Sunday, December 20, 2009


To bake, or not to bake, that is the question:
Whether tis nobler in the kitch'n to mix up
The bread and cookies of tradition's Christmas
Or to forego the effort and sea of dishes
And by giving up, gain time? To rest; to nap;
To nap, perchance to dream; ay, there's the rub
For in that sleep of December what dreams
May come: Trees naked, packages unwrapped,
Music unrehearsed and presents unpurchased.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of those
Whose Christmas is perfect, year after year,
When she herself might perfection achieve
With a little more organization.
Thus Christmas does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native warmth of the season
Is sicklied o'er with the vain pursuit of cheer;
And appreciation of Christmas's
Meaning and simplicity turns awry
Because we're just too tired. Soft you now!
I'm taking a nap.

Monday, November 16, 2009

November hymn

For those who mourn

At the harvest, in the autumn, at the waning of the year
As we come to count our blessings, we confront the ancient fear:
Is there enough? The bushels laid up—will they last until the spring?
Can we truly count on God for enough of everything?

In the winter, in the stillness, in a barren, cold new year
As we wait and watch, we worry if the springtime will appear:
Where is the light, the voice that called us from the dim light of the womb?
Will God come to lead the way through the darkness and the gloom?

When the buds along the tree branch remain brown and tightly furled
When the waters from the rainstorms rise and flood familiar worlds
When the summer's heat overtakes us, when our souls are parched and dry--
Oh, where is the God who answers when his children ask him why?

We may rage and we may sorrow, feel new grief each time we wake.
The friends we love may leave us, we may live with hearts that ache.
Yet Christ is here. He walks beside us, knows our anger and our pain
And his dying and his rising join us all to his reign.

Anxious souls, oh, trust your Maker, through whatever comes your way
Even when the night is darkest, God creates another day.
Things we cannot understand may yet surround us with despair
But we can bear the burdens we give over to God's care.

For the God with power to save us is a God of boundless grace
And his tender love shines on us from his bright and radiant face
Love unchanging, love eternal, love immediate and strong
Love that reaches into human hearts and heals what is wrong.

Copyright 2009 Gwen Gotsch
Please do not reprint without my permission.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I don't want to write this, and yet I must. My older son's friend and former housemate, a young man just graduated from college, died on Friday night. He took his own life. 

If only there were a way to take the night back, to undo those awful moments. It should not be, and yet it is, and these young men who knew him and loved him mourn in shocked disbelief. How could he do it? What was happening inside him that they did not know, or could not know, or could not help? And what must his mother feel? Dear God, be at her side. 

Rest eternal grant him, O Lord. May light perpetual shine on him. In your kingdom keep him safe  Give him peace. Comfort those who mourn. Help them to carry him in their hearts, warm and sad, in the years to come.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

For their deeds follow them

It was, like, All Saints Week last week. Extended All Hallows' Eve. The Day of the Dead times seven. This first week of November was--not haunted--peopled, happily, with Saints Gone Before.

Item: I went back to my old high school on November 1 to see a production of "Arsenic and Old Lace." A friend's daughter, my daughter's friend, was playing Aunt Abby, the role I played long ago in high school. I was in this show again when I was 24, playing the other old lady, Aunt Martha. I met my husband, Lon, in this production. He had also been in the show in high school. Both times, he was Teddy Brewster--the quintessential Teddy Brewster, the nephew who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt. It wasn't just Lon's mustache that made the role, it was his enthusiasm, and the crazed look in his eye. Here we are, with Patte Shaughnessy on the left as Aunt Abby.

As I watched the play, the lines came back to me. I recalled where I had entered from, and that Karl Sorenson, at rest in Christ, had played the opening scene with me and Patte. When the young man playing Teddy entered the scene at the high school, all I could hear was Lon (also at rest in Christ). I didn't watch. I just listened. Those weeks of rehearsal long ago, the eleven (?) performances had left tracks in my brain easily found and followed. Lon's character was onstage; was he himself backstage, behind the scenery, in the corner? Things happened back there. Life-altering moments.

Item: There was a funeral at church last week, for a woman--wife, mother, grandmother, piano teacher, friend--known to all, who had spent the last year battling a brain tumor, a tumor that was going to win in the end--like the brain tumor that claimed the life of Ted Kennedy a few months ago, like the tumor that took my dad's life 25 years ago. Marj died a few days before her 70th birthday, her last year an abrupt end to a cheerful, busy life. She had been the woman who coordinated funeral luncheons, who always worked on the annual Fall Sale, and who delighted in the friends and acquaintances who worked alongside her. Her funeral was on Wednesday, and it was followed by a luncheon. The big sale was on Friday, with all the ladies, young and old, at their booths of crafts and bakery and pasta sauces. Another luncheon. Marj's spirit, at rest in Christ, was somehow also part of the energy in the air at the sale.

Item: My son Kurt's science class assignment was to make a musical instrument that could play an eight-note scale, out of materials you have at home. Lucky for him, objects in our home include a clavichord my father built for me when I was 18. The instrument needs work. Lots of broken strings. We twisted these out of the tuning pins and strung them across an old wooden bread box. If you tuned the thing right before you played it, you could indeed play a recognizable tune by plucking the string, or even better, by striking it firmly with your fingertip, like the tangent on the end of the clavichord keys. I do not often get involved in Kurt's homework. (He's a high school junior; he doesn't want my help.) I was glad to be allowed to be part of this project. It brought my dad back to me. Maybe in some way, it brought my dad, Herb Gotsch, to Kurt, one of the seven grandchildren he, at rest in Christ, never got a chance to meet.

"And I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.' 'Yes,' says the Spirit, 'they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.'" (Revelation 14:13)

I'm not exactly sure what that's supposed to mean in the context of the Revelation of John, but it sure felt like those deeds were following me around last week.

