The Handyman Can

For most of my life, nearly all of my life, no one would confuse me with being a handyman.

My dad, he built an entire room from the ground up when I was a kid. He had a garage full of tools, some of which he had inherited from his father, my grandfather, who made toys for his children. From scratch. Lincoln logs and blocks and who knows what else. Better than you could buy from the store. My grandfather had a basement full of tools.  Saws and lathes and drills and hammers and sanders and chisels and things which have names that I do not know.

If he wanted to, I am certain with his set up down there that he could have built Sputnik in a race with the entire Soviet empire. But let’s face it, homemade Lincoln logs are much cooler and more practical.

I have neither a garage, nor a basement. Maybe that’s my problem.The cause of so many years of my lack of handyman-ness

I would mix my little organizing drawers full of woods screws and sheet metal screws and sheetrock nails and tiny screwdrivers and drill bits. Orphan parts left over from too many attempted IKEA projects went here and there, making friends with Allen wrenches and odd bits of sandpaper and used single serving crazy glue containers. My kitchen cabinet glassware is organized by size, material, and use.  Every wrongly placed cup or mug is immediately re-shelved. There are no cures for this, only a doctoral thesis waiting to be written. One look at my kitchen and my tool room and one hundred people surveyed would agree: this man is no handyman, but he can find a coffee mug when he needs one

 I am not a handyman, and unfortunately things break.

Lawn sprinklers get run over or mowed over or accidently shoveled. Washers and driers and stoves fizzle and stop working. Lights and electrical switches fail to answer the call. Doors fall off their hinges. The dishwasher gives up the ghost. The garbage disposal actually eats itself.

When Piper and I first got married the running joke was that I loved folding laundry and she loved power tools. To some that was a match made in heaven. The truth is that (a) I still believe we are a match made in heaven (b) That even at a young age, anxiety and self-doubt kept me away from most common tools and simple repairs.  I might venture to change the AC filter or a light bulb, but the one time I tried to hang curtain rods resulted in enough extra holes to require an entire tub of spackling. It is a testament to our strong marriage that we survived such an early test. At least when I hung pictures in our new home I could hide the holes until we moved.

Two years into this whole therapy and depression/anxiety medication thing, I am really starting to reap some benefits besides saying goodbye to the whole “hides in the house and doesn’t think he will ever be happy again” life. The “take a defensive posture for everything” life. The “cries at sappy sitcoms, sappy commercials, sappy songs and over lunch catching up with friends that he hasn’t seen in 30 years” life (Sorry about that S. I am much better now).

That “self-doubt, paralyzing doubt, doubting everything doubting all, doubting life,” life can kiss my ass.

Two years in and with my two new friends “youtube” and HomeDepot, projects that I once dismissed as impossible, I tackle with zeal and the Internet. Everything I listed back in paragraph three, I have fixed.  It wasn’t brain surgery. I didn’t build a room or half a house or replace an electrical panel or finish a basement or tear out a bathroom and start over. But when an electrician charges a couple of hundred bucks to replace the burner on a smooth top stove and I did it with fifteen minutes, a quick check of a video on my cell phone, and a $50 part, I’ll take it.

Here is truth, raw and honest: Anxiety-bred self-doubt desiccates one’s life.

I never lived until I re-wired my first electric light switch (with a master electrician on facetime the whole time). And after four attempts, I finally threw the switch and the light went on. And then I made it go off. Then on. Then off. I felt powerful. Complete. Handy.

Half a dozen years ago our 50 something year-old bedroom door, hanging on to its hinges by a few too many coats of paint and a prayer  was declared “unfixable.” We were told to live with it. Today it opens and closes.  To be honest, it isn’t pretty. It is a little too tight. But the first time I shut it and it stayed shut after four hours with an electric drill, wood chisel, hammer, and utility knife, I smiled. I texted friends. Sent a photo to my wife. I threw out my back in the process and haven’t been able to sleep a full night in bed even after anti-inflammatory drugs, ever since,  but that is not important.

I was being handy.

A big masking tape “X” outside our front door reminds me that our doorbell hasn’t worked in seven years. Yep, I googled the troubleshooting steps. I really don’t want a working doorbell, but it is broken. And I fix broken things. With help.

I think I need an intervention. And a dishwasher full of assorted cups and mugs. Stat.

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In Which on the Starting Blocks of Life, We Wet Ourselves

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.  1 Peter 5:7 (NRSV)

A lot of people check their doors at night to make sure that each one is locked before going to bed. At one time in my life this ritual would repeat itself, like some poorly-made parody of the movie “Ground Hog Day.” I would get up from my desk, not quite sure if I had checked both doors, and circle the living room, checking both the sliding glass door and the front door locks and return to my seat, only to get up a few moments later and repeat the process. And again. And again. If I told myself that, of course I had just checked them both, a little voice would whisper, “Are you sure?” and off I would go. I HAD to check them again. And again.

