Category Archives: Essay

Rebirth of Hope

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I am writing this on Wednesday afternoon after watching Joe Biden’s inauguration. My eyes teared up through his speech, and Amanda Gordon’s poem, and Reverend Sylvester Beaman’s benediction. I feel relieved and hopeful after the nightmare of the last four years and the attack on the Capitol earlier this month. I thank God for this day. I am thankful that Biden is our new president, and I especially welcome his message of healing and unity. As I listened, my heart raised two prayers: Yes, God, make it so! and Show me what I must change in myself to help make the United States the country You want it to be.

To be a united country, and especially a united democracy, does not mean that we all share the same beliefs. How could it? Our beliefs are formed by our faiths, our races and heritages, our upbringings, our educations, our economic statuses, our occupations, and our experiences. We are all different, and each of us brings something unique to the table. So, how do we come together? How can we arrive at consensus?

We need to respectfully listen to one another. Ask people what they mean by what they say. Ask them why they feel as they do. Listen to their stories. Not so that we can change their feelings to match ours, but so that we can understand. And not that we necessarily have to accept their values as our own, but to see what we can learn, to fill in the gaps of our own knowledge.

I believe there are absolute truths, absolute rights and wrongs. But when we hold to our views rigidly and make decisions based on absolutes, our choices may have unanticipated consequences. That’s why we need to consider what people different from ourselves have to say. We need to see the whole picture.

We are going to disagree with each other. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to rebuild our country. If we understand each other, we can find ways to support each other. It’s going to take work and change on the part of every individual (yes, I just said you have to change—but I admit I do, too) to heal the division and inequity in our country, and it won’t be fixed in four years. But we can make progress before we hand the work off to the next generations.

Please, God, bless America. Bless our new president. Guide us as we work toward a more perfect union. Amen.

8 Things I’m Thankful for in 2020

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Thanksgiving

So, is 2020 going down in your history book as the Worst. Year. Ever? Yeah, me too. Greg and I had so many health issues to deal with in 2019 that I thought for sure this year would be an improvement. I was wrong.

Yet even with all the challenges 2020 has brought, there also have been blessings. So I humbly thank God for all the good that I have witnessed:

  1. My husband is alive. Greg has been struggling with vertigo for years. He’s tried a variety of treatments, and they’ve all helped a little, but he still had debilitating balance problems that caused him to repeatedly fall and hit his head. His last hope was surgery for the spinal stenosis that the doctor determined was the cause of his problems. So on March 11, Greg went into the hospital for a discectomy and fusion from C-3 to C-6 (in his neck). We were assured that this was a routine procedure and he would be in the hospital for one night, two max. Unfortunately, Greg did not snap back after surgery. To make a long story short, he lost the ability to walk and to swallow, and he was extremely disoriented. Eight days after surgery he went into the ICU with aspiration pneumonia, influenza B, H1N1, and metabolic encephalopathy. The next day the hospital closed to visitors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It would be ten more weeks before we saw him again. Fifteen days after surgery they inserted a feeding tube into his stomach, and sent him to a skilled nursing facility. He came home at the end of May. He still has many physical challenges, but he is slowly improving.
  2. Greg and his brother have reconnected after very little contact for many years. When I didn’t know if Greg was going to pull through, I realized Peter would be devastated if he didn’t have a chance to talk to Greg. I decided to call and let him know Greg was very ill, so if he did pass away, Peter would at least have a little bit of time to process it. Peter and Greg were eventually able to talk to each other on the phone, and they’ve spoken every week since.
  3. My son is fully recovered from Covid-19. He’s the only member of our family who’s been stricken, and we were concerned because he’s diabetic. He took good care of himself, and we ran errands for him. (He lives nearby.)
  4. Friends reached out to us to offer assistance and make sure we’re okay. If I do have a need, I know multiple people I can call for help. I am so touched by the outpouring of love, not only to me, but throughout the country, as people cared for their neighbors.
  5. We have remained financially solvent through the pandemic so far. We have everything we need. We were able to contribute to the local food bank and also help our son, whose job was eliminated.
  6. Our other son was promoted in his job. It means a little more money for him, and a lot more responsibility, but it’s nice to see him recognized for his dedication and skill.
  7. We have hobbies and the time to pursue them. We are both retired teachers, and I am so relieved we don’t have to deal with the difficulties of working during a pandemic. I pray for all the people who are tasked with juggling extra duties and precautions, and I thank God for the people who are keeping our world running.
  8. Zoom. In March, my Bible study proposed we start meeting again via Zoom. I’d never heard of it, and I was reluctant to learn a new technology. But Zoom and other apps like GoToMeeting have been like a life preserver, allowing me to connect with people I care about (and also to see doctors remotely).

