Thursday, December 24, 2015

We've Traveled Long and Far by Night

We've traveled long and far by night
And though we know that God is light
The world is dark; we trip and fall
We stumble, stagger, falter, crawl

And no, we're not completely lost
And yes, the journey's worth the cost
But we're exhausted, spent and sore
And long to rest, renew, restore

But in the dark encircling sky
A star still shines; we hear the cry
Of one who loved and entered earth
To show us what our lives are worth

So like the magi long ago
We'll follow on and we will know
Our savior face to face someday
And darkness will dissolve away


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Two Stories

Yesterday I talked with some friends about terrorism. I have a little experience with the subject because I lived in Peru during some very difficult years, when the Shining Path terrorist organization held the country strongly in its grip. Another group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, was also active at the time. Shining Path may be the most brutal terrorist organization you’ve never heard of. An expert quoted in a Toronto Star article described it as “absolutely, totally ruthless."  The group killed an estimated 70,000 people.

The Shining Path was a fan of car bombs, and we could hear them on a regular basis and feel them shake the house. One of my most poignant parenting moments came when there was a fairly significant explosion involving our gas oven, and my son, who was in the house at the time, didn’t come to the kitchen to investigate. I found him in his bedroom, calmly working at his desk, and when I explained what had happened he said, “Oh, I just thought it was another bomb.”  The moment is still vivid in my memory. I stared at him as the sort of life we were living suddenly became crystal clear. Was it OK to raise a child in a place where bombs had become background noise?  None of the parenting books I had read covered that.

Terrorism can invoke strong feelings of powerlessness and loss of control, which was a focus of yesterday’s discussion. We all feel a need to respond somehow, but what can we do?  I shared two stories with my friends, and I’ve decided to share them here, as well.

The first story begins before I actually moved to Peru. I was living in Costa Rica, where my husband Dan and I were attending language school. A small group of students, all eventually headed to Peru, met together on a regular basis to pray.

The day before one of our scheduled meetings, I suddenly had a very strong urge to pray for the conversion of Peruvian terrorists. It was one of the most intense burdens I’ve ever felt and I prayed with much intention and focus all through that day and into the next. I went to the scheduled prayer meeting with the burden still strongly on my heart. During our prayer time, another student also prayed that terrorists would be drawn to Christ. It wasn’t something I remembered anyone praying for in the past, so I assumed that God had burdened his heart as well.

Dan and I finished language study and moved to Peru. In Peru, I was introduced to a group of missionaries from various denominations and sending agencies. One of them told an incredible story. About a year earlier, she and her husband had been traveling in a mountain area when they were taken hostage. Eventually they were released, which was a truly miraculous occurrence. The rebels kept their car, however, and everything in it. There was an evangelistic film in the car, along with the equipment to show it.

Jan was telling the story now because there was a new development. She had made contact with a former rebel who had been part of the group who kidnapped her. He told her that they had planned to kill her and her husband, but that “something” kept them from it. He also said that the men watched the movie they had found in the car multiple times. As a result, many of the rebels had left the group. He himself had also eventually left and become a Christian.

The story thrilled me, and I told Dan about it later that day. As I was talking, I suddenly remembered the prayer burden I had felt when we lived in Costa Rica. I wondered aloud how the timing might relate to Jan’s experience. Dan remarked that he probably had the date of the prayer meeting on his old calendar, so he could figure it out. He dug out the calendar and told me the date. I got goosebumps as I realized that the day I was suddenly overcome with an urge to pray for the conversion of terrorists was the day that the rebels were left with an evangelistic movie and the means to watch it.

Story number two takes place a year or two later. Dan was traveling and I had been alone for many days with my two small children. I was very sick at the time with undiagnosed and untreated Lyme disease. I tell you this to explain why I was so incredibly exhausted that I went to bed at 8:00. I got into bed at 8:00 anyway, but didn’t feel free to go to sleep. Instead, I felt strongly that God was telling me to pray for the capture of terrorist leaders. I prayed for about half an hour until the burden lifted and I felt that I had been released from the task. In the next day’s newspaper there was a story about a terrorist leader who had been captured at 8:30.

I’m sharing these stories to remind myself, and maybe you in the process, that we’re not powerless in the face of evil. God calls us to participate with him in healing the world, and I believe we grieve him when we fail to respond. Prayer is a powerful weapon against darkness, and one that all of us, even those of us who are ill and homebound, can use. Lord, please forgive me for letting it sit unused so often. I’m also sharing these stories because a friend asked whether we should pray for the conversion of terrorists or their capture. My experiences lead me to believe that it’s not an either/or proposition.

