Tag Archives: family

At the table: I’ll have a double handful right now, please

My dear son Kai returned to Montreal Sunday. I am so grateful he had a chance to spend two and a half days in Atlanta with me, a whirlwind of three doctors at two different Emory campuses. I made macaroni and cheese while he was here, (added bacon and subbed a little soy milk), and because the avocados were so pretty, I picked some up too. Thanks to the inspired presence of Michael and Kai, the guacamole got chopped bacon added as well.*

A friend took me to the grocery store Friday morning. There’s a sentiment too often inscribed on wine glasses and aprons these days, but during WWII, steely-eyed Londoners reminded each other to “keep calm and carry on.” I suspect it’s a cultural thing, perhaps a gender thing, but “carrying on” has always led me straight to thoughts of my belly. No matter what happens, we all have to eat, right? So, although I could not rationalize it one single bit, it felt okay for me to be in the grocery store Friday morning with my life in slo-mo shatter all around me.

I found the okra but they had black spots. “Do you have any fresh?” My friend who carried me to the market is a mind-reader. The produce manager smiled at her and returned in short order with a bin of okra pods, green as God intended. As I sorted, I remembered to breathe. I was looking for the short, tender pieces. The new ones, more fuzzy than spiny. I focused, sorted, breathed. I began to see how I might carry on.

I had my 90-day check-up last week, and here’s the bad news:  five new lesions on both lobes of my poor old liver. Here’s the good news: I’ll be starting hormone shots soon, and these may shrink or slow the tumor growth, alleviate some of the nasty GI symptoms, and also act as markers for targeted radiation therapy

I remembered all the times I’ve picked okra. My daddy used to grow a little bit in the backyard, when I was little and we lived in Kansas. He showed me how to pick the tender pods before the spines got mean. He taught me how to make snapdragons yawn and he teased my mom about her fierce loyalty to Jiffy corn bread mix for breading okra. But he kept a box of Jiffy mix in his cabinet for the rest of his life.

This put a smile on my face: remembering all the many, many times I have splashed that sunny yellow Jiffy mix, oil and beaten eggs across all the many stoves I’ve owned. The innumerable skillets full of the most delicious, tender, crispy, sweet, salty sliced joy from the garden that I have proudly presented to a tableful of guests, guarded at the kitchen counter, jealously hoarded for a latecomer. The buckets of sweat that have poured down my face while ceiling fans and floor fans roared and percolated the sultry Alabama air.

“Look.” My friend had found the discount rack. “This is the best risotto ever and it’s only a dollar.”

I wouldn’t bite. “It’s out of date.” I went back to fondling fuzzy baby okra pods.

“No, it’s not. Have you ever had homemade risotto?” Well, no, I haven’t. Or rather, I hadn’t up until then. She convinced me. I bought it. A pound of fat, unsullied white mushrooms, selected slow. And a pair of strawberry cartons on the fly on the way out the door.

I wanted to cook the risotto first, since I’d never tried it before. You have to stir the stuff nonstop. Thankfully I had enough clout to press Kai and Michael into service. It was good. But the okra? It was heavenly. It was love-on-a-fork. It sang to me of my mother, my children, my past. I was tired and didn’t make it as carefully as I might have but Kai knows his part.

“Best okra ever.”

We finished up the odd meal with lots and lots of strawberries and canned whipped cream and those perpetually stale dessert cups. Nectar of the gods, I tell you.

This thing we humans do, this preparing and sharing of food. It has such power in it. My friend Ellen Beaumont Ballard, my friend Margery Thomson, my friends Phyllis and Anne and Melanie, Bridget and Carole and Tommy, all my parish family who have scraped little bits of orange cheese on celery sticks, dumped a box of crackers on a plate, put another pot of coffee on. We know that power. My entire life, the go-to response to strong emotion is food.

I was at a memorial service recently, for a man deeply loved by his colleagues, students, and family. We spent the weekend together at Bald Rock Lodge on Cheaha Mountain. An army of people, from age ten to ninety, kept food and coffee and sodas and snacks piled high on tables stretching the length of the room. Waves of people came in and out, migrated to the patio, down to the motel pool, out to the lawn. They laughed and loved and remembered their friend. I watched, mostly. And although I didn’t know Dr. Olander or his family, I was nourished. In fact, when we left, I was flourishing. Renewed and reinvigorated.

Lucky me, I got to go to a wedding in early June, too. We sat under the summer trees near the Platte River, long rows of picnic tables, and ate pie and danced, celebrated love and family ties, and those tables, too, were overflowing with something, some power greater than mere calories, physical sustenance. All these long, laden tables I have been invited to, stumbled over, contributed to the bounty or not, they sustain me now.

