Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Heart weight

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

These words, Luke 2:19, are favorites of mine. Somewhere in one of my notebooks, there's a first draft of a hymn text with "Mary kept these things and pondered them" as the refrain. I'd have to go dig it out to remember how I parceled out the "things" among the stanzas. The angel Gabriel was surely the first, maybe the visit to Elizabeth in stanza two, then the manger and finally the dirty, disruptive shepherds stumbling over each other at the stable door, excited and hushed as they told a wild story of angels round about them and the glory of the Lord proclaiming peace to God's people on earth.

Oh, yes, Mary kept these things.

Were I an exegete (and not just another humble ponderer) I would look up the meaning of the Greek word that is translated as "ponder." Where else is it used? What shades of meaning does it bring from other contexts? Is it used for religious meditation? For deliberation? For the humdrum thoughts heard in the mind while cooking, cleaning, walking to work?

The dictionary cites Middle English, Old French and Latin roots for the English word "ponder," including the Latin ponderare, "weigh, reflect on." Weight is what pulls me into the word and might be why I especially like the King James translation above, where these things weigh on and in Mary's heart. As if these miracles and signs had entered the place where the child had lain, replacing the weight of the pregnancy, the pangs of childbirth, with the seismic promise of the angels.

Perhaps the gospel writer puts this sentence here as attribution--to give credibility to fantastic narratives of what was surely an obscure birth. Mary, the mother, is the chronicler, not a scribe with a pen in a palace recording the birth of a son and heir to a prince or emperor. Or maybe the writer is explaining the singular faith of a mother who survived her son and found her grief subsumed in wonder and awe at the resurrection, at the life present in the new Christian community.

I rose early this morning, unable to sleep anymore. As I headed for the bathroom I noticed a light shining under the door of my daughter's room. She is not usually an early riser, but she'd already posted a five-line Facebook status about being awake and all the scenes tumbling through her brain. There was plenty running through my mind as well--checkbooks and cookies, song lyrics and errands, as well as life's hopes and heartaches.

It's no longer dark out. Morning has seeped through the sky outside my living room window, just as it crept over Bethlehem long ago, after that miraculous night that lived on in Mary's heart. What will I carry in my heart today? Will the light of the Christchild fill the spaces left by sleeplessness and worry--lighten them? I hope so.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Only what's done

It's an hour yet until the sun rises, so I lit the chunky white candle on the blue plate that I placed on the table in the east window on the day after Thanksgiving. And I lit one blue candle on the Advent wreath as well. The flame on the white candle is flickering wildly, thanks to drafty old windows in this seventy-five-year-old house.

I'll get out the electric candles soon, the ones with sensors that turn them on in the darkness of late afternoon and off shortly after sunrise each morning. They make a nice glow, and once the cords are untangled and they're secured on the windowsills, they require no effort. I'm good with that.

I opened the computer this morning and Facebook came up on the screen, with a "Welcome to Advent" post from a friend. (Thanks, Chrissy.) She quoted a "Stir up, O Lord" prayer:
Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people;
that they, richly bearing the fruit of good works,
may by you be richly rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Oh, dear. "Richly bearing the fruit of good works" sounds like a lot of effort, maybe more than I'm good for this December.

When I was a child, there was a wooden plaque in my great aunts' home that said:
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.

The maiden aunts (known in the family as "the girls") lived next door to us, and my sisters and I went there often. The plaque may have hung in the front hall, or perhaps the dining room. I'm sure it was old even then. There was a similar style plaque in one of the upstairs bedrooms with a saying on it in German script that I couldn't even read, much less understand. Both plaques likely dated back to Clara, Lydia and Emma's turn-of-the-century childhoods, perhaps to the parsonage where they were born in York Center, Illinois. Their papa, Herr Pastor Herman Sieving, died when they were quite small. The house they shared as adults was purchased with their mother, twenty years or more after his death, when these girls (my grandmother was the youngest of them) had grown up, worked hard, gotten good jobs and were finally financially secure.

I read the words on that old-fashioned wooden plaque often. They got under my skin. I memorized them, with their catchy rhythm and tidy rhyme. You could jump rope to this little verse, or repeat it in your head as you skipped down the block, late to school. Or pound it out as your feet hit the pavement while jogging daily de-stress miles in graduate school. The grim reminder that life is soon over sent a dark Lutheran chill through my young religious heart. It still does.

What I heard in that verse, and still hear nagging at me, is not the promise of "will last," but the judgment in "what's done"--as in, get your work done, get the dishes done, do your practicing, do your homework, for God's sake finish things--so that rooms are neat and orderly, lives run smoothly, and you, Christian, go to your grave having accomplished something.

Is all of that inherent in that little rhyme? In my family? Or is it just me, and how I heard it?

When the last of the great aunts, Aunt Clara, could no longer live alone, we cleaned out her house, and the grand nieces and nephews chose things to take to our own homes. It wouldn't surprise me to see this plaque in some out-of-the-way corner in the home of one of my girl cousins or sisters. Or perhaps no one wanted it. I certainly didn't.

On this first Monday of Advent, I'm facing a long list of things that need to be "done" by New Year's: a birthday party for my daughter (whose middle name is Noel), concerts, decorating, planning, shopping, knitting, and lots of work at my day job at church. Can any of these things be said to "last"? Music is learned, performed and over. Birthday parties, thankfully, end. Hand knit socks wear out in the heels. Church communications may live on forever on the internet, but are quickly recycled here on planet earth. So much of the Christmas celebration is ephemeral--cosy, jolly, loving, worthwhile, but not lasting.

Meanwhile the good works the world truly needs--justice, peace, compassion--seem well beyond my power to accomplish.

The sun is up, reflected on clouds in the east. I blew out the candles a half hour ago; their little flames look insignificant in the cold daylight.

What must be done for Christ today? Stir up my will today, O Lord--not to finish things, not to be done, but just to bear whatever you can bring forth through me.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Random, on a Wednesday night

1. What do people DO while they brush their teeth? I get so bored. I leave the bathroom looking for something, anything. But I can't read--too much spit flying around. Can't watch TV--too far away from the sink. It's just such a nothing-time of the evening.

2. I learned this evening that Guinness Stout has a relatively low APV. Maybe not good news for everyone, but good news for me. Most beer gets to me too quickly.

3. I am typing these words while in bed. Every article on insomnia says that screen time keeps you from falling asleep. We'll see.

3. The quilt on my bed is ugly. I made it. It did not come out looking like I hoped it would, but it's been with me for a long time and so I love it.

4. What's true of my quilt is true of my life. Not what I hoped it would be, but with me for a long time and mine to love.

5. I knit no more than a dozen stitches today, and those were while I was on hold on a call to a software support desk.  Settled in for a long wait, and instead, right away, I'm talking with Nancy, who likes carrots cooked with brown sugar and cinnamon.

6. How do I know this about Nancy? Because I stuffed a fat baby carrot in my mouth seconds before Nancy picked up the call. So I had to explain why I was, um, mumbling. A general discussion of carrots ensued.

7. Ensued is a word that serves a very specific purpose, so it doesn't show up in many sentences. It's dismissive and uninteresting, though it can be used ironically. Irony improves many things that are otherwise uninteresting.

