Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Moment in Time

I took Wednesday off to cook and get ready for the fourteen extra people coming over on Thursday. Despite my determination to be thankful, it was a hard day. I woke up very early, and struggled with a headache most of the day. It was afternoon before I even got to the grocery store.

Thursday morning I woke again at 4am (this is two and a half hours earlier than my norm), with thoughts running through my head about the work situation. Sadness, some anger, some regret.

But guests were coming, and I got to cooking and cleaning, and that helped.

I really wanted to get everything done in such a way that I could attend the ten o'clock Thanksgiving service held at a nearby church. I had looked forward to it all week, and had set the official dinner time so that I would be able to go, and still get back in time to be okay.

But because of the late start on Wednesday, it just wasn't going to work. The closer ten o'clock came, the surer I was of that. So I let it go. A bit more sadness, though I knew it was the best decision.

I was playing the CD "Signatures" by John Michael Talbot, to keep me company while I worked in the kitchen, and to keep my mind on better things than it tended toward when left on its own.

At a certain point, "Come Holy Spirit" began to play. It caught my attention: the centering prayer group I've met with weekly for almost two years always begins with this song.

For whatever reason, I looked at the clock over the dining room table. It was 11:34, right about the time our little group would normally be starting.

It was a real gift. Hearing that song right at that time changed my inner landscape. It made up for missing the service. It opened my heart and made me more able to deal with the sad, angry thoughts, and to move more fully into thankful ones.

I missed the Thanksgiving service. But I was able to serve more thankfully because of this "divine coincidence."

Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and I doubt anyone is going to read this for a while, but I feel the need to write something about thanksgiving.

Yesterday I learned for certain that our counseling program is coming to an end. Which means I get to add being "laid off" to my list of situations for which I can offer experiential empathy, perhaps not a bad thing for a counselor in the times ahead.

This is hard for me personally for various reasons related to how the situation unfolded and led to a somewhat dramatic denouement. (I'm not even going to bother to see if I spelled that correctly, it's my day off.)

(Addendum, added two days later with a less heavy heart: Things are already looking up! I did spell that word correctly! Maybe I'll pursue a job as proofreader somewhere....)

Beyond my personal situation, though, is the multiplied effect this decision will have (and has already begun to have) on our clients. Of course God will work through this, and that is what I am trying to help them see, but another "of course" is that it's hard for anyone seriously involved in therapy to hear that their therapist is leaving. It's a bit harder in this case because some of the clients feel a sense of betrayal by the organization we work for, whose mission statement says it is about meeting physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. They know our organization is moving ahead with plans to build a new medical clinic, so they conclude that it isn't dire necessity driving this decision. (And from what I've been told, it isn't.)

To cut the counseling program (which consists of only two people, neither working a full workweek) just doesn't make sense to them, and of course no one from among the decision-makers is going around saying to our clients, "I'm sorry this has to happen."

Which means we have to say it, even though it's not our decision.

And then there is the reality that many of our clients may not be able to get good care when we close because they either cannot pay even the low rates some private services offer, or they have an insurance that is hardly accepted by anyone but the local mental health centers who I like to believe do the best they can, but are terribly overworked and understaffed.'s hard. No getting around it.

And therefore the photo of pansies, from our trip to Mountain View last month.

Pansies make it through the winter here in the South. They are amazing, with those bright cheery colors.

You can go out on the morning after a freeze and see how they've withered, as if hunching down to keep themselves warm. If you didn't know better, you'd think they had died.

But as soon as a warmer day hits, they spring back to life and are just as vibrant as before.

And I've lived long enough, and been through enough, and gotten to know God enough, to know that even though there will be frozen days of withering ahead for my clients and likely for me as well, the sun will return, and life can be colorful and vibrant again.

