Saturday, September 5, 2015

What matters in the end

I watched Gran Torino again the other day.  For two reasons. One was to see if there was a scene I could rip for a lecture I’m giving on the way hospitality can bridge cultural differences. The other was to observe the changes in the main character, Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, – to watch him finally in the end choose to give away his prize possession, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino to a Hmong boy and to give his life in revenge for crimes against an innocent family he had grown to love.

Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino 
This story is complex enough to make you laugh, appall you and wrench your heart all at the same time. But that’s how life always is. Complex.

That’s how Ed Hague's living and dying has been to me. Complex. He made me laugh all the time.  He  could be appallingly irreverent, piercingly honest, and then point you to Christ in the most unexpected ways. I loved him as one of my best friends.

The last time I talked to him was about ten days before he died. Our coming to his funeral was on his mind. How would we pay for it, he wanted to know. Since we live in Minnesota and he is, I mean was, in Tallahassee, he was trying to figure out a way to alleviate some of our expense. I told him we did not care one whit about that so he could stop obsessing about it. We would come out of love and respect for his family and nothing else mattered. It was typical of him to care about all sorts of matters big and small, personal and public.

I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawandi. Aunt Ruth died last month. Ed passed away two weeks ago. Denis’ parents are in their 90s and living precariously on their own day after day, refusing any kind of help or care. The list could go on. I know some of you have friends or family members who are facing either age-related issues or terminal illness. So both the movie and this book felt timely.

Gawandi writes about some of the studies and their findings on what fulfills and grows people even as their life narrows.

 If we shift as we age toward appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than toward achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we are old [or terminally ill]? The common view was that these lessons are hard to learn. Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time. Cartenson (a Stanford psychologist) was attracted to a different explanation. What if the change in needs and desires has nothing to do with age per se? Suppose it merely has to do with perspective – your personal sense of how finite your time in this world is…

I think that in that last three years of Ed’s life following his diagnosis of Stage IV prostate cancer, he grew more than ever before in his understanding of what it means to have this one life to live. 

Ed housebreaking our internet
 He eventually had to let things go that he had been very good at like untangling computer problems, trimming large trees, running his business. He shifted more toward enjoying ordinary pleasures – his wife Betsy could speak more specifically to this. Ice cream. Sitting on the porch. Walking to the mailbox. But in particular, his relationships in pursuit of love and healing became the most important to him to the very end.

So, I think he would agree with Cartenson, that the deeper changes he experienced had to do with facing his finiteness, yes, but he would add an element that was a complete game-changer for him: he was overcome by love. He learned how to receive love in a way he never had before –  the love of his wife and family, the love of friends, the love of all the medical people who cared for him, but most especially God’s love for him. As he wrote in his obituary (I mean, WHO writes their own obituary?):

 "Here’s the most important thing to know about Ed, though. God loved him and made sure that Ed knew it. Hiding from love all of his life, after his cancer diagnosis, God turned the love firehoses on him."

And then Ed turned it back on us.

He loved us in life and mentored us in death. That sounds so cheesy I almost have to delete the sentence except that it's true. And honestly? He could be a beast sometimes. Like when, oh, never mind.        

He faced the breakdown of his body with courage and humor. I would like to learn this love well before I die. I would like to stand in the way of that firehose and get drowned by love. Yes.  And we do have this ....

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any power neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Vacation Envy

Sunday. Today after church, a friend, a mother of five kids, a five-month-old in her arms, the rest racing around the lawn, told us she has vacation envy. They didn’t get one this summer and it seems like everyone else we know is texting, Face Booking, and talking about where they’ve been. It was a great rant one I understood too well. I stood there thinking – from Nantucket to Provence everyone in the world is hiking sensational mountain ranges, biking through fields of leaping lambs, eating Gruyere, and sleeping within the sound of whippoorwills. Except for us.
She went on to say she’d just finished reading Ecclesiastes “and that’s where I am, ‘everything is vanity.’” She roller her eyes and grimaced. Then she concluded God must be at work because her attitude shifted when she thought of a “stupid old 70s song* – ‘if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with’ I’m trying to do that she said, if I can’t take a vacation then I’m trying to be where we are and somehow love it.

I wrote something similar to a friend. “I’m doing okay. A bit tired. Okay, maybe a lot tired. Am looking for some sweet spots in the Lord in the midst of these weeks. I know they are there. Hoping not to miss them because I’m feeling sorry for myself.”

One sweet spot had to be our youngest granddaughter sitting next to me reading her favorite book: Max & Ruby. We’ve read it so many times she has it memorized or “rememberized” as she puts it. Her ways delight my soul. After hearing it so many times she understands “Grocer” – a word not commonly used anymore, but the context has taught her without me explaining. The ways of children both delight and instruct. Her honesty. Can I have this book, she asks? No. I want it to be here so when you come back we can look forward to reading it together. When I die you can have it. I will leave it to you in my will. What’s a will?… and on we go.

Another sweet spot. I made two jars of naturally fermented pickles. It’s the way they used to make them long ago. You don’t need vinegar. You just put the cucumbers in a jar water and salt, garlic and dill, leave it on the counter and in three to five days a wonderful, crisp tart pickle. It worked! Love them.
Garlic Dills naturally fermented.
Please don’t stop telling me what wonderful times you’ve had. You need times away from the crush of stress. You need times of pure refreshment and joy. God will get us (me) to where we need to be. Eventually.

