Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday in Advent

A pre-dawn trip to the airport on the First Sunday in Advent. It is the end of Thanksgiving weekend, the busiest of airport days, and the college student is returning to school for three more weeks before another plane trip home for the long Christmas break.

We leave the house hurried, purposeful, drive south on Austin through Oak Park, Chicago, Cicero, small-ish houses lining the patched street. The lights and glare of the Stickney sewage plant rise in the distance. We jog east to Cicero Ave. to get to Midway and the sewage gas smell seeps into the car. The departure lane is crowded at the airport, with mostly young people piling out of cars, heading back to their youthful worlds after a few days back in the nest, lazing on the parental sofa. A hug, "love you," and he's gone.

I change the radio station to WFMT as I drive back home via Cicero Avenue, the great north-south artery of the city of Chicago. It's the church musician's hour on the classical station, "With Heart and Voice," a program of organ and choral music appropriate for the church year. I'm listening to choirs sing Advent hymns, "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending," and other biblical Judgment Day imagery as I drive in the rain through the unnatural light of expressway interchanges and big box store parking lots, the darker pavements passing racetrack motels and old factory neighborhoods.

What kind of Advent imagery would one come up with for this setting? A large Christus Victor looming over Cicero Avenue seems kitschy or almost cultish. What is it we look for in a reign of Christ, in God's kingdom, in a second coming in our age of steel-reinforced concrete and dawn drowned out by street lights? What signs?

Back home I sit down in the big chair near the living room bay window. The pink dawn is creeping into the sky over the houses across the street. I'm curious--will the electric candles I put in the windows last night actually shut off when daylight comes? The boxes claimed the sensors would turn them off, but at $2.99 apiece (and half off after Christmas), I'm not expecting much. It is shaping up to be a grey day, and the feeble lightbulbs on these candles may stay on all day. Does a prudent virgin unplug them, not waste the electricity, or do I let them burn from now until Christmas?

I decide that they will stay on, and in that instant, silently, the bulbs turn off.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


It is raining the steady watery drip of not-quite-winter. It is not such a hard rain that it will rain itself out and end before the sun goes down. But it is more than a drizzle. I thought twice about taking the garbage out to the alley and decided last night's pizza box could wait by the back door until the raindrops stopped.

It is very late in November, meaning the Thanksgiving trappings are disorganizing, ready to be returned to the basement closet and the upper cupboards until next year. The best of the leftovers are eaten, but there is soup to be made. Other households are putting up Christmas lights--or did so yesterday, before the rain. But here, where German family tradition and church liturgical practice enforce Advent waiting, the dining room table is naked. The Thanksgiving cloth has been washed, folded and put away. The Christmas cloth is in the bottom of the drawer, needing ironing. It seems wrong to spread so much red cheer, right there in the middle of the house where food is served and the family gathers for Christmas Eve dinner. So it stays in the drawer and the table gathers stuff.

I went out shopping this morning. I am not unaffected by the economic pull of Christmas, the potential for bargains, the desire to celebrate connections with gifts that bring warmth or delight or new experiences. I set out with a few clear and practical goals and hope that delightful surprises waited out there. I came home with nothing, confused about sizes and what to buy. I resolved to do my shopping online, where I can walk away from the screen (well, not as easily as I'd like), where I do not have to face the piles of worthless stuff in the store aisles.

The lessons for tomorrow, the first Sunday in Advent, have Christ returning through heavens rent wide, stars falling, the Son of Man coming in clouds, gathering the elect from the four winds (Mark 13:24-37). I suppose today is just quiet enough, just miserable and gray enough to welcome that kind of excitement, that kind of clarity. Take that, you miserable department stores! Take that, you online retailers and the junk mailbox! Short circuit, you droning television set, chronicling petty materialism and false conflict between families!

Christ will come again--that's what we say in Advent, what we affirm in the eucharistic liturgy. But at the moment, the kingdom, like the red tablecloth, is in the bottom of the drawer.

