15 May 2014

Side Effects


I forget, some weeks, until my phone reminds me. Oh, yeah, it’s time. Time to take my once-weekly pills, the ones that stave off pain and stiffness and weakness and fatigue—or at least are meant to. So far, they work.

I get 6 out of 7 days to forget. Forget that my immune system has gone crazy. Forget that span of months when I struggled to unbuckle a car seat strap, or cut up an onion, or plod up the stairs. I get to push it all aside and pretend I’m healthy.

And on the seventh day, I remember.

I dutifully take my pills on a Wednesday night, and eat a snack to cushion the medicine, and go to bed.


On Thursday, I wake up and feel fine. About mid-morning—if I’m lucky, it holds off until noon—the fog rolls in, shrouding my mind. The rest of the day, I’m peering through a cloud, thoughts slippery and hard to hold onto, disintegrating into small pieces.

On Thursday, it’s hard to care very much about anything, because fatigue creeps up around me, whispering of warm blankets and soft pillows and the sweetness of sleep. Fatigue is deceptive, though—as lovely as a nap sounds, I know I will regret it when I wake up, foggier and grumpier than before I slept. So I power through—if by “power through” you mean “sit on the couch and stare blankly at the computer screen and try to remember what I’m supposed to be doing.”

On Thursday, I want to cry but mostly can’t. From noontime through bedtime, the tears lurk at the back of my eyes. I used to think it was because I was upset about something. But despair doesn’t generally descend every Thursday at 2 pm and recede on schedule by the morning. Now I’m sure that the meds cause the moods.

Sometimes I think I’m a better parent on Thursdays. It takes so much energy to surface above the fog and fatigue that my voice slows down, becomes less sharp. Everything slows down, really. Hard to get annoyed or angry or anxious when you’re wrapped in cotton batting. Hard to say “no” to a child, too. My sense of urgency dissipates. It’s relaxing, really. Or would be if my to-do list weren’t so long.

On Thursdays, I don’t care about my to-do list. Much.

Some weeks, I feel like I did when I was pregnant—a low-level nausea giving way to hunger, until I eat something. Sometimes eating soothes the stomach, sometimes eating makes it worse. Hard to know which it will be today.

Some weeks, my stomach feels fine and my head pounds. I hate to take even more pills, so I up my caffeine intake—sometimes a double espresso shot works, since I drink coffee so rarely now. Sometimes the headache comes on a Friday, and I question—is it just a headache, from pollen or tension or lack of sleep? Or is it another side effect?

Am I really sick? Or is it just the meds? On a Thursday or Friday, hard to know. And so I ignore the queasiness, the headache, the fatigue. The brain fog makes that easier. I hunker down inside myself, not wanting to complain. I’m bored of complaining.

I take my meds Wednesday night because Thursday holds the least activity. I used to take them on Friday night, but I got tired of ruining my weekends. I resent the loss of my Thursdays, often the only day of the week that’s largely unscheduled. I had been using it as a catch-up day, laundry or phone calls or writing.

I’m writing now. I suppose it counts.

And so I hunker down, and wait for the fog to lift, and tell myself it’s the meds, and mostly believe myself, but behind the ignoring and the waiting is the fear that this time, it won’t go away. That the real me is the confused and foggy one, the one with splintered thoughts, for whom a normal day is an endurance competition.

That the side effects are mere rehearsals for when the meds stop working.

05 May 2014

Musings on Manipulation, or Why You Shouldn’t Trust the [Insert Bias Here] Media



I’ve always been a good writer. I love words. I love reading, I love thinking about what I’ve read, I love talking about it with other people. Word play and copyediting are basically the same thing to me. Puns and periods, spelling and Scrabble and sentence structure. Alliteration. Sighing over a turn of phrase like an art lover sighs over Monet.

But there’s a risk, when you’re good with words—and maybe when you’re good at anything that involves communication. And that is, manipulation.

 

Back when moving files over the Internet was fresh and fraught with peril, I worked as a production editor at a typesetting company. The company was somewhat dysfunctional, having grown faster than its organizational structure and employees could keep up. All of the production editors knew that something needed to be changed. Too many errors were made, too many deadlines missed. So we discussed some possible changes to our process, and I wrote a carefully worded, upbeat memo outlining the proposed changes. There was a rather significant difference between the “upbeat-ness” of the memo and the actual attitude of me and my co-workers. It ended with some rah-rah statements about how we could improve, yay! But you catch more flies with honey, right? The other editors read it and we all signed it.

