Not Much of a Writer

I spend one evening a month with my friend Carrie Schuetz writing brief letters to college students. College Connections, as the group is called, was started several years ago as a way to remind the kids of our church that we still care about them when they’re away at school. It has expanded throughout the years to include students who are loosely affiliated with the church, their names submitted by a loving aunt or friend in the congregation.

As far as ministries go, it is not glamorous. Carrie and I sit at a table in silence, after a few minutes of chatting, filling card after card with messages of encouragement and love. Last night, we wrote a little more than twenty letters to college students in Kentucky, Ohio, California, and even the exotic locale of Fairview Heights, Illinois.

I like to do this because I had a hard time away at college. When I went to college, only an hour away from home, I was not prepared for being away from my family. I was academically on top of things but emotionally very much unprepared.

This threw me into a mental health storm of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. I dropped out in the middle of the year and moved back home. Mom called it a nervous breakdown; the doctor shrugged and called it “just situational,” as if the mundane situation made it somehow less real.

I was relieved to be home, and I spent the spring semester at the community college, often going for days without speaking. When I did have to speak, my voice was little more than a whisper.

My mom had tried everything in her power to keep me at school, often sending me letters covered in stickers, enclosing a five-dollar bill or a cute article torn from a magazine. Once she sent me a Grand Marnier ad from a magazine with vibrant colors, orange branches, playing cards, phases of the moon, and a bottle in the corner labeled “love potion.” It delighted me, so I hung it up on the wall behind my desk. I had to take it down because it promoted alcohol, which was verboten at the college. I went ahead and took everything down.

After dropping out, I remember attending a family gathering. One relative greeted me with, “Hey, I heard you couldn’t hack it.” A female relative approached me more tenderly and said while searching for something deep in the refrigerator, “Your mom asked me to write you at college, but I’m not much of a writer, Em.” I said, “Oh, it’s okay, not a big deal.”

But it was a big deal, apparently, because I’ve replayed that scene so many times, her rummaging in the fridge, me standing stupidly in the light of the Kenmore. Writing comes easily to me, and I couldn’t understand the reasoning of not being much of a writer. But she didn’t know I was drowning.

I haven’t been a college student for many years, but I assume that pressures on young people persist – not to mention all the complexity that comes with social media and pandemic times. I’m guessing it’s hard.  

Anyway, God has given me words, and if I can use those words to encourage a student with a letter in the mail, that’s what I’ll do. I invite you to join us. We’ll meet at 6:30 p.m., Monday, September 20 in the Christ Church café.

-Em

Years That Ask, Years That Answer

“There are years that ask the question and years that answer,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote. I’ve always loved this quote, and I think she’s right. Seems to me 2020 was a year that asked questions, so many questions, and left many things unanswered.

As last year wound down, I noticed friends posting on social media that they couldn’t wait to celebrate New Year’s 2021 and put the woes of 2020 behind them. I remember thinking how arbitrary it seemed to think that 2021 would be different from 2020. I shared their hope but understood it was not inevitable.

Well, the calendar turned to 2021, vaccines soon became available, and I glimpsed a prick of light at the end of the tunnel.

In early March I got the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and had a funny feeling. Not muscle aches, which would hit me a couple days later, but the glimmering possibility of normal days.

As I sat in Walgreens for the post-injection waiting period, Whitney Houston belted out “I Believe in You and Me” from the speaker right above my head. It’s one of Whitney’s songs that’s pretty much impossible to sing along with – all I do is ruin it. I closed my eyes, let her voice wash over me, and thanked God for Ms. Houston and messenger RNA.       

I left Walgreens that chilly, gray afternoon with the feeling that we had turned a corner. This would be a year that answered, a year that offered closure to a dark period. A few months later, my family and I went on vacation and ate in restaurants without masks. I swam in a crowded Orlando pool without a care. That was then.

Last Sunday morning before church, I paged through the newspaper with item after item about the highly contagious delta variant. Ignorance may be bliss, but this was deja vu. It seems we’re moving backwards, and unlike my beloved Whitney Houston, I no longer believe in you and me.

