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.
How frequently, in married life, or non-married life for that matter, when we say to the handiest person nearby something like, “We really need to do such and such…” do we actually end up doing it and, furthermore, end up enjoying the process or the accomplishment or both? Wishes are easy; fulfillment not so much.
Nonetheless, one thing I’ll be giving thanks for this coming week is that my husband and I managed to spend some quality time with our birch trees down by the pond, correcting their posture.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in Possibility.” For most of this fall, I dwelled partly in the possibility that we would actually follow through on this particular venture. The project hovered on the horizon right there in plain sight, waiting to be done, about to be done. But then, suddenly, tending the trees felt much more like a dream that wouldn’t come true. Who was I kidding that we would, one day, leave the regular tasks that harnessed us, look at one another and say, “OK, it’s time; the birches are calling and we must go.”
Every day for months, really ever since the heavy snow and ice of last winter, we’d been observing their glowing white trunks, dramatically curved — some of them, anyway. Others still stood straight and true. I didn’t need ol’ Robert Frost (he’s perennially hanging around our place, I swear) to tell me that they, even minus the flowing hair tossed over, resembled a gaggle of teenage girls. You can almost hear them whispering to each other. I’m not part of the clique, but I still think of them as my friends in a certain way, and I like to go down to check them out every morning, see what the buzz is, who’s in and who’s out.
I need to give a few disclaimers here. First of all, we didn’t straighten all of the leaning ones; some were taken down, and now each beautiful log will become kind of like “the gift outright” to our woodpile. Second, we didn’t actually ask the trees if they wanted to change their way of life, we just went ahead. They looked like dancers struggling to hold a too-difficult pose, and the coming winter would surely keel them over. Third, my husband did way more of the work than I did. He got the right kind of steel cable, and the little clamps that help make loops (along with pieces of hose for cushioning) with the cable; he also went up on the ladder to do the tedious attaching and then drove the tractor that pulled the other end of the cable firmly but gently, coaxing each limber individual to please point straight to the sky.
What did I do? Well, I held the ladder of course. And occasionally rummaged around in the leaves for fallen clamps and nuts. And let’s not forget, I also offered opinions about which anchor trees we should use. Oh, and of course I repeatedly threw sticks to Rocky to quell his barking. I felt a little bit like an acolyte at the altar, actually, although I’ve never actually done that.
The ladder was pretty amazing in both its lightness and its stability. I bet if he (all those straight lines, all business, no curves) could have talked, he would have told me to go find something else to do—“I got this covered; your guy is safe up there.” Once in a while, though, a strong gust of wind would come up out of nowhere and all of us would do some shaking. No way I was leaving. Besides, those moments when a tree found its way skyward were really magical. Our plain ladder didn’t look anything like the version of Jacob’s Ladder portrayed in William Blake’s painting, with luscious curves and angels everywhere, but it did the job.
Courtesy of www.william-blake.org
Each tree went through a two-cable process. Once again, physics explained everything. The first cable went from as high up the tree as the ladder-climber could get and then diagonally down to the rear end of the tractor. The tractor moved, the cable tightened, and the tree obeyed orders. Only then, with tension in place, could the second cable— this one the real McCoy, going from tree to tree – be added. Then, just as my husband predicted, the stress shifted over. After all, there’s no free lunch—when it comes to straightening trees, somebody has to bear the brunt.
Once we had a few key trees in the clump righted, it was almost a piece of cake to attach a couple of outside way-over ones to the newly supported insiders.
If I didn’t know better, I’d even say that the whole process gave some indication of how people might use the collective strength of a group to help their neighbors in need. But this might be leaning too far, so I’ll just stick to the goodness of the mix we had out there of husband, wife, dog, tractor, ladder, sky, and gleaming trees.
Some things in life come easily, slide into place, pour forth, work out.
Other things are damn stubborn and don’t want to budge no matter what you do.
This fall, apples growing on trees all over our neighborhoods have been in the former category. Have you noticed how heavy laden the branches were? I wish I’d taken more pictures to capture all that deep red color, everywhere. It was richness portrayed in fruit. Just by looking at it all, your spirit would swell.
I haven’t heard a good scientific explanation for the remarkable crop this year, have you? What I did hear is that the Farmers’ Almanac says that the more abundant the apples, the more likely we’ll have a snowy winter. Another one, I guess. Nature sure does work in mysterious ways: what could possibly be the connection?
Having noticed back in September that our tree out front was really producing, and that the apples were also delicious—firm and crisp—I collected a bunch, but just in kind of a preliminary way. Once my husband tasted one, he was enthusiastic too; soon, this enthusiasm led to ingenuity.
One afternoon when he was home alone, he figured out that his drill could do a very good job of both coring and peeling the apples (don’t ask me how he did the peeling; suddenly I forget, but he did). The guy has always been kind of clever. Anyway, he also made a good applesauce, and we were off and running with our treasures.
It was kind of like instant video replay, actually, since we’d already been hard-pressed to harvest all those tomatoes from the back yard and pack them in the freezer. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not complaining. Again, this is life at its most generous. And we all know it can be otherwise.
The thing about apple-picking is that, at least when you have a really good tree, it can go on for a while, over a span of days or even weeks. Generally, you have to do it intermittently because, well, you have other activities too. Rob had gotten a whole lot of good fruit from the branches themselves. A couple of weeks later, I realized—with some urgency– that I’d better head out to see what was still salvageable on the ground before the evening frosts came.
Wow, was I ever rewarded. Expecting to see mostly bruised fruit, I found instead almost perfection. Here’s how many I got, just in about 15 minutes.
I found out that these babies are of the Macoun variety — definitely high quality. Of course now they’re still in my garage, awaiting more attention. But I’m getting there, probably even later today.
My old New Hampshire friend Robert Frost (no relation to the ice crystals that come at night) knew a thing or two about this activity. Here’s just a section of “After Apple-Picking”:
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
What a haunting poem this is, with familiar intimations of death amidst abundance.
Wanting to learn more about the original writing of it, I went to my bookshelf and dipped into a long-trusted biography I have—Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938 by Lawrance Thompson (Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1970). Turns out, years after he wrote the poem, Frost told his friend Charles Madison that it was one that came pouring out:
My word will be more or less taken for it that I played certain poems through without fumbling a sentence: such as for example November Days, The Mountain, After Apple-Picking, The Wood-Pile, Desert Places, The Gift Outright, The Lovely Shall Be Choosers, Directive. With what pleasure I remember their tractability. They have been the experience I couldn’t help returning for more of – I trust I may say without seeming to put on inspired airs. (p. 597)
Wow, do I ever love the expression “played certain poems through without fumbling a sentence.” Can’t you just see a running back making his way down the field, ball grasped firmly in his arms, stopping at nothing? I think also of a tennis swing – all one fluid motion.
And he remembers the “tractability” of these poems. Oh yes, it’s no wonder that’s a memory to do some basking in. This word, one we don’t hear all that often nowadays, means the quality of something that’s easy to deal with, to manage or control.
Like near-perfect apples almost waiting to be picked up from the ground. Or a base-runner stealing second, beating the tag by a full second. Or falling in love with someone who’s just as much in love with you.
“Intractability”—that’s another story. For now anyway, let’s let it just stay stuck somewhere.
Hiking up Mount Osceola—one of the 4,000 footers in the White Mountains—last weekend with friends, I noticed that there were about equal numbers of men and women. We were all in our layers, climbing over the rocks, getting glimpses of a breathtaking blanket of orange amidst the first snow of the season. It was a wonderful place to be on a dramatic fall day. Our party consisted of three couples, and we merged very nicely. As far as I could tell, no men anywhere forged far ahead of women, seeing the point of the outing as staying together. There were some solo men on the trail, and some solo women too. We all went through steep sections, offering hands when needed, but — in an overall kind of way– the two genders seemed to be on even ground. When you’ve lived more than a half century with four older brothers and happen to have also gone to a mostly-male college, this kind of thing is noteworthy.
As I read up on the history of the White (the origin of that descriptor is apparently murky, but no, it probably wasn’t given in honor of the race, most common in this parts, with the same name) Mountains afterwards, however, it’s hard not to see the whole region painted with a masculine brush. Does “rugged” – a word often used to describe these peaks—always align more with the male half of the race? Back when names were being chosen, did a woman’s experience ever count?
There are lots of good guidebooks, especially from the Appalachian Mountain Club, for hikers. The one I happen to have around the house is called The White Mountains: Names, Places & Legends by John Mudge (Durand Press, 1992). Now it’s true my family and John’s family happen to go way back together, so I could be a bit biased, but this is a very engaging little book, with a beautiful oil painting on the soft cover. And it’s not John’s fault at all that, page after page, I’m reminded that just about every blasted peak bears the name of some man: there are all those presidents, of course (certainly you don’t want me to list them) but then, in addition, there’s Tuckerman, Carter, Lafayette, Clay, Hancock, Field, Stickney, and Webster—just to name some of the fellas who never occupied the White House but still are immortalized, with rocky limbs sprawled out, and up. Granted, a handful of the names aren’t people at all — Cannon, Wildcat, the Flume – and we have to be glad that at least a few of the mountains commemorate various chiefs from Native American tribes, such as Osceola and Chocorua.
