Seven Days to Live

August 31, 2010

I’ve been studying butterflies lately. It isn’t hard to do, for they love my backyard and the tablecloth on the deck.

My backyard–most of it–is wild and overgrown. There are lots of ‘weeds’, although that is a very subjective term. I prefer to call it a butterfly sanctuary. Joe-Pye weed with its subdued purple hue grows prolifically, standing feet above the other plants. The butterflies congregate there like it was a cafe. I guess for them it is.

There, they can drink nectar like I do coffee. They can flutter around and mate. They have a good life.

But it only lasts seven days. Two weeks at the most, unless they are Monarchs or a few other species who migrate or hibernate through the winter. Then, they get nine months.

They are blue and yellow and orange with black markings. They have ‘eye spots’ to throw off predators–birds, frogs, lizards, insects, and spiders who think the tail is the head. Thus, the butterfly protects the more important part of its body and can often get away with little real damage.

Butterflies do all sorts of things to survive their short life: some are foul-tasting and toxic; some mimic other species which leave a bad taste in the mouth. The Viceroy is a good example of the latter defense. Its colors mimic the toxic Monarch. Some use camouflage to blend in with the plant they prefer. Often they perch with their wings closed to minimize their presence.

I learned that the bright colors of butterflies are also a defense. The beautiful colors we love so well draw attention of would-be predators to their fake eyes and markings, which supposedly scares the hungry animal away. Who knew beauty would be a good defense?

I think about them as they sail over the porch, land on a chair, light on the house. Their lives are so short and I am curious which day they are on. Is it the first day when they crawl from the cocoon and make their first flight? Is it the third day and they are having a mid-life crisis? Or is it the seventh, and everything is in order for their death and they have grown to accept the impending burial?

Who sings over their grave? Who tells a tale? Who mourns their loss?

Life and death are perspective. We never know, really, when the bell will toll and we join the way of all living things. Even the redwoods and the giant sequoias will one day be taken out from this life. The forest canopy will have a hole where their massive limbs reached the light and filled the air with oxygen.

I wrote once about the American Chestnut tree, one of the few poems I have ever published. The American Chestnut tree–you may know–used to be a major force in the Eastern Deciduous forest. Like oaks and hickories, their hardwood trunks were tall and strong, a home for thousands of creatures, a beauty to behold–until a blight wiped them out. Occasionally, one can find a small sapling growing in a forgotten wood and there are scientific efforts to restore them. But the woods we know and love are missing something we never knew.

Do you wonder what else we are missing? Not just in the extinction of animals like the Ivory-billed woodpecker or the Whooping crane, although birders have recently reported sightings in some obscure place. But I wonder as well about the species which are now ‘rare and endangered’ which I have never seen. I wonder about the short life of the butterfly who if I close my eyes I will miss.

If I had seven days to live, this is what I would do:

Day 1: Freak out and make a list of everything I want to do in the next 6 1/2 days. Maybe tell my nuclear family, although I am not certain of this.

Day 2: Tear up the list and write lots of notes and emails. Make some phonecalls. Visit my husband in Greenville. Definitely make love.

Day 3: Drive up to Nashville to spend time with Hank and Hayley in their beautiful house.  Enjoy a nice meal out and Hank’s crepes for dessert.  Drink an iced-coffee at Starbuck’s. Go to a book store. Look up and thank God for the hawk who flies over me on the way home.

Day 4: Meet Sam for lunch in Athens. Ride with him on his new scooter. Watch him practice his cheers. talk about God and share some prayers. Enjoy a cigar with him and hug his neck.  Stop by my parents on the way home for an early supper of fresh vegetables. Tell them thanks and how much I love them. Look in my old bedroom and walk through every room slowly. Go back to Slippery Rock and Clyde’s Field, then climb Kennesaw Mountain with my brother, Stephen, and his wife to witness the sunset.

Day 5: Meet my sisters individually for breakfast and lunch. Hear plans about retirement and the upcoming wedding and marriage. Go by and see my brother-in-law and nephew and Dixie’s house. Go see Katie’s new house and Guy. Drive to the cemetary to talk to Gary. Meet my brother, Dallas, in Atlanta to listen to live music–maybe the blues or good rock n’ roll. Enjoy a Corona or two and dance with a good-lookin’ stranger.

Day 6: Rise at 4AM to write my last blog; get my things in order; make sure my will is current; clean the house; plan my memorial service. Smoke and reflect on the deck in the slant light of the cool morning. Go to Mass. In the afternoon, visit with my in-laws who will all be gathered for a celebration of some kind at Gail’s house. Call  Francis Michael and visit the monastery for Vespers and Compline. Later that evening, throw a great big party and invite everyone I know to the Little House. Serve all my favorite food and wine on china and crystal with a French tablecloth and napkins. Have lots of chocolate and cheese and candlelight. Snuggle with my husband, my head quiet on his chest and listen to the owls and the tree frogs. Sleep deep and hard. Get out early with the workmen for breakfast at a country diner.

Day 7: Be still and pray for my loved ones and the world and you. Hold my children. Kiss my husband. Listen to my favorite music. Take a slow walk up the old driveway. Enjoy a diet coke, a cigarette, and follow the butterfly’s flight.  Hear the buzz of the cicada, the song of the shy wood thrush deep in the woods, and feel the warm Georgia sun on my back and hair. Sigh, breathe..and smile. Whisper to my loved ones, to God, to my saints and all creation, I will see you soon Feel the Peace and become the Love.

