Saturday, December 28, 2013

A time of quiet and peace

Christmas week off is one of the "soft" benefits of working for a college or university. As much as I despair during the frenzy as Christmas approaches, I greatly love the quiet descending after Christmas  has passed. 

Once I have gotten past the temptation to sleep late every morning, I begin to get up early, so as to say the morning office in peace, drink my coffee, and gaze out my study window to the view of treetops. Any goals I hope to achieve today can come later. The sun is up, the frost is upon the grass, and the luxury of an entire day awaits.

Is it a measure of the frenzy of our culture that we so jealously, greedily clutch at our free time? I know every day should have this quiet, contemplative space built in, but I do not always achieve it. Tasks call to me. 

But I don't have to do them now. Not yet. Let the quiet continue for a bit longer. 

This is the day The Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it 

Monday, December 16, 2013

St. Mary's, full of grace

Here, in the third week of Advent, I want to tell you a resurrection story.

OK, I know it's the wrong season. Bear with me. This won't wait until Easter. Besides, we're in a time of expectation, a time of hope.

Our Hebrew scripture reading for the third Sunday in Advent was Isaiah 35:1-10, one of my favorites. But this part stood out. Pardon my ellipses:

1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice  and blossom, like the crocus; 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing ... 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes ...  9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

This is a passage about restoration and a new beginning. It speaks of hope, of renewal, of new growth. The desert will bloom again. Dry sands will become a pool of water, where rushes can grow. And the ravenous beasts will be there no longer, where the people return singing.

Just as the land can be renewed, so can a church!

First, a little background. My two or three constant readers may recall that I left my old parish, St. Mary's, Haddon Heights, NJ, nearly six years ago, when I realized that strife between the Rector and the laity had become toxic to my worship. As the emphasis of teaching and preaching became more fundamentalist (oh, sorry, I really meant orthodox), lots of others left as well. At one time, another ex-parishioner calculated that at least 160 members had departed.  I was one of the lucky ones: I landed in a new parish that I found easy to love, and where I fit well into the common life. Some were not so fortunate, and did not find a new church home that fit them as well as St. Mary's had. Some, feeling betrayed, ceased going to church altogether. This is the greatest tragedy when there is Church Drama.

Time passed, and membership continued to diminish. This past autumn, the Rector departed the Episcopal Church, taking with him a few like-minded parishioners, and affiliated with CANA, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. CANA describes itself as "a missionary district sponsored by the largest and most vibrant province of the Anglican Communion, the Church of Nigeria." You can read about that  if you're interested. It's not my cup of tea, since they don't ordain women, won't marry same-sex couples, and seem preoccupied with sin. You can have your Church of Nigeria, as far as I am concerned. Oh, did I say that out loud?

But, in fairness, you can read about the Rector's decision to leave the Episcopal Church right here. The relevant posts are entitled, "Hello, I must be going," numbers 1-3.  They are not to be missed.

As the Rector departed, a small number of parishioners remained at St. Mary's.  All those remaining loved St. Mary's and were unwilling to give up on their church. In early November, 2013, our Bishop came to meet with all current and former parishioners who wanted to see St. Mary's continue. Current and former members were asked to sit on opposite sides of the aisle. The number of former parishioners dwarfed the number of those remaining, and nearly all the former parishioners had once had leadership roles in the church. Everyone was given a chance to speak, and were free to tell their stories. It was a tearful meeting, as former members described the changing atmosphere of their spiritual home, and why they had grown to feel unwelcome and unwanted, excluded from leadership and basically sidelined.  As the meeting wore on, the Bishop looked sadder and sadder, and told us he had not been aware of the depth of our distress. My late Grandmother's description would have been blunter: the Bishop looked as though he had finally discovered the proverbial turd at the bottom of the punchbowl.

But it was an honest meeting, and the news is good! The Diocese pledged to help restore St. Mary's in any way they could. They found supply priests, so services could continue. One of those has just become Priest-in-Charge, and is doing a wonderful job. A new Vestry has been elected.  But the best news is that people are coming back. Among them are some of those who never found another parish after they left St. Mary's. It is truly a family reunion. Returning members are greeted with joy, embraced as though they had never left.

And great things are planned: a hymn festival in February to raise funds in aid of the Philippines; a five-organist concert in the spring; several outreach endeavors. St. Mary's has come back to life!

I'm no longer formally a member, but a large part of my heart will always be at St. Mary's with my original parish family, as St. Mary's resurrection moves forward. 

Watch this space for more good news about St. Mary's!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Advent: What are you avoiding this year?

I did a little Christmas-shopping over the weekend. This year, due to spousal unemployment, we're giving very practical gifts: clothing, sheets, and other boring necessities (yawn). Actually, J. grew up getting necessities -- he recalls getting snow tires for Christmas one year. His family was very practical, a point of pride for them.

So I ended up in a long line in Bed, Bath & Beyond, the emporium of all earthly delights (honestly, I could browse there for days!). Ahead of me was a woman who seemed to be bringing home all those earthly delights -- every single one! She had two shopping carts filled with merchandise. Not only does this create a steering problem when you're the mistress of two carts, but it vastly increases checkout time for the humble souls behind you in line.  It also doesn't help when you feel the need to dispute the price of nearly every sale item.

