My Third Chance at Life

Today marks 55 days since my total hip replacement! I haven’t felt this good since 2016. This weekend I rode 50 miles on my bike and walked 30 miles over two days. No pain. I have shed so many tears of complete joy – giddiness does not begin to describe my emotions! My new hip is more than a miracle – it is giving me life again.

I am no longer a pill-popper!! For the last 6 years I grew increasingly dependent on my 8-pill a day Tylenol- Advil cocktail while covering it all with a smile and grit. I became the Martha Stewart of pain management – my drawers are filled with capsaicin creams, heating pads, ice packs, strange looking body rollers, tennis balls, TENS therapy units, etc. Have pain? I WAS your go-to girl!!

My life has been a bit chaotic in those 6 years – my mother died, a long term relationship ended, my father died, I bought my first house, I finished lay school for ministry, I met a wonderful man, we got married and then we were “annulled” in a courtroom. Within weeks of that courtroom scene we were plunged into a pandemic and I survived all by myself – really – all by myself. I broke my foot, and then my hip finally gave way. Through it all – extreme runs and workouts were what “kept me sane.” My life revolved around working out and managing the pain afterwards. Like I said – “It kept me sane.” It was the only way I knew how survive. The only thing I didn’t know how to do anymore was live.

Having this downtime after surgery and being forced to rest and “deal” with my life I have a whole new appreciation for who I am, and who I can be. I want to be more than running and conquering the next mile.

I am loving long walks with my dog and pain free bike rides on the back roads of the town I live in. I love not being crazed if I don’t wake up at 4am to get my 3+hour workout in before work. I love waking up when I wake up and seeing my faithful companion’s tail wagging ready for our time together. I love reading and playing the piano again – sometimes for hours!! Heck, I am even enjoying cooking and baking again – because I have time to do so! And then – there are the people I “didn’t have time for”. I think that is what hurts the most now – the realization of the relationships lost, broken, or unrealized because of my wayward focus.

I have missed out on so much life because I was just trying to manage my physical and mental anguish in ways that were not helping me in any way. Not every one gets a second chance at life – this will be my third. They say the third time is the charm. I’m not going to waste it!!

Let your light so shine!!

Aligning Life

“I want my inner truth to be the plumb line for the choices I make about my life – about the work that I do and how I do it, about the relationships I enter into and how I conduct them.”  — Parker J. Palmer

I first heard the term “plumb line” when I was about 9 or 10 years old. My dad was in the process of finishing our basement – building out a bedroom for my then college-aged brother. It made no sense to me then what a purple fruit that little Jack Horner pulled out of his Christmas pie had to do with construction! 

The next time I encountered the term “plumb line” it was in a completely different context. I had just turned 43 and a family friend who was also a personally influential pastor told me about his week-long “Plumb-Line” seminars and how they changed people’s lives. I had not yet started my in-depth studies of the biblical prophets for my Lay Pastoral Associate program nor had I furthered my construction career past hammering my thumb, so this idea was still a fairly new concept to me. I’ve now reached a point in my life where I’m ready to be “plumbed” and once again encountered the concept in a recent reading of mine.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, the prophet Amos spoke of God establishing a plumb line by which the people of Israel would be measured. (Amos 7: 7-17). “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

A plumb line – for those of you who may still be wondering – is a tool used by builders to find the true vertical using the force of gravity and a weight hanging from a cord.  A plumb line ensures the wall or structure you are building is at a perfect right angle to the earth. The plumb line Amos spoke of God setting served three purposes: construction, testing what is built, and destruction – or the casting down what cannot stand. God has always had a plumbline in his hand. God is not a careless creator.

The above message comes to Amos at a time of prosperity and peace – when it seems everything is right; but in reality, all is not well – not well at all. The “wall” is crooked and will fall. Just as his listeners were then, people can be manipulated into believing all is well, but the plumb line – the standard of good – cannot be manipulated and God’s justness cannot be manipulated.

Whether you are aware of them or not (like me for the first 43 years of my life), we all have multiple plumb lines in our lives. The values, qualities, beliefs, and priorities that guide our lives all serve as plumb lines. As a modern-day level shows us when our lines are not straight, our plumb lines serve as minders when our lives are out of whack and off kilter. They help us focus on what really matters and offer us strength and stability.

Plumb lines don’t just apply to or matter to the individual. As with the Israelites in the book of Amos, plumb lines are also communal in nature. Our communities, states, and nations have plumb lines in the form of laws and constitutions.

