Being a pastor’s wife doesn’t mean I climb mountains more than the average person, although hiking is a favorite activity in our family. The picture of our two sons was taken in the Colorado Rockies, where the five of us spent a breathtaking (sometimes literally) week the summer before last. Getting to a high place and enjoying a visual panorama is always a thrilling experience. My title here, though, refers more to the kind of expansive view I get to have from my vantage point as a clergy spouse with layers of involvement in the secular world. Sometimes there is a lovely blending of elements, and sometimes things collide in a dizzying way. More and more, I am struck by how often two contrasting experiences keep company together. And, in the same way that bugs are drawn to a light source, I find myself wanting to get closer to see what is really going on when something bumps up against something else.
This contrast is often just plain funny, and often it has nothing to do with being a pastor’s wife. Just the other day, for instance, following the freakish October snowstorm we had in this part of New England, our teenage daughter came home from a sledding expedition saying, “I still have my bathing suit on!” Turns out that following the whooshing down a hill on snow that wasn’t supposed to be there, she and her friends went to a hotel where one of the girls’ families had been staying because of the multi-day power outage. And there, of course, they went swimming in the pool. Everything got jumbled, and it was all good.
Another example, more visual: My husband painted our bedroom recently, and my favorite part is the line between the rich beige (called “Amulet”) and the white of the ceiling. Over and over, my eye is drawn to where the two colors come together…but stay separate. These places, to me, illustrate so much that is true about regular life. Sometimes we can see them, and sometimes we just feel them. An ordinary moment in the present takes us right back to a time long ago; a person who is known for behaving one way does something completely uncharacteristic; an experience we counted on to be wonderful turns out to be crushingly disappointing. We are shaken or maybe moved by the juxtaposition of things, and we try to get hold of our feelings. During the years that I worked at a tough urban high school where students’ basic needs were often unmet while my own kids were choosing among an array of extra-curricular activities, I felt that I was leading a kind of “split screen” life. It wasn’t a question of which side I was on, but rather an issue of trying to see as clearly as possible what was happening, to make out as best I could the topography of the landscape.
In some instances, blending, or perhaps equalizing, can be beautiful; but, depending on what you’re trying to merge, it might also cause a giving up of an essence. In that famous poem, “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost begins with “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” but his neighbor is adamant that “ ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ “ It is, of course, ironic that they may meet only once a year to replace the boulders that keep a line between them. Bring us together if you can, but don’t forget to respect boundaries at the same time.
On this site, I will be exploring all kinds of topics within the theme of duality, adjacency, differences finding common ground – or maybe at least meeting for a handshake and mutual recognition. I anticipate that my life as a clergy spouse (with no previous background in churchgoing) will lend a good bit of material on the secular/religious tones in the culture, but that will be just one subject of these essays. Unlike some of the other pastors’ wives whose blogs you can easily find, I won’t be writing a whole lot about parish life, my own faith or what we clergy spouses have in common. But my rich experience living alongside an Episcopal priest will, to some extent, affect my vision. Since I have spent much of the last decade raising three children and taking them to hundreds of practices and games, I have become particularly familiar with the terrain of youth sports. Indeed, some would say that a whole new kind of religion has been created in this realm. But what are we worshipping, exactly? Feeling so many, often conflicting, tugs on our time, how do we best determine what is truly worth doing?
Thanks for joining me as I try to paint the panorama that I see. I look forward to hearing your responses along the way.
In electing someone for President of the United States, do we need to check off the “Got Religion” box? Does checking this box provide reassurance that this candidate will keep us close to all that is good and just and even perhaps uplifting to the soul? I doubt it.
On his 260th birthday several days ago, Mozart almost made me forget that we’re slogging through a campaign season with plenty of talk about “faith” but mostly devoid of anything we might call “beauty.”
Not that we’d ever expect politics and art to mix, really; it’s just that this particular contrast leapt right off the airwaves.
The music on the radio was so exquisite, so heavenly, that all those strivers for the White House faded away temporarily into the mist, still yapping. I don’t mean to put them all down; they work hard and all that, and some of them probably even truly aim to Do Good for our country.
But when we hear what sounds like the songs of the angels, much of the daily banter on the airwaves takes on a greater tawdriness, if that’s possible. I felt a little bit like ol’ Antonio Salieri, in the movie Amadeus, when he looks at one of Mozart’s scores featuring the oboe soaring as it’s never soared before, hears the music in his head, and lets the pages cascade all around, realizing that never in a million years will he reach that level of genius.
In case you’d like to pause for a dose of beauty, here’s a link to YouTube (get past the ad) to listen to some of the 3rd movement of the Serenade for Winds, K. 361.
While it’s true that, in this depiction at least, the composer’s hair bears a slight resemblance to Donald Trump’s bouffant, I think the similarity might stop right there.
Prompted by the magnificence of the birthday music, and how it seemed “closer to God” than anything else I’d experienced in a long while (in truth, I’m still trying to understand what that term means, but that’s a longer story) I did some delving into how our constant companions here in New Hampshire, the Presidential candidates, like to highlight their own faith journeys.
I honestly don’t understand why someone’s religion seems to matter so much, although I know it’s true that anyone aspiring for the White House has about zilch chance without being able to speak in very meaningful terms about his or her wholehearted embrace of a particular faith, which in turn is almost always some form of Christianity. Just last night, in his triumphant speech in Iowa, Ted Cruz began with something like: “Give all the Glory to God.” Sheeeesh!
Occupied as he was with composing lovely music during his short life, I doubt that Mozart took much time out to pontificate about “his faith.” In his case, and in most other cases come to think of it, I’d say actions speak louder than words. And we can even put aside the fact that history has it that he and his wife were extremely silly in person. Whether or not he was religious, or precisely which Christian denomination he fit into, didn’t matter one bit: his music forever transports our souls to the highest heights.
When it comes to the candidates who have been jetting back and forth between New Hampshire and Iowa, it turns that just about everyone’s Road of Religion has been winding if not sometimes downright confusing.
An interesting article I found was one from NEWSEEK, back in April 2015, Entitled “How the Presidential Candidates Found Their Faith,” by Matthew Cooper. In it, he gave a kind of a round-up of various candidates and their various denominations, featuring the twists and turns many of them have taken.
This year’s growing gaggle of presidential aspirants is an intriguing snarl of inconsistencies when it comes to faith—much like the rest of America.
It’s a mixed bag all right. Let’s see…Hillary, it’s true, stands by her lifelong Methodism; Bernie started out Jewish but acknowledges not really abiding by organized religion.
When it comes to the Republicans, wow, they’re all over the place— within Christianity, that is. Bush started out Episcopalian and then converted to Catholicism after he married Columba; Cruz started out Catholic but became Born Again; Rubio started out Catholic, became Mormon, then Baptist with his wife; Kasich also moved on from Catholicism to Anglicanism. What about Mr. Trump? Well, this, taken from the same article, is sure to boost your confidence in him as a moral leader. He is quoted as saying:
I’m a Protestant, I’m a Presbyterian. And you know I’ve had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion.
Now if that doesn’t give you enough of a warm feeling, I can tell you what he does with all the Bibles people insist on sending his way.
No, sorry, I’m afraid all the talk about “I’m a this and I’m a that” when it comes to matters of faith mostly either rings hollow to me or seems besides the point. Of course a person’s integrity matters when we’re choosing our next leader. And his or her plans for tackling issues here and abroad to seek a better quality of life for all people— that matters too. But whether and where and how he or she goes to church or temple or mosque…I can honestly stand not to know.
Just wishful thinking, but if the celebration of Mozart’s birthday could continue just a little longer around here, we’ll have a better shot of making it through the primary.
For a girl who grew up without the regular back and forth to any house of worship, I sure do have a pretty good knack for getting really close to churches in my adult life. And the strange thing is, I haven’t even tried. It’s almost as if they found me.
I’ve just started a new chapter of proximity, and this time around I’m struck by how the very different elements of tremendous weight and airy spirituality combine in the religious realm. Think about it: the buildings are often so massive, in a completely rock-solid sort of way. Matters of the soul, on the other hand, have a kind of misty, elusive quality to them. At least mine do. You’re this way—no wait, you’re that way. This reality is actually pretty far out, but we’ve learned to take it almost for granted.
In a way, it makes perfect sense that my new job at a Catholic school in Lawrence, Massachusetts is located directly across the street from an enormous Catholic church. I mean, why wouldn’t the Sisters of Notre Dame have settled here, among many other far-flung places around the world, to do their good works? Plus, on a more personal level, maybe I can get some inkling of what my husband is dealing with in his work, particularly when it comes to the very real matters of real estate and building maintenance. In case you haven’t been married to a member of the clergy recently, you may not know that in fact large structures have a way of becoming a big part of spiritual life. This is just the kind of thing that’s pretty fascinating to someone like me, trying to get a good grasp (maybe that’s paradoxical in itself) of how the ethereal and the completely solid can interact.
St. Mary of the Assumption looks more like a cathedral, or maybe even a fortress, than a regular old church. The steeple rises over the city prominently, and the bells – the only full chime of 16 in Massachusetts — ring out as they have done for a century and a half. But the place also has a kind of somber, forbidding look; sections of the church are draped in huge pieces of cloth, evidence of ongoing renovations, and only the small chapel is open during the week. I’ve yet to see any workers over there; then again, it is steely January now.
If the place could talk, it would definitely say something like, “Immigration? Let me tell you about it, in waves, starting with the Irish. Mill workers? Have I got stories for you.” Their website, where I eagerly went to lap up any background I could find, has a long section on history which, like the church itself, is “under construction.” We’re taken through a winding story up to the early 20th century and no further. Whoever was writing it must have gotten exhausted, honestly, because the 19th century was bulging with so many details: this priest who did these remarkable things and started the parish at such-and-such location was followed by the next one who did even more remarkable things on the next site, etc. Here’s how the article begins:
The history of St. Mary of the Assumption parish developed alongside the history of Lawrence, Massachusetts. The thousands of immigrants who came to the New World in search of freedom, opportunity and a safe environment for their families also search for a church to worship their Creator.
Notice here how “search” is in the present tense; maybe that was a slip, or maybe not, because people are always and forever searching. I can’t tell you exactly the order in which groups of people came (the Irish and the Italians were early arrivals), but Dominicans—that is, people from the Dominican Republic– make up the majority of Lawrence’s population now. Unlike the Europeans, they have had to find employment in industries other than textile manufacturing. The once-booming mills are now dormant or converted to other uses. These buildings, too, could speak volumes.