Still, though, the whole place is teeming with men. Or at least, that’s what we’re led to believe. Could one whole hunk of this state really be so tilted to one gender? This must, in part, explain the origin of Julie Boardman’s book, When Women Meet Mountains (Durand Press, 2001). I haven’t read it yet, but apparently she does a good job of describing a whole range of bold and ingenious females, largely unknown, who explored these peaks, probably some in long skirts.
I suppose the number of presiding men is actually down by one since the Old Man himself fell down in May of 2003.
By Denise Ortakales, illustrated by Robert Crawford; Sleeping Bear Press, Chelsea, MI; 2004
Legend has it, and I got a refresher on this from a beautifully illustrated children’s book, The Old Man was actually Chief Pemigewasset. He fell in love and married the daughter of the Mohawk Chief, Minerwa; she had to travel west to bid her ailing father goodbye, however, and never returned. Pemigewasset waited endlessly for her, finally froze to death, and then after burial his body was somehow immortalized by the Great Spirit, with that famous fixed gaze. He may have been the famous one, but he was there completely because of a woman.
And then, in a kind of odd twist on this tale, there was poor Nancy Barton, a girl who did in fact have a mountain – and a brook, and a cascade—named after her. Believe me, though, you wouldn’t want to go down in history this same way. The story was a revelation to me, so I can’t help but quote the sad account I found, on Wikipedia, in its entirety. Here’s a quoted section of a book by Charles Skinner, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, which was originally written in 1896:
Another spot of interest in Crawford Notch is Nancy’s Brook. It was at the point where this stream comes foaming from Mount Nancy into the great ravine that the girl whose name is given to it was found frozen to death in a shroud of snow in the fall of 1788. She had set out alone from Jefferson in search of a young farmer who was to have married her, and walked thirty miles through trackless snow between sunset and dawn. Then her strength gave out and she sank beside the road never to rise again. Her recreant lover went mad with remorse when he learned the manner of her death and did not long survive her, and men who have traversed the savage passes of the Notch on chill nights in October have fancied that they heard, above the clash of the stream and whispering of the woods, long, shuddering groans mingled with despairing cries and gibbering laughter.”
Some women, well–men too, I guess — may know from hard experience what it is to have a “recreant lover”: if someone leaves you in the lurch, especially after promising undying devotion, it’s anything but recreational. Poor Nancy paid the ultimate price. There’s even a painting of her, looking beatific in that “shroud of snow.” I saw a photograph of it in John Mudge’s book, and he kindly sent me a scanned version:
“Nancy in the Snow” from Samuel A. Drake, via THE WHITE MOUNTAINS by John T.B. Mudge; The Durand Press, 1992
Surely, if any of us had known Nancy at the time, we would have urged her not to chase after a guy who had left her. “Come on girl, don’t you see that you can have a good life without him, that loser? You have your own skills; don’t make the mistake of depending on any man, even if it is 1788. Besides, there are other guys out here in these hills, some of them as solid as stone.” But off she went, soon to succumb.
The six of us didn’t stay up in the Whites long enough that evening to listen for her spooky groans, cries or laughter. In our little party, on an October day more than a couple of centuries later, the couples who went up all came down—still connected.
I felt grateful for that, grateful to have been there at all, with such a glorious mix of elements as far as the eye could see. And even though people long ago chose to see mostly men — some stodgy ones at that — in these mountains, we might attribute this, to use another word often bandied about these days, to something like “privilege.” Anyway, Mother Nature knows better. Minerwa never made it back to her loyal love, Nancy never recovered her lousy one; but all of us can venture up there today confident at least in the possibility of these mountains offering up beauty, and sometimes even lasting love, to each and every gender, in equal measure.
The Pope has come and gone, with countless people either seeing him for real –including two of my very best friends –or wondering what’s he’s about; we’ve watched the moon get enveloped in a red shadow and then learned that there’s likely water on Mars.
Meanwhile, I just keep trying to make sense out of, on the one hand, organized religion and the way different people depict God; and on the other hand, the vast universe and what we actually know about it. Do we have lift-off here?
I won’t say “the divide between” because there need be no inherent contradiction between the world of Faith and the world of Science. Right? And yet, there is plenty still to wonder about. What’s a curious girl – OK, a creeping towards the upper realms of middle-aged woman who also happens to be a bishop’s wife– to do but read, seeking some flashes of light if not some real answers?
Even when I go about my daily rounds not particularly thinking about these matters, which some may claim are neither here nor there, I’m apt to run into a poster like this one at the hair salon. Now you tell me if this is a reasonable claim…
Ok, so this must be a joke, and there’s not much real science in the height of hair. But maybe somewhere someone actually believes it?
These days, I’m hearing fewer Bible passages because I’m going less often to church, partly because the children have scattered and partly because the one familiar destination has turned into many far-flung ones. I am, however, travelling far (a la my mentor Emily Dickinson) by devouring books. I feel drawn to fiction and non-fiction both, but my specialty of late, strangely enough, has been anything with “God” or “Faith” or “Jesus” together with “Science” or “Nature” or perhaps “Infinity” or “Stars” in the title. Hey, nobody can accuse me of reading on the puny end of the shelf, anyway; I’m zooming in on the Big Questions.
Even the light reads often have something to do with the Universe; take The Astronaut Wives Club, for instance. I try not to be distracted by those flipped hair-dos; these women were dealing with some pretty serious distances in their marriages.
This all may have started in earnest when I sought out Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity (Alma Books, London, 2007). She is the ex-wife of the famous Stephen Hawking, and her book was the basis of the wildly popular movie The Theory of Everything. It’s a riveting story all right. You’ve really got to hand it to her: even though her own areas of expertise were languages and music, she managed to understand a whole lot about what her genius physicist husband was figuring out, too. And she followed much of his mind-voyage out into the stratosphere and into black holes while also coping with his “motor neuron disease,” dealing with all the complications when he travelled around the world to give talks, as well as caring for their three children. It was exhausting. Then, sadly, they parted.
Through it all, she maintained a steadfast belief in God, often wishing that he could make more room alongside his famous theories for the religious faith that, she believed, would help sustain him. However, according to her account, he remained standoffish and often scathingly dismissive of the Anglicanism that was part and parcel of their community.
And yet, as I discovered when I went back to look again at his blockbuster for the common folk, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1988) which was dedicated to Jane, Stephen Hawking definitely did not leave God out. True enough, most of the book sticks closely to the scientific discoveries – a good thing, too, in that there’s a whole lot to digest – but he does tip his hat to God on more than one occasion. Here, for instance:
One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to understand. This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being, but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand? (p. 122)
Reading a passage like this, I begin to conjure an image of God and Science as dance partners. Admittedly, this could be partly because I’ve just gone to a string of events (two reunions, one wedding, one huge anniversary celebration for a school) when the much hoped-for opportunity to dance either did or did not pan out.
But, honestly, the more I read, the more I see all kinds of people depicting the interplay between these forces — the weaving in and weaving out, the constant movement, and even the sharing of who’s in the lead.
A brand new book I picked up on this topic is almost mind-blowing. There’s a kind of parallel here with the Hawkings, actually: Nancy Ellen Abrams is married to the astrophysicist Joel Primack; he studies “dark matter.” In A God That Could Be Real (Beacon Press, Boston, 2015) she’s arguing that it’s time for us to create a wholly new kind of God – to lose the old, stale ways of thinking about an omniscient/omnipotent Being and see instead an “emergent phenomenon” in keeping with what our society desperately needs to move forward, completely in tandem with the exploding knowledge we have from Science.
In his Foreward to the book, Archbishop Desmond Tutu begins this way:
I must begin by acknowledging that I do not agree with everything that Nancy Abrams says about a scientific understanding of God. (ix)
Well, phew, that’s a relief. Sure would be boring to see everybody dancing the same way out on that floor, wouldn’t it? Hey, this party is bound to go on for quite some time. If I’m patient, and the music is right, I might even persuade my husband to come on out there with me for a while…though it might have to be in the mid-week time slot.
Today we’re going to look closely at two terms with an almost automatic heartwarming quality: FAMILY and FOOD. Ah yes, I know, your whole inner being is already feeling the glow…there’s a big table, smiles and laughter, glasses clinking, sharing of tales, a high chair with a baby banging a spoon or, why not, perhaps a slightly hunched over grandparent sitting near a sullen, for the moment anyway, teenager. Disorganized, perhaps; raucous, sometimes; but generally good, right?
