Monday, July 28, 2008

Self Righteous Attacks - Knoxville Hate Crime

I had some many things I wanted to post about this week, but found myself busy-bodying around my house, cleaning out my garage, putting up my curtains in my newly redecorated dining room, making time to take in an Art show yesterday, and meeting an incredibly talented young man, who's mother was overwhelmed at the attention he was receiving at this, his first show.

All those topics, some interesting, some silly, some mundane will have to wait.

Because while I was puttering around, and enjoying the beautiful, sunny, July Sunday afternoon at Mount Union College's Art Fest with my mom and my cousin, somewhere someone else was mourning losing their parent, sibling, grandparent, foster dad. And others, are praying their critically injured loved ones heal. Because Sunday morning a man walked into a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Knoxville, TN and open fired.

It isn't the first time a hate crime has focused on a church or religious organization. It isn't even the first one involving my own religious institution. But this time it really hit home.

I watched the tape on CNN news, forwarded through my church's web group, and was brought to tears. I watched as children stood on what should be safe and hollowed ground, their church play interrupted by gunfire and death. I watched as a woman was trying to dial her cell phone to tell someone she loved what had happened, her hand shaking so badly, she could barely hold her phone. I looked on as fellow congregants hugged and consoled each other.

I read, that when the gun fire first occurred, the congregation thought it was a sound effect, part of the kids play they were watching. They were confused, and it took a minute before they panicked and dropped to the floor. And I imagined how the parents of the kids on the stage performing, ran right in front of spraying bullets to grab their precious children.

I was inspired by the bravery of some of those congregants, one in particular who lost his life by standing in between the man firing, rather than stepping aside for him to hit someone else. Others who in an instant seized the opportunity of the assailant reloading his weapon, to take action, tackling him and bringing him to the ground, risking death themselves to save their fellow church members.

Sadly, they couldn't save all of them, and two are dead. Five more are critically injured. As we know from VA Tech, it could have been oh so many more. I thought about my tiny congregation, in our small new home, sitting watching our religious education kids give a service on their own. With our backs or our sides to our door, relaxed, smiling, video taping our children.

My own church is such a small tight group. Last I heard, our membership was around 50. Though my congregation has been meeting on Sunday since the early 90's, they only recently were able to purchase their own home, a small office building just five short minutes up the road. This was a difficult transition for our group, as some were opposed to the building due to its limited capacity of seating and parking. But we also needed a permanent home due to twice having to end our leases on short notice when renting other venues. The first "eviction" came after a service on euthanasia, where someone inadvertently left a pamphlet on the topic laying on a chair when they cleaned up. They had been meeting in a retirement center, a resident there found it and the board received a "get out now" phone call the next day.

For years we were settled into the basement of a United Church of Christ, our fellow religious liberal family. The building was old and showing years of wear and neglect, as was the congregation of UCCs attending it. When the members upstairs were out numbered by our members downstairs, the UCCs decided to fold, blend into another local congregation, and handed the building back to the national UCC. The new congregation coming in, needed the whole facility, and we were given a few months notice to relocate again.

We settled into the Arts in Stark building, which has a beautiful sanctuary, where I took this photo. It was pretty, but not ours. Once again we could not have our library, our piano, our pamphlets, our hymnals, or our sign, permanently out front.

And our flaming chalice was snuffed out, as no open flames were allowed in our lease. Once again, there was a sense of transitional home, a lack of security, a fear that any moment we could be asked or told to move again.

Some members were gained with all the change, and some were lost, and so it goes when things seem impermanent and unstable.

We searched and finally found this small office building turned sanctuary, and called it home. We could hold Coffee House nights again, game nights, special speakers, new classes during any day, any time of the week we wanted. It may be small, and imperfect as a church, but it is OUR church, OUR home.

MY home. My first religious home. We attended my Grandma and Kurtpa McClellend's church, Otterbein United Methodist, every Christmas and Easter while I was growing up. But I didn't really know the people or the kids, was always in guest mode there, not quite sure what they were talking, about or what the few rituals the Methodists held onto really meant. After my brother was head injured in 1981, then my Grandma passed away a few years later, we stopped attending at all.

After my divorce I went "church shopping" and only made it to three of them. First of course, was Otterbein, most familiar and welcoming. Went with my mom, who still knows many people there. Next was Bethel Lutheran, where my exhusband's family attended, and I had been there several times while married to him. Lastly, to a non-denominational Evangelical church called Temple of Praise, where my sons had attended daycare for several years. I went to all of these first, because they were familiar, I would know a person or two, and it wouldn't seem so foreign.

And though I found them somewhat interesting and moving, they never felt like home. I just sit right in between rationalist and idealist. Between all thing supernatural and all things scientific. Actually, if anything seems most reverent, magical, mystical, mythological to me, it is science, with the space for all things God falling into the deep realms of those things too intricate and inexplicable. You see, that's where I believe miracles lay waiting. So where to find all of those things wrapped up in one church?

One Saturday morning, when my sons were at their dad's house, I pulled out the Canton Repository to look at the "church adds" for my next visit. I hadn't really done this yet, but I had just exhausted all those churches I was familiar with, so now I needed to step up my research and step out of my comfort zone.

Isn't that always the way we make amazing personal discoveries?

I opened the local section to see the headline, "Spiritual Search Leads Some To Customize Their Journey". The article seemed to be an obvious "God Wink" in the right direction.

The first man in the article was Agnostic, and didn't attend a church. The other woman in the piece called herself UU Hindu, and attended the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Canton. What a mouthful.

It was the first time I had ever heard of the combination of UU with another religion. Five years down the road, however, I am quite familiar with the practice. Many UUs introduce themselves as UU Christian, UU Hindu, UU Buddhist, UUMuslim, UUJewish, UU Humanist, UU Deist, UU Atheist, UU Agnostic. Many more of us call ourselves UU only at first, then as conversation ensues, we will define themselves more by what they are not, as in “Hi. My name is Zen and I’m a ‘recovering’ Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Latter Day Saint, Jehovah's Witness, Methodist etc, like a religious 12 Step program.

