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, 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, 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 rejected 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

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’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.