Labels dehumanize people, justify hatred

Our “traveling road show” culture loves to put labels on people, especially people who refuse to buy a ticket to their show.

As a retired reporter, I understand the value of tagging people. Labels make it possible to study and write about wide swaths of the population as if people were chemical compounds that act predictably under given circumstances. They also dehumanize subjects, fracture the nation and make implications that are often untrue and seething with hate.

The media would tag me a “white, evangelical voter” who, purely by having the label pinned upon me, means I also am fiercely pro-gun, pro-Trump and pro-Republican.” In fact, if one listens to them, I am to blame for Donald J. Trump being in the White House because I am white, male and “religious.” Accordingly, every societal woe and governmental failure since January 2017 has been heaped upon my back.

Truth is, I voted independent in 2016 and, given the pathetic options offered by the two major parties in 2020, I will vote that way again. I hate guns, regard Donald Trump as a dangerous narcissist and threat to our national security. And, while I once considered myself a Republican, I swore off the party after daddy Bush and his son took us into wars we could not win and racked up huge debts we’ll never be able to repay. The last straw was working for and being unfairly dismissed by a sneaky, all-Republican board of commissioners.  Therefore, I give my apologies to the researchers and journalists who are counting on me to vote like their label insists I will. This white, evangelical will never fill in another “Republican” oval unless it once again becomes the party of Lincoln.

Imposed labels cannot reveal the complexities of the human below the adhesive, and they are almost always derogatory. Accordingly, in a kind, all-inclusive culture like our own, they ought not be applied recklessly, but they are. Conversely, self-imposed labels carry positive connotations about the adopter while hinting at deep disdain for those who cannot claim the tagline, such as “feminist,” “university-educated” and “activist.”

Some labels, on the surface, ought to come with no hidden connotations, such as male and female. Unfortunately, because our culture has embraced transgenderism, one can get into trouble for calling a male a male when she (or he) thinks himself/herself a female. The omnipresence of transgressing transgender labels makes me thankful I am retired and don’t have to worry about misidentifying someone in print and thereby face possible dismissal and labeling as a “transphobic.” Nevertheless, I find it difficult to follow news stories that speak of a woman having a wife. I am left to wonder if the reporter got something wrong. But then I remember we are living in a new age to which my old brain has not adjusted.

Indeed, I have been labeled “homophobic” because of my antiquated Christian views on homosexuality. I want to be clear about this: I have no “phobia” of LBGT folks and, frankly, what people do in their bedrooms is between them, their partner(s) and, most importantly, God. One can dislike the LBGT lifestyle and still not have a “phobia” about it. I am not a fan of Lake Erie and don’t fish in it or boat on it, but I can’t deny it is there and I don’t  have “hydrophobia” in the sense that I won’t go near it or have an unhealthy fear of it. I can’t swim and, thus far, I’ve not been stupid enough to wade into it during a storm; I choose not to immerse myself in it, except to take a shower, but does that make me hydrophobic? According to Wikipedia, it would if the same broad “phobia” concept applied to transgender people were applied to water.

“Transphobia can include fear, aversion, hatred, violence, anger or discomfort felt or expressed towards people who do not conform to social gender expectations,” explains the Wikipedia entry on the topic.

Wow! What a huge, all-encompassing swath!

Likewise, that same source states that homophobia “encompasses a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LBGT). It has been defined as a concept, prejudice, aversion, hatred or antipathy, may be based on irrational fear and ignorance, and is often related to religious beliefs.”

That description covers a huge range of attitudes and infers that people who hold religious beliefs are driven by “irrational fear and ignorance.” A bit judgmental and, once again, assigns a given set of negative attributes to a person without even having a conversation with him or her. Yet, label makers hand out these titles like first-grade teachers pasting sad-face stickers next to the names of ornery students who don’t conform to the classroom di rigueur.

This culture, which uncomfortably feels more communistic than democratic, gives citizens little latitude for opinions that run counter to those embraced by the label makers. A slip of the tongue or poorly worded social media post, and you can end up being branded a “racist,” “sexist” or “misogynist.”

I’ve been accused of being the latter—hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women and girls (ever notice how rarely you see the word “misandry”—hatred of, contempt for or prejudice against men and boys?). This, despite being married and adoring my wife, who happens to be a woman.

My accuser was a porn shop/strip club owner responding to my objections to the proliferation of strip clubs and porn shops in the county. Ironically, it was my disdain of the way pornography treats women that motivated me to stand in front of that shop night after night and beg people not to patronize the place. It is still in business, and women continue to be degraded in this manner. Yet, the feminist movement, which evidently own the label maker that prints “misogyny,” “sexist” and SCUM labels, blithely ignores this injustice as a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body, even to the point of killing her own baby.

If one steps back and takes a panoramic view of the cultural insanity, a trend become apparent: the culture police find a cause, usually rooted in a single event of discrimination or injury, and run with it to the media. Before the pandemic, the #MeToo movement embarrassed and disgraced many high-profile males with accusations and labels that led to job loss, reputation damage and shame. Certainly, males who make uninvited remarks or touch women in appropriately ought to be called out. However, no one seems to notice the hypocrisy of this lopsided movement. Why is it that when a man inappropriately touches a woman, he is breaking the law, but when a woman puts the moves on a man, he “gets lucky?” The answer, of course, is found in feminism’s extreme hatred for the male and disdain for normal sexual intimacy.

This focus on sexism and #MeToo has shifted, however, since the tragic deaths of several Black men, allegedly at the hands of law enforcement (the officers in the cases have not had their days in court, so I must use “alleged,” although cell phone and media trials have already found them guilty and ready to hang). The label makers have descended upon the scene and whipped up protests, looting, fires and even more deaths. The hunt is on for racists, dead or alive. We’ve not experienced this level of rooting out of societal evil since the McCarthyism era of the late 1940s, when a witch hunt (probably can’t use that term because it is sexist, but I will), led by US Senator Joseph McCarthy (who should be labeled “fruitcake”), tagged hundreds of otherwise productive and respectable Americans as communists or communist sympathizers. Careers were destroyed and the world deprived of the work and contributions of these Americans, many them falsely accused. Of course, we would not allow that to happen in our enlightened times.

However, the label-keepers in our universities, media and BLM movement are hard at work researching the lives of many well-known and honored Americans, dead and alive, in search of some writing or scrap of evidence that can be used to label them “racist” and thereby provide fresh targets for their educated hatred. The degree to which these excavations are going reminds me of the German Nazis’ efforts to track down any person with a drop of Jewish blood in their veins. Such efforts deeply trouble me, but the media and Democrats are drinking it up, providing great B roll as the monuments are toppled and centuries of history abolished.

US Civil War soldier monument in western New York town square
Monuments are erected to imperfect people who accomplished amazing things, but behind every monument’s story are the stories of many other people who made the honored one’s story possible. When we tear down a monument because that person’s life no longer measures up to modern standards, we destroy all the stories and sacrifices behind it. Cancel culture’s quick willingness to apply labels to people without really knowing their stories, is destroying our stories.

Skeletons galore are being pulled from the closets of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, necessitating reassessment of their contributions to our nation’s journey. Just this week, the Capitol of Ohio, Columbus, removed a statue to its namesake. The weak leaders’ willingness to bow to the voices of a few and slay the town’s eponym without taking a vote of the people is a metaphor for the loss of freedom in our nation on this Independence Day.

Ignorant of historical context and the incredible odds against these fallen heroes, the label makers insist upon dropping these great men and women into the court of our post-modern culture. Judged according to prevailing standards, the anachronisms have no chance of a fair trial. If time ran backward, how much chance would our monuments to feminists have surviving the world of the pioneers, explorers and antebellum times?

