Monthly Archives: October 2014

Plea from the Sickroom

sick dayAt my eldest’s high school graduation (yes, I had one who went to public school for his last few years, but that’s another story) a big deal was made over several students who had never missed a day of school in their lives. All the way back to kindergarten. Never.

Now, I ask you. Is it humanly possible for normal kids to never be sick a day in their entire lives? Not even a cold? I don’t think so.

What those kids were rewarded for was sharing their germs.sick kid

Ah, what a gift.

Americans don’t like to take sick days. That’s a fact. People let them build up, saving them for that big illness down the road. Which means that when they’ve got a simple virus, or a cold, or “just” a sore throat or even a low-grade fever, they take great pride in getting themselves to work. It’s our American “we can do it; we’re tough; we can do anything” syndrome.

I sat in church Sunday and listened to people with these deep, goopy, phlegmatic coughs, and thought, “OK, I know there’s virtue in never missing church, but….isn’t one of the high points of the Gospel this thing about “loving your neighbor?”

What I want to gently remind these never-miss-a-day-of-work folks is that what they’re really doing is spreading the wealth. Of sickness, that is.

I have psoriatic arthritis, and like many of us with autoimmune disorders, I take some pretty heavy weekly meds which lower my immune system even more. There are others who are elderly and frail who are also susceptible to whatever floats by, not to mention cancer patients whose chemo knocks their immunity to near-zero.

What may take an otherwise healthy person a few days to get over, can drag on, with the immuno-compromised, for weeks, if not months. If not, in the case of cancer patients, kill them altogether.

Yes, I know germs are always out there. But–do we have to add to the mix? If I had a dollar for every person who’s told me, in an office, a theater lobby, a grocery store, “oh, I had a little fever this morning, but I’m fine now,” or, “I was throwing up all night, but I’m feeling a lot better now,” I could buy a newer laptop.

The main thing I dread about late fall, winter, and early spring isn’t so much the cold. It’s the fact that I have to avoid social gatherings and groups of most kinds because so many people who are actively sick don’t. I turn into a kind of hermit, which, despite floors piled with books and the internet, is, well, lonely and fairly depressing.

I wonder, is it so much to ask that people who are actively sick maybe TAKE that sick day? Stay home until they’re not contagious? I’m not asking for 21 days of quarantine here, just a day or two.

sick adult

Your boss may not thank you, but I will.


Cape of Good Hope

Two things happened over the weekend which have lightened my oftentimes dour outlook.

And no, it wasn’t seeing the mini poster for the Manchester Christmas Parade on the Rec Center bulletin board.

Saturday, I met three Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at a women’s retreat at Good Shepherd.

thenunI don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t three young women who, despite the long white habits and black veils of the Dominicans, looked like they were fresh off a high school volleyball court. Energetic and enthusiastic. I could imagine them as the kind of little girls who race across the school playground ahead of everyone else to get to the swings, where, long sandy ponytails whipping the dirt as they soar ever higher, they out-swing, out-run, out-mischief every boy in class.

girl swinging

I’m not sure the oldest was a lot over thirty–I didn’t know if it’s kosher to ask a nun her age–but all I can say is, I wish they’d taught at my school. (They teach–or principal–at St. Rose of Lima Catholic School in Murfreesboro.)

Because when they told us, “God wants us to be joyful!” it was clearly evident that–they are.

They said a lot more, but it was their demeanor that lingers in my mind. Yup, that over-quoted quote, which apparently St. Francis did NOT say: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”

The second thing was reading The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America, and the blurb on the cover pretty much sums it up: “One man’s journey from coast to coast. No promises. No guarantees. And no money.”

Journalist Mike McIntyre finally decides in his late 30s that he’s tired of being afraid of life. So in the early 90s, he sets himself the terrifying and improbable goal of walking/hitchhiking from California to North Carolina’s Cape Fear.  It’s a kind of memoir, but he tells us more about the strangers who give him rides, give him food, give him–amazingly–a bed or a camping space in their backyard than he does himself.  McIntyre’s ironclad rule is that he won’t accept–or use–money. He has a couple of unnerving encounters, but for the most part, he–and we–discover a surprising generosity, especially from people who have almost nothing themselves.

kindness of strangers

Imagine if oral historian Studs Terkel had walked backroads through middle America. Imagine the conversations he’d have had in truck cabs, over burgers in diners, at church doors. This book, like so many of Terkel’s, hooks you in with its seemingly endless flow of faces and voices. And, as with much of Terkel’s work, you are left with a strong sense of hope which lingers long after you turn the last page.