About the same time, the production facility made some big errors in one of my journals’ papers, and I got an earful from the paper’s author. (Thankfully, the author caught the errors before publication.) I was embarrassed and angry that neither I nor the quality-control “experts” at the offshore typesetting facility caught the errors. I wrote a carefully worded, polite but scathing email to my cohort offshore, copied to the manager of the facility and the president of the company.

I was hauled into the company president’s office so fast it made my head spin. (Note: his office was right next to mine. I did say it was a small company, right?) He excoriated me for my negative tone and told me that it was counterproductive to the improvements he and his co-owner were trying to make. Then he picked up the memo I had written and said, “THIS is productive. This is positive! We need more of this kind of attitude!” By this time, I was struggling with my frequent nemesis: tears of anger. I ground out: “I WROTE THAT.”  He relaxed. “Oh, you did? Well, this is great, just what we need! Just don’t send an email like that again, all right?”

And that, boys and girls, is when I realized that I—who cannot lie convincingly in person—am very good at deception.

 

Despite my natural bent toward melancholy and my instinct to over-explain, I can write a pithy, chirpy article with the best of them. It’s all in the wording and the tone, you see. Different genres have different styles, and a good writer notices and follows the rules for a given genre. In fact, a standard seminar at writing conferences is “writing for different markets”—how to write on the same topic in different ways for different publications. A writer who cannot or will not follow the standards of a particular publication or genre just won’t be published there.

 Molding your writing to fit a particular market isn’t truly deceptive, of course. Most times, it’s just good writing. But someone who has the ability to do that certainly has the ability to shade the truth—through choosing what angle to focus on, what tone to use, what quotes from an interview to include, and so on. Thus, I could write an angry email and a saccharine memo about the same systemic problem, and be equally convincing in each one.

 

I also wrote a newsletter for a nonprofit for over a decade. I called up people and interviewed them on a particular topic, and then wrote short articles about that topic based on those interviews. As anyone who knows me would tell you, I hate calling people on the phone. Even more, I hate calling people I don’t know and “bothering” them. I often procrastinated on phone calls until the last possible moment. Some months, my interview quotes were a little sparse.

Funny thing, though, I always managed to churn out an acceptable article by the deadline, even when my calls went unanswered and it felt like I didn’t have enough material. By quoting the people I did manage to interview, and adding some pithy explanatory sentences in between, I pieced together articles that sounded great—expert, even. I was just some 25-year-old copyeditor calling people on her lunch break and writing down what they said, but damned if those articles didn’t sound authoritative.

 

I’ve heard of “imposter syndrome,” where accomplished people (often women) feel that they will be “found out” to be not as competent as they seem to others. That’s not what I’m talking about here, because in these cases I don’t question my competency. Rather, my very competency—both my natural gift and the skills I’ve developed through practice and experience—is the danger.

One more example, and I’m undercutting one of my own posts here, so be kind: the devotion I posted about my grandmother’s punch. Even though the memory is true, and the spiritual parallels I drew were my own, once I posted it, something felt off about it. Partly because I slightly exaggerated just how many cups of punch I remember having (but not how yummy it was!). But mostly because it felt too tidy, too clever—more of a writing exercise, which it was, rather than the epiphany it sounds like. Perhaps that’s why I prefer longer-form devotional writing, like books or blog posts, and why I’m suspicious of tidy, spiritually (or politically or intellectually or..) correct endings. Life, and faith, and pretty much everything else, is more nuanced and complicated than we can summarize in a devotion, or a newspaper article, or a segment on the nightly news.

I’m talking mostly to myself here, trying to work out why something rather subtle about that piece bugged me. I think it’s my personal sense that writing about spiritual things, in particular, carries with it a higher responsibility for authenticity. Authenticity is in short supply, both in the Christian world and in the world at large. That’s why it’s so attractive when it does appear.

And so I question what I read and what I write and what I hear, reflexively, because I know how easy it is for a good writer to manipulate words and ideas to fit a certain opinion, tone, or (perhaps unexamined) bias. And the better the writer, the easier it is, and the more subtle it is.

