Sunday, May 12, 2013

May her children arise and call her blessed

A quick peak out of exam-land to say Happy Mother's Day to the woman who has shaped every piece of my self by giving to me from every piece of her self.

On Thursday evening I had the joyful experience of having a group of Italian friends over for an American dinner.  “Grazie,” one of them said as he entered for his first home-cooked American meal, and I instinctively countered, “O no, grazie a te!”  It was, after all, more blessed to give hospitality than to receive it, more blessed to open my home and kitchen and life than to have them for myself.  This lesson I learned from my mother.

After all, one of the joys of my childhood was watching our home get larger as it became more full of people who were welcome to be a part of the family as long as they would like.  I didn’t piece together until years later that these people were needy—the Vietnamese refugee, the young couple in transition, the family who had lost a job, the high-schoolers with trouble at home, the young adults trying to get on their feet.  To me they were simply more people to love; I had taken a cue from my mother that these people were gifts to us, that the more crowded our kitchen table became the more love there was to go around.  If I am a hospitable person, it is only because I learned hospitality from my mother.

As I finished the last touches of the meal and the Italians settled onto the couch, one of them noticed a half-finished watercolor I had left in a corner until I could find time to return to it.  “I didn’t know you paint,” she said to me.  “Did you take art classes in college?”  I hadn’t, of course—I hadn’t taken any art classes since the ones my mother enrolled me into at the recreational center in my childhood, and they certainly were not where I developed as an artist.  The only reason the artistic bug stayed with me into adulthood was that I had long ago learned to love art from my mother.

After all, one of my earliest memories involves not love of but frustration with art, as I threw away page after page in my unsuccessful attempts to draw a smiley-face, each one mysteriously becoming a frown despite my greatest efforts.  It was my mother who found me there with my pile of scattered, discarded frowns, who sat with me and taught me to follow the curve of the face with my marker.  Ultimately it was my mother who taught me not to fear my pen, and I have never put it down entirely since then.

Finally me and the Italians sat down for dinner, and I served them sweet potato soup of my own devising (it was my mother who taught me not to be afraid of experimenting in the kitchen), pot roast with vegetables and gravy (for my mother had taught me that the crock pot is the busy chef’s greatest secret), asparagus (which mom always served us fresh from the garden in the spring and summer), homemade roles (it was mom, of course, who taught me to kneed dough), and strawberry shortcake (my favorite desert that my mother made).  We ate on the lovely green china that my mother, the bargaining genius, bought me for ten dollars at a garage sale—she had always taught me that the best things are not always the expensive ones, and that the world is full of treasures for those who are mindful enough to look for them. 

When we had finished eating, we sat on my front porch, admiring the spring bulbs that were popping up just like my mother said they would when she gave them to me this winter, which I had planted and watered as my mother taught me to when I was a little girl.  As we rocked on the rocking chairs that my mother had driven out to the Midwest in a U-Haul when I moved here three years ago, we admired the pleasant spring evening and the sky, and my heart was full.  After all, my mother had taught me to love porches and evening breezes, to watch the twilight sky with the captivating sense of expectancy with my friends had been watching TV.  My mother had taught me to love beauty.

There were countless reminders of my mother 800 miles away that evening; to list them all would be tedious.  There are ways that sharing my beautiful home with foreign friends made me feel beautiful, but it was all a borrowed beauty, or rather an inherited beauty, or rather a beauty passively received over time from a woman who laboriously taught it. I can write about the beauty of my mother’s lessons (with the words that my mother taught me to speak and later to read and write), but my mother had loved me with more than words: she loved with actions.  In her, the word became flesh and cooked then thousand dinners among us, leaving its fingerprints upon me in the process.

I love you, Mom.  If it is indeed more blessed to give than to receive, then you are blessed indeed.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Beauty and Agony

On Labor Day I said goodbye to the Welches' Farm.

