Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Here's The Things / About Lent

Over the past few years, my Lenten fast has become a laundry list of little vices I wanted to give up in the hopes that temporary abstinence would make me a better person. To name a few—
  • Facebook
  • Dessert
  • Alcohol
  •  iPhone in bed
  • Drive-thru-window French fries 

When I go to book club during Lent and they see me abstaining from both wine and dessert, it usually provokes the reaction, “That’s too many things!” But these things, I tell my girlfriends (and myself), are keeping me from becoming the best I can be.

I give too much power to The Things.

When I was in college, the leader of a Christian organization on my campus showed me one of their go-to visual aids. Each picture showed a centered throne, symbolizing what we honor most, and a collection of large dots, symbolizing other aspects of life. In the first panel, I saw “ME” on the throne, surrounded by a chaotic mess of un-jugglable balls in the air. In the second, “JESUS” was on the throne, and all the dots were organized into a beautiful, perfect circle. Meaning that when Jesus is primary, everything else falls into place.

The leader asked if the second panel was appealing to me—a model I’d like for my life. I said yes, of course, but that there was one big problem. My starting place wasn’t represented on his pamphlet. Pulling out a pen, I drew this:

Despite that brief moment of self-awareness a quarter century ago, I’m not sure how much my picture has really evolved. I am now able to recognize that I grew up a doer, a pleaser, and someone who prides herself on being accomplished and having integrity. That’s not a great formula for knocking The Things off the throne. Or for reflection. Or for letting go in any way, shape, or form.

Nonetheless, Lent is meant to be a time of reflection. This year it falls on Valentine’s day, so not only does it begin with a reminder of our own mortality, but it also begins with an (admittedly commercialized) admonition not to take those we care about for granted.

I typically hope that saying goodbye to the most obvious of The Things for the Lenten season will help me be less distracted and more contemplative—of myself, of my relationships, of God in the world, of my truest-deepest-REALest commitments. But here’s the rub:

  • Goodbye, Facebook? Hello, Instagram... or another vortex in which I can easily lose myself and, more than likely, a few hours of the day or night.
  • Goodbye, dessert? Hello, late-night PB&J... or another comfort food I consume when seeking a sugar rush to help me get just a few more things done after the kids go to bed.
  • Goodbye, alcohol? Hello, computer solitaire... or another way to quiet my brain and put off thinking about all the un-dones that never seem to end.
  • Goodbye, iPhone in bed? Hello, Entertainment Weekly in bed... or another method of avoiding all forms of intimacy when I’m bone tired.
  • Goodbye, drive-thru-window French fries? Hello, binge watching Netflix during the day... or another secret rebellion I can relish in my all-alone moments.

For every Thing I give up, someThing else is there, ready to fill the voidand to occupy the seat of honor in my life.

I’m sure, over the years, God has sent me subtle messages that I need to change my dependence on The Things. (I don’t do subtle so well.) But, as my very wise dad says, if you don’t hear God's gentle hints, then you need to be on the look out for a 2x4 upside the head.

This week, I think I felt the wind of a few practice swings.

Swing number one: The Glennon Doyle Melton video “First the Pain, Then the Rising” from May 2017 started circulating again on social media. Who knows how these things lose and gain momentum, but they do. Like God, algorithms work in mysterious ways.

Swing number two: Last week, a coach / nutritionist / trainer / friend, asked me the deceptively simple question, “What is making you so uncomfortable?”

Swing number three: On Sunday morning, I read this prayer from the Shalem Institute.

And finally, swing number four: All of these points were reinforced in the Ash Wednesday service I attended this morning. Thanks, Father Al.

I’m starting to get the picture. As a matter of fact, today it is literally written on my forehead.

In Eugene Peterson’s contemporary language version of The Bible, The Message, he paraphrases the beginning of Matthew chapter 4, the origins of what we now call Lent, like this:
Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights… 
The 40-day fast itself isn’t the test. The fast is the preparation for the test.

