Monday, December 22, 2014

Lying fallow

As Christmas gets closer, I feel the weight of the season on my spirit. "Happiest time of the year?" not in my universe. I have seen too much death in December, buried too many people in snowy cemeteries. I'll pass.

Except there's not really that option, is there? The family expects Christmas to arrive with all good cheer. My church expects the same. So I go along, even though I would rather be sitting on a sunny balcony in Mexico, looking out at a calm sea and reading a very long, fat, interesting book.

But I went to two services this weekend that helped me a bit, that lifted that December weight for awhile.

The first was a "Blue Christmas" service at a  nearby Episcopal Church. My own parish doesn't offer this, but I think it's a wonderful tradition to start. The few in attendance sat in the choir stalls, which were abundantly supplied with boxes of tissues. The readings were consolatory, referring to the brokenness of grief and disappointment we may feel at this time of year, while forcibly surrounded by Christmas music and good cheer. The Rector encouraged us to name those we mourned, and to light a candle for them in the nearby votive rack. There was also a bowl of salt water, representing God's tears, as a reminder to us that God weeps with us in our sorrow. The hymns were low-key: "Away in a Manger," "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," and "In the Bleak Midwinter."   The Music Director sang "The Wayfarer" at Communion. The service was moving and uplifting, and I was happy that I attended.

On Sunday, the day of the Winter Solstice, I played hooky and attended a Solstice service at a local Unitarian Universalist Church. The service was entitled, "Yuletide Blessings: A Winter Solstice Celebration," and included a beautiful reflection on the winter season as a time to lie fallow in the cold and dark, sink our roots deep, and reassess what we want to do in the springtime. The music was also lovely: a women's group sang a song called, "Light is Returning" as the prelude, and "Winter Solstice Round" as the postlude; the choir offered John Purifoy's "Sun and Earth" at the offertory. I felt afterwards that I had been reconnected to my roots on this planet, assured that spring would eventually come with the increasing of the light.

This is one thing we don't often get to do in the modern world -- lie fallow. Our ancestors knew that fields' lying fallow was an agricultural necessity, but we have now lost that  imperative to rest and regather our strength.

I hope to use the winter quiet -- which I hope to find after the holidays -- for some lying fallow myself.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Farewell to Old French (along with Russian, Italian, etc.)

Yesterday we finally finished eradicating the chaos in our house that came about through having painting done and all the floors refinished. The last task was moving the two huge bookshelves out of my study and back to their home in the upper hallway. With my study restored, I should be able to get some serious work done. I don't do well outside of calm, orderly environments, which is why this autumn was a real challenge for me.

In moving books back onto their shelves, I had to stop to reflect. As a medievalist, 35 years ago, I had to know a fair number of languages. Am I ever really going to open the Old French dictionary again? How about that fat Welsh dictionary -- am I going to read the Mabinogion again? And my short detour into Russian -- what was that about? Do svidaniya!

So I got out some reusable grocery bags and started filling them up. I kept all the gardening and craft books, figuring I would use them in retirement. But the dictionaries, language readers ... into the bags they went. Seriously, what am I going to do with 201 Italian Verbs? Into the bag!

Next step: off I went, with my six bags of books, to the Better World Books donation box I had seen in the shopping center. Surprise: it was gone! Perhaps they moved it -- I cruised around for a few minutes, before sensibly googling box locations on my phone.  Aha! Another one was two miles away.

So there I was, at dusk, inserting my books into the drop-slot. Farewell, Old French! It's time to put away childish things, I guess, and get on with life less encumbered.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

On keeping a low-key Advent

Advent has begun in a muted fashion for me this year.  As it's a a quasi-penitential season of waiting, this may actually be an appropriate response. Yet I'm used to a bit more in the way of anticipation.

At church, we lost the dear young man I spoke of in my last post, and his funeral was wrenching and painful.  In addition, our priest broke her ankle in the middle of a move to her new home, so we have had to deal with the question of whether we can stand to do only Morning and Evening Prayer in Advent, or whether we should seek the ever-more-elusive supply priest.

At home, we have had to deal with a bit of Family Drama, but it has been resolved for the present (we hope). We erected the Christmas tree in the living room, but it stands there naked, waiting for us to have time to trim it. Perhaps this weekend.  I finally remembered I had not ordered a wreath for the front door, so belatedly did that yesterday.

So Advent has begun with a series of half-gestures, offhandedly, as one of those tasks we have shoved to the bottom of the list. This is wrong, of course. But we lack energy to change it.

Of course, many people feel this way about Christmas, for one reason or another, it does not bring them happiness. For me, Christmas has not been the same since my parents died.  My mother died on December 15 of 1995, and J.'s mother on December 14 of 2011, so this month is  additionally freighted with bad memories. Our adult children are here for a day or two at the holiday, but it is mainly just the two of us and the dogs in the late-autumn gloom.

In this Advent darkness, as the days continue to shorten, we long for mild weather and happier times. As the Pagans celebrate the Winter Solstice by invoking the return of the sun, it makes sense that Christians celebrate the birth of the Son  at the darkest possible season.

This is all we have to hold onto in our dark places.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Broken little hearts

I am thinking a lot today about life and death, love and longing, precious memories and memories that won't ever be made. I'm trying to negotiate some understanding out of something that can never be understood. To make sense out of the senseless. I want things to be OK that can never be OK.

