Thursday, February 27, 2014

What the Affordable Care Act Means For Our Family

The past few months have been eye-opening and discouraging. I felt relief when the Affordable Care Act passed, and spent the last four years championing its cause among my friends, family, and coworkers.

I've come to realize, however, that access to health insurance doesn't at all mean access to healthcare. The health insurance companies met the ACA's requirements for accepting everyone, regardless of pre-existing conditions, covering basic wellness tests, and providing free contraception. But we can't legislate a shark into a guppy. Health insurance companies are for-profit organizations who will bend to the letter of the law, without changing the foundation of their business model: profits come from not paying for healthcare.

For most of the past 10 years, I haven't had access to traditional, employer-sponsored health insurance. This has been for many reasons, of which unemployment was only a brief and temporary cause. I've been a dance teacher, a grad student, spent several years with a contemporary dance company, student taught, and currently work part-time in an office. My husband is a contract employee at a sports station, picking up production truck work and umpire gigs on the weekends. We have two kids, ages 2 and 4, one of them has a pre-existing condition that requires regular medication and occasional trips to the ER.

We don't qualify for employer-sponsored health insurance, because we each work less than 40 hours a week. (Once the Affordable Care Act changed the requirement to 30 hours per week to qualify for employer-sponsored health insurance, subsequently delayed to 2015, my husband's job capped his hours even lower to prevent reaching the new threshold.) We also don't qualify for Medicaid, comprehensive healthcare for the very poor.

Before healthcare reform was even being discussed, we looked into independent plans through a variety of health insurance providers, and the cost-benefit ratio was abominable. It came as low as $400 a month for a catastrophic plan with absurd co-pays and co-insurance, an unreachable deductible, no coverage for maternity, nor any provision for pre-existing conditions. Basically, a guarantee for the health insurance provider that we would never use their health insurance.

We joined a healthcare co-op and started a savings account instead.

Interestingly, before the Affordable Care Act, not a single independent health insurance plan in my area covered maternity care. Talk about wiping out the middle class. To anyone between Medicaid and the gold standard of employer-sponsored health insurance: do not have children!

So I started out optimistic about Obamacare, because it would meet a very real need for my family. I'm still hopeful it can inaugurate comprehensive healthcare for all.

I signed up on to receive updates, before it was even launched. All of the anticipation and momentum leading to open enrollment left many, ourselves included, frustrated in the ensuing crash, followed by weeks without access, and months without the ability to update your information. (We're still in that phase of the roll-out, unable to adjust family income or size.)

There's this encouraging update, once you complete your application, before plan estimates are posted:

I'm so glad these are finally considered basic health care. (Or are they?)

According to the estimates that came up on the website, my family of 4 qualifies for health insurance plans ranging in price from $515 - $1308. These prices are not as offensive to me as the somewhat lower price quotes from health insurance companies last year, because these premiums include preventive care, prescriptions, doctor visits, maternity and newborn care, and hospitalization.

Based on the website, here's the breakdown of income qualifications for government subsidies:
  • 1 Person: $11,490 - $45,960
  • 2 People: $15,510 - $62,040
  • 3 People: $19,530 - $78,120
  • 4 People: $23,550 - $94,200
  • 5 People: $27,570 - $110,280
  • 6 People: $31,590 - $126,360
  • 7 People: $35,610 - $142,440
  • 8 People: $39,630 - $158,520
If you make under the minimum income level for each family size, you may qualify for coverage under Medicaid.

Finally our health insurance plan options started coming up on the screen. And I realized nothing had changed, except healthcare via health insurance was now more inaccessible than ever.

With a government subsidy, we would pay $358 each month for the lowest plan. At this level, the health insurance company pays for nothing -- sick visits, prescriptions, specialists, Emergency Room, surgeries -- until we meet an annual deductible of $12,700. For a middle-class family of four, we will be out-of-pocket $16,996 in one calendar year (including premiums), and the government will be out-of-pocket $2,016 in additional subsidies paid directly to the insurance company on our behalf, before any kind of health insurance assistance would begin. After this $19,012 up front, we would be responsible for 20% of all medical bills, until the calendar year turns over, at which point we'd need to meet $19,012 again before insurance began to help.

I know there are many levels of plan available on the healthcare exchange, and the sheer number of plans available would make you think it's simply a treasure hunt for the right plan. But, pardon the expression, a box of shit giftwrapped 200 different ways is still a box of shit. After analyzing all of our plan options on the new public health insurance exchange, we came to the same conclusion on every single plan: we would be out an ungodly amount of money before any kind of actual health care coverage begins.

