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.
“Malawi….isn’t’ that in Africa?”
“Yes, in southeastern Africa.”
“Well, it’s still Africa, and with this Ebola, I don’t think I’d want to send my kid there.”
Over Family Weekend at our son’s new school, I was at a presentation about Global Initiatives. The term abroad that used to be possible for college students seeking adventure—in Europe, usually– is now often available for high school kids who are, because of increasingly connected world, likely to see going even to Chile or Tanzania as not all that big a deal. There might be a lot of good reasons, of course, to wait at least a few years for a major trip like this; but a parent’s fear probably shouldn’t be one of them. And I’m here to attest to the fact that a Big Experience Away is really more about Many Small Things That Matter.
Our daughter is now right in the middle of her semester in Cameroon, and—so far anyway—it’s going beautifully. She’s lived with two different families in two different cities, Yaounde—the capital, and Kribi—a beach town on the coast, and a few days ago she left with her group to go a third new place, where she will live with an even bigger family than the previous ones. I think I heard something about multiple mothers, too. The town is “Bamenda,” in the northwest part of the country, quite close to Nigeria.
Mbaku, John Mukum; CULTURE AND CUSTOMS OF CAMEROON; Greenwood Press, Westport, CT; 2005
Nigeria! We’ve just learned in the news that the government has made some kind of a ceasefire agreement with Boko Haram, the terrorist group that kidnapped 200 girls last April, and that the girls should soon be returned to safety. The story held us in a grip for a while, as we heard reports about the inability of people in power to find the girls and bring the criminals to justice; but then the weeks turned into months, and the headlines faded. The grief-weary families are not celebrating yet, but there is finally a glimmer of hope. And, when it comes to Ebola in Nigeria, there definitely is reason to celebrate. Yes, there were 19 cases, and some people died. Just the other day, though, the World Health Organization declared the country completely free of the disease. Here’s a recent article about this, from the L.A. TIMES. This must be attributed to a whole lot of very hard and determined work, when it mattered most, by scores of medical and public health professionals, not to mention just regular Nigerians.
What with both of these stories—one after the other– so much in the news, my husband and I were not at all sure in August that we could enthusiastically get behind our daughter’s looming departure to a country sharing such a long border with the behemoth to the north. The stakes seemed to be a whole lot higher than they were when we were just deciding whether she could play hockey on a Sunday morning. But we were reassured by the fine track record that her sponsoring program, the School for International Training, had and by our own recognition that the dangers we may have sensed were so completely in the abstract that they almost had no tangible dimension. She went, with her purple pillow in hand.
Since then, we have had a steady stream of upbeat messages and occasional pictures, all indicating that she is learning and growing every day. I’m just her mother, but I can feel it almost as if it’s happening to me. Speaking in French constantly is a big stretch, and the academic work is definitely harder than it was at her home college; but she likes the other members of her group, feels supported by the staff, and with the families she’s been living with, she’s really hit the jackpot. They have exuded warmth, made her feel special, and shown her what it’s like to live a regular daily life in a country on the other side of the world. Before leaving the family on the coast, she bought fish for them all…it stunk up the car on the way home, but they had a hilarious time. And new siblings abound…
Here are her two brothers in Yaounde, working out.
And one, with new soccer ball.
Her little sister started greeting her after school with her own sneakers, because she knows that a run is always the first thing on the agenda.
With moments like this, it seems to me that meeting with representatives from the World Bank and from the Peace Corps (they’ve done that, too) is just so much gravy. OK….I actually have no idea whether people in Cameroon ever eat gravy, but I have a way to find out now.
Just to the east of Cameroon, there has been a terrible conflict raging between Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic, with unspeakable violence. Three West African nations are battling a dreadful disease, fighting for their lives. There are tremendous problems on this continent, to be sure, and tremendously brave people trying to solve them. And yet, everywhere, in every corner of this earth, there are also people living and laughing; learning and loving. For now, we can be grateful that our daughter is in that category, so far from home. She will bring many riches back to us; in fact, she already has.
“Malawi….isn’t’ that in Africa?”
“Yes, in southeastern Africa.”
“Well, it’s still Africa, and with this Ebola, I don’t think I’d want to send my kid there.”
Over Parents Weekend at our son’s new school, I was at a presentation about Global Initiatives. The term abroad that used to be possible for college students seeking adventure—in Europe, usually– is now often available for high school kids who are, because of increasingly connected world, likely to see going even to Chile or Tanzania as not all that big a deal. There might be a lot of good reasons, of course, to wait at least a few years for a major trip like this; but a parent’s fear probably shouldn’t be one of them. And I’m here to attest to the fact that a Big Experience Away is really more about Many Small Things That Matter.
Our daughter is now right in the middle of her semester in Cameroon, and—so far anyway—it’s going beautifully. She’s lived
Nigeria! We’ve just learned in the news that the government has made some kind of a ceasefire agreement with Boko Haram, the terrorist group that kidnapped 200 girls last April, and that the girls should soon be returned to safety. The story held us in a grip for a while, as we heard reports about the inability of people in power to find the girls and bring the criminals to justice; but then the weeks turned into months, and the headlines faded. The grief-weary families are not celebrating yet, but there is finally a glimmer of hope. And, when it comes to Ebola in Nigeria, there definitely is reason to celebrate. Yes, there were 19 cases, and some people died. Just the other day, though, the World Health Organization declared the country completely free of the disease. http://touch.latimes.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-81726966/ This must be attributed to a whole lot of very hard and determined work, when it mattered most, by scores of medical and public health professionals, not to mention just regular Nigerians.
What with both of these stories—one after the other– so much in the news, my husband and I were not at all sure in August that we could enthusiastically get behind our daughter’s looming departure to a country sharing such a long border with the behemoth to the north. The stakes seemed to be a whole lot higher than they were when we were just deciding whether she could play hockey on a Sunday morning. But we were reassured by the fine track record that her sponsoring program, the School for International Training, had and by our own recognition that the dangers we may have sensed were so completely in the abstract that they almost had no tangible dimension. She went, with her purple pillow in hand.
Since then, we have had a steady stream of upbeat messages and occasional pictures, all indicating that she is learning and growing every day. I’m just her mother, but I can feel it almost as if it’s happening to me. Speaking in French constantly is a big stretch, and the academic work is definitely harder than it was at her home college; but she likes the other members of her group, feels supported by the staff, and with the families she’s been living with, she’s really hit the jackpot. They have exuded warmth, made her feel special, and shown her what it’s like to live a regular daily life in a country on the other side of the world. Before leaving the family on the coast, she bought fish for them all…it stunk up the car on the way home, but they had a hilarious time. And new siblings abound!
Here are her two brothers in Yaounde, working out.
And here’s the older brother trying out her jump rope.
Her little sister started greeting her after school with her own sneakers, because she knows that a run would be the first thing on the agenda.
With moments like this, it seems to me that meeting with representatives from the World Bank and from the Peace Corps (they’ve done that, too) is just so much gravy.
OK….I actually have no idea whether people in Cameroon actually eat gravy, but I have a way to find out now.
Here we are again, in the middle of October, a time of year that always seems like a kind of precipice between the living and the dying, when we are at once basking in the sun-filled richness that Nature is offering us everywhere and at the same time wondering how we will cope with the inevitable darkness and sense of loss that await us right around the corner. Not to be too dramatic or anything.
We got a newsletter from our daughter’s college the other day that proclaimed, “This time of year is so busy you’re breathless, so beautiful you gasp.”
I don’t know if I’d say that my oxygen intake has been affected, but here in these parts we would all certainly agree that the beauty of this autumn has been spectacular. Indeed, I’ve been spending so much time out in fields and on trails that I’ve gotten in a kind of Robert Frost State of Mind (in October, anyway, Billy Joel can keep New York City). If I pay close attention, I can almost hear the lines of poetry emanating from the trees and the stone walls, rising from the mist on the grass.
Down by the pond, the boy is still swinging on the birches; the farmer is alone in the pasture, using his whispering scythe. For a few precious moments, at least, the demands of modern technology seem completely irrelevant as well as ridiculous.
And yet, as anyone who has studied Frost’s life at all knows, he was much more complex—full of contradictions, even– than the soothing pastoral scenes he chose to depict.
On the days when I drive on the highway down to my teaching job, there is Mr. Frost again— or at least his name is on a sign indicating which exit to take to see the Derry farm, where he and his family lived from 1900-1911. All the scholars agree that these were probably his most formative years as a poet, providing him with so many images to draw upon for the rest of his life. He was raising chickens, tending fruit trees, spending a lot of time ambling around with his children outdoors, writing, and sometimes teaching too. That sounds like a lot, and it was. But as Jay Parini points out in his engaging 1998 biography called Robert Frost: A Life, Frost also had periods of depression that sometimes prevented him from being a good steward of his property and even of his family. Farming for him was definitely a mixed bag; as a husband and father, he was mostly attentive, but he also had a temper and could isolate himself.
When it comes to painting Frost’s darker side, however, Parini stops way short of where Laurance Thompson—author of a famous three volume biography on the poet—went. I was given the second volume, called Robert Frost; The Years of Triumph (1915-1938), back in high school. It looked nice and hefty on my shelf, but I can’t say that I ever actually read the thing. Recently, prompted by the splendors of fall as well as by Parini, I looked back on what I had missed.
One glance at the Index will give you some idea what kind of stance Thompson took on Frost: “Anti-Intellectual,” “Brute,” “ Charlatan”— and that’s only the beginning. When you get to “M” you find—I’m not kidding—“Murderer.” Go to page 439, and you can find Thompson’s claim that Frost actually wanted to kill four different people. It was apparently only his desire to keep up a good public face that held him back:
Now he was forced to consider strategies complicated by his literary reputation as a successful poet, and even though he still permitted his killer instincts to find expressions in only slightly veiled poems, the immediate problem was how to justify his new departure, in the eyes of those who liked to think of him as the personification of old-fashioned New England virtues. (p. 440)
Wow. This makes the passages depicting “Rage” seem almost superfluous. A poem like “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” could feel a whole lot chillier if we think of Frost as so menacing. Good thing that no one else was around when that horse stopped…
Thompson may have gone off the deep end a bit with his pessimism, but other scholars—including Parini– still have enormous respect for his highly detailed and thorough research. He got plenty right, too.
So, perhaps with biographies as with many other things, you don’t exactly choose just one of the roads diverging in a yellow wood.
