County Fair A Step Back in Time

Walking onto the grounds of Farm Bureau Park just outside Eureka during the annual Woodford County 4-H Fair is like taking a step back in time. Unlike most county fairs, this one doesn’t have the chaotic hum of a loud midway with carnival barkers, flashy rides and greasy foods.
This annual Woodford County August event is all about 4-H—the exhibits, the show animals, and the kids who put their hearts and souls into their projects all year.

Here, it’s quiet, except for the murmured conversations between judges and 4-Hers participating in interview judging, the booming voice of a judge from across the park at the animal barns during a livestock contest, and the occasional call over the loudspeakers announcing the next category up for judging.

The closest things here to the Ferris wheel and the tilt-a-whirl featured at most county fairs are the swings and slides at the playground equipment next to the exhibit building. However, flyers posted on a wooden sign outside the exhibit building tell of the kind of activities offered in place of the usual fair rides: a clover scavenger hunt, where participants look for posters throughout the park with 4-H clovers on them and note their locations; and Club Olympics, in which 4-H clubs compete in group contests. Then there are the Marshmallow creations and Oreo Cookie Stacking contests.

And instead of commercial food stands, selling everything from elephant ears to kabobs, the two food stands on the grounds have simpler menus. The one near the livestock exhibits offers more typical fair fare, like corn dogs and nachos. But the main food stand at the front of the park, run by the women of the Woodford County Home and Community Education Board, boasts a more homemade menu of pulled pork, pork chops, cakes and pies—even biscuits and gravy. It’s their biggest fundraiser of the year.

The closest thing to air conditioning is the breeze created by the electric fans in every building on the grounds. No air-conditioned buildings means no immediate relief from the oppressive heat this year. The trees on the grounds make plenty of shade, though, and there are plenty of picnic tables throughout the park on which to stop and rest and chat.

Once in awhile, when we’re sitting in the shade, watching the goings on, feeling a cross breeze that’s enough to bear the heat, we remember why we do this every year. And we realize why the Woodford County Fair hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s perfect just the way it is.

Final Haku for Willow

Most of you know by now that Willow, the tiny kitten I adopted recently, died soon ater I brought her home. I wrote this Haiku shortly after she passed. I will likley write mor about the experience later, but let this serve as her memorial for now.

A fragile Willow,
Lying listless in my arms
Sucks in her last breaths.

Willow Haiku

I just adopted a new kitten. Her name is Willow, and, of course, she's very adorable. I will write more about the experience of adopting a second cat later, but for now I want to share some Haiku I've written about Willow and her big sister, Juju. (You can read some Haiku I wrote about Juju here.)

Plush squirmy Willow
Purrs warmly upon my heart
Sleepy and content

Willow hangs aloft
Limbs dripping through my fingers
Wigg’ling and squawking

Supreme Queen Juju
Hisses and snaps at Willow
All to no avail

Wobbly Willow leaps,
Prancing across the carpet
Assured of her worth

Juju nudging feet
Willow nesting on shoulder
I am doubly blessed

If Only in my dreams

I had a dream about my friend Paula the other night…or, rather, I dreamed about my grief over Paula’s death. In the dream I was with a person I know, though not well, in Eureka. He invited me to his house, along with a number of other people. It was a complex and bizarre, but not intense or scary, dream. I talked to him about Paula and my loss and felt comforted.

It’s been three months now, and I still feel so raw…so alone…just hollow. Not all the time, just when I think to myself, “Paula would think that’s funny,” or “I should ask Paula about that.” That’s often enough.

I still get racked with sobs when she comes wandering through my mind, agonizing over her children’s lives or fretting over her mother’s poor health, distressing over her family’s complications.

I remember how she always liked to be in control of any situation, and I laugh just a little. Then I think about how she would feel when she realized she’s not in control over anything, and I tear up again.

I’m not in control, either. For instance, I’d have taken Paula’s place if I could—traded my life for hers. It wasn’t up to me, though. I’m still ticked off at God about that.

I don’t know why I lived and she died. We both had such similar health issues—a bacterial infection that attacked the heart. But while I made it through the months-long struggle to survive two years ago, she died within two weeks of collapsing at her daughter’s Girl Scout Christmas party when her heart

The thing is—and I don’t say this lightly nor to elicit pity—I’ve been thinking her life was worth more than mine is. I know she had more at stake when she died—a husband, kids, a career, an elderly mother who had already lost two sons, a large extended family whose lives were intricately interwoven with hers.

I know we both have made a difference in the lives of others through our work—Paula as a funeral director then pharmacist, as well as a mom; I as a writer and minister. Like her, I have friends and colleagues who would miss me just as much as we miss her.

And I, too, have a large extended family, but we’ve lived independently from one another for a long time. I’m not saying they wouldn’t grieve for me, but I don’t think their grief would co
mpare to the pain Paula’s children are feeling right now.

That statement is not meant to be cruel, just matter-of-fact. It doesn’t diminish the deep love we have for one another. Nor does it mean we don’t feel loss. It’s just that we lead separate daily lives.

In talking about this with my friend, Julie, a minister in California, I was reminded of something I always have believed—one life isn’t worth more than another. We can’t quantify life by listing the types of relationships we have, what we do for a living or the number of things we accumulate. Each life carries its own intrinsic worth.

So, ultimately, I know this is grief mixed with my own life-long struggle to find meaning. Asking why she died and I lived is not the question. I don’t get it, and it frustrates me, but it’s futile to obsess over a question for which there is no easily discernable answer.

