Tuesday, December 25, 2012
What it's been is a long pre-Christmas weekend, now melting into Christmas itself at my house. A recap? It's not very exciting, even to me. Saturday I shopped, especially in the bookstore. Bookstores inspire me to give books. But I give them knowing that books I choose may very well fail to bring delight. My expectations exceed how much people actually love the books I give. I know this, so I bought a book for myself. And that one comes with expectations too: thinking about hunkering down under the covers on a cold January night with a bought-and-paid-for book of my own. That was the high point of my Saturday. Unless you count clearing the scummy hair clog out of the bathroom drain at eleven o'clock at night. You have to do these things on an impulse. That what it takes to overcome revulsion. And the part I enjoyed was not the clearing, but the having cleared. A much different thing.
Sunday I scrubbed the mold out of the dishwasher. I was in the kitchen baking Snickerdoodles and I needed something else to do, preferably something aggressive, because I was stewing about an unfortunate conversation earlier in the day. And, how was I going to clean up from the cookie baking if I couldn't bear to put dishes on the moldy dishwasher racks? You can stew for a long time while scrubbing dishwasher racks. Even if you're not mad when you start, you will be when you finish. But I followed up the scrubbing by running the empty dishwasher through a cleaning cycle with a cup of bleach in the top rack. Later I opened the door to dazzling redeeming whiteness and the clean, clean smell of chlorine.
I have made up my mind in these Christmas days to at least be a blessing to others. Looking at people and smiling intentionally is part of this. Maybe other people do this all the time and I'm finally catching on.
I made Lebkuchen with my grandmother's recipe this afternoon, because that's a family thing and it's a few years since we've had some. I made half the quantity her original recipe calls for and it still filled three cookie tins. It is sweetened with honey as well as sugar and molasses, and it does taste like it gives life. Someone ate honey and locusts in the Bible--who was it? John the Baptist? Jesus? It's a desert thing.
In the middle of that cookie-baking I figured out why the dishwasher gets moldy. I opened it during the dry cycle and touched the heating element in the bottom. I expected to pull my finger away quickly, with a burn. But there was not burn, no heat in the dry cycle, which you'd think I'd have realized long ago, given that I always need a dish towel when I unload the thing.
Singing and choir-directing tonight meant lots of running around. The steps wear me out, but the concentration is what's really tiring. There was no time to think or listen during this worship service. Just keep focusing on what's next. But at the end of the service I looked up from my music to see candles lit all over church. I gasped. It was beautiful. Dazzling, redeeming, light.
Friday, December 14, 2012
In the very next moment I said to myself, well, what have you done? James, the book my Bible study group has been reading this fall, says "Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin" (4:16).
It is time to do the right thing. To stop shrugging our shoulders at the political power of the NRA. Screw the politics. We need sensible gun control. Now. As it is, it will take decades to make guns less available in this country--there are so many out there that can't be put back in a box somewhere. it's a huge problem. We have to start now.
Beyond that, one of the most sensible related things I've heard in the hour and a half the television has been tuned to MSNBC tonight is that we must provide better mental health care for troubled adolescents and young adults. We must keep guns out of the hands of crazy people, but we must also take care of people who are angry and suicidal.
Defy the gun lobby. Fund mental health programs. As the President said today, "regardless of the politics." We know the right thing to do.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Late the next morning the midwife returned to tell us that she thought our daughter had Down syndrome. "This," I thought, "is how it feels when your heart breaks."
In the next few days we went to our family doctor and then to the hospital to have Eliza checked out by a neonatologist. They drew blood so that they could look for that extra chromosome. My husband held out hope. Me--I had known from the moment I first heard it that it was true. I had looked at her face when she was only a few hours old and thought she looked a little like a Down syndrome child. I had dismissed the thought as silly new mother worries. Turns out it was reliable motherly intuition.
Down syndrome comes with stereotypes: they're such loving children, so sweet, they like music. Those stereotypes were no more predictive of who Eliza turned out to be than stereotypes about blue-eyed blonde little boys predicted the interesting individuals my sons have become.
Two ironies in particular: some book somewhere said that individuals with DS have thin straight hair. Oh, my. Eliza wishes she she had straight hair. We go to a lot of trouble at times to give her straight hair. What's she got is curls, corkscrews and waves and lots of them. And that loving disposition? Well, she can be a very loving person, but she's always been plenty cranky too. I spent more time walking her through the house in the middle of the night, sleepless and fussing, than I did either of her brothers.
She's definitely not a mini-me, though I too struggle with curly v. straight hair (crankiness, too). It may be that I become more like her through the years. Overtly, expressively argumentative. When we fight (good old-fashioned mother-daughter fights) I descend to her level pretty quickly. Stupid retorts fly both ways. I only wish I could exit the room and slam the door with the same flourish that she can.
But I have grown beyond judging people by their braininess. I do still enjoy being around smart people. I enjoy complexity. But I've been forced to learn to think simply, to break things down into small steps, to limit input to small manageable amounts. There's a lot to be said for spending time with my daughter and all the friends she has made through the years in special education classes and recreational activities. They are really great people--the disabled ones and the regular ones who work with them.
Clarity is one of the gifts Eliza has given to me. Figuring out what to say to her, how to help her with problems--boyfriends, iPads, getting the pillow in the pillowcase and her dresser drawers to close--these challenges force me to talk in complete but simple sentences, to decide what's important, and to communicate it with tact. The simple clarity that I have to use with Eliza works well in other situations. "Use your clarity"works for me--like "use your words" works for preschoolers.