We lost a member of our congregation early this morning, and the hole he leaves in the fabric of the parish is huge and gaping. He was 31 years old and had been  married only a year. We lost him to a virulent cancer that took him only 5 months after diagnosis. The parish (not to mention his wife and the rest of his family) is devastated.

I'm also angry. As a person with a lot of my life behind me, I want to ask God what he thinks he's doing, taking a young person in the prime of life. I feel like breaking a few things, stomping my feet, and having a good cry. Actually, I had the good cry already.

Did I mention that I'm angry? Well, I am. Don't worry, God can take it. Remember the Psalms of lamentation?The Israelites had no trouble speaking up when they felt abandoned by God.

And yet I believe, at the same time I'm fighting through anger, that God doesn't cause cancer -- or tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, car accidents, or any of the other natural evils that kill people. In the 15th verse of Psalm 116, the Psalmist writes: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones."

So I'm trying to believe that God grieves when we grieve, that he can bring some good out of any desperately awful thing that happens.

But today we have a whole parish of broken little hearts, hearts that won't be better any time soon.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The big chill is coming

Our theme today, Gentle Reader, is the weather, as we apparently rush towards winter. We had rain for several days, leaving everything saturated and squishy, and the leaf-covered streets are perfect for accidents.. Not much raking has yet been done in my neighborhood, so the yards are also a carpet of no-longer-vibrant leaves. Some have curled into little dead cups, now filled with rainwater, tiny little ponds in the sun.

Dark comes early now with the return to standard time. After a temporary time-change reprieve, we will soon be rising in the darkness again, as well as finishing work after the sun has set. 

Doesn't one of our canticles name this the "enfolding dark"?  I don't feel enfolded. I feel benighted!

And now, thanks to former-Typhoon Nuri, the weather folks are promising us a big shot of very cold air intruding behind a sagging jet stream. Thanks, it's just what I wanted! My body is already telling me, "Don't bother getting any exercise. You really want to hibernate. Let's wake up about the end of March." Does this mean I can first bulk up on carbs? Because that's the other thing my nady wants right now.

And to make things even cheerier? No furniture on the whole first floor. All of it is sitting in a Pod on the driveway, as we prepare for the floor refinishers later this week. I have a nice fireplace that works, but nowhere to sit. I suppose the dogs and I could lie on a blanket before the fire, on the hard, hard, hardwood floor. Or ... I could do that hibernation thing! 

Pounds of pasta first, then a good long sleep. What's not to like?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mouth on legs

Well, I did it. My mother always called me the "mouth on legs."

I make a snarky remark in response to a good friend's facebook post (because, you see, I am the Queen of Snark), and I knew my friend would understand my point of view.

And she did. But a mutual friend didn't, and took it very (very very) personally.  She took it as a personal attack on herself and her family, which it wasn't. It was a general (though pointed) comment.

The original post showed a young boy with a rare albino deer he had killed. I hate guns and I hate hunting, and I wish people wouldn't teach 7-year-olds to kill innocent creatures. I believe animals have souls. I love my dogs dearly, and I don't know where you draw that line between pets and animals it's OK to kill. So I don't draw it.

And of course I commented on all this in my typical blunt fashion.

Well, you can try to smooth things over, but you can't unsay them. You can apologize for the tone. You can apologize for your lack of sensitivity in not commenting in a private message instead of on open facebook.

But sometimes you can't apologize for the opinion. You can't take the opinion back.  And then you're stuck with it, and with the anger you cause.

I will try not to do this again.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Not the blood moon ...

But the moon was extra big and bright last night as I arrived at a friend's house to work on a project. At this, my favorite time of year, early evenings can be quiet and bright, the air clear and free of the swirling .pollen that made me sneeze all simmer. The leaves are beginning to change -- just a hint of color, but the beginning of the end for them.

I'm thinking a lot of beginnings and endings right now. We are having painting done at home; now J. has started getting estimates on having the hardwood floors redone as well, since the furniture is all emptied out anyway and the house is chaotic. I love home improvement, but it can temporarily exact a toll on my love of orderliness. Yet, even anticipating how satisfying the results will be,  I realize that this.may be the last time, or close to the last time, that I will undertake a major project like this. Every beginning is an ending too, of sorts

Part of the reason we can start this home renovation, of course, is that we are empty-nesters now. I'm not.complaining, just remarking how endings and beginnings often come.in pairs -- one making way for the other.

Then there is seminary, another new thing, which fulfills my need to be learning, and seems to be going well. Where in my life it will take me remains a.mystery, and will be one for a while yet. That's OK, because life stripped of. mystery becomes just a relentless march toward death.

So the year is dying. The child raising years have ended, and the next step has begun. Doors close but windows open.

And that's a good thing, because the house smells like paint.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Autumnal Equinox don't get no respect ...

At this very moment, at the Autumnal Equinox, we're getting our last equal dose of sunlight. for the year. night and day are in balance for the last time this year.Think of it: from now until nearly Christmas, the night hours will steadily overtake the daily round, until at the Winter Solstice it will seem that the darkness has won, leaving us a short, even miserly amount of daylight.

So, how do we celebrate the Equinox? With a yawn, apparently. When I got up this morning, there was just a smidgen  of light to be seen, and my body, already thinking of hibernation, wanted to remain in bed. As to real celebration, forget it: I wanted to attend an Equinox observance, but have been unable to find one nearby.

