Parasites, People, Pain; Anger, Frustration, Futility. And Hope. Eventually.

I haven’t been writing much, especially not here, in a while. At the risk of oversharing–and to put it in sweet, verbose evangelicalese–I have been blessed with the opportunity to graciously host a variety of God’s precious microscopic creatures in my home and body, and in the bodies of several of my family members. So grateful to do my part to facilitate the growth and development of these vigorous and rapidly adaptable creatures! I have to admire their resiliency–how quickly they learn to resist the drugs that brilliant scientists are constantly racing to produce to destroy them and their kind!

What perseverance.

Extending hospitality (and, subtle hints that it was time to go, and then, eventually, eviction notices) to these creatures has occupied much time and energy. I’ll spare you explicit details, but let us say that both the Giardia family and the P. Falciparums have been making themselves at home and encouraging them to make their departure has involved numerous trips to the doctor as well as the lavatory, and more than a few potentially carcinogenic remedies.

(As a chemist friend recently told me, the whole thing with drugs is that they’re designed to kill the stuff that can potentially kill you…without killing YOU in the process, too. Encouraging words from a professional, no?)

The Giardias, who regret this staid, old-school studio portrait. They wish they could've been leaning against a barn badly in need of a paint job while laughingly looking at each other in wonderfully "casual" postures, perhaps with the kiddos in a wheelbarrow for good measure.
The Giardias, who regret this staid, old-school studio portrait. They wish they could’ve been photographed while leaning against a barn badly in need of a paint job while casting whitened, straightened, adoring toothy grins at one another, perhaps with the kiddos in a vintage red wagon for good measure.
The P. Falciparums, on the other hand, are feeling retro-fabulous in olive greens. #nofilter
The P. Falciparums, on the other hand, are feeling retro-fabulous in olive greens and distressed browns. #nofilter

One of my sons is so robustly healthy that he’s scarcely been ill for an entire day in his life. No exaggeration. If a member of the Rhinovirus clan so much as glances his way, his immune system scares it away with a mighty roar. The only time he needed antibiotics was for a spider bite that got infected from being scratched too much. He was the fruit of a pregnancy during which I survived on Breyer’s vanilla ice cream, selected specific flavors of Jelly Belly beans, and Canada Dry ginger ale. So basically: sugar.

{The other son, who was nourished in utero on organic kale and quinoa and whatnot–he’s another story. (And I’m not giving prenatal nutritional advice. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is SO not a legit thing, okay, no matter how many times folks tell you that living in areas with high concentrations of armadillos makes you more likely to get a divorce.}

Anyway, this second son gets dramatically sick. His normally prodigious appetite vanishes, as well as any trace of his equally prodigious mirth. (If you ask him whether he plans to be a comedian when he grows up, he’ll tell you, with a straight face, “No–I plan to be a chameleon!” and then guffaw with laughter. I won’t give you his whole medical history, but let’s just say he’s sampled urgent medical care in no less than five countries and three continents, and this past week his condition gave my prayers (and the prayers of many other beloved folks–thanks, dear ones!) an especially desperate tone.

This morning, the woman who helps me keep house came. (Yes, yes, I have hired help. If I didn’t, I would be considered a horrible rude mean selfish person who withholds employment from others when I have the means to employ them. Just doing my trickle-down part here, folks. I actually LIKE to clean my own house, so there!) And over coffee, I told her about my son’s illness, and we thanked God for mercifully allowing him to be restored to health. And then I asked her about mosquito nets.

She doesn’t have one, because her kids have some, and even a cheap net costs several times more than the average Malawian earns in a day…and people have to eat. People have to pay for school fees. So she takes her chances. As we continued talking, it became clear that she wasn’t entirely aware that malaria comes from mosquitoes at all. I explained (briefly and probably slightly inaccurately) how malaria was eradicated in the USA, and how folks like Bill Gates are helping to find a way to get rid of it in places like Malawi, too.

I have heard crazy stories, stories of well-meaning people coming in from the west to distribute nets in areas where malaria isn’t much of a problem–the kind of thing that eases middle-class consciences but does little to prevent death and illness. I have heard of teenagers and adults with long-term, chronic damage from malaria (of which they were unaware) becoming acutely ill and dying within hours or days. Last year, the young man (I’ll call him Nick) who was helping us in the yard and learning some basic carpentry skills had a baby who got sick and died at around 3 months–and we don’t even know why.

