"And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the beams of love." William Blake.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Dear Mr. Berry

Dear Mr. Berry

My husband wrote you, and you wrote back. Thank you. He wrote you on behalf of my despair. He wrote you because I graduated from a lovely little school, the one where Rachel Carson studied, out in Pittsburgh. I proved I was a writer by generating copious words, hundreds of pages, and defending those words. The paper next to my desk says I have a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. But I feel like a fraud. My thesis needs extensive re-working to be publishable, and a writer is a writer in two ways, as one who answers the call within her heart to put words to paper, and as one who revises her texts because writing requires discipline.  What that paper whispers to me is this: "You can put lots of words on a white blank space." I have yet to prove if I can make those words artful, as artful as I admire in your writing.

Thank you for writing back.

This sounds sentimental but when I ask my high school students who they'd invite to a dinner party, I give them my list to get them thinking. You are on that list. If I could choose from among the living and dead, I'd invite Flannery O'Connor, Marilynne Robinson, Brian Doyle, Barbara Kingsolver, and Scott Russell Sanders. You all come to mind first because of something I talked about with Mr Sanders during my first summer residency for my MFA. I said I loved Hannah Coulter andJayber Crow, but the first time I read Hannah Coulter I kept expecting something to happen. By that, I meant I expected you to manipulate her circumstances to "sex up" the plot. Please excuse the common parlance. When you confounded me by writing a novel that made me feel I'd sat with my friend's grandmother for several enjoyable hours, I felt resurrected. Your term. God's term. The one you used at the end of one of my favorite poems, "The Mad Farmer Manifesto." I stumbled around trying to articulate this to Mr. Sanders, and he took my ideas and lifted them to the heavens like a priest offering them as Eucharist. "He writes about fidelity," said Mr. Sanders and that's the hard thing to do. When I left that residency, I intended to write about how hard it was to love Mary, the Mother of God, because I converted from Protestantism to Orthodox Christianity and I am supposed to be devoted to her. -- I confess, she scares me. She has her stuff together. I am, again in common parlance, more of a hot mess after that two years earning that MFA than I was beforehand.

Which is why I want to say how important it was for you to write back.

My husband knew you would. Here's how.

You trade sheep with Adam Moody of Moody Meats. His daughter Rachel once wrote you about raising young boys. She treasures the letter you wrote back to her.

One of Adam's employees Josh met you. Another, Justin met you. They told me that you have such a generous heart that you sometimes entertain perfect strangers like we are angels. You do this in due season and when it works.

And, Mr. Sanders said he's met you several times. He spoke fondly of you.

I hope I meet you someday, on terra or in heaven. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis meets George MacDonald, his literary hero. I hope I stroll past them on my way through sharp, bright, dangerous place where God's love burns and I find you there.

Thank you for writing back in your handwriting. I should return the favor. I type this because my mind races with every thought I want to share with you. I pray this missive does not read like diarrhea of the pen.

I feel ashamed because the first essay I ever read by you, "Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer," chastised me. I'd been teaching high school language arts for an on-line school for a couple of years. The computer distracted me, divided me, kept me working, sometimes with thirty tabs open. I'd be texting someone, using a cyber-meeting room and have a phone ringing in my ear. When I finished those long days, I couldn't touch a phone. I should have slammed shut my laptop lid but Facebook, this horrible social networking tool, connected me to the people outside my house. It became my drug. I learned to think and write so many words so fast through fingers that tap keys like I imagine someone can read Braille.

Here I am tapping out this letter to you. I think I should do what Doris Lessing character does in The Golden Notebook. I should scrawl this out until my wrist aches, and I have a flat spot on my thumb. The computer tabs are distractions. I lack focus most of the time. I open tabs and stumble around reading The Atlantic,The New Yorker, or some Washington Post article, looking up recipes, or ordering supplies. I read your article and thought about those old days when I lived and wrote closer to the rhythm of reality. You wrote in your article that you work with horses. I smelled their dusty musk. Hot dirt, a hint of horse pucky. I smelled the cucumber-crisp air that wisps into my room because I sleep with the window open most of the year. I rubbed my empty hand and remembered the way the horses at a nearby ranch leave a film of body oil on my palm after I run their necks or coil their manes in my fingers.

I need to write like that, close to dark and light, dirt and dust, heat and cold. The blandness of temperature and the unsatisfying pursuit of a teaching career remind me that I live in a zoo. My controlled environment with easy meat bores me. I write words without the fidelity of meaning.

Thank you for writing back to tell my husband that you don't have much advice for a writer so discouraged she cannot write. "If she wants to write, she will." Admonishment of the kindest sort.

I've been writing since I was a teenager. At fourteen, after my parents with help from my grandfather and even us, the kids, built a home with our own hands, I took to sneaking off to write. As the oldest, I had to sneak away from chores and distractions. It didn't happen often, maybe a couple times a week. I'd fill my canteen with our sweet well-water. I stacked several mechanical pencils, a college-ruled spiral notebook and my cassette walkman with headphones. I balanced them with an apple and my 35mm instant camera on my left arm and snuck out the back door, a wood-framed screen door that had to be eased closed, or my mother might hear its sloppy whack and call me back.  I'd creep like a settler through the woods to a remote concrete bridge and lay on it, cold in the off-season, hot in the summer, while penning poems or ranting about parents. I finished stories started at my desk that morning.

I am writing again about that place. I'm reworking portions of my thesis, about the young years when my little sister Naomi Ruth slept at my feet while we built the house, about her desire to live closer to the earth, or rather to be buried naturally in it. She is thirty and surviving stage four cancer. Writing about her cancer, about the natural cemetery our church has initiated, about living and dying closer to our natures, that is the story to which I'm trying to be true. Writing about it leaves me broken sometimes.

I write you all these words because I wish I could redeem myself as a writer. I want to write something worth reading some day. It's a compulsion. I sometimes rebel. I want you to read this, but I know it's because I'm self-conscious that you might think I'm one of those writers who wants her name in lights, or on the cover of a book, at any cost. I don't. I want to write one thing worth reading. One thing about fidelity. One story with substance and style. I want to write one story, even slowly that does what your poems, essays, and stories have done for me. They've reminded me that living simply rewards me best. It expands my heart with gratitude, faithfulness, simplicity. Things of real value.

Thank you for writing me back. I've wanted to tell you how much your work has changed me. Now I have a reason.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

If you are not safe in the tub...

H.C. White Co Publishers, North Bennington, Vt., U.S.A. - Stereocard by H. C. White & Co. Via Library of Congress 
Then where are you safe?

One reason I fell in love with my 1874 Victorian was the claw-foot tub in the bathroom. At the bottom of the iron, the white porcelain has been scoured thin, leaving a gray trail. It hints at hardships this tub and this house have survived.

While we waited interminable days to offer, counter offer, close and take possession, I dreamed of solitary baths, deep in the tub, water and bubbles burying me. The gush of water swirling into my ear canals, shutting out noise. Children could thrash at the door but in water that deep, I would be a mermaid. I wish I could say I've actualized as many baths as I've fantasized. I've probably curled up in that dry tub hiding behind the white curtains that drape from above.

One curls in a tub because it's in the bathroom. The biological urgency of the bathroom protects a mother from reacting to the forces outside the walls. Children can slap each other. They can slam doors. They can swallow gallons of sugar. Bills can seep out of the bill drawer. Doorbells can ring. Fists strike wood. Timers chime. When sadness consumes a person, we stream silent tears and reply with cheer, I'll be out momentarily.

