Monday, December 24, 2012

I Am Not Broken

Anna and me, moments before her surgery.

It's been seven years since I have been in church for Christmas.

I did not grow up in a religious family. In fact, my parents did not go to church. I was baptized Catholic and that was about as far as it went. Around the age of twelve, I began to feel what I later regarded as a "calling" to Christianity. My earliest memory was that of finding a leaflet in the dentist office that had a telephone number where children could call and listen to bible stories. And if you stayed on the line after the story was finished, you could talk to a Sister about any questions you have or concerns about your "life"...whatever those may be at the age of twelve. I had a lot of questions...and a lot of concerns. What those were is another story, but my life up to that point had already held it's share of loss and sadness - my innocence being one.

At twelve I was walking across the street by myself to attend the Lutheran church on the corner and by the age of 16 I had found my way to a country Church of Christ and sealed the deal with a second baptism. I also met the man I would eventually marry. A local Minnesota Bible College student who was preparing for a life of ministry. We dated until I graduated from High School and were married that very summer. We raised five daughters and ministered in Lutheran churches in Michigan, Nebraska, Southwest Minnesota and Wisconsin. The year before our divorce, after twenty-two years of marriage, was the last time I attended Christmas services. I can count on one hand the number of times I have step foot in a church, period.

The service my husband and I attended this past Saturday was good. It was a good service and it was good for me. It was in one of those mega-churches. The kind with gift kiosks and coffee shops. The 18,000 member kind. It's the second time I have been in one. The first time was for more of a production/show and I went there with my mother and a group of Red Hat Ladies. This time was for an actual Christmas church service, with offering, and hymns, and a sermon. Without going into a lot of detail, let it suffice to say that for this service I was at peace. Not that my struggles did not come to mind - but I was in a good place and that place was peace-filled. It's not a traditional place, it's not even what many may find as a conventional place, but it is a place of wholeness, a place of rest and a place of profound spirituality. A place of Creator and created.

At one point in the service, during one of the large screen presentations, a phrase went across the screen and it read, "We are all broken."

We are all broken.

I know where this comes from. I have lived my life of religious dogma. I know the ropes, from beginning to end. I've walked the walk, talked the talk and tried to intertwine black and white into a humanity of grey. I've been saved. Twice, I guess. So my background is deep. Full of good, don't get me wrong. But I do not come from a place of brokenness, nor do I hold the conviction that we are all broken.

This past week my daughter Anna had major jaw reconstruction surgery. We knew it would be a big deal, but seven hours in the OR and almost one blood transfusion later, we had no idea how big. Neither did the surgeon. Moments before they whisked her away he reassured us that after three mock surgeries on plaster molds of her face they were sure they knew the extent of what needed to be done. About four hours into the surgery he called me from the operating room, "I'm sorry Mrs. Johnson, but things are not going as we had planned and it looks like we are going to have to do the lower jaw as well. It will be another three to four hours of surgery. Do we have your permission to proceed?" I told him of course he did, hung up the phone and wept.

In the end, the surgery went well. She spent two days in ICU and was released to our home, where we will care for her over the next two months. The extent of the surgery is beyond what you could ever imagine possible on the human face. Because she is unable to tolerate narcotics she is managing through excruciating pain, swelling and numbness. She is unable to move or control most of her face. I was somewhat prepared for the issue of pain as I know her of her intolerance to pain medication. What I was not ready for was the devastating emotional toll this would take on my nineteen year old daughter. The comment from her upon looking in the bathroom mirror, "Look at me, I'm fucking disgusting!" mumbled through spit and blood, will haunt my mother's heart for as long as I live.

We are all broken.

Like I said before, I know where this comes from. No need to explain the theology to me. I was a bible college student and a pastor's wife for too many years to have missed this one. But if there is anything I could do over in my life it would be this - I would ingrain into the hearts of my children at every moment, at every bedtime prayer, at every bible study, at every meal, at every teen-age teary eyed night-time tucking in, at the end of every boyfriend, at the heart of every mistake and every tragedy - that they are NOT broken. They WERE NEVER  broken. That the Creator, whoever and whatever that may be to you or me, is incapable of creating brokenness. We are what and who and how we are to be in this very moment in our life. Period. To fight or not accept this fact has only one end, and that is suffering. How can we be anything other than what we are ? This is a fight against reality we will never win.  I would tell them that there is nothing about them that needs to be "saved". I would tell them that all that resides in creation and Creator resides within them. I would tell them that in the depths of their despair and fear that they are powerful, and whole and that all that they need in this life resides within the miracle that they are. That yes, we do need others in our lives. We need doctors and therapists and pastors and friends and family... but these people do not make us whole. They simply bring us back to what has always been there to begin with. They bring us back to ourselves. And this is anything but disgusting. This is anything but broken.

I spent a lifetime thinking that I was in need of being saved. I spent a lifetime looking in the mirror and believing that what stood before me was not good enough. I spent a lifetime correlating my pain with having "fallen away", believing that if I was more faithful, I was somehow a better human being, I was closer to whole, I would know peace. I would reserve my spot in the mansion.

These days, I don't live my life in the black and white. I live in the grey. I am totally okay with not knowing most things in this world. I believe in something bigger than me - Creator, Universe, God, Father...I don't have to put a name to it. Neither do I need to judge, justify or kill for my belief. And I simply don't get those who do. But this is the deal, we are not broken. I am not broken. You are not broken. In the midst of of your despair, you sorrow, your discouragement, your fear, your failure, your hopelessness, your desperation...

You are NOT broken.

