Slaying the dragon

I think of death more than most people.  It’s only natural when you come face-to-face with it so often. My cardiologist can’t explain why my heart rate plummets dangerously low.  My oncologist tells me I’m in the clear now, ten years since melanoma cropped up like a nuclear bomb in my eyeball.  It’s been six years since I was in the hospital with a raging abdominal infection and two years since my heart flat-lined on the table.  I’m good, considering.  But the collateral damage that results is that I’m always pondering the blackness, leaving little notes for my children, and love letters to my husband.  I can’t ever leave enough, like I need to stockpile memories and words and tiny little charms.

Imagining my own death is hardly painful – I trust in God and believe there is a better place looming.  But I am utterly paralyzed when imagining it all happening in a different order, that the offspring might pass before the maker.  The thought of burying my own is too heavy a cross to bear, and I cannot place myself in the position of the one viewing the wreckage.

For whatever reason lately I keep stumbling across stories involving this particular tragedy. It’s not like I sought out to read them.  I was looking for a new website designer and found Anna See’s blog, An Inch of Gray, and was immersed in her story of her lost son, and grief, and hope.  A high school friend of mine died before she reached her 40th birthday and her mother still posts little thoughts on her facebook page.  I am spending the weekend with your boys. I miss your smile. And my dear writer friend Melanie Haney wrote a wonderful post on life and loss this week in her blog, A Frozen Moon.

I wonder if it’s good to think such horrid thoughts.  Maybe one just shouldn’t go around borrowing trouble.   And yet it seems as if this topic is pushed in front of me, against my best efforts and my own will.  The other night I was so consumed with sadness that I fell on my knees and begged God to never let this come to pass.  I am not as strong as Job: I would be unable to simply pick up the pieces.  I am not Abraham, who walked his own son to the alter.   I’m not Jesus who can say forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.  I am afraid I could never forgive.  I am so utterly weak.  I can do great things, but not this.  Please dear Lord not this.

So I tried thinking of happy things.  I loaded the dishwasher, read my daughter a book, cleared my head.  But last night I had fitful dreams.  I tossed and turned and kept saying no to some imaginary dragon.  I was fighting all night long and I can’t exactly remember why.  I woke up exhausted and overwhelmed.  Maybe I was fighting the devil himself.

Today, when I picked my son up from preschool, I swept him up in my arms and held him like he had been restored from death.  I stood right there in the little room, crowded in blocks and caterpillars and mothers busy picking up their children, and sobbed.  I peppered his cheeks with kisses and squeezed his body tight.  I walked out fast so the teachers wouldn’t notice, but I’m sure it was futile.  As I put him in the car, he looked at me and said simply, “I sorry, mama.”  Because his beautiful two-year-old heart is filled with compassion, and he didn’t understand my tears.  It’s okay, son.  I just love you so.

I wonder if Satan and God have been having a discussion about me, like they did with Job.  She’ll crumble like a house of cards.  She won’t stay faithful.  Without those two children, she’ll falter.  Let me test her, I beg you. I wonder if God would have faith in me, as he did in Job.

Because honestly, I just don’t know how God could see his only son suffer.  I would die in his place.  I would run and scream and not be able to bear the weight of it.  I would pull out my hair and rip my clothes and crumble to nothing. And yet I am weak, and can’t see the rising.  For in Christ there is always rising.  Through the blackness and cries of disbelief and anger and sorrow, there is light burning.  God knew of this.  It’s okay, son.  I just love you so.

Despite my own weaknesses, the rooster crowing thrice at dawn, and my utter ridiculous failures, I will rest in that hope.   I pray that certain things never come to pass, but I cannot guarantee such a future. My husband is the beam to which I’m tethered.  My children are the brightness and lightness of my very being.  But God is my strength, and without him it all crumbles like a deck of cards.

Tonight in my dreams, I’ll slay that dragon.  I’ll plant kisses and seeds of joy and fight fire with fire.  I will love my family through the tantrums and the screaming.  I’ll keep loving when we don’t speak and when life is all stressed out and messy.  I will show the devil that he cannot take away this love, no matter hard he tries.  So if it’s ever ripped from me too soon, I can say with my whole heart that I did enough.  I loved enough.

God is enough.

sparkling pink unicorns

I sometimes wonder what religion must sound like to non-believers.  This whole “I live for Jesus” business a big fat excuse so that bonnet-clad women won’t feel so bad about their lot in life, selling rosemary soap and black currant jelly, sitting on rickety wooden seats next to their overbearing husbands.  To those who haven’t been raised in church, or even worse, have been burned by the allegedly faithful, religion a hard pill to swallow. I get it.  It rings false.  It’s just something to make us all feel good in the dark, cold nights. “They are church folk,” we want people to say, like it makes us honest or All-American. It’s what we cling to when we have cancer or when children die in car accidents.  It makes the unfair fair again. It washes the ugly clean.

To many, it’s not real.  Talking of Jesus is as crazy as circus clowns or unicorns.  Which made me think of the following imaginary conversation one might have at a dinner with a girlfriend, right after the talk of Oprah’s future and the importance of shellac pedicures.

