The Potholder

It’s a potholder. It’s a simple off-white potholder with a basic cross-stitch pattern on it. It is stained, burned, and torn. Like many cross-stitched pieces, it has the initials of the person who made it, only the thread has been partly pulled out so it appears to say “I G ‘98.” It should say “KG ‘98” because I made this “piece of art” for my mom as a gift when I was 26 years old. I don’t remember the occasion… perhaps her birthday or Christmas. But I do remember that she hung it on a small hook to display it in her kitchen. She never used it. Back then, I thought of this as a sign that this item was special. She didn’t want to stain or damage it. Instead, she displayed it.  

As dementia began to affect mom’s independence, and eventually she had to move for more supervision and safety, my brother and I shared her personal items among us. We passed along or donated what neither of us could use or felt sentimental to save, but each of us had items with special memories that we held on to. I brought home this potholder that I had made for mom years before.  

That’s when I realized, “This has never been used.” I made this potholder and it became wall art. It hasn’t served its purpose. So I tossed it in my kitchen drawer and began to use it frequently. It didn’t take long to become the ragged piece that you see in the attached photo. There’s a part of me that regrets that I have defaced and nearly destroyed this item. And then I remember… this is a potholder. It’s purpose is to be used in the kitchen to protect hands, countertops, and even the antique wooden table that I inherited from mom’s parents/grandparents. If I had not used the potholder and merely preserved it in a box of keepsakes, someday my children or grandchildren would likely be tossing it in the trash or the Goodwill bin. By using it, yes I’m only getting to enjoy it for a finite time, BUT every single time I take it from the drawer, I smile. I remember mom’s great cooking. I remember my desire to give her a special handmade gift. I feel connected.  

This week I attended the funeral of a 23 year old woman. She was amazing in every way, excelling in academics, immersed in service to others, and surrounded by friends and much love & laughter. Her death (from unexpected and sudden medical complications) hit many in my community very hard. But in spite of the deep grief, everyone who knew her has a story about her. Everyone has a tale that will make you gasp or laugh or shake your head in disbelief. This young adult only lived for 23 years, but oh, how she lived!  

All of us know that our days on earth are numbered, but living with a lingering dementia diagnosis can be especially depressing and debilitating. But this week, on the same day that I attended the funeral of this amazing young adult, I also pulled the stained and torn potholder from my kitchen drawer as I moved a hot pan from the oven. And I smiled. The potholder is being used for the purpose it was created for. I thought of the young woman who had died too young… her life was far shorter than we expected, but it was full of amazing accomplishments and deep relationships.  

The warmth I was feeling was a powerful reminder, “Am I living what I was created to do and to be?” Do I look like a perfect unstained, immaculate piece of art on a wall OR am I torn, burnt, and stained but clearly living with a purpose? None of us can predict or know how many years we have on earth or how many years we have while our minds or bodies are functioning at their best. What we do have control over is how we live during the years that we are able to make decisions or take actions.

Live well, friends. Encourage one another.  Prioritize the things that really matter.  Don’t worry about your stains and tears. Be who you were created to be.  Good intentions tell us to hang the potholder on the wall and never “mess it up.”  But even if you preserve it carefully, its days are numbered.  So when it comes to your own life… use it, enjoy it, treasure it!  Be like my potholder… Discover your gifts and purpose and live into them! That’s what it’s all about.  

Mindfulness & Dementia

            In the past few years, I have discovered Mindfulness as a part of my spiritual practice.  It was shocking to realize that for most of my life, even in the midst of prayer, my mind was often racing with tangential thoughts, worries, or distractions.  Learning to be fully present has taken time, and honestly, I cannot yet say that I have mastered the practice.  But even as a beginner, Mindfulness and meditation practices have deepened and enriched my prayer life along with my awareness of who I am and of the world around me. 

            I also believe that growing more mindful and present has enriched visits or calls with mom.  Sadly, COVID realities have greatly limited our in-person visits.  For a while we were able to sit together outdoors on the porch at the assisted living facility where she lives.  We chose the rocking chairs that look out over the field across the street.  The field is home to a new subdivision that is currently being developed.  This gives us a lot to look it:  tall grasses swaying in the wind, construction workers hammering nails, buzzards gliding low enough to see what might be lying beside the road or in the field.  I drive past this scene frequently, but all that I ever notice is a major change like a new home being added or a new road being cleared.  When I sit with mom and we look out across the field, I notice the way the sunlight dances on the grasses, the rhythm of a workman’s hammer, the graceful flight of a bird whose very presence and purpose in the food chain often makes me shiver.  I notice mostly because Mom notices.

