Thursday, December 31, 2009
Later in the morning, when their storage stomachs (rumen) are full, they will bring the grass back up and chew it. They stand immobile when they do this, their jaws barely moving.
Ruminate. That's what they do. They chew it slowly, over a period of hours, until it's fine enough to digest.
"In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God" (Aeschylus).
Dreaming, thinking, listening, being still … it's all ruminating. The coarse, undigested stuff of life comes up from its storage place when it is ready.
I have been dreaming at night. I say at night because I usually do my dreaming during the day, a coping mechanism I picked up when I was young. At night, when my mind is quiet, my imagination is free to filter through the facts of my life, instead of being bound to escape them.
Even when we don't remember our dreams, our imaginations are still doing the work of sifting through the events, facts, feelings of our days. I like what Thomas Moore says about dreams in "Care of the Soul," that we do not interpret our dreams: they interpret us.
Imagination numbs us from feeling the pain in our lives or invigorates all our senses. We use our imaginations when we're in denial. To make believe, in the face of hard facts, that a problem does not exist, takes a lot of work on the part of our imaginations, whether it's justifying destructive behavior, faulting others for our failures or behaving as though everything was grand.
I do not like feeling raw, vulnerable to life's elements. Those who have lost their childlike ability to imagine need help to numb the pain – alcohol, food, spending money, religion, a sports car, other people's problems – anything that can be obsessed about.
Cattle would not grow if they thought of the coarse grass, "I can't handle this," and refuse to eat it; or spit it out once they found it was too hard too chew; or keep it repressed in their storage stomachs. Neither do we grow when we choose not to eat that which life sets before us, that which appears unpalatable.
The same imagination that enables us to deny engages us in hope. To hope when there is no hope, our imaginations must find a grain on which to nibble, to ruminate. And with each thought, each dream, each talk with a friend, each small act of belief, what we hope for comes that much closer to our grasp.
In its raw state, grief is undigestible. When a death or tragedy first occurs, the real stuff of it gets stored away. Then, over time, it comes up to be broken down into digestible substance, as tears, memories, confusion, anger, conflict, remorse, honesty, laughter, truth.
Regret, shame and guilt are undigestible. Those things that, when recalled, drive us crazy, that are hard to even think about. No amount of psychological analysis or justification or excuses can wipe it away.
Over time, drop by tiny drop, wisdom comes: Because of who I was then, it could not have been any other way.
If I am alive, I cannot avoid pain. Some people's lives are so filled with it, it doesn't seem fair. Yet many refuse to be bitter, refuse to become the "living dead," instead letting their pain be redeemed.
Imagination, which, in truth,
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And Reason in her most exalted mood.
-- William Wordsworth
Meditating on and imagining truth can lead us anywhere. Who would have thought man would walk on the moon? Who would have thought we could converse with someone in China? Yet mankind, through the centuries, walked toward its own unbelievable possibilities.
So it is with each life. It starts with ruminating, thinking slowly and deeply on that which is set before us, the dry coarse stuff as well as the delicious, then imagining that raw material into whatever shapes we desire, and making our life with it.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
"Mom!" I shouted, opening the front door. "Mom!" Mom appeared at the archway into the living room. "There no such thing as the Easter Bunny, is there, Mom?"
She hesitated, then shook her head. "No, honey," she said.
And that's when it hit me.
"That means there's no such thing as Santa Claus, either," I said. Mom made no reply.
No Easter Bunny I could handle. But no Santa Claus? No Santa Claus? I felt like I'd been had.
But when I remember past Christmases, the Christmas Eve following that revelation is the one that stands out.
I hadn't divulged that adult secret to my younger brother and sisters: why spoil it for them? After they'd gone to bed, Dad took me to my Aunt Joyce's house, a few blocks away. He, my grandfather and I sat on the couches in front of the fireplace.
I remember the crackling and warmth of the fire, the scented candle burning on the coffee table and the sound of their hushed voices, talking into the night. It was one of those rare occasions when time seems suspended and all is well with the world.
Christmas Eve was, is, still magical.
There was the warm Christmas Eve that Kim (my husband) came home just after noon with a round bale from Ray Comer's. When he tried to drive up the hill to the house, the bale fell off, bursting its cords as it hit the ground. The whole family, adults and little ones, spent the rest of the afternoon scooping up great armfuls of the hay, still fresh with the smell of summer fields, and throwing it back on the truck. Sometimes little Rachel picked up so much we couldn't see her as she carried it to the truck bed.
When we finally got most of it off the ground, Kim drove across the pasture to the barn. Daniel and I got on the truck and pushed off the hay in huge heaps, and when we pushed the last heap, we fell into the manger on top of it, laughing all the way. Then everyone else jumped in.
There was the much colder Christmas Eve , when our friends the Clarks came over. A few inches of snow were frozen to the ground from a snowfall a few weeks earlier. We shared a candlelight meal at the table in the great room, close to the woodstove.
After dinner we made candles and ornaments with the beeswax, wicks and forms Melissa had brought from home. The children enjoyed this, delighted with their creations, and then they went sleigh riding. The green floodlight was on outside and they spent hours whizzing down the slick driveway and tugging the sleds back up. Every so often a child would come in, red-faced with cold and excitement, to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate, and then dash right out again.
Rachel remembers this as her favorite Christmas Eve, one she would like to live again.
What is it that transforms these ordinary events into something magical and memorable? Is "the true meaning of Christmas " really definable, solid, able to be grasped and held?
Can anyone explain how God came to Earth as the man Jesus, as one of us; surrounded by, as Walt Whitman says, "beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing (and I would add sweating, whining, sickly) flesh?" It is far-fetched. Can anyone understand how each of us is created in His image . . . making every birth, every life an incarnation?
To me, it is a mystery. And I find I must salvage my childhood imagination, my childhood faith and the "love I seemed to lose with my lost saints" -- Santa Claus, Mom and Dad and all the others through my life who've disappointed me -- to believe it.
