A Welcome Message

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.

 

 

The Varieties of Religious Experience, Updated

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.

IMG_2227

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 takingIMG_2217 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.

IMG_2224Last 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.

IMG_2194

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twenty-five Years Later, and Still Forthright

Contrasting colors side-by-side, juxtapositions, jarring differences: these have been my bread and butter in this blog. Sometimes a kind of first cousin– let’s call it coincidence –comes around, wanting a little attention, too.

With coincidence, there’s usually more of a gentle feeling – a kind of “Well, what do you know and isn’t this wonderful?”  Two old friends getting on the same plane or a high school student inheriting a textbook with an uncle’s name in it.

It’s in retrospect, often, that coincidences seem to multiply. In the present, unrelated things just happen in a jumble of lots of things. Later on, however, as we sort memories, we might spy through our binoculars a funny pair of events strolling together, barely noticing the rest of the crowd.  I’m doing precisely that, now.shutterstock_178719110-1

Twenty-five years and about a month ago in Boston, Barbara Clementine Harris became the first female bishop ever—going back a mere 2,000 years– in the Anglican Communion. It happened in February, not in July, but there were a whole lot of fireworks around this election. On a smaller scale of fireworks (not smaller for us or for our children, actually) my husband-to-be and I met and started to date in the exact same month.

Although he was a loan officer in a big bank at the time, Rob was planning to exit that scene and start–resume, actually –training towards the priesthood, so he was paying close attention to Episcopal news…and this was big news all right. Barbara Harris was (and is) female and she was also (and still is) black. It was a kind of  double whammy for a church traditionally seen as aligned with The Establishment.

Swept up as I was both by falling in love and by working at a tough high school, I remember Barbara Harris being someone in the corner of my eye, out of my main view. Just beginning to get acquainted with the worldshutterstock_184006598 of organized religion, I had a whole lot else to try to figure out. And so she became a groundbreaking bishop and after some years retired, and I became wife and then mother three times over and then—glory be –wife to a bishop who is just getting accustomed to his crozier.

We didn’t meet in 1989, crossed paths only tangentially, but this past week I felt as if I got to know her better. That’s because my husband was at the House of Bishops (his other domicile) in Texas (this time) and one day they voted on a resolution to honor Barbara Harris on her 25th anniversary milestone. Hearing this, and perhaps feeling a bit nostalgic for those falling-in-love days in Boston, I set out to learn something more about this person who was getting another wave of recognition at the same time, coincidentally, that Gloria Steinem was turning 80. So I watched a series of recorded conversations with Harris chatting on a range of topics, provided by The Visionary Project.

Before becoming ordained, she’d worked in public relations for Sun Oil Company, meeting lots of folks of all stripes and having a turn or two managing conflicts. Registering black voters in Mississippi, she encountered real danger. When she was advised to wear a bullet-proof vest at her consecration, she shrugged off the suggestion. About the hateful remarks and threats she got at the time, she said, “I don’t take this in a personal way.” She was anything but demure, however, and also didn’t mince words when talking about people who spewed the nasty speech, saying, “Nobody can hate like Christians.”

What comes through, in these conversations and also in the descriptions of people who have worked with her, is a quality of forthrightness. Indeed, the website describes her as having a “forthright prophetic voice.” She DSCN0228tells it like it is, doesn’t pull any punches, shoots from the hip even. Fortifying as this quality is for leaders, it can also make life a little dicey, especially for women.  I’m no prophet,but I own up to a forthrightness in my own nature, too. Most of the time it’s OK, though occasionally it takes me into trouble. Once, for instance, I even tried to utter a correction to something my husband said during a sermon. It had to do with baseball, which is pretty sacrosanct territory to me, but still, I had no business saying anything. None whatsoever. I cringe thinking back on this moment. In fact, let’s just forget I even told you. If my husband heard me from the pulpit—I’ve never had the nerve to ask –I count my lucky stars that he forgave me.

My stumbles aside, I do take some comfort in knowing that Barbara Harris put her own kind of forthrightness to good use. Even now, I think she’s still speaking out on people dragging their feet over gay marriage. Speaking of dragging feet, however, can you believe that there are now only 13 women bishops among a total of 139 in the whole operation, and only three of these are full diocesan bishops? Read more about the numbers here.  The tally is  pretty shocking, especially when you consider how many women are in the pews on any given Sunday. You might call it a kind of dis-connect happening here. Maybe, in the next 25 years, there will be more women bishops and I’ll learn the beauty of keeping quiet in certain situations. Just maybe.

 

 

Let It Go, Sure, but Know When (What) To Hold On Too (To)

Isn’t it a little weird that the hit song “Let It Go” is from a movie called Frozen?

IMG_2185

I mean — one is all about fluidity and movement, the other about being stuck in one place. Maybe there’s something here I’m not getting. In any case, the lyrics have got me thinking about all the times I’ve experienced the need to push something aside or watch it evaporate, versus the times I’ve experienced the need to hold on to something for dear life. It’s about even, I’d say, but still counting.

Even though I didn’t like the song when I heard it on the Academy Awards – belted out so forcefully, the thing lost whatever charm it might have had –I gather that it has a really broad appeal.  My son who’s a senior in college says his friends even like the Disney ditty. What’s up with this?  Here’s the UTube version…

One look at the words tells me that this song is in the same family as a bunch of other proclamation-type, pound-fist-on-table songs, like “I’m Coming Out” and “Fame”– just to name two. They’re all about owning up to who we really are, bursting through any strictures (not scriptures, don’t worry) and boldly proclaiming our full power as individuals. Oh, and this usually requires saying “the hell with it” to some goals, like trying to please others, we once deemed important.

I haven’t seen the movie, but the line “Let the storm rage on!” reminds me of good ol’ King Lear out on the heath, stripped down and willing to take whatever Nature dishes out to him. Where there was flattery and concealment before, there’s just raw truth now. And it’s plenty cold, even with rain not turning to ice.

On the other hand, the concept of “letting go” more often has a peaceful feel to it. I don’t have to be a clergy spouse to know that religion pads in on quiet feet to this territory. The ultimate letting go, of course, would be dying; but we all have lots of opportunities to practice the activity along the way to that destination, too. Just by dropping an article of clothing and not retrieving it, perhaps (more on this in a minute); or by choosing not to make a retort to a remark that is practically begging for one.

We’ve all heard the expression “Let Go, Let God.” I’m not sure I get it completely, but it sounds like we might be able to fall back, collapse even, into protective arms behind us—similar to the trust exercise they do on those outdoor adventure programs. Based on the success of her book, a Christian writer named Regina Baker has organized a whole conference, happening this spring in Houston, with this mantra. According to her website, just about everyone among us who’s suffered a loss qualifies to attend. I’m all for getting support, but I’d be a little reluctant to wear a T-shirt announcing, “Today I Let Go.” Frankly, if all of us went around letting go all the time, surrendering what Baker calls our “self-will,” don’t you think we’d look, well, a little limp?  Years ago, someone gave our family a small stuffed toy man called “Mr. Copeless.” He had perfected the art of relinquishment so completely that he couldn’t even sit up straight.

My favorite experience about letting go has to have been my red dress on the highway incident, kept in my memory under the title “Whoooosh.”

I was driving to a family celebration up in Maine, with two kids in the back seat. My really wonderful scarlet dress was on a hanger, minding its own business. Suddenly, with absolutely no warning, out it went – as if it had some really urgent business– through the partly open window. In the rear view mirror, I saw the people in the car behind us gesticulating wildly, trying to point the direction it had gone, no doubt. But that dress was HISTORY.  I was too shocked to know what to do then, but one thing I definitely didn’t do was shrug off the loss. On the way back from the party a couple of days later, I slowed way down at that stretch of road and instructed the kids to keep their eyes peeled for my treasure. We did see a dash of red material on the grass, and I pulled over with hopes high and ran over there – you can imagine the gales of laughter from the back — only to find some kind of burlap feed bag.

IMG_2186

This picture (not of the actual dress, mind you, but a pink substitute) gives you some idea of my dramatic loss.  “Let it go” indeed, because sometimes you just have no choice.

I know, I know – it’s the end of the essay and I haven’t gotten to the “hold on to something for dear life” part. Maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit when I use that expression; but don’t you think that we ought to be pretty clear about what it is we don’t want to let go “whoooosh” out the window, if we can possibly help it? The well-being of the people we love — for starters.  Our set of principles about how to live as best we can– for another. Sometimes it might feel like we’re hanging by our fingertips, but we try to keep our grip.

shutterstock_150295607

As for that girl who gleefully embraces her power to turn everything into ice….isn’t she like, so last winter? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Religion, Transformed

 

How far can religion go into the popular culture until it doesn’t even resemble religion at all?  In my mind’s eye, I see a robed figure, walking with dignity, gradually being enveloped in a crowd of people who are shaking their arms, some dancing, and most definitely making a racket. When the robed figure starts acting the way the crowd does, we look closer, but we’re not altogether sure we like it.

ashtag-selfie-ashwed-churchmojo-square

Look at this picture, for example. Isn’t it just what we’ve been longing to see through this long, cold winter — our favorite movie stars sporting fashionable smudges on their foreheads, letting us know that they can move seamlessly, and smilingly, from the glamour of the Academy Awards ceremony to the solemnity of Ash Wednesday?

Just kidding, of course. An evangelical guy in Virginia thought he was pretty clever to doctor up the original picture that had been tweeted a zillion times already. Plenty of religious people went right for it, believing that it helps to spread the Good Word, I guess.

My husband and I don’t agree on everything, mind you, but we sure did agree on this: that image does nothing to deepen anyone’s faith in anything that actually matters.  I’d get more inspiration, truly, from looking into the fireplace when there’s no glow at all, seeing just this.

