On Turning 80

I now have a habit of posting every five years about “turning” a certain age.  On October 4, I will turn 80.

I never thought I would reach 80.

When I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2014, my life expectancy was four years. I began chemotherapy and after three years was declared to be in remission. I was chemo-free for several years. In 2021, the cancer roared back and I began chemo again.

A few months ago I was once again declared to be in remission, but now I will need to have monthly chemo for the rest of my life. My doctor made it clear that while this chemo-cocktail will inevitably fail, there are others we can try – until they all fail. Because one of the components (Revlemid) of my current chemo-cocktail caused  terrible  mental confusion and as well as  multiple falls, the doctor reluctantly eliminated it. He is amazed that I am in remission without it. However, he share that most new treatments also contain Revlimid. I told him that I wouldn’t take it. He  agreed and said he would start researching others that are Revlemid free.

So part of beginning my 80’s is facing the increasing reality of imminent death.

October 5, the day after my birthday is the 2nd anniversary of my husband’s death.  Life without him has been very different. He was ill for several years and I was his caregiver.  The first year after his death I felt quite useless; so much of my time had been spent meeting his many needs. Recently, as I face another anniversary, I have been experiencing moments of real struggle with grief.

When I shared my unusual bouts of sobbing, my friend Barb, a retired hospice nurse, reminded me that “grief is so random.” She suggested that anniversaries are likely to provoke times when even beautiful memories (in this case hearing the song “My Girl” which Fred used to sing to me) are cause for grief.  I am finding the truth of this as I am reminded that music (especially by the Temptations) was one of the things that brought us together.

My post “On Turning 75” has a list of many things I had learned. Re-reading it just now brings back so many memories. My 80th birthday finds me facing the difficulties of living alone and independently – and without a car. I am recognizing that all my life I was involved with helping others. As I approach my 80’s, I am learning how to ask for help and accept it graciously and without guilt.  This has been harder than I ever dreamed it would be; I didn’t realize how much of my self-esteem was built by being a helper.

God has found many ways to teach me the lesson of receiving and  understanding that I still can be  a helper, just in very different ways. A statement I have always loved by Anne Lamott  helps on this journey: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” And another thought helps me accept that I can receive the help of others without being upset that I need it:  “If something comes toward us with grace and can pass through us with grace, we can trust it as the voice of God.”  I am blessed to remember that I can be the conduit of God’s grace.

My other issue as I turn 80 is accepting the fact that the Revlimid did permanent damage to my brain. I have the normal forgetfulness that comes at this age and that all my friends complain about, but this is something different. I can be in the middle of a conversation and totally go blank about what I was talking about.  No one else cares, but I am totally embarrassed and disappointed because I couldn’t share what was important to me at the time. Going “blank” affects everything in my day. Sometimes I can laugh when I can’t remember what my last thought; other times it is totally frustrating and frightening. (It also complicates writing a blog!)

My goal as I turn 80 is to continue to learn to accept who I am, flaws and all, knowing that God will continue to grace me with his love and total acceptance.

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From My Reading – September

“Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. That, I suppose, is the final mystery as well as the final power of words: that not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate. And when these words tell of virtue and nobility, when they move us closer to that truth and gentleness of spirit by which we become fully human, the reading of them is sacramental; and a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth” (Frederick Buechner).

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“I’ve spent the last decade calling in the peacemakers to view their peacemaking in light of the Hebraic concept of shalom. I define it as God’s dream for the world as it should be, nothing missing, nothing broken, everything made whole. Because shalom is God’s dream and God is love, our shalom practices must be rooted in love. Therefore, I’ve invited peacemakers to resist peacemaking that is rooted in anxiety and to choose peacemaking out of a posture of love. When love enters the equation, everything changes. We begin to ask ourselves what we’re for instead of what we’re against” (Osheta Moore).

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“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other” (Mother Teresa).

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“Opposition gives us a sense of standing for something, a false sense of independence, power, and control. Compassion and humility don’t give us a sense of control or psychic comfort. We have to be willing to let go of our moral high ground and hear the truth that the other person may be speaking, even if it is only ten percent of what they are saying. Compassion and dialogue are essentially vulnerable positions. If we are into control and predictability, we will seldom descend into the vulnerability of undefended listening or the scariness of dialogue. If we are incapable of hearing others, we will also be incapable of hearing God. If we spend all day controlling and blocking others, why would we change when we kneel to pray?” (Richard Rohr).

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“Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we are waiting” (Joyce Meyer).

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“To love, we need to be sensitive to those around us, which is impossible if we are always racing through life engrossed in all the things we need to do before sunset” (Eknath Easwaran).

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“In terms of the spiritual journey, trying to find faith with the intellectual center is something like trying to play a violin with a saw: it’s simply the wrong tool for the job. This is one reason why all religious traditions have universally insisted that religious life cannot be done with the mind alone; that is the biggest single impediment to spiritual becoming” (Cynthia Bourgeault).

