The First of All

I have to admit, I am not well-versed in the Bible  (pun intended :)).  For someone with a supposedly good memory, I can’t get Bible verses to stick in my head.  My mother was remarkably open to allowing me to go to other churches with my friends or neighbors starting even as young as elementary school, so one summer I was in Vacation Bible School at a local church.  I don’t know what denomination it was or even which friend I was with.  I do know it was not a Catholic church.  Our task that day was to learn a number of Bible verses.  The other children there seemed to have no difficulty with this, but at that tender age, I did not yet even know what the numbers after the names of the books meant.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we didn’t own a Bible.  We owned several, the one in our front room a large ivory one with gilt on the edges and a holographic (I kid you not) image of the Last Supper on the front.  Being the bibliophile I was already at that age, I would kneel at the coffee table, and carefully open the book, solemnly thumbing through the pages, and looking at the glorious pictures.  I felt the literal and figurative weight of that book, knew it was something precious, but had never thought of it as something one memorized like in school until after that encounter in vacation bible school.  I never saw my parents reading it, but I never saw my mother reading much of anything.  That required leisure time which she really didn’t have between the business, taking care of my father, and raising us 4 kids.   If she or my father read anything it was the newspaper, and frequently she was asleep within a few minutes of reading.  I don’t know how much of that had to do with the fact that growing up, there was no extra money for books.  Her toys as a child, she liked to remind us, were sticks and rocks. There is a great oral tradition in the Vietnamese Catholic church, and partly that is because women of my grandmother’s generation didn’t necessarily know how to read.  So prayers are taught by repetition, and the Gospel is preached, but in my grandmother’s house, prayer was the real emphasis.

And so, for the first time in a church, I felt inadequate and small.  The other children were called upon to recite bible verses that they had memorized, and I stood dumb, and quiet as usual,and knew not one Bible verse.  I did not even know where or how to find the verses.  I came away from that experience with a curiosity about the Bible, but also a feeling of it as something inaccessible and mysterious.  It had a code, and there were people who were in the know, so to speak, and I was not one of them.  Looking back now, I see it was a curious reaction for someone who loves books and reading as much as I do, but I can still vividly recall the way the afternoon sunlight slanted into that dim classroom, and the awkward silence that filled it when it was my turn.  Those childhood memories of embarrassment imprint on young brains, and persist long after our adult selves know better.

As I grew older, learned the code, that feeling of the Bible as being accessible faded a little, but I still did not see it as a source of comfort as some do, seeing it instead as a source of wisdom and knowledge.  At the age of 12, I set a goal to read the entire Bible.  In my innocence and desire to be more grown-up, I thought I could become wiser if I just read the whole thing.  So that summer, that is exactly what I did.  I had no plan other than to read it like I read all of my books-start at the beginning.

The bible I read was one I found on the mantel of our family room.  This was a smaller, lighter bible with an unprepossessing soft black cover.  It was nothing at all like the beautiful bible in the front room.  It had no pictures or gilt on the edges, and its pages were incredibly thin.  Every morning, after breakfast, I would climb up on the bricks of our fireplace, pull it down from its place, and curl up on the couch.  I read until I grew tired of reading, or until my grandmother called me for chores.  Then I would replace the bible in its place on the mantel for the next day.  It never once occurred to me that I could leave it next to bed or in a more accessible place like the Nancy Drew novels I read.  In my mind, it had its place and that was where it belonged.

I read every day, my mosquito-bitten legs growing hot and itchy against the rough wool upholstery of the couch. Summer days were interminable then, in a house without air conditioning, the hours stretched out before me without school to add some excitement and change.  I was captivated by the language, and the drama of the Old Testament.  Here was a style of writing that was very unlike Nancy Drew or Little Women, and I found it mesmerizing.

When I finally finished reading, ending with the puzzling and in some parts, scary, Book of Revelations, I felt proud of my accomplishment, and yet empty at the same time.  Other than being able to say I had read the Bible, I didn’t feel any wiser.  I still didn’t have any Bible verses memorized.  That is not to say I didn’t learn anything or wasn’t moved by it, but I had expected to be more grown up after reading it, and of course, I was not.

Over the years, I would gift many Bibles to kids and adults on special occasions, always the kind with the pretty pictures.  As my faith grew, I still felt the lack of biblical knowledge in my life.  As I was teaching my 7th grade Morality catechism class one day, it struck me that I knew more verses than I gave myself credit for.  All the years of sitting in church listening like my grandmother and her mother, had imprinted a few key verses. I felt compelled to share with my class my favorite verses, though as I have said I am no biblical scholar:

One of the scribes who had listened to them debating appreciated that Jesus had given a good answer and put a further question to him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one, only Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.       Mark 12:28-31

I wanted them to understand the simple grace found in these words.  By these words alone, it is possible to live a life of service and compassion.  This is Jesus’ message to us.  He was speaking of a new way, compared to the myriad of laws found in the Jewish tradition.  If we are motivated by our love of God, we aspire not only to avoid doing anything that would damage that relationship, but also to actively– because he uses love as a verb–act in ways that will strengthen that bond, just like in our love for our family or friends.