Saints in heaven, saints on earth, resting in, relying on Christ.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Columbus Day. No school. But all I've done all day is read and write and manipulate words. That must be my hobby, my favorite recreational pursuit. Well. Maybe.

The project I laid out for myself this weekend was to finish the two-volume, 1600-page biography of Abraham Lincoln that I have been reading since early August. It's by Michael Burlingame, a Lincoln scholar who has edited the diaries and papers of John Hay, John Nicolay, William Stoddard, and Noah Brooks. The first three were Lincoln's White House secretaries. Brooks was a journalist who was close to the 16th president. The biography is exhaustive (and exhausting) in its quotations from Lincoln's contemporaries, but it's not particularly readable. For every action or presidential speech, letter or paper, Burlingame writes several paragraphs of who said what in support of Lincoln, followed by who said what in opposition--lots and lots of good old American political and journalistic spin. It begins to feel like flipping back and forth between MSNBC and Fox. The rhetoric isn't all that different.

Burlingame's Lincoln is a remarkably mature, magnanimous, forgiving man, even-tempered, tender-hearted, but rather crude at times. It's hard to imagine the statuesque Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial telling a joke with "he can kiss my ass" as the punch line. But the Memorial was built at a time when the Lincoln myth had grown huge and quasi-religious. Nowadays we want to know about the dirt under the fingernails, the flares of temper, the back-room political deals. Lincoln's greatness survives twenty-first century tell-alls. Lincoln is a man who grew to meet the challenges he faced. Who knew he could do it and who could let go of the pettiness that obscures the right path for most of us, at least part of the time. Great challenges help you focus on what's important.

I finished the book this morning before getting out of bed. Volume two goes back to the library tomorrow. This is probably the end of my bicentennial gorge on Lincoln biography. (Probably. Have to see what's on the shelf at the library.) I have been reading Lincoln books since I discovered the children's biography section at the library when I was six or seven. I'm sure part of the fascination comes from living in Illinois, from multiple trips to Springfield and New Salem, from an interest in American history that was fed by the Bruce Catton books my father bought and read during the Civil War centennial. But I also feel a kinship with Lincoln. Sounds like a high-falutin' claim, or a fatuous one. But I can't be alone in this feeling. Lincoln fascinates lots of people. Only Shakespeare and Jesus have had more books written about them. I guess I want to know what it was like to be him--and how much different is that--apart from the obvious--from being me?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cicadas in my head

I've had this persistent ringing in my ear for months now.

It's nothing serious. It seems to be related to stuffy sinuses, plugged up tubes somewhere, some fluid in the ear. It got better during the summer. It faded away to a sound that was barely there. But it's back now, like cicadas inside my head, made bold by the coming of fall, or by too much time spent among hidden allergens in my office at school.

I believe the ringing to be at a specific pitch, with prominent overtones--D, to be exact, with the octave and the fifth. Or perhaps it's almost but not quite D. Whatever it is, music in the key of D major and other related sharp keys bothers me, especially when it's loud and reverberating all over the rehearsal room.

I am subjecting this problem to all this analysis because explaining it helps me deal with it. Certain sounds seem to produce beats when they clash with the sound in my ear. (Beats: a sort of wah-wah effect created when sound waves that are not quite at the same frequency bump into one another. More or less.) When this happens my ear-brain-voice-ear feedback loop short circuits. I become a very frustrated singer.

When I have trouble singing, it spills over into the rest of my life. Long ago a voice teacher quoted Birgit Nilsson to me: "The bird who is not happy does not sing." The Gwen Gotsch corollary is: "The bird who is not singing well is not happy."

The reading in chapel this morning: "We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." The speaker illustrated this, and the "by grace you have been saved" part before it, with flower pots, dirty and broken, then clean and restored, and then brought out a big pot filled with a blooming pink geranium.

I tried to think of myself as that pink geranium all day, somehow showing forth God's goodness to others. But it was the kind of day where the feedback loop didn't work well. Spent too much of the day alone, getting tired from focusing on the computer screen. All I could hear was the ringing in my ear and the buzzing in my brain, the kind that says the work is never done, no one appreciates me, and I'm not good at anything anyway. (There may be distortions here that I should analyze.)

I don't like to whine on my blog. I prefer to sing (soundlessly here, in prose), or think differently, or at least think productively. Those cicadas in my brain have to get out of the way.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Heart song, hearts sing

I got caught up in watchng first, the memorial service for Ted Kennedy on Friday night and the funeral and graveside services on Saturday.

I never knew that he loved to sing, how much he loved singing. I loved how important singing was to everyone saying goodbye. That big Broadway star who sang "The Impossible Dream" on Friday night was impressive (though how his accompanist coped with 9/8 measures that felt more like 7.5/8 I don't know). But what I loved was Nick Littlefield, an attorney and Kennedy staff alum singing "a song for Teddy." The song was Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Love Changes Everything." Littlefield said he had often sung it with Ted, including the last time he had seen him. And that it seemed to sum up Kennedy's love for his wife, Vicky. Littlefield sang it confidently, joyously, forthrightly. He's a fine singer, not a pro, but one whose song is connected to his mind and heart. Watching and hearing him makes me so happy.

More singing: Placido Domingo at the funeral, making good choices with "Panus Angelicus." With just Yo Yo Ma accompanying, it was the lower end of his range, the firm, warm baritone, that made the most wonderful music. Susan Graham, was, of course, perfection. The Tanglewood Chorus singing Brahms "Let Nothing Ever Grieve Thee"--eh, it's harder to make music with that piece than one might think.

But again, what struck my heart was not the professional music makers. At the end of the service, the casket left the church to "America, the Beautiful." And the Kennedy family members who acted as pallbearers sang as they walked along side the casket.

