If Today Were The Last

I was in middle and high school when the scary and mean-spirited folks began their take over of the Southern Baptists.  I wasn’t a Southern Baptist, but my next door neighbor was.  She went to the big church in downtown Dallas.  The one led by W.A. Criswell; the one Lulu from HeeHaw attended.

Susan was a lovely woman, and although I was an active member of the First Christian Church, it was clear she had a certain concern for my salvation and the ultimate destination of my soul.  So, she asked my mother if it was alright for me to go to church with her on Wednesday evenings.

I’d get in her long bronze colored 70’s boat of a car, and we’d head to the big city.  The church was giant.  Several hundred people attended every service they held.  There was a beautiful sounding choir, and there was always the possiblitiy of a celebrity spotting of Lulu. (I was from a small town; Lulu and HeeHaw were exotic.)

The sermons were not like those to which I was accustomed.  There was a lot of talk about heaven and hell.  There was mention of “witnessing” of “being born again” and of the end of the world.  It was thrilling to my pubescent mind.  It was also unsettling.  We were told we would know if someone was saved by how they talked, and if they went to church (preferably that church), and if they witnessed to others.

No one in my family talked the way they did.  No one went to their church…or even a church that performed the way they did.  No one I knew witnessed to anyone. I grew so afraid of spending eternity without the people I loved.  I grew so afraid that the end of the world was creeping up behind me.

One night while we stood over the sink peeling potatoes for supper, I told my mother all I was learning at Susan’s church.  I told her how I was afraid of the end of the world and that I was concerned that everyone in our family was going to hell.

She paused, wiped the sweat rolling off the end of her nose (it was hot in our unaconditioned kitchen), stopped peeling and fixed me in her gaze.  “Bug, no one knows when the end of the world is going to come.  You could head out for school tomorrow and be hit by a car, and that’s the end of your world.  Those folks telling you what it means to be a Christian have a pretty small definition.  That man in the living room works harder than any person I’ve ever known to provide for his family. You’ve seen him fall asleep at supper.  He doesn’t get up and go to church whenever the doors are open because most of the time he’s tired.  Do you want to believe in a God who would send someone to hell because he’s tired from taking care of his family?  I’ve never believed that preaching to someone is going to make them love anything.  Loving people makes them love.  I guess that’s what I think is more important than what they call witnessing.”

“But, it seems scary not knowing for certain about heaven and hell.  They say we can tell.”

“Bug, I don’t believe them.  I don’t think that’s true.  They are not God.  There are too many people saying too many different things for them to be right and everybody else be wrong.”

“If you are scared, then live every day thinking it’s your last one.  You won’t waste it. But spend more time doing things for others than talking at them.  They’ve got that one wrong.”

 

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Nightmares

I’ve been having nightmares.

It’s been a while since I’ve had nightmares.  At times I’ve been unable to sleep.  I’ve had weird dreams.  I’ve had long exhausting dreams.  But lately I’ve been having nightmares.

They’re not the sort where I awaken wondering if someone is inside the house about to get me.  They’re the sort where I awaken and I’m happy the nightmare is over and need to shake it off.

Unfortunately of late, I wake, shake it off, go back to sleep, and I resume the nightmare.

This pisses me off a bit because when one wakes, realizes one is having a dream about some sort of alien about to attack the earth and one is making plans to leave the Earth via something not unlike an Amtrak train, one should not have to resume the nightmare in search of said Amtrak.

But that’s been my nights the past few nights.

When I was little I had a recuring nightmare.  A variation of this night mare took place from about age 5 to age 35.  It had to do with war.

Now these dreams might sound quite different, but in my dreamland there was a similar quality. One thing was always common.  In the dream there was the sound of a siren like one hears in France.  A sort of wa-wa-wa sound that is so scary and unlike anything I’d ever experienced except in movies before I was 20.

