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Grandma's house

The past, fickle thing, refuses to remain in place. What stories it tells, who can hear? Time unspools, always moving further away, further behind. Memory too, like time, runs from us, but the ghosts of our minds have their own different pace. In that tapestry some recollections remain fresh years later while others fade quickly. History gone cannot be called again to present as it was once, but walking again in places where long past yesterdays were written does bring a reflection different from merely traveling the mind's backward fleeing path.

Almost four months ago Grandma's last day slipped away. Her house emptied, possessions dispersed with the efficiency of rats fleeing a fast sinking ship. The empty shell was prettied and put up for sale. From there the process slowed, a waiting and a plodding through the process of divestiture. Into the limbo I returned on occasion to mow the lawn and stir the inner soup of past and present. So summer waned and autumn slipped through. This week I made what may be my last trip, if the sale finalizes as it should. Then no more to a place where the ribbons of memory lie unraveled in heaps, draped across the rooms in a collection only the mind's eye can see.

The physical act of walking up the steps triggers a sense almost like walking back in time. For that flickering moment it is as if I am returning as I did so many times before to a house of sickness, brokenness, and my own rut routine. Then the emptiness greets me, the past winks out, and I am here in the present with the barren places. The carpet in my old bedroom still carries the impression of my desk, fresh and unfaded, much like the imprints on my mind. The ghosts of the past are young here, and hover at the edge of eye and mind.

Someone might ask what I feel walking through the empty places, marked from eight years of my life. The answer is that I feel more and less than one might expect. I'm still learning about emotions, but one thing I have learned is that they are more sublime, deeper, and nuanced than the rush of tears or joy we so readily identify. Emotions do not come only in primary colors, and the pictures painted can be more muddy, complex, or more unclear than we might like. The mix of hue and shade embody profound things, things in us we yet do not understand.

The texture of what I feel walking through that empty mausoleum of modern construction is like the whisper of a thousand voices in cacophony, or the intermingled scent of disparate aromas. I would tell you I felt nothing. But then in the open space of aloneness there is a stirring, the tremor given by deep things I can't yet interpret.

Perhaps it is a song of sorrow, the notes of loss, regret, and hurt playing their faint tune. Is that why I hear? A bit of fondness, maybe, too, for not all things in that place were ugly in their time. All of it, good or ill, carries the weight of years. The taste of memories defies the apish parody of simple words seeking to mark in clear boundaries on that which truly plunge in deeper wells. Like a melody the things felt flows through heart and soul, near and yet beyond words.

I feel nothing, and yet everything--but so faint as to miss it. But there is a reason we feel it, and find it a riddle of things not easily untied. Life is the learning of what we have been taught and yet do not understand, and those are a wave tossed sea in our soul, highlighted in crest by the foam which emotions wrought. So in empty spaces are we taught. And so too from the empty places would come the eye opening we seek, if only we would listen. I hope that I am listening.

The empty places
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Alone each to his own

We all have those songs which move us, giving words to something deep inside. A song which gave words to something I didn't think could be made so simple and clear is "Come Close Now" by Christa Wells. In one video1 she tells the story of how the song came about. The spark for the song sprung from a book by Dan Walser called To Make a Life. Christa says that Dan writes in his book about grief describing it this way; "Being in this room upstairs in a house that is burning down and I'm strapped in a chair. And outside this house there are all these people running around with fire hoses and ladders and sirens and they are trying to fix it and make it better but I'm still alone up in this room. Eventually one, maybe two, people just quietly make there way up the front walk and they open the front door of the house and they walk up to this room that I'm in and they pull up a chair beside me and they sit down and they just sit in the burn with me." The picture is a powerful metaphor for grief. As one who has both seen grief first hand, and experienced it in my own measure, I can say it rings very true.

Christa takes this picture of grief and puts it to song in "Come Close Now." The words are lyrical, poetic, and beautifully sung. For me the song is deeply moving. But as I listen to the song part of what moves me are the many layers of truth wrapped up in the song. First, there is the truth the song shares about the perspective of a grieving person. The song captures very well the feelings of alienation and helplessness that swallow a grieving person. Speaking for myself, I found in grief a profound sense of being terribly alone. It felt like no one could understand the place I was in, or the feelings I struggled with. More than that, it felt like there was no purpose in speaking, or attempting to share, because perhaps the only thing more dreadful than the feeling of aloneness in grief is someone attempting to "fix" the situation. Grief cannot be fixed til death is destroyed, and anyone who tries to fix grief with pat platitudes or comfortable bromide only shows more painfully to the hurting that the imagined helper doesn't understand how deep and wide runs the stream of sorrow. True understanding, and true healing, does not come from people running around trying to fix a hurt that stretches more vast than any human healing. In poetic words the song gives shape to the conflagration which is grief.

