Monday, December 20, 2010

When Do You Put Up Your Christmas Tree?

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree!
How lovely are your branches!

When do you put up your Christmas tree?

In an online survey of this question, 47 percent—almost half—of the 755 respondents put up their tree between Dec. 1 and 15, 33 percent—one-third—put up their tree the day after Thanksgiving. So that takes care of most of you.

The next group—13 percent—puts up their tree between Dec. 16 and 23. Five percent put up their tree on the first Sunday in Advent and two percent put it up on Christmas Eve.

Many people surveyed who put up their tree at or right after Thanksgiving say they want the “Christmas feeling.” One woman wrote, “life is too short to miss out on the good stuff,” that you should put it up if you want to. Another said, “follow your heart.” This seems to conform to the contemporary attitude of doing whatever feels good.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
“Traditionally, Christmas trees were not brought in and decorated until Christmas Eve (24 December) or, in the traditions celebrating Christmas Eve rather than first of day of Christmas, the 23 December, and then removed the day after Twelfth Night (6January); to have a tree up before or after these dates was even considered bad luck.”

Putting up a tree “early” seems to be a more recent trend. Perhaps it follows on the tail of commercialism. Did you know that Christmas was officially commercialized by an act of Congress? No kidding. Listen to this.

“So vital did Thanksgiving prove in inaugurating the Christmas season that commercial interest conspired in resetting its date,” writes Penne L. Restad in the book, “Christmas in America.” During the Great Depression, retail profits declined, and the Christmas season of 1939 was expected to be especially dismal for business because Thanksgiving fell on the last day of November.

Fred Lazarus, Jr., president of Ohio’s Federated Department Stores, “noted that by advancing the date of Thanksgiving one week, six additional days for Christmas shopping could be added to sales calendars,” Restad writes. “Persuaded by his logic, President Franklin Roosevelt moved the feast from the 30th to the 23th of November, and in 1941, Congress set the annual date of Thanksgiving at the fourth (rather than the last) Thursday in November.”

This guaranteed a four-week shopping season each year. Of course, that doesn’t stop corporations from putting up Christmas trees and playing Christmas music (spend, you consumer, spend!) in September.

I love Christmas. It’s my very favorite holiday. Especially Christmas Eve. One of the things I love about Christmas is the time leading up to it, Advent. The expectant, excited waiting. Awaiting the coming of Christ.

When I was a kid, we put up the tree on Christmas Eve. Sometimes the night before, but usually on Christmas Eve. Dad would go to a lot and bring home a tree. There were always plenty to choose from, because it seems that most people in those days (or in that part of the country?) put up their tree close to Christmas.

A woman who grew up in upstate New York told me that when she went to bed as a child on Christmas Eve, the house had no signs of Christmas. Her parents decorated the house, hung stockings, put up the tree and put the presents beneath it while she and her siblings slept. Can you imagine the glory of Christmas morning?

I decorate the house the first or second week of December. I hang old and new Christmas cards, string up lights, drape greenery about, place the Nativity on the mantle. This all sets the mood of Christmas and anticipation of the tree.

The only disadvantage to putting up the tree so close to Christmas is they’ve been pretty well picked over by the time we buy ours. That is, since Mr. Mitts died. He was a nearby neighbor who sold Christmas trees for, like, $5 to $7. Lovely trees.

Sometimes we cut a cedar from our own property. Not the greatest of trees, but the right color, shape and smell, and the price is right.

Oh, Christmas tree. It seems the English translations of “Oh, Tannenbaum” vary. I like this ending:
Each year you bring to me delight, meaning in the Christmas night
Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, of all the trees most lovely.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Death Takes No Holidays

In a heartbreaking scene in the movie, “The Two Towers,” King Théoden mourns the death of his only son with weeping that comes from depths of his soul. “No parent should ever have to bury their child,” he says.

A few days before Thanksgiving, two sets of parents we know lost a child. All through Thanksgiving week, in the midst of the cooking and family happiness, my heart kept returning to these mothers’ and fathers’ loss. Why can’t death and calamity take a break in November and December?

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.
(Matthew 2:18)

For this is part of Christmas. The evil King Herod, you may remember, when the three wise men came looking for the baby Jesus, told them to let him know when they’d found the baby. Of course, they knew the king was evil, so after they’d found Jesus, they took a different route home. When Herod found out, he was infuriated, and ordered all the male children in the Bethlehem area under the age of two to be killed.

In the 12 days of Christmas, day four, Dec. 28, is Holy Innocents Day, when we remember the Massacre of the Innocents.

In America, we say that a person is “doing well” if they are holding it together during the funeral and that they are “not doing well” if they cry. That’s pretty sick. With the death of a loved one should come “wailing and loud lamentation.” Yet that does not usually happen until after the funeral. At the time of death there is shock. Then we must make the arrangements. Family and friends gather around us. We receive their offered comfort.

Then, after the burial, after the covered dishes have stopped, after everyone has gone home, then we are alone with our grief.

“Grief is the experience of finding yourself standing alone in the vacant space with all this torn emotional tissue protruding,” writes John O’Donohue in “Eternal Echoes.” “In the rhythm of grieving, you learn to gather your given heart back to yourself.”

This takes time. And even though the loss is shared with others, it is lonely. Nobody else had exactly what you had with this loved one, so nobody else has lost what you have lost.

The grieving loosens its grip when we realize that this person is with us in a different but very real way. The connection between us can never be severed. Although they are absent, we sense their presence. As O’Donohue says, “You become aware of the subtle companionship of the departed one.”

And we know, too, that while someone is absent here, they are present somewhere else. For the Christian, there is the hope/faith that we will again, at our own death, be with them physically. This is a great comfort, but it does not stop us from grieving.

My youngest daughter has lived overseas for 10 years. Before she left, and for several years after, I grieved with the weeping and travail of deep loss. When I visited her or she came here, at our parting I grieved all over again. Yes, I knew I would see her again, but that did not—does not—stop me from missing her.

Too often our culture and community can make us feel that mourning—with its lonely withdrawal—shows a lack of faith. We are expected to snap out of it, to jump right back into living. Yet we need to feel our loss in order to get through the grieving process. A good companion understands this, and makes his or her presence available.

Rachel … refused to be consoled… because she needed time and space to grieve. Even at Christmas.

Monday, November 22, 2010

An Ode to the Holiday Season

Deep breath
The holiday season
How did it get here so fast it was just
Christmas and snow all that snow
First Thanksgiving
Gottagetta turkey a big one
The family yes the family how I
love gathering around the table the
happiness at being together the
holding hands the
thankful here we are
Try not to eat too much
Try not to think about
I miss my mom I still miss my mom
Grandma’s dining room table the crystal
wine glasses and stuffed celery
The youngster’s table a wobbly card table
Will we ever all be together again or is this
But the living yes the living gather breathe
Then Advent
shopping decorating baking
meditating caroling birthday attending
praying airport contemplation
cleaning remembering missing wrapping
It’sAWonderfulLife WhiteChristmas
String the lights across the front porch
Hang the angels
Oh come oh come
Don’t eat too much
Emmanuel and rescue
I miss my stepmom Rosanne oh I miss her
The castle how cold the stone walls
but the cheer of the fire
the wild cheer in our hearts
Scout for greens, pinecones, prettyweeds
to make a wreath to try again
God can you make all things right again
Can you please make all things
right and bright
In the stores and online finding the perfect
the perfect to see the smile to make them
happy always
Then Christmas Eve
the hushed holy
Mulled cider, candlelight, worship, guests,
Assemble tricycles castles racetracks
I miss Grandpa how long will I miss him
the fireplace the
quiet talk the
the best when the hay fell off the truck
the good friends over the years
Remembering when I believed
Then Christmas Day
the gifts the prayer,
the children yes mostly the children
This year they are 3, 4, 5 and 17
A young girl in 1575 England the castle
Happy happy
Wrapping paper strewn ribbons shiny
children excited shouting jumping about
Adults in chairs drinking coffee watching
Remembering the excitement
my dad I miss my dad this morning
Dinner play games read stories
Sing carols and happy birthday to Jesus
Then New Year’s
A loud party? Quiet dinner? Babysit?
watching Times Square with my parents
drunken parties and kissing everyone
watching Times Square with my children
in bed by 11
dinners with friends
2011 really?
Where’s our rocket packs?
When will humans finally self-destruct?
Where’s my robot maid?
God what will this year bring?
Will I ever?
I miss you
Then January
cold dark sleep read quiet
Deep breath.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cleaning Lady's Worth Is Beyond Measure

We’ve had company for dinner three times in the past two weeks.


So … before this we went for months with no guests (not including my kids, grandkids or Harold). Do you want to know why?

My house is clean!

Several weeks ago I decided to hire a young woman to clean my house once a week.

I’ve thought about this for a long time. It’s like I had to justify it in my mind. So many women I know work full-time and keep such lovely homes. If they can do it, I can certainly do it.

But it’s like Joan Rivers said: “I hate housework. You make the beds, you wash the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again.”

Most weeks, I’ve designated a half-day to clean the house. Sometimes it ends up being Sunday afternoons. That feels awful, because I have this innate sort of belief that Sunday is for doing whatever I like, whether it be reading, writing, hiking, visiting or whatever.

Then I discovered that some women have cleaning ladies.

My stepmom, Rosanne, was a full-time schoolteacher. She was a superwoman. She loved to cook and was always trying new recipes. She kept up with her friends and family members. And somehow her house was always clean. I always wondered how she managed everything, and then discovered she had a cleaning lady come in once a week.

