Alzheimer’s: 5 Things I’ve Learned (Thus Far)

How could my paternal grandmother take off from an isolated nursing home perched on a hill in the countryside and begin walking to an unknown destination that lingered only in her memory?  Why didn’t she ask someone to take her?  Why didn’t she even say something to someone?  Secured areas in retirement facilities and an understanding of Alzheimer’s did not exist decades ago.  I remember the questions I had and the fear as well.  Years later when my grandmother was confined in bed at the home I did not want to see her.  I knew she would not know me and in all honesty I did not want to see her either.  Years later my uncle,  my mother’s brother-in-law,  came to dinner with my aunt and another aunt and uncle. He also had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his lively personality was muffled by the confusion of the neural connections in his brain.  However unexpectedly  from a moment of a clear memory he joked about the possibility of salt in the sugar bowl which my mother had accidentally mixed up for a meal years earlier.  His words  brought tears to my aunt’s eyes and left a deep impression on my heart. I hardly knew anything about the disease at that time, yet I know now how those moments of connectedness comfort  grieving hearts, the hearts of those who watch helplessly as their loved one slowly slips away from them.

Relatives on both sides of me have grappled and are grappling with Alzheimer’s; the closest one being my mother who passed away the spring of 2015.   Possibly my sister also has it but it’s hard to determine since she’s been mentally handicapped since birth and suffers with a personality disorder.  Presently I have a part-time job that has allowed me to receive more training about dementia and also interact with those who have it.  I am finding out that oftentimes people with dementia and their families are ostracized and are found on the fringes of society.   Perhaps some of this is due to ignorance and misunderstanding of the disease.

So here are a few things I have learned — in a summary form.

1. Dementia is a group of SYMPTOMS which includes forgetfulness. Alzheimer’s  (AD) is a DISEASE that is the main cause of dementia.  And there is no cure.  Early on-set Alzheimer’s  seems to be more hereditary  (that is occurring before 65 years old) than the disease that strikes older people.

2.  Signs of AD— Simply stated: it is NOT forgetting where one’s car keys are, it’s forgetting what they are used for  or placing them in an illogical place.  Think — bizarre, strange, or unusual.  My mother would perhaps forget a name or call me by my sister’s name, and that’s okay.  Many of us mix up names. However when she would question if I was her daughter or forget I wasn’t married and had no children, that was more alarming.    There are also other telltale signs:  the inability to make change when paying for something and or to draw the face of a clock.  Handling numbers, banking, scheduling, etc. may become more difficult.  Be aware that someone else may be helping them out more in these areas than before (especially a spouse). We realized later that our sister who sometimes lived with our mother would remind her of times, days, appointments and even the right road to take.

3. Stages —  Material about Alzheimer’s will explain the stages and some are in great detail.  All kinds of resources are available online.  However the disease will affect different parts of the brain in each person, so not every stage would look exactly the same for each person.  My mother was a lively talker until she had a massive stroke.  However, the “conversation” rarely made sense even though to her it seemed to.  Once and a while she would say a sentence or phrase that was understood.  She also used Pennsylvania Dutch words which was her first language.  She eventually let others feed her when she stopped doing it herself,  but sometimes she would still talk away in between mouthfuls.  However, other AD folk may not talk at all or only a few words,  but continue to feed themselves or respond to music or a movie.

4. TriggersStrong emotions of anger, fear, sadness even laughter will erupt and sometimes it’s hard to know what the triggers are. Many times the negative ones are linked to needs not being met. But how does one figure that out? One tries to address the need whether it’s a physical need or an emotional or social need. During the earlier stages the AD person often is frustrated and scared about the cognitive abilities they are losing.  Looking back I saw many struggles my mother was having early in the disease and we did offer help and suggestions.  However, she was a stubborn and proud woman and a survivor in many ways.  Of course she didn’t want our help and got quite angry about it at times.  She finally did allow me to help her balance her checkbook– a monthly task she did flawlessly for decades.   I knew so little of AD then but now I might have done more… but then again maybe she would not have allowed me.

5.  Help Needed— Someone cannot handle the needs of an AD loved one alone.  Even during the early stages one needs family and close friends to be aware of the concern and to begin to help. Sadly many go into denial of a problem or they hide it from the very ones who may help and care.  Tests can be made to verify if something cognitively or physically is wrong. Dementia symptoms do not mean one has Alzheimer’s; a curable cause could be the problem. More and more training, support groups and resources are available for those facing Alzheimer’s.  Someone should never face it alone nor be ostracized in any way.

Churches and those who call themselves followers of Jesus should be aware of the growing number of those whose lives have been touched with Alzheimer’s.  Not only do the those who come down with the disease need love, care and encouragement but also the care-takers and their loved ones do.  These lives will never be the same.  They need community and empathy, not just sympathy or pity or prayers.