There’s been some backlash recently against politicians who’ve expressed that their thoughts and prayers are with those affected by violence. It’s true that the phrase “my prayers are with you” can sometimes sound dismissive when we believe there’s other action that could be taken. I feel that way whenever someone wearing synthetic perfume tells me that they’ll pray for my chemical illness. It’s also true that expressing the intention to pray doesn’t equal actually praying. Actually praying, however, is something not to be taken lightly.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Name Game

I’m still deep in the throes of preparing for a move. As I look at space allocation options for the suite that my son and I are planning to build in his garage, it’s becoming increasingly clear that even the few furniture pieces I had planned to take are going to be too big and I’m going to have to make some new purchases. For people with chemical sensitivities, any purchase can be problematic, and requires much research. As I shop for possibilities online, I’m reminded of the games that manufacturers and marketers play and the confusion that exists among the general public regarding materials used in furniture and housing. It’s not easy to figure out what we’re actually getting.

Here are a few confusing terms related to the home environment:

·        Solid wood – Technically, something made of solid wood is made of basic lumber. Much of the wood furniture sold today, however, is made of a manufactured wood product, such as particleboard, medium density fiberberboard (MDF), high density fiberboard (HDF) or oriented strand board (OSB). Chipboard, flakeboard, furniture board, composite wood, and engineered wood are other possible terms. Manufacturers may refer to them as “solid wood products” or as of being made of “wood solids.”  Sometimes private sellers advertising products on sites like eBay or Craigslist will say that a piece of furniture made from particleboard is solid wood. This may be due to confusion as to material type, but sometimes I think they just mean that the piece doesn’t contain metal or upholstery.

Manufactured wood products combine small wood particles with an adhesive resin. Plywood uses layers of wood rather than particles, but otherwise the principle is the same. When used in furniture, manufactured wood is generally covered with a laminate or veneer, making the identification process more challenging. The toxicity of manufactured wood can be high, and comes from the adhesives, which often contain large amounts of formaldehyde and other problematic chemicals.

·        Bonded leather – Bonded leather is the fabric equivalent of manufactured wood. Wikipedia expains that “bonded leather is made by shredding leather scraps and leather fiber, then mixing it with bonding materials. The mixture is next extruded onto a fiber cloth, or paper backing, and the surface is usually embossed with a leather-like texture or grain.”  The amount of natural leather in bonded leather products can vary significantly and can sometimes be quite low. The primary bonding material is generally polyurethane, and among the other chemicals commonly found in bonded leather are plasticizers, which have been associated with a range of health problems.

Terms for leather-like synthetic fabrics (which are generally some form of vinyl) include leatherette, pleather, and naugahyde. “Vegan leather” is an especially interesting term. It can refer to any non-animal leather-like product. Generally it refers to vinyl, but can occasionally refer to alternative leathers made from cork or kelp.

·        Linoleum – True linoleum is a product made from linseed oil and natural materials such as powdered cork, tree resin, and limestone. It was once used widely as a flooring material, but has now been largely replaced by vinyl. Generally, manufacturers and marketers don’t use the term incorrectly, but private sellers, realtors, and landlords may refer to linoleum flooring when the flooring is actually a vinyl product.

·        Hardwood or ceramic floors – Another flooring issue that people searching for healthy housing often encounter is that homes or apartments advertised as having hardwood or ceramic tile floors may actually be floored with a laminate. Laminates have a manufactured wood core with a photographic layer bonded to it that simulates wood or ceramic. Generally the term “floating floor” refers to laminate flooring.

Shopping with health in mind means learning to be a code-breaker. It’s not easy, but it’s important. Once I’ve cracked this code, I’ll move on to another: trying to decipher the color designations. Is elm bark, for example, more brown or gray?  This all makes my head spin.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Who Am I?

The news has been filled in recent days with stories of people identifying with a gender or race other than the one that seemed apparent when they were born. Because of that, I’ve been pondering the issue of identity. How much is chosen for us?  How much can we choose for ourselves? Who am I, really?

People define themselves using many criteria. Age, race, and gender are starting points as are marital status and parenthood. We define ourselves by our jobs, our politics, and our faith. For those of us with chronic illnesses, a significant temptation is to let our physical conditions label and define us.

So who am I? 

I am more. I am more than my circumstances. I am more than my diseases. I am more than what the world sees.

Remembering that I’m more than my physical challenges is one of my biggest struggles. My chemical sensitivities, in particular, seemingly invade every corner of my life and affect every decision I make. I can never escape them.

