Do you see the world bathed in purple?

Purple wild geraniums photo by Benjamin PrattI think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.
Alice Walker,
The Color Purple

SPRING 2015Once again, I am a caregiver.
Full Time: Surgery, dressing slowly, assisting first steps, hauling out the crutches, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, sitting too many long hours in waiting rooms.
Life is focused.

But, feelings scatter and drain after a bitter, brittle gray winter.
All looks dead! Will life come back?

A caregiver’s eyes are trained to watch, search the ground, wherever we go, watching for signs of—
And as we scan the earth, the truth surprises us: It’s spring.
The grave of winter bursts in colors—all at once—mint green, porcelain white,
precious pink, radiant red, yummy yellow.
And then—
Purple.
When all seems dead and lost—
The earth gives back such a lavish lavender.
Just pours it out.

Where do I go, when the day is long, to find solace, strength, patience, hope, joy?
I like to walk out in spring.
So many of us have done that—just walked out into the world.
Whitman stepped out as he mourned the loss of his Captain 150 years ago—
and found the lilacs blooming in his dooryard once again.
Walker went with her favorite character—
and found that purple, too.
Where did I find it?
On the old bridge, a patch of oh so lavender wild geraniums.

I bathe in purple.
God’s good earth gives back to me, to all of us who walk out into the world and watch.
And then I can turn again to the day’s task—
Life lived with purpose: Love, gratitude, care.

And, where do you walk out and let your eyes scan the earth?
Where do you find it?
Your purple.

Purple wild geraniums second photo by Benjamin Pratt

Photographs by Benjamin Pratt.

 

BENJAMIN PRATT has worked for decades as a counselor. He is the author of three books and has contributed to other inspiring books, as well. You are welcome to share this column with friends—you can print it or even repost it, if you wish to spark conversations. If you’d like to enjoy Walt Whitman’s verse, we have his When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, as well.

th-Short-Stuff-from-a-Tall-Guy-Cover1

Do you speak Motherese? Could we learn Parentese?

Mom and baby by Ian DethOne joy of reading is discovering new words. Sometimes, I even remember them!

Motherese, a totally new word for me, made me ponder, even question, its appropriateness. Motherese describes the whispered communication between a mother and her baby that strengthens the familial bond. Some theorists suggest this whispered communication, cooing and humming, is the source of music in the long history of human evolution.

Certainly, I know that women have been the primary nurturers of children down through the ages but the place of fathers in the nurturing process has increased in our time. My immediate response was to talk back aloud to the book I’d been reading: “Shouldn’t the word be Parentese?”

I thought I might have hit on another new word, but a quick dip into Wikipedia revealed that I wasn’t the first to suggest Parentese as a more inclusive concept.

I want to underscore the importance of this reality but not in a way that diminishes the vital role of mothers. I want to reflect the presence and importance of mothers, fathers, even grandparents in strengthening the family bond. Fathers and mothers both have gifts to share with their offspring, but I want to especially voice the importance of fathers’ whispered communication to their young. Fathers and mothers both give warmth, tenderness, and gentle caring along with strength and competitive skills to children.

One of my sweetest, most tender memories as a young parent was the ritual of presence with my young daughters. When one of our infant daughters would awaken, especially during the night, I usually changed her diaper and then carried her to Judith for nursing. I often sat or lay next to them during nursing. When finished, it was my opportunity for whispered closeness. I would tuck my daughter’s tiny head under my chin, one hand holding her bottom, the other her back, and I would walk. I especially remember those nocturnal walks, the house dimly lit by street lights, when we would walk slowly around the house, up and down stairs, bouncing gently, while I hummed, sang, cooed and listened for the burp and the sleepy yawn. Even when sleep was assured, I sometimes continued the walk, treasuring those moments. Judith and I both shared our gift of whispered communication with our daughters.

Judith and I are blessed by being friends with some young families who have welcomed us as surrogate grandparents. I treasure watching the partnerships they nurture while rearing their children. We saw this with our own daughters and their husbands as they reared their families. It speaks well of marriage partnerships with neither parent dominant in setting boundaries and cherishing their children. Mutual love between partners and mutual role sharing with children are crucial. Love in action is a beauty to behold. Parentese is a loving word, a musical word, a spiritual word, reflecting the sacred in the midst of our daily lives.