Early on, there was the siren and we knew that aliens were coming for us.  In the nightmare we had to hide either in a place that was easy to find or a place that was difficult to find.  The problem in the nightmare was that one never knew if the attacking aliens were the ones who could find you in an easy hiding place or a difficult hiding place.

As I got older the nightmare took on a human quality.  There was the siren, and then I knew that I was living in a place that was under attack.  Enemies were everywhere, and I was hiding from them.  The twist in my older nightmares was that I was shot in the head and trying to get home. Always.  Always shot in the head and trying to get home and trying to figure out where to hide while enemies where everywhere.

I think I had these nightmares because of the TV.  The Vietnam War was on TV when I was little.  My dad ruled the TV, and no one had notions about not exposing impressionable young minds to things such as a Vietnam War or my dad’s tales of WWII or his pontifications about Nazis and Communists or his tales of being a share cropper and picking cotton and how other cotton pickers were shot when they put rocks in their bags hoping to get paid for more than they picked.  It took years for someone to explain why we were fighting “gorillas” in Viet Nam and why we’d ever want to see them in a zoo.

The world was scary.  It was full of gorillas, Nazis, Communists, people who would shoot you if you did something stupid.  But I knew at home I was safe.

I stopped having my “war” nightmares many years ago.  But lately nightmares have returned.  I’m not shot in the head nor am I trying to get home, but something unknown to all of us is on its way.  We all know we need to leave.  We all know we have a limited time to get to our escape transportation.  I’ve got others to take care of, and I have loved ones I lose before I ever get to escape.

I hate nightmares.

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No One Tells You These Things

I’ve grown a waddle.  If you look up the definition, you’ll learn things about a short gait.  I don’t have a short gait.  I’m short, but I can out walk some of the most long legged people I know.

I’ve grown a waddle like what one finds under the beak of a turkey.  It hangs there and moves when I turn my head.  I’m not certain if it wiggles when I speak.  I’m not certain I have the internal strength to watch myself in a mirror.  I think I’ll leave bad enough alone.

I had no warning.  It simply appeared.

We all think we can do something to stave off the encroaching birdneck.  We can’t.  We can lob it off.  If I had the cash, I’d lob it off.  I’d hoist this wiggle-waggling bit of myself up and snip it off. (Along with my incredibly jowly cheeks…I’ve been working on these since birth; they’ve been in a battle with gravity since 1962; about 2013 it was apparent that gravity was winning.)  We can do neck exercises, so the sloshing about is not as great as it could be, but the waddle will appear regardless.

I have grey hair in places that I thought would always stay dark.  Believe me, no one is ever going to tell you about this.  Years ago when the first frosty twig revealed itself in the black forest, I asked my sister, ten years my senior if she had any grey hair.  She said, “NO!  EWWWW”   I think she just hadn’t looked.

I tried having the whole lot waxed, but being the hairy eastern European that I am, the one time I tried this when the aesthetition pulled the primeval forest from my nether-lands, I involuntarily kicked her.  I was then asked to leave her fancy west Austin salon.  And not return.

I have an ass that I can see when I look at myself in the mirror….as I stand facing forward.

Now this is a bit of myself that has snuck on me that I probably could do something about.  Squats, lunges, jumping rope.  I probably could pull that bottom up.  But that would require squats,lunges, and jumping rope.

I bought a jump rope.

 

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Eye Contact

I’d never wanted children. I was happy not having children. While other friends found opportunities to be with the kids they babysat, I found ways to get them in bed early. (Telling them I’d set alligators lose who would bite their feet was an effective tool to keeping them in bed.)

We were married five years when I got pregnant. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I was embarrassed. I guess because I’d always said I didn’t want kids. I guess because I didn’t want people thinking about Justin and me having sex. I guess because I didn’t know if I wanted to have this baby; I had no idea what being a mother meant. Nothing about kids or kid things interested me.