For more than a dozen years I baked two loaves or more of communion bread for the weekly Sunday morning services. The process would take hours for the mixing, rising, shaping, panning and baking. The latter half of my week revolved around setting aside the time. I had to make them, you see. People depended upon it. If I didn’t, well I never really finished that thought because the anxiety would go full-throttle and I would find myself baking. I have the burn scars from the hot oven to prove it. After hundreds and hundreds of baking sessions, one acquires accidental burns and the scars that their healing often bring.

And not infrequently, the baking of bread might like this: after mixing the dough, which involved pouring boiling water over a bowl of rolled oats, butter, whole wheat flour, brown sugar, and salt, I would allow it to cool before kneading in bread flour and yeast. Then I would set it aside to rise for a couple of hours, before the second kneading. And I would pause half way through this second kneading trying to remember if I had washed my hands first. And trying to remember what I had been up to before my hands had touched the dough. And I would throw out the dough and start over because the anxiety would lock up my brain and keep my memories prisoner. So the hours long process would begin again.

I want you to be free from anxieties…   1 Corinthians 7:32a

When I swam for our high school swim team, with my speedo and 145 pounds of body weight, the crescendo of anxiety came when I stood atop the starting block, every muscle primed for the starter’s whistle, adrenaline coursing through every cell, my mind a whirlwind of thoughts and fears to the point where I thought I would wet myself. Maybe I did on occasion. Science will tell us that this can occur when our limbic system overcomes the signals from our pre-frontal cortex. Basically, our fear overrides our will and our bodies do the things that we do not want to do, ever, especially in front of other people, and in this case girls. My brief perusal of the research on this suggests that there is no evolutionary purpose, no positive explanation. It just is. It just happens. We get nervous and anxious and occasionally we pee on the starting blocks before the 10 yard breaststroke.

If we are made in the very image of God, not just our eyes and noses, but our emotional selves, our capacity to love and deeply, our compassion and empathy, our desire for forgiveness and to forgive, to know and be known, then I figure anxiety is God in shop class playing with clay for the first time and having the project shatter into pieces in the kiln. God decides to keep those shattered pieces around as a reminder of, well something: A first attempt, a failed attempt, sentimental value, to fix later only to be forgotten about in some old closet. Who knows? After all, God created mosquitoes.

According to the website of the Florida State University Anxiety Clinic http://anxietyclinic.fsu.edu/aboutanxiety/main.php

…If these feelings [of anxiety] can be so uncomfortable, why do we have them? The answer is simple: protection! The body has developed anxiety, panic, and worry as a protective alarm system to aid in coping with potential threats and dangers.

This protective alarm system is even more amazing when you consider that the protective function really exists on two levels. We are set up to respond to threats in two ways: a “preparation” mode and a “reaction” mode.

The preparation mode, consisting of anxiety and worry, helps us prepare for future danger or helps us prepare for threats which may be delayed. In essence, this type of fear tells us “You are not in danger. . .YET! But let’s prepare for what may lie ahead….It can be difficult to tell if your level of anxiety is too much. A good rule of thumb is “how much does this impair my life or keep me from doing the things I would like to do?”

How much does this impair my life or keep me from doing the things I would like to do?”

Anxiety would often build in me and leave me emotionally paralyzed. I could not move on to the next task in my life without confronting what I believe to be that issue’s root cause. I could not put it aside. Box it up for later. Or sweet Jesus, just let it go.

I could take a moment now and apologize to all of those people in high school and college and beyond who I would call out of the blue day or night to apologize for some imagined slight or misunderstanding that I believe I had committed against them. They would pick up the phone and have no idea what I was talking about and I would have to take ten minutes to explain what wrong I believed I had done to them; words I might have said that could have been taken the wrong way. Stuff like that. Inevitably they would reassure me and my life would unfreeze and I could go on. I can’t imagine what went through their minds after they received the sixth or seventh phone call like that within in a few month’s time.

It was really like that. And it would get worse.

I grew up and grew older and got married and “Keith,” my wife would ask, “Do you want to…” and my knee-jerk reaction would be to say “No.” It didn’t matter what it was. Everything produced anxiety, especially anything new. My brain would kick into some other gear and my heart would beat faster and some voice inside my head kept shouting “No! No! No!” If I tried to list all of things I did not do. We did not do. That I ruined. Jeez. That trip down memory lane is about as healthy as one of those hamburgers that use Krispy Crème doughnuts in place of a bun.

Anxiety still occasionally pollutes the fresh air of this new life. Episodes are rare, but not gone. Projects that end up taking me as little as five minutes have just in this past month turned off my mental engine and walked away with the keys for awhile. And I sat there frozen, unable to take the first step to get them back, like I have forgotten how to walk. Thank God these are no longer frequent occurrences. They are merely occasional reminders of how delicate a thing brain chemistry is and how it works so well for so many so often that we do not give it a second thought until our thoughts skip like an old record.

Sometimes life is a choice between tossing out part of our record collection or risking the skip. And I’m OK with that.DSC_3046

Just Say Yes* to Drugs

Just say “Yes” to drugs.

*The ones prescribed by a competent psychiatrist. (Emphasis on competent).

Just say “yes” to the psychotropic ones that alter brain chemistry when they have decided to take up surfing or mountain climbing or cave exploration rather than keep their day jobs and be satisfied with instant Maxwell House instead of Starbucks.

