Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Celebrating Happy Feet & Nine Years of Bliss!

Today I am 12 weeks out from surgery on both feet to remove Morton's Neuromas. I stood in the kitchen for hours yesterday and baked. By last night my feet were starting to feel sore. So I expected to pay the consequences today of overdoing yesterday. But to my surprise, they felt fine this morning. This is definitely the most normal my feet have felt. I know I can still expect more ups and downs as far as swelling and soreness for a while. But it has been a pleasant surprise not to have bigger consequences from yesterday. I even decided to give myself a pedicure for my upcoming trip to the beach. I'm taking my grandsons, three nieces and a nephew (as well as my daughter-in-law and sister-in-law). So I thought I'd be silly and give myself glittery, beachy toes.

My healed incisions are barely visible in my sandals. But here's how they are looking at 12 weeks post-op.

(I thought I was done posting pictures, but my blog is getting a lot of hits from neuroma surgery searches. So I'll keep sharing how I'm doing for a while.)

I've been massaging vitamin e oil and Mederma into my feet regularly. I think they are looking a lot better. I carry a sunscreen stick in my purse so that I can apply and reapply sunscreen to my scars when wearing sandals. It's amazing how much better I feel every time I give myself a fresh pedicure.

I can't wait to put these toes in the sugar white sand of PCB next week! And I can't wait to see my grandkids, nieces and nephew! I'm so glad I was able to have this surgery three months prior to our beach trip. I have only been riding my semi-recumbent bike so far, but I feel like I am going to be able to use the elliptical in the resort fitness room.

This is a special week in my life for another reason, too.

Nine years ago today, I saw John's profile and picture for the very first time on match.com. Nine years from tomorrow, we had our first phone conversation. And nine years from Thursday we had our first date. My life has been nothing short of amazing ever since!

In some ways, it's hard to believe it's been nine years already. In other ways, it seems like I've known and loved him my whole life. I think John expressed it best when he said, several years ago, "We are high school sweethearts who just didn't meet until we were 44 and 49."

I love celebrating our first date. I love reflecting on how clueless I was that night about what an important person in my life I had just met. It wasn't long after that when I began to realize how special he was. But that first meeting, I just thought we'd be friends. As it turned out, he would become the very best friend I have ever had. Nobody has ever loved me so much or so well as my wonderful, amazing, sweet, funny, generous and handsome husband.

I love you to the moon and back, Poppy John!
I'm so thankful you were a part of God's plan for my life!

So thankful you were a part of God's plan for OUR lives! 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Internet Research is Valuable

I must say that I completely disagree with any doctor or person who advises against reading other patients' experiences on the internet. From CLL to Morton's Neuroma (to spiritual and emotional abuse), I have found it extremely helpful to read the experiences of others. Yes, you have to sift through all kinds of information. There are horror stories as well as the helpful stories. Not all sites are medically reliable. But it has never been that challenging for me to recognize the ones that are vs. the ones that are not. The key is being thorough in your research and not basing any conclusion on simply one patient's experience.

It reminds me of something a history professor said to me in college. After reading a book that left me reevaluating a lot of assumptions I'd ignorantly made about American history, and pretty much blown away by information overload, he very wisely advised, "Remember: This is just one author and one book. Don't arrive at any conclusion based on one person's interpretation of anything. Keep reading and learning, comparing and contrasting information. But don't let one person completely sway you."

Information is powerful. Ignorance may be bliss, but it's blind bliss. I don't understand why anyone chooses ignorance when we have so much information at our fingertips. People advised me against reading so much on the internet when John was diagnosed with CLL because it might scare or worry me. Hello! What is the bigger threat? Worrying? Or making uninformed life-altering decisions about healthcare and medical treatment? Yeah, I've had anxiety after reading certain statistics or absorbing the details of someone else's suffering. But through it I learned to put my faith back where it belongs (Romans 8:28). And I believe I have played a valuable caregiving role in my husband and mother-in-law's CLL treatment. I'm not saying this for glory, but I am the one who pushed assertively for John to get into the CAL-101 clinical trial. And the reason I knew about it was the internet and specifically an internet friendship with another patient. That was a critical point in our journey, worthy of mentioning, because stem cell transplant was on the table after John's failiure to respond to FCR (gold standard chemo for CLL). And CAL-101 at the lowest dose given to any patient (50 mg.) has completely controlled John's CLL for two full years. (I have posted pictures before to show what his neck looked like prior to treatment.) I don't point that out because I want a pat on the back. My reward is a healthy husband and mother-in-law. But I do point it out, whenever those around me forget, because I take my role seriously as a caregiver. They are both enjoying good health and full lives. But things could be very different.

I think three years is the longest any patient has been taking CAL-101. And there is no guarantee that it will work forever. But Kinase Inhibitors are the big thing in CLL right now and there are others in development that work through different pathways (or receptors). So a patient may stop using one and have success with another. From everything I've read and heard (from the medical experts and specialists), this is an exciting time in the treatment of CLL. Optimism is high that these oral medications could replace chemotherapy for many patients in the foreseeable future. My husband and mother-in-law were aware of these trials because I was constantly researching the internet and reading about other patients' journeys. Prior to that, we discovered that we had a CLL specialist, Dr. Ian Flinn, in Nashville because of the internet. And I learned the value of consulting a specialist from other patients on the internet.

Obviously, our CLL journey is the biggest reason I strongly disagree that it's "dangerous" to read and research the internet for medical information. It is also the biggest reason I share so much information on my blog. I'm grateful for the valuable information that was online for ME to find when I was searching. And I want to provide helpful information for others who are just beginning their search. I have also blogged quite a bit about my recovery from Morton's Neuroma surgery because I don't want there to be only horror stories online. And sometimes you get enlightenment from another patient that you don't get from your surgeon. Usually, your surgeon has only performed the surgery. He has not experienced the surgery.