You may have made a mistake, you may be depressed, you may be feeling angry, you may be lost, you may be mean and bitter, you may have lost your legs or fallen sick to a life threatening chronic may be a lot of things, but you are not broken. You are beautiful, and powerful, and a miracle of creation. Fully existing as all of the Universe would have you to exist. Just as you are. And if you can only learn to love, truly love who you see in the mirror and the moment you are in, you will find your way back to yourself. You will find peace. And in that peace you will find the true miracle of Christmas.

You will find love.



Monday, November 26, 2012

When The Pain Is Yours


I don't like going to the vet...I never have. Today was no different.

This is Oliver. Oliver showed up on our deck sometime in September, or maybe it was August, I'm not really sure. It was sometime near the end of the summer because we were already trying to come to some decision as to what to do with her if she was still "hanging around" when the weather turned cold. She never left.

Yes, Oliver is a she. We found this out a little over two weeks ago when we had to take her to the vet. We had somehow gracefully slid into the understanding that she was here to stay. And now she was sick. Or so it seemed. Excessive drinking and salivating led us to suspect she had some sort of kidney issue. Two hundred and fifty dollars later we were assured she was just a thirsty, salivating, perfectly healthy two year old female cat.  I had exceeded my pet budget for the month, so booster shots and spaying would come later.

I have to admit, this was not a real popular idea with myself nor my husband. Two dogs and a cat already seem overly sufficient. Adding another pet, that will most likely be with us for the next 13 years, was not the direction we wanted to be heading pet-wise. But it's a difficult spot to be in. You don't euthanize an animal that just seems sick. So you figure out the most inexpensive way to find out what might be wrong and go from there. Getting the "all okay" meant bringing the cat back home. I think it was at that point that I let Oliver into my heart.

Two weeks passed and mental adjustments had been made by all. Oliver was officially part of the Johnson/Buresh clan. Which truly was not much of an inconvenience to our daily activities because Oliver prefers to be outside. Out of 24 hours, I would guess that Oliver maybe spends 4 of those indoors. The rest are spent stalking and hunting the various mice and birds that frequent our bird feeders and surrounding woods. A real hunter, she's quite the antithesis to our Jeni, who prefers longs naps in the sun and full bowls of Indoor Formula Cat Chow.

The middle of last week, after spending a full day out and about, Oliver came in holding her front leg up. Unable to put any pressure on it, she hobbled to her usual spot in the spare bedroom and stayed in for the night. Three days later both legs on one side were not working properly. Four days later she walked in a completely arched back position and meowed in pain as she moved. This weekend she could barely crawl to her food. The progression, heart breaking to watch.

Our appointment was for 8:30, the first appointment of the day, the one you get when you call at 7:01 am.  If I could have figured out anything else to be doing on this beautiful morning I would have. Just getting her into the crate brought me to tears. I had already told the girls that we could not afford any more medical testing. That this is a stray cat and our budget only goes so far. That she might not come home with me... Tough talk last night, but now it's just me and Oliver and my heart is breaking. She has the absolute most beautiful green eyes you could ever imagine and at that moment they were pleading with me to leave her alone. Trusting me.

The vet was very good. The sign in the exam room where we sat read "Every pet deserves a good vet, and we HAVE good vets". Yes, they do. He lifted the top of the crate off so Oliver would not have to be moved.   Ever so carefully he examined her as I held her head in my hands, stroking her face and eyes. In my heart I hoped it comforted her, calmed her. I could feel her body quiver with fear, but she never moved. This once active, inquisitive cat now lay motionless looking directly into my eyes.

It was at that point that I lost it. Apologizing for my tears, I just kept saying, "I'm sorry, I'm really sick and I think for some reason this is especially difficult for me." He was a sweet man, a little unsure as to what to do with me, he simply nodded and said, "It's okay." It took everything in me not to fall to pieces in that exam room. As I sit here and type these words, I'm still not really sure of all that fills this painful space. If I could pick some words out of thin air they might be helplessness, frustration, sadness, anger, fear...a most intense longing for things to be different. Why can't some things just be different.  

In a few weeks my daughter Anna is going to have major surgery to repair a birth defect that only now, at the age of 19, has made itself evident. She will have her jaw broken in multiple locations, upper and lower, with extensive work on her temporomandibular joint and chin. We have been planning for this surgery, which was suppose to happen in August, for over a year now. I have the most intense longing for things to be different. Why can't some things just be different. 

My bedroom window
I sat down to write this piece instead of doing my usual Cyber Monday shopping because I had to. When I put my fingers to the keyboard I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write about. I just knew that the only way to find out was to begin. As I looked up out of my window two bald eagles flew between my window and the pines in my yard. Beautiful, crisp white heads, wings spread, one right in front of the other. Eagles have always been important in my life, representing balance, intuition and spirituality - their presence bringing assurance that the divine is present. A validation of the path I am on, the direction I am going.

A reminder of the Holy.   A reminder to let go.

Oliver came back home with me today. We are fairly certain that something is wrong with her spine. Neurologically, things look good, yet she is in a significant amount of pain and is unable to move because of it. Everything else checks out okay. As to what is wrong with her spine, we don't really know. I have enough pain and anti-inflammation medication to get us through three days. If she doesn't improve by then, well, I'm not sure what we can do next. I'm not really sure about a lot of things in this life. But this I do know - that it can be really painful at times. And that the biggest of lessons can come from the smallest of creatures. And that life is precious. All life. And we can talk big about things, like "not spending money on an animal" and "I know what I'd do" and "If it were my cat I'd take it out back and..." But when it's your life, or your heart, or your health, or your kids, or your pets...well, that big talk gets pretty small when the pain is yours.

