Friday, February 28, 2014

No Longer Credentialed, but Still Thinking

Growing up, in our family room we had what my mom called a "hutch." It was some kind of two-part, buffet-type piece of furniture with cabinets on the bottom and shelves on the top. It was massive. The shelves, originally intended to display china or serving pieces, were chock full of cookbooks . . . and diet books. Lots and lots of diet books.

My mother was never, ever overweight but that didn't stop her from pursuing the cultural ideal and trying every new diet that hit the books. I started young reading those books and educating myself on the likes of cellulite and calories and the tricks of the trade. By age 14, I was all-out dieting. By 16, I had gotten pretty darn good at it. What began as an innocent "lose a few pounds" effort turned into an eating disorder. And it almost killed me.

After I began recovering from the Pit of Hell, which included my first encounter with a registered dietitian, I chose to put much of the knowledge I had already gathered to good use. I opted to major in nutrition at the University of Tennessee.

I was part of the Coordinated Undergraduate Program in Dietetics, which basically crammed four years of academics plus a one-year internship into just four years. The early-on classes were tedious (general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, analytical chemistry, to name a few) but the later classes I loved. Body parts and diseases and lab values and consumer trends and on and on. And I loved working with patients.

My first job out of college was at a hospital here in Western North Carolina. I dealt with some general med-surg patients and I had the orthopedic floor, but my main responsibility was inpatient cardiac rehab nutrition education. I developed a voracious appetite for the latest research and even considered moving deeper into the medical field as a physician's assistant. Instead, I met my husband.

When he moved to Atlanta, I followed him there and got a job at another hospital. This time I was thrown into some areas that were way out of my comfort zone (ICU) and others that had my heart (Eating Disorders). There, I was primarily responsible for the nutrition portion of the Preventive Medicine program. It was a great job and paid quite well but the management was terrible and, after a few months, I quit.

Little did I know, when I quit, how hard it would be to find another job in the field. At the time, 60% of the registered dietitians in the state of Georgia were in Atlanta and a large number of them had gotten their Masters of Medical Science degrees from Emory. How can anybody compete with that?

After three months of job hunting, I gave up and took a job as a receptionist at my church denomination's headquarters. I never worked in the nutrition field again. Two years later, hugely pregnant with my first child, I gave up trying to take the Continuing Education and paying the large annual sum to keep up my professional registration. Thus ended my life as a registered dietitian and credentialed nutrition professional.

That doesn't mean, however, that I haven't paid attention. I have watched fads come and go lately with more vigor than before. People no longer have to pick up a magazine or book to find nutrition information or misinformation It is all right there now at the click of a mouse or, even better, on their phone.

I have written before a number of times about why I don't jump on these bandwagons. I have ranted about all the questionable advice out there.

I may no longer be a credentialed professional (that doesn't stop a lot of people anyway) but I would like to be able to share some of my thoughts. I do believe that my formal education has value. I believe that my work experience in the field has value. I believe that my recovery from an eating disorder has value. I believe that what I have learned about people has value. And most of all, I believe that what God has taught me about food and priorities and life has value.

So brace yourself for my opinions, coming soon, to a blog post near you.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Known By Our Scars

Several years ago my youngest child had her appendix out. On the way home from the hospital she asked to go by school, and I obliged. Next thing I knew, she was standing there, shirt partway up, showing her entire 5th grade class her beautiful new scar.

Kids are like that. The bigger the scar, the better. Scars come with stories of adventure and risk and danger. Scars, to them, are like trophies. Medals of Honor created from flesh.

Then something changes. Adults usually aren't like that. We hide our scars. We go to great lengths via clothing and makeup and even plastic surgery to make sure that nobody sees. Nobody knows. But why?

My friend Jeff is a military chaplain. Recently, he wrote about an experience early in his chaplain training:
One visit will always stand out in my memory.

As soon as I walked into the room, I saw the man sitting in a chair in his hospital gown with his knees spread far apart.

I introduced myself and that I was here as part of a seminary course, learning and providing hospital ministry.

He introduced himself with a smile rather loudly and (as he began to pull his gown back toward his groin) immediately asked if I would like to see the scar from his prostate surgery.

