Friday, February 20, 2015

Close calls, awful weather, and relativity

Most women have had a scare of some sort. My most recent fright came in a phone call yesterday, as I drove from errand to errand. I'd had a recent mammogram, (or as my friend calls it, the "#!* sandwich"—I'll let you fill in the blank with your choice of fitting words). I'd made it through; I'd been pinched and squeezed, told not to breathe, and oh so happily had been released into normalcy with the all-clear diagnosis.

And then. That phone call. My doctor had compared the current image with the last one from a few years ago... There was something new. Maybe harmless, maybe not. It required a closer look. My heart was pounding, blood rushed through my veins too fast, and all the while my son sat in the back seat of the Honda, listening, his presence forcing me to keep calm and control my voice. I would need to call the appointment maker back when I had my calendar handy, I said.

We arrived early at our last stop of the day, my son's orthodontist. Thankfully, they were able to fit him in quickly; while he met with the doc, I made the dreaded call back to the imaging office. Should I be worried? I asked. The woman attempted to talk me off a ledge while still not committing to any real answer... It was a tad discouraging, even though I could see her point of view. She simply wasn't able to promise me that all was well. That wouldn't have been realistic. We set up an appointment for the very next day. I don't know about you, but once I have a possible disaster looming over my head, I want the damned hammer to fall already—no point delaying impact. That's just how I roll.

We left the orthodontist's office; my son, who'd overheard the end of my appointment set-up call, began to lament about our family and its many medical needs. I immediately tried to set him straight. Whoa, I said, We do all right. What if one of us had cystic fibrosis, or asthma? What if breathing treatments were part of daily life? Or what if one of us were paralyzed, or an amputee? What if we had life-threatening allergies to something? Don't you think that might require a whole lot more medical care and doc visits? Well, yes, concurred the boy. We were pulling into the driveway by then, and the conversation ended.

The requisite "closer look" on the following morning turned out to be nothing. I am able to breathe again, while feeling new empathy toward the folks I know who received a different answer and piece of paper than the one I was given. Everything can change in a heartbeat. We get spoiled, living with and within normal; it's so much more pleasant to be oblivious to what might be lurking or what could have been. And by "we," I really mean "I."

Now, knowing that things are all right in there for today at least, I feel lighter than I did earlier this week. And that's a good thing, to feel lighter, because this horrid cold and snow has absolutely robbed me of all my natural vigor and buoyancy. We have been trapped inside, often at home, trying to be patient with nature, with each other, while we await a break. Spring, or temperatures above 10 degrees Fahrenheit, whichever comes first. Both would be met with great rejoicing at this point.

I guess getting a clean report at the imaging office is sort of like comparing our winter situation to Boston. Hey, look what we avoided, this time at least. Let's be thankful for what we have. Not the most upbeat perspective, I know—but sometimes I need a rather dramatic comparison in order to be able to view my situation honestly. I need to see my trial relative to what others are facing—and since I am a human, and therefore self-centered, my eyes work best when my personal comfort is threatened or removed. Again, for better or worse, that's how I roll.

All right, I'm finished waxing optimistic now. Remind me of all this after the next snowstorm, would you?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Unqomfortable

This incident happened several weeks ago, at the beginning of the height of Christmas shopping season. I have been mulling it over for weeks, and in light of what happened in Paris this week, I feel compelled to "go there."

I was in a Target department store in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. It was crowded, a Saturday I believe, and I was looking for a children's book to purchase as a gift. The books are located near the back of the store near the CDs, DVDs, and electronic gadgets, as you might know; I was perusing some titles, trying not be distracted by the 20+ televisions all playing in unison, when I saw a woman in full burqa coming past the TVs toward me.

I'm still rather surprised at myself, but I honestly freaked out. Truly. My heart began to pound, and I felt hot and cold all at once. I didn't want to stare, but I could see her easily without trying to, what with all that billowing black and all—I'm assuming it was a she, since I honestly had no way of knowing—and then I saw a fellow with her, dressed in regular American garb of course. Because he's a he. Yeah.

