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The day after, Vermont residents watch in shock as water threatens the dam in Windsor

Every American who was alive at the time remembers where they were and what they were doing on November 22, 1963.  We remember, too,  exactly where we were on September 11, 2001.  And for Vermonters, we remember the day Irene came to town.

One year ago today, we were hauling in deck chairs and taking down dead trees in our little wood, preparing for the high winds that were predicted to be heading our way as Hurricane Irene barreled up the east coast.  The big winds never really amounted to much, but it rained.  and rained.
Vermont is  small state with a big body of water on either side: Lake Champlain to the west and the mighty Connecticut River to the east.  The lovely Green Mountains run down the middle of the state, and hundreds of beautiful streams flow down the mountains in all directions, draining away snowmelt and rainwater into the larger rivers and out to the ocean.  Vermont’s 250 towns lie along these streams, roads following the natural course of the green valleys.  When the rains of Irene hit, our already soaked landscape couldn’t absorb another drop, and the streams were overwhelmed with the torrential run-off that tore through every village and took away roads, forests, bridges, houses, farmland and the face of Vermont.  On August 28, one year ago, we were aware of the rain pelting outside, but had no idea of the magnitude of the destruction that was going on down the road.

Water Rising

Residents watch as their home washes away in Killington

Hillary Mullins, a writer from Bethel, VT, posted an article in an online local newsletter, Seven Days, describing her Irene experience.  I’ve shortened her essay for my post; you can read her full essay here.

WHEN IRENE CAME

When Irene first arrived — not as a hurricane but as a tropical storm — she didn’t seem so significant after all. The rain started Saturday night, and, yes, it came steady, but around here we’ve all seen rain like that before.  A thunderstorm hits, creating a flash flood in one area.

But even though we knew all this, even though we knew the land here is all ridges and river valley, brooks and streams pouring down from everywhere to merge, uniting in the river that runs through our village, we didn’t know the power of what was running at the level of our feet. We didn’t know what could happen if all those little waters — not just some here or there — began to rise….

A cubic foot of water weighs a little over 60 pounds, and 60 pounds on 60 pounds countless times meant the beast was unleashed and the waters were going where they wanted. Two miles up Gilead, the brook was the size of a river by noon, and what once was road became river, and what once was meadow became gully, 30 feet wide, all churning water and torn-up trees.

Finally, around midafternoon, I heard the news that Gilead was flooded and that, over on the other side of the River Street Bridge, they were flooded, too. But still I didn’t understand… I called my brother. He was working a long weekend shift at a milk plant up in St. Albans. His road home, he said, was supposed to flood later on that night.

“I’m on ’til nine,” he said, “but guess I’ll leave at eight, seven-thirty if I can.”

“Why not leave now?” I asked. “It’s only milk.”

Then I called to check on my two friends who live in a house this side of the River Street Bridge, the town side. When they didn’t pick up, I worried, but I didn’t panic. I decided I would do some cooking and try them again in a little while. I didn’t know that already, just a few miles down the road, a husband and wife had been running through their barn, desperately trying to unhitch their cows as the river came pouring in, trying to move the animals — many of which they’d raised from calves — to safety. Twenty-five were swept away by the water. Somebody downriver saw one go by.

I didn’t know, but all over town, all over whole swaths of Vermont, the same thing was happening: streams and brooks and rivers swelling to huge and terrible dimensions, churning like furies through the landscape and taking everything in their path: trees, roads, houses, trucks. Toys, tires, sofas, stoves.

Me, I was making ratatouille. Slice the eggplant, salt it, let it stand…I tried my friends over on River Street a second time. No answer. I sliced the squash, the onions, the garlic. Put in basil. And then, just as it was getting dark, the power went out.