I wasn't sure if he was serious or not, but I knew that I seriously did NOT want to look at that part of his body—much less after a surgery.

So I smiled nervously, turned my head to the side, held up my hand to block any potential view and said "no thanks" laughing slightly.

I managed to come on into the room, make some small talk with him and continue on my way after a few minutes.

I don't remember what we talked about.

. . . or even if he talked at all.

I think it's fair to say that all of us want SOMEBODY to see our scars and still stay with us.

Scars vary. Some are in plain sight. Others are in more private locations. Some fade so much with time that they are barely visible. Others are a grotesque mangle of tissue that disfigures us. Small children stare. Polite society turns away.

Why are scars so important? Because they are part and parcel of who we are. Every scar has a story.

But sometimes the scars are not etched in flesh. Sometimes they are written on our minds and in our hearts. They are memories of trauma and heartbreak that can be just as, if not more, painful as anything the sharpest knife could inflict. And they can handicap us and disfigure us in in ways that cause polite society, and even the church . . . sometimes mostly the church, to avert its eyes.

Emotional scars aren't pretty. They cause us to limp along in life, stumbling around, often not able to conform to the tidy routines of our happy-face, family-friendly, Christian culture.

Emotional scars, more than their physical counterparts, make people uncomfortable. Early in our marriage, my husband and I were part of a small group in the church we were attending and the plan was for each one of us to take turns giving our testimony.

I had given my testimony a number of times in high school and college and had never been met with any negative reaction at all, so I very willingly volunteered to be one of the first.

The week before, a fine, upstanding, middle-aged businessman shared the story of his life as a drug dealer and biker before God crashed on the scene and transformed him. His story was met with rounds of "oooohh" and "ahhhhhh" and "Praise God!" This was great! So, with no fear or trepidation, I began to share my own story; unveil my scars, if you will.

I opened up and shared it all . . . the anxiety, the insecurity, the broken home, the drinking, the depression, the eating disorder, the three hellish weeks in the psych hospital, and the three weeks in the medical hospital where God finally reached down, snatched me up, and said "You are mine." I also chronicled what had been some continuing issues as well as areas where God had worked tremendous healing and growth. I shared my story, my scars, who I was.

Nobody said a word. Not during the testimony. Not afterwards. Not in the following weeks. I received a handful of condescending smiles and a couple of looks of concern, but that was about it. It was the equivalent of stripping naked and having everybody gasp in horror. My scars were ugly. I was unacceptable.

It has been 26 years since that day and I have shared my story just three more times. Two of those times resulted in the now familiar silence (and air of condescension).

What my friend Jeff said is so true. We long to share our scars and be met with mercy and acceptance (and possibly even respect)—not disgust or revulsion.

One time, when I was obligated to share my testimony and was trembling in fear, I found myself asking, "Who am I to be ashamed of the means by which Christ redeemed me?" If he used those terrible, shameful, painful years of my early life to bring me to himself, then praise God! My scars aren't ugly, they are beautiful!

But, then again, God knows about scars.
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” — John 20:24-28
Jesus himself was known by his scars. The scars in his hands, his feet, were part of his story—the most wonderful story ever told.

Those of us who have scars (and from what I hear, that is all of us), we are in good company. There is no need for shame.

Can we do this? Can we brace ourselves and look at one another, scars and all, and see and accept who we really are? I hope so. Oh, I hope so.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How a Book Almost Ruined My Marriage

It was 1984 and I was in college, involved in a campus ministry that put a premium on the spiritual disciplines, sharing your faith with any and everybody, and transforming yourself into a Spiritual Giant. Elisabeth Elliot's book, Passion and Purity had just come on the scene and and was all the rage in my world.

I longed for love. I longed for love so badly. I was a hopeless romantic and pathetically boy crazy practically from birth and, due to my own wiring and family dynamics, craved a level of unconditional love that had always eluded me. To be honest, I really wasn't at college so much to learn as to acquire a husband. And Elisabeth Elliot informed me on just how that should go and what that husband should look like, if not physically, at least spiritually.

