Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gratitude is Beautiful

I'm standing in line at the pharmacy, waiting for some drugs, and I glance to my left. There she is. Perfect Woman. I know her at first sight. It's the hair that gives her away -- the waterfall of perfect blonde spiral curls, swishing and swooshing this way and that when she moves her head to look in my direction. I smile at her. I know what she's thinking: "Poor thing. Look at that lifeless, straight hair. I really should count my blessings."

Okay, maybe not. For all I know, maybe she was thinking about the horrible illness that had brought her to the pharmacy in the first place. Maybe she was thinking about an argument she had with her husband or the balance in her checking account or the chicken she needed to defrost for dinner. But I was certain that she wasn't thinking what she should have been thinking: "Thank you, God, for giving me the most gorgeous hair ever."

I came back home from the pharmacy and I tweeted about running into Perfect Woman standing there in line. And within minutes, my friend Wanda who has just finished her final round of chemotherapy and is awaiting the re-growth of her own hair, made a comment about my ugly jealousy: "I'm jealous of a Chia Pet!" Yikes. Good point, there, Wanda. My perspective is duly renewed.

I'm learning, you see. Learning to be grateful for what I have (including my boring, straight blonde hair) as well as what I don't have (including cancer). Gratitude, as it turns out, is quite attractive in a person. I even dare say that gratitude is beautiful.

So, back on the wagon I go. And tomorrow morning when I blow-dry my head of ho-hum hair, I'll think of Perfect Woman and I might feel a tiny twinge of envy (maybe a bit like a knife, twisting between the ribs), but then hopefully, I'll remember to thank God for His amazing love and mercy toward me. And I'll be grateful. And gratitude is beautiful.

I wonder if the people standing beside me in line at the pharmacy will notice.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nothing to Hide Behind

You've had this nightmare, I know you have: You walk into an office meeting (or your study hall room, depending on your life stage), sit down, and smile. You glance around the room from face to horrified face, and suddenly gasp as it occurs to you that you've forgotten your clothing and have arrived naked. Utterly, completely, birthday-suit naked.

Usually, this is when you awaken in a cold sweat and begin mentally conducting your heart back into its normal rhythm: ONE two three four, ONE two three four... (Or, if you don't awaken, this could also be the part of the dream when the phone in your hand turns into a banana and you peel it and feed it to your boss who is now a monkey sitting in the office chair beside you and is wearing lipstick and clapping along to "We Are the Champions." But, usually, it's the former.)

I'm sure some people like being naked in front of a crowd, and some of them make darn good money performing on the VMA awards. But for most of us, it's a horrifying prospect. It is, in fact, one of the most popular reasons for wearing clothes. But there are different kinds of 'naked', of course. There is the physical, literal sense of nakedness, as we so courageously imagined in the previous paragraphs, but there is also the sense of nakedness that comes from sharing our hearts, speaking our truth, and letting down our guard (and sometimes our hair). It is that vulnerability, that sense of being so very exposed, that can be not only horrifying but healing as well.

I've written a memoir, which is old news to some who will read this. It has a release date of May 1st, 2010, and I am only now becoming aware of how my life will change after that date on my timeline. If it accomplishes what memoirs are intended to accomplish, it will let people -- strangers, mostly -- into parts of my private world, my theretofore-private past, and even a few of my private thoughts. How's that for feeling naked in front of the world?

And it's okay. I'm cool with it. Go figure. I, who brings a sweatshirt with me everywhere I go so I can drape it over my legs whenever I sit down and thereby have something to hide behind, am cool with it. I who make a beeline for my towel the very nano-second I get out of the pool lest anyone see me, for Pete's sake, am cool with this. I actually think I can suck it up, for the glory of God, and deal.

Why? Because I seem to be discovering that only when I become vulnerable do I become truly effective as an encourager. Life is one big show-and-tell, but showing is ever more effective than telling alone.