I decided to go check on Oliver one last time in order to give you the most current update. I got down on all fours to crawl quietly to the spot between the table and the patio doors where she lay in order to take a picture. This is what I saw in that very moment. She lifted her head and gave me the most peaceful look, almost a smile if you look closely enough. As if to say, things will be okay...just as they are.


Friday, October 26, 2012


"Home is where you hang your hat."

I love being home, no doubt about it. I always have. Even when I was a teenager, I would have much rather hunkered down with my family in front of a good “made for TV” movie than to be out with a group of friends. To me, home feels good. It feels safe. It feels comfortable when the world seems edgy and rough. It feels consistent when everything else rushes to change.

In this world of striving – striving to be richer, striving to be smarter, striving to be thinner, striving to be happier, striving to be healthier, striving to BE anyone other than who we are in this very moment - in all of our conditioned discontentment, we fail to see that we are exactly where and who we need to be– in this moment. Yet, how can it be anything different? But if we are in a constant state of striving, how will we ever know? How will we ever become aware of the beautiful fact that we are already there?

In mindfulness meditation you intentionally commit to being fully present in this moment, not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but to simply realize you are already where you need to be. You aren't trying to attain anything - not even mindfulness itself. You just accept things as they are. In Wiktionary, the Wiki-based open content dictionary, they give this definition of the Old English proverb, “Home is where you hang your hat".
Rather than feeling nostalgic or sentimental, one should simply accept any place where one happens to reside as one's home.
If we truly come to a place of acceptance about ourselves, if we stop striving and realize that in this moment we are ALL that we need to be, then home becomes a place within ourselves. Home is wherever we are, and coming home means a returning to our true selves, a place we are destined for. As the poet Cavafy describes in his journey home to the island of Ithaca, finding “home” was not some external place to arrive at, but a place of awakening and enlightenment within.
Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so that you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would have not set out.
I am very thankful for the physical place I call home. But I have also been in a mental state where no matter where I am at; I can’t seem to find my way there. In my days of striving to find a diagnosis, I was further from home than I have ever been. Fear is like the kindling of the past fueling the fire of the future we dread. It keeps us moving outward, farther and farther from home.

Letting go and accepting where and who we are is not some sort of passive resignation. It is your intentional invitation to the unlimited capabilities that reside within. When asked why people are afraid of this acceptance, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes,
Maybe the fear is that we are less than we think we are, when the actuality of it is that we are much, much more.
The hat in the above photo still hangs in my home. I bought it during a time of great transition in my life, long before I became sick. I've put it on and taken it off many times over the past seven or eight years, each time hanging it back up on the corner of my mirror or on a hook in the entryway. It's presence comforts me. Seeing it there tells me I’m home. 

Right where I’m supposed to be.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Liberate Yourself From All Your Bullshit"

“Can you question who you are? And are you comfortable with not knowing?”
~ Jon Kabat Zinn

Being chronically ill can really play havoc on your emotions. In fact, research shows that chronic illness and depression almost always, at some point or another, go hand in hand. I fought this idea for a very long long time. In my mind, it was bad enough to be thrust into the category of "chronically ill people", I was NEVER going to add myself to the list of "depressed people". This I could control. 

Well, I can't even begin to tell you all that is wrong with the above way of thinking. I also cannot tell you how painful it has been to come to this realization. Yet, at the same time, it's been each painful step that has lead to the beginning of my freedom from this suffering. How so? Well I'll tell you two very important things that I have learned.

First of all, I had to get over myself. Labeling is wrong. Period. For more reasons than I can even mention in this post. We have this habit of experiencing life and then carefully putting those experiences in categories that we label as "good" and "bad".  Had a pleasant experience at the DMV...good. Had to wait for my prescriptions for over an hour...bad. Today I heard from an old friend...good. Today no one commented on my facebook status...bad. My children spent time with me after our evening meal....good. My husband had to work late...bad. And so it goes...every day, all day long, for our entire life. We experience things, we label them, we tuck them away in our minds as facts. Some of this labeling serves a very good purpose. It keeps me from making decisions that could be harmful to myself or others. But quite often, our labeling serves no purpose at all and actually lends itself to the harm of my self or others. 

Then, without even knowing it, we make decisions based on what our minds believe to be fact. For example... if I had a pleasant experience at the DMV I may choose to tell others how wonderful my counties DMV is. I may offer to go to the DMV for my husband next time the need arises. If I had to wait for my prescriptions for over an hour, I may tell my friends how horrible our Walmart pharmacy is. I may even change where I send my prescriptions to and ultimately have to drive extra miles just to pick them up. And let's say my husband has to work late...again. I may tell myself that he does not care about how difficult it is for me to put supper on the table without him. Worse yet, I may begin to tell myself that maybe he has had enough of my illness and is somehow falling out of love with me. Which leads to insecurity, which then leads to anger or maybe even resentment, which leads to me becoming short with him or verbally questioning his motivations. 

So, second of all, what we need to realize is that our thoughts are not facts. Our thoughts are our experiences, often times hijacked by our emotions, labeled as good and bad and tucked neatly into categories in our minds. Without having to go into a lot of detail, you can easily see how our experiences can be misinterpreted. And it goes without saying that illness, medication, depression can all have a significant impact on how we label our experiences. As Jon Kabat Zinn so eloquently puts, "Stop living My Story. Liberate yourself from all of your bullshit". I simply am not the sum of my experiences. 

