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.
On any given day, would you describe yourself as more “purposing” or “repurposing”? Is one superior to the other, or do they roll about the same? Is there a kind of inevitability to shifting purposes, or do we have some say in the matter? Oh, and does it depend on whether you’re a person or a building?
To get started on this contrast, I have to display the current image I have in my head when I hear the first word (which, in verb form, you don’t hear a whole lot): “purposing.” Here’s my dog, Rocky, swimming through the snow, his body undulating like a dolphin’s, trying to get to his ball. Now he’s got a purpose all right. The fact is–I envy him sometimes.
Try as I might, each day, to make a beeline for one important goal, too often I inhabit the other camp, convincing myself that any number of the things I’m not attending to absolutely must be finished right away. And then I’m off and running again—doing what the voice of that lady in the GPS says, when you stray from her directions. “Recalibrating!” she pipes up, patiently but with just the slightest touch of irritation. No, it’s not particularly fun having to figure out where you’re going when you thought you knew a minute ago.
Maybe if I could get around to reading his blockbuster book, Rick Warren could direct me how to grab hold of a purpose and hold onto it forever. But wait, I think his version has only to do with serving God, and I admit to being not so comfortable with that, partly because I’m not sure I understand how to do it, or how it might be different from (in no particular order): 1) Finding your passion 2) Expanding your world 2) Offering service 3) Caring for people, and for animals too 4) Getting some thrills along the way and 5) Correcting course when you’ve gotten bogged down.
Do you think The Re-Purpose Driven Life would have a chance of selling 32 million copies too?
At least I have some company in this business: nowadays plenty of buildings, including churches and schools— despite their solidity—are undergoing radical changes. Once fulfilling a certain specific function in a community, these landmarks now might look the same on the outside but are becoming something new and different on the inside. Times have changed, and there is some re-shuffling of the deck going on.
It’s hard to imagine an entire campus of brick buildings, dignified trees and rolling lawns being adrift, but that’s kind of what happened to a school where I used to work long ago. Or at least one half of a school, I should say. The best route from our old hometown to our new hometown goes right through the lovely Main Street in Northfield, Massachusetts, where I had my first job out of college, as an intern teacher. So whenever I make the trip (could almost do it with my eyes closed by now) I go down Memory Lane.
I remember the tiny dorm apartment I lived in there, with a screen door as well as a regular door, because we were encouraged to maintain a kind of “You can talk to me without coming in” space from the girls on the other side. I remember the beautiful lacrosse field nestled in behind the dorms, the dew on the grass on the way to class, and the spectacular leaves in fall. I also remember heading down the long driveway with a friend in frigid February to go to the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and then the fulfilling return up the same drive. I remember school gatherings, rousing concerts, but no required church services. Was there splendor? Yes, there was.
Originally founded in 1879 by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody, the school merged with Mount Hermon in 1971. After a number of years of (costly) buses going back of forth between the two campuses, and less evangelism, the school finally decided to consolidate on the Mount Hermon side and sell off the Northfield one, in 2004.
And then the Christians came marching in; or at least they’ve been trying to, maintaining that they aim to bring the campus back to the original mission of the founder. The first buyer was “Hobby Lobby”— a company that has been recently in the news for going all the way to the Supreme Court to get a religious exemption from providing their employees with contraceptive services. Soon, their Museum of the Bible will open in Washington, D.C. Alas, the crafts conglomerate had trouble sealing the deal with Grand Canyon College for the campus, so in 2012, they donated the place to the National Christian Foundation. The search is still on for a devout institution (can that adjective describe that noun?) to take up residence here. Take a look at the recruiting pitch on the website. Meanwhile, townspeople think it mighty strange that the place has sat idle for so long and mostly just want it swelling with life again.
If a school can become more like a religious organization, then maybe a church can become more like a sports venue. Here in Concord, I heard a rumor—unsubstantiated– that a local Catholic church just might eventually become a hockey rink as a result of its merger with a couple of other churches. This development—again, maybe pie in the sky at this point– could go right along with the familiar CYO basketball in its recognition that what kids most want to do is PLAY. Oh and besides, why keep these cavernous buildings for only one limited purpose when both the number of priests and number of congregants is declining?
Wait–not that one in the picture. That’s a famous cathedral in Quebec, and much as they love hockey there, it’s not switching identities. Good thing, too, because the light streaming in here is more beautiful than it would be in a windowless rink.
Far be it from me to figure out which buildings should be used for which kinds of activities. But it sure seems like their rock-solid natures have to be more flexible nowadays, almost like they’re literally bending.
What I can do, however, is announce my own kind of “re-purpose.” In an effort to make more progress on the memoir, and increase writing time in between dog runs, I’m planning to 1) not hold myself to posting on this blog every single week, let’s aim for bi-weekly instead and 2) let my entries grow shorter (yes, I said that intentionally). My hope is that, before too many more months have passed, I’ll be able to use this site as a kind of launching pad for the finished volume. I know — some of you are already saying, “Finally!” It’s OK, I don’t need to know whether that’s more an enthusiastic response for less blog or more book.
Thanks for coming along, all this way. Here’s a little gift for you, on the topic of repurposing. You won’t be disappointed in this website, offering 50 ideas for taking common household objects and turning them into something else. It’s inspiring, really. The post-it note under the drill is a little lame, but you’ve got to love the things those pesky books can do. My favorite has to be the bike bringing new elegance to the bathroom; then again, I also love the tennis racquets becoming mirrors, and the piano as a fountain— now that’s really something.
Here we go, into the beating heart of the Christian calendar again. In observance of the first day of Lent yesterday, my husband once again participated in “Ashes to Go” in downtown Concord. Apparently it, or they, went quite well. The weather was practically balmy, and lots of people stopped by. I was reminded of human mortality too…just from a little distance away. At this time of year, I am also reminded of the fact that I didn’t grow up with these rituals as regular features of life, and I wonder how that makes me different, or lacking, or something.
This time, as we enter Lent—a time when people often give up something they enjoy—I fit right in, kind of, because I have given up looking for my snowshoe.
As if there aren’t enough reasons already to respect The Snow (with this latest weekend accumulation, it’s time now to let the word be elevated into something deserving of upper case) I have to give it credit for actually swallowing up something that was, I swear, pretty securely attached to my foot.
This has been both an odd and inconvenient loss, yes, but curiously enough, it has also provided some gain. I’ve had a kind of stepping off point, so to speak, into a pasture of pondering. What are the things, in addition to snowshoes of course, which actually help hold us up during the course of daily life? And are these things mostly in the “secular” or in the “religious” category?
Slight correction: I don’t really mean “hold us up” so much as “prevent us from sinking down.” It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but when I first tried snowshoes several years ago, I was kind of expecting them to allow me to glide right over the deep snow—to stay afloat on a sea of white. Friends and neighbors had been so enthusiastic about the experience, it sounded to me as if these things you strapped on worked to defy gravity. In fact, of course, they just made the falling through, or falling down, less; forward motion could retain the upper hand—or foot.
The disappearing happened several days ago; I had just arrived at the border of our property, taken a big step up into an enormous field, and then I could feel my foot was noticeably lighter. “No problem,” I thought, “the thing will be right here somewhere.” But it wasn’t. I used my pole to dig down, to scan really, the patch of trail I’d just emerged from, expecting a bit of black or red to greet me. Alas, there was nothing but endless white. I guess I wouldn’t do well as the main character in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” but the truth is I got tired of looking pretty quickly after my toes and fingers started objecting to the fruitlessness of the search.
Not surprisingly, since we’ve had yet more snow, the snowshoe hasn’t exactly popped up. My husband, understandably, was disappointed that I didn’t strive harder to find it right away…in that this is one of the main activities we share in winter. My confidence that 1) we can ski instead and 2) it will indeed turn up come spring seems, well, a little pale and unsatisfying. Then—I know this is a stretch— I got to thinking how maybe my laid back approach has something to do with my not really minding walking in regular old boots to begin with.
A couple of weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a provocative column called “Building Better Secularists.” In it, he provides a kind of cautionary admonishment to people – like Phil Zuckerman, author of the very upbeat Living The Secular Life– who think that it’s easy as pie to be fully moral without religion. According to Brooks, setting up one’s own structure, one’s own code for goodness and doing right by others is very hard work because everything has to be invented and formulated from scratch. He says:
The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.
They drift? In that it’s not summer with all of us lolling around on rafts, we’re apparently right back to the snow again. Brooks must definitely be feeling the winter, too. Or maybe we’re back to me losing my snowshoe in the snow and finding that I no longer had a way of going forward with minimal sinking. But wait, this seems a little harsh, don’t you think? I mean, I agree that people who don’t partake in regular religious observances can and should look within to identify their moral centers, to check on the health and strength of their convictions. They can also make certain that they are positively living them out by going beyond self and contributing to their communities and the larger society. But to assume that not worshipping in a congregation results in a “loss of meaning” and “boredom” is just plain wrong. All kinds of people become drifters, it seems to me, and I don’t think it has anything to do with whether they attend regular services or not. Besides, as my daughter was just saying this morning, do you really need to feel purpose-driven every single day? Frankly, that can get a little boring too. Having the ability to see and enjoy beauty, to withstand setbacks, to laugh, to connect with and serve others—- these things hold me up, so long as I manage to do them.
Furthermore, I really don’t go along with the whole image of people on the secular side bearing “moral burdens” to begin with. Sounds so onerous. Unless I’m reading this wrong, Brooks seems to be saying that church-or-temple-or-mosque attending people are able to glide along, propelled by the engines of their respective faith communities. Really? Is it kind of like tapping into the town water supply versus building one’s own well? In any case, I think that, whichever side of the line we recognize ourselves to be on, we need to find a way through the snow that both relies on and preserves our strengths.
Strange as it may be to have snowshoes and Lent all mixed together in my mind, I also have Mother Goose coming into play with this refrain, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!” Let’s try to stay up as long as we can, anyway, enjoying the view.
It might be a kind of sacrilege to tamper with the words of a treasured poet, but if I were bold enough to give ol’ William Wordsworth something like an update, I know which famous line I’d aim for first. “The Child is father of the Man” (from one of his short poems, “My Heart Leaps Up”) is perfectly fine, of course, in its suggestion that we all have everything that we’re going to become in us at an early age. Based on my experiences of late, however, I’d revise it to something like, “Kids These Days Sure Can Show Us a Thing or Two.”
Recently I was visiting with a cousin and we were sharing memories about the older generation, now just about all gone in our family. I’ve often kept the image of waves on the beach as a kind of metaphor for the succession of ages, but he had another, not exactly peaceful one: we’re all walking in a line towards the edge of a cliff, arms out, and we watch our parents suddenly drop right ahead of us, leaving no doubt what’s in store for us, momentarily. It is some comfort, isn’t it, that we have our kids and nieces and nephews behind us? Maybe, just maybe, by the time they get to the edge, one of them will have invented a new route. They’re pretty clever, really they are.
