Celebration!!

 

peter birth

It makes sense that I would be awake at 2:30 a.m. this morning.  Unlike other mornings, when insomnia keeps my mind turning, this day brings memories of my fourth birthing day.  The first contraction was about this time and with it came the rush to get from Clermont to Dunwoody Medical Center.  Bill was flying down the highway and for once, I didn’t complain about his speed.  I knew from my previous experience I was having back labor, meaning the baby was coming sunny side up and would have to be turned before birth.  By the time we got to the hospital I was having piggy back contractions, where one came before the previous one was finished.  I asked for medicine and they told me the doctor was on his way to check me to see how I was progressing, and then he would give it to me.  When he arrived and checked, he said it was too late for meds I was 10 cm already.  He broke my water, turned the baby and ordered me to start pushing.  In 30 minutes, he was holding my baby and taking his guess as to the weight.  (My doctor was known for his accurate predictions. With each baby he delivers he guesses before they weigh the baby and is usually right within 2 or 3 ounces. He guessed all four of mine correctly…to the ounce.)  He asked me what my biggest baby had been to that point.  I told him 10 lb. 5 oz. which I thought was pretty huge. He said, “Not anymore, this one is over that by 11 oz. or so.”  He was correct.  I had an 11lb. baby, 22 years ago today. He came home in three-month clothes.  He was a chunk, now he’s a hunk.  Those dimples, right?

Peter Josiah Gunnin.

peter dressy.jpg

This year I celebrate not only his birth, but also his graduation from Berry last week. (Official ceremony will be in May with photos following.  J ) I cannot say how proud I am of him.  The last several years our family has gone through some rough times. He has taken it all in stride, stepped up to the plate, and taken on responsibility of financing his own schooling and completing his degree in Marketing a semester early.  This, his last semester, has been his most challenging yet with even more life trials and a significant loss which turned his world upside down.  Yet, he has finished with flying colors.  He worked hard taking on three jobs and continued studying all while processing deep heart issues. I am amazed at his work ethic and his determination.  He is moving on to the next phase of his life, and has a job doing what he loves.  He is remarkable.

To say I am a proud mom is an understatement, and to top it all off he is the last of the four to graduate…which means we are officially done with college!!  At least, with first degrees anyway.  All of my kids made it to adulthood, and for that I am ever grateful and so very proud.  Being a parent is my primary life’s work.  Seeing them all find their path may take some time yet, but they are well on their way to becoming who they were designed to be. It has taken much prayer through laughter and sometimes tears, but today is a day for celebration of an accomplishment!

Happy Birthday and Graduation, Peter!

peter casual.jpg

 

 

 

 

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Disruption and Interruption

christmas-ornament

To me, Christmas concerts, plays, and productions are a required part of the season. It just isn’t Christmas until I have been singing along and tapping my foot to Christmas tunes. When I was a kid, my aunt Betty took us to the Robert Shaw Christmas Symphony every year.  I can still remember the Morehouse Choir singing Betelemehu.  It was my favorite song of the whole concert because of the clapping and drums. There were also some years we went to the lighting of the Great Tree at the downtown Rich’s where I listened to each choir on the bridge sing. When the soloist in the last choir sang the big note in O, Holy Night, the tree came alive with lights. Whether I was standing on the street below or watching it on television, I got chills…every time. I think those early experiences are what set the tone and helped Christmas productions become a personal tradition for me.  I have expanded my musical listening from traditional songs of the season to more modern and everything in between, but I still love them all.  I am up for pretty much any Christmas show because it is my favorite time of the year.

For years, my family was on the stage, with me in the audience cheering for them.  I watched my kids grow up from young children to teenagers in the lights of Christmas productions.  From Narnia to Bethlehem, and every single band concert in which Sleigh Bells was performed, my kids were in the midst.  I even birthed a child just in time to be Baby Jesus one year. I held my breath as he played his role, praying he wouldn’t cry and spoil the scene.  Mary was equipped with his pacifier and some toys, just in case.  I wanted my son to be a “good” Baby Jesus.

manger scene

This year I have been to several Christmas concerts already.  I started the Saturday after Thanksgiving and I still have more to go. At one of the productions I went to, the Baby Jesus was not just crying, he was wailing.  A beautiful sitting Mary (not his real mom) passed him to Joseph, who was standing, so he could try bouncing him. Joseph passed him back to Mary when bouncing didn’t work.  She tried swaddling his blanket tighter and putting the pacifier in his mouth.  He was having none of it.  As the shepherds came, Mary and Joseph turned the baby around to face them in an effort to distract him, to no avail. That lasted about 1 second. The kings arrived, presenting their gifts to a screaming baby who could not have been less interested. The choir kept singing louder trying to drown out the ear-splitting shrieks. The audience chuckled with uncomfortable laughter.  Somewhere backstage, I imagine the ‘real’ mom was cringing and pacing, probably with a shirt which was soaked from where her milk let down at the sound of his cries.