Why is this? The Autumnal Equinox comes and goes -- don't blink, or you'll miss it. Digging in for a new school year, kids are already thinking about Halloween (remember those pumpkins our kids made out of orange construction paper? I still have some of those somewhere). In the trees, there might be a tiny hint of color, but the real colors of autumn have not yet arrived (the picture in the upper left is a tease). In the stores and malls, some merchants are already decorating for Christmas; autumn has been forgotten.

Pagans and Wiccans are a bit better at marking and reverencing the passage of time than most of us, and for them the Autumnal Equinox is known as Mabon,  and is one of several harvest festivals. It's an opportunity to give thanks for the earth's fruitfulness, and to prepare for the coming months of increasing darkness, when the earth will no longer produce our food.

Read more here, and have a thoughtful Autumnal Equinox.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

So an older woman walks into a seminary ....

Nope, don't get hysterical, it's not the one at the left. That's the General Theological Seminary, which lots of my friends and acquaintances have attended. I am way, way, way past the age limit for GTS, and even if I weren't, going there would mean relocating to Manhattan and dragging my spouse with me. Some spouses are draggable. Not mine, and that's fine with me. Can you see me in Manhattan? The very thought makes me feel ... well ... shorter. And older!

Anyway, I have a different focus in mind. Next weekend I will begin studying for my MTS (Master of Theological Studies) at the New Seminary for Interfaith Studies, at right. It's also in Manhattan (in fact it's loosely affiliated with the UN), but I get to stay in the provinces and study online most of the time. Intensives and retreats take place in the bucolic NY and MD countryside. And not only do I get to study all major faith traditions, I get to focus on Creation Spirituality. Anyone who knows me has heard me blathering on about Thomas Berry and Matthew Fox for donkeys' years. I'm hoping this additional knowledge will help me to provide spiritual guidance in contexts not necessarily Christian.

So please wish me well on this late-in-life adventure. As a perennial student, I am sure I will enjoy this program.

Or I will soon discover that I have lost my mind.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Saints still matter: St. Edith Stein (1891-1942), 9 August

St. Edith Stein is not included in the Episcopal calendar, but I wish she were. I got to know her on a retreat at a Redemptorist retreat center, where I had the run of the theological library (always a dangerous thing for me).

Born in 1891, Edith Stein was a German Jewish philosopher. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Gottingen in 1918, and was a teaching assistant at the University of Freiburg. Drawn by the writing of St. Teresa of Avila, Stein converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922, and began teaching at a Catholic school.

Forced to give up her teaching position in 1933, as the Nazis began peeling away the civil rights of people who lacked an "Aryan certificate," Stein entered the Carmelite monastery in Cologne, taking as her name in religion "St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross." While in Cologne she wrote a book on Christian metaphysics entitled Finite and Eternal Being.

As the Nazi threat loomed ever larger, Stein was sent to a Carmelite monastery in the Netherlands, where her superior assumed she would be safe. Here she continued writing, producing a book on St. John of the Cross. Arrested  in early August of 1942, she died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz one week later, on 9 August.

Some controversy persists about her canonization by the Roman Catholic Church in 1998.  Was Stein murdered because she had been born Jewish, or was she a Catholic martyr? She is one of my favorites, either way, and the person I think about when I pray, "Save us from the time of trial."

You can find out more about St. Edith Stein here, in Wikipedia, just like I did.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wars and rumors of wars

A plane carrying 300 souls is shot out of the sky over Ukraine. There's a  massacre of Christians going on in Iraq. Israel and Gaza are throwing missiles at each another. And, potentially, we might enter a new Cold War with Russia, while North Korea's Dear Leader shoots off some missiles just because he can.

Folks, things are not good. In case you missed it, the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Even profit-driven airlines are considering new, longer routes in order to avoid "conflict areas."  These areas comprise a great deal of Africa and the Middle East.

Oh, I nearly forgot ebola. Anyone see that movie Contagion? No? Well, this is not a good time. Give it a pass for now.

It's hard, even for someone who's rather genetically cheerful, to see how any of these world events is going to have hopeful outcomes.  I don't believe in that "End Times" crap, but I can (almost) see why a person might
.
Another thing I've noticed, as I've been glued to CNN. When the news is so bad, I start to have trouble concentrating on other matters that remain important on a daily level. Like reading the Daily Office, doing spiritual reading and intercession. And those are more important than ever right now.

But tomorrow is another day.   Maybe I'll do better. In the meantime, here's a poem by Wendell Berry that often consoles me.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Monday, July 14, 2014

An empty room, and a new chapter

A new chapter of life has begun for J. and me. Our son, our older child, moved out over the weekend. The long hall in the picture leads to the room containing the few items he left behind.

I thought I had great plans for this room. An enlargement of our library? A spot for yoga,  meditation, or even a good place to do group spiritual direction?  I intended to get right in there to pull up the nasty denim-blue rug which 16 years of life with our son has virtually destroyed. Those awful curtains he wanted? They're goners. I was going to blast through there like a small tornado.

Instead, something blasted through me. I stood in the middle of my son's room, and felt as emptied out as the space. J. felt the same. Tears came off and on. We watched movies and ate comfort food. I ate ice cream three times yesterday.

Today I feel better. Still empty, but with better balance. Grieving the change, but in proportion.What is parenthood but an emptying out, a kenosis?  We do as much we can for our kids, help and encourage them over the rough spots in their lives. We weep and rejoice. We help them plan and dream, and we sometimes watch them spin out of control, with unfortunate consequences. We've done all that, over the years.

