The ER on a Saturday night: a glimpse of heaven or hell?

Alas, I ended up in the emergency room (or department, as they’re calling it these days) on Saturday night at 2:30 am.  Long story short, the hives that emerged out of somewhere had taken to my lips, and my husband and I worried they might make it to my tongue and throat, so off we went.  And then, because the kid was home alone (sleeping through all the drama, thank goodness) he left me there as I requested.

The guy behind the glass – which I assumed was possibly bullet-proof – was as calm and collected as can be.  Not a lot of warmth, but efficient.  The nurse who saw me in triage was as cheerful as a 7-months-pregnant woman can be at 2:45 in the morning, normal and professional, talking to me, all of which was part of her plan to assess my situation.  Then she said, “I’m going to take you to the lobby while I check on a room in the back.”

She wheeled me back to the lobby.  And what a sight it was.

A social worker was talking to a woman about anger management with children.  I did not want to know what that story was about, but since they were standing two feet in front of me, it was hard not to listen. A homeless man was stretched out over several chairs, getting a good night’s sleep in that clean, well-lighted place.  A person who did not speak English waited too, and I wondered how that was going.  In the 15 minutes I waited there, two more homeless men came in, and the guy behind the glass was as calm and collected – and not warm – with them as he was with me.  The security guy walked through a couple of times.  And then there was me, with my Angelina Jolie puffy lips and my itchy hands and knees, anxious that my throat might close and things might go south, quickly.

But they didn’t.  Instead I spent a few hours waiting, not sleeping, thinking.  Had I caught a glimpse of heaven or hell there in the lobby of the ER?  As far as I could tell, each of us who came through that door was treated equally – assessed, evaluated, left alone, tended to, cared for without a lot of warmth but cared for nonetheless.  Each of us who came through those doors needed help – for medication, for treatment, for sleep, for counsel.  Each of us left our full stories at the door – who we were, what made us laugh or dance, who were the people we counted on, what our last meal was, and with whom.  When we walked in, we were patients with a presenting condition.  That’s all.

Did I get a glimpse of hell in the lobby of the ER?  There were people whose bodies were breaking down, people who didn’t have a place to sleep or a community that would take them in, people who didn’t know how to manage their anger or their immaturity.  Were we a collection of souls in despair, cut off from the wholeness intended for us?

What I know is that I have a lot of resources and know a lot of people who would come to my aid in a heartbeat, especially my spouse, who shows his love for me every single day, even at 2:30 in the morning when I’m asking him to drive faster on our way to the hospital because I’m not sure if my shortness of breath is anaphylaxis or anxiety.  The church provides health insurance that will cover the majority of this bill that will be coming our way.  I know how to assert myself, and ask for what I need.  I am not an addict.  I have a home.  My life is good; heavenly, some of those people in the lobby might say.

When I left at 6:00 the lobby crowd had cleared.  The homeless men had found somewhere else to go.  The staff was in the middle of a shift change, so I didn’t get to thank the doctor or nurses and really, I just wanted to get home.  But I wonder where that woman went, if the conversation with the social worker helped her, helped the situation.  I wonder if the men made it to a shelter, or found a kindly person who would buy them breakfast.  I wonder if the nurses and doctors crawled into bed after their shifts ended, knowing they had done some good in the night.

Heaven or hell?  Maybe the difference between the two has less to do with judgment than with community.  For all of us fall short of the glory of God – the addict, the foreigner, the pastor with hives; all of us might deserve condemnation.

Yet all of us are beloved too, and maybe hell is nothing more than not having someone who will drive you to the ER in the middle of the night; not having someone who will take you in; not having someone who speaks that truth to you in love.

Maybe you and I will be the difference between heaven and hell for someone else.



Necessary annoyances

A few weeks ago at the dinner table, my daughter asked, “What’s something you really like but don’t respect?”  My answer was immediate.  “Nutella.”

That question has stayed with me and morphed into another: what’s something that is annoying but really necessary?  For aspiring musicians, I would say scales.  That same daughter has brought home a recorder, and let me assure you that the only way she will master this is by practice.  And if you’ve ever listened to recorder practice (or violin or any number of other instruments) you know that it can be a little… annoying.

For some, waiting is annoying.  I’m in the process of healing after surgery, and my mind is raring to go and my body is wanting to rest.  The last weeks of pregnancy can be annoying too.  Waiting for an answer to prayer can cause a mountain of crabbiness.  Good heavens, if God is omnipotent and hears all, why can’t my prayer be answered in neon lights, clear as day, within 24 hours of the request?  Poor customer service on the Almighty’s part, if you ask me.

Of late I’ve thought that democracy can be annoying too.  The process is long and sometimes excruciating, exposing our deep flaws (and maybe the deep flaws of the candidates.)  It’s a wasteful process, in terms of dollars and time and attention.  But in order for everyone to have a voice, and to have a vote, the impracticalities are necessary.  A benevolent dictator could streamline things, but I don’t think we want that.

