Friday, December 20, 2013

Twelve Gifts: Life. And Prayer.

Our adorable dog Sawyer



“Where’s Sawyer?” asked Josh. “He didn’t come to greet me when I walked up to the house.”

“He’s out in his favorite spot in the front yard, sunning himself,” I told him.

Josh walked out to the front steps to call Sawyer and our dog didn’t budge. Didn’t get up, didn’t move, didn’t even look in his direction. Josh went to pick him up and he was completely limp. Dead weight. 

We couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. Memories of saying farewell to our previous dog, Schubert, while he died in our arms ten years ago, left me feeling panicky and numb. Sawyer was still alive, but just barely. The only way we could tell for sure was he blinked. And had a faint heartbeat.

I remembered that there had been a scuffle in the back yard a couple of hours earlier. Another dog was interested in our female and had been wandering onto our property for a few days in a row. I was getting pretty good at chasing him away and locking our dogs inside whenever he came around. But today I was upstairs in the shower when all the commotion started. I had knocked on the window to get their attention. At first they ignored me, but they eventually quieted down. After that, both dogs were behaving normally, so I didn’t give it much thought. But suddenly I wondered if Sawyer had been hurt by the other dog. We couldn’t see any blood or other evidence of injury. But when we parted his long, beautiful coat there were several large bite wounds on his neck. 

The two of us wrapped him in warm towels and rushed him to the vet, crying our eyes out. “Hang in there, Buddy,” we coaxed. “Don’t leave us.” All I could think about was what a sweet, gentle people-pleasing friend he is. I felt sick imagining him lying out there, hurt and alone—nearly dead—and none of us even realized he was injured. That heart-jabbing thought just made me cry even more. Poor thing—all he did was exactly what he was supposed to do: Defend our home and his mate. No good deed goes unpunished.

Mercifully, our vet had an opening and could see Sawyer right away. They took his temperature, and it was so low it wouldn’t even register on a thermometer. They said they’d never seen a temperature that low. Ever. Sawyer had severe hypothermia. They said his wounds needed to be treated, but first they had to bring back his vital signs. They honestly didn’t know whether he’d survive the next few hours, and were making no promises. They hooked him up to an IV and sent us back to the waiting room, where we texted a few friends and begged for prayers.

Half an hour later they invited us back into the O.R. and this is what we saw:

Sawyer in the operating room getting prepped for surgery.
We patted his head, talking to him softly, and cried some more. But he was breathing more steadily, and seemed a bit warmer. Dr. Webber said we could go home and come back just before closing time. It was hard to walk away, but she’s a great vet and we knew he was in good hands.

Amazingly, when we got back later that evening with the whole family, Sawyer was sitting up. Dr. Webber had been able to stitch up his wounds while he was comatose, which was a tender mercy. Sawyer still couldn’t move much, but he was responding. They kept him there, hospitalized, through the weekend. We stopped in on Saturday morning to check on him and he was—even more amazingly—walking (gingerly) and even wagged his tail a few times. The vet seemed amazed by his rapid recovery, which I can only attribute to prayer. 

The following Monday we brought him home, our little friend was back where he belongs, with his family. He went back in on Thursday, and got more stitches the following Monday, so he looks a bit like Frankenstein, but it looks like our friend Sawyer is going to be all right. 

The whole ordeal reminded me of just how precious and fragile life is—it can be snatched away before we even realize what's happened. That we all walk, blink, and breathe is a miracle. A gift. I was also reminded of the very real power of prayer. Permission to talk to God is an amazing gift. The fact that He answers those prayers? Humbling and awe-inspiring. I thank God for hearing our prayers and sparing this life.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Twelve Gifts: ¡Viva la Zumba!



Three mornings a week I shake my hips and shimmy my heart out for a solid hour. Amazingly, I also do this with an enormous smile on my face...for the entire sixty minutes. Besides loving the music and the moves, there is another reason for that smile: Memories.