I was struck at all the efforts made to pacify Jesus, to make him appear as something he wasn’t.  I think we all want him to be a ‘good’ baby who personifies what we believe. I know when my son had the role I was praying he would be perfect, like Jesus was perfect.  We want him to have a glowing halo with a smile and never a whimper, because he is God and is all knowing.  He was God…but he had skin on.  Flesh.  Flesh that had needs, and a spirit which was perfect.  We want the picture of what a God-child would look and act like.  He’d be nothing like a real baby who wails and has needs. He’d be nothing like a colicky child who doesn’t sleep and cries for no reason.  Mary would have it easy handling a baby who was God, right?

The show went on despite the screaming Jesus.  As soon as was possible, he was whisked from the stage so as not to disrupt the production.  But it left me wondering, how often to I try to pacify Jesus?  How often does he disrupt things and I whisk him away rather than seeking to find out what he wants?  How often do I wish he would just smile and be quiet rather than making a big deal out of something?

My opinion is he was born to disrupt things.  I think he still disrupts things today, and I bounce and pace and try to get him to be quiet. His words pierce hearts and change lives.  His actions confound human logic.  I mean, he came as a baby…not in a castle or hall of justice or a temple.  He was born to the poor and the poor in spirit, and they will always see him because they have need of him.

He interrupts lives going in one direction and changes them.  He interrupts mindsets and hardheaded stiff-necked ideas, and softens them with his pointed questions. He interrupts false gods with his truth.  He pretty much interrupts and disrupts everything that isn’t based in God’s love.  He is love personified.  My prayer this Christmas is to be interruptible and to interrupt. To be aware of when he is nudging me to speak to someone and interrupt their lives with a prayer or a kind word.  Or to be interrupted as I go through the days and weeks of the year, to get out of my own life to look around me and to truly see those around me in need.  The baby is crying to wake us up, to interrupt our views of him and to make us uncomfortable. I squirm when he cries, because I desire to stay in my comfortable chair with my comfortable view of him as a helpless little baby who smiles all the time.  He is not that baby.  He is one who is hungry for those who will seek the why to the disruptions he puts in our paths.  He desires those who will not whisk him away out of sight when he is crying, but who will instead enter in and find the heart behind the tears.  I don’t want to be one who pacifies him, but lets his disruptive voice be heard in my life to take me out of my comfort zone, so that his cries are not in vain.  Emanuel…God with us.

The Heart of God

big doors

I climbed the marble stairs one at a time.  They were enormous, but beyond my notice because at the top of them were the most massive doors I had ever seen.  My heart pounded but it was difficult to distinguish if it was the climb or the awe which made it beat so rapidly.

“What is this place?” I whispered to no one in particular.

The doors stretched more than triple my height, and that fact alone was overwhelming. They were a deep chestnut-red with a rich grain that displayed the character of each board. The metalwork on the enormous hinges was exquisite.  Like a vine, it flowed across the bottom and top reaching the entire width of the doors, which was considerable. Standing at the top of the stairs, I just stared, taking in the craftsmanship.

I was drawn toward them with a sudden desire to touch the surface of the wood.  I had no idea how thick they were, but I knew feeling the wood with my fingertips would not create enough noise to disturb whoever was inside.  I just had to slide my hand along the grain. The texture was unusually smooth, like silk.  I thought it would be rough, or at least course, but instead it seemed to almost quiver beneath my touch.  The more I rubbed the surface, the more I felt a warmth radiating out of the wood.  I had only intended one touch, but I could not help more as I admired these doors.  With one hand sliding across the timber, the massive door creaked open a few inches.  I stepped back for fear of what might be inside, but only for a moment because curiosity pulled me forward again.

I lined my eye up with the crack in order to see within.  When my head rested against the door it opened wider.  I stepped into a great hallway, trying to see it all from high to low. My anxiety was replaced with a calm once I was inside.  The hall appeared to be never ending, and was at least three stories tall.  Each floor had doors on both sides. My footsteps clicked along the corridor as I approached the doors on the first level.

“Where am I?” I wondered out loud.

“In my heart,” came a voice.

I smiled because I knew that voice.

“Step into the first room.”

red door

I walked to a door, not nearly as big as the first door, but still formidable in size.  I turned the handle and pushed it open.  I was immediately in a rowboat on the ocean.  It was nighttime and I was alone. The water was inky black, as was the sky.  It was difficult to see for the blackness and shadows.  In front of me was and outline of what looked like a train.  It was hard to make it out, until I slid through the water nearer to the line of barges. They appeared to be like cattle cars, only instead of on land, they were moving across the sea. A Sea Train moving in the darkness.  My little rowboat was moving towards it. I felt drawn with the current and the boat I was in, carried me to the side of the train.  It was only when I got close, that I saw the cars were full of women and children.  One mother threw something which made a loud splash into the water near my boat; it was her baby.  I scrambled to get the baby before it sank into the sea, only to see there were hundreds of others already dead and floating in the water. Children from infants to older ones, floated like buoys.  Over the edge of my boat the ocean was filled with children sinking into the cold inky black. Some of them reached towards me desperate for me to take their hands, others stared blank dead stares.  Some were sinking and disappearing beneath the surface, and others were floating face down.  Horrified, I grasped the baby and pulled her out.  She was shivering and crying.  I had no blanket for her.