Arlington Mills, Lawrence MA
But back to church history.
Archbishop John J. Williams solemnly dedicated the new St. Mary Church on September 3, 1871. Its statistics are still impressive. St. Mary Church cost over $200,000,00 to construct. It is of Gothic style architecture and it is constructed of granite brought from the quarries of Maine and New Hampshire. The dimensions of the Church are like a cathedral: The length of the building along Haverhill Street is 210 feet; it is 80 feet wide, except at transept where it is 102 feet wide. The steeple is 225 feet high. The tope (sic) of the Cross which surmounts it is 235 feet from the ground which makes it fifteen feet higher than the Bunker Hill Monument.
Solid? Definitely. Intimidating even? Yes. Elevating to the spirit? Absolutely. Needing constant maintenance at daunting costs? Well, that too.
I’m told that services are still well-attended on Sundays, with families pouring in, and I’m looking forward to going when there’s an all-school mass over there in February.
In the meantime, when I pass the 7/11 on the way back from the Post Office, this will be my view, reminding me that maybe it’s precisely that strange combination of heft and history with angels and whispering prayers floating in the air that gives this church its staying power. The future only knows how it will indeed stay.
Well, it’s about time I re-appeared here; after all, what’s a blog without an active blogger?
The truth is, prompted by a query from an astute subscriber, we’ve been doing a little re-tooling. I say “we” because I have been in this operation, from its beginning three years ago, with the help of a fabulous web designer who happens also to be an alpaca farmer. Couldn’t do it without her.
Anyway, noticing that subscribers get just the current post without any real visual reminder of the whole blog itself, we’re switching to a new “feeding platform” (close enough) called MailChimp.
OK, full disclosure: I learned about this service from another blog, one offering up yummy recipes and stories about food. It looks really sharp, and the heading of the blog is always displayed up top.
I’m hoping that this will be an aesthetic as well as functional improvement. One thing to keep in mind, though: in order to leave comments (please do!) I’m told you’ll need to click on the title of the essay itself, and that will take you to the full home page of the blog, where you can find a box for comments. Shouldn’t be too much trouble, right?
Oh, and when you do make it over to the full blog, you’ll also see that we’ve made a new “tab” called “Pastor’s Wife in the Press.” This is where you can find all, well just about all, of my essays that made their way into print in various publications other than this blog. This section is still under construction, but here’s hoping the links up there so far will work.
Thanks for reading this, thanks for reading all the rest of it, or dipping in and out as you please. I’d be honored to hear from you, as always!
On New Year’s Eve, I watched fireworks from the dock in my hometown’s harbor. They were bright and beautiful, and the air had just enough chill to make us believe that we were on the other end of the year from 4th of July.
Colorful explosions in a dark sky are wonderful mostly because they happen rarely. They are not the normal humdrum. Watching them in the right frame of mind, we can even feel our souls take flight. Or least not feel so bound to the plain old ground.
It wasn’t so long ago that the word “grounded” meant something almost exclusively negative – it might describe a plane, and all its passengers, that was somehow prevented from taking off; or a teenager who was being punished for misdeeds by being confined to home. In fact, these meanings still do hold true, I guess. More and more, however, to be “grounded” also means to be stable, to have a firm foundation, to be connected to Mother Earth, to be real. In this positive light, its opposite might be something like “flighty.” Of course, if you’re one of those passengers stuck in a plane on the runway, you sure might crave some flightiness.
HarperCollins, NY; 2015
In her new book with only this one word as a title, and a lovely tree depicted on the cover, the scholar Diana Butler Bass offers up a kind of sequel to her previous book that, for good reason, really got people in church circles talking: Christianity After Religion. Now, continuing to report on the revolution that has been taking place both in the pews and outside them, she explores how people everywhere are discovering that the old hierarchical view of “God up there; us down here” really doesn’t work well anymore. It’s much better, really, to feel that holiness is all around us, accessible and approachable– running right through our fingers even.
And this revolution rests upon a simple insight: God is the ground, the grounding, that which grounds us. We experience this when we understand that soil is holy, water gives life, the sky opens the imagination, our roots matter, home is a divine place, and our lives are linked with our neighbors’ and with those around the globe. This world, not heaven, is the sacred stage of our times. (p.26)
This makes perfect sense, of course, and my intention here is certainly not to give a review of this book, which has been widely acclaimed. I enjoyed reading it, found much of what I believed about the power of both Nature and Neighborhood (capitals this time, for emphasis) confirmed here, and I’m sure you would too.
There’s just one part that nagged at me throughout, and it has to do with the fact that, in my way of seeing anyway, all of the beautiful things that we perceive can be beautiful on their own, or just by our perceiving them that way. It’s pretty much the capturing of the essences around us with all of our senses, including the moments of real connectivity with others and generosity towards them, that make living worthwhile. Some of us are perpetually moved to locate, or now re-locate, God — to put him/her in the midst of everything that is most precious, or even to affirm that he/she is close during terrible tragedies, bearing it right along with us. Others, for a variety of reasons, don’t do this; partly, I think, because the moments themselves are mighty enough.
Just looking back over some images of our family’s past year, I notice
There were vegetables in the dirt…
Green fields with shadows…
There was the grandiose…
There was the small and still magnificent..
There was a boy swimming in fresh water..
Another swimming in salt water..
And a dog on a winter pond with a pink sky..
There was fire in the dark night…
A sliver of moon way up high…
And then the moments of human togetherness..
And sheer joy…
All of these were pure and sufficient alone, just in themselves. Each one, I daresay, wasn’t necessarily bursting with the religious or even the spiritual. They didn’t need to be wrapped up in that language, being fulsome in what they provided, in their particular moments. And here comes a new year unfolding, containing all varieties of bright lights, waiting to explode in their own ways and in their own times, for all of us who take them in.
It’s the Christmas countdown, and we’re trying, really trying, to focus on the most soul-filling qualities of the season. We need to stay on it, too, because the outer world keeps bombarding us with stuff that is in a whole other category. The more I hear, the more I want to head straight to my piano and play “What Child Is This?” as quietly as possible.
Take the Republican debate the other night, for example. Now that was a really cheerful bit of business. Not one among us minimizes the importance of dealing with terrorism. But somehow it wasn’t comforting to hear them all arguing about how best to close our borders, why we can’t trust the vetting process for refugees, or whether or not we should exterminate the families of suspected terrorists, too.
Ted Cruz kept referring to “the bad guys” and then “the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens” as if we can always, 100% of the time, keep a sharp line between good and bad, make no mistake about it. In my experience, especially in the gleanings from the kind of work my husband does, there are no neat stacks of human beings.
There was that weird question to Ben Carson about how willing he would be, as a mild-mannered retired neurosurgeon, to get behind a bombing campaign that might kill thousands of children in faraway lands. His answer was even weirder—something about how his young patients used to express fear before their operations at first but then, once they learned that he’d be opening up their skulls for good reason, they came around.
And if this extravaganza of hope wasn’t enough, have you been hearing those radio ads for Xfinity? It’s the cable company around here offering all kinds of “bundles” that consist of television and internet packages you can’t find brightly wrapped under the tree. Perhaps there’s an equivalent elsewhere in the country. The message is so so so Christmasy, proclaiming that we should “Tech the Halls.”
Naturally, the first thing we need to be concerned about during this special season is whether or not we have enough Wifi to accommodate all the loved ones who will be coming home to sit ‘round the fire with all their devices – some doing Instagram, some Snapchat, others streaming a no doubt wondrous video, still others just watching plain ol’ television. Amidst this technological picnic, is there apt to be much real conversation about people’s actual lives? Not likely.
I just finished a new book called Private Doubt, Public Dilemma by Keith Thomson; it’s about Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin, the questions that troubled them, and how religion and science really need to figure out a way to work well together. In it, the author points to a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald, of all people, in his 1936 essay “The Crack-Up”:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
So maybe, all things considered in this particular culture of ours, we’re all asked to be pretty brilliant, especially at a time of year when we’re expected to function at a high level and stay merry, besides. Fa la la la la, indeed. How did they used to do it in the old days, anyway?
THE FIRESIDE BOOK OF FOLK TALES, orig. published 1947; Simon and Schuster, NY
More and more, experiencing the approach of this holiday – with so many competing priorities – feels much more akin to being a passenger in a bumper car at a noisy amusement park than sitting cozily bundled in a peaceful sleigh ride through the snow.
But what is there to do, really, than try to find the magic or at least the goodness wherever we can?
Just this morning, I visited an art gallery right down the hill, a place I’d been meaning to get to for a couple of years, where several horses roam in fields near various large sculptures. The woman there knows the trails around here that are good for riding, and maybe—just maybe—by forming an alliance with her I’ll work my way towards resuming a life with animals I’ve loved since childhood. This might not be magical, exactly, but it sure would be mighty fine.
Almost as fine, really, as imagining that there is someone who travels freely through the skies, all around the globe, encountering no barriers or suspicious looks, keeping to his mission of delivering gifts to children everywhere.
As Advent begins, leading to the season of Peace and Joy, I figure it’s as good a time as any to shake things up a bit.
Before Thanksgiving, I had been considering starting yoga, but on Monday I went to a “Body Combat” class instead, and now I’m hooked. Left hook, right hook, just plain hooked. Something about having the kids here for a spell and taking in all the changes happening with each one of them—well, it just makes me want to get out there and go for it rather than sit quietly and reflect. Not that yoga isn’t really demanding in its own way, of course. And besides, what I heard the instructor say during the class (how she can talk right through the exertions is amazing) exactly matched what I needed to hear, even outside the gym.
According to the exercise company called Les Mills http://www.lesmills.com/workouts/fitness-classes/bodycombat/ that designs and promotes these workouts for clubs everywhere, “BODYCOMBAT™ is the empowering cardio workout where you are totally unleashed.”
Unleashed. If it’s good for my dog, and one glimpse of him running through a field is evidence enough, then it must be good for me, too. At certain junctures in life, don’t we need to try to find out what exactly is even inside us TO unleash? I do, anyway, right now and right here.
This person isn’t me — she’s a tad younger and I don’t even have boxing gloves — but doesn’t she look cool? And fully in the moment?
