Wednesday, December 13, 2017

My take on #MeToo

As the reports of sexual harassment have multiplied in the news and #MeToo has become a topic of conversation everywhere--because every woman has a story to tell--I've had a nagging sense that something was missing. Or rather, that the focus on unwanted sexual advances is missing the larger point about how women are treated by men.

Not all women are groped or harassed regularly at work (especially as we grow older and less attractive). But all of them are interrupted by men in meetings. Many think carefully before taking credit for a good idea--or reflexively, deflect the credit elsewhere. We guard how we speak, careful to be tactful and indirect--and if we're not doing that consciously, it's because we've been so well socialized that we do it unconsciously.

This morning I read an article that articulates what I've been trying to home in on: "This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work" by Rebecca Traister at New York magazine. I hope you'll read it, especially if you're a man who is trying to make sense of the #MeToo movement.

Here's the sentence that made me say,  "Yes. Exactly."
It’s not that we’re horrified like some Victorian damsel; it’s that we’re horrified like a woman in 2017 who briefly believed she was equal to her male peers but has just been reminded that she is not, who has suddenly had her comparative powerlessness revealed to her.

You really should read the whole thing, because Traister lays out the many shades of how sexual harassment demeans women's work as well as their sense of autonomy and power.

Many women I know, when placed in a situation that makes them feel angry and powerless, tear up and cry. And then feel humiliated because they now look even more powerless, when in fact they are righteously angry. There are many ways beside sexual harassment that women are confronted with the realization they whatever their skills and intellect, the men around them see mainly their sexuality and gender and value them for their looks, the way they care for men's feelings, for their gracious manners, or their usefulness as status symbols.

I think back to my days in college and graduate school. There was the conference with the professor I had for Old Testament. I was there to talk about a paper. He believed in using this opportunity to get to know students, so we're chatting, and I say something that identifies me as a feminist. Oh, how he shamed me for that. Don't you want to have a family? Don't your parents have a good marriage? (This last question was especially offensive and prying, since my father was his colleague.) There was also my realization that the young women with easy-going supportive friendships with professors were the women who were flirtatious and attractive. Smart was way down on the list of desirable qualities if you were a girl student.

All of this is not to say that men and women cannot have three-dimensional, mutually respectful relationships. But women have learned that those kind of relationships can never be assumed.

The world shouldn't be this way--and this moment in our culture is an opportunity to become woke to more than just sexual harassment. It's time to understand how far our patriarchal culture still must go before women are valued as full human beings in every dimension.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Advent 2017

(Photo by PetraBlahoutova from Pixabay and the Creative Commons search tool.)

The upside of waking up too early on a December morning is being able to sit in the bay window of my living room and watch the morning light rise into the sky. It's a little tricky--the chair points away from the window, so I have to remember to glance back over my shoulder--away from my laptop--to watch the new day's progress. If there were dramatic streaks of pink in the clouds this morning, I've missed them, but still, at 7:04 a.m., the official time of sunrise on December 6 at my midwestern longitude, the brightening, quiet sky is something to see. Something to smile at.

For some people it's mountains, for others it's water. For me, it's sky--whether it's stretched out south to north over the horizon of a Green Bay sunset or looming over a late-afternoon traffic jam in suburban Chicago. Perhaps I believe, like a preschooler, that God lives out there, where space is so vast it has to be measured in light-years of time, where I am nothing but a passing moment on the surface of a small, but unusual planet.

It's Advent and that planet is troubled. Words of the prophets imploring justice ring hard and true. It's a short Advent this year. We celebrate the fourth Sunday of the liturgical season just hours before the Christmas Eve candlelight services begin.

There's so little time from sun-up to sun-down this month. And so much work to do, much of it while it is night.

But the light is coming! Has come! Will come!

Sunday, November 05, 2017

All Saints 2017

Random on All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

1. It's been a long and very full weekend. I have no hope of putting together a coherent post, especially after a couple of Lagunitas IPAs and a Chicago Classic pizza at Lou Malnati's.

2. But stuff has been splatting on the windshield of my spirit, like insects on a long night drive. Can't ignore the mess.

3. I've sung Morten Lauridsen's Lux aeterna three times in the last 24 hours. It's gorgeous. It's ethereal. It's not even all that hard to sing. I've purposely stayed away from taking in the translation of the Latin, even from thinking about it. I can't produce the space and the sound and the support for the musical line if I'm thinking about that eternal light and my dear ones who rest there. (Or in Kris's case, are playing Frisbee with Jesus--my mind went there briefly during one performance and had to be rapidly called back to the Latin.)  

4. Space and sound and breath embody Spirit in music, which lifts earth to heavenly spheres of joy and laughter and light. Is that, maybe, incarnation in reverse?

5. More than once today, I found myself wondering if we have taken the hard edge off sainthood, or have sentimentalized the inevitable grief of living with our teary remembrances of dear ones, our candles lit for "saints" now in heaven with God. For "all of us," says the canticle, "all of us go down to the dust." And then—dear God!—24 people (is that the most recent total?) are murdered at 11:30 on a Sunday morning in a Baptist church in Texas. The incense of shock and sorrow barrels across Twitter and Facebook and internet news sites, as a few prophetic voices cry, this should not be! But sadly, we feel more and more helpless each time this happens. And what other response is there then, than sentimentality over the stories of the dead. 

6. "I am not resigned," said Edna St. Vincent Millay in "Dirge Without Music." 
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
7. I'm with Edna--not resigned, though I have seen the ashes on the hard ground, even as the spirit of loved ones lost flows all around me and within me, in memory, in thought, in joys, in places, in people. 

8. Spent some time with Kris's friends, who were "krawlin' for Kris" along Madison Street in Forest Park last night, visiting the bars they'd hung out in together, before his ALS diagnosis, before the wheelchair, before he died. I'm not good at late nights in bars with funny stories, teasing, pool tables and punching bags--never was. But it was good to be with them for a short time, to hug them, to enjoy their company, even as a totally sober old person. 

9. A friend pointed out to me today that to call a maple tree losing its leaves in fall a birthday tree is to put death into a larger context, to suggest that something else is coming into being. A poet, perhaps, could say this elegantly in sixteen lines, or twenty--and would discard or hide these random notes. Me--I'm going to hit publish and pick up my knitting. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Birthday tree 2017

I've been watching the birthday tree.