The day is far spent. The night draws near. It is beyond Day 3 in my life. Or maybe is Day 7-who knows?

All I know is this: God made the most colorful creature who flutters around in beautiful glory, drinks sweet nectar from the wild garden, and graces my life for seven days. Time is short for the butterfly..and for us.

You can go but be back soon.

      —from the movie musical Oliver

It is 5:37 AM on Friday morning. I am in my kitchen boiling eggs, making tea, and preparing to make gazpacho and chocolate mousse. You can pray for me. I’ve never made mousse before–hard to believe.

I am wearing a flowered print cotton dress and a blue and yellow apron I bought in Provence. I am very excited because my family–the large extended one–is coming over tonight for a light supper on the deck. The menu is written out in my little book. The book is used to record menus, date, time, and guests for special meals, parties, and gatherings in our home since we were first married. It is awesome and is a catalogue of a rich life–and rich food–if I do say so myself.

Here is the menu for tonight:

Appetizer: summer sausage and dijon mustard; crackers; pate; Greek olives; and wine (red or white) or cranberry juice

Entre: Gazpacho; Provence salad with rice, hard-boiled eggs, and tuna fish; three cheeses (havarti, camembert, and brie); fresh fruit (pears, apples, plums, and grapes); and today’s baguettes from my old bakery, Douceur de France; water, tea, diet coke, or wine

Dessert: chocolate mousse and coffee with half and half

Doesn’t it sound good?! Of course, if it was truly a French meal, the fruit and cheeses would be served as dessert, there would be no iced tea, and we would enjoy cognac with an expresso. Still, I hope it will be good and mostly, that we will enjoy being together in a relaxed atmosphere. My little brother, Stephen, goes back to San Francisco tomorrow.

As I reflect on the little notebook–and my obsessive nature–I am grateful I have kept it all these years. It is a catalogue of a life; well, part of a life. Through it, I can remember so many occasions to celebrate, the large and the small. There have been Thanksgiving meals with both sides of the family and my grandmothers’ recipes; Christmas open houses in the parsonage; many birthday parties and graduations; church staff dinners; Mexico mission trip reunions; meals for Russian and French and Columbian guests; Valentine’s Day picnics on the living room rug; youth group parties or committee meetings; a college student Christian organization which used to meet in our home once a week as well as a weekly high school Bible study called miGod.

There have been intimate dinners on Christmas Eve after the candle-light service for our little family of four and casual meals with next-door neighbors.

In short..the book tells a story. Though the locations have changed from our first home near Kennesaw Mountain, through parsonages in Augusta and Young Harris, to a lake house in Hiawassee, and now to the Little House, the hosts and the love have remained the same. I/we are very blessed.

One of the kindest and most meaningful comments about our home and our life came when we were living in Young Harris. One of the young people said You can feel the love here. What a gift she gave me/us, for often in the busyness and the scramble to exist, we forget how important love is. It is pentultimately all that matters.

Sometimes in ‘entertaining’, I have been a bit pretentious or anxious and have focused on the food and the ambience, more than the conversation.This is a big mistake. For the whole point in having guests over and special occasions for family and friends is the relationships. My mother is a great role model for true hospitality, the kind which enjoys the event and helps others to feel comfortable.

But what about all the myriad of meals and conversations and time spent in front of the TV with a pizza or in the car on the way to school? What about the stops at fast-food restaurants on vacation? What about the yogurt or donoughts or peanutbutter sandwiches eaten in haste on the run?

These are not in my little book..but also tell a story. And one just as rich in love. For life is lived in these moments–the ordinary ones with sleepy-eyed or grouchy children at breakfast, with a cool silence in the car, with a shared laugh over a sit-com on the couch.

Life is both: the extraordinary and the ordinary. What connects them is the love.

I pray tonight, that as my  mother pulls up in the Cadillac, my father smiles as he hobbles in on his cane; my older sister and brother-in-law show up with the olives and diet cokes; my younger sister and her new fiance drop by; my attorney brother makes his way from Atlanta; and my sweet little brother Stephen–who comes for a little while but gives and gives–arrives right on time, I will remember just why we are gathering. I will feel and give and be the Love and…I will receive.

I started out this blog to say I am taking a temporary break from it for a while to focus on poetry and publication. I’n not exactly certain how I got side-tracked. Perhaps I am like my sister’s tshirt which says, I’m not ADD–Oh, look at that butterfly.

The butterfly for me right now will be a different type of writing with the need to create and edit in private. Plus, I really hope to get more organized and send out submissions for publication. Please pray some will be accepted.  I will post some poems on the blog when I feel that they are decent enough. Knowing me, I will return to the ‘essayish’ writing of the blog soon, for it is my first-love and comes so naturally, even when I struggle for the right words and meaning. Plus, it is a tremendously important writer’s discipline.

So.. like the song in the musical Oliver,  I hope you will say: You can go but be back soon!

I will build me a nest on the greatness of God.

