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.

Anne Lamott, and Why The Masthead of This Blog is a Raggedy Quilt.

Anne Lamott totally stole my metaphor.

No, not really. But her new book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, plays with the metaphor that made me choose that particular photograph for my masthead and, moreover, explains my love of quilts, especially the kind made from bits of cast-off clothes or leftover scraps that aren’t good for anything until they are stitched together into something beautiful. On the wall of my mother in law’s house hangs a gorgeous old ‘crazy’ quilt that was nearly tossed into the trash; it’s likely over a hundred years old, and that’s probably my favorite kind of quilt: jaggedy lines, clashing colors, and unusual embroidery tying it all together into a startling mosaic of color and texture.

Crazy Quilt Mosaic via Flickr. By Buttersweet.
Crazy Quilt Mosaic via Flickr. By Buttersweet.

Anyway: Anne Lamott’s newest book is very small. And it came out so soon after her last book that I was tempted to dismiss it, like, “how could anything good be produced so quickly?” Recently I read a review in which the reviewer dismissed Anne Lamott, saying that each of her books is basically the same. I admit that I wondered if this was just going to be a volume of so much recycling. And while all the classic Lamott themes are there, this book moved me more deeply than perhaps any of her spiritual essays since Traveling Mercies. It’s small, but it really packs a punch, not least in dealing with the problem of pain in a way that’s conversational, witty, and wise.

Here are some of my favorite lines and passages:

When something ghastly happens, it is not helpful to many people if you say that it’s all part of God’s perfect plan, or that it’s for the highest good of every person in the drama, or that more will be revealed, even if that is all true. Because at least for me, if someone’s cute position minimizes the crucifixion, it’s bullsh*t. Which I say with love.

Christ really did suffer, as the innocent of the earth really do suffer. It’s the ongoing tragedy of humans. Our lives and humanity are untidy: disorganized and careworn.

My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering.

Any healthy half-awake person is occasionally going to be pierced with a sense of the unfairness and the catastrophe of life for ninety-five percent of the people on this earth.

Pretending that things are nicely boxed up and put away robs us of great riches.

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To get back to what this all has to do with crazy quilts and such: there is so much brokenness in the world, and our ability to stitch it all up is incomplete and impermanent. But while we are waiting for all things to be made new, we find hope and healing in the connections we make with one another, and with God: paying attention to the extravagant beauty in the most ordinary things, sharing a meal, being kind. These are stitches. This is grace.

I highly recommend it, but Mom: don’t buy yourself a copy. I’m sending you one for Christmas.