When my tears turn to heaves, I cover them with the stream of shower water. I stand in the water naked, and steam sucks the fabric to my legs. Seer-sucking mildew stained shower curtains want to hug  me when I want least to be touched. Don't even caress me. Sometimes, I don't want a kind look. I want to my disfigured aging body in a mirror and hate it. Only, I don't. I stand in the stream, beating myself up for the waste of water. I get out when I've washed the salt off.

I timed myself out in the bathroom of last resort. Timeout began after I stomped up the stairs, glass in hand, and holler on the lungs. My mother would have called my hollering a pity party and an angry one, at that. I threw my glass into the tub, hoping its tall walls would capture to the wave of glass, spraying like bullets from the ball turret gunner's bay.

Glass waved up and pushed past the curtains. I stood in shards, barefoot, and sobered immediately.

"What I couldn't figure out last night," my husband paused, "is why there was glass in the tub?"

"Oh, really. There was. I thought I got it all cleaned up."

"Well, I cleaned out the rest," he said. We said no more because we were brittle. I went to bed without apologies for the fit, without resolving the conflict. My daughter had knocked on the door. Goodnight, I said to dismiss her. I sound fake cheerful. My husband begged to talk about the issues. I told him I put myself in timeout. We'd talk later.

"Was there glass in the bottom of the tub last night?" My son asked. 


"I got glass stuck in my foot when I showered."

"I'm sorry. I thought I had it all cleaned up."


I thought they'd heard the whole tantrum. The flask ricocheted a thousand shards that would later embed in my son's feet. I washed out the tub. Like blood, some stuck in the pocks of porcelain. 

Our thoughts are material, scientists now believe. The material has a kind of consciousness. Genes and compounds react and relate in proximity, not even when mixed. Between what we think and atoms, another substance influences reality. Saint Porphyrious must have had premonitions of this when he wrote in Wounded by Love:
Man has such powers that he can transmit good or evil to his environment. These matters are very delicate. Great care is needed. We need to see everything in a positive frame of mind. We mustn’t think anything evil about others. Even a simple glance or a sigh influences those around us. And even the slightest anger or indignation does harm....When we speak evil about someone, an evil power proceeds from within us and is transmitted to the other person, just as the voice is transmitted on sound waves, and in point of fact the other person suffers evil. (Excerpt reprinted here)

An act of war. I committed such an act of war, in private isolation in the one place I thought I was safe to bury my evil. I thought my warring disposition would eek out its catharsis without true harm. But evil power transmitted. My son suffered glass. I became the ball turret gunner casualty of war, aggressor, dead myself. For causing suffering in another killed me.

No man is an island, entire unto himself," writes John Donne. Spiritual kill causes suffering and suffering diminishes me, more so when I am the cause.

Photo Credits:
Ball Turret Gunner, Public Domain.  Royal Air Force official photographer - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//55/media-55317/large.jpg This is photograph CI 1028from the collections of the Imperial War Museums
Woman bathing, 1902. Public domain. Reprinted on Wikicommons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Bathtubs#/media/File:1902_bath_illustration.png

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Murder Most Foul, some disconnected thoughts and quotes.

Twas my last year at Purdue University and a pro-life group gathered outside the English hall with six foot tall signs printed with photos of severed bodies that in truth are the size of a dime. They meant... something. I want to be able to say, "They meant well." Even I, a seamless garment pro-lifer, against capital punishment, euthanasia, war, suicide, assisted suicide, and abortion, puked in my throat, choked and thought, "this will only wound, not heal."

Dr. King wrote the words 
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Sara Manguso wrote in Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend, that her friend's suicide made that option unavailable to her. I keep asking when that option will be unavailable to me. These times try my soul. Last weekend I found the most elegiac place to die. And today, on my run, I saw myself, like Judas, running headlong off the cliff to dash myself against the stone. What does being against all violence look like?
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that, wrote Dr. King. 
The light has shone in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, wrote St. John of our Lord, the true Word who saves.
Last night, I broached the topic of the materiality of our thoughts, which Elder-now-Saint Porphyrios talks about in Wounded by Love. Elder Zaccharias wrote a whole book Our Thoughts Determine our Lives. The podcast Invisibilia  explored this from a scientific standpoint. I encountered Emerson's quote at the outset of "Self-Reliance" -- and here we are. What does it mean to wish that our brother gets his just-desserts? What does it mean to hate? To hate ourselves or another? 
That quote from Emerson in "Self-Reliance:" Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. --

From Wounded By Love, select quotes on materiality and danger in judgmental thoughts.

"Above everything is love. The thing that must concern you, my children, is love for the other person, of this soul. Whatever we do, whether it is prayer or offering advice or pointing out some error, let us do it with love. Without love prayer is of no benefit, advice is hurtful and pointing out errors is harmful and destructive to the other person who senses whether we love him or not and reacts accordingly. Love, love, love! Love for our brother prepares us to love Christ more. Isn’t that perfect? Let us scatter our love selflessly to all, without regard to the way they act towards us." [p. 181]

Let’s have love, meekness and peace. In that way we help our brother when he is possessed by evil. Our example radiates mystically, and not only when the person is present, but also when he is not. Let us strive to radiate our good will. Even when we say something about a person whose way of life does not meet with our approval, the person is aware of it and we repel him. Whereas, if we are compassionate and forgive him then we influence him — just as evil influences him — even if he does not see us.

We shouldn’t be enraged by people who blaspheme or who speak and act against God and the Church. Such rage is harmful. We may hate the words and the malice behind them, but we must not hate the person who spoke them nor become enraged against him. Rather we should pray for him. A Christian has love and graciousness and should behave accordingly.
What will make suicide unavailable to me? Self-annihilation. For there brothers and sisters annihilated daily by no will of their own. When I go, Dear Lord, let it be under the wheels of this dark age, in place of another who needed to go on.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

It's been a week, folks

I wrote an essay that started as a poem years ago, called King Tut's Nubian and now I refer you to it because it provides context for this post.

It's been a week, folks. Usually on weeks like this, I look for full moons, but I've been grading till wee hours of the morning and too depressed to get out of bed for my usual dawnbreak runs. I'm not superstitious but I believe in magnetic forces. Some include:

  • I've worked and worked and worked to grade and conference with all my students so they can be successful at 11th grade writing standards.-- I internalize all these messages about teachers who don't try enough. Try this. Try carrying between 220 and 300 students on your gradebook. Do the math on reading papers carefully, holding them against a rubric and knowing that 70% of first drafts don't meet higher than a D standard. Not proficient. Now, I have to help these kids see this without robbing their dignity and help them see how to fix it. That takes conferences. Conferences take time. Right after they turn in their papers, my school -- a virtual school where kids do most work from home without me or a parent there -- assigns the unit test. If they didn't give half a rat's buttcheek on the paper, they gave less to the test. Even they are fried. One of my team members resigned. And we'd just welcomed a teacher to drop our loads from three hundred to two hundred. Now what?
  • My daughter seems alone at school and had a tough summer. I'm a worried momma. I want her happy. When I have a week like this, I almost hold my breath to hear who will have cancer, more cancer, more double-toil-and-trouble. Maybe it's the disturbance in the force, coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, most of the Middle East. 
  • It was the Elevation of the Cross Feast. This is the feast where we read the OT story about the Jewish people looking upon the snake on the staff to be saved and we are reminded to look at the Cross at Christ upon it. Huh. Every year something overwhelms me and I'm caught looking up at the Cross with the same desperation. It's no cheeky easy solution. I look at it with anger and hurt and sneering. So, God. Why again?
  • And, I just get depressed. Regularly and more so as the years go by. I've always been depressed. Now, I get panic attacks and depression. 
  • My health issues flared up enough that I had to crash my dear friends' home tonight on a run and beg to use her loo. She rescued me cheerfully. I love you, dear friend. I've only done that two other times in the eight years I've been running. It's so humiliating. Not as humiliating as pooing yourself in the middle of a half-marathon though. That's worse. Oh, dear dear GI.
In that, I spent one whole day rebuffing all the love my husband and son gave me. Backrub, mom? I shrugged it off. Eye-contact, darling? Couldn't make it. I slinked up and down stairs without so much as a hello.
 But why acid-burn others with my despair? So I told my husband I'd try to kick around in the dark for my big girl knickers. He came alongside me. God should give that man a medal when we get to heaven. He's put up with me for over twenty years. I told him it could get bad way back, while we were still dating. Neither of us knew how crappy I'd get, literally and metaphorically. Lots of couples don't make it. If anyone asks how we do, I point at him. And God, and some friends.