When I was in college I taught a free Jog-Jazz class at my church at 6am. I am not a morning person and I still sometimes wonder how I pulled it off. When I see my Zumba teacher, Denise, up there on the stage in the “cultural hall” (which is a giant euphemism for a basketball court) I occasionally picture my 20-year-old hard-body self up there teaching a similar class, back in the days of leotards and leg-warmers. And I see the faces of those adorable seniors coming up afterward to tell me how excited they were that their arthritic bodies didn’t hurt as much since they started exercising with me. I got back easily as much as I gave to that class, and I trust it’s true for Denise now. That I am a partaker has such a nice, karmic ring to it.  :)

Soon after my aerobics days, I took an 18-month leave from school to serve a Spanish-speaking mission for my church, in Arcadia, California. Because we were in the melting pot of Los Angeles County, we got to teach people from every Spanish-speaking country in the world: Spain, Cuba, Argentina, Peru...you name it, we found immigrants, taught them, and loved them to pieces. I learned that Latinos are among the hardest workers, with the hardest lives I’d ever seen. Yet they still managed to send money to family members back home, where conditions were far worse. They have generous hearts and passionate spirits. Fun-loving and exuberant, they are masters at creating simple joys amidst the hardship.

Fast-forward twenty-something years. 
Now when I step onto the Zumba floor, I’m not just getting a great workout. I’m getting great memories. When I dance to "Hay Que Llorar" I'm reminded of teenage girls in colorful dresses folk dancing onstage for a dinner party. I hear "El Amor" and remember Leticia Monarrez giving me her favorite sweater when I was transferred out of her area. When we strut to the La Pantera Mambo I envision Hector Vargas playing the hymns with salsa rhythms and a walking bass in el Barrio Quinto de Burbank. During Fuego I see Gretel Martinez doing the cumbia and the merengue with her toddler boys, Gustavito and Armandito. Every song seems to trigger a memory: La Familia Ordinola. Patricia. The Avila sisters. Big, extended families picnicking in Elysian Park. Best of all, when we danced to "Thriller" on Halloween, I remembered a costume party for El Barrio Arroyo when the obispo dressed up like an Immigration officer...because what could be scarier?!?  :)

Sometimes I think about Lupe and her sisters going out dancing on the weekends. Or my friend Allison teaching salsa classes...and staging a Latin dance extravaganza for her wedding. And for just a few minutes I become those people...fun-loving, exuberant dancers with all the right moves and a flair for all things fiesta.  

Finally, the music winds down, and I’m just me. Walking to my car with sweat dripping down my face. Feeling great.

Thank you, Denise.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Twelve Gifts: Music and Metaphor


From What Think Ye of Christmas
Last weekend my bonus mom gave us four tickets to the Messiah Sing-In. It’s been a long time since we’ve been to one. But in this post I alluded to why this is such a favorite and long-standing tradition for our family.

The first time I went to the Sing-in was on a date (see, I told you it was a long time ago). I had broken my front tooth the day before (long story) and since it was Thanksgiving weekend, I could not see the dentist until the following Monday. I looked like a walking jack-o-lantern, which would have been great if it were Halloween, but a little scary for the Christmas season. I painfully tried to carry on a scintillating conversation with my date while covering my mouth (and my shame). This was completely ineffective. And it was impossible to keep my mouth closed at an event where you sing for two straight hours. This ranks at the very top of the list of my most embarrassing dates of all time.

However, it was a great story to tell the kids on the way to the venue, miming the silliness of singing in public while attempting to cover my front teeth with my upper lip, looking like I had any number of physical and mental impairments. 

It was all silliness aside once we arrived at the venue, which was flooded with serious musicians, faithfully carrying their personal scores. We made a mad dash to the sales table in the lobby to purchase two ourselves. We made it to our seats with just a few minutes to spare. The orchestra warmed up, the soloists arrived onstage in their tuxes and glittery gowns, the conductor took his bows, and the music started. 

We followed along carefully in the score, paying rapt attention so we wouldn’t miss any of our entrances for the chorus. We not only read but heard the whole scriptural story of the Messiah sung to some of the most beautiful, elevating music of all time. Scriptural passages from Isaiah and Malachi, starting with the prophecy and birth: 

Comfort Ye my people,  
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, 
But who may abide the day of His coming? 
Behold a Virgin Shall Conceive, 
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, 
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, 
For unto us a child is born. 
Glory to God in the Highest, 
Rejoice greatly,
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,
His yoke is easy.