“What the heck is that?” The check came and you had pulled out your wallet, which was naturally covered in pink, sparkling unicorns.  “Don’t tell me you’re into that sort of thing,” your friend said.  Her mouth was hanging open like a carp. “Is that a rainbow antler? Good gosh.”

“Back off,” you said.  “It’s complicated.” You stuff the wallet back into your purse, embarrassed.  “I went to a retreat.  I was touched by magical power. Whatever.”

“I can’t believe you fell for that crap,” she said.  Perhaps your friend thinks she’s being helpful. Enlightening you on your errant ways.

“It’s just the way I want to live my life. Geez.  It’s not the end of the world.  Unicorns believe in peace and love and the power of healing.  What’s so wrong with that?”

“Because you are a smart, strong woman,” your friend said, “and although you can believe in whatever you want, I think you’ve gone a little bonkers.”  She waved at the waitress for a to-go box and muttered something about anti-unicorn therapy.   Acupuncture, perhaps.  You reached for your pocket and felt the unicorn sayings, tucked safely inside, out of reach.

“There’s no evidence they ever existed on this planet,” your friend finally says, as if reason might prevail.

“I just have a feeling.  Don’t knock it. We all have our thing.”

I was wondering, as I was shampooing my hair and imagining this conversation, if that’s how it sounds.  Like Jesus and unicorns are in the same category, full of magic and miracles, made up to make life more beautiful.

It might be easy to convince half-starving folks in third-world countries that Jesus Christ was real. The weak and helpless have nothing else to cling to.  They need to know that this world isn’t all there is.   But well-educated Americans who have mortgages and favorite bands and trust funds?  Well, not so much.   I guess they think Christians can’t stomach the thought that dying just means dying, our flesh rotting in the ground for all eternity.  We just can’t handle this life being all there is because we’ve messed it all up so royally, so we made up a place like heaven and God and the angels and prophets to give ourselves something to live for.  To give us hope.  The Bible makes us feel good, like sparkling rainbow unicorns, full of love and happiness and forgiveness and the like.

To these people I just don’t know what to say.  Being a witness and sharing my faith is a weakness of mine, and I admit it.  Before I started blogging, putting my thoughts on paper for the world to see, many folks didn’t even know I was a Christian at all.  I felt it had no place in the world of law, or when I was giving speeches, or in any of my professional circles.  I knew a doctor for five years before she said once to a colleague “This is Amanda.  She’s great.  Very religious, but you’d never know it.”  Like that was a badge of honor.  Like I kept my crazy wallet hidden away so no one would ever see.

In the small, Texas town I grew up, it was so normal to go to church, or say you believe in God, or have a wrist band bearing “what would Jesus do?”  But as I grew up and moved away, I’ve seen the cynicism grow.  I have seen grudges against the faithful turn slowly into valleys of hate, like one side is right and just and intellectual and the other is mind-blowingly stupid and sheep-like in their blind acceptance of the unseen.

I’m not perfect.  I love my children and my husband with a fierce, protective love, and I can’t imagine walking away from them for anything, even if I heard voices telling me to in the name of God.  If I were put in the position of Abraham or Job I’d probably commit myself to a mental institution.  And for heaven’s sake don’t make me sell my home and live in a trailer or give my Whole Foods slush fund away to the poor. Sometimes I just beat my hands against my forehead at so many missed opportunities. For thinking my faith is just something to be shared on Sundays and locked up the rest of the week.  I can be just as disingenuous as the next guy.  I think at times I might even give religion a bad name.  I hate that.

But despite all this, I still believe.  I believe that God has directed my life since the moment I was born.  With every sinewy muscle in my body I throw myself into prayer, my heart exposed and raw, my failures unmasked.  I don’t do this because I feel I need a crutch, or because I need something to cling to, or because the thought of rotting in the dirt seems incredulous.  I do this because I have felt the power of God ripple through my soul.  I heard the words of a nurse in the hospital, after four long weeks of post-partum infection, when I felt so lost and broken, that “you are God’s child.  He will never leave you.”  She came at night.  My husband was asleep and never saw her. It was as if I knew, at that moment, that my life was not my own.

I have no magic words that I use to convince people I’m right.  That Jesus lived on this very earth that we walk upon.  That the era of Jesus wasn’t some made-up time period, squeezed into history books with quotation marks.

I just believe.  I don’t know how to make it sound any more legitimate than that.  I suppose you can reason that one single man in the history of the world has never made more of an impact.  That people of great intellect and credibility and heart that profess to believe in Jesus can’t all be stupid.  But in the end it’s not about these things. It’s not about what others think or feel, or how much you’ve done to earn your wings.   It’s not at all about your ability to evangelize. In the end it’s just you and God.

I suppose it’s not possible to change everyone’s minds.  To some, I’ll forever be talking nonsense.  They shake their head and chuckle under their breath.  I hope these dear friends are not forever lost.  That God cracks the armor of their hardened hearts.  I pray that the love and grace and mercy of God pierces their anger, and all that disbelief comes flowing right out.

Life is not a fairy tale.  It’s gruesome and unfair and messy.  God is not some magical beast that dances around with sparkles, and Jesus is not some knight in shining armor.  I certainly don’t profess to be a Christian so I can win points with neighbors or look good to the book club girls.

God is simply God.  Jesus is simply life.  And that’s about as magical as it gets.

