Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Scheduling Conflicts

Can I say how much I loooooove my snood from Garlands of Grace? I got it for Christmas, and I wish I had all the colors. It's probably my favorite headcovering. I like the old-fashioned girlishness, and I especially like the comfort. I can turn my head any which way. It doesn't budge, slip, pinch, or itch. It feels like nothing is there, which is an incredibly important quality to find in a headcovering.

I think I will love it more when I actually have the hair to fill it out. Right now, I wear a bandanna tied in a basic kerchief style underneath to give the illusion that I have long, flowing locks under there. Otherwise, the snood would just kind of hang pitifully. Someday I'll have the real thing to cover up.

No one else in my family seems to share my snood enthusiasm, though. They neither hate it nor love it. But, I actually got a compliment from my oldest today regarding my clothes. She said, "I like your dress, Mom. I mean...I wouldn't wear it, but it looks good on you!" Ah, my heart is full... :)

I'm procrastinating. I have a pile of crocheting to do. I have two afghans for family members that I've been working on for a ridiculously long period of time. There's the scarf that my daughter has been requesting all winter. I also have an afghan to assemble for the charity crochet/knit/fiber arts group at my parish.

I used to run a group online, where I accepted items from all over the country and beyond to distribute to the children my husband worked with in foster/residential care. We distributed hundreds of afghans, hats, scarves, handmade toys, and other goodies over the two years the group was up and running. It was a great experience and a deep privilege to be able to find homes for the gifts that my members lovingly made. The group kind of ran its course, though, and I admit I was burned out. I ended the group last fall.

I decided to start a new group for people I know in real life at my parish, and make it a fun social event as well. The ladies come over to my house once a month, and we eat, chat, laugh, and work on our projects. Right now, we're finishing up blankets for an orphanage in Guatemala that a group from the parish is visiting next week. That means I have another deadline to add to my list.

My basket of crochet UFO's (UnFinished Objects) is a visual reminder of all the unfinished things in my life. It seems like every corner of my world has one. They hang on a chain around my neck, weighing me down with frustration, stress, and dissatisfaction. The laundry that should be done. The household project put off until tomorrow---again. The homeschool planning that is done at the last minute rather than in advance. The paperwork for my charity work that has been piling up---for weeks. The Scripture that doesn't get read. The prayers that go unsaid. Unfinished business.

I know my health problems limit my energy. I have legitimate excuses for putting some things off. But it has to stop somewhere. There has to be a time when I accept no excuses.

For all my unfinished business, I find the time to finish quite a bit. The game with my son that has to wait, because I have to finish my computer time first. The book for my three year old that falls by the wayside, because I have to finish my phone call. The prayers that are rushed or non-existent, because I have to finish my television show. The things that matter don't get done, so the things that don't matter can.

It sure sounds bad when I read it in print. Sins are so ugly without the rose-colored glasses, aren't they? Guess I need to get down to business. Finish a few things I started, and leave a few lesser things undone.

I think tomorrow, I'll make a conscious effort to finish at least one thing on my list. Also, I'll pray like I mean it, not bits and pieces fit into the craziness of the day. Lastly, I'll stop what I'm doing to do something for someone else. When I'm asked, I won't say "wait a second", "when I'm done", or "huh? I wasn't paying attention to what you were saying, because I was too wrapped up in my selfish, self-centered universe where my own comfort, schedule, and convenience is really the only thing that ultimately matters to me". Rather, I'll answer "can you?" with "yes"; "have you?" with "already finished", and "when?" with "right now".

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Battle Cry

Ephesians 6:13-17 "Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

I remember learning about these verses in Sunday School. We'd dress up as warriors with our armor. We sang songs about going into battle, spiritual battle that is, protected by the thick, unfailing armor of God. But do I actually use my armor? Have I taken it up? Because I most certainly can just leave it aside and not take advantage of the tools God has given me.

I go out into battle far too often without my armor. I fight the fights that end in bloodshed (usually mine). I do it all by myself. Why do I do this? How many times do I have to fail before I realize I can't do it all by myself?

