Tuesday, February 13, 2018

I've been sitting in my favorite chair, feet braced against the ottoman, looking at Twitter and Facebook and knitting blogs for the past hour and a half. I just drank the last swallow of hot chocolate from the coffee mug. It was cold and icky sweet, thick with the dark brown syrup in the bottom of the cup made of Swiss Miss that did not quite dissolve in the hot milk an hour ago.

It's 10:29 and I never, ever go to bed before 11. I'm stressed and tired and can't seem to let go. There are remnants of today's work, or the work I hoped to complete today, scattered around my chair. My knitting is on the other side of the room. I can't even hook up with the yarn and cable needle that would help ease me into the end of the day.

Lent starts tomorrow, the forty days of repenting and remembering that life is suffering and none of us gets out alive. People tell me they love Lent, they revel in Lent. Not me. I've never liked Lent. You could go back through all 12 years of this blog and every year, somewhere in February or March, you'll find me sniping at Lent in one post or another—the hymns, the Wednesday night church services, the ashes, the purple, the gloom.

It feels like the dark cloud between me and a better world. A season of dirty snow and winter jackets stiff with four months' steady use, jackets standing up by themselves and begging to be washed and put away in the back of the closet.

And yet.

Lent says what's wrong. Lent seeks forgiveness. Lent waits patiently on the Lord.

So here we go.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Still February

Finally got outside to shovel snow last night just after dark, and did a damn fine job of it. Woke up slowly this morning, gradually becoming aware of stiff and tired muscles. Made coffee and looked out the window expecting to see sidewalks and driveway scraped clean.

Nothing but white. A couple inches of white.


Hard, plodding work brightened only by a couple of silly Valentines with their gaudy colors and fake cheer. (Okay, if you're a fan of Valentines--brightened by a few sweet cards, pink and heartfelt in an otherwise grey month.)

I have never been a fan of life's long grey stretches. They're like the sidewalk along the north side of my house that stretches from the driveway and the alley all the way to the street corner. There's a point when you're shoveling that sidewalk where you stop and lean on your shovel and despair of ever finishing.

But you gotta keep going.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018



We're still in the single digits and already it feels like a long month. Six days down, twenty-two to go, and these early days are shrouded in snow.

I used my fingers to count syllables in that last sentence, in the hope that "go" and "snow" were at the end of ten-syllable clauses--making an inadvertent rhyming couplet, ala William Shakespeare. Alas, not. I'm a few syllables short and the da-DAH, da-DAH rhythm of iambic pentameter is not there at all. "Shrouded in snow" waltzes instead of two-steps.

The high and the low of Shakespeare are on my mind this morning. I'm singing in a concert this weekend whose centerpiece is a setting of four Shakespeare sonnets for brass and choir, with an actor thrown in for good measure. All I've heard so far is the choral end, and there are a lot of notes on the page for brass. The first sonnet in the group is "No longer mourn for me," which I am finding incredibly sad. "Let your love even with my life decay," says the speaker of the sonnet--as if that were possible. As if you could protect those who love you from the grief of losing you.

You can't. Mortality's a bitch.

The low end of Shakespeare on my mind this morning is "The Comedy of Errors," an early play full of clowning, physical comedy and word play based on mistaken identity. I've got fifth and sixth graders working on scenes from this play, cut by necessity to the bare bones farcical elements of the plot. Most roles are triple-cast--a new actor in each of three sections of material. Given that all the fun stuff in the play is based on two sets of twins, unknown to each other but being mistaken for one another--well, do the math. In rehearsal yesterday pretty much no one was called by their correct character name -- at least not by the director (me). You truly do need a scorecard to tell the players.

What's fun is how enthusiastically the kids pitch into the work. Acting is fun! Acting frustrated and and angry and put-upon comes naturally. And we can enjoy all that frustration because it is a comedy of errors--we know that all will come right in the end. (In the end--when I've got a dozen kids onstage, plus another twenty in a watching crowd of citizens, each of whom, I hope, gets it.)

February. High tragedy, low comedy. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

My take on #MeToo

As the reports of sexual harassment have multiplied in the news and #MeToo has become a topic of conversation everywhere--because every women has a story to tell--I've had a nagging sense that something was missing. Or rather, that the focus on unwanted sexual advances is missing the larger point about how women are treated by men.

