Monday, December 31, 2012

Playing It S.M.A.R.T.

This weekend, I taught the youth group about goal-setting.  (Yes, we teach the kids both spiritual truths and "practical" ones...but so much the better when those two can be combined!)  I used the S.M.A.R.T. goal model that I was taught at Starbucks.  The kids giggled a little about how corny the acronym was, but, you kow what?  I think they understood it.  Some of the kids came up with really awesome, lofty goals - one wants to open a day-care, another wants to own a dance studio.  Some goals were a little simpler - to improve grades or to lose weight.  But I was proud of all the kids, because they took the lesson seriously and really thought hard about something they want to accomplish or change about themselves.

So I decided, on this last day of the worst year of my life, that I'm making some changes, too!  I'm not trying to look at these decisions as resolutions, because for me, ike many of you gentle readers, resolutions have a sneaky way of getting broken rather quickly.  I'm making these changes to improve the quality of my life - spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  So, these are the things I'm going to try to commit to in 2013...

1. Lose 32 pounds by my 32nd birthday!  This gives me 10 1/2 months to gradually lose weight by making healthier choices daily - not by starving myself (pfft, like that ever works anyway).  It also filters in time for me to make mistakes (hello, Grandma's butter cookies!) and slowly adjust to comsuming less calories.  If I were a more determined person, I could accomplish this more quickly, but I know myself.  THIS is the way to set myself up for success!  My resources include my friends on MyFitnessPal, an app/website that helps count calories and connect me with other like-minded people.  In addition, I'm trying to bake more of my own sweet treats, rather than buy them, so I am more conscious of what ingredients go into them.  My reasons for this goal include: avoiding the health problems that plague my family (diabetes, heart disease, etc.) and having more self-confidence.  I am also hoping that, by becoming healthier, my chances for having a successful full-term pregnancy may increase.  The doctors have run many tests on me and there is nothing "wrong" with me, but it can't hurt either, can it? 


Dear Jesus: Thank You that these
things have gone out of style...
2. Write, write, write!  I have two novels running laps in my head.  Each day another runner joins the mix, and yet I'm not giving them the time to spill out onto the pages, accomplishing their goals!  By the end of 2013, I want to have finished and edited (and maybe self-published!?) one of my novels.  Although they are both my babies and very precious to me, I think my odds are the best if I work on my superhero story, Normal Was Never Enough.  You can expect updates and more blog posts about this story as I progress.  I would like to sit down and write everyday, but I think that's another set-up for failure.  My goal is to work on the novel three times weekly.  I also want to make sure I am updating all three of my blogs at least once weekly.

3. Make God my number one priority.  I love Jesus.  I've been a Christian for (now, I think it's official) over half of my life.  But it's becoming increasingly easy for my to put other things first.  I want to reverse that trend and make more time for the Lord in my daily life.  I know there's not a simple trick to this.  But I'm asking God to help me fall in love with Him again first.  Everything else will follow. 

4. Keep my friends close.  I have been blessed with a number of wonderful, supportive, funny, beautiful and loving friends.  Yet during the past year - probably because of all the trauma we've endured - I've found myself pulling away from companionship.  Part of it deals with that self-consciousness issue I mentioned above.  Am I just the "funny fat friend"?  Am I really cool enough to be hanging out with these incredible girls?  I am realizing that asking myself those questions is actually a sign that I need to spend less time alone.  Because who thinks like that?  No one should!  My goal is to try to spend a little time with one (or more) of my girlfriends at least every two weeks.  Even if it's an hour-long stop at Starbucks between one woman's mommy duties.  It would really benefit me to get out of the house, anyway!

5. Get.  A.  Job.  This is probably the most urgent of my goals, for financial reasons as well as psychological ones.  I thought that being unemployed would mean that I would have more time and opportunity to work on my hobbies and take care of the house.  Well, it did.  But being unemployed certainly didn't suddenly give me the desire to wipe counters or scrub toilets.  Why did I think that it would?  I have no idea.  I need a job to help support Ross in taking care of our financial needs, but I also need a job to give myself more structure and human interaction - even on the days when I prefer my pets over other people!  I should mention that I have received a few offers and am still considering some of them, but right now I'm still waiting on hearing from My Dream Job with the Carnegie Library.  (Those of you who pray may want to offer up a few pleas for me, since I really feel this is the perfect fit for me, but I probably won't hear anything until the end of this week at the earliest!)
Still not quite sure how I landed such an amazing guy!

6. Be a better wife.  It's not about being more submissive, or more meek, or more docile.  I want to be a better support for my husband, who is truly the greatest man in the world to me.  I want to learn how to compromise more effectively, love him in the ways that best encourage him, and help him reach his own goals.  I'm not saying I haven't done that in the past (almost) three years, but I know in my heart that I can do better.  Step one: we both need to out down the iPhones and talk to each other.  I refuse to let technology weaken my marriage!

Wow.  Looking back over everything I just wrote makes 2013 look like a year with a lot of challenges in it!  But I am trusting God that he will help me meet them all head-on.  I'm really excited to leave 2012 behind me and shake its dust off my feet.  It was a sharp and ugly bend in the road, but it's not the end, and I am truly beliving that the months ahead will be smoother, clearer, and more straight-forward a drive on the highway of life!

God knows I need it!

Best wishes, blessings and a joy-filled 2013 to all of you.  Thanks for the support over the past few years.  I look forward to entertaining you for many more years to come.  Unless all the technology changes again; then we'll have to do this all telepathically or something.