I am so glad I searched "realistic expectations following Morton's Neuroma surgery" this morning. I found reassurance that my recovery is proceeding normally. I was also reminded that even my doctor's expectations could be a little unrealistic.

At my follow up office visit on Tuesday, Dr. Yu seemed pleased with my recovery and gave me the go ahead to do as much as I feel comfortable doing. He has always said I could expect sore feet and some swelling following increased activity for two or three months. Well, my surgery was March 6 and I don't think I'm two weeks from having normal feet. As I've said before, I'm not in pain and I'm walking well. But I'm quite a ways from normal feet. I'm sure having the surgery on both feet at the same time is different from having one foot to recover from, as Dr. Yu pointed out. But sometimes I feel discouraged that I still have days when my feet seem to bother me more. It's especially hard after having one or two good days. John says I'm the eternal optimist. And it was the same way with my frozen shoulder recovery. But when I have a better day or days, I automatically think that I'm over the hump and it will only get better and better from here on. That is not true of frozen shoulder and it's not true of neuroma surgery.

I have been a little bit bummed out the last 24 hours because of a weird sensation in the fourth toes of both my feet. I told Dr. Yu that I occasionally have the sensation of my fourth toes going to sleep. You know that numb feeling that isn't an absence of feeling but a weird feeling. He said that's normal and is a result of having a healthy nerve between the fourth and fifth toes. That didn't totally make sense as an explanation to me. But I'm sure there's a lot I don't understand about nerve tissue and interaction between the nerves. It didn't concern me too much because it wasn't constant. It came and went. However, from Tuesday night to today (Friday), I've had that sensation in both feet almost continually. It's annoying. And my concern has been that it's a developing side effect of the surgery. It doesn't seem to me like I should have worsening of any type of symptom at this point. In my mind, it seems like I should just feel better every day. So when I don't, I start to wonder if a complication is developing. Obviously, I would choose some numbness in my fourth toes over sharp, stabbing pain in my feet. But I would prefer neither. LOL.

So I was relieved when I read this patient's admonition to other patients about realistic expectations:
To be quite honest, my doctor told me the actual complete healing time was 12-18 months. And it was right at 12 months before I NEVER noticed any issues. You will have swelling for quite some time...off an on. The healing with this surgery is not linear but up and down. In other words, it can feel great for a few days and then not so good. It's a nerve that has to heal so....

I need to remember: Not linear, up and down. Good days. Bad days. I especially need to remember that on the days when my feet need more rest than I think they should. Like today!

I massaged my feet vigorously last night, first with vitamin e oil, then with moisturizer. And I have spent the whole morning off my feet. (Yesterday I was on my feet all afternoon going to Walmart and Sam's.) The toes feel better for the first time since Tuesday night.

I am making several pans of lasagna in the morning for the staff at the dealership and another for a friend who is having outpatient surgery today. I think I will see how much I can do while sitting on a bar stool. And, other than riding my exercise bike, I think I will give my feet a full day of rest today...guilt free!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

All Patients Doing Well!

Yesterday was another "eight week check up" day for John and Marian with Dr. Flinn. AND it was also surgical follow up day for me with Dr. Yu after Morton's Neuroma surgery in March.

My two CLL patients are both doing just beautifully on CAL-101. John has been in clinical trial for two years on the 27th of this month. Marian will reach her two year mark the first week of October, just before her 80th birthday! She says she feels great. And, I must tell you, she LOOKS great! We even had to remind Dr. Flinn that she's about to turn 80.

Because of the clinical trial, they are both monitored closely. They see the doctor and have bloodwork done every eight weeks. We have been able to back off the ct scans gradually. In order to participate in a trial, one must submit to the protocol. And when a drug is being studied, they are wanting data. In the beginning, they both had to have ct scans every other month. Then they were able to go every four months for scans. And more recently, they were allowed to space the scans six months apart. I'm advocating for annual scans next. John and Marian are in the extended phase of the study.

I want to be reasonable and cooperative. But I hate for them to have unnecessary radiation. There are no palpable or visible nodes. And every scan shows what we already know. Their CLL is under control. I have learned that you have to ask for individual adjustments to be made and be an advocate for yourself or, in my case, for your loved ones. Many times, reasonable adjustments are possible. But you have to initiate the conversation. Your medical care providers have many patients to see in a single day, let alone in the eight weeks between your visits. It only makes sense that patients take responsibility for initiating dialog about specific issues that are important to us. Dr. Flinn has always been caring and responsive to our concerns and questions. I am usually the assertive one (on behalf of John and Marian), and often the one with the most questions. But Dr. Flinn understands that I am simply doing my best to protect my husband and mother-in-law. I have no doubt he would do the same for his own family. If you've been following my blog at all, you already know we love Dr. Flinn and think he's the best there is. If you are within a day's drive of Nashville and have CLL, I highly recommend him.

Now for part two of this medical report. If you've been following my neuroma journey, I also got good news yesterday. Dr. Yu said the pathology for the nerves removed from my feet came back exactly what you would want to see after this procedure: "Intra and perineural fibrosis, compatible with Morton's Neuroma." This means that there was nerve damage inside the nerves. This is not something that ever goes away or improves unless the nerve is removed. I needed this surgery. Surgery is a hard decision because the diagnosis is made totally on symptoms. A neuroma doesn't show up on an x-ray. I put up with a lot of pain for a long time trying to avoid surgery. I wore orthotics in some of my shoes. I had cortisone injections. I couldn't wear most of my shoes. Forget heels, I couldn't even wear tennis shoes. I was limited to certain styles of Merrells and sandals. Orthotics allowed me to wear some flat boots during the winter. But I was very restricted in footwear and activity. This was my best shot at having normal feet again. And I have not had neuroma pain since my surgery. So Dr. Yu believes I am going to have a completely successful outcome. I just have to deal with a little more swelling and soreness until I'm completely healed from the surgery.