Everyone together say, "HI ZEN."

And then, there are just UUs. That's me. Still searching to see if I have a calling to one particular realm. BUT finding out more and more that I am really in love with all world religions to pick just one.

So I got up early one February Sunday, and got ready for church (still a foreign and unfamiliar ritual given my twice a year, C and E status growing up). I went out to start my jeep to discover that a huge winter storm had descended upon us. Was God in fact "winking" me back into hibernation in my warm and cozy cocoon? Or was He challenging me to see if I was really ready to step into worlds previously unfamiliar.

Undaunted, I shoveled enough to get to my jeep, and headed out cautiously down the drift covered paths previously known as roads. I arrived a little late, but was comforted by the thought of something the Hindu woman, (I now know well as Mary Strickland) said in the interview. "Where else can you show up late, and no one minds when you go back and poor yourself a cup of coffee before settling into your seat?" These really sounded like my kind of people. I do, as I have mentioned many times, come from Circus stock.

I walked into the door, saw the little sanctuary already in the middle of their service, of UCCs. There was a sign indicating the UUCGC was down the stairs to the right. I went. Slowly, listening to a piano playing a prelude, by the elderly hands of a gentleman I now know as Eric Beu.

I walked behind the three sided rows of chairs and settled into one in the back row. I glanced around during the rest of the prelude, until my eyes came to rest on this poster

I studied it smiling. Every single world religious symbol, with the words, "We Celebrate Diversity" in bold and colorful print in the center. There were a few on the top I didn't recognize, but now know are the flaming chalice. The symbol of UU faith, of light, of love, of knowledge, of connection to all living things, no matter how small.

The symbol of my faith.

I was home.

So as I said my congregation now has it's own home. We have been featured several times in UU World Magazine, the national UU publication put out by the Unitarian Universalist Association of America. Now we are taking the next leap of faith and searching for a part time minister. This too is challenging as everyone's ideas are so different, and all voices will be heard throughout the process.

It's an exciting time for us. We are growing. The parking lot some of us were concerned about is full, and many Sundays we have to walk across the street from another business who's not open on Sundays.

There are some challenges in taking this less traveled individualized spiritual path. First of all, the name our faith chose, as a result of two churches merging in the 1970's, is a tongue twister, and little known or understood outside our own small circles. I have been told I have no faith, because we don't enforce any creed or dogma. I have been told we're just a group, a club, of liberals hiding under a church to get a tax break. That sounds like a lot of work for 50 or less people if you ask me, but it has been casually tossed my way at times.

It isn't easy, being the the most religiously liberal and diverse church in the Ohio "Bible Belt." My own church didn't even settle into the most open minded section of the county. A new multiplex fundamentalist conservative Christian Church goes up in our church "neighborhood" (which is also mine) every 6 months, or so it seems. I am surrounded in my allotment by people who attend every other church but mine. Many of my neighbor's kids go to a local Christian school through high school.

I take Anna to a young mom's play group next door, a neighbor I love dearly. Though her thoughts on parenting are similar to mine and her young friends are always welcoming to me, feel sort of out of place. They all attend the same conservative church, share the same core religious values, which do tend to be conservative fundamentalist. And because I am a guest there, I would never feel comfortable expressing my full opinion, though I am privy to theirs because, well they all share them with each other. And now that I have finally found my own religious and spiritual home, I find I am less at ease among those I'm not sure would tolerate my beliefs, if they really looked into what they were. My neighbor does, and I think she has some understanding. But her friends? I have discussed perhaps opening my home to them to give back for their welcome into the playgroup. However, I am slow to offer when my own UU poster, the same as the one I first saw in my own church, greets people in the first few feet of my home. My book shelves? Well, The Holy/King James/ New Living Bibles, sit right next to the History of God, History of Buddha, History of Muhammad right next to God is Red, Conversations with God, the Lost Scriptures, Thank God for Evolution, and finally...

Tarot Cards for Dummies.

And that shelf is second. My writing books are all on the top shelf place of honor.
Let's not even get started on my collection of Buddhas that occupy every room, as well as other varied religious symbols. So am I just a closet UU? Or should I be an "Evangelical" of sorts, sharing my Gospel with any who will listen.

Like the woman in Family Video the other night, who saw me eying the Golden Compass, and couldn't help herself from cautioning me, "That movie is AGAINST GOD."

I was a bit taken aback, and not expecting to be in the position to have a religious discussion (isn't that when they always show up?) I simply responded, "Oh. Well, I don't think that would bother me." To which she hummphed self righteously, "Well, I guess if you're an Atheist." I said, "Well, I'm not an atheist, I just am not concerned about the movie."

Of course I thought of a million things to say AFTER we left. Everything from, "Oh? It's an Atheist movie? Hey honey- I found one for the kids!" To "Oh? An atheist movie? Honey, did you find Brokeback Mountain for us yet? Here's that one I read about that we wanted for the kids!" To "No I'm not an atheist, but I know some from my UU church right across the street from here."

I was wearing an OM necklace, not a cross. I do own a cross and I do wear it sometimes. I revere that cross above all my other pieces of religious jewelry. Not because it represents Christ, though of course it does. It is also one of the last remaining gifts I received from my grandmother for graduating high school. I honestly think this type of person is so convinced they're possess the only possible truth, that can't imagine anyone in their right mind wouldn't agree and appreciate their good intentions toward my children's immortal souls.