            “Look at how that… that plant… that dry… the um…”

“The tall grasses?”

            “Yeah, look at how the tall grasses are dancing!” 

 “They are beautiful.  It’s like they hear music.”

            Mom starts to hum a made up song.

 I laugh with her.

            “That clicking fits our song.”

“It’s a man hammering.  He’s working on that new house just over there.  Do you see it… the one with the blue plastic all around it?

            “Is that an eagle?”

 “I think it’s a buzzard.  But I don’t know for sure.”

            “Don’t you wish you could fly?”

  “That would be so neat!”

            “Look at how the plants bend, the brown grass.  It looks like it’s dancing.”

   “It does.  It’s really pretty.”

            “That bird looks like he’s dancing with it.”

    “He does, he’s a good dancer.”

            “Where am I?  What is this place?”

    “This is home now, mom.  This is home.”

            “Ok, if you say so.  Is that a new house over there?”

     “Yes, it’s a new house being built.”

            “Maybe we should buy it?”

      “Maybe.”

            “Look at that bird, how big it is…”

            Sitting and talking with mom is not the same as listening to a Zen master lead a Mindfulness Meditation on YouTube.  And yet… if my mind tries to wander and focus on my grocery list, on deadlines at work that I need to meet, on my phone vibrating with alerts from Facebook or Gmail or some other app… mom brings me back to the present.

            Sure, sometimes we talk about her childhood in Cairo, Georgia.  Sometimes we remember significant people or events from 20 or 30 years ago.  But mostly, these days we live in the moment. 

            Don’t hear me wrong.  I don’t pretend that living with dementia is the same as a deep and abiding Mindfulness meditation.  It’s not.  Dementia brings many painful losses.  Mindfulness is a choice and a practice chosen by the practitioner, whereas dementia is a medical condition currently without an effective treatment.  Mom and the other folks at the assisted living home where she lives are not peacefully and tranquilly journeying through each day, content with their awareness of the moment.  Sometimes they are afraid, agitated, confused, sad.  And yet… so often it seems that mom, at least with our particular form of dementia at her current stage, is present here and now.  

            When dementia calls my name, I hope my appreciation for Mindfulness will sustain and even fill me with peace and purpose.  Sure, I may forget the facts and information I once knew.  Yes, I will lose cherished personal memories and recollections.  But I hope that there will be a field for me to gaze upon, or the rhythm of a hammer to hear, or the silhouette of a bird soaring in the sky, something for me to notice and to marvel at.

            Simply being is a gift.  Each sight, each sound, each texture… these are gifts while we are yet alive.  If I forget this, please remind me.  Point to the dancing grass and invite me to sway along with it.  Tap to the rhythm of the hammer.  Follow the gentle flight of the bird and imagine riding upon his wings.  I hope you have grasses and hammers and large soaring birds in your days too.  And may they not be background scenery and white noise but a gift that you notice and appreciate.  May we all be present and mindful as we enjoy the gift of life.

Questions and Answers

When I think about living with advanced dementia, I have always assumed it will be a time of not knowing the answers to questions.  What day is it?  What year is it?  What did you have for breakfast?  “I can’t remember.”   

Long ago, I learned not to ask mom questions like this because it only frustrates her and makes her seem sad and confused.  I try to talk about the present or the deep past.  I try to ask her opinions or her feelings not facts that need to be recalled.   

I have definitely equated dementia with “not knowing the answers.”  Recently, playing a trivia game with co-workers made me chuckle and realize how many questions (especially pop culture) that I already cannot answer.  

But something about the trivia game got me thinking more deeply and brought a new insight:  I think the worst part of dementia will not be “not knowing the answers” but rather “not even knowing the questions to ask.”   

I realize when I’m sitting on the porch talking with mom, the problem isn’t that she doesn’t know what month it is or doesn’t recall what was served for lunch.  Her reality is so blurry that she doesn’t know where she is, how she got her, how long she’s been here, what major events have unfolded (or not.)  She sometimes seems so overwhelmed by uncertainty and confusion that she doesn’t even know how to begin phrasing a question.   

Last week, as we were visiting on the porch, though, she opened a tiny window into what her reality is like.  “How does it work?” she asked.   

We were looking out across the lawn, the road, and into a large field and new subdivision being constructed.  “How does it work?” she asked.  “How does what work?” I replied, thinking perhaps she had a question about the new housing development. 

