Category Archives: Life’s Travails- Big and Small

Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs. LewisRivers of ink have been spilled by and about C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don who wrote 20th century classics for children and adults, such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Through the years since his death, biographers have given us hints of his late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman, and the book and movie Shadowlands have introduced her to the public. Rarely, though, have we seen their relationship through her eyes, but now Patti Callahan has written a novel that moves this misunderstood woman to the forefront.

Joy Davidman was born into a scholarly Jewish family and later converted to Christianity as an adult. When the novel opens, she is a young mother of two boys, married to an alcoholic and adulterous husband. Both of them are writers, and because of the times, Joy is expected to put up with her husband’s behavior and concentrate on improving her homemaking and motherly skills, pushing her own writing aside until her boys are grown. When a friend gives her a couple of books by C.S. Lewis, she takes a risk and writes to him for advice on a theological question. They continue to exchange letters for several years, increasingly confiding in one another and becoming close friends.

When several health issues and her difficult marriage have both reached crisis level, Joy travels to England to consult with doctors there and to do research for her writing projects. Here she finally meets Jack, as Lewis was called, and his brother, Warnie. She soaks in the history and beauty at Oxford and at The Kilns, Lewis’ home. While she is there, she receives a letter from her husband informing her that he is in love with her cousin and is living with her, along with their young sons. Joy’s life is at a crossroads.

The story takes place over years, but nothing goes smoothly for Joy, her sons, or her overwhelming love for Jack, fifteen years her senior and seemingly oblivious to her devotion. She is an acclaimed poet, but no one sees the series of sonnets that she writes to him. She longs to tell him of her feelings, but he is cheerfully friendly and perhaps purposely obtuse. All the while, he arranges to see her every day, asks for her help with his work, and considers her a member of his family. Warnie is devoted to her, and Jack acts as a father to her children, but romantic love is completely absent. It takes a catastrophe to open his eyes, and then it is almost too late.

Using all of the Lewis scholarship available, plus Joy’s prolific papers, poems, and the letters between them, Callahan has filled in the gaps with imagined conversations and Joy’s intimate thoughts on her frustrating, fulfilling, and quietly spectacular life. There are many famous individuals among their acquaintance, and they weave in and out of the narrative. Tolkien, in particular, disapproved of Joy intensely, even though he was a happily married man himself. Callahan is not on a feminist rant here at all, but she does include gentle reminders that even nice men did not respect women’s work just fifty or sixty years ago (or ten or five or yesterday). Callahan has also interviewed Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son and one of Lewis’ most authoritative biographers. As a matter of fact, I own a Lewis biography by Gresham and had forgotten that Gresham was Joy’s married name.

Lewis lived most of his life before he met Joy, and his earlier romantic relationships have been—and remain—an interesting and perhaps unseemly mystery, but his evolving and complex relationship with Joy Davidman affected him so deeply as to change him in foundational ways. Not only did he rethink his opinions on serious issues, but he also seemed to open doors in his soul that he had kept locked all of his life. Joy was his muse for the book he declared to be his favorite, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, she is the subject of A Grief Observed. However, Joy Davidman met her great love after having lived a full life, as well, and together they played a tragic, but magnificent, final act.

I highly recommend this book to all those who are fellow Lewis nerds, historical fiction fans, and to anyone who relishes a great story with literary characters.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

Turtles All the Way DownSure, everybody’s teen years are confusing and difficult, but Aza’s life is not so bad. Her single mother is also her history teacher, but she’s a great mom. Daisy, her BFF, has an endless supply of coupons for Applebee’s, so they eat free every week, and the boy she is crushing on even seems to return her affections. It’s just that Aza can’t get past the suspicion that she is a fictional character.

When the feeling becomes oppressive, Aza drives her nail into her finger, and the pain of the split skin reassures her that she is real. This relief is quickly replaced by the fear of infection, so Aza has to remove the ever-present Band-Aid, washing and disinfecting the open wound. And then there are the Wikipedia articles that she feels compelled to read over and over, describing the symptoms of the most dreaded diseases and causing her to live in constant revulsion over all of the bacteria dwelling in her healthy human body.

Daisy lives life out loud. She works at Chucky Cheese, writes fan fiction, and chatters through all of Aza’s silence. When Daisy finds out that they could win $100,000 by finding a missing millionaire, she jumps right in—which means that Aza has to play, too, since she is the one with the wheels.