Like my friends Luke and Janna. On the anniversary of their Aiden's death, they wrote me, not I them. Luke sent a playlist which I pulled up when I went for a prescription jog. That's where I pretend I popped an anti-depressant and I turn up music loud and run. Hard.

I tried that again tonight but there was the poo thing. TMI? Just wait till I write about my colonoscopy next week. This is my third in a decade. The docs hate me because I never go fully under anesthesia. I start a conversation just when they think I'm out. It weirds them.

Luke wrote a great blog tonight, so this response is really a push for you to go to his post "Sorrow, Shrapnel, and A-D." Read it. He wrote about Aiden's death, about losing his other (god) kids, about his own struggles with anxiety and despair. As I read his words, I thought of last spring, when one of my fellow parishioners stopped to scrape me off the sidewalk. I'd sat down there so light-headed from my panic attack that I thought I'd lose consciousness and fall into the road. I thought of Luke and Janna's quiet way of being. These people not only save my life, they exemplify what happens when we get up and keep going. In Luke's words,
"In doing so, I have also discovered that most of the people I have looked to for my own inspiration are deeply flawed and hurt individuals themselves, but more importantly, those who allowed their pain to help shape them by dealing with the sorrow shrapnel as it surfaced, and letting Grace, as U2 says so well, “…make beauty out of ugly things.” 

So here's to a brother and a family in Christ who are like brothers and sisters. To a friend whose birthday is today and knows what it's like to fight melancholy and care for people with mental illness. To another friend whose family struggles with mental illness.  To the friend who parents an autistic child and lets us into her house every week to see what we can learn from it. To siblings and siblings-in-law who let me fall apart and give sound responses. I'm not calling you out to embarrass you. I owe my life to you. I owe my life to the friend parenting a recovering cutter and alcoholic. I owe another friend, facing divorce with shrapnel and grace. I owe cousins, uncles, and siblings with cancer and mental illness who keep on soldiering for Christ. When I'm rooting around for my big girl knickers, hoping they say it's saturday, I turn up my music and keep the beat. Maybe tomorrow I'll have slept enough to scrape you up when you need it. Maybe. I hope so.

I owe all to my God who in the words of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, "knows the multitude of my evil-doings."
 You also know my wounds, and You see my bruises.But You also know my faith, and You behold my willingness, and You hear my sighs.
Nothing escapes You, my God, my Maker, my Redeemer, not even a tear-drop, nor part of a drop.
Your eyes know what I have not achieved, and in Your book things not yet done are written by You.
See my depression, and see how great is my trouble: 

King Tut's Nubian

While we lived in Pennsylvania, I took my middle school daughter to see the King Tut's Exhibit. We paid a pretty penny to wander for an hour among gilt sarcophagi and intricate jewelry. Within a few minutes, Layla raced ahead of me, bored as myself but so childlike she didn't care to get her money's worth.

Take away the glittering neon and the homage to the Pharoah felt a bit like our visit to Times Square. Oh, look at what rich people stock pile. Look what happens to it after they die. Meh. I lingered to get my money's worth, like a girl trying to savor a six-dollar slice of cheesecake while the scent of NY trash wafts by.

Not that the Tut exhibit smelled of dust. But there was no head-heart connection. I couldn't conjure the wonder at what the powerful do with their wealth. Only one piece impassioned me. Without the Nubian staff to snag my imagination, I might have felt like any children's museum in the country had as good a replica.

That Nubian girl, fashioned at the curve of the staff head, fluttered in my sensations. I had a kind of synethesia in the back of my head. She looked first like a dancer or mermaid splashing with such perfect grace, such beauty in her back bend. She was in a copper dress. Her shoulders squared. She was anguishingly slender, beautiful to behold and the longer I admired her the greater my confusion of pain and sweetness. The perfect curve from crown of her noble head, her brow, her nose, her lips, that chin, all more lovely than I remembered Barbies and ballerina dancers, I stared until she became the truth and horror. She looked without looking. She hides pain behind beauty and pride. Tut had bent her to breaking. She held hands behind her shoulder blades and copper links hind her upper arms. Her hands were turned back, Her thumbs  she folded as if her muscles seized. Powerless.

The sign said Tut had this staff fashioned to show he'd bent the backs of the noble race of Nubians who marched against him. He destroyed their dignity by making them his slaves and bending them to breaking. Because he wished it. Because he had the power.

I began to cry as I cry. Not sobs. Not weeping. A mere swollen eye. Burning salt. A wounding. Looking up on her pain felt like seeing myself as I felt doing my job.

She was my poetry. The metaphor of me. I would have broken the glass in a fantasy, stolen her, taken her to a farrier and begged him to give her enough warm to be made straight again. I could no more straighten her than I can or have straightened me. I am still such a slave.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


When we passed into Mexico, south of Chula Vista in July, my husband looked around and saw that it was beautiful. All that God created.

Until we crossed the border the teenagers in our van -- a SKV  they called it, which stood for serial killer van -- looked out onto a concrete Euphrates flowing south to Tijuana. They looked upon the fish. Chevies. Mercedes. Audis. Sonatas. CRV's. They looked out of the side-slanted windows, into the eyes of these animals. Carp. Guppies. Druggies. Warlords. Boreds. Gangstas. Smugglers. Mothers. The collective teenage consciousness in our white whale looked out on the paradise my husband saw and declared it rife with weakness and duplicitous motives.

North of the border boasted the best of human superiority. Grand villas. Manicured. Landscaped. Cultivated. Controlled. Balanced. South of the border broadcast the bildungsroman of humankind. On its way to civilization, greatness mashed against trash. Homes founded on piles of tires. Towers of hotels arrested a floor or two short. Rebar crowns and tin slips, pavement dying away to dust. Below the cat calling billboards -- autoplastía, anaplastía, abogado immigracíon, -- men walk down the dust between our highway and the eyesore of concrete and wire between us and them.

"Really?" I am flabbergasted. "Why do you think it's beautiful?" But the kids jabber too loud to answer and he's soaking up the vista. And calling it beautiful.


The square mile looks the same as it did when I saw it first four years ago. I drove a rented guppy with my daughter in the front passenger seat, two boys from our Midwestern church in the backseat. The guppy's transmission choked on dust. I prayed the white whale in front wouldn't race away from us, The white whale behind us would let us be a barnacle on its nose if this transmission failed. I divided my energy between observation, the art of a writer, and driving, the responsibility of a team leader.