And sometimes, in what would be a feat, you might be able to go through two doors at once, since each is “just as fair” as the other.
By all means, though, read the poetry itself, and let it stand alone, as dignified and beautiful as ever.
Here is one for the season, written during the Derry years, published later in Frost’s first collection, A Boy’s Will. It reminds some of Yeats, others of Keats. Take your pick; this is a master at work, both reverential and playful. All’s I can say, before going back outside with my dog, is “Amen.”
O hushed October mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost –
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
Even if we put politics aside, I have a whole other reason to oppose Scott Brown. It has to do with marriage–that venerable institution many of us know well.
Recently, I heard Mr. Brown—running for U.S. Senate here in New Hampshire—on the radio, answering questions. It was a re-broadcast, actually, of an event that had taken place as part of a series called “Rudman Center Conversations with the Candidates.”
At one point, I think when the NHPR host Laura Knoy mentioned how he almost always agreed with another politician, he said something close to this: “Oh, no, I don’t agree with him all the time; in fact there’s only one person I agree with on everything—and she’s sitting right over there.” I knew, with a kind of thud, that he was gesturing towards his wife, Gail.
If he intended that comment to endear himself to women all over the state, it sure didn’t work that way with me.
I mean, really, would agreeing with your spouse 100% of the time even be possible? And, even if you did, how terrifically boring would that kind of life be?
It seems to me that the benefits of a good marriage have more to do with creative cross-fertilization than with saying, “Yes, absolutely, dear” all the time. In a way, I suppose, it might be the difference between this image, of two separate lives completely merging, disappearing into a new entity…
And this one, of a double-trunked tree, organically connected where it counts, that a child can embrace fully.
In a way, it seems to me, both of these pictures are true depictions of marriage.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve grown as a person because of my husband’s presence. Right from the beginning of this union, along with his particular possessions, he also conveyed his entire individual nature in all of its uniqueness and splendor, and—sometimes—mystery, too. I started getting acquainted with him long ago, yes and then fell in love, but the whole process is still unfolding. It’s pretty fascinating, if you ask me. Here are several of the ways, in no particular order, that he’s influenced me:
1) I now listen to Stan Getz and Lucinda Williams regularly.
2) I try to do more listening, in general. Oh, and listening is more than just waiting to speak.
3) I see (my) clutter more for what it is; bareness has a certain appeal.
4) I want to try to become a better cyclist, even if I can’t keep up with him.
I could go on, but you get the idea.Probably, with no trouble, you could make your own list, too. And our spouses could also make theirs, we hope. That blockbuster book by Sheryl Sandberg called Lean In is all about what women need to do to get ahead; but the title could work just as well for marriage, couldn’t it? In love that lasts, we need to lean towards the other, pretty much every day.
But this is more about maintaining harmony than singing in unison all the time. In my English classes, I am a stickler for teaching students the importance of all kinds of grammatical agreement (they seem barely to notice these errors, while switching horses, or pronouns, in the middle of a sentence stream makes me writhe). At the dinner table, or just knocking around the house or doing stuff outside together with my husband, I’m finding that really satisfying sharing really does not depend upon seeing things eye-to-eye every minute. It’s often more about hashing out where exactly the stone wall should go or describing how you reacted to a certain encounter and, in so doing, giving your partner a glimpse into your soul, and enjoying the embrace of his, too.
Ok, so I don’t want to get too mushy here. It could possibly be that Scott Brown and his wife are so completely in synch with one another that they are riding a bicycle built for two off into the sunset, with frequent stops on the campaign trail. I can settle for lots of vigorous exercise—often separate, alas—with a steady dose of candlelit suppers, and conversation that’s good and lively and occasionally treads on new and challenging terrain. In the beginning, my husband and I (and probably you and your spouse, too) looked something like this:
Then, of course, came the gift of children around the table, and clamoring tongues from all directions. Soon enough, we may look more like this…
No matter. We’ll agree, we’ll disagree; the salt and pepper shakers will stay on the table, near the wine glasses; we’ll gaze at each other in the flickering light.
Some weeks —well, in my case, maybe even most weeks—things get all jumbled up.
In the past patch of recent days, a steady dose of daily news about the sorry state of the NFL has been accompanied by the mesmerizing nightly drama of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Strange bedfellows, indeed. Try as I might, I can’t keep them apart, like peas and potatoes resisting the directive to stay in their distinct locations on my plate. In my dreams, I think I’ve even spotted the bullish Teddy on the line of scrimmage and Roger Goodell wandering around at Sagamore Hill, trying to stay behind his shield. What, I wonder, might one story have to say to another? I’m pretty sure it’s not quite so simple as the statuesque Eleanor Roosevelt waving her finger at a bunch of players who don’t seem to understand the rules that really matter in life. No, I think it has more to do with the fact that we are all engaged in some kind of battle against demons that threaten to pull us down; we just need to recognize them first.
In the car for a long drive the other day, I stumbled upon a radio show called “In the Market with Janet Parshall.” Have any of you ever had the pleasure? I know, the first thing that’s confusing about it—especially in the context of a conversation about football—is that her name sounds really close to “Bill Parcells,” the famous coach of many successful teams. The show is part of Moody Radio, a network of 36 Christian stations nationwide; according to the website, Janet “evaluates newsworthy topics with guests and listeners using the Bible as a framework for discussion.”
This past Saturday, not surprisingly, Janet was evaluating the bleak situation within the NFL, on the heels of Goodell’s press conference on Friday, and asking her listeners whether they thought the measures he was announcing would be enough. Maybe this happens a lot on talk radio, but I was particularly amused by Janet’s proclivity to take a caller’s comment and then go on and on with it, pretty much forgetting the caller, almost as if she herself were running the ball downfield all the way.
At one point she really took off with the idea that what NFL players need most is more “self-control.” So far so good, but then—in my opinion, anyway—she went out of bounds. She recommended that all the pro teams would be well-advised to involve chaplains and other “believers” in the effort to demonstrate the crucial link between Christ and self-control. And then, apparently, we’d be on our way to ridding the league of this scourge of domestic violence.
Now I heartily agree that chaplains do very important work, and if in fact they work in the NFL, they sure could help lead the charge against domestic violence. Furthermore, Christ may have been a champion of self-control, and many other qualities too; but with all due respect I really don’t think Christians are necessarily first in line when it comes to recognizing that hurting others— particularly members of one’s own family—is wrong, wrong and wrong.
Frankly, this use of “believer” has always rankled me. Does the word connote a very specific kind of belief? From what I can tell, each one of us develops something like a moral code over time and then we do our best to live by it, stumbling and trying to make corrections in course along the way. If our particular beliefs hold any water, they enable us to be productive, generous and kind members of our communities–starting in our own living rooms. Perhaps, sometimes, even despite the challenges we are dealing with at home.
What was so compelling about The Roosevelts (besides just about everything– the photographs, film clips and actual words of the characters) was that we got to see what was actually happening in their private lives against the backdrop of huge and transformative national and world events. For example, the fact that Theodore Roosevelt, just starting out in politics, had to find a way to absorb the enormous grief of losing his wife and his mother to typhoid on the very same day; or that FDR was coping with polio, and the need to never appear weak in public, while leading the country into the New Deal; or that Eleanor was both a tireless advocate for the disadvantaged as well as a stern taskmaster to her husband, who at times in their marriage betrayed her.
These were remarkable people; that is for sure. They were all three fighters, too. As they take their bows, humbly of course, football will rush in, despite feeling a bit wobbly at the moment. The sport is–everyone would surely agree–engaged in the fight of its life, really the fight for its life. This has happened not because football players are any more culpable than the rest of us, but because their falls always loom larger. Domestic violence, a demon that smashes into far too many families everywhere but most often out of the public eye, has come under the full glare of the lights. Nobody better let it scamper out of the stadium unscathed now. As the Roosevelts would attest, we’ve defeated some other pretty big foes in the history of this country.
Flying home from the Midwest last night, I had a slight delay in Detroit, not of the usual kind. The problem wasn’t with the flights themselves; the one from Duluth arrived in Motown on time, and the second leg to Manchester was even better.
No, it was a recalcitrant jet bridge— that thing that extends out to provide a walkway for passengers into the gate—causing some distress. We were all ready to get off the plane, the door was open, but the bridge wasn’t ready for us. I might have been feeling as special as Taylor Swift, but there was to be no red carpet treatment here. Whoever was operating this thing resembling a long arm with folds in it was clearly having some kind of trouble; after a few minutes passed, a few charitable passengers began guessing that s/he must have still been in training. Poor dear, I thought, but I really have to go to the bathroom.
My writing teacher might have described the episode as a nice illustration of how important it is to maintain your “through line” all the way to the end of your story. Bring that baby home– across the sky, through the smooth sections and the turbulence both; touch down on the ground; and then, finally, provide the walk up the ramp and into the airport. Your passengers, your readers, need all of it. Or, to borrow a more violent metaphor a gentle classmate of mine used over the past week, they want “the whole shootin’ match.”
Besides my suitcase, I brought a thrilling discovery back with me last night: the book I’m trying to write actually has a through line. This just about knocks me out. Before I left for the writing retreat on Madeline Island, I’d been regarding my potential book more like a blob, a shapeless mass that was sulking for lack of attention over there in the corner. I was telling myself that I would bring it to life somehow, give it a spine and make it strand up straight, but the fact was I didn’t really know how. I had no through line power.
Now I do, thanks to the group work we did out there, so it’s a different story. Well, not different, exactly…it’s now an actual story, a true one, too. My job is really just to work hard on feeding and caring for the blob so that, gradually, it will rise up on its own power and greet the world– smiling, I hope. I’ll even leave my bike out by the road, so my story can jump on and do the next leg.
Excited by the prospect, I return home and look at our own new clothesline—a kind of birthday present from my husband to me—with a pounding heart. Isn’t it fabulous? Just by stepping out on our deck, we can give those purple shirts the dignity and fresh air they deserve.
My mother used to say that her very favorite place was our clothesline, which stretched between the apple tree and the old backstop. A woman who never owned a dryer through years of raising five children, she spent many happy hours there, in all seasons, usually with a dog by her side. It was, in some sense, her through line.
She and my father loved playing golf, so I also find it satisfying to learn that still a different kind of through line exists on putting greens. Those who observe proper golfers’ etiquette will avoid treading on the section of grass beyond the hole where an opponent’s ball might go, after missing the cup. This, apparently, is a line to be respected because the person will rely upon its integrity when trying again to sink the putt, coming back the other way.