Speaking of immortal souls, I did finally become enlightened as to the Golden Compass anti-God reference. My teacher was the young clerk who was totally unaware of her other patron's attempt to shepherd me toward more family value friendly fair. As in two movies in which the lead characters have one night stands, never find out about the resulting child until 5 or ten years later. Interesting choices. Anyway, the young clerk was enthusiastically confirming I'd made the right choice after all, as she had seen it in the theatre, not expecting to like it, and was "blown away." Well... at the ripe old age of 40, I hardly expected to be blown away by a fantasy movie, but you never know. When I told her I was pleased to hear that, since another renter had tried to warn me away because it was "against God," she looked irritated, and responded like a pro who had fielded this particular criticism one too many times.

"Ok...first of all, it's fiction, and it's author was atheist. It deals with another world where peoples souls walk around outside their bodies in the form of animals-" I assured her more explanation was unnecessary. I may not be Atheist, but I'm not afraid of them. Perhaps because the Atheists I know and love never once have told me I shouldn't watch, shouldn't read, shouldn't think anything I want to. They may think my beliefs silly or unfounded, but we have learned to agree to disagree, and don't really see the point in arguing about it. Then again, we are not Evangelicals of our faiths, and don't feel compelled to save, convince or spread any sort of gospel truth.

Although, as a 40 year old I am compelled to say one truth. I wasn't that interested in the Golden Compass, nor did my kids get involved deeply in it's "Atheist" plot. Actually, I think if that was the intention of the author, he missed the mark, as the characters seemed deeply, spiritually attached to their animal souls. If I had not heard anything to the contrary prior to viewing The Golden Compass, I would have assumed it to be about the spiritual teachings of indigenous peoples, given all the animal soul companion stuff. I found it ironic that any plot involving souls would be considered remotely Atheist. Though I did see a lot of anti organized religion themes. But then again, I find those in most sci-fi/fantasy and mythological story telling.)

And so I return to the sad report of the killing of two Unitarian Universalist church members. Who's congregation is part of a larger community, who by and large fight for social justice, against oppression, and believe in the inherent worth and dignity and interconnected web of every living thing. Who accept your belief system whatever it shall be, as long as it does not infringe upon the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of someone else on their own individual life path.

That means that though we celebrate diversity, we don't let anyone and everyone join us. We will welcome all who come in peace, and usually let it go when someone approaches us with self righteousness. We do this because as liberals, we believe you are allowed to your opinion, even if we don't agree with it. We don't generally try to change your mind, but rather to understand why you feel the way you do. It would be lovely, if this respect would be returned rather than seen as a weakness to exploit and target.

However, this intolerance we often face, which comes from our tolerance for diversity, has challenged us enough in the past that we are also tough. I am incredibly proud of the brave UUs throughout history, many of whom died helping to bring about the birth of our nation, or helping African American slaves through the Underground Railroad. Some were murdered while helping poor southern blacks to register to vote in the 1960's, and, on this past Sunday, some who were gunned down in their sanctuary because "all are welcome" including gay, bi, and transgender people.

Please keep the members of the Knoxville TN Unitarian Universalist Congregation and their families with you in your thoughts and prayers.

Make your voice heard.
Intolerance against violence...
Against Hate crimes....
Against those who celebrate diversity.

Blessed Be.

"Ever since there has been only one true God, there has been killing in His name."
~ The DaVinci Code

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Here's a little ditty I've been working on for my family

There’s George’s shop
We’re getting close
Turn sharp
Easy to miss
Steep drop
Down to
The gravel drive
Turn ’round and park on grass

Jump out
Run fast
No need to lock
Can’t wait to shout
We're here Kurt-Pa!
Leaping through
The stepping stones
To concrete stoop
jump skip and hop

Laughter rings
Camel bells on door
Run in
without a knock
Every Sunday
Brings the same
Young flock

Handmade washstand
Smells of pine
First stop
To be explored
Lipstick samples
Costume wigs-
Don’t touch!
Kindly ignore

Bottom shelf
Feel Free to plunder
Broken crayons
And books to color
Faded names
Unfinished pictures
Golden tales
From days of yonder

Smallest, roundest
Kitchen table
Stretches with a leaf
Stovetop full
Oven? A cake!
Tiny fingers
Sneak a taste
Of Grandma’s butter cream

Peek in the junk drawer
For a treat-
Go outside and play
Wait-please be helpful
Gather mint
For ice tea made
Great grandma’s way

Untamed Violets
Green apples
show the way
To Lemon balm
And wild mint
Leave some
For birds we always say

Pine tree tents
full of mosquitoes
Swing from
Vines of weeping willow
Go find grandpa
In the shop
"Food's almost ready
Time to STOP!"

Printing press is LOUD
Can’t hear us
So we walk about
He jumps and startles
Angry? Naw!
That ornery grin says, “just kiddin!”
We head up to the house!

Table set and
smells so good
As each one
finds a seat
Mine’s a stool
Sits up too high
I'm youngest,
Leaning down to reach

Tiny kitchen-dinning room
Holds all those here
And more
Join hands
Sing Johnny Appleseed
A prayer of thanks
In harmony-
“Oh the Lord is Good to Me….”



Friday, July 18, 2008

If you start reading the blogs below this post

Please go back to the first on entitled, "Living and the moment (Part Une)"

Otherwise it may not make much sense!


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Living, the Moment (Finis)

On March 19, 2005, I married my best friend, lover, confidant. It was almost exactly one year after Lita died.

At the start of the ceremony, we lit a unity candle we would later use to unite with each other, and with our children in a family unity candle ceremony. We also had two more candles lit, one for Lita, and another for Kathleen Howland, who had lost a several year battle with ovarian cancer, at the age 77, of September of that same year.