People talk about “learning from your elders” all the time; how about “learning from your youngers”? No—wait, that’s probably not an actual word. But it sure describes the section of trail I’ve been walking these days. More times than I can count, it feels like they’re scampering up ahead. My world is getting kind of flipped: left and right, it seems, the kids are taking over—in technological savvy, obviously — but also in confidently going forth, forging new territory, sometimes leading us to re-discover the past, not to mention making a range of cool connections.
“You really need to update your computer, Mom.” My daughter, sitting at my desk one day in between semesters, might as well have said, “You really need to update your life.” She’d be right on both counts, of course. I’m ashamed to admit that, most every time my Mac let me know that it was ready for an upgrade, I postponed the procedure. I venture to say I am not alone in this habit; aren’t there hoards of us who believe that whatever important activity we’re in the midst of takes precedence over something that the computer itself needs? I got my comeuppance all right. After my girl patiently went through everything that needed doing, assuring me that it was all for the best, I had to get completely re-oriented to the screen. I won’t bore you with the details (want to talk scroll bars?) but suffice it to say that the upgrade was not exactly seamless. My machine had gone through some kind of transformation, and I barely recognized the new creature. Some days later, a guy in a shop told me with a smile that it was kind of as if I’d jumped from 6th grade to 10th in one fell swoop. Wait…what happened to Algebra?
Hauled reluctantly into the technological present by one child, I’ve also been hauled back, more happily but still with accompanying challenges, to the scientific past by another. My son landed the role of Albert Einstein in his high school’s winter play, a Steve Martin creation called Picasso at the Lapin Agile. It is set in a Parisian café in the year 1904, when both Einstein and Picasso are on the verge of realizing major breakthroughs in their work. Needless to say, this is not exactly an area of my own expertise. In an effort to learn a little something about the brilliant man my son is becoming—at least on stage–I’ve been deep in Walter Isaacson’s definitive biography (Simon & Schuster, 2007) called simply, Einstein. I need to summon as much mental acuity as I can to absorb passages like this:
It is very important to note, however, that the theory of relativity does not mean that “everything is relative.” It does not mean that everything is subjective.
Instead, it means that measurements of time, including duration and simultaneity, can be relative, depending on the motion of the observer. So can the measurements of space, such as distance and length. But there is a union of the two, which we call spacetime, and that remains invariant in all inertial frames. Likewise, there are things such as the speed of light that remain invariant.
“Ok, then,” I think to myself as I head off to empty the dishwasher, suddenly imagining speeding trains whizzing by people on platforms, ships passing each other in the sea, and Einstein himself sitting atop a beam of light heading out into the universe. All this sifts over me thanks to my own boy, a 10th grader.
Malcolm Butler may be no Einstein, but the rookie football player sure understood something important about space and time when he intercepted that pass at the end of the Super Bowl game last Sunday. Wow— what a thrilling end to a tremendous contest. As I watched and heard the name of the hero, I suddenly remembered that my nephew had just talked to me about this same player a few days before, because he in fact knew him. Here’s how:
Tucker, now a college sophomore, has had the enormous good fortune to serve as an intern at the Patriots’ training camp for the past two summers. The hours were long, and he was assigned a wide range of tasks, including regular driving between field and hotel for certain players who needed transportation. It was in this way he got acquainted with the undrafted rookie from Division II West Alabama. Tucker saw how hard Butler worked, day after day, fighting for a place on the roster, knowing what a steep climb he faced. And then, fast forward six months later to Arizona, the cornerback—on the bench during the first half of the game—not only gets in but breaks up two long passes before making THE BIG PLAY by noticing, as written in Sports Illustrated, that “the Seahawks lined up in a formation that screamed pass, a shotgun with three receivers to the right.” Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Now, it’s almost as if the guy has achieved immortality; my nephew is walking on air, and I – just a few steps removed—feel the elation, too.
I wonder what kinds of gifts the 20 and under set will bring this coming week. Actually, they’ve already started, thanks to yesterday’s sledding adventure with the 11 year old in my life plus her brother. Wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
I have an artist friend who paints beautiful background murals for museum exhibits. He says modestly that often people don’t much notice them, even though of course they took him hours of careful work, because real creatures—a moose, an elk, a family of wolves perhaps– are front and center. Such it is, I think, only kind of in reverse, with the dramas going on in our lives versus what’s happening in the larger arena outside and all around us. Sometimes, we may have no business feeling like the main animal in the center of a vast landscape, but there we are, doing our thing for survival.
Thus am I, this winter, trying to re-invent myself as “Sports Mom, Whatdyagot?” Or something like that.
As we approach Super Bowl Sunday, it seems like sports is dominating the news once again—blanketing the region almost like the snowflakes that were swirling around outside in the blizzard. No matter, of course, that 2014 gave irrefutable evidence of global warming, innocent people are being attacked by terrorist groups, and regimes are toppling in different corners of the globe. Here in New England, we have Deflategate sputtering on; then there is of course the actual game to get ready for; talk of Boston possibly getting the nod from the Olympic Committee has people all excited; and how about that NHL All-Star game last week?
This is all compelling stuff, no doubt. I might even be able to pay more attention to it if I weren’t so preoccupied with my own attempts to bolster my athletic life. This winter, I’m trying to give it the ol’ college try…except I’m not in college anymore, and I definitely won’t be winning any medals of any kind. In fact, I’m hoping mostly that I just won’t get hurt. In addition to my regular routine of running solo with the dog, I’ve added ice hockey as a second (and, I feel, complementary) team sport to tennis, and I’m also hoping to do a good bit of skiing with a couple of tennis friends.
What’s up with this? Well, illusions of grandeur aside, President Obama’s new “Go get ‘em” attitude has definitely inspired me. The day after his forceful State of the Union speech, a front page article in The New York Times took us back a few months:
The morning after major Democratic losses in last year’s midterm elections, President Obama walked into the Roosevelt Room with a message for his despondent staff: I’m not done yet.
Well, when it comes to sports, neither am I. And I daresay I have lots of company in this department, from other women of a certain age, still with a degree of fight. Many of us are moving on from countless hours driving to and spectating at our kids’ events to discovering whether we, in fact, might have some of our own “game” left. Supporting and cheering on our striving offspring was all fine, and we might even be missing those days, what with all the benefits of sharing a mutual purpose and socializing with other parents constantly over the ups and downs of the teams. Drifting back further in our own memories, we can recall when we were the participants–running down lush fields, dribbling down courts, doing wind sprints on the ice, you name it–almost always without our parents watching. And some women my age are just coming as first-timers to the team sports party, having had other interests during school days and perhaps no children to bring them into it later. Now, though, for a number of reasons, it’s time.
This past summer, when I played a lot of tennis with a group of new friends on late afternoons, with the amber sunshine and light breezes just perfect, and a coach barking instructions, there was an unmistakable feeling of actually getting better. Past our prime? Maybe, but we can still improve our volleys, try to get those backhands deep, and stir up some competitive juices– all while taking our minds off, for a couple of hours, whatever else might be ailing us. After all, as Michael Mandelbaum states in the opening chapter of his book, The Meaning of Sports (NY: PublicAffairs, 2004), sports are similar to organized religion in that they supply “a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life..” OK, I’m pretty sure my husband would say that religion does a whole lot more than that, and I would heartily agree, but it’s something, anyway.
For us, switching games for a minute, it’s kind of like the second half. Perhaps that’s being a bit too generous—it’s more like the third period, or the seventh inning stretch. (Oh and by the way, stretching is definitely a good idea.) However you figure it, the most important thing is: there’s still some time left to win some sets, score some goals, earn some kind of modest triumph. Or maybe just to re-claim some hustle out there.
When I told one of my older brothers, a lifelong hockey enthusiast, that I was venturing back onto the ice after close to 20 years mostly off it, I admitted to him my feeling of trepidation. “But what if I really stink?” Without hesitation, he looked right at me with a smile and said, “But Pol, it doesn’t matter!” He really meant it, too. And then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. What mattered in this case, as part of my ongoing effort to feel settled in a new town after a family move, was taking the initiative to go challenge myself athletically again while also meeting some women who were likely to be cooler-than-average. In my opinion, anyway.
On my first time out, sure enough, I did indeed stink: the skating was OK but the stickhandling was pretty pathetic. By the third time, though, at least I was making some passes. Silly me, even with just a little bit of progress, I felt elated. And tired. When I mentioned the fatigue factor to another woman on the bench—about my age— she looked through the grill on her helmet and said simply, “Short shifts.”
A couple of days ago, on a beautiful cold and sunny morning, I joined my tennis friends (both significantly younger, but no matter) out on the ski slopes. They had originally come together because of having kids the same age; I entered the scene only because of our mutual sport, which then led to another mutual sport. They had a whole routine on the mountain already established–a certain number of runs in a specific order, ending with soup. Just joining them was wonderful, and the only kids around were other people’s kids. I took in the expanse of well-groomed trails, concentrated on making my turns, and felt both diverted and right where I was supposed to be, at the same time. Next time, I think I’ll go a little faster.
You wouldn’t have thought so, would you? But that is, in fact, how Dr. King referred to himself in his magnificent “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in April, 1963.
We’ll get to that text in a minute, and it’s worth waiting for. First, though, since the whole concept of “extremism” has been thrust at us almost non-stop in recent days, let’s take a moment to consider how the word actually reverberates. Not surprisingly, it can take on completely different realities depending on context. My business here is always stunning contrasts, side-by-side differences that can practically take our breath away. This one sure fits the bill.
Although Obama may have good reason to hesitate in referring to terrorists as “Islamic extremists,” many of us are, in addition to feeling outrage about recent killings, focusing on distinguishing between the tenets of the true Muslim faith and false beliefs espoused by perpetrators of violence. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote in his column for The Times, the march in Paris was tremendous, but what the world also really needs, going forward, will be mainstream Muslims worldwide vociferously defending their religion against jihadists. Christians of all eras don’t by any means get a pass on this whole issue of extremism, either. We only need to brush up on our history of, say, the Inquisition or the Third Reich or the Klu Klux Klan to recognize how a whole faith can be perverted to fit insidious thrusts for power from people who have nothing to do with true Christianity.
