Tuesday, October 30, 2007


It's early, and it's dark. I got out of bed to drive my son to the high school, where he has pre-season basketball practice at 6:00 a.m. every day this week.

Along the way were houses decorated with Halloween lights, including one big ol' Prairie-style stucco with a front yard full of illuminated tombstones, gargoyles, jack o'lanterns, and skeletons. Odd that these things were still glowing at 5:45 in the morning. Christmas lights shining at dawn would inspire me.--something about light in darkness burning through the night, waiting and watching for morning. Halloween, on the other hand, is an invitation to play in the darkness, with whatever frightening spirits might live there. Can a gargoyle with a lightbulb inside give you goosebumps or raise the hair on the back of your neck?

One could rant about Halloween being commercialized, just like Christmas. Halloween has become the second-largest merchandising season in the United States. But it's hard to say exactly what "real meaning" was lost in the process. The Halloween of my childhood was Snickers bars. Butterfingers, and that peanut butter taffy that came in orange and black wrappers. The scare factor was just for fun. We had never heard of the Day of the Dead, and my church back then, All Saints' Day was conflated with Reformation. The origins of Halloween were too medieval for a twentieth century American child to take to heart.

I live just one block away from my suburb's border with Chicago's west side. If the weather is dry, we will see 250 to 300 trick-or-treaters at our door on Halloweeen, many of them from the city. There will be babies in strollers, toddlers who can't quite get up the porch steps, six-, seven- and eight-year-olds in costumes from Walmart, and hosts of teens and even young adults in masks and warm-up suits, or not costumed at all. Some will carry an extra trick-or-treat bag "for my sister who's sick" or "for the baby." Out on the sidewalk, the leaves crunch under the scuffling sneakers of every age group. Inside a nervous dog will be at my knee every time I open the door. Some children will be afraid of her--far more scared than they are of Halloween goblins and ghouls.

It's a holiday about cheap and abundant candy--rolls of Smarties at our house, not Snickers. In many houses on our block, no one will be home on Halloween, or they will not answer the door. Others--and it's the same people every year--choose to be hospitable.

Hospitable--like that illuminated gargoyle. There are enough real things to be frightened of in this world. Tonight we only play at fear.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Passing out

I gave blood yesterday. It's a boring thing to do, but after a while I started to feel woozy, blurry, nauseous, not good. I knew I was in trouble. As the beeper sounded to alert the technician that I had pumped out the full pint, I hollered, "I'm blacking out here." At least I think I said that. I'm not quite sure what was intention and what actually happened. I know I passed out for a few moments, because I have no memory of anyone rushing over and lowering the head of my chair, yet that is what happened. I woke up and one of the women asked me my name. I knew it. Good for me, I thought. I'm back.

In ordinary life, I am not a fainter, but I am mildly claustrophobic. I discovered this many years ago when I took a tour of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky with some friends. The guide opened a door into the ground, and we all walked down--what, maybe 200 stairs?--into the cave. As I walked, I turned around and couldn't see the top of the stairs or the sky. Looking ahead, I couldn't see the bottom of the stairs, just lots of people. I got shaky. My knees wobbled. When we fistood on the solid rock on the cave floor, we had to wait for the rest of the people to get down the stairs and into the cave. I was restless, looking for the way out. If we were going to tour this hole these rooms that were way, way underground, I needed to get moving. It took careful, concentrated rational thought to keep myself from finding the ranger and saying, "I need to get out of here. Now."

Lying in that lounge chair after giving blood, I felt better when I could ask for apple juice. I felt better when I decided not to eat the pretzels. (I didn't want to throw up.) In Mammoth Cave I felt better when the guide started talking and I could make quiet jokes with my friends. I was pretty annoying, actually, because it took more than a little joking around to manage my panic.

Another mind-altering experience: childbirth. Three times I went to that most powerful of feminine places, undrugged and noisy. You master labor--well, you get through it--by giving yourself over to what your body is trying to do. You think of dark, circular places, places that spiral and open. Of power, of force, of breath and depth and life force. A whole other way of being, away from the sheets you lie on, apart from the room you are in.

It's what I picture when I read the opening verse of Genesis. Without form and void, in the darkness and the deep. The Spirit of God is there, moving, blowing, sweeping as a wind over the waters. The Spirit creates, by speaking. breathing the words, "Let there be."

We come back from these shaky places by asserting our will. I say my name. I ask for juice. I make jokes. I listen to a guide talk about rock formations and rivers inside the earth. I speak the name of the newborn child in my arms. I'm back.