I guess I'm okay with that.  Happy New Year!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Blog Bit: Stuff My Cats Do (Part Two)

Loki plays fetch. 

At first, I genuinely thought it was a fluke.  What self-respecting feline, after all, would play with humans as a simple-minded dog might?  But then, Loki isn't exactly a self-respecting feline.

She's pretty much half dog and half skunk.

Thankfully, though, that "half skunk" part is diminishing, as we recently changed the cats' dry food to an indoor variety.  Up until about two weeks ago, I swear, that animal smelled like the devil's feet.  The odors coming out of her were otherworldly.  She farted when she got excited...when she was startled...when Ross came home (she loves him)...when she was picked up...so, pretty much, she farted dozens of times daily.

Ick.

But about that dog half...

Two weeks ago, when I was in the kitchen baking (unusual for me), I noticed that Loki had gotten yet another one of my hair elastics (I practially buy a new package every month, thanks to her) and was playing with it noisily on the floor.  A little frustrated at her claws tap-tap-tapping on the floor, I picked the thing up and tossed it into the basement.  She shot after it.  Then I returned to the counter.  I turned around, and she had already flown back up the stairs and deposited the elastic at my feet.


Loki with her preferred human companion.
Freak, I thought, and kicked it back downstairs.  Down and back, like a rocket.  I abandoned my baking and kept throwing the elastic.  We went back and forth maybe nine or ten times before she flopped down on the floor, tired.

That was cute, and kind of creepy, I mused.  Cats do strange things all the time; it's part of their nature to be spontaneous in the most inconvenient and odd ways.  Like the time I saw Thor puff for no reason and start to dance sideways.  Or the time he licked the shower walls for, like, an hour.  Or when the house is perfectly silent, and they leap to their feet out of a dead sleep and fly through the kitchen like furry meteors after each other.

The next day, I was making dinner and listening to an old radio program and there she was again, begging to play.  She even danced around like dogs do when they realize they're about to get some attention.  I threw the elastic and ignored her, but she added another rule to the game.  I was no longer allowed to ignore her, as she kept nuzzling against my feet and legs until I played.  This was a clearly new tactic; Loki is extremely affectionate, but she is not a leg nuzzler!  Perhaps she had seen Thor employ this clever strategy in order to snag a piece of ham or glob of tuna from me while I was cooking!  She was perhaps less simple than we had originally guessed.

Anyway, long story short, Loki and I have played fetch maybe seven or eight times in the past two weeks.  She's particular that we play with the elastics; even her small mouse toy won't make it back up the stairs with her.  And they have to be thrown down the stairs.  If I throw them into the other room, she won't bring them back to me.

So, fetch.  On her own terms.  I guess she's still a cat after all.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ghosts of Christmas Past...and Future

Ross and I spent Christmas Eve in the hospital.

Well, only a few hours, really.  That morning, as we were rushing to get ready to visit his parents for lunch, Ross received a disturbing e-mail from his mom.  In a nutshell, she said that Ross's dad may have had a mini-stroke, and they were in the hospital, and not to come visit because they weren't home.  Naturally, we made plans to visit the hospital at once.  We were encouraged by a call from Ross's dad, who tried to make light of the situation as best he could.

I won't get into all the details here, but suffice it to say that, being the holiday, John did not really get the care he needed.  An MRI was promised on Christmas Eve and, as of Cindy's update last night, it still hadn't been done.  He will likely be in the hospital for several more days.

Ross spent a lot of time being reflective the past few days.  Although we had a really wonderful Christmas dinner with my family (it was a pajama party - I have awesome relatives!), I could tell that he was thinking about his dad.  And who could blame him?  Two of our good friends lost parents in the past few months.  A former co-worker of mine lost her grandmother around the same time.  We buried a friend from church two weeks ago who was about John's age.  And, of course, this year we had two miscarriages. 

Of course it was scary to think of losing him.

I got to thinking that is has been a miserable year for so many of my friends.  Divorce, death, disappointment, job loss, broken relationships, political upheaval, busted vehicles, and of course, increasingly horrifying news stories, like those out of Connecticut and Oregon, have been on a seemingly endless parade through our lives.  I don't know why.  In a strange way, I feel comforted.  I know that I was not alone in my grief this year.  That isn't to say I'd wish loss or destruction on anyone else, of course. 

It's just that Christmas has always been a hard time of the year for me, like it is for so very many people.  It's a myth, I think, that only unmarried or otherwise lonely people become depressed around the holidays.  What about those who have lost a dear friend or relative, or a child - especially those who are experiencing their first Christmas without that person?  Those who are missing servicemen or women who are deployed?  Those who have been through a divorce, regardless of whether they have remarried?  Even those who are questioning their faith for one reason or another - the sweet and hopeful message of Christmas can be a difficult one to understand or accept.

This Christmas should have seen us with a beautiful baby girl.  Olivia would have been 10 months old - the perfect age to enjoy her first Christmas.  Old enough to smile, giggle, and babble at relatives, but young enough to cuddle and pass from aunt to aunt.  Yet that isn't how we spent our holiday, and I don't think I will ever know why. 

Still - I am grateful that my family is growing closer through our losses.  My uncle lost both his parents last year, and Ross and I offered out home for Thanksgiving dinner.  It might have been one of the best things we could have done for the family.  Since then we have been spending more time with my dad, step-mum, aunt, uncle, and Gram - it's really all I have left.  My sisters are out of town and my mother is out-of-state.  My grandmother's brothers and sisters have all passed away, and my aunt and uncle never had children.  I don't have first cousins.  It's only seven of us.  But we're continuing to grow closer.  I am deeply grateful for that.  There isn't any of that holiday drama surrounding us - unless my dad gets peevish and wants to discuss a hot political topic over coffee...but those conversations are becoming more rare as we realize that spending precious time together is far more important than being "right" politcally or morally.  Fortunately, we all know and love Jesus and find our hope in Him.  It's He alone who has been our strength this past year, even when we have felt faint and weak.   

