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Home Repair

Late last November I entered the living room of my 93-year-old house and found a small wet spot on the floor. My eyes moved up to the ceiling and confirmed my fear: the shower pipe above had burst. My piano was wet; there was nasty water on the floor, walls, and surrounding things. My friend and contractor from our previous renovation, Greg, burst through my front door within three minutes of my call carrying a giant plumbing tool. We closed off the bathroom and began a major remodel 66 weary days ago.

Trying to keep a house clean during restoration is like brushing your teeth while eating Oreos. Despite cordoning off the construction zone with plastic and shoving towels under doorways, the dust still enters every crevice. I vacuumed and Swiffered and mopped every day after the workers left for about a week before realizing I was wasting my time. Now we just wear shoes in the house and politely ignore the dirt, drop cloths, and tools. It is a time of reconstruction, a finite time of upheaval that will eventually lead to something different.

The turmoil in my house this spring matched the turmoil in my family. As we observed Lent, I watched my mother-in-law suffer the end stage of pancreatic cancer. Her body was slowly, very slowly, shutting down. She carried her cross and said goodbye to everyone and we watched and held her hand and cared for her until the end, Good Friday, the same day as her Savior. On Easter, we felt she was at the heavenly banquet, and we celebrated her resurrection. The priest at her funeral told us one of the Italian meanings of her name, Loretta: house.

I haven’t lost a parent; the loss of my mother-in-law is the closest I’ve come to that sense of being orphaned. I guess you can feel it even as a middle-aged adult. As members of the older generation pass away, one by one, the upheaval means you are really the grown-up. Walls come down, pipes leak. You can’t wipe away the dust. If you ignore the pain and discomfort it will still be there staring at you in your shoes. The only thing you can really do is live with it knowing that a transformation is happening in there, somewhere behind the plastic.

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Who Do We Want to Be?

My son, who is a middle schooler, has reminded me on occasion that he did not ask to be born. I can verify that this is true, having not known him well enough to ask before I carried him to term and labored for 19 hours. As his mother I can vouch that he was born all infant-y, unable even to comb his hair or use the toilet. I had to do everything: feed him from my own body, wash him, put clothes on him, and teach him to walk and talk. No way was he paying that hospital bill when we were first discharged. He did not ask for this, after all.

Because scientists discovered that there are certain ugly diseases that we no longer must suffer I brought my little boy to the doctor for all his vaccinations. Many other times through his 12 years of development, the petri dish of elementary school sent us back to the pediatrician’s office, or to urgent care, or to the emergency room for tests and/or medicine. My son can tell me when he’s sick now, and he can tell me exactly what hurts, which is helpful, but he still makes me pay for everything, the little moocher.

My point in this irreverent story is to illustrate how my son, a healthy citizen of this country and a patient in the medical system has thus far in his existence been unable to pay his own way. The very notion that an infant or a child should be financially responsible for himself is absurd. But isn’t that the way it would be if we only viewed healthcare as a privilege instead of a basic human right?

If healthcare is just a privilege for the citizens who have jobs, who are productive members of society, then what are we going to do about all those babies and children who can’t do for themselves yet? And what about the people who are chronically ill? When I was a kid I had bad asthma and needed to carry around a rescue inhaler in case I got too carried away laughing, running, or playing with cats. I’m sure I wasn’t an inexpensive kid. There were allergy shots, predictable episodes of bronchitis every Valentine’s Day, and daily medication to keep my condition controlled. And that was just asthma. Luckily, I could still function as long as I had medicine.

But not everyone can. Cancer hits even healthy, hardworking people and robs them of workdays while they are in treatment. Car accidents, war injuries, mental illness, and pregnancy can knock people out of the workforce temporarily or permanently.

And what about the retired? At some point the work years will come to an end. If you’ve been healthy and fortunate enough to find work in your life, you might want a break already! Will my son have forgiven me for bringing him into this world by then? Will he care for me if I start to lose my cognitive abilities? Or will I just have to beach myself like an old whale when I’m done?