This fall, besides coaxing my book towards the light of a full and happy life, I’m looking forward to working alongside my husband and a few neighbors to make some needed repairs in a kind of wooden bridge that we–particularly those of us with large dogs–use often to go over a patch of soggy territory into a network of beautiful trails beyond.
I already know this will be a whole lot more appealing than waiting for that guy in training to get the contraption at the right level so we can get off the plane. Nothing against the two pilots, mind you. If they can fly a magical machine on any given night above the twinkling lights of this land from point A to point B, then surely I can grab hold of my own through line and see how far I can soar.
Following his first cross-country practice at his new school, my son had to report for an “imPACT” evaluation. The name comes from “Immediate Post Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing” and it’s now used widely in schools, apparently to see how our kids’ brains are doing. Gone are the days when only certain rough sports were considered the only culprits; it’s open season now for athletics in general. Apparently, the computerized Q and A session provides important “baseline” data—data we didn’t used to get at all– before every new sports season, and helps to assess the risks particular kids are taking by plunging once more into the fray. It’s a tricky business, no doubt. When it comes to any kind of hits to the head, “impact” sure becomes a bad word.
Lately, I’ve been doing a little impact testing of my own, albeit of a different sort.
Although I like to think of myself as an athlete too (nobody needs to ask exactly how far behind any of my kids I would be on a run, do they?) I’m talking here about how just the words people say can strike us in such different ways— sometimes falling right off us like so much dross, sometimes irritating us, sometimes amusing us, other times being absorbed gratefully like rain on parched earth. And, strangely enough perhaps in this season of so many loved ones pushing off, I’ve mostly been interested in what we hear from people we barely know: recorded voices on the other end of the phone, cashiers at the grocery store, service desk people.
Permit me to take you a kind of tour of some of these common utterances, just for fun.
“Welcome to the Blah Blah Blah Company. Please listen carefully to the following options, as our menu has recently changed.”
Is there anyone out there, I ask you, who actually likes hearing this recording? Is there anyone out there, I ask you, who actually might remember what the phone extension numbers used to be? With things like this, we live only in the present; not reminiscing at all about the previous times we’ve called, how easily we knew our way around the place in the good old days when the numbers made sense. No, we are only trying to get the information we need and get the hell off the phone, perhaps to deal with the cascade of changes in our lives that really do have some impact—like for instance that the children we used to cart around town to their practices and lessons are now on other continents, glancing at us more or less in the rear view mirror.
“Have you found everything that you’re looking for?”
Don’t you just love this one? I hear it every time I check out at the grocery store; of course all the cashiers have been trained to ask the question. It’s a reasonable question, really it is, and I overhear most other customers agreeing readily that yes, they found satisfaction in the aisles overflowing with products galore. As for me, I always hesitate, because my mind flies immediately outside the supermarket, to the larger world where—let’s face it—finding everything you’re looking for is not so easy. I don’t want to present myself as a disgruntled person, and Lord knows the cashier’s job is demanding enough and s/he doesn’t need any of my musings laid on the conveyer belt. I realize that a qualified response like, “Yes, in here I have found what I’m looking for; still working on it out there, however” or perhaps bursting into the U2 song is kind of ridiculous, so I’m trying to keep a lid on these tendencies. Good thing my kids are almost never with me in the checkout line anymore; they’d be stricken.
“No worries at all!”
This one really takes the cake. Does anyone know how the line has gradually become accepted as a replacement for the perfectly good “You’re welcome”? We’re having a regular transaction in a store, collecting our change perhaps from the person behind the counter, and we hear this. Excuse me, but do you really think that I’m about to be racked with anxiety over buying a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk? I may not have weighty problems at home, but I do tend to save my worrying for things that might have a bit more, um, impact on my life. Before the cashier says this, I might have actually been enjoying a few worry-free minutes. In this way, the line reminds me of the sign posted near many public schools: “Drug Free Zone.” Driving along, I’m not giving drugs in the vicinity a thought, but one glance at the sign and I think they might be lurking in the trees nearby, ready to pounce.
“Take it easy!”
This is, alas, not a common line we hear when we go around doing errands; but I heard it the other day at Target, and the simple directive was as welcome as a soft breeze on a hot day. How did the guy know that I’d been dealing with one major event after another in my family–trying to make sure I had every last needed thing for each child about to set up shop elsewhere, wanting to be a good wife through some turbulent weeks, and also trying not to lose sight of my own work. He didn’t know, of course; but his glance suggested that he just might sense something. I’ll take it, sir; and thank you very much. Even if I don’t yet have a hammock set up at home, I can try to put my feet up somewhere and do a kind of mind chill for a while. My husband and kids would probably get the most benefit from this, actually. Just sayin’….
A couple of mornings ago, my daughter asked me to scramble her some eggs without the yolks. She had just had her wisdom teeth taken out, and hunger was beating at her door. But she was not too groggy that she didn’t remember her food rules. I followed her instructions; what resulted in the frying pan looked ridiculously pale to me, almost not even like food, actually. Whatever—she ate it. In this instance, it was more or less OK to separate things that usually stay together; how about as a general practice, though? When is picking and choosing a perfectly fine thing to do, and when does it veer into being, well, insulting?
It just so happens I’ve been reading a book with an entire premise about how we can, and indeed should, leave out the “bad” parts of something and still have a full and satisfying meal with the “good” parts. I am absolutely not forgetting to use quotation marks here. Bearing the intriguing title, Religion for Atheists, the paperback found its way into our household through the gift route. (I’ve learned through the years that people like to give my husband books a lot.) If this paperback were going on your bookshelf, you might put it next to Exotic Cruises for Stay-at Homes or Fabulous Meat Entrees for Vegetarians.
The book has a dramatic cover— an almost complete solar eclipse, I think. It’s anyone’s guess, but I’ll speculate that Alain de Botton (a French name, but he lives in England— another jarring contrast) chose an image to depict how we can still have some of the radiance of the sun without taking it whole hog exactly…and of course we’ve always been warned against looking directly at the ball of fire in the sky anyway. To me, though, this picture looks kind of creepy.
He levels with us in the beginning of the book about what, in his view, must be tossed out from any religion. Anything smacking of “doctrine” or “the supernatural” goes right in the compost, almost without any explanation, as if it’s just so obvious. What he’s most interested in is saving the good stuff, showing non-believers which elements of religion are really worth something, and why. We can learn a whole lot, he argues, from seeing how various faiths have, through the ages, nourished things like community, education, and art— just to name a few. And, if secular society got its act together, we could even appropriate much of what religion does best to slake the thirst of our culture without succumbing to a whole bunch of beliefs that really don’t hold water. This would be, then, kind of like a kid on a playground who watches a game played by other kids; s/he doesn’t ask to join them but maybe takes their ball later when they’re not looking and starts a new game.
So, for instance, we might initiate something called an “Agape Restaurant” in our towns to bring together, in an intentional way, different kinds of people for supper conversation and fellowship. Since everyone can also benefit from a daily dose of transcendence, here is his suggestion for how we might find that:
Thus we would do well to mediate daily, rather as the religious do on their God, on the 9.5 trillion kilometers which comprise a single light year, or perhaps on the luminosity of the largest known star in our galaxy, Eta Carinae, 7,500 light years distant, 400 times the size of the sun and 4 million times as bright. (p.202)
I’m not sure what to make of this. In a way, I’m sympathetic, even a participant. As someone who encountered the world of organized religion coming from “the outside,” I have found myself weighing which elements I like most and which ones just don’t adhere. In conversations with myself, I have tried to find a comfort level in certain situations that keep arising. This process is sometimes stimulating, sometimes pretty difficult. Or, as my kids might say, “AWKWARD!” I want to fit in rather than stand out, and yet I can’t help but listen to my inner voice, too.
On the other hand, I squirm when this author thinks he can just come into the Religion Room and take a whole bunch of items he needs, and then leave. “Not so fast, mister!” I want to say, “People have built all of this up over centuries….make your own beautiful things, why don’t you?” I feel a little like the Julia Louis-Dreyfus character in that recent movie, Enough Said, when she’s irritated at the James Galdofino character’s habit of picking out the tomatoes from his guacamole. (In a way, though, that’s kind of the reverse– isn’t it?) Furthermore, maybe the beautiful things we seek never only “belonged” to religion, it just sometimes seems that way.
Years ago, in my high school Calculus class, our teacher had a favorite expression when he was trying to explain where we went wrong in a problem. Let’s say Gary had just written out all of his equations on the board, but there was an error.“Gary!” Mr. Courten would exclaim, pumping both hands up and down, “You’re throwing the baby out with the bath water!” This is the kind of thing a teacher says that sticks with you through the years, much more than Calculus…alas.
When I went to Wikipedia to learn more about the origin of this charming expression, I found that it sometimes describes really weird human behavior:
In other words, the idiom is applicable not only when throwing out the baby with the bath water, but also when someone might throw out the baby and keep the bath water.
If we start doing things like this, then we would go beyond insulting to being downright deranged. And our secular culture would be one fine mess. All’s I know for sure is that it’s best to pay close attention to what I’m saving, at any given moment, and what I’m not. Hey, maybe the dog would like those yolks?
It may be a quiet summer in some places; down at our pond, though, two frogs have been really going at it. Vocally, I mean. They’re on opposite sides of the water, and—at least just about every time I go down there—they are carrying on a compelling conversation. One might even say it’s downright deep.
Funny timing, actually, because one of my readers recently wrote me to ask if I’d participate in a “blog hop.” She prefers to call it a “blog tree,” but my frogs are strong advocates for hopping, so I’ll stick with them.
Polly Brown (don’t you just LOVE her name?) is a teacher and a poet who started a blog when she took a break from daily classroom work. She’s sifting through her memories of teaching in the middle grades, describing the kinds of activities she and her students did together and particularly those moments when learning was most evident—when she could almost really see it happening. Lord knows us teachers have precious little time for reflecting on our practices during the school year, so it’s wonderful that she’s taking time now to share kernels of her experiences. You can read about her discoveries here.
And here you can also visit her particular lily pad to see answers to the “blog hop” questions.
Now I’ll take my turn. If this develops into only so much croaking, at least that ought to be slightly preferable to crowing, which I will assiduously avoid.