Don't get me wrong. Elisabeth Elliot is a godly woman and I am sure that her relationship with Jim Elliot really was something special, but what that book did to me and to those around me was something altogether different from what was intended (maybe).

To the guys around me who read it and bought into it, it meant that dating and even really interacting with the opposite sex on anything other than a most casual and arms' length way was downright unspiritual. Guys backed off from friendships and started pouring themselves into other, what we now call "bro-mance" activities, leaving the girls to fend for themselves when it came to male interactions and to spend the weekends watching chick flicks and losing hope.

A funny aside here and a most excellent example: A few years later I had an almost relationship with what I seemed to think was Mr. Right. He was fresh off the mission field and checked all the Spiritual Giant, Godly Mr. Wonderful boxes. He stood me up for a date in order to go to a Christian Fatherhood conference (I drove four hours for that date). Yeah. That kind of thing was happening. It doesn't matter how you treat a girl (after all, they could make you sin!) as long as you are climbing the Godly Man ladder.

Anyway, that book, Passion and Purity stuck with me. I felt guilty (big surprise) that I couldn't get, and didn't even seem to want, everything in my life and in my male-female relationships to go just as Elisabeth's did with Jim.

I still remember one story from the book. She and Jim were holding hands in the moonlight and the moon rose and clouds came (or something like this) and the shadow of a cross was formed between the two of them. WHOA! Talk about God making things clear and spiritual. For whatever reason, God didn't make things clear like that for me.

Enter my (now) husband. He was a Christian. He grew up in a Christian home. He went to a Christian college. But he wasn't impressed by my superior scripture knowledge (certainly THAT would get me the right Godly Mr. Wonderful). He just was who he was.

Our relationship turned from friendship to dating back to friendship back to dating, ad nauseum. If we were dating, we kissed. If we were "just friends," we didn't. Otherwise, nothing changed. I trusted this man (really, he looked like more of a boy back then . . . still does . . . sigh!) more than anybody on the planet and I couldn't imagine life without him.

But he wasn't Jim Elliot. We didn't have that super-sized spiritual relationship where being with one another just made us want to praise God all day long or rush out and share the Four Spiritual Laws or spend hours in prayer for the souls of the lost and what our future should hold. And I felt so GUILTY about this. Certainly, this man could not be who God wanted for me because he is supposed to be ALL THAT (meaning another Jim Elliott).
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? — 2 Corinthians 6:14
I read this over and over again looking for more requirements for who I should marry. I couldn't find any. Was he a believer? Yes. But still I felt guilty.

Finally, a wise friend informed us that the Perfect Mate does not exist and then he kindly but firmly nudged my husband off the fence. We married 14 weeks later. But still I felt guilty.

I continued to feel guilty for 22 years, even as I watched my husband grow and deepen in his understanding of the love and grace and mercy of the God who made him and in his ability to love others as himself. I felt that I had indeed disobeyed God because I had not held out for the man who fit the description of Jim Elliot.

Maybe it is my own pathology here. I do have a tendency to panic that I am not Doing It Right (if you have read enough of my posts, you KNOW) and I tend to think that means that God is mad at me and hates me and he is going to punish me for not DOING IT RIGHT. Yes, part of that is my own OCD that reaches out and grabs for things to obsess over. Part of that is my own failure to understand the very nature of God. But part of it is how I also grasp on to any prescription out there that says "This is the right way to do it" when indeed, God never got that specific at all.

There was something about confessing to my husband my sense of fear and guilt and hearing him laugh, not in a mean way, but in a loving, "Oh, goodness, honey, so THAT was it?" sort of way. He knows me so well.

I hate that, for 22 years, I allowed a book and the ideals that were spelled out there, to get in the way of loving and enjoying the husband that God gave me.

Through so many different circumstances, the past few years have taught me to hold to the rules and regulations and advice and ideals and standards of others rather loosely, even when those others are on a pedestal to many.

My husband has loved me mercifully and unconditionally for over 25 year now. I am thankful that I can stop feeling guilty about what I think somebody else thinks I should have done and trust that God has called me to love him in just the same way.