IMG_2170

I mean, really, the very idea of a “selfie” is about as far from Christian values — as I understand them, anyway – as you can get.  Apparently, this year there’s been a big spike in the number of people snapping themselves and sending proof of their brush with religion –“Selfies Bring Ashtags to Lent.” Good for them!  They must be achieving a higher elevation, or would it be a more profound place, than the rest of us who, perhaps, have brushes with thoughts about how to be better people while just doing our regular daily chores. Does taking a picture of some activity thought to be virtuous make the activity any more virtuous or could it be the other way around?

Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, our local daily paper ran a front page story that also raised questions – to me, anyway – about what true religion actually is. The headline said: “ ‘Duck Dynasty’ star’s event put off.” Apparently a local school here, called the Concord Christian Academy, extended a speaking invitation to Phil Robertson, star of the popular TV show, one I’ve never seen. The event has been postponed (nothing to do with the recent controversy over his incendiary remarks, we’re told) but the headmaster of the school is quoted as saying that he is planning a whole series of speakers.

The criteria is that we want to get people who have been successful believers, Christians who have been successful in their area, people who have something wholesome and good to share with the community and our students. (The Concord Monitor, 3/5/2014)

What, I wonder, is a “successful believer”? Someone who has been on the cover of a magazine or made millions and also happens to espouse a particular faith?  Or is it someone who has managed to maintain integrity of self and generosity towards others through both good and bad times?

Yesterday, in cities around the country (including this one) clergy offered “Ashes to Go” to people going about their regular workaday routines. The idea, I suppose, was not to care whether these people were “successful believers” or not — they were busy, because everyone these days is busy, and so they needed a little convenience with their church. Takin’ it to the streets – that must be good, right?  Well, probably.

On the other hand, is a meditative experience in community just the same as grabbing a cup of coffee on your own? My husband was out there, getting mighty cold in the line of duty; he’s writing about his own ambivalence and doesn’t need me piping up about it, too.  I’ll just say that, from my perch out in the trees somewhere, it all kind of makes the head spin. Run this by me again….What are the key elements that make up a true faith again?

IMG_2167

To me, a picture like this one bespeaks the feeling of Lent much more. It’s kind of grey, pretty somber, gathering itself in, but this same landscape can – and will – transform itself into something ravishingly beautiful in due time.  And the only tweeting will be that other kind; do you remember it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bach to the Future

Is it possible to keep two independent melodies, or maybe even three or four, going in our heads at the same time? And, if it is possible, is it advisable? That is, can maintaining the integrity of each actually help to lift us out of the daily muddle? I think so. Unless, that is, I’m confused. Or maybe just eager to re-unite with my younger, more agile self.

From THE NEW BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE, Volume 2, p. 6;  Grolier Publishing Company, Inc. 2003

From THE NEW BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE, Volume 2, p. 6;
Grolier Publishing Company, Inc. 2003

While we might think anyone who “hears voices” is likely just nuts, we wouldn’t dare say that about someone like Johann Sebastian Bach, who made it his life’s work to set one kind of idea against another (and another and another) and achieve almost perpetual pleasure. Borrowing an expression from a different kind of music, I say: “Props to him.” This was no easy thing to pull off. Still isn’t, actually…which is why I think I might have another go ‘round with the whole enterprise.

What Bach pretty much invented, at least in music, was Counterpoint. This is putting one thing side by side with another for enjoyment, requiring both elements to be balanced — talking to one another, really. In a way, it’s kind of like a marriage, isn’t it?  Some even call him a “Contrapuntist.” That gets problematic, for me anyway, because it sounds like ol’ Bach might be out there on the football field, swinging his foot and wondering how to keep his wig on. Not to mention trying to figure out which end is which.

shutterstock_86631871

I met someone today at the gym, an amateur musician, who said she’s actually had a crush on Bach ever since she was little. I wouldn’t go that far exactly, but it’s true that he and I go way back; I was in high school when my piano teacher first introduced me to The Well-Tempered Clavier. I became absorbed by trying to figure out those Preludes and Fugues—paired together as they are like lovers in the park. At first, with the Prelude, you think you’ll be sitting pretty; then the Fugue, with all its lines criss-crossing, really gives you a run for your money. You’re best off practicing just a few measures at a time to ward off total frustration. The rewards can be pretty great, though: amazingly rich landscapes of sound, coming from your own fingers.

This all came back to me last week when I listened to an interview on the Diane RhemeIMG_1768 show with the concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein. You can listen to it here,  She was talking about a new project called “Bach-packing”: going into elementary schools, often with a transportable keyboard, to show kids a little bit about the King of Counterpoint. She starts off the session by dividing the class into two sections and asking one group to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle” while the other group does “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  They always get a big kick out of the result, hearing how each song becomes more interesting when the other is set against it. Then out comes an Invention, and before you know it they’re saying, “Bring It, Bach!” Well, maybe anyway.

Prompted by her, I finally got around to unpacking the box of music that’s been sitting beside the piano since we moved in half a year ago. Since it contains most of my own books – works of the standard classical giants, some in that lovely blue Urtext—as well as much of the Suzuki repertoire for cello (two sons) plus a whole bunch of piano sheet music at different levels (one daughter) and a few three ring binders in which copious notes were taken by an attending mother (me), this is indeed a box to be reckoned with.  And, wouldn’t you know, my well-worn Well-Tempered Clavier — the one with the fingerings and other notations from a variety of teachers through the years, the one I had to ask my friends at Collective Copies to re-bind for me – well, it did not emerge from that box. Trying to be reassuring, my husband said, “It’s definitely somewhere in this house!”  Right, and so is that little diamond that dropped out of my engagement ring. Fortunately, I found a brand new copy of the book down at the music store, which I will happily return if the genuine one appears soon.

IMG_2158

Now, about the younger self I might be hoping to re-unite with….Maybe I’ll find that person when I sit back down on the piano bench for a while. More likely, with sometimes uncertain hands, I will try to just listen carefully for the different strands of melodies, not to say ages exactly: how they weave through one another to make a kind of tapestry of many colors.

IMG_2161

Dear Readers: Comments, Please!

TCB-121304

Sometimes, on just a regular day, you find precisely the right cartoon.

A few years from now, no doubt, I will look back on these times and say something like the first part of what this dog says. Here’s hoping I won’t also need to say the second part.  In this household, we’re pretty familiar with barking; our dog Rocky likes to use it to make a point, emphatically — most often when he wants us to try to pick up the stick he’s protecting. It’s not pointless, it’s not incessant, but it can be annoying.

This week, I’m writing with a request. Do you think you regular or occasional readers shutterstock_174928265out there might be able to give me a little feedback? You can do this by just doing a “Comment” right here; more likely, if you’d rather keep it private, please go to the blog itself and send me an email.

The thing is, I’ve been writing this blog for a few months more than a couple of years now. My dear husband and I kind of hashed it out, based on this idea of two different kinds of elements coming together. It was a kind of detour from working on a book with full-length chapters, something I’m ready to go back to now, which is not to say that I’m stopping the blog. In doing these short pieces, I wanted to see if I could get both my voice and my main subjects clear.

Trying to shift over from blog to book is, well, a little like changing equipment to try another way of traversing the same snowy landscape out there on the trails behind our house.

IMG_2143

At least in some ways, the blog has served its purpose: I’ve been learning by practicing — kind of like I used to do at the piano. It’s also just been fun for me, most every week. But, as my brother would say, enough about me—What do you think about my blog?

I know that in asking for feedback, I have to be ready to receive it. Gulp.

I’d be so grateful if you’d take just a minute to write me a BRIEF message. Just a handful of words will do. Here are some random examples that might help.

1)   More/less humor, please.

2)   More/less about you and your husband working things out.

3)   More/less about your specific role as pastor’s wife.

4)   Don’t try to wrap things up nicely all the time – we don’t need it.

5)    I like/don’t much like the connections with current events/culture.

6)   Sometimes you’re holding back/ You go too far sometimes.

7)   These blogs were my favorites…These were my least favorites…

8)   Better when you really hold fast to ONE idea.

Thanks you so much for anything you can toss my way. Heck, how else do we improve shutterstock_1611561our products except by knowing something about how they’re received?

I can only WISH that I could create something, with feedback, that could be one one- hundredth as pleasing as the classic Beatles song…”I Feel Fine.”  Some magnificent reverberating guitar there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snowflakes not turning into Circles and other Mishaps

Can there be any glory at all in stumbling, in things not going as planned, in mess ups?  This has been the pressing question on my mind over the past few days, because I’ve been in the midst of some of the above and have felt, well, kind of de-railed from what it was I thought I was doing.

With so many eyes on Sochi now, we’re ready to be thrilled by the magnificence of athletic displays….and to gasp with sympathy, let’s hope not with any delight, at the inevitable mishaps.

It didn’t take long for the first one to happen. Right in the Opening Ceremonies, apparently, one of the five Olympic rings failed to transform itself from a snowflake into a ring, almost as if it were a sullen teenager reluctant to change into proper clothes for the party. Never mind the fact that it was totally amazing any of the snowflakes changed shape – or that there were tremendous glittering snowflakes up there in the dark sky at all—the fact that just one of them didn’t do what it was supposed to was the big news story.

http://seattleweeklynews.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/08rings1.jpg

http://seattleweeklynews.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/08rings1.jpg

Did you hear, too, that Russian TV made it all seem fine? Those people would do anything to make sure President Putin saw what he needed to see, presumably so that nobody’s head would roll. Read about it here. The official word was, ”Producers confirmed the switch, saying it was important to preserve the imagery of the Olympic symbols.” Certain things are sacrosanct — mess with them at your peril.

What has any of this, happening on a faraway continent, got to do with me and my own minor mishaps? I’m glad you asked. But first allow me to put on my pastor’s wife hat. I’m sure it’s in some closet around here somewhere.