Back from the void of unconsciouness, from physiologic panic, from the waves of labor, breathing, speaking, saying words creates the world as I see it, the world that exists in the mind of God.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

My constant flame

Many of the most beloved of Lutheran hymns come from the pen of Paul Gerhardt. This year, 2007, marks the 400th anniversary of his birth. Gerhardt's biography is full of the tribulations brought upon ordinary people by the Thirty Years' War--disease, famine, destruction, death. His hymns radiate joy, confidence and peace rooted in the love of Christ. Here's a stanza:

Jesus, thy boundless love to me, No thought can reach, no tongue declare.
Unite my thankful heart to thee, And reign without a rival there!
Thine wholly, thine alone, I am; Be thou alone my constant flame.

Gerhardt's repeated declarations that Jesus' love overcomes death and gloom are hard for me to comprehend, and harder still when I try to think my way back to what it must have been like to live in Germany in a time when armies tramped back and forth across the land, leaving hunger and contagion behind them. This is the setting for Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, and that post-World War II play inspires more cynicism than rejoicing.

Paul Gerhardt lived out the words of Paul the apostle: "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!" Paul wrote these words to the Phillipians from a jail cell, most likely in Rome. The entire letter to the Phillipians overflows with rejoicing, as if confinement and the threat of excution have pushed Paul into a higher level of consciousness, one where he can be content and rejoice with whatever he has. Was Gerhardt given the same gift? The same transforming faith in Christ?

Maybe it was that giant picture of the ascending Jesus that loomed over me in the church where I worshiped as a child. Maybe it's because the Jesus of the Bible lived far away and long ago in a culture I understand even less than that of 17th-century Germany. It's hard to admit this, as a committed Christian, but the thought of Jesus does not necessarily flood my heart with joy. Remembering that Jesus died for me does not make my head rest any easier on my pillow at night.

However, singing "Awake My Heart with Gladness," a Paul Gerhardt text, does make me glad (even if all those ascending melodic passages also make my voice tired). And not just glad, but hopeful, unafraid, certain of some kind of resurrection--many kinds of resurrection! "Now Rest Beneath Night's Shadow," with "Lord Jesus, since you love me" as the second stanza, calms my fears about my family and my future.

Gerhardt uses darkness and sunshine often as images in his hymns. The bright light comes from Jesus. Me--I don't see the sun rise very often. I start most days by cowering in bed until the clock says I absolutely must get up and then rushing around to pour cereal, make orange juice, pack lunches and drink coffee. The sun coming up every morning must have meant something different to people for whom it was pitch dark at night. Here I sit, working at the computer at 11:15 p.m., in flourescent light that is too bright, too tiring.

So where do I see Jesus? While singing "Jesus, thy boundless love to me" at this afternoon's Gerhardt festival at my church I thought of the ladies who cared for my husband, Lon, in the nursing home in the months before he died, and who were with him as he departed finally to be with God. This nursing home was full of African-American women who radiated faith in Jesus. There was a receptionist who listened and gave me a hug on a day when I was frazzled and needing to be anywhere but there. There was the director of the Alzheimer's floor who emphatically supported my decision to put Lon into hospice care. And there were these women who were with Lon when he died, and who told Lon's mother and me about it later. Oh, my Savior--yes, there in them.

Jesus surely lives in life's lesser moments, too, transforming anger into mercy, or frustration into patience. Jesus is there when Christians gather and sing, when they eat together, talk and lift one another up in prayer and celebration.

I must remember to name Christ in these moments.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Tristram Shandy

I started to read Tristram Shandy last week. It was written in 1749 by Laurence Sterne. It's a novel, I think. Or will be eventually. So far, it's seventy pages of digression, which is mostly entertaining, but hard to follow late at night. The principal punctuation mark is the dash, and at many of those dashes my mind wanders off on its own.

I'm mostly rehashing the day's conversations--things I wish I'd said, things I should say tomorrow, and things I'm not sure I should have said at all. How much simpler life would be, and how much reading I could get done, if I would just not talk at all.

But spew I do. Everything depends on language. Human society was built on our ability to tell one another how to use tools. (I read that in an article on baboons' understanding of social status.) I've had enough missteps with language and symbols today that I'm not convinced language is the key to understanding how to use tools they way the other guy does. Twice in the last 24 hours I've told knitting friends to think less about all the words in the directions and think more about what the work looks like. At other times, I've issued directions that were less and less clear the more you thought about them. Most verbal directions could be replaced by intelligent graphic design.

Language is really for play--serious play sometimes, but play nevertheless. You can't tell about anything without spinning it. What could be more unexciting than ordering a new garage door? But I can buff up that tale, put a little foreshadowing into the repairman's early speeches, and round up a few dollars here, round down a few over there to make the need for a door more compelling. Serious stories sometimes need to come out of people, and you can hear them spin as they spew, alliterate as they exaggerate.

Why am I reading Tristram Shandy? Because of Thomas Jefferson, who greatly enjoyed it. He is not someone you picture reading fiction. I was curious about what entertained him. Most definitely it was language, story play, spinning and spewing.