I have, many times this year, felt like a ghost.  We taught the kids around Halloween that there are no such things as ghosts - at least, not like the ghosts Hollywood tells us about.  Yet, it is that very image I feel I have been portraying...listless, pale, caught between two worlds and unsure of how to move forward. 

In the year ahead, I am praying that this "ghostly" feeling is replaced by the power and conviction of the Holy Spirit, and that I, and my friends, are given new strength to forge ahead.  I think another year like this one will utterly break me.  I can admit that now.  Although my faith is still strong, trust me - it's been shaken these past long months.  I keep returning to that place of "Why, God?" and I get no answer.  I don't know that I ever will in this lifetime.  But that's not as depressing as it sounds.

This year has also brought with it a new infusion of hope.  Because of my faith, the very thing that has been shaken and bruised and battered of late, I believe that there is an infinity beyond this life.  God has given me a greater sense of eternity this year.  I cannot see or comprehend "forever", yet it exists simultaneously with "now" - at least to God, for whom time is no barrier.  It's so difficult to put into words, but there is an odd and deep sense of peace that comes to me when I think of eternity.  I know it makes some people anxious, or confused, or irritated.  Many people - even those who believe as I do -  live their whole lives without actually contemplating it.  Some dismiss it entirely.  Yet because I have contemplated it, and studied it, and believe in it, I have been rewarded with the promise of seeing my children, who died before they were born.  I have the promise of dancing with Linda at the throne of Christ.  I have the promise of seeing my friends' parents and telling them "You raised some darn amazing kids!"

I have the promise of life everlasting.  I need that to be my focus for 2013.  Health for now, and hope for eternity.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Why of 'Who'

For 17 years, I have desperately wanted to be British. 

I picked up the dialect as a child while watching Mary Poppins.  For Dress-Up Day in seventh-grade, I chose to be Queen Elizabeth I (my mom had a heck of a time with the costume, but she eventually figured out how to make a ruff collar).  I was reading classic British literature when my peers were still gasping over Goosebumps mysteries.  I had already fashioned my opinions about Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and Bronte years before my college courses prompted me to write about them.

But, alas, somehow I was born an American citizen, with a mongrel heritage mix of Italian, Belgian, German, Romanian, Slovakian, Yugoslavian, Granish, Czech, Polish, and half a dozen other eastern European nationalities thrown in for good measure (and excellent culinary skills).  I'm short, and pale, and a little overweight.  I'm a reader before almost anything else, and content to travel on adventures inside my head or on paper fare more than in actuality.  I am, you could say, more a Hobbit than anything else.

I am actually in no way resentful of my citizenship.  Trust me - I know there are far, far worse places I could have grown up.  I have received a good education and all kinds of other perks by being an American.  But, I admit, high quality entertainment has not been among them.  Not really.  Not for a long time.

My husband and I have not had cable since we were married nearly three years ago.  We've adapted quite well.  We use Netflix for the certain progams we like - though perhaps I should say programmes, because they're mostly British.  And mostly Doctor Who.

I was very reluctant to watch my first episode.  I know myself; I have an addictive personality (which explains the fourth cup of coffee in my hand as we speak) and I'm a Geek Girl through and through and, as mentioned above, I am a rabid anglophile.  Of course I would like Doctor WhoOf course it would devour up all my free time, some of my work time, and a considerable amount of my subconscious as well.  After seeing so many references to it on Pinterest (my other "hold-out" hobby), I figured I should probably take a look. 

My favorite Doctor!
It took about, oh, 7 seconds after his appearance for Nine to become My Doctor.  I am pretty sure I watched four episodes that night.  My husband was working late and I was bored; I figured I'd give it a go after holding out so long.  I got all the way through the first season before I finally confessed that I had been watching a science fiction series without him.  He hopped on board right away and Ten became His Doctor.  He now walks around the house doing his very best David Tennant impression - which is not very believable since he's bald.  Charming, but not believable.

So, what it is about Doctor Who that is so appealing to us?  I'm sure that entertainment magazines and internet chat rooms have already spend countless hours poring over this question, but I am going to answer it from my viewpoint: the rare (almost extinct, I imagine!) Conservative Geek Girl Viewpoint.

It's strange that so many Christians in my life would fall passionately in love with a series that doesn't question the existence of God so much as flat-out deny it.  Or why we would so earnestly admire actors and writers who are confirmed atheists.  In fact, why are we - as people who accept that the divine hand of God created the heavens and earth, that his son Jesus died for our sins, and that that Holy Spirit dwells within all believers - such huge science fiction fans?

I think it's because we believe in a higher power that we're fans.  Science fiction teaches us that there is so much beyond our realm of comprehension that someone needs to come guide us along, show us the ropes, and encourage us.  That someone could be The Doctor...or a starship captain...or a mysterious wizard...

...Or God himself.

Science fiction teaches us, more than any other genre, that human beings are capable of great, amazing things - as well as horrible mistakes and acts of impressive evil.  That our minds are like fuses - once blown, a mass of conflict and challenges.  That our hearts have the capacity for love beyond time and beyond measure.  Beyond the constraints of logic.

The Bible teaches that, too.

