Sunday, October 28, 2007

New Mexico

There are places I've been that resurface in my memory, bringing with them strong feelings of peace and well-being. Most of them are in New Mexico. I can't explain why these are the places that pop up, or why they stimulate the feelings they do.

Las Cruces is one of those places, although I've only been there once before. Today we were able to sneak in another brief visit, and only to Misilla. Again, the time was good, as were the veggie enchiladas with red sauce.

I wonder if the feelings have something to do with the wonderful sauces made with the red and green hatch chilis?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Blue Jay Attacking Hawk

This red shouldered hawk appears incredulous that she's being dive bombed by a mockingbird. The hawk did leave it's back fence perch shortly thereafter, however. (Click on the picture to see the face of the hawk better.)
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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I Drink Coffee for Flavor

I drink coffee for the flavor. I like it to be fullbodied, and prefer
those varieties that are a little citrusy. I'm especially fond of
coffers grown in East Africa and Colombia.

I don't drink it for caffeine because that often triggers migraines
for me. So I generally have decaf.

At home, I use a french press, as that seems to make the best flavored
cup. And I use one measure to make one cup.

My real source of frustration is trying to find a good cup of coffee
at coffee shops. Most seem to believe that more of everything is
better. If roasting coffee is good, more roasting is better. Actually
it's just burned. If strong, fullbodied coffee is good, then twice as
strong must be better. Actually it just overwhelms the tastebuds so
that the complexity of the flavor is lost.

I keep trying to get a good cup at Starbucks, but failing. They're
everywhere. But their coffee is generally lousy. Their coffee drinks
are good, but their straight brewed coffee is overdone.

To be continued...

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Sitting on the back porch this time of year, I get to see fireflies. I never cease to be amazed by their bright flashes as they head across the yard. I'm also reminded of my childhood, of catching them and keeping them in a bottle. Except now I'm content just to watch them, too slow for the chase. They're just further evidence of God's marvelous imagination.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

For God So Loved...

By far, most of the folks I visit at M.D. Anderson are people of strong, life-long faith, who feel the love of God and who have lived lives of response to that love.

Sometimes, though, I visit folks who for various reasons are uncertain of their relationship with God. Yesterday was such a day. Cancer had brought several people I visited to focus on their relationship with God. Each told me a story that communicated their faith, but also related that for much of their life they had not lived in relationship with God, through choices they had made.

I really can't describe the joy of being able to help them refocus on the amazing love that God has for us -- how He pursues us even when we don't want to be caught -- how He's waiting for us to come back to Him as so beautifully told in the story of the prodigal son.

I'm especially thankful today for a God who never gives up on any of us, a God who loves us unconditionally.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Green After the Storm

Here's a shot of the native forest behind our fence after the big rains of yesterday. EVERYTHING is green, including the massive poison ivy vines surrounding the trunks. It's just so amazing how God brings vibrant, new life from what were just bare branches only a few weeks ago.

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Storms and God's Presence

Oswalt Chambers notes that, in the Bible, clouds seem always to be associated with the times when God comes closest to man.

Maybe you, like me, have always thought of that as being due to the need to obscure the vision of God from man.

But Chambers draws another conclusion, which I think is both valid and powerful. Storms in our lives, symbolized by the clouds, are when we are most aware of God's presence, are when we most feel the need for God's presence, are when we are most receptive to God's presence. In fact, without the storms of our lives, we might very well not recognize the need for God in our lives.

The rain storms of this morning remind me of the necessity of storms for life. They're messy, noisy, sometimes very scary, can cause damage and pain, and they're always inconvenient. Yet they clean the air, replenish the moisture in the soil and rivers and lakes, and provide renewal and growth.

The storms in our lives are exactly the same. They too are messy, noisy, scary, cause damage and pain, and are inconvenient. Yet they serve to cleanse us, renew us, and grow us.

Thank you, God, for your presence during our storms.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Duck on a Joy Ride

On the same spring day as I photographed the wildflowers, this duck was swimming nearby. What a glorious day to cruise around the pond!
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I Love Spring

One of the reasons I love Spring is the wildfowers that abound. They are so perfect, so unplanned by man, so glorious, so unaffected even when surrounded by trash as these were. What a great gift from God!
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Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Visit by Black Bellied Tree Ducks

These two beautiful creatures dropped down into the pecan tree in the back yard for a brief visit this morning. It looked like formation flying -- just swooping down for a landing in the tree. They're black bellied tree ducks, also called wood ducks by some. They're even prettier in person.
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Monday, March 19, 2007

Resilience under Fire

Sometimes I'm amazed by the resilience of people. Today is one of those days. I visited with three people, each of whom has been hit with at least a double whammy.

