Personal Training with The Muffin Man

The human spirit coupled with The Holy Spirit – the will to face your limitations courageously and find creative solutions – that’s   what I’ve seen in Grandpa. It’s taken a lot of courage and creativity for him to do as much as he can by himself, and humbly rely on family to do the rest. Still, with the many debilitating limitations Parkinson’s brings, Grandpa manages to find joy.

The need to take responsibility for his own health comes from a strong drive within, and I constantly find myself astounded by his positive attitude which transforms his limitations into possibilities. For anyone who faces physical limitations (or limitations of any kind), Grandpa is truly an inspiration.

There are only a few exercises Grandpa can do by himself, but for him they are essential. If you have always been healthy and not suffered any personal handicaps, you would fail to see their significance. Yet, these “small” routine efforts mean everything to Grandpa – and to us his care givers, because they give him a sense of independence and fill his day with purpose.

For instance, after taking his “power nap” after breakfast, Grandpa is helped out of bed and up onto his walker. From there he shuffles (some days fast, some days slow) off to the bathroom to do his “muffins”- a 500 step-in-place “mini-exercise” at the bathroom handicap bar. One day, he just added this newly invented exercise to his routine, which he nick-named after the kneading action cats make with their paws.

Muffins are one of the few exercises Grandpa can do on his own. He works out daily on an all-in-one home gym, which he has to be helped on and off of, but “muffins” are his own invention. And since necessity is indeed the mother of invention, Grandpa’s need to “do” for himself led to the idea of pulling himself up and out of his wheel chair onto the handicap bar, step in place at in‌intervals of 50, and sit  back down again when he needs to rest. Muffins usually take him about a half hour, and I know the whole family is glad that he can do them by himself.

After he is done “making muffins,” Grandpa wheels himself backwards to the sink and gives himself what he calls “a cold water facial.” A cold water facial consists of patting his face and neck with cold water, wetting his hair down, and brushing it back into a “Will Geer-Grandpa Walton” hairdo.

“Where does he come up with these names?” Claire asks.

“I don’t know,” I reply, except we both agree, Grandpa is from another era – the golden age of Hollywood and all it’s glamor. The older he gets, the more sentimental he becomes, so the term “cold water facial” probably came from one of those classic Claudette Colbert/Clark Gable movies or an Ivory Soap commercial from “way back when.” Whatever the case, Grandpa’s senior jargon is charming.

Another exercise Grandpa does on a daily basis are vocal exercises, but you won’t hear arpeggios or scales emanating from his bedroom. No, instead you’ll hear a 90-year-old’s quiet but gusty version of “On an Old Rugged Cross” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Whenever Grandpa’s vocal cords start to lapse into a Parkinson’s whisper, he stretches them out by singing the great hymns of the ages – vocal exercises for body and spirit.

Faced with limitations? Think of them as springboards for witnessing God’s creativity. Pray and ask Him to show you a solution you haven’t  thought of before. You just might find a new way to exercise your faith in a God who is limitless with inspiration and solutions – some of them seemingly small, but life-changing. You’ll never know until you pull yourself up to the bar and start doin’ “muffins.”

Hidden Treasure

The first flower to emerge out of last year’s curled and decayed leaves was a snowdrop. A single bud blossomed on the first day of spring and lingered for a couple of weeks like a miniature ambassador heralding the long-awaited season of rebirth and growth.

As winter storms subsided and the sun began to warm the earth, we searched and waited. Would we be fortunate enough to see the delicate paper-thin petals, or be disappointed – as in years past, when we had missed the unpretentious pageantry altogether?

Then Elizabeth spied the green leaves sprouting among the silvery weather-beaten remnants of last fall’s foliage.  She ran into the house and announced that a snowdrop had finally arrived. “Is there more than one?” I asked, knowing how few there have been in the past. “No, there’s only one,” she said. One, I thought. Well, thank you, Lord, for that one!

The little girls waited patiently over the long winter months for the warm days to return. And with every bud, flower, or bug they discover, they hurry to tell me about their new-found treasures, as if seeing them for the first time. The caress of the warm breeze on their cheeks, the soft grass underfoot, and the promise of green growing things makes spring their favorite season. Once again they are free to run and enjoy the simple pleasures of God’s creation, unencumbered by bulky coats and mittens. They can breathe, and feel, and be a part of the world of nature around them as it is born anew.

