Faith, Love

Love’s Truth

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Valentine’s Day, 2012. Late. Hung up with a project, errands, arrangements for this or that. Don’t’ remember. Throw on coat. Check myself in the mirror. Head downtown. Make wrong turn after wrong turn. Town still new to me. Check watch. Feel my arms tighten. Call Tony. His voice calm, clear navigates me toward the restaurant. Greets me at the door. Ushers me to our booth. In a small, quiet, elegant restaurant. Chosen for this special day.

We order. I am edgy, angry. Tony keeps his responses slow. Checks his reactions to my emotional state. Breathes. But I escalate. Negative thoughts cascading. Unmasking resentment over moving here. Away from family, friends, beloved church. Toward better schools, more time with Tony and for my dreams. Plans now hidden under ongoing business issues and beginnings of one son’s mystery illness. Stare down at plate. Wish I could stop. Delight in our time together. Pause. Close my eyes. Open to tears falling. Onto beautiful salmon.

In life without Tony, I want so very much to remember romantic times full of movie moments. But often remember instead truthful ones. Times showing me not as a good wife. But as a human one. Sobbing into salmon in public on Valentine’s Day. A memory now making me smile, laugh, shake my head. Love’s beauty held not in a commercially dictated day depicting love as an experience. But as a real moment of true love lived in action as an ongoing verb.

I cried that day because I felt emotionally safe to do so. Tony knew how to hold emotionally uncomfortable spaces. The ones we want to avoid. Gloss over with fancy greeting cards, ribbons, roses, and lingerie. Because holding emotionally uncomfortable spaces is a true act of shared love. Part of providing emotional containment for one another. Bearing the other’s burdens, baggage, built-up unmet needs. Holding one another’s pain.

Few people ask a widow for relationship advice. An intense irony of the experience. But today in unsolicited commentary I embrace the most difficult verb in our collective experience—to love. Lift up those moments when all seems lost, life makes no sense, future appears fuzzy. And in the midst of it all the person who shares the work of love with you or me says in action or word, “I am here. I am not going anywhere. We will figure this out. Whatever this is. We will figure this out, together.”

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay. 

 

 

Faith

Sabbath Sharing

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Fallen leaves gather on cobbled pavement. Swirling together. Making scraping sounds. Tiny melodies clobbered by footfalls. Saturday revelers dressed in school colors walking bar to bar. Bodies listing like sails in fall’s wind. Voices shouting slurred words. Blurry eyes focusing on nothing as day moves into dusk.

My steps among this crowd ring quiet by contrast. Hastily taken strides marking prayers for young strangers. Echoing unspoken truths. My internal petitions weaving in and out of beer and cigarette smells. Rising like incense with gusts of blustery wind. Hoping this blowing is Spirit.

Around the corner children play, run, giggle, shriek. On a playground next to the public library. Young children wrapped in sweaters and light jackets. Covered for safety against dropping temperatures. Many topped with yarmulkes pinned down. Parents relaxing on nearby park benches. Enjoying Sabbath, Saturday evening, and the ability to keep little ones somewhat safe.

Sound’s of playing children join party noises. Follow me through an unlocked glass door at the corner. Into a small-business incubator space. Warm and quiet. Modern. Hip. Large windows overlooking playground, pedestrian mall, and hotel. Street’s song closing one Sabbath as my tiny Christian community readies for another. Setting up chairs. Covering kitchen table in gently used cloths. Tuning a saxophone.

Today is not Sunday, the first day of the week. A new week begun in morning praise and thanksgiving to God. Instead today is the end of the week, the very end. Last crumbs of what just passed by us. Lived with sorrows both large and small. Moments of joy. Maybe a bit of pleasure or even delight. Mixed with worries circulating in and out of a week’s dreams. No, this evening is not traditional Christian Sabbath. But it is something. Whatever this evening is, it clashes with the outside world.

Those of us gathered, chat. Welcome new people. Forget each other’s names. Find seats on sofas, stools, and chairs. Help pastors fuss with clergy wear. Show wandering, drunk people where the bathroom is. Then we quiet. Singing bowl’s ringing calling us in. Into worship. Further into God’s mystery. Into Sabbath. Breathing sacred in. Stillness accessing our hearts. Street noises harmonizing. Playing prelude with our quiet.

We begin. Our cry for God’s mercy falls over empty chairs, desks, the young entrepreneur still working at his station, his partner helping himself to coffee behind our table set with God’s meal of grace, the drunk man in the bathroom.

“Kyrie eleison,”

In our midst, a person stands. Reads God’s Word. We share our thoughts. Scripture’s words jumping out at us. Making us think and wonder.

“Thanks be to God,”

Hear Jan or Sarah preach. Surrounding us with more thoughts. Some shared. Some tucked safely within our hearts. Sing in response to God’s Word illuminated. Pray for those outside our borrowed walls. Share peace with everyone in the room. Sometimes more than once. No one wanting to miss one soul in our small group.

“Peace be with you,”

Peace sending us on a pilgrimage toward offering. Our basket set at the table. Hands ducking deeply into its depth giving and blessing. Staying at the table. Hearing old and new words of welcome here. Serving one another Holy food as if washing one another’s feet.

“Given for you,”

Night wafts in through the window as God’s blessing readies us once again for the world. But first we return to the table eating and drinking what is left of our meal together. Adding some cheese to the mix. Maybe a plate of cookies. Over food and drink, meeting new friends. Catching up with old ones. Somehow our faces glowing more than when we arrived an hour or so ago.

“The Lord bless, keep, and shine on you,”

Filled, we clean up. Blow out candles. Return chairs to the conference room. Strip the table as if it is Holy Week. Wash, dry, and stack dishes. Empty the baptismal bowl. Set it on a shelf in a shared closet. Place the cross there as well.

Then having broken our Sabbath fast, we open the door. Step over the threshold. Reenter the street scene still moving outside.  Notice a few changes. Children and parents gone home. Eating dinner or readying for bedtime stories.  Partiers winding down. Slumped in nearby diners eating starchy food.