Twenty-two in the developmentally disabled world means the end of public education and the beginning of adult services. Her teachers have done a great job with her, but now it's up to Eliza, and me, to figure out what's next. It's a new phase, one I've approached with apprehension and crankiness.
Probably means I'm about to learn new things.
Monday, December 10, 2012
"Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ was born . . ."
One of my singers squirmed in her chair with a question. This little girl asks with her whole body--eyebrows curved upward, body turned, toes reaching down to the dot under the question mark.
"Emmanuel. Jesus. God with us," I replied.
"'O come, O come, Emmanuel'? That's Jesus we're asking for."
What do we--what can we understand about "God with us"? Theologians use words like immanence and otherness to codify, to sum up the complexities they think and write about. Immanence is God coming close to us. Otherness is the great unknowable mystery of God (though secretly I wonder if it's also theologians congratulating themselves for creating a god whose is smarter than they are--how clever of them to be able to do that!)
My choir was preparing for a concert that happened yesterday. The program included a new setting by Michael Costello of Jaroslav Vajda's text "Peace came to earth":
Peace came to earth at last that chosen night when angels clove the sky with song and light and God embodied love and sheathed his might— Who could but gasp: Immanuel! Who could but sing: Immanuel!
I'm doubtful that rhetorical questions work in hymn texts. And this text's rhetorical questions cover a list of emotions worthy of an acting exercise: gasp and sing in this first stanza. The next stanza asks "who could but sigh" and "who could but shout?" And then there's "see," "thrill," "pray," "praise--Immanuel?" Question mark.
Immanence yet Otherness. Hidden power and might. How is that God with us?
A recent article in the New York Times by a Jewish theologian, Yoram Hazony, is titleded "The Imperfect God."
The God of Hebrew Scripture is meant to be an “embodiment of what is, of reality” as we experience it. . . . It is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel’s faith: We hope that despite the frequently harsh reality of our daily experience, there is nonetheless a faithfulness and justice that rules in our world in the end.
Sunday, December 02, 2012
"Alone" by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967):Sometimes on my way down the hall at work or going from the front of the house to the back I forget what I set out to do. The cue for the intention was on my desk or the screen or maybe hanging around the back door, and when I cut loose and ramble through other rooms and past many doors, the reason for the ramble disappears.
“When I’m alone”—the words tripped off his tongue
As though to be alone were nothing strange.
“When I was young,” he said; “when I was young. . . .”
I thought of age, and loneliness, and change,
I thought how strange we grow when we’re alone,
And how unlike the selves that meet and talk,
And blow the candles out, and say goodnight.
Alone. . . . The word is life endured and known.
It is the stillness where our spirits walk
And all but inmost faith is overthrown.
Sometimes I lose my self in the same way. Who am I now? Which iteration of Gwen? Young and shy, smart, unaware. Older, lost somewhere between the home harbor and an unknown destination. Someone inhabits this body. Someone is the voice inside my head. But who or what is that?
Perhaps I should go sit and meditate and just be for a while.
There has been no quiet time this weekend. The voice between my ears is still carrying on conversations with last night's dinner companions, with the good friends I dined with on Friday, with those who read and sang and those who listened at this afternoon's Christmas Lessons and Carols, with the John Adams score for "I Am Love," the movie I watched last night, with the news and op-ed I read online.
So many selves--like the images in a three-way mirror, except each is moving independently, each demanding attention like a child among siblings.
Perhaps I should leave them all alone. There will still be something left. Will that be me?
[Poem quoted earlier today on Andrew Sullivan's blog at The Daily Beast.]
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
The world turns. The dirty world.
My son, home from college and taking it easy this week, was watching a show on the History Channel last night: Mankind The Story of All of Us. Episode two: I came in as the Jews were inventing monotheism; I changed the channel shortly after the baptism of Constantine, as the Romans were spending oodles of money on silk from China.
I didn't pay close attention to the narration (I was working on the computer), but I was surprised to see Henry Louis Gates, whose field is African American history and culture, among those talking about early Christianity. Another talking head stated that persecuted Christians were faced with the choice of dying in the Coliseum or burning in hell for eternity for denying their faith. Was that really how early Christians framed it?
"Mankind" comes with a dark and menacing musical score and piled-on visual images of fear, violence, and chaos. It uses staged recreations of history--tight shots of individuals looking fearful, mobs grabbing at silk, and plenty of fake blood. There did not seem to be any effort to present life as it was lived from day to day, nor a sense of non-visceral ways that people and rulers dealt with the perplexities of life and one another and time.
Very different from Ken Burns' PBS series on the Dust Bowl, which had plenty of black and white photos of mile-high clouds of dirt and dust, but also had ordinary people recalling their childhood lived under this menace. They got by. They endured. Some of their elders grew bitter. Others graciously accepted their place in a wondrous universe.
One does not have to look far to find violence and chaos in our own time: Gaza, Syria, the wind, water and fire from Hurricane Sandy. These images make for good television--if you define good as images it's hard to look away from, short of finding the remote and changing the channel.
Last night I sought refuge from the intensity of history by switching the channel to HGTV. I watched a young couple, smiling and arguing for the camera, buy a very ordinary three-bedroom house in the country for something less than $200,000. I switched to a Daily Show rerun when "Million Dollar Rooms" came on HGTV. Twenty-one granite pillars, each valued at $35,000, in a giant living room with a $35,000 chandelier.
It was too much for me--too much like the excess of greed and violence in "Mankind."
Thursday, November 08, 2012
Time to move on to other pressing questions. Feel free to chime in with answers. 'Cause I need to know.