“This,” she answered without gesturing or pointing or explaining herself in any way. 

I had no idea what she was asking.  I’m not altogether sure that she knew.  At some point her focus settled upon the assisted living facility that she now calls home.  “How does this work?” seemed to be a question about whether she pays daily, weekly, monthly, etc?  Does she need to buy groceries?  Does she have her own room?  I think that was what she was asking.   

And I realized… by the time I helped answer the question, I’m not sure she even remembered what the question was or why it was being asked.   

It was a sobering realization to know that someday I won’t even know what the question is or when to ask it or why it should be asked.   

But then I look at the world we live in and realize most of us don’t know how to ask the right questions, the questions that matter.  If we did, there would be not be so many inequities, so much destruction, so much suffering.   

I start to mourn, to feel sad and hopeless not only for myself but also for humanity.  And then I pause.  I do not yet have dementia.  I will, but I don’t yet.  So why bask in a hopeless, helpless state?  Why not use the time I have to contribute toward health and wholeness, not only for myself but for all of humanity, for all of Creation?  Everyone’s days are numbered.  We are called upon to live them well, to ask hard questions, and then to take action as we learn the answers to the most important questions.   

Remind me of this someday, when I don’t know what questions to ask or what the answers are.  Remind me that we are all called to do what we can to share light where there is darkness, to bring hope where there is injustice, to change systems and open doors.  What I will be able to do 10 or 20 years from now is likely to be quite different than today, but as long as I have breath, I believe I will have purpose.  I won’t be drafting petitions or preaching sermons in years to come, but even if it is as simple as loving God and loving my neighbor, remind me to do so, please.  And I hope you’ll continue asking questions that need to be asked and discovering unexpected and exciting answers.

Trees, plants, grass… and limited analogies

3.24.21

It’s that time of year… when I haven’t cut the grass for about 5 months and things have started to grow again.  There’s something about this time of the year when nothing’s been cut in a while, and a fresh, wild green-ness is evident all around.

Everything is growing… the grass is growing, the weeds are growing, the stuff that I’m not sure if it’s a “weed” or a “native plant” is growing too.  But I have noticed something new that I can’t “un-notice.”  It’s not about “what” is growing… it’s about “where” it’s growing.

Here is a photo from one of the trees in my yard.  Look at the abundant plants flourishing in its shade.  This is not a photo trick or an intentional planting that thrives in shade.  This is nature on John Street in Ashland, VA.  The grass out in the vast yard survived winter.  It’s alive but just beginning to grow and regain its color.  But the many species in the shade beneath the tree are thriving, even as spring has barely begun. 

What does the tree represent?  At first my mind went to God… with a message to “be sure we little plants should stay rooted in the big tree’s shade.”  But that makes no sense.  God is bigger than one tree.  God cares for all the grass and weeds and native plants and every living thing… whether they are near the trunk, beneath the branches, or far away roasting in the midday sun.  Plus, we don’t choose where we’re planted, right?  Which of us chose the families that birthed and/or raised us?  Our multiple identities?  No… that first analogy is flawed in many ways. 

So what is the wisdom to be discovered in this beautiful image I noticed in my yard? 

Maybe it’s a simple fact:  things thrive when they are nurtured and protected, yet living things come in many forms.  There are times, there are relationships where I’m the tree, working to nurture someone else.  There are times that I am the weed, where some think I don’t belong, but I can still thrive and be beautiful if nurtured by another.  And there are times that I’m the grass far across the yard, nothing special, but still rooted, still gonna grow, still alive. 

I often think of dementia in terms of a progression: First I’m healthy, offering shade to others, then later I will be like a plant in the soil beneath another’s shade.  And even if I find myself in a stage where I’m not able to be so protected or nurtured, if I’m a body in a bed in a large facility with little personal attention, I’ll still be alive, still a part of the landscape. 

But no… that’s not the message either.  I’m sure of it.  Simple analogies are often flawed. You see, Mom has advanced dementia but she’s not merely grass far out in the yard.  She’s still the tree that holds its branches over me.  She still says kind and nurturing things that remind me of her loving intention, even if she can’t carry out her intentions.  She asked me just this week if I could think of a place I’d like to travel and pick a time that works for me, how she’d be happy to pay for it and we could go together.  I remember the many times she arranged wonderful, generous family vacations.  She’s also still being nurtured like the abundant plants beneath the tree.  She recently received an Easter goodie bag from a church friend, a photo book from her sister, a cat calendar, and more.  All these things bring big smiles and great joy to her.  And yes, in some ways she’s a sprig of grass far out in the yard.  She’s growing frail, she doesn’t know where she is… and yet, then she surprises you with something beautiful, with kind words, with a clever joke… beautiful even if limited.  She’s all three… nurturing tree, thriving plant in the shade, and grass far across the yard.