I brought the emergency candles out, made sure I had matches on hand. I called my brother. “Just pulling into the driveway!” he said. “I’m home.” I went out.  This is when I began to know. But it was just a start. A few hundred yards down the sidewalk, I looked north through the trees, down onto … the kids’ playing fields, a large stretch of land. The ball and soccer fields weren’t there. Only lake was there. And I could not see where that lake ended…But, those fields were not a lake: They now were part of the river, and all the river was moving, and, though I didn’t know this because I couldn’t see it from where I stood, over on the main road north of my house, that river was running through the place we call the Dented Can Store and running through the plumber’s shop behind it, and running through the house of the woman who manages our post office; the river running a quarter of a mile beyond its usual banks through the fields and over the road and onto the other side, coursing through house after house, overtaking even the front row of the trailer park, shoving people’s trailers right off their moorings. And those people were lucky. Somebody else’s trailer washed away. Folks over on the other side of town saw it go under the River Street Bridge.

The next morning, the morning after the flood, was strangely lovely, a perfectly sunny and soft, end-of-summer day. All over our town, people were waking up and seeing what would have to be done. Roads and sidewalks and driveways were gone, entire fields layered under two feet of mud. This side of the River Street Bridge, their house thankfully spared, my friends were shoveling soggy bedding up out of the goat pen. On the other side of the River Street Bridge, neighbors were lining up to help the people whose places were wrecked, carrying out chairs and tables, armfuls of coats and books.

So far, the recovery bill is $733 million.  And we’re still rebounding, all over the state.  There are still many in temporary housing, farmers who have lost their livelihood, some roads still unpassable.  Repairs on both of our local covered bridges won’t be completed for another 12 months.  We have to drive a long way around to get into certain parts of town.  But one of the things that made the tragedy of Irene remarkable was the way that communities, in every part of the state, pulled together.

Our Covered Bridge

FLOOD BOUND:

There were many towns completely cut-off from the outside world; isolated islands, every road in or out was washed away, power and phone lines gone.  One such town tells its story, as Marion Adams, an Emmy nominated videographer and resident of the little town of Pittsfield,  reveals how the tragedy changed her home town and the people in it, in her documentary entitled Flood Bound.    Along with 36 residents of Pittsfield, she tells the story of rallying to overcome adversity, the building up of a community, of how isolation and ancient grudges were healed in the aftermath of the storm.  It is a very personal, compelling story — the result of a community pulling together, described as “the best kind of disaster you could have”.  As neighbor unselfconsciously helps neighbor, the final comment on the tragedy, in the words of one local resident,

If humanity could be like this, there would be nothing wrong with this world.”   Indeed.

 

((The documentary FLOOD BOUND was aired last weekend on Vermont Public Television,and is currently only available on DVD,   but THESE CLIPS are certainly worth watching!))

ONE YEAR LATER, and now another hurricane, Isaac, is bearing down on New Orleans, having already lashed Haiti, leaving devastation in its wake.  I struggle, maybe like many of us, with the images of the horror of so many tragedies on our planet.  And struggle, too, maybe like many other Vermonters, who might just be a little bit self-congratulatory about our own heroic response to our own flood trauma, and squirm when we must ask ourselves “Who, really, is my neighbor?”

 “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied, “How do you read it?” 

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”    But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Tent City in Port-au-Prince after Isaac

Who is my Neighbor?

 

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Mother’s Day:  In honor of my mother, and in loving memory of my friend Beth, I’m posting a reflective essay I wrote five years ago, a few months before Beth died at age 88.  She was quite a firecracker.

My friend Beth

My friend Beth was crying yesterday.  She sat in her comfortable green recliner, her last remaining possession, and cried; not the self-conscious tears of trying not to be a bother, not the self-pitying tears of a disappointed child – but honest, innocent tears of confusion and grief.  The nurse came in to give her her medicine, crushed in a spoonful of applesauce, a small white paper cup of water for a chaser.  “Are you all right, dear?” she asked.

“This is my friend,” Beth smiled through her tears, and patted my hand.  Her freshly cut silver hair bobbed against her cheek.

She was immediately distracted by an advertisement for cat food on the muted television which was always on.  “There it is!  You see!  I told you!” she laughed now, and pointed to the jumping kitten on the screen.  I had no idea what she was talking about.  The nurse moved on to the bed next door.