Later at the capitol, the plan was for all the staffers on the steps to sing "America the Beautiful," led by a DC school choir director. The moment was less than wonderful, however, at least on television, because the microphone picked up only the director's voice--now crowd. But then--ah, in those last moments before the hearse pulled away, the crowd of citizens and tourists across the street sang--spontaneously--"God Bless America" and again, "America the Beautiful." As solemn a moment as you could hope to see, to sing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Erring, Errant

What kind of perverse Lutheran would I be if I did not comment on the ELCA voting that it's okay to allow someone in a committed same-sex relationship to be a pastor?

It is good to see Christians dare to err on the side of grace, to see Christ in surprising places, to accept and bring people in rather than judge and shun them. All those things, I'm sure, sound old and obvious, especially to anyone who has listened to the days and weeks, months and years of discussion that preceded this decision.

I'm the sort of lay person who decided this one long ago for myself. So watching a church body labor through this is kind of like watching someone much younger struggle through adolescence. You can't be sure how he'll come through and if you'll want to know him when he's a serious adult.

I have this idea that this vote is one more step in the choosing of sides. Many of us can relax now that our more moderate branch of American Lutheranism has come down on the liberal side of this issue. Check that one off. What will be the fallout from those who believe in the other side? Will we all end up at the heavenly banquet sitting on opposite sides of the table, finding it hard to make conversation, suspicious of how the people on the other side of the table got there? Why they are there at all? And which ones exactly are the Pharisees and which the rabble from the wayside?

Yet we are all there. Even now we are moving into God's new kingdom, marching to Zion, together. What does it mean to be a motley crew headed for heaven's mansions, pulling one way and then the other along the straight and narrow--no that would be the wide and winding path in front of us?

It means we're human. God's image broken, though not entirely lost.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Health care--not spirtual

Who will explain to angry people that leaving their healthcare alone is not the answer? Who will explain that insurance companies give you the illusion of free choice, not the reality, and that people can't buy health care rationally the way they choose a brand of laundry detergent? That behind the scenes, doctors and hospitals and other providers of health care make all kinds of financial deals that have everything to do with maximizing profit and that providing good quality care is not consistently a byproduct of that process?

I am frustrated this morning by an insurance system that tells an old friend, in need of follow-up care after a serious mental health crisis, that she must see a new doctor a half-hour drive away from her home instead of going to an office six blocks away to see the doctor who knows her case well. This is crazy, and it is making her crazier than she needs to be right now. The New York Times this morning has an article on outrageous doctors' fees -- actually on a survey of doctor's fees conducted by America's Health Insurance Plans, an organization representing insurance companies. I'm imagining a press release headlined "Don't blame us--it's their fault!"

How can we fix something as complicated as healthcare when the public discussion deteriorates to a level where a proposal for Medicare paying for someone to help people make a living will is twisted into a "government death panel"? Most of the people screaming about this would probably acknowledge that at the end of life they don't want to be kept alive by a bunch of machines and tubes and that hospice care is a good thing. If someone supported them in writing a living will, they could control their own exit from this world. Yet the truth is distorted.

We live in a very complex world, where it takes some sophistication, some appreciation of both rationality and irrationality to understand the banking system, the health care system, international politics, government budgets. Yet we have these visceral debates. On the one hand, don't tell Sarah Palin that baby Trig does not have quality of life. On the other hand, don't raise anybody's taxes so that state governments can provide adequate services for people like Trig with developmental disabilities. (Disclaimer: this blogger has an eighteen-year-old child with Down syndrome.) This is a democracy, yes, where Senators and Congressmen work for the people who elected them. But the Founders, steeped in the Enlightenment, never imagined an electorate or a world like this.

Or did they? There was rabble and the fear of mob rule when the American republic was founded (and the populist, ignorant outcry against rational reform of the health care system is a kind of mob rule). The Founders believed that better minds could prevail, that elected officials could make good decisions, that collectively we could act in society's best interest.

It would be easy to watch this all from the sidelines, make cracks about the stupidity of angry white people of certain economic classes, and shake my head sadly about the whole mess. But I think I'm going to have do better than that.

For starters:'s "Top Five Health Care Reform Lies—and How to Fight Back."

Friday, August 07, 2009

Wave and shore

The first day back from vacation began soberly enough--coffee and the New York Times online, the way most days at home begin for me. A little bit of work while still in my jammies, some family business to arrange with a friend, then off to church to try to catch up, whatever that means. By midday, my leisurely vacation life was left behind, and pretty soon, the mad extrovert that rested while I was on vacation had spilled out, and I was back to analyzing problems instead of contemplating them lakeside.

It's a high-contrast life. I'm wearing a black t-shirt and white capris today--would that be yin and yang, sin and holiness, darkness and light, sanity and craziness--what? Drama.

Here's my journal from the last day of vacation--just yesterday:

It is a beautiful shore. Prettiest place on the island. Maybe that's not quite the word--pretty.

God separated the dry land from the water at such a place as this. No boats there then. No sand toys strewn on the beach. But grass and plants growing from dry land, moving in the Spirit blowing upon the face of the waters--plants growing in the shallows as the water becomes the shore, gold and green, leaning, always leaning toward something, bent by the Spirit wind, dancing.

Birds of the air, fish of the sea--one can see why these come next in the Creation myth. Birds glide on the wind as if they were a part of it, as if they flew out of it, called into being by the word of the Lord. Fish form in the water, unseen, from muck at the bottom, from still water deep down, and go their own dark ways, beneath the waves, in dimmed light.

Animals, man, woman--we become strangers to this shore, our lives complex, twined and twisted together in social systems whose patterns look silly, unnecessarily complicated. We are captives, not of wind and wave, but of brains and language that never quite says what we need. Captives of each other, on the earth, not of it. We have come far away from the Spirit that long ago gave us birth.

And yet.