Bestselling author John Green has described this novel as his most personal work yet. The theme of mental illness has become a growing trend in young adult fiction over the last few years, and often, the main characters are good kids in solid homes with loving parents, which helps to erase the stereotypes in older works. Turtles All the Way Down features Green’s signature witty and precocious teens, with one strong girl just trying to get through high school while drowning in her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Aza is a thoroughly relatable character who is caught up in the tightening spiral of her own thoughts, someone who would like to focus more on other people, but who cannot escape the fears that consume her every waking moment.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book, since there will probably never be another galley of a John Green book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

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Sarah Bessey and Me

Several years ago, a pastor told me that the Bible’s teaching on women implied that women should never supervise men at work. At the time, I supervised two, so I told him it was too late. So he said that I should give them preference over the women I supervised, just because of their gender. I kid you not. Fast forward a few years, and a woman in our small group opined that a woman’s main role in the workplace is to make the men there feel better about themselves. Try as I might, I cannot find this chapter or verse in my Bible. Furthermore, I think my employer would be much more pleased if I followed the Bible’s real admonition to employees, which is to work for your employer with a great attitude, as if you were working for the Lord, instead of other people.* Apparently, though, no one in the room found her opinion sort of creepy except for me. There was more, but you can imagine my state of mind.

Jesus FeministIn my line of work, book titles run past my eyes all day long every day, and one day that title was Jesus Feminist. I tend to turn away from the word “feminist,” since it is so often allied with the hard-left, pro-choice crowd, but this was just too provocative, so I took a look, read the description, logged into my Amazon account, and made my first acquaintance with this Canadian pastor’s wife, blogger, and mommy.

We all have visions of our future lives when we are young, and having a full-time career was not part of my vision. Mother, wife, and maybe writer, yes. But I believe in a sovereign God, and a decade and a half ago, we went through a life-changing chain of events, and here I am, doing what I sincerely believe is the right thing to do—the honorable, loving, and responsible thing to do—and I have found happiness there. All day, every day, I am surrounded by brilliant, hardworking women who find great meaning in their work. I believe in a God who gifts people with the ability to make other lives better, and who puts each person in place for the good of all. The universe is not random. So how can someone else who believes in a sovereign God say that the way I lay down my life is a sin?

I opened Jesus Feminist and wept in the introduction. I sobbed through the first two chapters. I found someone who had been here before me, and she dealt with her wounds by reading the gospels over and over. She reminded me that Jesus treated women like people. He talked to them directly, against the custom of the day, and never treated them as “other.” She reprinted a Dorothy L. Sayer essay that I read decades ago that is still one of the best things I’ve ever read on the topic of Jesus and women. Sarah Bessey reminded me, in her poetic, storyteller fashion, that Jesus truly loved me, and that’s all I really needed to hear. Some of the later chapters didn’t speak to me as much, but those first chapters were so powerful that this bright yellow paperback has sat on my desk, beside my laptop, ever since then. Not that I told anyone, though, because I knew how controversial she was, and I didn’t want to be met with either gasps or outrage.

Last summer was another life-changing time. Everyone knows that it was a summer of grief over my mother’s death, as well as months filled with unrelenting physical pain from the compressed discs in my neck causing nerve pain all the way down my arm, but I’ve never told the story of the deep wound gouged into my soul during this rough time.

David and I have moved around a lot in our lives. For the first twenty years of our marriage, we moved about every five years for David’s work. Sometimes the transitions were heartbreaking, but we met all kinds of people and learned a lot from them. We studied loads of theology, visited dozens of churches, and had long, intense discussions late into the night with some folks who are deeply lodged in my heart forever. By my best count, we have been members or long-term visitors of ten separate denominations, and more than one church for a couple of those. I feel old just saying that. We’ve hosted church in our house and helped to start a couple of churches from scratch. We’ve driven long distances to church for years a couple of times, just to be sure that the teaching and fellowship we were receiving were truly biblical. We knew of a small denomination that agreed with us that two seemingly opposing ideas were both Biblical, but we never lived near one of their churches until we lived here. We were passionately devoted members of this church for seven years—until last year. When my mother died last summer, my church did—nothing. I received sympathy cards from individuals, and I treasured each one, but as a church: nothing. No meals, no visits, not even a phone call from my most beloved church of my whole life.

In the year since my mother’s death, I have had time to reflect on what God may be teaching me through long nights of grief, pain, and loneliness. I have worked and prayed to forgive, and I have come miles down that road by his grace. I have learned that love, in God’s eyes, is the most important thing, and I’ve repented for the times I didn’t love others as I should have. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I’ve realized that those first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13 cover all the kinds of churches in the world, from charismatic to reformed to legalistic to liberal, whereas I had only seen individuals in those verses before. The last verse of that chapter, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love,” has become my heart’s cry. I am doing my best to love now, having people in my home, supporting everyone I can, and praying for the most unlikely people. I will never be good at this—it is not my gift—but it is everyone’s calling.

At the same time, other things have become less important. I have started taking stock of the ways that I have fit myself into someone else’s mold, rather than reading the Bible without filters and living what it says. We live in a world full of noise, with someone telling us what to think about everything, and when we agree with one side about an issue, we’re thrown into a box with dozens of other opinions that we’re expected to believe as well. But I don’t, and it’s becoming bewildering to think that I’m the only one who holds nuanced opinions that don’t fit neatly onto a bumper sticker.

