Saturday, December 30, 2006

great is Thy faithfulness

I just read a beautiful description of God's faithfulness over the span of a lifetime written by Charles Spurgeon, "We delight to look down a long avenue of trees. It is delightful to gaze from end to end of the long vista, a sort of verdant temple, with its branching pillars and its arches of leaves; in the same way, look down the long aisles of your years, at the green boughs of mercy overhead, and the strong pillars of lovingkindness and faithfulness that bear up your joys." I have to attest to the truth of that statement. In spite of every storm, or maybe because I've been so well kept through them, I can see the long span of God's protection and providence over my life like a canopy of trees.

Last night I attended the Friday night Celebrate Recovery meeting I'm involved with, and I was nervous to go. Many things are irritating my peace of mind, and I felt unable to focus clearly on playing music and then listening and sharing. But I did go, and from the time I came in, I received joyful encouragement. The man who leads the group always asks after my family and myself as he sets up the chairs and I set up my keyboard. I was afraid about doing music alone and not having a singer with me. The prison chaplain who comes to the meetings gladly offered to help even though his voice isn't the best. It isn't his voice I needed as much as his desire to lead and honor God, and that joyful smile. He helped me to feel completely at ease. Immediately another person shared about struggles she'd had over Christmas, and somehow listening to her made me forget my own little bothersome things. As the room filled up I realized how in His mercy God provided people of every stripe and personality type to now be a part of my life. We don't love and serve Him to "get", but it has been my experience that the nearer we get to God and the more we trust Him with our "years", the more He brings very specific helps and mercies into our lives to help us feel protected and loved.

I wanted to take the time this morning to reflect about the mercies of God and to take a glance down the long avenue of my life. As the great hymn reminds via scripture, "Great is Thy faithfulness, oh God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with Thee, Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not, as Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be..." What a comfort! Truly, we need have no fear of the future nor of God's protecting and shadowing hand if we trust in Him. He longs to be trusted. I can only say after living for nearly half a century, He is worthy of that trust. Praise Him!

Friday, December 29, 2006

they happen

I've come to the conclusion that no matter how much we know we're doing right or following God, emotions happen. Even if intellectually I can accept a new direction or change, what happens as a result and my reaction to it is something I have a hard time controlling. Change is inevitable. The most difficult thing to deal with is change in relationship, especially when it means goodbye or the end of something. Even if I'm 100 percent positive it is right, the implementation is never, ever easy. I've gone through bad ends and well-planned ones alike, things that just sort of fall off or move away, and I don't know how to prepare myself ever for the grief.

Last night was our last worship practice at a church we've attended for almost ten years. God is moving in my husband's life and mine, and we separately and together came to an agreement that it is time to move on. We have ministry opportunity elsewhere. The only way I seemed to be able to cope with the evening was to feel physically ill while it was going on. I couldn't bring myself to face the full scope of what a "last practice" means. Add to that the fact that the people on the team were the ones closest to us for years. I only started feeling less heachachey and nauseous when we sat face to face, talked and prayed about the issue. I know, duh, this being the last time we're together officially it's time to speak that out and make it public. I dread Sunday. We've told no one but the pastor and team members.

Some things go on, too, like our son's situation. The separation was forced and is going to last for a long time. I don't always know how to live with the tension that is unresolved and will be for years. I'm not good with acceptance. I'm trying to release every other source of unnecessary tension in my life this takes so much energy to deal with. I'm trying to keep myself physically fit and eat right, get enough sleep and go on with things. I pray about it and focus on the good things in my life. Yet still, it doesn't change the fact nor spare me the emotions that go with. After hearing from another prison mom, I know these feelings are normal, but we both agree we would rather not have them at all.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

the truth

I suppose this is as good a place as any to make an admission-I am an addict. The best definition I can think of is someone who has absolutely no sense of proportion in certain behaviors. It is most commonly viewed as a person with a substance abuse. There are those who cannot take one or two drinks. They simply cannot. They know in their minds that one or two is enough, but their bodies crave the substance and override moderation. There are many manifestations of the lack of proportion, and oftentimes periods of dryness trick the alcoholic into thinking they have it under control, and once again can do the "one or two" and go home. After a lifetime of one or two turning into bottles and days, there comes a place of reckoning. It may or may not be enough to cause a change, but the truth presents itself, and usually it comes at a time when there is no denying it. The behavior has possession of the person. It causes them to turn into things that they would never be dry or clean.

One of the behaviors that has (had me) is being overly self-sacrificing in relationships. It's a very good-looking way of trying to force control. But the behavior becomes all-consuming. It grows and gains momentum and every action ratchets up the level of giving to maintain that control. The motive of giving becomes holding onto the receiver, and bitterness and exhaustion ensue if the "generosity" is not met with the proper response. It is subtle, but in a black and white accounting, the amount of time, money, worry, emotional investing and work it takes to maintain is way, way out of proportion to the relationship. It is a way of voluntarily consenting to be used for emotional gratification that disallows any real valuing of the giver. A person who needs this sort of gratification has little sense of their own selves, and likely the receiver problems with insecurity and control as well.

