The first few people you meet in any place can have a dramatic and lasting impression on your overall experience there. Within our first few days, we met a couple, Bruce and Leigh, and their 6-year-old daughter Reese.

Bruce was brought over to the islands by Wal-Mart, as a manager, to help establish new stores. His impression of life here is quite positive, and it was exactly what we needed to hear in our dazed and confused state. I asked him questions about the things I was afraid to ask about before. What about roaches, centipedes, Vog? What about crime, drugs and the public schools?

To each of my fears, he offered some kind of positive antidote. For example, about the roaches, he told me that they do exterminate here, but, should I see one, I could just apply some chemical to my home, leave and voila! No more roaches. About the Vog
(a volcanic smog generated when the lava hits the ocean) we're just too close to the ocean to be bothered by it. Centipedes? You'd have to be out barefoot and careless, or flipping over rocks to get bit. As for crime, he told me, there is almost no gun crime on the island, and his daughter is thriving at the local public school.

Now I believe his impressions are based on real experience here, but I also think his perceptions also help shape the experience. You have to have the eyes to see what is good around you--and an ability to receive every good thing with eyes open wide.

It's not just your eyes that need to be wide open, though, I also think it is your view--you want a wide view so that you don't fixate (as I sometimes do) on things like roaches, centipedes, or the fact that you currently live in a tsunami evacuation zone and and at the base of a volcano that is expected to erupt at an unknown time.

A little over a year ago, Bruce was hit by a car when he was on his motorcycle. The car smashed him against a stone wall, breaking more than 30 bones and nearly killing him. The doctors were so unsure that he would survive that they didn't set his arm or shoulder. His heart stopped three times.

And Bruce, who was a manager at Wal-Mart and both a father and grandfather, lost most of his memory, his ability to walk and communicate and work. But you should hear him talk about the accident--there's no despair. In fact, he feels the timing was just about right, if that sort of thing had to happen.

He'd recently sold his home at a profit when the market was good, and he'd put money into savings and moved into a rental. The savings has helped the family to pull through while they await the final settlement.

His wife tells me that they never let him feel sorry for himself, not even for a moment. Now he's walking, talking and swimming. There are gaps in his memory but he accepts that as part of the bargain. He is alive to watch his children and grandchildren grow. It is a fine, fine bargain, considering the alternative.

And he has a job now too, against the wishes of his doctor. He's a cruise ship greeter for the Hard Rock Cafe. When the ships come in, he rises early, goes down to the cafe, cuts up some watermelon and walks down to the docks where he greets the tourists as the come off the ship.

But now Hard Rock Cafe would like to put him in a management position, which would be way, way, against the wishes of his doctor. And while he does have extensive management experience, he's not sure how handy it will be because he keeps drawing a blank about those Wal-Mart years. "But at least," he said, "I can remember that I was a manager. That's something isn't it?"


darkness and light

Photo by Amber the Magnificent

The aroma of apple crisp was just beginning to fill our kitchen when the lights flickered, dimmed and went out. Anna and her two friends came running out from her room, saying "The lights are out." Then I heard Fr. John in the hall.

"Note to self," he said, "Don't try to print and run the air conditioner at the same time."

Do you really think you blew a fuse?" I asked. He ignored my question, dug a flashlight out of the utility cabinet and shone it into our fuse box.

I repeated my question as he began to flip switches.

"John, the entire neighborhood is dark," I said.

He finally looked at me and let the words sink in. We'd lost power, once again. The last time this occurred three days passed before the lights came back. As our electric company tactfully explained, "We don't service the South Side at night because it is too dangerous."

Truth be told, I've always been a little (sometimes a lot) afraid of the dark. So the fact that Con Ed considers my neighborhood too dangerous for their macho trucks did nothing for my psyche. But I remembered the verse from Job, The darkness and the light are the same to you, O Lord, and I was a little comforted. I repeated it to myself as I checked the locks, checked the girls and washed the dishes by candlelight.

I headed into the dining room to top off the lampada. As I stood there beside the icons I realized that I was not alone. I shone a flash light into the corner of the room, and there was a small figure standing there beside the window. I almost screamed, until I realized it was Anna, drinking a small bottle of holy water from Lourdes.