Out of SortsAnd along came Sarah Bessey again. When I saw her new book title, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, I thought, “Yes, that’s where I am.” Truly, if your faith is not evolving, you are just not paying attention, and considering the political events of the past year, I think most Christians are not thinking deeply enough about their faith. The idea that our religion can be co-opted into a political cause is tremendously disturbing in its own right. Combining the events of my personal life with the national, even global, turmoil has caused me to be discouraged and almost despairing for particular churches, but also for the universal Church. Heaven knows the answer doesn’t lie in creating yet another denomination.

Ms. Bessey is one of a growing group of believers who think that the church is ripe for a new reformation, and my heart resonates with that idea. She points out that a major upheaval happens about every five hundred years in the church. In other words, we’re due. We just can’t continue in the splintered, contentious fashion that we now tolerate. Who is for Paul, who is for Apollos, and who is for Jesus?** The world has changed since Martin Luther nailed a paper to a cathedral door to ask for a discussion. Thousands of discussions are taking place every minute on social media with no moderator whatsoever, and in the church, we have no leader. Pope Francis? Jerry Falwell, Jr.?

Sarah Bessey writes by telling stories, and every one is soaked with her passionate love for Jesus. I read this book like drinking a life-giving elixir. I consumed it. To paraphrase Roberta Flack, I felt she’d found my letters and read each one out loud. If I had time, I would go right back to the beginning and read it again. She pulls out one topic after another and encourages the reader to examine it honestly, leading us to be courageous by telling her own life’s stories. She has also been a part of different kinds of churches in different parts of the continent, and she has drawn truth and beauty from each experience, but she now realizes that she cannot fully assent to the beliefs of any one church. No one is right about everything, after all, but neither is everyone else wrong about everything. You may as well tell the truth about how you feel and what you think, rather than making yourself believe something in order to please someone else, because when it comes right down to it, if they don’t love you because you disagree, what do you gain by hiding the truth? The only one who matters already knows what you think, and he can take it. You may not agree with Sarah Bessey on every issue—or, like me, you may not know what you think about some of them—but she will take you gently through all of the things that need sorting out in your heart and mind.

I do believe that the future is hopeful for me and for the church, but I believe just as firmly that there is suffering ahead. The Lord has used my pain to force me to change, to let go of things I held dear, to work harder for the kingdom, to forgive and to love. As Switchfoot’s new album*** says, the wound is where the light shines through, where the grace pours in, where he reaches in to heal. Be courageous! Lean into the pain and love well.


It was not my intent to hurt anyone with this post, but rather to tell my story so that others who have been deeply wounded can find comfort here. Scripture quotes are from the ESV Bible.

*There is a reference for this! Ephesians 6: 6 & 7.

**Riffing on 1 Corinthians 1:12.

***It always come down to Switchfoot, doesn’t it? I am here freely making inferences from the song “Where the Light Shines Through” and the album of the same name.


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GardeniasMy mother loved gardenias. We have a picture of her as a seventeen-year-old bride, standing beside her World War II soldier, holding a cascading bouquet of white mums and gardenias. To the end of her life, they remained her favorite flower.

Last week, I went out on my back porch to water all of the potted plants, and when I ended up with leftover water in the can, I walked to the end of the porch and poured it into the wildly overgrown gardenia in the yard. Leaning forward, I examined the early spring state of the plant: healthy and covered with leaf buds. No flower buds yet. Then suddenly, I found that I was watering the shrub with my tears.

When my father died in 2004, two mourners who knew her well gave my mother potted gardenias at his funeral. She planted one in her yard, and she gave the other to me. This is the plant at the end of my porch. It sits in front of the dryer vent, soaking up the heat, never invaded by pruning shears, thanks to the ignorance of its owners. By now, it is well over my head, and it blesses us with abundant blooms twice a year. The fragrance seeps through the walls and windows into the house. Intoxicating.

Last year, at the very end of May, we went to South Carolina to see my mother in the hospital. She was about to have surgery to remove her pacemaker, since it may have been causing a serious infection. Just before we got in the car, I cut off a double handful of the last spring blooms and buds from my father’s gardenia plant to cheer her. When we arrived, the nurse was entering the room as I asked whether Mom could have flowers, and her official answer was, “No.” But when she saw the homely nature of the bouquet, she relented. “Oh. Alright.” So we stuck our offering into a plastic hospital pitcher, and the room filled with their aroma. I asked Mom if it was too much in the small space, and she said, “Oh, no. I love gardenias.”

We had no idea that night that a few days later, Mom would leave us to go back to her beloved groom, the fragrance of his gardenias in her hair.