A family group--three generations--walks down to the water and closes ranks for a picture, water behind, arms extended to hold young ones, support old ones, alive together where water meets land. Standing tall, leaning together in the wind.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

We are such stuff--but not of dreams

All sorts of corny things I could write about: God, I love theatre. Cool summer evenings. Talk. Friendship. Being authentic, like it or not. New bugs. Breaking the mold. Avocados, eggs, bare feet, dancing, singing, gratitude. Being young, being older, being out there, being quiet.

Self-conscious subjective bloggery. Or a quiet celebration.

Some days seem extra sweet. The air is clear, liquid, lapping, like cool water against bare skin. It smells of herbs, dusty, dry, tangy, and everything truthful, even what is painful, is seasoned with juniper and basil. Gifts given are reflected back, and others' joy becomes my wisdom, their choices, my peace.

My friend Pat and I had a discussion tonight about scattering our husband's ashes, about what we supposed we could make it mean and about the gritty practical reality that makes this a hard task to accomplish with dignity. You wait till just the right time, when you need to remember the person, or forget the person, move on or look back. In the week after scattering Lon's ashes, I was haunted by his presence, what he would have thought, what he would have said, though he had not thought or said those things for years. How could a bag of grit, emptied under a tree, bring him back into my imagination that way? How could it not?

Even things without substance are something.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Keeping silence

My mind is racing with news from friends and church family. Bad news. Tough news. Difficult problems. How do we get from birth to death without giving up?

There is no answering sentence, no bible verse, no thought taking shape in my mind. Just silence.

At first, it is uncomfortable silence. I do not like to be with people who are in such misery, such tangles. I want to feel successful, happy, cared for. I want to think that others are in control of their lives, and that I am in control of mine.

The silence does not last. I don't stay quiet long there. I want to be able to help, to make phone calls, complain, order people around and eventually send them down a dry and level path that was there all along. There is an edge to my voice. I am imperious in my wisdom. Imperious and completely ineffective.

"The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!" (Habakkuk 2.20)

Silence. Where God lives.

Silence. Where God receives the saints whose mortal life has come to an end.

Silence. Where God listens to the prayers of those who feel helpless.

Silence. Where the Creator suffers with the beloved creatures.

When death or madness or majestic upheavals rise in front of us, each moment becomes more clear, more poignant, more transcendent. Ideas have substance. Random thoughts no longer skitter about the surface of the mind. All seems to fit together. Perhaps a brain researcher could point to an area in the brains that is active, that is itself creating this sense of the sacred. Perhaps perception is heightened to allow the mind to regain a sense of control.

Or perhaps God is present. That silence is the one I must seek, before I venture forth to serve.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bear witness

Revolt and protest in Iran, and the world follows the news via Twitter and Google and other networking sites on the Internet. How cool is that?

I don't Twitter or tweet or even read email on my phone. Yet. The idea of sending moment-by-moment messages to friends about where I'm going and what I'm doing doesn't appeal to me--much. Being able to go and not tell someone where is more appealing.

Of course, I don't think any of my friends would actually want to follow me around in my life in suburbia. Nor do I want to follow them. On the other hand, it would have been nice yesterday to be able to tweet out for support as I was slowly overwhelmed by Michael's, the chain store for crafters, where a million or more objects wait for someone to purchase them and then wire, glue or knot them together.

Nor should I be allowed to tweet from meetings, like a senator from the Senate floor. Griping about proceedings and people would be way too much fun. When I pray the Lord's Prayer, I ask not to be led into temptation. I believe it behooves me to not lead myself there.

But following a mass movement of people protesting a stolen election? Yesterday I followed some of the links in a New York Times article on social networking and the events in Iran. It was amazing. Ordinary people were passing on information about protests and calling for people to unite. There were pictures on Flickr of massive crowds in the streets. Stuff happens.

Imagine if we could have read messages from East Germany as communism tumbled. Imagine a blog post from an "Indian" just returned from dumping chests of tea in Boston Harbor. Imagine the almost infinite source material available to historians in the future who want to write about mass movements and popular culture.

The world can change in good ways and bad. Pray for peoples and governments. Pray that we use technology to move us forward into the kingdom of God.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Warm and clear at last, after a June week of mostly rain. Beer after rehearsal in the late afternoon sun. What follows? Either delicious relaxation or the frustration of trying to make my mind--swimming, yes, on just one beer--focus on something either serious or seriously amusing.

Things grow with such energy in June. The suburban landscape is intensely green today, lush with the promise of a good summer. "Sent forth by God's blessing" we sang this morning in church, and the world into which we were sent teemed with blessings of blue sky, temperate air, enveloping summer. Lots of tree imagery in the lectionary today and in the sermon and hymns--the kingdom of God as tall cedars or spreading shrubbery. I could almost see the over-large volunteer trees in my back yard as evidence of a new world coming to life. There are times when I regard these six-foot-tall, six-foot-wide trees as evidence of the pernicious abundance of evil and chaos on this earth. But who needs the words or the visual images they invoke when God's rain and breath have called all of summer's lushness to life outside in lawns, gardens, and parks?

Friday, May 29, 2009

The best revenge

I thought the browser was about to freeze on my way to the "New Post" page and I would then have a reason to walk away from the computer and the empty space on the screen. But the browser pulled through and here I am, mind dancing, contacts blurry, left ear ringing, and no serious knitting anywhere in the house to call me away from playing with my blog.

I'm done clearing my throat.

The title "Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman" keeps rolling through my mind. I think it's a good title, but I'm not sure what it's a title for. I'm not sure what the revenge might be. There is much about life as a fifty-something woman to be avenged, starting with that feeling of irrelevancy that sets in when young, pretty, unwrinkled girls of twenty or even thirty seem to be everywhere, seem to be having all the fun, seem to be the ones who flirt and flit and laugh and matter. Also to be avenged: the frustrations of trying to see things both near and far without taking out contacts and putting on glasses (or putting away glasses and putting in contacts). There's my newly crowned molar, crowding all the other old and crowned molars in my mouth. There are the times when I know my outside doesn't match my inside, when I feel absolutely childish inside while looking ever more unyielding and stern, like the Grandma Gotsch of my childhood.