Brain chemistry is an emerging science. I’m guessing that most people do not worry about their levels of serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine. It is not what they think about when they wake up or kiss their spouse or go to work or get disappointed when another crash has back up I-95 like a parking lot. Some of us do or should. When they get unbalanced, so will you.

Hence the importance of medication.

At least give them a fair shake. Find the right drug, the right dose, monitor in constant dialogue with your psychiatrist and see how your life can be.

When you are done trying to pray away your depression, or ignoring it.

When you finally overcome your “psychotropic drugs are for weak people” hang up.

Or your belief that it is perfectly acceptable to cry every single day and not want to leave the house and obsess about why everyone doesn’t love and appreciate you and see no positive future for your life, ever.

Just say “yes.”

What psychotropic drugs do for people like me and millions of others is to give us our life back. They give us our life back though we may not remember what life was like before. Or if there was a “before.”

They give us a life that is different from the one that is or was, a different life.

A more preferred life.

But not necessarily a more normal life. Psychiatrists hate that word “normal” because what is normal for you might totally suck for me and vise versa. For example, I enjoy folding laundry, butterfly gardening, photography, NPR, 60’s groups like the Grass Roots, loving my wife deeply, and buying books that I may never read. You might enjoy some of these things, but not all of them and probably enjoy other things and consider yourself normal. My normal and your normal do not have to be the same, so the term creates more problems than it is worth.

Of course, there are likely some things that we all can agree upon are either normal or not, but current reality TV suggests there is always a niche for a new normal for someone out there.

Before medication, my body which had always been a bit susceptible to poor reactions to stress, but typically bounced back after some R&R and a few months in counseling had finally, like a piece of metal flexed too many times, weakened and broken. Over the years I had suffered from a stream of health problems related to stress from burning reflux to Irritable Bowel Syndrome-like symptoms to Erectile Disfunction (just typing those last two words is so much fun for me now – try it). But two years ago even I in the midst of my own new normal of tears and darkness and fear and self-loathing and reflexive defensiveness could see that I had a problem that even a purring cat couldn’t solve (Honestly, Luna cat, it wasn’t your fault).

And as I type this now after nearly two years of medication and therapy and a second cat, I am more than ready to declare that life today is not like the life that once was. My serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine play much nicer with one another. Most of the time. Without too many side effects. Anxiety does seem to drop from the sky from time to time. Is it a “normal” amount of anxiety? A “typical and acceptable” amount? Eh. I would prefer none, but as my saintly shrink likes to remind me, I am stuck being a human being. Do I still get depressed? Again, eh. Rinse, wash and repeat what I said about anxiety. Certain things can trigger either of them, my own personal kryptonite. I know them and for the most part I still can’t do much about them short of constant vigilance and avoidance. It gives my psychiatrist and I something to talk about every few months.

There is real joy now. Moments profound and deep and rich with feeling, of being one with God and the universe and time and space and all that. Moments that I no longer fear will not repeat; lost forever, worthy of grief and sorrow and cascades of tears. Maybe now is the true beginning of faith. And honestly, I do not give a sh*t whether the drugs have unblocked them and freed me to experience them or produced them by setting some mad scientist free in my brain. If it is the latter, I owe him/her/it and their ordinary drip coffee-drinking selves, my life.

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Apparently I’m Still (Uneasily) Human

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
 and the light around me become night,”
 even the darkness is not dark to you;
 the night is as bright as the day,
 for darkness is as light to you – Psalm 139:11-12

Apparently I’m still human.

Though I am still not so sure how I feel about it, emotions being such messy things.

Let me explain.

In all things moderation, the saying goes. However, I am by nature not a particularly moderate person. Years ago, when my wife mentioned we might want to start cutting back on beef and pork, I went cold turkey (except for bacon, because, of course, bacon.) When we first moved here sixteen years ago and I decided to garden, I ended up digging up huge swaths of grass around the house and have been futzing with it ever since.  There are 23 pots of African violets within my line of sight as I type this.  My legacy in lack of moderation speaks for itself.

One of the side effects or at least outcomes of two years of medication and therapy has been an impact in my “enthusiasms” as well as my emotions. The internal fire from my hobby of nature photography has not burned out, but remains a time of solace and renewal for me. As for my emotions, when one goes from crying almost daily to once or twice a year and from becoming impatient and angry quite frequently to once or twice a year, any hint of negative emotion can be alarming, almost shocking.  Recently that alarm rang in deafening clangs and whoops and siren screams. I had the experience of that paralyzing unhinging of emotional control; going from master of the moments of my life to a lost child who keeps repeating a single phrase: Did I forget to lock the door?

When one stands of the precipice of the deep dark rabbit hole of depression, frozen in place by anxiety and the ground begins to give way, panic usually ensues and builds upon itself, a tsunami of misplaced energy and debris. Pointing into the hole is a sign: “This way there be monsters” until the sign, itself, becomes victim and food for the abyss.

This time I refused to be consumed, to be nutrient and simultaneously excrement in the ongoing neuro-chemical war in my brain and body. Not. This. Time.