Yet here am I, thinking that, as the song says, "we need a little Christmas," even if it's a long way from the sacred (and too-busy) night of December 24. Something should begin to make things new, or make them look new, or at least stop the rain. There's the knitting work I did yesterday--Christmas presents on the needles, yarn untangled and ready for casting on. Today--candles, lights, something to sound out the expectation of glory to God and peace on earth.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Eve

Over the weekend, in a keep-on-knitting couch-potato stupor, I watched a hostess-y program on Channel 20, (the lesser of the two Chicago-area PBS stations). This woman and her husband were rehabbing a giant early 1900s vacation house in the mountains and were planning to host Thanksgiving dinner there for their children and grandchildren. It had the usual rehabbing quandaries of matching moldings and heating the place mixed with recipes and table decorations. This skinny older woman walked through everything in her granny-jeans and J. Jill t-shirts. choosing lighting, then chopping and mixing and pouring stuff into an oven dish while ad-libbing about how all these good flavors were making memories.

She irritated me. Partly it was the pitch and flatness of her voice. (You want to be my friend, cultivate some resonance in your speaking voice.) But more than that, I was shaking my head at how she reduced family and memories and Thanksgiving to just the veneer of the whole thing--the food on the table, the "sense of bounty" evoked by tucking oranges and lemons and butternut squash into the greenery winding down the middle of her dining table. And how pumpkin swirl cheesecake would--I dunno--make everyone feel fulfilled, rather than just plain full.

I've been hosting Thanksgiving dinner at my house for fifteen years. It is a day full of memories. Some of them are even memories of flavors--like the gravy from a couple years ago that had a cup or so of red wine in it. I think it was merlot. I'm having a glass right now--opened the bottle tonight so it will be ready when I need it tomorrow. The chardonnay last year did not produce the same results.

My Thanksgiving memories are mostly made of people, the continuing characters of family in my life, and of eras, what we've all lived through together. There were years when the kids were excited to help me set the table. (Alas, no more.) There were crazy years with Lon, and before that, not-so-crazy years. There were the years when Eliza and Kurt were small and I did as much cooking as possible already on Wednesday, because I just never knew what was going to happen at the last minute. Now my children and the nieces and nephews are grown up, or something close to that, and we listen carefully to what they have to say over dinner, eager to know that they are people of good judgment, happy, thoughtful, and useful in the world.

Of course, you couldn't put all that shared history in a one-hour television program, not even on PBS. And you can't create your own version of a life to be thankful for based on directions from someone else. You've got to live your life in order to be grateful for it. You've got to trust God and the people walking alongside you. Trust the wine to flavor the gravy, one way or the other.

There's a turkey basket sitting in the middle of my dining room table, a close cousin to the stupid chicken collection on my kitchen windowsill. It's empty--I should fill it with something, but I don't know what. It's a goofy thing, but I enjoy it, just like the little "jug of pilgrim air" sitting uncorked on the sideboard--something that came from my grandmother's house.

I would rather have these familiar things than a table fit for photography.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Option C

As predicted by me (for I know myself well), my extra time on my writing project is going toward option C:

C) Use the extra time to obsess more about doing your best work and meeting all the expectations you attribute to others but that are really your own.

To be honest, I'm not obsessing about doing my own best work so much as I'm obsessing about writing something really good, which at the moment would seem to demand that I write something better than my own work, because what I thought sounded pretty good at 8:15 this morning now sounds like I took a quick (and happy) trip to an easy finish, with much quoting and paraphrasing of material I'd already paraphrased elsewhere.

An hour later . . .

Fixed it. Made the whole thing much more complicated. Another C) option. More and better blogging when this project is finished, which it has to be by Friday!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Share something on Sunday

Rabbi David Wolpe in Slate

"[A lot] of the good that religion does in the world goes unreported—not because people are prejudiced against religion, but that’s just the nature of reporting the news. You don't say, “Once again today, a religious aid worker saved someone's life.” That just doesn't make the paper. Religion is more complex and does much more good than people assume. Every single study in America shows that people who are part of religious communities participate in civic life more, give more money not only to religious charities but to secular charities, are more likely to help someone who's homeless, and more likely to help someone who's destitute. Religion does an enormous amount of good. Even though there are certainly egregious counterexamples, they are more flashy than persuasive."

