit.

At the same time, though, these losses have begun to feel inevitable to me. What I mean is that in the cases of now-dissolved friendships killed by the election, I can't say that any of them came as a complete surprise. There were signs all along, funny looks when I spoke my true opinion about things, awkward laughter and raised eyebrows in my general direction, or just silence as a reply... Am I sad that these people and I cannot have a calm, informed dialect about important subjects? Yes. However, the past months have confirmed my suspicions as fact: those former friends and I had irreconcilably different beliefs about some pretty fundamental things.

It is much easier to get along with everyone agreeably when there is nothing on the line. In peacetime, at coffee dates and school events, and in the virtual world of cat videos, we can gloss over a lot of differences. Everyone likes pizza and puppies, right? Here's a funny meme, haha! Your child scored a point, hurray! We're friends!!! Companions are plentiful when there is no real-life tipping point forcing our hairline relationship cracks into the light.

For that is what this election has done: it has exposed pre-existing relationship cracks. The invisible lines have given way to small fissures; they weren't even discernible before, but now they yawn before us like small crevasses. That stress fracture was there all along; it required only the conversational beating of dead horses in order to be revealed. And then? Unfriends abound.

I'm going to choose to view this election season as a small but effective hammer that has brought my social stress fractures into the light. And in the same way that I've decided never to finish reading an unassigned book that I don't like, I am also coming to realize more and more that it's okay not to keep up appearances of friendships. Life is too short to expend physical and emotional energy by pouring into unfruitful relationships.

In one of my favorite books, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the author mentions how difficult is to keep up with expanding social demands: "For life today in America is based on the premise of ever-widening circles of contact and communication." If that woman thought it was tough over 60 years ago, then imagine the challenge now! There is no feasible way you can keep up with every single contact you've encountered. There is also, I would suggest, no real reason whatsoever for attempting to do so.

Trees and bushes benefit greatly from a timely, informed trimming. (Hats off to a former co-worker, Facie, for coining this great concept!) Our social contact list can often be enriched by a good trim. That doesn't mean I will be trying to alienate anyone, or that it's acceptable to be mean or rude. Be cordial, be kind, be respectful—especially to those who disagree, as they're the most challenging. But be honest with yourself when you encounter and recognize a time- and energy-sucking situation that isn't going to change; see it truly as the fracture it is. Acknowledge it. Then smile, bite your tongue, let go the friend, and skip away to freedom and peace.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Get busy

This painting began with an offhanded conversation between my husband and the somewhat younger neighbor. The two of them had been standing in our driveway, talking cars or engines or something like that. Apparently the talk turned to age, because the next thing I knew, the two of them were strolling around the back of the house, the neighbor in the lead, joking about living in the geriatric wing of the street—declaring unapologetically that my dear hus was old.

I immediately reminded this neighbor that I am even older than my husband (which sadly did not quell his commentary whatsoever.) My husband explained that he had just remarked that in 14 years, he'd be 60 years old. The neighbor's wife and I took this in; it was one of those "aha" moments, and in the second or two that followed, you could almost hear everyone within earshot performing a quick calculation in their heads. I don't think anyone who stops for a moment to do that math is terribly pleased with the answer, especially if you're over 40. It's disturbing to realize just how close 60 really is. And if you're reading this and you're already over 60? Then you might be plugging in a higher number, and figuring that ever-shortening distance between current age and the unwanted goal...

Either way, it made me stop and ponder that I, too, am fast approaching 60—that is, if I am blessed with that many years on this earth.

Which in turn reminded me of the quote from a fabulous movie, The Shawshank Redemption (the Stephen King novella was even better), when a freshly paroled character—Red—comments that he'd better get busy living, or get busy dying. He's absolutely right. Every day, if we wake, we are given another day, another chance at bat, another breath to take in with gladness and purpose.