She has dainty, manicured fingers and translucent skin.  Her fingers flutter as she gently brushes her thick bangs to one side and pats her hair. “The little girl, she was there,” she turned to me – the kitten and her tears, both forgotten – her green eyes, soft with eager hope.  “She was there, right there,” she says, hugging herself with girlish delight. Suddenly her twinkling eyes lose their light and turn dark once again.  “They came, but they made me stay.  I was so mad!”  Her small thin-skinned fingers curl into fists, and she is ready to start punching the air, twisting about in her chair.  She has been like this before.  I think she is remembering a foster child she cared for briefly, years and years ago, long before I knew her.  She never realized it was temporary care and the little girl was not to be her own.  When they took the girl away, Beth broke down in hysterics and had to be restrained in the hospital for several weeks, so I was told.  Beth never spoke of it.  Now, her lower lip trembles, and a sound like a muffled wail comes up from the depth of her soul. “And Bud doesn’t come,” and she is in tears again.  “I want to go home.”  She is crying softly, bewildered.  “I want to go home.”

She looks old, and tired.  Home.  Her little one bedroom bungalow where she lived for 65 years, first with her fresh, young husband, a worker on the railroad who died without giving her any children, then, with her blind, diabetic mother.  Then alone, feisty and fiercely independent, taking in sewing, creating and selling beautiful quilts out of her tiny garage turned into a tidy studio. She was the Avon Lady, and was known by everyone in our small town.  She could carry on both sides of any conversation, with wit and laughter, and shared her mighty opinions freely with no one in particular – the grocer, the pharmacist, newspaper carrier, mail person, town clerk, town manager, chief of police, pastor, and the senior citizens in her quilting club or the customers in her little shop.  She composted and dug and planted her own gardens every year until she was 83 and couldn’t remember any longer how to pay her utility bill, or remember to put the milk away in the refrigerator instead of the closet.

As we cleaned out her little house and reluctantly moved her into the nursing home, we began to discover she had not been functioning well for much longer than anybody realized.  With sad affection we found the envelope, stuffed with every kind of colorful advertisement along with the overdue phone bill, and every square inch covered in postage stamps as though she knew she had to mail something but couldn’t quite remember how to go about it.  We found the shoes, lined up in the kitchen cupboard, and stacks of unopened mail stuffed in the dirty laundry basket.  The last months of Beth’s creeping apprehension about leaving her house began to make sense.

Her little home has been sold, the proceeds going to her only brother, Bud, who lives far away and doesn’t care; he has a life and worries of his own.  He arrived soon after we alerted him that Beth wasn’t well.  He stayed about a week, had Beth sign the deed to the house in his name and empty her savings account, and then he went home again.  My husband JR manages her social security check, to pay for her medication and the nursing home bill each month.

At first, Beth had many visitors, friends and neighbors, curious.  Even Bud came to see her once, and sometimes used to call her on a Sunday afternoon.  But now, she has faithful visits from one dear long-time friend, Joan, who manages her health care; and me and JR.

My heart fills with sorrow and wants to break, when she cries with such genuine confusion and pain.  Of course she wants to go home.  To go someplace where things are right again, and familiar, and personal.  To have meaningful and satisfying work to do, and conversations that make sense.  To a small world that is her own world, where she is known and she matters.

Now, she cries alone in her green chair, staring at concrete walls and a droning television, day after long day.  And although she doesn’t remember that a book can be opened, that there are words and pictures on the inside, she does know that Bud doesn’t come, that she isn’t at home.  I try to imagine a very alive soul’s conscious ache for connection, still burning, when the capacity has been snuffed out.  It’s a prison I cannot bear for long.

A small black leather trunk sits in my attic; Beth’s mother’s name is stenciled near the latch.  It holds the precious memories of a life.  There is a photograph of two men in uniform; I recognize Bud and Beth’s husband, standing proudly beside the hibiscus bush that still blooms at the corner of the little bungalow.  A framed childhood photograph of Beth, precocious in her long ringlets and big hair ribbon, seated on a chair with her legs dangling in thick white stockings, trim black boots crossed at the ankle.  Her grandmother’s marriage certificate dated 1878, in bold, colorful calligraphy. Two ticket stubs for Beth and her mother from the last train ride ever between Woodstock and the Junction, before the rail line was terminated and turned into a highway.  A small catalogue of products from the woolen mill where Beth worked alongside her mother while the men were in the war, before it was closed down and turned into a boutique mall.  There is a half-used booklet of yellowed WWII food ration stamps.  There is a program for a long-forgotten school concert, Beth’s name listed as a participant. There are stacks of photographs, of people who once mattered.