It is so easy to be cynical about what religion does. It can be divisive, deluding, depressing. But as the good rabbi says earlier in this interview, it's not "religion that makes people do bad things . . . it’s being people that largely makes people do bad things." All the more reason for religion to focus on what God is doing, even though it's hard for us to see, than on what we're doing, or how we're doing it, or how we're describing it. And when we try to tell what God is doing, we need to do so modestly, because any one story of ours is only a small part of God's story.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Good enough

What do you do when the deadline you thought was on the 14th turns out to be the 18th?

A) Continue as planned, finish early, and be ready to start something new that much sooner?

B) Slow down on the project so that you again find yourself working hard to finish at the last minute?

C) Use the extra time to obsess more about doing your best work and meeting all the expectations you attribute to others but that are really your own?

I'm hoping I choose A, but it could be C.

Is "good enough" a good statement or a troubling one?

Friday, November 11, 2011


Maybe it was the double-shot of espresso mid-morning, but I had one of those days when at some point I recall that bipolar disorder runs in my family and I stop and make sure I'm not moving into a manic phase myself. Lots of ideas, lots of experiences (but didn't spend any money, no grandiose ideas, and was able to complete all but one of the tasks on my list for the day--which is really A-plus for me, since my single-day lists usually have enough items on them to last a week.) Mainly I was just so glad it was finally Friday, and without much other reason than that, it was just a happy day.

Every Friday I visit the Senior Kindergarten class for fifteen minutes of combined religion and music. We sing songs about Jesus and being a Christian, and we sing them in ways that reinforce the musical skills I teach in their Tuesday music class. It's November, so giving thanks is a good theme for a lesson. I went in planning to teach the doxology ("Praise God from whom all blessings flow"), but I also talked about Paul. We discussed the introductions to Paul's epistles yesterday in my Bible study group, the introductions in which he says "I give thanks to God for all of you." I think giving thanks can make one, if not a happier person, one who is better able to float through the trials and vicissitudes of life--the petty annoyances, the routines that drag you down, and the really big things that send you hurtling in directions you hadn't planned at all. Giving thanks to God keeps you focused on what God is doing, which is a source of hope and movement, or just contentment.

I'd like to say that the kids really got into this--being thankful--but I fear it was too much about being, which is pretty abstract for kindergartners, and not enough about doing. Anyway, we moved on to "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice," because that, too, comes from the Apostle Paul. And we sang the song about that, and each child individually echoed the "rejoice" that is sung on the C above middle C, near the top of a kindergartner's comfortable range. It was fun to see their faces as they heard what great singing sounds could come out of their mouths on such an energetic word. We sang the doxology, but by then Sophia was clamoring for a prayer and Ellie Schnack, the kindergarten teacher took over. Sophia wanted to pray for her friend whose dog had died. And we had to pray for Charlotte's mother who was having surgery to fix her ear infection. And then somebody else had a friend whose dog--no, it was a cat!-- had died. Wiggles were everywhere as the children echoed their teacher's petitions, and some wandered off while others thought of more people to pray for. No well-defined ending to the class, but thanks and petitions and praise God from all blessings flow--it all kind of flowed into my day.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Parsley, sage, etc.