These are people who don’t have the kind of insurance that pays to Medivac them to state-of-the-art hospitals.

What about their urgent prayers, and those of their loved ones? Does God not hear those prayers?

And how to respond? I can buy a net for my house helper, but not for everyone. There are stories of hope, for sure, but also so very many stories with tragic endings. We got a call from Nick at 2 am telling us his baby boy was gone, and it was so fast that this was the first time we’d even heard that the baby was ill.

There are no answers. Even to try to explain these things is almost always to do a kind of violence to human experience, or to speak ill of God, who, in spite of everything, I believe to be holy, just, loving, and good. The only thing I can cling to is the thought that Jesus took on flesh. As a poor boy and young man in a village, he probably played host to more than a few parasites. He took on all of this. He took hate and abuse and an absolutely unjust punishment.

And he didn’t just conquer P. Falciparum, or Giardia, or Rhinovirus, or E.Coli, or HIV/AIDS or rotavirus. He conquered death itself.

But I still think he would be handing out mosquito nets and supporting those people standing all day in laboratories trying to find cures for all these ills. Come to think of it, perhaps he is. Through the hands and feet and faces of all kinds of people, perhaps he is.

Books (And Authors) You Can’t Get Out Of Your Mind

I have a long history of becoming pretty obsessed with a particular story or book. I am only slightly embarrassed to confess that I collapsed dramatically on the carpet of the bedroom of my high school years weeping when Fantine died in my first reading of Les Miserables. It is slightly more embarrassing to confess that I really enjoyed the drama of collapsing and weeping over a book. Months later, when my mother and I went to see the musical on Broadway on my 16th birthday, we wept dramatically together on the train ride home. The next day I went to a record store (remember those?) to use my birthday money to buy the Original Broadway Cast recording of the show, so that I could do more listening and weeping.

This week (and last) the book I’ve been obsessing and crying over is Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, and the author is David Rakoff.

Rakoff said that as a child he was “tiny, articulate, and vibrating with anxiety and fear,” which also describes the child version of me pretty well. I was actually quite easygoing much of the time, except I would lie awake poking at my abdomen and thinking that my intestines were cancerous growths. Also, once, I read some really scary junk mail from some crazy group which said  the Holocaust was nothing in comparison with what the Bible predicted would one day happen to Jews (like me, because Hitler didn’t care if you were baptized or if you had a goyische father as I was and I did), and that kept me over-alert, waiting for the sound of goosestepping, for months. (I think I was seven). All that to say: I can really relate to so much of Rakoff’s writing.

This week on my blog, I want to introduce you to some of my favorite bits of David Rakoff’s work: nothing like a formal review here (but look for that elsewhere–I’ll tell you when), just some tidbits. I’m aware that he’s not for everyone; his language and subject matter is not always ‘family friendly,’ shall we say, but there is so much good in Rakoff that I feel compelled to share.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from his first book of essays, Fraud:

Screen shot 2013-07-22 at 12.46.38 PM

On his strange lack of memory surrounding his cancer treatment at age 22:

“What remains of your past if you didn’t allow yourself to feel it when it happened? If you don’t have your experiences in the moment, if you gloss them over with jokes or zoom past them, you end up with curiously dispassionate memories. Procedural and depopulated. It’s as if a neutron bomb went off and all you’re left with are hospital corridors, where you’re scanning the walls for familiar photographs.”

On the curiously peaceful and un-cranky atmosphere in the new Princess Margaret hospital where he was treated:

“When medicine is socialized, when you have true universal health care, when everyone’s treatment is the same regardless of socioeconomic station, those strong-arming attitudes of entitlement just aren’t part of the vocabulary. This atrium, this lovely space in a hospital with a world-class reputation, is actually the equivalent of a state hospital. That American sense that someone somewhere else is getting what you’re not, and the attendant demands that go along with that perceived injustice, well, it’s just not in the equation here.”

And on the necessity of a sense of humor:

“Not being funny doesn’t make you a bad person. Not having a sense of humor does.”

 

The Peace of Wild Things (with photos of animals seen on a recent safari)

For me, there is nothing quite like being outdoors, and, especially, seeing wild creatures, as an antidote to anxiety. I don’t think there is anything particularly unusual or strange in that. God’s strangely comforting words to Job involved proclaiming himself as involved and caring in the lives of the wildest and remotest creatures, Psalm 104 celebrates God as the one who knows the comings and goings of animals, and feeds them, and Jesus points his hearers’ attention to the birds and the flowers as evidence of God’s loving and continuous care.