This is a mother’s trunk – keep-saking the reminders of a life stored in a mother’s heart.  I see only these bits and pieces of the story of Beth’s life, gone now and long forgotten.  But these were once held dear by the very one who knew the life, the hope, the yearnings, the celebrations, the joys, contained in each memento.  The one who carried this life in her body, and then carried this life in her heart, lovingly kept these treasures as a precious reminder of the child she knew and loved.

There is a secret, divine domain within a mother’s heart, to contain and comprehend the measure of a child.  Though she has birthed and nursed and ultimately released this other, separate being, still the cells of her body recognize, yearn for (and all too often fail at nurturing) the whole potential inherent in her child.  It is from this secret place that she saves the remnants of the life she still carries, somewhere, within her.

Her own mother has been long gone, and Beth herself is a child again.  The little black trunk holds some of her story, but who holds her measure?  Who can hold onto the hope for her, can see all that she is, in her deepest self, since she is no longer able to see it for herself?  Who will see her glory?  For what else could Goldmund have meant, when he said “How will you die, Narcissus, when your turn comes; for you have no mother?”  Narcissus had only himself; and in the end, it isn’t enough.

Her friend Joan and I, in a small way, are mothers now to Beth.  But her soul knows.  Her soul knows even as her mind does not, that her longing to be known is as deep as life itself.  It is no small thing that she wants to go home again.  There is nowhere else to go.  In the end, perhaps, the best we can offer, all of us, is to honor and marvel at the measure of another.  Maybe in some way this, too, is our discipleship of ‘loving one another’.  And maybe Jesus was also thinking of his beloved John when he said, of Mary, “This is your mother.”

Beth with her mother, Mamie
Woodstock, Vermont 1922

My Mother Romi, 1949

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O sacred Head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, thine only crown:
how pale thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
which once was bright as morn!

What thou, my Lord, has suffered
was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression,
but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
‘Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor,
vouchsafe to me thy grace.

What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for thee.

 

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a hero without a face

I have my heroes, same as everyone else – Mother Teresa, Neil Armstrong, Helen Keller — people whose true stories are greater than my simple imaginings, and who share their lives as open encouragement and inspiration for others.  Well,  today I am awed by a new hero, one who is inspiring me when I feel down and freakish with my bell’s palsy  – an unlikely young man who suffered the loss of his entire face in a freak electrical accident. He spent a time with no face at all, just a layer of skin and muscles grafted from other parts of his body, stretched over his skull where his face should have been.  He was eventually the first successful full face transplant in America, now wearing the face of a much older man.  His name is Dallas Wiens.

How does one even imagine what it would be like to live without a face…  Our face is how we recognize ourselves, how we BE ourselves, the symbol of ourselves to others, our vehicle of expression and identity.  Without a face, why, we would be nobody, nothing, in a prison of solitude at best — at the worst, we would be a freak.  So much of the sense of who we are is what we see in the mirror every day.

Psychologists tell us that an infant forms her personal identity by what is mirrored to her in the face of her mother.  Or his.  The child begins to gain a sense of self through what the parent mirrors back:  you are loveable, you are delightful, you are clever, you are fun, or you are stupid, you can’t do anything right, you are in the way…  It is the mirror that tells us who we are; otherwise how would we know?

Dallas Wiens with his young daughter, before the accident; credit:Fox 4 News DFW

Dallas Wiens’ journey took him from having turned his back on God years earlier, straight into the depths of hell.  Quite literally.  In his “near-death” experience he tells of being sucked into an infinite void.  “I saw every sin flash before my eyes, and then I felt a pain that I never before or since felt,” he said.  “It wasn’t physical and it wasn’t internal.  It was like being forsaken, that’s the only way to describe it.  I remember crying out and hearing nothing, and it was utter impermeable darkness.  It was basically separation completely from the divine, and then coming back with God’s arms around me, and an overwhelming sense of peace.”  Dallas Wiens lost his face that day, and without the option of seeing himself in a mirror, it was the mirror of God’s love and grace that began to forge a new identity deep in his soul.