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Off the Bed of Nails and Onto the Rack

Torture Rack Wikipedia

It’s the Intersegmental Traction Table!

A few days after returning home from San Francisco, my neck and arm still ached, so I thought I should stretch out those muscles by cleaning my entire house. The next day, July 4th, I was at urgent care trying hard not to weep in front of the doctor. He diagnosed a torn shoulder muscle, gave me a muscle relaxer and a prescription NSAID and sent me home. The prescriptions did nothing. I could not lie down at all, and even when propped up on the sofa, I could not sleep for the searing pain from my neck to my left hand. After a few days of this, David convinced me to see Dr. Nick, his chiropractor.

I had never been to a chiropractor before and had been raised to believe that they were not real doctors. David, however, had been in a serious car accident as a teenager and had had years of positive experiences with them. Not only did I not think a chiropractor would do me any good, I was terrified of anyone who would take your head in his hands and jerk it to the side until it cracked! I had seen all the movies, after all. People die like that! Even little Alice twisted off the head of the evil vampire, James, when he tried to kill Kristen Stewart, who was already dead, as far as I could see—but that’s another story.

Alice chiropractor uncut

Alice was obviously a chiropractor.

Furthermore, my co-worker, John, told me all about what his chiropractor did for him, and advised me to take pain medication about an hour before my appointment. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think my chiropractor just wants to see how much pain I can endure.” So helpful.

However, I gathered up my courage and went into the office, where they took x-rays and showed me that I had two compressed discs in my cervical spine—which is in your neck, not where you’d think. Furthermore, my neck looked like a ruler, rather than a graceful swan, and the doctor said that I’d been building up arthritis in my neck for about ten years. I was in stage one of three, but with treatment, I would not end up with the dowager hump that my mom and grandma endured. Then they started me on my first chiropractic treatment.

Bed of Nails Herbert Ponting 1907First, they put me face-down on a black table and pasted electrodes onto my back. That was unexpected. It was really difficult to lie flat anyway, and then suddenly, I had spiders crawling all over my back! I quickly whined to the nurse, “That muscle is going to spasm!” Yes, she said. That was the point. They were trying to wear out the muscle with electricity so that it would relax later, and would I like for her to turn the machine higher? No! I was thinking, why would I want to add pain to my pain? This was not at all what I thought would be happening.

The second station was the intersegmental traction table, or roller table. I lay on my back while a roller went up and down the table, stretching out my spine. After ten minutes, I felt as if I’d been marinated and tenderized, ready for the main course.

He cracked my neck to the left, and I gasped! He cracked it to the right, and I gasped again.  Then my back cracked, all the way down, and I’m sure I said, “Oh!” or “Ooph!” every time.  My husband heard me from the hall; I hope I didn’t drive away any patients. The big news is that I made it through my first chiropractic treatment, and I felt… worse.

Spine and nerves diagramThe next day found me in my long-time primary care physician’s office.  I poured out my whole sob story to her, and she responded, “Well, Cheryl, as we get older…” and I interrupted, “No, no, I don’t want to go there.” Then she showed me diagrams of the spine and the nerves going down my arm. I respond well to pictures. She told me that the only one who could cure me was, indeed, the chiropractor, and assured me that mine was one of the best. And then—bless her!— she wrote me a prescription for a Z-pack of prednisone and 10 hydrocodone tablets. She believed me when I said I was in pain.

The prednisone worked beautifully, even though it made my legs look like elephant legs. At night, I found out that hydrocortisone will, without fail, give you six straight hours of sleep. I am really not sure if it does anything for pain, though. I would wake up, feel horrible pain, and go right back to sleep. When you need to go to work the next day, six hours of sleep can get you through.

Thank goodness I had heard from my long-term, trusted doctor, because the next two months were rugged. I came home a couple of times bruised and crying to my husband, “I can’t believe that I’m paying someone to beat me!” I noticed that my chiropractor wrote on my chart: “VERY GENTLE ONLY” in all caps and highlighted in yellow.Crying Baby I think that translates to “THIS ONE IS A BIG BABY,” but hey, I can’t help it. One time he adjusted my shoulder and sent me straight into excruciating pain, so he sat me down and gave me acupuncture. I had always wondered whether there was any validity to the claims about acupuncture, but I was willing to do anything at that point. Within a minute and a half, I had no pain there at all. I am a believer! I’ve had acupuncture about a dozen times since.

After a couple of weeks, they added ultrasound therapy to the treatment mix. I thought, “Now this is quackery for sure. Every woman knows that ultrasounds are for pregnancy!” I knew that doctors also used it for examining internal organs for stones and other problems. However, I looked it up later (because that’s what librarians do) and saw that ultrasounds have been used in sports medicine for years to break up scar tissue in muscles. In chiropractic therapy, it loosens up the muscles so that they will stop pulling your spine back out of line after your adjustment. I don’t know why it doesn’t also dissolve your muscles and tendons, though.