I have long been intrigued by Satan’s reasoning in the book of Job. He asked God for permission to test Job in all sorts of horrible ways, including the death of all ten of his children. The Bible tells us that Job felt great sorrow and grief when confronted with his losses, but that he didn’t accuse God of wrongdoing. So Satan tried again. He proposed to God, “Reach out and take away his health, and he will surely curse you to your face!" (Job 2:5, NLT) 

In general, I don’t think it’s helpful to compare suffering. I can’t even imagine the pain Job and his wife must have felt at losing all of their children, and I’m not at all sure that I would have passed Job’s test. I do know the grief, however, of losing my mother when I was a young teenager, and losing my husband last year. They were significant and life-altering losses. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that losing my health was harder than losing my loved ones, but it’s fair to say that it’s a loss with a different flavor. No matter how close the relationship between any two people, there is still a measure of separateness. While living on this earth, however, it is impossible to separate from the physical body. My body feels like me. My illnesses feel like my identity.

It feels that way, but it isn’t the truth. I have beliefs, thoughts, experiences and interests beyond my physical condition and my circumstances. I am more. You are more. Let’s remind ourselves of that.

* I am less. 1 Corinthians 12 describes Christians as parts of a body. Verses 19-21 say “How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body.  The eye can never say to the hand, 'I don't need you.'"

I am less than I can be when I’m not attached to the rest of the body of Christ. Finding a way to attach is a great challenge for anyone with significant chemical sensitivities. Many of us have learned, however, how essential it is to keep trying and how difficult it is to live a full spiritual life alone. Church, you are also less than you are created to be when you don’t find a way to include everyone who wants to be included. God designed us to complement each other and to work together to represent him on this earth.

* I am complete. After my husband died, I began to think about fractions. Our family suddenly seemed incomplete. We seemed like 3/4ths of a family. I realized that I needed to reframe the issue in my mind and stop thinking of my sons and myself as three of four, but as three of three. I needed to change both the numerator and denominator.

I also realized that not only was I seeing my family as incomplete or somehow not enough, but I was also seeing myself that way. Perhaps I was taking on the values of my culture. In the country and time in which I currently live, my race and education work in my favor, but my age, gender, marital and health status work against me.

Fortunately, God doesn’t see me as the world does. Colossians 2:10 tells me that I am complete through my union with Christ. He wants me to continue to grow and develop (the same chapter talks about letting my roots grow down into him), but as I am, I’m enough to be fully loved and accepted.

The Bible tells me that I’m justified through Christ. I’ve heard the term “justified” defined as “just as if I never sinned.”  It’s a helpful definition, but I also find it helpful to think about how, when typing, our computers let us “justify” our margins. When we do that, all the gaps are filled in. Every line reaches the edge. God does that for me. He fills in the gaps.

So who am I?  Who are you?  What defines us?  Who defines us?

They aren’t easy questions for anyone, and maybe they’re harder than usual for people with chronic illness. It’s so easy to let ourselves be defined by our diseases, circumstances, or culture. Instead, I want to let God tell me who I am. What he tells me is that I am his deeply loved child. That’s who I am, and that’s enough. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

I’m Not “Allergic to Smells”

I’ve written before about the fact that people tend to associate toxicity with the presence of a discernible odor. I’m revisiting the issue because I continue to hear chemical illness described as being “allergic to smells.”  I understand why people make that assumption, but the description isn’t fully accurate. One part of the inaccuracy is that although allergies can accompany it, chemical illness doesn't usually involve the specific immune reactions seen in traditional allergies.  It is instead generally a problem of the body’s detoxification system being overwhelmed or malfunctioning. The second inaccuracy is that not everything with a discernible odor is problematic and many odorless things are.

I’m also revisiting this issue because two recent sad stories drive home the point that toxic fumes don’t always come with an olfactory warning. A few weeks ago the story hit the news of a family of four on a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The family was staying in a villa and the unit underneath the one they were renting was sprayed with the pesticide methyl bromide. At the time the story was reported, two weeks after the exposure, the two children were both in a coma and their father was unable to move or talk. The next day I read the account of a father and seven children who died from carbon monoxide poisoning after running a generator inside their home. Like methyl bromide, carbon monoxide is both odorless and potentially lethal.

The fact that our noses can’t always warn us of chemical dangers and that exposure symptoms are not always immediate makes it hard for people with toxic illness to know when an environment is potentially problematic. Online friend and fellow blogger Deb (visit her blog at experienced that issue this week.

Deb moved to a new state about a year ago and has been very blessed to find a church that removed air fresheners and changed their cleaning products so that she could attend. She’s even been able to attend a care group, in the home of a family who lives a generally toxin-free life.

The family has a teenage son, and this past week, the son and a friend were getting ready for prom. The friend used cologne in a powder room near the area where the care group normally meets. The homeowner noticed the odor in the room two hours before the group was to meet and took action, wiping down all surfaces with vinegar, turning on exhaust fans, and opening windows. To be extra safe, the group decided to meet in a room farther from the location where the cologne was used, and Deb was seated between the open back door and an open window.

