Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Mom, Mystery, and Metaphor: My Search for a Spiritual Practice

A women's leadership group I am a part of is discussing "spiritual practice," ways we as women, as leaders, and as individuals can connect with spirit in order to realize greater perspective and deeper meaning in life.

I've got to be honest. The phrase gives me the heebie jeebies.

The spiritual practices I am familiar with come from my young adulthood, steeped in evangelical tradition: attend church, participate in corporate worship, memorize scripture, fast, tithe, serve, and do "devotions" (private Bible reading and prayer). Those prescribed activities still reek of homework (at best) and prerequisites for salvation (at worst).

Another reason I struggle to place value on spiritual practice is the life and death of my mom. Her faith was the most compelling I know of. Mom was one of those rare individuals who lived her beliefs in a tangible way. She didn't talk about patience, compassion, unconditional love, or believing the best about people, she personified those traits daily. She treated others the way she wanted to be treated. She credited God for the blessings in her life. She lived humbly and sacrificially.

But despite being BFF's with Jesus, Mom's life ended due to an incurable and debilitating disease. In December 2006, a month before her 54th birthday, Mom was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's disease. For nearly seven years, my dad and siblings and I watched her deteriorate. Her earliest symptoms (sudden inability to balance her checkbook, getting lost while running routine errands, lack of simple recall) quickly morphed into more serious concerns (inability to read or write, requiring help to dress herself, constant fog of confusion). She disappeared one day while taking a walk through our neighborhood and didn't turn up until hours later, 13 miles from home. She was tired, disoriented and dehydrated, but unaware she had caused panic for the whole family that resulted in a missing persons report with the Sheriff's office.

In 2011, we moved Mom into a nursing home. She continued to lose motor skills, language, and resemblance to her former self. In the two years she was there, she aged an equivalent twenty years, her body seemingly on a fast track to total dependence. She died September 1, 2013, bedridden and infirm.

I hate what happened to my mom. I hate the fact that she was stolen from us - not only the morning of her death, but in all the losses along the way. She, of all people, never deserved to have her mind and body slowly turn against her. She was robbed of the chance to attend her firstborn son's wedding, to see him blissfully in love with his bride. She lost the opportunity to cradle and play with her first grandchild. She'll never be able to celebrate retirement, travel, or enjoy an empty nest with my dad, her adoring, devoted husband of 36 years.

I'd like a few words with the God she worshiped. I want an explanation for the humiliating, slow-motion death of a woman who was a powerhouse of kindness and creativity, who made every person she came in contact with feel valuable and worthwhile. Why was that light extinguished? What's the use of being faithful if there's no dispensation from suffering?

The years between her diagnosis and death were like an ongoing storm. As a family, we were constantly covered by dark clouds, continually in a state of emergency. I didn't know whether to board up the windows and hunker down, make an escape to higher ground and run for the hills, or give up and be swept away in the rising flood waters. It was a seven year natural disaster.

And yet.

In the midst of those stormy years, despite the fear, sadness, confusion, anger and profound loss, there were periodic sun breaks. There were rainbows. Every visit with my mom in the nursing home was a gift. Her sweet spirit buoyed us, even when we were trying our best to be strong for her. Her sense of humor lasted longer than her ability to tell funny stories. Her smile still lit up the room. She hummed and harmonized long after she forgot the words to her favorite hymns. My family rallied around her and our love was solidified. The storm of grief raged on, but we were anchored to one another.

We had the opportunity to practice the qualities we'd seen in her: it took unconditional love to carry on one sided-conversations. It required patience when she moved slowly. We drew on compassion in order to sit with her in unfamiliar surroundings, in rooms filled with ancient strangers. We borrowed her joy when all we wanted to do was collapse in tears. Those holy moments of connection to her were beams of light shining down between shifting rain clouds.

