Love is always reaching for more

In his book, My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman writes:

“In any true love—a mother’s for her child, a husband’s for his wife, a friend’s for a friend—there is an excess energy that always wants to be in motion. Moreover, it seems to move not simply from one person to another but through them, toward something else. This is why we can be so baffled and overwhelmed by such love: it wants to be more than it is; it cries out inside of us to make it more than it is. And what it is crying out for, finally, is its essence and origin: God.”

I don’t believe we, as humans, can get enough love. We certainly can’t offer each other enough of it, which is why we need God. I feel this need in my son when I lay down next to him in his twin bed after tucking him in for the night. We take each other in our arms and talk about the day and say things reserved for whispered conversations in the moonlight. He wants me to rub his back and sing to him “his song”—the simple tune I made up for him when he was a baby. I do as he asks and then move to pull away, feeling the call of my own bedtime ritual of time with my husband, a hot bath and a good book. But Isaac wants more. He always wants more. Even a child who is well-loved is insatiably hungry for more.

It is baffling and overwhelming, as Wiman states, to feel the way love is always reaching for more. As a mother who seeks to meet all her child’s needs, it is humbling as well. I turn to God, then, (if God is the essence and origin of love) as my only hope to ultimately and eternally satisfy.

 

Caring for our Elders

81vnkuv1jrlAs a pastor, I have accompanied people through the many stages of aging, caregiving, and end of life.  But it’s different when it is your own family and your own parents.  I turned to a couple of books over my winter break as I sought to help my parents navigate some new life decisions.  The books were so helpful, I wanted to share them with you.

Being Mortal” by Dr. Atul Gawande is an artfully written book about what the medical profession can and cannot provide to people as they age.  Gawande shares lots of helpful information, such as the criteria health professionals use to assess whether or not an individual can live independently. He writes:

“If you cannot, without assistance, use the toilet, eat, dress, bathe, groom, get out of bed, get out of a chair, and walk –the eight “Activities of Daily Living”—then you lack the capacity for basic physical independence. If you cannot shop for yourself, prepare your own food, maintain your housekeeping, do your laundry, manage your medications, make phone calls, travel on your own, and handle your finances—the eight “Independent Activities of Daily Living”—then you lack the capacity to live safely on your own.

Discerning when you or your loved one needs to transition away from independent living is  a difficult and emotionally heavy decision.  Having the information Guwande provides can help families navigate this inevitable life transition.

Beyond basic healthcare information, though, I most enjoyed reading Guwande’s account of the history of elder care in our country.  In 1991 Dr. Bill Thomas, a curious and creative physician who, in his desire to do something different, left a position as a emergency room doctor to become the medical director of a nursing home in upstate New York.  Within this nursing home Thomas saw despair in every room.  The residents were devoid of spirit and energy and he wanted to do something about it.  He decided the missing ingredient in the nursing home of eighty severely disabled elderly residents was life itself.  So Thomas applied and received a small grant for innovative ideas that would allow him to fill the nursing home with life–plants, animals, and children.  His aim was to attack what he called the three plagues of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness.  They put plants in every room.  They tore up the lawn and put in vegetable and flower gardens.  They moved in two dogs and four cats and a parakeet for every resident’s room.  In Thomas’s words, at first it was “total pandemonium.”  They didn’t know what they were doing–which was the beauty of it because everyone, residents included, had to drop their guard and pitch in to help. In all the chaos, life returned to the home.  Of the experiment Guwande wrote, “People who had been completely withdrawn and non ambulatory started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’  The lights turned back on in people’s eyes.”  Thomas named the experiment the “Eden Alternative.”

From this experiment, Thomas went on to develop a new home for the elderly called a “Green House.”  This new model of nursing home was built to meet all the government regulations for nursing care in order to qualify for public nursing home payments.   Thomas did not want them to cost more than other nursing homes.  But these homes felt like homes, not institutions.  Each Green House is small (no more than twelve residents) and communal.  Residents have their own room built around a large, comfy living room with a long table where dinners are served family style.  The kitchen is staffed so residents can eat whenever they want–just as they would at home.  Residents in the Green House have the autonomy to set their own sleeping, eating, and social schedules.   I recently visited a Green House with my parents.  It was unlike any nursing home I had ever visited.  The staff were proud to show off their home.  They knew they were offering a good thing.

51-9uihu75lThe second book I read over break provides helpful information for a family when you approach the end of life.  “Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures, and the Patient with a Serious Illness” is written by a hospital and Hospice  chaplain, Hank Dunn. First, don’t let the title deceive you. This is a short book and a quick read. Even with my two young children clamoring around during Christmas vacation, I read this book easily in two days.