1) Why does the dishwasher no longer get the dishes clean? I've got brand-name detergent, rinse stuff, careful loading, and I'm even cleaning the gunk out of the bottom fairly regularly. But I don't know what's going on or not going on in there. Makes me want to go out and spend $$$ on a new one. Simple but expensive solution. Alternate solution: stop washing plastic stuff in the dishwasher. That stuff and the coffee cups are what's not getting clean.
2) What's a good filing system for bits and pieces of related information on the computer? Can I put it all in one place so it doesn't take so many clicks to retrieve it when I need it? If I had such place, could I actually train myself to use it? I'm not very good about putting things away.
3) How am I going to cast this show I want to produce in January? Young people, old people, in-between people--gotta have bodies. Gotta personally recruit those bodies.
4) What kinds of loops will I make on the sweater that's been finished since July--except for the buttons and loops? Do I crochet them? Would I-cord be too fat? How do I made sure they stay put and don't pop and break? Is it possible the loops are not getting made because I'm not wanting to sew on nine buttons?
5) Must I make mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner?
6) How little sleep does a fifty-eight-year-old woman really need?
7) Where are those yellow baby booties I knit years ago? The shower's tomorrow! Dare I open the big chest with all the yarn in it? What new projects might result?
Stay tuned. Oobla-dee, oobla-dah, life goes on.
(One more question: why do I have to put all the line-break codes in myself when I use this text editor? Annoying.)
Tuesday, November 06, 2012
And I've stayed a believer. The idea that Woodward and Bernstein pursued truth to its logical end and took down a dishonest president inspired me. When the Berlin Wall came down, I gave thanks for the Americans who had stood fast for freedom and free markets. With Martin Luther King I know that the arc of history bends towards justice.
When Barack Obama stood on the steps of the Old Capitol in Springfield, Illinois--Lincoln's State Capital--and announced he was running for president, boy, I thought that was audacious. But he had me. I couldn't get on a bus and go canvas Iowa, but I made some phone calls back in 2008, and I've made some more in the last few days. I've responded to more than one email with a $10 donation. I somehow have a sense that I, as just one of many, can make a difference.
So when I watched this video online a little while ago, after talking with a couple voters up in Minnesota, well, both the ten-year-old inside me and the much older woman I am now were proud to be part of the United States of America.
If things turn out tonight as probability suggests they will and President Obama is reelected, he won't have an easy second term. There will be lots of fighting with Congress, lots of vilification from the right and damnation by faint praise from the left. But this country will have near-universal health insurance at last and maybe even immigration reform, along with responsible actions on the national budget and debt.
So watch this, and if you tear up as I do, know hope, know progress, know community. This is what patriotism should look like.
Sunday, November 04, 2012
It's like being behind the beat. Or ahead of it? I'm not sure which way the analogy points.
It's pointing toward bed.
Saturday, November 03, 2012
Here's one end of my dining room table:
That box? Three new pairs of pants to be shortened for my daughter. Three more to be returned to Lands End via Sears. The cowboy hat should go back to the attic. I should read that paper, or at least page through it.
At the other end of the table, there's a book to read--I have to start it if I'm going to finish it in time for the discussion. There's a bill hiding there somewhere, and coupons that remind me of getting the jump on Christmas shopping. I should look through that big binder about writing and then haul it back to from whence it came. And yes, put the salt and pepper away and once the table is clear wash the tablecloth so it's ready for Thanksgiving.
This is my couch. These are the things I actually do and would like to be doing more of:
I have to walk past the first two pictures to get to the third. And I have no trouble doing that. Because I am a procrastinator.
Sunday, October 28, 2012
Yep, sonny this is sure enough Injun summer. Don't know what that is, I reckon, do you? Well, that's when all the homesick Injuns come back to play; You know, a long time ago, long afore yer granddaddy was born even, there used to be heaps of Injuns around here—thousands—millions, I reckon, far as that's concerned. Reg'lar sure 'nough Injuns—none o' yer cigar store Injuns, not much. They wuz all around here—right here where you're standin'. Don't be skeered—hain't none around here now, leastways no live ones. They been gone this many a year. They all went away and died, so they ain't no more left. But every year, 'long about now, they all come back, leastways their sperrits do. They're here now. You can see 'em off across the fields. Look real hard. See that kind o' hazy misty look out yonder? Well, them's Injuns—Injun sperrits marchin' along an' dancin' in the sunlight. That's what makes that kind o' haze that's everywhere—it's jest the sperrits of the Injuns all come back. They're all around us now.
"Injun Summer," two pictures and a little story appeared in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine in late October every year from 1907 through 1992. It's gone now, outlived its usefulness. I'm sure it's offensive to Native Americans--after all, it's wrong to say "they all went away died," when really they were pushed, cheated, manipulated, sickened and murdered by white European settlers.
But still--this piece captured my imagination when I was a child. I remember reading it out loud to myself and studying the similarities between the daytime picture above and the nighttime one.
When we sing of "mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won," the music somehow connects saints on earth with saints in heaven. Or at least it feels that way. Someone more insistent than I on correct theology might locate that unity at the communion table, in the bread and wine becoming Christ's body and blood. But to me, music is as real as a wafer on the tongue or golden wine in a cup. And the tears that well up in the throat are sacramental, God embodied in our grief. Salty and substantial.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Saturday, July 07, 2012
After days of oppressive heat that settled in the pores of arms and legs and wrapped bodies like mummies, closed in and fuming, there was a breeze this morning. I noticed it at midday, sitting outside stirring the ice in my plastic glass with my straw. The air was hot, but it was moving, going somewhere, past the trees, not bothering with bodies or walls, going onward. Still hot, but we were not pinned to our seats by warming degrees so high they defied records.