The plumb lines we set for our lives matter not only for us as individuals but also for our communities and our relationships. At their highest purpose, they serve as relational guides, promoting life and human dignity. In the hands of our flawed humanity, they can also diminish life and human dignity – individually and communally.

I wasn’t ready to hear about the plumb lines of life when my pastor friend shared what his plumb-line seminars entailed. I had just uprooted my life and moved at the time; and frankly, I couldn’t handle any more change in my life, nor did I have the will or the time to examine it – though in hindsight that would have been the ideal time to do so.

Sometimes we choose to reset the plumb lines in our lives. We sense that something just isn’t right – there is a gnawing restlessness bothering our souls. So, we make an effort to change – get away for a while – take a break – perhaps seek counseling – and reassess. Other times we don’t have a say in the matter. Other times events, circumstances, or experiences – pivotal points in our lives – start the plumb line swinging and we are forced to rethink everything. It’s as if there is a reset on everything, including our plumb lines.

Our country, our world, is at one of these pivotal points – just look at any newspaper or news program or social media feed. Grief; suffering; immense loss of purpose, place, and life; chaos and confusion; distrust and insecurity reign. The U.S. Supreme Court alone has provided a wealth of material in just the past few weeks while Congress follows in fast pursuit. Live video feeds capture the consequences of continued gun violence, followed by modern day “prophets” spouting words that are no less destructive. The plumb lines of our country have been swinging wildly and crashing into each other as our ideals and traditions are challenged. From mass shootings and civil & political unrest to economic instability and ecclesial division, who among us today doesn’t feel like he or she is having to reset the plumb lines of life?

But this is nothing new. Resetting plumb lines is a part of every life in every place and in every time. It is how we grow and evolve. Done well, a reset enlarges life – done carelessly it defeats it. Will the standards to which we align ourselves equate to common flourishing, personal responsibility and personal authority or the forces of control, power, economy, affluence, and narcissism?   These are the questions our nation faces in the coming days, weeks, and years.

As anyone who has found their life in complete chaos knows, you can’t do much when the plumb line is swinging wildly about. It would be nice and convenient if we all had the same plumb lines – our world would be a much more peaceful place.  But as it were – we do not.  We might think we share common ideals but our alignment to them will always be unique and even in conflict at times.  Setting and resetting plumb lines is a process  that takes time. It takes reflection, listening, hearing, experiencing, thinking and then, even more thinking. We aren’t, however, left to our own devices and thumb-hammering ways. There are numerous sources offering guidance to wondering souls, but I have a favorite recommendation.

The Bible provides us with adequate plumb line words of wisdom – perhaps the simplest and most concise advice for life in Jesus’ response in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus resets the plumb lines of the lawyer (and us!) who inquired about what he must do to inherit eternal life. The plumb line is revealed in the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” It’s a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” “Who is not deserving of my love?” “Whose life is not worthy of my time and effort?” “Who can I ignore, denigrate, hate, or pass by?” The plumb line Jesus resets declares, “No one.” (Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 93). No one. These are good plumb-lines to live by and if I may opine – govern a country by.

Our plumb lines reflect where our focus is, where our hearts find succor, and what matters to us. They reveal our aspirations and our fears and they direct the course of our lives. Is your plumb line swinging about? When you look in the mirror, what do you see? What questions are you asking? What answers do you seek? What do your fears reveal? What is number one on your to-do list? As you look back on your life, what used to matter and what matters to you now? Are you enlarging life with each passing day, week, month and year or finding it diminishing?

I’ve been posing these questions to myself of late.

Healing from major surgery has given me the opportunity to quit swinging wildly about, to slow down, and to rest. Both by choice and due to critical circumstances, I’ve had to reset what has gotten out of whack and way off kilter in my life. My desire is for a more meaningful and more purposeful approach to living the second half of my life.

Both endeavors are incredibly hard work! 

Healing from a hip replacement is complex. It requires lots of rest as well as exercise. It requires good fuel and incredible focus – one wrong step and I could mess the whole thing up!  It’s the torture and heaven of physical therapy. It is discipline and grace. It is the constant challenge of knowing your limits, but also not being afraid to test them.

However, the arduous work of excavating one’s life down to its foundation and doing a “reset of the plumb lines” in all honesty, is the most painful, critical and promising work of all. This “new life” of mine won’t just be a replay of my past mistakes.