So then, what am I? Who am I? This question never seemed so frightening as it did once I became sick. But it doesn't have to be sickness that brings this question to life. It could be the end of a marriage, it could be the loss of financial security, it could be death of a loved one, it could simply be old age. At some point in all of our lives, the identity we cling to lets go and all hell breaks loose. Who am I if I can't provide for my family? Who am I if I no longer have my health? Who am I if I loose my friends? Who am I if my spouse dies? 

We seem to get through these losses, as difficult as they are, as long as something else remains for us to cling on to. But sometimes life takes away everything. And then what? 

I have by no means lost everything. In reality, only death can do that, as far as the physical world is concerned. But I have lost enough to struggle with the question of Who am I. And it was not that I all of a sudden thought, "Oh my gosh, who am I?" It was much more subtle than that. The question came to me in the form of depression. And this depression made itself known to me in the form of anxiety. An anxiety that every so quietly entered into my life creating havoc with an already complicated illness. And what I found out is that the only way to get rid of that anxiety is to let go of  knowing.  

We hold onto knowing as if our lives depended on it. When in reality, it is the NOT knowing that brings true life. If we are preoccupied with who we “know” ourselves to be – I am this, or I am that – if we conclude that we are only the sum of our life experiences – then who we are becomes completely limited. When we end the sentence simply at “I am.”, then who we are becomes completely limit-LESS. Liberate yourself from self-identifying and you will find that life is so much greater than you could have ever imagined it to be. You will find that instead of being "let down" or continually disappointed by life, you presented with a never ending list of possibilities. 

For me, I am no longer defined by my illness...or by my ability to run marathons, or by the wonderful mother that I am, or by being the wife of an amazing man, or by my painting, or....

I simply am. And that makes me everything. 


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Creativity - one step at a time

Since posting my last article, my husband Dave made his way into the Stillwater Gazette with his 90 day journey to the top of the Main Street Stillwater staircase. The 90 day mission, which ended on day 143, brought much more than making it to the top each day (157 steps in all), it brought a new perspective on life. Sometimes it just makes sense to do something that makes no sense at all. 
Click Here to read the full article.

Life is good.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Journey Into The Unknown

Recently, my husband ended a 90 day journey to the top of the Main Street stairway in Stillwater, Minnesota. Funny, as I type that, it sounds like it took him 90 days to get to the top! Actually, the journey was a daily one. Every day as he drove through Stillwater he stopped and climbed to the top of the stairs to take a picture. This 90 day mission took him 143 days. What began as a whim on a cold February morning ended as something much greater - something unknown, yet powerfully significant. He says, "It's a great luxury to do things that don't make sense."

There is a white building on the left side of the street. It towers above all the rest and slopes without reason on the back corner. On the backside of this building there is a pair of windows.

Inside those windows lives a beautiful women. 
She is my daughter, Anna.

This is her first apartment on her own. No roommates. No live-in boyfriend. No help from Mom and Dad. This picture was taken the day she moved in. Exhausted from the days events, she is graceful, elegant and filled with passion for her life. I painted the picture of her that you see on the wall behind. The eyes of a then 13 year old. Piercing. Asking their questions of me. Hoping, trusting. 

This picture was taken on that very same day. Low lighting and movement producing a haunting reflection on life. These are how days seem sometime. Fleeting, ghost-like apparitions. We try to hold on, as if grasping at smoke. But the Universe has a different plan.

In the heart of Los Angeles, right next to Beverly Hills, there is an area called Sherman Oaks. This eclectic town is approximately 1,975 miles from where I live. In this town lives a piece of my heart. Sometimes a piece so large that its absence takes away my breath. Sometimes a piece so large that I scarcely can hold the joy that it contains.

This is my daughter, Amanda. 

She and Daniel moved out to California four years ago with an old car, a few suitcases and a roll of toilet paper. They had nothing else...except a dream. A hope. And trust.

Last month I took my first trip to visit Amanda and Daniel. It's crazy what can happen in four years. When I think of all that has happened to me in the past four years - getting sick, fighting for my life, becoming disabled, learning and accepting - and compare it to all that has happened in her life...

I realize that none of us really knows how this crazy journey will go. Not one of us. Yet, we keep walking. We keep loving. We put ourselves out there again and again - being vulnerable - because the risk of losing does not even compare to the gift of being loved. So we chance it. Again and again. When the whole world thinks we're crazy and everyone else gives up. We just keep believing. Because some day...some day.

Some day you take this picture and you realize that love is bigger than you could have ever imagined
and it's worth every tear and every hope and every fear. And that 2000 miles aint nothin'. 

And then there were three, where there once was 
only two. 

This is my oldest daughter Aleela and her husband Keith and the newest addition to our family, Adella Marie. 

Being the oldest isn't easy. It makes you responsible. It makes you determined. Charting unknown territories,  with an impetuous invincibility. Refined, lovely, compassionate. 

They brought this miracle into the world and I can't help but be thrown backwards into the past each time I look into her deep blue eyes. I see a little girl in a pink dress, with a pink bow in her hair, standing on a stump in the yard singing to her hearts content. Unmoved by the world that surrounds her. Freely creating masterpieces of make-believe, joy flinging off the tip of a wand. Pure, care-free and open. 

Oh, my beautiful Adella Marie. What will you become? Where will you go, my precious, precious baby girl. If you are one millionth of what your mama is, you will be rich with life. 

I have no idea what steps you will take. But this I know - I refuse to live a life of fear 
when it comes to this world. And I will work with all that I am 
to show you the hope
and the beauty
and the joy
of this amazing 

In 1987 I was 21 years old. After the birth of my second daughter, Amanda, I was told it would not be a good idea to have more children. Two operations later - Anna May was born in 1993. Three seemed like a good number. A safe number, all things considered. 

