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Growing Up

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Turbo Mermaids

Despite deep reservations over my body's capabilities and a busy family schedule I flew to Phoenix last weekend to compete in the US Master's Swimming Nationals. Over 2,000 swimmers from age 18 to 97 gathered from across the country to brave the 100 degree heat, dubious air quality and perilously high starting blocks.  Fellowship and inspiration made the trip worthwhile even before I swam my best times in 13 years. An international meet at Stanford in 2006 was the last time I competed seriously, and since then my autoimmune illness laid me low.

In 2012 a dear friend came over to help me cook dinner and reassured me, as I slumped on the kitchen counter in despair, having lost fifteen pounds and all my strength, that one day we would be able to walk around the neighborhood again.  Her words stuck in my head, even as I began to walk (lifting my water bottle for a weight), swim, and cautiously re-embark on a weight training regimen. I swore off competition at the height of my illness, since my addiction to exercise, fueled by competition, had nearly killed me. But engaging with my Masters teammates, finding my comfort zone in shorter workouts, more rest days, and a new attitude, brought me back to competition seven years later.

It's hard to say who was more inspiring, Olympian Matt Grevers sprinting a 21 (seconds) in the 50 -yard backstroke, the 97-year - old woman wearing a fast compression suit and swimming the 200 freestyle, or my teammates - fellow "turbo mermaids" in the words of my friend, Suzy - winning their races and dropping more time than any other team.  The starting blocks were so high that they required two steps to climb up, and a permanent "fin" was anchored to the back to provide a track start.  The fin worked well when you finally stepped over it and onto the precariously slanted surface.  I admit that my heart raced crazily when I got up there the first time, but a 79-year-old man next to me flew off in a practice start and motivated me to take the (very high) plunge.  All over the deck volunteers were letting us use their shoulders, hands or heads to climb up and stay balanced, and the shade tent poles were also handy and much coveted for their assistance.

I placed third in the 100 free and fifth (by .04!) in the 50 free with times that were not so far off what I did at Stanford oh those many years ago.  To be clear, I didn't think I could even finish a fast 100 free, since here (at altitude) my lungs give way to seeing black and wanting to pee my pants after I turn at the 75.  Maybe going down to sea level was the trick, maybe just being brave enough to try was most important. I always tell the kids, "Your passion must be stronger than your fear," and I had not followed the mantra myself until this past weekend.  The residual grip of the illness and my doubts about fitness had lingered beyond their past-due date, and I was relieved and full of gratitude that I could finally drown them in the pool.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Made Like Him, Like Him We Rise

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia! 
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia! 
Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia! 
Where's thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia! 
Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia! 
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia! 
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia! 
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia! 
- "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," verses 3 and 4, Charles Wesley (1739)
The soaring soprano notes and trumpet blasts of this traditional Easter hymn lifted us up on Easter Sunday even as tears started and I had to mouth the words around my constricted throat. One of my favorite pieces of music reminded me that we are called to hope, to envision a better future, to have faith that good will triumph in the end. It could not have come at a better time.
Perhaps you have stumbled through my latest entries (stumbles due to the faulty writing and not to your reading ability) and realized that our spring has been full of tragedy.  In addition to the loss of life, we had to sit through a day of school closure due to a "valid threat" to schools across the Denver metro area. Over 434,000 students and their teachers sat at home on a Wednesday because a young woman, obsessed with Columbine, had flown to Denver from her Florida home, purchased a gun and ammunition, and threatened to take young lives.
The situation was not a reality I ever want to adopt - feeling held hostage by an individual with mental health problems who was somehow allowed to by weapons with an out-of-state license, no waiting period, and no regard for the fact that she cannot even buy a beer at age 19, but could somehow buy a gun.  One neighbor reflected, "We close the schools so that the gun stores stay open."  Another noted that we had a spring snow day one week, and a spring terrorist day the next.
I can't make the situation feel normal, can't normalize it for my children. Their resilience in the face of danger reassures me in small ways and horrifies me in others. How can they be expected to operate in school with much larger pressures weighing on their young shoulders?
My mood was a bit low going into Easter, but this pivotal spring holy day reminded me of my duty as a Christian and as a parent, to hold on to hope, to have faith in a better day, and to work hard not only to envision this better world but to make it possible.




Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Bad Writing about Hard Things

After a week of time putting some distance between us and the tragic death of a young woman we knew, I re-read my last post and now must apologize for bad writing, for my inadequacies.  To write well an author needs to plumb the depths of their own emotion in order to "show and not tell" the story to the reader.  I struggled last week to deal with my emotions: shock, fear, sorrow, anger, worry. There was little desire to dredge them all up as I spent most of my time squashing them down in order to could function.

