Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rising: Easter 2014

Dormont Presbyterian.... where I grew up
I have heard it at least three times in the past week. "Where do you go to church, now?"

Were they being curious? Kind? Offering an invitation? Making conversation? Whatever the case, the Communion of the Saints have been much on my mind lately.

Last night at midnight, I found myself online, looking for an Easter service. There's a little church in my neighborhood. I run right past it several times a month. A couple of the people in my classes at the Y worship there. Nothing to wear, though. I could handle being the only stranger. And I've gone to enough funerals in the neighborhood to be OK with being the only single white man in church. But sitting in the back row in khakis and a sport coat, wearing a shirt that needs ironing and shoes that are coming apart... it just seemed disrespectful to me.

There was a church once. (Not the one in the photo.) One I belonged to for years. The only place I ever really felt as if I belonged.  They made room for the kind of sinners, losers, failures and sons of bitches that Jesus used to hang out with. So, when I first arrived, there was a place for me, too. I went to their web site last night to see what time services were. I remembered a place where it didn't matter what you wore or how badly you'd screwed up your life, you could belong there.

And I remembered how much it hurt to watch a handful of angry people start to rope off the pews and lock up the side doors and back entrances. I fought them for as long as I could. Fought for the Gospel that had first welcomed, and then transformed me. Fought for the people who had found a church home for the first time in their lives. Before my fight was over, I wound up in a mental hospital. We lost. We lost the battle. We lost our home. I still believe that God lost, too.

But God will be fine. If Easter teaches us nothing else, we can be certain that God has a way of bouncing back.

Me? I'm not so sure about. And my church home? Judging from their web site, there is a thriving, loving community there now... but the my kind of trouble makers are gone. The people like me. The place that welcomed me is gone. I know the address, but there's no way back there for me. I drive a 14 year old Honda, not a time machine.

There have been other churches. Places where I was loved. Communities that offered me a place to rest or worship or serve. But my trust was gone. I didn't belong anywhere.

I know that's one of the reasons why it was love at first sight between me and the Y. I recognized the spirit of Christ there. Jesus was the woman whose bright smile and open eyes welcomed me on my first visit.  He comes there in bells and sneakers to dance in Zumba class. He arrives, laughing too loudly and covered with jailhouse tattoos to workout with the recovering addicts from across the railroad tracks, and tears up the weight room with them after supper to help them sweat out their demons. Jesus jumps into the deep water, helping his classmates to be brave and try, even if they are only 5 or 6 years old. He drops his children off at the Kids' Corner so he can go shoot some hoops with his buddies. And every now and then, on a dark winter morning, he limps in on frozen feet, and asks for a cup of coffee and a chance to sit down someplace warm before all the good, clean people who are so frightened of him start coming in to exercise before work. In some ways, those are my favorite visits.

I have sat in the lobby with Jesus on those days when it seemed like the sun was never going to come up and our lungs were never going to thaw, and he would tall me stories. Parables, maybe. About his family and how they had died or thrown him out because of his drinking. About the fortunes he had won and lost out at Keeneland over the years. The men he knew in the war. About how he could never live up to his father's standards or live down the heartbreaks of his past or find the love that would make him feel whole again. Once he told me about the years he spent serving as President of the World, and how he and General MacArthur saved the planet from nuclear annihilation. Just last week, he handed me a stack of pages torn from a children's coloring book and asked me if I would make him some copies to take back to the group home with him. It was the least I could do.

But every now and then, in a quiet moment, I'll ask him, "Lord, isn't there more? More for me to do? More for me to have? More for me to be?"

And every time, his answer is the same. "Pennsy, do you love me?"

After all we've been through together, it always hurts to hear him ask it.

"Lord, you know I love you!"

"Pennsy, if you love me, feed my sheep."

And that's how I know that I have found a place. Because here, where I might least expect to find them, the place is packed with Jesus' hungry sheep. I know, because I'm one of them.

You know, it's funny. This started out as a blog post about how sad I was that I didn't have a church home to worship in this Easter. Then right in the middle of the thing, Jesus shows up, smelling like a bus station men's room, and reminds me that he didn't have one either. Last Sunday, Passion Sunday, Christians waved palm leaves and sang Hosannas, and read a story about a man who was driven so crazy by what was going on in church that he started beating people up and busting the furniture. He made the wrong people very angry. And they made sure there would never be a place there for him there again.

