Pilgrimage: Invitation to the Unknown

Pilgrimage is an invitation to the unknown.  This year on my solo journey to Iona, Scotland, I’ll be going to an ancient pilgrimage site.  I’ve reserved my week at the Abbey where I’ll live in an international community of staff and guests.  My information sheet gives me some idea of what it’ll be like; it’s not a retreat with lecturers, or a week of serious-minded conferences with endless discussions (thank goodness!), not a center with meals provided by invisible hands.  We’ll all help in the chores of chopping vegetables, cleaning toilets, washing up and setting tables (sounds like home!).

There’ll be discussions around our theme for the week, “The Pilgrimage of Life.”  These will be led by Alistair McIntosh from Glasgow, originally from the isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Services will be held in the Abbey church throughout the week and sometimes guests are invited to take part in preparing and leading services.  There are evening social events as a time of enjoyment and to use whatever talents guests have—and evidently everybody has some talent (hope this won’t be embarrassing!).

Every Tuesday there’s an organized pilgrimage of a seven-mile all day hike around the island (proper walking boots with good ankle support, and waterproofs, are essential!)

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Wonder what I’ll discover that week, I think to myself, after reading the information sheet, my first glimpse into being one of the guests.

I know that like previous pilgrimages, it will be a physical journey to a new place, and more importantly, an internal journey to what’s inside of me.  This year, I’ll take my first solo journey outside of North America.  Along with the other guests and staff, I’ll be in a covenant to live together as a community.  My previous journeys have prepared me for Iona.

Living in a community is about sacrificing for the good of the whole.  I’ve stayed in hostels where we shared food, helped each other find needed gear, and gave fellow travelers advice to smooth the journey.  We do that in our home communities—without taking a trip away, by working together in soup kitchens, letting go of petty complaints to make a more peaceful environment, and overlooking differences in political opinions in order to honor our relationships.

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Staying in hostels has helped prepare me for Iona.

We can travel to a community that’s foreign to us— by going to another country or by crossing the divide of our city, getting to know those we’ve been separated from by race, affluence, and opportunity.  Either way, God can work in our lives to give us awareness of what that physical place is like, whether it’s the capricious weather changes of the Hebrides, or seeing our city from a different vantage point.

To prepare my heart for this pilgrimage, I’ll use Christine Valters Paintner’s suggestion in The Soul of a Pilgrim and create a space in my home as a retreat area– a special place of prayer.  This space will be dedicated to the journey ahead.  We can all do this, whether it’s for the journey into each day or for a pilgrimage to a faraway place.  She suggests placing a meaningful symbol or two on the altar of the retreat area.

On my altar, I’ll place a copper Celtic cross that I purchased at the gift store of the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona.  It reminds me of my first pilgrimage and how I felt grounded in God’s presence at that time of upheaval in my life.  I remember lighting candles and saying prayers for my future in the quiet space of that magnificient chapel.  Now, sixteen years later and preparing for my fourteenth journey, I’ll pray for Iona.  How will I experience God’s call in that unfamiliar Celtic community founded by an Irish monk?  I’ll see as I take each step along this pilgrim path.

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How about you?

Are you being called to a pilgrimage in your community or in a faraway place?

How can you create a retreat space where you can prepare for that journey?

What meaningful symbols will you place on your altar?

Scotland Calling

In one month, I’ll take off on my yearly solo journey.  This time Scotland is calling me to the ancient and sacred island of Iona located in the Inner Hebrides.  Ten years ago, the seed was planted when I was in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.  Riding the island shuttle bus, I met a man from Glasgow and we had an interesting conversation about country music and Scotch Presbyterians.  He described the stunning beauty of the remote islands of the Hebrides, and the deep-rooted faith of his sister and others who lived there.  Later, I said to myself, “Maybe I’ll go there on a journey some day.”

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The shores of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland

Yearly solo journeys have become intentional pilgrimages for me.  They started with that serendipitous trip to Sedona that interrupted my struggle with the toxic job and breast cancer.  During that time, I experienced the freedom and transformation of moving to God’s spirit in an unfamiliar place that led me to a deeper knowledge of myself.

Later, I landed on the right book at the right time when I discovered Phil Cousineau’s work, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred.  I learned that my journey had the elements of a pilgrimage.  Cousineau taught me, that even travel through your day if experienced with an intentional focus, can be a pilgrimage or “a transformative journey to a sacred center.”  We don’t need a passport for that. 