I shouldn't have been surprised. The goal of the Affordable Care Act wasn't to create a non-profit healthcare system. Yet health insurance companies have turned our national healthcare campaign into a profit-generating scheme, collecting our tax dollars, in the form of government subsidies, while ensuring those who most need healthcare are no closer to receiving it.

One might say we don't have a reasonable understanding of medical costs, that there's a reason health insurance companies need middle-class consumers to be out-of-pocket $19,012 a year before coverage begins. But we've been self-pay healthcare consumers for two years now, with wellness visits, sick visit, several ER trips, and even surgery. Last year our out-of-pocket healthcare expenses totaled $7,495.30, which included two trips to the ER, one by ambulance, an eye infection, a kidney stone, craniosynostosis follow-up with a specialist, asthma maintenance, many prescriptions, and wellness visits for our kids. We spent an additional $3,810 in premiums toward a non-profit healthcare co-op, which has been the affordable solution for our family's medical needs.

Through the self-pay experience, supplemented by sharing costs through our healthcare co-op, we've realized the disparity between real healthcare costs and healthcare costs through a health insurance company.

I'm still compiling medical bills for our son's recent surgery to remove his adenoids. This included several pediatrician visits, specialist visits, pre-op scopes, anesthesia, and the use of a for-profit day-patient surgery center. Our pediatrician was thrilled that we were self-pay, when he diagnosed a problem with our son's breathing and referred him to a specialist. We could go directly to the best pediatric ENT in Dallas, no need to check networks. When we went to the specialist, he was also thrilled that we were self-pay. We could immediately take the course of action needed, without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops with the insurance company. There was no need for expensive additional tests at a sleep center, weeks of an expensive prescription regimen, or the added cost of pre-surgery ER trips to manage his breathing while the insurance company processed approval paperwork. When we paid the self-pay rate at the pediatric specialty surgery center (no financial aid included), the administrator told us we were actually paying less out-of-pocket than several patients who had health insurance, because their deductibles were so high.

Some might say I'm missing the entire point of health insurance, that it exists only for the very extreme and expensive needs of cancer, heart transplants, HIV, stroke, and the like. I think this would be a wonderful application of health insurance. I wouldn't mind having health insurance only for the most catastrophic health events. But we can't afford to pay 25% of our income toward this vague possible future, while continuing to pay 100% out-of-pocket for current, less serious healthcare needs. A $500 monthly premium toward a healthcare plan that we only use in the most extreme circumstances is just not feasible for anyone in the middle class.

At first, I thought it was just my family experiencing problems with healthcare access, but as we share our healthcare experiences, more and more people are coming to me with their stories, much more difficult than our own. Teachers are spending a quarter of their income, just on health insurance premiums, before any money is spent on their families' healthcare needs. Employers are opting for high-deductible plans, which keep healthcare inaccessible, even to those with health insurance. Companies are hiring more part-timers and cutting hours to avoid obligations to provide health insurance.

I'd like to propose that we work around health insurance companies in our national endeavor to ensure healthcare is as accessible to all as roads and education. Why do we even have a for-profit middleman in healthcare? It's awesome that the government wants to help my family with a $168 subsidy each month, but instead of sinking it into the murky profits of health insurance premiums, deposit it in a health savings account in our name. Or calculate it into our annual tax return. (Perhaps to cover the penalty tax of not carrying health insurance? Though, for the record, our not-for-profit healthcare co-op fulfills the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act that requires everyone to carry coverage.)

Our country's approach to health care is broken. The Affordable Care Act does not solve all of the problems, nor could it anticipate all of the problems. But it's something, and I'm grateful that someone's doing something. And I hope it can be restored, exchanged, or upgraded into a system that's sustainable and accessible for everyone.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Um... mea culpa.

When I was in elementary school, my Baptist church had a Sunday morning bus ministry. Retired school buses would drive through apartment parking lots, kids would stream out, fill the buses, and head to Sunday School. All the coolest volunteers were on their team, and the "apartment kids" were pretty much the coolest kids at church. It was a great program, even though trying to pull off a bus ministry today would probably just launch all kinds of lawsuits. (Things like permission slips, waivers of liability, and emergency contact information weren't a big deal in the eighties).