Meanwhile, last week, up on the 3,000 foot Dawn Wall out in Yosemite National Park, two other extremists succeeded in climbing up the entire face, over the course of 19 days, with just their bare hands. Some might call Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgesen crazy. Most of us, however, feel a certain amount of awe for their accomplishment. They were single-mindedly focused on their goal over several years; in that they accomplished perhaps the most difficult free climb every attempted, painstakingly in every sense (just ask what’s left of their fingers), we spectators now have the grandeur of their achievement to add to the grandeur of the location itself. Afterwards, Jorgesen said, “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will.” I’m thinking about that; aren’t you? My “wall” might be something that doesn’t require me to banish terror every time I look down, but it could still be something pretty good.
Speaking of New Year’s resolutions (kind of), I just saw this sign at the YMCA, and I’m of two minds about it.
Sure, I understand that with too much comfort often comes not much progress; on the other hand, especially in the heart of January, I wouldn’t be too quick to discard the cozy stuff, either. Maybe it’s better to think about how, after a good hard work-out, we always feel more true comfort than we would have had without the work-out. But comfort itself is surely not the antagonist, right? Unless it lulls us to sleep when we need to be wide awake to take on some real antagonists.
Anyway, today is Martin Luther King Day, and so it’s time to let a great leader do the talking. Here’s what wrote, from the absolute non-comfort of the Birmingham Jail, about being identified as an extremist by other clergymen. I’m presenting the entire paragraph here:
Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Reading this, right now at the dawn of 2015, I can hardly see that anything fundamental has really changed. We still need “creative extremists” to go forth bravely in the face of all kinds of perils, all kinds of imposters. Our fingers may get raw in the effort, but the stakes are too high not to keep trying, one grip at a time. Besides, with people like Dr. King, and all of the individuals who inspired him beforehand, even the worst kind of extremists look conquerable.
You wouldn’t have thought so, would you? But that is, in fact, how he referred to myself in his magnificent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written in April, 1963.
We’ll get to that text in a minute, and it’s worth waiting for. First, though, since the whole concept of “extremism” has been thrust at us almost non-stop in recent days, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what the word actually means. Not surprisingly, it can take on completely different realities depending on context. I’m always interested in stunning contrasts, side-by-side differences that can practically take our breath away, and this one sure fits the bill.
Although Obama may have good reason to hesitate in referring to terrorists as “Islamic extremists,” many of us are, in addition to voicing outrage about recent killings, focusing on distinguishing between the tenets of the true Muslim faith and false beliefs espoused by perpetrators of violence. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote in his column for The Times, the march in Paris was tremendous, but what the world really needs, going forward, will be for mainstream Muslims worldwide to vociferously defend their religion against jihadists. Christians through history don’t by any means get a pass on this whole issue of extremism, either. We only need to brush up on our history of, say, the Inquisition or the Third Reich or the Klu Klux Klan to recognize how a whole faith can be perverted to fit insidious thrusts for power from people who have nothing to do with true Christianity.
Meanwhile, last week, up on the 3,000 foot Dawn Wall out in Yosemite National Park, two extremists succeeded in climbing up the entire face, over the course of 19 days, with just their bare hands. Some might call Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgesen crazy, but most of us, it’s fair to say, feel a certain amount of awe for their accomplishment. They were single-mindedly focused on their goal over several years; in that they accomplished perhaps the most difficult free climb every attempted, painstakingly in every sense (just ask what’s left of their fingers), we spectators now have the grandeur of their achievement to add to the grandeur of the location itself. Afterwards, Jorgesen said, “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will.” I’m thinking about that; aren’t you? My “wall” might be something that doesn’t require me to banish terror every time I look down, but it could still be something pretty good.
Speaking of New Year’s resolutions (kind of), I just saw this sign at the YMCA, and I’m of two minds about it.
Sure, I understand that with too much comfort often comes not much progress; on the other hand, especially in the heart of January, I wouldn’t be too quick to discard the cozy stuff, either. Maybe it’s better to think about how, after a good hard work-out, we always feel more true comfort than we would have had without the work-out. But comfort itself is surely not the antagonist, right? Unless it lulls us to sleep when we need to be wide awake to take on some real antagonists.
Anyway, today is Martin Luther King Day, and so it’s time to let him do the talking. Here’s what he wrote, from the absolute non-comfort of the Birmingham Jail, about being identified as an extremist. I’m presenting the entire paragraph here, because cutting any of it out is really out of the question:
Reading this, right now at the dawn of 2015, I can hardly see that anything fundamental has really changed. We still need “creative extremists” to go forth bravely in the face of all kinds of perils, all kinds of imposters. Our fingers may get raw in the effort, but the stakes are too high not to keep trying. Besides, with people like Dr. King who showed us the way, even the worst kind of extremists look conquerable.
Did you ever think, when New Year’s Day rolls around, it might be time to sneer at those paltry resolutions and go for a really big change? Leave your old self behind and step into a whole new identity perhaps?
I apologize for being late with my post here, but that’s because I’ve been cooking up a really exciting idea. How’s this for starting off 2015 with some flair? Pastor’s Wife takes a big dose of Pop Queen and starts a rigorous daily regime of singing and dancing, not to mention bright red lipstick, through the cold New Hampshire winter.
This all started with a family trip up to Canada, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
I always knew Madonna (the singer, not the mother of Jesus) and I had something in common. Beyond the fact that we’re the same age, that is. In truth, she’s about exactly a year younger than I am, but c’mon, that’s almost nothing. We were toddling around at the same time way back when, and now we’re both mothers of at least a few children, trying to manage our empires. OK, so I don’t exactly have an empire, but I do try to keep my family’s stuff more or less organized. Sure, there are other differences: she grew up in Detroit, in a Catholic family; I spent my childhood on Long Island, not attending church; she lost her mother way too young; I was lucky to have mine for many years. She used her talent to skyrocket to fame; I dabbled in the usual schoolgirl things and managed to stay under the radar.
I just have always had this feeling that in some ways, we’re probably not all that different and would probably even hit it off if we got to hang out together.
Ridiculous, I know. But maybe it’s just borderline ridiculous. After all, Madonna had a blockbuster hit song in the 80’s with the very same name as the kind of place where I was just last week! And, even though the song is about the churning of mixed emotions involved in love, it’s also a kind of beguiling statement of a woman’s need to maintain some control over her own life. In my opinion, it’s also just got a fabulous energetic sound that makes you want to get up and move.
Borderline, feels like I’m going to lose my mind. You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.
These days–and always, really–there are plenty of borders between countries that are in the news. It’s been almost a year since Russia marched right on into Ukraine as if it was business as usual. Practically anywhere in the Middle East, borders are contentious. Lebanon, trying to stem the flood of Syrians refugees coming in, just announced a whole new set of restrictions for their border with that war-torn country. The debate over immigration policies raging in our own country has put a renewed focus on our southern border with Mexico. In fact, just yesterday Obama was meeting with President Pena Nieto, about a whole pack of troubles.
Meanwhile, the boundary that stretches thousands of miles between the U.S. and Canada, through a whole lot of states and some huge provinces, seems tranquil by comparison. Since 9/11, things have tightened up some, and for good reason, but for the most part it’s not what we would call a trouble spot—or line, more precisely. It is, however, still very much a border, and my family had the pleasure of crossing over it last week, on our way to and from a visit to Montreal. Since my mother, gone now almost 10 years, grew up in a house right on the main street of Stanstead, the first town you come to after entering Canada, this is always an emotionally meaningful journey for me. When I look at this house (her grandparents’ home, where her mother moved her five children after losing her husband) I try to imagine my mother as a girl skipping around, with bows in her red hair, greeting the minister who arrives for Sunday lunch; or listening to my grandmother read Dickens to all five children in the evenings, saying, “Now just try to get as much out of it as you can.” When I do this really vividly, I’m on the borderline all right— not sure whether I’m here or there, Canadian or American, girl or adult.
We didn’t take pictures by the customs station this time around, but we do have one from a previous visit, just about 15 years ago. I don’t exactly look stylish, it’s true, but I’m rich with offspring.
Just for comparison’s sake, here’s a really nice shot of Madonna, too. I’d like to say that it was taken way before she had kids, but that’s not so— it’s from just a few years ago, 2011.
Oh well. Just because she doesn’t necessarily want to turn into me to start her 2015, I can still take stock of my own way of life, recognize that my kids are now taking care of themselves for the most part, maybe arrange to meet her on the borderline somewhere, and we’ll just see what develops.
Since it was “beginning to look a lot like Christmas” already about a month ago–or was it October– it’s not so easy to feel the full force of the crescendo now, especially when we have compelling reasons to pay attention to other, dare I say bigger issues, such as protests over police killings around the nation and the racial divide that stubbornly persists in this country.
I’m going to leave that important topic to others, however, and present to you another kind of divide, lighter in tone but still causing a slight seizing of the spirit, that I find articulated with surprising frequency around the state of New Hampshire.
It is, for lack of a better name, the admonition to “Do this or do that.” And, all things not being equal, the second choice is really not desirable and you’d really better make that first choice work.
In Massachusetts, at least in the Five College area where I last lived, we were all about inclusiveness, do as you please, express your truest self, just let it all hang out.
Here, in certain situations anyway, there are apparently some edges to be maintained.
The most recognizable example of this is the slogan on our license plates. There I am, just going about my business around town doing errands, maybe even feeling a little jauntiness because in fact I will be ready for Christmas (no, actually not true), and I stop at a light and see this on the car ahead: “Live Free or Die.” During that period of time when I am still adjusting to the novelty of this ubiquitous slogan, I might think to myself, “Am I in fact living free? Do I need to pack it in?”
Talk about jamming a lot of possible meanings into several short words…wow, Emily Dickinson couldn’t have done it better. The line has its origin in the Revolutionary War, and certainly does have a heroic ring to it; I can almost hear those patriots’ drums going tap-a-tap-tap. On the other hand, do we really need to think about paying the ultimate price for our principles on a daily basis? That’s tiring.
The fact of the matter is, of course, all of us may try to do our reasonable best to “live free,” but we will all die anyway. So the choice is really not what it purports to be. Cheerful thought, huh?
When I’m not in my car but out on the many glorious trails we have around here, I can be faced with another message presenting a stark choice:
“Stay On Trail Or Stay Home.” Now I understand the reason for this, sure, and know that it’s meant mostly for the snowmobilers who are about to come roaring through. However, especially when I’m feeling a little dip in my self-confidence, I might tend to focus on the second part of the statement more than the first…and then the sign seems about as warm as, “Surrender, Dorothy!” Would just “Please Stay on Trail” not have enough oomph? Is it the balanced two sides of the message that is most compelling? Do we need to get a whiff of “do-this-or-else” to ensure compliance?
Pondering these two examples, I find myself now imagining more possibilities that could soon appear. So far, “Ski Like a Bandit Or Don’t Clog the Lift Line” is my favorite, followed by “Be Rugged Here Or Go Back to Boston.” Take your pick or, better yet, send me your contribution in a comment.
