Sunday, December 26, 2010

Better Living Through Icons

Much of the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas break has been spent nursing a Herxheimer Reaction.  This is new lingo to me..... basically, it is a response to antibiotics killing Lyme spirochetes.  The dead bugs give off toxins that make you feel worse than you did as you get better.  Maybe I'll search for some spiritual meaning there later, but right now, I'm just plain annoyed with the entire process and hoping that this too shall pass.

This exile of rest has given me a lot of time to contemplate some of my many ruminations.  We enter a new season this year... JSB finally discharged from the hospital after nearly a year in involuntary commitment and in his new apartment; Pony Girl with a solid semester of college under her belt, ventured to a State to the South with a male friend for the holidays.  The holiday was quiet except for my rattling cough.

Okay!  An opportunity to pay some serious attention to my inner life -- which lately has been as neglected as the mountain of laundry in my closet.  What percolated to the surface of my consciousness during my contemplation was my icons; and, a suggestion that I consider them and look for that golden tapestry thread of meaning interweaving them.  Then, somehow apply this message to what is going on in my own life right now.

So, that's just what I did.  My first icon was this icon of Christ -- "Not Made By Hands,"  an icon of healing.  An icon of the incarnation of Christ.

The healing nature of this icon struck me during the period that I was working on it.  Not only was I in some serious prayer for healing for my son, but I was about to learn that I would soon be in need of physical  healing as well.  Not only that, but I was called to a ministry of healing through prayer and the laying on of hands.  What strikes me right now is the incarnation -- God has taken on human flesh.  I imagine this co-mingling of divine/human "matter" at the microscopic cell level.  So many places I could go with just that image.
My second icon -- Angel With Golden Hair.  Commonly referred to as Gabriel (but, as my teacher tells me, it could be Michael, too).

I am in love with him (actually, angels are androgynous and do not have gender, but whatever).  This Gabriel looks like a man in one of my dreams. Not a romantic dream, but he was very good looking.  It was a nightmare about losing JSB in the ocean during a Perfect Storm.  He just looked at me intently with the expression here and somehow I knew that everything was going to be okay.  He was also pretty illuminated in my dream.  So, I've decided to just call it a visitation. Could be my subconscious, but it was my dream and that's the story to which I will stick. 

There are so many things that pull me into this icon... The first is the golden hair.  In iconography gold symbolizes divine light.  So, this Golden-Haired Archangel is just glowing with Divine light.  The locks of hair are golden curls woven with more conventional brown hair.  Like the incarnation, it's this mingling or mixing of the divine with the more mundane and earthly.  This angel is a messenger of God.  The "ribbon-looking things" are actually receptors or antennae allowing the angel to hear direct instructions from God.  No discernment necessary, no wondering if this is a call, but simply marching orders.  God speaks, Gabriel follows directions.  The angel is an intermediary between heaven and earth - and after scaring the humans a bit - brings news that God wants the listener to hear.

Guess what, Mary?  Hey, Joseph, you know your fiancee?  I realize Gabriel still is bouncing between heaven and earth, following God's directions.  But, do we pay any attention?

This brings me to my latest icon, The Annunciation.  I've just started to trace this icon on the vellum paper in order to later transfer it to the gesso board.
Here we get to see Gabriel in action.  He has come to tell Mary that she is going to be the Christ Bearer.  Gabriel interrupts this ordinary girl from the ordinary task of sewing.  From that moment on, everything will change.  It's hard to see in the picture, but there is a heavenly beam descending toward Mary.  The Holy Spirit is coming upon her and here we have the beginning of the Incarnation.
There is so much to love in this story.  Mary's faith and trust prompted her to say, "Yes."  We know the story, we know what she endured as an earthly mother of a Heaven-sent Son.  

The recurring theme that speaks to me right now is the balance and interplay of that which is divine and that which is earthly.  As someone who approaches spirituality with a mystic heart, I appreciate and cherish those moments when I am aware of the presence of the sacred.  When I am certain that the Holy One is right there descending from heaven and resting with me.

I am grateful to be reminded that in the midst of this brown and ordinary life, there is a golden, heavenly thread reaching from heaven and enmeshing itself within my life.  Unlike Gabriel, I have no angelic receptors to receive marching orders.  Unlike Mary, I'm pretty sure my Angelic Visitation was a dream. What I believe this tells me is that I need to stop, be still, and rest knowing that the divine is all around me if only I seek it.  Seek it.

Maybe that was my Christmas Gift.  Enforced stillness and heavenly arranged solitude.

Friday, December 24, 2010


I haven't written for more than six months.  During the sweltering melt of this past summer, I discovered that I was host to new visitors.  Gosh, guess I had been ignoring these guests; eating me out of house and home and sapping me all my strength and energy.

A mother-in-law, you ask?  No, she would be a delightful visitor.  It's tiny little creatures making themselves too much at home in my system.  Lyme Disease?  Really?  Wow.  And what the heck is Babesia, anyway?  Apparently, I have been hosting spirochetes and protozoa unbeknownst to me for several years.  They have been sucking away for quite some time.. wreaking havoc and throwing my system all akilter.