And I do. I love him with all my heart.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Hamsters: Beware

A few days ago a friend of posted  on Facebook that she was considering getting her children a hamster and asked who had had experience. I giggled evilly and squealed in delight. Had she not heard my stories, I asked. No, she had not.


Hamsters were not our first pets. I think that would be fish. Fish are easily contained and, if the container breaks, you don't need more than a mop and a flush of the toilet. They were  interesting, for the most part, but failed to provide that hands-on pet experience that kids long for. Plus, my youngest decided that, instead of water, they might enjoy chocolate milk, and thus killed off the whole lot of them.

Next came birds. I cannot remember just how many birds we had, some were purchased and some were given away to us (their former owners clapping gleefully as they drove away) but I do remember that, one by one, they died off. I was baffled until I read that these tropical birds needed a room temperature of no less than 67 degrees. Woops!

A one point we had a dog. For six weeks. His name was Otis. A friend had found him and told us he was so calm and sweet. Yeah, right. He was all and sweet because he was starved and scared. Once he got a full belly (thanks to my 1 year-old and his sugar mama) he turned into a different beast altogether. If there was a canine version of the DSM-V, he would likely have had every diagnosis in the book. He went to live on a farm.

And somewhere along the way we got cats. But that is another blog post altogether.

Thrown in the middle of all of this zoological mayhem came hamsters. I think we started with them one at a time, but they never lasted long and heartbreak was palpable. So one day we walked into the pet store and bought two. (Cue Jaws music of doom.)

The lady at the store said that they were both girls. We believed her. I am not sure how long it was, maybe one week, maybe two, before we noticed one of them looking a bit on the roly poly side of life. How could she be pregnant, we asked. Didn't the very young pet store clerk know the difference between boy and girl hamsters, we asked. (Insert head bang against wall.)

And then they came. Hamster babies. Lots and lots of hamster babies. So cuuuuuuute were these itty bitty hamster babies. But then the hamster parents were at it again.

They say that living on a farm is the best way to teach your children the facts of life. I say that you need not fear if you have no funds with which to purchase acreage and livestock. You, too, can have an all out anatomy/physiology/life cycle classroom in a couple of square feet right there in your own home! Purchase a couple of hamsters and let nature take its course.

Pretty soon there were who knows how many generations of hamsters have unprotected relations with one another with the frequency and gusto not normally approved of in polite society. The kids got an eyeful. Then things turned really weird.

The baby count started to go down. One day a litter would have seven pups (is that what they call them?) and the next morning we would find only five and a new phrase entered our vocabulary: culling the litter.

Yes, culling the litter is what mama hamsters, and I guess other beasts as well, do when they think that they can't take care of all their babies. Well, duh, lady. By then the cage had taken on the population density of a New York tenement in the 1880s, and probably smelled just as bad.

Trauma hit a new level when we witnessed the said culling. There was Mama Hamster, cheek full of something, munch munch crunching while muffled squeaks reached our horrified ears. She was eating her young. The thought crossed my mind to use this as an object lesson for the kiddos. "See what mommies do when their children don't obey?" But I thought better of it and refrained.

The Internet was a new thing in our house and so, with glee, I looked up why a mother hamster would eat her young and how to stop it. The suggestion was that, perhaps she was no eating them because they would some day turn into insufferable teenagers (which would be MY excuse), but because she was protein deficient. So we fed her, and all the young moms (it was a regular rodent midwifery clinic in there), scrambled eggs. Lots and lots of scrambled eggs.

The eggs worked. The moms quit eating their young and kept having babies. Healthy, high protein babies. Then one day they got out.

Memory fails me when I try to recall just how many we had to begin with and how many we recovered and how many we were giving away as fast as we could, but 46 total comes to mind. One day we had had enough.

I took the hamsters we still had (we had exhausted all our normal routes of hamster adoption) and stood outside the school building during dismissal. And I started giving away hamsters. To this day I do not know how I managed it. It must have been nothing but the mercy of God on a weary hamster animal husbandry specialist that moms throughout the car line did not send the hamsters back. (To you moms who I put on the spot, I apologize.) and finally, finally, we were left with one, which went to live in the first grade classroom.