"With God, all things are possible" sounds to me like the best sci-fi premise a person can imagine.  "All things."  As Christians, we usually reserve this comforting verse to encourage those who desire healing.  Or employment.  Or maybe help in finding a spouse or starting a family.  But, my goodness, how incredibly narrow-minded of us!  The One who made the stars can surely navigate them!

Who is to say that God - the real God, the Father, a member of the trinity and the Author and Finisher of our faith - can not exist in the same world as spaceships, lunar landings and forbidden planets?  I say that he must exist there!   That is not where I was headed today, yet it brings me back to the discussion of why we so adore Doctor Who


Everyone else's favorite Doctor
(but, yes, I love him, too!)
I think what we love so much about it - beyond the deliciously camp effects, the charming actors, the incredibly clever script, the devious plot twists and emotional resonance - is the churning compassion that makes up the greatest portion of the Doctor's thought process.  Although we continue to uncover his past scrap by scrap, we repeatedly see his deep, intrinsic love for others, and compassion that leads him frequently to sacrifice himself or what he cares about for the good of others.  He sees all life as precious - and proves it by offering mercy to his enemies and encouragement to his allies.  There is so  great a well of selfless love in him - and it is not innate.  It was born of grief, loss, and pain.  Yet such things did not twist him into a hermit or a miser.  They unplugged a well of nearly endless empathy and celebration that gushes out of him to the point of nearly drowning those he most treasures.  There is no criticism in him, only curiosity.  Admiration.  Love beyond the physical. 

How can we not love a character like that?  How can we not infinitely prefer him to "our" own media models of self-seeking housewives, airheaded co-eds, crooked father figures and doped-up high schoolers?  How can we not see just a glimpse of Christ's infinite compassion pouring out of this demi-god of a man?  Even if the writers and creators don't believe in a higher power at all, they have managed to build for us a man more Biblically Christ-like in many ways than the "Christ" we worship in our churches today.

There, that was bold.  I said it.

The Christ of scriptures was passionate, joyful, excited about everything.  He adored his friends - his "companions", you might say.  He was a teacher.  He desired his followers and friends to understand things on a deeper level.  Sometimes He was mysterious.  There was a lot about Him that others simply couldn't comprehend; the vastness of His mission was too huge for them.  He had an infintely strong sense of justice and yet showed mercy.   And, okay, yeah, I guess you could even say He "regenerated", if you want to go that far.

I think it's interesting that in our "Christian" nation, we don't have those kinds of heroes on television.  But in "atheist" Britain, they do.

Don't get me started on Sherlock.  That's a whole 'nother can of worms.  Awesome worms.  British worms.  But long-winded worms, nonetheless, and I have things to do today.

Now Leaving The Shire...

Very few people appeared to be over 35 years old.  The vast majority were short, dark-haired and wearing glasses.  The girls were in simple clothes - drab coats, skinny jeans, and functional boots.  The guys wore Star Wars or Avengers T-shirts.  Some wore suspenders.  There was pleasant and polite chit-chat among the fans as they nibbled on popcorn and rattled boxes of Milk Duds (okay, the Milk Dud rattler was my husband).  Someone booed at an advertisement for Twilight-themed gift cards.

It was nice to be among my people.

I'm still a little surprised that we were able to get tickets - even a week in advance, one of the midnight showings at our favorite theatre was already sold out.  Ross and I nabbed tickets for the 3-D showing against my better judgment.  I might be a Geek Girl, but generally I can take or leave 3-D.  Like roller coasters.  They're fine and all, but I prefer not to be involved with them, thanks. 

Plus, paying $14 for a movie ticket gives me a rash.

Still, we packed our buckets of snacks like good little Hobbits (I brought homemade chocolate cupcakes in my giant purse) and struggled to find two seats together.  Pastor Stephanie had given up a heads-up that they had opened the theatre two hours in advance, and even at 11:00, she and her family had to split up because most of the seats were already taken!  We ended up sitting near the front, to the far left.  Which I disliked.  But hey...what are you going to do?  At least it wasn't the front row.

The previews seemed to last longer than usual - or maybe we were all just chomping at the bit after over a year of tantalizing trailers and teasers.  Although, I did let out an audible "Squee!" when they previewed the upcoming Star Trek movie.  With Benedict Cumberbatch as The Ultimate Bad Guy.  Mentally I prepared a summer's worth of dates with Ross - most of them centering around science fiction or superhero movies.

Not that he'd mind.

I won't release any spoilers here.  No, really.  'Cause I absolutely despise it when we Whovians who have some, er, catching up to do accidentally read the spoilers that are vomited all over Pinterest and tumblr!  So, no, I won't do that to anyone.

All I will say is that Martin Freeman was born to play Bilbo Baggins.  That should come as no surprise to anyone who's already planning on seeing the movie - or anyone who's ever seen him act in, like, anything.  Tiny, itty-bitty almost-spoiler alert: there is a brief scene featuring various woodland creatures being helped by a kooky wizard.  One animal present is a small hedgehog.  There are rampant internet comparisons of Martin Freeman to hedgehogs and Benedict Cumberbatch to otters (if you're a Sherlock fan, you get this...if not, move along).  Therefore, I could not help but miss Sherlock during that scene and wonder why the BBC is trying to destroy my life by slowly devouring it with excellent programming.  Moving on...there was a great deal more comedy and light-hearted banter in this movie, as compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  There are a few gentle nods to the other movies, but this is very easily a stand-alone movie, for anyone whose husband (or wife, for that matter) might be goading them into a sci-fi or fantasy movie night.

