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.
Driving back from early evening tennis a few towns over, I saw the sun hanging low over the rolling New Hampshire fields—still glorious, as if darkness weren’t right on its heels. Going to the pond would mean taking a significant detour from my route and then, after parking, hoofing it under the highway and over to the water. I briefly considered doing the sensible thing: heading home for a shower before joining my family for dinner. But that was really out of the question: on this perfect summer evening when the air was glimmering with possibility, only a swim would do.
This steamy week has been one steady reminder of how much ponds, rivers, lakes do to help replenish both our physical and spiritual selves. The salted water version I’ll leave to my friends on the beaches, but I suspect – and remember, having grown up on Long Island Sound– that it works pretty much the same way there too. And I celebrate the virtues of immersion in water even though the Christian rite of baptism (in truth, the sprinkling water kind, not the all-in kind) is something I’ve watched happen repeatedly through my years of marriage but never directly experienced.
Not that I would necessarily recall the feeling of water being sprayed over me when I was a baby. I can’t even remember when I learned for the first time that my four brothers and I were “un-christened”—no, that can’t be the right term; since we weren’t a churchgoing family, we simply had not participated in this, or really any other, rite of Christian initiation. My parents never explained why we were on a different track; I guess they didn’t feel the need to. We just went merrily along our way. Naturally, when I started keeping company with a man who was preparing to become ordained, the topic did come up for some scrutiny. Previously, I sometimes felt unusual for an array of other nothing-to-do-with-religion reasons. During those days of courtship, however, I began to see my family, and me within it, from a completely new kind of angle. Holy cow! We were outsiders, and not just because we spent a whole lot of time outside! At first, this really made me squirm. Ultimately, though, the unaccustomed viewing really wasn’t so bad and even became kind of illuminating. Some years later, I even got to start this blog. Nowadays, I can see a baptismal font (it was lying around not being used, I promise) right in own back garden, gleaming amidst the greenery.
Among the books on my bedside table is a slim volume called Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002- 2012. There’s some slightly racier reading there too, don’t worry. “Oh good,” I thought when I first spotted it, probably on my husband’s desk. “This is the kind of straight-to-the-point thing that is bound to help me out.” It’s under 100 pages and is divided up, conveniently, into four chapters based on what the title promises. Early in the “Baptism” chapter, there is this passage:
So, the beginning of Christian life is a new beginning of God’s creative work. And just as Jesus came up out of the water, receiving the Spirit and hearing the voice of the Father, so for the newly baptized Christian the voice of God says, ‘You are my son/daughter’, as that individual begins his or her new life in association with Jesus. (p.3)
Hmm. I guess for someone like me, who somehow bypassed this moment, there was no voice of God telling me I’m part of the family. Upon reflection, this was a tad troubling. Was I or was I not living my life “in association with Jesus”? How much did this matter? Since my parents are gone now, I’m not sure what they would have to say about it. And my dog Rocky, he was no help in this department either, flinging himself in bodies of water any chance he got.
But then I kept reading and found this passage just a little further on.
To be able to say, ‘I’m baptized’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected—you might even say contaminated—by the mess of humanity. This is very paradoxical. Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave us untouched or unsullied. (p.6)
The plot thickens here, doesn’t it? You get baptized to be refreshed, and you’re singled out and applauded during the ceremony; then you end up getting all hot and sweaty and dirty, jostling around with other subway riders, anyway! I tell you, sometimes the way these Christian leaders describe their faith, things seem to spin around in circles.
The part I think I really do understand, though, is how we need to “claim a new level of solidarity with other people.” Then again, I’m not so sure how much of it would necessarily be “new”— I know plenty of folks who have been quietly living like this all along. But the point about not staying away from parts of the human experience that are hard or painful or simply other than our own— that I get. After all, we’re all in a kind of continuous stream, rocks and all.
I thought I might be all by myself at the pond the other evening, even briefly considered the risks of swimming alone as the light faded. But I needn’t have worried: there were a couple of clusters of people still there, whooping it up even. Diving in felt every bit as good as I had expected, and I stretched out my strokes, pretending for a moment that I could just keep going and become part of the cool water, leaving any possibility of earthly contamination far behind. Soon, though, it was time to get back; after all, my family would be wondering about me. Wouldn’t they?
“Look at that…just miles and miles of emptiness!”
“But Mom, what we’re seeing is not empty at all…it’s full-up with Nature.”
This is, more or less, how a bit of conversation between my older son and me went as we were driving through the vastness of Wyoming last week. Conversations were few in that car, actually, as we all just tried to drink in the dry spaciousness of what we were seeing, mile after mile. Small talk seemed, well, particularly puny.
My son was right, of course; and then, ever generous, he reminded me that I had actually been the first among the four of us to point out that we were in a place where the Earth—rock formations of all shapes and colors and heights, creatures and plants everywhere to see— definitely ruled, where humanity in general came in a distant second. This way of seeing really wasn’t the same as seeing emptiness: it was instead a kind of power shifting, a recognition that the near-absence of one kind of thing (people and all of their accoutrements) allowed for the full grandeur of what had been there for ages to rise up.
There are panoramas, and then there are P A N O R A M A S.
Ever since I went, at age eight, to a ranch in Montana with my family, I’ve had a kind of visceral connection to the Rockies and their close neighbors, the Tetons.
While I have nothing against California or the majestic Pacific Coast, I find it weird how often Americans leap from one side of the country to the other, gazing down at these spectacular mountains out of their tiny plane windows only if they’re sufficiently awake. To me, the jagged peaks have always evoked a feeling something like the one in Beyonce’s song, “XO” or “Love Me Lights Out.” They make me dizzy, set my heart a-spinning, let me lose myself while gaining a connection to something definitely bigger. And I’ve felt compelled to bring my kids out there to tap into the raw beauty, too.
This may not be “religious” pilgrimage in the classic sense, and I wouldn’t say that any particular set of beliefs in a certain Creator – beyond a feeling of awe for Nature itself– is propelling me, but there are certain similarities.
This time, as it happened, I was also reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Living with a Wild God. Prolific as all get out, she’s mostly known for her bold writing on class issues, the status of women and social justice. Her account of what life is like for low-wage workers, Nickel and Dimed, became a blockbuster. In this latest book, a memoir, she’s up to something very different: trying to figure out what on earth was going on inside herself back when she was a girl, on her way to becoming a scientist, asking a lot of really deep questions about the nature of existence….and at the same time, following in her family tradition, staying apart from anything smacking of religion.
Not to spill all the beans for you, but the climax of the book involves a kind of mystical (she does use that word) experience she had as a teenager. In that instant, just walking along a road by herself, everything changed – KA-BOOM!
At some point in my predawn walk – not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time—the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it….Everywhere, “inside” and out, the only condition was overflow. “Ecstasy” would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence. (Twelve Books/Hachette; 2014, p. 116)
Strong stuff from a self-proclaimed atheist, that’s for sure. Through the decades that followed, she grappled with this cataclysmic experience and is still trying to figure out what to make of the “Other”—that’s what she calls it—that came out and engulfed her then.
I’m rusty on my Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I’m pretty sure what she’s trying to describe here isn’t that far off from his concept of “The Oversoul” – the universal spirit that Emerson saw running through all things, all of us.
Frankly, I’m not sure I get it, completely. In Wyoming, I almost saw a “blazing everywhere” when we were in Yellowstone, gazing at endless acres of trees charred by the Great Fire of 1988. But in that case, I was conjuring up what had in fact been an enormous conflagration, probably started by lightening. Or when we walked out to Grand Prismatic Spring, near Old Faithful, and saw the mind-blowing colors in the pool there, brought about by ancient microbes. This place is strange indeed, but it’s also undeniably real, created by a combination of natural forces that have nothing to do with our particular species.
For me, anyway, a return trip out West brought not one electrifying experience—ZAP!– but a whole collection of calmer moments when I felt woven into the huge tapestry of whatever this mysterious life is all about. And one thing I can say for sure: empty, it’s not.
Each time I dive in again here, I remind myself that my theme is contrasts…things that are next to each other but strikingly different. Life is a lot about merging, but those lines of demarcation are everywhere, too.
Take, for example, the fact that we try to appreciate the little treasures that glimmer through our daily lives while not shrinking from the full force of tragedies outside of our own households. Sometimes, of course, it’s the opposite: our own lives may be crumbling all around us with loss and pain, yet we manage to recognize that for others, the sun still shines.
With news of another mass shooting by another disturbed young man wielding a weapon pounding on all of our souls, it is hard to know what to do, how to act, where to turn. The regular, tranquil moments can seem inconsequential in the face of such unfathomable horrors.
Since I find myself in a precious patch of days at home in the company of my teenage son, however, I am thinking about what it means, for boys in particular, to grow up: What do they need to thrive? What are the factors that, in some cases, can set them dangerously off course? Their job is to claim places in the world, feel recognized, and still fulfill their responsibilities to others. It’s serious business all right. It is for us too—we watch our sons grow tall, push off from us and sometimes become mysterious in their own might.
Maybe that’s why the hilarious moments are so welcome.
While we were eating dinner the other night on the screened porch, our 16 year old Henry (he’s OK with this telling) decided to pose some questions about those years before his father and I got married. He wanted to know what kind of jobs we had, what the dating scene was like, how we navigated our late twenties and early thirties before being thunderstruck by love. His father being on the other side of the country at Episcopal Convention –combing through resolutions down in a basement, apparently — I was on my own, and so I tried to answer with my usual decorum.
When I mentioned that I’d spent some time working for a “temp agency” in Boston, his face suddenly lit up and he exclaimed, “A tempeh agency?!” Having recently adopted a vegan way of life and now learning to cook many flavorful dishes with this wonderful if drab looking stuff, he was thrilled to hear that his mother had actually been employed at a place dedicated to the production of it. Attaway, Ma!
Little did he know, of course, that my time with the temp-not-tempeh agency was far from the wondrous era he imagined. While I did in fact meet a whole lot of characters in offices around the city, my self-esteem plummeted as people barely saw the need to learn my name or anything else about me. I might as well have worn a sign that said, “I’m In Between Things, so I Don’t Really Count.”
What definitely does count, during this stretch of summer, is the time I’m getting to be with my son. He’s balancing working at an organic farm with taking Drivers Ed; while the classes are pretty deadly boring, and the teacher rambles on with his acronyms about all the things you have to worry about behind the wheel, Henry can stand it because he spends most of his daylight hours outside in the fields, surrounded by green things growing everywhere. And then in the evenings, he runs.
Since the prospect of getting his license is hovering out there in the near future, I still accompany him in the car, doing the daily circuit from home to farm to class and around again. And then there are the screened porch dinners, too. Gathered up together, these pieces qualify, especially as he is my third child, as a glimmering treasure.
