Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Getting Religion

I am a sinner and my girlfriend is parting company with her mate of 26 years, so it is as good a time as any to get religion.

As with most men, her husband preferred spending an hour at a home-improvement store rather than at church, and as with most sinners, I preferred hanging out with other sinners to assure myself I wasn’t alone. For me that meant going to a bar or to church, and on Sunday mornings, well, going to a bar seemed very Irish and I’m French, preferring wine or a less fermented variety.

My girlfriend, Anita, got a head start church searching and ventured solo the week before. Though she was not impressed with the church’s misplaced and alternative political viewpoint, she had an overall good feeling about the place.

By next Sunday when I jumped on board, we’d decided to wade into nearby fellowship waters. Our goal was to stay in our area of the city, as well as to find a small church in which we felt community and where leadership provided guidance for good living, upheld positive values, and maintained cohesiveness within the congregation.

When we arrived for the 10:45 service, there wasn’t a car in the huge parking lot. This I took as a sign. Church hadn’t been a part of my life since my love and I split in 2006. Maybe, I thought, God had different plans for me, like communing at an Irish pub, though I’d probably have to move to Chicago to find an open bar on a Sunday morning. The sign on the church’s door read: Join us for our annual Labor Day picnic in Bear Creek Park.

Because we were all dressed up and needed somewhere to go, I exclaimed, “Let’s go to my old church!”

We arrived at Calvary after the other thousand congregants had and parked a distance from the new structure. In this new building that had risen since the fires of my relationship hell, ever more people needing the love and dynamism of Pastor Al swarmed to hear him preach. He makes people’s hands, voices, and hair rise. I love this guy. And I like that the congregation isn’t dominantly white. Yes, Pastor Al can put the fear of God into a soul, and my friend said she was one of them.

The Sunday next, we waded back into nearby fellowship waters. This time, September 11, the parking lot was full, as was the sanctuary with first-service attendees. Arriving early is my modus operandi, whether to a party or church. That way I can observe those coming in and, in this case, coming out. It’s education. As we walked out the door after the unchurchlike service, we glanced at each other knowingly. Next?

My neighbors for years encouraged me to attend a vibrant, open-minded downtown church. Though both neighbors were members of other downtown churches, they knew my spirited nature. Three times I had walked this church’s labyrinth, a structure indicating the church’s deeper walk with the mysterious. On September 18, Anita and I thoroughly enjoyed the Congregational church, their engaging, approachable pastor, and their music, particularly the handbell choir. Still fanning embers of tradition, such as singing from hymnals and having a choir, their members seemed very involved in contributing their time and talents to the communities, microcosmically and macrocosmically. Anita and I both felt it was a viable contender in our quest.

The following Sunday we headed north a few blocks to an extremely unprejudiced, unbiased, nondiscriminatory, liberal church.

The following Sunday, the first in November, the sisters took tradition a step further and visited a Methodist church. Anita’s neighbor joined us on this expedition because she was, in fact all of us were, raised with Midwest Methodist teachings. Time stood still in this space. The congregation was primarily white of hair, limited of hearing, and slow in communicating, except for a boy who slickly grabbed a plastic container of communion juice and downed it on his way to Sunday school. That’s the spirit! This kid I could relate to. In his wit, the pastor assured us, our communion time would also come.

Throughout our grand adventure, I learned that some churches say A-men and others say Ah-men. Nothing about women. They all say the Lord’s Prayer too, with variations on sins, trespasses, and transgressions. Why they all pointed their fingers at me I’ll never know.
Other neighbors are members of the Episcopal church, or the Western branch of the Church of England. I’d only been to this church a couple of times for a wedding, maybe a funeral—same thing, so I looked it up in my iBook’s Oxford dictionary. “Church of England: the English branch of the Western Christian Church, which combines Catholic and Protestant traditions, rejects the pope's authority, and has the monarch as its titular head.”

Rejecting the pope’s authority sounded good, and I love monarchs, even planted milkweed to attract them, but what’s this about a titular head?!