1996 I was 30 years old when I became pregnant with twins. Life will do that to you. Throw you that curve ball, when you're not looking. When you're not paying attention. It will just hit you square between the eyes 
with the most amazing

Meet Emma Jane and Sara Jane.
They were a two-for-one deal
I cannot imagine life without them.  

They are the last two at home. They have known a life very different from their other sisters, although the sinew of sisterhood is more powerful than one can ever imagine. I see it between these two and it is the force that binds them all together, connecting them, holding them tightly through every storm. I see a beautiful trust in the knowing that no matter what, no matter what - they are never alone.

Often times when I talk of Emma and Sara people will say, "Oh, a surprise " But isn't everything in life a surprise? We are lucky that most often during our day things happen to go as planned. Gravity still pulls in the right direction, the alarm clock goes off when it's suppose to, the milk is still in the fridge... But it's all up for grabs, really. Yet we trust.

On September 28th, 2006, Judge Eric J. Lundell granted me a judgement of divorce from the father of these five daughters. He was my first true love. I met him at the age of 16 and married him at the age of 18. We had so many dreams. And for 22 years we watched most of those dreams come true. We also experienced the painful end of others. There are very few things in this life that shake your foundation like divorce, all horribly painful, all life changing.

In the middle of my writing this morning an old friend from work called to just say hi. She herself has experienced one of these "things" when she lost her husband to cancer a couple of years ago. She talked of how Fall made her reflective. How in that reflection there was sometimes a bit of sadness. She talked of the colors and how the leaves fall off the trees and things begin to shut down for winter, and how that brought about feelings of death. But only a "little sadness" she said, because like the new relationship she now finds herself in, and like the flowers that eventually burst forth in Spring, "things must come to an end so that others may begin."

It is our ability as human beings to take tragedy, in it's finest hour, and turn it toward reclamation. A holy redemption. The freedom to begin again.

I don't even know where to begin when it comes to my "second chance" at life. I think I've only had a dozen or so of them! But if it would not have been for the miracle of love and forgiveness, I would never have had the chance to be the step-mother of Casey and Maddie Johnson.

Being a step-mom is not something you grow up thinking about. In fact, in my day, the only vision of step-mom's were that of Lady Tremaine from Cinderella and the Queen from Snow White...not really images I like to emulate. It's tender, risky business. Hearts are at stake. The hearts of children, of mothers and of fathers. You tread this area like walking through a room full of the dark. Slowly and softly.

There are simply no words to describe how blessed I am in this regard. There's a knowing that comes before this kind of love.It's what makes love all the richer. It's like sunshine after the rain. Like spring-time after a long winter. It's what keeps us loving again and again.

I started writing this morning because I was missing my daughters. It's tough sometimes, having kids live so far away and being too sick to travel. When I feel this way I have a tendency to start telling myself stories that are not very helpful. So I thought that maybe if I just started writing, I might work things out. Kind of like the journey that my husband was on - the 90 day journey that I wrote about at the beginning of this article. The one that went from 90 days to 143 days. He didn't really know what was going to become of his mission, he just knew he needed to be on it.

It's when I try to make sense of it all, when I try to ground my feet in something that really isn't there, that I struggle. My husband is so right. It is a great luxury to do things that don't make sense. Isn't that what loving is all about. If you think about it - most days it doesn't make good sense. But we do it anyway. We love, we trust, we hope...and we love again.We venture into the unknown.

No one has taught this to me more than my daughters.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Four Years...

This picture was taken a little over a year ago – August to be exact. I had just undergone what was supposed to be a very straight forward cardiac ablation. But because of the complexity of my illnesses and all of the medications I am on, nothing, absolutely nothing is ever straight forward. This particular surgery ended with the largest hematoma in my abdomen that my doctors at the University of Minnesota had ever seen. It was serious business and the recovery took months.

I have had countless situations in the past four years that have begun as simple procedures or administrations of medication and have ended with complex and life threatening circumstances. Too many to count and enough so, that visits to the emergency room bring a tremendous amount of fear to both myself and my family.

I’ve only seen this picture once before. I stumbled upon it, not knowing that it had been taken. The first time I could not even look at it. Not because of my own situation, but because of my daughter Emma, who is sitting next to me in the photo.  This time, in my searching through photos this morning for something to post, I let myself linger a bit. A year has passed since then, and there have been other situations much like this one, where my family has been by my side.  I cannot imagine what they go through.

Four years I have been sick now. Four years they have never left my side. Four years of hospitalizations, emergency room visits, life threatening reactions, coding - four years of chronic illness. Four years, day in and day out, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year – my illness has impacted their life. I will never fully comprehend the affect this has had on their lives. Just looking at the face of my daughter in this picture makes my heart so heavy I begin to weep.

Yet, not once has my husband or any of our seven daughters ever complained. No once have I witnessed their frustration or anger. Not once have I ever heard bitterness or any complaint in regards to the chaos this has brought into our lives. Countless vacations have been canceled, plans have been changed, meals have been disrupted, work and school has been missed – sacrifice after sacrifice has been made on my behalf. At times my illness consumes all that is in its path and nothing shakes their unconditional love for me. Nothing.

I cannot imagine a love so great. I cannot fathom the depth and breadth of such a thing. I can only be present in its grace. That is all I can do. Lay myself open to this gift and simply receive. And then, with all that I have and all that I am – love in return.

To my family,
I love you. I love you beyond anything I could ever imagine.

Thank you for loving me so well. 

         Mom xxoo  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Learning To Float

The view from our bedroom door/window. 

