Having an Agenda

“What is your agenda for Ethiopia this time?” a friend asked me. “Or do you have an agenda?”

I laughed. As my dad would have said, boy-howdy, do I have an agenda! Several agendas, in fact. A friend has invited me to think about how to be more strategic and organized in the work in Ethiopia that keeps coming my way. That will be one of my agendas.

In my suitcase, as I fly out of Portland, I’m carrying a bag of dried apples. I’m taking them

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

to Maji to show the agriculturalist, Ato Markos, who coordinates the Maji apple orchard what a dried apple looks and tastes like. The 1000 apple trees he’s planted aren’t yet bearing more than he can sell locally, but they will! I need to talk with his leadership team about their marketing plan. And if the grid does get to Maji, might they start a fruit-drying endeavor? Why truck the water in the apples all the way, 500 miles, to Addis Ababa?

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic.

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic. Photo by Maureen Evans

Another major goal for my time in Maji is to get a solar unit installed on the town’s clinic. This came as a request from church leaders, and took me over a year to organize. The clinic is delivering up to thirty babies a month. Night deliveries take place in the dark—the electric grid hasn’t reached Maji yet—and the midwife and nurse sometimes have to hold flashlights in their teeth to have hands free. A simple solar unit will allow for night lighting and charging cell phones. I’ve found a solar supplier in Addis Ababa and he is sending the unit and an installer with me in the vehicle I’ve rented for the trip.

While in Maji, I will also meet with the

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government.

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government. Photo by Maureen Evans

translation team for the Dizi language, the language of the people of Maji. Dizi has been reduced to written form—that’s the technical term for developing a writing system that covers all the sounds of the language. Now the New Testament translation is almost finished. The translation team is meeting with expert linguists in Addis Ababa several times a year to check for consistency (is the same word in Hebrew, Greek or English translated by the same word in Dizi, for example). They are also holding community checking events, reading passages and listening to discussions to see whether the intended meaning of the translation is what was actually communicated.

Try reading Dizi!

Try reading Dizi! Photo by Maureen Evans

I don’t know the Dizi language, but I’ve been supporting the translation team for several years. I  meet with them and listen (in Amharic) as they talk about their progress, frustrations and concerns. I’ll take a report back to donors, and go over the budget for next year’s work. This trip I’ll start to ask questions about a literacy program. We don’t think about this, having so many centuries of written language of our own—but once there is an alphabet and written materials, the next problem is that no one knows how to read!

And then, speaking of literacy, when I get back to Addis I’ll meet with people who helped Janie and me last January as we began creating stories and art for early-reader books for Ethiopian children. Again, we have such a thriving publishing industry in the US, it’s hard to imagine that almost no books are published in Ethiopia, and there is nothing at all for beginning readers. They drill their 241-letter alphabet, and then start the sink-or-swim process of reading text books.

Children, parents, teachers and librarians in Ethiopia and the US have created the

We'd love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties!

We’d love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties! Photo by Jeri Candor

beginnings of about twenty simple, illustrated stories appropriate to Ethiopian culture. Now we’re looking for help in the translation and design stage. (We haven’t even addressed production yet!) The enthusiasm, the creativity, the goodwill of volunteers is keeping us going in spite of the steep learning curve for this cutting-edge cross-cultural effort.

In Addis Ababa I’ll be following up with young artists and writers to move from the inspiration stage to the revision stage of creating art. I’ll be looking for someone who has design skills and knows Amharic. I’ll meet with some people who have tried their hands at translation—that’s a creative endeavor as well, because our subject-verb sentences trot along using words like building blocks, each in its own place, but Amharic encrusts the verb with not only prefixes and suffixes, but infixes! We wouldn’t know an infix if we heard one!

So that’s my agenda! I’m writing on the plane to Minneapolis, the first of three legs of my journey. I’ve been crazy-busy getting ready for all this. Now wish me well! My jet lag, the possibilities of picking up intestinal bugs, and political unrest in parts of Ethiopia may be greater problems than the inherent challenges of the work. But that’s the way it always is. Our contexts are part of the work.

I’m grateful for the opportunities I have for creativity, spiritual and relational growth as I do this work that keeps coming to me from God. Thanks to all of you who have contributed encouragement, prayer and resource to be my partners!

Ethiopian Odyssey II–Artists

A card by Stephanie from Ethiopia Odyssey I.

A card by Stephanie from Ethiopia Odyssey I.

Ethiopian Odyssey I had taken four artists deep into the Omo region of Ethiopia, capturing the beauty of that land and donating their art to raise money for Ethiopia Reads, the non-profit my sister Janie helped start. Ethiopia Reads plants libraries for children in Ethiopia.