Another behavior that is patently accepted in our society is gluttony. We do not think anything of it. I don't. I think to myself, how in the world can I be ok with eating multiple servings of anything, junk especially, or quantities of food so out of proportion to my body's need? This one is hard to deal with because we typically state the problem in terms of needing to lose a few pounds, not a lack of self-control. If the only reason to address the problem is to look better, the truth is never applied and once again, there is no sense of proportion. I love the feeling of fullness so much that I eat far beyond what I need to be full. The scripture says man does not live by bread alone, but I seem to manage just fine! Not really. I prayed all throughout the day and the evening for help but still found it easy to raid the brimming cookie tins, Christmas stockings, bread drawer, obey or to be free is not enough for me, so I guess I haven't hit my day of reckoning. Sigh.

We need the truth to be free. I need proportion in my life.

laying it down

I am currently reading the Gospel of Luke for my devotional time. I'm still using my trusty Ampliphied Bible even though I asked for The Message for Christmas. I realize I need to keep my scripture reading fresh and interesting. But the Ampliphied is like the queen mother of versions to me because it turns over every stone of implication and shade of meaning in key words and phrases. I never fail to receive fresh revelation from it, and today was no exception.

I was reading chapter 14, which is a difficult one. Jesus outlines the cost of discipleship. He says that anyone who values their family more highly than God and their life of service to Him is not worthy of Him. He goes on analogize about a builder who first counts the cost of his project before starting and a king who is contemplating battle and considers the strength of his enemy. We are instructed to consider the cost of following and act accordingly. I would submit that this accounting occurs every time someone or something comes into our lives or happens that challenges our loyalty to God. In my case presently it is my son, and my influence in his life.

Verse 33 struck me most powerfully, "So then, whoever of you does not forsake-renounce, surrender claim to, give up, say goodbye to-all that he has cannot be My disciple". Whew, how does a body do that? I was brought up short by the "surrender claim to". All of this addresses our will. Obviously everyone and everything belongs to God, but we do "lay claim" in our lives. The most compelling place is often with our children. I bore them, I raised them, I have a say and I demand an accounting from them-they are mine! We think we are able to release them easily, but let something come in the way of the bonds that attach them to us, and we grab all the more tightly. This is what the Spirit spoke to me regarding my son-I have to renounce my claim to influence in his life. I have to renounce my plans for him, my wishes, my desires, all of that. The Father knows. But all of those things are getting in the way of my relationship with Him. I am not trusting HIM to lead my son. I have to distance myself in trust. This is so difficult, but other places in my life where I have done so has opened the door for the things to happen that should happen! I'm not forcing it open. My surrender lets the Spirit flow right through it.

I began to consider other areas where I lay claim. One place is my body. It is the temple of the Holy Spirit, but I do not treat it as such. I treat it as my servant and my property to do with as I see fit. The hardest thing in life to do I feel is surrender completely without the expectation of anything more than that. Jesus said a servant should not expect to be rewarded for their service. In truth we are bountifully rewarded-we are friends of God and His children if we forsake all, not merely servants. Our lives are given back immediately in the spiritual realm times ten thousand, so why cling to the shreds of the old life? It is hard to let go. I love the contemporary song, "Surrender" (can't remember the writer!), but it goes something like, "I'm giving You my life, I'm waiting at the cross, and all the world holds dear, I count it all as loss, for the sake of knowing You, the glory of Your Name, to know the lasting joy, even sharing in Your pain....and I surrender all to You, all to You...The more we surrender and the longer we walk, the more we know there is no turning back and only one answer when Jesus says again, "Follow Me!"

Monday, December 25, 2006

the greatest story

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, I devoted myself to relaxing and thinking about the day. I had no last minute things to do, or chose not to, went to church, came home, sat down and flipped through the tv channels. I found one of my absolute favorite films just starting, "Ben-Hur", the version with Charlton Heston, released in 1959. I decided to hunker down, because that masterpiece of film-making is almost four hours long. It aired on Turner Classic Movies, and there is always a short bookend by the company giving details about the films. This one took two years and ten million dollars to make at a time when studios did not devote such huge capital in films. It almost sank MGM financially. It was nominated for 11 Oscars (won one) for Best Director (I think), William Wyler. My choice for an in-the-bag Oscar would have been Best Movie Score. The musical score by Miklos Rozsa is, in my humble opinion, one of the best of all time. The music punctuates and moves the film's message and action, draws the viewer-who could hear the triumphal trumpet march played during the chariot race and not envision the entire scene? It is magnificent. Every character, place and bit of action have musical cues that set the scene so well. Every other film that includes ancient Rome takes borrows from this film and this score.

The movie was adapted from a book by a Christian man, General Lew Wallace. He does an outstanding job of telling the story of Christ through another parallel story involving two friends, a Jew and a Roman. Charlton Heston is the Jew, Judah Ben-Hur, and Stephen Boyd the Roman, Messala. The fates of each man are intertwined throughout their lives and clash in adulthood as Messala rises in power in the Roman army. My children think the movie is overly dramatic, and in a way it is, but the story rises to such high drama without being hokey anything else seems less appropriate. I think actor Stephen Boyd is the unsung hero in this fim. His portrayal of a man determined to secure his own destiny by persuasion and then utter cruelty by betraying his friend is the foil that makes the film work. Who can forget the death scene after the chariot race that caps his performance? It is so life-like and so hideous the message is clear as a bell-if we live only for this life we die with only it's worn-out remnants of selfish ambition in the end. I will never forget his last drawn-out breathe and the expression that accompanied it. It is so haunting.