Second, the song equally expresses the place of someone outside the grieving--a place I have also been. There is a unique hurt a heart feels when it sees someone in grief and realizes there is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do to make the grief go away. You cannot banish the hurt or heal the wound. In those moments we feel the heart weighing, heart rending, unutterable burden of the sentence, "From dust to dust." In that moment of complete helplessness there is a strong urge to walk away. No, to run back to some place where the world seems fixable. As the lyrics sing, "I'm afraid of the space where you suffer . . . I can't handle the choke or the danger / Of my own foolish, inadequate words." How so very true. The song goes on:

What can I bring to your fire?
Shall I sing while the roof is coming down
Can I hold you while the flames grow higher
Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now
Can I come close now?

This refrain captures the paradox of being succor for the grieving. At first in folly we might think to sprinkle water on the bonfire in an attempt to put it out. But if we gain the grace to realize how foolish our attempts to fix the grief of another, it then leaves the question, "What can I bring to your fire?" Which leads to the realization of how unhelpful our attempts at helping, "Shall I sing while the roof is coming down?" It is absurd--you don't sing while the roof is coming down. And yet, in the paradox of being comfort to the grieving the answer is yes. Not ladders and hoses on the outside--singing right there in the middle. If you are going to be true help to those in the throes of grief, you can't be safe. You can't stay outside the fire. You can't put out the fire. You must do the insane and go into the fire, hold them in the flames, and sing while the roof is coming down. In this rather lose metaphor those running around outside with ladders and fire hoses and sirens are people trying to give "things" to help the grieving. To sing is to give of yourself in a very personal way. To ask to come close is to request to partake with the person in their pain, even as one would join in flames. What good does it do to sing while the roof is coming down, what good does it do to come close in the flames? Logically, it does no good at all. And that is the point--in the depths of grief people don't need cold logic, they need nearness. However useless it might seem, in truth it does far more good than we can imagine.

More than once I have had the privilege of being with those in the midst of deep, devastating, grief. My own powerlessness in the presence of their profound hurt made those times some of the most trying I have experienced. It felt like I was doing nothing good, and I wanted desperately to find something to fix. And yet, somehow, I dimly, haltingly, perceived that my act of simply being there, of being still and with them, was the most profoundly comforting thing I could possibly do. We cannot fix grief. That we cannot do. But being with the grieving in their grief--that is the only thing we can do.

But having meditated on this truth I came to realize it was not the end of the matter. The truth so sharply on display in the sphere of grief applies also to the rest of life. When someone is going through a difficult event what they need is not for us to slap band-aide "solutions" on their struggle but for us to come close and join with them in the struggle. An illustration from my own life is the years I spent caring for my grandfather as he died from Alzheimer's. It was no help at all, and could be very harmful, for people distant from the struggle to offer "solutions" and advice. The only thing that was helpful was if someone came close and--having shared in the grueling experience--offered something from that shared experience. This insight caused me to realize two things: This idea of "coming close" articulated exactly how I wanted to share my own Alzheimer's experience with other people to help them. I wanted to come close, to (as it were) sing while the roofing was coming down. Whatever exactly that would entail in literal acts, I knew that the idea poetically captured what I wanted to do. But also when I hear "Come Close Now" I am reminded that I must be very careful when offering advice, fixes, or opinions on the struggle of someone else's life--no matter what the struggle. In a way for each of us our life is the story of our own house burning down. The rest of the world is running around telling us how to fix it but really what we need are the people who will come close even though our lives are burning down.

This brought me to another sharp reminder: Christians need to be very careful how we minister to the world. Especially in the corporate church of America there is a strong push for social justice, poverty alleviation, and similar causes. We want to heal the sick, fix the broken, and set the captives free. All are good desires, but what so often happens is we throw a lot of money, expertise, and energy at the problems we see in the world--and end up becoming those people outside the burning house running around with our sirens, ladders, and fire hoses. Money, expertise, and energy aren't the solution to grief, and neither are they, ultimately, the solutions for the rest of the brokenness in the world either. The poor man in Africa may do more to heal the hurting than a thousand rich people in America with all their money because the poor man is the one who knows what it means to come close. May we flee the snare of thinking that all our planning, organizing, and money can take the place of coming close and entering into the pain and suffering of those we seek to serve.

If that warning applies to the church as a corporate whole, it applies equally to us as Christian individuals. If we are bringing the light of the gospel to the people around us, may we be careful to bring it not as people running around with ladders and sirens and fire hoses outside the burning house, but let us enter the burning houses of others, after we have asked, "Can I come close now?" and there in the smoke and the burn share with them as one who truly sees.

And this brings us to the most profound and deeply comforting truth I found in Christa's song. The idea of "Come close" is so true for grief, for life, for the church, and for us as individuals because it is ultimately a truth that God Himself has demonstrated. The world is a house burning down. Our lives are houses burning down. And God has not stood outside running around with sirens, ladders, and hoses shouting advice to us. No, God came close in the most amazing way. He became incarnated, Immanuel, God with us. Jesus Christ came into the smoke and fire and burn. He came close and held us in the fire and sang the song of deliverance we needed to hear. Jesus came close historically when he was born in human flesh, lived, ministered, died and rose again. He came into the fire, and in holding us near he saved us from the fire. He took our place in the fire so that we might go free. But it is good to remember that not only did he do this once for all when he came to walk on this earth, but also when he enters into our lives individually he does the very same. The world right now is running around in circles outside the burning house of our lives while we sit inside bound to a chair, and what we need is someone to come in. And it is Jesus who does. It is he who comes in, who sings us the song of deliverance, and wraps us in his arms so that even in the smoke and the burn we are safe, we are preserved.