“Go beloveds, fed and nourished,”

We stand on the sidewalk breathing in the world’s hurts. Breathing out Sabbath solace. Our breathe this night acknowledging our human and collective mess. Lift our palms up into night’s sky, sharing our restored peace. Sending Sabbath back into the world. Allowing night breezes to take Sabbath from us. Surround college students into the wee hours of morning. Land on church buildings’ doorsteps. Keep company with sleeping homeless men.

Sabbath entering churches the next morning. Not stopping, quieting, or staying still until last candles blown out after Sunday evening worship services. Last doors closed and locked. Sabbath hovering one silent second before flowing back into the world having shared God’s sacredness with all who hunger and thirst. Sabbath nudging us as it goes to be God’s peace in the world.

“Shabbat shalom, Shabbat shalom.”

Essay written in response to and with love for the community called JustChurch in Iowa City, Iowa. 

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Photos courtesy of Pixabay. 

 

 

 

 

Advent, Christmas, Faith, Uncategorized

Adoration

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O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,

O come, let us adore him, Christ the LORD!

 

Hymn sung each Christmas Eve in our worship tradition. Words riding on melody soaring into rafter beams. Organ pulling out celebratory stops. Chords supporting voices in singing as one voice, one body. Some standing in this knowledge. Others in ignorance. All in hope for some inexpressible need.

Together chanting lyrics verse after verse. Calling for some sort of congregational effort. Text expressing felt want to be near the child. Not only in singing. Walking word by word toward him. Yet as we do, discovering a thin infant. Just having slid through the birth canal. Tiny, discolored, sticky with blood. Face screwed up. Smelling of birth. Hope draining out. Adore this one? Why?

Newborn’s family visiting Bethlehem only under governmental orders. Parents finding no place in homes and hearts of those with doors this night. Citizens blind, but not really, to Mary’s bulging belly. Man at each door saying “no,” while behind him cowers a woman. Scrubbing a pot. Mending a tunic. Silently asking for mercy with each stitch and scour.

Perhaps it is an old crone in the corner at the last door who risks nothing this night. Her  aged bones aching. Sight fading. Fingers gnarling. Tired of justifying the food it takes to keep her alive each day. Her heart in those five tiny graves below the hill. Perhaps it is she Joseph hears behind the last door’s keeper. In the hanging quiet between ask and answer. After nervously begging for the seemingly small necessity of shelter. Having come this far in an unwanted journey. Far from home. Far from normal. Joseph scared into defying culture by an angelic, winged, fearsome messenger in the night. Now scared for Mary, himself, and an unknown future. Barely hearing the words uttered from within this place. Delivered in a gravely, high-pitched voice. The old mother making one last admonishment.  “Well go on. Give them the barn at least. Better than digging another grave at dawn.”

Further fear and embarrassment for Joseph serving as mid-wife just a few hours later.  Relieved when the wife of the place sneaks out with somewhat fresh water and a few rags. Because she can’t sleep after the first birth pangs ring through crystal, clear night. Resonating off her hollow womb while her husband snores, blissfully ignorant of this night’s worth.  Finding Mary moaning. Her hormones surging. Regretting saying “yes,” to that crazy angel. The wife nodding. Understanding the anger of birth pains. Squeezing her hand. Murmuring words of support before hurrying back. Not wanting to be discovered absent from her place.

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Night’s wind seeping in through doorless openings and cracks. Snorts, smells, and stars accompanying birthing howls. Surroundings ringing dissonance into the night. After a final push when all seems so terribly lost, a slim-shouldered, hairy neonate slides to the floor below crouching mother.  Amidst dirty hay and dried animal feces. No harmonic overtones reverberating with cries of new life. The crone at inn’s hearth muttering, “he’ll be cold by morning if we don’t get the mother some broth.”

Waking the oldest girl sleeping nearby. “Take this bowl to the mother,” she orders. Girl obeying. Also curious about the strangers. Thankful for this adventure breaking in on her pre-determined monotony.

It’s the girl who holds the babe while Mary sips. The third to stare at him in awe. Joseph off on hill’s ledge staring into stars. Overwhelmed by what happened. Even though it did not happen to his body. His life never in peril. Remembering Abraham. Knowing he, Joseph, is no patriarch. Feeling more like a pawn.

The girl passing babe back to Mary. Watching him suckle. Then sleep. Creeping back to her pallet. Assuring grandmother all is well this night. Not questioning why this little being should be adored. Her mother having taught her to listen to the wisdom of the body.

Not like us now. Adore him? For what? So we can now fully adore the dirty man sitting on the sidewalk asking for money? And the youths punching each other out in high school hallway? Adore the family climbing into a life raft and the soldiers pursuing them. Adore the “me too” survivor and her predator. Adore the family member, neighbor, friend whose politics send us spinning? Adore every one in the squad car? Adore the beautiful soul hidden under depths of substance addiction and her dealer? Adore the dirty, the violent, the undesirable, and all our culture’s un-adorable?

Easier as we exchange presents, trim trees, and gobble up holiday treats to not adore him or anyone. Whirl around in our busyness, forgetting. Leaving this baby under the tree fending for himself. Or placing him in another room where we cannot hear his cries for food. Bury our modern-mixed-with-age-old knowledge of human infant needs under distilled spirits, bigger screens, and business. Blocking out that article we read online recently about how infants experience hunger as true pain. And soiled diapers left unchanged infuse their little bodies with worthlessness. Crying it out teaches lonely individualism not relational well-being.  Prolonged separation from parents creates trauma’s breeding ground for current and future pain. Lack of human interaction causes an all body shut-down called failure-to-thrive.

Maybe this infant is just too much work. Deciding right after the big day while still off work or stuffed with too much merriment to return this child whose reality smacks us in the face. Wrap him in swaddling clothes and lie him in an Amazon Prime box. Affix a preprinted label, and drop him off at the post office. Ask to exchange him for something or someone more to our liking. A gift asking nothing of us. One in which our own internal wrappings stay tightly wound around our souls. Our truths never exposed even to us. Shunning the messenger’s words, “do not be afraid.”