I guess God feels like this, emptying Godself to create and sustain us. We please God; we disappoint God. All parents know this feeling.

Well, our fledgling has gone off to join his younger sister in adulthood. May blessings go with him. I console myself that he's only 40 minutes away.

But that rug ... I'm thinking plain hardwood might be better.

Monday, June 30, 2014

All I really need to know I learned riding the subway ...

The subway in Philadelphia has been my School of Life.

I've learned more by riding the subway than from the thousands of books I have read, the multiple degrees I have earned, and all the religious communities where I've been a member.

Ten times a week, I ride the subway from the end of my commuter train out to the University where I work. Some, like me, are going to their jobs on campus. Some are coming off third-shift jobs and heading for home. Lots of moms are taking their kids to day-care, before going to work themselves. Older people may be heading out to shop, or to a doctor's appointment. Catholic schoolgirls, in short uniform skirts and knee-socks, are riding reluctantly to school. In the winter, by the time February arrives, everyone looks gray and tired, huddled lumps of misery and winter-weariness in heavy coats and boots. In the summer, the tone is upbeat: lighter, colorful summer clothes and smiles.

And this I have learned: there are all kinds of people. People come in all sizes, complexions, and religions. That Catholic schoolgirl finds an empty seat next to a Muslim woman wearing full burqa.  A Roman Catholic nun finds her seat next to an African American woman dressed in a bright African print. A skinny, sullen teenager sprawls next to a man with a toolbelt and a lunch bucket. A very large woman takes up two seats. A man without legs boards in a wheelchair.  Here's a cyclist, bike and all, standing near (and partially blocking) the subway door. God loves variety, and it's all here, on the subway. All God's children, traveling together.

And I've seen that most people make the right choices, do the right thing, intend only good towards their neighbors. The Catholic schoolgirl gives up her seat when a heavily-pregnant young woman boards. When a young man, apparently homeless, gets on and asks for spare change, the woman in the African print hands him what she has.  The large woman gives up both seats when an older lady with a walker boards the train.

Watching CNN at night, I sometimes question my faith in humanity. Such horror, such pain. On the subway, though, when I lose my balance as the train starts too suddenly, a man reaches out to steady me. You won't see him on the news or in the newspaper. Those small acts of kindness don't make good copy.

Every day, my subway ride restores my faith in people. Don't let CNN convince you otherwise.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

The enfolding dark

Canticle 12 in the Book of Common Prayer is called "A Song of Creation." On p. 89, we find the following text:

Glorify the Lord, O nights and days,
O shining light and enfolding dark...

This canticle is my favorite, since it includes the cosmic order, the earth, and earth's peoples.All of these are to glorify the Lord, who made them. It also includes the night, my favorite time.

I admit readily to being a "night person." I awaken reluctantly in the morning, and hit my stride after 9 PM. I'm especially happy out on the porch at night.  When I was a child, we had no air conditioning (yes, it was that long ago!), so our nights were cooled by a huge exhaust fan in the upstairs hallway, which pulled in the cooler outside air through every open window. Many of us have lost that gift of an open window, in our hermetically-sealed, air-cooled homes.

My bed was against the wall, with the foot under my bedroom window. If I lay wrongside-round (with my head at the bed's foot), I could fall asleep to the sounds of a summer night: crickets, a random dog's-bark, the occasional car going by, a freight train rumbling by at a distance, or approaching thunder. If I were wakeful, I could flip over onto my stomach and rest my chin on the windowsill, watching as well as listening. Our street perched on the top of a ridge, giving me a good view of the neighborhood slanting down to the Delaware river. With benefit of moonlight, I had a wonderful view of our street and the mysterious woods at the dead-end -- houses, street and woods all silvered by the light.

I am reading a great book now. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, by Paul Bogard, is wonderfully written and speaks to my love of night. Except in the remotest spots, we can no longer experience natural darkness as our ancestors did -- we have electrified the night to the extent that we can barely see stars. We are afraid of night, barricading ourselves behind security lights (which really don't enhance our security), and our light pollution is inflicting damage on other creatures with whom we share our ecosystem, especially nocturnal creatures. Pervasive light at night is affecting us, as well: many of us have sleep disorders and disturbed circadian rhythm. We, like other animals, have evolved to function best when day is bright and night is dark. Night has gotten seriously out of whack since the development of public lighting.

Of course, darkness is all relative. My daughter lived in Manhattan for several years, and remarked, every time she came home to the suburbs, that it was "too dark and scary" when she went out at night. In truth, it's not that dark. We can see some stars in suburban New Jersey -- five or ten on a good night. Not so impressive.

I think I have seen darkest night only once. A few years ago, traveling to Canada for a church retreat, our group stopped for the night in central Maine, in a cottage on a lake. Stepping out on the deck, I caught my breath.

The sky seemed alive. I didn't know there were so many stars -- I mean, of course I did, but I had no idea that you could see so many.The black-velvet dome of the sky sparkled with literally thousands of stars. I gazed in awe, and would have stayed out longer had I not been chased inside by mosquitoes.

Let's save the night. It's a magical, spiritual time. Be enfolded by the dark!

And those outside spotlights? Let's turn them off.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Great American Lawn -- FAIL!

I live in a town that I love in most respects. I have great neighbors, who can be counted on to help in a crisis. The town government is open and responsive, for the most part. The schools are great, and did well by my kids.