 

 

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A New Heart and a New Spirit

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove from your body a heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26.

Recently I was told that my blood tests show no cancer. “You are in currently in remission!” my doctor said. I will still need monthly chemotherapy. The current chemo will stop working and the doctor will need to find another chemo cocktail that does not contain the Revlimid which scrambled my brain for months and caused fall after fall.

When I told this news to a friend, she said, “Well, my prayers and yours have been answered.”  I had to admit that I have never prayed that I will be healed from cancer (or diabetes or cellulitis – which have also been my companions).  I have only prayed that I will maintain a spirit of hope and gratitude and continue to be “blessed to be a blessing”

So when I came across the verse from Ezekiel 36 which appears at the start of this blog, it occurred to me that this is the promise God is fulfilling in my life: that I will have a new heart and a new spirit in the face of my eight-year battle with blood  cancer and after the death of my husband nearly two years ago.

This “new heart” allows me to be at peace during this time of lost  independence as well as  the loss of balance and strength. This “new spirit” brings me  confidence in God’s presence and  God’s promises as the world around me (and all of us) becomes increasingly precar-    ious.

A friend recently commented on my “amazing attitude.”  I was surprised by his words because there have been so many occasions in my nearly 80 years when my attitude has been horrible; I have spent many dark nights asking God for forgiveness.  I told my friend that my attitude began improving  as I sat in Alanon circles learning about “letting go” and when I “met” Ignatius of Loyola and his teachings about relinquishing.  The work of Dallas Willard and James Bryan Smith led me to teach the Apprentice program which introduced me (and my church) to the concept of “spiritual formation” which changed my life forever.

These experiences are a few of the ways that God gave me a “new heart” and a “new spirit.”  I continue to be open to learning more in the time I have left. And I continue to be grateful to God for  exchanging my “heart of stone” for a “heart of flesh.”

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Remembering Frederick Buechner

Many authors have influenced my spiritual formation over the past thirty years.  But the one I have loved and appreciated the most is Frederick Buechner. Buechner died on August 15, and I am heartbroken. As a writer, I have thrilled to the beauty and originality of his writing. As a seeker, I have been blessed by his wisdom and daring. As someone who is filled with wonder at the depth of God’s grace, I have been moved by his constant growth in the understanding of that grace.  As a person nearing 80 years of age, I have begun to understand the depth of his thinking. I mourn his death, but I am comforted by the fact that his life-giving writing remains.

Below is the notice of his death sent by his son-in-law.

It is with great sadness—but greater appreciation for his long and exceptionally well-lived and listened-to life—that I write to share the news of the passing of my father-in-law, Reverend Frederick Buechner. He died peacefully in Rupert, Vt. on August 15, 2022, at the age of 96.

Frederick was a life giver to countless many around the world. He told the stories of us all: through overwhelming love, unbearable pain, great laughter, artistry, humility, and awe. His wonder at the miracle of grace around him never left him, and his writing, preaching, and presence will be with us forever

Throughout his life, Frederick enjoyed the support of an uncommonly devoted readership. His readership nourished him and helped inspire him to write nearly 40 books now read in over two dozen languages world-wide.  On his family’s behalf, I wish to extend our most heartfelt gratitude.

The following quote from Buechner hangs on my “office” wall.  It seems appropriate to share it on the day we learn of his death.

          By Letting Go

“We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be something old. This seems to be close to the heart of that mystery. I know more know than I ever did about the far side of death as the last letting-go of all but I begin to know that I do not need to know and that I do not need to be afraid of not knowing. God knows. That is all that matters.

Out of Nothing he creates Something. Out of the End he creates the Beginning. Out of selfness we grow, by his grace, toward selflessness, and out of that final selflessness which is the loss of self altogether, “eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man” what new marvels he will bring to pass next.  All’s lost. All’s found. And if such words sound childish, so be it.  Out of each old self that dies some precious essence is preserved for the new self that is born; and within the child-self that is part of us all, there is perhaps nothing more precious than the fathomless capacity to trust” (A Room to Remember).

 

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From My Reading – August

“The Bible is usually very universal and makes you want to see something—some image to imagine it by. ‘The light shines in the darkness,’ John says, and maybe you see an agonizing burst of light with the darkness folding back like petals, like hands. But the imagery of John is based rather on sound than on sight. It is a Word you hear breaking through the unimaginable silence—a creating word, a word that calls forth, a word that♦ stirs life and is life because it is God’s word, John says, and has God in it as your words have you in them, have in them your breath and spirit and tell of who you are. Light and dark, the visual, occur in space, but sound, this Word spoken, occurs in time and starts time going. “Let there be” the Word comes, and then there is, Creation is. Something is where before there was nothing and the morning stars sing together and all the Sons of God shout for joy because sequence has begun, time has begun, a story has begun” (Frederich Buechner).