Odyssey II came into my life when Janie told me she wanted to go to our childhood town of Maji, Ethiopia one more time while she was still hale and hearty. “But I’ll only go with you or Chris,” she’d said. Since Chris (who also speaks Amharic) is a full time elementary school teacher, I became the tour guide of choice. Janie’s artist friend, Stephanie, had heard her talk so much about Maji, she suggested this trip become Odyssey II.

“Okay,” I had said, and we settled on January, 2016. At the time it seemed so far away and so unlikely I hardly took it seriously. Finding myself in Ethiopia at the end of January, with a team of eight including Janie and Stephanie, amazement washed over me—we were in Maji, and my new friends were finding SW Ethiopia as beautiful as I do.

As I began to write, the four artists (two Ethiopians and two from the US) were hard at Yacob paintingwork. Yacob, who teaches at the fine arts college in Addis, wore an apron and sat on the ground spread-legged, painting. We dubbed him Mr. Pandora, and enjoying the jazz coming from his Jambox through his phone.

As always in Ethiopia, a small crowd gathered to watch whatever we did. The Ethiopians from Addis were as interesting in Maji as we foreigners!

As always in Ethiopia, a small crowd gathered to watch whatever we did. The Ethiopians from Addis were as interesting in Maji as we foreigners!

Nahom, a full time artist, also from Addis Ababa, finished one painting by sitting against a tree and bracing his canvas-board on a rock. His second piece he started, pinned to the tree. He stood back, reaching at arm-and-paint-brush-handle length to apply the paint, just as I picture painters doing.

Troy, from Connecticut created a

The breeze was stiff that morning, but Troy was resourceful.

The breeze was stiff that morning, but Troy was resourceful.

studio for himself by arranging some pieces of corrugated iron to shelter his easel from the mountain breeze of Maji. The report came back that he had found his zone, so we didn’t disturb him.

And Stephanie took shelter from the wind in the former mission teacher and nurse’s house until mid-afternoon. She produced gorgeous washes of color representing the hills and ridges around us, then gathered everything up and headed back out into the sunshine after lunch.

The other four of us wandered the former mission compound, drinking in the view from the western side, over the valley and through the gap. We marveled at the eucalyptus trees that were big when Janie and I were children fifty years ago, now grown so huge it would take all four of us to reach around them. Janie and I tried to visualize—where was Mom’s circular rose garden? Dad’s shop, which we called the magazine (emphasizing the second syllable as the Italians did when they taught the word to the Ethiopians)? The grove of false-banana trees where we caught the tree frogs Janie tried to toilet train?

Poignant moments, with a sister and playmate, overlooking the scene that back-lit our play so many years ago.

Poignant moments, with a sister and playmate, overlooking the scene that back-lit our games so many years ago.

And as friends from Maji town met us on the path, the others wandered on, leaving me to shift into Amharic and play that bridging role I love so much.

The stars over us the first night were brilliant in a totally dark sky. The moon rose later, so bright there was no need for flashlights. The peace of that place soothed us all in mind, body and spirit.

At Eighteen Months

Kenya,1999

Kenya,1999

April 30th was the eighteen-month anniversary of Mark’s death—a good day to evaluate where I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going. My first reflection is something you might think I’d know at my age, but something that I really didn’t know quite the way I know it now: the future is unknowable.

Until the onset of Mark’s cancer, most of my days had been more like the day before than unlike. Thankfully most of our days are that way; I don’t know if we could weather the shocks and discontinuities of lives that were tossed randomly from one day to another. What grace, that we can wake up most days with a calm confidence that we know how to cope with what it will bring.

What we lose, after a long string of days like that, or even when our days take us gradually from one shaping of our lives into the next, is the deeper truth that the future is not only unknown, but unknowable. That awareness, and the patience to live in it for an extended time, is one of the gifts this time of grief and reorientation has given me.

The great African Rift Valley comes to my mind, thousands of miles long, land that fell below the surface of the earth—it didn’t erode over time, it didn’t explode in fire and lava, it dropped. Like the floor of one of those old fashioned elevators that hasn’t lined up precisely with the level of the floor it’s delivering you to.

On June 9th, Mark and I had future plans: our parents had all lived well into their eighties—his were pushing ninety—and we fully expected to grow old together. In the meantime, we had accepted jobs in South Sudan. Orientation was to start in two weeks. We’d had cleared our calendars and looked over the reading lists. On June 10th I began to understand that the future is unknowable: Mark had a tumor, it was malignant and the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

Over the next two weeks, our rift valley floor dropped in increments. First, the discovery of cancer in lymph-nodes far from the tumor, making the planned surgery more of a challenge. Then the image of a shadow on his hip bone; there would be no surgery. The four months we had from that moment on were infused with uncertainty. Death or life? That question was answered and other questions took its place: when? how? how painful? how shocking? The specter of a hemorrhage, “bleeding out”, faced me every time I walked into our bathroom and saw the black towels hospice nurse had told me to buy. And there was the question, the first of many Mark couldn’t help me with, that I wailed as I walked by the canal that runs through Bend, Oregon, where we were living: “What will become of me?”

