Earthen Vessel

Francis(1)Those who work for peace, animals, and the environment love Francis of Assisi. Even the crickets claim him. What draws me, though, is his humility. Not meekness or lowliness, but humus: the quality of being grounded, to arise from the dirt. Italian in his roots and in his bones, Francis remained in Assisi. He entered into conversion in the plain sight of suspicious family and friends. In the same city where he dressed regally, he stripped himself naked. Along the narrow streets where he partied, he begged for alms. A native son, through and through.

When I grapple with a written scene, I wonder which should come first, the character or the setting. I have only visited Assisi once, but in the Francis story, a simple answer emerges. Out of Italy, out of Assisi, St. Francis was born, Umbria’s earthen vessel.

enter-assisiOn my bookshelf is the three volume set of Francis of Assisi, edited by Franciscan scholars Regis Armstrong, Wayne Hellmann, and William Short. Next to these books is Enter Assisi, by Murray Bodo. The book is a visual and spiritual tour through stone streets and gates, into basilicas and the tiny Portiuncula, up through the hills, and into the caves. Wherever we travel, Bodo reminds us that Francis lived, loved, and died here, in his hometown. No wonder his Spirit is alive and well.

Earth brings forth the beautiful but also the flawed. Francis, like his native land, was imperfect. Superlatives, in reality, diminish him. Embracing his limitations, he gained humus. Below is a prayer written by Francis that, to me, summarizes his life: human, grounded, and of the earth:

Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.
Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor disturbance.
Where there is poverty with joy, there is neither greed nor avarice.
Where there is rest and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor restlessness.
Where there is fear of the Lord to guard an entrance, there the enemy cannot have a place to enter.
Where there is a heart full of mercy and discernment, there is neither excess nor hardness of heart.

Imagine

 

My convent memoir completed, I sent out numerous query letters, synopses, and proposals hoping an agent would snap me up. After all, who doesn’t want the inside scoop on those saints or wretches (depending on your experience) called nuns? When the response was silence, I realized I needed help. I signed up for the annual Willamette Writers Conference and an editing session with Molly Best Tinsley.

First item of my day was to Google Molly. She is a writer of short stories, spy novels, and a memoir. In addition she is a teacher, and is professor emerita at the United States Naval Academy. She has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Sandstone Prize and the Oregon Book Award. Critics write of her complex characters and intelligent, clear style.

Impressed with her qualifications, I sent in my twenty-five pages and received not only an astute critique but a request to read the next twenty-five. When she asked to read the entire manuscript and showed an interest in possible publication, I knew she believed in the book.

Belief in a book. Belief in the writing. The words take me back to my two years at the Northwest Writing Institute where gifted professors Kim Stafford, Joanne Mulcahy, and Jim Heynen encouraged me to examine with kindness my writing and the writing of colleagues. Jim Heynen’s words stay with me: “When critiquing a work, believe in the possibilities.”

To believe in the possibilities requires not only focus, but also reverence for a work. Molly Best Tinsley has been that kind of editor for me. In the words of my Facebook post, she has guided, questioned, and challenged me to write at the top of my game and beyond. What more could a writer ask?

Whiplash

As a middle school and high school teacher, I wanted my students to experience “the joy of learning,” through a study of illustrated children’s literature. You know, those blissful books meant for young people and philosophers. We explored ABC books, including the masterful work of Seuss, Van Allsburg, and Musgrove. During this unit, students laughed and remembered read-aloud times with parents. Joyful, stress-less classes led students to bring ABC books from home—a little battered, always beloved. The young people created their own bright, happy alphabet booklets.

My personal favorite was and remains Ashanti to Zulu. The 1977 Caldecott winner, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, is a festive celebration of African tribal customs and a colorful peek inside an unknown continent. The Gold Coast tribes alone are worth the experience: an Ashanti wears his silk-threaded kente. Ewe drummers signal to tribes far away. The Fanti host offers bubbly palm wine. An ABC book which might be a metaphor for joyful learning.