So he found another place. One that no door could keep him away from. He rolled away the stone. Behind it, he found the world. He found you and me.

I'm not saying you can't find Jesus in a church pew. I'm not saying he doesn't go there or bless the people who do. But just like in Heaven, there are many mansions in the world. And while I miss the smell of lilies and the sound of organ music and trumpet voluntaries and the warm embrace of a hundred whispers of "The Peace of the Lord Be Always With You..." Even though I miss those things... I am grateful.

My heart may feel heavy as a stone sometimes, but there is no stone so heavy that the Love of Christ can't roll it out of the way to throw open the door and let the love pass through. And the only thing I am sure of is that when the tomb is opened, I will not find what I expect inside.

It is always so much more wonderful than I can ask or imagine. Once, I even met the President of the World.

The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad;
The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.

Our hearts be pure from evil, that we may see aright
The Lord in rays eternal of resurrection light;
And listening to His accents, may hear, so calm and plain,
His own “All hail!” and, hearing, may raise the victor strain.

Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth the song begin!
Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,
For Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end.

The Lord is risen, indeed. Happy Easter, y'all.


Monday, April 14, 2014

The Final Chapter Begins

Two heads with pieces missing
Four years. It doesn't seem real, somehow. Four years ago today, the doctor and Mrs P and I sat in a room and decided that my life was in imminent danger from a fast growing mass that threatened to cut off the flow of blood to my brain, and crush my larynx. Basically, my body was strangling itself.

Two days later, the diagnosis came. The Amazing Cancer Boy was born.

I'm not going to tell the whole damn story again. If you're interested, the links to the right will take you through the entire adventure. It's a story that has taken over my life, defined every waking moment since that morning, for good and for ill.

"How do you feel?" a friend asked today. "You should feel great."

On the phone, Mum agreed. "I think you should, too."

Yeah. I should.

Somebody said to me once, maybe only half-joking, "You know, you were a lot more fun before you became a national treasure."

It was a joke. I know. But life is certainly different.

The Amazing Cancer Boy
Better in a lot of ways. I got to experience an outpouring of love that most people don't get until they are dead. I know what resurrection really means. I've experienced it. Several times. I have a purpose for my life, and a place to fulfill it, thanks to LIVESTRONG at the YMCA. I'm not sure I've ever had that feeling before... knowing that I'm doing something that is making a measurably positive difference in people's lives every day. I have done things physically, athletically even, that I never even dreamed of doing before I was sick. And maybe best of all, I have had the chance to know and love my mother in a way that might never have happened if we had not spent all those hours together laughing, crying, working crosswords, and pumping protein drinks into me through a rubber hose.

But in a lot of ways... well, it's hard to put into words. Resurrection has its price. My teeth are gone. And yeah, I miss them every day. My thyroid is dying, cooked by hours and hours of radiation. I have to take pills by the fist-full, and still I get so tired, so easily now. And so very sad sometimes. It's hard for me to remember things, especially when I try to memorize lines for a play.

Mrs P and Me in "happier"days
And there are other costs. Much more painful ones. I have loved and lost so many brave cancer fighters in the last four years. Been to way too many funerals. I've lost my family. Half of it, anyway. My dogs. My home. My best friend and the love of my life. The woman who fed me and cleaned me and mopped up my puke and kissed away my tears. Who gave me a reason to keep fighting for life. Can I blame cancer for all that? I don't know. Maybe not. But maybe without it, things might have been different. I know that at some point I went over a very important edge. I stepped into a place where even the woman who loved me most could not follow. And I know that cancer had a lot to do with my going there.

So yeah, I guess I'm glad to be alive. Being alive means I have a chance to... what? Make a difference? Heal? Find love again? Be whole, whatever that means? I don't know. All I know is that it's getting to be time to turn the page.

Five years. They throw a pile of numbers at you when you have cancer, but one of the biggest is five years. When we met the radiation oncologist, Mrs P and Mum and I, one of us asked my prognosis. "50%" the doctor answered. "50% of the people with your kind of cancer will live for 5 years." I remember seeing my mother cry at that. Five years. And no reason to think I'm not going to be one of the lucky ones. "Heads. You live." So that's how long he has left. One more year. One more chapter left in the tale of The Amazing Cancer Boy... the real-life boy who didn't die. In twelve months, I can close the book, put him to rest, and get on with whatever the rest of my life is going to be.