Not all women are groped or harassed regularly at work (especially as we grow older and less attractive). But all of them are interrupted by men in meetings. Many think carefully before taking credit for a good idea--or reflexively, deflect the credit elsewhere. We guard how we speak, careful to be tactful and indirect--and if we're not doing that consciously, it's because we've been so well socialized that we do it unconsciously.

This morning I read an article that articulates what I've been trying to home in on: "This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work" by Rebecca Traister at New York magazine. I hope you'll read it, especially if you're a man who is trying to make sense of the #MeToo movement.

Here's the sentence that made me say,  "Yes. Exactly."
It’s not that we’re horrified like some Victorian damsel; it’s that we’re horrified like a woman in 2017 who briefly believed she was equal to her male peers but has just been reminded that she is not, who has suddenly had her comparative powerlessness revealed to her.

You really should read the whole thing, because Traister lays out the many shades of how sexual harassment demeans women's work as well as their sense of autonomy and power.

Many women I know, when placed in a situation that makes them feel angry and powerless, tear up and cry. And then feel humiliated because they now look even more powerless, when in fact they are righteously angry. There are many ways beside sexual harassment that women are confronted with the realization they whatever their skills and intellect, the men around them see mainly their sexuality and gender and value them for their looks, the way they care for men's feelings, for their gracious manners, or their usefulness as status symbols.

I think back to my days in college and graduate school. There was the conference with the professor I had for Old Testament. I was there to talk about a paper. He believed in using this opportunity to get to know students, so we're chatting, and I say something that identifies me as a feminist. Oh, how he shamed me for that. Don't you want to have a family? Don't your parents have a good marriage? (This last question was especially offensive and prying, since my father was his colleague.) There was also my realization that the young women with easy-going supportive friendships with professors were the women who were flirtatious and attractive. Smart was way down on the list of desirable qualities if you were a girl student.

All of this is not to say that men and women cannot have three-dimensional, mutually respectful relationships. But women have learned that those kind of relationships can never be assumed.

The world shouldn't be this way--and this moment in our culture is an opportunity to become woke to more than just sexual harassment. It's time to understand how far our patriarchal culture still must go before women are valued as full human beings in every dimension.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Advent 2017

(Photo by PetraBlahoutova from Pixabay and the Creative Commons search tool.)

The upside of waking up too early on a December morning is being able to sit in the bay window of my living room and watch the morning light rise into the sky. It's a little tricky--the chair points away from the window, so I have to remember to glance back over my shoulder--away from my laptop--to watch the new day's progress. If there were dramatic streaks of pink in the clouds this morning, I've missed them, but still, at 7:04 a.m., the official time of sunrise on December 6 at my midwestern longitude, the brightening, quiet sky is something to see. Something to smile at.

For some people it's mountains, for others it's water. For me, it's sky--whether it's stretched out south to north over the horizon of a Green Bay sunset or looming over a late-afternoon traffic jam in suburban Chicago. Perhaps I believe, like a preschooler, that God lives out there, where space is so vast it has to be measured in light-years of time, where I am nothing but a passing moment on the surface of a small, but unusual planet.

It's Advent and that planet is troubled. Words of the prophets imploring justice ring hard and true. It's a short Advent this year. We celebrate the fourth Sunday of the liturgical season just hours before the Christmas Eve candlelight services begin.

There's so little time from sun-up to sun-down this month. And so much work to do, much of it while it is night.

But the light is coming! Has come! Will come!

Sunday, November 05, 2017

All Saints 2017

Random on All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

1. It's been a long and very full weekend. I have no hope of putting together a coherent post, especially after a couple of Lagunitas IPAs and a Chicago Classic pizza at Lou Malnati's.

2. But stuff has been splatting on the windshield of my spirit, like insects on a long night drive. Can't ignore the mess.