Except, remember, this is a blog about dissimilar entities keeping company with one another, starkly different things lying side by side, or perhaps standing up and duking it out — contrasts of all kinds, ones that might even make your jaw drop.
Welcome to my particular family of five and the range of ways we choose to eat. If you can keep it all straight, you’re a mightier person than I am. As for food groups in the pyramid, however, we got those covered.
Without naming names, let me give you some idea what I’m talking about.
1) One of us eats primarily healthy food but eschews (like that?) any strict rules. OK, since you would’ve guessed anyway, I’ll fess up. Good things like kale, grains, and nectarines are supreme; but nothing is completely out of the question, except perhaps salami, Fruit Loops, or Marshmallow Fluff. Breyers once in a while? Not a crime in my book..reminds me of my childhood when my father used to head to the big freezer after dinner, asking attentively, “A little ice cream?” But in those days it was pretty much always vanilla, from the drive-through Dairy Barn.
2) One of us eats, for dinner anyway, meat or fish and lots and lots of greens, often in a kind of colorful ratatouille that is, admittedly, out of this world. At all other times, fruits and nuts of all kinds –generally purchased in small bags –have become fundamental sources of nourishment. Yes, this is what it means to go PALEO — not to be confused with POLIO, which was in fact a disease we have tried to eradicate. Person expresses contentment with diet and maintains rigorous exercise routine, although other family members wonder about plain old hunger. Projection, no doubt.
3) One of us has gone so enthusiastically VEGAN that he/she has put that bumper sticker on the car, so no matter who is driving it, there it is. This person not only eats no meat (or fish) or eggs (!!!!) but regularly tries to persuade Person #2 that he/she really should re-examine his/his philosophy for the betterment of the planet. Fortunately, they both agree that any plate worth its salt – ok, maybe not the right term– should be overflowing with green, green, green. This person also will in fact still eat cereal, rice, and potatoes and even – gasp – BREAD –a substance considered, by other members of the family, to be part of the Evil Empire.
4) One of us, again loving all vegetables, has pretty much given up on beef as well as grains/pasta/cereal but still retains a taste for bacon and has stayed true to his/her longtime passion for fruit of all kinds. Pineapple and avocados, PLEASE! This person also shifts food preferences once in a while, keeping life interesting. Yogurt, for instance – you never know. And the former zest for certain kinds of candy (remember that word?) such as, say, Skittles — VANISHED with the teenage years.
5) One of us, with a very healthy appetite, is cooking regularly for her/himself generally after hard workouts. This presents a number of challenges, including one involving the wallet. He/she is a big fan of those cans of beans that Person #2 used to like to eat, with as many fresh veggies as available. Actually shares characteristics with both the PALEO and VEGAN diets of Persons 2 and 3, and could probably go either way. Very occasionally may eat chocolate cake, if others at the table indulge, but has no trouble staying away from cookies.
Whew — that’s a lot to swallow, no? Maybe things in your family have gone a similar route, or rather, routes. To take a tip from William James, I might call it The Varieties of Gastronomic Experiences.
I’m still trying to sort all of the changes out. It helps a bit, I guess, that very rarely are all five of us gathered around the same table. No, wait, I don’t mean that the way it sounded. All’s I know for sure is that the old days — when I, the mother of the family, used to prepare ONE main meal and serve it proudly to kids who arrived at their stools when summoned, or at the table when we were all together – those days are gone. They were sweet days, for the most part, but they couldn’t last.
A role that was once pretty well defined — a bit like how the different kinds of food stayed in their own quadrants on a plate — has morphed into something else entirely. Now, I need to do some relinquishing, go with the flow, let everyone eat what they choose to eat, and maybe even examine my own choices more thoroughly. My family is giving me food for thought.
I just need to figure out what to do with the example of my friend Lauren’s grandmother: she’s about to be 102, with mind intact, and for much of her life she’d go to the local deli and ask for, “Pastrami, with plenty of fat.”
Some things, at least, are clear. With a bumper crop of tomatoes in our raised beds out back, we can all agree on how luscious they are.
Well, actually, I take that back…one of us has never really liked them – too mushy, or too many seeds, or maybe too red. So, wait, how come watermelons are fine then?
“What brought y’all down to Alabama?” the coffee seller on a Montgomery street corner asked, as friendly as she could be. We paused. It wasn’t so easy to explain to a welcoming Southerner that we were a group from New Hampshire travelling through their state to commemorate the murder 50 years ago of a civil rights activist from our state– Jonathan Daniels.
But she didn’t flinch and, in fact, said something like, “Oh, that’s SO interesting!” Then she went on to tell us how the proceeds from her coffee stand go to support an organization working to fight human trafficking.
The March Continues, all right. In fact, all kinds of marches continue.
I’d never before fancied myself a pilgrim, but since I accompanied my husband and a youth group from Keene on a kind of civil rights commemorative tour, also called a “pilgrimage” by the organizers, I guess that’s what I was for those five days. Come to think of it, those wide hats that the original Massachusetts Pilgrims used to wear would’ve come in handy in that blazing sun.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I tried to learn something about who Jonathan Daniels was. In 1964, my own brother had participated in “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, registering voters along with a few hundred other college students from the North, so I had images from the era, even if I had just been a little kid then, safely out climbing trees. In addition to this brother, another sister-in-law introduced us to a few of her best friends who spent months working with SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. From what I could tell, lots of people of a certain age – many of them with no particular religion at all – had heard the call to help bring justice. This, for them, was a compelling moral issue.
Jonathan Daniels, though, was on the path to ordination when he took a leave from Episcopal Theological School (now called “EDS”) along with a classmate, Judith Upham, to go to Alabama. His faith was deeply embedded in who he was; he wore his collar — the student version — constantly when he was there.
Before we left, I started reading a biography of Daniels, called Outside Agitator by Charles Eagle. It didn’t take long to get absorbed by the story, which traces his roots in Keene, his process of self-discovery as a young adult, his decision to devote himself to the work in Lowndes County (notorious for its deep racism), and the series of events leading up to the day when he walked to a little store, accompanied by two black women and one white man and—while saving the life of Ruby Sales, one of the women — met his own death. The book also paints a detailed and disturbing picture of Tom Coleman, the killer who was acquitted of any crime.
It was a little eerie, frankly, to be reading about this harrowing time as we were driving on the same roads that Jonathan himself must have been on, but it sure made the whole drama come pulsing to life.
If I had to choose just two words to describe the trip, they would be 1) Powerful and 2) Hot. Indeed, I could also say it was “powerfully hot,” or even that we were “fired up.” But you get the idea.
Here’s the gist of the civil rights remembrance activities we did. I will use the present tense, just to differentiate our doings from the history that we were discovering. You can just skip over this list if you want, but I’m offering it to give you the facts – pretty much straight up.
1) Arrive in Atlanta and visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site. This area of a just a few blocks includes The King Center (displaying many personal possessions and detailed timelines), the tombs of both MLK and Coretta, King’s childhood home as well as Ebeneezer Baptist Church, where he shared the pulpit with his father and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was born. Sitting in that church, listening to King’s voice from a recording, made the whole trip worth it. And we were only in the first day.
2) Drive to Montgomery, where we live dorm-style in a building connected to Church of the Ascension. There, over the course of a few days, we visit the Rosa Parks Museum (in three parts, including a re-enactment of exactly what happened on that bus), the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church (where MLK served in the 50’s), the site of the Slave Depot, and the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center. We put our hands in the water that runs over the black granite memorial, designed by Maya Lin, and met the remarkable Morris Dees, one of the founders, who continues to work tirelessly against hate groups in this country. He’s the real deal. At the time, we didn’t know that just a few days later there would be a memorial service at this same spot for Julian Bond, first president of the SPLC.
We also attended a presentation at Alabama State University by several individuals who knew Jonathan and/or were deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. They gathered to speak just to us, so we felt truly honored.
3) Drive to Selma, where we visit the Interpretive Center (with huge photographs of the original marches), actually meeting James Webb, who had been a 16 year old marcher at the time and was right up front in one photograph and walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Before leaving, we also drive by the Washington Carver Homes (where Jonathan Daniels stayed for a time, with the West family) and the Brown Chapel AME Church, which served as a kind of gathering place for marchers. Learn about “Bloody Sunday” and what followed, culminating in the successful 50 mile march to the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery.
4) On the way back to Montgomery, we stop at the National Park Service Interpretive Center (at the site of the former Tent City for tenant farmer families) offering more history of about the Civil Rights Trail, and then the memorial for Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker from Detroit, and mother of five, who was killed by Klansmen while driving back to Selma after the final march.