A few weeks ago, I had that little bump in the road after my last trip to Nashville, which I thought I had caused by overdoing it with my grandkids. Dr. Yu doesn't think I caused that. He said it sounded like a stitch abscess. And that probably would have happened regardless of my activity. At seven weeks post-surgery, he said I should have been able to pick Pax up and carry him around or go on a nature walk with Joshua. Those activities would not have caused my healed incision to open. But a stitch abscess would. A stitch abscess happens because your body rejects and tries to get rid of the foreign material rather than allowing it to dissolve inside the body. He said it can also happen because the stitch was close to the skin surface in that one spot (since the other foot did not have the same issue). Even though I never saw a stitch poke through the skin, he said that's what would have caused the little hole that opened in the stitch and drained clear liquid for a couple of days. He was glad I called for an antibiotic and thought my feet had recovered from that just fine.

At this point, he put no restrictions on my activity. He told me to do whatever I feel like doing, including a Zumba class if I want to try that. He said I can't cause damage to my foot. The consequences of overdoing it will only be soreness and a little swelling. He advised taking an anti-inflammatory before doing something vigorous and just being prepared that I might need to put my feet up afterward. But I don't have to avoid anything I want to do. He reminded me that most people's recoveries are from surgery on one foot and I had both feet done, so I might have a little longer recovery period. He said the swelling and soreness usually lasts up to three months. I will hit the three month mark in less than two weeks and I think it's going to be longer than three months for me. But knowing that doesn't mean I'm harming my feet or my chances for a successful outcome will make me less concerned about it.

Dr. Yu explained that anyone who has a neuroma will always have a neuroma. By cutting the nerve to remove it, you essentially create a new one. He told me this because I asked about stump neuroma, which I'd read about on the internet. He said that you can have a neuroma without pain if the neuroma is not on the ball of your foot or exposed to being pressured or rubbed on. He positions the cut portion of the nerve in the muscle where it will be padded and not aggravated. The reason for all of my pain was that the damaged nerve was on the bottom of the ball of my foot. He then advised me not to read about neuroma surgery on the internet. He said, "I think you'll find that the majority of people who write about it on the internet have a horror story. The people who have no problems don't normally take their experiences online." I told him that, actually, I had read a lot of positive outcomes (along with the horror stories). And that I was documenting my successful outcome as well.

He said there is also the possibility of an unsuccessful outcome when a person's body reacts to the surgery by growing a bunch of new nerves (like a clump of nerve). He said some people's bodies just do unexpected things and you can't control that. But there is nothing I could do to cause or prevent that. My body is going to do what it wants to do. And he doesn't see any indication of that in my recovery so far.

One funny thing about my visit was when I told Dr. Yu that I didn't really have the numbness I expected from having the nerve removed. I still have feeling in the area I thought would be numb. He used the cap of a pen to kind of "scrape" on the space between my third and fourth toe to see if I felt it. I said, "I feel that! It's not numb!" Then he applied the same pressure between the second and third toe and I was shocked. I said, "Oh yeah, I see what you're saying. I didn't feel it nearly as much between the third and fourth toe." But it's not something you really notice just going about your normal activities and walking around. I don't even have the marble sensation in the ball of my foot that some patients have described. Every once in a while (when my feet are swelling), I feel a tiny little lump sensation in a certain spot. But it doesn't feel like a rock or a marble. And it's not pain. And it doesn't affect my walking. I wore tennis shoes when I went on the nature walk with Joshua and didn't have any pain in my feet at all. That's why I was so surprised when I developed the stitch abscess. My foot gave me no indication that I was doing too much.

I'm excited that I can do Zumba any time I want to be brave and just do it. I may wait two more weeks, until I get back from my trip to the beach. I don't want to be dealing with any consequences that make the drive harder or limit my activity while I'm with all the kids that week. But when I get back, I will be ready to Zumba!

Friday, May 18, 2012

It's not your job to like me - it's mine. ~ Byron Katie

Not long ago, a friend of mine said something to me on Facebook that surprised me. In a Mother's Day greeting on my timeline, she wrote: You have taught me so much, but I am forever grateful that you taught me the art of loving MYSELF! 

I couldn't remember ever setting out to teach her that, so her words caused me to reflect and ponder how exactly I was I able to do that. I have thought about it a little bit every day since.

She can correct me if I'm wrong, but here's what I have concluded. I think all I really did was love her and convince her that she was easy for me to love. My love helped to challenge her negative self-image, which was rooted in the rejection and disapproval of those who had not loved her well.

I think most of us have experienced rejection and the disapproval of others. When people close to us seem to disapprove of who we are, or find our personality traits unacceptable or offensive, this can result in our feeling unlovable. We may have expended a lot of emotion trying to win these people over and have them see the heart underneath the traits they find objectionable. Sometimes that effort is never acknowledged or noticed, let alone responded to in a positive way. We then feel defeated or at least deflated.

For many years of my life, I turned these disappointments inward. I believed I was hard to love, which I've shared on my blog previously and in my book. But I no longer see myself this way. And the reason I don't is that I've stopped focusing on the people who don't like me. That's why I loved the quote in my subject line so much when I read it.

I don't think we can teach anyone to love or like themselves. But I think we can help others to feel lovable by loving them well and unconditionally. I've been blessed with so many friends and so much love in recent years that my self-image has gone through a transformation. And I hope I have been able to do that for someone else simply by loving and embracing them with my whole heart.

