The Soul Breath

Friday afternoons in the summer are a new treat for me.  Our office closes at noon and the staff disperses to enjoy the afternoon, do errands, or even work in the quiet office. After a long winter, “free” Friday afternoons are a welcome respite. One year ago tomorrow, July 1, I was hired for my job. Effectively, today is my one-year work anniversary. I didn’t even realize the date or its significance until I sat long enough to take in some stillness.

I came home and decided to take our aging dog, Emma, and my little buddy, Duke the cat, outside for a bit. It’s a gorgeous day of cool summer temps and billowy white and grey clouds.  There’s the slightest promise of rain in the wind, and the electric blue Wyoming sky reminds me of solid, bright acrylic sky painted on a child’s drawing. It’s just that blue.  Duke and Emma used to wrestle a lot when they were younger. (Cat haters out there, when you bring home a 6-week old kitten and raise him with a dog, he grows up thinking he’s one of the pack). Now they are both getting on in years, and the wrestling has given way to lots of laying down and resting. My usual aversion to laying on the ground disappeared when I saw how relaxed the animals were, so I plopped down in the grass with them. All I could hear were the robins and meadowlarks singing in the nearby fields, a few cars passing by, the rustle of our trees in the breeze, Duke purring, and Emma panting and sniffing. And this is what I saw :

This photo was taken just a short time later with my iPad; it’s not intended to be a great photo of any kind. What’s notable is how I felt while I was looking at this scene. For once, I didn’t have any electronic devices nearby to distract me.  I didn’t have anything I had to get up for, go do, no one to respond to or talk to. No one or nothing to worry about, just for a few minutes. There was complete and total peace while I stared at the shifting clouds. It’s as though my entire soul took a deep breath. After a few minutes, the stillness was over. Duke decided to run, Emma tried to chase him but her hip went out, and I quickly attended to both of them.

I reflected on that deep soul-breath I allowed myself to take, and I realized a few things. This last year has been a roller-coaster. Even though I was working sometimes full-time as a freelancer, working now in an office setting with people, office politics, and set hours has really been harder than I ever thought following my stroke. My neurologist recently reminded me that I’m still in recovery, which seems strange after nearly five years, but is very much the reality of brain injury. I have struggled this year with fatigue in ways I never imagined. I’ve also struggled a bit with anxiety and depression, by-products also very common to brain injury survivors (and worried mothers of young adults, double whammy!)  I don’t need medication, but I do need to keep my guard up all the time and take care of myself. It’s incredibly easy to slip down the rabbit hole but much harder to get back out.

I also realized that the stillness I experienced today was something I used to be able to achieve when I was on my bike, but in a different way.  Long distance road biking is as much a mental challenge as it is physical.  Those mental challenges gave way to a clarity and stillness of its own, as thoughts melt away and one becomes perfectly in tune with breath and movement.

The biggest thing I understood after my soul-breath was that my prayer life is not yet the deep or rich prayer I crave, because I’m not taking in that stillness. I pray more the last couple of years than I ever have, and it’s still a learning process.  When I pray, my anxieties are often at nuclear levels, and I’m just shoving it all at God as quick as I can because I’m hoping he’ll take it from me and release me from the burden of it. I pray for thanksgiving too, but again it’s a rush of thoughts and intentions. I have forgotten about the importance of letting my heart and mind be still.  It’s not only about thanksgivings or pleas for help, prayer is also about the listening.

The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear. -Rumi

I’ve heard this quote before, and seen it attributed to both Rumi and Ram Dass. How hard it’s become for those of us in this gigabyte-tweet-must-do-everything-now world to find time, first of all, and then to make our hearts still to listen to God.  I want to find more of that stillness to take a soul-breath.  I have so very much to learn.

“Be still and know that I am God!”  -Psalm 46:10

Duke the cat and Emma the dog, lifelong friends and my buddies.
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Then and Again

In the spring of 1987, I was an awkward junior in high school. On a blustery day  in April or May, I took a road trip with my Mom from our hometown of Sheridan, Wyoming, to Laramie, Wyoming, to visit my older brother, who was attending the University of Wyoming. At the time, I was delving into the world of photography for the first time, taking a photography elective at school and learning to see the world from a different perspective.  My school-owned 35mm film camera went everywhere I did.  It was on this trip that Mom stopped along a desolate patch of Interstate 25 near mile marker 228 so I could run up the side of the hill to photograph an old homestead.