That is the heart of what it means to come close, and that is why we are called to come close now.

______

1. In this live performance of the song on Youtube Christa Wells gives a lengthy introduction explaining the song: http://youtu.be/gLDUO_mVYb4

2. The song, without introduction and with full lyrics included in the notes, is also available on Youtube here: http://youtu.be/jIYdZPuqjnY

Coming close
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I stumbled upon the short film “Happy Pills” tonight, and it touched a raw spot with me. Watching it, I was struck by how I was bringing feelings to the video which hardly anyone else would bring. It was all on slant, and yet hit so close to home. It wasn’t my story, but it was like someone knew, really knew, the dark place from which my story, and those like it, come. The sign of very good artistic insight, if not down right personal experience. Other people watch this and see the video the author created, which is plenty and enough. I see a rippled reflection of my own past. In the words of the man I hear an echo of things I’ve heard for eight years, an uncanny amalgamation of all the bad in two people I tended. In the ladies tight movements and misery and hesitation I saw a shadow of myself. I didn’t play deceit on Grandma, but in the end I did have to let her do what she would however self destructive her choices.

The short is incredibly well acted. Watch it, and see what you will.

http://vimeo.com/12535235

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Brother Justin made this for brother Arlan for his birthday. Hilarious, and you can participate too! http://play.textadventures.co.uk/Play.aspx?id=gtxjdch6oucvafaxfcfmfg (Make sure you try out at least a few different paths. The dedicated try to do them all.)

I’m not sure if all the humor translates to general audiences. There are many inside family jokes. But the entire thing is a bit of a peek into family humor.

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What are the odds of you randomly showing up in a movie theater and being shot? But maybe it isn’t about statistical odds at all. What if the low points and the high points of life–the seeming improbable good and improbable bad, have nothing to do with chance? Is that freeing or terrifying? This video is probably too long and too sappy for some, but I was really struck by one comment that comes almost at the very end: “A life of self renouncing love is liberty.” That answers the question about how we ought to live life and understand both love and liberty: Wildflower / A Proposal.

This second video is a song that caught my interest. I like it. In a way it carries on the theme a bit about love found in the previous video; ‘Never Any Good’ by Martin Simpson.

Hope you enjoy this brief interlude!

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Country road to the sky

It may seem an oxymoron, but I usually find bike rides relaxing. Riding over country hills is a way to release stress and let my mind wander. A bike ride is a brief period of time when I feel free from the obligations and responsibilities of life. By some trick of the mind, I live in the moment. During the years I cared for Grandpa and Grandma my weekly bike rides were a brief escape. Those years have ended, and as I biked through this summer I noticed a greater sense of freedom--I no longer had to escape a dark cloud. In that lightness I have felt thankfulness, deep in my bones.

Then I look a little closer at myself. Feeling thankful is pleasant, far better than feeling bitter or any such ugly sensation. But I consider how fleeting thankfulness so often is in our lives. When are we thankful, and why? Is what we so often call thankfulness true thankfulness?

Coming through a difficult time can spur thankfulness. I remember how after Grandpa died I was deeply thankful for God's preserving hand. I recognized the many answered prayers, I saw grace even in Grandpa's sickness and passing. But that thankfulness later gave way to bleakness and bitterness--perhaps even a black brew of exhaustion, depression, and despair. Is thankfulness really so fickle and passing, or does this mercurial presence reveal something I still need to learn about a thankful heart? In ancient days when Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt the people were very thankful--until they gave way to grumbling. What God gave wasn't enough and instead they wanted what they had in misery. It seems a far too common pattern in the human heart, a madness for misery and a blindness to grace.

Remembering how I have walked that circuit from gladness to gloom, and finding myself at present feeling thankful, I consider what all of this means. What is the reality of true thankfulness? What is my thankfulness, what is it not, and what ought it be? Jacob met God and piled up stones. I pile up words.

Dead end sign

Surviving a bad relational experience gives a sharp contrast for good relationships, their worth, and their meaning. It is a worn cliché to hear, "I am thankful for my family," but beyond vague sentiment what is meant by that? Perhaps for some the statement goes little beyond warm fuzzy feelings, but I am thankful for what my family has been both past and present. Being is teaching by deeds, a learning that is inscribe on our hearts in ways lectures never can. As I have grown older I have grown experientially aware of the spiritual, emotional, mental, and relational foundations that came to me through my family. What I experienced in my formative years laid the foundation for my understand of, and attitude toward, relationships. Like peering into a dirty mirror and seeing a reflection dimly, so I see faintly the person I could have been if I had grown up in a family filled with avarice, bitterness, envy, or hatred. My parents, and my siblings, are far from perfect, but there are many burdens of wounded emotions and thinking that I do not carry--which many people do carry in life--all because of the shaping brought through family during my childhood.

