Holy Spirit Portality

How do you let God in?
I am 44, a mom, a minister. In March 2010 they found a tumor in my lung, cancer. They cut it out--and now that's the place where God gets in, my personal Holy Spirit Portal.

How do YOU let God in?

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  • July 28, 2014 10:00 am

    I was on my annual jog the other day (“jog” being a euphemism for hyperventilate/sweat/trigger IT band distress), listening to music delivered directly into my brain via iPod (I am so not over this yet. How AWESOME music and headphones are. Anyone?), and I suddenly had a Deep Teenager moment.

    I was listening to Get Lucky, by Pharrell Williams and Daft Punk. You know,

    We’re up all night to the sun
    We’re up all night to get some
    We’re up all night for good fun
    We’re up all night to get lucky 

    First, I was transported back to a former age (I won’t say how old), when I stayed up all night to get lucky. Remember what that is like? The fervor, the energy. You are running on Universe Juice, the thing at the heart of Creation, the drive to create and co-create and procreate, which is also known as the drive to make out with someone new and cute for hours.

    That juice is so powerful it will keep you awake all night long without benefit of substances. It’s not even the making out itself that is so awesome, that makes it so worth staying up all night (because let’s be honest, sometimes the making-out, even with someone terrifically cute, is deeply disappointing). Whether or not you end up making out with the cutie is kind of beside the point (though I didn’t feel that way back then—I am a Myers Briggs J after all).

    What makes it worth staying up all night is the feeling of being SO alive, of being part of the great fabric of Creation, of your ego-boundaries falling away and the One-Love amazing possibility of everything. 

    So fast-forward to the other day. I jogged (sort of) and danced (badly), fist-punching the air and singing (also badly—who sings well with ear buds in, I ask you?) along with Pharrell,

    We’ve come too far to give up who we are
    So let’s raise the bar, and our cups to the stars

    I raised my cup to the stars. I thought to myself, “yesterday I was in a CT scan machine while techs looked for cancer, and then I was holding a barf bag to my face while they took out the IV. Today the sun is shining and I am still cancer-free and everyone is beautiful, and the universe is a fucking amazing place, and I am turning 44 on Monday and this middle aged body is JOGGING—that is what this awesome body that has been through 2 full-term pregnancies and 2 miscarriages and cancer and so many other things is DOING today, jogging in the sunshine and Can You Believe It?” 

    It was a Moment. I want you to know, whatever you’re going through right now, if you’re heart is broken or you’re looking endlessly for work, or you’re drinking the CT contrast dye or the last glass in the bottle of wine you opened for yourself, or you’re mad as hell or you’re scared as hell or you’re lonely as hell—this Moment is waiting for you, sometime. The Moment when you put your ear buds in and dance like a maniac and the ego boundaries fall away, and you know the truth, the REAL truth, which is that:

    We’re all impossibly gorgeous. Even you. Yes you!

    The universe is a fucking amazing place.

    You’ve come too far to give up who you are.

    Your body, whatever life or aging or pregnancy or cancer or drinking or drugging or the one who hurt you or that horrible STD or anything or anyone else have taken away from it, this body is the vehicle for your sweet, sweet spirit. Thank your Creator, by whatever name She goes by, for your amazing, resilient body, and then do something really awesome for it. Jogging. Ice cream. Massage. Make out with yourself, in other words. Stay up all night till the sun. You don’t have to lose 7 pounds before you do it, or fix one damn thing.

    I wish I could have stayed in that Deep Teenage moment. I wish the ego-boundaries didn’t always come back up, crashing into place like grating metal door of the county slammer. I wish the vulnerability and joy didn’t always ebb away. I’d like to think I will never say another mean thing about my body again, or that I will be able to seize and never let go of that sexy Love for All Humanity. But that’s the thing about a Moment: it’s a moment.

    And there will always be another one.

  • July 25, 2014 10:41 am

    Disvocation, Part One: Angst.