So now I know.  In addition to being parent of a child with severe mental illness, parent of the sibling of a child with severe mental illness, I am now host to microscopic visitors who seek to dismantle my immune system and send me into all kinds of tithers.  Forgive me if I do not extend a welcome.  Get the hell out.

Here's the shift with which I struggle.  Years and years of parenting a child with a hideous illness.  My husband and I stood by and watched as the schizophrenia flourished and our son diminished. I spent years working with mental health professionals to help me come to terms with that.  Help me help my daughter work through it.  It was always about someone else.  Never, ever, was I the patient.

So, now I am a patient with a chronic illness.  I have so very much to learn.  It was always for my children that I would beg God.  Heal, protect, cover.  Now it's me. I am surprised that I struggle with that concept.  Yet I do.

God, on this eve of the birth of my Savior, I find myself getting ready to beg.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Lousy Lousy Lousy

Today, my husband and I went to our little storage unit to pluck some furniture out for Pony Girl, who is getting ready to go to college.  We have had this unit for more than four years.  We used to have a little house up north, and sold it when we realized it was more than we could handle.  So, into storage went the extra furnishings - waiting for JSB and Pony Girl to set up housekeeping.

Long story short, what we have pieced together is that the storage company somehow mixed up our account with another.  They thought we had the storage unit next to ours.  They thought the "alleged owners" of our actual unit had gone into default and so they auctioned off all of our stuff.  So far, the replacement cost is looking to be close to $10k.

The guy behind the counter couldn't reach the owner, so we get to stew until Monday or Tuesday to see if they are willing to compensate us fairly for our belongings.

I hope I won't throw a blood clot in the meantime.  Grrrrrrrrrr!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Blogger Award?

A while back, I received an acknowledgment from fellow blogger and teacher and friend Heather.  So, thanks, Heather for the Beautiful Blogger Award.  It's just now that I have a chance to settle in and consider the requirements as a recipient.
Thanks, Heather, for acknowledging my voice.  Blogging is not something natural for me; at times it's just plain awkward.  But, I'm just going to say it and see where it goes.

In accepting this award, I'm supposed to follow some rules.  Um, I like most rules, really I do.  But sometimes, I'm a bit of a rebel.

Here are rules to accepting the nomination:
1.  Thank the person who nominated you
2.  Copy the award and paste it on your blog
3.  Link to the person who nominated you for the award
4.  List 7 interesting things about yourself
5.  Nominate 7 beautiful bloggers (or however many)       
So, here I follow the rules with pleasure!.  Thank you Heather at Keeping A Quiet Heart.  I know there are many of us who pour a bit of ourselves into our blogs to connect, to speak, and to have a voice.  Sometimes it feels like you're typing into a big old cyberblog of  nothing -- it means a lot to know that someone is listening and responding.

So, seven interesting things about myself.  This makes me laugh.  There are more than seven things that are probably interesting, but I'm not going to tell you them!!  But, really, seven things that would interest anyone is a stretch.

Here goes ........
I grew up without a Dad influence ~ mine chose to start another family with someone other than my mom when I was two.  I didn't know what I missed out on until I witnessed my husband parent my kids.

I always felt like I didn't fit.  Things were easy for me, and other kids resented that, but they had no idea of how "outside" I felt.
I have learned more about life than anyone from my son JSB who has schizophrenia.   He gave me a whole new way to see the world.  To him, I am eternally grateful in more ways than I can express.

I've always felt fat - even when I wasn't.

I would love to write the Great American something.
Okay, let's get real dreamy -- I wish there was no stigma for mental illness and that there was a "cure" for schizophrenia.  
One more? 
 That's a secret!
I'm supposed to name seven bloggers as recipients.  I'll get back to you:)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Moving Forward - A Balancing Act

Just got off the phone with JSB's social worker.  There is good news.  He is going to spend two nights at the transitional apartment and then go back to the hospital on Friday.  This is a test drive to see how he likes the new digs, and to see if he will be able to handle the conditions of living there.

There is also a plan to switch to an injectable medication -- one that remains in his system for a longer basis -- because of his history with nonadherence to meds.   Like many individuals with schizophrenia, JSB lacks insight into his illness.  He doesn't believe he's sick.  Doesn't believe he needs meds.  I would love for that to be the case, would love for him to be able to manage without them.  The fact is, the idea of him going back to where he was last winter terrifies me.

Wow.  I just realized there is so much I could say about mental illness and medication.  Last night, at the board meeting of the mental health advocacy group upon which I sit, one of our members is a OT working on her dissertation about schizophrenia and med adherence.  She is doing great work trying to understand the attitudes of people who are prescribed anti-psychotics.

It's a difficult, controversial, and not a one-size-fits-all topic.  She indicated that based on her qualitative research, individuals are afraid that the medication will diminish their sense of "self."  Reason to be frightened indeed.  JSB believes the medications are what made him sick in the first place, and believes that he does not suffer from a mental illness.   In his case, and I speak only of his case, I believe that medication is a critical component to his continued recovery.  Medication is a tiny piece; there is so much more.  Medication does not define him - nor does schizophrenia.  But without medication, I have seen schizophrenia devour him.