Meetings in general may be one of the most necessary of annoyances.  In his delightful book Sum, David Eagleman explores what might happen after we die.  In one essay, he suggests that all the time we spend doing a thing will be lumped together; if we slept eight hours a night every day, and lived to be 80, then a portion of our eternity would be spending 233,600 hours sleeping – all at once.  If Eagleman is right (and I don’t think he is but it’s fun to imagine) I would spend a good 10,000 hours of eternity in meetings.  Were they worth it?

Picking up after the dog’s morning constitutional is a necessary annoyance; so is doing the dishes.  These things are annoying because I think there is something else I’d rather be doing, or it’s hard, or it’s dull.  But they’re necessary in order to have the other things I want: a clean house and neighborhood; consensus on decisions; healing; freedom.

But if you figure out the necessity of the annoying fruit fly, please let me know.




Ode to the post-surgery days

Oh wondrous scar, bumpy and red and ugly, how you have ruined bikini season for me!
And yet therein lies an escape: I shall always have an excuse to cover up.

Oh, makers of cards and floral bouquets! How my friends have supported your bottom lines in this past fortnight!  My shelves are laden with colors and comments, wishes and prayers, sentiments heartfelt and appreciated.

Oh occupational therapists and your kind! How clever you are, inventing the grabber and the walker and the cane, and that most marvelous of inventions, the sock puller-upper!  But how dastardly are those white compression socks on the unshaved leg.  Begone, constrictor! Your blood clot prevention work is done!

Oh church ladies and the moms! How generous you are with your offers of food and rides!  Our freezer shelves overfloweth with your goodness and mercy and soup!

Oh mother and mother-in-law!  How dear are your phone calls and voicemails!  I am FINE! I know how deeply you both longed to be here, yet duties at your own homes beckoned.

Oh friend Alison! What would we have done without you? Your example of how to sleep well is a lesson we needed.  Your meals, and the notebook of recipes you left behind, have sated us body and soul.  You have achieved the Mary Poppins Pinnacle of Care award, and we are still trying to devise a plot to kidnap you in perpetuity.

Oh spouse and child! How patient you are! How well you clear the floors of tripping hazards and allow my drug-addled brain to be more random than usual!

Oh new hip! May I and thou bond now and forever.


After the flood

Soon enough, this election cycle will be over. We will have winners and we will have losers. Some in the country will be relieved; others will be angry or disappointed or elated or packing up their things for Canada. The ads and robo-calls will stop. And that will be good. 

But I wonder, with all the effort that has gone into the election, if we’ve thought about what we will do when it’s over?  How will we make peace with ourselves as a nation? Or does anyone care about peace anymore?

I find Old Testament narratives helpful in giving us an arc for our own stories. For a while, all Noah and his family could think about was the flood – warning people about it, building the ark, gathering the animals, gathering the food. For a while, all they could do was endure the rain and waves and the stench. 

Then one day, it stopped raining and the clouds parted. Then, at long last, the dove came back with the olive branch, and the rainbow appeared. 

Were they ready for dry land? When they stepped onto that mountain, did their gaits shift from side to side as if still riding the waves?  Had they made any plans for after the flood, or had they been so focused on surviving they forgot there would be new life ahead?

This election cycle has felt like the flood for me. I’m just trying to get through it. I’m not pretending there’s no stench anymore. It’s dreary, this rain of ugliness and hate. But it will be over.  Soon. 

Then what?  

New life awaits us and I hope deeply that there are some who are thinking beyond November 8, because we’ll wake up on Wednesday and while we were all glued to Her and Him, other things – maybe more important things – happened. 

Babies were born and old people died. Refugees still sought hope and safety. Haiti was demolished, again. Racism is ever-present. Children in this wealthy nation – this nation which just spent billions of dollars in the election cycle- children still went home from school on Friday with no certainty of a meal until Monday. 

So if, on November 9, we’re licking our wounds or fist-bumping in victory, can we maybe not do that? Can we maybe say, the rain has stopped and the sun has come out and it’s too hot and humid for some, and some can’t get rid of their sea legs, and for others it’s perfect, but for all of us, it’s time to start healing?

I think about that dove coming back with the olive branch. I think too about a small sentence at the end of Revelation, about the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. (22:2)

What branches, what leaves will heal us after this self-inflicted strife?  Listening, maybe. Compromise, maybe. Changing some things, maybe. Letting go, probably. 

We can’t go back to our ante-deluvian days, rosy as we imagine them to have been. That ark has sailed. The dove will land with the branch of hope. There will be a new day. 

How shall we spend it?

Be Ye Kind

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel


Last week I had surgery for a total hip replacement. That has been a long time coming and I can now tell I have parts that move the way they are supposed to.  It’s fantastic.

In these past few days I have been absolutely overwhelmed by kindness and care from so many. At the top of that list are my husband, my child, and my friend Alison, who flew across the country to take care of all of us. And then there is the congregation, and my family, and the school moms, and pastors I’ve never met who’ve held me in their prayers, and old friends around the country who have emailed and texted and messaged, who have baked muffins and sent cards and flowers and chocolate, because they know me well.