That would be the maple tree in front of our house which Lon noticed, and then I saw, too, had turned brilliant red when the sun rose on Sunday, November 2, the day after our son Kris was born. Sometime in the next few years, as the tree put on its annual show for our All Saints' Day baby, Lon dubbed it "the birthday tree."

Lon liked to make legends. Some he made by living them, "Front Page" style in the newsroom. He also liked to name his cars and compare life to his favorite movies. He liked our kids' birth stories, myth-size family stories, and created them as well as kept them.

I came to believe in his story of the birthday tree. The pink glow that its scarlet leaves cast on the living room in late October and early November is like a filter on an aging actress. It lifts my spirits, gentles my soul, and probably hides wrinkles, or at least bathes them in flattering rose-pink.

But it's not a typical year for this red maple in the parkway. Midway through October its branches were dotted with red leaves, but they blew off on a windy day. The leaves still on the tree are green or dull green-grey. They were nothing to today's Halloween Batmen and Spidermen, the miscellaneous hooded middle-schoolers with gruesome greasepaint, or the tiny preschool princesses (one of whom  carried her blue princess pumps and plopped them on the porch at my feet when she said "trick or treat"--they hurt to wear, said her mom, but they were still part of her costume).

The birthday tree has not gone glorious, at least not yet. Might be the lateness of the fall, yet another sign of pervasive climate change. Might be damp weather, or dry weather, or grief.

I miss Kris intensely. (He died three months ago, at the age of 30.) His cheerful, alert, oh-fuck-it spirit is very much alive to me in photos and memories. I resist saying much about this, whether it be in simple words or in metaphor, lest the explaining take the edge off, dull the memory or diminish how much I hate that this happened.

The weather app says it will rain tomorrow, on Kris's birthday. From the look of the tree today there won't be a scarlet surprise in my front window in the morning--no matter what the pigments do as winter approaches. Maybe next year.

I've got a snapshot of Kris, maybe seven years old, climbing in the tree in spring, red t-shirt, red buds on the branches against a blue sky. Can't post it, because the computer and scanner are resisting the commands coming at them from the mouse.

Maybe next year.

Sunday, October 08, 2017


It was a two-rainbow week.

Rainbow #1 appeared in the sky on Tuesday morning, a dreary morning. The air was heavy, too warm for October. I backed out of the garage, drove south for a block and turned right—west—and saw the full rainbow stretching broadly over the houses, the school, the school yard. The harder I looked, the more it seemed to be a trick of light. Real things waver in the wind--flags, trees, kites. Airplanes cut right through the current. The air that high above the ground was surely moving but the rainbow held steady, in one place, that was not really a place at all. I drove a half-mile before I encountered the rain that had refracted that bow, but by the time my windshield was wet, the rainbow had faded.

Rainbow #2 was spectacular. Saw it at 5:45 last evening, again while driving. The sun was bright and sinking in the west, but there was rain where I was. I looked east and there it was, stretched across the  sky, dividing the heavens from the earth, or so it seemed. It lasted the full 20 minutes it took to drive to our destination—like it was permanent—-and seemed to grow more wonderful the longer you looked. The legs, if that's what you call the parts that seem anchored in the ground, vibrated with color, and a second rainbow, fainter but still distinctly there, formed above the first one. I'm proud to say I did not rear-end anyone despite the distracted driving and managed to take a couple pictures when the car was stopped. My phone dinged with a video of the same rainbow, texted by a friend who lives ten miles northeast of me.

It was everywhere! And yet--where? This one shone so bright and strong, it looked like there must be a pot of gold somewhere nearby that you could drive to. Its sheer persistence seemed to be saying something, as if God was broadcasting an upbeat message to the world after a particularly awful week.

One can see how rainbows made it into Genesis.

Monday, October 02, 2017


I took two trips in the last week. One to Michigan for the funeral of my cousin John, who died too soon, too young, at age 57, of liver cancer. The other trip was to Washington Island, for a fall weekend with my daughter at a familiar place, full of family memories.

Now that I'm back, been to a choir rehearsal, checked my Twitter feed, unpacked the suitcase and put my feet up on the ottoman in front of my usual chair, I feel like a stranger in my home. I've thought a lot in the past seven days about being a child in an extended family rooted in Detroit and in rural Michigan and about who I am as an adult in that family. I've thought a lot about the years of being a mother to young children as they played lakeside on Washington Island.

I don't want to come back. It's not just the work week ahead, the meetings, the problems to untangle, the trip to the grocery store. It's something about lugging a load of leaden grief with me through all those things--lugging it, mostly silently, grimly.

 Both Cousin John and my son, Kris, who died in July, were extroverts, the lube in the social network, happiest when everyone got along. And joyful to be around.

 That joy resides in the past now. When it does break through into the here and now, it shows up in tears. Wet, salty, runny tears remember love and sweetness and special sons.

There's nothing to do but feel it, I guess. That's what grieving is--slowly letting in feelings that seem too much to bear at first, in anything more than the tiniest dose. And learning to love those feelings.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Perhaps by those very holy tears.

Sunday, September 03, 2017


While I was on vacation at the beginning of August I wove a basket. I've made baskets before, on and off in the last 15 years—some more successful than others—but hadn't made any in several years.  I wanted something to do on vacation besides the usual knitting and writing, something that I would struggle with a little bit, something that was a little bit challenging, even frustrating, that would take my mind off feeling sad or feeling lonely. Soaking reed, cutting spokes, weaving and trying to make the shape that's emerging under your hands conform to the one in your mind--these are things to do that are just absorbing enough to mute grief for a while on a summer afternoon.

I ordered a kit for this basket. There are two large plastic boxes of basket supplies in my attic, but rooting though the mess to figure out what I could make from what I already had would have been a bridge too far.  Basket reed comes tied into coils when you purchase it. But the minute you start to use it--either by clipping the strings that bind it, or by trying to pull pieces out of the coil without clipping the strings--you've got a wild and springy mess on your hands.

A kit, ordered at the last minute from Amazon Prime, gave me what I needed to make one controlled basket. I found the pencil box that held clothespins and few other tools and I was good to go.