3. I've sung Morten Lauridsen's Lux aeterna three times in the last 24 hours. It's gorgeous. It's ethereal. It's not even all that hard to sing. I've purposely stayed away from taking in the translation of the Latin, even from thinking about it. I can't produce the space and the sound and the support for the musical line if I'm thinking about that eternal light and my dear ones who rest there. (Or in Kris's case, are playing Frisbee with Jesus--my mind went there briefly during one performance and had to be rapidly called back to the Latin.)  

4. Space and sound and breath embody Spirit in music, which lifts earth to heavenly spheres of joy and laughter and light. Is that, maybe, incarnation in reverse?

5. More than once today, I found myself wondering if we have taken the hard edge off sainthood, or have sentimentalized the inevitable grief of living with our teary remembrances of dear ones, our candles lit for "saints" now in heaven with God. For "all of us," says the canticle, "all of us go down to the dust." And then—dear God!—24 people (is that the most recent total?) are murdered at 11:30 on a Sunday morning in a Baptist church in Texas. The incense of shock and sorrow barrels across Twitter and Facebook and internet news sites, as a few prophetic voices cry, this should not be! But sadly, we feel more and more helpless each time this happens. And what other response is there then, than sentimentality over the stories of the dead. 

6. "I am not resigned," said Edna St. Vincent Millay in "Dirge Without Music." 
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
7. I'm with Edna--not resigned, though I have seen the ashes on the hard ground, even as the spirit of loved ones lost flows all around me and within me, in memory, in thought, in joys, in places, in people. 

8. Spent some time with Kris's friends, who were "krawlin' for Kris" along Madison Street in Forest Park last night, visiting the bars they'd hung out in together, before his ALS diagnosis, before the wheelchair, before he died. I'm not good at late nights in bars with funny stories, teasing, pool tables and punching bags--never was. But it was good to be with them for a short time, to hug them, to enjoy their company, even as a totally sober old person. 

9. A friend pointed out to me today that to call a maple tree losing its leaves in fall a birthday tree is to put death into a larger context, to suggest that something else is coming into being. A poet, perhaps, could say this elegantly in sixteen lines, or twenty--and would discard or hide these random notes. Me--I'm going to hit publish and pick up my knitting. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Birthday tree 2017

I've been watching the birthday tree.

That would be the maple tree in front of our house which Lon noticed, and then I saw, too, had turned brilliant red when the sun rose on Sunday, November 2, the day after our son Kris was born. Sometime in the next few years, as the tree put on its annual show for our All Saints' Day baby, Lon dubbed it "the birthday tree."

Lon liked to make legends. Some he made by living them, "Front Page" style in the newsroom. He also liked to name his cars and compare life to his favorite movies. He liked our kids' birth stories, myth-size family stories, and created them as well as kept them.

I came to believe in his story of the birthday tree. The pink glow that its scarlet leaves cast on the living room in late October and early November is like a filter on an aging actress. It lifts my spirits, gentles my soul, and probably hides wrinkles, or at least bathes them in flattering rose-pink.

But it's not a typical year for this red maple in the parkway. Midway through October its branches were dotted with red leaves, but they blew off on a windy day. The leaves still on the tree are green or dull green-grey. They were nothing to today's Halloween Batmen and Spidermen, the miscellaneous hooded middle-schoolers with gruesome greasepaint, or the tiny preschool princesses (one of whom  carried her blue princess pumps and plopped them on the porch at my feet when she said "trick or treat"--they hurt to wear, said her mom, but they were still part of her costume).

The birthday tree has not gone glorious, at least not yet. Might be the lateness of the fall, yet another sign of pervasive climate change. Might be damp weather, or dry weather, or grief.

I miss Kris intensely. (He died three months ago, at the age of 30.) His cheerful, alert, oh-fuck-it spirit is very much alive to me in photos and memories. I resist saying much about this, whether it be in simple words or in metaphor, lest the explaining take the edge off, dull the memory or diminish how much I hate that this happened.

The weather app says it will rain tomorrow, on Kris's birthday. From the look of the tree today there won't be a scarlet surprise in my front window in the morning--no matter what the pigments do as winter approaches. Maybe next year.

I've got a snapshot of Kris, maybe seven years old, climbing in the tree in spring, red t-shirt, red buds on the branches against a blue sky. Can't post it, because the computer and scanner are resisting the commands coming at them from the mouse.

Maybe next year.