What’s given you hope lately?

State of Literature or State of Mind?

I ran into this self-proclaimed “Literary United States: A Map of the Best Book for Every State”, published in the Brooklyn Magazine last week.

lit map of us

My question is–well, no, I have a lot of questions, so we’ll just start with the first one that comes to mind: “Are you kidding!?!”

Or, as another fellow Tennesseean commented, “The best book for Tennessee is about a man who has sex with corpses in a cave?” (Thanks, Mark.)

I know this list isn’t supposed to represent each state in its entirety but portray some specific portion which will “make us understand a time and place in a more profound way than you thought possible.”  But I have to wonder, if the other books are as extreme as Child of God, do some of these books represent any state (geographic or state of being) at all?

Or  maybe this is just some frightening revelation of the opinion of some New Yorkers about the South? A land known, I guess, primarily for its deviant sexual practices (don’t forget all those old jokes about inbred families up in them thar hills), violent racism (yes, part of our heritage, but not ours alone, and not all we are), and hot buttered biscuits (I concede the omnipresence of these).

To the day she died, my mother still recounted how, when she attended Harvard in the ’50s on a Ford Foundation Grant for creative writing, she was teased mercilessly about the fact that she , a “hillbilly”, actually wore shoes (she was born in South Carolina and grew up in NC).

Nor had she ever quite gotten over the fact that she was treated “up there” as somewhat less-than-intelligent because she talked with an accent.

Hey, Northerners, that was over 50 years ago. And you’re still not seeing past the stereotypes? (Well, actually, I encountered quite a few while “up there” in the 70s and 80s).

Ah, these United States. Still not quite.

Oh, my questions could go on and on. North Carolina’s choice, for instance. Sure, Thomas Wolfe is a great writer and native son and obvious candidate here. But I would also suggest someone like mystery writer Margaret Maron, whose books set in the Piedmont capture contemporary Carolina culture, where rural and citified, black and white, thrive, despite minor tensions.

And how could any serious list have excluded Nebraska’s brilliant Willa Cather?

I am glad to see children’s books represented by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Maud Hart Lovelace, both of whose series still line my shelves and always will. Thank you for that, Brooklyn Magazine.

Not trying to incite a war between the states here. But–maybe try again?

What book(s) would you suggest to represent your state? 



To Be, or Not To Be

In my last post, I talked about prolonging life.

Today’s is about speeding death.

pill bottle

Or not.

Two very different newsmakers coincided this past week: Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer who went public with her decision to end her life this Nov. 1.

And Pope Francis, who opened his Synod on the Family with these words to the prelates gathered to discuss the nitty-gritty of family life: “Let no one say ‘this cannot be said.’”  That is, don’t hold back because of fear of what other bishops, or he, might think. 

Maynard has spoken very openly about her belief in her right to choose how she will die and when. Without in any way judging that decision, absolutely without any intent to condemn it, I’d like to speak equally frankly and openly about an alternative. Not for Maynard’s benefit, but for those whose lives, or deaths, her decision is influencing. And since this is a blog about exploration–mostly mine, but hopefully, also yours–I hope you’ll join in the conversation. Though in respectful dialogue, as Pope Francis has requested on other occasions: listening as much as talking, and attacking not at all.

Maynard seems to be a young woman who’s leapt into life full tilt, and if you haven’t followed her story, click on one of the blue texts and read it and watch her video for yourself.  She is choosing euthanasia (definition “easy or painless death”, from two Greek words meaning “good death”) because physicians have explained to her that her natural death may include morphine-resistant pain, as well as the loss of her faculties. And because she is young and otherwise healthy, it’s possible that she will linger in this state for some time.

She wants, instead, her death to be on her own terms. At a time she chooses–Nov. 1, the day after her husband’s birthday  (ironically, All Saints’ Day); in a place she chooses–her own bedroom; in a manner she chooses–with a pill her physician prescribed, and which she apparently carries with her at all times. It’s a “great relief,” she says, to know she has it.