            — Sidney Lanier, The Marshes of Glynn

Having just returned from St. Simon’s Island to my Little House, after being gone for one week, I have several observations:

1. The Little House looks so good, if I do say so myself.

2. The yard definitely needs work.

It’s amazing how one week away–seven days–can give one perspective. When you return home from vacation or a trip, it is as if you are walking into someone else’s house, someone you know very well but don’t see often. The furniture, the pictures on the wall, the lamps(!) all look familiar and yet they look different.

For me, my new home looked warmer than I remembered and more beautiful. The colors are soft, the red and gold tones of the sofa and easy chair inviting, the little wood stove on the rock hearth in the corner perfect. One wants a cup of tea, a good book, or your knitting. There is no clutter-yet. The furniture is a mix of primitive and finer antiques, some purchased at $25.00 a month over a year’s time, some inherited. The rooms are delightfully sparse, a necessity in such a small space. I am determined to keep them that way.

I have a strong nesting instinct. I always have. I don’t know why. All I know is that when The Three Little Pigs was read to me as a small child, the part that intrigued me the most was the cozy picture of the inside of the brick house. You may remember: there was a fireplace–very important; a rocking chair, and a braided rug. Maybe a black cast-iron pot over to the side and a rustic straw broom. I wanted to climb into the illustration, even with the wolf outside.

The fairy tale, like all fairy tales, is a type of folktale with a plot, characters, and fantastic events. Many fairy tales have talking animals and can be scary. There are often witches, trolls, giants, and wicked step-mothers. There are princes and princesses. Fairy god-mothers. Mythical beings like elves, dwarfs, and  fairies. The fairy tale doesn’t always include a ‘fairy’ and can be violent or even cannibalistic. In short, they capture the imagination, the fears, and I believe, the reality of experience for many people–children and adults–throughout time and across cultures. They are archetypal.

Just imagine if you grew up in Germany near the Black Forest, before the loss of habitat and DDT. Wolves roamed the forest stalking prey like a lion. I’m sure they might have gobbled up little children who wandered into the woods. Wicked step-mothers have always existed, as many children of divorced parents who remarry know too well. Just read Dear Abby. Ferocious winds huff and puff and blow our houses down. Watch the weather channel.

We taste forbidden fruit. We prick our fingers. We let down our golden hair. And if you visit Ireland, with its shamrocks, holy wells, and rainbows, then you know elves and fairies are real.

We all wish for a magical wizard or a wise owl to give us direction. We need quests and things to slay. We hope for the happy ending of a love story, complete with a romantic kiss on ruby red lips. And life’s predicaments need solutions. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson capture narrative which is often very near.

But I am getting scared, so back to the cozy picture and the braided rug and–the pot of boiling water. Sometimes, we just have to protect our home, even if it requires clever scheming. The wolves circle our sweet arrangements. According to scripture, they prowl around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (I Peter 5.8).

I do not live in a brick house–but like the second little pig–my home is made of wood. Even so, I know it is tight, well-insulated, and secure. And though life doesn’t always have happy endings and slippers which fit, for now the braided rug lies snugly before the hearth. The rocking chair is comfortable. The yellow lamp burns with ambience in the corner and the room is cozy.

I am thankful this day for the Little House and the gift of being able to build me a nest on the greatness of God like a mother bird. There is, afterall, no place like home.

Inebriated

August 22, 2010

Do not be drunk with wine.. but be filled with the Spirit.

                      –Ephesians 5.18

Last night, I got inebriated. No, let’s just call it what it is: I got drunk.

I have been ‘drunk’ only three times in my life. Once, when I was 18 living in Colorado and had my first tequila shot.

A second time might have been a year later at a New Year’s Eve party in Underground Atlanta.

And the third was last night.

I am very thankful I do not have a drinking problem. At the most, I might have 2 glasses of wine or 2 beers over dinner with a friend, maybe a margarita. And I will go for months without a single drop and not miss it.

So, what was different about last night?

I’m not really sure. I had gone to the village to enjoy a coctail my last night on the island at Murphy’s Tavern. It is an old establishment–perhaps you have been there. It has a nice, easy atmosphere and is a mix of locals and older folks on vacation like me. It has nice wood paneling. The walls are covered in art. There are three pool tables and they have darts. I know, I played them–if that’s the right word.

And before I knew it, five hours had gone by. I had downed four mixed drinks of cranberry juice and rum with a lime–very good by the way. And then, I had to order a taxi–a first in my fifty-five years. This morning, I get to walk to the village to retrieve my car.

When I arrived safely back to the condo, I went on line to look up ‘what to do when you have drunk too much.’ It’s amazing what you can google and the resources which come up. This is what I learned:

1. Drink lots of water–alcohol dehydrates you

2. Eat a piece of bread or some other carbohydrate to help absorb the alcohol

3. Drink a fruit juice or take vitamin c, for the liver needs it to process the alcohol

4. Take a walk or do some exercise to help burn it up

5. Take a cold shower to help with the feeling of being inebriated

6. Find something to focus and concentrate on.

So, I did all of the above and am happy to say this morning, there is no hangover and no headache. I apologized to my little liver for taxing it so much. And I made the decision, getting drunk is not a good idea.