"Having girded your waist with truth"

I especially despise lying. With my children, it is one of the things that brings swift and immediate discipline. I will not tolerate it. Be who you are. Say what you mean. No place for deception. That being said, I allow far too much that is not the truth into our home and hearts. The television, music, the internet, the media in all forms. Lies. Just lies. Lies that say you have to look this way, talk this way, or be this way to amount to anything in the world. Lies that say God's way is only for those loony conservatives who just don't get it. Lies that say the world is a bright, shiny place where there's no pain, no consequences, and no one, single, absolute Truth. I let too many lies go by in my life. From the mouths of the world and my own lips.

"Having put on the breastplate of righteousness"

The breastplate literally covers your heart. All the vital organs that you cannot function without. Do I have righteousness, and do I use it to cover what is most vital to my survival? Well, I know I can always build righteousness. That genuine holiness, moving more and more toward becoming an accurate image of God. The Christian life is called a struggle for a reason. It ain't easy, friends! It's a down in the muck, clawing and fighting struggle. It's exhausting and glorious in the same moment. It's a battle against myself. A tough and suitable opponent. I need that breastplate. I need to focus on covering my heart, my vital being with righteousness. A show of fake piety won't cut it. That's just flimsy cardboard that any arrow can get through. I need the real deal. Which means I have to be the real deal. I have to struggle more and not run when the going gets tough. There's too many convenient excuses in my life.

"Having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace"

Where do I walk? The road of peace or the road of contention? Am I a representative of the gospel of peace in my home? No. I'm not. I start conflicts with my family. Sure, the kids might have done something absolutely infuriating, but who actually picked the fight? My three year old has a long list of habits that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But am I teaching her the gospel of peace? Do I respond to her in loving teaching and direction like the words of Christ or in short, frustrated, loveless tones? When my husband asks me to do something, do I jump to do it with selfless, peaceful love, or do I respond with selfishness and disapproval? Do I accept everyone around me with an open love and peaceful welcoming, or do I judge them for everything from their lifestyle choices to their appearance? Do I walk in peace? Are my feet surrounded, shod with peace? There is not enough peace in my life---and it's my fault.

"Taking the shield of faith."

How much do I really believe? How deep is my faith---really? If my faith could be turned into a literal shield that I had to hold up against literal darts, would I stand a chance? I believe there is a God. I believe in the Incarnation. I believe in the Resurrection. I believe in the Holy Spirit. But do I believe, do I have faith in everything He says? Do I really have faith that can move mountains? That can walk on water? That's as big as mustard seed? I don't. I trust God with the things I think he can handle. But there's some things, I'd rather keep to myself. I guess I don't think he's big enough. I guess I don't think he cares enough. I guess I just don't have enough faith. There's a difference between believing and trusting. I believe God. But I don't always turn everything---all my sorrows, all my pain, all my worries---over to him. I take up and put down my shield when it's convenient. When I think I can just handle this one by myself. I need more faith. I believe---forgive my unbelief!

"The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

I have this one covered, right? I'm a Bible fan. I've read and re-read the Word. Memorized it. Dog-eared it. Not a problem. But reading isn't enough. You actually have to apply the words to your life. Do I let the Spirit of God fill me from fingertip to toe and travel before me like a flashing, razor sharp sword? No, I don't. I miss far too many opportunities to actually fight spiritual battles. Going gets tough...and I'm gone. Down the street, around the corner, out of the country kind of gone. I choose my battles, rather than letting myself be chosen. I know good and well exactly which things I need to wage against at this moment. I know them with every inch of my being. But I won't fight them all. I make the choice. My sword is far too often by my side, just waiting. Unused. I admit defeat before I ever fight. I have to fight if I'm going to let God win.

"Taking the helmet of salvation."