Dunn covers a lot of medical information, such as the purpose and function of CPR, feeding tubes, ventilators, and why end stage patients may choose to receive or deny these treatments. What I appreciated most about Dunn’s book, though, was his insight as a chaplain into the emotional and spiritual reasons for decisions a family makes at the end of life. Dunn writes:

“In my more than three decades as a chaplain at a nursing home, a hospice, and a hospital, I have been at the bedsides of many seriously ill patients. I have discussed these treatment choices with their families in the halls outside the patients’ rooms. This first-hand experience adds as much value to the content of this book as the medical research upon which it is based.

I am convinced that what really makes these decisions “hard choices” has little to do with the medical, legal, ethical, or moral aspects of the decision process. The real struggles are emotional and spiritual. People wrestle with letting go and letting be. These are decisions of the heart, not just the head.”

If you are facing such decisions of the heart and head, I recommend both these books as wise companions for the journey.

 

Longing for God

“I feel this longing for God.”

Sister Margaret, my spiritual director, sat across from me in a comfortable armchair as I shared this, her bible open on a small table next to her. She always has a scripture ready for me. I needed to talk about this longing, though, this desire for God that I had been feeling, but not able to satisfy. I needed to confess and felt my apprehension reveal itself as I did, my forehead wrinkling and my eyebrows lifting in concern.

Sister Margaret smiled and nodded in response, as if my longing was good. But it didn’t feel good to me. It disturbed me. Why can’t I find God? Why can’t I satisfy this desire to know and feel God? I have in the past. So why not now? What’s different about me now? What am I doing wrong? Where has God gone? Or, was God ever there at all?

Sister Margaret just kept smiling and nodding. She approved. In fact, she applauded my longing as a form of prayer—like the Psalmist crying out, “Where are you God?” and then waiting for God to answer.

But I don’t like to wait, I told her. Waiting is uncomfortable—because as I wait my mind starts to wander and wonder whether God will ever show up. I start to doubt that God is listening or even exists at all.

I recently read a description of Western upper-middle class life as like “living between two mattresses”—a well padded existence where we can satisfy every craving, every want, every desire almost instantly. In my affluent, well-padded world, I find it easy to distract myself from what C.S. Lewis would call sehnsucht – a German word used to describe the primitive impulse lodged deep within the human heart, a yearning or craving that can hardly be put into words, but that nevertheless motivates everything we say or do. Such longing cannot be satisfied by a trip to the mall, a late night raid of the refrigerator, or a glass or two of Chardonnay. The satisfaction these indulgences offer are fleeting and never run deep enough. I want and need something more.

“What do you think God wants you to do with this longing?” Sister Margaret asked.

“To not run from it, to honor it, to keep seeking,” I responded immediately, instinctually.

Maybe it was simply what I was supposed to say. But it helped to hear myself say it. It also helped to see Sister Margaret smile.

 

Following the Thread of Thought

I recently wrote a review for Assay: The Journal of Nonfiction Studies on an AWP panel I attended.

Here is a description of the panel:

Following the Thread of Thought

How do writers follow the thread of a thought through the maze of events in an essay or memoir? What is the art of reflection? Writers of nonfiction may have more latitude than poets or fiction writers to tell as well as show in their work, but the challenge is to keep these ruminations from becoming dull, simplistic, or moralistic. Panelists examine the way writers keep ideas lively and offer techniques for effectively weaving the thread of thought into the fabric of nonfiction.

Panelists: Steven Harvey, Phillip Lopate, Ana Maria Spagna, Sarah Einstein

It was an amazing panel, chuck full of great insights, ideas, and inspiration not just for writers of nonfiction, but pastors who write sermons would benefit from this as well.  Click here to read my review!