First, there's the mom. Her teenage son is battling a difficult cancer and will undergo two difficult surgeries this week with periods in ICU following each surgery. Yet she's stuck in a neighboring hospital having just been diagnosed with brain cancer. She's facing the battle of her life while her son is fighting his own. I can't even imagine what she's going through, what her son is going through, what her husband is going through. Yet they were all doing what they had to be doing today. She feels that this battle is really about spiritual warfare -- Satan trying to diminish her faith, her testimony. I didn't disagree

Then there was the man with serious cancer in ICU. As we talked, he revealed to me that he and his wife were involved in a bad auto accident a week or so ago. She was severely injured, and has just been released from the hospital. He told me that when he woke up in the hospital after the accident, that he didn't believe what they were telling him had happened. Yet today he told me that both of them were taking this new chance to live their lives for God. Part of our conversation touched on his decision to forgive someone who wronged him almost 60 years ago, and how difficult forgiveness is. He's focusing on forgiveness -- not on self pity.

Finally there was a 30-something year old guy recovering from surgery for his fourth cancer recurrence. He's been fighting it for six plus years, with chemo, surgery, and radiation. And each time he fights back. I was inspired by his fight, his optimism, and his recently found faith.

What I learned today is that people are capable of dealing with incredible hardships -- and through it all staying faithful and positive. May God bless them.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Perspective: Do What Matters

Sometimes I struggle to maintain perspective. I've got things I want to do, and a long list of the things I need to do, and I don't seem to be making much progress on any of them. So I get frustrated. I know that most of us share this struggle that is complicated by being caregivers.

After visiting a man in ICU this week, I went to the waiting room to spend a few minutes with his wife. Her daughter had told me that she had gone to get a nap and and some rest, but to please visit with her. I found her sitting at the computer, emailing her office. As we talked, I learned that she had gotten a five-minute nap, but that she was trying to keep her business going -- her clients still needed what they needed. And that while things were better with her husband, the long-term outlook was dismal. I recognized the look in her eyes that spoke volumes entitled, "I Don't Know How I'm Going to Get Through This."

I know that she will, because God will provide each day exactly what she needs to be able to do it. Not everything will get done, important stuff will fall through the cracks, but it will be okay because the really important stuff -- caring for her husband, being loved by their girls, will get done.

And that provides the dose of perspective I need -- "When you can't do everything, be sure to do what matters."

Thursday, March 15, 2007

From Bad to Worse -- But With a Respite

For some, life turns upside down seemingly overnight. That's the case for a man I visited this week.

Inoperable pancreatic cancer. Major medical complication after two rounds of chemo, requiring extensive surgery and extended stay in ICU. Metastases discovered during surgery. Unknown future treatment options, if any. Loss of 60 pounds in two months since diagnosis.

It's a story of things going from bad to worse fast.

Yet we prayed a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving because his immediate condition had improved enough not to be as scary for him and his family as it had been for a couple of days. In the midst of fear and terror came a respite and time for rejoicing. I treasure that moment even as I'm saddened by the long-term outlook and the pain this family will suffer.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Can't Start Them on Starbucks Too Early!

Looks like Ben has discovered Starbucks hot chocolate! Frodo may even be cleaning up behind.
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Monday, March 05, 2007

Being Overwhelmed and Impatient

Some days it's almost overwhelming to walk into M. D. Anderson. Today was one of those days.

Coming in from Garage 10, I ride the escalator down to the second floor, passing by the overflow of folks waiting for diagnostic testing. I look at the faces because I want to see, and I find myself guessing at the stories, at the emotions they are feeling, and saying a prayer for them as they wait.

A floor further down on the escalator is the overflow waiting for the E.R. Today it was full. Several of those waiting had the little kidney-shaped plastic containers that are somehow supposed to be adequate when you're nauseous. Others showed effects from surgery, while others just looked tired and sick. Again I prayed silently as I passed by.