I had my 90-day cancer check-up last week, and here’s the bad news: CT scans show five new lesions on both lobes of my poor old liver. Too much for surgery. Here’s the good news: I’ll be starting hormone shots soon, and these may shrink or slow the tumor growth, alleviate some of the nasty GI symptoms, and they’ll also act as markers for targeted radiation therapy if that becomes an option. My original prognosis, a 20% chance of surviving five or more years, hasn’t changed. I like my Emory docs; from what I can tell from my research they’re near the top in treatment of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer.

If you know me well, you know I’m the most gullible person alive. I believed in jackelopes till I was thirty (what, my dad would mislead me on that??). I’ll spot fairies and djinn and angels at the drop of a pin. I prefer this world with a dusting of magic. Perhaps because I want to see it, I do. Even so, I have company in my capacity to believe. Any number of my cousins would swear to the presence of the Holy Spirit at sweet Olivia’s wedding in Omaha. Great clouds of angelic white moths swarmed the memorial celebration at Cheaha. Discouraged, aching hearts are renewed and encouraged and restored over and over, and simple kindness blooms underfoot in all directions. Beautiful things that should not happen, do.

Maybe it was just luck that allowed Kai’s schedule to fit in a trip to Atlanta. I think my Higher Power knew I needed my son to be with me and Michael when we got that news, and then to meet my great psychiatrist at the Winship Cancer Center, and my incredibly compassionate pain management doctor. I’m so very glad I could fry okra for Kai, and spread a tableful of love, nevermind that we ate off plates in our laps in front of the tv.

As a Christian, the Table with the deepest significance for me is the altar where I gather with my brothers and sisters to feast on Christ’s sacrificial love. One of my favorite preachers described that table once as extending, somehow, from my beloved parish home Saint Andrews, to heaven, through time and space, filled end-to-end with all whom we have ever loved and lost and all those who are to come.

That Table, now. It is in my heart. And so, dear friends, are you. I often don’t feel like eating at all these days, but whatever you’re serving up that can’t be tasted or seen yet warms the heart? I’ll have a double handful, please. Right now.

Will you tell me about a time when you’ve found more than food at a table full of folks? Or if you don’t feel like writing it down, just take a moment and remember what it feels like. We’ll make the world a little more beautiful, one thought at a time.

*My most recent favorite t-shirt slogan: “Because of bacon, I know Jesus loves me.”

 

What’s a good read worth?                 

Good Book Upstairs, Big Book Downstairs

The tension between writing what interests me and writing what makes money has been a constant in my career. I’m delighted to report that my decision to write about recovery has resulted in my first publication in a national, glossy print magazine. Thanks be to God!

I picked out the photos, too. (Boasting now)

Take a look, I’m proud of it:

upstairs-downtstairs

This is me, asking for help.

Hey, is this your image? Artist unknown but appreciated. Stencil on concrete, circa 2013 From my camera.

Hello, my friends. It’s been confirmed. I have fourth stage pancreatic cancer, a type of rare and relatively slow-growing neuroendocrine tumor. The five-year survival rate is 20-25%. I’m getting care at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Center in Atlanta; they have a specialty clinic for this type of pancreatic cancer. I am praying and scheming to make my personal 5-year survival rate 100% and you are already drafted as a co-conspirator.

I’m so very fortunate in so many ways! I’m frequently staying with Michael. His new place in Atlanta’s Westside is comfortable, convenient and cat-equipped. I have a decent chunk of life insurance and short-term disability resources, due to my early adventures in advertising (I sold myself on the idea while creating the advertising for it, an occupational hazard). But these benefits take time to line up.

For a year now work has been difficult and symptoms like pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting have made writing to deadline stressful. Since my surgery in October, narcotic painkillers keep some pain at a distance, but with the unfortunate side effect of distancing myself from my brain as well. These same issues, plus geographic distance, are complicating my ability to earn from my other business, hosting international medical students for 3-6 month stays.

So I’m asking for that kind of help, too. Financial. If you can kick in a few bucks, I would really appreciate it. I’ve been shitty my whole life about writing thank you notes, but I will post a thank you note of at least 1,000 words for every $350 raised. I love you.




Love Wins

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Michael and me at Dragon*Con in September.