Hatred toward the living is understandable and predictable, but this culture’s disdain for historical figures is inexcusable. We do not have a right to posthumously excise one inappropriate thread from a deceased person’s life and spin it into a monochromatic burial shroud. Nor should we trample the revered fruit of their lives under our revisionist feet, ferment the resulting juice with hate and bottle it to intoxicate the next generation.

While politicians pull on the chains that bring down these statues and monuments, they forget that their ancestors were part of these stories, as well, from the people of color who labored on their plantations to the soldiers who lost limb and life under their command. I find this offensive and disrespectful to all who gave their lives so that, ironically, the label makers have the freedom to destroy their stories. George Washington’s story is my story because my great-great-great-great grandfather served under him in the Revolutionary War. And the Civil War is my story because several of my ancestors served in and were among the 828,000 Union casualties of the war that eventually brought freedom to the enslaved, a fact conveniently ignored as monuments to these men and women are being vandalized.

sidewalk art, "tell your story"
Cancel culture ought not steal our stories, replete with bad and good. To do so is to dehumanize us.

Curiously, there are calls and plans to replace these destroyed and defaced monuments to imperfect people of the past with more monuments to flawed humans. Perhaps our generation can save future generations similar offense and trouble by insisting that monuments be raised to only perfect people, whose morals and actions will stand the test of time and moral vicissitudes. That search ought to keep the academics busy for a long time.

Two hundred years ago, society labeled and condemned the blasphemer, adulterer, drunkard, prostitute, drug addict, infidel, sluggard or murderer. All of these have taken a back seat to the labels of racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynist, male, right-wing wing nut or simply being white and of European descent. Our postmodern label makers are quick to point out the blind spots of others and award their labels with impunity and a gross ignorance of history.  They fail to see that each incarnation of progressive culture is blind to something huge, some unforeseen consequence of its activism, that one day will sully their story, as much as they would disgrace mine. Six months ago, our nation was woefully blind to the possibility of a pandemic, but here it is, sucking the life from our spirits and economy. We had a huge preparedness blind spot, and our culture has equally huge moral blind spots.

Our postmodern label makers are quick to point out the blind spots of others and award their labels with impunity and a gross ignorance of history.  They fail to see that each incarnation of progressive culture is blind to something huge, some unforeseen consequence of its activism, that one day will sully their story, as much as they would disgrace mine.

I am reminded of a stanza in Bob Dylan’s prophetic song, “The Times They Are A Changing.”

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Let me suggest the label makers’ blind spot may be the transgression of using labels to justify their own moral failures and hatred toward all who do not subscribe to their agenda. For example, the same label police who are outraged by the death of Black men at the hands of law enforcement dismiss the 295,000 abortions by Black women in 2017 as “a woman’s reproductive right.” Why did those lives not matter?

No one in the movement dare raises that question, but a future generation may look at the hypocrisy and finally mourn for the aborted lives, as well. The blind spot reveals a commonality shared by the pro-choice/pro-abortion devotees and 17th century racists that exploited the Blacks. In both cases, they used language to dehumanize the objects of their scorn so they could own a more convenient, comfortable lifestyle. The unborn, according to the abortionist, is not human, just tissue, just as Blacks were declared something less than human, mere property to be sold on an auction block and treated as any other chattel. The atrocities that the abortion doctor performs against the unborn are no different than those that were applied to the backs of the enslaved. But we justify the injustice because we label them differently. This is not a racist issue, however. It is one of the human heart, the times we live in and the people we empower to create labels.

All this labeling creates a false sense of security and righteousness that grants license to hate the racist, homophobic, pro-lifer, misogynist and transphobic, all the while presenting an outward appearance of inclusiveness, love and equality for all, except the unborn, the evangelical Christian, heterosexual, traditional marriage partners and white male. The application of labels assuages our disdain for the inconvenient truths of our times, which, if otherwise exposed, would reveal gross hypocrisies.

It is every bit as dehumanizing to reduce a person’s life, being and experiences to a single label as it is to be a racist; both transgressions ignore the sacredness of human life in all its glories and failures. Why is this glaring hypocrisy being missed? Why are the label makers not being called out, like Jesus did in his Sermon on the Mount?

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

(Matthew 7:1-6, The Message paraphrase by Eugene W. Peterson).

History is unkind to label makers. I am unaware of any monuments to Joe McCarthy. There are, however, many statues of Jesus Christ and buildings that honor the one who revealed mankind’s collective and personal “lost” and “sinful” condition. He came to show us the way to true peace and unity, died so we might have it, and gave us the sweetest labels of all: “redeemed” and “children of the Father.”

The ephemeral labels and accolades assigned by culture are fickle; the glue that holds the stickers to our names eventually dries out and the label falls off. The monuments are torn down. Only God knows the heart, and only God has the right to judge people’s motives and lives in total. And only God gives the label that will matter in eternity.

“What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it—we’re called children of God!” (I John 3:1, The Message).

Christ’s body and quid pro quo

Quid pro quo basically means that “if you this for me, I’ll do this for you.” It is what elected officials practice from the day they announce their candidacy; they promise to lower taxes, provide free medical care or higher education, increase employment opportunities jobs and spend more on the military in exchange for our vote and their job and the power, prestige and perks that come with it.

So it was that Donald J. Trump in 2016 promised white Christian evangelicals that he would stock the federal courts with conservative judges, better position the Supreme Court to rule in favor of pro-life litigants and “make America great again.” And the Christians responded, with some 80 percent of white evangelicals voting for Trump, choosing to overlook the candidate’s weak moral track record, foul language, propensity for exaggeration/boasting (aka lying) and overall disrespect for women, the poor and “foreigner.”

If there were no quid pro quo coming to the evangelicals, if Trump had been blue rather than red, it is likely Christians would have found plenty of reasons to vilify this candidate. But he offered quid pro quo, and much of the American church embraced both the candidate and the idea of being “in bed” with his power and the GOPP for the next four years.

History teaches us that these kinds of deals never work out well for Christ’s body, the church. If the church becomes so inseparably aligned with a man of power like Trump, it risks going down with the ship when the captain rams into the iceberg. To the unbelieving/skeptical population outside the body of Christ, US Christians are responsible for Trump being president, and if Trump has embarrassed nation, he has embarrassed the church, as well. Like it or not, secular media conveniently pigeonholes Christians by color and theological bent; in the mind of the media and its consumers, if the majority vote a certain way, they represent the entire body, and each and every American who calls himself “Christian” is therefore responsible for the state of things caused by the evangelicals.

Disclaimer: I did not vote for Trump, and I did not vote for Clinton. My disdain for both parties is strong enough that, unless I feel strongly about the candidate’s qualifications and character, I don’t vote for a major party candidate. Yes, that is essentially “throwing away the vote” when it comes to selecting a president. Hopefully, if enough of these votes are “thrown away,” the parties will realize there is a group of Americans who are tired of the Electoral College, the mudslinging and time and money wasted on political battles while the nation burns. Hopefully.

In November 2016 it was business as usual, however. The evangelicals apparently won the election and have received their quid pro quo. Last month, Franklin Graham and hundreds of other evangelical leaders enumerated those benefits as they stood behind their man following publication of Christianity Today’s op-ed piece questioning Trump’s morality. The president was quick to marginalize the magazine, its editor and readers.

Thus, the body of Christ in the United States has become further divided —not over doctrine, Biblical interpretation or liturgy—but whether or not a man whose entire life has been focused on acquiring worldly riches and power is saint or devil.