I love Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” which, to me, somehow expresses all of that. Several years ago, when we were enduring particularly stressful times, I memorized it while washing dishes and repeated it to myself in bed when I couldn’t sleep, and when I longed to put on my hiking boots and wander into the wilderness, but had to stay home to change diapers and put kids down for naps. It’s worth reading and re-reading, I think:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

{via gratefulness.org}

I am, faith in Jesus notwithstanding, quite expert at “taxing” my life “with forethought of grief,” and that is just one of the reasons I love wild things: they cause me to consider that I am as beloved, or more so, than these creatures that God so loves.

Here are some of the wild things that gave me peace and grace this week:

kingfishers
kingfishers
bathing
bathing
delight
delight
impala
impala. so beautiful.
into still water
into still water
tree
wild, beautiful trees

{All photos by the Stone family. Feel free to share so long as you link back here. Thanks!}

What I’d Like My Children to Know About Politics and Jesus (w/ a recipe for Non-Partisan Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Brownies)

A few nights ago we were talking politics at dinner, much to the boredom of my children, one of whom finds it hilarious to proclaim, loudly, that he is going to vote either for John McCain or for “Bushel.” We’ve explained that neither of these people are candidates, but it seems not to matter to him. He is only four.

My seven year old, on the other hand, is bored by politics (“why all this talk of PRESIDENTS?” he’ll say, sounding vaguely Biblical somehow) yet wants to know who we’re voting for and why. It’s been an interesting challenge to explain to him what we think and why, and how that’s different from what others think (and why), without making anyone out to be the “bad guys.”

I slipped up, though, at dinner the other night, clutching my head and moaning, “What if [Candidate X] wins?” as if his victory would slay me. “What does it really matter?” Aidan said.

And I didn’t explain why it did, even though it does. Instead, I turned the tables and asked the kids:

“Hey, guys–who or what could bring hope to everyone in the world–not just this country. Not just us?”

Graeme (4), without hesitation: “God!”

Aidan (7), solemnly: “Yes. I agree.”

There you have it–out of the mouths of babes, as they say.

My post today was going to be partisan, I’ll admit. But then I couldn’t bring myself to hit “publish.” There has already been so much talk, and, really, at this point, I’m convinced that the Undecided Voter and the Sasquatch are one and the same. Even Family Circle has created a way for you to show partisanship–you can bring Ann Romney OR Michelle Obama cookies to the office, you know?

And in any case, the hope of nations is Jesus, not any of the candidates nor the USA.

Am I encouraging Christians not to vote, or not to care about the elections? Not at all. There are real and important issues at stake in this election, and I believe voting can be an important civic duty, though not the only one that Christians have. There are good and sincere Christians all along the political spectrum.

And, though there have been ugly words on all sides, some of the worst of which are those insinuating that other Christians are not ‘real’ Christians, in the end, we follow a risen Christ who spoke peace and showed it, too, in the breaking of the bread.

That is why some Christians are starting an inter-denominational movement for Election Day Communion.

It’s not that there are not real differences between parties and denominations, for there certainly are. It’s that the breaking of the bread crosses all the lines. That’s what Jesus did. Oh, it didn’t win him popularity–quite the opposite, in fact–but he did it.

And in the early days of America, there were no magazines hosting partisan cookie contests. In those days, people had to travel such distances to vote that hosting towns would bake and serve Election Day Cake as a gesture of hospitality, presumably, the cake was shared regardless of affiliation.

Now that’s an American tradition worth reclaiming, no?

So instead of a partisan post–or partisan cookies!–I decided to offer this recipe I’ve created, Peaceful Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Brownies, as something seasonal to bake and to share with Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and non-voters.

To speak peace in the breaking of the brownies, as it were.

And so, the recipe…

He’s envisioning world peace. (Or, whirled peas.)

Peaceful Pumpkin Brownies

I make them without leavening; the absence of baking soda or powder is not an error. That makes them chewier, as I lean chewy on the chewy-cakelike spectrum of brownie politics. If you are on the other side, please don’t feel marginalized–just add 2 tsp. baking powder and an extra egg.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, (spooned and leveled)
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin-pie spice
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 and 1/4 cup pumpkin puree, cooked down to 1 cup, and cooled (or skip step 1 and use 1 cup pumpkin)
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips dusted thoroughly with 1 tsp. flour
  1. Cook your 1 and 1/4 cup of canned pumpkin, stirring constantly, until reduced. But you can skip this step, and I will not judge you for doing so. Just use 1 cup puree instead.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with baking parchment. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, pie spice, and salt; set aside.
  3. Cream butter and sugar together until smooth; beat in egg and vanilla until combined. Beat in cooled pumpkin puree (mixture may appear curdled). Mix in dry ingredients until just combined. Fold in flour-dusted chocolate chips.
  4. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out nearly clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely in pan, before lifting out and cutting into squares.
  5. Share across party lines.