We got answers to all our questions about Mark’s cancer. In the eighteen months since then, I have been given partial answers to my question. I have faced things in myself and in the nature of life on earth that I would never have chosen to face, and they have grown me. I lost much of what I had been able to fall back on, and I learned that I fall much less than I thought I would. That I am resilient. That people are kind.

Those have been comforting truths.The most uncomfortable truth I notice eighteen months after Mark’s death is that I am now stronger and I experience more joy than I ever have in my life. How can this be? What does it mean? I seem to have learned things I could not bear to choose to learn, I had to be forced—how to manage intense feelings and come back to balance, how to listen to myself and honor my own wisdom, how to do things Mark was kind enough and only too glad to do for me. I don’t think I will ever understand why light can come out of a dark time, why joy can come through grief. Maybe the deepest truths of life are like the future: unknowable. I’ve become willing to accept the beauty of paradox, of mystery; to hold them as I lift my head to greet the unknowable future unfolding to me.

Some pieces of that future are now in place:

The living room of my new house--a 1925 bungalow that hasn't been touched since 1925.

The living room of my new house–a 1925 bungalow that hasn’t been touched since 1926.

* I’m buying a house. It’s a fixer-upper, as much in need of TLC as any Mark and I remodeled together. Friends and family tried to tell me the time for remodeling passed with Mark. But I always loved the vision casting, the creativity, the transformation, the emergence of lovely living space out of mess.
* I dance—West Coast swing, salsa, bachata—several nights a week. Social dancing uses my whole brain and resets my mood into joy every time, and has given me new single friends who love not only to dance, but to hike, to talk about the deep things of life, and to read.
* My meditation practice, lectio divina (a way of listening for the Holy Spirit to speak through scripture reading) and the encouragement of friends and the pastoral staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church keep me growing spiritually.
* I’m starting to work with a freelance editor on the memoir I had written about growing up and working in eastern Africa.
* I’m confident that Portland is my appropriate new home, as I meet weekly with writing friends, garden with my sister and a neighbor, and have joined four of my siblings in the team caring for my mom as she ages.

Maji Waterfall Scene 2The last days and nights of April were unseasonably clear. The moon rose, grew steadily, and glowed above me as I drove home late from dancing. Its coming to fullness was assured. The steadiness of the moon, an archetype of change and inconstancy, is a comforting paradox. This may be a moon-season for me, but it is silver. And I find myself steady in the inconstancy.

Everything Turns

The Basillica de Santiago

The Basillica de Santiago

In the summer of 2013 my sister Jan and her husband walked for a week in France along the ancient pilgrimage trail called the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. The city of Santiago, in western Spain, was built in Medieval times around a cathedral where a relic of St. James, the patron of knights, laborers and pilgrims is said to have been buried. On the coast, a few miles further, Finisterre was believed to be the westernmost point of Europe, and there sins could be cast into the sea and washed away.  Some historians say these pilgrimages to the sea began long before the Christian era, but in Medieval times pilgrims began to walk to Santiago and Finisterra from as far away as Russia, merging like rivulets along the way to form a river of millions, protected from bandits and raiders by international honor for pilgrims, and served by hostels and ale houses established all along the way. Jan was on this pilgrim way when I told the family that the doctors had found Mark’s aggressive cancer. She and her party lit candles in cathedrals, and placed stones on wayside cairns for him.

When I heard their story I knew that’s what I needed to do at the end of my first year without Mark—a pilgrimage. To delineate these two parts of my life. To leave the difficult months behind and start to focus on the future. I wondered, what friend would be free to go with me? Or could I do it alone? And just as I had that thought, I came to the suggestion in the guide book, “If you are undertaking this pilgrimage for spiritual reasons, consider going alone.” That’s when I got excited. I imagined studying French and Spanish while I grieved (why not?) and walking in Europe as a pilgrim, heading west to cast my sorrows into the sea and start fresh.

The language study never happened. This year I couldn’t even concentrate to read. But walking, getting out of my head, getting my body into the physical world did happen. It happened a lot, so the idea of a walking pilgrimage as a rite of passage stayed with me.

One problem: Mark died in October, and October wasn’t going to be a good time to be outside anywhere in the temperate zone. As I thought more about rites of passage, I realized they have a wide target area. Among the Nuers of South Sudan and the Oromos of Ethiopia, men pass from boyhood to adulthood—from youth to wisdom—in age groups. Among the Nuers, any given boy may be on the older or younger side of his age group when the Men of the Spear decide the timing is right for their ordeal ceremony—when the weather is warm, when the cows are giving milk to nourish the boys, when the odds are good for successful healing from the bone-deep lines he will cut across their foreheads.