What form would the revenge of the middle-aged woman take? I try to invent answers, wild and creative, meaningful and bold enough to get some attention. Should I craft a detective novel in which the middle-aged female detective (an unforgettable character!) or the crazy middle-aged female perpetrator (powerful in her own menopausal way) ultimately blasts someone away with a gun? I would have to do a lot of research just to figure out what kind of gun. Not exactly writing about things I know.

Perhaps I could create performance art in which the bitter and articulate middle-aged female monologuist avenges a her lost girlhood by slicing up a sofa with a broadsword. She then plays a Chopin etude (one of the posthumous ones) as the lights fade to red, a flash of green, and then black.

"I really haven't got any ideas," she said, sighing a little sigh and sinking back into her chair. (This is me describing me, not me describing a middle-aged female character in a story, who may or may not resemble me.) Exciting ideas, I tell you go back where you came from, that foreign country where creative artists, more courageous, more widely experienced than I, beat back despair with frantic disconnected activity.

Me, the aging suburban mom--all I can genuinely come up with is "Living well is the best revenge." Falling back on a cliche, which has some truth in it. Am I living well?

The wine in the fridge is only so-so (though the beer's pretty good). I have not been a paragon of wisdom or virtue this week. I've fumbled for answers to tough questions and been sarcastic in reply to dumb ones. This last week, the reality-based definition of "living well" would have to include ignoring the dishes piling up on the kitchen counter for several days, so that I can read the NY Times online in the morning and flop down on the couch and stare at whatever's on television from 9:45 to 10:45 at night. Other reality-based definitions: talking back to Bruckner and then Van Morrison on my iPod in my office (which no one else can hear anyway--I think); kicking off Saturday with a long breakfast with a friend, rather than the necessary loads of laundry and (ugh) gardening; spending an hour tomorrow afternoon with Champlain's Dream by David Hackett Fischer, author of Washington's Crossing. (At this point, I'd read anything he's written because he writes very, very well. And he's an optimist. He's living well.)

Doing what I want to do from one moment to the next, without being constantly responsible, constantly looking ahead. I kind of like that version of living well. Sometimes it works.

Whoops. I criticized a teenage child of mine earlier this evening for pretty much that same approach to life. Someone's avenged.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Why do hymns for Ascension Day have so many verses? So many long verses?

I went to an Ascension service today (yes, only 39 days after Easter) and we sang "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus," five stanzas sung to Hyfrydol (a tune I used to groan about but have come to terms with over the last twenty-five years). We sang four stanzas of "Beautiful Savior" at communion (which means conscientious singers get two cracks at trying to flip both r's in the word "purer"). We sang all seven stanzas of "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing" as a sending song, four of "Up Through Endless Ranks of Angels," and some other hymn I've forgotten.

This was a daytime service for the senior citizens in our congregation. I was there to sing the Psalm, but the Psalm setting was nothing compared to the endurance required for all the hymn-singing. I came away with a great deal of respect for the singing of Lutheran senior citizens. But I guess, if you're in church, you might as well take as much time as it takes. And it takes a lot of time to tell the Ascension story in "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing." Two full stanzas are devoted to what the angels said to the disciples. It takes three more to get us all in heaven with Jesus.

Jaroslav Vajda's text for "Up Through Endless Ranks of Angels" covers the Ascension from the human point perspective: "Death destroying, life-restoring, Proven equal to our need, Now for us before the Father As our brother intercede." It ends with human yearning, reaching for God: "Oh to breathe the Spirit's grace! . . . Oh to feel the Son's embrace!"

Then there's "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus," which loads up on the Christ triumphant imagery. Many of those images come in short, four-syllable phrases to match the dignified 3/4, breathe-every-other-measure movement of the tune. Only the second stanza refers directly to the bible story. The rest describes the Ascension as the opening scene in the coming of Christ's kingdom on earth, which is what makes the hymn text challening.

I think it's easier for our small-ish minds to think about the Ascension as Jesus going up to heaven, leaving us here on earth, with the promise to send the Spirit. Everybody ends up in the right room in this version, and God's Spirit is housed inside us. But "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus" moves back and forth between heaven and earth: "bread of heaven, here on earth our food, our stay." Jesus "born of Mary" has earth for a footstool and heaven for a throne. It's not a song for a single Christian. It is a community that sings "He is near us" and a community that together remembers the promise "'I am with you evermore.'"

At the final stanza the hymn writer invokes "peaceful Zion," where Jesus rules over all of those redeemed out of every nation. A big vision, God's kingdom coming into being. Hard to keep it in focus. I tried to as I prayed the Lord's Prayer. I've noticed that when praying this prayer in church, my praying mind often doesn't sync with the words coming from my mouth until "Give us this day our daily bread," as if my physical needs were the heart of everything. Really this petition is kind of a footnote, an add-on to the glories recalled and looked forward to in the prayer's opening petitions: Holy is God's name and God's kingdom is coming as God's will is done on earth. That's something to wrestle with on Ascension Day.

Before I go off to bed, I will look for signs of the kingdom seen today, on the 39th day after Easter, 2009: friendships treasured and renewed; high school kids, abled and disabled, sharing a barbecue picnic and games of kickball on a warm, breezy May afternoon; a fifth and sixth grade 4 x 200 relay team in which the last two runners poured on the speed to win a victory shared by all.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sing Paradise, Lead Home

It's graduation season and the end of the school year. In the last four days I've been to a high school honors convocation, a university department's graduation reception, a baccalaureate service, and a full-blown university graduation ceremony.