It is early evening now, and the breeze is cooling the air, the ground, the houses and the cars and the street. From time to time it swirls and grows into a wind, stronger with life of its own, but then it settles back down to take a rest. It will will find more energy in the coming dark and blow into a storm when I am safe under my own roof. Now robins and sparrows are twittering abstractions in the tops of the trees. Branches move with the gentle energy of the air.
Respiro, inspiro. Breathe. Inspire.
Oh, if I were Emily I could distill all this down into eight, or even four perfect metered lines of six or eight syllables, cryptic yet clear to those who crack the code. A single moving, changing image that inspires, that breathes with life.
Saturday, June 30, 2012
This is what I said last week of my impending trip to Westminster Choir College and the week-long summer Conducting Institute. I said it with some measure of irony. It's a big statement, and what if I were to come back with my life not changed?
But I hoped.
I hoped, and here I am, at the end of the week, singing better, feeling free, exhaling as well as inhaling when I conduct. I've said hello to my past and reacquainted myself with the music inside me. I've heard other people's stories, told my own, and marveled at what music and truth and trust can do.
So that tomorrow I can go home and change my life.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
We sang Nänie tonight, a Brahms setting of poem by Schiller.
The poem begins,"Auch das Schöne muß sterben!" Which means "Even the beautiful ones must die!"
Brahms was acquainted with the death of beautiful ones--Robert Schuman, other friends, Schiller himself. The music--why use words to describe it? You have to hear it, feel it lift in sadness, jab with anger, explore the size and weight of Brahms' grief. The gods weep and the goddesses. It is hard to bear--that people cease to be.
But at the end:
Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mundder Geliebten, ist herrlich,Roughly,
Denn das Gemeine gebt Klanglos zum Orkus hinab.
Even a lament that is in the mouth of a loved one ist glorious,
Because the common ones go soundless into the abyss.
Remembering, grieving keeps something alive of the beautiful ones who are gone.
Day Two at Westminster
1. Sing with Sabine. Lift your leg to find those high easy overtones.
2. Breath with Nova Thomas. Opera lady--narrow black capris, wedgies, floaty purple top over an ample bosom. Dark eyes, expressive face. Jokes. Breath exercises. Breathing is so much easier than I thought.
3. Connections. In a circle breathing. In a circle conducting. I have the face that says hi, yes, I’ll talk to you, let’s do it together. (And then I have to stay friendly!)
4. Movement in three planes--really on three axes--table plane, door plane (verticals), and somersault plane (not its real name? but forward, backward, the third dimension)
5. Then freely moving. Like putting on my Sunday slip and dancing around the living room as a five-year-old.
6. Conducting--sucky me. Tired, concentration gone. Two-beat screwed up, and what about this shoulder tension? The ache? The tightness.
7. Lecture tonight on “body architecture” and I get my shoulder joint remapped. The ball and socket joint is in my armpit! Think the movement there, the pivot there, and the tight muscles I’m envisioning in the top of my shoulder go away. Throw in some wrist issues that I’m going to apply to computer ergonomics as well as conducting and I’d say that was a very good hour.
8. A “big walk” with my roommate from Beijing. Her arms swinging big, mine just comfortably, we wheel through downtown Princeton, free and talking and we didn’t get lost. Way more energy when I got back.
9. Which is a good thing because my watch is running out of energy and running slow and this is why I was late to Master Class today because the watch ran down. But by the time I figured out the watch was slow it was late afternoon and somehow I lost a half hour from my dinner break--at least in my head. Which may explain the late bedtime.
10. But before bed, and the final studying, I talked kids and music and opera and traded iTunes files with my new friend from China.
It’ll do, pig.
So I’m at the Conducting Institute at Westminster Choir College. An hour of wonderful, relaxed vocalizing began the day, and then we started to sing through repertoire. A rainy Monday morning. Green summer, growing things, richness in the air.
The first piece of music—something simple: “Homeward Bound,” words and music by Marta Keen, arranged by Mack Wilberg. The text:
In the quiet misty morning when the moon has gone to bed, When the sparrows stop their singing and the sky is clear and red, When the summer’s ceased its gleaming, when the corn is past its prime, When adventure’s lost its meaning I’ll be homeward bound in time. Bind me not to the pasture; Chain me not to the plow Set me free to find my calling And I’ll return to you somehow. If you find it’s me you’re missing, if you’re hoping I’ll return, To your thoughts I’ll soon be list’ning . . .Somewhere right about there I quit singing. An hour of playful vocalizing before the sightreading had left my throat, as singers say, open. So the tears could pour in, then rise to my eyes and stream down my face, as the music continued:
...in the road I’ll stop and turn. Then the wind will set me racing as my journey nears its end And the path I’ll be retracing when I’m homeward bound again.It was Lon, my sainted husband, just there somehow on his own path. And it was children leaving home.
How does music do that? And so quickly, so effortlessly?
I cried like that once years ago, when Lon was lost in dementia and my life was constant stress. I went to yoga class, and lying on the mat, in those minutes of pre-class quiet, I let go and the tears ran down from the corners of my eyes, across my cheekbones, and, unpoetically, into my ears. No sobbing, no catching of the breath. And I couldn’t stop.
This morning I tried to get back into the music in order to stop crying, but it wasn’t going to happen. I could not govern my throat until we moved on to another piece of music.
