Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Falling Up: Synchronicity Sidebar

It was only a few days ago I wrote that post, not remembering dates, not going and looking up. But we live in this age of social media; and for all that people complain, I am so thankful for the ways it has allowed me to be connected and re-connected to people. So this morning I found out that today is Merrihelen's birthday.

That means that 49 years ago tonight I was at her slumber party saying yes to Jesus. She said no, she believed in science. We kind of ruined her party. And I'm sorry for that.

Also today, Dr. Billy Graham passed away. And in some ways he is part of this story too. 

Wendy and I started going to Topanga Community Church with Lucy. Like many other non-denominational Christian churches of the time, it followed a lot of the pattern set by Billy Graham. The music was similar, the sermons were similar, the theology was similar. One night we had a special service where they showed a film produced by his ministry. 

And on a regular basis they had an altar call, much as he did. As the piano began to play, the pastor would have everyone bow their heads and close their eyes, "no one looking around." You would be invited to make a private decision to to accept Jesus as your savior, just slip your hand in the air, with no one looking. But then, as the choir sang Just As I Am, those who had raised their hands were encouraged to come up front for prayer, to make a public commitment. 

It is emotional and more than a little manipulative. But also there is something very moving in that. That moment that you feel like you can be freed from your mistakes, that God loves and accepts you just the way you are and is going to help you be better. It is a powerful promise and hope. But it is a mountaintop moment and most of life is lived in the valley.

I don't really have a point in this, that is why it is a sidebar. Today was just one of those days that surprised me with the synchronicity of it all. Just pondering some memories and thinking about Billy. Wonder if we get the afterlife we believe in.

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid'st me come to Thee
O, Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
Because Thy promise I believe
O, Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Falling Up 7: I've seen fire and I've seen rain

While the power was still out, so still the first week post flood, Mrs. Trindle loaned me a book.

Gene and Marge Trindle were the neighbors that took us in from the rain. She is one of a handful of older notable women who seemed to know my heart and greatly touched my life. She was artistic and creative, but her paintings of floral arrangements was nothing like the abstracts and odd sculptures that were found in studios all over the canyon. She was a comfortable grandma, who treasured my crafting ideas and was almost always willing to invite me in for a visit. 

The book she handed me that day would be the beginning of my escape and comfort for the next couple of years. It was The Hobbit. 

My dad came back from North Carolina, my brother came back from another draft rejection, and we were essentially homeless. My mom and I were sleeping in the trindles little camper trailer, and my dad and brother were uneasily sleeping in our now condemned house at the top of a landslide. And it was still raining, not as much, but still raining. 

I am a sound sleeper, with a quirk. I can sleep though a lot (though not as much as a used to) but if you open my bedroom door and softly say my name, I will sit bolt upright in a way that people find, um, disconcerting. So it really isn't surprising that fire sirens on our street in the night did not wake me, but my mom opening the trailer door to tell me to get up did. The house next door to the Trindle's had caught on fire in the middle of the night, and they were concerned that the flames would spread through the trees. We stood in the cold and watched the flames shoot up into the sky, but were kept safe. Well, at least the rain helped in one way.

The road to the ocean reopened fairly quickly, and my mom was back to work (it took a little longer for my brother to get reinstated). When the road to the valley opened up, the first Saturday it was open we drove out to do a bit of shopping. On the way back the traffic slowed to a crawl. They had found the last missing body buried in the mud and were bringing the young child out in a body bag. That is a picture that will always be in my mind. 

And I would lay in the dark, listening to the rain on the camper roof. And I would think of our house across the street, with most of what we owned and my dad and brother. I would find myself praying "God, please stop the rain." then I would stop myself, because I didn't believe in God. At age thirteen, I lay in the dark, with no one I felt I could talk to about this, trying to figure out how to be honest in my own self. "God, if you exist, you need to let me know."

I ran into a friend who I hadn't seen much of since she graduated to High School. She said she wanted to get together, there was something she wanted to tell me about. A few days later my friend Merrihelen said she was going to have a slumber party for her birthday and we could sleep in their camper (oh joy, spend the night away from one camper to sleep in another one). She could invite 3 people, so it was me and Wendy, but could I suggest the fourth? So, having just seen Lucy I suggested that we include her.

What a night that was. Lucy laid it out to us, Jesus had saved her and he loved us, too. Then she proceeded to tell us all this end time, tribulation, rapture stuff. You have to imagine: a cozy circle of trusted friends, the rain outside, a keen awareness of two close brushes with death, seeing that small body bad, and feeling my world slip sliding away. And I had specifically asked for God to speak to me. 

Is it even any wonder that I became a proper little hippy Jesus freak?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Falling Up 6, Falling Down

The story gets harder. I could fiddle around with endless stories of my childhood; the joys, heartaches, terrors, and confusion. But as inevitably as a child grows, there is always a point when you have to move to the next step.

Winter in California is the unpredictable rainy season. That year, the end of January, the beginning of February, it rained all week. I could go look up the exact date, but I need to just get it told. It was the slow time of my dad's work year, and he had driven to North Carolina to visit family and see how they were wintering. My Brother was living on his own, so it was just me and my mom at home. 

Now, this was the time of the draft for Vietnam. My brother had been going back every 6 months for another physical because of ingrown toenails. Then his toenails actually started to bother him and a Dr. did a little minor surgery, so the next time he went in for the physical, he passed. That Thursday, he received his notice to report.

My mom called my dad that night, to be sure he returned before my brother had to leave. She mentioned how much it had been raining and he said "If the house starts to slide down the hill, for heaven's sake, bail out!" What he knew and hadn't told us was that when the road had been repaved the previous summer. a lot of the drain pipes had been blocked. My dad had made the workmen clear the one at the lower corner of our driveway, so all the water from quite a way up the hill was finding it's only outlet past the lower side of our house on the side of the hill.