Recently, I found Christine Valters Paintner’s book, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within.  In preparing for Iona, I’m using these steps and will build them into my upcoming posts.  While my journey is intentional, Paintner points out that there are also unintentional pilgrimages.  We all have experience with journeys we would not choose, like cancer or other illnesses, divorce, care of an ailing parent– just to name a few.  While we don’t intentionally choose those paths, we do make the choice of how we walk them, whether they’re meaningful and soulful journeys or times of bitterness and unmet longing.

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The Right Books at the Right Time

Our family has had the unintentional pilgrimage of journeying through our mother’s dementia.  We’ve experienced seasons of grief in our slow loss of her former self, and have been surprised by joy in new ways of knowing her.  I’ve seen aspects of myself in responding to Mama’s changes, that have been both pleasing and disappointing.  It has truly been a journey into the unknown, a foreign land where you walk by faith and not by sight, never knowing what is just around the bend.  The only thing I’m certain of is that God has been faithful each step of the way.  We’ve had people in our path that have helped us and we’ve seen Mama bring light to others through her sweet smile and loving presence.

If she could understand that I’m preparing for Scotland, she’d be excited– except for the part about me going solo.

Years ago when I shared my plans to travel to Sedona, she asked, “Who’s going with you?”  When I said that I was traveling by myself, she responded, “It’s not safe for a woman to travel alone.”

I saw that determined, I’m-your-Mama look on her face and knew there was only one way to settle this.

“I won’t be alone,” I said.  “God will be with me.”

She was quiet for a moment, then responded, “Well, you’ll be in the best of hands.  But be careful.”

I’ll continue to prepare for the pilgrimage to Iona, knowing I’ll have to leave Mama behind.  She’ll be in the best of hands.  And so will I.

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Mama in her journey at Parkview

How about you?

Are you feeling the call to take a journey?  How can your trip become a pilgrimage?

Is there an unintentional journey that you’re on that’s making you feel trapped and bitter?  Is there a way to reframe this experience and make it more meaningful and soulful?

It’s About the Future

I sat on a rock overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains on that Sunday morning in September.  In the stillness that was shrouded in fog, I felt the burden of trudging through cancer treatment and my toxic job.  I prayed for God to lift me out of that pit, and waited for some sign that God was listening.  Eventually, the answer came in that ‘still small voice’ in the words, “It’s About the Future.”

I continued sitting there, wondering what this message meant for me.  I thought about the future when I was first diagnosed, asking God to spare my life.  With my aggressive treatment regimen, my oncologist was confident that I’d be okay—and I believed him.  But where I mired down, was in feeling that my future would continue as daily struggle with my health and my career.  It was hard to look beyond my present.  How could I see the future when I was consumed with dread?

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How could I see the future when I was consumed with dread?

The answer didn’t come that morning on the mountain.  In fact, that message became a question that stayed with me; what is it you want me to see in the future, God?  There was a sense that I wasn’t to stay in my present state of anxiety.  While that conversation with God didn’t change the fact that I had to return home to chemo and work, I did feel lighter—like God was starting to pull me up from the pit.

I continued to look for the meaning to be revealed.  It seemed that God was showing me to avoid getting bogged down in the negative climate at work.   It was a temporary place. I was to do my best while I was there, but eventually I’d move on.  With my cancer regimen, I should focus on the treatment in front of me, engaging with the infusion staff and the family and friends who accompanied me.  I would be present to the moment but moving toward the future.

By April I’d finished treatment.  I was tired from the radiation, but now I could fly to a research meeting in Arizona.  Afterwards I took my journey to Sedona then traveled on to the Grand Canyon.  That evening, I watched the sun setting over the South Rim and was reminded of that morning in the Smokies.

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Watching a hawk flying near the canyon walls, I remembered the message, It’s about the Future, and this time there was more:  Don’t be weighed down by what’s happening now.  Get through today but look ahead to the future I’m providing for you.

I remembered Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Hope and a Future.  This was a promise of God’s faithfulness to see me through, to pull me from the pit and place my feet on a solid rock.  I couldn’t see the future God had for me, but I did feel assured with that promise.