The drumbeat of news from the outside, though, rams home the point that far too many young men are lost, unmotivated, full of hate, or all these combined. In these cases, “growing up” is really not what’s going on.
I came upon this book recently; it’s not about how mass murderers are made so much as it’s about the factors that, according to the author Dr. Leonard Sax, lead boys astray, cause them to squander their abilities. They’re doing a dangerous kind of drifting, he argues, and the whole society suffers as a result. Video games, prescription drugs, devaluation of masculinity, teaching methods that favor girls, and environmental factors—these are all contributing to the problem, and we’d better take notice.
This rings true to an extent, based on what I’ve seen. And yet, as the timeless Huckleberry Finn reminds us, drifting done right — in the pursuit of true freedom–can also be glorious.
Drawing by Edward W. Kemble, original illustrator from the first edition of
ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain; Children’s Classics, New York, 1992
Here’s what Huck says at the end of Chapter 18:
I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn’t no home like at raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.
Amen to that. For my own boy, and so many others coming into their own strength, having plenty of drive is a good and necessary thing of course. Once in a while, though—not when they’re actually behind the wheel! – some Huck-like drifting might just keep them from getting “all cramped up and smothery.”
Let’s all do what we can to celebrate our boys…to care for them, to support them, to let them know that they can make a positive difference and enjoy themselves, too. Oh man, do we ever need them to stay whole — now, and later on too.
Did you hear about the recent U.S. Religious Landscape Study? The people at the Pew Research Center have been busy bees, publishing the results of their new survey just as—around our homes— the flowers are blooming, the vegetable plants are taking hold, and of course all the beds need tending. I suppose there are literal little domestic landscapes, and then there are Large Landscapes in the Abstract.
In this space, I try not to succumb to the power of metaphors all the time. But really, it can be hard when a topic like this presents itself, especially because I just participated in a survey– having to do with botany and not theology–right around the perimeter of our yard.
First, let’s consider what Pew (fun to imagine a family with that name claiming their regular seats on Sunday) has to say about what is happening across the great land of ours when it comes to religious life. I must confess, since I love panoramas of any kind, I’m also partial to well-drawn landscapes; there’s the same sense of vastness, of plentitude, even if they’re often not quite as sweeping.
This isn’t really news to those of us who know what’s going on in this particular field, or who are married to people who know what’s going on. Numbers and graphs don’t tell an entire story, but they tell some part of the story.
You can read a summary of the long report here. I’ll just give you a little slice. They took an impressive sample of people from all over the country— 35,000 Americans—and found that
….the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated—describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.
Clearly, the view has changed significantly. The familiar buildings with steeples still dot the landscape all over the country, yes, but it’s not business as usual anymore in houses of worship. There was a time when churches used to rely on the regular stream of people coming in; now they need to head out, encountering more of the “nothing in particular” folks. In education circles nowadays, teachers are learning about the “flipped classroom.” From what I can tell, there’s some flipping going on in the world of mainline Christian denominations, too. It’s a little bit like things are under construction.
Far be it from me to delve into this territory here— I need to get to the plants in my yard, where I’m on somewhat firmer ground. In his new blog on the NH Episcopal website called “Tending the Vine” my husband writes regularly about how the Episcopal Church, as he sees it, is going through this time — rooted in ancient traditions and yet also actively re-creating itself so as to nourish Life over Death.
And then, of course, there’s also the matter of connection, of Community. Here is, in part, how he describes the reason for choosing the image of the vine to represent the church as a whole:
As parts of the vine we are, to borrow the image of the 12th century mystic and abbess St. Hildegaard von Bingen, ever-greening, and growing to the extent that we see ourselves abiding, hanging in there, remaining in the almost vascular presence of God.
This sounds good, and no doubt is good.
Arriving finally to our own yard, however, I must say that the vines around here definitely do plenty of “abiding,” but sometimes they are really interfering with the plants they’re abiding in. They poke themselves up and out of everything, honestly.
I guess it depends what kinds of vines we’re talking about. In our case, the wisteria really is better off staying around the shed and not gallivanting all over the juniper bushes (which in fact themselves need plenty of work). If it ever decides to produce grapes, or any other fruit for that matter, then maybe we’ll re-consider.
While the Religious Landscape Study indicates, let’s face it, challenges on a pretty broad scale for churches everywhere, generally the Around-Your-Home Landscape Study is just a tad bit easier to absorb.
In fact, for me it was downright exhilarating a couple of weeks ago to walk all around our home with someone who is pretty expert in the ways and needs of plants. I knew there was a lot to do, and her visit sure did confirm that, but it was also wonderful just to pay close attention to everything: to take stock of what is clearly alive, what’s dead, what’s growing, what could soon be growing. Sometimes life and death are right in the same tree:
Here’s a very partial list of things for me to do now: choose some hollyhocks to go with the perfect lupine in the new perennial bed; get rid of the mugwort that insists on creating an unwanted carpet; rake out the evergreen needles that are making the soil too acidic around the hostas, simply appreciate the glorious Japanese Maple by the front door every single day. Oh, and then of course there’s the pruning of the larger canopy trees.
I’m not kidding myself that all of this will get done anytime soon, but at least I have a game plan. Around our place, studying the landscape, and trying to improve it, isn’t much about numbers or graphs, either. For the most part, I think the plants will respond to the right tending. Well, maybe they will. In any case, I –the gardener– will definitely need to do some serious abiding of my own…outside.
It’s funny sometimes, isn’t it, how a task that might at first seem like just another chore to complete on a long list of others becomes more than that, takes on a certain depth and fullness, even gives new life?
Take wood-stacking, for instance.
Our neighbors down the road had what looked to be a wood-stacking party yesterday. A bunch of cars pulled in, and lots of people wearing gloves were moving about purposefully as I drove by in the morning, with a pile of wood the focal point. When I passed by again a few hot hours later, the activity was a little more desultory— I spotted some casual swinging going on in the backyard, and people scattered around the place, just chatting. By then, apparently, enough work had gotten done for them to kick back a bit.
I was especially interested in this scene because it was both similar and different to one happening on my driveway a few days before. Finally, on Memorial Day to be exact, my husband and I found that we were both free and could turn our attention to the wood that had been delivered a number of weeks before. It was just us—no kids were home yet, and we hadn’t thought to invite anyone over—but we got the job done. Pretty darn well, too, I might add.
Putting a lid on my pride, I suggest that you look at this and give yourselves a little credit for any minor or major feats you have recently completed around your homes. Pause.
We worked mostly in silence (I’ve learned there are benefits to this) and just kept at it, with my husband using the tractor‘s front loader to move and drop the chunks right by the growing pile. Such a satisfying sound that is, so definite, when the pieces fall, each one announcing its presence. My mind drifted to friends of ours, from our old neighborhood, who wisely, like our new neighbors, had an annual party for this occasion. I loved how they made use of their whole property; people roamed around, finding stuff to do, visiting with one another.
And then I went back further, remembering how often I saw my father sawing, carrying and otherwise working with wood in one way or another. We had split rail fences, and they were beautiful but sure took a lot of maintenance. “Pony’s out again,” he’d say, before heading out to find the gap.
This sweet picture, of Dad and my eldest brother, was taken well before I was born, but it has sifted into my memory, too. My father had been gone in the Pacific, in the Navy, during the first year of my brother’s life. Looks like here they were doing some re-bonding, with Mike trying to get the hang of the technique, putting his foot up in the same way even.
Memories of wood, in the life of my family, are always close to memories of hay. Later, when a few more boys came on the scene, plus lots of cousins and friends, there were abundant young workers to help get the fragrant, scratchy stuff into the barn. My job, when I was old enough to do anything useful, was generally to stay in the wagon, stomping it down. Here’s another picture taken before my arrival, with Dad looking up at members of his crew. It’s filmy, almost as if from a dream.
So when I’m stacking wood with my husband in the modern age, quietly except for the steady “clunk, clunk” sounds, I’m also re-discovering the gifts of my particular childhood and making contact with the past, in an organic way. But that’s not all.
Once the woodpile is finished, we rest for a while. Then, soon enough, it’s time to take stock of the array of other outdoor projects that need doing. One among them, down the field a ways, will be trying to bring a certain cluster of birch trees back more or less upright. The constant snow and ice of this past winter sure did a good job of bending them over, and they look kind of like they’re bowing over to confess their sins in church; or just leaning in to hear some really good story, perhaps. Robert Frost knew all about these birches.
Apparently, these graceful creatures with long hair need some assistance righting themselves. One day this summer, after choosing which other trees nearby can serve as supports, we’ll plan to go down there with a good long ladder, some rope pulled through pieces of hose, and the willingness to see the job through. I think we’ll also need a couple more helpers, probably ones who are related to us. Then it can be something they might remember, years hence, when they find themselves tending to newer trees.
Just when you think, after about 25 years in the marriage pond, you might be getting the hang of it, you realize there might be a whole other way of swimming than the one you learned—the one you’re still learning, actually.
That’s kind of how it feels when you have a burgeoning anthropologist in the family who is studying how polygamy has worked, over generations, in peaceful communities on a distant continent.
In this country, we’ve been widening our definitions of marriage recently, but the practice of having multiple spouses and raising children in common, well, that’s still not exactly embraced here.
In fact, just as our daughter was packing to resume her studies in Cameroon, there was a TV special, “20/20” through ABC News, about a determined woman in Utah who, having herself escaped the clutches of the “Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints,” was rescuing—the term they used was “extracting”– her children from an enclave of this outlawed branch of Mormonism. Clearly, because of the level of overall weirdness not to mention dangers involved, she was in the right and they were in the wrong.
The plot thickens, however, when you listen to what some scholars are saying about the practice of polygamy, more broadly. Janet Bennion, a professor at Lyndon State College and a Mormon herself, has just written a book called Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism. Bennion argues that it’s healthy for the practice of plural marriages to come more out into the open, so people can see it for what it is—certainly not all good, and carrying with it inherent risks, but not all bad either. She presents evidence that some women actually benefit from a greater degree of economic security and more social bonds. She says, “this is a real marriage form. Some of it is poor-functioning; some of it is well-functioning.”
Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t become an advocate for what is, let’s face it, a really different way of life. While it’s true that one of my friends, who shall go nameless, did say that she’d be glad to share her husband because it might give her a new dose of freedom.…I’m definitely not in that camp.
But I am saying that just by imagining dramatically different ways of living, we can expand our panoramas.
I’ll admit it—the little that I’ve known about Mormonism has always made it seem about as far away from my own experience and comfort level as it could be. My brother and his wife lived in Northern Utah for a number of years, and we heard many tales of what it was like for them to be on the outside, looking in — always aware of large families disappearing into huge temples. But polygamy? Just about gone.
And now, with the Episcopal Church about to have its big Convention in Salt Lake City, I’m wondering what this mix of religions will bring. I mean, it’s not as if all those delegates and bishops and clergy won’t be cognizant of the enormous, soaring temple right downtown. Reliable sources tell me there’s strong interest on both sides for mutual understanding.