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    I’m entering my last week of sabbatical. It is SO hard to talk about this in a way that doesn’t sound horribly #firstworldproblems and that won’t ignite the rage/annoyance (isn’t annoyance, after all, just rage dialed way down?) of people who don’t get paid not to work (which is like, all of y’all).

    But there’s something so disorienting about stepping out of the stream of work—especially the kind of work I do, which you might call professional caring—stepping completely OUT of the mad river of emails sermons conversations meetings and all other manner of wordswordswords/feelingsfeelingsfeelings—and then having to step back into it 12 weeks later (or 7 weeks, in my case, having negotiated splitting my sabbatical into two half-sabbaticals. I’ll get the other half in two years).

    The first thing that happens on sabbatical, is I get to stop feeling everyone else’s feelings, and just feel my own. That is not as pleasant as you might think. Barbara Brown Taylor has a word for when you stop being a workaholic distracted by other people’s problems and issues, and have to listen to whatever your busyness has been desperately trying to drown out—she calls it sabbath sickness.

    As stressful as our lives and jobs might be, what comes up when it suddenly gets quiet can be so much harder, existentially. Anne Lamott nailed it when she talked about getting sober, and how it helped her to listen better internally: she said all her mental illnesses came out and sat on the bed with her when she woke up in the morning, demanding a hearing. That is what sabbatical does. All the big questions can finally get a hearing. Questions that might sound stupidly angsty and pointless and luxurious, questions like,

    “Who am I if I’m not in my professional role?”

    “Why did I survive cancer—why am I still alive? What more am I supposed to accomplish?”

    And after you hear what might be next, professionally or personally, a quick follow-up with, “Am I really up to the task?” 

    And there’s always…“What if I’m not as nice or good a person as I think I am? What if I’m not as good or talented as other people seem to think I am, and I disappoint them?”

    And inevitably, wedged in there, “Will I ever lose the 7 pounds that my doctor and my ego want me to lose, and finally be completely content with my body?”

    And, after listening to too much NPR, “Are we all just really horrible people doomed to annihilate ourselves with semi-automatic weapons, surface-to-air missiles, partially hydrogenated oils, or perhaps the simple but effective weapon of hardheartedness?” 

    Interestingly, I never ask myself, “What if I’m wrong about God?” More often I ask myself, “what if God is wrong about me?”

    All of these deep, grim questions do battle against a sunny background of shallow sabbatical laziness that makes me want to lie in the hammock eating cheese puffs and reading YA fiction all day.

    To answer a couple of the questions above, one thing I discovered on this sabbatical is that when I’m not in my role as a pastor, I’m just not as kind or loving or attentive to the feelings of others.

    This is both discouraging and encouraging. On the one hand, I’m kind of sad that I’m way more of a narcissistic asshole than I previously thought. On the other, it’s a good thing that I’m able to turn on this important human function, empathy. 

    And there’s a third possibility: maybe this is what sabbatical is for, a kind of self-emptying even of native empathy, a chance to let the machinery rest, to fix any leaks and lubricate it so it functions really well when I push the big green ON button again.

    I finally got around to asking God about this. It took a while. After literally thousands times of going to God only after tying myself in knots about a deep life question, and finding out that God has something kind and informative to say, I still am always afraid to ask God. Why is that?

    The question I asked God was something like, “has moving into my own house in the suburbs made me what I hate? A sheltered, materialistic person who just wants all the problems of the world to go away—and who has resources to buffer herself against a lot of the pains of life that other people have to endure? Has having a book published, to moderate success, stoked my ego in really self-destructive ways? How do I get my mojo back—my mojo being:  feeling the pain of others, seeing the potential in others, really loving most if not all human beings for who they are and not for what they do? It’s easy for me to do it for my church people—because, after all, they’re ‘my’ people, and the fact that they show up means they’re trying—but how do I do it for the Great Hordes of Humanity?”

    I know that’s a doozy. And not really fair, because it’s like, 5 questions in one. But God is GOD.