We never know how much of a difference we may be making in someone else's life simply by opening our hearts and our arms in love and acceptance. The most convincing evidence of our love for God is His love flowing through us to others.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Morton's Neuroma Surgery Recovery: Ten Weeks Post-Op

Today marks ten weeks since my neuroma surgery on both feet. This is what my feet look like.

The left incision looks darker because the surgeon cut right on top of the black marker line that had been drawn on my foot. So it is taking longer for the ink to go away. He did not cut precisely on top of the marker on my right foot and it is now looking like a light, thin line.
You can barely see the little spot on my right foot where I had the internal stitch complication two weeks ago (from overdoing it). I gave my foot extra rest for a week and took an antibiotic as a precaution (because the stitch opened in that spot and there was a small amount of drainage). But it has healed up well and now feels no different from my left.

Based on how well I did early on in my recovery, my expectation was that at ten weeks my feet would be almost normal. They really aren't. But I think I had unrealistic expectations. And my surgeon minimized the recovery a little bit (in my opinion). I'm not in pain and I am walking fine. Obviously, my feet felt good enough that I unintentionally overdid it. The incisions are looking better all the time. I'm not unhappy with my progress. But I'm a little surprised at how easily my feet still swell and get sore. The swelling is felt more than seen. Even when my feet don't look swollen, I feel the sensation inside my feet that I have come to recognize as swelling.

For instance, yesterday I cleaned. I did a little more than I have previously done in one day, including vacuuming the whole house. And I also cooked dinner. After dinner, I could feel the internal swelling and a minor stinging sensation (internally) around the area of my incisions. I knew I had to get off my feet for the rest of the evening. I have learned that just because my feet look completely healed externally, that does not mean they are completely healed internally.

I'm back to riding my semi-recumbent bike 40-45 minutes almost daily, though. And that does not bother my feet at all. I always put my orthotics in my shoes, which transfers any pressure from pedaling to my arch rather than the ball of my foot. But if I'm on my feet as much as I want to be, I still wind up feeling the consequences by the end of the day.

However, I do not feel like I have a rock or a marble in either foot, as some surgical patients have described online. I'm thankful for that. I know I had a great surgeon. Also, I am not aware of any numbness unless I run my finger over the skin on the ball of my foot near the third and fourth toes. When I do that, I can tell a difference in that spot. There is less feeling, but it is not totally numb.

My frustration at this point is that I want to do more. I want to go to an exercise class (Zumba) and I know it's too soon. I've read that some patients are back to running at this point. I can't imagine that. But then, I am not a runner to begin with. I suppose I could run if I had to, but it would seem unwise to me. I didn't think I was doing too much after week seven. But carrying my two-year-old grandson around and going on an easy nature walk with my six-year-old grandson did cause me that internal stitch issue and resulted in another week of staying off my feet. So I'm being more cautious. I'd rather do a little less and not have a week of consequences.

I see Dr. Yu for a routine follow up next Tuesday. Looking forward to another quick trip to Nashville and a visit with our munchkins!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A New Favorite: 1618 West Seafood Grille

Since moving to West Virginia this year, we have tried all kinds of new restaurants. Many delicious discoveries have been made in our own immediate vicinity. But we've also taken several road trips and made some fabulous finds. For instance, on one trip back to Nashville, we took the northern route (I 64) and wound up having dinner at an amazing Italian restaurant called Rocco's Ristorante in, of all places, the small WV town of Ceredo. My phone has a "places" app and when I connect to GPS, it will give me restaurant options (hotel, attractions, etc.) close by. I can click on reviews, read menus, and get directions. It is a handy tool when you're hungry in unfamiliar territory. And this is how we found Rocco's, which turned out to be as good as anything you'd find in Little Italy, NYC. We agreed we will probably never be able to pass up the opportunity to eat there any time we take that route again.

A couple of weeks ago John attended a business meeting in Williamsburg, VA. I went along and we spent the weekend. On that trip we found two exceptional restaurants we would definitely return to. One was Aberdeen Barn, which specializes in prime rib. The other was Giuseppe's Italian Restaurant. Food and service were great at both. I thoroughly enjoy fun and memorable dining experiences. Few things in life make me as giddy-happy as incredible food.

Today John has a Honda dealer meeting in Greensboro, NC. And I tagged along again. It's a quick overnight trip. And I enjoy seeing new places. This is where John Edwards is currently on trial. So you've been seeing the Greensboro Courthouse steps on the news a lot. Last night we saw them in person. And that was interesting. But the highlight of this trip was 1618 seafood grille, where we had dinner.

We have been eating a little too well recently. And by well, I don't mean healthy. We just celebrated my birthday over the weekend by going out for Mexican food Saturday night and seafood Sunday night. And then Monday night we attended Celebrity Night Charity Fundraiser at Bunkers in Glade Springs, where we ate wings and nachos and Baked Alaska done tableside. We are just having too much fun involving food. But since we were out of town and had to eat out, I began my phone app search.

In an attempt to be frugal, I mentioned every economical choice I found. I was more than happy to settle for a sandwich or a salad. One priority was finding a place not too far from our hotel. And if John feels like having a glass of wine, the priority is finding a restaurant that offers a desirable Riesling. When 1618 Seafood Grille popped up on my "places" app, I went to their website and commented to John that they had a "deep" wine selection. He said, "Let's go there." (They also have an extensive beer selection and interesting cocktail menu.)

This turned out to be an excellent decision. Not only did they have a delicious Riesling, the food was remarkable. When John and I originally got together, I explained to him that I love food more than jewelry. And if he just fed me well (which means great restaurants), I'd always be happy. He was listening. It isn't the only way he spoils me, but my darling husband has certainly provided a lot of "fine dining joy" for me to revel in. And, believe me, I savor every morsel of every experience. It is never "just a meal" for me.