Grief stays inside you, is you, is part of you for a long, long time. The waves of loss rise when their overtones sound. Like music.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
I hope this is true. And I hope it is as true for me now as it was when I ran when I was in my twenties. In fact, I hope it's even more true, because when I was in my twenties I ran through the pain of heel spurs, shin splints and inflamed Achilles tendons and didn't worry too much about long-term injuries. These days I have friends my own age who have had knee replacement surgery, which reminds me that bodies and body parts are finite. They wear out.
On the other hand, I have met 73-year-old Doris Schertz who has won her age group in the Boston Marathon--twice. She, like me, is a former La Leche League Leader, and she didn't start running until she was in her fifties. I'd like to be bouncy and energetic like she is as I get older, able to sit cross-legged on the floor and get up and down with ease. Can't see myself training for hours on end, but it does feel good to run down suburban streets in summer, with linden trees smelling heavenly and sprinklers watering the green hostas that anchor walkways and flower beds.
Running is doing something that is continuous with other versions of myself--the young woman who started running in graduate school and kept it up, more or less, until the first trimester of her first pregnancy (that nauseous, exhausted couple of months when you're barely pregnant but thoroughly miserable). I ran for a while when my youngest child went off to preschool--put him on the bus and headed down the street in my running shoes and baggy t-shirt. I walked last year, furiously some days, with head phones and music blocking out the loops of complaints and aggravation that were playing in my brain. When I was younger I reminded myself that I would always feel better after a run, even if I didn't feel like running. Now when I walk or walk-and-run on stressed-out days I tell myself that I can stay mad, if I want, and I might not feel better after a workout, but I won't feel worse, and at least my exercise is done.
Week One, Week Two, Week Three. A day of running, a day off. A decade of running, two decades of child-rearing. A year of running, a long time without it. Days accumulate, things change. I have grown up, survived, gained some intuition, and what's more, learned to trust it. But in that pile of accumulated days, there are aches and pains, wishes and unresolved hurts. I worry about the repair process.
When I was young I assumed things would work out one day for the best, and if even if I knew that "happily every after" was a fairy tale, I still assumed that this was where I was headed, where I wanted to be. Safe and okay. But now I know this cannot be taken for granted.
Someone told me recently that if I was going to worry I should smile while I worry. It was advice for singing, which I'm doing with care and attention to technique these days, trying to fix habits accumulated over a lifetime. Why I worry so much when I sing is a long story, suitable for a therapist's couch, but it is a continuous piece with my younger self, with whom, curiously, I seem to be spending the summer.
While I was out tonight doing my alternating minutes of running and walking, I realized that I know of three men in their fifties who have died suddenly in the last couple weeks: a relative of a friend, a cousin of my cousins, the son and brother of dear people I've known a long time. Strokes, cardiac arrest, that sort of thing. There are superstitions about deaths coming in threes, so there it is: three deaths, three men allotted less than the biblical three-score and ten.
Those seventy or eighty years or more of a lifespan ought to have an arc to them, a storyline, a plot, or a coda that explains it all and brings healing at the end. These human years are a quick time gone by, and strictly linear. Time in other dimensions, in the cosmos, in quantum mechanics, may fold back on itself and repair the past as it's lived. I am not wired to experience this, though if this is how the mind of God works, perhaps I can hope that continuous repair, back and forth in time, is God's salvation at work in me.
Meanwhile I live one day after another, concentrating on the smiling.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
But an hour later, I'm going to the kitchen to make that second cup for myself. Be right back.
While I was in the kitchen, I took my allergy medicine, which I keep next to the coffee maker, because making coffee is pretty much the one thing I can count on myself to do every day. So if the Zyrtec is right there, I'll probably remember to swallow some. Remember the pills and I can forget about the symptoms. (Forget the pills and a day or two later I notice.)
I usually swallow a calcium and vitamin D supplement along with the allergy pill, but I read in the paper this morning that this doesn't actually prevent bone loss and it ups the risk of kidney stones. I had a kidney stone once. It hurt. I'm giving up on the calcium.
There are other things I should give up in the morning. Like reading the paper--more precisely, sitting down at the computer to read the paper online. It takes time and fritters away my early-morning ability to focus on creative tasks. What do I get out of it? A sense of connection to the larger world. Often, some interesting ideas--but when I have to get on to the work of the day I don't have time left to work on those ideas.
This begs the question--does it matter if I do think about big ideas, or the news of the day, or what's going in Washington or the Eurozone, the Mideast or Appalachia? I have no effect on these things, none whatsoever. Wouldn't my time be better spent lining up my late-afternoon errands, organizing my work projects and deciding what's for supper? Should I even be reading a blog about somebody else's garden in Ohio when there are weeds in my own backyard? Global, schmobal.
That second cup of coffee--is that the one that calls me back from the world of news and ideas into restless action? I'm nearing the bottom of the cup and starting to feel it.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
I've ripped through a couple novels--Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" and Rachel Kushner's "Telex from Cuba." Franzen's book has strong bones and muscular writing. He writes with firm energy, like a kid with an active mind whose math notes are surrounded by drawings of supermen, drawings that push the pencil deeply into the paper. There's a triangle in "Freedom," and while it's the woman's actions that upset the men's lives, the men seem to have more volition than the woman. She loves, not enough or too much, because of her need. They love (and consumate that love) as an expression of their individuality. Or so it could be argued, I guess.