Pregnancy took over. Every cell in your body is washed with a hormonal baptism several times a day. It’s some sort of evolutionary trick that makes us turn inward, imagine this critter lolling about and performing somersaults in our bellies.

I still was not interested in kids or the things of kids, but I grew to know this creature within me. I could tell when he was awake. I could tell when he hiccupped. I felt him startle awake when he heard me make a loud noise. He responded to movies and music. There were certain positions of mine that he did not like and would push and wiggle to make himself comfortable. I could feel him stretch.

While sewing curtains for his room and bumpers for his bed and fretting over names, I simultaneously made plans for a quick return to work. I packed my calendar for preaching and speaking engagements; I agreed to sing at several weddings and to be a paid soloist in the Messiah.

It was the day after Christmas. We’d been at Kris and Patrick’s house in Laurel Canyon for a few days at Christmas. The Groundlings, good movies, fabulous restaurants, and desserts in the hot tub filled the days and took my mind off the giant Weebul I’d become.

I’d given Justin golf clubs. We were terrible golfers and had a blast being the worst players anyone could imagine. We played for free on bases, so it didn’t seem like the ridiculous bourgeois game it is.

The baby was due January 18. The 26th of December was to be my first of weekly visits, until birth, to the doctor. We’d stop at Loma Linda on the way back to Victorville.

My doctor, a friend and the head of high risk OB/GYN at Loma Linda Med. School appeared above the tent of sheet draped over my belly and legs with a shocked look on his face. He was never shocked with me. He treated the worst of the worst when it came to pregnancy. He was my doctor only because we were friends. I was his only “garden variety” pregnancy.

“How do you feel Janet?”

“Fine. I mean I’ve had a backache for a couple of days that’s been making me crabby, but I’m giant, you know”

“Janet, you’re in labor.”

“No. The baby’s not due for a month.”

“doesn’t matter. You’re in labor.”

“Well, can we still go play golf?”

“If you do, you must choose your partner wisely.”

Not picking up on his sarcasm nor tuned into the fact that I was in labor, I asked, “so when do I need to come back?”

“Janet, you’re not leaving. You’re having a baby…..You’re having a baby today.”

“No. That’s not possible. It’s not due for a month. I don’t have a nursing bra. I don’t have a car seat.”

“you’re not going to need those today. And yes, you’re having a baby.”

What followed was a day of rooms covered with flowered wallpaper that no one could ever have thought was a good idea, IV’s, a parade of people peering into my nethers, and poking and pushing on parts that didn’t seem to want poking and pushing.

Strapped to a table in crucifixion pose, my waste down was numbed and surgery ensued. It still hurts, but it’s a “pressure” you feel, not the icy hot of cutting. Justin and all my friends at the hospital who huddled at the surgery door saw more than I and met the baby before me.

Organ and skin tailoring, moves to three different rooms, a  new set of nurses and doctors, and phone calls all had to happen before night with the possibility of rest came to pass.

Then they brought this little blanketed lump to me saying it was hungry.

The nurse watched for a moment to make certain I was ok, then left. I pulled back the blanket and raised the little hat. Sweet kissy lips and a turned up nose flanked by rosy cheeks were all I’d seen all day. He’d kept his eyes tightly closed or opened to just a squint. He’d just emerged from 9 months of darkness; there was too much light everywhere.

My room was dim. I said his name, and he opened his eyes. He looked at me. What came to mind was a whale’s eye. A whale had surfaced right by our boat when I was crew on the Golden Dawn. I could have dangled my arm over the side and touched it. Its one great eye was focused on me. I saw him and he saw me, and we both knew it.

This baby looked at me, and I looked at him. We saw each other, and we both knew it.

He ceased being something I was unsure of. I knew I’d never set alligators lose in his room. The sermons, classes, and solos slid to a place far behind the backseat.

The eye is the window to the soul they say. In that moment I saw the soul of eternity.

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The Places We Hold

It was the first time I went to New Orleans. It was before the time we sat in horror, shock, and shame as we watched our favorite magical, mysterious, and musical city drown in filthy water and rage set free.