Nor is the Lenten journey meant to be a 40-day re-do of failed New Year’s Resolutions. It is a time to reflect on why my resolutions failed in the first place. A time to face the discomfort, the fear, the self-doubt, and the resulting inertia that lead me to put The Things above all else. It’s the inabilityor maybe the unwillingnessto be alone with my own thoughts, to confront temptations in the wilderness of my own unoccupied mind, that prevents me from discovering, through grace, the strength to overcome. And perhaps even the wisdom that The Things aren't really on the throne after all.

And that, strength + wisdom, is how we pass the test. And where divine magic happens:
Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only God. Serve God with absolute single-heartedness.” The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs. 
If that can be my Lenten fast, if I can deliberately and prayerfully recognize and overcome my painful motivations and feelings, then when I leave the wilderness, I will discovernot a better personbut a transformed, more authentic, singlehearted and grace-full version of myself.

See you on the other side of the wild.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Saying goodbye... for now

I began this blog -- if we can even call it that anymore -- because sometimes, over the past five years, as I was in the throes of multi-generational caregiving, there were moments just too absurd to keep to myself.

And then there were moments just too sad or painful to capture in irreverent short-form writing.

The last few years, since my father-in-law moved from independent to assisted living, there have been more of the latter and fewer of the former. If you had administrative access to this blog, you would see 14 unfinished drafts. I couldn't seem to get it right, which perhaps offers a bit of psychological insight into how all caregivers of aging parents feel. We start something we hope will work -- a prescription, a therapy, a regimen, an approach -- and then, for some reason or another, have to change course and try again.

Hence the lack of logging in my blogging.

In May of this year, we said our final goodbyes to Renzo. And today I am saying goodbye to this phase of The Baloney Sandwich. It may come back again in another form -- goodness knows my life is never devoid of The B.S. -- but there are other aspects of life and love about which I feel more compelled to write at this point.

For my final post, I thought I'd share the eulogy I wrote for Renzo's funeral. Perhaps that way, anyone who comes across these sparse pages will know the fullness of his life rather than just the fraction of himself he was at the very end. We miss you, Grandpa. Every day.

*   *   *

Renzo Barto, 1932-2017
I recently finished reading a memoir entitled The Other Wes Moore. In it, the author recalls one of his commanding officers at Valley Forge Military School addressing the cadets. Colonel Murphy was a “no excuses” kind of guy. When he was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and had to leave the school to seek medical treatment, this is what he told the students on his last day:
“When it’s time for you to leave this school, leave your job, or even leave this earth, you make sure that you’ve worked hard to make sure it mattered that you were ever here.”
Renzo wasn’t a public figure. He had a quiet spirit. He was an introvert. But in everything he did, he made sure that he worked hard to make sure it mattered that he was there.
He worked hard at stickball as a boy in the Bronx. Maybe he wasn’t as natural a player as his brother Mario, who had pro ball aspirations, but he still played hard. And my guess is that to his teammates and friends in the neighborhood, it mattered that he was there.
Renzo worked hard in school. Many traditional subjects didn’t come easy to him, but you better believe that each of his book reports had an original piece of artwork on the cover that was worthy of an A. To his classmates at the School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan and all who enjoyed his art for the rest of his life, it mattered that he was there.
He worked hard in the Army, whether peeling enough potatoes to fill up a beer keg while on KP (the one kitchen task he refused to do ever again after his discharge) or running maneuvers in the field with the 7th Infantry. OK… maybe he chose not to work so hard when he volunteered to spend his final weeks in the army on board a ship home from Korea rather than flying back and still having 2 months left on base in NJ, but can you blame him? He returned from Korea with a United Nations Service Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation, a Bronze Service Star, and a Purple Heart. Years later, when the Bergen Record ran a feature story on Renzo and his carvings, one of his old army buddies, Frank Rocco, found him and rebooted their friendship after 45 years. It mattered to our nation and to Renzo’s fellow soldiers that he was there.
Renzo worked hard at Norcross Greeting Cards… even when others in the office would gather for their cigarette break around his desk – the only non-smoker in the department – and exhale all over his drawing board. I guess that is what happens when you work in the humor department. He certainly worked hard wooing Bobbi Lewan once he met her, and thank goodness he did. It mattered so much that he was there.

