Monday, July 18, 2016

So What Are You Doing Today?

In my late thirties I experienced an adult call to faith in Jesus. My adult conversion made me a member of what I’ve heard called “the community of the silly grin.”
It was a feel good experience, but you know feelings – they are ephemeral. They always pass. Faith is what sustains you after the initial rush has passed.
As I think wistfully of those first giddy days, the parable of the prodigal son comes to mind. It appears in the gospel of Luke, chapter 15, verses 11 to 32. A brief paraphrase:
A wealthy farmer had two sons. The younger one came to him one day and said, “I want my inheritance now.” The farmer cashed out half of everything he owned and gave it to the boy.
The kid took the money, moved to the city, blew every penny, and ended up homeless.
He got a job tending swine. He remembered that his father’s farmhands (slaves) lived in well-fed comfort and security, and he decided to go home, and ask his father to let him work as a hand on the farm.
When he was almost home, his father saw him coming, and ran to meet him with joy. The son protested that he was not worthy to be his son, but the father commanded his slaves to put the best robe on the boy, and a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet, and to kill the fatted calf so they could have a feast and celebrate, because “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
See, that’s how you can feel when you have a conversion experience. You feel like you are the prodigal son, welcomed with joy and celebration. You see no reason why you should be greeted so warmly and treated so well after the life you’ve lived. There is joy, and relief. You’ve come home to where you belong. It’s pretty cool.
But whoa – the prodigal son had an older brother, remember?
When the older son heard what was going on, he was angry. He went to his father and said, “Hey, I’ve been working for you all these years, I’ve never disobeyed you, and you’ve never given me so much as a goat so I could party with my friends. My brother spends half your property on whores, and you kill the fatted calf for him. What’s the deal?”
The father tells the older son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:31-32, New Oxford Annotated Bible)
This parable applies to mothers and daughters, by the way. The story was written down in second century Palestine. They weren’t big on inclusive language.
Over time I have become more like the older brother. I try to do the best I can. But after years of keeping my hand to the plow, I sometimes wish someone would grill up a little fatted calf for me.
Note: These days we are eating vegetarian at Casa Tuel, and the metaphor breaks down. If we had a fatted calf, we would name it Sweetie Patootie or something like that, and probably let it come in the house.
So sometimes faith can be tested. Sometimes prayers feel a lot taking the recycling to the transfer station. After I let go of them, what happens to them? Where do they go? Do they do any good?
And look – so far no prayers, no creeds, no laws, no cults, no one and nothing have been able to stop war, or the killing, torture, and abuse of people and all living creatures. It is the saddest thing in our sad world, the way we treat each other and creation. Why, when so many people, atheists and agnostics as well as people of faith, work and pray and long for all that to stop, does it persist?
I have no answer to that question.
I read an interview with Sherman Alexie a few weeks ago in which he said, “I’m going to approach everything I do with as much love as possible. I fail impossibly like most of us, but I still try.”
I like to believe that most of us live by some version of that principle, whether we have faith or not.
So, all you rounders and scoundrels, all you angels and do-gooders, all you religious and non-religious, all you people who labor each day in pain but keep putting one foot in front of the other: I pray we may give each other quiet companionship and shower one another with blessings, love, peace, and grace today. Everyone needs those things, people of faith or people of no faith.
Why? Because we all have to get up in the morning and keep fighting evil. It’s good to know we don’t have to do it alone.
Can I get an amen?

O Death

O death
O death
Won’t you spare me over to another year?