The kit was for a "bread basket," oval, sturdy, medium-size. with a wooden bottom. The spokes fit into a continuous slot that runs around the sides of the wooden bottom. The first couple rows of weaving hold them in place.

Weaving is easy. Shaping the basket is hard. My oval was lopsided. One long side stood straight up, the other flared out rather more than it should have. But as it happened, I left the basket on a table in the screened-in breezeway of the cottage one night when it rained. The basket was thoroughlysoaked. I pushed and stretched and tied it together in the shape I wanted it to be, and three days later, back home and all dried out, both sides stood up tall.

Now, straight, deep and with a heavy bottom, it holds sympathy cards on my dining room table.

There are a lot of cards. It will be six weeks tomorrow that Kris died and the stream of notes and cards is only now thinning out. Each card has brought handwritten words -- sometimes just a few, often quite a lot. People are wise enough to stick to simple things for the most part, sharing memories of Kris, thankfulness for his life and his blog and his caring. They've thought about the right words, found a good pen and written them by hand. Some have waited a few weeks, not knowing what to say, or knowing, perhaps, that I will need to hear these things for a long time, not just a week or ten days after Kris's passing. I open them and read them right when I get home from work, as soon as I pull them out of the mailbox. I cry every time, inevitably, just a little bit. It's healthy—like taking a nightly glass of red wine.

I've never been a big card-sender myself. There's no box of all-occasion cards in my desk, like my grandmother or Aunt Clara would have kept on hand. I bought a sympathy card yesterday to send to someone else who recently lost a young-adult son, and I was surprised at the price. But then, I'm cheap, and not especially well-organized. When I need to send a card, I dig through the basket or the desk drawer and come up with a blank card--something dated and artsy, or leftovers from writing opening-night notes for shows I've directed. Thinking of what to write is not hard if you keep your ambition modest--something truthful and real, however small.

This collection of cards in my basket holds many messages like that--a grade-school classmate remembering Kris's friendliness or that he was the boy who didn't tease her. People acknowledging how hard this has all been. Statements of firm faith, along with statements of faith that acknowledge how little we understand of what we mean when we say "resurrection" and "life after death."

I don't seem to have a lot of words right now--beyond the ones I say to Eliza many times each day: "I miss Kris." Or I have them but can't seem to say them much less follow them into the past or into the future.

I do have the words of friends, in a very nice, though not quite symmetrical, basket on my dining room table. Thank you.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Catherine, on "the perfect partner for Michelle"

One more memory from Friday evening's memorial service, this time from Catherine Mussatti.

Good evening. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Catherine and I am one of Michelle’s best friends since grade school. My husband Nick and I were dating at the time Michelle first introduced us to Kris, and since then, we became especially close to Kris and will always remember the times we have had building our relationship alongside theirs.

I knew Kris was the perfect partner for Michelle from that first time we met him, and witnessed Michelle drunkenly throw a pencil at his eye during a heated night of board games and beer. In that moment, I figured most guys would start to have second thoughts about my crazy best friend, but in some goofy way, that was a metaphor for the kind of relationship Kris and Michelle would have. Fun, fast-paced, forgiving, and patient. They married just two years later. It was meant to be – God surely had a plan.

It’s been inspiring and humbling to see Kris and Michelle’s love grow from the very start. Nick and I have been lucky to spend time with them at bars and breweries, out in back yards and playing board games, and most memorably, on a trip to New York City last summer where we agreed Chicago deep-dish is infinitely better than New York-style pizza, which Kris called “just normal pizza”. I’ll always remember Kris and Michelle’s wedding entrance, which involved them dancing to and twerking to hip hop in sunglasses, or seeing Kris slow dancing with Michelle at our wedding, with Michelle in his lap, arms around him in his wheelchair.

I am most thankful that he showed Michelle, who means so much to me, what it is to be a great man, husband, and friend. Michelle told me that Kris was a thoughtful listener, and I always considered him to be genuine in conversation, and able to tell it like it is. Kris’s intentions were always real and his love unwavering. Even in these last weeks, he planned ahead to his and Michelle’s upcoming 4th wedding anniversary, and surprised her with an early gift. Despite the unexpected difficulties in his life, Kris always managed to put others first.

Reading through people’s reflections online in these past few days, the words inspiration, determination, courage, strength, confidence, ambition, and optimism are used consistently to describe Kris. The one word I feel that summarizes all of these, is GRIT. The dictionary describes grit as a firmness of mind or spirit and unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger. Grit is a trait based on an individual's passion for a particular goal, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their objective. Kris embodied grit, and never lost sight of his goal of ending ALS, advocating for and in the community, and to continue to be a positive, optimistic person despite facing an unimaginable challenge and battle. He lived with a purpose, and spent all his days living up to that.

To close, my vow and call to action for the Gronk’s Grace Army, is to not let our passion and the fight against ALS die with Kris. His life here on Earth may be over, but Kris’ legacy is far from settled. His legacy isn’t defined by just the times we’ve shared together, or the memories we have of him, but the impact Kris has made on us that changes who we are. Kris’s name is not etched on a tombstone, but is carved on our hearts forever. Kris, you’ve showed us what we need to do – it’s our turn to lead the fight now. Love you and God bless you.

Kamm, on Kris

Kris's friend Mark Kamm spoke at the memorial service on Friday evening, July 28, at First Free in Rockford. This is what he said.

Yesterday, in preparation for this time of sharing, I sat at my desk sifting through some 12 years of memories trying to pull a few meaningful paragraphs together. I found myself staring at the wall. My mind had gone mute, with only what seemed to be silent films of the past several years faintly rolling through my frontal lobe. The week had been a long and exhausting culmination of three increasingly difficult years.

Since Kris' passing on Monday, I've read hundreds of comments, anecdotes and messages about Kris' lively spirit, caring heart and inspirational mental toughness. While I love to read all of these things about my friend whom I've often thought of as my personal Butch Cassidy, these are not the things that caused Kris and I to grow as close as we did. Our friendship actually blossomed out of our mutual frustrations with life. We were roommates for the first time during our sophomore year at Valparaiso University. Kris was navigating a lot of personal turbulence in those days, and I was dealing with some things that caused me to feel like I was in a flat spin heading out to sea. All at the ripe age of 18 years old.