The wise men brought gifts to the child Jesus, Emmanuel -- God with us -- and we, in turn, bring gifts to each other.
There is a doctrine that states God created man because he was lonely and wanted fellowship. Bah, Humbug! Would that not make God selfish and needy, a co-dependent kinda guy? It is simply a case of man making God in his image.
God is love, and the first thing I see him doing is creating -- Earth, sun, moon, stars, trees, birds, animals -- and he saw that it was good. Then he made man and woman, patterned after himself, to give it to.
I see God incarnate in my husband as he works in the garden, in my daughter Heidi when she paints still-lifes, in my friend Margie as she arranges dried flower bouquets, in my mother-in-law as she puts dinner on the table. I see the creator in my editor, (though he would deny any resemblance), when he explodes through the newsroom door in the morning and rustles open the paper to look at the page he created the day before. And he sees that is good.
I see God in my family as we create the Christmas tree -- an icon -- and in the faces of people -- who seem happier at Christmas, when they are being generous.
"The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything," said Lady Julian of Norwich.
As the sun sets on Christmas Eve the children start saying, "Light the candles, Mom, let's turn out the lights." And so we light the bayberry candles. The twinkling lights strung on the beam overhead faintly illuminate the transparent paper angels hanging there. The tree- and bell-shaped cookies, the cheeses and crackers, the eggnog, the breads and wine are brought and placed on the red and gold cloth-covered coffee table. The Christmas songs -- "Away In A Manger" and "Silent Night" -- play softly on the stereo, or I play them on my guitar.
In this gentle light we gather. I look on the radiant eyes, the contented smiles of the ones I love. To be here together is enough. Even our laughter seems hushed, hallowed.
As Spock would say, "It is not logical." But no matter.
It is a most holy night.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
One of the tenets of this cease-fire would be that no tragedies, no major life crisis occurs from Thanksgiving to Epiphany. No parent would lose a child, no child a parent, no woman a husband, no husband a wife. Nobody would be diagnosed of a fatal disease. No houses would burn down, no marriages would break up, no mom-and-pop stores would go out of business. Nobody would lose their job. No war would keep families apart.
Our losses and difficulties color our emotions for years afterward. It is difficult to celebrate. We have memories of Christmases past when all was well with our world, when our joy was untainted by calamity. We wish the whole season would just go away: the music, the movies, the decorations … all of it.
My parents, who fought constantly throughout my middle childhood, declared a cease-fire at Christmas, so that I have good memories in contrast to the rest of the year. Not all families do. For some families, the holidays cause the war to escalate. There is more drinking, more fighting, more manipulation, more drama.
Maybe this is why we love Christmas movies. All of our favorite Christmas movies are about broken relationships, bankruptcy, ruin, violence, betrayal, disappointment.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” for example, George Bailey loses his mortgage company’s money. He is caught in a life he did not choose. Although he feels trapped by his circumstances, he has found a way to make it a good life anyway. He loves his wife, feels accepted and respected by his friends and family, and serves his community in an important way. When the money disappears, George concludes that he cannot face the shame, that the world would be a better place without him. He is driven to commit suicide.
In “White Christmas,” Betty and Bob fall in love, but they have a communication problem. She does not trust him. She believes he is motivated by his ego to embarrass the old general on a popular TV show. Betty decides to end the relationship.
In “Joyeux Noel,” the French, Germans and English are stuck in the trenches as Christmas approaches in World War I. They are far from home. They can hear their enemies in nearby trenches. Periodically, they are ordered to attack the enemy, only to be mowed down by machine guns.
In all these films, redemption comes on Christmas Eve, but in unexpected ways. Just as George Bailey throws his body into the icy waters of a river, God sends an angel. George discovers that the world is actually a much better place because of him. His friends come to his rescue and all is well.
After Betty leaves Bob, she goes to New York, where she sees him on a TV show making his appeal for the general. She realizes she had totally misjudged him. She apologizes and they are reunited.
The Germans set up Christmas trees in the trenches. The English sing hymns. The commanding officers call a cease-fire and the soldiers leave the trenches to fraternize. They discover they all miss their homes, wives, girlfriends and families. They celebrate and worship together. For 24 hours, there is peace. Afterwards, they cannot be enemies again.
In real life, these situations are happening today. People are losing their jobs, their companies, their fortunes. Feeling hopeless, some are committing suicide. Close relationships are strained, estranged, severed. Men and women are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign countries where they face the real possibility of dying a violent death.
Into a world like this, Jesus Christ was born.
“For unto us a child is born, to us a child is given … and his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). In all these names are all we need to heal our wounds, our hearts, our lives. Many things could be written about each one of these names. What they mean to me, however, may not apply to you. Perhaps you could take a few moments to think about each one, or one in particular, and how Jesus is that to you. In your life, now.
“And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Grace and grace upon grace.
Let every heart prepare him room.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Your life is without a foundation if, in any matter, you choose on your own behalf. ~ from “Markings” by Dag Hammarskjold.
Haunting words. They pierce like a fish knife, slicing through the flesh and pulling it back to reveal my heart.
I don’t like what is there: selfishness, self-centeredness, self-absorption. How unwilling I am to lay aside my own interests to attend to someone else’s. Why should mine be most important? How did I get this way?
Oh, little town of Bethlehem …
My mother had a habit of almost promising to do things. Maybe I’ll do this for you or maybe I’ll do that for you. Her good intentions were enough, she thought. I despised that. And now I am the same way.
It seems I often choose on my behalf. I always have a project going. I will do this for you when I am done with my own. I may miss the deadline if I interrupt my project. Yet … yet, the scriptures say I am to think of others.
Hammarskjold says “any matter.” Any?
This does not mean being a doormat. Being a doormat is not a choice, but a self-preserving reflex. We’re talking about choosing another’s behalf. Sometimes choosing another’s behalf means to say no, when you are really doing it for yourself or when it makes them beholden to you. But these are not usually my problems.