Those facing AD in the eyes and bodies of their loved ones need to cherish the moments of connection– the shared words, laughter, jokes, music, photos, and meals.  And then they should be allowed to share those moments with others who would listen and not fear or judge…  and cry and grieve … together.

Contented and Thankful–Memories Past

My first Thanksgiving away from family. Wearing summery clothing, the tropical air surrounded me as I sat on the floor with a plate full of traditional food in front of me–turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes,– the whole works. The table was not big enough for all of us so I made my chair my table as did some of the others.  I was surrounded by new friends and living in a new world totally different from what I had ever experienced. It was the first of countless holidays that would be different from what I grew up with.  I had signed up to teach in a small Christian school on the island of Puerto Rico after graduating from college in 1980. One of the teacher’s family lived in the capital and had us over for Thanksgiving. Sitting in front of my feast and tasting many familiar foods  I felt content.  I missed being with my family but I realized my colleagues also missed their families and somehow that soothed our hearts and bonded us together.  We decided to accept each others’ friendships (and food) that day as beautiful substitutes which would create new holiday memories.  We ate, laughed and talked.  No, we could not tell stories from past celebrations which we never shared, but we could talk of the present and… enjoy and be content with that.

Never again did I share a Thanksgiving with those same people but that day began a list of  many unique and special holidays which followed…

–My last Thanksgiving as a family, before I headed to Asia in 1983.  It was an early Christmas for me too at my brother and his wife’s first home.  But also it turned out to be the last time our whole family was all together before our parents divorced and thanksgivingbegan separate lives.

–Thanksgiving celebrations in Hong Kong with teammates making delicious dinners in tiny kitchens with even tinier toaster size ovens and large Chinese woks.   Also the fun of sharing American traditional Thanksgiving foods with local Chinese friends who would bravely taste the new foods.   Mashed potatoes were always a great hit.

Then as I headed to Mainland China the celebrations continued.  Finding the right foods we cherished for our American  Thanksgiving meals even in the capital during the early ’90s was one of many challenges.  When they were found and not too costly, transporting the goods without a car became quite an adventure. Bikes were the most common transportation mode those days since buses were often too crowded and taxis were hard to find. Small kitchens provided both amusement and frustration as we would juggle a limited assortment of pots and pans on one or two burner stoves and in toaster ovens, all the time fearing the fuse would blow or the electric wires and sockets would melt.

But oh the fun!   The meals those days were more international and creative.  We Americans got to introduce one of our favorite holidays with other expatriates.  An early one I remember while living in a filthy dorm for foreign students was spearheaded by an Aussie couple who wanted to make a traditional American Thanksgiving. (The husband enjoyed cooking!).  Others joined in and we had a wonderful meal but I’m thinking we must have had chicken instead of turkey.   The next year or so as a teacher I joined other foreign friends for a huge potluck meal in a small apartment.  That one included chicken from a western restaurant that had recently opened  as well as all kinds of hot dishes and desserts — some locally bought, others shared from care packages sent from the States.  (I remember sharing about Thanksgiving with my Chinese students then but I don’t remember sharing food with them at that time; Christmas cookie making was an easier tradition to do with them.)

There was also another well-remembered Thanksgiving celebration shared  with a Finnish-Dutch couple and an Chinese-Australian lady.  Another American gal and I figured out how to make two stuffed chickens with our little ovens. I can still remember vividly the two of us standing in front of a table with a cookbook opened for directions  (years before Google), two small raw chickens in front of us and  then realizing we didn’t have a string or thick thread to sew up the chickens after stuffing them.   We refused to waste our precious dental floss (probably impossible to buy there at that time), so instead my friend went to the front desk of the building (housing for foreigners on campus)  and got some string from the gal in charge.  Neither of us had ever done anything like this before and were delighted that some time later the chickens turned out cooked and delicious from our little ovens.  Also for that meal we could not decide what pies to make.  Her husband loved all kinds of pies.  So we ended up with: pecan, pseudo-pumpkin, coconut cream, chocolate cream, banana cream, and apple.  I made the apple and pumpkin pie (out of sweet potatoes) and she did the rest with ingredients she had gathered or had been given.  I think we all felt a bit guilty with all the desserts  (basically a pie a person),  but it was a memory we will always have… and never repeat.

Not all Thanksgivings overseas were great. I remember living in one city when Thanksgiving was approaching and having no invitation for dinner that evening.  And I was not new and also there were a lot of Americans around. Perhaps an oversight of others but still it was really hard.  I’d rather not think about it but it has made me more aware of those who may not have a place to go on Thanksgiving.