The next section is about the atonement, crucifixion and resurrection.
I soon realized that because I was singing along, a participant, I was much more involved in the story; I was living it:

Behold the Lamb of God
He was despised and reject of men
Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows
And with his stripes we are healed
All we, like sheep, have gone astray

By the time we got to the magnificent Hallelujah chorus, I was so moved I could barely sing at all, for the lump in my throat and the tears streaming down my face. There is something so powerful about adding your own voice to a chorus of thousands, all united in singing gloriously unbridled praises to God. 

The final section, the promise of eternal life, begins with I know that my Redeemer liveth. As the soprano’s voice rang out it was reaffirmed to me that I, too, know that my Redeemer lives. I love and adore Him. It was a joy to sing the final choruses: 

Thanks be to God
Worthy is the Lamb
Amen

The music is supremely difficult. It is complex and moves rapidly, sometimes so fast you can barely keep up. Everyone makes mistakes. Even the amazing tenor from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sitting next to Jeff. But there was something so redemptive about singing in a chorus of thousands, some more gifted than others, all doing our best, listening to each other, attempting to be unified...and the mistakes are swept away. They literally disappear and are swallowed up in the chorus. 

The whole experience is a metaphor for grace: Life is hard. It is complicated and often feels like a runaway train. Everybody makes mistakes. Even the very best of us. But Christ in his infinite mercy places us in the company of other good-but-flawed people who are also doing their best. When we listen to each other, and focus on Him, the result is not only unifying, it is miraculous. We become one and we become His, and our mistakes are washed away. 

What a powerful way to usher in the season and spirit of Christmas—three generations of us, all sitting together and singing our hearts out about the mission and birth of the Messiah, and witnessing His grace in the very doing of it!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Twelve Gifts: Learning through Dreams


The other night I had a dream that I was shooing our two dogs outside because they were tracking leaves in the house. Then I turned around and there was McCloud—our neighbors’ cute Bichon Frise, eating out of our dogs’ bowls, and I shooed him outside too. I can’t feed all the pets in the neighborhood. Just as I closed the screen door I noticed a doe and a stag—the one from the hill behind our house, with a broken antler. I hurriedly shooed them out the door as well, shaking my head in disbelief. Where did all these animals come from? It’s like a zoo in here! Before I even had a chance to get the deer all the way out, I noticed there were sheep coming down the stairs. What the--? As I herded them out as well, I paused for a moment. There was a lamb. The fluffiest white lamb. Such a gentle creature. I picked it up and ran my fingers through its soft, wolly coat, nuzzling it close. And then I paused. It’s not like a zoo in here...it’s like a stable. And I almost didn’t make room for this precious Lamb

This dream was a gift, in the form of a wake up call.

Rather than throwing the Baby out with the bathwater, rushing through mundane chores with an air of frustration, I will stop and cherish every soul that crosses my threshold, nurture those in my neighborhood and other surroundings, and revel in their goodness and grace. Especially the broken ones. 

I will gladly place a manger out for all to eat here, whether it's a healthy snack or a holiday buffet. I will enjoy the cooking and cleaning and preparation involved in making my stable presentable. I will open my doors.

I will pause and take quiet moments to love and adore the Lamb of God, even amidst the chaos.

I will make room. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

One Red Thread and Several Red Seas


Last week I spoke to a group of young women about our wilderness experience with our oldest son. The theme was “Hard Things.”  As I prayed about the content of my presentation, I was directed to the 2009 archives of my blog. I was amazed that I’d been inspired to start writing here almost exactly a year before we hit the moment of crisis. I was instantly grateful for the record I’d kept. Through my posts I was able to take myself back to that place, relive some of the “hard things,” as well as the attendant blessings. And I felt reconnected to you—my friends who are anything but “virtual.” I was very moved as I reread your comments and offers of prayers. 