And then there was my family, ho-hum corralling into our 12-passenger van in our Sunday best, scrambling for prime seating after service. I'd watch the bus ministry kids playing outside before lunch, and their church experience always looked better than mine. They had special events, and to my 8-year-old eyes, it looked like monthly carnivals and weekly donuts, even though I'm sure it was something like Hi-C in Dixie cups with peanut butter sandwiches.

I've grown up, crossed the Tiber, and now have my own family that we wrangle into a van for church each week. But it seems like I'm still looking across the aisle, wondering why someone else is getting a better church experience than me.

"We need reserved accessible seating for families with little kids," I grumble, as we arrive 20 minutes early for a seat.

"The church should provide childcare so we can actually attend this stuff," I think, as the lector invites everyone to a new speaker series during the week.

"Why isn't there a playground for our kids to play after Mass?" I complain, as we pull our re-energized kids through the crowd of people leaving and arriving for services. 

It's easy for me to look in the mirror and see the stereotypical Catholic mom with multiple toddlers, basking in the martyrdom of how hard it is to be a parent today, frustrated with the parish for not catering more to families with young kids. Everyone in the church should designate their tithe toward a real nursery, volunteer their time in staffing it, prioritize staff and resources toward early childhood development programs, see my demographic as the most important one in this parish, and go out of their way to serve ME! Um, my family. I mean, serve my family, of course. 

Wally and I laughed as we left church on Sunday: "The Church is dying, if it's not crying!" Josh had been especially fussy, and we were pretty sure other parishioners didn't appreciate little kids throwing themselves on the floor during Consecration. (But his brother knelt where HE wanted to kneel!)

Cruciform church tantrum
Aside from the obvious -- the Church won't die, it will stand forever and ever, even without crying babies at Mass -- the people in our parishes are dying, and it's not just the martyred mommy bloggers. People are weary and tired and disillusioned, coming to the Church in search of rest, in search of the One who exchanges the burdens of this world with rest.

I've been so busy applauding myself for being an awesome Catholic that I missed all the signs that I've actually been a pretty crappy member of the Church, petitioning for it to be a one-issue, one-demographic, 20-minute delivery service instead of a universal call to holiness, universal.

It didn't occur to me that the bus ministry kids might not eat lunch, if the church didn't serve it. Or maybe they'd prefer to come to and from church with their family bickering in a van instead of the organized chaos of a bus.

Or the woman in a wheelchair who always sits by herself in the front half-pew could probably use a handicap-accessible door to the chapel, more than I need a row of rocking chairs across the back of the sanctuary.

I've spent several years asking why the church isn't doing more to make my life easier. But Jesus didn't leave us a fast-food restaurant. He didn't ask the apostles to build Playlands for families to send kids while they broke bread in the other room. Jesus spoke his vision for a Church that would be for all people in all times: feed his lambs, care for his sheep, feed his sheep.

There are parishioners facing end-of-life issues, deportation fears, living in poverty, experiencing daily prejudice, struggling in broken families, looking for jobs, love, answered prayers, an open door.

So, mea culpa, to anyone who's sighed through my mom-blogging-martyrdom about kids at church, full of whiny complaints about the church not being all about me and my super-awesome kids. I'll try to put disclaimers on future grumbling, or at least complain about more than just pre-Vatican II coloring sheets, the lack of kid-size toilets in the bathroom, or the fact that my church experience doesn't make me feel like a celebrity at a 5-star resort.

I'm just beginning to realize these aren't really good spiritual goals, for me or my family.

Jesus didn't incarnate eternity into time 2,000 years ago to establish the first family-friendly shopping mall, and he probably doesn't care whether social events provide real creamer for coffee, Cheerios receptacles in pews, close parking, comfortable seating, or expansive free childcare.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Surprisingly Guilt-Free Minimalist Living Guide: A Book Review of "The Joy of Less"

I hate clutter. It's strewn across our entertainment center. It's crowding our closets and turning our attic into a scene from Hoarders

But Francine Jay's book, The Joy of Less, is changing our home, and happily -- unlike most self-help projects -- it's surprisingly fun. As we free up space around us, we're finding more room to play, more counters for completing projects, and maybe best of all, the mental freedom to relax in our home.

The fear of listening to a minimalist's advice is it's rife for piling on guilt for first-world living or stirring up childhood memories of clean room nagging. Francine Jay avoids both of these pitfalls by continually underscoring the positive mental and social benefits of streamlining your possessions, and emphasizing there's no magic number for possessions. 

The "magic number" provision really encouraged me, because I wasn't sure someone who had two babies in three years could be a minimalist. Sure there's a lot of unnecessary crap listed on baby gift registries -- peepee teepees, designer burp cloths -- but I like having extra pack-n-plays for portable naps, a dedicated changing table, and even a heated wipes warmer. 

