Society

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

I woke up with a mild feeling of dread. The last thing I wanted to do was go back to work or be around people. The last few days I have spent reading and writing. Every few months I do this because I usually have piles of books I need to catch up on and I never seem to make enough time to write – so these days are necessary for me to stay connected to these important tasks.

Unfortunately, when I am coming out of a particularly busy week, it seems to take a couple days for my mind to slow down and get into the reading and writing solitude groove, but once I am in that groove, I feel like I could easily stay there forever and it takes a great deal of effort to emerge back into civilization. When I left the house on Wednesday for an appointment, I realized I hadn’t gone anywhere since Sunday except on a few lonesome walks in the neighboring fields. I also hadn’t showered or brushed my hair. I can slip into hermit mode easily and could stay there indefinitely.

I come by it honestly. My dad was a full-fledged hermit. Many of my elementary-school classmates thought I didn’t have a father because they never saw him, and unless they were in my house or the doctor’s office, why would they?

I was still an infant and my brother only four when dad’s health declined to the point he was unable to continue working as a pastor. We left the Twin Cities and moved to a tiny farmhouse outside Henning, MN. Mom took care of me and my brother. Dad wrote. He fashioned a small office in a back pantry where he retreated to scribble in his notebooks and read.

I believe that he fancied that our move to the country was a new start for us. We raised chickens and had a big garden. On Sundays he and mom taught us Sunday School at home. He did not believe the church in town could teach us better than he could. On summer evenings we played kickball in the back yard and in the winter we went sledding down the big hill in the woods.

At first, Dad still did some supply preaching at area churches on Sundays, but he stopped that soon after we moved to the farmhouse. Dealing with people was just too exhausting for him and bit by bit he began to delete himself from the world. He didn’t run errands. He stopped working at all. He didn’t have or see friends. He didn’t visit his mother or brothers who lived five miles away. He never set foot in our school even one time in the years Andrew and I were growing up. Eventually he also stopped feeding the chickens and working in the garden. He finally wearily sent us to the church in town for Sunday School and confirmation class and if we ever wanted to play kickball or go sledding, it was only mom who went with us.

Our family narrative became “Dad doesn’t feel good.” “Dad is too sick” to come to this or that. “Dad is having a bad day” and so that’s why he never leaves the house. He was suffering and he was the eternal victim.  The rest of us learned to live around that. We learned to never expect anything from him.

How infinitely small his world became. Perhaps it is no surprise he was angry much of the time – so angry that it seemed to push him over the edge to have to deal with any of us. His temper boiled and erupted into fits of yelling, hurling repetitive, paranoid, nonsensical phrases over and over until he would collapse into sleep on the scratchy brown living room couch. Finally, it wasn’t enough to just isolate himself to our property or our house, he retreated to his bedroom where he laid in the dark quiet for years.

And I was glad when he finally did. It was so much easier when he stayed in that room, because when he came out his anger and sadness filled me.

Yes, my dad had physical health issues, but I am certain that it was the emotional and mental issues – the way he isolated himself that really took away his life. The isolation was the perfect nourishment for the depression that hid him away from us and everyone.

I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to make sense of my dad’s life. It wouldn’t be too much of a leap to say that I even appear to be living parts of his life. He was a pastor, I am a pastor. He loved living in the country, I love living in the country. He was a writer, I am a writer.

However, while I am similar, I am the mirror image, or even the upside-down of him. He was a fire and brimstone preacher, I tell about Jesus’ peace and grace. He liked living in the country so he could hide from a world that both displeased and frightened him, I simply love having space to breathe and quiet. Maybe we are most alike in our writing. He loved his writing and tended to it daily, praying it would be meaningful to someone else. So do I. His writing was his way of praying, telling himself and God about his life, worries, dreams, despair. Me, too.

There are two stories I tell over and over and they are both stories of the loss of my parents. Although my parents died only a year apart, I lost one so much earlier than the other. Mom was 77 when she took her last breath and I stopped being able to create new, loving memories with her. With Dad it was about thirty years before that when he stopped participating in life – his, mine, anyone’s.

I grieve my mom’s death but I also grieve that I lost my dad so long before he took his last breath. His physical death on a January day in 2010 was powerfully anticlimactic as he hadn’t really lived in so very long.

I want to live. I don’t want anything to die in me while my heart is still beating.

Yes, I love my reading and writing days when I cloister myself away and talk to hardly anyone, but I know I must be with my community, too. I need them. I need their energy, ambition, love, conflict, because I have seen the alternative and it is empty. God didn’t create us to exist only in our own thoughts and comfortable, safe surroundings. Too much space, too much quiet, too much time alone – it seduces, but left unchecked, it kills. At least it kills me. I choose to be influenced by others – friends and acquaintances, to have their ideas rub up against mine and see what kind of fires that creates in the imagination.