In fact, although I won’t attend the Convention, I have already been having a kind of mix-it-up with the Mormons, albeit through fiction. In a way, I feel as if I’m in one of those windowless hotel rooms where you get to meet other clergy spouses.
A new book has come out, and it’s called The Bishop’s Wife. “What’s this?” I thought, when I first heard about it on the radio. “Somebody’s beaten me to the punch?!” As if it weren’t enough that there are already TWO movies with the same name! Frankly, it’s getting pretty crowded out here in Bishop Wife Land. But wait—turns out this one is a murder mystery. “Phew,” I thought, “My story’s just a bit different. No murders, just plenty of sports.”
The cover really gives a nice, bright view of religion, doesn’t it? Pushing aside, for the time being, Jane Hawking’s engrossing memoir about her life with her brilliant but physically handicapped husband –Travelling to Infinity– I’m now in about the third chapter of this novel, written by Mette Ivie Harrison. She is herself a Mormon and, like her protagonist, is a woman with five children. There’s no sign of polygamy here (only slight mention of how it can still give the mainstream, still vibrant religion a bad rap, kind of like an old embarrassing relative who’s been put in his place) just devout nuclear families living in a tight-knit community. And the bishop actually earns his living from another job— he’s an accountant. Now that’s different all right.
Ms. Harrison is clearly no slouch either: she got a PhD as well as had all those kids before writing the book. It took a whole lot of nerve to portray, as she does, the darker side of her own faith community, specifically how domestic abuse can often go unrecognized. She’s interested here in what can go awry, within the framework of a highly structured religion, in people’s private lives, especially when men are still the ones in key dominant positions. The main character, our heroine the bishop’s wife, is trying to “out” the truth. But Harrison doesn’t want to bring the whole faith crashing down, either. In fact, she hopes to leave the reader with a sense of how powerful many Mormon women actually are even though they may seem, at first glance, to limit themselves by being so feminine.
Honestly, it’s not easy to know how to take all of this in and make any real sense out of it. I think I’ll do the following: 1) Learn as much as I can about other ways of life, other cultures and other religions, strange as they may sometimes seem, without judging them and 2) Keep trying to stay afloat, no—thrive even, in my own particular pond. At least that’s what I think the spring peepers are trying to tell me…and what a racket they are making on these evenings!
My husband and I may have become, strangely enough, mostly empty-nesters; but darned if children don’t keep popping up all over the place. And sometimes they even come with birds.
I happened upon this sweet sculpture in the Boston Public Garden the other day. Maybe you’ve been charmed by the piece, too. Called “Boy and Bird Fountain,”(even though there wasn’t any water flowing) it’s near the Arlington Street side.
Since I was in town to attend a conference with accomplished as well as would-be authors called “The Muse and the Marketplace,” I was in a writer-ly frame of mind, and might’ve thought that this was a kind of depiction of Ann Lamotte’s book about needing to be patient through the composing process, called Bird by Bird. Maybe, but more likely it was reminding me that each child is an individual, needing sustenance and care and a variety of ways to express innate curiosity. Nature, of course, always provides a good start.
The thing is, though, we keep getting clear messages about how vast the differences are between kids growing up all around us, everywhere. Where and how they begin, what happens in their households and neighborhoods day after day— these things, not surprisingly, determine so very much about how their lives will unfold. And they separate us, too. Robert Putnam’s new book— I’m sure you’ve heard about it by now – is all about this growing divide among the “have” and the “have not” kids. As a society, it’s as if we’ve almost come to accept it as normal. But when you stop and think that a segment of kids, by the accident of their birth, are receiving a constant cascade of goods and services, which is only becoming more and more voluminous, and another whole segment, also by the accident of their birth, are not—well, then, it just seems really troubling.
Exactly where kids live, it turns out, makes an enormous difference that digs even deeper than we might have expected. In the aftermath of the Baltimore crisis, yesterday’s New York Times featured a front page story called “Change of Address Offers a Pathway Out of Poverty.” Apparently, the whole concept of “upward mobility” almost requires actual mobility: if people can move to certain “better” neighborhoods, their chances of success improve.
The findings suggest that geography does not merely separate rich from poor but also plays a large role in determining which poor children achieve the so-called American dream.
This is not surprising, really; but it sure is disturbing, considering how many families are stuck in places where, due to a combination of factors, good opportunities don’t exactly rush up to present themselves as people are walking down the street.
Tomorrow evening, I’m attending a dinner with other mentors from the “Circle Program” here in New Hampshire. The governor, Maggie Hassan, will be the guest speaker. I’m proud to be part of this organization, because it’s trying to make at least a dent in the situation: many girls (and of course boys, too) are growing up in households, in neighborhoods, which simply can’t provide a whole lot else besides basic survival. These girls need reinforcements from outside, chances to learn some new things and build their skills and confidence.
And, not surprisingly, we mentors win big also. I remember, on a cold and windy March day, racking my brain for ideas about where to bring “my girl” for something fun to do. I didn’t want to drive far, so eventually I chose a local art studio where we (her brother came too, as he usually does) could do simple projects for a couple of hours. Did we ever have fun when we arrived at a simple brick building across town, a former school, to play with colors! We went wild. There was excitement, too, upon departure: the wind tried to blow away most of our masterpieces as soon as we walked out the door. But the kids went running after them, laughing so hard.
I sure felt lucky on that day and, really, on every day that we get to do stuff together.
Next week, I’ll go to a program called “New Hampshire’s Kids, the American Dream, and the Growing Opportunity Gap.” I don’t expect there will be any answers provided there, but at least we’ll get to talk about some of the realities of ongoing divisions, even in this mostly rural state. Furthermore, I know that my husband, in his role as Episcopal bishop, is also working hard to illuminate and to address these issues. It sure is nice sometimes when, even without my accompanying him to church, we have a kind of synchronizing swimming going on.
There’s no denying it: the transition from having your offspring running up and down stairs and sitting at table to hearing about their daily lives, and sometimes adventures, on the phone is just plain weird. Especially, in my case, when I’m also adjusting to being in a new town. Thank goodness there are plenty of other kids around…and most of them aren’t in fountains, either.
Over the course of the past Holy Week, my husband was preparing for services culminating with Easter today — the pinnacle of the Christian calendar.
Meanwhile, I was, for the first time, teaching a unit on ancient India to high school juniors. In my mind’s eye, I saw temples with elaborate carvings and women in colorful saris as I made the daily drive up and down a fairly bland stretch of highway.
It made for a kind of interesting mash-up around here.
While the unit didn’t go into any depth on Hinduism and concentrated instead on the succession of rulers during the Mughal Empire, I did give the students a kind of condensed version of The Ramayana – the famous Indian epic dating back to 300 B.C.
And they liked it! Fact is, the story has about everything you need for a good read: a hero (Rama) who is understood to be the embodiment, or avatar, of the god Vishnu, separated from his rightful kingdom and exiled to the woods; a beautiful wife who shows what chastity is all about (Sita) who is abducted by the evil and powerful ruler on Sri Lanka (Ravana); and even a monkey king (Hanuman) who rallies his troops to help the hero win her back and then return to claim his power. If you’ve ever wanted to know what dharma is all about, well, just read this book. You’ll carry yourself taller afterwards, I promise.
There are, not surprisingly, plenty of parallels with stories from the Bible. Some scholars have even argued that Jesus, in demonstrating such nobility of character and triumphing over darkness, can be seen as yet another form of Vishnu, or a related Hindu god – Krishna. Naturally, though, there are plenty of differences, too. For one, in the Christian tradition, Jesus is recognized as the one and only divine incarnation of a one and only God. His power comes from a kind of self-emptying process; he gives himself so that the rest of the world may live.
While Christianity is pretty clearly a “monotheistic” religion, Hinduism (with approximately 950 million followers in the world today) is considered either “polytheistic” or “pantheistic”—in that there is, in a way, one God called Brahma who rolls through all things and all people.
It depends on how you look at it.
Outside on the trails, the ice and snow are finally beginning to give way to rapidly running water— what a wonderful sound it makes, as if proclaiming newfound freedom — and of course to mud. When you look out on almost any expanse of land now, you’ll see a messy mix of everything, with too many earth tones to be called a “mosaic” really, but still a conglomeration of different elements, all in flux. It’s a kind of breaking up, with spring finally taking over from winter, presided over by the noisy red-winged blackbirds, who offer flashes of welcome bright red and yellow color on their wings.
Yes, in a way it looks exactly like “resurrection.” I’d have to say that I definitely see the virtue of “ahimsa” out there too. Either way, especially in the face of a relentless drumbeat of horrors in the world, we’d better pay attention to what the earth is telling us about balance, about harmony.
Not long after I started this blog three and a half years ago, some people questioned the title. They said, “Why identify yourself as a ‘pastor’s wife’ when you’re obviously more than that? It’s so limiting.” This is true to an extent. In a way, I guess, I was poking some fun—right from the beginning—at the label. Show me a stereotype, almost any kind, and I’ll try hard to show the exception. In this case, I didn’t have to try too hard.
The fact that there was such a thing as a “regular” pastor’s wife seemed odd. I mean, honestly, us women—just like men—come in an infinite variety, no matter who are spouses are. On the other hand, though, I have always been perfectly content to be merged with a clergyman (at least the particular one involved), and very proud of the work that he does. What’s not to like about helping people, offering them beautiful services with thought-provoking sermons, being there both in their times of need and of great joy? It’s meaningful work, it’s his calling, and it supports our family. No small thing, that last one. I have also been grateful for the world of new experience our marriage has opened up to me. I keep learning, while I always strive, stubbornly perhaps, to keep my own fundamental self–the one formed in childhood–intact.
And so it was with great interest that I read an email that came to me, via the blog, a few weeks ago. Here’s how it began:
I’m writing on behalf of Gloria Furman and Crossway to offer you a complimentary electronic advance reader copy of her upcoming book, The Pastor’s Wife….
During the month of March, Crossway will also be hosting Pastor’s Wife Appreciation Month, a 31-day online campaign to encourage the wives of men in ministry….Note: Here’s the link to that site.
We would be honored if you would read The Pastor’s Wife and consider reviewing it on your blog….
Here was an interesting development, confirming what I’ve always known: I’m one pastor’s wife swimming in a sea of them out there in the blogosphere. And whoever wrote to me must have cast a net over the waves and caught a whole bunch of us. In a way it’s kind of embarrassing: why do we think we have anything more compelling to say than, say, a truck driver’s wife or an accountant’s wife? Blah, blah, blah…
But then, how could I not feel a little, well, distinguished by the request? It’s a bit like how I felt joining my tennis or hockey teams, or the group of mentors working with middle school girls, or the writing group that meets once a month: a sense of belonging can wrap any of us in comfort, like a cozy blanket. They think that I’m legitimately one of them and that my promotion of the book might actually carry some weight? Ok, then!