This film has always been special to me. It came out a year after I was born, and I did not see it until it was rereleased in theaters in the 70's. I think this was the instrument that softened my heart to follow Christ. I was shell-shocked after seeing it. This was my "Passion of the Christ" because it spoke so clearly to my psyche. The film is highly symbolic in a way that does not crack you over the head. Water is a main theme-Jesus as the Living Water. There is a scene where Christ gives water to Judah as he is led away in slavery, and then in the end of the film, he is present as Jesus carries the cross and falls, and attempts to give Him water. The scene is framed from Judah's back, water dipper clearly in his hand as Christ struggles with the cross. Without question the most powerful scene is the storm after the crucifixion. Rainwater is shown flowing down from the cross, mingling with Jesus' blood and traveling over the ground. The music that is played as this scene moves forward still causes the hair on my neck to stand up.

So, on this Christmas Day, I take the message of the film into my heart once again. The life of Christ moves over the whole earth for all eternity, changing those who trust in His saving blood. I could identify in a very small way with this story of a man wrongly treated by the world and those he trusted, only to find making it right is impossible without the power of God. The answer was not to seek revenge or force an outcome, but to receive the peace that only comes from the cross and a Life lived to seek and save the lost. We are powerless to save ourselves. We sang "O Holy Night" at our New Year's Eve service last night, and I thought of the lyrics in light of the movie, "Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt it's worth". I felt my soul's worth watching this movie and I know how much I need to surrender my own ambitions and desires to Christ this Christmas. That is my gift to Him.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

of sweet rolls and trust

Suffice it to say these past few weeks have been busy. Christmas certainly adds to the pressure of trying to get things done, but I look at my time and realize it has been more than normal. My husband and I have our own business and I help him with that. Small business owners know that means anything and everything needing done. My mother-in-law had open heart surgery about 2 months ago. She was our delivery person, so we lost her, and added the worries over her health, visitation and doctor appointments. The driver we did hire takes two weeks off for Christmas to go to Florida, so back to square one with deliveries. I'm helping with two worship teams and extra ministry opportunities that came up. I do commission artwork and Christmas is my most busy time of the year, drawing and painting, framing and delivering work. I love all of these things, but then add to that being sure that special people are remembered at Christmas, and even doing the smallest of things is one more thing to remember. And add to that visitation to the prison and worrying about my son...

So there's backdrop to something that happened yesterday. I woke up early going blue blazes when mom in law calls and wants some things from the bakery. Now I would have not been hugely happy with this request on a normal day but no problem, really. However, three days before Christmas, one of them being a Sunday, you do not want to be found in a bakery with people picking up Christmas cakes, nut bread, rolls, cookies-the wait in line can be eternal. I had a client coming in an hour to pick up art work. I wanted to beat crowds to the grocery store. Sigh...I wanted, I wanted, I wanted...what I didn't want was to sacrifice MY TIME for such a frivolous request. Not only that, but when I didn't immediately respond to her call to pick up money for the goods, she came over and dropped the money off. And called AGAIN to remind me she needed things before 8 am. GGGRRR....the steam is coming out of my ears and my resentment meter is rising steadily.

Well, I went with gritted teeth and voiced a silent prayer that there were no lines. My anger began to dissipate as I drove along (oh, did I forget to mention I had to deliver a gift bag of cookies in this trip?). I got to the bakery and there was no line. I got in and got out, and delivered my gift. By the time I got home I was glad I did go. She wanted the goodies for a visiting nurse who comes to check her K-Vac. I should have known. But here's the lesson-I hate it when people presume upon my good nature and then act like they don't trust me to be that person. I would have come to get the money had she only waited, and I would have gone directly to the bakery after my gift bag was secured if she had only given me a minute to adjust myself. Then I was deeply convicted that I just did that to someone not long ago myself. I didn't trust that person to act like they always have-loving and caring, wanting to help me and wanting to be my friend. I slipped back into control mode, trusting only myself. I hate being treated like that, and this person made it clear to me they do, too, by trying to understand why I acted like I did. Lack of trust speaks louder thany any words we may speak to the contrary. I hope I can repair the damage.

Friday, December 22, 2006

blue christmas

Some days are just hard. I suppose it's a self-indulgence to have a place to complain, or even allow myself to feel as black and blue as the day seems. The razor wire is taking it's toll. Some days I just don't know what to do, and it is worse being surrounded by such happy things at Christmas-cards taped around our kitchen doorway, a little fiber optic tree, cookies on the kitchen table, lights outside and our ugly bird collection all festive surrounded by white blinkers. I selected the most brutal episode of CSI the other night, and eschewed the politely sweet Christmas programming. I watched the triple murder of a family being solved, the processing of a burn victim as evidence, the emotional drama of the caseworkers as they were effected by all the things they dealt with on a daily basis. Hollywood or no, only such a hideous dose of hyper-reality seem to speak to my soul. I need real. Real is knowing every single day your kid is incarcerated with society's worst. Not only with them, he's one of them.