My simplistic, cause-and-effect understanding of Christianity has been shattered. My happy-go-lucky faith in a god who "works all things together for good for those who love him" has been called into question. I used to think that any reference to spirituality was an hommage to The Holy Spirit, whether theologically correct or incorrect. To say "I'm not a religious person, but I am very spiritual" was just a cop-out for those unwilling to claim a specific dogma.

But now, I believe Spirituality refers to something much, much bigger. It is somehow contained in those indescribable interruptions of love and light, the sunbeams and stillness during the storm. Maybe it comes from heaven, or eternity, or God, or the universe. Maybe it's generated between people whose love for one another transcends words of explanation. Maybe it simply resides in human souls. I don't know. My 16 year-old Christian self is screaming "heretic! Stop with the New Age mumbo jumbo!" but her pat answers don't satisfy me anymore. I'm no longer threatened by uncertainty. In fact, I'm allured by mystery; by the paradox of loss and love and how fully I experienced both simultaneously.

I'm going to keep an open mind. However I end up defining it in this stage of my life, spiritual practice will be the place where I explore these mysteries. Maybe meditation will become my metaphorical surfboard on life's tidal waves, or mindfulness a hot air balloon ride during a lightening storm. Maybe it will all come back to fasting and kneeling in prayer. I'm going to allow myself some time to ponder.

And I'm pretty sure Mom and the trinity are OK with that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Football Follow-Up

After reading Dad's Superbowl experience as well as all the positive feedback on Facebook where I shared a link to his guest post, I feel the need to elaborate on a few details for maximum comedic impact.

It gets better, people.

First, a bit of history. My family is not a sports-fan family. We didn't own a TV until I was in my teens, and neither Mom nor Dad were particularly interested in anything competitive (except Scrabble). Our family time involved literature, humor, imagination, and creativity. Athleticism came last in our educational priorities. I carry no resentment for this; I have little to contribute on the topic of sports and I'm OK with that.

Because Dad was a pastor until I was 17, the only time I heard him refer to sports was to lament low attendance on Sunday mornings during football season. I felt sorry for my friends in Sunday School whose dads were home in front of the TV instead of spending the morning with their families in church (such is the plight of the dutiful PK: pity for one's peers).

As I described last month in an open letter to my mom, I've warmed up to football. But it's taken concentrated effort. My siblings are surprised when I mention the NFL in casual conversation. 

Imagine my surprise on Superbowl Sunday when I got the following series of texts from Dad:

I'd purposefully left my phone in another room so I wouldn't be distracted by Facebook or Twitter. I wanted to be in the moment with Hubbins, my youngest brother, and our friends who hosted the Superbowl party we attended (and not miss a minute of game time). As we celebrated Seattle's victory, I retrieved my phone and was shocked to see I had missed his monologue.

In a single text, my father informed me that he was a) patronizing an adult-beverage establishment, b) participating in (and winning) a game of chance, and c) watching the Seahawks beat the Broncos. Any one of these announcements was enough to make me gasp, but three at once?! My first reaction was worry (such is the plight of the dutiful firstborn: vigilant concern).

I quickly replied, and didn't have to wait long for his answer (thankfully).


The Feed and Seed? He was watching the game next door to the store that supplied my childhood pets with rabbit food, fencing materials to keep the goats in the yard, and an annual chili feed that Mom brought us kids to every spring. NOT the location I would have guessed (I'd forgotten a restaurant had been built there). I wondered what he had gotten himself into.

I showed the texts to my sister the next day. She said, "That makes it sound like he had fun! He told me the whole story and it did not sound like he enjoyed himself." My curiosity was piqued.

Dad sent me his guest post a few days later, after a family friend encouraged him to write it down(presumably after hearing the same harrowing tale my sister heard. Thank you BP). Evidently, the writing process was therapeutic for him. As a bonus, it provided entertainment for all of us! I laughed out loud when I read it and shared it with Hubbins.

Several questions came to mind when I read his report, so when Dad and I had coffee the following Sunday I asked a few clarifying questions.