I sloshed through morning dew as the sun lit the corners of the wheat stalks on the sacred ground, pulling back the curtain of dawn for me for the last time.  It was smaller than it had been in my childhood: a smaller driveway circled beside a smaller white farmhouse surrounded by smaller flowerbeds beside a smaller chicken coop on the way to a much smaller barn (how could such an enormous fortress have shrunk that much!).  Mrs. Welch welcomed me inside the hallowed walls of the kitchen where I had ate so many carbon-copies of the same hearty meals, the only room that had actually grown larger now that it was missing the table that somehow managed to hold the members of both of our families of six together while we ate and listened to Mr. Welch read from the Bible while I drew portraits of him and his silver beard.  Most of the homemade posters of Bible verses and magazine clippings of beautiful images had been removed, but a few lingered in corners or taped to boxes of dusty mason jars filled with no-longer-fresh herbs. 

I said goodbye to the basement where we had huddled during a tornado while my father watched it from the driveway.  I said goodbye to the living room where Mrs. Welch’s voice, both gentle and strong, had recited the litany of prayers every night before bed.  I said goodbye to the piano room, long since bereaved of its piano, where the Welch sisters and I would stage performances of The Music Band of God for which we would spend hours practicing, designing fliers, and distributing tickets to our family members.  I said goodbye to the creaky stairs that I was sure would break and send me careening to the depths beneath one day, but that certainly never would now.  I said goodbye to the attic that still smelled of honeycomb.

It was hallowed space, space that had become more hallowed to me the more my own life became unstable, the more people stepped out my world and the ground under my feet changed from Midwestern farmland to southern clay to thin tobacco soil to Parisian boulevards to urban sidewalks.  Whatever side of the world I might find myself, I had known that there was still a wholesome farm where the same family was eating the same bowls of oatmeal for breakfast every morning, and the doors of that place of peace would open for me when I returned.  Now they opened for the last time. 

They opened for the last time because Mrs. Welch had attempted suicide recently, and in her process of healing the doctors discerned that the farm was not a safe place for her.

They opened for the last time because the children had grown up and fled the isolation and monotony of their childhood.

They opened for the last time because while the farm held all the beauty of my childhood memories, it held darkness as well. 

And that morning, as I walked on my longer, adult legs beside Mrs. Welch who sang to welcome the morning, as we fed the cats and watered the flowers as if it weren’t for the last time, as I looked into her wise eyes that had discerned some of the dark places of my childhood, I felt invited to love the dearest place of my childhood in a deeper way than I had before.  In a way I couldn’t have as a child, I could love the place and see its darkness.  I could learn of the pain that walked up the creaky stairs that still savored of goodness, supporting healing from the pain while still loving the goodness. 

The world resounds with beauty while it trembles with agony.  Let me not ignore the agony.  Let me never forget the beauty.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Put your sword away

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."

He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it."
I always thought Peter tended to get a bit unfairly characterized as the impulsive man with a big mouth and no follow-through.  Comparatively, at any rate, he certainly seems to show a lot more devotion than the other disciples: a lot of zeal with some real evidence of love.  I mean, let’s think of the things he tends to be criticized for:
  • Jesus is walking on the water in a storm.  When Peter realizes that it is him, he asks if he can join him on the water, and then he proceeds to walk out of the boat in the middle of a raging storm in order to be near him.  Apparently he got a little scared, but I mean, everyone else was still on the boat.
  • He and James and John see Christ transfigured standing between Moses and Elijah.  Peter is the one who speaks up and wants to set up a place of worship for the Messiah and those who have prepared the way.
  • He drew his sword to defend Jesus in the garden.  Apparently he should have known that Jesus wanted to get arrested.  In any case, his later denial is more complicated than a mere fear of death; he was willing to die defending Jesus right then and there.
  • Which brings us to his most infamous shortcoming: he denied Christ... when all the other disciples other than John had fled and hid.  Peter and John risked their lives to follow Jesus all the way to the High Priest’s courtyard.  John apparently had connections with the High Priest, so it was Peter who was most vulnerable in that moment, and he had willingly placed himself in that situation. 
Whatever faults Peter had, it didn’t seem to be a lack of follow-through, and it hardly seems to be fear.  At the Last Supper Peter declared that he was willing to lay down his life for Jesus, and in the Garden of Gethsemane he showed himself willing to put his money where his mouth was.  Peter showed no hesitation dying for the Messiah.

