Sunday, June 29, 2014

the bandaged place

Lately it seems like an uncanny number of my friends have been hospitalized for surgery of one sort or another. This week another one started up the mountain...from X-ray to biopsy to surgery to God knows what.

This week's post, then, is a tribute to everyone who has ever undergone surgery. It's a snippet from my novel, "The Bandaged Place." In it my protagonist, Kate Tilton, shares her thoughts about the first day post-op:

           "Even when surgery goes well, it wrings the life out of you. I can attest to this because yesterday as soon as anesthesia wore off I felt like, well, road kill. I looked like it, too. And it only gets worse because today they have the nerve to let visitors loose in my room so they can gawk at me when I am in no mood to entertain.
          The pain isn’t the problem; I’m getting morphine for that. In fact, the morphine is the problem. I’m feeling just so giddy here. I can’t see straight and I’m pretty sure my speech is garbled. The last time I was awake enough to speak, Shirley, my nurse this shift, asked me about the pain. I think I said “five” when what I meant was “fine”. To a med-surg. nurse, “five” means the worst pain possible so she gave me another squirt of the magic potion which is why, now that I'm finally awake again, I'm in love with everybody in the whole wide world. I just haven’t figured out why they can’t all be here in bed with me right now.
           And it doesn’t bother me in the least when, for the umpteenth time in eight hours, Shirley hits the switch and I am blinded by the overhead lights while she rechecks my “vital signs”—blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and temperature—signs that I have survived. This has been going on all night long. 
            Shirley has been a nurse here for twenty some years, night shift. After she finishes checking wounds, adjusting IV’s and passing meds at the beginning and end of her shift, she fortifies herself with Oreos and Coke. Despite her weight she is the kind of woman who seems to walk on air—easy and silent and graceful. Her touch is gentle and her hands are warm. She is genuinely kindhearted so even though she has interrupted my sleep countless times all night long, I don’t resent her for it at all.
           “Sorry to disturb you again, darlin’,” she says. “I’ll just be a minute here.”
           I roll toward her and extend my arm. I like it when people apologize even though they haven’t done anything wrong. You can forgive them in an instant and then you’re endeared to one another for life. “It’s not your fault. I was a cake anyway,” I mumble. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t come out right but it’s the best I can do right now.
        She laughs as though she thinks I'm the sweetest patient she has ever cared for and then she reassures me, “First night’s always the hardest.” She slips a thermometer under my tongue, wraps the cuff around my arm, and feels for the pulse in my wrist.
           That’s the last thing I remember until six o’clock sharp when someone arrives to draw my blood for the tenth time to check my blood count, sugar and potassium. But I’m not diabetic, I didn’t hemorrhage, and there is potassium running in my IV, so why even bother?
           Right on schedule, a breakfast tray is delivered to my bedside and deposited on a little table with wheels that is just out of reach so even if I were hungry or thirsty—which I am not—I’d have to settle for the smell of food, and that turns my stomach.
           Not fifteen minutes later the lady from dietary is back. “Not hungry yet?” She smiles as though she understands completely. It's much too soon after surgery to have worked up an appetite. So she clears away the untouched tray without so much as a word of encouragement like, “Here, let me bring this a little closer. You should try to eat a little something.” Not that I could get a fork up to my mouth if I tried.
           I could cry but I won’t, so help me God, not even when Shirley insists that I get out of bed and shuffle all the way over to the bathroom and back pulling my IV stand along behind me like a two-year old, “Come along, now. It’s time to go potty.” Whoa—not so fast, I’m thinking. As I roll over and sit up, ten thousand poison arrows pierce my chest. The moment I get my feet down it feels like the floor falls away. My knees quiver. The room spins. Thankfully, Shirley has the strength to steady me.
           “Take your time, now. Take things slow. We don’t want you to take a tumble now, do we?”
           "No, we don’t. So can’t you just bring me a bed pan or something?"

           Oh, my God—I’m asking for a bedpan! Will somebody please hand me a gun?"
Does any of this sound familiar to you?
"There is nothing worse than thinking you are well enough...
Don't turn your head.
Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That's where the light enters you.
And don't believe for a moment that you are healing yourself."