Words heard by Mary long ago. Embraced and in doing so risking her life and future of her unborn child. Holding her heart full with all sorts of thoughts and feelings. Not all comfort and joy. Praising God when really what else can she do? Running away meaning life on the street. Begging for food. Using her disassociated body for survival.  In saying “yes” making a choice to stay. Clasping fear to swelling breasts. Uttering words of praise, “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

“Do not be afraid,” heard also by lonely, smelly shepherds staying in fields. Probably because no one else in their little, little, world welcomed them into village or home. Undesirables ostracized into hills. Trusted with necessary function of tending sheep. But out of sight. Out of mind. Found in their hiding by God’s messengers with an invitation into awe. Risking their livelihoods for a chance to adore another human. When so often denied any exchange of humanly love.

We try to ignore these words, “do not be afraid.”  Thinking they cannot possibly be meant for us now. Part of a quaint story told each Advent and Christmastide from long ago. But this hungry, cold, pooping, spitting up, sort-of un-adorable baby somehow breaks through our internal walls anyway. Not with words. But with wails cutting into inner workings of bodies. Dwelling in our hearts. Causing agitation in our nervous systems. Our empty breasts to ache. Our stiff arms fill with yearning.  We must pick up him up. Keep him at arm’s length. Until his small body melds into ours. We sway. Feeling fully alive. Cherishing the moment. Washed with felt love. And his sweet baby smell. Existing together, almost as one. Not fully. Yet needing the other. For different reasons. Need though none-the-less.

What if we were to adore the un-adorable? What then for us? For them? What if we heard their wails, unsounded, emanating from deep within their hearts? What if we understood our need for them. Perhaps greater than their need for us? Would we then leave our sheep, our only way of life, like the shepherds did? Or give up the right to abandon or kill like Joseph? Bring a family to shelter. Sneak food to them in the night? Give them basic human supplies defying cultural expectations?

Our singing this night of all nights is not static. We do not perform a yearly empty ritual before going home to egg nog, a fire, and our annual viewing of Elf or It’s a Wonderful Life. These words call us to action.  The lyricist is poetic. But he commands in imperative, “get going!” Go and adore the Christ child alive in all of us and in all others now. Leave wants behind the inn door next to the old crone.  Sing in a choir of earthly messengers to a deaf world.  Answer the cries of the child now with our arms. Feed the child now as if our breasts are about to leak milk or our own child’s life depends on it. Support the mother and father now as if we were once penniless. Give shelter to the family now as if we know homelessness. Adore the child now with trembling fear and courage like Mary. And in doing so, see God face-to-face, “now in flesh appearing.”

 

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All photos courtesy of Pixabay.

O Come, All Ye Faithful, text and music attributed to John Francis Wade.

Scripture quoted from Luke 1:30; 46-47, and Luke 2:10. (NRSV)

Scripture referred to from Matthew 1:19-21 and Luke, 1-2.

 

Faith, Grief, Healing, Uncategorized

Wide Water

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Heart heavy again. New wounds and disappointments added to still simmering old ones. Hard to see all the healing I’ve done through my sad haze. Cry for an entire hour on my therapist’s couch. Marit, my clinician, tilting her head a bit to one side. Her eyes teary wet as well. Offering me phone access during her upcoming vacation. Having lived twenty years on the other side of being on-call, hating to intrude. Feeling empathy towards her vacationing family members. “Maybe you could try Reiki,” she suggests.

My head lifts in recognition. Percolating ideas swirling in my thinking of late. “I’ve always wanted to try healing touch,” I reply.

“Excellent!”

Marit showing relief. No more words uttered but I know. Because we’ve been together almost weekly for two and a half years. Since before Tony died. Beginning when my sons were so sick with mysterious illnesses. Me living in caretaker burnout. Marit’s  thinking now, “Jen needs a substitute while I’m away.”

Leave her couch with a plan. Make a healing touch appointment for the following week. Travel to the next city. To a retreat center run by nuns nestled in reclaimed prairie and forest. Ushered into calming silence. Sister Bethel greeting me with gentle tones. My nun experience almost non-existent. Except for Tony’s aunt. The one who reveals all the family stories. Tales no one else speaks of.  Family salt mixing with humored love. This sister today, eighty years on this earth. Looking about sixty.

Enter Sister Bethel’s small, windowless room. Stuffed and stuffed again with angel figurines. On multiple oak shelves hanging from four panels of drywall. Angels collected  over decades in ministry. Repulsed by the crowded assemblage. Muse over what I might be forced to collect once ordained in ministry.

Lie down on the massage table. Harp music playing. Water bubbling from unknown origin. Maybe from behind a shelf of angels. Or perhaps only in my imagination. Cool hands hold my head. Their strength beautiful, reassuring. “Healing hands,” the term healers use. As more than a complement. As recognition of an awe-filled skill. Part mystery, part talent, part practice.

Relax into Sister’s hands. Trust them. Listen to her pray in words punctuated by silences. Words flowing from her lips floating above me before gently raining down. Absorbed through skin into soul.

She shifts on her stool. I hear her say, “Jennifer, you are loved. Deeply, deeply loved.”

Tears fall from beneath closed eyelids. Slide off face into hair. Like a stream flooding my banks. Sister rises. Waving the air over me. Movements sensed not seen. Music swelling time forward. Into the melody of the old Scottish folk tune, “O Waly, Waly.” Text remembered from high school choir. Mind repeating.

 

“The water is wide, I cannot get o’er,

And neither have I wings to fly,

Give me a boat that will carry two,

And both shall row, my love and I.”

 

Woe erupting from toes traveling up legs disseminating throughout my body in recognition, in revelation. What I could not do the day Tony died. Fly across the water separating us. Carry us both in a boat. One with two oars.

And I see Tony’s face in my mind’s eye. Through tears and body tremors. Large. Smiling. Reassuring. Coming toward me. Speaking to my eternal regret. Sadness. Complete upending of life. His love recognizing my truth. What I would have done if possible. Fly. Lift Tony out of the water. Hold him. Save him. A vision floating here in this room full of dusty angels. Carrying forgiveness laced love from my lost one.