I can honestly say that I wanted nothing more than to get the hell away from them both. I'm not proud of this response; I certainly never expected to feel such a strong sense of absolute revulsion in the presence of a burqa, but I did. I could not move quickly enough to another section of the store.

As I walked with purpose toward the front of the building, every terrorist situation in my personal history came swirling to the forefront of my brain. The recent case of a man dressed as a burqa-clad woman, following an American into a bathroom in the Middle East and cutting her head off as she begged for mercy. Another woman, a grandmother leaving her factory job in Oklahoma, beheaded with a kitchen knife by a self-proclaimed muslim in the parking lot. Train bombings, attacks on innocent soldiers, bombings of marathon runners, machete-wielding crazy people targeting and executing journalists, suicide martyrs in the same black garb I'd just seen who walked into crowds of innocents and then proceeded to explode themselves and everyone near them.

I was ashamed for a moment. That isn't fair, my open-minded self thought. Maybe that burqa-clad woman is perfectly kind and placid; perhaps she is one of those peaceful Muslims I hear about. But I'll never know, because I was so absolutely repelled by her appearance and her man's presence that I fled. I didn't leave the store, but I separated myself completely from them because I didn't want them near me.

The more I thought about it, the more confused and conflicted I became. Should I have tried to meet her gaze just to see what sort of reaction I would get? Did I hurt her feelings when I immediately changed aisles? But even as I played through this brief memory, I was angry at the same time. Why did she wear that thing? Why did she have to be completely unrecognizable? Was she forced to do so? Threatened with violence if she did not comply? What sort of man would ask this of a person he loves? How can any human ask this of any other, even one they hate? Would I have even been allowed to speak to her without his permission? Who wants a wife or partner who's been dehumanized by the removal of any individuality, of any personal physical characteristics? And why were they in Target? Could they possibly find a store that better represents the "evils" of Western culture than Target?

The whole thing was so preposterous, and so unexpected, and so revealing of something in me, that I couldn't shake it off for days. Weeks.

Then, a few days ago, I had a revelation. I was thinking about the real-life burqa sighting (my first, you might have gathered,) and I'd just had a really good discussion with friends about the Holy Spirit. I suddenly wondered if that had been the Holy Spirit in me, reacting to that woman's outfit and situation. I pondered the possibility that the Holy Spirit, God's own interpreter and PR guy, had reared up in me and made it clear that this is a baaaaad thing—that the dehumanization of any person is wrong. It made sense to me that God, Who gives us free will even though He knows it will cost many their salvation—that same God might be offended by a severe religion that takes away freedoms and lives. After all, woman was made from man–not by man. I suspect that a God who loves each of us individually and equally, who died for us to be saved when we ask Him into our lives, would object to removing basic human rights, as well as removing the right to not choose a certain set of beliefs. He died for us to live, not so we could squash and murder at will any who are under us or do not agree with us.

I'm still not sure why I felt so strongly about her outfit. After all, it's just a big, dark, extremely concealing outfit. I only know that I reject any belief system that asks women to surrender everything they have and are to a man, including personal identity and rights—and I reject any religion that kills so freely, even its own members who do not perfectly align. (Do some research: many of the attacks are on fellow muslims.) I don't care whether that was my personal bias in Target, or the Holy Spirit; I want nothing to do with that code. I want it to stay far away from me. But I don't think it's going to cooperate.

All in all, it was a very disturbing image of America's future, and my own place in said future...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Outbuildings

I'm no stranger to outbuildings. You know what I mean: sheds, of course. Or little barns, perhaps. Any extra structure, usually smallish in nature, erected away from the main dwelling place, would fit the description. The outbuilding might hold hand tools or mowers, animal feed or fertilizer (the bagged or boxed type, or maybe even the fertilizing critters themselves...) An outbuilding can hold hobbies, like a wood-working shop, or a mechanic's playground. Perhaps it houses an old project car or motorcycle; it might host a child's pals or collections, plastic bins brimming with memories. It holds things that won't fit in the house but that need to be kept safe.