So, I have been going to the chiropractor twice a week for about ten weeks now, and I am a big fan. The healing has been slow, but fairly steady. When my symptoms changed, he listened and adjusted the treatment to be more effective. It took about four weeks to be able to sleep in a bed all night, and I still ended up on the sofa now and then for two more weeks. I am religious about keeping up with the stretches and band exercises at home, and you might catch me in the ladies’ room doing stretches at work when I’ve been sitting for too long. As you can tell, I can type longer than before (although it took three sessions to type this post), and I can walk from the parking lot to the building without feeling as if someone is stabbing me in the back of the neck. One of the worst side effects of this episode has been that my exercise walking has come to a complete halt. I had been walking two or three miles a day in the spring, and had lost about thirty pounds, ten of which have found me again. So discouraging!

I still have a periodic buzzing numbness in my left arm—not very often, but enough to be annoying. Next week will be a milestone: I will drop to one visit per week! There were times this past summer when I thought I would never live without chronic pain again, but now I have hope, as well as tremendous respect for those who live with debilitating diseases and  still manage to smile and speak kindly to other people.

Got back pain? Don’t suffer and don’t be afraid. Let me introduce you to my new best friend.


Bed of nails photo by Herbert Ponting, 1907.

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Librarian Shoulder and Other Hazards of San Francisco

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San Francisco as seen from the Pacific side of the Golden Gate Bridge

The last week of June, I made my way to California for the first time ever! The American Library Association held its annual convention in San Francisco this year, and I was thrilled to be invited to several functions by various groups. Since I left North Carolina when temps were over one hundred for days on end, I walked for miles on the waterfront (just days before Kate Steinle was shot there) and all over the city, reveling in sunny, mid-sixties weather. It didn’t occur to me that the sun is still sending out those UV rays even when it feels great, and I ended up peeling for a week.

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The Ferry Building, located at the “bottom” of the waterfront, now a foodie paradise with lovely shops. I walked for hours on the waterfront!

One of the best things about library conventions is that all of the publishers are there, handing out advance copies of their newest offerings. They know we can’t wait to get our hands on them, and they’ve become convinced of our canvas bag addiction, so I ended up walking for miles with canvas bags full of books on my left shoulder. By the end of my trip, I was having a hard time sleeping on my left side, and I ended up taking aspirin every night before bed. Little did I know how serious that would become after I got home.

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The iconic Phelan Building, which I passed every day on my way to ALA workshops.

Of course, the last week in June is Pride Week in San Francisco—every year. When I opined to someone that perhaps the American Library Association could have picked a more propitious week to pour several thousand librarians into a city that would soon receive 500,000 extra visitors for the Pride Parade, I was informed that the ALA holds its annual convention the last week of June every year. I can’t say that they should have held it elsewhere, though, because San Francisco is incredibly beautiful and easy to navigate, despite the one of the worst homeless problems I’ve seen anywhere—and I’ve spent a good bit of time in New York. The architecture, the Bay, the weather, the cable cars, and the variety of cultural influences all combine to create a charming city, and even though my hotel was lovely, I always wanted to be outside. Plus, it’s very healthful: considering that a salad costs $30, I lost five pounds that week!

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“When the lights go down in the city, and the sun shines on the bay….” Sunrise from my hotel window.

Getting outside on Sunday was a problem. I stayed at the Hyatt Regency, with gorgeous Bay views like the one above changing all day and night. I had an important meeting across town on Sunday afternoon, but when I got out of the shower and opened my drapes at 7:00 AM, the parade crowd was already forming, and by 9:00 AM, I could not get out of the hotel. No public transportation was running near us, so I sat back and watched for a few hours. Since the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage had been handed down on Friday, estimates were that over a million people had come to the city, double what had been expected. Some of the texts that I sent to my family back on the east coast were: “There is a very large, tattooed male motorcyclist below my window wearing a fluffy, lime-green tutu.” “There is man on the street below me wearing nothing but a hat—and it’s 58 degrees.” My sister texted back, “Where are the police?” I said, “In the float behind him.”

Around 12:30, the floats behind my hotel ran out, and the beginning of the parade moved down one block, so that the cable car beside the hotel started to operate again. I ran down and asked a native whether it went to the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, and she said it would get me within three blocks. Great. I had intended to ride a cable car once during my visit as a touristy thing, but I ended up using them twice out of necessity. This car took me to the top of an impossibly steep hill, and then I had to turn left and mince my way ever so slowly down (and I do mean down) three blocks of sidewalks that had been grooved so that pedestrians would not fall on their faces and roll all the way down.