In conjunction with that, the second commandment he laid upon us is made even more powerful.  It is not just the Golden Rule, in which we treat others as we want to be treated.  We must love others as much as we love ourselves.  If we do not love ourselves, in all our faults and imperfections, how can we love others?  And if we do, how can we not accept others in all of their faults and imperfections?

Today I am grateful for my mother’s willingness to let me experience other faiths as it gave me an appreciation early on for the similarities and differences among us.  I am thankful for the opportunity to have been a catechist in spite of my dearth of Biblical knowledge, and I am thankful for all those I know who are shining examples of living these commandments.

Our family Bible, given to us by my husband's grandmother, along with a card filled with words of wisdom regarding marriage.  She was a truly special lady.

Our family Bible, given to us by my husband’s grandmother, along with a card filled with words of wisdom regarding marriage. She was a truly special lady.

Learning the Ropes

Tonight at dinner, my little ones listened attentively to their daddy talking about the Rope Rescue, Awareness and Operations course he has been taking this past week. He’s in class from 8-5 learning how to tie ropes that can lift anything from a person to a vehicle weighing up to 10,000 pounds.  It’s an odd thing to have him home with us every night instead of his normal shifts. I wonder what military families do when they are used to operating without one person for so long, and then they come back, and everything is wonderful, but strange?

We talk obliquely about how these different knots and procedures can be used to support a person.  “This one can be used to tie a person’s hands together, so you could put them on your back and bear-crawl out if you had to.”  Dear Lord, please let him never have to.  “Would this work for extrication, like up in Seattle?” I ask.  His eyes meet mine over the chicken fettuccine alfredo that had to be reheated after the Cub Scout meeting ran long, and he nods once.  We move on quickly to the next topic and the little ones watch with big eyes as daddy demonstrates another knot.  My little guy can’t wait until he’s done eating to run and get his Cub Scout rope.   His little hands try to mimic his daddy’s as they deftly wind and twist through the air.

I imagine the families in Seattle sitting around the dinner table just like this when their world, literally, shifts and sweeps them from this life into the next.  I can’t stop thinking about how quickly life changed for them, and I feel helpless thinking about how little we can do for all those affected by this horrific tragedy. The news is full of talk about how the mudslide could have been prevented, all the reports and warnings published years ago, and the blame is flying everywhere.  Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20.

But how can we judge, when we are told in multiple reports  and warnings about the importance of eating right, daily exercise, getting enough sleep so our brain cells don’t permanently die off, and yet we continue to order those chili cheese fries (my personal weakness this month), put off those early morning runs, and sit up way past our bedtimes surfing the internet.  Our little ones learn by watching what we do.   They so want to be like us, learning the ropes on how to make their way through this world.  Their eyes see everything, tell us things we didn’t necessarily need to hear: “Your hair is super-funny looking this morning, Mama” or “Why is your tummy so soft?” as he’s laying on me, after a tickle fest.  They see how my eyes stray to my cell phone in the middle of conversations with them, distracted by the technology I tell them is bad for them.

At bedtime, my little guy adds in a name I’m not familiar with to the long list of loved ones, human and furry,  we keep in our nightly prayers.  “Is he your friend?” I ask.

“Not necessarily.” (I love it when they co-opt our own adult-sounding phrases).

“Is he one of your classmates?”

“No, he’s in the other 3rd grade class.”

“So, why are we praying for him?”

“Because he got hit by a baseball, on his cheek and he has a big thing there now.”

“You mean it’s swollen.”

“Yes, he’s hurt, so I want to pray for him,” he says in an exasperated tone.

Duh, Mama, that’s what we do.  We pray for people who are hurt.

I”m still learning the ropes, too, it seems.

For all those families in the aftermath of the mudslide, the survivors still searching for loved ones, the rescuers and first responders hoping against hope to find someone still hanging on, tonight we pray for strength and courage to continue on.

Today, I am thankful for teachers, big and small who teach us the ropes in life.  I am thankful for the brutal honesty of children who help us see ourselves as we truly are.  On a completely different note, I am grateful also for whomever invented chili cheese fries, which I’d like with a side of willpower please.