A teacher friend grew accustomed to having a housekeeper when she lived overseas, in a country where it was taken for granted. She has a woman come in every weekday morning to clean up. Another friend has a cleaning person in monthly. Whatever it takes.

In many of the British novels I read, the family has a housekeeper, and no matter how poor the family is, they still pay this person to clean or cook or both.

Right now I’m reading a biography of Isak Dinesen, the Danish storyteller (“Out of Africa,” “Babette’s Feast”). In her old age she worried about money to pay the taxes on her home. Despite this concern, she did not scale back on her household staff, which included a cook, housekeeper and gardener, plus her personal secretary.

Dinesen loved to hold dinner parties.

I used to be a cleaning lady myself. When I lived in New York, I cleaned for several families. More recently, I worked as a housekeeper cleaning condos and hotel rooms at Massanutten Resort. It’s work that keeps you moving, burns calories, helps pay the bills and blesses others.

When I walked my potential cleaning lady through the house, we talked specifically about her tasks. At one point, she said, “It may take a few weeks to get it clean. I noticed it’s a little … dusty.”

Such a tactful young woman. My weekly buzz through the house included picking up and vacuuming, cleaning kitchen counters and appliances, and mopping the kitchen floor, plus laundry. Many weeks, that’s about all I had time and energy for.

That meant dust, crumbs and dog-and-cat hair accumulated on books, shelves, lamps and knick knacks, under and behind furniture. In my “picking up,” I focused on the big stuff in main rooms, while piles of paper and books accumulated elsewhere.

I did not realize how this was cramping our social life. We always talked about inviting people over, but stopped short of actually picking up the phone to do it.

It’s not that I feel the house must be immaculate. I think people feel more comfortable in a lived-in home. But somehow having a clean house has freed me to invite people. The first weekend after the cleaning lady started, I called some friends I’d been wanting to spend time with.

That was Friday. Then on Sunday the husband spontaneously asked a family at church to come for dinner. Then on Tuesday he had a friend over for dinner.

No, I don’t have a lot of money to throw around. The woman’s rates are good, though, and she uses eco-friendly cleaning products. She lives nearby. She can sure use the money.

The way I figure it, it’s a way of sharing what I have.

And as we sat on Sunday evening with our friends at the candlelit table, finished with the meal, lingering over a bottle of wine and good talk, I knew it was the right thing to do.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Looking Beyond the Fear of Death

One Halloween years ago, our next-door neighbor’s little girl went to a party held in the woods. The ghosts and goblins scared her, as well as the “dead bodies” hanging from the trees. She was so afraid afterward that she could not be in the dark by herself. For as long as we lived next door to her, her bedroom light stayed on all night.

The “fun” spooky Halloween fear touched something deep in this child.

“All of us are born with a set of instinctive fears—of falling, of the dark, of lobsters, of falling on lobsters in the dark, or speaking before a Rotary Club, and of the words ‘Some Assembly Required,’” writes Dave Barry.

Instinctive fear. When I was a child of seven or eight, as I fell asleep sometimes I would feel my own death. I was afraid, and would run to my mother’s room and climb into her bed and her arms for comfort.

It says in the Bible that the fear of death holds us in lifelong bondage. “Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives are held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

We have no idea how deeply our lives are dictated by fear. It manifests in so many ways. For instance, many people use control to order and structure their lives. They try to control the people and circumstances around them. This control can become quite a strong power that comes back to curse them, because they are trapped within its walls of seeming protection.

John O’Donohue tells the story of a man condemned to spend the night in a cell with a poisonous snake. If the man made the slightest movement, the snake would kill him. So all night he cowered, petrified, in a corner of the cell, afraid to even breathe. In the first morning light, he could see the snake in another corner, coiled and sleeping. Then, as it became lighter, he saw that it was nothing but an old rope.

So what is it exactly that we are afraid of? Perhaps it would help to take a closer look, because fear operates under a shroud of mystery. When we shine the light upon it, we may see it’s not what we’d imagined.

I never really understood Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statement about fear, you know, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I get what he meant, but it seems that fear itself opens the door to more fear.

If the fear of death is the root of all fear, the first thing we must realize is that we cannot control it. We don’t know when or how or where we’re going to die, or who will be there. You often hear about not wanting to die alone. Well, what if you’re out on the road, miles from home, and die in an accident?

I have never had the privilege of accompanying someone into death. My mother, father, grandparents … all died hundreds of miles away. Yet I have heard that the moment of death is an incredibly peaceful event for many, even for those who feared it.

Just last week, a relative was telling me about the death of her grandmother. The elderly woman had been in poor health in recent years. Although she was a lovely Christian woman, she was afraid of dying. When she took a turn for the worse, she had to go to the hospital. My relative described what she observed in her grandmother, at the moment of her death, as an audible joyous, peaceful relief. Death is a moment of ultimate self-surrender.

Maybe our fear of death is really a fear of self-surrender. Maybe our death is not somewhere in the future. It’s here now.

“Then I saw that the wall had never been there, that the ‘unheard-of’ is here and this, not something and somewhere else …,” writes Dag Hammarskjöld in “Markings.”

I wonder if the moment of death is like the man seeing the rope in the corner of the cell. “This? This is what I was afraid of all my life?”

Just what, exactly, are you afraid of?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Reading: It's More Than It Seems

In my 50-plus years on this earth, I’ve lived in small towns, big cities and foreign countries.

I’ve raced an iceboat down a frozen river, served my country as a spy during the Cold War and run a coffee plantation in Africa. I have also renovated an old stone inn on an island in the English Channel, lived as a nun in a Portuguese monastery and witnessed the suffering of African-American slaves. Once, I drifted in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a teen-aged boy whose only companion is a Bengal tiger who may eat him at any moment.

People read, it is said, for two main reasons: for information or entertainment. But there are other, more compelling reasons for keeping one’s nose buried in a book.
It has to do with the yearning of one’s heart. For knowledge, yes, that’s part of it. But what is the knowledge for?

“When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes,” wrote the 15th century Christian humanist, Erasmus.

My bookcases overflow with books. In some places, they’re two deep. I have books stored in closets, piled in stacks on the floor and stashed in more than a few cardboard boxes. What am I looking for?

In his article, “The Risk Of Reading,” Mark Edmundson contends that the socialization process doesn’t always work. For some people, the values of their culture don’t fit them.

“And it is these people who often become obsessed readers,” writes Edmundson in the Aug. 1, 2004, New York Times Magazine. “They don’t read for information, and they don’t read for beautiful escape. No, they read to remake themselves. They read to be socialized again, not into the ways of their city or village this time but into another world with different values. Such people want to revise, or even to displace, the influence their parents have had on them. They want to adopt values they perceive to be higher or perhaps just better suited to their natures.”

Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver spent most of her childhood out in the woods – sometimes missing school – or in her room, reading poetry and prose.

“I, too, live in this ordinary world,” writes Oliver in “Blue Pastures.” “I was born into it. Indeed, most of my education was made to make me feel comfortable within it. Why that enterprise failed is another story. Such failures happen, and then, like all things, are turned to the world’s benefit, for the world has a need of dreamers as well as shoemakers.”

I am not at home in this culture of highways, subdivisions, shopping plazas, celebrities, divorce, abortion, abuse, consumerism, Hollywood, Nashville; in this culture where egomaniac celebrities are exalted as role models; in a culture where people attain relevance only by appearing on TV and where money is the bottom line for every civic and private decision. Neither was I at home in my parents’ house.

C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

As an introvert, I connect with people through books in a much deeper way than is generally possible in daily life. Some of my friends are Madeleine L’Engle, Isak Dinesen, William Gibson, Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Goudge, Arundhati Roy, Margaret Atwood, Mary Oliver.

I’ve visited L’Engle’s home in Connecticut, hunted with Dinesen in central Africa, cyber-traveled with Gibson, sat with Dillard on the bank of Tinker Creek, traipsed through a magical woods with Goudge, felt the heartbreak of sexual double standards with Roy, seen into the future with Atwood and crawled through marshes with Oliver.
By seeing through their eyes, I’ve learned something from each of these authors: something about myself, something about other people, something about the world, something about the nature of God.

When I want to see life through God’s eyes, I read the Bible. In those pages, I am with God in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve in their pure joy and with them in their fall. I go with God to Palestine, walk with the Israelites across the Red Sea and trudge with them in the wilderness.

With the Jews in their suffering, I look for the Messiah, the coming of God, who will redeem all things. With the disciples, I find him.
In the pages of the Bible – inspired by the Creator – I find the most accurate mirror of my self.

“You it was who fashioned my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. … You know me through and through … my life was fashioned before it had come into being,” writes David in the Psalms.

In those pages, I find all that I long for, all that I search for in my travels through all the thousands of pages in all those other books.
In those pages, I am home.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Are We Real Anymore?

We have become disembodied spirits.

When we moved to Mount Sidney 17 years ago, our bank had a branch in Weyers Cave, about four miles from my house. The teller I dealt with, a woman I visited once a week, took my deposits, asked how I was, chitchatted a bit about the weather or how busy she was that day.

Back then, my checks included the name and physical address of my bank, “81 Franklin St., Weyers Cave.” Now my checks say “.com.”

Where is that? Similarly, where are you? Who are you?

