Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


Part One: Stop Shooting, We Love You.

It wasn’t fireworks this time.

Bang, bang.  We were sitting in the dining room, eating our Vietnamese soup.  Bang, bang, ba.. ba.. bang.  Our oldest was charming us—using her kid chopsticks, and showing us how she could pick up the noodles.  “Mama, are those fireworks?” she inquired.  I went to the window cautiously.  Two men, one our neighbor, were getting into an SUV.  The passenger was bleeding.

“I’m not sure what’s going on honey,” I replied truthfully and met my husband’s eyes.  He walked to the window and I smiled across the table.  “Do you like your soup?  You’re doing a great job with those chopsticks.”  I felt strangely untroubled, more focused on maintaining normalcy for my daughter’s sake than figuring how what had happened outside.  Our housemate came in through the back door, he and my husband walked away to talk.  “What was your favorite ride at Kennywood?  Won’t your sister (who had fallen asleep in the car and was now in her bed) be sad that she missed the soup?  We’ll have to save some for her.”

It took her at least ten minutes to wonder where daddy had gone, and we looked out the window together.  “Mama, are those police officers?  Why are they here?”  The police officers had blocked off the street and were shining flashlights at the sidewalk.  I took a slow breath.  “I think somebody got hurt honey.  The police officers are here to help figure out what happened.”  As they worked, the neighbor’s kitten rubbed up against their legs.  “Mama, look at Petula!  Can I go get her?”  “No, I think it’s bedtime for you.  You can hold the kittens tomorrow.”

Grudgingly she walked upstairs, still upset that the police officers were monopolizing the kitten.  A story, a prayer, a song and a glass of water later she was tucked in and on her way to sleep.  I walked downstairs.

My husband and our housemate were still outside, but I was content to watch from the couch.  I still felt calm, perhaps I was in shock.  News crews were everywhere—later I would find out that my husband consented to an interview.  Across the street in our pastor’s yard was a sign, simple with blue text reading “Stop Shooting.  We Love You.”  My husband pointed the sign out to the reporters.  “That’s true,” he said into the cameras, “we love our neighbors. We pray that everyone will be okay.”

It is, of course, both that simple and infinitely more complicated.  Why else are we on earth but to love God and our neighbors?  If I know anything, I know that this needs to be at the center of our lives.  Still, when violence comes so close to home, it is unsettling.  Are we being irresponsible parents?  Are the girls in danger?  In my head I argued with myself, “Jen, you know that statistically it’s more dangerous to raise kids in the suburbs because of car fatalities.  Violence in the city is almost always between people who know each other.  You do everything you can to keep the girls safe—physically and emotionally.  You can’t put them in a bubble.”

It’s just that some days I would really like a bubble.

Later that night my husband told me about the news interview and how he had prayed about whether or not to do it.  “It’s just so easy,” he explained, “for people to hear about a shooting in the city and to think, ‘oh, another shooting, same every night.’” He paused.  “All I wanted to say was: ‘Those were our neighbors.’”

There was laughter outside.  We went to the window again.  A police officer was using his laser pointer to play with the kitten.


Do the Math

Pets are a little like cars… at least financially.

They either cost little-to-nothing (some gas, some food) or they cost your right arm and three toes from your left foot.  That would be the price of car repairs and vet bills.

It’s not that car mechanics and veterinarians/vet techs don’t deserve to get paid a fair wage for all the good work they do.  I’m all for specialized, supportive services–thank you for knowing how to fix my Nissan or my feline friend.  It’s just that I don’t budget for these things that may-or-may-not-happen-at-any-given-moment.  Yes, I know that we should have some kind of pet and car emergency funds, and put money aside every month and then we wouldn’t get caught by the surprises and that would be the responsible thing to do…

I’m starting to hear Charlie Brown’s mother talking.  Wa, wa, wa, waaaa…

About two weeks ago, our small, needy tiger strip-ed cat was bit during a neighborhood cat brawl.  Again.  And the bite swelled up into an abscess.  Again.  And we remembered how much it cost last time at the vet–$150.

Keep that number in your mind.

So we decided to lance the abscess ourselves and then give him the rest of our youngest daughter’s ear infection antibiotic (which she was DONE with, okay?).  We even checked in with a friend who works in a vet office, and he said that it was okay but to be careful with the pus cause it (and I quote from his text) “can be some nasty bacteria.”