Neither Anita nor I had any proclivity to figuring out when Catholics sit, stand, kneel, or fall prostate, or is that prostrate, on the marble, yet this Episcopal church fell very close to Catholic ground. The people were the most welcoming, gracious, and all sang like the Vienna Boys’ Choir, even the choir itself, singing from the heavens behind us.

By this time we realized that all churches these days have Communion on the first Sunday of each month. Each serves its version of bread and wine, but this was the second Sunday of the month and the priest was wiping the cup. I turned around and asked the kind, educated man behind us if Communion is a weekly event, and he replied, “You can have Communion here three times a day.” Great!

As we were leaving the chapel’s beautiful property, vast and elaborate as it is, we averted our attention onward. My friend and neighbor had invited us to attend an evening service at her huge Presbyterian church, so Anita and I prepared to accept. We weighed our options: try a Lutheran church if one exists in Colorado Springs, look online for any small Bible-based churches nearby, or go to the first one she visited, where I’d only been for a wedding. And that is what we did.

Three gals, Anita, my neighbor across the street, and I were enveloped by handbell music when we walked into the sanctuary. In a gentle, flowing service, I felt peace, acceptance, and the presence of real love. The pastor talked about forgiveness in a way I’d never heard, wrapping his talk eloquently around Joseph’s story, using integral parts as meat and leaving some details for dessert. Lovely.

Had I been healthy, I would have been there with my friends the following Sunday, but I shall be there the next—and likely the one hereafter. Amen.

African sky © 2002 Bob Groat

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Between My Ears

Life is surreal. Throughout my life I’ve danced atop a fine thread, dipping my toes into dreaming reality then wakeful reality without a seam. I wonder if I’ve said or done something out loud and should pardon myself or if I’ve really had the experiences I have. Waking hours ebb and flow into alpha, theta, even delta, then back to beta, maybe because I’ve not been blessed with consistent spells of uninterrupted sleep, maybe because life is a dream.

To feel truly alive, alert, and awake, I hike—swiftly.
It’s my way of reducing the fat between my ears. After relocating to the Springs in January 1985, I would head toward the mountains Saturdays and Sundays. In 1990 we built a house in the mountain to provide no-drive-required trail access, and in semiretirement, I’ve walked the earth in all types of weather, breathing deeply and smiling, almost daily for 11 years. Hiking is therapy. Sanity. Cleansing. Sometimes social, usually solitary, full of flora and fauna, and today it was worth $100 plus compliments.

One week ago, Tuesday, I had a follow-up biopsy, 13 months after having a hole chiseled out of my head. The surgeon had sought to release my most secret, creative thoughts and unleash their vast potential, but all he found was cancer.* Morpheaform basal cell carcinoma isn’t a typical skin cancer. It can morph into organ, muscle, and bone. Months after surgery and sporting a lovely white gash on my forehead, a large bony bump grew below the scar—an unsightly, painful reminder of mid-September 2010.

Fearing the bump was more of the dreaded C word, I visited Dr. Sniezek again. He is my favorite doctor, despite his digging tendencies. I like him because he quickly and accurately responds to my rapid-fire questions. He’s intelligent, honest, and fun. By 10:30 on appointment day, eight patients sat comfortably around his waiting room zoning out on Halcyon and donning bulging, white gauze wraps, primarily on their faces. When it was my turn, he was 99.9 percent certain my bony growth was not cancer, even though I told him I’d been losing hair like a retriever for a month. But his proclivity to not sending a patient out of a room without a bandage led to a biopsy, just to eliminate the 0.1 percent worry variable. The sweet receptionist, with whom I have a great rapport, could barely look at me when I came out to pay my debt. Ugh. Results were to be available in two to three days, so Friday was the latest. Got home. Hiked. Rested.

