Recently I took advantage of an opportunity to think about how truly blessed I am to live where I do, when I do. To live in an age where at any minute I can be in contact with just about anybody I know or don’t know. Through mobile phones, instant messages, blogs, Social Networking and smoke signals we know just about everything about everyone as it happens. To have information at my fingertips on anything I might want to know about or not know about instantaneously.
Got a suspicious mole? Google it. You Googled it and Google told you that a mole is a small animal that burrows and now you are worried because you are even more concerned as to what a small furry creature who likes to burrow is doing on your person in the first place. Post it on Twitter and ask your followers for input on mole removal; or when all else fails, go to WebMD and really freak yourself out with some self-diagnosis.
A weird looking butterfly just bit you in the neck? There's an ap for that on your web enabled smart phone (Do you have one of those? I do. I’m typing this chapter on one right now while simultaneously instant messaging with my friend in Glasgow, finding a recipe for mole soup and uploading a picture that I took of a suspicious man who I think was featured on America’s Most Wanted).
I had about 40 minutes or so to think about these things as I hung out (literally) in an MRI machine. My mom, dad and sister are all cancer survivors, and since most of my dad's side did not survive all sorts of different types of cancer, every time I sneeze twice in a row or the moon is aligned with a certain planet, I have to have some test done because it might be the "C" word. You can imagine what happens then when a “suspicious lump” is found.
Not only do we have MRI's to see if there is a lump, bump or a tumor but we even have blood tests (that I contributed to after the MRI) that test for mutations in genes. Living in this time with this kind of technology with my genes is a pretty awesome blessing. Speaking of, I always thought having your mom and dad’s ‘jeans’ was so stupid, like, who would wear their parents, pants? But then I googled it and figured it out.
After being subjected to over three hours of tests that would tell me if I had cancer or even if I had a higher percentage of ever developing cancer, I had had enough. So I did what any good Californian would do, I paddled out and went surfing.
I thought of how blessed I was to be able to not only physically enjoy an hour of surfing but how I didn’t have to feel guilty for it because I wasn't ditching out on work to do so. I am so blessed to be able to do what I love for (albeit a small one) a living (so maybe I make more of a “surviving”). To live in a place that is truly beautiful and to have the freedom with my time and health to enjoy it is a gift.
The longer I sat on my surfboard in the water the more my mind went back to where I had just come from and the people I had met. Those who would never get to the hospital, to go through hours of testing in the first place, not because of their phobia of doctors but because there are no hospitals near them. People who never know they have cancer but just get sick and die.
I had just returned from a few weeks of traveling and performing Comedy in Europe. I had spent Holy Week with a group of Irish teens on Pilgrimage in Medjugorje, which is in the former Yuguslovia. Half way through our weeklong stay, I heard from some of the teens who had spent the day and volunteered with this nun, Sister Muriel. "We went with her into the hills and fed old people", was the report they told me. I went with them to deliver more donations and to meet her. She was a nice grandma nun from Boston who had the thick stereotypical Boston accent that made me want her to say things like “Park the car in Harvard Yard”.
Sister Muriel peaked my interest and going back to her “office” with my new video camera, I asked her if I could go along and film as she made her deliveries. “Praise Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Sure Judy, sure, that would be great!”
As I got in to the van, with Sister in the driver’s seat, I mistakenly reached automatically for the non existent seatbelt. Understanding that this was going to be quite a ride, I made my peace with Jesus, settled in, and listened to Sister explain how this Boston nun ended up here driving a van up the back mountain roads of Croatia.
Sister Muriel came to Medjugorje on pilgrimage when she was 68 and after some time learned that many elderly people were dying in the mountains because of a lack of food and care. Most had no pension, while some received $20 a month from the Social Service Office. Seeing them alone and forgotten, Sister became furious and stated in prayer to God the fact that, “Somebody needs to do something about this!” Sister received a very clear message back from God, “You are somebody. Why don’t you do something?”