Being a pastor’s (OK, bishop’s) wife, I get to take in a fair amount about how churches are seeing themselves these days and what kinds of messages they’re trying to put out there. Besides talking to my own husband about it, I can sometimes read newsletters and magazines that he brings home and – once in a while – listen to what others say about envisioning the future. One thing is pretty clear: the road ahead is going to look a whole lot different than the road a few miles back.

Anyway, there’s a lot of discussion about “God’s mission” and doing things like “going into the broken places” and “restoring and reconciling.” This is all as it should be; I support it wholeheartedly and even want to be a part of it, in my own way.

The only thing is, I have weeks when I’m pretty much just confounded by how to deal with all the regular daily mishaps that crop up most every day. That is to say, sometimes I’m facing just literal brokenness in one way or another; focusing only on restoring – say – the way my desk used to look when I could find things or the way my car used to look before it got into a little episode. Perhaps I’m just pathetic, or perhaps (and this is what I admit to hoping) you join me in this kind of existence, not without its own set of glories if we can just grab hold of them.

Maybe we ought to pause here and just savor the word “mishap.” Don’t you just love the sound of it, for starters?  Completely lacking in any grace, just like the experience itself. It pleases me about as much as another two syllable word (usually indicating damage in a higher degree, however) beginning with “m” –“mayhem.”  Generally defined as an “unlucky happening” a mishap can run the gamut between a harmless little spill to unintended hurtful words to life-threatening accident. In that, as far as I can tell, much of life slips out of our control, the word can really come in handy.

Not that it ever actually becomes fun when a snowflake doesn’t become a ring on cue or anything.

Just over the course of the past several days, I’ve been involved to some extent in a number of mishaps. To save time, I’ll just describe two here.

The most harmless, I’ll even say amusing one, was the tube of toothpaste standing up in a pond of green:

IMG_2136

Do I have any memory of not closing that tube properly? No, I don’t.

Second, there was the case of the car losing its front bumper for no apparent reason.

IMG_2138

There I was, intent on getting my friend to her appointed ride downtown, just putting the car in reverse to exit the garage. Perhaps the person who had put the car in the garage the night before, however, had pulled it closer than usual to the side, because apparently something caught on something and then suddenly each side of silver plastic came undone and was just flapping in the wind. This was a case of – and I know you’ve had something like this too – a few mysterious seconds changing the course of the rest of a day. A complete and utter mishap, the kind that necessitates talking to insurance people who ask a whole lot of questions and then make sure to urge you to have a splendid day. All the while, you have to try really hard not to dwell on the fact that you were in fact intending to get something half creative done until this happened.

Years ago, I was at a dinner party when the hostess brought in a cake for dessert that had, somehow, kind of collapsed and was all on one side. No one knew what to say, until her son broke the tension with, “Thank GOD no one was hurt!”  Mishaps are kind of like that – so long as no one is really hurt, we can usually dust ourselves off and go on trying to make things right. And even when someone is in fact hurt, we have to find ways to heal and go forward.

I’m not sure I can find anything resembling a mission in this daily business. Seeing the humor in it, whenever that’s possible, sure does help. Being able to shrug stuff off when we can, keep our minds focused on what matters more, go for the greater good — this all brings us closer to heaven, perhaps. Or at least just makes us more pleasant companions to have around the house. In the case of my car losing its bumper, I will have the fresh memory of a wonderful visit with an old friend – not in the category of mishap at all – to provide sustenance through the days of repair.  Hallelujah for that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning From A Not-So-Good Wife

 

Since becoming a bishop’s wife, I’ve been paying more attention to how other wives of other public figures – perhaps religious, perhaps not – conduct themselves, establish their identities, make their mark. Is there any perfect formula, I wonder, for mixing the need to be oneself, to find one’s own particular way to happiness, with the need to be a supportive spouse for a husband in the public eye?

I don’t have the thing down yet, completely, but I do think it will probably be a good idea to steer clear of the example set by Maureen McDonnell, wife of the former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell.

You probably heard that both were indicted in federal court last week for accepting a whole lot of cash and other gifts from a businessman looking to sell more of his company’s dietary supplements. Word has it that she, this former cheerleader for the Redskins with a liking for finery, pushed her husband over to the bad side with her relentless desires and complaints about their penury. Somehow, she convinced herself that her husband’s salary of $175,000 (heaven forbid that she consider getting a job) was chicken feed and they needed to be bailed out of their hardscrabble misery.

I can’t imagine doing any of what she did, really, but I definitely can’t imagine the audacious move to get her husband an engraved Rolex watch: even Mr. Williams, the rich executive, tried to talk hershutterstock_56524495 out of that one, knowing that the thing would raise some eyebrows. After all, a governor is supposed to be a public servant, not a celebrity.  (Heaven only knows how much worse this would be in the case of a bishop.) How on earth, I wonder, did this grasping woman think that any good could come from such a gift— clearly not even from her –-to her man?  She would’ve been better off getting out the Scotch tape and making him a collage of high school pictures or taking him on a cheap road trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Considering all the damage she did, I think it’s pretty remarkable that she’s the one giving her husband a mad and steely look in the picture that the New York Times printed last week. Here’s the full article. I’ve been reading some of the history of that really successful TV show (haven’t watched it yet) called “The Good Wife” – the one about the woman who resumes her legal career after her famous husband goes to jail for a bunch of transgressions. Apparently, the creators of this show got the idea from watching a number of political spouses in the limelight—Hilary Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards and especially Silda Spitzer –as they stood by their husbands at various microphones after the various scandals broke. They wondered what these women would have been thinking during these terrible moments; for them it was likely some version of “Should I stay or should I go now?”  But the hardened Maureen McDonnell, she who wanted to make sure the Ferrari would be available at the summer house by the lake? Maybe she was blaming her husband for the fact that they got caught.

I don’t know how much of a reader Maureen ever was, but she might have avoided facing years in prison if she’d taken to heart a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm.

“The Fisherman and His Wife” tells you pretty much anything you need to know about the costs of overreaching.  I’m not sure why my mother liked this story so much, but it was somehow ingrained in my childhood. There’s a simple fisherman, a magic flounder, and a wife who is never satisfied.

From FAIRY TALES OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM; retold by Neil Philip and illustrated by Isabelle Brent; Viking, 1997

From FAIRY TALES OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM; retold by Neil Philip and illustrated by Isabelle Brent; Viking, 1997

At the beginning of the story they’re living in a hovel, a pigsty, a filthy shack, or even – in one version I saw – a “piss-pot.” Whatever the place is called, we might have a little sympathy for her wanting to make a few upgrades, even encouraging her husband to get more marketable skills. But her greedy nature does her in. Once she hears that the dutiful guy has met a talking fish, instead of just marveling at this, she immediately demands to know why he didn’t get something from the encounter. She keeps sending her husband back to ask for, in succession: a cottage, a palace, to be king, to be emperor, to be pope, and then – and if this isn’t overreaching I don’t know what it is — to be like God. At each request, a storm gathers force and the sea becomes darker and more tumultuous; the wife, furthermore, becomes more possessed and angrier at her husband, who starts out just wanting to please her and, pathetically, keeps doing her bidding even when he knows it’s all wrong.

They end up, of course, back where they started – in the filthy shack. Probably they don’t have too many nights of companionable Scrabble or lighthearted entertaining, but then again they’re not in prison, either.

As for me, I won’t be fishing for baubles or an elevation of status anytime soon. I will, however, tryIMG_2117 to get the lost diamond on my engagement ring replaced…eventually.

I will also continue slogging through a job search because it’s generally best, I’ve found, for a woman to maintain her own career. In the meantime, my husband’s not the only one in the family to wear purple; here I am with my doubles partner, Jessica, after a match. Pope envy? Not me.

IMG_2111

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There's More Than One Way to Hustle

 

“You really aren’t comfortable with moral ambiguity, are you?”

This was the question my husband asked me shortly after we emerged, one evening last week, from seeing American Hustle. For some reason he thought I hadn’t liked the whole movie, when what I think I said was that I didn’t particularly warm up to any of the main characters, except for maybe Carmine Polito, who is open to taking money from an unknown Arab sheikh for the casinos because all he wants, really, is to help his people improve their standard of living and keep his pompadour intact.

shutterstock_171683213

While not seeing myself as moralistic or, perish the thought, preachy in a kind of tedious way, I guess I generally do feel I know my way around good and bad as well as the next person, so the question – coming from a bishop, no less– kind of brought me up short.

What he meant to get at, of course, was that every one of us, whether or not we’re in a hit movie, lives just as much in corruption as we do in glory. We’re not taking bribes left at right exactly; it’s more like we can’t escape being tainted by some form of decay, physical or moral. We all begin in dust, and to dust we shall return; but at the same time we are infinitely loved by God, and grace rains down on us perpetually.

Honestly I feel like I’ve spent a good deal of my married life trying to get the hang of this.

While I’m still not exactly sure who can be comfortable with moral ambiguity, I definitely do IMG_2090appreciate that there’s plenty of grey area in between the white and the black with, let’s just say to change things up a bit, the white being “out of bounds – don’t do it or you’ll pay the price” and the black being “you’re on the moral high ground; set an example to others while you’re at it.” And yes, that movie did dare you to figure out whose side you were on; Richie DiMaso, the FBI guy played by Bradley Cooper, was supposed to be doing good, but his driving ambition not to mention his gullibility along with his falling helplessly for the Amy Adams character got the better of him and made him seem like a pretty big jerk.

