The month of July is drawing to a close. It is a time where Cindy is very much on my mind. On her birthday, I hiked through Blandford Nature Center with a friend. Cindy and I enjoyed nature walks and it was a good way to remember her on her special day. The center has changed since we were last there together. I wish she could see it.
A week later I was kayaking again, introducing a friend to Wabasis Lake - a large local lake that has fun places to explore hidden among the reeds. Cindy and I discovered kayaking together and we really enjoyed it through the years. I hadn’t been on the water for two years - she had become too weak to paddle and I just wanted to stay available to her. Last summer, it felt disloyal to take my boat out when she could barely walk. So my kayak hung on the garage wall until last week.
The flowers Cindy had given me for my garden bloom in July. They are a beautiful reminder of our friendship.
This has not been a great year and in some ways I’m glad she didn’t live to see the pandemic, the brutality, the national strife…but I will always miss her and July will always bring her to mind.
Mary Oliver was one of her favorite poets. I’ll leave you with this poem that she read at a friend’s funeral a few months before her own.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
One day this week I was able to teach a delightful young girl (and her grandma) some basic techniques in watercolor. We had a fun morning playing with paint, wax, and salt; creating lovely paintings of the cosmos.
When they left I went home, changed, and drove to another town nearby to attend a funeral of a long-time friend who will be dearly missed by his friends and family.
Life is a roller coaster. Highs and lows in one day - sometimes within one minute. When I shared that, a friend mused that life is terminal. So I’d better keep painting.
That is good advice.
I was chatting with a new friend at church Sunday. Our fellowship has started hosting chapel at a local mission once a month in an effort to give people who go through rehab a place to belong once they graduate. We’ve learned when someone hits rock bottom, ends up on the streets, and enters a program to get their life back on track they have no place to go once they’ve recovered. Old friends can drag them back into addiction or destructive patterns, and many churches don’t want “people like that” to sully their pews. It’s sad, but it’s true. I’ve certainly experienced it in the past. As a teen and young woman, I was undesirable and judged harshly in certain congregations. I got fed up and dropped out of church culture for a number of years.
But this day, as we are chatting I look around the room. If you were casually looking at this group, you might jump to the conclusion that this is a bunch of average middle class people getting together. See that group of men standing by the coffee? Recovered alcoholics discussing on how to start a twelve step program here. See that woman talking with a visitor? She was homeless and her life has been restored. See that young man talking to the middle aged woman? Both recovered drug users. The woman sitting in my seat? She was a steaming hot mess. When you ask me my story, I don’t even know where to start. But my life has been transformed. In fits and starts, I am very different from who I started out as.
Healing has come in layers, but it started decades ago when my heart cried out to God and He gave me a vision of what was being closed off (hell) and what was being opened up (eternity - bright, mysterious, and beautiful). I was actually in the back seat of a mainline denomination preacher’s car and knew better than to tell anyone I was having a vision. Most likely he would have pulled over to the side of the road and performed an exorcism. Strange how some Christians believe more in the power of evil to cloud your mind than of a good God to give beauty for ashes but, there you go. It was years before I found a group of people I could tell about the visions and foreknowledge of certain things, and now I’m much bolder.
I may not look like much at first glance, but you would be mistaken to underestimate me. I have “Property of the King” stamped on my forehead and Jesus is rewriting my story with His blood.
In August, I shared that I was finally coming to grips with the fact that life as I had known it has changed forever. There is no going back, nor picking up where I had left off. While at some level I already knew that, it was time to just face it squarely and plot a new course.
This doesn’t mean ignoring the needs of Mom and Dad. We’re committed to being there for them come what may. However, I had made my schedule so flexible and so available to accommodate whatever might happen, that I’ve failed to care for relationships or myself. I’ve failed to refill my reservoir for far too long.
This has required some thinking and soul searching. One area in need of change seemed to be my job situation. I need to work at least part time to pay my studio rent and the small business I work for had laid me off for eight months. It seemed it was time to look for employment that would work around my caregiving needs and art schedule With those things in mind, I began searching. Of course, as soon as I applied for a position I was called back to my job. Since it has very flexible hours and works around my caregiving needs, I’m staying there. At least for the time being.