He worked hard on 291 Midland Avenue, whether building the brick fireplace in the den or constructing the backyard deck. Everywhere you looked there were children’s books, comics, original artwork, wooden carvings – all details that made that house their home. To anyone who walked through the front door and was served, within seconds, a cup of coffee or tea from the Sunbeam Hot Shot hot water dispenser, it mattered that he was there.
Renzo worked hard as father. The obituary originally read, “Renzo and Bobbi had one son, Nicholas, who was the pride of their lives,” but one member of my family who shall remain nameless thought that might be over the top. It wasn’t. Renzo and Bobbi waited years for God to send just the right child and then took turns trying to keep a toddler boy contained and entertained while they worked from home. Renzo coached Little League baseball and drew the covers for the game day programs, taught his son how to use every tool in the toolbox – not to mention the wonder that is brown packing tape, accompanied Nick on football recruiting trips all over the northeast (where Renzo said a little prayer for Nick’s safety every time they encountered other recruits six inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than his son), and even put up with all the completely ridiculous girls Nick dated until that boy finally wised up and brought home the right one. In his college yearbook, Nick quoted Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Every time Renzo was there for his son, it mattered.
He worked hard as a husband and caretaker, doing everything he possibly could for Bobbi during her life and her battle with cancer. He was an example of selfless love to us all. It mattered that he was there.
Renzo worked hard to make sure his granddaughters knew how much he loved them. He flew to North Carolina within weeks of both girls’ births – remember, this is the man who flew to Korea (not back) and then not again until our wedding. For these girls, he jumped on a plane as often as possible. When Barrie was 15 months old, and I was required to take a week-long course at Columbia, he took care of her, overseeing meals, diapers, naptime, and daily trips to the park. He sold his home of almost forty years to be closer to his granddaughters in North Carolina, and then, at age 80, this Italian-born, Bronx-raised guy once again packed up… this time to board a covered wagon and move across the country to Colorado. 
Do you know how great it is as a parent when one of your kids says, “Mommy, draw a hippopotamus in a tutu,” to be able to respond, “Go ask your Grandpa.”? Renzo surprised his granddaughters with chocolate bunnies on Easter, became our official jack-o-lantern designer on Halloween, always had Werther’s hard caramels on hand for treats, attended Grandparents’ Day festivities, and – when Adie-Morgan had to do a report and presentation on her favorite artist – even spent a morning in 3rd grade being interviewed in front of her classmates. It mattered so much that he was there.
He worked hard – in his own unique ways – to be a good, generous brother, uncle, friend, and human being. One friend said he could light up a room with his smile. He walked Patti down the aisle at her wedding. He made baked clams for special occasions. He drew caricatures and sent them to their subjects. He gave away countless of his incredible wood carvings, usually for no other reason than he sensed that the recipient would get joy out of having an RB original. If you needed a custom box built or a ride to a doctor appointment in the city, he was your guy. He gave presentations in the community on his life’s work. He put up with my dad’s phone calls every time the Red Sox pulled ahead in the Division… and then resisted saying “I told you so” when the Yankees would inevitably retake the lead in September. He always had the perfect Yogi Berra quote for any occasion. I guess today’s would be this: “You should always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise they won’t come to yours.” Even when his physical and mental health were declining, he always managed a smile and usually a joke for nurses, pharmacists, and caretakers.

In Ecclesiastes, the wise Solomon tells us that “there’s an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth… A right time to cry and another to laugh, a right time to lament and another to cheer… a right time to embrace and another to part, a right time to search and another to count your losses, a right time to hold on and another to let go…” Two chapters later, he goes on to write that “we should make the most of what God gives, both the bounty and the capacity to enjoy it, accepting what’s given and delighting in the work.” He also tells us that “hard and honest work earns a good night’s sleep.”
We’re so sad that the time has come for us to let go of Renzo / Dad / Grandpa / Uncle Pretzel. But these two things I know for sure:
First, Renzo made the most of the job he had for as long as God gave him life. He earned his rest and the reunion that took place last Friday with his beloved Bobbi.
And second, I know that during the time he was with us, Renzo worked hard to make sure it mattered to all of us – and countless others whom we may never know – that he was here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Don't Ask, Do Tell

I coach Girls on the Run. For those of you who know me, that may come as a surprise, as I am about the furthest thing there is from “a runner.” Especially compared to the crazy, fit people who populate my home state of Colorado. Case in point: I chose to play goalie for my high school field hockey team so that my area of coverage would be a semicircle 35 yards in diameter rather than a 100x60-yard rectangle. That’s about… [insert math here] fewer square yards of running.