What am I writing/working on?
On my site, I’m simply trying to articulate my particular “take” on common daily goings on, starting with the interweaving of secular and religious experiences.I’m interested in all kinds of junctures, moments of contrast as well as moments of coming together. And then there are those two long chapters of a book, drafted over many hours a couple of years ago and still in need of revising. This work emerged from the many pages of a journal–primarily about the experience of being a clergy spouse–that I kept over several years. In a few weeks, once our three kids are situated in their three new endeavors, I will attend a week-long writing program on an island in Lake Superior with the specific goal of drawing the full arc of the book that’s been waiting, tapping its fingertips on the tabletop.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Claiming to be in a genre at all sounds a little highfalutin, doesn’t it? It took me a little while to discover that many blogs of this ilk—the “let me tell you about my experience” kind– feature shorter pieces and aim to generate more discussion. Like the other Polly, I favor the essay form, which may seem ponderous to some. I could try harder to present material that invites reactions from readers, that generates some buzz. Sometimes I think that just portraying what I see is enough, maybe neglecting making that crucial eye-to-eye connection with readers.
Why do I write what I write?
For me, I guess, writing is a kind of sanctuary that offers something very different than the regular to-do list. I enjoy being physical and active most of the time, often with other people. This summer, for instance, I have loved playing tennis as much as I ever did when I was a teenager. Attaining a better level of organization in any area of life – a bookshelf, a kitchen or a garden– is also a high priority. But I guess I also happen to be someone who has swirling thoughts that need an outlet, especially when I’m seeing a kind of “connect the dots” illustration in my head. Of course, I have no idea whether the illustration will be interesting to anyone else. Frankly, I kind of cringe to think about this whole issue.
How does my writing process work?
Keeping up a blog is a little like having a son or daughter join a travel team: you sign up with enthusiasm and then find it’s about getting to that practice each week. To use that hackneyed word, the regular posting becomes a “commitment.” Benefits accrue only through keeping this regular date. Without some obligation to sit down at the screen, I would not have been able to make a bound collection of my essays; a 240 page volume recently arrived in the mail, thanks to an order through a website. (It’s not really a book, of course, but it looks like one.)
On the other hand, each and every week, it’s easy to slip into an examination of what other things might be able to happen in the household if I weren’t immobile. I guess the bottom line is that, most of the time anyway, I truly enjoy the process of getting an inkling of an idea and then fleshing it out, usually over a couple of days’ time. Not to make too much of this, but I’m conscious of experiencing some kind of “flow” while I’m writing. Afterwards, it feels a little like having gone for a run—satisfying because I came a little more clearly into my mind instead of my body. Or something like that.
My future blog plans:
To figure out either how to stop this thing gracefully, as someone exits a cocktail party by backing gradually out the door, or how to channel what’s already here into a full-length volume that might actually interest an agent, get published and maybe even please readers. One thing is pretty clear: I don’t think I can keep doing this, week after week, and also give adequate attention to crafting an entirely different combination of long chapters. Multi-tasking is fine and good, but there’s a limit.
As my brother is fond of saying, “Enough about me…how do YOU like my shirt?”
Finally, here are the names of three blog writers I know and admire who have also agreed to welcome you to their respective lily pads.
First, it’s always good to have a little solidarity in the “bishop spouse” category. Anne Barker lives way the heck out in Nebraska (or maybe I live way the heck out in New England), is a practicing therapist and maintains an engaging blog on her business website. Take a look here. You’ll notice that she has taken a little hiatus since the winter, but—just you watch—she’ll be coming roaring back soon with her characteristic tales of regular life incidents and accompanying emotions that bubble up from them, followed by questions to readers, followed by book suggestions. Nice.
The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, a former colleague of my husband’s, is now the Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Her title may be long, but the goal of her work is pretty simple: we need to save our planet.For a long time now, she has been tirelessly focused on bringing religious and secular elements of our society together to address the perils of global warming.Her website is called, “Reviving Creation” and you can read her latest essay here.
There’s the large scale, and then there’s the small. Nick Grabbe, a reporter from Amherst who recently retired, is now devoting his efforts to living close to the land—in town, even. He writes about gardening, foraging, finding pleasure in paring things down–alongside his wife, who shares his values. I dare you not to get a tranquil feeling from these musings. I see he’s just posted something about not using certain appliances. Going back a bit, you can read all about his tomato struggles, here.
And what better place to leave you in mid-August, than in the tomatoes, creatures struggling to become what they are destined to be!
I wonder what my frogs would make of them…
I had more or less gotten over the fact that I was not Joan of Arc, riding boldly on a horse smack into battle, when I discovered that my name—something that I had heretofore thought had distinguished me, at least slightly—was suddenly turning up all over the place. We aren’t exactly a field of dandelions, but my quality of Polly-ness, just as of this past week, has put me in a whole bouquet of other females. This has taken some getting used to, but I’m now feeling some palpable gains.
It all started a week or so ago, when one of my blog readers wrote with a request that I participate in something called a “blog-hop.” You’ll hear about this in my next post; for the time being, what’s most important is that the name of this reader (and fellow blogger, it turns out) is Polly. Now, I’m really not so self-aggrandizing to think I’m the only one out there bearing my name who has anything to say; still, the email gave me a bit of a start and, momentarily at least, made me wonder if I was looking in the mirror.
To backtrack a bit, I was named after my aunt—my father’s older sister. Her real name was Mary, like her mother, but she was always called Polly (I’ve never understood this; then again, I don’t understand lots of things that used to happen or, for that matter, things that are still happening). My parents were going to do follow suit with me, but someone wisely said, “If you’re going to call her Polly, why don’t you just name her Polly?” And so it was. My aunt, and this may sound familiar since I’ve written about her in a past post, was a remarkable woman. Besides being a microbiologist and then a college president who advanced women’s education at the same time that she was a single parent of a bunch of teenagers, she rode horses bareback, kept bees, and hardly flinched at anything. Needless to say, I have always been mighty proud to be her niece, and – kind of like a bonus—to bear her name.
During all my school years, I honestly can’t remember meeting a single other Polly. Even in adulthood, anyone with my name (see how possessive I am?) has crossed my screen only very rarely. Speaking of screen, I might as well mention this actress: Jennifer Aniston, you may recall, played the free-spirited woman opposite Ben Stiller in that 2004 romantic comedy called Along Came Polly. One of these days I really need to see this movie.
It was that email from the blogger, however, that seemed to open the way a whole new street; in Monopoly, we’d call it Polly Place. Or perhaps it was the Polly Parade.
I went to a travel office to arrange my daughter’s plane ticket to Cameroon for her fall semester abroad; there were a number of agents available, but it was an easy choice when I saw the names on the desks. As soon as I met her, I knew that we would become friends. I loved how she got right to work, fingers flying as she studied the information on that computer, squinting slightly, and I loved how she instinctively seemed to know how important it was that my 20 year old daughter be well-cared for in the skies. She was a pro, no doubt about that. I also loved how she freely acknowledged that this was a new destination, even for her. When she went over the details of the tickets with me, she said, “ She’ll arrive at 7:30 p.m. at Can’t-Pronounce-It.” The place is new to me too, but here goes: Nsimalen Airport in the city of Yaounde, capital city of Cameroon.
(Yes, as you might be thinking, the fact that our girl will be going to West Africa at this particular time–in a month–gives us pause. All things considered, however, we have confidence in the highly regarded program administered by the School for International Training; she will be miles away from the perils we hear about in the news; her courses will help fulfill her French/Anthropology major; and she claims that the prospect of Europe leaves her cold).
During the course of our work together, Polly and I chatted about this and that. It didn’t take me long to learn one her favorite expressions: when she describes any woman – maybe her, maybe me– who has to overcome some anxiety and push forward, she says the woman needs to “put on her big girl pants.” What a riot.
Afterwards, in swift succession, two things happened: our family received a dinner invitation from neighbors who have a daughter named Polly, and then I learned from the book I’m reading—My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead– that the novelist George Eliot’s loving husband, George Henry Lewes, gave her a nickname:
Lewes adored Eliot, whom he called by the pet name of Polly, with an intuitive kindness and a gratitude in which there was no trace of resentment. (p. 178)
While I have never considered my name to be of the “pet” variety, I can’t help but be pleased to be linked in any way with this author, whose understanding of human nature was nothing short of stupendous.
So, say I generously, come on along, all you other Pollys! There’s room for you! I will just keep on doing what I’m doing, in my own particular Polly way, just like the wren outside our kitchen window keeps on singing. As the poet Edward Hirsch is quoted as saying in the new profile written by Alec Wilkinson in this week’s The New Yorker, “Your job is to write about the life you actually have.” (p.51)
I’ve gone months, even years, without giving ol’ Joan of Arc much thought, but then there she was astride her horse in the center of a glorious garden bearing her name on the edge of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. Maybe it was the cartoon I’d just seen, with a wife pointing out to her husband (or was it the other way around?) that he would never actually change the course of history; but meeting her in such surroundings got me thinking about the difference between doing something actually heroic or at least really outstanding and doing something that’s merely on the positive side of the ledger of life, if there is such a thing.
OK, so I’m no saint—this much is clear. Never heard voices when I was thirteen sending me off to spur on a young prince or save my people; never put on armor; never had anything much against the British even. And yet, when I look at the cover of a picture book (I never tire of these) about Joan, I see a girl who looks a whole lot like I used to look….no kidding. Plus I did do plenty of horseback riding when I was that age, and I was starting to speak some French thanks to the wonders of dialogues on the tape recorder in seventh grade.
Going out on a limb here, I’ll try to show you what I mean. Here’s the book cover:
JOAN OF ARC by Diane Stanley; Morrow Junior Books; New York, NY; 1998
And here’s what I looked like, a few years older, on my horse Cody:
Sure, there are some obvious differences. My horse is chestnut colored, and hers is white; I’m jumping a fence, and she’s just calmly walking; my hair is longer; she and her horse are all decked out. Still, don’t we have a kind of similar look of determination? I mean, I wasn’t actually going into battle at that moment….but, if summoned by authoritative voices over the field, I might have been in a frame of mind to go.
The point is, of course it’s true that I’m not even in the same ballpark as this person. And, in a way that’s a good thing, since I wouldn’t have relished being burned at the stake. On the other hand, by imagining that there was once a kind of link between the two of us, the mid-life version of me stands up a little taller. There might even be time left on my watch to try to lead, or at least participate in, a charge or two for justice.