Ten Reasons I am Grateful for AWP

This week I attended my second AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) annual conference in Washington, D.C.  Here are ten reasons why I am grateful for this experience:

  1. Meeting writers and editors in person who I only knew through blogging and social media such as, Allison K Williams (read my post about her amazing book, Get Published in Literary Magazines) and Kim Brown, aka The Confident Writer, who is also the Founder and Editor of Minerva Rising Press and Donna Talarico, the founder and editor of Hippocampus Magazine that will be publishing an essay of mine in March.
  2. Getting great advice. Like, if you get a personal rejection, be grateful. A personal rejection means your work was read and considered. Don’t follow up on that personal rejection, though, by asking for more feedback. Editors are too busy for that. (Whoops.) Also, wait three days before emailing the editor you met at the bar. I got this piece of advice just in time. Otherwise overeager, stalker-Teri would have emailed the editor seconds after returning to my hotel room. SO GREAT TO MEET YOU!!!! #willyoupublishme?
  3. Learning about amazing women in literature you should know but whose words simply haven’t graced your path like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. Read Lorde’s poem “Power” and Rich’s poem “What Kind of Times Are These.”
  4. The chance to get to know editors, strike up conversation, and realize they are not just critics who reject your work, but real people who have hopes and dreams too. One editor I met invests her own money to keep the dream of her independent journal alive (which, I realize, is probably not uncommon.)
  5. The chance to pass out the super cute cards you made on MOO.com with your contact info and blog address.
  6. AWP discounts that help you subscribe to new journals such as Under the Gum Tree, Fourth Genre, Kenyon Review, and Rock & Sling. I also subscribed to the Journal of the Month to familiarize myself with new journals.
  7. Inspiring readings that give you the itch to write.
  8. A few hours to write in a quiet hotel room.
  9. The chance to be a good literary citizen and blog about an AWP panel for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. I’ll be blogging about the panel “Following the Thread of Thought” moderated by Steven Harvey (The Humble Essayist). It was an excellent panel about reflective essay writing that included wise words from Phillip Lopate, author of “To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.
  10. The chance to get your picture taken with Phillip Lopate.

    Teri (excited fan girl) with Phillip Lopate

    Teri (excited fan girl) with Phillip Lopate

What can the church learn from a Starbucks barista?

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Evans serves up joy one cup of coffee at a time.

Feeling crappy about the state of the world and our nation in particular? Well, let me introduce you to Evans. Evans will make you feel better. His job—or calling, I might say—is to make you feel better.

I met Evans this morning standing in line at an airport Starbucks. It was a long line. It was early. I needed caffeine. But they had the tunes cranking, James Brown was playing, and Evans—the barista—was dancing and singing out loud as he worked. “I’m sorry people, I’m sorry,” he shouted to the growing coffee-thirsty crowd. “But I just love this song! I love it! So I’ve just got to sing and dance.” After the song was over, though, he didn’t stop. He kept dancing, coordinating his barista moves of pouring our dark brews, mixing our caramel macchiatos and whipping our cappuccinos into his choreography. When the cashier took our order she wrote our name on our cup before handing it to Evans. This was his point of entry. “Hey, Teri! How are you doing, Teri? Are you having a good day?” How could the answer be “No” in the face of such exuberance? Evans spoke like this to each customer. He greeted the man in front of me, Alec, so warmly that, having not yet caught on, I thought they were old friends. “Hey, Alec.” Evans said. “Great to see you, man. I’m going to take care of you today. Don’t you worry. I got you covered.” Alec didn’t seem to be having a good morning, but he managed a smile when Evans handed him his iced coffee with cream.

Evans’ effect on the people gathered for their ritual morning coffee dazzled me. In the friendliest of ways, he broke down our stoic, I’m-in-public inhibitions, giving us permission to show a little joy ourselves, turn to our neighbor to share an appreciative laugh, or help her with the pot of creamer that was extra dribbly today. He single-handedly transformed that Starbucks into a space where community was fostered, where joy and kindness were collectively shared. When Evans handed me my coffee, I asked him if I could take his picture because, as I told him, “You’re awesome, and I want to remember you.” The five or six customers gathered around smiled and laughed appreciatively at my desire to acknowledge our favorite barista. They cheered for Evans as he posed, proudly, for my picture.

Evans’ effect on me didn’t stop, though, once I left the coffee shop. Afterwards, I found myself smiling more at the strangers around me. I offered a napkin to a man who spilled his coffee. I wasn’t irritated with the woman who took the clean sink I wanted in the restroom. Generally, I found myself to be a more outgoing, positive, caring person after my time at Starbucks. The whole experience felt like church—if church could be defined as a place where community is created and people are transformed into new and better versions of themselves.

Because I serve as the chaplain of a college, I was recently asked to lead a workshop on how to attract young people to the church. If it works out that I can do the workshop, I think I might begin by introducing those gathered to Evans and his style of service. Not everyone can be Evans—he certainly is someone special. But we, in the church, can learn from him if we pause to ask some relevant questions. How did Evans create community in that Starbucks? What was he offering, besides coffee, that was attractive? How did he inspire positive change in the people he served? And how might we provide a similar experience?