    The answer I got from God, which mostly came as a feeling, and a little bit as words, was something like, 

    “I put you where you are right now for a reason. You can accept these gifts, and trust them. If you don’t want to get into a position where you are misusing them, practice gratitude. And if you want to love people better, look at them longer.”

    I am still struggling to accept the kind ‘relaxola’ of God’s response. It’s so hard, isn’t it? We are so, so talented at punishing ourselves, we’d rather keep doing it than get over it and receive God’s lovingkindness. Even those of us who grew up with a really good and kind God still have these ridiculous biases that we impose on God—so we punish ourselves before He can. Only when we stop trying to beat God to the punch do we find out God has no intention of punching us. God just wants us to move the hell ON, already. 

    Lest you think I have completely squandered the last 6 weeks tying myself in ontological knots, here’s a little snippet from my journal of last week, a couple days after we got home from a fabulous family heritage trip to Spain, all four of us (post-cancer promise to myself: travel more and spend more time with the kids. Done!).

    “So maybe it’s not so much indulging my selfish appetites as living differently—in a way that I can’t live when I’m working, officially. I woke up this morning and instead of having a half dozen conundrums crowd my head, working them out one at a time, or getting up to answer (literally!) thirty emails the way I do when I’m working, I just…listened. Cuddled the kids. Thought of corn muffins, with butter and honey. Then I got up and made some. And also made some passionfruit iced tea and boiled beets for borscht later and peppermint stick coconut ice cream mix for dessert tonight (Rafe is making dinner! Part of our summer plan. The kids each get to make dinner one night. His is: grilled steak. I don’t think he’s worked anything else out yet).” 

    So, the fact that this morning I woke up in a hot sweat thinking about Gaza, and about all those Central American children lying on cots in detention centers at the border with nothing but a Red Cross blanket to parent them, sort of just balances out the corn muffins, I guess. Maybe it’s a test run for getting the machinery going again.

  • July 22, 2014 12:45 pm

    An even dozen, and a tribute.

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    With Dr. James Butrynski and nurse practitioner extraordinaire, Kathy Polson.

    Ma peeps, it’s good news! 

    Here’s what happiness looks like: 

    Clean scan
    Clean scan
    Clean scan
    Clean scan
    Clean scan
    Clean scan
    Clean scan
    Clean scan
    Clean scan
    Clean scan
    Clean scan

    and…

    Clean scan, 7.22.14

    It went well. I seem to be developing a little allergy to the CT contrast dye that they inject—it makes me barfish and, of all things, makes my salivary glands go crazy. So next time I will take some steroids or Zyrtec beforehand, just in case. How ironic would it be if I went into anaphylactic shock from contrast dye on my 13th CT scan looking for cancer? Alannis-worthy.

    I got to see Dr. B! One last time. I wrote him a letter—a tribute, really. I typed it up for him because nobody can read my handwriting. I also gave him a copy of my book, and hand-wrote an inscription that said, “For Dr. B, who gave me many more decades in which to make dreams come into reality,” which he read aloud as something like, “For Dr. B., who gamed new merry mare dreadlocks on witches to male dreary cave onto rarities.” Anyhow, see tribute below. If you ever get cancer, I hope you get a Dr. B. 

    On the way home from Dana Farber, I fantasized about 54-year-old Molly, and what my next drivers’ license picture will look like in a decade. I have always, in a strange way, looked forward to middle age—perceiving that it will confer a certain amount of dignity and gravitas, and with them, permission to speak more plainly. I will be what we used to call a BROAD. I will have long white hair and be a little plump and wear lots of bangles and big swirly colorful dresses and spout homespun wisdom, and I will not take any crap, and be able to get away with a LOT because, hell, I’m 54. 

    In the meantime, here on cusp of 44: life is good. Now for a nap. 

    ~

    Tuesday, July 22, 2014

    Dear Dr. Butrynski,

    I’m not sure if I got to see you today or not—but I wanted to make sure I wrote down my gratitude to you so that whether you’re in Boston or already gone to Washington state you could know exactly what your care has meant to me.

