Poem – Lost mothers, daughters


We all

are daughters

searching for our mothers.

We all

are mothers

searching for our daughters.

We all

are lost,

and have lost.


Sometimes our arms

have to wrap around the shoulders

of someone else, someone

we are not related to

to comfort ourselves

and to comfort them.


Sometimes we have to be

for each other

what we don’t have

for ourselves.

Killing Time


I found these cigarette butts in the canister outside the library. I’d not heard of them, but I found the name amusing and disturbing at the same time. Time is the one thing that cigarette smokers don’t have. They smoke it away. They are literally killing time when they smoke. Worse, they are killing time in multiple ways. At first, it means not doing anything meaningful with their lives during the fifteen minutes they take to smoke. It ends with years cut off their lifespan. In the middle, their quality of life is lessened (why am I using the passive tense – they lessen it themselves, it isn’t done to them) by the diseases they get – cancer, emphysema, heart disease, etc.

When I was growing up, cigarettes were known as “coffin nails” or “cancer sticks”. Perhaps something like that would be more honest. But this is pretty good.  Maybe it will make them think about what they are doing to themselves.

These are discount cigarettes, so they most certainly have more “filler” and less tobacco in them. Thus, they are even more dangerous to smoke. It seems logical that if someone wants to save money, they’d quit smoking altogether.

The sad part is that the poor suffer even more when they smoke because of the unnatural ingredients in their cigarettes. (Again, why am I using the passive voice? Smoking is a choice. Nobody forces you to smoke.)

My memorial service

(Here’s an exercise – create your own memorial service. Death is the one true equalizer. It will happen to all of us. Better to create your service now and save your loved one’s the trouble when the inevitable happens. You can edit it later if your change your mind, but get it started. And share it with them now.)

Song – “Oceans” by Hillsong United

Psalm 107
Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good;
His faithful love endures forever.
2 Let the redeemed of the LORD proclaim
that He has redeemed them from the hand of the foe
3 and has gathered them from the lands—
from the east and the west,
from the north and the south.
4 Some wandered in the desolate wilderness,
finding no way to a city where they could live.
5 They were hungry and thirsty;
their spirits failed within them.
6 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble;
He rescued them from their distress.
7 He led them by the right path
to go to a city where they could live.
8 Let them give thanks to the LORD
for His faithful love
and His wonderful works for all humanity.
9 For He has satisfied the thirsty
and filled the hungry with good things.
10 Others sat in darkness and gloom—
prisoners in cruel chains—
11 because they rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the counsel of the Most High.
12 He broke their spirits with hard labor;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
13 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble;
He saved them from their distress.
14 He brought them out of darkness and gloom
and broke their chains apart.
15 Let them give thanks to the LORD
for His faithful love
and His wonderful works for all humanity.
16 For He has broken down the bronze gates
and cut through the iron bars.
17 Fools suffered affliction
because of their rebellious ways and their sins.
18 They loathed all food
and came near the gates of death.
19 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble;
He saved them from their distress.
20 He sent His word and healed them;
He rescued them from the Pit.
21 Let them give thanks to the LORD
for His faithful love
and His wonderful works for all humanity.
22 Let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving
and announce His works with shouts of joy.
23 Others went to sea in ships,
conducting trade on the vast waters.
24 They saw the LORD’s works,
His wonderful works in the deep.
25 He spoke and raised a tempest
that stirred up the waves of the sea.
26 Rising up to the sky, sinking down to the depths,
their courage[i] melting away in anguish,
27 they reeled and staggered like drunken men,
and all their skill was useless.
28 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and He brought them out of their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a murmur,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 They rejoiced when the waves grew quiet.
Then He guided them to the harbor they longed for.
31 Let them give thanks to the LORD
for His faithful love
and His wonderful works for all humanity.
32 Let them exalt Him in the assembly of the people
and praise Him in the council of the elders.
33 He turns rivers into desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
34 and fruitful land into salty wasteland,
because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
35 He turns a desert into a pool of water,
dry land into springs of water.
36 He causes the hungry to settle there,
and they establish a city where they can live.
37 They sow fields and plant vineyards
that yield a fruitful harvest.
38 He blesses them, and they multiply greatly;
He does not let their livestock decrease.
39 When they are diminished and are humbled
by cruel oppression and sorrow,
40 He pours contempt on nobles
and makes them wander in a trackless wasteland.
41 But He lifts the needy out of their suffering
and makes their families multiply like flocks.
42 The upright see it and rejoice,
and all injustice shuts its mouth.
43 Let whoever is wise pay attention to these things
and consider the LORD’s acts of faithful love.