The thing is, the very title of the movie is ambiguous. Sure, “to hustle” means to engage in small-time crime; but, as those of us who have been on the sidelines of many games know, it can also mean to move on down the field or ice or court with just the kind of energy, desire and gusto the sport demands. How many thousands of times have we heard, “Come on guys, hustle back onIMG_3154 defense!” or “Suzie may not be the most skilled player on the team, but she really makes up for it in sheer hustle.” Out of the realm of sports and just in regular life, too, it’s about moving quickly in a good way, making it possible to get a lot of errands done in a short time, to meet a deadline, to achieve your goals. So completely American!

On the other hand, there is of course the magazine on the top row of many newsstands called The Hustler. I’m not positive, but I think that the sedentary women depicted on the cover would not exactly be described as striving for anything, except perhaps to subject themselves to the baser instincts of certain men.

It’s funny how, no matter how hard we may try to stick to some kind of moral code, things keep popping up that are a little slippery, like the ice on the driveway this winter. In what situations, for instance, is it OK to let your “knowing someone” give you some kind of advantage? If a person goes to serve at a local homeless shelter or to build a school in another country mostly to be able to take credit for the activity, does that negate the good deed itself? How often does our own drive to survive, or to advance, allow us to disregard – ever so slightly perhaps – either the truth or the real needs of others?

Around this house, anyway, I’m not planning on making a big deal of my knowing right from wrong all the time, mostly because I do plenty of stumbling in the fog. But the thought of waking up with moral ambiguity as my companion every single day leaves me feeling a little seasick. If my husband can handle it, fine for him.

IMG_2097

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do You Make, How Do You Take Your Community?

Is there a sure-fire way to tell the real thing from an imitation?  And what allows an imitation to be acceptable or even preferable?  When it comes to fulfilling our natural desire for community, who is to say if one kind is more genuine or life-giving than another?

Some months after advising me to lay off the salt, my doctor also told me to cut out sugar and all white foods—wait, I think cauliflower is allowed — as much as possible. He drives a hard bargain. Apparently while the numbers involved were not exactly alarming, there was room for improvement.  By all means, he said, keep exercising and follow the lead of your highly health conscious offspringIMG_1369 who do planks on the living room floor when they’re not running or weight lifting (my workouts are kind of like theirs), eat greens and grains constantly (who do you think buys and cooks?) and either chew just wheat bread or eschew the bread food group entirely (OK, this still seems a bit extreme to me). My husband should be included in that camp too, though he does love his dark chocolate when evening rolls around.

Anyway, not finding it pleasant to do without sweetness entirely, I discovered a wonderful little orange container called “nectresse” in the baking aisle at the grocery store. I’m not sure why they couldn’t go with a capital “N” at the beginning of the word, but I bet it has something to do with a simplicity effect, a gentleness factor.  The stuff is made from monk fruit, whatever that is. Grown in a monastery perhaps? Oh good. Best of all, even though it’s produced by the same outfit that’s responsible for “Splenda” – a mysterious substance that may be more pernicious than regular sugar – I think my conscience can stay pretty clear as I put a little bit of this “100% NATURAL” powder in my morning coffee.

IMG_2074

Which brings me to the subject of the Sunday Assembly. Maybe you heard the NPR story recently about this new kind of – get ready for the oxymoron- “godless church.” It started about a year ago in England and has jumped across the pond, as well as elsewhere. Read or listen to the story here.

If you’re at all like me, the word “assembly” brings to mind filing down to the school auditorium in 6th grade to hear the principal talk on a Friday much more than it does gathering with mostly other adults in some available downtown space for bonding and laughter on a Sunday. As Pippa Evans, one of the founders, says, “It’s all the best bits of church but with no religion and awesome pop songs.” Sounds like she’s talking about designing the perfect recipe; then again, she is in fact a comedian by profession, and so is her partner. Reminds me a little bit of the character James Gandolfini plays in the recent movie, Enough Said; at a party, he takes the tomatoes out of his guacamole to make a more palatable version.

I don’t begrudge them the right to start a movement welcoming all who have been disenchanted with organized religion, bearing this friendly motto: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”  IMG_0234While it does seem a little silly to model the whole enterprise on a real church experience, as if they’re using a kind of stencil to get the outlines of that traditional approach rather than designing something original from scratch, it’s fine whenever people can enjoy coming together in new configurations to both deepen their thinking and enjoy each other’s company.

Where I come out on this, however, is to feel more emboldened about keeping up – insofar as it is possible — the various communities I’ve been a part of through the different stages of my life. Looking back, I see that they were and are, for the most part “100% NATURAL.”  That is, they grew gradually over time with connective tissue, or some kind of common ground, that was organic. There’s no way I’m going to turn away from the wide network of friends in the town we just left after a dozen years; a kind of touching back will go on for IMG_2071a while. When I took my son to Washington D.C. recently, we stayed with my very first friend (by virtue of the fact that our mothers were best friends). She took me to her book group, one that I had visited previously about 10 years ago, and these women treated me as a friend, too, by virtue of my connection with Clare. When I went back to visit my brother who still lives in our hometown, I got to chat with neighbors just a little younger than my parents, people who remember me at the bus stop and were thrilled to meet my children. And a few days ago, I returned to a campus where I had taught for a stretch of years right after college. We gathered at a memorial service for a colleague; while a number of us had left the place long ago, we still felt the connective tissue, the shared memories. In a way that particular era had disappeared, and in a way it hadn’t. More precisely, it had been absorbed somehow deep within each of us.

I’m beginning to make inroads here, in a new place, to “get settled” as people are so fond of saying.  I’ll do it by adding new circles — I prefer these to assemblies because they can have some motion, like a multi-colored mobile — layered over the ones I already have. Inviting neighbor families over for back to back dinners before the kids dispersed for school felt like a good start.

IMG_2075

It can be all be sweet, I know it can. Hmm, come to think of it, a little salt substitute could be nice, too…

 

 

 

 

I Believe, Therefore I Do

On the heels of Christmas with its mix of sacredness and enchantment, I’m setting out to write something here about the act of believing in something and how closely it is, or perhaps is not, aligned with leading a good life.

Of course just about any fool would say that the quality of anything flowing from a particular source must depend primarily on the legitimacy of the source – or set of beliefs – itself. I would maintain, however, that a lot can happen along the way or, put differently, the proof is in the pudding.

Some of my own beliefs are kind of murky, but I can say at the outset that I most definitely believe that it is difficult to write anything requiring any concentration when one’s family is all about, coming and going and either needing actual attention or just by their very presence indicating that they might need some attention, or at least perhaps some food of the cooked variety.

Anyway, lately everything from The Polar Express to candlelit church services — here comes a leap — to a visit to theIMG_2035 National Museum of the American Indian and—another big jump — a new movie by a teenage pop megastar is reminding me that we place a high value on having beliefs that help propel us through our daily lives, sweep us up into a throbbing excitement, or perhaps simply give us a solid floor to stand upon. It all has me wondering whether being able to say “I am a believer” or, in the case of the megastar’s fans, “I am a Belieber” offers someone an almost immediate stamp of approval. Surely, all beliefs are not created equal…or are they?

On the website for that radio program called “This I Believe” you can find a collection of thousands of essays people have written. The idea is not for the writer/speaker to just take any old belief lying around the house, but to embrace one that could be considered a “core” belief – something that serves as a pretty constant IMG_2034guidepost, or even as a sun radiating light and heat, day after day. Essays have been categorized within about one hundred themes, from “addiction” (?) to “family” to “nature” to  “work” – you name it. As you scan through them, you’ll see that people sound pretty darn nice and their motivations just about completely positive. Not to rain on the parade or anything, but aren’t there at least some people out there who would admit to having a core part of themselves that isn’t so pure? As one reader on the site put it, “Maybe some meanies or troublemakers could have explained what beliefs made them tick, too.” I agree that would balance things out a bit, but of course then they would have to be considered Believers with a Twist.  And then the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins would rush in to make sure we know about all the inherent dangers in allowing all kinds of beliefs, often clothed in religious garb, to run rampant out there.

Don’t get me wrong…I really admire people from all walks of life and all faiths who can clearly articulate their beliefs and then, even better, demonstrate them in actions that benefit their families as well as the larger society. A recent trip to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. reminded me about some of the beautiful things that have sprung fromIMG_2007 beliefs of all kinds. Take the Wright Brothers and their magnificent and unwieldy plane, for instance. Good old Orville (or maybe it was Wilbur) had the nerve to lie right across the thing and hope for the best when it first went up. Then, over at the Museum of the American Indian, you can go to an exhibit called “Our Universe” and, upon entering a series of rooms, be surrounded by manifestations of eight different indigenous cosmologies — that is, learn how various tribes from both North and South America have traditionally envisioned their worlds and the forces at work in them. You start off in each segment with a diagram, generally showing some kind of very specific system of beliefs about how forces in Nature align with certain human characteristics, and then the rest of the display – one room leading to the next– shows how the people live out and reinforce this understanding. There’s no way of telling, really, how much peace and harmony result directly from the bedrock of beliefs, but it’s pretty compelling stuff. And you can’t leave the IMG_2011exhibit without being amazed by the tremendous diversity of ways in which different cultures, even within the larger “category” of Native Americans, try to make sense of their worlds and set rules for themselves.

I don’t know if the reason that Justin Bieber’s new movie, Believe, is tanking at the box office has anything to do with the fact that he does not in fact offer a convincing cosmology of his own. The guy really can sing, that’s for sure, but maybe he (more likely his handlers) ought not to be stretching his influence beyond the stage so much as to claim that his fans now share a whole religion or something. I mean, are they really apt to organize themselves to do something for the larger good or are they content — which is really fine – to lose themselves in the power of the music?

As we head into 2014, here’s hoping we can believe in all the twinkling possibilities that the New Year will bring.  Right now I see it as a blanket of new fallen snow, glistening in the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting ready for Something, or perhaps for Nothing

IMG_1999

 

Right now — with many of us running around trying to decide which particular thing would actually make a difference in someone’s life as opposed to just adding to a mountain of stuff really beside the point — seems like a good time to consider how far apart, or close together, nothing and something are. What we find here could come in handy.