Now I understand my mother. How easy it is to live a fantasy life in which I am generous, caring and kind. If I imagine doing something good for someone, in my mind, it’s as good as done.
Elsewhere he says, “So, once again, you chose for yourself—and opened the door to chaos. The chaos you become whenever God’s hand does not rest upon your head. …”
The chaos is my enslavement to time, to my fears, to an illusion of control. It affects my neighbors. When I have the power to do good but withhold it, people are left uncared for, forgotten, ignored. They get the message.
Just the other day a friend was telling me about a woman who has always been friendly to her. But when she recently saw the woman in a store, the woman looked at her vacantly and rushed by. I said the woman was probably preoccupied. My friend felt snubbed, rejected.
Does my self-absorption actually offend or hurt others? Does it come across as rejection?
In the weekly prayer of confession at my church, we say:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves...
It is the “what we have left undone” that undoes me. The nudges to visit the widow, put a few dollars in the pot, call someone, do something, that I ignore.
In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus said there are two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
These are not just one-time choices, but many. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God and with its fellow creatures and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”
Is this the foundation vs. chaos that Hammarskjold is talking about? I think so.
The historical Jesus built his life on the foundation of loving God and loving his neighbor, wherever he encountered his neighbor. The living Christ does the same. I am—we are—his hands, his feet, his eyes of compassion.
This is incarnation. This is “Oh, little town of Bethlehem,” Now.
Sunday, December 06, 2009
The economy is not rallying as expected. The President is sending more troops to Afghanistan. Tiger Woods cheated on his wife. The world may be headed for another Ice Age.
More jobs lost. More homes foreclosed. More war. More breaches of trust. More doom. More gloom.
Yet there is hope. “He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. His heart is secure, he will have no fear” (Psalm 112: 7-8).
These are the Bible verses for the first day of Advent in my devotional guide. Most days consists of a scripture and a short reflection. The usual format. It is full of faith, hope, love, comfort and encouragement. But something about this devotional guide makes it different than any other I have used. It was not written by a spiritual giant, like Henri Nouwen, Max Lucado or Walter Wangerin, nor by Joan Chittister, Beth Moore or Joyce Rupp.
It was written by the people in my church. In its pages, I find that I am surrounded by humans who hope in God.
Some of these people I know well. Others, I’ve had occasional encounters with. The rest I know only by name. For each of them, life has its ups and downs. In their lives, over the few years I’ve known them, have been graduations, weddings, the birth and adoption of babies, new job opportunities, trips abroad, successful operations, healing, mission trips. There have also been houses burned down, car accidents, sick children, heart attacks, mental illness, lawsuits, divorces, estranged family members, rejection, lost jobs.
Yet there is always hope.
It’s called fellowship. An old friend used to define fellowship as “a bunch of fellows in the same ship.” When one rejoices, we all rejoice. When one grieves, we all grieve.
Walking through life together with others makes everything bearable. Of course, there are other good friends, too, not in my church, people with whom I have a longer history of rejoicing and grieving. Friends I know and who know me well.
So in this Advent guide, when I read this reflection, I know this friend has had her share of bad news. I have seen, over the past four years of our friendship, how she trusts in God, not only for herself and her family, but for all those she comes to care about.
Bad things happen. God does not promise a life free of trouble, my friend writes. As a matter of fact, Jesus says we will have trouble. But we are not to be afraid, not to worry.
Fear and worry take over my thoughts as I read the headlines, dwell on the circumstances, wake up in the night. Oh my, at night everything looks worse.
In difficult times, I always run to God for refuge. He always gives me a Bible passage, a truth that becomes a real and solid thing inside me. When I wake up in the night, afraid and anxious, I turn on the light and read the verses.
For instance, when I had cancer a few years back, the verses were these from Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.”
This passage becomes my prayer. Prayer is what brings it all together. I want to pray according to God’s will, so I seek it in the Bible, in the Psalms, the Gospels or the letters. God’s will is expressed in the life of Jesus, so we can see that God wants to heal, comfort, deliver, restore.
My friends and family pray for me, with me, and I for them. There are times when I pray, “Lord, have mercy.” This a powerful prayer. God is merciful and longs to give mercy. The truth, in the end, always prevails. God has always worked all things out for good. God has always been faithful.
We do not get to choose what happens in the world, what happens to us, what happens to those we love, but we do get to choose how to respond:
Love or hate? Blessing or cursing? Despair or hope?
Advent is all about expectation, expecting God to appear, here, on Earth, in our lives. Thanks to the people in my life, prayer and God’s promises, there is always hope.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Ever try having a different Thanksgiving meal? Ever since I was a little kid, sitting around Grandma Still’s dining room table, my Thanksgiving meals have been the same: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and turnips, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, celery stuffed with cream cheese, carrot sticks, pumpkin and mincemeat pies.
Every Thanksgiving was the same. After Mom got us four kids all dressed up, we went to Grandma’s house. On Long Island, that wasn’t exactly over the river and through the woods. More like over the railroad tracks and through the traffic.
Grandma’s was a back-door house, so our arrival was into the kitchen, where things were bubbling on the stove. Her red and black tile floor was shining, the metal cabinets squeaky white and the sun brightened it all through the bay windows.
While Mom and Grandma tended to the bubbling things, we kids watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. Sometimes we knew people who were marching in the parade, so we stayed glued to the set to see them.
About a half-hour before dinner, my Aunt Clara and Uncle Bob arrived with my cousin, Joann. Aunt Clara always cooked the turkey at her house, a few blocks away. The reason given was that it saved Grandma the work of lifting the huge bird in and out of the oven. Knowing Aunt Clara, a strong-willed German who never lost any of her accent, she probably wanted to make sure that bird was cooked right. It was always perfect and delicious.