But I digress. I'm not criticizing this woman's shopping strategy -- maybe she has 25 grandchildren to buy gifts for. But I had plenty of time -- plenty of time -- to stand there thinking about Advent, as I listened to "Jingle Bell Rock" (at least twice) on the store's sound system.

What have we done to Advent? Back in the days before electric lighting, before central heating, before antibiotics, before superabundant nutrition for many, Advent may have represented, for Christians, a time of sickness and impending shortages. It is cold in many climates. The harvest would have been gathered in, and you had to hope it would sustain your family through the winter. Daylight diminishes to its smallest daily portion; nature seems dead. Snow comes. Snow probably did not represent a skiing opportunity in the days past, or just a chance for kids to play. And it was a transit problem in the most basic sense.

It's no accident that Christmas comes when it does (many scholars seem to agree that Jesus was really born in the spring, after all). In late December, we are at a low point in the yearly cycle. For the same reason, our ancestors celebrated the Winter Solstice at this time, too, in an attempt to encourage the return of the sun. Things should be starting to look pretty grim in Advent. We certainly need Jesus to come!

But we've filled Advent up with shopping, parties, concerts. I am as guilty as anyone. Samuel Wells, writing in Learning to Dream Again, suggests that we are all generally engaged in "a gigantic displacement activity," as we fill our lives up with knowledge, activities, and stuff. What are we trying to displace? Are we trying to avoid the Big Questions? Disease, scarcity, cold, mortality, dying light? Loss of loved ones? Lack of meaning?

What are you avoiding during Advent?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Anyone remember candy toys?

To the left is a bag of candy toys. This is a blast from my childhood. I haven't seen any since I've been an adult. I found them on my first visit today to an Amish farmers' market in Mullica Hill, NJ.

Candy toys were a Christmas season staple in our home. Mine came from Woolworth's (long gone too, I think), where they appeared after Thanksgiving in a large bin, behind glass, and were sold by the pound. Once they reached our house, they disappeared into a Secure Location. I was offered one from time to time as dessert. One, and only one!

To this day, I have no idea where my mother hid them. Those I bought today are in the china closet (to keep them away from the dogs, or at least that's my excuse), in an anonymous white paper bag.

Not that they're a secret, or anything.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

That gray November day

I think it was a gray, misty day in Delaware: November 22, 1963. We lived near the Delaware River in the area known as Edgemoor, north of the city of Wilmington, and fog on the river was a typical autumn occurrence. Maybe I'm lost in the fog of memory, but I seem to remember a mistiness in the air, a dank chill. Or perhaps that's the "pathetic fallacy," a literary device which depicts nature as a mirror for our moods (see the storm on the heath in King Lear). In any event, in my recollection of that day, fog overlay the familiar landscape.

On the day President Kennedy was killed, I was in the 5th grade at Edgemoor School -- but I wasn't in school that day. I have forgotten why not. I was not ill, since I was able to run errands with my mother. We were at the Merchandise Mart, a nearby shopping center, and Mom had taken me into the Bank of Delaware, where she wanted to check on an item in her safe-deposit box (we always called it the "safety-deposit box" for some reason). I remember we had entered the big vault with the bank employee, and were waiting for her to pull out the box, when we learned the President had been shot in Dallas. That scene -- the interior of the bank vault, the polished brass surfaces of the walls of locked boxes -- was burned into my memory. Strangely, my mother's reaction has not remained with me; I recall only my physical surroundings in that one second of shock and disbelief.  Everything inside and outside of me stood perfectly still, as if time had frozen.

Finishing up our errands, then, seemed all that we could do. In the checkout line at Eckerd's drugstore, we learned that the President had, in fact, just died. I slipped out of line and selected a sympathy card for Mrs. Kennedy, which we mailed the next day. I remember I signed it, "Judy Vaughan, age 10"). I did eventually get a card back in acknowledgement, which I treasured for many years. I have lost track of it now, alas.

What a weekend followed! This may have been the first time Americans gathered around the TV as witnesses to a national tragedy. Even had I been less inclined to watch, Dad would have sat me down in front of the TV. "This is history in the making -- pay attention!" he said numerous times that weekend.

And so we watched as the whole sad story played out: the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald, the return to Washington of the President's body, the swearing in of LBJ. On Sunday, as Oswald was about to be moved from the local jail to another facility, my Dad left the TV on while we ate our Sunday dinner. "They better be careful," he opined. "Somebody's probably going to shoot him." Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby about five minutes later. We jumped up from the table and watched in horror as Dad's words came true.

I remember other national events, of course: the murder of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr., the killings at Kent State, the bombing of Cambodia. But none of those events marked my childhood as profoundly as did the Kennedy assassination. That one, foggy day changed everything.

Monday, November 18, 2013


“Adsum,” which means “I am present,” is nearly the only Latin I remember from college and grad school. But it’s a phrase that’s often popped into my mind of late. Being there, being truly present to a situation, problem, or a moment of distress, is sometimes all we can do.

At our house, we have had our share of Family Drama lately. No need to elaborate -- anyone with children, either small or grown, knows about Family Drama.  With adult children come situations beyond a parent's control. We sympathize (most of the time), we offer emotional support, we try to wait patiently until the crisis passes. We bite our tongues and sit on our hands. We live with uncertainty, and with the knowledge that there are no guarantees in life. Problems may not be resolved as we would have them resolve.  And now and then, they are not resolvable.  It is a hard fear to live with. At times, all we can do is be present and wait. Adsum.