I pushed my sorry self outdoors Wednesday before book club. We’re reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth about being fully conscious. Upon arrival, I became fully conscious that our host was very sick with a cold, coughing into her hand, blowing her nose and not immediately washing. One of her viruses got away from her and wiggled into my weak, submissive nasal passage. I felt its tingle. You know the feeling.

Thursday I was worried, depressed, and I failed miserably on my daily home repair job: moving two door lock strike plates needed to lock the front door of this constantly shifting house. I save a lot of money doing work myself, but I wonder how much of my work will have to be redone. No word from doc’s office, no person answering the phone, no ultrahigh vacuum for virus removal in an unsealed system. At my spiritual, consciousness meeting Thursday eve, friends bathed me in white light and healing. Everyone knew I was okay when I drowned in love.

By Friday, day three, I’d heard nothing. Hiking didn’t alleviate my fear, and resistance wavered. My anxiety level went from six to 10 on a five-point scale. Luckily my Friday friend came over and saved the day with his always-unconditionally loving presence and leaving a message with the doc’s office.

I later stepped out of phone range for a half hour when, of course, the nurse left a 3:59 p.m. message for me to call her at my earliest convenience. She gave no word on the results, even though I had granted permission to leave intimate, vital confidentialities on my machine. Just call, she said. At 4:23 p.m. I returned her call and found she was gone—till Monday. Fortunately a new gal informed me that my forehead nub was the start of a horny protuberance and soon I’d morph into a mythical animal.

Or maybe it was scar tissue. At that point I didn’t know if I was relieved or ticked off that I’d been left hanging.

By Saturday, I had my conscious friend’s cold, a sore throat, drippy nose, and 12 pounds of fat between my ears from four days of stress, 10 of which still lingered after running three miles on the trail. Not wanting to bless my Sunday friends with a virus, I opted out of church, hit the trail, and missed a great music program.

Monday arrived and I had a plan. I decided to advertise for a roommate to draw income and cancel my health insurance to save $200 monthly. First, errands. I used a car wash coupon my girlfriend gave me, then my shiny, dripping car and I headed toward the recycled-home-supplies store. It was closed on Mondays, so we trucked northward toward the grocery. A block farther, in front of office space I used to rent with Dennis, my friend and work mate of 22 years, a grated trailer disengaged from its fork, likely due to carelessness on the installer’s part, and bounced around two lanes of traffic and a sidewalk before coming to a halt. I was the first one behind the guy’s white truck, shocked. I drive about 2,000 miles per year and, fortunately, maintain supervigilance on these nightmarish streets.

In the grocery store parking lot, there was Dennis. Before I could tell him what happened, he announced that he had heart bypass surgery a month ago. When the doctor told him he had blockage and would immediately go into surgery, Dennis said it was surreal, like he was in a dream, a very bad dream. This is the same Dennis who for decades has biked 25 to 30 miles a day. Tears flowed from my eyes following our long conversation. What was God telling me?

Safely back home and groceries put away, I changed into shorts and sprinted out the door with Shiloh the Lab. What a relief it was to be outside, not contained in a two-ton shell. I said hi to a neighbor boy (he’s 46, six years my junior), who said I looked great. “Pardon?” I asked, so I could hear him say it again. I gratefully thanked him, touching my heart, and briskly strode up the street.

Twenty feet later, I saw a waterskiing partner and friend working on a neighbor’s house. “Hi, Tom!” I called.

“Hey!” he said. “You look great.”

Unreal. Life can be a dream, a sweet dream when you most need it. (Maybe hiking is all the insurance, ah, assurance I need ; )

* See

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Autumnal Changes

As autumn has arrived with crisp, cool days and colder nights, I’ve observed the shortening of our front porch rug. First a few threads of its yarn fringe seemed to be falling off the rug’s body, attributed to rain and windy weather, I surmised. The fringe, however, disappeared geometrically as the nights grew longer. By yesterday, a side of the rug had disintegrated too.

Yes, what used to look like one gal’s front rug has taken on a new life that probably looks very much like an ambitious squirrel’s living room.