Graduation Dinner Reflection

At our graduation dinner last night the other four Master’s in Theology graduates and I were asked to submit short reflection related to our time as students and now graduates of the Theology Master’s Program at St, Catherine University. I wound up writing mine straight from the heart, so I’m afraid it was less about my favorite class or my most uplifting experience, but at least it had the virtue of being honest.

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I must admit that last week’s graduation was bittersweet. I was thrilled to be graduating, oh my goodness, yes, especially with my family there, and with my friend Sherri (who was absolutely glowing and stunningly beautiful); but at the same time I was fighting a migraine and on some fairly heavy-duty painkillers (!) and my fibromyalgia had me so sore that we went straight home afterwards instead of going out—where I sat around in my brand-new academic robes and hood and gorged myself on takeout pizza and watched bad WWII movies on Netflix with my husband George. Okay, so that part was fun, actually, and I wish we had thought to take photos of me stuffing mushroom pizza in my face wearing my graduation regalia!
The bittersweet part is that people keep asking me what is next, and I stumble around, trying to come up with something funny to say, and I’m at a loss. The dream that has kept me going, through the myriad of chronic pain conditions that has required me to drop classes and seek numerous extensions and medical leaves of absence (thanks Bill! (our super-understanding theology department head)) has been pastoral ministry, especially the idea of chaplaincy. That’s the whole reason I entered this program. And now these chronic pain conditions are making it impossible for me to hold down even a part-time job. Or be a reliable volunteer, much less work full-time as a hospice chaplain. So there is triumph in the degree, but grief and uncertainty when i contemplate my immediate future.
Still, there are several treasures  I will take away from this outstanding program to help guide me in my coming journey. I have met so many amazing, compassionate, loving people here at St. Kate’s, both faculty and students, who I am honored to count as role models, mentors, and friends. I know that your prayers go with me, just as mine go with you, and that our journeys together do not end here, but in many ways have only just begun. I am excited to continue growing as both a scholar of theology and as a pastoral minister. My studies here have opened so many doors! I feel I have only dunked my toe in the water. And, too, I will take all of your stories with me. I have had a rough time, yes. But I am not the only one. So many of you have done battle with your own pain, and done it with immense grace and courage, and I cannot tell you how much I admire you and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Finally, I take with me the knowledge that I need to trust in the process, as Deb (my mentor and pastoral ministry prof.) told me recently. This is very difficult for me, (trust is not my strong point) but I know she is right—I need to learn to take better care of myself, and learn to trust that the Holy Spirit will lead me in the right direction, even if I don’t know where in the heck I am going now, beyond more physical therapy. After all, Someone helped me through comps!

you want to be a…chaplain?

When people ask me why I’m studying theology, I usually just explain, “Well, I want to work as a chaplain, preferably in hospice.” Sometimes I just get a handsstrange look, more often I get the look along with an “…oh, okay…” Occasionally a brave person will speak up and ask me what a chaplain actually does, or why I’d want to do something so depressing. A relative told me once he wished I would do something more worthwhile with my life than prayer. Um, okay.

I did my first chaplaincy internship back in my twenties, before I had to drop out of school to deal with my fibromyalgia and migraines. This is a short story about my first hospice consult (I was terrified) which was subsequently published in our archdiocesan newspaper when they asked for submission on the question: Who Is My Neighbor?

Dwarfed by the hospital bed, surrounded by IVs and beeping monitors, she was a tiny, frail elderly woman with enormous haunted dark eyes dominating a white face. A native of Poland, she spoke little English, but was nonetheless able to understand the diagnosis: inoperable stomach cancer.

Six months, maybe less, to live.

I was a chaplain intern with a grand total of three weeks experience,
observing my first hospice consult. What could I, a 27-year-old graduate
student, possibly say to a lonely frightened dying woman who didn’t
even speak English?

As I stood huddled  in a corner of the room and watched, a tear formed in one of those dark eyes and slid slowly down her face. Then another. And another. Her fragile body began to shake; and suddenly I found myself far from the safety of my hidden corner, my inexperience forgotten, my arms around her and my face buried against her shoulder, I dug out my little blue
plastic rosary, and as we wept and prayed together, the healing love of
Christ transcended the gulf between us, overcoming the barriers of
language and age, binding us together as fellow pilgrims walking hand in
hand on our journey home.

In truth, I have come to realize since, we are all fellow pilgrims on a journey home to the God who created us and loves us beyond our wildest imaginings. We are, indeed, our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper, and we are called to bear one another’s burdens. We have more in common than we realize, as I discovered in my first hospice consult, and  it is
through Christ’s love that we are able to journey with, and heal, each
other.

And THAT is why I want to be a chaplain.

Mary Oliver

My favorite poet is Mary Oliver. Consider this:

“When it’s all over, I want to say: All my life I’ve been a bride married to amazement”–Mary Oliver

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Here I am, being married and IN amazement, that I am going to spend the rest of life with the man I adore, my best friend and my rock..

Question: In your life thus far, how have YOU been married to amazement?

seventeen years??????