At dinnertime, the “youngsters” had to sit at a card table set up in the next room. We hated that. It was a rite-of-passage when we got old enough (12 or 13) to sit with the big people at the elegantly-set table in the dining room. Grandma had a lace tablecloth, fine china, silverware and crystal that she used only once a year.
At other times when we visited, I loved to sneak open the drawer of the sideboard that held the silver. The drawer was lined with a velvet-like fabric and it all smelled musty-rich. Grandma must have treasured her dining room set, with its china cabinet, sideboard, large table and padded chairs. She and my grandfather had bought the house right before the Great Depression, so it was probably many years before they could afford good furniture.
Though my grandmother always called it turnip, the orange in the mashed potatoes is actually rutabaga, I discovered when I began cooking my own Thanksgiving meal. How did that tradition start? I don’t know. But I insist on keeping it, even though that rutabaga is hard as a locust post and I still haven’t come up with an easy way to cut it. Maybe if I stayed in the kitchen instead of watching the parade, I would have learned a great secret. In recent years, I’ve been whacking it with the really sharp meat cleaver, like splitting firewood, making loud karate sounds with each strike.
We eat my family’s traditional meal rather than the husband’s because after marrying we always had Thanksgiving with my grandmother and mother, along with my siblings. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was the only holiday Grandma and Mom observed, and they thoroughly enjoyed it.
So my kids grew up with the same meal as me. One year I decided to make a completely different Thanksgiving, one I found in a Better Homes & Gardens magazine, with cornbread stuffing and asparagus and peas or something. Everyone hated it and told me to never ever change the menu again.
The only adjustment I’ve made is the stuffing, which I learned to make from the husband’s grandmother. She taught me to simmer the giblets with the onion and celery for an hour, then take out the giblets and add butter, letting it liquify with the broth. When the giblets cool, dice them tiny and add them back in. Then mix all that with the stuffing mix (I use Pepperidge Farm herb-seasoned crumbs) and stuff the bird. Mmmm.
Living so far away in Virginia, after Grandma’s house was sold I got only a few items. But what I do have is from Thanksgiving. I’ve got the lead crystal dish in which she served the raw vegetables, the crystal wine glasses and the lace tablecloth.
With the kids grown up now, and family scattered all over the world, the faces at the Thanksgiving table change from year to year, but the meal never does. And somehow, in a world that’s vastly different than the one I grew up in, that is comforting.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
After my seemingly impetuous yet long-postponed decision to go gung-ho on redoing my living room by Thanksgiving, the interruptions lined up, one by one.
This living room job is no small task. It’s more than a paint job yet falls short of what it really needs. Still, I am tired of neglecting it. Beside the kitchen, this is the only downstairs room I have not made mine. It’s still painted and carpeted in the pastel colors chosen by the former owner (call me vain, but I look terrible in pastels). Not only that, but as the main gathering room for many years, it’s gotten shabby. And I don’t mean shabby chic. (Psst: I dislike the room so much that, except for a weekly vacuum, I no longer clean it. Yuck!)
About five years ago I redecorated the room next to it, now known as the parlor. It is our sitting room, but I have to shoo people from the yucky room into it.
So this 19-day project includes washing the whole room; texturizing and painting the ceiling; scraping, sanding, priming and painting the woodwork (it’s wainscoted and has a built-in bookcase); painting the walls; ripping up the carpet and two layers of subflooring; then sanding and poly-varnishing the oak floor.
I began Friday with shopping for supplies and emptying the room. That meant, of course, crowding the other downstairs rooms with its chairs, tables and books. Then on Saturday, some friends came over. Not just any friends, but good old friends of whom I see too little. I used to babysit the daughter, who’s now married. As we stood outside talking (it was a beautiful day, so no sense in inviting them in), I thought about my plans for the day.
In my younger days, I rarely finished a project, flitting from one interest to the next. Then I changed. I became goal-driven. I make lists. I check off my list.
Aware of the ceiling job that awaited me, I realized what I wanted more was to be outdoors with Becca on this warm November day. I relaxed. It was okay. It really was okay. The ceiling got done later.
After church on Sunday, my friend Hannah came over. She worked at the newspaper with me for a while. I hadn’t seen her in months. It was another warm, clear day. We ate lunch on the deck and took a walk in the woods. Again, I found myself being in the moment, just being with Hannah and not mentally somewhere else.
Then on Tuesday, when the scraping and sanding was to commence, I really wanted to see Maxine. She’s my almost-90 friend who lives 10 miles away. I hadn’t seen her in months, either. I could not ignore the urgency to visit her.
This is not me, folks. When I have a task to finish, I really cannot be bothered with human beings. Jesus bothered with human beings, even though he had a mission. No, wait … human beings were his mission. He was all about interruptions.
One time, while he was teaching some disciples, a Roman ruler interrupted him. The ruler’s daughter had died. He wanted Jesus to bring her back to life. So Jesus goes to follow the ruler home, and he gets interrupted again. This time it’s a woman who’s been hemorrhaging for 12 years. He heals her, then goes to the ruler’s house and raises the daughter from death.
Another time, he declined to go with his disciples to get food because he was exhausted and wanted to rest. So he’s sitting by a well in the afternoon sun, dozing off, when a woman comes for water. By the end of their conversation, this (“fallen”) woman, who has lived with five or six guys, is free of the shame she’s borne for so long. Woohoo!
The book of Acts is basically stories of healing and grace. Most of it was not planned. It’s like everything that happens during any given day is another opportunity for God’s grace and love to work. I do not say, as some do, that everything that happens is supposed to happen. It just does.
Interruptions, you see, come with faces and names. This week, it was Becca, Hannah and Maxine.
If my Thanksgiving table, laden with its feast, surrounded by those I love, ends up sitting on an old floor, caked with layers of ancient brown varnish, what of it? Really, what of it?