5) Drive to Hayneville on Saturday for the Pilgrimage and Procession for Jonathan Daniels. We walk, along with 1,500 others (including many Episcopal bishops) from the Courthouse to the Jail –where JD and others had been held, enduring terrible conditions–and then to the site of the “Cash Store” where he was gunned down, shortly after his release from jail, by Tom Coleman, on August 20th, 1965. We watch — some of us from the bit of shade we found — as the first-ever memorial marker is put on the site. Rev. Richard Morrisroe, who was also shot on that day, was with us, in his wheelchair. Then, many of us pack the courthouse for a service, at which placards with photographs of other “Alabama Martyrs” are held up. Michael Curry, the newly elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, gives a fiery sermon; NH Bishop Rob Hirschfeld, my husband, also speaks about the legacy of Jonathan Daniels in New Hampshire.
The heat finally gets me, and I just can’t stand up anymore, so leave the church/courthouse and slink down on the outside porch floor to rest. But then my particular purple-shirted guy finds me to hurry back to Atlanta and the flight home. Turns out, it’s hot in New Hampshire too. And it’s still my birthday, so I celebrate with a scrumptious dessert at Uno Pizzeria.
If you’re still with me, I’ll put the present tense aside now, for the rest. Just a few days later, I got to visit with my brother Mike – the one who had served in Mississippi. I had plenty of questions to ask him, and he patiently tried to answer—remembering, for instance, that he had returned South during the Spring of 1965 and spent about a week with scores of others in some kind of Montgomery detention center, where some of them even proposed a hunger strike. “I didn’t know you were in Alabama, too!” I said, wanting to catch up on everything I had missed, which was apparently a whole lot. Going back to the time in Mississippi, he acknowledged that it had been plenty scary: he was roughed up himself and, worse even, he had been in the very same group with Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney—the three workers who disappeared and then were discovered dead. Their pictures were on the wall when we visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center, and I looked at them long and hard.
“Didn’t many of you want to leave at that point?” I asked. “What did Mom and Dad say on the phone?”
He couldn’t precisely remember, kind of shrugged even, only recalling that most everyone involved understood that there was important work still to do there, and they ought to try to stay and do it.
The fact is, it might have been my own brother who lost his life. Thank goodness we get to be with him now that he’s topped 70 years old! The guy has always had a light touch, is quick to laugh and to get others laughing, but there was a time when he was on the front lines.
Rest in peace, Jonathan Daniels. You and many others from that time, you really had what it took. Those of us who got to walk back in history and look closely at this particular place and time, just a couple of hot weeks ago, understand a little better now than we did before what real courage, in regular people, looks like. Here’s hoping we can use this light to see the needs in our own communities a little more clearly now, and go forward.
Life can, it seems to me, be divided up roughly into “Getting Things Done in a Linear Fashion,” “Getting Things Done in a Circular Fashion,” “Not Getting Things Done,” “Just Going Back and Forth,” and finally “The Hell With It.”
Once in a while, I’m in the first couple of camps. Much of the time, however— sometimes by choice, often not—I’m in the last three.
To be more precise, it looks like I’ll be in the “Just Going Back and Forth” category more frequently in the coming weeks because my birthday wish was granted—way early too, I might add: there’s a brand new and lovely swing in our back field now.
Lucky me. And big thanks go out to my husband, who used a slice of his vacation time to attach rolls of string to tennis balls (with a bunch of throwing attempts over the high branch by us and then, triumphantly, by our niece and nephew), enabling the right kind of rope to follow and then of course the wooden plank to finish the thing off.
At this juncture, as you look again at the picture, I feel the need to say that the wooden plank is considerably larger than it needs to be to support my particular backside alone. Let’s just say it has generous proportions, perhaps anticipating that a couple of people might want to swing together. Am I saying this correctly?
The idea came over me gradually. Each morning I head down the field towards the pond, and each morning I admire that formidable oak tree that presides over on the right side, with long branch stretching out, invitingly. I mean really, it was practically asking to be swung from.
Even just imagining the completed masterpiece got me drifting back in time to “Swings I Have Known and Loved.” There was the thick rope hanging from a pine branch right behind my Long Island home, the one that would burn hands but would go high enough for us to play a game in which we’d make lines in the dirt to show how far we could go before leaping off. There was also the mostly metal playground at the elementary school — with chains dangling and wide spaces between swings, stones beneath, and a long and slippery slide that could be really hot or really cold — and another much like it at the village park, only with the bonus of a roundabout that could go really fast with lots of kids. There was also the breathtaking swing at my cousins’ place that was expertly hung so that the ride started on a grassy hill and had its apogee out over a section of Northport Bay. This one, nestled in a little clearing with no fanfare, provided me with early heart-stopping thrills. The experience was completely and utterly private, too, even if others were waiting on the bank. It was almost like being propelled into a new land, with only the breeze as companion.
And then, later on, there were of course the many different swings that my kids went on – wherever we could find them. It took a couple of days’ work to install the sturdy plastic playscape we had in our backyard near the University of Connecticut, but it really proved its worth many times over. A focal point for our kids and their visiting friends, it was always a place for trying things out, for imagination, for laughter, and sometimes even for exultation. I loved, too, that it was on a level piece of ground way at the back of the yard, so kids scampered to get there and then had the woods all around.
I doubt that the Bible has much to say about swings per se, but we all know the wonderful spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” This is, of course, not about just another day in the park but about getting to heaven, which is kind of a serious subject. What a soaring and joyful song! Here is Johnny Cash singing it, in case you’d like a reminder. My favorite line is probably, “Well I’m sometimes up and sometimes down.” Man, ain’t that the truth?
Anyway, come on over anytime you’re in the neighborhood and want a reason NOT to get something done. We can just hang out back there for a while, shooting the breeze, admiring the trees and maybe throwing some balls or sticks to Rocky. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any memories, via the “Comments” box below, of your own swinging days of yore. How long has it been, anyway?
Driving back from early evening tennis a few towns over, I saw the sun hanging low over the rolling New Hampshire fields—still glorious, as if darkness weren’t right on its heels. Going to the pond would mean taking a significant detour from my route and then, after parking, hoofing it under the highway and over to the water. I briefly considered doing the sensible thing: heading home for a shower before joining my family for dinner. But that was really out of the question: on this perfect summer evening when the air was glimmering with possibility, only a swim would do.
This steamy week has been one steady reminder of how much ponds, rivers, lakes do to help replenish both our physical and spiritual selves. The salted water version I’ll leave to my friends on the beaches, but I suspect – and remember, having grown up on Long Island Sound– that it works pretty much the same way there too. And I celebrate the virtues of immersion in water even though the Christian rite of baptism (in truth, the sprinkling water kind, not the all-in kind) is something I’ve watched happen repeatedly through my years of marriage but never directly experienced.
Not that I would necessarily recall the feeling of water being sprayed over me when I was a baby. I can’t even remember when I learned for the first time that my four brothers and I were “un-christened”—no, that can’t be the right term; since we weren’t a churchgoing family, we simply had not participated in this, or really any other, rite of Christian initiation. My parents never explained why we were on a different track; I guess they didn’t feel the need to. We just went merrily along our way. Naturally, when I started keeping company with a man who was preparing to become ordained, the topic did come up for some scrutiny. Previously, I sometimes felt unusual for an array of other nothing-to-do-with-religion reasons. During those days of courtship, however, I began to see my family, and me within it, from a completely new kind of angle. Holy cow! We were outsiders, and not just because we spent a whole lot of time outside! At first, this really made me squirm. Ultimately, though, the unaccustomed viewing really wasn’t so bad and even became kind of illuminating. Some years later, I even got to start this blog. Nowadays, I can see a baptismal font (it was lying around not being used, I promise) right in own back garden, gleaming amidst the greenery.
Among the books on my bedside table is a slim volume called Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002- 2012. There’s some slightly racier reading there too, don’t worry. “Oh good,” I thought when I first spotted it, probably on my husband’s desk. “This is the kind of straight-to-the-point thing that is bound to help me out.” It’s under 100 pages and is divided up, conveniently, into four chapters based on what the title promises. Early in the “Baptism” chapter, there is this passage:
So, the beginning of Christian life is a new beginning of God’s creative work. And just as Jesus came up out of the water, receiving the Spirit and hearing the voice of the Father, so for the newly baptized Christian the voice of God says, ‘You are my son/daughter’, as that individual begins his or her new life in association with Jesus. (p.3)
Hmm. I guess for someone like me, who somehow bypassed this moment, there was no voice of God telling me I’m part of the family. Upon reflection, this was a tad troubling. Was I or was I not living my life “in association with Jesus”? How much did this matter? Since my parents are gone now, I’m not sure what they would have to say about it. And my dog Rocky, he was no help in this department either, flinging himself in bodies of water any chance he got.
But then I kept reading and found this passage just a little further on.
