Monday, March 6, 2017
I thought I would feel relaxed and energized after I graduated with my MSW in December; instead, I’ve felt tired and a little lost. I went to the UW’s School of Social Work four and a half years ago with a plan to be a therapist in a hospital for people with life-changing health conditions, but one thing I learned is that the licensing needed to work in a hospital is not possible for me because, among other issues, with my disabilities I cannot fulfill licensing requirements in the required seven years. What do I do now?
I’ll figure out a way to live meaningfully, and I’m already finding opportunities (like writing with homeless teens and discussing books with elders), but in the wake of my graduation, I feel a little flat and I’m asking a lot of questions about my abilities.
Before and after my brain tumors, I’ve facilitated a lot of meetings and groups. Most of them have gone well, but one last week was awful. The meeting has me questioning my capability. Even though I know it was only one meeting, my frustration has piqued my post-tumor insecurities. I’m also having more difficulty with short and medium term memory. Since radiation, I have not recognized the faces of people I’ve met before but don’t know well, but now I’m forgetting events in my recent life, and I lose track of what I’m saying or thinking. My hearing aid hasn’t worked for a couple of weeks (though I got it fixed today.) I’m sleeping fifteen hours a day, like I was closer to radiation. That takes a lot of a person’s day. The continuing losses have me feeling blue. Not dark blue, but not light blue, either. Probably medium blue.
This is the season of Lent in the Christian church, a time for feeling flat and a little blue, so my spirit is in sync with this season. Lent in the Western Christian church is the forty weekdays before Easter, for some people forty days of fasting, abstinence, and penitence, but for me forty days of quiet (not silent) reflection. Those forty days parallel Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness before his crucifixion and resurrection.
Our little Methodist church prepares during Lent more thoughtfully than during any other season, I think. This past Sunday, a simple brown cloth hung over the stained glass window of a welcoming Christ. (That’s always a downer.) At the front of the church was a collection of brush and sticks, desiccated as in a desert scene. Though the choir sang beautifully (as always), they didn’t use the word “Alleluia,” and neither did the rest of us. We never do during this season.
So my church and my spirit are subdued right now. Perhaps others feel this way, too, and perhaps Pastor Ann knew that and that’s why she titled her sermon “Soul Thirst.” She had a cold and was a little sneezy, so her delivery was more subdued than usual, though it was still on the perky side.
I’ve been thirsty, the literal kind that has my lips feel cracked and my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, since radiation for my second brain tumor. Friends know that when they sit beside me, they will have to fill my water glass throughout our time together. My friend Allyson has me use a Mason jar at her home, so that no one has to fill my cup so often and I don’t go thirsty. My partner Ann bought me a plastic version for home, so that I stay quenched here, too. All this talk about water is making me thirsty, and I could use a break. I’ll go get a drink. You can, too.
Okay. I feel better. In addition to this throat thirst, my soul thirsts now, but I’m not sure for what.
In her sermon on “Soul Thirst,” Pastor Ann talked about multiple times when Jesus and others (like Moses and his followers) spent weeks or even decades in the wilderness. For example, she said that after his baptism Jesus went into the desert wilderness “to figure out his calling.”
Going into the desert isn’t easy. For one thing, there are snakes there. Real ones. Recently, my partner Ann and I went hiking the Andreas Canyon trail, an "easy" trail in the desert near Palm Springs, and it was tough. We took a hike that a ranger recommended for someone with disabilities. I thought I might die. At one point, Ann went ahead to scout the terrain, and when she reported that there were just more rocks and dust ahead, we decided to go back the way we had come. I struggled to land each footfall safely, and when a young woman passed going the other way, and I was struggling to bring my left foot safely down off of a rock, the young woman asked with wide eyes and a kind of desperation, “Do you need any help?”
I looked into her earnest eyes with my crossed ones and responded honestly, “Only if you have a helicopter.” With my disabilities, the literal desert is an especially hard place to navigate. I imagine the spiritual desert is hard to navigate no matter what abilities a person has.
Pastor Ann noted that “We’re not in the desert to fix things, but to see what can grow.” That feels hopeful. She also said, “Maybe we’re in the desert because we need to learn something.” That sounds hopeful, too, but to tell you the truth I’m sort of tired of all this learning and the effort it requires.
Perhaps this spiritual desert is one I’m wandering in now. After these tumors and with these disabilities, after these degrees and with all these insights, I wonder what my calling is. And I wonder if I’ll hear it when it calls. (Fortunately, my hearing aid is working again, so maybe it’s more likely.)
Maybe I’m tired of learning, or maybe I’m tired of trying, and instead of trying to force a death march to the promised land, I need to rest and look around a little. Pastor Ann said that the word “Angel” in the Bible can also be translated as “messenger.” Maybe I need an angel (or a flock of them), or maybe I just need to listen to the messengers who come to speak to me. Maybe they’re here not to rescue me from this desert, but to walk with me here.
Perhaps I can hear the messengers and still be wandering in this desert. When I think of it, though this is Lent, it’s also the season for angels in my life.
Last Monday, my friend and previous principal Rick came for dinner, and we got to catch up. I was reminded of his generous spirit, his kindness and his compassion. Thursday, I was able to witness a writing group for homeless teens. Friday afternoon, I had lunch with my college friend Susan and met her friend Julie, who is another brain tumor survivor and writer (my peep): it was so good to connect with another person who'd had a brain tumor that I looked again for a brain tumor support group, and maybe there is one I can go to now. Friday night, fellow travelers to the Mexico/Texas border joined Ann and me for dinner. (That’s when I led a miserable meeting, but getting together was good.) Saturday night, my friend and previous colleague Sean and his wife Kate joined us for dinner. Sean is younger than I am, a brilliant teacher with a bright heart, and among other things, Kate loves the books I love. Most significantly, Ann walks this path with me, not directing me but helping support as I hold her arm.
Then during church Sunday, the choir sang to my spirit (I love that), and Pastor Ann spoke about this thirst. Before church, my friend Judy (whom I don’t know well, but love her combined gruffness and loveliness) gave me a fountain pen so that I could again take notes on the sermon (and hence write this blog entry). During church, Ann held my hand. After church my friend Denise told me that this month marks her one-year anniversary in the church, and she thanked me for our connection. (I thanked her, too.)
This week will be another one full of loving messengers: I get to return to the writing group. I’ll visit the elders I got to know when I was leading a poetry group at a nearby assisted living facility, and my college friend Katie of the magnificent voice will visit and sing.
As I think about it, every week is filled with loving messengers. So maybe I need to notice that the desert has its beauty, too. To notice with Pastor Ann, “Sometimes the mundane can be so miraculous.”
Perhaps here in the desert, I need to remember my sister Jen’s teenage direction to, “Just chill,” and my niece Gretchen’s call to “Chillax.”
Perhaps then my soul will drink deep the miraculous.