So if you ask me about hamsters, beware.

Never Too Late

Today I read this blog post by Lisa-Jo Baker. The title sounded right up my alley and I thought it would tell the story of a kindred spirit, a seasoned mom who is looking back with pain and regret, but then I got to the part where the author talks about graduating into elementary school panic. Oh, my! Honey Bun, I thought, you have no idea. But I was wrong.

Every so often, when a baby is getting baptized at church (that's what Presbyterians do), I am hit with a flood of guilt, remorse and regret and find myself longing to start over and, this time, DO IT RIGHT. But I am 50 and tired and that ain't gonna happen.

But the author of the blog post isn't just talking about her very real but very limited experience with pain and regret, she goes on to tell the story of this man who really did do it wrong. Yet it is a story of hope.

It hit me a few months ago that my relationship with my children does not end when they turn 18. We wring our hands and fret and strive and push and prod and do all we think we must...must...MUST do to make sure that, by the time they are 18, they are ready to forge ahead in the world with the morals of a Puritan, the brains of a nuclear physicist, the drive of a CEO, and the compassion of the Good Samaritan. And if, by the time 18 rolls around, we have not wrapped up our job and rolled our product off the assembly line in a tidy package, well.....tough beans. You snooze, you....and your child....lose.

But there is nothing anywhere to say that our relationship with our children stops when they turn 18. The only thing that stops is our need to sign permission slips. Really, that is it.

I have four children. My oldest turned 24 yesterday. My youngest will be 18 in 9 days. Many would say that my work is done and I will now just have to reap what I have sown. Many would say that if they struggle now, it is my fault, because I didn't do it right back then. Many would say a lot of things.

But the man in the story knew better. The man in the story discovered that what mattered most was relationship. And the man in the story knew that just is never too late for relationship.

I spend a lot of times fretting over the Dos and Don'ts of parenting. But it isn't about Dos and Don'ts. It is about heart. It is about grace. It is about love. It is about second chances. And I will never regret those second chances.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In Defense Of Facebook

Relevant Magazine put out an article today that I just can't really agree with.

The premise of the article seems to be, and I have heard this before from so many places, that Facebook is taking the place of real relationships. That our scanning and lurking and viewing people's posts has become a substitute for the back and forth, give and take, face to face messiness of real friendship. I can see what he is saying, but, in my experience, that just isn't so.

I believe that, for a lot of us, Facebook has not become the substitute for face to face interaction, Facebook has become the substitute for NO interaction.

Think about how many people live day after day with very little contact with other people, or at least other adults.

You have mothers of small children trapped inside their homes, longing for anything remotely resembling an adult interaction. You have people who work from home, a growing trend in our country, who would spend the entire day cut off from society at large if it were not for Facebook. You have retired people or those with chronic or debilitating illness who have trouble getting out and about who, but for the likes of Facebook, would spend a lonely existence glued to the television.

Ours is a mobile society. We have families separated by hundreds or thousands of miles due to jobs or military service. Pre-Facebook those people would be isolated and limited and out of touch. Today, they have options for connection.

But it is the essence of relationship that the author seems most concerned with:
In reality, community isn’t always supposed to be comfortable. Real community is messy. Real community is unedited. Real community involves taking time to actually be with people, even if that means finding time by making sacrifices. It means investing emotion into someone else’s life—even if you get nothing in return. It means getting hurt and getting involved. It means taking the filters off and embracing the parts of your friends’ lives that haven’t been cropped out of a picture or have gone unmentioned in a status update.

That description is so true. That IS what real community is. And I had a tough time finding it before Facebook. Living in a culture where everyone puts their best foot forward and keeps their cards close to the vest, not to mention where time and opportunities for interaction are limited, community was so elusive. For me, Facebook, to a certain extent, solved that.

I don't crop my life for Facebook. I DO communicate back and forth. I DO get involved. I DO get hurt. Facebook doesn't change that.