Eventually, a way was provided from that job to one in a healthy environment.  The cancer treatment was successful and I’ve had years of being cancer free.  There have been times I’ve gotten bogged down again, but I hear that same message and know to keep moving.  Those steps forward have led me to solo journeys that have become pilgrimages for my soul.

Years later, in my future, I sat on the banks of Lake Champlain in Vermont and remembered that message.  The answer had now come to me fully;  Stay in God’s presence each moment and He will lead you to the Future, one that is filled with Hope.

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What about you?

Have you had times of being so weighed down in struggle you couldn’t see a hopeful future?

How could you find your way to greater hope?

What resources are available to help you when you feel overwhelmed?

 

Frontier of Silence

Last summer I took my solo journey to Kentucky where I had a two-week writer’s residency at Artcroft.  It was very quiet there in the countryside without the noise of television, wi-fi, or conversation– since there was no other artist joining me.  The only interruption to the silence was an occasional bird call, mooing cow, or vehicle passing by on the dirt road outside my gatehouse.

The days I stayed in to write instead of driving to the Paris-Bourbon library, I felt myself slow down to the pace of silence.  It reminded me of a word I first learned when I read the book When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd.  In her story, she tells of her season of waiting– as if she was in a cocoon and knew she couldn’t rush the process.  She learns from her mentor, Dr. Beatrice Bruteau, the meaning of the word entrainment.

“It’s the phenomenon of two rhythmic beings gradually altering their movements until they’re moving together in the same rhythm,” Dr. Bruteau tells her and gives examples of pendulums, crickets, and people talking.  “We tend to align ourselves with the rhythm and pace around us.”

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We align ourselves with the rhythm and pace around us.

I felt that Dr. Bruteau became my mentor, too, as I read that book and considered the frenetic pace of my life.  As a nurse in a middle school, I worked in an environment of constant adolescent chatter, as well as staff and students rushing about the chaotic hallways.  When I left work, I played music on my drive.  Once home, I often turned on the television to watch the news or listen to some show while cooking dinner.  Sometimes on my evening walks, I made phone calls.

I keep myself immersed in noise, I realized.  No wonder the quiet of my new Kentucky home was so unfamiliar.  At first, I was a bit restless, wanting some background music to keep me from feeling unsettled and alone.  It reminded me of the awkwardness I experienced when I began taking solo journeys.  Over time, with each successful trip completed, the unfamiliar became familiar and even comfortable.  Silence could be the same way.

Once I let go of my restlessness, I saw that time seemed to expand when you allowed the day to be quiet.  I paid attention to nature’s cycle with the sun rising and setting, and the moon announcing the end to my day’s labor.  I could dive deeper into writing my memoir without distracting sounds.  Years before when in college, I discovered that I studied most efficiently with better recall when isolated in a library study carrel.  All these years later and I was rediscovering the benefit of solitude and silence.

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My new Kentucky home

During my stay at Artcroft, I grew more comfortable with silence.  I wasn’t startled by the sounds of animals or the occasional car traveling past my home that interrupted that still space.  The days when I used the library wi-fi, I noticed that compared to the house, the library was almost noisy.

When I traveled back to North Carolina, I realized that the boon, or blessing that I returned with, was a new capacity for silence.  I planned to be more intentional in how I created the space around me.  It took going west to find a land of silence and I wanted to make that discovery a part of every day of my life.

What about you?

Do you keep yourself immersed in noise?

How would it impact your life to have more silence in your day?

What are ways you could take control in creating a more quiet environment?

Finding the Divine in the Everyday

The evening after my third chemotherapy, I was lying on my bed and barely able to lift my head.  My nausea and fatigue had increased with the cumulative impact of the medicine.  It was distressing to think I had to go through three more infusions, scheduled once every three weeks, and after that thirty radiation treatments.  In my cast down state, I turned to the Psalms my go-to book of the Bible.  I identified with the cries of the Psalmist and had just enough concentration for the pithy verses.

Thumbing through the chapters, the first portion of Psalm 86:1 (NIV) caught my attention: “Give me a sign of your goodness.”  I could think of nothing good, only the daily strain of dealing with cancer treatment, trying to maintain our home life, and struggling with my job.  In the darkness of that hour, all I could do was pray the Psalm, “God, give me a sign of your goodness.”

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Give Me A Sign of Your Goodness

I wondered if that prayer would make any difference, given my situation.  I found myself changing “Give” to “Show me your goodness.  Was it because I needed the eyes of my heart opened?