“The worldwide network presents a state of complete equality, an equality of nobodies,” writes Read Schuchardt, a media ecologist, paraphrasing another media ecologist, Eric McLuhan. “There is no owner, nobody owns the net, nobody is in charge, there’s no head office, and every user can say with all fidelity, ‘I am everyman’ or, ‘I am legion.’ ”

Not long ago, a family member was going through a difficult time. When I ran into a family friend and shared the news with him, he said, “I’m surprised. You’d never know it by their Facebook page.”

Facebook, you see, is not real life. For that matter, none of our life is real on the Internet.

McLuhan (son of, yes, Marshall) uses Thomas Aquinas’ definition of identity: the coming together of matter and spirit. “Without the body, then, identity is not possible,” says McLuhan.

On the Internet — or television or radio, for that matter — humans are discarnate. Images with no body. “Individuality is simply not possible because there is nothing on which to base it, to give it substance,” McLuhan says. The discarnate is a mass audience.

Facebook, blogs, TV shows, are all about image. Images being projected at faster-than-lightning, instantaneous speed.

“At electric speed there is no moving to or fro, the user just manifests here or there, having left the body behind,” writes Schuchardt. “ ‘There’ might be the other side of the room or the other side of town or the other side of the world — it makes no difference, it’s all the same. You function in more than one place at once. On the air, you can have your being in thousands or millions of places simultaneously.”

So we are users without bodies. According to Aquinas’s definition, then, are we dead?

I “have” a friend on Facebook who, in real flesh-and-blood life, died six months ago. Yet he still has a Facebook page. There’s his photo, an image of him. People still post messages to him on his wall. Anyone stumbling on his page would think he’s still alive. It’s like Facebook has given him an electric immortality.

It reminds me of the “construct” in the 1988 book “Neuromancer,” written by William Gibson. The construct is a ROM module containing the saved consciousness of a person, McCoy Pauley. In the story, the main character, Case, needs Pauley’s computer-hacking expertise. So he gets this ROM module and has an eerie “face-to-face” conversation with Pauley, who is able to respond to Case’s questions.

A far cry from a headstone.

None of these Internet interactions makes sense to me unless these disembodied communications manifest in a physical meeting. For instance. A while back on Facebook, the husband and I reconnected with friends we had not seen or heard from in more than 25 years. Then when we went to New York in August, we visited Dennis and Edna. We hugged, talked, listened, ate a meal together.


This is what draws me back, over and over, to the Christian faith. God came to Earth in a physical body as Jesus Christ. He walked everywhere he went, talked with people, touched them, cried with them, touched them, laughed with them, touched them.

“What’s the basis of Christianity? It’s really a meal, it’s communion right?” says Sufjan Stevens in an interview this week with The Quietus. “It’s the Eucharist. That’s it, it’s the sharing a meal with your neighbours and what is that meal? It’s the body and blood of Christ. Basically God offering himself up to you as nutrition. Haha, that’s pretty weird. It’s pretty weird if you think about that, that’s the basis of your faith. You know, God is supplying a kind of refreshment and food for a meal.”

Incarnation. This meal, at which we share wine and bread with others. This meal, at which everybody is somebody.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

How Do We Measure Our Days?

Editor's note: This column was originally published in 2004.

Around and around and around we go. In two months, I will have completed 50 trips around the sun.

That’s how we measure our years, by Earth’s elliptical revolutions around the sun. If only our days and weeks proceeded at such a natural pace.

Living by the clock is unnatural.

Farmers live by the seasons, by phases of the moon, by sunrise and sunset, by humidity and precipitation. When the sun shines in late spring, it’s time to make hay. When it shines in the fall, it’s time to cut corn.

Fishermen live by the tides, wind and sun. Growing up on the Great South Bay in New York, my grandmother and I planned our clamming expeditions for warm mornings when the tide was out. Crabbing we did at night during the full moon at low tide.

How long do farmers take to make hay? As long as it takes to finish baling the field.

How long did we spend clamming? As long as it took to fill a bushel basket.

When I was a kid, summer lasted forever. I awoke when the sun shone in my bedroom window, ate breakfast when I was hungry, played with my friends when I was ready for the world, buried my nose in a book when I wasn’t. No clock told me when to do what, although my mother sometimes did.

The lives of farmers, clammers and kids are in tune with the rest of creation, not in opposition to it. Albert Einstein said, “every frame of reference, every moving body, has its own time.”

Because we live by “get to work at 8, eat lunch at noon, return home at 5, eat dinner by 6 so we can get to whatever class or meeting by 7,” we are always conscious of the clock. Time is the enemy we must beat.

No matter how we try to control time, it eludes us. When we attempt to save time, make time or use time; whether we lose time, pass the time or waste time; are in time, on time, out of time, behind time or ahead of time; have no time or plenty of time ... we still end up with the same amount of time.

That’s what fascinates me about the age we live in. Since the end of the 19th century, man has been inventing everything imaginable to save time: telegraphs, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, assembly lines and computers. Each new computer is milliseconds faster than the one before it.

Speed is our god. But no matter how fast we drive or work or play or compute, we still don’t have surplus time.

“People consume the benefit of speed by spending it on distance,” writes philosopher John Whitelegg.

Time just is. It does not move. We are the ones who are moving, aging, working, racing, resting.

Why not just go with the flow?

In Judaism, holy days are not observed by the clock, but by the seasons of the moon, by sunrise and sunset, by planting and harvest times.

And the Sabbath, which God provided to remind people they are eternal beings outside of time, signals its beginning and end by the setting of the sun. The manner in which Christians observe a Sabbath totally misses God’s point.

“And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,” says Genesis 2:3. Nothing else in all creation does God endow with the quality of holiness. Holy means “other.”

If you think about it, any given moment of our lives is unique, never to be repeated. It’s not like money, where, if we waste a dollar, we know we’ll get another one. Each moment is precious.

Abraham Heschel, the Jewish theologian/philosopher, calls the Sabbath a great cathedral, the holy of holies, the inner sanctuary. “Time is the heart of existence,” he says.

We approach living in rhythm with creation when we’re on vacation. Real vacation, not the kind where you schedule hang gliding on Monday, golf on Tuesday, canoeing on Wednesday, horseback riding on Thursday and shopping on Friday.

Real vacation is where you wake up when you’re done sleeping. You stare at the ocean and listen to the waves wash in and out, or stare at the mountains and listen to the creek trickle over the rocks.

When you get hungry, you buy seafood from the guy on the dock or put on a shirt for a restaurant buffet. You watch the sun set from the beach or the porch. You go to bed when you can’t stay awake any longer.

When you go on vacation, vacate the clock. Leave the planner home. Get out of time. You just might remember that you are a creature of heaven and earth, on a big ride around the sun.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rev Up Your Workout for Weight Loss

Have you tried interval training?

Interval training sounds like something for elite athletes. And it is. But it’s also for us regular folks who just want to exercise for our health.

Like other forms of exercise, interval training helps with strengthening the heart, toning muscles and losing weight. But it does it with shorter workouts and quicker results.

The reason I share this is not because I’m an expert, but because at this stage of my life this is working for me. I’m gaining muscle, getting stronger, dropping stubborn pounds.

I began interval training in mid-July, when I finally got rid of two plantars warts that had been crippling me since March. Even bicycle riding hurt.

Approaches to interval training vary, but basically it goes like this: warm-up, fast walking interspersed with bursts of really fast walking, repeat 10 to 15 times, cool down. One article may say to a 20-minute workout, another may say 30 or more minutes.

I generally do 30 minutes, but the really cool thing is if you’re pressed for time, you can get a good, hard workout in 20 minutes. That’s the minimum.

Another variable is the length of the intervals. For instance, you can do a 15-second burst or a two-minute burst, or any length of time you choose.

My workout goes like this: moderately fast walk (breathing somewhat hard, but can still talk in full sentences) for one minute, then a burst of fast walking for 30 seconds. The fast walking is a full-out effort; I can only manage maybe yes or no responses.

The difference between the 20 and 30 minute workouts is the warm-up and cool-down. On busy days, those times are only two minutes instead of five. I may have 11-12 intervals instead of 13-14. So the core of the workout is still there.

Another benefit of interval training is injury prevention. In the past, I’ve done long workouts, both running and walking, and have suffered repeated cases of plantar fasciitis. Cross-training (read on) also helps prevent overuse injuries.

The beauty of the 20-minute option is on weekday mornings when I’m getting out of the house to work, I can still get in a good, hard workout. Twenty minutes may become the norm during the winter when the sun delays its rising.

The downside is that the interval walks are not meditative. I’m timing my intervals and concentrating on the effort, not mentally twirling with the cedar trees in their dance along the fence lines. I don’t pray or work out problems. However, there are other days for this.

You can get away from clocking intervals by doing fartlek, which is Swedish for “speed play.” This is where you do it by how you feel. You walk or run moderately, then do a burst until you feel winded, then do moderate until you feel rested enough for another burst. Or you can measure it by telephone poles or mailboxes or street corners. I do this sometimes for variety.

So I do the interval workouts on Monday-Wednesday-Friday. On Tuesday I take a six-mile bicycle ride that takes about 30 minutes. On Saturday I take a long bicycle ride. It would be longer by now if the roads where I live weren’t so hilly. The hills make it an interval workout. I’m up to about 13 miles now, with a goal of doing 20 miles or more.

Then on Sunday I take a long walk at a moderately fast pace for more than an hour. I’m pushing this out each week with a goal of doing two hours. Sometimes — ideally — this is a hike in the mountains.