Sister Bethel hears more words. Sees more images. Fleeting pictures and oddly strung together words. A rope with many knots. Reminiscent of the Filipino veil and cord wedding ritual. A ritual we participating in during our wedding ceremony. Binding us together in love and hope. An image reassuring me of Tony’s ongoing love  and his push and desire for me to continuing living and loving. And as Sister Bethel repeats again and again, “have some fun,” followed by “whatever that means to you.”

Rise from the table feeling free. Centered. Grounded. Amazed. Lighter. Loved. Uplifted in my deep fears and strong abilities. My call to ministry recognized by another called one. “Your openness to the divine,” Sister Bethel tells me, “is huge.”

I laugh. Thinking I should ask her to share her thoughts with my Bishop and seminary professors.  Instead say, “Thank you for affirming my call to ministry.”

“You will be a powerful healer in ministry,” she replies in words knocking me over internally. Echoing something similar to what both my therapists have said to me in recent months.

Following days bring new calm. I eat again, hungry for the first time in a month. Catch myself smiling. Discover I want to reclaim bits of my old life. Slowly, intentionally, and with care.  A restaurant, a family member, water.

A few days later my daily walk takes me to the Iowa River. On the walking bridge I stop. Watch wild water crashing over the dam. Not avoiding river’s presence by walking quickly by. Like I have for twenty-five months. But gazing at its bubbling, swirling, violent, beautiful flow. Realizing I want to hike its banks, paddle its ways, embrace its beauty once again. Maybe never the Wisconsin River. But this river and all other rivers. Converse once again with wet molecules without my stomach clenching or my mind flashing back to the day Tony died. I want to continue dissipating my trauma by breathing into water’s swelling spirit.

“I keep hearing ‘changed, not changed,'” Sister Bethel told a few days ago during my session. “I wonder what that means?”

Most days think I know.  Losing Tony a formidable change. His love then and now never changed. Me, changed through loss, grief, trauma, and healing. But not changed. Still me, internally resilient. Brimming with life. Always hopeful. Never hiding from challenges for too long. Open to new adventures. Living having been loved. Full of love to give and receive.

My healing pain flowing toward and into joy. Tony leaving a boat of sorts for me to row toward the other side of trauma and grief. Constructed of his love mixed with all the healing methods he professionally practiced or knew about for over two decades. Rowing my boat together although not together. Me here on earth. He with me in spirit. Changed but not changed. Reclaiming wide waters.

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Faith, Grief, Uncategorized

Easter Understanding

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Sitting in a church pew Easter Sunday. Seats at a premium this morning. Finding space third row from the Baptismal font.  On the right almost under the organ pipes.

Swarms surround us. Decked out in Spring’s cold glory. Small limbs buzzing from early morning chocolate bunnies. Syrupy smells poured over church-basement pancakes wafting up sanctuary stairwell.  Scents floating off potted lilies celebrating this day. Distracting our noses.

Me, quietly book-ended by sons. Lanky height towering over shrinking self. Our hearts cradling family variants. Arriving on time for once. Not participating in today’s service. Missing one person in body, spirit, love. Forced imbalances creating new holiday traditions. Because of loss. Because of illness. Because human essence demands continual, dynamic change. Life ever flowing somewhere. Living in all directions. Forward one of many routes. Options include straight back and up above. Existence following verticals and sub-verticals as well like feeds and streams.

During Lent this year understanding the movement of Lot’s wife. Looking back froze her future. Into crumbling salt. Comprehending this can happen to us. So far doesn’t. Ongoing therapy eradicates salt. Revisiting the past orients us into living. Discovering alternatives. Lot’s wife perhaps wanting choice too. Deciding to resist orders. Ones requiring forced obligation in ancient womanhood. A constricted soul experiencing momentary freedom. Salt worth its weight. Me, not so interested in salt. Embracing all directions.

Sitting this Easter day surrounded by young men I once birthed. Now generating warmth and whispering commentary. Feeling in my heart truth inherent in hymn’s text, “Death hath lost its sting!”* 

Where life is after death, still unclear about. Not important to me. Clasping today’s truth: there is life following death. On earth and whatever and where ever after is. Tony, there. Smiling. Laughing. Eyes bright with delight. Wonder. Love.

He, also living among us. Enclosed in sons’ DNA. One wearing his clothing. The other donning his smile. Both purporting his people wisdom. Our loved one existing within memory, healed clients, love-infused family, and friends. In every-man, proverbial sayings. Some framed, sitting on my nightstand. Others remembered at odd moments. Memory creating a chuckle, smile, or sigh.

“That’s goodness”

“What just happened here?”

“How’s that working for you?”

“Get in the pit”

“Write a new narrative”

“Do you want to be seen or do you want to be noticed?”

“Don’t forget your toolbox!”

“That’s your humanity”

 

Tony uniting fully in Emmanuel–God with us. Joining clouds of witnessing saints billowing on before us. We on earth walking on foot. As human. Not salt. Not yet vapor.  Bound with all condensed water masses. Together in one, big, holy, mystery. Called the body of Christ. Perhaps we finding home on earthly knee-caps. Tony residing on a cheek. Near the smile. Head in the clouds.

Down below rejoicing today in life. Tony’s on earth. His life now. Ours then. Ours now. Embracing what we do not know. Accepting God’s command to love one another during this time. Gradually opening out. Accepting all directions. Leading into the world loving friends and family again. Love wafting like flower’s scent. Replacing trauma’s reactions and sorrow’s emotions.

Holding grief near still. Naming it as love of another form. One creating salty, healing tears. Sliding down cheeks this bright, vibrant day. Love resurrecting life.

 

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*Quote from the hymn, Thine is the Glory. Text by Edmond Budry. Tune by George F. Handel, adapted.

**Photo found on http://www.pixabay.com

 

 

 

 

Faith, Grief, Uncategorized

Love

wheel-1684264_1280When it came time for our oldest son to attend Sunday School, I balked. My late husband was no help. The concept of Sunday School, a foreign affair. Tony being a product of parochial school. In his mind, we simply attended worship on Sunday. Religious education taken over by nuns during the week. Except there were no nuns at the private Montessori school Ricky attended.