  • Why didn't he call us to find out where we were watching the Super Bowl? He said he didn't ask to watch the game with us because he didn't want to interrupt by asking questions. Pshaw. I reassured him he was welcome to join us. But I like my friend Wendy's suggestion, too:

  • All Dad's texts referred to being in a tavern. Who says tavern? In my mind, that's synonymous to an old timey saloon with swinging louvered doors. My hometown is quaint but not that countrified. Why didn't he go to a sports bar? (Hubbins commented, "He should stick to a crowd he knows."  I reminded him that Dad doesn't have a crowd). Turns out Dad's assumption was all business that serve alcohol are created equal. So we discussed the difference between sports bars, biker bars, dive bars, and truck stops (we didn't even get to pubs). That was a vocabulary lesson I didn't anticipate having with my dad.

  • Who were these women begging for drinks? Dad confided in private that many of them were missing teeth (and I quote), "but it seemed too mean to put in a blog." Hm. A coworker said, "your dad looks like a really nice guy - those tacky ladies could tell he's not a creeper!" [Shudder.]

I also learned that dad ate his jello shots with a fork. I informed him this was not the proper method, but told him not to ask me how I knew.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Superbowled Over - Guest Post from Dad


My daughter Emily’s recent blog post about the joys of pro football inspired me to watch my first game of the season, of the decade actually. Last Sunday I cheered as the Seahawks demolished the Denver Broncos in Superbowl XLVIII! I can now converse knowledgably with one hundred and eleven million people on the planet.

Watching this game will also help me relate to my clients who came to therapy last week with “12” inked on their cheeks, with nails painted blue and green, and wearing all kinds of Seahawk accessories: hats, hoodies, and green and blue tennis shoes. The gals got decked out too!

As a novice 12th man who doesn’t own a television I had to figure out where to watch the game. I tuned in to FOX SPORTS on my lap top but the screen was too dinky. I made a bee line to the nearest big screen I knew of, the El Nopal Mexican Restaurant two miles south of my house. The sign out front said it all, “Superbowl Party Here.” I rarely hang out in taverns but this game was a priority!

I arrived an hour early, ordered a Corona and veggie burrito ($11.00), and staked my claim to a front row seat. The images on the high def television were mesmerizing. Flat screen TVs always make this sixty-one year old feel like throwing his glasses away.

As time for the coin toss drew closer the place filled with all manner of enthusiastic fans. They wore tiny footballs with flashing LED lights, festooned their hair with blue and green streamers spiked with goop, and to honor Washington and Colorado’s lax dope laws, a dozen guys toked up a storm in the parking lot. I have an aversion to all things flashy, goopy, and frenetic, so I ignored the building hysteria behind me and focused on the sixty inch screen before me.

Apparently the waitresses did not think this pregame fervor was enough. They whipped the crowd into a frenzy by cranking up the music—I had to lip-read Kurt Russell introducing the teams. They popped balloons with prize tokens inside—I won a football key chain and a whistle. And they invited the crowd to write our name on a dollar bill and put it in a brown paper bag. At the end of each quarter they’d remove a dollar and the winner would collect all the money. I purposely misspelled my name on my dollar bill to throw off the feds in their pursuit of citizens who deface money.

Those earnest waitresses were like Youth Pastors with ADHD and I was the hapless high school freshman. Pandemonium reigned.

At three-thirty sharp the owners thankfully turned down the music and turned up the volume on the television. After Joe Namath flipped the coin a second time—he misfired the first time—the game was afoot.

In 2008 Seattle Sonics moved to Oklahoma, the Seahawks lost the Superbowl in 2005, and the Mariners have never played in a World Series. Sports fans in the Pacific Northwest suffer not only from vitamin D deficiency; they suffer from sports angst. I was rooting for the Hawks as a matter of public mental health.

I’m no expert but I thought we were off to a pretty good start when the Broncos gave us two points with a poorly timed hike. I then ordered a large Margarita ($7.00) and settled in to watch the game of a life time.  