...Which is why this very picturesque morning found me loading my foldable easel into the trunk of the car, along with a slightly minimized collection of paints and brushes and a too-small canvas. It was the largest blank canvas I had. There wasn't time to go purchase larger—I needed to get busy living, see? Because I yearn to improve my plein air painting skills, and I can guarantee that I will never get better at it if I never do it. Inactivity and lack of effort, my friends, ensures stagnation.

So, I did it. I emulated my local art crush, Ron Donoughe (please Google him and join me in my adoration), and I packed my stuff and hauled it out to a scenic "rails-to-trails" path near our home (the Panhandle Trail—I highly recommend it—this view is a detail of the quarry wall). I gimped to a good spot (sore knee, doc appointment next week); then I fought at length with the easel's intricate setup mechanisms. And then, I did what I came to do.

It isn't my finest work, and it isn't quite finished. I took a photo before the lighting changed too dramatically, and I will try to refine it a bit at home tomorrow, perhaps. But today, I reveled in the morning, the developing sunshine and accompanying warmth, the passers-by, the cacophony of birds, the impossibly blue sky. I claimed it for my own in that pretty little spot with brush in hand.

Get busy living. Don't wait. Even if you're gimpy, or the canvas is too small, or you know the result might not be pretty. There will never be a better time than right now!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Meaningful greenery

If you've ever been to our current house, then you likely know that we have one real tree.

We had trees at our last two houses, and they were all right... Some pines at the end of the yard of one, a raggedy old nondescript tree at the other (which happily attracted the sweetest little owls). They served the purpose; a tree is a tree. Right?

Wrong. There are certain trees that simply represent treedom with more class, more presence. Like people. They're all unique, they all legally fit the bill by definition, yet that is where the similarity ends.

This tree in my yard now? It is an ambassador of trees. A Kentucky Coffee Tree, the only one around us that I'm aware of. It's a behemoth. Our first summer here, we were moved to pay far too many hundreds to have it pruned out of fear it would blow onto our roof. But the tree man did his job well, and our beautiful giant flourishes. All the years that our diminutive house sat empty, waiting for grandma to get better and come back, or later for a grandchild to decide to live here (neither of which happened), our tree grew tall and proud, dwarfing the house below it.

If you look into images of the tree type, you'll see that the branches grow downward; when it's leafless, it could even be described as creepy (as deemed by a neighbor, viewing it in its naked state). But I love it. I love it best on days such as this, when I've worked hard, pulling and hauling spent garden plants, and have earned the gorgeous shady canopy of my tree's low-hanging front limbs. On this particular day, I hide beneath its shadows, camouflaged from curious neighbors by its green arms, able to observe the street's goings on without being observed in turn.

I love the tree on warm nights, when I sneak out in the dark to swing on a wonderful rope swing my husband had the genius to install shortly after our arrival. To ride loftily into those branches at night, to feel weightless, communing with the leaves and sky, is a heady, inimitable sensation.

Mostly, I love the tree because it reminds me that I am small. That my roots will never be as expansive as this verdant structure's, that a tree such as this can subtly and unobtrusively become the focal point of a yard without even trying just because it is a wonderfully made, living thing.

I want to weep when I remember that in two short months, it will shed its green/gold-turned-red mantel and stand unadorned once more. But then I fast-forward more months, to next spring, when it will once again grow its lovely, rich raiment. As it did for all those years when no one lived here. And I am happy again, knowing the tree is at least properly appreciated these days. As is my Creator, each time I behold the tree's beauty and majesty.

Joyce Kilmer knew of what he wrote.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Note: This isn't quite finished. I doubt it will be "finished," ever. But I want to share it anyway, instead of fussing over each detail. The gist is here, and it's finished enough. It's a little bit too close for me to be completely objective. You'll understand when you read it.


We all knew my mother's days were drawing to a close.