I think what held me at Murphy’s so long last night and what contributed to my consumption were the people. I met a guy named Larry who is very good at pool and is funny. He wears his cap backwards on his head like a young man, even though he’s probably in his 40’s. He lives and works on the island and I learned does not like to do laundry. So, when all his shirts are dirty, he just buys new ones.  He made me a proposition to come home with him, and I don’t think it was to wash his clothes, although I’m sure this would have been a bonus. He downed corn whiskey in shot glasses chased by a coke. He left, alone and stumbling, to go eat dinner.

Then there was Judy. Judy is a banker who crunches numbers. She has a regular stool at the bar where she can survey what’s going on. She knew everyone there by name and the night before, had written her family recipe for squash casserole on a coctail napkin for Larry. He said it was held by a magnet on his refrigerator.  I wonder if he will ever make it.

The one thing about being a minister for 23 years and now a Catholic who has lived and worked in a monastery and has two theology degrees from Emory is that whenever the onversation turns to “so what do you do?” the subject of God comes up. People just start talking. They tell you their deepest secrets and their fears…and they sometimes rail.

Last night, Judy told me about her life and now I know why she sits in the bar each afternoon and has for nineteen years. I think of her poor little liver and Larry’s. I am sorry for their collective pain and their drug of choice to douse it. I doubt it really works, or they wouldn’t be back each evening.

Judy is a Southern Baptist and is really angry at God. No, I would call it rage. Her father, the most Christian man she knows, is in a wheel chair after a major stroke. He cannot walk, talk, or feed himself and hasn’t for nine years. When she finally left Murphy’s, it was to go put her father to bed. Plus, she has been in love with a man for eighteen years who is married. He is twenty years older than she and came to the island to work. He did his banking with her, and that wasn’t all. He would leave his wife and children each morning, Judy said, and come to her house at 7 for ‘breakfast. ‘ This arrangement went on for eleven or so years until he decided at sixty, he just couldn’t cheat or lie anymore. So, now they just talk on the phone once a week and send emails.

The man she loves–which she claims is as pure a love as you can get and who loves her the same way–has encouraged her to get on with her life, to fall in love again, maybe get married. But she said last night through determined and sad eyes, How can I? I will always love him. And then with a shrug and a sip on her drink, she stated, “That’s life.”

Is it? Is that the way life is–when we fall in love with someone, and they with us, who we can never be with? When we nurse our loved ones who are paralyzed and have to put our own parents to bed? When we go home alone and look at our pile of laundry?

Judy is right. The longterm suffering she’s known in loving and losing the two men in her life who are her world, has no easy answers and quick fixes and raises serious theological concerns.  Our theodicy–or beliefs about the nature of God— is challenged and has to be adjusted. Sometimes, in life, we just have to endure.

I am thankful this morning that I don’t have to depend on a daily tryst with the bottle to get through life. I write a blog and pray.

But I believe, Judy and Larry’s drinking is a form of prayer. They lift their shot glasses and toast a God who they don’t understand. They endure.

This Sabbath day, as some of you make your way to worship or perhaps watch a football game on TV, would you please say a prayer for Larry and for Judy, that they will know how much God loves them? And would you say a prayer for me, as I walk to the village and get my car?

Main Entry: 1sto·ic
Pronunciation: \ˈstō-ik\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin stoicus, from Greek stōïkos, literally, of the portico, from Stoa (Poikilē) the Painted Portico, portico at Athens where Zeno taught
Date: 14th century

1 capitalized : a member of a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium about 300 b.c. holding that the wise man should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submissive to natural law
2 : one apparently or professedly indifferent to pleasure or pain

                         The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

 
 
 
 

         S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
  A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
  Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
  Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
  Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
  Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
 

 
LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats      
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …         
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
 
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
 
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,         
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,         
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
 
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;         
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;         
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
 
In the room the women come and go         
Talking of Michelangelo.
 
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—         
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare         
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
 
For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,         
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
  So how should I presume?
 
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—         
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?        
  And how should I presume?
 
And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress       
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
  And should I then presume?
  And how should I begin?
      .      .      .      .      .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets        
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…
 
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
      .      .      .      .      .
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!        
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?        
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,         
And in short, I was afraid.
 
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,         
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—      
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
  Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
  That is not it, at all.”
 
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,    
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:       
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
  “That is not it at all,
  That is not what I meant, at all.”
      .      .      .      .      .
   
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,        
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
 
I grow old … I grow old …         
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
 
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
 
I do not think that they will sing to me.  
 
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
 
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown    
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
 

T.S. Eliot’s most familiar poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock , is about a middle-aged balding man who is insecure. He is afraid to risk and remains on the sidelines of life–like a wallflower at a dance. He is timid and self-conscious, afraid to talk to the women. He lives in a dreary city where soot circles around his life like a cat and then settles in. He is very, very lonely. And.. he is sad.

He measures out his life in coffee spoons.

It has been suggested that Prufrock comes from the German word “Prüfstein” meaning “touchstone“. If so, Prufrock becomes a touchstone for many as we contemplate what it means to measure out our life in coffee spoons.

My sister, Dixie, remarked the other night on the phone that nothing could be sadder or more horrifying than such a life–measuring out our life, our love, our existence in such small and scared and dreary spoons. Instead, we decided, life should be measured out in gallon jugs; in a life which is LARGE in every sense of the word.