A decade of milestones

Yesterday was my ten-year cancer anniversary.  Those who have been in my shoes understand that it’s a day of reflection.  A day where you review all the milestones that have occurred in the last decade and wonder what will happen next.

A few to mention:

(1) I was on national television.

(2) I got to live in New York for a while.  I survived the subway and tag sales and bad Mexican food.

(3) I have been to many cancer screens, visits, and appointments, but my cancer has not metastasized.  Survival is just as good as the next test.  So far I’m hanging in there.

(4) I had many interactions with Martha Stewart.

(5) Got to eat at a fancy NYC restaurant with Donald Trump

(6) I wrote a children’s book on contract for a company in California

(7) We had a baby girl, who is so precious

(8) I had a life-threatening infection after the birth of our little girl.  I was in the hospital for a month.  I survived.

(9) I wrote a novel about the extraordinary friendship between two women.  One woman undergoes a battle with cancer, which was cathartic and memorable to write about.  Part of it’s very funny, and I like funny.   After tears and late nights and edits and hundreds of pages thrown out, I did it.  I survived the novel-writing process.

(10)                I got on facebook and connected with old friends I hadn’t heard from in years

(11)               We had a baby boy. So love that little guy.

(12)               My heart stopped right before the c-section when my son was born, as I was lying on the table. They had to do resuscitation measures.  Miraculously, I survived.

(13)               My husband and I went to Maine, and as we were on a yacht off the coastline, I was so glad he married me so many years ago

(14)               I worked as General Counsel to a large medical group, a job I never thought I’d attain and was so thrilled to have.  Being a lawyer is quite fun.

(15)               I quit said wonderful job as described above to stay home

(16)               We moved into a wonderful limestone house.  We have a garden and land to roam.  Next up is chickens.

(17)               I started a blog

(18)               Our house was struck by lightening.  We survived.

(20)               My novel is not yet published, but I’m still trying

By His mercy and grace, I keep surviving.  Here’s to the next decade.   Let it be as rich and wonderful as this one.  Let me live every day with compassion and curiosity.  After all, I want to do more than survive.  I want to sing.  I want to write.  I want to thrive.


Every Monday, I take off my wedding ring and pull my hair back in order to mix, pound, and watch bread rise through the dark oven door.  I always need to control something, and my two-year-old never listens.  So bread has become my new muse since leaving the corporate world.  Watch out, Julia.  Here I come with this hard crust and soft center business, all up in your junk about how Parisians do it best. So says the woman who used muffin mixes and bought canned biscuits.  I shudder now at the thought of my former self.

The old me wore heels and rushed off to the office, saying things like “well that’s a bifurcated approach” and “I hope we don’t bust our E&O deductible.”  I never used yeast packets except for holidays, and couldn’t understood why things never looked like magazine photos.  I was harried, and short-tempered, and wondered why my husband didn’t pitch in more with the kids.  I was juggling a career and a novel and small children and, well, I didn’t have time to wait hours for things to rise, for goodness sakes. I scratch my head at that woman now.  I pity her a bit, running around and around the wheel at a dizzying pace.

My life is simpler now.  I am settling into a new routine.  I complain less.  I sigh less.  I try to hug my children more.  But most of all, I’m grateful.

I used to think staying home was akin to bondage, where men secured all the power and the women were forced to perform menial tasks.  Who is John Galt? was framed on my desk, as if to remind myself to keep fighting against the machine. Stay-at-home mommies wrung their hands about potty training and play dates and had nothing interesting to talk about.  They wore flip-flops and gym shorts and all went to Starbucks after carpool talking about reality television.  I went to law school.  I defended the Federal Government.  I’m a fighter.  Women before me forged a rugged trail for me to blaze through.  Plus – it was good for my daughter to watch me working, so she could witness first-hand one who could do it all.  I could buy bread at the grocery store.  Right?  Anyone give me a hell yeah?

But one day, I quit running.  I realized that my life was out of balance, and I longed for peace.  So I quit my job, and bake day firmly settled over our house like a bad coat of dust. Maybe it was to fill the house with an aroma of warm wheat.  Maybe it was so my daughter had memories of always having fresh bread.  But when I really dig down deep, I think it was just my way of working things out.  To put my frustrations into tangible form.  I punched and kneaded and watched the first few batches bubble up or not rise at all and wondered how I’d make it in this new life.  But I kept trying.  There was always next Monday, after all.

I’m so very thankful these days.  I piddle around the house.  Sometimes I take a bubble bath after I drop off the kids.  I take long walks and pray for wisdom.  I make up songs with my daughter and let my son pick me flowers on a Tuesday afternoon. I used to laugh at those mothers.  I used to think they were crazy.   I was built for more than this, I thought.  While waiting for a new batch of bread to rise the other day, I took a walk in a wooded area around our house.  I heard the snort of a deer not ten feet away before she went running off at breakneck speed.  I laughed out loud, scared to death of a deer.  As it turns out, this is enough. I’m finally hitting my life’s stride.  I finally feel ready to stretch myself in ways I never did before.

I’ve learned that one has to feel bread dough to know whether it will turn out okay, regardless of what the recipe says.  You have to pat and form and squeeze it beneath your fingers.  You have to knead and pull and give it time to grow. To let the yeast mix with the warm water and sugar.  To rise.