We arrived at about 6:00 pm on a Tuesday evening and the restaurant had not yet begun to fill up. So it wasn't a problem that we did not have reservations. If we had tried to drop in a little later, it would have been. By the time we finished dinner, the joint was jumpin'. We were seated and immediately greeted by one of the servers before our assigned server/manager, Nick Broome, came over and welcomed us to 1618 Seafood Grille. He asked if it was our first visit and we explained why we were in Greensboro and how we'd selected the restaurant. He proceeded to tell us about the uniqueness of 1618 and explain what sets their restaurant apart. John was poring over the menu, but I was listening intently as Nick shared their concept and vision, as well as the chef's creativity and expertise in combining flavors to achieve extraordinary taste. He went over a few of the menu items in each category and told us his personal favorites.

John likes to joke that if I ever leave him, it will be for a great chef. (Not a chance.) But it's true that I'm in love with great food. I not only love to eat; I love to hear food described, look at it on other people's plates, smell and admire it as it's carried past me to other guests. I really-really love food. I've been told a thousand times, "It's a wonder you don't weigh 300 pounds." But I actually think the way I savor food is the reason I don't. I appreciate good food. I'm not a mindless eater. And when you are seeking the ultimate enjoyment from everything you put in your mouth, you are usually a little more selective about what you eat. The only meals I regret are the ones I don't enjoy. I save up for these kinds of meals. And I will gladly do pennance afterward. But most importantly, I've been faithfully exercising for the past 22 years. I think good food is one of the great pleasures of life. And I don't intend to deprive myself of it.

As usual, I digress. Back to 1618 Seafood Grille....

There were several starters that appealed to us, but we decided to follow Nick's suggestion and ordered the blackened beef tenderloin (on texas toast with baked brie, caramelized onions, and a pear relish served over a grilled red onion, sherry, and bacon sauce). The appetizer was small and so absolutely amazing that we could have easily eaten our own. But we shared. (Everything is ala carte and it's a little pricey, so you could rack up quite a bill if you don't exercise some restraint. John helps me in the restraint department because, left to my own devices, I would wind up in the poor house.)

We noticed several other of the appetizers being served to other tables, and they all looked fabulous. Every dish at 1618 is beautifully presented. If your main priority is quantity, this is not the place for you. The portions are appropriate and adequate, but this food is all about superior quality, taste and attention to detail. The ingredients are so artfully combined that it's like a flavor explosion in every bite. I'm fortunate to be able to eat a lot of great restaurant meals. But I have not eaten in a lot of places that compare with 1618 Seafood Grille. It's just very special.

I'm kind of known for saying, "This is the best -- fill in the blank -- I have ever eaten" every time I fully enjoy something. John doesn't say this nearly as often as I do. But in the middle of his entree last night, he said, "This is one of the best restaurants I have ever eaten in." That is a big endorsement, I promise.

We both had Caesar Salads which were pretty and delicious. I'm always happy when the croutons are obviously homemade in-house. Nick had told us before we ordered that everything is made in-house, including all the salad dressings. Their Caesar dressing was mild, the lettuce cold and crisp, the croutons just crunchy enough and perfectly seasoned. John ordered the pan seared halibut and crispy soft shell crab (with sweet corn custard cake, demi glace, andouille sausage, grilled asparagus and sauteed zucchini and tomatoes). I tasted the halibut and the sweet corn custard cake. Both were wonderful. And my only regret is that I did not take pictures of our food. Because the presentation is so impressive at this place. I frequently pull my phone out to take food pictures, which I immediately post on Facebook. But John doesn't fully understand this compulsion and while he is a great sport and doesn't complain, I know this sometimes makes him just a tiny bit uncomfortable (he doesn't like to draw attention). So I resisted my impulse to start taking pictures. I opted for being considerate; a worthy goal. But nevertheless, I so regret my self-control! Now that I'm writing, I wish I could include pictures with my descriptions of this exquisite food!

I do not normally order grouper, but the way their grouper dish was prepared sounded so amazing that I decided to try it. I had cajun rubbed and pan seared n.c. black grouper (with a pineapple and habanero chutney, caramelized onions, red pepper and shrimp sushi rice, honey drizzled onion rings, and a spinach and mushroom alfredo sauce). I told John, "I would never have thought to drizzle honey on an onion ring, but it's genius!" As Nick explained to us, the dishes sound very "busy" on the menu (so many ingredients and flavors), but do not taste busy. When blended together, they truly become a food mosaic (my description, not Nick's). One flavor does not dominate any of the others, nor do the ingredients compete. Each taste enhances another. Chef (and co-proprietor) George C. Neal III is truly an artist of exceptional talent. This restaurant -- and his skill -- so impressed us.

In the middle of my entree, I started feeling the inspiration to write about my meal and just knew this restaurant was going to make an immediate appearance on my blog. I asked Nick if I could take a menu with me so I could describe the entrees with precision. They are also listed on the website, but I'm so glad I asked for a hard copy because, along with it, he brought me his business card with the owners' names and email addresses as well as his own. If this was my restaurant, I would certainly want my name to be mentioned in the review. I have already told you about George, the chef/proprietor. The manager/proprietor is Nick Wyatt. James B. Ingold is sous chef. And I should probably mention Melissa McCandless, as she is the assistant manager listed on Nick's business card. This is obviously a great team because I have nothing critical whatsoever to say about our dining experience. Service and food were first rate. No detail overlooked.

I have provided links to the 1618 seafood grille website so that you can visit their menu yourself. I won't try to describe anything I did not taste. But I will tell you that every dish on this menu is unique and special. I would love to win the lottery for many reasons. That would be impossible, since I've never purchased a lottery ticket in my life. But one of the things I would do right away, if I ever did play and win, is go back to this restaurant with a bunch of close friends and sample every single item on the menu.