I waited and watched, almost like I was daring God to do something.  Some of me was dug in, determine to be despondent—like I could get something good from a martyr’s stance.  Finally, I began to notice what could be answers to that prayer.

In my mailbox arrived a stack of “Thinking of You” cards that matched the number of medical bills.  A co-worker offered to help me sort through the insurance statements that totally overwhelmed me.  A friend called to invite me to go to the mountains for the weekend.

Some days nature was the provider of that goodness; our Heavenly Blue morning glory vine delighting me with a mass of those stunning blooms; my Golden Retriever, Molly snuggling next to me as we sat together on the porch; a beautiful walk at sunset with a horse neighing as a blue heron landed over a neighbor’s pond.  All of these reminded me of the steadfast beauty of creation, how nothing could change that.

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My first Golden, Molly

While it’s been years now since those days of cancer treatment, I still look to that Psalm when I lose my way.  When I’m discouraged and everything seems to be a challenge, I try to remind myself to step back, take a moment, and pray for a sign of God’s goodness.

I’ve thought about whether God causes new things to show up, or were those things present all along—waiting for me to have the eyes to see?  I think maybe it’s both.

When I’m listening for God’s direction in my life, through that ‘still small voice’ inside of me, sometimes I’m directed to do things for others.  I get the nudge to make a phone call, an impulse to send a card, the courage to approach that stranger that God has put in my path.  The longer I live, the more I see that when I, and others, follow that intuition—that leading from within, people receive what they needWhen I’m moving in my own direction and paying attention only to my agenda, some of these needs undoubtedly go unfulfilled.

By opening the eyes of my heart, God prepares me to receive the gift that will meet my need.  While these things may seem very everyday—the phone call, a colorful sunset, the comfort of your dog, they become Divine because their source is our Creator and they are a healing balm for our souls.

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What about you?

Have you seen God’s goodness show up in the Everyday when you most needed it?

How did that sign make a difference in the direction of your life?

Have your actions supplied that Divine sign for someone?

Toxic Takeaway

He helped me pack up my office that afternoon, my last, at The Research Company.

“You know it’s not you, Connie,” he said and placed the last of my belongings in my trunk.  “Just be glad you’re getting out of here.”  He was the only co-worker I could trust.

Later, I wondered if I really did know it wasn’t my fault.  How could I land in a place, after twenty-three years as a professional nurse and things go so terribly wrong?  I was totally unprepared for dealing with that toxic work environment.  I’d never been in that situation.

The half-mile road through my neighborhood became my track of travail as I walked back and forth, attempting to process my emotions, thinking through the issues, reviewing the complaints they had against me.  It was hard to let go of my anger and to understand how God could allow me to go through cancer and that job at the same time.

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the road through my neighborhood became my track of travail

After a couple of months of job interviews, I decided to return to working as a school nurse.

 

While I thought that I’d left the negative impact of The Research Company behind, soon into my new job, I found I wasn’t as far along as I’d thought.

The Assistant Principal came to my door.

“Connie, could you come to my office?” she asked.  “I need to talk with you.”

I felt my heart race and was lightheaded with anxiety.  What did I do wrong, I thought and felt like I’d been called to that final meeting at The Research Company.

“You know the boy you saw this morning, the one in the fight?” she asked.

My mind raced through the students, trying to focus in spite of my panicky feelings.  Finally, I recalled the 7th grader she was referring to.

“Yes, I remember.”

“What’s your take on what happened with him and the other boy?” she asked.  “I have to call his mother.”

She just wants my opinion, I thought and felt so relieved.

That incident made me realize I’d been on edge, especially when I sensed my competence was being challenged.  It was more than my temperament of being sensitive, it was like my self-confidence was damaged.  I’d seen students who’d been abused and were always in a defensive posture, watching for potential danger.  While I tried to understand what it was like for them, I’d never been in that situation.

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my new workplace

Now I saw, that even as a grown woman, with a great work history, advanced degree, supportive family and friends, the two years I’d stayed in that toxic work environment had torn me down.  How insidious those undermining comments, favoritism, disrespect that were the daily norm at The Research Company.  While it wasn’t like the physical abuse of a student, it resembled that less-easy-to-identify emotional abuse that had just as harmful an effect.