Sometimes you just have to push the pause button and take it all in.  Long measured breaths.  One ingredient at a time.  Then, you’ll start to see how God is working all around you.  How he softly calls you to do something greater, and bigger, and more glorious.

A friend told me to cover my dough bowl with hot tea towels, which was an excellent tip, and I rub risen loaves with water to form a harder crust.  Just for looks, I sprinkle the top with oats.  I love every part of baking bread, from the smell of the yeast granules to the way the molasses runs down the heap of sticky dough like dark rivers, to the moment I pull it out of the oven and my family comes rushing over, asking for butter.

I am so grateful for this moment in time to walk slowly with my hands behind my back.  I am allowing my words and thoughts and the meditations of my heart to slowly expand, growing into myself with each passing day.  I am praying.  I am listening. I am rising.

peace for the wandering soul

I have always been surrounded by wanderers.  I swim amidst thinkers and singers.  Artists and tinkerers of all kinds.  Whether they have spouses or partners, dogs or made-up friends, these are my people. I’ve always been drawn to those who challenged life.  Pushed back the limitations. Created things.  I look at kids nowadays, forced and squeezed into certain stereotypes.  What a shame to be so pigeonholed.  What a waste to not absorb it all.

What’s come of the wonderful patchwork of friends I’ve gathered along the roadside is a realization that I’m a bit of a loner.  That my faith defines me in a different light.  The fact is that I’m surrounded by non-believers, whom I love dearly.  I’d gladly sit for hours through nights and storms with these dear friends, despite our differences, holding their hands and crying into their pad Thai noodles.

I want to tell them what I have learned through so many hard lessons.  That peace is possible.  That God simply loves.  Yet I’m forced to cut down so many negative stereotypes of faith, like hacking through a rainforest, that the message is lost.  I won’t send sappy emotional poetry about how Jesus Saves.  I won’t drag someone to church and make them sing Rock of Ages.  I won’t tell someone in the grocery store I’m praying for them, because I know that won’t make any difference for them to hear.  In fact, it will have the opposite effect.

And yet I pray for them all the same.

I think the problem with religion is there are too many people that think right-wing crazies and Rush-Limbaugh-for-president folks (and the bigots and the bible-thumpers too, if you’re counting) are all lumped together in one ball of dough.  They all bake up into one hot and crazy loon that is not to be trusted.  I don’t feel like a crazy loon.  I don’t take the written word literally and like to question established truths.  I thought Origin of the Species was brilliant and totally understand people scratching their heads at the thought of Noah building a large ark whereby eight people and a billion animals be-bopped into it two-by-two and floated along the entire earth for a few days.  Yet I still think God is real.  I still believe he guides and directs my life.

You don’t have to consider yourself a member of the crazy tribe to have faith.  You can believe in metaphors, or think that our ancestors didn’t look like us, or that there is a plausible life form outside our solar system.  You can believe Jesus was a great teacher. Or, like his father, a great healer, without surrendering your soul to stupidity.  People who are blessed with great big thinking brains – the ones who analyze and process and deconstruct problems like science experiments – have a difficult time with faith.  It is outright inferior to accept something because we are told to.  Because it’s the right thing to do. Because everyone’s doing it.

We are more than this. 

But sometimes, in your lowest hour, faith comes upon you like a whisper.  A small breath of truth that tells you that you cannot survive the winter alone.  That you must be able to let go of your demons and fall effortlessly into the arms of God.  One who can keep you safe in those cold, bitter nights.  One who accepts you right where you are, and forgives all that went before that one moment.

It’s hard to explain to my fellow intellectuals, who say they feel silly praying to a popcorn-covered plaster ceiling.  To sit alone in one’s thoughts and think there is a God above, somewhere in some celestial heaven, watching nations get torn apart or seeing people drown a slow death, lost at sea. 

To these people I just say – have patience.  Don’t give up at least considering that this man people have revered for so many hundreds upon thousands of years wasn’t just some random bloke with a beard and dirty sandals, but that there was meaning to his words. That forgiveness really is possible.  That peace happens.

Because deep down, that’s what’s holding us all back. Fear that we’ll be found out.  That our insecurity will surface like a helium balloon and we’ll be the ones left with our pants down.  But God cares not of this.   We all start out from different places, with different gifts, and with different hearts.  Some that profess to believe, and hate Darwin to wit, might not actually believe in much after all.  All those pot luck casseroles and church committees for nothing. For regardless of where we are in life, or how silly we feel entering this new world, naked and starving, he simply forgives. 

I believe that God is real.  That he loved us enough to deliver a son to this earth to die for our behalf.  This I believe despite having one of those big ‘ol thinking brains.  I like to drink a cold beer and laugh at good, hearty jokes.  I cut other people off in traffic.  I might not take all written words – even some in the bible – literally, but I think God’s okay with the fact that we can question and explore and investigate.   That we can still buy groceries and walk the dog and live in this crazy, silly world of heartbroken people, and still make a difference.

Yes, I’ve heard that still, quiet breath.  When my life was screaming for mercy and chains wrapped around the walls of my heart, closing in faster than I expected.  When I stared death in the face and told it I wasn’t ready. It was in that moment I poured out tears of guilt and shame.  And that, my friend, is what grace is all about.