I struck back at the chaos brought on by a person, who had once again wounded me, by this time separating them from their unhealthy behaviors. Behaviors are things that can be placed in the matrix of acceptable and unacceptable. Others can be invited in to offer wisdom and determined a shared and agreed upon way forward. I was no longer alone and involving others became a lifeline pulling me back, keeping my feet firmly planted.DSC_0740

Look, we can seek to love people without affirming poor behavior. Without proper boundaries everything is food for the darkness, which has consumed many people and perhaps especially pastors who often struggle, I suggest, with separating people from their behaviors and inviting others in to take a firm stand on the matter. Congregations can be havens for unhealthy people for there is where a loving and supportive community gathers and there is where the power and presence of Jesus, our wounded healer can be especially present and experienced. Congregations are also where things can be so right and go so wrong when unhealthy behaviors are tolerated, and by that I mean, ignored or even affirmed when grace is confused with pity.

We can’t fix people, but we can seek to respond to their behaviors in appropriate ways. We can continue to work on our own health so that we do not become victims  and in that we make ourselves more open to more truly and deeply loving God and neighbor.

A Sigh Too Deep for Words

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.                          Romans 8:26 (NRSV)

I find it hard to pray when my brain is on fire.

The words do not come, though I try to push them out, birth them with the practiced ease of a thousand, thousand prayers before.

I want to, try to, but I cannot.

It is hard to pray when my brain is on fire, body exhausted; a sure sign that I have overdone it, heaped one too many logs on the fire of stress, once again reminding myself that all is not well with me. Somewhere deep inside me there continues to lurk a disease that will unfailingly find the open door and return triumphant. I come home unable to work one more minute, collapse into bed and the hours pass by. I sleep but not for lack of sleeping, but in response to a body with no more energy for activity; to let the fire burn low, coals in time extinguished, the fuel of the regularity of even the simple things consumed.

I could take the path of self-indulgent pity I suppose, shaking a fist at the sun, the moon, the stars, the heavens, at God that two years of therapy and thousands of pills and hundreds of thousands of steps could still leave me so fragile that one day, one conversation, one act by one person could ricochet in memory and loose pain so long now left behind, give that pain legs, muscle, a will to race into my present and leave the healthier me in the dust.

But I do not want that pity.

The fire in my brain will not consume me. Not this time. No.

For even in the midst of a conflagration of past and present, of memory and actuality, the way forward has a voice, a certainty in the smoke and heat and flame. Instead of being lost, a way forward finds me and I take it and the rightness of it helps to still the building up of anxiety and I can take a breath.

Such battles leave me tired, so tired, yet not defeated. There is a victory to give thanks for even as such a prayer still cannot come, will not come. But some days even if my only words are sighs, they are enough. Such is the promise. Such is all our hope.

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Of Calories, Neurogenesis and Apparently, Sex

So Saturday we are planning our make-up Valentine’s Day, since Piper was down hard with the flu during the actual one. As of this writing we are all healthy and the flu has flown. Recovery is nearly complete. The weather is pleasant. The winter birds are flocking. I have my wildlife lens setup on the camera tested and ready to go. And to boot, I took most of this week off from work to catch up on projects around the house, like repotting Piper’s orchids and giving my home butterfly garden some attention. But since I love my wife much more than I do her dendrobiums and phalaenopsis, today I made chicken piccata with angel hair pasta. Why is this important? Because nothing can adjust the trajectory of the week towards a beautiful weekend of laughter and smooches, then some homemade Italian cooking. Google it. I’ll wait while you blush.

I ended up eating roughly 172 calories of piccata placed upon 200 calories of pasta. And a 2 oz slice of ciabatta with 45 calories worth of Brommel & Brown yogurt spread that tastes amazingly like butter without putting me over my saturated fat limit for the day. And baby carrots which barely caused my calorie count to flinch. And my third glass of water for the day replacing three of my usual four cups of tea with milk and sugar and several glasses of ice tea which I have only taken a liking to in the previous year or so and so actually miss it.

We (by we, I mean me, because my wife takes a much more rational approach about such things) have become crazy health zombies who live and die by the feedback given by “MyFitnessPal.”   I’m barely over 1,500 calories for the day, which means I’ve eaten about as much as that fictional space guy who was stranded on Mars in The Martian, without haven’t to wear a space suit or deal with imminent death every other minute, though I did just upgrade my seven year old computer to Windows 10, if that counts.

So after having walked some 660,000 steps so far in 2016 and not losing any weight I decided to look at the other variable in the equation: calories, or my indiscriminant intake of them.  I marvel at all of the folks busy doing cleanses, downing protein shakes, doing the paelo-diet or the Atkins diet or Weight Watchers or the South Beach diet or the cookie diet or whatever. Hey, if it works for you, rock on!  Ditto for joining a gym. I am a simple guy who is going to try a simple formula. Eat Less + exercise more = happy doctor/wife/me. I am on pace to lose 30 pounds in a year.  Why? Because 180 pounds sounds a lot better than 210. Because it would mean a lot less stress on my knees and back and better cholesterol and a longer life if I am not randomly struck by lightning or eater by an alligator or bitten by some killer mosquito while photographing in the Everglades (note to self: put more cream on those two bites on my ankles from last week’s excursion).