I've listened to a lot of speeches.

Yesterday's commencement address at Valparaiso University in Indiana came from Walter Wangerin, Jr., a fiction and memoir writer of reputation who is on the faculty there. He began his speech with a proverb--I think he said it was Islamic in origin: "Paradise lies at the feet of your mother." He wandered through several tales, personal and Islamic, and ended with a story of an old classmate taking care of his elderly, demented mother, singing with her while changing her diaper.

I didn't get the "paradise at the feet" connection until several hours later. Wangerin is (IMHO) more an emotionally-indulgent storyteller than a writer. He is good at evoking emotion with visceral details, and for him, perhaps all this feeling exploding in his brain is sensation enough to declare the world meaningful. Doesn't work for me. I want an emotional lift from a connection, from the "aha" experience when I discover that God is not just in the details themselves, but in how the details hook up. Coherence counts, despite the prevailing incoherence of much of what happens in our lives.

The university president's homily at the Valpo baccalaureate service was coherent. He took the Psalm for the day, "Sing a new song," and hooked it up to John 15, "By this you shall know that you are my disciples, that you love one another." He sent the graduates out to sing new songs in service. A good "take-with."

Last Thursday's high school honors convocation ended with an intimate little speech from the high school superintendent, Attila Wenninger. He thanked the parents for making the kind of home for their students that made their achievement possible. In doing so--without saying it, he reminded these kids and their families of how privileged they are and of how others do not have this most wonderful of blessings. At the end of his speech, he asked students to choose a person in one of their classes, someone they didn't know very well, and help that person to achieve next year and become a leader. A simple idea, but one well-tuned to the hearts and minds of teenagers.

In the middle of the speech, he talked of his own three children, now adults, and their different abilities and different paths to success. From all of this, one could see why the high school board hired this guy--a white, blue-eyed older male--over candidates who would have been more pleasing to the folks pressing for diversity in the school administration. He didn't just talk diversity. He understood it in his heart and in his life.

Next to me at the high school honors convocation was my daughter Eliza, an eighteen-year-old young woman with Down syndrome, who was not too happy to be dragged to school a half-hour early because of her brother. It's unlikely that she'll ever be honored for achievement outside of Special Olympics or "special" something else. But she sat next to me and went through all the names in the program, picking out the kids she knew. Pretty impressive--did I know, back when I was told she had Down syndrome, that she would ever be able to do that? Or that I would think those other kids were privileged to know her?

One of the superintendant's kids became a special ed teacher, like my own graduating college senior. Kris was not among the graduates wearing honors cords or graduating cum laude, but he graduated! In four years, from a school where statistically he was in the bottom quartile when he was accepted. He got through. He did well in his education classes. Student teaching was fun for him, and he will be a good teacher. At the department's reception for graduating seniors, he joked around with professors who seemed genuinely proud and happy to know him.

Wangerin ended his commencement speech by telling the graduates that when they got their degrees they should think, this is for my parents. I'm not sure what he meant exactly--the parents sitting in the bleachers watching for their child's moment to cross the stage and shake the hand of the university president, or the parents who would someday need these young graduates to ease them through the indignities of old age. My children have already done that for one parent. My pride in them is shaped by the song they sang in those hard years and ever since.

I listened to parents yesterday boasting of their children's achievements and ambitions for graduate school, for more honors in the future. It seemed hollow. I am proud of who my kids are, right now.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


I raised the storm and let down the screen at the window by the lilac bush, and now the dog, an old dog waking up in the soft chair she has claimed for her own, turns her head to the spring air and, I swear, smiles at me.

A still morning in May. Is there anything that compares to this? The leaves on the maples are tender and green, barely open. The grape vine in my back yard erupts with leaves of pink, folded around the tiniest imaginable green clusters of fruit. The dandelions, more aggressive in the fight to survive than I am in the fight to get rid of them, are blazing yellow, standing out like school buses in expressway traffic. Above all, a pale blue, cool sky where God looks down and sees the colors brighten in the world he made and cares for, the world moving toward redemption.

A May day. It holds such promises.

For the young, for those who will be confirmed in the faith later this morning at church, the promise of adventure and security, of lives that will make sense, though perhaps they will not--there are harder lessons yet to learn.

For those who mourn, the promise of resurrection. Bodies sowed in the damp May earth will surely rise again in the day of the Lord, and be changed, unfurled, fruitful in the living ether of the eternal reign of the Savior.

For those with work to do today and tomorrow, in the abundant rain and in the certain drought of the summer ahead, this morning brings rest and peace. Birds chatter and call far away in the tops of the trees, soft air touching skin quiets the mind, calms the blood.

This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I will persist in blogging, though the hour is late and I am tired from the effort of being pleasant and thoughtful and entertaining all day. The fluorescent light overhead is twitching, or perhaps it's me that's twitching.

Lately, my days begin with a prayer, a prayer that is thought, not spoken, while lying face down in bed, head under the pillow at 6:25 a.m. "Send me a good day, God. Send me a good day."

What makes it a good day? When I feel reasonably good about the work I've done, reasonably hopeful that I can go on doing it, reasonably satisfied that I am a force for good in the world. A good day is one where I have avoided slipping sideways or falling face forward into a mucky depression, a mudhole with sides that collapse around me, a hole that cannot be gotten out of without a good night's sleep and some detachment from the things that trouble me.

"This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it." Words from the appointed Psalm for Easter, Psalm 118. Words that ring true on that festival day, but that also apply to every day, since God is the maker of our days, days we rise in the morning to celebrate, days when it's hard to get out of bed.

When I pray for a good day, I find it usually arrives promptly. I know early in the day that I will keep my balance, keep my good cheer, and go to bed tired but not defeated. Part of this better mood is attributable to coffee, God's gift of French roast. But it is something else, too, some aligning of my own purpose with the Almighty's, and God reminding me, in that good day, that divine purpose is accomplished through me.