If the tall statue of Joan wasn’t impressive enough on its own, the flower beds, shrubs and trees around her were also magnificent. Designed in 1938 by the landscape architect Louis Perron, the place is a huge rectangular sunken garden which combines—appropriately, since a key battle for the control of Quebec occurred here between these two powers —elements of both French and British traditional designs. You really have to see it to believe it. In the meantime, here’s a website. We learned from one of the horticulturists that none of the American Elm trees surrounding the garden have succumbed to Dutch Elm disease; they give all credit to Saint Joan.
The sweetest part of the visit, to me, was how I came to see the beautiful spot to begin with. Last week, my husband and I did something we rarely do: took a road trip, alone together. Almost immediately, it was palpable how healthy it felt to be drawing in new experiences without the same old to-do lists. I bet most of you know what I mean. We strolled, tried out our rusty French, admiring most everything we saw and tasted. On our final morning (we only had a couple, actually) Rob went off on a run through the park and came back to say that I really couldn’t miss seeing this garden he’d discovered. So he brought me back there, and I drank it in.
Back at home, we had just created our own collection of raised beds, filled with both vegetables and perennials. I say “we”— but you won’t be surprised to learn that my husband, with some help from our older son, did the hardest part of the work.
The idea came to us in the first place because that section of back lawn had been filled with crabgrass when we moved in; once ripped out, it hadn’t been easy to coax newly seeded grass to grow. We’d had raised beds at our former house–inherited four big squares there— but this time we had to start from scratch.
And now, if Joan of Arc were here she might say, “Voila!” What we have is pretty darn nice, even if I do say so myself. With help from our younger son, I did the planting a few weeks ago, and now everything is flourishing. In the center of the whole she-bang you may notice a baptismal font (recently found, unused); we hope the birds may soon frolic within its gleaming marble whiteness. Perhaps they will even be transformed by the experience. If you click on the pictures, you’ll see better…
Our 4 x 4 beds are modest in size, but there’s this pleasing collection of colors:
And, nearby, the first yellow squash is making itself known:
Not to be too schmaltzy about it or anything, but what’s most lovely about our not at all heroic, not even really outstanding garden is that we managed to create some new beauty where it hadn’t existed before. This I consider to be on the positive side of the ledger, and that will be good enough for me. At least until the potential leader over in the next town, content to slouch around watching TV instead of casting off oppressors, needs my help. Then watch for me to burst forth in full armor and jump on any available horse.
* Title translation: “St. Joan of Arc? That’s not me, no! But all the same..” Sorry, French accents not available!
Do you think life is essentially made up of particular moments, like grains of sand that you can feel, grainy to the touch; or is it more about patches of days or even great swaths of years that bring about sweeping changes?
One evening last week, I came home eager to tell my husband about some experiences I’d just had. Unfortunately— and this was nobody’s fault—other pressing matters got in the way. Believing that whatever I had to report was of course really, really important, I was disgruntled. The very next evening, however, we were able to have a leisurely dinner out and talk to our hearts’ (both of them) content. I had to admit that Rob had been right when he’d said–responding to my frustration–that “the fullness of time” would allow all kinds of sharing.
It won’t come as a big surprise to any of you that this phrase comes from the Bible. Apparently, you can find it in a variety of places in the Good Book, but since I don’t pretend to be any scholar, I’ll just present a single famous (I think it is, anyway) one. I have it on good authority that these are most likely the words of Paul:
But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law. (Galatians 4:4-5)
It’s a wonderful expression, isn’t it? In this instance, we have what sounds like a stage entrance; Jesus didn’t arrive on the scene just at any old time, but when conditions were precisely right. You know without a doubt that “the fullness of time” is a good and desirable thing — it could be embodied in a ripe and juicy peach, for instance. Patience is a virtue especially when you’re waiting for something that will only get better.
This past weekend, at Dartmouth College, I was with a group of people who reflected on an experience they’d had in common 50 years ago. At the time, it was hard, sometimes excruciating even, but in the subsequent years, they witnessed a kind of coming to fruition, a fullness, thanks to all that was invested originally.…though not without plenty of bumps and bruises.
This might be said about any number of high school or college reunions, I guess. In the case of remembering the beginning of the program called “A Better Chance,” however, what I found particularly compelling was the nature of both the individual as well as the collective stories— how they were distinctly different while also sharing so much common ground. Watching a documentary about the era–the mid-60’s– with striking pictures of young men and women, alongside a number of these same men and women as older adults sitting in the auditorium, heightened the feeling.
Here’s a picture of my son, who recently graduated from Dartmouth, getting to chat with two of the original participants–Howard Bad Hand and Barry Jones–in the summer program which launched A Better Chance.
After the movie, a number of attendees spoke about their younger selves and recalled many specific moments—grains of sand, in a way—that have stayed with them. They also spoke about the sweep of time– reflecting on what they were a part of then; where it brought them personally; and also how many children living across this land are still without “a better chance” to attain a high quality education.
Listening to these thoughtful comments, I had my own “fullness of time” realization washing over me. I first learned about ABC when my older brother became a live-in tutor at a public school program in Connecticut; he’d had such a positive experience that I jumped at the chance to do the same for just one semester during my senior year of college. The initiation was brief, but it sent me on my way to becoming a teacher; soon I would work in two different boarding schools. I meandered a bit, got married, had children, and taught some more. Then, when my husband accepted a call to a new church, we happened to land in a town where there had been, since soon after the inception of the original summer program at Dartmouth, a thriving ABC program for young men of color whose families were willing to send them off from New York City or Boston or maybe from Ohio to Amherst Regional High School. Once I joined the Board of Directors, I felt like I was in the beating heart of a strong community that really cared about being hospitable, in a full sense.
Each fall, we participated in ABC Fall Foliage Walk….
Our family and my son’s best friend’s family both became hosts on occasional weekends for two of the ABC scholars. Just hanging out together was the best part of this, of course.
When I look back on those years, “the fullness of time” expression is fitting not so much because things took a while to ripen but more because the daily schedule was so crammed. Some days, time honestly seemed more attenuated than full, because we were all stretched and challenged in our different ways. We weren’t sure, any of us, what would result 10 years down the road, much less 50.
All I can say with certainty now, really, is that I sure am glad we jumped in. I remember so many particular moments with Amherst ABC like the grains of sand that they were. Now, already, what I feel is the sweep, the way those experiences have made way for a succession of other experiences—for us as well as for the young men who have since gone off in different directions. Taken all together, it’s pretty full all right.
It used to be that you could put things in different compartments and they would stay there, divided from one another in their own individual boxes. Nowadays, however— and this isn’t just in my house, either—certain things are getting mixed together in new ways. At first it can be a bit disorienting, like a kind of shift in the earth; but then it seems right and good. You look at your boxes again and wonder what else you can do with them…maybe one for potatoes, one for pictures of the kids; surely those will go on being separate.
Take RELIGION and THE OUTDOORS, for instance. In my life, going way back to childhood, these two things represented different places, different experiences. It just so happened I was born into a family that exposed me way more to the latter than to the former. If there were points of connection, they weren’t highlighted for me. I spent plenty of time up in trees and out in fields, and no time at all in churches.
Last week, however, I went with our son out to Canterbury (appropriate name) to the first part of a three-day event called “Pilgrimage for Earth: From Loss to Hope.” My friend and college classmate, Steve Blackmer, who spent a few decades in forestry and then became ordained an Episcopal priest, was one of the driving forces behind this weekend. It came as a kind of culmination of the work he and others have been doing for some time on launching a place called “Church of the Woods” near his home. Right now there is no church exactly, just a tent. You can learn more about it here.
Since I’ve been reading a biography of John Muir recently, I’m seeing some parallels to the idea of finding holiness right in Nature. Driven by a terribly strict father who practiced an evangelical Christianity in Scotland and then brought his family to America, Muir found relief in green fields and woods at an early age. Once he made it out to California and Yosemite, he became completely enraptured. In this book I’m reading, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster, there are many passages about how Muir tried to forge a kind of new religion through his love of all things wild. In this, he also resembled someone who had rambled around the bucolic Lake District in England: William Wordsworth:
Both had left behind a society that seemed severely flawed in morality and aesthetics. Both discovered in the high country a renewal of faith, optimism and joy. Conventional faith had ceased to move them, but in the presence of a wilder nature they felt spiritually renewed, recovering a piety that cold, bookish church doctrines had almost succeeded in stifling. (p. 160)
Wordsworth walked at a good clip but pretty staidly on a whole lot of paths with his sister and then of course Coleridge, seeing sheep everywhere; Muir, on the other hand, did plenty of risky climbing and scurrying and clinging to cliffs all my himself, catching sight of grizzlies and other grand and also elusive creatures. These are small differences, really, considering how much they had in common when it came to seeing holiness in the beauty all around them.
Thinking about these two “Got Nature?” guys, as well as about what my friend Steve is doing out in Canterbury, I drift back in my mind to when I was about 10 years old. We had a lot of beautiful pine trees, planted by my grandfather, in the field in front of our house; I was drawn to them in those days, discovering the wonders of climbing way up on branches that were just the right distance apart. When I went high enough, I could see a patch of blue, which was Long Island Sound. Often I brought some kind of a notebook with me–not sure how I managed that—and divulged my innermost feelings to it. My mother, I’m glad to say, as she often did herself, wasn’t the hovering kind; she might have been a little concerned about my safety if she’d known just how close to the sky I got. It was all just fine. Right now, I can feel the soft breezes, the pine pitch on my fingers, the luscious privacy of being there.
This isn’t me in the picture, but this girl looks just as happy as I felt.
I can’t say for sure that I was having a “religious experience” amongst the pine branches. The fact is, even now that I’ve been a clergy spouse for all these years, I can’t say for sure that I really know what a religious experience is. But I’m pretty sure I can tell when I’m in the midst of something really full, bursting at the seams even. To borrow from Wordsworth, it’s a kind of heart-leaping-up moment or string of moments that I know best. Sometimes these come when I’m in harmony with other people, and sometimes when I’m alone, way up in a tree or –-let’s call this the mid-life version — far out on a trail with my dog, wondering what it might be like to just stay there for a while and not keep any appointments. In either case, it feels like there’s a kind of magic going on.