I saved this one until the end. I've talked a lot about covering the rest of my body. I leave the head for last. Sure, all Christians have a helmet, but mine's a bit different. All the rest of my armor is figurative. I don't walk around with a literal shield or a literal sword. But I walk around with a literal helmet. My headcovering. And is that helmet my salvation? Does it save me? Well, no "thing" in itself does that. But am I using my headcovering as a means of my salvation? Am I letting it change me? Not the fabric, but everything it represents. Am I letting it humble me---in the gentle humility of the Theotokos? Am I letting it make me more obedient---to God and to my family? Am I letting it make me meek---not weak, but the meekness that inherits the Earth? Am I letting it make me more modest---not just in flesh, but in spirit? Am I letting it suck out and spit out the evil and darkness in my soul to bring me on the path to working out my salvation? No, I'm not. I put on my headcovering each day in different ways. Sometimes I grasp the depth and the beauty of this gift that God has shown me. This powerful weapon on my journey toward Him. Far too often, though, I put it on out of habit. Just another garment to cover things up, rather than to bring them to light. Far too often, I don't pay attention to the fiery darts around me. I don't even notice the wicked one. I'm too farsighted. I keep looking for him out there in others, when all along, he's right here in me. I am not humble. I am not meek. I am not modest. Not enough. I'm just not doing enough.

I have some weak spots in my armor. Some of it, I haven't even taken up. I need to to reinforce it, to polish it, to attend to it with the depth of attention and intention that I give to so much uselessness in my life. I have to, because I want to quit hiding, running, and avoiding. I want to face my spiritual battles head on. I want to put on my armor and stand. This is like no ordinary armor. It's not heavy and constricting and limiting. It's a light and easy weight, because I never have to carry it alone.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


My town has an agency consisting of most of the Christian churches. They come together under one umbrella to handle all the social service needs of the community. It started back in the Depression, when the poor and needy would get off the train at one end of town. Several churches happened to be built near the tracks, and they soon realized they needed to band together to face the massive needs with a united front.

Decades later, we have an interesting mix of churches. Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and all flavors of Protestant. High church, home church and a couple in between. Occasionally our theological differences come to the surface, but it comes back to center quickly, and we remember that we're all Christians. We come at it from different angles, but the goal is simply to love others. No strings attached.

I love the idea of this agency. So, last year when they needed volunteers, I jumped at the chance. At first, I took on the job of meeting with the families that needed financial assistance, giving them funds to pay their utility bills and other miscellaneous needs.

When the food pantry coordinator decided to leave, I took over that responsibility as well. Everyday, I check the voicemail to see if any new requests have come in. I screen new applicants, and if they meet our requirements, I find the best way to get them the assistance they need.

Every Friday, I run the food pantry, distributing food to the families that come. Volunteers help pack up the food bags, and my older kids take turns pitching in. One of them stays home with the three year old while she takes a nap, and the other one puts in a shift at the pantry. Their job is pushing the cart of food bags out to each family's car and any other heavy lifting that I can't do. Poor Lonna. Yesterday was sub-zero temperatures again, and the parking lot was caked with a thick layer of snow. Not exactly conducive to shopping cart travel. She worked hard.

The food pantry is always an interesting experience, and if I let it be, a learning opportunity. In my work-outside-the-home days, I had various social work positions. My husband has been in social work his entire working career. It's all normal to us, and sometimes I forget what it really all means. It's not something I do for popularity or extra credit with God. I deeply believe that this is simply what I'm supposed to do. I am a follower of Christ. I have to act like it. Period.

My children volunteer, even when it's not so voluntary. From the time they were little, I brought them with me to visit the sick, clean the church, or reach out to whatever population my husband and I worked with at the time. I've never made it optional. I've never made it seem unique. I make them volunteer now so they'll grow up with service being completely normal. Someday they'll have to make the choice to do it on their own, and I want them to have memories of what service really looks like. Serving is death to self. We do it when it's inconvenient. Even when it isn't easy. We're followers of Christ. It's what we do.

Not everyone can volunteer the number of hours I do. There's a thousand reasons why others can't. None of them are my business or concern. But what exactly would be my excuse for not doing it? I have the time. I have the skills. I have the opportunity. I'm a follower of Christ. It's what I do.

These last two weeks I've been grumbling a little. There seemed to be a rush of people who were decidedly ungrateful. What I was giving them wasn't quite up to their standards, wants, or requests. They didn't get what they wanted for Christmas in our present distribution. The food wasn't quite what they wanted. I couldn't give them the money they wanted. They grumbled... I grumbled... I guess it all came to a head yesterday.

Every week, I put out a miscellaneous box of food that is slightly past the sell by date, dented, or just different and odd. The families can take whatever and however much they want. Almost no one had been taking any lately. "We're picky eaters," was the repeating excuse.