At the time the trappings surrounding God, Christianity, Jesus, and what seemed to me the veneration of Jesus’ violent death made me uncomfortable. My other reservations pressed harder on my heart though. The Sunday school teacher was functionally illiterate and used inappropriate-for-young-children theology.

My mother calmly clarified things for me one day. “All young children need to learn is God is love. The rest can come later.”

A seemingly simple statement at first. Yet one centering me through many years of my own questioning and parenting the budding spiritual explorations of our children.

I think a lot about life, faith, and God since Tony died. Sudden death forces the living to recalibrate every moment of every day especially in the beginning months of loss. At first, I lived in trauma’s shock. Forced to make decisions as my mind struggled to form even the slightest neural connection. My body shook for any number of reasons—left over adrenalin, fatigue, and lack of food being the most common. Our children felt neglected or in losing their father they also lost the me they once knew.

Early one morning during the first fall of our grief I hid once again in our bed. A place rendered only mine now. In a few harrowing minutes on an otherwise bucolic day. Seeking refuge beneath the warm covers from all the overwhelming post-death tasks. The weight of blankets keeping me tethered to the earth when nothing else seemed to.

Curled up, I remembered a few things. Bits of wisdom lost for months in trauma’s chaos. What I knew from my years as an early child development specialist claiming some  brain space once more. Along with hearing Tony speak of his clinical work for over two decades. And from learning about and from God. A sense of clarity permeated my thinking for once in these otherwise arduous days as time ticked in internal and external tumult.

My job now, as I saw it, was to love. Love our sons Ricky and Paul first and foremost. Love myself. And in loving the three of us through this unbelievable time, loving God as well. Sort of like the well-known verse from the Gospel of Mark known as the “Greatest Commandment.” Only in my reality used in tandem instead of in a linear line of love.

Love looked at first like me re-teaching my mind and hands how to cook. Because we were all hungry. And the food coming in from church, friends, and neighbors didn’t always fit our collective, complicated, food sensitivities and allergies. And because my sons needed the reassurance of my presence in the kitchen every evening. Like before.  And we all needed cooking smells filling, what seemed to us, an empty home.

And slowly all the wonderful works of attachment theorists, Bowlby and Ainsworth, once embraced crept back into my thoughts. Combined with this quirky need to read Tony’s professional library. Particularly his book Facing Heartbreak along with texts on love, relationships, and trauma. Once again awed by how modern human development theory, research, and healing protocols mirror God’s message through scripture.

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Now, after twenty-one years of marriage, twenty years of parenting, and eighteen months into grief and trauma recovery, I know love sustains me. Through four simple words formed into two directives. Reminded of each time I open our refrigerator, a well-worn magnet catching my eye. Beautiful words centering me as a woman, parent, child development specialist, writer, widow, seminarian, and human being. Words I see every time I drive Interstate 35 near Lakeville, on the outskirts of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. Wearing this road thin because of seminary, work, family, and doctor’s appointments. Words right there on the West side of the road. On a simple billboard as if stating the obvious.

“Love God. Love Others.”

Words holding my heart each time. An abiding command anchoring me here on earth when I so often want to fly away or hide under the covers. Weaving my life with others through relationships. Some old, some new, and some yet to be born. Centering my soul like a plumb line in the ongoing restructuring and rebuilding of human existence.

30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:30-31).” NRSV

 

“Wheel” courtesy of Pixabay. 

 

Faith, Grief, Trauma, Uncategorized

A Chain of Seemingly Small Moments

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My toes uncurl slowly under the warmth of a spotlessly white duvet. Oxygen finds its way down into my churning stomach continuing onward into my clenched calves. My shoulders gradually melt, freeing my neck for the first time in hours.

It’s been a long day.

The day began well and according to plan: write, pack, eat, hug boys, issue last-minute reminders, pick up rental car, drive to St. Paul, Minnesota. The first five list items checked off, Ricky chauffeurs me to the rental car place. More snow on the road than expected or wanted. My maternal instincts clash with Ricky’s manhood as I ask him to slow down. Once alone in my car chill seeps into every crevice while snow streaks across the highway under an overcast, lonely, Winter sky.

Bundled up in layers, I feel warm though. Emotionally strong again. Yet still a bit shaky. Or perhaps just stronger than the days leading up to this trip. You see the moment I announce to anyone–my therapist, friends, family, radome readers, God–I feel better, then I am guaranteed almost one hundred percent of a set back. And boy, did I get one after writing about my suitcase dream.

Well it took three friends to convince me to not back out of going up to seminary for a week-long intensive class. Part of an entire group of extended people supporting me on this trip.  Including Ricky delaying his return to campus for a night, my niece flying in to stay with my younger son, a friend at the ready for an airport run, my tuition and books paid for by an assortment of sources, and my sons willing to triple up on their chore lists.  Yet my bed seemed so much safer. With its early morning green tea and dark chocolate and computer and flow of words from my head to the screen. More enjoyable and predictable than learning about post-modern Christian mission.

Reading a sermon by the wonderful Barbara Brown Taylor*, I heard change is difficult. The blind don’t always enjoy seeing. The lame sometimes resent walking. And in my case, the grieving may feel internal emotional collapse safer than living. I identified with the blind man of Mark 10:46-52, one of the many Jesus restored from seperation to life. Joyous in my healing as this man was. Yet fearful in my unknown future.

Clasping my healing more than clutching my fear, I drove Northwest through Iowa. Winter weather, evident across my adopted home state, not such a big deal. But also not fully comfortable either. Slower speed for sure because as the weather experts like to say the day was one of “normal winter driving conditions.”  Which out here means blowing snow, patches of ice, packed snow on the road, and often only one open lane. After a few hours of highway driving I was grateful to finally reach the interstate with its state troopers and salt trucks and rest areas.

winter-landscape-2571788_1920The interstate’s pavement almost immediately caused me to maintain my slower speed. It’s wet surface cautioning us travelers like an electronic billboard. Pre-treatment, salt, and sand no longer evident. Washed away by wind, tires, and vehicle spray.