I am reminded by the girls’ sheer delight in a humble snowdrop that, I, too, can rejoice over the gifts that God gives daily─gifts that remain hidden from view if I let the child-like wonder for life stay buried underneath the remnants of old thought patterns and decayed thinking. Sometimes we adults have to force ourselves to push upward and out of the dirty soil of everyday routines to receive the gifts that our heavenly Father wants to bestow upon us─hidden treasure He lavishes upon those who have eyes to behold the “One and only God” and whose delight is in Him.

For if you cry for discernment,
Lift your voice for understanding;
If you seek her as silver
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will discern the fear of the LORD
And discover the knowledge of God.

Proverbs 2:3-5



copyright 2008-2011 by Jill Novak
All rights reserved.


Open the Floodgates

By mid-February, the warm breath of God melts the remains of a 100-year blizzard. Within hours, the huge snowdrifts, sculpted by an invisible finger of icy wind dissolve – leaving behind pools of nourishing moisture to replenish the earth. As the temperature fluctuates, the snow quickly recedes and the ground becomes saturated. The cycle repeats: first cold, then snow, then thawing wind. And then, by some awesome miracle, the grass emerges and greens under the sun-warmed sky.

Just as the snow melts and replenishes the earth, our tears replenish our souls.

How blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
In whose heart are the highways to Zion!
Passing through the valley of Baca (weeping) they make it a spring;
The early rain also covers it with blessings.
They go from strength to strength,
Every one of them appears before God in Zion.
Psalm 84:5

The valley of Baca is a valley filled with tears – tears from trials and testings, from traumas and tragedies. Once we fall prostrate in this valley, we may wonder how we will ever regain the strength to continue on life’s journey. But God’s word tells us while passing through the valley of Baca, we are to make it a spring from which we may dip freely from pools of blessings especially in the midst of our greatest grief and pain. In a season of deep sorrow, we are to draw close to God and receive His grace for the journey.

Even Jesus cried.

“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety (reverence and love for the Father). Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation…” Hebrews 5:7-9

Jesus prayed, cried, and agonized. And God heard.

Given time, tears cleanse and purge our souls from sin. They prepare us for dying to our flesh and awakening to new life in the spirit. And in some miraculous way, just as the snow nourishes the ground, our tears saturate the soil of our hearts, making the conditions right for new growth.

When last did you weep before God? Have you ever felt His overwhelming presence in a floodgate of tears?

Washington Irving said, “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.”

Over our lifetime, we will find ourselves many times in the valley of weeping, but remember, we’re only passing through. The circumstances that cause us to agonize and shed tears matter to the merciful God of the Universe who is intimately involved in the minutest details of our lives. Our Savior will draw us close to His heart as we journey on. We do not wander or weep alone.

“You have taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?” Psalm 56:8.


Be Still My Soul

Beneath the snow, my garden lies waiting for the rebirth of spring. For months, there have been no visible signs of growth – no change, no movement, no life. Frigid and cold, the world outside my window appears locked in a state of suspended animation.

The sunflowers stoop low under heavy caps of crystallized snow. The bean trellises and toppled tomato cages take on magical forms as the flakes stack quietly, softening the rigid contours. The rest of the landscape is indiscernible. Boundaries between hedgerow and field have merged under an insulating blanket of white. From one storm to the next, the snow drifts deeper, accumulating, stretching far to the horizon.

Just as winter has gripped the landscape, I, too, have been gripped by life’s circumstances. In the call of duty, boundaries once clearly defined have become indistinct. My joy is gone, my cup half-empty. Hopelessness stretches far out before me. I fight the day-to-day sameness – despair over God ordained limitations. I cannot change my life’s circumstances any more than I can tell the southerly breeze to blow and melt the winter’s snow. But unlike my garden, I resist every effort to be still, to wait upon the Lord to provide what my thirsty soul longs for.

How long, oh, Lord, how long? How long will I have to endure this season Thou hast ordained for me?