We make a parallel set of calculations—when we’re ready to marry we choose a weekend when our mother-in-law can come from New York, when our brides maid or best man is available, when the venue of our dreams is free. Whether we’re completely ready to enter the adult world or not, we graduate in late May with the rest of our college classmates. There is a randomness about the exact date of a rite of passage, and still it works. Surely September for my rite of passage would work.

In June I was delayed from moving into my new house in Portland. At the end of a year of pain and chaos, living in my grown children’s homes and families, not having either of my own—could I bear to live out of a carry-on roller-bag and sleep on my sister’s futon for eleven more days? Beth Rasmussen, my daughter-in-law, suggested I fill the time by doing things I have never done before . . . such as go to the nude beach on Sauvie Island. Yikes! I told her the time for that had passed a few decades ago!

Trying to come up with a plan of my own, of course I thought of walking. I thought of the coast. And I discovered that there’s an Oregon Coast Trail (the OCT), an official hiking pathway, walking the beaches for about half of the 400 miles, scaling the headlands that break through our beaches, and (around certain rocky bays,) walking the shoulder of Highway 101, the artery that connects the West Coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska.

And September on the Oregon coast is one of its best months.

The woman who introduced me to the Oregon Coast Trail is a blogger, Bonnie Henderson, who hiked from Astoria to the California border on the OCT in 2009, averaging seventeen miles a day. If she could do it, I could do it, I thought. I’m in good shape. I had walked my first ten mile hike when I visited Mark’s parents in Kentucky in May. I had found a trail that reclaimed the old railway bed through the Cumberland Gap, a trail first pounded out across the gap in the Cumberland Mountains by Eastern Forest Bison, then followed by Native American hunters as what was called the Warriors’ Path. In a classic example of US land being wrested from the native residents, attacks on settlers were militarily put down and a wealthy land speculator paid Daniel Boone to hack a rough road through to the Kentucky River. In the next decade 300,000 settlers poured through the gap from Virginia and Tennessee to Kentucky. I had followed up that long hike with others in Bend, Oregon following the irrigation canal, and in parks in the foothills of the Cascades.

Tillamook ice cream--a sight to make Oregonians smile.

Tillamook ice cream–a sight to make Oregonians smile.

In June, while I waited for my new house to be ready, I packed a book and one change of clothes and took the bus to the coast. I walked about fifty miles, from Cannon Beach to Oceanside, west of the town of Tillamook, where the most popular Oregon cheese and ice cream are made.

That walk sealed the plan. In September I would make my rite of passage on the Oregon coast, a journey from Astoria to the California border, from grieving to putting together a rich new life.

I trained by looking up urban trails in Portland and walking early in the morning, before the summer days got too hot. I borrowed a pack. I went with my sister Jan on an overnight hike on Mount Hood. I talked with her about trail recipes.

All these vibrant colors I found unexpected at Kelly Point Park seemed to confirm the joy I would find in walking.

All these vibrant colors I found unexpected at Kelly Point Park seemed to confirm the joy I would find in walking.

For my final training hike I loaded up my pack in early September, and set out for Kelly Point Park, a thirteen mile round trip walk from my house. Some urban project has given Portlanders cheerfully painted parking barriers at the first fishing spot in Kelly Point Park. I was still feeling fairly fresh and excited when I got there, took a break, snapped some pictures of my new best friend—my niece’s backpack—and ate a power bar.

Does every journey turn at some point into a painful trudge?

By the time I got back to North Portland, I could hardly walk. I staggered slowly along the sidewalks of my own neighborhood, consumed with thoughts of who I could call for a ride. From Chautauqua Boulevard and Lombard, six blocks to my house on to Wall and Depauw streets? Unbelievable. Surely I could make it home. I was only one week from my projected leaving date, I had all my gear collected and packed, and now I knew there was no way I could make the hike as Bonnie Henderson described it. She is one tough cookie.

I studied the map: could I walk 15-25 miles a day without a pack and stay in towns instead? But I had all that gear, and my pack packed so tidily, with everything in its own pocket, and all that intriguing freeze-dried food. So I cut my ambitions down and studied the walk to Florence, Oregon, the halfway town. I spent hours creating my own itinerary of 8-13 mile days that would end me up in either a town or a campground, working with Bonnie Henderson’s blog, the Oregon state’s OCT page, the Oregon.gov Biking-the-Coast web page, lists of state parks and Google Maps.

Comfortable, funky, inexpensive (if you stay in one of the dorms) this hostel has a European feel. Wish we had more of these all over the state!

Comfortable, funky, inexpensive (if you stay in one of the dorms) this hostel has a European feel. Wish we had more of these all over the state!

A week later, when I got to Seaside, Oregon I said to the proprietress of the Seaside Lodge and International Hostel, “I’m thinking of this as a pilgrimage, and I’m finding that everything has turned metaphorical.”