Opposites, you say?  Not so fast. Sure, who could argue with Julie Andrews (or, just the other night, Carrie Underwood) when she sang these lines under the moonlight in the arms of Christopher Plummer (or Stephen Moyer, if anyone cares)?  ”Nothing comes from nothing/ Nothing ever could/ So somewhere in my youth or childhood/ I must have done something good.”

Fine as it may be to pat themselves on their collective backs for long ago good deeds that paid off, the fact is that their good fortune may have arrived out of practically nowhere, nothing, nada. If a whole universe could appear this way, as scientists would have us believe, then why not a true love once in a while?

IMG_2004

Maybe you heard about the lecture by the physicist Lawrence Krauss that exploded on YouTube. The guy became such a star (pun intended) from it that he had to write a whole book called A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.  Perhaps he is a bit repetitive in person too, but judging by the number of other books he’s written to bring physics to us common people, he’s probably also plenty smart. And, as it so happens, not shy about expressing his view that – contrary to what the world’s major religions espouse – belief in a creator or a divine intelligence is really not necessary; science can do very well on its own:

The answers that have been obtained – from staggeringly beautiful experimental observations, as well as from the theories that underline much of modern physics – all suggest that getting something from nothing is not a problem. Indeed, something from nothing may have been required for the universe to come into being. (from the Preface)

Now that most of us accept that the Big Bang happened more than 13 billion years ago, kind of like we accept that the sun rises and sets each day, we can get accustomed to the idea that nothing-ness and something-ness are not so much distant relatives as they are siblings born some months apart who may at first look completely different but actually have a lot in common.

So far so good, but does this actually help to alleviate the pressure to shop?

Let’s leave the world of science for a moment and head on over to the world of rap. It just so happens that there is a whole documentary called Something from Nothing which features rappers talking about their craft. It includes a guy named “KRS-One” demonstrating the importance of going right in to your rhymes, dispensing with any set-up. Take a minute to listen here. Persuasive, isn’t it?  But maybe this is more like advocating skipping the rapping/wrapping  paper and just handing over the goods on Christmas morning; or working up some kind of performance, anything coming directly from the heart and soul, instead of buying some silly thing with lots of packaging. So be it.

Then there’s always Shakespeare, or more precisely, King Lear. Remember this powerful exchange in Act One, Scene Four?

Fool:  Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?

Lear:  Why, no boy; nothing can be made out of nothing.

Stripped of just about everything he had ever deemed important before, trying to hold onto his mind and losing thatIMG_2003 too, Lear soon will have to come to grips with the reality of nothing, and the true nature of love.

The current comic strip writer Patrick McDonnell has carried this theme along to our time; he wrote a wonderful little book called The Gift of Nothing. In it, a cat named Mooch tries to figure out what kind of present to get for his best friend Earl, a dog who has everything. In a moment of brilliance, he decides that giving him a big empty box is just right; after Earl opens it, they recognize that what they have is each other, and the whole beautiful landscape outside. “So Mooch and Earl just stayed still and enjoyed nothing…and everything.”

Sometimes when the culture tells us to focus on new things that we don’t have and must surely need, things that are already in our midst — maybe sitting over there quietly in the corner — jump out at us as being really powerful things.  And this, in turn, gets us wondering which stuff is worth what, and why.

IMG_2001

The other day I was trying to protect the furniture on our screened porch from the snow, and I re-discovered our totem pole. We got it some years back from the annual elementary school auction in our previous town, and it came along with us to a new house. Where exactly it should go is never clear. A little fuzzy on the details of how it was created in the first place, I asked my almost 15 year old son to remind me last week. He did so in writing:

This was in third grade. We split up into groups and my group was Malcolm, Aidan, Anna and me. We each put in an animal that we wanted. I wanted the bird. Malcolm wanted the bear, Aidan wanted the turtle, and Anna wanted the rabbit. We were given only BZ’s recycling, and paper mache. We took the cans and covered each one with paper mache. Then we glued the cans together. Then we painted each can with eyes and ears so everything was covered. I think the rabbit has added on ears.

This about knocks me right out. The darn totem pole stands there silently with all its colors, telling a whole story about friends at a certain age, working together to make something out of practically nothing. I think I’ll just have it watch over me as I do whatever else really needs doing in these remaining days before Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bring the Family to the Adventure Park, and the Adventure Park to the Family

Been to an aerial forest park recently? Our family got to go to one last weekend, and the whole experience made me want to give thanks all over again. Swinging around on those harnesses was both refreshingly different from putting myself through the paces of daily life on the ground and also surprisingly similar to managing regular co-existence with a bunch of other individuals who happen to be my spouse and my children.

Take the quality of balance, for instance. Many of the bridges (described in the pamphlet as “various configurations of cable, wood, rope and zip lines”) that go from tree to tree demanded putting one foot after another on very narrow IMG_1991surfaces. Even though I went on the easiest course and was also chatting in a carefree way with my friend through the whole journey, sometimes the road ahead looked pretty daunting – until I remembered that I was all strapped in and could not possibly let myself be that much of a wimp. My sons quickly ascended to the hardest and highest of the courses, where at one point they were treated to a series of hanging ropes with tiny wooden circles for their feet, little things that provided just about zero stability. They had to rely on upper body strength and work really hard to stay balanced.

True enough, sitting down at a large table with your nearest and dearest for a Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t require exactly the same kind of physical attentiveness. But how about the need to respect each individual’s particular temperament and not push one’s own agenda, whatever it may be, too far?  Sometimes, living in such close proximity to others, I make the mistake of thinking that their needs are identical to mine: I’m really sure that my husband would be better off with a sweater on, for instance, because I’m feeling chilly.  This doesn’t usually go over so well.

IMG_0927If your family has a mix of extroverts and introverts, as mine does, balancing communal time with personal quiet time is pretty crucial. The coming together and the letting go occur almost concurrently, especially if you happen to be the parent of teenagers and young adults. In so many words, they say, “Please step aside NOW so I can make my way without your instructions, and don’t expect to find out much about my life; are you still there in case I want to bounce something off you or get some quick cash?”

Last Tuesday, The New York Times ran a special issue of ScienceTimes devoted to the sprawling subject of Families — a bit of a departure for this section — and I read it from cover to cover. Not surprisingly, statistics bear out that we’re in the heart of a kind of revolution: saying that the typical American family has “changed” is an understatement because the multiplicity of ways people choose to live together just keeps driving the bus.

Barbara Hank Ingraham w Mike Sandy Steve

And within each family itself, there is a kind of natural pulling in different directions. In her article “Wanting Marriage and Pursuit of Happiness” Natalie Angier writes about the inherent tension between our desire to form intimate bonds and our desire to strike out on our own.  “It’s the great American paradox. We value marriage as ‘the center of civilized society,’ ….At the same time, we value our liberty, the pursuit of personal happiness and the right to leave a bad marriage behind.”  Let’s hope that in more cases than not, the drive towards independence is satisfied by healthy portions of each spouse doing his or her own thing while still drawing on the connection between the two as well as plenty of shared times – all ingredients in the soup of happiness.

_MG_2003

As I go back a few days to swinging in between trees, it’s easy to observe that each one of us wants some combination of security and freedom.  We like to use our own creative juices to take some risks, so long as we know that we will in fact reach that other platform. Even though every participant at the aerial forest park faces the challenges alone to some degree, generally people come to the place in groups, anticipating that the benefits will come mostly from a spirit of mutual support. We want to do our own thing, make our own choices, and we like to be cheered on, too. The whole operation, in a way, is a depiction of how harmonious family life can look.

When the Thanksgiving weekend came to an end, I was surprised to find that, despite the barbs tossed my way by children who will go un-named, I really learned a lot about where they’re at these days, what they’re facing, how they feel about things. It was about as rich a feast, really, as the dishes on the table, smacking as it did of real life.

IMG_1076

Soon the snow will start to fall around here, and the paths in the woods are bound to be lovely. Some of them will be wide enough for two or three people to go on, side by side; others will require more of a single file approach. Back in the house, too, there will be a mix of flopping down on couches and chairs at the same time and pulling away for privacy. This, I’m pretty sure, is something that will never change in the American family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ball of Confusion? Bring It On

IMG_1973“You all should leave here feeling confused,” said one of my son’s professors during their semester in South Africa. Not what you would expect a representative of higher learning to say to students on a life-changing journey, but given what they had been absorbing at every turn about one side of an issue being just as compelling as another, they all understood what he meant. Listen to an advocate for wildlife preservation and then listen to a farmer struggling to keep his cattle, and you might feel stymied: cheetahs must be protected, yes, but the needs of local people can’t be sacrificed to the cause of tourism and the almighty dollar.

Driving home from the airport, I actually felt relieved: maybe the fact that a steady dose of confusion was seeping into my daily life, through just about all pores, wasn’t so awful after all. Maybe it was time to move past the lyrics of the 1970 Temptations song that had been spinning around in my head: “Ball of confusion/ Oh yeah, that’s what the world is today.” Maybe confusion could even be downright enlightening.

http://rodericdeane.com/culture/ball-of-confusion/

http://rodericdeane.com/culture/ball-of-confusion/

I’m not even talking here, although I certainly could, about the boxes still needing to be unpacked in our basement and our attic, or all the stuff yearning to be put in its proper place in the rest of the house. No, I’m talking about the steady infusion of contrasting elements that we get just by being aware of what’s going on in our immediate vicinity as well as in the broader world. Sometimes it feels like things are coming at us in impossible pairs, or that we are listening to a record on the turntable that always has a flip side.