To everything there is a season, but this season is particularly long. Will spring ever come? Will hope ever spring eternal? Spring and autumn pass quickly, summer lingers, but winter is longer and harder to endure.

But then I am reminded of a passage of scripture from the book of James, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Let endurance have its perfect result.

There are two Greek words for the word endurance. The first is prosdechomai,  pros-dekh’-om-ahee which means to await (with confidence or patience): accept, allow, look (wait). The other is hupomone hoop-om-on-ay’ which means cheerful (or hopeful) endurance, constancy: enduring, patience, patient continuance (waiting).

In order to find joy, I have to let endurance have its perfect result. I have to be still. And finally when I allow my soul to be stripped of its defenses – its busyness, its escapes, its pleasures, finally when I cease to strive, the words of comfort come in the truth of the familiar hymn, given by a loving heavenly Father who knows, who cares about the minutest details of our lives.

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Even when it appears there are no solutions, in the stillness He speaks. And through the hymn writer, He reminds me to bear patiently my cross of grief and pain. Wanting so desperately to escape my circumstances, I fail to acknowledge all the grace-filled moments that exist within them.

Some spiritual seasons are longer than others.There must be a time of inactivity to experience growth. There must be time of near death, for life to teem again. I embrace the lessons my garden gifts me even in the dead of winter.

I choose to lie hidden in my Maker, awaiting rebirth – my heart dead to its own will, slumbering through a long cold winter of the soul. Grace is here, waiting to be received.

Take comfort my soul; the Lord is on thy side.

Don’t Bite the Hand that Feeds You!

We live on a farm and keep an odd assortment of chickens and waterfowl. The chickens, for the most part, are a congenial lot, whereas, the waterfowl have an “ATTITUDE”   every day. You have to be really careful around a certain gander, named after a character we heard about on a children’s record from the 1950’s. The song  goes something like this:

Ozzie the Ostrich,
the bird with the long long legs,
nobody knows where he goes to doze,
or where he lays his eggs!

Crazy lyrics, but years ago, that song inspired our older daughter, Claire, to name our new white gander, Oswald.

You have to watch your backside when you’re in Oswald’s presence. You never know if he’s going to bite you, especially after you’ve just been nice enough to feed and water him. Our other geese are a little less threatening, but once there was a rooster who must have been a distant cousin of Ozzie’s. This high-strutting cock refused to appreciate just how good he had it here on the Novak funny farm. And because of that, he no longer lives here.

At first we thought “he” was a “she” so we named her “My Fair Lady.” Her beautiful black and white feathers reminded us of the striking costume Audrey Hepburn wore in a racing scene from the movie of the same name. However, when “My Fair Lady” started to “cock-a-doodle-do,” we realized our mistake. “She ” was a “he,” so we quickly changed her name to “Henry Higgins.” The name fit perfectly.

Henry was ornery and dangerous. He had the habit of jumping in the air and kicking you hard with his spurs when you least expected it. He nailed our landlady in the rear one day when she tired to shoo him back to the barn (we weren’t home at the time – oh, how I wish I could have seen that). Another time, he flew around the side of the garage like a stealth bomber and attacked our four-year-old who was innocently playing in the sand box. This premeditated maneuver brought Henry’s military career to an abrupt end.  For everyone’s peace of mind, Henry had to go.

When our neighbor asked if she could have a rooster, we offered her Henry – permanently. With no little children running around her farm, her barnyard was much better suited for Henry’s aggressive and unpredictable behavior.

Although this happened many years ago, thinking about our current situation brought back fond memories of Henry Higgins demise (Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait!). The last we heard, Henry had mysteriously disappeared into the woods, likely carried away by a fox or coyote. Needless to say, not a tear was shed. He was the meanest animal we’ve ever had on the farm, that is, except for Oswald.

One of the most aggravating farm chores we undertake on a daily basis is feeding the geese (or trying to feed the geese). It’s not too bad if you’re just pouring feed into their pans, but if you reach out to offer them a piece of bread, they show their appreciation by honking their heads off and trying to take a chomp out of your fingers. I’m almost positive this is where the saying “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” came from. I mean, how ungrateful can you be? Geese have a love/hate relationship with the human race, that much is obvious.