The Sea Train continued moving past me and other mothers were reaching through the bars on the windows of their cars.  Holding their children out to me.

“Please, take my child,” they urged.

“You must help me,” they cried.

“Here, please take him.”

They called out to me in quiet but urgent voices as I moved as close as possible to their train.  Babies and children were being tossed overboard for me to retrieve.  I was grabbing for the ones the mothers were holding out to me, while at the same time listening to splashes all around me. My boat was filling up with children, and more and more were raining down.  The water was filling with dead and crying babies.  The mothers were desperate. All of this was being done in secret, in relative quiet, under cover of darkness, and I knew if I was caught I would be killed.  My heart pounded hard.  I called out for someone to help me rescue the children, but I was the only one there.  I watched, weeping as children sank into the deep black waters. It was impossible.

The mothers kept moving on the Sea Train, towards their deaths.  Their hands were on the bars as they looked at me, with a boat full of their children.  As they wept, their tears glistened in the moonlight. I wept too. They trusted so completely, that they released their hands and let their babies fall into the sea, in hopes someone would rescue them. I wept that they had no other choice.  I wept that I could not save them all.  I wept as they died in the water.  I wept as I rowed my boat towards the shore in an attempt to keep some of them alive, knowing it was a fraction of those who needed to be rescued. Knowing that hundreds of others were floating alone in the darkness, never to feel their mothers’ embraces again.

Back in the hallway, I asked, “Why did you bring me here?”

“I want to share my pain with you.  I weary of carrying it alone.”

“Do all of these rooms have that much sorrow in them?”

“Yes, too much pain.  Every one of them,” he said.

“I do not think I could handle that much agony.  How do you do it?” I asked.

“I invite people into it with me. It is not up to you to handle it. I simply want to share some of it. I want someone to walk with me into it…someone to be in it with me.  It eases the grief to share it.”

“Like when a loved one dies and friends come around to sit with you?” I asked.

“Yes.  Like that.  All of these are my loved ones, and the weight of their suffering is heavy.  And you just went into ONE room.  There are hundreds of others.”

“I cannot imagine the ache of your heart,” I whispered.

“I would like to show you…give you a tour.  Would you do that for me…take a tour of my heart?  Would you write about my broken heart?  Share what you see and hear?”

“I will try, if you will give me the words,” I replied.

“I will give them to you…as always.”

I put my hand on the second door handle and pushed it open.

 

…I woke up from my dream on New Year’s morning, safe and snug in my bed, but with a new ache in my soul.  I did not know the full meaning of the dream or what God wanted me to do with it.  I have held it for two years, waiting for the release. First, the refugee crisis in Greece, and now there is a refugee crisis in Uganda where mothers are once again saying goodbye to their children.  Families are separated by war, and I am seeing from a distance the need for the story to be told, for the grief to be shared.  Stay tuned.

The Gift of Words

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote last at Christmas last year for Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog.  As we prepare gifts this season let us not forget, words are powerful, can be given to everyone on your list, and…they are free! You can read the entire piece here

christmas-ornament

I am a natural encourager.  I am also a teacher.  It is not clear to me which came first.  Am I a teacher because I am an encourager, or is it the other way around? Either way, I have found great pleasure in building others up and helping them to feel valued.  I do this in several ways, but mainly I write notes.  They started off as handwritten expressions of appreciation.  Never underestimate the power of a good thank you note.  From there I started writing little memos just to brighten someone’s day.  When the internet was invented, my note writing grew to a whole new level. The speed with which my words traveled was amazing!  Notes turned into letters at the point when my typing speed surpassed my handwritten scrawl, and while I still love a handwritten note, the ability to communicate instantly has made inspiration easy to spread on a daily basis.  Nothing motivates me like motivating someone else.  It is my passion.

All this encouraging had been going on for a while before it occurred to me that I should use words to bless my own family.  I was busy reaching out to those who were downtrodden or had been through some trauma or another.  Having walked those roads myself, I knew the importance of not feeling alone.  However, there came a day when I recognized my words could bolster people even in good times.  I knew I had been given a gift of words, but I also learned that words are a gift, like a present to be opened.

At Christmas, in the bottom of the stockings, I began to give the gift of words to my children.  I mean, I had been doing this for years for other people, so why had I not ever done it for my own children?  They are simple notes, no more than a paragraph, or two, that tell them what I see in them.  They are expressions of how they have grown over the past year, and what I see forming in their lives.  Gifts and talents are affirmed, but I also tell them how proud I am of them and how much I love them. Simple.  It doesn’t take much time and even less money, yet they are some of the most anticipated gifts I give all year.  I have found them on bulletin boards in college dorm rooms, and on desktops at home.  They are stuffed in Bibles, and taped to walls and magnetized onto refrigerators.  I put a little of myself in every note, and that heartfelt sentiment brings lift to the lives it touches.