She said, “Life is a pilgrimage, and everything is metaphorical. We just don’t usually notice.”

My first metaphor had begun to echo in my head as I stumbled home from Kelly Point Park: can I do this hard thing? Walking the Oregon coast day after day, my physical world and my emotional world came more and more into congruence–both on a journey, both struggling with a question that was physical and spiritual at the same time: can I do this hard thing?

Beginning at the End

I traveled the coast by bus and by foot--"Shank's pony". Wonderful, grant-supported bus system, $20 RT from Portland to Tillamook!

I traveled the coast by bus and by foot–“Shank’s pony”. Wonderful, grant-supported bus system, $20 RT from Portland to Tillamook!

I’m home from my long hike on the Oregon Coast Trail. In my three weeks away, I went from the northern tip of Oregon, near Astoria, to the small town of Yachats, almost halfway down the coast. I took the bus around some bays that would have forced me onto on the narrow shoulder of Highway 101 for miles and miles, and even so, walked about 165 miles.

The perfect ending of my time alone unfolded spontaneously—a mini-family-reunion in Bend, Oregon. I left the coast by bus on Friday and, in the kind of providence that seemed to meet me all along the way, Friday was Customer Appreciation Day and we all rode free! I spent the weekend with my sons, their wives, and the two eighteen month olds, who were so dear, even as they struggled with how to share books, a stuffed monkey and a grandmother.

While in Bend I walked again on the Central Oregon canal that so comforted me as Mark was dying. The Cascades stood bare and gray—did they have so little snow last fall? I only remember them after the snow began in early winter.

The beauty of the Oregon coast is the combination of beach, rocks and forest.

The magic of the Oregon coast is in the combination of beach, rocks and forest.

I have just come back inside from days and days spent out on the beaches or on the forested headlands of the West Coast, not surrounded by what we have created but by what God created: the ocean sloshing restlessly on the edge of land; the deep forested headlands made from volcanic flows from as far away as Idaho; the moon, which started full on the first day of my walk, then went dark, and was making its way back; the sun, that warmed every day and then dropped over the far edge of the sea every evening. 

“God has such a positive personality,” I found myself thinking. Where do our difficulties, our sorrows, our cancers come from? Theologians, philosophers and myth-makers have struggled with the source of evil for millennia and all the definitive answers they develop seem to evaporate just as quickly with the turning of times and cultures.

I don’t understand tragedy. What I do know is that my spiritual practices and the divine presence I’ve experienced have given me strength to go through my grief, and they promise to return me to peace.

Walking five to fifteen miles a day with a thirty-five pound pack on my back, I had lots of time to think. School was starting up back in the Oregon towns and cities, so most of the time I had the beaches and forest trails completely to myself. I countered my tendency to obsess by singing as I walked, or by praying my contemplative prayers of releasing what I can’t control and accepting my situation just as it is, committing to wait patiently for my future to unfold.

Classic Oregon coast view, from another blogger who loves hiking. Here's the link.

Classic Oregon coast view, from another blogger who loves hiking. Here’s the link.

On some of the headland trails, the walking got so tough there was no room in my head todo anything else but tell my feet to keep going. That’s a gift walking has given me throughout this grieving and reshaping year, relief from my constant cerebral activity.

I’m home now. Tremendously grateful for my house in Portland, for the abundance of food and the ease of preparing it, for my comfortable bed, and for my community, the family and friends I can see and those I can’t see but can still communicate with. I do feel a rite of passage has taken place; I am more ready to embrace the new shape of my life. I did also realize that I have one more first-anniversary-without-Mark to face: the anniversary of his death on the 30th of this month. The literature says that these anniversaries will feel less painful as my new-normal becomes familiar. This was my third time to come home from travel to an empty house, and it felt a little easier. I take that as a good sign: peace and joy are on their way back.

The Darkest Valley

This moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn staff Christmas party, 1999.

This moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, 1999, in Kenya.

I have a new understanding of the valley of the shadow of death. It is a road walked in shadow. Ahead, on the other side of the ridge, the sun will shine, as it did on the open path behind. But for now, mountains have cast shadows on the valley. The shadows are many; Mark’s leaving is only one of them. Other losses crowd the path. I have a myriad adjustments to make. Sometimes finding my new, single identity feels painful as a birth.

I moved to Portland, Oregon in June. I live alone now, in a small rental house, perfectly sized for one person, a few blocks from one of my sisters and only a few miles from the rest of my Portland-based family. Expressing my gratitude for this house is one of my daily spiritual disciplines, an antidote to the free-floating anxiety I feel about the lack of direction and focus in my life. And since I am back in Portland, I have started seeing K, the counselor I went to after my dad died in 2009, another time when my whole identity felt shaken and I needed help putting the pieces into their new places.