So now I’m back in the USA and I have had a place to go these last three years.  My sister-in-law’s family has invited me over and I have enjoyed a truly delicious traditional meal– American all the way.  There’s even the Macy’s Parade on TV and American football.  So even though I miss the international atmosphere, the mixture of various backgrounds and unshared histories and  even the adventure of finding foods  and making them (although for me personally to make a turkey would be quite challenging),  I  am learning that even here and now God wants me to be thankful and content. And I am.  But I can’t help but think about what future Thanksgivings may be like.

When There Is No Rain

Sometimes I don’t understand.  Well, actually many times I don’t understand.  I believe in God and I believe He wants me to pray to Him.  Yet sometimes He doesn’t seem to answer…in the way I would like it.  Sometimes my requests seem so simple and easy for Him to do… like making it rain.

Summer was brutal this year.  Temperatures rose and the sun beat down.  Leaves on my tough zinnias began to shrivel. Their colorful blossoms continued to bloom but the rest of the stalk suffered.  Other plants gave up.  I lugged water from my sink to keep the thirsty plants somewhat satisfied.   I knew how it was living in a dry area but Lancaster County, PA is not a desert.  We should get several inches of rain within A MONTH — showers and weather fronts dumping the wet stuff onto our happy fields, yards and gardens.  Happens yearly.  But this year it seemed like forecasted showers fizzled out or even bypassed my town.

Why?  I mean why couldn’t God allow the rain to come? As God the creator certainly it would be easy to nudge the rain cloud a mile or so to water my flowers.   And it wasn’t just me who liked perky flowers.  Farmers’ crops were wilting and everyone’s yards in my town were turning brown.

God, you can do it?  I mean a simple thing like that.  He could do it.  But He didn’t always do it.226076_10150163692053285_2849115_n

I KNOW having a drought in this region would not bring death to its inhabitants as it would  in other parts of the world. So it really is no big deal.  I can live with having sad flowers. They don’t look pretty but it’s okay.

Yet many friends and acquaintances I know ARE facing life and death issues:

Pain, grief, sickness and loss.
And in each situation God could do something about it.

Cancer. Alzheimer’s. Infertility. Disabilities.  Poverty.  Fear.  War.  And the list goes on.

He could heal the disease, allow the birth, provide the money or job, bring peace, reconciliation, comfort, guidance, solutions…

We pray, cry, question… and ask for mercy.   Yet it seems at times God doesn’t hear and the heavens are shut.  And I ask, we ask, and then  secretly wonder… is this the God of love?

Perhaps we try to comfort each other with the platitude that God is in control or that He knows what He is doing. I actually totally agree with this but what if a person doesn’t know God in an intimate way?  Hearing that a god  is in control of everything seems to admit that a sadistic being is delighted in harming and confusing His created humans, which consequently offers no real comfort or true explanation.  If anything it may fuel more anger and bitterness and disbelief.

The human part of me at times wants to turn away and follow many others who have become disillusioned with religion’s hypocrisy and false claims.

But the deeper part of my soul knows there is a God.  Yet this is not a god that can be understood by my limited thinking.  He is beyond any human comprehension.  Yet from what I see in His word–His revelation of Himself– He desires to commune with human beings.  His Spirit teaches me and inspires me to journey on in knowing Him.  I learn of Him as I read of Jesus, the God-Man who lived on earth, died and rose again.  So I seek after God even though at times I feel timid or even a bit fearful of what He could do or  allow in my life and this world.

Yet I am realizing that the more my heart  knows Him, and I continue to discover what He is really like, I can rest in His love for me,  even when I don’t understand what is going on. . . yes, even when  death, disappointment,  loneliness and unknowns become part of my life and. .  .  there is no rain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labels

English-speaking, wealthy and… promiscuous — labels attached to me as a Caucasian American living and working in China.  True I spoke English and even have a degree in teaching English but I didn’t enjoy strangers shouting “Hello” to me or inquiring if I had time to teach their child on the weekends. Yet I did enjoy interacting with my English students and helping friends with their English (sometimes).  But I was also comfortable in speaking Chinese with those who weren’t my students. Wealthy?  Well, compared to many of the poor who lived in poverty, as farmers in the countryside or migrants in the city, yes, I was rich.  However,  as more and more folk around me began to make more money over the years, their evident assets were quite in contrast to mine.  I wrote bike and they had cars.  I rented, they bought apartments.  I looked for nice but cheap clothes, they wanted brand names.   Promiscuous?  No, not me at all.  But American movies and TV, enthusiastically watched over the years by those in my adopted land, promoted the erroneous idea that “all” American women had and enjoyed affairs and would go to bed with anyone. Also, being single may have had further supported this wrong thinking.  Far from being any kind of beauty and even as I got older, I would encounter advances– both subtle ones and not so subtle ones.

After returning to the USA I realize that there are labels here too.  Perhaps I wasn’t as aware of them decades ago when I first left for overseas.  But now I am getting more settled here … and more aware.