No, where Peter failed in the gospel reading from this morning, quoted at the top of this page, was not a fear of dying for the Messiah, but of suffering beside him.  Peter was all too willing to die in order to establish the reign of the triumphant King of the Jews; he was not prepared, no matter how many times Jesus foretold it, for the Messiah to be the one doing the dying.  The only way to follow a dying Messiah is to suffer shame and humiliation beside him, to give ones back to those who beat him, ones cheeks to those who plucked his beard, not shielding ones face from buffets and spitting.  It is not to die for him; it is to die with him.

Peter’s difficulty is still ours today.  The Messiah did indeed come, but the fact that he is not the kind of Messiah we feel that we so desperately need has not become any easier.  We are still as confused as we ever were.  We are still waiting even after his resurrection.  And he is still exhorting us to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses, and to follow him into his suffering and our own.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Divine Thrusting On

I’m short profound, inspiration observation from my daily life this week, but since I've promised to try to post every Sunday night, you’ll have to make due with an observation from my exam reading (one that I've pondered before in a few better entries, in fact).  Non-academic readers, receive my sincerest apologies.

One of the exciting things about reading for comprehensive exams is that the inundation with sixteenth-century literature is sharpening my perception to repeated themes.  The past two weeks have been particularly inundated with Shakespeare.  See if you notice these repeated themes, all from different plays:

[My deformed birth] plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick;

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion...and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting on.

Men at sometime are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

The first is from Henry VI, part 3 right after Richard (later Richard III) has murdered the title role and explains that his malice results from the defects of his birth.  The second is from The Tempest where Prospero describes the islander Caliban, explaining that his savage nature prevents the possibility of reformation.  The third is from King Lear, in which the crafty Edmund explains to the audience that his villainy does not result from his bastard birth but rather from his own will.  The final is from Julius Caesar in which the ambitious Cassius attempts to convince Brutus to murder Caesar, a betrayal that will bring down the republic and secure Brutus’ position in infamy as a traitor.

All characters seem to be asking, in the face of tragic villainy, whether our wickedness comes from within or without, and (more importantly) whether it is destined or avoidable.  

I find that in the face of my own monstrosities, I want to stand beside Cassius and Edmund who insist that we can take hold of our own destiny, that the accidents of our circumstances do not control our future.  And then I find myself, like the crafty bastard Edmund, taking hold of my destiny to bring it deliberately to the places I insisted I wasn’t destined to go. 

As a Christian, of course, I have the easy God-answer that seems like it would save me from the despair of Caliban and the ambition of Cassius: God can snatch me out of my own monstrosities and save me from my natural corruption.  But when he doesn’t, when year after year my weaknesses or deformities or struggles or corruptions remain, I’m not sure I like the answer that would imply to the question.

Maybe it is the wrong question to begin with—how I got this way or whether I can change.   Maybe that is why it is the Shakespearean villains who are asking it, and why they can never come up with a consensus about the answer.  Maybe that is why my attempts to find the Christian answer to the question are equally unsatisfactory.

I’m not sure what a better question might be, and I’m open to suggestions.  In the mean time, I’ll accept the grace to admit that I can’t always take hold of my destiny, and hope that such an admission does not abandon me to despair.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The glory of Lebanon

Fair trees! wheresoe'er your barks I wound
No name shall but your own be found.
-Andrew Marvell
 My old housemate Paul from my commune-days, in addition to his Easter fish breakfasts and his wild celebation, was infamous for his stories.  One of my favorites involved the time a Romanian pastor who was somewhat of a horticultural fanatic visited his community in the very lush city of San Francisco.  Because of the Bay Area’s year-round temperate and rainy weather, it supports a wide range of plant life, including many that are only found in rainforests.

