the state of our nation

I mowed the lawn today. I played outside with my daughter and watched a movie with my husband. I saw some friends. I wrote. I laughed. I enjoyed a truly delicious cookie. I read a book in my feather-soft bed. And I thought about the state of our nation.

The problem is: I don’t know what to think about the state of our nation.

With an abundance of information and misinformation spreading faster than it can possibly be absorbed, I feel bogged down by opinions. So bogged down, in fact, that I don’t always know what my own opinion is. Someone is always telling me what to think and everyone disagrees. I’m overwhelmed by constant political posts on social media, each disagreeing with the last, many claiming to be inclusive and willing to engage in friendly political discourse, and then quickly falling into political battle. (And do we really expect someone will emerge the victor?)

Every time I get online or turn on the TV, I have to suit up, to put on my metaphorical armor and prepare myself for the onslaught. Which friend will say something inflammatory today? Which will be cruel? Which will mock another for their beliefs? Which will shame their peers?

It’s a world I don’t want to be part of.

I don’t have all of the facts. I have pieces of information: the reactionary information carefully (or not) doled out by the media, the (unclassified) bread crumbs allotted by the government, (seriously) biased articles placed on Facebook acting as canon, but in truth, I have almost nothing at all. I try to remember this when I read this post from the left or that article from the right. I don’t know it all. I probably don’t know anything at all. So I do what I shouldn’t and I try (unsuccessfully) not to think about it at all.

Because I’m afraid to.

Because what if I’m wrong? What if my real thoughts ruin our friendship? What if I don’t know what I’m talking about? What if you don’t know what you’re talking? And, worst of all, what if I just wind up contributing to the problem?

So I don’t talk about it. Not much. Not unless I’m in the mood to be crucified. Instead, I make dinner. I dance in the kitchen with my family. I cuddle with my daughter. I work on my novel. I talk to my husband. I laugh with my sister. I sing “Mermaid” as a little one’s eyes close. I fold my hands as I lay in my feather-soft bed and I pray about the state of our nation.

Advertisements

I Gotcha

I’ve always known I believed in God, but there were plenty of times when that meant little more than an occasional fervently whispered prayer when I needed something. I’d engage in religious debates with other Christians – Christians much more learnèd and devout – and non-believers alike, but I didn’t know much beyond what I’d learned through years of religious classes. I didn’t really seek to know God.

My faith hasn’t grown deep and true in churches or on prayer kneelers. It’s grown slowly, over the course of the past couple of years, in hospitals and on winding mountain roads.

When cancer struck, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t understand how or WHY something so terrible could happen to Casey – to us. I was angry and confused and hurt. So I prayed, but I didn’t hear anything. For a long time after that, I was indifferent. I didn’t hate God. I didn’t turn away from Him. He just wasn’t a priority.

Then things got bad – really, really bad.

Visit after visit we received terrible news. The cancer had spread to his brain. The cancer had grown in his lung. The cancer had spread to the other lung. Shingles covered his right leg and the pain was excruciating; he could barely walk. We were defeated. We were lost. We were broken.

We went on vacation – just the two of us – in an attempt to forget, to heal, and to rest. While we were there, we stumbled on a beautiful little chapel. We drove past, in a hurry to play, and forgot about it. We passed it again on our way back. Compelled to enter, even as a vicious storm brewed, we stopped and walked and prayed. Then we called my dad and shared the photos and mostly forgot about it.

The next week, on our way to an appointment, I asked Casey what cancer had done to his faith. He said, “nothing good.” I asked him if he was angry with God and he nodded, nearly in tears. I wanted to comfort him, to whisper, “I gotcha.” But I didn’t think words would help. Anxious and afraid and desolate, neither of us spoke for the rest of the drive.

That day we got our first bit of good news. The radiation had begun to shrink the brain tumors.

Some of the tightness in my chest eased and I felt a glow of warmth I could barely begin to understand. Though of course I knew this meant the medicine was finally working, I didn’t think it was a coincidence that it was this particular medicine or this particular time.