Our ability to intensely (some would call it violently) talk with one another about the things we were dealing with, and come to trust each other with such personal and private emotions and issues, not only grew us closer on a brotherly level, but allowed us to lean on each other during the dark times so that neither of us had to sleep with our heads in the mud. Each of us needed to be heard, and each of us needed someone to understand him at that time -- and the timing of our assignment as roommates couldn't have been more perfect. It was a God-thing – a divine appointment - that would prove itself and come to full fruition ten years later.

Over the years, communication between Kris and I became more seamless. We could pick up on each other's body language and understand each other by reading simple facial expressions. We could express vast ideas through a few simple anecdotes. This became more and more invaluable as Kris began losing control, first over his body and, then, over his ability to communicate/speak clearly.

I feel blessed to have had some of the conversations I had with Kris. We discussed things I've hardly had the opportunity to discuss with anyone else: deep, confusing, terrifying things. One of our last great epiphanies after a day of conversation, beers, and tears, involved uncovering what we felt was the most important part of our time here on earth. We came to agree that only one thing in this world pays back dividends when you're gone. That's the relationships we have with other people. People are the most important thing. We also came to the realization that though many people may say they believe this, few actually live it.

You see, it's become so simple to communicate with people in very abbreviated, very matter of fact, very impersonal ways. Yes, no. Up, down. Left, right. Too often we feed each other this controlled commentary of our lives rather than dare to engage in genuine intimacy. Too often, we switch our ears to passive intake and think, "Oh, it's not my business," or "It's not my problem…"

The ability to communicate and connect with and care about other humans beings is a gift – one that Kris fought to hold onto and employ until the very end. I can think of no greater tribute to the life of my friend than to do the same.

Kurt, remembering Kris

My younger son, Kurt Grahnke, spoke at the memorial service for his brother, Kris, on Friday evening, July 28, at First Free in Rockford. This is what Kurt said.

People tend to see diseases, especially neurological diseases as losses or deficits of certain functions. In medicine there are a myriad of fancy words to describe these deficits: agnosia, amnesia, ataxia, apraxia, the list goes on... It is easy to look at Kris’ disease as a loss – a loss of the ability to walk, drive a car, hug people back, eat a sandwich…. speak, and eventually on Monday night, a loss of the ability to breathe. However, the human organism is not simply a machine whose parts break down when we get sick. One of my favorite thinkers once said
“There is always a reaction of the individual to attempt to repair, to compensate for, and to preserve one’s identity in the adverse circumstances of sickness” (Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat).
This ability to adapt is a key characteristic in all humans–healthy and sick. Since the dawn of Homo Sapiens, the ability to adapt has allowed us to become such a proliferative species. With a constantly changing environment, our knowledge and abilities have advanced, our skulls have morphed, our brains have changed in ways we still do not fully comprehend, equipping us with conscious awareness of this joyful, beautiful, puzzling, and indeed, sometimes incredibly sad human condition….

But I think we’ve reached a state where it is easier to be totally comfortable with ourselves, our status quo, our default setting…and we may feel like we don’t really have to adapt so much anymore.

Kris showed me, showed us…that this is not good enough and that there is always room for self-improvement and adaptations. Kris knew there were other people around the world battling the same disease he had, and he never stopped fighting for them through Gronk’s Grace. He realized his work might not lead to a cure in his lifetime, but this did not stop him from making a contribution towards finding a cure for others down the road. He never stopped fighting for anyone he loved and he had love for a lot of people, including the special needs community, with some extra tough love on our sister, Eliza. He continued to teach these children from his power chair and even after “retiring” he never in fact stopped teaching all of us…

To do so, he found new, creative ways to help others despite the deterioration of his body….And this to me is what is most meaningful in life and makes us most human and made my brother, Kris, a particularly fantastic human: the ability to continuously adapt and improve one’s self for the sake of other people, especially the underdogs in society.

Moving forward, I hope we can all find our own ways of adapting to our losses, whatever they may be, to preserve and strengthen our unique identities, so that we may fight for the underdogs with the same tenacity, grace, and love that Kris showed us.

I’d like to close with a quote, keeping in mind that every single one of us will die one day.
It goes:
“Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for [those you love]. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving” (Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air).

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Gronk's Grace

So here I am, on Thursday, July 27, one day before my 63rd birthday, trying to figure out how to wear a Gronk's Grace t-shirt to a funeral.

Well, not a funeral. A service that is a celebration of the life of my son Kris Grahnke, who died on Monday evening after three and a half years of living courageously with ALS. His blog, "Gronks Finding Grace," chronicled the reality of a devastating disease that destroys the body's ability to move, talk, swallow and finally, breathe. He also told the story of God's amazing grace in all of this -- in his wife, Michelle, who bore all the burdens of caregiving with wisdom, faithfulness and a radiant smile; in friends and colleagues who became the Gronk's Grace fundraising warriors for ALS research, and in the blessings of life in God's good world—summer, beer, multi-tasking in the bathroom.

Now he lives in God's eternal kingdom, safe and whole and still blessed by grace.

Back to the wardrobe issue. Last night, as I considered different options for the bottom half of a Gronk's Grace outfit, I fumed just a little, in my mind, at Kris. A t-shirt at a funeral, when I've got a perfectly lovely navy blue summer dress? The things I do for this child! It was a familiar, comforting feeling, and when I recognized it, it made me smile. I thought of my Cub Scout Den Leader's shirt, not near as flattering as a Gronk's Grace shirt, but worn so that I could be included in an important part of Kris's growing-up.

Kris often pushed me past the life I was accustomed to, got me out of my rut, and forced me to be more outgoing, just to keep up with him. His friendships in junior kindergarten brought me lifelong friends. He introduced me to Facebook and cell phones and to many wonderful young women and men, drinking beer at Poor Phil's. (I learned about the beer, too, from him.) For what it's worth, I use the f-word more freely because of Kris. More critical—I survived my husband's dementia and raised three healthy kids because of Kris's help, his ability to plan and be flexible, and his fierce concern for his siblings. He negotiated change and adventures with Eliza. He helped Kurt become his own person, his own kind of Grahnke cool.