This minimalist living guide really becomes a one-size-fits-all experience, accessible for any income, living arrangement, or family size, offering concrete steps toward opening up your living space. Francine defines three qualifications for every item to keep in your home: it must be useful, emotional, or beautiful.

1. Useful: not potentially useful, not a back-up to something else that's useful, but an item that is used regularly. This qualification caused me to clear out six trash bags of stuff in one evening, mostly duplicates of one good item that we use regularly: sample shampoos, old cosmetics, excess Tupperware, a glider rocker, extra jackets, bookshelves, a wobbly stack of unused burp cloths, salvaged parts of a broken humidifier, toys, and lots of clothes.

Useful Things really collected in our home, when Wally and I married. Joining households meant a stack of colanders, a set of coffee makers, and multiple shelves of duplicate Catholic theology books. If we brewed a pot of coffee each hour, and never drank from the same mug twice, we could've gone a week before running out of mugs.

2. Emotional: something that elicits positive emotions and memories, usually gifts, heirlooms, or souvenirs. For some reason, these items fill up our closets and drawers, not important enough to display, but too sentimental to give away. As part of the freedom I experienced, to reclaim our home for the needs of our family, instead of the storage of stuff, I gave away a 2-foot high stack of handmade baby blankets, gifted to us at the birth of our kids, mostly too small, too scratchy, or just too many to use, much less store, in a house that doesn't even have a linen closet. I also upgraded a piece of art that Wally and I picked up on our honeymoon to display in our kitchen. It's not the coolest piece of art, but it has a good story and is worthy of more appreciation than the bottom of our closet can offer. 

The author notes that something shouldn't be guaranteed a place in our homes just because it elicits an emotional connection. She offers the perspective that while we may hold onto our things to commemorate the past, they may actually be causing us to live in the past: 

"How many of us still have cheerleading uniforms, letter [jackets], swimming trophies, or notebooks from long-forgotten college classes? We rationalize keeping them as evidence of our achievements... However, these items are usually stuffed in a box somewhere, not proving anything to anybody. If that's the case, it may be time to release these relics of yesterday's you."

3. Beautiful: best summarized by Francine's own words: 

"The brilliant glaze on a beautiful vase, or sleek lines of a modernist chair, may bring a deep and joyful satisfaction to our souls; therefore, such items have every right to be part of our lives. The caveat: they must be respected and honored with a prominent place in our homes."

Francine follows the acrostic "S-T-R-E-A-M-L-I-N-E" as she outlines strategies for downsizing in your home. She may feel I've missed the point or didn't complete the minimalist conversion, since I found the extreme detail unnecessary, once I adopted her overall perspective. However, for someone in a more extreme situation, perhaps they've lived in their home for many decades and collected more stuff than they can handle, Francine's system walks through a very comprehensive guide to declutter, organize, and simplify life.

For my purposes, I found this set of questions from the book more beneficial than Francine's detailed system, with the caveat that a "yes" to any of these questions is not an automatic pass to stay in our home:

1. Have you used it in the past year?

2. Do you expect to use it in the near future?

3. Does it make your life easier, more beautiful, or more pleasurable? How?

4. Do you have something similar?

5. Is it hard to maintain or clean, and if so, is it worth the effort?

6. Would it be difficult to replace?

7. Would you take it with you if you were moving?

8. How would your life change if you didn't own it? 

While Francine generally admonishes storage of an item if it's in your home for purposes of positive-emotions or beauty, preferring instead that it be displayed in a proper and prominent place, she makes an exception for seasonal decorations. Still, if annual Christmas decorations cause panic attacks, or packing everything back into storage overshadows the joy of the season, it might be time to ask if it deserves a place in your home.

Quick-and-Easy Advice:

1. Decline freebies. Keychains, t-shirts, magnets, pens, and other unimportant items usually go unused, cluttering our drawers.

2. Keep a donation box in the garage. Sometimes we hold onto items, simply because they're still in good condition, and potentially useful. The good feeling we receive from donating these items to others is far more beneficial than the clingy fear that keeps us holding onto them in our garages, attics, closets, or worst of all, when all of the hidden storage overflows, our living space. 

If giving away an item feels wasteful, because of the money invested, or the potential to need it in the future, it may be easier to consider selling it. We made some good money in our initial minimalist sweep by selling a chair on Craigslist, selling a lot of clothes at Kid-to-Kid Resale, and selling a box of media to Half-Price Books.