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“It is not happiness that makes us grateful.  It is gratefulness that makes us happy” (Br. David Steindal-Rast).

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“The trouble with much of civic religion and cultural Christianity is the lack of religious experience. People who haven’t had a loving or intimate experience with God tend to get extremely rigid, dogmatic, and controlling about religion. They think that if they pray the right words, read the Bible daily, and go to church often enough, it will happen. But God loves us before we do the rituals. God doesn’t need them, but we need them to tenderly express our childlike devotion and desire—and to get in touch with that desire. The great commandment is not “thou shalt be right.” The great commandment is to “be in love” (Abraham Joshua Heschel).

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“Living in community means living in such a way that others can access me and influence my life. It means that I can get “out of myself” and serve the lives of others. Community is a world where kinship with each other is possible. By community I don’t mean primarily a special kind of structure, but a network of relationships. Sadly, on the whole, we live in a society that’s built on competition, not on community and cooperation” (Richard Rohr).

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“Clouds come floating into my life from other days no longer to shed rain or usher storm but to give colour to my sunset sky” (Rabindranath Tagore).

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“Heart communication happens when we slow down, when we quiet down, look, and listen. Stop to take a breath. Become fully present with the person we’re with. Listen with all of our being. At this point, communication can occur without words. Being present is a gift that fills our hearts and spirits. We are in communion” (Kay Lindahl).

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From My Reading – July

“Healthy religion is always humble about its own holiness and knowledge. It knows that it does not know. The true biblical notion of faith, which balances knowing with not knowing, is rather rare today, especially among many religious folks who think faith is being certain all the time—when the truth is the exact opposite. Anybody who really knows also knows that they don’t know at all” (Richard Rohr).

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“Beloved community is formed  not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world” (Bell Hooks).

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“Any paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon” (Ikkyu,  Zen Monk , poet, 1394-1481).

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“It is central in the biblical tradition that God’s love for his people should not be forgotten. It should remain with us in the present. When everything is dark, when we are surrounded by despairing voices, when we do not see any exits, then we can find salvation in a remembered love, a love that is not simply a wistful recollection of a bygone past, but a living force that sustains us in the present. Through memory, love transcends the limits of time and offers hope at any moment of our lives” (Henri Nouwen).

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“To work in the world lovingly means that we are defining what we will be for, rather than reacting to what we are against” (Christina Baldwin).

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“Our refusal to let oth­ers sup­port us when we are in need is poten­tial­ly depriv­ing them of the bless­ing as they give to some­one they care about. Self-suf­fi­cien­cy often has more to do with pride than strength. Strength is being open to the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of let­ting oth­ers care for us. Jesus was­n’t afraid to ask for and receive help (Matthew 26:38)” (Nathan Foster).

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“As Christians we’re not sufficiently truthful with one another, and we fail to acknowledge how some forms of Christianity are idolatrous. When Christianity is identified with American interests or a political party, it needs to be called out for what it is. We’re afraid to do that because we think being a Christian is better than not being one. But bad Christianity is very bad, and we need to be more upfront about that” (Stanley Hauerwas).

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The Muddiness of our Lives

“Even when we are in the thick muddiness of our pain, despair, and tenderness, we can grow through it as long as we are alive and present enough to bear witness ” (Alex Elle).

“Sometimes what people see as darkness is actually where you find the voice of God and the voice of truth” (Joy Oldadkun).

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I am in the midst of a struggle with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that defeats the body’s attempt to fight infection.  Currently I am in remission for the second time since 2014.  The first time I discontinued treatment and lived a fairly normal life. This summer, my doctor’s revelation that I may be in remission was followed by a warning: you still need chemo, at least monthly. Also he reminds me, the current chemo “cocktail” will stop being effective and we will have to find a different treatment to try from among several that are available.  I ask him if there is a treatment that doesn’t include Revlimid (which put me into several months of mental confusion and dizziness)? He says that he doesn’t think so, but will start doing the research. I tell him that if Revlimid is part of the cocktail, I will refuse treatment. He says he understands and agrees.

So . . . now I live in “muddiness” and “darkness.”  Each month I wait for the explanation of my two blood tests to find out if the “numbers” show that this treatment will have to be stopped or that it has stopped being effective.

It took me few  weeks to emotionally absorb the meaning of this information.  On the one hand, there is still hope.  On the other, death could be imminent.  So . . .  how should I then live? (to quote the title of a book by Francis Shaeffer, written and read long ago.) Several hours of exploring through contemplation and reading have led me to settle into some answers.

First, I will follow the plan that the doctor and I easily agreed on:  continue with whatever chemo is available as long as it works, unless it contains Revlimid. Stop treatment if Revlimid is part of it.