From a scriptural standpoint (1 Timothy 2:1-2), we are to pray for our president (“kings and all who are in high positions”), whether he is saint or devil, Republican or Democrat; regardless if a quid pro quo was won for the church (not that God really needs the actions of Donald J. Trump to accomplish his will). Further, as Christ’s representatives on this planet, we are called to be peacemakers and not give special attention to the wealthy and powerful. But the church has broken with these practices by entering this quid pro quo. And this alliance between the president and evangelicals must remain strong; Trump and his party absolutely must have a majority of the evangelical vote to win in November. But what happens after November, especially if Trump loses?

As one who has been through trauma of narcissistic abuse and emotional manipulation, I can confidently predict that the American evangelical church has positioned itself in a lose-lose situation. As I argue in my upcoming book, Compelled to Love, the relationship between the emotional abuser and his or her victim is a unique one, based entirely upon the quid pro quo agreement that forces the victim to “fall in love” with the abuser in the first place. The abuser studies his or her potential victim, makes entry into the secret places of the heart and mind and thereby reveals the deepest desires that, until meeting the narcissistic, went unfilled. Miraculously, as if an answer to prayer, the abuser sweeps into the victim’s life, bearing gifts, love, understanding, compassion and a “soul-mate” relationship. The victim is compelled to love through the abuser’s charisma, charm, promises and love.

The emotional abuser then strikes the quid pro quo deal: “Love me, marry me, follow me, and I will help you fulfill those deep desires that God placed in your heart but have been left unfilled. Trust me, my good looks, my power, my great intelligence, my connections, my money, my drive to get you what you want. In return, you must be my supporter, have my back and do whatever I tell you. Ignore my faults, not that I have any, worship me and constantly reassure me of my greatness, intelligence and impeccable character. And I will keep my part of the quid pro quo.”

“Love me, marry me, follow me, and I will help you fulfill those deep desires that God placed in your heart but have been left unfilled. Trust me, my good looks, my power, my great intelligence, my connections, my money, my drive to get you what you want. In return, you must be my supporter, have my back and do whatever I tell you. Ignore my faults, not that I have any, worship me and constantly reassure me of my greatness, intelligence and impeccable character. ”

Except it never works that way. The narcissist eventually finds a reason to devalue his partner and discard him or her. Trump has effectively already done that by discounting the critical reporting of a highly respected voice in the evangelical community, Christianity Today. If the evangelical vote fails to re-elect him and his party, the church will be blamed for losing the soul of America to liberals.

And what if he wins? What if evangelicals renew their quid pro quo agreement for another four years? For one thing, the unbelieving world will be driven even further away from the body of Christ and its blatant hypocrisy in condoning the morals of a man who is quick to dismiss political opponents as “human scum” and has a penchant for falsehoods. History has shown that whenever the body of Christ goes to bed with the Harlot Politics, the church’s message and witness suffer greatly and the blood of many martyrs is spilled in the streets.

The other fear, and I hope I am wrong on this one, is that a president acquitted by a friendly Senate and reinforced by the votes of evangelicals, will keep pushing the boundaries of the power that he imagines comes with his office. The defense that he and his GOP supporters has put forth is that no impeachable crimes were committed. If this becomes the new standard for conduct in America, if we look to a liberal interpretation of The Constitution for our new definition of morality in the land, we will have ultimately destroyed a tenet long held by the evangelicals, that there is a higher law, a God-given law, that ultimately governs us.

Evangelicals have relied upon this argument when fighting for the lives of the unborn. While our laws allow abortion and give women control over their bodies and the lives of their unborn, the evangelicals have argued that God’s law clearly states otherwise:, “Thou shalt not kill (war and slaughtered animals used to supply church dinners and Chick-fil-A restaurants, exempted, of course).” God also has a lot to say about lying and kings who abuse power for their personal gain, not to mention humility. But evangelicals still believe that legislation can change hearts, a dangerous supposition that results in strange bedfellows and dangerous quid pro quo agreements.

The narcissist lives by a personal code of ethics that floats one atom above criminal activity. The narcissist is never wrong, and he or she will have a team of followers whose whole purpose to defend that false image. The church has signed on to that team, but it has yet to realize is part of the deception.

Truth is, the narcissist loathes people who have character and morals, and the abuser takes great pleasure in manipulating them to the point that they break their personal moral code and side with the abuser’s free-wheeling attitude toward absolutes. To the narcissist, the only absolute in the moral universe is what assures his or her superiority. The narcissist is never wrong, never apologetic, never the loser. And he or she needs a cadre of followers who will support that false view no matter what the cost to this faithful following.

This is the moment of decision that the evangelical church finds itself at today. Will it continue to honor its quid pro quo with the GOP and hope that any damage done due to its image will be mitigated by victories in the courts and Senate? Or will the church have the courage to stand up and demand accountability from its leader and the rich and powerful who enable behavior that otherwise would not be tolerated by the church, behavior that necessitated the crucifixion of God’s Son as payment?

Sadly, only those who have been in and escaped a relationship with a narcissist are likely to understand just how lethal this quid pro quo is to the future of our Christianity in a nation founded on principles of justice and freedom from tyranny.

Breaking the web

He always carried a pocket knife, just as his father and grandfather had done.

His was a small one, two blades, both of which were kept sharp and ready for whatever chore befell them.

They whittled sticks onto which hot dogs and marshmallows were pushed, they scraped corrosion from battery posts, cut the tags off the new plaid, flannel shirt and extricated splinters and briers from his tough skin.

They also taught lessons about life.

One evening, when his teenage grandson was visiting from out of state, he told him they would rise early and take a walk in the meadow and forest; he had something important to show him. He’d fix them a breakfast of oatmeal and Cortland apples, then put on their dew gear and take a walk.

The taste of cinnamon and brown sugar lingering in their mouths, they left for the meadow; the man’s aged black Lab led the way down the brown path.

Neither the boy nor his grandfather said much at first. They commented on the chill, the heavy dew and how it seemed as if the dog had slowed down quite a bit from the boy’s last visit, in the spring. Seeing a gall on weed, the grandfather stopped, pulled out the knife, cut open the gall and revealed its contents. It smelled like pepper, the boy observed, and they tossed it aside and continued to walk toward the forest.

Twilight gave way to dawn. The first rays of morning crawled across the meadow. He stopped next to a tall weed onto which a web hung in the motionless air, and invited his grandson to study the complex structure. The sun was at their back, and the web, shaded from the light, appeared dull and lifeless. Then he told his grandson to walk around to the other side. A ray of amber sunlight hit the web perfectly, revealing hundreds of aquatic jewels dancing on the slight breeze.

“Perspective and light,” he said. “Remember that. If your life becomes dull and seems meaningless, try looking at it from another angle. Change your perspective. And most importantly, let the light strike it. See it in the light of God’s love.”

He pulled out his pocket knife and opened it to the small blade. Handing it to his grandson, he invited him to see how many of the connections he could break before the web collapsed.

The boy began his work of slicing through filaments. The web shuddered with the slightest touch and set loose dewy tears that crashed onto filaments below. Each additional slice of the sharp blade was more devastating than the previous to the greater web, which eventually collapsed into a mass of tears.

“I want you to imagine that this web represents our society,” he said. “That every filament that runs between the connecting points represents a relationship between two humans. Indeed, imagine that each one represents marriage, like the vows that unites your mother and father.

“When the filaments are connected, the web is strong. It can hold the burdens of life, the tears that accumulate on the web because we live in a fallen world. But did you notice that when you sliced through those filaments and destroyed the web’s foundation, those tears were released upon other strands? Eventually, when you cut through enough of the strands, the whole web collapsed.