Brevity and Levity

When it’s the middle of the week, and you can’t see your way to the weekend,  sometimes it is time to pull out the big guns.  For some people, it’s a nice glass of wine or chocolate.  Personally, I love puns.  My kids are just at the ages where they are discovering puns and jokes which are really groan-inducing, but I do love them and the worse the better.  Some say they are the lowest form of humor, but I disagree.  A truly clever pun requires the agility to see beyond the words on the page or as they are pronounced, and to repurpose them for a higher calling, namely humor.  My girlfriend sent me a great one from Christine:  What do you call a snobbish criminal going downstairs?  A condescending con descending.  Terrible, but awesome right?  Some days we need a little brevity and laughter.

My kids love this one:  What do bees like to chew on?  Wait for it–Bumble gum.  They giggle furiously every time they tell me this one. Every time.  For the last 20 times.  Just their giggling sets me off.  As I’m driving them to soccer games or dance class, my back seat is always ringing with laughter and excited conversation.  Their big sister is in college, so it’s just the two partners in crime at home, and they are each other’s best friends (most of the time, anyway).  I get plenty of “She keeps ignoring me” or “He keeps making THIS FACE at me”, too, but for the most part they are still in the stage of enjoying having someone there to play with all the time.  Also, I am still a rock star in their eyes, and have not moved into the role of Wicked Witch of the (South) West yet.  I still get hugs and kisses when I walk in the door (unless the TV is on, of course). My little guy posted this note a few years ago and luckily this policy still stands:  NoGirls


I am loving this age, and am NOT looking forward to this stage (from  b2ap3_thumbnail_honest-notes-from-children-38.jpg

A few years ago, there was a big controversy because of drawings of Jesus laughing.  From my previous post about Ban Bossy, you know I’m not a big fan of censorship unless it is of something promoting hate.  Perhaps it’s because of my belief in people’s ability to be able to distinguish the difference between right and wrong, though my belief in the amount of common sense out there is sorely tested sometimes.  This was a controversy I couldn’t understand.  The Jesus I believe in has a great sense of humor.  Not the cynical, sarcastic kind of humor that takes joy in taking people down, but the joyful kind that sees the light in everything and can laugh about it.  The kind that sees the connections in everything, because isn’t that a central part of humor? It is nearly impossible to connect with people you can’t laugh with.  Our best friends are those whom we have giggled uncontrollably with over big and small things.  Children know this intuitively, this ability to laugh over the little things.  It is adults who forget and have to relearn again the essential truths on a windy Wednesday night.  We all need laughter on our journey, and if it takes a corny joke to bring a smile to your face, I hope it helps today.

Today I am thankful for puns, pictures of Jesus laughing, and websites designed for levity alone.

Because I love baseball and Abbott and Costello (thanks Lisa, for letting me steal this from you):

Photo: Nabbed this from a family took me a minute to get it, then I laughed so hard I almost fell off of my desk chair.

And here’s the YouTube video for the classic skit:

The Absolute Worst Thing

“I may need to miss class because ESPN is filming a piece about my brother who had ALS, ” said one of my students.  Although I remember studying about ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), I didn’t remember the bulbar onset form of ALS with symptoms that include uncontrollable outbursts of laughter and weeping.  With ALS,  patients have described the absolute worst thing being the loss of control over their bodies and their emotions.  For a control-freak like me, I can’t imagine much worse, except perhaps the loss of my kids.  It is a deep-seated fear, so much so that I become like those in medieval times, wanting to make a sign to ward off evil spirits.  Even writing it makes it too close to reality, so much so that I hesitated before writing this sentence.  Superstitions like this are funny constructs designed to give us the illusion of control: If I do X, I can prevent Y.

So much of medicine can be described like this, though we couch it in percentages and terms like risk or probability.  We tell our patients, if you exercise, eat right, and lead a healthy lifestyle, we can prevent_____ (fill in the blank here).

When a diagnosis like ALS is given to a young, healthy male, it leads me back to that same feeling of helplessness we spend our lives in medicine avoiding if at all possible.  We try to avoid uncertainty, but in reality, there is so much in medicine that we have no control over. There are whole TV programs and countless books devoted to mystery disorders that we don’t know how to treat and that we can’t diagnose.

I tell my patients all the time that medicine is an art, not a science, though we make it out be one, with research studies and laboratory testing.  And then we are taken aback when we fail our patients, either through misdiagnosis or a medication prescribed that is ineffective, and our patients blame us.  We were the ones who presented medicine as an exactitude, so is it any wonder?  How can anything be exact when we are dealing with human beings, uniquely formed and miraculous?