Our daughter was in the audience as I spoke that night, and while she listened to me retell our family’s saga tears flowed down her cheeks. I recalled with poignancy that this was a “Hard Thing” for the whole family—not just for our oldest, or for us as parents—this was a crucible for the younger children as well. She was so worried about her big brother and his choices, often caught between feeling loyal to him and knowing she needed to involve us. There were times, early on, when she felt judged, tarnished and even ostracized by friends at school. She felt as broken and wounded as we did the day we finally sent him off to the wilderness. She suffered, she wept, she grew...and she was galvanized. All because of that invisible red thread that connects us as family.

Later in the week, as I sat in the audience listening to her sing with her high school choir, I realized that this girl has been magnificently rewarded for her choices, her growth, her persistence, her loyalty and her love. 

When she declared her intention to run for Senior VP, the (very popular) girl who was supposedly running against her suddenly dropped out of the race. And our daughter ran unopposed. A red sea, parted.

When she auditioned for Madrigals, she sang the hymn “Be Still My Soul.” The words are sublime: 
  Be still, my soul: The Lord is on thy side;
With patience bear thy cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In ev’ry change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: Thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
Thru thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Our daughter at age seven.
I was there, accompanying her on the piano. She was singing with a friend so she wouldn’t be as nervous. They started out just fine. Then suddenly my little girl began to cry. It was an unprecedented opening of emotional floodgates. She was suddenly so moved by the words of the hymn, she could barely get any notes out at all, and was wiping huge crocodile tears from her face. I asked if she wanted to start over. Her teacher suggested she go out in the hall and get a drink and pull herself together. Meanwhile her adorable audition partner was just standing there waiting with a big grin on his face. Bless his heart. She came back and was able to get through the song, but it was not her best performance. I didn’t think there was any way she’d make the choir after that audition. When she called me the following Monday to tell me she was on the list, suddenly it was my turn to cry. Another red sea, parted.

Our daughter has also had to part ways with a few friends over the past couple of years...one to an out-of-state move, one who was making bad choices, another who “wasn’t a good influence,” and one to a baffling misunderstanding. In their wake, however, she now finds herself surrounded by the brightest and best kids imaginable. I couldn’t have hand-picked a better crop of teenagers if I went over to the high school myself. I adore these kids who invade my kitchen at lunchtime, who all went to the prom in a big group , and who regularly surround our dining room table to quiz each other on flashcards for the AP test. What was once a painful parting has been replaced with a sea of good friends. Another red sea. This time surrounding her in warmth, sweeping her up in its current and delivering her to a better place. 


Within the past couple of weeks our daughter has received a sea of accolades: she made the journalism staff, the madrigal choir, the H.O.S.A. president, the seminary council, and Senior Class Vice-President. Her plate will be very, very full next year...but her cup is overflowing. 

As I thought about the red sea that parted, opening a way for us to help our oldest son, circling me with a current of support, and then the red seas that have recently opened up for our daughter, over and over again, the red thread is stronger than ever, the miracles are evident, and the waters serene.


I'm linking up with my friend Heather's JUST WRITE series, here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dispirited