“It’s that way in our relationships, son. When we fail to stay to connected to one another, when we fail to bear each other’s tears, we weaken the entire web. The burden of life’s sorrows and trials are just too great for society to sustain without those strong bonds and committed love.  When we go to a court of law and demand the knife of divorce be applied to a marriage, the web shudders. The emotional universe that connects us to each other and, ultimately, to God, trembles at these actions. Society is built on the concept of trust, of strong bonds that result from keeping vows—even when the weight of tears pulls the strands toward breaking

“Nothing, nobody, not even God, can reconnect strands thus severed. The once beautiful web that held both tears and jewels—it all depends on your perspective—requires commitment, emotional connection and maturity in order to stay strong. Hatred and divorce are the blades in the pocket knife.”

He wiped away the tears from his eyes, took the knife from his grandson, wiped the dew from the metal, closed it and slide it back in his pocket. The Lab nudged the man’s hand; it was time to go back to the lonely house that he bought following the divorce.

 

A garden far removed

The garden is so tired, yet the summer is not done with us, and so it attempts growth.

A green pumpkin hangs tenuously onto the fence, a withered vine feigns support. I have no idea what it keeps it alive.

A tomato plant blooms, as does a pumpkin vine far from its original planting. Bees buzz, searching for autumn pollen.

They do not know that the harvest has past. Their efforts are ceremonial, I suspect.

The yellow cherry tomatoes that, during August and September, burst before they were ripe, hang whole and deliciously on scrawny vines that droop over the wire fence. Blossoms of the garden flower mixture, 60 cents at Buck’s Hardware, press against the wires, faces gaunt and hopeful, like prisoners of war awaiting liberators. Perhaps the kitchen scissors will give them their freedom, if I can find something to hold their stems.

The fence goes back to April, a wall to protect the plot from the raccoons, ground hogs and rabbits that ravaged gardens of prior years. The old gate fell apart several weeks ago and I’ve not been of a mind to fix it. The garden is like the final act of the play, when the ticket taker retires to the back room for his Four Roses, and the passersby are free to wander in and take their pick of the entertainment, to catch the closing scene.

As far as I can tell, not one critter has bothered, save the brown snake I disturbed one day and sent him on his way. All 12 inches of him turned on me, opened wide his venom-less mouth and went on his way, and I on mine. I’ve not seen him since, yet I watch for him. I have learned to always watch for the snakes.

More threatening are the acorns. The mast is heavy this year and blankets the ground like a marble-factory truck overturned on the Interstate. The nuts are massive; they smart when they fall on my noggin and sound like gunshots when they hit the metal roofs of the garage and house. They ping and rattle down the incline six feet above my office ceiling and clog the gutters. Families of wild turkey wander in from the forest  and feast on the bounty in the driveway, where my Scion’s tires accomplished released the meat. There are white-tailed deer, as well, and I suspect they claimed one of the four golden delicious apples the adolescent tree bore this year.

This morning the breeze is warm and leaves green, I could mistake it for summer, but it is October, and a third of a way through it, at that. Uneasiness is in the air, and the heavy mast and white tips of my fingers, afflicted with Raynauld’s Syndrome, tell me a cold winter is coming.

There will be logs to cut, split and stack, leaves to rake and yard items to put away. That’s the outside work; inside myriad projects beg completion—two books to write, edit, design and publish, video projects and freelance work.

I feel like that old garden. I am hanging on to the past life of the workaday world, but my hands, the carpet of acorns and fence of dying vines tell me that world is past. I was retired in a flash, but the spots of that flash still cloud my vision and perspective. A bit of summer fans the hope that someday I will return to full-time work, but I know those hopes hang by withered vines; come the first frost, the gourd will drop to  white-crusted earth with a thud that will wake nothing, not even the snakes.

Those snakes haunt me, imprison me in my lair. They bit me so viciously in the past, I cannot help but distrust them and fear their presence. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” King David lamented. Like David, I lament, too:

This isn’t the neighborhood bully
    mocking me—I could take that.
This isn’t a foreign devil spitting
    invective—I could tune that out.
It’s you! We grew up together!
    You! My best friend!
Those long hours of leisure as we walked
    arm in arm, God a third party to our conversation.

(Psalm 55:12-14, The Message Bible)

If plants have feelings, I wonder if they will sense betrayal when I rip them from the October soil, drop their bones into the yellow wheelbarrow and add them to the compost pile? Their fruit harvested, their work done, their bodies wracked with the pain of October, devalued, discarded … “We grew up together! You! My best friend!” Will that be their lament, as it was mine?

Or perhaps, like the snakes that I fear so much, the plants don’t feel regret, pain or shame. They just slither about their kingdoms, hissing and going to and fro, seeking who they will deceive next.

If so, I elect to feel their pain. I will feel the pain of October and beyond, to the grave.

unde malum

This much I have learned, pain exists that we might understand the heart of the gardener.

We handle it better as we age, and a good thing, too, for there is much sadness and pain in this garden far removed from Eden.

In good company

Pumpkins rest on the stone wall today. Other hands built the wall, but I grew the fruit, in a garden plot a hundred feet or so south of the wall.

There are less than a dozen of pumpkins; most are small, too small for carving. One small one, perfectly shaped, made it indoors, where it will serve as decor until the weekend after Thanksgiving, assuming it lasts that long.

If I were to take this harvest to market, it would not bring enough money to justify the effort. At best, this crop is worth $8 or so. And what is $8 these days?

The dirt I grew them in cost $200 for the load, and the seeds were 33 cents. I grew other stuff in the dirt, and dirt being recyclable, the expense is a pittance for such pleasure, for I enjoy pumpkins and their company. I like their variations on orange, smooth complexion, curvaceous forms and contrasting, crusty stem. I’ve not a single bad pumpkin memory, and that’s saying something, for by the time we turn 64, we’ve accumulated painful memories of most everything. From salad bars to blue cars; from Prairie Home Companion to Mahler’s First Symphony, I’ve quite a collection. But pumpkins? Not a bad one in the patch.

Judging by the popularity of pumpkin-flavored beverages, soaps, scented candles and sweets this time of year, I am in good company in my adoration of Curcubito pepo. And while I am drinking pumpkin-spice coffee as I write this, I say let the pumpkin be a pumpkin, not a flavor (artificial, at that), color chip or scent. I even prefer my pumpkins au naturel. No face painting, no carving and no sequins or googly eyes. Born a pumpkin, died a pumpkin, not a Jack O’Lantern.

And so I plant them every year, and hope to raise a crop worthy of the stone wall. That wall is one of the reasons I stay here, in a house and yard way too large for our needs. But Ruth and I find comfort in stone and wood. Truth of the matter is, this property is a lot of work, far from her job and the county real estate, city income tax and school income tax make this an expensive place to live. But we have enough to grown pumpkins and display the harvest on a stone wall come late September, then watch as oak, magnolia and oak leaves accumulate around them until only stems are visible. There is joy in all of that.

I’ll never forget Ruth’s joy early in the summer when the first orange horns appeared on the vines, followed by the fruit. One, in particular, showed great promise, and she beamed when we pulled back the prickly leaves to reveal the perfect form taking shape in the compost. It’s hard not to love a woman who gets excited about a pumpkin being born.

We had not gotten around to the pumpkin topic when we were dating, and so it was with great relief that I discovered she enjoys the company of a few good pumpkins as much as I do. She approved my exhibition of the crop, as well.

Lined up on the wall, our harvest is safe from pumpkins smashers and thieves. I can see their noggins from my office window. And down the hill, in the enclosure where they were born and raised, their vines are brown, dry sinew, ready to be discarded. I procrastinate; I would much rather harvest pumpkins and line them up on a stone wall than deal with the withered umbilical cords.

And so I wonder if we subconsciously associate the shape of pumpkins with the womb, and thereby find comfort in their presence? I wonder they take us back to that singular season of gestation? If these premises be true, I wonder why some smash and carve pumpkins, while others are content to place them on stone walls that other hands built?