As much as I mourn the loss of life-as-we-knew-it, I am happy that I’m having positive experiences as well. We will get through this rough year if we reach out and help each other.

Thank you, God, for loving us and for your provisions for us. Help us to join in and help our neighbors negotiate this difficult time. Amen.

Now it’s your turn. What are you thankful for this year? Please share in the comments below.

Serendipity

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We’ve all had the experience of carefully planning our day only to have everything go haywire. No matter how hard you try, obstacles arise that prevent you from doing what you need to. Mistakes get made. Flights are missed. Deadlines are unmet. Your to-do list grows instead of getting checked off. It’s frustrating.

Then you’re faced with redoing your task or at least correcting the errors. So much more time-consuming than anticipated. You might have to change your schedule, work late, get someone else to pick up your kids from school, buy take-out for dinner. Bummer.

But sometimes you do something by accident, and it turns out better than you’d expect. Maybe you get lost, and the person you ask for directions ends up becoming your new best friend—or your spouse. Or you misspell a word, and the typo makes you think of an amazing twist for the story you’re writing. Or you load your brush with too much water, and the way your colors run together changes the way you continue your watercolor painting.

Maybe these random events are not as unplanned as they seem. Maybe they are orchestrated by your own subconscious, or by God, or by your muse. Sometimes it’s beneficial to just go with the flow and see where it leads you rather than forcing things to go your way or starting over from scratch.

There’s even a name for these happy accidents—serendipity, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

Inventors and health researchers occasionally stumble on discoveries and new technologies by accident. Artists, musicians, and authors often give examples of serendipity when discussing their processes. Friends have told me of having an unexpected repair they have no way of paying, only to get a surprise refund check in the mail for the exact amount they need.

Some people say everything happens for a reason. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. But when you’ve been given a situation that’s not your first choice, maybe it’s worth it not to react too quickly. Breathe. Wonder. Let possibilities present themselves.

Related reading: More discoveries made by accident.

Now it’s your turn. Have you ever experienced serendipity? Does it ever surface in your work? Share in the comments below.

The Creative Soul

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I’ve been introspective lately, thinking about big topics, such as the presence of God in our lives. I want to be a person who is led by God, and I’m having trouble hearing Him. This would normally be a topic for my Religion and Politics page, but I’m going to leave it here, in the main part of my blog, because it’s also related to creativity.

God is the Creator, and He made us in His image. That means that to a certain lesser extent, we are creators also. We’re cooks and builders and artists and inventors. We make stuff.

I believe my ideas come from God, but sometimes I don’t know what to do with them. I’ve come to a dead stop on some of my books because I know they have the potential to be so much more than they are, and I don’t know how to get them there. I need God to show me what His plan for my work is. I want to catch His vision. I want to plug into His creative power, but I don’t know how to access it. Where is it? Can I reach it with my mind? Or is it deeper still? Is it in my heart? My soul? My spirit?

I’ve prayed about it, and waited quietly for an answer, but it’s been months and I haven’t heard anything yet. And so I wonder.

A book I’ve been reading with my Bible study group mentioned that the soul knows when you’re on the wrong path. I feel like I’m on the wrong creative path and I’m searching for the right one, but I’m so lost. I sensed a whisper that I should define soul, so I’m following a rabbit trail trying to get a handle on it.

Is my soul the same thing as my spirit? I googled the difference between soul and spirit, and one of the articles that came up looked at scripture for answers.

1 Thessalonians 5:23 says, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (NIV).” The way the sentence is structured in the original Greek infers that we are made up of three distinct parts: spirit, soul, and body.

Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (NIV).” You can divide the soul from the spirit just as you can separate joints from marrow; they are two distinct things. But they are also intertwined; it takes something sharper than a double-edged sword to separate them. Have you ever tried to sever a chicken leg joint in order to cook or serve dinner? It helps to have a sharp knife, but even that isn’t enough by itself; you really need good technique not to botch it up. Why? Because it isn’t designed to come apart easily. It would not be beneficial to the chicken for her legs to come off with ease. The word of God divides soul and spirit. What does that even mean?