My point is that words are a powerful, meaningful gift.  As writers, we might not realize that.  For us, words come naturally and so we do not always recognize what a gift they can be to someone.  Yet, as an encourager, I can tell you that many to whom I have sent messages, treasure them.  They hold them for years.  They reread them long after I have forgotten what I even wrote. I know this because they tell me so.  I don’t know why it always surprises me, because I do the same thing.  I have a collection of letters given to me in difficult times which bolstered me.  I have a box of cards with notes written in them that made me feel loved.  It wasn’t the cards that were the gift, it was the WORDS.  It is the season for giving presents wrapped in shiny paper with bows, and while ‘words’ may not be on the top of anyone’s Christmas list, they are definitely a gift to be given that will last longer than most, and be more significant. Here are some things you might want to include in your gift…

For the rest go to Two Drops of Ink.

Windstorms

fall leaf

The wind is howling, rushing down the mountain through the trees; they are possessed with it.   I can feel them bowing and bending. I can hear the violence of crashing branches. Surround sound starts on one side of me and then swirls around to the other.  In the wee hours, when my mind is wide awake, darkness forces me to use only my ears to discern what is happening outside my windows. There is a low reverberation which crescendos to a howl.  The fierce swishing sound paints a picture in my mind of the last of the fall leaves ripped from their branches and slammed into the ground.  They rattle and crackle as they fall.  I bet they are caught up in a whirlwind making a leaf cyclone, which moves across the ground in the air. Suddenly, the noise drops away and silence whispers, but only for a moment. In my mind’s eye, the leaves drop suddenly, like rocks, to the blanket of color on the ground, but then take flight again with the next whoosh down the mountain.  The rafters creak with the power of the gusts which blow forcefully.  The house has a chill because the Siberian express is racing through the valley in a hurry to arrive to its destination before Thanksgiving.  All the leaf blowing and raking is undone, I just know it.  I can hear empty branches clanking together.  It is the sound of winter arriving blustery and cold. Sometimes season change is gentle like the quiet unfurling of leaves, and other times it comes like a freight train.  Sometimes it is both in quick succession.

Life is similar, in the changing of seasons. Gradual, barely noticeable changes take place and you look up one day in a new place.  Other times the season is thrust upon you without the slightest warning, and you grapple with how to survive.  Either kind serves the same purpose. Transformation.  From one season to another.  The same landscape, yet entirely different.

Living life is learning to recognize both types of changes are part of the deal.  I can wish for gentle changes all day long, and often do in the midst of the more difficult ones.  Yet, the kind that plunge me into a new place abruptly, require my trust in God to grow by leaps and bounds.  They force me to question my beliefs and to seek out the answers to my questions.  The more sudden changes leave me feeling exposed and vulnerable.  I grope around in the dark and it seems God is far away.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In the windstorms of life, when the howl is so loud you cannot even hear God, he draws near.  In the moments when you feel afraid and ripped apart, he is as close as your breath.  Even when you cannot feel him, he is there holding you up, breathing life into the dead and brittle places.  Sometimes being stripped down to the bareness under all the fluff is a necessary thing. The chill and the complete undoing feel like cruelty in the midst of the change, but after the winter, comes the spring.  Always. You can trust in the reliability of that as a fact, and when your unexpected season changes come, it is important to remember it.

In the morning, the trees will be mostly bare.  The windstorm will have done its job and moved on to the next place the wind takes it. The winter will be upon us and its transformation work will go underground where we cannot witness it…yet.  Darkness and cold will be a cloak worn for a season.   An important season.  Required for roots to grow deep. My eyes are getting heavy with the sleep that rarely comes.  My mind is slowing now that the words are spilled upon the page. There is a chance I might catch a few winks before dawn. The wind is still whipping outside my window and now I hear the rush as a song.  A reminder that seasons are changing.  Ready or not, transformation is upon me.

The Silence of God

 

fall leaves.jpg

I sit in silence on my back porch, contemplating.  The leaves are worshiping all around me in a kaleidoscope of color.  I sit and wait, for what? I do not know.  I am drawn inward to listen for words which do not present themselves. I have found in order to jiggle them loose, I must wait.  Sit.  Ponder.  Feel.  It is the feeling part that is most difficult these days.  I’d rather be numbed, than feel what is currently in the atmosphere.