A week or so before Kris died, I heard myself think, "his life has become a burden to him." Struggling to breathe is hard. Not being able to talk and be understood was, I think, harder still for Kris. He connected with everyone, and conversation was the medium for that. It was fun to watch him work a room. It was also fun to de-brief with him after a party or family gathering. One thing we shared was an interest in people and how they interact.

In these days since his death, there have been news stories about Kris--one on local TV in Rockford and one in the local paper. They used footage and photos from past stories about him as a teacher and someone fighting ALS. It was good to see his round, smiling face, to see him in a classroom, with kids, to see him buzzing down the hall in that power chair. When he was a baby, we often described him as "alert," always looking around, tuning in to his surroundings. Grown-up, this quality became enthusiasm and friendliness and social intuition. Yesterday, in our back-and-forth about the obituary on the funeral home website. Michelle told me that the information about his masters' degree needed to specify "behavior interventionist," because he frequently pointed that out to people. His gift for understanding people and the many different ways in which they see the world became a resource for helping children adapt to the school environment--and for adapting the environment to the children.

I will think about Kris and love him and miss him for the rest of my life. My heart, somehow, is not broken, it's full. Full of love for him, and blessed by the love of all the people he touched--the quirky individual kids he had such great relationships with; his beautiful Michelle and the whole Jamerson family, who took such good care of him; Eliza and Kurt, and Kamm and Cate and Rosie and so many other friends; Emily, his caregiver during this last year.

May Gronk's Grace, which is really God's grace, be incarnate in all of us, in memory of our dear Kris.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Fledgling on the ground

There's a fledgling on the ground. A baby cardinal in the grass, stretching its wings, but managing only a big hop forward on the grass, not flight. It's brown, not easily seen--through orange enough and pointy enough around the beak and head that it is distinctively cardinal. I saw it first because the bright adult male swooped down with food to share. He's hanging out nearby, in the mulberry and slippery elm and weedy trees that separate my yard from the alley. Chipping sounds are everywhere --hard for me to determine where they're coming from--and sometimes I heard the clear call of the adult male. He seems, to me, concerned, worried, as am I. He's the leader. He's persistent. He will solve this thing.

This patch of mown weeds and grass does not seem a dangerous spot, though a cardinal egg met its demise here a few weeks ago, I'm not sure how. Now there are other birds flying in and out of this patch of grass, many of them brownish, not-yet-adult cardinals, though it's hard to tell. Their heads in profile give them away, but the orange and red that give them their identity are not yet out.

I've watched for ten or fifteen minutes now, and that fledgling has finally gotten out of the open and disappeared into the weeds by the fence. I swear that little gathering of other young birds a few minutes ago provided cover, their meet-up on the grass urged the little one forward into safety. The anxious calls have ended. But I wonder, what will this fledgling's fate be on this quiet Sunday in July?

Bringing up children is the great drama of our lives. We leave our parents' nest, we fledge in the grass, succeed or fail, and repeat in the next generation.

My contemplative journey this Sunday morning began with opening Mary Gordon's "Reading Jesus" to the chapter on the Beatitudes. I went from there to a writing exercise on who has influenced my life and whether that influence was expansive or constrictive. My notebook now has notes about parents and spouse and a teacher, but this question could just as well lead to ruminations on sons and a daughter. The running themes are compassion and kindness, alongside courage and restlessness.

Sparrows and other small birds are now fishing goodies out of my gutters, in-and-out activity that makes a distinctively aluminum sound. There is so much life to watch here in my backyard, more than other places, perhaps, because I am careless about cutting down weed trees and cleaning out gutters. I am content to sit and watch and mark the presence of abundant life.

Which brings me back to Mary Gordon:
Mourning is not a moral act. To mourn is to mark. It is, in this, related to the artist's work. A kind of making. A making of something of the nothing caused by loss of the beloved. It is simply an act of deep human connection. ... It is, once again, a refusal on Jesus' part of the straight and strictly defined in favor of the deep movements of the heart.
God's eye is on the sparrow, and the fledgling cardinal. And God cares for my heart, my human, troubled heart.

Peace to you this Sunday morning!

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Sunday evening

For the last several weeks I've been watching a pair of cardinals who have claimed my back yard as part of their territory. They have built a nest in the cascade of Concord grape vines staked ten feet in the air on a rusty post next to my patio. The nest is well hidden. It is only because I spend time out there, morning and evening, that I know it's there. I looked for it only after seeing both male and female fly to perches near the nest, hop to the top of the vines and dive in.

I suspect from the goings and comings of both birds that there are babies by now. A couple weeks ago the story was all about the female, pulling strips of bark off a branch on the fence and flying into the tangle of leaves to wind each strip into the vines to secure her nest. A few days later I found one broken egg in the grass, with purple-gray spots on the shell, just like the picture of a cardinal egg that I'd seen when I looked up cardinals on Wikipedia. Last week I saw mostly the bright red male flying across the yard, perching on the pole that holds the hanging baskets of marigolds. From there it was a short flight upward to the post that holds the vine. Silhouetted, you could see the food in his mouth. He'd dive in. There'd be a rustle and a flutter--the female taking the food--and off he'd go again. This morning it was both birds flying in and out--hauling in bits of seeds and whatever else it is baby cardinals eat. I suppose I should scatter sunflower seeds on my back steps--it's what my Aunt Clara would have done. But then you have the challenge of keeping the squirrels away. Clara would sputter at them, but it didn't help much.

I've just finished reading Mozart's Starling, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. It's a good read, with chapters on linguistics, music, natural philosophy, Mozart, Vienna and a pet starling named Carmen. It made me listen more carefully to the birds in my backyard. I can't say I know much more about what I hear than I did a week ago, but I have a new sense that birds are not only chirping--they're listening. I can pick out the cardinals better, not just their pretty territorial boasting, but also the male and female chip-chipping at each other, one in the lilac bush, one near the nest, just to stay in touch. A couple nights ago, a multi-sentence fuss went out from the under the grapevines when I pulled out my chair and settled my candle and notebook on the table. "She's there. She's there. Want to be sure you know—she's there. Careful."