Glory Dy, the author of the article I read, says “The soul is basically our mind, our emotions, and our will. It is who we are as human beings.” When I tried to define soul in my Zoom Bible study on Monday, I said it is our true self, our essence. I’m not sure I have it nailed down.

In contrast, Dy says, spirit is where we experience God. It is how we connect to the divine.

I’m sorry that my post today raises more questions than it answers. I’m not being very helpful today. If you have insights on the soul and/or the spirit, please feel free to share in the comments.

More thoughts on soul vs. spirit.

A Few Things I Know For Sure

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My intention for today’s post was to write an article about the craft of writing. But lately I feel like I know very little about the craft of writing. I’ve put aside two of my big multi-year projects because I just can’t make any progress on them right now. I’m a total writing idiot.

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Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

I spent hours on writing websites looking for a topic I could write on.

Then I watched this TED talk with Anne Lamott.

And I thought, I could write an article like that. But what do I know about life?

It turns out I know four things for sure.

  1. God loves you. God loves me. God is love. God is good. Even when it doesn’t seem like it. Even when life sucks. God is the epitome of good. If you’re having a rough time, He’s crying with you. He’s right here, ready for you to lean on Him. He might not remove you from the situation you’re in, but he will walk through it with you. When we reach out to others in love, we reflect the God who created us in His image.
  2. The government can’t save us. I am hoping with all my heart that this upcoming election in the United States will be a game changer. Please vote for the people you believe are motivated not by gain but by the desire to serve our country. Our government could be doing a much better job. But it will never do the best job. However, individuals—you and me—can do much to make things better and more positive. When this pandemic first started, people went out of their way to help their neighbors. I feel like that’s lessened somewhat as the disease has continued to drag on. It’s up to us to identify what is needed in our communities, and then pitch in to get it done. Our small individual acts add up to a huge impact.
  3. Things are not as good as they look. Years ago, we belonged to a small church. I loved that congregation. Those people looked like they had it all together. But the thing about small churches is you eventually know everybody’s business. Those people had the same challenges I did. They had skeletons in their closets. They had failed relationships. They had disappointed their parents and their children. They had made huge mistakes. They were looking for ways to put their broken selves back together again. Don’t be deceived—nobody has it easy.
  4. Things are not as bad as they look. Yep, stuff happens and there are long-term implications, but things pass. If you’ve done something you’re ashamed of, try to make it right. Apologize. Ask for forgiveness. In time, it will lose some of its horrendousness. You can rise above your mistakes; you can even rise above the injustices done to you. Take a deep breath, and take the next step, and the next one, and the next. One day, one hour, one minute at a time.

That’s it. That’s all I know.

Things I’m Missing Because of the Pandemic

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Things I’m Missing Because of the Pandemic

First it was the scheduled activities that got canceled.
Sunday worship.
Church choir and hand bell choir rehearsals.
Weekly folk dancing.
Bible study. (Though it later continued on Zoom.)
Our Folk Dance Festival.
Writers’ groups. (Though we met several times on Zoom.)
My 50th high school reunion.

Then it was unscheduled activities.
Visits from our children became less frequent and no longer ended with hugs.
Hikes ended because parks closed.
Mani pedis. Because, strictly speaking, they are not necessities.
Retail therapy. Because dressing rooms are closed. And, frankly, I don’t need anything.
Haircuts. Although I had one a couple of weeks ago, because my quarantine hair was so stringy I was tempted to chop it off myself—and we all know how badly that would have ended.

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The worst part of staying home was that on March 11, when Covid-19 was just beginning to heat up, my husband, Greg, had surgery, a discectomy and fusion from C3-C6 that was supposed to correct spinal stenosis and relieve his years-long bouts of vertigo. He was told it was a simple operation, and he would spend one night—two, max—in the hospital.

He didn’t snap back.

He couldn’t swallow. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t stand. Nurses asked me how long he’d had dementia. I told them he didn’t. They fed him through a tube in his nose, which he pulled out twice.

On March 20, the hospital called me and told me he’d developed aspiration pneumonia and had been moved to the ICU. My younger son and I went to see him—ventilated, unconscious. We held his hand and spoke to him for three hours.

The next day the hospital closed its doors to visitors, but Greg was moved out of ICU.