Pharmacogenomics is presenting itself and teasing us with the promise of “personalized medicine”.  Finally, we think, by breaking ourselves down into our quaternary code of A, C, T, and Gs, perhaps we have unlocked the key to health and long life.  If you study the ICD-9/10 books, you see that we have a lot of codes for symptoms and illnesses, but not as many for treatments.  In some cases, all we can do is describe an illness, and then perhaps be able to predict its  course.  What we cannot always do is predict its path through someone’s life or psyche, and frequently all we can do is ease their pain. We murmur platitudes, sincere in their sympathy, but ineffective, “I’m so sorry to hear that your brother died,” knowing the reality of his diagnosis meant his death was inevitable, no matter what we might have done.

If we talk to our patient and discuss the innate difficulty in treating human beings, do we do them a disservice?  There are those patients who want to believe we are the experts, and that we have it all figured out.  There is much to be said for the placebo effect, which is very real.

In teaching, it is difficult to convey this duality to students.  I expect them to know these signs & symptoms about this diagnosis, and how to recognize and treat this, but in practice, it will rarely be this straight-forward.  Patients will expect answers and sometimes, we will not have any to give. Is it a reality they must come to on their own, or must we break down their belief in a system which is not perfect in order to make them better clinicians?

One of my patients today was angry at the entire medical profession.  He frowned at me, his bushy eyebrows knitted together, lips drawn together tightly.  His answers were short, and he eyed me like I might snatch the oxygen tubing from around his neck.  His gruff words and stiff manner belied his belief that we, in the medical community, were not doing enough to treat his multiple medical problems.  He listed example after example of his previous providers’ mistakes.  In each example, the underlying theme was that no one had listened to him.  His unspoken words said, “Please hear me.”

The key, I think, is in listening to our patients.  Because they are unique, each with their own story, I tell my students that a patient’s history is the key.  Inevitably, on tests, they will miss a detail of the patient’s history that is pivotal, something that changes everything.  The same can be true in real life.  My grumpy patient left and hugged me, not because I made any changes in his medications, or discovered anything that might cure him of any of his diseases, but because I took the time to hear him.  Even with all of our technology, our attempts to whittle people down to codes and numbers, nothing replaces one human being listening carefully to another human being’s story.

Today I am grateful to be in a profession where listening is still considered important, though the time pressure to see more and more patients has worsened across the country.  I am thankful I was able to make a difference for this one patient, to help restore his faith even temporarily in a medical system that is imperfect, staffed by imperfect humans in an imperfect world.  I am grateful for my students who quest every day to master all that they need to learn to be good physician assistants.  I pray that all of us can survive our absolute worst thing no matter what it might be, with grace and understanding.

This is a beautiful post written by a man who was diagnosed with ALS at age 39 and who did his best to live with grace and humor despite his illness.  It inspired my title of this piece:

National Near Miss Day

Yesterday was National Near Miss Day. At first glance, it seems like an odd thing to celebrate. You are celebrating the status quo–nothing has changed before or after the near miss. We are still alive to tell the tale as they say. However, few things in life can be counted on to give you a pounding heart and in my case, the tingling on the backs of my hands like a near miss.

Mostly we associate a near miss with catastrophes, whether it’s the screech of brakes when you look away from the road for that one crucial second or the odd sensation of nothing beneath our steps when there is supposed to be. My baby brother has had several near-misses with death, once while walking across a log suspended above some body-crushing height in Korea, and then once when he fell down a volcano (inactive, thank God!) in New Zealand. Each time he emerged relatively unscathed, with an interesting bar story to tell.

We forget that near misses can be associated with people also, like in Garth Brooks’ song about unanswered prayers. I like to ask my patients how they met their spouses. Inevitably, a litany of what if’s become part of the conversation. What if we had never gone on that blind date? What if his cousin hadn’t decided to drag him into your pizza joint? If she had not… or he had not… are all elements in a good how-we-got-together story. How often do chance meetings when you didn’t plan to go out or because you never go to that particular coffee shop, result in a friendship or a connection that might not have happened if we hadn’t taken that chance. The romantics of the world would say it was meant to be. If you are a believer in soul mates, you might say it was destiny. If you believe in an omniscient God, all of our actions are predetermined and known ahead of time.

In the peculiarly human way we all have, we can keep contrasting ideas in our head, and still be able to exist in complete harmony with ourselves. Consequently, most of us believe in free will and predetermination–depending on the situation. If all the world is chaos, random happenstance ruling our lives, then how do we continue making our way through every day, without the worry that an asteroid may come out of nowhere and smash our world to smithereens? And if we believe in predetermination, why then do we feel we are in charge of our own futures, our choices steering our path?