As a hospice volunteer with the frail elderly, I have learned many good lessons about waiting. My current patient (let's call her "Annie"), is 93, and suffers from general debility and dementia. She can no longer speak.  There are no "typical" visits. One Sunday, Annie may be alert, smiling, interested in those around her. She may wave and blow kisses to the nursing-home staff as they pass by, or take my face into her palms and stroke my cheek. The next Sunday, when I arrive after church, she may be sound asleep.While she sleeps, I sit quietly, holding her hand. I would not disturb her for the world. Adsum.

Recently, I have found Annie somewhat agitated. Yesterday, seated in her room, she was clearly unhappy. In her troubled eyes, I could see frustration and anger. Eventually, Annie began to cry, deep unhappy sobs. The nurse on duty, having determined that Annie was not in physical distress, promised to come right back and to help her back into bed for a nap. In the meantime, there we sat, hand in hand, as I stroked her back.  There was nothing I could do but share her misery. There was no "quick fix"; there are only inadequate words of comfort when distress is so profound.

Waiting with others through their distress seems to have become a familiar pattern for me.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Honoring my inner Druid

Happy Samhain! Happy Halloween!

The New York Times has a great article today about the Druid celebration of Samhain, from which our observances of Halloween derive. There are about 29,000 Druids in the U.S., according to this article. Check it out here.

Samhain is a festival occurring approximately halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. It's one of the 8 great feast days in the Pagan calendar. Samhain and the two solstices are some of my favorite days of the year.

No, I'm not a practicing Druid, but I do have strong "leanings" in the direction of some of the earth-based observances. I think it's important to honor the earth, and to mark the passing of time: the cycle of the seasons, the "dying" and "rebirth" of the sun, and the other rhythms of death and rebirth we see all around us. I think it's also important to remember those we love who have gone before us into the Great Silence -- in church, we remember them on The Feast of All Saints.  At Samhain, too, the veil between this world and the next is traditionally quite thin. Halloween has turned this into a scary thing, but it need not be so. I like thinking of the Communion of Saints all around me.

Tonight will be the first night this work-week that I will be able to stay home. I will be lighting candles in memory of dearly loved relatives, and holding their memories close to my heart. I'll greet any lingering Trick-or-Treaters, though we don't have many after dark anymore.

And, yes, I may try to watch the Halloween episode of Criminal Minds, which I missed last night.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Things I can't change

Sometimes I fret.

I fret over all the things I can't fix, but would like to. You too?

Life is full of these unfixable things, and they increase in number as we age. At the moment, for example, both my adult kids are having difficult adjustments to independence. I could give advice, but I'd be interfering. My husband is also going through a prolonged and exhausting job search, which has resulted only in anger and frustration. I could advise him to step back from the process, to take a good, long look at the way he has invested so much of his self-esteem in this zero-sum game of finding a job at 58. But he's not ready to hear that. 

Oh, did I mention that I now seem to have osteoporosis? Yippee-ki-yay! Now I have to get that shot that rots your jawbone. Can't wait.  I hoped lots of dairy products and calcium pills would prevent this. But no. 

So, in the face of things you can't change, what do you do? Back in the day, I'd have drowned my troubles in various fermented beverages. These days, I turn to my Creator instead, offering one of Anne Lamott's favorite short prayers: "Help!"

Maybe help will come in the short term. Maybe it won't. Maybe help for the people I love will come in the form of wisdom after a great mistake. Maybe it will come, incrementally, in soldiering on day by day through the difficulty. 

Maybe help will take the form of self-forgiveness, if needed, and a new life-path. Maybe clarity will come in our brief, human scheme of reference, or maybe in God's. 

I need to admit that I can't fix these troubling family situations. I need to stand back, take my ego out of the way, and wait for God. 

No harder thing for a "fixer" than that!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dreamwork: little black dogs

I have a dear friend whose dog, a small, black dog named Andy, is very ill, and we're all grieving in advance along with her. Few things are as hard as the impending loss of a beloved animal companion.

Little black dogs touch my heart, as do dogs in general. But my own little black dog was Sparky. Sparky was a toy poodle who belonged to my Mom and Dad. After my Mom died, late in 1995, Sparky was Dad's closest companion when I couldn't be there. We all know the magic of companion animals: they love us unconditionally, help to raise our spirits, snuggle with us for warmth and comfort.

Knowing how my parents loved Sparky, I naturally brought him to live with my family after Dad died unexpectedly in early 1997. I had young children who adored him, and he became my 10-year-old daughter's bed companion from that moment until she went off to college.

Sparky grew old in our home, and brought me constant reminders of Mom and Dad. When he died in 2006, at the ripe age of nearly 16, Sparky severed the last living link I had to my family of origin (I am the only child of two only children). 

Or so I thought! For many years now, Sparky has appeared in my dreams, chasing through the house, sleeping on beds, begging for food at the table. He never changes, never grows older. In a recent dream, I recall exclaiming to my husband about Sparky's great age: born in 1990, he had just celebrated his 23rd birthday with us. He was the oldest dog I had ever known!