Kathleen was a long time family theatre friend, mentor, actress, director, and teacher. She is one of only two or three directors I can think of, ever to afford my mother and me the opportunity to "play" our real life roles onstage. In 1997, mom and I auditioned for Kathleen for The Glass Menagerie at the then newly started Louisville Community Theatre. I had an advantage this time. Not only was Laura Wingfield the type Kathleen had known me to be my whole Players Guild Youth Theatre career, but, I was also the only actress Laura's age to show up for auditions. There was, however, another actress auditioning for Amanda. Kathleen was one of two directors who always thought of mom's type as "Marmee" in Little Women ever since, well, ever since mom played Marmee and I played Beth. (I was Beth twice for the same director. Beth/Laura = my type!) Unfortunately, Kathleen went with the actress she didn't know, thinking her over the top comedic talent could be channeled into an overbearing, over the top Amanda Wingfield.

The two clashed from day one, and rehearsal was a bit strained and stressful. Along with myself, the rest of the cast- Keith Berger as Tom, and Tom Bryant as the gentlemen caller- had known and/or worked with Kathleen for years, as well as all of us knowing each other from the Players Guild. The other actress worked primarily at a smaller, more laid back theatre in town, in which the directors were so laid back that if you announced at one rehearsal you couldn't come to the next, it was no biggie. Kathleen was a professional though, community theatre or not. At times she could come across as a little brash when she thought someone was dropping the ball, but for those of us who knew her or had worked with her, we knew it came from that place of professionalism and perfectionism regarding her craft. But, the actress playing Amanda decided one night not to return to rehearsal, over two weeks in!

I will never forget walking into that rehearsal, a few minutes late myself. Noah, who was only about 3 or 4 months old, was still nursing, and I hadn't been feeling well on top of that. Kathleen was very generous with those extenuating circumstances, but I always worried when late that I might have over extended her sympathies. So that night, I climbed the rickety stairs to the rehearsal area (a dingy old nearly condemned set of apartments over the old Hardware Store on Main Street in Louisville) five or ten minutes late again, worrying about receiving my own arse chewing by Kathleen. I was greeted by Tom saying, "OH- Kathleen! HERE's JENNIFER!" and thinking "Oh crap...they're all standing around waiting on ME."

Kathleen rushed up, a determined and irritated look on her face and exlaimed, "Little Zen Zen! Thank GOD. Do you think your mom would still like to play Amanda? Or will she be offended I ask after not choosing her like I should have in the first place."

Ummmm.... my mind had to switch gears. Then they told me that Joan had decided to leave the cast.

Well then! YES I do believe my mom would like to play Amanda!

Mom took over Amanda Wingfield with little over two weeks of rehearsals to go. Anyone who knows that iconic character from the Tennessee Williams classic knows exactly how challenging that character is, how many fat monologues there are to learn, and just how impossible 2 weeks would be to accomplish that.

Joan asked to re-join the next day, but having already re-cast, and working with my mom in one rehearsal, Kathleen said no. I remember one scene in particular, where Kathleen realized my mom was the perfect Amanda. It's where someone on the other end of the phone hangs up on Amanda, shocking and offending her. Joan and Kathleen had worked and worked on this scene in particular, with Kathleen trying to get Joan to do something to show her irritation, and Joan continuing to try to do this through her line only. The first night my mom read that scene, she got to the part where the woman hung up on her, and held the receiver away, glared at it, then said, "That woman HUNG UP ON ME!" The gesture of first glaring in disbelief at the phone was exactly what Kathleen was hoping for. She stopped my mom right there and said, "OH Janey! That's PERFECT! I tried and tried to get that Joan woman to understand that, and you did it on your first try!!!!" Kathleen was never more smitten with my mother than after that show. And they had a decades old friendship already.

Kathleen was a tough director, and being her former student made it hard to voice my opinion. One difference we had was over Laura's reaction to the gentlemen caller's rejection after he kisses her, when he tells her that he has a finance. My Laura wanted to cry, Kathleen was directing me to be really happy for him. Night after night I tried to give her what she wanted. Finally, one night, she said, "Zen honey, why would Laura want to cry when she just got her biggest wish- a kiss from him?" I said, "Well, she had a fantasy about him all through high school, then he shows up in her living room years later, shows he really likes her, enough to kiss her. In that moment, Laura thinks that maybe she will have a normal life, get away from her mother, and the fantasy has come true after all. Then in the next moment, Jim tells her he can't call again. She is crushed, confused, yet is still caught up in the moment of that kiss. So when she says, "You won'" She is hoping that she's misunderstanding what he's saying.

Kathleen simply said, "Well then honey, you've obviously thought all that through. You go ahead and cry, and let's see how it goes."

I did.

It stayed.

She was an actor's director. (Those are the best.)

Kathleen and I did one more play together. She played my overbearing, crazy mom. Jodi Wilson and Pat Burns, actresses I had worked with in my teens, joined me as my sisters on stage. And Carla Derr directed.

The play was called Independence, by Lee Blessing. It was one of only two times in my life I was asked to be in a show, no audition required. Those opportunities are so hard to turn down, especially when you hear the rest of the cast are some of your favorite actress around.

Oh- and the title appealed to me since I had just finalized my divorce the month before.

Kathleen struggled with her lines, but this was not due to ill health or getting older. Kathleen always had a knack for challenging her co-stars with interesting choices in dialog. I remember another director/teacher/icon/ and best friend to Kathleen, Bill Fry, telling a story from when they were in their 40's or so. I forget the play, but they had a scene together that one night Kathleen started giving Fry dialog from the third the second act. This went on for sometime before they exited, and Fry was frantically trying to get her back to the correct sequential dialog before the end of the play was given away. They walked off stage for intermission, and Fry said Kathleen turned to him, narrow eyed, and hissed, "I saved your ASS out there!" She was totally unaware that she was the one in the wrong act! Fry loved to tell that story and would laugh and laugh when telling it, "There-ha-ha- there-ha-ha-there!!!!!!" (Former Bill Fry students will enjoy the "there-there" inside joke!)

But all of this history, is really not why we lit a candle for her at our ceremony. It was her amazing marriage, one that I was privy to in a family way having spent so much time with them during my adolescence.