Temperatures are dropping into the low-thirties tonight. I wanted to be sure to still have fresh herbs for Thanksgiving dinner. So I headed outside about 5:15 with a flashlight and a paring knife and brought back most of the leaves from the parsley and sage plants. Here's what I dumped on my kitchen counter.
There's a stray tomato in there, so pale it won't have much flavor. I put some in a glass of water in the refrigerator.
I put some in a cup of water on the kitchen windowsill.
I rubber-banded some sage sprigs together to dry.
Kinda looks like that big brown pitcher is using 'em to pretend he's a chicken. It's a stupid chicken collection--why would anyone want to be a part of it? And just in case you're wondering, where's the rosemary and thyme -- I potted them up on Saturday.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

How is blogging every day like dieting? When you blow a day, you have to get right back at it. Three different false starts, so far. Tried and deleted. In two more minutes it will be tomorrow, and in this kind of a panic I do not have time to write my way to something interesting. Suffice it to say it's cold. I cut my parsley and my sage outside and stored them in the refrigerator tonight for Thanksgiving dinner. I'd upload pictures, but things are moving slowly from phone to computer. It's coled. My fingers don't go fast. Publish.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Not illegals, but people

I went to a forum on immigration policy yesterday. Here's the biggest thing I learned: there's not a big distinction to be made between legal and illegal immigrants--make that documented and undocumented immigrants. A person, we were told, can not be illegal. Only actions are illegal. It's kind of like the distinction I learned to make and then to insist on when my daughter was young: she was a child with Down syndrome, not a Down syndrome child. People who are in the U. S. without official immigration papers are first and foremost people, each with a story of how he or she came to be here, each with hopes and plans, each facing an uncertain future. The document/undocumented, legal/illegal status distinctions are not very useful even in public policy decisions, because of the sheer number of undocumented immigrants in the U. S. and because there aren't a lot of good alternatives to finding a way to allow people to stay here as permanent, legal residents.

What was also striking was how mean and selfish and small-minded people in the U. S. can be toward immigrants, and how this hurts all of us. Fear of being asked for papers, or even of others being asked to produce papers, can keep people from calling the police when their homes are burgled. One of the functions of immigrants in our bad economic times is to be scapegoats, someone to blame, someone to feel superior to--like poor whites in the antebellum south siding with the rich plantation owners, because that at least made them better than African-American slaves.

What was also striking was one of the speakers citing a study (or something) that found that people who didn't know any immigrants were the ones who had a poor opinion of them. People who knew immigrants thought well of them. Kind of like the gay thing. People knowing gay people has made society in general more tolerant of gays.

So we're left not so much with the dilemma of justifying amnesty and a path to citizenship, but with the challenge of changing people's minds about other people, about learning to open our hearts and being generous with what we have. If we started with those values, what could we accomplish?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Just one more hour in the day

This will be dated early on November 6, but really it's still Saturday night. I'm looking back on the day and noting that today getting things done ran ahead of getting new ideas for things to get done (that is, as long as you count the vague idea that the entire house needs a thorough cleaning as just one thing, when in fact it is actually a multitude of things, from wipe off the sticky buttons on the microwave to clean and organize the attic).

Things done all in one day:
Two devotions written (five to go!)
Breakfast with friends
Went to the library
Went to the grocery store; remembered laundry detergent
Dropped off clothes at the thrift shop
Planted bulbs
Potted plants
Cleaned some stuff out of the garage
Did laundry
Loaded the dishwasher
Visited Kris
Did some work
Did some volunteer editing work
Hung up all the clothes that have been lying in the chair for the past ten days
Shopped for Eliza
Shortened pants, also for Eliza

Plus I sat outside on a glorious, golden day.

Just set the clocks back an hour. Amazing what you can do with a 25-hour day!

Friday, November 04, 2011


What was remarkable about today? I listened to fifth graders sing today, in groups of two or three. These are the fifth graders in my fifth and sixth grade choir, and singing for me was part of the term's assessment. It's always a learning experience to work with small groups of children on singing. Here's some of what I learned and wondered about today: Why do they sing so timidly? Their voices barely get past their noses. On the other hand, the sound they make is pleasant, light, inoffensive. It's better for the teacher not to watch too closely when asking children to do funny vocal exercises. It's hard to sing "Pepe le Pew" if catching the teacher's eye makes you start giggling. Singing takes work, physical and mental effort, and some children are more willing to work at it than others. But with some work they can all do better. And there are always a few who surprise you. Sixth graders next week. They're so much older . . . .