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“My” Cablecar

I made it on time to my 1:30 meeting, but when we got out at almost 3:00, the parade was still going on—five hours after it started!—and I ended up walking back to my hotel right through the parade crowd. Again, there goes my shoulder, but who notices the pain when there is a 300-pound, hairy man walking toward you, wearing nothing but a strategically-placed rainbow-colored sock? I just let him have as much sidewalk as he wanted.

The whole day was surreal. It’s like your hometown parade on crack. Here comes Pacific Electric and Gas, followed by Dykes on Bikes. There, in the convertible, is a local politician, doing her best Queen Elizabeth wave. Right behind her is the Bondage Group, carrying whips and waving the Bondage Flag. (Yes, there’s a flag.) Here are hundreds of Apple employees, all in white, and next comes the nudist group, carrying a banner that reads: “Saint Francis was a nudist.” Someone should tell the Franciscan Friars. Think of all the money they could save on those brown robes and rope belts. Some of these guys are far, far past the age when they should be seen in public naked. Do they not have any friends to say, “Dude, this look is just not working for you anymore”?

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The Pacific Ocean peeking through the trees at the Land’s End Lookout

After all that excitement, I spent my last day with my friend, Valerie, having the total tourist experience. We went over the Golden Gate Bridge, drove through Sausalito, and had dinner on the Pacific at sunset, each view more beautiful than the last. If you have not been to San Francisco, let me recommend June and July as perfect months to visit! I was not sure how I would fare, since I was still in deep mourning at the time, but there was enough beauty to salve my soul and enough activity to keep me attached to the living. But then, that was before I knew that I would pay for ignoring the pain in my shoulder when I got home!

To be continued….

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Of Drugs and Dust: Conclusions of a Sort

Llama Goiter

It seems that half the women I know are on thyroid medication. If we weren’t, our necks would swell up like this.

My allergist had said that generic levothyroxine had filler ingredients that could cause hives and swelling—officially known as urticaria and angioedema. Since I had already been off the antihistamine for five days, I decided to give it a try and switch back to name-brand Synthroid, even though it was much more expensive. Amazingly, my symptoms improved a lot within two days. Imagine! The pill is so tiny to begin with, and the active ingredients—the reason I take the pill—are fine. It’s just the filler in the pill that can cause so much upset to my system. If something that tiny and seemingly insignificant can do that, what do the foods we eat do to us, since we eat them in much larger quantities?  So much to think about here.

However, I’m still not out of the woods. For one thing, the new blood pressure medication raised my blood sugar, so we had to experiment with a third one! The hives still show up now and then, but are not nearly as overwhelming. In the week before the allergy tests, when I was not able to take any medication, I woke up at 3:00 one morning and just cried from the itching. I dabbed on so much cider vinegar I smelled like a pickle. (It actually does help a bit.)  I always felt as if I’d been scrubbed all over with sandpaper. However, I have only had to take an antihistamine one day since I went off the levothyroxine. We’ve installed anti-dust mite air filters in our vents and washed all of our bedding, comforters, afghans, and so on. We’ve purchased, washed, and zipped on a “dust mite-proof mattress encasement.” Worst of all, I have had to remove my stack of to-be-read books from my bedroom! They are now stacked in the craft room. We have to keep our house very cool and dry to vanquish the dust mites, so we’ll go broke running the air conditioning this summer. I suppose Blue Cross doesn’t cover power bills, either. They are so stingy! I am left mind-boggled that such tiny little things as dust mites and filler ingredients in pills can cause so much havoc in a human life!

After all the doctors, all the work, and all the money spent on drugs and bedding, I think my sister had the best diagnosis of all. When you’re close to your family, they know everything about you, and I rarely take a breath without describing it in detail to Karen. First of all, she followed my accounts of all of my medical visits closely, and she got so upset by my descriptions of dust mites that she went overboard while cleaning her bedroom closet and she decided to rip up all of the carpeting and padding right then and there. No, she does not have hardwood underneath. Just sub-flooring. She is serious.

Karen was also considering everything the doctors said, and she reminded me that when I had an ulcer last fall, I had to take such massive doses of multiple antibiotics for so long that I probably stripped my immune system, and things that would normally not affect me so much are now major problems. That makes a lot of sense. I have never had any problems with allergies before, but now everything makes me sick! Even though I eat yogurt every day and took a 30-day course of probiotics, it has not been enough. So, like a good librarian, I have started to read about rebuilding my immune system.

You know what this means for you, Dear Reader. Soon, I will be bringing you reviews of all the nonfiction I’ve been reading about regaining a strong immune system, feeding the huge populations residing in your guts, and my timid first encounters with kimchi. This could be a long road for me, and although life is much more bearable now than it was a couple of months ago, I won’t stop until there are no hives at all in the morning!

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More Drugs and Dust, Part 2

At this point, my symptoms got even more complicated, because I didn’t know if they were related to my illness or the drugs that my doctors were prescribing.