With these contrary beliefs, we develop constructs or theories that help us to cope. We believe that if we are good, make good choices, associate with good people, we can protect ourselves from tragedy. Consequently, when tragedy does arise, victim-blaming sometimes occurs, even by the victim themselves. Haven’t we all asked ourselves at some time or another, “What did I ever do to deserve this?” In reality, bad things happen to good people all the time. The families of those on the missing Malaysian jet are likely wishing their loved ones’ taxi had been late to the flight or that alarm clocks had malfunctioned the morning of the flight–any kind of intervention that would take away their pain. It gives them some sense of control to combat the helplessness they feel.

My most memorable near miss happened when I was in high school. I was waiting for my mother to pick me up from school, back in the days when it took only 10 cents to call on the payphone, or you called collect and when they asked your name, you said “I’m done, come pick me up” instead of your name, and then hung up. Because we had the family business, I often waited there for a while, until my mom was free. One of the girls I knew from class offered to give me a ride home with the rest of her girlfriends since she lived around the corner. I distinctly remember her saying “You’re pretty small, we’ve got plenty of room.” I wavered back and forth, eventually deciding just to keep waiting, because the car looked awfully full. The next day, I heard that the car full of girls had been in an accident, and one of the girls was seriously injured. I remember feeling an odd sense of guilt, as if by being present I could have prevented the accident. In truth, it is when we give up the illusion of control that we can let go of irrational fear, guilt, and blame.

My best near-miss occurred after I met my husband on a blind date set up by my best friend. I had asked her not to give him my phone number because I thought it would be too complicated, but he called her house just after she had left and her mother unknowingly gave him my number. Though I was kind of rude to him, we continued talking, and 22 years later, we’re still here. He says he would have persisted anyway, so maybe it was meant to be.

I think we celebrate near misses because it does change us, even if for just a little while. We see for a split second, all our possible futures, endings and beginnings, our potential mates and fates. Then the elevator door closes, our feet slam down into reality, and we are back to the status quo again. I think we celebrate that little space after a near miss in which we feel truly alive, and grateful to be so.

Today I am grateful for the near misses in my life, and for the people I nearly missed out on because I was too busy paying attention to the wrong road signs. I am blessed to have all of them in my life, through the grace of God alone, and not through any foresight or planning on my part.

Have you ever had a near miss? Was it positive or negative? Please feel free to share your story in the comments.
The road






In 5th grade in my elementary school, you could sign up for band. I had so longed to be able to play the piano, but then was assigned the clarinet. You can imagine my disappointment. My parents would listen to me practice dutifully in my room, the squeaks and squawks emanating from my bedroom so unlike any kind of music they or I had ever heard. They were relieved, I’m sure, when I asked to be switched to the flute. Unfortunately, I was no better at this, and being the practical sort of people that they are, stopped throwing good money after bad, and I did not continue on in band in middle school. I think my parents, and perhaps even the neighbors, were grateful for that.

That year was the same year I became a citizen, and coincidentally (or perhaps not), the theme for our choral show that year was patriotism. We learned The Star Spangled Banner, My Country Tis of Thee, God Bless America, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Guess who got picked to be the Yankee Doodle Dandy? That’s right, this girl, the one who has to wear a microphone to lecture to her class of less than 20 people, the one who has had to repeat her name so many times at roll call because the substitute teacher #1.Doesn’t know how to pronounce my name, and #2.Can’t hear me saying “Here” the first 3 times she calls my name. At the time, I thought I was being picked for my vocal talents. Although I can carry a tune, I’m sure my selection had more to do with my impending citizenship than with any sort of raw talent.

For a long time after I figured this out, I only sang in church, mainly because I felt God could hear me no matter how quiet I was and could feel how much I loved to sing, and that would be enough. Then one day, I read this quote “He who sings, prays twice,” attributed to St. Augustine.* This feels so true to me, perhaps because my happiest times singing were in church. All of our voices blend together in one beautiful harmony raised in worship. A very good church choir can be transcendent, lifting us up. Even a single voice can do this. I thought of this when I saw a clip of the Sicilian nun, Sister Cristina, on the Voice. Her voice is beautiful, but what struck me most about this clip are the tears in the eyes of one of the judges. At first glance, it seems improbable that this young nun could move a man with tattoos on his throat known for calling people “Dude” to tears, but with her profoundly simple and joyful expression of her faith through her song, she is able to touch him.

Isn’t that all that we long to do as human beings? This is what we want, for ourselves, and for our children to have, this joyful and inspired expression of who we really are, without concern of judgment. There is a popular song in which a mother sings to her children, “I hope you dance.” I would add to that, I hope you sing!

