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.

A new friend

I made a new friend today. I want to respect that her story is her own story, not mine. It’s important that this blog be a place to express my “thoughts from below” and not hers. She isn’t able to use a computer and follow a blog, so I certainly could get away with telling her story here. But I want to respect her and her story the way I hope others respect me when I’m in her shoes. So I’m going to work hard to express my thoughts and not pretend to know hers.

My new friend has early onset dementia. Every time I’ve encountered someone in the early stages of dementia, my experience is that there seems to be complete denial. This is not true for my new friend. She is aware. She is self-conscious. She is apologetic. She is not much older than I am. Because all of my past experiences were with people who denied the onset of dementia, who insisted that nothing was wrong, I have wondered if it would be possible for me to be self-aware as the changes come. After today I know that it is. And I caught a glimpse of how heart-breaking it is going to be.

People say, “As long as you are concerned that you are forgetting things, you don’t really have dementia.” After today I know that’s not true. I have wondered what it may be like to know my brain is changing, to be self-aware as the disease begins. Now I know. Well, I don’t know what it’s like inside my friend’s thoughts and feelings, but I got to see what it looks like from the outside. It’s painful.

I made a new friend today. I mean that. I didn’t visit this person out of a sense of duty or charity. I truly want to be her friend and for her to be my friend. I want to listen to her and learn from her, just as I speak with her and share with her. I want to know about her life, and I want to tell her about mine. I want to share fears, and hopes, and simply “to be” together. Friends have things in common. She and I have something in common: A disease that is affecting her now and that will affect me in years to come.

It’s been nine hours, so I don’t know if she even remembers my visit, but I will go back. I hope it’s not too late for her to build a new friendship that she can enjoy, at least in the moment. I want to hear her stories. I want to know what brings her joy. I want her to meet my children and my mother. I want her to know that she still matters not only to her long-time friends but also to someone just meeting her. I want to “do unto her” as I hope others will “do unto me” in years to come.”

I’ve met a lot of people with dementia. Today was different. I know it’s not all about me, that it isn’t really a friendship if I’m putting my own thoughts and feelings first. But there are so many thoughts and feelings swirling in my tired brain. It had to take courage for her to open her door and welcome me in. I’m so grateful that she did. I hope that she will open it to me again. I pray that I will discover ways to put her first and not grow obsessed with my own thoughts, feelings, or fears when we are together.

As I finish this post, I don’t really know what to say. Funny, several times today, my new friend stopped mid-sentence or mid-story. She would apologize as she stumbled and didn’t know what to say. I would tell her not to worry, that it didn’t matter. Yeah, I don’t quite know what my point is in this post. But I hope you don’t mind me opening this door and sharing with you like my new friend did with me today…  Yeah, I don’t know what I’m trying to say, but thank you for listening.

Remember to love your neighbor

I love to write, but it’s interesting that I didn’t write a blog post all summer.  It occurs to me that writing is therapeutic to me.  Summer isn’t very stressful, for the most part, in my work… and perhaps that’s why I didn’t write a blog post.  I didn’t really need to write.  A few sermons were enough to keep the candle burning.  But… the school year is beginning, the to-do list and responsibilities are growing fast, and I suddenly feel a need to write.  So here’s today’s insight:   

Today I saw a friend in the grocery store.  She lives far out in a rural area, so I rarely see her.  Recently her family has been going through an extremely difficult time.  I’ve had her name written in my prayer journal and on my to-do list that reminds me that there’s something she needs help with that I can continue to work on.  Seeing her was wonderful She’s a warm, generous soul.  We embraced, she updated me on her family, then she pointed to another woman nearby and mentioned that she had brought this person with her to the store because that woman doesn’t have transportation unless someone helps her.  “I could have asked for her shopping list and done it for her, but everyone wants to get out of the house sometimes.  Everyone needs a break,” she said.  This friend is under intense stress right now, but she opted to help another person this afternoon and to meet their needs for grocery-shopping together.  Even under great stress, she loved her neighbor, and they both seemed happy because of this.   

This afternoon I took mom with me when driving my daughter to an event half an hour away.  We passed a church and I mentioned that I will be attending a funeral there next week for a co-worker.  Mom asked about the person who died.  I mentioned that he had been his mother’s caregiver so his sudden death is especially difficult for her and for many others.   Mom, who seems to grow more confused lately, spoke up:  “Well why don’t you bring her to see me sometime?  We could go out and do things together.  If she enjoys my company, we could get together often.  I’d like to help her if I can.”  Mom doesn’t know what town or what state we live in.  She doesn’t know how old she is or how long she’s been living here.  She doesn’t know what she had to eat for dinner once she gets up from the table.  But she wants to help cheer up the stranger and give her company.   