I-25 runs north-south beginning in Buffalo, Wyoming, and continues south until its exit into Colorado just south of Cheyenne, Wyoming.  I’m just old enough to remember the construction of the interstate, and what it was like to make the 8-hour trip from Sheridan to Denver, CO on the “old” two-lane highway when I was a child.  Throughout the state, many sections of the “new” Interstate re-routed drivers to new landscapes and away from small towns previously reliant on business from travelers; notably, the small oil town of Midwest.  Just before the southbound exit for Midwest at about mile marker 228 lies the remains of the old homestead.  It’s easily noticeable from the road because of the two cottonwood trees planted on either side of the house, the only two trees for miles around.  But you have stop, get out of the car, and walk to the top of the hill before the old house can really be seen.

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View of the homestead as seen from I-25. Photo courtesy of Google Maps
I took one or two rolls of film that trip.  In those days, film was expensive and shots were planned.  You didn’t waste film, because bad shots couldn’t simply be deleted.  I processed and printed the pictures myself in the darkroom at my high school.  The picture of the house became part of a photo essay about Wyoming landscapes (I got an A), and afterward, was packed away in an accordion folder with most of my other high school photography work for many years.

I now live in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and have made the trip between my current home back to Sheridan, where my Mom and old friends still live, many times over many years.  Each time, I see the old homestead and have watched with equal parts sadness and fascination as it deteriorates.  One year, the porch roof finally fell, and the front door was obscured by the roof blocking the entrance.  Several years later, the back wall of the house fell in, and the two side walls remained, precariously holding up what was left of the roof.  A few years ago, the tree on the north side of the house died, but remains standing.  Finally, in the last year or two, the remaining walls collapsed, leaving a sad reminder of someone’s history at the mercy of the harsh Wyoming elements.

And who’s history is it?  The old homestead has sparked discussion between me and my husband over the years as we drove by.  Who lived there?  Someone once took pride in the old place.  It’s fenced, complete with welded pipe gates at the front and back of the house.  I seem to recall there used to be a clothesline, or the remains of one, in the yard.  When was it settled?  Why did they leave?  Were they ranchers?  Did children grow up there? Did they go into Midwest, which is several miles east of the property, to shop and interact with the community? Does someone still own the property?  Do they go visit the homestead? Interestingly, although I-25 now runs quite close to the homestead, the older roads do not go near it.  The home had to have been accessed from its own road or trail which most likely connected to a local county road.

As I look at the picture of the homestead in its current condition, I’m struck by the profound changes of time.  Yes, it’s sad that the old house has fallen and one of the trees has died.  After all, I can only imagine what kinds of memories were made within the tar-papered walls.  Maybe some were good memories, maybe some were not.  Perhaps the rooms were lit with oil lamps and warmed with a coal stove as the notorious Wyoming wind shrieked outside during winter.  Possibly, hand-sewn cotton-print curtains hung in the windows and billowed softly as a summer breeze cooled the home on hot days. Conceivably, all those memories are still alive in someone’s mind, but they may also be gone forever with the passing of whomever lived there.

There’s something kind of beautiful about how this place, and hundreds of other abandoned places around our state, have reached the end of their lives naturally.  Not razed by loud, dusty yellow iron making way for new progress, not remodeled into something newer but not quite its old self, not burned, dismantled, or otherwise assisted into decay by people.  There it all lays, naked and barren, a pile of lumber and nails not terribly unlike the pile of lumber and nails it began as.  It’s not morbid, it’s just the circle of life, Wyoming style. Windblown, cold, and forever West.

The homestead, photographed in 1987 and 2015.
The homestead, photographed in 1987 and 2015.
Postscript: Just out of curiosity, does anyone know anything about the old homestead?  I’m most interested in learning something about its history or the people that once lived there.

Injury

The 39th year of my life was really one of the best I’ve ever had.  I felt amazing, was the most active I’d ever been in my life, my marriage was incredible, the kids were doing fantastic in school and out.  It was the whole package.  I turned 40 in December 2009, and thought, “Hey… this isn’t so bad!  If 39 was that awesome, 40 is going to be….”

Different.

