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.