Take the two anniversaries we just commemorated this past week, for example. Far be it from me to tread on any hallowed ground here, but I’d like to venture a point about both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, if I may be so bold. The Gettysburg Address is astounding in both its power and brevity – no real contrast there.  Read it aIMG_1972 number of times, though, and this whole idea of life springing from death just knocks you out. He looked out over that battlefield which had become a massive graveyard, faced what was in some ways his tragedy, and called it “…a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live.” Our ideals of freedom, equality, justice rang out over that unimaginably bleak landscape. With Lincoln, there’s always much more mystery than there is confusion, but the clash of emotions here is almost too much to fathom.

The retrospective about Kennedy’s life and death that we got on our television screens through the whole past couple of weeks left many of us, I suspect, feeling confused. Was he in fact a truly great President or was he more of a harbinger of thrilling new possibilities, an almost mythical figure with tremendous gifts? How are we to add up the failures as well as the achievements? How much does it matter whether there was one killer acting alone or a conspiracy?  Why, as one commentator said, do “people keep looking for more meaning in that awful event?” We circle around it, trying to draw out new elements, not ever able to put it to rest.  In a way, to borrow from a hit movie from 20 years ago, we’re still Dazed and Confused.

A current celebrity who would never admit to being confused but does some awfully confusing things would be rapper Kanye West. If you haven’t already heard, a couple of weeks ago word broke that he was wearing clothes emblazoned with the Confederate flag on his “Yeesuz” tour. You can read about it here. Taking a symbol of racism and embracing it…how could someone with a hit song called “New Slaves” do such a thing? Here’s his explanation, in part:  “So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag.Now what you gonna do?” Reactions within the black community have been all over the place, with some people giving him credit for being a game-changer yet again and others saying he’s gone too far this time. To me, insofar as using the symbol for a different purpose entirely constitutes re-appropriation, it seems possibly OK; on the other hand, the move has such an in-your-face quality to it that it also seems haughty and out of line. I mean, does he seriously want to encourage white college kids around the country to put up this chilling thing in their dorm rooms?

Given this current climate of confusion, I really wasn’t surprised when my younger son told me about the final exam he’d just had in a history class. Half of them were assigned to argue “Why Napoleon Bonaparte was a Hero” and the other half took on “Why Napoleon Bonaparte was a Tyrant.” Even though I share a birthday with this particular megalomaniac, I hadn’t planned on cutting him any slack. Maybe it’s high time for a thorough re-assessment of the guy.

http://www.cbc.ca/undertheinfluence/season-1/2012/01/21/voices-of-influence/

http://www.cbc.ca/undertheinfluence/season-1/2012/01/21/voices-of-influence/

More likely, though, it’s time to head back down to the basement, where confusion has at least some kind of clarity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You all should leave here feeling confused,” said one of my son’s professors during their semester in South Africa.  Not what you would expect a representative of higher learning to say to students on a life-changing journey, but given what they had been absorbing at every turn about one side of an issue being just as compelling as another, they all understood what he meant.  Listen to an advocate for wildlife preservation and then listen to a farmer struggling to keep his cattle, and you might feel stymied: cheetahs must be protected, yes, but the needs of local people can’t be sacrificed to the cause of tourism and the almighty dollar.

 

Driving home from the airport, I actually felt relieved: maybe the fact that a steady dose of confusion was seeping into my daily life, through just about all pores, wasn’t so awful after all.  Maybe it was time to move past the lyrics of the 1970 Temptations song that had been spinning around in my head:  “Ball of confusion/ Oh yeah, that’s what the world is today.” Maybe confusion could even be downright enlightening.

 

I’m not even talking here, although I certainly could, about the boxes still needing to be unpacked in our basement and our attic, or all the stuff yearning to be put in its proper place in the rest of the house.  No, I’m talking about the steady infusion of contrasting elements that we get just by being aware of what’s going on in our immediate vicinity as well as in the broader world.  Sometimes it feels like things are coming at us in impossible pairs, or that we are listening to a record on the turntable that always has a flip side.

 

Take the two anniversaries we just commemorated this past week, for example.

Far be it from me to tread on any hallowed ground here, but I’d like to venture a point about both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, if I may be so bold.  The Gettysburg Address is astounding in both its power and brevity – no real contrast there.  Read it a number of times, though, and this whole idea of life springing from death just knocks you out.  He looked out over that battlefield which had become a massive graveyard, faced what was in some ways his tragedy, and called it “…a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live.”  Our ideals of freedom, equality, justice rang out over that unimaginably bleak landscape.  With Lincoln, there’s always much more mystery than there is confusion, but the clash of emotions here is almost too much to fathom.

 

The retrospective about Kennedy’s life and death that we got on our television screens through the whole past couple of weeks left many of us, I suspect, feeling confused.  Was he in fact a truly great President or was he more of a harbinger of thrilling new possibilities, an almost mythical figure with tremendous gifts?  How are we to add up the failures as well as the achievements? How much does it matter whether there was one killer acting alone or a conspiracy?  Why, as one commentator said, do “people keep looking for more meaning in that awful event?” We circle around it, trying to draw out new elements, not ever able to put it to rest.  In a way, to borrow from a hit movie from 20 years ago, we’re still Dazed and Confused.

 

A current celebrity who would never admit to being confused but does some awfully confusing things would be rapper Kanye West.  If you haven’t already heard, a couple of weeks ago word broke that he was wearing clothes emblazoned with the Confederate flag on his “Yeesuz” tour.  Taking a symbol of racism and embracing it…how could someone with a hit song called “New Slaves” do such a thing?  Here’s his explanation, in part:  “So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag.  Now what you gonna do?”  Reactions within the black community have been all over the place, with some people giving him credit for being a game-changer yet again and others saying he’s gone too far this time. To me, insofar as using the symbol for a different purpose entirely constitutes re-appropriation, it seems possibly OK; on the other hand, the move has such an in-your-face quality to it that it also seems haughty and out of line.  I mean, does he seriously want to encourage white college kids around the country to put up this chilling thing in their dorm rooms?

 

Given this current climate of confusion, I really wasn’t surprised when my younger son told me about the final exam he’d just had in a history class.  Half of them were assigned to argue “Why Napoleon Bonaparte was a Hero” and the other half took on “Why Napoleon Bonaparte was a Tyrant.”  Even though I share a birthday with this particular megalomaniac, I hadn’t planned on cutting him any slack.  Maybe it’s high time for a thorough re-assessment of the guy.

 

More likely, though, it’s time to head back down to the basement, where confusion has at least some kind of clarity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the Fixins

Many people know my husband as a bishop, dealing with matters of the spirit, but I also know him as a guy who can, God willing, fix stuff around the house.  Now obviously there’s a pretty big difference between what is sometimes known as “Soul Repair” –a divinity school in Texas has a whole center with that name– and the seemingly endless tasks that seem to amount to nothing but keep cropping up at home.  I like to think that the do-this-and-it’s-done nature of life (in part, anyway) on the domestic front, in some small way, offsets the fact that people out thereIMG_1946 rarely walk around, or into churches, with signs that say, “All Set.”   Much as I support broad concepts like Tikkun – a title of a magazine referring to the literal “Repair of the World” –I admit that there have been times this fall when “Repair of the Thing that Just Broke in the Next Room” seems worthy of some attention, too.

Years ago, our daughter made a Father’s Day card that listed a number of her dad’s attributes, from her point of view; it ended with “You come in handy.”  His parishioners probably never expressed their appreciation quite that way.  It was a little crass, but I didn’t exactly disagree.  Somewhere along the way, he gained some really practical knowledge – probably around the time I was being dreamy out in Nature or working in a bookstore.

He’s the kind of guy who dives right into those directions in fine print, the ones that make my eyes glaze over, and can assemble most anything or figure out why something has stopped working right.  He hasn’t enjoyed fiddling with cars all that much, but I still wasn’t surprised when, driving through rural South Carolina on the way to see my uncle a couple of years ago, I came upon this sign for a business.

IMG_0503

Even though my husband had not even put his hat in the ring for bishop yet, I had a hunch that this reality might be coming, and it seemed perfectly feasible to me that he might actually become a bishop who also had a body shop on the side.  He’s a versatile guy, really he is.

Only thing is, around our house at least, he has to fix things when he’s good and ready.  Oh, and when the schedule allows.  And he also has to try not to think about all the other more restorative activities, like painting or otherwise creating something, he could be doing.

October was a packed month for him, with just about not a single day off, and there were some household casualties: the constantly running upstairs toilet, for instance.  I was much more patient about this one than I’d been about the downstairs one the month before.  The fact is, in these moments I feel like I’m at his mercy: heck, I don’t even try to fix the thing, a fact that does not exactly make me beam with pride.  Anyway, after a number of days of the toilet doing its best gurgling brook imitation, when he’d call from the road to ask what I’d been doing that day, I might say something like, “You mean in between times when I’m taking the top of the tank to adjust the black thingy?”   Terrible, I know.

IMG_1944

Eventually the work skies cleared just enough for him to march upstairs with tools and face the music – my hero.  I knew enough not to try to get him to explain much of anything about it to me, just to be grateful.  Then, a few evenings later, he was flipping through channels and came upon an episode of “This Old House”:  you guessed it, the running toilet repair segment!  Of course he called me in to watch it too, and we had a splendid ten minutes together there, transfixed, in front of the TV.  It was kind of like a travel show about a place we’d just visited. The main characters are Richard Tretheway, who really loves what he does, and the woman who is fed up with her misbehaving toilet. There’s no husband in sight, although he does come up in the conversation. After they establish what the problem is, Tretheway asks her, “Have you done anything about it?”  She says, “My husband changed something, which didn’t do any good.”  Poor guy, he is so beside the point.