I know that many people, millions probably, all over the world read the Bible on a daily basis and then apply what they find to their regular lives. As I’m a pastor’s wife with no previous grounding in religion but eager to learn some of the elements, I do the opposite: experience something interesting, then seek a Bible passage–often with a tip from my husband–that might in some way correspond to whatever it is I’ve experienced. Maybe this is backwards, but it’s my strategy and I’m sticking to it. As my mother used to say, “We all have our little ways.”
So it was that my pondering about stark choices led me deep in Deuteronomy , when Moses is handing down the Law to the Israelites. This, as you may well know, is not a time for messing around with what is right and what is wrong. It’s worth quoting what’s often known as the “Exhortation to Choose Life” at some length:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding, you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings andcurses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…(Deuteronomy 30:15-19).
The italics there are mine, showing that Moses must not have lived in New Hampshire, because he opts for “and” instead of “or” even when he’s presenting a choice between tremendously different behaviors, arguably a more important choice even than whether to stay on the trail or not.
Anyway, have a lovely holiday season. There’s really no good alternative, is there?
Which is more important— things that take up space, or the spaces in between? Does our eye prefer patches of bright color, or the surrounding blankness that allows us to see the color? When we arrive at a long-anticipated event, are we so done with waiting, or do we sometimes wish to be back in that magical quiet land?
It must be Advent again, because these are the questions I have swirling around, while I’m actively not shopping. Looking back at my blogs from previous years, I see these two: “Getting Ready for Something, or Perhaps for Nothing” (2013) as well as “Waiting Time” (2011). I’ll try not to repeat myself here, while presenting a kind of an updated panorama on the topic, with way more art.
We don’t have a Christmas tree up yet, but as of last night, my husband and I are the proud owners of a soaring-to-the-ceiling wooden tower in our family room. Two visiting boys left us this wonderful present, right in front of the new wood stove and just a few feet away from the new television set. The ladder’s been put away now, but it was necessary for a time. This morning, I’m wondering why I didn’t think to ask them to build the thing maybe not right smack in the middle of the room. The tower that now stands, having made it through the night, already has a much longer life span than the ones that preceded it, because, naturally, the boys enjoyed inventing it over and over again. We now plan to send regular updates about how it’s surviving, assuring the builders that Rocky’s tail is doing no harm.
Besides the fact that I’m pleased as Christmas punch that an old box of “Keva planks” – hauled up here with the move – could provide so much delight, I’m struck by how the beauty of the end result might be captured in a poem like this:
All the way up
Seen this way, the “Not Plank” sections are just as important as the “Plank” ones.
This whole concept had been on my mind anyway after a visit to the Matisse Cut-Outs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City last weekend. What a spectacularly simple idea, really— to make designs with a wide variety of shapes cut out of paper which had been painted in a rainbow of shades. The shapes were originally affixed with pins to the background, making the works sometimes look almost casual in nature. But apparently Matisse was a stern taskmaster with his underlings, and they tell tales of hours upon hours of getting the colors and the configurations just right. We weren’t allowed to take pictures through the exhibit, but I’ll dare to present this cover of the book I bought there, careful to include a caption giving full credit to the originators.
“The Snail” by Henri Matisse (1953); Rizzi, Juliette, author; published by Tate Introductions/ Publishing, 2014.
Wonderful, isn’t it? Our eyes love the contrasts; at least mine do. The white space can be just background, or with just a little effort, it can break itself up into a whole bunch of distinctive shapes worth paying attention to on their own.
Just coincidence perhaps, but when I came back from New York and taught my evening class at Southern New Hampshire University, I found a mesmerizing exhibit of sculptures by a Maine artist, called “Objects in Motion” that illustrated the same principle, more or less. Kim Bernard is interested in physics, and her works bring to mind molecules and large scale natural phenomena that rely on an interaction between elements, or what I might call the “here—not here” effect.
This one has a dizzying effect…
This one not so much.
To me, it’s not much of a stretch to take this whole idea and relate it to how we manage our calendars. One “something” coming relentlessly after another is not really the best recipe for living, or working, well. This has taken me about eons to learn, but I now see—without a shadow of a doubt—that most activities requiring follow-up, or just worth savoring, actually require extra time built in for the follow-up or the savoring. In terms of our professions, this plays out by preserving open spaces: to prepare for class, to take careful notes after a session, to make those calls. In our personal lives, too, a really good visit with a friend, say, can take a little tending in the soul even afterwards so that it keeps glowing brightly.
So what does this all have to do with Christmas? First of all, I bet I don’t need to convince any of you that it shouldn’t come round more than once a year. Secondly, if Advent is supposed to be a time to “un-clutter” ourselves (this is one of things I heard my husband say yesterday), then we’d better see to it we’re making some kind of productive contrasts between “stuff and not stuff” in our lives. There’s not one right way to do this, of course, and timetables vary. Maybe we even like the days leading up to Christmas to be “waiting, but with a certain frenzy” so that we can better enjoy the prospect of stillness in the days following. Whatever the balance might be for each of us, we’ll seek it, or else we’ll droop.
At this season, I never much liked a tree that wasn’t chock full of branches. Perhaps this year, our airy tower will set a new trend.
If you’re expecting something all nice and dripping with gratitude on the cusp of Thanksgiving Day, I’m sorry to disappoint you. That namby-pamby stuff doesn’t interest me much today. While I do of course hope that you’ll have a splendid and congenial feast with your loved ones, my subject brings with it some rancor, some bristles up, some heightened tension. There is, however, at least a Bird involved.
Maybe my mood can be attributed partly to what just happened during my evening English Composition class. About to embark on an assignment called, “Explaining a Concept,” we were brainstorming sub-topics that might be included in an essay, directed towards people of another culture, about the custom of Thanksgiving. One of my students immediately sang out, “Family in-fighting!” Well, of course.
This term struck me as, shall we say, the close cousin of what I had already been thinking about: rivalry, of any denomination. You know: who’s better—her or me, them or us? Sounds terrible, sure, and often is pretty terrible. But the sheer energy that the whole conflict generates can seem like goodness incarnate, especially when the two antagonists—whoever, whatever they are– can’t stand each other so much that they end up grudgingly admitting their mutual respect and admiration.
Clearly, we wouldn’t be putting the Jets and the Sharks—or any of their current equivalents– in this category. No, gangs like those are just plain menacing; their turf wars and hatred so deep-seated that the often high-spirited “rivalry” doesn’t begin to cover it. This is nasty business.
In the realm of school sports, though, longstanding rivalries are seen as healthy, stirring, even beloved. At our son’s new school–St. Mark’s–they paint their faces almost as if they’re heading to war on Groton Day. All in good fun, of course.
O.K., it’s time for full disclosure here. Lest you think that I’ve been harboring some grudge against a local woman who hits a tennis ball with more authority than I do (the line forms there), I need to say that a certain retired basketball star has been on my mind recently. My husband’s work as a religious leader doesn’t usually bring him into contact with professional athletes. Last week, however, he flew to L.A. for a conference of the National Association of Episcopal Schools where none other than Magic Johnson was a featured speaker.
In the program, he is identified with this blurb:
NBA Legend…Two-Time Hall of Famer…Entrepreneur…Philanthropist…Motivational Speaker…Episcopal school parent are just a few honors possessed by Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Granted, this list is already pretty long as it is, but they left out one really important one: “Nemesis of Larry Bird.”
Back in his high school years, I gave a book to our son that tells the story of this particular celebrated rivalry. Bearing a self–effacing title– When the Game Was Ours– and a nice gold cover, it’s been sitting amidst a bunch of other sports tomes in our living room shelves. Prompted by my husband’s brush with Magic, I’ve dipped into it over the past several days, and I’ve been richly rewarded. Well, maybe not quite as richly rewarded as the two players who wrote it…
My husband said that Magic spent a few minutes talking about his evolving relationship with the guy from French Lick. As you may well know, they had an almost completely parallel span of years in the NBA (each played thirteen seasons) and about the same number of tremendous honors bestowed upon them. They opposed one another in the NCAA Championship in 1979 and Lakers/Celtics games provided intense thrills to fans on both coasts and everywhere in between throughout the next decade. They were propelled, in no small measure, by each other; but they had to demonstrate disdain. Eventually, though, the two actually became amicable— something that would have seemed impossible at the beginning of their mutual ascendancy. Smack in the middle of the decade, in 1985, Magic travelled out to rural Indiana (imagine him peering out from his limo at the fields) to do a Converse commercial alongside Larry, and they had a far-ranging talk in the Birds’ basement. Animosity couldn’t withstand that kind of experience.
Many would say that these two guys actually saved the NBA at a time when viewership had been fading, ticket sales down. And there it is— rivalry having a life-giving effect.
That brings us, in a kind of roundabout way, to the Bible–specifically, to the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians 2:3. Here’s the language from the King James:
Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, or one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each other esteem other better than themselves.
Such nice sentiments, aren’t they? The first part—“having the same love”—sure would hold true of these two players. Honestly, though, we might read the rest of this verse now and wonder—in the context of the NBA or a whole lot of other arenas for that matter— is there anything done in the public eye that’s not through “strife or vainglory”? Are any of us encouraged on a daily basis to have “lowliness of mind”? Doesn’t that sound too much like groveling in a culture where pride counts for a lot? Aren’t we supposed to stand tall, believe in ourselves, shout our feats from the rooftops even sometimes? Ah, St. Paul; we may have no idea still how much we need you.
Then again, sitting down at the Thanksgiving table esteeming everyone else better than ourselves doesn’t sound like so much fun, either. Anyone have the recipe for a Happy Medium?
It’s not every day your husband brings home a raspberry crumble.
Mine did, a couple of Sundays ago, when he returned from a visitation at a church where there’s apparently a woman who remembered how much he liked the raspberry crumble she made the last time he came there. Now that’s service, don’t you think? And it’s especially heartwarming, I might add, that she made a WHOLE raspberry crumble, for him to take home (to be shared, say, with his wife) instead of presenting it at the coffee hour, where it would disappear in no time. Come on–if you approached that table and saw a plate of little store bought cookies and then, out of the corner of your eye, the freshly made crumble just oozing red berries, you’d go right and look for a spoon and a plate pronto, maybe even before the organ postlude had finished.
This occurrence got me thinking about the whole concept of hospitality. Yes, we generally think of hospitality as more about welcoming people into our home than about offering gifts to others who take those gifts into their homes. But really, aren’t both actions cut from the same cloth—the cloth of kindness and generosity?