The year started off innocently enough, until March 5 rolled around.   There was nothing special about this day.  Mark was up early and off to work.  The kids went through their morning routines as usual and were off to school.  I settled in to my workday at the computer with a cup of coffee and the pets napping nearby.  I had been dealing with a strange cough for a couple of weeks- not cold or allergies, and it would come and go.  I hadn’t really thought anything of it.  Early in the afternoon though, I started coughing again.  I got up for something, and while leaning over my desk, I coughed.  I felt a sharp pinch in my back.  I wasn’t too alarmed, over the years my bad back has caused me pain now and again, and I thought I had simply twisted a muscle funny.  I straightened up and began to walk around, but the pain was not going away like it would with a muscle pull.  I decided to lay down and nap a little, since it was hurting so much.  When I woke up a short time later, I needed to get up and use the facilities.  Only problem was, I couldn’t get up.  What was going on?  The pain in my back was getting pretty intense now, and I was getting scared.  I managed to roll myself off the bed and onto all fours, and crawl into the bathroom.  I couldn’t get onto the toilet, and I couldn’t back out of the bathroom: I was stuck.  Crying now, I finally let my arms go and flopped to the floor.  My cell phone, which I had with me, was dead.  My son had just gotten home from school, but he was outside.  I had to wait for someone to find me, and I was in trouble.  After about 1 1/2 hours on the floor in the bathroom, my daughter came home from volleyball practice.  I was so relieved to hear her come in.  The slightest move sent me through the roof in excruciating pain and I was desperate for help.  Weakly, I called to her and told her to call 911.  This would be the first of three trips to the hospital.

After a myriad of heavy painkillers and muscle relaxants at the hospital, the pain became manageable.  An MRI showed that I had torn a disc in my back.  The disc fluid had leaked out, I learned, which is toxic to the body when not contained inside the disc itself.  The damaged disc was already compressed from years of degenerative arthritis, something I’ve had since I was a child.  I was in a pretty sorry state in my fortieth year.

Six weeks after my initial injury, my conditioned had worsened to the point that I could not even lay down in bed. I was sleeping sitting up in the recliner.  I was in constant pain.  I had seen a succession of doctors and specialists.  The only good news I received was that I was not a candidate for back surgery.  I received a cortisone shot in my back which was completely ineffective.  I was on Oxycontin, Percocet, Neurontin, plus a powerful muscle relaxer (all at the same time) that still barely controlled my pain and spasms.  I went from being an extremely active mom and road cyclist to needing help walking to the bathroom and sitting on the toilet.  I couldn’t work, I was losing a lot of weight (and it wasn’t in a good way), and my mental state was deteriorating. Dressing myself or getting up from the recliner unassisted were considered huge victories.  I cried a lot because I didn’t know what to do or how to control the pain.  During my next two hopeless trips to the hospital, when the spasms were so bad that I could not move, I literally begged the ER doctors to find out what was causing my pain.  They responded with a complete lack of compassion.  They treated me as though I was one of their many patients who comes to the ER looking for a fix.  I’m sorry they have to deal with these people, but I was not one of them.  They had given up on me, so I gave up on them.  This turned out to be the beginning of my recovery: I needed to take my health into my own hands.

I want to share my story with you because my life has changed.  I cannot deny that physically, I am different now.  My back, which has always been my achilles heel, is a little more vulnerable now.  After all the negative hospital and doctor experiences, I have a very different perspective about modern medicine.  My health awareness and desire for knowledge has been awakened.  In fact, through several months of physical therapy and chiropractic and nutritional care from an extremely talented Chiropractor,  I am close to cresting the top of this steep recovery road I’ve been climbing.  I’m hoping to share my journey with you through blogging about nutritional discoveries, cycling milestones, and health breakthroughs.  I’m quite determined to be reborn from this physical nightmare I’ve been living and make the most of the rest of my fortieth year.  I hope you will join me.

The Wyoming Bunch

This is a piece I wrote for Pastor Billy Graff, of University Baptist Church in Galveston, Texas, where I volunteered with three other friends after Hurricane Ike in 2009.  Doesn’t have a thing to do with cycling, but I wanted to post it here anyway.  Enjoy.

August 28, 2005.  That horrible day, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, spreading death and destruction that left our country and the people of the Gulf Coast reeling for years.  The effects of this storm have reached into almost every facet imaginable; a shift in the dynamic of Gulf Coast demographics, economy, and spirit.  That storm also had an unlikely and unplanned effect on a small, diverse group of people who lived thousands of miles away in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  This is the story of our group; and how we ended up dropping our sleeping bags and tool belts at the feet of Pastor Billy Graff of Galveston, Texas five years later.