Mr. Wiens’ experience has of course put my puny struggle with facial palsy into a sort of perspective.  Yet as he talks about being “reshaped …into someone new”, I resonate with the truth of what he is saying.  Letting go of an unexamined reliance on the idea that the person I see in the mirror is who I am has been both a bitter and, in the last few months,  a more peaceful process.  The initial trauma was very real, the ongoing adjustments to a half-functioning face have been slow.  It has been nearly two years now since the onset of  Bell’s Palsy, which left me with only 30% function on the right side of my face and new nerves that have cross-wired.  This means that my face is not symmetrical, my eyebrow doesn’t work at all, my cheek muscles are pulled up into an Elvis sneer and my right eye doesn’t blink but it does close and twitch when I eat.   I can manage a smile with only half of my face, so when I feel that I am smiling broadly the effect is actually more like a grimace.  I recognize the micro-second process that happens whenever I meet someone new:  Something is wrong with that woman, I shouldn’t stare.  That response is a kind of mirror of shame that I have needed to learn not to look into.  But I understand their response.  I find that I do the same thing when I involuntarily catch myself in a mirror.

When I catch myself in a mirror, (or, horrors, a photograph!) there is a mighty strong reaction to look away.   That person isn’t me!  What I am discovering, instead, is that there IS a steady, strong me on the other side of my face.  A quieter me.  A gentler me.  A truer me, perhaps.  A Me that is, at any rate, more restful and trusting in God’s reassuring presence.  In the mirror of His love I am finding a connection to a deeper well, a deeper source of identity.  I expect that I will, in time, even grow to love my face.

Kathleen Bogart, (a psychology researcher at Tufts University in Boston who has Moebius Syndrome,  a rare congenital condition that causes complete facial paralysis) states, “The face does form our first impressions, but once we populate our knowledge with the rest of the person, the face recedes to the background.”  I know that my family and friends no longer ‘see’ my dysfunctional face.  They know and enjoy my smile and laughter for what it is.  Talking with only half my mouth becomes a quirky part of me.  The discomfort and stress I FEEL in my face will continue to recede over time, and I will become less and less conscious of it.  My own sense of self will continue to integrate, I pray, as is Dallas Wiens’.

What he says is this:  “What they saw wasn’t me; it was just a mask that I wore, just like their faces were masks that they wore.”  In a way, we all wear masks, don’t we…  And when your mask stops working, you discover a beautiful freedom becomes available, if you let it….

the ‘new’ Dallas Wiens, with his delightful daughter

For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I am fully known.

I Corinthians 13:12

*Quotes by Mr. Wiens are from an article in the New Yorker magazine, Transfiguration, by Raffi Khatchadourian, Feb.13&20, 2012

You can read another post related to my experience with Bell’s Palsy here:  WHAT’S IN YOUR SMILE?  and here:  CUTENESS

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Lovely, brilliant Joni Mitchell had us going ’round and ‘round in a circle some decades ago.  Today I’m on another carousel, of sorts.

last of the sunflowers left for the winter songbirds

Today, I’m watching my brother-in-law suffer with an advanced, aggressive lymphoma.  He was diagnosed suddenly last week after a trip to the ER, and pumped full of all manner of drugs in an attempt to keep him alive.  They are now awaiting results of the node biopsy, which was a mystery to the pathologist, and had to be sent across the country to the top specialists for confirmation. This doesn’t look good.

We made the 10-hour road trip to be with my sister-in-law as they begin to absorb and manage this devastating news.  SIL herself has type-1 diabetes and is recovering from a stage-4 cancer and chemo over the last two years.  Her battle was a mighty one; she put up a heroic fight, not only to survive the massive surgeries, but also to survive the violent, toxic poisonings from her chemo, which landed her back in the hospital many times. She is a conquering hero to all who knew and prayed for her healing, and we rejoice that she lived to see her son married, and to delight in her grand-daughter.