To be fair, the first trip into Tijuana was 2011. Even our town in Indiana looked like hell. 2008 came, stole our bread, stole our factories. Thrifty scared and bored, people in our town built labs in their attics for cash and entertainment. Our century's version of a still, my generation's version of hooch kills as many of us, or more. Houses blow up, or burn. Back home our main street looked like an abandoned Western town. The saloons, the lawyers, insurance agencies, pawnbrokers, tanning shops and motley folks put out their wares. Mostly everything looked beautifully abandoned.

Imagine Tijuana in that. In Mexico during the crisis, the government made the Tortilla Act. Farmers south sold their corn north of the border. Corn for ethanol sold better than corn for food. The two room, concrete-and-chicken-wire houses we came to build protected a family's claim. They squatted in something more permanent than tin and tarp.


The tires that triggered quiet "ah's" and "that house is literally built on" from the teens, those were part of well-designed repurposed buildings. The longer we rode, the more I saw rows of white and vibrantly painted homes inside compounds. To me, Tijuana had burst forth. It was reaching towards beautiful. More like the pretty side by side compounds of Guatemala City's neighborhoods, which I'd seen only once.

I traveled to Guatemala City in August of 2011, a few weeks after we returned from Mexico. For both my husband and me, this was a first. Our first travels out of the US. When we disembarked in Guatemala City, we walked past armed soldiers across the tarmac. Guns and guards seemed to swarm. I thought of New Orleans after Katrina, images I'd seen, not experienced. Now I walked among guards who couldn't care if I spoke only English.

My husband says he found Guatemala hard to look upon with love. I saw its zoologico and the uniformed students, waiting to see if today the striking teachers would show up to unlock their schools. I saw uniformity, not graffiti and dust. I went to bed at night inside the twenty foot high cinderblock walls surrounding the Hogar Raphael. The shipping trucks rattled until late. They picked up Sears furniture from the factories nearby. Nightclubs on the four corners of the compound took over the noisemaking around midnight. I heard weeping and music, hollering and fighting.

"Once, we found a knife in the grass," said Madre Ivonne, the nun who supervised the hogar. A man had been murdered on the other side of the wall. I thought about that every night as I fell asleep. I felt safe because we had check in with the armed guard at the steel gate of the compound, even with Jorge driving. Jorge was Madre Ivonne's brother.

 At four am, I woke up because no one sang, hollered, honked or cranked an engine. I heard clicking across my floor. I flicked on the switch. Large black beetles skittered under the crack into the jardín separating my room from my husband's. I shut off the light. They came back like that every night. I shuddered thinking of them ending up in my luggage, but what bothered me more was the wire in my showerhead. It heated my water at the spigot, but if it shorted I would be electrocuted. Our handyman warned me to take a cold shower before trying to fix anything myself. No worries, Joe, I thought. I would moan my way through a cold shower, wash away a little sweat and dust, and huddle in my covers. And flick on the lights if the beetles sounded too close. 

Several nights in a row, I did just that. But one night, when I flipped off my switch at ten pm, light seeped through cracks above me. I'd never seen it before. A swishing sound and dust sprinkled down on me. Like a subtle hint, I understood that I had someone above, the older hogar girls or Madre Ivonne. My late night light defense against the beetles probably disturbed the sleeper above.

 I loved Guatemala City, even Zona Una, even though the mothers said they had to get the kids out of there, it was just too ugly, too dangerous.

Coming home this summer, my husband told everyone he thought Mexico was beautiful.

 "I thought Guatemala was more beautiful myself," I said.

"I didn't," I take his response as a bit defensive, a kind of retort, as if we a have passive resistance to the mystery of beauty we each see. It's not true  but he sees something so expansive he has yet to capture the beauty, though he's been playing with lyrics and chords to get it across. "Whatever is lovely, whatever is true, think on such things," admonishes Paul, a writer, a saint and sinner too. We're all reaching to these mysteries, I think. It's no easy task wrestling with beauty. Sometimes it's easier to entertain with dust than mystery, with violence and ugliness rather that what is lovely and faithful.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Pairings- Happiness: Watch, Listen, Read

A new ditty for me. Consider these. I think they talk to each other about what makes us happy and what doesn't. I'm sure there is a TED talk out there on this too. My goal is to get you thinking about why less makes you happier. Fidelity makes you happier. What are your rules for happy?

  1. Watch: Hector and the Search for Happiness

Listen: Walk the Moon's Spend Your $$$

and Apartment Story by The National

Read: The Happiness Project or A Path Appears. I recommend the latter highly.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Final Blood : How you lose a baby

A fiction. An exercise. A memorium. An honorarium to dear friends.

How to lose a baby
Want one. Cheer for every ovulation like your husband cheered for the Colts to slaughter the Saints in the Superbowl. When your body bleeds again in a few weeks, wonder why he cheered against the Saints.

You know this fails the synchronicity test. What you have is myth, so you actively dismiss the thought, what business did he have cheering against saints? What if the Saints symbolized saints?

What if it all importuned bad luck?

 What business do you have questioning the (insert word here: mercies? faithfulness? ways? goodness? love?) of God? Talk yourself down. Wait. Those who wait upon the Lord. Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. Surrender to the Scriptures and snatches of hymns that give you hope. Wait upon late blood. Hope it turns to no blood, to two lines, a plus sign on a pee stick. Jiggle your breasts for an ounce more of weight. Brush the nipple, hoping it aches.

Late in January you begin the second wait. The one from the cash register at the drug store to the bathroom. Two minutes in the public restroom? Or ten minutes home and two more minutes? Open the box without tearing the package directions. Squat, careful not to pee on too strong, too far up the stick, or on your hand. Perch the damp stick on the box. Watch the second hand click and jerk on your watch.

Negative. One bar. Stash the other three tests, the second from the box in the back of the medicine drawer. Wait to bleed. Wait to cry until you bleed again.

Make plans for dinner this Valentine’s day. Be pressure free, says everyone. Have fun. You have the best date. You wonder while you stare into his eyes if this will be the release valve, or will adopting be that? Everyone says once you adopt you conceive. Such pressure to squeeze your ovaries or his vas deferens. You should have started bleeding three days ago. Because you don’t see red, you don’t order red, or white. “Mineral water, please.” Later decaf green tea. He sees. His squeeze on your hand as you walk out makes you both tear up.

You walk the cold blocks to the theater feeling like you returned to your twenties, when you got hot involuntarily, when your body clotted and cleansed like a clock, before the clock hit thirty and it broke.

Try not to picture sperm meeting egg when your husband makes love to you. On following mornings, begin taking your basel temperature before you swing out of bed. Record changes in the journal. Check for the quality of your emissions. Imagine a twinge. The egg burst from the ovaries and flings itself towards your husband’s school of sperm, like salmon hurtling upstream as frenzied as your most joyful lust.

Great Lent starts later that week. Still you don’t bleed. Your journal reads with years of morning temperatures. How long have you longed for this baby. Basel, basil. Bleed. When March idles in, almost Annuciation, the Feast of the Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary her pregnancy, when the sweatshirt you pull over your head hits your breast wrong, you wince. You sneak into the bathroom that morning before your husband knows. Lock the door. It does no good to get his hopes up. Tremble. Tear. Box. Impossible plasticvinylaluminium package. Squat. Pee. Swear. You forgot a clock. Guessing time by counting and saying the alphabet you wait. One line never materializes. Negative. Damn the single pink stripe on your character.