Saturday, November 07, 2009
We arrived at 6 p.m. to a spectacle of characters making their way toward the red-carpeted entrance of Bellport Country Club. It was a balmy evening here on the south shore of Long Island and these arrivals were too good to miss. Everyone was already snapping pictures.
There was Wonder Woman and Batman, Captain Jack Sparrow, Uncle Fester (with light bulb) and Wednesday. There was my sister as Mary Poppins, her daughter as Minnie Mouse and my youngest sister, her husband and daughter as the Frankenstein family. I went as Mother Nature and the husband as a leathered biker.
My brother and his bride met on Halloween four years ago. So it was fitting, when they decided to wed, that they do so on the anniversary of their first encounter. And that their wedding be a masquerade ball.
My brother, Phil, is actually my half-brother and the same age as my son. My dad and stepmom both died by the time he was 13, and it was decided that he go live with our cousins. We don’t see each other much. I guess you could say that, until last year, we were estranged. My sisters and I were so glad to share in his wedding.
Phil was dressed as a prince, and Pam, his bride, as a princess. The wedding party was angels and demons. The priest who officiated drew the line at the demons: No horns or tails during the ceremony. When the bride appeared, the priest strutted half-way down the aisle and ordered, “Everyone stand up!” (He had been in the military, hence the drill sergeant tone.) Pam walked (with her father, dressed as General Robert E. Lee) down the aisle to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.”
The priest was an irreverent reverend. He made the joyous occasion fun, but also became serious at the sacred moments. There was no tension about doing everything right, as there tends to be at such times. We laughed and cried.
Then we moved to a reception room, where the floor-to-ceiling windows opened to a balcony overlooking the golf course. We sipped cocktails and nibbled hors d’oeuvres while the wedding party did their photographs. We strolled about, eating stuffed clams on the half-shell, crispy breaded ravioli and miniature bruschettas. At the open bar, I ordered a Cosmo—it wasn’t strong—and (something I learned the hard way) stuck with that all night.
My favorite part was meeting up with relatives I thought I’d never see again. There was Uncle Russell, who, I discovered, is actually my first-cousin-once-removed. (His wife, Linda, explained the whole “removed” thing to me.) They were dressed as prisoners in striped garb. There was Aunt Joanie, another first-cousin-once-removed, in her 70s. She wore a hospital gown, open in the back, with a big plastic butt sticking out.
Then there were the McKaharays, from my stepmother’s side of the family and always dear to us Browns. Sean, his wife, Michelle, and his mom, Nancy, were up from Atlanta. Michaela had come from the West Virginia panhandle. Melissa and her husband, Russell, lived the next town over.
After about 90 minutes, we moved into the banquet room, greeted by a huge ice sculpture of a jack-o-lantern. The band was all set up. The wait staff was still loading the food bars with the delicacies that awaited.
I’ve been telling the husband for years that the only reason he likes the Chinese restaurants here in the Valley is because he forgets what good Chinese food tastes like. The food at the Chinese bar proved my point. All the food proved my point. Sesame chicken spiced so right and, oh, filet mignon that melted in your mouth. An antipasto bar with prosciutto, pepperoncini, salami, all kinds of cheeses, olives, crudités, breads. A sushi bar. An Italian bar. A salad bar. A carvery featuring beef, lamb, pork and other meats.
What I ate burned off while dancing. The band, the Green Machine, was mostly loud and fast. Everyone danced for hours, even Russell and Joanie, with her butt sticking out. The music stopped just before midnight. As we gathered our things and moved toward the door, there was an announcement about a bar opening upstairs for those who wished to party on.
I kissed my brother and his bride goodbye, with much talk of seeing each other again soon. Part of the reason we were estranged is because Phil is notorious for not returning phone calls or e-mails.
Ah, but now we’ve got Pam.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Somehow my daughter manages to enjoy her career, raise two sons, cook delicious meals from French and Greek cookbooks, decorate her house, run numerous miles per week, spend time with her husband, be a caring friend to others. She has gone beyond what I ever imagined for her. A woman I admire.
Since the Daily News-Record began publishing Bloom magazine, I’ve had the honor of writing profiles about numerous local women. It is such a privilege to visit these women in their workplaces and homes, to learn about where they come from, the obstacles they’ve overcome, the challenges they still face, what makes them tick. Then there are the women in my life whose lives inspire me.
On my birthday, Heidi drove me, my sister and my niece to tour vineyards in Albemarle County. It was a warm, sunny day. It could not have been more perfect.
My sister, Lindsey, is visiting from Ireland. She moved there nearly 30 years ago to marry the man she still loves. All her adult life, she’s been helping people through her career in community work: empowering women, advocating for the weak, making her city and county a better place for everyone—rich and poor—to live. She has a compassionate heart, keeps a lovely home and is a great mother to her children. When I visit, she is a tireless hostess who cooks great meals and shows me the best that Ireland has to offer.
Lindsey’s daughter, Kendall, is one of those recent college graduates for whom there is no job. Unemployment is bad here; in Ireland it’s even worse. In spite of this, Kendall makes do with a very part-time job, does volunteer work, and has been nurturing her homemaking skills. She remains cheerful and optimistic about her future.
Then there’s my sister, Patti. I love her career journey. She is so not stuck in a rut, but has adapted to moves and changes in her life. Each job seems to bring her closer to what she’s really all about. In spite of working full-time, she, too, keeps a lovely home, spends time with her teenage daughter, and takes care of herself. She’s overcome obstacles that have stymied other women. Her daughter, Emily, is a talented girl. She enjoys soccer, plays the piano and loves to read. A girl after my own heart.
When it comes to thoughtfulness, my sister-in-law, Stephanie, wins hands-down. She’s one of those people who knows intuitively what to do for her family and friends in times of need. A treasure.
And then there’s Rachel. She’s the daughter who left for school and did not come back to live. She’s the world traveling musician, living the life she dreamed of as a child. She also uses her voice to speak for the homeless in the city where she lives. Rachel feels life deeply and shares that in her music and friendships.