Not you specifically, reader, but my belief in the general good will of others is diminished to say the least. These days, I continue to trust God and believe in a handful of people.

Here we are nearing the last quarter of 2021. Maybe it will turn out to be a year that answers, just not the kind of definitive, pandemic-ending answers I’d hoped for. And so, despite my dim outlook, I’ll cling to this answer by St. Julian of Norwich that transcends the calendar: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Mom, Archivist, Devotee

For years now, I’ve been documenting Caroline’s life so she can read about her childhood when she gets older. It started with a baby book, which went up to age six. I was pretty faithful about filling in the many blanks, but somewhere in the house, there’s a plastic baggie full of baby teeth that still need to be taped inside. Baby teeth are the height of creepiness and sentimental value, am I right?  

When she entered school, I started storing her ephemera in file folder boxes – artwork, Christmas concert programs, report cards, photos. This year, however, was different. She finished sixth grade, partly remote, partly in person, fully indifferent, and all she got was this lousy t-shirt. But seriously, there were only two keepsake items: a dance recital program and a certificate marking her confirmation at church. Soon, I’ll drop her vaccination card in the folder and call it a year.

Not long ago, there were times when I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of “artwork” coming home from school and church. I tried not to feel guilty as I buried papers in the recycle bin, hoping their absence would go unremarked. But today, with zero artwork and not a poem about poop (or any other topic) in sight, I feel a bit let down.

I keep these records with an eye to the future, imagining looking through the file boxes together someday, laughing at the letters she wrote us begging for a cat, cooing at the sweet little handprint turkeys.

FYI, handprint art is a genre unto itself. Preschool teachers have handprint craft ideas up their sleeves for every occasion, Juneteenth and Tax Day included.

Alas, we are way beyond the era of handprint art, but grimy fingerprints on phone and iPad screens remain. While I’m trying to wean myself from writing too much about Caroline these days – she deserves the chance to tell her own stories – I will continue to document her days, as my mom documented mine.

A couple years ago, my parents cleaned out their attic and brought me a wicker trunk and large plastic tote filled with my life – yearbooks, artwork, beloved toys, and more. I don’t know what to do with it, but I see it as a symbol of Mom’s pride in me. It represents what she thought I’d want to remember – the poems I wrote, the pom-pons I shook, the proof that once upon a time I was a Sparta High School mathlete.

Because of this special kind of mother-love, I was struck by a passage in Michelle Zauner’s book Crying in H Mart when she comes across the ephemera of her childhood her mother had kept: “She was my champion, she was my archive. She had taken the utmost care to preserve the evidence of my existence and growth, capturing me in images, saving all my documents and possessions. She had all knowledge of my being memorized. The time I was born, my unborn cravings, the first book I read” (223).

The author’s mother had died, sadly, but this collection of childhood memorabilia would serve as a sort of identity guide in her adulthood: “Now it was up to me to make sense of myself, aided by the signs she left behind.”    

Here’s the zinger sentence: “She observed me with unparalleled interest, inexhaustible devotion” (223). Yes, I know something of that devotion, and I acknowledge how very blessed I am.

Next school year, I hope for band concerts and photos with full facial nudity (that is, no masks), but whatever the future brings, I’ll be standing by with my file boxes ready to archive her one wild and precious life.

-Em : )

Life, Immobilized

I have a guest blogger today! My sister Amanda was inspired to write about her experience of returning to the office after sixteen months away, and I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy!  

-Em : )

I drove to the office this week to have my laptop fixed, my first time back in over a year. I stood in the hallway where there was once hustle and bustle, and the only word that came to mind was “forlorn.”  As I walked down those abandoned halls, an eerie feeling overtook me.

I look at my reflection in the glass panels that once greeted those that entered and exited the rooms lining the hallway. There is no one on the other side of the glass. Disembodied voices of past occupants bounce off empty room walls. I glance in each room as I continue to my desk. Whiteboards display notes from meetings, details of work to finish — work long since completed from a home office.

I seemed to be in alternate world where time stopped.  I asked myself, maybe even mouthed the words, is this what Chernobyl looked like?  