Store that information next to the $150 in your brain.

We (okay, mostly cute-husband, but I HELPED) lanced the abscess.  I will spare you the details, but lets just say that it was one of the grossest things I have ever seen… or smelled.  But remember our savings!

One pertinent detail:  It was a long process and I really did clean my hands often.  With lots of soap.  But one time, just one time, maybe after the fourth or fifth round of catch-the-cat-and-squeeze-out-some-more-pus, I have a vague memory of brushing hair away from my face and accidentally touching my eye in the process.  Then I washed my hands and got back in the game.  Really, I hardly touched it.

The next day my contact was bothering me.  Darn contacts.  They cost about $30 a pair and I had just changed them.  But after a day of rubbing and red eyes, I threw them out, remembering that quick eye brush.  A few days later I put in new contacts, but after a day, same problem.  Darn.  Another $30 down the drain.  Glasses for a WHOLE WEEK and everything seemed better.

I put contacts in again.  Wednesday came.  I was in a coffee shop working on my sermon about thankfulness, but I wasn’t feeling very thankful because my right eye was killing me.  It was hard to look at the computer screen but I was paying for babysitting and Sunday was coming but boy-oh-boy did my eye hurt.

By lunchtime I had given up.  I took out the contacts.  I called my husband.  “Honey,” I said sweetly, “please take me to urgent care before my right eye falls out.”

The urgent care doctor didn’t know what to do.  “I can prescribe antibiotics,” she said, “but it would be better if you saw your ophthalmologist.  As soon as possible.”

We drove straight there.  I covered my eye from the sunlight and moaned.  They took me as an “emergency visit” and my ophthalmologist gave me numbing drops(I love numbing drops).  She looked in my eye.  “Wow.”  She was clearly impressed.  “Your cornea is all torn up. And I don’t even recognize that bacteria, but it looks like a Petri dish in there.”

A Petri dish in my eye.  Great.

She prescribed an especially strong antibiotic and told me to throw the contacts away.  For those of you who are keeping track, the antibiotic cost $20, and the two visits were $10 each.


Three pairs of contacts ($90) plus 3 lost hours of babysitting ($21) plus two co-pays ($20) plus the antibiotic ($20)=$141.  Savings from do-it-yourself cat surgery=$150.

BUT… the opportunity to squeeze out pus from your cat’s back and hear the ophthalmologist say the words “Petri dish”?  Priceless.

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Yonder is the Sea

In my late teens and early twenties I spent four summers working at Lutheran summer camps–as kitchen staff and counselor, in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  During these formative years, a fixture in my life was a woman named Mir.  Mir was the environmental education director at both of the camps I worked at (I essentially followed Mir and her camp-director-husband to North Carolina).  She was as short as her name, perpetually wearing hiking boots and packed with enthusiasm and energy for the natural world.

During the afternoon “activity time” I would sign my cabin up for one of Mir’s offerings.  She offered a slew of options, but my favorite was “Creek Critters.”  It was a simple concept.  We would gather at the creek and Mir would give us small plastic containers and largish eye-droppers.  Then we were set free to gather water samples and whatever critters we could corral (no water snakes please).  The samples would go under low-power microscopes and campers would watch tiny creek-dwellers dance across the slides.  Mir would congratulate each find as if the camper had discovered a new species.  It was bacteria and little bugs, but it was really really exciting.

The best part was the end.  After we had carefully released our critters,  Mir would stand at the bank of the creek and announce Psalm 104.  “Oh Lord, how manifold are your works!  In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”  The campers–and I–were transfixed.  “Yonder is the sea, great and wide,” she indicated the creek with a grin and a wide sweep of her arm, “full of creeping things both small and great.”  Her eyes would shine as she exhorted us to take care of all that God had made, and we would return to the cabin with her words ringing in our ears.

It’s been more than a decade since I stood in those woods and heard Mir pronounce God’s manifold wisdom over creatures “great and small”, but I’ve never completely lost the sense of wonder that accompanied her words.  It came back to me this week as I was standing in my backyard, watching a swarm of children play and argue and run and fall, grinning as the goofy chickens shook and pecked and flapped and clucked, and wondering how so much life could be contained in one city backyard.

And yes, I did just compare my children to bacteria.