We do not routinely order dessert when we go out. We're usually much too full because we both love appetizers. Sometimes we splurge anyway. But we had planned to intentionally skip dessert this time because we both need to shed the pounds we have picked up from so much birthday-partying ... and the wings habit we've developed since moving to West Virginia (I kid you not; almost every place we try in WV has great wings). But when Nick asked if we'd like to hear about the desserts, well, you know who HAD to hear about the desserts. I had to at least HEAR about them. Right? I saw John's eyes light up when Nick described the white chocolate creme brulee with strawberries and raspberries. And I of course capitalized on that moment, closing the sale with, "We need to share a dessert because I haven't taken one picture and I want to write about this place." So, as usual, he humored me.

Even if I added another unwanted pound that I have to work off when I get home, I am so glad I did not miss this experience.

And, no, it was not just a meal. It was an experience.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Silver Linings

I have the words "Silver Linings" on the brain for several reasons. First of all, I've selected that as the theme for my table at the Women's Brunch this coming Saturday. Although I have just begun to attend the Glade Springs Community Church regularly, I agreed to host a table for this event and design a tablescape that reflects my theme. The task intimidated me at first, but I'm glad I accepted this invitation. I have learned in the past that I find the most growth in accepting challenges that force me out of my comfort zone.

I don't have a lot of confidence in my ability to design a tablescape. That is not my gift. I am no Martha Stewart when it comes to presentation. When I entertain, the emphasis is all on the food. Setting an impressive table; well, not so much. I've been told that there will be a vote and an award for the best table. I can tell you right now, I won't win that award. Now, an award for tears...ha ha...I might win that one.

I will be expected to give a short summary of my theme and why I chose it. This is a deeply felt theme for me, but I actually think (hope) I can articulate why I chose it without getting choked up -- primarily because I can be brief.

For much of my life, I have recognized the blessing of tears and difficulties. I have always been aware that my own personal struggles are a process God uses to equip me for helping and relating to others. I've always thought of that as the silver lining to the clouds. Of course, it is so much easier to be thankful for our trials when one ends and we are left with the growth of character and compassion. When the intensity of the pain subsides, we're better able to focus on what we've gained than what we've lost. But when a wound is fresh or we are in the middle of a difficult struggle, it's hard to see the silver linings of our dark clouds.

I am someone who feels everything deeply. I appreciate deeply. I love deeply. I admire deeply. I trust deeply. And I hurt deeply. Sensitivity is such a gift when we are relating to others and their pain. But in our own moments of struggle, being very sensitive increases the pain. (When I say sensitive, I don't equate that with being touchy or petty. I'm talking about real hurts and wounds that are hard to rebound from. I'm thinking about rejection, neglect, and even some of the emotional abuses I have experienced personally.)

Most people, it seems, have a hard time with trust and vulnerability. For some odd reason that I cannot explain, I am the polar opposite. Trust and vulnerability come so naturally for me. I get my hopes up easily. And if a warm fuzzy feeling is triggered by even a small act of kindness, I tend to attach possibly too much significance to it and immediately throw myself out there, making myself vulnerable to disappointment. Sometimes my big hopes get dashed a bit by a different response than I am expecting. Why? Well, John says I'm Pollyanna. I hope and I get excited and I think a miracle is possibly happening. I can be momentarily caught up in anticipation of that. And when it doesn't turn out the way my Pollyanna heart believes it is going to, it's like a big old pin being stuck in my balloon. And sometimes I even wind up feeling foolish for being the way I am. I am so childlike in this way. And when the wind gets let out of my sails (which it does), I am left questioning myself and my judgment. I wonder if I'm an idiot. Seriously.

This scenario played out yesterday in a situation. And I almost let it cast a shadow over my day. Then I reminded myself verbally (in John's presence) that my reaction was prideful. I felt embarrassed that I had made something small into something it wasn't (a miracle I had hoped for). Nobody knows about this situation but John and me. (So if you think you know what I'm talking about based on anything I've shared openly, you're wrong.)  Briefly, I felt stupid. I felt vulnerable. I asked John if I was an idiot for being so transparent and hopeful.

John is very insightful and if I ask for his perspective on something, he'll give it to me honestly. In this case, he told me that he gets a kick out of me because I can't stop myself from reaching out and opening myself up for a disappointing response. His instinct is to protect me from that. And in this case, I think he would have counseled me against jumping out there the way I did. But he said, "You should not want to change who you are. That is a part of you that is not bad. What you need to work on changing is your expectation of a certain response. It shouldn't matter how someone responds if you do the right thing." I said, "My heart really was in the right place." And my sweet, sweet husband responded, "It always is." (I so appreciate that my husband sees past my flaws and into my heart.) In that moment, I could not regret my childlike vulnerability or my Pollyanna hopes. Even though I was still feeling some disappointment.

I am writing about this because it ties in to my Silver Linings theme AND because journaling what I'm feeling will help me move past it. I also always hope that by sharing on my blog I may be able to inspire or relate to someone reading.

I have been feeling so good. (Which is partly why, I think, I allowed myself to go where I went with my emotions in the moment I did.) I love our life here. (Now and then I even sing...Almost heaven, West Virginia....) I am surrounded by beauty and the constant reminder of how awesomely God is displayed in His creation. I find myself being struck by the amazing beauty of this place all the time. Even just looking out at the woods that are currently my "back yard." And I'm surprised how happy and settled I feel in a new place so soon. I've already made precious friends. I'm so aware that God is blessing us and has plans for us here. And I have felt so thankful all week. My birthday Saturday was just overflowing with love and the sweet, affirming words of friends. I had so many meaningful messages, texts and phone calls from people I love and value. I just felt absolutely overwhelmed with positive emotion.

I got up Sunday morning feeling all warm and fuzzy, looking forward to going to church and spending the day with John. I turned the television to a digital music station that plays Christian music as I got ready for the day. And the song "Blessings" (Laura Story) came on. Even though this blog post is already long, I have to share the lyrics. The song is so powerful...