‘Establish the work of our hands …’

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations …
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past …
We spend our years as a tale that is told …
So, establish the work of our hands—
O establish the work of our hands.

Excerpts of Psalm 90 adapted from the King James Version

HANDS

By BENJAMIN PRATT

It always comes on a slant
a glint of light
a tilt of my head
a twist, turn or torque of my hand—
but in a flash it is my father’s hand,
the way he tilted it or let it droop.
His hand.

A sweet warmth connects us across decades
bathed by this tender memory:
His hand gripping,
twisting as he torqued a baseball,
teaching me how to throw a curve,
or thread a fast ball in just above the knees.

His hands taught me arithmetic—
add, subtract, multiply and divide—
with a stub of pencil.
And patience.

I don’t recall his voice saying, “I love you.”
His hands said it.
He often asked me to stop by the garage,
especially after a big game the night before.
He’d crawl out from under a car,
wipe his greasy hands, light a cigarette.

“Come over here,” he’d say,
as he put his hand on my shoulder and introduce me as his son.
Maybe the only time he’d touch me.
Then he’d describe my playing ball the night before.
I’d get real quiet and red as he’d go on,
hand on my shoulder, feeling pride, swelling pride
in my playing the game he loved.

His hands were always stained—
two yellow fingers from too many cigs.
His nails were always black—too
much grease to wash away.

His hands were always kind, never cruel,
even when my mother insisted I had been so bad
I needed a good beating with the belt.
He’d call me into another room, slip out his belt,
pull the ends together, hold in both hands, push it into a loop
and snap it together to make a deafening crack.
I’d scream!
He’d yell, beat the bed, crack the belt, scare the hell out of me!
I’d cry and he’d tell me to respect my mother.
He’d leave me alone. Return to her.
I don’t think he ever hit me once.
Lucky me.

Then, his hands trembled when he aged.
Mine now tremble sometimes, too.

Once we went together to visit mother’s grave.
He suddenly said,
“All the grave stones on this side of the cemetery are flat,
on the other side, they are large monuments.
Your Mom and I are on the side where everyone is
equal.”

It happens seldom,
always on the slant.
We reconnect.
His hand
becomes my hand.

Three Generations of Hands photo from Susan Stitt

Three Generations of Hands. (a photo from Susan Stitt, used with permission)

 

Touch Has a Memory

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Picture of the Communion Service at Prism the alternative Baptist Assembly strand 2008 Blackpool

Photo by Ian Britton, released for public use via Flickr and Creative Commons.

Some phrases grab me, hold me and stir me. I let them rummage around my soul forming images. Sometimes those images are formed into words. “Touch has a memory,” by poet John Keats is such a phrase. Three memories flash across my mind. The first is a memory of skiing with my daughters in Vermont when they were 6 and 8. The second is comforting my grandson when he was ill at 14 months. The third is  serving my mother communion for the first and only time.

As you read these three short passages, think about the many ways your hands touch others, perhaps on a daily basis as a caregiver. Why should we perform this service for another day? Over time, does anything we do really matter?

One answer: Touch has a memory.

1. Cold

From Saturday ’til Thursday
the thermometer never peaked
above zero.
Novice skiers were we,
undaunted by the cold,
squealing and chilling
as we rode the blanket-clad lifts.
Two runs down powdery perfect snow;
into the lodge with chattering teeth.
Off with gloves and boots.
Tears form as their chilled,
skinny bodies shake.
I rub and rub
their feet and hands,
even put their tiny feet
in my mouth
blowing back warm smiles.
A little hot chocolate,
then, “Dad, it’s so much fun.
Let’s go again.”

2. Wet

Temperature rising,
spitting up, cranky,
no longer his sweet talcum smell.
He can’t help himself.
I can’t comfort him.
I shed our clothes
and step into the shower.
Vomit down my back;
urine down my front.
The shower washes it away.
Then, it’s over.
He snuggles into my neck.
We rock in the gentle warmth
of healing water,
baptized in love.

3. Broken

I press communion bread
gently but firmly into her palm.
Hands so gnarled and twisted
by rheumatoid arthritis
they could not fully
close nor open.
“His body broken for you,”
I murmur.
She lifts her face.
Smiles.
Our eyes hold each other:
Mother and son.