I visited a New Orleans that was full of raw oysters, famous brass bands in Donna’s where you had to walk through the band to reach the bathroom, and dancing that felt deliciously naughty and sweet.

New Orleans was a place of life, hope, family, full also with suffering poverty and heartache. But it was a place where people stayed and took care of one another and welcomed one another all the while knowing the talents and the sins each one held.

City and state governance aside, New Orleans seemed a picture of God’s table. All you wanted to see and all you wish you could pretend wasn’t real in this world was there for you to behold. They lived side by side so there was no pretending otherwise.

I had a day all to myself. I explored the neighborhoods. I’d already explored the French Quarter, so I wandered around Faubourg Marigny, came back and strolled around Treme, and then caught a trolley to the Garden District.

People had exchanged the regular pleasantries that those in New Orleans do….”hellos” said with an accent that sounded part Brooklyn, part French, part Deep South, and part mouth full of marbles.

I sat on the trolley looking like the most touristy of tourists with big purse, hat and a map. A young man behind me asked if it was my first time in New Orleans. “Oh yes. And today I have a free day and I’ve been to Marigny, Treme and now I’m going to the Garden District”. A woman in front of me turned and corrected how I said Marigny, but I can’t recall how it is pronounced in New Orleans.

The locals, proud of their city, began telling me where to eat, where to hear music, and what to see in the rest of my day strolling neighborhoods. It was a veritable trolley party.

When my stop arrived, I stood to go. So did the young man behind me. He said this was his stop too, but that he had plenty of time and that he could show me some nice streets to stroll. I assured him I was fine, that I could manage on my own, and not to be rude but that I was enjoying my solitary observations of his city.   He understood and would walk with me until he reached a certain destination.

We strolled a wide tree lined avenue admiring the mansions and lawns. My guide suggested I turn on one street then another then another. I tried to keep track of our position on the map, but he assured me he’d point me in the right direction before he left me. Nonetheless I stole glances at my map but found I’d lost my trail. The jazzy ease of the city was replaced with an unwelcomed dissonance.

I checked my watch and exclaimed that I need to get back to the trolley. Had to meet my friend and all. Clean up for dinner. Needed to call home. My guide kept walking. He didn’t seem to know me anymore.

I now noticed he was tall. I also noticed he was big. He stood almost a foot taller than I and was muscular. I noticed there was no one in site anywhere. There were no cars, no yard workers, no one enjoying their lawns, no children playing. There was I a gullible tourist and a young strong man taking me where I was lost.

His face lost his sparkly eyed smile. He pointed to a silver tea set in the bay window of one of the mansions. It gleamed out the window, over the lawn and through the big iron fence surrounding the palace.   “Beautiful isn’t it?” “yes it is, but can you point me to the trolley?” “You’ve got one like that don’t you?” “ No, I don’t have anything like that. Do you know which way to the trolley?” “Look at those” he pointed to the iron fences separating the lawns like moats around a smattering of tiny castles. “They act like it will ruin their grass if somebody steps on it. They don’t even step on it. They get somebody to mow it. They don’t even touch their clothes. They get people to wash them to iron them. Some of em don’t even touch their children. They get somebody else to raise em. They don’t even care if she has kids of her own to feed. They keep em at their houses until they get back from their concerts and restaurants and ballets.”

I kept looking for some way to run, but I was terrified if I ran that he’d chase me. I was terrified that I was wrong about this man, that he was just conversing with me and that I’d display some sort of loony female projection. So I walked.

His face softened and he said “let’s walk this way it will get you to a trolley” I was relieved to know my fears were for naught. I followed him off the sidewalk on to a path in a wooded overgrown no man’s land. He paused. I kept walking. “you’re just like those people. You’ve got people working for you right now. You’ve got people in your home and you’re not even there. You have people making sure you get a vacation so you can come home and watch them work.”