Of course, all these workouts are flexible. If someone wants to hike on Saturday, I’m there.

My weight loss results have been tangible. Usually, by dieting alone, I lose about a pound every two to three weeks. Since interval training, I’ve lost an average of a pound a week.

However — and this is a big qualifier — I’ve also changed my diet radically. In June, I began eating a mostly-vegetarian diet. I eat no meat, chicken and/or fish about five days a week. And the meat I do eat is in much smaller portions than in the past, about the size of a deck of cards.

So is it the interval training or the mostly-vegetarian diet that’s effecting the weight loss? Or is it both? I don’t know, but I’m not willing to stop either to find out.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What's the Right Path?

Church history. There’s church history and then there’s your church history and my church history.

You’d think, with all the churches I’ve been involved with throughout my adult life, that this would have happened by now. But never before have I been involved in a church split.

I began attending this church six years ago. I knew then that this was a crazy time to become involved with a mainline denomination. They’ve all been embroiled in conflict for years over the validity of their biblical roots and the identity of Jesus Christ. So, why would I start going to such a church now?

It was the next step in the circle of my journey. All my favorite writers are of this faith tradition, and the way they write about faith is quite attractive to me. The liturgy, the historical roots, the central place of Communion in worship … it all beckoned to me.

How many churches have I attended over the years? I don’t know. My reasons for leaving are varied. Several times because I simply moved to another state or town. Twice because of dysfunctional leadership. Another time to find a better children’s ministry for our kids. And sometimes, it’s just time to move on.

It’s not that I like moving around, switching allegiances, breaking relationships. As I’ve gotten older, relationships have become the most important reason for remaining in a church. That is the deciding factor for me now. For instance, one church I attended had some disturbing things going on, but I stayed because of friendships and loyalties. Then my friends began leaving. One day I looked around and saw hardly anyone I really knew.

“Why am I here?” I asked myself. “Out of loyalty to this building?”

In some realms of life, I am willing to be classified: I am a writer, mother, wife, sister, runner, student, home-maker, friend, employee. But I have never taken on a religious label. I am not Pentecostal, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Mennonite. Perhaps this is my lack. I do not say this is right for everyone.

I don’t join churches anymore. I have not seen that joining a church makes anyone more loyal to it or causes them to stay any longer. I’m opposed to taking vows I don’t plan to abide by. Plus, I’m just uncomfortable with institutions of any type. Perhaps that’s just because I’ve never found any worth pledging to.

“The greatest evil is found where the greatest good has been corrupted,” wrote Thomas Merton.

T.S. Eliot said it this way:
Sin grows with doing good …
Servant of God has chance of greater sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater
cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right.

The church is the people, not the institution. I was attracted to my church’s traditions, but it was the authenticity of the people and the possibility of real, caring relationships that caused me to stay. I was tired of church politics. This church, I felt, was a place I could learn to trust again, make friends, plug in, serve, find community and contentment. And it was, very much so, until a year ago. I call it the exodus, when half my friends left.

“I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country” (from “Two Cheers for Democracy” by E.M. Forster).

My problem is that I’m not principled enough to take either side. The institutions don’t matter to me and I cannot make decisions for or against groups of friends. I resent being put in this position. I do not resent any single person but this thing, this … what do I call it? What do I call it? Perhaps if I could name it, there would be something to take sides against.

What would you call it? Have you ever been involved in a church split? Do you still think you did the right thing? How did it all turn out?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Riding In A Car With Two Boys

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The young man behind the wheel had put on his left turn signal before pulling into the turning lane. “Um, I’m letting the driver behind me know I’m making a left,” Kevin said.

“That is totally unnecessary,” said his driving instructor. “You don’t have to use that signal until you’re actually making the turn.”

“I don’t mean to contradict you, Sir,” Kevin said, “but isn’t the point of signaling to warn people ahead of time of what you’re about to do? I mean, it’s for my protection, too. They could end up rear-ending me.”

“Well, you know who gets screwed if that happens? They do. The one who does the rear-ending always gets charged. Ha! So, don’t be so frisky with that turn signal of yours.”

Kevin sighed as he stopped for the red light.

“Now put on your signal,” said Mr. Kean, the driving instructor. Kevin complied.

“Um, Sir, don’t you think that once I’m in the turning lane, other drivers will assume it’s because I’m turning?”

“Now, Son, you have no way of knowing what other people assume.”

The light turned green, so Kevin eased into the intersection as he waited for oncoming traffic to pass.

“What do you think you’re doing now?” asked Mr. Kean. “You’re going to get us killed out here!”

“I’m getting ready to make my turn, as soon as this traffic clears,” Kevin replied. “There’s still plenty of room if someone wants to pass through the intersection.”

“Back up!”


“Back up, I said! Get back behind that stop line.”

“But if I do that, the light may turn red again and I’ll never make my turn!”

“Back up.”

Kevin checked the rear-view mirror and put the car in reverse. Sure enough, the light turned red again.

After making his left turn, Kevin proceeded down Turner Avenue. Mr. Kean told him to turn left again. Kevin put on the turning signal as he edged next to the center line, then came to a stop.

“Now, Son, that was the wrong thing to do.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I mean if you want to make a left, you should pull your car all the way to the right.”

“Why? It will block all the traffic behind me,” Kevin said. “Why should they waste their time and gas waiting for me to make a turn?”

“Why? I’ll tell you why! You’ve heard of aggressive driving, right? Well this is passive-aggressive driving. And another thing. When you do pull over to the right to make a left, don’t use your signal, just turn your wheels to the left. The other drivers will be able to tell you’re making a left by the direction of your wheels.”

“That’s not the way my parents drive,” said Kevin, making his left turn.

“Well, Son, that’s why the State deemed parents unfit to teach their children to drive and made it mandatory that you learn to drive from a bona fide, certified, college-educated driving instructor such as myself,” Kean told him. “By the way, you’re driving in the wrong lane.”

“The wrong lane? No, this is the driving lane. That,” said Kevin, pointing to the left lane, “is the passing lane. That’s only for passing.”

“Well, on some roads that’s the case, but there are exceptions and route 33 going east of the city is one of those exceptions.”


“Why? Why? You gotta slow these people down. If you drive at 45 miles-an-hour in the passing lane, that’ll force them to slow down,” Kean said.

“Yeah, but everybody’s stuck. And who made you the traffic regulator?”

“Listen, Son, don’t argue. Just pull over into that so-called passing lane.”
Kevin put on his signal.

“No, no, no! Have you not heard a word I’ve said? Don’t use your signal. Keep ‘em guessing. Just drift on over into the lane.”

Kevin shook his head as he followed instructions. He needed to pass this class so he could get his license, and it wouldn’t do to disobey this guy.

“The thing you’ve got to remember is that when you’re on the road, you have to think of yourself,” said Mr. Kean. “Don’t worry about the people around you … Now, what did you go and do that for?”

“The lady wanted to get into this lane so she could make her turn. All I did was let her in!”

“Don’t you know that’s an attack on your manhood? Never, I said, never let anyone into a lane ahead of you. You think you’re being real nice, don’t you? But do you know what she’s thinking of you now? She’s thinking what a wuss pushover you are. You’ve got to maintain control!”

Kean shook his head. He looked at his watch.

“Your driving lesson is over for today. Let’s go back to the school.”

And thus another Virginia driver is born.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Family Matriarch Hits the Century Mark

Grandma Austin turns 100 this month.

That's old. To me, Grandma has always been old. She was already in her 60s - I was 17 - when I met her 38 years ago.

In this day and age, turning 100 is not unusual. Still. A hundred years is a long time. Life was a lot different back then.

It cost 2 cents to send a letter. The average annual income was $750. The government spent $.8 billion.

The population of the United States was just more than 92 million. The divorce rate was one in a thousand. Only a third of children attended elementary school and only 5 percent graduated from high school.

Children worked in factories, farms, mills and mines.

The 1910s were a time of great transition. The first women's suffrage parade was held in 1910. The first World War began in 1914. Automobiles began mass-production.

Of course, it was the automobile that would eventually lead Grandma's family to go their separate ways. Even as an adult, Grandma's siblings and in-laws all lived within a few miles of each other. Though her children remained on Long Island, most of her grandchildren have scattered, to upstate New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut.

Living here in the Valley for the past 30 years, my daily life is vaguely connected to family. Of course, my kids and grandkids are here, but it's not very often that a birthday or other holiday is celebrated with extended family.

On this trip "back home," the husband and I stayed with my first cousin on my mother's side, who lives in a neighborhood where I lived as a child. Two other cousins on my father's side live in this same neighborhood. So I passed all their homes on my morning walk. And just driving through town, I saw a cousin walking down the street, the deli that was my grandfather's grocery store and the sidewalk where I learned to ride a bicycle.

This happens to y'all Valley natives all the time, but for me it was a reminder of my connection to a people and place.

Along with the automobile came the telephone, which has helped us all to stay in touch, despite the miles.

America was still mostly rural in 1910, so Grandma grew up on a farm. She raised her children on a farm, too. That farmland is now covered with shopping centers, office buildings and houses. Her husband, a carpenter, helped to build the first Levittown.

And so we gathered to celebrate Grandma's 100th birthday. Two of our children and their families, the four grandchildren, made the trek.

The party was held in a huge gazebo on the property of the nursing home where Grandma lives, on the south shore of Long Island. It was a beautiful day, one of the only comfortable days this summer.