Every year, my parish family compiles a book of Lenten Meditations. We’re each asked to read and reflect on the day’s assigned scriptures from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospel. This year, I chose to write about the epistle: 1 Cor. 13:1-13. Here’s what I wrote:

Choosing between the readings assigned this year was tough. I want to share with you that the voice of God from the burning bush was actually the voice of Charlton Heston, Moses’ own voice, as portrayed in the classic “The Ten Commandments.” I’d like to talk about how I struggle with belief, like the boy’s father from the Gospel reading, and how his cry “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!” resonates for me. But that would be too easy.

Instead, here’s a confession: every time I hear those verses from Corinthians, for almost thirty years now, I gnash my teeth or cringe or crumble a little around the edges. I can’t love people like that. I can’t be always kind or eternally patient; I get angry without cause. I hold grudges. This winter, by God’s grace, I keep reading. I’ve spent so long being angry at St. Paul for pegging me as less than perfect, I’ve missed the rest of the story.

Every time I hear those verses from Corinthians, I crumble a little around the edges. I can’t love people like that.

What has come to me, softly, gently, is that God is describing Her feelings for me. God is telling me I can know everything, endure all hardship, even move mountains, but it means nothing until I know in my heart and my head just how perfectly I am loved. Love is the key.

A friend of mine was photographed last year holding a sign saying simply “Love Wins.” When I saw those words, my heart expanded three sizes or more, just like the Grinch. (I’ve already confessed my commonalities with that mad, sad green creature.) Forgive me, deep thinkers and theologians. That’s my spiritual core in two words: Love wins.

If it’s human love, it will be flawed. No matter how desperately I might strive for it, I can never be anything other than human in this life. I hurt people; people hurt me. I can work to love myself better, I can try to be a more loving sister, daughter, friend, mother, but I will fail, at times spectacularly, just like everyone else.

But leaning into God’s love, I’m discovering a love that never fails. One which “…always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” At precisely the right time in my life, in the winter of 2016, I have shed a little more resentment, looked deeper into my fears, glimpsed, dimly, that which I have yearned for all my life. I am fully known, and perfectly loved. Love wins.

Sharing Space In The South

Version 2I love my hometown. My family moved to Birmingham when I was ten, so I didnt have much say in the decision, but Ive made a conscious choice to stay here over and over through the years. Ive only regretted it intermittently, usually in August or a hellish hot September.

I saw poverty at close range for the very first time on our journey south, and it struck me to the core. With the advantage of hindsight and more than forty years, I recognize the irony: coming from an affluent suburb in the Midwest, poverty was in fact all around me; I just never saw it, since I never left the elevated interstate highway on my journey from one enclave of privilege to the next.

Since then, traveling back and forth to the Midwest to see family (and satisfy my wanderlust) has given me lots of time to think. I am always happy to go north and west, and equally happy to leave. Overstuffed with family, memories and togetherness, driving east and south toward Alabama, I never feel quite at ease until I hit Memphis.

In some inexplicable way, everyone who shares my Southern space is connected in a way that my blood relatives are not. That is, I think, at the root of something that is both a blessing and a curse for us Southerners. 

It took me years to figure it out: the Midwest is fairly homogenous and mostly light-skinned. I see people of color going about their daily lives just like me when I get back to the South. It feels good, somehow, to exchange a smile or a joke with people who dont look like me. Even though they dont look like me, they are somehow familiar, even comforting. In some inexplicable way, everyone who shares my Southern space is connected in a way that my blood relatives are not.

That is, I think, at the root of something that is both a blessing and a curse for us Southerners. (I hope you dont mind, in my better moments I do consider myself a Southerner.) Black and white, we live in such close proximity we dont have the luxury to pretend the otherdoesnt exist. Its easy enough to celebrate racial harmony when the nearest black person is in a different school district. In the decades since desegregation, living elbow-to-elbow naturally creates friction.

As ten-year-old me went swimming in the newly desegregated Birmingham City pool in Crestwood, I was astonished to observe the soles and palms of the boisterous black kids surrounding me. They were a vivid pink, just like mine. It quite simply blew my mind.

That was one of the first in a long series of tiny epiphanies about togetherness and otherness. Instead of only thinking about things which make me separate, without really knowing it, I also began to store up observations about what makes us alike.

My fourth-grade class at Comer Elementary School had a single black student. She and I both kept to ourselves, I noticed. I invited her to my birthday party, and she came with the rest of the girls, uncomfortably dressed in her Sunday best. That day I was introduced to the sweet-savage Southern nicety that theywere often happierwhen left to themselves.I only gradually came to understand that my isolation was temporary and self-imposed, while hers was not.