Today I am thankful for all musicians who are able to sing or create music which touches our souls. I am thankful for music teachers who perpetuate the love of music. And I am grateful for my oldest daughter who both sings and teaches piano, and occasionally dances :), my 10 yr old daughter who dances when no one is looking, and for a son who still sings and dances with abandon.

*The actual translation of St. Augustine’s words from Latin, is: “For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing about/to/for. There is a praise-filled public proclamation (praedicatio) in the praise of someone who is confessing/acknowledging (God), in the song of the lover (there is) love.” Isn’t this even more beautiful than the popular misquote of St. Augustine?

The link from which this definition came with the actual Latin, because I am a nerd:

The YouTube video in which Sister Cristina is featured (be sure to click on the Closed Caption button which translates it into English, unless you understand Italian):

Million Dollar Trip Around the World

“Now Hiring: Candidate wanted to take a $1 million trip around the world — for free. The applicant will spend a year eating at the finest restaurants, sleeping at five-star hotels and enjoying the world’s most elite nightclubs and resorts. Applicants should love good food, fine culture and ‘exceeding extravagance.’ Ability to write is a plus. Couples can also apply.”

If this offer seems too good to be true, it isn’t.  This is an honest-to-goodness job ad, funded by luxury vacation companies. Upon further reading though, I find that I’m under-qualified.  I don’t have the “discerning taste” they are looking for.  “The ideal candidate would be well-versed in the world of high-end hotels, restaurants and experiences and be able to immediately tell a 1978 DRC from a 2001 Lafite.”  Wrong gal here, that’s for sure.  I’m not sure if they are referring to wines, jets, or poodles.  Either way, I definitely don’t qualify.  Years of traveling with 460 air conditioning (you know, all 4 windows open going at 60 mph) in a burgandy 1984 Chevy Caprice Classic with 1 purple door, wandering from campsite to campsite until we found an open one, have made me a traveler with very low expectations.  We drive back home to Michigan over 1500 miles every summer, and instead of being horrified, I am amused and impressed by the ingenuity when I find the stack of paperbacks jammed under my motel bed to keep it rock-solid steady.

Growing up, our family vacations always seemed spontaneous and unplanned.  For 4 kids in the back seat, sometimes that made for long journeys as reservations were not made in advance and campsites would fill up.  I vowed that my life would be different once I grew up.  When we were planning our low-budget honeymoon, I began by researching all the places that could be seen, listing dates and matching them up with locations.  Because I love to travel so much, I never want to miss anything.  My husband quickly dissuaded me from the idea of a honeymoon with an itinerary.  I kept the list in the back of my head, though, just in case we might need it.  I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.  Instead of rushing from place to place trying to check things off my list, we let each day unfold like the present it is supposed to be, and every day was an adventure.  Did we see everything I thought we should see?  Not by a long shot, but even as short and low-budget as our honeymoon was, I re-learned a valuable lesson.  Family vacations had never been about getting to a particular place, but about being with one another, sharing that journey, and discovering things together.  Like the time we happened upon a pond in the middle of a forest.  Since we didn’t know it was there, of course we didn’t have fishing permits or fishing poles.  Instead, I learned that my dad was pretty good at making fishing poles with branches and some string using his pocket knife, and my mom could find wild herbs that made the first fish we’d ever caught taste pretty darn good.  I don’t think we’d still be talking about that trip if we had come prepared with fishing poles.

So I won’t be applying for the million dollar trip around the world.  Not just because I can’t tell the difference between a 5 star and a 4 star hotel, but because it has never mattered to me so long as I have my family or friends with me.  However, if anyone is in need of a travel writer who comes with an open mind, 3 kids, and a husband who can fix anything, feel free to give me a call.  We’ll be the ones arriving in a rusty Ford pickup, with all 4 windows open to the wind.

Today I am thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to travel with family and friends, for a fabulous honeymoon with a guy who is as open to adventure as I am (as long as we can get there in a timely fashion), and for kids who are great travelers.

If you have had a trip that didn’t work out as planned, or a travel story that was an adventure, I’d love to hear them.  Please share them in the comments section.

Be Not Afraid

This past Sunday, like too many Sundays, we walk into Mass late, yet again.  We scoot into the section where we always sit, because us humans, we are creatures of habit, near dear friends with their five children, one a baby boy just learning to talk.  I try to focus on the readings, but in the back of my head is running the list of things that must be done before the alarm clock rings Monday morning. I scan the doors, waiting for my husband coming straight off his shift to join us.  I am praying today for patience and for guidance.  You see a few weeks ago, my husband told me he was thinking about joining the SWAT team.  Yes, that SWAT team, the one you see on TV facing off the bad people, running towards trouble.

