Dangers, Toils and Snares

FeaturedDangers, Toils and Snares

Since 9/11, the popular vertical shopping center, Water Tower Place and its neighbor, the ninety-one story John Hancock Tower have been considered prime targets for potential terrorist attacks. The Quiet Room in the back of the food court at Water Tower Place, is a good self-service meeting place to carry on business. My group wasn’t thinking much about terrorists last week when we met over chocolate covered pretzels to discuss how to prevent cars from crashing into pedestrians on North Michigan Avenue. Indeed, the locals have allowed its terrorist fears to slip into a collective sub-awareness. We’re alert but we go out to lunch.  

One of the food workers nervously approached our table.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but you’ll have to leave. They’re evacuating the building.”

It was the week the President of the United States ordered an Air Force pilot in Nevada to launch a Hellfire missile from a Reaper drone hovering over a car in the Baghdad airport. The target: a high-ranking Iranian general. 

We bagged our notebooks, brochures and cell phones and hustled out of the already deserted building. Out on the sidewalk I fast-walked away from the building and was almost knocked over by men and women running toward the building. Plainclothes. The neighborhood is loaded with plainclothes cops. I spot them once in a while tearing after shoplifters, drug dealers and car jackers. I’m sensitive to the look of them, having been a protester all my life. They infiltrate protest marches.

The same week, a spate of robberies a block away from Water Tower Place put the neighbors on edge. Teenagers were accosting pedestrians, stealing their belongings and fleeing in an awaiting white SUV that sped off down Lake Shore Drive. Life in the big city has always included an awareness that criminals are lurking about but this was different. One women was robbed of her bundles while walking her dog at ten o’clock in the morning. (Do you suppose one of those bundles was a plastic bag full of dog poop?)

Then a man walked into the nearby Emergency Room reporting a coyote had bitten him on the butt on the sidewalk in front of the hospital. Photos and videos of a limping coyote Image
popped up all over neighborhood blogs. The idea of an attacking coyote hiding in the shadows drove us all crazy. Lincoln Park High School even locked the students inside because a coyote was spotted in adjacent Oz Park. 

Sunday morning at the end of the hair-raising week, I danced down the aisle to my church pew as all 8,000 pipes in the Aeolian Skinner organ blew out a rendition of Shall We Gather by the River. The sound stopped abruptly as if someone had pulled the plug. Was the organ broken? What could possibly happen next?

Street robberies have been foiled in the neighborhood by the increased presence of the Chicago Police. The bomb scare in the Water Tower was a hoax. Chicago Animal Control announced they caught, tagged and released the limping coyote into the Cook County Forest Preserve (I suspect he’ll be back) and the church organ was plugged back in.

I’m discomforted by the powerlessness over my environs, but I’ve moved beyond waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

__________________________________________________

Through many dangers, toils, and snares

We have already come.

‘Tis Grace hath brought us safe thus far

And Grace will lead us home.

Have a listen-Judy Collins Amazing Grace

Believe in the Devil

Believe in the Devil

In my twenties I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior in order to belong to the bible fellowship I had been attending with my friends. I “became” (as if that were possible) a born-again Christian just before Jimmy Carter, also a born-again Christian, announced his candidacy for President. 

I volunteered every spare moment for Carter’s campaign, a Democrat who proclaimed himself a sinner, saved by Jesus, just like me. After he was elected, some men and women in my small community bible fellowship preached that Carter was a tool of the devil, because he promoted sex education and family planning in public schools (today’s purity tests are abortion and gay rights). I had naively become part of a Christian sub-culture that wanted no government interference in family matters. These Christians yoked Carter’s actions to his character and denounced the whole man as the anti-christ. That’s what evangelical Christians did then.

What Evangelical Christians do now is the exact opposite. Those who support Donald Trump have an ends-justify-the-means theology. As long as abortion is outlawed and gay rights are quashed, the means to get there (coercing Ukraine to dig up dirt on his potential political opponent) are not only ok, but justified, even applauded. Donald Trump’s interior life is not considered important or relevant, nor is the outward display of his character. They worship the end product.