{And they were very good.}

I Support Mix It Up At Lunch Day BECAUSE I am a Christian

One of my current writing projects has me spending a lot of time in the Gospels, especially the Gospel according to Luke, which may be my favorite Gospel (are we allowed to have favorites?) not least because of its astonishing reversals:

It’s the Gospel where a poor, uneducated girl–Mary–has more faith than an educated, aged, male priest–Zechariah.

It’s the Gospel where a widow’s two pennies amounts to more in God’s eyes than fat donations from wealthy pockets.

It’s the Gospel where Jesus says: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Invite the people who can’t pay you back by conferring social prestige on you, because that is the where the real reward is.

Yes, Luke’s Gospel is a Gospel that proclaims love for the marginalized. And out of the four, Luke has the most meals.

(It’s the Gospel in which Jesus is accused, among other things, of being a “glutton and a drunkard,” who eats with “tax collectors and ‘sinners.'”)

In other words, it’s the Gospel that Mixes It Up At Lunch.

Do you remember lunch in middle school? And high school? I do, because every year, when I’d get my new schedule, I’d have a gnawing sense of dread, wondering who I’d have lunch with and where I would sit, and fearing that I might end up alone.

There were always sharp divisions at lunchtime, weren’t there? The cheerleader table, the ‘artsy’ table, the ‘brainy’ table, the athletic table, and so on, and so on; divisions so definite that may well have been clearly marked on the tables themselves.

Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center–an organization dedicated to “fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society” (sound familiar?)–says that in their surveys, students “have identified the cafeteria as the place where divisions are most clearly drawn.” That’s why they’ve initiated “Mix It Up At Lunch” day, which is October 30 this year.

On this one day,

“we ask students to move out of their comfort zones and connect with someone new over lunch. It’s a simple act with profound implications. Studies have shown that interactions across group lines can help reduce prejudice. When students interact with those who are different from them, biases and misperceptions can fall away.”

The Times article noted that Mix it Up has been particularly effective at one school at pairing special needs students with those outside their usual (sometimes isolating) circles.

Have you ever experienced that–especially over a meal? Eating with others is, in virtually every culture, a profound act that indicates acceptance and belonging and mutual care. It’s why a new husband and wife feed one another cake. It’s why we bring casseroles for families with new babies and when there’s a death. It’s why children who eat together with their families tend to do better than those who don’t.

It’s why it was so scandalous that Jesus did all that eating and drinking with tax collectors and prostitutes and other ‘questionable’ characters–because eating with others breaks down the walls between people.

It meant that Jesus was intimate with people that the religious elite regarded as unacceptables.

But this was not some New Testament innovation. All throughout the Hebrew Bible respectful generosity–hospitality! sharing food!is a mark of righteousness. As the writer Marilynne Robinson writes:

“When Jesus describes Judgment, the famous separation of the sheep from the goats, he does not mention religious affiliation or sexual orientation or family values. He says, ‘I was hungry, and ye fed me not.'”

Is it that much of a stretch to extend that to “I was lonely and awkward and confused, and you ate with me not?”

So I’m more than a little grieved to read the headline “Christian Group Finds Gay Agenda in an Anti-Bullying Day” in the New York Times. The American Family Association encouraged their millions of subscribers not to send their children to school on October 30, calling Mix It Up day “a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools,” a baseless and hurtful claim.

By now I think you’ll see why I happen to think Mix It Up at Lunch Day expresses some important Christian values–values that come from Moses, are affirmed by the Prophets, and are lived out by Jesus–

values that, often enough, reveal themselves in the people we’re willing to share a meal with.

Wouldn’t it be better to open the Times to read something like “Christian Group Finds Christian Agenda (as expressed in Luke’s Gospel) in an Anti-Bullying Day”?

Because eating with people from outside your circle is what Christians are about.

{I haven’t forgotten that it’s World Food Day. Click here to take action!}