But everyone seems to have a gardener. No one warned us of this before we moved in. For 16 years, we have been limping along on our own.

Why all these gardeners? It's Great American Lawn fever, right in my town! Centuries from now, anthropologists will look back at the mid-twentieth century as the period when grass went mainstream. The wealthy always had nice lawns, of course. The word "greensward," meaning an area covered with green grass, was first used around the year 1600. After World War II, however, as home ownership became possible for many, lawn culture took off.

My Dad loved his Great American Lawn. Every Saturday, out came the lawn mower, and my shirtless Dad would lovingly cut and groom his quarter-acre of green. In the early days of our marriage, even my husband fussed over the lawn. After the kids were teens and no longer playing on the lawn, we even engaged a lawn service to regularly deliver a chemical mix to encourage growth and kill weeds on the front lawn.

We gave up on the Great American Lawn when we read about colony collapse disorder, which killed many, many honeybees in our area and across the country. Though this probably arose from a combination of causes, pesticides and herbicides were probably contributors.  We canceled the lawn service in an effort to do our part to save the bees. We would pull the weeds ourselves, we decided.

Well, this was a great idea, but it never happened. The weeds are encroaching -- the most identifiable one is wild strawberry, and another type with a blue flower. Dandelions abound. Burdock sneaks into the shrubbery beds (I pull those suckers out, once they get to a reasonable height. Like five feet).

Our neighbors' gardeners pull up in their pickup trucks, towing their mowers on metal trailers behind them. They always take a good, long, appraising look at my disastrous lawn as they go by. I wave gaily. Our son cuts our lawn, weeds included, to an appropriate length.

Yes, it's weedy. But weeds are green, and bees are alive.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Naked wood, at last

To the left is my dining room table, which I have not seen in 13 years.

OK, I should explain. I have not seen the top of it in 13 years.

We never had a dining room in our old house. When we moved into the current house, presto! There was the dining room. We had nothing to put in it. It sat naked for a few years, though we finally did see our way to buying a room-sized rug for the spot.

Finally we went to a furniture sale, and bought the table you see to the left. It's a gorgeous dark cherry, which we both love. The minute it was delivered, we stuck the table pad and a cloth on top of it.  Bye-bye, table.

My mother also had a cherry dining table, and was very proud of it. Her table also lived in seclusion beneath the customary pad and cloth. I suppose she thought I might want it, and she wanted to preserve it for me. After she died, as we cleaned out the house, I knew I had to make a decision about whether to take the table.

I pulled off the cloth and pads. There it was, hidden these many years. It was pristine. It looked unused.

It was, however, butt-ugly. I loved my mother, but I hated the table. I sent it off to auction with most of the other dismal mid-century furnishings, which I also hated. That's when I bought my own table.

Two weeks ago, I pulled the tablecloth and the padding off my table. The cloth went in the wash; the pads got stowed under the bed. My husband expressed dismay. He is good at this.

"Put the pad back on! It'll get scratched. We need to protect it for Megan," he said.

"Megan will buy her own, one that suits her," I replied. "I'm going to enjoy this while I'm here. If she really wants to keep it, she can have it refinished."

He looked at me doubtfully. J. is very careful about the family legacy. But I am feeling wild abandon. "I'm going to enjoy it," I said again. "I'm going to get on top of it and tap-dance!"

"Oh brother," he said, rolling his eyes, but in undeniable retreat.

There is a lot of eye-rolling at our house. There's apt to be more before I'm gone!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Earth Day / "Black Dirt"

Earth Day, April 22, was so close to Easter this year that we weren't able to properly acknowledge it in church. So on Saturday, May 3, we're going to have "Earth Day Morning Prayer," incorporating some of the resources on offer from Earth Ministry. Then we'll proceed outside (weather permitting) to plant the bulbs used to adorn our altars for Easter.

This year's Earth Day got me thinking back again, one of my favorite pastimes.  To the left is an undated picture of the Edge Moor Power Plant, located near Wilmington, Delaware, right on the Delaware River. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s about a mile or so from this bad boy, back in the days when it was coal-fired (in the interest of truth, I should tell you that the parent company announced in 2010 that the plant was converting to natural gas). Practically next-door to it was the Edge Moor Plant, a DuPont facility that made pigment for white paint. That whole part of the riverbank was just industrial heaven, I guess; lots of people were employed there, but both plants spewed out toxins galore into the air and the water. In the 50s and early 60s, of course, nobody cared, even if they knew.

We knew something was in the air, but it never seemed like a big deal. On a mild day, if we opened the windows on the eastern side of the house, the outside windowsills were always covered with what my mother referred to as "black dirt," a coal-black, somewhat greasy, granular powder.  "Look at the black dirt today," she would remark. She blamed it on the pigment plant. I think it was the coal-fired power plant that was really to blame.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch page on the Edge Moor Power Plant, one of the toxins released into the local air we breathed was a soot-like fine particulate:

Fine particle pollution is formed from a combination of soot, acid droplets, and heavy metals formed from sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and soot. Among those particles, the most dangerous are the smallest (smaller than 2.5 microns), which are so tiny that they can evade the lung's natural defenses, enter the bloodstream, and be transported to vital organs. Impacts are especially severe among the elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease.
                