I just thought you might like to know.  

20 April 2014

Easter Morning


They walk up the dirt path close together, swaying toward each other for comfort, their steps slowing down and speeding up in turn. Speeding up at the thought of seeing their Jesus once again. Slowing down when the ache in their chest reminds them that only his body awaits. They each carry a jar of sweet-smelling oil, and some soft, white cloths. It’s a last, small service for the man who had truly seen them, the one who changed them with a few words and the look in his eyes.

Neither woman speaks, save in broken murmurs, sentences dying away half-formed, when they realize that their words don’t matter anymore, even to themselves. The sobs have passed for now, leaving only a shocked, bewildered daze. One woman is dry-eyed, painfully so, like every last drop of moisture has been cooked away in the kiln of grief. The other is liquid, with an unending supply of tears building up in her eyes and spilling down her cheeks. And yet they plod on toward the grave, with the terror of yesterday behind them, and the grief of today and the rest of their lives looming in front of them. The path winds around a small hill, and they are gone.

 
The crash of a falling pot, and then down the path runs one of the women, like she can never run fast enough. She pauses to catch her breath, but can’t keep still, skipping, walking, suddenly looking back toward the grave and smiling. Her tears still flow, but she is gasping and laughing and then running again, running toward town, as if she can’t wait to get there.

A few minutes later, the other woman walks slowly down the path. She takes deep, gulping breaths. Her dry, haunted eyes have filled up with wonder.  She watches the rising sun like she’s never seen it before. She stands tall and majestic in the dawn light, paused there in the middle of the path, lifting her empty hands up, up, like they could hold the sun. “He is alive!” she whispers to the sun, the air, the birds of the morning. And then the tears finally spill, but she doesn’t notice. She starts again down the path, steps strong and sure, and her whispered words deepen and echo, taken up by the birds and the dawn and time itself. He is alive!

17 April 2014

Maundy Thursday

“This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you,” and a few days later, after he’s beaten and killed and buried and raised from the dead,  his disciples finally recognize him, after a long walk and longer conversation, in the breaking of the bread.

And so we come, to hear those words and eat little pieces of bread or pita or wafers that get stuck in the teeth. We drink sweet wine or sweeter grape juice out of little plastic cups or big silver chalices, given us by a man or maybe a woman, in long robes or a suit and tie or dress or khakis or maybe jeans and a T-shirt, as we kneel down at the altar or sit in pews or gather around a campfire or whisper in someone’s living room so as not to attract attention from authorities.

We are his body, his hands and feet, his arms and legs, with Christ as the head, says Paul. His body, broken and bloody, blood pouring down, not a shiny gold cross necklace, but blood and guts and tears and sacrifice. We are his body now.
And so we come, scrubbed and shiny, in our Sunday best, but inwardly broken and bleeding, confused and faithless, bitter and angry and lost and searching.
Some say the bread and wine is “just” a symbol, as if symbols have less power, are less real. Some believe a  mystery—that these things of earth transform into things of heaven. Some wait for a special occasion, like tonight, like once a quarter or once a month, and the eating and drinking is set apart, special, holy, and unusual. Some need it more often,  once or more a week, plus tonight and tomorrow and again on Sunday, and the eating and drinking is intrinsic, necessary, holy, and usual.
We walk, we skip, we hobble. We make our way to the place where bread and drink are handed out. We crush the body between our teeth and swallow down blood as if it’s our last true drink. We hope the broken pieces will make us whole.
But his body was broken, and our bodies are broken, and the Body of Christ is broken. Broken, and blessed, and handed out to all comers. And all seek to be blessed, but few seek to be broken. Except One.
And so we come, again and again, dragging ourselves, step by step, burden by burden, sin by sin, with barely enough awareness of the Presence to kneel and open our mouths like baby birds, and accept the gift of bread and wine, of flesh and blood.
We will fail again, we will sin again, we will strive or not, we will be faithful or not. But the Broken One is faithful to every last one of his broken creatures, every last petty or selfish or evil or longing heart.

And so he comes, in the breaking of the bread, and stops, and waits for us to recognize him.