Momentarily lost in my thoughts, I am drawn back to my porch by the sound of the leaves rustling.  The breeze is speaking.  I listen and hear pitter patter, like rain, only not like rain. I am curious at the ‘non-rain’ rain sound.  I take it in, recognizing the tones are different than the usual storms.  There are no hissing or dripping sounds, only pitter patter.  It is not water falling…it is the leaves.  They swish on their way to the ground. With the wind, the kaleidoscope is moving and changing.  Rogue leaves hang on for dear life.  They do not know it, but they are already done, the hanging on will not last much longer.  Others are falling with style, twisting and turning, like ballerinas in a dance with the breeze.  Some are kamikaze and appear to be trying to take out as many others as possible by crashing into branches and leaves.  On this day, the sun is out and the glow of the dying leaves is spectacular.  Their constant shifting creates a new design every few minutes.  It is mesmerizing.  I cannot look away for the beauty of it.  And yet…

My heart is silent.  God is silent.  Only the leaves are speaking as they drift downward.   The grief of our world is nearly overwhelming sometimes.  Like the leaves, it is a blanket that covers everything.  Vivid reds are like the blood of the innocents, spilling out and seeping into the ground.  Fiery oranges are the flames of disunity and discord that are burning up our world in hate.  Yellows are the joy we used to know, fading away…buried in the decaying piles already fallen.   leaves on the groundMy usual giddiness at autumn’s splendor is subdued by the death spreading across the world.  A car running people over on sidewalks in New York, followed by the shooting in Texas during a worship service.  War in other countries is killing innocents by the thousands and starvation is killing the rest.  Storms have stolen stability and life from people in several regions, and fires burn homes to ashes in others, lives going up in smoke.

The wind groans, the leaves fall. The rocks and trees which usually cry out praises are heavy with the losses from our sin-saturated world.  We are a fallen creation. Even those who don’t believe in sin are seeing the results of it now, and asking ‘What is going on here?’  Eyes are being opened to truth of what our world looks like when left to our own devices.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, and we all know it.  Deep down, our souls cry out for relief.  The crazy thing is, sin has been forgiven…all of it.  We need only to receive what was freely given and walk in grace, but we resist.  We wrestle and writhe and insist that we have things well in hand.  And the leaves continue to fall.  The silence grows.

The day when God is absent, when he is silent…that is the beginning of prayer.  Not when we have a lot to say, but when we say to God, ‘I can’t live without you.  Why are you so cruel, so silent?’ This knowledge that we must find or die…makes us break through to the place where we are in the Presence.  If we listen to what our hearts know of love and longing and are never afraid of despair, we find that victory is always on the other side of it.” Anthony Bloom

The silence at this moment is deafening…but, it is creating a longing, not for God’s gifts or his hand, or what he does for us…but for God himself.  He is a place a safety, love, and belonging.  A place of grace and acceptance.  The wind blows, the leaves fall, and in the silence…our hearts cry out.

leaves and bible.jpg

A Frightening Moment

michelle-in-front-of-yonah

A beautiful fall day calls for…housework, right?  Maybe.  Just a little.  Then a drive through the brilliant glowing mountains, as a reward.  Bill was changing lightbulbs on the outside of the house in preparation for the darker evenings.  I was inside working to ready the guestroom for any visitors coming our way.  Bill was on a step stool which wiggled underneath him and bucked him like a bronco.  He went down on his back, hitting the corner of the concrete slab of the driveway.  Without his phone, he had no way to notify me of his plight other than to crawl into the house with screams and groans, which brought me running.  I found him face down in the floor writhing in pain, unable to tell me much other than he fell.  As he was pointing to his back, I did an assessment of the situation to determine if an ambulance would be necessary.  I found scrapes, but no bruises.  However, he is notorious for not bruising easily, so that meant nothing.  I grabbed the ice pack and plopped it on the area of concern.  When he got some of his breath back, he told me both his elbows where hurting.  We determined he had somehow put them behind him in trying to catch himself.  Both were scraped and bleeding and required ice as well.

He attempted to turn over onto his back and for the first time I saw his face.  His eye was black.  To me, in that moment, all my world got what I call fear-foggy.  I forgot the back and elbows and immediately asked where he had hit his head.  He insisted he had not hit his head.  However, since he does not bruise, for his eye to be black already I knew he must have really done a number on his noggin.  I was checking for bumps or knots on his face.

He kept saying, “I did not hit my head.  I fell on my back.”

I questioned, “Then why is your eye black?”

“It must be dirt,” he said.

I could feel panic rising in my chest and had to take a few breaths to bring some calm into my fear-fog.  I reached up and wiped at his eye, and removed his black eye.  It was dirt.  My relief was instantaneous.  I even laughed a bit at my concern over a dirt smudge.

I shifted my focus to dealing with the back, which by now was improving pretty rapidly.  He was able to sit up slowly and move, breathe, and twist.  His elbows became increasingly sore, but the back seemed okay.  He managed to stand and I got him to a chair.  Once he realized his back wasn’t broken and he could bend and straighten his arms, he took me outside to where he had fallen.  I have to tell you, it is a miracle he didn’t break his back.  Truly.  The concrete edge he fell on should have snapped his back in two.  I cannot explain to you how scary the whole event was.  But I can say, it showed me something significant about how our pasts effect our present.  The fear-fog that came over me when I thought he had hit his head was immediate.  I could deal with a possible broken back, or a couple of broken elbows…but just the thought of another TBI put me into a panic.