The mere fact that we’ve been hurt is an indication–a touchstone–on what makes life LARGE. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in risking that we believe. We can take that small step–like the man on the moon–because we’ve done it before. We know how weightlessness feels. We know the beauty of space and adventure, of craters and seas. We have stepped over into the GREAT, the GRAND, the LARGE where life is magic and full of mystery.

I think about the receding of the sea this week and the surf, caught over and over in this endless going and coming. The tides are quite regular and do the same thing day in and day out. They must get tired of the monotony. Of being the water which never makes it into the deep. Of sticking close to the shore in safety and predictability.

Leo Buscalia wrote:

Love withers with predictability; its very essence is surprise and amazement. To make love a prisoner of the mundane is to take its passion and lose it forever.

My sister and I, all our siblings, were given a life from our parents which can only be described as exquisite. We had an exquisite childhood, rich with passion and romance, with dreams and imagination, with wonder and the joie-de vivre–the joy of living.

Our parents taught this joy through their own living. They prepared tea parties at a small table with tiny blue china cups and marshmallows in the sugar bowl. They watched cartoons and laughed uproariously. They played records on the stereo and walked into the front yard at night to breathe in the stars. They made a mobile from a coathanger–perfectly poised above our bed. They shoved us out the door into the yard to play and let us wear expensive silver bracelets from New Mexico to be gypsies. They encouraged us to wander through the field to sail wooden chips down a creek. They didn’t mind that we hiked to nearby pastures before school to hold carrots upright in our hands for the horses to softly nibble.

It was through their joie de vivre that we went without shirts, even the girls, and kissed earthworms and caught bream in the pond on the golfcourse. White warm puppies lived on newspapers in the kitchen; we watched them climb over each other to get to the teat. Our parents knew the song of the bobwhite and the whippoorwill and as we listened with them we also learned to whistle the melodies. They sent us to camp which we loved and gave us each a desk to do our homework independently. Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod tucked us into bed at night and an Irish Lullaby was sung in harmony.

Our parents are almost 83. They marvel still as the purple finch lands on the feeder. They call one another to come listen to the screech owl. They sit on the porch at night, simply to stare at the moonflower. They live exquisitely.

I know not everyone has been given such a gift or has been so wounded in childhood or adolescence or as an adult, that the shock remains and the mere mention of living LARGE paralyzes and grips. Gradually, the spoons get smaller and smaller and before we know it we become the tides that are caught in predictable regularity. There is no magic, no surprise, no mystery. Life is all prose and no poetry.

I don’t believe living LARGE has anything to do with ‘drama’ or a focus on the ‘mega‘ sphere of life. In fact, quite the opposite is true. We marvel and get excited over the little things instead–and the little things grow us LARGE on the interior. We delight in a coffee cup steaming from Starbuck’s. A ordinary walk in the neighborhood. The rainbow spray of the water as we wash the car.  

Before we know it, we have driven to the mountains and stopped by the side of the road. We are filling up a gallon jug at a spring, after first touching the lace of Queen Ann.  Or we have made a pilgrimage to Lourdes and stand in line to fill our gallon jug from the fountain, after enjoying a croissant avec confiture. We are slowly healed from our heartache and ready to live, to risk, to drink the sweet water again.

I believe Prufrock had to be stoic. His plodding along was admirable, for he knew no other way to exist. But stoic can cross over into impervious–a closed-off existence, indifferent to pleasure and pain. It often masks fear. And yet, in Prufrock’s own timid way, he is singing a love song. He knows there is more.

My prayer for all of us this day–my last full day at St. Simon’s–is that we will measure out our life in gallon jugs. And..if we sit down at the table of life and find we have only been given a coffee spoon, we will fill it to overflowing again.. and again.. and again.

 

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,  have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,  grant us peace.

                                   —Agnus Dei in Mass Liturgy

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

                                —John 1. 29

God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

                                —Luke 18.13

This morning I am going to Mass for the first time in over two months. I’ve had my reasons.

For someone who loves the Mass and has been worshiping this way on a daily basis for quite some time,  my absence has been radical.

Many years ago, I learned in algebra and botany that radical refers to root.  I like this meaning of radical as origin, as something fundamental, as opposed to the one we usually associate with it: that of being extreme.

Somehow, I think my absence from Mass has held both meanings. It has been extreme but also fundamental. I have needed to be away. To lie face down in the dirt.

The Mass takes me to both meanings of the word ‘radical’–the extreme love God has for us and how fundamental that love is to all else. Without both meanings, the picture would not be full. Jesus is Root- our source and origin. But He is also extreme. Without Him, I would be dead.

There is a point in the Mass which is my favorite. It gets me every time. It is the Agnus Dei–the Latin for Lamb of God.

The congregation voices the liturgy in unison:

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,  have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,  grant us peace.

I always cry here and cover my head. I also kneel, for what else can one do in the face of such love? If I could, I would lie prone.

I am the publican, the tax collector, the greatest of sinners. I need the radical root of God’s Love.

Please pray for me this morning, as I make my way to Mass. My back has been hurting, as well as my spirit. Please pray I will be able to kneel and I will be able to get up.

Heart Palpitations

August 18, 2010

I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

              —Ezekiel 36.26b

 Circumcise the foreskin of your heart

                –Deuteuronomy 10.16

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

                –Romans 2.28, 29

There are certain words I really like and palpable is one of them. I like its sound. I like its meaning. I like using it in a sentence.