My inner "fairness" alarm was blaring. You know the "fairness" alarm. That screeching sound in your head that says it just isn't fair. You don't deserve to be treated this way. No one appreciates you. The world is out to get you. There I sit each week, agonizing over the shelves. Will there be enough donations? How can I give them the best selection of food possible? Can we afford to give them just a little bit more? I put in volunteer hours when it's inconvenient and uninteresting. When it's hard, I give. And you're telling me you're picky?!?!

I gave in to my inner battle and complained to my volunteers. I unloaded in a flood of whining with not a speck of grace or mercy. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner! About five minutes later, a family showed up who I didn't know was coming. There are no words to describe that woman other than bubbly. Never a frown. Even though her life is complicated, she makes it all look easy. I gave my standard speech explaining the miscellaneous box and went to get her paperwork. When I returned, she had a large pile of food selected.

"Wow! I'm surprised to see you take some food. No one else seems much interested in it lately," I said with my self-righteousness dripping off each word.

"Really? I'll take anything I can get. I'm never too proud," she replied with one of her standard, beaming smiles.

I literally hung my head in repentance. She was never too proud. But I am...

All the hours I spend volunteering are meaningless if I do them for my own benefit. If I expect them to thank me, or appreciate it to the extent I think they should, or give me anything at all, I might as well stay home. I'm not doing it for me. It has to be a free and open gift to God no matter what the response. It has to be genuine.

I'm grateful to God for straightening out my selfish detour. I'm so sorry that sometimes when I claim I'm serving him, there are strings attached. I want to give with His compassion. I want to serve with His humility. It's time to get back to work with the right attitude. I am a follower of Christ. It's what I do.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Comparative Arts

We've been learning about the Renaissance in our homeschool studies. Right up my little alley. My minor was art history, so it's always fun to introduce the kids to something I love. Whether you're homeschooled or not, I recommend the BBC series The Private Life of a Masterpiece. Your local library probably has it.

Each episode of the series focuses on a particular piece of art. They tell you the whole story of the work. The artist, the history of the time period, how the work came to be made, and an in-depth analysis of the work itself. Meaning, motivation, and mechanics. The whole picture, so to speak. The episodes are absolutely fascinating. O.K., so I'm a nerd and any kind of documentary makes me drool, but these are truly well done.

I was a little hesitant about the episode centered on Da Vinci's The Last Supper. As I put in the DVD, I warned Lonna and Jared that the analysis of the painting might get woefully sidetracked. I braced myself for the need to edit the commentary. Adding in my reassurance that our faith doesn't believe Jesus had a sex life. Imagine my surprise when right at the beginning, one of the commentators said that he believed the most unfortunate thing that had ever happened to The Last Supper was the The Da Vinci Code! He shook his head in disapproval of the bestseller and blockbuster and how it took the focus off the true beauty and depth of the art. He moved on, never to speak of it again. Imagine that! Focusing on the actual masterpiece instead of fantastic speculations. I giggled with unbridled glee.

I know I won't be able to avoid the need to edit in our next study, though. The Reformation. I'm just at a loss. How do I teach about this time without bias? As Orthodox converts from Protestantism, we've lived both sides of the story. I see why the Reformation happened, and it makes me sad. My heart aches over the conflict that pushed the West even further from the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It's no longer the story of the beginning of what I believe. It's like re-reading your favorite book and realizing that this time around, the ending suddenly changed.

I won't teach the Reformation like I would have a few years ago. Martin Luther isn't my hero anymore. But...he isn't the enemy either. I want to give them a balanced view of this time period. Not an easy thing to find a book on. The Reformation from a neutral point of view. Now I know what it feels like to live in a culture on the losing side of a war. When not only do people not agree with you, they don't even remember you exist.

At times like these, I see so profoundly how far I've gotten from the mainstream. I'm so different. I don't fit in or even want to. The bright lights have faded and the fast life no longer holds an appeal. The greater the distance I travel from the mainstream, the more I'm torn by two feelings. On the one hand, I'm more aware of the evil in the world. The selfishness, violence, immodesty of body and heart, greed and bigotry at every corner. It's everywhere, and it makes me feel frustrated, separate and closed. On the other hand, I'm overwhelmed with the goodness of the same people. The Good Samaritans, the war heroes, the average mother who keeps her cool when I lose mine, the average wife who forgives her husband when I hold a grudge, and the average woman who is more holy uncovered than I ever am covered. Those things make me feel humble, and that humility turns me to God.