8. I'm reading a book in which the author, a well-published woman, humble-brags about her skills at word play and uses words in ways I'm sure she thinks are wonderful and I find kind of cloying. Sentences end up being about words instead of about stuff.

9. Which is not to say I don't like good words. I just don't like it when they're prodded to step out in front of their pals.

10. Because, besides being a Perverse Lutheran, I am a Modest Lutheran, socialized through the generations to be suspicious of anything showy.

11. Perhaps that's why I love my quilt and my modest life. Doesn't explain why I get bored brushing my teeth.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


Here’s my story about my friend Judy Torgus, which I was asked to write and share with La Leche League alumni who are collecting stories and memories of Judy. 

By the fall of 1983 I had been working at the La Leche League office in Franklin Park for four years. My reference librarian desk was next door to the Publications office, and I regularly read, wrote and edited copy for newsletters and information sheets.

I was not especially good at getting to work early in those days, but I usually got there before Judy. She always made an entrance, with a story, something she was outraged about, or just new jewelry. Who could resist wanting to be in her circle?

It had become apparent that fall that my father, a college professor, was having strange troubles. He was not himself, he fell asleep often, he seemed lost. I had been married a year by then, the oldest of three daughters, and I had been the one who had begun making calls to the family doctor, to a neurologist, to the psychiatrist who was treating him for something that looked like depression.

On a Wednesday morning early in December I drove him to the hospital for a CAT scan and left him there with my cousin and former roommate, Beth, who was an instructor in the nursing school. I had gone to work. A couple hours later the phone call came to my desk. It may have been my mother who relayed the news, more likely it was Beth. Daddy had a brain tumor, frighteningly large. He was being admitted to the hospital, they were talking about surgery, I should come.

I was 29 years old. The way roles played out in my family, I knew that a lot of things were about to become my responsibility. I was crushed and scared, ready to be responsible, feeling helpless. I went into the hall and around the corner to tell the ladies in Publications what had happened and that I was leaving to go to the hospital.

And Judy said, no, wait, you need to have some lunch.

But I have to go.

No, she said, you need to eat.

I’m not hungry, I said.

You need to eat. We’ll go next door, I’m taking you. Then you can go.

She took me to lunch. I ordered a tiny cup of vegetable soup with saltines. And when I asked, she told me about losing her parents as a child, something she rarely spoke of. How it was hard, but she and her sister were okay.

It gave me what I needed.

Judy came flying into many other moments of my life. She arrived with gifts and food and enthusiasm after the births of Kris, Eliza and Kurt (who was born on her birthday). She listened as I puzzled out what was wrong with Lon, my husband, as he slipped into Alzheimer’s. When she died I had been waiting for her to get better, so that we could have dinner and I could talk with her about my son Kris having ALS. Her husband had died of ALS. She would tell me it was okay.

Judy wanted to fix things, but there are so many things in life we can’t fix. Yet we are, nevertheless, okay.

And Judy is one reason I know that, even without hearing it from her one more time. And we can celebrate life, despite all the junky parts, with travel and jangly jewelry, with blue dresses, friendships and bright smiles.

We’ll share those things and continue to be okay.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


Saw this on Facebook a little while ago:

Everything is interconnected. Gratitude improves sleep. Sleep reduces pain. Reduced pain improves your mood. Improved mood reduces anxiety, which improves focus and planning. Focus and planning help with decision making. Decision making further reduces anxiety and improves enjoyment. Enjoyment gives you more to be grateful for, which keeps that loop of the upward spiral going. Enjoyment also makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, will make you happier.

And cleaning my room, hanging up all my clothes, rearranging my closet and my dresser drawers, and cooking a decent dinner--these must fit in there somewhere. Focus? Planning? Decision-making? Something in that circular path, because that pasta dish made for dinner tonight is going to be leftovers for a couple of days, reducing anxiety and improving enjoyment.

Sigh. At least the busy-ness got me through the afternoon. I'll be able to get dressed this week without having to dig through a basket of unfolded laundry. There will be clean sheets on the bed tonight--if I  remember to put them in the dryer soon.

The topic this morning in church was healing, thanks to St. Luke, Evangelist, known also as a physician, who is commemorated on Oct. 18.

I don't like crying in church. In fact I'm pretty damn tired of it, but there it was, with every hymn, every lesson. Healing is a sore spot. I would like my son Kris to be healed of his ALS right now. I would like the trajectory of that awful disease to reverse itself—bam! and have him climb back up the slope to being his whole, moving physical self again. But this is not the way the natural world works. So what I'm left with is a religious/spiritual reframe-it distinction between cure (which won't happen) and healing.

Healed is, I guess, a spiritual state, something about no bitterness, or perfect trust in God, something that happens in the metaphorical heart, not the tissues of the body.  Or it's some acceptance of the finitude of this life and the resultant sweetness. Or lasting love. Or something greater than ourselves. Or the cross of Christ and Jesus. Or depending on God and being okay with whatever happens.

Or it's something about being strong. That's the Lutheranism, the Christianity of my youth--admiration for people with strong faith, who never waiver, or who "fight the good fight" and conquer doubt and anger. And we all want to be that person, don't we? So you put on a good face. You express anger and doubt and—did I say anger?—only where it's permitted, in privacy or in deep heartfelt talks with spiritual advisors. You're told to "have faith" or lean on the little faith you do have.

Shit. It's so much harder than that. I've bumped up against randomness, wretchedness, sulkiness enough that the grey cloud of life's meaninglessness moves always alongside me.

Today, tomorrow, this week, doing healthy stuff--sleeping, reading, knitting, walking, deciding to cut my hair or clean off the table where the junk mail ends up, even working--will probably do a lot more for me than spiritual whatever. Out walking today, I saw a beautiful sky and intensely green leaves about to turn gold. Reading in my chair yesterday I finished "Moby Dick," grim story, awesome writing. Knitting feels good in the fingers and you can measure your progress.

Concrete stuff. Incarnation.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Blessed community

Gronk's Grace team at the Walk to Defeat ALS, Rockford, IL, Sept. 19, 2015. Kris Grahnke in the middle with the White Sox cap, wife Michelle on his left. I'm in the front holding Eliza's green jacket; she's on my left.

There were many, many teams and groups and families at today's ALS Walk. Ours happened to be the largest group and the group that raised the most money. I credit my intensely social, hard-working, pumped-up advocating son Kris with most of this. He worked hard to get all these people enthused and to let them know how much this all means to him. 

But there's also the fact that this disease has hit him square in the middle of a young and expanding life, like the biggest gut-punch possible. This hurts and disturbs the rest of us, too, and upends our confidence in the future, in life itself. It means we've had to find new ways to keep doing what matters and what's meaningful. 

Everybody at the Walk today had had that gut-punch experience. There were power wheelchairs aplenty and loved ones well remembered on t-shirts and banners. Every now and then I looked around in awe, with a catch in my throat put there by the power of people coming together to help one another. I can keep saying life is good, God is good, because so many folks come out to support Kris and Michelle and the fight against ALS. They're not alone. 