Maybe it is just too soon to try to put a frame around all of this, and wrap it with a bow or a stamp marked "case closed". That would be like closing up a surgery patient before taking out all of the cancer. It takes the time it takes. It takes the pain it takes. It takes the method it takes to work all of this through. I'm going to voluntarily involve myself directly in the lives of people who are imprisoned whent the new year begins. I'm already involved in someone else's life who has been incarcerated for years now. The only thing I know is that tragedy, disaster, pain, separation, incarceration, the worst of life, effects everyone differently. I reach out every day to try and walk this path well. But nothing stops the days from passing when it will be a visitation time again. Trying to face that is like trying to face the most savage beating willingly, and then be ready to do it all again over and over for years.

It must be naive to think I'll escape this life without pain that invades every day. No one gets out unscathed. In fact to never face trials keeps us weak and unable...still, to slowly become numb to everything is to invite foolish reasons to remind myself I'm still breathing. Just being alive is enough for that. But I wish today the pretty cards and lights would be the reason, not the pain.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

time off

Yippeee....finally a free evening!!! I'm done drawing and working, at least for a few days. I can watch bad tv and not worry about anyone coming to the door. I'm liking nothing to do. This is good. I need nothing for a few days, or at least no to-do list. I don't feel as sad as I did last weekend seeing my son, so things are on the upswing again. A Breakfast at Tiffany's party sounds really fun, except I'm usually in bed by nine and up at four. Chuckle. I think I need to reverse my hours for the weekend.

Ok, I don't have to write, either, so I'm signing off....

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


It seems to me that sometimes tradition and decorum are right. In this day and age, we tend to prize the new, the avant garde, anything that seems fresh, or puts the old ways on their head. And sometimes that is the right thing to do. I believe in fresh wineskins, but they are only recognized as that in light of the old. And to toss away the old simply for it's own sake is to lose the path to the present and the context by which we now live. This scares me. We seem all too eager to cut off our feet to make room for a new hairdo.

I have a friendship that reminds me of this. My friend is English, and continually surprises me with his conservative and respectful manner. First of all, I'm an American, and we are used to the back-slapping familiar. We have Maury, Jerry Springer, Oprah-we have no trouble hanging our bloomers out for all to see. Though this man is younger than myself, has seen much more of life and certainly could be classed as "hip", he is down right old-fashioned in a way that makes me aware I need to be more of a lady. We have lost a certain code of ethics in our daily concourse that innately keeps some distance. And the season is a time when we have prized and precious traditions struggling to co-exist with the most crass displays of greed and materialism. Not only that, there is a loss of respect for it's own sake for these traditions. I'm rather tired of being reminded I need to say "Happy Holidays" out of respect for other people's belief systems. I long for the respect of my own, because I believe the God I worship is God.

In the end I realize I need to earn respect. I know at times I've lost it around my friend because he sees the world in a certain way. I don't think it was intentional on my part, but I want to be someone who could still be classed as genteel in a way that is proper for a woman. My friend is in prison, and I keep thinking the connection to a female who behaves properly may be one of the few links he has to a more civilized existence. I know being involved in the prison system can take the little a person has of tenderness and crush it to pieces like a fragile glass ornament.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

at seventeen

There was a song popular during my high school years that seemed to define that time frame for me very well. It was by Janis Ian, and I still remember so many of the lyrics.

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
It seemed like those years were filled with attempts to get rid of the latest round of acne, the latest five, ten, fifteen pounds gained and repeatedly lost, tame my eyebrows and my body hair, try to feel at least somewhat normal at a time when my hormones kept ambushing me in the worst ways...God broke into my life when I was fourteen, but even as supernaturally spectacular as that intervention to my life was, the outworking of it to me seemed largely invisible. I wanted to suddenly be transformed both inwardly and outwardly into someone people would notice!
And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
It seemed it was not to be, at least not as long as I believed only in the value the world placed on a fat, bespectacled girl with acne who never really fit in anywhere. I was reminded recently that I will never achieve the life I was meant for or a goal I dearly prize unless I first believe I can. Belief is what changed my life, not a diet or face cream, or even growing older and expecting maturity and wisdom to simply happen. They don't. Nothing does without faith.
We all play the game and when we dare
To cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting of our lives unknown
There has to come a time when faith takes hold, a faith that sees not what is, but what can be, a faith that shucks off the visible perimeters of flesh, circumstance, limitations, and boldly proclaims, "I believe!" I look back to what God has done in my life since high school, a time that some people see as their "glory days", apologies to Bruce Springsteen, and see the invisible appearing out of the impossible where I broke through the barriers in my mind. Fear died...slowly, but it did. Suddenly the world seemed larger and possibilities grew with every determination to move forward. Limitations fell, circumstances moved into the right places as my flesh bowed to my spirit and the Spirit of God. The miracle is, this can happen at any age, any place, any time! How exciting this is! I look at my life nearing 50 and think I can't wait to see what will happen-bring it on, Lord!
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
And dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me

Monday, December 18, 2006

degrees of separation

In my humble opinion, hell is the state of separation. Well, scripture basically makes the same point (human beings separated from God), so I guess it's not only my opinion. I get crazy when I feel I've hurt someone and can't make it right. My mother's death in the 70's shaped my entire adult life-the pain of that separation kept me continually calling out to God and trying to work through my own feelings here on earth without her. My son's absence shapes every day by default. It's not what I can do, it's what I can't because he's not here. More than one significant friendship is long distance, and sometimes words are misconstrued or the body language necessary to drive home a point the way you want to is lacking. So many things separate people-language barriers, economic barriers, cultural barriers, age, education, experience. Now this can be a means to know someone, but too often it is a way to keep people on one side of the tracks or another.