When you have lupus you are always tired. So I thought, screw it, I am going to get healthy and put a little more plus on the balance of plusses and minuses in my daily life.  And I have six pairs of jeans that no longer fit me in my closet that may fit me in a couple of months, so take that LL BEAN free $10 gift card with a jeans purchase email sending person. If I lose weight I have free pants that will fit.

I am also reading this book that says that 70% of our aging after 50 is not necessary. That so much of this later life aging is because of the choices we make or don’t make in our eating and exercising. That every time I tell myself I am north of fifty and now it will be that gradual slide down hill over some cacti and into a pile of rocks while wearing pants with that hidden comfort waistband, that I am lying to myself. That with proper diet and exercise and having some passion and purpose to build meaning in my life that it won’t totally suck until I am sucking my food through a straw and watching Love Boat reruns while wearing white socks with black shoes.

Hang on a second, I need to record the two cups of Cheerios I just ate which pushed me above the daily caloric intake of Matt Damon’s Mark Watney on Mars. (Editor’s note: the audiobook of The Martian is all kinds of awesome. Download it now and listen while you read this, but remember that Matt Damon is in the movie, not reading the audiobook, though I am sure he could have).

And as we are talking health, somewhere on Twitter I learned that sustained aerobic exercise enables the brains of mice to rebuild. You and I and every adult have been losing brain cells for years, so the topic of neurogenesis is very hot right now. Apparently running and other such aerobic activity isn’t the only way to stimulate neurogenesis, either. MentalHealthyDaily.com lists 11 Ways to Grow New Brain Cells. So with lupus and lupus meds and depression and anxiety meds all part of my daily “stuff” and most of these possible contributors to “brain fog” (it’s a thing, google it), I figure more brain cells is something I need to get up to speed on, like, yesterday. Other than several substances currently illegal in my home state of Florida, activities such as running and sex made the list as did restricting caloric intake (I’m holding at two apples a day for snack). Omega-3 rich foods (think fish and about half of the supplement aisle in your average pharmacy). Throw in blueberries, green tea and anti-depressants and it makes for a great topic of conversation for that next party when all people want to do is talk about the election and the odds that they might be moving to Canada soon. Of course, the benefit of all of these new neurons in one’s brain is still a topic of research, but my money is that more is always better when it comes to brain cells.

Well, time to drink another glass of water. Stay healthy, my friends! I’ll check back in around 1,000,000 steps or so to see how you are doing.

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A Valentine’s Interrupted

I roll over in bed, the light telling me that it is morning, my glasses well out of reach, the cat, hungry, swatting my nose with just a hint of claw, not yet fully annoyed with me. My wife coughs, once, twice, her full-blown case of the flu now in its third day. “You’re beautiful,” I tell her. And she is. And it coaxes a smile even through the misery.

We’re both exhausted after five late night hours in Urgent Care, my wife one among a full house of masked people, all coughing and sneezing and feverish. Next to us, behind a white curtain, a nurse and mother have moved on from gentle encouragement to threatening a young boy with a shot if he purposefully (“I can tell you did that on purpose!”) throws up his medicine again. The doctor, who had been running from patient to patient in the midst of a triage room bursting at the seams from a flu epidemic, finally found us, me standing at the door, arms folded, trying to look imposing and annoyed at the wait. The damn guy was cheerful. Kind. Compassionate. Thorough. Helpful. I sat down like the exhausted lump that I was and let the awe of his upbeatness wash over me.

The nurse gives my wife something for her pain. And now we must wait longer to make sure she doesn’t have a reaction to it. Prescriptions find their way to us, one, two, three, four. Thank God there is a pharmacy down the street that is still open at 1 AM. We know this because the doctor told us about it. He alone may be the tipping point for justifying human cloning.

The pharmacy seems as busy as the Urgent Care, not from the flu epidemic, but from an epidemic of people needing to buy heart-shaped balloons and bouquets of flowers and Hallmark cards and chocolate. Valentine’s Day is an hour old and they are just catching up. “Is your insurance up to date?” asks the pharmacist. I pull out my insurance card and look at it. I can’t remember the last time I had to show it at my regular pharmacy. “I have no idea,” I say. Honestly, I don’t. Cheerfully she scans it and tells me to come back in five minutes. I shop the nearby vitamin counter. Who on earth would willingly take a daily dose of Krill oil? Isn’t that whale food? Apparently it is better for my heart than fish oil, but they are also selling fish oil. Just in case.

I wander back over to the window and use the counter to prop up my body, which technically might already be asleep. I must be dreaming since the store is filled with young children who wander the very cheap toy aisle while a parent grabs a balloon that says: “LOVE.” The pharmacist is interrupted by a request for the bathroom to be unlocked. The pharmacist moves to the microphone and announces this request over the loudspeaker. It is 1:15AM. And she is still smiling. My name is called, I search my wallet for my debit card, which I swipe just as I remember that we have a different debit card for our health savings account. I look up and say that I have used the wrong card. She smiles and says no problem and I empty my wallet on the counter looking for the correct card. The young woman who needed the bathroom returns to report that it is still locked. As I find the correct card the loudspeaker once again requests that someone unlock the bathroom. Transaction complete, the pharmacist goes over the proper way to take all of the medication and wishes me a good night and hopes that my wife feels better. I walk past the long line of red mylar balloons at the regular check out counter and head home.