My last name labels me.  Stauffer.  It’s a very common Lancaster County name so locals here will invariably try to figure out what Stauffer I am related to.  (By the way, I am not related to the Stauffer’s of Kissel Hill.)  Truth be told I’m as much of an outsider as those moving into the county or even more so since I lived most of my adult life overseas.

Being single is another kind of label.  This area is very family focused so to not have children or grandchildren for some locals is hard to imagine, and it’s difficult for some (not all!)  folk to find other topics to talk about.

And the label list continues.

During this messy election year I look again at the labels and stereotypes I myself have attached to our major political parties as I grew up: Republicans — conservative, pro-life, small government (and do I dare say, evangelical Christian?!).   Democrats — the opposite.   But to me personally, the lines are muddled now.  I see and analyze and question.   I am  definitely pro-life but do I, or do the Republican politicians do enough to help those who want abortions?  Are we actually doing something about the root causes of these baby deaths rather than just voicing how terrible they are?  Are we doing something to help the poor, the drug addicts, the helpless who may not see a way out of an unwanted pregnancy?  Are we doing anything?

Labels.

I call myself a Jesus-follower.  Another label.  Saying I’m a Christian is true but so many others use that label and really don’t know what it means.  Some say they’re a Christian because they go to church once in a while and they’re not a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Or maybe they were baptized as an infant or their parents were Christian. They believe there is a God but have no real personal relationship with Him.

I want to be a true Jesus-follower.  He cared for the poor, the sick, the unlovely, the foreigner, the minority, the ones living on the fringes of society.  He condemned those who wrapped themselves in religious piety and didn’t live the words they eloquently spoke.   He followed His Father’s will and wasn’t influenced by those around Him who were of a culture twisted by pride and evil.

And so my heart cry is … May I be given a label that reflects Jesus, and nothing or no one else.

 

Funnel Cakes and Waffle Cones

The smell of frying oil (grease) greeted my nose as soon as I walked onto Main Street.   Colorful stalls of food and games lined the street as people began looking for their favorite fair food or game.  The Ephrata Fair had begun!   Just down the hill and only a few minutes from my home this annual event, labeled “the largest street fair in Pennsylvania,”  has been around for almost a century.  Apparently it has quite the history yet memories of past fairs I attended are what make me smile.

As I child I went with my mom and siblings and remember…

  • Ferris wheel rides that seemed so high and terrifying as we rose up to the heights of neighboring buildings; I still wonder if the single bar clasped in front of us as we sat on the rocking seat would keep us from sliding out
  • merry-go-round rides when I would unleash my imagination allowing me to believe I was riding a real horse for a few minutes as I went up and down and around
  • kiddy rides that included mini-roller coasters, spinning tea cups and helicopters
  • oh, and the food– greasy and good– hamburgers, hotdogs and waffle cones

And the parade on Wednesday night! I can’t remember the first parade I saw but I believe I was quite young and I can still relive the excitement of hearing the drums approaching and knowing it was soon to begin.  I remembered how I longed to be part of the parade– feeling special and pretty sitting on a float smiling and waving at everyone, or marching in cute outfits and smart boots twirling a baton or flag to the beat of the music.

img_20160921_112619Living and working overseas for most of the last three decades I have missed many parades and fairs. However, not too many years ago I was still around and decided to go see some of the exhibits.  I was rather impressed with the skills shown in the crafts especially since I generally do not enjoy doing crafts at all.  I thought I would get a quick lunch and head home before the crowds came. However I found out that the food stalls don’t start up til closer to noon. In fact the “midway” was very quiet.  But soon the grills began warming up and the grease began getting hot once more.  Some folk say that’s the best part of the fair– the delicious (greasy) food.  And for sure there is quite the assortment of fried items available!  Yet others say they just enjoy walking the midway and running into friends they hadn’t seen since the year before.

Memories.  And perhaps I’ll have to make new fair memories for the years ahead.  I’ll have to work on that. But as I do I have a fair-related memory that still amuses me which occurred in my early years living overseas (early 80’s).   Smells have a way of triggering memories and emotions deeply embedded in our brains and that’s what happened one autumn evening walking in an underground subway station after getting off a train in Hong Kong. I was approaching the exit that led to the street above where vendors sold various snacks.   A cool breeze brought the smell of frying oil down below and into my nostrils and for a split second my mind raced to identify that smell. Then it came.  I was back at the Ephrata fair with the crowds, noise and smells.  My heart sighed a bit as I thought of family and friends and my home area.

And now I’m back to my roots thinking of the fair down the hill and figuring out how to make new fair memories… yet cherishing memories of life, friends…and food from my overseas world.