Disease and suffering and trials and other things--being different, being mentally ill or addicted, being disabled--all these things isolate people. We think they do it to themselves, but really, it's all too easy to set the hurting ones off to the side. To leave it to the professionals to help them. To pity or admire or stereotype them away into a corner. To keep the mess and the fear and the helplessness away from lives that are tidy and nice--or appear to be.

I have that same catch in my throat sometimes when I go to Opportunity Knocks events. OK is a fun program my daughter with Down Syndrome attends--activities of all kinds and a community of "Warriors" and young adult staff. Everybody is respected, anything can be adapted, and they cheer like crazy. Their fundraisers are awesome, and often, I look around and feel overwhelmed to know that all these people care about my daughter's life and love to see and talk with her and her friends, right there in the middle of everything. 

I feel connected and understood in these communities of the hurting or the challenged in ways I don't necessarily connect with my church community. Why is that? We confess our sins together in church--we share that. But it's a ritual. The words are in the bulletin. They're said out loud, but even if our hearts are engaged, the thoughts are private. We go out to the narthex when the service is over and put up a good front over coffee and throughout the week. 

In groups of people with disabilities or disease, in places where their families and friends gather around the need to support them, the brokenness is right there on the surface. There's deep joy. There's tremendous power.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Randomly, on a Thursday

1. My meals today included a dish of fruit, cereal and yogurt, eaten two and a half hours after they were dumped into a plastic container and jammed in my lunch bag; a chicken sandwich made of bread from the dry loaf nobody else will eat, roast chicken chunks from four days ago united under a  slice of cheddar cheese; the last bits of stewed summer squash, also from four days ago; the crumbs of the pita chips at the bottom of the bag, and a late-night snack of Corn Chex and Pinot Noir (and yes, the acidity of the wine after the milk on the cereal is weird).

2. It has, nevertheless, been a productive day. And despite the fact that the next six or seven days look ungodly busy, I am upbeat and optimistic at the moment, even while wondering if there's something  pathologic about this.

3. I'm blogging while waiting for Stephen Colbert's Late Show to come on. But first there's Thursday Night Football's postgame show and the local news, both of which look like parodies of reality to me. Clearly, I should get out more.

4. I'm watching Colbert because after missing his whole first week and finally catching some shows this week, I remembered that his joy renews my faith in just about everything.

5. The hope here is to get to a very clever or heartwarming #10 on my "Randomly, on a Thursday" list. I am emulating the Yarn Harlot's "Randomly. on a Wednesday."  Go ahead, click on the link. You don't have to be a knitter to love her.

6. Let me just say, that in this situation, the hope is also the goal.

7. To that end, I must write shorter items to help my hope along.

8. Stories are pouring forth from the TV while it's on mute and my eyes are on my laptop screen. The commercial with a young couple driving their newborn home from the hospital in a bright red Mazda really gets to me--because you do drive differently with a car seat and seven to ten pounds of tender young life in the back seat. I remember that well, though my car was yellow.

9. Also, newborns. Their faces. Totally suck me in.

10. All life is precious and requires care and attention--whether we are caring for others or caring for how we spend our own time. I'm going to spend the rest of my evening with Stephen, my knitting and the inch of wine left in the glass. Hopes fulfilled!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Change and change back


"Change back."

The second is as inevitable as the first.

As sure as my widening bottom comfortably settles into the leather cushion of my favorite chair, my heart, mind and even my soul resist change. As surely as novelty attracts, it also repels.

Doing new things, or even doing old things in a new way, is like stretching a rubber band. The band stretches, because after all, that's what it's made to do. But it also stretches back and relaxes into its old shape. Change and change back.

Psychologists and others who study family systems or organizational behavior watch for that "change back" behavior, because that's where crunch time begins. Planning a new way to do things is relatively easy. It's also exciting. It generates optimism and hope, or just the relief that comes with abandoning old ways and the gripes and complaints that are attached to them.

But change meets resistance. I wandered off from writing for a few minutes to run a search on "change and change back." Got multiple definitions of the idiom "change back," but the first hit of any substance was "Trump says he will change Denali’s name back to Mt. McKinley." Seriously. Changing the name to "Denali" is itself a change-back, a restoration of the original Native American name. Because  it's kind of ridiculous for an ancient peak in Alaska to be named for all eternity in honor of a 19th century politician from Ohio who was admittedly elected president but who, 114 years later, is best known for being assassinated and succeeded by Teddy Roosevelt.  (The Wikipedia page on Mt. Denali is currently "protected from editing," I'm guessing there are folks who are trying to change Denali back to McKinley--all day long.)

Changing your behavior in a relationship can be very disruptive, even if the change you are making is in a positive direction. I know this from experience. When you stop taking the bait or stop assuming the guilt, the other person in the relationship will intensify the baiting and the guilting in order to get things to return to the way they were. Ceasing to dance that old dance might be better for everyone involved, but when feet know the steps to that old dance, that's the one they want to follow, even if it's ugly. Even if it's destructive.

Jesus went about Galilee and Judea preaching and personifying change. The religious establishment, represented by the Pharisees, said, no, that's not how we do it. Change back. Even Jesus' disciples, who followed him, attracted by something that was different about him—even they sometimes said, change back.

From Mark 8: 27-38, the gospel for Sunday, September 20:
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. (v. 31-32) 
Jesus' response acknowledged that new ways are hard and costly:
 If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (v. 34-35)
Change is inevitable. Inevitably we all die. We all decay as we await that death, clutching ever more tightly to the known things in our lives, the idols that we think will stave off that inevitable final change.

But Jesus invites us to face death with him, face the losing of the familiar, the secure, the comfortable. By losing that life, by changing, we are saved.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Drunken Birthday Blogging

Now that I have your attention, let me modify that title a bit: Slightly Tipsy Day-Before-My-Birthday Blogging

Even with those qualifiers, it's probably not advisable to be putting fingers on the keyboard at this time of the evening with the Blogger window open on the laptop and a purple-pink hazy sky fading to blue in the west. It's the eve of my annual July 28 birthday, which, yeah, comes around every year.

But better I should be writing here at The Perverse Lutheran than opening up and working on files that were carefully and closely honed and edited this afternoon, yesterday, Saturday. I could do some real damage that would have to be repaired tomorrow, on my real birthday.

It's my blog and I'll say what I want to. Forty-five minutes from now I can choose whether or not to click Publish. And I can always take this down tomorrow morning and do the necessary repairs to my reputation, should that be, um, necessary.

Went out for a birthday dinner with my mother and my two younger children this evening. Had two pints of beer, a Krumbacher Pils, which son Kurt informed is what homeless guys drink from paper bags under bridges in Germany, followed by a Revolution Anti-Hero, which is my fave, what I should have ordered the first time. Two pints is one over my usual limit. I'm not sure if the problem is that alcohol affects me quickly, because I am a woman of slow metabolism, or that I have so little psychological tolerance for letting my guard down.

Van Morrison was playing on the radio on the ride home, kind of a basic identity thing in this family, and I was drawn back to younger days and to the part of myself that was more free, more confident, more certainly loved. More able to enjoy a summer night. A creative force, more able to speak with authority about the world and life and love. Not more right, not wiser, just more able.