In our culture, we often think the ones who can “help” or who can “give” are the “fortunate” ones:  the rich, the popular, the ones with the easy life.  How beautiful to be reminded today that a friend going through a very hard time is also the one offering help to another, the one giving the priceless gift of friendship.  My mother, deep in the confusion of dementia, still wants to offer solace and friendship to a stranger 

For those who follow Christ and take seriously His call to love our neighbor as ourself, I hope that my day is a comfort.  Yes… we are called to love our neighbor generously on our good days, when we are strong and well-rested, when we have some cash or energy to spare.  But… even when stress builds, even when life takes an unexpected turn, even when we or our family goes through a very difficult time that call is still there because it has become a part of who we are as a follower of Christ.  My surely overwhelmed friend helps her neighbor, because that’s who she is.  My mom, who is profoundly forgetful, remembers to comfort the grieving.  May we all practice this sacrificial love of neighbor NOW so that if or when we encounter difficult times or a progression of dementia, it will be second nature to us to love our neighbor as ourself 

I hope I never experience the challenges of my friend or of my mother, but if I do, I hope I’m as generous and kind as they are.   

Thanks for helping me remember!

I stopped by to see mom a few days ago, planning to take her out with me to run errands.  It doesn’t sound special, but she seems to enjoy just browsing the grocery store or hardware store with me.  I had errands to run, so that was the plan.  But mom had showered early and was in her pajamas when I arrived.  Thus, I had to slow down, sit down, and just visit in the living room with her.  She was sitting next to a lady who moved in just a few months ago.  Since the first time I saw her, I thought this woman looked familiar.  I’m bad with names, but it wasn’t just that… I truly couldn’t place her, had no idea where I might have known her.  So I just assumed she had a familiar face but that we had no previous relationship.

I sat with mom and her friend.  Let’s call her Bessie.  That’s not really her name, but I need to respect the privacy of the people mom lives with if I’m going to write about them.  Bessie and mom seem to sit together often because they are among the more verbal people in the assisted living facility.  We made small talk for a while, and because I had errands still looming before me, I will confess that I wasn’t finding the small talk very engaging.

Then Bessie said something like, “Back in Caroline, we used to…”  And I snapped to attention.  Caroline County is the county just north of where we live now.  I used to pastor two rural congregations there.  I loved the people and the community I got to know there.

“Are you from Caroline County?”  I asked.  “Oh yes… Signboard Road,” she replied.  A smile crept across my face.  “Really?  Do you know St. Paul’s Church?”  She did.  She wasn’t a member, but it turns out that her really good friends were and she sometimes attended special events or services at the church.  Undoubtedly we had crossed paths many times.  The next 15 minutes was a lively exchange between us as I asked if she knew one person or another.  She knew them all, well.  She told me stories from the past, things I never knew, neat treasures about things people had said or done mostly long ago.  These were all people I loved dearly, most of whom have now passed away.

Before I realized it, I knew that I wouldn’t be running errands that evening.  Listening to Bessie’s tales made me laugh and smile and remember and appreciate people I haven’t seen in a very long time.  Let me say that again more clearly:  A woman with dementia gave me the gift of remembering. 

I forget sometimes when I drive up to the assisted living home each day, but the residents there have something to give to me, to share with me.  It’s not just me (and others who come to visit) who are offering something to them.  When we think of relationships as “one way,” where all the giving comes from one party and all the receiving is done by another, those relationships are never very deep or meaningful (for either party.)  Bessie not only gave me the gift of remembering and appreciating some amazing folks from my former church, she also reminded me what I should have already known.  Their assisted living dementia-care community is full of people who can give me gifts and enrich my life.  I just have to slow down, sit down, and look for what they are offering me:  a smile, a hug, a song, and more.

Thanks, Bessie!  Thanks for helping me remember!