 

China in my Home

My chair rocked back and forth.  A young couple with a backpack and phones sat in their rocking chairs nearby busy connecting with someone somewhere.  Rays of the setting sun streamed through the windows above me.  Next to me the security checkpoint was closed and below me down the escalators on the first floor, check-in counters and kiosks were dark and silent.  It wasn’t that late but this was a small airport.  And my favorite one.  The Harrisburg International Airport.

I reflected on the countless times over the past decades my family sat on these chairs waiting for me.  No matter what time of day or night they came to pick me up.  Hugs and smiles greeted me and helping hands accompanied me to the baggage claim area.  But there were also memories of good-byes. In this same area I would also give and receive the final hugs and tears as I began my long journey back to China.  This venue marked my travels back and forth, beginning and endings of life chapters marked by geography and time.

But now I’m in a different chapter of my life.  And for the first time, I am waiting for someone while sitting on the rocking chair at this airport. I’m watching and then I see an Asian face behind an older couple walking through the doorway.   I did not recognize her at first.   We had both been teachers at the same university and I had said good-bye to her two years ago.  Already she was in the midst of her doctorate work and had spent the last year in California working on her doctorate thesis.    She seemed so much more slender and petite than what I remembered. (Only later did I realize that I had become accustomed to the larger statures of Americans around me and no longer used to being in crowds of Chinese).

A Chinese friend had come. A taste of China.  China in my home.   Chinese words– heard and spoken face to face  (although I was very rusty and her English was better than my Chinese).   A person from my life abroad,  from my adopted country living in my place for a few days.

I could write about so many things and perhaps I’ll write more some day but I think one of the most amusing aspects was how I was expecting her to like certain things and how wrong I was.  I thought I had the Chinese figured out–but  I had stereotyped her the same way I would get stereotyped in China!   So I loved the surprises and embraced the realization I still have a lot to learn about China and the Chinese people.

Here were some interesting discoveries:

  • She did not want rice every day or hot cooked food every meal– actually we didn’t have ANY rice
  • She liked my home-made baked oatmeal– even cold out of the refrig;  drank iced coffee all day;  loved fresh lettuce–  even eating it plain leaf by leaf with her hand
  • She was aware of gluten and was avoiding a lot of wheat things because they seemed to cause her headaches
  • She loved the Re-Uzit shop ( a second-hand store in nearby New Holland)– there she bought a few Christmas hot pads and mats (made in China!) that she thought were so pretty
  • YaYaShe took a shower in the morning and not at night (like most Chinese do)
  • She was deeply moved by the contemporary worship music at my small church even though she is not a Christian and never attended a service before

But some things I wasn’t totally surprised:

  • She brought her own bath towel– which actually I should have thought of and told her she didn’t need to do that
  • She totally loved Ethan– my great-nephew who is of course a fun and lovable toddler
  • She liked sweet corn which is so much sweeter than China’s corn and thought red beet eggs were good and whoopie pies were also good but too sweet
  • She truly enjoyed the countryside, Amish, buggies,  farms, farm markets, trees, etc.
  • She gave me a number of gifts including beautiful scarves which she knew I love
  • She helped with food preparation and  washing dishes and insisted on paying for a few things on our last day together
  • She made sure I got my rest and reminded me not to drive fast going home from the airport
  • She used her phone often to take pictures and share through social media, and of course we also shared photos through our phones (via Wi-Fi)  while  sitting at the table

She was my first Chinese visitor and I trust many will follow her. She made my heart happy with her Chinese presence and friendship, but also she made my heart ache for other Chinese friends I have not seen for over two years.  I wonder if I would recognize them. I wonder too if I would think I  have them figured out and then be surprised in a fun way.

How soon again will I be back on a rocking chair at HIA waiting and remembering and anticipating?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Desert Silence

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Silence.

What is silence? The absence of sound?  Or can it also be the awareness of a presence or expectant attitude that creates no decibel for the ear to pick up, yet is felt?

Silence can feel oppressive, dark, or scary but also comfortable, peaceful,  or welcomed.

Mid-day rest-times in the arid area of China where I lived and worked were times of silence I had never experienced before. Everyone seemed to take a nap after lunch.   On the small university where I worked, campus basically shut down for at least an hour. Students shoveled down their simple cafeteria lunches and headed to their dorms for a snooze. Teachers rented spare dorm rooms to nap in or brought fold-up cots to sleep on in their offices.  Department heads and leaders had a sofa in their offices and locked the door for privacy. .

I didn’t work every day but at times I would also take a nap at home. As I would sit or lie on the bed in my guest-room at that time I often thought, this is the quietest time of the whole day.  Silence. Stillness.

No one stirring outside on their bikes or cars, no apartment noises from above or below or next to me, no garbage men collecting the rubbish, no one yelling to fix screens, no children outside in the nearby park,… silence.  Even the noisy sparrows were quiet outside.  Sure nighttime was quiet,  but I expected it to be.  But this was different.  Silence in the middle of the day seemed abnormal and unproductive.