The rest of the night is a mixture of all that a full-on case of the flu brings. Hint: it may involve continuous trips to the bathroom. During a lull I wish my wife a happy Valentine’s Day, trying to be sweet. She turns and looks at me. Her expression is inscrutable. “I love you,” I say.

And I do.

I can’t remember the last time my wife was sick, let alone this sick. On the balance of our marriage, the last few years I have so tipped the scales from illness that they may have very well fallen over. I do not know what goes through the mind of a spouse when the other in the relationship suffers as long as I have from bouts of depression and anxiety. Honestly, it is a question I have never been brave enough to ask. And if it were only just depression and anxiety. I cannot count the number of afternoons she has come home after a full day of teaching science to middle-schoolers and all that accompanies education in this day and age, only to find dinner not made, a sink full of dirty dishes, a dinning room table piled high with unfolded clothes and me asleep in the recliner, exhausted by an auto-immune disease that pits my body against itself.

There is not enough gratitude in the world to right the balance, to make up for the days, the moods, the disappointments. There was a day, many years ago now, when we looked into each other’s eyes, holding hands, and laughed while we promised to love one another in sickness and in health for as long as we both shall live. Such vows, when we make them, we so often have no idea on their depth; how they will be etched into our soul; the full-on cost of a few simple words truthfully held in trust and faith. I think we are learning.

I love you, Piper. Always.

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How to Keep those Brain-Eating Critter Babies Away

I’m walking. Well, I will be and soon as I finish this post.

It is 8:20PM and I am 4,000 steps short of 10,000 and I am about to head on out again to lap the few blocks around the parsonage. 1,000 steps a lap. An app on my phone has counted them all. Each day, 10,000 steps rain or shine, no matter what. Unless, of course, I am at a good point in the Michael Connelly audio book I have playing on my phone. Then maybe one or two more laps. Time flies when you are trying to figure out “who done it.”

Walking. It is the first of three non-resolutions I made to myself for 2016. 10,000 steps a day. No fast food. No soda. For a year. And because I hate myself,  I measure my weight using the scale at a local Publix supermarket. The scale that faces the daily indignity of children bouncing on it to see how far they can make the needle go.  This gives me some emotional wiggle room when I step on it after something like 200,000 steps so far in 2016 and it says that I have gained weight.  Next time I am leaving my cell phone at home. And my wallet. And wearing lightweight shorts with no belt. And flip flops.  And maybe I’ll go commando. Whatever it takes.

I like walking at night. The sun does me no good these days as the lupus that is somewhere sleeping inside of me could kick it into gear from some unprotected exposure. And in irony of ironies, the lupus meds make me more susceptible to the sun.  And though I almost always wear my socially-acceptable-for-men-over-50 sunhat, I often forget the sunscreen. Don’t tell my doctor, who looks as young as my children, but still chides me like I was a little boy.

At night, the wooden fences are still cooling from the afternoon sun. The smell of sun-warmed wood brings me back to the days of exploring my grandfather’s garage and attached greenhouse.  I learned to love growing things there and about the hum of fluorescent lights and the effectiveness of sticky fly paper for catching flies and long hair.  Walking from garage to greenhouse, the wood smell gave way to earth.  And the earth of the greenhouse smelled like nothing else. Like damp leaves in the woods. And moss on the bark of trees.  And a brook swift enough to move pebbles. And wind through the pines.

With my non-resolutions has also come a renewed effort to, if not tame, them better curate, the butterfly gardens that reach around most of the parsonage. I have probably blogged about gardening before. Likely more than once. I garden my ass off, then I stop. And get busy. But then almost reflexively, I remove a little more lawn each year and replaced it with more native landscape.  Native plants require less water and care and thrive in the rather challenging environs of south Florida, which is to say that if I let them be they will take over. A part of me thinks, “So where’s the problem in that?” And then another part of me realizes that I have neighbors and neighborhood code enforcement, some of which might not be too keen on my going so fully “native.” So my new philosophy of gardening is a sort of “neatly native” that pretends to have some organization and thought put into it. I have had many gardening philosophies over the years.

For people who suffer from depression and anxiety, walking and gardening are gold-plated healthy responses to lower the levels of all of those bad stress chemicals that would prefer I stay indoors, preferably in bed, while worrying a lot about things that have happened or might happen; about things I have done and should have done. Those stress chemicals trick my mind into believing that the garden is SO BIG and SUCH A MESS that I could never fix it, so why bother trying. But all of that healthy walking and the pills I take each day and those vitamins and hanging out with my therapist’s cat has given me the courage and wherewithal to pull weeds and turn over dirt and pot a dozen tree seedlings that had randomly taken root in weird and inappropriate places and plant more butterfly weed and salvia and red pentas and so on and smell the dirt and remember who I am.

