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Archive for December 2012

The first day of “school”

I returned to my newspaper job after my four-month sabbatical spent in Chicago. I didn't sleep very well last night, butterflies. But everyone was so gracious and welcoming. My computer fired right up. I started working on a story.

It felt in some ways that I had been gone forever — or not long at all.

In childhood summers, I loved the feeling of anticipation of going back to school. In grade school at St. Charles, the same classmates returned year after year and so we came back to familiar faces and settings, though changed in cellular ways by the long summer.

There were a few changes in the newsroom in my four months away, but not many. People looked great. It reminded me that throughout our lifespan, we are given beginnings, ends and new beginnings in old places.

The experience at Rush University Medical Center in chaplaincy training changed me at a cellular level, I suspect, but I've known for weeks that it would take getting back into my job, back into my old routine, to finally understand the changes. The process of processing begins. I feel blessed to be here.

Happy New Year!

(S-R archive photo)

Looking back

At the end of the year, we take time to look back and remember the people who left this life. Each person leaves a memory upon our hearts, memories of sharing their gifts with courage and grace; these are some of the people who inspired and entertained us.

May their gifts remain.

Who will you miss the most?

(S-R archives photo: “American Bandstand” host Dick Clark is shown in this 1974 ABC photo.)

The way male leaders look: Then and now

I have been watching Oliver Stone's Showtime series Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States. It's fascinating in ways, big and small. And here's a small thing I'm noticing.

The men who ruled throughout the world, throughout the 20th century, — Stalin, FDR, Winston Churchill — didn't seem to worry much how they looked. They got fat. They got thin. They went bald. They didn't care. Mostly, they had really bad teeth and did nothing about it.

Contrast this with many male members of Congress in modern time. Hair transplants. Perfect smiles. Botox, likely. Perhaps our modern culture demands this. But in a weird way it was refreshing to see all those men during and after World War II just look like themselves. They were exhausted. And it showed.

(Oliver Stone photo from S-R archives)

The outward sign of cancer

My friend Chris, a woman I have known since we were both girls, was diagnosed with breast cancer in October, and very soon had a double mastectomy and now, she is undergoing rather rigorous chemotherapy.

Her beautiful, thick hair started falling out in clumps on Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas, we went together to her beloved stylist Sherrie to get a buzz cut. It was a quiet day in the salon, and I took cell phone photos of the process, as Chris requested.

The salon became sacred space during the 20 minutes it took to cut and then shave Chris' head, and in that sacred time, as Chris' hair fell to the floor, I saw many of her family members emerge from her face. I saw her handsome older brothers, Dan and Dick, her son Peter, and also her mother Mildred. At some point, Sherrie discovered the cowlicks on the top of Chris' head, which we remembered from her grade-school photos, and which Chris used to take a scissors to as a child to rid her head of them.

We took note of her aristocratic, strong face. Her eyes popped out, clear and firm. Chris' new look emerged. She has a bagful of warm hats, but on this day she kept her head open to the elements. Afterward, we did not cry, as we expected, but we felt almost giddy, and we texted dozens of family members and friends to say: “Look, this is the new Chris.”

The texts came back with kudos. Beautiful eyes. Good scalp! Great nose. And at the end of the day, both of us exhausted, the day's events catching up, Chris expressed relief that her hair was no longer coming out in clumps, a grief in every handful. But instead, she now has an outward sign of what is happening to her.

She is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Her world, her family's world, the world of her friends, is changing with her. It's a huge change. No matter how fluent we get as a culture on the nature of cancer, no matter how hopeful we are about advance treatments and better survival rates, in the middle of chemotherapy, in the darkest days of December, your hair falling out on Christmas Day, you need an outward sign of the hugeness. Chris has it now. I was honored to bear witness.

The Nativity Scene

The nativity scene offers us comfort at this time of year and a visual reminder of the Advent and Christmas seasons.

While the nativity scene is a tradition, where did the tradition come from and what do the symbols mean? What is history and what is “art”? Some answers are found in the Bible and some of our symbols came to us over time.