Or was it?

A forced silence that was filled with expectation of what would happen later. Moments of refreshment to gear up for the rest of the day.   A pause to catch one’s breath, refocus, and recharge and then work through the day until nighttime fell.

Silence isn’t a natural part of my life.  My mind spins as I think about what to do, plan, perfect, and produce.  I like to be doing, thinking, planning, writing, revising– reaching for perfection that is always out of reach.  Never feeling anything is completely or satisfactorily finished.   And if there is silence, I like to fill it with nature sounds or music or a speaker on the internet worth listening to… or use the silence to reflect and think and plan for the rest of the day.

Yet I do believe God wants me to allow for silence.  Perhaps even to seek it.

Recently I took a closer look at the well-known Bible story when the Prophet Elijah has an encounter with God. He had seen God supernaturally torch his water-drenched sacrifice on  Mt. Carmel,  showing the idol worshipers and the people of Israel who was the one true God.  Shortly thereafter he fled the queen’s wrath, desiring to die, but was nurtured and taken care of by God’s angel under a broom tree.  He then traveled for over a month to Mt. Horeb where God met him and questioned him.  Elijah complained that he was alone and in response God showed his power through a strong wind,  an earthquake, and then a fire.

But God wasn’t found in those. And I wonder if Elijah was expecting to see Him there.

God was in what some Bible versions say “a still,  small voice” or a “sound of a gentle blowing”  but the true meaning of this Hebrew word is “silence” a heavy silence.  I remember one speaker explained it as a kind of “pregnant silence.”  Perhaps, as one blogger mentioned, it’s the silence that is found in a desert where there is a world all around and a maybe a breeze, but still complete silence. True quietness and silence in the vastness of sand, space and sun.  Nothing happening.  Yet, I think, one may have the expectation that something would happen. Maybe rain would come.  Maybe a visitor would appear.  Maybe a sandstorm would come roaring through.

God was there… in the silence.  Elijah “heard” the silence or the gentle blowing, but whatever it was, it drew Elijah out of the cave and God talked to him.   Again He asked him what he was doing and Elijah responded with the answer  that he alone was left who worshiped God. God was not relating to or answering Elijah perhaps in the way he wanted Him to.

In fact, God did not respond right away but rather gave Elijah a job to do.  THEN he told Elijah that he was not alone,  almost like an afterthought.

But before that revelation… there was SILENCE.   God met him through the silence. Not in the gigantic explosions of His power and might. And not the way perhaps Elijah wanted it.

And even before God’s talk, as Elijah walked to Mt Horeb for 40 days  perhaps there was silence too?  What did Elijah do all that time?  Walked in the desert– alone, quiet, and in silence?  Deserts are barren and with little wildlife.  Was Elijah in forced silence so that he would be ready to encounter God and then be ready for his next task?

To take time to be silent… even if it’s for a few minutes a day.  Or even in the car or on a walk.  To let the mind stop and know God is with me and to know His presence even if there is no manifestation of it.  And then to wait expectantly and yet not knowing when the silence will or should end. Or maybe never end.

But knowing and believing that the eternal, sovereign God I seek and love is also the God of Silence.

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Loving the Unlovely

My sister, Janice, is turning 65 this month.  I really don’t talk about her much.  Maybe because it’s just hard to do so.  And truthfully perhaps I’m ashamed of her.  I like to think I’m not embarrassed by her like I was when I was a kid. But maybe I still am.   I find it hard at times to love the unlovely… especially when it’s my own flesh and blood.  It’s a bit easier to show kindness and patience to an unlovely person I’m not closely related to or grew up with.  There exists a natural emotional distance or detachment.   But the fact is Janice is my older sister and we’re born of the same parents.

In my childhood I enjoyed playing with my twin brother and other kids.  But Janice was older and different. And I didn’t enjoy playing with her. Actually I really don’t remember playing with her at all. She liked dolls and I didn’t, and she would easily get angry and she wasn’t too smart.  My brother and I would create stories with our toys and let our imagination go wild.  Janice couldn’t even remember the rules of a simple board game.    She was often teased and bullied and would get angry and upset, and she didn’t seem to have many playmates.

Janice was born with a collapsed lung so her oxygen starved brain was damaged.  As she grew older she lagged behind her peers and was placed in “special ed” classes during high school. She never graduated.  In those days the word “retarded” was use.  And she was considered “mildly retarded.”  Now one uses the term special needs or speaks of disabilities whether they be physical or mental or even emotional.  Our parents took her to various specialists and my mother spent hours doing therapy with her.  As she entered adulthood,  Janice lived at different homes and “experimented” with various living and working situations. At one time the social workers even tried getting her to live on her own. It didn’t work.  Not too many things really worked.  In the late 1980’s after my parents’ divorce, Janice finally moved in with my mother and stayed with her until my mother was no longer able to take care of her every day.  Again for various reasons Janice moved from one home to another until the present place where she probably will live until the end of her years here on earth.