Well, it's not too difficult to understand these dreams. Grief for lost family members may take years to process, and perhaps I have some deep issues involved in letting my parents go. In my dreams, Sparky gets older, exceeding the normal lifespan of his species, but does not die. If only Mom and Dad had been able to do the same. apparently, on some deep level, I am still not reconciled to their loss.

Change and process: it's the stuff of life, what Margaret Atwood called "The Ladder of Years" in her novel of the same title. We humans resist change, cling to memory, reluctantly process our griefs. Yet process we must, though it may take decades.

In a dream one of these nights, I hope to be able to let Sparky die, and to finally move on a bit myself. Then, perhaps, he can rest in peace with Mom and Dad.

Do you have a dream you'd like to share?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Peace in the upper balcony

Amid ongoing family drama and "wars and rumors of wars," I was blessed to be able to attend a talk given by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, last Saturday, in New York City.

I hadn't been to New York in decades -- cities aren't really for me, and are not usually my destination of choice. I am such a provincial! Going to New York is, for me, like a Gaulish tribesman's arrival in Ancient Rome. But with my husband and a dear friend to guide me, I made it to the upper West Side and took my place in the upper balcony of the Beacon Theater.

Prior to the actual teaching, there was music and group song, led by monks with violin, cello and drum. The audience stood and bowed when the teacher arrived onstage. What an experience! Nhat Hanh, or "Thay" (as his students call him -- it actually means "Teacher") was small and far-away when seen from my perch. Seated in front of his accompanying group of monks and nuns, all nearly indistinguishable from each other in their brown robes, Thay has a presence that tells you how comfortable he is in his own skin; watching him prepare to speak, I felt his deep peace filling the theater.

We began with a meditation, then listened to a lovely chant. When Thay began to speak, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the theater. His voice is low -- at moments I had trouble hearing -- but he somehow manages to make you feel as if he is speaking directly to you, that you are the only other person present.

The teachings were ideal for me in the moment, facing family and global uncertainty, and focused on the several dimensions of mindfulness. One prominent point -- the need for reconciliation in order to move forward -- resonated deeply with me in light of our situation with Syria. Above all, Thay made the point that interbeing is a reality: the mud is necessary for the lotus. There is no joy if there is no suffering with which joy can be contrasted. And an "ah!" went through the audience when Thay remarked that today's fresh flower, after becoming tomorrow's garbage, eventually manifests as a flower again. Nothing is ever lost.

We are all connected, and nothing (and no one) is ever lost. Such a message of comfort in the midst of our many difficulties.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Wondering about Martin Manley

I spent some time this past weekend taking a look at Martin Manley's blog.

Manley was a Kansas City sportswriter and sports statistician. He took his own life by firearm on the morning of his 60th birthday, August 15th, 2013. You can read the elaborate suicide blog he spent a year writing at this link. It was originally posted on Yahoo, and Manley paid for it to stay there for five years. Yahoo took it down, after learning of Manley's death. The link above is to a mirror site hosted by the hacktivist group, Anonymous, who felt the content was worth saving. I guess Yahoo feared it would inspire other people to commit suicide.

It won't, I think. But you should read it and decide.

I'm a little upset by Manley's death, not because I knew him (and because I don't follow sports, I didn't even know of him), but because he was, on the day he died, only six days older than I am. Turning 60 was, he felt, the end of his productive life. I understand that aging is not a pretty business; no one wants to end up in a nursing home, though most of us will. And debility and dependence are frightening. But Manley's reason for taking his own life was clearly deeper than insecurity about his future, and reluctance to experience the loss of autonomy that can accompany increasing age:

 "Frankly, I didn’t have any major problem that would cause me to do it. I did it other reasons. I’m sure there are those that suffer terminal illness or financial  calamity or loss of loved ones or serious addictions or fear of going to jail for life or just plain depression. And, I acknowledge any of those reasons might spur them  toward suicide. But, I believe some of us who do it simply have a dark side that doesn’t allow us to appreciate life – or at least extended life - in the same way as others."
-- Martin Manley
It's that "dark side" in the ascendant that I find distressing. Don't I realize that we all have our shadow side, our own personal darkness that is always with us? Of course I do. As a spiritual director, I also know that integrating our shadow side can be a potent source of insight, part of a journey to wholeness. It doesn't have to take over. It's not the whole show, for most people. I know it happens, in cases of mental illness, but Manley does not seem to be ill, at least based on his writing.

So I don't get it. I suppose suicide made sense to Manley, in view of what my colleague referred to this morning as his probable "existential despair." I haven't felt this way (I hope I never do), so I'm in no position to judge. But ... it doesn't add up for me. Read the blog and see what you think.

Martin, rest in peace, brother.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Entering my New Crone Age

Tomorrow I will turn 60. At 9:00 in the morning, I will wake up to cronehood! I plan to spend the day with my husband in Cape May, strolling on the beach (will I be old enough to avoid a beach tag?), wading in the surf, collecting stones and shells for a small cairn in my study, and enjoying a meal by the ocean. I live no more than an hour from the closest beach, but I never seem to get there. That must change!