To be able to say, ‘I’m baptized’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected—you might even say contaminated—by the mess of humanity. This is very paradoxical. Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave us untouched or unsullied. (p.6)
The plot thickens here, doesn’t it? You get baptized to be refreshed, and you’re singled out and applauded during the ceremony; then you end up getting all hot and sweaty and dirty, jostling around with other subway riders, anyway! I tell you, sometimes the way these Christian leaders describe their faith, things seem to spin around in circles.
The part I think I really do understand, though, is how we need to “claim a new level of solidarity with other people.” Then again, I’m not so sure how much of it would necessarily be “new”— I know plenty of folks who have been quietly living like this all along. But the point about not staying away from parts of the human experience that are hard or painful or simply other than our own— that I get. After all, we’re all in a kind of continuous stream, rocks and all.
I thought I might be all by myself at the pond the other evening, even briefly considered the risks of swimming alone as the light faded. But I needn’t have worried: there were a couple of clusters of people still there, whooping it up even. Diving in felt every bit as good as I had expected, and I stretched out my strokes, pretending for a moment that I could just keep going and become part of the cool water, leaving any possibility of earthly contamination far behind. Soon, though, it was time to get back; after all, my family would be wondering about me. Wouldn’t they?
“Look at that…just miles and miles of emptiness!”
“But Mom, what we’re seeing is not empty at all…it’s full-up with Nature.”
This is, more or less, how a bit of conversation between my older son and me went as we were driving through the vastness of Wyoming last week. Conversations were few in that car, actually, as we all just tried to drink in the dry spaciousness of what we were seeing, mile after mile. Small talk seemed, well, particularly puny.
My son was right, of course; and then, ever generous, he reminded me that I had actually been the first among the four of us to point out that we were in a place where the Earth—rock formations of all shapes and colors and heights, creatures and plants everywhere to see— definitely ruled, where humanity in general came in a distant second. This way of seeing really wasn’t the same as seeing emptiness: it was instead a kind of power shifting, a recognition that the near-absence of one kind of thing (people and all of their accoutrements) allowed for the full grandeur of what had been there for ages to rise up.
There are panoramas, and then there are P A N O R A M A S.
Ever since I went, at age eight, to a ranch in Montana with my family, I’ve had a kind of visceral connection to the Rockies and their close neighbors, the Tetons.
While I have nothing against California or the majestic Pacific Coast, I find it weird how often Americans leap from one side of the country to the other, gazing down at these spectacular mountains out of their tiny plane windows only if they’re sufficiently awake. To me, the jagged peaks have always evoked a feeling something like the one in Beyonce’s song, “XO” or “Love Me Lights Out.” They make me dizzy, set my heart a-spinning, let me lose myself while gaining a connection to something definitely bigger. And I’ve felt compelled to bring my kids out there to tap into the raw beauty, too.
This may not be “religious” pilgrimage in the classic sense, and I wouldn’t say that any particular set of beliefs in a certain Creator – beyond a feeling of awe for Nature itself– is propelling me, but there are certain similarities.
This time, as it happened, I was also reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Living with a Wild God. Prolific as all get out, she’s mostly known for her bold writing on class issues, the status of women and social justice. Her account of what life is like for low-wage workers, Nickel and Dimed, became a blockbuster. In this latest book, a memoir, she’s up to something very different: trying to figure out what on earth was going on inside herself back when she was a girl, on her way to becoming a scientist, asking a lot of really deep questions about the nature of existence….and at the same time, following in her family tradition, staying apart from anything smacking of religion.
Not to spill all the beans for you, but the climax of the book involves a kind of mystical (she does use that word) experience she had as a teenager. In that instant, just walking along a road by herself, everything changed – KA-BOOM!
At some point in my predawn walk – not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time—the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it….Everywhere, “inside” and out, the only condition was overflow. “Ecstasy” would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence. (Twelve Books/Hachette; 2014, p. 116)
Strong stuff from a self-proclaimed atheist, that’s for sure. Through the decades that followed, she grappled with this cataclysmic experience and is still trying to figure out what to make of the “Other”—that’s what she calls it—that came out and engulfed her then.
I’m rusty on my Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I’m pretty sure what she’s trying to describe here isn’t that far off from his concept of “The Oversoul” – the universal spirit that Emerson saw running through all things, all of us.
Frankly, I’m not sure I get it, completely. In Wyoming, I almost saw a “blazing everywhere” when we were in Yellowstone, gazing at endless acres of trees charred by the Great Fire of 1988. But in that case, I was conjuring up what had in fact been an enormous conflagration, probably started by lightening. Or when we walked out to Grand Prismatic Spring, near Old Faithful, and saw the mind-blowing colors in the pool there, brought about by ancient microbes. This place is strange indeed, but it’s also undeniably real, created by a combination of natural forces that have nothing to do with our particular species.
For me, anyway, a return trip out West brought not one electrifying experience—ZAP!– but a whole collection of calmer moments when I felt woven into the huge tapestry of whatever this mysterious life is all about. And one thing I can say for sure: empty, it’s not.
Each time I dive in again here, I remind myself that my theme is contrasts…things that are next to each other but strikingly different. Life is a lot about merging, but those lines of demarcation are everywhere, too.
Take, for example, the fact that we try to appreciate the little treasures that glimmer through our daily lives while not shrinking from the full force of tragedies outside of our own households. Sometimes, of course, it’s the opposite: our own lives may be crumbling all around us with loss and pain, yet we manage to recognize that for others, the sun still shines.
With news of another mass shooting by another disturbed young man wielding a weapon pounding on all of our souls, it is hard to know what to do, how to act, where to turn. The regular, tranquil moments can seem inconsequential in the face of such unfathomable horrors.
Since I find myself in a precious patch of days at home in the company of my teenage son, however, I am thinking about what it means, for boys in particular, to grow up: What do they need to thrive? What are the factors that, in some cases, can set them dangerously off course? Their job is to claim places in the world, feel recognized, and still fulfill their responsibilities to others. It’s serious business all right. It is for us too—we watch our sons grow tall, push off from us and sometimes become mysterious in their own might.
Maybe that’s why the hilarious moments are so welcome.
While we were eating dinner the other night on the screened porch, our 16 year old Henry (he’s OK with this telling) decided to pose some questions about those years before his father and I got married. He wanted to know what kind of jobs we had, what the dating scene was like, how we navigated our late twenties and early thirties before being thunderstruck by love. His father being on the other side of the country at Episcopal Convention –combing through resolutions down in a basement, apparently — I was on my own, and so I tried to answer with my usual decorum.
When I mentioned that I’d spent some time working for a “temp agency” in Boston, his face suddenly lit up and he exclaimed, “A tempeh agency?!” Having recently adopted a vegan way of life and now learning to cook many flavorful dishes with this wonderful if drab looking stuff, he was thrilled to hear that his mother had actually been employed at a place dedicated to the production of it. Attaway, Ma!
Little did he know, of course, that my time with the temp-not-tempeh agency was far from the wondrous era he imagined. While I did in fact meet a whole lot of characters in offices around the city, my self-esteem plummeted as people barely saw the need to learn my name or anything else about me. I might as well have worn a sign that said, “I’m In Between Things, so I Don’t Really Count.”
What definitely does count, during this stretch of summer, is the time I’m getting to be with my son. He’s balancing working at an organic farm with taking Drivers Ed; while the classes are pretty deadly boring, and the teacher rambles on with his acronyms about all the things you have to worry about behind the wheel, Henry can stand it because he spends most of his daylight hours outside in the fields, surrounded by green things growing everywhere. And then in the evenings, he runs.
Since the prospect of getting his license is hovering out there in the near future, I still accompany him in the car, doing the daily circuit from home to farm to class and around again. And then there are the screened porch dinners, too. Gathered up together, these pieces qualify, especially as he is my third child, as a glimmering treasure.
The drumbeat of news from the outside, though, rams home the point that far too many young men are lost, unmotivated, full of hate, or all these combined. In these cases, “growing up” is really not what’s going on.
I came upon this book recently; it’s not about how mass murderers are made so much as it’s about the factors that, according to the author Dr. Leonard Sax, lead boys astray, cause them to squander their abilities. They’re doing a dangerous kind of drifting, he argues, and the whole society suffers as a result. Video games, prescription drugs, devaluation of masculinity, teaching methods that favor girls, and environmental factors—these are all contributing to the problem, and we’d better take notice.
This rings true to an extent, based on what I’ve seen. And yet, as the timeless Huckleberry Finn reminds us, drifting done right — in the pursuit of true freedom–can also be glorious.
Drawing by Edward W. Kemble, original illustrator from the first edition of
ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain; Children’s Classics, New York, 1992
Here’s what Huck says at the end of Chapter 18:
I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn’t no home like at raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.