My husband built a shed at our old home, a beauty, nestled in the lovely garden that he'd also created. The shed stood proudly, a sturdy 8x12 building that briefly contained all his yard goodies and a handful of mine. More recently, it held all the overflow from our home—the extra stuff that made our small house appear smaller, and which the realtor advised us to hide so that potential buyers would be fooled and would make offers on our spacious dwelling... That realtor was smart, because her plan worked and now the wonderful shed (a selling point!) is likely being thoroughly enjoyed by the current owner of the house. Sigh.

My childhood home sported two outbuildings while I was young, and each was unique in purpose and style. The "shed," aptly named, was the favored home of my father's gadgets and noisy machines, plus old toys, a cot from Grandma, our bikes. It looked like a small house, with a real door and windows; it was roomy, had rudimentary loft space above, and was crammed full (it still is). The other building was "the chicken house," because that's the purpose it had once served; this little gem was often stacked full of hay bales, to feed the hungry cows and then, later, two spoiled ponies. It also housed a round bin of grain, as well as various litters of kittens, stashed by their mothers in impenetrable corners, and likely an occasional lazy black snake.

These buildings at my parents' home have since been joined by yet another shed-like structure that lives behind the large cement-block garage. (Come to think of it, the garage may also count as an outbuilding, because it is separate, and playing home to the family Jeep is only half of its job.) I don't even know what's in this newest little shack, and I don't need to, because it's not mine. It is my father's.

(My father—both my parents, in fact—like to hold onto things. I try to shake off this tendency and intentionally migrate toward minimalism, although I can see validity in the opinion that just because you don't need something right now doesn't mean you'll never need it again. I suppose that if times change in America, and I am no longer able to easily and cheaply locate more copies of whatever I cast away in the past, then I'll need to find some outbuildings and begin clinging to as many items as possible. For now, I will keep trying to make regular trips to Goodwill and its many cousins in the charitable store world.)

I'm pondering those useful shacks because of what they do: they hold all of someone's extra stuff that won't fit within the normal perimeter of space. They are specific to the owner. What's contained within can be shared, or kept secret. A little building like that can remain locked for years, or be perused on a regular basis; it's personal and practical.

The reason I'm thinking about outbuildings, though, isn't just because I want one for our yard. I do. But my brain has been feeling too full of upsetting facts and feelings, and I could use more space somewhere to store it all. I don't need a physical realm in which to pile stuff; I just need an emotional outbuilding, where I could store all my extraneous upsets and worries and frustrations and unanswered questions. If I could get them out of my regular storage space, then maybe I could improve my day-to-day functions. I could address freelance work, a commissioned painting, my son's school and shopping tasks, all without accidentally knocking down the shelf where I store the thoughts about the world, my family, illness. I could pay bills without having to rearrange the pile of concerns about ISIS; I wouldn't have to stop working so that I can re-order the now-confused observations about where America is heading. I could take all those extra burdens that are slowing down my processor (brain) and place them in neat, tidy, compartmentalized outbuildings for my head. Then, I could go about my business and stop being reminded of all that mental clutter because I accidentally bumped into it while looking for necessary information buried in the gray cells.

I don't have Dumbledore's pensieve, and therefore I need a thought shed, or two, or five. And I need locks on them. And loads of space inside. If only I could purchase something like that at Lowe's.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On Veterans and Service

I have come to realize something, as I've progressed well into my 4th decade... And it's a frightening realization, a sobering one: I almost became a liberal.

Yes, it's true. I was wooed by their idealistic, unsupported course for awhile in my blooming youth; I flirted with the possibility of heading down that circuitous path. I'm not proud of this. I admit it. But that was the greatest threat to me in my post-high-school and early working years. It was not my parents' fear that in college, I was becoming a pothead (I wasn't even close) or that I was having a bit too much fun (well, that one was sort of true)—no, the greatest threat was that I'd go over to the dark side.

Then I spent a few years maturing. I gained a bit more knowledge about history; learned the difference between rights and privileges, and became more adept at managing money responsibly; and I figured out, with help, that true charity doesn't come from government, but from individuals and faith in God. I even spent some time discussing military service and the philosophies behind it with people in the know. Eventually, I straightened out. Becoming a Christian secured cautious conservatism for me... which is odd, because for some people, that same act ensures their liberalism. Weird.