So, where as I would pretend I didn’t hear anything or blame that message on some bad Mexican food from the night before, Sister Muriel listened and got permission from her superior and then from Rome and moved to Medjugorje to “do something”. She had no “pastoral plan” or “mission statement” she simply “showed up” and trusted. Sister began waiting tables and used the money she earned to buy food and started to deliver it to the elderly. As word spread, villagers would tell her of more elderly people needing her help. Now at 85 she delivers food and supplies to about 300 "old people" (as she calls them) who live up in the surrounding 90 villages far from the gift shops and pilgrims who flood Medjugorje. She has one full time volunteer, aptly named Mary, who helps her. But other than the semi-weekly helpers (usually from Ireland) in the summer who drive along with her to make her deliveries, it's just her and Mary. After years of hard work, Sister and Mary have raised through generous pilgrims and donations from the States, enough money to build an assisted living home which can hold 50 residents and ground has been broken for a second such facility.
As we made our way up the windy roads, Sister told me that most of the elderly were women who took care of their aging parents or disab led siblings and never got married themselves. Now they are alone with no income or pension. Gulp. I am assured that Uncle Sam can at least allow me to buy cat food when I am 90..maybe.
Usually, these people's houses consisted of one room, no running water, maybe electricity, maybe a stove, a bed, a chair, a table and lots and lots of Mary and Jesus pictures on the wall. They were all around the same age as Sister Muriel, but not in as good of shape. At times with no one to talk to for days or weeks, they were more excited to talk to Sister (even though Sister barely understands Croatian and spoke just as little) more than to receive the food she was bringing them. Their faces would light up, especially when they saw the 2 teenage boys we brought along that day to help us deliver. The two were both named Sean (go figure) but Sister changed it to John and then to the Croatian Ivan so the people would understand better. Apparently you don't find a lot of Sean's running around the former Yugoslavia. As poor as they were, what they lacked more than material needs was human interaction and attention. These people were literally dying from loneliness. Sister was not only bringing food to them, but was being ‘Jesus with skin on’. Sister Muriel was ‘building the Kingdom of God” here and now by consciously intersecting her will with God’s.
The more people we visited, the more I stopped feeling sorry for them and started feeling bad for what I take for granted on a daily basis. Obviously for the surplus of food, clothing, and shelter I have, but also for the people I have in my life. For the first time, I understood why things often get in the way from appreciating just what I have in my life. They sometimes even get in the way of people.
It made sense that I don't need to buy something just because I want it. Chances are I have the same thing at home but it got lost in the shuffle amidst the piles of other "stuff" that if I lived to be 100 would never have time to wear, watch, play, eat and listen too.
The people in the mountains had nothing. But they possessed something that people in our culture lack. They had a sense of peace. They had a happiness that this world does not recognize. Sure, given the choice, you, me, or the poor grandma living in a one-room house would be drawn to a life of security of three meals a day, running water, friends, and cable TV. But never knowing that, these people rely on something else. Something that you can't see or hold tangibly in your hands; Their faith is unwavering. Their faith is in a God who doesn’t guarantee rose gardens but rather would be with them no matter what situation they faced. They believed Jesus at His word.
I think back to a woman who's sister, with whom she had always lived, had recently died of cancer; and her only neighbor whom we had just visited was dying in her bed alone. She was in mourning and was what the Irish would call, keening. A long cry intertwined with laments over her sister and the pain she felt. She was faced with the fact that soon she would be totally alone with only Sister Muriel visiting her once or twice a month if time allowed. Then she did something that stopped me dead in my tracks. Through her tears she wanted to know how Sister Muriel was. Was she OK? Not once did she express a "Why me"? or "Can't someone do anything"? or even the famous, "Where is God?" All she wanted to know was how Sister was and struggled to get up and bring us chairs for us to sit on. I know I would be singing a different tune. I stubbed my toe pretty bad once and wanted to consult with toe specialists and felt perhaps Life Flight should be called in because I was in pain and I wanted everyone to know and to do something about it. I was in awe of this tough mountain grandma who's beard was healthier than most lumber jacks. Her concern was not about herself, but of the woman who was just as old as she was who was bringing her food and friendship.
Going from people who have nothing of material value but are so filled with a quiet joy, to my world of loud music, fast Internet and many times people who have the world but lack so much joy, made my head spin. I thought after leaving the final house we visited that this would be it. I would go home sell all I own, shave my head, eat nothing but dirt, and live under a rock. Or at least never complain again about anything EVER. But wouldn't you know it, not 2 days later, being human crept back into my psyche again and I was really mad when the movie on the flight home was the same one I saw flying out.