I blogged about a fantastic program -Minds on the Edge blog a while back.  It really addressed head on the difficult issues of patient rights and involuntary treatment.  I have utmost respect for Pete Earley, Ellyn Saks, and the other panelists on the program.  It is a courageous conversation and it needs to continue.

And here's their website Minds on the Edge
At any rate, I didn't mean to digress on meds.

While this isn't what I imagined 22 years ago, when JSB blinked up at me in the delivery room, it's what it is.  I look forward to supporting him as he takes these steps toward independence and self-reliance - and pray that he accepts the assistance available to him and the terms of his occupancy.  Like any mom who dreams of her child taking their fledgling steps towards independence, I am holding my breath, stepping as far back as is necessary in order to give him room to gain independence, and sending many prayers his way.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Not Made By Hands fin

My first icon, Savior Not Made By Hands, is complete. 

I have to say, I am amazed by it.  It's important to point out that there is absolutely no way that I could have completed this by itself.  Note my previous post, Sharing the Pen.  My teacher is truly a master, and I feel grateful to be working with her.

It was my plan to keep this first icon for myself.  He would have a cozy little spot in my little "Inner Sanctum" room upstairs.  It's there I go and shut the door to pray, meditate, read, or just be.  It is filled with things I love - art from my children, my Grandmother's Bible, pictures of my grandparents and family, some icons, a collection of crosses, candles, a censer and holy incense, and books.... lots and lots and lots of books.

When I finished him, I immediately knew that he was not going to live in my little room.  I was compelled to give him to my church.  There was no choice in the matter, I simply knew that is where it was intended to go.  Iconography (and I associate myself with that term as a complete and utter novice) is an ecclesiastical art.  That is, it is intended for the church.  My teacher, Ms. Russian Master, reminded me to be sure to have it blessed on the altar and to use it in the church for prayer.  With her thick Russian accent, she exuberantly explained to me that it needed to be used for prayer because prayer is what ... what... she searched for the English word.  I think I understand, prayer is what deepens, enhances, and strengthens the mystery of that icon.  It's as if spiritual life is breathed into the "soul" of the icon through the prayers of the faithful.

An icon is not a pretty picture to hang on the wall.  It is much more about prayer and mystery.  Iconographers follow strict rules prescribed by the Orthodox church.  Every line and color has meaning.  The person or event depicted in the icon is a window that draws us into the sacred mystery of faith.  While writing it, you are suspended in prayer to the figure depicted in the icon.  It is a spiritual discipline rather than an art form.  It is not about the artist expressing herself; it is about Christ (in this case) expressing Himself through the prayerful writing of the icon.

So today at Wednesday Eucharist, my Priest Friend blessed the icon for me and asked me to say a few words about it.  I told the story of the legend of the icon -- how a Syrian king with leprosy was healed by a towel bearing the image of Christ's face.  I told how I was surprised that my first icon simply had to be this one; and how it made sense because when I began writing it, JSB was terribly sick and had just entered the hospital.  It made sense that I had to write an icon about the healing power of Christ, even though I had no idea of the story when I chose it -- or it chose me.

I told how I could attest to the healing power of Christ and how powerful the experience of spending time in prayer with this healing Savior was.  I told how JSB is preparing to move into a transitional apartment soon, and how fitting it was that I was working on this icon at the beginning and end of his six-month hospitalization.

But, most importantly, it was so clear to me how blessed I would be if others could spend time in prayer with this healing Christ, and if they experienced the healing power of his love, and if, in turn, their prayers fortified the mystery of this icon that leads us to Christ.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

About a month ago, JSB called his dad with a simple request.  Well, simple to most people I guess.  To us, magnificent.

"Hey dad, OU is playing baseball at UVA this weekend.  Can we go?"

Furball and JSB are rabid Oklahoma fans.  Furball grew up there and inherited this phenomenon from his dad.  This passion was, in turn, passed on to JSB.  On game day, the maroon socks and jerseys come out, and the afternoon is spent in intense and colorful commentary.  Emphasis on intense.  

I don't get it, really.  But, I do respect it.  I know that for my husband it brings back fond memories of his relationship with his dad (now deceased).  I also know that when JSB was in the throes of his untreated mental illness, this familiar ritual was abandoned.  Well, life as we all knew it was abandoned.  I didn't realize how deeply the absence of this tradition impacted my husband until one game day last fall.  He was watching the football game alone.  His voice broke with grief as he told me how much he missed watching the game with JSB. 

Like many men, Furball rarely reveals that depth of emotion to me or to anyone.  It helped me to realize, yet again, how important his love for and relationship with our children is to us all.  I am grateful for that.

So, back to baseball.  Here's what's magnificent.  For a long, long time, JSB was living inside his head, unaware of the reality of things around him.  He was hounded and haunted by voices, delusions, and paranoia.  In that state, he's not aware of ordinary things like college baseball and football schedules.  He's too busy battling his own demons.

Going somewhere with a lot of stimulation and people was impossible for him.  Not only would it overwhelm him, but his behaviors stand out as not normal, and quite frankly, scare people.   I can tell you, no one in our family is interested in listening to the judgment and commentary of these armchair witnesses of mental illness.  Come into the trenches with us.... then we'll talk.