Another area that needed to be addressed was being connected with community. To that end, after much prayer I’ve started a twice monthly gathering of artists of faith. People who use art as worship and prayer and are looking for a community that will join together in fellowship, and prayer. Not only inquiring of God, but listening for an answer. It has been far better than any of us had hoped and we all look forward to each meeting knowing that God will show up in prayer and in art. I’ve also started attending a church that is closer to my home which connects me to my own neighborhood.
Another effort to expand community has been to join Bible Study Fellowship, studying the gospel of John. While it’s a good spiritual discipline, I can already see it’s not a good fit. While I will complete the 30 weeks, I doubt I will do it again next year. But that’s the whole point - to try new things and see where it will lead. We're also considering raising a puppy for Paws for a Cause. Expanding our interests and connections.
Mike and I have been trying to be more intentional about spending time together with mixed results. A couple weeks ago we took a vacation day and went to the state capitol to be tourists. It was a fun change of pace, walking around Lansing on a lovely autumn day.
However, the next day Mom went into the ER for breathing issues associated with congestive heart disease. The next few days after that were spent trying to get her and Dad back on an even keel. We were back to our old ways in an instant. Mike was going one way, and I was going another. Cancelled appointments, and meeting with support staff.
Life is a work in progress.
A couple years ago, when our ancient car breathed its last in a construction zone during rush hour, my husband finally acknowledged it was time to get a different car. As we laid that vehicle to rest, Mike started doing research. We decided it was time to take a step of faith that I was really going to go back into painting and with that in mind, started making a list of what would meet my needs.
First and foremost was gas mileage. If I was transporting art, or attending workshops hither, thither and yon, I wanted great mileage. Then, there was the need for space. When transporting large canvases or panels (or antique mirrors), I’d need something that could fold down to lay things flat. And, since I love to paddle on rivers and lakes, I wanted to have a roof rack to transport my boat plus a hitch to pull a trailer full of kayaks. At first we were looking at station wagons, but then focused more on crossover SUVs. We found the Chevy Equinox fit the bill. It got the same mileage as the now defunct sedan, had lots more room for art supplies and as an added bonus - for someone who lives in the great white north - had seat warmers.
The Artmobile, as I called it, gave great service. It hauled me all over the Midwest, helped me move into my new studio, and was great for my mother-in-law to get into before her stroke, since she didn’t have to bend to get in nor have to be lifted to get out. It was an all-around great investment.
With a tear in my eye, I must report that the Artmobile has died. I was broadsided at an intersection on May 15th and was immediately enshrouded by airbags. It its final moments, the Artmobile took good care of me. There were a few cuts on my hand, but with the airbags, side curtains and seatbelt I was secure. I called 911, got my information together and then tried to move the car but it was no go. It was eventually taken away on a truck. I had the wherewithal to take a photo of the car before the towing company came. It’s the last I saw of it.
I am greatly blessed. No one in the collision (three cars were involved) was hurt. Mike and I had been wondering what to do with Dad’s car since he can no longer drive, and it is now sitting in our garage where the Artmobile used to reside. We have good insurance and have been reimbursed. All is well…or as well as it could be. I’m back to driving an old sedan with no seat warmer but it does have a roomy trunk. If the work starts pouring out from the studio we can look for another vehicle. For now, the Buick will do.
But if I’m completely honest, I have to admit I miss my car. It was good, it was solid, and I had plans to keep driving it for twenty years. We’ve all heard the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” I’m pretty sure I’m hearing some giggles from heaven right now.
But Jonah got up and fled from the Lord…. (Jonah 1:3a International Standard Version)
Jonah is not the poster child of what we should aim for in our relationship with God, but I have to admit ... I relate to him. I currently find myself in a position that I would like to flee.
A couple weeks ago, my mother-in-law was reaching for something that was j u s t out of reach. She tried to extend her arm a bit more and something went ‘pop’. Long story short, she tore a bicep. Due to the medications she’s on, it started bleeding and her entire arm was swollen and the color of an eggplant. Eventually, she landed in the hospital.
After being there for almost a week, she has been transferred to a rehab unit. Through all of this, I’ve been there, being an advocate, being sure things are being communicated effectively, making sure the doctors have the correct information on meds and conditions, and dealing with my father-in-law who has beginning to mid-stages of dementia. Being out of her normal routine makes mom a little fuzzy, too, so it’s important for me to stay on top of everything.