Much of this workout, the one that I’m now planning on doing regularly, incorporates boxing moves, both for arms and legs. There’s no actual equipment, like heavy bags or speed bags, and — phew — no actual opponents. But you can feel like you might be in the ring, and this gets the adrenaline flowing. In a good way, I think. The fact that our older son coaches kids who are just learning to box (the moves without the actual sparring) in New York City definitely is a positive influence. He says that with a little time going to my new class, I’ll soon be ready to travel down there and try the one he does for mothers in Harlem.
So why is this just the right time to start punching and kicking while hitting no one?
Since our kids pulled out after several days at home, they’ve left everything, mostly my own mind, still vibrating. These three empty peanut butter jars on the counter are, in a way, strangely full, reminding me of what was and also what is now.
Thanksgiving is over, but the important remnants are not so much the leftovers in the fridge (gone days ago) but are more like scraps of oriental rugs, the colorful impressions each individual leaves that say, “Here’s where I am in my life; behold!”
Watching some videotape of family scenes when the kids were young, I remembered how much organizing, watching, protecting, guiding, and yes, plenty of directing we did as parents in those days. Sound familiar? We were shepherding them a whole lot of the time, often even when we were enjoying their antics. This wasn’t bad, of course; it was pretty normal and necessary. After all, they were darling, just beginning to make their way, and they needed us. They twirled and climbed and played their instruments on stage, and we beamed, ready to catch them or applaud, or both.
Now though, for many of us, a whole different tape is playing. Our kids are away from us most of the time, swooping in occasionally to resume being our kids, except they’re mostly not so much our kids as their own completely individual forces now, deciding all kinds of things on their own, choosing their paths and the people they want to be with or don’t want to be with, going forth, finding their own jars of peanut butter (or wishing they could, at a nut-free school). There’s nothing more appropriate than this, and yet sometimes it can leave parents re-defining their own directions, too.
How much engaging do we do now, how much backing off, how much diving into our very own lives, almost like—but yes, also different from– the ones we had before having kids?
And here’s why the words of wisdom from the “Body Combat” instructor the other day made so much sense, and why I’ll be sure to seek them again. Sure, she probably just tossed these lines out to provide key transitions for us laborers on the floor, but I heard more.
“Change is coming!” she warned, before the routine took us through a major shift, maybe from scissor kicks to jabs.
“You have choices!” she declared, giving us a couple of different options in the kind of push-ups we could do during a certain segment.
Talk about hitting me where I live. This unleashing business is not your typical Advent activity, doesn’t have much to do with waiting; but for this pastor’s wife anyway, it works. I can already tell that Christmas will be a whole lot more beautiful, not to mention powerful, this year.
How frequently, in married life, or non-married life for that matter, when we say to the handiest person nearby something like, “We really need to do such and such…” do we actually end up doing it and, furthermore, end up enjoying the process or the accomplishment or both? Wishes are easy; fulfillment not so much.
Nonetheless, one thing I’ll be giving thanks for this coming week is that my husband and I managed to spend some quality time with our birch trees down by the pond, correcting their posture.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in Possibility.” For most of this fall, I dwelled partly in the possibility that we would actually follow through on this particular venture. The project hovered on the horizon right there in plain sight, waiting to be done, about to be done. But then, suddenly, tending the trees felt much more like a dream that wouldn’t come true. Who was I kidding that we would, one day, leave the regular tasks that harnessed us, look at one another and say, “OK, it’s time; the birches are calling and we must go.”
Every day for months, really ever since the heavy snow and ice of last winter, we’d been observing their glowing white trunks, dramatically curved — some of them, anyway. Others still stood straight and true. I didn’t need ol’ Robert Frost (he’s perennially hanging around our place, I swear) to tell me that they, even minus the flowing hair tossed over, resembled a gaggle of teenage girls. You can almost hear them whispering to each other. I’m not part of the clique, but I still think of them as my friends in a certain way, and I like to go down to check them out every morning, see what the buzz is, who’s in and who’s out.
I need to give a few disclaimers here. First of all, we didn’t straighten all of the leaning ones; some were taken down, and now each beautiful log will become kind of like “the gift outright” to our woodpile. Second, we didn’t actually ask the trees if they wanted to change their way of life, we just went ahead. They looked like dancers struggling to hold a too-difficult pose, and the coming winter would surely keel them over. Third, my husband did way more of the work than I did. He got the right kind of steel cable, and the little clamps that help make loops (along with pieces of hose for cushioning) with the cable; he also went up on the ladder to do the tedious attaching and then drove the tractor that pulled the other end of the cable firmly but gently, coaxing each limber individual to please point straight to the sky.
What did I do? Well, I held the ladder of course. And occasionally rummaged around in the leaves for fallen clamps and nuts. And let’s not forget, I also offered opinions about which anchor trees we should use. Oh, and of course I repeatedly threw sticks to Rocky to quell his barking. I felt a little bit like an acolyte at the altar, actually, although I’ve never actually done that.
The ladder was pretty amazing in both its lightness and its stability. I bet if he (all those straight lines, all business, no curves) could have talked, he would have told me to go find something else to do—“I got this covered; your guy is safe up there.” Once in a while, though, a strong gust of wind would come up out of nowhere and all of us would do some shaking. No way I was leaving. Besides, those moments when a tree found its way skyward were really magical. Our plain ladder didn’t look anything like the version of Jacob’s Ladder portrayed in William Blake’s painting, with luscious curves and angels everywhere, but it did the job.
Courtesy of www.william-blake.org
Each tree went through a two-cable process. Once again, physics explained everything. The first cable went from as high up the tree as the ladder-climber could get and then diagonally down to the rear end of the tractor. The tractor moved, the cable tightened, and the tree obeyed orders. Only then, with tension in place, could the second cable— this one the real McCoy, going from tree to tree – be added. Then, just as my husband predicted, the stress shifted over. After all, there’s no free lunch—when it comes to straightening trees, somebody has to bear the brunt.
Once we had a few key trees in the clump righted, it was almost a piece of cake to attach a couple of outside way-over ones to the newly supported insiders.
If I didn’t know better, I’d even say that the whole process gave some indication of how people might use the collective strength of a group to help their neighbors in need. But this might be leaning too far, so I’ll just stick to the goodness of the mix we had out there of husband, wife, dog, tractor, ladder, sky, and gleaming trees.
Some things in life come easily, slide into place, pour forth, work out.
Other things are damn stubborn and don’t want to budge no matter what you do.
This fall, apples growing on trees all over our neighborhoods have been in the former category. Have you noticed how heavy laden the branches were? I wish I’d taken more pictures to capture all that deep red color, everywhere. It was richness portrayed in fruit. Just by looking at it all, your spirit would swell.
I haven’t heard a good scientific explanation for the remarkable crop this year, have you? What I did hear is that the Farmers’ Almanac says that the more abundant the apples, the more likely we’ll have a snowy winter. Another one, I guess. Nature sure does work in mysterious ways: what could possibly be the connection?
Having noticed back in September that our tree out front was really producing, and that the apples were also delicious—firm and crisp—I collected a bunch, but just in kind of a preliminary way. Once my husband tasted one, he was enthusiastic too; soon, this enthusiasm led to ingenuity.
One afternoon when he was home alone, he figured out that his drill could do a very good job of both coring and peeling the apples (don’t ask me how he did the peeling; suddenly I forget, but he did). The guy has always been kind of clever. Anyway, he also made a good applesauce, and we were off and running with our treasures.
It was kind of like instant video replay, actually, since we’d already been hard-pressed to harvest all those tomatoes from the back yard and pack them in the freezer. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not complaining. Again, this is life at its most generous. And we all know it can be otherwise.
The thing about apple-picking is that, at least when you have a really good tree, it can go on for a while, over a span of days or even weeks. Generally, you have to do it intermittently because, well, you have other activities too. Rob had gotten a whole lot of good fruit from the branches themselves. A couple of weeks later, I realized—with some urgency– that I’d better head out to see what was still salvageable on the ground before the evening frosts came.
Wow, was I ever rewarded. Expecting to see mostly bruised fruit, I found instead almost perfection. Here’s how many I got, just in about 15 minutes.
I found out that these babies are of the Macoun variety — definitely high quality. Of course now they’re still in my garage, awaiting more attention. But I’m getting there, probably even later today.
My old New Hampshire friend Robert Frost (no relation to the ice crystals that come at night) knew a thing or two about this activity. Here’s just a section of “After Apple-Picking”:
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
What a haunting poem this is, with familiar intimations of death amidst abundance.
Wanting to learn more about the original writing of it, I went to my bookshelf and dipped into a long-trusted biography I have—Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938 by Lawrance Thompson (Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1970). Turns out, years after he wrote the poem, Frost told his friend Charles Madison that it was one that came pouring out:
My word will be more or less taken for it that I played certain poems through without fumbling a sentence: such as for example November Days, The Mountain, After Apple-Picking, The Wood-Pile, Desert Places, The Gift Outright, The Lovely Shall Be Choosers, Directive. With what pleasure I remember their tractability. They have been the experience I couldn’t help returning for more of – I trust I may say without seeming to put on inspired airs. (p. 597)
Wow, do I ever love the expression “played certain poems through without fumbling a sentence.” Can’t you just see a running back making his way down the field, ball grasped firmly in his arms, stopping at nothing? I think also of a tennis swing – all one fluid motion.
And he remembers the “tractability” of these poems. Oh yes, it’s no wonder that’s a memory to do some basking in. This word, one we don’t hear all that often nowadays, means the quality of something that’s easy to deal with, to manage or control.
Like near-perfect apples almost waiting to be picked up from the ground. Or a base-runner stealing second, beating the tag by a full second. Or falling in love with someone who’s just as much in love with you.
“Intractability”—that’s another story. For now anyway, let’s let it just stay stuck somewhere.
Hiking up Mount Osceola—one of the 4,000 footers in the White Mountains—last weekend with friends, I noticed that there were about equal numbers of men and women. We were all in our layers, climbing over the rocks, getting glimpses of a breathtaking blanket of orange amidst the first snow of the season. It was a wonderful place to be on a dramatic fall day. Our party consisted of three couples, and we merged very nicely. As far as I could tell, no men anywhere forged far ahead of women, seeing the point of the outing as staying together. There were some solo men on the trail, and some solo women too. We all went through steep sections, offering hands when needed, but — in an overall kind of way– the two genders seemed to be on even ground. When you’ve lived more than a half century with four older brothers and happen to have also gone to a mostly-male college, this kind of thing is noteworthy.