The first nativity scene – a living scene - was created by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. He wanted to cultivate the worship of Christ at a time when there were few books and few skilled readers. St. Francis was a lover of animals; he is often depicted with animals and described as able to communicate with them. So it is no surprise that our nativity scenes are filled with animals – particularly an ox and an ass.

We really do not know what – if any – animals were present at Jesus’ birth, but the symbolism of the creatures we set in our stables, do offer rich meaning. Perhaps Francis read from an 8th century text not included in the Bible: “And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, Mary went out of the cave, and, entering a stable, placed the child in a manger, and an ox and an ass adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by the prophet Isaiah, ‘The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.’ ”

And so the ox and ass are now part of our tradition. The ox symbolizes patience, Israel and the Old Testament, while the ass symbolizes humility, service and The Gentiles.

The sheep and shepherds were typical of the time of Jesus’ birth and referenced in Luke’s Gospel: “There were country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

The light in the manger represents the star from Matthew’s Gospel that illuminated the sky and the light of Christ that continues to illuminate our lives. The “wise men” from Matthew’s Gospel were dispatched by King Herod to find the child and return with word about Jesus’ location. We do not know if there were actually three wise men, only three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The wise men – called Magi - were likely astrologers, familiar with the night sky. The Magi did not follow orders to return and inform King Herod.

Jesus rests in the manger as the center of our story: a story of hope, healing, brought to us in the simplicity of a child.  

As Christmas unfolds in our lives, may the nativity scene offer you a message of light, of hope, of joy.

(S-R photo archives: Wise men bring gold and frankincense at a Nativity scene in Amsterdam, Netherlands, December 2006)

Decorating for the dead

Yesterday, I put some flowers on my father's grave in a Spokane cemetery. After, I took a walk in the lovely place. I noted at least a dozen graves where family members had decorated small Christmas trees or placed blown-up Santas or beautiful wreaths.

It was a nice gesture, remembering our dead during these busy holidays. And the cemetery was so calm, peaceful and quiet, allowing a place of respite during this busy time, this frantic season.

Merry Christmas Eve.

From darkness…to light

The nation and others around the world have responded to the anguishing pain following the Newtown, Connecticut shooting. In these dark days of grief and gun conversations and heartache, residents of Newtown have received an outpouring of love – in the form of donated food, toys, toys, toys and money.

The donations are evidence of the season's message to all of us: light (love, compassion), even in the deepest darkness, will heal, inspire and comfort.

How do you think our nation can offer a meaningful response to Newtown?

(S-R photo)

World without end, Amen

So, the world didn’t end. I wonder for the folks who really got into it in 2012, it was a way to focus depression, despair and suicidal ideation. I know for my sisters and me, it was an excuse yesterday to share some cocktails at 3 p.m. with my mom at Downriver Grill, which was our neighborhood grocery store when we were all growing up. We decided if the world ended that day, we had spent time with people we shared the most memories with in this life. Cheers! Onto 2013!

Sharing grief knowledge

In some of the Sandy Hook tragedy news coverage, you see men and women interviewed who have survived tragic deaths of their children through violence in a school shooting. You would never characterize these men and women as “getting over” the death of their children, but they have learned to “live around it.” And some are providing helpful wisdom for Sandy Hook parents now. Their grief did not destroy them. In today’s paper, there was a story about the school the Sandy Hook kids will return to in January. It will be in another, empty school but the children will return to classrooms that look similar to the ones they left. The story quoted Carolyn Mears, author of “Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma.” Her daughter survived the Columbine shooting in 1999. I’m sure the parents who have survived every parent’s worst fear are helping out in ways big and small in Sandy Hook, in ways we will never hear about. One thing I know about survivors of great grief? They are unusually humble after being humbled by horror.

Moment of silence

The governor of Connecticut is calling for a moment of silence Friday at 9:30 Eastern time (6:30 a.m. in the Inland Northwest. He’s also asking churches to ring their bells 26 times to honor the victims. Here’s hoping we generate a huge response in both ways Friday in the Inland Northwest.

Comforter-in Chief

President Obama arrived in Newtown, Connecticut today to meet with families who lost their sons, daughters, wives, friends and with first responders.

At a community vigil, he offered words, our words, of comfort and promise to move ahead to understand and act to address this horrible cultural norm of gun violence.