Gotta love that soot and acid, not to mention heavy metal.  It only hurts when I inhale. But, all kidding aside,
the same page attributes all kinds of woes to the air pollution produced (along with our electricity) by this single power plant. In fact, there's a handy chart:
         
Type of ImpactAnnual IncidenceValuation
Deaths31$230,000,000
Heart attacks54$6,000,000
Asthma attacks510$27,000
Hospital admissions25$580,000
Chronic bronchitis19$8,500,000
Asthma ER visits21$8,000

That's 31 deaths per year, if I read the chart correctly.  And that's some serious "black dirt."

Lots of kids I knew had asthma. A few of my friends' dads died early, of heart ailments. My own parents died of lung problems (both were smokers, of course, as were many people then).  But it does make me wonder ...

I want to live in a world with no more "black dirt," I hope that's still possible.   

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Jesus without surfboard

This is not Jesus!
Holy Wednesday.  Many churches will hold Tenebrae services this evening, as it grows dark, to commemorate the encroaching shadow of Good Friday. In my own halting way, I am limping after Jesus towards Jerusalem and the cross.

Jesus is the most real for me during Holy Week. I understand pain and loss. I have a notion of what betrayal feels like. Gethsemane might look familiar to me, were I there. Most people have suffered. Most of us have had our Gethsemane moments.Pain and loneliness are known to most of us. We have seen them written on each others' faces.

To the left, in contrast, is a photo of Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the movie version of Jesus Christ, Superstar. My grandmother had on her dining room wall a painting of Jesus that greatly resembled Mr. Neeley, except that her Jesus's eyes were blue.  This is the image of Jesus I grew up with -- Blond, Gentle Jesus. Jesus who loved the little children. A Jesus who would look perfectly comfortable with either a flock of lambs or a surfboard. Or a bong (no offense to Mr. Neeley, but .... yes).

At some point I either "got over" or outgrew Blond, Gentle Jesus. Not that Jesus wasn't kind and often gentle. But he was so much more.

The Jesus I trudge behind during Holy Week is much different. the Middle-Eastern, only-too-human Jewish prophet, who, if typical of the first century, was probably about 5'1" tall and 115 pounds (I read that somewhere; part of the great fun of getting old is that you can never remember attributions correctly. Let me apologize for filching it). Jesus was more or less homeless, a vagrant. He may have had bad teeth; he may have been undernourished. Nearsighted, probably. Fond of wine and parties. Comfortable with people considered unsavory.

Human, in other words, a real first-century human being, but enlightened in a way that we can only dream about. Jesus understood that life under the heel of Rome was not what God intended for Israel, and who knew that the class distinctions drawn in his own society did not reflect the Kingdom of God. Who acted out, spending time with foreign women, prostitutes, sinners. Who raised hell (in so many ways), and got killed for his trouble.

I am walking in his dust. He moves ahead of me on the road, a dark silhouette in blinding sunlight.

This is my Jesus, the Holy Week Jesus. Jesus of the dirty feet, walking towards Jerusalem, on a mission he suspects will not end happily.

The Resurrected Christ of Easter morning is a mystery I grapple with, sometimes rather unsuccessfully. But Holy Week Jesus? I'm following him.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Tree of hope

That's a magnolia tree there, to the left. Not one that I know personally, because we're a little far north here for magnolias. They're a real southern phenomenon -- think Steel Magnolias -- but one of my favorites.

My grandmother, who lived with us when I was little, planted a magnolia tree in the front yard. Why she would do this is anybody's guess. She wasn't from the south, but she did love flowering shrubs. And Granny could be a little ... stubborn.

So there was the poor magnolia, in the center of the front yard, on an east-facing slope in Delaware, about a mile from the Delaware river, exposed to the cold easterly winds blowing in from the river. In those days, April frosts and snow were nothing unusual.

I lived at home for my first twenty years, and I think I saw the magnolia bloom a whole  two or three times.

Most years, the buds would bravely appear and begin to swell in early spring, hoping the warn sunshine would last. Then, on a cold night, the buds would blast and fall -- unopened -- to the ground, like a flowering-shrub stillbirth. The frozen buds formed a carpet beneath the tree, the branches bare above.

"Hmmph!"  Gran would declare, looking out the dining-room window at the devastation. "Silly tree. Maybe next year." She never gave up on it, despite its unpromising performances.

There's a lesson in that, I guess, which I wish I had learned earlier in the child-rearing process. Granny never gave up on me either, even when I managed to disappoint her the most.She always trusted in next year's bloom.

And that magnolia, in years when it did bloom, was magnificent.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

God, the pattern-keeper

I'm thinking a lot about the past during these days of Lent ("That's a typical old-person statement!" my son would say). But it's true that the older we get. the more the past sometimes comes into focus: it's not just a muddy river of flowing time that has washed us up in the present. Memories begin to stand out in sharper relief. Eddies and whirlpools appear in the current. Rocks peek above the flow. Patterns emerge

Our bodies, of course, carry some of our patterns. One of the readings in my book of reflections for Lent, Lent Is Not Rocket Science, discusses genetic patterns. The writer notes that, although the many different types of cells comprising our bodies die and are replaced at varying rates, our most essential physical patterns, encoded in our DNA, remain pretty much the same, preserving our uniqueness. I am short and have gray eyes; these patterns will not change, though the cells in my skeleton and in my eyes will be renewed over time.