As I read up on the history of the White (the origin of that descriptor is apparently murky, but no, it probably wasn’t given in honor of the race, most common in this parts, with the same name) Mountains afterwards, however, it’s hard not to see the whole region painted with a masculine brush. Does “rugged” – a word often used to describe these peaks—always align more with the male half of the race? Back when names were being chosen, did a woman’s experience ever count?
There are lots of good guidebooks, especially from the Appalachian Mountain Club, for hikers. The one I happen to have around the house is called The White Mountains: Names, Places & Legends by John Mudge (Durand Press, 1992). Now it’s true my family and John’s family happen to go way back together, so I could be a bit biased, but this is a very engaging little book, with a beautiful oil painting on the soft cover. And it’s not John’s fault at all that, page after page, I’m reminded that just about every blasted peak bears the name of some man: there are all those presidents, of course (certainly you don’t want me to list them) but then, in addition, there’s Tuckerman, Carter, Lafayette, Clay, Hancock, Field, Stickney, and Webster—just to name some of the fellas who never occupied the White House but still are immortalized, with rocky limbs sprawled out, and up. Granted, a handful of the names aren’t people at all — Cannon, Wildcat, the Flume – and we have to be glad that at least a few of the mountains commemorate various chiefs from Native American tribes, such as Osceola and Chocorua.
Still, though, the whole place is teeming with men. Or at least, that’s what we’re led to believe. Could one whole hunk of this state really be so tilted to one gender? This must, in part, explain the origin of Julie Boardman’s book, When Women Meet Mountains (Durand Press, 2001). I haven’t read it yet, but apparently she does a good job of describing a whole range of bold and ingenious females, largely unknown, who explored these peaks, probably some in long skirts.
I suppose the number of presiding men is actually down by one since the Old Man himself fell down in May of 2003.
By Denise Ortakales, illustrated by Robert Crawford; Sleeping Bear Press, Chelsea, MI; 2004
Legend has it, and I got a refresher on this from a beautifully illustrated children’s book, The Old Man was actually Chief Pemigewasset. He fell in love and married the daughter of the Mohawk Chief, Minerwa; she had to travel west to bid her ailing father goodbye, however, and never returned. Pemigewasset waited endlessly for her, finally froze to death, and then after burial his body was somehow immortalized by the Great Spirit, with that famous fixed gaze. He may have been the famous one, but he was there completely because of a woman.
And then, in a kind of odd twist on this tale, there was poor Nancy Barton, a girl who did in fact have a mountain – and a brook, and a cascade—named after her. Believe me, though, you wouldn’t want to go down in history this same way. The story was a revelation to me, so I can’t help but quote the sad account I found, on Wikipedia, in its entirety. Here’s a quoted section of a book by Charles Skinner, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, which was originally written in 1896:
Another spot of interest in Crawford Notch is Nancy’s Brook. It was at the point where this stream comes foaming from Mount Nancy into the great ravine that the girl whose name is given to it was found frozen to death in a shroud of snow in the fall of 1788. She had set out alone from Jefferson in search of a young farmer who was to have married her, and walked thirty miles through trackless snow between sunset and dawn. Then her strength gave out and she sank beside the road never to rise again. Her recreant lover went mad with remorse when he learned the manner of her death and did not long survive her, and men who have traversed the savage passes of the Notch on chill nights in October have fancied that they heard, above the clash of the stream and whispering of the woods, long, shuddering groans mingled with despairing cries and gibbering laughter.”
Some women, well–men too, I guess — may know from hard experience what it is to have a “recreant lover”: if someone leaves you in the lurch, especially after promising undying devotion, it’s anything but recreational. Poor Nancy paid the ultimate price. There’s even a painting of her, looking beatific in that “shroud of snow.” I saw a photograph of it in John Mudge’s book, and he kindly sent me a scanned version:
“Nancy in the Snow” from Samuel A. Drake, via THE WHITE MOUNTAINS by John T.B. Mudge; The Durand Press, 1992
Surely, if any of us had known Nancy at the time, we would have urged her not to chase after a guy who had left her. “Come on girl, don’t you see that you can have a good life without him, that loser? You have your own skills; don’t make the mistake of depending on any man, even if it is 1788. Besides, there are other guys out here in these hills, some of them as solid as stone.” But off she went, soon to succumb.
The six of us didn’t stay up in the Whites long enough that evening to listen for her spooky groans, cries or laughter. In our little party, on an October day more than a couple of centuries later, the couples who went up all came down—still connected.
I felt grateful for that, grateful to have been there at all, with such a glorious mix of elements as far as the eye could see. And even though people long ago chose to see mostly men — some stodgy ones at that — in these mountains, we might attribute this, to use another word often bandied about these days, to something like “privilege.” Anyway, Mother Nature knows better. Minerwa never made it back to her loyal love, Nancy never recovered her lousy one; but all of us can venture up there today confident at least in the possibility of these mountains offering up beauty, and sometimes even lasting love, to each and every gender, in equal measure.
The Pope has come and gone, with countless people either seeing him for real –including two of my very best friends –or wondering what’s he’s about; we’ve watched the moon get enveloped in a red shadow and then learned that there’s likely water on Mars.
Meanwhile, I just keep trying to make sense out of, on the one hand, organized religion and the way different people depict God; and on the other hand, the vast universe and what we actually know about it. Do we have lift-off here?
I won’t say “the divide between” because there need be no inherent contradiction between the world of Faith and the world of Science. Right? And yet, there is plenty still to wonder about. What’s a curious girl – OK, a creeping towards the upper realms of middle-aged woman who also happens to be a bishop’s wife– to do but read, seeking some flashes of light if not some real answers?
Even when I go about my daily rounds not particularly thinking about these matters, which some may claim are neither here nor there, I’m apt to run into a poster like this one at the hair salon. Now you tell me if this is a reasonable claim…
Ok, so this must be a joke, and there’s not much real science in the height of hair. But maybe somewhere someone actually believes it?
These days, I’m hearing fewer Bible passages because I’m going less often to church, partly because the children have scattered and partly because the one familiar destination has turned into many far-flung ones. I am, however, travelling far (a la my mentor Emily Dickinson) by devouring books. I feel drawn to fiction and non-fiction both, but my specialty of late, strangely enough, has been anything with “God” or “Faith” or “Jesus” together with “Science” or “Nature” or perhaps “Infinity” or “Stars” in the title. Hey, nobody can accuse me of reading on the puny end of the shelf, anyway; I’m zooming in on the Big Questions.
Even the light reads often have something to do with the Universe; take The Astronaut Wives Club, for instance. I try not to be distracted by those flipped hair-dos; these women were dealing with some pretty serious distances in their marriages.
This all may have started in earnest when I sought out Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity (Alma Books, London, 2007). She is the ex-wife of the famous Stephen Hawking, and her book was the basis of the wildly popular movie The Theory of Everything. It’s a riveting story all right. You’ve really got to hand it to her: even though her own areas of expertise were languages and music, she managed to understand a whole lot about what her genius physicist husband was figuring out, too. And she followed much of his mind-voyage out into the stratosphere and into black holes while also coping with his “motor neuron disease,” dealing with all the complications when he travelled around the world to give talks, as well as caring for their three children. It was exhausting. Then, sadly, they parted.
Through it all, she maintained a steadfast belief in God, often wishing that he could make more room alongside his famous theories for the religious faith that, she believed, would help sustain him. However, according to her account, he remained standoffish and often scathingly dismissive of the Anglicanism that was part and parcel of their community.
And yet, as I discovered when I went back to look again at his blockbuster for the common folk, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1988) which was dedicated to Jane, Stephen Hawking definitely did not leave God out. True enough, most of the book sticks closely to the scientific discoveries – a good thing, too, in that there’s a whole lot to digest – but he does tip his hat to God on more than one occasion. Here, for instance:
One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to understand. This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being, but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand? (p. 122)
Reading a passage like this, I begin to conjure an image of God and Science as dance partners. Admittedly, this could be partly because I’ve just gone to a string of events (two reunions, one wedding, one huge anniversary celebration for a school) when the much hoped-for opportunity to dance either did or did not pan out.
But, honestly, the more I read, the more I see all kinds of people depicting the interplay between these forces — the weaving in and weaving out, the constant movement, and even the sharing of who’s in the lead.
A brand new book I picked up on this topic is almost mind-blowing. There’s a kind of parallel here with the Hawkings, actually: Nancy Ellen Abrams is married to the astrophysicist Joel Primack; he studies “dark matter.” In A God That Could Be Real (Beacon Press, Boston, 2015) she’s arguing that it’s time for us to create a wholly new kind of God – to lose the old, stale ways of thinking about an omniscient/omnipotent Being and see instead an “emergent phenomenon” in keeping with what our society desperately needs to move forward, completely in tandem with the exploding knowledge we have from Science.
In his Foreward to the book, Archbishop Desmond Tutu begins this way:
I must begin by acknowledging that I do not agree with everything that Nancy Abrams says about a scientific understanding of God. (ix)
Well, phew, that’s a relief. Sure would be boring to see everybody dancing the same way out on that floor, wouldn’t it? Hey, this party is bound to go on for quite some time. If I’m patient, and the music is right, I might even persuade my husband to come on out there with me for a while…though it might have to be in the mid-week time slot.
Today we’re going to look closely at two terms with an almost automatic heartwarming quality: FAMILY and FOOD. Ah yes, I know, your whole inner being is already feeling the glow…there’s a big table, smiles and laughter, glasses clinking, sharing of tales, a high chair with a baby banging a spoon or, why not, perhaps a slightly hunched over grandparent sitting near a sullen, for the moment anyway, teenager. Disorganized, perhaps; raucous, sometimes; but generally good, right?
Except, remember, this is a blog about dissimilar entities keeping company with one another, starkly different things lying side by side, or perhaps standing up and duking it out — contrasts of all kinds, ones that might even make your jaw drop.
Welcome to my particular family of five and the range of ways we choose to eat. If you can keep it all straight, you’re a mightier person than I am. As for food groups in the pyramid, however, we got those covered.
Without naming names, let me give you some idea what I’m talking about.
1) One of us eats primarily healthy food but eschews (like that?) any strict rules. OK, since you would’ve guessed anyway, I’ll fess up. Good things like kale, grains, and nectarines are supreme; but nothing is completely out of the question, except perhaps salami, Fruit Loops, or Marshmallow Fluff. Breyers once in a while? Not a crime in my book..reminds me of my childhood when my father used to head to the big freezer after dinner, asking attentively, “A little ice cream?” But in those days it was pretty much always vanilla, from the drive-through Dairy Barn.