 “Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I've been reflecting on this the last few days,” the president said, somber and steady in his voice. “And if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough and we will have to change,” said President Obama.

We all will have to work to make our nation – a nation with more guns than citizens – a nation of peace and security for all, security that protects all citizens, especially Kindergarteners.

(S-R photo)

Relentless December dark is good response

We are living in the darkest days of the year leading up to winter solstice on Dec 21. Waking up to the dark and seeing it descend upon us so early in the afternoon seems the best response to yesterday's horrific slaughter of innocent children and adults. The candles lit against the dark these December nights — in Advent wreaths, in memorial services throughout the country for the victims — offer some solace. The candles do not help explain this tragedy, do not offer solutions, do not bring back the children. They are a brief flicker of hope in these darkest days, and the wax that drips off the candles resemble the tears that hundreds of fhousands shed these days, for children they never knew personally. Light some candles in your home today.

A call to end our violence

The day has been long: with horror out of Connecticut and our beloved President Obama weeping through his words. When will Americans be courageous enough to demand that we change our culture? When will we stand up and work together to change our desensitization to violence – in video games, in the media, in entertainment, in our own actions. When will we spend our hard-earned dollars to treat mental illness?

While there are no laws or healthcare practices or media guidelines that will ever insure our safety, we will fail as a nation, if we do not work to address our violent ways.  We must create a standard of decency within our society that is decent. We cannot wait; we can no longer use politics - or any other explanation - as an excuse to tolerate slaughtered children.

(S-R archives)

12-12-12: The world didn’t end

Mistakenly, I thought the Mayan end of the world date was yesterday, 12-12-12. Wouldn't that have been a sexier date than 12-21-12? Anyway, this means there will be a few more days of hype around the predicted end of the world. Dang it.

In the messy trenches with Jesus

As we move into the almost third week of Advent, the days continue to get darker and longer. The third week of Advent is one that calls Christians to rejoice! The waiting is almost over. Thank God. After a day of mall violence and fiscal cliffhanging, we need reminding of the Light that is Christmas.

Writer Anne Lamott takes us on a journey of hope through an experience of Tom Weston, her friend. When Anne asked for a story of healing and hope, Tom didn’t hesitate to share a slice of his real life journey; a slice not decorated up for any holiday parade, but a slice of life where we encounter the distasteful, difficult, and unsavory side of humanity. And the intrinsic kindness of each other.

Her message? It is after all the whole point of our time together: to care for each other, at any time, in any moment, as we work together on our issues, lovely or not. For it is in those moments that the light of Christ shines within us and permeates the cracks around us. Cracks that appear in the most unlikely time and place.

The light awaits as we continue our Advent vigil.

(S-R archives photo)

Hope and Medical Miracles

She almost died. This lovely child. But today she is cancer-free and her remission may have been helped by using a disabled form of the virus that causes AIDS.Science in the 21st Century. What next?

Scientists continue to tinker and imagine and research and try, try, try possibilities rooted in “what if we…?” An interesting marriage of creativity and scientific brilliance.

Merry Christmas, Emma. Your parents’ Christmas wishes forever are met in your laughter, energy and simple routines, once lost.

(S-R archives)

The nameless mailboxes

The mailboxes at Rush University Medical Center, where I spent the past 12 weeks as a chaplain intern, have been stripped of our names as we leave and a new group of interns prepare to begin their 12 weeks after the first of the new year.

It was startling to see our names gone from the mailbox, but it was one more learning for me from these 12 weeks. We are visitors in the “roles” we assume in life. And ultimately, we are visitors in this life, here for a long time, some of us, and very brief times, others of us.

All good.

Same-Sex Marriage in Washington

Day One: Licenses have been granted and rituals – large, small, formal, simple – are legalizing love that has been. Love for a few years as well as love that has been steadfast and true for decades.

Take a look at one  love story on Washington’s day one of same-sex marriage.

(S-R archives photo)

Never too late to tell

Elizabeth McIntosh finally has her story published. Her reporter’s account of the Pearl Harbor attack was considered too graphic to print decades ago. Yesterday, the Washington Post printed her words.  