    I remember the day I met you—sitting next to Peter in the exam room. I remember every detail in the way the mind records shocking novelty as a way of reducing perceived threat. You were so attentive, really looking and seeing and listening to us. At first I couldn’t believe what you were saying—I’m not sure the word “cancer” actually came out of your mouth, and being a native optimist I hadn’t really adequately prepared for the possibility that my tumor was malignant. But there it was. Cancer. Perhaps already gone, but perhaps not—and you wanted to do 8 months of chemo, just to be on the safe side.

    We had so many questions that day, and doubtless you had other patients, many of them, but you never gave any indication, verbally or non-verbally, that there was anyone else on your schedule—or in the world, for that matter—but us. I think we spent an hour with you. I cried, a lot, and it didn’t make you uncomfortable. You weren’t falsely hearty in the face of a stranger’s shock and pain, nor were you mournful, or the worst—dismissive, as if you were going to wave it all away with a magic wand. You knew all too well what lay ahead of me, even if the cancer was gone, and you didn’t minimize.

    In the weeks and months ahead you were such a steady presence. You listened to understand. You treated me as an individual, with all my quirky requests, predilections, endless phone calls about this or that natural supplement. Even as a scientist, you respected my faith and the ways it was able to support and sustain me better than steroids. You didn’t, when I was sad, urge anti-depressants the way many others did, understanding that sadness and fear are natural by-products of living with a cancer diagnosis. 

    You knew that I, too, was a caregiver for myself, and treated me with dignity and respect, cherishing my opinion, hearing me out on strange symptoms even when they weren’t normative, looking for solutions to mitigate the discomfort and help me to feel normal-ish, no matter what. 

    I remember when I was hospitalized, sick and homesick and bored and scared, and you came to visit me, late in the evening—so late it was night, really—and even though you must have been exhausted (Research! Patients! Seminars! Patients!), it was as if visiting me was the first task of the day, not the last.  You did this every time I was in the hospital. 

    You are a gift, Dr. B—some doctors get smarts, and some get humility, and some get compassion, and some get kindness, and some get patience, but you got it all. Maybe it came naturally to you, but I know from long experience that those are qualities, even if you luck into them, that you have to work to maintain.

    I will miss you! Miss seeing your cheerful face round the corner when you come into the exam room to tell me it’s another clean scan. Miss the specific feeling of cahoots, the pause to reflect, with you who were there from the beginning, of how differently things might have turned out for me and my husband and my children and all the people who love us. I know, perhaps, the cancer was already gone when I met you that first day—but there’s more than one way to save a life.

    I hope your new life in Washington is a blessed one. I pray you are able to find deep satisfaction in your new work, colleagues, and patients (how lucky they are, and they don’t know it yet!). I also pray you good, fulfilling, deep Sabbath (don’t get me wrong! Some workaholism really works…yours sure worked for me :)—good and fulfilling habits of rest and play and connection with the people close to you, so that you can keep doing this work that you are so gifted at, for a long time.

    Thank you so much.

    Molly Baskette

  • July 21, 2014 8:44 pm

    Praying for a clean dozen

    Beloved, I’m asking for 11th hour prayers here: 6-month CT scan happens tomorrow morning. If it’s good news, it’ll be my 12th clean scan in a row.

    I’m, as usual: scared, grateful, excited to see ma Dana Farber peeps. And having flashbacks. And flashforwards. And a little sad, because last week I got a form letter from Dana Farber saying that my wonderful, kind, very smart, hardest-working oncologist, Dr. Butrynski, who has seen me through EVERYTHING, is moving to Washington. I may not even get to see him tomorrow? It’s all a mystery.

    I am hoping for one more visit with him. The look on his boyish, exuberant face when he walks through the door with the good news. It never gets old—for me or for him, I think. He doesn’t get to walk through the door with that kind of news often enough. And, selfishly, though he is going on to good things, I will be sad because I will get turfed to someone who didn’t know me when I was so sick, and scared, and look at me now, doc!—and though they will be happy to give me good news, we won’t be in cahoots in the same way, the knowingness between two people who have been in that particular foxhole together.