Eight years spent caring for Grandma and Grandpa gave me a personal peak into what family meant for other people. It is one thing to hear or see such things from a distance, a different thing entirely when your faced is pressed up against the reality in all its messiness. Over the course of those years I learned something about what "family" meant in the formative experience for both Grandma and Grandpa. That exposure birthed a deeper reflection on my part about how those personal experiences shaped their views, and then the vision of "family" they went on to create for their own children. Picking at the tangled vines of family history gave me a greater sensitivity to how every person's formative years greatly contributes to the loads they carry in life, and how they view people. This impacted how I consider everyone; their story is fuller than just who they are today--they are more than job, education, amusements, and social status.

In coming to a deeper appreciation for how wounds and broken thinking fester within damaged relationships, and especially damaged family relationships, I have come to a richer appreciation, and thankfulness, for the family I have been given. This family has made me a far more stable, mature, capable, and thoughtful person than I would otherwise be. What I am able to do, and be, for others springs from what has been done for me.

And the impact of my family continues. Another great gift brought through family, wrought in the sublimity of grace, is this: the ability to live in peace. Again, eight years ago I might have been able to say that without understanding it so personally as I do now. My family has never been a blissful family--we have our measure of scraps and disagreements, and generally you won't find us all dancing around holding hands and singing "Kumbaya"--and so I never particularly thought about my family in terms of peace. But having spent eight years living in a different climate I understand better. The presence of disagreements says far less about peace than people might think. There can be more peace in a house of sometimes heated disagreement than in a house where a cold silence dwells. Living in peace is the absence of bitterness, demanding, begrudging, measuring, justifying. The list could go on, but the point is that being able to live in peace with people requires having peace with them. This does not mean agreeing with them on everything but it does mean harboring no resentment in any of its forms. To live without hounding resentments from other people gives a real liberty, a freedom to live, breathe, and relate, unencumbered.

So I'm not just thankful for bike rides with no burdens to pick up on the return. I am thankful for a sound body, and a sound mind--two things I have seen vividly stripped away. I am thankful for the opportunity to do and to be, to go and to say, to live and to strive, and most of all to rest. I'm thankful for the ability to neaten and the option of being messy. I'm grateful for a large house I could not have imagined, and for a house being large and yet still full. I'm thankful for the car I could not afford and yet have at no cost, the bed and the sleep with no agitated nights. I am thankful that I have been taught, I am being taught, and will never be alone. And, yes, right now I am very thankful for family.

But if that is a quick survey of thankfulness it only makes sharper the question of why our hearts become so weighed down by the cares of life so that our eyes become dim and our hearts thankless. If I can see all this goodness now, and it was true before, why has it seemed so far away in the past and might yet again in the future? If true thankfulness is but a vapid emotion, here today and gone tomorrow when stiffer winds come, then isn't it meaningless? And if true thankfulness is more than that, what does it say that I find it so fickle?

True thankfulness is more than shallow emotion, but understanding that requires plumbing the depths of what we call thankful to find the source of thanksgiving, and thus from whence flows our stream of praise. If we are thankful for what we can quantify, a list of things however ephemeral or solid, and the measure of our thankfulness can then be marked by the amount of our quantity--then even in uttering thanks for our list we have swallowed the bitter pill of thanklessness.

How so? Because things come and go, they are simply the means of communicating deeper truth. If our thanks comes to rest on the things rather than the truth conveyed by them then we have turned the situation on its head and by dint of such a feast becomes emptiness while the true food passes by. This, at the heart, is why so much thankfulness becomes vapor under scrutiny. You are thankful for family? A family given can be taken away. You are thankful for your able mind? Knowledge gained can be lost, strength fail, health crumble. Cars break, pain robs nights of rest, money fails, destitution comes. I paint a picture of calamity, but the point is this: if we are ultimately quantifying our thankfulness in the discrete things, then so also we can quantify what we have not (or have lost). Thankfulness then becomes a judging, a weighing on our scales, and in that view what is to say that a sufficiency of things for thankfulness today is sufficient for tomorrow? If what we ultimately see are things then in the end our eyes will come to see that all things pass away, we haven't enough, and the thankless spirit will return.

We must learn the lesson found in the Israelites who came out of slavery in Egypt. They were delivered out of bondage, they saw God's mighty acts, they walked through the Red Sea, they heard God speak in audible voice, ate the bread He provided from heaven, and saw Him go daily before them in a pillar of fire and smoke. Yet in all that they became thankless and complained, "Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic [...]" (Numbers 11:4-5). They kept a good list. They knew well all the things they had lost, and all the things they didn't have. What good was God, so present as the pillar of fire, if they didn't have cucumbers? They valued a good meal, but not God being with them.