I’ve been feeling more than a little bit dispirited lately. And most of it boils down to a yearning for words. I’m lacking words with sufficient power and strength to combat inane corporate decisions that cause my husband sleepless nights. And how do I find the words to console my friend whose daughter just delivered a stillborn baby? What words express the feelings of isolation, disregard, and invisibility that creep up in new situations...or worse, familiar ones? And, on a happier note, where are the words to describe the radiance and purity of our teenage daughter, dressed in layers of silky cream for her Junior Prom? This applies to my fiction as well as my life. When it comes down to the crucial moments, what I most often lack is the essential words
I have a very close friend who has a rare gift for words, wields their power with both discretion and ferocity, and is pitch-perfect in her ability to select just the right descriptors, evoking stunning imagery. Her name is Luisa Perkins.
A few years ago I received her cookbook, Comfortably Yum, as a thank-you prize for coming up with the winning title. When the book arrived (as I described in this post, and again in this post) I sat down and read it from cover to cover. This was a cookbook, mind you. Not fiction. Yet I could. not. put. it. down. I devoured it. And that was before I’d even tried a single recipe. :) Now it's so well-loved and food-worn I'll soon have to replace it.
Not long afterward—almost exactly two years ago—Luisa sent me the first three chapters of a manuscript she was working on. I gobbled her words down insatiably, then printed them out and carried them around for weeks, hoping my hardcopy would spontaneously generate the rest of the story. (It didn’t.) 
This book has perhaps the most unique and original premise I have ever encountered. Here is the breathtaking idea which first captured my interest: 
A young boy figures out how to take “out-of-body experience” to a whole new level, and drifts away from his home and his body to go in search of his departed mother. 
Once I finally got my hands on a copy of the entire novel, I was completely blown away. It was so riveting, I couldn’t inhale it fast enough. And yet there are so many rich layers, I wanted to savor it s l o w l y, pondering the mysteries of the universe as they unfolded before my eyes.
The book asks a universal, yet never-addressed-like-this question: What could happen if I chose to leave my body unattended? Even for a brief moment? And it offers in exchange for your time the most harrowing of answers...and a spellbinding journey of thought-provoking insights and first-rate entertainment.
It’s all at once a cautionary tale, a mysterious romp through time and place, a ghost story, a romance, a spiritual thriller, a paean to family history, a dark look into the way evil operates, and bar none the most terrifying book I have ever read. I didn’t think I was a fan of the horror genre, but this is mind-bending, electrifying, and life-altering. Dare I say uplifting? Definitely a must-read.

I've since heard her read the first chapter aloud, and the effect was spellbinding. She literally left the audience craving more. (Just like I imagine the effects of her cooking!)
Luisa writes “dark, speculative fiction,” (which is Luisaspeak for scary, mind-bending and life-changing otherworldly novels). This book is technically slated as a YA novel. But it’s every bit as much for grown-ups as teens.
On my Goodreads review I urged young children and the "faint of heart" to proceed with caution. Here’s why: One chapter takes you inside the mind of a truly evil character. This is, to say the least, disturbing. But Luisa’s words take you there with great restraint. She spares you what could be gory, graphic, or sensationalized, but shows you the intent. The result is creepy with a capital C. But it doesn’t leave you feeling like you need to take a shower. 


Oh, and the title? Dispirited. I’m very proud of that word. It’s one of many title ideas I gave her. One of my attempts to capture the essence of her 88,000 words. In a single word. Dispirited.

Now, I have great news! News that is already lifting my spirits. Although Luisa resides in New York, she will be in Utah the first week of May and will be signing copies of Dispirited at The King’s English bookstore at 7pm on May 4. I will be there. I will be purchasing her book and begging her to autograph it for me. I’ll also be buying some as gifts and asking her to sign those as well. And I’ll be looking for YOU! I hope to see you there. If you leave me a comment here saying you’ll be at the booksigning, I’ll personally purchase a copy of Dispirited there for one lucky reader. Just leave me your name to be entered in the drawing. Must be present to win.
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And now, the results of our last drawing: 

Pretty Darn Funny pins go to Becca, Dedee and Luisa

And the winner of the original painting from Tell Me Who I Am is...a brand-new reader, Donna! I'll be sending you a signed original watercolor, Painting #3, as soon as you claim your prize and send me your mailing address. Congratulations! (And thank you, everyone, for you kind raves about the artwork! I assure you the words are just as good! DeNae has an unbeatable Mother's Day promotion package going on right now for Tell Me Who I Am. She's another friend with an inimitable way with words...witty and hilarious. Do stop by!)


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And finally, many thanks to Heather of the EO for hosting another Just Write and for the writing prompt: Words. Love!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nostalgia on Auto Pilot


Yesterday I passed my old car on the freeway. It wasn’t my EXACT old car. But it looked just like it -- same body style and color as well as make and model. And I felt this inexplicable fondness as I followed it up the highway. It even made me a little wistful, but not sad. It’s just that every time I see another bluish-greenish-grey Honda Pilot on the road, or even in a parking lot somewhere, I still see us. I see our family. Our life, changing lanes right there in front of me.