More than that, I hope to stay vibrant throughout the experience. And thanksgiving is part of that. I've been reading from a little book a dear friend gave me, Jesus Calling, and she has some good stuff on giving thanks. Here is one day's entry:

Thankfulness takes the sting out of adversity. That is why I have instructed you to give thanks for everything. There is an element of mystery in this transaction. You give Me thanks (regardless of your feelings), and I give you Joy (regardless of your circumstances). This is a spiritual act of obedience--at times, blind obedience. To people who don't know Me intimately, it can seem irrational and even impossible to thank Me for heartrending hardships. Nonetheless, those who obey Me in this way are invariably blessed, even though difficulties may remain.

Thankfulness opens your heart to My Presence and your mind to My thoughts. You may still be in the same place, with the same set of circumstances, but it is as if a light has been switched on, enabling you to see from My perspective. It is this Light of My Presence that removes the sting from adversity.

(Note from Sheila: I think it important to understand that the word "obey" comes from the word for "hear" or "listen." It tends to have some negative connotations in our present day, but has a much deeper meaning than subservience.)

Not too long ago in my life, I would read similar things and scoff or at least accuse people of being superficial. (Which they sometimes are when they say similar things. I think it can be a religious veiling of denial, refusal to acknowledge how hard life can be and how much it hurts.)

But this writer, Sarah Young, is not superficial. And what she is writing about is similar to what the apostle Paul, Christian mystics, and all those serious about pursuing God write about, and it has been born out in my short experience of truly discipling myself to thank and trust God. It sometimes makes big differences in the circumstances, but more than anything it changes the heart and soul and opens us to His Light. And that changes everything.

When you think about it, the circumstances will be finished one day for all of us. The heart and soul will remain. That's where the most important changes happen.

It may sound irrational. I would say it's beyond rational.

Happy Thanksgiving Day.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cake Making, Merry Making

And so, the morning of the big day, the frosting was made and the cake assembled.

I was nervous about this frosting/filling; when you've never done it before, it's hard to know for sure what "thickened and bubbly" ought to look like. How thick? How bubbly? And what's going to happen if I don't get it thick enough? And what if it overcooks?

But rather than letting fear overcome, I used my best judgment; it stuck to the cake pretty well and I hoped that was a good sign.

And did I mention that I also am now the proud owner of a round cake carrier? Here we are, ready to drive to Arkansas.

Cute candles, are they not?

Closer up.

Cute family, are we not? (Someone smart knew we had to make the photo before starting in on food, or else we never could have gotten all those young ones back in one place. And their shirts would likely not have been as clean as they are.)

They let me light the candles.

Happy Birthday, Daddy!

Friday, November 14, 2008

How Sweet It Is

Ha! I just realized that in nearly eighteen years of marriage, I must have never made a traditional round cake. At least not since moving to America 14+ years ago. I know this because I did not own a set of round cake pans until this morning, unless I have some in our Croatia kitchen that I've forgotten about. I do have a couple of ten-inch cake pans inherited from Grandmother, but I haven't ever used them to bake a cake.

After a quick morning trip to Williams Sonoma, I am now the proud owner of two eight-inch round cake pans, and I am in the process of making a real round, two-layer cake that will have candles on it tomorrow for my dad's birthday.

In case you wonder how I managed to live this long without such a common kitchen element, I guess it's because when we married, we didn't have a traditional wedding shower. We had a money tree, and we wound up needing most of the money just to pay for getting around in the States until we got back to Croatia. So I've never had a lot of things for kitchen and dining that the books say I ought to have. And when you don't have those things, you learn to find recipes that use what you have.

Anyway, if this cake turns out well, birthdays may never be the same again!

I'll try to add photos later, 'cause I'm sure you're all dying to see the process. (...And as you can see, I added the photo.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lux Arumque

warm and heavy as pure gold,
and the angels sing softly
to the new-born baby.

Monday nights are rehearsal nights most weeks. I began singing with the Memphis Chamber Choir almost two years ago. I had been to their Festival of Lessons and Carols and felt transported by the experience. Then a friend introduced me to the director, and Geoff's enthusiasm for not just music, but for worship, created a connection with me, and I auditioned and started singing.