"Who am I supposed to be here?" I ask myself. Quick change to patient mother as Eliza asks a question. Quick change to faithful friend as I read my email. Pose as spiritually conscious blogger when I wander over to the Perverse Lutheran. Who am I when I finally tumble into bed at night and bury myself in a novel? Who am I when I walk in the door at work in the morning and put on the cheery/ironic/smart face I wear on the job?

Am I the ever-widening bottom that sits in an easy chair in the backyard, for hours on end with a book, a notebook or the computer? Am I the woman who every now and then gets to walk really fast, because she's going somewhere all alone?

It's a summer night. Maybe that's why I ask these questions. The air is gentle, humid, caressing. Even at 9 p.m. you can still see the clouds and all the texture in the sky. I'm a child of summer, born in late July, who grew that one year older in between school years, when no one could see except the characters in the books I read, and my own precious self.

From James Agee's "Knoxville Summer of 1915":
After a little I am taken in, and put to bed.
Sleep, soft, smiling draws me unto her,
and those receive me, who quietly greet me
as one familiar and well-beloved in that place.
But will not, not now, not ever—
But will not ever tell me who I am. 

I'm okay with that mystery.

(Samuel Barber set this text to music. Listen here to Sylvia McNair. Or to the original performer, Eleanor Steber.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bribery and abundance

When I talk bribery, I'm usually talking about bribing myself. And what I really mean is setting up a situation where I am away from distractions and forced to get some work done--either because of a reward at the end, or because of what I've set on the table next to the laptop--to keep me at the table and working.

I scored big tonight. I had an hour to kill this evening while Eliza was at a party. I sat at a window table at Healy's Westside in Forest Park, ordered a Revolution Anti-Hero, and opened up my computer as the waitress lowered the shade to block the sun that was in my eyes. I didn't ask for the wifi password.

Could I knock off one more 1055-character meditation in an hour? One more chunk of a series whose deadline is approaching rapidly? Could a good IPA help me speak with Jesus and Peter by the Sea of Genessaret?


Especially when followed up with a soup plate of today's special: spaghetti noodles topped with chili and hot melted cheddar cheese. Kind of like what you would make at home when randomly dumping leftovers together.

It was an abundant way to work at a piece of writing that was going to be a wind-up to showing God's surprising abundance as its climax. I may hate the writing in the morning (I'm afraid to look right now), but at least there's something there to revise.

There's plenty of troubling stuff going on around me, with family, friends, work. The usual sort of life worries that I feel all all-too-responsible for fixing. I spent an hour or two driving my head into my pillow last night as I wandered through the worry labyrinth in my brain instead of sleeping.

Life is difficult, but so often this seems to come as a surprise. I, for one, expected a life made mostly of fuzzy-focused happy endings, but they never seem to arrive--or if they do, they don't stay more than hour or two. At my age, the consciousness of life's limits is very much with me--not so much in terms of my own finitude, but in the knowledge that trouble will continue to find me and those I love, because trouble is out there waiting for all of us.

But a good beer and a good bowl of whatever they called that daily special can sure take the edge off. The happy, dancing girls and the scoop of coffee ice cream offered to me at the birthday party when I went to pick up Eliza didn't hurt either.

Sure beats the great catch of fish that represented God's abundance to Peter--at least in my world!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Spirit, moving

The day after the Day of Pentecost, and a strong wind is blowing. Clouds are moving steadily across the sky under the pale blue beyond. It's early morning and warm enough to sit in the back yard. My coffee has cooled much too quickly. The backyard chairs still need a good spring scrubbing.

What will the day bring? Only birdsong so far, and a lone, slow runner down the middle of the street.

It's the kind of morning where I see that human beings are small things, who walk in the six feet just above the ground. Can't scramble into the tree like the squirrel. Can't fly to the top of the garage like the crows. Can't even chirp persistently like the robin in the forsythia.

But I sit here typing, in awe of the atmosphere.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

BWV 197: The Movie

So it's a rom-com (movie lingo for romantic comedy).

Listening to and writing program notes last week for Bach's Cantata #197, Gott ist unsre Zuversicht, I couldn't help thinking about it in the context of a little domestic comedy, 18th century style.

It's a wedding cantata, and rather a long one, for a lot of musicians--a couple oboes and three trumpets, as well as bass, alto and soprano soloists, choir, and the usual strings and continuo group.

(Continuo group: in baroque music, the folks who play the basic bass line, i.e., cello, string bass, bassoon, and keyboard. The harmony rests on that bass line. It's the glue that holds everything else together.)

There's a particular sweetness about this cantata. The jovial bass is like the host of the festivities, not proposing toasts, exactly, but getting up three times to sing detailed, conversational recitatives with advice about trusting in God as the foundation of a happy life together. The alto has an aria about falling asleep in the comfort of God's care. The oboe plays too, and it's like their two lines fall asleep in each other's arms. They awake for some lively activity in the B section (with a text about God being awake and watching all the time) and then "schlummert ein" again, settling down to sleep when the A section returns.

The cantata is divided into two parts, to be sung before and after the vows. And oh my, the bass has such fun teasing the newlyweds with the aria that opens the second part:
O du angenehmes Paar,
Dir wird eitel Heil begegnen,
Gott wird dich aus Zion segnen
Und dich leiten immerdar,
O du angenehmes Paar!
O you charming couple,
you will meet only with pure good,
God will bless you from Sion
and lead you evermore,
O you charming couple!
The teasing comes from the way the "Oh, you charming couple" text is repeated over and over again, and the little musical figure it's sung to is echoed each time in the violins. Clearly the bridal couple were people everybody liked! Bach couldn't have gotten away with this if this were just a wedding of two people important and rich enough to pay for a lot of music. Nope--there's a great beaming smile and even a couple of winks in that bassoon obbligato chortling away underneath it all. Could be the bass is a little, um, over-served at this point (or Bach is anticipating that happening later).

Anyway, the soprano takes over, and it's nice to finally hear a treble voice. The alto aria was low--not exactly something with the woman's touch, and the bass aria was accompanied by low sonorities in the orchestra. So the brightness of the soprano recitative and aria is a noticeable change of pace.

It was at this point during the performance last Sunday afternoon that I began to think there was a movie here. Women didn't sing in Lutheran church services in Germany in the 18th century. Or at least, they almost never did--there might have been exceptions. Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, had been a court singer in Cöthen  before she married the widowed Capellmeister Bach in 1721. After their marriage she stayed involved with music--she was pressed into service as a copyist now and again and surely continued to sing in family at-home music-making.

So what if she was the one who stood up to sing this aria? And what if Bach, an accomplished violinist as well as a keyboard player, had stood next to her and played the lilting solo violin part? Isn't that a pretty picture?

The cantata dates from 1736/37. They would have been married 15 years by then. They'd had several children together, some of whom had died. They'd been through the big move to Leipzig in 1723 and the flurry of Bach's intense composing in the early years there. They'd launched a couple of sons from Bach's first marriage into careers and they'd probably had their share of unrecorded domestic dramas with servants and students. Anna Magdalena had also endured Bach's endless disputes with colleagues and the Town Council.