I spent almost every weekend at their home in the months following my brother's head injury. On several occasions, I remember getting up in the morning to a lovely breakfast at the Howland's breakfeast nook. Kathleen and Bill would be sitting there, exchanging terms of endearment with each other. TACKY at times. She called him Pookie or something similar I can't recall now. And he called her his own pet names. Once she told me I should pinch his earlobe, because it was so cute. "Isn't that just the cutest ear lobe you ever saw Zen Zen????" I remember thinking they were odd, but cute. I also remember thinking I had never seen two adults, in their fifties, in love, but evidently this must be what it would look like.

Kathleen and her husband Bill (or Doc) had the most amazing marriage, worthy of a whole blog all its own. But let’s just say, that I never met another couple like them. They ran off to get hitched at 17 or 18, and never stopped showing each other how much they loved each other. I remember the last time I saw them, when Kathleen had already been ill for sometime. They were at a play, it was intermission, and a 70 plus year old Bill had traversed the spiral staircase down to the concessions to pick up a package of M and M’s (evidently her favorite) to bring back up to her since she was too frail to make the journey herself. I will never forget her saying, “For me???? Oh Skippy! How I love and adore you!” In the most joyful tone, as though he had just given her the moon on a silver platter.

When I heard she was nearing the end, I had sent a letter to her and Bill, telling them how much they meant to me, how when my family suffered the traumatic accident that paralyzed my older brother, she and Bill took me in every weekend for several months, while my parents stood guard by my brother’s hospital bed. I told her how much she taught me about acting, theatre, kindness, love, marriage, all by example. How I would never forget them and loved them so.

A few weeks later at Kathleen’s calling hours Bill hugged me exclaiming “Little Zen Zen is here!” It is what Kathleen and Bill always called me, and he still will today even though "Little" Zen Zen is now 40.

We invited him to our wedding. He sent a wedding present and regrets that he couldn’t attend because, “I’m just not ready to go to celebrations in public without her yet, please except my apologies…”

In our wedding program we wrote, "We lite these candles in memory of Lita who inspired my search for happiness, and Kathleen who showed me what it looked like."

Sometimes I think I should send him that program, now that it’s been a few years and it won't be as raw. I want to let him know once more how much their example helped me to know that Rick was the man I should spend my life with. But then again, it will always be raw to Bill. My mom saw him recently with a group of writer friends, and they all had coffee together. She told me that a friend told him, “Bill, you really must find a new love to enjoy your life with.”

To which Bill responded,

“Oh….no. You only really get that once, and I already had it. My love with Kathleen was enough to last me forever.”

Once upon a time there were two exquisitely ordinary, every day, creative, giving, fabulous, people, who were supportive , nurturing, romantic, and passionately in love for over 50 years.

Now that's the fairytale I want to tell Anna every night before she goes to bed.

Right after I've told her the tale of a young warrior princess named Lita Elizabeth Schrock, who fought the dragon Cancer and in doing so with such bravery, inspired others to live in the moment and search for happiness. Though Lita's life was brief and the dragon cancer won in the end, her lite burns on in all who carry her memory with them. None more so than her name sake, Anna Elizabeth, whose parents meeting, marrying, and having their baby girl, was directly inspired by Lita's brief and courageous life.

And so the Fairy Princess Anna Elizabeth was born to a home filled with love and gratitude. A home with a mommy and daddy, devoted to their marriage, and to all their children-
Tanner, Noah, Adri, and Anna.

And they lived happily ever after.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Living, Loving in the Moment (part duex)

As I said the last post, that hospital visit was the last time I saw my young friend Lita.

Every time she was released to go home, she got worse and was readmitted. In February her church did a benefit for her and her family. Lita was Greek and German. This was the Greek side. The food was provided by Angelo’s, a fabulous little Italian restaurant which was where she was last employed before she became ill.

There was a table for her friends, many of them the from Kent State Stark campus theatre, where I met Lita when she worked props for the Miracle Worker. Most of us hadn’t seen each other in a very long time, as it was a university theatre, with students coming and going , therefore even more transient than regular community theatres.

Because we were theatre people, we were not at all shy, and the Greek church members instantly took a shine to us. There was a Greek band, Greek dancing, and the “unofficial” dance instructor grabbed several of us theatre girls and drug us onto the floor to teach us the moves. Of course, given our backgrounds in musical theatre, we were quick studies and soon were laughing and dancing and keeping up with the “professionals”. Well….at least with the dance instructor and the little kids he teaches!

When we were leaving Terri Sosnowski, professor, fellow actress, and mother to Alexa, one of Lita and my dearest friends, hugged me hard. She whispered in my ear, "YOU aren't moving or going away anywhere, are you?"

I assured her that having two sons who I shared with their father meant that no, in fact, I was a safe bet to stay put.

That night at the benefit reminded me of Maryanne’s last birthday party- joy mixed with concern, sorrow. It was a celebration to honor and support Lita, with all her closest friends, family, and fellow members of her church. The only difference was we still had hope, but it was a hope mixed with sadness when it was announced that Lita, who was supposed to come to the benefit and had been doing fairly well the past week or so, had taken a turn again and was readmitted to the hospital that day.

That was her last time admitted. They released her shortly after to go home. There was nothing else they could do for her.

Once she went home from the hospital, her mother was very understandably protective of her, and Lita was never able to return my phone calls. I was so “busy” with work, school, kids that I ended up playing phone tag with Lita’s Aunt Anna Marie, who had befriended me and kept in contact with me, keeping me up to date so I could pass messages onto Lita’s other friends. Now I only can hope that her mom was able to pass along the messages, that Lita was alert enough to receive them, so that she would know that I was thinking of her as well as all her young theatre friends..