Because beards turn any story
into an epic!
Speaking from a conservative perspective, for anyone who might have teenage or pre-teen fans in the house, I'll say that in general there is less violence than LoTR.  However, it does look more realistic because of the technological advancements made since the trilogy was released.   Tiny, itty-bitty almost-spoiler alert: there are several body parts chopped off in this movie.  Bad guys' body parts, of course, but it might be jarring to younger viewers.  There's not a lot of blood, though.  On the flip side, the presentation of the dwarves in this movie is quite different than the Gimli we meet elsewhere, and makes for a more "fun" fellowship than surly Sean Bean and L'Oreal spokes-elf Legolas.

So, basically, I'm saying: go see it.  The 3-D is pretty darn neat, but it's not necessary for the enjoyment of the film.  The great acting, humor, beautiful scenery and spectacular CG take care of that.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Too Much Death

The holidays are difficult for many people for hundreds of reasons.  For some, it's the pressure of financial strain on an already tight budget.  For others, it's the great void of loneliness stretching out in the "festive" weeks ahead.  For a lot of people, it's a time of stress and travel anxieties - ferrying kids to one grandparent's house then the other, of trying to evenly divide hours between divorced parents.

For many, I think, the holidays represent the anniversary of a loss.  They are a painful time because celebration is blanketed by a sense of regret, loss, longing, and sometimes shame. 

Lately, I've seen far too much talk of death on facebook.  A friend's mother lost her long, long battle with cancer just a few weeks ago.  A friend posted about a two-week-old baby passing away.  A former co-worker's grandmother just died.  All of this in the past month.  Over the past few weeks, my family has been touched by the cold hand of death, too.  First came the dreaded due date: December 5th.  Our son Bennett was supposed to be in our arms right now - just one week old.  But we lost him.  Then, my sister-in-law, Lindsey, lost her beloved bunny, Erte.  I know that pets and people aren't the same, but like us, Lindsey and her husband Jay have no children.  They adored their pets and, frankly, they were probably more like family than Ross and I were - at least in the sense that we only got to see Jay and Lindsey a few times a year, where their bunny and cat were constant companions.  As I grow more and more attached to Thor and Loki, I can see why people take losing a pet so seriously.  So I grieved with Jay and Lindsey over the loss of their quirky, sweet little 12-year-old bunny.  In fact, for years, the holidays have been difficult for me.  Although God has restored my family in ways I never would have expected, it was around Christmas time over 15 years ago that my Dad left my Mom.  I can wholly understand why people dread the holiday season.

But just a few minutes ago, things got much harder.

I just got word from our church office that Linda Kessler went home to be with Jesus.

Linda had recently been diagnosed with an extremely fast-moving cancer that had spread throughout her body.  In a matter of weeks, she had grown weak and sick.  The doctors had performed test after test for other illnesses before realizing it was cancer.  They gave her one month to live, without chemotherapy.  They guessed she might have up to a year, with it.

Linda had three days of chemotherapy.  She ran into the arms of her Savior last night.

I hate obituaries, because they try to wrap a person's life up into a tiny, four-line black and white package to be printed in an upcoming newspaper that few people will ever see anyway.  Therefore, I will tell what I can of my experience with the amazing, wonderful Linda Kessler - before the cancer attacked her.

Linda was a woman of medium height and build, with long, slightly graying blonde hair.  She always dressed simply and modestly.  She wore Vanilla Fields perfume, the same brand my mother liked to wear.  When I told her that - that she smelled like my mom - she smiled hugely, as though it were the kindest thing in the world I could have said to her.   She worked at Sam's Club.  She had been divorced, but I never knew any details.  She had children - one of whom was a son who died last year, around the time we lost Bennett.  I remember going to her and just hugging her - like she'd hugged me so many times before, both in joy and sorrow.  I said, "I don't know how I know, but I am sure your son is taking care of my babies in Heaven."  She nodded fervently and said, "Michael loved kids.  He adored them.  I know that's exactly what he is doing right now."  And we both found hope.



Linda was a worshiper.  She could be found every Sunday morning, standing off to the side in the front of the sanctuary, so as not to disturb anyone else, waving her banner and holding her hands outstretched to the Lord.  She had a look of peace on her face, with her eyes closed and a little smile on her lips.  Her brows were always drawn together, as if her love for God was so great it might hurt her.  When I began to take pictures during church events, I frequently focused on her.  She was always there, always passionate: the picture of someone madly in love with Jesus, and humbled in turn by His love for her.

Linda was an encourager.  In spite of what she had endured in her life, she was a genuinely loving and happy person.  She liked to make other people feel happy, too.  She loved children and teenagers.  They often ended up sitting near her during special services, or before they left the sanctuary to attend their classes.  Linda liked that.  She wasn't one of those crabby older women who just wanted to be done with kids, or thought they were disturbing the "real people" from paying attention to the pastor's message.  I liked that a lot about Linda. 

Linda was faithful.  She was at almost every meeting I could think of; she served as an usher and greeter every Sunday and served at nearly every special service we held for Pastor Billy Burke, a healing evangelist.  She scheduled her whole life around church, it seemed.  It was where she was happiest.  It was where she could make other people happy.

Last night, she breathed her last and opened her eyes in paradise.

This is hard for me, personally, because I feel like I let Linda down.  I had the chance to visit with her this past Sunday, and bring to her a card the youth group had signed.  I remember being very impressed with what the kids wrote to her.  Not a single one of them simply signed his or her name.  Even those who did not know her well had something cheerful, kind, or encouraging to write.  I was deeply moved.  The kids who I worried about - the ones who sometimes seemed like they cared more for themselves than anything else - wrote loving, sweet, thoughtful things to encourage a sick woman. 