The account is graphic – and reminds us of the tragedy, the victims, and the terror that reigns when countries choose war:  

In the morgue, the bodies were laid on slabs in the grotesque positions in which they had died. Fear contorted their faces. Their clothes were blue-black from incendiary bombs. One little girl in a red sweater, barefoot, still clutched a piece of jump-rope in her hand.”

In addition to a journalism career, McIntosh, now 97, worked in the Office of Strategic Services and the Central Intelligence Agency. She retired to Lake Ridge, Virginia.

(S-R photo: In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, American ships burn during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.)

Eating history

Today was my “graduation” from the Rush University Medical Center chaplaincy internship program. The most fascinating three month experience of my life! To celebrate, we interns, along with our supervisor and supervisor in training, ate at a Chicago landmark, The Berghoff Restaurant in downtown Chicago that has been around since 1898 in a wonderful historic building. We all took the L train back to Rush together from one of the oldest train stations still in existence.

I appreciated the history lesson, still available. I told one of the other chaplain interns that Spokane has a god tradition, too, of appreciating and saving old landmarks. Guess this means I'm getting ready for the return home. See you all soon!

Advent of the unexpected

As Becky wrote earlier this week, Advent is the season of hope, longing, surprise. And answering “yes!”

 That sneaky God speaks to us through prophets, unsuspecting.  Enjoy a favorite read of mine this season…And keep your heart open to the prophets in your midst.

(S-R archives photo: homeless woman camps)

Take notes~Dave Brubeck has died

A composer, pianist and jazz legend has died. Dave Brubeck died of heart failure and would have celebrated his 92nd birthday Thursday.

He left us a remarkable legacy –  all that jazz.

He played for leaders – President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev - and was honored by the University of Notre Dame. He composed music for operas, ballets and even a contemporary Mass.

He shared music with four of his five sons: “We never had a rift,”Chris Brubeck once said of living and playing with his father. “I think music has always been a good communication tool, so we didn’t have a rift. We’ve always had music in common.”

S-R photo 2009:

Stars align: Kennedy Center honorees, from left, jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, actor Robert De Niro, opera singer Grace Bumbry, comic genius Mel Brooks and musician Bruce Springsteen stand at the Kennedy Center Honors gala in Washington, D.C. The awards recognize those who have defined American culture through the arts as a living memorial to John F. Kennedy.  

The Advent Yes

Advent is my favorite liturgical season, because of the promise it holds of Christmas. It's a season of watchful, contemplative waiting. 

At church Sunday in my “adopted” Chicago parish, Old. St. Patrick's, the church recited an Advent prayer written by the Bob Kolatorowicz of the church staff. It gets at the beauty of Advent when you can break out of old patterns and wait for the new.

Here's an excerpt:

He pretty much disappears from the story after Mary speaks her fiat. But the angel of Annunciation has not returned to heaven. That very special assignment two thousand years ago? It was only the beginning.

The Angel of Annunication has proposals for you and he's praying you'll say yes.

When you are weary and play the cynic, he prays “Say yes to surprise.”

When your grip tightens on your purse, he prays: “Say yes to generosity.”

When you are anxious and troubled, he prays: “Say yes to a silent, holy night.”

(S-R file photo)

When you don't know where you should be, he prays: “Say yes to where your dreams are calling you.”

Sickness everywhere — or not

When I traveled to Rome in 2005, I saw priests everywhere, working, studying or just visiting Rome. I commented that no wonder the Vatican isn't worried about the priest shortage. The pope and others just had to look out their windows and they saw priests all around.

It was a clear example of how what we see everyday informs our perception of the bigger world around us. As my chaplaincy intern draws to a close, I've become aware that spending intense hours everyday in a hospital has altered my perceptions of the sick and well. Yesterday, as I walked the streets of downtown Chicago, I was startled to see vast numbers of able-bodied people. Where had they all come from? And then it dawned on me that it seemed unusual because I have been seeing and visiting people for nearly three months who are not able in body — either temporarily or permanently.


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About this blog

Writer Catherine Johnston of Olympia, Wash., addresses issues facing aging baby boomers and seniors as well as issues of serious illness, death and dying, grief and loss.

Ask a question: Catherine welcomes questions about aging issues and grief. Email her at

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