In his book, Prayers of the Cosmos, Neil Douglas-Klotz notes that Aramaic, the language of Jesus “…does not draw sharp lines between means and ends, or between inner quality and outer action.”  There are no words in this ancient language for an ends-justify-the means psychology: a person with unrepentant character defects is so unlikely to perform noble deeds that it cannot even be talked about. Logic follows that a person who provides immoral leadership is likely to be of ignoble character.

A guy named Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer established an ultra-conservative, ultra-secret Catholic lay organization in 1928, Opus Dei. Followers learn to abandon their principles, that the ends always justify the means. They believe Trump was chosen by God to protect the unborn fetus and restore Judeo-Christian moral order. Trump’s Attorney General, Bill Barr is Opus Dei (as are other Trump appointees). Doesn’t this explain a lot?

I left that Christian cult years ago. However, I understand, even admire, their members’ rejection of Jimmy Carter because they considered his views on sex education immoral. I disagreed with their opinions but I too measured his character by words and deeds and came to a different conclusion. Perhaps this ancient Aramaic Jesus language trickles into a collective consciousness enabling some to see inner qualities and outer actions as one big squishy blob and accept or reject that whole person.Untitled 2.png

I keep asking myself what’s wrong with those Evangelical Christian (and conservative Catholic) Trump supporters. Don’t they care that his morally corrupt outsides match his morally incontinent insides? Their religious fervor veils their eyes to the hypocrisy Jesus condemned. They justify the deeds of their beloved lawbreaking reprobate. Have their souls separated from their minds? Or as Rev. William Barber has said, “After this year (with Trump) if you don’t believe in the devil there’s somethin wrong with your fuckin mind.” 

Speaking of God…

Speaking of God…

I’m not sure what day or year or even decade I stopped being ruled by men. Feminist pop psychology (and real shrinks) used to tell me I “allowed” men to rule my life. Of course I was roped into that, having been raised in the patriarchal Catholic Church where women are still not allowed to be priests. God was always a man and because of that men were always in charge. Recovery from those old ideas was precipitated not by strong women helping me see the light, but by some very important men acting badly.

My Amazon Dot is tuned into the impeachment vote of President Trump. He’s the worst example of male dominance I’ve ever known, but he’s an extreme case. I’ve experienced Christian cultist men telling me God wanted me to submit to a physically abusive husband; a married lover who insisted I wait by the phone on Christmas for his call; a father who dragged me into fraudulent schemes; and, bosses (Gary Hart and Bill Clinton) who got caught with women-not-their-wives. To paraphrase Nancy Pelosi, “I don’t hate them. I pray for them.”

It’s true. I’ve been taught by the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to pray for people I don’t like (or, more likely, who don’t like me). The words I use in prayer for God’s gender are still masculine though. To be modern, I could rant publicly against male-centric words like “Lord,” or mind my manners and quietly substitute the more gender-neutral (or is it gender-inclusive?) “God.” I want to do that because these days I think of God as non-binary, neither male nor female.

I pause to see She-He-It in the yellow leaves of the honey locust fluttering down in front of me when I walk Henry-the-Dog. I hear They-Them when the crows caw. I even smell Her/Him/Them in the spring (what are those fragrant shrubs called?). These delicate manifestations of God are indeed gender-neutral.

But my senses play tug-of-war. The Bible rarely shows these versions of God. Just as I see the streets of Edinburgh when reading Ian Rankin mysteriesOIP.oB0fL0JIYA1IHyc9P5Ik4AHaEK, I see God as a man when reading the Bible. I visualize men—Jehovah, David, the king on his throne, the Father, the Lord. God the man made a covenant with David the man. David’s seed, not his eggs will rule as kings, not queens, from generation to generation. 