Second, I will continue to live life as I have for the last several months, as independently as possible, but requesting help as needed – which will likely be more and more often. Asking for help has always been a sticking point because I was raised to be the helper.  I’m working hard at recognizing that my self worth does not depend on my ability and choice to give – which I have done all my life.  I am  in a place where I require help and I’m learning to be okay with that and willing to rejoice in the help I am given rather than wallow in  the fact that I’m not the giver.  I have also been told so many times recently that I AM still a giver even as I become weaker and more needy.   I am still growing even in the “thick muddiness of pain, despair, and tenderness.”

Third, I will relish the friendships I have – and be open to more.  Since I am apt burrow into my ever more introverted nature, this means I need to make conscious choices to share rather than to withdraw.  This means pulling my soul out of dark aloneness and relishing the time that friends and family offer. It means I will share what I can, listen to what is offered, and “rejoice and be glad in it.”

Fourth, I will “find the voice of God and the voice of truth” in the darkness.  Daily I am learning to relinquish control and just live in calmness and acceptance. “Whatever happens happens” is rather trite, but it is the truth.  For me it means taking my hands off the wheel and letting God be the driver.  “Letting go” has been the path of my spiritual formation for the past twenty plus years and I am so glad I have so much practice!  Calmness has not often been a trait of my emotional character.  But more and more I can just rest in the peace of floating down the river instead of trying to control the current.

Finally, I will continue, as Alex Elle says in the quote at the top of this blog, to be alive and present enough to understand my body and my emotions and, just as importantly, to be spiritually alive as long as I can so I can bear witness to the process of living and dying in the hands of God.

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The World Needs our Help

Nearly 60 years ago, I received a letter from my twin cousins who were attending college in  Florida.  They were very involved with sit-ins in restaurants and “five and dime” stores to encourage management to allow black people to visit their establishments. Jim and Dan were asking for financial support so they could continue their social justice work without having to have part-time jobs. I was fascinated by their dedication and impressed with their bravery (they were injured and jailed for their efforts), but I was also in college and unemployed. I sent them what I could.  (I found out decades later that I was the only family member who gave them financial support.) Their efforts fired up my life-long interest in social justice and activism.

Recently I went through the many requests for funding that fill my mail box, trying to decide what I could afford to give.  Reading the detailed stories of the work of all these organizations broke my heart.  I can’t give them much money, but I can share some of the work they are doing with you:

Southern Poverty Law Center – defended the voting rights of people with disabilities,  made a case for restoring the Voting Rights Act, distributed more than $11,000,000 through their Vote Your Voice programs to 55 different grass roots organizations, provided a data base on hate and extremism consulted by 4.5 million people, tracked 1,221 hate and extremist groups across the country, freed over 20,00 people from immigrant detention Centers, prompted Department of Justice investigations into the Georgia Department of Corrections’ treatment of LGBTQ people – and much more.

Doctors without Borders provides medical care to refugees and displaced people all over the world. 48 million people are internally displaced or forced to move within their home country. 30.3 million people are refugees forced to flee their home country. 41 million people are seeking asylum and waiting for a decision on their refugee status.  In 2017, Myanmar security forces launched a campaign of violence targeting the Rohingya ethnic minority group. Roughly 700,00 people fled across the border into Bangladesh where they settled in already overcrowded refugee camps. Doctors without Borders manages ten facilities in the Cox’s Bazar camp, providing specialized healthcare to tens of thousands of refugees each month as well as improving sanitation by building sustainable latrines and wells where residents can access clean waters.

According to the Carter Center, just 15 human cases of Guinea worm disease were reported in 2021, the lowest number ever recorded. When the Carter Center started leading the global eradication campaign there in 1986, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases in 21 countries. In addition nations on opposite sides of Africa have reported milestones in the fight against river blindness. Transmission has been eliminated in several states and regions.

Feeding America maintains a network of more than 200 food banks, 21 statewide food bank associations, and over 60,000 partner agencies. They have provided 6.6 billion meals to tens of millions of people in need last year.

USA for UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) provides services to refugees and displaced people fleeing desperate, life-threatening circumstances in Ukraine.

World Central Kitchen – fed an island after Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico. They fed tens of millions struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. They put boots on the ground when a blast devastated Beirut, bushfires ripped through Australia, and a volcano transformed a Spanish island. They were under a bridge with thousands of asylum seekers in Texas, in a demolished Kentucky town after brutal tornadoes, on the Louisiana coast when yet another enormous hurricane made landfall. They are now in Ukraine feeding hundreds of refugees.

These are a few of the organizations that I try to help.  They  need the support and prayers of all of us to continue the work they are doing around the world.  Let me know what groups you support. Let’s spread the word!

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