And I am ever, ever grateful to yet another dear friend who valiantly faced her breast cancer, withstood the assault of the surgeries and treatments, and continues to live a strong, brave life.

Maybe this stirs the same questions in you as it does in me:  What in the world would I do if I learned that my body was wracked with a deadly cancer?  How would I manage the assault?

So here am I… confused and wandering in circles in my own brain.  I am unashamedly an Anabaptist Christian, and try to live out Jesus’ teaching of non-resistance, non-violence and peace-making, in all the forms that this takes: in the working out of all relationships – whether inter-, intra- or non-personal.  Even, just a little bit, with bugs.  I prefer to hand pick the insects in my organic garden rather than spray pesticides.  Sure, I am destroying them one way or another, but as I drop them in my sudsy bucket, we have an understanding – a peaceable one, I believe – and it is not indiscriminate.

I pray that – according to the always-asked-question when someone learns that I am a non-violent non-resister: “so what would you do if someone came after you (or a loved one ) with intent to harm?” – that I would have the strength and grace of the Holy Spirit in the moment I needed it, to never do violence to an attacker but to respond, instead, with love and peace. Even at the risk of losing my own life, or God forbid, a loved one.  Most of all, taking another’s life, for me, can never be justified.  God created the blood and breathed the same life into another as into me, no matter how violent or unjust the other might be. Now, I agree, this doesn’t make any sense in rational, human terms; it only makes sense in the context of a faith that declares God to be the One in control of every breath, and He is the only one who gets to say which one is the last.  And how that last breath will be drawn.  I pray mine will be in absolute trust, peacefulness, strength and joy, even if I am facing an enemy.

Which brings me to my dilemma: we all talk about horrible, dreaded cancer as a great Enemy.  We talk about Fighting Cancer.  The War on Cancer.  Winning the Battle against Cancer.  The weapons of that warfare are biochemical: toxic poisons and cell killers.  How is a non-violent non-resister supposed to respond?  Of course I immediately reason – in my head, in the conversation that goes around and around and I play both sides – How is fighting cancer any different from taking an anti-biotic to fight an infection?  Which I have never had a problem doing.  I have been very grateful for medicine many times in my life.  But perhaps that sort of medicine is more like picking bugs….

Yet, this idea of battling against cancer – I only mean the potential that someday I may have to face this decision for my own life – creates such confusion for me!  My faith and confidence in God tell me that my life is in His hands and to engage in such a battle would not be living out peaceable faith for me.  I can imagine for myself the peaceableness of relinquishing that battle to God alone and finishing my days with the strength and joy He allows; relishing the opportunity to focus whatever energy of life I might have left with my family, instead of necessarily applying all my stamina to simply survive the treatments in order to stay alive longer.

But we value life, and adding every possible year to a lifespan seems to be our cultural goal.   I think of my family, my husband, my children, my friends, and wonder if a decision NOT to battle a cancer would be a selfish one.  Irresponsible.  Do I owe it to those I love to enter that war?  Would it be a true reflection of my love for them, and an embracing and receiving of their love for me, to fight that battle?  To try to give us a few more years together, time and memories to treasure?

Then the circle in my brain comes ‘round again.  Is it sincerely love, and sincere faith and trust in God, if I put them through the anguish and cost of that great battle so that we can enjoy a bit more time?  I’ve seen the devastation that chemo can do, it eats up the joy and everything else like a big black hole; for it’s time being, it becomes the miserable center and hope of existence for the entire family.  I’ve also witnessed the miracles that it provides.  But surely if I declare that God is in control of my life – the gift of my being alive – isn’t He also in control of my years, and my death?  Scripture seems to tell me so.  If I end up with a terminal cancer, isn’t it something He already knows about and for some reason has allowed into my life?   Isn’t HE the One who gets to decide my life span, and allow me a few more years – or not?  Shall we not say instead, ‘If God wills it”, and let that be medicine enough?

Now, for those of you who are ready to pounce to send me an email to correct my faulty, irrational thinking and point out my inconsistencies, I want to say I recognize that this is not rational, nor is it an argument for anything.  It is a faith thing, and I am really trying to sort it out….