When I wrote the first draft of my memoir, Saved by Sedona, I’d shared quite candidly about my struggle with breast cancer.  But there were only veiled references to my work at The Research Company.  I’d buried my shame of losing that job so deeply that it took years of healing before I could acknowledge it.  Now, I had to go back and tell the whole truth.

I’ve rewritten Saved by Sedona.  When I recently attended the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers’ Conference, we had to dress as the main character of our book.  For the first time, I publicly acknowledged that toxic job and cancer, dressing in my solo journey hiking attire and wearing a backpack with a toxic waste sticker of The Research Company and a Breast Cancer Ribbon.

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I proudly stood on stage in that huge auditorium and spoke into the microphone.

“My memoir is my story of leaving behind a toxic job and breast cancer and journeying toward a new life of solo journeys.”

Thankfully, after what I’d gone through at The Research Company, my return to the school system had landed me in a healthy work environment.  I would never take that for granted again.

 

How about you?

Have you ever buried a truth that was too difficult to face?

Were there ways that you continued to be impacted?

How could you tenderly work through this issue and fold it into a whole view of yourself?

 

 

 

Dream it, Plan it, Do it

That’s it in a nutshell; the answer to the question that people ask, “How do you go about these solo journeys?”  Choosing the place starts with the question, “Where should I go this year, God?”  I wait to see what comes from inside—my interests, my curiosity, my need.  Various external factors have impacted my choices, including a movie setting, places I’ve heard about from others, locations of hostels.

 

Three years ago, I took my solo journey to Michigan.  I’d never been to that part of the country. Hearing several Michiganian co-workers talk about their drives home made the route seem familiar to me.  An article in my Rails-to-Trails magazine featured the bike path of Little Traverse Wheelway in Petoskey.  Nearby Mackinac Island had a road around the water’s edge just for walkers and peddlers.  I could easily include a visit to my cousin’s in Toledo.  The images of a road trip to discover another area of the U.S., riding my bike on new trails, and reconnecting with my cousin worked themselves into my dream that seemed like the answer to my prayer.

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There was little time for planning.  Normally I’d make my reservations months ahead for my July trip. But that spring was hectic with putting our house on the market and searching for a smaller home for our downsizing.  As a school nurse, I thought I’d go crazy from the stress as the last weeks of school were winding down and I was texting, faxing, emailing two realtors at once.  Several weeks before I was to leave on my journey, I was completely exhausted.

“I don’t know if I can go this year,” I confided to my friend, Paula.  “I’m just so tired.”

She was quiet for a moment, then said, “Well you have to go.  It’s what you do.”

I would be letting her down if I didn’t go, and maybe I’d be letting others down, too.  These were more than trips: they’d become pilgrimages.  Paula had been part of my previous ten journeys—encouraging and praying for me.  Besides, I’d just published a story in Chicken Soup for the Soul, entitled, “Annual Reboot,” telling about how my journeys renewed me each year.  If I didn’t go, I would be a liar, not doing what I told those readers I must.

Finally, the week before my trip I reserved a car and most of my lodging.  It was hard finding vacancies.  I packed at the last minute and knew that if I didn’t just take off, I might back out, give in to the urge to stay and unpack those boxes.

 

I loaded my bike and headed out in the pouring rain for Charleston, West Virginia.  I began to let go of my to-do list and the image of the stacked boxes, replacing them with prayers for my journey and the people in my path.

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After a delicious dinner and a good night’s sleep, I drove on for my next two nights in Toledo.  It was nice being with my cousin in her home, where there was nothing to do but visit.  I traveled on to Petoskey and felt the thrill of riding on that path that I’d read about in my magazine.  Pedaling beside Lake Huron on the road around Mackinac Island, I felt God’s presence, stopping to observe the stacked stones that other pilgrims had left, cairns that became altars of worship.

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How satisfying to see my dream was now a reality.  That journey that I was hesitant to take, helped me to step away from my busy life and gain perspective—alone with God in a new and beautiful place.  It was right that, once again, I’d done the thing I do.

How about you?

Have you ever let your to-do list keep you from a higher calling?

How would things have been different if you’d allowed yourself to follow your heart’s desire?

What would help you make that choice next time?