Some reading, though, is not meant to be fun. Some reading is like my visit to the intentionally angled Danish Jewish Museum: requiring involvement and throwing me off kilter, leaving me disturbed and yet wiser. At times I procrastinate tackling a book because of the pain that lurks in the pages.

homegoingSuch was my dilemma with Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “an inspiration.” The book is a multi-generational story that begins in Ghana with two sisters, one from the Fanti tribe and the other from the Ashanti or Asanti. True to my children’s book, palm is referenced as wine, but also as leaves slick with blood. The kente bright threads appear again, but in a story whispered by a dungeon slave.

Both books enrich me as a learner because the language is dense with gorgeous imagery and invaluable history. Ashanti to Zulu grants me magical escape and Homegoing won’t let me go.

For me, the child’s book is a treasure but the novel is a necessity. I need something more than the level in my life’s geometry. Angles force me toward the upside down and off-kilter. Maybe that’s why children somersault and adults climb Everest. Maybe that’s why I cannot forget a large room in Copenhagen, retelling the Jewish suffering through the Danish experience, and where I leaned to the right to keep my balance.

In Control

Water fountainOnly lately have I realized how control adds to my appreciation of this outdoor decoration. Any time of day or night, I plug it in and presto! A bubbling fountain. My responsibility lies in keeping the agates clean and the water level high. I choose when the soothing device operates. I decide which way the bird stares. I have no say about hurricanes, earthquakes, or wildfires, but on this patio, I hold sway.

Eons ago, my God was Gentle Stager, never a formidable being, but a keen-eyed Observer of good order. God could leave me—the heron—as is, lift me out from the stones, point me in a different direction, sink me into rocks or place me atop them. God desired my sleek virtue and heavenward focus. In God’s Plan, I was water decoration meant to beautify a small patio space of the universe. My task: obey and pray.
The Odyssey

Greek myths gave me another view of humans and the supernatural. The gods, so like us, emit love and cruelty, loyalty and capriciousness. Troublesome and controlling, they delight when mortals obey and plead. A favorite of mine is temperamental Poseidon, Lord of the unpredictable, raging sea. Homer’s Odysseus, who blinded Cyclops, wants to go home. Poseidon, father of wounded Cyclops, wants Odysseus to suffer: “When the wanderer had come close to shore, he heard the surge; against the shoal it hammered hard; the wailing combers rolled and thundered all along the dry land’s coast. Sea-spume enveloped everything in sight.” Only when wily Odysseus takes charge of his situation does Athena come to assist him. Mortals thrive when they challenge the gods.

Mortal as I am, I flounder between earth and heaven. Watching the spinning Irma, I put my trust in the scientific sphere. With the meteorologists I track Irma’s path, compare models, and know, almost to the hour, when the hammer will strike Florida. I knead facts into a rational, consumable whole. On the other hand, I pray for miracles: people get out in time, the hurricane veers far right, traffic won’t jam, all have enough fuel and clean water, and that (maybe) Athena swoops down to save the animals.

Herons in pond

Looking at my photo of Victoria’s Butterfly Garden, I am once again in a space like my patio. With my camera, I am a woman in control of her natural world: herons preening and water slipping over rocks—fixed in time. Recalling the gentle jungle, I remember nature as a calm and ordered place. Bless the camera, the easy part of control.

What about in the midst of upheaval? A complaint surfaces. “Why would God let this happen?” Zeus heard the same words centuries ago. He refused to let humans off the hook. “Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say we devise their misery. But they themselves design grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.” Uh, oh. 

I am part of Zeus’ ambivalent humanity which causes much of its own grief. Time to get off my knees and share somehow in the work required of humans, not gods: seek the missing, bury the dead, house the dispossessed, and donate to food banks, shelters, and clinics. After the horror come the harder, long-term problems: carbon emissions and aging dams, coral reefs and endangered species, chemicals and rising seas.