I've already registered for a marathon in May to celebrate my new life. I'm going to keep running. Don't really have any plans beyond that. I'm going to keep acting. I'm going to keep writing. .I'd like to be able to make a living again, so I'm not at the mercy of the docs and the shrinks and the Social Security Administration for my income. Maybe I can write and star in one-man shows about running.

I'd like to get on with all that. And in a way, I am. But in another sense... it's hard to explain... it's like I have one more year left to serve... my term?... my sentence?... maybe both. All I know is that I'm not going to really feel free until April 16, 2015.

Of course, there's a downside too. Without cancer, there'll be nobody left to blame but myself. I'll have lost the greatest excuse in the world. I'll be on my own.

And in some ways, that's even scarier that a tumor.

As for Cancer Boy? Well, there are some advantages to being a Minor Local Celebrity... It can be very good for the ego. But to be perfectly honest... I'm getting kind of sick of the son of a bitch.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

My Grownup Date With Heather Dugan

Review: Dugan, Heather. Date Like A Grownup: anecdotes, admissions of guilt & advice between friends. HDC Press, Columbus, OH, 2014.

Heather Dugan does not want to go out with me again. Even though we’ve never actually met, this hurts a little, because, Heather Dugan is a fine looking middle-aged woman. She's attractive. She's fit. She's confident. Heather doesn't walk, she strides. She's lean and muscular. She is successful, smart, strong, and has fantastic hair. I would not ordinarily bring that up, but Heather's looks are pretty much the subject of the cover of Date Like A Grownup: anecdotes, admissions of guilt & advice between friends.

That image is important because it is a picture of the person who is going to be the reader’s friend and confidant for the next 200 pages or so. You'll talk about a lot of things together. Not always easy things. The subject is dating: "grownup" dating. This is not the game you learned in school. This is a business for people with a few miles on the tires and a few mistakes in the rear view mirror… and much less time to waste.

Date Like A Grownup... is a personal book, and for the most part, it seems intended to help smart, beautiful, successful women like Heather to thrive in their return to the dating world. As a 50-something returnee to that world, I figured maybe I could pick up a few pointers.

I thought so, even after I realized that this was going to be a “women’s” book. Imagine Sex in the City set in Columbus, Ohio. There would be trips to the gym, gatherings after work to sip (and sometimes gulp) wine, late night phone calls to manage crises, and struggles with blending a career, divorce, motherhood, and dating. Still, I thought I’d play the eavesdropper for a while. Listen in on what the ladies were talking about. Maybe it would help me to understand what women my age are looking for? I have to confess, a lot of it was a little hard to hear.

According to Dugan, if they are smart, grownup women aren’t looking for men like me. I’m recently divorced, emotionally needy, financially troubled, and I travel with more than my share of personal baggage. It was damned discouraging. There were a couple of times that I just had to put the thing down. I started to get a little mad.

Oh, sure, my friend Heather may smile warmly at me from the cover of her book, but it turns out that behind my back, when she’s with her girlfriends, she spends a lot of time warning them to avoid me. I felt a little betrayed. Stung, you know. So I did what any guy would do. I took another look at that cover photo.

Yeah, she spends all that time in the gym, and is always talking about her abs, but I notice she’s a little baggy around the knees and shoulders too. The smile is wide and bright, but the lips seem tight. Forced, am I right? And it’s hard not to notice that the skin on her face and neck look much smoother and younger than the legs and arms, as if a friend with Photoshop may have helped out between glasses of cabernet. The sort of trick you might expect from a middle aged sorority girl who treats first dates like job interviews….

Was I being bitter? Sure. Also unfair. Definitely not grownup behavior. I started to feel a little ashamed of myself.

So, I decided to try again. Maybe not take things so personally this time. Find a way to get over being rejected by so attractive a woman, and try to learn a little something from her.

Here are some of the things I learned about dating like a grownup, once I got over myself.

Time is precious to grownup women. They have a lot of important things going on. They volunteer. They work. They have kids and parents who depend on them. They have houses and cars and bills and investments and all of those things need their attention. A grownup woman isn’t sitting around waiting for Mr. Right to come along and fill up her dance card. She is dancing already.