While she's not mobile - she's confined to a wheelchair - Grandma is quite lucid. She remembers everything and has an opinion on everything, too. She has a great appetite and enjoys a good meal.

Some of her nursing home friends also came to the party. They all spoke of Grandma as a positive, encouraging presence there. In spite of her age, Grandma still has a bit of womanly vanity. She's quick to point out that there are several women at the home who are older than her.

It was fun to see my grandchildren with her, their great-great-grandmother. Scarlett, 4, had never seen such an old person. She stood and stared at Grandma, as if she was memorizing every line and mole on her face. Several times she picked up Grandma's hand and stroked it, examining it. What a contrast between their skins.

Of course, we took pictures. Of her three children, only one is still alive. Two grandchildren have died in recent years. This is the difficult part of living to 100, outliving children and grandchildren.

The last time Grandma visited here, at age 93, she told me she was ready to die. However, she knew she still had more years to live. As a child in a Catholic elementary school, a nun told her she'd live past 100. She has always known this to be true.

Then, the husband and I took her for a ride on Skyline Drive, where she saw a bear in the wild for the first time. She insisted that we pull the car over so she could get a better look.

"Well, what do you know?" she said. "An old lady can see something new!"

Friday, July 30, 2010

Life's Difficulties Faced With Faith

The three pieces of mail arrived on the same day.

A “notice of exhaustion” from the Virginia Employment Commission concerning the end of the husband’s unemployment benefits.

A Weavings magazine with this issue’s theme emblazoned on the cover: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.”

A free-lance writing check for $200.

Who could be worried with such a mailboxful?

As of this writing, the Senate has passed another extension of unemployment benefits. However, I am not ignorant of the fact that they are deepening the nation’s debt to do so.

In his campaign speech at JMU in October of 2008, President Obama said that to get out of the economic mess our country is in, we would all have to “tighten our belts.” Had he and our other leaders set an example of this, they would have been worthy of my deep respect.

It would have been honorable of the President to extend benefits by tapping into stimulus money or to appropriate actual tax money or to let another, less pressing program suffer for the moment.

As it is, they put the suffering off to the future. Is this how mature people manage a budget?

The husband has not had a paying job for one year and four months. I work part time. We are getting through this time because we have only one debt, our mortgage. No credit card bills, no car payments.

No, we don’t have a huge-screen TV. My car is 14 years old. We have no techno-gadgets. I bet most U.S. senators—on both sides of the aisle—own lots of shiny new things. Perhaps “tighten our belts” is a relative term.

Several weeks ago, two of my kids lost their jobs, too. They both worked for the same company, which was forced to close its doors. When the husband lost his job last year, the kids were my plan B. I thought, okay, if we lose our house, we could always move in with one of them. Ha!

“Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” Jesus said this to his followers in Matthew 6:34.

Anxiety is a natural response to uncertainty. It may be our initial response. It certainly was mine, in those first few days after the husband lost his job. But living in a state of anxiety is crippling. God is here today, supplying our needs. We don’t need to rob from tomorrow, because God will be here then, too.

On the other hand, we cannot be presumptuous. We cannot spend our money extravagantly today, on unnecessary things, believing there will be more tomorrow.

While Jesus did not want us to be anxious about tomorrow, he also told us to prepare for it. Remember the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids? The wise ones were cool, calm and collected because they had prepared for the future, while the foolish ones got into a panic. They wasted today’s resources, and when tomorrow came they had nothing for it.

When we were younger, we always bought new cars. But buying a $30,000 car and paying it off over six years with tons of interest is crazy, just plain crazy. You make that decision based on today, but you have no way of knowing whether you’ll be able to make the payment in three years.

Making those rip-off car payments kept us near-broke for years. Anyone who makes big payments on anything knows the strangle-hold that debt has on you.

The thing with the national debt is that it’s been growing for years, into the trillions of dollars. At this moment, the debt is $13,222,756,362,421. To whom do we owe this money? To the Federal Reserve, which is part-public, part-private, to Japan, China, the United Kingdom.

It’s like it doesn’t matter. Will there ever be a day of reckoning? Apparently, our leaders do not think so or do not care.

Alas, we citizens must not follow their example.

When I came in from collecting the mail the other day, I had a huge smile on my face. I handed each piece to the husband, one by one. The letter from VEC, the magazine and the check.

No matter what happens, it’s going to be alright.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Trees Are Ministers of Health and Grace

Sunday morning was glorious, a dream come true.

Conflicted about going to church on Sunday mornings, I have often chosen instead to spend the time out of doors: walking in the woods near my home or heading up to the mountains.

Once several years ago when I skipped church, the husband and I were motorcycling on the Blue Ridge Parkway when I had a spiritual encounter with trees. The trees on either side reached over the road, forming a canopy. It seemed the trees were joining “hands,” and that they were protecting me, even praying for me, as I passed through the cool green tunnel.

Last Sunday, for the first time ever, I did not have to choose. My pastor decided a few months ago to hold some services outdoors on the church property. He called the husband and others from our parish to prepare the woods for worship. They made a clearing and leveled a parking area on the field at the woods’ edge.

They created two “entrances” into the worship space. As I stepped from the open field into the woods, the coolness greeted me with gentle caresses. The canopy overhead creating a green cathedral. Everyone’s face reflected joy.

We brought our own chairs to set on either side of the “aisle,” indicated by slender ropes secured to the ground. The floor sloped ever-so-slightly downward to the altar: a folding table covered with green cloth, a cross made of two hickory branches.

The birds paid us no mind, but flitted about singing overhead. Or perhaps they sang with us. So did the trees, as the breeze rustled their leaves. And they lifted their leafy arms to pray.

As in a beautiful cathedral, our eyes were drawn up. Rather than praying scrunch-faced, we prayed like Jesus: eyes open, looking up.

The Celts — and I — believe humans have a kinship with trees. They are servants and companions.

- Trees renew our air supply by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.
• The amount of oxygen produced by an acre of trees per year equals the amount consumed by 18 people annually. One tree produces nearly 260 pounds of oxygen each year.
• One acre of trees removes up to 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
• Shade trees can make buildings up to 20 degrees cooler in the summer.
• Trees lower air temperature by evaporating water in their leaves.
• Tree roots stabilize soil and prevent erosion.
• Trees improve water quality by slowing and filtering rain water, as well as protecting aquifers and watersheds.

God is big on trees. Trees and other vegetation were created on the third day, it says in Genesis. They had to precede the creation of humans, because we need them to survive. Adam and Eve had a relationship with the trees and with one in particular. God made a tree to hold the mystery of the knowledge of good and evil, as well as a tree of life, which was protected by angels because anyone who eats of it lives forever.

Also in Genesis, when Abraham (father of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths) left his homeland, his journey is marked by his arrival at trees, such as “the great tree of Moreh at Shechem.” And later, “So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the Lord” (Gen. 13:18). Why were these trees important?

Trees are prominent at the end of the Bible, too. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city,” says Revelation 22:1-2. “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The trees ministered healing to us sitting beneath them on Sunday morning. Our church, like many others, like life itself, has had its struggles.

But in the woods, among the trees, worshipping together, I felt healing. An unexplainable, peaceful, gentle, deep healing.

(Visitors are welcome to join our worship in the woods. The plan is to meet there through Aug. 1, but that date may be extended, depending on weather and other practical considerations. The property is on the corner of Port Republic and Boyers roads. Bring a chair.)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Church is Not Getting the Message

Note: This column was first published in August 2003.

Gay, gay, gay.

Gays have been all over the news lately. From the gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire and the all-gay high school in New York City, to the revocation of laws banning gay sex in Texas, the fall line-up of TV shows and the men committing sodomy at a South Main Street business. The pope and President Bush have both recently made policy statements on gays.

We are all getting pulled into the fray. And mainline churches are at the forefront of the gay-rights battle.

In July, the United Church of Christ expressed its support for gays and urged the Boy Scouts of America to drop its ban on gay youths from membership. “Transgender people know God loves them; it is time for the UCC to say we love them too,” said Lisa Alston, who headed the committee that prepared the resolution.

Likewise, the newly-confirmed Episcopal bishop, the Rev. Gene Robinson, told CNN Live that in spite of his opposition, “I know that God loves me beyond my wildest imagining.”

Apparently, gays have not been getting that message from the Christians they know. In church circles, the fight is over God’s love versus God’s law.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a local activist about a woman we both know and he interrupted me with, “Oh, the lesbian.” With that one word he dismissed this woman’s entire existence. His rejection cut me like a razor. Multiply his attitude times the thousands of Christians with similar sentiments, and you’ve got a church that no longer sings, “Just As I Am,” but “Only If I Conform to Their Demands,” about coming to God.

Once when Jesus went to a Pharisee’s house for dinner, a woman came in and, “weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.” In this story from Luke 7:36-50, Jesus’ host is thinking that if Jesus was a real man of God, he would discern that the woman touching him is a sinner. Jesus says to him, “Do you see this woman?” (That’s what I felt like saying to the activist: “Do you see this woman? Or do you just see ‘lesbian?’ ”)

Then Jesus gets on the guy’s case for not being a good host, saying that the woman was much nicer to him. Jesus tells the Pharisee, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much . . .” And he turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Jesus did not deny she was a sinner, but he loved her. His compassion shone through, over and above her sin. But with the church, rejection outshines any claims of love.
Tony Campolo talked to me about this at the Massanetta Springs Bible Conference. He said that telling someone you love them at the same time you reject them is “love without grace.”