But some things have changed. For one, I got rid of about half of what I owned and don't miss any of it. I went through my closet and gave away things that I was keeping just to keep. Space taker-uppers. Junk that at the time I just had to have it. I think before I buy things now. Not, can I afford this, because the answer is no (no matter what, even gum I need to put on layaway). But I think, am I buying this because I need it or because I am bored, bothered, anxious, or empty? What do I really want? I'm slowing down more and looking at the big picture. I am not getting mad at people who have 11 items in the 10 items or less line at the supermarket checkout or drivers who cut me off in traffic. I'm seeing how blessed I am to have been born in the Country, State, City and family that I'm in.
And if anything, it hasn't made me think of my career as silly in the big scheme of things but on the contrary; I can see how blessed I am to make people laugh for a living. I hope to never take for granted my life and the opportunities I have every day. Don't get me wrong. I still like my stuff, but now hopefully, I will begin to put more value on true wealth instead of the kind that is passing. Anyone who is around long enough and is paying just a little attention to life understands that it is ALL passing.
I sat on my surfboard thinking about a nun in her 80’s who is in better shape than me making a difference. You will probably never hear about her after she dies or see a movie based on her life. But in her own quiet determined way she saw a problem and when she asked, “Why doesn't anyone help those people?” decided she was just as good a person as any to do something about it. I'll keep telling jokes for now. Sister Muriel has a good 20 years in her until she needs replacing. I also would like to say that being rich does not make you evil. You can be a very good person and be happy and find peace with lots of money. I keep telling God that I'll prove it to Him. I guess I need to help out a bit by buying a lotto ticket.
How long have I been sitting in this water? Man, my toes are pruney and that's when it came up again. I have been having these tinges I guess you could say. These desires that I dare not tell anyone. I want to go and serve the poor. Why should the Sister Muriels and the Mother Teresas of the world have all the fun? I could do what they do.
Now please stop laughing and listen. I'm not talking for a year or even 6 months, but I have a desire to go and push myself to see and help those who I would never meet. Those who never know the luxury of being inconvenienced by an MRI or a stack of insurance paperwork. I can’t offer medical care, or plans to build an irrigation system. But I once made a 90 year-old Croatian lady who didn’t speak English, had no teeth, and a substantial beard, laugh so hard that she almost died! So I think that could be beneficial.
What good is it to stay and experience life in a comfortable bubble when there is such a great need for people to experience love and laughter? I swear I'm not turning into a hippie; but in the past few years my travels that I look back at with the fondness memories have been spent with people in horrible situations who were in need of someone just to be with them. Someone who could be Christ to them if just by giving them supplies, a meal, or a much needed smile. Laughter is a universal language. Sure, it’s not so universal that if you are stopped at a checkpoint in Russia and guns are drawn on you that laughing will get you out of it. But a chuckle shared between people who don’t speak each other’s language certainly tears down some walls. Snorting while laughing is even better! Shooting milk out of your nose while laughing is too much and you just shouldn’t do that.
I started thinking, where could I go? I have two months, January and February
open, so it’s going to be winter. I need to go tropical, I can't help people if I'm cold. I mean, I could...I would just prefer a tropical setting. Which country could I go and experience and actually help others for a few months or weeks without hurting myself or them? There would definitely have to be monkeys wherever I go. Monkeys but no bugs. Monkeys, no bugs, and Wi-Fi.
You have been warned. The desire is there to serve my brothers and sisters who might not own more than one pair of shoes, understand what DVR is, or worry about the long term effects of aspartame. I know what I am supposed to do now is pray and listen. When the opportunity presents itself, I will be ready to go. That is, as long as there are monkeys, Wi-Fi, and no bugs.
So with that understanding that someday I would travel to far lands and bring my gifts to the marginalized, I still had to wait for those results to see if indeed this time the jig was up. After 2 days of waiting and eating whatever I wanted (since I could have a had a horrible disease and drop dead at any minute) I marched into my doctor’s office and asked for my MRI results. It was time to see what that "suspicious lump" (not related to a suspicious mole) was.