Cheyenne, Wyoming is home to three Catholic parishes as part of the Diocese of Cheyenne, which encompasses the entire, sparsely populated state of Wyoming.  My name is Denise; I attend Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Cheyenne.  I was nearly 35 years old when Katrina hit.  I was a married mom to two grade-school aged children, working as an aide to a special needs student at my children’s elementary school.  About 8 months or so after the storm, I went to Mass with my family and heard an announcement for a mission group that was forming.  Our Pastor wanted to send a group to New Orleans to assist with the cleanup/rebuilding.  The instant I heard the announcement, I knew it was a call from God for me to go.

There we were; a group of 11 people who were all taking a step away from our lives for a week to travel with each other-complete strangers- to New Orleans in April 2006.  We had no idea what we were getting into, really.  We knew we weren’t going to be doing any “glory work” (as the New Orleans volunteer organizers came to call the arduous task of gutting homes), but that was alright.  Instead, we were assigned two tasks by our organizers at Catholic Charities in New Orleans.  One was to paint apartments at a building for the low-income elderly so they could move back in.  The other task was to clean an abandoned school for the Sisters of the Holy Family, since their school, St. Mary’s Academy, was flooded in the storm and they were desperately trying to re-open.  We had an incredible week filled with the Holy Spirit.  We left feeling we had received much more than we had given; we cultivated friendships with each other, created lasting friendships with people we met in New Orleans, experienced a whole new love of Southern culture and hospitality, and, for me, cemented the knowledge that this trip wasn’t going to be my last.

2007 rolled around, and it turns out that I was not the only person who felt the strong pull to go back to the Gulf Coast.  Our group was smaller, but just as determined.  This time, we pulled together our own resources and traveled without the monetary support of our Parish.  We worked for the Diocese of Biloxi, Office of Long-Term Recovery, in Biloxi, Mississippi.  They sent us to nearby Gulfport for the week, where we worked on the recently gutted Clark family home.  Their family became dear to us, another friendship we’d never forget.  In 2008, with another slightly smaller group traveling on our own, we returned to Mississippi again and spent another week working all along the Gulfport/Biloxi coastline.   We didn’t return home without visiting our friends the Clark’s, and some of our friends in New Orleans.

In the spring of 2009, I received a call from my friend, Mike.  I had met Mike on our first trip to New Orleans, and although we come from different times in life, he is very dear to me.  He calls me a “girl”, because a “lady” is someone who is older than him, he laughingly tells me.  Mike is retired from a career as a mechanic in the oil fields of Wyoming and all over the US.  That career turned him into one of the truly toughest, physically hardest-working men I know.  He’s also quite funny, easy-going, has an incredibly strong faith, and stands about a foot shorter than me.  Mike called me that day and said, “So, you and that other girl planning another trip for us?”

“That other girl” would be my darling friend, Virginia.  Virginia is ten years my senior, but I’ve got 10 inches on her in height.  One of our first conversations was at the New Orleans Airport on our way home from our first mission trip.  She came and sat next to me and said, “You know, I didn’t think I was going to like you.”  I replied, “You know, I didn’t think I was going to like you, either.”  We both laughed, and began our new friendship on the spot.  I called Virginia after talking to Mike the same day and asked her, “So, where should we go?”

Virginia and I talked about all the places in need.  We could do a lot of very hard, manual labor, so we felt our skills could really be put to good use.  After some discussion and prayer, we emailed our group of fellow mission friends and asked who wanted to go with us to Galveston, Texas.

This latest mission trip was destined to be the smallest group yet:  Mike, Virginia, me, and our wonderful friend, Terry.  Terry is also retired, after a long career with the State of Wyoming in service to the low-income families and children of our state.  Terry is not one to sit idle in his retirement, so he formed a non-profit organization called WYFHOP to assist low-income working families in purchasing their first homes.  I have come to know Terry well since our first mission trip; and not only is he a treasured friend of mine, but I have a deep respect for his intellect, his undying call to help the poor, his faith, and his Canadian sense of humor.

On June 21, 2009, our little group arrived at the University Baptist Church (UBC) in Galveston, Texas.  We had known for a few weeks that this trip would be different than the others.  The Catholic NGO’s we were familiar with were not operating in the Galveston area, despite the fact that Hurricane Ike had caused so much damage to the island the year before.  Virginia had contacted iNetConnect, which was operated out of UBC.  They would provide us our housing and meals for our week of work, and they were happy to have us.  They didn’t even care that we were Catholic!  We arrived on what seemed like a “hot” day to us for mid-June.  Our cold-acclimated Wyoming skin broke out into an instant sweat the second we walked out of the air-conditioned Houston Airport; and it would be worse than that for the entire week.