It’s the same in rehab. Dad is confused and convinced we’ve placed mom someplace to die and breaks into sobs. I’m trying to comfort him, make sure the staff knows to keep mom’s arm elevated every time they re-position her after therapy to make sure she has her balance and strengthens her legs. In the meantime, mom is plotting how to get out of there and not have to do therapy anymore. “It’s dumb,” she tells me. She wants to go home and have the in-house physical therapy work with her. I know from past experience that if we do that, she’ll cancel it and just sit on the couch.
I’m the mean enforcer. All of this takes me back to the time I was caring for my mother as she was losing to Alzheimer’s. It was one long battle, day after day, to keep her safe and cared for. She didn’t want to be cared for. I was the mean enforcer then, too. All kinds of emotions are being stirred up these last two weeks, and none of them good.
Lying in bed one morning, I was thinking, “Just shoot me now.” My life was once again shrinking down to nothing but caregiving. No art. No writing. No time for friends. I’ve quit working out due to time and energy. Just get up, pick up Dad, go to rehab, oversee Mom’s care, talk with staff, notify the family on the latest developments, and then take Dad home. Repeat. Next week I have to add work into the mix. I’ve been through this before, and while I love my in-laws more than I can say, I want to jump on a boat and go the other way.
It was in this frame of mind, while in prayer, God directed me to I Samuel 15 and 16. This is the passage that relates what happened when David’s son tried to take over the kingdom. David fled with his entire household – most likely to avoid a siege and the destruction of the city – and encountered some who wanted to help and others who wanted to curse him. One man was throwing rocks and dirt on him screaming invectives and gloating that God was paying David back for perceived evil. One of David’s warriors got fed up and offered to kill the man. Here is the part that spoke to me that day – David told him that God was in control. Perhaps the Lord was telling this man to curse, or the Lord would hear these curses and restore him to his kingship. Either way, he was going to trust God knew what He was doing, and was doing it.
While I’m about the same age David was when he went through that trial, I am not in a position where I am responsible for hundreds of people on the run with me. I am merely caring for two elderly people. God is in control and has something for me in this. He also has something for my husband and his parents in this as well. When He is ready, He will either restore me to a life of art, or He will take it away. In either scenario, He is in charge and He is good. I have a history that proves it.
It’s been ten years ago today that we moved my mother from her house in the Detroit metro area to Grand Rapids. It was an event that radically changed both our lives. While she knew her memory was failing and that she needed help, she also realized she was losing her home, her friends and everything familiar to her, and she was grieving that.
I knew I was putting my entire life aside to help the woman who gave me birth, but didn't raise me. And though I had already stepped into her life after not hearing from her in over a decade and done the hard work of forgiveness, now started the day to day grind of walking it out.
Throughout that journey, my life kept shrinking. I quit painting, I quit volunteering, and I quit working…bit by bit I had to let things go until all I did was look after my mother, who was increasingly resentful of me. Frankly, I was resentful of her as well.
We all long to have a destiny. I think that’s why Rick Warren’s book Purpose Filled Life was such a big seller. People long to have a deeper purpose than just getting up every day and going through the motions of living. As my life shrank more and more and I became invisible to everyone around me, I grieved that I no longer had a future. I had no idea how long this season would last, but I knew the world wasn't waiting for me when it was over. Life was moving steadily on, friends and acquaintances were moving ahead in their careers and lives while I shepherded mom through the last years of her life.
A rather startling experience occurred a couple years into caregiving. I was at a conference when a young woman I’d never met came up to me and said that God had revealed to her that I was an artist of some kind and that God wanted me to pick it up again and use it for Him. It took my breath away, and gave me great hope. But back at home, the day to day grind would continue and a couple years later I’d wondered if I’d missed the boat. God sent another stranger to say the same thing.
It’s exciting to have a destiny, and to have had the supernatural experience of people coming up out of the blue to confirm it. But I think we may forget that a purposeful life is filled with insignificant things. Laundry, cleaning, cooking, computer crashes, power outages, paying bills and other nagging, boring details make up our lives leading up to other times of great satisfaction. The graduation of a child, becoming teacher of the year, publishing a book, giving a presentation, receiving a contract for a gallery show, or any number of wonderful things are made up of really insignificant times. Changing diapers, making lesson plans, writing and re-writing, practicing in front of a mirror, working on fundamental skills over and over. All this and more takes place before the big things come to pass.
