Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Dazzling, redeeming whiteness

It's been an exciting week in Lake Woebegon . . .

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

Regardless of the politics

As I watched the video clip of President Obama talking about the shootings in Newtown, Conn., today, watching him tear up, I wondered how it feels to think, to know that you are the president of the United States, the leader of this country, someone who could stick his neck out and lead on the issue of gun violence, and know you have not done so. How does it feel to hear about these shootings and even as purportedly the most powerful man in the world, to feel helpless when so many people are killed senselessly.

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


Twenty-two years ago today my daughter, Eliza, was born at home--at 1:10 a.m. on Tuesday, December 11. Her father caught her as she was born and with the midwife's help he also cut the umbilical cord. Her four-year-old brother filled the room with trucks to celebrate her birth. A couple hours later I fell asleep with her cradled next to me. "Someday you'll be the smartest girl in the high school," I whispered. A mini-me.

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

Advent anxiety

"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.

I'm asking.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Lone self

"Alone" by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967):

“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 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.

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.]