Circumstances make me see the differences. Between me and you. Between me and God. When I teach my children, I want them to see how genuine love for mankind brings the differences together. Into a lovely painting. A masterpiece.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


It's all my fault. I've been complaining that we didn't have any snow. Sure, we've had a bit here and there, but not the real snow we should have by now. I love snow. Growing up in Kentucky, the snow never stayed on the ground for long. You had to relish it on fast-forward, because the temperature would rise quickly, melting your snow forts and crushing your dreams of just one more day off from school.

I like a sea of white. Messy and sometimes difficult of course, but there's potential for peace in snow. A hush. An anticipation. Man goes through most days in control of his environment. What doesn't come naturally we create artificially. On our schedule. At our convenience.

But a snowstorm is more than we can harness. It causes us to slow down. Our cars. Our footsteps. Our plans.

I liked watching Hilary today. Since she doesn't really grasp the whole concept of time, she had forgotten what this much snow was like. She wasn't sure what to make of the deep piles. Should she step in? Would it swallow her up? Abominable snow children are one of my favorite sights.

It took her a few attempts. A few awkward tries and a mountain of reassurance, but she eventually embraced the snow. Then there was no getting her out of it.

This is the view from my back window. Don't be fooled. We're not in the woods. There's a major road on the other side of that tree. But I can dream and watch from my window. From there I can imagine that I'm in the forest with no distractions. Just me and my prayer.

Do you ever have days where you rush from anthill to anthill, and then all of the sudden...BAM! see the sky as if for the first time? How did I not notice the crispness of that blue today? How did I not appreciate the depth of those clouds? Why do I spend so much time looking down when I could be looking up?

Barely anyone showed up for Vespers tonight. Since there weren't many singers, and definitely no sopranos!, we made it more a service for the readers. I felt like we were in the monastery. The chanting carrying me along on a wave of peace. The stillness outside permeated the inside. As if the whole world finally looked up. As if everyone finally realized it was time to stop and pray. Anything can happen in the snow.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

In your anger...

Hello, my name is Amy, and I have an anger problem.

I took my son to our eye doctor appointments today. We were long overdue, and I was glad to cross this task off my list. Leave the girls at home and make a quick run to the eye doctor. Such a simple plan.

When we arrived, I discovered they had scheduled our appointments an hour apart instead of immediately after each other. I thought that surely they would rearrange things, since obviously we were together and should be seen together. They stuck to their schedule. Their schedule that they were already behind on. They did my son's exam and then the exams of four...count them, four...other people. An hour and a half later, they still hadn't gotten to me.

As I watched them take first one person, then another, and another and another back before me, I slowly lost my ability to ignore the situation. That was my original plan---just ignore it. The time will just fly by. Somewhere around the forty-five minute mark, that plan began to lose its charm. I could feel that gurgle, gurgle of anger from deep within me. That old, familiar feeling that definitely was not a welcome friend. I exhausted the supply of battered, six month old magazines. I tried to get lost in the Jesus prayer to no avail. I listened to one of the receptionists whistle along to that came on the radio. Somewhere along the way, I think I developed a twitch.

I contemplated what my response to the situation should be. There was a time when I wouldn't have hesitated. I would have marched up to the desk and told them a thing or two...or three...or four. I would have made a point and a scene with no second thoughts. That's how I used to live. When I was living in some dark times and some nasty things happened to me. I was good and angry then. I wanted the world to know and feel my pain.

But, I'm not that person any more, right? Right? I don't walk around with my militant feminist, take no prisoners, bleepity-bleep-you attitude anymore. I know where that got me. Someplace much more painful than where I started. I've tried so hard to file that chip on my shoulder down smooth.

Sitting there, I thought about the times I've brought my lingering anger to confession. The wise words of my priest who directed me that it's really just a pride issue. The pride that says I'm so special that everyone should get out of my way. The pride that thinks I should get the respect I deserve! But what do I actually deserve? Nothing. Not a thing. I'm food for worms. Thank God I don't get what I really deserve. Wouldn't be pretty.