When I was a new bride, just learning about the Episcopalian experience, church struck me as almost completely an indoor activity. No surprise there, really. Sadly, in a way, the whole climate change crisis has made all of us see any separation between inside life and outside life as artificial; what we do everywhere will make the difference between life and death everywhere, going forward. A new and important report called “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the U.S.” (read it here) came out just about the same time that my friend Steve gathered a small group of people, in a spirit of calm but also with some urgency, to the new outdoor church here. It’s Independence Day throughout the land today– high time to break down the walls and join hands…for the earth to stand a chance.
It was just about exactly a year ago that I drove my son and a carload of stuff down to register for Harvard Summer School. While in the parking search that is a perennial part of visiting there, we came upon an enormous protest taking place on the Cambridge Common. There was a sea of green and yellow and plenty of shouting through megaphones, most of it in Portuguese. People, entire families, kept arriving, walking vigorously towards the event. It took us a little while to figure out that this was about Brazil and the World Cup — to many, a glaring example of misplaced priorities– coming in 2014.
Might there actually be something wrong, really pernicious, about a country spending millions to host the rest of the world in multi-million dollar stadiums while basic human needs like health, housing, education go woefully wanting? Aren’t sports supposed to put us on a level playing field and then lift us all up, providing something worthy, something pure to reach for?
Up here in New Hampshire, my new state, the motorcycles were doing plenty of roaring around, the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee were filling up, but – as far as I could tell –nobody was gathering to object to a sporting event on another continent that hadn’t even started yet.
Now, of course, it has started and if you’re at all like me, you’re trying to fit watching some games into your schedule. Unabashedly. After all, the couch and the TV are all warmed up already, what with the veritable feast of contests we’ve had over the past month or so. Oh my, has it ever been a wonderful time for sports fans! NHL playoffs — with night after night of thrilling overtimes — interspersed with NBA playoffs that culminated in the triumph of those awesome Spurs (with players from Argentina, Brazil, the Caribbean, Australia, France, Italy, Canada, New York, Los Angeles and, of course, New Hampshire) who can teach us all about the beauty of teamwork and the magic that can result when everybody gets to touch the ball. Add to this a baseball season in full swing, the French Open for us tennis enthusiasts, and yes—let’s just agree that golf is still officially a sport—the PGA Open at Pinehurst. Whew. It’s a good thing that most of the action took place when darkness fell outside and we came in from our own exercise, because so many of these June evenings have been so beautiful. The whole thing has kind of reminded me of our bookshelves (unorganized still as they are) full of volumes about sports of all kinds.
OK, I’ll try not to get carried away here: I know and respect the fact that there are many—thousands, millions even—people out there who don’t go in for this kind of thing AT ALL. You may even be one of them, actively contributing to the amount of overall knowledge and goodness and love in the world and not caring one whit about sports; how can I argue with that? And there are lots of other valid reasons not to pay attention to games, some of which include the need to fight for daily survival.
However, speaking only as one who has been steeped in sports from an early age and definitely way before becoming a clergy spouse, I have to say that there’s a certain inspiration, or maybe just a kind of quickening of the pulse, that I keep drawing from athletics –- from games I’m playing in as well as from faraway contests that have nothing to do with me or anyone in my family. It’s not religious, exactly, and I balk at using the word “worship” to describe the experience, but there definitely are some parallels.
The first chapter of Michael Mandelbaum’s book, The Meaning of Sports, published is 2004, is titled “A Variety of Religious Experience.” Close to the beginning, we come upon this passage:
Sports and organized religion share several important features. Both address the needs of the spirit and the psyche rather than those of the flesh. Neither bears directly on what is necessary for physical survival: food and shelter. Both stand outside the working world. And team sports provide three satisfactions of life to twenty-first century Americans that, before the modern age, only religion offered: a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life; a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate. (p.4)
Hmm…maybe this is what I should say to explain why I often opt to go to tennis clinics on Sunday morning?
“Heroic examples” — now, that’s stretching it, at least on the courts where I play; but “diversion from the routines of daily life” — yes, definitely. During these past sports-filled weeks, too, looking forward to a game on at night, and perhaps also to watching it with my son, really could give me a boost during the day. Take us away from the humdrum—the dishes in the sink, the ungraded papers, the lingering annoyance from what somebody said a while back—please!
None of which, of course, solves the problems that the World Cup protesters have rightly been speaking out about—some for at least a whole year. Yes, multi-million dollar stadiums built in the midst of unaddressed chronic poverty can’t be right; nor, for that matter, can astronomical salaries for coddled professional athletes or steroid use or cutting academic corners in college or an array of other ills that we all know persist in this arena. Those of us who love sports, who jump in ourselves and watch and encourage our kids to do the same, have an obligation to not look the other way when fair play and justice for all get compromised anywhere around the globe. If sports are part of the problem, then they ought to shape up and become more part of the solution.
Do I hear an “Ole Ole Ole” to that? If you’d like a little reminder about the glories of soccer, just to get you in the mood, then listen here.
I remember once when I drove my sister-in-law to the airport, she got flummoxed with the overhead signs as we were coming in and thought we should get in the “Arriving” instead of the “Departing” lane. When I resisted, she laughed and said, “But I’m arriving for my flight!’
This is kind of the way it is with graduation ceremonies, isn’t it? “Commencements” are, of course, beginnings— or arrivals. And yet the whole experience always feels much more like, indeed is in fact, leave-taking. I wonder, in this season thick with these heart-wrenching events, whether there’s really any difference between coming and going, starting and finishing, introducing and concluding, packing and unpacking?
Over the past year, my husband and I have been practically swimming in schools. These would be schools our kids go to, schools our kids used to go to, schools our kids are about to go to, schools we used to go to, schools we work with, schools we work for. Oh, and this is not to mention the schools that are actually nearby. In the old days, in a different town, when our kids set off with their backpacks from the house, the local schools would be far and away the most important ones in our daily lives. That’s changed, and it feels kind of strange.
For me anyway, the school gymnasium (in my elementary school, it was called the“all-purpose room”) has always been the place where you can feel time passing. The thing is, though, the big room stays pretty constant: same slippery floor, same stage with the few steps going up on either side, same basketball hoops bent up when not in use, same long tables that come out for lunch, same–well, maybe not–custodian fulfilling his duties. Once, though, your child was tearing around with the other kids, riding on a scooter maybe, or playing in a concert; then, all of a sudden, he’s miles away, walking calmly across some campus. When some event brings you back to that same gymnasium, you think about what it means to move on.. and check with yourself to see that you are doing your own kind of moving on, too. You know for certain that there has been loss, feel the pangs of it; you know what’s missing has been swallowed up like so many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches packed for lunch. Usually, it takes a little more effort to identify the gain too; but then – behold—there it is! When you (and your child) were in the cocoon, you didn’t really even have any idea of the butterflies, albeit different species of butterflies, you could both become. Nothing against the cocoon, of course; indeed, the more you take flight afterwards, the more you are apt to look back and discern what you both got in that place that was good.
Let’s face it–most of the emotion that comes out at commencements has way more to do with relationships than with academics. Last week, our younger son had to bid farewell to the middle school community on a hill that had meant so much to him over the past three years. The most remarkable part of the graduation proceedings, I think all of the parents would agree, was the ball of boys that formed after the formal part of the ceremony was over. They greeted their teachers, who were all in a line, and then they just kind of collapsed into one another— for a good twenty minutes. In their blue blazers and ties, they looked like a swarm of bees, constantly circulating among themselves and having no interest in anyone else. Contrary to what some people might have expected from teenagers of this gender, they emoted plenty. Probably I shouldn’t say a whole lot about that. It was mighty fine, though, to see the mothers and fathers waiting with their cameras.…and the graduates paying them no mind as they sought only to make contact with one another, realizing with a wallop that this was really the end.
And the beginning too, let’s not forget. Their beginnings would be elsewhere, though, and also would be separate. They clung to their collective ending not because every moment they had spent together had been perfect, but mostly because it was deeply collective—enough of a virtue in a world full of loneliness, really. Furthermore, the future was – as it always must be—uncertain.
Now, diving into one more commencement weekend, I’m hoping mostly just to stay afloat, not be overwhelmed by the throngs of people or the splashing of sentiments all around. Of course I’ll have my own sentiments to deal with, too. One of the main ones will be, I already know, that just about every moment harkens back to a previous one – or more accurately, millions of them—just as it opens a way for the millions of moments still ahead. King Lear gets it right when he says, “Ripeness is all.” Arrivals and departures—they do require two different lanes, in a way, and the emotions they bring forth are not one and the same; but darned if those lanes don’t come awfully close to one another at about this time of year. So close, in fact, that you can almost see where you were at the very same time that you are landing somewhere else. Begin, by all means, but don’t forget, either.
Whoever said that Mud Season in New England goes from this time to that time and then is over definitely never lived here…or at least not near our back field. It was soaked when we arrived about a year ago, and it’s soaked again now. People in California, having to debate the rightness or wrongness of watering their lawns, would be envious. Besides seeing no end in sight to boot-wearing time, we’re getting plenty of opportunity to contemplate the many varieties of muck, sludge, wet dirt, whatever name you prefer. It’s a veritable rainbow of moist earth out there. So how come, at least in our language, we keep giving the stuff that’s really the essence of life a bad rap?
My husband’s new John Deere tractor can do all kinds of wonderful things. It can also, occasionally, make deep ruts in the grass on its way to doing wonderful things. I suppose we could call this “welcome mud.”
The tractor is often put to work around the pond, where Rob has been clearing out brush as well as cattails. He’s discovered a number of springs producing nice clear water (you can see it both coming in and coming out, actually) but of course the
pond itself has a whole border of rich, dark mucky stuff all around it. I can only imagine the variety of creatures, and all of their zillions of moving parts, that make a home there. None of them, I’m sure, cares about prettiness.
And back behind our pond, in the field owned by a thriving farm selling summer vegetables, you can see good old-fashioned dirt, ready with open arms — as much as dirt has open arms– to nourish whatever it receives.
You already know, of course, that the Very First Man was created out of dirt. Well, OK, maybe dust, maybe clay – depends how and where you read it. (If it was dust, I can guarantee it didn’t happen in New Hampshire.) In any case, there must have been some reason that God didn’t choose to work with, say, fine jewels or something. Being God, he/she no doubt could’ve chosen any raw materials he/she wanted. The fact that it was plain old sediment must say something. Frankly, I think it’s a little weird that Eve was supposedly formed from Adam’s rib, and not from the same kind of stuff that he came from, but that’s another topic I guess.