We have a hybrid system of medical care in our country, made up of self pay, private insurers, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. It is a behemoth, if ever there was one. And someone undoubtedly has to pay for it. As we move forward revising our system, we must keep in mind the breadth of people living in our country. We are a nation made up of persons in every stage of development, from conception to death. The vulnerable at the ends of the spectrum and those experiencing hard times in between are humans with dignity, and their care should top our priorities when creating laws. We cannot leave out children who were born to parents who have no money. We can’t omit the sick – what else is healthcare for, if not the sick? We can never forsake our women whose bodies usher in new life. And we can never leave our parents and grandparents to fend for themselves in old age after all they’ve done for us.

A fair and just society will include all of the people in all of the stages of life in it’s healthcare vision. And a representative government that cares for it’s citizens will continue to work on a solution for paying for it. Our officials are public servants, after all. They’re here to represent our needs while shaping public policy; they aren’t in office simply to be re-elected again and again. And as elected officials tasked with understanding and creating policy, they certainly cannot simply throw their hands up and announce that they’re finished talking about it. That’s not what The People pay them to do.

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Quiet Virtue

In Richmond over the weekend my family spent time with my mother- and father-in law. Nonie, as we call her, suffers in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. We visit whenever possible, doing whatever she feels up to doing, and leaving in tears, wondering if that was our last chance to see her. Nonie was diagnosed three years ago and responded remarkably well to chemo and radiation, which gave her an additional two and a half quality years. In that time she has managed to see all of her grandchildren, who are scattered across the country; she attended her youngest grandchild’s first communion, and her oldest grandchild’s wedding. She also enjoyed a few more trips to the beach and to Williamsburg, one of her favorite places.

But last August, the cancer began to grow, and now we try to keep her as comfortable as we can. Little things make her happy. Her eyes light up at the mention of ice cream or whiskers, a cookie she likes from a local bakery. Fresh daffodils brighten her space. Hot tea, prayer shawls, and her children bring comfort.

It’s difficult to witness a loved one transition through this stage of life, especially when she is suffering pain and unable to do the things she loves to do. But Nonie has still been busy, as I learned Sunday morning during a yearly task that I normally loathe: taxes.

Though my brain doesn’t process the numerical world as well as it processes the world of words, my husband and I volunteered Sunday to prepare the tax paperwork to send to his parent’s accountant. We found everything categorized already, and after going through the medical receipts I took on the charitable contributions.

When I do this for my own household, I find a spreadsheet to be helpful in detecting duplicates, so I decided to use that same method. (I have no idea how other people do this stuff – I probably do it the way dinosaurs did their taxes.) The first 12 contributions were monthly auto-debits, and they were very easy to track. Then I smiled, and for the rest of the stack, my heart softened, as I was given another glimpse into my quiet mother-in-law’s little daily ways. In her own hand, over and over throughout the stack of receipts, were lists of items she continued to purchase for her church’s food pantry, clothing pantry, and her favorite charity, Christmas Mothers. By entering the dates of her transactions I could see an outline of her regular weekly activities, which – even up to December when she was very sick – included shopping for the hungry and providing gifts for the nursing home gift shop, where she used to spend much of her energy. Nonie continued to think about those whose needs were great, and she continued to help others as best she could in her limited ability.

Perhaps that’s why Nonie has lived so long, and why she continues to wake up every day. She still thinks of others before herself, which gives purpose to her life.

I may never be a person who enjoys the tax process, but this year it was a blessing to view her life from that perspective. I knew she did these things; I did not know that she was still doing these things while so sick herself. All of those lists, written in her own neat cursive– and to think that people are wearing those coats she provided the clothing closet — do they know what remarkable woman purchased them and then gave them away? She’d never want them to know, it was just a part of Nonie’s life; her life of virtue.

Respiratory Bug

I caught the bug, winter’s last cough.
Who was more surprised on February 24?
The gnat, aerial dancing with his friends
Or the runner, in whose lung the party ended?

Rooted in Love

Am I the only one buffering like a computer with too much incoming data?

I haven’t finished writing my piece about deportations and already we’ve moved on to the insecurity of Mar-a-Lago as a place to meet foreign leaders, and then the resignation of Michael Flynn, and finally the Russian missile test. And I completely skipped over the story last week about the silencing of Elizabeth Warren during the Senate debate over Jeff Sessions.

Indeed, the firehose of news bursts forth.

Anyone remember the dress that was white and gold? Or was it black and blue? Those were the good ol’ days. The days of blissful Trumplessness.

