Monday, July 25, 2011

The Power of an Errant Glance


I walked across the hot field, each footstep raising a small cloud of grey dust that coated my tennis shoes.  For some reason I felt obligated to contain my walking to the narrow tire track that wound itself through the freshly turned earth, as if stepping outside that path would draw attention to me heading their way.

 It was brutally hot by Michigan standards – a perfect July day with heat, humidity, and little breeze.  Perfect weather for crabgrass, sow thistle, carpetweed and spurge.  Not perfect weather for anyone working against those weeds.  The smell of the warm earth, the quiet of the field, the slowly dissipating sounds of traffic as I walked south, away from the road, seemed to increase the power of that heat and magnified my fears.  The weather report on the radio cautiously noted a cattle and livestock advisory that was in place – as if most of their listeners had ever been on a farm and knew what that meant.  Even more disconcerting was the fact that they worried about cattle and livestock but cared little for the occasional migrant worker who would likely be out in those same fields.  At first the gathering dust on my clean shoes was funny, but as the sweat from my forehead began to mix with it, a certain amount of humor began to fade.  The walk was long enough that my shirt, now sticking to my chest took on the appearance of a Shar Pei puppy’s folded skin.  My hopes of an elegant entrance were dashed by the very heat that motivated me.  I now looked out-of-place, ridiculous and a cause for concern.

I drove past them on a whim – I decided to take a long route home that afternoon, windows up – air conditioning on high, speedometer pegged at 55.  I was enjoying the weather, enjoying the view, enjoying my wonderful life, when an errant glance caught them.  Errant glances have ruined many a life you know.  King David’s demise began as an errant glance.  President Bill Clinton’s dubious demise began as an errant glance by a photographer.  Even Lot’s wife paid a hefty price with an errant glance, one quick look over the shoulder and life, as we know it is no more.  My heading into the cultivated field was no less an errant glance.  I saw the group, little more than a dozen – heads down, clustered close together, all looking odd in long-sleeved shirts, long pants, big hats and each with his own hoe, all this compared to the hundred acre field they were in.  My errant glance reminded me of a Gustave Courbet painting of The Stone Breakers – a painting of French peasants, as unglamorous as the tasks they were performing, working in typical garb of the day and amazingly similar to the garb I was now seeing.

 I sped past them initially; I needed to get home to see how it was going with Bethany.  I knew the helper was there but having help and having help that can deal with her are two different things.  Frequently, we need to help the helper work with the helpless.  Anyone who’s read anything bout Bethany could surely understand how migrant laborers in a hot green pepper field is clearly not my problem.  Who could blame me for speeding by, perhaps offering a prayer on their behalf?  Nothing wrong in that – in fact, it would be unchristian to offer anything less, so I drove on.  I said the prayer but it had a way of falling dry and meaningless from my lips.  Like yelling in an anechoic chamber, the words are literally sucked into a void and you hear nothing, as does anyone else.  I drove on, figuring that I’d forget and God would provide.

Those errant glances, the way it worked on King David; likely a simple glance of a nice leg, a well-turned heel, a soft hip.  A little too much offered by one, far too much taken by the other.  Time has a way of enhancing what the eye records.  Its not the initial sighting that dooms you, it’s the perpetual picture in your mind that pulls the trigger.  You think about it, you replay it; you change the sequence, the timing, and the risk.  You muddle all the variables until you’ve justified your next action and the ones after that.  I am no less guilty.  I stopped for gas and that’s when the vision took hold.  Top off the tank, go into the convenience store, buy enough cold Coke for the lot of them and get it over with.

I am the woman at the well.  I offered the cup of cold water to the stranger and they forgave me of my sins.  I assumed I was the savior of them and they reroofed me, accepted me in, corrected my vision and sent me on my way with the joy of forgiveness in my heart.  Once I finally made my way across those hot fields to the treeline where they enjoyed the shade, once they made sense of the gringo blanco with the sweaty bottles of soda and package of cups, once they got over the shock that someone cared enough to make this effort, they accepted me.  They blessed me.  They justified me.

The group of men all smiled, all proudly enjoyed the fruit of their labors, all welcomed me as I was, sweaty, covered in soil.  No one at the gas station smiled like this, no one there seemed happy to be working, happy to have a bit of shade.  There, from the comfort of air conditioning they complained about the heat, here in the field, complaining about such things is ludicrous.  Enjoy this moment.  Enjoy the beauty of everything, enjoy the company of others, and enjoy the risk of following your heart. 