Instead of scared I got mad.

I stopped. “I do not. Stop talking to me this way and show me where the trolley is damn it. You got me out here to spout off about how mad you are at rich people. Fine be mad, but I’m not rich so stop it and leave me alone.”

He smiled. “how many you got working at your house? How many? You don’t even work do you? You’ve got a rich husband or maybe even a rich daddy who gives you what you want.”

“Where’s the trolley? I do not have people working for me and I do too work.”

“You work in a fancy little shop. Some place that sells dresses that your friends buy. That’s not work, that’s visiting.”

“I am a minister, I work, I do not have people work for me, now, show me how to get out of here or I’m going to start screaming.”

He didn’t believe me, but he asked, “you’re a minister?”

Yes, I preach on the weekends at small churches that don’t have pastors and I work in the week as a chaplain for a hospice where we take care of the dying.

“Tell me your favorite verse.”

My mind was empty

“do unto others as you would do unto yourselves and love your god with all your heart soul and mind.”   I hoped that sounded good enough. My head felt light, I was afraid I was about to pass out.

“Yeah…..my grandma was a preacher. She took me and my baby sister to church every Sunday. She had a heart attack when my mamma died. Her no good boyfriend got her all strung out on all kinds of trash.   They still got Meema’s church. They say the preacher is full of spirit.

“Why don’t you go back?”

“I got in trouble and locked up. They don’t want me.”

“Yes they do. You still belong to them.”

I thought I was cruising right along with all kinds of tidy evangelism.

He straightened up and snarled at me that he didn’t belong to no one and that I sounded just like all the do-gooders who didn’t know jack. No body was going to tell him who he was.

“That’s not what I meant. They hold a place for you. People always think going to church is about the people that are there. But people go to church and pray together for all those people that they might have a hard time praying for all by themselves. Like, I go to church and pray for the governor. I don’t like the governor of Texas one bit, if I were all by myself, even though I know I should, I probably wouldn’t pray for him. In my congregation though, we pray for him and his work. I can do more in that congregation that I can by myself. And we hold places for all the people we love and all the people we don’t like and all the people who can’t be there until they can on their own. They’re praying for you. “

He looked at me and a cold chill went down my spine. No one was anywhere, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt something bad was going to happen.   I didn’t have anything else to say, so I said, “May I pray for you?”

“You’d do that?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” I knew immediately that was a wrong answer but it came out anyway.

We prayed, and I cried.

“Will you pray for me?”

“You want that?”, he asked suspiciously

“Yes”

“Lord Jesus, this is a woman of God. Bless her ministry. Bless her work. Take her home and keep her safe until you need her. “

We stood there for a second, and too loudly and quickly I blurted, “where’s the trolley?”

“This way” and he took off walking, this time with a determined pace, in front of me. We walked deeper into a wooded area and terror filled my throat.

The trees parted and there was a coffee kiosk on Tulane’s campus.

“Want a cup of coffee?” He wanted hot tea. I gave it to him and turned to pay. When I looked back he was gone.

In our congregation, we when we have time for petitions we hold a place for him…although I never learned his name.

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Judgement

I like to think I’m not judgemental.  I also like to think that I’m a wealthy lady of philanthropic leisure with firm thin thighs and a sense of fashion.   The problem with having such an impression of oneself is that one is reminded of one’s judgemental nature at the most unpleasant of times.

When my two older sons where in preschool, I’d gently steer them to children other than those with older siblings.  THOSE children knew bad words, had questionable items in their lunches (preservatives…not organic!!!?), and talked about television shows that were broadcast way past a respectable bedtime for a preschooler.

A few years later I was the mother of the child with older siblings.  He knew bad words, talked about late shows, and knew bad words.  I watched the good mothers steer their precious ones in other directions.

There was a time when I listened to people who told tales of how their spouses changed after they were married.  They talked of habits, traits, behaviors that never showed the light of day before the marriage.