When my kid was struggling to form his letters correctly in kindergarten, I told him about how I struggled with dyslexia when I was little, and I showed him one of my old papers from school. And I watched his face as he stared at my backward letters a minute, possibly thinking, "Huh. She can write now..."

I distinctly remember the day when the shame of being a divorced Christian woman left me. I read an article written by someone whose situation had been similar to mine. She shared her heart and her story in those 350 words, and suddenly I wasn't alone. It was like my self-affixed scarlet letter peeled off of my chest and fell to the floor. And I thought, "Huh. She's okay now..."

No one likes the idea of becoming vulnerable, at least not at first. But as I prepare myself to stand before friends and strangers alike, with nothing to hide behind, I get a little excited at the thought of how God might choose to use my vulnerability to reach people. I might even have to learn to leave my sweatshirt at home.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Stress Will Make You Ugly

Stress is a killer. Stress will make you do stupid things, say even stupider things, make lousy decisions, and lose sleep. But did you know it will also make you ugly?

Now that I have your attention, listen up.

Last week, I noticed a weird lump behind my ear, that hurt like heck. So I ignored it, because that's what I do when things bother me. The next day, I awakened to three more weird painful lumps, which made turning my head and swallowing quite difficult. So I ignored it, because surely it was nothing and I was being a big baby. (Are we seeing a pattern yet?) Finally, my friend Anne noticed that my hand kept flying up to my neck and my head while we were talking to one another, and asked me what the heck was wrong with me. And I, of course, was taken aback -- because nothing was wrong with me. Nothing is ever wrong with me. Ever.

Are you ready to smack me yet? Me, too, in retrospect.

So, because my friends love me and freak out on me when I refuse to be sensible and take care of myself, Anne had her daughter Christi, a physician assistant, look me over. Christi felt around on my neck and said "yikes" a few times, and then looked at the huge bug-bite on my temple and made a funny face and suggested that I might want to call my doc the next day.

When I walked into my doc's office the next morning, she had me hop up on her table and she laughed a litte under her breath as she slipped into a pair of rubber gloves. "Nice bedside manner," I quipped at the internist who feels like an old friend. "Do you laugh at all your patients?"

She shook her head and went straight to poking around on my oozing bug-bite thing. "Only you, Jena girl... So, you been a little stressed-out lately, huh?"

"Who says?" I asked quickly, wheels turning in my head as to who could have been talking to her. (Oh yeah... did I mention that stress can also lead to paranoia?)

"Your body, that's who says!" she poked around a bit more, then threw the gloves into a bin and felt my lumpy neck with her warm play-doh hands. "Nice... very nice..."


"Your lymph nodes are like golfballs."

"I know," I said. "Gross, huh?"

"Yeah," she agreed. "Super gross. You have Herpes."


"Herpes Zoster," she said, "Not simplex. It's different. What's all the stress about?"

"There's a connection?" I asked, still reeling at the word 'herpes.'

"Ohhhh, yeah," the doc said. "Your immune system is shot. Stress will do that to you."

I hung my head, feeling like a little bit of a dork. And a tad guilty, too. How, after thirty-two years on the planet, have I not learned by now to better manage stress? Or to at least admit to myself that I'm not above its influence? And when, oh when, will I learn to tell myself the truth once in a while, instead of ignoring my every need like some sort of stubborn martyr?

Herpes Zoster is Shingles, by the way -- a viral infection of the nerve endings. I have a head of scaly, stinging red lesions and nerves that feel like they're being tased with stun guns. It's Day Six now, and I am starting to look a lot better, but I was downright homely for a while there. Which brings us back to my thesis: Stress can make you ugly.

So chill when you can, kids. Don't sweat the small stuff. Try not to freak out... and if you do, at least admit it to yourself, so you can try to change. As for me, now that I've allowed stress to make me ugly (temporarily, I hope), I think I'll try a little harder to listen to the words of the master: "Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes." (Matthew 6:34, MSG)

I'll just have to consider it part of my beauty regimen.