Lou Gehrig: The stricken hero was ‘The Luckiest Man …’

By BENJAMIN PRATT

THIS WEEK, as millions of us celebrate Independence Day—Americans also are remembering an inspiring moment that happened 75 years ago in New York City, when a man stricken with a disorder that eventually would kill him declared himself, “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth.” As I am publishing this column, fresh news stories about this anniversary are popping up in newspapers nationwide—from the Wall Street Journal to Newsday.

Once rivals, on July 4, 1939, Babe Ruth enthusiastically hugged Lou Gehrig, who had announced he was dying and at the same time declared himself "The Luckiest Man."

Once rivals, on July 4, 1939, Babe Ruth enthusiastically hugged Lou Gehrig, who had announced he was dying and at the same time declared himself “The Luckiest Man.”

The man who made that declaration was Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Horse”—first baseman for the Yankees in the 1920s and 1930s, when baseball was by far the most popular sport in America. He earned his nickname for the strength and endurance he showed throughout his career. Gehrig played 2,130 games in a row from 1925 to 1939. He had a .340 career batting average with 493 home runs. He drove in more than 100 runs in 13 consecutive seasons.

In 1939, at age 36, everything changed for Lou Gehrig. In the spring he lacked energy, looked thinner and less confident at first base and in the batter’s box. His performance was so poor that he removed himself from the Yankee lineup. He went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where he was diagnosed with amyotropic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the rare, debilitating disease that attacks the body’s nervous system. It was eventually called Lou Gehrig’s disease. So Gehrig, one of our country’s most revered sportsmen, knew he would become more and more helpless.

That summer, Gehrig agreed to go public with his diagnosis. His fans clamored for a way to show their love for him. That groundswell led to the July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day and a special program between the first and second games of a double header. Gehrig was surrounded by his Yankee teammates, including his former rival Babe Ruth. They were joined by their friends once known as “Murderers’ Row”—for the ruthless power that Yankees lineup showed in the 1927 World Series. The festivities included the retirement of Gehrig’s Number 4.

When Gehrig himself stood before the microphones, he began:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”

Gehrig turned to thank his many friends in baseball, concluding: “Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.”

But then Gehrig did something unusual. He talked about his family—the people who would become his circle of caregivers. He started by poking fun at his wife and mother-in-law: “When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter—that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body—it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed—that’s the finest I know.”

He ended his brief talk this way: “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”

The crowd applauded for two minutes!

Many friends rushed to offer Gehrig new roles that this great star might fill in his waning years. The only one Gehrig accepted was an appointment by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to serve in a special post granting parole to some of the city’s more deserving prisoners. Gehrig refused to allow any media coverage of his work, in this role, but he did pay many visits to correctional facilities to help prisoners who might deserve paroles.

He never complained. “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition,” he said at one point.

Then, just shy of two years after his Appreciation Day, on June 2, 1941, Gehrig was gone.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM ‘THE LUCKIEST MAN’?

Benjamin Pratt cover Guide for CaregiversNo, none of us is Lou Gehrig. No one could be. But consider this …

When I was interviewing for my book, Guide For Caregivers, I constantly heard from caregivers about the remarkable people they were serving—and about the sense of purpose and courage they shared in facing tough odds. Many caregivers across our nation understand the kind of attitude Lou Gehrig expressed 75 years ago.

One of the most moving statements I heard, in my research, was from the father of his disabled son, who came home wounded from his military service. Here are just a few of that father’s words to me:

“Since my son got wounded I have often thought how I wish we could get our life back—you know, as it was—comfortable, simple, and familiar. And, I often felt angry or jealous, as well as guilty, for thinking I wanted my life back. …

“But, the unexpected just happens to us and we are coping. We are on the front line—in the trenches—all day—every day. This is our life … and our lives have to be lived as best we can. Our son was doing his job when that damn bomb went off. None of us will ever get back to the life we had.

“One thing feels pretty strange to me now—I’ve never felt more like I have a reason to stay alive than I do now.”

No, this proud father never called himself the world’s “luckiest man.” But I do know that he is deeply grateful and his life is full of purpose.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Why caregiving is fuel for ‘church growth’

By the Rev. Dr. BENJAMIN PRATT
Author of The Guide for Caregivers

Benjamin Pratt cover Guide for Caregivers

CLICK the cover to visit the bookstore.