And, because I didn't visit her on Sunday, she never got the chance to read them.

I kept thinking that one day wouldn't make a difference; I had asked Ross to mail the card yesterday morning.  He did so, going so far as to pull a stamp off another letter because we didn't have any more stamps.  And, as I got out of the shower this morning, my phone chirped an e-mail notification.  I read the message from the office and I began to cry.  Thor came into the bathroom immediately.  You know how they say that animals just know things?  He curled up in my arms and licked me and purred in my ear and meowed his sympathies until I stopped crying. 

I had received my healing last week and I believed that Linda would, too.  If God could mend a tiny tear in my fragile retina, what could possibly keep him from plucking cancer out of the cells in Linda's body?  The youth group prayed with us.  Ross and I have prayed the last few days.  Linda received prayer at a healing meeting last month. 

Why did she die?

Christians struggle so much with this question.  I don't have an answer.  I don't know why Linda had to succumb to the cancer, and why some other people are healed through surgery, therapy and radiation, and why others are healed miraculously, never to get another negative diagnosis again.

I don't know.  Because I am not God.

Something that comforted me deeply when I lost my babies is this thought: God didn't make any mistakes and all of us were designed for a specific purpose.  I believe that some of us were designed specifically for Heaven.  Our roles and existence await us there - passing over a life on earth.  I truly believe that my three children had jobs that were so urgent waiting for them in Heaven that they bypassed time here.  I'd like to think that God had a Linda-shaped hole in Heaven and a job that only her compassion, gentleness and faithfulness could possibly complete.  I don't know that such an idea is found anywhere in scripture, but it doesn't conflict with anything there, either, and so I have accepted it to gain a little bit of peace.  If you are a person who is genuinely eternity-minded - like Linda was - the vastness of "forever" isn't scary or daunting, but comforting. 

I wish I could have said good-bye.  I sincerely do.  But it would have been temporary at best.  It won't be long before I get to see Linda again.   And she can introduce me to her son who so lovingly has looked after my children.

That is the hope of Christ is us.


Monday, December 10, 2012

NWNE: An Excerpt

As promised to my faithful facebook friends and fans (and maybe some random people who took pity on me), here is a short little morsel of one of my two current novels-in-progress.  It's called Normal Was Never Enough.  This story, I admit, is nothing new: ordinary people find themselves suddenly in possession of abnormal powers.  It's a story literally as old as time itself, but I'm endeavoring to tell the story with a sense of humor, a sense of morality, and a sense of style.  In the following excerpt, we learn a little of the backstory of two of our main characters, Ben and Merrick.  Please do not use this, or any of my writing, without my explicit permission.  If you want to share, please post a link to my blog.  Thanks for protecting the integrity of my work!

With a bit of a sigh, Merrick muttered that Ben had darn well better appreciate what he was doing.  Ben glanced at Merrick’s Superman hoodie and stifled a grin, instead replying, “I know, man…thanks.  I didn’t know who else to take.  And you can’t beat free tickets.”
Merrick shrugged, his expression bland, but Ben saw through his fa├žade.
Ever since they had met in fourth grade, when Merrick’s family moved to Pittsburgh, they’d pretended to be superheroes on the playground.  They had found a few (very few) like-minded friends and hunkered down in Merrick’s basement for hours of Dungeons and Dragons.  They vowed to each other that they’d always – always – get tickets to the midnight showings of the new action movies that came to town.  At least once a week, they snuck out of study hall to visit the local comic book shop.
Then Merrick got a girlfriend. 
            It was in eleventh grade.  The day was burned into Ben’s memory like the ring around an eclipse.  They’d made plans to pick up Mexican food and join a few buddies for a Star Wars marathon on cable.  He’d borrowed his parents’ station wagon and had stopped at Taco Bell (which was even busier than normal, as it was a Friday night).  He pulled into the Merricks’ driveway and stopped short.  Merrick was walking out the front door with a girl.
Not just any girl, of course.  A pretty girl.
Liz Cramer.  She wasn’t the most popular girl at school, not by any means – but she was cute, and she wore shorts that were just a little too short for school, and she had her own car, and she always smelled like apples.  That night, she was wearing impossibly tight jeans and a huge smile.  Merrick’s smile matched hers, but as Ben got out of the car, it faded.
“Oh, man,” he said, “I tried to get a hold of you before you left home.  I, uh, I can’t hang out tonight.”
“Hi, Ben,” Liz said.  She had a few fingers curled around Merrick’s hand.
Ben stood there for a moment, holding the soggy bag of tacos.  “But, nachos,” he said dumbly, as the grease dripped onto the sidewalk.
Merrick forced a grin and waved him off.  “We can get something for lunch tomorrow.  You don’t have to go to your grandpa’s, do you?”
Ben silently shook his head.  He had mowed his grandfather’s lawn two days before and it was still looking pretty good.  He was free for the weekend.  “But, Star Wars,” he pressed.
“Ah, I’ve seen it before,” Merrick said with a dismissive shrug.  “Hey, if you still wanna do something, I know that Curt and Billings are free tonight.  Maybe I can join you guys later, if I’m not out too late.”  He sent a raised eyebrow Liz’s way, and she grinned back.  She gave his hand a noticeable squeeze.
Ben hadn’t moved from his position outside the car.  Curt and Billings were supposed to meet up with them to watch the movies.  They always went to Merrick’s house because his parents didn’t mind them crashing in the basement.  They often played card games and watched movies late into the night, and it wasn’t unusual for them to wake up the next morning to Merrick’s (very attractive) mom flipping pancakes for them on a bright Saturday morning.
“Can’t Liz stay and watch the movies with us?” Ben persisted, hearing a bit of a whine creep into his voice.  The bag kept dripping.
“Ew, no,” Liz laughed good-naturedly.  “That’s not my thing.  Wait, that’s with the girl with the cinnamon bun hair and a whole bunch of robots, right?”
Ben’s face fell.  Star Wars is…it’s a film that broke all types of records…it’s the ultimate story of good and evil.  It was ahead of its time.  It-it…”
“Cinnamon buns, yeah,” Merrick supplied as he guided Liz to her car.  “Give me a call tomorrow, Ben,” he threw over his shoulder as he opened the door for her.
At that very moment, the bag of tacos exploded onto the pavement, spattering Ben’s well-worn Nikes with grease and hot sauce.  Ben stood there, watching Liz and Merrick drive away, and, for the first time in his life, his confidence was shaken.  He’d always realized he was an introvert, a nerd, and he’d been fine with that – as long as he’d had someone to share in his nerdy indulgences.  Merrick’s betrayal was as cutting as if he’d used his Dark Elf to slay Ben’s Healer Priest.
As his socks began to soak up cheese sauce, Ben made the decision that he would never compromise who he was for something as trivial as a date with a pretty girl.
Which explains why he ended up spending most weekends alone.
 