(New Testament reading)
Matthew 14:22-33
22 Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowds. 23 After dismissing the crowds, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone. 24 But the boat was already over a mile from land, battered by the waves, because the wind was against them. 25 Around three in the morning, He came toward them walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 Immediately Jesus spoke to them. “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 28 “Lord, if it’s You,” Peter answered Him, “command me to come to You on the water.” 29 “Come!” He said. And climbing out of the boat, Peter started walking on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the strength of the wind, he was afraid. And beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out His hand, caught hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 Then those in the boat worshiped Him and said, “Truly You are the Son of God!” (HCSB)

“Walking Towards Jesus”
I love the story of Peter walking on water. Sure, we remember Jesus walked on water, but so did Peter. This means that the miraculous is available to all of us, if we have our focus right.
The disciples were by themselves. Times were getting tough. There was a big storm that had pushed them far from safety. Our lives are like that. When we are alone the storms of life beat up against us and push us even further away from security.
Then they see Jesus walking towards them at three in the morning. The light isn’t great at that time of day. It isn’t quite night, but it isn’t quite day. Everything looks strange. Also, at three a.m., I’m pretty sure the disciples are shot. They’ve been up all night because of the storm. They haven’t had a good night’s rest because of all turbulent sea and the wild sounds of the storm. Then they think they are seeing something. Why would they expect to see Jesus walking on water towards them? This is a whole new experience.
But this is Jesus. He takes the shortcut. He walked straight towards the disciples rather than waiting for them to get safely to shore. This is Jesus. He walks through danger, straight towards us, right when we need Him.
Of course they were afraid. They were worn out from the storm. They were afraid they were going to die. Then this ghost comes towards them? Things have gone from bad to worse. But what does Jesus do? Immediately he calls to them, telling them to have courage and not be afraid.
That again. “Don’t be afraid.” The same words that have been echoed throughout the Old and New Testament. Don’t be afraid. Don’t freak out. It’s OK. These are good words to remember. God is in charge. Everything that happens is part of God’s plan. If we believe in a loving God, then we have to trust that God’s got it under control, so there is nothing to worry about.
But then something even more unusual happens. Peter asks Jesus to command him to come out on the water to Him. I find this fascinating. Why did Peter ask to come out there, rather than asking Jesus to come closer, towards the boat? This seems like the last thing I’d do. Terrified, worn out from a terrible night on a boat, seeing things – yeah, I’m going to stay in the boat, thank you very much. Getting out of the boat seems insane. The boat is the only sure thing in this picture. But Peter doesn’t see it that way. Peter asks Jesus to command him to come out to Him.
The Jews have a big concept about commandments, in that God sanctifies us by His commandments. By God giving us commandments to follow, we are made holy. Peter didn’t say “ask me to come to you”, he said “command”. The result would have been the same, but in this case he’s giving over control. Peter would be doing the walking on the water whether he was asked or commanded, but by being commanded, there is a measure of authority and force. The fact that Peter gave Jesus the authority, by asking him to command him, means a lot.
Jesus’ command is simple. Just one word. Just “Come!” Jesus doesn’t waste words, or even really command or ask. Just one word is all Peter needs, and he’s right over the side of the boat, and he’s walking towards Jesus. On water. In a storm. At three a.m. It sounds crazy. But it happened. And it still happens today. Not necessarily people walking on water, but doing things that they never thought they could, because they are walking towards Jesus.
Peter was doing fine until he got distracted. He saw the strength of the wind. He got afraid. How often does this happen to us? We start off fine, and then we start to think about it. He didn’t look at the waves, or think about how deep the ocean was. That didn’t scare him. Surely he saw all that before he got out of the boat. The wind got him. He lost his focus. He stopped looking at Jesus and he started getting afraid. This is the secret, here. The more we look away, the more likely we are to get afraid.
Then Jesus reaches out His hand and rescues Peter, marveling at how little faith he had, wondering at his doubt. Peter has been with him a long time and seen a lot of amazing things. Surely he should be able to get this, right? Nope. Fear is an old habit, and hard to break. Perhaps Peter’s doubt didn’t come from a lack of faith in Jesus, but in his own ability. Peter was used to seeing Jesus perform miracles. He wasn’t used to doing them himself.
I think God came to us in human form, not only to know what it was like to experience human life from the inside, but also to watch us. God learned a lot about our limitations by not only being one of us, but by living among us.
We are fragile, frail, and fallible. We fear a lot. We fall a lot. And every time, Jesus is there to rescue us. Jesus took Peter’s hand and pulls him up, out of the water, out of danger. This is Jesus, every time. He’s there to save us from ourselves, from our fears and doubts. This isn’t just a story of something that happened back then. This happens every day. Jesus is real, and present, and with us, now. Get out of the boat, and keep walking towards Jesus.