I am grateful, too, to the hospital staff.  There they were, taking my vitals, checking in on me, telling me it would be okay when my blood pressure plummeted, putting on the helpful/unsexy white support knee socks, encouraging me through all that initial discomfort  and pain, waking me up through the night as they did their job.

You could say that all those hospital people get paid to be kind and caring. That’s true. As a pastor I know that because, in a sense, we get paid to be kind. It’s a big part of our job.

But what if it were everyone’s job to be kind? What if kindness were the true measure of our worth, and not our social status or our bank account? Wouldn’t that be something?

Kindness is there but it’s usually so small that it gets overshadowed by all that’s loud and angry and grumpy. I’m not sure kindness really works on the grand scale but I know it does on the small scale: helping someone get dressed or making a cup of tea. Bringing a magazine with Benedict Cumberbatch on the cover, and another with the newest, best restaurants. Staying away can be kind; so can stopping by.

Once I’m up and around I’m going to spend more time on the small kindnesses. I can’t fix the world. Hell, I can’t walk without a walker and good meds at this point. But I can be kind, and I will.

And you?

Foul-weather friends

If we weren’t in the midst of a hellish travail, it would be interesting to pay attention to who shows up when we’re in some sort of a crisis.

For as long as I can remember I’ve known the phrase ‘fair-weather friend’ – the kind of person who’s there when life is sunny and you’re at the top of your game, the kind of person who can’t be around tears or silent grief, shame, or failure of any kind.

But I’ve known people who are foul-weather friends. I won’t hear from them for months or years, but if there’s a crisis, they are there with a phone call or email or casserole.  And somehow they know just what to do – how to be present without being pushy, just when to express the gallows humor, to bring the big box of kleenex and not the little travel-size pack.

The best sort of friend to be, I suppose, is the all-weather friend, the one who’s there in that wedding vow sort of way – in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want.

One of the worst moments of my life (so awful I will not recall it here) came when I was away from friends but there was a handful that knew I was facing a terrible difficulty.  They didn’t call me, but when I called them, they picked up.  When I whispered the plea ‘please pray for me’ I knew they would.  I got through it, in part because I was supported by these people invisibly tied to my heart in good times and bad.  They showed up again, months later, for one of the happiest moment of my life.

If it were one of those forced-choice quizzes, would I rather be a fair-weather friend or a foul-weather one?

Truth be told, a foul-weather one.  Friendship takes time and energy and if I’m going to spend some of that time or energy, I’d rather spend it with someone in a bind rather than sitting back and sipping mojitos on some exotic beach with a friend who just won the lottery.

But if I were standing in front of the pearly gates and St. Peter were checking my account, would I be found faithful in my friendship?  Would he say, “There is joy abundant and you missed out on that”?  Or would he say, “You showed up when it was hard and the dawn was far off”?

I’ve realized the gift of so many kinds of friendship lately, and I’ll take what I get, which is folks who show up in the rain, and folks who show up in the sunshine, and folks who bring umbrellas, and folks who bring casseroles.

May I do the same.


Leaving a garden

Every morning as I walk the dog I pass by my neighbors’ garden, which is beautiful.  I think it took them a long time to get it to the place it is today, filled with beauty and grace and some whimsy.  They’ve lived there over twenty years, and I imagine they’ve been working on the garden for that long.  It’s a gift to me, and to the neighborhood.

When I was young, my grandparents lived in Tacoma.  The railroad tracks ran a few blocks away from their back yard, and when we spent the night there, we heard the trains go by in the early hours of the morning.  They lived next door to a diner, and when we’d get off the plane and drive to their house, we’d stop for lunch there and get hamburgers and wild blackberry milkshakes.  It was heaven.

My grandparents had gardens there, too – my grandmother grew roses and my grandfather had a vegetable garden.  Tried as he did, he never could get me to like lima beans, but he’d delight us with funny-shaped carrots and new peas.  Standing in the garden you could see Mt. Rainier in the distance, haughty and majestic and cold, such a contradiction from my grandparents’ sweet, small plots.

My grandfather died in that house.  A few years later, as the neighborhood changed and the diner became a massage parlor, my grandmother left.  The gardens went fallow.  The house was sold and eventually some owner tore it down – it and the massage parlor – and now a strip mall occupies that space.

I miss the house, with the view from the upstairs window of the drive-in far away, and the llama rug my uncle brought back from Venezuela.  I miss the dog run and the old black Lab Lady who lived there.  I miss the shed attached to the garage, full of Grandma’s canning.  I miss her roses, and I even miss his lima beans.  I miss them more, of course, but it has been a long time since they died.

I think about what it must have been like for my grandmother to leave that place and that garden.  I think about all those people who spend decades planting seeds, and tending to the plants, pruning and weeding and sometimes throwing something out and sometimes starting all over again.  A garden is so personal, such an effort of labor and imagination and hope.  And patience.  I can’t imagine what it’s like to leave such a labor of love.

I wonder if God was sad when Adam and Eve left that garden, sad that there was no one there to tend it anymore, or simply to appreciate it.  It’s such a lovely founding myth, the Eden story.  We know how Adam and Eve fared; they made it out alive and started over, but life was different after they left the garden.

It always is.