(I had sung before with the symphony chorus, and the Rhodes Mastersingers chorus, and both were wonderful experiences. But I like being with a smaller group, offering music at no charge, and singing the music in the church setting it was written for, not as a performance for an audience of people, but as an offering to the ears of the One who is the subject of most of the pieces we sing.)

So, week after week we meet and sing. And sing, and sing. It's always enjoyable, sometimes tiring, and every now and then soul-stirring.

Tonight we began work on "Lux Arumque" by Eric Whitacre, a song with a somewhat odd history. It began as a poem (above) written in English by a poet named Edward Esch. Whitacre liked the poem and asked his poet friend Charles Silvestri to translate it to Latin.

I didn't know anyone other than students translated from English to Latin, but he does, and so then Whitacre set the Latin text to music. And the result is a feast for the ears, the imagination, and the soul.

It's easy to find and listen to via Youtube, by the way, if you want to.

Of course we just began it tonight, so it wasn't an incredible rendering. But the music itself, even mediocrely sung, is so lovely, and it just hangs in the air so that everything feels exceedingly alive, even when we're only holding out a chord.

And it just hit me at one moment tonight how absolutely amazing this thing we call singing is. I sat there with my eyes closed and could feel the air vibrating all around me, and I knew that it was all was being transformed into this beautiful sound....and somehow that was coming from the bodies of these human beings all around me. We just move our lungs and throats and mouths in certain ways, and the very air changes. And every human being is born with the ability to do this.

And when you add the metaphoric heart to the literal lungs and all, this music has the ability to join heaven and earth, as my friend from the previous post put it.

So, I just sat there thinking all this in the space of a measure of music, doing my little part to add to this amazing music and feeling blest that I can.

And for a moment, the light felt gold.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Eternity in their heart

On Reaching Middle Age, with Friends

I planned a meal of food—
My food was love, instead.
Sweet joy and peace and hope—
With these my soul was fed.

I hoped not to feel old—
My heart instead seems young:
The years to come a song
Now waiting to be sung.

Here you are, Lucy. One more poem! You have coaxed me out of hiding.

I wrote this the night of my birthday several years ago. For various reasons, that particular birthday weighed heavily on me. Drazen had the lovely idea of having a real birthday party, something I hadn't done since childhood. I cooked and cooked, everything Italian, and had as many girlfriends over as our house could seat to eat. They ranged from a kindergarten friend to a friend made in the previous couple of years, and even one friend made in Italy was there.

As you can tell from the poem, it worked. My focus shifted drastically.

I have since had times of struggling with my age. Not so much the gray hair--I feel I've earned any sign of wisdom I might be graced with. But it's the things I haven't done that I thought I would have done by now, and the things that most likely will not be a part of my life, no matter what.

But I find Drazen's cure still works. Friends. Relationships. Old ones, new ones, green ones, blue ones. Oh, wait, the poem part is over, isn't it?

I love the verse from Ecclesiastes, "He has also set eternity in their heart." I feel the effects of time in my body, and I see them in the mirror. But more and more in my heart, I sense eternity. And friends are a big part of that, as you see them aging along with you and see their hearts growing and deepening, and you become less and less alone.

And the friends who have died....they just make eternity seem closer, more real.

Why am I thinking about this tonight? It's not my birthday, and I haven't noticed new gray hair, or re-injured my knee. I guess it's because we sang a requiem service tonight, in honor of local servicemen lost to the war, and people murdered in Memphis, in the past year.

A friend who was there told me later, "The music was just beautiful. It brought earth and heaven together right here."

I don't know when my true "middle age" might have been reached, or when it will be reached. But it just doesn't seem so important in the context of tonight--a night which, by the way, had a good deal of friendship and food both mixed in. Maybe food is also part of the mix....

I'll end with the piece we sang immediately following the reading of names:

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing, but life everlasting.
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind:
and we are mortal, formed of the earth,
and to earth shall we return:
for so did you ordain,
when you created me, saying:
"You are dust, and to dust you shall return."
All of us go down to the dust;
and even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.