So… we’re all trees offering shade, we’re all plants thriving in the shade of another tree, and we’re all blades of grass far out in the yard.  Avoid the simple analogies, they are too limited.  Life is abundant, we have many roles to play… even our loved ones with dementia… even us when dementia comes for us. We can be the nurturing tree, the thriving shaded plant, and the struggling grass across the yard all at the same time. We can all be beautiful, each in our own ways, fulfilling our many roles, simply being grateful for the gift of life.

As Spring continues to come and the landscape changes, I may forget this image of the shade tree and the yard beyond. But I trust new beauty will come. Sunshine or rain, new sprouts or deep roots… I’ll be looking for analogies, searching for wisdom, and remaining grateful simply to be alive and a part of this magnificent Creation.

Reflecting upon the future

On Fridays, I lead a guided meditation/centering prayer type activity at the college where I serve.  Today, I had drafted a reflection where we pondered how our “present self” is rooted in our past and shaped by our future hopes and dreams.  I was very careful in the words and presentation not to overly script what people reflected upon in our shared silence, and yet I was striving to have the group focus on “the good.”  I dislike rosy perfectly painted pictures, but I also recognize that a 15-minute online group meditation is not the place to trigger past traumas and ask people to think about such a thing quickly and then move on.  I think I achieved a decent balance of asking the group to focus on the positive (the events or people in their past which gave them a foundation for the present and then the dreams that they aspire to.)  In all my preparation and overthinking, I scripted the meditation without actually practicing it myself before our online gathering. 

So… today as I led and guided the group, I was also trying to participate as best I could.  Reflecting on the past was a joy.  I’ve recently been watching a 1989 videotape of a church talent show led by our Pittman Park UMC youth group.  Seeing my friends on stage, hearing my own high school voice, watching my dad and I play a piano duet, and seeing so many older adults who were key figures in my childhood have all been inspirational as I’ve watched the talent show.  (I hope to get some clips captured on my phone and uploaded to share soon.)  That old VHS tape made cherishing the past an easy exercise for me today. 

Then we spent time in the present, with intentional breaths and body awareness.  That’s always beneficial.  Then, we moved to consider our future.  I asked everyone to picture and imagine their hopes and their dreams.  But… my mind immediately went to my fears.  Dementia.  Loneliness.  Loss.  Lack of control.  I was able to visit mom in her dementia-care assisted living yesterday for the first time in a long, long time.  So the realities of dementia and how it affects us was front and center in my mind.  While others likely pondered their retirement, travel dreams, grandchildren, and things like that… I worried about finances, plans, the pressures on my children, and the environment I might someday live in.  There is so much I will lose.  But then …

… time was up, and I needed to bring the group back together for us to share the beauty of how our past and our future are gifts to us in the present.  Whoa.  That was a hard conversation to lead.  But others shared some very beautiful comments.  One colleague, a professor, now works in the very same office where he once came to “get help” from his professor when he was a student at R-MC.  Now, it’s where he sits and prepares and reads and inspires and helps his current students.  The very same space where he offers help to others is the space where he once received help.  And do you know what he focused on when he pondered the future?  Not his own pleasure or goals, but the achievements and gifts of his students going on to do great things in the future, how they might help others.  His contribution to their successful futures is his future joy. 

Ah, yeah.  It’s not all about me.  If a successful future is all about my pleasure and my personal goals, then no one with a terminal illness or a degenerative disease can find hope in that future.  But if our hope is in something greater… that (to use Bishop Ken Carder’s words) if we are all a story within God’s greater story, then there are powerful and beautiful chapters ahead even if we have dementia or cancer or anything that affects our bodies and minds.  Our Spirit remains sacred and beautiful.  And… our relationships continue.  And the impact of lives well lived can go in reverberating in those we lived among.  As my colleague was focused on the futures of those he has taught and inspired, so I, too, can choose to focus on the futures of my children, my church friends, my students, and my community members.  Suddenly, the future doesn’t seem so bleak.  In fact, it is full of possibility and beauty.  And I can be a part of that future, because, as I was trying to help others see today, our present is intrinsically connected to our futures, just as our past is connected to our present.  How I live today is interwoven with the fabric of my future.