CNN blares that Irma will smash into Florida. Before I know it, I’m hoping for an impossible Divine leniency. I look out to my patio where the water fountain stands serene. I force myself to imagine a new world order of wily, resourceful humans in partnership with the God who, without hesitation, has given us both the natural world and the fearsome ability to choose.

Deluge

hpim0283.jpgFor six years I tended this rose bush and she was a beauty. I thought of her heard of the summer scents of Houston: roses and jasmine, orange blossoms and water lilies. That was before the floods drowned the flowers, robbed the city of fragrance and left people, their belongings, and their very souls inundated. Later the receding waters will leave another scent, a toxic smell of mold and gas that burns the spirit and the lungs.

Long ago in a place and at a time I cannot recall, a young woman led me through her flood-damaged home. She grieved for lost photos and her wood floors, now rotting and buckled. My keenest memory was the pungent smell of mildew. It crept from the ruined carpets, sneaked through cracks in the wall. “We can’t live here anymore,” she said. “It’s so hard to breathe.”

The cities and towns of Texas will need resources and time to purify the deluged land and rid it of poisons. Yet the scent of new wood won’t erase the memory of rot. One of these days, though, a flower will lift its head from the ground. A dining room table will be graced with a bouquet of roses, the fragrance filling the air with the scent of a new summer. But not yet.

Sun

My heart goes out to the people of Houston. I ache for the flooding they have suffered. Yet here, in Hillsboro, Oregon, I long for rain. I long for water soaking into dead grass. I want the sun hidden, not behind smoke and dust from wildfires, but behind moisture-drenched clouds.

 

the-worst-hard-timeMaybe my desire for rain comes also from entering into Timothy Egan’s rendering of the 1930’s Dust Bowl. Before grassland in the High Plains was plowed into dust, apple trees and wheat scented the air. The car and tractor brought smells of metal and gasoline and fresh dollar bills. The aroma of cigarettes, prostitute perfume, and booze were signs of progress. Then, like the deluge of flood waters, dust storms arrived. The sky blackened, the crops died, and the lungs of children and animals bloated with sediment. Sunshine and no rain, and the dust rolled in, miles and miles of it, years and years of it.

Dust. I grew up in Pendleton, Oregon, land of wheat fields. My mother believed in living positively. “Put your best foot forward.” But she hated, with a passion, the dust storms that swept through the town. “Close the windows,” she called out. Dust rolled up to the house and left its gritty remains on the sill outside, table tops inside, under the door, through the windows we could not close in time. Dust had its own smell—a static, mealy buzz in the nostrils. A nuisance for some, a hindrance to breathing for others.

Hurricane Harvey and the Dust Bowl threw nature off balance and left us with extremes—the worst storm and the worst hard time. Too much. I wonder what a world of just enough would resemble? A different way for us to live: enough rain to make the flowers grow; enough dust to make sunset spectacular.

Perspective

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In the early morning of August 21st, nature showed how blue a sky can be before a solar eclipse. What I wanted to do first was read again Annie Dillard’s classic essay. Her words, written thirty-five years ago, seemed to me the best preparation for my own eclipse event.

21w56ZraclL._BO1,204,203,200_In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard shares her experience of the 1979 solar eclipse. Although the essay’s images stretch and sting my mind, the one that stays with me is that of falling: the avalanche that slowed traffic, the loss of altitude in the drop into Washington’s Yakima Valley, the hotel lobby devoid of air, the reference to gold mines dug so deep the rock walls burn the miners hands, the trek up a slope that offers a view down, down to a thin river below. She falls into indigo as the moon’s lens snaps over the sun. She writes of the hatch that slams down on the brain. Her husband’s presence is “down the wrong end of the telescope.”

I was not in Washington State, but Hillsboro, Oregon, and I did not climb a 500 foot slope for my view. I sat near an open window with a view of the sun and listened to children and adults gathered outside. I tried to ground myself, as Dillard had done. What was happening to the landscape? I walked outside.  Minute by minute the air cooled. A bush outside my window, once lime and emerald, shaded deeper until green-black slithered upward, leaf to leaf.