Amen to that. For my own boy, and so many others coming into their own strength, having plenty of drive is a good and necessary thing of course. Once in a while, though—not when they’re actually behind the wheel! – some Huck-like drifting might just keep them from getting “all cramped up and smothery.”
Let’s all do what we can to celebrate our boys…to care for them, to support them, to let them know that they can make a positive difference and enjoy themselves, too. Oh man, do we ever need them to stay whole — now, and later on too.
Did you hear about the recent U.S. Religious Landscape Study? The people at the Pew Research Center have been busy bees, publishing the results of their new survey just as—around our homes— the flowers are blooming, the vegetable plants are taking hold, and of course all the beds need tending. I suppose there are literal little domestic landscapes, and then there are Large Landscapes in the Abstract.
In this space, I try not to succumb to the power of metaphors all the time. But really, it can be hard when a topic like this presents itself, especially because I just participated in a survey– having to do with botany and not theology–right around the perimeter of our yard.
First, let’s consider what Pew (fun to imagine a family with that name claiming their regular seats on Sunday) has to say about what is happening across the great land of ours when it comes to religious life. I must confess, since I love panoramas of any kind, I’m also partial to well-drawn landscapes; there’s the same sense of vastness, of plentitude, even if they’re often not quite as sweeping.
This isn’t really news to those of us who know what’s going on in this particular field, or who are married to people who know what’s going on. Numbers and graphs don’t tell an entire story, but they tell some part of the story.
You can read a summary of the long report here. I’ll just give you a little slice. They took an impressive sample of people from all over the country— 35,000 Americans—and found that
….the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated—describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.
Clearly, the view has changed significantly. The familiar buildings with steeples still dot the landscape all over the country, yes, but it’s not business as usual anymore in houses of worship. There was a time when churches used to rely on the regular stream of people coming in; now they need to head out, encountering more of the “nothing in particular” folks. In education circles nowadays, teachers are learning about the “flipped classroom.” From what I can tell, there’s some flipping going on in the world of mainline Christian denominations, too. It’s a little bit like things are under construction.
Far be it from me to delve into this territory here— I need to get to the plants in my yard, where I’m on somewhat firmer ground. In his new blog on the NH Episcopal website called “Tending the Vine” my husband writes regularly about how the Episcopal Church, as he sees it, is going through this time — rooted in ancient traditions and yet also actively re-creating itself so as to nourish Life over Death.
And then, of course, there’s also the matter of connection, of Community. Here is, in part, how he describes the reason for choosing the image of the vine to represent the church as a whole:
As parts of the vine we are, to borrow the image of the 12th century mystic and abbess St. Hildegaard von Bingen, ever-greening, and growing to the extent that we see ourselves abiding, hanging in there, remaining in the almost vascular presence of God.
This sounds good, and no doubt is good.
Arriving finally to our own yard, however, I must say that the vines around here definitely do plenty of “abiding,” but sometimes they are really interfering with the plants they’re abiding in. They poke themselves up and out of everything, honestly.
I guess it depends what kinds of vines we’re talking about. In our case, the wisteria really is better off staying around the shed and not gallivanting all over the juniper bushes (which in fact themselves need plenty of work). If it ever decides to produce grapes, or any other fruit for that matter, then maybe we’ll re-consider.
While the Religious Landscape Study indicates, let’s face it, challenges on a pretty broad scale for churches everywhere, generally the Around-Your-Home Landscape Study is just a tad bit easier to absorb.
In fact, for me it was downright exhilarating a couple of weeks ago to walk all around our home with someone who is pretty expert in the ways and needs of plants. I knew there was a lot to do, and her visit sure did confirm that, but it was also wonderful just to pay close attention to everything: to take stock of what is clearly alive, what’s dead, what’s growing, what could soon be growing. Sometimes life and death are right in the same tree:
Here’s a very partial list of things for me to do now: choose some hollyhocks to go with the perfect lupine in the new perennial bed; get rid of the mugwort that insists on creating an unwanted carpet; rake out the evergreen needles that are making the soil too acidic around the hostas, simply appreciate the glorious Japanese Maple by the front door every single day. Oh, and then of course there’s the pruning of the larger canopy trees.
I’m not kidding myself that all of this will get done anytime soon, but at least I have a game plan. Around our place, studying the landscape, and trying to improve it, isn’t much about numbers or graphs, either. For the most part, I think the plants will respond to the right tending. Well, maybe they will. In any case, I –the gardener– will definitely need to do some serious abiding of my own…outside.
It’s funny sometimes, isn’t it, how a task that might at first seem like just another chore to complete on a long list of others becomes more than that, takes on a certain depth and fullness, even gives new life?
Take wood-stacking, for instance.
Our neighbors down the road had what looked to be a wood-stacking party yesterday. A bunch of cars pulled in, and lots of people wearing gloves were moving about purposefully as I drove by in the morning, with a pile of wood the focal point. When I passed by again a few hot hours later, the activity was a little more desultory— I spotted some casual swinging going on in the backyard, and people scattered around the place, just chatting. By then, apparently, enough work had gotten done for them to kick back a bit.
I was especially interested in this scene because it was both similar and different to one happening on my driveway a few days before. Finally, on Memorial Day to be exact, my husband and I found that we were both free and could turn our attention to the wood that had been delivered a number of weeks before. It was just us—no kids were home yet, and we hadn’t thought to invite anyone over—but we got the job done. Pretty darn well, too, I might add.
Putting a lid on my pride, I suggest that you look at this and give yourselves a little credit for any minor or major feats you have recently completed around your homes. Pause.
We worked mostly in silence (I’ve learned there are benefits to this) and just kept at it, with my husband using the tractor‘s front loader to move and drop the chunks right by the growing pile. Such a satisfying sound that is, so definite, when the pieces fall, each one announcing its presence. My mind drifted to friends of ours, from our old neighborhood, who wisely, like our new neighbors, had an annual party for this occasion. I loved how they made use of their whole property; people roamed around, finding stuff to do, visiting with one another.
And then I went back further, remembering how often I saw my father sawing, carrying and otherwise working with wood in one way or another. We had split rail fences, and they were beautiful but sure took a lot of maintenance. “Pony’s out again,” he’d say, before heading out to find the gap.
This sweet picture, of Dad and my eldest brother, was taken well before I was born, but it has sifted into my memory, too. My father had been gone in the Pacific, in the Navy, during the first year of my brother’s life. Looks like here they were doing some re-bonding, with Mike trying to get the hang of the technique, putting his foot up in the same way even.
Memories of wood, in the life of my family, are always close to memories of hay. Later, when a few more boys came on the scene, plus lots of cousins and friends, there were abundant young workers to help get the fragrant, scratchy stuff into the barn. My job, when I was old enough to do anything useful, was generally to stay in the wagon, stomping it down. Here’s another picture taken before my arrival, with Dad looking up at members of his crew. It’s filmy, almost as if from a dream.
So when I’m stacking wood with my husband in the modern age, quietly except for the steady “clunk, clunk” sounds, I’m also re-discovering the gifts of my particular childhood and making contact with the past, in an organic way. But that’s not all.
Once the woodpile is finished, we rest for a while. Then, soon enough, it’s time to take stock of the array of other outdoor projects that need doing. One among them, down the field a ways, will be trying to bring a certain cluster of birch trees back more or less upright. The constant snow and ice of this past winter sure did a good job of bending them over, and they look kind of like they’re bowing over to confess their sins in church; or just leaning in to hear some really good story, perhaps. Robert Frost knew all about these birches.
Apparently, these graceful creatures with long hair need some assistance righting themselves. One day this summer, after choosing which other trees nearby can serve as supports, we’ll plan to go down there with a good long ladder, some rope pulled through pieces of hose, and the willingness to see the job through. I think we’ll also need a couple more helpers, probably ones who are related to us. Then it can be something they might remember, years hence, when they find themselves tending to newer trees.
Just when you think, after about 25 years in the marriage pond, you might be getting the hang of it, you realize there might be a whole other way of swimming than the one you learned—the one you’re still learning, actually.
That’s kind of how it feels when you have a burgeoning anthropologist in the family who is studying how polygamy has worked, over generations, in peaceful communities on a distant continent.
In this country, we’ve been widening our definitions of marriage recently, but the practice of having multiple spouses and raising children in common, well, that’s still not exactly embraced here.
In fact, just as our daughter was packing to resume her studies in Cameroon, there was a TV special, “20/20” through ABC News, about a determined woman in Utah who, having herself escaped the clutches of the “Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints,” was rescuing—the term they used was “extracting”– her children from an enclave of this outlawed branch of Mormonism. Clearly, because of the level of overall weirdness not to mention dangers involved, she was in the right and they were in the wrong.