When I said to her that I am afraid I’m doing something wrong–maybe I’m wallowing in my sadness and disorientation, maybe I’m obsessively focussing on the negatives instead of the positives, of which there are many, in my life–she looked surprised. She told me, essentially, that losing a spouse is a long valley.

I had done so much of what I now know is called “anticipatory grief,” I thought this part would go faster. And so many of the “firsts” came quickly–within the first two months Thanksgiving, Mark’s birthday, and Christmas came, and the new year began, a year Mark would never see. Now, with our anniversary on July 29th, the firsts are all behind me.

On Valentine’s Day I was in Kenya, where the European cut-flower industry sheds less-than-perfect roses, lilies, and whole flower arrangements to be sold on the street corners, I bought myself one long-stemmed red rose bud. One for my singleness. Red for committing to love and take care of myself.

I was in Ethiopia on my birthday. Though Mark supported my traveling work, he was lonely when I was gone, and I was gone a number of years on my birthday because March is a good month to travel in Ethiopia. I said to him one year, “Hey, I just realized. When I’m gone on my birthday, I don’t get a present, do I?”

The way he said, “No!” conveyed it all–his unsentimentality, how he hated my being away, his punitive bent. So this year I thought of that conversation and thought Ethiopia was a good place to be, where I didn’t miss someone to make much over me.

On Mother’s Day I laughed, remembering years before, when we attended Kenton Church and our children were young. Throughout April we were invited to order carnations for our mothers–red to honor those still living, white to honor those who had died. In spite of all the announcements, Mark invariably forgot to order me a carnation. One year he dashed up to get me one of the spare flowers as soon as the benediction was over. When he came back and lovingly presented it to me, Miriam said, “Da-ad! That’s the dead-mother color!”

It’s been a gift that Mark was so unsentimental. The “firsts” have not been terribly painful.

This photo shocked me--he is holding his hand just the way he always did. How can that hand, that thumb be gone? I don't understand

This photo shocked me–Mark (right) was in tenth grade, and he is holding his pencil just the way he always did. How can that hand, that thumb be gone? I don’t understand.

But the lack of focus and direction; the many, many hours alone, even when I do get together with friends or family during the day; the visceral shock I still feel that someone so real, so solid, so distinct simply isn’t here any more; and maybe a cell-level grief over having watched Mark waste away; these are all still painful. I, who am so verbal, sometimes still wake up sobbing wordlessly.

K reassured me. Her husband died young, of a heart attack, so I know I can trust her in this. She helped me realize that this August may have been rough for me because my body–my spirit–something in me–knows that this is the first anniversary month of Mark’s cancer taking hold.  His pain spun out of control about this time last year. He found himself already too fatigued to put in a dining room window for Jesse, the last project he’d planned to do. We spent a day in the ER. He began to vomit blood. These were firsts I hadn’t thought of, and the first anniversary of his death itself, is still to come at the end of October.

At the suggestion of Kenny, my youngest son, I’ve been organizing the photos of our last ten years into photo albums, and K assured me that facing those memories–I think of it as metabolizing my life with Mark–may make me sad some days, but will ultimately help me go on well.

“ Anything could happen for you,” K said. “You have something we don’t often have once we become adults–an open future.  Giving your grief all the time it needs is part of letting your new life unfold in its own time.”

Confabulation

Confabulation is my new favorite word.  I ran into this word reading about recent brain research. It’s a technical term for how people with brain damage reason, when the two sides of their brains can’t communicate, but it has a broader meaning we all participate in.  We confabulate when we make up reasons for things we can’t explain.  We do it unconsciously.  We don’t admit we’re doing it.  As the wife of a new victim of cancer, I’m a prime candidate for confabulation.

DSC_0528Two weeks ago a doctor looked down Mark’s throat with a scope and saw a bleeding tumor where his esophagus meets his stomach.  The next set of tests showed that the cancer had spread to lymph nodes as far away as his adrenal and pituitary glands.

I read everything I could find on esophageal cancer. Even the very gentle, careful booklet the oncologist gave us says, “Esophageal cancer is hard to contain with present treatments.”  The National Cancer Institute website is more businesslike: “Esophageal cancer is a treatable disease, but it is rarely curable;” and the Society for Surgeons of the Alimentary Tract, blunt:  “Esophageal carcinoma is a relatively uncommon but highly lethal malignancy . . .” The latest tests have shown, to all the doctors’ shock, that Mark’s cancer has already metastasized.

The risk factors for esophageal cancer are obesity, long years of gastric reflux, heavy drinking, smoking.  None of these describe my Calvinist, clean-living husband.  There are two other risk factors. Being male and being over age sixty-five.  Mark is sixty-two.  His only real risk factor is being a man. There has to be some explanation for him to have advanced esophageal cancer, doesn’t there?  I want to shake somebody.  Not him!  Not now!  Then my mind goes to work, concocting explanations for the inexplicable.