2) One of us eats, for dinner anyway, meat or fish and lots and lots of greens, often in a kind of colorful ratatouille that is, admittedly, out of this world. At all other times, fruits and nuts of all kinds –generally purchased in small bags –have become fundamental sources of nourishment. Yes, this is what it means to go PALEO — not to be confused with POLIO, which was in fact a disease we have tried to eradicate. Person expresses contentment with diet and maintains rigorous exercise routine, although other family members wonder about plain old hunger. Projection, no doubt.
3) One of us has gone so enthusiastically VEGAN that he/she has put that bumper sticker on the car, so no matter who is driving it, there it is. This person not only eats no meat (or fish) or eggs (!!!!) but regularly tries to persuade Person #2 that he/she really should re-examine his/his philosophy for the betterment of the planet. Fortunately, they both agree that any plate worth its salt – ok, maybe not the right term– should be overflowing with green, green, green. This person also will in fact still eat cereal, rice, and potatoes and even – gasp – BREAD –a substance considered, by other members of the family, to be part of the Evil Empire.
4) One of us, again loving all vegetables, has pretty much given up on beef as well as grains/pasta/cereal but still retains a taste for bacon and has stayed true to his/her longtime passion for fruit of all kinds. Pineapple and avocados, PLEASE! This person also shifts food preferences once in a while, keeping life interesting. Yogurt, for instance – you never know. And the former zest for certain kinds of candy (remember that word?) such as, say, Skittles — VANISHED with the teenage years.
5) One of us, with a very healthy appetite, is cooking regularly for her/himself generally after hard workouts. This presents a number of challenges, including one involving the wallet. He/she is a big fan of those cans of beans that Person #2 used to like to eat, with as many fresh veggies as available. Actually shares characteristics with both the PALEO and VEGAN diets of Persons 2 and 3, and could probably go either way. Very occasionally may eat chocolate cake, if others at the table indulge, but has no trouble staying away from cookies.
Whew — that’s a lot to swallow, no? Maybe things in your family have gone a similar route, or rather, routes. To take a tip from William James, I might call it The Varieties of Gastronomic Experiences.
I’m still trying to sort all of the changes out. It helps a bit, I guess, that very rarely are all five of us gathered around the same table. No, wait, I don’t mean that the way it sounded. All’s I know for sure is that the old days — when I, the mother of the family, used to prepare ONE main meal and serve it proudly to kids who arrived at their stools when summoned, or at the table when we were all together – those days are gone. They were sweet days, for the most part, but they couldn’t last.
A role that was once pretty well defined — a bit like how the different kinds of food stayed in their own quadrants on a plate — has morphed into something else entirely. Now, I need to do some relinquishing, go with the flow, let everyone eat what they choose to eat, and maybe even examine my own choices more thoroughly. My family is giving me food for thought.
I just need to figure out what to do with the example of my friend Lauren’s grandmother: she’s about to be 102, with mind intact, and for much of her life she’d go to the local deli and ask for, “Pastrami, with plenty of fat.”
Some things, at least, are clear. With a bumper crop of tomatoes in our raised beds out back, we can all agree on how luscious they are.
Well, actually, I take that back…one of us has never really liked them – too mushy, or too many seeds, or maybe too red. So, wait, how come watermelons are fine then?
“What brought y’all down to Alabama?” the coffee seller on a Montgomery street corner asked, as friendly as she could be. We paused. It wasn’t so easy to explain to a welcoming Southerner that we were a group from New Hampshire travelling through their state to commemorate the murder 50 years ago of a civil rights activist from our state– Jonathan Daniels.
But she didn’t flinch and, in fact, said something like, “Oh, that’s SO interesting!” Then she went on to tell us how the proceeds from her coffee stand go to support an organization working to fight human trafficking.
The March Continues, all right. In fact, all kinds of marches continue.
I’d never before fancied myself a pilgrim, but since I accompanied my husband and a youth group from Keene on a kind of civil rights commemorative tour, also called a “pilgrimage” by the organizers, I guess that’s what I was for those five days. Come to think of it, those wide hats that the original Massachusetts Pilgrims used to wear would’ve come in handy in that blazing sun.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I tried to learn something about who Jonathan Daniels was. In 1964, my own brother had participated in “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, registering voters along with a few hundred other college students from the North, so I had images from the era, even if I had just been a little kid then, safely out climbing trees. In addition to this brother, another sister-in-law introduced us to a few of her best friends who spent months working with SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. From what I could tell, lots of people of a certain age – many of them with no particular religion at all – had heard the call to help bring justice. This, for them, was a compelling moral issue.
Jonathan Daniels, though, was on the path to ordination when he took a leave from Episcopal Theological School (now called “EDS”) along with a classmate, Judith Upham, to go to Alabama. His faith was deeply embedded in who he was; he wore his collar — the student version — constantly when he was there.
Before we left, I started reading a biography of Daniels, called Outside Agitator by Charles Eagle. It didn’t take long to get absorbed by the story, which traces his roots in Keene, his process of self-discovery as a young adult, his decision to devote himself to the work in Lowndes County (notorious for its deep racism), and the series of events leading up to the day when he walked to a little store, accompanied by two black women and one white man and—while saving the life of Ruby Sales, one of the women — met his own death. The book also paints a detailed and disturbing picture of Tom Coleman, the killer who was acquitted of any crime.
It was a little eerie, frankly, to be reading about this harrowing time as we were driving on the same roads that Jonathan himself must have been on, but it sure made the whole drama come pulsing to life.
If I had to choose just two words to describe the trip, they would be 1) Powerful and 2) Hot. Indeed, I could also say it was “powerfully hot,” or even that we were “fired up.” But you get the idea.
Here’s the gist of the civil rights remembrance activities we did. I will use the present tense, just to differentiate our doings from the history that we were discovering. You can just skip over this list if you want, but I’m offering it to give you the facts – pretty much straight up.
1) Arrive in Atlanta and visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site. This area of a just a few blocks includes The King Center (displaying many personal possessions and detailed timelines), the tombs of both MLK and Coretta, King’s childhood home as well as Ebeneezer Baptist Church, where he shared the pulpit with his father and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was born. Sitting in that church, listening to King’s voice from a recording, made the whole trip worth it. And we were only in the first day.
2) Drive to Montgomery, where we live dorm-style in a building connected to Church of the Ascension. There, over the course of a few days, we visit the Rosa Parks Museum (in three parts, including a re-enactment of exactly what happened on that bus), the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church (where MLK served in the 50’s), the site of the Slave Depot, and the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center. We put our hands in the water that runs over the black granite memorial, designed by Maya Lin, and met the remarkable Morris Dees, one of the founders, who continues to work tirelessly against hate groups in this country. He’s the real deal. At the time, we didn’t know that just a few days later there would be a memorial service at this same spot for Julian Bond, first president of the SPLC.
We also attended a presentation at Alabama State University by several individuals who knew Jonathan and/or were deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. They gathered to speak just to us, so we felt truly honored.
3) Drive to Selma, where we visit the Interpretive Center (with huge photographs of the original marches), actually meeting James Webb, who had been a 16 year old marcher at the time and was right up front in one photograph and walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Before leaving, we also drive by the Washington Carver Homes (where Jonathan Daniels stayed for a time, with the West family) and the Brown Chapel AME Church, which served as a kind of gathering place for marchers. Learn about “Bloody Sunday” and what followed, culminating in the successful 50 mile march to the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery.
4) On the way back to Montgomery, we stop at the National Park Service Interpretive Center (at the site of the former Tent City for tenant farmer families) offering more history of about the Civil Rights Trail, and then the memorial for Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker from Detroit, and mother of five, who was killed by Klansmen while driving back to Selma after the final march.
5) Drive to Hayneville on Saturday for the Pilgrimage and Procession for Jonathan Daniels. We walk, along with 1,500 others (including many Episcopal bishops) from the Courthouse to the Jail –where JD and others had been held, enduring terrible conditions–and then to the site of the “Cash Store” where he was gunned down, shortly after his release from jail, by Tom Coleman, on August 20th, 1965. We watch — some of us from the bit of shade we found — as the first-ever memorial marker is put on the site. Rev. Richard Morrisroe, who was also shot on that day, was with us, in his wheelchair. Then, many of us pack the courthouse for a service, at which placards with photographs of other “Alabama Martyrs” are held up. Michael Curry, the newly elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, gives a fiery sermon; NH Bishop Rob Hirschfeld, my husband, also speaks about the legacy of Jonathan Daniels in New Hampshire.
The heat finally gets me, and I just can’t stand up anymore, so leave the church/courthouse and slink down on the outside porch floor to rest. But then my particular purple-shirted guy finds me to hurry back to Atlanta and the flight home. Turns out, it’s hot in New Hampshire too. And it’s still my birthday, so I celebrate with a scrumptious dessert at Uno Pizzeria.
If you’re still with me, I’ll put the present tense aside now, for the rest. Just a few days later, I got to visit with my brother Mike – the one who had served in Mississippi. I had plenty of questions to ask him, and he patiently tried to answer—remembering, for instance, that he had returned South during the Spring of 1965 and spent about a week with scores of others in some kind of Montgomery detention center, where some of them even proposed a hunger strike. “I didn’t know you were in Alabama, too!” I said, wanting to catch up on everything I had missed, which was apparently a whole lot. Going back to the time in Mississippi, he acknowledged that it had been plenty scary: he was roughed up himself and, worse even, he had been in the very same group with Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney—the three workers who disappeared and then were discovered dead. Their pictures were on the wall when we visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center, and I looked at them long and hard.
“Didn’t many of you want to leave at that point?” I asked. “What did Mom and Dad say on the phone?”
He couldn’t precisely remember, kind of shrugged even, only recalling that most everyone involved understood that there was important work still to do there, and they ought to try to stay and do it.
The fact is, it might have been my own brother who lost his life. Thank goodness we get to be with him now that he’s topped 70 years old! The guy has always had a light touch, is quick to laugh and to get others laughing, but there was a time when he was on the front lines.
Rest in peace, Jonathan Daniels. You and many others from that time, you really had what it took. Those of us who got to walk back in history and look closely at this particular place and time, just a couple of hot weeks ago, understand a little better now than we did before what real courage, in regular people, looks like. Here’s hoping we can use this light to see the needs in our own communities a little more clearly now, and go forward.