Which made me wonder…what things in my past are still fresh enough to interrupt my thought processes and create a fog?  What fears am I unknowingly living with day to day?  The most obvious ones, cancer and TBI will probably always be in the back of my brain somewhere waiting to jump out on days like yesterday.  But what of the others.  Are there others?  In moments which can be life defining, is fear bigger than life to me? I am aware of how things can change in one heartbeat…an instant.  I am also aware God carries me in those times of crisis when I cannot even think straight for the fog. Fortunately, yesterday Bill was spared any significant injury.  He tossed and turned last night in his sleep, moaning and groaning at the pain in his elbows.  This morning he still insists he is fine and no x-rays are needed.  We will see about that. 🙂 My heart is grateful beyond words that miracles still happen, and in a frightening moment yesterday, we were recipients of one.

Decision Making (Guest blog)

bank

As told to me by Bill Gunnin

Impaired Decision Making- the inability to regard the cognitive processes which result in the selection of a belief or a course of action among several alternative possibilities; the inability to take into account all possible choices and come to a conclusion on a course of action.

The slowing of my processing speed the doctor says is happening, makes so much sense to me now that I know what it is. Processing information takes multiple parts of the brain working in cooperation with one another. For me, all thoughts are coming into my brain with equal importance and intensity.  My ability to filter importance and prioritize tasks is greatly reduced, so everything has equal power as it comes in.  I have trouble sometimes focusing my attention on what I think is most important. I cannot process/filter other things vying for my attention in order to determine the best course of action.  Therefore, I have trouble making decisions of even basic things, for example, picking out what to wear.  I think about all the possibilities of the clothes, the work I will be doing, the weather, what I might need, which shirt works for whatever event I am going to, which one fits better, what color looks better on me.  It seems impossible to sort through all that, plus my worry that I might not be ready for the unexpected.  It is hard to just pick one.  It is easier for me if you pick it.  Same with a big menu at a restaurant.  I drive the severs crazy with my questions because I just cannot decide. It is embarassing.

There are some things which help me to cope with this processing issue. Driving helps me to think through things, as long as it is a relaxing drive and there is no traffic. Like today, we are driving and I am able to talk through this.  Listening to jazz helps me too. Sometimes instrumental jazz music can help calm stuff down mentally.  I say sometimes, because my reactions to these events on one day are different than the exact same stimuli on another day.  If I am fresh it is easier to decide things; when I am tired and out of sorts, mental fatigue sets in more quickly. It is hard to be aware, and to predict when I will have trouble with a choice. It is like all of a sudden my brain cannot process. Flash anger pops up when I cannot figure out what to pick. I can tell I give out so much faster now.  My brain is the same way, all of the sudden it just gives out.  No one can see when it happens or be aware of it since it is internal. This internal torture of making decisions is part of me I can’t share with anyone even if I wanted to because it is a hidden disability.  Hidden even from myself.  It is not objectively measured by factors or tools.

I have been thinking about the piggy bank analogy you gave me last week. It has helped me so much in figuring out my decision making and why it is so hard.  You said I have a piggy bank with only so many coins. I don’t know how to spend my coins, because I don’t know how much things cost me.  I need to learn to budget my coins.  I have felt bad about not being able to do things. I would feel guilty when I didn’t want to go somewhere we had planned to go, and I couldn’t see it was  because I was out of coins.  That comparison to a bank helps me emotionally.  I struggle with self judgement.  Self-awareness.  Self-observation.  It’s not because my character is flawed, it’s just that I have a limited resource.  I don’t like being different than everyone else.  My pride, my self-talk, my trying to judge myself…this new idea about limited resources helps me to understand the troubles are not because there is something wrong with me.  I want to be able to afford the expenses I have, and control my outgo.  I am having a light bulb moment because of this analogy, only I don’t see it exactly as a piggy bank and coins.

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My mental energy is currency.  A pile of available energy.  But it may not be enough resource for what may be demanded of me, so, I have to work under a budget.  I have to learn to be aware of the cost of goods and conserve energy for more taxing activities. Many goods don’t have a price tag.  The challenge is I don’t know the cost of so many of my expenses…until I am paying it or it is already spent. Preparing is hard to do because I cannot always predict how much I am using or how much I have left.  Sometimes I have frustration, like suddenly in a restaurant and everything is too expensive mentally with background noise and decisions that have to be made. I have no money left and I run out of mental energy. In that moment it is less energy if you just order for me.

This is a practical and measurable way to talk about my life and what I have to deal with daily. It is hard to manage my life.  At times, this is true for anybody.  It helps me to think about it this way…in assets and liabilities.  This separates the injury from my identity.  Separates my struggles, from who I am. I don’t want TBI to be who I am, this new thought makes it apart from me, yet something I have to deal with and manage.  Just like someone who lost a leg, it doesn’t change who they are, but they have to adjust. The problem for me is no one can see if I need an accommodation and it isn’t clear even to me. This view of limited resources gives me a more objective view of the circumstances.  The tipping point is when I use up cash. Then shut down occurs.  I may need a quiet room for days, if my assets are spent.  If I had them, I could still spend.