Every now and then I get out of my aluminum chair, step closer and look up at the nest from underneath, ducking my head under the umbrella of vines and trying to pick out which patch of grey brown is the actual nest. I can see it, barely, but it's above my head, so I can't see into it. I'm curious, but I don't need to know. I'll mind my business so that they continue to mind theirs. They are that kind of neighbor. .

I'm sitting in the backyard as I write this. It's growing dark. Since it's July 2, there are fireworks popping in the distance and the noise of traffic a few blocks away. I just watched the female cardinal come and perch next to the vine. I heard a soft chipping sound coming from the nest. For a minute I thought it might be the babies. I stared and listened hard. Then--a flash of bright red--just the male taking his turn at bringing food to the family. He flew off and she went in next.

So much going on. So many sounds. Such peace.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Good and pleasant

Here's what was running through my mind about eight o'clock this evening:

How good and pleasant it is when there is no choir on Wednesday night, and instead of going to rehearsal, I get to sit outside on the sidewalk at a local restaurant and have dinner with two of my favorite people--my kids. Not that there's anything wrong with choir. An hour or two of singing will remedy almost anything for me. But the outdoor table, the summer evening, an hour to relax and be and eat and sit inside a quarter century of family love—that is life, good and pleasant.

Let's try another one. How good and pleasant it is ... when the internet goes down at work, and there's nothing you can do about it. That's what happened this afternoon--a side-effect of installing a new firewall. Eventually I went home to a working wi-fi network, but it is a blessing suddenly to have no reason not to linger over a conversation, not to take time to talk about the bumps in the road, and not neglect the tales of rough places made plain either.

How good and pleasant it is this evening continues to be. The smell of weed wafts over from the neighbor's deck, two backyards away, but it's 2017, nothin to see there. How pleasant that I'm not the only one sitting outside thoroughly enjoying the soft June air.

How good and pleasant it was to read Kris's blog from yesterday--about summers gone by in all their active glory, about peace for him, with his beautiful Michelle, at the close of each day of this simpler summer.

How good and pleasant it is to remember to breathe while typing, to drink the last drops of decaf,  cold in the bottom of the cup. To wear a sweater that suits the weather--and oh! to look over your shoulder and glimpse the full moon through the grape leaves tumbling off the arbor.

How good it is to know that at 10:35 tonight I'll have Stephen Colbert on the Late Show to help me laugh at the crap news in my Twitter feed today. How pleasant, as I watch, to be knitting with yarn that's half merino, half llama. Bouncy and silky smooth, all in a glorious green.

Plenty of irritations will be back tomorrow, or maybe even as soon as I click Publish, and close the laptop. But for now--may it be good and pleasant with you, too. Good night.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A hymn to Grace Notes, Ascension Eve 2017

To be sung to the tune ASCENDED TRIUMPH
(With apologies to "Up Through Endless Ranks of Angels")

Note: Grace Notes is the name of our church newsletter. Finished the June-July issue this evening.

Scroll through endless ranks of emails,
Each one winding through a thread,
Tracking down each scrap of info
That will get these Grace Notes fed.
June through July, all the church news
Everything that must be said.

Photo-finding, copywriting
Clear and equal to the need
To engage folks in our mission
And for budget dollars plead.
Stewardship and August picnics
Covered all these things indeed.

To the text boxes and headlines
Of each page I’ve set the style,
Through the edits and the versions
So much blather to compile.
Welcome is the moment when I
Finally print the finished file.

Alleluia! Alleluia!
Oh, the copies multiply!
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Oh, at last they’re done, I cry.
Alleluia!, Alleluia!
Grace Notes, out the door, good-bye!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


The buildings at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, are solid, brick, new, clean, traditional yet contemporary, with wide corridors and modern classrooms.  At least that's true of the Martha Miller Center for Global Communication and Phelps Hall across the street, which hosted a conference on spiritual writing that attended yesterday and today. Funky student bulletin boards about being a classics major or a German major were well contained in glass-front bulletin boards.

Maybe it's all so tidy because the spring term is over and the students are gone. More likely, it's the Hope College's Dutch Reformed heritage and what must surely be a solid development department. Maybe it was Holland itself: even the nearby coffee shops (Lemonjello, 205) had clean lines, square tables, new furniture.

The Martha Miller Center has a two-story rotunda that sits on a broad street corner. Lots of light, cushioned windowseats, comfy chairs, and cookies and fruit for conference attendees in the middle of the afternoon. I stopped there more than once to catch my breath, read my notes, and help myself to another lemon bar.

Something about the roundness of that room--270 degrees of circular--sucked me in, made me sit and relish the comfort. With so much space by the windows there was always room. With so much light and height it never felt crowded or noisy. It was perfectly okay to be alone there.

Which I was, mostly. This was not a conference where I knew people or met old friends. While I had many interesting conversations, I don't know that I will ever see any of these folks on Facebook or meet them again at another conference. My notes, however, are full of websites to check and especially, books to read--each one a personal recommendation.

Writing has meant ephemera for me, mostly, in my life. Stuff that I, or my children, will throw out some day. Notebooks that go back to fifth grade. Typed poems from college and grad school. A one-act play that I surprised to find was not all that embarrassing to read when I came across it a few years ago. A three-act play called "Heroines" that I would dearly love to read it but can't find now. There are notebooks of fury and confusion from stressful years of marriage and madness. Passages of love and wonder for my children. Bits and pieces where I nailed it, scrawled pages in search of a subject. And blog posts that live in a cloud, here, on The Perverse Lutheran. I like that I can go back and read these, plucking them out by year and month. They remind me that yes, I can write, that sometimes the angel stirs the water for me and I actually slide into the pool in time.

I took all these swirls of ideas to solid brick buildings this week and listened to accomplished writers (Barbara Brown Taylor, Rachel Held Evans and many others) encourage new writers, with generosity, humor, prompts and creativity. Laughed at oblique references to Trumpish distractions. Discovered stuff I truly already knew (situation vs. story, likable narrators with faults and self-deprecating humor, what to edit out). I heard about the realities of modern Book-dom, things like social media platforms and marketing plans.

Read five minutes of my PV Lutheran stuff at an open mic and listened to other folks do the same.