During these times of confusion it’s important to stay rooted. Trees with deep roots can bend in the wind without breaking. Don’t let the noise overtake you. Reconnect. Go into silence. Turn off your feeds. Pray.

My family flew to Park City, Utah last week for my husband’s medical conference/ski trip. I escaped into retreat-mode there, except for newspapers and books, and I kept the newspapers to a minimum. (I was reluctant to completely let go of the news; I was worried they might ban the travel of liberals and I wouldn’t be able to get back to NC.) (In case you didn’t know already, I could be described as a liberal. There, I said it. I’m your token liberal friend.)

Anyhoo… it was refreshing to duck out of social media for awhile. I picked up a book and read it cover to cover; how’s that for blissful ignorance? (It was Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, if you want to borrow it.) I went running at 7000 feet altitude (twice) and didn’t pass out. (Success!) I wandered up and down Main Street and into art shops admiring paintings of aspens and Wasach Mountain landscapes. I listened to the voices of other languages; Park City attracts skiers from all over the world. There were French, Italian, German, and Chinese people passing me by on the street. I rode a gondola at night to an elevation of 8000 feet with my eyes shut tight most of the way. The world below was beautiful when I peeked, city lights like stars, me hanging by a cable.

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Main Street, Park City, Utah

I returned to a yard full of blooming daffodils, a gift from my friend, Global Warming. I gaze at them now in my vase. Are we at the end of civilization as we know it? Is this what paradigmatic change looks like from the inside? Will my friends still love me after I confessed to liberal thinking? Is my green tea actually green?

Friends, I love you. Let’s bear one another through this. Let’s remember the soul connections we had before the words liberal and conservative and Donald Trump came into our daily vernacular. Can we be one another’s certainty during uncertain times? Can we practice agape? Let’s stay rooted in our source of life. Only when we are rooted do we know in what ways to act. Only when we are rooted will we see with clear eyes.

When we are rooted, we can love.

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Peace Tree, by Jared McMillen. One of my favorite pieces that I saw last week.

January = Pray + Write + Run

There it is in black and white: my formula for how I got through January 2017. Most Januarys are a little blue for me; February being even bluer, but my heart has been especially heavy this time around.

At the risk of getting too personal, I feel really weighed down. When I read the news, a daily habit, it’s exhausting, mentally and emotionally. There is too much to read – I heard Robin Young from Here and Now on NPR call it, “a firehose of news.” And what there is to read is crazy. Crazy.

Our polarity in this country has broken my heart. We use our social media platforms like weapons, arrows darting across the ether at people we in real life care about, or used to, anyway. It seems to me an age of incivility.

Most days I pray in order to connect with my source and to quiet the abundant noise around me. Usually I pray before I write. I never post without praying first. Running fits in depending on the weather, but I’m sure it is the reason I’m not taking an anti-depressant! I’ve been a runner for years, but a mediocre one at that. Now I run like I’m being chased by an angry mob, unintentionally improving my speed and running longer and longer distances because it feels so good to release these toxins.

I’ll leave you with a Cherokee parable I first heard a few years ago in The Servant Leadership School at Holy Trinity. It’s attributed to the Cherokee, and there are variations of it on the web. There’s wisdom in it; far more wisdom than I have in me.

The Wolves Within

An old grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, “Let me tell you a story.

I, too, at times, have felt a great hate for those who have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.

But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times.” He continued, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.

But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.

Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

The boy looked intently into his grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?”

The grandfather smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”

The Story of US

Maddalena Simonutti was born in 1904 in a small Italian town near Spilimbergo. When she was only four years old her mother, at age 29, died while giving birth to her fourth child, who also died at the same time. Ten years later World War I began, and near the end of the war, Maddalena’s two brothers, Constantine and Ugo, were killed with some other boys while playing near a bomb that detonated. They were only 15 and 12 years old at the time. Maddalena’s neighbor, Pietro Tonelli, a boy a few years older than Maddalena, was moved with emotion when he saw her crying at their funeral and he vowed to himself to marry her someday when they were older. Maddalena’s father, grief-stricken at the terrible losses began to drink heavily. He later married another woman, who made life miserable for Maddalena.

At age 17, Maddalena moved to Milan to work as a governess in a home. Her employers loved her and treated her like a daughter. They took Maddalena on vacations with them and included her when they went to the opera, which she loved. The kids she raised adored her as well.

