Sunday, October 26, 2003

Simple Things

I feel like I've reached another milestone! I know how to work the oven in my kitchen. I probably ought to clarify that, however. It's not that I'm such a klutz that I couldn't figure out which button to push (even though the buttons are all in Japanese!). The first day I got to the apartment in August, I figured out (a) that this was a very small oven, (b) it was most probably a convection oven, (c) I had no idea how hot the thing would get so (d) I've not dared to use it yet.

The key to mastering this little Japanese version of reality -- honestly, the Japanese are very clever people but they don't "get it" when it comes to kitchens and especially to ovens -- was an oven thermometer, in Farenheit! I have always had an oven thermometer, especially overseas where stoves and ovens are so unpredictable. I had one in Moscow but, for some reason, it didn't get packed in my shipment. It's probably still in the oven there at Kutousovsky! And, I've hunted and hunted all around this part of Tokyo, hoping against hope that I'd find one. With all these unemployed expat housewives, you'd think a few of them would be looking for the same thing and creating a market for this handy little device. Well, today I found an oven thermometer! Eureka!!!

I couldn't wait to get back home to try it out! Oh, the simple pleasures! Finally, after almost three months, I feel like I can approach that puny oven with a batch of cookie dough or an apple pie and succeed in getting it baked. Finally there is hope for those left-over bananas that have turned a disgusting black.....they were begging to be made into banana bread but I haven't dared to even try without that oven thermometer!

One of the fellows from school just called to say "hi" and I told him about this incredible event. I could hear him chuckling, probably thinking that I'd really lost it! But, as I told him on the phone, it's one small way in which I can at least imagine I have some control over a situation. Lord knows there's enough going on around me right now that I can NOT control. Perhaps knowing which button to push to get this tiny oven to a steady 350-degrees to bake some chocolate chip cookies will actually give me some much-needed stability in my work week!

Now, if I can just find the chocolate chips!!!

Saturday, October 11, 2003

A Sad Journey

A couple of days ago, I received an email from my oldest brother, telling me about our Aunt Maxine's decision to take herself off of dialysis and medications which will mean that she will die within the next week according to her doctors. Her medical condition has worsened over the past few months as an accumulation of problems has worn her body down. In her late 80s, Aunt Maxine has decided that it is time to enter that part of her life's journey that will take her away from us. In my days as a chaplain and a pastor, I have had the privilege of being present with a number of people on parts of that journey. As much as I try to prepare myself mentally and spiritually, it is still a difficult and a sad journey but it is one that we must all face: both in terms of our friends and loved ones and, ultimately, for ourselves.

Aunt Maxine has always been a special person for me and one who always -- always -- brought happiness into my life. She had that knack of making me feel special. Until this past year when her health was so bad, she never, ever forgot my birthday. No matter where I was in the world, a card with a nice long letter found its way from her to me. A small gesture but one that only the very closest people in one's life can sustain over more than 50 years. And, in those sometimes lonely spots on the planet that I have found myself, it was meant more than I could ever put into words. Her home was always -- always -- open to me. I remember times when I was passing nearby Abington where she and Uncle Jack lived for so many years and and all it would take would be a phone call for the door to be open and a comfy bed and snack ready for me. No matter that my schedule meant that I could only stay for a few hours. Her touch was always -- always -- gracious and stylish. Good Lord, she epitomized style! Never ostentatious but always stylish. That's a tremendous role model!

Aunt Maxine was always a bit saucy! She lived her life in contrast to her sister, my mother. I can only imagine the figure she cut in her younger years. From what was said -- and, perhaps, as much from what wasn't said! -- I learned early on that Aunt Maxine had been one to live life to the fullest. My God, she smoked and drank!!! Shocking but, in retrospect, it was "cool" before cool was, well, cool.