“It’s like kissing someone with bad breath,” he said. “It stinks.”
The “love the sinner, hate the sin” policy is often a self-deceiving fallacy to explain away our repulsion for someone whose struggles we do not understand. Personally, I do not understand the struggle people have with homosexuality. Neither do I understand the struggles people have with alcohol, pornography or shopping.

But I do have my own struggles, some which have been with me since early childhood. Though I occasionally fantasize about them going away for good, I have come to understand some are just part me — my dark side, if you will. The best I can do — like Nash with his schizophrenia in “A Beautiful Mind” — is, with God’s grace, keep them at bay.

After talking with Campolo, I began to wonder if the church had 30 years ago loved and welcomed homosexuals the way it did us hippies — with our pot-smoking, free sex and foul mouths — perhaps it never would have come to this. It never would have been a divisive issue. Because when Christ takes people just as they are, he transforms them into what they were created to be.

We come to God because we experience his deep love for us, and as his law becomes written on our hearts, we become more like Jesus. We conform, not to each other, but to his likeness.

Though he is a conservative, Campolo’s wife, Peggy, is a spokesperson for gay rights. So he has numerous homosexual friends and acquaintances, none of whom chose to be that way, he said.

I thought about the struggles I did not choose.

Campolo said people on both sides of the homosexual question are sincere and that we must listen to each other.

Yes, we must really listen. And if we listen, we just might hear ourselves.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Food? Did Someone Say Food?

Remember how I wrote about butchering our own chickens? And that I could not eat them because of how gross it was to reach in and pull their vital organs and guts out?

No more. Since I saw the film, “Food Inc.,” at Court Square Theater last Friday, I’m more than willing to eat our own chickens.

We looked forward to the arrival of our peeps. The husband had spent hours poring over catalogs, deciding which breeds would be best for our purposes. The post office called when the chicks arrived. Stepping into the back room of the post office, I heard them peeping in their little crate. Our grandkids loved looking at the chicks in our homemade brooder. When the birds were old enough, we moved them to one of the three portable coops the husband made. They feasted on pasture grass, weeds and table scraps until butchering day.

To paraphrase my daughter-in-law: “These were happy chickens.”

Compare that to a commercial chicken house crammed with 22,000 birds, none of which can move or spread their wings. The broiler chicken is bred to develop huge breasts within a few short weeks. When the breasts get too big, they’re so heavy the chicken cannot stand up. If it’s not slaughtered by the age of six weeks, it’s likely to die anyway because its body cannot support itself.

Not to mention the conditions in the processing plants. As the film discussed some of the dangers to the workers, I remembered our friend Jimmy, and the injuries he often suffered when he worked in a poultry plant.

I knew this before seeing the film, which is why I butchered my own chickens. But knowing it and seeing it made all the difference in my resolve. Even with a freezer full of my own chickens, I continued to buy the sterile packaged chicken at the grocery store! But now it’s a choice between gross and grosser.

And then there’s beef.

One of the many problems with beef is that feedlot cattle have spent their lives in their own manure. At the slaughterhouse, machines work to clean off the manure so it doesn’t get into to meat. Manure can also get into the meat from the animal’s digestive system. But hey, E. coli happens. And the plant processes so many cattle—up to 400 an hour—that there’s no way of knowing which feedlot or farm the meat came from.

And then there’s corn.

Corn is an ingredient in nearly everything you eat and drink: soda pop, beer, candy, chocolate, canned vegetables, peanut butter, mayonnaise, ketchup, salad dressing, mustard, whole wheat bread, yogurt, vitamins, baby food. It’s in your beef, pork, poultry and farm-raised tilapia.

Nearly every food and beverage that is sweet contains some form of corn sugar. Read the labels. Dextrose, dextrin, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, starch, modified starch.Out of 10,000 grocery store products, 2,500 contain corn, according to the Ontario Corn Producers Association.

So what’s the problem? Well, we feed corn to animals for the sole purpose of making them fat. You figure it out. America is the only country where the poor people are the fattest.

So is “Food Inc.” propaganda? Sure, but when I’m looking for information, say, about the toxins contained in sunscreen lotions or the benefits of taking vitamin D, I dis-count the “expert” advice if it concludes by trying to sell me something. This film’s message was pretty much to know where your food comes from. No product to buy, no political party to support.

After the film, a panel member advised the audience to take small steps toward change. I do what I can: We make our own maple syrup, raise hens for free-range eggs, grow a big vegetable garden. We buy beef from our neighbor. I make my own yogurt from raw milk. I make wine from our own berries.

Soon-to-be-made changes include purchasing locally-grown wheat to grind for flour, going back to making my own bread so I know exactly what’s in it and, possibly, raising a hog or two. I may make a trip out to Polyface Farm in Swoope again to get some more ideas.

In the film, Polyface Farm’s Joel Salatin butchered chickens as he talked to the camera. His job was to reach in and pull out the guts. He didn’t, like me, cry or look disgusted.

Still, the next time we butcher, someone else can have that job.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

So, The Backs of Heads or Faces?

Rows and aisles.

As the people enter, they walk up the center aisle and find their seats. When the clock strikes the hour, the musicians come on stage and start playing. Everyone’s attention is drawn to watching the musicians play.

Is it a concert? No, it’s church.

So it’s no wonder, since the place is set up like a theater or concert hall, that the band’s performance is critically judged. And the preacher’s, too. It’s all about what goes on, on stage.

The church I attend now gets away from this “entertain me” expectation by having the musicians along the side up front, not facing the congregation, but worshipping with them. The physical set-up makes such a difference.

When I worked as a religion reporter at the newspaper, I often interviewed pastors who came into town to start a new church. It was going to be different than any other church already here. Walking in to the meeting space — whether it was a church building, an old storefront, a school or restaurant — there, as usual, were the aisles and rows of seats. Looked like any other church to me.

At their meeting place, the people at Solomon’s Porch, a church in Minnesota, sit on couches. The couches are not facing a front, but arranged in groupings. From the way Doug Paggitt, the pastor, describes it in the book, “Reimagining Spiritual Formation,” I picture it like a lobby, like the hotels at Massanetta Springs, Orkney Springs and Hot Springs. When I go into such a place, I love the idea of sitting down in one of those cozy groupings for intimate conversation. So inviting.

House churches are like this, too, where people meet in living rooms. So is Ikon, a community of believers in Northern Ireland that meets in public places, like cafés and pubs. Ikon does not rent a room and set chair in rows. Rather, the people sit around the tables in small groups.

In all these situations, there is no physical place of power in the room. The physical set-up matters in how they do church: the “ministry” comes from the people, from among themselves to each other. They see each other’s faces, not the backs of heads.

That’s not to say there’s no preaching or teaching. There is. Solomon’s Porch, Ikon and the house churches I know all have pastors, although their title may not be pastor, but the gift is there. The gifts are there to teach, to heal, to extend hospitality, to make music.

The difference is there’s no prefabricated form imposed on the people. Rather, the “ministry” comes from the people’s gifts, talents and abilities. The question is not, who is going to teach the women’s Bible study or play music or lead the Sunday school. The question is, what do we as individuals and as a group have to offer to each other, our community and the world?

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit,” wrote Paul, the apostle, to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 12:4-6). “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in everyone.”

Paul then goes on to list numerous gifts of the Spirit that people have: faith, words of knowledge or wisdom, gifts of healing or miracles, discernment. In other places he lists other gifts, of charity, hospitality, help, and the leadership gifts, like pastoring, teaching, preaching, mission, evangelism.

Further on in 1 Cor. 12, Paul talks about how the body of Christ needs each other, that no one person is any more important or less necessary than another. Yet our churches are physically set up to honor the people up front.

So, none of these afore-mentioned groups meets on Sunday morning, either. Does it matter? When I think of Sunday morning, I think, “supposed to” go to church. When I think of Wednesday night or Friday night or Sunday night, I think “want to” be with these people.

Let me clarify: I am not saying that traditional church is not valid. It is. It has its place. But it’s not for everyone, and other forms are equally as valid, equally church. I believe far more believers would be part of a faith community if they did not have to reshape themselves (thus being dishonest to who God made them to be) into a prefabricated traditional structure.

Some of us are not made for aisles and rows.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Are We Two People In One Body?

Have you heard of Jill Bolte Taylor? She’s a Boston neuroanatomist who has been speaking to groups about her experience of having a stroke.

The morning she had her stroke, she lost the use of the left hemisphere of her brain. In the YouTube video, she holds a real brain. The left and right brain are two distinct organs. They communicate with each other, but they process information differently. They think about different things, care about different things, and have very different personalities, she said.

The right brain is concerned with the here and now. It thinks in pictures. It learns through the movement of our body. Information comes in through the senses, she said. It understands what the present moment feels like, looks like, sounds like, smells like. We are energy beings and our right brain connects us to each other.

“In this moment, we are perfect, we are whole, and we are beautiful,” she said.

The left brain is focused on the past, on the information and experience it has stored. It takes the information of the present and connects it with the past and projects it to the future. It thinks in language. It organizes. “It’s that little voice that says, ‘I am,’ ” said Taylor. It makes us an individual, separate from the energy flow around us and separate from each other.

When she had the stroke, Taylor’s “brain chatter” went totally silent. Her mind was silent. Her left brain was hemorrhaging and her right brain was in charge. She felt at one with all the energy in the world. She calls it Lalaland, where she was totally connected to the external world. She felt light, euphoric.