Friday night was a peaceful end to the week. The fire was blazing and Star Trek was on. I slept well that night.

I was startled out of sleep in the morning by my mom pounding on my bedroom door, "Paula! Get up and get dressed now! We have to get out of here!" 

My first sleepy thought was that we had overslept, then I realized it was Saturday. "Why?" I asked.

"Look out the window and come on!"

I threw on some clothes and looked out the back door window, just outside my bedroom door. Half our backyard was just gone. My mom had been awaken by the sound of our trash can tumbling down the hill. Our house on the side of the hill was now hanging over into space. 

We went across the street and got our neighbors out of bed. Power and phones were out. Luckily, like us, their stove was propane and the heat was a fire place. We were safe, warm and fed, if very shaken.

Neighbors began checking on each other up and down the hill. The mud that had slid from our house now blocked the road where it looped around below us. If that had not been true, though, we wouldn't have been much better off. There had been 11 inches of rain in 24 hours. Slides and creek flooding had blocked the main road through Topanga toward the beach and also both ways through to the valley. Seven people lost their lives that night. 

We all tended to keep well stocked pantries, and a neighbor up the street with a thawing deep freeze full of meat went up and down the street giving it away. We pulled together. It is hard to explain the feeling of walking around in shock and fear, but at the same time knowing that there were so many people going above and beyond to take care of each other and help where we could. 

After a few days, when we still were not seeing any help come, we took shovels down to try to dig through the mud enough to get a car out. While we were working, a helicopter flew overhead and soon a bulldozer showed up and just like that, we were free. We learned that there was now limited access from the coast. It would be a week before we had power and phones restored.

The following weekend, my brother had made his way up to us, bringing a big roll of plastic. "I called dad and he said to get up here and throw some plastic over it." His shocked eyes looked over the slide, and he asked "Throw some plastic over what?"

This was the thing, the big thing, that altered my life. This was the beginning of the year that changed everything. Call this the end of part one, and part two will begin to tell that journey.

But let me tie up two loose ends, before I close this chapter.

My brother took leave from his job, gave up his apartment, and put his jeep and motorcycle into storage. He went to report as ordered, but his toenails had grown in again and they sent him home. This was not long after Alice's Restaurant had come out. I have heard a story that was supposed to be kept secret from me that my brother got arrested that day for trying to incite a riot. He told them "Please, go ahead and take me." and some other guys thought he was doing that part of Arlo's story and joined in. Before he went back for his next physical 6 months later, he had a note from a Dr. about his bad knee from a car accident a few years before. They finally looked past his toenails and was declared unfit to serve.

The house never moved until it was torn down. But we were never able to live in it again.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


Today I was really irritated by things at work. Well, honestly, not just today, the last couple of weeks. Out of proportion, irritated by stuff that in the long run is pretty trivial.
Because of this, today I realized that some of the emotional impact has nothing to do with work. I don’t know what brought these other feelings circling around, but I think there is something I need to say. It isn’t “I forgive you.”
I know, forgiveness is something you do for yourself, not for the person who wronged you. I have really been trying to get there. After something like 14 years, and my heart still starts beating fast, though I haven’t broken down in sobs over it for a couple of years now. What horrible thing was done to me? Nothing. I suddenly became nothing.
I thought I had friends, I thought I had a support system. We homeschooled together. I taught their children how to make bread and do crafts. They taught my daughter things, too.
Yeah, there were always some things we weren’t quite included in. I mean, it happens. We didn’t live close and didn’t have near the same income as most of the families. But we went to the same church, and it was a church that taught compassion.
I didn’t realize until we went through a big loss of income that compassion was reserved for the homeless in the park once a month, not the person in the seat next to you falling apart.
It didn’t happen all at once. When I had to put my daughter in public high school so I could work, we still got included in the occasional weekend activity. But the invitations grew less. When my car broke down and we couldn’t replace it, it was too inconvenient to give my daughter a ride to youth group. I don’t know what came first, that or some nasty rumors someone spread about her, but at the time my daughter needed her friends and her church the most, suddenly she became no one to them.
And I kept thinking, this will get better. There will be a period of adjustment and then they will remember she is their friend. Instead the parents stopped talking to me. I would say “Hi” and they would turn away. One Sunday I made eye contact with someone who was walking right in my direction. I saw them see me, scowl, then quickly turn and head a different direction.
I joined the special holiday choir, but then got bronchitis so bad I couldn’t go back to church for 3 months. No one even called to see why I wasn’t there. When I went back, only one person even said “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while.”
I think a direct rejection would have been easier than suddenly becoming invisible. I didn’t go back, and no one even cared.
And see, that is what makes forgiveness so hard. I don’t know if they even realized how much it hurt. I never even had a chance to ask if I had done something I could fix.
But then I also understand. There is this theology, often unspoken. If you are living right, God blesses you. If you are struggling, you must not have enough faith, or there must be some hidden sin. And their own blessings are a sign of holiness.
But what if God sees things we don’t see? What if the hard stuff some people go through is just part of this fallen world, or even part of a bigger plan? What if they had a chance to learn about a different kind of compassion?
I wasn’t asking for help, or for them to solve all my problems. I was just asking for the friendship that I thought we had shared. Now those years of relationship taste bitter in my mouth. If I really wanted to, I still know how to reach a few of the people who hurt me. Honestly, I tried a couple of times. I couldn’t make myself do it. So yeah, this forgiveness thing might take a while.

Because first I have to forgive myself. Somedays I almost believe I’m not invisible.