Once I started reading Gloria Furman’s text, however, I realized that the good people at Crossway—an evangelical Christian organization– probably hadn’t actually read any of my blog. Otherwise they might’ve thought twice about asking for a plug from me. Truth be told, if pastors’ wives make up some kind of a continent, I sometimes feel that I’m on my own little island. In my most cheerful moments, though, I imagine there are a whole bunch of us, and we’re more like an archipelago.
The full title of this book is The Pastor’s Wife: Strengthened by Grace for a Life of Love. It’s intended to provide support to women (yes, no mention of men now becoming clergy spouses) who, in the line of duty by their husbands’ sides in church work, often feel overwhelmed by the weight of the expectations put upon them. Members of congregations, according to her account, chide us for not wearing nice jewelry, expect us to have well-behaved children, to be constant nurturers with a never-ending spring of good will, even to see that the broken air-conditioner at church gets fixed. I kid you not. This kind of treatment, generated with all good intentions of course, can try the patience of even the most faithful among us.
I thank my lucky stars that, unless I’ve missed an undercurrent somewhere, I haven’t gotten this particular vibe from parishioners. For the pastors’ wives (mostly in other denominations, and mostly in the Midwest and the South) who are deeply involved in church life, however, this may well be a fact of life. In any case, she says that when these expectations get to be too much, we need to — over and over again—remind ourselves that God is there for us, that we find our identity in Christ. And then we will come to a kind of oasis, and all will be well. She says:
I’ll just put my cards on the table—I think wives of ministers need encouragement and refreshment in the Lord, and we find that hope and help in the gospel. (p.20)
It’s not hard to see how Ms. Furman herself would feel overwhelmed: she’s living in the Middle East, far away from any relatives, where her husband is involved in “church planting”; she has four young children; and her husband, besides being full up with his parishioners, suffers from a chronic condition causing him pain and so probably he is limited in what he can do around the house. That adds up to one tough situation for any woman, who might want to collapse occasionally on the couch while kids are napping rather than muster up more energy to join her mate in his chosen work. I admire her gumption and her stamina as well as her willingness to serve others.
No “but” will follow that last sentence. I only want to point out that, right from her Preface, I could tell that she and I are cut from different cloth. She says:
My husband and I were married three weeks after he started seminary, and we have been in full-time ministry together ever since.
Wow. This was an enormous commitment she made. Is she, I wonder, also getting paid for her work? Perhaps that seems crass of me to ask. I married my husband about when he was mid-stream in seminary, and it never occurred to me that I would alter my career path (however foggy it has sometimes seemed) to take on the full-time role of “spouse of…” He didn’t ask me to do this, and thank goodness. We know many couples who work together happily, but they’ve often had the same education and training and each individual earns his or her own salary, or at least they’ve decided to go into business together – something wholesome, like raising alpacas for instance– and divide up the chores.
This, it seems to me, could be just fine and dandy. It really depends on the circumstances, and of course on the individuals involved.
About in the middle of the book, Ms. Furman goes beyond saying that she and her husband are equal partners, indicating how she thinks the hierarchy should go in a Christian household:
A wife’s submission to Jesus in submitting to her husband is a victory banner she waves as Jesus advances his kingdom. The scorn of modernity is no match for the pleasure of God as we submit to husbands as they lead us, wash us with the Word, and daily die to themselves for us. (p. 86)
Here, I must confess, I’m having real trouble. Could someone explain to me how submitting to a husband is just like waving a victory banner? Whatever’s going on in her house sure is different than what happens in mine. I’m all for serving my hard-working pastor a nice warm supper when he comes home, and sharing words together—that’s good, but at least until I get a whole lot more feeble, he doesn’t need to lead or wash me, thank you very much.
The other night I watched a good segment on Sixty Minutes about how women are faring as they try to make it through basic training in the Marines. Talk about hard. You couldn’t really imagine a more challenging ordeal— physically, mentally, in every which way. Did you think that women couldn’t do pull-ups? Well, turns out we can. Carrying those heavy packs over miles of 100 plus degree heat, though, and climbing up ropes when they’re weighed down with stuff—these things have often eliminated women from getting through. I was inspired by what one recruit, with hair pulled back tight, said when the interviewer asked how she felt about her chances of success, when she knew that most women thus far had fallen short. Without hesitating, she said something like, “Well, that doesn’t really affect me, because I’m not them, and they’re not me. I’m going to just try to be the best Melissa I can be.”
Don’t you just love this? She wasn’t putting anyone down, only trying to focus on her own particular road ahead, with optimism. You go get ‘em, Melissa.
OK—being a pastor’s wife is almost nothing like trying to join the Marines. For one thing, I know there are a whole lot of women who have succeeded in “the role” insofar as they have managed to balance a variety of factors—some external, some internal– and found happiness doing so. All I really know for sure is that there can’t be any kind of Rule Book that makes sense for all of us, because we spouses come with a rainbow of different beliefs, personalities, stages of life, and, now, genders too. And so do our spouses, matter of fact.
For now, I’m still content with the name of my blog. It’s “The Panorama” (how I see things spread out all around, from my perch) but it’s also “A Pastor’s Wife”(I am only one among multitudes.) I don’t really know who “The Pastor’s Wife” is, but I’d be glad to sit down and have a nice cup of tea with her. We’d sure have a lot to talk about.
On any given day, would you describe yourself as more “purposing” or “repurposing”? Is one superior to the other, or do they roll about the same? Is there a kind of inevitability to shifting purposes, or do we have some say in the matter? Oh, and does it depend on whether you’re a person or a building?
To get started on this contrast, I have to display the current image I have in my head when I hear the first word (which, in verb form, you don’t hear a whole lot): “purposing.” Here’s my dog, Rocky, swimming through the snow, his body undulating like a dolphin’s, trying to get to his ball. Now he’s got a purpose all right. The fact is–I envy him sometimes.
Try as I might, each day, to make a beeline for one important goal, too often I inhabit the other camp, convincing myself that any number of the things I’m not attending to absolutely must be finished right away. And then I’m off and running again—doing what the voice of that lady in the GPS says, when you stray from her directions. “Recalibrating!” she pipes up, patiently but with just the slightest touch of irritation. No, it’s not particularly fun having to figure out where you’re going when you thought you knew a minute ago.
Maybe if I could get around to reading his blockbuster book, Rick Warren could direct me how to grab hold of a purpose and hold onto it forever. But wait, I think his version has only to do with serving God, and I admit to being not so comfortable with that, partly because I’m not sure I understand how to do it, or how it might be different from (in no particular order): 1) Finding your passion 2) Expanding your world 2) Offering service 3) Caring for people, and for animals too 4) Getting some thrills along the way and 5) Correcting course when you’ve gotten bogged down.
Do you think The Re-Purpose Driven Life would have a chance of selling 32 million copies too?
At least I have some company in this business: nowadays plenty of buildings, including churches and schools— despite their solidity—are undergoing radical changes. Once fulfilling a certain specific function in a community, these landmarks now might look the same on the outside but are becoming something new and different on the inside. Times have changed, and there is some re-shuffling of the deck going on.
It’s hard to imagine an entire campus of brick buildings, dignified trees and rolling lawns being adrift, but that’s kind of what happened to a school where I used to work long ago. Or at least one half of a school, I should say. The best route from our old hometown to our new hometown goes right through the lovely Main Street in Northfield, Massachusetts, where I had my first job out of college, as an intern teacher. So whenever I make the trip (could almost do it with my eyes closed by now) I go down Memory Lane.
I remember the tiny dorm apartment I lived in there, with a screen door as well as a regular door, because we were encouraged to maintain a kind of “You can talk to me without coming in” space from the girls on the other side. I remember the beautiful lacrosse field nestled in behind the dorms, the dew on the grass on the way to class, and the spectacular leaves in fall. I also remember heading down the long driveway with a friend in frigid February to go to the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and then the fulfilling return up the same drive. I remember school gatherings, rousing concerts, but no required church services. Was there splendor? Yes, there was.
Originally founded in 1879 by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody, the school merged with Mount Hermon in 1971. After a number of years of (costly) buses going back of forth between the two campuses, and less evangelism, the school finally decided to consolidate on the Mount Hermon side and sell off the Northfield one, in 2004.
And then the Christians came marching in; or at least they’ve been trying to, maintaining that they aim to bring the campus back to the original mission of the founder. The first buyer was “Hobby Lobby”— a company that has been recently in the news for going all the way to the Supreme Court to get a religious exemption from providing their employees with contraceptive services. Soon, their Museum of the Bible will open in Washington, D.C. Alas, the crafts conglomerate had trouble sealing the deal with Grand Canyon College for the campus, so in 2012, they donated the place to the National Christian Foundation. The search is still on for a devout institution (can that adjective describe that noun?) to take up residence here. Take a look at the recruiting pitch on the website. Meanwhile, townspeople think it mighty strange that the place has sat idle for so long and mostly just want it swelling with life again.
If a school can become more like a religious organization, then maybe a church can become more like a sports venue. Here in Concord, I heard a rumor—unsubstantiated– that a local Catholic church just might eventually become a hockey rink as a result of its merger with a couple of other churches. This development—again, maybe pie in the sky at this point– could go right along with the familiar CYO basketball in its recognition that what kids most want to do is PLAY. Oh and besides, why keep these cavernous buildings for only one limited purpose when both the number of priests and number of congregants is declining?
Wait–not that one in the picture. That’s a famous cathedral in Quebec, and much as they love hockey there, it’s not switching identities. Good thing, too, because the light streaming in here is more beautiful than it would be in a windowless rink.
Far be it from me to figure out which buildings should be used for which kinds of activities. But it sure seems like their rock-solid natures have to be more flexible nowadays, almost like they’re literally bending.
What I can do, however, is announce my own kind of “re-purpose.” In an effort to make more progress on the memoir, and increase writing time in between dog runs, I’m planning to 1) not hold myself to posting on this blog every single week, let’s aim for bi-weekly instead and 2) let my entries grow shorter (yes, I said that intentionally). My hope is that, before too many more months have passed, I’ll be able to use this site as a kind of launching pad for the finished volume. I know — some of you are already saying, “Finally!” It’s OK, I don’t need to know whether that’s more an enthusiastic response for less blog or more book.
Thanks for coming along, all this way. Here’s a little gift for you, on the topic of repurposing. You won’t be disappointed in this website, offering 50 ideas for taking common household objects and turning them into something else. It’s inspiring, really. The post-it note under the drill is a little lame, but you’ve got to love the things those pesky books can do. My favorite has to be the bike bringing new elegance to the bathroom; then again, I also love the tennis racquets becoming mirrors, and the piano as a fountain— now that’s really something.