What I'm needing to learn these days, however, is some separation is good. In fact, separation is built into the human experience. With e-mail and IM-ing we can have instant communication gratification, but that doesn't address true separation. Unhealthy separation stems from insecurity and anxiety, lack of trust and faith. If the pain of separation is driven by these emotions, something is wrong that connection will not fix. We can't have another human being with us 24/7, nor should we expect human relationships to be our answer to life's difficulties and struggles. It has taken me years to understand this. I want the arms of flesh around me making it right. I want the access to a body to express myself or control the relationship, and this is just impossible oftentimes. Nor is it right motive to need someone like that.

I have had to realize that it is not wrong to place certain relationships in the context of their importance to me, or the response that I receive. My son is important to me because he's my son, but my relationships with my other children are equally, if not more important and immediate because they are here, and they did nothing wrong. My relationship to God, and to my husband each are exclusive. I can have no other God, or no other man who functions in those roles. Friendships are trickier. I can have many of those, but what I'm realizing is my strength is limited, and some relationships are like flypaper to me. I'm too drawn into situations that I can't do anything about. In these cases I need to separate myself and keep my responses to a minimum. It is not fact, it is necessary to have rules of engagement, as in combat. We are created to need people in our lives. But lately I've realized how much more I need God to help me sort through the varied emotions and motives of why I engage people the way I do. Real love sees the whole picture and either engages, or removes itself for the good of all concerned. Tough lessons to learn.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

I pinch

Yesterday we drove the four hours to and from the SCI where my son is serving time, and visited for the full six hours we were allotted. It is hard to describe how difficult it is to face these days with hope and to remain relaxed for the entire day. Our day usually starts at 3:30 am and ends at 8:00 pm, when we walk through our front door again. Any separate element of the day is hard, but the collective elements make it exhausting in mind, body and spirit. After the drive to the facility, we are always searched, pass through a metal detector, wait our turn, and then try to be as casual as possible seeing our son (generally once a month) as though it was a visit to a college dorm. While we are delighted to have hours to visit, those hours need to be filled. Sometimes it is really hard to think of things to say that long.

We did the best we could for the morning. I finally had to lay my head down on the formica table where we sat to take a brief nap. I prayed I would not drool all over the table. We played cards for a time, and that seemed to keep the clock ticking. Getting food from the vending machines, preparing it and eating is another way time passes. This food is a treat for the inmates, who really don't get a chance to eat much of anything that even looks like grocery store food. If they are able to buy things from the commissary, they can't buy knives to cut or spread anything. My son is a great storyteller and a natural comedian. I miss his presence so terribly in the day, but that gift also keeps the conversation running and laughter happening. I don't know how it got started, but he began performing the Honda Element car commercial with Gil the Crab. You can actually visit Gil on his myspace account (, but basically a picture of a real crab with speech bubbles engages the car on the beach by saying, "I pinch" (I peench!) The car tells the crab all the nifty stuff it does, and the crab keeps saying, "I pinch, I pinch!"

So after we were crying with laughter after Bran did his best car commercial retelling, every time the silence became to long or heavy, or a statemtent came up where it fit, someone would say, "I pinch" and we'd all start giggling again. I actually tried to find a tee shirt with the crab on it, and I think I'm going to write the company to see if they would market them. Things like that remind me so much of my son and keep the memory of the day in a sweet way. While he's away such things keep him home in my mind. I have to work hard to not become frustrated or despondent over his absence and the whole circumstances surrounding it. I wonder if I'll have the strength to endure the 14-plus hour days we need to see him for years. All I can say to that is, "I pinch!" (I just have to stay away from the butter and tongs...)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

I'm not sleeping

It's one of those nights when there is nothing to do but write. My brain will not turn off, my heart will not stop pounding. I'm starving...for everything but especially sleep. So tired, right down to the marrow. We go to Somerset on Friday to visit my son. I hate those trips. I wish I could love them but I hate them. Tonight was beautiful, today was good. I spent time making some ridiculous and perfect creation out of graham crackers and royal icing with my 16-year-old, and we laughed-how we laughed at crackers falling and icing mess, candy and sprinkles everywhere. How her laugh and her voice are like mine, and how she seems to me a butterfly fluttering away too fast from the cocoon of home. These moments she alights on my arm I cannot hold, only remember. Dear God may they not go away too quickly. My grief is dissolving me tonight and I can't stay solid.

The air outside is fog-filled and our backyard is a murky swamp of light and shadow. There is no moon. I'm downstairs now, and upstairs the bed was never comfortable-my skin less so. Our little female cat nudged her muzzle under my hand and gave sandpaper licks. Her fur is so thick it feels like mink and comforts me, but I couldn't stay still. The clock reads 3 and something. I'm waiting for morning. I wish there was someone to talk to, something to read to keep my attention. All is waiting. Maybe I'll try sleep again.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

it's my heart

I love Fred Astaire (does anybody not?) His moves are so effortless they underscore and entwine whatever melody is set to music. One of my great dance and musical favorites is from the movie "Holiday Inn" if memory serves me, and it's the Valentine number, "Be Careful, It's My Heart". He has a lovely partner of course, one that he shouldn't have had, as usual. There is a beautiful moment in the dance where he and his partner silhouette behind a tissue paper heart and then leap right through the paper. Today my heart felt like that tissue paper.