The most entertaining part of the segment, my own husband and I agreed, is how the woman stays completely engaged, matching the enthusiasm of the pro fixing her toilet.  They both seem to be having the most fabulous time in the bathroom.  He says at one point, “The spud gasket fits beautifully right here!” and she utters exclamations like, “Oh, great!” and “That’s wonderful, Richard!” at opportune times. By the end, it seems kind of too bad that they can’t just go on to make a completely harmonious life together, free of running toilets.

Meanwhile, in this house, I don’t think I’ll peer over his shoulder or gush every time my resident handyman tackles something needing fixing.  I’ll keep pressing for him to have a regular day off, too. But it’s a good time for me to become more self-reliant, especially since it doesn’t look like the larger Soul Repairing business out there will be slowing down anytime soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Back to 1918 and Finding More Than the Last Big Red Sox Win at Home

It was windy out there a couple of days ago, matching my sense of being caught up in the sweep of history during these late October days.  I’m in the here and now, absolutely, planning my day tomorrow like everybody else; but recent events have also had a way of casting me back, providing links with other times and even other continents.  It feels a bit like being on a trapeze, arriving at those little platforms with relief, only to push off again.  What I’m doing requires a whole lot less skill, I’ll admit.

At the end of that windy day, when he gave his opening address at the 211th Annual Convention for the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire, my husband offered up images of the past as well as glimpses of the future stretching ahead.  It was All Saint’s Day, first of all, so the dead were already swirling all around us.  Needless to say, though, there have been some pretty significant changes in our culture since 1802 — since 2002 even — and churches everywhere need to be supple enough to find new ways of thriving, in some cases radically re-inventing themselves.

A few evenings ago, in Fenway Park, a whole lot of memories were unleashed.  The World Series victory at home brought jubilation and, everyone agrees, a kind of release of tension from the Marathon bombing half a year ago.IMG_1929  shutterstock_80219995There was, of course, also the memory of the just plain dreadful 2012 Sox season, when some people actually turned away and tickets were actually available.  This triumph also brought back the 2004 and 2008 wins, not quite complete because they were clinched elsewhere.  The wonderful sign “Party Like It’s 1918” summoned up Prince’s 1982 hit about the year 1999, both of which are in the rear view mirror.  When we try to resurrect 1918, from the history books or maybe from our parents or grandparents, we imagine the enormity of World War I, the staggering number of soldiers who died in Europe, and then, oh yes, the shortened baseball playoffs featuring the storied Babe Ruth on the mound.

And here’s where my mind, instead of swinging back off the platform for that particular year, finds reason to linger there for a while.

IMG_1932

My own mother was born in 1918, in Canada, where there has always been more hockey than baseball.  She died eight years ago, at the age of 87, but she has a way of sticking with me.  This picture, taken a bunch of autumns back, shows her open and optimistic spirit. Her greatest pleasures included being active outside, feeling strongly connected to her community, reading widely, and listening intently to people’s stories when they came to visit.  Except for a life-changing trip to Asia to visit my brother in the Peace Corps when I was in high school, she stayed pretty close to home most of the time, but she led an absolutely full life and knew great contentment.

shutterstock_107072456

Nelson Mandela was also born in 1918, on the other side of the world.  He, of course, is still living at the age of 95, although out of the public eye.  The course of his astounding life is much with me these days because my son, who is1395300_694737167204012_941176110_n spending a semester in South Africa, got me started reading the engrossing autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.  It traces his whole involvement in the struggle against apartheid, step by step, with wonderful moments of pausing to reflect on key turning points, difficult decisions, times he felt terribly torn. And there were plenty of these. What he did, of course, was all-consuming work.  At the very end of the book, he pays tribute to the remarkable colleagues with whom he worked, including Oliver Tambo, calling them “men of such extraordinary courage, wisdom and generosity that their like may never be known again.  Perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character.” (p. 542)

And so it is that, beneath one of those “Party Like It’s 1918” signs, I imagine my mother and Nelson Mandela – let’s say in midlife — out there on the grass, dancing gracefully amidst all of those bearded guys jumping on one another.   Ridiculous, I know, but stranger things have happened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

shutterstock_80219995

Color Me Bored With Colorless Tasks

The colors have been beautiful these past weeks, and the many sunny days have really let IMG_1845them blaze. It’s only now that we’re seeing the beginning of the end of all that, giving us even more reason to be get outdoors whenever we can before November grey takes over.

IMG_1790Maybe it’s the weather’s fault, but more and more I’ve been seeing life as kind of a divided business: the colorful, rich, invigorating part versus the part that consists of all the minor stuff we’re supposed to get done, accompanied by our general lack of enthusiasm for doing any of it. Often I feel negligent for not carrying out enough of the latter with a positive spirit; but that’s generally followed by the haunting thought that it’s really the former kind of activity that gets short shrift. How to know? Is there some right formula to keep in mind as the sand rushes through the hourglass?

You may well have your household act together and have barely anything that needs paying or tending or fixing – I do know people like this, and they’re often very nice people, too, which is exasperating — but around here a very partial list, in no particular order and jumping around from inside tasks to outside ones, might look like this:

1)   Complete the fascinating transfer of cell phones from AT &T to Verizon

2)   Replace all the malfunctioning blinds on windows

3)   Prune the wisteria vine encroaching on the barn

4)   Transfer medical records, make overdue appointments

5)   Find someone to take away the chain link fence that husband took down

6)   Renew passports, with no particular trip in sight

7)   Extricate the extensive roots left in ground from bushes husband took down

8)   Find someone to fix the caning on the rocking chair that has sat idle too long

9)   Get a new dog license

10) Dig through boxes in basement to get important documents on desk

You’re probably so bored just from reading that, you might part company with me right here. I understand. A relative IMG_1907of mine, someone with plenty of vitality and imagination, recently said, upon the occasion of taking some furniture for minor repairs:  “If we’re going to spend our days doing thisIMG_1906 kind of thing, we might as well be dead.” Kind of morbid, but you’ve got to admit there’s a kernel of truth to it. Some days, don’t we just feel we’re mired in the mundane?

Needless to say, most people in the world are too occupied with just trying to survive to sit around wondering, Thoreau-like, whether or not they’re drawing out the essence of life and could benefit from shaving off some unappealing tasks. Still, everywhere there must be this perception of “When I do this I feel like I’m really living” as opposed to “When I do this I can barely stand it.”

Being a pastor’s (an election to bishop doesn’t really change that) wife, I like to find out what the Bible might offer on a particular subject when it comes up and stares me in the face during regular living. Being a pastor’s wife who did not grow up immersed in scripture, I also like to tap into some of my husband’s knowledge on such matters.  So, in this case, I asked him to point me towards verses about people doing basic chores. There might be a zillion of these, actually, but one rose to the top of his list:  Jesus visiting with Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Here, as you well may recall, Mary is the sister

who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying  But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.’  But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

Now you don’t have to be Ms. (or Mr.) Busy Bee all the time to see that this passage raises some thorny issues. If everyone put aside their pesky chores to sit down and listen to tales, there would be trouble. Somebody’s got to clean up the kitchen, after all. And how many of us women would describe ourselves as “distracted by many things”?  Sounds like a perpetual condition, more or less. Back to my question from the beginning, how can we tell whether we are choosing “the better part”– when we face the cacophony of stuff on our desk or when we ignore it for another day and head out to hear the honking geese over the fields in the day’s last light while picking apples?

IMG_1853

I don’t for the life of me know the answer, but I sure hope that in another month from now, when all of those 10 things I listed up above are still not done, I will have at least taken in some colors of the best kind before they fade.

IMG_1905

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking Compromise -- in the Capitol, and in the Home too

It’s uncanny sometimes how events happening in the big wide world can be mirror images, at once identical and turned around, of events happening by the hearth. This week, I’m trying to figure out whether we have anything to learn from the government shutdown or the government shutdown has anything to learn from us.

Washington D.C. is still in a “stalemate” – not really news at all, I guess.  Over in Egypt, they’re in one too, and that one is violent. I wouldn’t wish one of these on anyone, much less a whole country.  Taken originally from the game of chess, the word means “any situation in which a player cannot move; a deadlock.”   Now, though, instead of seeing two players hunched over a board with only their own egos at stake, we are seeing all of Congress holding the rest of us hostage, in a way.  Something has to shift, but who and when?

IMG_1847

My strange mind also takes this compound word from the huge public arena and jets it over to the much smaller domestic one.  It conjures up images of partners in matrimony who are locked in some kind of unsatisfactory boring life together. No spices left on the shelf, no hearts racing, not even any zest for making plans. Perish the thought, but these would be spouses who might wake up each morning, look over at each other, yawn and say, “Oh, you again?”

IMG_1852

Now don’t go rushing to any conclusions about this line of thinking: my husband and I are just getting re-adjusted to living together again and we’re doing pretty darn well, thank you.  Just last Sunday, in fact, we spent an entire day and evening together. This may not sound like much, but in our particular case, with years of one spouse spending most of most Sundays with a congregation somewhere and the other spouse tending to children and dog as well as doing schoolwork – it was definitely different.

Setting ourselves against the tableau of the politicians in Washington (I see them as frozen figures, hands in mid-air while trying to make a point), I like to look back on that recent Sunday as a day when compromise, leading to a general spirit of togetherness approaching real romance, triumphed over stalemate.

A general definition of compromise goes like this:  “A settlement of a dispute in which two or more sides agree to accept less than they originally wanted.”  Now it’s safe to say that a “dispute” can take many forms and be of different degrees. If events in your house go anything like they go in mine, disagreements are generally of the mild non-earthshaking sort, but they matter nonetheless.

Talking ahead of time about the free Sunday we were about to have, my husband said something like, “I’m planning to work on theIMG_1850 house.”  Now, make no mistake about it, there was plenty to do – both indoors and outdoors; there always is, whether you’re moving in or moving out or just in the middle of being in a house.  Besides all the yet unopened boxes in the basement, we also had various pieces of furniture from my family that were still in our garage, including two big oriental rugs, and we needed to figure out where they should go.  Besides, my husband is and always has been very good at getting stuff done; when it comes to sprucing up a place, in the words of an old high school cheer song, “he don’t mess around, HEY!”