If we grant that the human race owes its existence to the actual earth, then it’s clear as mud why it is that we spend most of our lives having to recognize that we’re all mixed up with good and bad elements wrapped up inextricably together. Purity? We can strive for it, but it sure will be hard to attain. We recognize, more often than not, what it is we want to achieve—- but then, darn it, we stumble or fall short or disappoint in some way. And we just have to keep on going, hoping to do better next time. We ought to reach high, and occasionally can in fact even grab whatever it is we’re reaching for, while remembering that we are, if not exactly groveling upon the ground, then at least still walking upright upon it. No matter how many successes we have, humility will find us eventually.
In E.B. White’s classic (I won’t say children’s book) Charlotte weaves a number of different words into her web. She describes her friend Wilbur as “Some Pig” and “Terrific” and “Radiant” and then, yes, “Humble.” This one may be the most complimentary of all; he’s humble in two ways, really – he lives close to the ground, right in the mud as pigs do, and he’s also not a bit prideful.
In last year’s movie titled, simply, Mud, Matthew McConaughey plays a fugitive living on an island who becomes an intriguing figure to two local boys. He’s escaping the law, and for murder even, but we quickly see him as a sympathetic character—mostly because of the fact that it’s his tremendous love for Juniper that has been the guiding force in his life. His name may, quite literally, be Mud, but we can’t help rooting for the guy.
It’s not surprising that McKinley Morganfield took on the name “Muddy Waters” in the forties, establishing himself as a leader in the world of Chicago Blues. If there’s a more earthy kind of music than this, at least in our country, I’ve never heard of it. Here he is, teamed up with the Rolling Stones at a club concert back in the 80’s. Click here for down and dirty, and smoky too.
I’ll keep this combination of voices swimming (or slogging) around in my head, especially when the truckload of stones arrives. These stones –in all their dry solidity– perhaps will squelch some of the hardy, tall weeds in the murky waters of our pond. I can already see the main truth of the matter clearly, however: you mess too much with Mud, you’re a’goin’ against Nature.
Mother’s Day is supposed to be one of those “One Size Fits All” holidays, or at least that’s how the marketing forces would have it, but of course we know better. A day thus designated affects people in a whole range of ways. Anytime we’re supposed to feel any certain thing, there’s always a good chance we’ll feel something else entirely. The meaning of today, like snowflakes in an endless variety of configurations, falls on us differently depending on what our particular experiences with motherhood have been. Losing a mother at a young age, for instance, might mean that every Mother’s Day brings a reminder of a painful time long ago; those who are actively caring for an elderly mother now, on the other hand, might feel their efforts bolstered by this day of recognition.
As the years without my own mother begin to add up, I’ve become more interested in how I manage to keep her memory alive. What’s particularly worth noticing, I think, is the way in which my view of her begins to take on more flexibility, almost as if she were a kind of jewel—not in the sense of sparkling perfection, mind you– with any number of different facets asking to be noticed. Much of this, I’ve come to understand, has to do with my thinking of her more in the whole sweep of her life rather than just as my mother.
Let me show you what I mean. Here is a picture of Barbara Lamb Ingraham the way I most remember her. Long-time readers may recall this same image from a previous blog, so I hope you’ll forgive me for bringing it out again:
It’s a fine picture, showing her characteristic optimism, warmth, and appreciation of her surroundings. Although I can recall plenty of moments when she was not showing these qualities but was instead irritated — at me or my brothers or just some combination of circumstances—still this picture captures the kind of expression she wore much of the time. In her later years, she was just about always ready to greet someone and bear witness to her own good fortune. Here, you can almost see, or maybe I’m reading some of this into the image, her sense of relief and tranquility that her main years of responsibility—being a loyal wife, mother of five children, supervisor at a comfortable distance of countless outdoor games with neighborhood kids, caregiver of many dogs and community activist—were now behind her.
Yes, this is how I most remember her. Sure, while growing up I had seen plenty of pictures of her earlier life in Canada, too, with her laughing siblings and Irish Setters I’d never known, but somehow they didn’t really take hold. She was always primarily my mother – perpetually in the older generation.
Then, a few months ago, this picture arrived from a cousin, by email.
It took my breath away. Here was my mother, but in a whole other version. Responsibilities? What responsibilities? The woman in this picture, in this moment, was not thinking about duties – of the child-rearing or job-holding or any other sort—at all. She is completely relaxed, almost languorous, but has a gleam in her eye too. Whatever conversation is going on, she is thoroughly enjoying it. Years later, when I would be deliberating among work options, perhaps, she would often say something like, “Try to reduce stress!” You can see the essence of that woman here. And the cigarette! She had always acknowledged that she’d been a smoker, not been proud of the fact either. But I think this was the first time I’d actually seen the evidence right in front of me. Here, clearly, was an intriguing person, a person who might sit chatting idly for a couple of hours but then also jump up and swim across a lake with friends. Here she was, at a time many years before she would run a comb through her faded red hair, get behind the wheel of her Impala and drive me to piano lessons. Maybe, in fact, that earlier version of herself was still there underneath all the things she was doing as a mother, for us.
I’m guessing that you too have sometime seen a picture of one of your parents and had this kind of jolt, too. It’s pretty amazing, really.
I will try not to wonder too much how my own daughter is viewing me these days; now that she’s almost 20, she’s stored up a whole lot of images both positive and negative, I’m sure. I can just hope, though, that some years later on, she might discover there’s still a touch of mystery there.
Easter is in the rear view mirror now, but I can’t shake the whole concept of sacrifice – giving up something for the sake of something else. Like a kind of shawl, it’s hanging around my shoulders. Only it’s not made of all the same material: I look to my right, and there’s a glowing warmth to the fabric…but turn the other way, and I see dark and threadbare material, offering no comfort at all. Can such different experiences really be described with the same word?
I don’t know about you, but ancient religious rituals involving the sacrifice of living creatures – going back to the Greeks, let’s say, and continuing on through the Old Testament – make me pretty queasy. The killing of one innocent being really serves to appease divine power and bring about good results? This is hard to fathom. Once we get to Jesus, however, and I know I’m condensing an awful lot of important history here, we’re in the midst of something else. My husband pointed out this famous line from the Book of Common Prayer, describing what Jesus provided: “A full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” Calling this merely a “good” kind of giving-up-one-thing-to-gain-another is an understatement if there ever was one.
Staying in the general realm of Christian life, we can think about what happens every Sunday with the collection plate. People make a kind of sacrifice by contributing money, but it’s one they make happily. (I’m putting aside those of us who have been occasionally embarrassed to find an empty wallet when that plate comes around.) By contributing, they become part of something larger than themselves; the giving adds to their life rather than diminishes it. Our local public radio stations want us to see an offering of support in the same way, and they have a point. This is the part of the shawl that keeps us cozy and connected.
Since I just saw the movie Bull Durham again, with all of its reminders about how baseball is a kind of religion unto itself, I’m comfortable heading into that realm now. Nobody ever met a sacrifice fly or a sacrifice bunt that didn’t serve a worthy purpose on the field. Essentially one batter is putting the team’s need to score runs ahead of his (or her) own normal desire to get on base and improve his (or her) batting average. Besides the fact that it’s more or less expected to try to advance a runner, s/he loses nothing really significant and gains the approval of a manager and teammates. These at-bats go in the plus column, definitely.
Now let’s head into trickier territory. Sometimes a sacrifice can be one part heroic and another part plain foolish. In love, especially, people can get all mixed up. Maybe you’ve heard that pop song by Bruno Mars called “Grenade.” The chorus goes like this: “What you don’t understand is/ I’d catch a grenade for ya/ Throw my hand on a blade for ya/ I’d jump in front of a train for ya/ You know I’d do anything for ya.”
Besides being glad that nobody’s asking us to prove our love by hurling ourselves in front of a locomotive, we’re apt to question the guy’s sanity more than we admire the depth of his devotion. When he tells us that the feeling is not mutual — apparently, she wouldn’t do a blasted thing for him – we know he needs help, or at least a new girlfriend.
Parents can also slip into the self-congratulatory mode sometimes. For the most part, we choose to devote big hunks of time to our children; nobody’s making us, and we also reap the benefits. In moments of stress, however, some of us have played the sacrifice card, pointing out just how much we have done for them, blah blah blah. This never goes well. In the plaintive Beatles song, “She’s Leaving Home,” it’s no surprise that the daughter takes off. Remember this one? “She (We gave her most of our lives) Is leaving (Sacrificed most of our lives) Home (We gave her everything money could buy).”
Then of course there’s the giving up of life in the call of duty, bringing us to the dark realm of tragedy. The recent disaster on Mount Everest, in which a dozen Sherpas were killed by an avalanche, was heart-stoppingly horrific. In reading about the event, we learned a whole range of disturbing facts, including: Everest has become crowded with Western climbers who pay exorbitant amounts to climb the world’s highest peak; they are supported by men who face risks on a much greater scale than their own, mostly because they have to traverse the most dangerous parts of the route so many more times; the Nepalese government, meanwhile, has been sucking in the revenues. While it’s true that the Sherpas earn a better living than most of their countrymen, it’s hard to calculate how much they are “worth” when it comes to the likelihood of death on the mountain. This is the part of the sacrifice shawl that leaves me shivering. What happened to the good, anyway?
No, one single word for these vastly different kinds of experiences really will not do. Such are the limitations of language, I guess. As usual, we must rely on our minds and hearts to get us to something like true understanding.
Here’s a recently updated essay about Easter that you may find familiar, from a previous appearance in this blog. (A sign that it’s time for me to wind all this business up?) Anyway, yesterday it was published in THE CONCORD MONITOR, with a different picture than the one I include here. If you’d like to see how it looked in the paper, here’s the link:
“Just think of it as one service that spreads out over three days,” my husband said to me some years ago. I was asking him to explain the different events of Holy Week for the umpteenth time. Certain things don’t change: he is always just as amazed by my fogginess about the whole crucial story as I am by his ability to guide people through so much worship year after year. “It’s really Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday– a unified whole.” Then I asked, feeling in the know, “What about Easter Sunday? Isn’t that the climax of the whole shebang?” His response, said with a slightly dismissive tone “Easter morning is really just the afterbirth, the placenta.”
Now there was a new way of looking at it.