3. Keep counter tops clear. Our butler's pantry is the drop-place of stuff. It gathers in piles or effortlessly spreads to the adjoining shelf, and the surface becomes useless instead of filling its potential as a great place to write quick notes, prepare craft activities, serve dinner, or set items on their way to the car (lunch, diaper bag, purse). I've started making a concerted effort to make this a short-term transition zone, instead of a piling zone.

I'll close with a thought that continues to help motivate my minimalist efforts, as I look around our living room, bedroom, kitchen: the things in our home tell our story. 

"Let us hope," Francine writes, "it's not 'I choose to live in the past,' or 'I can't finish the projects I start.' Instead, let's aim for something like, 'I live lightly and gracefully, with only the objects I find functional or beautiful.'"

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Thrifting 101: Everyone Should Do This.

Everyone should shop resale. If you're independently wealthy, it's a fun hobby and lets you put more disposable income toward things that aren't as great second-hand. (There's definitely stuff that should never be purchased at resale shops.) If you're short on money, it's an awesome gift to your budget.

But there's a real skill to shopping secondhand. If it's not performed with some basic knowledge and practiced discernment, thrifting is a slippery slope from conscientious consumer to maniacal-hoarder of broken trinkets. With 30 years of resale shopping experience, I've learned some valuable lessons, and yet, even still get taken by cool-looking crap that I can't pass up.

So, in the interest of spreading the secondhand culture, I'd like to share some tried-and-true advice.

1. Don't buy something that might be a hidden antique treasure, unless you're an expert in whatever it is that's caught your eye, or you have the disposable income to be wrong most of the time.

"Looks old" probably isn't the best criteria for finding hidden antiques.
2. Don't buy for future costumes, unless you have a definite date in mind for its use within the year. Otherwise you just end up with an overflowing closet of unused costume ideas. It sounds cool, but it's a pretty dumb use of valuable space. Believe me, I know.

3. Don't succumb to consumer religiosity. All because it's a picture of Jesus or Mary or the Last Supper, it is not a spiritual relic that needs to be memorialized in your home shrine. 
The people who feel compelled to buy this stuff are the same ones who forward mass emails admonishing you to "Prove you love Jesus by spamming everyone in your contact list."

4. Don't buy car seats from a thrift store, or from Craigslist, or secondhand from anywhere. You don't know if it's been in an accident, and every car seat manufacturer recommends replacing car seats that have been in a car during an accident. If you need a cheap car seat, check with friends whose kids may have outgrown their car seats. Use coupons to buy new. Go to Walmart and buy their bottom-of-the-line-but-still-much-safer-than-used car seat. Check with community charitable organizations. 
A child's life is worth more than the $30 saved by going with a used car seat and its unknown history.
5. Don't buy something just because it's a name brand. Even the best companies make some really ugly stuff.

6. Don't fight for anything. People can get pretty territorial in thrift shops. Everything looks more appealing when someone else is looking at it, or about to look at it, or appears to be walking toward it. Don't take the bait! Walk away and let the other person check it out. You can come back later. There's always a new treasure to find somewhere else.

7. Don't buy stuff that's broken, torn, stained, or excessively worn. Thrifting is time-intensive enough, without adding crap to your home project pile. Check zippers and count buttons before checking out.

8. Don't buy maternity if you're not currently pregnant.

9. If you're currently pregnant, don't buy clothes in the size you wore before you were pregnant. You're just contributing to your own post-partum depression.

10. Don't take a risk on electronics. Unless it's going to be used as a vintage display piece. Or you're an electrician with a lot of free time. And your job is also your hobby.
Actually, that plug-in aquarium almost got me.
11. Don't compromise -- not even a little -- on style, quality, or color. If it's a great color, but itchy, you'll never wear it. If it's a gorgeous design in puke green, let it go. American resale shops are overflowing with barely-used goods, so I really recommend limiting your purchases to only "like new" quality.

12. Don't buy clothes that aren't in your current size. It's not motivating. It's just more crap in the closet.

13. Don't fall for fashion rejects. Some stuff looks trendy on the rack, but doesn't wear well on anyone. There's a reason resale shops are well-stocked with wrap skirts and those shirts with little compartments for each breast. Just leave them there.
 14. Don't talk yourself into a purchase. You'll probably feel dissatisfied with the item and end up replacing it with another resale find a few months later. And at that point, you might as well buy it new.