Mainly, though, I sat there and thought, "Now how am I going to handle this? I cannot, I mean, I CANNOT walk up there in my headcovering and yell at that receptionist. There's no way I can be the lady in the scarf with my hands on my hips and bile spewing from my mouth. I can't. I won't. If I'm going to wear the scarf, it has to mean something more than just a show on the outside. I have to let it truly change me."

My headcovering felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. I saw myself from a distance with my veil. My body covered and my heart still so dark and lacking in humility. Can everyone else see how obvious my sin is? How can I go through a normal day and not see it as profoundly as I did at that moment?

So, I finally came up with the right words. I took a deep breath and walked up to the desk. I voiced my disappointment to the staff. I was firm and obviously frustrated, but I didn't boil over. I think I mostly said what I wanted to say in almost the tone I wanted to use. Could have been a little more refined, but I'm still working on it...

Anger is an interesting little virus. When it sneaks into your heart, it grabs hold with its claws and embeds itself deep. Like a weed, you might try to pull out the part that shows above the surface and think you did the job. But when you walk away, the weed begins its journey to the top again. You didn't get the root. It's still there, just waiting for daylight.

Headcovering is a weapon against that root. It's a powerful tool in the fight against my greatest enemy---myself. I wish I could get people to understand that. It isn't just about keeping up appearances. It's about the part of me you'll never see and I need to open my eyes to realize. It's not about who you think I am but what I want to be for God.

Hello, my name is Amy, and I need my headcovering more today than I ever have. I'm so grateful for it...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

My Chronic Illness Story

I haven't been feeling well this week, so I've been in hiding a little bit. Just trying to manage the daily grind. I completely and utterly despise talking about my health problems, but I might as well get it out there. Help my visitors understand me maybe a tiny bit.

When I was in high school, I tried to be an athlete like my big sister. I was tall, so everyone just assumed I would follow in her basketball shoes. I hated basketball, but I did try high jump. The jumping I liked, and I was good at it. The problem was that to be on the track team, you couldn't just high jump. You had to run at practice, too. I could NOT run. Couldn't. Shortness of breath. Fatigue. Palpitations. My mother took me to doctors who diagnosed everything from asthma to anorexia. All of them were wrong.

I remember that search. I felt so small. So weak. I couldn't imagine living that way forever, but I couldn't see an answer.

Fast forward to my early twenties. The problems continued sporadically. Then, I had two children only thirteen months apart. My body went into official overload, and my symptoms went from every so often to daily. Over a period of about a month, I repeatedly went to the emergency room, begging for help. They told me I was too young to have any problems. Maybe it was all my stomach. Maybe I was just a paranoid woman with an anxiety disorder. They couldn't explain it, so it must just be in my head, right?

Finally, they caught it. There on the EKG. It wasn't in my head. I had a heart problem. This wandering nemesis had a name. It started out with Supra Ventricular Tachycardia, a fast heart rate that is annoying and causes problems, but it's not uncommon or fatal. Medication worked for awhile. I was a new woman. Then, the medication stopped being as effective. I also developed Atrial Fibrillation, a nastier arrhythmia that can cause blood clots. I bounced from doctor to doctor and medicine to medicine trying to stabilize. Sometimes I would be successful for a few months, maybe even a year. But it always fell apart again. Chaos always returned.

So, I started having Catheter Ablations. During an ablation, catheters are inserted in the groin and jugular vein and passed along into the heart. A computer maps out the electrical system of the heart, finding the origin of the impulses that are causing the arrhythmia. The spots are literally burned away. I started having ablations in 1999 when they were still new, but they're now quite common and usually successful. Lots of people have great outcomes.

After two ablations and two more attempts, I decided to take a break. My condition was complicated, and the doctors told me the technology was not at a place to help me at that time. I needed to wait for technology to catch up. While I hadn't been cured, I was stable. I could get by on medication, even though the side effects were unpleasant. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that during the course of one of the ablations, they had given me a Heart Block. The electrical signal telling my heart to beat was blocked from traveling from the upper chambers to the lower chambers. In 2001, I had a pacemaker implanted.