Life can, it seems to me, be divided up roughly into “Getting Things Done in a Linear Fashion,” “Getting Things Done in a Circular Fashion,” “Not Getting Things Done,” “Just Going Back and Forth,” and finally “The Hell With It.”
Once in a while, I’m in the first couple of camps. Much of the time, however— sometimes by choice, often not—I’m in the last three.
To be more precise, it looks like I’ll be in the “Just Going Back and Forth” category more frequently in the coming weeks because my birthday wish was granted—way early too, I might add: there’s a brand new and lovely swing in our back field now.
Lucky me. And big thanks go out to my husband, who used a slice of his vacation time to attach rolls of string to tennis balls (with a bunch of throwing attempts over the high branch by us and then, triumphantly, by our niece and nephew), enabling the right kind of rope to follow and then of course the wooden plank to finish the thing off.
At this juncture, as you look again at the picture, I feel the need to say that the wooden plank is considerably larger than it needs to be to support my particular backside alone. Let’s just say it has generous proportions, perhaps anticipating that a couple of people might want to swing together. Am I saying this correctly?
The idea came over me gradually. Each morning I head down the field towards the pond, and each morning I admire that formidable oak tree that presides over on the right side, with long branch stretching out, invitingly. I mean really, it was practically asking to be swung from.
Even just imagining the completed masterpiece got me drifting back in time to “Swings I Have Known and Loved.” There was the thick rope hanging from a pine branch right behind my Long Island home, the one that would burn hands but would go high enough for us to play a game in which we’d make lines in the dirt to show how far we could go before leaping off. There was also the mostly metal playground at the elementary school — with chains dangling and wide spaces between swings, stones beneath, and a long and slippery slide that could be really hot or really cold — and another much like it at the village park, only with the bonus of a roundabout that could go really fast with lots of kids. There was also the breathtaking swing at my cousins’ place that was expertly hung so that the ride started on a grassy hill and had its apogee out over a section of Northport Bay. This one, nestled in a little clearing with no fanfare, provided me with early heart-stopping thrills. The experience was completely and utterly private, too, even if others were waiting on the bank. It was almost like being propelled into a new land, with only the breeze as companion.
And then, later on, there were of course the many different swings that my kids went on – wherever we could find them. It took a couple of days’ work to install the sturdy plastic playscape we had in our backyard near the University of Connecticut, but it really proved its worth many times over. A focal point for our kids and their visiting friends, it was always a place for trying things out, for imagination, for laughter, and sometimes even for exultation. I loved, too, that it was on a level piece of ground way at the back of the yard, so kids scampered to get there and then had the woods all around.
I doubt that the Bible has much to say about swings per se, but we all know the wonderful spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” This is, of course, not about just another day in the park but about getting to heaven, which is kind of a serious subject. What a soaring and joyful song! Here is Johnny Cash singing it, in case you’d like a reminder. My favorite line is probably, “Well I’m sometimes up and sometimes down.” Man, ain’t that the truth?
Anyway, come on over anytime you’re in the neighborhood and want a reason NOT to get something done. We can just hang out back there for a while, shooting the breeze, admiring the trees and maybe throwing some balls or sticks to Rocky. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any memories, via the “Comments” box below, of your own swinging days of yore. How long has it been, anyway?
Driving back from early evening tennis a few towns over, I saw the sun hanging low over the rolling New Hampshire fields—still glorious, as if darkness weren’t right on its heels. Going to the pond would mean taking a significant detour from my route and then, after parking, hoofing it under the highway and over to the water. I briefly considered doing the sensible thing: heading home for a shower before joining my family for dinner. But that was really out of the question: on this perfect summer evening when the air was glimmering with possibility, only a swim would do.
This steamy week has been one steady reminder of how much ponds, rivers, lakes do to help replenish both our physical and spiritual selves. The salted water version I’ll leave to my friends on the beaches, but I suspect – and remember, having grown up on Long Island Sound– that it works pretty much the same way there too. And I celebrate the virtues of immersion in water even though the Christian rite of baptism (in truth, the sprinkling water kind, not the all-in kind) is something I’ve watched happen repeatedly through my years of marriage but never directly experienced.
Not that I would necessarily recall the feeling of water being sprayed over me when I was a baby. I can’t even remember when I learned for the first time that my four brothers and I were “un-christened”—no, that can’t be the right term; since we weren’t a churchgoing family, we simply had not participated in this, or really any other, rite of Christian initiation. My parents never explained why we were on a different track; I guess they didn’t feel the need to. We just went merrily along our way. Naturally, when I started keeping company with a man who was preparing to become ordained, the topic did come up for some scrutiny. Previously, I sometimes felt unusual for an array of other nothing-to-do-with-religion reasons. During those days of courtship, however, I began to see my family, and me within it, from a completely new kind of angle. Holy cow! We were outsiders, and not just because we spent a whole lot of time outside! At first, this really made me squirm. Ultimately, though, the unaccustomed viewing really wasn’t so bad and even became kind of illuminating. Some years later, I even got to start this blog. Nowadays, I can see a baptismal font (it was lying around not being used, I promise) right in own back garden, gleaming amidst the greenery.
Among the books on my bedside table is a slim volume called Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002- 2012. There’s some slightly racier reading there too, don’t worry. “Oh good,” I thought when I first spotted it, probably on my husband’s desk. “This is the kind of straight-to-the-point thing that is bound to help me out.” It’s under 100 pages and is divided up, conveniently, into four chapters based on what the title promises. Early in the “Baptism” chapter, there is this passage:
So, the beginning of Christian life is a new beginning of God’s creative work. And just as Jesus came up out of the water, receiving the Spirit and hearing the voice of the Father, so for the newly baptized Christian the voice of God says, ‘You are my son/daughter’, as that individual begins his or her new life in association with Jesus. (p.3)
Hmm. I guess for someone like me, who somehow bypassed this moment, there was no voice of God telling me I’m part of the family. Upon reflection, this was a tad troubling. Was I or was I not living my life “in association with Jesus”? How much did this matter? Since my parents are gone now, I’m not sure what they would have to say about it. And my dog Rocky, he was no help in this department either, flinging himself in bodies of water any chance he got.
But then I kept reading and found this passage just a little further on.
To be able to say, ‘I’m baptized’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected—you might even say contaminated—by the mess of humanity. This is very paradoxical. Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave us untouched or unsullied. (p.6)
The plot thickens here, doesn’t it? You get baptized to be refreshed, and you’re singled out and applauded during the ceremony; then you end up getting all hot and sweaty and dirty, jostling around with other subway riders, anyway! I tell you, sometimes the way these Christian leaders describe their faith, things seem to spin around in circles.
The part I think I really do understand, though, is how we need to “claim a new level of solidarity with other people.” Then again, I’m not so sure how much of it would necessarily be “new”— I know plenty of folks who have been quietly living like this all along. But the point about not staying away from parts of the human experience that are hard or painful or simply other than our own— that I get. After all, we’re all in a kind of continuous stream, rocks and all.
I thought I might be all by myself at the pond the other evening, even briefly considered the risks of swimming alone as the light faded. But I needn’t have worried: there were a couple of clusters of people still there, whooping it up even. Diving in felt every bit as good as I had expected, and I stretched out my strokes, pretending for a moment that I could just keep going and become part of the cool water, leaving any possibility of earthly contamination far behind. Soon, though, it was time to get back; after all, my family would be wondering about me. Wouldn’t they?
“Look at that…just miles and miles of emptiness!”
“But Mom, what we’re seeing is not empty at all…it’s full-up with Nature.”
This is, more or less, how a bit of conversation between my older son and me went as we were driving through the vastness of Wyoming last week. Conversations were few in that car, actually, as we all just tried to drink in the dry spaciousness of what we were seeing, mile after mile. Small talk seemed, well, particularly puny.
My son was right, of course; and then, ever generous, he reminded me that I had actually been the first among the four of us to point out that we were in a place where the Earth—rock formations of all shapes and colors and heights, creatures and plants everywhere to see— definitely ruled, where humanity in general came in a distant second. This way of seeing really wasn’t the same as seeing emptiness: it was instead a kind of power shifting, a recognition that the near-absence of one kind of thing (people and all of their accoutrements) allowed for the full grandeur of what had been there for ages to rise up.
There are panoramas, and then there are P A N O R A M A S.
Ever since I went, at age eight, to a ranch in Montana with my family, I’ve had a kind of visceral connection to the Rockies and their close neighbors, the Tetons.
While I have nothing against California or the majestic Pacific Coast, I find it weird how often Americans leap from one side of the country to the other, gazing down at these spectacular mountains out of their tiny plane windows only if they’re sufficiently awake. To me, the jagged peaks have always evoked a feeling something like the one in Beyonce’s song, “XO” or “Love Me Lights Out.” They make me dizzy, set my heart a-spinning, let me lose myself while gaining a connection to something definitely bigger. And I’ve felt compelled to bring my kids out there to tap into the raw beauty, too.
This may not be “religious” pilgrimage in the classic sense, and I wouldn’t say that any particular set of beliefs in a certain Creator – beyond a feeling of awe for Nature itself– is propelling me, but there are certain similarities.
This time, as it happened, I was also reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Living with a Wild God. Prolific as all get out, she’s mostly known for her bold writing on class issues, the status of women and social justice. Her account of what life is like for low-wage workers, Nickel and Dimed, became a blockbuster. In this latest book, a memoir, she’s up to something very different: trying to figure out what on earth was going on inside herself back when she was a girl, on her way to becoming a scientist, asking a lot of really deep questions about the nature of existence….and at the same time, following in her family tradition, staying apart from anything smacking of religion.
Not to spill all the beans for you, but the climax of the book involves a kind of mystical (she does use that word) experience she had as a teenager. In that instant, just walking along a road by herself, everything changed – KA-BOOM!
At some point in my predawn walk – not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time—the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it….Everywhere, “inside” and out, the only condition was overflow. “Ecstasy” would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence. (Twelve Books/Hachette; 2014, p. 116)
Strong stuff from a self-proclaimed atheist, that’s for sure. Through the decades that followed, she grappled with this cataclysmic experience and is still trying to figure out what to make of the “Other”—that’s what she calls it—that came out and engulfed her then.