 

 

End of Line Junction Barn Quilt

Life at the End of the Line Junction

If you look closely at the roof and siding boards in the former machine shop, you’ll notice evidence of a prior life: charred sections, soot, nail holes indicative of a violent extraction.

And if you walk down the hill from this place, where East Ashtabula Street dead ends in Jefferson Village, Ohio, you’ll see through the foliage massive sandstone blocks in the stream valley.

Sandstone blocks, much smaller and inscribed, stand at this dead end in the Oakdale Cemetery.

A junction for dead ends, 150 North Market Street could be a depressing place. But the owners, Fred Bliss and Carol Utterback, welcome visitors to their “eternal life” at Dead End Junction. A barn quilt measuring 8-by-9-feet hangs on the building constructed from those second-hand boards. The theme of the barn quilt is redemption, salvation and life: A Christian cross with a descending dove to represent the Holy Spirit.

“Neither one of us is an artist,” Fred admits as he shows me the pattern he used for a dove that was cut from plywood and added to the barn quilt using brass screws. “We looked at a lot of doves before we found one we liked.”

The barn quilt expresses the couple’s Christian faith, as well as a new beginning. The Ashtabula County natives fell in love around the age of 9.

“It was puppy love,” Fred says. “But we didn’t miss a chance to be together. We used to meet at the Austinburg Skating Rink. She was always the girl for me.”

When Fred and Carol were 16 or 17 years old, they split up and went separate ways. Carol married Edward Lance Utterback on Sweetest Day, 1969. A mechanic, Edward owned the Texaco Service Station that once stood in the center of Jefferson. In 1974, he went into the excavating business, which grew to the point he needed a garage and land for his equipment. That led to the purchase, in 1978, of the North Market Street building and land. They built their house there in 1985.

Edward died April 20, 2016, at the of 73. Fred took note of the passing and wondered how his puppy-love friend was doing.

“I called her, just to make sure she was OK,” Fred says.

That call opened the door to rekindling the relationship severed back in the 1950s. In May 2017, Fred and Carol were married. Fred can’t help  but feel it was God bringing things full circle at the End of the Line.

He and Carol went to work on the property, clearing decades of mud and stuff from the garage. As is often the case in life, when clutter is cleared, the treasure of heritage emerges. Carol’s research into the building revealed that the previous owner constructed it from reclaimed lumber that came from the New York Central roundhouse in Ashtabula. Constructed in 1906 as part of a massive NYC expansion on the lakefront, the roundhouse stood on West Avenue and was reported to be the second largest in the world.

The advent of diesel locomotives in the early 1950s quickly antiquated the roundhouses. The NYC’s at Ashtabula was razed in 1953, and the lumber was evidently made available to whoever could use it. The soot, charring and prior nail holes on the boards attest to its prior environment.

 

Charred boards with nail holes tell a story of recycling. The boards came from a NYC roundhouse in Ashtabula, razed in 1953.

This discovery was significant for Carol; she comes from a family of railroaders. Her late father, Carl A. Martin, who lived south of Jefferson, worked at the NYC Collinwood Yards in Cleveland. And all his sons worked for the railroad.

The building’s NYC connection fit the landscape around this place, as well. When the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad decided to build a line from its mainline to Ashtabula Harbor, it also built a line from Ashtabula to Franklin, Pa., to connect to the coal fields. This line was called the Ashtabula & Franklin High Grade, or J&F (Jefferson and Franklin) Branch of the NYC. These lines went into service in 1873. (A low-grade line was built in the early 1900s to shorten the route and provide relief for passenger trains on the busy railroad. The high-grade line is used by the Ashtabula, Carson & Jefferson Railroad.)

The high grade trestle in Jefferson, Ashtabula & Franklin Division, LS&MS Railroad. Photo source: Jefferson Historical Society

At Jefferson the high-grade line had to cross a ravine in Oakdale Cemetery. A wooden trestle was constructed, along with a stone culvert to handle the flow of a Mill Creek tributary.

In August 1899 the trestle was the site of a train wreck that was the “end of the line” for the trestle. The wreck occurred amid a labor dispute. A scab brakeman fell asleep at his post and failed to heed the signal from the engineer, who saw the collision coming.

A south-bound train had stopped north of the trestle and unhooked its string of freight cars. The engine was thus freed to proceed to take on water at the depot, across the trestle. The engineer of the north-bound train saw the idled cars ahead of him and signaled for the brakeman to stop the locomotive. The snoozing scab didn’t respond, and the north-bound engine struck the locomotive that had arrived at the depot. It pushed the behemoth into the rail cars; the impact buckled the trestle. Freight cars and locomotives spilled into the ravine

The damaged trestle had to be removed and the ravine was filled with stone and slag to create the rail bed that exists to this day. Photo source: Jefferson Historical Society.

All personnel on the trains were able to jump from the engines and cars before the collision, so there was no loss of life. The railroad decided to fill the ravine with stone and dirt rather than build another trestle. A detour required a month to build and it took a year to fill ravine with slag from Youngstown steel mills and stone from the Windsor quarry. Irish laborers performed much of the work.

As a tribute to the spot’s and family’s railroading traditions, Carol and Fred put a metal pole at the end of the driveway and placed on it a railroad crossing sign, antique finale and flashing signal, which will be electrified and functional (no gate, however).

Fred says he’s doing these things as an acts of love for the woman he always knew “was for him.”

“It’s for Carol. She wanted to have the sign and call this place the End of the Line Junction,” Fred says.

The barn quilt also is for Carol.

“I enjoy looking at them as we drive through the countryside,” she says.

Fred designed, built and painted the barn quilt, which was raised on Labor Day, 2018. He and Carol hope it will draw visitors into the history of the region and the fascinating section of Oakdale Cemetery across their driveway.

Stephen Asa Northway’s grave, and the monument to his wife, are among the interesting stones at “The End of the Line Junction,” Oakdale Cemetery, Jefferson, Ohio. Photos by Carl E. Feather

The stones mark the graves of prominent lawmakers of the 19th century. Abolitionist Representative Joshua Giddings rests here, as does his former law partner and US senator, Benjamin Wade. Family members surround the men’s substantial monuments. The unusual large rock monument to Stephen Asa Northway—a state representative, US congressman, scholar and lawyer—and the metal sculpture of a Greek female figure, are among the unusual monuments in this section. Near the edge of the ravine is the grave of Charley Garlick, the former slave who fled from a plantation in western Virginia, served in the Civil War and lived out the remainder of his life in the Giddings Law Office. And across a small ravine that holds an underground, walk-in crypt is the stone for the child who was the cemetery’s first burial, in 1812.

They all rest here, at the End of the Line Junction. Yet the barn quilt and couple’s story of re-kindled romance suggests endings are only beginnings cloaked in suffering and grief. That a cross somehow pulls together all these stories and gives us hope amid the tears.

What a strange paradox, this spinning junction pieced by a cross.

A newer stone marks the grave of the first recorded burial in the cemetery, Timothy Hawley, a 3-year-old.

 

Life’s wrinkles get ironed out with prayer, steam

I still use the same ironing board I used from my childhood home.

Growing up in a house with 5 brothers I learned to iron shirts at an early age. I was very young when my mother showed me how to use an iron. I remember that I had to stand on a chair to see what I was doing. I was not quite tall enough at the time. During my first lesson my mother taught me how to iron my father’s handkerchiefs. He had the big red patterned ones for work and smaller white ones that I think he used on days when he didn’t work. I am not sure why a man would need a wardrobe of handkerchiefs.  But I do remember that it took me all day to press about a week’s worth of them. We called them hankies back then. I don’t think they are used very much today. In today’s disposable society, I guess tissues are standard.