They were blind to God.

That same blindness is at the root of our own fast fading thankfulness. Are we looking at the pillar of fire before us, or the things clutched in our hands and tasted in our mouths? Israel rejoiced greatly when they were first delivered from slavery, but it faded quickly in the want for cucumbers. So also we can rejoice greatly in the things God does for us, and gives us, but it fades quickly if our eyes are fixed on the things and not the Giver. If you are thankful for the Giver then you are thankful for who is with you, not how much you have from Him. The heart of a true thankfulness does not sum up in the length of the list but rather in the person of the giver. If thankfulness rests on who your family is rather than who gave you that family--or health, house, life, freedom, or any thing--then such thankfulness will turn to dust. Each of these, and many more, come and go. It is only in being truly thankful for who the Giver is can we really have any enduring thankfulness for the things given. Otherwise what we think is thankfulness is only pleased greed which will soon hunger for more. It is such a heart that values cucumbers over God, and His bread from heaven.

It is right to be thankful for all we are given, if all of it is known as words of divine love given shape, and the heart responds with thankful praise to the giver. Emptiness follows where thankfulness is nothing more than sweaty hands greedy grasping that which we horde--even if we call it not such. Only when we truly mean the words, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you" (Psalm 73:25) are we truly thankful. If thankfulness fails or fades it is because we have desired more, and so less, than the One in whom is summed up all we can truly be thankful for.

Fields of corn
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Part of the poem

What comes now? The earth awaits
What fierce wonder from the skies?
Thunder, trampling through the night?
Morning, with illustrious eyes?
Morning, from the springs of light:
Thunder, round Heaven’s opening gates.

“July” by Lionel Johnson

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Autumn leaves against the sky

On Leaves

******

We are the leaves
of Eden's fall.
Our lives a brevity
of bright color.
The fragrance of changing
brought on the wind
leaves to rest.

Eden's death tree drops
leaves of shock flame.
But there is another tree
of life.
The shoot of Jesse's stump,
Root with branch, the stock of promise
limbs grafted, twelve crop fruit unfailing.

We are the leaves
of Eden's spring.
The tree bears
us, bringing healing to the nations.

Autumn leaves against the sky
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Pulling the load

A flood levels all in its path, and a raging fire leaves the landscape in ashes. The fire and flood of caring for Grandma had a similar toll, except most of the rubble in my life remains unseen to eyes. Eight years passed on the clock, and the impact of those days cannot be measured in the neat lines of a Richter scale. I walk out with my baggage and scars, and experience laid up in memory--some good and some bad. Like a lingering bad flavor on the tongue the darker moments seem stronger. But in the midst of tasting still the bitter past that cannot be washed from memory's mouth I remember also the loads truly shed as I walk out from that chapter of my life. Some parts of the past I must carry on, but some I can leave behind. I feel that leaving even as, some, I still feel a holding. A bird set free from the cage exults in the thrill of flight. A beast of burden relieved of muzzle and load knows even in exhaustion the sweet luxury of absent bindings. I am them, and they are me; exhausted and uncertain but still knowing that whatever I carry on, one thing is sure--the bindings are gone but the memories are not.

In the weeks since Grandma's death I have thought about this sense of freedom. It flits along the edge of my mental vision in that odd contradictory sense of tangible and yet not. I am free from physically caring for Grandma. I no longer have the obligation of being present for someone every day of every week of every month of every year. I can go where I want. At first, after Grandma was gone, I reacted to the morning alarm as if Grandma was calling for me, and as if every phone call was her needing. My emotions plunged in that bracing instant until they caught up with what my brain knew. No more constant Grandma calling when I was away, no more desperate needing all day, every day. The removal of that constraint is a freedom, everyone can see it, and it doesn't need explaining. But that truth doesn't shine light on the depths of what I carried for eight years.

A comparison and contrast can be drawn between my caring for Grandpa, and my caring for Grandma. In his Alzheimer's, Grandpa's needs required that I be still. And so, in the realm of caring for Grandpa, I was still for three years. By stillness I mean I couldn't go places and do things as people do in normal life--I was physically constrained to stay and care for his needs. No adventuring and seeing the wide world for me. And yet for all of that there was a way in which I was free--free to be myself. Grandpa never constrained me to silence and never required that I be other than my natural self. What he valued was all that I was in my crazy zany self. And outside of his personal presence I could say what I wanted, or write, with complete freedom.

Grandma constrained my life to an entirely different magnitude. Her poor health did restrict me to a measure of stillness, though for a number of years not in the same dramatic fashion as Grandpa's sickness. But over this she laid the greater muzzle of silencing my voice, and the load of requiring that I not be myself.

Such was never said, of course. More than that, such burdens were never the cognizant intention of Grandma. But the thoughts, intentions, and attitudes of our hearts--and the actions which spring from such--form and shape our relations far more than any ideals professed by our mouths. So with Grandma what shaped our relationship ran far deeper, and far contrary, to what she would have told the world, or even herself. The truth of relationships are often like that.