It’s not all gut searching and wrenching work though. At times, it’s as simple as listening to the bees quiet down as the sun sets on another day. Grateful for nature’s little reminders of the proper order of life and the simple serenity of a quiet summer evening.

Let your light so shine!

Loving My Mother and Facing Myself, Anew

I have come to dread the second weekend in May, for the sadness it brings, the shame I feel for the envy I harbor, and the stark truths it reveals about me and my place in this world beginning from my first exuberant breath to this moment as I write of yet another Mother’s Day – survived.

Ours was a difficult relationship, but then, the things that matter most in life are not always easy. Nonetheless, I know my mother loved me as deeply as any mother could love a headstrong daughter. While I often wished we could have a relationship like those my friends enjoyed with their moms, one filled with lunch dates, laughter, and dreams for tomorrow – I came to accept that those things were not important to my Mom. Of course, there were wonderful memories – or I wouldn’t feel so conflicted about our relationship still today. She was a wonderful Brownie leader, tender of tummy aches, and mom to the wayward kids on the block. We became best buds when it was just the two of us for a cold Virginia winter when my dad was away on an extended trip and schooling and my brother was away at college. But my best and fondest memories of my mother and me together all occurred before I was 13. And then things began to change. I was growing up and those changes meant the world would also have an influence on me. I can count on one hand the times my mother and I had a joyful, in-depth conversation about life. Those we did have quickly deteriorated into expressions of her fears for what would happen to me “if” or judgment-tinged commentaries beginning and ending with “you are so much better than that.” I knew much more about how difficult her life was than whether or not she ever believed in me.

Ironically, it was in the throes of my 7-year dance with death a.k.a. Anorexia, that she began to encourage me, to tell me that those who were “judging” me simply didn’t understand, that she was thin too and was the envy of her friends and sisters. Even as I laid in ICU with less than a 30% chance of survival if a miracle didn’t happen, she “fought” against the “system” that was “failing at every step” to save me. Defending me when psychiatrists suggested a problem, denying that there was something wrong with her daughter. When I finally hit rock bottom, faced down death, and accepted the journey to wellness outside of my mother’s realm she refused to accompany me. As I boarded the plane to travel to my saving place – Remuda Ranch – all 78 pounds of me and still in critical condition, my mother was at home refusing to see me off. I remember looking back down the ramp – and seeing my father and godfather standing together with their utmost love veiled by a dread that they might not see me again shadowing their faces. The same two men whose frustration with me often led to bursts of anger because they couldn’t understand – now stood behind me in love.

After 4 rides in an ambulance and 7 years in and out of the hospital with my final stay lasting from New Year’s Eve until Memorial Day, my mother still insisted there was nothing wrong with me. I so wanted to believe that. For once we had something we could share! But that very thing joining us would prove fatal to me if it was allowed to continue. I was gone for 4 months. During that time Mom sent me care packages of piano music for me to play on the ranch’s grand piano, new dresses as I “outgrew” the ridiculously small ones she had sewn for me because nothing in any store any where would fit my skeletal body, and she wrote me notes that reminded me of the lunch box notes she would write me when I was a child – before her depressive anxiety began to take over her life.

When I returned home from treatment, I didn’t have a cent to my name. Having worked and paid my way through college what money I did have was depleted by astronomical medical bills. Insurance companies didn’t cover treatment for mental illness back then. So, I returned to the family home to begin life anew. I had changed. I had grown. I had a new story and a new perspective of myself. My mother had not. This would be a point of contention between us for the rest of our life together.

I have been in recovery now for 26 years. I am 64 pounds heavier today than I was at my lowest point. Though it was a pivotal point in our relationship, I do not blame my mother for what I went through. Psychiatrists coaxed me to believe that it was my mother at the root of my problems but I never once placed that onus on her. My eating disorder was a manifestation of my desperate need to have some sort of control in my life and be good at something. I mastered both. According to the plethora of doctors and specialists who worked on “my case” and the numerous studies asserting Anorexia (especially as extreme as my situation was) has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, I am a walking miracle but not one without scars. My eating disorder ravaged my body. 7 years of starvation will do that. I would learn that I could never have children, that my bones would forever be susceptible to breaks, that I must always, always treat food as a medium for life and not something that could bring me pleasure or cause me distress, and that well-meaning inquisitive people would always find my weight to be an acceptable conversation topic. Exercise had always been and remains my means of escape, my coping mechanism, and my Achilles heel. Told by doctors that the fact I was a runner with a strong heart was the only reason I survived the starvation-induced cardiac arrests (plural) – I remained certain that I could never do too much of a good thing. This too has been a hard-learned lesson as I continue down the never-ending road of recovery – and one I am still learning – 26 years in!

Counselors told me I needed to set boundaries on my relationship with my mother but how do you set boundaries between yourself and the person that gave life to you? While fences make good neighbors, boundaries do not address the conflicts that created the need for them. No matter the strife between us, I always loved my Mom as much as I felt beholden to her.

Mom, newly home after a stroke.

Finally putting a physical boundary of 400+ miles between my mother and me with my move to the Flathead changed the dynamic between us. On visits home, we still engaged in rapid-fire from time to time but during our long-distance phone conversations, rather than constantly butting heads with me, my Mom seemed to relish the fact that though I was living my own life and she could live vicariously through me in her old stomping grounds. How comically ironic that I would end up where she once lived “some of her happiest days” as a young woman right here where I am now. Sadly, by that point in her health and our relationship, our conversations never ventured much past the surface.

Perhaps we both gazed at this view – 50 years apart.

As I reflect on 50 years as my mother’s daughter my heart aches for the young woman I was and for the woman she was too. To think we are solely responsible for who we are is naivete at its worst. As I struggle with my own place in life right now, I have wondered just what brought her to be who she became to be.

Since my mother’s illness and death, I have learned much about what is important in life and the lesson has been painful. Past conflicts between us remained a barrier to my heart and have raked my heart ever since. The fact that my mother and I could not realize a reconciliation of any meaningful depth fills me with deep regret. Why had I not pursued this with my Mom sooner? My hopes are such that the pain and anger we inflicted on one another disappeared into her lost memories as I am not sure she could comprehend the feelings I wanted to express. Part of me feels at peace in the simple sweet conversations that we did share. Perhaps that is God’s grace reigning over my ineptitude. I have learned that life is finite. Its seasons far too short for anger, guilt, pride, and selfishness to linger in our relationships. Storms will come and we do not know when or how they will end.

King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes:

“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”

Solomon was wise. Life is meaningless if we do not tend to what truly matters. All the fun, work, accolades, and treasures of life we collect along the way are meaningless. What matters are the relationships we have; that our hearts are right with God; that we resolve conflicts with those we love; that they know they matter to us; and how very much we do indeed love them.

Reconciliation with my mother was a selfish goal of mine. But how much more powerful and life-giving it would have been had I been able to make peace with my mother while she was alive. Perhaps it is best and all I can hope for that my Mom and I pursued the springtime memories of our lives as we walked through her final winter together.

I last spoke to my mother on my 45th birthday, 18 days before she passed away. It was a conversation I will never forget. Aside from the fact she was upset that I would be celebrating alone and didn’t have a special dinner date she just kept saying all she wanted was for me to be happy and would I consider coming home. I kept telling her I was happy but I had too many mountains left to climb to think about coming home – but that didn’t mean I didn’t miss her. I told her I loved her so very much. Her last words to me were: I love you and I just want you to be happy.

For all these reasons, Mother’s Day haunts me. This day of celebrating the gift of life that mothers give reminds me of all that I lost and all I will never be. There are times I see my mother’s nature of sadness in me – and it strikes a paralyzing fear in me that I might be following in her steps towards darkness. But I take comfort too, in that I am my mother’s daughter just as much as I am my father’s and my father loved her to the very end. As my Daddy’s girl, I know I will be okay. God has blessed me with tools of His light and my own life experiences to fight the darkness that robbed me of my mother’s best days.

One of Mom’s favorite songs was “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.

His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free; His eye is on the sparrow And I know He watches me.

It has become one of my favorites, too.

Mom, I know we had our struggles as a mother and daughter but I will forever carry with me your sweet love of the joys of life, the tender ways you loved me through childhood, and your simple understanding of what is good. I will continue to strive to live the kind of life you so wanted for me – one that is happy and lived for the Lord. I never stopped loving you and I will always hear your voice and feel your love whenever a songbird sings.

And when I do, I will sing because I know you are happy, and I’ll sing because I know you are free. I’ll smile at the sight of every sparrow because I’ll know you are right here, with me.