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

'Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

We pray for wisdom
Your voice to hear
And we cry in anger when we cannot feel You near
We doubt Your goodness, we doubt Your love
As if every promise from Your Word is not enough
All the while, You hear each desperate plea
And long that we have faith to believe

'Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
And what if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

When friends betray us
When darkness seems to win
We know that pain reminds this heart
That this is not, this is not our home
It's not our home

'Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
And what if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy
And what if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise

This song is the story of my life. Obviously, it's not just the story of my life. It's the story of many people's lives because it has connected such a big audience of hearts through its words.

I will never forget a Tim Keller sermon in which he illustrated (so well) how the greatest joys in our lives are birthed out of suffering. That has been so true in my life. My greatest blessings have come through raindrops and tears and disappointments and storms. And I have learned through experience what I initially believed in faith, that I am being equipped by God to inspire, comfort and encourage other hurting people as a direct result of the dark clouds God has allowed in my life. I cannot have the silver linings without the clouds. Just like we cannot have the rainbow without the rain, we cannot have empathy and understanding without pain.

I place a high value on relating to others. I always have. A friend once told me (not that long ago), "You have radar for hurting people. You are drawn to people with needs." John has told me the same thing many times, though in a more humorous way. But if this is true (and I know it is), it's because of the hard things God has allowed me to go through. Happiness is wonderful and I am so thankful for all of God's blessings in my life. But happiness doesn't equip you for anything meaningful. A person who has never suffered pain and loss can bring you a meal. But it's the person who has also suffered anguish that you want to walk beside you in your darkest hours.

As I typed that last sentence, my immediate thought was this...
The person who understands our suffering best is Jesus. There is nothing we ever go through that He cannot understand. BECAUSE HE SUFFERED ANGUISH.

But in addition to having the compassion of our Savior, He gives us each other. God puts people in our lives who know what it is like to hurt and hurt deeply. He connects us with others who have survived difficulties and overcome them. And the way He does that is by allowing us to suffer and face challenges. There is no other path to genuine empathy and deeply felt compassion.

I want someone to be there for me when I need that kind of empathy. I also want to be that person in someone else's life.

That's the reward that comes out of pain. That's the silver lining in the clouds.

If we don't value our God-given role in the lives of others, it is harder to be thankful for our trials. We will see them mainly as tests instead of training camps. I think what has given me the most "pain relief" in my hard times is knowing that what I'm going through will make me a better instrument in God's hands down the road. I hope I can inspire someone else to look at their pain through that lens. Even if only for a few moments at a time. Even when it does not relieve pain, it gives meaning to our suffering.

Believing that God is working all things for my good has enabled me to face many difficult situations with trust and peace despite the outcome. Whether it's a slightly disappointing response to a hopeful moment or the grief of losing a loved one, peace is knowing that God does not allow anything unnecessary for our good to fall across our path. In some way, He is using every experience, both good and bad, to shape me into the image of His Son.

I think this includes my Pollyanna moments. And when push comes to shove, I really don't want to learn how to protect myself better. I want to be a more useful instrument that God can use. Even if it's painful. Even if I occasionally feel dumb or silly. I want to risk everything -- especially my pride -- to connect my heart to others.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Blue Like Jazz ~ The Movie

I mentioned in my last post that I saw the movie "Blue Like Jazz" with Danny while I was in Nashville last week. I've wanted to write about it ever since.

After I left the church I was raised in, I began to realize that I had been deceived my whole life. Danny (my son) and I have had a conversation several times about why we think we were among the first to recognize that we needed to leave that group. Many have left since. But when we broke away, it was still a rare thing for anyone to leave the group to go to church elsewhere. It just wasn't done. We had the truth. There wasn't anything "out there" for us (so we were told). Leaving the group was the equivalent of leaving God. When you elevate belonging to a group that highly, it's idolatry and it's a cult mentality. Our identity as Christians is in Christ alone; it should not be in the group we belong to, or being more special, or of higher ranking with God than anyone else.

Danny and I were feeling these convictions at a time when the majority of our respective peers were not. I'm thankful that more are now seeing what we saw -- the cracks in the theology we were taught. I did not leave because I was hurt or mad or resentful of rules I did not want to follow. I left because of the teaching and the mindset and group-think. I felt that I would wither and die spiritually if I stayed. I did not have the hope or the joy that other Christians had. I knew something was missing. And I was not convinced in my heart that we WERE who we thought we were. Leaving that group was one of the best decisions of my life. It was perhaps the biggest decision because that decision opened up the path to blessings I could not have received without first walking through that difficult door.

The question Danny and I have frequently pondered and discussed is: Why were we "trailblazers" on this road? What was it about us that allowed us to go against the grain? Did it have anything to do with who we are as people or did God just ordain it to happen that way? It was not easy to be in that role. Although, at this point, it is rewarding. We have both thought that if it DID have anything to do with who we are or why God used us in that way, it is perhaps because we were not rooted (as people) in that identity. We just wanted God and truth, no matter what that meant. If it meant saying, "Okay. My whole life has been based on a lie. I am willing to confront that, as painful as it may be..." we were open. Someone close to me once said: "I have believed this for fifty years and I am not going to change now." That person was clinging to an identity that was tied to a group, not necessarily to Christ. And I immediately recognized that pride could be a factor in someone not being willing to consider even the possibility that they were built on sand. It is very hard to reach the conclusion that you have built your life around lies. Sometimes it is so difficult that a person cannot face it. For Danny and for me, I don't think there was a shred of pride involved. It was simply, "God, just show me where I am in error. Lead me out of darkness." It really can be that simple. And when I say simple, I don't mean easy. And I don't mean painless. But when you are willing to give up your comfort zone, your pride, your identity in anything other than Christ, your friends and their validation; God responds to that.