Some scientists say that there are microbes in the soil that stimulate an anti-depressant effect in our brains. I’m sure that I have dropped this little nugget of truth before, but it is awesome enough to  mention again. And I need to remind myself, actually, since as I have confessed, I have an awful habit of gardening like a maniac then stopping for long periods of time. You see, as we garden we breathe in these microbes from the soil, which we cannot see, as compared to say, critters that live there and poop there and have little critter babies there. I have not yet had nightmares about them eating my brain, those critter babies. Maybe those microbes really are doing the brain chemistry mambo in me and keeping my dreams safe, for now, anyway.

Well, it is 9PM and the wooden fences will by now have cooled off and the air, the smell of night. But that’s OK. I still have Michael Connelly teasing me about who did it and why and the steps will just fly by.

Keep walking my friends and don’t forget to play in the dirt. You want to keep your dreams free from those brain-eating critter babies, don’t you?

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When I Cross the Streams on the Ghosts of Christmas Past

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So what does a post-neurochemical intervention and therapy-in-progress for depression Christmas look like? Last year was too soon for reflection. In fact, I don’t really remember last Christmas, my 49th, but I am sure it was just fine. Medications were being taken and adjusted to and doctors had their say and I listened. But this one, this year, has been remarkable on so many levels.

I entered this Christmas season with trending good news and hope. Though I am still often tired, the lupus that has caused all manner of change in my life these past 18 months (For example, I truly rock my Tilley hat to keep out the sun, though I still silently curse very sunny days), the disease remains quiescent for the time being and my blood work shows a continual decline in lupus marker activity.

“I’ve done my job,” the doctor told me last week, “Now you do yours.” What she was saying in polite doctor-speak was that it was time for me to get off my ass and exercise more and then I might find myself less tired. She’s right, of course. Taking photos of my cats doesn’t burn too many calories, nor does printing endless copies or sitting at the computer writing up prayer lists or upcoming worship services or talking on the phone. I should score some points for food shopping without a list so that I have to circle around and up and down the same aisle two or three times as I remember things. I’m sure if I had a fitbit or actually used one of those “map my run” apps on my phone you all would see my food shopping experience as another sign that I have lost my mind. “How many jars of pickles does this guy need?!?!” But all of those extra steps add up.

This Christmas season things went missing. Stress, for example. If a pastor isn’t stressed out, impatient, juggling a thousand things, every ball in the air as important as life, itself, can it really BE Christmas? Can it be Christmas if children aren’t crying over who gets to be Mary (we had a costume-free Christmas this year) or the key solo (every kid who wanted one, got one, even the little girl who took the mic and starting singing a song from Disney’s “Frozen,” though she wanted to sing two, which led to some brief sadness)? Can it be Christmas if the pastor isn’t spending Christmas Eve services running around making sure everything is perfect because of the visitors? And God forbid if you appear less than perfect for them since everyone knows that visitors only will return to perfect churches who know what candles to light and whose singers hit all the right notes and whose pastor bows and greets and sings and prays and chants and knows all manner of such holy nuance.

I’m pretty sure the homeless people who sat towards the back of our “Midnight Mass” Christmas Eve service, one a woman with bruise on her face who has taken to spending her evenings in the relative safety of our covered entrance, could have cared less about the perfection of our worship. “A wonderful mass,” she said. “Thank you so much.” That last of three Christmas eve services declined in attendance by half since last year, which surprised me, but when I placed communion in this woman’s hand or touched the shoulder of a man in tears, a son, his 91 year old mother next to him in the pew, him telling me how much celebrating Christmas with her here at this place meant to him and they would be back, though now in a whispered voice, “I fear this may be her last,” the metrics of worship attendance in raw numbers seemed such unholy a thing.

Everywhere on Christmas Eve, people lent a hand. It was glorious. Gone my bitterness of other years with me running around, vacuum in hand between services, picking up chips of wax and abandoned bulletins, then washing communionware, shutting off the lights and locking the last door, heading home and crawling into bed trying to remember if I had signed the card that I had bought for my wife, the house quiet and still.

Today I woke up refreshed; for the first time not feeling cheated out of Christmas, when in the past I would awake or be awoken still exhausted, zombie-like, grumpy. It felt good, of course, but not just good, but almost unnerving. Like waiting for the other shoe to drop and the day to unravel into misery.

Except it didn’t.

We all slept in and my wife made a special breakfast and we opened gifts and I headed off to our neighborhood mosque with nearly half of my church council and some of their family to share in the Friday afternoon prayer and to deliver remarks and gifts of friendship, peace and prayer. So many Muslims wished us a “Merry Christmas” that I found myself at a loss for words. Handshakes and hugs and kind and generous words abounded. They insisted we try and then take home some spicy meat-ball looking things. We gave them a peace lily and a card signed by everyone at parish who had promised to pray for them this Christmas week, to pray for peace this the week that we recall the birth of the Prince of Peace, Jesus, whom we love and follow and struggle to embody, truth be told.