“What’s that one called?” the wide-eyed Romanian asked Paul as they walked.

“Gee, I don’t know that one,” Paul answered awkwardly and somewhat deceptively.  Truth be told, it was not just “that one” whose name had escaped him.

“Ooh, what’s the name of that one?” the Romanian chimed within the next minute or two in their stroll through the veritable horticultural wonderland. 

“You know, I actually don’t know much about plants,” Paul replied a little more truthfully.

This admission did not deter the enthusiast, however, and soon as their walk took them by another green spectacle he interjected yet again, “Wow!  What do you call that one?”

Finally Paul attempted to make himself clear.  “Look, I actually don’t know the names of any of these.  I might be able to point out an oak on a good day, but I can guarantee you that I will be entirely unable to give you the names of any of the plants that you don’t already know.”

As the full confession sunk in, the Romanian looked at Paul with shocked surprise.  “But Paul,” he gasped at bit breathlessly, “if you don’t know their names, how can you love them?”

How indeed.

I remembered that story this week as I attempted to do damage control on my poor urban garden that has never really gotten very far off the ground.  I thought about the lush world of beauty around me, the many unique spectacles of nature that I pass by every day, rarely noticing them enough even to wonder their names.

And I thought about the redemption that we long to be a part of, whether the redemption Christ began in the Incarnation or that which he will complete in the New Creation when “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad” and “the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus.”  What a very earthy redemption that will be!

Come Lord Jesus.  In the mean time, may we be attentive to prepare places for you in the physical matter of the creation that waits with us for new birth.  May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and may we there with shovels in that earth to hallow the places we inhabit. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Despite herself

My elegant grandmother, a relic of an age gone by with the Old South dripping from her accent and syntax, never saw my sister’s fiancĂ©. 

“Now Sweetie Pie,” she had crooned to me across the breakfast table when I was about twelve, “what would you think if your brother came home one day and said, ‘Hey look y’all, I got married!’ and had a colored girl on his arm?”

The scenario confused my tender, adolescent brain, and after staring stupidly at her regal poise that awaited my response, I stammered the only reply I could articulate for this outlandish hypothetical.  “Well...” I hesitated, “I’d be really upset that he didn’t invite us to the wedding.”

There was a delay in Gramma’s chortle before she finally seemed to determine that I was joking.  “I mean, Doll Baby,” she winked good-naturedly, “what would you do if your brother wanted to marry a colored girl?”

I still blinked my innocent confusion, not feeling like I had been given enough data to determine a response.  “Do you mean,” I asked again, “without us getting to know her first?”

Finally Gramma seemed to determine the conversation would go more smoothly if she simply told me what she wanted to say.  “No, Baby Girl, I am just trying to point out that it is wrong for the races to mix.  There are many lovely colored people out there, and they should marry each other and have other lovely colored babies.  If the races mix, pretty soon there won’t be anymore races and we’ll all be a bunch of mongrels.  You wouldn’t want your brother to have a bunch of mongrel babies, would you?”

Dumbfounded, I had honestly not realized this was still a thing.

But my grandmother never saw my sister’s fiancĂ©.  Oh, she met him several times in the past year before she died; she laid her frail, dignified hand in his caramel fingers, she interrogated him with regard to his life goals across the breakfast table, she offered him her litany of proverbs interspersed with her ever-changing anecdotes form her own life.  Essentially blind for the past six years, she could drill her sharp blue eyes into his sepia face without ever suspecting the nice young man to whom she spoke was one of the mongrels she had feared we might all become. 

Gramma’s blindness tortured the last years of her life before she died this summer, and in no way do I suggest that it was a good thing or that she deserved it.  Nevertheless, there was a bit of a poetic justice to the fact that her agonizing debility gave her access to a relationship that would have been barred otherwise.  Because she couldn’t see his face, Gramma could recognize him to be a nice young man for her granddaughter to marry.