I suppose it's just my luck...this heart of mine is as frail as tissue so often. I wish it were more like rubber or wood, but I guess it's was God's pleasure to give me something transparent and frail, and so easily damaged. I wouldn't be able to give my portraits the life they have without a heart so willing to yield and break. I wish it were not so. It causes my ears to be deaf, my mouth to stop singing, my whole countenance to fall into a sagging gloom at the first sign of rejection or disagreement, or something that just can't be made right. Some tears just cannot be mended no matter how much I want them to. Yet I pray for trust and resilience.

I said it felt like that today. I failed to trust someone I should have. I failed to believe my friend when he said our bond would never break. I failed to be patient. I took offense and became despondent because the mailbox was empty for yet another day. I forgot how many times there was a letter, pages long. I forgot how kind and understanding this person is at all times, and how respectful. I was purposefully selfish when I should have been large. Sometimes it is right to protect the fragile and easily torn member of my person. But this was the wrong time, and I grieve to think how quickly I might have injured another heart as well with angry words.

So I tell this foolish heart to be patient, to be sure that even if it suffers a tear in the waiting, this one is to let love in. I think this is a person who will be careful indeed, maybe more so than even I could be.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

found things

Sometimes the computer is just an excuse like everything else not to be working or doing things you ought to be (how in the heck did I just waste AN HOUR listening to music??). It's like Alice in Wonderland-as soon as you fall into the rabbit hole you can't stop sliding...but I enjoy it, and do not do this everyday. In fact I don't do it every week or even every month. I guess that's a good thing. And I did order two new cds which I would never have found on a music store list. Sometimes on the computer you find just what you need, like that music.

I also found two thank yous on my e-mail list which made my day. It is such a pleasure to read nearly instantly that packages made it to destinations around the world. I love sending them, and receiving the joy of the recipient. One of these was a box of fun food and things that I hope a special family will enjoy at Christmas. They aren't together often, and I figured when they are, they need premium fun time and special moments. Food usually is a reason or an ingredient of those. The other box contained a portrait of a visitation. Again, it went to a family who cannot now be together and won't be at Christmas, but are in the picture. I received thanks from the parents, and the son of those who live over the pond. I hope my work will be a big bridge over alot of water and time before they are together again.

I love it when my life is made up of found things, just what you need.

Monday, December 11, 2006

beyond the surface

It's odd where conviction comes from sometimes. I'm reading essays on visual art by John Updike. It's strictly his erudite opinions on specific pieces of art or artists themselves through their body of work. The writing that struck me was commentary on John Singer Sargent, an American ex-pat living in Europe most of his formative and creative years. He was a consummate portrait painter of upper crust English and American bluebloods. No one touched him in skill of medium or subject handling. Yet, many have said, his portraits left something wanting, either by their utter perfection of execution, or lack of psychological revelation and/or both.

I do not even dare to compare myself to Mr. Sargent. He is in a class by himself as a portrait artist. But I look at my portraiture now, particularly charcoals, wherein I copied from Sargent himself to perfect my own skills. I wonder now to myself, is there something wanting? Am I so cocksure of myself that I let disdain and lack of a challenge keep me where I am? My last client was so overwhelmed by the perfection of a double portrait I did for her mother she ordered me not to touch a thing and told me she's starting on next year's Christmas gifts right away. On the one hand I was glad and really flattered-I knew the piece was very good. I'm able to transcend the school photos and pedestrian snapshots fairly easily. On the other, was I so bored and willing to be ok with this that I don't even think about the responsibility my gifting entails? Maybe I don't want to. I'm tired of "serious art".

Still, within my soul are stirrings that long to get past the Christmas commissions and into representing a world that perhaps can't be made beautiful, only honest. I'm thinking of putting together a series of portraits depicting people I'm meeting who have been through the wringer of life and have come through clean. My life is consumed now with people who are transforming and transcending their own life's old snapshots. They may not possess any outward beauty at all, but are their lives not worth putting on a canvas? Would the very act of trying create something more than what we all are sure of? It's a risk. Portrait shows are a hard, hard sell, and controversial or mundane subject matter even harder. I don't know. But isn't that what art is about, revelation-of the artist herself even as much as the subject she portrays? It's time to find out.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

another letter day

A letter came from our son a few days ago, and as I usually include excerpts, I will do that. I have been thinking and reading about the prison system, and it is hard to come up with conclusions. I don't know who reads this blog or even thinks about such things, but I would definitely reference the jonsjailjournal link on it to get an accurate, genuine, somewhat disturbing and rarely comforting picture of life in prison and the people who are behind bars. I have more and more respect for the individuals in the criminal justice system who really do try to mete out fair sentences and have a real desire for the truth. It is so very difficult. I have real compassion for the families of victims, but I'm gaining an equal compassion for the families of the incarcerated. I think at the core of this lies the desire for true rehabilitation, or at least acceptance of where someone is and the wisdom to help them forward if that is at all possible. How do rehabilitation and punishment co-exist? How do we figure life is going to be better for people who are violent, confused, at a bad place in life to say the least, possibly mentally ill placing nearly impossible expectations on them, or just leaving them in a state of passive existence? Just a few things to ponder as I turn the page over to my son:

"Nearly 2007, how 'bout that? Let's get these years done already. You tend to get sick of powdered/bagged everything (including milk), labor intensive cigarettes, and no fridge for your opened food. Not to mention the incredibly strange sound eminating from the vent as of late. Where would I be without things to complain about...sigh..."