My dad’s funeral was 17 years ago today. It’s amazing to think so much time has passed, when I thought I could never live without him. But I discovered that I can, because he is now a part of me and I am never alone, never without him, and I know that he will never be truly lost to me. St. Leonard, a member of the communion of saints. It’s not that I don’t still grieve, and sometimes I miss him so much my heart, literally, aches, but the grief has changed; gradually, the comfort of my memories and my sense of his presence has finally outweighed the pain. Most of the time…

Certain smells, certain moments when I feel unloved, certain aspects of the Christmas rituals, and hundreds of other ordinary details of life, will reopen the wound. But at least now I can let it bleed for a while and go on. At least now I can be open, not only to those painful moments, but also to the many joys of my life.
–Joyce Barrington

the red thread

The Little Red-Haired Girl as seen in the tele...
The Little Red-Haired Girl as seen in the television special It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a short post, just an update on our baby situation.

To make a long story short, we are no longer trying to get pregnant. As it turned out, I simply couldn’t handle being off of my fibromyalgia medications. My muscle relaxers, Advil, Excedrin, and trazedone (a sleeping medication commonly used to treat fibromyalgia) are all, without question, definitely verboten for anyone trying to get pregnant. And without them, I’ve wound up in one of the worst fibromyalgia flares in years. I’ve been in too much pain to function: unable to dress myself, drive the car, cook, get myself to class, type on the computer. So, after talking it over with my husband and my physician, the three of us decided that, for me, pregnancy is simply not an option. (If anyone has any doubts about whether fibromyalgia is a real, debilitating chronic pain syndrome, check out the Mayo Clinic website or Web Md.)

I feel as though I have lost an actual baby, not just the hope of one. I loved this sweet, precious little child, our little red-haired girl; she dwelt firmly in my heart and mind, in my very being, and the grief of knowing that she will never come to exist is overwhelming now.

But I know that I will survive this. And George and I KNOW that there is a child out there, waiting for us, waiting to become part of our family. In a funny way, being adopted myself, adoption, rather than pregnancy, seems like a normal way of becoming a family. So that is the plan.

I’m going to close with a quote I have propped up against my keyboard as I write; it is from a good friend when she and her husband adopted a little honey from China, and I have a feeling it’s going to be my mantra for some time.

“An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but will never break.”
–An ancient Chinese belief

Please keep us in your prayers, if you are so inclined.

a window opens

There is an old saying that when God closes a door, He opens a window. And every once in a while, it seems to come true…

I went in to see my doctor a couple of weeks ago for a medication recheck and, somehow, the conversation drifted to babies. Our Philippines adoption plans fell through earlier this summer–not only are they no longer accepting applications for toddlers, but, according to our adoption counselor, they are about to add medical restrictions. Just about every country we’ve looked at now refuses to accept parents on anti-depressants. The only country that would possibly accept us is Russia–for a price tag of 30 grand+ and therefore not even within the realm of possibility for us.

So I’m crying, sharing all of this with my doctor, when suddenly she said, “Barbara, have you thought about trying to get pregnant again?” (I should explain here that we did try for a few months about two years ago, after consulting with a genetic counselor and a perinatologist. However, at the time–this was before I went to my beloved pain clinic–I was having chronic migraines. Not exactly conducive to babymaking. So we quit and decided adoption would be easier. Little did we know.)

According to my doc, all the signs indicate that I’m still fertile (I’ll spare everyone the gory details) and, despite my seizure disorder, history of depression, asthma, etc., the risks are manageable. I’d still be considered a high-risk pregnancy and need to be under the care of a perinatologist, but chances are more than good that we’d have a HEALTHY BABY!!!!!

IN PRAISE OF FOLIC ACID
The biggest risk to the baby is neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. This is thanks to my anti-seizure medications, which change the way the body uses folic acid; however, taking 4 mg of folic acid by prescription drastically lowers the risk. Yes, gals, that’s 4 MILLIGRAMS. And it’s been proven to work! (Otherwise I would never even consider pregnancy.)

So our quest begins. If anyone has any advice for me, PLEASE don’t hesitate to share!!! I figure that in a way I’m lucky after all that all of my friends have had babies before me–lots of experienced women out there for support!!

And if we can’t have a baby this way, then we’ll adopt through the MN Waiting Children Program. So come hell or high water, we are going to have a family!

on second chances

I found out last week that I have been accepted into the Master’s of Theology Program at St. Kate’s! Talk about a boost! I was so terrified–convinced, actually–that I’d be rejected that getting that phone call (the director of the program notified me by phone) felt like I’d suddenly come out into light after walking in darkness for eons. For so many years it’s seemed as though I’ve been dealing with nothing but fibromyalgia, migraines, depression, PTSD, losing my mom…it feels as though this is my reward. My second chance at life. Hopefully, the beginning of a lifetime of using what I’ve learned from my own personal tragedies, as it were, to help people who are hurting and in need of someone to be a loving, listening presence.