Our next week will bring its stresses. Some of them we know. Some we anticipate. Others are still unknown. When Denis and I talk about our days, we have a tendency to stew about the future. The words of Jesus echo in my head. Words I heard growing up about not worrying about tomorrow because tomorrow will worry about itself. The Message translation gives it a different punch:  “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” (Mt. 6:34) 

*Stephen Stills “Love the One You’re With” 1970.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"We're gonna do this death thing, friends"

Early this last Sunday The Great Aunt passed. It was a long battle she fought against age and death and Alzheimer’s. We will miss her lovely smile, her acerbic humor and her generous acceptance of those she loved. She was the dearest aunt and a surrogate mother to my husband. We are sorrowful, but we are also relieved that she finally rests from this battle.

Those of you who know us also know we have another friend who has fought a different set of mortal enemies – stage IV prostate cancer. Ed Hague was diagnosed a little more than three years ago, so to have lived this long probably, no it does, qualify as a miracle. 

Today he posted what may be his final blog. I don’t know. Read it and then read backwards. You may find what you need for living right where you are now. He would love that. 

If I stumble around, a bit blue and puffy-eyed, well, I just wanted you to know …  they say sadness goes, but grief stays somewhere tucked down in your heart. I wonder. Is this true? At my age, you’d think I’d have acquired some wisdom about this. And I’m thinking that perhaps for the moment, I have lost some heart. Perhaps it’s okay to not be all perky and bless-you kind of happy. For the moment. I posted the following comment on

Ed. Just staring into space. Hard to believe the time has come. Death sucks. We never get over it, no matter how hard we try to “celebrate” life – it’s just not how it was meant to be, is it? In one sense, I’m glad your journey is nearly over. It’s been an amazing ride. I already miss you.

I often repeat to myself, in many of life’s situations, the words of St. Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” I take heart from this because I know she speaks of Jesus’ power to resurrect all kinds of things. Including the earth. Our relationships. Our bodies, our hearts. And now I say to myself, to God, “And Ed shall be well and all parts of Ed shall soon be well.”

For that I can say Thanks be to God.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"Massive uncertainties"

Today, out in New Hampshire where The Great Aunt has been living, a few family members sit vigil by her side as she seems to be slipping away. I cannot be there to say good-by to a woman I have loved.
The Great Aunt and Paddington
Seems we have entered a time of sadness and are feeling the grief of people passing away, of diagnosis of illnesses, of struggles against depression, of broken plans and dashed promises and other less noteworthy things like sinus infections and Japanese beetles eating your grapevine.

Our friend, Ed Hague who has fought a three-year battle against stage IV prostate cancer has thought a lot about despair and posted some brutally honest thoughts to his blog. See “The Benefits of Despair” on

It seems to me that we Christians are often guilty of trying hard not to be in that dark place.  Or perhaps what I mean to say is that we try to find ways of mitigating suffering and evil, even to the point where we worry that acknowledging despair is somehow heretical. Instead we pass on little sayings meant to tell us: “Get along little dogie” Can’t stay here, you know. Everything happens for a reason. When God closes the door he always opens a window.

Steve Froehlich writes with more realistic passion in the latest issue of Critique in the "Letters to the Editor" Dialogue section.

As John writes: we know how the story ends [see the book of Revelation] But these certainties, the ground of hope in Christ, do not resolve the massive uncertainties that cloud our lives right now. Nor do they provide us with explanations about how God is accomplishing that purpose in our lives or in our moment of history. But we are people who believe in the Resurrection, and we choose to be content living with hints and foretastes (none more important than the Eucharist) of the shalom of the world made new.

Yes. The crucible of human suffering seems somehow more relieved when we admit that life is often filled with “massive uncertainties.” To be together with others in the midst of shit is oddly, the very place where my hope and love in Christ grows.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Fava Beans: The gift of too much work

Squish the bean out of its membrane.
I’ve never seen Fava Beans (or Broad Beans as they are known in English) in our grocery stores. I’ve never known anyone to grow them. I’ve only read about them. I think that was in Under the Tuscan Sun, but I can’t find the passage to be sure. I remember reading about this vegetable where everyone in Tuscany or Provence eagerly awaits its early summer harvest. Like I wait for the first real strawberries of the season or the hope of a few morels in May. I only had the vaguest notion of what they were like. Then a few days ago our vegetable farmer friends gave us a gift of about a pound of fava beans. (Recipes say for a serving you should plan on a pound of pods per person.) I think I know why they are rare in our country.

Joe and Becca sent along basic instructions. Open the pod. Inside, find three to five large beans. Remove them. When they are all collected, blanch them for 30 seconds in boiling water until the membrane around each bean loosens. Quickly place them in an ice bath. Open the membrane slightly and squish out the bean. Do this for each one. One at a time, until you have a small bowlful. Steam them for 3 minutes until tender.

With this little batch I did the simplest thing possible to taste them. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle on a little sea salt and pepper. I now understand two things. Why Italians love them so much. And why they are not popular here: too much work. But their buttery flavor and smooth texture won me completely. It was worth each little step. More, please.