The eclipse took hold of the sky, but also the ground. Miniature replicas clustered on concrete and bark dust. They climbed the tree trunk. If I turned my back to the sun, my shadow, once elongated, grew bulky and squat. All the while, the moon took its sweet time to amble across the light.

Night took me by surprise. I knew it was coming, but still. . . the indigo of Dillard’s eclipse happened. In what should have been mid-morning light, the pathway’s lamps flicked on. What a reality check: given a natural wonder, even technology loses its equilibrium.

My eclipse experience lacked the drama and poetic sensitivity of Annie Dillard’s. Yet I watched the world descend into night—and right before my eyes. I could not help but fall into wonder. I’m glad I read the essay first. Falling is what great writing does for us. We tumble into another’s experience and then we ascend, better prepared to appreciate our own.

Heart-Rest

Five years ago my niece Andrea Bigcraft transformed my apartment terrace in downtown Portland into a magnificent garden. Besides creating beauty in every corner, she made possible the arrival of hummingbirds. 

Hummingbird _4

One at a time they came with iridescent wings, designing, as the poet Mary Oliver writes, “a perfect wheel.” How that wheel turns—eighty times per minute—is an eighth wonder of the world. The visiting birds hummed and sipped and my frenetic core stopped to watch.

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After one little fellow settled in, life was not so sweet. He refused to welcome the hummingbirds who swooped in for a visit. That metallic four-inch bully became plump and sedentary all the way through winter. My opinion of the hummingbird changed. Not so calming after all. Music on the wing this tiny guy was not.

Hummingbirds offer a reality check for me. Every day holds a combination of harmony and dissonance. Maybe that’s one reason why Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a favorite of mine. Years ago, I sat with a friend in a convent music room and listened to the opera. The English-Italian script in front of me, I listened as Maria Callas sang her way into my heart. “Un bel di” rang of the anxious hope that one fine day, all will be well. “Humming Chorus,” though, had a different effect on me—a final respite before the sorrow. Puccini must have known that the audience needed this—not comic relief, but heart-rest.

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“Humming Chorus” is, like my terrace scene, a lull before death and regret. At times, my terrace creature was a miniature spokesperson for the world’s mercy, peace, and life. At other times, the bird was a rascal and a herald of rancor in the realm. Both dimensions are part of my human condition. That is why the space in-between, the lull, is essential.

One morning, after listening once again to the song, I saw Angel, eyes wide open, paws up, woof silenced, breathing into calm. I chuckled. She looks so peaceful, the little turkey. Maybe this is one way to inhabit the world’s garden terrace: alert, welcome mat out, weapons down, and heart-at-rest.

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Color Me

Green is my favorite color, so why are my only green possessions a tote bag, earrings, and a striped hoodie? Years ago, I got my “colors done.” After draping me in scarves and fabrics, the lady said, “You are definitely a summer.” My closet then is a combination of soft, cool shades of pink, blue, and purple. The color to avoid? Most shades of green.

I still love green best. This past week, another color test appeared. What color is my unconscious self? Good, I thought, now is my chance to prove I am a person of serenity, intelligence, and independence. The results? I am Gold. I should have been tickled that my psyche is gold–magnetic and charismatic. In fact, I am a Lioness. Purrrr. But Gold. Gold? I want to be Green.

hailstones-and-halibut-bonesBesides memories, a book encouraged my affinity with the color green. While teaching primary school in the 1960’s I first read Mary O’Neill’s delightful Hailstones and Halibut Bones. Of all the book’s color poems, I liked green best: green is lettuce and shade, moss and grasshopper, peppermint and jade, and the “fuzz that covers up where winter was.”

So, I cannot be green either in my wardrobe or my unconscious, but I can write about green treasures. Here is my take on the color, with a grateful nod to Mary O’Neill.