Grownups don’t need a partner to “complete” them. They’ve been there and done that. They’ve known sweethearts, lovers, and husbands, and they’ve learned that being alone is better than being with someone who doesn’t treat a you the way you know you deserve to be treated.

Grownups don’t get swept away by personal charm or sexual heat. They decide to date someone because it makes sense, because dating that person fits into the rest of their life, because it moves them closer to their own goals and values.

And here’s a biggie: grownups treat people with respect. They don’t play dumb. They don’t play coy. They say what they mean, and mean what they say. They respond courteously to all but the most offensive or dangerous attention. Grownups don’t pretend to have feelings that aren’t there, and they have the personal courage to say “No,” when it needs to be said.

Of all the lessons of Date Like A Grownup… I think this is the one I most needed to hear myself: grownups, know that trust is the foundation of any relationship. Dating like a grownup… no… LIVING like a grownup means never doing or saying anything that makes you a harder person to trust.

And that lesson of personal integrity is where I found the secret charm of Dugan’s work. Because you see, this isn’t a book about dating at all. Not really. It’s a book about growing up. Its story is about living life with joy and friendship and honor, and choosing the time and people with whom you share that life. Dugan didn’t teach me everything I needed to know about dating grownup women. But she did point me toward becoming a more grownup man. And for that, I am grateful.

Thanks, Heather. Even if I didn’t get a kiss goodnight.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Libby's Bench

Weeping with the cherries by the grave of a friend I barely knew,
Canada Geese dancing their ancient dance of love on the water,
April sun warms our backs like a benediction

I entered the gates intending to take a walk among the blossoms. The Lexington Cemetery is always beautiful, but especially now, In many ways she is the most precious jewel in our city's crown, and her stewards treat her with the dignity and reverence she deserves. In summer, she is a wash of light and shadow as the dense, cool leaves guard both visitors and residents from the burning July sun. But now, before the leaves have pricked through winter covers, the slopes are veiled with the pinks and whites of the early spring. 

I woke up early. My usual time. My morning appointment had called last night to cancel, and I intended to make good use of the extra time. I expected to be alone when the alarm sounded, but instead I was greeted by an old friend. Depression has been mercifully quiet for a few weeks. I always treasure the times when he stays away, hoping maybe he's finally lost my number. But he never really does. Instead, he came to me with a head full of numbers.

Bank balances.
Months since this.
Years since that.

Even my blood pressure meter seemed determined to frustrate me, returning error after error before finally reporting a level so our of line with my "Normal" that I knew it was out of whack.

Someone once asked, "What's therapy for, if you already have all the medications you need to stabilize your brain chemistry?"

Yeah. It's for mornings like this one.

Negotiating the early stage of a depressive episode is like walking across a frozen pond in March. You think you know most of the places where the ice is thinnest, but you're never sure if the step that was safe yesterday will send you cracking through into the frigid darkness today. I've fallen through many times. I don't like it down there. There was a time when standing frozen in place was an option for me. No more. There's no cavalry coming. There's only one way off the pond for me now. So I began to quietly shuffle toward the shore, one tiny step at a time.

Start the coffee
Record daily metrics: weight, BP, Hours of sleep, Body fat percentage
Check the day's schedule
Make the bed
Dress for first class
Morning Meds
Bank Balance
Email, Facebook, Journal

Each sliding step is part of a mindful routine. I wonder, do healthy people do all this stuff without thinking?. When you're sick, you have to tip-toe through each task, listening for the warning signs of thawing ice. Grief for lost love? Crack. Slide back a foot, and take a deep whiff of the fresh coffee grounds. Anxious about work, the bosses' plans, my own success, my clients' progress? Snap! Stop, reach a toe to the left, and feel the peppermint of the soap as it lathers on your chest and arms. Frustration at the puffy feeling in the knee that is better today but still not 100% even though I have two miles to run wtih the kids tonight? Crunch! Touch the yielding of the mushrooms as you slice them carefully with the big chopping knife.

When unreality threatens to trip me by the leg, my best response it always to find the closest, most real thing I can find and embrace it. The Shrink calls it "Mindfulness." Depression and anxiety don't want you to be mindful. Maybe that's where they get the expression "out of his mind." The sickness wants you lost in a world or shouldn't-haves and what-ifs. The tyranny of the things you can't change. The crushing squeeze of the Then and There. Mindfulness drills you down into the Here and Now. It asks "What's really happening? And what is the best thing for me to do right now?" That's important. Because when you're crossing thin ice, it really doesn't matter how thick it was yesterday. You need to know what's happening this very second.