I recall the first time palpable made its way into a homily. The homily was given during the wedding ceremony of my cousin, David, and his wife, Julie. It was a second marriage for David and he had been through hell in the first. Julie, on the other hand, was so full of love and goodness, her brown eyes were large and shiny with God. She had a great sense of humor and a great smile. It was clear beyond all doubt how much she loved my cousin. And his love for her was just as palpable. So, I said it.

Claiming reality and putting it into words is part of what it means to be human. We flounder around and search the air as if oxygen, nitrogen, invisible gases hold the secret and then finally, the right word lodges in our chest and vibrates through our vocal chords. We speak truth into being. We open our mouths and say the words.

I love you. I want a divorce. I’m sorry. I need help. My heart is breaking. I am having palpitations.

When preparing for the verbal section of the GRE’s, I took a night course at Emory. The professor helped us play with words like a writer, look at their roots and origin. Make connections so we could get a better score. This tool, along with POE (process of elimination) helped immensely.

Thus, this morning, as I contemplate the word palpable, I think of palpitations, palpate, and begin to consider their connection.

The words become palpable as they swirl around in my mouth. As I hear them. As they appear on the screen. I can touch them, examine them like a doctor. And they cause my heart palpitations.

The heart is like words. It knows and names reality and shakes it loose from the atmosphere. It beats and throbs and breaks. It races and stops and goes erratic. It often becomes hard.

I love the text in Ezekiel and have experienced it in my life first-hand. In 1978, when I returned to my faith I could literally feel the heart surgery Christ performed, my cavity being opened, scar tissue cut away.  My heart physically ached.  I would bring my hands to my chest as I felt others pain and fragility for the first time in years. As the beauty of the universe and God’s love broke through the anterior walls.  I hurt because I loved. God removed my heart of stone and replaced it with a heart of flesh.

I didn’t know of the Ezekiel text, or the Deuteronomic, or the Letter to the Romans. I just knew something palpable had transpired in my heart. Later, as I read these verses,  I knew I had experienced circumcision in the place it matters most.

Over the years, the scar tissue has grown back. My heart has been broken by others. It has been hurt by the tragedies of life on earth. It has suffered palpitations and arrests and throbbed with desire. It has seemed to jump right out of my chest as in a cartoon.

But God continues to perform surgery, reaches senstitive expert hands into my life and cuts away the outer layers, the protection and pain grown hard. Over and over, my heart goes soft. I receive a new heart of flesh.

I don’t know why life is so hard..or so beautiful. I just know certain things break our hearts and harm our spirits and threaten our humanity. And as a result, we grow layers of protection. At least that’s what we think they are. We think the layers of numbness and dispassion will save us from feeling, from hurting, from breaking. But all they do is cause us more pain. For when our hearts are stoney, we are not really living.

So…this day, as I listen to the heartbeat of the world through a conch shell, the ocean’s rhythmic force, as I  hear the crash of the waves and the regular roar of the surf, as I search the heavens tonight for stars which pulsate and meteors which spin, as I contemplate you in all your beauty and vulnerability and my own wounded being, I am thankful that love is palpable. I am thankful for my heart and yours.

But do please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch.

                    —from The Tar Baby, in the Uncle Remus Stories by Joel Chandler Harris

We all have them, those Tar Babies in our lives which keep us stuck.

Most of the time we don’t even realize they are inanimate, until we are set free to run through the Brier-Patch.

Growing up in the South in the early 1960’s, the Uncle Remus Stories were read to me at bedtime. My mother could pronounce the slave vernacular as if it were her own. The stories enchanted and were illustrated beautifully. Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Old Uncle Remus graced the pages of Joel Chandler Harris’ interpretation of African folk tales.

Somewhere along the way, as the nation  struggled with issues of race, the stories fell out of favor and were labeled ‘racist’ because of the language and what many perceived to connote negative images  of African-Americans.  I am sorry for any harm to human dignity and reinforcement of stereo-types which the tales may have caused. But as sometimes happens when change occurs–no matter how good and necessary the change is–we throw the baby out with the bathwater. In this case, it is the Tar Baby.

You may recall the story line:  Br’er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and dresses it with some clothes. When Br’er Rabbit comes along he addresses the tar “baby” amiably, but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as the Tar Baby’s lack of manners, punches it, and in doing so becomes stuck. The more Br’er Rabbit punches and kicks the tar “baby” out of rage, the worse he gets stuck. Now that Br’er Rabbit is stuck, Br’er Fox ponders how to dispose of him. The helpless, but cunning, Br’er Rabbit pleads, “but do please, Brer Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,” prompting Fox to do exactly that. As rabbits are at home in thickets, the resourceful Br’er Rabbit escapes. Using the phrases “but do please, Brer Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch” and “tar baby” to refer to the idea of “a problem that gets worse the more one struggles against it” became part of the wider culture of the United States in the mid-20th century (wikipedia).

So who is the winner here? And who is really stuck? What are the Br’er Foxes in our lives who create sticky messes to entrap us?  and where is the brier-patch?

Folk tales around the world employ a ‘tar baby ‘metaphor: there’s a tar doll in Columbia, a tar wolf in a Native American legend, a sticky hair in a Buddhist myth. What do these ancient oral traditions teach us? What do they want to say?