"Telex from Cuba" tells of expatriates in Cuba during Castro's Communist revolution. They are recognizable people--teens, parents, bosses and workers--in an exotic situation. There are non-American characters as well, including Battista (the dictator overthrown by Fidel) and an international weapons dealer. They're all scraping after power and the security they want from that power. Almost nobody gets the life they expect.
Reading category number two is Alzheimer's memoirs. This is a depressing genre, why go there? I'm traveling deliberately, kind of a slow sight-seeing trip. I've written a few chapters of my own in this category that I"m not sure what to do with. I've got three books going. The first, "Keeper: One House, Three Generations, and a Journey into Alzheimer's," by Andrea Gillies. She and her husband thought that the caregiving solution to the challenge presented by his demented mother and chair-bound elderly father was to buy a large house in rural Scotland for three generations to share--running a B&B on the side, to help pay the mortgage. It doesn't turn out well. "Nancy," the mother-in-law, is constantly struggling against her disease, her environment and her caregivers, and they struggle back. Everyone's expectations seem too high. Scene after scene moves toward the point where a frustrated caregiver explains things to Nancy, which is, of course, pointless.
I've also got "Iris and Her Friends," a memoir by John Bayley, husband of novelist Iris Murdoch, an Alzheimer's sufferer (as the English would say, instead of "victim"). There's surrender in this book, to sadness and to joy; Bayley is a devoted spouse, who has always lived the life of the mind. It's easier for him, because he is not trying to be a multi-tasking middle-age Wonder Woman. The third book is "Alzheimer's from the Inside Out," a collection of essays from a psychologist with early onset AD, sharing his experience of his mind's deterioration.
All three books contain ruminations on what is mind and what is memory and who are we with these things and who are we without them. It's an inevitable question. I can still invoke it just by turning my head to the right and imagining Lon, my demented husband, beside me. Which Lon fills my memory? The one I met and romanced and married, had children with? The one who took me to the movies, who ate my cooking, who made the house boom with colorful conversation? Or the silent angry man, with the taut, skinny arms who was haunted by things we couldn't see, who kicked the dog and threatened the children with wordless clenched fists?
It was an exotic situation. Freedom? Choices? Struggle, or surrender? There are many things contained within one person, one character. What holds them together?
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Nope. Those things were lovely, challenging, tasteful. They preached the dying and rising again of Jesus. Good enough, surely.
The living waters of the day came from something else: four eight-foot pieces of white cloth, held by eight young people standing across from one another in a circle, waving the eight-legged cross they made up and down, fanning the air, and seeing it spin rainbow pinwheels held by other young folk. It was the convocation at the end of the Dream Act Pilgrimage. The Dreamers presented their lives, the fears and dangers lurking in their undocumented status. But they also spoke of their faith in the Good Shepherd, who knows their names and their status and calls them to be witnesses and gifts to others.
Go in peace. Serve the Lord.
Thursday, April 05, 2012
When I was in second grade at St. John Lutheran School in Forest Park we acted out the story of Jesus dying on the cross. We had acted out other Bible stories, but we worked very hard on this one, because it was such an important story. And we performed it one evening for our parents.
Most of the kids in the class (probably all the girls) were part of the crowd. I was the narrator. I had a loud voice and could remember the whole story and tell it in my own words. A boy named Barry Prescott played Jesus. And when it was time for Jesus to walk through the streets of Jerusalem wearing the crown of thorns and carrying the heavy cross, he took off his shirt. It was very serious, very dramatic. He had to imagine what it was like to be Jesus. What was it like for Jesus to give up his life?
In today’s reading we heard Jesus explaining some things about his death:
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
Christians have been studying these words for a long time. We ask ourselves, why did Jesus, who was God, have to lose his life? And what does that mean for us? What part do we play in the story of Jesus’ suffering and death?
You might see yourself in the crowd, as one of the people who shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” They’re angry and mean and they was to be sure they don’t get into trouble themselves for following Jesus.
Are we like that sometimes? I know for myself that I do things that are angry and mean. I’m careless and cruel, unkind, wasteful, lazy. I’m a sinner, just like those people in the crowd. But I also know that Jesus died so that my sins could be forgiven.
But I think Jesus’ words about his death are also inviting you to play another part in this story. Jesus is inviting you to follow him, to lose life, like he did, and to be like him.
We get to play the part of Jesus. This means doing the things Jesus di, like helping people who are poor and going through a hard time. Mr. Mortensen reminded us yesterday of how we did that with our offerings earlier this year.
I want to tell you another story about acting the part of Jesus. This one is about some friends who graduated from Grace School three years. They are still very good friends, and they have another close friend whose name is Nate.
A week ago Saturday, Nate jumped into the pool at his water polo meet. When he got out of the water his legs felt funny. He sat down on a bench and fell off the bench onto the floor. His legs were completely numb. He couldn’t fell anything. He couldn’t move them. He was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, and it took the doctors a couple days to figure out what had happened to him. And when they did figure it out, it was very bad news. Nate may not ever be able to walk again.
All last week Nate was in the intensive care unit at a big hospital, lying flat on his back. And his friends went to visit him. Almost every day.
This wasn’t easy for them to do. It involved a trip downtown into the city. It’s scary going into an intensive care unit full of machines and tubes and monitors. They could have just sent a card of flowers. Or called on the phone. They could visit him and just say a quick hello and leave in ten or fifteen minutes. But that’s now what they did. They brought games and music and books. They stated and talked with him. They let him know that whatever happens, he’s still Nate, and he’s still their friend and people care about him. They shared his frustration and his worry and his hope.