Last week my family and I spent seven days in a cabin on an island in northern Minnesota. We found this Shangri-La two years ago and honestly thought we would never be fortunate enough to experience it again. But as luck would have it, there was a cancellation the week of the Fourth of July and the caretakers offered it to us on a whim. At nearly 11pm on a cold February night I responded to the email without question, “Yes! We will come!”

Six months passed and our allotted time finally arrived. On the heels of a week full of family visiting from out of state, we took off for the island exhausted and ready for the quiet peacefulness offered by a small piece of land completely surrounded by beautiful clear lake water. With our first visit back in 2010 vivid in my mind, I could hardly wait to sit out on the deck in the cool breeze, read the books I had brought, fish the abundant waters, fill myself on camp food and nap whenever the need arose.

The day before we were set to take off, John (of John and Kim, the owners/caretakers) called us to warn us that they had had record rainfall and that the lakes were at least three feet above their normal levels. There were no beaches and most docks were completely under water. He assured us that he had created a makeshift solution and we should have no problem getting onto the island. John, the eternal optimist.

When we arrived at the mainland dock, we were immediately amazed at the height of the water. He was right, there were no beaches and everyone’s docks were under water. What we also noticed was that due to the damming of the lakes being fed by the Mississippi, the waters were full of tannin. Tannin is humic acid that is left in the water from decaying vegetation, primarily leaves. Our clear lake water looked like root beer – dark, dark brown with a reddish tinge. On a positive note, as John put it, “it’s as warm as bathwater”. And it most definitely was!

Our first day on the island.

Our first day there was mostly spent setting up camp and running back into town for groceries. Our week would eventually include my oldest daughter and her family as well as my parents, so this food haul would be a big one – about $500 worth. Running to the store is no easy endeavor when you are on an island, so we wanted to get everything all in one trip. Being that our day started around 5am, we had traveled over half a day to get there and the temperature was creeping near 100 degrees with high humidity (no air conditioning in our vehicle or in the cabin)  – we ended our first day absolutely exhausted. I use the word “we” very loosely as I did very little of this work. Just managing to stay cool and not get sick was my number one priority. This was Saturday.

Sunday was another very hot and humid day. As the afternoon approached the skies turned a thick dark gray. With a storm on the horizon we told the girls that we could go out on the pontoon for only a short while. I think we left around 6pm. After less than an hour of fishing, Dave gave the two-minute warning. Not wanting to end our first trip short I joked with, “Ah, just five more minutes?” Nope, we’re heading back. There was to be no discussion.

You hear stories about people not having time to react when bad weather hits. I’ve learned not to take this fact of nature lightly. When we arrived onto the island we walked up the hill toward the cabin. I noticed that the girl’s suits and towels were still hanging on the line. I told Dave he should grab them so that they don’t get all wet. As he walked over to the line I noticed this wall coming across the water. It was not a wall of rain. It was simply a wall and it was coming fast. I yelled at him to leave the suits and come into the cabin. We barely made it into the cabin and the floor began to shake.

The cabin.

There is no basement. The cabin sits atop a hill on a cinder block foundation. The only place for us to go was to situate ourselves in front of the stone fireplace on the opposite side of the wind. Before we could even get huddled together on the stone ledge the trees around us began to snap. Some being pulled completely out of the ground, others were snapping off half way to the top. The noise was like nothing I have ever heard. For our teenagers, the whole ordeal was somewhat like a roller-coaster ride. Nervous laughter filled the air. For me, wisdom and experience made this the most frightening storm of my life. In a matter of less than ten minutes, our peaceful island looked like a war zone.

This picture was actually taken on our 2010 trip, but gives you a good idea of where we sat during the storm.

We were standing in front of the window to the left just as this tree went down. 

Every building was spared. Not one tree fell on a roof. The largest tree fell right on top of the clothesline that Dave had been standing at when I yelled for him to come in. It literally fell right between the two trees that were holding the line up. For the next couple of hours we sat in the dark as storm cells passed through. Around 11pm we heard a faint voice calling out in the dark, “Is everyone okay?” It was John! Somehow he had made it on his barge/pontoon across the lake. As my husband said that night, he looked like the old man and the sea. Covered from head to toe in rain gear and a small headlight attached to his forehead, he came walking toward the cabin with coolers and ice in hand. By nights end he had supplied us with a place to put our food and lamps to see by.  Night number two, we fell into our beds exhausted and hot, barley sleeping in order to keep our ears open for the next storm cell. That was Sunday.

John, the day after the storm hit. 

This is the tree that went down on the clothesline. 

One of the trees that snapped in the middle.

Monday morning John and Kim arrived with their good friends Ed and Gloria. The kind of friends that you can call at midnight the night before that hop in their car, no questions asked, and drive for hours with chainsaws in hand in order to help you out in a bad situation. The kind of friends that spend the next two days from sunrise to sunset in stifling heat and humidity cutting, lifting and raking all the while with smiles on their faces and laughter to ease the pain. All the while making sure we had what we needed – even a generator to run the fridge and water pump so we could have water to drink and a toilet to use. Remember, everything has to come over by boat. And once here, has to make it’s way onto the island and up a hill – a hill now covered with fallen trees. I’ve never seen people work so hard. That was Monday and Tuesday.

Ed, making his way through the next tree. 

John..."Everything has a process." And so it does. 

From left to right: Kim, John, Gloria and Ed. "The Fearless Four"!