It's a stark reminder, that in this day of God-given miraculous treatments for cancer, that there is still great suffering, and that it involves lots of people.

But it's calmer once I reach the inpatient floors, entering the rooms to visit those on my list. Today the list was short, but as seems typical of short list days, there are generally several who have a lot they want to talk about. The list seems to be short so that there's time for the conversations they need to have. Today's list included a lady with stage 4 metastatic cancer, and God blessed us with a deep spiritual conversation.

It also included a lady whose primary prayer request was for patience. The two big things that hit cancer patients are feeling a lack of control, and struggling to be patient. So we prayed for patience, for her, but also for me.

Then a little later while waiting in line for coffee while several workers just stood around, I found myself being impatient with them. Being impatient about getting a cup of coffee shouldn't even be allowed in a place where folks are suffering like those I visited today.

God has so much to teach me, so much molding to do.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Dinner at the Firehouse

Our 40 Days of Community group provided dinner for the local firefighters. Here's a shot of three of the guys talking to Sara and John about movies...
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Friday, March 02, 2007

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Grief: Yearning vs. Depression

Here's a nice article discussing that yearning is the primary emotion of grief, not depression as has been previously thought. Article also discusses the fact that in normal grief situations, depression does not normally peak until 5-6 months after death, which was previously thought to occur much earlier. According to the study, "Clinical guidelines should focus more on symptoms of yearning and pining and heartache and missing rather than on symptoms of sadness and feeling blue."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Liberal or Conservative?

I was reading an interesting blurb yesterday from Fred Smith's Breakfast with Fred -- about how our life views and even basic beliefs are shaped by whether we believe that people in general are essentially good or essentially evil. His point was that if we believe that people are essentially good, then we adopt a liberal political philosophy and believe that if we provide education and a lift up, then everything will be okay. Conversely, if we believe people are prone to be evil, then we will adopt a conservative political philosophy focusing on regulation and maintaining order.

While I think his point is interesting, I'm sure it is too simplistic, and probably not universal.

But I found myself today wondering out loud how Bart Whittaker, who is on trial for orchestrating the murder of his mother, brother, and father so that he could inherit one million dollars got to the point of being able to even think of doing that. It just seems so unnatural, so evil, so opposite of what I would expect from anyone. Maybe there's more to what Fred had to say that I wanted to accept.

So maybe I do believe that everyone is basically good rather than evil. That doesn't make me a liberal, but it does probably make me a moderate rather than a conservative.

And in today's political environment, since I don't seem attracted to those labeled either liberal or conservative, that's okay with me.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Caregiver Stress Data

In a current article on caregiver stress in Psychiatric Times, some rather startling statistics are given for caregivers of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and dementia.
  • One study which randomly selected caregivers from an Alzheimer directory found that 25% had clinical depression. In another similar study, 36% of caregivers who were not seeking help had clinical depression, while 68% of those seeking help had clinical depression. For comparison, 11-34% of caregivers of stroke victims suffer clinical depression.
  • Dementia caregivers were found to have a 15% lower level of antibody function than non caregivers, and a 23% higher level of stress hormones. This means that vaccinations, such as flu vaccines, are less effective. It also means that caregivers are more at risk for hypertension, diabetes, and and even cognitive problems.
  • Dietary and physical activity interventions have proven helpful in reducing caregiver stress effects and risks.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Chaplaincy Training Session

Today's Lifeline Chaplaincy workshop session, "Creating a Healing Community ," that I got to be part of by helping teach. It's been a good day.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Soulful eyes

I'm being good. Could I please have something besides Rx dog food?

Our Subconscious Grieves

I had an "Aha" moment last night while reading about Anniversary Stories in John Savage's book, Listening and Caring Skills. I was reviewing it in preparation for helping teach Lifeline Chaplaincy's Creating a Healing Community workshop.

Savage writes about the fact that we often display emotional, mental, and physical symptoms of grief as we approach an anniversary of a loss, even when we have not consciously thought about the anniversary. He gave personal examples of a time when both he and his wife were irritable and grumpy, and once they talked about it, realized that it was the anniversaries of both of their mother's deaths, even though they occurred almost 20 years before.

This is further validated by brain research which indicates that the brain, when not focused on some present activity, stays very busy trying to make sense of the past and working on the future.