Still, I pushed on. Heart Block is a known risk. I knew there was a small chance, and you never think those things will happen to you. Besides, they painted the pacemaker picture with pretty colors. The doctors made it sound like no big deal. Well, it's not the worst thing in the world to have by a long shot, but it definitely isn't so pretty. :)

Several years passed. I was so stable I decided to have another child. After that pregnancy, my body went into a tailspin. The arrhythmias refused to be controlled by medication. It looked like science might have caught up with me, though. I was willing to try a procedure again.

I had my third catheter ablation for atrial fibrillation in 2006. The good news was, it finally cured my atrial fibrillation. I still have other arrhythmias, but they are reasonably controlled and I can put up with them.

Another one of those known, small risks from ablation is a condition called Pulmonary Vein Stenosis. During the procedure, they burn in the area of the heart where the pulmonary veins are. Those are the four veins leading from the lungs to the heart. Wacky electrical signals often go up in those veins causing arrhythmia. Blocking those signals is what stopped my atrial fibrillation. That's a good thing. In the process, though, my pulmonary veins were damaged. Now, two of them have severe stenosis. They narrowed almost completely shut. In the fall of 2006, I went in for angioplasty of those veins. They successfully ballooned them open. It didn't last long, though. They narrowed again several months later.

Which brings us to the other problem that was lurking in the background. This whole time, my Tricuspid Valve had a small leak. Barely noticeable. In fact, no one would have known about it if I wasn't having other heart tests. I had no symptoms. For reasons unknown, the leak suddenly became much worse. By the time of the angioplasty, I was in Congestive Heart Failure, and the leak was the greatest it can be. The valve had to be fixed.

Remember those pulmonary veins? Yes, as I mentioned, they had narrowed again. Didn't help matters any. I had angioplasty again in February 2007. Four days later, I had open heart surgery to repair my valve. Three days after that, I had my pacemaker replaced with a model more suited to heart failure. It was a long week... And a long recovery.

In July 2007, surprise, surprise, my pulmonary veins narrowed yet again. This time, I had two stents placed in the veins. The storm calmed. I healed. I adjusted to life. I continued my conversion to Orthodoxy. Such a valuable learning time that was!

I made it over a year the next time. In September 2008, I had my fourth angioplasty, reopening one of my stents.

So, here I sit in January 2009, looking back at the roller coaster. A few months up, a few months down. I guess I'm due.

I hate watching the pattern. It's so annoying in its predictability. The shortness of breath is back. The cough is back. The irregular heartbeat is back. The bone-weary fatigue is back. The knife pain in my lungs is back. all came back.

Now, I play the guessing game. Which problem is it? Did the veins narrow again? Did my valve repair fail? Did my mitral valve, which also has a leak by the way, escalate just like the other one did? Will it be my 10th catheterization or my 2nd open heart? Frankly, I'm not in the mood for either right now.

So, that's my history. The short version that is still rather long. I haven't talked about any of the feelings or all the truly wonderful things I've gained from these experiences. But that's where I stand. Just so you know.

I was just thinking about all this today on Theopany. The feast where we remember Christ's baptism, where the Trinity was revealed. I love Theophany. All the water. The Old Testament readings from Royal Hours yesterday. Story after story of water. How God uses water to make new life. To bring order out of chaos. Christ the conqueror. Christ the servant. We read about water. We sang about water. Then, we were covered in water, my three year old giggling with glee, as the priest blessed us by sprinkling the water all over the church and the people. Lastly, we stood in line with our bottles, filling them with the holy water to bring home and cherish for the next year. Water, water everywhere.

Before Liturgy today, I lit a candle with a prayer that I would be renewed again in the waters this day. In body? Nah. My sights are a little higher than that. In this new year, I want to be renewed much deeper than that. My body doesn't cooperate most of the time, but I can't control it. If there's one thing I've learned beyond a doubt, it is that. I can't decide when my body will fail or succeed. I can't determine the number of my days. But I can offer this chaos to Christ. I can use the pain of my body to feed my spirit. I can let it push me into the snake-filled pit of myself, or I can push myself toward the still waters of God. I'm back in the dreaded time of uncertainty, but I'm certain of one thing. I know I want the water.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Day the Vasilopita Died

My family doesn't have any strong ethnic ties. On my mother's side, there's absolutely no stories about who came over to this country at what time. They came from England. I'm not even sure in what century. Work-battered coal miners. Too busy and practical to worry about anything but the job right in front of them. No nostalgia for the past. Just a weathered view of today and about half of tomorrow.