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However, not until a few years ago did I realize Janice also suffers with borderline personality disorder that affects her relationships with people more than anything else.  She wants the attention of everyone– especially significant people in her life and if she doesn’t get that undivided attention, she’ll lash out at those who are getting it.  Or she’ll break something or hurt herself to receive the attention she desperately wants.  She has made suicidal threats and ended up in the hospital for observation.  She also has received fines from police who came after she hit other residents who pressed charges. This past year her cognitive abilities have declined and she may even have early onset Alzheimer’s.  A year ago she stopped walking on her own when she saw how comfortable it was to be pushed around in a wheel chair.  And after observing others being fed and getting attention that way,  she also stopped feeding herself for a time.  But thankfully she is eating on her own once again and can move around in the wheelchair using her feet.

I try to visit her once a week yet it’s hard for me to go see her.  Her room is in the dementia area and I see a number of residents that are in much worse shape than she is.  Some are twisted in chairs.  Others are yelling.  The halls are crowded at times.   I struggle with guilt and wonder if she could be in a better place.  But she is under the state now after receiving disability all her adult life.  And no other home wants her.  I know I am unable to take care of her 24/7 and I know she is getting the care she needs.  But I still feel sad. Yet I am thankful she is nearby and I can see her. And she actually seems okay there, except for the few residents who always irritate her.

When I was a kid I thought my family would be perfect without my sister.  How little did I know how dysfunctional my family was at that time and far from ever being perfect!  But now I see that Janice has been a very special part of my family and my life,  and I have and am still learning from her.

Because of Janice…

  • I have vivid memories of my mom’s sacrificial love and devotion as she took care of my needy sister
  • I am reminded constantly that every person is treasured and loved, created uniquely by God
  • I have good memories of  Janice:  playing the piano, feeding her guinea pig, walking home from the bus stop, watching the fireworks and Make-A-Wish Truck Caravan with our mother at her home, eating out with me and chatting to strangers, and  going with me  to our niece’s wedding.
  • I have met many who care for special needs children and adults and who sincerely love them and make them laugh.

But most of all I am reminded that Jesus would love Janice and others like her.  He would visit her and care about her and be patient with her and understand her needs.  When He was on this earth he touched the sick and unclean.  He cared for the widow and prostitute.  He cared for those others would labeled as unlovely and unpopular and not cool at all, social misfits and outcasts.

As His follower I want to do the same.  And with His strength and compassion I want to see and accept my sister as lovely and loved.

Blessed are the Poor?

What is it like to be poor? I really don’t know. I like to think that I do.  I feel poor because I don’t own a house or a new car or make lots of money.  Yet I have a roof over my head, food in my stomach, money in the bank and wheels to get me places.  I am comfortable. I have food in the refrigerator and items in the cupboards and gas in my car’s tank. I’ve got a cell phone and a computer and a closet full of clothes.  I’m not lying awake at night hungry wondering where I’m going to get a bite to eat or if I’m going to get kicked out of my apartment.  My bills are paid and I’m not living from paycheck to paycheck.

I am not poor. And I do not really know what it means to be poor.

I have seen poor people. Real poor people. They lived in the mountains of southwest China. Their houses, made of rocks and wood,  sat precariously on the sides of hills.  Some had huge cracks in the walls caused by earthquakes and shoddy materials.  No electricity or running water.  Outhouses didn’t really exist.  Children ran around with tattered clothes and smudgy faces.   The farmers worked hard in their fields– tiny plots of tired red earth clinging to the sides of the mountains.  Sad looking corn and other various crops somehow survived until harvest time. The farmers ate two simple meals a day– a late breakfast and then in the evening.  Members of one village had to walk miles on a treacherous path to find and haul back drinkable water.  Tiny, run-down schools with cramped classrooms and few materials and fewer teachers provided a bare-bones education. Older students walked to other villages for higher education and stayed in dorms that animal-lovers in the USA would declare unfit for creatures.  Handicapped by poverty and a poor foundation as well as a lack of personal connections, only a small number would be able to make it to any kind of college.

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And I also remember beggars– in every Chinese city I lived in.  I know some were so-called “professional beggars” who made more money  than some of the hard-working shop keepers or construction workers.  But there were others who were clearly disabled and unable to function or work normally.   I always seemed to struggle about what to do when I walked by a beggar or was approached by one. I have had lively discussions with other expatriates who faced the same dilemma.  We white Americans always were considered the rich ones yet I argued inside that some Chinese around me had more money than I did. I hated being stereotyped. I kept questioning what would Jesus do?