A week later, the doctors inserted a feeding tube into his stomach, and he was transferred to a skilled nursing facility, where he remained for nine weeks. He’d contracted metabolic encephalopathy, a serious brain infection that messed up his blood and brain chemistry.

For ten weeks, we couldn’t visit him. That was the worst part of the pandemic for me.

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Surprisingly, all those weeks that I was alone in my house, I wasn’t lonely. I missed Greg and I was sure Greg would recover quicker if we could just be together, but aside from being worried about him, I was content being by myself. I guess I really am an introvert. Now that Greg is home, we’re happy staying home together.

Sometimes Greg asks me if I’m looking forward to my activities resuming, and I have to say I’m not. I’ve gotten used to the relaxed pace of being home, and the thought of being out three nights a week seems unnecessarily stressful.

Now it’s your turn. How are you holding up? Are you anxious for things to get back to normal? What do you miss from life before Covid? What insights have you gained from doing without?

Breakdown in Communications: Third Party Answering Services

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I grew up in a simpler time. Almost everyone I knew went to Dr. Movelle, whose office was in his house. If his office phone was busy, you just tried again in a couple of minutes. (This was in the days before answering machines.) It was rare you didn’t get through on your first or second try.

My husband and I currently have a wonderful doctor, who usually ends our appointments by saying, “If you have any concerns between now and your next appointment, call me.”

The only problem is, when I call her, the phone doesn’t ring in her office, or even in the building she shares with multiple doctors in her mega-practice clinic. It rings in a call center, and I’m not convinced it’s even in our state.

The call center won’t put me through to my doctor’s office. They will forward a message and the doctor or her assistant will call me back by the end of the day.

If it were only that simple.

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The answering service employees have no medical training, so when I explain my problem, it’s total mumbo jumbo to them. Most are so young that they haven’t experienced my ailments. When I dictate my message and ask them to read it back, it bears little resemblance to what I’ve told them. After several tries, we might get closer to what I want to express, but when the doctor’s assistant calls me back, it’s clear that there was a breakdown in communications somewhere along the way because the response doesn’t answer my question. And if I miss the call, I’m instructed to call them back—and I get the answering service again.

Sometimes we play phone tag for a week or more before I get the help I need.

A similar thing happened to me recently when I tried to make an appointment for an MRI. I’ve been using the same imaging center for a decade, but they recently switched to third-party answering service. I held for a long time as their recording told me I could press 1 and I’d get a callback without losing my place in line. I pressed 1. I never got called back.

Another suggestion on the recording was to go to their website and arrange an appointment online. I did that.

The next day I got a text telling me to call them to make an appointment for my MRI. I called and held for 20 minutes, and when I tried to confirm my appointment, I got cut off. This happened multiple times. I gave up.

When I showed up for the MRI appointment I’d made online, the receptionist had no record of it. I told her I’d made it online, as their recording recommended. She said, “Yeah, don’t do that. It doesn’t work.” I told her about the horrible time I had with their phone system. She said, “Everyone’s working from home.” I now have an appointment for two weeks from now, made in person.

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And when I next checked my phone, I had a message telling me to call to make an appointment for my MRI. I tried to call, and I got a recording that said, “All our locations are closed due to inclement weather.” I live in Arizona. It’s sunny and hot all the time. No one considers that inclement. Which is why I suspect the answering service is nowhere near here.

I’m going to make a sweeping generalization and say that third-party answering services do not deliver satisfactory customer service to patients and it would be better for medical facilities not to use them. Really, for what health care costs, we deserve better.

Maybe the IRS Should Hire Sears to Write their Tax Return Instructions

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frustrated-writer-2For the first time ever, the entire United States had a three-month extension on filing income tax returns. (Did you get yours in on time? The deadline was last Wednesday.) I finished mine with two days to spare, despite my original intention to have it done by mid-April. A portion of our income comes from investments, so our return is a little complicated, and different every year. We get lots of forms with lots of figures on them, with the warning that Internal Revenue is also being furnished with a copy.

Now, some of those figures have clear directions where they are to be entered on the 1040. But the notes for others say “check the instructions for where to report.”

Have you seen the instruction book for the 1040? It’s, like, 108 pages long. And if I only had to fill out the 1040, that would be fine. But there are bunches of “schedules” and hundreds of other forms, and pretty much you need to fill them out before you know whether they apply to you or not.