When I talked about this with one of the girls, she said she’s been having a lot of questions about God lately. And she’s not sure what God is doing in all of this. But she is there for friend. She is being Jesus, even though it’s hard and frustrating. She and her other friends are losing something about their easy lives, to be Jesus for their friend.
How will you lose your life and play the part of Jesus today? You can help people who are wick and poor or frustrated and sad. You can stand up for kids who are being bullied, and you can be friends with kids that others are not being very nice to. You’ll have to do things that might not be easy to do. It’s not easy to lose your life. Our Bible reading says that Jesus “was troubled,” was fearful about what was about to happen to him. But Jesus knew that losing his life meant life and forgiveness for all the world. And that means a new life for you, too.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
This afternoon I attended a forum on immigration reform, where several individuals told their stories and other advocates and organizers talked about what we can do to help. Educate others. Write your representatives. Care for those caught up in the detention system. And stop using the word "illegal." It dehumanizes people. It allows us to dismiss them as less than what they are--people who laugh, work, love and suffer under a taxpayer-supported system that is inhumane, ungodly and fearfully complicated.
Spreading the word to end this i-word would be much more difficult than getting "retard" out of the mouths of middle-schoolers. Undocumented residents of the U.S. are thought to be responsible for their own legal difficulties, though often they were brought here as children, not by their own choice, and this country is the only home they know. Their parents came here in order to be able to feed and care for their families. To stop using the word illegal we have to acknowledge all these back stories, and see ourselves, our love for family, our passion for work, our desire for security in all people, not just the ones who look like us.
"We are all children of God." More than one speaker said this today. What more thrilling thing is there to be called than "child of God"? There have been times in my life when being reminded that I am a child of God opened heaven for me.
There were so many children of God that I encountered today. A tiny baby, so new that she seemed to still be part of her mother's arms, the arms that cradled her all through church. Children of God whom we prayed for today because they have died or because they are grieving or ill. Another child of God going through yet another really rough time. There are the college kids sitting around the fire in my backyard, so different from who they were just a year ago as high school seniors. My daughter and her friends, disabled, but lively contributors to a community that marches in parades and supports one another when one of their own dies. Me, child of God, sitting by a candle flickering fast in the draft in the front windows.
I remember with those words--"child of God""--that the God of galaxies and sunsets and giant sequoias is here in my life, in a still small voice and the stuff of everyday life.
Sunday, March 04, 2012
My health insurance plan offers monetary incentives to complete healthy behavior-changing activities. Do stuff, track yourself and you earn points that become money in your account to help cover the deductible on medical expenses. To my own amazement I earned all of my possible points in 2011. So I set out to earn them again this year.
Twenty-eight days of practicing centering prayer or mindful movement was one of the options, presented in a program titled "Slow Down."
I chose mindful movement as my practice--the yoga I've been doing on and off for a dozen years--with a few minutes of meditation (or centering prayer) at the end. The program did not ask for much time--five minutes of movement, working up to ten or more over time; or just a minute of meditation to begin, working up to five minutes or more. That promise that it won't take long gets me off the couch or away from the desk. But once I get going I stay with it for fifteen or twenty minutes, and come away with a quiet, more comfortable body.
I also come away with a mind that is quieter and centered in my breath, in my body, not my head. I'm not sure what I mean by that--something like my brain and all its activity stays focused within me and doesn't go bopping off to fret over things I can't change or to obsess about stuff that doesn't matter anyway. Not that I don't think about those things--thoughts about work and other pesky subjects float through my mind all the time. But in this time, with the work of Triangle Pose or hamstring stretching I can't focus on them. This is a huge relief. It's kinda like not caring, but without the not-caring part. I still care. I just don't have to tie my whole being into knots.
Buddhists, I've read, say to avoid extremes of emotion--extremes of happiness as well as sadness. Those literary or artistic types burning the candle brightly and passionately at both ends, living life to its fullest and fighting every step of the way will not find contentment. Don't be like them. Accept what is enough for today.
One of the things that draws me to yoga is that it's not about how far down you bend or how long you hold the pose. It's about the fine adjustments you make, recognizing that each action has an opposing action, that you can reach higher to the heavens by grounding yourself more firmly in the earth, that you can balance better by opening up. You also move carefully and in good form, so that you don't hurt yourself. You accept your limits. As the instructor on the DVD says, this is your pose for today.
After twenty-eight days of practicing something or another you have to take an online survey to get credit for your experience. The last question was a curious one: do you understand "Slow Down" to be a healthy activity, like healthy eating, exercise, getting enough sleep, etc., or do you understand it to be a faith-based practice. I had to think a bit before answering that. I went with the faith answer, since the material about the program was pretty clear about the spiritual intent and about becoming more aware of God's presence. But I really wanted to check both boxes. Bringing together the spiritual and the physical is what makes this work.
And it did work for me. After seven or eight days I was more calm and this sense of freedom grew over the next week and stays with me. I'm aware of how busy my mind is but if I can't shut it off, I can at least tune it out, like kids in the back seat of the car. I stand up straighter, which makes everything else better.
Will I stay with it? After years of hearing yoga instructors say, it really helps to do something every day, even if it's just twenty minutes, or ten, I finally believe them. I'm going to try.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Except anger. I remember the one about anger.
I'm holding onto that one. It's the one where I identify the stuff I'm swimming in as anger. Others might identify the mess around them as the chaos of a messy world. Someone else, blessed with a happier temperament, might recognize love in the air and water that give life. But my default position is I'm mad. I'm mad that the world is the way it is, that people die and leave me, that there are constant struggles for power and ascendancy among the people I live with.