Of course Furball jumped at the chance, bought the tickets, and went to State Hospital to pick up his son and take him to a ballgame.  They wore their OU colors, sat in the maroon section with the other Oklahomans, bantered with fans, and cheered their team to victory.  Then rushed back to State Hospital to get JSB back to his ward before curfew.  A couple of unlikely Cinderellas.

I wonder if the fans at that game realized the miracle they witnessed in the stands that day.  Such an ordinary thing, going to a baseball game.  To the casual observer it's just a young man and his dad who share a passion for all things Oklahoma doing what they  love.  What they love together.

  To us, yet another reason for hope, for joy, and for boundless gratitude.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sharing the Pen

I recently began an Icon Writing class.  My friend Lovely (former) Vicar invited me to join this weekly class when she became aware that I wanted to learn to write icons.  Yes, you paint them, but the term is to write an icon.  There is rich and deep theology involved in the process of writing an icon.  More on that later.

Our teacher is a master iconographer and is Russian.  Every Saturday afternoon she moves among her students and patiently tells us what to do.  She demonstrates the next technique, and then tells me to do it.  Sometimes I don't always understand precisely what she is telling me because of her thick Russian accent.  Sometimes it doesn't seem to matter if I understand or not because my attempts are awkward and highlight the fact that I am truly a novice.

There are so many things I find fascinating about this process, but what strikes me today is how we share the brush.  She will come and inspect my efforts, take my brush and restore my unfinished icon. 

A few strokes here, a little correction there, and voila!  It's beautiful.  When I joke that she is making it beautiful in spite of my efforts, she corrects me and says, "No, WE did it."

So, here it is thus far.  The halo is gilded, the face of Christ is coming along.

The process reminds me of what I do with first graders who are making their first attempts at writing.  We call it "sharing the pen."  They aren't ready to write conventionally, but it's so important that we encourage them to make an attempt.  An attempt that we accept.  My first grader might have a pencil, and I a purple felt-tip  pen.  They try to write a word and write down the sounds they hear (usually consonants) and I add the sounds they miss.  Together WE write.

My master iconographer teacher is doing the same thing with me.  She does not quash my confidence and encourages my willingness to take a risk.  When we allow mistakes, we allow learning to occur.  It's interesting for me to be in the learner's shoes again.  I am surprised sometimes at how frustrated I am.  A good reminder for this teacher of babes.

This leads me to think of God and his hand in my life.  I do my best to be faithful here on earth, yet I know that I fumble at every step.  I am comforted by the knowledge that God shares my pen and my brush.  

Thursday, June 10, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front

It's been a good while since I've written.  It just may be that life has been so normal lately.  I have been reveling in the mundane.  Ah, routine, regular life.  People don't realize how blessed that is.  I've been trying to pay attention to those mundane little miracles that surround me lately.

I sit on the board of directors for a local mental health organization.  Last night, I went to a meeting in the Department of Mental Health building.  I got off the elevator, and shuddered as I looked toward the room where I sat through more than one commitment hearing for JSB.  Just a little flash jab traumatic memory that made me wince.  I was so grateful to be attending a constructive and uplifting meeting and not a "We are going to cut your heart out now and stomp on it for a while, Mrs. Bell" commitment hearing for my son.

I was most grateful that JSB remains at the hospital with Western in it's name.  And it is all quiet there.  His commitment has just been extended another month, so we have until July.  That will make a full six months in the hospital for him.  Not to mention the two commitments before this last year.

He is doing so much better and for that I am grateful and immensely thankful.  I wish that I could say that there was no residue of schizophrenia left in him and that he has made a full and complete recovery.  Sadly, our nemesis schizophrenia loosens its grip, but does not let go.  I am so proud of JSB for hanging in there and working the program.  I cannot imagine what it is like for him.  It just occurred to me that I avoid thinking about that.  It's pretty unbearable when I really look at him with empathy and try to imagine his life and his sense of loss. 

The plan is that he will move into a transitional apartment in a small town about 90 miles from here.  A tiny apartment with privacy, a clubhouse with supportive programs and peers to help people integrate back into the community, and, I hope, receive a new lease on life. The tiny, ordinary apartment bursting with hope.  Hope for recovery and the portal to a life with dignity, depth, and meaning.

Thanks for your support, friendship and prayers for JSB and the rest of us.  It's been a difficult and treacherous road -  not unlike the unordinary and body-wrenching roads in Liberia.
It is so nice to know that we don't have to go it alone.  This torment of mental illness has been accompanied by an unlikely accomplice.  Grace.  Over and over again.  And I have learned to so adore the miraculous ordinary.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Blessed Good Friday

Pietà with Saints

OIL on wood, 239 x 199 cm
Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence




Thus, Jesus, do I see your feet again?
Those feet which last time were a slender lad’s,
When timidly I bared and washed them here;
How they forlornly stood among my plaits
Like, in a thornbush caught, a milk-white deer.
So now I see your limbs, unfondled ever,
For the first time, at this our lover’s tryst.
We never in our time lay down together;
Now to adore and watch is all there is.
But look, your hands are mangled at the center – :
What bites, beloved – they were not my own.
Your heart is open, anyone’s to enter:
That was to have been my door, mine alone.
Now you are weary, and your mouth too wry
To have a longing for my suffering lips -.
Jesus, Jesus, whence came our eclipse?
How quirkily we perish, you and I.