It happens so often, when I’m asked to lead, I am led.  Thanks, friend and colleague.  Thanks, Holy Spirit.  I’m moved and motivated to live well and to trust the One who holds us in the palm of His hand.  Suddenly, the future is looking bright! 

Spilling Our Blueberries

          My oldest child recently got her driver’s license, which changes so many family dynamics.  Tonight, she and her younger brother stopped by the grocery store together.  She was eager to tell me about it:  “You know how I’ve been wanting blueberries?  Well, I picked up a plastic carton of them.  But… it came open and they all spilled out.  They rolled everywhere!  They went under things and just scattered everywhere.  We were trying hard to pick them all up when an older lady noticed us.  She asked what happened and I explained that I had dropped them and we were trying to clean them up.  The lady walked on, and just a few minutes later, a man that worked there showed up.  She had asked him to help us and he brought a broom.  He helped us clean up much faster, but as we got near the end, he reached out for the package.  I explained that I needed to pay for them since I had dropped them, but he said no that he would toss them and I should get some new ones.  Mom… everyone was so nice, the older lady who got someone to help us and the man who helped us and then said we didn’t have to pay for them even though we dropped them.”

          The ol’ preacher in me is thinking of the older woman who inspired an employee to help as embodying the Holy Spirit.  The employee who helped out and who insisted that my kids didn’t owe anyone anything seems a bit like a Christ figure.  But this blog isn’t intended to be a theological exploration.  No, the focus is about life with dementia.  As Ella described the words and actions of the strangers who helped her tonight, I felt such gratitude for those two individuals.  I don’t know who they are, but they helped her navigate one of her first unchaperoned grocery shopping experiences, an experience that well could have undermined her confidence and independence.  Instead, these two strangers gave her a gift of community and confidence. 

I don’t know when, but someday I’m gonna spill my blueberries.  And they are going to roll everywhere and scatter under things.  It’s a perfect image for how our routines and abilities will change once dementia takes hold.  Sometimes I wonder who will be the people helping me navigate life when the blueberries spill and roll everywhere.  Friends?  Relatives?  Church family?  Neighbors?  Someone I haven’t even met yet?  Ella’s account of these two strangers helping her tonight gives me such hope.  Sure, I need to make plans and all that, but I also need to remember that there are good people out there.  There are strangers who are kind and generous.  I’m gonna spill my blueberries in many places, at many times, most likely.  And I can only pray that I will do so in the company of people like my children met tonight.  And, I pray that I can be like those two people assisting the blueberry-spiller right up until the time that I spill the berries myself.  In fact, I hope that even after I start spilling my berries, I can still be a berry-picker-upper or a broom-finder or at least a friendly encouraging voice along the way. 

Those little plastic containers of blueberries sure do spill easily, and the berries sure can roll a long way.  But we are all in this together.  Thankfully. 

Spring Beauty in an October Cemetery

I officiated at a graveside service today in a cemetery in Richmond.  As difficult as they are, funerals are among the most meaningful acts of ministry in my experience.  Today was no different.  My heart breaks for the loss this family is experiencing, but I’m grateful for the sober pause we all made today considering what is truly important, truly valuable, truly beautiful in life.              

In the midst of this deeply painful time, I found myself distracted several times by a decorative flag placed on another family’s plot nearby.  People leave flowers or other memorabilia to celebrate their loved one.  Often these items are very creative.  But the distracting flag kept catching my eye due to its colorful, flowery background with songbirds and the bright word SPRING!  Today is October 22.  I kept noticing the flag and thinking “It’s not spring, it’s autumn.” 

During this season of Covid, it’s entirely possible that someone placed that flag on a special family plot back in March and now they are not able to get out or to travel.  It’s also possible that someone placed the flag in spring and then experienced a life-altering change (illness, death, loss of transportation, etc.) that means they will not return to update the decorative flag for the next season.  I found myself wondering what could be happening in this other family.  I began to pray for them. 

And then a third option occurred to me:  What if the family member who brings the flag/decorations has dementia and isn’t aware of what season it is?  That’s possible.  Perhaps someone else drives them and this person puts out their most bright and celebratory gifts to add cheer and beauty to a family member’s final resting place. 

Options 1 and 2 (Covid restrictions or major life events that limit a person) are quite sad things to consider.  Option 3, dementia, though sad in many ways, has a small, interesting hidden beauty.  Our loved ones with dementia still offer us their gifts, their joy, their creativity, their love.  No, they often don’t even know what season it is.  They don’t know the year or the town where they are now living or the age of their nearest relatives.  But many times they still know joy and find ways to share that joy with others. 