In his long decline Grandpa loved me for who I was, a relationship both simple and deep. I didn't have to think about what I needed to be, I could just be me. That relationship didn't exist with Grandma. She did not understand who I was as a full-bodied individual, and (I came to realize) had no real interest in learning about my true person. I, like all other people, was a player on Grandma's imagined stage of life. As the person front and center in those last years of her life I became the lead actor in her dreamed world--a strange cross between a vision of Edgar Allan Poe and Disneyland. I embodied her hopes and her fears, a puppet which reflected the contents of her own heart. That is a heavy, and awful, burden to carry. Playing on that kind of stage, however reluctantly, infects one's own thinking, even when resisted. And for eight years that was mine.

"When Grandpa becomes too much for you let me know and then we'll send him to a nursing home." That was one of the first things she said to me when I came, and even then she talked to herself though she looked at me. I was her absolution. Grandpa's sickness was a burden she did not want to carry, but the idea of sending him away provoked deep guilt. I was the answer to both. I would carry the burden and when I could carry it no longer then her guilt would be absolved in sending him away. I was the measure, and so she balanced her burden and her guilt upon me, and projected her resentment of Grandpa and his sickness upon me. To wash away her guilt she kept a mental list of Grandpa's failures to silence her feelings of guilt. She thought to have me add to the list. If Grandpa was oppressing me--oh such a burden unbearable--he surely needed to be removed with no sense of guilt. And so anything I said about Grandpa would be used to justify her in her own mind.

That began my life as a tool to justify Grandma (whatever the current issue), and my mulish resistance to such an existence. In that first offer by Grandma to remove Grandpa I saw that I was a chip player in Grandma's own internal neurosis of comfort, fear, guilt, and control. Any word of weariness I might say in a moment of exhaustion would be stored up by Grandma for her own use. Knowing this, I determined then that no word of complaint about Grandpa would leave my lips in Grandma's presence.

But this was only the beginning of a dynamic that would continue in every facet of life for the next eight years. These two truths remained inviolable: First, Grandma would manipulate everything to accomplish her ends. Second, to Grandma keeping up appearances was vitally important. A third reality was that these two things were seen through a world-view where conspiracy, malice, and ignorance in others (everyone) was presumed as irrefutable. This is what Grandma saw, and this is the world in which she lived. In her framework of life being real, frank, and open were lost. No matter what she said, the reality of her actions showed that her goal was projecting the right appearance and manipulating events (often against imagined hostile forces) to produce her desired end. This extended from the important all the way down to the mundane: Grandma complained that a photo I had posted on my blog showed a run-down house across the street. "Putting up a photo like that will make people think we live in a dumpy neighborhood. We don't want people to think that," she said. If I protested that such house was truly across the street, and that I really didn't care what people on the Internet thought about the neighborhood she would say that I ought to learn a little more "self respect." Or, in the last weeks of her life she told me, "Don't write any funny stories about me." It didn't matter to her if the pictures were real and harmless or the stories funny and true. What mattered to her was that a picture or funny story (however true!) might besmirch the image she wanted projected of herself and her domain. Needless to say the picture did appear on my blog, I did not promise to never write a funny story about her, and this unvarnished writing today would be a horror. But the triviality of the first two occasions illustrates how my life was constantly in friction with someone obsessing about crafting a projected narrative. Living truth and letting people think what they may was not part of Grandma's paradigm and this put us in deep life-values disagreement.

Her mentality impacted every part of my life. For those eight years Grandma's presence constrained what I could say, and what I could publicly share in writing. She rejected any idea that anything about herself might need changing. By her deeds she made it manifest that she didn't care what I thought, felt, or believed--and anything she said otherwise was pretense. All she cared was that I (and everyone else) affirmed her opinions--and if I, or they, wouldn't affirm her life narrative then we had better keep silent. This meant I often I kept silent.

I could have openly set myself against her machinations and opinions--I was not too scared or weak for that--but such would have caused a complete relationship rupture. Grandma could tolerate no disagreement, and rather than allow any contradiction she would burn every bridge and every ship in her harbor. That kind of war was not the purpose of my coming. I had come to care for the sick in spite of their faults, not battle them over the reality of a healthy inner person. But this constant tension pervaded every part of life because her manipulative and appearance based mentality was morally deeply offensive to me, and contrary to everything I valued. If I would not walk away from the situation I was left to live in the midst of this miasma.