Here we go, into the beating heart of the Christian calendar again. In observance of the first day of Lent yesterday, my husband once again participated in “Ashes to Go” in downtown Concord. Apparently it, or they, went quite well. The weather was practically balmy, and lots of people stopped by. I was reminded of human mortality too…just from a little distance away. At this time of year, I am also reminded of the fact that I didn’t grow up with these rituals as regular features of life, and I wonder how that makes me different, or lacking, or something.
This time, as we enter Lent—a time when people often give up something they enjoy—I fit right in, kind of, because I have given up looking for my snowshoe.
As if there aren’t enough reasons already to respect The Snow (with this latest weekend accumulation, it’s time now to let the word be elevated into something deserving of upper case) I have to give it credit for actually swallowing up something that was, I swear, pretty securely attached to my foot.
This has been both an odd and inconvenient loss, yes, but curiously enough, it has also provided some gain. I’ve had a kind of stepping off point, so to speak, into a pasture of pondering. What are the things, in addition to snowshoes of course, which actually help hold us up during the course of daily life? And are these things mostly in the “secular” or in the “religious” category?
Slight correction: I don’t really mean “hold us up” so much as “prevent us from sinking down.” It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but when I first tried snowshoes several years ago, I was kind of expecting them to allow me to glide right over the deep snow—to stay afloat on a sea of white. Friends and neighbors had been so enthusiastic about the experience, it sounded to me as if these things you strapped on worked to defy gravity. In fact, of course, they just made the falling through, or falling down, less; forward motion could retain the upper hand—or foot.
The disappearing happened several days ago; I had just arrived at the border of our property, taken a big step up into an enormous field, and then I could feel my foot was noticeably lighter. “No problem,” I thought, “the thing will be right here somewhere.” But it wasn’t. I used my pole to dig down, to scan really, the patch of trail I’d just emerged from, expecting a bit of black or red to greet me. Alas, there was nothing but endless white. I guess I wouldn’t do well as the main character in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” but the truth is I got tired of looking pretty quickly after my toes and fingers started objecting to the fruitlessness of the search.
Not surprisingly, since we’ve had yet more snow, the snowshoe hasn’t exactly popped up. My husband, understandably, was disappointed that I didn’t strive harder to find it right away…in that this is one of the main activities we share in winter. My confidence that 1) we can ski instead and 2) it will indeed turn up come spring seems, well, a little pale and unsatisfying. Then—I know this is a stretch— I got to thinking how maybe my laid back approach has something to do with my not really minding walking in regular old boots to begin with.
A couple of weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a provocative column called “Building Better Secularists.” In it, he provides a kind of cautionary admonishment to people – like Phil Zuckerman, author of the very upbeat Living The Secular Life– who think that it’s easy as pie to be fully moral without religion. According to Brooks, setting up one’s own structure, one’s own code for goodness and doing right by others is very hard work because everything has to be invented and formulated from scratch. He says:
The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.
They drift? In that it’s not summer with all of us lolling around on rafts, we’re apparently right back to the snow again. Brooks must definitely be feeling the winter, too. Or maybe we’re back to me losing my snowshoe in the snow and finding that I no longer had a way of going forward with minimal sinking. But wait, this seems a little harsh, don’t you think? I mean, I agree that people who don’t partake in regular religious observances can and should look within to identify their moral centers, to check on the health and strength of their convictions. They can also make certain that they are positively living them out by going beyond self and contributing to their communities and the larger society. But to assume that not worshipping in a congregation results in a “loss of meaning” and “boredom” is just plain wrong. All kinds of people become drifters, it seems to me, and I don’t think it has anything to do with whether they attend regular services or not. Besides, as my daughter was just saying this morning, do you really need to feel purpose-driven every single day? Frankly, that can get a little boring too. Having the ability to see and enjoy beauty, to withstand setbacks, to laugh, to connect with and serve others—- these things hold me up, so long as I manage to do them.
Furthermore, I really don’t go along with the whole image of people on the secular side bearing “moral burdens” to begin with. Sounds so onerous. Unless I’m reading this wrong, Brooks seems to be saying that church-or-temple-or-mosque attending people are able to glide along, propelled by the engines of their respective faith communities. Really? Is it kind of like tapping into the town water supply versus building one’s own well? In any case, I think that, whichever side of the line we recognize ourselves to be on, we need to find a way through the snow that both relies on and preserves our strengths.
Strange as it may be to have snowshoes and Lent all mixed together in my mind, I also have Mother Goose coming into play with this refrain, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!” Let’s try to stay up as long as we can, anyway, enjoying the view.
It might be a kind of sacrilege to tamper with the words of a treasured poet, but if I were bold enough to give ol’ William Wordsworth something like an update, I know which famous line I’d aim for first. “The Child is father of the Man” (from one of his short poems, “My Heart Leaps Up”) is perfectly fine, of course, in its suggestion that we all have everything that we’re going to become in us at an early age. Based on my experiences of late, however, I’d revise it to something like, “Kids These Days Sure Can Show Us a Thing or Two.”
Recently I was visiting with a cousin and we were sharing memories about the older generation, now just about all gone in our family. I’ve often kept the image of waves on the beach as a kind of metaphor for the succession of ages, but he had another, not exactly peaceful one: we’re all walking in a line towards the edge of a cliff, arms out, and we watch our parents suddenly drop right ahead of us, leaving no doubt what’s in store for us, momentarily. It is some comfort, isn’t it, that we have our kids and nieces and nephews behind us? Maybe, just maybe, by the time they get to the edge, one of them will have invented a new route. They’re pretty clever, really they are.
People talk about “learning from your elders” all the time; how about “learning from your youngers”? No—wait, that’s probably not an actual word. But it sure describes the section of trail I’ve been walking these days. More times than I can count, it feels like they’re scampering up ahead. My world is getting kind of flipped: left and right, it seems, the kids are taking over—in technological savvy, obviously — but also in confidently going forth, forging new territory, sometimes leading us to re-discover the past, not to mention making a range of cool connections.
“You really need to update your computer, Mom.” My daughter, sitting at my desk one day in between semesters, might as well have said, “You really need to update your life.” She’d be right on both counts, of course. I’m ashamed to admit that, most every time my Mac let me know that it was ready for an upgrade, I postponed the procedure. I venture to say I am not alone in this habit; aren’t there hoards of us who believe that whatever important activity we’re in the midst of takes precedence over something that the computer itself needs? I got my comeuppance all right. After my girl patiently went through everything that needed doing, assuring me that it was all for the best, I had to get completely re-oriented to the screen. I won’t bore you with the details (want to talk scroll bars?) but suffice it to say that the upgrade was not exactly seamless. My machine had gone through some kind of transformation, and I barely recognized the new creature. Some days later, a guy in a shop told me with a smile that it was kind of as if I’d jumped from 6th grade to 10th in one fell swoop. Wait…what happened to Algebra?
Hauled reluctantly into the technological present by one child, I’ve also been hauled back, more happily but still with accompanying challenges, to the scientific past by another. My son landed the role of Albert Einstein in his high school’s winter play, a Steve Martin creation called Picasso at the Lapin Agile. It is set in a Parisian café in the year 1904, when both Einstein and Picasso are on the verge of realizing major breakthroughs in their work. Needless to say, this is not exactly an area of my own expertise. In an effort to learn a little something about the brilliant man my son is becoming—at least on stage–I’ve been deep in Walter Isaacson’s definitive biography (Simon & Schuster, 2007) called simply, Einstein. I need to summon as much mental acuity as I can to absorb passages like this:
It is very important to note, however, that the theory of relativity does not mean that “everything is relative.” It does not mean that everything is subjective.
Instead, it means that measurements of time, including duration and simultaneity, can be relative, depending on the motion of the observer. So can the measurements of space, such as distance and length. But there is a union of the two, which we call spacetime, and that remains invariant in all inertial frames. Likewise, there are things such as the speed of light that remain invariant.
“Ok, then,” I think to myself as I head off to empty the dishwasher, suddenly imagining speeding trains whizzing by people on platforms, ships passing each other in the sea, and Einstein himself sitting atop a beam of light heading out into the universe. All this sifts over me thanks to my own boy, a 10th grader.
Malcolm Butler may be no Einstein, but the rookie football player sure understood something important about space and time when he intercepted that pass at the end of the Super Bowl game last Sunday. Wow— what a thrilling end to a tremendous contest. As I watched and heard the name of the hero, I suddenly remembered that my nephew had just talked to me about this same player a few days before, because he in fact knew him. Here’s how:
Tucker, now a college sophomore, has had the enormous good fortune to serve as an intern at the Patriots’ training camp for the past two summers. The hours were long, and he was assigned a wide range of tasks, including regular driving between field and hotel for certain players who needed transportation. It was in this way he got acquainted with the undrafted rookie from Division II West Alabama. Tucker saw how hard Butler worked, day after day, fighting for a place on the roster, knowing what a steep climb he faced. And then, fast forward six months later to Arizona, the cornerback—on the bench during the first half of the game—not only gets in but breaks up two long passes before making THE BIG PLAY by noticing, as written in Sports Illustrated, that “the Seahawks lined up in a formation that screamed pass, a shotgun with three receivers to the right.” Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Now, it’s almost as if the guy has achieved immortality; my nephew is walking on air, and I – just a few steps removed—feel the elation, too.
I wonder what kinds of gifts the 20 and under set will bring this coming week. Actually, they’ve already started, thanks to yesterday’s sledding adventure with the 11 year old in my life plus her brother. Wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
I have an artist friend who paints beautiful background murals for museum exhibits. He says modestly that often people don’t much notice them, even though of course they took him hours of careful work, because real creatures—a moose, an elk, a family of wolves perhaps– are front and center. Such it is, I think, only kind of in reverse, with the dramas going on in our lives versus what’s happening in the larger arena outside and all around us. Sometimes, we may have no business feeling like the main animal in the center of a vast landscape, but there we are, doing our thing for survival.
Thus am I, this winter, trying to re-invent myself as “Sports Mom, Whatdyagot?” Or something like that.
As we approach Super Bowl Sunday, it seems like sports is dominating the news once again—blanketing the region almost like the snowflakes that were swirling around outside in the blizzard. No matter, of course, that 2014 gave irrefutable evidence of global warming, innocent people are being attacked by terrorist groups, and regimes are toppling in different corners of the globe. Here in New England, we have Deflategate sputtering on; then there is of course the actual game to get ready for; talk of Boston possibly getting the nod from the Olympic Committee has people all excited; and how about that NHL All-Star game last week?
This is all compelling stuff, no doubt. I might even be able to pay more attention to it if I weren’t so preoccupied with my own attempts to bolster my athletic life. This winter, I’m trying to give it the ol’ college try…except I’m not in college anymore, and I definitely won’t be winning any medals of any kind. In fact, I’m hoping mostly that I just won’t get hurt. In addition to my regular routine of running solo with the dog, I’ve added ice hockey as a second (and, I feel, complementary) team sport to tennis, and I’m also hoping to do a good bit of skiing with a couple of tennis friends.