Well, Grandpa has been exhibiting similar “goose- like” behavior with us the past few weeks. He’s back to complaining about minor irritations, digging below the surface like a chicken scratching for bugs in the burn pile. Yes, Grandpa’s been working overtime to find something to be disgruntled about, and in the process, he’s been aggravating the “heck” (sorry for the graphic language) out of his grandson and granddaughter, his chief caregivers, cooks, and bottle washers. In other words, he’s biting the very hands that feed him, get him out of bed, change his diapers, prepare his meals, wash his clothes, and puts him to bed at night…you get the idea. I sure wish Grandpa would!

I  don’t know if it’s because I haven’t been there much in the last month and he misses my maternal input (it’s the most time I’ve had off in a year, and I’ve really needed it) or because it’s after the holidays, and cabin fever has set in, but Grandpa has gotten cranky and down-right demanding again. The object of his disdain this time is the issue of “double dipping ” and “germs.”

First he refused a jar of apple butter Eric placed before him at breakfast.

“You’ve all been double dipping out of that jar,” he complained.

“What are you talking about, Grandpa? Nobody’s eating this stuff right now but you!”

“Well, I’m not eating it!” Grandpa retorted, like a spoiled three-year-old.

“Fine,” Eric said, tossing the jar back in the fridge. “It doesn’t bother me.” Don’t major on the minors, right? Good job, Eric.

The next issue to surface was a request for Eric to put gloves on to dispense his medicine.

“You need to put gloves on when your handling my pills,” Grandpa demanded.

“What the heck, Grandpa?” Eric replied, incredulously. “I’m not going to do that!”

We’ve been dispensing Grandpa’s medicine for almost a year and a half now, and putting latex gloves on three times a day to place his pills on a spoon would be a waste of time and energy, not to mention completely depleting our local Walgreen’s store of their latex glove supply.

I could only imagine what might come next.

“Grandpa’s driving me crazy,” Eric confided to me on the phone, one day.

“Is he getting enough water?” I asked, my standard question whenever I think Grandpa is becoming internally imbalanced, which can lead to crankiness and erratic behavior.

“Yeah, he’s getting enough water,” he said.

“What about cranberry juice?” I suggested, trying to figure out if he had the second cause of cranky, erratic behavior – a urinary tract infection.

“Yeah, he’s getting his cranberry juice,” Eric said.

“Well, tell him we’re not changing anything,” I said.

You see everyone will be going along fine, when all of the sudden, Grandpa wants to change the routine. It’s not good enough that everyone’s happy and life is running smoothly; let’s change the routine so we can be in control. Maybe that’s part of Grandpa’s discontent, the need to be in control of something – anything, because all of his life is in the control of others, and when he can’t get his way in little things, he begins to feel that no one is listening, no one cares.

But that’s not true. We’re all just a little battle-weary from taking care of a 90-year-old rooster with Parkinson’s. Most of the time Grandpa gets what he wants the minute he asks for it. Like Henry Higgins, Grandpa loses sight of just how good he’s got it. He forgets how bad the care was in the the nursing facility and when we least expect it, he hits us in the rear by recounting his current list of grievances to the visiting nurse. When we meet his needs 99.9% of the time, it really hurts to hear about the 1% we’ve missed (kind of like a peck to the posterior by an overly protective goose).

In order for everyone to continue to be able to handle this situation, its necessary to remind Grandpa of a few things when he begins to act up. “We’re not changing anything, Grandpa. The routine works and we’re not changing it.” Now that we’re on to him, that’s one of our new lines, and of course there is always my personal favorite as a last resort – “Tell him, he’s biting the hand that feeds him!”

Honestly, doesn’t Grandpa realize that Eric is one of the last people he should be picking on? What if Eric get’s really mad someday and flies the coop. Not many 19-year-olds would put up with this kind of nonsense – this long (I haven’t told you the half of it). Where would Oswald (aka 90-year-old Grandpa) go then?

I think, maybe Grandpa and Oswald ought to share accommodations for a while. I know a nice little place where you can get all the eggs you want, and Grandpa just loves farm fresh eggs. After all, birds of a feather flock together – and those two have a lot in common.

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