Big

grayscale photo of candle
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As a preschooler, my biggest goal was to be grown-up, a fantasy enjoyed by most youngsters I imagine. Once, when I was four, one of the men my father worked with came by the house one afternoon. When I heard his voice I picked up a couple of my storybooks, walked carefully down the stairs to where S.L. was, flashed him a smile, held up my books so he could see them, and informed him it was time for me to study. Later I asked my mother if she thought he might have mistaken me for “a college girl.” Oh, how I practiced being “big.” I would hang around the adults at church, at the grocery with my mother, at family gatherings, and try to make witty or informative additions to each conversation. I’m pretty sure I was the most annoying child in the room at any point. And how it crushed me to be placed at the “children’s table” at holidays and at church meals or to be sent to the nursery if I was disruptive to Sunday worship.

When I started school my father promised that if I could sit quietly through Sunday services, I would be allowed to attend the annual Candlelight Christmas Cantata. This was huge in my little world because it meant that I would get to enter through evening twilight into that holy, dimly-lit sanctuary the Sunday evening before Christmas, and listen to the choir tell the story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, of sheep, donkey and shepherds, of Bethlehem and Herod and “no room in the inn,” of a star and angels in the sky bringing news of “peace on Earth and good will to men.” To my way of thinking, the choir in their flowing white robes were the Heavenly host, and were merely reenacting that first Christmas night so long ago, through their anthems and carols. At the conclusion of the story, each participant, including me, would receive a slender white candle with a paper collar around it.  We would light those candles, passing the flame one to another, and lift them toward the Heavens as we sang “Silent Night, Holy Night,” and “Joy to the World.” To that five-year old, it was the most wonderful night of the year.

The words proud and privileged only begin to touch on the feelings that welled up inside me as I tilted my wick to light it off the candle my father extended toward me. I had been allowed to enter the mystical adult world of darkness and flame, of trust and responsibility, of sacred song.

And then the first drip of melting wax hit my hand. The shock and pain that followed made me think instantly that perhaps I didn’t want to be part of the “grown-up” community I had only just entered. Tears welled in my eyes as my skin reddened and blistered where I peeled off the wax. What should have been my triumphant entry into maturity only made me feel more childish. Why did I suddenly need my mother’s comforting touch? Why was my joy extinguished and my peace snuffed out with the light of my candle?

Life is so often like that. We think we have arrived, but all our great expectations come with unpleasant surprises of their own, and our anticipation turns to dread.  We are afraid to pursue joy again because of the disappointment of last time’s pursuit. We are hesitant to hope, and we coast along complacently in order to avoid another heartbreak. We neglect tending our own light because there is always a cold, cruel winter wind threatening to extinguish the first tenuous sparks. We grow weary of this adult independence that promised so much and looked so appealing when we were children and only wished to be “big.”

So what then? Rest and reflection are good places to start. When we’ve shed all the tears we need to in order to cleanse our eyes, we are again ready to look for the light. When we’ve grown weary of embracing the sadness, we once again reach out to hope. When disappointment becomes a disappointment, rekindling joy is our new aim. And so the cycle of life continues, and again we look to the future, to a time when our newest wisdom and most recent experiences will guide us into the next stage of growth, of life. Where I live winter is ending and we are seeing the first hints of spring. But extreme cold is predicted in the coming week. So at least one more week we will hunker down and wait, anticipating blue skies, warm sunshine, transparent new leaves and budding flowers. Our world is ever-changing from one stage to the next. Always has been, always will be. Anticipate the coming spring with me, in hope, in joy, at peace, lifting our eyes to the light of life. Here it comes! Can you see it?

It’s gonna be big!

 

 

 

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And the song of the day is…

In 1989, I signed a contract to begin teaching in the county of my birth. A complete physical was required. I made the appointment, showed up, and was immediately chilled  to hear the LPN say she had detected a lump during my breast exam. I had recently graduated, separated from my husband, moved back home to accept this teaching position, and felt very alone and frightened. My friends were far away and I hadn’t really re-established myself in my former hometown. A mammogram was scheduled. I was 24.

A week passed until the test. Almost another agonizing week of waiting for the results, and then great sighs of relief. The lump was a cyst that would soon resolve itself. I learned I had very dense breast tissue and fibrous cysts that might arise occasionally to cause concern, and which I would need to monitor with regular self-exams. I had no family history and did not smoke, so I was happy to put all that worry down and move on. I didn’t do the self-exams, and figured since I went for annual exams, they would find anything that might need attention.