Why do good people suffer? Why do bad people prosper? Why are we here in the first place? Philosophers and theologians, as well as learned people in all areas of study have made it their life’s work to find answers to these questions. I’ve spent a bit of time on such cosmic questions, myself.

To quote the great philosophers, The Indigo Girls, “There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line, and the less I seek my source for some definitive the closer I am to fine.”

Instead of agonizing over Paula’s death and asking for an explanation, I need to ask myself (and God) “what now? Where do we go from here?”

I wasn’t ready to ask that question when I was deep in my pain. But now it feels right to move on. As one of my seminary pastoral counseling professors often said, “A crisis from which we don’t learn and grow is a crisis wasted.”

I can’t fill the holes Paula left in the lives of others when she died. We all lead different lives, after all, so we can’t take the place of another. However, I can make sure she is not forgotten.

I can participate in the memorial garden being planned for her by her daughter’s Girl Scout Troop. I can write to her kids about what a great person she was and tell them how she would regale us with stories of their recent adventures and discoveries in the world around them. Those stories were always told with humor, fascination and love.

I can also put renewed energy into some of the work I’m already doing. Paula’s love for her children and people of all ages inspires me to rededicate myself to my advocacy work for children and abuse survivors. In Paula’s name, I will do whatever I can to ensure all children have what they need to grow into productive, wonder filled, hope-full adults.

Through such work, I might, with God’s help, finally “turn my mourning into dancing.” (Psalm 30)

Amazing Grace

This is a Word Cloud of Amazing Grace using Wordle dot net:

Wordle: Amazing Grace

Remembering Paula

My life-long friend Paula died on Christmas Eve. I’ve lost friends to death before, but none hit me quite like this.

At first, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. She was supposed to get better; she was supposed to survive.

She had collapsed at her daughter’s Girl Scout Christmas party. Her heart just stopped beating—no warning, no signs of illness or weakness; she hadn’t even complained of so much as a headache that day.

Paramedics managed to get her heart started again, and although she was in intensive care and on 24-hour dialysis, the doctors saw hope in her relative young age—48—and her otherwise good health. She was responding to commands and showed signs of recognition when shown a picture of her kids. They said it was likely a viral infection had attacked her heart, and that she had a good chance of fighting it off over time.

I remember telling a friend who asked about her that it would be a long, difficult road to recovery. But I was absolutely certain recovery would come, eventually. After all, I had made it through a remarkably similar health crisis two years earlier.

Just before Christmas, 2008, I was living on the east coast and came down with what I thought was the flu. It turned out to be an antibiotic-resistant infection that attacked my mitral heart valve. Pieces of the infection broke off and floated to my brain, causing a series of mini strokes.

I had to have the valve replaced and was in ICU for two solid months, followed by physical, speech and occupational therapy for nearly the rest of 2009. I had to endure a feeding tube, a tracheotomy, hallucinations…I had to relearn to walk, think coherently, even write my own signature.

It was an excruciatingly long, arduous and, at times, tedious journey, and I continue to have serious health issues, but I’m alive.

I survived. Why didn’t she?

My friend, Elaine, called me with the news. I could tell she had been crying. The family had made the difficult decision to take Paula off the machines keeping her alive. Her organs had begun shutting down. Tests found no brain waves. She’d only been in the hospital two weeks.

Why didn’t she survive? Why couldn’t her body fight the infection like mine had? It didn’t make sense.

She had kids—two boys, 14 and 7, and a girl, 10. She had a husband. She had four sisters, a brother, several nieces and nephews and a mother who loved her.

She had a career as a pharmacist and did volunteer work. She had compassion, wisdom beyond her years, and a keen sense of observation, along with a dry sense of humor. She was a loyal and good friend to many, many people, including me.

In 1991, I wrote a Frankly Speaking column about her as she was about to get married—on Valentine’s Day, no less. In it, I wrote, “I was there when her father died. She was with me at my brother’s funeral. We saw each other graduate from college and attended each other’s family functions. When I go home, my family asks, ‘How’s Paula?’ And I feel as much at home in her house as in mine. Some of my family will be at her wedding today.”

Much of my family attended her visitation, too. It felt like losing a family member. Even Paula’s family acknowledged her unique relationship with her friends—they counted us as family, because Paula counted us as family.

In that column long ago, I also wrote, “…with all the people who have come and gone in my life, there is one constant: Paula.”

Now that one constant is gone, swept abruptly from this life and the family and friends who loved her. And I am left with the profoundly desolate feeling that life does not make sense.

Paula believed in God. I believe in God. I believe in eternal life, and that it is infinitely better than this worldly life. However, I don’t believe that God ‘takes’ people when God wants them. I do, on the other hand, believe God accepts all who come in love, including Paula.

But I am not ready to accept that this was Paula’s ‘time.’ I guess I’m still in the denial stage of grief, mixed with a little anger. It will take some time to come to acceptance.

In the meantime, I will continue to keep Paula’s family and friends in my prayers. I will do my best to keep her memory alive for her children, who only caught a glimpse of the extraordinary person their mother was.

And I will continue to work through my own grief until I get to the other side of it—acceptance and even joy at having known Paula as one of my dearest life-long friends.

Easter Prayer 2005

National City Christian Church Rev. Arlene Franks O God of life, God of love and laughter…we, your Easter people greet you thi...