And now I am back in the USA and figuring out life here. And I’ve been reminded that most Americans do not talk about money yet it appears there are clearly status symbols of wealth one seeks to attain that lets everyone know who has money and who doesn’t.  But that can be deceiving. One can appear to be wealthy but be in debt and  have no real money or assets.

But I know there has to be truly poor people here in my town, in my county.  I just don’t see them or rather perhaps I’m not looking.  And I know I’m very ignorant about how the poor live. I’ve been brought up that if you just work hard enough you’ll have enough money to live on.  But that may not be true for those caught up in a cycle of poverty that I do not understand.

I am being convicted of not caring about the poor especially now living in a land that seems so rich and self-sufficient.  It would be easy for me to just give money to organizations that take care of the poor in other lands and feel like I’m doing something.  And also easy for me to ignore the needy around me.

Yet I’m not sure Jesus would have me do that.

Jesus said “Blessed are the poor” and I can’t find a lot of favorable words about the rich in all the talks He had with people. Yes, He does speak of the “poor in spirit” yet in other places He talks about those who have little money.  And He has tons of words about neglecting the poor (as well as the oppressed, foreigner, orphan, widow…).  Also Jesus here on earth did not have a home or possessions  (yet some may argue that He being God does “own” everything).

I want to justify my lack of action by saying I am not rich and that His words don’t apply to me.

But compared to most of the world’s inhabitants.  I am rich.

So I really need to do something and help the poor… around me.  And not pretend Jesus’ words don’t apply to me.  Because they do.

Treasures

Miranda. My first real “other culture” friend.  She was my first Chinese language teacher as well. She gave me my Chinese name that will always be a part of my Chinese life.  There were many other Chinese friends that first year overseas, but I spent the most time with Miranda and naturally her fluent English helped immensely in our communication with each other.

Young, single, and fun, Miranda helped me learned the complexities of the Cantonese language and culture.  She was my teacher, friend, sister in Christ,  and an important bridge between my American worldview and the Chinese worldview that was so new to me. She also had  a background working with other western students and was not ignorant of American thinking.

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Yet because of those assets, she perhaps wasn’t as traditional Chinese as others who may have had little interaction with white faces.  But on the other hand, at that time anyone living and working in Hong Kong would agree that the western mindset and way of doing things were a part of everyone’s lives and not totally foreign (but possibly misinterpreted) .  Hong Kong was still part of the British Empire and would be until 1997!

And so my friend, Miranda, with an interesting mixture of the East and West, perhaps unknowingly implanted in me a deep and enduring love for the blend of cultures, the exploration of new places and ideas, and the priceless treasure of friendships with those of other languages and nationalities.

We spent hours together as she patiently and privately taught me Cantonese.  But it was not all work and study!   Oftentimes food was involved.  Through Miranda, I found out that Hong Kong was the home of all kinds of delicious sweet snacks and fascinating beverages.  A combination of strong Lipton tea, instant coffee and condensed milk became a favorite of mine.  (Those were the days that I didn’t care about cholesterol levels).  And the food!  —  barbecued pork, rice and noodle dishes, Shanghai food, dim sum, rice porridge, soups, seafood,  fruit and vegetables I had never seen before, and countless more.  But Miranda also loved western food and it seemed like Hong Kong had a vast variety of western restaurants and fast food places.

Miranda was also my tour guide as she took me to other islands, shopping areas, parks and concerts.  Exploring new and fascinating places and having scores of adventures became a part of my life because of her.

Yet it was not the shared meals and experiences, but the sharing of our hearts that drew us close, and allowed me to experience the great joy and beauty of having a friend that grew up in a different world.  Her mastery of English allowed us to communicate deeply during my first years overseas. We shared struggles, joys, prayers, and laughter.   We learned what each other liked– she loved the color pink, cute girlie things, and stuffed animals–  and we gave small gifts and wrote cards and notes to each other.

After I began a more structured language program at a school, I still met up with her so that I could get some tutoring for spiritual language.  I would go to her family’s tiny apartment near the old Kai Tak airport and have a lesson.   Schedules didn’t permit us to go out as much as before yet we would still share and talk.    I also got first hand experience of how a family of four would live in a small place which was typical for most Chinese families.  I can still picture in my mind’s eye what it looked like inside and what her tiny bedroom looked like that she shared with her younger brother.

Miranda eventually married one of her American students and moved to the USA. Recently  I came across an old photo of her and her husband but I have no contact information for her.  I know we have both aged a great deal since the early ’80s but in the photos I have and in my memories, Miranda still has the same youthful smile and giggle, and soft voice that touched my heart almost every day that first year in Hong Kong.   And I realize now that she was just the beginning of a long list of friendships that spans decades and national boundaries, priceless God-given treasures that cannot be bought.