And now, Merrick was “between girlfriends”, meaning that he was spending his weekends alone, too.  Ben had won a pair of tickets to the convention by answering some trivia on the radio, and he was quite pleased with himself.  Maybe, for a few hours, things would be like old times.  Before girls, before college, before jobs.  Merrick didn’t even seem to mind that Ben had donned his Doctor Who costume, complete with sonic screwdriver.
“You know there are going to be like eight million of you dressed like David Tennant,” Merrick had pointed out.
Ben grinned.  He copped a fairly decent British accent. “Right then, I’ll be in good company.  I’m not going for originality.  Just style.”
Merrick rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “Can we just agree that we will try to act normal?”  When Ben turned an aghast face on him, Merrick amended, “Normal for geeks, I mean.”
“I’m in complete control,” Ben answered innocently.
As they entered the convention center, Ben felt himself getting giddy.  He barely paid attention to the bored-looking older gentleman scanning his ticket.  How could he, when he was surrounded by pointy-eared Vulcans and shiny androids and armed Avengers and two dozen other Time Lords?  He felt himself getting light-headed.  Then, he felt himself actually getting lighter.  He glanced down and noticed that his scuffed Converse sneakers were hovering a few inches above the floor.  He tried not to panic and forced himself back to the ground.  Merrick, watching a bikini-clad slave Leia saunter past, hadn’t noticed.
Ben wasn’t ready to tell him yet.  Maybe after the convention.  Maybe never.  Things had changed so much between them that he didn’t know if he could trust Merrick anymore.  Not the say he used to.  He wanted to.  But this wasn’t gossip or a secret crush he had to talk about.  This wasn’t high school drama.  This was real.  He took a deep breath and suggested they head to the booths and check out some local comic book artists. 
Merrick, still eyeing the princess, half-heartedly nodded agreement.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hole? No, WHOLE.

Today was a difficult day.  Actually, it wasn't today so much as yesterday.  Yesterday, I got into a disagreement with my husband before he left for work, which always leaves us both frazzled.  Then, in an effort to bring some holiday cheer into the house, I began to put up some Christmas decorations.  When I got to the stockings, I began to cry.  There shouldn't be two; there should be five.  One for each of us...myself, my husband, and my three babies.

Today was supposed to have been Bennett's due date.  We lost him six months ago.

I broke down completely, and my poor dad chose that exact moment to call and let us know about some last minute plans regarding their visit to see my sister's graduation.  "What's wrong?" my dad asked, sounding a little panicked.  "There are only two stockings," I sobbed, as if he was supposed to know what that signified.  After he calmed me down a little, I sighed that I didn't even know why I was decorating.  Although the family spends Thanksgiving at our house, no one visits us between December and oh, the following April.  They're the better for it, of course, because our ancient, drafty house is rarely warmer than 60 degrees in the winter, despite our best efforts.  Still, that wasn't the point.  The point was that I didn't feel cheery and decorating for Christmas was making things worse!

My dad then promised he'd bring my stepmom and grandma to visit.  I made a mental note to remind them to wear sweaters and bring Snuggies.

Ross was dealing with a lot of frustration about his job situation, and wasn't in the mood to talk when he got home from work, but I had a lot to say.  Which meant that I snuck out of bed to curl up on the living room couch and cry.  Not long after, Ross trudged down the stairs and asked what was wrong.  I made every effort to carefully explain my feelings.  I was dealing with disappointment, sorrow, rejection, and loneliness.  Even after I'd seen my friend Jen that day, who had lovingly crocheted for me a beautiful prayer shawl.  Even after I'd received a special word of encouragement from Pastor Mark earlier in the week.  Even after I'd been contacted by an international ministry that wished to use my photographs in its newsletter.  I was still heavy with sorrow.  Things weren't made easier by the doctor's appointment scheduled for the following day, of course.  I was going to learn when I would need eye surgery.

Last week, I went to a new eye doctor to use up my insurance benefits before the end of the year.  From the doctor, a charming young woman about my age, I received the usual lecture about not wearing my contacts too long, and carefully cleaning them each night, but then I was blasted with the revelation that there was a hole in my right retina and that I should consider getting surgery right away.  She explained that a torn retina can quickly lead to blindness unless corrected immediately.