Not terribly long ago, I was having a hard day. I was tired and hungry and grieving for a friend who had just lost her dad. On the drive back from the memorial service, I decided to pick up a pack of cigarettes. I quit long ago, but every few years I dance with the devil and buy a pack. I savor that pack over the next week until it is gone and then go back to my non-smoking life.

I thought about isolation that week because I didn’t want anyone to know I was smoking, so I had to do it in secret. I would make up reasons I could be alone so I could go have a smoke: go for a drive, go for a walk, stay up after everyone went to bed, get up before everyone else, it was exhausting just trying to make room for those cigarettes in my life. Then, I also had to make sure I had breath mints and Febreze and I was washing my hands constantly to try to keep the cigarette stench off of me. Alone, alone, alone. I craved that time alone like I craved the next smoke, but neither the time alone nor the nicotine fixed anything. I was not changed in a better way for having had the solitude or the smoke.

What did help? What did bring ease and energy back again?  Laughing with my kids. Coffee with a friend. Sitting down to talk to my husband. Singing hymns at the bar with my rowdy congregation.

We were created to be in community.

If you need to talk, I’m here.

If you know of someone who is lonesome, give them a call.

 

Society

By Eddie Vedder

It’s a mystery to me
We have a greed
With which we have agreed

You think you have to want
More than you need
Until you have it all you won’t be free

Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me

When you want more than you have
You think you need
And when you think more than you want
Your thoughts begin to bleed

I think I need to find a bigger place
‘Cause when you have more than you think
You need more space

Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me
Society, crazy and deep
I hope you’re not lonely without me

There’s those thinking more or less less is more
But if less is more how you’re keeping score?
Means for every point you make
Your level drops
Kinda like it’s starting from the top
You can’t do that

Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me
Society, crazy and deep
I hope you’re not lonely without me

Society, have mercy on me
I hope you’re not angry if I disagree
Society, crazy and deep
I hope you’re not lonely without me

 

 

 

 

dark times…

It was a dark time. 

Not the season – the season was bright and the days were getting warmer, long and lazy.  The trees were green and lush, the world around her was burgeoning in flowers and there were babies and kittens and lambs – new life seemed to be bursting forth everye babies and kittens and lambs – new chasing after ers and ottom of a creek bed after the water has been rushing over where she looked.  However, this only made Annie more aware that all that she felt was still, cool, and worn, like she was a stone in the bottom of a creek bed after the water has been rushing over it for decades.

Annie pulled up to the grocery store and parked in front.  Same store, different day.  She wasn’t pleased to see Mrs. Anderson’s van in the lot as well as she walked toward the front door. She knew that if she ran into her this shopping trip would take three times as long as it normally would.  Mrs. Anderson liked to talk and talk and talk.  Annie wanted to just get in and out of the store as quickly as possible today.

She entered the grocery store and the cool air surrounded her, she got a cart and began wheeling it toward the baked goods.  “Some cupcakes would be nice” she thought as she glanced over the selection.  She sighed as she noted there were only mini white cupcakes and no chocolate cupcakes whatsoever.  The chocolate cupcakes were infinitely better and mini cupcakes were just so much work – you had to eat two or three of them to even feel like you ate something.  Not that she had felt like eating anything lately anyway.  She grabbed two packages of the disappointing mini white cupcakes and put them in her cart. 

She turned her cart toward the vegetable section and she spied Mrs. Anderson and her son Jimmy Joe by the avocados.  Annie decided she would come back to the vegetable section a little later.  She headed down a nearby aisle and hummed along to the music coming over the loudspeaker.  One of the back wheels of the cart wobbled.

“Same old carts, different day,” Annie thought.  Sometimes it seemed like nothing ever changed – but then she obviously had.  She remembered a time when she would walk down these same aisles with joy and anticipation – planning for a family gathering or a dinner with friends.  Picking up some ingredients for a birthday cake or a bottle of wine with supper.  It seemed like a lifetime ago – who was that person that used to laugh so easily and had energy enough for three people?  It had been her – such a short time ago, really.  Before everything fell apart.  Before.

Annie sometimes felt like a ghost now – moving slowly and silently through her days.  She imagined herself drifting through those grocery store aisles.  A filmy, pale hand grasping cans of soup and bags of noodles.  How strange to feel only partly here.  And to not be able to admit to anyone the truth – not that anyone cared to hear – that sometimes she wished she weren’t here at all. 

She stopped her cart and looked at the selection of coffee.  What would be best?  Organic?  Dark Roast?  Breakfast Blend?  Folgers?  She picked up one of the bags of coffee, squeezed it slightly and breathed in the aroma.  It smelled like that coffee shop where she always used to meet her friend Rita back in college.  Such good memories they had there.  She wondered how Rita was doing – they hadn’t been in touch for decades.  She wondered if the coffee shop was still there or if it had turned into something sad – like a fast food place or a furniture rental shop.  She hoped not.  She liked to think of friends still gathering there and sharing stories over cups of coffee and scones, dreaming of the future and thinking deep thoughts. 