It makes it easier to understand then, why I was not alarmed to feel the little lump, about the diameter of a pencil eraser, right after my clear mammogram in August of 2012. By October though, it seemed a little bigger, more like a small pea. When I asked my OB-GYN to check it out for me in October, she ordered another mammogram, “just to be sure.” Again, I got the all-clear. In November it seemed more the size of a plain M&M, and again I called my doctor. She ordered an ultra-sound, which lasted for nearly forty-five minutes before I got up from the table, nerves frayed, and again she patted me on the shoulder, comforting me. “Let’s watchfully wait,” she suggested, “And if it gets any larger call me, since the technician really can’t see anything worrisome.” December came and went, winter finally ended, my 48th birthday passed, and the school year ended, stressfully as usual. When I went for my annual exam mid-July, she began the breast exam at the spot we were monitoring, and I saw her face change instantly. “Why didn’t you call me?” she exclaimed. And thus began the most frightening day of my life, July 31, 2013.

Because all three of my daughters were still in school, I was immediately concerned for them and how my illness would affect their lives. I was also especially concerned for my husband who was dealing with health issues of his own and his oldest brother’s recent unexpected death. My mother-in-law’s words came to mind, “We can either laugh or we can cry.” On August 1, I determined that each day I would look for something beautiful, good, cheering, positive, some silver lining that might ordinarily be overlooked in each day’s busyness. While washing breakfast dishes, I heard The Rascals on the radio, “It’s a beautiful morning. I think I’ll go outside for awhile, and just smile, and drink in some clean, fresh air…”.  It became a daily game. What song might characterize my observation or experience for the day, that I could share with my family and friends to encourage them to hope with me? It would be something to look forward to each day, and because my chemotherapy drugs made me nauseated 24 hours a day, for almost two weeks after each treatment, I looked forward to this mental game I could play to keep my mind occupied when the workday was finished, all the laundry done, supper dishes washed and night falling.

One day might be characterized by a hymn, another day, Aerosmith. One day’s inspiration might be Broadway, while another brought forth a medieval madrigal. There was never any predicting where the song might come from, or what time of day it would appear. And with each song came a reflection that I could share with friends on Facebook. The game lasted as long as my chemotherapy lasted, into the middle of December, and then with my father-in-law’s death, the songs stopped coming and the game ended.

While it was a dark time for our family, the light of hope burned, sometimes more steadily, sometimes barely flickering. Through mastectomy and thirty-three rounds of radiation, through baldness and pain and scars and sadness, still the previous joy of the game sustained me and bolstered me, until the burns healed over, the scars stopped aching, and a fine fuzz covered my head. It seemed with the longer light of the new spring, I too might emerge, like the delicate, pale leaves unfolding from the birch branches outside my window.

I don’t know what scars or pain you bear. I don’t know their origin, their purpose, or their destination. I only know we can laugh or cry, and both feel good in their time and both are needed.

Whatever it takes to get you from one day to the next, sometimes one hour to the next, and sometimes even one moment to the next, hang on to this miracle of life. For all its rivers of misery, there are great gushing waterfalls of inexpressible joy tumbling down over our heads, if we will only look up to drink them in. Joy may be in fireworks and raucous parties, but it doesn’t have to be. In my experience, joy is more often found in quiet moments and in still, small voices. Joy may be found in a delicious meal, in a familiar hug or a stranger’s smile. It may be experienced in pulling on a soft sweater, or snuggling into a comfortable pair of shoes. You may locate it in a banking cloud, or hear it in a bird’s chirp. Perhaps you’ll find it gazing into a candle’s flame, or taking a walk just after a summer rain.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear a song that lightens your heart, even for a moment, to give you peace enough to get to the next moment, and the next…

waterfalls

The More Things Change…

planet earth
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In October, 1967, Louis Armstrong recorded his Grammy award-winning song, “What a Wonderful World.” The song has enjoyed regular air-time since then, and it piqued another generation’s interest when it was included in the movie, Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987.  I have heard it played at weddings and funerals. Oddly, as the song floats out over the air waves in the movie, we view huge explosions and terrified, fleeing people as gunfire and helicopters threaten to drown out the singer’s voice.