An element I am not sure about is the on/off, black/white.  Is it gradual?  Does it build up? When I run out of energy it is not like I am walking into a dark room, there may be light in the hallway, light in the door, the light dims until eventually it goes totally black.  It is dark room at times. (I am thinking in analogies now because it helps to compare things.)  I see things but not in specifics.  Details are missing.  It’s like when you are in the moonlight, your eyes see black and white not color.  The light shifts and you stop seeing the details and colors.  You stop being able to recognize what things are.  In my brain, I don’t connect to an idea, and suddenly am done.  It is more like gradually the light  is fading.  It gets dim.  It appears to you they suddenly go out, but to me it seems like it is more gradual.  As a victim, I don’t always know the light is fading.  I think it is related to my awareness of it.  Self-awareness is a hard thing for most people, but for brain injuries it almost impossible.  Now that I think about it, my shut downs have caught me unaware.  Slowly getting darker.  Sometimes my mind has a sense of peace.  Relaxed, like I am not stressed.  Part of what I am wondering about is if everything I do, spends currency.  I would like to think there are some times maybe it’s not diminishing.  Maybe I am helping my currency increase. Sometimes things feel effortless, other times I am conscious of effort taken which drains me. The weird thing is that sometimes they are the same things, and they have the opposite effect. Hard to predict.

Playing the piano is an example of this. Sometimes I sit down at the piano and I am doing it for a purpose.  I sit down and play and it flows.  Then when someone says, ‘sit down and play,’ my mind goes blank. I cannot think of what to play, and suddenly I am stressed.  I cannot make a decision of what song to play.  A lot of times I think what I am playing sounds stupid.  Other times it is good.  Sometimes it is interesting.  I want it to be interesting.  I feel like anybody who plays the piano can play what I can play…and that what I have is not all that special.  It feels so simple…no big deal.

However, I know I carry some element of worship to the Lord that is unique to me. There is a certain kind of ministry of peace and an ability to help people tap into it and feel it. I do admit it.  It is a gift I have.  I don’t know how special it is, not to diminish it, but how unique is it for a broad audience?  I don’t degrade it, I just don’t know if everyone will view it as something of value.  Just an honest thought, not to take away from what I have. I know what I have musically is different, but I don’t know how many people it touches. I have no doubt part of me is ministering to people…to minister the Father’s heart to his people.  I have other things too I think, but that is one thing I know I carry.  It has a place.  I am not always sure if when people ask me to play if it is the place for me to pour that out or not.

Because of this new perspective…assets and liabilities… I am beginning to understand how to regulate the importance of the thoughts that bombard my mind. Now that I understand I have limited resources.  It saves me energy when I let you pick clothes without second guessing it, or using the GPS instead of trying to guess about how traffic will be on every possible route.  I am learning to take one thing at a time and to learn to budget my resources and to pay attention to the timing of things. I have a new appreciation and understanding of the verse “Taking every thought captive…” 2 Cor.10:5

If you are a TBI survivor or a Caregiver of a TBI survivor please share your thoughts with us in the comments.  We’d really like to know if what Bill shares here is helping others to see themselves/loved ones differently.  Is it beneficial to you? 

A Lovely Surprise

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At my alma mater, Berry College, we have a tradition called Mountain Day which is sometimes difficult to describe.  When asked, “What is Mountain Day?” I usually just say it’s like homecoming, because it is easier than giving a full explanation. Martha Berry, the school’s founder, had her birthday on October 7.  The celebration all started back in the early 1900s. The poor mountain students wanted to give Martha a gift for her birthday, but they knew she wouldn’t accept a gift for herself.  Instead, they each gave the number of pennies of their age in a basket as a scholarship for other kids to be able to come to Berry. That was a big deal. The students wore uniforms back in those days; women in pink and men in blue.  The seniors had the designation of women in blue and men in white.  They gathered at Lavender Mountain and marched down the hill to present Martha with their pennies.  After the first trip down the hill they marched back up to meet up and march down in pairs.  As the band played, they did this trip three more times until they were 16 across for the final march down and the singing of the alma mater.  Martha was presented with the basket of pennies and there was great celebration.  The day at the mountain has continued to this day.  In fact, it has expanded to include the entire first weekend of October each year, with Mountain Day Olympics, a talent show, a chapel service, a picnic, a Marthapalooza fair with carnival rides, and class reunions from previous decades.  Unless you went to Berry you probably can’t fully understand this rite of passage, but it brings all students, former to present, together to celebrate the heritage of the school and its amazing founder.

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This past weekend Peter was wearing white.  His senior year.  All those previous years of marching up and down the hill came to fruition in this last march. Next year he will be on the sidelines with the rest of us who have marched that hill before him. He will not be dripping with sweat, or huffing and puffing, but he will go back with fond memories to meet up with friends and reminisce.  He will have a new appreciation of the traditional event and its ability to bond all generations of students and their families.