Was he a contentious man, who needed to win every argument? Or just (just!) an artist who fought hard for what he needed to make the very best music he could? Did he bring it all home with him? Or leave it in the composing room? There's a lot a writer could do with that, in comedy and drama, and a lot that could be resolved in that moment where Anna Magdalena stands to sing, smiling at that stout, serious German husband of hers, who proceeds to dance a sweet 6/8 Siciliano on the violin to a text about God (and spouses) remaining the best of all friends to the end.

Who exactly was getting married at that first performance of Cantata #197? That's the subplot of the movie, and since there's no historical information about that, you could just make it up. The couple could be music-lovers, or even musicians. Maybe a Leipzig-educated lawyer who studied composition with Bach. Maybe a performer, or maybe just a listener--but someone who has some favorite moments from past Bach performances. Because there is evidence that the bass and soprano arias in this work are parodies of earlier works--old music adapted and reworked for a new purpose. It's quite possible that the chorus and the alto aria are parodies as well. So maybe the engaged couple had some ideas about what they wanted. Or maybe Magdalena had some ideas about how the cantata should go--because these were her friends, too. Maybe there was a reason these two young people needed a reminder that God was their Zuversicht, their confidence.

There are possibilities here. J. S. Bach in a romantic comedy. It could happen.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Can't leave the topic of commencement at Denison University without talking about Saturday's commencement exercises, where the commencement speaker, Deirdre McCloskey, presented something much more tangible about "wonder"—that word which was the theme of Friday's baccalaureate services.

Not that she used the vague word wonder. No—she told the students she was giving them two rules that she hoped they'd remember, while acknowledging, as commencement speakers do, that she didn't remember anything from the speaker at her own college graduation.

But two rules--even I in late middle age can remember that much. I hope some of those graduates remember them too, because they were good rules, tangible things to do in every circumstance of life:

  1. Remember that humans need the transcendent, and 
  2. Always ask "So what?" 

The transcendent could be God, or the higher ethics of science. It could be family, or relationships, or art, or something else. She suggested religion was a source of transcendence and did so with the authenticity of someone in the academy who became a Christian in mid-life. "If," as she said, "You can call a progressive Episcopalian a Christian."

What's transcendent for you might change as you move through your life. She gave the young adult graduates the example of "coolness" being transcendent for middle school kids, with the clear implication that they were, ahem, well past that.

Asking "so what" is to ask, why does this matter? What does this new thing you've been told mean?
What difference will it make? I smiled at this. I think it's what I mean to do in this blog, hoping to discover something that transcends the orthodox answers of the catechism.

The beauty of Dr. McCloskey's speech was when she hooked up the two rules. Asking "so what?" she says, will lead you to the transcendent. Which, as she said again, is something all humans need.

Yup, I thought. That's advice that fits every stage, every dilemma, every moment of life.

It was a long afternoon at commencement. I will admit that I had my knitting with me. I was knitting socks and got quite a lot done. So what? These socks will warm the feet and the heart of someone I care about. Knitting transcends. It's love, in a blend of merino, nylon and angora.

And then the Class of 2015 rose, and all were granted their degrees. They lined up and crossed the stage one by one, my tall blonde son, Kurt, among them.

Kurt, I think, has been aware of the Transcendent all his life. This is one of his gifts—at least since the days when he was three or four and quietly crept out of bed in the morning to sit in the corner of the couch and watch "Little Bear" on TV.  Little Bear transcended being little with love from his mother, with gentle laughter, with learning. Our Kurt has asked a lot of "so what?" questions already in his life and many more loom in front of him. But he asks bravely. He answers thoughtfully, thoroughly. And he yearns for the Transcendent.

As do we all. Amen.                                              

Friday, May 15, 2015


"Originally a Christian Service of worship in the tradition of the Granville Literary And Theological Institution (1831) that later became Denison University (1856), this service holds forth one of the longest standing traditions of the school."

This is the beginning of the "Word of Explanation" about the Baccalaureate service this afternoon at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. The program note goes on to explain that the service's content is meant to respect the Christian heritage of the school and also acknowledge other traditions in "the pluralistic community that comprises our university today."

Denison no longer has a religious affiliation, so much of what we heard this afternoon sang the praises of the liberal arts. I've got no problem with that. My son, Kurt Grahnke, receives his bachelor's degree tomorrow with a major in German, a minor in philosophy and an intent to pursue more schooling in the sciences. Denison gave him opportunities to explore widely and deeply; it was a good fit for someone with his curiosity, integrity and intellect. And my own liberal arts education has served me well.

The theme of this service was "Wonder." There was this song to begin, with dancers in the aisle, a soloist, a choir and drumming. The poetry that was read and the address from the Reverend who is the university's director of religious and spiritual life located wonder in all of us and in nature and in relationships and what we do.

It went on and on, poetically, but no one phrase or progression of thought stuck with me. It was a catalogue of wonder in life, I guess. I can see my Lutheran forefathers rolling their eyes at the vapid humanism of it all. ("And just think--he never mentioned God, not once!") But I listened and felt myself, well, wondering, in the back row of the chapel, looking into a large pillar and the coved space above everyone's heads.

Wonder might be another name for religious impulse--feeling that there is something more than ourselves, that we add up to more than the minute-to-minute thoughts in our brains, more than questions and critical thinking, more even than liberal ideas. Calling it wonder may not take in the size of it all, or the impulse we humans have to take things on and grapple them into the mud.

The preacher (if he was preaching) mentioned almost entirely positive things--I think I heard  only one passing reference to the idea that anyone might suffer in life. And in the theme song wonder is the antidote to sadness:
If your heart turns blue, I want you to remember
This song is for you, and you are full of wonder.
Yet, I thought, there is wonder even in hard places. My daughter Eliza, a young woman with an intellectual disability, sat next to me at the baccalaureate. She and her way of being in the world are an unending wonder to me. I wonder at human endurance, human suffering, humans fighting back. Wonder is there in those who keep holding on to life in the midst of despair, in those who grieve, in those who struggle.

God in the suffering places--I don't know that this was gleaned from my "Christian heritage," but it is my religious experience. It is not the kind of wonder one wishes on new college graduates on a fragrant May afternoon. It certainly isn't something I contemplated at the age of twenty-one, when I graduated from college--book-smart but life-foolish. Yet wonder is the proper and human response to God in all things.

Here's the reading from the Christian tradition included in this afternoon's service. It's from St. Augustine.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


There's a lot going on this week, but in my dreams, I've missed much of it.

Sunday night I dreamed I slept for 15 hours straight, waking up at 3:23 on Monday afternoon in the back bedroom of my grandmother's old house in Detroit. I felt wonderfully calm and rested in that soft bed, until I remembered I had missed a critical Monday morning rehearsal. I opened my eyes for real and it was still dark and that rehearsal lay four or five hours in the future.

I slept some more and had another anxious dream. I was at the rehearsal, but our modest, K-4 musical, organized on simple stairs and platforms, had become a nightmarish showpiece for theatrical technology--lights, smoke, and amplified random sound. Everybody in the vast audience loved it. It was like a rock concert. How did this happen? I hadn't been asked or informed or involved.

In bed the next night, I was two hours late for a dinner party, which wouldn't have been that bad--except for the half dozen people who were waiting for me to drive them to the party.