I'm not a runner, but I play one on the Internet.
For those of you who know Girls on the Run, however, you can see why I would haul my wheezing self through the paces with these remarkable 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders.  It is a fantastic program that does so much to empower girls and help them see the best in their unique identities.

Last week the girls and I were talking about choices—specifically, choosing to respect others, our community, and ourselves. One of the affirmations I gave them to ponder while running was “I make my own choices.” My eleven-year-old daughter, aka The Drama Queen, heard this, laughed, and responded, “Except when you make my choices for me, Mom.”

Mic. Drop.

As a parent, I’ve spent a good part of the past thirteen years pondering the idea of empowerment and autonomy, especially when it comes to how I teach the art of good choices.  When my girls were toddlers, I practiced presenting them with either/or questions: Do you want broccoli or peas with your dinner?

Voila! Suddenly your three-year-old is empowered to make a healthy decision. Don’t get me wrong. A strong-willed kiddo still can (and probably will) answer with a resounding “NO!” But at least you tried.

I realized that I had mastered (or perhaps overused) this technique when my parents came over one evening to watch my older daughter—then still in preschool. My dad asked her what they should play together.  Without a moment’s pause, she looked him straight in the eye and said in a matter-of-fact tone, “OK, Baboo, here are your options…”

Now that I’m dealing with a tween and a teen, the questions have changed and become (perhaps unsurprisingly) more guilt-infused. “Well, you can go to the movies instead of finishing your project tonight, but is that really the best choice?”

The answer, 100% of the time, is yes. But you see my point. We let them fail.
We let them face the consequences. It’s all a part of self-determination and identity.
OK, here are your options...

What I find infinitely harder (yes! harder than toddlers or teen girls!) is how to interact with my 83-year-old father-in-law, a man who served in the Korean War, raised a son who attended Princeton undergrad and Columbia Business School (despite having gone no further than high school himself), nursed his wife through eighteen months of Stage IV uterine cancer, and now resides in an assisted living unit where he spends a great majority of every day sitting alone in his room. He says that’s all he wants to do.

My father-in-law is a quiet man by nature. If he were someone who believed in self-help books, he might have benefited from all the current literature on introverts. But even keeping to himself as much as he does, he cannot avoid all interaction, nor can he avoid all questions.

Some questions are easy for him to answer. At the anticoagulation clinic, which we visit on a weekly basis, they go through a series of routine queries that we both have memorized. He answers easily: “Has your diet changed?” (No.) “Have you consumed any alcohol this week?” (No.) “Have you felt any numbness or tingling down one side of your body?” (No.)

But ask him an unexpected question—even the simplest yes/no—and answers prove far more difficult. Leaving the clinic, I might toss out something like “Dad, do you want to get some lunch before I take you home?”

I am met with an uncomfortable silence.

While I’m waiting, I contemplate the following:
  1. He isn’t wearing his hearing aids. Perhaps he didn’t hear me.
  2. Perhaps he heard me but cognitively cannot work through the question.
  3.  Perhaps he heard me and understood the question, but the Parkinson’s is constricting his throat and preventing him from voicing an answer.
  4. Perhaps he heard and understood the question but is too depressed to respond.
  5. Perhaps he heard, understood the question, and came up with an answer, but that process took so long that he then forgot he hadn’t said it aloud (or that I asked in the first place).

After a few, very long minutes, I ask if he heard me and repeat the question, this time trying the either/or tactic: “Dad, do you want to get some lunch or would you rather go straight home and eat there?” Sometimes I get an answer.  And sometimes I don’t.

And I wonder if we have reached the point of “don’t ask, do tell.”