We arrived at UBC after office hours, so Michael, the caretaker, was first to greet us.  He showed us where we could sit inside while we waited for our contact to arrive.  After she gave us a quick orientation, we stepped out of the main facility and into the trailer that would be our quarters for the next week.  There, we were greeted by 50… yes, 50, roommates.  They were from a Baptist Church in Kentucky.  They had come as whole families; moms, dads, and children; ready to do physical and spiritual work in Galveston that week.  After finding us exactly four of the last bunks available (was this destiny or what?), we settled in.

The next morning, after breakfast with the Kentuckians and quick prayer to ourselves, we met Pastor Billy in the Sanctuary with about 200 other iNetConnect volunteers.  I immediately liked Billy Graff.   He meant business- and he was filled with the Spirit while doing it.  It was Virginia who represented our group and took her turn to go talk to him and get our week’s assignment.  We usually send her to do these things; she’s from Jersey and knows how to talk to people (!).  Just because Virginia and I were middle-age women, and the other two in our group were retired men, it was agreed that we wanted to do hard labor.  No sir, don’t give us painting and mopping floors if there’s framing and drywall to be done.  We wanted to work.  And Pastor Billy obliged.

our worksiteWe arrived at our assigned worksite on K Street about midmorning.  The Texas heat was ramping up already, and we were in for a near 100 degree day…not counting the humidity.  Standing before us was a charming, pink two story home with some windows missing and a dead lawn.  Despite its sixties-style aluminum siding and aluminum rock-look skirting, one could tell it was an older home; majestic in height and narrow in width.  We were told that the home had been gutted, but that was it.  There was no plumbing (therefore no access to water), and the presence of electricity was questionable.  The first thing we did was ask the elderly next door neighbor if we could plug in to her home and use her hose for water, but she politely refused; citing the high cost.  I really didn’t blame her.  While all this was going on, we met the home’s only current resident; Ginny.  She was an old yellow lab that lived in the cool strip of shaded dirt next to the house.  She barked with some vigorous conviction.  The home was unlocked and we took our first tour.  It was AMAZING.  I could see, even though almost all the flooring was removed, the walls were dark, old bare studs, and the steep stairway was broken and damaged, that this house still had life in it.  We carefully walked the first floor, where our steps were calculated as we stepped from joist to joist, feeling a little airborne about two feet above the dirt hard pack below.  I decided I just had to go upstairs.  I carefully navigated thefront entry wobbly railing and battered steps, finding two large bedrooms and a bathroom at the top.  Again, even upstairs the flooring had been removed, leaving the bare joists.  A wrong step would mean plummeting through the first floor ceiling and onto the grid work of joists and flooring below.  I thought to myself, “Really, Lord?  This is where you want us to be?  Whatever Your reason…this is really cool!”  Pastor Billy arrived soon after we toured ourselves and began the enormous task of getting us organized.  Because we had flown to Houston and driven to Galveston in a rental car, we could not bring much more than our tool belts with us.  We had nothing, and it was going to be up to Billy to get us tools and supplies.  But first, we had to figure out where to start.

termite damage
termite damage

We learned that the home belonged to Miss Pearlie, and Ginny was her dog (Ginny warmed right up when we learned her name and began talking to her.).  Miss Pearlie was an elderly woman whose insurance didn’t even come close to covering the damage to her home, which is located in the older part of Galveston, near the seawall.  By the time Miss Pearlie had been allowed to return to the island several weeks after Ike hit, the entire inside of her home was rotted with mold.  Another group before us had gutted the home, and found a nasty surprise underneath: termites.  The termites had severely damaged many supporting beams and joists on the first floor, and had even worked their way to the upstairs.  That’s why all the flooring was gone.  The more we looked around, the more we realized the extent of the damage.  The bearing beams supporting the house, many of the floor joists, and lots of the exterior 2×4’s would have to be replaced and stabilized before plumbing and electricity could even begin.   I leaned against a kitchen wall and the whole wall leaned with me.   We decided to focus on these problems downstairs.  The four of us.  God wasn’t kidding when he answered our prayer for meaningful work.