The person in my dreams is slipping. In real life I've managed to show up, but not without a nod to that impulse to sleep, or flee.

Once, long ago, in labor with my third child, I threatened to get in my little yellow car and drive away. The midwives and my husband thought I was being witty, pretty remarkable for a pregnant woman laboring to give birth to a nine-and-a-half pound baby boy. But I was not being witty. I absolutely meant it, considered it, believed or at least hoped I could grab my keys and just leave the scene.

The yellow car is long gone. I drive something bigger and blue and more responsible, but I still think about escape. What if I didn't park? What if I just kept going?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Finding grace

Many of my blog readers know that my 28-year-old son, Kris, was diagnosed with ALS last summer, less than a year after his marriage to his wonderful Michelle, at a time in his grown-up life when so many things were going so well.

It is a Big Sucky Thing. A Very Big Thing. A big elephant in the room sometimes. A big thing to talk about. A big thing to avoid talking about. And so far, it hasn't been a thing for me to blog about. Partly because it's Kris's story to tell. Partly because it's hard spending more than a few minutes in the room where ALS lives.

It's not hard, however, spending time with Kris. It's never been hard spending time with Kris. He is one of God's most sociable beings, good company at the ball park, good company in the back yard, good company in a struggle--like the one we had taking care of Lon during Kris's years in high school.  He is good company with a beer and a fire, with a book, a movie, or with friends, lots and lots of friends.

Thus it has ever been. For me, his mom, he was good company as an eighteen-month-old, when I couldn't understand what he was chattering about. He was good company as a newborn, a tiny but alert little fellow in the hours after the long labor that led up to his birth.

He's also good company over at his new blog, Gronks Finding Grace, where he is writing about his experience as a young person with ALS. More importantly, he is writing about the good things in his life, including all the grace and goodness that have come his way in the past year as he fights with his socks, learns about wheelchairs, and continues to love and be loved by friends, family, colleagues, students and especially, Michelle.

This grace he is writing about is a good thing--a good thing in a way that goes way beyond Martha Stewart saying A Good Thing, beyond the nod and affirmation that goes with using that phrase to reorient someone regarding a change or a message -- "no, it's a good thing!"

This grace Kris finds is a very good thing because it's corporal, meaning it's physical, it relates to the body. It's things like having his parking place dependably plowed all winter long. It's wheelchair races with the good buddy from college. It's people who care and encourage and see him as the whole person he is--a talented teacher, a good friend, a loving son, a caring and thoughtful husband.

I don't find a lot of comfort in airy spiritual places these days--not in Easter hymns, not in Pauline theology, not in high-flying biblical imagery or transcendent divinities.

I do find it in good things here on earth. The hardwood floor beneath my bare feet. Cheese and bread and good beer. People who walk alongside me as friends, without expecting long answers to "how are you doing?" Grace is in the fabric I bought at the quilt show this weekend--unplanned purchases, utterly impulsive. It's in friends, in good singing, in books, in work. And of course, grace is in my great pride in my children: in Kurt who will graduate from college in a few weeks and go off on a ten-day medical mission trip to Nicaragua before figuring out the next part of his life; in the one-and-only Eliza, and in Michelle and Kris.

Go read Gronks Finding Grace. It's a blessing to me--hope it is for you, too.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Love one another

Many coherent blog topics floated through my head tonight during the Maundy Thursday worship service. Beautiful service, beautiful music (yay! Joyful Voices), good sermon. Meaningful.

But the lessons of the night came later.

Went home and poured myself a beer--a porter, with some body to it, because I'd had only a salad for dinner and thicker, darker beer seems nourishing.

But the phone rang and my sister needed help with my mother, who was suddenly in too much pain to stand on her own and couldn't get out of the car at a restaurant, couldn't get out of the car back at her condo.

These kinds of calls are tough. Tough to assess the situation over the phone. Tough to figure out what to do. Tough to remain patient. Tough when what to do means abandoning the couch and the porter, and giving up the sense that the evening is winding down, and heading off into the night. I headed for church, lucky to have keys, to borrow a wheel chair. Found a friend to help out there--help mostly with keeping me patient--and we got my mom inside. She had to walk a little bit to get to the bathroom and whatever had given her so much pain before worked its way out. She was back on her feet--though in need of a doctor appointment.

So I headed home where I had an appointment with my daughter to brush the tangles out of her hair.

My daughter has very long hair that she can't quite take care of on her own. Neglect it long enough and she's headed for dreadlocks. Brushing the tangles out is horrible. I persist while she cries. I try to hold the locks so that the force it takes to get through the matted hair with the comb does not go directly to her scalp. But I don't always succeed. It's miserable, and I don't know why we let it get so bad. But there it is.

Foot-washing looks easy by comparison, even with the kneeling and the scrubbing and Simon Peter protesting. But surely Jesus had his moments with this. Did he keep a straight face with—Bartholomew, say—the disciple with the ugliest, stinkiest feet? Did the water slop on the floor, the towel around his waist get untucked? Did he think, jeez, you guys ought to wash one another's feet— for God's sakes! Was there one of his disciples who just drove him nuts on a regular basis?

He kept on. He served, loved, abandoned the couch and loved them to the end.

Life and love are in those crappy moments.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mass in B Minor

A blogger who calls herself a Lutheran and a soprano could hardly pass up an opportunity to blog about singing Bach's Mass in B Minor on a Sunday afternoon in Lent. But (sigh!) that same soprano blogger is overwhelmed by the size of the topic, especially now that she's finally winding down from the performance with the help of a greasy cheeseburger and a couple of beers.

We may have to make do with the recording of random observations. Let's see where this goes. (You may wish to stop reading here.)

To orient you: I sang the Mass in B Minor with the Bach Cantata Vespers choir and Chicago Choral Artists this afternoon at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois, Michael Costello conducting. It was lot of work getting ready for this. There were a lot of notes, many of them flashing by at great speed while climbing to sinus-rattling altitudes.

It went well. The church was packed and enthusiastic. This was a Big Event.

One thing that has kind of freaked me out since one of the thrilling trumpet finishes in the rehearsal yesterday: I get to hear this music and Bach never did. Or probably never did, at least not the Symbolum Nicenum.

(The Kyrie and Gloria are from an earlier work, yada, yada, yada, and the Sanctus was from Christmastime in some year or other. Read more about the sources here in Wikipedia.)

Someone said to me, well, even if Bach never heard the work performed, he heard it in his mind as he composed it.

My thought: His musical mind being hard-working, flexible, creative and brilliant, he probably did hear it clearly in his mind, and it probably was more perfect in his mind than it could ever be in the actual playing. But that's still not the same as hearing it—is it? Or was Bach chasing an idea in the Mass in B Minor, an idea of perfection, or the very best he himself could do, as in the Art of the Fugue--something else not actually performed in his life, but perfected on paper? So hearing it didn't matter.

Wow, I was going to do random observations and I've now found myself in the middle of an argument pitting–I don't know–Platonic ideals, or some higher musical ideal of the German Enlightenment against something about incarnation and God entering an imperfect but very Baroque world. How many books might I have to read to puzzle that one out with any authority?