In the end, in the very end, exactly what is it that matters most?  More years on this earth, enjoying, savoring love and life; or a shorter life that is lived truest to one’s heart of faith….   This is my circle game today as my dear sister and brother-in-law are entering their Great War….

Stone feet of 'Angel of Grief' in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome

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Job said,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”      -Job 1:21

I woke up this morning convinced that I would be able to smile again. I believed, in God’s mercy, the Bell’s Palsy would be gone and the muscles on half my face, which haven’t worked in 17 months, would be supple again, and spontaneously reflect the inner me to the outside world. The real me, a joyful me. Because we prayed last night. Real prayer, Holy Spirit prayer, boldly-approaching-the-throne-of-grace-in-faith-and-obedience prayer, laying on of hands with anointing by the elders prayer. But, no. The right half of my face is still twisted and unresponsive this morning, my eye still unblinking.

I know there is a temptation to question God – Why? Why me? Didn’t we pray right? Didn’t You promise?

Yet I find that my disappointment doesn’t translate into REAL doubting. I find my Hope and Faith stubbornly connected to something deep that I cannot name. Something deeper and more real than this life.

Our lovely Vermont is slowly getting back on its feet again after Hurricane Irene. Or, rather, back on its roads, which in Vermont is the same thing. The roads connect us, small towns and villages, through the green hills and wandering valleys. Crews have been working around the clock, dump trucks full of rock from the granite quarries rumble through town, going where the commercial trucks are temporarily prohibited from traveling, in order to drop their load at the feet of the giant yellow excavators. These in turn maneuver the great chunks of rock to rebuild the vanished riverbank and provide the foundation for a new roadbed. We were told initially that it would be months before the road from here to the NY border would be passable again, but this morning JR had to go into Rutland/Fair Haven, and the road was open all the way – jerkily and still one lane in many spots – and it has only been three weeks!  We rejoice!

For three weeks ago, Vermont was stripped bare, in too many, many places. Charming brooks, streams and rivers turned into raging brown torrents, scalping fields and woodlands. Rambling cornfields were laid flat, buried in thick muck and mud. Trees, large and small, were ripped away and smashed up against old wooden bridges, carrying them away in the deluge. Trestles, farms, bucolic valleys, erased. The pretty calendar-face of Vermont was changed, despoiled, and her lovely smile was gone. Quiet and peaceful pastoral scenes were replaced with ravaged miles of muck and debris; and the thick, choking smell of wet clay, in your mouth, in your nose… Constant sunshine seemed to mock her destitution, paralyzing for a moment our connection to what we had known, what we had taken for granted. Vermont suffered her own case of Bell’s Palsy.

For Vermonters depend on Vermont, it is part of what makes us, well, us. Losing her face is like losing her soul. At the same time, this disaster revealed something truer, deeper. The soul of her people. And her healing is happening, right here before my eyes. Power, communication and access restored; the newly homeless provided for; mud and debris being hauled away; grants and loans for reclamation and re-building made available, including folks to help with the process; businesses rallying and re-opening for the autumn tourist season; neighbors gathering with music, food and festivities… Yes, healing is happening. Vermont’s true face is being seen.

I continue to hope and pray that my face may be healed. And in the midst of my frustrations and loss I am slowly making friends with a deeper me, a face that the world may not see, but that I am coming to know. Standing in the aftermath of the devastation from Irene, confused and angry, I had to remember the words from Job: “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?”  What I see around me, this life, is not all there is. Indeed, it’s not even the most important part of what is. I have learned this with my face, and I see it in Vermont. Perhaps sometimes it takes separating us from what we take for granted as essential, maybe even a brutal stripping away, to allow a dearer, more naked truth to emerge. And isn’t this grace too?

Well may this body poorer, feebler grow!
It is undressing for its last, sweet bed;
But why should the soul, which death shall never know,
Authority, and power, and memory shed?
It is that love with absolute faith would wed;
God takes the inmost garments off his child,
To have him in his arms, naked and undefiled.
-George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, 1880

cleaning flood-mud caked canning jars from a friend's cellar

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