The subtler Biblical images of God as a mother caring for her children undergird my faith that God will always be, always live and always love. That female-male God who loves me deeper than I can visualize, who enfolds me at the still point, who sees me as perfect and lets me be. That is the God whose help I seek, whose direction I want, whose words I hear. I sing to that God.

In another world, I will know God as intersex, non-binary, genderqueer, agender, gender fluid, androgynous, bigender, multigender or demigender. In this world, I await David’s seed to change the God-man language to align with my gender neutral spirit.

Violence Against Women

Violence Against Women

He came home from work one day in the mid-1970s, went right to the fridge, opened the door, then slammed it shut and warned, “There’s no milk!”

Fighting words. Nothing grated more than to be accused of neglecting some trivial aspect of my role as a wife. He drank a lot of coffee with a lot of milk. Milk on display in the fridge assured him I thought of him first, had feelings for only him, loved only him. 

“What have you been doing all day that you couldn’t get milk?”

He really knew how to escalate things. I did too.

“I’ve been busy washing your clothes. Go get it yourself.”

“You are a lazy selfish bitch. You never think about anyone but yourself.”

“And you are a fucking spoiled brat. Go home to your mother if you want to be treated like a little kid.”

Kapow!

He grabbed my throat with his left and slugged me with his right. As he ran out the door I screamed, “Don’t ever come back!” 

The dentist asked me why I was icing my lip. I grabbed the box of tissues next to the chair as I cautiously unclenched my fist to reveal two front teeth in the palm of my hand. I didn’t want to part with them. In the short bleary-eyed drive to the dentist, I’d clutched them like a totem, a symbol of an uninterrupted life; a life where men didn’t punch you in the face. I asked the dentist if he could put them back. He couldn’t. He cleaned me up and told me the skin tissue was so damaged above my lip that as I got older it would collapse and wrinkle. He wanted to file a police report. I blew my nose and said, “No. No. I don’t want that.” As I was leaving, he held out my teeth and asked, “May I discard these now?”

And there went my innocence, dumped into the heap of damaged parts. It took another three years before I left.

These days I’m often in ad hoc conversations with friends about a news story describing a violent husband. Inevitably someone tsks, “why does she stay with him?” Or worse, “It’s her own fault. She should have left him the first time.”

Why do we stay? Because we often:

  • Feel the abuse “isn’t that bad”
  • Think we can change the guy
  • Believe it will never happen again
  • Believe that we deserve the abuse
  • Are dependent on him
  • Have no place to go

Many of us think twice because we can’t leave our pets. These and other reasons seem unreasonable to those who have never walked in our shoes. We know this. It’s the reason we keep our secrets.

Tennessee was the first state to outlaw wife beating. In 1850. Until the 1870s, courts in the United States supported the right of husbands to physically “discipline” their wives. In the 20th century, police were intervening in cases of domestic violence but arrests were rare. 

The Violence Against Women Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. It required coordination in domestic violence cases between courts, law enforcement, prosecutors and victim services. It has provided financial support to community-based organizations that help domestic violence victims find temporary shelter, even with their pets. 

Concerned Women for America, a socially conservative, evangelical Christian group opposed the original bill. One senior fellow said it “ends up creating a climate of suspicion where all men are feared or viewed as violent and all women are viewed as victims.” In April 2019, the Democrat-controlled U.S.House of Representatives passed a bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. Action came to a screeching halt in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate in November 2019. The bill is dead.

Why do we stay? We’ve been helped and protected for only 25 out of the 240 years of United States history. That’s why.

Irish Alzheimers

Irish Alzheimers

Oh look! Bufflehead ducks. They’re migrating kind of early. On their way south ahead of the freeze. What luck to spot them today; a glistening black and white raft bobbing and dunking near the shoreline. 

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The only place to find a bufflehead during extremely cold winters in northern Illinois is on Lake Michigan. (Chicago Botanic Garden)

Watch it! There’s water spilling over from the lake.