Pray for peace, my wonderful beatnik friends.  If you can’t manage that, try to keep a sliver of your heart open, so someday, you might find the room to believe.  And then, peace can start to happen.


Our children are spoiled rotten.  Not spoiled in the sense that they have a pony and get to eat graham crackers every morning for breakfast and win arguments by failing around their arms and screaming.  They’re spoiled because they get to live in a home with their own bedroom, packed with soft blankets and stuffed animals and books. They never have to feel hunger pains shooting from their stomachs, drink sugar water for sustenance, or live in bombed-out basements and see their father bleeding to death on pile of rubble.  My daughter skips around in peaceful oblivion, thinking of ballet and scavenger hunts and Miss Piggle Wiggle’s magic cures.  My son is learning his A-B-C’s and likes to eat peanut butter bars. How sheltered they are.

When I read about what’s happening in Syria, how families are torn apart and blown up for crossing the street or hunting for a piece of bread, it makes my heart ache.  It seems so far-off and foreign, like a movie that’s covered in mist and gunfire and the music of symphonies.  Like I can somehow shut the pages of the New York Times and it will all go fading off into the distance, credits slowly rolling.

But there’s nothing beautiful in this tragedy.  Some of those children will likely survive, which seems the worst of it.  I can only hope their mind locks down the memories, although they will surface someday in dreams, etched like a third-degree burn onto their heart.  The welling up of tears will be gone and only a hollowed-out black hole will remain, their soul empty and waiting to die.

The last few weeks, I’ve been inordinately stressed about my daughter’s educational experience, of all the silly things.  I’ve been wringing my hands about how little fun she’s having these days, learning math and handwriting and all those repetitive sound tests.  I call my mother and my good friends and say things like “Shouldn’t Kindergarten be more fun?” and “those classrooms need more color, I tell you what.”

I complain about how the discipline and structure of private school seems to tug at my daughter’s natural buoyancy, and I don’t want anyone to break her creative and independent spirit.  She might not always follow the rules and complain about having to walk too far.  She might gripe about picking up her toys or having to eat her broccoli, but isn’t that just what children do?  Let’s allow them to be young and have fun.  Why should we make life so hard for them?   Wimps, I tell you.  Spoiled rotten wimps.

Jesus, the great teacher, said that “behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone.  Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.  I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace.  In the world, you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:32-33.

My children are spoiled because we spoil them.  We worry about trivial things and place great emphasis on what matters very little.  We allow them to complain and whine and worry about making their lives comfortable and entertaining.  As if their lives aren’t comfortable enough.  Perhaps we should be worrying less about how fun their lives are and about how better to equip them for their own spiritual battles to come.

My thoughts drift back to the Syrians, cramped in basements and locked away from the sun or their grandmothers or a decent day’s food.  I weep for you, sweet children.  I tear my clothes and fall to my knees in angst for your innocence.

This world is a fallen, scornful place.  That is true. Your world is ugly and empty and smoldering.  In a sense we live in that same world, albeit on the opposite side of the globe, and the ugliness not so obvious.  We, too, are busy scattering like cockroaches into our own basements, except we don’t have the luxury of having nothing left to rely on.  We have BFFs and soft down comforters and bottles of wine and cheerful husbands to console us. We don’t see the reality of war.

Jesus taught us of peace.  Of taking comfort in things unseen.  Of complete surrender.  Despite the smoke and blood pouring down city streets, He has overcome this world.  My dear children, I hope you will someday feel this truth.  It makes all the difference.

no regrets

I’ve been thinking of the concept of fairness.   About how we human beings have a certain timeline in our heads about what is right and just.

You are born.  You struggle and climb and claw your way out of, well, something.  You find the perfect mate with good teeth.  You have children, who you set up little college accounts for.   They grow up going to church and wearing plaid jumpers.  They study and play monopoly.  You clasp your hands over your mouth when they make the deans list. Someday, they take you out to brunch and thank you for all your hard work over a chai tea latte and scones.  They get married, all white and blushing and beautiful. Then, you’ll start babysitting chubby little grandchildren while your offspring jet off to their medical practices or CPA offices.  Satisfied, you and the better half drive off into the sunset on an RV retirement adventure.  You slowly grow old and can’t remember to turn off the toaster. Finally, you die.  Everyone grieves and brings casseroles.  It’s cool. You lived a full life.  Death happens.

This, my friends, is fairness.  It’s the natural order of things. Anything less is not open to discussion.  And yet despite this view of life, unfair things happen all the time.  A young mother dies of cancer leaving two small children confused and broken.  Her husband prayed.  Her mother prayed.  But survival was not to be.  She was just fine one day, and then she wasn’t.  What about the plan?  She was only 32 years old.  What about the brunch and the scones and the chubby grandchildren?  What if your spouse died and left only a pile of dirty laundry behind? There is no love letter or made-for-television novel or some grand exit.  He was just there, and then he wasn’t.  Where is God? Why did this happen?  How will the children make it? Your fairness timetable is all screwed up.