This unceasing patter of seemingly insignificant observations has changed me. Often I feel certain they are a gift from God, a source of spiritual growth. Sometimes its inconvenient, like the realization that the lady who beat me to a prime parking spot deserves it just as much as I do. No matter what, seeing these commonalities makes my love for my hometown deeper, richer and at times, more difficult to reconcile with easy platitudes about race and racism.

Redemption Takes Wing

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Kai, Corey and KJ visited Zion Cemetery in June 2015 and left just the right gifts for Papa C’Mere. RIP!

2/18/15

My sister and I buried my father’s ashes on a cold gray day last spring. We were at Zion Cemetery in Blaine County, Oklahoma, not too far from the farm my family settled illegally and then claimed in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. You can see two sets of grain elevators from the graves of my grandmother, great-grandmother, great-aunts and now my dad. There’s not much else to see other than the ever-changing sky, a tiny abandoned church and an honest-to-God outhouse with a crescent moon carved into the rough wooden door.

It was really cold. Two days before, I had stared in amazement as snowflakes spiraled down outside the window. I had planned to camp out; it was the second week in April and who would expect snow right before Easter? On Palm Sunday, I sat in church and felt the earth tremble; an earthquake, my aunt told me brightly, a common occurrence in Oklahoma these days. A few hours later, the tornado sirens howled; a twister was tearing up the plains somewhere south of town. Oklahoma felt apocalyptic last April.

We scraped some dirt over the urn. A prayer would have felt pretentious. I’m not sure my dad even believed in God when he died. My sister and I held hands and sang a chorus of “Amazing Grace,” the wind snatching the notes off our lips.

It was too cold and I was out of kilter. We poked our heads inside the abandoned church; the windows were long gone, leaving only four walls of rough whitewashed brick and a rusty tin roof. Animal droppings littered the empty structure, huge, bigger than my thumb. The thought of an animal that size was frightening.

Two days later it was Good Friday, bright and warm. I was facing a sixteen-hour trip south, but Zion Cemetery called, and I obeyed my instincts.

On my way out of town, I heard bells. It was noon. My lovely little church in Birmingham has a most solemn Good Friday Service at noon; it begins with the church stripped bare of all its banners and fancy drapery and the clergy lying full-out face down on the floor around the altar.

Again an inner voice whispered, just as I passed a church. I pulled into the parking lot and crept inside, late for the noon service. They were reading the Passion Gospel and a lady in the back smiled at me when she handed me a bulletin. As we read the familiar story of Christ’s trial, persecution and crucifixion, my world and my heart began to settle into a rhythm: powerful, soothing and good.

My spirit was almost light as I left the church, and I stopped at a store to assemble a funeral feast. I got two pieces of cake, some bright ripe fruit, a little cheese, a styrofoam cup of macaroni and cheese. On an impulse I grabbed a handful of chunky, beaming sunflowers.

It took an hour to drive north of town, west down the highway past the grain elevators, then bump down the dirt road to the cemetery bounded by a rusty, sagging fence. It looked vastly different, which makes perfect sense: when the sky is nine-tenths of the display, a vivid blue infinity is a remarkable transformation from a lowering blustery gray.

I had a book with me, a funny one, by Terry Pratchett. I spread out a blanket under a splintery old cedar and read my book and laughed out loud. It felt good to laugh. My dad has a wicked sense of humor and he loved to read. I slowly ate half a piece of cake, savoring the joy of my dad’s sweet tooth and a family tradition of “dessert-first day.” I breathed, deeply: cedar, dirt, sky.

Now my heart was so light I was almost skipping. I scattered a few crumbs of cake a few feet away from the tree and invited the ants to my banquet. I laid the sunflowers in a row on the family graves and they smiled back at me: great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt, aunt, father.

I remembered I had a kite tucked away in my camping gear, and that endless sky cried out for a kite. I couldn’t get it up in the air; I have no talent for aerodynamics. But I tethered the string to the gravestone and it kicked around on the ground, yearning for the wild blue yonder. I sang a song from my favorite movie; it felt so good I sang another song, a Bible-thumping camp song from my father’s youth. I remembered his eyes match the Oklahoma sky on a bright spring day.

I thought, for no particular reason, of things that frightened me and decided to look inside the old church one more time.

I remembered the warmth leaving my father’s hands as I wept and let him go.

I leaned into the empty window frame of the old Zion Methodist Church and heard a storm of wings and wind and watched, transfixed, as a Great White Owl burst from the rafters, paused, as if posing for a snapshot, and whirled out the opposite window, an angel of a different kind.

I laid my daddy’s ashes to rest on Good Friday last year. Today, as Lent begins, I wonder where my journey leads me now.