My daughter-in-law, Heather, a strong young woman, uses her strength to serve others: the mentally ill, my son, her daughters, family and friends. A caring mother and talented cook, Heather has been a gift to our family.
Oh my, then there are the Bloom women: the Heatwole sisters, who gather for an annual quilting retreat, producing beautiful heirloom works of art. Judith Trumbo, who is managing the move of 2,300 employees to the new Rockingham Memorial Hospital, yet who is always serene and smiling. Jennifer Shirkey, who is managing three young children while sustaining a highly successful career in business law. Betsy Neff Hay, who is spending herself on making the world a better place for the vulnerable ones among us.
There are so many others: Peggy, Hannah, Ginna, Katheryn, Nicole, Paula, Barbara. On and on. It’s dangerous to compare myself to any of these women. When I do that, I feel pretty crummy about my lack of admirable attributes. It paralyzes me.
Ah, but when I am inspired by them to reach out, try something new, help someone, read a different book, use a new spice, study a subject, hop on my bicycle—anything that causes me to grow—then having them in my life has made me a better person.
And where, oh where, would we be without our girlfriends?
Saturday, October 24, 2009
One of the exercises I assigned my kids long ago in home school was to go outside with a notepad and pen, and to write down all that they heard. I did it, too. This is when we lived in a mountain hollow. At first we wrote down the most obvious sounds, the sounds we are always conscious of: the neighbor’s hogs grunting, trucks rumbling by, dogs barking. Then we heard the birds and insects, the breeze rustling the trees. Then we noticed particular birds singing particular songs. We heard the way the wind made the leaves sound in the hickory leaves as opposed to the more crackly oaks and the tall brown grasses of the field.
It helped to close our eyes, to block out the sense of sight, so that we were not looking for sounds, just hearing them. Just listening.
Have you ever sensed a call from somewhere deep inside you to listen? To pull away from daily distractions and listen?
As a child, I lived outdoors. I knew how to listen. I lived on the water, on the Great South Bay, and it had much to say. I lived by a tiny woods – there were such untouched lots in every development – and went there to play, and the trees and earth had much to say. On my way home from school every day, I turned off the sidewalk to take the path down to Corey Creek, where I sat alone, watching and listening to the water.
Out there in creation, somewhere deep inside my child’s heart, I heard beyond what I could see and hear. I never went to church, was not taught about a deity, had no religious instruction, yet I knew about God. My God had no name.
“Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made,” says Romans 1:20.
In my mid-20s, I had a more direct encounter with this God and, in an effort to know more, began attending church. For the most part, this was a good experience. But there were things that bothered me.
One thing that immediately endeared me to Jesus was all the time he spent outdoors. Oh, he went into the synagogues on the Sabbath, but he always had problems there with religious leaders. He spent most of his time preaching, teaching and healing outside, in the marketplace, out in the hills, on the beach. The people who came to see him did not sit in chairs in rows in a big box, but on the ground, leaning against trees, on their mothers’ laps.
When Jesus preached about how God cares for the birds of the air, the people’s ears were filled with birdsong, and birds flitted about overhead and among branches. When he taught the Lord’s prayer, about asking for “our daily bread,” the people could see the golden wheat ripening in the fields. When he healed a blind man, he made clay of the earth to rub in his eyes, and water from the river to wash them.
When Jesus prayed, it was not “heads bowed, eyes closed.” He looked up at the sky, to the heavens, to beyond what could be seen with his eyes.
John Muir, while exploring the western wilderness of America, said that the forests, mountains and wildlife was a better Sunday school for him than any in his strict Presbyterian upbringing, and that all children should learn of God out-of-doors.
“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days … days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening at once a thousand windows to God,” Muir wrote. This kind of outdoor experience can be had only when you’re alone, or with somebody who also wants to listen, to hear. R.S. Thomas’s poem, “The Moor,” says it perfectly:
It was like a church to me.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
The sun is higher in the sky now. The rooster is silent, perhaps taking a nap. An airplane flies overhead. Trucks cruise by. What else do I hear? What else is there to hear?
Monday, October 19, 2009
Turning 20, 30 and 40 changed nothing for me. For women, turning 40 is supposed to launch you into old age. All those magazine articles about keeping your skin young-looking and staying “fit over 40.” Piece of cake. Thanks to both my parents’ genes, my skin was always on the oily side. A hassle to care for, yes, but it stayed smooth and supple. As for staying fit, I was already in a routine. I ran several miles a day and worked out with weights. Believe me, staying fit is much easier than getting fit.
Then, at 50, everything started to fall apart. From my vantage point five years later, it’s clear that turning 50 was a watershed experience. Literally. It’s when everything catches up with you. Not to mention menopause.
If, in your youthful 40s, you could get away with overindulging in a few extra calories now and then, forget about it. Now, you pay for each bite. If you could stay slender and strong by running or walking 30 minutes a day and doing a few reps with light weights, forget about it. Now it takes at least twice the work. If you could forgo the lotions and creams and still have silky smooth skin, forget about it. Now, lathering is always followed by slathering.
Even so, gravity and time have the final say. But there are advantages. There is something liberating about walking down the street and not being gawked at by males of all ages. "After a lifetime of living under the gaze, one day you realize that you are getting older and any beauty that you had or hoped for is fading,” writes Lilian Calles Barger in “Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body.” “Younger men no longer look at you. Older men are too busy gazing at younger women.”
Barger goes on to say that instead of feeling relieved, we feel invisible. We realize how our identity was tied up with “constantly being gazed at.” So now I grapple with that identity. Who am I? Who do I want to be?
I admire women who are comfortable enough with themselves to let their hair go gray. I was going to let it happen when my virgin hair grew in after the chemotherapy (another after-50 event). But when I actually saw it, I couldn’t do it.