The reason this brought an "Aha" to me is that for several weeks I have been a little down, both emotionally and physically. While I'm conscious that today is the fourth anniversary of Mom's death, I hadn't tied my symptoms to grieving. Perhaps an even bigger "Aha" came when thinking about Dad's behavior and symptoms over the past month or so in this light. He is grieving Mom's death as well as the illness of his wife Carol, which has interrupted their lives in significant ways. He, as we all do, keeps trying to figure out how to feel better by trying to find physical remedies -- prescriptions, exercise, foods, etc.

He's just following the same rule we all seem to follow, "I'm not feeling well, so there must be a physical solution." Yet we all know that our emotions drive how we feel, even physically. But most of the time when we're not feeling well, we first think about physical causes. Part of that is probably a defense against the pain of bringing the emotions to the conscious level, and part of it is cultural -- being seen as overly emotional is a sign of weakness. Yet it's amazing how healing it is when we recognize the grief and allow the emotions to become conscious.

Learning how to grieve consciously seems to be a lost art in our culture. But the more life experience we have, the more we have to grieve. And the more important it is for our physical and emotional wellness that we learn to grieve well.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Cup of Tea

I've always received comfort from a cup of tea. It's something I learned from my Mom, for whom a cup of hot tea seemed to be about the most luxurious gift to herself imaginable. Her favorite was plain old Lipton's, sweetened. I drink mine the same way, except often with a dusting of cinnamon. Nothing tastes quite as good early in the morning, or anytime I'm struggling through a cold or migraine or whatever. It's hard to tell whether the comfort comes from the tea or its association with Mom, or both.

I'm drinking a second cup of tea this morning, and it tastes especially good. Part of that is due to the cold I have that just won't go away because of the weather swings and the heater being on and off and being around others with whom I keep swapping germs back and forth. But I think the real reason may be that today Sara and I plan to visit Mom's grave.

It'll be the first time for Sara to visit her grandmother's grave, and Mom's been gone for almost four years. We've talked about knowing that Mom's not there and how weird it is in a sense to visit a grave. But it is a reminder of Mom's life on this earth, and it's also a dose of reality. My visits over the years, both alone and with Dad, have been unremarkable. But today may be more, because for Sara, she's covering some new ground in grieving her grandmother.

I've been grieving Mom more this last year than the previous three. No doubt, part of that is the fact that Dad has been back here and I've been spending a lot of time with him. But the larger part of it has to do with my involvement with Lifeline Chaplaincy, making pastoral care visits with people who are often quite sick, and many who are in the process of dying. My feelings about Mom, her illness, and her death are very much a part of me as I minister to those going through similar processes, and I know that it helps me be effective in helping them. We were told in training that our pain would rise as we help others in pain, and it does. But it's okay, because it's a good sort of pain with Mom.

I know that each of us go through grief differently. But I'm learning better that it is a long-term process, and also that I don't want it any other way. Time for a little more tea!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Red Shouldered Hawk

This is one of the red shouldered hawks that hangs around our back yard. He spent a lot of time out there today, so it gave me a chance to get lot's of photo attempts. I'm fascinated by the intracasy of this bird's coloring and designs, that God went to the trouble to make each bird so unique and beautiful

This photo was taken through a 20x spotting scope with a Nikon Coolpix P4 set to 3x.
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Synchronicity or Providence

I'm thankful for the surprises God brings into my days.

As I was walking up to a patient's door this week, a man was just getting settled into a steno chair by the door. I asked if he was with the patient I was to see, and he told me he was with someone in another room, and just finding a place to wait while the medical folks were performing a procedure.

It turned out that the person I went to see wasn't in the room, so on the way out I began to exchange pleasantries with the man. That spark of interest gave him permission to tell me some of his story, about a relative to whom the doctors had just said they had no further help to offer. He talked to me about God's help, and we talked about how hard this circumstance was. And at the end of the visit, I asked if he'd like to pray, and he said, "Absolutely." I can still feel his strong grip on my hand as we prayed.