So my friend and I talked about moments when we have achieved this state, sans stroke, in meditation. Later, I thought of other times. It happens a lot when I’m outdoors. Like, when lying on the ground in the woods, gazing up through the canopy of trees to the sky. Or while watching a sunset or moonrise.

It happens in the creative act. In the act of creation, we tap into our other self, surrender to it.

The Port Republic, Va., artist, Jeffery Stockberger, makes a living by painting interiors of homes and businesses. When he goes away to paint murals for a client, he uses the left side of his brain. The customer tells him what to paint, and Stockberger paints it.

Then there is Stockberger’s “real” art, and when he returns home to his studio, he has no confidence in his ability to create something. He diddles around in the studio, then picks up the brush and starts to “wash” the canvas. As he does this, something begins to emerge. And he moves into that creative state.

I experience this in writing. As an article writer, I conduct interviews and gather facts. Then I write an article using the information. It’s so left brain. But when I write a column — a good column, that is — I wake up early and just start writing. Anything. Stroking on the wash. Then, from those random words, something emerges. I have connected with my right brain. Those are the times when it works. Sometimes I cannot make the connection to my right brain, and I write a rational, uninspired dud. Sorry.

“When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist,” writes Madeleine L’Engle. “Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write.”

Just starting — to write, paint, compose — is an act of faith. Taylor spoke of surrender. We surrender in the creative act, in meditation, when we make love, behold beauty, worship.

Too often, church worship is a left brain, rational activity. All the songs are planned, coordinated with the sermon theme. Yet it is our right brain that connects our energy with the pure energy that is God and each other. Jesus said that the true worshippers “worship in spirit and in truth.” That speaks of both left and right brain, of all that we are.

Some years ago, Ken Nafziger interviewed over 100 people across the country about what they experience while singing. People told him they are open to emotions, memories and thoughts they wouldn’t be open to any other way.

“Because of music’s intangible quality you can’t trap it in any way,” Nafziger says. “Music has the ability to take you where you can’t be.”

When we truly worship, we are in that place, like Taylor during her stroke, where we are perfect, we are whole, we are beautiful, and, as the old hymn says, “it is well with my soul.”

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In the Race Till the End

(Note: This column won a first-place in the Virginia Press Association awards for the year 2000.)

I've been white all my life.

Unlike my friend Sarah, who, when we sang Beatles' songs together on the school bus in third grade, was "colored." Those who knew better called her Negro. In high school, she was Afro- American.

By the time Sarah reached her mid-20s, she was black, then in her late 30s, African American. In some circles, she is a "woman of color."

Being white is so generic.

Look at the form for Census 2000, item 9. Look at the choices of race:

White; Black, African American, or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian Indian; Chinese; Filipino; Japanese; Korean; Vietnamese; Native Hawaiian; Guamanian or Chamorro; Samoan; other Pacific Islander.

Question 8 asks if the person is SpanishHispanicor Latino. If so, the choices are: Mexican, Mexican American, or Chicano; Puerto Rican; Cuban; or other.

Everyone has specific choices -- some, not only of "race," but vocabulary preference -- except whites.

It doesn't seem fair -- everyone else is referred to by their people group, their ancestral lineage, their culture of origin, but me? I'm tagged by my skin color. Lumped with all the other white-skinned people on the planet.

Actually, the census question has nothing to do with race. If it was, the choices would be Caucasoid, Negroid or Mongoloid, according to the definition in Webster's New World Dictionary.

Race is inappropriate when applied to cultural, religious or national groups, says the Columbia Concise Encyclopedia. The only reference to race on the census form is Negro.

Though the first option -- white -- should set the precedent for skin color, it does not. If it did, the other choices would be black, yellow, red . . . brown? The only group identified strictly by skin color is white.

Unlike whites, black-skinned people have the option of identifying with their ancestors' cultural group (African) as well as their current national group (American), or with their race (Negro).

The remaining choices are national and cultural groups. At first I thought the census was trying to get a handle on where immigrant groups have settled. If that's the case, don't the white immigrants matter? What about all the Eastern Europeans that have settled in the U.S. in the past 10 years? What about those from the Middle East?

Perhaps I am showing my ignorance. Obviously, dividing white-skinned people into sub-groups serves no purpose.

I sometimes wonder how identifying myself more specifically would change my concept of myself and my relationship with other whites.

My multiple-great grandfather, Paul Sandstrom, worked his way from Sweden to New York City on a merchant ship in the early 1800s. Thus I could identify myself as a Nordic American.

But I wonder: Would I feel a kinship with other Nordic Americans? Less connection with white-skinned people of differing origins? Should I learn more about the culture and customs of the Nordic people in order to attain a stronger sense of heritage and identity?

It's been so many generations since my grandfather migrated here. The only reminder I have of my Swedish heritage is my big rectangular head.

I'll be walking through a fine department store when I notice a rack of gorgeous women's hats. I always fall in love with one. But when I try it on, it perches atop my head rather than sliding down to where it belongs.

"Oh man, I wish my head wasn't so big," I sigh, wishing I inherited my skull genes from my mother.

Mom's side of the family tree would be even more difficult to identify with. The Thompsons immigrated to the New World from England in the 1600s.

According to my old Encyclopedia International, the ethnic group originating in the British Isles is properly known as Atlanto-Mediterranean. Hmmm.

To be fair to both parental lineages, I should be inclusive.

If my answer to question 9 on Census 2000 was consistent with the other choices of "race," I'd check the box that says "Some other race." And write in the blank: Nordic Atlanto-Mediterranean American.

Who do I think I'm kidding? I'm just a white girl.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What Does the Music Do To You?

This is what this music has done.

I’ve been listening to the soundtrack from the Bourne films: “The Bourne Identity,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Over and over as I work. And as I hear the music, I become aware of longing.

Jason Bourne, in all three films, is moved by a longing to find out who he is. In the first film, we see him floating in the sea, rescued by fishermen. When he awakens, he does not know who he is. He spends three movies searching for his true identity.

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves,” writes Francois de La Rochefoucauld.

As I listen, this question comes up from the deep: Who were you before people began censoring you?

Scenes come to mind. A little girl who loved to dance and sing. A bold girl who organized the neighborhood kids to stage theater productions and talent shows. An adventurous girl who took off on her bicycle alone to explore the parts of town and other towns where nobody ever took her. An exuberant girl who loved sitting in the bow of the boat where the wind and waves splashed her face and tangled her hair. A girl who climbed trees, wrote songs, loved books.

And a scene. There she is, in the empty lot of a run-down housing development. Singing a made-up song, singing with all her heart, dancing furiously, dancing with her shadow. Then another shadow enters, with sneering laughter.

Then the voices. “Shut-up, Luanne, you can’t sing!” “Where were you? You were gone too long on your bicycle.” “Look at her, she thinks she’s so smart.” “Nice girls don’t sit like that.”

“Dancing was barely tolerated, if at all, so they danced in the forest where no one could see them, or in the basement, or on the way out to empty the trash” (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “Women Who Run with the Wolves”).

When did the self-consciousness set in? The shame (there’s that subject again) of the genuine self? And, most important of all, where did that girl go? How do I find her?

Jason Bourne had been trained and conditioned to become an identity that was totally antithetical to his true self. When he tried to find his true self, people felt so threatened that they tried, over and over again, to kill him.

How about you? How about you?

“I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus says in John 10:10. A woman came into the dinner party where he was the guest of honor. The story is in Luke 7. She was not invited. The important men whispered behind their hands as she made her way toward Jesus. She was a “bad” woman.

Too often we take our cues from the people around us. “We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves to be like other people,” Arthur Schopenhauer writes.

This woman would have none of it. She kept right on to Jesus. Jesus reprimanded the crowd. “Do you see this woman?” he asked. Jesus alone saw her true identity. He alone knew her. Because of this, she wept, wiping his feet with her tears.

This is what Jesus is like. Don’t confuse Jesus with the religion of Christianity. Religion restricts, binds, puts its demands on us, makes rules.

And priests in black gowns were making their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
(from “The Garden of Love” by William Blake)

Jesus came to set us free. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” Jesus said in John 8:32.

Look at Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, two women who really don’t give a flip what you think of them. They are who they are. I say “Yay!” for both of them. There’s Hillary this week, smiling and waving in Moscow. There’s Sarah this week, heading to Michigan to speak at a prosperity summit.

In the films, there is Jason Bourne, running down back alleys, across rooftops, through crowded train stations, fighting off attackers, doing whatever he has to do to stay alive, to find someone who knows him, the One who can tell him who he really is.

The Bourne music, right now, knows where I am and what I need. “The eternal echoing of music reclaims us for awhile for our true longing,” writes John O’Donohue.

What music does this in you?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Shame Damages the Human Soul: Be Free Of It

Once upon a time there was a little girl who stole some candy from the grocery store. When she got out to the car, her mother noticed the candy bulging in the girl’s pants pocket. The mother insisted that the girl return to the store, give back the candy and apologize to the manager.

Upon their return home, the mother told the girl’s father what their daughter had done. Both the parents told the girl: You are a bad girl. You are sinful. We cannot touch you. Get away from us. You have shamed us. They repeated these words all through the evening and the next day and the day after.

This was the parents typical way of dealing with their daughter’s childhood mishaps and mistakes. There was no resolution, no absolution, no forgiveness. Just a total rejection of her person. Shame.

During Lent, I have been thinking about the role of guilt and shame in my life. What good does guilt do? What good does shame do?