(Song chosen by the person officiating)

“Gone from my Sight” by Henry Van Dyke
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, ‘There, she is gone’
Gone where?
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me – not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, ‘There, she is gone,’
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, ‘Here she comes!’
And that is dying…
Death comes in its own time, in its own way.
Death is as unique as the individual experiencing it.

Meditations on death

burial 073116

I’ve been thinking quite seriously about what I would like done with my body when I die. I’ve read a lot of books recently about the options, and learning about what to insist on and what to refuse. This information will help me if my husband dies first, so I will be a well-informed consumer.

Most of us don’t think about this at all, and that is the problem. When we refuse to face the reality of our death, we are unable to embrace the beauty of our life.

Perhaps you’ve heard the terms “green burial” or even “conservation burial”?  This artwork is about my mediation on that.  These burials refer to the body being put into the ground as simply as possible – no embalming, no fancy coffin, no vault.

Many modern cemeteries (often euphemistically termed “memorial gardens” these days) insist on a vault to help with subsidence.  All grave sites cave in somewhat, and that makes it more difficult to mow with large equipment.  Most cemetery owners don’t want to take the time that is required to maintain graves by back-filling with dirt occasionally or mowing with small lawnmowers.

Also, some consumers are under the impression that the are preserving their loved one’s body for eternity with all they do – embalming, buying a metal sealer coffin, using a cement vault.  They are unaware (and often don’t want to be aware) of the reality of death – once a person has died, the body starts to decay.  Nothing will prevent that.  In fact nothing should prevent that.  If we say “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” we should mean that.  Our bodies should return to the earth when our souls return to heaven.

If people are concerned about having a pristine corpse for the resurrection of the dead at the second coming of Jesus, then they need to understand that a God who can make people out of dirt can restore us however we are.  It isn’t right to try to preserve the body unnaturally.  This can become idolatry, where we are more concerned with the outer shell – the body, than the inner essence – the soul.

It is not right for a family to go into debt in a vain effort to preserve their loved one’s body.  In general, the funeral industry charges way too much for its services, and they often rely upon the ignorance of the consumer – the  grieving family  – and their guilt and social pressure to “do the right thing by their loved one” and give them the best (read – most expensive) burial possible.

The “death positive” movement is trying to make informed consumers of the public so that we don’t feel pressured into buying what we don’t need.  It also aims to have people understand the very reality of death – that it is unavoidable.  Choosing not to make your own funeral arrangements is to leave that inevitable decision to those you love.

Not many generations back people took care of their own dead at home, and some are reclaiming that.  A number of federal and state regulations make this difficult if not impossible to do for the average person.  I recommend doing research on this before the need arises if this is of interest to you.

Embalming is not required by any federal, state, or local law.   Funeral directors will heavily insist upon it however if there is to be a viewing, or if the viewing is to be longer than an hour – or away from the funeral home.  The longer the body is at room temperature, the more decay will occur.  Most people in our generation have not seen someone look dead.  They look like they are peacefully asleep.  The funeral industry thinks we need this “memory picture” (their words) to help us accept death.  This makes no sense, as the person does not look dead.  I believe that they have as an industry lulled us into a delusion.

(Warning  – this gets a little hard to read from on out, yet provides important information to consumers.)

Not everything the funeral industry attempts to push on a grieving family is a good idea.

Embalming is an unnecessary and toxic procedure, using chemicals that are known carcinogens.  It is far more invasive than most of us realize.  It is not just replacing the blood with embalming fluid.  That is the first part.  The second part involves using a tool called a trocar to puncture the organs in the abdomen, suck out the fluids in the abdominal cavity, and then refill with more embalming fluid.  All that is left of the person’s body is a facade.  When the second coming occurs, they won’t have a body to resurrect.  You’re better off not embalming at all.  Also – all the bodily fluids that are sucked out simply go down the drain, untreated, into the municipal sewer system.  If prevention of the spread of communicable diseases is the concern, direct cremation is the best way.

Likewise, a sealer coffin is a terrible idea.  It is promoted as a way to “keep Mother Nature out” – but by law the funeral home cannot say that it will preserve your loved one’s body.  It can’t.  With air unable to escape, anaerobic bacteria increase their work and the body decays that much faster.

Vaults or grave liners were originally intended to deter grave robbers.  While that is not the concern it was, it has become common as part of burials.  They are promoted as a way to protect the body from the elements, but they are not permanent.  They often crack, letting in water.  The body ends up swimming in liquid – from inside and outside.  While there are no laws insisting on vaults or grave liners, most cemeteries will insist on them.  This can add several thousand dollars to the cost of the burial.