A few weeks later, a friend from my dad’s church, moved by dad’s prayers during rosary, shared his own experiences with cancer. He gave my dad a bottle of holy water and a container of holy dirt and asked him to give them to us. We could sprinkle it on Casey, blend it as a smoothie, leave it on our mantle, pray over it. It was ours to use as we pleased, but he gave it to us to use in good faith. We accepted gratefully.

Both sat on our mantle for over a week as we thought about it. We finally made the decision to use them. Zoey and I rubbed the water and dirt on Casey’s chest, leg, and head – everywhere the cancer and pain was worst. Then we bowed our heads and prayed together.

A few weeks later, we got more good news. The tumor in his right lung was gone. The tumors in his left were shrinking.

We were overjoyed. Casey danced. I laughed. We both cried.

God was everywhere in this. It was like He’d reached out, wrapped His giant, celestial arms around us, and held us. We basked in His warmth and more of the tightness eased. We were finally able to breathe again.

We started talking about going back to church, something we’d done off an on since we’d been together. Church was tricky for us – I was raised Catholic and he’d been raised Lutheran, but what we wanted was a church we felt comfortable attending together. It was a struggle. I felt comfortable in the Catholic Church, but didn’t agree with or believe in all of its teachings. He didn’t feel at home or at peace there. We argued about it, prayed about it, struggled with it. We knew we needed to find a church, needed to raise our daughter knowing God, but we didn’t know how.

On a whim, one Saturday (after yet another church-related argument), we decided to try our friends’ church. I was convinced I wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t feel comfortable, wouldn’t want to return.

I was wrong.

God was everywhere. He was in the people, in the music, in the sermon. He spoke to me.

I thought it was a fluke, but had nothing to lose so we went back the next week.

I was wrong again.

God’s presence was even stronger this time and I knew, I just knew He was speaking to us. I could feel Him pressing on my heart. I felt safe. Loved. Comforted. Peaceful. Joyful.

I felt like I was home.

We went back to the doctor yesterday and heard more good news. The tumors continue to shrink. The medicine continues to work. The cancer is under control.

God is with us.

All this time, He’s been with us. Even when we didn’t listen, didn’t see, didn’t care, He’s been there. He’s just been waiting for us to hear Him saying, “I gotcha.”

Fear

I’m afraid of the dark – I always have been. I never knew why or what triggered the fear, possibly an overactive imagination and too many novels, possibly just the fact that I was a kid, but I rarely went to sleep fear-free. For years, I leapt on and off my bed to avoid the Purple People Eater any creeps that might be lurking beneath it, ready to kill me.

In order to stave off some of the fear, I convinced myself that if I did things just so, no harm would come to me. And so, every night I checked the closet and closed the door. I refused to look into mirrors when the lights were out. I pulled my blanket up to my chin, believing that anyone who wanted to hurt me (presumably by cutting off my head) wouldn’t do so if my neck were covered. No one wants a partial head, amirite? I didn’t get out of bed unless I had to use the bathroom and I refused to turn lights on if I did for fear of seeing something I shouldn’t. And when all else failed, when fear still plagued me, I closed my eyes and prayed.

It didn’t matter what I said, but I would usually wind up repeating the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary over and over, the familiar words and repetition calming me enough that my stomach muscles unclenched, I was able to breathe normally, and I’d eventually drift off to sleep. Nothing could harm me so long as I was praying.

The next night, the cycle would start all over again. I was afraid of lots of things as a kid – Bloody Mary (not the Queen of England, the mirror one), ghosts (though I wasn’t sure I believed in them), evil things that lived under my bed (thanks, Poltergeist), clowns (thanks again, Poltergeist). Those were the times I couldn’t wait to grow up because grown-ups don’t have irrational fears. Grown-ups aren’t afraid of the dark. Grown-ups are strong.

Unfortunately, my fears didn’t magically disappear when I grew up. They merely changed.