My Grandma Still had fluffy white hair at my age. While I can’t imagine her lacing up a pair of hiking boots to hit a Catskills mountain trail with me, she was quite fit. She would get so mad if the bus was late that she just walked the two miles to Patchogue. Back then, women didn’t walk for fitness. But Grandma Still did not drive, so walking was often her only option.
Grandma Brown always looked old to me, too. She was petite, with short, permed hair. At my age, though, she had a convertible and a big boat. She’d pick me up in her car, top down, cruise to the bay, and hop on the boat to go clamming or crabbing.
Still, I can’t imagine my grandmothers rolling down the back hill with me, as I did with my granddaughters last week. I can still do all the things I could in my 20s. However, I pay for it afterwards with aches and pains.
Two years ago when picking a physical education class at Blue Ridge Community College, I signed up for the soccer team. I love soccer. Then I talked to the coach. He said the team mostly consisted of 19-year-old guys. Hmmm, should a 54-year-old woman be playing soccer with teenage boys? An injury would lay me up for months. Then how fit would I be? I switched to yoga.
Of course, aging is largely a state of mind. As Chili Davis said, “Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.” The key is to not be stuck in a rut, in your mind or behavior. You should always be ready for change, and to have fun. One man I know does not accept invitations to do anything on Saturday morning because that’s the day he takes his garbage to the dumpster.
Now that is old.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
It’s been quite a summer at the Austin homestead. Neither the husband nor I were raised on a farm, but we do what we can, albeit with a mix of traditional wisdom and our own ideas about how to do things. You’ll hear no stories from me about putting up 200 jars of green beans. I don’t spend whole mornings weeding or afternoons snapping beans. On the farm, I do no more work than I have to.
That’s not to say I’m a slouch. My city friend who stayed for a few weeks in August was impressed with my energy. Every morning after my three-mile walk, I picked enough weeds in the garden to fill a wheelbarrow to feed to the chickens. Yup, chickens love greens. Doesn’t matter if it’s Romaine lettuce or dandelion greens.
Remember the chickens? In early summer we ordered 125 peeps: 100 buff orpingtons for meat and 25 leghorns for laying. When the post office called, we drove to Staunton to pick up our chirping cartons. Their warming box was all set for them.
Peeps are so cute, but they don’t stay peeps for long. In a few days their legs were longer. The soft baby down was replaced by adult feathers. When they were big enough, we moved them out to the henhouse.
The husband built an impregnable henhouse from materials we had laying around. He built it Salatin-style, as everyone does these days, to be moveable. He made ours on skids. When he pulls the building with his tractor, it glides right over the pasture. Thus do the birds fertilize our field.
After the husband built another coop for the roosters, we moved the 100 buff orpingtons out of the henhouse. Now all we need do is wait for the hens to start laying eggs and the roosters to get large enough to butcher.
Then came the day when we heard crowing. Our young men had reached adolescence. We were happy about that until we realized the crowing was coming from the henhouse.
What? I thought it was a fluke, that a few leghorn roosters had mixed in with the hen peeps. The husband was convinced that the hatchery had mixed up our order. I shot some digital photos of both kinds of chickens so the husband could e-mail them to the company. Sure enough, they’d reversed our order.
So. Now we have 25 leghorn roosters, bred for leanness and laying, and 100 buff orpingtons, bred to be huge and meaty. The hatchery kindly refunded our money, but still. Not according to the plan, but we can make it work.
Regardless, our summer days fell into an easy rhythm. After feeding weeds to the chickens, I picked vegetables: green beans, zucchini squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers. I ate Greek salad nearly every day this summer. Even now, I’m using Roma tomatoes to make it: English cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh basil, feta cheese, kalamata olives, olive oil and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. Sometimes a bit of red onion and green pepper. My ideal meal this summer was Greek salad, bass or catfish caught in our pond and fresh-baked bread.
Instead of canning tomatoes, I dried them. As I told the husband, canned tomatoes are cheap, but sun-dried tomatoes are expensive and delicious. I hope to marinate them for use in salads instead of the cardboard tomatoes sold in winter.
I have perfected making yogurt. Using raw milk, I incubate it with the culture in my oven with the light on. In just a few hours I have a bowl of yogurt. Then, to make Greek yogurt, I line a bowl with cheesecloth and pour in a quart of yogurt. Gather the ends, tie with a rubber band, and hang from a cabinet handle over a bowl to catch the whey. It gets as thick as sour cream and is delicious with our homemade maple syrup.
As for ever being self-sufficient, I don’t see that happening. It’s too much work. But there is something to be said about setting the table with vegetables you’ve grown, fish you’ve caught, bread you’ve made with locally-grown wheat and wine you’ve fermented with your backyard berries.
Friday, October 02, 2009
“Hmm, I wonder who’s playing this year?” I says to myself.
There is no reason why I should recognize any bands playing at SpaghettiFest, an annual indie rock festival at Natural Chimneys, because I always check and I never have. But I do like Steel Wheels, Wagler’s band. I log on to the SpaghettiFest website anyway, just to check it out. The festival’s home page lists all the bands scheduled to appear. No familiar names. Oh, but what’s this?
Undercover? No. It can’t be THE Undercover.
Undercover has been my favorite rock band since the 1980s. I was not (am not) interested in the mass-produced pedestrian music coming from the contemporary Christian music bunch. I call it “changed and rearranged” music. Then I heard Undercover. The music was punk, rebellious and worshipful. They did a version of “Holy, Holy, Holy” that was loud and fast. “God Rules” was a shouted hard rock testimony to God’s presence in our lives. “Boys and Girls Renounce the World” was a challenge to do just that.
Undercover was original. You couldn’t say they “sound like” any other band.
Then came “Branded.” Undercover was already real, but their new album, “Branded,” was outright raw. No holds barred, nothing covered up, no making nice.
At the time, I was struggling with some hard stuff. And I was utterly alone. Why? Because when I tried to talk with my friends about it, they acted like I had cooties. Christian women don’t talk about those things. We don’t even think about such things. Christian women are nice. We’re nice. Leave us alone. We’re nice.