By Wednesday the sky had cleared and the electricity seemed as if it was going to stay on. Finally, we could cook, see clearly at night and run our fans! I called my daughter as well as my folks and told them that they might want to consider staying home. Even though the storm had finally moved out, it was hot and the electricity situation was sketchy at best. Neither took me up on the suggestion. By Wednesday morning Aleela, Keith and baby Adella arrived. By Wednesday afternoon my parents stepped foot on the island. By Wednesday evening the second storm was on its way. This one forecasted to be worse than the first, 80+ mph straight line winds, damaging hail and lightening. This time we all barely made it off the island. Thankfully we had rented my folks a motel room in town due to the heat, so we all headed that direction. Let me tell you, I was in complete panic mode. When Keith notified me (he has satellite internet service on his phone) that the storm was on its way, my heart just sank. How could we have put all these loved ones in this danger? Why didn’t I tell them all to stay home? But there was no time for remorse, we packed up the bare necessities, ran down the hill and boarded the pontoon. Every second we were on that water seemed like an eternity. All I could imagine was that wall coming across the water again. There was no way we would stay afloat. Once again, we barely set foot on shore, ran up to our vehicles and the wind hit. Branches blowing across the road we sped towards town. We waited storm number two out at the Timber Lodge Hotel and by nightfall we were back on the island with no electricity. That was Wednesday.

Emma and Leslie coloring by sunset.

Thursday the heat and humidity moved out and we had a simply lovely day. My parents had purchased a one-day fishing license and Thursday was the day. We spent the morning and the better part of the afternoon under the shade of the pontoon canopy pulling up sunfish barely big enough to swallow a hook. And swallow it they did! Most of our catches were thrown back in only to be gobbled up by the eagles that surrounded us. One keeper in all, but it was a perfect outing. It’s been years since I have fished with my mom and dad. I will cherish those hours for the rest of my life. As our luck would have it, for some random reason the electricity went out again Thursday evening. There were thousands still with out power, so my guess is that whatever the fix was, it was temporary at best. That was Thursday.

Keith, finding a few hours to fish between storms.

Friday we awoke to extremely overcast skies, torrential rain and no electricity. It rained all day. The temperature dropped significantly and the cool breeze made it sweatshirt weather. A welcome change!! Thanks to Aleela and her ability to make just about any situation fun, the teenagers had a wonderful last night at the cabin. They stayed up late playing cards and pictionary and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of their laughter floating up the stairs to our room. That was Friday.

Adella and I, watching the rain at 5am, waiting for the electricity to return.

The girls playing cards Friday night. 

Saturday morning we all awoke at 4:30am with my granddaughter Adella. She was to be the alarm clock and with perfect timing she awoke on schedule. By 6:30 they were packed up and back on the mainland and by 7:30 we were in our van and heading into town. As we rode our fully loaded pontoon back to shore the weather could not have been more perfect. The air was crisp and still, the water like glass, the sky deep blue and the loons, not more than 20 feet away, calling back and forth to each other to greet the morning and bid us our farewell. It was surreal. No one spoke. There was only listening. There was only that moment, in that place, in that time.

I’m pretty sure if I could have listened into the minds of my teenagers I would have heard quite a different “tune” than what I was experiencing in that moment. By day three they were asking if we were going to stay or go home. Roughing it is not exactly a 16-year-old's idea of a vacation. Although, if they admit it or not, they had their moments of fun. Moms know these things.

So here I sit. It’s Wednesday of the following week. We’ve been home four and a half days and I’m still recovering. I think adrenalin (and pain medication) kept me going and it was not until we arrived home that I realized the toll the past two weeks took on me. Thankfully there was literally nothing for me to do when I got home. Our daughter Anna stayed back this trip due to work, and made our homecoming simply delightful. Once she heard how the trip was going, she made it her goal to make sure I was able to rest the minute I walked into the door. The house was absolutely spotless, the plants and gardens watered, the laundry done, the refrigerator stocked, the garage clean, the sheets changed…she didn’t miss a detail – even a welcome home sign on the kitchen whiteboard. It was a gesture of love and compassion in its truest form, and I was moved beyond words. This is my daughter, Anna.

I knew I wanted to write about the week eventually, but for the first few days I really struggled - one, because of pure exhaustion, and two, because I really did not know what or how I wanted to write. I wanted to recount the week and its details, yet something was pulling at me, as something always does. Something bigger.

As life will do after any vacation, it hit me pretty hard. Even though our time on the island was full of it’s share of struggle and daily maintenance, it was still a reprieve from the “norm”. And despite the coming and going of weather and electricity, there were moments pregnant with beauty and all that nature sings to our hearts in the spaces of stillness. These minutes were enough to carry me away from the pain of illness, to empty my mind of the family crisis and struggles left behind back home and to bring me comfort. There were times when even though I felt like I was literally drowning, there was peace to be found under the water. The peace that comes when you give up the struggle only to realize that you can float. The peace that comes when you stop fighting against what “is”.   

Enjoying the last evening on the island after the rain cleared. 

This is the lesson I brought home with me. I didn’t realize it at first. When life “hit” and I lay in bed crying, filling my head with stories of “I can’t” and “this is too much” and the pain of things I have absolutely no control over came rushing in like the flood waters up north – I finally just let myself go under. Like the moment Dave looked at me during the first storm and said, “Honey, this is all we can do” – I just had to let go. And you know what – I float. When we stop struggling, we float. We just need to rest enough of ourselves below the surface of things until we find ourselves upheld. Believe me, this is not an easy thing to do. But the heart of trust is believing you will be held up when you let go. It’s only under the surface that we become weightless and things slow down. This letting go - this is faith. That we cannot stay under for  very long only affirms that we must let go again and again in order to live life to its fullest.