I believe there are people and events in our lives which keep us stuck. We are blithely skipping down the road when we approach them. They seem human at first, wear clothes like something real, but soon we realize they remain dark and silent. They are worse than rude. There is no response.

So, we do what anyone would do who is ignored and rebuffed, we strike out. Soon the trap begins to work its power and we are flailing against a black figure who appears innocent enough, as if in contemplative prayer. But in fact, it is quite impotent. It has no pulse and no intention but is a ruse for something bigger, the Br’er Fox of the heart.

These are often collective creatures, institution-keepers, who work as a triage and would rather catch souls and hold them than let them pass by free. They plot together and scheme on how to dress up the tar baby, what hood or robe or dress it should wear. The position it should be propped up in. The virtuous expression plastered on the face.

And Br’er Rabbit? Well he is rather naive and happy. He is us in our innocence. We have no warning the Tar Baby is just around the curve.

But the tale doesn’t end here. Br’er Rabbit is crafty in his own right. And smarter than Br’er Fox. He convinces the Original Conniver to throw him into the brier patch–the place he loves the best.

This morning, as I sit and contemplate ships who break free of their shallow moorings to sail out into the deep sea, as I think about the tar babies along my trail and the foxes behind them,  I know I have convinced them through my own cunning to throw me right back into my tangled home,  at long last free.

And so I borrow another story and a different language from the African-Amercian vernacular and a triumphant time in history:

Free at last, free at last  Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!

 

And I Would Walk 500 Miles

August 16, 2010

When I wake up yeah I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you
When I go out yeah I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man who goes along with you

When I’m lonely yes I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man whose lonely without you

When I’m dreaming yes I know I’m gonna dream
Dream about the time when I’m with you.

If I get drunk yes I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man who gets drunk next to you
And if I haver yeah I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man who’s havering to you

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked 1000 miles
To fall down at your door

When I’m working yes I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man who’s working hard for you
And when the money comes in for the work I’ll do
I’ll pass almost every penny on to you

When I come home yeah I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man who comes back home to you
And if I grow old well I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man who’s growing old with you

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked 1000 miles
To fall down at your door

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked 1000 miles
To fall down at your door

Last night, I had a melt-down. I’ll admit it. Grief has a way of sneaking up on us and catches us unaware. The smallest thing can set it off.

For me, it was when I started unloading the car.

I am at St. Simon’s, one of the beautiful Golden Isles on the Georgia coast. Our family has come here–to the same condo which belongs to my parents–every summer since Hank was born. Twenty-four years. This year, Hank and Hayley are busy working and studying in Nashville. Sam is in Athens starting school. David is climbing on roofs in South Carolina and I am here by myself.

Twenty-four years, we have unloaded the car upon arrival. Pulled the cart next to various automobiles, sometimes two of them–and unloaded our gear.

Our gear has shifted over the more than two decades we have vacationed here. It has morphed from small playpens, strollers, umbrellas, and baby toys, through a season of roller blades, hockey sticks, baseball gloves and boogie boards, to scrabble games, bicycles, video games, and books.

Always there were beach toys–sand buckets, shovels, little bright red and blue plastic pails. Perfect for making sand castles which we have created each year.

I wheeled the cart over to the car and unloaded my one little bag and groceries. The tears started. I could not stop them.

It is such a gift to be a parent. And so hard. Especially when your children leave, when your family is scattered.

Even as you enjoy and delight in the new adult-to-adult status and are so happy about the projects and travel and adventures of new stages in their lives–college, graduate school, marriage, moving away…it still hurts.

At the risk of being maudlin and overly-sentimental, these are the images I saw in my mind last night, the ones which caused me tears:

*Hank is a toddler–He is old enough to press the button on the elevator. He is more excited about this than anything as he reaches up and smiles.

*Hank is two or so with long, still-baby hair the color of autumn copper, a white t-shirt down to his calves, an insect net in his hand to collect living creatures in the tidal pools. And he is running with short little legs on the sand and he looks like a sandpiper. I call him my sandpiper.

*Sam and I are on rollerblades. He is eight or so and coaches me in the sport. We skate around the parking garage underneath the condominiums. It is raining. We are racing in large circles round the concrete posts. He is winning.

*Sam is sitting on a stool. He is ten and is leaning over to blow out his birthday candlles. He opens a box with cool blue shoes, the ones he wanted for school but we didn’t think were practical. He is so happy.

* Sam and I are building a sand castle while David and Hank watch. We dig tunnels and dribble sand on towers. We gather reeds and seaweed to fashion flags. Then we protect the entire magnificent structure with walls and a moat and wait for the tide to come in. Beach combers stop to watch as the moat slowly fills. Soon the walls begin slipping away, returning to the sea.

*Hank and David and Sam are concentrating as they kneel in the sand, the sun on their bare backs. They are building a racetrack. The tonka toys we brought–miniature yellow dumptrucks and bull dozers- are making roads. They drive matchbox cars over the course.

* So many images come to mind–the girl in the pool who Hank wants to meet as a thirteen year old; eating raw oysters on saltines at The Crab Trap; pushing the catamaran out through the surf and jumping on fast as the sail catches the wind. We are parasailing and riding jet skis in the coastal waterway. We are tucked tightly into kayaks, eye level with the marsh. We see long-legged ibises and look for make-believe alligators.