A month or so after the benefit, Anna Marie called me and left an urgent message that I should go to see Lita, because it wasn't looking good. I tried to contact her, but her mom was obviously distressed and told me that Lita wasn’t up to visitors but she would let her know I called. A few other young theatre friends called me a few days later, to say they had reached Lita’s mom and arranged for us to go to visit her. Then the next day we all got a call that her family had her transported to seek a last hope treatment to a University Hospital almost 3 hours away, so we would have to wait to see her until she got back.

But Lita passed away that week. I'm not sure if she even got back to her home first, or was still at the University Hospital.

As a parent, on one hand I can so understand why her family was desperately trying to save her, even up to the last breath she took. But all the same, given our conversations, which I’m sure were not the same ones she felt comfortable having with her family, I worried that she was encouraged to fight up until the last possible minute. I hope she got to go home first, to her own bed, rather than dying at a hospital. I wish her friends would have been able to see her, to let her know how much we loved her and would miss her

And with certainly no disrespect to her family, I hope that their fear and desperation did not bring to her the end she expressed to me that she feared the most…not being ready to let go.

Losing Lita had such an impact on me personally, I can’t imagine the loss for those even closer to her.

But when she died...I thought....

How can I honor her? How can I take the loss of this bright, energetic, passionate, ornery, opinionated, compassionate brave, young woman and make any sense of it?

I remember leaving the last conversation I had with her in the hospital and thinking on the way home,

“If my Dr. told me I had something like this, that I needed to fight for my life, would I do it? Or am I too disillusioned with my life right now to save myself? I have something that Lita longed for. I am a mother of two beautiful sons. I am nearly done with a BA that Lita so had her heart set on finishing. I am living for “someday/maybe/ hopefully/ when I’m done with this, when I’ve completed that…”

I was not, nor had I been for quite some time, living in the moment of today, embracing the gift that was my life. My body, even in it’s flawed and at times health challenged state, was overall healthy enough to get me where I needed to go, and deserved to be appreciated a hell of a lot more.

It was a frigid March Sunday when I went to Lita's calling hours. I was late and all of my friends had already gone through the line. They were worried about me going through alone, and awaited my arrival rather than leave me on my own.

From there we all ventured over to the Sosnowski's house where a sort of Kent Stark waked ensued. Lita had been such a part of the Sosnowski's lives, having lived with them as part of their family for a few years off and on, that you could literally feel her presence. I thought about the story Terri had told before of when she went shopping for ornaments for her own daughters, Ardith and Alexa. She decided since Lita was living with them at the time she would get her one too, and added her name to the list for the artist to personalize them all. It wasn't until she returned home from picking them up she realized that she must have confused the person taking the order. There were ornaments for "Ardith", "Alexa"....

and "Alita".

She was going to have them fix it but it was too close to Christmas. So she decided it would be funny to go ahead and give Lita the ornament as is.

Lita loved that ornament, and told Terri, "Don't you dare change it! I am finally really part of your family!"

That night around Terri's kitchen table, we laughed and cried, and laughed until we cried.

I sat there, in the company of all my “old” yet younger than me theatre friends, who had either graduated from Kent or moved onto other universities. Some were off on adventures in other cities. And I was keenly aware of an overwhelming sort of bittersweet nostalgia wrapping around me. Laughing, remembering, sharing, just as we had at the benefit the month before. Only this time at this table, Terri's table, where we had all sat so many times before, many of those with Lita among us. This time, we all knew perhaps more fully than we had at that benefit, that we may all never be in the same room, this room, together again.

I will never forget when we were leaving that evening, Terri saying to all of us,

“Man…I am really going to miss all of you kids.”

I remember feeling for the first time that Terri, an accomplished English professor, didn't have the words or the ability to express them. Not really a loss of words, God no! That would never happen with Terri Sosnowski! It seemed to me that it was more, the emotions were too deep, too dear, to share outloud.

When I left that night, my heart was in contradiction. So torn between the joy and camaraderie rekindled, yet at a loss for the young life we were leaving behind. Grateful for our reunion, yet heavy hearted knowing that it may always be the last of its kind.

And I thought about empty nest for the first time. My mom never had a chance at it with my brother's disability keeping him home well into his thirties. I was too young to possibly know how brief and fleeting your kids are in your care. Yet watching Terri that night, I realized that through both their daughters' adolescence, the Sosnowskis had a house so full of teenage angst, mischief, celebration and chaos, full of life and all its glorious potential. When Ardith moved out there was still Alexa, and all her crazy theatre/high school girlfriends constantly in and out. A few, Audrey and Lita, had actually moved in with the Sosnowskis, Lita staying well after Audrey and Alexa got their own apartment.

Now Alexa had moved all the way to Florida

And Lita was gone.

When your nest empties, it’s not just your kids you will miss, but all the wonderful, interesting, evolving young people they bring in and out of your home. And I also finally understood Terri's question of me at the benefit over a month before.

No, I wasn't going anywhere. But like Terri I was feeling as though they were all leaving me. Passing me by on their way to their own young bright futures all over the world.

And I left there that night heavy in my heart. Alone in bed that night, my thoughts turned back to the man. The man I had the ridiculous notion to share with Lita on one of those last visits. When she asked how I was doing and I was ignorantly honest with her.

I started to become more and more upset with myself that I wasn’t making time for those I loved, because I was so distracted with one who couldn’t love me the way I deserved to be loved. Why was I wishing away my life, my gift...

How would that honor the loss of a young woman robbed of life in her 26th year?

That night, I sent an email to the man I was holding in my heart, that I was holding my life still in hopes of one day….maybe….someday….

I asked to see him one last time.

He came to me, late at night. We talked, cried...and said goodbye.

As he drove away I felt a calmness envelope me. And somewhere somehow, I knew it was the last time I would ever see him.

Well after he left I laid in bed wide awake, but still no tears came through me.

I felt...


As though I was...


And my heart grew very still and quiet.