Anyway. I wanted to take a moment to ponder the symbolic veteran of any armed service. There was a recent article on Facebook (why do I even bother with FB?) about how we Americans are over-revering our servicemen and women, people in uniform everywhere, and how those folks are actually terrible people who harm civilians for fun, take advantage of their power, and sexually abuse each other with abandon. And this article made me livid.

People are people, not black and white but all of us gray, and of course there are those among every rank, everywhere, who will wield their power for evil purposes. But people—isn't that the very reason we need armed services? Because sometimes, those people who allow themselves to be ruled by evil instincts are quite attractive? Charismatic? Great speakers and motivators? Don't you think Osama bin Laden had some charms about him? How else would he have inspired such evil acts in his name and the name of his cause? How about Hitler?

People are low-down and messed-up. That's why I became a Christian: because we desperately need a savior to stand in our lowly place come judgement. And when there's a void in a soul, something will always fill the void. Just like the story in the Bible, about the freshly swept out little home that was quickly re-infested because it stood empty (Matthew 11:24-26), desperate people, even well-intentioned ones, will join up with insanity to fill their void. Gangs are popular for this reason; there is even a handful of completely foolish youth from around the globe who are going to stand with ISIS for likely this same reason. There's a void, and they'll fill it with something that gives them purpose, even if there's a chance down the road that they might be asked to behead someone...

Long story short? There will always be people who choose to do bad, and they will often amass a huge crowd of [weak-minded] people to help them. For that wrong force, we need an opposing force of good. And people? A good majority of military people and police officers is good enough for me. There will be exceptions; I can live with that, much more easily than I can live with the ostrich mentality of "can't happen here." WWI and WWII happened. Ho Chi Minh, Rwanda, Darfur—they aren't made up. They're real. Terrible things happen, because of bad people, when good people permit the terrible things. If movers and shakers of those terrible things are unchecked, they will become stronger and even more terrible. Then, if they're not already there, they will visit you at your home.

I do believe that God can change hearts, but only if and when they are willing to be changed. Man has been given free will, and honestly, we do an awfully inept job of employing it wisely. Enter the soldier for the side of what is right. And even if they're not all perfect, American soldiers (and domestic law enforcement, too) of recent history have done a lot to check and/or stop evil people from doing more harm. They've suffered, died, fought, been injured and maimed and mentally haunted for life. They have preserved rights and freedoms by accepting unspeakable assignments. Anyone who sits in a peaceful country, in relative wealth, who's never set foot in danger for the sake of others they probably don't even know—that person does not have the right to speak ill of a soldier. If they sit drinking fancy coffee and typing their litany of complaints on their laptop, while scrolling through messages on their highfalutin phone, that's even more annoying. The "flag burners" need to put up or shut up. Or, they can go live in those places where they tell us our soldiers aren't needed, or are perceived as invading disrespectfully.

The sad truth is that there are bullies in this world of ours. And for the bullies who can't and won't allow their hearts to be changed, there is the American soldier. If I sound patriotic, I'm all right with that; I understand that the word patriot isn't synonymous with terrorist OR idiot. Thank you, veterans, for doing the dirty work so I don't have to.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Quiet madness

That title doesn't really cover it, though. I'm trying to capture what happens most nights for me, sometime around 3 or 4:30am. That's the time I usually jerk awake. The house is still, my husband is breathing slowly and evenly next to me—and like an unwitting inverse correlation to his calm, I can barely catch my breath. I wake from bad dreams at times, but most often I simply open my eyes, feeling immediately anxious, worried about everything under the sun.

Why do I worry? It's pointless. It's unbiblical. It's a sign of weak or absent faith. I know all these things, consider them truths, yet there I lie, silently freaking out. Ebola will continue to spread thanks to unpreparedness in the United States, my family will be struck, some of us will die too soon... ISIS, having penetrated our borders, will begin systematically killing and capturing Americans in random places and the culture of sheep will permit it out of fear of offending someone... Our government will become even more corrupt and the society will crumble into martial law when bankruptcy must be faced and handouts are ended... And those are just the outside-of-our-home concerns. That's not even touching on the hours of darkness spent agonizing over illnesses and injuries, poor decisions and resulting chaos, and general mayhem and angst in the lives of people we care about. Not to mention the fear about my husband's job disappearing, the position replaced by a smaller team or simply deleted because the work has become obsolete, and then I will find that too many years out of the professional realm have rendered me stupid and archaic and worthy of only menial positions... (Thankfully, my dreams about my son disappearing seem to be diminishing.)