After I'd resettled the girls in their beds, John and I headed out back to watch the lightning. It was strangely peaceful without all those city lights glaring down on us. A cop car drive slowly through the alley, shining a search light into each yard as it passed.

Around ten, my neighbor stopped by and offered to cook us some hot dogs on their gas grill. By this time, the girls had reappeared and were hungry, so we requested a few extras. My neighbor also brought down two gallons of ice cream. I decided this was a divine sign that it was time for the apple crisp. So we ate our half-baked crisp ala mode on the back porch with the lightning as our witness. Zoe said, "This is like camping!"

Just before the girls fell asleep the lights came back on. We all hugged each other with relief. As I lay down that night in my cool dark room that verse kept coming back to me--The darkness and the light are the same to you, O Lord.

"What exactly does that mean?" I asked John.

"It means the Lord does not see with physical eyes."

"Boring," I said.

It's got to mean more that that. Perhaps it means that there is no reason for fear even when we feel most powerless, even when we can't see two feet in front of us, and we keep walking into the garbage can--even when we don't know what to do next in the the big and little things. O Heavenly King, the Comforter, The Spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things. Darkness, light, confusion, clarity, God is there, to see us through.


phone curse

For several years we have been afflicted by a "phone curse." Every phone connection we've ever had has been unstable and unpredictable. People call our home and our cells and get a variety of results, anything from the buzz of a fax machine (we don't have one) to a busy signal (we do have call waiting) to a reroute to our cells or our home so that the number called is not actually the phone that rings.

We are nearly as befuddled by our phone situation as the small remnant who still continue to call us. Our problems may be at least partially self-inflicted (today I was explaining to Amber that my "unique genius" is that I never read the manuals for anything but instead glory in the process of figuring things out all by my lonesome).

My hubby, for his part, loves new technology and is always experimenting with new and exciting phone innovations. I can't help but feel a little like the woman who is married to the contractor who always lives in a partially finished home. All technology around our home is a work-in-progress.

I can't resist including a recent message from my inbox to illustrate the point. John has set up all messages to go through our phone and land in our email inboxes. It used to be that they only went to his, and he would only forward my messages on occasionally, when he was feeling especially congenial.

After much pleading on my part, our messages now go to both of our inboxes (although mine sometimes accidentally get deleted when I'm erasing the 149 spam emails that arrive in my inbox each morning). As an added bonus, John pays for each one to be "transcribed" by our computers with varying results. Kind of makes me miss the olden days when a little red light would blink on the answering machine and one could simply press "play," and viola, a message!

Here's a recent ticklish one, from Amber, voicing a complaint about said "phone curse":

"This. Call is my fish a complaint the jenny cellphone rarely work. Returned my call and it says it's wireless customer is not salable. I'm sorry. Frustrating it's not like even and that's it and michigan it's just it's a weird like. Any being. Expired. Is not available. in used you guys right. Church or else you're still on vacation but spots. Comes here since it was dropped hangs because they can't get a hold of jenny whenever i want to Alright i love you both thanks. I love all for it you know hm. Bye."


a starfish for Sally

John's Aunt Jan, placing a starfish in Sally's grave

A few weeks ago we traveled to New York for John's grandmother Sally's funeral. As John's uncle David said at the funeral, we didn't lose her the day she died, but we lost her in pieces--so many pieces--over the years, as the tide of Alzheimer's washed over her again and again, seizing first her passion for travel and cooking, then her ability to drive and whip me at Scrabble, finally her ability to dress herself and remember the names of her beloved children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Elie Wiesel described the process of Alzheimer's this way--if a person were a book, the disease tears out the pages one by one until only the front and back covers are left. I find this description to be insightful but incomplete, because with Sally at least, as the binding broke, and the pages began to tumble out, in the midst of this heartbreaking chaos--some other part of Sally became available, some part of the Sally essence that infused all her passions but also transcended them.

I understand now that it the essence of a person that captivates us. Warren, Sally's husband, taught me that by his devotion to Sally as she withdrew further and further into herself, by the way he would flirt with her and kiss her on the lips when we went to feed her in the nursing home.