My new blood pressure medicine worked by reducing my heart rate—to 46. Forty-six! I was afraid that my heart would forget what it was supposed to do from one beat to the next! I looked up “low heart rate,” and it said that sometimes people in very good shape have low heart rates. I considered that for half a second and admitted, “Nah. Probably not.” I called my doctor, and she told me to cut it in half. That helped a lot. In the meantime, the itching from the hives was becoming unbearable and the swelling continued. Of course, I was going through the usual allergy questions: laundry detergent? Soap? New foods? Nothing seemed different. The next time I showed up at my doctor’s office, she sent me to an allergist. Since I had had another bout of laryngitis caused by throat swelling, she got me into his office that same day.

As usual, I got lost in downtown Raleigh. Arriving at the allergists’ office completely stressed out, I found a practice full of people who see patients reacting to mysterious and sometimes invisible substances in all kinds of ways all day long. No big deal. To me, it was a very big deal. In the past, I’d known that I was allergic to cats and latex. Solution: Do not touch cats or latex. Boom. Done. Now, I didn’t know what was going on. My preternaturally calm doctor and nurse decided to send me out to a lab for blood work, and then see me again in three weeks for a follow-up. They couldn’t do allergy tests that day, since I had had Benadryl (newly purchased!) the night before, but he was going to put me on a daily dose of a prescription antihistamine that would allow me to work. I launched into probably the most ridiculously condescending speech of my life (and there have been a few), saying that my goal was not to add another prescription medication to my daily routine, but rather to identify the problem and to eliminate it. The doctor was admirably restrained, and said that that was his goal, too, but that sometimes that was not possible, and it was certainly not going to be possible today. I was most unhappy. I was even more unhappy when, after more than two weeks, the five vials of blood I donated that day turned up nothing but a dust mite allergy.

Dust Mite

These critters are all over your house, your car, your office– you name it.

Three weeks after that appointment, I was scheduled for allergy tests. I had to go off my now-beloved antihistamine for five days before the appointment. Within three days, I went from symptom-free to completely symptomatic. Even though we had bought a new mattress, box spring, and pillows, there had been no change in the hives, which mostly started in the wee hours of the morning. Fifty-five allergy tests later, I could see that I was a little bit allergic to cats and extremely allergic to dust mites. Talk about welts! The best thing that happened in that visit is that my husband accompanied me, so he got to hear three different professionals say, “You should never dust or vacuum by yourself.” One went so far as to say to David, “Maybe you could do that?” I asked the doctor if he thought I could get Blue Cross to cover a maid, and he replied, “I can’t even get them to cover Zyrtec.” He admitted that he did not think that dust mites could be the complete answer, and neither did I. He noted that I had recently switched from name-brand Synthroid—which I had taken for fifteen years— to the generic levothyroxine, and said that the inactive ingredients in the generic sometimes caused these symptoms. If that was the case, I would be only the third patient he had ever treated with that allergy.

Would I be that rare patient?

Stay tuned….


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Of Drugs and Dust, Part 1

One bulging cheek

Some days, I looked kind of like this guy, only not as cute.

One morning in January, I was talking to a colleague when I realized that I was biting on my lower lip as I spoke. A trip to the ladies’ room mirror showed me that my lip was swelling up. It went away after a few hours, but on the way home that evening, I stopped at a grocery store, and walking into the store, I was concerned that when I coughed, it came out as a squeak. Checking out, I could not answer the clerk, so I drove to urgent care a couple of blocks away. The doctor there diagnosed me with the laryngitis virus that was going around then, and opined that the swelling lip was unrelated. I believed him, since I had several co-workers who had had that very virus.

It was not a virus.

A couple of weeks later, I had a regularly-scheduled checkup with my primary care physician, and I told her about the urgent care visit, and said that the facial swelling had continued, now accompanied by hives, mostly in the morning. She asked about stress in my life, and I said, “Let me see. We’re financially stressed, my son moved out in December after a prolonged closing, we’re in the midst of rearranging our house since his move, my mom fell and broke her hip on Thanksgiving and is now in rehab…” and on and on. So, yeah, my life was a big ball of stress. She put it down to that, and I believed her, since hives are a typical sign of stress.

It was not stress.

A couple of weeks after that, I was still having hives and facial swelling, and had even had to take days off from work because my face was so disfigured many times when I woke up in the morning. A lot of my stress factors had been relieved, but my symptoms hadn’t gone away. I came home early one day because of a winter storm, and as ice fell outside, my throat started to swell up. I was terrified, since if I could not breathe, I didn’t think an ambulance could get to me on the ice-slicked roads. I searched for Benadryl in our bathroom closet and found that our bottle was two years past the date. I took it anyway, and in a couple of hours, the swelling went down. I went to my doctor the next day and she immediately took me off my blood pressure medication, Lisinopril, as my symptoms are a typical allergic reaction to that drug, even though I’d been on it for ten years. When I told this to a group of people the following week, I didn’t even have to name the drug. Everyone in the room said, “Oh, I’ll bet it was Lisinopril.” I was so relieved to have found an answer.