We spent the rest of the first day finding rakes and shovels in the garage and setting about to cleaning up our work area and stacking leftover debris near the curb.  Billy spent the rest of the day on the phone I think, ordering supplies and tools for us, as well as for the other groups that were dispersed around the island.  We drank ourselves through an entire case of water, and were quickly growing fond of our battered shelter.  After all, it was shady inside.  And there was a hint of cool air coming up from the dirt.  About 4:30 or so, we’d reached our physical limits with the heat.  Day One completed.

The next three days we worked as hard as we could in that home.  It would take an entire book in itself to recall all the stories, laughs, and adventures we had.  Who said construction was dull?  But here are a few of our highlights:

Miss Pearlie

I believe it was the second day, when a tiny, thin older woman came up the front steps.  She was the owner, Miss Pearlie, and I was thrilled to meet her.  She had a personality and strength that defied her petite physical frame.  She was well into her eighth decade, and I could tell that not many things had held her down in all those years. Miss Pearlie was matter-of-fact when we asked her questions about how she wanted things repaired, where kitchen cabinets would be located, where she wanted new closets, and what kind of doors and flooring she wanted.   I took all her requests and drafted out a humble floor plan on a sheet of paper we found somewhere, so the groups after us would know what she wanted.  But the best

Miss Pearlie & Ginny
Miss Pearlie & Ginny

part was the hope we brought her.  She reacted to our presence and progress just as others had whom we’d met and worked for on previous missions.  It is one of the most humbling experiences in the world to give someone the gift of hope.  When you do something for someone, with selflessness, your simple act is transformed into the work of God’s Hands.  “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8) How often do we have an experience like that and are privileged enough to see the end result?  That’s what’s humbling.  The power of what we were doing for her went way beyond the air hammer and saws.  Wow, if only we had more time to spend with her!  We saw her several times that week; because we learned she came every day to feed and water Ginny, who was not allowed in her small temporary apartment.  To me, Miss Pearlie was as lovely as her name suggested.

Michael

Michael, the caretaker at the church, was a fellow who thrived on being busy and completing tasks quickly and thoroughly.  His quirky personality was a little hard to get used to, but Pastor Billy has a place and a job for everyone.  I deeply admire that Billy takes Jesus’ call for us to open our arms and hearts to everyone quite literally.  So we did our best to keep Michael happy and not get in his way.  One day, he came with a delivery of extremely large and heavy interlocking floor decking/subflooring, which we would be using once the floor joists were all repaired.  Unfortunately, the decking was the wrong thickness, and it would need to be returned to Home Depot, on the other side of the island.  Michael had no time or patience to re-order his tasks for the day, so after a couple of phone calls, we were told we’d have to unload the decking anyway, then re-load it in the trailer again later the same day to be exchanged.  Not a great solution, considering the amount of work in the heat and the weight of these behemoths.  They were easily 500 lbs. apiece, if not more (okay, it only felt like 500 pounds, they were probably 100 pounds or less).  But we swallowed our grumbling and got to work unloading the decking.  It was late morning, we were in the sun, and the heat was really getting to us.  Billy had sent over two college boys that day, so with extra hands we all took turns and started pulling out the sheets, one person on each side, with Michael directing us. After a couple of sheets, Michael noticed that Virginia and I were carrying the sheets by ourselves, the two women.  He stopped for a second to watch us- and gave us the best compliment of the week:  “Wow” he said, “You are a couple of sturdy ladies!”  His rare compliment broke the tension, and everyone had a good laugh.  Virginia and me- well, we had to agree, of course.  There’s not much we dislike more than when men add us to the familiar ‘women-aren’t-strong-or-skilled-enough-to-do-construction’ stereotype!  I think we endeared ourselves to Michael that day, and likewise.  Thanks, Michael.

The College Boys

us and the college boysBilly sent us two separate groups of college boys to help us work.  Both groups were from the region, visiting Galveston for Spring Break to lend a hand.  The first group consisted of four boys, two whose names I don’t remember, plus Jason and Duffy.  Jason and Duffy worked with me, Virginia, and Mike on the ongoing beam and floor joist repairs.  They had never handled power tools before, but they were quick and eager learners.  I’m not entirely sure of what they thought of us “girls”, but they were willing to do what we asked of them.  All four boys worked so hard, and with such unrelenting enthusiasm, that we actually joined them in begging their youth leader to let them stay another day.  He let them come back one more day, and we were grateful.  With eight of us, our work was progressing at a much faster pace.  I won’t forget those boys, and the young, determined, attitude they brought with them into the house like a cool, refreshing breeze.  I like to think that God sent us those boys as a gift, a gift that we passed on to Miss Pearlie by being able to get so much more work done.