Thinking back, I may have pressed each one more than once. I thought it was fun. But I mastered that assignment and I was ready for more. Remember, I was young; I didn’t realize what was in store for me. Back then everything was made of cotton and dried on the clothesline. This made for plenty of ironing.

The next day I moved on to learn how to iron a man’s shirt. I was so proud to show her how well I had done. Little did I know that as of that day it would be my responsibility.  I remember feeling special because she never showed my brothers how to do this. In my young mind I considered it a privilege to iron clothes.  I felt I was helping my mother and that was a good feeling for a little girl who so wanted to please. That lesson has stuck with me for several decades. I still iron shirts the same way today. The only difference is modern fabrics. They do not need as much attention as they used to require.

Thankfully I do not need to stand on the chair anymore.

Of all the things that need to be done around the house, I do not consider ironing a chore. I find it very relaxing. Perhaps it helps this recovering perfectionist make wrinkled things crisp and neat. I really don’t know but, on some level, it brings me pleasure. Monday evening, I found myself, once again, ironing clothes. I thought about how I really enjoy the time I spend ironing Carl’s shirts. I know that it sounds crazy, but I do enjoy that time spent with the Rowenta and the antique ironing board that once belonged to my mother.

Several weeks ago, I was planning my day and setting aside the time I needed to get the ironing done. I started thinking about all the downloaded sermons and Podcasts I seem to collect and never find time to listen to them.  I had a plan for the afternoon and decided to start catching up on my audio treasures. Soon after getting started, I found that my mind was wandering from listening and I found myself thinking about the person that would be wearing the clothes I was ironing. I thought about my husband and how nice he looks each day when he goes off to work. I started picturing Carl in each shirt and I started thinking about how I always want him to look his best. I realized how important it is to me that everyone he meets knows that there is someone at home who loves and cares for him.

This was the moment that I began to pray while ironing his shirts. Sometimes, during this time, I get so involved and deep in thought that I get startled if an animal or person walks in the room. Of course, to the person walking in the room it must seem strange that I would be surprised. It looks like I am just ironing. Why on earth would I jump?  I just seem to get into the process and become oblivious to everything else around me. Just me talking to God and ironing shirts.

I pray for the day he chooses to wear each shirt that I am ironing. Asking God to watch over him and to give him wisdom and to protect him from all harm. I pray that he will have a good day and that maybe God will use him in some way that day. I know it sounds strange, but it has become an important time for me.  I understand that the shirts themselves have no power. But I believe that God does hear and answers our prayers. In fact, He wants us to ask. Even though He knows the desires of our hearts, He wants to us to ask in faith and believe. So, each time I heat up my trusty Rowenta and start ironing Carl’s shirts, God is going to be hearing from me.

 

Spiritual lessons from a prodigal dog

My  mother passed away Monday evening (January 29, 2018).

I had visited with her earlier in the day, and I knew her time with us was very short. She had run the race, the finish line was near. 85 years. She was tired. She was ready to go home.

The next two days were a swirl of details as we prepared for a private family viewing and service on Thursday. My mother wanted it that way. She always said calling hours have turned into parties these days. And she didn’t want a bunch of people staring down at her as she lay sleeping. I can’t argue with those things. And we honored her wishes.

I was comforted by the knowledge that my mother trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and had walked with him throughout her life. She would be with mother and father, both of who passed away far too early in life. It had been 50 years since Mom’s father died. Still, the weight of grief pulled upon my shoulders and heart.

On Wednesday morning I went about the usual morning ritual of feeding the two dogs and three cats, putting the two dogs out for their morning business and getting this body ready for public display. We live on two acres with a woods and creek on the back side of our lot and no neighbors for several hundred yards. I usually just let the dogs out to roam the yard. It was cold and snowy Wednesday morning, and they aren’t that fond of either one, so I knew they would be barking to come back inside within a few minutes.

Brody was first to bark. He’s the old black Lab and he loves his creature comforts. I brought him in and called for Polly, but she didn’t come running around the corner of the house and bounding up the steps like she usually does. I didn’t think much of it. She enjoys a good roll in fresh snow.

Five minutes passed and I went back to the door to get Polly. I called for her and stepped outside to see if she’d gone into the front yard, but there was no response.

I made the coffee and went back to the door. Again, no Polly. I began to worry. It was 5:30 a.m. and nothing was stirring out there. What could have happened to her?

I donned boots and coat and went searching the yard for her. Nothing. No response to my calls. Next came the high-beam LED lantern, and a more thorough search of the yard and neighbor’s yards. Not a sign of her.

Afraid that she’d crossed the road and went into the neighborhood where we walk her, I got in the car and started driving the area.

Not a sign of her.

This continued until it was time to leave for work. With a heavy heart made even heavier by the anxiety of having my beautiful, black, flat-coated retriever missing, I went to work. On the way into the courthouse, I saw the dog warden and told her about the missing Polly. She put a lost-dog notice on her Facebook page and made a list of suggestions for finding her. I called the city police and alerted them to look for her, went to the Animal Protective League shelter to see if she’d been brought in and put a notice on the radio station.

I printed posters and distributed them to neighbors, searched the ravine behind our house in case she’d fallen into it and gotten trapped under brush. After work, Ruth and I went to numerous neighbors’  houses and talked to them in case they’d seen Polly. She had disappeared without a trace.

It made no sense. Polly is a one-family dog. She has anxiety issues and is very afraid of noises, strangers and being alone. She’s my shadow around the house. If a stranger knocks on the door, she goes around and around in circles and barks. She loves being indoors. It just didn’t make sense that she’d run away, especially on a cold morning, or would have gotten into a stranger’s car. But where was she?

I took Thursday off for Mom’s funeral. The grief was crushing for both Ruth and I. The pain of loss was doubled by the anxiety of losing a very sweet canine member of our family.

Someone posted on the dog warden’s Facebook page that a black dog had been seen entering a cemetery drive about a half-mile from our house, on the other side the ravine, the morning she disappeared. I immediately jumped on the lead and drove around Pleasantview Cemetery before going to the funeral services. I spent an hour up there calling her name and walking the deep ravine that surrounds the place. I saw footprints of a dog, but no Polly.

After the services and dinner, I returned to the cemetery. A cold wind was blowing from the northwest and the temperature falling rapidly. The forecast was for a single-digit night. But no Polly.

I slept fitfully thinking about her. Many scenarios tortured my mind, none of them pleasant. My comfort was that perhaps someone had found her and given her a warm home for the night. I thought I heard dog barking throughout the night, and got up to check the side door to see if she was out there, going around in circles and barking to come in. But it was only a neighbor’s dog, or my imagination.

Friday was a combination of taking care of some work appointments and searching for Polly. Feeling that my father might appreciate the opportunity to take his mind off the grief, I enlisted him to assist. He drove the neighborhood for three hours. But no Polly.

Friday evening, as darkness enveloped the cottage, the heaviness of heartbreak and loss settled upon us like the falling temperatures. Ruth and I sat in front of the wood stove and played a game of Scrabble, but my mind was on Polly.

About 7 p.m., my cell phone rang. It was the police dispatcher. “Are you still missing a black dog?” My heart raced. I feared the next words would be “We found one dead alongside the road.”

That’s the INFJ, always thinking the worst.

But the news was hopeful. An officer, patrolling the cemetery after dark,  had seen a black dog running lose in it, but the dog would not come to him. The dog ran into the woods and disappeared. She suggested we check it out.

Ruth and I were on our way within a minute. She grabbed some dog bones, and I the lantern.

We drove around the large area with windows rolled down and calling Polly’s name. I drove toward the back, where I’d seen paw prints in the snow two days earlier. Nothing.

I stopped the car and we got out. Shining the lamp toward the center of the cemetery, Ruth caught a glimpse of movement. It was Polly, and she was running full speed away from us.