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home that was hospitable to pretty much all comers. My brothers’ friends played endless outdoor games–at least that’s what I can see from the home movies when I was toddling around, being ignored mostly–but they also often came in and sprawled out on couches to watch sports on TV. A dog might start barking with any knock on the door (that sure happens to us now, too) but my mother, especially, would always want to greet people with a smile and a ready laugh, hurrying to the door as she tried to smooth down her red-gone-almost blonde hair as best she could.
In that she was from a lapsed Canadian Methodist family (did I just invent a new term?) I’m not sure whether or not she knew the famous verse in Hebrews 13:2. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Don’t you just love that term, “unawares”? I don’t know about you, but I feel like I spend most of my waking minutes beings “unawares” to a zillion things I probably should be noticing. But that’s another story.
And then of course there’s the crucial story in Genesis 18:2, when Abraham and Sarah welcome the three strangers into their home. Naturally, the strangers may at first appear to be strangers, but it’s not a big leap to see that they’re really representing God in three persons, the Trinity. (Rather than, say, a forward line of a hockey team). You just never know who might be a’knocking. Sure, people may come walking up the driveway bearing publications like The Watchtower or asking you to sign a petition for clean water, but it’s really better—isn’t it—to pause a minute and greet them warmly and not act as if you’re SO terribly busy with a multitude of important things that you couldn’t possibly talk.
Since we’ve recently moved to a new location, I admit to being especially attuned to issues of hospitality. It really does make a difference, right in my heart, when people go out of their way a little bit to extend themselves, to be welcoming. I sense, sometimes, that certain individuals might have gained a sense themselves, at one time or another, what it feels like to be transplanted, to need to find bearings in a new place. It’s not so easy, especially when children don’t lead the way into a whole range of activities and institutions. But of course all of us are hoping to find, or maintain, a sense of community that provides a kind of cloak of warmth. I guess I’m both trying to retain the precious elements of the old, as far as that’s possible, and make inroads into the new. I want our dining room to stay bright and welcoming, for whenever we manage to have people over to sit at our table.
From what I understand of the work my husband is doing with churches, it’s a lot about hospitality in that realm, too. Congregations are seeking to maintain their own sense of togetherness, of mutual support and comfort, while also reaching out to outsiders, to complete strangers. Sometimes it seems like a fine balance: trying to gain, while trying not to lose, either.
In a profile of Pope Francis almost a year ago in The New Yorker, James Carroll wrote that the new leader of Catholics everywhere “views the Church as a field hospital after a battle.” It needs to welcome people in, provide relief from all kinds of struggles, not give them reasons to stay out. I was going to say at the beginning of this essay that it sometimes seems odd to me how the word “hospitable” kind of resembles the word “hospital”— a place we generally want to avoid. But, on second thought, during storms of all kinds, we might actually be relieved to find one of these. In any case, I’m grateful for raspberry crumbles, people who extend themselves to others, sites providing medical care…and everything in between.
The Abundant Life truck was here yesterday to make a delivery; I’m not sure yet whether that’ll see us through All Saints’ Day and beyond.
From the name, would you know that the place sells wood, gas and pellet stoves? Yes, indeed…and they boast the “lowest prices and the largest display” in all of New Hampshire, too. The guy waiting on us there a couple of weeks ago confirmed that the original owner was actively Christian; apparently he liked the idea of his religion and his business commingling. When I saw the sign, I couldn’t help but think that a white dove like that probably would want to keep its distance from the soot and smoke, but I guess this particular dove could really take care of itself.
Really only now, seeing the stove nestled in our fireplace, do I recognize how we’re all about to take up arms and fend off the darkness and cold yet again.With Halloween and All Saints’ Day, we try to look death straight in the eye, to give it, and those it has claimed, due respect. There’s no point ignoring it, after all; that would be just singing into the wind. We all know where we’re headed. On the other hand, we don’t want to dwell on it, either, give it too much space, make ghoulish concoctions all year long.
When I was out cleaning up the vegetable beds yesterday, the sodden smell of decay surrounded me. Tomatoes were still spilling out from our very generous plants, but most were bruised now and asking for removal; it was clear that the green ones weren’t going to come to fruition. Besides, predictions of plunging temperatures made this a sensible activity. Game over.
Only thing was, my dog Rocky made sure to remind me that his game was far from over. Whenever I oblige him by throwing a tennis ball (in duplicate, to allow for lengthy gnawing and also misplacement) for a while before getting down to outdoor work, he sees no reason why this should stop his fun. He persists in dropping his chosen ball right where he thinks I’ll best see it— in the wheelbarrow, where it sinks deep, perhaps relieved for the break from saliva. Then he looks at me as if his life depended upon my immediate action. Apparently, he doesn’t understand much about camouflage, because that green sphere really knows how to disappear in there. What I’m left with, though, is the sheer urgency, the utter vitality of his wish.
Let the plants go; keep the dog, with his eyes riveted on their goal.
All around the fields now, the bright hues are on their way out and various shades of brown take over. I can bear this better now, though, thanks to a new bunch of students bringing in a whole new palette of colors to my life. In addition to one class of young people who are just starting college, I get to teach another class—an evening one—of adults who have experienced a lot and are ready to put their minds to work by writing a number of essays and, oh yes, getting the course credit they need. Five people have recently emerged from some branch of the military; some have children; some travel for hours to get to class; some are between jobs. When I first met them in the classroom last week, they were all sitting apart from one another— nobody knew anybody else. By the end of the two and half hour session, though, after some lively conversations in pairs followed by introductions to the whole group, a palpable warmth settled over the room. We were in this together, past bruises and all; we were planning on making the most of it, and laughing a lot in the process, too. Truly, I could have put one of those “Abundant Life” signs right on the front podium. Or, for more natural color, a big picture of the leaves the way they are still managing to be.
I left that first evening, and the next one too, feeling fortunate just to be able to spend time with these individuals, and hopeful that—if I summon much of what I have learned in past classrooms– I’ll be worthy of the significant responsibility given to me. So, to all natural forces of decay, darkness, and demise out there, I say, “Go ahead, do the inevitable, if you must! My time will come soon enough, too; but for now, I’m going to bring in those last tomatoes, make some sauce, go back out and find those tennis balls again, and try to pay attention to signs of life all around. In a November kind of way.”
“Malawi….isn’t’ that in Africa?”
“Yes, in southeastern Africa.”
“Well, it’s still Africa, and with this Ebola, I don’t think I’d want to send my kid there.”
Over Family Weekend at our son’s new school, I was at a presentation about Global Initiatives. The term abroad that used to be possible for college students seeking adventure—in Europe, usually– is now often available for high school kids who are, because of increasingly connected world, likely to see going even to Chile or Tanzania as not all that big a deal. There might be a lot of good reasons, of course, to wait at least a few years for a major trip like this; but a parent’s fear probably shouldn’t be one of them. And I’m here to attest to the fact that a Big Experience Away is really more about Many Small Things That Matter.
Our daughter is now right in the middle of her semester in Cameroon, and—so far anyway—it’s going beautifully. She’s lived with two different families in two different cities, Yaounde—the capital, and Kribi—a beach town on the coast, and a few days ago she left with her group to go a third new place, where she will live with an even bigger family than the previous ones. I think I heard something about multiple mothers, too. The town is “Bamenda,” in the northwest part of the country, quite close to Nigeria.
Mbaku, John Mukum; CULTURE AND CUSTOMS OF CAMEROON; Greenwood Press, Westport, CT; 2005
Nigeria! We’ve just learned in the news that the government has made some kind of a ceasefire agreement with Boko Haram, the terrorist group that kidnapped 200 girls last April, and that the girls should soon be returned to safety. The story held us in a grip for a while, as we heard reports about the inability of people in power to find the girls and bring the criminals to justice; but then the weeks turned into months, and the headlines faded. The grief-weary families are not celebrating yet, but there is finally a glimmer of hope. And, when it comes to Ebola in Nigeria, there definitely is reason to celebrate. Yes, there were 19 cases, and some people died. Just the other day, though, the World Health Organization declared the country completely free of the disease. Here’s a recent article about this from the L.A. TIMES. The success must be attributed to a whole lot of very hard and determined work, when it mattered most, by scores of medical and public health professionals, not to mention just regular Nigerians.
What with both of these stories—one after the other– so much in the news, my husband and I were not at all sure in August that we could enthusiastically get behind our daughter’s looming departure to a country sharing such a long border with the behemoth to the north. The stakes seemed to be a whole lot higher than they were when we were just deciding whether she could play hockey on a Sunday morning. But we were reassured by the fine track record that her sponsoring program, the School for International Training, had and by our own recognition that the dangers we may have sensed were so completely in the abstract that they almost had no tangible dimension. She went, with her purple pillow in hand.
Since then, we have had a steady stream of upbeat messages and occasional pictures, all indicating that she is learning and growing every day. I’m just her mother, but I can feel it almost as if it’s happening to me. Speaking in French constantly is a big stretch, and the academic work is definitely harder than it was at her home college; but she likes the other members of her group, feels supported by the staff, and with the families she’s been living with, she’s really hit the jackpot. They have exuded warmth, made her feel special, and shown her what it’s like to live a regular daily life in a country on the other side of the world. Before leaving the family on the coast, she bought fish for them all…it stunk up the car on the way home, but they had a hilarious time. And new siblings abound…
Here are her two brothers in Yaounde, working out.
And one, with new soccer ball.
Her little sister started greeting her after school with her own sneakers, because she knows that a run is always the first thing on the agenda.
With moments like this, it seems to me that meeting with representatives from the World Bank and from the Peace Corps (they’ve done that, too) is just so much gravy. OK….I actually have no idea whether people in Cameroon ever eat gravy, but I have a way to find out now.
Just to the east of Cameroon, there has been a terrible conflict raging between Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic, with unspeakable violence. Three West African nations are battling a dreadful disease, fighting for their lives. There are tremendous problems on this continent, to be sure, and tremendously brave people trying to solve them. And yet, everywhere, in every corner of this earth, there are also people living and laughing; learning and loving. For now, we can be grateful that our daughter is in that category, so far from home. She will bring many riches back to us; in fact, she already has.
Here we are again, in the middle of October, a time of year that always seems like a kind of precipice between the living and the dying, when we are at once basking in the sun-filled richness that Nature is offering us everywhere and at the same time wondering how we will cope with the inevitable darkness and sense of loss that await us right around the corner. Not to be too dramatic or anything.
We got a newsletter from our daughter’s college the other day that proclaimed, “This time of year is so busy you’re breathless, so beautiful you gasp.”
I don’t know if I’d say that my oxygen intake has been affected, but here in these parts we would all certainly agree that the beauty of this autumn has been spectacular. Indeed, I’ve been spending so much time out in fields and on trails that I’ve gotten in a kind of Robert Frost State of Mind (in October, anyway, Billy Joel can keep New York City). If I pay close attention, I can almost hear the lines of poetry emanating from the trees and the stone walls, rising from the mist on the grass.