Try not to want the baby too much. Well-meaning friends opine, “It’s stress. It inhibits conception.”
It’s a kind of lust, all sinful, this hope. With it comes contempt for the fertile careless seventeen-year-old who decides to keep her baby because “babies-are-so-cute.” Shudder with contempt too whenever a pious friends suggests spiritual hoodoo, one of your hippie friends suggests a diet cleanse and some aromatherapies.

Three more days repeat the sneak, tear, squat, squirt, wait. This time: plus. Two lines. Lay your forehead down there on the peestick. Jerk it up at the moisture. It’s your urine on your forehead and you don’t know if this annointing is holy or disgusting. In one month from today, the Feast of Annuciation. It’s thirty days off but it feels like serendipity.

Now how to tell your husband with all the joy and poetic justice? Thirty-three you are. See. I’m not too old. I am Sarai. I will be transformed into Sarah, you think.

Tell him and no one else. Oh, almost no one else. In a week your mother knows. In two, you tell the one best friend. In three your husband has told your priest and a few confidants.
All of March and April. In May, at your friends’ wedding you pretend to sip the toast, but a few friends who hope secretly for you notice when you push the glass towards your husband, like a recovering alcoholic discreetly passes off his drink at these functions. They inquire discreetly. You demand secrecy.

Memorial Day weekend will mark three months. Then you can announce.

Saturday your husband fires up the barbie and the buddies come over. You have a headache and feel nauseaus, a bit crampy during the euchre tourney. A backache kicks in while you stand at the sink after everyone leaves. You swirl water, warm and comforting and think how nice it would be take a bath, but those are no-nos. Keep your body temperature from getting too hot. Realize you are grinding your teeth a bit. The cramps and the back ache may be worse than you’ll admit. Go to bed by ten. At midnight wake up in waves of cramps, gripping you. Stumble to the bathroom and push down your panties. You already feel the damp, and in the dark – you kept the light off afraid too look but knowing you could reach over and flip the switch in your small bathroom – you smell the iron. Warm blood. Lay your head down on the cool sink. Sit on the toilet. There will be a crick in your spine but you’ll not know the difference. Cry.

Mewl. Heave. He comes to you and rubs your back and sits on the side of the tub. This is your funeral parlor. It will take days for the cramping and bleeding to subside. Doctors will kneed and prod and stroke. They offer options, discuss a dialation and cutelage if it doesn’t bleed out fully. An ultrasound to confirm.  Your mom comes to you. She massages your back. Strange that it feels like she’s helping this baby spontaneously abort, commit its own leap from the ledge, but really, your mother wants only to ease your pain, soothe your nerves and minister.

Every clump could be your baby, the size of dime, with fingers and toes and a beating heart. You would like to bury your baby. Do you save pads, clumps of toilet paper, do you dare evacuate your bladder. There’s no proof there, except blood, blood, blood. Tears. No tears. Numb. Crushed. Grief. This is how you lose a baby

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

On turning forty

"Which anniversary did you most dread," one marriage said to another.

Do you even remember the first one? It's the paper one. The modern gift-givers suggest we skip the paper and give a clock. Because what? Because for the first year we paid no attention to time. We slept late, we worked second and third shift, skipped church, learned to map each other from tip to toe by wasting hours and doing little else. My husband expected me to play alarm clock on Sunday mornings, which is why we missed so much church, and he'd count the good days as the ones I jumped him. We ate terribly at all hours and with not concern for health. Jamocha shakes, curly fries and shaved beef with Au Jous at Arby's. Fazolis when we ran out of money, because they gave us free bread sticks. On Friday nights, we took date night. We split cheap fajitas on Fridays at Don Pablos, rented a dollar classic from Family Video and split a pint of Ben and Jerry's. We made pillows of our flesh, rotund and protruding.

The first year, did you think it was the sweetest and hardest when you look back?

It took one year, just one, before we tiffed over the wakey-wakey protocols. After our daughter's birth, I refused to wake him up for church any more, and we had to go to church now, for a soul other than our own.

What habit had worn you down by the end of the first year? When did you start paying attention again to time? Was it with the bills, thirty days from one big one to the next? Or payday with a little splurge? Was it the miles until the grinding began, like the brakes on our Dodge Shadow, that American piece of crap we polished and cursed together, kicking the tires and hating Kmart's Service Department for the two-hundred fifty smackaroos they gauged from us. Finally Dad helped us grow up a bit by teaching us how to do the brakes ourselves for a tenth of the cost.

On our first anniversary, I could hardly sit up from the stitches across my bikini line, where one week earlier they'd extracted my organs, stacked them up, lifted out my daughter and put them all back in the right spot. It hurt to swallow the cheap Chinese we ate.

How did you feel on that paper anniversary? What ephemeral sentiments did you exchange? Do you remember? What did you do with me?

I was born by your first anniversary, a fact that would not dawn on me until I was nine or so. I would have liminal memories of those early years. Flickering TV's, illegal scents, a Fisher Price horse you gave me on Christmas Eve. I scooted around the dim twinkly room front room. I can't recall if I rolled fast on linoleum or worked hard to motor myself over the shag carpet. Later, when I calculated the timeline of my birth and your anniversary, I learned what it means to do the right thing. I understood some of the fractious shoutin' after hours. I understood you took the harder, righter way, for things bigger than yourselves.

I never dread anniversaries like people talk about dreading birthdays, but looking back, some were warmer, felt more like the exhilarating accomplishments that a tenth-thirteenth-sixteenth-eighteenth-twenty-first evokes. Mostly, those are on the fives, right? Sometime in our fifth year, another wife in my Bible study asked me to count wood under the covers, burned, spent, (wink, wink) you know. Thousands of fires set, burned, ebbed. How beautiful, but sometimes exhausting. And I had only one child in all that time. You had three. You found the quiet escapes and how much work it must have been.

I remember our fifth, when my husband gave me the first piece of expensive jewelry since our engagement. The waters on the Chicago canal sparkled beneath us. The gift -- either the sapphire and diamond cross I'm scared to wear, lest I lose it or the white gold braided bracelet that I think I ruined because I rolled it over my tiny fist rather than fight to re-clasp it around my wrist -- sparkled less than lights of the city. We'd parked our car on the first stop of the CTA train, dragged our luggage onto the train, exited at the Randolph Street main stop. We hefted our luggage blocks and blocks past homeless men asleep in corners under the passes. Our arms ached and I stung with worry that the valets saw how poor we were, having saved up for this getaway. When we collapsed in our room, I cried as I stared down from the twentieth floor of the Sheraton. We ate at the seafood restaurant you suggested, even though we were vegetarians who wouldn't eat meat anyway. We'd budgeted fifty bucks for the meal and it wasn't enough. My pride stung, but my husband took me back to the room and we danced again in the diamond lights twinkling.

On my tenth birthday, you said, "You made it to a decade. A whole decade. That's an accomplishment. Two digits now." No one could take those from me, I realized. The decade that mattered, that helped me make it so far so happily had happened behind the hollow panel door of your bedroom. It hid in waves of that crazy waterbed, the rocky-rolling years already tempering. Later in the year, you'd drain the bladder of the bed and for over a year, you'd share every corner of your life with all of us, like we lived on the prairie in a camper. I was cognizant enough to realize that you had no time alone but your need for such private moments, to that I stayed oblivious.

Was there an anniversary you dreaded, or anticipated? I remember my friend Mark saying you sneaked  off once for a celebration in a hotel and split a bottle of champagne. He said not to repeat that back to you, since you did not imbibe in front of your children. I thrilled to the idea that you'd paid for the pop and that your love spilled over like that still. For in the tiffs of your early years, I wanted nothing more than for you to make it. I needed you to make it.