Post game commentators have dissected this game in detail but what they can’t tell you is was what went on inside the El Nopal Mexican Restaurant. By the end of the first quarter we were ahead 5 to 0 and a perky waitress pulled a random dollar out of the brown paper bag and shouted my name. I was stunned. She walked to my table and dumped a bag of ones on me like Gatorade on a winning coach. Easiest thirty dollars I ever received. I found my dollar with Erik spelled “Eric” and put it back in the bag for the next drawing.

During the second quarter Bronco fumbles grew and so did Seahawk points. While I innocently nursed my Margarita everybody else’s bar tab grew. The Sangria flowed like, well, it flowed like wine. The eager beaver waitresses made their rounds taking orders and offering each of us Jell-o shots. I’d never had a Jell-o shot before and after three I acquired a taste for green and blue Jell-o I never knew I had.

By the end of the second quarter I was ready to see my very first Superbowl half time show. I thought the Pepsi preliminary warm up clip with giant hands plunking the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, maneuvering subway trains like sound board knobs, and twisting the stadium like a volume control was totally awesome!

But before Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers even started I was interrupted when the perky waitress called my name a second time. I was speechless when she dumped a bag of ones on me again. This time I counted twenty dollars. My front pocket was filling up! I found my dollar with the misspelled name and put it back in the bag again. Fifty dollars minus the eleven dollar beer and burrito and seven dollar Margarita put me thirty-two dollars in the black. The Hawks were hot and so was I!

Before I could figure out which singer was Bruno and which was a Chili Pepper a woman I’d never met before squeezed into my booth, sat on my lap, put her arms around me, kissed my cheek, and asked, “Where’s your flashing football?”

I adopted a deer in the headlights look and stammered, “Uh…….”

She unpinned one of those footballs with the LED lights from her jersey, pinned it on my shirt, and said, “I’ve just flashed you! Buy me a drink!”

You know how people say their life flashes before their eyes before a near death experience? What flashed through my mind in that moment was the words of Howie Mandel whom I just watched that morning as he explained the OCD revulsion he felt as a kid when his shoe laces touched the contaminated floor. I’m sure that woman meant no harm but for one brief second I felt a connection with all my OCD clients horrified at imaginary impurities.

In my most eloquent voice I stammered again, “Uh.…….”

She realized I wasn’t going to buy her a drink and so she hugged me and wandered off.

I still don’t know what Bruno Mars looks like.

The third quarter began and, I am not making this up, a second woman wobbled toward my table and said, “Hey, you’re rich! Buy me a drink.”

I don’t get out much. My world is defined by second hand book stores, churches, and hanging out with sober men. I have no way of knowing if this kind of behavior is normal. In disbelief I stammered a third time, “Uh……..”

She staggered off leaving me utterly stupefied.

As the Seahawks kept racking up points the frenetic crowd went wild. Interestingly, the loudest audience members were the women. They shouted smack at Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, danced in the aisles—a movement I’ve since learned is called twerking, and kept the waitresses busy ordering all manner of exotic drinks. I suspect the guys were quiet because they were stoned.

 When Percy Harvin ran the length of the field for a touch down I got out of my seat and cheered. I was careful, however, not to make eye contact with anyone and quickly returned to my seat and put my head down hoping to be left alone.

When it became evident the Lombari trophy was ours the little El Nopal Mexican Restaurant went berserk. Women, two of whom I clearly recognized, took the offense and rushed, ran, and dashed down the narrow aisles high fiving everyone, hugging and kissing all the men. I hunkered down hoping to avoid bodily contact with anyone.

Sadly, with no ref to call off sides a woman I hadn’t met yet got past my defense, bent over my table, grabbed my neck, put her mouth in my right ear, and let out a blood curdling scream. I am as happy as anyone for this win but felt that scream was entirely unnecessary.

Mercifully, I did not win the bag of dollars after the third or fourth quarters. Who knows what kind of trouble I’d have gotten into if I had.

Final score: Seahawks, 43. Broncos, 8. Erik, 32, three pieces of Seahawk bling, and a ringing in his ears that hasn’t quit.