Though we often use the words guilt and shame together, they are quite different. Guilt happens when your conscience is bothered by something you’ve done. We feel guilty when we are responsible for doing something we regret.

Shame, on the other hand, is when are disappointed by something inside us. The two have been contrasted this way: We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.

Guilt is constructive. It can lead to a healthy sorrow and change. Shame is damaging. It becomes our core identity and makes us feel like failures. It reminds us over and over again of our mistakes and transgressions.

In the Psalms, David often prayed, "Let me not be put to shame." "Shame on you" is a curse. The girl in the opening story has still not escaped it.

Shame may also be directed outward. To avoid the painful feelings of shame, it focuses on the mistakes and transgressions of others. It is always finding fault, always casting blame. It is a cover-up.

A shame-based personality leads to many harmful attitudes and behaviors, according to Patricia Hulsey, author of “Shattering the Shackles of Shame.” To name a few:

Self-punishment. This is one I am intimately familiar with. Throughout my life, I’ve engaged in behaviors that hurt me, such as smoking cigarettes, being disorganized and leaving projects unfinished. This is mild compared to the self-mutilation that some people engage in.

Defensiveness. Defensive people are extremely sensitive to criticism or the suggestion of personal blame. They are argumentative and always must be right. Shame-based people interpret criticism of what they do into a judgment of who they are.

Scapegoating. This is when all the blame is projected on someone else. It is a cover-up for shame by passing the blame onto others.

Perfectionism. Shame portrays a person as inferior, so perfectionism is a constant attempt to prove their worth. It is a driving, controlling force that sets impossible standards. The constant sense of failure leads to more shame, as well as judging, moralizing, and criticizing others who fall short of their arbitrary standards.

Control. A shame-based person attempts to control other people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions to insure that no one can ever shame him again.

Addictions. Psychologist John Bradshaw views shame as the core and fuel for all addictive behavior. He comments: "The content of the addiction, whether it be an ingestive addiction or an activity addiction (like work, buying, or gambling) is an attempt at an intimate relationship...Each addictive acting out creates life-damaging consequences which create more shame. The new shame fuels the cycle of addiction."

Arrogant self-righteousness. Enough said.

“Our shame defenses keep us from showing ourselves to anyone else,” writes psychologist John Bradshaw. “More tragically, these defenses keep us from looking at ourselves.”

So, if your conscience is tinged or saturated with shame, is there any way to get rid of it? Well, yes. But it’s not instant.

For me, it is an ongoing process. The process began when I realized that God loves me with an unfailing love. No matter what I do. No matter what mistakes I make. No matter how misunderstood or overlooked I am by others. But this does not let me off the hook.

Jesus willingly took our sins and failures with him to the cross. They died there with him. They no longer belong to us. That is not denial. Denial does not even recognize that we have failed or sinned. It minimizes our shortcomings.

But when we acknowledge that yes, I too have the same problems and failures as everyone else, then we can hold it all up to God.

Brennan Manning, an author and speaker, says that in all his years of praying, Bible reading, meditation and ministry, he’s convinced that, on Judgement Day, Jesus will ask us only one question: “Did you believe that I loved you?”

The most destructive aspect of shame is that it blocks us from God’s love for us. We can only be free of shame as we shape our lives in response to God’s love. One day at a time.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Underneath All The Snow Lies Spring

Snow has covered the ground all winter. All this snow, layers of snow. So this is what winter is like for residents of northern climates.

It’s not just the snow. The dripping icicles form a hump of ice at my back door. Underneath the snow is ice, so that walking on it is a feat of diligent flatfootedness.

And so it begins, these 40 days of Lent, in the bleak, the cold, the darkness of winter. In the cycle of the four seasons, winter is death. Necessary death.

In religious lingo, there is a phrase: death to self. It is a paradox because, you see, we have the freedom to choose: life or death. Yet in choosing one we choose the other. For instance.

Yesterday, as I walked along the black ribbon of tarmac that winds its way between the wide white fields of my neighborhood, the wind bit my face, tried to slither up my sleeves and down my zippered neck. But there I was, out there walking, in spite of the desire to stay warm inside my house, a cup of tea steaming in the palm of my hand, candles aglow.

I had deliberated, as I do every time I walk in the cold. I chose to exercise my limbs, work my muscles, force my heart to beat harder, breathe deeply of the fresh clean air, bring more oxygen into my blood. I chose life.

In doing so, I chose not what I want, not to cater to my craving for comfort. Instead, I chose the cold and the wind, to die to my transient desire for warmth. I chose death to self. Do you see that?

We have the freedom to choose.

Every time I step out the door to take a walk, I choose life.

Every time I tell the truth, instead of a white lie to protect myself, I choose life.

Every time I write someone a letter, rather than go on with my busyness, I choose life.

Every time I take the time to prepare a meal with fresh foods, rather than the convenience of something instant, I choose life.

Every time I stay in relationship with someone I love who has hurt me, I choose life.

If there is a choice, why choose to indulge and protect the illusion of my self? Each of these choices represents death versus life. If I lie to protect myself or leave a relationship, is that not a death? Yet it is an eroding, decaying, destructive death. A death of character, integrity, compassion, nobility. I am choosing to preserve some self-glorifying illusion of my self.

Millions of girls every year are faced with a choice: to abort or give birth to their baby. It is scary, the feeling of losing control of the self, the life they had planned for themselves. It is unfortunate that the term “pro-choice” actually means “pro-abortion.” The recent scuffle over the Tim Tebow ad during the Super Bowl made that obvious, that it’s not about choice at all. If it was, women everywhere would have rejoiced in his mother’s choice to give birth to her child.

It is not easy to choose death to self. I am not very good at it. There is a faith that must go along with it. Faith that in choosing “not my will but thine,” I am choosing life. We cannot see, at the moment of our choosing, what will happen next, how it will all turn out, the promise. It’s inward stuff.

Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal (John 12: 24-25, The Message).

What a paradox!

It is hard, on this Ash Wednesday, to even recall a time when the ground was not covered with snow. These 40 days (not counting Sundays) of Lent will end at Easter, on April 4.

April! The very word is a promise. It is one which I cannot now see, looking out my window.

Yet beneath the snow, there is earth. And beneath the surface of the earth, there is life.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Life's Earthquakes Bring Up Rubble from the Past

The earth is broken.

A few days before the earthquake in Haiti, I watched a movie with an earthquake scene. The people ran every which way to escape it. Some fell into the cracking ground. Some were killed by the toppling of tall trees.

An earthquake is “a shaking or trembling of the crust of the earth, caused by underground volcanic forces or by breaking and shifting of rock beneath the surface.” This is what causes our personal earthquakes, too. Stuff we are not aware of going on beneath the surface.

“We learn geology the morning after the earthquake,” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In an earthquake, that which was hidden is suddenly right there on the surface. The things in the darkness are exposed to daylight. Calamity does this, brings to the surface one’s forgotten past, repressed experiences, unexpressed feelings, buried traumas.

In the clean-up, we can bulldoze it all back underground again. Or, if we are brave enough, we can poke through the rubble. We have a rare opportunity to change.

When the world is put right again, do we really want this to be a part of it?

The longer I live, the more I am convinced that we are products of our first family. Our responses to our early childhood experiences form our character traits, the good, the bad, the ugly.

For instance. In a recent conversation, my friend and I realized we both had the same type of father: loud, funny, explosive, endearing, intimidating. I was afraid of mine. When I was little, his yelling terrified me. In order to avoid his angry tirades, I became a very good girl. I fetched his slippers, got straight A’s on my report card, looked pretty, laughed at his jokes. When he did get angry, I tried to placate him. I felt it was my responsibility to make him happy. If he got mad at anything or anyone, I took the blame.

My friend was afraid of her father, too. But instead of cowering, she stood up to him. She told him he was wrong, that he had no right to bully anyone in her family.

We grew up to be very different women in relation to men. It didn’t take much for us to feel threatened and—not always, but most of the time—to move into our operating modes: me into a placating role, her into a dominating role. Other women may have different responses, such as distancing themselves in some way.

Of course, we didn’t realize what was happening until we hit crisis, earthquakes. Then it was exposed.

In times of calamity, we can choose to not see the truth about ourselves. We can choose to blame others. However, if I decide to blame my father, that leaves me powerless to change. And how, then, do I explain my friend’s personality?

It was not our fathers who made us what we are, but our responses. It’s clearly up to me how I want to respond. Do I want to be stuck in this mode? As an adult, I see my father as a broken and flawed human being. He is no longer scary.

In “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” by Salman Rushdie, the character Rai Merchant describes an earthquake: “Here was the eternal silence of faces and bodies and animals and even nature itself, caught … in the grip of the fear of the unforeseeable and the anguish of loss, in the clutches of this hated metamorphosis, the appalling silence of a way of life at the moment of its annihilation, its transformation into a golden past that could never wholly be rebuilt, because once you have been in an earthquake you know, even if you survive without a scratch, that like a stroke in the heart, it remains in the earth’s breast, horribly potential, always promising to return, to hit you again, with an even more devastating force.”

The reality is that if we don’t deal truthfully with the past, our responses to it, and ultimately, our fear, it will always be shifting and bubbling beneath the surface. It will affect our relationships, our jobs, our major and minor decisions.

If we do deal truthfully with our past, we must remember that it is always a work in progress. We never “arrive,” never fully master it. If we think have, we will be surprised.

For we are, as humans, broken.