(He has a new cellmate with a tv, so he continues), "My cellie and I watched "Superman Returns" last night and tore it to pieces. It was too predictable to be remotely interesting. The thorough ragging we gave it make for a fun waste of time. Apparently, Superman has an illegitimate son before disappearing for 5 years. We wondered facetiously if Lois Lane would con him into a Maury appearance (you are the father!) then force him to pay 5 years of back-owed child support. Some dad he is...."

And he winds up the letter "That is all for now. Shane and I are hatching a morning count scheme involving tighty-whitey and bedsheet superman costumes. Got to keep it interesting. It screws with the guards' heads when you do something stupid for count. My cellie at the county used to do handstands while I'd stand on the desk, one foot on the tv. Shane and his old cellie used to take turns sitting on the toilet, stark naked except for a pair of gloves and and a hat reading Playboy. You could only get away with that during 3rd shift. We plan to create some new ones. Well, take care for now. Not to be outdone, irony will set in and I'll see you tomorrow. That's fine with me! All right, tell everyone I said "hi" and take care, as always. I love you all."

It's hard for me to get my hands around the big picture, so I leave you with a small snapshot of prison life day to day.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

testings will come

Yesterday was one of those days that ssssttttrreeetttchhhed my patience and leadership abilities. When I think of the things that happened, I think I'm being giving a practical exam in my spiritual skills thus far. That can be exciting, but I look back over the day this morning and think, "how did I do that?" I got almost no sleep the night before, so that set the day up. I met with my Wednesday 12-step group, and these ladies are the top, but they have a hard time staying on subject, and I had to leave in an hour. We did finally wind our way through Step 3-turning our lives and wills entirely over to Christ-and there was an unexpected bit in that. One of the gals realized she needed to do that. More importantly, she had to be confronted about a situation that required it. She needed to end a relationship that was a source of much confusion, anger and grief in her life, yet this is a person she dearly loves and wants to help. Still, in the relief of her conversation, this one picture stood out so very vividly to me, and I'm not one to confront a person. Yet I did, and she agreed. Whew.

I had to run directly home to take my mother-in-law to the doctor, and in between this running I needed to contact clients about artwork and receive messages. In the past irritation would have done me in. I love my family, but I hate doctor visits, being a runner, a waiter, a gopher, all of that, and I simply had to in this case. There was no one else. I had to remind myself what was most important to do, and to serve my mother-in-law was most important. We had to go to the grocery store after the doctor, and once again, when it took 10 minutes for her to pre-write a check and find her discount card I was faced with rising irritation, but I quelled it.

Upon coming home I wanted to nap but couldn't, as I had to prepare worship music for the evening, wash dishes, get a walk in, eat at some point, and do things in the house. Once again, it seemed like the day threatened to pull my schedule rug out from under me. Add to this an underlying tension about a situation I have to deal with and focus my energy on going to worship practice at 8 pm, which is basically my book and pj time. For the old girl this seemed an impossibility, and we're not done yet.

The evening came and I had to load the car, pick up my partner for worship, drive to the church, unload the car and set up, and try the music. Only tonight instead of two people we had three. None of the music was working, and our third person was an older gentleman who sang very well and played guitar very well, but in a style neither Luke nor I could deal with immediately. This man was decidedly old school country and western, which is fine, but he was a solo act. Seemed like he managed to touch every nerve that was becoming more raw as the night wore on and we could not find workable music trying to accommodate him. Finally I deferred to my partner, who was exhausted and by now red-faced from trying to strum like our Willy Nelson. We didn't leave practice until 9:30, which I guess isn't bad, except that given the day I was ready to collapse. Our final song was Holy, Holy, Holy, and we were told the church team was practicing upstairs, and was in prayer while we were singing the venerable old hymn in the basement hall. The sound traveled up to the upstairs team as they were asking God to bless their time. One CR leader told us how wonderful it was for them to pray with that music wafting up the stairs. If we only could keep in mind who was watching and hearing us every minute! I think I passed my test.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

learn to acclaim

Yesterday I was reading Psalm 89 aloud. Nothing to me is a better expression of praise to God than reading the Psalms to Him. Verse 15 struck me powerfully. In my trusty ampliphied version of the scriptures it says, "Blessed-happy, fortunate (to be envied)-are the people who know the joyful sound (who understand and appreciate the spiritual blessings symbolized by the feasts); they walk, O Lord, in the light and favor of Your countenance!" The NIV translation puts it like this, "Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim You, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord!" Each version highlights a thought to me-more than a thought, a chosen way of thinking..."blessed are those who have LEARNED to acclaim You"..."blessed are those who understand and appreciate"...As I walk through this Christmas season, this feast and celebration of Christ's birth, I choose to understand the blessings symbolized by trees, lights, gift-giving, special services, carols-have we learned to acclaim Him? That is the point of all of this!

As I think back upon this year, I look at the particular blessings my God has wrought in this life in a time of deep travail. I lost a physical son, but gained a spiritual one, and his name is Luke, after the great apostle and Gospel-writer who told the precious story of Christ's birth that is most familiar to us. Not only is he a friend, but a fellow musician and worker in ministry. He has become so dear to my heart. How I thank God for His provision to a sorrowing mother. In this season of remembering how a Father sent His son to us, I thank him for the one He sent to me. He also sent a brother, a young man behind bars, and a fellow-sufferer with my son to make the journey easier for both of us. I have received such blessing and encouragement from this man who has learned to be grateful for his low estate.