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Every February I begin to work on my return. I have a folder where I keep important receipts and statements all year long, but some of the documents I need don’t come until late—this year in late April, though I usually get them a month earlier. So I devote an hour most Sundays to accomplishing what I can—sorting my papers, starting to add up different categories, printing out the tax forms I think I need, and reading and rereading directions.

Man, the government does not make it easy to determine what’s taxable and what’s not. And the worksheets seem really random. “Write the smaller of line 5 or line 12 on line 37. Subtract line 37 from line 22. If line 37 is larger than line 22, enter 0. . .”

When July 1 came around, I still wasn’t done, so I began working on taxes every day. Eventually I found out where one of my mystery numbers gets entered by looking at a form for something else entirely.

There’s got to be another way.

My sons generally do their taxes on the day they’re due. They both had last minute questions about payments they’d received that I had no experience with. We were all frustrated with reading and rereading instructions, trying to figure out where to enter the amounts and whether they were taxable or not. I think next year I’ll go on vacation from April 8-16 so they have to figure it out on their own.

The IRS writes terrible instructions. The processes are unnecessarily unwieldy. You almost have to hire an accountant to figure it out for you. And I’m cheap and stubborn and don’t want to. I don’t trust tax software—I’ve heard horror stories.

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In contrast, my Kenmore appliances have perhaps the clearest instruction manuals I’ve ever seen. The language is similar to what ordinary people use to communicate every day. You don’t have to be an engineer to read these documents. They don’t send you to different documents or to multiple locations within the book to find the answer to your questions. The name of every control button is given to you, along with its function. Each process is broken down into logical steps. One or two readings and I’m golden.

I wish the government would hire Sears’ technical writers to draft their tax booklet.

Don’t Worry

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For most of my life, I’ve been a worrier. Probably because I spend a lot of time with someone who frequently says, “But what if [insert horrible catastrophe here] happens?” The fear sparked by that question has caused lots of drama and sleepless nights over the years.

You know how it goes. You think through multiple scenarios and script what to say or strategize what to do. Then while you wait for something to happen, you second-guess all your plans and modify them. And then you think of another situation that you might have to deal with, and you have to come up with a possible solution for it while remembering what you are going to do about the original potential crisis.

A few years ago, while carrying several of these burdens, I analyzed how many times these worst cases actually materialized. A conservative estimate is one time out of ten. How many hours—no, years—of my life have been consumed with worrying over nothing?

One day, my dear friend asked me, “What are we going to do if [cataclysmic event] happens?” and I said, “Can we worry about it if and when it happens? I’m too busy to worry about it now.”

“But shouldn’t we be prepared?”

“Why waste time preparing for something that may not even happen?”

The funny thing is, once we acknowledge that a possibility for disaster exists, I think our brains work on it subconsciously, because on those rare occasions that we’ve actually faced a genuine setback, we’ve handled it satisfactorily in the moment. Or maybe God really does have our backs.

Now it’s your turn. Do you panic when you think of possible disasters? Do you ever waste time worrying about something that doesn’t even happen? Are you able to turn off negative emotions when dealing with hypothetical situations? Share in the comments below.

Mockingbird Blues

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Mockingbird Blues

I’ve now experienced everything.

Last week I was bullied by a bird.

I was minding my own business, walking Ralph, when a bird started trash-talking me. I tried whistling at her, but that just made her hopping mad. I continued on my way—and she dive-bombed me!

From the marking on her wings, I guessed she must be a mockingbird. (Thank you, Hunger Games movies, for giving me that bird-identification frame of reference.) I know birds can get aggressively protective of their nests when they have little ones, but there are lots of trees in my neighborhood, and I have no idea which one she calls home.

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There she is, in my neighbor’s tree, bad-mouthing me.

On the way back from our walk, we navigated the entire cul-de-sac. Bad idea. Mrs. Bird snuck behind me and whomped me on the back. (All right, she weighs two ounces, but I felt that!)

Every day for an entire week, that birdie terrorized me. I tried talking tough to her (“Don’t you dare bother me!”), I shook my keys at her, I wore a floppy hat. Nothing stopped her from swooping at me from behind.

There were two mornings when my plans included doing yardwork. I couldn’t—I was too afraid.

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Yeah, she looks innocent, but she’s terrifying.

I haven’t seen her this week. Maybe her eggs hatched and she’s busy feeding her babies? Maybe her babies died because she spent so much time chasing me that the babies starved? I don’t know what changed. It’s a mystery of life.