As a young adult, I was afraid I wouldn’t find the Right Guy, that I wouldn’t find a job, that I couldn’t do the job I found, that I’d never be a successful writer.

As a newlywed, I was afraid to be apart from my Right Guy, afraid that we would never stop fighting, afraid that I’d drive him away with my never-ending tears.

As a pregnant woman, I was afraid of birth defects, being a bad mom, being a mom at all, labor, missing life before baby everything.

As a mom, I’m afraid that she’ll grow up too fast, afraid of the moment she gets hurt, really hurt, afraid of mean girls and meaner boys, of the moments she’s sad or hurt or broken and I can no longer fix it with a hug and the Minion movie.

I thought I knew fear then. Until cancer. I’ve never been afraid of anything more than cancer. Because no matter how many times I check the closet or under the bed, or how high up I pull my blankets, or which lights I leave off or turn on, I can’t make his cancer go away.

But on those nights when I feel my stomach clench and my breathing hitch, when I feel the fear start to drown me, I close my eyes and start to pray, the same prayers over and over, the familiar words quieting my mind, giving me peace.

Our Father, who art in heaven…

And I know if I keep on praying, my fears won’t conquer me. Because it turns out that it’s not the words or the familiarity or the repetition that soothes me. It’s the knowledge that I’m not alone, that Someone is always with me. And for a little while, nothing – not the dark or mirrors or cancer – scares me.

Because nothing can harm me as long as I keep praying.

Amen

The water beating on her upturned face is warm, but far from relaxing. Her thoughts are frantic, jumbled, everywhere – grocery lists, to do lists, replays of conversations, everyday worries, fears for what’s to come, scenes from the day. They jump from here to there, shifting messily, rattling round and round painfully. She rests her forehead against the wall and the cool tile soothes her momentarily. Her thoughts slow, her heart calms, and she breathes. Then she closes her eyes and remembers.

His head was bowed, eyes squeezed shut, fingers locked together tightly. She started to ask a question. “Quiet,” he hushed her. “Can’t you see I’m praying?” She closed her mouth and lowered her own head reverently, stealing furtive glances in his direction, sure she knew what he prayed for. She tried to say her own, but was distracted by the tension in his shoulders. Her hand hovered over his back, not quite touching him, aching to comfort him, but not sure he wanted her to. She wanted to pray, but couldn’t remember how.

She opens her eyes and tilts her face back under the water, allowing it to wash salty tears down, down, down the drain.

“Are you ready to say your prayers, baby?”

“Yeah, prayers.” She clasped her hands together – the little one mimicking her actions.

“Dear God…” She began – the little one repeating after her. They ran through the list of “please bless” and “thank you for” and “watch over” and ended with a simple, “Please heal Daddy.”

“Amen,” she whispered.

“Amen,” the little one repeated. Then they sang a song about building a snowman and she kissed the little one’s smooth, clear forehead. And still she couldn’t remember how to say prayers that were her own.

She crushes her hands over eyes, willing the tears to stop. What’s the use in crying? What good does it do? Her tears obey, ceasing almost immediately. She’s gotten very good at cutting her feelings off before they overwhelm. Her thoughts continue to race, but she manages to quell her emotions. She feels numb. She turns off the water, towels herself off, gets dressed, and brushes her teeth. Her eyes stay dry.

Dinner was ready and she ran back and forth, fetching napkins for everyone, filling tiny water cups, grabbing condiments no one needed. Then they all held hands and said grace. She recited the words thoughtlessly, smiling at the little one who was saying words that weren’t words, laughing at his customary “AAAAAAAAAMEEEEEN.”

She makes sure tomorrow’s lunch is ready and turns off the lights. She checks on the little one and pulls the blanket back up, hoping it protects her from cold temperatures and monsters alike. She kisses him goodnight and picks a book to read, attempting to quiet her mind. She turns off the light at 10:15. She doesn’t sleep.