When I talk to groups of clergy and lay people, many of them are surprised to hear that expanding their caregiving ministries is in their own self interest. It’s true!

Most often, I’m talking to Christian groups, where “church growth” is always a No. 1 concern. But, the principles I share with groups (and in my book) are effective in fueling “congregational growth” in general. So take today’s column to heart, as well, if you are part of a synagogue, temple or mosque.

Here’s a prime example: On a recent Saturday morning, I helped to present a public forum drawing on my book, A Guide For Caregivers. A United Methodist congregation hosted the event and promoted it to the interfaith community and the general public. Weary caregivers from all parts of the community gratefully attended—and kept the interchange going more than an hour longer than planned! Tears and laughter flooded the room as we all shared our different stories.

Gratitude to the United Methodist church for hosting this event was effusive. Members of that congregation told me that they were getting involved in this kind of outreach because they realized they have been under-serving the needs of caregivers in their own community. They resolved to seek new and creative ways to support caregivers and care receivers.

Convince your congregation to get involved

For this special column, I invited friends to help me make the case that caregiving is, indeed, fuel for congregational growth.

ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM, this week, was the emcee of an annual one-day conference in southeast Michigan for religious and health-care leaders to hear from experts about the importance of collaborating on health and caregiving. One of the first questions David got from religious leaders was: How can we convince people that this is central to our religious mission?

United Methodist website on caregivers helping families of disabled veterans

CLICK this thumbnail image to visit a United Methodist website, where a recent article reports on the widespread needs of American families caring for disabled veterans. The denomination’s founder, John Wesley, taught that healthcare should be a high priority in congregational life.

David told the crowd …

“Anyone who tells you that our congregations aren’t in the business of health and wellness doesn’t know much about the history of the great Abrahamic faiths. Judaism and Islam have ancient codes for health and wellness. For Christians, Jesus spent more time on health concerns than almost any other issue. There wouldn’t be modern hospitals today without the mission of the Catholic church centuries ago. And United Methodists who hesitate to get involved? They should remember that their founder John Wesley (1703-1791) felt so strongly about meeting the health-care needs of parishioners that he wrote a medical handbook (published in 1747) to aid the countless families in his era who could not afford medical care.”

MARTIN DAVIS, a contributor to this online magazine and head of SLC: Sacred Language Communications, consults with congregations and often hears the objection: “I don’t have time for one more program!”

Martin sent these thoughts to share with you …

I hear that objection from overburdened church leaders, who are stressed and yet feel the pressure to add more ministries: feeding programs, energy programs, education programs, healthcare programs, music programs, outreach programs—and on and on. The problem comes when church leaders contemplate “programs” they must fund, support with volunteers and administer—rather than focusing on the core mission of their faith communities.

Health care is a prime example. The Parish Nursing movement is a good and powerful program that emerged in the 1970s that is today growing, especially among larger congregations with resources to hire parish nurses. But my message to congregations is: You don’t need to hire a parish nurse to provide care. Caregiving is as basic as “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s that simple.

LDS Mormon website page on caregiving and disability resources

CLICK this thumbnail image to visit the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website covering a wide range of disability concerns to help caregivers within the Mormon church. Within this website, individual pages look at common issues in various kinds of physical and mental health.

And, yes, energizing your congregation to take caregiving seriously also is complicated. That is … if you want to provide effective care and really touch lives in your community.

Over the years, I have been impressed by the way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) incorporates many levels of caregiving into daily life in Mormon congregations. They accomplish this through several smart policies: 1. They keep their congregations (called wards) small, so that people get to know one another. 2. They stress that we are God’s hands and feet on earth as much as they stress the life to come. 3. They embrace the practice of genuinely caring for one’s neighbors, from regular home visits to assistance with job placement and even emergency stocks of food.

If a family member loses a job, the community knows and rallies to support that person—and their family—to right the ship. And if illness strikes, the community is there to provide whatever support is required. And, they do this without professional clergy or paid staff. They do this out of a commitment to one another born of a deep faith in God.

As I write this, you should know: I’m not Mormon myself and I’m not suggesting the LDS church is better than all others. But, I am suggesting that their orientation is solid: Faith in God animates action in this life, because we are the feet and hands of God on this earth.