Deb reports that she didn’t smell anything during her time in the home. However, she states, “Less than half hour after getting home every bone and muscle and fiber in my body hurt . . . . I also had dizziness, migraine and loud ringing ears. The pain was excruciating all night.”  She adds, “Obviously the chemical poison was there even if I could not smell it.”

I’m sure every toxic illness sufferer has a similar story. How do we avoid such situations?  We need your help, and helping us helps everyone. My vote is for stronger regulations about what can be sold and greater discernment on the part of consumers about what we buy and use. Let’s try that.

Friday, April 3, 2015

How Far Away is Far Enough?

Evidently, I haven't written a blog post since November, which is not-coincidentally when my sons and I made the decision to sell or rent out our respective houses and find a shared-but-separate home together. Since that time, I've been fairly consumed with the logistics involved in making a move. I've written about housing enough in the past that I don't think I need to rehash all the difficulties involved for people with chemical illness. It's a huge issue, and I would truly appreciate prayers for the process.

One of the initial challenges my sons and I are encountering in the house hunting journey is the difficulty of finding a home far enough away from highways and other busy roads. Unfortunately, it's difficult to say with precision how far away is far enough, even for people without chemical illness. Traffic pollution is a significant health issue, both because it's so hard to avoid and because it contains a complex mixture of both gaseous pollutants and fine particulate matter. Here's some of the information I've found:
  • A publication by the National Resources Defense Council notes that health effects related to traffic pollution include cancer, heart disease, asthma, decreased lung function, pre-term birth, birth defects, and increased mortality related to such factors as heart attack, stroke, and  pneumonia.
  • The publication notes that dramatically elevated pollutant levels are generally found within 500 feet of busy roadways, but under certain conditions can extend much further.
  • An article in the Digital Journal notes that people living within 300 feet of major roadways have higher rates of respiratory conditions, allergies, heart disease, and certain types of cancers.
  • The author reports that a California study found that in the early morning hours, traffic pollution travels a mile or more from the highways.
  • The article also states that the American Lung Association's 2013 "State of the Air" report determined that living or working within 0.3 miles of a highway or road is "more dangerous than people have been led to believe."
  • A Time magazine article reported on a study finding that children whose families lived within 1,000 feet of a freeway when they were born were twice as likely as others to have autism.
  • The Southern California Particle Center and Supersite (SCPCS) notes that many factors influence exposure to traffic pollution. These include weather conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and the speed and direction of the wind. Whether a home is upwind or downwind of the roadway is important, as is the construction of the house and the type of filtration system it has. Whether people are outdoors during peak traffic times or indoors with open windows also affects exposure levels.

So how close is too close? The SCPCS concludes that "scientists cannot say exactly how close is 'too close' at this point" and that "the closer people are to the source of traffic emissions, the higher their exposure is to many of the constituents of exhaust."  Studies indicate that vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, or those with pre-existing health conditions should be especially careful. An article in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine notes that exposure to traffic-related pollution can contribute to the development of COPD and that enhanced susceptibility is seen in people with asthma, which might be expected, and diabetes, which seems to me a less obvious association. Although I haven't seen this advice in print, I've been told that one expert in toxic illness recommends that those of us who suffer from MCS live at least five miles from a highway, which seems like good advice that can be extremely difficult to follow, especially when taking the needs of other family members into account.

Mitigating the health effects of traffic pollution, especially for those not planning a move, isn't easy. Avoiding as many other sources of chemical exposures as possible will help lower the overall toxic burden on the body. Good air filtration can help, as well, and planting vegetation can also be of some use. Although, in general, indoor air pollution is higher than that found outdoors, those living near busy roadways may find it prudent to shut windows and stay indoors during peak traffic hours.

To a degree, the issue seems to be gaining more attention. As I noted in a previous post, some state and local authorities are beginning to address the issue of building schools near major roadways, while others continue to ignore the risks. Compelling evidence of health effects does not appear to be enough, in and of itself, to consistently motivate action. Perhaps a growing awareness of the issue will inspire parents to raise the issue and apply pressure when decisions are being made.

Will the pollution from busy roadways become less problematic as electric and hybrid cars increase in popularity? Yes, to a degree, but some experts conclude that fine particulates from tire wear and roadway dust may continue to be an issue. I'm personally not pinning my hopes on a quick decrease in levels of exhaust fumes and am going to continue to pass on homes that are too close to busy roadways, no matter how well they fit other criteria. I just wish it weren't quite so challenging to figure out how far away is far enough.