I like to think that my perception of the world will become clearer as I age.  But until my heart is healed of its hardness, it is good to know that my debilitations can break down the barriers I have put around it.  I welcome the healing, even when it must come through ailment.  May we all find healing despite ourselves.

Back in blogland

Welcome back to my blog, any readers who might still be out there!  After my extended and unintended blogging hiatus, I am reviving this old space, hoping to post (at least) weekly as a counterpart to my reading-intensive schedule this year (read: comprehensive exams).  Posts should go out Sunday nights.  Here’s to hoping grad school hasn’t sapped all the non-academic writing out of me for good!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lent I

There is no right way to dissever rubble—
Just shard by shard on pirouetting toes
That flit between the groaning rafters, those
Who lifted up their heads and now pay double
Under dust. So on the chafty stubble
Lay out each shattered plank, each corpse that froze
In his own trenches where the poppy grows
Along his veins; for man is born to trouble.

I cannot be rebuilt from my own grout;
Dismantle my decay to feel the sun,
For what is living in these mildew eaves
Is not myself and I would sweep it out.
For you who resurrect yourself have done
The same in souls as in the budding leaves.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
I got home this evening with enough time before dark to shovel the three inches of snow that had accumulated during the day. Armed with shovel and broom, I made my way outside.

About five minutes into the job, a woman came by with a shovel and started talking my ear off.

“I’m just coming by to say hello, know what I’m sayin’? What a pretty dog you have there! I have a dog too, a little terrier named Pepper. She got a brown patch by her eye and a red one on her back, you may have seen her. There’s quite a lot of snow isn’t there? I came home today and had to do just what you’re doing here now. Now I’m just going around and saying hello, preaching the word ya know, and I got this shovel here, but I don’t mean to shovel no snow. I’m just going around spreading the message. I live over on Portland near the Mayor’s house, but my real home is over at Bethel Baptist, at all the Lord's churches really. You can ask anyone there, they all know Sister Mini. Have you ever seen my dog? Her name is Pepper. That way if you ever see her running around you’ll know who she is...”

As she proceeded and I wished she’d hurry up and ask me for money so I could get back to work, I had time to prepare my response.

“ I’m wondering if I could shovel your sidewalk for a little money,” she finally finished.

“I got this under control,” I told her. “But ya know, the folks next door are two single mothers with a ton of kids, and I’m sure they’d appreciate it if someone would shovel their place for them. I'd pay you for that.”

“Oh, I can do that!” Sister Mini beamed. “I’ll get their driveway and porch and shovel the sidewalk on both sides so the kids can get to the bus.”

“How much do you want for that?” I asked, quickly assessing that it was about a half-hour of work.

“Ten dollars,” she chimed right away. Ten bucks, huh? I decided not to be stingy, and agreed to the price. It was more than I’d expect to earn for a job like that, but I’d consider if a gift to my neighbors and to the Sister Mini at the same time.

Finally able to get back to work, I proceeded to shovel my porch, sidewalk, and driveway in the amount of time it took her to do the neighbors’ driveway. As she worked, she rattled on and on about her ministry and children who were all in higher education (though one was apparently in jail, which is why she needed twenty dollars to send him) and about how she wouldn't normally do this except that she could help a sister in need, allowing me occasional moments to say nothing more than “Yeah” in response to her “Ya know what I’m sayin’?” Her work was delayed every couple minutes when she stopped to talk to anyone who walked by.

When I was finished with my shoveling and she was just getting to the porch, I decided to shovel the empty lot beside me to be social. Finally I went inside as she was just starting the sidewalk.

In a couple minutes the doorbell rang. “I’m done,” she announced. “I’m ready for my twenty dollars.”

“It’s ten dollars,” I said. “You’re done already?”