I'm driven by logic and reality. I know better, now, than to fill my mind with creepy books and movies about killers, and monsters, and sick-minded individuals—when I used to do that, I had awful thought and visions about those stories. Since I've sworn off that sort of thing for the most part, though, now my fears are always real. I can't easily discount them, especially not after midnight when there is no distraction from my own busy, disturbed brain. I pray, try to focus on other things, try to go back to sleep, and many nights it's all in vain.

I wish I could find solace and escape more easily. At least I think I do. Maybe I choose to be this way. Do we all choose to be the way we are? Happy? Somber? Thoughtful? Selfish? I do believe that sometimes we can influence our focus, but can I ever become a woman who wakes in the night and feels only peace? I want to be that woman. God wants me to be that woman. Becoming that woman is so much more challenging.

That's why I haven't written much lately. My skittering thoughts are still ponderous, albeit fast-moving. I don't know how that's even possible, but it is. And the older I get, the less important it feels to share them. To say anything, really, seems more and more futile.

Sorry for the downward spiral; it's fall, leaves are spinning down on my head, a harsh winter awaits, and I'm just being real. To quote a good friend, "it's part of my charm," you know. Carry on.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Spoiled, and lazy

I haven't posted anything for awhile. To be quite candid, this time of year is a bit of a downer for me. I love summer, love the simplicity of it, love the long days. School starts, and I suddenly find myself drowning in a deep pool of melancholia. The kid's getting older. I'm getting older. The world is in sorry shape, the economy continues to founder in spite of what MSM tells you, and I'm pretty much expecting that in my lifetime, my homeland will be overtaken by hostile forces.

So. You'll see why I've been biting my tongue. Nobody wants to read that sort of thing. I'm the kind of person who sends others scurrying away from the water cooler when I approach.

I'm still in that low place some days, but I had an enjoyable moment recently when I was re-reading an old classic from high school. George Orwell's 1984 is just as appalling and brilliant as it was when I was 16. I was inspired to read it again, along with some other old titles, because I've run into some pretty common, unimpressive books lately. Some have been freebies on my Kindle, so I guess I should have expected substandard sentence structures and flat characters. But still... Somebody, somewhere, published these books. They can't all have been self-published. One of them was so flagrantly incoherent and non-cohesive that I was tempted to look up the author—and was smacked in the face by review after review (by readers, for what those are worth) that sang the praises of this particular woman and her various self-centered, narcissistic memoirs.

Really? I mean, she wasn't absolutely terrible, but she skipped around, she didn't develop anything fully, the order of events was difficult to follow and often left matters unresolved... It wasn't good writing.

I started dissecting other recent books that had disappointed me... and then I gave up because I'd figured out the problem: I'm a former English major. I have taught some of the most amazing authors, after having been immersed in them, and likely because of that I began years ago to expect greatness from the written word. That's not to say I loved all of them, but constant exposure to true talent caused me to raise my standards across the board, regardless of writing style, point of view, or syntax. I'm not a fan of Tolkien, but I can appreciate his flair for description. I never liked Poe, but he could create a macabre setting better than almost anyone. Steinbeck's characters have stayed strong in my mind for decades. Welty painted a warm, slightly uncomfortable picture of the South.

My point is that the classics have become classic for good reason—at least most of them. Those guys and gals could write. They were masters of the language, and they understood that every aspect of writing matters. It isn't enough to be emotive; fantastic word choices won't save a poor plot. Characters I find to be unbelievable will become characters I don't care about enough to finish reading the book.

So you see why I've been spoiled. Poor literature is beneath me. Life is too short. And the lazy part of the post title? I've reached middle age now, and I've grown more choosey about how I spend my time. I've always been a believer in reading a book I love many times instead of trying to read as many different books as possible. These days, I feel even more strongly about that. My favorites? I've revisited them over and over. Some of those more recent releases? There are some great ones, but a whole lot of them are pretty shallow and temporary, and I'm decided that I don't have the energy to bother finishing them once I've determined that they're lacking. Which, according to my way of thinking, doesn't make me truly lazy—just discerning and decisive.