We are crossing the causeway bridge and roll the windows down all the way. The warm humid air rushes in, carries the sour smell of the pulp wood factory and the nutrient-rich fishy odor of the marsh. We yell hello to our beloved island, scream out the window for the joys of vacation and the freedom of the wind and sea. 

Later skinny beautiful girlfriends–who are also smart and sweet-join us, sleep in twin beds while Hank and Sam move to the sofa bed. The four of them are at the dining room table playing monopoly. The laughter and voices are loud as they negotiate complicated real estate deals. The next morning, the girls straddle the boys shoulders as they chicken-fight in the pool. It is the second evening. We order pizza and play charades.

It is the next summer and one of the girlfriends is now a fiance. She could be their sister–and my daughter–with her long red hair. She looks like Nicole Kidman, only prettier. I, and others, can’t quit staring at her. She stirs batter for a funfetti cake. The next morning, the newly engaged couple are making french toast with cream cheese and strawberries. They help me with my PhD Statement of Purpose and David with his resume.

One year, David can’t join us. Hank and Sam each bring a friend. They are in middle and high school. Justin rides a bike into the swimming pool and I somehow agree to let them try this stunt. It is night-time and we are laughing uncontrollably.

It is that year, that we sing I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers as we ride into town. The windows are rolled down. We are almost shouting the lyrics at the top of our lungs: 

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked 1000 miles
To fall down at your door

I will tell you my children, I would be the woman who would walk 500 miles, 1000, 1 million just to fall down at your door. Just to hold you in my arms once again. Just to build a sandcastle.

I am happy you are grown. I am enjoying this stage in our relationship and know in the future we will have time again at St. Simon’s, perhaps with grandchildren. But this year, I am missing you.

I am missing my babies.

Rock me Momma like a wagon wheel  Rock me Momma any way you feel  Heh Momma rock me

                  –Wagon Wheel, written by Bob Dylan and Jay Secor

                  –recorded beautifully by Old Crow Medicine Show

Why are we so uptight about sex? Honestly, I am tired of it.

The way I figure it, God is in the seduction business. God takes His/Her courting seriously and really knows how to woo.

Have you looked at a sunrise lately? or a cloud? or the foot of a baby?

Or heard Old Crow Medicine Show sing Wagon Wheel? !Dern, it’s such a good and hot song. It reminds me of when I was eighteen, hitch-hiking across the country, living in Colorado, meeting people from Chicago and Arizona, and climbing mountains.

I did, I hitchhiked back home to Georgia with a long-haired man, a dog, and a backpack. Iwas too young to be a real hippie, but I tried. Actually, it came pretty naturally. I didn’t have to try hard and according to some, still comes through, even when I tried to hide it in the Church. Can you tell?:)

I believe, in many substantial ways, I was freer then than I’ve ever been.

Sure, mistakes were made. At times I was hurt by myself and others. But even living as a I do now, a faithful wife and ‘Christian’ writer, mistakes are made. And I still get hurt.

I often wonder what God thinks about how I’ve lived my life. Whether I have been uptight about things that don’t really matter. Whether I have been sufficiently in love –have made love–with the universe.

There are times when I want to go back. Back to hiking boots, halter tops, dancing in a saloon with friends, climbing high mountains. Times I want to hit the road with only a thumb and a backpack. But more than any of these, I want to be free. Free in the way God intended, not some stupid human convention.

Maybe that’s why I like Europe so much and probably anywhere else in the world but here. Here, we are so uptight about so many things, it is maddening. If you think I am wrong, look at our American culture’s obsession with sex. It cannot be natural or healthy or free–in the God sense– if we have only two options: 1) buying into an over-sexualized media, fashion, and sex industry which causes young girls to dress like whores, or be whores,–‘sexting’ on their iphones, posting provacative poses on the internet when they are twelve and boys to become prostitutes And causes perfectly good men to go to jail and husbands to transgress. Even the college students at Young Harris-men and women–were very open about their habits of viewing porn. Ministers sexual ‘misconduct’ is a whole other category. Don’t even get me started here.

or–here’s the other option: 2) A morality which rivals the Puritans in its rigidity about sex and discomfort with the concept. We see this in the Church and in pockets of youth and adult religious cultures where ‘sex’ is taught and believed to be bad, which then leaches into behavior and dissatisfaction in marriage and committed relationships.

Could there be an in-between? Both of these extremes, I feel, indicate neuroses and how screwed up we are as a society. Sex cannot be natural but must either be exhibitioned and obscene or closeted and clothed up to the neck. And if you think I am wrong, check your own response to this blog. Some will misinterpret and jump to conclusions and want to send me an inappropriate email. Others will want to close down the page before finishing and will feel both disgust and guilt.

I want a happy medium. I want to live in France where people seem more comfortable with what it means to be sexual beings and have perfected the art of seduction. Call me a whore if you want to, but I think it is worth considering–this freer, not to be confused with loose or immoral, attitude towards sex.

Rock me Momma like a wagon wheel  Rock me Momma any way you feel Heh Momma rock me.

Rock me Momma like the wind and the rain  Rock me Momma like a southbound train Heh Momma rock me.

I think God wants to rock us like a Momma and delights when we can rock the universe and one another, free.