Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In Praise of Birthdays

People often ask me how life has changed since being diagnosed with stage IV cancer.  On bad days, the question brings tears to my eyes.  On good days, though, I acknowledge that cancer changes the outlook on many aspects of life.

Take birthdays, for instance.  

This week, I’ll officially enter my upper-40s.  Since the cancer diagnosis, I’ve become more attuned to the many protests we lodge against the aging process.  The popularity of botox injections and coloring hair to hide the gray, to name just two visible protests, suggest we’re not too keen on showing the world we’re actually getting older.  We want to look young, feel young, stay young.  And then birthdays come around once a year and insist that we acknowledge we’re getting older.

Of course there are some real costs to growing old.  My family spent Thanksgiving with my almost-94-year-old Grandmother, who—despite all the health challenges that come with being in your mid-90s—is still going strong.  But getting in and out of chairs is a challenge.  Walking is a challenge.  Hearing others talk in a noisy room is a challenge.  Those challenges add up.  They take their toll.

Being in your upper 40s, however, is significantly different than being in your mid-90s.  And living with cancer in my soon-to-be upper 40s leads me to embrace and celebrate birthdays as never before.  I thank God I’m alive to experience birthday 46.  Praise be that my children are growing older and I’m here to witness it.  Hallelujah that my husband’s turning (a much-younger) 45 next month and I can celebrate with him.  These days my birthday—and the birthday of others I love—is cause for gratitude for the continuing gift of life.  That we’re around to grow older is worth celebrating, at least once a year.

Recently the American Cancer Society launched a campaign called More Birthdays where they ask others to join them in creating a world with less cancer and more birthdays (http://morebirthdays.com).  I’m all in.

So here’s to more birthdays: to mine, to yours, and to everyone else’s.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

In Gratitude for This Day

It’s rather remarkable that for everything else it is, Thanksgiving is fundamentally a day set aside for gratitude.  Even though attention is often turned toward the delectable dishes we get to enjoy, it’s nevertheless a day to consider the gifts of grace we enjoy individually and as members of the larger community.
But sometimes gratitude can be hard to come by.  Those of us who live face-to-face with an aggressive diagnosis or with other occasions for grief can find it difficult to be full of gratitude, even on an officially sanctioned day to do just that.  Since my own diagnosis almost four years ago, I know how often fear, uncertainty, and grief make insistent pleas for my allegiance, even when I’m “supposed” to be cultivating gratitude.

In the face of fear and uncertainty’s nagging presence, I attempt—with varying degrees of success—to keep them at bay.  While they tempt me with lists of anxious questions (Will still be around next Christmas?  For the girls’ high school  graduations?  Will I make it to 50?), I try and turn my attention elsewhere.  One of the best “elsewhere’s” I’ve found is through the practice of daily morning prayer.  It is the case that I often wake to thoughts of fear; in response, I move through a litany of prayers of gratitude for this day.

Hands open, palms up, I inch toward accepting the reality that I don’t have the answer to the questions fear insists I ask.  Coaxing my thoughts away from the unknown future to the present, I seek out words of gratitude for the health I’m experiencing today; for the blessings right now of a dear husband and two precious daughters whose morning routines echo throughout the house; for the gift of extended family and friends that steady my soul; for a life in the academy that offers constant opportunities to learn and grow.  As the words and images gradually fill my mind, questions posed by fear fade a bit, even if temporarily.

Words of gratitude for the grace in my life also contain an insistence of their own: they insist upon awareness on my part that others for whom I’m grateful have grief, fear, uncertainties of their own.  Being held up for years by the fervent prayers of others in my behalf, gratitude compels me toward doing the same for others.

One of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions is to hear one expression of gratitude from everyone gathered around the table.  From youngest to oldest, naming the gifts of grace in our lives creates a counterforce to those insistent fears and uncertainties that tempt us with questions of the future.  A practice, I’ve learned, that deserves replication more than once a year.

Blessed Days of Gratitude to all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Praise of Lament

Before we move into the season of holiday celebrations, I’d like to say a few words in praise of lament.  Lament—the expression of sadness, grief, mourning—is an underrated practice in contemporary life.  In their book about lament called Rachel’s Cry, religion scholars Daniel Migliore and Kathleen Billman suggest that we’re reluctant as a society to publically grieve our failures, limitations, and losses.  The title of their book comes from the biblical book of Jeremiah (31.15) where the prophet talks about Rachel’s inconsolable weeping for her lost children.  In Jewish tradition, Rachel’s grief is revered and respected, while in Christianity her cry receives scant attention.  Perhaps it’s because the Christian story ends with resolution—there’s a resurrection!—that Christians and many in the dominant culture do not give the practice of lament its due.