The touch of the tires to pavement felt odd as my car wiggled in a wind bent on mopping the prairie clean. Forcing me to right the tires again and again and again. Before I could slow down even more the treads lost their grip. The car skidded this way and that. My hands tightened on the wheel fighting reality for control. Finally I gave into the pull of the ice. The other lane of parallel traffic not a safe option. My car headed for the shoulder. Landing me a half-mile south of exit 197 on northbound I-35. Facing the large, interstate green sign announcing the upcoming exit to Mason City, Iowa. Into a deep ditch. Next to acres of dormant farm fields. Into a foot of snow, the top layer blowing hard and steady. Below zero, wind chill factor weather surrounding me. Tires spinning with the whine of a leashed and whimpering dog. Too jammed into the snow to rock the car. Stuck now. Gasping for air. Tears freezing on my cheeks.

A black pick-up truck pulled over almost immediately just ahead of me. Sat there, idling. Hazards flashing. Finally backing up just above me on the shoulder. A man got out. Oh crap, I thought, Friend? Possibly not.

He approached the car. My window came done, the startling cold jolting me out of my shock. Tear-filled words spewed out of my mouth uncontrollably. Stuff like, I can’t die. I’m the only parent now. My husband died seventeen months ago. I have a child still at home. I’m going to be a pastor if I ever get to seminary. My words covering my other truths: I’m scared. I’m overwhelmed. I want to hide. Run home. 

Unruffled, my stranger nodded reminding me of Tony’s calm in the face of my many messes. His clear thinking when mine muddled with fear or fatigue. His voice at the other end of the wireless waves. There for me.

Terry from a small town nearby tells me he’s calling a tow and the trooper.  Taking charge because obviously I am not in a good space.  Needing help, reassurance, and hope, he steps into my glaring vacancy. I allow it.

He trudges back up the ditch to his truck. I call the car rental company. Give up because the wait is forever. Call my friend, already at seminary, who tells me to call 911. Reminding me I don’t know this guy. So I do. Talk to Nancy who thinks my car has been called in but will check and call me back. She does, reporting Frank’s Towing is on its way. By this time I’m cold, tired, hungry, and lonely. So I plod, sinking deep into the snow with every step, up the shoulder to Terry’s car and get in. “What towing company did you call?”

“Frank’s,” he replies.

“Yah, that’s what 911 said,” I say.

Then we “shoot the breeze” as people do in these parts. We look like we could be related but he doesn’t know his ancestry. He’s Baptist. An NIV Bible sits on his dashboard. Four kids. A wife who teaches special ed. Does something in finance. “I get the Gospel reason why you are sitting here,” I eventually say, “But don’t you have a job or someplace to be?” He’s off today he tells me since its MLK day.

The trooper shows up. Checks on us. Leaves. Frank’s arrives and does their stuff. Terry oversees the work telling me there’s no need for me to be out in the cold. He then follows me to Frank’s shop in Hanlontown, Iowa. Right on Iowa 9 a few minutes from the interstate. Snow blowing steady through the surrounding frozen fields and over the road like swirling stars.

The car isn’t running well. Bumped along the entire five-minute drive. Frank, who I find out isn’t Frank, thinks the snow needs to be cleaned off from underneath the chassis. I wander into the waiting area seeking warmth. The resident dog kisses me. The owner’s wife says, “You’re not pissed as hell! You’re just all smiles.”

I am smiling at this point. I am not hurt. My immediate needs are outsourced to others. Responsibility resting elsewhere while I recuperate for the rest of my journey.

The wind roars hard outside. Winter light wanes a bit. Inside the shop however life bubbles creating a coziness of sorts. Complete now with a snoozing dog. Terry and Frank’s wife share where they live in this neck of the woods by who used to live on their property. Relationships defined by people but also by land out here. Terry of course seems to know the former owners of every acre. The northern Iowa rural parlance batting about the place wraps me in memories of my own kin now mostly gone.

Three mechanics scrape off a lot of snow from underneath my car. They figure out the all-wheel drive is not engaged which explains a lot. Scares me further in an after-the-event way. “After-nerves” I used to call these feelings in my previous performing life. Then they continue to fuss with the car filling it up with windshield wiper fluid, explaining my all-wheel drive system to me, offering to back the car out, and then sending me on my way. Meanwhile the rental car company assures me over the phone they will pay for the tow. Eventually they decide to not charge me for the car.

iceland-2184824_1920The twenty-eight mile drive from Frank’s to the gas station right off the interstate at Albert Lea, Minnesota is dicey. Dusk further inhibits visibility as the wind blows harder sending more and more snow across the lanes and cars into the ditch. The truck drivers loading up on snacks at the gas station say its bad and will only get worse with night fall. Men and women, years on the road showing in their wrinkled skin and missing teeth, share their hard truth which I accept. If I were you, Ma’am, I’d find a hotel room for the night. 

The hotel down the way has a room. The manager says, “You’ve been here before. I remember you.” As if January retreats in Albert Lea, Minnesota are now part of my year. One year ago, still a complete mess from Tony’s death, I holed up here while facing similar weather. Alone and afraid.

I unload slowly. The cold, wind, and my haphazard packing make the process difficult. Eventually I settle in. Eat, finally eliminating some of my shaking. Call the boys carefully avoiding the truth of my day. Crawl into bed. Write because it’s the only thing I know how to do when things get really bad.

And today was bad. Could have been worse. If I hide in denial, my body reminds me of this truth as it contracts. Balling my insides up. Squeezing my stomach up through my esophagus landing in my throat once again.

Yet the emotions bubbling up through my heart into strings of words embrace not fear and tragedy, but goodness. For a few hours in this divisive world we now all inhabit, it did not matter who we voted for or which version of the Bible we read or even if we all believe in God or what level of education we obtained or where we are heading and why. What mattered was a bunch of people willingly helped me, a stranger in their midst. A vulnerable, sobbing, scared, middle-aged widow woman shaking with adrenalin again. Wondering why the hell she ever thought going to Minnesota in January was a good idea. Or attend seminary. Or do anything outside of her seemingly safe, small box of life. Let alone provocatively become a pastor!

I cry into my pillow for a good two hours before sleep finds me. Wordless emotions flow out finding a warm nest in my rented bedding. Sleep, when it comes, is fitful and intermittent. I wake every few hours to the rumble of diesel engines left to run in neutral through the freezing night. Their drumbeat piercing the air keeping company with my heart.