People also build their lives according to patterns of beliefs, behaviors, and predilections. My grandparents, for example, loved gardening. Pop-Pop raised absolutely killer tomatoes -- I can still see them, lining the chain-link fence on the sunny side of the backyard, waiting for me to gather them in.  At the top of the slope, he grew peaches, beans, and rhubarb. Granny's thing was flowers: we had lilac bushes in the upper yard, roses in a long bed in the lower yard, and banks of hydrangeas, always stunningly blue, outside the back door.  Peonies, ants and all, graced the sunny side of the house.

My mother, on the other hand, killed plants with a glance. But she could do all types of needlework at an expert level. She also played piano beautifully in her youth. Needlework and piano were part of her pattern.

Dad loved boats and the water. As a young boy, he spent every summer in his little rowboat on the Elk River near Charlestown, Maryland.  After serving in World War II, he was just a year too old for the Merchant Marine Academy, which had been a dream of his. As an older person, he often sat in a park overlooking the Delaware River, observing the freighters going downstream into the bay. He could identify a ship's country of registry with one glimpse of its maritime flag.

These were some of the patterns of my family, which made each person precious and unique, to me and to God. I believe these patterns are preserved somehow, as we pass into the next life. I believe we will recognize each other, though I can't imagine what that will look like.

I believe our patterns are safe with God.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Donut holes with the enemy

As winter fades into spring, I am attempting to do some (more) inner work on myself. It's actually a plan without an end. Once I get a bit of control over one fault, another bubbles up to laugh at me. Haha! Yes, you're sober now, but you're still a bitch at home! Tee hee! And hypercritical? Yeah, that's you! Also, did I mention lazy? 

What's bubbling right now is that ol' tendency I have to be judgmental, when I encounter something, or someone, that I don't like. This falls within a wide range, and covers everything from bemoaning others' right-wing political opinions to laughing at those Walmart pictures of chubby women in stretch pants and skinny tops. Equal-opportunity condemnation! And it takes place mostly in my head, which is undoubtedly a bad thing. It means that I avoid situations I don't like, but I condemn them secretly.

A few posts ago, I recounted my speechless, liberal shock-and-horror when a relatively new person in our congregation, offered a suggestion that we should all support Chick-Fil-A in its corporate dislike of LGBT people. As a "progressive," I was way out of my comfort zone, and didn't even try to deal with her on a personal level. I certainly had enough to say out of her earshot, however. And none of it was nice.

Anyway, she has turned up again in church. Another choir member spotted her yesterday, and pointed her out to me. This is apparently not the first time she has returned.

"Love your enemies" was one theme of yesterday's Gospel reading.  This made me profoundly uncomfortable, which is probably the point, since the Gospel is intended to burn before it soothes. And burned I was. I got to coffee hour, and there she was, at a table by herself. No one had bothered to sit with her. This is something that never happens at our church -- we are a really loving bunch of people, and we make inclusiveness our goal. But no one approached her. The problem was, as my mother would have phrased it, that people "didn't know whether to shit or go blind."

I miss my mother. She called it like she saw it. She never bothered with secret condemnation. She would tell you right off.

So down I sat , after having cranked up my flagging courage and gathered a few donut holes on a plate. The woman  (whom I will call "Molly") was pleasant enough as I reintroduced myself , and we passed the time of day.  We vigorously approved the coffee-hour treat selection, and the large group of adorable kids in the first-communion class. We talked about good thrift-shops we had discovered in the area. Then I asked her if she had found a job yet, referring back to a conversation we had had a few weeks ago, and the waters closed over my head.

"Of course not," she exclaimed. "Those immigrants are taking all our jobs! I won't find a job until they close the borders!"

Well, I hope they don't do that, I thought. That would be a bad, bad thing. I think I made a sympathetic, noncommittal croaking noise, however.

"Let me ask you," Molly continued, "Do you read the Bible?"

"Of course," I said. I probably should have been more specific: I read the sections of the Bible that are called for in the Daily Office (and usually only the Gospel, since I read Evening Prayer from an app on my phone). It's not what I think of as "Bible-reading." But never mind.).

"So you know what it says about homosexuality?" she persisted.

Oh, here we go, I thought. Is this where I get up and start screaming? "You mean the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis? " I asked mildly. "Everybody likes to use that as an anti-gay proof-text. "

She looked at me expectantly.

"Well ... um ...um ..." I mumbled. "Don't you think Genesis is a little .. um .. late-bronze-agey for us?" You know, a little outdated, like the Nicene Creed,  said the howling voice in my head, written by 4th-century dead guys. It could use a tweak here and there, too. Along with a lot of other doctrine. I could go on ...

She looked at me reproachfully. Before she could reply, God took mercy on me, and we were joined at the table by another parishioner, a dear friend who happens to be gay. The talk turned very general at that point (a very good thing), and it soon became time for me to leave to help with a home communion. We all departed together and went our separate ways. "See you next week," I said to the woman.

Will she come back next week? I hope so. Despite our being so liberal, there is obviously something here in our church that she needs.  I hope she finds it, or it finds her. And I hope to stay out of the way of that, and to allow her her own opinion, whether I like it or not.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Resting phase

It's been a very long winter. The hymn, "In the Bleak Midwinter" says it well. We've had "snow on snow" here in the middle-Atlantic states.

I feel as if we have had snow on the ground most of the time since the second Sunday in Advent, when our first snow fell. That first snow was just a tease. We were thrilled -- it's relatively unusual for us to have snow before Christmas. This was light snow, fluffy and beautiful. Newly-installed Christmas lights looked even more brilliant and twinkly than usual. Travel was not much affected. Light snow is the best possible harbinger of the Christmas quickly approaching. It's a seasonal enhancement.