Reasons to pick up rocks

People with dementia sometimes develop new habits or routines that family members or caregivers find challenging.  One of mom’s habits in her last years of living alone was to pick up small stones or rocks when she was out walking.  She brought them home and created a rock collection.  If asked, she would pick them up one by one and marvel at them.  “Look at how smooth this one is,” she might say.  Or “Doesn’t this one sparkle just like it’s jewelry?”  “Sure, mom.”  One was smooth and one had a little sparkle, but these were just ordinary rocks.  I wanted to appreciate her child-like wonder, but I also knew that someday those piles and pots and bags of rocks would be mine and Ron’s to clean out.   

Yesterday as mom and I walked around the edge of the property where she lives, mom felt a rock beneath her shoe.  She paused and would have bent down to pick it up.  But her balance isn’t what it used to be, and she recognized this.  “Why don’t you bend down and pick up that rock for me?  We could take it back and put it in a pot,” she suggested.  I tried to think of a distraction, something to get us walking again and leave the rock behind.  But I couldn’t think of anything. 

“Mom, you don’t really have extra space for a rock collection where you live now.”   

“But I do have a few pots with plants, right?”   


“Then pick it up, we’ll put it in one of the pots.”   

I suppose I was tired or my patience was thin, because contrary to my usual efforts, I didn’t play along.  I didn’t do what she asked.  I didn’t pick up the rock.  I made some weak excuse, and we kept walking.  I knew she would forget in minutes if not seconds, and I knew there was no real reason to put a rock in her flower pot.   

She took a few slow, stiff steps and then she spoke again.  “You know why it’s good to have a rock in your flower pot, don’t you?”   

I was surprised that we were still talking about this.  “I don’t know, mom.  Why?  Because they are pretty?”   

“No, because rocks absorb water and then let it out real slow-like, so it’s good for the plant.” 

I… was… speechless.  Dad was the scientist.  Dad was the one who explained things.  Even before dementia, mom didn’t talk like this.  She didn’t explain why things happened or the reasons behind things.  I think I just stared back at her for a moment.   

“You didn’t know I knew all that, did you?”  She asked.  Then she giggled, “I didn’t know I knew all that either!”  Her sense of humor has been active lately.  The conversation went on and we kept walking.  It was only after she was back indoors and I was driving away that I realized we never picked up a rock for her to place in a flower pot in her room.   

We didn’t pick one up because I, in all my judgmental wisdom, knew that there was no good reason to pick one up.  But mom knew better.  Mom knew a scientific reason to pick up a rock and to place in a flower pot.  But she also knows that rocks can be really smooth and sometimes really sparkly.  And those are good reasons too. 

Before I go visit tomorrow, I plan to pick up a rock and bring it to her.  She will always know some things that I don’t know.     


A View from a School Bus

Today I rode on a school bus for the first time since the late 1980s.  Sure, I’ve been on other buses, but not a true school bus.  Today I chaperoned a Middle School chorus trip so I rode on an actual county school bus with actual school kids.  Because our middle school draws kids from several county elementary schools, some likely live fairly far away from the school.  In other words, when we took the “back road” from the Middle School toward a high school in the West End of Richmond, many kids weren’t familiar with the route.  Of course, these are middle school students.  They aren’t driving yet, so they may not know as many landmarks as those of us who drive.

It was fun to listen to their conversations.  I didn’t know a single child on the bus I was assigned to, so I had no preconceived notions.  There were three girls squeezed into one seat singing songs from the musical Hamilton.  There were two girls swapping friendly stories about classmates.  There were a number of kids expressing anxiety about the chorus competition where we were headed.  “What would it be like?  How strict are the judges?  I heard you have to stay perfectly still and perfectly quiet or you’ll get a bad score.”

The angst conversations were the ones that grew and spread around the bus.  The Hamilton songs faded and the funny stories stopped.  “What if we get a bad score, what will our teacher say?  What if the sight reading is really hard?  Where are we going anyway, what is the school like?”  One student had been there before.  “It’s huge,” she said, “and it’s really nice.  It’s the rich kids’ school.  It’s way better than ours.”

Ugh.  I felt the weight of that statement:  The hierarchal view of the world where all that is new and nice seems superior and all those who enjoy what’s new and nice seem superior too.  Suddenly the busload of students seemed lost, uncertain, scared.  Then one student who was looking out of the window shouted with confidence, “I know where we are!  There’s the church.  When I see the church, I know where I am!”

She wasn’t speaking theologically, she simply meant that on this long, windy rural road, there aren’t a lot of unique landmarks.  Cow pasture A looks a lot like Cow pasture B.  Pond A looks a lot like Ponds B through J.  But when you see Forest Grove United Methodist Church, you know where you are.  It’s a true landmark in Western Hanover County, Virginia.