I realized for the first time in a long time, that I was not mourning the lost relationship, but a loss of myself.

And I felt something slightly short of a miracle. I felt a small space, almost sacred place, opening in my heart. A crack in an airtight shield.

And into that space, I placed a prayer. A surrender prayer it’s called:

"If it's really not him I'm to end up with. Then Ok. Are you listening God? I get it. I’m ready. I need to move on and find happiness. So whoever you think he is…please send him to me. Even if I think you're wrong. Even if I can’t believe it’s the right guy. I will give it a chance. I promise. Because I am finally ready to be happy again."

Two weeks later, I had a disastrous date with a guy I met online, who to me seemed absolutely perfect and what I was looking for at first "type." However he turned out to be using internet dating services to meet women for reasons other than dating.

(I nicknamed him “No Means No Joe” if that’s any indicator.)

When he canceled our second date after I insinuated I would not be sleeping with him any time soon, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I actually joined Yahoo Personals, as in paying the 20 bucks, so that I could finally contact people instead of waiting to see who showed up in my inbox. I then went to a “trash” bin in my Yahoo Personals account, to see who I had placed there, convinced at first glance that we would never be right for each other. (Because before Mr. No Means No Joe, I just knew I could so tell from a small profile pic and a paragraph if a man was worth dating.) I then found an Army Major, single dad, who had written me a month before, inquiring if I was interested in getting to know him. When I first received his note, I thought, “Army Major and Theatre Major? No way. ‘Don’t ask don’t tell’ meets ‘Here’s my gay friend Patric I’ve known since 3rd grade’? Hell no way. KSU ROTC instructor meets future KSU BA in Theatre Studies student?

Next Dogs and Cats will be sleeping together!!!!!!

But I dug him out of the trash bin and sent him a note. He wrote right back. I found out he was rather funny in a surprising, I didn’t think the Army had a sense of humor, way.

And in him I found a handsome, amazingly generous, giving, nurturing, actively engaging, humorous, politically conservative, (yet) incredibly open minded, supportive, caring, loving man…

So after holding him at arm’s length, allowing him to woo and reel me in for several months, I decided God was right and knew me and what was good for me better than I did myself.

And I can’t help wondering if Lita wasn’t somewhere, giving me a nudge in the right direction. I like to think so in light of meeting him so quickly after losing her. I owe so much of my own personal bliss, Rick and Anna in particular, to losing Lita. Tremendous cost for such a lesson. But I really believe wherever she is, that she is proud I finally got what it took her own illness to teach her.

Live now, love now. That is the beautiful gift Lita left anyone who knew her.

The rest of the story, including one more loving couple's influence, on Fri.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Living, the moment (Part Une)

I started this blog last week. I didn't realize how much of this was in me, just waiting to come out. The final blog was so large (around 8,000 plus words!) that I didn't post it (or anything) at all. I wanted to put it up for a few days, come back to it, and see if I really needed to say all of it.

I did.

But, in the interest of how much anyone else wants to read of it at once, I am posting it in sections. So if you wish to read the whole story, tune in on Wed for the next installment!

Here goes.

As a culture we spend so much of our lives wishing and waiting for others to hand us the happiness we deserve. We live for the next lover, friend, job, car, degree, house, furniture, computer, camera, pair of shoes….to fill up a void that cannot be fulfilled through anything external. That kind of bliss comes from deep within and cannot be found until we are able to dig deep into our own selves, and see it was right there inside us all along. We have to discover gratitude for all the gifts we already possess, both in our own minds and bodies, as well as from those who surround us. Then and only then, will all the other trimmings of a wonderful love filled life find their way into our lives.

Before I met my husband Rick, I was a single mom for 5 and a half years. I had only dated once, about 2 and a half years after my divorce, and it only lasted a few months. I then let go of what was a very unfulfilling “relationship” (I even hesitate to call it that.) The main positive I got from that whole experience was that finally, at 33 years old, I had learned when to throw in the towel. I gave it a couple of months and saw it was heading no where quickly. In the past, when I was very much younger, I would have held on for fear of being alone again. Yet, though I had not dated at all after my divorce, I let this person go, with very little ill feelings. We didn't fit. It was that simple.

Not too long after that, I became involved with an old flame. Over the next two or three years, we went through a devastating and heart breaking, on again/off again relationship. We did fit it seemed, though our life circumstances most certainly did not. Even when we mutually decided not to see each other anymore, I kept holding onto to him in my heart, well after we had both decided it was best to part and go our separate ways. No matter what I did, however, I just couldn’t seem to completely let go of him and move on. I trudged along, through mothering the boys, going to work, going to class. I was treading water emotionally, over scheduling myself so that I could be continually moving, and dodging my deepest most painful feelings.

A year after we said goodbye, I was seemingly no closer to letting go completely and moving on with my life.

I was stuck.

Then I had an epiphany. But finally seeing the light came at a high price. That is, having a young friend, only twenty-six, see the proverbial light herself, and have to walk into it.

In March of 2005, I lost my young, twenty-six year old friend Lita (short for Elizabeth) to cervical cancer. I was so busy, and had so many colds that I only got to visit her a few times in the hospital. But when I did we spent several amazing hours talking about life, death, dreams, and letting go...

When I first visited with her she had blood clots in her lungs, and cancer spreading from her where her uterus used to be. All she talked about was not being able to let go of never being a mom, being pregnant, giving birth. I remember thinking, "Oh honey…please get through that disappointment. Because you have more urgent realities to address now." But she was stuck herself.

The last time I saw her, she had let of ever having children, but not of life. She was convinced she had a purpose here yet unfulfilled. We talked about this for a long time, and I listened more than talked. When I did respond I told her that she did have so much to offer. That she needed to pour all her energy into getting better and keep her mind focused on how she will feel once she is healthy, as well as the new dreams she was creating for herself. She was vibrant and in wonderful spirits. She was thrilled that I came and stayed so long, because she said a lot of her younger friends seemed to have a hard time seeing her ill. Our talk turned more serious after a while, and it was then she expressed a fear of not being ready to let go of life if the time came.