So in order to protect ourselves, and not end up heavily medicated, we ignore reality.  We draw a circle around us and stay in close.   Like if we are home on a Saturday afternoon doing laundry, ill fate will not befall us.  Like we can somehow escape death.  After all, we aren’t those people.  We aren’t that family.  The end will come to us at a more appropriate time.  Like when our children are all grown or our minds start to fade.  We’ll bite the dust watching reruns in housedresses and slippers, screaming into the phone while our kids tell us to turn up our hearing aids.

“The race is not to the swift. . .” the Bible says, “nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.”  Ecclesiastes 9:11.  This explains why the Kardashian sisters are walking around in nine-hundred-dollar shoes while children are starving in Africa.  Or why Hugh Hefner is still bouncing around the Playboy mansion with a fake tan.  Because life, my friends, is not at all fair.  It doesn’t follow our rules. “For man does not know his time.  Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.”  Ecclesiastes 9:12.

I hate it when people say “it was his time” or “it was all God’s plan” when someone dies.  Really? A seven-year-old chose to die? God planned for a young mother to come down with cancer, leaving two kids behind?  I hope that’s not the case.  I think we just get caught in snares, and can’t weave our way out.

So you wake up tomorrow.  Victory! It’s true that you still must scrub toilets and go to work and suffer from headaches.  You still get annoyed when your kids scream, and sometimes you pour cereal only to realize you are out of milk.  Those stupid allergies make you crazy and you feel overwhelmed at work.  You go out to eat and get fat and don’t have any energy and are the only one who unloads the dishwasher.

Stop complaining.

Re-evaluate your life to see what really matters.  Be thankful you have children to raise and friends to talk to.  Get your head out of the television and start seeing what’s around you. You have the unique perspective that others don’t.  You actually have some element of control over your decisions and the words you speak and what do you with the hours in your day. This weekend, I started to watch an online movie preview of some stupid movie I knew I wouldn’t like.  I thought to myself – that’s three minutes of time on this earth wasted.

Think of your days as numbered, and your hours having value. You just might start to change some habits.  And then, you’ll really start living with no regrets.

lessons in carols

I love to sing.  I sing in the kitchen and in the car.  I sing as I mop and as I dress.  I dictate instructions to my children in song – sometimes changing the key midstream to see if anyone’s paying attention.  You don’t want me all up-in-your-business singing “you came from my womb, now clean up your room, I’ll fill you with doom if you refuse me,” and don’t think my daughter can’t whip out some do-re-me action on a dime.  That’s hard-core training, people.   I can’t wait until my daughter is in junior high so she can fill up her little journal about how her mother is a total lunatic and is so totally unaware of how annoying she is.  Oh I know, sweetheart.  It’s all part of my master plan of totally family domination.  Breaking down spirits with excessive vibrato.


Given my natural affinity for song, however, I was naturally pumped to sing a solo at Christmas eve service. I wore black and had a wonderful pianist and stood in front of my church congregation, candles-a-ready, and began.  I was a bit worried about my lip gloss.  Priorities, you know.  But it all started out fine.  It was calm and serene, and after a moment, people started to smile and close their eyes.  It was a story told long ago, about a child born of Mary. A song of peace and new birth.   About pure hearts and renewed spirits.  A song of –


Uh oh.


Out of nowhere, I hear a bellowing cry from the back of the church. A man is practically falling over himself to escape from the aisle with a child in his arms.  A child who happens to be my son.  After getting a glimpse of his mother at the front of the church, standing alone with a spotlight on her face, he decides to declare to the people sitting around, and the old-folks home next door, and to the Burger King down the street, that his mother is there. In case they didn’t notice.


“Ma MAAAAAAAAA!” he shrieks with delight.  “Hi Mama!  Hi Mama!” He is fervently waving with both hands in the air.  He must think I can’t hear him, although the room is silent except for my voice and you can literally hear fabric rub together when someone crosses their legs.  He bumps the volume up a bit.  “Mamaaa!  Mama SINGGGGG!”  He is thrilled at my existence, even though I just saw him five minutes ago. I can see my husband apologize to someone as he barrels past knees and blazers and candles on his way out the door.


I try to remain calm.  If Oleta Adams sang this song in front of thousands, I can surely keep it together as my husband takes my screaming son into the foyer. Where, as it turns out, he sees me again on the video screens and starts with a renewed round of heartfelt hellos and fervent waving.


All of a sudden, out of embarrassment or distraction, I lost my place.  I was in the middle of a stanza about finding inner peace when I had a panic attack.  I drew out the note, ran through a mental checklist of oh crap, where’s the coda and I freaking sang that part already and I’m screwed, and my kind accompanist just slowed things down like the whole thing was planned.  I smiled and turned the page, which made no sense since it was the wrong page to begin with.  I’m pretty sure I did some sort of corny hand gesture. Awesome.  My husband will never let me live that one down.


I had exactly four beats to make a decision, so I just picked right back up, singing the exact same thing I did before, making up additional words when necessary. My daughter, now parent free, is standing in her beautiful Christmas dress at the back of the church just waving at me.  She is beaming with pride.  She doesn’t know I’m sweating and hoping no one noticed I repeated the entire second verse and praying for the song to end.  It finally did, and I sat down with a solemn heart.  What a waste, I thought.