13 April 2014

7 Things I Wanted to Post to Facebook


—1—
On one of the first spring-like days, K. had chorus practice after school, so I took A. to play on the school playground. Their elementary school had a brand-new, beautiful playground built just last year. A. played on the playground for exactly 20 minutes before she abandoned it for the adjoining woods. She recruited the  other kids there to work on a building project.

 
She doesn’t know the other little girl in the picture. But she got her to help carry big branches to add to the teepee thingy that other kids have started. A week later, on a different playground, she managed to get 4 boys and 1 girl (all the boys were older and bigger than she is) to play a “princess” version of tag. All of the kids did exactly what she told them to. The girl is a force of nature, in the most charming way.
 
—2—
And then there’s the other side of being 5 years old. Yesterday, the girls and I drove up to visit my parents in PA for a few days.
As we’re driving away from a rest stop about halfway through the trip, at about 2:30 pm, A. says from the back seat, “Mom? I got dressed all by myself this morning.”
Me: “Oh, yeah?”
A.: “And I put on panties, but now they’ve disappeared.”
Me: “What? Are you saying you have no underwear on?”
Big sister: “What? You don’t have panties on!?”
Me: “And you just noticed at the rest stop?”
A.: “Yes”
Me: “Ummmm….Ok, then.”

What else could I do?

—3—

Big sister K. kindly (it seemed) invited A. to sleep with her at Gram and Pap’s house (other options: for A. to sleep with me or in a room by herself). A. was thrilled that Big Sister actually wanted her. Of course, when it came right down to trying to share a (queen-sized) bed, then A. was touching K., or was too close to her, and A. refused to move, and K. was taking up too much of the bed, and yada, yada, yada--and a half-hour of bickering and multiple threats from me later, they finally both went to sleep. Tonight, it started out the same way. Then A. decided that she didn’t want to sleep with K. but with me. Fine, sure, no problem.
Except then K started to cry because A rejected her. “But you were just complaining that her arm was in your face!” says I. “But now it feels like she doesn’t love me anymore!” wails K.

I....just…there is no logic among siblings.
 
—4—
Earlier today, I told K. to “let it go,” which I tend to tell her often, because, well, she needs help doing that. Now, of course, those words are a cue to break into “Let It Go” from Frozen. And then K paused and said,  “Do you know what the boys at school do now? They sing Let It Go and then pass gas. Why are sixth grade boys so weird?”
I told her that it sounded like sixth-grade boys had changed very little since I was in sixth grade. And I thought to myself that I’d like her to see boys as weird for as long as possible Some of the kids her age are already “dating” and “breaking up.” I think she’s had a few crushes, but nothing like the rudimentary flirting and boy-craziness of some of the girls her age. With a little luck, we can delay that another few years. And it sounds like the singing, farting boys may even help with it.

—5—
I’ve been working on writing a Bible study/devotional. I’ve never tried this before, so it’s a bit of an experiment. I showed a bit of it to my mom, who said it seemed familiar to her…then she pulled out a Max Lucado book she’s been reading and said, “Here, read this section. I think you write a lot like him.” So now I’m torn between being hugely flattered (Max Lucado is a giant in the Christian publishing world) and a bit discouraged (why publish me if Max Lucado does the same thing and already has a huge platform?). Of course, once I finish this thing, I can market to a competing publisher: “My mom says I’m the next Max Lucado!” I’m sure that would go over well.
 
—6—
Last weekend, hubby took the training wheels off A.’s bike. She did amazingly well. I don’t know how she got her agility, but she’s definitely more coordinated than K. and me. She needs a bit more practice in starting out on her own, but if hubby steadies the bike and gives her a little push, she can ride it just fine. In addition to some natural ability, I also think her little German bike with two wheels and no pedals helped her with balance. Wish we had known about those when K. was small.

 
 
7
 
Every so often, I end up listening to music I haven't listened to in awhile. Audio Adrenaline has reformulated with a new lead singer, so I've been listening to their newer releases. But I downloaded and started listening to their old "Best Of" album a few weeks ago, for the first time in some years. And I nearly forgot about the last song on the album, which God used to get me through my pregnancy with Katrina. Having already gone through one miscarriage, I was incredibly anxious during my pregnancy with her. At some point, I heard this song, and something clicked. I hung on to the chorus of "Rest Easy" for months, whenever my anxiety ratcheted upward. Listening to it again, I see why. The verses are faster and kind of a barrage or words--very similar to how my brain feels when I get anxious. Then the chorus comes in, relaxed and slow, reminding me that God is with me. I don't know whether it will click with anyone but me, but it's a reminder of a hard time in my life that brought me such joy on the other side. A good thing to think about as we enter Holy Week.
 