Nothing in this life is by chance.  My prayer for comfort for those men, the way it died on my lips – that was no accident.  That was the power of prayer being answered as it’s offered.  Jesus, like those laborers in the field knew that’s it ludicrous to talk about the heat when you’re in the heat.  He knew that I was the one who was to be both blessing and blessed.  “Dios te bendega” was yelled to me once in Peru by some children as I left their encampment, this same blessing was now offered by me to the migrants that caught not only my glance, but my entire heart in a sweltering pepper field on July day in Michigan.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Tale of Fortune and Fingers


On occasion, something happens in my life that after-the-fact I find myself wondering if that was divinely planned.  This past week, I got into a tussle with my table saw.  A freakish sort of accident that ended up sending me to the hospital and ended up connecting my wife with a mother who is facing similar challenges as we have.

I mentioned to the attending physician (as she attempted to cut the wedding band off my damaged finger) that the real tragedy is not that I’m in the hospital, but that my wife and I were having a relatively enjoyable time there.  This past weekend was a “respite weekend” and as such, we were free of the care of Bethany for a few days.  For us this trip to the ER was a rather exciting date.  We were laughing, chatting with people, actually doing something together!

While the Physician’s Assistant began the process of stitching my hand back together, I mentioned about this being a respite weekend and what that entailed.  The Physician listened and then cautiously asked a few questions that quickly lead us to believe she knew more than she let on to.  It’s not uncommon for us to connect with other parents of special needs children and shortly after I made the comment about “the quiet, vibrant underworld of special needs kids, their parents and the mystical support system beneath them”, a careful connection was made.

We always marveled at the complex and convoluted world of mental health care.  Of all the professions that should require clear and compassionate direction, this one has anything but.  Between the complex nature of mind/brain dysfunction and the societal stigma surrounding the topic, its no wonder that this profession is enigmatic.  You’re not sure if it’s smiling or grimacing.  We’d always considered ourselves as petty smart but after one trip to the Community Mental Health office, we realized that intelligence has nothing to do with understanding and functioning within a bureaucracy.  

It became clear to the physician that we knew of her concerns and slowly the discussion grew more similar.  “How do you do this”, and “what did you do about that”?  The list of shared tests, diagnoses, symptoms, dreams and desires grew in frequency and enthusiasm.  We’d made a connection!  Our network continued to grow and for once, we were able to introduce someone else to support they didn’t know existed.

On the drive home, I had to ask Sherry, “do you suppose that I cut my hand so that we could share that information and make that connection?”  I don’t know, maybe” was her response.  We frequently think about those little instances.  My injury was but a fraction of a millimeter away from being devastating.  The cut, in such a bizarre location, defied logic, the whole accident, so inexplicable.  We wonder if there was a purpose and a limit to the injury, not unlike the limits the Lord placed on Satan when he offered up Job in the Bible.  What else could explain the delightful evening, the pleasant connections, the lack of pain, and the expediency of the emergency treatment? 

People tell me that I’m lucky.  I assume they’re talking about the “near miss” but the smile I return to them and the “yeah, sure am” in reality has little to do with fortune and fingers.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Come home, come home, it's suppertime


I recall seeing my grandfather sitting in a chair in the family room of the old Lubber’s farm, it must have been 1965 or so.  It was a Sunday and I recall hearing hymns on the radio, he was sitting there quietly with his eyes closed, his hands folded loosely over his belly.  I wasn’t sure if he was sleeping or peacefully listening to the music.  “Come home, come home, it’s suppertime” – the words tumbled out of the old, green, Motorola radio.  I can still see the gold tuning dial with the pointer facing both 10 and 4 o’clock.

Last night I was at the evening church service and that flashback hit me somewhere between the second and third verse of  “Softly and Tenderly”... why should we linger and heed not his mercies…  It was a warm, beautiful memory that was prompted by a tune that I despised when I was a teenager.  For my grandfather, as a young boy that would have been a relatively new song.  Written in the 1880’s and no doubt played by my grandmother on the old pump-organ at the church in East Saugatuck, a contemporary tune that had some “stickiness”.

I’ve seen that same warm memory wash back over residents in nursing homes, people who you’d think were “in absentia”, no longer mentally in the building.  As a deacon, I had the duty of occasionally delivering a Wednesday evening service at the home in Hudsonville.  I learned quickly that two items were more important than whatever words I thought the Holy Spirit was imparting on my lips: children and music.  Many times I witnessed a resident who was wheeled into the room, strapped into a chair, drool falling from her lips, eyes closed, body slumped heavily to the west, legs – spindly and twisted beneath her and held aloft only by the foot pads of the wheel chair.  The attendant would lock the wheels of the chair, as if this woman may suddenly awake and decide to make a break for it.  Head off to the river for one last dip in the cool water – one last mouthful of plump blackberries, one last stolen kiss from the young boy that she’d eventually end up spending the next 70 years with.