We made it to year five in August, two months after you made it to twenty-five. None of us had enough money to splurge for you and yet we knew we owed those five years to you. How does one marriage repay another for its breath and life? We started saving then, all of the kids, squirreling off little bits for another ten years. What's thirty-five but middle-aged, coral, according to the traditional gifting list. Shell.  We'd learn between year five and year fifteen just how fragile marriages are. In our fifth year, three marriages of kids our age dissolved. When we married, you said, wait until year seven. Until then, you're just playing house. That's the year it gets real. By real, you meant hard.

In our fifth year, another of your children's marriage was born. And another the next year. The baby marriages kept coming

By the fifteenth anniversary, I'd witnessed the violent deaths of adult marriages. Like a case of Benjamin Button, I ask "how can something like this die like that?" Consider how we all feel when babies die. How have my friends survived the grief of still births, children who've died of cerebral palsy or in accidents? We acclimate ourselves to deaths of baby marriages and old people dying. But we question the loss of life in childhood and long marriage. This year, twenty years of marriage achieved, adultery and acrimony ganged up on a fifty-year old marriage. Ax-murdered it. When two, ten, fifteen year marriages died, my husband and I did health checks. How do we health check a fifty-year old one? Isn't there a stage where life is a given? No. The mystery of marriage is truly a mystery, a sacred thing, a secret, a sacrament, the centrality of who we become.

In A Grief Observed, Lewis writes that marriages that last to death does part often lead to marriages arrested, never ending but changed. Many widows and widowers still feel married. I imagine that even the widows and widowers who remarry have a closet identity, a person within still married to the deceased spouse.

Which anniversary do I dread most? That one. My mother-in-law faced that tenth this year.

As time passes, I accumulate clocks. Clocks tick and tock like a madness in my head and in my cells. I read clock faces that all have fragility behind their second-minute-hour times.  Fragility like a witching hour, bookends our lives. Our early marriages seem hail and healthy, like lively children, but children thrive with strong parents. Late marriages seem stalwart and strong, but time grinds us down. In our early years, your marriage took care of ours; in your late years, I hope to support it as an adult child honors her parents. It's a kind of herd health. Immunize my marriage, exercise it, support the healthy habits of marriages around me, and in turn, when the years of brittle bones and faltering flesh strain the capacity of joyous pleasures, find ways to celebrate your accomplishments. In twenty years, I want hale and healthy young marriages to look ahead to the anniversaries and find no dread in them.

Thank you for showing and teaching us to remember our Creator and to honor that which comes before us, before we ourselves grow old and stooped and the danger of finding no pleasure comes. For in doing so, we guard against losing our pleasure and joy.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Panda Bear, A Priest and Mercy

What gave me the right to think, let alone speak aloud, “Maybe we ought not take that stuffed animal home with us?” It was his gift, from the girls, after a week of him, playing father, instead of builder. He might have preferred swinging a hammer. How does a man with two nearly grown children remember the games that entertain seven-year-old and eight-year-old girls? How does he navigate those games with bubbles, coloring books, a soccer ball, a volleyball and a language barrier? He knows phrases in Spanish. Katy and Kimberly knew no English.
Fr. Joel with "Katy" or Katherine outside
the house on the last day of building.
He clutched it to his chest as he heaved himself into the rental van, babying his damaged knee, not thinking about what might be crawling from the furry panda onto his shoulder and into his hair.
“They gave this me,” he said. They are Katy and Kimberly, who hover behind him, having hugged him goodbye. The teenage girl on our team who also played with them all week invites them into the van to hug us all, me included. To do so, they must bust through an invisible barrier under the shadow of the van out of the sunny street in front of their compound.
Did my husband see me grit the back of my jaw make psychic waves of objection, subtle but as real as if the words I was thinking took form as sound waves?
“Oh, honey. Probably we should not. Probably we should not take that back to the States. I mean, that’s so sweet of them. Do they really want to give up their toy?” To a grown man, a priest. I mean we don’t know what’s in that fur, in that stuffing? Are there bed bugs in Rosarito? Or worse vermin? I don’t know native insects in Mexico, except the black widows we crushed with our shoes back at the orphanage and the earwigs that I would smoosh in my purse as we inched along towards border security.
I wondered at once from what house did the toy usher forth and would it make a difference? Had the girls cuddled it after cuddling the feisty kitten, the one that their mother scowled at them for handling, even though our teenagers had picked up with pity? “She says it’s sick,” said the Spanish teacher on our team.
Katy, Kimberly and Sofia lived with family around them,
like this aunt' next door until we finished with the house.
By the night after we finished,
 Sofia had put in beds, a refrigerator and they'd slept there.
Had the panda been cuddled by the Chihuahua putzing around our feet with stole of ticks around its neck and a squinty left eye that leaked pus. Frankenhuahua, the kids had called it. Its face looked fused from parts, the scars of fights from bigger dogs on the street. Dogs, everywhere dogs: pit bulls mostly, but other Chihuahuas. The fire that had burned most of the girls’ house, the fire that brought Sofia to the mission organization asking for a house, had nearly killed this little guy. Sofia, who had lived between her tía next door and her tía in front of her once and future home, had shuffled between the homes since the fire in January. Her tío, a bombero, had rescued Sofia and the girls from the house, had ushered the other bomberos and stopped the fire from spreading past her house, then had given Frankenhuahua mouth-to-mouth.
He put the panda on the seat next to him and positioned his knee using both hands to stabilize it before we started the drive first out of Rosarito, then onto unpaved dust roads to the orphanage. We rocked and rolled in the fifteen passenger van. He winced up and down, side-to-side.  What had he done to earn this toy? In exchange, our team provided six packs of pompas, distributed among the neighborhood kids. Crayons, markers, coloring books of Disney Princesses, and two other bags of Dollar Tree treats. Cheap plastic baubles and diversions with half the shelf life of the panda.
Sometimes life humbles us.
He meant to go to Rosarito as he’d gone to New Orleans three years in row after Hurricane Katrina, ready to beat the heat, bust thumbs and even brave the roof, even asked. He hates heights, but the modest constructions of Mexico, two rooms, one floor, the size of a one-car garage with a concrete slab floor, stucco walls and barely sloped roofs, would seem a breeze. Compare these to the single story, two or three bedroom homes north of Lake Ponchartrain or more brazenly compared to the two story, multi-gabled Victorian in which we lived in Indiana, this would be an easy construction. It takes a couple months to finish a house for Habitat in the US, a week to finish what we put up for Sofia and the girls that week. No wiring. No plumbing.
Katy helped sponge wet stucco. Sofia helped build.
Is that worth the panda he clutched? The indulged American in me thinks not. I’m coming home to wi-fi, hot showers, flushable toilets I keep clean enough to drink from. Potable water from my garden hose, wine with dinner, chocolates for dessert.
On the side of the hill, where Sofia’s tía tossed out scraps, two small tomato plants, sporting a dozen cherry-sized tomatoes survive most of the week. I’d eat these for lunch at home. I have five times this started in neat five-by-five boxes along my driveway in Indiana. By the time we stack two lunch coolers, spread a white table cloth over them, perch three icons, of Christ, the Theotokos –the Mother of God -- and a cross for the final blessing, the tomatoes have been doused with stucco water from tambos of water to clean the cement tubs. I feel sad that tia did not pick the half ripe fruits to mix into the red chile sauce she served with stewed chicken, rice, carrots and macaroni and hot fried tortillas. Verderas, vegetables, are a condiment here, though we drove through market day where bins of napolito, tomatillo, tomatoes, fresh chiles, greens and beans were sold with second-hand clothes, shoes, household goods and tacos or tostilocos and dolces, that is sweets, like hellado or ice cream bars. Why so few vegetables? Why did the vendor at Tacos Manuel seem confused when I asked for a plate of vegetales but when a local translated verderas he allowed me  a whole plate of roasted jalapenos, radishes, cilantro, peeled cucumbers, chile salsa and guacamole? He kept offering tortillas maiz or flor (wheat flour). How could I explain that queso, wheat, corn, and meat were foods my American stomach no longer tolerated?
Gringos, I insulted myself, as I peered around my husband at the panda. Perhaps we could give it to Melina for the tiendita on the ranch? He could pose with it for a picture before we left it behind, with its Mexican vermin? The violence of the thought, the belief that we bring something cleaner, when I’ve been ushered out of Philadelphia resorts due to the resurgence of bed bugs, when my friends and family suffer from the long-term effects of untreated tick-borne Lyme disease, when we American gringos sprayed Mexican day workers who crossed the border with chemicals no less poisonous than what has reduced my diet to mere fruits, vegetables and completely unprocessed animal products? What makes me think we have it cleaner? I will go home to water that tastes like a chlorine pool. The kids in my town will die, one a week or more, from heroin overdoses.
He says to me, “We can leave it at the tiendita.”
 I reply, “I have an extra plastic bag. We’ll wash it in hot water when we get home. It’s part of the story.” He replies, “We use it for the presentation.”
We are quiet together until he says, “It’s really beautiful here.” He says later, “This was just what I needed.” I know he was humbled by his broken knee and by not being able to show his muscle on this trip. He was glad to escape all the other poison of our native culture- Facebook, texts, emails. He says, “We’ll be returning often.” Then we need the panda to tell the story. For we cannot pay for annual work trips to Mexico without all the people who cannot travel but who can support this work.