Lyrics like this spoke to me:
It’s hard to fall asleep
When I hate the life I lead
And it’s hard to face the day
Cuz the night’s not far away
Cry, cry myself to sleep
It’s easier telling lies
When I’m dying inside
Than to open up my heart
And have it torn apart
Cry, cry myself to sleep
God in heaven above
Has compassion and love
His hands wet with my tears
He’s been drying them for years
Cry, cry myself to sleep.
I listened to “Branded”—all the songs spoke to me—over and over. My brothers in Undercover were the only people in the world who understood what I was going through. And the music was primo.
I never got to see Undercover in concert because they were a West Coast band and they just didn’t come this way. Then they nearly stopped performing. A gig in 2000, another in 2005. After the 1994 album, “Forum,” there was a live one in 2000, then “I Rose Falling” in 2002. That was it.
So on the SpaghettiFest site, I click on Undercover, and it takes me to Ojo Taylor’s MySpace! Ojo is the founder/main songwriter/keyboard guy. And there in his blog is a note about “Steve Reich at JMU.”
JMU? Why should Ojo care about anything at JMU? Then I read that he’s teaching in the music department at JMU.
What? What? How could this happen and me not know about it?
I scream. I jump up and go tearing out to the chicken coop where the husband is working. I am so excited, shaking even, that I can barely get out the words.
Of course, I immediately buy tickets to SpaghettiFest, held at Natural Chimneys in Mount Solon.
On Saturday afternoon, when then come onstage, I’m surprised to see it’s really them: Ojo Taylor, Sim Wilson, Gym Nicholson and Gary Olson. They put on an awesome rock and roll show. They play many of my favorite songs—“Mea Culpa,” “Come Away With Me,” “World Come Crashing Down”—but then, they’re all my favorites. The husband and I dance hilariously in the rain. A fitting metaphor.
The. Best. Concert. Ever. And I have seen the best.
I’m wearing my Undercover t-shirt, with the big “U” on front. The band is surprised to see a fan in the audience. Sim’s wife sidles up next to me and says they want to meet me, too.
Tell me how to keep the flame when seasons pass the time away… Remember me.
Wow. God brought my favorite band in the world to Mount Solon, in Augusta County where I live, just a few minutes from my house. Does he love me dangerously or what?
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Ah, our prejudices are once again at play in the public square.
Our biases got even more blatant in the aftermath of his speech at JMU Convocation Center on Monday. Me? I like Jimmy Carter. Always did. So when I heard what he told Brian Williams in an NBC interview last week—that Joe Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s speech was “based on racism”—I had plenty of excuses for Brother Jimmy.
“I am, in plainer words, a bundle of prejudices—made up of likings and dislikings,” wrote the 19th century essayist, Charles Lamb.
Some people chalked it off as a sign of Carter’s age. He’s 84 and his mental powers are diminishing. But what I’ve heard and read by him in recent years tell me this is not so. My first excuse was Carter’s Georgia roots. Let’s face it, even if his family was not prejudiced against blacks, most of the people around him growing up would have been. Throughout his youth, he would have seen blacks working in subservient jobs. When I first moved to Virginia and heard slimy cracks against blacks, I was struck by the depth of feeling. So perhaps, I reasoned, Carter was speaking from his own latent racism.
It could also have been a knee-jerk reaction. In her most recent Salon column, Camille Paglia criticizes her own party (not blinded like so many by her party affiliation) for its members’ docility, due to “ideological brainwashing” in college. “The top schools, from the Ivy League on down, promote ‘critical thinking,’ which sounds good but is in fact just a style of rote regurgitation of hackneyed approved terms (‘racism, sexism, homophobia’) when confronted with any social issue,” Paglia writes. “The Democratic brain has been marinating so long in those clichés that it’s positively pickled.”
So I excused Carter because he’s just been a Democrat for too long.
This remark on NBC, in light of Carter’s lifetime of authentic service to the public, was not enough to turn me against him. I prejudged Carter as a good and honest man.
Carter’s speech on Monday was titled, “We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land.” He reviewed his efforts as President on behalf of Israel: He put pressure on the then-Soviet Union to let Jews leave Russia, many of whom emigrated to Israel. He supported a law that prohibited U.S. corporations to boycott Israel. On Israel’s 30th birthday, he announced a commission to establish a memorial to Holocaust victims. In 1978, he negotiated peace accords at Camp David between Israel and Egypt and, six months later, a peace treaty between them.
“I left office believing that Israel would soon realize its dream of peace with its other neighbors,” Carter told the Convo crowd, “a small nation that exemplified the finest ideals based on Hebrew scriptures I have taught since I was 18 years old.”
Then he went on to describe the current plight of Israel in relation to the Palestinians who live within its borders. He placed the blame for the current situation squarely where it belongs, on those who are shooting the missiles and mortar shells, on Israelis first and on Palestinians.
What I heard is that he is pro-Israel, but that does not blind him to the crimes Israel is committing against its neighbors. I was shocked, the next day, to find that others thought Carter’s review of his past efforts toward Israel was just a ploy to pretend he is not biased against them, and that his motive was to totally fault Israel, which she described as “dangerous.”
Zonk! See what I mean? You hear what you want to hear. I hear what I want to hear. “A biased opinion is one you don’t agree with,” said the newsman David Brinkley on CNN in 1995.
The reason for Carter’s visit to Harrisonburg exemplifies all the reasons I’ve admired him all these years. He and Rosalynn were presented with the Mahatma Ghandi Global Nonviolence Award. The award is given by the Ghandi Center to recognize peacemakers who support nonviolence, love their enemies, seek justice and share their worldly goods with those in need.
Say what you will about Jimmy Carter, he certainly has demonstrated those beliefs in his life, words and actions.
But then, maybe that’s just my bias.