What Facebook does, however, at least for me, is provide an opportunity for connection. I can make a status update or share a blog post and the conversations start. Those who long for connection will chime in. Often these conversations will go out of public view and into private messages. And sometimes they will turn into face to face meetings. The ones that are, according to the author, so important.

And even if face to face is the ideal of relationship, it is easier said than done. For example, anybody with young children knows how hard that is. Mothers who work inside and outside the home alike can have limited time to set all aside for a 2 hour cup of coffee.

Members of my church are spread across 7 different counties. Getting together, face to face, is limited to Sunday mornings and (perhaps) another time during the week. There is limited opportunity to share the things of our heart in that sort of setting.

When I first moved to my town 20 years ago, I was terribly lonely. I was a young mother with 2 toddlers and a husband who worked long, long hours. It was hard to break in to the circle of already well connected people at church. I even remember overhearing one woman say, "I am relationshipped out. I don't need any more friends." And even though others didn't say it, I wondered if they felt the same.

You hear that others are lonely as well. But it is so difficult to know WHO it is that is lonely and WHO it is that is eager for the type of relationship that the author of the article describes. Facebook provides an excellent jumping off point for that.

My friendships have multiplied through Facebook. It is there that I can get to know people, their likes and dislikes, their ups and downs and their daily grind, and yes, if they are honest, even their struggles. This level of familiarity makes the getting together times, when they do happen, all the richer, because I am not having to start at square one.

Facebook is by no means perfect. I have had to take breaks from it myself for a number of reasons. But some of the richest interactions and relationships I have are, at least in part, because of Facebook. I don't think I need to give it up in lieu of "real" friendship. I already have it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On Death and Perspective

I had a conversation yesterday about death. Well, it seems I have that conversation a lot.

When my father died when I was 40, I knew that I was ahead of the curve in experiencing something that most of us will experience, the death of a parent. I was just experiencing it earlier in life than most of my peers. My mother died when I was 45, making me what they call a "mid-life orphan."

Yesterday, a small group of us had lunch together after church. Two people had lost their fathers in the past 2 weeks. One, two months ago. Another, just over a year ago. When I looked around the room it became obvious to me that almost everybody in the room that was over 25 had already lost at least one parent.

A few days ago I found out that a childhood neighbor died. He was 54 and a nationally renowned physician, but to me he was the big brother of one of my best friends and a tireless basketball player.

Yesterday morning I heard that the mother of another childhood friend had died. I remember her driving carpool.

A dear friend remembers with pain and grief the death of her toddler nine years ago today.

So, yeah, death is on my mind a lot. It seems to be touching the lives of people I know. All the time.

I was there when my mother died. I knew she was in bad condition and drove the 4 hours to be with her. My sister called me when I was about 30 minutes out. "Mama's dying," she said.

"Tell her she can't go until I get there."

By God's grace, I got there in one piece and without a speeding ticket, despite my adrenaline rush and panicked lead foot.

She waited. She waited for everybody. And then she was ready to go.

It really is a strangely beautiful thing to watch someone die. To see them let go of this life and take hold of the hand of God. It is heartbreaking, yet it is beautiful.

What I love about death is the perspective it lends. All of the sudden the stuff of this life that we worry and fret about, the stuff that gets our panties in a wad and causes us to wring our hands and push ourselves and harden our hearts, all that stuff just sort of crumbles into nothingness. And we are left with all that matters.

It is easy to get overwhelmed and forget. In our Information Age we are fed a steady diet of facts and propaganda and opinions. Via social network we are urged and pressured to conform. And, sadly, even from the church we are often prodded more to perform than to love God and our neighbor.

But death will so easily topple our well made plans. It levels the playing field.

Raising kids is hard. I worry more than most, perhaps, for fear of "doing it wrong." But I have grown weary and tired of it all. At this point, I don't think all that other stuff matters. Not the discipline or the education, not the skills or the achievements, not the honor or the duty, not the success or the money, not the brains or the beauty, not even the good choices and the bad choices, not even whether or not they eat right. I don't care about that any more.

All I care about, for my children, is that they know in a very real way, the inexhaustible grace and endless mercy of Jesus. The rest is chump change.

And that goes for all of us. Because, in the end, nothing else really matters.