No, she wasn’t speaking theologically, but her confidence and excitement about knowing where the bus was located and which direction we were headed in was contagious.  The other students stopped naming their fears and instead asked questions.  “How big is the auditorium?  Do you think we are ready?  How many other schools will be there?”

She wasn’t speaking theologically, but I was listening theologically.  The church should be a beacon in our communities that helps us know who we are and where we are.  It should root and anchor us and prepare us to be better community members and neighbors.  It should take away our fears and give us confidence to ask questions and to move forward.  “When I see the church, I know where I am!”

“We are not alone, we live in God’s world.  We believe in God who has created and is creating…We are called to be the Church.”  And what does it mean to be the Church?  “…To celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.  (Yes, that’s from Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada.)  Church… that’s how we do it, that’s how we “be” it.

Whether we are navigating the sometimes scary, often painful journey of dementia beside a loved one… or stumbling along a path of discerning denominational identity and hoping for a way forward… sometimes I feel like a middle schooler on a school bus.  I don’t where the heck I’m going.  Someone else is at the wheel, and I have no choice but to be along for the ride.  The whole thing makes me a bit nauseous.  I don’t recognize the scenery, and I’m scared about what waits for me when I arrive.  But thankfully, I see the Church along the way.  I see it in the steeple I drive past.  I see it in my brothers and sisters I pass on campus or in the local grocery store.  I see it online in the words shared by friends and colleagues.  And when I see the Church, I see Christ and I know where I am.  May we all be clear about our call, may we be the Church for one another and for our broken world so that we all can know where we are and where we need to go.




Photo Album Memories

This afternoon mom and I looked through her old photo albums.  She has about twenty large three ring binder style photo albums in her room.  When we decided what items to move with her to assisted living, my brother and I knew that the photo albums were a “must.”  She worked hard over the years to create the albums, and looking through them always gives her joy.

Today she turned the pages carefully as she always does.  She took her time and went picture by picture, commenting on the friends and family captured on film.  Only today… I noticed a change.  Several times, Mom got the names of those in the photo album wrong.  I am patient enough most days to know not to argue with her when she has forgotten something.  I may suggest a correction, but more often than not, I just roll with it.

First, she saw a photo of my aunt during the 1970s and she thought it was my cousin.  This made me sad but not too much.  It was sweet that she saw a family resemblance and made a connection even though she got the name wrong.  It happened several times, confusing generations but still realizing which branch of the family tree she was looking at.

Then there was a series of photos from a party my parents had attended when they lived in Augusta, Georgia in the early 1970s.  The people in the photo were friends of my dad’s from dental school (the series of photos comes just before his graduation photos.)  These people are strangers to me.  I’ve seen the photos many times, but I don’t think I ever even met these people (well, after age 3.)  Yet… mom insisted that one of the photos was my aunt.  For some reason, her inability to recognize that this was not a family member, that this was a stranger or someone she had known only briefly about 45 years ago, really bothered me.  I found myself pushing back, insisting, almost arguing.  I wonder why?

When I realized that I was upset, I paused, took a deep breath and talked to God.

“She doesn’t know a stranger from a close relative!” I cried out.

“So…?”  God answered.

“So, there’s a big difference!” I argued.

“Is there?”  God replied.

Sigh.  It’s true that mom had her facts wrong.  The woman in the photo is not my aunt.  But whoever she is, the woman in the photo is someone special.  She’s part of the human family tree, even if she’s not part of the Grimes or Walker family tree.  I see a stranger; mom sees family.

I thought of Jesus in a stressful situation, surrounded by a crowd, asking them, “Who is my mother?  Who is my brother?”  Family is such a gift, but Jesus reminds us that all our neighbors are gifted and valuable also.

So… pretty soon we put the photo album away.  I looked over at the staff person having a rough day with a challenging resident, and I tried to think of her as family.  It was easy!  I looked at mom’s neighbor sleeping in the recliner and thought of her as family.  No problem.  Then, later today, in the aisles of the grocery store… I saw strangers and prayed for them as though they were family.  Making small talk with the cashier, I recognized her as family.  Human family, brothers and sisters.  No barriers, nothing to separate us into categories where some are more important than others.

I guess mom was right.  The woman in that old 1970’s photo is family too.  Someday I’ll learn not to argue with mom!