The second pair of college boys were also on Spring Break, but were a little overwhelmed, I think, by the level of work we were doing at the house.  They came dressed in much too nice clothes, and seemed nervous around us.  Their cell phones were out often, and they weren’t as willing to take instruction.  They were nice kids and all, just very different from the first group.  The turning point of our day came late in the afternoon, when we got a call from Billy telling us that Michael would not have time to come back and pick up the floor decking that day, and we would have to move it inside the house so it wouldn’t be stolen overnight.  And the only place in the house it could go was… upstairs.  Oh, my.  This was going to be a challenge.  Terry had been battling a little heat exhaustion that afternoon, so he wasn’t up to carrying the decking.  There was no way that Mike would be able to maneuver the stairs with his bum leg.  That left me and Virginia, and the two college boys.  We got the boys moving and they started up the stairs with the first sheet.  But, through lack of experience I think, they were unable to figure out how to maneuver the large decking up the stairs.  They got stuck about halfway up, and were unsure on how to proceed.  We didn’t want to them to get hurt, so Virginia and I wiggled our way up the crowded steps and took over.  We had to physically show them how to lift and carry the sheets, lift them over the railing at the top of the stairs, and then lay them down on the bare floor joists in the bedroom.  It just wasn’t going well.  We quickly decided to get the boys to just bring the sheets into the house as far as the stairs, and Virginia and I would take each sheet the rest of the way up.  It was absolutely the most brutal physical work we did that week, between the weight and size of the decking, the stifling heat upstairs, and our difference in height.  But we got the job done, and managed to refrain from grumbling (out loud) at the boys for their lack of initiative and help.  We did complain a bit to Billy and Jeff after work, and Jeff had an interesting story to tell us.  He had been talking with the two boys’ leader after they left our worksite, and apparently Virginia and I left quite an impression on them.  They didn’t mention us getting a little cranky about them not working, which was what I was worried about.  No, they had praise for us and commented that we had ‘outworked’ them.  Huh.  I learned a little lesson about perspective.  A person never knows what their example is teaching others.  It might not be what you think, and it might be something positive from a bad experience.  I pray that those boys learned a little bit about hard work that day.  It would be a good thing that will serve them well in their future.

The Injury

“Son-of-a-*****!” came out of my mouth before I had a chance to think.  I had been helping Mike hammer in piece of decking over the new floor joists.  It was a tricky cut piece, and he encouraged me to ‘get tough with it!’  So I did.  I raised the hammer and brought it down with everything I had (and I’ve got some guns for a girl)…squarely on my left index finger.  Now, I’ve had plenty of time with a hammer in my hand, so for me to miss like that was really embarrassing.  Worse though, was the pain.  I stood up and shook out my hand for a second, while Mike worriedly asked me if I was ok.  He’d never heard me curse before!  I assured him I was fine, and then bent down to try again.  As I repositioned my hand, I noticed the blood flowing freely out of the finger of my work glove.  I looked up at Mike and simply said, “I’ve got a problem.”  Worked ceased, and my friends tended to my wound.  I had hammered my finger right open, in a little crescent shape that matched the ball of the hammer, right through my work glove.  It was a nasty, deep wound.  We got the bleeding slowed and headed back to the church to get some first aid, and determine whether I needed a trip to the ER for stitches.  When we arrived at the church, we were lucky that our Kentucky friend, Floyd, was there.  He is an RN, and he gladly helped me.  He examined and dressed my finger, and after a bit of a rest in the cool church dining room, we headed back to work.  My finger was swollen, throbbing, and dressed with two butterfly closures and a heavy latex glove finger taped all over the top to keep it clean.  I was ok though, I’m tough.  There was something Floyd’s wife said to me while he dressed my finger that made me think.  I had been so busy just working, working all week that her comment stopped me in my tracks.  She said something to the effect, “You know, it’s the devil trying to stop your work.”  Now I know people who would pooh-pooh this notion as being just a little too dramatic, but I entertained her idea.  After all, we had a lot of obstacles thrown at us that week, most of which we had overcome with ease.  It didn’t seem far-fetched to me that the devil might just try and throw a monkey wrench at us.  “Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and he will come near to you.” (James 4:7-8)  Whatever might have been in the works around us, I type this now and, looking down at the lumpy, pink scar on my slightly dislocated finger, I’m so thankful that we were cloaked with grace that week.  There were so many things that could’ve gone wrong, but didn’t.  My injury was just one more example of how our conviction to do God’s work was made right because we put our trust in Him.