Aunt Maxine was a strong link to my mother. Just hearing her talk -- that unadulterated New England accent that never went away despite all those years in Pennsylvania -- evoked the strongest memories of my mother in these years since my Mother died. But, even before that, when Mother was alive, I sensed a strength and a bond between those two sisters that we never were able to emulate, my brothers and I. There were very obvious differences between Mother and Aunt Maxine but the bonds of sisterhood were incredibly strong nonetheless. It had to have been forged in their early years but it was certainly strengthened with their own mother's untimely death while both sisters were teenagers. In my own life, as I have struggled with the issues of my own personal identity these past few years, Aunt Maxine has been both Aunt and Mother for me, never once wavering in her confidence in me, never judging, always accepting. Her voice on the other end of the phone never ceased to give me confidence in myself.

I never saw enough of Aunt Maxine. I always envied my brother, Paul, in those early years when he got invited to spend time on Cape Cod with Aunt Maxine, Uncle Jack, and Alan. In later years, I listened with envy as my brother, John, told me of visits he and Mary Ann would have from Aunt Maxine. Their proximity to Philadelphia was something that I never enjoyed in my adult years. But, even though I never spent the time I wanted to spend with her, I count her as one of the most significant influences on my life.

And so, on this night when she is entering her final journey on earth, I'm both incredibly thankful and profoundly sad. As I go on trying my best to be all that I'm capable of being, I will walk between those two emotions of thankfulness and sadness comforted by the fact that a very special woman has touched my life so significantly. I will miss her. I can only hope that on this, her journey home, she knows how much I love her.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Stress? What Stress?

In the middle of the summer, when I was at my worst and undergoing surgery in DC, a friend of mine said to me that I needed to "listen to my body," that my body was trying to tell me something through the pain and incredible discomfort. The other day, I realized that not only was my friend right but that I still haven't learned to listen to those signals that my body is giving me.

It came home to me as I was getting ready to depart last week for a very quick trip to The Hague to attend a meeting of the Board of the European Middle School League of which I had been a member this year. A couple of months ago when the meeting was announced and I made my decision to attend, the idea seemed like a good one, indeed. Because the meeting was in The Hague, I realized that I would be able to go a day early and see both Debby and Greg in Brussels before heading to the meeting itself. The flights were perfectly timed and I got things arranged without any problem. The problem was,however, that in order to get ready for such a trip, I had tons of things to get done and some huge and important deadlines looming before me.

The three days leading up to my departure on Thursday were awful! I found myself on the verge of tears, very vulnerable and fragile. Now those aren't traits that I exhibit very often but it was exactly how I felt in the pre-departure days. On Wednesday evening, my office-mate and colleague, Julie, was going out the door at 6:30 pm and she turned, looked at me (hunched over my desk) and asked, "Are you OK, Phil?" I lost it! Tears just streamed down my cheeks. I couldn't stop them and, in many ways, I couldn't explain them. Julie was kind... she came over and put her arm around me and just let me cry.

The next morning, I made my way to the airport in the early dawn hours. As I boarded the KLM 747, I found my pre-assigned window seat and I hunkered down with a book I'd been wanting to read ("The Samurai's Garden"). For the next 12 hours, I read, slept, ate, slept, read, wrote in my journal, slept, ate and read. It was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. As I thought about it, I realized where those tears of the day before had come from, what I was experiencing. If you've ever seen those lists of "life highest stress events", you'll know what I'm talking about when I say that, over the past few months, I've pretty much maxed out on "high stress events." I've had major illness (lasting a couple of months) and surgery; I've changed jobs; I've left some very significant friendships; I've moved half way around the world; I've entered a foreign culture; and I've lost my pets (Aquinas and Pexju). If I remember correctly nearly every one of those things stand at, or near, the top of the "highest stress events" list.

I need to listen to my body and my spirit. Stress has an awful, awful effect on me and I realized in those wonderfully refreshing hours on the airplane that I have it within my power to slow down and lighten up. I also realized that I need to take time to grieve, to acknowledge the losses while also recognizing the potential of the things I've gained.

I've read the literature and I know that the stresses of moving and life change are often mitigated by the passing of time. I just need to hold on. And listen to my body, as well.