What’s up with this? Well, illusions of grandeur aside, President Obama’s new “Go get ‘em” attitude has definitely inspired me. The day after his forceful State of the Union speech, a front page article in The New York Times took us back a few months:
The morning after major Democratic losses in last year’s midterm elections, President Obama walked into the Roosevelt Room with a message for his despondent staff: I’m not done yet.
Well, when it comes to sports, neither am I. And I daresay I have lots of company in this department, from other women of a certain age, still with a degree of fight. Many of us are moving on from countless hours driving to and spectating at our kids’ events to discovering whether we, in fact, might have some of our own “game” left. Supporting and cheering on our striving offspring was all fine, and we might even be missing those days, what with all the benefits of sharing a mutual purpose and socializing with other parents constantly over the ups and downs of the teams. Drifting back further in our own memories, we can recall when we were the participants–running down lush fields, dribbling down courts, doing wind sprints on the ice, you name it–almost always without our parents watching. And some women my age are just coming as first-timers to the team sports party, having had other interests during school days and perhaps no children to bring them into it later. Now, though, for a number of reasons, it’s time.
This past summer, when I played a lot of tennis with a group of new friends on late afternoons, with the amber sunshine and light breezes just perfect, and a coach barking instructions, there was an unmistakable feeling of actually getting better. Past our prime? Maybe, but we can still improve our volleys, try to get those backhands deep, and stir up some competitive juices– all while taking our minds off, for a couple of hours, whatever else might be ailing us. After all, as Michael Mandelbaum states in the opening chapter of his book, The Meaning of Sports (NY: PublicAffairs, 2004), sports are similar to organized religion in that they supply “a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life..” OK, I’m pretty sure my husband would say that religion does a whole lot more than that, and I would heartily agree, but it’s something, anyway.
For us, switching games for a minute, it’s kind of like the second half. Perhaps that’s being a bit too generous—it’s more like the third period, or the seventh inning stretch. (Oh and by the way, stretching is definitely a good idea.) However you figure it, the most important thing is: there’s still some time left to win some sets, score some goals, earn some kind of modest triumph. Or maybe just to re-claim some hustle out there.
When I told one of my older brothers, a lifelong hockey enthusiast, that I was venturing back onto the ice after close to 20 years mostly off it, I admitted to him my feeling of trepidation. “But what if I really stink?” Without hesitation, he looked right at me with a smile and said, “But Pol, it doesn’t matter!” He really meant it, too. And then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. What mattered in this case, as part of my ongoing effort to feel settled in a new town after a family move, was taking the initiative to go challenge myself athletically again while also meeting some women who were likely to be cooler-than-average. In my opinion, anyway.
On my first time out, sure enough, I did indeed stink: the skating was OK but the stickhandling was pretty pathetic. By the third time, though, at least I was making some passes. Silly me, even with just a little bit of progress, I felt elated. And tired. When I mentioned the fatigue factor to another woman on the bench—about my age— she looked through the grill on her helmet and said simply, “Short shifts.”
A couple of days ago, on a beautiful cold and sunny morning, I joined my tennis friends (both significantly younger, but no matter) out on the ski slopes. They had originally come together because of having kids the same age; I entered the scene only because of our mutual sport, which then led to another mutual sport. They had a whole routine on the mountain already established–a certain number of runs in a specific order, ending with soup. Just joining them was wonderful, and the only kids around were other people’s kids. I took in the expanse of well-groomed trails, concentrated on making my turns, and felt both diverted and right where I was supposed to be, at the same time. Next time, I think I’ll go a little faster.
You wouldn’t have thought so, would you? But that is, in fact, how Dr. King referred to himself in his magnificent “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in April, 1963.
We’ll get to that text in a minute, and it’s worth waiting for. First, though, since the whole concept of “extremism” has been thrust at us almost non-stop in recent days, let’s take a moment to consider how the word actually reverberates. Not surprisingly, it can take on completely different realities depending on context. My business here is always stunning contrasts, side-by-side differences that can practically take our breath away. This one sure fits the bill.
Although Obama may have good reason to hesitate in referring to terrorists as “Islamic extremists,” many of us are, in addition to feeling outrage about recent killings, focusing on distinguishing between the tenets of the true Muslim faith and false beliefs espoused by perpetrators of violence. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote in his column for The Times, the march in Paris was tremendous, but what the world also really needs, going forward, will be mainstream Muslims worldwide vociferously defending their religion against jihadists. Christians of all eras don’t by any means get a pass on this whole issue of extremism, either. We only need to brush up on our history of, say, the Inquisition or the Third Reich or the Klu Klux Klan to recognize how a whole faith can be perverted to fit insidious thrusts for power from people who have nothing to do with true Christianity.
Meanwhile, last week, up on the 3,000 foot Dawn Wall out in Yosemite National Park, two other extremists succeeded in climbing up the entire face, over the course of 19 days, with just their bare hands. Some might call Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgesen crazy. Most of us, however, feel a certain amount of awe for their accomplishment. They were single-mindedly focused on their goal over several years; in that they accomplished perhaps the most difficult free climb every attempted, painstakingly in every sense (just ask what’s left of their fingers), we spectators now have the grandeur of their achievement to add to the grandeur of the location itself. Afterwards, Jorgesen said, “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will.” I’m thinking about that; aren’t you? My “wall” might be something that doesn’t require me to banish terror every time I look down, but it could still be something pretty good.
Speaking of New Year’s resolutions (kind of), I just saw this sign at the YMCA, and I’m of two minds about it.
Sure, I understand that with too much comfort often comes not much progress; on the other hand, especially in the heart of January, I wouldn’t be too quick to discard the cozy stuff, either. Maybe it’s better to think about how, after a good hard work-out, we always feel more true comfort than we would have had without the work-out. But comfort itself is surely not the antagonist, right? Unless it lulls us to sleep when we need to be wide awake to take on some real antagonists.
Anyway, today is Martin Luther King Day, and so it’s time to let a great leader do the talking. Here’s what wrote, from the absolute non-comfort of the Birmingham Jail, about being identified as an extremist by other clergymen. I’m presenting the entire paragraph here:
Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Reading this, right now at the dawn of 2015, I can hardly see that anything fundamental has really changed. We still need “creative extremists” to go forth bravely in the face of all kinds of perils, all kinds of imposters. Our fingers may get raw in the effort, but the stakes are too high not to keep trying, one grip at a time. Besides, with people like Dr. King, and all of the individuals who inspired him beforehand, even the worst kind of extremists look conquerable.
You wouldn’t have thought so, would you? But that is, in fact, how he referred to myself in his magnificent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written in April, 1963.
We’ll get to that text in a minute, and it’s worth waiting for. First, though, since the whole concept of “extremism” has been thrust at us almost non-stop in recent days, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what the word actually means. Not surprisingly, it can take on completely different realities depending on context. I’m always interested in stunning contrasts, side-by-side differences that can practically take our breath away, and this one sure fits the bill.
Although Obama may have good reason to hesitate in referring to terrorists as “Islamic extremists,” many of us are, in addition to voicing outrage about recent killings, focusing on distinguishing between the tenets of the true Muslim faith and false beliefs espoused by perpetrators of violence. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote in his column for The Times, the march in Paris was tremendous, but what the world really needs, going forward, will be for mainstream Muslims worldwide to vociferously defend their religion against jihadists. Christians through history don’t by any means get a pass on this whole issue of extremism, either. We only need to brush up on our history of, say, the Inquisition or the Third Reich or the Klu Klux Klan to recognize how a whole faith can be perverted to fit insidious thrusts for power from people who have nothing to do with true Christianity.
Meanwhile, last week, up on the 3,000 foot Dawn Wall out in Yosemite National Park, two extremists succeeded in climbing up the entire face, over the course of 19 days, with just their bare hands. Some might call Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgesen crazy, but most of us, it’s fair to say, feel a certain amount of awe for their accomplishment. They were single-mindedly focused on their goal over several years; in that they accomplished perhaps the most difficult free climb every attempted, painstakingly in every sense (just ask what’s left of their fingers), we spectators now have the grandeur of their achievement to add to the grandeur of the location itself. Afterwards, Jorgesen said, “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will.” I’m thinking about that; aren’t you? My “wall” might be something that doesn’t require me to banish terror every time I look down, but it could still be something pretty good.
Speaking of New Year’s resolutions (kind of), I just saw this sign at the YMCA, and I’m of two minds about it.
Sure, I understand that with too much comfort often comes not much progress; on the other hand, especially in the heart of January, I wouldn’t be too quick to discard the cozy stuff, either. Maybe it’s better to think about how, after a good hard work-out, we always feel more true comfort than we would have had without the work-out. But comfort itself is surely not the antagonist, right? Unless it lulls us to sleep when we need to be wide awake to take on some real antagonists.
Anyway, today is Martin Luther King Day, and so it’s time to let him do the talking. Here’s what he wrote, from the absolute non-comfort of the Birmingham Jail, about being identified as an extremist. I’m presenting the entire paragraph here, because cutting any of it out is really out of the question:
Reading this, right now at the dawn of 2015, I can hardly see that anything fundamental has really changed. We still need “creative extremists” to go forth bravely in the face of all kinds of perils, all kinds of imposters. Our fingers may get raw in the effort, but the stakes are too high not to keep trying. Besides, with people like Dr. King who showed us the way, even the worst kind of extremists look conquerable.
Did you ever think, when New Year’s Day rolls around, it might be time to sneer at those paltry resolutions and go for a really big change? Leave your old self behind and step into a whole new identity perhaps?
I apologize for being late with my post here, but that’s because I’ve been cooking up a really exciting idea. How’s this for starting off 2015 with some flair? Pastor’s Wife takes a big dose of Pop Queen and starts a rigorous daily regime of singing and dancing, not to mention bright red lipstick, through the cold New Hampshire winter.
This all started with a family trip up to Canada, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
I always knew Madonna (the singer, not the mother of Jesus) and I had something in common. Beyond the fact that we’re the same age, that is. In truth, she’s about exactly a year younger than I am, but c’mon, that’s almost nothing. We were toddling around at the same time way back when, and now we’re both mothers of at least a few children, trying to manage our empires. OK, so I don’t exactly have an empire, but I do try to keep my family’s stuff more or less organized. Sure, there are other differences: she grew up in Detroit, in a Catholic family; I spent my childhood on Long Island, not attending church; she lost her mother way too young; I was lucky to have mine for many years. She used her talent to skyrocket to fame; I dabbled in the usual schoolgirl things and managed to stay under the radar.
I just have always had this feeling that in some ways, we’re probably not all that different and would probably even hit it off if we got to hang out together.