My mother hated this 60 year milestone. In her mind, turning 60 represented the beginning of the end: encroaching ill health, weakness, depression, isolation. She had seen this happen to her own mother, and she went down the same path. This was a typical path for quite a few of our mothers. For every woman who saw the "golden years" as an opportunity to be free of the workplace or the responsibilities of family and to pursue other interests, I knew as many (or more) in my mom's generation who saw not the interesting features on the road ahead but only the thundercloud at the end.

But many of us live longer now, if we're lucky, and we can choose to engage. A different path can be the choice, if life events permit. I am choosing to be an enthusiastic Crone. In fact, I had even renamed this blog, but then discovered that The Crone Age is also the title of a recent book, so I didn't feel right using it. So Mystical Midget has returned as Mystical Murmurs (which was not yet taken), and will continue to reflect on the funny and sad moments that fill my life, and perhaps yours, too.

And, yes, of course I will bitch and moan with the rest of you in the years ahead. Hopefully the good stops on the spiritual journey will outweigh the bad.

Watch this space. Maidens/mothers/crones, let's go!

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Just call me Spud

Chaos, chaos everywhere, and I no longer even drink (to paraphrase Coleridge -- badly).

All my family members are going through transitional times -- all, hopefully, leading to fruitful outcomes, but change is still stressful, especially when it comes all at once, and when you can do nothing to affect any of it except offer support (financial and emotional) and unflagging encouragement.

I feel like the calm eye of a small hurricane. To use a more common, kitchen metaphor,  I am a tiny little potato, bouncing around in the family stew, tossed around by the boil.

Just call me "Spud."

I now understand why some of my friends feel family life is a lot more stressful once the kids are adults. Five or ten years ago, I'd have laughed at that. A friend, the parent of two, said to me recently, "I've been parenting for 42 years! Enough already!"

I think Spud will go to the yoga center and meditate for a good, long while tonight.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

In search of my inner Martha

"My God," my mother said generously, "You're the worst housekeeper I've ever seen."

That comment resounded in my head during today's Gospel reading about Mary and Martha.  Martha is the housekeeper, the practical, capable one. Mary is the mystic, the student, the dreamer.

Mom's comment was made during my first, short-lived marriage, which took such a rapid downturn that cleaning hardly seemed a real priority. I was young, I was a college student, I was ... hardly in the mood to scrub.

I should explain that my mom was a real fan of cleanliness, and she took a dim view of anyone who wasn't. She cleaned relentlessly. Spring and fall housecleaning were real in my childhood home, not the vague memory that they have become in my own. Mom took down the venetian blinds once or twice a year and scrubbed them in the bathtub, then carried them out to the clothesline, where they flapped helplessly until dry. I never saw a dish in mom's sink; I thought sinks were intended only for dish-washing, not (as I do now) for dirty-dish storage. Mom never had a dishwasher, and never wanted one. She would have scoffed at the very idea. I would rather lose a limb than give up my dishwasher.

I have not, in this matter of cleaning house, improved with age. Mom has been dead for many years now, but I still hear her voice, puzzled, wondering at my shiftlessness. "When was the last time you wiped down these baseboards?" she often asked.

Baseboards? What are baseboards even for? They simply collect the dirt that would otherwise fall straight to the floor. Then you could (theoretically) vacuum it all up at once. If, let's say, you were in the mood.

 But I'm not. I'm a Mary, you see. Look around for the person with a book and a Diet Coke. Who's that, writing in her journal? Who's that, laboring over a blog? Giving a pass to the dirty laundry for one more day, because there's a really good, nerdy science program on PBS, and you really can wear those jeans one more time? Oh ... it's me.

I must have a little Martha in me somewhere, since we're all an admixture (aren't we?) of active and contemplative tendencies. This is how I read that Gospel story, in any case. Both the listener and the cook are important: all the disciples wanted to sit at Jesus's feet and learn from him, but they also had to eat.  Mary and Martha both had important tasks. And I'm looking for that happy medium, that Mary/Martha state. That good balance between action and contemplation, prayer and service. I hope I can find it one day.

But don't hold your breath about the baseboards. 

Monday, July 08, 2013

Smacked-down by a new "-ism"

I grew up surrounded by prejudice. Race, socioeconomic status, education -- it was all there, a judgement just waiting to happen. Prejudice was, in a sense, a generational thing, and though both my parents overcame it to an extent in later life, some of their fixed, negative ideas lingered to the end.

Not me. As a child of the sixties, I had been convinced in recent years that all prejudice was dead or dying.

Working for 30+ years in a liberal university environment, I had pretty much convinced myself that prejudice, at least along the enlightened East Coast, had become a dark shadow from the past.  I work with all kinds of folks: people of all colors, faiths, educational levels, and political opinions. All seem to blend pretty well in the educational melting pot. We make a stronger whole because of our differences, which are mostly superficial.

In a similar fashion, J. had colleagues of all varieties in his IT job.  He has a wide circle of friends and tennis buddies from diverse communities. He and I might as well be the parents on an episode of Family Ties.

Stop, wait! I can hear you snickering, Dear Reader. You're waiting for Pollyanna to meet Godzilla.

And she has.  Remember that old slogan, "You're not getting older, you're getting better"? I believed that one, too!

J. has been out of work lately, laid off at the end of January. With all his years of experience, he gets lots of interviews, especially phone interviews. The in-person interviews seem to go well. Then ... those offers don't roll in.