Down by the pond, the boy is still swinging on the birches; the farmer is alone in the pasture, using his whispering scythe. For a few precious moments, at least, the demands of modern technology seem completely irrelevant as well as ridiculous.
And yet, as anyone who has studied Frost’s life at all knows, he was much more complex—full of contradictions, even– than the soothing pastoral scenes he chose to depict.
On the days when I drive on the highway down to my teaching job, there is Mr. Frost again— or at least his name is on a sign indicating which exit to take to see the Derry farm, where he and his family lived from 1900-1911. All the scholars agree that these were probably his most formative years as a poet, providing him with so many images to draw upon for the rest of his life. He was raising chickens, tending fruit trees, spending a lot of time ambling around with his children outdoors, writing, and sometimes teaching too. That sounds like a lot, and it was. But as Jay Parini points out in his engaging 1998 biography called Robert Frost: A Life, Frost also had periods of depression that sometimes prevented him from being a good steward of his property and even of his family. Farming for him was definitely a mixed bag; as a husband and father, he was mostly attentive, but he also had a temper and could isolate himself.
When it comes to painting Frost’s darker side, however, Parini stops way short of where Laurance Thompson—author of a famous three volume biography on the poet—went. I was given the second volume, called Robert Frost; The Years of Triumph (1915-1938), back in high school. It looked nice and hefty on my shelf, but I can’t say that I ever actually read the thing. Recently, prompted by the splendors of fall as well as by Parini, I looked back on what I had missed.
One glance at the Index will give you some idea what kind of stance Thompson took on Frost: “Anti-Intellectual,” “Brute,” “ Charlatan”— and that’s only the beginning. When you get to “M” you find—I’m not kidding—“Murderer.” Go to page 439, and you can find Thompson’s claim that Frost actually wanted to kill four different people. It was apparently only his desire to keep up a good public face that held him back:
Now he was forced to consider strategies complicated by his literary reputation as a successful poet, and even though he still permitted his killer instincts to find expressions in only slightly veiled poems, the immediate problem was how to justify his new departure, in the eyes of those who liked to think of him as the personification of old-fashioned New England virtues. (p. 440)
Wow. This makes the passages depicting “Rage” seem almost superfluous. A poem like “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” could feel a whole lot chillier if we think of Frost as so menacing. Good thing that no one else was around when that horse stopped…
Thompson may have gone off the deep end a bit with his pessimism, but other scholars—including Parini– still have enormous respect for his highly detailed and thorough research. He got plenty right, too.
So, perhaps with biographies as with many other things, you don’t exactly choose just one of the roads diverging in a yellow wood.
And sometimes, in what would be a feat, you might be able to go through two doors at once, since each is “just as fair” as the other.
By all means, though, read the poetry itself, and let it stand alone, as dignified and beautiful as ever.
Here is one for the season, written during the Derry years, published later in Frost’s first collection, A Boy’s Will. It reminds some of Yeats, others of Keats. Take your pick; this is a master at work, both reverential and playful. All’s I can say, before going back outside with my dog, is “Amen.”
O hushed October mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost –
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
Even if we put politics aside, I have a whole other reason to oppose Scott Brown. It has to do with marriage–that venerable institution many of us know well.
Recently, I heard Mr. Brown—running for U.S. Senate here in New Hampshire—on the radio, answering questions. It was a re-broadcast, actually, of an event that had taken place as part of a series called “Rudman Center Conversations with the Candidates.”
At one point, I think when the NHPR host Laura Knoy mentioned how he almost always agreed with another politician, he said something close to this: “Oh, no, I don’t agree with him all the time; in fact there’s only one person I agree with on everything—and she’s sitting right over there.” I knew, with a kind of thud, that he was gesturing towards his wife, Gail.
If he intended that comment to endear himself to women all over the state, it sure didn’t work that way with me.
I mean, really, would agreeing with your spouse 100% of the time even be possible? And, even if you did, how terrifically boring would that kind of life be?
It seems to me that the benefits of a good marriage have more to do with creative cross-fertilization than with saying, “Yes, absolutely, dear” all the time. In a way, I suppose, it might be the difference between this image, of two separate lives completely merging, disappearing into a new entity…
And this one, of a double-trunked tree, organically connected where it counts, that a child can embrace fully.
In a way, it seems to me, both of these pictures are true depictions of marriage.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve grown as a person because of my husband’s presence. Right from the beginning of this union, along with his particular possessions, he also conveyed his entire individual nature in all of its uniqueness and splendor, and—sometimes—mystery, too. I started getting acquainted with him long ago, yes and then fell in love, but the whole process is still unfolding. It’s pretty fascinating, if you ask me. Here are several of the ways, in no particular order, that he’s influenced me:
1) I now listen to Stan Getz and Lucinda Williams regularly.
2) I try to do more listening, in general. Oh, and listening is more than just waiting to speak.
3) I see (my) clutter more for what it is; bareness has a certain appeal.
4) I want to try to become a better cyclist, even if I can’t keep up with him.
I could go on, but you get the idea.Probably, with no trouble, you could make your own list, too. And our spouses could also make theirs, we hope. That blockbuster book by Sheryl Sandberg called Lean In is all about what women need to do to get ahead; but the title could work just as well for marriage, couldn’t it? In love that lasts, we need to lean towards the other, pretty much every day.
But this is more about maintaining harmony than singing in unison all the time. In my English classes, I am a stickler for teaching students the importance of all kinds of grammatical agreement (they seem barely to notice these errors, while switching horses, or pronouns, in the middle of a sentence stream makes me writhe). At the dinner table, or just knocking around the house or doing stuff outside together with my husband, I’m finding that really satisfying sharing really does not depend upon seeing things eye-to-eye every minute. It’s often more about hashing out where exactly the stone wall should go or describing how you reacted to a certain encounter and, in so doing, giving your partner a glimpse into your soul, and enjoying the embrace of his, too.
Ok, so I don’t want to get too mushy here. It could possibly be that Scott Brown and his wife are so completely in synch with one another that they are riding a bicycle built for two off into the sunset, with frequent stops on the campaign trail. I can settle for lots of vigorous exercise—often separate, alas—with a steady dose of candlelit suppers, and conversation that’s good and lively and occasionally treads on new and challenging terrain. In the beginning, my husband and I (and probably you and your spouse, too) looked something like this:
Then, of course, came the gift of children around the table, and clamoring tongues from all directions. Soon enough, we may look more like this…
No matter. We’ll agree, we’ll disagree; the salt and pepper shakers will stay on the table, near the wine glasses; we’ll gaze at each other in the flickering light.
Some weeks —well, in my case, maybe even most weeks—things get all jumbled up.
In the past patch of recent days, a steady dose of daily news about the sorry state of the NFL has been accompanied by the mesmerizing nightly drama of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Strange bedfellows, indeed. Try as I might, I can’t keep them apart, like peas and potatoes resisting the directive to stay in their distinct locations on my plate. In my dreams, I think I’ve even spotted the bullish Teddy on the line of scrimmage and Roger Goodell wandering around at Sagamore Hill, trying to stay behind his shield. What, I wonder, might one story have to say to another? I’m pretty sure it’s not quite so simple as the statuesque Eleanor Roosevelt waving her finger at a bunch of players who don’t seem to understand the rules that really matter in life. No, I think it has more to do with the fact that we are all engaged in some kind of battle against demons that threaten to pull us down; we just need to recognize them first.
In the car for a long drive the other day, I stumbled upon a radio show called “In the Market with Janet Parshall.” Have any of you ever had the pleasure? I know, the first thing that’s confusing about it—especially in the context of a conversation about football—is that her name sounds really close to “Bill Parcells,” the famous coach of many successful teams. The show is part of Moody Radio, a network of 36 Christian stations nationwide; according to the website, Janet “evaluates newsworthy topics with guests and listeners using the Bible as a framework for discussion.”
This past Saturday, not surprisingly, Janet was evaluating the bleak situation within the NFL, on the heels of Goodell’s press conference on Friday, and asking her listeners whether they thought the measures he was announcing would be enough. Maybe this happens a lot on talk radio, but I was particularly amused by Janet’s proclivity to take a caller’s comment and then go on and on with it, pretty much forgetting the caller, almost as if she herself were running the ball downfield all the way.
At one point she really took off with the idea that what NFL players need most is more “self-control.” So far so good, but then—in my opinion, anyway—she went out of bounds. She recommended that all the pro teams would be well-advised to involve chaplains and other “believers” in the effort to demonstrate the crucial link between Christ and self-control. And then, apparently, we’d be on our way to ridding the league of this scourge of domestic violence.
Now I heartily agree that chaplains do very important work, and if in fact they work in the NFL, they sure could help lead the charge against domestic violence. Furthermore, Christ may have been a champion of self-control, and many other qualities too; but with all due respect I really don’t think Christians are necessarily first in line when it comes to recognizing that hurting others— particularly members of one’s own family—is wrong, wrong and wrong.
Frankly, this use of “believer” has always rankled me. Does the word connote a very specific kind of belief? From what I can tell, each one of us develops something like a moral code over time and then we do our best to live by it, stumbling and trying to make corrections in course along the way. If our particular beliefs hold any water, they enable us to be productive, generous and kind members of our communities–starting in our own living rooms. Perhaps, sometimes, even despite the challenges we are dealing with at home.
What was so compelling about The Roosevelts (besides just about everything– the photographs, film clips and actual words of the characters) was that we got to see what was actually happening in their private lives against the backdrop of huge and transformative national and world events. For example, the fact that Theodore Roosevelt, just starting out in politics, had to find a way to absorb the enormous grief of losing his wife and his mother to typhoid on the very same day; or that FDR was coping with polio, and the need to never appear weak in public, while leading the country into the New Deal; or that Eleanor was both a tireless advocate for the disadvantaged as well as a stern taskmaster to her husband, who at times in their marriage betrayed her.
These were remarkable people; that is for sure. They were all three fighters, too. As they take their bows, humbly of course, football will rush in, despite feeling a bit wobbly at the moment. The sport is–everyone would surely agree–engaged in the fight of its life, really the fight for its life. This has happened not because football players are any more culpable than the rest of us, but because their falls always loom larger. Domestic violence, a demon that smashes into far too many families everywhere but most often out of the public eye, has come under the full glare of the lights. Nobody better let it scamper out of the stadium unscathed now. As the Roosevelts would attest, we’ve defeated some other pretty big foes in the history of this country.
Flying home from the Midwest last night, I had a slight delay in Detroit, not of the usual kind. The problem wasn’t with the flights themselves; the one from Duluth arrived in Motown on time, and the second leg to Manchester was even better.