Just when this man needed someone to be able to open his heart to and share the pain he was feeling, God brought me to him and made me available by having the person I went to see be out of the room. I can't believe that was "synchronicity," the word the world uses to describe such happenings. It could only be providence, the work of the Holy God.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Great Valentine's Day Photo

Who could resist this photo on Valentine's Day?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Children Who Are Care Givers

Are there children under 18 within your church or your child's classroom or in your immediate neighborhood who are care givers for an adult member of their familiy? Probably.

Sara called me last night right after the evening national news to talk about the report she had seen about children as caregivers. She was touched by what she saw, as I was when she retold me the story almost verbatim. As we talked, we both wondered how many situations we have at our church where children are caregivers.

Here are the facts: 1.3 million children ages 8-18 provide care for a relative. That translates to 1 out of every 25 or 30 children in the U.S. being a caregiver. Most of us are unaware that it's going on because it's rarely talked about. I immediately thought of the young quarterback on Friday Night Lights caring alone for his grandmother because his dad was working in Iraq. But that's TV. Are there similar situations in our church family, or in our neighborhood? And if so, could we help?

Here is an article online you can read if you want to learn more. Here's the full study from the National Alliance for Caregiving.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A Change in Blog Title -- and a Change in Me

Changing the blog title from "Jim Hughes" to "Lab Notes from Life" is about a couple of things. The first is that I want to focus my blogging, which also means that I plan to actively blog again. The second thing it's about is that it represents a directional change in what I'm doing with my life. That probably requires a little more explaining.

For most of my life, I've been recognized and rewarded for what I know and can share with others. I've always loved learning, figuring out how to do something, and then passing that on to others. Teaching, speaking, writing, coaching, leading are what I just seem to do naturally. As part of that, I love learning new stuff, or finding a different slant on old stuff. I enjoy building mental models of how things work or should work, and sharing those models with others.

So it seemed natural when I retired to continue doing these things I had received R&R for both as a second career and for ministry. Only that hasn't worked out so well. Ventures and projects that I was excited about and that others encouraged have for the most part been dead ends. They used my strengths and experience, served good purposes, and were pursued using all the conventional wisdom success factors. But they haven't succeeded.

For example, about the time I retired, I became passionate around the idea of helping people who were retiring redirect their lives to service, especially to ministry. As I wrote about it and talked to people about it, there was interest and encouragement, so I set out to promote the idea to individuals and churches, hoping to engage them in moving forward. I've knocked on a lot of doors, been politely greeted by most, and even had a few conversations that seemed promising for a little while. But nothing has resulted in engagement, in moving forward.

One day it occurred to me that just maybe instead of trying to help others use their retirement for ministry -- serving God and serving others -- that maybe I just needed to do that myself. (Of course at the time, I thought that promoting the concept and helping individuals and churches do that successfully was my ministry.) But it's interesting how closed doors force you to re-evaluate.

While all of this was going on and I was also working to establish my life coaching business, some new opportunities to serve popped up. A few years ago unemployment was high, and I ended up leading a job seekers' support group. Then about 18 months ago my daughter and I began a support group for family caregivers. At about the same time, I got a call to help counsel Katrina refugees. And more recently, I've become a pastoral care volunteer for Lifeline Chaplaincy, visiting with patients at M.D. Anderson one day a week.

The common denominator in these activities is getting to engage, if even briefly, with individuals who are suffering from loss, who are grieving. What I've learned (that others already knew) is that people suffering from loss, whether it's jobs, or health, or whatever, are on spiritual journeys, and that when you spend time with them, you get to have spiritual conversations with them. And, those times are amazing, because God is there.

Maybe God is teaching me that as much as I enjoy gathering knowledge and sharing it, that my true calling is learning to love people one or a few at a time.

These are the doors that God opened for me, and what I've found inside is rich. I still do some coaching, both paid and free, primarily for clients going through career change. And I'm still promoting retiring to serve.

So how will my blogging change? More will be focused on stories and experiences, less on "How To's." More will be focused on encounters with God through other people. I also have a goal to learn more about God's creation -- birds, flowers, trees, and even weeds. Turns out I can't even put a name to most of them, and that doesn't seem quite right. And I want to spend more time learning to love the crowning achievement of God's creation, people, the way He does. Of course, there will still be pictures of family and some stories.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

American Kestrel In My Yard

This little guy has been around our back yard for the last couple of days. He's an American Kestrel, only normally seen in this area during the winter. Hopefully I'll be able to get some better shots before he moves on.
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