She lies there thinking, thinking, thinking, until her thoughts have run so wild, have frightened her so much, she starts to cry again. But quietly, quietly, so she doesn’t wake him. She’s mad at herself for crying, frustrated she can’t sleep, worried about tomorrow when she has to function like a human being. And so she wills herself to stop crying again. She begs herself to relax, threatens herself with exhaustion, cajoles herself with the promise of treats.

But she can’t stop crying.

So, she gets out of bed, kneels on the floor, bows her head, clasps her hands together tightly, and begins to pray.

And for the first time all day, the prayers she says are all her own.

Even With Anxiety

I don’t sleep much. I lie awake, night after night, trying to trick my brain into shutting down. I pray – long, winding prayers that end in a plea for sleep or short, memorized prayers I murmur on repeat, hoping the monotony will bring me enough peace and comfort that I’ll slip quietly into oblivion. I’ve tried everything – counting, breathing exercises, simple meditation – and still sleep eludes me.

I am so very tired.

I’ve been this way ever since I can remember so I can’t blame it on cancer or motherhood, though both serve to exacerbate the problem. I’m simply an anxious person, an over-thinker, an analyzer, a worrier. I remember my parents playing a relaxation CD to help me sleep. I would listen to the entire thing, knowing it was nearly an hour long, dreading the moment it would stop.

Most people don’t understand. They tell me to calm down or relax or chill out. They tell me to stop worrying and let it go. But I can’t. If I were able, wouldn’t I do it?

We spent New Year’s Eve playing darts in the Cave, the TV showing us celebrations in Australia and Japan, the monitor humming in the window (the only place it gets a wireless connection). Twenty minutes before midnight we decided to take the monitor to the front yard and watch some fireworks. We walked a hundred yards into the street, where the neighbors were drinking and laughing and shooting fireworks. We said hello and moved a little further from the house and then the monitor started beeping, no longer connected to the wi-fi.

I immediately felt breathless, panicked. What if Zoey wakes up sick? What if she learns to climb out of her crib? What if she chokes on something?

I had to go back. I had to go home right then. I needed to be in range of our house, close to my baby, there if she needed me. I started to say my goodbyes, flashing the monitor as proof that I needed to go. As soon as I did, it decided to work again.

“It’s fine! It works! Look! You can see her sleeping!” They assured me. And still I could feel the anxiety wrapping around my heart, my lungs, squeezing my organs.

“It’s in and out,” I insisted. “I need to be there.”

“She’s fine. It’s works! You’re right outside the house!” They pressed. I tried not to cry. I knew I was over-reacting but they didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t understand. I needed to go.

“You never hang out anymore! Have a glass of wine and stop making excuses!” I knew they meant well but still my anxiety increased because I wasn’t making excuses – I was struggling not to drown in near debilitating anxiety.

And then, “Don’t use your kid as another excuse not to hang out. She doesn’t even know you’re here!”

They were right; she didn’t know. But I knew. And whether or not they thought it was weird or crazy or dramatic, not being home in safe range of Z sent waves of dread coursing through my veins.

I don’t like feeling this way. I don’t like missing things. I don’t like being the boring one, the lame one, the old one. But sitting around socializing, making small talk, listening to the story of the guy that worked with their mom who had a cancer similar to but not exactly like Casey’s that died last week, isn’t fun when I’m panicking about whether or not my daughter is choking on a piece of pepperoni she found in her hair. (And when was the last time we had pizza?)

I’m not in control of very many things in my life right now. Whether or not I show it, I spend most of my time worried, anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, tired, and afraid. I conjure up the energy to get through the day – to teach and play and cook and workout – so that at night I can lie awake and try to trick my brain into shutting down.

Every once in a great while, I get medicated lucky and fall into a sleep punctuated by vivid dreams, so vivid that when I wake, I’m not sure I actually slept. But most of the time, sleep eludes me.

Yet somehow I keep going. Somehow I push through without enough sleep and too many worries and plenty of (unshed) tears of frustration. Even riddled with anxiety. That’s how I know Someone loves me, Someone heard my prayers, because without Someone, I might not sleep at all.