 

 

Navigating a Rough Road

Driving south on I-95 toward my solo journey to Jekyll Island, Georgia, I was reminded of my struggle in that toxic research job.  When I passed the exit for Lumberton, North Carolina, I thought of a trip there to one of our study sites on a very hot day in August.  I didn’t want to go that Friday afternoon.  It was just three days after my second round of chemo and I’d had an increase in nausea and fatigue.  But I didn’t really have a choice.

I’d planned to wait until the next week to take study supplies and review their data.  But the Medical Director had something else in mind.

“When are you planning to visit the Lumberton office, Connie?”  he asked.  “We want to get out there in front of the other study sites with our enrollment.”

I wanted to say, let me wait until next week when I’m more rested and my brain doesn’t have that chemo cloudiness.

“I could go this afternoon since we received their supplies,” I offered, trying to prove I was giving it my best.

“That sounds good,” he said and returned to his office.

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How am I going to do this, I thought, while I packed my car in the mid-nineties heat that matched the temperature of my chemo- induced hot flashes.  It would take at least four- hours –round- trip and probably another hour to meet with the Nurse Manager.  I wanted to back out, but I couldn’t.  “God, how in the world am I going to do this,” I said, half-question and half-prayer.

Then in that ‘still small voice’ that is God inside me, the answer came:

Just trust me to help you through each step of the way.

The traffic was as heavy as I suspected.  When I became drowsy, I turned the air conditioner on high and pointed it toward my face, then took off my wig to cool my sweaty scalp.  Hitting stop-and-roll traffic, I panicked thinking I’d be stuck for a long time, but then I remembered that message and settled down.  Pretty soon the traffic moved normally after I passed the fender-bender and the lanes opened up.  A thunder shower developed and again I was slowed down.  When I grew impatient with the interruption of the storm, I reminded myself, “Just focus on right now.  God will see you through.”

Finally, I pulled into the office parking lot just after three o’clock.  I waited in the conference room with everything organized so we could quickly review their study progress.  After a while, the Nurse Manager joined me.  Right when we started looking over their enrollment logs, someone came to the door and asked to speak with her.

My frustration grew as the clock edged toward four o’clock and I thought about the traffic on I-95.  What could be taking so long?

Finally, she returned and said, “I’m sorry I have to go.  One of my staff members has been taken to the Emergency Room.  I’ll call and reschedule next week.”

I watched her rush out of the room, amazed at the abrupt end to our meeting.  I understood that she had to go but felt beaten down by my futile effort to accomplish my goal.

How can this happen, God, after I worked so hard to get here?

Then in the quiet of that room, the answer came:  You did what they wanted and now you get to leave early.  Everything turned out okay.

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The traffic wasn’t so bad as I drove home and felt the satisfaction of knowing God had navigated me through that rough road.  I later thought of this as the ‘Lumberton Lesson,’ trusting God for guidance every step of the way.

 

What about you?

How do you get through situations that feel impossible?

Is there an incident that became an example of God navigating you down a rough road?

 

 

 

Into a Life

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was already in a fight for my life—my professional life.  I’d left my secure job as a school nurse to give clinical research a try.  The company where I landed was a toxic working environment.  I planned to escape to something better– once I passed the one year mark.  But when I was almost there, a routine mammogram stopped me in my tracks.  I would be headed to treatment.

I know I’m not the only one.  Others face different struggles when a cancer diagnosis is added to their lives: failing marriages, homes in foreclosure, disabled children depending on them.  Cancer changes the focus for a while—especially the question of whether or not you’re going to live.  But after you’re settled into treatment the struggle that was in place before your diagnosis continues to provide its challenges—and is often compounded with the demands of cancer.

While people soon learned about my breast cancer, few knew about the difficulties I faced at work.  It would be impossible to explain my situation to those without experience with that company—or one like it.  It was easier for them to understand surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.  They couldn’t see how embarrassed I felt to be in that predicament as a professional nurse of twenty-three years.

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My itchy wig

The Saturday that I was scheduled to have my head shaved, after I had my first treatment with Adriamycin and Cytoxan, my younger sister took me to lunch. When she opened the conversation with, “How are you doing?”  I quickly responded that the first round of chemo wasn’t so bad, Zofran is an amazing anti-nausea drug, and then I launched into my struggle at work.