I’m rusty on my Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I’m pretty sure what she’s trying to describe here isn’t that far off from his concept of “The Oversoul” – the universal spirit that Emerson saw running through all things, all of us.
Frankly, I’m not sure I get it, completely. In Wyoming, I almost saw a “blazing everywhere” when we were in Yellowstone, gazing at endless acres of trees charred by the Great Fire of 1988. But in that case, I was conjuring up what had in fact been an enormous conflagration, probably started by lightening. Or when we walked out to Grand Prismatic Spring, near Old Faithful, and saw the mind-blowing colors in the pool there, brought about by ancient microbes. This place is strange indeed, but it’s also undeniably real, created by a combination of natural forces that have nothing to do with our particular species.
For me, anyway, a return trip out West brought not one electrifying experience—ZAP!– but a whole collection of calmer moments when I felt woven into the huge tapestry of whatever this mysterious life is all about. And one thing I can say for sure: empty, it’s not.
Each time I dive in again here, I remind myself that my theme is contrasts…things that are next to each other but strikingly different. Life is a lot about merging, but those lines of demarcation are everywhere, too.
Take, for example, the fact that we try to appreciate the little treasures that glimmer through our daily lives while not shrinking from the full force of tragedies outside of our own households. Sometimes, of course, it’s the opposite: our own lives may be crumbling all around us with loss and pain, yet we manage to recognize that for others, the sun still shines.
With news of another mass shooting by another disturbed young man wielding a weapon pounding on all of our souls, it is hard to know what to do, how to act, where to turn. The regular, tranquil moments can seem inconsequential in the face of such unfathomable horrors.
Since I find myself in a precious patch of days at home in the company of my teenage son, however, I am thinking about what it means, for boys in particular, to grow up: What do they need to thrive? What are the factors that, in some cases, can set them dangerously off course? Their job is to claim places in the world, feel recognized, and still fulfill their responsibilities to others. It’s serious business all right. It is for us too—we watch our sons grow tall, push off from us and sometimes become mysterious in their own might.
Maybe that’s why the hilarious moments are so welcome.
While we were eating dinner the other night on the screened porch, our 16 year old Henry (he’s OK with this telling) decided to pose some questions about those years before his father and I got married. He wanted to know what kind of jobs we had, what the dating scene was like, how we navigated our late twenties and early thirties before being thunderstruck by love. His father being on the other side of the country at Episcopal Convention –combing through resolutions down in a basement, apparently — I was on my own, and so I tried to answer with my usual decorum.
When I mentioned that I’d spent some time working for a “temp agency” in Boston, his face suddenly lit up and he exclaimed, “A tempeh agency?!” Having recently adopted a vegan way of life and now learning to cook many flavorful dishes with this wonderful if drab looking stuff, he was thrilled to hear that his mother had actually been employed at a place dedicated to the production of it. Attaway, Ma!
Little did he know, of course, that my time with the temp-not-tempeh agency was far from the wondrous era he imagined. While I did in fact meet a whole lot of characters in offices around the city, my self-esteem plummeted as people barely saw the need to learn my name or anything else about me. I might as well have worn a sign that said, “I’m In Between Things, so I Don’t Really Count.”
What definitely does count, during this stretch of summer, is the time I’m getting to be with my son. He’s balancing working at an organic farm with taking Drivers Ed; while the classes are pretty deadly boring, and the teacher rambles on with his acronyms about all the things you have to worry about behind the wheel, Henry can stand it because he spends most of his daylight hours outside in the fields, surrounded by green things growing everywhere. And then in the evenings, he runs.
Since the prospect of getting his license is hovering out there in the near future, I still accompany him in the car, doing the daily circuit from home to farm to class and around again. And then there are the screened porch dinners, too. Gathered up together, these pieces qualify, especially as he is my third child, as a glimmering treasure.
The drumbeat of news from the outside, though, rams home the point that far too many young men are lost, unmotivated, full of hate, or all these combined. In these cases, “growing up” is really not what’s going on.
I came upon this book recently; it’s not about how mass murderers are made so much as it’s about the factors that, according to the author Dr. Leonard Sax, lead boys astray, cause them to squander their abilities. They’re doing a dangerous kind of drifting, he argues, and the whole society suffers as a result. Video games, prescription drugs, devaluation of masculinity, teaching methods that favor girls, and environmental factors—these are all contributing to the problem, and we’d better take notice.
This rings true to an extent, based on what I’ve seen. And yet, as the timeless Huckleberry Finn reminds us, drifting done right — in the pursuit of true freedom–can also be glorious.
Drawing by Edward W. Kemble, original illustrator from the first edition of
ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain; Children’s Classics, New York, 1992
Here’s what Huck says at the end of Chapter 18:
I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn’t no home like at raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.
Amen to that. For my own boy, and so many others coming into their own strength, having plenty of drive is a good and necessary thing of course. Once in a while, though—not when they’re actually behind the wheel! – some Huck-like drifting might just keep them from getting “all cramped up and smothery.”
Let’s all do what we can to celebrate our boys…to care for them, to support them, to let them know that they can make a positive difference and enjoy themselves, too. Oh man, do we ever need them to stay whole — now, and later on too.
Did you hear about the recent U.S. Religious Landscape Study? The people at the Pew Research Center have been busy bees, publishing the results of their new survey just as—around our homes— the flowers are blooming, the vegetable plants are taking hold, and of course all the beds need tending. I suppose there are literal little domestic landscapes, and then there are Large Landscapes in the Abstract.
In this space, I try not to succumb to the power of metaphors all the time. But really, it can be hard when a topic like this presents itself, especially because I just participated in a survey– having to do with botany and not theology–right around the perimeter of our yard.
First, let’s consider what Pew (fun to imagine a family with that name claiming their regular seats on Sunday) has to say about what is happening across the great land of ours when it comes to religious life. I must confess, since I love panoramas of any kind, I’m also partial to well-drawn landscapes; there’s the same sense of vastness, of plentitude, even if they’re often not quite as sweeping.
This isn’t really news to those of us who know what’s going on in this particular field, or who are married to people who know what’s going on. Numbers and graphs don’t tell an entire story, but they tell some part of the story.
You can read a summary of the long report here. I’ll just give you a little slice. They took an impressive sample of people from all over the country— 35,000 Americans—and found that
….the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated—describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.
Clearly, the view has changed significantly. The familiar buildings with steeples still dot the landscape all over the country, yes, but it’s not business as usual anymore in houses of worship. There was a time when churches used to rely on the regular stream of people coming in; now they need to head out, encountering more of the “nothing in particular” folks. In education circles nowadays, teachers are learning about the “flipped classroom.” From what I can tell, there’s some flipping going on in the world of mainline Christian denominations, too. It’s a little bit like things are under construction.
Far be it from me to delve into this territory here— I need to get to the plants in my yard, where I’m on somewhat firmer ground. In his new blog on the NH Episcopal website called “Tending the Vine” my husband writes regularly about how the Episcopal Church, as he sees it, is going through this time — rooted in ancient traditions and yet also actively re-creating itself so as to nourish Life over Death.
And then, of course, there’s also the matter of connection, of Community. Here is, in part, how he describes the reason for choosing the image of the vine to represent the church as a whole:
As parts of the vine we are, to borrow the image of the 12th century mystic and abbess St. Hildegaard von Bingen, ever-greening, and growing to the extent that we see ourselves abiding, hanging in there, remaining in the almost vascular presence of God.
This sounds good, and no doubt is good.
Arriving finally to our own yard, however, I must say that the vines around here definitely do plenty of “abiding,” but sometimes they are really interfering with the plants they’re abiding in. They poke themselves up and out of everything, honestly.
I guess it depends what kinds of vines we’re talking about. In our case, the wisteria really is better off staying around the shed and not gallivanting all over the juniper bushes (which in fact themselves need plenty of work). If it ever decides to produce grapes, or any other fruit for that matter, then maybe we’ll re-consider.
While the Religious Landscape Study indicates, let’s face it, challenges on a pretty broad scale for churches everywhere, generally the Around-Your-Home Landscape Study is just a tad bit easier to absorb.
In fact, for me it was downright exhilarating a couple of weeks ago to walk all around our home with someone who is pretty expert in the ways and needs of plants. I knew there was a lot to do, and her visit sure did confirm that, but it was also wonderful just to pay close attention to everything: to take stock of what is clearly alive, what’s dead, what’s growing, what could soon be growing. Sometimes life and death are right in the same tree:
Here’s a very partial list of things for me to do now: choose some hollyhocks to go with the perfect lupine in the new perennial bed; get rid of the mugwort that insists on creating an unwanted carpet; rake out the evergreen needles that are making the soil too acidic around the hostas, simply appreciate the glorious Japanese Maple by the front door every single day. Oh, and then of course there’s the pruning of the larger canopy trees.
I’m not kidding myself that all of this will get done anytime soon, but at least I have a game plan. Around our place, studying the landscape, and trying to improve it, isn’t much about numbers or graphs, either. For the most part, I think the plants will respond to the right tending. Well, maybe they will. In any case, I –the gardener– will definitely need to do some serious abiding of my own…outside.
It’s funny sometimes, isn’t it, how a task that might at first seem like just another chore to complete on a long list of others becomes more than that, takes on a certain depth and fullness, even gives new life?
Take wood-stacking, for instance.
Our neighbors down the road had what looked to be a wood-stacking party yesterday. A bunch of cars pulled in, and lots of people wearing gloves were moving about purposefully as I drove by in the morning, with a pile of wood the focal point. When I passed by again a few hot hours later, the activity was a little more desultory— I spotted some casual swinging going on in the backyard, and people scattered around the place, just chatting. By then, apparently, enough work had gotten done for them to kick back a bit.
I was especially interested in this scene because it was both similar and different to one happening on my driveway a few days before. Finally, on Memorial Day to be exact, my husband and I found that we were both free and could turn our attention to the wood that had been delivered a number of weeks before. It was just us—no kids were home yet, and we hadn’t thought to invite anyone over—but we got the job done. Pretty darn well, too, I might add.
Putting a lid on my pride, I suggest that you look at this and give yourselves a little credit for any minor or major feats you have recently completed around your homes. Pause.
We worked mostly in silence (I’ve learned there are benefits to this) and just kept at it, with my husband using the tractor‘s front loader to move and drop the chunks right by the growing pile. Such a satisfying sound that is, so definite, when the pieces fall, each one announcing its presence. My mind drifted to friends of ours, from our old neighborhood, who wisely, like our new neighbors, had an annual party for this occasion. I loved how they made use of their whole property; people roamed around, finding stuff to do, visiting with one another.