The only counterweight on this plan, to me, (besides the fact that he used the word “I” instead of “We”) was the fact that it was likely to be glorious weather and we had talked previously about doing something else on our first free day together.  “What about finally taking the kayaks out; wasn’t that what we were hoping to do tomorrow?”  I ventured.  Not wanting to come off as a slovenly wife unconcerned about the condition of our residence, I nonetheless felt it was a matter of principle that we follow through on an idea that we had both enthusiastically supported before moving back in together:  leaving “stuff” behind once in a while and getting outside to do something active, really just for the sake of doing it.  So I dug in my heels.  We went back and forth for a while, tensely, neither one of us relishing the activity.

Fortunately, our dispute didn’t last very long, because we realized that, with a little attention to scheduling, we could do some of IMG_0463IMG_1849both:  not clean the whole house but focus on deciding, together, where the rugs would go; take the kayaks out to a nearby river and enjoy drifting past the quiet banks in a riot of fall colors.

Knowing that some part of my husband has missed being in church that morning, I tried not to press the point that Nature, on a sunny day in late September, offered a kind of spiritual refreshment, fulfilled something deep in the soul even.  We also didn’t talk about any debt ceilings out there.

That evening we could look back and see that we had in fact balanced our goals for the day pretty well.  Stalemate averted through negotiation, not capitulation.  Contrary to making me smug, however, the whole experience brought me closer to the turmoil in Washington, those figures frozen in mid-sentence.  Dig in your heels about anything deep enough, and you could be one of them.  If you have a spouse, best to turn to him or her and see where you need to make an adjustment.  If you have a whole country waiting, even more so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So Many Kinds of Breaking

A number of autumns ago, I had a college professor who would lean back in his chair and imagine how delightful it would be to teach a course called, “Great Books I’ve Never Read.”  Right here and now, I have the nerve to write about, or at least use as a jumping off point, one television show I’ve never seen — ”Breaking Bad.”

IMG_1819

Now if my husband and I could figure out the order of the channels and know what’s on when — we have a new cable company that’s taken over the innards of our TV – then maybe we actually would have watched the show that everybody’s talking about.  I’m happy to accept the general word that it’s dynamite (some critics say maybe the best television drama EVER) and just jump right to my main topic here:  the title of the thing and why I identify with it, strangely enough, at this particular transition time for me.

From what I understand about the substance of the show, it’s about a chemistry teacher who gets a diagnosis that starts him on a descent into evil, if we can agree that making meth is pretty bad.   Of course I’m way simplifying here, and remember I haven’t seen the show, but apparently the character – Walter White – does what he does ostensibly to take care of his family financially.  Or at least that’s the impression we get early on; I understand it was blown apart by what he acknowledged in the last episode.

The creator, Vince Gilligan, apparently was interested in making a protagonist who becomes an antagonist.  He must have known about television viewers like my father, someone who would come into the room where a show was in progress and ask, “Good guy or bad guy?”  Gilligan knew that TV watching becomes more interesting for all of us when we are forced to squirm about whom we’re rooting for, and why.  Tony Soprano, rest his soul, led the way into this territory, or at least brought many more of us there, transfixed by the either-way-ness of the drama.

So what about the choice of the word “breaking”?  The more I think about it, the more fascinating it becomes, just as a concept.   ItIMG_1820 has so many different meanings, partly because it’s all about change:  something new popping on the screen or crashing on the shore; something once intact, like a heart, absorbing hurt; an animal needing training or a human spirit crushed; a team just running down the court.  The change can be very good or equally bad or somewhere in the middle.  In the case of this wildly popular show, the one I’ve never watched, the implication is that the main character could have chosen to grab firm hold on the good and stay there, but he went barreling the other direction instead.   He paid, and we were glad he did.

While the name of the show doesn’t include any prepositions, here’s a look at how that part of speech can affect the breaking action:

  • Breaking up
  • Breaking down
  • Breaking away
  • Breaking through
  • Breaking out
  • Breaking in

Each of these, in turn, can have dual meanings:  “breaking out” can either be the dreaded fate of a teenager’s face or the phenomenon of a ballplayer getting out of a slump; “breaking down” might be the way to describe somebody who has a nervous collapse or it could be what scientists do with substances in their labs, advancing the frontiers of knowledge.

In my case, there’s a kind of double-ness to what I’m doing – or at least what I need to be doing — here in a new home.  And each of these terms themselves can go either way:  I’m both “breaking in” and “breaking away.”   The kind of “breaking in” that’sIMG_1816 underway for me is not the nasty activity of burglars but rather the kind that enables us to get comfortable in an unfamiliar place.  We probably think of it most often in terms of how our feet get adjusted to a new pair of shoes — gradually.  My husband’s Redwing boots, for example, are well-worn after several years and therefore more beloved to him.

Anyone who has ever moved knows that the initial period is one of getting acquainted, identifying possible new friends, finding out where things are, and learning the lay of the land.  Discovering where the trails are for running, meeting the new neighbors, joining a team – these activities are pleasant enough.  On the other hand, working my way through the bureaucracy of getting a teaching certificate in a neighboring state from the previous one, where I already went through something similar – now that will take some patience.

IMG_1817The flip side of the “breaking in” is also the “breaking away.”  This could describe what cyclists do when pulling away from a pack of riders or how people might succeed in wrenching themselves free of destructive relationships.  In my case, it will be the necessary letting go of key features from my previous daily life—especially the friends I’ll see infrequently now.  It’s bound to be a gradual process, tinged with sadness, but the more it can be balanced with the “breaking in” side of the equation, the reaching for new comfort part, the better.

At least I hope I won’t be lying on the floor with all the cameras on me when it’s over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

House of Bishops in the Heart of Country Music

I’m just back from Nashville — Country Music Capital of the World and also site of the Episcopal Church House of Bishops fall conference.   Now there’s an interesting adjacency for you, or at least it just was for me, as I tried to juggle my role as spouse to a bishop at the Airport Marriott, some distance away from the heart of town, with the strong pull I felt towards most everythingIMG_1773 related to the twang of guitars – both past and present.  The two things didn’t exactly cancel each other out, but the going back and forth was a little tricky.

It gets more interesting when you consider that the theme of the conference was “Transforming Loss into New Possibilities.”  I’m guessing that this title refers to what’s happening with main-line churches across the country – how they have to adjust to new set of realities in the culture.  You’d be hard pressed to identify a country singer who hasn’t also broached this same subject, just coming at it from the vantage point of an individual who’s been through the wringer.

On top of this, wouldn’t you know that Taylor Swift was performing in Nashville during the exact same weekend that we were there?  Not that I would have necessarily tried for tickets (my country music fan son not being with us) but then again, I might have.  Bishops are identified by the color purple; her hit song “Red” could have provided a nice color contrast, not to mention an infusion of other discussion topics — say, how it feels when fiery love crashes and burns.

IMG_1778

In truth, since the bishops were amongst themselves for this conference, they didn’t need to wear their usual shirts most of the time.  Since we had some time to talk in between meetings, however, my husband let me in on the origin of the word “amethyst”:  it comes from the Greek word “amethystos” and can be loosely translated as “not intoxicated.”  Which is, presumably, a good thing in a bishop.  This sentiment is reinforced in the section of the Bible that presents qualifications for becoming a leader in the church: “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, not given to drunkenness…” (1 Timothy 3)

IMG_1781

All of this might explain why it was that the bishops did not exactly make a beeline for Broadway – that most famous street — in Nashville.  Firmly adhering to the philosophy “When in Rome…” and thrilled with the experience I’d had a year before hearing bluegrass at the Ryman Auditorium however, I did succeed in convincing my husband to experience the wonders of that particular part of town where live music pours out of almost every establishment and, yes, beer flows freely.  He was wary at first, but gallantly agreed to go with me on the very first night we arrived, sensing that it was only fair.  After all, I’d come all this way to join him on his turf, so to speak.

There were bands performing through every doorway and hordes of people on the street on the mid-week night.  It took us a little while to settle on a crowded place where we scored a table; there was promise of a good fiddle player about to get on stage with an old-time Hank Williams type country band.  No glitz, just music.

Right after we sat down a guy coming in almost didn’t get past the bouncer; he’d already had a few, apparently and still worked his way to the table right next to us.  He was annoying, but the instruments on stage, the lead singer taking charge, were what mattered.  And watching the few couples who got up on the floor spontaneously and started holding each other, swaying and smiling, letting whatever cares they had drift away, was lovely.  We got up and joined them for a bit, trying to remember when was the last time we’d had a chance to dance.

It was country music right in front of us, and it was definitely good.

IMG_1769Earlier that day, we’d gone back in time with a visit to the new Johnny Cash Museum.  Now there was a guy who, by his very life story, crossed so many boundaries:  from a hardscrabble background he climbed to great heights as a musician; sank low in addiction; lost a wife; came back in rehab; wrote a book called Man In Black about all that; wrote another book called Man In White about the apostle Paul; got hugely rich; spent his own money with his second wife June Carter making a movie about the Holy Land; had a successful TV show; always had a special kinship with prisoners, championed the American flag.  A devout Christian who also knew what it was like to be down and out, he wrote a song about the loneliness we can sometimes feel on Sunday morning. Here it is:

Being a non-bishop, I didn’t need to stay for the whole conference, and I was ready to pull away from the self-contained world of the Airport Marriott when the time came.  Along with getting to know some other spouses better, heading downtown with my man, in regular clothes, to take in some culture together, was the best part.  “New Possibilities” – here we come.