(The Best of Rilke trans. By Walter Arndt)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Tender Shoot

My, how things have changed since January.  

Metaphorically and concretely, we are emerging from a deep, dark, frozen winter and begin our transformation to spring.  Daylight, a touch of warmth in the breeze, and my favorite.... green shoots pushing away the saturated,, muck-covered earth to deeply breathe the freshness of the air and to reach toward the warmth of the sun.

I love the way these tender-appearing shoots can shove aside the wet, laden compost of winter, laying claim to this side of the soil.  Refusing to remain stifled by the weight of darkness or obstacle, they stubbornly poke through and proclaim rebirth, freshness, and joy.

Reminds me of Isaiah 53...
        He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
       and like a root out of dry ground.

A similar transformation occurs in JSB and I welcome this emergence with gratitude.

Before he entered the hospital and began to accept treatment, he was barely recognizable.  His descent into the underground of psychosis and delusion left me feeling despondent and helpless.  I cannot imagine what a hellish nightmare it was for him.  He was buried alive by his misfiring brain and completely disconnected from us and reality.  I wanted to reach through the quicksand of his illness and pull him back to me. 

So, here's my confession.  I had nearly lost all hope and was beginning to believe that only death could free him from this hideous torment.  He was well on the way to leaving this earth.   If he had not been hospitalized, I know that would have been the outcome.

But, there were different plans for JSB, thank God.  He is coming back to us.  Slowly and tentatively.  He still has schizophrenia.  It's not a "cure" we witness, but it most definitely  "healing."  There are limitations and a continued need for support, but there is connection, love, and a ripe potential.

I don't believe that it is a coincidence that he comes back to us during the springtime-- during Lent.  It is a time of preparation and reflection, of turning away from that which separates us from God, in order to fully experience the joy of the resurrection of Christ.  It's moving away from brokenness towards wholeness.

As I write and reflect on the latest in this journey with JSB, I am carried back many years to a time when he was about five-years-old.  He had already struggled with the beginning pangs of illness and the church knew and understood.  The Easter service began in the blackness of Good Friday - in darkness and bleakness.  

And then, as we sang Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, several members of the congregation processed bearing Easter lilies.  Like the tender shoots of spring, they burst through the darkness bearing beauty.  Bearing joy.

JSB was one of them, little kindergartner just beginning a very, very difficult life path, beaming and carrying his Easter Lily to decorate the altar.  To transform it from death to birth.  To resurrection and new life.

Thanks, God, for reminding me of that today.  And, please, continue to cover JSB with your blessing and protection.

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
       and like a root out of dry ground.
       He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
       nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
 3 He was despised and rejected by men,
       a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
       Like one from whom men hide their faces
       he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
 4 Surely he took up our infirmities
       and carried our sorrows,
       yet we considered him stricken by God,
       smitten by him, and afflicted.
 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
       he was crushed for our iniquities;
       the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
       and by his wounds we are healed.
 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
       each of us has turned to his own way;
       and the LORD has laid on him
       the iniquity of us all. 
Isaiah 53:2-6

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sacramental Moments

Sacrament - outward visible signs of inward spiritual grace to which the promise of Christ is attached.

Frederick Buechner writes about sacramental moments and describes them as times when something holy occurs.  Not only can they be sacramental rites of the church - eucharist, baptism, marriage - but they can be those blessed moments when the divine breaks through into the realm of ordinary, and graces us with the promise of Christ.

So, may I describe my sacramental moments of the past week?

JSB, currently receiving treatment in State Psychiatric Hospital, is thriving.  So says his case manager to us.  We haven't heard anyone use that word about him since perhaps when he was a baby having a well child check up.

Furball and I visit him on Sundays and are now able to take him off the hospital grounds for a three-hour pass.  Lunch at a non-institutional restaurant, some shopping, and just being together.  It's pleasant.  The three of us together doing regular things, things we haven't been able to do for years.  Things so many take for granted.

That in and of itself is sacramental.  But, foremost in my mind are two brief moments, where my heart swelled with joy and there was no question that the presence of Christ was profoundly experienced.

When we last saw JSB, I gave him a big hug.  I haven't been able to do this because for the past couple of years, he has been suffering from delusions that preclude him from loving me, let alone hugging me.  He wrapped his arms around me and said, "You're a good woman, mom."  

Five simple words left me profoundly blessed and forever grateful. 

Later that afternoon, my cell rang, and it was Pony Girl.  Pony Girl is three years younger than JSB.  Her relationship with her brother has been painful, confusing, and complicated. To ask a child to compassionately understand schizophrenic behavior is downright impossible.  It is hard enough to expect that from an adult.

She asked how he was.  I asked her if she wanted to speak to him.  They had a sweet conversation which ended by each telling the other that they missed each other.  I was in tears right there in the middle of the mall.

So, thank you, God.  For what you are doing as the Great Physician to heal JSB and the strained relationships in our family.  Thank you for breaking through time and time again.  Thank you for the lessons we have learned because of this experience; for richness and depth.  Thank you for leading us all to deeper waters and for calming the storm.