    I actually had the balls to go see The Fault in Our Stars with Rafe on Saturday night (or the indifference? Am I *that* blasé that I can go watch a movie with not one but two teenagers dying of terminal cancer?). He kept giving me sidelong glances to see if I was crying yet (I was), and at one point, reached out his slightly sticky but oddly strong and comforting 12-year-old hand to hold mine. Carmen, amazingly, has all but forgotten that year. But not Rafe.

    The movie was so good, and so sad, and—my story didn’t collapse into Hazel and Augustus’s. When the credits rolled, the tears stopped. Time does heal many wounds, as it turns out.

    I haven’t had the usual anxiety running up to this scan. Though, come to think of it, I did more than the usual amount of comfort-eating this morning: (tahini shortbread and tea at Sofra to strengthen myself before waiting in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles), and have been a little listless and blue tonight, for no good reason. And there was that brief bout of retail therapy this afternoon (nothing says “I am embracing life” like half-price gold platform wedges). Peter, who looked at the credit card statement online moments after my purchase, said thoughtfully, “I thought we were going on a spending fast after our vacation? This is more like a spending faster?” 

    So, maybe all these are clues that even though publicly I FEEL JUST FINE AND NOT AT ALL ANXIOUS THANK YOU VERY MUCH, there is still that drumbeat, the cancer drumbeat, underneath the surface. The body that betrayed me once, sneaky bastard, could do it again. 

    So, prayers please? 

    An aside: I was at the RMV to get my license renewed. You still have to go IN PERSON every 10 years. So, even though I’m on sabbatical and igniting waves of jealousy everywhere I go with my dreaminess and carefree attitude, people, I earned that hammock time this week—between the RMV and the CT scan. 

    Here’s the new pic on my license.

    Not as nice as I had hoped, but not bad. This Molly looks a little tired, a little bleak and serious. A little, arch? But maybe it’s good—the shadow getting a good airing.

    As I stared into the camera and tried to drum up a smile that struck a balance between too gummy and downright grim, I had an amazing thought: that the next time I am back at the RMV, I will be about to turn 54 years old. What will 54 year old Molly look like? What will her shadow say? 

  • June 20, 2014 9:07 am

    Heroes.

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    Once in a great while, if we’re lucky (and persistent. And perhaps a little obnoxiously self-confident), we get to meet our heroes. I have, a few different times: James Taylor, in an alley behind the Colonial Theatre in Boston when I was 16 years old, and he and his roadies were loading the van after a big concert. I had been writing him letters about how I was supposed to be one of his backup singers—it was meant to be. We didn’t quite see eye to eye on that.

    And Anne Lamott, in a long line at a booksigning, a decade or so ago. I gave her, oh, maybe just a few sermons of mine that I thought she would enjoy reading on her long flight home. She looked at me with what may have been fear in her eyes. Was I a crazy stalker? Jury’s out.

    This week, I heard back from someone else I had written to:  Helen Oxenbury, children’s book illustrator. See, when my editor Tina at The Pilgrim Press said, last winter, “get your next book ideas ready” (plural! book IDEAS!) I took her seriously.

    I’ve long had an idea to write a progressive children’s Bible—one that would tell some stories often ignored in children’s Bibles—Elisha and the she-bear, anyone? One that would ignore other stories oft-told in children’s Bibles that I don’t think belong there, e.g. Joshua and the battle of Jericho? “…then Joshua and his people devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” Poor donkeys.

    Most importantly, not only would the Bible be the FIRST not to use exclusively male language for God, it would leave room for questions and doubts (and even ask some questions of its own), it would embody a theology that is comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, that doesn’t need God to always come out smelling like a rose (because God doesn’t, frankly), and it would be funny (Jesus telling poop jokes!), so that parents won’t shoot themselves the 964,455th time their 4-year-old asks them to read it to them.