The reason people confabulate is that we’re puzzle-solving creatures. What else is science but the drive to observe the physical world and figure out what sense it is making?  We want life to make sense as well—we expect it to make sense—and by confabulating, we force it into some kind of sense-making when it seems not to make sense.

Scientists have a unique opportunity to study this drive for consistency and puzzle solving with people who lose their right and left-brain connection.  They can no longer coordinate input from the two sides their brains, so they’re left with data that seems random.  They’re driven to make that random data fit some kind of pattern.

In one study, people were shown two pictures simultaneously, one to each eye.  chickenThey were asked to choose another picture that best supplemented the first, and each eye was given a set of choices.  For example, when one eye was shown a picture of a chicken, with that hand people chose a chicken claw.  With the other eye they saw a snow scene with a car stuck in a snowdrift, and the corresponding hand chose a snow shovel.

Then they were shown the picture of the chicken and the pictures of the claw and the snow shovel and asked to explain their choices.  snow shovelThey did not “know” that they had been shown two original pictures, because the two sides of their brains could not communicate.  falconheadThey came up with explanations like, “If you had chickens, you would need a shovel like this to clean out the barn with.”

When scientists study confabulation by asking people why they suddenly did what they had been told under hypnosis to do, the same thing happens.  People don’t say, “I felt the oddest compulsion just then.”  Instead they come up with, and convince themselves of some other explanation.  We are driven to make sense.  We are so driven, that we will go to nonsense to feel that we have made sense.

I believe there is a world of the spirit, one we can’t see, touch or study with scientific instruments. Secularists call faith nothing but confabulation for the inexplicable randomness of impersonal fate, of nature, of good and evil.  How can I be sure that what I have is faith, not confabulation? I can’t, really.  That problem must be why the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews embraced the paradox.  He defined faith as, “The assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

A random tragedy has hit my life.  Grief is on its way.  For my faith to persist in the face it, I need to resist the pull of confabulation.  If I insist that Mark’s cancer “make sense,” I may fall into bitterness.  I will be tempted to take it out of the category of mystery and call it an act of God.  My faith that God is present, that God is Love, that the world is intended as a good place for humans to live, will fail.  I will make up reasons for Mark’s cancer, and they will lead me to places that will not bring me peace.

Instead I am choosing to pray—not only for the disappearance of Mark’s tumor and all its seeds, flung to far parts of his body.  I also pray for this event to further our spiritual transformation.  For peace in the middle of this storm.  For sweetness between us to prevail in the presence of pain and grief and opiates—the sweetness that has always been between us, somewhere there, even when we were angry and disappointed with each other.  For faith to hold, even in the face of things I cannot understand.  For the ability to say with the Psalmist: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.  But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.”  For the courage to resist confabulation and ride the wave of faith into shore.

 

The Swiss Cheese Theory of the Kingdom of God

african-american-face-of-jesus-clipart

African-American Face of Jesus

For Lent, I decided to add, not subtract.  I’m reading the four gospels in a whirlwind trip through Galilee to Jerusalem.  I don’t have time to stop and meditate over every event, command, or statement in Jesus’ ministry, but there are some  benefits to traveling fast.  I see the big picture.  I hear the themes that crop up again and again.  I get a sense of the startling–even shocking–presence of this man who kept turning everyone, even his own followers, on their heads.

I have a lot of sympathy for those followers.  In Luke, Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s house for a meal and spends several pages blasting him and his friends.  I sure would have winced.

When the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon Jesus said, “How long do I have to put up with you?”  Ouch.

And then, after all the other strange, mysterious things he taught them (the first shall be last, die so you can live, love those who hate you–even Samaritans), who among us  wouldn’t have thought he had something other than the literal meaning in mind when he told them he would die and rise again after three days!

But what stuck with me this trip through, especially in Mark and Luke, was all the talk about the Kingdom of God.  When I was young, that was translated as the Kingdom of Heaven, and I was taught what to do to get into heaven.  But what did Jesus mean–what

Jesus the teacher

Jesus the teacher

did John the Baptist mean–the Kingdom of God is near you?  That doesn’t seem to be about heaven.

I started wondering in Mark, two weeks ago.  What is the Kingdom of God?  Last week, in Luke, the question got more insistent.  Then Sunday I hit John–in the New Living Translation, poetry of John 1 is a little easier to understand: “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone . . . So the Word became human and made his home among us.  He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.”

Light?  Word?  The Kingdom of God?  Is near?  Is like a pearl, a mustard seed, yeast, a field with both grain and weeds?  Walking around last week, thinking about the Kingdom of God, I remembered a line from the Messiah.  It comes right in the middle of the Hallelujah Chorus, after dozens of hallelujahs that twist up and in and around each other, the choir suddenly sings in four part harmony, “The kingdom of this world . . . (can you hear the pause, those two grand chords, and the altos coming in alone, a beat ahead of the rest) . . . is become . . . (another pause, dramatic effect) the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ!”