Autonomy and empowerment are wonderful concepts, but is there a line we all one day will cross—physical, neurological, or emotional—where we can no longer make good choices for ourselves? And when a loved one crosses that line, do we as caregivers attempt to replace autonomy with beneficence? Which is more important for “aging gracefully”?

This dilemma doesn’t only come into play with the big, scary healthcare decisions. It also matters for the day-to-day, quality-of-life ones. If it is time for me, as a caregiver, to eliminate questions altogether, then I need to practice an entirely new approach:
  • “Do you want to attend exercise class?” becomes “I’m taking you to the common area for exercise class.”
  • “Do you want to watch the Yankees?” becomes “I’m turning on the television. The Yankees are playing.”
  • And “Do you feel up for some lunch after this appointment?” becomes “Let’s go get some lunch before I take you home.” 

Admittedly, I’m suggesting what feels right to—and for—me.

At the New York Deli News, the answer to
"Do you want a reuben?" is always yes.
Sometimes I wonder if I really know what’s best. It could be that he’s reached a point where the comfort of a dim, quiet room is enough. I don’t know. But I do know, from everything I’ve read and experienced, that preserving dignity and identity are just as important as—if not more so than—preserving autonomy. And perhaps dignity and identity may be achieved as much by compelled participation in the world outside one’s room as by the opportunity to voice opinion and/or answer questions.

And he still retains the right to refuse. I hope he will. I hope he still can.

One more thought on this. I have made the commitment never to use the dreaded SH- word with him.

No, no, no. I don’t mean that SH- word. I mean SHOULD. It’s never “You should go to exercise class.” These are my choices that I’m making for him, not his choices. The difference may be semantic, but I believe it is significant.

P.S. OK, OK, OK. If I’m being completely honest, I do sometimes use the other SH- word but only in my head. For example, “$#!+. I just don’t know what to do in this situation.” If only there were a preschooler around to give me my options.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas 2014: An Inventory

Five things I have not done / not done well this Christmas season:

1) I thought I would get ahead by ordering my Christmas cards at the end of October. (For those who received one, that is why the reference to autumn is in the present tense.) Because I was so proud of myself when clicking "Confirm," I didn't double-check my account information. The cards shipped to my old address, which is 1,600 miles away from my new address. Luckily, the very kind family who now lives there accepted the box, took it back to the UPS Store, and shipped it to me ℅ the house where I actually live. The box arrived November 3, which was two days before I received an "early bird" 30% off coupon in the mail from  I put the coupon on my desk and thought about calling to see if customer service would retroactively apply the discount. I am still thinking about it.  The cards sat in their unopened box on my office floor until December 14.

2) I never put a single treat in the Advent Calendar. The Equestrian is OK with that. "I think we can live," she says. (She's twelve.) The Drama Queen, on the other hand, claims I now owe her 21 pieces of candy… with interest.

That's enough, right?
3) I haven't decorated the Christmas tree. We hosted an office Christmas party at our house on December 6 (when your husband works for a Catholic hospital system, you're actually supposed to call it a Christmas party rather than a Holiday party), and Nick came up with the brilliant idea to save a few hours of prep time by just putting lights and a star on the tree that we bought at 9:00 p.m. on December 5. Did I mention that he is brilliant? The drawback, however, is that the tree remains lit and starred but not ornamented… with the exception of four handmade ornaments the DQ received from her fourth grade Secret Santa. I am now wondering if anyone will notice. What if I just add more presents under the tree to draw the eye down?

4) I volunteered to be in charge of the school holiday decorations. OK, technically, this is something that I did not think through well last spring when I was cornered by two Parents' Association VPs who already do far more than I do for the school and also happen to be really nice people. (Funny how all December projects seem doable from eight months away.) In the end, it was actually really fun to spend a day decking the halls with a great group of parent volunteers who gave of their time and energy to make our kids' school festive for the season. But I think I may have gotten all the decorating out of my system a little too early. (See #3.)