Why did I agree to see her? I could have said I’m busy, since I AM busy. What’s she doing here anyway? She stopped talking to me at least ten years ago. No explanation. No return calls. Just kaboom! Silent treatment.

Oops. Dear God, the lake is so high. I should have worn boots. I thought climate change was supposed to lower the lake level. Yeah, global warming means less ice holding water in the Great Lakes, more water evaporating off Lake Michigan. So what gives? The polar ice cap melting?

I wonder if she still has her Medicare insurance business. You’d think she’d have called me when I turned sixty-five. It’s not as though she didn’t know my age; would have saved me a short-term nervous breakdown and trips to a social worker. I know so many people who’d pay for her services.

I have to get off the lake path. It’s getting too slippery. Uh-oh. Flashing lights ahead. What’s going on? A runner got washed into the lake and they’re fishing him out? Oh no. I hope he’s ok. It’s a woman? Walking downtown wasn’t such a good idea today. I hoped it would refresh my mood, clear my head, but there’s danger; time to head to the underpass.

I guess we’ll have lunch at the Art Institute. Does she still love art? I’m glad I brought the birthday present I never got around to mailing. I’ll push it across the table as if to say, “See, I’m not as unforgiving as you.” Wish I knew what her grudge is all about.

How did I get on the bridge? I’m not paying attention, need to be more mindful. Pause. Take a breath. Yikes, a flock of Sandhill Cranes in V-formation! Still migrating even though It feels like the middle of January out here. Get off the lake now. Hmm, let’s see. Take the path up the hill off Randolph, pass the Survivors Garden, over the silver bridge through Millennium Park to the new entrance, Art Institute.

I know! She has a terminal illness and wants to make amends before she dies. Naw, I would’ve heard that from another sister or her children. Maybe she simply wants to say she’s sorry and let’s stay in touch.

Guess I’ll take the bus home. What was that all about? She acted as if we saw each other last week. No scores settled. No plans for further contact. Glad I didn’t pursue it. I yearn for sisterly love but her rejection throws knives; it is a pain-filled memory. 

Oh good. Marge is on the bus.

“You have a sister?”

“Yeah, she cut me out of her life years ago.”

“Who needs a sister like that?”

Amen, Sister.

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Just in Time, I Found You Just in Time

Just in Time, I Found You Just in Time

I used to ignore articles that say cognitive decline slows if I eliminate sugar or play bridge. I found work-arounds instead. When I lost my numbers I set up automatic bill payments with the bank. I can never remember if choir practice is on the fourth or fifth floor; I simply follow my fellow singers. And I rely on my phone or friends to tell me the dates and times of my appointments, events and plans.

Memory loss has been gradual. I’m in good company though—my friends and I laugh Unknownwhen we can’t remember the name of the movie we just saw. But when I started hyperventilating with disabling anxiety in airports and receiving bizarre Chinese packages I’d ordered from ads on Face Book, I called Northwestern Hospital to see a
neurologist.

“Someone will call you back,” the receptionist said.

“Can’t I just make an appointment?”

“No. Someone needs to do an intake over the phone first.”

“I’ll wait.”

“No. Someone will call you.”

I missed the callback. Called again. Missed again. And again.

I felt like I was racing against the clock. Processing the TV news was becoming difficult. It moved too fast and I couldn’t retain information from one sentence to the next. To understand NPR’s Morning Edition, I had to stop getting dressed or making my bed, sit down with a cup of coffee and listen. Reading the news wasn’t impossible, just clunky. Some words on the page faded. Some didn’t. I went to the eye doctor three times within six months. She told me there was nothing wrong with my eyes or my vision.

I consulted Dr. Google. Indiscriminate shopping, getting lost, difficulty with numbers or language as well as forgetting dates, names and places are all a part of the normal aging process called cognitive decline. Researchers say eat right, exercise, socialize and learn something new to keep your brain from slipping past the point of no return. Some say singing actually heals the brain, so I joined the Good Memories Choir.