Taken on my birthday weekend, an impromptu trip to the Grand Canyon, circa 2005.

I see our trip to Newport for Thanksgiving, our trip to Los Angeles to see Earth, Wind and Fire at the Hollywood Bowl, a trip to Colorado to explore the Garden of the Gods, and a handful of trips to Sun Valley, Idaho for family reunions. I see us house-hunting and making a big, interstate move. But not just the big stuff. I also see a hundred trips to grandparents’ homes to rough-house with cousins. I see us piling all Josh’s belongings in--literally filling every inch of space from the floor to the roof--to move him home for the summer. I see the back crammed with art supplies, ready to take me off on a painting adventure...to Wyoming, California, Cayucos, Kayenta....wherever the muse awaits. I’m amazed that there can be so much nostalgia attached to one car.
But then I remember my very first car: a spanking-new Toyota Celica, gunmetal gray and shaped like a bullet. It symbolized freedom, independence, success. I bought it right after I got my first real job as a designer. Jeff and I did most of our dating in that car, and we drove it back and forth from Salt Lake to Los Angeles so many times we had every stretch of I-15 completely memorized. The Celica was also our honeymoon getaway car (after we washed off the shaving cream and streamers and oreos). 
And once, I spilled a quart of homemade ice cream in the trunk. I promptly cleaned it up, not realizing some had seeped under the mat and into the wheel well. In the full swelter of summer, it quickly created the foulest stench imaginable; like vomit on steroids. Yet I couldn’t find the source to save my life. Or my gag reflex. Once we discovered the epicenter of the stink and vacuumed it up, we tried to disguise the remaining odor with one of those cardboard tree-thingies from the car wash. The scent was called “Spring Magic,” which we quickly learned was a euphemism for “retch-triggering old-lady perfume gone viral”. It smelled even worse than the original odor it was supposed to mask. We still remember, because it made us so nauseated we finally had to pull off the freeway and throw it out. 
And then I remember how quickly the Celica disappeared. Early one morning we were on our way to choir practice. Francis Dauzat came out of nowhere, still on his pain medication from last week’s surgery, with a patch over one eye, and turned right in front of us, allowing no time to stop. There we were, a mass of mangled steel and broken glass, but no one was hurt -- not even the baby our friend Karen was carrying inside her. I remember calling the insurance company and the agent responding, “Frank again?” That’s not a good thing when you’re on a first-name basis with the folks who process insurance claims. And just like that I lost some of that freedom and independence, replacing it instead with a 4-door Mazda, and motherhood.
But I don’t miss that sporty little Celica quite as much as the white Subaru Wagon with the red and blue stripes on the sides. My heart still skips a beat if I see one of those babies on the road. Because that was the white stallion my prince rode in on when he came and swept me off my feet. That car meant, “Jeff is here.” That was the car I saw parked in front of our house when I was came home from a date with a different guy. (Total Ginger Grant/Eva Grubb moment.) As soon as my date dropped me off I ran searching for Jeff. And fortunately found him. That was also the car that met up with my Celica at the exact time at the exact same intersection. We both instinctively stopped right then and there and jumped out of our cars, and met in the middle of the intersection, falling into an embrace, followed by The Kiss That Could Stop Traffic. Little did I know, that same car, just seven months later, would be our wedding present from Jeff’s parents. Years later, long after we were married, my heart would still skip a beat whenever I saw the Subaru pull up, because it meant Daddy was home from work. It meant “Jeff is here.”
And now? I love our new car. Love it. (Except for the neck-contorting “head rest,” which is actually tricky sales copy for “torture device.”) I love the way it handles, and the clean interior, and the fancy backing-up camera. But I’m not nostalgic when I see it pull up. It’s a little too new for that. So far, I just love that the way we acquired it felt like a total miracle! And although that’s a terrific start, I know we haven’t made nearly enough memories in it yet. But we will. 

What memories are attached to your cars?

Linking up to Just Write with my friend Heather of the EO.