Thank you, Blessed Savior, for hope. 

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Unexpected Retreat

Thirty inchs of snow recently fell in my Little Burg, delivering the blessing of the teacher's favorite: Snow Days.  Several Snow Days. 

So far, we are slated to miss six days of school.  As I write, a ten- to twenty-inch snowfall presses in on us.  My non-teacher friends are not amused.  Parents of my small students are not amused.  But, I feel no guilt whatsoever.

I am delighted.

Not because I don't have to work (but, come on, who doesn't love an unexpected "Take the week off!" announcement?)  But, because I get to spend the day home bound with books, books, books.

My new favorite is Walter Brueggermann.  I've read him before, but never with the focus of the past few days.  I've been studying the prophets - especially Jeremiah - in an effort to figure out why this prophet is stalking me.  He appears in my dreams, my friends tell me that something in my life evokes a verse from Jeremiah, my prayer group prays it, he's in the lectionary one week, and then the next week even though he's not in the lectionary -- the priest preaches him.

So, Walter Brueggermann has written a lot on the prophets.  But, his gift, the one that has me doing virtual backflips is his poetic prayers.  Here's one:

A hard, deep call to obedience

You are the God who makes extravagant promises,
We relish your great promises
of fidelity
and presence
and solidarity
and we exude in them.
Only to find out, always too late,
that your promise always comes
in the midst of a hard, deep call to obedience.
You are the God who calls people like us,
and the long list of motehrs and fathers before us,
who trusted the promise long enough to keep the call.
So we give you thanks that you are a calling God,
who calls always to dangerous new places.
We pray enough of your grace and mercy among us
that we may be among those
who believe your promises enough
to respond to your call.
We pray in the one w ho embodied your promise
and enacted your call,even Jesus.  Amen.
In anticipation of reading Jeremiah 1-2/2000

Saturday, January 30, 2010

When Eviction is a Blessing

Prayers I hadn't yet prayed were answered today.  

Furball and I braved treacherous, unpredicted snow and a slippery mountain to remove JSB's belongings from his apartment.  Once again to be put in storage as part of the recurring  six-to-eight-month cycle of living in an apartment, involuntary commitment, long-term hospitalization.

We are determined to break this cycle, Furball and I.  But JSB thinks he can give it a try one more time on his own.  "Just one more time, mom, I know I can do it this time...."

Our plan was to get his things out and tell JSB he was evicted.  Then deal with the apartment rental company to get out of his lease.  You see, mental health services are easier to obtain if one is homeless.  Because, I guess, then it's an "emergency."   I'm not going to get started on the mental health laws and funding for services today.  Some day I just might blog on that.

Lo and behold, what greets us posted to JSB's door today?  Notice of Eviction.  Yay.

JSB, now recovering at State Mental Hospital, is in a kind of exile.  

I try to seek guidance in scripture when I struggle over anything.  Good old EFM taught the art of Theological Reflection.

I decided to take a look at some Old Testament Exile - since JSB is in a kind of exile, a No-Man's Land of homelessness and illness.  In my search, Jeremiah popped up.  Jeremiah has been popping up a lot with me.  He's kind of stalking me, so I think I need to listen. 

I've been paying more attention to this Prophet lately, trying to figure out how this Old Testament Prophet speaks to me through Scripture today.  What is the message for me and for JSB?

In his call to the exiles in Babylon, he wrote:

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." 

He told them to find peace in their city of exile.  They were going to be there for a long time.  I can pray that for JSB.  Instead of continually trying to live without support, find peace in your exile, JSB.  I've had to learn to seek the peace and prosperity of this exile as well.  In a different form, I experience JSB's exile with him.  Jeremiah experienced exile along with those to whom he would prophesy.

Another important thing to note is that Jeremiah called on the Diaspora to return to God and to rely solely on God.   They no longer were a sovereign nation, but lost in a foreign land, in exile.  He called on them to turn their faces and hearts to God, and God would not forsake them.

So, my dear JSB, my prayer for you is to listen to the Call of Jeremiah.  He knew those in exile couldn't do it alone.  He pointed to Christ, as he does in this icon, and tried to convince them to rely on God and only God.  They could prosper in exile.  So can you.  If only you realize you can't do it alone.  

So this is my prayer for JSB.  That he finds peace and wholeness in his exile, that he turns back to God, and finds prosperity in a land flowing with milk and honey.   

Pray for me, that I may have the grace of faith to believe this shall come to pass. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Not Made By Hands

It's been a very difficult week for my family.  Long story short, JSB is involuntarily in the State Mental Hospital awaiting a hearing for a longer-term involuntary commitment.  He is so very ill and I am feeling pretty helpless right now.

So, your continued prayers for him and for the rest of us are most greatly appreciated.

In the midst of all of this upheaval, suffering, and anguish, God has made His presence known again and again.  So, I'm going to acknowledge my pain and frustration, and still count my blessings.

Blessing Number One - Wednesday was a horrible day which involved a commitment hearing dismissed on a technicality, me running to the magistrate to issue another emergency custody order, finding JSB, police cuffing him and returning him to the hospital in the span of an hour.  