Meanwhile – you might be thinking cremation is a good idea.  The amount of energy required to cremate a body is equivalent to driving 600 miles.  The average cremation is anywhere from 1400 to 1800 degrees, and lasts 2 to 3 hours.  Afterwards, the body is NOT reduced to ash, as some might think.  The bones are placed inside a machine known as a “cremulator” that crushes them into little pieces, much like a blender.  All told, cremation is a violent process.  Also, the emissions from that are often not cleaned – going straight into the air.  Toxic mercury from fillings goes directly into the atmosphere.


Death is every day

There’s an old story about a man who was walking towards a town and he sees Death walking along beside him. They start to talk and Death says that he is going to kill everyone in the town. The man bargains with Death and says “Please don’t kill that many people” and Death says “Okay, I’ll only take 100.” When they get to the town, the man warns everyone there that Death was there and he was going to take 100 people. After a week a thousand people had died. The man finds Death and speaks with him, saying “You promised you would only kill a hundred people!” Death replied “I did. Fright killed the rest.”

There’s yet another story going around that says that the world is ending soon. This most current one says that they miscalculated the Mayan calendars and that it really is going to be June 3-4. This doesn’t give us a lot of time to get ready.

When my mother-in-law found out that she had a terminal diagnosis of cancer, I asked her what she wanted to do. She said she wanted to live. I pointed out that there is a difference between living and being alive. What do you want to do with the time that you have? What do you want to be remembered for? How do you want to contribute to the world? She didn’t have an answer. All she knew was that she didn’t want to die.

Our life is God’s gift to us. How we use it is our gift back to God.

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” – John Donne

Jesus had many parables about constantly being ready for the kingdom of heaven. This could be interpreted as death or a change in our way of understanding. Perhaps the “Kingdom of Heaven” can be seen as a death of the way things have always been, and a new life of peace and harmony.

But he also said that even he didn’t know when this would happen. So how could these predictors know, when they aren’t anywhere as connected as Jesus, who heard directly from God? They don’t. But it doesn’t matter. The idea of being ready for death is useful.

People many years ago would keep a souvenir of a loved one who had died. It was called a “memento mori” – a reminder of death. It was not only to remember the loved one, but also to remember that death is their fate too.

Our society has sanitized death to the point that we don’t even see it anymore. Our dead are taken away from us by professionals. We don’t experience death as a part of life like our ancestors did just a hundred years ago. They took care of their own dead at home. They washed them, laid them out, built a coffin, and buried them, all on their own. Now because that is done for us, we are divorced from the idea of death. We see it as an aberration, instead of as normal, which it is.

Death waits for nobody. Death is every day. There are no second chances, no do-overs when death comes. Death isn’t a punishment or a failure. Death is the natural result of life. It is best to make friends with it because it isn’t going away.

What would you do if you knew you had only a year to live?
Why aren’t you doing that now?

The earthquake theory of misfortune (poem)

People like to think that they are special,
that bad things can’t happen to them.
This is why they want to know
what disease
such-and-so died of.
They then compare to themselves.
“I don’t smoke, so I won’t die that way.”
“I exercise, so I won’t die that way.”

As if death is a punishment,
a thing that happens
as a natural result of
bad choices,
rather than being something
that happens to everyone.

Or they want to know
where the crime happened,
to see how close it is
to them.
On neighborhood watch pages,
someone will post that there was a
break-in, or a mugging
and everyone wants to know
what street,
as if being closer
is more dangerous.
As if criminals don’t travel.

People want to know
where the epicenter is,
to see how close
or far away
they are.

The poet John Donne said
“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee.”

Nobody told me about death

It was such a surreal time when my mom was dying. Nothing in my life had prepared before it, and nobody helped me through it. It was strange for her to, of course, so she was not able to help. The person I had always looked to for guidance was looking to me for strength.

The hospice social worker read off a set list questions – “What do you want to do?” “What life goals have you not achieved?” I guess the idea was to try to do some of these things before she died. It all seemed cruel and thoughtless. She couldn’t do these things – not enough energy anymore, or time. Visit England, her birthplace? Not possible. See me graduate / get married / be an adult? Not possible. 53 is a young death, and all preventable. She signed her death certificate the day she started smoking. She tried to quit but didn’t stick with it for many reasons. Something stressful would happen. She was bored. Dad wouldn’t quit.

Milton suggested that Adam ate the apple because Eve had, and he didn’t want her to be alone in being banished from the garden. He sacrificed his own happiness to be with her, to support her. Is this part of it? Or was it just a simple ugly habit, an addiction?