But my family was so proud, and my husband laughed so hard, and when it was all said and done I felt that this is what the Christmas story is all about, anyway.  It’s not calm and morose and black and perfect.  Birth isn’t filled with candles and sweet syrupy lyrics and everyone sitting around in navy blazers.


Birth is crying and screaming and pushing and sweating.  It’s seeing a part of God come out in human form in front of you.  Your heart is bursting like a water balloon and you feel surrounded and sustained by pure, unaltered, unabashed joy.  Joy at living.  Joy at this child you created.  Joy at seeing someone you love in front of you, not caring how your reaction looks to the world around you.  Thank God for our son, who reminded me of this. Thank God for Jesus, born screaming out the love of God and not caring who heard it.  And thank God for Mary, who probably thought she was screwing it all up.  But she wasn’t.

And that’s the best lesson of them all.

lucky one

I remember the marble being such a pretty color, peachy with ribbons of coral running through it.  It was everywhere.  Marble tub.  Marble sink.  Marble floor. “That’s a lot of stinkin marble,” I thought to myself as I was lying there, half-naked, face-down on the floor with a nose that might be broken. I was only sixteen.  When it happened– the familiar burning and surging and cramping in my abdomen– I’d carry pillows with me to the toilet.  I figured that if I passed out, they would break the fall.   It never worked, and I never learned.

Once, after waking up on the floor in a public stall, I simply wiped my face off and headed back to Chemistry class.  My friends in college all freaked out in that dramatic, ohmygodshe’stotallygoingtodie way, as supportive as newly formed friends who share a common dormitory can possibly be.  The doctors never figured out why the pain caused me to pass out.  The neurologist ruled out epilepsy, although according to some probe-strapping test, something was definitely a “bit off” with my brainwaves.  That explains a lot.  But one day, I had a beautiful little girl and I never passed out again.

My life doesn’t exactly follow the odds.  I guess you could say I’m lucky.

▪               Ten years ago, an oncologist told me I had a chunk of melanoma living in my eye socket.  Eye cancer is very rare, as it turns out.  One in a million.  Who knew I’d get to travel to Philadelphia and have surgery in one of America’s oldest cities?  As it turns out, I love cheesesteak and Thomas Jefferson.

▪               When I was in the hospital after the birth of my daughter, first a week and extending to three and then four, undergoing multiple surgeries and stabbing myself with blood-thinner injections, I was told it wasn’t exactly normal.  I tried to put on lipstick to make it all better, but with a four-week-old child at home I’d barely begun to hold, Chanel can only do so much.  Don’t get me wrong – it can do a lot. But there are limits.

▪               Most people don’t pass out after having their wisdom teeth extracted and have CPR performed in the oral surgeon’s office lobby because they had some extreme reaction to Demerol. Lucky for me, they had some sort of anti-Demorol agent locked away someplace they stuck in my arm.  I remember getting to drink juice when I woke up. But then again, I’ve woken up from loads of surgeries, so I might be getting them all confused.

▪               Before the birth of my son, right after the spinal tap was placed and the medicine was slowly crawling through my veins toward the arteries of my heart, it stopped. The monitor would just so naturally flatline, because that’s what luck I have.   But like I arose from the marble floor, so too would my heart begin to beat.  After, of course, the chest compressions, the stabbing of epinephrine, and some other medication that apparently gives you dry mouth.

So it wasn’t all that surprising that our house was struck by lightning.  And instead of killing us or burning our house to the ground, it instead wiped out all our plumbing.  “That’s very rare,” the fireman said.   Yeah.  Welcome to my life.  Things happen to me.  Things that don’t happen to normal people.

I can’t help but think God has some grand scheme behind all of this, like there is some grand point to be made.  In response, I’m actively searching for what that is.  What role I need to play in the universe in return for my good fortune.  I’m open, as they say, to change.

I am truly grateful for the moments in which we are tested.  To see what’s most important.  I am grateful for a faith, true and honest, despite all reason to the contrary.  I am grateful for this body, as battered and broken as my insides might be.  I am grateful that I’m not married to some boring widget of a man, but a man bursting at the seams with heart.  I’m grateful for my children, deep in character and beauty.  I’m grateful that we are living in a rental, with Goodwill furniture and mice in the garage, because we are together. And laughing.  Last night, I fell asleep holding my husband’s hand.  And today, my daughter told me she’d give me hugs and kisses even when love got so sweet it turned rotten.   I’m a lucky, lucky girl.

I think I’m going to buy a lottery ticket.  I’d probably lose.  Just my luck.

Devotional for the screw-ups

Let’s just be honest.  I would NOT be perfectly happy living in a double-wide trailer, trying to decipher smudged expiration dates on ground beef packages in a Wal-mart somewhere in Oklahoma. Not in the land of opportunity.  Not in a country filled with air conditioning and sugar soda and live musicals.  I don’t need much.  I can take or leave Neiman’s.  But I’d work two jobs and struggle and save and find a way to move into an apartment with fake granite countertops and at least wear fancy dresses from Target.  This might mean I’m a horrible example to humanity.  Perhaps I treasure material goods over all else.  Well at 6 am, people, the only thing on my mind is a grande pike roast coffee with two raw sugars.  It’s just human nature, for goodness sakes.