Sunday, June 22, 2014

true story

This took place a couple of weeks ago. True story.

I killed a squirrel today. One moment the little fellow was scampering about in the leaves by the side of the road. The next moment--

 I’m sure it freaked him out when he glanced up and saw my car bearing down on him hard and fast. He must have been blind with fear the way he darted this way and that in utter panic.

Instead of scampering off into the woods where he belonged, he dashed out into the road and ended up under my right front tire. I hit the brakes hoping for the best, but it was too late. I felt the sickening thump that ruined my day, not to mention what it did to his.

Don’t ask me why tears came to my eyes. Squirrels are considered a nuisance around here. There must be hundreds of them on my street alone, their total worth estimated at less than a thimbleful of fairy dust. That is, according to the professed wisdom of mankind.

But what about his family and friends? What was he to them? The brave defender of the nest? The commander-in-chief of acorn collectors? Perhaps he was a scholar or healer, a storyteller or spiritual guide. What will they do without him now?

I wonder who will be the first to notice he’s missing. I wonder if they’ll they send out a search party and scour the area until they come across the pile of bloody fur in the street and realize he never had a chance.

Who will be left to curl up without him tonight when the sun goes down?

It makes you think because this kind of thing happens a lot. Your day is going along just fine when out of nowhere--BAM! It changes in a heartbeat.
The way it changed just this past month when a ship capsized off the coast of South Korea carrying hundreds of young vacationers to a watery grave. Bam.
When an airliner with over three hundred passengers on board dropped out of the sky and disappeared without a trace. Bam.

When a mudslide buried thousands of villagers in a remote village in eastern Afghanistan. Bam.

First responders rushed in to assist the victims, and search parties set out to locate survivors while friends and families waited in agony. In vain. The rest of us took note of it and then went on about our lives as if nothing at all had changed when, in truth, humanity will never be the same again.

As I drove on today I glanced in my rearview mirror to see a broken little body in the street behind me. What is it they say? “Sed gratia Dei sum quod ire.” There, but for the grace of God, go I.

All I can say is, “Deus vobiscum. Requiescant in pace.”
Just for the record, I have a hard time even killing a bug, and that includes spiders. I like to carry them outside and release them into the wild. Except, maybe ants and houseflies. You?


Sunday, June 15, 2014

only a dad


It's time to set the record straight. Fathers everywhere should listen up.
I want to share something I learned as a child. If my father were here today this is what I would say to him:
As a child I didn't care what job he went off to every day. He could have donned a pair of overalls and strapped on a tool belt, or picked up his stethoscope or briefcase on the way out the door and I wouldn't have long as he came home at night.
It didn't matter that our house was old, that it creaked in the wind and sagged in the corners. I didn't care what kind of car he drove...long as he came home at night.
It didn't matter how much money he earned, how much power he wielded, or how much stuff we long as he came home at night.
At home at night he taught me how to throw a ball, to ride a bike, to build a fort.
He showed me how to brave a storm, to hammer a nail, to hang a swing. He led me outside to play in the snow, to feed the birds, to watch the sun set and the moon rise. At night, he shoveled the coal that stoked the furnace that kept me warm.
This post is for all the fathers who can't be home with their families tonight. You know who you are. You might be half way around the world fighting to protect the lives of children who remind you of your own.

You might be pumping gas, or mopping floors tonight.
You might be fighting a fire, or rushing to the scene of an accident.

You might be busy setting a broken leg or closing the hole in someone's heart.
Maybe you can't be home tonight. Even so...this poem is for you:
Only a Dad
By Edgar Albert Guest 1881–1959
Only a dad, with a tired face,
Coming home from the daily race,
Bringing little of gold or fame,
To show how well he has played the game,
But glad in his heart that his own rejoice
To see him come, and to hear his voice...