When I met my husband he was studying to be a pilot, and when he told me he was thinking about joining the military, I point-blank told him I would stop seeing him.  Not because I don’t respect and honor our military, especially now that in my work I directly serve veterans, but I knew myself.  I knew that the fear that I felt already everyday would be overwhelming.  I could not bear the thought of lying in bed at night worrying about him.   I said it calmly, as a statement, not a threat, then logically persuaded him to continue with his schooling, because I am not a reactor.   My oldest is the same.  We never tear into presents, always taking the time to admire the wrapping and read the card, then carefully going to the seams and pulling off the tape.  Before starting anything, I have to look at all the angles, deduce all the potential ramifications of what could happen if something went wrong.  Though I am a joyful person, I live my life by knowing what the worst-case scenario could be. I have been motivated by fear and the avoidance of danger all of my life.  When my parents left me in charge of a grandmother who could not really speak English and 3 younger siblings, my goal was always to keep them safe.  I took real-life stories from the newspaper and Reader’s Digest as lessons on how to avoid tragedies, incorporating them into my arsenal of weapons to keep fear at bay.

And so, when he very off-handedly mentioned while we driving to the store that he was interested in training for a spot on the SWAT team, I didn’t react.  I didn’t yell or cry.  He reminded me of an incident in which a police officer had recently been shot, and how her life was saved just because a paramedic firefighter like himself had been nearby.  You see, although firefighters and paramedics are standing by in scenes of emergencies like with what happened at Sandyhook Elementary, first they have to wait until the scene is secure, deemed safe by our brave police officers who although they have some medical training, are not medics.  He would be wearing SWAT gear, of course, covered in armor.  “If I were there,” he said, and my heart skipped a beat imagining this, “We could get to people sooner, and be there immediately if a police officer is hurt.  It would make a real difference.” I know this.  I know how minutes, even seconds count when your life’s blood is pouring out on the ground.  It is part of our training as physician assistants, sayings like “Time is muscle” as in the heart muscle, or “time is brain” as with stroke patients, are just part of our vernacular.  I understand this, and he knows it.

I look at my watch.  He is late, and unlike days where I am working, he can’t call me while I’m in church.  My girlfriend’s husband gets up to take his youngest daughter to the restroom, and the baby boy begins to call “Da da”  repeatedly.  Everyone glances over, and smiles, even me.  Father Charles begins his homily and I feel like he is speaking directly to me.  “Be not afraid,” he says.  He speaks of climbing our mountain, the same mountain I referred to a few days ago in my blog post High Desert.  His words fill me, pushing back the fear.   For some people, church is the desert, or a quiet place where they can meditate.  I am not one of those people.  I miss church if I am not there at least on Sundays.  I feel like something is missing if I am unable to attend.  Days like this when the Gospel and the community to which I belong lift me out of the mires of fear and ordinary life are part of why I am here.  I need this connection, this reminder to get out of my head, to stop carrying around this burden by myself.  None of us is alone, not truly.

Here is the difference between now and when we first met.  I am the one who suggested he investigate becoming a firefighter.  It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? That I would suggest he spend the rest of his life going into dangerous situations, when I prevented him from doing it so many years ago just doesn’t fit.  But knowing him, I knew that this man I jokingly referred to as the Boy Scout, would love this work.  That his steady hands in an emergency, knowledge of all things mechanical and construction-related, and his aptitude for medicine would serve him well.  This is what you do when you love someone.  You don’t hold them back from what they are meant to do.  No matter what it does to you.

Communion arrives, and he is still not here.  I stop scanning the doors, knowing he will not come this late.  When I see him later, I will smile and tell him about how well the baby is talking now, and about our friends who asked about him. I will be able to tell him and mean it this time, that I will support him no matter what he decides to do.

He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and suddenly from the cloud there came a voice which said, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.’ When they heard this, the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear. But Jesus came up and touched them, saying, ‘Stand up, do not be afraid.’  And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but Jesus.” Matthew 17: 5-8

Today I am thankful for our police officers, all the firefighters, our military and for all of those who make our world safer by running towards danger.

The Power of Names

I am a true believer in the power of a name.  Perhaps it is because as a writer, I know the power words can have to change mindsets and attitudes.  Perhaps it is because I grew up with the story of how my name came to be, and saw how it came to be both a self-fulfilling prophecy and revealing of my true personality.  Perhaps it is just because there is always a story behind each person’s name, and I love stories. Mine begins in Saigon, where I was born to a Korean father and a Vietnamese mother.  Whenever I tell people this, I always get the same reaction–“That’s a strange combination”.  Having never known any different, I really can’t say why this is, but purely from a personality standpoint, I can say my parents are two entirely different people.