The Rat

Our only diversion from Miss Pearlie’s home came during one of Billy’s visits to our worksite.  He’d had a call from a woman who needed just a small sheetrock patch done in her living room, and the unfinished task was nagging him.  He thought Virginia and I would be the perfect two to run over to the house and get the job done.  He called the woman to make sure she was home, and drove us over there.  We got there and after a time, her daughter who lived in another house on the same lot finally let us in to her elderly mother’s small downstairs apartment.  It was the most shocking dwelling I had ever stepped into.  All the shades were pulled, and we were immediately greeted with the stench of old dirt and stale cigarettes.  It took our eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness.  It appeared to be a four room apartment; kitchen, small bath, living room, and bedroom.  In the corner next to one dim lamp sat a nearly bald, elderly woman wearing oxygen and smoking a cigarette.  She was cordial, but not really friendly.  She showed us a hole in her living room wall, which had been created by a faulty window air conditioner that leaked water onto the sheetrock.  The wetness had given way, and through an adjoining hole on the outside of the house, she told us how a large rat came in every day.  The rat would scamper across her bare cement floor, hop up onto the kitchen table, and get into the cupboards to eat.  Between the stench, darkness, filthy thick yellow grime covering every surface in the house, and the story she told us, I was getting nauseous and very eager to get out of there.  I could tell Virginia was having similar thoughts, so we hurried to make the repair and get back outside into the fresh air.  We talked with the old woman as we worked, and she warmed up after a bit, after she realized we knew what we were doing and were going to finish the job for her.  Virginia went outside and even managed to scavenge enough material to patch the hole on the outside, too.  No more rat.  We bid our goodbyes and hurried away from that place to a street corner where we could call to be picked up.  I left feeling angry and disappointed.  Why had we traveled thousands of miles to make a repair the old woman’s grandson-in-law could’ve made months ago (the granddaughter watched us work for awhile and was bragging about all the tools her husband had).  The old woman had made it clear that she had made a donation to UBC, so she expected something in return.  I just couldn’t see how people were living like that, expecting handouts.  I prayed about it and came to the conclusion that you know, Jesus didn’t like everyone He met, either.  Just ask the flea market people in the temple.  But He did offer salvation to everyone, regardless of who they were.  It was not up to me to judge the old woman and her family. Just when I was feeling so good about what we were doing at Miss Pearlie’s house, God humbled me.  “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)  Lesson learned.

The Beach

UBC is within walking distance of Galveston Beach.  We have a long-standing tradition now, our little group, of going to the beach right after work.  A couple of years ago you could spot us in our “Catholic Response Team” royal blue shirts, rolled up jeans, and discarded work boots sitting on a stretch of Biloxi Beach.  This year, we enjoyed the same after-work breather.  Our real discovery came when we drove east of Galveston Beach, onto a pretty deserted part of the island.  Here we found East Beach.  We had a view of the busy harbor, where freighters were lined up each day.  Local people were fishing or picnicking, and it was never crowded.  It was a wonderful respite between the days’ labor and the chaos of the evening church scene when all the Kentucky folk were back from their jobs.  It was a time for reflection, visiting, quiet, and a cool breeze.  We rolled up our jeans and waded in the shallow waters looking for hermit crabs.  There’s really nothing quite like a simple pleasure shared with true friends.  I can’t imagine a nicer way to end our work day.

The Wyoming Bunch
The Wyoming Bunch: Terry, Virginia, Mike, and Denise

Galveston, Texas will forever have a special place in my heart.  I have been blessed with an incredible husband and children who support and encourage my week-long forays because they know how important it is to me to serve.  Each trip has galvanized my faith in ways I never imagined, and my trip to Texas was no exception.  Recently, we sent a ‘welcome home’ gift to Miss Pearlie, as I received word from Billy that she had returned home.  She quickly responded with a thank you note and letter.  Her words are precious.  She wrote (in part),

“Through God all things are possible.  If you have the faith and do believe in prayers; your prayers will be answered…God sent me a family of deep compassion when you all came into my life…There are no words in the dictionary that I could describe you all. The only thing that I can say is that I am very thankful to have met your family.  I will never forget you all; and will keep you in my daily prayers…May God bless you all and may your compassion for others continue.”

Amen to that.