Near the end hospice sent over an aide they’d hired from a home healthcare company. She was a skinny black woman of limited education. She browsed our bookshelves and pointed out those that she felt were expensive. They weren’t – we often found large hardback photo books on the remainder table for under $10. We collected them and savored them, as the library in our city was small, and far away. After she said this I felt obliged to stay in the room with her all the time, which defeated the purpose of having her there. The point was to have a trained person with my Mom so I could go get errands done, or simply have some time off from the endless task of tending her by myself.

The aide also wanted to use Vaseline to swab my Mom’s mouth, saying that dying people’s mouths get dry. They do, but Vaseline isn’t the answer. That is weird. “Would you want Vaseline in your mouth?” I asked her. No answer. She couldn’t empathize.

She also had a bit of note paper in a folder she brought in. She’d written “The devil is real” and “You’re going to die!!!” on it. I asked her about it. She said that sometimes the people she tended would “act up” and she’d shove this in their faces to quiet them. I called hospice and said she never needed to tend my mother or anyone else ever again. They said she was leaving that company to go tend people who were profoundly mentally and physically handicapped. I replied that “She does not need to be around anyone who cannot defend themselves”. They had no answer, it was out of their hands they said. She wasn’t hired by them, it was through another company.

Around the same time a lady named Bernice was there. She went to the Episcopal Church that Father Rainsford had visited at and preached. He used Mom’s story in a sermon. He did not ask if he could, but that is another story. Bernice felt moved by the story to ask if she could help since I was tending Mom all by myself. She helped watch the watcher and later went, by my suggestion, to get hoagies from Ankar’s. She’d never had them before. They are my family’s comfort food. Submarine sandwiches don’t even come close.

I remember how weird it was when Father Rainsford came over towards the end and did last rights. That made it really real. He called out the page in the Book of Common Prayer. I was one I’d never seen before, and I scanned the title of the section. It is page 462 if you are interested, and it is titled “Litany at the Time of Death”. I’d not asked him to do it, but he knew it was time. I wasn’t ready for it. She died maybe a week later. She’d not talked for a week before this, but chimed in when we recited the Lord’s Prayer.

People who are dying see things that others don’t. Mom asked about that man who was sitting there, pointing towards the couch. No man had been in the house for days at that point.

People who are dying do unusual things. She was picking at her bedclothes. She took all the Kleenex out of a box, one by one. She filled in random letters in the crossword puzzle she was working on. Late one night she had nightmares, visions. She was quite anxious, calling out. I could not calm her. I called hospice, who sent out a nurse who gave her more anti-anxiety medicine. He said that people tended to die the way they lived. Since Mom had smoked a cigarette every 20 minutes of her adult life, she was quite unable to calm herself without chemical intervention.

Months earlier she’d finally came to understand about my pot usage at the time. She refused to try it, afraid that the doctor would find out through blood tests. What would they do – arrest a dying woman? Refuse further treatment? If she had tried it she would have been happier, more at peace, better able to process her feelings. It takes the edge off, and it is hard to think when life is all edges and angles. Plus she might have not lost much weight since she would have been hungry, and pot is also an anti-emetic. The wasting away from throwing up from chemotherapy drugs is awful. The “cure” is sometimes worse than the disease. Surely there has to be a better way to heal than by putting poison into people’s veins. It makes no sense at all.

The neighbors provided food. The priest visited. Hospice nurses and volunteers came. It still wasn’t enough, and still none of them told me what to expect. Hospice provided a page of “things that might happen” but it wasn’t enough. I needed someone to sit down with me and let me know that this crazy event that was happening was normal, and here’s what to do and not do.

Nobody told me what to expect. Nobody counseled me. Nobody thought to care for or about me, the 25-year-old child, not yet an adult, he was tending her mother, her friend, her roommate, alone and without training. I would suspect it is just as hard to do this at 50, but at least then you’ve had a bit more life experience to call upon.

At the end my aunt came, even though we were against it because of letters that she had written my Dad, saying that Mom would be better off dead. There was no one else I could invite to stay over to help me. Friends left me. In spite of my years of church involvement, church members never showed. Did they know? This is one of the disadvantages of being in a large congregation.

If I was pregnant, for instance, I suspect that someone would tell me what to expect, how to handle this. There are books at least. But people don’t talk about death. It is the elephant in the room. Perhaps they don’t know what to say? Perhaps I appeared to be handling it so well that they thought I knew. It was a façade, a front. In the back behind the scenes, I was alone, made more so by the fact that my counselor, my support, my friend, my roommate was leaving me, fading away to nothing right before my eyes.