Greetings from Castro Valley in California– oops — from Portland, in Oregon. I came ‘up here on the 22nd — oops- on Boxing Day. Oops — on the 28th. Note to self – never trust Southwest Airlines’s schedules.
My own health seems not to have changed much — good news, nothing much to say.
On the other hand, my hundred-year-old mother’s condition has changed a lot, in some ways that surprised me.
While exiting a car last week, she blacked out. She fell and bounced her head on a lawn. She cracked her femur and split open some blood vessels in her brain. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital where she treated the nursing staff the way she so often has in the past – like dirt, yelling at them to leave her alone and let her go home and being as uncooperative as possible. My sister, who had expected this, was there to mellow her down, but to limited effect. So this chaos went on for a couple days in the ICU and then a further couple of days in the regular hospital. And then . . . .
Mom reached a conscious decision that she was going to change her attitude. She even told me about her intention over the phone. And then . . .
She simply got it done. The change was remarkable. and for the last several days she became the favorite patient of all the nurses on that floor. Partial credit goes to my Sunday School class who had been praying like crazy for peace in the situation. But what a surprise!
My mother is probably the strongest person I know, and certainly the strongest willed. And she’s accomplished something similar on other occasions. A few decades ago, her second husband, Clay, lay dying in a hospital from lung cancer, caused by a lifetime of chain smoking. Mom brought me to the hospital, essentially to say good bye to him. Clay had once been bigger and stronger than I was, but now he had shriveled down to the size of a fifth grader, wracked with pain.
As we strolled down the hall to his room, I kept reminding myself to thank him for taking Mom to visit relatives in Sweden, which had been her lifelong dream. And then Mom broke into inconsolable, sobbing sheets of tears and grief. But this was not the face that she wanted to show Clay. She wanted a face that celebrated their affections for each other, that helped them experience that happiness one more time. We stood before the door to his room. Mom broke out a tissue and by the time we had passed the threshold, all traces of sadness had vanished. “Hello, honey,” she threw out a smile, a real smile, not a forced one.
Traveling to Portland
So now it was Mom who was in the hospital bed. I had been scheduled to fly Southwest Airlines to Portland on December 22nd, but should I come earlier? Abbe and I talked it over, and given the crowded planes making it hard to find seats, it seemed best that I just keep to the schedule, There wouldn’t be many days difference, and there wouldn’t be much for me to do, anyway, but there would be lots more later. And, as it turns out, there was really lots more to do with Southwest Airlenes. Meanwhile I kept in touch by phone many times each day.
So for December 22nd, Castro Valley’s weather forecast had afternoon temperatures in the fifties (like 13 Celsius.). Portland’s overnight temperatures (including wind chill) would be like 3 degrees (like minus 16 Celsius) There would also be high winds, snow, and an ice storm causing widespread power outages. Did I really want to fly into that? Did I ever mention how much I love the California climate?
But I already felt delinquent, for having stuck to the schedule. I would not delay any longer, weather be damned. But God had different plans. Southwest Airlines cancelled the December 22nd flight at the last minute anyway. And then the first date with an open seat was Boxing Day, December 26th, a date forecast to have much milder weather, so I took the reservation for the December 26th.
Meanwhile, Mom left the hospital around noon on the 23rd, after having obtained pre-approval for transportation from the weather.
So did I finally fly out on boxing day? Nope. The flight was canceled again, along with several thousand other flights, almost all of them on Southwest Airlines.
With the help of Jim Cauble and John Challenor, and taking three tries at the Alaska Airlines web site, I got a rather expensive ticket for a nighttime flight on December 28. And this time, the Alaska flight was not canceled. Greetings from Portland! And I think I may see more of Alaska Airlines in the future, and less of Southwest.
An adventure to embrace this time
Meanwhile I’m continuing to lift the cover from my heart and allow others to see who I really am and who I have been all along. And not only others, but myself as well.
So, for example, last time, I mentioned my suffering a broken heart last fall. Actually there were two, and the second was so severe that Mark and Eileen had to come over and scrape me off the floor, and then plop me into a seat at a local diner until I could think straight.
I have never felt free to talk about such tragedies, not with anybody, but this time I did discuss it with Mark and Eileen. Our conversation excised my injured “mental tissues.” And in the subsequent days, an increased stability and capacity for joy and laughter took their place. I hadn’t known that I could do that. Really, how had I done that? And how should I use that previously-buried capability in the future? And despite the eventual salutary results, I’m not really enthusiastic about the prospect of incurring another broken heart just so I can achieve greater mental stability. But I’m not afraid of it, either.
And no, I’m not trying to turn bipolar, nor am I trying to cry or laugh more, nor am I training to be a standup comedian. These are merely the entertaining side-effects of accepting tragedy and pain, and thus gaining a deeper understanding of self and life.
I’m re-balancing my life. Sometimes it kinda feels like being covered with thousands of boxes, and my job is to stack them neatly, when it’s hard enough to just get out from under them. Sisyphus, anyone? But I will get there.