Here is a tip from Aunt Judy. When the doctor's office says they will call with the results they are not lying. They just have a different concept of time than you or I might have. Because they would eventually call you back, but you could have died from natural causes in the meantime.
The MRI man (I think that was his official title) told me the results would be read in a few hours and my doctor would be sent the results by the end of the day. Fair enough. I have played this game before. I get a test done with the understanding that it is probably nothing, and in the course of waiting for the results every Lifetime movie, phone company commercial and Hallmark card you see is about breast cancer. The devil loves to take the unknown and twist it until every worst-case scenario is played out in your head until you are convinced that God has abandoned you, suffering and death is pending, and soon you will be a statistic. Fear kicks in, maybe even anger, some confusion, and before you know it you are standing in front of the fridge at 3am eating straight out of the carton of Rocky Road.
But not this time. Between the “finding” of the “suspicious lump” and the final MRI, I had been traveling for a show. While on the road, I found myself at a healing service. That sounds weird. It’s not as though I awoke from a kidnapping to find myself surrounded by intercessory prayer-warriors, or while out on a walk happened upon a gang of healers. I was at a conference and from 2:30PM to 4:30PM on the schedule was a healing service. Without going into too many details, I felt a marked difference after the prayers of healing had been prayed. When I say marked, I guess I am really saying heat. When I say heat, I guess what I am saying is that my area in question, got HOT! A kind of hot that only the Holy Spirit or a small trash fire can generate. And since I didn’t smell smoke I knew the Holy Spirit had gotten the job done.
What I realized while sitting in the office was that horrible disease or not, I was OK. (I also realized the people at the front desk kind of freak out when they realize you aren’t going to leave until you are told your results and freak out even more when you bring a lawn chair, cooler, and a DVD player with Lonesome Dove).
I have said it before but each time I go through a scare God leads me into a deeper understanding of what kind of peace He can bring. Just like the elderly I met in the hills who had a quiet peace in the misdt of utter caos and horrible conditions, I too had a sense of this peace. It came from an understanding that, yes I might have cancer, or I could be fine. Regardless of the result, I would be OK because I was beginning to understand who God was. While He didn’t guarantee just because I believed in Him I would never experience pain and suffering, He did promise to be with me every step of the way. Our modern world is sometimes looking for a “magic bullet” Jesus who will take it all away. Instead, God entered into our humanity. He is Emanuel; God with us. I guess the key is to understand that if I can find peace in something like that, I can find peace in the million stupid things that happen everyday, which are in no way as scary or stressful, yet they still cause me great worry.
In the end, when you figure this life-lesson out you are either really holy and they fast-track you to Sainthood, or you die and you have a V-8 moment and
think, why did I waste all that time down there worrying when I could have been eating ice cream and playing canasta with the elderly?
As they called my name to go back for “the reading” I was very calm and finally my ears heard what I had already knew in my heart, “Whatever was there before is gone now, I can’t explain it.” “Well duh!” Is what I yelled on the inside but on the outside I just smiled and said, “thank you”.
I left the doctors office secure. I was alright. Come and get me world, what could you possible throw at me? What a stupid question. I got home and promptly went outside to play with the dog and cut some roses for a vase, and while walking, the grossest thing that has ever happened to me occurred. For those of you who have ever had the pleasure of walking on the beach in California, you have probably stepped on seaweed or bulb kelp and felt it pop underfoot. Well that’s what happened last night in the dark, and there was no seaweed around. I instantaneously knew what it was and every part of me wanted to have a Silkwood scrub right then and there. I ran in the house (very carefully) and got the flashlight. I came out and after a few seconds of searching found what I knew it was. I had stepped on a dead mouse and it had exploded! I knew it was dead because ants don’t usually gather that quickly unless they are on some sort of performance-enhancing drug and if that’s the case, I have a whole new set of problems. Praise Jesus I had my sandals on because I can barely get the thought out of Mickey exploding under my sandal and the thought of his spleen doing that on my bare foot would have taken all of God’s peace away. He would have had to come and personally driven me to the “get that terrible mouse exploding under your foot sound out of your head” doctor.
Now you are in the loop, like it or not. If you have been offended because I spoke about my hot body parts, elderly Croatian women with beards, or exploding mice I am sorry. I don’t make this stuff up; I just report on it.