This woman would be there, unresponsive and uncaring of the activity around her.  After an opening prayer, the gent who agreed to play the organ would play the first 8 chords from “The Old Rugged Cross”, and a most amazing transformation would occur.  She and a half-dozen like her would immediately open their mouths and sing.  Every word perfectly formed, each stanza coherently recited.  The beauty and strength of the voices coming from the physical void before me was dissonant, a seeming contradiction, like she was reverse lip-synching the hymn.  While I stumbled along in the hymnal, they worked without a net, having spent their lives memorizing each song, each refrain, each rest – perfectly timed.

Even my holding their hands and talking with them had little effect, but have one of my children’s voices warble up and a second coming was in the offing.  Like the voice of the Lord at the rapture, these incoherent and apparently spent individuals would sprout new growth, come to life.  They’d chat with my sons, laugh with joy, clap their hands.   To see the sparkle in their eyes was more refreshing to my soul than the sparkle of sunshine on water.  They spent a lifetime absorbing things were meaningful, letting them seep deep into their soul like water in a barrel cactus – waiting for the coming dry season. 

Perhaps that’s what my grandfather was dong on that Sunday afternoon – he was investing in his future, storing away that precious water for a day when it would be the only hope of survival.  For me, the flashback of that day, prompted by a service that’s dwindling in popularity with music that’s disappearing at an equal pace – was a reminder of the dry times to come.  For me, I have the peace of knowing those old hymns.  I worry for my children, their music – the message filled with feel-good chants of “la, la, la, fill me, fill me, fill me, now here, now here, Lord” while contemporary and necessary, are simply insufficient.

Our world is rapidly dismissing the sufficient for the necessary, choosing convenience over cultivated, a warm body in place of a discerning choice.  Perhaps my grandfather had it right – sit back, close your eyes, listen to some music – a much wiser investment.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Hanging on for Dear Life


Four good days with Bethany has a special way of clearing the fog of depression.  Having her smile and laugh and rip her diapers out of joy rather than frustration is, well, a liberating feeling.  You feel your heart get lighter, your responses, less caustic and your outlook far more appealing to those around you. 

She loved the fast ride on the jetski – that in fact, seemed to make all the difference in her attitude and broke the cycle of sadness that gave me the four days, so you pack that little secret weapon away in your emotional duffle bag for the next time she has a meltdown.  “”Wanna go for a ride on the jetski”? I ask in my imagination, waiting for the characteristic aahhyyah! Accompanied by the frantic up-and-down headshake.  In your heart you know it’ll be the thing that changes her anger to joy, just like her joy turned your sorrow to celebration, and your shadows to sunshine.

That’s why it hurts so much when other sorrow, sorrow from the day-to-day life around you, creeps back into your worldview like cold water around your warm, dry socks.  A local deranged man goes on a killing spree, taking the lives of seven plus one.  A friend dies of a heart attack, leaving a young family.  The news gives me highlights from the baseball game, not of the score but of a father, joyously reaching for a foul ball and then falling to his death while his 4 year old son watches. 

I desperately try to reconcile this in my mind, calming myself in the hope that those aren’t my issues, they’re not my problems – in fact, my problem is on a short hiatus.  My dear friend’s prayers were answered and the abuse has diminished.  I didn’t pray for complete healing with Bethany, I know better than to allow myself that much rope..in fact that kind offending jerk-on-the-line is what usually kills a falling mountain climber, not the rocks below.  I prayed for a brief reprise and was graciously granted four days of relative peace.  To emotionally open myself up to compete healing is simply too much to bear, like the pain of life around me.

I soothe my heart with the memory of that mop of black hair on a head that’s hopelessly stuffed down into a life vest, far too big and cinched far too tight.  That hair - totally obscuring my view as she sits ahead of me on the machine, screaming with joy at every wave we ram.  Those little hands of hers, carefully holding my hands on the handlebars as if she were commanding my reach.  Her refusal to abandon ship at the end of our turn..I count it as pure joy. 

Perhaps I can learn to deal with tragedy by simply dealing with things on smaller scales like Bethany does.  To place my hands on the hands of my Lord as we fly along on the jetski, as if I were commanding his reach.  I need to learn to refuse to abandon ship, even at the end of my turn, just as Bethany did.  And should I be forced ashore, like her, I need to try crawling in the next nearest boat anticipating and expecting an equally thrilling and joyous ride.