 

CliffsGreen is March, April, and May,
And earrings I wear on St. Patrick’s Day.
Green is Moher and moss-fringed cliffs,
View of the Blaskets from our tourist skiff.

Green is spinach, cilantro, and thyme,
Peppers and scallions, water with lime.
Green is Christmas, velvet, candy cane,
Rain running down my window pane.

Green 1Green is the park where I go for a walk:
Grasses and yarrow, and no human talk.
Green is the hum of a tranquil path
Bending around where birch leaves laugh.

Green are my pencils, shades light to deep
I use to color on nights I can’t sleep.
Green is the color of dresses not bought.
Green is my passion for what I am not.

Alma Mater

Two statues depict different versions of Alma Mater, learning’s nourishing, bountiful mother. The bronze sculpture at Columbia University is a dominant goddess, garbed in voluminous robes and a laurel leaf crown. She holds a book on her lap and a scepter in her hand. My favorite is the bronze statue of Alma Mater, a humbler version, at the University of Havana in Cuba. The sculptor formed her as young, beautiful, simply dressed, head bare, and hands open in welcome.

Sister Theona (whose name meant “The Good God”) taught me from 1961-1964. My Alma Mater, she was neither dominant nor laurel-crowned, although I cannot remember her without a book. Neither was she young or beautiful, although her hands were graceful and open. Sister did not necessarily occupy a favored space for every student at Our Lady of Angels Convent in Portland, Oregon. For me, though, her influence was, and remains, unmatched.

As an eighteen year-old, I had cemented my learning domain by taking shortcuts and spending quality time with the mirror, American Bandstand, and the telephone. I learned from Sister Theona that study walls are simply threads. A snip here, a snip there and what do you know? An academic world opens wide.

I remember the phrases she wrote on the blackboard:

It is not the event that makes us happy or sad, but the thoughts we build around it.
Live the questions (Rilke).
Husband the moments.
Correlations, anyone?

The last phrase was at the heart of Sister’s belief about learning. Correlations assume each academic discipline connects with another. One truth nourishes the next. Correlations promise entrance into a Wisdom that is intelligent and agile, unstained and secure, just and prudent.

Sister Theona (the Good Goddess) probably continues to ask, “Correlations, anyone?” Undoubtedly she expects a deluge of related ideas, even from God.

Surprise

When three-year-old Ava came to visit, her eye lighted immediately on the Russian nesting doll sitting happily on the bookshelf. Together we twisted the top of the doll, and then the next and the next. How I wish I had filmed Ava. Puzzlement at first, then surprise, and that glorious child-like determination to twist again. From then on, she filled my living room with delight as wooden doll after wooden doll appeared, each tinier than the last. And then the wonder of going in reverse, until the many objects became one smiling babushka.

e8e6ac9815cbc069c5a5a53357183ff0Ava, beautiful child, reminded me of the fascination I have for objects within objects within objects. Droste art has the same effect on me—the loop of smaller and smaller versions appearing as long as the resolution allows. Mirror images in tinier replications seem magical to me, their revelations renewing themselves endlessly.

I need these memories to live well in this present time. Delight, laughter, and surprise—that “Aha” moment—are not newspaper or internet headlines. Instead, suspicion, expletives, and fury take my attention. The placard reads, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Ava was paying attention: engrossed, happy, and full of wonder. What if I added a political button that read, “If I’m not surprised, I’m not paying attention.” Surprise means I am caught off guard, the way a joke’s punch line unexpectedly tickles my funny bone. Surprise (it lasts as long as a blown bubble) refuses to rage against another.

Little wonder that the scripture story tells of Jesus welcoming children. I imagine he found it more fun to be with creatures of wonder than jaded intellectuals or clueless disciples. How do I become a child again? I will never erase my angry self, yet I want a reprieve. In my best moments I would like to bring a different kind of alertness to the world: that of the child—face alight with surprise—who holds a doll who holds a doll who holds a doll, every face of flesh and wood fully alive.