In the past several years, I’ve gained a healthy respect for lament.  Dealing with cancer or other tough issues in life leads to lament, to a posture of sadness and sorrow.  But that’s a hard sell in America much of the time, land of political slogans like, “Happy days are here again!” and “It’s morning in America.”  Writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, begins with a chapter about her own entrance into “Cancerland” due to a breast cancer diagnosis.  When she found her way to online forums on breast cancer and expressed her lament over her condition—including frustration over the lack of funding for researching breast cancer—other users in these online communities responded with words of caution about Ehrenreich’s negative attitude, telling her they were praying for her so that she might become more positive.

While there is certainly a case to be made against a constant posture of negativity in the face of life’s challenges, I worry that we don’t allow enough space for lament, especially in a more public way.

It seems to me that when religion embodies the best of what it has to offer, it makes room for lament.  Religious traditions have established rituals—from All Saints Day to Yom Kippur to the Day of the Dead—that encourage public displays of lamentation.  It’s also important to acknowledge, though, that holidays and rituals intended to be celebratory like Thanksgiving and Christmas can also be times of quiet (or even not-so-quiet) lament.  When it comes time to celebrate and there has been significant loss since the previous time of celebration, the “most wonderful time of the year” can grow heavy with grief.  Perhaps we can make more space for moments of lament—both public and private—over the next couple months.

Why a post about lament on a blog about grace?  Because lament is a necessary precursor to hope.  To be able to give voice to our deepest sorrows, to attend to thesufferings that ultimately pass none of us by, is to give ourselves permission to lament.  And when such permission is granted, we can begin to take some steps toward healing.  And healing is intimately intertwined with grace.

Here’s to lament, and to the movement toward hope and healing that often follow.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

For All the Saints, Past and Present

I’ve been thinking a lot about saints.  All Saints Day (November 1) coincided with one of my classes studying the lives of medieval female saints.  These women were officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church for their heroic displays of compassion and reports of miracles they performed.

It’s also the case that this past Sunday churches around the world honored the saints who have gone before us.  Remembered especially were those who died in the past year.  At these worship services, bells tolled as each name was read aloud.  It was a time to honor the lives of those who passed away, to remember them in death, and to hope for more for all of us who mourn their passing.

I come from a wing of Christianity that does not share in the ongoing Roman Catholic tradition of granting official saintly status to persons performing miracles or living particularly virtuous lives.  Nevertheless, in remembering those who’ve gone before us, we still use the word saint.

If it is the case that all of us are children of God, then it seems that all of us are born with huge potential for sainthood.  Most of us spend our days far from that ideal; yet it’s true that especially in times of great need, many of us are recipients of grace given by saints in our midst.  I know that since my own cancer diagnosis, life has been full of encounters with saints.

Take, for instance, the friend who started walking with me the fall of 2008 when I was struggling with a broken back.  With the exception of a week here and a week there, she has walked with me, every week, for the past four years.  This friend also has a daughter who learned about saints at her parochial school.  On a test about saints, when asked to name one she wrote, “My Mother,” and got the answer wrong.

Even though this friend doesn’t fit the official definition of a saint, I think the teacher may have passed up a valuable teaching moment. In covering the facts of sainthood, I imagine the teacher talked of saints as those whose extravagant love, service, healing, and sacrifice were officially recognized by the church. But a truth-beyond-the-facts presented itself in the “My Mother” answer, where a child acknowledged she believes her mother embodies those same virtues.  Why not acknowledge—with the daughter—that there are saints among us?

Since my diagnosis, my walking friend and many, many others have shown themselves to be saints through their love, care, and concern.  So in this season of saints, in addition to honoring and remembering all the saints who’ve gone before us, I also want to honor the saints among us:

to the saints who brought us flowers during the dark days of the illness;
to the saints who delivered homemade meals to our doorsteps when we couldn’t make meals for ourselves;
to the saints who sent cards with words of comfort;
to the saints who make time in the hospital, the clinic, the radiation center, the chemo rooms less frightening;
to the saints who shoveled our driveway when our life was in shambles;
to the saints who created a quilt that keeps us warm every night;
to the saints to who sent us blueberries in December, jewelry in February, CDs in the springtime;
to the saints who came to visit from far away to dull the sharp edges of despair;
to the saints who continue this journey with us.

Know that in this season of remembering saints, I’m ringing a bell for each one of you.