Sitting at home, on my rectangular couch, in my squareish living room, I'm glad for that rotunda. No corners, open to the hall--picturing that place keeps the ideas circulating through my head, even as my feet are braced firmly on the edge of the cedar chest that holds my yarn inside and my beer glass and coffee cup on top.  I'm glad I cleaned up the clutter in my house before leaving home. It's not quite up to Dutch standards, but it will do as a place for new and orderly thoughts about writing.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Writing 4 Ur Life

Blogging from a writers' conference in Holland, Michigan. Processing? Preserving something? Maybe a little bit of preening, surrounded by all these people who I'm sure have written and published reams of whatever?

The idea was to go do something different, take some time away from work, feed the writer in me. The conference is called--well, I'm not totally sure what it's formally called but it's put on by Writing for Your Life, or, on Twitter, writing4urlife.

There's a lot in that "for"? Or, on Twitter, "4"?

Writing your life--well, I've done plenty of that here on The Perverse Lutheran. If not moment by moment, blow by blow, then mood by mood, or at least epoch by epoch. But "for your life"?

Prepositions are about relationships between words, and relationships are tricky to explain. We feel our way into them, can't always describe them. In language, when it comes to prepositions we often rely on "sprachgefühl," the feeling of the language, what we know intuitively. In human relationships there's intuition, too. Though that can lead you astray.

So writing for your life--what would that be?

Often for me a Perverse Lutheran post is the answer to, well, feeling pissy--unmoored, unnoticed, tangled, frustrated, bogged down in stupid stuff, un-brilliant, uncreative. I put a sentence or two up on the screen and then wander through to where it takes me. It's like traveling, or exercise. It's speaking a truth--tentatively (because blogs--they're over quickly) and wondering if I can get others to see it too.

It's making sense of my life, for the sake of going on with it--whatever it is, real or written.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter Eve

Saturday, April 15, 2017. Call it Easter Eve? It's a warm night, so I'm sitting in the  backyard after Easter Vigil, with an IPA. Hoppy. Bitter.

I read the Creation account at tonight's Vigil:

"In the beginning when God created the heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void."

So God spoke and brought forth light, separated it from the darkness. And then named the darkness, as well as named the light. And it was the whole first day.

Sun and moon and stars came on the second day, and with them the days, the seasons, the years: time! In good order. And good. 

There's not much order in my backyard, but there are things that are good: new cushions on the patio chairs, the leafing-out lilac silhouetted by the back-door light, that light reaching the long skinny  branches of the forsythia, covered in yellow blooms. And there's a breeze, strong enough to be heard rising and rushing down the east-to-west cross street.

God said, and called all this into being, out of the formless void. God said, and called Jesus from the dark tomb, from the void of death. God said, and called each of us through the waters of baptism, to light and love and endless Easter. 

Over at Gronks Finding Grace, my son Kris has written about letting go and about letting God. That God would be the God of Creation, the God of Easter, the God of promises, the God of salvation.  The God who speaks into the void and names the darkness so that there can also be light and love. 

The air is moving through bare trees. It's the Eve of Easter.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Up-twist of grace

I'm coming up on eleven years of being the Perverse Lutheran. In the name of all things flexible, I usually celebrate my blog anniversary on Transfiguration Sunday, a shifting target based on counting back from Easter and Ash Wednesday. This year it falls on February 26, but I'm writing a bit earlier. It's President's Day, I'm not at work, and I've returned to a favorite haunt of mine from a decade ago--Panera in the morning. A Cinnamon Crunch bagel, hazelnut coffee mixed with decaf, and enforced focus on the computer. No--not the computer--it's actually enforced focus on myself.

And since it looks like there's about to be a lot of conversation at the table next to me, I'm adding headphones to the enforced focus strategy. And strangely, music of Messiaen turning up in one of the various feeds Spotify inscrutably customizes for me. (Specifically, Olivier Messiaen, Fete des belles eaux, 11/14: Oraison, if you need to know.)

I'm smiling. Seriously surreal here.

It's an unusually warm day in February. We've had a couple days of this and according to the internet will enjoy a few more until the weather reverts to something more seasonably miserable. There are people here in shorts, and not just kids. Old guys.

The spring-like respite arrived just in time, and honestly, the sunshine matters even more than the balmy air. Life comes with long grey stretches, and when the skies reflect that despair back at you, it's hard to keep going. I find myself looking for hits of something interesting, in politics and Twitter and the reality TV show that is currently standing in for the federal government. It's an unfolding story, both banal and fascinating. But it's not my story.

That story, my story, on this blog, has been one of trying to look at day-to-day life with questions, from different angles--not the conventional ones, and usually, finding an up-twist to end with.

("Up-twist to end with." I like the rhythm of that. Also the vowels.)

But in these gray days--of life as well as sky--that up-twist has seemed--false, even offensive, because it does not seem truly felt. My questing, perverse soul is wrapped in anger, about what God does not cure, about what people fail to understand.

Watching ALS take away one thing after another from my 30-year-old son is not what's supposed to be happening right now. He's supposed to be sailing into the prime of his life. But life can and will throw anything at us regardless of "supposed to" or even "what we deserve." So a wide wave of warm, sinking grief washes over me, and it's very hard to stand up, twist up, and find something positive.

But the weather is warm. Yesterday was full of glorious music in an over-gilded, old-time, overly bright Catholic church. And the bracelet on my wrist says "grace." It's a brown clay bead given to me a while back by that same 30-year-old son, as he began to interpret his ALS at a blog called "Gronk Finding Grace," and as he called family and friends to his side as the Gronk's Grace team, for support and fundraisers and fun, even on this difficult journey.

It's harder to be him, and to be his wife, than most of us can know.

This brown clay bead originally came on an elastic cord for 24/7 wearing on the wrist. I have since had it made into an actual bracelet with a clasp and interesting earth-toned beads. I've broken it twice since having it made. The first time was probably related to the way it was put together, or so said the person who repaired it. The second time was entirely my fault--accidentally yanked it off my wrist along with my watch.

Grace--small-g grace. An appropriate subject when looking back on eleven years of Lutheran blogging.

Clay grace. Brown, modest, lowercase grace. Etsy-bead grace. Broken grace.

There's a period after the word grace on my bracelet, as in grace, the end. Or grace, enough.

A few warm days of spring-like weather, then back to winter, Ash Wednesday, the promise of Easter.