We went to a candlelight vigil in the neighborhood park last Thursday night which saw hundreds of people gather to pay homage to the young girl.  Aden and her friends disappeared into the throng near the photo wall, while the other moms and I stopped a long way out, stricken with grief and unable to move closer.  The overwhelming sense of tragic wrongness sat heavy on all the parents assembled. Children in the first blush of their young lives should never go first.

Several parents shared their own stories of sons and daughters who struggled with mental health. One father told me that he was wrestling with "survivor's guilt."  Their daughter had attempted suicide twice and by some miracle had recovered and was now thrilled with life at college. He said, "there but for the grace of God go I," and it's a sentiment that most of us shared.  The multitude of candles glowed beautifully on the dear faces of loved ones in our community as we gathered in small groups. Their hugs provided some comfort but couldn't alleviate the emptiness, the reason for our gathering.

At youth group on Sunday, the young people were still reeling from their losses, including the death of a sophomore boy from a private school near our church.  The school had kept the incident fairly quiet, partly because it occurred over spring break, and the students in my group wondered if the young boy's lack of popularity, his quiet demeanor, had contributed to the lack of conversation around his death.  They are all wondering about their worth, the impact that they have on the lives of others. In social media land they calculate their value by instagram followers and snapchat streaks and wonder if obtaining the magic number of "likes" or "views" would somehow protect them from feelings of inadequacy. 

How do we help them realize that their value is intrinsic, and the likes and views are as fake as Monopoly money?  Real connections matter, a small number of close friends and family matters, future hopes and dreams matter. In the midst of our struggle to affirm the teenagers in our lives came another bombshell; last night we heard the news of a death by suicide at a different high school in the district.

The loss of life must stop. I don't know how to prevent it, which adds to the general unease and worry gathering mass in my stomach. All I can do is tell my children how special they are, how much they mean to our family and friends, and pray that this wave has finally crashed and withdraws back into the sea.



Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Death by Suicide

The correct term for a young person's death at their own hands is death by suicide. Not "committed," no judgment attached, just a straightforward statement regarding an event that is anything but straightforward. Such a death tips the world on its axis.  Our neighborhood and school communities are now reeling because of such a loss.  A young lady who grew up with Aden, who swam on the summer team with her, joined her for Brownies and Girl Scouts and youth group, has died by suicide.

Aden and her friends are devastated. Though the seniors have taken different paths at the large high school, their elementary school classmates are like family.. They gathered in small groups at each other's homes over the weekend, crying over shared memories and tentatively (guiltily) sharing their plans for the future: college, majors, jobs.  They have also shared their own mental health struggles, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.  I am heartened by the outreach and support but terrified by the depth of the troubles they face. I want to get counselors for each one, remove the burden of homework and exams and social media, but I feel powerless in the face of their culture.

The weight of grief will not entirely lift this school year and their friend's absence will mar prom and graduation and high school memories.  This recent loss was the third death by suicide that our school community has suffered in 2019.  Apparently this is considered a side effect, that 'contagion' is a medically observed risk of youth suicide. Add that word to the list of the most odious terms ever conceived.

Anger is a part of the grieving process, and no one knows where to direct their anger in such difficult times. Some people direct it at the school, as if they could prevent this when families, faith communities and medical professionals have not. Some people ask why the school held a day of mourning on Friday when they did not have it in February for the first student who died by suicide, ignorant of the fact that the families had different wishes. The school has done everything possible to respect the families and help the students.

I am also angry and have no target for my anger, which of course is closely accompanied by fear.  It's taken me four days to write this post, struggling to corral the various thoughts that swoop through my mind like Dementors. My greatest desire is to shield my children, tell them how much I love them, but they can't understand the depth of this emotion, not until they have children of their own. I never did. The greatest force in the world - a parent's love for their child - cannot always save them.


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Bomb Cyclones and Blizzards

We're caught in the tail end of the huge blizzard system moving across the Midwest, which means a snow day for everyone. The school district did us all an immense favor by calling it yesterday, despite sixty-degree temps, sun and general disbelief.  We all got to sleep in, and the district powers were rapidly proven correct when rain turned to snow at 9am, and gusts of wind blew in to relieve forty-year-old trees of their embedded root systems.  As the wind howls and the electricity flickers on and off, I cross my fingers that the stew in the Crockpot gets cooked before we lose power, and calculate how much square footage we might need for sleeping in front of the gas fireplace in the family room.

Rob has been at a conference near the Denver airport all week, and got there for a brief time this morning, only to realize as the snow started dumping that he had to return home immediately or he would be staying at the airport hotel overnight.  I'm relieved to have everyone here, safe and warm, and realize for the thousandth time how little anything else matters if my family is safe and healthy. Not college admissions (so hard to pass up a tangent on this issue today!), not salaries, not status, not anything.