No, it was a recalcitrant jet bridge— that thing that extends out to provide a walkway for passengers into the gate—causing some distress. We were all ready to get off the plane, the door was open, but the bridge wasn’t ready for us. I might have been feeling as special as Taylor Swift, but there was to be no red carpet treatment here. Whoever was operating this thing resembling a long arm with folds in it was clearly having some kind of trouble; after a few minutes passed, a few charitable passengers began guessing that s/he must have still been in training. Poor dear, I thought, but I really have to go to the bathroom.
My writing teacher might have described the episode as a nice illustration of how important it is to maintain your “through line” all the way to the end of your story. Bring that baby home– across the sky, through the smooth sections and the turbulence both; touch down on the ground; and then, finally, provide the walk up the ramp and into the airport. Your passengers, your readers, need all of it. Or, to borrow a more violent metaphor a gentle classmate of mine used over the past week, they want “the whole shootin’ match.”
Besides my suitcase, I brought a thrilling discovery back with me last night: the book I’m trying to write actually has a through line. This just about knocks me out. Before I left for the writing retreat on Madeline Island, I’d been regarding my potential book more like a blob, a shapeless mass that was sulking for lack of attention over there in the corner. I was telling myself that I would bring it to life somehow, give it a spine and make it strand up straight, but the fact was I didn’t really know how. I had no through line power.
Now I do, thanks to the group work we did out there, so it’s a different story. Well, not different, exactly…it’s now an actual story, a true one, too. My job is really just to work hard on feeding and caring for the blob so that, gradually, it will rise up on its own power and greet the world– smiling, I hope. I’ll even leave my bike out by the road, so my story can jump on and do the next leg.
Excited by the prospect, I return home and look at our own new clothesline—a kind of birthday present from my husband to me—with a pounding heart. Isn’t it fabulous? Just by stepping out on our deck, we can give those purple shirts the dignity and fresh air they deserve.
My mother used to say that her very favorite place was our clothesline, which stretched between the apple tree and the old backstop. A woman who never owned a dryer through years of raising five children, she spent many happy hours there, in all seasons, usually with a dog by her side. It was, in some sense, her through line.
She and my father loved playing golf, so I also find it satisfying to learn that still a different kind of through line exists on putting greens. Those who observe proper golfers’ etiquette will avoid treading on the section of grass beyond the hole where an opponent’s ball might go, after missing the cup. This, apparently, is a line to be respected because the person will rely upon its integrity when trying again to sink the putt, coming back the other way.
This fall, besides coaxing my book towards the light of a full and happy life, I’m looking forward to working alongside my husband and a few neighbors to make some needed repairs in a kind of wooden bridge that we–particularly those of us with large dogs–use often to go over a patch of soggy territory into a network of beautiful trails beyond.
I already know this will be a whole lot more appealing than waiting for that guy in training to get the contraption at the right level so we can get off the plane. Nothing against the two pilots, mind you. If they can fly a magical machine on any given night above the twinkling lights of this land from point A to point B, then surely I can grab hold of my own through line and see how far I can soar.
Following his first cross-country practice at his new school, my son had to report for an “imPACT” evaluation. The name comes from “Immediate Post Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing” and it’s now used widely in schools, apparently to see how our kids’ brains are doing. Gone are the days when only certain rough sports were considered the only culprits; it’s open season now for athletics in general. Apparently, the computerized Q and A session provides important “baseline” data—data we didn’t used to get at all– before every new sports season, and helps to assess the risks particular kids are taking by plunging once more into the fray. It’s a tricky business, no doubt. When it comes to any kind of hits to the head, “impact” sure becomes a bad word.
Lately, I’ve been doing a little impact testing of my own, albeit of a different sort.
Although I like to think of myself as an athlete too (nobody needs to ask exactly how far behind any of my kids I would be on a run, do they?) I’m talking here about how just the words people say can strike us in such different ways— sometimes falling right off us like so much dross, sometimes irritating us, sometimes amusing us, other times being absorbed gratefully like rain on parched earth. And, strangely enough perhaps in this season of so many loved ones pushing off, I’ve mostly been interested in what we hear from people we barely know: recorded voices on the other end of the phone, cashiers at the grocery store, service desk people.
Permit me to take you a kind of tour of some of these common utterances, just for fun.
“Welcome to the Blah Blah Blah Company. Please listen carefully to the following options, as our menu has recently changed.”
Is there anyone out there, I ask you, who actually likes hearing this recording? Is there anyone out there, I ask you, who actually might remember what the phone extension numbers used to be? With things like this, we live only in the present; not reminiscing at all about the previous times we’ve called, how easily we knew our way around the place in the good old days when the numbers made sense. No, we are only trying to get the information we need and get the hell off the phone, perhaps to deal with the cascade of changes in our lives that really do have some impact—like for instance that the children we used to cart around town to their practices and lessons are now on other continents, glancing at us more or less in the rear view mirror.
“Have you found everything that you’re looking for?”
Don’t you just love this one? I hear it every time I check out at the grocery store; of course all the cashiers have been trained to ask the question. It’s a reasonable question, really it is, and I overhear most other customers agreeing readily that yes, they found satisfaction in the aisles overflowing with products galore. As for me, I always hesitate, because my mind flies immediately outside the supermarket, to the larger world where—let’s face it—finding everything you’re looking for is not so easy. I don’t want to present myself as a disgruntled person, and Lord knows the cashier’s job is demanding enough and s/he doesn’t need any of my musings laid on the conveyer belt. I realize that a qualified response like, “Yes, in here I have found what I’m looking for; still working on it out there, however” or perhaps bursting into the U2 song is kind of ridiculous, so I’m trying to keep a lid on these tendencies. Good thing my kids are almost never with me in the checkout line anymore; they’d be stricken.
“No worries at all!”
This one really takes the cake. Does anyone know how the line has gradually become accepted as a replacement for the perfectly good “You’re welcome”? We’re having a regular transaction in a store, collecting our change perhaps from the person behind the counter, and we hear this. Excuse me, but do you really think that I’m about to be racked with anxiety over buying a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk? I may not have weighty problems at home, but I do tend to save my worrying for things that might have a bit more, um, impact on my life. Before the cashier says this, I might have actually been enjoying a few worry-free minutes. In this way, the line reminds me of the sign posted near many public schools: “Drug Free Zone.” Driving along, I’m not giving drugs in the vicinity a thought, but one glance at the sign and I think they might be lurking in the trees nearby, ready to pounce.
“Take it easy!”
This is, alas, not a common line we hear when we go around doing errands; but I heard it the other day at Target, and the simple directive was as welcome as a soft breeze on a hot day. How did the guy know that I’d been dealing with one major event after another in my family–trying to make sure I had every last needed thing for each child about to set up shop elsewhere, wanting to be a good wife through some turbulent weeks, and also trying not to lose sight of my own work. He didn’t know, of course; but his glance suggested that he just might sense something. I’ll take it, sir; and thank you very much. Even if I don’t yet have a hammock set up at home, I can try to put my feet up somewhere and do a kind of mind chill for a while. My husband and kids would probably get the most benefit from this, actually. Just sayin’….
A couple of mornings ago, my daughter asked me to scramble her some eggs without the yolks. She had just had her wisdom teeth taken out, and hunger was beating at her door. But she was not too groggy that she didn’t remember her food rules. I followed her instructions; what resulted in the frying pan looked ridiculously pale to me, almost not even like food, actually. Whatever—she ate it. In this instance, it was more or less OK to separate things that usually stay together; how about as a general practice, though? When is picking and choosing a perfectly fine thing to do, and when does it veer into being, well, insulting?
It just so happens I’ve been reading a book with an entire premise about how we can, and indeed should, leave out the “bad” parts of something and still have a full and satisfying meal with the “good” parts. I am absolutely not forgetting to use quotation marks here. Bearing the intriguing title, Religion for Atheists, the paperback found its way into our household through the gift route. (I’ve learned through the years that people like to give my husband books a lot.) If this paperback were going on your bookshelf, you might put it next to Exotic Cruises for Stay-at Homes or Fabulous Meat Entrees for Vegetarians.
The book has a dramatic cover— an almost complete solar eclipse, I think. It’s anyone’s guess, but I’ll speculate that Alain de Botton (a French name, but he lives in England— another jarring contrast) chose an image to depict how we can still have some of the radiance of the sun without taking it whole hog exactly…and of course we’ve always been warned against looking directly at the ball of fire in the sky anyway. To me, though, this picture looks kind of creepy.
He levels with us in the beginning of the book about what, in his view, must be tossed out from any religion. Anything smacking of “doctrine” or “the supernatural” goes right in the compost, almost without any explanation, as if it’s just so obvious. What he’s most interested in is saving the good stuff, showing non-believers which elements of religion are really worth something, and why. We can learn a whole lot, he argues, from seeing how various faiths have, through the ages, nourished things like community, education, and art— just to name a few. And, if secular society got its act together, we could even appropriate much of what religion does best to slake the thirst of our culture without succumbing to a whole bunch of beliefs that really don’t hold water. This would be, then, kind of like a kid on a playground who watches a game played by other kids; s/he doesn’t ask to join them but maybe takes their ball later when they’re not looking and starts a new game.
So, for instance, we might initiate something called an “Agape Restaurant” in our towns to bring together, in an intentional way, different kinds of people for supper conversation and fellowship. Since everyone can also benefit from a daily dose of transcendence, here is his suggestion for how we might find that:
Thus we would do well to mediate daily, rather as the religious do on their God, on the 9.5 trillion kilometers which comprise a single light year, or perhaps on the luminosity of the largest known star in our galaxy, Eta Carinae, 7,500 light years distant, 400 times the size of the sun and 4 million times as bright. (p.202)
I’m not sure what to make of this. In a way, I’m sympathetic, even a participant. As someone who encountered the world of organized religion coming from “the outside,” I have found myself weighing which elements I like most and which ones just don’t adhere. In conversations with myself, I have tried to find a comfort level in certain situations that keep arising. This process is sometimes stimulating, sometimes pretty difficult. Or, as my kids might say, “AWKWARD!” I want to fit in rather than stand out, and yet I can’t help but listen to my inner voice, too.
On the other hand, I squirm when this author thinks he can just come into the Religion Room and take a whole bunch of items he needs, and then leave. “Not so fast, mister!” I want to say, “People have built all of this up over centuries….make your own beautiful things, why don’t you?” I feel a little like the Julia Louis-Dreyfus character in that recent movie, Enough Said, when she’s irritated at the James Galdofino character’s habit of picking out the tomatoes from his guacamole. (In a way, though, that’s kind of the reverse– isn’t it?) Furthermore, maybe the beautiful things we seek never only “belonged” to religion, it just sometimes seems that way.