I suppose if I'm going to be spoiled, then this is a more desirable form of it than most.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Thoughts that crawl and climb like ivy

I have been a terrible blogger this summer. Appointments have cropped up, weddings and parties, weird weather, visits with friends and family—all have been speeding past me until my head is spinning a tad.

Then last week, somehow, I was struck by dreaded poison ivy. And I don't just get a happy patch or two, heck NO—I get bumpy, itchy rashes all over my body. Apparently my skin reacts to the oil, then all the rest of my body reacts to that bit of skin... Fun stuff. And then, the rash stays, and stays. Sometimes the redness dies down, and I get excited and think that perhaps, the urushiol oil is finished binding to the proteins in my skin and has begun to break down. But then, as I said, white bumps start to show up everywhere else... and I realize that the suffering isn't over yet.

Knowing this pattern, and my skin, I gave up fairly quickly after discerning the problem and I made a doctor appointment. I alternately scratched and applied calamine lotions for 36 hours, then drove to the doc to beg and weep for a steroid of some kind. I hate to be a quitter, but honestly, I'm going to let myself off the hook this time. I have washed every item that could possibly have housed the awful oil. I have threatened husband and son who may have brought it into the house. I have directed countless hairy eyeballs at the neighbor's side yard, which was littered with the stuff until just a few days ago. And I've been taking steroids, which are working, although not without other issues: sleepless nights, restless days, fingers and toes I can't keep still, stomach yuck. But I'm not scratching myself raw, so that's something. Right?

I keep thinking about the experience, though, and a few thoughts stand out. I think, not for the first time, of how different this rash might have looked for some poor pioneers who set out and had to clear trees and woods in order to do pretty much anything else, even just move forward. If I've been miserable, I with my lotions and air conditioning and comfy light fabrics—then how much more must they have suffered with long, heavy clothes, perspiration, and relentless heat beating on them. I wonder if they knew of the devilish green poison, if perhaps some of them knew where to find aloe or jewel weed to ease the irritation. I wonder if any ignorant newcomers, city-folk perhaps, touched the terrible plant, or (worse) burned it... and then scratched every part of themselves, thus spreading the horror. I wonder how long it took for people to get smart and recognize the cause. Or give their oil-bearing dog a bath. Or whatever.

(I think about older cultures often; I thought of them constantly after having a baby. I think of them when I do laundry in my easy-peasey washing machine. I think of them when I drive a car and arrive in minutes instead of hours. How lazy they would likely think us all. No wonder there's an obesity epidemic.)

I've been pondering, too, just how remarkably easy it is to be unaware of suffering and torment unless it is your own. I know other people with skin issues, far more serious conditions than a temporary redness. With constant pain, even. So I itch for a couple of days and have a mini-breakdown... Pretty pathetic. Our son woke up last week with a pinched nerve in his neck, and for a day had trouble turning his head one way, and it was so awful—yet we know someone who has that trouble daily, and on a much more serious scale. Even my 9-year-old recognized the teachable moment by commenting that now he understood better what life must be like for that friend of ours.

We are all such self-centered creatures for the most part, and then our shallow, me-first culture further ingrains that sort of thinking until it is quite easy to avoid considering, especially in depth, what others around us are suffering. My prayer today is not just to be grateful, but also to have more sensitivity to whatever the people around me are enduring. Whatever their troubles are, I know that to each of them who carry the burden, that trouble is heaviest. We are all shouldering something, but we can help each other, notice each other, connect personally, and most of all? We can take our burdens to the Savior. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes and hearts, and Jesus invites us to accept His mercy and share it with all.

This was a rather meandering post, wasn't it? Back to the rash, I think this is officially an item on my "questions to ask God someday" list. Why poison ivy? It'll show up slightly above or below the "why mosquitos?" question, depending on the timing of my most recent ivy outbreak.

Wear gloves and spray on some Deet, then go in peace.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. -John 14:27 (KJV)