Having said that, in no way do I want to be misunderstood as taking any kind of credit for myself. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I credit God's mercy for everything good in my life. But after seeing this movie, Danny and I were having this conversation about how God uses people to confront these kinds of issues. And we both believe God used us (and others) to confront the deception of our past in a public way. There were many times along the way that I told God I wish I didn't have that role. I wished I could be the kind of person who walked away quietly and kept my mouth shut, never confronted. That isn't who I am. And it really isn't who I aspire to be. But there were some very painful times (especially when I knew I had lost lifelong friends and my value to them) when the personal cost for speaking my convictions felt greater than I could bear. But there was no pain for me in confronting the possibility that I had based my whole Christian life on lies.

Think about it: Why is it hard to admit we've been duped? It makes us feel stupid. It's pride. Sometimes we choose denial rather than feeling duped. And it's because we have taken pride in being right. If we admit to ourselves that we believed a lie and then made all of our life's choices based on that lie, how can we take pride in our ourselves; our choices and our good decisions? It all blows up in our face. For some, that is just unacceptable. For me, it wasn't. And I'm thankful. I don't think it's because I'm smarter or more humble than anyone else. I think God wired me a certain way and those are not my issues (I have others). I believe with all my heart that God had ordained a certain role for me and He created me with the character traits to step into that role. I don't fully understand it. I feel conflicted when I read in the Bible that God hardens the hearts of some in order to fulfill His purposes and He gives special grace to others. I know it is not merit based. I do not believe God looked into my heart and saw something that attracted Him to me over another person. No one will ever convince me (some have tried) that I deserve ANY of my blessings. That would mean that someone less blessed is undeserving. And I just do not, will not ever, believe that.

I did not want to write this post as a "review" of the movie "Blue Like Jazz." Instead, I wanted to share what it stirred and inspired in me. This movie is controversial because it is made by Christians but it is not your typical Christian (Kirk Cameron) movie. It isn't a David slays Goliath kind of movie where the viewer aspires to be David ~ or thinks for a few moments that they can be David. It's the other kind. It's the kind of movie that makes us look at the reality that we are not David, we are the cowards. We hide behind masks; sometimes Christian masks. And behind those masks we are no different than an unbeliever if you look at our life choices and our priorities. As Christians, we have let a lot of people down. I know I have. You know you have. And a lot of people in positions of leadership have been the worst offenders when it comes to what they preach and what they do. Hypocrisy. Nothing is more disheartening or devastating (depending on the magnitude of the disappointment) than discovering someone you had put your faith in has deceived you or is not who you believed they were.

This movie deals with THAT aspect of being a Christian. A friend told me, after seeing the movie, that she thought only those who had come out of toxic situations (like we had) could appreciate this movie. But I didn't agree after I saw it. I think the kind of toxicity (hypocrisy, plain and simple) that this movie confronts is present in almost all of our roots. It was present in the days of the Pharisees and it is present today. Instead of defending wrongs committed in the name of God, we need to be repenting for the ways we have misrepresented God to each other as believers and to unbelievers. Because we have. We must be willing to consider: Who might we have prevented from entering the kingdom with our hypocrisy instead of pointing them to Christ with our love?

These are the questions and thoughts this movie stirred in me. There will be objectionable content in this movie for some Christians. I've been told that certain Baptist churches banned it and highly recommended people not see it. I wonder how much of that reaction is self-preservation. The protagonist in the movie comes from Baptist roots. But the movie is not an indictment of Baptists. If anything, this movie is saying (in a different way, to a different audience, at a different time) what Jesus said to the Pharisees. "Woe to you, hypocrites..." At least, that's what I think it's saying. That's what it said to me.

There were moments of discomfort for me in viewing this movie. For the most part, it was a very humorous movie. Danny says Steven Taylor is a really funny guy. He knows him personally. And there were a few scenes that were actually filmed at Church of the Redeemer (where Danny is an assistant pastor). But even if you are uncomfortable with the content for the entire length of the film, the last fifteen or twenty minutes make the movie worth seeing. I'm not saying the end will be comfortable for you. If it is, you are self-righteous. I think the protagonist says what we should ALL be saying, but most of us are not.

When I left my roots, I was so fearful of being deceived again. I was afraid of deception more than almost anything. I realized that if I had based my life on a lie once, I could do it again. Only God knows how much I longed for truth. Not MY truth (as the popular saying now goes). I wanted God's truth. And not so I can clobber someone else over the head with it. Not so I can be right. Not so I can control anyone else's life or be superior to anyone else. ONLY so I can be rooted in Christ and be a reflection of Him in this world. ONLY so I can better light someone else's way. ONLY so I can help make a clearer, less obstructed path to Him for others. ONLY so that I can love like HE loved on this earth.

The Gospel is scandalous. The Gospel tells us that tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom ahead of the religious and the self-righteous. The Gospel says that the first will be last and the last will be first. The Gospel teaches us that we love Him because He first loved us. Not that He loves us because we had the good sense to choose Him. We can only receive the Gospel in humility. If we think we are bringing something valuable to God that He needs, we haven't found that humble posture that is an absolute requirement of receiving grace.

If you watch this movie and feel superior in your heart to a single person portrayed, you don't comprehend your own sinfulness and your own need for God's merciful, gracious gift of His Son. I hope you will see the movie, grasp and take to heart its message.

It isn't the kind of movie that will make it into mass theaters. I intend to watch it again on DVD when it comes out.

To all who contributed to the making of this film, I just want to say that I think you illuminated the struggle of many who love Jesus, but have been severely let down by His followers. And you did it by emphasizing that we, as His followers, can change how He is represented.

If only we will...