My father's side is from Sweden, and I know maybe three stories regarding the move to Chicago about a hundred years ago. There's no stories of the old country or family favorite recipes, though. Just an excuse for all the blond hair and blue eyes. I have a picture of my great-grandfather and his fellow World War I soldiers hanging on the wall in my living room. I look at him sometimes and wonder what the rest of his stories would tell.

Since converting to Orthodoxy, I've attempted to fill my ethnic void as much as possible. I'm an equal opportunity tradition lover. Greek tradition??? That's for me! Russian tradition??? Sign me up! Serbian tradition??? Can't hardly wait!

Especially food related traditions. I love every single one of them. I've made baklava with gusto. I've relished my St. Nicholas cake. I've even pinched pierogies for the parish bake sale till my fingers went numb. Love it! Love it!

There's something about embracing the little "t" traditions that really bring home the fullness of the Faith to me. It cements me in this big giant family I joined. It makes me feel at home.

So, I absolutely had to try my hand at Vasilopita today. The St. Basil cake. It's sweet and made even sweeter with a coin hidden inside. St. Basil wanted to give money to the poor of his town, but he didn't want to embarrass them with a handout. So, he had the women of his parish bake sweet breads with gold coins hidden inside. He gave both the gift of money and the gift of dignity to those around him. In honor of this generous act, some Orthodox bake the St. Basil cake on January 1st. We cut a piece for St. Basil, the poor, and every member of our family. Whoever gets the coin hidden inside receives an extra special blessing for the year. Exactly what I want to add to our expanding list of traditions.

So, Jared and Hilary helped me with this extremely labor-intensive cake. Jared looked so manly beating the egg whites. Hilary snuck licks from the bowl, beaters, spoon---anything and everything she could get her hands on. Precious.

And the attention to detail when sprinkling the almonds on top. What a nice memory to build and a lasting tradition to add to our family!

And it was a nice memory...until I put the cake in the oven!!!! It was about 20 minutes into the baking time when I smelled the smell no cook wants to have greet their nose wafting through the kitchen. I scurried in and opened the oven door, my face bombarded with billows of smoke. Not just trickles of smoke, but giant, action film special effects kind of rolling clouds of smoke. The cake overflowed the pan, poured down to the bottom of the oven, and then the oven floor burst into flames. The fun continued as the smoke alarm blared, the dog and cat ran from the ear-piercing screeching, and I succeeded in making a giant mess even more complete, choking the flames with large quantities of flour. I even added in yelling at my kids as a nice way to top off the experience.

After the fire was successfully put out, I stood for about thirty seconds in front of the carnage. My mind whirled. This was not, I repeat NOT, how this was supposed to turn out. I bit my lip, scooped up my half-baked cake and hopped in the car. We live down the street from the church. I decided to try and finish baking the cake there. Now, I've baked many cakes in my time. I knew good and well that it wouldn't work. All I would end up with was a fallen, flat, barely edible excuse for a cake. At that point, I didn't care. I had invested most of my afternoon and a fair amount of money in ingredients, so I was determined to end up with a cake at the end of this day! By golly, this is t-r-a-d-i-t-i-o-n!!!! We were going to eat that cake. We were going to find that coin. We were going to get our blessing!!!

As I waited for the cake to finish baking in the oven at church, I wandered into the nave and prayed the prayers of the hours. It took a minute, but soon the prayers mingled with much sighing and head shaking, as I let the first lesson of the new year sink in good and deep. Sure, the traditions are nice, but they're not essential. What's much more important is the patience and flexibility that I clearly lack. Those won't come in the shape of a cake. Those are going to take a lot more work.

I came back home with my cake and my blessing from St. Basil. He taught me a lot today. I didn't necessarily get to keep my dignity, was still a blessing.