No news here, really. Everyone dies, we all know people who die. Some of those deaths are more outrageous and meaningless than others, but each one is a surprise to someone. Things fall apart despite how hard we work at holding them together, no matter how successful or unsuccessful are at asserting our own power. We must go on living.
I saw "Tree of Life" the other night. The opening voiceover is a meditation on Nature and Grace. I see a contradiction; my son says they're both God. Whatever they are, they were the ether of the movie, there in the damp green suburban grass, in the flames and water of creation. When they brush up against each other, Nature and Grace, there are flares of energy. What nature will do, grace will forgive.
Many years ago someone older and wiser introduced me to the idea of righteous anger, anger fully justified by the circumstances, anger that should not be hidden or extinguished, but put to use, because God is present in that anger. Up to that point the words that attached themselves to anger in my head were in sentences like "Anger gets you nowhere" or "Anger never did any good for anybody."
That would be faithless thinking, in the face of anger over deep and existential contradictions between death and life, brokenness and righteousness. God is at the dividing line between these things, reconciling them, making them one.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Here's how I began:
"Damn. I meant to start this blog with something clever and incisive. Something fun. Something smart.
"Instead, the pressing question of the day is visceral. Why do I weep when that darned Alleluia banner is carried out of church at the end of Transfiguration Sunday worship?"
Six years of blogging have shown me that blog posts that begin with a strong visceral image are easier to put together than ones that begin with the break in the image of things that prompts wit or humor. Those breaks flash by quickly, like buildings seen from a moving CTA train. The figurative punch in the gut or the tears and the lump in the throat last longer. They may color the rest of the day or even the rest of the week.
A look at the blog archive shows more posts in the ten months of blogging in 2006 than in any year since then. I came close in 2011, thanks to taking a stab at posting every day last November. My original goal was to post two or three times a week and to write quickly, without a lot of painful revision. In practice, this has meant no more than one round of painful revision. I sometimes suspect I am a better editor than writer. My writing is pretty ordinary, or yes, sloppy, until I go back and rework it.
Knowing that there are people who read my blog posts inhibits my blogging. I wish this were not so, because then I think I would write more often. But there it is. I don't come here to spill my frustrations, chronicle my depressions, or write about people who bug me. That would be self-indulgent, and I would hate to be described as self-indulgent. Also, the psalmist's prayer, "Set a watch before my mouth, O Lord, and guard the door of my lips" is one I take personally, but the guards set before my mouth are usually castigating me for remarks that have already escaped, rather than preventing them from getting out.
The fingers on the keyboard and the super-executive editor in my brain work more slowly, so they do keep watch. They are stern and they wield a six-foot spear that would pierce my heart if people thought I wasn't very nice. It's lot of work to please them, or to make friends with them so that the words can slide out easily.
Today again there was that catch in my chest during "Alleluia, Song of Gladness." It struck somewhere around the image of the new Jerusalem. It invokes memories of the dead, of those who have gone before, including, this weekend, a young man who died on Thursday who was a classmate of my daughter's. But what I am more interested in today is a stanza from another Transfiguration hymn, "How Good, Lord, to Be Here!":
"Before we taste of death, We see your kingdom come; We long to hold the vision bright And make this hill our home."
Not "pie in the sky by and by" but seeing the kingdom now. The hymn, of course, ends with leaving the mount and asking Christ to "come with us to the plain." I'm going to think for a while on that kingdom coming along to the plain, about the light and glory of the image of God we carry as God's creatures. It might burn away the gloom and cruddy questioning that flows over me when I think about writing and wanting to write something original, true, and perhaps edifying or enjoyable for others.
Blogging on. Thanks for reading!
Monday, January 16, 2012
It's a wonderful home, full of things that must have come into the house with stories. A collection of cruets in the dining room and another of flat irons on the landing, baskets and crocks and heavy wood furniture, new and old. Things here feel like they are loved not for what they say about their owner but because of themselves. These things had working lives once. They have their own dignity and stand tall with pride at being well used.
My uncle, Edward Pankow, was a pastor in this community, a farm community originally, but now one where there is a variety of economic activity beyond dairy farms and soybeans. Some things are different from the suburbs where I come from. There are no black people here, for one thing ("less diverse" would be the proper way to say this). People seem to know more about each other. Maybe this is just an effect of there being fewer people to know--same amount of news but fewer characters in the cast.
As people here remember Ed's ministry they speak of a gentle and unassuming leader, positive and encouraging. His own faith was an example to others. I know from stories I've heard that he walked through some sad times with the members of his flock, times when people must surely have asked him why things happen. I think his answer would have been a gentle one, a reminder to trust in God, to have faith. But I can hear him adding in inflections learned from his German immigrant parents, "Yah, yah, but it is hard sometimes."
We've just had the "Do I lock it?" debate about the front door. We are city people and don't feel safe unless the door is locked. But here on a country road, locking the front door is silly. Who would you be trying to keep out?
The funeral is tomorrow. The word of God will be preached, Christ's death and resurrection proclaimed, the cosmic struggle and the eternal victory. But there will also be my uncle's life and example, an earthly life of earthly struggle, following Jesus' example of praying to Abba, Father, following Jesus' example of trusting and finding salvation in God. In his later years, Ed was bent over because of back problems. He often walked with a cane, and he lived with pain. But now in heaven with the God he trusted he stands tall and well-loved, redeemed.
Friday, January 13, 2012
If I breathe, can I sleep? And return to the thinking later?
What is a perverse Lutheran?
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