The nearness of death was palpable. There had been other times prior, when the end had seemed certain… And then she had rallied, strengthened, come back to us. This time, though, it was different. The labored breathing, which suddenly required supplemental oxygen; the blank expression, except when it became rapt and attentive—and that, oddly, when she was looking past us. I couldn't help noticing that her most alert moments, when she murmured unintelligible words with purpose, happened when she was not looking at anyone in the room. At those moments, my mother spoke to someone else.

In a period of about 36 hours, she had changed from a somewhat functional and responsive person to a gaunt ghost of the woman she had been. It was clear the cancer and dementia were teaming up to claim her; she would not be celebrating her 84th birthday in a few weeks.

The family was in and out, my father a constant, anxious presence. My oldest sister, Sarah, had been there the day before, and now was out of town. Others had stopped by, and had ended up outside on the patio, unable to ignore her worsening condition, her obvious increased stress when noise levels rose in the room where she lay. The caregivers had been working around the clock for the past couple of months as the situation deteriorated, and had borne the brunt of it, all with unflappable patience.

On Saturday evening, the day before her passing, discussion ensued about proper care for the overnight shift. The regular night nurse, Lin, had reservations about being alone. She'd seen this stage before, had witnessed the last hours of her other charges, and she knew the signs. The Hospice packet of heavy-duty meds lay waiting in the refrigerator, and had already been accessed several times... It would likely be needed again, and soon. Lin and Lottie conferenced quietly, then approached my dad to explain Lin's concern.

I listened to their conversation. I had been there through the day, and now was heading home to be with my young son; I knew I couldn't stay to support Lin on this night.

"I can stay with you," said the main nurse, Lottie; she also happened to be Lin's sister, and the very person who had recently enlisted her. 

"But you've been here all day," Lin argued.

"I'll be all right. It's typical at this point to have two people on duty," Lottie replied. This wasn't her first rodeo, she had reminded us many times as my mom got worse. Lottie knew the end-of-life signs even better than Lin, having made caring for others her life's work.

My father agreed to the double coverage without hesitation. At this point, all hands were needed on deck; we had stayed the course throughout the journey thus far, and there was no reason to falter now. We had entrusted these ladies with my mother's life, literally. She had been in very capable hands.

"I'll come back tomorrow, and stay tomorrow night. Okay?" I offered. "Tom is home tomorrow night, and that will work fine. Mark can be home with him while I'm here."

"All right, Alyssa. That will work," Lottie responded. The plan was laid.

I gathered my belongings, said my goodbyes, and stopped last at Mom's bedside. "'Bye, Mom—I'll see you tomorrow." There was no response, her eyes were mostly closed, so I kissed her on the cheek and headed out.

The drive home was uneventful, the roads fairly clear, unlike the fullness of my brain. Mostly, I prayed the same thing I'd been praying: Lord, please don't let her suffer. Lord, please take her before this gets any worse, please don't let her hang on and on when she is actually already gone from us. God had been so faithful already: there had been no pain in a situation where every doc told us to expect it. Lottie for over two years, and then also her sister—the wonderful women who had come to our aid were truly angels. The visiting Hospice nurse, the friends and family who'd brought food and laughter and distraction, the pastor who'd stopped to encourage so faithfully. Even my mother's last two weeks were blessed; she had told my father she was going to take a long journey, was going to see her family… and she was the last surviving member of her family. I think she knew, through the fog of dementia, what was happening. She was ready. So, so many answers to my prayers.

At home, I immediately sent messages to my sisters and a niece, reiterating the seriousness of the situation. The niece and her little girl had been there with me earlier in the day. She echoed my sentiments; the words "death bed" were aptly used.

Middle sister Anne was planning to go back on Monday, when kids would be back in school and she'd have a few hours free from playing taxi. "Anne—I don't think we have until Monday," I messaged back. Anne made a new plan, to visit the next day, Sunday. The evening slipped away quickly, my mind heavy.