In the morning, we the stranded stand at the lobby windows wondering what to do. I wait. Watch. Wonder. Pray. But eventually, I get back in the car. Drive like a granny, slow and shaky. My chest clenching, welling up for a grand and explosive anxiety attack. I tell the universe all I really need right now are dry roads, safety, and my frozen finger tips to warm up.

My requests granted, I arrive at seminary safe and somewhat sound. Finish out my week as planned. Even have some time with my widowed, pastor Aunt whose presence alone reminds me I can complete what I begin here. On Saturday, after driving on wonderfully dry roads, Ricky picks me up at the rental car place and once home sweeps out the garage of the accumulated winter grit. Paul tells me of all the chores he did and all the project ideas he’s had in my absence. And at some point, I realize how many people in small and large actions it took for me to be gone six days. Creating a chain of seemingly small moments, one not holding me in place, tethering me to my past and to my fears. But an emotional chain forming a kind of human train. Connecting me to our home yet sending me forward and out into the world.

“Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well...”

Mark 10: 46-52 (NRSV) 

 

*Taylor, Barbara Brown. “The Courage to See” in Mixed Blessings. 

Photos courtesy of Pixabay.

Faith, Grief, Uncategorized

A Dream Full of Grace

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The other day my therapist shared something with me. In her opinion, I am most likely done with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. EMDR is a therapeutic intervention method used to realign the brain after a traumatic event. The method stops the reeking of emotional havoc occurring as the brain continually tries to make sense of what happened. Sense out of the senseless in other words. Which is what Tony’s death was. So my brain has been on overdrive for months.

My therapist’s professional observations mirrored my current experience. I feel good, even great some days. Free much of the time from the waves of emotional and physical pain, memory lapses, what-ifs of guilt, creeping agitation of anxiety attacks, and intrusive flashback scenes. Replaced most days by the everyday tasks of life accompanied by droplets of tears here and there.

At home that evening however, a funkiness settled on my heart. Maybe I was tired at the end of my seemingly endless day. Maybe I was fighting off a cold. Maybe the encroaching holidays infected my mostly healing wounds. Maybe my therapist was wrong.

Standing in the middle of our once shared bathroom, I talked to Tony about it. Talking out loud to my no-longer-living-in-any-human-way husband. Not for the first time either. In an act bereaved people do, not just me…or so I’m told in hushed whispers by those who know loss. Quietly, because it sounds kind of kooky.

But here’s another truth for me anyway. There’s always this moment when talking to Tony that I somehow begin talking to God at the same time.  Which gets really confusing to explain to others so mostly I don’t. But I was talking to Tony or God or both wondering if it might be okay for me to feel healed enough. Not fully well. Not ever the same. But perhaps slowly moving ahead with my life. Leaving this intense and all-encompassing time of trauma and grief. Entering now into a phase of healing grief, the kind with some sort of future. And what did he or God or they think about the possibility?

When I told this part of the story to my therapist the following week she asked, “well, what did Tony say?”

I think I giggled. No judgement on her part. Just curiosity and acceptance of my humanness complete with quirks.  So I told her. “Nothing…at first.”

But the next morning after talking to Tony or God or both in the bathroom, I had a dream. You know, one of those early morning dreams we all have at dawn. After we wake up, assess the time, and go back to sleep for a few coveted minutes. Between our first false start and the real beginning of our day.

In my dream we were coming back from a trip. Just us without the boys. From someplace overseas because it was time to go through customs. Only I couldn’t find my luggage. We only had Tony’s green, Samsonite bag. The one my mother gave him for Christmas or a birthday years ago but somehow I used more than he.

Tony said, in the dream, he would go find my bag. So, I got in line holding onto his bag. Well rolling it really since it’s one of those. Standing, grasping the handle of his bag. Waiting both for Tony to come back and for the line to move forward. But not too quickly, the line I mean, because Tony still needed to return.

But Tony didn’t come back.

And he didn’t come back.

And he didn’t come back.

I craned my neck looking for him not wanting to leave our place in the long, snaking line. Still there was no sign of him in the busy airport. He just seemed to disappear. Evaporate. Slip away. Like the day he died.

People swirled around me in the line. Holding Tony’s bag now somehow in my arms. Clutching it with angst. With disbelief. Using the arms I was so denied of the minutes before he slipped away. My arms rendered futile in the violent rushing of water out-of-control. My arms aching for months with the pain of being refused the only action they wanted so very much to do that day. Reach out. Touch. Grasp. Bring him back to safety. Hold him. Hold on. Cling.

Now in my dream becoming really angry. Because I didn’t want this baggage. The contents felt emotional and familiar and heavy and isolating. I didn’t want to be here among strangers in this strange place wondering what to do next.

I woke up. Passing slowly from dream to day. To a new morning. To reality. Bewildered. Puzzled. Confused.

Of course, I thought about the dream all day. How could I not? Through homework and work and parenting and running our household the dream stayed by me. Poking at me for meaning. Remembering at some point I recently searched through a few boxes stored in the basement from Tony’s office. Looking for something I couldn’t find. Once again triggered by what closing his business had been like for me. A surreal experience. Full of every emotion possible. Emotions experienced daily in the course of a mere few hours as I sifted through every detail of his work trying to understand what needed to be done.

So that’s what the dream meant to me. A remembrance of being left alone. Carrying the baggage of Tony’s work when least capable of doing so. Or so I thought…

Until I began having visions of what the dream could really mean. These came to me in a billow of sensations and images. The first vision was that inside the suitcase was not pain and burdens. No! Inside the suitcase were gifts Tony left us. Not tangible gifts like a souvenir t-shirt or coffee mug or all the jewelry he showered on me over the years. But love and lots of it. And all the little and big things Tony taught me about our emotional lives and about trauma recovery. And the assurance that he believed in my resilience in the face of his tragic death. And his ongoing support for my writing and in my call to ministry and in my ability to mother our children. I tenderly held this vision to my heart, keeping it close as I went about the rest of my day.