So I tip-toed through the morning, congratulating myself just a little every time I managed to change directions each time I felt the footing start to give way. It might be a dark thought. Or a wave of nostalgia. Sometimes, it's just a deep, uncontrollable sob that starts so far down in my chest that I can only open my mouth and let it out with a single grunting cough. But one by one, I managed to get through them. Step by step, I made my way to the shore. Safe. For now.

I made a plan. Class in the afternoon. Run in the evening. And in between, I would find someplace, anyplace beautiful and just be there. Last night, before bed, I had been thinking about the weeping cherries at the Cemetery. I would go there, and try to walk some of the soreness out of my aching knee.

 I drove to the ponds, my favorite spot, and parked next to a sign that warned of deep water and banned swimming and fishing. Because who wouldn't want to spend the day splashing around in the water down at the graveyard? A huge Canada gander eyed me suspiciously as I stepped out of the car and slipped my backpack over my shoulders. There were probably thirty geese lounging on and around the water. Scofflaws, obviously. I greeted the big male with quiet respect, and then we each waddled off in our own directions.

I snapped a couple of pictures, hoping to catch something of the beauty of the day, but I knew that they wouldn't really catch it. You just can't squeeze a Kentucky April into a little digital box. There's too much color. Too many textures. The fragrances are too rich and the music of the geese and the water and the breeze through the blossoms is just too complex to be abstracted down into a sentence or a snapshot. And just as I was rounding a bend where an old Elder arched tall and strong out over the water, I saw Libby's bench.

I had known Libby. We weren't friends. Not really. We went to the same church. She sang in the choir. I remember learning that she had cancer. The colorful bandannas she would wear, always laughing and smiling. The way she would hold her kids in her arms. The way she insisted on enjoying life, no matter how hard those last few weeks were going to be for her. I remember thinking how strong her husband seemed to be, and wondered what his secret moments must be like. And I remember her funeral, a resurrection mass, a joyful remembrance of a woman who turned her life and death into a gift for everyone who knew her.  Her stone is here, by this beautiful pond, and nearby is this bench. It's a place where people can come and sit and enjoy the loveliness of the place for a little while. It's Libby's gift to anyone who needs it. Today, she offered it to me. 

There in the sunshine as the fountain splashed and the geese scolded and posed and preened and teased one another, I finally let the tears out. I cried for everything and nothing. I cried for Libby's husband. For my wife. For the courage and suffering of the warriors I have known who fought cancer to the death. For my own sadness and failures. Other visitors passed by, diving slowly, snapping pictures of the geese and the blossoms and the sun on the water, carefully avoiding the big man on the stone bench whose broad back and shoulders shook with grief for the loss of who knows what or who. 

To my right, a pair of geese courted delicately. Elegantly, even. She, feigning indifference, as he rose up tall, puffing up his handsome white chest for her benefit, or else scooting across the surface of the water with neck outstretched and wings spread menacingly to warn off any other young males who might be too interested in his sweetheart. After several attempts to win her attention, he made his way to the stone wall where he sat in the sun, licking his wounded pride, and pining for her from afar as she rolled and splashed alone in the water, just out of reach. Though she seemed to be quite unaware of his presence, whenever his attention wandered to a distant movement or a particularly tiresome ruffle in his own feathers, she would give her tail a shake, snapping his ebony eyes right back to her like... well... like a lovesick goose, I suppose. The last time I saw them, she had finally allowed him to sidle in beside her. They paddled off together toward the opposite shore and what I hope will be a long and happy ending for both of them.

On my way back to the car, I picked up a food carton someone had left lying beside the road. The same big gander who had greeted me when I arrived nodded approvingly as I dropped it in a steel trash can. "Thanks for your hospitality, Old Man. Take good care of the place, will you?"

He didn't answer, just gave the tiniest of Canadian smiles out of the corner of his bill, then stood his web footed ground as I started the car and drove off into the April sunshine.

They aren't always easy, these days of spring thaw. But if you step carefully, keep your eyes open, and accept the gifts you are given... you never know what treasures might be waiting on the shore.