Ageism. I barely know how to spell it, much less how to approach it. As a spiritual director, I know what wisdom and clarity our elders have to offer; as a hospice volunteer with frail older people, I realize how precious our seniors are.  Companies have missed this point. Ageism is impossible to prove, especially since employers give no feedback after an interview. But J.'s gray hair and beard are hard to miss. With all his skills, it is hard to imagine anything else holding him back.

So, we caved.  When we got back from vacation, J. shaved his beard (which he has worn for 35+ years; the kids have never seen him without it!), and we darkened his hair. I never believed it would come to this. He does look much younger. But what is the price?

I feel slightly ashamed of us. J. could afford to retire if we tightened our belts a bit, but he really enjoys working. So I guess we have bowed to the Unholy Market Force. I feel slavish, obsequious.

I want him to revert to my happy, gray-haired, bearded, grizzled spouse after he gets a job. I want him to know how much I love him as he is. If only the hiring managers felt the same way.

Friday, June 28, 2013

A little chaos is good for the soul ... right?

The evening started off wrong, and got worse.

The commuter train, normally so reliable, had a thirty-minute delay due to a fire of unspecified source and location. It's so annoying when you never find out what really, really happened! We want all the details, and we never get them. But that's fine. After a looooong wait on the platform, I did manage to squeeze onto a train, with several hundred other people, where I stood with my face practically jammed into a large man's sweaty armpit.  Ah, the disadvantages of being short.

At home, it was a lively scene. Somehow our wireless router, as well as our four laptops, had all been hacked. I assume this is unrelated to the train fire, haha.  Family members clutched their cellphones, in various stages of having credit cards canceled and bank accounts checked. Microsoft charged us several hundred dollars to clear everything up. It was a costly security lesson.

Then I went into the kitchen. There, in a shoebox on the counter, was a baby rabbit. A perfectly lovely baby rabbit, all of six inches long, with delicate little furry feet and perfect little bunny ears. And he was perfectly dead. My daughter had snatched him from the beak of a crow aiming to carry him off for supper. Alas, she must have been a few moments too late, because he expired in the box.

So the computers were dead, the credit cards were canceled, the rabbit had died. I tell you, if I were still drinking, that would have been the night for it! I escaped the chaos and attended my book club.

On returning home, I asked my daughter what she had done with the dead rabbit. Had she wrapped it in plastic and placed it in the trash outside? Had she buried it? Where was its final resting place?

She put it in the freezer. Trash doesn't get collected until next Wednesday, and she was afraid it would attract wild animals.

So the computers were still dead, we had no available credit, and I had a dead, infant bunny in my freezer.

It was just another night in the 'hood, I guess.  

Friday, June 07, 2013

Time for the desert?

Next week I will be heading out to Wisconsin, for the Order of Julian's annual affiliates' retreat and JulianFest weekend. Nearly three days will be spent in silence before our festive weekend begins. Despite the retreat center's beautiful location on Lake Oconomowoc, I think of this retreat as my annual time in the desert. I look forward to the silence.

And so I have begun to develop piles of items to pack. Among these are:

      Journals I need to read
      Candles (the battery-powered type)
      Music for meditation
      My journal 
      My laptop
      Materials for planning a haiku retreat. 
Hmmm. God?

Where did I put him? Is he in one of the piles? Am I going to have time to listen to him, or will I be totally occupied with "stuff"? This is a real danger with me: that I will leave no real time to listen for anything the Holy Spirit may wish to say.

Lord, give me the patience, the stillness, to await your arrival in the silence of my heart.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Shock, awe, sadness, and shelters

I'll be the first to admit that I'm a weather geek. In many ways, I think I missed my calling. I watch the Weather Channel the way a lot of people watch sports: I love the science, and I want to know what's going on. My dream vacation would be two weeks of storm-chasing: riding around in a van with other crazy people who love weather. This is never going to happen, says my husband. We'll see. I have a problem with authority.
I have been fascinated with weather since I was a small child, and in fact, many of my childhood memories involve weather events. The ice storm of 1958 features in one of my earliest memories, that of my mother hanging a blanket between the living room and the dining room to conserve heat. I also recall the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, a brutal March storm that destroyed the coastal summer home of one of my childhood friends, as well as much of the beach towns I knew as a child. In my mid-teens, a dramatic microburst struck my Delaware neighborhood, taking out many old trees, and during that storm a nearby electrical tower was struck by lightning and bent in half. The wind was so high in that storm that I remember rolling up towels and stuffing them into the door and window frames, to prevent the rain blowing horizontally into the house.

I came honestly by my love of wild weather. My Dad, who also loved to watch nature's power, encouraged me to sit with him on the back porch during thunderstorms. At a certain point I realized how dangerous this was, and ceased the practice, but Dad observed thunderstorms from the porch during his whole life. We also loved to walk on the beach during what was known as a "dry nor'easter," watching the huge surf pound the Delaware shore.

And tornadoes, maybe because I had never seen one, held a particular fascination for me, probably dating from the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz. Tornadoes figure often in my dreams, where they always appear near my childhood home (a psychiatrist would probably have a field day with this). Nothing else models for me in quite the same way the raw power of nature.  A tornado is a nearly perfect expression of nature's devastating and impersonal power, and they are gorgeous and awe-inspiring to watch -- from a safe distance, which is not always possible. This is easy for me to say, because in our section of the country we tend to get the occasional wimpy EF-0, sometimes a marginal EF-1. I have never had to hide in the bathroom or laundry room, fearing for my life.