In the time I spent in the cemetery today, that colorful “Spring” flag brought a transformation in my thinking.  At first, I felt pity and compassion for whomever placed it there, presumably more than 6 months ago.  But next, I felt gratitude, I felt like the recipient of a gift from someone who simply wanted to spread joy.  I don’t expect to ever know the story behind that small “Spring” flag, but I will remember not to rush to assume the reasons behind other people’s actions.  Sometimes dementia is the reason.  But even then, sometimes there is beauty in the confusion.  May we all find the beauty even amidst the loss and pain and confusion. 

A rainy day brings light

Mom and I got to visit today.  Due to Covid-19, a visit these days means we sit in the rocking chairs on the porch of the building where she lives.  I’m not complaining, in fact I’m grateful for the rocking chairs and the porch, a safe but sheltered place we can be together.

Today was a soggy, misty, rainy day.  The weather is always a topic of conversation throughout our porch visits.  Mom appreciates a blue sky and takes joy when there are puffy white clouds, often describing each one at length.  But today, there was no blue sky.  She mentioned several times:  “The sky is just one big, giant white cloud.”  She was right. 

We sat together for an hour, and the rain was constant throughout our visit.  Mostly, it was a quiet, misty sort of rain.  I knew that it was raining, but mom would forget.  Then, she would look across the pavement across from where we sat and notice the raindrops splashing into the puddles.  She would exclaim, “Look, it’s raining!  You can see it in the puddles!” 

Mom’s whole face, in fact her whole demeanor lights up when she discovers something unexpected or beautiful.  “It’s raining!  You can see it in the puddles!” 

If you have spent much time with someone who has dementia, you have experienced a person repeating the same statement over and over as if it’s a brand-new discovery.  It may sound endearing, but it doesn’t take long to become a bit tiresome.  But today I didn’t get frustrated with her.  Instead, I noticed something new. 

Mom couldn’t see the rain.  I don’t know if that has to do with dementia or the poor light of a grey, misty day, or her eyesight, or what.  But mom couldn’t see the rain.  Still, anytime she looked out across the parking lot where the pavement was puddled with rainwater, she immediately noticed the splashes and could understand that it was raining even though the raindrops were invisible to her.  Mom may be deeply affected by dementia, but she can still discover unexpected things.  And the unexpected often brings joy! 

I worry what it will be like when dementia takes hold of my thoughts, my memories, my abilities.  What if I can’t remember something important?  What if I can’t reason through steps to solve a problem?  What if I can’t see what is plainly obvious in front of me?  Those fears are real.  Trust me, if I am aware that I have forgotten someone’s name or misplaced a folder of important papers, etc., my heart races, internal stress grows.  But today was different.  It was odd that mom couldn’t see the rain or perceive that raindrops were falling.  Nevertheless, she could still figure it out.  She just had to look around and see a puddle of standing water.  As soon as she did… then she knew it was raining because the surface was riddled with dancing splashes from countless raindrops.  And the surprise of it all made it wonderfully pleasing for her to see. 

Mom gave me some hope today.  Sure, when I gave her a report on her five grandchildren and what they are all up to, she just shook her head, not believing how old they all are.  When we talked about her last visits to Cairo or Statesboro, she had no idea how long it had been.  BUT… when she saw the surface of the puddles, she knew it was raining.  Mom couldn’t see the rain, but she could see the clues and figure it out.  She knew that it was raining.  It’s simple, but it amazes me and gives me hope. 

Someday, even if I can’t remember my address, how old I am, or where I am living, I pray that I can look around at the world around me and take joy in the small discoveries and the beauty I find there.  Mom gave me some hope today.  Who knew when I woke up to such a cloudy, grey day, that the rain would be the very thing to bring me hope through mom’s eyes and her voice?    

All of us can embrace what mom did today: Notice the puddles. Notice the splashes. Discover wonderful things!

Writing feels right

It has been almost nine months since I’ve written a blog post.  That’s hard to believe.  Yes, navigating the Covid-19 pandemic has changed things and kept me busy in new waysyet I did not think it had been that long.  Nine months is enough time to grow and birth a baby.  Please don’t expect anything that significant from these few paragraphs.  In fact, I recognize that there is not even a compelling story or unique observation that inspired me to begin writing tonight.  Honestly, I am not sure why I opened the blank document and started typing.   