Thursday, February 02, 2017

That thing

We need a name for it.

That thing where you wake up at three a.m. and think, why am I awake, and then, with a sinking feeling in your forehead mashed under the pillow, remember that Donald Trump is president—president of the United States, all of them. And white nationalists think this is great and other people from the great middle of the country also think it's great, at last they've got someone on their side, and you think, how did this happen? How? And you think about racism and misogyny, whiteness and white male-ness and women who don't trust women to lead but do think they lie. And how so much is being made of this word "elite," and yeah, there are elites maybe who are out of touch with ordinary people, but "educated" and "knowledgeable" are not synonyms for elite, they're good things. And facts are not matters of feeling, and the earth really is warming, people need health insurance, automation has killed more jobs than trade deals, and, and, and--

Donald J. Trump is president. Also, Paul Ryan is spineless, and only John McCain can save us because Democrats just don't have the votes. Despite getting almost 3 million more of them in November.

That thing.

We have "resist," which makes a good t-shirt, a good coffee mug, and it seems like the thing to do, always, ongoing, in whatever way you can. With a scowl and clenched teeth, and daily calls to congressional offices.

But my teeth hurt, phone calls are frustrating until you get through and then if you're shy and you're sure you're the umpteenth person they've heard from, there's the nerves of rushing through your little piece, telling your little story, when really, don't they know? Why would anyone with an ounce of sense vote to confirm Betsy DeVos? Or that Pruitt guy for the EPA?

There's that thing where you start to wonder why you care so much, why this is tearing you up and why all your friends are depressed. Are we all sore losers? Embarrassed to be us, liberals, progressives? People who look to the authorities--the kind with knowledge and experience, not the strong-arm authoritarian kind.

There's that thing where you can hardly stand to watch the president on television because of the deep sense of shame you feel for the country. What about that thing where you keep watching because you can't take your eyes off the news? Because surely worse stuff will happen if you don't keep watching, if you don't personally keep an eye on it. Or worse stuff will happen and what if we all stop noticing, or caring, and can no longer tell the difference between living in a country that aspires to liberty and justice for all and living in a country that supports liberty and justice only for those people who already have them. Don't We, the People, have a shared vision anymore? Is the category "We, the People" actually growing smaller?

Here's what I think: the name for all this is love of country.

The name for all this is human kindness, the old-fashioned term for being careful with your speech so as not to offend those who have not offended you (but who perhaps have been treated in an offensive way by history, by government, by us).

The name for this thing: American values, American ideals, America.

You and me, tossing and turning at 3 a.m.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Liberty Tree

Inauguration Day 2017. I spent much of the day at work in a struggle with a networked copy machine. I won the battle--I got my 600 copies made on 67 lb. cardstock--but not without significant tactical stress, amplified by the distance and the stairs between my office computer that created the document and the machine in the basement doing the printing.

It wasn't all about the machine. There was definitely displaced anger on display. I took time out in the late morning to watch Donald Trump take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address. I found his "we, the people" rhetoric infuriating, along with his trashing of the last eight years of American progress and his dogwhistle call to his supporters, "you've got your country back."

Yet in one of my dogged trips up the flights of stairs from copy room to office, what should pop into my head but "Johnny Tremain"? Not the book by Esther Forbes, which I read many times as a child. The sound in my head came from the Disney movie adaptation.

Bear with me--this may be totally a Boomer thing. Sunday evenings in my childhood in the early 1960s were grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup eaten while watching "Lassie" at 6 on CBS, and "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" on NBC at 6:30. The Disney hour was often a nature or science program (not exactly must-see TV), but sometimes it was a lot more fun—episodes of "Davy Crocker," with Fess Parker as Davy and Buddy Ebsen as his sidekick, or Hayley Mills as Pollyanna, annoyingly cheerful in frilly dresses. And best of all, they re-ran "Johnny Tremain," a multi-episode movie version of the historical novel about a young man in revolutionary Boston in the 1770s.

Johnny was an orphan; he was cute, with an intriguing "widow's peak" framing his face. He was tragic; apprenticed to a silversmith, he burned his hand in an accident and his fingers grew together as it healed. And there was, of course, an innocuous love interest.

There was also a stirring patriotic tune in the score. Johnny participated in the original Tea Party, political action defying the Tea Act passed by the British Parliament in 1773. Colonists objected because they believed that it violated their rights as Englishmen to be taxed only by a legislative body in which they were represented. Today in my imagination I pictured myself swinging into the post-political action march:

Yes, there are precious few women (and the ones that are there are only accessories to the men),
but when I watched "Johnny Tremain" as a child, I did not fail to see myself in that parade. There's a leap of faith involved. In 1773 my own German ancestors were still in Germany. My great-great-great Grandfather Gotsch wouldn't arrive in America for another 75 years, not until European revolutionary fervor in 1848-49 challenged his clerical authority and upended his pastoral relationship with his parishioners. I do not have Boston patrician forefathers, but yet as a nine-year-old girl I could claim that liberty song for myself.

Since then I have lived through a lot of American history: the civil rights movement, the women's movement, Vietnam protests, Watergate, the GOP's Southern Strategy, 9/11, Iraq, gay marriage, and much more. I have learned in the classroom, from newspapers and from television news that the reality of America has fallen far short of the ideals of liberty and justice for all. The stories of my fellow Americans have put a wider and more diverse vision of America in front of me, a vision I share with many people, especially as we march into the future.

"And we are the sons, and we are the sons, the sons of liberty" sang in my head today, as I tromped from office to copy room. But the crowd I imagined around me no longer looked like a collection of Hollywood male actors circa 1957. I swung into the march with people of color, women in pink hats, Muslim children, people in wheelchairs, people with intellectual disabilities, black people protesting police violence, white people in need of good jobs, poor folks in need of basic health care--all of us with a shared and ever-expanding vision of liberty and justice for all.

I can't make it to a march tomorrow--too many responsibilities. But I'll be there in spirit, singing.
And it will grow as we grow, boys.
It will be as strong as we.
We must cling to our faith, boys—
faith in the Liberty Tree.
It’s a tall old Tree
And a strong old Tree
And we are the Sons
Yes, we are the Sons
The Sons of Liberty.