She put the coffee in her cart and continued down the aisle.  She wondered where Mrs. Anderson was in the store by now.  Annie looked up and noticed that the clock at the front of the store still wasn’t working.  “Same broken clock, different day.”  Annie sighed and checked the time on her cell phone.  She had to get moving a little quicker. 

Some cheese, some ground beef, a tub of ice cream and frozen juice. She was almost done and only had to slip over to the vegetable section now without running into…

“Well, Hi Annie!” said Mrs. Anderson as she appeared from behind a display.

Annie’s heart sank.  “Hi there, Bonnie,” Annie said and plastered on a smile.  Now she was stuck. 

Within moments Mrs. Anderson was telling Annie about how she needed to get some garlic bread because her cousins were coming over and she wasn’t sure which brand would be best because she had tried a certain kind and it hadn’t been very good….

Although Annie kept her eyes fixed on Mrs. Anderson and smiled and nodded dutifully her mind slowly drifted.  How could anyone possibly talk this much, she thought.  Then she made a mental list of the things she still had to get on the other end of the store and calculated how long it would take her.  She needed to think of a way to escape Mrs. Anderson.

Mrs. Anderson paused ever so briefly to catch her breath and Annie quickly said, “Bonnie, I am so sorry but I really have to get going.  Hair appointment!  See you on Sunday at church!”  She smiled and waved as she pushed her cart away and Mrs. Anderson looked slightly put out as she said, “Oh, well, okay – see you then, dear.”

Annie hurried toward the vegetable section.  She just needed to get some tomatoes and some lettuce, maybe some peppers.  Why was she even bothering with all of this?  It wasn’t like it mattered.  It wasn’t like any of this was going to make a bit of difference now.  It was too late, she was too late, all of this was too little, too late.  She thought about everything that had happened in the last months and wondered how she was going to get through it.  So many worries, just a different day.  Every stupid day.

Her head hurt.  Her eyes were stinging.  She knew it was going to happen.  She was going to burst into tears right here – in front of the cherry tomatoes.  Right here – in the store where everyone knew her, had known her since she was a child.  She considered just leaving the full cart behind and dashing to her car but heaven knows that would be the talk of the town if she did.  There was nothing in this town that wasn’t everyone’s business.  Same small town, different day. 

As her tears began to fall she felt an arm come around her shoulders. “Honey, let’s go get some coffee, okay?”  It was Mrs. Anderson.  “No, Bonnie”, said Annie –
“I have so much to do and I have to cook this perfect supper and I’m already so late…” But Mrs. Anderson said, “there is always time for coffee”.  She waved at her son to take Annie’s cart – “Jimmy Joe will make sure those get to your house, okay – so we have plenty of time to go and just get a cup of coffee.”

Mrs. Anderson propelled Annie out the door and down the sidewalk and into the coffee shop next door.  Annie sputtered, “Bonnie, really, I am fine.  And I seriously don’t have time.”

“You have time,” said Mrs. Anderson.  “Sit down.”  She motioned to a booth in the corner.  Annie went obediently and sat down.    She wasn’t sure whether to be put out at Mrs. Anderson’s bossiness or touched at her concern. 

Mrs. Anderson sat down across from her and as the waitress came toward them she said, “Two cups of coffee, honey, and two of those heavenly chocolate cupcakes.”  Then she turned her attention toward Annie.  She said, “I hate it when they are out of the chocolate cupcakes at the grocery store.”  Then she winked, “But they always have them here.”  She smiled as the waitress brought over the coffee and two perfect cupcakes.

“Now,” said Mrs. Anderson.  You look like you need a good cry, and maybe a listening ear.  And you have been looking like this for a while, dear – today isn’t the first time I’ve seen you moping around that grocery store.  Whatever is going on with you is none of my business but I know what it is like to suffer, and I know that sometimes it just helps to talk.  So.  Maybe I am wrong, but I’m just going to sit here and eat my cupcake and drink my coffee and not say a word.  And you can do the same or…feel free to talk.  I’ll listen.”

Annie looked out the window.  She saw two small girls running through a sprinkler in the yard across the street.  They were laughing so loud she could hear them all that way – even over the hum of the traffic going by.  Annie was so tired of feeling so bad.  It felt like joy and laughter were just distant memories – things that happened to other people these days, not her. 

She eyed Mrs. Anderson sitting there, sipping her coffee and then taking a bite of the cupcake.  It was strange to be in her presence without the constant chatter of her talking – so maybe it was to fill the silence, or maybe it was because Mrs. Anderson was right and Annie needed this…but Annie started to talk.  She talked, and cried, and talked some more.  She ate the chocolate cupcake and then ordered another.  And Mrs. Anderson listened.  Same old Spirit of the living God at work, mysteriously and truly, different day.

I Peter 4 reads, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.  Be steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.  And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.  To him be the power forever and ever.  Amen.”