After Christmas, however, the snows kept coming, accompanied by some of the coldest air we have had here in decades. The "Polar Vortex" settled over us, freezing the earth "hard as iron" (more hymn lyrics). My hardy fern on the porch shriveled up in mute protest. The heat pump could barely cope. We built fires to make ourselves feel better, though we both realize that fireplaces suck out the heat produced by the furnace.

A friend remarked the other day that he finally realizes why suicide and alcoholism are such social problems in Scandinavia. "I look out the window," he exclaimed, "and everything is dead. The bare trees seem barer than usual. The landscape seems tragic. It's as if permanent winter has settled on us."

I, too, am more tempted than usual by the pathetic fallacy. The trees are skeletal, the piles of snow, by this time, are filthy and repellent. In my head, however, I know the trees and plants are only dormant, storing up in their roots the nourishment they will need for the growing season ahead. The winter is their "resting phase."

I hope this is my "resting phase," too -- that I can somehow store my cabin-fever-induced energies for a warmer season. When Lent and spring finally arrive, I hope I am ready.

Meanwhile, more snow will arrive tonight. When will spring arrive? We are more than ready.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Ars longa, vita brevis

Every year, our local ministerium celebrates the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with an ecumenical service featuring separate musical offerings by four local church choirs, followed by two anthems performed as a massed choir.

This year, St. John's choir dedicated our performance to Mr. Rodger Maro, who had been our organist and choir director for the last 15 years, until his death on June 23, 2013. We love and miss Rodger, and our last year with him was a time of great sadness but also of great closeness. Our wonderful new organist and choir director, Trish Fronczek, was key in helping us to prepare this musical tribute.

The MP3 file that Trish recorded is at the link below. The first anthem is entitled, "Simple Song of Peace," and the second is "Night of Silence," which we sang a cappella. Preceding the performance, you will hear Phyllis Sowers, head of the choir, announcing the dedication.

Click here! You might also have to click "Download" to actually hear anything.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Monday sing-along

I can't promise a sing-along every week, but I've been listening to a lot of Peter Mayer's music lately, so here's a sample (see YouTube at end of post).  This is one of my favorite songs, "Church of the Earth," and it's a rehearsal tape. The singing stops at about 4 minutes. Lyrics are below, video follows. Enjoy!


The ceiling is high
To let your soul rise
Up to the angels who teach you to fly
And when you're weary of clouds
It helps you back down
And welcomes you home
To this hallowed ground

Chorus:
It's gilded in gold, gilded in rust
For heaven below and heaven above
The heaven we know here in this world
Here in our holy church of the earth

The windows are wide
So darkness and light
Mystery and Beauty meet you inside
And there's room enough
To hold all of us
Who gather in friendship
Gather in love

[Chorus]

Church of life
Ancient and bright
Life that inside us shines
Life that we share
This is our prayer
That we may always find
The heaven we seek
Here at our feet
Here in this sunrise
In this heartbeat

[Chorus]


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Inflexibly liberal .....

On this little spiritual journey called life, I sometimes surprise myself ... and not in a good way.

All my life I have floated along in my little liberal, progressive bubble. I proudly attend a liberal church. I work at a university, where all my colleagues share my opinions. I allow myself the luxury of thinking that most people agree with me. Because, why not? All the crazies are on Fox, right? Or in the red states (forming a long list of places where I can't retire).

Well, today I learned differently, and it wasn't a lesson that went down easily.

 At the end of the service this morning, a woman in our congregation rose to make an announcement. She is relatively new; we have chatted a few times, but I don't really know her. I'm embarrassed to admit that I can't remember her name. She proceeded to exhort all of us to eat all three meals at Chick-fil-A on January 21st, to show our support for their refusal to do business on Sundays. As my three constant readers know, Chick-fil-A has also been in the news for their anti-gay positions. "Let's show everybody we're a Christian nation," she concluded.

 In a liberal Episcopal congregation with numerous LGBT members, this suggestion was followed by an absolutely thunderous silence, as if we had all just noticed the turd in the punchbowl. I leaned over to the choir member on my left and whispered, "Oh no." What I was thinking was, Oh, shit. Our liberal point of view was under attack.  My reaction would have been the same if Bill O'Reilly or Megyn Kelly had parachuted into the middle of the nave, ready to spout Fox News lunacy.

Into this dismayed, embarrassed silence broke the strains of the recessional hymn, effecting our rescue. During coffee hour, after the service, there was much eye-rolling and dignified, Episcopal consternation. I avoided the woman who had spoken, since I did not trust myself to remain civil.. She apparently spent time with our rector, claiming that 98% of gay men are drug users, and most of them abuse boys.

Where do people get this stuff?  How do they swallow it all?

That's a question, of course, but it's not the question. The question is, why was my immediate inclination an aggressive one? My instinct was to get up in the woman's face, like a bunch of cootiebugs on a dunghill. There's no excusing her opinion, but she's entitled to hold it, and to express it. I know that -- and I'm a real fan of the First Amendment. That would be the First Amendment that's for everybody, not just for people who agree with me. I certainly was quick to condemn, and to mutter behind her back.

So I'm not feeling very Christian tonight. Less eye-rolling and more dialogue might be a really good New Year's resolution for me, even -- especially -- with people whose opinions I don't share.