“Yes ma’am I’m done,” she said. “But look ma’am, that snow on the porch was real deep, and I need twenty dollars. I gotta send it to my son, ya know what I’m sayin’?”

“We agreed to ten dollars,” I maintained. “You really did both sides of the house? You got the other side too?”

“Yes ma’am, I did,” she maintained. “Look, I really need twenty dollars.”

“Let me go see,” I said, walking over to the corner while she rattled on about what a good job she had done and how deep the three inches of snow had been. When I arrived at the corner, I saw that she had not touched the other side. “We agreed to both sides of the house,” I said. “You haven’t done the other side like you said you did.”

“Oh, my bad,” she said as she headed around the corner. “I got it.”

I returned inside, not at all amused (or surprised), and planned my response to her inevitable demand for a double-payment, twenty dollars for a job that took 45-minutes.

When she returned asking for her twenty dollars, I was ready. “We agreed to ten dollars...” I began before she cut me off.

“Yeah, but that snow was real deep,” she insisted. “How ‘bout we split the difference and call it fifteen?”

“We agreed to ten,” I repeated, “but ya know, the house on the other side is abandoned, so no one’s gonna shovel that sidewalk. If you get the sidewalk from the alley to the other side of the house, I’ll give you twenty.”

“I see you’re a sharp businesswoman,” she complemented me. “You got yourself a deal.”

Not too sharp a businesswoman, I grumbled as I went back inside. She gets an extra ten dollars for an extra ten minutes of work? She’s making a killing on this. I don’t even get minimum wage.

I had hardly sat down and picked up my books when she knocked on my door again. “I’m going home,” she proclaimed. “I want my twenty dollars.”

“You already got that sidewalk?” I asked dubiously, knowing it was impossible to have done it in two minutes.

“Yes ma’am,” she said firmly, “and I’m going home now to let my dog out. I didn’t want to shovel no snow at all today, I was just doing it to help a sister and proclaim the word.”

I looked at the sidewalk and saw that she had managed to clear a shovel-width path. It was not at all worth what she was getting for it, but at least it was something. By this point I was too annoyed to argue, and thought it worth paying the full price just to get rid of her.

“Here,” I said, handing her the money with obvious frustration.

“You’re welcome,” she chirped with deliberate cheerfulness, adding a bow for dramatic effect. “This isn't Egyptian slavery, ya know? Ya know, I wasn’t even plannin’ on shovelin’—I just came by ‘cause I always admired you. Have a nice day.”

“Thank you,” I said too late as she left.

“Goodbye,” she called to my dog. “You know, I always liked that dog of yours better than you.”

“Bye,” I said with the edge having left my voice now that the damage was fully done. “You really did a nice job at my neighbor’s house. Have a great evening.”

After she was gone I sat on the porch and admired her handiwork next door. I hoped the neighbors would appreciate it, which would salvage at least the other half of my ill-fated ‘good deed.’ Whatever point it was where I went wrong, it was clear to me that as far as Sister Mini was concerned, I had given a gift without any love behind it. It was also clear to me that she had known it. And it profited me nothing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Off the beaten trail

For those of who have heard of Edmund Spenser, the first association we have with his name is The Faerie Queene. Probably the second is some vague notion of terrible things happening in Ireland. Almost nowhere on the list are his Fowre Hymnes. There is, of course good reason for that, involving the fact that The Faerie Queene is a masterpiece and the Hymnes aren't much to write home about. Nevertheless, I was reading his "Hymne of Heavenly Love" the other day, and found myself delighted with the last two lines of this stanza. For the sake of giving credit where credit is due, I thought I'd pass it on.
Before this worlds great frame, in which al things
Are now containd, found any being place,
Ere flitting Time could wag his eyas wings
About that mightie bound, which doth embrace
The rolling spheres, and parts their houres by space,
That high eternall Powre, which now doth move
In all these things, mov’d in it selfe by love.
For some reason, the image of God before the dawn of creation moving in himself by love sent chills down my spine.