Is caregiving fuel for “church growth”? Just look at the statistics on growth in the LDS church!

Care to read more?

KEEP IN TOUCH WITH WE ARE CAREGIVERS: Our online magazine regularly reports on caregiving issues, sharing ideas and inspiration from various authors and experts. Click on the link in the upper right corner for “updates by email” and be sure you are receiving our free email alerts to new stories. Among the past We Are Caregivers columns you’ll find useful:

BEST-SELLING AUTHORS URGE CONGREGATIONS TO GET INVOLVED: While you’re signing up for our email newsletters, be sure to get our weekly ReadTheSpirit newsletter, sent out each Monday afternoon. That way you won’t miss our trademark author interviews, which often touch on caregiving. Among our most popular author interviews on this subject:

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

Changing the Tune at the ‘Organ Recital’

By THE REV. DR. BENJAMIN PRATT, author of ‘Guide for Caregivers.’

Pipe Organ consoleHelen, my mother-in-law, died seven years ago at age 94. One of my delightful memories of her was her chortles when she recounted the evening gathering of folks for dinner at her retirement home. Someone might share an interesting memory or event of the day. But most often each person would share an update on chronic ailments involving any number of body parts.

“We’re starting the Organ Recital,” Helen would laugh.

You might be chuckling, too, assuming that these recitals are limited to the aging, but I observe them among all groups.
Something in us wants to tell our stories. It is absolutely fascinating to me how the discussion starter dramatically changes the tone of an experience.

I’ve sat through my share of Organ Recitals, haven’t you? Sometimes it’s a healthy sharing of concerns in the forefront of our daily living. Of course, it works best if everyone gets to participate—and the listening is genuinely supportive rather than prone to advice.

But consider this, if you’d rather change the program in your group.

Tired of all that focus on organs? I’ve found that a single question tossed up in the group, like the opening coin toss at the start of a game, can have considerable effect. It can be as simple as asking about how the plants are doing in someone’s apartment, or a remark about flowers viewed through the window, what birds have been observed around the grounds—or who visited recently. This is the stuff that connects and binds us and dispels fear and isolation.

A close friend recently told me, “I got a circle of folks in my parents’ assisted-living home to start talking about Finnish saunas the other day. We had an old Finn in the circle and, before we knew it, we were rip roaring along about saunas, beloved trips, the woods, wood gathering, starting fires—on and on. We danced verbally around a crackling fire and formed community by sharing stories.”

Just yesterday a Home Depot employee came to our house to inspect some work. We ended up telling each other stories. He told me he was the only person of color in the school when, as a teenager, his family moved to Pittsburgh. One student constantly picked on him, and he finally confronted the bully, telling him to meet on the football field at lunchtime to settle this matter.

The bully was a member of the football team, and the captain of the team attempted to keep the “rumble” from happening. Students “from the other side of the tracks” gathered behind the one person of color while the football team supported the bully. A truce was reached without a fight when the bully, forced by my new acquaintance and his football buddies, got on his knees and apologized.

I was suddenly shaking hands and congratulating a man for his courage, a man I had only met 20 minutes earlier. We knew each other through that story. A bridge was built while standing on it.

Something deep in us wants to sit around the literal or verbal campfire or dinner table and tell stories or listen to others. We become members of the long train of story-telling families. We know ourselves and each other by our stories.

th Carrie Newcomer Quaker singer songwriterAs I was finishing this column, I discovered a kindred soul in singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer in a new ReadTheSpirit magazine interview. Talking about the power of personal stories, Carrie says:

“I love how we’re different, as people. In our whole country there’s no place like Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s no place like Minneapolis, no place like Asheville, North Carolina—and there’s no place just like Bloomington, Indiana. Places are so rich and diverse.

“Yet, at the same time, everywhere I go—every single place I go—if I sing a song about love, about family, about kindness—simple human kindness—or if I sing a song about hope—and not Hallmark card hope but the kind of hope where you wake up in the morning and you get up and really do try to make the world a better place—then my song is immediately recognizable in any community where I’m singing all around this world.

While Organ Recitals have their place, perhaps there are ideas in this column that will help you change the program in your circle.

We all can start singing a wider range of tunes.