N.B. This is partially lifted from my application essay:

People often look at me strangely when I tell them I hope to work as a chaplain. They ask if it isn’t depressing, if I couldn’t make more money in another business [author’s reply: YES I COULD MAKE TONS MORE MONEY ELSEWHERE], why I don’t just volunteer at a hospital once a week, if what I want to do is work with sick people. But for me, it feels like a call, as though it’s exactly the place God wants me to be, the thing that is most true to who I am as a person. What I remember most about my experiences as a chaplain intern is the sense of total honor,to be allowed to companion people during the most sacred, awe-inspiring moments of their lives–including, yes, the moment of their death.

For years, ever since I was first diagnosed with PTSD, I’ve longed, desperately, to somehow find meaning in my suffering by someday using my brokenness to help heal the pain of others. And when I began my first C.P.E. (Clinical Pastoral Education, basically a chaplain internship) at St. Joseph’s Hospital, working with cancer patients, and the following summer at the VA Medical Center working with WWII combat vets still carrying the emotional ravages of all they had seen decades ago, I discovered that I had a certain authenticity. Because I’d been there, too. Maybe I hadn’t had cancer, but I was familiar, through personal experience, with psychic and physical pain, and many of the spiritual questions that inevitably arise from it. I found that mixed in with the sorrow, and my frequent feeling of incompetence and awkwardness, were moments of true connection, of utter holiness. The “thin places,” as my Irish ancestors would say: the mystical moments when earth and heaven meet.

Over ten years ago, after my summer at St. Joseph’s, I wrote a short piece for The Catholic Spirit in answer to their question “Who is my neighbor?”; more than anything else I’ve written here I feel this brief narrative explains why I’ve chosen the ministry I have. And it also shows that in this ministry, so far, I’ve gained far more than I’ve given.

Dwarfed by the hospital bed, surrounded by IVs and beeping monitors, she was a tiny, frail elderly woman with enormous haunted dark eyes dominating a white face. A native of Poland, she spoke little English, but was nonetheless able to understand the diagnosis: inoperable stomach cancer. Six months, maybe less, to live.

I was a chaplain intern with a grand total of three weeks experience, observing my first hospice consult. What could I, a 27-year-old graduate student, possibly say to a lonely frightened dying woman who didn’t even speak English?

As I stood huddled in a corner of the room and watched, a tear formed in one of those dark eyes and slid slowly down her face. Then another. And another. Her fragile body began to shake; and suddenly I found myself far from the safety of my hidden corner, my inexperience forgotten, my arms around her and my face buried against her shoulder, I dug out my little blue plastic rosary, and as we wept and prayed together, the healing love of Christ transcended the gulf between us, overcoming the barriers of language and age, binding us together as fellow pilgrims walking hand in hand on our journey home.

Note: I should explain here, for those who don’t know me well, that I was in the M.Div program at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity for about three years in my mid-twenties. I dropped out in 1997 when my fibromyalgia, depression, and PTSD made it too difficult to function, much less handle grad school. It’s been my dream, ever since, to return to school, get my degree, and become a chaplain (hospital or hospice). Incidentally, none of my classes/credits transfer to St. Kate’s, because it’s been over ten years since I did my coursework. This is fine with me, actually, since my memory of those days is hazy, to say the least. It feels great to start afresh!

forty for forty

Oops! I made out my resolution list several weeks ago and then completely forgot to post it. I’ve never made birthday resolutions before, but hitting a milestone birthday has inspired me to take stock of where I am and where I want to go. So here goes!

  1. Keep up with gratitude journal somedays
  2. Complete adoption application, home study, and dossier still trying to come up with application fee
  3. Yoga occasionally
  4. Physical therapy exercises at least 5 days per week ummm…
  5. Volunteer for Barack Obama (GOTV effort) nope–migraines kept me in bed
  6. Begin spiritual direction done
  7. Paint living room, hallway next spring
  8. Send in grad school application for Master’s in Theology Program by December 1 make that December 30
  9. Find financial aid for grad school
  10. Celebrate 40th birthday in style done!!!
  11. Lose Prednisone weight by Christmas almost
  12. Apply for spiritual direction certificate program changed to pastoral ministry certificate program
  13. Cardio at least 5 days per week
  14. Strength training, 2 days per week
  15. Get mammogram done
  16. Organize photos
  17. Organize mom and grandma’s letters
  18. Obedience lessons for Fiona
  19. Eat at least 5 fruits and vegetables daily HA!!
  20. Check into infertility support group found online adoption support group
  21. Check into fibromyalgia support group
  22. Organize study
  23. Do The Artist’s Way
  24. Date night with George once a week
  25. Work on improving my Spanish, especially conversational maybe French, instead
  26. Send birthday cards ON TIME not even close 😦
  27. Update blog more often better
  28. Journal every day, even if for only a few minutes somdays
  29. Organize mom’s things, finally
  30. Explore ways to finance adoption looking at foster-adoption now
  31. Send five things for publication
  32. Read To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye, Anna Karenina, and The House of Spirits
  33. Learn to knit
  34. Knit prayer shawl
  35. Become commissioned Eucharistic Minister
  36. Check into Basilica Befriender ministry yes
  37. Reconnect with college friends doing
  38. Keep to a regular sleep schedule getting much better
  39. Organize week using The Life Organizer by Jennifer Louden will probably never do
  40. Watch more comedies too many Law & Order reruns, still