Ridiculous, I know. But maybe it’s just borderline ridiculous. After all, Madonna had a blockbuster hit song in the 80’s with the very same name as the kind of place where I was just last week! And, even though the song is about the churning of mixed emotions involved in love, it’s also a kind of beguiling statement of a woman’s need to maintain some control over her own life. In my opinion, it’s also just got a fabulous energetic sound that makes you want to get up and move.
Borderline, feels like I’m going to lose my mind. You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.
These days–and always, really–there are plenty of borders between countries that are in the news. It’s been almost a year since Russia marched right on into Ukraine as if it was business as usual. Practically anywhere in the Middle East, borders are contentious. Lebanon, trying to stem the flood of Syrians refugees coming in, just announced a whole new set of restrictions for their border with that war-torn country. The debate over immigration policies raging in our own country has put a renewed focus on our southern border with Mexico. In fact, just yesterday Obama was meeting with President Pena Nieto, about a whole pack of troubles.
Meanwhile, the boundary that stretches thousands of miles between the U.S. and Canada, through a whole lot of states and some huge provinces, seems tranquil by comparison. Since 9/11, things have tightened up some, and for good reason, but for the most part it’s not what we would call a trouble spot—or line, more precisely. It is, however, still very much a border, and my family had the pleasure of crossing over it last week, on our way to and from a visit to Montreal. Since my mother, gone now almost 10 years, grew up in a house right on the main street of Stanstead, the first town you come to after entering Canada, this is always an emotionally meaningful journey for me. When I look at this house (her grandparents’ home, where her mother moved her five children after losing her husband) I try to imagine my mother as a girl skipping around, with bows in her red hair, greeting the minister who arrives for Sunday lunch; or listening to my grandmother read Dickens to all five children in the evenings, saying, “Now just try to get as much out of it as you can.” When I do this really vividly, I’m on the borderline all right— not sure whether I’m here or there, Canadian or American, girl or adult.
We didn’t take pictures by the customs station this time around, but we do have one from a previous visit, just about 15 years ago. I don’t exactly look stylish, it’s true, but I’m rich with offspring.
Just for comparison’s sake, here’s a really nice shot of Madonna, too. I’d like to say that it was taken way before she had kids, but that’s not so— it’s from just a few years ago, 2011.
Oh well. Just because she doesn’t necessarily want to turn into me to start her 2015, I can still take stock of my own way of life, recognize that my kids are now taking care of themselves for the most part, maybe arrange to meet her on the borderline somewhere, and we’ll just see what develops.
Since it was “beginning to look a lot like Christmas” already about a month ago–or was it October– it’s not so easy to feel the full force of the crescendo now, especially when we have compelling reasons to pay attention to other, dare I say bigger issues, such as protests over police killings around the nation and the racial divide that stubbornly persists in this country.
I’m going to leave that important topic to others, however, and present to you another kind of divide, lighter in tone but still causing a slight seizing of the spirit, that I find articulated with surprising frequency around the state of New Hampshire.
It is, for lack of a better name, the admonition to “Do this or do that.” And, all things not being equal, the second choice is really not desirable and you’d really better make that first choice work.
In Massachusetts, at least in the Five College area where I last lived, we were all about inclusiveness, do as you please, express your truest self, just let it all hang out.
Here, in certain situations anyway, there are apparently some edges to be maintained.
The most recognizable example of this is the slogan on our license plates. There I am, just going about my business around town doing errands, maybe even feeling a little jauntiness because in fact I will be ready for Christmas (no, actually not true), and I stop at a light and see this on the car ahead: “Live Free or Die.” During that period of time when I am still adjusting to the novelty of this ubiquitous slogan, I might think to myself, “Am I in fact living free? Do I need to pack it in?”
Talk about jamming a lot of possible meanings into several short words…wow, Emily Dickinson couldn’t have done it better. The line has its origin in the Revolutionary War, and certainly does have a heroic ring to it; I can almost hear those patriots’ drums going tap-a-tap-tap. On the other hand, do we really need to think about paying the ultimate price for our principles on a daily basis? That’s tiring.
The fact of the matter is, of course, all of us may try to do our reasonable best to “live free,” but we will all die anyway. So the choice is really not what it purports to be. Cheerful thought, huh?
When I’m not in my car but out on the many glorious trails we have around here, I can be faced with another message presenting a stark choice:
“Stay On Trail Or Stay Home.” Now I understand the reason for this, sure, and know that it’s meant mostly for the snowmobilers who are about to come roaring through. However, especially when I’m feeling a little dip in my self-confidence, I might tend to focus on the second part of the statement more than the first…and then the sign seems about as warm as, “Surrender, Dorothy!” Would just “Please Stay on Trail” not have enough oomph? Is it the balanced two sides of the message that is most compelling? Do we need to get a whiff of “do-this-or-else” to ensure compliance?
Pondering these two examples, I find myself now imagining more possibilities that could soon appear. So far, “Ski Like a Bandit Or Don’t Clog the Lift Line” is my favorite, followed by “Be Rugged Here Or Go Back to Boston.” Take your pick or, better yet, send me your contribution in a comment.
I know that many people, millions probably, all over the world read the Bible on a daily basis and then apply what they find to their regular lives. As I’m a pastor’s wife with no previous grounding in religion but eager to learn some of the elements, I do the opposite: experience something interesting, then seek a Bible passage–often with a tip from my husband–that might in some way correspond to whatever it is I’ve experienced. Maybe this is backwards, but it’s my strategy and I’m sticking to it. As my mother used to say, “We all have our little ways.”
So it was that my pondering about stark choices led me deep in Deuteronomy , when Moses is handing down the Law to the Israelites. This, as you may well know, is not a time for messing around with what is right and what is wrong. It’s worth quoting what’s often known as the “Exhortation to Choose Life” at some length:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding, you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings andcurses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…(Deuteronomy 30:15-19).
The italics there are mine, showing that Moses must not have lived in New Hampshire, because he opts for “and” instead of “or” even when he’s presenting a choice between tremendously different behaviors, arguably a more important choice even than whether to stay on the trail or not.
Anyway, have a lovely holiday season. There’s really no good alternative, is there?
Which is more important— things that take up space, or the spaces in between? Does our eye prefer patches of bright color, or the surrounding blankness that allows us to see the color? When we arrive at a long-anticipated event, are we so done with waiting, or do we sometimes wish to be back in that magical quiet land?
It must be Advent again, because these are the questions I have swirling around, while I’m actively not shopping. Looking back at my blogs from previous years, I see these two: “Getting Ready for Something, or Perhaps for Nothing” (2013) as well as “Waiting Time” (2011). I’ll try not to repeat myself here, while presenting a kind of an updated panorama on the topic, with way more art.
We don’t have a Christmas tree up yet, but as of last night, my husband and I are the proud owners of a soaring-to-the-ceiling wooden tower in our family room. Two visiting boys left us this wonderful present, right in front of the new wood stove and just a few feet away from the new television set. The ladder’s been put away now, but it was necessary for a time. This morning, I’m wondering why I didn’t think to ask them to build the thing maybe not right smack in the middle of the room. The tower that now stands, having made it through the night, already has a much longer life span than the ones that preceded it, because, naturally, the boys enjoyed inventing it over and over again. We now plan to send regular updates about how it’s surviving, assuring the builders that Rocky’s tail is doing no harm.
Besides the fact that I’m pleased as Christmas punch that an old box of “Keva planks” – hauled up here with the move – could provide so much delight, I’m struck by how the beauty of the end result might be captured in a poem like this:
All the way up
Seen this way, the “Not Plank” sections are just as important as the “Plank” ones.
This whole concept had been on my mind anyway after a visit to the Matisse Cut-Outs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City last weekend. What a spectacularly simple idea, really— to make designs with a wide variety of shapes cut out of paper which had been painted in a rainbow of shades. The shapes were originally affixed with pins to the background, making the works sometimes look almost casual in nature. But apparently Matisse was a stern taskmaster with his underlings, and they tell tales of hours upon hours of getting the colors and the configurations just right. We weren’t allowed to take pictures through the exhibit, but I’ll dare to present this cover of the book I bought there, careful to include a caption giving full credit to the originators.
“The Snail” by Henri Matisse (1953); Rizzi, Juliette, author; published by Tate Introductions/ Publishing, 2014.
Wonderful, isn’t it? Our eyes love the contrasts; at least mine do. The white space can be just background, or with just a little effort, it can break itself up into a whole bunch of distinctive shapes worth paying attention to on their own.
Just coincidence perhaps, but when I came back from New York and taught my evening class at Southern New Hampshire University, I found a mesmerizing exhibit of sculptures by a Maine artist, called “Objects in Motion” that illustrated the same principle, more or less. Kim Bernard is interested in physics, and her works bring to mind molecules and large scale natural phenomena that rely on an interaction between elements, or what I might call the “here—not here” effect.
This one has a dizzying effect…
This one not so much.
To me, it’s not much of a stretch to take this whole idea and relate it to how we manage our calendars. One “something” coming relentlessly after another is not really the best recipe for living, or working, well. This has taken me about eons to learn, but I now see—without a shadow of a doubt—that most activities requiring follow-up, or just worth savoring, actually require extra time built in for the follow-up or the savoring. In terms of our professions, this plays out by preserving open spaces: to prepare for class, to take careful notes after a session, to make those calls. In our personal lives, too, a really good visit with a friend, say, can take a little tending in the soul even afterwards so that it keeps glowing brightly.
So what does this all have to do with Christmas? First of all, I bet I don’t need to convince any of you that it shouldn’t come round more than once a year. Secondly, if Advent is supposed to be a time to “un-clutter” ourselves (this is one of things I heard my husband say yesterday), then we’d better see to it we’re making some kind of productive contrasts between “stuff and not stuff” in our lives. There’s not one right way to do this, of course, and timetables vary. Maybe we even like the days leading up to Christmas to be “waiting, but with a certain frenzy” so that we can better enjoy the prospect of stillness in the days following. Whatever the balance might be for each of us, we’ll seek it, or else we’ll droop.
At this season, I never much liked a tree that wasn’t chock full of branches. Perhaps this year, our airy tower will set a new trend.
If you’re expecting something all nice and dripping with gratitude on the cusp of Thanksgiving Day, I’m sorry to disappoint you. That namby-pamby stuff doesn’t interest me much today. While I do of course hope that you’ll have a splendid and congenial feast with your loved ones, my subject brings with it some rancor, some bristles up, some heightened tension. There is, however, at least a Bird involved.
Maybe my mood can be attributed partly to what just happened during my evening English Composition class. About to embark on an assignment called, “Explaining a Concept,” we were brainstorming sub-topics that might be included in an essay, directed towards people of another culture, about the custom of Thanksgiving. One of my students immediately sang out, “Family in-fighting!” Well, of course.