Monday, April 27, 2009


There's a steady rain going on outside, and a teenager sitting on the back steps in the rain, thinking. The sound of the rain is especially loud because the gutter is clogged and the water is spilling over the side, pouring on the pavement below. The water is also quietly seeping into the corner of the basement even farther below.

It's such a tall ladder you have to use to clean the glop and the leaves out of the gutter. It's heavy and awkward and not at all fun to climb.

Last week it was cold rain, rain that about froze my early red dwarf tulips, one of the few plants that thrive from the days long ago when I gardened with enthusiasm. Over the weekend the warm weather, the wind, and (I suspect) some impulsive children finished the tulips off before they ever had a chance to show their perky redness in an appropriate spring setting.

Kind of like that teenage boy on the steps, who does not seem to travel in a congenial environment. People let him down. (His mother, for one, failed to follow through on a promise to have supper ready after volleyball practice.) Teachers fail to say what they want clearly and cogently. Girlfriends get angry and want what he can't fix. He can't will everything back into place. He can't seem to find a place in the sunshine, just more homework, more things that are not quite right.

How, where, do we all fit amid the glop and decay and water spilling everywhere? We go on thinking, trying, in the warm rain, the cold rain. Trusting and trying, hoping that the sun will shine more brightly tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Cardinal

As I pulled up to the house this morning and parked the car at the curb, I saw the male cardinal. He was hopping through the brown leaves on the ground by the forsythia bush, looking for things to eat. I had been thinking about the need to clean up the accumulated litter in these bushes, the food wrappers, the faded flyers about gutter-cleaning and window-washing. This stuff collects here over the winter. It's wet, disgusting and muddy. How enchanting then to have my attention drawn away from the endless cares of home ownership to the sheer glory of being red.

My Great-Aunt Clara taught me respect for the cardinal. She watched for him from her kitchen window, left black and white striped sunflower seeds in a neat pile on the rails of her back porch for his enjoyment. He--the cardinal--would come to feast and would leave a mess behind, hulls scattered on the grey-painted boards of the porch floor. She would sweep it all up in triumph. The cardinal had been there! Females ate there, too. The love sunflower seeds was not strictly a male attribute, and she did not begrudge them the food (squirrels, however . . . .) But seeing the male--that was an event!

What is it like to be so very red, so scarlet, so different from the early spring groundscape, so different from the summer grass? This cardinal's partner was hunting for food, too, sitting in the forsythia bush, flirting even. But I did not see her until she moved and pointed her brownish orange beak in my direction. When I finally got out of the car and walked to the gate, my eyes followed the male, who leaped first into the bush, then to red roof over the dining room bay window, and finally flew upward into the maple tree. It would be hard to search for and find a brown nest and a brown mother with that bright red distraction drawing your eye elsewhere. Is this why the bird is so red, regal and flashy? To distract predators from the vulnerability of tiny, tasty eggs, of tender young birds?

Sunday, April 12, 2009


I'm an Easter girl. And at last Easter is here.

I have no patience for Lent, very little for Holy Week. Easter is where it's at. After spending the last six weeks feeling like the whole worshiping church was having a Lent party to which I had not been invited, at which I was a total, gawky wallflower, I am rejoicing this afternoon, glad to have celebrated Easter at last.

Easter girl, Easter woman. What does this mean?

From Ash Wednesday onwards we are urged to repent, to turn from our sinful ways. But we turn in circles and all we see are those sinful ways. We get bogged down, sick with guilt and helpless. We try to reform, we give things up for Lent, or take on new spiritual disciplines, opportunities to fall short once again.

I don't need Lent to get me to beat up on myself. I am a middle-aged woman, a widow, a mother of teenagers who I try to influence but don't always understand. I feel responsible for all of it, not good enough for any of it. From the laundry table to the making of song, prose and poetry, I feel hapless, even hopeless. I won't deny my own culpability, but I am my own victim.

Easter good news came for me on Good Friday, reading Ross Douthat's blog in The Atlantic. He quoted Rene Girard, a French literature scholar, reviewing yet something else. Here's a key sentence: "Instead of blaming victimization on the victims, the Gospels blame it on the victimizers." A radical new thought from the Hebrew-Christian tradition.

I am guilty of many things, but I am also a forgiven child of God. Forgiven by virtue of Jesus's innocent suffering and death, and shown a new way of living in Christ's sacrifice and resurrection. Easter says that the only reason for spending energy figuring out what is and is not my fault is so that I can live freely and move forward into the future as a little Christ--a Christ who is risen indeed. The real turn-about as we move from Lent to Easter is God's work, not ours--God's new kingdom revealed on the cross and at the empty tomb and blessedly, in our own lives.


Saturday, March 28, 2009


The question this morning, at a workshop for worship leaders, was, how do you worship when as a lector or other worship leader you have to pay attention to the details of the service--being on the right page, speaking into the microphone, anticipating what comes next.

The workshop speaker who answered this question elaborated on the problem, and as both a pastor and a musician, he could cite lots of distractions for worship leaders. But I did not think his answer addressed the central question. I raised my hand to add my own two cents, which was something about how being detached from the worship experience in order to take care of logistics is the gift you bring to the assembly. You give up some part of your own immersion in worship for the sake of others.

Maybe that's so obvious that the world didn't need to hear me say it. But maybe not.

Most of us are hungry for direct experiences of God. We want to be moved in worship. The reading of scripture we hope will call up visions of Jesus speaking or the prophets. Music should touch our hearts or inspire our spirits. Preaching should find us, wherever we are in our lives. And we should worship God as we should love God--with our whole heart, our mind and our strength. These actions of ours, we believe, make it possible for our souls to be fed.