...Only a dad, neither rich nor proud,
Merely one of the surging crowd
Toiling, striving from day to day,
Facing whatever may come his way,
Silent, whenever the harsh condemn,
And bearing it all for the love of them.
Only a dad, but he gives his all
To smooth the way for his children small,
Doing, with courage stern and grim,
The deeds that his father did for him.
This is the line that for him I pen,
Only a dad, but the best of men.
Enjoy the day if you can. If you can't, try to enjoy someone else's day. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

i wouldn't want God's job

My current WIP--a non-fiction book about faith--is progressing so slowly it hurts. "Beyond Belief" has been tugging at me for years. Now that I've started working on it, it won't cooperate. There are just so many questions.

"Beyond Belief" recounts the stories of people who have endured some of life's darkest moments--a child's death, devastating illness and disabling injury, a friend's suicide--and in spite of it, gone on to forge a strong faith in God. They don't question His motives or His methods. They don't blame Him for their trials. Instead, they draw strength and solace from His felt presence in their lives. Their stories help the rest of us reconcile the contradictions between what we have been taught to believe about an all-powerful and merciful God with the pain we experience in our lives. "Beyond Belief" explores the extraordinary faith of ordinary people and what we can learn from them.

These are friends of mine. They have shared their stories with me little by little over the years. I knew it would be a painful for them to revisit these memories, not to mention putting them into words, but each of them graciously and generously accepted the invitation. For their courage and grace I am deeply indebted and eternally grateful.


My hope is to touch someone out there who has suffered and given up on God because of it, and to show them that there is a way back.

Today I met Pat for lunch so we could go over her story. I needed more from her. I had to ask her how it came about that she grew up feeling that she was unworthy and unlovable. Who convinced her that the pain she experienced in her life was God's punishment and that she somehow deserved it?

I wanted to understand her family and the shameful incident that drove them out of town and nearly destroyed her youngest son--a creative genius who went on to study art and music in college. The sweet, sensitive boy who lost his mind to a college prank--an intentional LSD overdose orchestrated by a couple of his buddies. I had to ask her how she came to learn that it was his body that turned up  in the woods behind the house six months after he wandered off one day. How the police established his identity. How she survived it. Why she still goes to church.

Next week I'll meet with Robin and we'll go over the details of the car crash that took her younger brother's life when she was just fifteen...when he died in her arms. I'll ask her about the day her happy, active infant daughter went mute with autism. We'll revisit the day she learned she had stage 4 breast cancer and what it was that got her through that.

Then I'll meet with Rita. Then, Maria.

This book is hard to write because these stories are hard to tell, and hard to make sense of. If, in writing it, I have learned anything so far it is this: I wouldn't want God's job. I think He must be very sad.
How do you see the problem of pain? Do you believe in the power of prayer?
What if God's answer is "no"?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

irreconcilable differences

It's always good to get feedback on the stuff we write. That's what a good critique group is for. It's what we want from our beta readers, agents, and editors because it helps us grow as writers. Most of all, it keeps us humble.

I submitted a piece to a contest recently, and even though I didn't win anything, I learned a lot from the experience. The judges provided in-depth feedback according to a point by point scoring system: hook, scene, character, plot, voice, technique, etc.--5 for excellent, 1 for not so much...

You can imagine my elation when I read through the first critique and received glowing remarks. "Great hook--5." "I was drawn right in--5." "Interesting premise--5." "Love your protagonist--5." "Can't wait to read more."

I could hardly contain my enthusiasm!

Then...I went on to the second critique. "There is no hook here at all--1." "I have no sense of where you are going with this--2." "Your protagonist is unlikeable--1." And on and on it went.

I'm thinking, "Did they read the same piece? There must be some mistake!"

In an instant, I felt like a

Total Failure!!!

How does this happen??

What am I supposed to learn from this? I have decided that:
  1. You can't please everyone.
  2. The so-called "rules" of writing only get you so far.
  3. Just as a writer can have a bad day, so can a reader.
  4. You have to keep sending things out.'ll run into someone who thinks just like you do. Hopefully, it will be a judge or an agent!
Have you ever been confused by a critique? Discouraged by it? How do you reconcile differences in opinion when your work is judged?
"Do the best you can
until you know better.
Then, when you know better,
do better."
~Maya Angelou~