I remember how terrifying the thought of my own death was when I was young. There were horrible nights lying in bed shaken to my core by fear.
But as we get older we begin to get used to the idea of death. If we live long enough, we may feel that we have accomplished some or even most of what we wanted to do in this life. We have seen other people pass out of this life, some of them tragically young, but others at the end of long battles with ruthless and progressive illnesses, people who have come to see death as a blessed release. As our time goes on, for some reason it becomes a little less terrifying to think of dying. You actually can see how you might be tired or ill enough someday to relax and let go of living.
The thought of having no tomorrows, no choices, and realizing that you’ll never pursue a dream again, though – that still feels like a drop off a precipice to me. What? Time’s up? So soon? That stinks.
I had the opportunity to feel and think about dying recently when I had a TIA. Now I feel ready to grab life with both hands and shake that mother down for all it’s worth. Suddenly it seems so important to live as fully as I can. To spend time with people. To sing, to laugh, to love. To get out there and be. I don’t want to be, as the joke goes, so heavenly minded that I’m no earthly good.
Which brings us to the afterlife. As a Christian, how do I view the afterlife?
In Baptist Sunday school I was taught that when I died I would go to heaven and be with Jesus, providing I was saved, and there would be angels singing and streets lined with gold and everybody I loved and who loved me would be there and I would be happy for eternity.
I like that heaven. I would love to believe it is so with all the earnest simple faith I had as a child.
People who have had near-death experiences have come back to talk about how it was so peaceful and wonderful. They talk about a bright light. They talk about being greeted by people who had gone on before them. This is similar to that Baptist heaven in some ways, except that many of these people are not what they or anyone else would call saved in the sense the Baptists meant it.
I love those stories. I dearly hope that’s exactly what I experience when I die.
Of course there are scientists who postulate that those blissful death experiences are a part of the body shutting down, just a normal function of our oxygen-deprived biology as we die.
Talk about harshing my mellow.
I’ve heard of people who remember nothing at all of death. My father-in-law was allergic to bee venom, and once as he was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge a bee came in the car window and stung him in the neck. He managed to make it all the way to the Presidio hospital, and gasp, “Bee sting!” before passing out and dying. They brought him back, but he was angry forever after at psychologists, mostly, who asked him what he saw while he was dead.
“Nothing! I saw nothing! Damn psychologists!”
So that was his story.
Then there was Rick’s Grandma Florence. She died in the hospital and felt all the bliss that so many people report, but a huge angel told her, “Florence, it’s not your time. You have to go back.” She didn’t want to go back, but the angel apparently wasn’t budging on this point, so she did, and lived on several more years.
People who do remember that blissful place say they no longer fear death now that they know what it is. I don’t have that sort of fearlessness but I sure love hearing about those experiences.
Mind you, my theology has changed. If our spiritual tradition teaches us that God created and loves humanity unconditionally, and mine does, then it follows that we are all going to heaven. All of us. I hope we get along better dead than we do alive.
It is natural to wish some people to hell – I’m sure we all have candidates in mind – but as I once said in a song I wrote, God is a much better sport than any of us. She simply is.
Can’t wait to hear the backchat on this essay. Blessings, peace, and grace to you all.

“O Death” is a traditional American folksong that has been recorded many times since the 1920s. Probably the most famous version is the one done by Ralph Stanley for the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” If you want to get a little chill, look up the lyrics. They do not equivocate.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Thanks for the … uh … memories.

I read the other day that when a mother is pregnant with a boy, some of that boy’s DNA is shared. It travels in the blood up into the mother’s brain, and moves in permanently, kind of like the kids do in their twenties.
The baby DNA doesn’t simply hang around there after it sets up shop, either. It helps to shield the mother from Alzheimer’s Disease. That’s what this learned treatise, probably something I saw on Facebook, claimed.
I gave birth to two sons, and my first thought upon reading that factoid was, it’s not working well enough.
Not that I have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Yet. It’s just that day by day I seem to remember less and less.
Memory lapses can be disturbing. It is no consolation to me that if I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease now, it would be too late for it to be early onset. Being part of the statistical attrition of my aging cohort does not feel like a great honor.
It’s scarier when we get older. We feel the jolt of the blank mind, and we fear the implications. Is this it? Is my brain leaving and taking me and my personality with it? We have all seen this happen to people, people whom we miss. We’ve seen caregivers ground to an exhausted pulp. It ain’t fair and it ain’t right, but it happens.
We find ways to work around the everyday forgetfulness: I always hang my purse in the same place. I always put my keys in the same pocket of the purse. That may sound like pretty simple basic organization. Wasn’t I already doing that? Well, yeah. You can only walk around the house so many times searching everywhere, muttering and cursing and missing ferries, before you decide to take action.
When I park in any large parking lot, I look around before I walk away and orient myself so I know where the car is, and what landmarks are nearby: “Yes, it’s at the end of the row that’s across from the rain shelter.”
I started doing that years ago when I forgot where I was parked in the Thriftway parking lot. I was talking with a friend, having such a good time as we walked out of the store. We said good-bye, and then – what? I had no idea where I’d parked. I was lost in a sea of pavement and Priuses.
Eventually I found my car, but after that I got serious about parking place memorization.
Now I have a car with automatic locks, and if I press the button on the key fob more than once, the car honks and its lights flash. I’ve used that to locate my car a time or two. A friend told me that when she was shopping for cars, using the honking to locate the car was one of the salesman’s selling points. Apparently forgetting where you parked is extremely common.
So, what if I do develop some kind of dementia? Wow. That was a scary sentence to write, but I am at an age when I think about these things. I figure I need to make a plan now for that possibility.
I have a begrudging compassion for people who take their own lives before they lose themselves and become a burden to their families and society. Begrudging because in general people who commit suicide make me angry – you idiot, we still needed you – but I understand people who are suffering and feel like their lives have nothing left to offer them, even if their lives still have plenty to offer the people who love them. I understand. Sort of. I guess. Okay, I don’t.
A medical person once remarked to me that while the short term memory fizzles out and disappears, the long term memory stays like a layer of mud in which the person is caught forever. Well, yes and no. I do have vivid memories of the past, but this morning I had an earworm of a song from 1960: “It was an itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini …” *
Now that is a long term memory I could do without. Too bad we can’t choose the memories we lose.

*Released in June 1960 on the Kapp record label, sung by Bryan Hyland. Written by Paul Vance & Lee Pockriss. It was a hit around the world, covered many times, and Vance described it as “a money machine” because he made millions of dollars from the royalties over the years.
Gee, I wish I’d written one like that.