As a result, our thoughts can wander into dark places. “I’m a failure. This is useless. I have nothing to contribute.” These thoughts are poisonous. It is good to remember when Jesus was baptized and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, in Whom I am well pleased,” that Jesus hadn't done one miracle, hadn't called one disciple, but had just put in His time growing up, learning a trade and developing a relationship with His Father. Could it be that the insignificant things that feel like wasted time actually matter to God?
It is good to ponder on this as I’m transitioning back into art and writing. I’m back to working on fundamental skills. Every day is a reminder on how far behind the curve I am.
I’m right on track.
Note: The observation about Jesus' life comes from a CD series by Francis Frangipane called Holiness, Truth and the Presence of God. Here is a link to purchase that set. It also comes as an MP3 format. Used by permission.
One goal for this summer was to take time off work to concentrate on painting in the studio and to write and polish the manuscript of the story of caring for my mother. After a series of fits and starts, it looks as if my time is opening up. Up to this point, there have been a few days off, and then I get called in to work. Last week I filled in all week for someone on vacation. But it looks like I finally have some time off for a bit and can start working in earnest.
Of course, once you sit down to write nothing comes to mind. But I will try.
My last post was about the Freedom 58 Project. I thought I’d post some photos of how the first painting is going. Please keep in mind it is a work in progress and isn't done. But if you aren't a painter, nor have ever seen a painting being developed, I thought you might find this interesting.
(For captions, hover the pointer over the image.)
It is a slow process, but it is coming along. I can tell I'm rusty, but I haven't lost my training completely. There's a parable in here. I'll leave it to you to figure it out.
Another Mother’s Day is past, thankfully. While I enjoyed celebrating my mother-in-law and spending the day together, I’m just not a fan of that particular holiday. It stirs up a lot inside that I’d rather ignore. It’s better than it was in my youth, but reading all the schmaltzy posts on Facebook about how great mothers are gets tiring.
Author Anne Lamott wrote a piece for Salon in 2010 on Mother’s Day which really nailed it for me. (You can read the entire piece at: http://www.salon.com/2010/05/08/hate_mothers_day_anne_lamott/) She wrote: “But Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.”
If you’ve read much of my blog, you know my mother did not parent well. That’s just the way it is. She wasn’t even a “good enough” parent. She just couldn’t do it. In a rare moment of honesty she told me that she thought that since Grandma had been such a good mother, she’d naturally be one, too, and was surprised at how those maternal instincts never kicked in.
But lest the reader thinks my mother was the personification of evil, I should set the record straight. Mom was damaged by her own home life and her marriage, and just couldn’t recover. I was collateral damage, but it wasn’t intentional. She did her best to provide for me by working full time at Sears in the bookkeeping department and she was also very aware of the potential of sexual child abuse. Paranoid about it, actually. I only met one man she dated when I was in my teens. The rest she kept away. The one I met was a peach, but I think he knew that mom was not marriage material and moved on. I remember him fondly.
Our relationship broke down so much that for over ten years mom didn’t even speak to me. Our story is not dissimilar to the story Jesus told about the prodigal son, except she’s the one who left and I’m the one who forgave and welcomed her back. It took Alzheimer’s to get her to the place to ask for forgiveness. Not a small thing for her to do.
While I try to be absolutely honest in my recollections about my life, here’s something I don’t want you to miss. While my mother was a deeply flawed person, she did ask for forgiveness and I did forgive her. Through forgiveness, I learned much more about faith, life and love. I’m still on a journey of healing, but caring for mom through Alzheimer’s took me much further down that road than if I had hardened myself to her and refused to let her back into my life.
If there is someone in your life who has failed you in a major way, do not hang on to unforgiveness. It only hurts yourself. Jesus pointed out when He was teaching the disciples to pray that we are in God’s debt and need to forgive as freely as He did. We like to skip over the part of the disciple’s prayer (aka the Lord’s Prayer) that says “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” We love being forgiven…it’s just letting other people off the hook that’s so hard.
But remember...it’s a biblical principle that we will be treated as we treat others.
Note: If you have been abandoned by a parent, you may want to pick up Leslie Leyland Fields’ book Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers. It’s about finding freedom from hurt and hate and written with Dr. Jill Hubbard.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.