My church has eucharist at noon On Wednesdays.  I went immediately after the ordeal and was joined there by some of my most beloved friends.  Lovely Vicar greeted me with a warm hug and was the chalice bearer, Arty Friend and Guy Friend joined me at the prayer rail to receive a healing prayer for JSB.  New Friend joined me there as well.  Powerful stuff prescribed for me by God.

Blessing Number Two - Met with a new Spiritual Director (the last one wasn't a good match for me) and had a fabulous meeting.  She is a Priest at a Church On A Hill.  She gave me wonderful suggestions for my prayer life concerning healing and my faith in God in light of it.  (hope that makes sense)  At any rate, it is a lot of spiritual meat for me to consider in relationship to God and my life and my call and my motherhood.  Again, more powerful stuff prescribed for me by God.

Blessing Number Three - Lovely Vicar invited me to join her Icon Writing Class.  It's something I've wanted to do for years.  I'll blog more on that process as I get more in to it.  But, it is a spiritual discipline - you're not painting pictures of Christian figures, you're praying the icon into existence.  It's a contemplative process jam-packed with mystery and theology and I LOVE it.  

I observed the class on Saturday and was thumbing through books of icons looking for a nice first icon for me.  I thought I'd probably start with the Virgin Mary because she is a central figure to my faith.  But, an icon of Christ grabbed me and demanded my attention.  This is it:

Irena, the master iconographer and teacher, explained to me that this is one of the first known Christian icons. It's called Not Made By Hands.  According to the legend, during Christ's earthly ministry, Abgar, ruler of Edessa in Syria, had leprosy all over his body.  He had heard of Christ's miracles, and wrote to him asking him to come and heal him.  He sent his court painter with the letter.  Christ wiped his face on a towel, leaving on it an image of his face.  This was returned to Abgar along with a letter from Jesus commending Abgar for his faith.  Abgar wiped his own face with it, and he was healed of his leprosy.

A lot of healing vibes around me all week.  Coincidence?  No way.  Another act of grace prescribed for me by God.

So, into the next week I go.  Another hearing for JSB's commitment on Tuesday, back to work, and to Icon Class on Saturday.  I pray to step more deeply into my faith, to listen, to be healed, and to witness the healing of my son.

To my faithful friends: I love you guys.  So very much.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

Blow, blow, thou winter wind

Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship if feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze thou bitter sky,
That does not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As a friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship if feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

--William Shakespeare
As You LIke It

It's cold here in Virginia.  Most of the country, in fact, is in the bitter grip of some serious winter weather.  

That leaves many of us cursing the sky, the wind, and the snow.  While I haven't been cursing it (probably because it brings this teacher highly desired snow days), I have found myself daydreaming about a more tropical climate.  I'm fantasizing respite big time.

But winter is simply being winter.  True to its nature, authentic.  Winter is supposed to be snowy, windy, cold, and sometimes brutally so.

Shakespeare reminds us in "Blow" of that.  But, the character in "As You Like It," has been betrayed by a friend, and compares it to the season.  Winter?  Bring it on.  Betrayal, "man's ingratitude,"  no thanks.

So, I've been thinking about the homeless a lot since this frigid cold has wrapped its arms around us.  My friend, Priest in NYC, blessed me with his stories of bringing the homeless in from the cold when temperatures and conditions become life threatening.

It's difficult to convince people to come in off the street even if it means the difference between survival and freezing to death.  For a lot of reasons.  Mental illness being a significant one.

I was greatly impacted by his witness to this reality and his ministry to the least of us last year.  I am even more impacted this year.  JSB was homeless for about a week this summer.  We had no idea where he was because he had been released from the hospital while we were out of state.  He refused shelter because taking meds was a requirement.  He chose the street.

For a week, we had no idea where he was.  Whether he was alive or dead.  Finally, he contacted us and we put a roof over his head.  Since then, that's about all we've been able to do for him.

At any rate, the men and women of the street are on my heart and on my mind as I sit cocooned in my toasty living room, and reach for my second cup of coffee.  There is this nagging and gnawing going on at the fringes of my consciousness.  It tells me:  "Do something.  It doesn't have to be grand and world-changing.  Just do something."

Okay, then.  On the home front, Furball is going to do the welfare check on JSB.  We haven't heard from him in days and again, have no idea of his condition.  I would appreciate a little prayer for him, if you would be so kind.

On the local front, I'm going to do some research to see if there is something I can do to remember my friends who make their home on the street.  Because my own spiritual poverty is diminished when I show compassion to anyone in need.

Oh, and God, thanks for that gentle reminder today.

He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
Proverbs 14:31

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Furball and I sought refuge from the cold today and went to see Invictus.

It is powerful and hit me square between the eyes and smack dab in the middle of my heart.  No doubt, my impression of it was enhanced by my recent trip to Africa.

My experience in Africa is something I continue to gnash around, wrestle with, and "process." I'm getting sick of that word.  Process.  But, it aptly describes what's going on in my brain as I try to make sense of and discover the deepest meaning of that trip.

First, see the movie.  It is simply incredible.  Bravo Mr. Eastwood.