Meanwhile, Pietro had moved around Europe looking for work after the war. He lived in France for a few years working as a carpenter near Paris. Then he moved to Turkey, but only stayed a few weeks due to the extreme heat. In 1927 he sailed to America, in search of opportunity. He joined the masses entering the United States through Ellis Island, where he was processed and allowed entry.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
-From New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus, on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty

Pietro found work in construction in New Rochelle, New York, and wrote to Maddalena asking her to marry him. Her employers made Maddalena turn over all of her letters from Pietro so that they could determine if this young man was good enough Maddalena. They approved, made a trousseau for her, and sent her to America in 1930 on a tourist visa, officially to visit her uncle Daniel in New Jersey. Once in America, she travelled to Canada to visit more relatives, and was able re-enter the United States as a Canadian in order to gain citizenship (because there were no more visas that year for Italians) and marry Pietro Tonelli, just two months after entering the country.

It is unclear how Pietro became a US citizen. Family legend has it that he was here illegally for a time, and when asked, Pietro would laugh and claim to have jumped ship. According to his good friend and extended family member, “Uncle Alfred,” Pietro may have gone to Cuba before Maddalena arrived to re-enter legally and gain citizenship.

Peter (Pietro) and Madeline (Maddalena) Tonelli spent the first years of their marriage in an Italian community in New Rochelle, NY. Peter worked construction, building houses. There they had two daughters, Loretta and Marisa Enes, whose first language was the Italian their parents lovingly spoke to them. Uncle Alfred lived with them almost the entire time they lived in NY.

When the girls were still young, their parents moved the family to Washington, DC, where Peter started his own construction company as an entrepreneur. He built the house they lived in on Franklin Street, and Madeline managed their home and the boarders to whom they rented a room.

Loretta, also known as Nonie by her grandchildren, is my mother-in-law. She lived her entire life in the United States, married Robert Dahlstedt, and they raised three children, Maureen, Stephen (my husband), and Eileen. Loretta shared many letters with me last weekend from her Uncle Alfred containing bits and pieces of her family tree: years, names, stories. After the deaths of Madeline and Peter, Loretta had asked Uncle Alfred to fill in the blanks of her family tree for her. She would mail him letters in English, he would translate them to Italian and forward them to her relatives in Italy. They would reply to Alfred, who would translate them back to English and send them to Loretta.

Last February, Stephen and I took the boys to New York for my birthday weekend. The first item on our agenda was to visit Ellis Island, to see where his grandparents entered America. We found their names on the wall and sent photos to Loretta. Here are some photos from that trip:

As Loretta shared her letters and memorabilia from her past, I asked her if she ever faced discrimination in the United States as the daughter of Italian immigrants. “Oh, yes,” she replied. “Other children were not allowed to play with my sister and me because we were ”the enemy” during WWII.” She went on to explain how she has always empathized with other groups because of how she felt as a child, and she was quick to tell me that there were also plenty of good, accepting people who made up for the discrimination she experienced.

Fear and misunderstanding of immigrants is nothing new in our country; many different groups were singled out in the past: Irish, Italian, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, African-Americans, and Latinos, to name a few. But our country was built by immigrants. Unless you’re of Native American descent, or your ancestors were forced here as slaves, you came from an immigrant. To put it into perspective, there are over 51 million records of immigrants in the Ellis Island archives. That is more people than the combined populations of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia today.

I never met Peter or Madeline, and Stephen was still a child when they passed away. They, as many still do, immigrated to the United States in order to find work and better opportunity than they had in their country of origin. They worked hard, building family, community, and a great country, which they passed on to their own children.

Though I didn’t know Peter and Madeline, I can say that their daughters, Loretta and Marisa Enes (Inez) have been a blessing to me. In fact my life has been enriched and blessed by many of the immigrants, people with dual citizenships, and expatriates that I’ve known through the years. They make us better by bringing different perspectives. Many bring special expertise to us. They bring their cultures, and yes, their food. They show us that America is not alone in the world; there is much to be seen, known, and experienced beyond our borders. They are our cousins. They are our ancestors. They are us.

*Photo of the ship Guiseppe Verde from www.libertyellisfoundation.org.  It was the ship that brought Pietro to America.