15. Don't share swimsuits, underwear, or lingerie. Unless you're really seriously, seriously short on cash. I know there are laundry cycles for sanitization, but this stuff can be bought new in basic styles for about the same price as used.
16. Don't buy sweaters or clothing of any specialty material, if the price tag is stapled to it (a common practice in resale shops).
The arrow points to a hole from a poorly-removed staple. :(
16. Don't buy stuff that might come with bed bugs or fleas. Couches, upholstery, and mattresses probably aren't worth it. Also be wary of porous wooden furniture, as bed bugs like to live there too. 

If you purchase furniture, leave it in the garage or on the porch for a couple of days, and check it for bugs. Spray it down with Lysol, and put baking soda under any cushions to kill fleas. If you end up with a bug infestation, no money is saved by thrifting. Picture Source

17. Don't feel like you have to buy something to justify your trip. Sometimes you find stuff, sometimes you don't. 


1. Do buy cool novelty stuff (that you have room for and will use).
The pool table, not the arm chair.
2. Do buy baby clothes. But don't even bother with sizes Newborn - 3 Months. For babies this young, just wrap them in a towel until the spitting up and pooping is somewhat under control.

3. Do buy white elephant gifts. (Not just any crap though. Make it cool.)

4. Do buy picture frames.
5. Do buy vases.

6. Do buy maternity (once you're pregnant). Five months of your wardrobe shouldn't be part of the exorbitant cost of having a baby.
7. Do buy crutches and walkers (if you need them, or have the storage space to be prepared for the inevitable).
8. Do put stuff back where it belongs and try to keep the racks in good order. It's respectful, takes 2 seconds out of your life, and is just part of being a good human.

9. Do be considerate of other shoppers. There are people in the store who can only afford to shop secondhand. For them, it's not a relaxing hobby or elective way to get more fun money in their budget. If you're laughing raucously with friends, it might increase others' feelings of self-consciousness or embarrassment.

Feel free to add your own suggestions for good thrifting in the comments!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Living Alive

I went to a concert with friends the other night, and it woke me up. Laughter came easily as I broke free from my usual sleep-walk through mundane jobs and roles: it felt good to be alive, and I wondered how to hold onto the feeling.
Should I quit my job? Had selling out to financial stability and the soul-numbing work of filing finally caught up with me? Could I keep feeling alive, if I immersed myself in the arts again?

But even when my whole life was rehearsal and performing, there were days when I couldn't think to put one foot in front of the other and show up at morning technique class.

Do I try to re-create this night every day? Order season tickets to every local company, leave the kids with a sitter, go out to eat with friends, stay up late to wake up early.

Something flickered that night, when we all came together, and I mistakenly thought it was just my shiny collection of perpetually happy friends living perfect, care-free lives.
I wanted to run away from my family. I didn't think I'd miss them. I know they'd miss me, but Wally's a good dad. And a good dad with two young, good kids? They'd get another better mom soon.

I wanted to steal my friends' copyrights on life, duplicate myself to whatever they were doing. Get back in shape, join a company, or start my own, and just do free performances in the park all the time, making art accessible to the world. Gah, it's perfect.

But then there'd be the cold nights, the world as my dance critic, and a pile of unpaid citations for street performing without a permit. And I know I'd end up missing Wally and the kids.
I'm so focused on the details of that night, the things that made me feel alive -- a road trip, a concert, a dinner out -- that I overlook other happenings of the night: my friends' conversational testimonies of ER visits, frustrations at work, the journey of a loved one's long-term recovery.

I realize that they're not alive all the time either. And we must have stumbled on something together that woke us all up, at once. 

As a fan of conspiracy theories and sci-fi, I can only conclude we were visited by some other-worldly ghost with the strange and wonderful gift of awakening humans to a world bigger than the doldrums of every day life.

As a fan of a God who will take on human form, bend the laws of nature, weep with those who sorrow, and wait with us when we're just not quite ready, I can only conclude we were visited by the Holy Spirit.

I'm inclined to chase down the highs of life, seeking out the next great thrill, longing for the experience of admiration, achievement, affirmation. Yet even as things on those to-do lists are checked off, I still find myself wandering these doldrums of thoughtless existence.

May the unusual Spirit, who found us as freely in a loud and crowded IHOP as He would in a still, quiet chapel, come visit us all, to wake us up, to laugh, to love, to care, to live.

Come, Holy Spirit!  Fill the hearts of your faithful, and enkindle in us the fire of Your love.  Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you will renew the face of the earth.  Amen.