The plot thickens, however, when you listen to what some scholars are saying about the practice of polygamy, more broadly. Janet Bennion, a professor at Lyndon State College and a Mormon herself, has just written a book called Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism. Bennion argues that it’s healthy for the practice of plural marriages to come more out into the open, so people can see it for what it is—certainly not all good, and carrying with it inherent risks, but not all bad either. She presents evidence that some women actually benefit from a greater degree of economic security and more social bonds. She says, “this is a real marriage form. Some of it is poor-functioning; some of it is well-functioning.”
Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t become an advocate for what is, let’s face it, a really different way of life. While it’s true that one of my friends, who shall go nameless, did say that she’d be glad to share her husband because it might give her a new dose of freedom.…I’m definitely not in that camp.
But I am saying that just by imagining dramatically different ways of living, we can expand our panoramas.
I’ll admit it—the little that I’ve known about Mormonism has always made it seem about as far away from my own experience and comfort level as it could be. My brother and his wife lived in Northern Utah for a number of years, and we heard many tales of what it was like for them to be on the outside, looking in — always aware of large families disappearing into huge temples. But polygamy? Just about gone.
And now, with the Episcopal Church about to have its big Convention in Salt Lake City, I’m wondering what this mix of religions will bring. I mean, it’s not as if all those delegates and bishops and clergy won’t be cognizant of the enormous, soaring temple right downtown. Reliable sources tell me there’s strong interest on both sides for mutual understanding.
In fact, although I won’t attend the Convention, I have already been having a kind of mix-it-up with the Mormons, albeit through fiction. In a way, I feel as if I’m in one of those windowless hotel rooms where you get to meet other clergy spouses.
A new book has come out, and it’s called The Bishop’s Wife. “What’s this?” I thought, when I first heard about it on the radio. “Somebody’s beaten me to the punch?!” As if it weren’t enough that there are already TWO movies with the same name! Frankly, it’s getting pretty crowded out here in Bishop Wife Land. But wait—turns out this one is a murder mystery. “Phew,” I thought, “My story’s just a bit different. No murders, just plenty of sports.”
The cover really gives a nice, bright view of religion, doesn’t it? Pushing aside, for the time being, Jane Hawking’s engrossing memoir about her life with her brilliant but physically handicapped husband —Travelling to Infinity— I’m now in about the third chapter of this novel, written by Mette Ivie Harrison. She is herself a Mormon and, like her protagonist, is a woman with five children. There’s no sign of polygamy here (only slight mention of how it can still give the mainstream, still vibrant religion a bad rap, kind of like an old embarrassing relative who’s been put in his place) just devout nuclear families living in a tight-knit community. And the bishop actually earns his living from another job— he’s an accountant. Now that’s different all right.
Ms. Harrison is clearly no slouch either: she got a PhD as well as had all those kids before writing the book. It took a whole lot of nerve to portray, as she does, the darker side of her own faith community, specifically how domestic abuse can often go unrecognized. She’s interested here in what can go awry, within the framework of a highly structured religion, in people’s private lives, especially when men are still the ones in key dominant positions. The main character, our heroine the bishop’s wife, is trying to “out” the truth. But Harrison doesn’t want to bring the whole faith crashing down, either. In fact, she hopes to leave the reader with a sense of how powerful many Mormon women actually are even though they may seem, at first glance, to limit themselves by being so feminine.
Honestly, it’s not easy to know how to take all of this in and make any real sense out of it. I think I’ll do the following: 1) Learn as much as I can about other ways of life, other cultures and other religions, strange as they may sometimes seem, without judging them and 2) Keep trying to stay afloat, no—thrive even, in my own particular pond. At least that’s what I think the spring peepers are trying to tell me…and what a racket they are making on these evenings!
My husband and I may have become, strangely enough, mostly empty-nesters; but darned if children don’t keep popping up all over the place. And sometimes they even come with birds.
I happened upon this sweet sculpture in the Boston Public Garden the other day. Maybe you’ve been charmed by the piece, too. Called “Boy and Bird Fountain,”(even though there wasn’t any water flowing) it’s near the Arlington Street side.
Since I was in town to attend a conference with accomplished as well as would-be authors called “The Muse and the Marketplace,” I was in a writer-ly frame of mind, and might’ve thought that this was a kind of depiction of Ann Lamotte’s book about needing to be patient through the composing process, called Bird by Bird. Maybe, but more likely it was reminding me that each child is an individual, needing sustenance and care and a variety of ways to express innate curiosity. Nature, of course, always provides a good start.
The thing is, though, we keep getting clear messages about how vast the differences are between kids growing up all around us, everywhere. Where and how they begin, what happens in their households and neighborhoods day after day— these things, not surprisingly, determine so very much about how their lives will unfold. And they separate us, too. Robert Putnam’s new book— I’m sure you’ve heard about it by now – is all about this growing divide among the “have” and the “have not” kids. As a society, it’s as if we’ve almost come to accept it as normal. But when you stop and think that a segment of kids, by the accident of their birth, are receiving a constant cascade of goods and services, which is only becoming more and more voluminous, and another whole segment, also by the accident of their birth, are not—well, then, it just seems really troubling.
Exactly where kids live, it turns out, makes an enormous difference that digs even deeper than we might have expected. In the aftermath of the Baltimore crisis, yesterday’s New York Times featured a front page story called “Change of Address Offers a Pathway Out of Poverty.” Apparently, the whole concept of “upward mobility” almost requires actual mobility: if people can move to certain “better” neighborhoods, their chances of success improve.
The findings suggest that geography does not merely separate rich from poor but also plays a large role in determining which poor children achieve the so-called American dream.
This is not surprising, really; but it sure is disturbing, considering how many families are stuck in places where, due to a combination of factors, good opportunities don’t exactly rush up to present themselves as people are walking down the street.
Tomorrow evening, I’m attending a dinner with other mentors from the “Circle Program” here in New Hampshire. The governor, Maggie Hassan, will be the guest speaker. I’m proud to be part of this organization, because it’s trying to make at least a dent in the situation: many girls (and of course boys, too) are growing up in households, in neighborhoods, which simply can’t provide a whole lot else besides basic survival. These girls need reinforcements from outside, chances to learn some new things and build their skills and confidence.
And, not surprisingly, we mentors win big also. I remember, on a cold and windy March day, racking my brain for ideas about where to bring “my girl” for something fun to do. I didn’t want to drive far, so eventually I chose a local art studio where we (her brother came too, as he usually does) could do simple projects for a couple of hours. Did we ever have fun when we arrived at a simple brick building across town, a former school, to play with colors! We went wild. There was excitement, too, upon departure: the wind tried to blow away most of our masterpieces as soon as we walked out the door. But the kids went running after them, laughing so hard.
I sure felt lucky on that day and, really, on every day that we get to do stuff together.
Next week, I’ll go to a program called “New Hampshire’s Kids, the American Dream, and the Growing Opportunity Gap.” I don’t expect there will be any answers provided there, but at least we’ll get to talk about some of the realities of ongoing divisions, even in this mostly rural state. Furthermore, I know that my husband, in his role as Episcopal bishop, is also working hard to illuminate and to address these issues. It sure is nice sometimes when, even without my accompanying him to church, we have a kind of synchronizing swimming going on.
There’s no denying it: the transition from having your offspring running up and down stairs and sitting at table to hearing about their daily lives, and sometimes adventures, on the phone is just plain weird. Especially, in my case, when I’m also adjusting to being in a new town. Thank goodness there are plenty of other kids around…and most of them aren’t in fountains, either.
Over the course of the past Holy Week, my husband was preparing for services culminating with Easter today — the pinnacle of the Christian calendar.
Meanwhile, I was, for the first time, teaching a unit on ancient India to high school juniors. In my mind’s eye, I saw temples with elaborate carvings and women in colorful saris as I made the daily drive up and down a fairly bland stretch of highway.
It made for a kind of interesting mash-up around here.
While the unit didn’t go into any depth on Hinduism and concentrated instead on the succession of rulers during the Mughal Empire, I did give the students a kind of condensed version of The Ramayana – the famous Indian epic dating back to 300 B.C.
And they liked it! Fact is, the story has about everything you need for a good read: a hero (Rama) who is understood to be the embodiment, or avatar, of the god Vishnu, separated from his rightful kingdom and exiled to the woods; a beautiful wife who shows what chastity is all about (Sita) who is abducted by the evil and powerful ruler on Sri Lanka (Ravana); and even a monkey king (Hanuman) who rallies his troops to help the hero win her back and then return to claim his power. If you’ve ever wanted to know what dharma is all about, well, just read this book. You’ll carry yourself taller afterwards, I promise.