5) I have not yet shipped gifts to my family. It is December 21. In my defense, my older daughter hasn't finished her Christmas crafting / shopping, so the box is not yet complete. Yes, I could have shipped it incomplete last week and then brought the last few items with us in a suitcase. Could've, would've, should've. Now I may no longer be able to afford to ship the darn box. Has anyone already done the math on the price of buying and checking another suitcase dedicated to gift transport vs. the price of the surgery required to remove my left arm and leg, which is what UPS may now be charging to get a package across two time zones by the 26th? If so, you can email me via the links below.

Five things I have done / done well this Christmas season:

1) Every day I take a moment to sit down, open Christmas cards from friends and family, and appreciate all the love and laughter and memories the senders add to our lives. For those who may wonder whether it is worth it to keep sending, my vote is a definitive yes. We love you all.

Christmas magic
2) I made cookies with the DQ. For the first time ever. I don't come from a Christmas-cookie-baking family. It just wasn't one of our traditions, and, as an uptight perfectionist (WHAT?!?), I am a very nervous baker. Please know that I am in awe of everyone who Facebooks and Pinterests multiple wire racks of cooling confections. I have one wire rack and usually cannot find it. However, I was again invited to a cookie swap and decided to be brave and attend with a tin (see what I did there? I may not bake, but I can create linguistic humor) rather than chickening out like I did last year. After all, these cookie swappers are people with whom I want to hang. And since the DQ is always very excited to use the whisk Santa once gave her, I invited her to jump in and help. We totally botched the first batch, and it didn't even matter. She thought all the ugly ones were delicious. I have come to the conclusion that deliciousness is inevitable when you use two sticks of butter per batch.

3) And speaking of butter, I have exercised three days in a row. On the first three days of my kids' winter break. I don't think that is technically enough repetition to claim I've formed a habit, but it sure is a better start than I've made since… ever. Plus, it is one hour a day of focused, healthy, sweat-out-the-guilt-about-all-the-things-I-haven't-done-or-done-well time. Win, win, win.

4) I let my twelve-year-old miss four days of school mid-December to travel through the midwest with her horseback riding instructor to look at horses for sale. I realize that this one isn't very self-evident in terms of "things I did well." On the surface, it seems much more like a "things I let happen because I overindulge my children." But the trip was an amazing experience for the Equestrian--imagine a combination educational adventure, road trip with your favorite aunt, and opportunity to see some of the best competitors in the sport about which you are most passionate. She came back more grown-up, more appreciative, and feeling completely satisfied that she had already had her Christmas. She didn't come back with a horse, which is not to say there isn't a new four-legged friend somewhere in the near future, but for now we're all content--the tweener included--to be patient and wait. That's about the best lesson she could have learned by driving across Kansas.

5) I had one of those parenting moments that reminded me I sometimes get it right. On the last Monday before Christmas break, when it was getting REALLY hard to get the girls out the door on time, I was hollering "Let's go!" as my ten-year-old stepped over the dog gate from the kitchen to the back hall. She was holding a raspberry-blueberry(-and kale--SHHHHHH!!!) breakfast smoothie in one hand and her school snack and water bottle in the other hand. Her foot caught on the top of the barrier, and she fell chest-first to the floor, knocking the wind right out of her tiny body. She lay there, gasping for air, wide-eyed and on the verge of panic, in a puddle of purple slush. *Big confession moment* I had the briefest flicker of a thought about grabbing a few paper towels on my way to comfort her. Kind of like Elaine from Seinfeld grabbed a box of Jujyfruits before leaving the movies when she found out her date had landed in the hospital. But I didn't. I suppressed my inner Elaine, ignored the clock, and went to give my baby exactly what she needed--a mom who didn't care about whether we were late to school or how much smoothie was on the floor (or the ceiling… no, seriously, on the ceiling). A mom who, for a few moments at least, cared only about helping her feel better. I rubbed my little girl's chest; in quiet tones I promised her that it would be OK and she would catch her breath again soon. I was 100% focused on how much I loved her and how thankful I was that her loss of breath was only temporary. It may have been the calmest and most present moment I've had since Thanksgiving.

Oh, there is one more thing I haven't done this Christmas season: Clean all the smoothie off the ceiling. I find the purple splatter a good reminder that it's not about my to-do list. Or even me. It's about the child. And the Child.
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