Years ago, in my high school Calculus class, our teacher had a favorite expression when he was trying to explain where we went wrong in a problem. Let’s say Gary had just written out all of his equations on the board, but there was an error.“Gary!” Mr. Courten would exclaim, pumping both hands up and down, “You’re throwing the baby out with the bath water!” This is the kind of thing a teacher says that sticks with you through the years, much more than Calculus…alas.
When I went to Wikipedia to learn more about the origin of this charming expression, I found that it sometimes describes really weird human behavior:
In other words, the idiom is applicable not only when throwing out the baby with the bath water, but also when someone might throw out the baby and keep the bath water.
If we start doing things like this, then we would go beyond insulting to being downright deranged. And our secular culture would be one fine mess. All’s I know for sure is that it’s best to pay close attention to what I’m saving, at any given moment, and what I’m not. Hey, maybe the dog would like those yolks?
It may be a quiet summer in some places; down at our pond, though, two frogs have been really going at it. Vocally, I mean. They’re on opposite sides of the water, and—at least just about every time I go down there—they are carrying on a compelling conversation. One might even say it’s downright deep.
Funny timing, actually, because one of my readers recently wrote me to ask if I’d participate in a “blog hop.” She prefers to call it a “blog tree,” but my frogs are strong advocates for hopping, so I’ll stick with them.
Polly Brown (don’t you just LOVE her name?) is a teacher and a poet who started a blog when she took a break from daily classroom work. She’s sifting through her memories of teaching in the middle grades, describing the kinds of activities she and her students did together and particularly those moments when learning was most evident—when she could almost really see it happening. Lord knows us teachers have precious little time for reflecting on our practices during the school year, so it’s wonderful that she’s taking time now to share kernels of her experiences. You can read about her discoveries here.
And here you can also visit her particular lily pad to see answers to the “blog hop” questions.
Now I’ll take my turn. If this develops into only so much croaking, at least that ought to be slightly preferable to crowing, which I will assiduously avoid.
What am I writing/working on?
On my site, I’m simply trying to articulate my particular “take” on common daily goings on, starting with the interweaving of secular and religious experiences.I’m interested in all kinds of junctures, moments of contrast as well as moments of coming together. And then there are those two long chapters of a book, drafted over many hours a couple of years ago and still in need of revising. This work emerged from the many pages of a journal–primarily about the experience of being a clergy spouse–that I kept over several years. In a few weeks, once our three kids are situated in their three new endeavors, I will attend a week-long writing program on an island in Lake Superior with the specific goal of drawing the full arc of the book that’s been waiting, tapping its fingertips on the tabletop.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Claiming to be in a genre at all sounds a little highfalutin, doesn’t it? It took me a little while to discover that many blogs of this ilk—the “let me tell you about my experience” kind– feature shorter pieces and aim to generate more discussion. Like the other Polly, I favor the essay form, which may seem ponderous to some. I could try harder to present material that invites reactions from readers, that generates some buzz. Sometimes I think that just portraying what I see is enough, maybe neglecting making that crucial eye-to-eye connection with readers.
Why do I write what I write?
For me, I guess, writing is a kind of sanctuary that offers something very different than the regular to-do list. I enjoy being physical and active most of the time, often with other people. This summer, for instance, I have loved playing tennis as much as I ever did when I was a teenager. Attaining a better level of organization in any area of life – a bookshelf, a kitchen or a garden– is also a high priority. But I guess I also happen to be someone who has swirling thoughts that need an outlet, especially when I’m seeing a kind of “connect the dots” illustration in my head. Of course, I have no idea whether the illustration will be interesting to anyone else. Frankly, I kind of cringe to think about this whole issue.
How does my writing process work?
Keeping up a blog is a little like having a son or daughter join a travel team: you sign up with enthusiasm and then find it’s about getting to that practice each week. To use that hackneyed word, the regular posting becomes a “commitment.” Benefits accrue only through keeping this regular date. Without some obligation to sit down at the screen, I would not have been able to make a bound collection of my essays; a 240 page volume recently arrived in the mail, thanks to an order through a website. (It’s not really a book, of course, but it looks like one.)
On the other hand, each and every week, it’s easy to slip into an examination of what other things might be able to happen in the household if I weren’t immobile. I guess the bottom line is that, most of the time anyway, I truly enjoy the process of getting an inkling of an idea and then fleshing it out, usually over a couple of days’ time. Not to make too much of this, but I’m conscious of experiencing some kind of “flow” while I’m writing. Afterwards, it feels a little like having gone for a run—satisfying because I came a little more clearly into my mind instead of my body. Or something like that.
My future blog plans:
To figure out either how to stop this thing gracefully, as someone exits a cocktail party by backing gradually out the door, or how to channel what’s already here into a full-length volume that might actually interest an agent, get published and maybe even please readers. One thing is pretty clear: I don’t think I can keep doing this, week after week, and also give adequate attention to crafting an entirely different combination of long chapters. Multi-tasking is fine and good, but there’s a limit.
As my brother is fond of saying, “Enough about me…how do YOU like my shirt?”
Finally, here are the names of three blog writers I know and admire who have also agreed to welcome you to their respective lily pads.
First, it’s always good to have a little solidarity in the “bishop spouse” category. Anne Barker lives way the heck out in Nebraska (or maybe I live way the heck out in New England), is a practicing therapist and maintains an engaging blog on her business website. Take a look here. You’ll notice that she has taken a little hiatus since the winter, but—just you watch—she’ll be coming roaring back soon with her characteristic tales of regular life incidents and accompanying emotions that bubble up from them, followed by questions to readers, followed by book suggestions. Nice.
The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, a former colleague of my husband’s, is now the Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Her title may be long, but the goal of her work is pretty simple: we need to save our planet.For a long time now, she has been tirelessly focused on bringing religious and secular elements of our society together to address the perils of global warming.Her website is called, “Reviving Creation” and you can read her latest essay here.
There’s the large scale, and then there’s the small. Nick Grabbe, a reporter from Amherst who recently retired, is now devoting his efforts to living close to the land—in town, even. He writes about gardening, foraging, finding pleasure in paring things down–alongside his wife, who shares his values. I dare you not to get a tranquil feeling from these musings. I see he’s just posted something about not using certain appliances. Going back a bit, you can read all about his tomato struggles, here.
And what better place to leave you in mid-August, than in the tomatoes, creatures struggling to become what they are destined to be!
I wonder what my frogs would make of them…
I had more or less gotten over the fact that I was not Joan of Arc, riding boldly on a horse smack into battle, when I discovered that my name—something that I had heretofore thought had distinguished me, at least slightly—was suddenly turning up all over the place. We aren’t exactly a field of dandelions, but my quality of Polly-ness, just as of this past week, has put me in a whole bouquet of other females. This has taken some getting used to, but I’m now feeling some palpable gains.
It all started a week or so ago, when one of my blog readers wrote with a request that I participate in something called a “blog-hop.” You’ll hear about this in my next post; for the time being, what’s most important is that the name of this reader (and fellow blogger, it turns out) is Polly. Now, I’m really not so self-aggrandizing to think I’m the only one out there bearing my name who has anything to say; still, the email gave me a bit of a start and, momentarily at least, made me wonder if I was looking in the mirror.
To backtrack a bit, I was named after my aunt—my father’s older sister. Her real name was Mary, like her mother, but she was always called Polly (I’ve never understood this; then again, I don’t understand lots of things that used to happen or, for that matter, things that are still happening). My parents were going to do follow suit with me, but someone wisely said, “If you’re going to call her Polly, why don’t you just name her Polly?” And so it was. My aunt, and this may sound familiar since I’ve written about her in a past post, was a remarkable woman. Besides being a microbiologist and then a college president who advanced women’s education at the same time that she was a single parent of a bunch of teenagers, she rode horses bareback, kept bees, and hardly flinched at anything. Needless to say, I have always been mighty proud to be her niece, and – kind of like a bonus—to bear her name.
During all my school years, I honestly can’t remember meeting a single other Polly. Even in adulthood, anyone with my name (see how possessive I am?) has crossed my screen only very rarely. Speaking of screen, I might as well mention this actress: Jennifer Aniston, you may recall, played the free-spirited woman opposite Ben Stiller in that 2004 romantic comedy called Along Came Polly. One of these days I really need to see this movie.
It was that email from the blogger, however, that seemed to open the way a whole new street; in Monopoly, we’d call it Polly Place. Or perhaps it was the Polly Parade.
I went to a travel office to arrange my daughter’s plane ticket to Cameroon for her fall semester abroad; there were a number of agents available, but it was an easy choice when I saw the names on the desks. As soon as I met her, I knew that we would become friends. I loved how she got right to work, fingers flying as she studied the information on that computer, squinting slightly, and I loved how she instinctively seemed to know how important it was that my 20 year old daughter be well-cared for in the skies. She was a pro, no doubt about that. I also loved how she freely acknowledged that this was a new destination, even for her. When she went over the details of the tickets with me, she said, “ She’ll arrive at 7:30 p.m. at Can’t-Pronounce-It.” The place is new to me too, but here goes: Nsimalen Airport in the city of Yaounde, capital city of Cameroon.
(Yes, as you might be thinking, the fact that our girl will be going to West Africa at this particular time–in a month–gives us pause. All things considered, however, we have confidence in the highly regarded program administered by the School for International Training; she will be miles away from the perils we hear about in the news; her courses will help fulfill her French/Anthropology major; and she claims that the prospect of Europe leaves her cold).
During the course of our work together, Polly and I chatted about this and that. It didn’t take me long to learn one her favorite expressions: when she describes any woman – maybe her, maybe me– who has to overcome some anxiety and push forward, she says the woman needs to “put on her big girl pants.” What a riot.
Afterwards, in swift succession, two things happened: our family received a dinner invitation from neighbors who have a daughter named Polly, and then I learned from the book I’m reading—My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead– that the novelist George Eliot’s loving husband, George Henry Lewes, gave her a nickname:
Lewes adored Eliot, whom he called by the pet name of Polly, with an intuitive kindness and a gratitude in which there was no trace of resentment. (p. 178)
While I have never considered my name to be of the “pet” variety, I can’t help but be pleased to be linked in any way with this author, whose understanding of human nature was nothing short of stupendous.
So, say I generously, come on along, all you other Pollys! There’s room for you! I will just keep on doing what I’m doing, in my own particular Polly way, just like the wren outside our kitchen window keeps on singing. As the poet Edward Hirsch is quoted as saying in the new profile written by Alec Wilkinson in this week’s The New Yorker, “Your job is to write about the life you actually have.” (p.51)