Along with the rest of the country, I've been watching the aftermath of the devastating EF-5 tornado that ravaged Moore, Oklahoma on Monday evening.  Such shock and grief! Most of us, fortunately, will never go through such terror and personal loss, at least not in the brief span of time that it takes a tornado to ravage lives and homes. In "tornado alley," what is needed is a reinforced shelter in every home, in every school.  There's not a lot that can be done to protect property from the largest monster tornadoes. Lives, infinitely more precious, could be saved with more shelters. My co-worker's sister-in-law and her family, who live outside Moore, raced for their shelter with their dog and two cats, and heard the tornado pass at some distance. And they emerged safely afterwards.

Will universal storm shelters in vulnerable parts of the country be the answer? If this would save lives, I would be willing to pay more taxes to see it happen. Legislators, take note. I don't say this very often. What worries me is the thought of folks rebuilding, in and around Moore, the same type of dwellings they had before -- houses on concrete slabs, because the cost of a basement or storm shelter is prohibitive. At the very least, shouldn't every neighborhood have a shared shelter?

I know I am not the only person thinking this way. It really needs to happen. And with global warming, will bigger and bigger tornadoes continue to roam the plans and the south? Will some parts of the country become uninhabitable, as the coastal areas are threatening to become?

But that's a topic for another blog post., I imagine. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


I'm making a pilgrimage tonight, with some friends, to the Tenebrae service at a big-city church.

I had never heard of this service, or attended one, until a few years ago. But how appropriate it seems to be for Holy Wednesday, as the creeping darkness of Holy Week begins to descend on us.

You can read all about Tenebrae here. The church is candle-lit, and the candles are extinguished one by one as readings proceed.  At the end, the final shining candle is obscured from view, often placed beneath the altar.

The comes the strepitus -- a loud noise symbolizing the earthquake Scripture tells us followed the Crucifixion. If done properly, the strepitus makes you feel as if all hell is breaking loose -- as it is, I guess.

But that's not the last word. After the hellish noise, the single burning candle is placed upon the altar, the light of Christ for all the people to see, as they depart in silence.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Kvetching about spring

I'd like to report that the spring equinox arrived safely at my home this morning. Immediately, my plants began complaining. They do this every year. They are just not patient. They are the only two large potted plants I have left, and they are excessively worried about their health. They get six months on the porch every year, but the rest of the time all they do is kvetch.

I wanna go outside, the Norfolk Island pine complained as I finished my watering duties. It's spring. Look at me! I look like crap in this dry, forced-air heat. I'm becoming straggly. My needles are dropping.

The jade plant, sitting nearby, chimed in (the jade never misses an opportunity to complain). You? Look at me! I'm straining toward the light. I'm leaning all to one side. She never bothers to rotate me.

"You can't go out yet, ladies," I said cheerfully, misting the pine with warm water, and hoping it would shut up. "It's 38 degrees out there. You want to shrivel up and die?"

But it's spring! they chorused.

Yes, I hear them. I'm longing for a break in this cold, too. Normally we have some relief by this time -- a day or two when sitting in the sun becomes a possibility. This year, no. At least the sun is out. That's the big yellow thing in the sky, in case you've forgotten.

"I'm sorry, ladies," I said to the plants. "I'm thinking one more month in the house. Then you can go out in the fresh air. In the meantime, maybe I'll get some pansies for the porch. Hanging baskets."

Pansies! moaned the pine. Low-lifes. Hanging baskets, what an insult!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cold and raw

Well, so much for the warm March we were anticipating. The weather has been rainy, cold, and raw, with stiff winds. My fur-hooded parka is longing for the closet -- or I am longing to send it there.

Still no jobs are on the horizon for J. or our son. Both had a flutter of activity early in their searches, but early hope and enthusiasm have petered out. Our home is crying out for painting, decluttering, new furniture, and rearrangement. But that's not happening. Not soon, anyway. There is disorder everywhere I glance.

We find ourselves in a rather gray place, without definition, and colorless. Easter is trundling toward us, but even I seem unable to anticipate it.

If it would warm up, just a little, I think we would all feel better!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

No comment (for a change)!

One of my Lenten practices for this year has been to "sign off" Facebook until after Easter.

I sent a little farewell message to all my friends, wished them a Holy Lent, and moved my little Facebook icon to the last screen on my cell phone, where, theoretically, I will forget to look at it.  I unpinned Facebook from my taskbar. I am now Facebookless.

Don't get me wrong: I adore Facebook. I love the interaction with people I don't see often -- or ever -- (as well as with people I do). But, for me, it had become a terrible time-waster, and a distraction from other things that need doing. What's more, it kept my mind too busy all the time. I "had" to catch up with postings; I "had" to share lots of posts; and, worst of all, I "had" to have an opinion on everything I saw.

I got tired of having an opinion.  And, let's face it, my (predictably liberal) opinions are a surprise to no one, especially to me.

I got tired of the noise in my head. I felt debilitated by the noise in my head. Facebook is only one source of that noise. But noise is never a good thing!