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Jonathan and Sandy Miller • Founders of Good Memories Choir               Fourth Presbyterian Church • Chicago

On the first day I hesitated accepting my songbook. Would I remember to bring it to weekly rehearsals? Would I even remember the day and time of weekly rehearsals? People asked me what “part” I sang. I had no idea.

“I have to sing the melody,” I said.

Alice sat next to me in the last row of the soprano section. I love to sing along but I know nothing about music. The singing was running ahead of me—I couldn’t catch the words. After singing a few songs, Alice showed me the soprano lines and suggested I highlight the words. She told me to sing the notes with the stems pointing up. I focused. I was learning a new language.

Good Memories is a choir of people with early-stage memory loss, their care partners and volunteers. I met the Google criteria for cognitive decline but I didn’t have an official diagnosis. I joined as a volunteer, unsure where, or even if, I fit. After singing every week for over a year, I never forget my songbook, the lyrics are nailed to the page and I follow the notes.

One of the first songs we sang, The impossible Dream, seemed impossible for me. There were too many words too close together. At the concert I sang every word. And Alice whispered, “You made it.”

Yes, I did. Just in time.

 


Learn more: Five Symptoms of Cognitive Decline

Join a choir! Jonathan Miller, Artistic Director of Good Memories Choir will help find one in your area. Contact him.


Treat yourself. Watch Judy Garland sing Just In Time

Fear of Dying Without Dignity

Fear of Dying Without Dignity

The facilitator outlined the steps to execute a health care power-of-attorney, letting us know every state is different. I knew we were about to go off the rails when a class member asked about Florida laws. We were in Chicago. But the real turning point came when a woman announced her parents died of Alzheimer’s.

”I just want to know where to get the pills” she said, “and how will I know when to take them?”

She was talking about suicide.

I’ve been schooled on end-of-life living wills, advance directives and “practitioner orders for life-sustaining treatment” (POLST). These documents allow us to describe our wishes POLSTat the end, and to designate someone to decide medical treatment when we can’t speak for ourselves. All my papers are in order. For all the Death Cafes, Journey Care and Compassion & Choice discussion groups I’ve attended, never have I been in a roomful of people who turned the conversation so fast and openly to how and when to commit hari-kari before they couldn’t speak for themselves.

The Conversation Project® is yet another public engagement initiative with a goal to have every person’s wishes for end-of-life care expressed and respected. Representatives from the Project don’t come armed with facts on assisted-suicide, or how to identify that one perfect moment before you lose your marbles completely. They do, however, listen. And in my group, person after person expressed fear of not being able to off themselves in time.

One man told us he holds the health care power-of-attorney for his mother, that her instructions are explicit, but he can’t bring himself to pull the plug.

“I’m afraid my siblings will all get mad at me,” he said.

Everyone gasped. It’s what we all fear the most.

I never thought of the possibility that I’d be kept alive beyond my sell-by date. I’m not afraid to die. I’ve thought about it my entire sentient life. Huddled under my first-grade desk waiting for an atomic bomb to drop, I knew I’d be going to heaven to see Jesus (my best friend at the time). What’s to fear? I even tried it out once. I took eighty sleeping pills when I was twenty-four because I knew there was a better place than Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, in the cold grey winter.

The idea of my body curling up to a breathing machine and a feeding tube without my consent or knowledge is new. Each and every daybreak now I wake with fear, unable to face the day. I use Anne LaMotte’s simple prayer, “Help me. Help me. Help me,” just to get out of bed.th

On a recent temperate morning I walked Henry on our tree-lined motionless street. A
gust of wind came along suddenly and blew the fall leaves off an overhead honey locust. We stood in a yellow-leafed shower, swaddled in fluorescent care. And the fear of dying without dignity moved off into the gutter for the day.


Death Cafe

Illinois POLST

Conversation Project

Journey Care