“They’re watching all the time,” I said and felt my anger build. “Comparing my recruitment numbers to others who’ve worked in clinical trials much longer.”  My sister looked surprised at this shift in the conversation.  I told her that six months in, they’d met with me and said they weren’t sure I was a good fit.  “I’m afraid they’ll fire me and then I’ll lose my health insurance.”  I broke down sobbing, not about cancer, but about the job that at times was worse than cancer.

She’d expected to lend support to her sister with breast cancer—something feared by most women.  While she tried to understand my work stress, that was probably more difficult because she was secure in her job as a school social worker.

Cancer, like other serious illnesses, doesn’t drop into a perfect life.  It often lands in the midst of an already taxed system that’s teetering on the edge.  I think about this now, seventeen years after my diagnosis, considering how I talk with those who are receiving their bad news.

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Wearing my new hair to my sons’ band concert

Because cancer is not your entire life.  You’re still a person who works, has relationships with family and significant others, has financial responsibilities, and health needs besides cancer care.

My simultaneous struggle with that toxic job and cancer was the most challenging time in my life.  It would have helped if I could have shared both struggles, equally—letting go of the shame of that job.

From now on, after I ask, “How are things going with your cancer treatment?”  I’ll add, “And how’s the rest of your life?”

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What about You?

Have you ever had a diagnosis of cancer or another illness that was known to others, while you hid a deeper struggle inside? 

What would have helped you to open up about that struggle?

How can we create an environment which makes it safe for others to share these private burdens?

 

 

 

Golden Light

There’s a unique beauty in the magical moments at twilight, when just after sunset there’s a golden glow to the earth before darkness arrives.  Last year when I had a two-week writer’s residency at Artcroft in central Kentucky, I spent most nights observing that hilly acreage as my final act of the day.  It occurred to me then that the word gloaming, which is a less familiar word for twilight, sounds like what it means—a golden light that glows.

At the gatehouse where I stayed, there was no wi-fi, no television, and no other residents to get to know.  This opened up space for me to live in the luxury of silence.  I could feel the rhythm of each day, and somehow, I felt grounded in my season of life.  The quiet of that house was like being at my Grandma Smith’s for a week in summer when I was a girl; located on a rural road where my heart quickened to the sound of an approaching vehicle; paced by nature with outside activity in the cool of the day; led by my natural energy instead of external demands.

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My day started in the kitchen, opening the door to morning coolness since the house only had a window air conditioning unit upstairs.  Stepping onto the stoop, I often spotted a rabbit at the edge of the grassy lawn.  While I filled the coffee pot with water I looked through the double windows to a bank of wildflowers including chicory with lavender blooms.  Throughout the morning, I watched those flowers to see at what point the sun became so harsh that the blooms gave up, pulling in their petals and calling it a day.

The kitchen table became my morning office, with devotional books, references on memoir writing, and pen and paper for drafting the next chapters of my sequel memoir.  There I worked at a steady pace, drinking coffee and occasionally going to the door to check on my rabbit friend.

Around noon, I’d eat lunch then drive to the next county to enjoy the air condition and wi-fi of the Paris-Bourbon County Library.  I watched as families came in to check out DVDs for children home for summer, old folks read the newspapers, and others—like me, came in to use the free wi-fi.  I stayed through the sweltering afternoon that sometimes-produced thunderstorms.  When the day was exhausted of the heat and I had used up all my concentration and ability to create, I returned home.

I passed farmers on tractors who were finishing up, cows cooling in the pasture stream, and commuters returning from their jobs in town to their country homes.  I’d eat dinner in the quiet of that kitchen and listen for the occasional passing truck or car with a muffler in need of repair.

When the air finally cooled, I’d head out for my evening stroll.   A dirt road ran from the gatehouse to the estate that was at the highest point of the four-hundred-acre property.  I’d walk for a while, then stop to observe the changing sky at sunset—an artist canvas of colors behind the Kentucky hills.

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Almost to the estate house, I turned to look at the expanse of Artcroft and think about the day– the rabbit at breakfast, calming silence of this solo journey, the work I’d produced without the distractions of housework that I would’ve had back home.

And then, in the golden glow that is the gloaming, it was as if all that had been was burned into beauty and light just before darkness pulled its blanket over the day and sleep prepared me for another.

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http://www.artcroft.org/site/about-artcroft/#history

What about you?

Have you experienced that magical light?

How can you allow yourself to follow a more natural rhythm in your day?