Later, as the day quieted, another vision formed in my mind’s eye. And in my heart as well for this vision took my breath away! The end of the dream, the one I woke before seeing, was simply this: Tony walks out of the airport onto the sidewalk and into a bright and sunny day. He walks alone rolling my suitcase, taking it with him wherever he is going now without me. Without us. Without the boys.

And I realize wherever Tony is going in my dream, he’s taking my stuff with him. Not my clothes and shoes and toothbrush. Not my half-read novel or my new dress or my favorite shoes. But my stuff. You know, that mental-health-clinical-slang term meaning the products of our emotional wounds. The lacerations living in our limbic systems dictating our lives like autocrats. That stuff. Rolling away behind a man I spent two decades loving. Its earthly weight following him willingly while releasing me from my fears, shame, and insecurities. Freeing me from this unwanted cargo for the rest of my earthly life.

Leaving me behind, yes. Painfully yes. Ever-so-painfully-yes. The world twisting around me as I journey on alone. Not knowing how to transition at this point from being a traumatized, grieving widow to a healing one. Often unsure of myself. Seeking Tony’s permission only to alleviate my guilt for feeling good. Yearning for his take on things so that I don’t have to claim liability for my past, current, or future mistakes. Offloading the resilient power, he of all people, knew I would not lose.

My shoulders eased as the vision faded. A bit of the load from all these many months lifted. Space, once taken up by pain in my stomach and in my heart and in my mind, opened. I breathed fully into my reclaimed body and into my evolving thoughts. Understanding fully that there are still gifts and dreams waiting to be remembered, unpacked, and incorporated lovingly into my life now from this symbolic suitcase of Tony’s I currently clutch.

And…I have something else as well. Actually need something else before I wholly realize the contents of Tony’s suitcase. I have this one, amazing, life-restoring act of wild and disruptive grace. Scaffolding me forward with gifts and dreams in hand. Moving me on. Propelling me into a living light without my stuff. Wow!

So I guess I have my answer.

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay. 

Advent, Faith, Stories

Postcard Angel

 

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Lit Advent Candles

 

In December, a postcard arrived in the mail. It was an everyday postcard. Nothing marked it as special or holiday like. Except the message.“Happy Advent,” it read.

I smiled remembering a moment with a friend. The Sunday school classroom we shared emptied of active and noisy four-year-olds. In the new quiet I spoke of my love for the season of Advent.  The getting ready for hope found in a mere babe born to the have-nots of their time. Finding comfort in the liturgical color blue, so like the winter Midwestern sky at dawn and dusk. Enjoying the daily lighting of a growing line of flickering candles helping me mark the busy days turned to weeks leading up to Christmas. Singing hymns full of ancient tones which never fail to resonate with my own earthly and human longings.

This Advent however, I was not hopeful. Our children were unhappy at school, Tony’s work and commute were stressful, and many family members needed our help. I was worn out, feeling stuck, and just waiting for the frantic holiday season to end. Hope was not on my holiday menu.

The postcard’s arrival however gently nudged me into this quiet season so often lost in the chaos of December. It’s simple message stirred in me something I was having trouble grasping in my overwhelmed state of heart and mind. With the help of my dear friend now living far away, I remembered the calm, reflective, emotional state I longed for. Hope in the unexpected form of a postcard fed me. And I was transformed into a lowly shepherd keeping watch over my family flock with the words of the angels rising in my ears, “Do not be afraid.”

As we moved through December into January,  the winter snow continued reflecting an Advent blue at dawn and dusk in January’s sky. The light reminded me of the slow and steady movement it takes to make good and lasting change in our lives. Advent hope came with me in a way it had not in previous years. Hope did not follow the traditional liturgical calendar. But it came in a predictable sequence of waiting, wondering, and realizing nonetheless. Living in our own Advent, Tony and I reexamined our life together finally accepting the necessary uprooting needed to be closer to Tony’s work and for new schools for our children.

January gave way to February. The blue evening sky appeared out my window later and later each evening. The darkness yielded to the increasing light of an awakening world. I was calm once again. My heart embracing our own small portion of this universe. My face turning toward the future full of unknowns yet also brimming with hope. My voice humming as I packed for our journey. My song gathering strength note by note before spreading out into embodied praise: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.”

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Dawn

 

A version of this piece was originally published by The Lutheran Digest in December of 2012.  Photos are courtesy of Pixabay. 

Faith, Grief, Thanksgiving, Trauma recovery

Invitation Home

 

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You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;

The mountains and hills will burst into song before you,

And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

-Isaiah 55: 12 (NIV)


Isaiah 55 contains an invitation home.  The prophet speaks for God to a dispersed people in exile longing for their homeland, way of life, loved ones, peace, and God. God’s invitation for a redemptive journey from forced exile includes a celebration so great that all of nature waits to erupt in praise and thanksgiving.

My sons and I live in an exile of sorts. It’s called trauma. Its name is grief. Sudden loss catapulted us into a heart-ripping wilderness, a vast and unfamiliar terrain. We found ourselves transported into this emotional and physiological desert, far from our previous internal identities and the externally tangible home we once knew.

Day by day I accept God’s invitation out of this exile for myself and for my sons. We travel home together along a path toward healing, joy, and peace. Our map however, like any human trauma course, shows a lengthy journey with many forced stops along the way. Yet countless people pray for us, feed us, teach us how to survive panic attacks, and heal our minds’ need to flash back to the first moments of our banishment. These many loving acts are like shouts along the race route of our marathon. Cheers for each milestone we conquer. Songs of support when we want to give up. Sounds which lead us, through others’ innate human joy and accumulated peace, back to our own. All raised up for us by a multitude of modern prophets repeating God’s invitation whether they themselves believe in God or not.

This Thanksgiving I give quiet thanks for all our figurative mountains, hills, and trees. They have surrounded us in our unasked for expedition these last fifteen months.  We call our varied and beautiful landscape not mountain, hill, or tree but family, friend, pastor, therapist, teacher, classmate, school, doctor, stranger, faith community, colleague, and neighbor. Their collective energy to me now is as glorious a view as the sight of any majestic mountain bursting into song.

 

*Photo courtesy of http://www.pixabay.com