I remember how Warren and Sally used to be--they were madly in love with each other, but they were both gutsy and opinionated, sparks would fly sometimes in the car or the elevator or over the chocolate mousse. But as Sally slipped further and further from us, Warren instinctively reclaimed that first language of love, the one I use with Natalie because she responds so openly to it--tenderness. Warren was all tenderness toward Sally, and she continued to lean in toward him to receive his kisses, even after she'd lost the ability to focus her eyes or say his name.

Sally's funeral was beautiful because it seemed to me to be a reclaiming of the woman we knew and loved, and because it was tangible and true, as we scattered sand and shells over her remains, as we remembered who she was to us, and all that was lost and found as her life drew to a close.


bridges fall; God is love

(photos taken while driving do leave something to be desired--this is the church sign from my childhood parish, just down the street from my parent's house--it reads, "Pray for the victims of the bridge collapse").

I'm at my favorite Minneapolis cafe, the Turtle Bread Company. I smell fresh baked bread, hear the whir of the espresso machine. It's drizzling outside. Everything seems just about right, save for the fact that at the table beside me a mother is trying to explain to her young daughter what it is to be a first responder. I can't hear all her words but she's saying something about ropes and knots and dangerous debris. Now I hear her saying, "Falling 200 feet . . ."

"The chances of this happening again are very, very slight," I hear the mother say.
Her daughter sips her drink thoughtfully, "Like about 5 percent?" She asks.
"No, honey, more like .00005 percent."
"I don't think is going to happen again at all," the little girl says as the two drop their trash in the garbage and head out into the rain.

I'm sipping my latte and munching a scone, and thinking about bridges that fall the terror of twisted steel, smoke and concrete. Cars slipping into the river and bodies crushed under debris, a school bus tipped on its side with the emergency door swung open. And of course I'm thinking about all those kids who miraculously got off that bridge safely,just after the taste truck burst into flames just a few feet from their bus, killing the driver. And I'm thinking of that bridge which I've traveled thoughtlessly-trustingly--over so many times, which we were planning to take tomorrow.

And then comes this other thought, like a tide that I can't stop from surging up, over and over--"God is Love." I try to hold this idea up to our present reality, and the truth of the statement and the truth of that fractured bridge seem to repel each other like magnets turned backwards.

And yet with each passing day, I become more certain that God is love, even as my life brushes up against so many catastrophes. I was in NY for September 11, awaiting Anna's birth. The day before Katrina struck New Orleans we escaped by steamboat, and this week I arrived in Minnesota the night before the bridge fell.

That night as we flew into the city at midnight, Anna and I marveled over how beautiful the Twin Cities looked from above. I pointed out the bridges connecting Minneapolis to St. Paul and Anna commented on how twinkly they were, how perfect.

But now we're struggling to integrate the knowledge that those perfect bridges weren't so perfect after all, that the 35W bridge was stressed and cracked in all sorts of hidden ways that nobody could see from above. If you've ever been to Minneapolis, you can imagine how strange this feels to everyone here, in our tidy, obsessively organized city. As my friend Amber says, "The bridge collapse has brought down shame on your Scandinavian ancestors."

With that shame and sadness come so many questions, especially for those of faith. I'm struggling to hold together the idea that God is Love despite the many pockets of anguish in my own life and in the world beyond. These past few years, we've lost people we love to cancer, car accidents, a heart attack, and AIDS.

With each passing day, I become more certain that life is fragile--that our bodies can be broken in an instant, that life is a tangle of agony and joy. And I also become more certain that God is love.

I asked my friend Bethany about this, about how it can be possible to hold together so much that seems irreconcilable.

"That's part of aging," she tells me, "learning to live in paradox."

So that is the paradox I find myself in on this rainy day in Minneapolis, with cars still submerged in the river a few miles away, with a cracked expanse of concrete and steel etched into my heart.

Each time I hear of another loss, I take a few moments to let it sink in. I cry a little, strike a match and light my lampada before the icons. I surrender all that is broken to the one who heals, and I accept this awareness that life is fragile, I let it remake me even I wipe down the kitchen counters, rock the baby, sip a latte.

With each passing day, it seems more gift, more grace, that I'm able to clean and cry and love, to grow older and learn to dwell in that rough, waiting place where thoughts don't always need to be reconciled, where bridges keep falling down but God doesn't stop being love.