Why didn’t we just head home after the first storm? That seems pretty obvious to me now.


It's a little bit funny...
(for Sara Jane)

It's a little bit funny this feeling inside 
I'm not one of those who can easily hide 
I don't have much money but boy if I did 
I'd buy a big house where we both could live 

If I was a sculptor, but then again, no 
Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show 
I know it's not much but it's the best I can do 
My gift is my song and this one's for you 

And you can tell everybody this is your song 
It may be quite simple but now that it's done 
I hope you don't mind 
I hope you don't mind that I put down in words 
How wonderful life is while you're in the world 

I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss 
Well a few of the verses well they've got me quite cross 
But the sun's been quite kind while I wrote this song 
It's for people like you that keep it turned on 

So excuse me forgetting but these things I do 
You see I've forgotten if they're green or they're blue 
Anyway the thing is what I really mean 
Yours are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Happy Camper

The first weekend in the new camper was a complete success...but not without a few bumps and some great stories. 

Dave took Friday afternoon off so we could get on the road at a decent time. Our destination - Willow River State Park - about 20 minutes from our front door. Perfect for our "trial run". Plus, the kids had end of the year projects requiring them to be home at different times, so the close destination allowed Dave to shuttle them back and forth. This was definitely not a relaxing weekend, especially for Dave. But wonderful nonetheless!

Camper loaded, we jumped on the two lane highway that would lead us to our final destination. It was a perfect day. Sunshine, cool breeze and nothin' but shit-eatin grins covering both of our faces. And then...


These are the tracks that were left by the car that lost control in the opposite lane and screeched toward us in our lane. Yes, our lane is the one to the right. In the blink of an eye. It was the closest I have ever been to a real head on collision. HOW Dave managed to move the van and trailer over quick enough without losing control still dumbfounds me. Brakes locked, the oncoming car barely squeezed between our trailer and the line of cars in the other lane. The roads were packed! Three cars wide, this crazy driver managed to maneuver his way out of the middle and back into the correct lane without damage. We pulled off into the parking lot of the campground and sat in disbelief. All Dave could say was, "What just happened?" Crazy.

Happy to be alive, we put the near miss behind us and headed to our spot in the woods. It might be good to mention here the importance of looking at all the sites prior to making one's reservation instead of assuming that all spots will look like the ones previously camped at.

This was our spot in the woods...

Not really the "surrounded by the depth of the forest" I was looking for. But hey! This is a trial run, I'm happy to be alive and I'm ready to set up home in the camper of my dreams! Life is good.

Dave took care of all the outdoor set-up and I went inside to make a pot of coffee. (Oh....the stress of it all...) Here is a shot of Dave drinking his first cup of coffee. It's the simple things, isn't it? 

I figured out that by leaving the front window cover down, I did not have to look at the highway where we just about ended our lives. Out of sight, out of mind!

This is a picture of Dave's parents, Ralph and Bernice. It is their life and love that made this camper a reality for us. Never will a camping trip go by without this picture at the head of our table. These smiles, a constant reminder of their love for family, for travel and for the great outdoors.

We love you Mom and Dad. 

Our first guests were Anna and Evan. They came for supper the first evening and had to head back for jobs in the morning. After supper Dave made a fire and we sat and visited while eating smores for desert. It was the perfect ending to our first day.

Sara was the first daughter to sleep in the camper. This is her pretending to be asleep for the picture!

This is Dave REALLY asleep. Exhausted from the days events, all it took was getting horizontal and he was out like a light!

Sara got to pick out the first breakfast of the trip and she ordered up pancakes. Other than getting used to new heat, a different pan and a sticky spatula...they turned out pretty good.

I think this is the look of satisfaction...and a full tummy.

Bound and determined to get me into the woods, Dave decided that he would take a look around.

And by 5:00pm on our second day, he did exactly that. THIS is spot #2! Smack dab in the middle of the forest! He found a site that did not have a reservation sticker on it, confirmed that it was a "no show" and waited up at the ranger station until five minutes after the official deadline for cancellation.

A man with a mission...

"RRrrrrr....I have created fire!"

Emma was the second daughter to stay with us. Her boyfriend, Tucker, brought her out and they spent the evening around the fire with us. Before Tucker took off for the night we polished off what was left of the smores. It was a wonderful ending to our second night of camping.

This is Emma drinking hot chocolate by the morning campfire. She ordered eggs, bacon and toast for her breakfast, so this is her patiently waiting...

...while I fried up breakfast inside!! My daughter Anna was talking the other day about Dave and how he always has a way of making things easier for people. He's great at fixing things and even better at making good things AMAZING. She then said it would not surprise her if one day I could do everything I need to do from bed...well folks, this comes pretty close!

I'll leave you with a couple of shots that Dave took on his journeys out and about last weekend. With this being our "trial run" and all that it takes to get things set up, there was not much time for relaxing. But he did manage to sneak out Sunday morning and make it to the falls.

We're definitely hooked! We came home that night and immediately started working on reservations for the rest of the summer. Having a small camper means less work inside for me, plus all the comforts of home that make this a possibility for someone who does not always feel so great. As I walked around in the woods on Sunday I found myself on the verge of tears...good tears. I honestly never thought I would be able to do this again. And smelling the smells of woods and campfire, watching parents walk their children along the paths, hearing the birds wind down the day and greet me in the morning - it made me incredibly full. Full of thankfulness and joy to be alive. I told Dave, when we made this decision, that this was one of the biggest items on my bucket list. In fact, it was number one. Now, how many people can say they've checked off number one?

Imagine that!