Streets are empty, not a person to be found. A kettle sits on the stove. Bikes clutter the front lawn tipped over where they landed, at the ready for the next big adventure. Chalkboards display spelling words from the lesson of the day. Clothes hang on the line waiting for people to return from their daily errands and commitments. 

It may seem odd to connect such different events, the COVID 19 pandemic and the Chernobyl disaster. Both were devastating and unforeseen. Both have silent killers lurking, something we can’t smell, see, or taste. Both emptied schools and offices. 

The Chernobyl accident occurred at a nuclear power plant in the Ukraine in 1986.  The explosion in Pripryat resulted in radioactive fallout, laying a blanket of radioactive dust as the contamination plume spread across eastern Europe. Surprisingly, the death toll was relatively low in comparison to the magnitude of the accident, but post exposure-related illnesses are still being documented.    

The COVID 19 pandemic, on the other hand, has resulted in many deaths and continues to plague the world. Post COVID complications are already being documented. 

Both events have commonalities of science, time, and distance. 

The aftermath of Chernobyl is dictated by the very black and white laws of radiation physics, where the only solution is time and distance. The rule is the inverse square law: by doubling your distance from the source of radiation, you are quartering the dose received. With respect to time and radioisotopes, each has a characteristic rate at which it will decay, a half-life. This can range from fractions of a second to a shocking, almost unbelievable number of years. It is a waiting game.

COVID 19 was also dictated by science where the early solution was time and distance.  Allow scientists time to research and develop a vaccine and in the interim, maintain six feet of distance (and other precautionary directives that require human cooperation). As time passed, science has provided a detection method (where I think they swab your brain twice via not one but both nostrils), treatment and the dedicated clinicians that studied science and medicine to treat those suffering, and a vaccine.

In Pripryat, some of those that lived within the evacuated exclusion zone have moved back. Others have made a home elsewhere. Some of us who evacuated office life as we knew it to “shelter in place” are venturing out again. We are still navigating our way through the new normal.

I am linked to each of these events that uprooted and paused life; explicitly to one, implicitly to the other.  I lived through one and I can’t forget the consequences of the other.    

The study and use of radiation specifically in oncology is my life and livelihood.  

I am proud to be a part of a dedicated group of people who have chosen to focus their lives on radiation medicine.  We know all too well the devastation radiation can cause. These topics were part of our clinical education. These topics are part of our current safety discussions. Patient safety is always first and foremost on our minds.

These empty halls I walked, evacuated by a pandemic, these whiteboard discussions I heard when I closed my eyes, these vacant desks where papers lay all center on one topic, the development of software used every day in radiation oncology clinics across the globe. 

-Amanda Lambeth-Meyers

Free Fashion Advice

As I stood at the front door ready to take my daily walk, I thought of Coco Chanel’s famous advice: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I’ve acted on this bit of advice many times, since I love all the accessories.

But here’s the thing: I couldn’t take off anything for my walk because everything is necessary. Whereas I used to take long summer walks with nary a hat or sunscreen, I now wear a super-cautious wide-brim hat with a hole in back for my ponytail. Not only that, it has a chin strap to keep from blowing off my head with the slightest gust of wind. Wide brims love to catch air, you see.

I resisted the chin strap, due to an aversion to the elastic chin straps of my childhood Easter bonnets slicing across my throat. Those things were deadly serious about keeping the straw hat on your head until the final Amen. I now yield to the chin strap because I hate chasing this hat down the sidewalk.

Draped across my chin strap is another eyesore, the cord to my earbuds. When I bought a new cell phone, it turns out my old phone trade-in was only worth a cheap pair of earbuds, not the fancy wireless kind. These earbuds work just fine, though, as I rock out to National Public Radio whilst on my daily rounds.

The only downside is they won’t stay in my ears, so I clipped the cord together—right in front of my chin strap—with a metal binder clip. I’m pretty sure this is the kind of thing Coco had in mind when she advised taking one thing off. But I need my earbuds to stay in my ears, so the binder clip is here to stay. Office supplies are so versatile.