What I hear in my mind is Bach's "Et incarnatus est," in descending chords, choral dissonance suspended above the continuo, the mystery of God taking on human flesh. In that and the "Crucifixus" that follows Bach wrings out what it means to be made human, and for God to redeem humanity by being present in it--in the very human pain of life, of being alive. Then boom! the music catches it all up and transforms the pain into resurrection and life and faith ("Confiteor") and dancing holiness ("Sanctus") and finally mercy and peace.

The "Et incarnatus" was the last original piece of choral music Bach wrote in his life. He pulled the text out of the preceding aria and made it into its own movement--scholars say, to give the Credo section its symmetry, with the "Crucifixus," the cross, at the center, as it is in Lutheran theology. What did "incarnatus" mean for Bach–God incarnate, in human flesh–at the time in his life when his flesh--or at least his eyesight--was failing him? What did the "sepultus est" text mean--Christ died and was buried? Does perhaps the "incarnatus" sing of God's presence, not just in the birth of Jesus from the virgin Mary, but also in the imperfection, in the wasting away and the dying that are part of being human?

I don't know what Bach was thinking, how theology played out in his life. But it's in the mystery of that music of the "Et incarnatus." That movement, to me, is music that must be heard, not just imagined, even if it trembles slightly on the imperfect side of the pitch. Because even as we go through life desiring the good and the perfect and the ideal, but falling short, God has entered that world and sanctified it with God's presence.

Sanctified, too, in the music of God's servant, J. S. Bach.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The dresses

With my head still under my pillow, body weighted down by flannel sheets and down comforter, I thought I would get out of bed and write a blog post about winter--the dull, dirty, frozen grey winter landscape that just will not go away. It may evaporate. Slowly. But melt? Not this week.

But the sun is shining in the east window of my living room and with the laptop open I felt the call of the dresses. The Oscar dresses, on the red carpet, gathered onto a single web page on the morning after at the New York Times.

Fashionista I am not. I recognize names like Chanel and Karl Lagerfield and Armani, but the commentary on trendy designers means little to me. I just like to look at glamorous gowns, with their boned bodices and flowing skirts, luxurious fabrics, bright colors and sparkles.

Yeah, I know--these women are armored, painted, sprayed, worked over by stylists, tanned, taped and shoe-horned into clothing that can't be comfortable for three hours of sitting through an awards show. Yes, we objectify women. Yes, movies use women's bodies as decoration and titillation. But gosh, the dresses!

It's odd really--men who act in movies come to awards shows in a single costume, a uniform--the well fitting tuxedo. They play it cool. Is this because there are plenty of good roles for them, more access to power? Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" made tons more money than its rivals. So yes, dress like Clint, still off-handedly handsome at 84.

Women--we have to try so much harder to be noticed. But there's also pleasure in the spectacle. I look at these dresses and imagine myself wearing them (well, some of them). It's Julianne Moore I want to be -- intelligent, passionate, intent on using the platform of the Oscars to talk about Alzheimer's and its victims who are hidden away and forgotten. Maybe it's the contrast between the gorgeous gown and the women's lives portrayed by Oscar-nominated actresses: Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking, loving someone with ALS. There's power there--ordinary life shared, transformed on the screen, the art of it all celebrated with the silk, the spangles and the spandex.

Anyway, that and the sunshine on the giant icicle outside my window may just cure the dull ache of late winter.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Gwen's very long, exhausting Ash Wednesday newsletter printing day

6:50. Roll over in bed. Sleep Cycle app goes off. Hit snooze.

7:00. Regular alarm goes off. Hit snooze. Once, twice, many times. (Worked past 1 a.m. last night.)

7:45. Last-ditch, save-my-butt, emergency alarm goes off. Get out of bed. Make coffee. Talk to Eliza. Not really sure why, but she no longer has PACE bus rides to and from work for the day. Cancelled because of the cold? What? I’ll be driving her at 11:30 and 2:00. Two 25-minute interruptions in an already packed day.

7:50. Get dressed. Pants don’t match sweater, socks don’t match pants. Does not seem to matter at the moment.

7:55. Discovered I only thought I made coffee. The on button is not glowing red. Still time to drink a cup before I have to leave for an eye doctor appointment at 8:30, so I push the button.

8:10. Coffee is finally ready. Pour half in a travel cup, half in a regular cup. Breakfast. Measure out the oatmeal and water and put it in the microwave for two minutes. Grab leftover beans and rice from the refrigerator and put them in lunch bag, plus an orange. Pack up laptop and cords.

8:15. Have to leave for the doctor! The microwave is beeping at me. Why? Oh yeah, oatmeal. Spoon. Stir it around. Can I eat it fast without burning my mouth? No. Pour coffee from cup into a second travel mug.

8:16. Leave oatmeal to congeal on the kitchen counter. Coat, hat, scarf, gloves, keys, tote bag, eye drops, sunglasses, purse, two containers of coffee, and I’m out the door. Three tries with the code on the garage door opener. It won’t work. Pry the 5 button forward. Wait. Wait. Wait. Put the code again slowly. Push open. Up it goes.

8:24. Park at the hospital. Grab the laptop from the tote bag and jam it into my purse. Gotta work while I wait. Down three flights of stairs, through the tunnel to avoid the cold, up one flight of stairs, elevator to the sixth floor. Wait, wait, wait to sign in at the desk.

8:30. Yay, I am on the Hospital Guest wifi, opening files and shooting off emails. Then into the exam room. Pick up coat, hat, scarf, laptop, case, purse. What can I see? Well, nothing, until they close that gadget to just a pin hole. Yellow eye drops. Check the pressure. Back to the waiting room because the doctor isn’t there yet. (Pick up coat, hat, scarf, etc.) More plugging away at newsletter stories.

9:10. Back in the exam room (with coat, hat, bag, scarf, gloves, laptop, sleeve …) Eye looks good. Questions from me. Every now and then I catch a shadow or something off to the left of the eye that had the cataract surgery. Probably, I think, I say, it’s my nose. Or my glasses frame. But I'm nervous. Dilate eye. Back to the waiting room. (Lug stuff!) I will be late for a 9:30 meeting. Make a phone call, send an email, write a text. Back to the laptop. The little letters get fuzzy and I’m back in the exam room. All is well with the eye. Make joke about over-active brain. Put on coat, pick up stuff. New appointment, down the elevator, through the tunnel, up the parking garage elevator, call my mother to say I’ll be there to pick her up in five minutes. Travel mug of coffee is barely warm.

10:00. Drop my mother, park the car, catch the end of the meeting. 

10:30. Up to my office. No lunch bag. Write, write, copy, paste, text boxes, logos, grr. I’ll have to leave at 11:25 to pick up Eliza. She calls at 11:25—eek, gotta go. Figure out what happened with the rides and the cold, and what she said they told here, but actually asked her. Coat, hat, scarf, glove, purse, keys, sunglasses. Learn that one of the two copiers I’ll need to use later in the day is broken. Out to the car, drive home. Run in, get lunch bag. Drive. Drop. Park. Inside. 

Noon-ish. Eat half a turkey and bacon sandwich offered to me. (I’ll eat my lunch for dinner, which I had planned to skip.) Drop in on another meeting. Questions that I need answered now. Info I’ll need later this week. Random conversation, emails, files, links. 