I look at the women He has sent into my life. I prayed for such a long time to make female friends and have a women's Bible study group I could be a part of, and He sent me two that seemed perfectly fashioned for me. I need to be around ladies who celebrate, decorate, bake, know how to exude joy and love the way only women can. I have received back sisters and mothers, not having my own here with me at a time I wish they were.

As I put up lights, write our cards, think about buying gifts, choosing music for worship, and try to make my own home more outwardly joyful, I long for all of that to be a chosen way of acclaiming my Savior in this season. I want Him to see the lights, hear the music, feel my joy in re-entering life this Christmas. We sang "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" this past Sunday, and one verse says of Christ, "Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel". He was pleased to come and live with us. That thought just makes it hard to stay on the ground! So in all you do this Christmas, do all to acclaim our God who gave everything for us.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

joy to the world

I've had to decide something this week. My daughter made it clear that I had to, and I knew she was right. She was adamant that we would not have a lame Christmas like last year. The two-foot fiber optic tree just didn't cut it this year. Well, last year no one really felt like doing much to celebrate. We passed our first Christmas minus our son, who was behind bars. So what I had to do this year was decide to be joyful and to celebrate. It did take a decision. My first one was to go to a ladies Christmas luncheon that I had hemmed and hawed about for weeks. I was invited, but somehow I kept forgetting to bring the money. Well, come the Saturday of the luncheon, I got everything done I needed to, got dressed and drove myself to the event.

I got to the church and already felt better as I looked around at the tables. Everyone was dressed up, the whole church hall was decorated and our table was the best, even if I do say so myself. I dubbed it the Auntie Mame table because it was covered in white feathers, crystal, fake snow and everything shiny. It made me happy just to sit down. And of course our table was also the loudest and the most fun, it being made up of the ladies from my Wednesday small group. I enjoy them all so much. And right behind us was the chocolate fountain table, so all you had to do was lean your chair back to stick your head in it, which I was tempted to do. There was also catered food, and a bakery cake-everything a mom might do for a Christmas meal. I began to be very thankful for what had transpired in our lives, in that it brought all this and not only all this, but a deep appreciation for the joys of life. Suffering and separation has a way of doing that. The scriptures say the ability to enjoy life comes from God, and I do believe that. I wish that we didn't have to go through the difficulties of life, but being that we all do, there is only one way to do it, and that is to make good times and live in the moment, because how quickly they can slip away.

I did leave the luncheon early, after the meal and lots of good conversation, just because I wanted to hurry home and clean to decorate. I pulled out boxes today and started in. The house already looks better and seems happier. There is a deeper decision here. It was hard coming, and will be harder still I'm sure, but I know it's right, and that is to separate myself. I love my son and I always will. But my being sad or grieving inordinately does not help him. I have to remember this about other relationships as well. We need to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn, but there are appropriate seasons for this, and the season of mourning is over. It's time to rejoice!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

the other side

This past Wednesday I went back to where it all started for my son-the county lock up. I both anticipated and dreaded it, driving up to that out-of-place, grey spectre of concrete that looks like a castle of doom in the middle of an average city. It really does have towers. It is a drab and cheerless place both inside and out, and it feels so like a body is entering a colorless world or hell's anteroom when entering the main gate. Even the men that staff the front desk are like cartoon characters and I have to keep pinching myself to remember, real people with real lives work here and are housed here. There is a feeling of an entirely separated reality in prison.

The reason I went back is that I want to volunteer in a mentoring program designed for short-termers, the object being to give spiritual support and a connection to the outside world, particularly when the inmate is released. The temptation to return to life as it was is so great. Chaplain Tom told me there are many inmates who have conversion experiences in prison, but no one to come alongside them to help them grow. Volunteers are so desperately needed. I got a tour of the facility, and it was strange being on the other side of the visitation glass. I remember coming twice a week for almost a year to visit my son, and how I resented those phones! We went up to the ladies' block so I could have an actual look at the cells and some familiarity with the living conditions. He told me one of the women's jobs is to wash the "plastic ware" for the kitchen-there were huge vats of it in the hallway on the block. He said most of the women were there due to involvement with drugs. We made our way to the elevator to go down, and by mistake it went up to the men's block and the doors opened. I immediately stepped behind the chaplain and admittedly felt a quick stab of fear. I'm sure I know some of the young men who are serving time, but at that moment the doors couldn't close fast enough.

I was interviewed and received materials to help me do my job. I did ask the chaplain for any resources he felt were indispensable to help me understand life in prison, and he gave me Lenny Spitale's book, Prison Ministry. I took it home and started to read. The author served time and is now involved in prison ministry, so he has the perspective of a person forcibly incarcerated and willingly behind bars to serve those people he was shared his life among. I found myself getting more and more agitated as I read the description of inmates' emotions. It's still so hard to separate myself from my son. I'm praying that because I do experience those emotions so personally I'll be an empathetic and wise volunteer. I can't help but feel I'll receive as much benefit to all of this as the person I'm assigned to. I think I'm ready for the other side.