This all sounds tragic (is probably what you’re thinking), but maybe I could compensate with some cool shoes. Well, that’s not gonna happen. After years of wearing poorly fitting shoes and toe-pinching heels, my feet desperately need a comfy pair, and the brand that best fits the ol’ water skis is a venerable sneaker beloved by boomer dads. I buy the cheapest ones in my size, which means I rarely have cool colors on my feet.

Lastly, there’s the accessory that brought Coco Chanel’s advice to mind: my elbow brace. The doctor says my chronic pain is tennis elbow, although I’ve never played tennis in my life. Still, the pain is real, so I wear a fancy black Velcro band around my left arm. Standing at the front door, I seriously considered taking this off because I’m just vain enough to fear it’ll give me some deeply weird tan lines. However, elbow pain edged out vanity, so I kept it on.

Donning my prescription sunglasses, I turned to Phil and said, “I feel like my walking outfit just gets weirder and weirder.”

“It’s not just a feeling,” he said, without looking up from the computer. “Tomorrow, you’ll put on a tutu.”          

Little does he know, I have no reason to add a tutu to my ensemble. Knee socks and ankle weights, maybe. We’ll see. Getting older is truly liberating.

Strutting out into the glorious sunshine, I tighten my chin strap, adjust my binder clip, and crank NPR like a real, live twenty-first century Coco Chanel.

Creatures and Other Comforts

This past year has shown me that I need creatures. While Charlie Parker, feline, doesn’t require as much attention as our dog did, he requires a lot of presence (and belly rubs). Wherever we gather, he is in the midst. When Phil and I are in the living room and Caroline is in her bedroom, he sits equidistant from us. Maybe it’s a magnetic force. Maybe it’s love.

Creatures, wild and tame, have meant a lot to me during the pandemic. Last fall, after a long stretch of staying close to home, we ventured to Arizona. The desert landscape was magical, and even the freezing hotel pool was a high point. However, the most amazing part of that weekend for me was meeting a hawk.

The hawk’s job was to deter pesky birds from bothering people who were dining on the patio. I was in awe of this majestic bird, so after we ate, I went over to talk to his handler. The bird towered over me with piercing yellow-green eyes and a beak that could take my finger off. The curved talons gripping his handler’s glove unnerved me. Then the handler asked, “Would you like to pet him?” Honestly, the thought of petting an apex predator hadn’t crossed my mind.

But okay.

I reached out slowly and smoothed his chest feathers with the back of my hand thinking only please don’t hurt me. I was awed and relieved that he ignored me.

Throughout the winter, we took note of the creatures outside. Birds and squirrels, rabbits and stray cats, all made their way through our yard in the course of their quest for survival. Early in the year, I started leaving birdseed for the squirrels and cardinals right outside the window, prime space for wildlife viewing. Charlie da Cat and I loved watching the squirrels grow fatter day after day. On the bitterest days of February, we watched a rabbit crouch under our deck, the wind shivering its fur.

When it gradually warmed into spring, I let the birdseed bowl run dry. The squirrels found other ways to survive, and the shivering rabbit gave birth to a brood that quickly learned to mooch from Phil’s garden full of Chinese cabbage and radishes.

Finally, this spring we headed to Florida for a couple days of warm sunshine. On our last morning at the beach, we came upon the most alluring creature. A glassy blue blob shaped sort of like a Chinese dumpling. Phil saw it first as it hung out on the wet sand, just out of the tides’ reach. “Should we help it back into the water?” he said. As the creature’s pointy end seemed to probe blindly at the sand, I nudged it with the toe of my sandal into the next wave.  

Later I learned that my right foot had been thisclose to a world of hurt. A quick internet search revealed the blue blob was likely a Portuguese Man o’ War, an animal with a painfully venomous sting.

This creature, I see now, signifies the polar opposite of comforting. Still, I’ve studied its picture on my phone many times since returning from Florida, awed by its pearly-blue surface and mysterious blue blobs lurking underneath.

In times like these, perhaps amazement passes for comfort — the comfort of knowing there’s still a big world out there and we’ll get back to exploring it soon. As I hang a hummingbird feeder outside the window, I give thanks for the comfort of creatures.  

-Em : )