We have had lots of these kinds of conversations since I came into this marriage with absolutely no religious upbringing. Now, after spending years as a rector of an Episcopal church, my husband has become a bishop. This has brought some subtle and some not so subtle changes. No longer is he scheduled to do every single service on his own; this year, over the Great Three Days, he will participate in worship with other clergy around the state. My own thoughts, meanwhile, drift back to Easters gone by, one in particular.
On this Holy Saturday we experienced a strange mix of faiths. Our son had been invited to a classmate’s Bat Mitzvah that very evening; he went, forsaking the late night vigil for a dance party with his friends. I felt a little envious: I wouldn’t mind dancing once in a while; this activity didn’t tend to be part of the routine. Of course, I also knew that with thirteen year olds, there would be plenty of self-consciousness on the floor. For some, moving to the music or even being the center of attention would come easily; others no doubt would feel awkward. How well most of us can remember that time, when fitting in, acting just the right way, was everything. After dropping him off at the synagogue, I hoped just that my son would emerge still comfortable in his own skin.
My thoughts returned to the teenagers on the following Easter morning. (Somehow I think “placenta” will never be the term of choice.) The church was, as usual, packed; the pews dotted with yellow hats and filled to overflowing. Once again, the regular crowd happily made room for all the “C and E” –Christmas and Easter– people. Rob preached about gaining the freedom to be who we really are. How did he know that this exact topic was already on my mind? One of the morning’s texts was the scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden. He is not wearing his “grave clothes” and she recognizes him only when he speaks her name. Because of this recognition, Mary can emerge from a spiritual cave of her own and begin a whole new life, a resurrected life, without the clothes of grief or self-consciousness. Maybe the birth imagery is not so far off, after all.
With this text, Rob was able to savor his favorite message: God gives us back our truest selves. If I have learned anything about him during these twenty-three years of marriage, it’s that this idea is absolutely central to his faith. He draws life from it constantly, as if it were a kind of well that he keeps returning to for sustenance. And, in the case of our unusual union, individual freedom comes with an accompanying belief that one partner’s immersion in religion doesn’t negate the other one being mostly outside it, and vice versa.
According to an old Methodist hymn, my husband reminds me, God’s love is that wide.
I thought of all of this – the teenagers at the party and Rob and me in our marriage – during the sermon. Then I wondered whether I myself might be wearing any grave clothes that needed shedding. The image is compelling: often we are not even aware when we’re taking the side of death over life, or the side of doing something to please others instead of being more true to our essential natures.
Easter comes late this year, as if it’s been waiting for a spring ambling at its own sweet pace. Surely something really good must be in store for us this time around.
Passover is well underway, and my husband is out washing feet tonight because it’s also Maundy Thursday. Before Easter gets the best of us, at least around here, I want to cast a backward glance and try to offer up a little tribute to the UConn Huskies, to nostalgia, and to that pesky ambivalence about big-time sports. All at once, if I may.
It was a little more than a week ago now that we enjoyed the back-to-back national championships of the men’s basketball team and then the women’s. I say, “we,” but of course it’s entirely possible that you paid absolutely no attention to the games—preferring to work out at the gym, pay bills, read a book, talk with a family member, go to bed at a reasonable hour, or perhaps watch a riveting (to some; I won’t mention any names) series like Boardwalk Empire instead.
It’s also entirely possible that you avoided watching even with some present or former connection to the University of Connecticut campus. But, let’s face it, that’s not likely; small-town Storrs really can generate powerful loyalty. Unless, that is, you are in a position to know more than the rest of us about a “shadow side” to all of the money, all of the hoopla, all of the skewed priorities at a public university supposedly dedicated to academics first.
Uh oh– I didn’t want my ambivalence to come into this quite so soon.
Let’s get some things straight. The basketball we just got to watch, in both Dallas and then in Nashville, was terrific, even inspiring. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are not only super-talented – Napier made shots falls from everywhere almost like magic; Boatright played relentless defense and got all up in everybody’s grill—but are also young men who have, not to sound trite, unquestionably overcome significant challenges in life. And, on the women’s side, and I really would rather not pick out just a few of the stars here, Stefanie Dolson and Moriah Jefferson were awesome, besides being enviably cool, alongside the already famous Breanna Stewart.
The day after the women capped their flawless season, Jeff Jacobs wrote this in the Hartford Courant: “They didn’t invent basketball in Storrs folks, but UConn can be forgiven if it feels like it perfected it this week.” No forgiveness necessary, I’d say.
So what if the rest of us have mostly already learned that perfection, or winning every single time, may not be the worthiest of goals—partly because it’s generally unattainable, partly because we can usually do more good for others when we’re not completely focused on our own achievements.
During the years we lived in Storrs, we got to attend just a handful of games with roaring crowds and throbbing excitement. Our eldest son did get to play right on the famous floor when he went to a summer basketball camp there. A promising young player named Ben Gordon was just becoming a Husky then. Overall, though, we spent much more family time over at a smallish church, one built with bricks in a kind of unusual modern design with a line of bells going from top to bottom, than we did at the shimmering silver dome of Gampel Pavilion. This worked out just fine.
Once, though, when a brother of mine and his family came to visit, we had an experience that was, I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say this, truly dreamlike. It was one of those summer days with no life in the air, nothing much going on anywhere. We drove up to campus, thought we’d just see if Gampel might be open. Not only did we find an unlocked door; when we got in, we saw a couple of players working out. Not only did we see them working out; they also invited us to come on down there with them. So we spent a glorious fifteen minutes with Anjou Deng (from Sudan) and Justin Brown (from Australia) – shooting around and shooting the breeze. They couldn’t have been more hospitable, on what was their floor, after all.
Now, I don’t tend to be easily star-struck or anything, but when I look at this picture of my son being hoisted up high to the basket by a big, and I do mean BIG, player, I think of all that’s good about having almost-professional athletes — the courteous kind anyway — right nearby, doing their thing for so many fans to enjoy.
Then again, anybody with sense can see that victory parades shouldn’t be reserved just for highly coordinated and also incredibly hardworking individuals who happen to succeed on the playing field or the court. What about those college students who are managing to handle their courses while caring for an ailing family member? Or who have to work full-time just to afford college? They don’t get high-fived all over campus, but they could use some congratulations once in a while, too.
Well, obviously. You ever feel like you could have a full-fledged debate just with your own self? It sure keeps things lively, especially when your spouse is often out performing ancient rituals. What I know for sure is this: we don’t all get to go to the rim and dunk, but each one of us sure could use some lifting up from time to time.
When our first son was born, a good friend and upstairs neighbor gave us a HUGE black and white mounted photograph of the philosopher William James. I’ll have to ask him again where he got it, but he always did move in highly intellectual circles. Anyway, we were thrilled to put the towering thing right in the corner of the baby’s bedroom, so that he could feel no pressure at all about growing up smart.
In one packing episode or another, we lost that photograph, or maybe someone swiped it. Thrown out, perhaps? I shudder at the thought. Anyway, I really do miss the distinguished bearded guy. Our grown up young man, however, is indeed someone who exercises his mind quite a bit, so maybe a little bit of the philosopher did rub off.
I am thinking of William James the First because this past weekend, I felt a great affinity for his famous work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902. I swear, based on what I experienced, I could have given him some good material.
Before you go rushing off to read the book, l ought to warn you that it is a bit dry, what with his meandering through psychology, philosophy, anthropology and theology all at the same time. And then there are the footnotes. On the other hand, he does bring to life a number of characters in a certain way, by probing the origin of their beliefs.
Where I could have been helpful to ol’ W.J. (in our family, my niece loves to call her cousin “Willie JAY!”) would be in providing some descriptions of the two very different church events I went to – one on Saturday afternoon, one on Sunday morning. Since he’s not available anymore as a listener, and I’m fit to burst with my impressions, I’ll just have to tell all of you about it.
The first one wasn’t a church service, exactly, but it sure felt a lot like one. In our role as parents, we are often led by our children to new experiences; this is a blessed thing. Scurrying from a lacrosse tailgate gathering to the other end of campus, I arrived at the Bates College Chapel to take in the first annual Spring Benefit Concert hosted by the “Gospelaires.” It was a rollicking couple of hours, with several different singing groups taking their turn to rouse everyone in the audience from whatever Saturday somnolence they might have felt before coming in. Most groups were multi-racial, and a kind of melting together was definitely going on. Whatever song one group sang up front, everyone else seemed to know it. There was a whole lot of movement, a sometimes piercing decibel level, and enough high spirits to lift the roof off the place. Our daughter, raised Episcopalian, was exploring some new terrain by participating.
Sitting in the pew, watching her with her friends, I was brought back some years. When I was single and living in Boston, I sometimes accompanied my roommate to her church in Dorchester. The worship space was actually a big auditorium, and it was packed every Sunday. People were on their feet most of the time, transported. The music was fabulous. I remember wondering, then, whether it was OK for me to be there as a kind of visitor. I was enthusiastically welcomed, but not pressured to join permanently. It didn’t take me long to conclude, however, that going every week didn’t make sense. The service was 1) too long and 2) I was doing more observing than feeling something deep down.
Last Sunday, it just so happened that my husband was attending a church very close to our home, so I was glad to take a short drive and see him in action. With gospel songs like “Every Praise” and “I Am” still resounding within me, I pulled into the thick-with-mud driveway of St. John the Evangelist in Dunbarton. It was a lovely service, featuring quiet hymns sung with a hand-pumped organ and a rich sermon about how the blind man in John’s gospel is really very much like the Church right now—they both need to GO, be expelled even, in some way. Come to think of it, this message wasn’t completely placid, but the tone in which it was given certainly was.
People sat or stood quietly in the pews, there was no amplification, just a handful of young people; there was a distinct feeling of “This is our treasured place where we’ve been coming for many years.” Afterwards, for fellowship, we gathered in a room that almost took my breath away with its simple beauty.
Driving home, I remembered another bonus of my weekend: getting to know a friend’s sprightly 97 year old mother – a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, and Jewish. When I asked her what her secret to longevity was, she said, without hesitating: “I’m interested in everybody I meet and every experience I have.” She didn’t even have to read William James, I bet, to figure that out. Sometimes, I have to admit, being a kind of bystander, religiously speaking feels a bit uncomfortable. It sure helps to try to hold fast to a handful of things I really am sure about. Making it to 97? We’ll see.