And yet, I thought, an actor onstage, caught up in the emotions of the play, must still remain conscious of his effect on the audience, must still find the place to stand where his face will be in the light, must remember to say his lines loudly and slowly enough to be understood. A musician brings all of her technique and training to bear on the notes she sings or plays. Music itself, for all its appeal to the emotions, is a highly structured, complicated art with rules that must be followed carefully or broken with purpose. The art of poetry (poetry in the Aristotelian sense of making something that is a representation) transforms the raw material of life into something more ordered and thus more meaningful. We in worship seek to transform the raw material of our own actions into something that praises, honors and testifies to the non-material presence of God among us.

It takes some detachment to do this, at least in Lutheran liturgical, non-spontaneous worship. The processional cross, the candles, the bible, the ministers come down the aisle at a measured pace that is the same on the Sundays of Lent as on Easter morning. Music may make our heart skip or weep, but both toe-tapping and heart-rending melodies must hold to an established tempo. Preaching requires study and preparation, and careful calculation not just about what there is to say but about how to say it so that it can be heard, understood, carried home.

Our language tries to say what God is, directly and also with image and metaphor, yet we know it falls short, know that religious language can create barriers to understanding God, even as it tries to make God known. We are always, even in the most profound moments, more than a few steps detached from God. Our worship, even as we plan, practice and seek to perfect it, will always fall short. We watch ourselves. We monitor our absorption in the process, and then our thoughts wander off

How lucky for us, then, that God's presence in our worship doesn't depend on us.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Beauty inside, outside, and all around

My daughter just finished two weekends of performances as one of the townspeople in her high school's production of Beauty and the Beast. The show was a rousing success onstage and played to big audiences.

It was also a rousing success for Eliza. She is a teenager with Down syndrome. This is her fourth high school musical, so she is a veteran of the rehearsal room, the make-up table, the dressing room, and the stage. She and the other special-needs kids in the show had peer buddies, who helped them participate in the show so much more than the teaching assistants assigned to supervise them in the winter musical last year.

Eliza's peer buddy, Audrey, is an animated young woman onstage, and she kept Eliza focused and made her look great, even when she was right in the middle of the action. Eliza did so much more than she has ever done in a show before, and she truly belonged to the Beauty and the Beast community. Which is as it should be for a show whose message is something about it being okay to be different and about finding beauty and tenderness in unexpected places.

I know there is beauty in my daughter. In Beauty and the Beast, lots and lots of other people got to see it too. Brava!

Friday, February 27, 2009

There came a wind like a bugle

There came a wind like a bugle . . .

It's a line from an Emily Dickenson poem, known to me from a song setting by Aaron Copland. Here's the whole poem:

There came a wind like a bugle;
It quivered through the grass,
And a green chill upon the heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the windows and the doors
As from an emerald ghost;
The doom's electric moccasin
That very instant passed.
On a strange mob of panting trees,
And fences fled away,
And rivers where the houses ran
The living looked that day.
The bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings whirled.
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the world!

In Copland's setting all the words fly by, on the wind, on sixteenth notes in the piano, till the song slows at the final three lines.

It seems like a good poem for today--though there was no heat today--instead a rather chilly day in February. It was an uneasy day, a day when things seem to be turning into something else: a new, really new, budget in Washington, a disintegrating economy, torrential rains yesterday and cold winds today, a Friday night when I'm home alone while two teenagers are off turning into more grown-up people--until they come home again.

I am stiff from sitting in an office chair too much this week, stiff from not sleeping well, stiff from neglect. Stiff and cold, because the windows that surround my desk are old and leaky, and I never remember to turn the space heater on until I'm frozen to the bone.

Dickenson's poem is about change, I think, and anxious, ominous liminal fear. Can I bar the door against the wind? Can I keep it from touching me? I try, but I am stiff and sore and sorrowing from the effort.

It is hard to watch things change, to see dreams forsake the people who dreamed them, to see hope focus on less and less, as life slides into the sweet bitterness of death. It is other people's grief I am writing of here, not my own, grief I see around them, grief that is too private to mention.

Yet I will be someone who "abide(s) the world," for a while anyway, as much comes and goes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday Promise

What's the difference between Groundhog's Day and Ash Wednesday?

On Groundhog's day we may or (may not) find out that we're due for six more weeks of winter. Ash Wednesday begins the countdown to Easter. In six more weeks it will be spring.

Is this a distinction like that between a glass half empty and a glass half full? It's more than a difference in outlook. Groundhog Day (not in the movie sense) is a grope for hope. Just maybe, maybe spring will come early and we'll find our way out of winter sooner than expected. Easter following Lent is a promise that's already been kept. Christ rose, and the earth and the crocuses and we all shall rise too.

Though not without dying first. It is Ash Wednesday after all.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Oh, my poor blog. It's been a long time.

I began this blog on Transfiguration Sunday three years ago. That minor festival of the church year comes around again tomorrow. Time to catch up, or "repent and turn" as in Lent, and write some more.

The subject of doubt came up recently in a conversation with someone. I'm pretty sure that doubt is mostly a good thing. Some people have the gift of absolute, clear shining faith all the time. They're blessed. Others drag doubt in great measure through their lives, or parts of their lives, and this is a blessing, too. How could faith grow or change or mature or even look at its own image without doubt to prod it along?

Did all these things written about in the bible happen as described? Did God actually walk the earth during an otherwise insignificant era in Palestine? What does "redeem us from our sins" really mean? And what about that voice from the cloud on the mountain, and Moses and Elijah, and Jesus glowing like the sun? If someone claimed these things happened nowadays, and started a religion about them, I would run quickly in another direction.

And yet . . .

God's grace, God's presence show up regularly in my world, hovering at the edges of my darkest hours, surprising me in the middle of the mundane, knocking me out of the cynic's pose I wear everyday, most days.

From tomorrow's Psalm: "Out of Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth in glory."