1:00. Walk to my office. Stop to meet with someone else. A problem for another day. Write, copy, paste, revise, proof, edit, fuss, scowl, grind teeth. Hit print, revise presets, hit send. Have to pick up Eliza. Coat, hat, scarf, gloves, can’t find the sunglasses, stick laptop and cords back in tote bag in case I need to send the file again from downstairs. Copy room, check proof, looks okay except every other page is upside down. Forgot to check the short-side bind box. Give proof to someone to read. Walk to car, pick up Eliza, drive-up grilled chicken sandwich for her, head home, carry in food, turn around and go back to car.

2:30. Copy-edit, proof, revise, tinker, lock in lay-out, call my proofreader who has two corrections. (I’ve already made at least 20.) Get a text at 3:15 about another meeting starting. Finish tinkering. Put 925 into the number of copies box and hit print. Stop at copier on the way down. Newsletter is running. 

3:20. Sit in other meeting. Scowl. Interject. Wise-crack. Not a happy meeting. Notice that my face is tense and I’m exhaling but not inhaling.

3:55. My mother’s here and needs a ride home. Forgot about that. Check the copier. Discover copier repairman is at police station after a car accident. Find a hand-cart. Move a box of paper. Try to think of alternative ways to get my mom back to her place. Suck it up and drive her home. Coat, gloves, scarf, hat, purse, keys, out to the parking garage. Drive, drop, block the street, thread my way through the jam, return to work and nap time. Or at least lie down and try to breathe time. Set the alarm. Note tension throughout body.

5:00. Alarm goes off. I might be able to make it through the next hour. Heat up rice and beans. Walk around the building and eat. Check the copier. Still waiting for the repairman for copier #2. Review music for choir rehearsal. Make tea.

5:25. Greet chorister #1 and #2. Friendly. Play through new music. Lent. Diminished sevenths and suspensions. 

5:35. Chorister 3 and 4 arrive. Run warm-ups. Work a cut-off. Totally loony today thanks to “Annie” rehearsals and performances at the middle school. Try to persist in serious rehearsing. Kids are performing melodramas with the music.

5:50. Glance at text from son about how he confronted someone who was wearing the jacket stolen from him last December. Wish I could hear the whole story. Or not.

5:55. Phone rings during choir rehearsal, but it’s someone I have to talk to about a program. Four singers rush to the board to draw pictures. Good news on the phone. Focus of rehearsal not so good.

6:00. Soccer singer leaves for practice. Sightreading of Good Friday music with Latin texts begins. Helps to have string players and band members in your choir. Our new anthem is described as a Disney princess song. They don’t like Disney princesses. They do like their songs. 

6:23. Rehearsal ends early. Off to check the copiers. Copier #2 is fixed but running another job. I do some math, load paper, return to my office (up 2.5 flights of stairs), send the print job, return to the basement machine, delete the working job, and at last have two copiers printing my newsletter. 

6:42. Walk into pre-service Ash Wednesday choir rehearsal late. Too tired to sing on key, so combat flatness by singing sharp and bright.

7:00. Ash Wednesday worship. This is my least favorite liturgical occasion of the entire year. Too tired for solemnity. Too sharp for minor keys. Too weary. Too angry for patriarchy. Will someone please just row this boat ashore so we can all go home?

7:50. Downstairs for communion. And another copier check. Load up paper. Shut down one machine. Stack stuff needed for mailing crew in the morning. Haul two reams of 11 x 17 paper back where they belong. Bathroom. Choir rehearsal. 

8:30. Where exactly is the center of the pitch? And my pencil? And why must this song go both into and out of the wilderness to the same tune?

9:00. Very difficult to sing German words like "Fuerchte dich niche" through pursed lips and clenched teeth. Can’t tune. Try to exhale and relax into flatness.

9:10. Choir’s over. Coat, hat, gloves, scarf, tote bag, purse, eye drops, laptop, cords, keys, lunchbag. Thank God, my car is actually where I thought I left it. Look in the mirror on the visor to scrub the ashes off my forehead. Really not up for questions about dirty foreheads when I get home.

9:30. Home. Couch. Cold still creeping along my thigh bones. Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, yes. Television, no. Knitting, no. Stay up late enough to make it hard to get up again tomorrow.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Blog anniversary: Keep typing

There are four typed-out quotations posted on the bulletin board in my office. Three have been there for a long time. I added a new one yesterday. It comes from a collection of quotes from David Carr, the New York Times media journalist who died a few days ago:
Keep typing until it turns into writing.

That, my friends, has been the motto and the method of this blog for nine years. Start something and see where it goes by typing, editing and  reworking. At some point, maybe, it becomes something that communicates, that might mean something to others. More importantly, at some point I can read it back and discover what I believe.

Because, truly, I can't say I believe much--not in that way we so often take "believe" to mean certainty, or intellectual assent to ideas bronzed into a creed. Like many a Christian child I was told what to believe, or even "what we believe." The challenge then was to make my life, actions, feelings, fit the outline and all its proscribed categories, line breaks, and indents.

But alas, the older I get, the less willing I am to submit to orthodoxy, or to settle for it, at least in matters of faith. I don't feel compelled to express myself in clothing, or accessories, or sparkly phone cases. But I do log in at The Perverse Lutheran to type, hoping it will turn into something I can trust my heart to—my bruised and broken heart.

I type questions. I type experiences. I type anger (though perhaps not as much anger as I feel). I listen to the words and change them until their rhythm matches the ideal heard in the distance. I move sentences around, I point out the dissonance. I hope it leads to a resolution that is sweet, surprising, true.

Today was the funeral of an old friend and a reader of this blog. After two years of cancer treatment she'd had enough. It was her time to die, in the peace of God.

But I, as a living person, was angry with death today, and promises of life everlasting in the funeral service meant very little. It's like that part in the Apostles' Creed where we say we believe in "the resurrection of the body." I always think, what does that mean anyway?

The committal was in the church's Memorial Garden, a cold and blustery place on this Saturday afternoon in February. Finally, in the second reading graveside I heard words that made some sense to me:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.

That comes from the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians, and there's more of it, right on through verse 18:
What can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal. (v. 18) 

Another of the quotes on my bulletin board, this one from many years ago, says:
Tell the truth. Don't decorate. Remember death.

I don't remember where it's from. I liked the bluntness, though I think the bluntness is a little pretentious, or at least pretentious on my bulletin board. What do I know of truth? And I'm happy to ignore the fact that all things must die.

Yet I keep typing, and sometimes, if it turns into writing, testing those words against the truth of my heart, shows me what this perverse Lutheran believes.

Though afflicted, perplexed, and remembering death, I believe that God's grace is ever-present. Today it arrived in words from scripture. Sometimes it arrives in a gesture from a friend, or the love of my children. Once memorably in this blog, it was in the bright red tree outside my front window.

I keep typing.

This blog began sometime around Transfiguration Sunday in 2006, and I mark its anniversary not by the date, but by the liturgical occasion. There's been more than one post through the years inspired by death and funerals. Perhaps I'll challenge myself to think happy thoughts on Ash Wednesday. Suitably perverse? Anyway, thanks for reading.