    Right? 

    So, that’s my next-next-next book idea. I’ve asked my talented, beautiful friend Val Tutson, a renowned storyteller and an excellent Christian, to co-write it with me. And I wanted Helen Oxenbury to illustrate it. I knew that she would get it, because of how she drew God in Big Momma Makes the World: zaftig, nurturing, floating but grounded, and most important, someone to be a little afraid of. Awe-ful. Maybe a bit browner is all. 

    [By the way: go and buy Big Momma Makes the World right now—even if you don’t have any kids, or know any kids. Just do it, and thank me later.]

    So I wrote to Helen, and sent her this picture of Carmen. 

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    This is what I wrote: 

    Dear Ms. Oxenbury,

    I’m a parish minister from Boston, Massachusetts, and the mother of two avid readers. I serve as pastor of a delightfully quirky Congregational church here in the city.

    I’m also author of a couple of books, including two grief books of a spiritual nature for children who have lost a grandparent, or a pet, respectively. I have two other books forthcoming, both for adults: Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too, and an as-yet-untitled book on the teachings from scripture for parents who are progressive Christians.

    Enclosed is a picture of my daughter. She turns 8 this month, and she’d like to be a minister when she grows up. I’m leaving that up to her and God. When she was little, people gave her any number of children’s Bibles. [of course they did! Naturally, that’s what all preacher’s kids want to read…]. She loved them all but from a very young age insisted on changing all the inevitable He’s for God into She’s.

    I myself was dismayed that among all the Bibles written for children, not a single one—not even the one created by the wonderful Archbishop Desmond Tutu—lifts up a God that reflects the attributes of both genders, and also goes beyond gender.

    I also think that the vast majority of children’s Bibles leave out excellent stories that have real appeal for children—and include others that are dreadful, or tell them with a side of dreadful theology. I would like to correct this by writing a progressive children’s Bible that children will love, that parents will love to read to them over and over (you know toddlers! Creatures of habit), and that will not be a stumbling block to both children and parents who are coming from, or learning, a more progressive practice of Christianity. I want to write a book that will make them laugh! And feel all the feelings. And love God, and all Her creatures, more fully.

    I write to you because of your wonderful book Big Momma Makes the World, which has long been a favorite in our house, and which I often give out to children of the church. I thought you might be sympathetic to my idea, and perhaps consider being a partner in this enterprise! Your illustrations show forth your great love for humans—large and small, fat and thin, black and brown and white—all of us, just as God made us, and as we are becoming.

    Thank you for considering my idea, and may you have a blessed spring.

    Yours sincerely,

    Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette

    …And a few months went by. And I didn’t hear back. And in the way of things—God sending us answers at a pace we can handle, this week I got a fat envelope from England in the mail. It was from Helen. She sent me a lovely note, and a signed copy of Big Momma. 

    This is what she said: 

    “I wish your daughter every success in whatever career she chooses to follow. Thank you so much for writing to me. It’s always lovely to hear from people that they have enjoyed my work. “Big Momma…” is one of the books I most enjoyed doing, but also the most difficult. I am now committed to so many different projects and do not have the time to take on any more work. But thank you for thinking of me. HO.”

    I should note that Helen is now 82 years old. 82! And that while she signed the card and the book herself, the rest was clearly dictated to a young, nubile assistant. So, I guess I can see why she would have to say no.

    Le sigh! It’s not often that one comes into such (however fleeting) meaningful relationship with one’s heroes.

    I feel so grateful today. So very grateful, to be alive, and writing books, and still reading them to my children who even though they can read to themselves now, still want to cuddle up next to me and hear me read them sometimes. 

    And hey, if anyone out there knows a publisher who might be interested in a progressive children’s Bible, in case it’s not the right fit for my denominational press, lemme know…or likewise, if you know any illustrators In The Style of the wonderful Helen Oxenbury, drop me a line.

    And tell us: who are your heroes? Any chance, or longer, meetings? What came of it?