Honestly, I do not know whose life I woke up into these past few months and especially these last few days. Sometimes things falter and I find myself changing the wicks of the church’s candelabras because I need something to be anxious about and fuss over or I find myself sorting the glasses at home by size and construction material as I empty the dishwasher. But these are brief and laughable in hindsight. As a family we enjoyed a good dinner, my wife out-doing her brunch casserole. We played a game in which I finished last and didn’t care because being together as a family trumped everything.

I could, one supposes, grieve the past and “what-if” myself to death, but seriously, I am too busy unwrapping the gift of this present life, the joy, the surprise, the grace of it, its beauty and simplicity. And tomorrow I will get up off my ass and starting walking.

Promise.

Blessings Ever, Keith

‘Tis the Season…When Pastors Lose their Minds

The season that spans from All Saints Sunday (the first Sunday in November) through Christmas Eve has arrived. It is the season when many pastors forget about healthy meals, exercise, important birthdays, feeding their fish, walking the dog, watering the plants, taking days off, spending time with their loved ones, and occasionally shaving (men and women clergy both, I suspect). For years it was also the season when I began taking various prescription and OTC anti-acids and proton pump inhibitors (like Prilosec ™ and its ilk) and among the clergy I imagine this is not unusual.  This is also for me the season when my nascent hiatal hernia often left me bending over the altar, grabbing the cross that hung around my neck, and crying tears that I am sure some folks viewed as holy. So did I, as in “holy sh*t, that hurts!”

Back then I would often add an awesome licensed therapist to the mix of stomach meds since a couple months worth of stress often did much more damage to my insides than say the time I tried Wasabi in copious amounts for the first (and only) time or tried this strange liquor that one parishioner insisted I share a sip of for good health and blessing for the New Year. Two sips would rob one of the ability to walk straight. Three might have caused my head to explode like from some old Warner Brothers cartoon featuring Wile E. Coyote, super genius. I never tried three. There was some part of my mind that refused to be lost.

After “The Season,” I would always be a short-tempered and anxious mess who also suffered from severe heartburn despite the stomach meds. This was back in my secret asshole days.  The stress-induced eye-twitching days. Back in the sleepless nights days. Back in the stress-induced ED days. And I was always too busy to worry about the stress until after New Year’s since I was a martyr-in-training . For martyrs-in-training doing the job until it crushed one’s health is the only sure sign that one takes the job seriously, right? That one is giving it all for Christ. That one is going the extra mile. That one is living up to the calling. That one is picking up one’s cross and following Jesus. (And we know that seeking suffering is not what that means, but we pretend that it does). I have pastor friends who would never take a Sunday off just in case a visitor might show up. Might show up and be greeted by a supply pastor who wasn’t as flat-out amazing, engaging, and cool as them. And if they weren’t there that visitor might take their tender soul somewhere else. And their church wouldn’t grow. And they would feel like a failure. And pastors hate feeling like failures because most groove on positive affirmation, which is why so many end up on a therapist’s couch or should. Well, I probably never took all of my vacation days each year, but I took some, so how bad could my self-care be? Well, bad enough to earn me several endoscopies and a colonoscopy before 50, and a therapist for which I paid $75 out of pocket every other week for months at a time year after year.

And you know what? That wasn’t enough.  It worked for a few years. It fixed me like wood glue does an heirloom picture frame that one’s cat uses to test the laws of gravity on a regular basis.  At some point the cat and gravity inevitable declare victory; the stress gives way to depression and paralyzing anxiety and eventually, possibly, an auto-immune disorder (of which stress is one among a handful of factors).  I was one of the lucky ones. I only waited six months (Note: one can cry an awful lots of tears in six months when one weeps several times a day) after completely breaking apart before making the phone call to a psychiatrist and working through the process of medications and dosages and ongoing therapy in which I sat but did not lay on a couch. I addition, if he was willing, each visit I could pet the  psychiatrist’s  cat who apparently did not get the memo about knocking down picture frames or the shrink bolted them to the wall. I’ll need to ask him about that next visit.

So why this journey down memory lane?

Because you pastor or rabbi or imam or spiritual guide or whatever is not as strong as you think they are especially this time of year. I wish that I could tell you that I am the only clergyperson who worked and worked until their body, mind and spirit broke. The true numbers would stagger you, trust me. So instead of being impressed by their dedication and sacrifice and thanking them for it, ask them point blank when was the last time they took a day off and did something that brings them joy. And if they declare that serving the Lord is their life and is all that they need, you have my permission to smack them upside the head suggest that the Lord made sabbath time for their rest, too.  They need to set the example in this 24/7 hyper-connected world of the sacredness of self-care.  And to practice humility.  Far too many clergy will not take care of themselves – do not let yours get away with it.  Confront them.

For months now, led by a member of my parish, a group of people all over the world have stopped at 5PM and prayed for me. I recently found this out, as it was done in secret. It humbled me to be loved and cared for in such a way, to know that friends and complete strangers were lifting me up and praying for my strength and healing.  And I wonder, if the healing for which they pray comes through their very act of faith, God incarnate in some way in their hearts and hands and whispers.

There is truth: I am not alone in this work. No one is. IMG_6576