The imagery of the lyrics paints a picture of an idyllic society of mutual love and respect, of appreciation and care for the natural world. Fifty-two years after the release of “What a Wonderful World,” it is hard to believe, looking at the news or following social media, that anyone could ever even conceive of the world pictured in that sweet song. War, terrorism, corruption, torture, exploitation, human trafficking, poverty, slavery, ignorance, hatred, disease, division, lack of care, respect, understanding or even desire to seek justice and insist on freedom for all people – that is the reality of the world that surrounds us and threatens to engulf us. It is easy to become discouraged, to lose hope, to feel unease rather than peace and to see more darkness than light.

1987 was also my junior year of college, and to this day I am grateful to a Sociology professor who assigned a research project in the university library micro-fiche records. Since there was no internet yet, I spent hours poring over pictures of newspapers from the last two centuries. It was astounding! War, terrorism, corruption, torture, exploitation, murder, robbery, poverty, slavery, epidemics, ignorance, division, lack of care, respect, understanding, justice – change the dates and the newspapers told the same stories. That assignment encouraged us that there never were any “good old days,” no special golden time that had come and gone before we got here. Mankind seems to suffer the same ills throughout history. No matter which century we are in though, despite the problems, people are still marrying, still creating businesses, still starting families, still studying and learning and striving for a better life, still composing music, writing great literature, cooking delicious meals, looking up to the stars, planting gardens and vineyards, creating art, building homes, going fishing, laughing with friends, inventing, reflecting, singing, and living, every hour of every day.

Our technology may look a little different, but people are still just people, and the cliche still rings true. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Be encouraged friends. We have not passed some great golden age, with our best days behind us. Do you wish for joy? Bring a smile to someone else’s face. Is your hope draining away? Count how many mornings you have awakened, how many steps you have taken, how many breaths you have drawn, and give thanks in anticipation of yet another, and another. Do you long for peace? Give up a grudge, extend or receive forgiveness, make a stranger your friend. Does the light elude you? Perhaps you are looking in the wrong direction, eclipsing the brightness before you. Turn your eyes to the blessings of the present, with gratitude for the past, and expectation for the next shining moment.

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An Unlikely Source of Hope

man and woman holding each others hand wrapped with string lights
Photo by Anastasiya Lobanovskaya on Pexels.com

I have no idea how it came to be there.

Edward and I were taking our evening walk. We had enjoyed supper with our girls a couple of hours before and now the sun had set and muggy summer temperatures had dropped. We put on our shorts and running shoes, grabbed a flashlight, and headed out the door up Pleasant View Lane. We had followed the same two-and-a-half mile route around Lake Echo for the last two months, pursuing increased energy, improved circulation, better health all around, and time to hold hands and talk together, away from household chores. Across Firetree, up Edgewater past the fitness center, composition courts and the long flat stretch that curved downward just a few feet away from the lake, where we heard bullfrogs courting, croaking and plopping into the shallow water if we got too close. Then the road sloped up again past the stables and golf-ball water tower. Many nights we could hear the horses whickering softly as they munched tufts of grass next to the road. Earlier that day we received my doctor’s diagnosis – breast cancer. She had emphasized how important it would be for me to continue to exercise throughout my treatments and recovery, so we were proactively trying to stay ahead of the curve that would contain nausea, pain, scars, fear, loss and possibly death.

Turning left on Sunset Way we continued past our halfway point to a slight rise where the oak and ash trees leaned to meet overhead, and there, in the dark humidity, something glowed in the pine straw on the left side of the road. We walked toward it, assuming it was a piece of trash reflecting light, but as we drew closer it became apparent this was no reflection. Something was illuminating a nickel-sized area. Edward knelt down, and with a small branch, lightly lifted the luminescent semi-circle.

“It’s a glow-worm!” he exclaimed. Now I had read about glow-worms in James and the Giant Peach, but had never seen one. Edward declared he had never seen one either. This was a new experience for us within our whole range of new experiences – the threat of cancer, becoming intimately involved with the health-care system, facing chemotherapy, mastectomy, and radiation, and a life-time of waiting and wondering – and somehow this faint little creature attracted our attention in that one moment to remind us that hope was possible. With everything we were facing, hope would continue to shine in the darkness of our fear, pain, sickness and worry. A worm, a beetle larvae, had given us a great gift, beckoning us to continue the journey hand-in-hand, eyes alert, and looking forward to the future.