As Grandma slipped more and more into a life existing within the tortured exaggerations of her mind, I more and more turned inward. I swallowed my thoughts and feelings as best I could and schooled myself to service. Carry the load to the finish line, I thought. Endure to the end. And in my quietness Grandma dressed me in the robes of her savior or her enemy, depending on the week and month and sometimes the day. When it suited her she praised me as the greatest. When it suited her she grumbled and slandered me. When it suited her she called me a medical expert, and when it suited her she called me ignorant. When it suited her she wished me the best and when it suited her she scorned my future. She asked my advice when she fancied and ignored it as she pleased. I was but a pawn in this self-referential play, and the depths of the meaninglessness of her words was summed up in an incident in the last weeks of her life. We were entering the final black spiral, and after a late night of her extreme emotional anguish which I helped her through she praised me as a great spiritual support and blessing. The next morning she accused me of being a conspiring trickster with the worst intentions. She raved that her own grandson was trying to kill her. I had joined the medical experts against her.

What was I? I could be anything, and I was nothing except a blank page on which she painted the pictures of her heart.

Since her words were weapons in service of her ends--not truth--nothing she said or did held real worth. Any praise would be followed by a blow of words meant to wound. I learned to brace against the seeming kindnesses as much as the shot barbs. Each were tools that she flailed in an attempt to shape and control life. She trusted, respected, and believed me only when it was convenient to her purposes--which meant never in truth. The words lost any substance--a deeply alienating experience.

I wore the muzzle and carried the load of that time and wondered if I would make it to the end. If I was myself, she could not have tolerated my presence because I would not affirm her vision of life. But if I veiled myself she could barely stand the fears and desires, and all that was mixed up inside her, that she projected onto my presence.

It is a strange and heavy load to find yourself projected as the embodiment of another person's neurosis, a marionette wearing the clothes of a troubled life. We have enough troubles in our own minds, and hearts. Even the most grounded person can begin to feel a certain sense of madness, of self-questioning and doubt. With time it becomes hard to know where the real ends, and the imagined begins. Am I the self-centered, thoughtless, uncaring person that is whispered on those lips and seen with those eyes? What am I? I am not perfect, and so then perhaps I am all that she accuses. Anything better was my self-praising delusion. Am I deluded about myself, or is she?

Living on that stage is not a place I want to visit again.

The life she lived will echo in my mind and heart for years, wounds of twisted thinking that do not heal so quickly as injured flesh. I hope the buffets I bore spring better fruit than all the bitterness I saw. But only the time of grace will show that. For now, when Grandma died I left that stage, and removed the clothes she dressed me in. The show is over. I am free again. Free to speak, and free to write. Free to go, and free to breath. All of those freedoms. But most of all, I was set free to be me again.

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Downed trees

We had the memorial service for Grandma on Saturday July 5th. A few days later on July 9th I was still trying to get settled into living back home with my family. One doesn't settle in a matter of a few days, but I remember on that Wednesday thinking that it might be the first day I had uninterrupted to work on unpacking and organizing myself. It seemed that just as those thoughts flitted through my mind the phone rang. It was my uncle Kevin on the line.

My sister Cadie picked up, but it was a bad connection and she could barely hear Kevin. He was calling on faint cell phone service because his house line was down. After several, "What? Ok...wait, what? I missed that," Cadie handed the phone to me saying, "I can't make much out, but Kevin needs help."

Many trees down

Now my Uncle Kevin is an independent man. He does not like to ask for help, and does not ask for help unless he absolutely must (and may avoid asking for help even when he really should). Since he does not like bothering people, he is usually very good about asking for help in advance if he absolutely requires help so that people can plan in advance. A random call in the middle of a day on a barely working cell connection asking for help was so unusual that my gut immediately suspected something was very wrong.

"Storm hit here yesterday...lot of trees down...need help clearing them. You can't get to the house. You'll have to park wherever you safely can and hike up." That was the most I could piece together from the faint and broken connection on the phone. I wanted more details, more information, but the most I could do was repeat loudly into the phone, "We'll be down! We're coming down! We'll be there!" until Kevin caught it through the faint connection.

Split tree

So it was new plans for the day. Dad and I snagged a few more boys, put both of the chainsaws along with accessories and supplies in the back of the truck, plus cooler chests, ice, drink, and some snack food. Then away we went heading on down to Pennsylvania, decidedly uncertain what we would soon face.

Kevin lives at the end of a short dead-end road quaintly named "Appleman Ridge." He owns a small homestead in a densely wooded and hilly area. His static filled statement on the phone about "trees down" left a lot of room for interpretation. Were a few trees blown down on Appleman Ridge road, knocking out power and phone service and blocking traffic? Or were a mass of trees down everywhere in a general disaster? Kevin is a country man with his own chainsaw and tractor and a few trees down was not the sort of thing to make him feel a need for help. Given Kevin's competence, a cry for help indicated a large scale disaster--but we were puzzled because there was no news about any kind of large scale disaster in the area. (That said, we had a hint at the possibilities by a post on Facebook by a cousin living in a slightly different part of Pennsylvania whose garage had been completely demolished by the wind.)

Mess of trees

Almost as if to spite our assumption, the countryside for the entire trip was untouched. Beautiful hillsides stood green and unruffled under the summer sun. There was no sign of any storm damage until we reached Appleman Ridge. There the destruction began like a line drawn in the sand.