I was confident in my highly trained listening and observation skills.  The problem did not lie in the changes, it rested on the one who wasn’t paying attention.  But then, this highly trained listener and observer of people found herself in a marriage where her partner changed, took up a bad habit, and behaved in ways unknown before the marriage.

I wondered when people called addiction a disease.  I’d worked with addicts for almost 20 years.  I had a son who got into some trouble.  Tough love, good therapy, hard work and dedication put everyone back on track.  A few resentments against mom were worth the wonderful outcome.  Disease…..I don’t know.

And then I had a child who would do anything, say anything, steal anything to get what he wanted.  A relentless drive to nothingness that is more important than life and love.  A fake reality presented to others to avoid confrontation and disappointments.  A fake reality for himself, but he doesn’t know it.

There is a difference between youthful stupid mistakes and addiction.  Addiction is a mental illness that renders the diseased unlikable.  I still have to practice tough love, have good therapy, and work hard, but we may never get back on track.  But I can’t think about that today….it’s just borrowing trouble.

In the mean time, I’ll stop thinking I’m not judgemental.  I’m  tired of proving myself wrong.

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My Favorite Cuss Word

SHITGODDAMNITFUCKTOHELL.

That’s my favorite cuss word. I don’t know when that started. I haven’t always sworn. In second grade I came home from school crying because at recess the kids gathered around me singing, “Janet May Cuss, Janet May Cuss” because my name is Janet Maykus.

My mother seldom swore, save “damnit” which she hissed and always terrified me because I thought she was saying “Janet” in the way that meant I was in big trouble.

My father used “damnit”, “SOB”, and “son of a bitch”, but only when it was necessary.

In fifth grade I recall shutting myself in my room and swearing at my sister in some nonsense way (I didn’t know enough cuss words or what they meant to deliver a proper swearing) then quickly praying for forgiveness certain I was going to hell.

My family was not prudish, they just didn’t swear. (My father and his siblings swore when they were together, but they were speaking Czech, which sounded as if they were slinging scimitars across the table at one another, and we just stayed away.)

As a senior I called someone a butt. My friend Tracy, whose mother had a volcanic temper and fiery tongue, laughed and said she just could hear that coming from my mouth.

I really don’t know when I grew a foul mouth.

My son’s father is a loud Texas oil and gas lawyer who has a vocabulary that will make a sailor blush, but my precious reports that everything he knows about swearing he learned from me. I reported this to his two older brothers hoping they’d set him straight, but they agreed, and were shocked to know that I did not think I had the fouler mouth.

They reminded of me how the loud Texas oil and gas lawyer made them diagram the sentences I spewed while driving through Mexico and the arguments that ensued over which words were subjects and which were verbs.

Shitgoddamnitfucktohell was the go to phrase for driving in Mexico.

Shitgoddamnitfucktohell was the phrase I screeched when I, another divinity student and the kids from Mt.Olive, North Carolina First United Methodist, stalled in a ratty church van with standard transmission that had no first or reverse on an railroad track with the train coming. Bonnie calmly turned to the children and said,”this is a good time for you to learn that ministers are people too.”

Shitgoddamnitfucktohell was a phrase left hanging in the air at a Southern California professional meeting when the roaring of a nasty earthquake faded. All the Californians had calmly left their chairs to stand in the doorways. The sole Texan was left in her chair clutching the table bellowing her beloved phrase.

My professor of wisdom literature, Roland Murphy, who was quite famous in those kinds of circles, was all about swearing. But he said that the use of cuss words in a good swear was a sign of a limited vocabulary or a lazy mind.

I don’t know when I started to swear, but when I came home from school in second grade crying, my mother asked why. When I told her, she leaned back and pulled me to her. Laughing she lifted my chin, looked me straight in the eye and said, “next time they say that, you tell them, “I damn sure can”. And if your teacher has something to say about that, tell her to call me.

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