Two thousand years later we wonder, why are we still here, in a “kingdom of this world” that doesn’t look much different (ethically, morally, spiritually speaking) from the world Jesus was born into?  Where is this Kingdom of God we read about and sing about?

The Swiss Cheese Theory of the Kingdom of God

I’m working on a theory about the Kingdom of God.  I’m thinking about Swiss cheese.  Or–yes, yeast.  (I forgot the baking powder in a batch of muffins last month, and they were the consistency of hockey pucks.)  What if in the same world (the same cheese, the same dough) the Kingdom of God is permeating, wherever . . . I’m thrown back to the line about the Word living among us, “full of unfailing love and faithfulness . . .” wherever the energy released by God’s mysterious presence brings air and light into the heaviness?  Wherever we who want to follow Jesus figure out–or are inspired, literally–to enact some little bit of unfailing love and faithfulness?

African face of Jesus

African Face of Jesus

Or another simile:  maybe I’m an underground  force, like the anti-Nazi fighters in Germany and France, who helped refugees and undermined the Nazis wherever they could.  Maybe, as a follower of Jesus my job is also to live as though the Kingdom of God, the space where God is in control, is near.  To bring air and light to the embattled . . . totally inadequate to the task.  Unsure how to proceed. Trying to keep radio contact with Command Central.

I’m working on getting this mysterious Kingdom of God thing worked out so I can wake up every morning and get there.  Here-but-there.

 

I Want Something to Spill Over

Dr. Charles Kraft

Recently I heard Charles Kraft, an ex-missionary and a Fuller Seminary professor, say that Jesus didn’t heal or cast out demons or raise people from the dead with his own power, but with God’s power flowing through him. Jesus himself said that–he had power only by abiding in God and doing what God told him to do.  I thought again of his analogy of a vine and its branches bearing fruit because they’re connected (John 15).

What a mystery it is–for fleshly, in-the-world people like me to abide in Jesus.  No wonder the monks and holy mothers went into the desert to concentrate!  But I am reading a journal Henri Nowen wrote when he spent seven months in a monastery, and he found that even in a monastery it isn’t easy to abide in God.

Father Henri Nouwen

He found himself wounded when friends didn’t answer his letters.  He worried that his adoring public had forgotten him.  He felt upset when a particularly warm fellow monk was just as friendly to everyone–was he not special? But instead of stewing on these feelings, Nouwen used his time in the monastery to notice his internal life.  Was his anger hotter, his disappointment deeper, his discouragement heavier than the event required?  Then he took his reactions to God for healing.  That is more than spiritual discipline–it’s spiritual bench-pressing!

My own small discipline of contemplative prayer started around this time two years ago and  opened a connection to God that I had only longed for in my first sixty years.  Sometimes I wonder: why would God wait so long?  I don’t know why, I only pray that God will restore the years that the locusts have eaten.  Through the prophet Joel, that’s what God promised Israel, “I will give you back what you lost to the swarming locusts . . . and you will praise the Lord your God . . . then you will know that I am among my people . . . that I am the Lord your God, and there is no other.”  It’s what I want, too.

Another story to share with you–a friend, working in Indonesia, learned of a ministry of prayer that was hugely effective with the Muslim women there.  She went to her colleague and asked, “Will you teach me how to pray with people like you do?”  The other woman said no.  “You can’t pass on what you don’t have.”

This has haunted me ever since I heard the story.  What do I have to pass on?  Then she went on:  “I’ll pray with you, and what God does for you will spill over into whatever ministry you have.”

This is what changed Peter and John–what Jesus taught and showed them transformed their lives and spilled over.  When they, ex-fishermen, spoke to the Jewish Council in Acts 4, the learned men were amazed, “for they could see that they were ordinary men,” (the word for ordinary men in Greek is the root for our word idiot).  They recognized that Peter and John had been with Jesus.

Girls sing in a rural church in Ethiopia

This is how the church in remote parts of Ethiopia has grown–people set free from curses and taboos share their liberation with their neighbors.  People are healed, and everyone takes notice.  Demonic activity is banished, and the whole community is blessed.  Surely this same God is here with us in the United States in the 21st century, ready to transform us and spill over.  Maybe the ministries will look different–we don’t see evil spirits working in our lives these days.  But we  just as much need to be set free from greed, anxiety, addictions.  We need to be healed of abuse, disappointment, depression.  We are as much in need of God’s shalom as Jesus’ contemporaries, and as our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia.

I believe that if I can abide in Jesus even a fraction of the way he abided (abode??) in God, something new will happen in my life and I will have more to pass on.  That’s my journey.

Join me?  Here’s a link to Father Keating introducing centering prayer.  It’s where I started.