Be honest here. We all want a “good death.” We all want an “easy death.” Which generally translates into one with as little pain and suffering as possible, yes?

Which is pretty much also what we all want out of life. That it’s pain-free. Easy. “Good.”

Which latter we know is pretty much impossible. Or at least, not always in our control.

Remember when you first had to say to your child (not in these words, exactly, but in some gentler and more nurturing way): “life isn’t fair.” And, “life is hard”?

Remember the first (or last–mine was only this morning) time you had to remind yourself of this?

Living is about coping and very often just putting one foot in front of the other even and especially when we most don’t want to.

Some of us, myself included, have reached points where the pain of life was so unbearable that we were prepared to call it quits, and if anyone among you doubts the existence and the at-times unbearableness of psychic or emotional pain, let me congratulate you at having had a blessed life. I didn’t.

But in the words of some Sondheim lyric or other, “I’m still here.”

Yet isn’t it in these hardest moments that we’ve learned, grown, the most? Isn’t in those hard moments of our children’s lives that they’ve grown the most? So that even if we parents wish we could ease their passage, we know, deep down, they’re better off if we don’t?

There’s a wonderful bit in author Louise Penny‘s latest mystery, The Long Way Home, which describes what happened when an elderly woman who’d taken on herself the incubation of a pair of duck eggs helps one of them to hatch. Because it seems to be having trouble pecking its way out, she gently breaks open the shell. Freeing it. The duckling hatches fast, but–it’s forever weakened by not have had to fight its way out. And it dies young.

By taking its passage into her own hands, her control, the well-meaning woman essentially kills.

We can’t know what grace or gift will emerge for us as we endure suffering and the moment of our death. Nor, perhaps more importantly, do we know what gifts, what strengths, what blessing our suffering will give those who stand close beside us.

Many people believe of the late, now Saint, John Paul II, that of all the vital, vibrant years of his long papacy, which included staring down communism, the most powerful were those final ones in which he literally wasted away in front of our eyes from Parkinson’s. He allowed us to watch as his former athletic, globe-trotting body became a shell barely strong enough to contain his soul. Yet even and almost especially when he was unable to utter his blessing to the throngs gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday only a few days before his death, his very presence was a blessing to those he made himself visible to.

pope john paul 2 last days

He gave the world one example of death with dignity.

Kara Tippetts, a young mother of four who is dying of breast cancer, wrote an open letter to Maynard urging her in the most loving terms to reconsider her decision. She offers another such example.

I wonder: how can we know what our very-human desire to avoid pain will make us miss? How can we know what those who might witness our suffering will miss?

Death is terrifying. The prospect of pain and helplessness is perhaps more terrifying. But are we so fearful of the struggle, of the unknown, that we’ll do anything to avoid it? To avoid feeling it?

More importantly, have we so accustomed our children to the notion of a life without pain that we’ve taught them to do everything in their power to avoid it?

I wonder.

I wonder this also: have we so immersed ourselves in a society where activity and achievement are gods that we believe life without them isn’t worth living?

Surely JP II’s life was no less valuable, less courageous, when he was no longer able to “do” anything.

Surely the lives of our crippled, our elderly, our comatose, are no less valuable because they aren’t–in our society’s view–“producing?” Or “achieving?”

The prospect of life with the erosion of our faculties is terrifying. But most of us face that, either in the slow natural way of things called aging, or, as in the case of Maynard, rapidly, brutally, tragically.

Yet our lives, even those last gasps, are still precious. Our presence still matters. In the words of the old Maxwell House coffee commercial, “good to the last drop.”

Can we believe that? Do we? And–are we teaching our children to believe that?

Stand Up for Yourself

photo (18)


What’s the easiest thing you can do to improve your immediate health and prolong your life?

So easy you can do it while reading, watching TV, surfing the Net, and even eating?

Just stand up.

I thought this was one of James’s flakier ideas, but it seems there’s a lot of medical research to back up the claim, including from the Mayo Clinic. The head of exercise medicine at the Institute of Sport Exercise and Health at University College London, former chief medical officer for the Commonwealth Games, says that 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, of standing up has “the same health benefits as running 10 marathons a year and can extend life by two years” (Daily Telegraph, 10/7/14).