I was especially heartened by a response to my last update penned by my brother/friend Lonnie, who wrote this:
I like the path you have been on recently…..about opening up and being vulnerable with things that may seem scary to share. I really liked your story of your encounter with the German-Italian girl on the train…..and the thoughts of opportunities lost. I think this is a great path you are on, and is good for all the people you have been in relationship with to be able to see what you have behind the curtain. Scary (being open) but freeing (in the love/acceptance received back). You are a loved and dear friend. I love hearing / seeing the true you.
Yes, that’s it.
And the Point is Christmas
Recently one of my best friends asked me to write about religion, which is probably the largest single topic of mine that I keep hidden even today, even from the people I attend church with. So to write about it would be quite extensive. But because I care for her a lot and she asked, I will write it all out. But I may end up sending the resulting volume directly to her.
But I can start here, at least. I also already wrote, a few months ago, about my reading of 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter which, to me pretty much completely defines what Christianity actually is.
As a child, I enjoyed my Protestant church, except the part about dressing up in uncomfortable formal clothes, too early on Sunday mornings. Funny — according to the pictures, God never had to dress in such clothes.
The people in church were kind, and oriented towards serving the local community. But I hated most of the hymns, where we sang about joy while wearing no smiles. We seemed to be “sending mixed messages.” Yeah, I once had a girlfriend like that.
College at UC Davis
So when I attended college, and could schedule my own life, I gave up Sunday mornings, and everything that went with them. Instead I began reading about Buddhism, particularly Zen. These Buddhist systems never seemed to ask you to believe, particularly not in something you hadn’t seen yourself, which was a relief to me. They were more like an extension of psychology than what I usually thought of as a religion.
And Zen fed my long-standing interest in Japanese culture. I was particularly drawn to its challenge to perceive reality directly, including the emptiness between objects, without categories or labels. In fact reality is simply beyond verbal description. I still think that way, but, obviously, this idea is completely at odds with any religion based on a written book. And this has been a fundamental and fruitful conflict in my thinking ever since. Most of my Christian friends do not know this about me. Some of my pagan friends might.
Anyway, for my sophomore year, I earned the lowest grades of my entire life, including elementary school. But what a wonderful year in forming permanent friendships, exploring reality and relationships, living in the “German House” dorm, and playing like kids even though we were technically adults. It was worth a few low grades. In fact just last week, I visited with a friend from that year’s “German House.”
And I began taking fun electives, starting with “Introduction to African American Music” by the choral director and professor Albert J. McNeil. As you may know, “African American Music” includes just about every form of American popular music, such as Big Band Swing, Traditional New Orleans style, jazz, blues, gospel, rock and roll, hip hop, and even bluegrass. Many of these forms had roots in two kinds of houses. One was a house of worship, and the other was not.
The Sacramento House
Well, the latter kind of house was not available to the university, but the former could be found right across the river in Sacramento. It was a mostly African-American Apostolic Church which Professor McNeil required us to visit on a Sunday. He assured us that it featured music that was authentically African-American. Perhaps we could attend and listen for typical musical components. I figured I’d hear something stately like Mahalia Jackson.
So, on a Sunday evening, a few of us class members pooled our cars, drove out to Sacramento and reached the church on time. We said hello to the greeter and attempted to squeeze around her into the back rows. But just our luck to encounter a greeter both gracious and welcoming. She intercepted us and led us to the very front row, where empty seats had been cordoned off for our convenience. As most of us were white and most of the congregation was decidedly not, we stuck out like lights on a Christmas tree. So much for our plan to remain inconspicuous.
But this room, in contrast to my old church in Castro Valley, was alive with energy, even before anybody did anything. The pastor stepped to the podium to begin the worship. In a ringing voice he welcomed the visitors from UC. We smiled, but what else should we do? The choir piped up, their voices swelling as they burst into an infectious rhythm and the entire congregation joined in. We looked in vain for that customary little piece of paper with the words to the songs.
Well, here there were different customs. And every few minutes, something happened (but cued by what? We didn’t know) Members of the congregation stepped forward to express how happy they were to be Christian, and how thankful they were that God had shown them mercy that week. But their speeches weren’t given in that unassuming manner of Protestant testimonials, but in a voice almost shouting for joy. And then, BAM. Everyone jumped to their feet to sing (but singing what?) tambourines appeared out of nowhere and pushed out trills and rhythms. And then BAM again, and it was quiet, and the pastor returned to speaking.
And believe you me, when they sang about joy, they expressed joy, sincere joy, with every vibration of their vocal chords. I had never seen anything like it. So one could simply and loudly express joy in a religious setting? Who knew? It made me want to know more about why these people were so full of life. I realized that there was a lot more to Christianity than what I had known. And it was sincerely distinct. And oh, yeah. the music was African American. Definitely.
Our ride had an appointment, so after the first two hours of worship, we made our way to the door. If we had stayed another hour, we would have observed that the platform supporting the podium slid to one side to reveal a baptismal. And two of our class members got baptized that night (Don’t forget to shout “Praise the Lord!”)
And the next day, Professor McNeil made sure everyone knew that conversion and receiving baptism were not course requirements.
This time it’s a short one where our favorite Elephant herd stands up to a Rhino.