I found myself continually drawing comparisons between the South Africa depicted in the movie and the Liberia I visited last fall.

There are so many parallels.  Let me say right off that I am not an expert on South Africa or Liberia.  What I am about to say is prefaced with a significant caveat -- I'm speaking off the top of my head as an American middle-class white chick who has spent a little more than a week in post-war Liberia trying to help teachers improve the educational system.

As I watched the movie, and saw the shanty towns where the black South Africans lived, I had flashbacks of Liberia.  The level of poverty I witnessed there was assaultive on many levels.  As I was driven through the streets of Monrovia, it seemed surreal and was hard to take it all in.  It was as though a part of me had to shut it out in order to accommodate to the harsh reality of life there.

It wasn't just the material poverty that was so unsettling.  I was expecting that.  The entire time I was there, I had a strong and disturbing "sense" of atrocities that were committed during the war.  It is very difficult for me to explain or articulate, but I felt as though my soul was aware of it and was absorbing it.  Unpleasant doesn't begin to describe it.

In the film, the animosity and distrust between the Afrikaners and the black South Africans was palpable.  It's easy to minimize the magnitude of enmity that must have existed after having gone through something like Apartheid.  It's easy because I haven't experienced it.

In Liberia, two brutal (and I mean brutal) civil wars raged for 15 years.  It came to a fragile end in 2003. The peace is still a fragile peace.  That was very obvious to me as we spent time in the country.  Painfully obvious.  

Children in first grade and younger are the only ones who did not live through it.   It's not a black-white issue in Liberia. Its a complicated mix of tribes, warlords, factions, and much more than I know. Now the country strives for Truth and Reconciliation.  In order to move ahead, they are trying to "forgive but not forget."

Forgive but don't forget.  

It would probably be easy for me to minimize or somehow compartmentalize the horrific war experiences of the Liberian people.  I certainly can't comprehend it.  But having been there and having witnessed the shambles of the country's infrastructure, I can only imagine the physical, psychic, spiritual, emotional wounds of those who survived.

Well, this isn't intended to be a commentary on oppression and inhumanity.  Quite the opposite.  Where's the beauty in all of this?

In Invictus, Nelson Mandela shows us what qualities it takes in a leader to bring about reconciliation and forgiveness in the aftermath of oppression, inhumanity, and hideous violence.  It would be so easy to continue in the pre-peace mindset, continue to mistrust, to abuse power, to engage in corruption.  That would be a very human thing to do.  But, he called on the South Africans - black and white - to behave and perform according to a higher standard than they expected of themselves.  Higher than the expectations of their "enemies."

The World Cup Rugby match was a marvelous way to demonstrate that concretely and metaphorically to South Africans.  To the world, actually.

In Liberia, I met several people who emulate the same qualities as Mandela.  The Reverend Father comes to mind immediately.  Here was a man, who like Mandela, has a strong sense of what it takes for reconciliation and forgiveness when the circumstances seem so overwhelming and unforgivable.   

Both men are powerfully gentle. By that, I mean there's no Pollyannaish sense of "Can't we all just get along."  But, there's is an acknowledgement and no denial of the pain that has been inflicted.  The wounds are deep, devastating, and very, very real.  And then, there's a strong moral conviction to not continue inflicting pain -- even on those who were your oppressors.  

It is a moral conviction - or a moral authority - that simply must be divinely ordained.
Because it seems beyond what we can expect of human beings who have suffered greatly at the hands of fellow human beings.  It is the best of humanity.  Our world has been blessed by a few leaders over the years who have this insight, this vision, this conviction.

This brand of leadership has to be divinely inspired.  

Because it is like Christ.

He came to reconcile us to God.  We are separated from God through our own actions and we cannot be reconciled by our own means alone.  

I felt the presence of God when I met the Reverend Father.  It manifested itself as love. 

I imagine people experienced the same phenomenon when in Nelson Mandela's presence.
 Love. Not fickle romantic love, but profound, truthful love.  Love when it is the most difficult thing to do.  Love where love is not expected.

Powerfully gentle.  Like Christ.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year

Happy New Year.  

It's always been a quiet holiday for me and was again this year.  Furball and I enjoyed some great wine, cheese, and other treats and settled in to watch a movie or two.  

True to form, I didn't make it past 10 p.m.  When given the choice between seeing in the New Year and a good night of sleep, I go for the sleep.  

Pony Girl went to an all-night party (which contributed to my good night sleep~ no worrying about her out on the road).

Not sure about JSB - we're checking on him today. So, wish us luck.

I wish everyone All the Best in 2010.

  For us, "the best" would be continued health and reasonable prosperity for Furball and myself; Pony Girl continue in her studies and discovery of herself as an adult; JSB to resume treatment for his illness, to be delivered from his torment, and to find some peace.

I covet your prayers for our "best," especially for my children.

Oh, and it wouldn't be New Years if I wasn't starting on a diet to try to remove about 40 pounds.  But, I'm not going to talk about that because then I will jinx it.  Just wish me luck battling my genetic load and advancing age ;)

Here's a little blessing for your New Year, excerpted from my fave, John O'Donohue:

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May he protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of Love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

--John O'Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us

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