But it was not Lisinopril.

To be continued…

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The Goochland Inquisition

Spanish InquisitionIn one of the more outrageous examples of government overreach—and the field is crowded—the Goochland County, Virginia, school board decided to hold inquisitions for every fourteen-year-old homeschooler in their district. This story has me so incensed that I hardly know where to begin.

Virginia law allows parents to teach their own children by either filing a letter of intent or stating a religious exemption. I am not very familiar with Virginia law, but it seems that the religious exemption option would lead to less government oversight, whereas the letter of intent requires some reports of progress. Therefore, for those families who are religious, taking the religious exemption makes sense.

Doug and Carla Pruiett

Doug and Carla Pruiett discuss the homeschooling law with the Independent Sentinel

On January 9th, according to this article, among others, the Goochland school board ruled that when a child being homeschooled under the religious exemption reaches the age of fourteen, they have to make a statement of faith within 30 days of their birthday. If they do not comply, they burn at the stake. No! I made that up. Seriously, their parents can be criminally prosecuted. Furthermore, if the school board has any misgivings about the statement of faith, the child can be called to testify before the school board. In my opinion, it is cruel to force a fourteen-year-old to defend himself—and, by extension, his parents—in front of a bunch of adult strangers.

There are so many problems here. The first is that this governmental body seems to be under the impression that it owns this child, including his soul, and is only allowing the parents to be caretakers for the state. While I might, grudgingly, concede that there are truancy laws in this country, and that parents should make some assurances to the local school board so that they won’t worry, let’s keep in mind that compulsory education in institutional schools is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not until 1852 that Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law requiring the towns to build grammar schools and force parents to send their children for at least 12 weeks every year—and the parents were not happy about it! Today, if anyone sees a child accompanying her parents anywhere during “school hours,” they will ask her, “Why aren’t you in school?” As if our children are born incarcerated.

Here is how responsible parents should interact with the local school board when they plan to teach their children at home.

Parent: “Hey, we’re going to homeschool Suzi Q. next year, so you don’t have to expect her at the local public school.”

School official: “Thank you for letting us know.”

That’s it. Just informing, not asking for permission, because they’re your kids!

The second, screamingly ridiculous problem is that the school board is setting itself up as a theological examining board. Is an M.Div. a requirement for Goochland School administrators? As I understand it, the point is to see whether the child agrees with her parents’ religious convictions, and if not, the school officials would probably consider themselves the great liberators of this child from her parents’ backward notions. If your fourteen-year-old has cemented his spiritual convictions already, he should go set up his own church. Most of us find this to be a lifelong journey. Furthermore, I’d give my last indulgence to watch the school board respond when the child stands before them and says, “My parents are paedocommunionists, but I have to confess that I am not sure that their position can be supported by Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.” If they could figure out what that meant, would it be grounds for terminating parental rights? Will they start in on straightening out all those quibbling denominations next?

It is so ironic that this is happening in Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, in a letter to the Danbury Baptists:

Thomas JeffersonBelieving with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

Many people misinterpret this “wall of separation” to mean that the church cannot interfere with the government, but it was obviously meant to affirm that the state cannot interfere with the church. Jefferson wrote this letter in response to one he received from the Danbury Baptists in which they worried that the state was going to collect taxes from them to support a state church, which would probably have been Anglican, but in any case would certainly not have been Baptist. Jefferson reassured them that this would not happen, based partly on the First Amendment to the Constitution.

It was announced Wednesday, after the case was taken on by the Home School Legal Defense Association and became national news, that the Goochland School Board suddenly realized that perhaps this was not such a good idea after all. We should all be alarmed, however, that this incredible bit of arrogance ever passed a vote by people who were at least respectable enough to have been elected to their positions.

I fear that the people of our nation have become too willing to surrender their rights to those in power—or if not their own rights, the rights of their neighbors. Perhaps they think that it could never affect them, but the government is a ravenous creature, ever seeking more power and never satisfied. Freedom of conscience and freedom of thought are enormously important to our liberty. In the same way that I do not have to enjoy Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to support their right to publish them, we do not have to agree with our neighbors’ religious beliefs or educational choices to support their right to live according to their own values. Not only does the government have no right to decide whether our religious beliefs are correct, they have no right to even ask what they are! And they certainly have no right to question our children’s opinions about this or anything else.

Teach. Believe. Be vigilant.


Spanish Inquisition drawing from Getty Images.

Photo of the Pruietts taken from the Independent Sentinel website at, accessed January 14, 2015.

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