For more Quick Takes, visit Jen at Conversion Diary

26 March 2014

What “Person of Interest” Is Teaching Me About Faith


If you haven’t watched the TV show Person of Interest, check it out. Its premise: a supercomputer built after 9/11 by a reclusive genius billionaire and ostensibly run by the U.S. government collects and analyzes all available data to predict terrorist threats. Data includes all online information, phone calls, security camera footage, and anything else that can be input to a computer. As a byproduct of all that data, “the machine” can also predict threats to individuals—mostly premeditated murder. Harold Finch, the computer’s creator, can’t bear to ignore the individual threats (deemed “irrelevant” by the government), so he recruits ex-intelligence agents to investigate and prevent the murders. The “story of the week”—whatever person the team protects for the episode—combines with a longer story arc. The show also has prominent themes of redemption and respect for individual life. And the current season has given me food for thought on the nature of our relationship with God.

Over the course of the show, the machine has become essentially sentient—and as omniscient as current data-gathering allows.  And an intriguing character has emerged. Originally introduced as a genius computer hacker (geniuses abound on this show) and sociopathic killer, who is also a beautiful, charming woman, Root sees the machine as a god—the only god she believes in. Through a series of plot twists, Root and the machine establish a relationship. The machine whispers in her ear through a cell phone earpiece (and as of the most recent episode, a cochlear implant), giving her step-by-step instructions that she obeys—almost without question. Her relationship with the machine is slowly transforming her—though she’s still unpredictable and has little regard for human life, the machine has a high regard for the value of human life and restrains her. It even seems to be teaching her. Her latest actions—walking through a gunfight to rescue a man in danger, and getting herself shot in the process—show that her desire to obey the machine supersedes her natural inclinations.

Meanwhile, Finch continues to communicate with the machine in the only way he knows how—the machine gives him Social Security numbers of people in danger, and no more. Finch takes care of the rest, with his own genius computer skills and the help of his team. Root—the amoral killer—enjoys a closer relationship to this entity than does Finch—the highly moral crusader for life, the creator of not only the machine itself, but the machine’s ethics. In an interesting conversation between Root and Finch, Root posits that the machine respects Finch’s boundaries. 

That’s where my musings come in. Finch’s relationship with the machine is rule-bound: he receives only specific information in a specific way. In flashback, the show traces Finch’s sustained effort, dating from the machine’s inception, at limiting the machine’s contact and possible affection for him. In the context of the original premise, this is perfectly reasonable—the machine’s job is to protect everybody equally. But if we explore the machine=God analogy, his actions feel different. He holds up his hand, staving off closer contact. He builds walls—in this case, firewalls—to protect both himself and the machine. Even when evidence accumulates that the machine has become more than he thought it was, he maintains his walls, his rules--no matter how he may yearn for the closer, riskier contact that Root enjoys. Finch’s highest concerns are safety and control. The machine is a machine—and a dangerous one at that, if it falls into the wrong hands.

Root has no such concerns. She’s flouted conventional morality all her life, and sees other people merely as tools for her to use or discard. But her fascination with the machine leads to her volunteering to be the machine’s tool—its human interface. And as she obeys, the machine shows her a different way of interacting with the world. Her genuine love for the machine begins to overcome her disdain for other people. Even though she doesn’t understand the machine’s values, much less its overall plan, she ultimately obeys, to the point of putting her life at risk to save another. At the moment, she wants only to protect the machine, and protect her relationship with it. She is by no means reformed. But I look forward to watching her trajectory.

One could argue that Finch is an example of God’s people under the Law, and Root an example of Gospel. Finch’s interactions with this stand-in for God are prescribed, careful, and limited. I think of the people of Israel, who became very uncomfortable with Moses’s glowing face after he talked to God, and their request that he cover it. The machine gives Finch a mission, and Finch carries it out with little to no help from the machine.