I made a beeline to intersect her while Ruth jumped in the car and headed toward the front of the cemetery. As I closed in her toward the edge of the ravine, she disappeared into the murky forest. I walked the ravine begging her to come back. Suddenly she reappeared about 50 feet from me. I froze, got down on my knees and allowed her to slowly approach the light. By then, Ruth had arrived with the car and treats. It was a joyful reunion.

Polly was cold, exhausted and starved, but showed no sign of injury. Back home, she gulped down water and food, then settled into a long nap by the fire.

Ruth and I thanked God that our prayers had been answered and we’d just witnessed a miracle. As we lay in bed that night, reflecting and talking, I sought a deeper meaning in all that had occurred.

Metaphor number one was that I found comfort in the picture God had just painted so vividly using my love for Polly as an example. My mother was safe, at home and with her family who’d gone on before her. For several days she had wondered in that middle ground between life and death. The light came into the darkness, and at first it scared her, just as the headlights of our car and the beam of the lantern had spooked Polly. Torn between life and death, my mother struggled toward the light.

A tender, caring voice was calling her. The voice of one who wanted to take her to a place of rest. And she followed.

I thought of Polly resting comfortably and without care in front of the fire, and I saw a comforting picture of my mother, at rest, loved, forever secure. She will never have to wander the cemetery of this life again.

I also saw a metaphor for God’s love for me. For many years, I saw God as an angry deity always ready to punish us when we went astray. “Bad things happen when we disobey God.” That was the message drummed into my head for years by preachers who knew much of God’s anger and righteousness but little of his grace and mercy.

In the image of my relentless search for Polly, I saw an example of unconditional love seeking those who belong to him but have gone astray. I was putting all my time and resources on the line to find her, to rescue her from certain death. Yes, she had disobeyed and ran off to pursue her own interests. At first, the adventure must have been grand, but then it turned to loneliness and confusion, and ended in a place of death, separation from her family and their love.

She felt alone, no doubt, but I was looking for her, and I would not give up I kept returning to that place of death into which she had wandered, hoping that she would hear my voice and return.

And so it is with God. He keeps coming back to find us when we go astray. He knows that we are lonely, cold, scared and full of anxiety, despite how much “fun” we are having on our excursion into the world, away from the safety of home. He seeks us, he calls for us, he shines his light toward us. Yet we turn and run away, out of fear that he wants to punish us with those arms, rather than welcome us home as the prodigal son.

Eventually we can run no more. We are famished from trying to subsist on the empty calories of this world. And we bow down, expecting a whip across our back. Rather, we feel a hand of love, the hand of a father. We expect punishment, we receive grace. We expect expulsion, we receive a ride home. We expect a night in the dungeon, we’re given an honored spot on the carpet in front of the fire, covered with blanket, pampered with a pillow.

Love never fails. It seeks the lost and forgives; it seeks the best for us, even in the midst of pain and loss. His love never fails. But I would not begin to understand the depth of that love if I first had not felt the pain of loss and loneliness of losing a loved one, a family member. God longs for us to come home to him and prepares a place for us. If I can love a dog this much, how much more does God love my mother, love me? I can only begin to fathom it with the shallowness of a human heart.

I wonder why I had to suffer three days of separation from Polly, why the anxiety and agony of worry had to be added to the grief of losing a parent? And then it occurred to me how long God has to wait for us to turn around and come back to him. A week? A year? A decade? God is patient for us to get our priorities right and does not give up on us while we go astray. Yet when he does not answer our prayers pronto, in our time frame, we lose patience with him.

There is much to be learned of God in grief and loss. And in coming home.

Polly enjoys the comforts of home after three days and two nights on the run.

 

End of life decisions

So today I watched my father sign the paperwork that places my mother’s quality of life in the hands of Hospice workers.

It was meeting I never wanted to have. No child wants that, no spouse wants that.

Yet, no spouse or child wants to see their loved one cry in pain and beg for relief.

My mother, 85, has known so much pain in her life. I’ve seen her suffer through eye ulcers, bursitis, a knee replacement, colon cancer/surgery, gall bladder attacks/surgery, a torturous foot condition that required surgery, bowel-obstruction surgery, baker’s cyst, broken hip/surgery, arthritis, infections and many of the prosaic pains that come with living in a fallen world. And I am certain there have been others that have gone unnoticed by a son often too occupied with living.

And then there was the pain of bringing me into the world. Whether we like it or not, we all have a hand in the pain and suffering of others, even those closest to us, people we dearly love.

I want her pain to end. I want her to never have another day of pain in her life. Don’t we all want that for those we love? And so we make hard decisions. We watch our father cry. We cry. We sign.

And we think about our own mortality. We think about the day we may have to do the same thing for our spouse. Or when the spouse does that for us.

These events spark conversation, the kind that occurs at the end of the waking day, when the lights are off and you hold each other tight and thank God for giving you each other and for being pain free at the moment, at least free of physical pain. You talk in whispers and with damp eyes, with hugs and snuggles. The comfort of knowing that this person next to you is in it for life, in it for the long haul. The sweetness of knowing that no matter what, there is someone there who understands you and is your champion and your friend, who won’t sell you out for a career or promotion, for membership in a big-fish/small-pond good-old-boys and girls club. Someone who understands the sacredness of the marriage vow.

That’s what I’ve seen my parents model for 65 years. They’ve had incredibly tough times in their lives. This is one of them. But they are still holding hands. The metal bar of the hospital bed may separate their bodies, but their souls, nothing is going to separate them.

It’s all on the line for each other. Always has been. And today, Dad signed on the lines. Form by form, he did, we did, what we thought best for “Tick.”

I find myself living day by day these days. We celebrate when Mom does not have pain, when she sips water, when she is able to look at pictures of the wedding or just out the window at the snow. I wait for the report every morning from her bedside, as my father reports on her night and condition upon arriving at the nursing home, then her afternoon later in the day. We live day by day, and some days hour by hour.

She begs to go home. I can’t blame her. Other than “wife” and “husband,” I don’t think there’s a sweeter word in the language than “home.”

At the end of the day, we all want to go home. We all want to know there is a place where love, the familiar and rest await us. To be surrounded by our stuff, the things that remind us of our story or are stories themselves. The familiar sounds, smells and patterns of light that play across the hardwood floor in ways unique to our home and setting. There is only one place like home, and on our sick bed or death bed, it is the place we long to be.

All of this is a shadow, I remind myself. For those who follow Christ, our real home can never be here, and our longing not for this world but the eternity where he is found. Sick or healthy, living or dying, our deepest longing is to be with him and in the place he prepared for us,  beyond the shadows.

The movement of our pen across the paper casts a double shadow, resignation on the one side, compassion on the other. We sign the papers knowing this is best for our loved one, that the pain of loss in this world will be forgotten in the next. Tears will be dried. Love perfected. Painkillers and the paperwork required to get them will be unnecessary.

Death is but a shadow of the journey.

 

 

 

On being INFJ

All my life I have felt weird, out of place. Like a dust bunny in an operating suite. A vegetarian at a Texas barbeque. A lifetime WCTU member at a distiller’s convention.

The rest of the world was having fun, I observing, thinking about what was going on; feeling the sound waves, but never hearing the sound; sensing the emotions of the room, but never engaged in them; watching the shadow move across the time dial, but sensing the absence of having lived under the sun that cast it.

I was labeled “shy,” “distant,” “quiet” and “aloof.” At a party – to which I am rarely invited – I’d rather be in a corner with a book or hiding behind a camera than at the center with a drink in my hand.

It’s been this way since I was old enough to remember sadness. I cried when my goldfish died and went into a serious depression when they hauled the cow away and it came back wrapped in white paper stacked in freezer. When an old man ran out of candy one Halloween night and had to give pennies, instead, I asked my mother if I could take it back to him, afraid he might need it for food.

My teachers called me “sensitive,” the kids called me “sissy.” Childhood was hard, and I spent most of it watching clouds, doing chemistry experiments and trying to remember where I’d just come from and why I was here.

As I got older, it got worse. I was the shy nerd in high school, my heart yearning for love but my nose too long and hair too short to attract it. It was the late 1960s, after all, and long hair was a sure sign of rebellion, if not outright Satanic possession. You talked to only Christian girls, and they talked to only cool Christian jocks and pastor’s sons who were heading off to Bible college to become just like Dad.

In adulthood being odd was no longer an option; to make a living, you have to fit in, even if you stick out. Words beckoned, written words. An INFJ will take an hour writing a letter that a phone call could resolve in 30 seconds. Forty-five years later, I am writing to you.

I was out of place wherever I went. The pitter patter of polite conversation was so much rain on my roof, lulling me to sleep, boredom. Last night’s ball game, the grandkids’ report card, the hunting expo … I retreated … It was not that I had nothing to say; to the contrary, there was much below the surface and poker face. But who would want to listen?

On a rare occasion, someone would listen, and it was wonderful. We would start to talk and discover were on the same page, sentence and comma, where life paused, esoteric topics were germane and questions asked with expectation of answers.

I was in my late 50s when the mystery began to unravel and discovered that my personality is INFJ.

The revelation came by taking a personality test. The result is based upon the Briggs-Myer Type Indicator (BMTI), which proposes 16 distinct personalities based upon the four criteria that Jung developed. So my type is Introvert-Intuitive-Feeling-Judge.

It is the rarest of the personalities. Less than 2 percent of the whole population have it, and it is even rarer among men.

I want to be clear about something: I do not consider myself “special” because of my type. At the root of it all, I’m still a sinner saved by grace, schooled by pain and soothed by love. My operating system is the righteousness of Christ imputed through his sacrifice. But the software, it is INFJ, and it determines what this human heart is capable of doing and how this human mind perceives reality.

For example, INFJ people love deeply and can be happy with  just one friend, one deep relationship, whereas most people measure relationship success with the number of friends they have on Facebook.

Once an INFJ comes to trust someone, he or she is in it for life. They constantly believe the best about the other person, even if the evidence points to something else. They make dedicated, loyal and committed spouses; they find no joy in sleeping around or one-night stands. Sex transcends the physical; it is more than two bodies coming together, it is two souls.

An INFJ is glued to his or her spouse. He or she won’t let go, no matter how many times they are hurt. They are stubborn lovers and the only deal breaker is breaking up itself. They dive in with their whole heart, and if the other person can’t do that, the effect is devastating.

If the relationship breaks down, and the INFJ’s partner walks away, it is seen as an act of treason and violence against the fabric of the universe. We trust completely, and when that trust is shattered, we feel like a 10,00o-piece jigsaw puzzle tossed into outer space. The pieces, we are certain, will never come back together. All is lost.

INFJs are intensely empathetic;  as weird as this seems to most people, we feel other people’s emotions. Sometimes, when I walk in my neighborhood, I sense what is going on in a stranger’s house and have to stop and pray about it.

We are old souls, we feel like we have been around this block one too many times. We’ve felt every grief and joy known to mankind, and we are so tired of the pain. We long for love’s balm and sacrifice everything when we feel connection finally occurred. My daily prayer is “Dear God, do not let me die until I have fully lived and really loved.” And I mean it.

When the connection longed for all those years and decades turns out to be but a crossed wire, our confidence in our intuition, as well as all humanity, implodes. Yet another reason that healing from a broken relationship is so very difficult for an INFJ.

Everything about us is a paradox. We want to love but are scared to death of love because we hurt so deeply when it goes wrong. We want to be with other people, but the introvert keeps us from reaching out. And when we are with people who engage in idle chit-chit, we just want to retreat into that corner with a book and our thoughts.

The empathy in us makes it impossible to understand how a person who we trusted and loved can break a commitment and walk away.  Competing emotions well up – anger for the pain inflicted even as we feel empathy for the person who is walking away from the riches of human love that could have been theirs.

We linger in the shadows far too long, and the shadows often becomes our graves. We relive every failure and keep a ledger of the mistakes that killed the relationship. We step back and see a long row of words, phrases and dates under our name.

Everything is our fault. And that makes us a perfect target for those who are perfect, who have no sense of accountability to a partner. Our favorite expression is “I’m sorry.”

We are quick to take the blame and fix the ills of the relationship, as well as the world.

We are dreamers, artists and visionaries. We are passionate about human and animal rights; we can’t stand to see an injustice occur, unless it is to ourselves, and then we think it is O.K. because, after all, we are at fault and we are sorry.

We think all the time. Even when we sleep. I never wake up rested. I wake up probably 50 times a night, and each time I wake up, a thought is there. Usually about loss, pain or a concern; seldom about a blessing.  My first wife always said my mind never shut down. If I was quiet, which I usually was, she knew something was being created inside my head, and I could not wait until whatever we were doing to be over so I could act on those thoughts.

We are never satisfied with what we create, however. We can never step back and see the beauty or grace in it. We see only the speck of dirt in the paint, the misspelled word in the book, the misplaced comma. We expect perfection and find only our imperfect selves.

Accordingly, God frustrates us. We can’t understand why the rest of the church equates experiencing God to emotions. Isn’t there some factual perfection that we ought to be able to discover in him? Why does an eternal God who is said to be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow act with such serendipity, saving one relationship or life here, allowing another to wither or die there, despite fervent prayer? Our favorite word in just about any discussion is “why,” but especially so in things theological, probably the worst possible venue in which to ask “why?”

Like answers to theological riddles, the things we long for more than anything else elude us: deep conversation that goes late into the night and a loving relationship that grows more loving and deeper with each passing day. The INFJ would trade his soul, and often does, for those two things. And when the tradeoff turns out to have been as phony as free healthcare, we grieve deeply. Not just for our loss, but for that of the person who could not see the value in what was being offered.

We retreat to our books, our thoughts, our private space that we cherish so deeply. Chances are, there is not a lot of stuff in that space, but what there is of it is very, very special to us. It tells our story, and typically exudes craftsmanship, quality and beauty. We’d rather have one high-quality thing than 20 mediocre objects, unless they are books, records, stones, sea shells, driftwood, dogs or cats. Then we are hoarders.

In my life, I have felt great unrest in my relationship with things. My parents and first wife found great comfort in collecting. I followed in their steps, but found it so exhausting. I was minimalist living in a big box version of Goodwill, Salvation Army and the neighborhood thrift store rolled into one.

That is changing.

As I write this, my kitchen floor is covered with stuff I’ve collected. I’m sorting it, selling it, letting it go. My spirit is soaring as I do. That piece of concrete I’ve carried on my back for decades is getting lighter. Perhaps, if I am fortunate enough, it will turn to sand and roll off and I will fly away to that perfect place that every INFJ dreams about, where it is just me, nature, beauty, space to create and that one incredible person love ever so deeply – soulmate.

Just knowing who I am and why I have felt so weird and out of place all these years, why previous relationships didn’t work and why I got hurt so deeply by them, has been liberating. Why don’t they teach this stuff in junior high? Why don’t we focus on helping kids figure out who they are before we start pushing them into societal molds? If we did that, there would be fewer suicides, fewer addictions and fewer divorces. We’d have a road map to ourselves and to understanding why we do the things we do. More importantly, we’d learn that other people do not think like us or feel as intensely, and we have no right to expect them to do so. We’d learn to respect each other.

Imagine that, respecting each other’s differences without labeling them weird, sissy or nerd.

As I said, INFJs are dreamers.