Kevin lives in a very hilly part of Pennsylvania. A narrow ravine borders one side of his property, and his own homestead is on a steep hillside. It is the sort of rough landscape which leads to comments like, "A tornado would never make it through here." I may have said those very words once when walking around Kevin's land. Well, never say never. The destruction we saw was the result of an EF1 tornado. There were no injuries or deaths, but the tornado traveled 1.4 miles at 90 mph with a width of 150 yards. Kevin's house was at the center of this swath, his property almost the sole recipient of the damage.

Rundy sawing a downed tree

The level of destruction defies description. It can't be adequately captured in pictures. The area looked like a war zone. The place looked like it had been hit by an artillery barrage. Nearly every tree on Kevin's land was felled--some uprooted and cast over, others snapped in half, some stripped of their branches. The road to his house was render utterly impassable, buried in massive trees. In the end power was out for 50 hours, and phone/internet service was out for 8 days.

It was a shocking sight to see.

The first thing we had to do was hike (more like scramble) up the hillside to find the house and figure out what was going on. Kevin was overwhelmed and a bit in shock from events, and was not able to give us much direction for where we should start. But he did tell us to leave clearing the road for the utility company and instead start working on clearing his fence line.

Snapped tree down

So we began the most dangerous chainsaw work I have ever participated in. There were pinned trees, tree under pressure, trees that wanted to stand back up on their root ball, trees leaning on other trees, and trees snapped in half with their tops still dangling. On top of all that, we had to use our saws in an obstacle course of debris and broken tree limbs, and sometimes on a very steep slope. In spite of all that by the end of the second day we had the fence line cleared and a good portion of the fence repaired. Still there was many more days of work left (and in fact I and a bunch of brothers went down this past Saturday for probably the last time for cleanup.)

After word got out about Kevin's situation, a lot more help came, including people with skidsteers and other power equipment. The equipment enable the work to progress much more quickly.

Beyond the danger of using chainsaws in very difficult situations, and the danger of being injured or killed by trees, there were additional hazards. Most of this summer has been very cool but a few days in early July were very muggy and hot--and our first day at Kevin's was one of those days. Under the best of circumstances it was a day for sweating, and working out in the disaster zone the sweat was pouring off everyone. We had to be careful to keep hydrated and avoid heat stroke. Then there was the danger of constantly climbing over and under fallen trees. Slipping and falling was an ever-present risk that could end with a twisted ankle, a broken leg, or worse.

Rundy observing

One of the greatest hazards was people pitching in to help which were not accustomed to the work. My Dad was active in his youth, and is still more active than most men his age, but now that he has moved comfortably past sixty his level of physical activity is significantly different than a man twenty or more years his junior. Dad admirably rose to the occasion of the crisis, but much as I was impressed I was also somewhat concerned. When we first arrived on the scene several of us went on ahead to scout a path through the destruction to the house. Dad followed up a short time later carrying both of the chainsaws. Both saws have 18" bars and are heavy enough. Trying to scrambled up a steep bank through brush and downed trees while carrying two saws is of an entirely different magnitude. By the time Dad reached the house he was soaked in sweat and gasping. At that point I was a bit concerned we would end up with someone down with heat stroke our a heart attack before we even got started. Later he was chainsawing along with me, and jumping from one log suspend in the air to another--not something you think about when you are young and limber but when I watched him I couldn't forget that he was a man past sixty with a bad back and several other troublesome joints. In spite of his age he managed to pull off the hard work without any permanent injuries (though he was really hurting afterward). And it was a good last hurrah. I doubt we will see him doing anything of the sort again in this life.

I think the person who most concerned me was my Uncle Nate who came up to help work. He is the youngest of the uncles but also has worked his life at a desk job. When he arrived he said, "When you get tired of using the saw I'll give you a break." Little did he understand that getting tired wasn't what we did. I would keep sawing all day--going, going, and still going except for pauses for drink and food. We started Nate on light work dragging away branches as they were cut, and it quickly became apparent he wasn't in condition to be moved up to heavier labor. Just doing the light work left him sweating heavily and exhausted. Watching him reminded me that not everyone has the same level of health, and made me think about all the stories of office workers who went out to do some hard labor and ended up falling over dead from a heart attack.

Kevin, Ruth, and Micheal

Thankfully nobody was injured or had a heart attack. But the most miraculous thing was what the tornado did not hit. Kevin's property was utterly devastated. But in the midst of it all his house, his barn, and his green house were completely untouched. The contrast was incredibly stark. Trees were flattened everywhere around the house, a huge tree directly across the driveway was torn up and tipped over, and yet nothing was touched on the house or barn. In the face of such devastation, the preservation of house and life was evident as the hand of God. By all normal rights the house and barn should have been leveled. Instead, the glass table on the back deck wasn't moved, wasn't even scratched. All of which was a sober reminder that the hand of God directs and constrains so that no storm does anything he has not decreed. Those who trust in that truth can sleep at night, even when the storms of life are raging.

Aunt Daryl by tree
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