I told her of my experience with my Mother-in-law, my first husband Ken’s mom Maryanne, who passed away of liver cancer in 1990 in her own bed, surrounded by her children. How when Maryanne was diagnosed after exploratory surgery in 1989, her children followed her physician out to the hall to ask all the important imperative questions regarding her prognosis. That I had initially followed their lead, until looking around us all in the hallway I realized Maryanne was lying in her hospital bed alone, having just been told in essence that she was dying within the next 6 months to a year.

I went back into her room and asked her, “Do you want to be alone right now?“

She reached out her frail hand to me, tears welling up in her eyes and whispered, “No.“

I took her hand. I believe it was the first time I ever held it since first shaking it when I met her a little over a year before. We stayed in there, me standing beside her bed, holding each other’s hands, until the rest of the family returned.

The last time I held her hand was almost a full year later. It was two days after her 61st birthday. Two nights after we had a huge party for her, where all of her friends and family came (over 50 of them) to essentially celebrate her birthday, her life, and say goodbye to her.

The evening after her birthday, she had a near death experience, where she was panicked, frightened, and unable to speak for what seemed forever. While Ken and Phyllis held her hand, I called their two other siblings, Rick and Karen, and told them to come right away. All of the kids, the grandkids, and everyone came over and took turns holding her hand until the frightening moment passed, and she could breath normally, and talk again.

Then she seemed to have what would be her final “second wind.” So we all stayed up late into the night, joking and laughing about all the silly crazy family stories. Like when Rick, the oldest brother, along with his friends, set a field on fire and sent his younger sister Phyllis for water. She return with one glassful. Then there was the time that Ken and his sister Karen decided to do home improvements in the kitchen, and nailed two by fours to the floor through the linoleum. Or when Rick allowed Ken, 14 years younger than him, to row the fishing boat on an outing with Rick’s college buddies. But they “forgot” (accidentally on purpose) to tell Ken that the anchor was down. So Ken rowed and rowed forever, going around in circles and never reaching the shore, only to look up and sigh about how HARD it was and valiantly continuing his efforts to impress his older brother‘s friends (who were trying not to pee their pants they were laughing so hard.)

It was a beautiful evening. But the earlier episode that brought everyone running to Maryanne’s bedside was scary.

That night, we all just wanted to keep talking with her, keep her smiling and laughing, as if we could suspend time and thereby keep her with us just a little longer. I think we all knew that she would be gone before another sunset.

We each had a moment alone with her before she went to sleep. I don't know what she said to each of her kids, but to me...

She said, "I am so very thankful Ken has you to help him through this. You will forever be a part of our family now. I love you." Those words came back to me many times throughout my marriage, whenever I was thinking of leaving. I just really hated to disappoint Maryanne.

As I said earlier, this was the night before….

The last time I held Maryanne’s hand.

Throughout the night she had a few more scares, lots more pain. Per the standing orders the hospice nurse gave them, to give her as much morphine as she asked for because it really didn’t matter about addiction at this point, Ken and Phyllis came close to the maximum does possible. Ken told me later what the hospice nurse had actually said to them- “If she asks for it, give it, as much as you are comfortable giving to her. I leave that to your discretion.”

This is one of the most amazing and important gifts of hospice. No judgment. An understanding that sometimes, too much morphine is ok, when someone is in that degree of pain.

Ken said he came close that night to the maximum does…just shy of going over. If she had asked for more, I’m sure he or his sister would have given it.

She was holding on for one more goodbye.

The next morning Ken woke me and told me to call the kids again. He was sure this time, she would not be coming out of the episode. She was so frightened, again she couldn’t speak, and that seemed to upset her the most. It was so hard to be brave and help her to leave us, but we knew it was what she needed us to do. I could read, quite clearly on her face, the fear of leaving us behind, the wish for one more chance to tell us she loved us. We stood encircling her bed, all of us were holding her hands, caressing her legs, arms, and face, smoothing her hair, wiping her silent tears. We told her over and over that we loved her, that she could stop fighting, that it was ok to leave us, that she had done such a wonderful job raising her family, that we would all be alright and would help each other through.

In an hour or less, she took her last, deep, desperate breath, and then she passed away.

I was 22 years old. Not being married to her son yet, it was a privilege I think, to be there, to be a part of helping her let go of life and move on to wherever her spirit was going next.

I did not share all of that with Lita. She was hell bent on recovery and I didn’t want to bring her focus to preparing for the alternative. I do believe, especially in Maryanne’s case, that the Dr telling us 6 months to a year, gave her a year at most.

I happen to know of a pancreatic cancer patient, our next door neighbor and father to one of my sister’s best friend’s growing up, who chose not to know how long he had. The Dr told his wife the same prognosis as Maryanne’s was, but he had no clue himself. He lived 3 or 4 more YEARS. I shared THAT with Lita. And she was reading all these “Beat Cancer” books centered around diet, attitude, and alternative treatment. She was in a really good place, and where she needed to be if she had a chance to live.

So I simply assured her that I had never known a person going through what she was, that was not ready to let go, if in fact that time came. Not that they weren't afraid to go, I think we all are, but they were also ready to let go when it was time. We also talked about making the most of every day. And I shared my favorite Maryanne quote with her.

One morning the last month or so Maryanne was alive, Ken went into her room one dreary April shower filled morning and opened the window for her. He turned, saw she was awake, and said to her, “Sorry Mom, looks like a dreary day out there.”

To which Maryanne smiled and said, “But it’s a day.”

Lita liked that story. We both so enjoyed our visit that we promised to have another as soon as she got out.

Sadly, that was the last time I saw her.