I did email my friend Martha a little while ago, and I remember thinking how much I enjoy Martha’s blog.  So perhaps connecting with her brought this blog to mind for me.  But otherwise, it just unfolded like this:  Get into a comfortable position.  Turn on the laptop.  Check and respond to a few emails.  Glance at Facebook.  Then… then what…?  I opened a blank Word document without thinking.  Then, as I stared at the blank screen, I thought, “I should write a blog entry.”  That’s when I started wondering how long it had been since I last wrote a blog entry.  I opened my WordPress.com account to see.   

OK… that’s where this gets interesting.  I couldn’t remember the name of my blog.  I knew it had to do with the nagging sense of something always there that others can’t see.  But I couldn’t remember the name of the blog.  Yes, I’ve had a long day, and I’m really tired.  Yes, I am sipping a glass of wine as I comfortably recline in bed with my laptop.  Yes, it’s been nine months since I opened my WordPress account.   

But that’s how my life is different than yours, right?  If you had forgotten something after enjoying a glass of wine after a long, tiring day, something you hadn’t looked at in nine months, you would shrug your shoulders, right?  I didn’t shrug my shoulders.  The good news is:  I also didn’t panic.  A few years ago, I would have panicked.  I would have jumped to the conclusion that the end was near, the train had left the station, that all was lost.  I’m proud of myself.  I just sat here for a moment and focused.  I pulled up WordPress.com.  Shoot.  My web browser updated recently and thus old sites I have visited don’t auto-populate my account/password.  I tried a different browser, the one I only occasionally use.  As soon as I typed WordPress into the open window, my account, my blog appeared:  Thoughts from Below.  Yup.  That’s it.  That’s the title.  Problem solved. 

So, what’s the point of this blog entry?  Why am I recording these words?  I’m chuckling.  Maybe I am a bit more relaxed than I normally am when I write.  Why am I writing this?!  But then I think of mom and the other lovely people living where she lives.  How much of what mom does is done on “auto pilot?”  The part of her brain that can analyze and organize isn’t working so well.  But other things still flow quite well.  If mom gets into the passenger seat of the car, she buckles her seat belt.  I don’t have to ask her.  She doesn’t hesitate.  That’s just what she does.  She brushes her teeth at bedtime.  She puts on shoes before she leaves her room.  It’s just what she does.  A few years ago, mom’s “auto-pilot” actions included caring for her cats, walking the neighborhood, and cooking a few favorite dishes.  Hum a song from the 60s and chances are good that she can chime in with the words of the chorus.  I remember Bishop Ken Carder sharing about a retired clergyperson in memory care who rarely spoke.  But when Bishop Carder would offer Holy Communion, the man with dementia would recite the words of our liturgy and help to offer the bread and the cup to those gathered... all on auto-pilot.   

I wonder what my auto-pilot settings will be?  What is so normal, so “me” that I will keep doing those things even when I can’t organize my thoughts and intentionally choose what I’m doing?  What is so “you” that you will keep doing, continue saying, faithfully performing it if dementia becomes a reality in your own life?  For me… writing is likely to be one of those things.  (Donations of journals and spiral notebooks will be appreciated in years to come, no doubt.)  As a teenager, staying up late at night, sitting at my desk full of angst, I wrote poetry and journal entries.  As an adult, I wrote sermons… not because it was my job, but because I wanted and needed to write.  Now that I am not preaching on a weekly basis, I started blogging.  For you, it may be painting, it may be gaming, it may be jogging, it may be baking, it may be gardening.  We all have something.  So even if dementia someday robs me of the realization that I’ve written about something before, I have a feeling, I will still be writing.   

So… it’s not my most profound or insightful entry, but you know what….?  I’m writing again.  And that feels right.  Covid-19 got me sidetracked.  Life got weird and busy.  But tonight, I write.  Thanks for reading.  Since I didn’t offer any wisdom or insight this time, I will end by repeating the question posed above:  What is so “you” that you will keep doing, continue saying, faithfully performing it if dementia becomes a reality in your own life?  I don’t know why I ask that… we can’t script such things.  But perhaps we can notice those things about ourselves.  We can appreciate them.  We can even cherish them.  Yes, we are more than what we do.  We are children of God, created in the imagine of God, with the power to love even our enemies.  We are far more than what we do, we are valued by God and others for who we are even if we someday can’t do much of anything.  So, I celebrate each person’s unique gifts and graces.  I cherish the quirks of my friends and family.  I smile when I think of the unique habits or behaviors of co-workers.  And I pause to look at myself and wonder what’s going to stick with me in years to come.  I hope you appreciate your own quirks and uniqueness.  God made you and gave you the gifts and graces and quirks you share with the world.  Embrace them!   