I was utterly defeated.  The sheer number of horrible things that have happened to Ross and me in the past three months was overwhelming enough, but to suddenly have to worry about my very ability to see threw me over the edge.  Plus, there had been some confusion regarding my health insurance after I was let go from Fenner, and at the time, I was without coverage.  I sat down and had a heart-to-heart with God.  You know, one of those little chats that consists of nothing but tears, threats, accusations and pouting?  Oh, you call that a tantrum?  Okay, then.  I sat down and had a tantrum.  Fair enough.  I just didn't think I could handle much more.

This morning started out ordinarily enough, with the cats panicking over their breakfast (well, actually just Thor panics.  Loki just follows after him and imitates him, so it looks like they're both in a panic).  Even though I didn't sleep well last night, I felt pretty good this morning.  I was going to meet my dear friend Lindsay and she was going to go to the hospital with me, then we planned on having lunch together.

Well...I'm not the Queen of Navigation, nor the Empress of Promptness, so I got out the door later than I had planned and I soon realized that I didn't have time to get to her place, near Station Square, then over to Allegheny General for my 10:30 appointment.  So I let her know, and went in alone. 

Although the opthamology practice at AGH was really large (the office itself was about three times bigger than most I'd seen), the staff was friendly, personable and kind.  Noticing that I appeared to be the youngest patient present, I filled out my paperwork.  I then met with a technician, and sat still for a few tests.  I finally met with Dr. Verstraeten, a tall, polite man with a shock of fading ginger hair and a faint German accent, who promptly smiled and said, "There's nothing wrong with your eye." 

Even for someone who believes in miraculous healings - and who was praying for one! - I could hardly accept what the doctor was saying.  He went on to tell me that I indeed had benign floaters, likely caused by blunt force trauma when I was younger (I had noticed them since I was about 12, which is, in fact, when I suffered a fall and it my head).  He said that I have nothing to worry about, but that if my vision suddenly grew blurry or I saw flashes of light, that I should contact them right away.

I left the office in a pleasant daze - well, partly because my right pupil was still dilated.  I was so grateful for the news.  Either my other doctor had misdiagnosed me - which I had no particular reason to suspect - or God had healed my eye.  Either way, I was overjoyed that I didn't have to worry about the surgery (simple and quick) or the recover (long and arduous).  Oh, and that we got to save money, effort and all sorts of other drama.

I picked up Lindsay and we had a lovely lunch together (her treat, in honor of my birthday last month, even though I fought her for the bill).  Every time I hang out with Lindsay, I am recharged, and I feel like I can take on the world again.  She's such a good-hearted, simple person, but she has that effect on me!  I keep wondering why we don't make plans more often, and I'm determined to change that.  I really feel that God put us together to encourage and sustain each other.  When I recently learned of her prengancy, I felt that brief stab of jealousy that comes for, I am assuming, many childless women, but the Lord almost instantly led me to a place of deep thankfulness for her pregnancy.  I genuinely want to rejoice with her.  I know she will be an excellent and loving mother, and I am excited for her. 

With each pregnancy my friends experience, I am getting one step closer to my own healing.  I don't think the sorrow itself over losing my children will ever completely disappear, but one day it won't have the same weight.  It will be a historical fact, rather than a deep, defining scar.  I will tell the children I have in this lifetime that their sister and brothers had a job in Heaven that was so important, God couldn't wait for them and he needed them right away.  I wouldn't be surprised if, after his birthday celebration with Jesus today, Bennett finds himself before the throne of God, singing and dancing and shouting with joy that he is in the presence of his maker for eternity.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Woo-hoo!

Congratulations to me!  This is my one-hundredth (published) blog post!  I have been celebrating all day by refusing to get out of my pajamas and being forced to cancel a coffee date with a friend because my headache refused to respond appropriately to ibuprofen.

Uh, yay.

In honor of my "anniversary" (or, rather, coincidentally, I guess, since I only put this together today because my plans fell through), I've launched a brand-new blog.  It's something that I've mentioned before, but that I put off because I wasn't sure where to begin, or how to maintain it.  But here goes nothing!  It's called "Blueprint for Beauty" and it's geared mainly towards teen and tween girls.  It's Biblically-based, with lots of personal stories, fashion tips, life lessons and biographies of amazing women who possessed inner beauty and/or outer beauty that led them to do great things.  I'm really excited about it and, ultimately, I'm doing it in honor of Olivia, the daughter I never had, whom I would have wanted to raise with this kind of advice.

It's not my goal to be condemning or preachy, but the whole slant of the blog is that we are created in God's image and, because God is beautiful, so are we.  I am exploring the attributes of God that make him beautiful, like patience, mercy, honesty, power, faithfulness, and grace - and sharing stories about historical woman who possessed those characteristics.  I just wrote a blog about Corrie ten Boom and her huge capacity for forgiveness.  I'd like to talk about Deborah's wisdom in leading the Israelite people...maybe German nun Hrosvita who single-handedly revived theatre as an art form?  There are so many amazing women whose stories I want to share with the next generation.

The whole idea is to help young women accept the fact that they are beautiful and that what they see in the mirror or on the scale does not define them.  It's a really hard lesson to teach and an even harder one to learn, but the sooner the better.  I'm so tired of living in - and sometimes believing! - a society trying to convince us that clear skin and slim thighs are proof of value and beauty.

That kind of thinking is NOT godly.  It needs to stop.

Join me here.