There are, not surprisingly, plenty of parallels with stories from the Bible. Some scholars have even argued that Jesus, in demonstrating such nobility of character and triumphing over darkness, can be seen as yet another form of Vishnu, or a related Hindu god – Krishna. Naturally, though, there are plenty of differences, too. For one, in the Christian tradition, Jesus is recognized as the one and only divine incarnation of a one and only God. His power comes from a kind of self-emptying process; he gives himself so that the rest of the world may live.
While Christianity is pretty clearly a “monotheistic” religion, Hinduism (with approximately 950 million followers in the world today) is considered either “polytheistic” or “pantheistic”—in that there is, in a way, one God called Brahma who rolls through all things and all people.
It depends on how you look at it.
Outside on the trails, the ice and snow are finally beginning to give way to rapidly running water— what a wonderful sound it makes, as if proclaiming newfound freedom — and of course to mud. When you look out on almost any expanse of land now, you’ll see a messy mix of everything, with too many earth tones to be called a “mosaic” really, but still a conglomeration of different elements, all in flux. It’s a kind of breaking up, with spring finally taking over from winter, presided over by the noisy red-winged blackbirds, who offer flashes of welcome bright red and yellow color on their wings.
Yes, in a way it looks exactly like “resurrection.” I’d have to say that I definitely see the virtue of “ahimsa” out there too. Either way, especially in the face of a relentless drumbeat of horrors in the world, we’d better pay attention to what the earth is telling us about balance, about harmony.
Not long after I started this blog three and a half years ago, some people questioned the title. They said, “Why identify yourself as a ‘pastor’s wife’ when you’re obviously more than that? It’s so limiting.” This is true to an extent. In a way, I guess, I was poking some fun—right from the beginning—at the label. Show me a stereotype, almost any kind, and I’ll try hard to show the exception. In this case, I didn’t have to try too hard.
The fact that there was such a thing as a “regular” pastor’s wife seemed odd. I mean, honestly, us women—just like men—come in an infinite variety, no matter who are spouses are. On the other hand, though, I have always been perfectly content to be merged with a clergyman (at least the particular one involved), and very proud of the work that he does. What’s not to like about helping people, offering them beautiful services with thought-provoking sermons, being there both in their times of need and of great joy? It’s meaningful work, it’s his calling, and it supports our family. No small thing, that last one. I have also been grateful for the world of new experience our marriage has opened up to me. I keep learning, while I always strive, stubbornly perhaps, to keep my own fundamental self–the one formed in childhood–intact.
And so it was with great interest that I read an email that came to me, via the blog, a few weeks ago. Here’s how it began:
I’m writing on behalf of Gloria Furman and Crossway to offer you a complimentary electronic advance reader copy of her upcoming book, The Pastor’s Wife….
During the month of March, Crossway will also be hosting Pastor’s Wife Appreciation Month, a 31-day online campaign to encourage the wives of men in ministry….Note: Here’s the link to that site.
We would be honored if you would read The Pastor’s Wife and consider reviewing it on your blog….
Here was an interesting development, confirming what I’ve always known: I’m one pastor’s wife swimming in a sea of them out there in the blogosphere. And whoever wrote to me must have cast a net over the waves and caught a whole bunch of us. In a way it’s kind of embarrassing: why do we think we have anything more compelling to say than, say, a truck driver’s wife or an accountant’s wife? Blah, blah, blah…
But then, how could I not feel a little, well, distinguished by the request? It’s a bit like how I felt joining my tennis or hockey teams, or the group of mentors working with middle school girls, or the writing group that meets once a month: a sense of belonging can wrap any of us in comfort, like a cozy blanket. They think that I’m legitimately one of them and that my promotion of the book might actually carry some weight? Ok, then!
Once I started reading Gloria Furman’s text, however, I realized that the good people at Crossway—an evangelical Christian organization– probably hadn’t actually read any of my blog. Otherwise they might’ve thought twice about asking for a plug from me. Truth be told, if pastors’ wives make up some kind of a continent, I sometimes feel that I’m on my own little island. In my most cheerful moments, though, I imagine there are a whole bunch of us, and we’re more like an archipelago.
The full title of this book is The Pastor’s Wife: Strengthened by Grace for a Life of Love. It’s intended to provide support to women (yes, no mention of men now becoming clergy spouses) who, in the line of duty by their husbands’ sides in church work, often feel overwhelmed by the weight of the expectations put upon them. Members of congregations, according to her account, chide us for not wearing nice jewelry, expect us to have well-behaved children, to be constant nurturers with a never-ending spring of good will, even to see that the broken air-conditioner at church gets fixed. I kid you not. This kind of treatment, generated with all good intentions of course, can try the patience of even the most faithful among us.
I thank my lucky stars that, unless I’ve missed an undercurrent somewhere, I haven’t gotten this particular vibe from parishioners. For the pastors’ wives (mostly in other denominations, and mostly in the Midwest and the South) who are deeply involved in church life, however, this may well be a fact of life. In any case, she says that when these expectations get to be too much, we need to — over and over again—remind ourselves that God is there for us, that we find our identity in Christ. And then we will come to a kind of oasis, and all will be well. She says:
I’ll just put my cards on the table—I think wives of ministers need encouragement and refreshment in the Lord, and we find that hope and help in the gospel. (p.20)
It’s not hard to see how Ms. Furman herself would feel overwhelmed: she’s living in the Middle East, far away from any relatives, where her husband is involved in “church planting”; she has four young children; and her husband, besides being full up with his parishioners, suffers from a chronic condition causing him pain and so probably he is limited in what he can do around the house. That adds up to one tough situation for any woman, who might want to collapse occasionally on the couch while kids are napping rather than muster up more energy to join her mate in his chosen work. I admire her gumption and her stamina as well as her willingness to serve others.
No “but” will follow that last sentence. I only want to point out that, right from her Preface, I could tell that she and I are cut from different cloth. She says:
My husband and I were married three weeks after he started seminary, and we have been in full-time ministry together ever since.
Wow. This was an enormous commitment she made. Is she, I wonder, also getting paid for her work? Perhaps that seems crass of me to ask. I married my husband about when he was mid-stream in seminary, and it never occurred to me that I would alter my career path (however foggy it has sometimes seemed) to take on the full-time role of “spouse of…” He didn’t ask me to do this, and thank goodness. We know many couples who work together happily, but they’ve often had the same education and training and each individual earns his or her own salary, or at least they’ve decided to go into business together – something wholesome, like raising alpacas for instance– and divide up the chores.
This, it seems to me, could be just fine and dandy. It really depends on the circumstances, and of course on the individuals involved.
About in the middle of the book, Ms. Furman goes beyond saying that she and her husband are equal partners, indicating how she thinks the hierarchy should go in a Christian household:
A wife’s submission to Jesus in submitting to her husband is a victory banner she waves as Jesus advances his kingdom. The scorn of modernity is no match for the pleasure of God as we submit to husbands as they lead us, wash us with the Word, and daily die to themselves for us. (p. 86)
Here, I must confess, I’m having real trouble. Could someone explain to me how submitting to a husband is just like waving a victory banner? Whatever’s going on in her house sure is different than what happens in mine. I’m all for serving my hard-working pastor a nice warm supper when he comes home, and sharing words together—that’s good, but at least until I get a whole lot more feeble, he doesn’t need to lead or wash me, thank you very much.
The other night I watched a good segment on Sixty Minutes about how women are faring as they try to make it through basic training in the Marines. Talk about hard. You couldn’t really imagine a more challenging ordeal— physically, mentally, in every which way. Did you think that women couldn’t do pull-ups? Well, turns out we can. Carrying those heavy packs over miles of 100 plus degree heat, though, and climbing up ropes when they’re weighed down with stuff—these things have often eliminated women from getting through. I was inspired by what one recruit, with hair pulled back tight, said when the interviewer asked how she felt about her chances of success, when she knew that most women thus far had fallen short. Without hesitating, she said something like, “Well, that doesn’t really affect me, because I’m not them, and they’re not me. I’m going to just try to be the best Melissa I can be.”
Don’t you just love this? She wasn’t putting anyone down, only trying to focus on her own particular road ahead, with optimism. You go get ‘em, Melissa.
OK—being a pastor’s wife is almost nothing like trying to join the Marines. For one thing, I know there are a whole lot of women who have succeeded in “the role” insofar as they have managed to balance a variety of factors—some external, some internal– and found happiness doing so. All I really know for sure is that there can’t be any kind of Rule Book that makes sense for all of us, because we spouses come with a rainbow of different beliefs, personalities, stages of life, and, now, genders too. And so do our spouses, matter of fact.
For now, I’m still content with the name of my blog. It’s “The Panorama” (how I see things spread out all around, from my perch) but it’s also “A Pastor’s Wife”(I am only one among multitudes.) I don’t really know who “The Pastor’s Wife” is, but I’d be glad to sit down and have a nice cup of tea with her. We’d sure have a lot to talk about.
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.