Two friends walk out of bank…

I saw an old friend unexpectedly last week. I saw her across the room, in the bank, both of us finishing up our business at about the same time. We embraced and swapped pleasantries. Sometimes that’s all you do when you see an old friend, but this is someone I really wanted to talk to, and it seemed she really wanted to talk to me. We both have kids growing up and entering new stages of young adulthood… we both have parents with needs who are nearby us (our moms used to both be at the same assisted living home, so we saw one another more frequently.) We paused in the parking lot to talk further. In my mind, I ran through all that I was wondering about: How was her husband? Her children (I pictured each of them and their approximate age/stage), her parents… WAIT…

WAIT… her parents… her mother used to be with my mother at the same assisted living facility. But then she moved because her needs had increased. That was a while ago. Was she still living? Had I seen any announcement on Facebook (the main way I would keep up with my friend’s life)? Had a mutual friend mentioned anything? As my mind raced, she asked me kind question after question about my children and about my mother. I was answering her questions, but my mind was distracted in panic mode: I wanted to ask about her mother, but I was afraid that her mother had passed away and I had forgotten. I know someone’s mother died a few months ago. Was it hers? If I ask how her dad is doing, would that give me a clue? If I ask how her mom is doing but her mom has died, then I would feel like a jerk or like an imbecile… pause… or like a person who can’t remember important things.

I’m grateful that this is a warm, kind, wonderful friend who, although I don’t see her often, I love and trust. It took me too long, but I eventually confessed. “I want to ask about your mom, but I can’t remember if she is still with us?” Argh. I hated it. I hated admitting it. I felt like a jerk. I felt like an imbecile. My friend… she didn’t hesitate, her mom is still living but with profound limitations. She shared what that is like for her, for others. Her grace at my “not knowing” was so great that my “not knowing” seemed to be a non-issue for her. That helped. That helped me A LOT.

I don’t think I have symptoms yet. Or if I do, I certainly don’t think they are great. I remember my first visit to UCSF when the research assistant responded to my panicked stories about my mental state with questions like: How much stress are you under? How much sleep do you get? How high is your caffeine intake? Then they assured me that my forgetfulness was well within the non-dementia range.

But no matter what annual tests may show, no matter what achievements I may gain, I worry every time I forget a name. I worry every time I miss a meeting, no matter how informal the plan was. I panic every time I can’t think of a word in the midst of conversation. Even if nothing is wrong—nothing is wrong yet—I am haunted by frequent worry that there are indicators (especially indicators that others see) that I have dementia.

My friend at the bank last week was helpful. I was so embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know if her mother was still alive. But she made it ok for me to ask. She didn’t pause. She didn’t miss a beat. She shared her own deep feelings, one she might not share with everyone in every casual conversation.

The example set for me when dementia began with many others was to “fake it.” I think everyone I’ve known who has had to deal with their own journey into the fog and the heavy blanket of dementia has chosen the path of pretending/insisting that nothing was wrong. That’s what felt “natural” in my conversation last week. I wanted to fake it. I wanted to pretend that I knew that my friend’s mother was alive and adjusted to her new home (or that she had passed away and that I remembered details of her passing.) I didn’t want to admit my uncertainty. But, there is nothing more freeing than honesty. My friend made it possible for me to be honest, “I, um, want to ask about YOUR mom, but I can’t remember… is she still with us?” Honesty… If I can practice it fully now, then maybe it will be easier for me to be me when the changes come someday.

It was so good to reconnect with an old friend. What was even better was to reconnect with an old friend and by the end of the conversation not to be hiding anything (or having any doubts in my mind that I wasn’t sharing with her.) I had to leave before long because I had another appointment. But I keep replaying that short interaction in my thoughts: the warmth of an old friendship, the sacred space that SHE created by making it safe for me to ask a question, to admit that I didn’t remember something. I encourage you, if you are reading this, make it safe for those around you to be honest, to ask any question they are wondering about. Don’t judge, don’t joke. If someone asks something you don’t expect, be gentle, be gracious. If you make it safe for them to be fully themselves, future conversations will go well too. But if we push people to hide and to pretend and to “fake it,” then I fear that we further alienate many who are already afraid, already feeling alone.

Tonight I’m thankful for a good friend. And I hopeful that I’m being a good friend to others. We’re all in this together.