This term struck me as, shall we say, the close cousin of what I had already been thinking about: rivalry, of any denomination. You know: who’s better—her or me, them or us? Sounds terrible, sure, and often is pretty terrible. But the sheer energy that the whole conflict generates can seem like goodness incarnate, especially when the two antagonists—whoever, whatever they are– can’t stand each other so much that they end up grudgingly admitting their mutual respect and admiration.
Clearly, we wouldn’t be putting the Jets and the Sharks—or any of their current equivalents– in this category. No, gangs like those are just plain menacing; their turf wars and hatred so deep-seated that the often high-spirited “rivalry” doesn’t begin to cover it. This is nasty business.
In the realm of school sports, though, longstanding rivalries are seen as healthy, stirring, even beloved. At our son’s new school–St. Mark’s–they paint their faces almost as if they’re heading to war on Groton Day. All in good fun, of course.
O.K., it’s time for full disclosure here. Lest you think that I’ve been harboring some grudge against a local woman who hits a tennis ball with more authority than I do (the line forms there), I need to say that a certain retired basketball star has been on my mind recently. My husband’s work as a religious leader doesn’t usually bring him into contact with professional athletes. Last week, however, he flew to L.A. for a conference of the National Association of Episcopal Schools where none other than Magic Johnson was a featured speaker.
In the program, he is identified with this blurb:
NBA Legend…Two-Time Hall of Famer…Entrepreneur…Philanthropist…Motivational Speaker…Episcopal school parent are just a few honors possessed by Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Granted, this list is already pretty long as it is, but they left out one really important one: “Nemesis of Larry Bird.”
Back in his high school years, I gave a book to our son that tells the story of this particular celebrated rivalry. Bearing a self–effacing title– When the Game Was Ours– and a nice gold cover, it’s been sitting amidst a bunch of other sports tomes in our living room shelves. Prompted by my husband’s brush with Magic, I’ve dipped into it over the past several days, and I’ve been richly rewarded. Well, maybe not quite as richly rewarded as the two players who wrote it…
My husband said that Magic spent a few minutes talking about his evolving relationship with the guy from French Lick. As you may well know, they had an almost completely parallel span of years in the NBA (each played thirteen seasons) and about the same number of tremendous honors bestowed upon them. They opposed one another in the NCAA Championship in 1979 and Lakers/Celtics games provided intense thrills to fans on both coasts and everywhere in between throughout the next decade. They were propelled, in no small measure, by each other; but they had to demonstrate disdain. Eventually, though, the two actually became amicable— something that would have seemed impossible at the beginning of their mutual ascendancy. Smack in the middle of the decade, in 1985, Magic travelled out to rural Indiana (imagine him peering out from his limo at the fields) to do a Converse commercial alongside Larry, and they had a far-ranging talk in the Birds’ basement. Animosity couldn’t withstand that kind of experience.
Many would say that these two guys actually saved the NBA at a time when viewership had been fading, ticket sales down. And there it is— rivalry having a life-giving effect.
That brings us, in a kind of roundabout way, to the Bible–specifically, to the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians 2:3. Here’s the language from the King James:
Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, or one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each other esteem other better than themselves.
Such nice sentiments, aren’t they? The first part—“having the same love”—sure would hold true of these two players. Honestly, though, we might read the rest of this verse now and wonder—in the context of the NBA or a whole lot of other arenas for that matter— is there anything done in the public eye that’s not through “strife or vainglory”? Are any of us encouraged on a daily basis to have “lowliness of mind”? Doesn’t that sound too much like groveling in a culture where pride counts for a lot? Aren’t we supposed to stand tall, believe in ourselves, shout our feats from the rooftops even sometimes? Ah, St. Paul; we may have no idea still how much we need you.
Then again, sitting down at the Thanksgiving table esteeming everyone else better than ourselves doesn’t sound like so much fun, either. Anyone have the recipe for a Happy Medium?
It’s not every day your husband brings home a raspberry crumble.
Mine did, a couple of Sundays ago, when he returned from a visitation at a church where there’s apparently a woman who remembered how much he liked the raspberry crumble she made the last time he came there. Now that’s service, don’t you think? And it’s especially heartwarming, I might add, that she made a WHOLE raspberry crumble, for him to take home (to be shared, say, with his wife) instead of presenting it at the coffee hour, where it would disappear in no time. Come on–if you approached that table and saw a plate of little store bought cookies and then, out of the corner of your eye, the freshly made crumble just oozing red berries, you’d go right and look for a spoon and a plate pronto, maybe even before the organ postlude had finished.
This occurrence got me thinking about the whole concept of hospitality. Yes, we generally think of hospitality as more about welcoming people into our home than about offering gifts to others who take those gifts into their homes. But really, aren’t both actions cut from the same cloth—the cloth of kindness and generosity?
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home that was hospitable to pretty much all comers. My brothers’ friends played endless outdoor games–at least that’s what I can see from the home movies when I was toddling around, being ignored mostly–but they also often came in and sprawled out on couches to watch sports on TV. A dog might start barking with any knock on the door (that sure happens to us now, too) but my mother, especially, would always want to greet people with a smile and a ready laugh, hurrying to the door as she tried to smooth down her red-gone-almost blonde hair as best she could.
In that she was from a lapsed Canadian Methodist family (did I just invent a new term?) I’m not sure whether or not she knew the famous verse in Hebrews 13:2. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Don’t you just love that term, “unawares”? I don’t know about you, but I feel like I spend most of my waking minutes beings “unawares” to a zillion things I probably should be noticing. But that’s another story.
And then of course there’s the crucial story in Genesis 18:2, when Abraham and Sarah welcome the three strangers into their home. Naturally, the strangers may at first appear to be strangers, but it’s not a big leap to see that they’re really representing God in three persons, the Trinity. (Rather than, say, a forward line of a hockey team). You just never know who might be a’knocking. Sure, people may come walking up the driveway bearing publications like The Watchtower or asking you to sign a petition for clean water, but it’s really better—isn’t it—to pause a minute and greet them warmly and not act as if you’re SO terribly busy with a multitude of important things that you couldn’t possibly talk.
Since we’ve recently moved to a new location, I admit to being especially attuned to issues of hospitality. It really does make a difference, right in my heart, when people go out of their way a little bit to extend themselves, to be welcoming. I sense, sometimes, that certain individuals might have gained a sense themselves, at one time or another, what it feels like to be transplanted, to need to find bearings in a new place. It’s not so easy, especially when children don’t lead the way into a whole range of activities and institutions. But of course all of us are hoping to find, or maintain, a sense of community that provides a kind of cloak of warmth. I guess I’m both trying to retain the precious elements of the old, as far as that’s possible, and make inroads into the new. I want our dining room to stay bright and welcoming, for whenever we manage to have people over to sit at our table.
From what I understand of the work my husband is doing with churches, it’s a lot about hospitality in that realm, too. Congregations are seeking to maintain their own sense of togetherness, of mutual support and comfort, while also reaching out to outsiders, to complete strangers. Sometimes it seems like a fine balance: trying to gain, while trying not to lose, either.
In a profile of Pope Francis almost a year ago in The New Yorker, James Carroll wrote that the new leader of Catholics everywhere “views the Church as a field hospital after a battle.” It needs to welcome people in, provide relief from all kinds of struggles, not give them reasons to stay out. I was going to say at the beginning of this essay that it sometimes seems odd to me how the word “hospitable” kind of resembles the word “hospital”— a place we generally want to avoid. But, on second thought, during storms of all kinds, we might actually be relieved to find one of these. In any case, I’m grateful for raspberry crumbles, people who extend themselves to others, sites providing medical care…and everything in between.
The Abundant Life truck was here yesterday to make a delivery; I’m not sure yet whether that’ll see us through All Saints’ Day and beyond.
From the name, would you know that the place sells wood, gas and pellet stoves? Yes, indeed…and they boast the “lowest prices and the largest display” in all of New Hampshire, too. The guy waiting on us there a couple of weeks ago confirmed that the original owner was actively Christian; apparently he liked the idea of his religion and his business commingling. When I saw the sign, I couldn’t help but think that a white dove like that probably would want to keep its distance from the soot and smoke, but I guess this particular dove could really take care of itself.
Really only now, seeing the stove nestled in our fireplace, do I recognize how we’re all about to take up arms and fend off the darkness and cold yet again.With Halloween and All Saints’ Day, we try to look death straight in the eye, to give it, and those it has claimed, due respect. There’s no point ignoring it, after all; that would be just singing into the wind. We all know where we’re headed. On the other hand, we don’t want to dwell on it, either, give it too much space, make ghoulish concoctions all year long.
When I was out cleaning up the vegetable beds yesterday, the sodden smell of decay surrounded me. Tomatoes were still spilling out from our very generous plants, but most were bruised now and asking for removal; it was clear that the green ones weren’t going to come to fruition. Besides, predictions of plunging temperatures made this a sensible activity. Game over.
Only thing was, my dog Rocky made sure to remind me that his game was far from over. Whenever I oblige him by throwing a tennis ball (in duplicate, to allow for lengthy gnawing and also misplacement) for a while before getting down to outdoor work, he sees no reason why this should stop his fun. He persists in dropping his chosen ball right where he thinks I’ll best see it— in the wheelbarrow, where it sinks deep, perhaps relieved for the break from saliva. Then he looks at me as if his life depended upon my immediate action. Apparently, he doesn’t understand much about camouflage, because that green sphere really knows how to disappear in there. What I’m left with, though, is the sheer urgency, the utter vitality of his wish.
Let the plants go; keep the dog, with his eyes riveted on their goal.
All around the fields now, the bright hues are on their way out and various shades of brown take over. I can bear this better now, though, thanks to a new bunch of students bringing in a whole new palette of colors to my life. In addition to one class of young people who are just starting college, I get to teach another class—an evening one—of adults who have experienced a lot and are ready to put their minds to work by writing a number of essays and, oh yes, getting the course credit they need. Five people have recently emerged from some branch of the military; some have children; some travel for hours to get to class; some are between jobs. When I first met them in the classroom last week, they were all sitting apart from one another— nobody knew anybody else. By the end of the two and half hour session, though, after some lively conversations in pairs followed by introductions to the whole group, a palpable warmth settled over the room. We were in this together, past bruises and all; we were planning on making the most of it, and laughing a lot in the process, too. Truly, I could have put one of those “Abundant Life” signs right on the front podium. Or, for more natural color, a big picture of the leaves the way they are still managing to be.
I left that first evening, and the next one too, feeling fortunate just to be able to spend time with these individuals, and hopeful that—if I summon much of what I have learned in past classrooms– I’ll be worthy of the significant responsibility given to me. So, to all natural forces of decay, darkness, and demise out there, I say, “Go ahead, do the inevitable, if you must! My time will come soon enough, too; but for now, I’m going to bring in those last tomatoes, make some sauce, go back out and find those tennis balls again, and try to pay attention to signs of life all around. In a November kind of way.”