Snow days were hard when the kids were little (everything was hard back then), but not so difficult now as children do homework or ply their phones. I should herd everyone into a family game but might settle for a family movie later today when essays are written, Rob's to-do list has been shaved down, and my birthday project for Daniel is farther along.  Speaking of shaving - I even got to my legs today with all this extra time, and now luxuriate in sweats that have seen better days.  Should my children glance at my deshabille in horror, I need but to flash a smooth shin to reassure them that I haven't totally given up.

Wishing everyone at home in the blizzard a safe and restful day, and praying for travelers who might be caught in this system or those without homes seeking shelter. Be safe.

Monday, March 4, 2019

We're Going to Break the Rules

Though I grew up in the Catholic church and Rob in the Presbyterian, we have been attending St Andrew United Methodist Church for fourteen years.  Our boys were baptized there and our oldest two children confirmed in front of a congregation that we hold dear. St. Andrew takes the United Methodist slogan of "Open hearts, open minds, open doors" one step further; we are a reconciling congregation which specifically welcomes members of the LGBTQ+ community who are often denied the comfort of church membership.

Last week the global conference of the UMC met to vote on how to deal with this community. Our Book of Discipline states that homosexuality is a sin and incompatible with God's teaching, and many congregations in the United States - including St. Andrew - disagree and want the wording changed to embrace all people with God's love.  Unfortunately, a conservative faction of the American UMC banded together with delegates from Africa and Asia and actually made the situation worse. Not only did they vote to keep the language, but they introduced draconian punishment for any clergy who came out as gay, and for any clergy who married a same-sex couple.

The plan approved by the conference, the "Traditional Plan," says that a clergy member who marries a same-sex couple will lose a year's worth of pay the first time s/he conducts a marriage, and will be excommunicated from the church after the second time.  Our pastor, Reverend Mark Feldmeir, said that if he were a young man at this time, he would not elect to go to seminary, would not become a pastor.  But, thanks to God's grace, he is our pastor, and he helped us all through a difficult week of reconciling the narrow and prejudiced decision of the global church with our congregation's open attitude. (In contrast to the decision, which he called broken hearts, closed minds, and shut doors.)

Rev Mark held a meeting last Wednesday, the day after the vote, and between 300 and 400 people came on the spur of the moment to be comforted, to organize, and to prepare to disobey.  As our former Pastor Jerry Herships put it, "it's ecclesiastical disobedience but biblical obedience."

In his sermon yesterday, again addressing the bitter decision and the divide it has caused in the Methodist Church, Rev Mark answered his own question, "What are we going to do?" with this, "We're going to break some rules."

I heard that statement with such relief that I cried. The feeling of betrayal by organized religion (again, after growing up Catholic), the disbelief in continuing narrow-minded and exclusionary thinking by leaders of our church and leaders of our country, had swamped me into depression. To hear a courageous leader stand up for what is right, to brave consequences in defense of God's major laws ("Love God and love your neighbor as yourself"), was a buoy to my floundering spirit.

I should add here that all of our previous pastors agree with Rev Mark and posted lengthy responses to the Traditional Plan on Facebook. All are worried about members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially the youth who are denied welcome in so many areas of life. The church should be a haven and refuge for all, especially the marginalized, and I thank God that our leaders will stand up to the egregious decision to specifically outcast our members. They will marry same sex couples, they will come out, they will continue to spread love.  The United Methodist Church will never be the same, will probably split into multiple factions, but brave people will continue to love audaciously, welcome boldly and embrace with all our strength.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Listen to the Body

My son couldn't sleep last night because time trials for high school swimming start today. Last year he was excited and nervous, understandable for a freshman, and this year his body wouldn't let him rest because it remembers.  William's body took a beating last year, and he developed scary autoimmune systems from over-training. I told William that his body remembers getting sick, and that he has to promise himself that he won't let it happen again.

It's taken me a long time to understand that my body has memory and wisdom separate from my brain, and that I need to listen to it. The brain might say "sure, I can run a marathon, anyone can do it," while the body says "that's not right for you." Speaking from personal experience here, the body trumps the brain in the end.

In any sport an athlete is taught to train past "normal" stopping points, to practice through fatigue and break through mental barriers.  My concern isn't with this type of training, it's with excess, when fatigue becomes exhaustion, when the digestive tract shuts down from stress and the lack of rest pushes somatic systems into permanent fight or flight.

The old mantra of "no pain, no gain" is outdated. Fatigue is good, most pain is not.  Rest is a vital component of any training plan; rest and recovery are often overlooked.  Last weekend, after just a few days of rest (and the absence of over-training), William dropped an astounding 2.5 seconds in his 100 free.  As he had dropped 1.5 seconds two weeks prior, he's cut an unbelievable 4 seconds off a 54 second race in a month. He's worked since July to recover his health and build his strength, and now he needs to stay the course in a much choppier sea.

It's hard for anyone to stand out from the group and say "I need something different," especially for a 15-year-old among his peers. But the body speaks loudly, and we have to choose whether to listen - or to pay the consequences.