Someone asked me recently how I professed to be a follower of Christ’s teachings when I am so ambitious and competitive.  “Those are goals of the world,” this person said, “as opposed to the teachings of Christ, which is to serve others over self.”  I was caught off guard.  I never really thought of the two as mutually exclusive, like to follow Christ you should just chill on the bottom rung of the ladder, eating peanut brittle and snickering, watching those other poor saps climb to the top.  If I had only known, I’d have never graduated college or gone to law school, clawing and scratching my way to wonderful, fulfilling jobs.  I could have gone to work at Wendy’s and saved me all that trouble.


I think there is a fine line between living the life God called you to live – using the talents and strengths you were born with to their fullest potential – and crossing the line toward an unyielding race for power and wealth.  As painful as it can be, I think it’s good for folks to question your faith and call you out in public once in a while.  It makes you actually wonder if you are living out the life God wants you to live.  And maybe, you’re not.


I like to be reminded of what’s most important in a way that’s real and honest.  A devotional for the screw-ups.  I want a mirror to constantly reflect my own life back in my face to make sure I’m using my talents for God’s glory and not my own.  But for goodness sakes people, don’t reflect life directly into your eyes.  You’ll see a long history of acid-washed jeans and huge bangs and pants that were intentionally baggy at the hips and tight at the ankles.  This might cause permanent blindness and defeat the whole point of the exercise.   Aim it at your cheek or something.  


I walked into a Christian bookstore to find such a book. Daily devotions for “real women.” I thought I’d just know it when I saw it, like there would be a woman on the cover with a red wine stain on her shirt and her hair pulled back in a greasy pony tail, attempting to make Chicken-with-40-Cloves-of-Garlic while her kids are in the background drawing on each other with markers. But as I would unfold the stories, day by day, I would unearth a person who was genuinely happy with her life.  Who had found her true calling. I’d be drawn to her and feel we were kindred spirits, reading with interest how she found time to worship when she needed to make peanut butter sandwiches. She would remind me in daily increments that I’ll totally make it, even if I did slip up and say a creative slew of curse words to my boss in a fit of anger about a budget report.  She would gently remind me that such behavior is not becoming to the person God calls me to be, and I’d agree, realizing that such words defame God and are icky and crass like the shoes that I refuse to give up to Goodwill. Do it! she’d say. Put them in a paper sack in your garage and haul them off!


Most of all, she would tell me that it will be okay.  That I didn’t have a choice to be ambitious.  After all, we all must answer to the call God gives us the best way we know how.  And just maybe, she’ll tell me about her own momma, sweet thing, who scrapped and saved in their double wide outside Tulsa to buy everyone Taco Bell.  Just to make sure I’m really getting the point.  Jesus spoke in parables too, but he used classy stuff like wine and wheat stalks instead of double cheese burritos.


So I looked for this book to tell me I was okay, most of the time. But all I saw staring back at me on the shelves were pictures of teacups, fake steam gently rising to the top, all calm and pink and reflective, sitting in pretty little displays. Women with great teeth and well-combed hair reflected in great detail how busy they are vacuuming and praying at soccer games.  They are probably kind and lovely women, I’m absolutely and/or possibly sure of it, but where were the milk stains and reading glasses?  Where were the unmade beds and dirty dishes?  What about the burritos? They didn’t chastise me for not praying every morning and tell me there is no valid excuse (none!) unless I’m in the hospital undergoing surgery for an abdominal infection.  Then, maybe I get a pass.  They just kept being nice and respectful.  They keep flashing that unrelenting, pasty smile. I need honestly, people. I need that gut-wrenching kick in the pants.


So I sighed and kept walking through the store.  Past the school supplies with “I Heart Jesus” scrolled in bubbly letters.  I strolled past the scripture mints and the bible covers and the ceramic plates that proclaimed the goodness of all things biblical.  They had complimentary coffee, but the house blend was empty.  Figures. I pondered for a moment whether my life would be exponentially better if I just owned a tea kettle emblazed with a quote from Psalms.


As it turns out, there isn’t a book geared for overworked moms who are intimidated by all those perfect teeth.  Maybe I’ll write it.  I’ll encourage these women to keep going, despite the fact that they drank one glass of wine too many and let their kids watch cartoons the following morning for three solid hours.  Despite the sippy cup that used to contain milk but somehow got stuck in-between the minivan seats and turned into curds and whey.  Despite missed life lessons and botched biblical opportunities and tangled tongues.  We can remind each other that tomorrow’s a new day.  There are more battles to overcome and morals to teach.  Keep praying!  Keep trying!  Refrain from insulting Oklahoma!


There goes that ambition again, wild and out of control. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to sit through a tornado on the high plains, scared and shaking, wearing a cheap Wal-mart dress and hugging my knees.  I’ll hear God’s voice as clear as an arrow and realize that this world is but a wind that will pass.  That his love is forever.


It’s possible I might hear God where I am, through the limestone rock that encases my house, amidst the hum of the air conditioner, beneath the sound of my surround-sound stereo, over the laughter of my children, and despite the jangling of my Tiffany bracelet.  But I really have to listen. That’s what a devotional should really be about, anyway.  To drown out the nonsense and keep your ear to the ground.


Keep listening.  It’s easy in Oklahoma.  Not so much everywhere else.