Thursday, November 03, 2011


"What do you do with the mad that you feel?" asked Mr. Rogers. I'm sure he had some good suggestions for the preschoolers (and parents) who watched his show.

I think a lot of the mad in people around me lately has been coming out as snark--snide remarks. Perhaps it's because I'm around clever people, and most of us do sarcasm pretty well. In fact, we do sarcasm better than we do honest dealing with fear and anger.

That's true of me. On days when I've got a full head of steam going, I power through the hours high on snark and righteous outrage. It's a cover for other stuff--the sense that the world is all in a mess, that the mess rolls downhill, that I can't do much to change any of it. But complaining and ranting I'm good at.

What was non-snarky about my day?

This morning we ended our Bible study group's discussion of Jonah by looking at Jonah in art. Kathryn put together a slide show on her computer and we saw Jonah in the catacombs, Jonah in the Sistine Chapel, Jonah in Giotto, Jonah in Lutheran artists from Minneapolis. Some were interested in the texture on that big fish, some in Jonah's physique, some in the belly of the whale which was very much like a tomb. The one I liked best--or maybe it's the one with the emotion that matched mine--was a woodcut of Jonah under the gourd, the hot sun pounding down. Jonah is propping up the vine even as he withers angrily in the hot sun.

He was probably uttering snarky remarks about Nineveh and maybe even about the God who chose to save Ninevah.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Meaning in life

Day two of posting every day in November. The prompt over at BlogHer is something along the lines of "If you knew your next meal would be your last, what would you want to eat?"

My response: that's a dumb question. It also gives me the creeps. If I knew my next meal would be my last, I would probably be so preoccupied with whatever was the reason for it being my last meal that I wouldn't much care what I eat. Mortality is a much more absorbing problem than what to eat.

It sounds like a question to ask Roger Ebert in retrospect. And he'd have a good answer, though he'd meander through some other ideas on the way to revealing it.

I just finished a bowl of ice cream, thinking that a hefty dose of sugar would help to calm my slightly over-caffeinated brain. I think there's some misguided visualization in my head, where the caffeine eats up the sugar and they both just dissolve away so that I'm left with no caffeine and no calories. Wishful thinking.

Clearly 10 minutes of corpse pose would have been a better choice though probably I'd lie there with my brain skittering and sparking like a downed power line.

I've got work to do. Thirteen hundred characters on Bartholomew, AKA Nathaniel, for one thing. And other work.

I'm gonna try. Still trying. Trying to do better tomorrow.

A good question to ask myself tonight? I'm thinking, but all that comes out are practical problems: How could I more clearly label the jars of coffee as decaf and regular? When will I get around to loading the dishwasher? What's the most comfortable thing I could get away with wearing to school tomorrow? Not exactly the big questions in life.

BUT as the guy in this video said: the meaning of life is to make meaning of life. And if getting the right balance of caffeine/decaf in a strong cup of coffee keeps me believing in purpose and meaning, well, then, it's important. Loading the dishwasher? Well, that's more about the pleasure I take in seeing a clean countertop (and I do love the countertops in my remodeled kitchen). Comfortable clothes--yep, so I can feel peppy and energetic after all the not-sleeping I'm going to be doing tonight.

I'm not waiting till a last meal to impose meaning on daily life.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Over at BlogHer it is NaBloPoMo, not really a word, exactly, but a stand-in for National Blog Posting Month. The challenge is to post every day during November. I'm gonna try. Not exactly a strong statement of commitment, I know. But jeez, I've got a few other things going on, and many of these are writing assignments. And right now, I would rather be knitting. Still November is a good month for blogging. Death and darkness outside, furnaces cranking up instead, with cooking and baking and some ambitions for making Christmas presents. This is a short post, an inauspicious beginning. But I'm barely awake.