I'm enjoying the Lenten quiet. It may wear on me in time. But, for right now, the silence in my head is golden.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Candlemas, and other suburban fantasies

Although I admit to being a bookworm, most of the books I had during my undergrad and graduate-school years eventually found their way into the public library's book sale (because am I ever going to read Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon again? Seriously, I could hardly read it the first time). One of the few books I've saved is called English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century, by George C. Homans. I love this book, and I actually do refer to it, usually every time I find myself craving a simpler life in a more bucolic setting than the suburbs.

There's something reassuring in the recurring feasts, fasts, and labors of the medieval agricultural year, and it comforts me to read about mead-making (or whatever) whilst riding on the commuter train listening to a woman yelling at her truculent teenager on her cell phone.  Was it really simpler in the old days? I have no idea, but that's my fantasy - rising early to watch the sun rise, drinking coffee on the porch at first cock-crow. You get it.  That's why they call it fantasy -- it's not going to happen.

But I digress.  Tonight I looked up Candlemas, which is tomorrow, February 2nd, celebrates Jesus's presentation in the Temple in Jerusalem following Mary's postpartum purification, and is the occasion for the blessing of candles. Like most of our Christian holidays, this one was also probably stolen from the Pagans, as it pretty much coincides with Imholc, a Pagan festival midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  I must be a little Pagan deep down, because I really like these observances of the passing seasons of the agricultural year. After all, the word pagan derives from the Latin paganus, which means "country dweller." And it's really scary that I knew that without looking it up. Nerd warning!

In any event, Candlemas, according to my trusty book, also signaled the return to tilling the fields. Grazing cattle were driven off the field, and spring plowing would begin.  This must mean that spring came quite a bit earlier in olde England than it does in my neck of the woods.  There's nothing growing around here (that I can see) in February.

The great wheel of the year -- I love it. But that first cock-crow business? Too early for me, really. Let's be real.

Monday, January 21, 2013

After reading Denise Levertov

And from the cross he finds me,
his gaze glassy, dimming
(I'm crouching, hiding myself
behind a nearby scrubby hillock),
and says, words catching in his throat
(and after a raspy, rattling inhale,
one of his last?):
"No words are needed. Feed my sheep."

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Maxfield Parrish sky

I had a flash of grace tonight as I stepped out of the commuter train onto the platform.

Usually, by Friday night, I'm in a vegetative state. Things are very unsettled at work -- we're in the midst of major changes in personnel and workflows, and many people are anxious about the changes they sense are coming. One staff member is retiring at the end of the month; two others have gone on leave for various reasons; yet another is hoping to retire in a few months.None of the retiring people, unfortunately, are me.

But I digress.  After days of wind, low clouds and cold fog, when the train pulled away I had a breathtaking sunset view to the west: the lucid, clear turquoise sky, still illuminated against bare trees in the foreground. It was a blaze of blue that I wasn't expecting at the end of a trying week, and  a shade of blue that always reminds me of a Maxfield Parrish sky, as in the painting at left. Maxfield Parrish was a 20th-century Philadelphia artist and illustrator known for employing luminous landscape colors, and for capturing those liminal moments when day and night are about to change places.

The sky behind the trees was radiant. Right above my head, where the blue had faded to deep violet, hung the quarter-moon, and the cold air was so clear that already many stars were in evidence.

It was a night like so many other -- but a night when Creation put on a show, and I happened to have eyes to see it. Such is grace, sometimes.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Earth in the broiler ...

No surprise, this. NOAA announced today that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the U.S., and one of the two top years for extremes of weather.  Read about it here.

And now we seem all set to have another very mild winter, at least here in the Northeast.  Temperatures will climb all week, heading to a crescendo of 63 degrees on Sunday. That will be ...let's see ...January 13th. Looks like the hoodie is coming out again. Last winter, I wore my parka only 4 or 5 times. The height of the woodpile is still the same as last year. I have had only one fire, and that was on Christmas Day (for somewhat Dickensian, sentimental reasons). I feel really foolish lighting a fire and then opening the windows. Anyway, it's probably just as well, since I know my fireplace puts fine particulates into the air. The air is sufficiently screwed up already.

I also saw pictures of the Mississippi River last week, along with the speculation that barge traffic would have to be stopped on portions of the waterway because of low ... water.

What are we doing about this, people? Are we going to get serious? I keep turning the lights out in empty rooms.  Recycling every scrap I can get my hands on. I'm thinking about going solar, and buying an electric car.

I'm just afraid it won't be enough. I'm really afraid it won't be.

Friday, January 04, 2013

New year, new start ...

I woke up on January 1st feeling absurdly cheerful -- despite the fact that my winter break from work was virtually over, and the other externals of my life have not changed since the last time I posted.  Nothing is different. Everything is different.

And this feeling of over-the-top optimism has lasted (at least, it is lasting for now). Probably one source of it is my sheer relief that the holidays are over (I'm an "Easter person," not a "Christmas person"), and I do fight depression as the days grow shorter, and the pre-Christmas pace of life becomes frantic. And, perhaps it was only in my head, but the late afternoon light seemed to me to have a different slant as I left work yesterday. A couple extra minutes of light! I'll take it.

I did make some New Year's resolutions: more meditation, more study, less whining. We'll see how long they last.  Let's take a cleansing breath and get started.