And then it was Sunday morning, time for church, the hustle and bustle, hurrying to get there on time. We sang a praise song, and I remember feeling very peaceful, mentally rested, in spite of everything. Nothing had changed with Mom's condition—I had checked with my father earlier Sunday morning—but something had relaxed inside of me. I went home with my son, and we waited for my husband Tom to get home from his Sunday school class so I could head down with bag packed for an overnight stay.

And then, a text message. From sister Anne. They needed the Hospice nurse's private number, right now. I had left it on the refrigerator, but in the confusion of the previous day, had forgotten to mention that to anyone. I texted it to her quickly, and as I sent it on its way, it crossed paths with another note from Anne: "We think she may be gone."

Oh. My. There's a simple phrase that'll make your heart flop.

But I don't want to tell a story about my mother's passing. I want to tell a story about God's goodness. So here is where I skip ahead a bit. Of course I drove quickly down to stay as planned, thanking Jesus through tears for yet another answered prayer—a quick departure, and no lingering. As you probably have guessed, I did not see my mother alive again. We all gathered for the next three days, my father and sisters and I, and did what needed to be done. We spent a couple of days in a blur of grief diffused by a whirlwind of activity, of company, of throngs of people and hugs and tears and flowers and food and wine.

And somehow, we reached the burial day. A lovely day it was, weather-wise and otherwise. The churchyard where her body lies is situated on a hilltop, and I wondered, looking into that stunning blue sky, how much more beauty must surround my mother in Paradise. The pastor shared wonderful, hopeful words, honored her, buoyed our spirits. We held a casual luncheon with those who'd known her best, and shared a meal, but mostly we shared memories.

As we cleaned up afterward, and carried bowls and slow cookers back to vehicles, I had a moment to chat with Lin and Lottie, to thank them again for their selfless care of my mother. "We knew it was close," said Lin. "That's why I wanted Lottie to stay with me that last night. I knew. And then I saw those angels."

"What?" I asked. "What angels?"

"I saw three angels through the night. I sat facing the front door, and Lottie sat in the other chair next to the bed, and your dad lay on the couch when he wasn't sitting next to your mom… We were all trying to get some rest between checking on her… And I saw an angel in the front doorway, three times."

"What did it look like?" I asked.

"Just a bright outline of light. Just there in the doorway, three different times. And there were those voices, too."


"Lottie and I both heard them, those last couple of days leading up to her passing. In the next room where the television is. I thought I was losing my mind until I mentioned them to Lottie, and then she said she'd heard them, too. Murmuring, they were, not words you could make out, just quiet talking. It wasn't scary or anything, and then the day and night before she passed, I heard them again, louder." Lin was very matter-of-fact about it.

"I'd heard them, too. You couldn't tell what they were saying, just the sound of voices, like they were having a conversation," Lottie chimed in, nodding.

I processed this for a minute. Was that who my mother had been talking with when she looked past me? And I haven't explained her last few hours on this earth, and I should. She was hanging on, stubbornly clinging to life. The pastor was called in, and then my sister Anne and her girls arrived. My mother was in her favorite place, her home; she was surrounded by love, her husband by her side; she had a chance to say goodbye to all of her close family. The pastor and a granddaughter sang to her, and she took her last breath.

She hadn't lasted more than an hour after Anne's arrival. I suspect that's what she was waiting for, to see and hear each of us. I like to think that's what she was murmuring about, with those angels, maybe with Jesus himself—arranging her departure, every detail, just the way she wanted it. She was attended by earthly and heavenly angels, and music. She said her goodbyes, and then she was escorted to the Next Place.

It was as good an end as it could have been. I think about it, and am amazed again and again. How good He was to her, to us. I am thankful. My faith is strengthened and confirmed. We are loved more than we could imagine; we need only receive, accept, be grateful. And tell people, too. My mother's story becomes my story to share, so that others can see the lovingkindness of God even in terrible trials.

I hope for a heavenly escort myself, someday. Music and blue skies? That would be icing on the cake.