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This past weekend it was also Hannah’s 5-year reunion.  We were sad she was going to be unable to come the distance from Seattle for the celebration.  Unbeknownst to us, she hatched a plan.  She and Peter conspired to surprise us with her presence.  Bill and I were in Atlanta at an event and had planned to go to Rome for Mountain Day from there.  Peter knew the hotel we were at and Hannah had contacted someone at the event to get our room number.  At 6:30 in the morning I thought I heard a knock at the door.  I was sound asleep so I kind of dismissed it as a dream.  I heard it again and woke enough to listen more carefully, but was still unsure if it was our door or the one next to us.  I got up and looked through the peephole in the door.  No one was there and I thought I had imagined the whole thing.  I started to head back to bed, when another knock came.  Definitely our door.  Afraid to open it without knowing who was there, I asked.  I heard a muffled voice, so I asked again.  I still didn’t understand but it was a woman’s voice so I took a chance it wasn’t a crazed killer and opened the door.  “Surprise!” I was stunned to see Hannah and the squealing began.  I pulled her into a hug and drug her into the room.  Yelling for Bill to wake up and ‘look who is here!’  It was a wonderful surprise!!  We got to ride up to Mountain Day together and spend time with Peter on his senior day, the two of them laughing at their successful ability to pull one over on mom and dad.

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The class of 2012 banner was strung between trees at the picnic. Hannah found her friends there and surprised them too!  No one else knew she was coming either, except for those she was staying with for the night. She got to see all her former roommates and catch up.  It was a whirlwind, last minute decision on her part to come to Georgia for 24 hours, but it was worth it to be with family at a significant event and to see her friends…all in one place!

Generations of students and their loved ones were able to participate, either marching or watching, as the students marched up and down the hill. Hurricane Nate even held off so the march was able to be completed in the sun and humidity…haha.  This year, Peter’s senior year, my heart is full.

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Hope Wins…Again

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Darkness overcomes me.  Black as ink, not even a hand in front of my face is visible.  I am surrounded.  I am afraid of the absence of light.  My heart pounds.  I grasp and claw, until I realize it is futile to fight the black night of the soul.  I have no control.  I have no say.  I am at its mercy. I freeze like a statue.  Waiting.  Trembling.  Surrendered to its grip.  Knowing there is no way out, of my own making.  I resist the urge to run.  It would only make things worse.  Running in the dark is more dangerous than the dark itself.  Unseen obstacles hide in the dark.  They wait to grab me, to slap me, to trip me up.  The safest way is to stand or kneel or curl up, and wait.  Make myself small. Like a baby in utero.  I can hear my own heart beating in my ears.  I am blind.  I can see no way forward, or back.  Fear runs down my face in the form of tears.  My heart feels ripped from my chest. It is a gaping wound.  I cry out to the silence.  I feel nothing and everything. I know nothing.  I can only wait.  Alone. In the darkness.

My eyes play tricks on me.  Charcoal is lighter than black.  I blink.  Again, and again.  I strain, only to see nothing.  Still nothing.  Fear turns to curiosity. Am I imagining things? Could it be?  I still feel the darkness clawing me. Pulling me.  Trying to take me out.  The struggle is gone.  I have quit the fight.  It is no use.   But I also feel something else. Foreign but familiar.  A pull.  Maybe a sliver.  I fumble to my knees.  I kneel in silence.  Still silence.  Something is different.  Gray now.  No longer black.  I am sure of it.  Dare I be sure of it?  I fear certainty.  My imagination plays tricks sometimes. I quake at the word gray.  Gray means change.  Gray means new.  Gray is as scary as black.  My heart thumps.  No longer shredded.  Just steady thumps of…  What? Anticipation? Amidst the gray, there is expectation. Something is happening.  I don’t know what.

Shifting shadows.  There are only shadows if there is light present, right? The gray is lighter now.  I dare not believe it.  I hold back.  I want to investigate, but I am still frozen in place.  My eyes are open wide.  Watching.  Seeing.  Pink.  Pale and barely there.  Could it be true? The dark night of the soul, fading?  I am full alert now. I can see what surrounds me.  A completely different landscape. Nothing has changed but everything is different.  The dawn is breaking.  The pink is deep.  The gray lightens to purple.  There is magnificent color.  Glorious blushing.  Light in all its glory suddenly peeks out.  I recognize hope when I see it on the horizon.  The darkness is broken and transformed into day. I thought hope was extinct.  My tears are grateful ones.  My heart rises in excitement to see its old friend. I breathe deeply and take it in.  I drink thirstily from the well.  I try to saturate myself.  I bathe in it. I am weary, from my time in the darkness.  I bask to absorb its strength.  Ever so slowly, I begin to move.  Still tentative in my steps.  Still cautious to trust.  But hope beckons to me.  Calls me to follow.  Infuses me. The remaining shadows bow to the light.  Like a vapor, they disappear.  I can see clearly now. My vision is restored.  Hope wins…again.