Though both my mother and father grew up poor in war-torn countries, their stories are very different.   My father tells me stories of hiding out in the mountains of Korea from Japanese soldiers, and moving from city to city as my grandfather searched for work.  My mother wielded a machete to make her way through the jungles near her village in Vietnam while she scrounged for firewood and stole fruit from the trees of neighbors.  My father is a second son of six children, a golden boy who began providing for his family at a young age, helping to put his sisters through school.  My mother is the second-oldest daughter, but 3rd from the youngest of my grandmother’s eleven children, growing up in a very Catholic family.  My father loves music, art, and museums.  My mother was forbidden from reading novels with our family’s strict Catholic upbringing, but there wasn’t much money for novels anyway.  Before he came to Vietnam, my father had traveled all over, taking photographs with his Nikon and reportedly, as my mother teases him, leaving a trail of broken hearts.  My mother was betrothed to marry a boy from the next village over, but having never been there or met him, finagled her way out of the engagement by “forgetting” to notify him of her father’s death, thereby prolonging the time he would traditionally have to wait to marry her from 3 months to  3 yrs  (after the mourning period for her father had ended).  My father, a cultured man 17 years my mother’s senior fell madly in love with the determined young village girl, even going so far as converting from Buddhism to Catholicism to obtain permission from my grandmother to marry.

When I was born, my parents consulted a numerologist for help in naming their first-born daughter.  This to me is one of the most puzzling parts of the story.  When the story was told to me when I was a child, it was said as matter of factly as one might say “And then we took you home from the hospital.”  Looking back on the story now, I have a multitude of questions.  How long does such a process take?  Where might one find a good numerologist in Saigon? Was his or her name on a bulletin board in the waiting room of the hospital?  Was this a normal part of the naming process for everyone at that time?  My father was a fire chief, then a field engineer for the American military base in Saigon, work that is very concrete and physical.  My mother is the most practical person I’ve ever met. The concept of a numerologist being part of the naming process for these 2 people does not fit.  And yet, that is what I am told happened next.  This numerologist took all of our numbers, which I assume consisted of dates of birth for my mother, father, and me, and perhaps the time of my birth, and decided that I would be the peacekeeper between my mother and father, because they are such different people.  Thus my first name and middle name are meant to be said together, translating roughly into “the source of peace and happiness.”

I was in elementary school at the time I heard this story.  If you have children of your own, you realize early on that they arrive in this world with certain personality traits and qualities that emerge and persist.  My two daughters are both perfectionists.  My oldest is soft-spoken and prefers to avoid the spotlight.  My middle child is not soft-spoken, and prefers to do things her way.  My son is perceptive about people, and sensitive to their emotional states.  These are characteristics which are innate to them, ones that I cannot change, even if I were to try, and nothing that I knowingly taught to them.  From childhood, even before I heard the story of my name, I strived for accord between my friends or other children on the playground.  Am I who I am today because of my name?  Or was it just serendipitous that my name reflects the personality with which I was born?  I can’t recall consciously deciding to be someone who brings happiness and peace to others, as it seems to me to a worthy goal for any and every person, but did the knowledge of my name help to firm my nascent and innate desire to be a peacemaker?  Without a time machine, it is a mystery to know how different each of our lives might have been with different names.  Was the fact that my name’s meaning is positive change my perception about my life’s path?  I look at some of the more unusual baby names and wonder what will become of these children named Puppy or Pepsi.  My children are not named Puppy or Pepsi.

When my sister was born, here in America, my father asked for my help in naming her.  Thinking about this now, this also strikes me as strange, given that I had just turned 8.  I took the task very seriously though.  Being a very literary little girl, I went to my favorite stories.  At the top of my list of names was Josephine, for my favorite character in Little Women, and Sara after Sara Crewe from The Little Princess.  These girls were brave, smart, and kind.  These are the characteristics I hoped for in my first and only sister.  My father took my list of suggestions and actually chose one of the names I had provided.  And my sister is brave, smart, and kind.  I can’t take any of the credit for these virtues though I did help to name her.  She was born that way.

Today, I am thankful for my baby sister.  Sis, I’m sorry I forgot to warn you not to read this one in public.  I am grateful that my parents put thought into naming me and all of my siblings, and that none of us have names that might predispose us to being serial killers.  And as always, I am thankful for the power of names and words to change lives.

I love to hear stories of names.  So please feel free to share yours.  What is the story behind your name or the names you chose for your children or pets?  Do you think the meaning behind your name had any effect on who you are? Did you change your name, and if so, why?

Here is an article about the unusual names people have chosen for their babies in 2013, Pepsi and Puppy being real names, unfortunately:

The time machine I would use to explore alternative universes in which my name was not influenced by the numerologist.