And then I went back further, remembering how often I saw my father sawing, carrying and otherwise working with wood in one way or another. We had split rail fences, and they were beautiful but sure took a lot of maintenance. “Pony’s out again,” he’d say, before heading out to find the gap.
This sweet picture, of Dad and my eldest brother, was taken well before I was born, but it has sifted into my memory, too. My father had been gone in the Pacific, in the Navy, during the first year of my brother’s life. Looks like here they were doing some re-bonding, with Mike trying to get the hang of the technique, putting his foot up in the same way even.
Memories of wood, in the life of my family, are always close to memories of hay. Later, when a few more boys came on the scene, plus lots of cousins and friends, there were abundant young workers to help get the fragrant, scratchy stuff into the barn. My job, when I was old enough to do anything useful, was generally to stay in the wagon, stomping it down. Here’s another picture taken before my arrival, with Dad looking up at members of his crew. It’s filmy, almost as if from a dream.
So when I’m stacking wood with my husband in the modern age, quietly except for the steady “clunk, clunk” sounds, I’m also re-discovering the gifts of my particular childhood and making contact with the past, in an organic way. But that’s not all.
Once the woodpile is finished, we rest for a while. Then, soon enough, it’s time to take stock of the array of other outdoor projects that need doing. One among them, down the field a ways, will be trying to bring a certain cluster of birch trees back more or less upright. The constant snow and ice of this past winter sure did a good job of bending them over, and they look kind of like they’re bowing over to confess their sins in church; or just leaning in to hear some really good story, perhaps. Robert Frost knew all about these birches.
Apparently, these graceful creatures with long hair need some assistance righting themselves. One day this summer, after choosing which other trees nearby can serve as supports, we’ll plan to go down there with a good long ladder, some rope pulled through pieces of hose, and the willingness to see the job through. I think we’ll also need a couple more helpers, probably ones who are related to us. Then it can be something they might remember, years hence, when they find themselves tending to newer trees.
Just when you think, after about 25 years in the marriage pond, you might be getting the hang of it, you realize there might be a whole other way of swimming than the one you learned—the one you’re still learning, actually.
That’s kind of how it feels when you have a burgeoning anthropologist in the family who is studying how polygamy has worked, over generations, in peaceful communities on a distant continent.
In this country, we’ve been widening our definitions of marriage recently, but the practice of having multiple spouses and raising children in common, well, that’s still not exactly embraced here.
In fact, just as our daughter was packing to resume her studies in Cameroon, there was a TV special, “20/20” through ABC News, about a determined woman in Utah who, having herself escaped the clutches of the “Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints,” was rescuing—the term they used was “extracting”– her children from an enclave of this outlawed branch of Mormonism. Clearly, because of the level of overall weirdness not to mention dangers involved, she was in the right and they were in the wrong.
The plot thickens, however, when you listen to what some scholars are saying about the practice of polygamy, more broadly. Janet Bennion, a professor at Lyndon State College and a Mormon herself, has just written a book called Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism. Bennion argues that it’s healthy for the practice of plural marriages to come more out into the open, so people can see it for what it is—certainly not all good, and carrying with it inherent risks, but not all bad either. She presents evidence that some women actually benefit from a greater degree of economic security and more social bonds. She says, “this is a real marriage form. Some of it is poor-functioning; some of it is well-functioning.”
Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t become an advocate for what is, let’s face it, a really different way of life. While it’s true that one of my friends, who shall go nameless, did say that she’d be glad to share her husband because it might give her a new dose of freedom.…I’m definitely not in that camp.
But I am saying that just by imagining dramatically different ways of living, we can expand our panoramas.
I’ll admit it—the little that I’ve known about Mormonism has always made it seem about as far away from my own experience and comfort level as it could be. My brother and his wife lived in Northern Utah for a number of years, and we heard many tales of what it was like for them to be on the outside, looking in — always aware of large families disappearing into huge temples. But polygamy? Just about gone.
And now, with the Episcopal Church about to have its big Convention in Salt Lake City, I’m wondering what this mix of religions will bring. I mean, it’s not as if all those delegates and bishops and clergy won’t be cognizant of the enormous, soaring temple right downtown. Reliable sources tell me there’s strong interest on both sides for mutual understanding.
In fact, although I won’t attend the Convention, I have already been having a kind of mix-it-up with the Mormons, albeit through fiction. In a way, I feel as if I’m in one of those windowless hotel rooms where you get to meet other clergy spouses.
A new book has come out, and it’s called The Bishop’s Wife. “What’s this?” I thought, when I first heard about it on the radio. “Somebody’s beaten me to the punch?!” As if it weren’t enough that there are already TWO movies with the same name! Frankly, it’s getting pretty crowded out here in Bishop Wife Land. But wait—turns out this one is a murder mystery. “Phew,” I thought, “My story’s just a bit different. No murders, just plenty of sports.”
The cover really gives a nice, bright view of religion, doesn’t it? Pushing aside, for the time being, Jane Hawking’s engrossing memoir about her life with her brilliant but physically handicapped husband —Travelling to Infinity— I’m now in about the third chapter of this novel, written by Mette Ivie Harrison. She is herself a Mormon and, like her protagonist, is a woman with five children. There’s no sign of polygamy here (only slight mention of how it can still give the mainstream, still vibrant religion a bad rap, kind of like an old embarrassing relative who’s been put in his place) just devout nuclear families living in a tight-knit community. And the bishop actually earns his living from another job— he’s an accountant. Now that’s different all right.
Ms. Harrison is clearly no slouch either: she got a PhD as well as had all those kids before writing the book. It took a whole lot of nerve to portray, as she does, the darker side of her own faith community, specifically how domestic abuse can often go unrecognized. She’s interested here in what can go awry, within the framework of a highly structured religion, in people’s private lives, especially when men are still the ones in key dominant positions. The main character, our heroine the bishop’s wife, is trying to “out” the truth. But Harrison doesn’t want to bring the whole faith crashing down, either. In fact, she hopes to leave the reader with a sense of how powerful many Mormon women actually are even though they may seem, at first glance, to limit themselves by being so feminine.
Honestly, it’s not easy to know how to take all of this in and make any real sense out of it. I think I’ll do the following: 1) Learn as much as I can about other ways of life, other cultures and other religions, strange as they may sometimes seem, without judging them and 2) Keep trying to stay afloat, no—thrive even, in my own particular pond. At least that’s what I think the spring peepers are trying to tell me…and what a racket they are making on these evenings!
My husband and I may have become, strangely enough, mostly empty-nesters; but darned if children don’t keep popping up all over the place. And sometimes they even come with birds.
I happened upon this sweet sculpture in the Boston Public Garden the other day. Maybe you’ve been charmed by the piece, too. Called “Boy and Bird Fountain,”(even though there wasn’t any water flowing) it’s near the Arlington Street side.
Since I was in town to attend a conference with accomplished as well as would-be authors called “The Muse and the Marketplace,” I was in a writer-ly frame of mind, and might’ve thought that this was a kind of depiction of Ann Lamotte’s book about needing to be patient through the composing process, called Bird by Bird. Maybe, but more likely it was reminding me that each child is an individual, needing sustenance and care and a variety of ways to express innate curiosity. Nature, of course, always provides a good start.
The thing is, though, we keep getting clear messages about how vast the differences are between kids growing up all around us, everywhere. Where and how they begin, what happens in their households and neighborhoods day after day— these things, not surprisingly, determine so very much about how their lives will unfold. And they separate us, too. Robert Putnam’s new book— I’m sure you’ve heard about it by now – is all about this growing divide among the “have” and the “have not” kids. As a society, it’s as if we’ve almost come to accept it as normal. But when you stop and think that a segment of kids, by the accident of their birth, are receiving a constant cascade of goods and services, which is only becoming more and more voluminous, and another whole segment, also by the accident of their birth, are not—well, then, it just seems really troubling.
Exactly where kids live, it turns out, makes an enormous difference that digs even deeper than we might have expected. In the aftermath of the Baltimore crisis, yesterday’s New York Times featured a front page story called “Change of Address Offers a Pathway Out of Poverty.” Apparently, the whole concept of “upward mobility” almost requires actual mobility: if people can move to certain “better” neighborhoods, their chances of success improve.
The findings suggest that geography does not merely separate rich from poor but also plays a large role in determining which poor children achieve the so-called American dream.
This is not surprising, really; but it sure is disturbing, considering how many families are stuck in places where, due to a combination of factors, good opportunities don’t exactly rush up to present themselves as people are walking down the street.
Tomorrow evening, I’m attending a dinner with other mentors from the “Circle Program” here in New Hampshire. The governor, Maggie Hassan, will be the guest speaker. I’m proud to be part of this organization, because it’s trying to make at least a dent in the situation: many girls (and of course boys, too) are growing up in households, in neighborhoods, which simply can’t provide a whole lot else besides basic survival. These girls need reinforcements from outside, chances to learn some new things and build their skills and confidence.
And, not surprisingly, we mentors win big also. I remember, on a cold and windy March day, racking my brain for ideas about where to bring “my girl” for something fun to do. I didn’t want to drive far, so eventually I chose a local art studio where we (her brother came too, as he usually does) could do simple projects for a couple of hours. Did we ever have fun when we arrived at a simple brick building across town, a former school, to play with colors! We went wild. There was excitement, too, upon departure: the wind tried to blow away most of our masterpieces as soon as we walked out the door. But the kids went running after them, laughing so hard.
I sure felt lucky on that day and, really, on every day that we get to do stuff together.
Next week, I’ll go to a program called “New Hampshire’s Kids, the American Dream, and the Growing Opportunity Gap.” I don’t expect there will be any answers provided there, but at least we’ll get to talk about some of the realities of ongoing divisions, even in this mostly rural state. Furthermore, I know that my husband, in his role as Episcopal bishop, is also working hard to illuminate and to address these issues. It sure is nice sometimes when, even without my accompanying him to church, we have a kind of synchronizing swimming going on.
There’s no denying it: the transition from having your offspring running up and down stairs and sitting at table to hearing about their daily lives, and sometimes adventures, on the phone is just plain weird. Especially, in my case, when I’m also adjusting to being in a new town. Thank goodness there are plenty of other kids around…and most of them aren’t in fountains, either.