Which would you rather do?

I’m not about to hang up my swim bag, and I’m definitely not suggesting you stop lacing up those walking/jogging/stair stepping shoes.  Doing my laps most weekdays first thing in the morning keeps me sane. I feel better physically and mentally, and not being able to see or hear underwater means I’m forced to get in some meditation time.

photo (19)

Plus the arthritis pool exercisers and a couple of the lifeguards are a hoot to talk to.

But I’m also going to figure out a way to type standing up. Remember those tall desks Dickensian clerks like poor Bob Cratchitt had to stand behind while copying out in longhand those endless documents, back before the invention of the mimeograph machine? I want to find me one of those.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll imitate James and put my laptop on a pile of books.

Isn’t your health worth getting up off your chair for?



“Let the Children Come to Me, and Do Not Hinder Them”

(for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:13)


German author Anne Voorhoeve’s beautiful YA novel, My Family for the War begins in 1938 Berlin with Franziska’s best friend Becca leaping five feet from a window to a nearby tree. Why? Because she and Franziska have taken upon themselves the goal of mapping every hiding place and escape route in their neighborhood. Franziska’s family has been Protestant for two generations, but the Nazis consider her Jewish and thus subject to the same deprivations and random attacks by former schoolmates endured by the Becca and all the others.

The book details Franziska’s teen years, beginning with her family’s decision after Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) to send her on the Kindertransport to live with a foster family in England. They turn out to be an Orthodox family who teach her, among other things, what a mezuzah and a Seder are.

It’s a wonderful coming-of-age story, but–why am I still thinking about this book? I reviewed it already, for Friday’s issue of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger (www.sewaneemessenger,com).

I think because it remains a question to me why Britain allowed in so many refugees (10,000 children were brought in on the Kindertransport before the outbreak of war closed the borders), when the United States not only kept its doors shut to them, but new policies under President Hoover and upheld by FDR in the 30s made it so difficult to get into America that the rate of immigration from Germany actually dropped to 10% of the allocated quota.

Now, I totally understand why the presidents and Congress were reluctant to encourage immigration. The Great Depression was still raging, and there was huge resistance to the prospect of competitors for what few jobs there were. Some Americans were in such desperate poverty that they pushed their own children out of the house to fend for themselves. (Read Irene Hunt’s amazing No Promises in the Wind, a YA novel I reviewed for the Messenger on 2/3/12). And even when the Great Depression began to ease, our habit of fear did not, and the country remained staunchly isolationist. No wonder Congress voted down the Wagner-Rogers bill of 1939, which sought to temporarily go around immigration policy to admit 20,000 Jewish children.

It was a nice idea while it lasted.

Yet Britain did relax its immigration policy to do just that, after religious leaders appealed to the Prime Minister and Parliament to grant temporary refuge to children fleeing Nazi persecution.

I wonder: where were our religious leaders? And–where were our hearts?

Does anybody else see any echoes here of our recent border crisis, when those thousands of Latin American children were riding the “Train of Death” to seek refuge? (I do understand that since summer, the numbers have dropped dramatically.)  Here we have again a country reluctant to take refugees in, a president somewhat ignoring a politically unpopular issue, a Congress–well, last year’s Congress didn’t do much of anything, anyway: not sure why resolving the immigration crisis would have been any different.

immigrant children in TX

I know I’m hugely ignorant about all that’s at stake here. I have friends in the border states who inform me in no uncertain terms of their special concerns. If our lawmakers haven’t been able to come up with a working policy towards immigration, I’m certainly not about to try.

But–it does seem like we the people of the United States do bear some responsibility to at least think about the whole issue. To talk about it, and without the usual “I’m conservative/You’re liberal/so I’m not going to listen to you” and vice versa  stalemate. I’m with Pope Francis: people of different opinions and beliefs need to be able to dialogue. About this, as about other matters.

The Kindertransport began only because a few people cared enough get the ball rolling and because a whole lot more people offered to take thousands of children into their homes.

I’m not at all suggesting that we’re in a similar situation here.

But–what do we care about?