The make-shift altar for the house blessing
included Frankenhuahua, sleeping at its base.
While the panda tumbles in the washer and dryer at home, waiting for its perch on our church shelves, and its turn in the narrative of our lives, the lives of people who put us in Mexico, he says, “That was my kind of vacation, you know. We build. Sure, we work, but we get to see the people too.” And we did. We vacationed in a way that feeds my husband and me. We stood on the cold Tijuana beach. We bargained for futbol jerseys and a few gifts at the market. We watched fellow American tourists, mostly college students with their American buttcheeks hanging out of their doily-swim bottoms, wearing what they call “drug-rugs,” the hand-woven warm cover-ups perfect for the mild days and cool nights in Tijuana.  While there we and the team prayed morning and night, at the site, all the time. We prayed “Padre Nuestro, Que estas in los cielos, Sanctificado sea tu Nombre”—Our Father Who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name. And privately, we prayed, “Lord Have Mercy.” But on whom? Us, with our prejudices or the kids who gave us their best in exchange for a bit from us, a week, two rooms, dollar tree toys?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Turtle, An Easter Egg, Resurrection and Death Questions

Cracked like an Easter egg, spilling out more eggs. Is this what death looks like? Like a snapping turtle, a venerable mother, head split, guts spilt and all her unborn progeny aborted, nesting arrested.

Or does death look more like what I used to think, like the Death Star laser imploding a planet entire. Black oblivion and silence perceived by someone most sensitive to the quiver of life.

I've been writing about death for over two years now. I cannot decide if death is sudden, as if energy is swallowed into a black hole. Matter neither lost nor gained, transformed from parents or children or friends into molecules. If so, are there souls or spirit flapping between? Are they the dark matter?. Is death the disembodying of souls? Is there a final anguish followed by silence? A song ended abruptly after the climax of timbre and cymbals? After the walls of sound, the track cuts. For the living, is there such a thing as silence? Something is always there humming.

Or, does death best resemble decay? Does it detach the living from the dead?. The corpse swells and rots revealing all symbiotic life it once sustained. It hints at its progeny, its DNA, what it did, where it went, what it might have been.


When my father-in-law was dying of pancreatic cancer, he saw work to be done until the last three or four weeks. Perhaps, he proposed, his church needed a strong man still, for the young fathers who never had one, the boys without, like his grandson. Perhaps, he still had a witness of the faithfulness of God to the nurses, the doctors, the men on the radiation ward. In the last few weeks he gave up such final tasks, it was enough just to breathe. When my uncle took interferon for the melanoma that peppered his white skin, like the moles on him, he too felt a great final purpose. He preached the gospel at all times, sometimes with words. For a few months, he came close to death first from gangrene, then in a car accident. Now he is cancer free. Three months before he died, my grandfather shuffled up to the Ambon of the Church of the Brethren, laid his great, shaky hands on my head and my husband's. Give them a great spiritual purpose, he prayed, until one lays the other into the arms of God. 

When his wife died, C.S. Lewis did not believe himself any less married. My grandmother, my mother-in-law, both old widows never believed themselves unmarried. I have no such experience to relate; I'm not hurrying along my spouse's death. The closest experiences are my own losses. When my aunt died at fifty-one, I felt tethered to her. I hadn't visited with her in some years and I missed her terribly. Now I had the haunting memory of missing her for all time. Some songs, some scents, some color blends bring her back to me with force. I feel my Uncle John's presence in who I am. His faith formed my parents and, as a result, mine. When my brother-in-law died, I saw him for months driving around town in his van. Further in the recesses my grandfather's voice booms, he spits watermelon seeds and teaches me how to bounce the lawnmower deck to unstick the wet grass before it gums up and kills the engine.

"No man is an island," wrote John Donne, "every man's death diminishes me."  If there is such a thing as a disturbance in the force, it must be the sensation that part of me died.

Seeing those eggs, tucked inside that turtle, made me think of all that would not live, like all that stopped with the deaths of family members. Such purposes they might have fulfilled, had they had a few more days.

The older I get, the more I realize that I live in overlapping concentric circles of interdependence. Human lives sustain each other. But the habitat, all its beings sustain me too. They drink the same water, breathe the same car exhaust, muck around in the waste we all produce. They die under the crush of feet or wheels or by disease. Each one sustains another, purifies, feeds.

The mother turtle with the crushed head and the top of her broken open along her perfect eggs nesting within accosted me in such a sorrowful, violent way, She will decay. Her eggs will be stolen by raccoons. The promise of life will be unfulfilled. I used think of death as inevitable and natural. I mocked Dylan Thomas' idea that we should rage rage against it. Now, when I see how each death represents in an immeasurable loss of beauty and hope, I feel enraged, a little twinge at least. I know that the relinquishing of my life allows space for another. But death remains a conundrum. I will go on wondering if it is a void, a vacuum of what once was, or if death includes legacy, the progeny, the DNA, the lasting affect of one life passed on to another.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Why I don't have a Joel-ology

BAM! I'm really writing to persuade you to read another blog post! Be warned. "What Matters Most" swipes at "theology" as we conceive it.

As I read Fr. Stephen Freeman's piece, I realized that none of us would propose to create a systematic"-ology" about another person. I don't have a systematic Joel-ology for my husband, though I think I know him well. I don't have one for my parents, either of my children or my closest friends. We don't have president "so-and-so"-ology, or Kierkegaard-ology because we know that we cannot truly distill the essence of another person (we can't even agree on when personhood begins, for Pete's sake). We can know a person. That is how we know God.

Last night, while editing short essays for submission, I re-read a piece I'd written about knowing God through the bearing witness to a friend's stillborn son. I'd just listened to one by Cheryl Strayed from the Dear Sugar column collection Tiny Beautiful Things about a woman with a newborn on the brink of death. Both Cheryl and I said we could know Jesus (a mere person to her), who is Christ (a person and divinity to me) through being witnesses to His suffering, often through historical accounts as well as through others' suffering.  I worried a bit because I'd penned an almost identical denouement as Strayed. What would it mean that I, a believer, seemed to say something so similar to someone who says she believes Jesus is only a very admirable person?

I checked myself. Not a problem, I've concluded. It was His humanity that opened the door to our encounter with and "knowing" of Divinity. He is fully human. (Most heresies started by trying to dismiss this.) And, He is fully God.

So, if you are inclined, this short bit by Fr. Stephen Freeman is a good reminder that theology is not what we "think" about God but about knowing Him, the person of God, who knows us.

What Matters Most by Fr. Stephen Freeman

Monday, May 25, 2015

Poison Ivy, Confession and Prayer

I'm editing and writing with a huge splinter under the nail of my left middle finger. It's bone-jarringly painful, and it won't come out. I tried the Orajel, needle, and tweezer fix, but the splinter is old moist wood. Little clumps break off with each dig. I jammed it in while gardening this morning. When it embedded when I'd grabbed a clump of plantain weeds along the raised garden bed, meaning to whack it with my garden clippers. I howled when it slipped so quickly between nail and flesh. Hours later, I have no will to dig about under the nail with a needle breaking off wood and drawing blood. I need to research a drawing solution.

Rather than stand at the bathroom sink, I took my hurt and anger out first on the poison ivy that has curled and webbed up the fence line and along the raised beds, emerging here and there at the A-frame trellises my husband built to accommodate peas, beans, tomatilloes, cucumbers and anything that will vine up. I crawled on my hands and knees under the chicken-wire trellises. I yanked and hacked. I cursed the cursed ground. Poison ivy. Insidious sneaky beast. When I was eleven, I had a case so severe it last for a year. I think I ingested it. After a year of desperately cloroxing the patches of seeping, itchy pustules, it went away. For good, I thought. Not so. Two years ago, while weeding, I hosted a new reaction on my arms and legs. I learned to wash in a poison ivy soap, slather in caladryl and cover up. I read that other people dress for hazmat when they weed it. Never burn it. Never put its remains in your compost pile. Bag it immediately after pulling it out from all its roots. 

The trouble is, I cannot get out the roots, some of which are curled cleverly around the chain link fence. Oh, how I curse that fence, which the neighbor says is ours but the property deed says is hers. Under the A-frames, hacking and yanking in anger, I grow angrier and justify more hurt. The splinter throbs. My forearms begin to itch. 

Out the front door comes my thirteen-year-old son who refuses to help with the garden and resists even indoor chores. While I produce salary and salad by the sweat of my brow, he refuses to work towards our household good.

"That's all poison ivy," he shouts, adjusting his headphones and dropping his skateboard. 

Not, "Thanks, Mom, for doing that so I don't have to." Not, "Thanks for gardens and full-time work and all you do so I can watch YouTube, skateboard, borrow your headphones and exist on only my favorite foods." 

It occurs to me as the wind pushes hair in my face, trying to soothe me, that I'm whipping up into  frenzy. Like cussing, this yanking and whacking fails to vent my frustration. It feeds it. Between jerking and snipping, I do have moments of clarity. Like, I should be asking forgiveness for stomping inside and unsettling everyone. Still I retort to my son's back as he skated off: "I'm doing this because none of you all will bother with it. It doesn't just go away if you ignore it."

I hate weeding, I mumble. I find myself wondering why  I garden. It makes me hate green things. Growing food means facing the weeds that would like to take over. Some are persistent but not nasty. I could cut those back less often, if not for poison ivy. It's the worst kind of sin. It finds an ignore space and spreads out, laying cabled vines in bundles, then popping up for a drink of the sun. I garden because, like work, I must. I weed like I do the unpleasant parts of my job. Sometimes that includes the insidious tasks of reflecting on what's not working and hacking out the worst habits. Poison ivy, the habits, the sins -- indulge me --  that hide and take over between the harmless little things. These require uprooting and it's ugly. There's no way to remove these habits and sins without exposure to the toxins. There's no willing it away. Ignore it, it gets worse.

In my spirit, I pray the Lord's Prayers, which includes the line, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Trespass. That's what makes some of the harmless plants, like broadleaf plantain, get the reputation as a weed. Actually, if I had the energy after all the angry hacking, I could bring in the broad oval leaves and make something like kale chips with them. I think about it in a calm moment. Found food. Instead, I swing back, blades of mind and hand. Poison ivy and plantain. Weeds growing up where unwelcome. I severe bald vines and roots and pong between good and bad thoughts. One minute, I think how this poison is like addiction or the worst  habits. It is like sin and confession, like the discipline of hacking out unwelcome habits. The moment, I return back to besmirching my kids and spouse and my neighbor for leaving me in the middle of the poison. Lone fighter, drawing the poison with a splinter under my nail.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, in his "55 Maxims," indicates we should pray the Lord's Prayer a couple of times a day. We should make this gesture like we should say "I love you" to our kids and spouses when they leave, like hugging them and kissing them. Why repeat a written prayer when all prayer is effectual? Because is how God taught us to speak to Him. It's love language on the other's terms.

Which means praying "Forgive us our trespasses" several times a day.

Forgive us for the day's curses against computers and cars, the stubbed toes, the splinters, the spills, the teenager who rages. Forgive as I'm still thinking with another section of my brain,  Are you kidding me, teenage boy? You're being a jerk. Who died and made you king? You ungrateful... If you only knew how I bend over backward for you... There's only one of me, kid. 

So many curmudgeonly thoughts.

Tonight, I will pray it and reflect on my sins. I should make a summation like I do with my calories and work. Did I need that last hot chocolate? Did my stomach serve me or did I serve it? Was I being fussy about the kitchen's cleanliness? Is it a sin to be disappointed that the incontinent and stubborn old pet woke up this morning too? What about the half a dozen times I saw my husband half-reach for a kiss, a touch while I rushed off to some other task? What of the friend I didn't call? These trespasses, sins if you will, are mostly harmless weeds, growing and growing. I need to take scissors to them before the poison exploits the places and hides. Despair, lust, addiction, adultery don't just pop up. Most passions cover the insidious ones which exploit the shadows. 

I went inside at the end of the hacking. I made an impossible plan to have us burn the weeds. My son loves fire so I assigned him to the task. Rightly he hackled. 

"It says everywhere on the internet not to burn that stuff." 

"I won't shove it into black bags that never degrade. That's no good for the universe," I hollered back.

"Now we're yelling," said my husband. I stomped upstairs to strip, take a cold shower with expensive Technu-soap and slather myself in the calahyst.

And, regret.

While I wrote and edited, I stopped and I said sorry. I made a new plan. Biodegradable bags don't cost that much more than regular ones on Amazon. We won't burn the weeds I pulled. We'll use the vinegar and salt to kill the leaves, mowing and heat to work on the roots. We'll ask the neighbor if we could own the care of the fence row. I said sorry again. My husband expressed his hurt. I said sorry again. How many times could I say it? As many as he needed. It's like that when weeds get out of control. Rooting them out becomes more work. 
He left for a run. He took the boy with him to the skate park. As I left the garden, we left off, with me feeling a sneaking dissatisfaction with my performance. II often walk away worried I didn't extract the poison at the roots.