Root, however, takes the machine into her heart—or at least her ear. Most of the time, she does not know the mission. She only goes step by step, listening to the voice in her ear and obeying it. She has faith that the machine has a plan, and that the plan is a good one. External rules don’t apply to her—she follows higher instructions than human law and higher even than her own sense of what she should do or wants to do.

And so I wonder—what walls do I put up to block God’s work in my life? I am, of course, much closer to Finch’s character than Root’s. What’s a rule-follower to do when the rules no longer apply? And how do I respond when I can’t see the whole plan? Root’s character grows from her willingness to obey fully and immediately, without knowing why. Where am I in that “long obedience in the same direction”? Am I listening to the whisper in my ear, in my heart? Am I yielding, or building walls? And when it seems like communication from God is sparse, is it because He is just respecting my boundaries, the walls I throw up, the rules I make up, about what His call should look like?

So there you go. This may be about as geeky of a post as I’ve written. I can’t promise that I won’t overanalyze something else, though…I’m reading the Divergent series finally, and good heavens that’s some interesting commentary on human nature and virtue all wrapped up in a dystopian teenage coming-of-age story. It’s my blog so I get to be a geeky as I want, right?  When I start reading more sci-fi again, watch out.

 
Here's Root talking about her god...creepiest faith talk evah.

21 March 2014

7 Quick Takes--Writing and Weather and Words, oh my!


1.      I just wrote a whole draft of “quick takes” on how the TV show “Person of Interest” has got me thinking about our relationship with God, but then I realized that it was much too long to be “quick.” Story of my (wordy) writing life. Since I’ve now upgraded it to a full post, I need to edit it more and flesh it out.

2.      Speaking of writing life, the writing workshop I attended last week changed my focus. I’ve been thinking of writing as that thing I do for myself when everything else is done. But everything else is never done. And I have come to think of it as (1) not only for myself, (2) a gift and a responsibility from God, and (3) not a hobby or a skill, but as necessary to my well-being as food and drink. Something clicked, quietly and without drama. I don’t know where God is leading me in this, but he has re-oriented me, somehow. It’s early days yet, but I hope not to fall back into the overthinking and paralysis that’s marked my attitude toward writing for a long time.

3.      I gave up Facebook for Lent. I know—sooo overdone and trite, the giving up and then the talking about giving it up, and the new! precious! insights! into being present instead of looking at a screen all the time, and the “making a long face, so men might know that you’re fasting, and lo, you have received your reward.” And yet, I was pretty well addicted and used FB as a retreat and an escape. So I gave it up. We’re, what, nearly halfway through Lent? I still miss it, more than I missed chocolate when I gave that up for Lent a couple of years ago. And I don’t have any new insights from my suddenly less-connected life other than realizing that my self-medication for mental stress changed from fiction to Facebook at some point.

4.      Well, no insights other than this: my writing Facebook statuses and comments relieved some of the internal writing “pressure” that I feel.  Hence the precipitous drop in blog posts when I became enamored with FB.

5.      I really, really need to complain about the weather. Again with the triteness. But people, it is now officially spring. Forecasters say sunny and upper 60s tomorrow, and possible SNOW on Tuesday. It’s…just…I can’t even…sigh.

6.      Part of the frustration now is that my rheumatologist said I could lower my dose of immunosuppressant once the temperature was consistently over 60 degrees. Apparently cold weather is harder on autoimmune diseases (and Reynaud’s syndrome is a common companion to AI disease, although I don’t have it at this point), so she doesn’t want to try a lower dose until it gets warm. I am eager to lower the dose, since I basically lose one day a week in brain fog, extreme fatigue, and often headache. (One day lost but seven days without pain or rash and six days without [much] fatigue, so it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.) C’mon spring!

7.      The band Gungor introduced me to Amena Brown, a Christian spoken-word artist who was on their live album. And then she turned up on a blog I read, doing this amazing reading/spoken-word poem with Ann Voskamp, whose prose writing is half poetry anyway. It's worth your time. And now I want to be a spoken-word poet when I grow up.  I embedded the video below, but Blogger seems to think that all videos come from YouTube, so I had to download it to my computer and then upload it here, and it looks a bit blurry to me. If you want to go to the source and watch a full-screen version that's a bit clearer, here's the link: http://vimeo.com/89473829 
video
 
 
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary.