Falling

IMG_0762-1Over the past two weeks, with suicides front-page news, I have thought of that woman waiting for the MAX train and the question she asked. “Is sadness a sin?” Long ago, I was taught that sadness robs us of gratitude. I was taught that sadness could lead to despair, and despair robs us of hope. To give up on God’s Providence was the one unforgivable sin. Now that teaching seems to me not only harsh but unforgiving. I believe that for every fall into depression or melancholy, there is a foothold leading upwards. Each of us climbs toward relief in ways that can be confounding, individual, and sometimes incredibly sad.

yin-yangSadness—no matter what form it takes—is never a sin and remains inescapable. There is sorrow linking me to another’s pain; melancholy coming from a world where cruelty and greed seem pervasive. Sadness slips in, reminding me that I am limited, and that I am mortal. Sadness is also the flip side of joy, the quality Carl Jung describes: “The word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Weariness of soul has the power to throw us off-kilter, yet Jung talks about the balance of happiness and sadness, like walking a tightrope with these two aspects offering equilibrium.

As a child I devoured books like Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew Mysteries. I loved Polyanna, that bright creature sure of a rainbow in the downpour. Noble, confident characters were the people with whom I wanted to play and happy endings were where I wanted to be. Scurry away from sadness and skip into the meadow.

IMG_0844 (1)I still prefer to breathe in Pollyanna’s world of flowers and color. I’m that character Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote about in the song, “Tell Me on a Sunday.” Even if it means a ruptured relationship, tell me goodbye (“no long faces, no long looks”) in a place of trees, a loving spot for chimpanzees, or a ride on a flying trapeze.

Yet there are six other days besides Sunday, and so I return to the fact that sadness is an integral part of the work-week, and part of being human. My task is to recognize gloom, and then find ways to release its grip.

Recently I attended Broadway Books’ party for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s new Poet Laureate. Wise and funny, he is a man in love both with words and his audience. What I left with, though, was Stafford’s invitation to bring light wherever there is darkness.

IMG_0690 (2)I cannot go back to that MAX experience and replay what I could have said to the woman who asked, “Is sadness a sin?” But I have a partial answer, one I found in Stafford’s elegant little book, Take What You Need. So many of his poems issue the challenge to bring a small flashlight on the journey. Stafford’s words in the poem “Dear America,” can keep me company on any bus or train platform:

If you were a river, I would be a raindrop
sipped into your sweep . . .
If you were a sorrow, I would be a glimmer.

Undercover

After reading Cullen Murphy’s delicious Cartoon CountryMy Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, I was once again in the good company of “Prince Valiant” and “Calvin and Hobbes.” One cartoon I do not want to forget is that of Calvin trying to convince a skeptical Hobbes that his flimsy report will be a winner. Calvin’s secret weapon is what no teacher can resist: a clear plastic binder cover.

Oh, how I would have longed for such a simple solution to my cover dilemma for Far from Home. Sure that I had a designer eye, I notified my awesome FUZE editor Molly Best Tinsley that I would be sending sample covers. I looked at photos of roads leading away into the distance, of a cross far away in a meadow. I experimented with symbols for God, for flight, for adventure, and for redemption. What resulted was a product which I was sure, like Calvin and his plastic cover, no one browsing Powell’s or Barnes & Noble, could resist.

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I sent it first to a writer friend, sure of her accolades. She was quick to respond. “Toni, this cover has every possible cliche: bird, spire, sun. I would immediately summarize the plot: ‘Errant Woman Returns to the Faith.’ I would never buy this book.”

I read her email and laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I still chuckle each time I think of that response. My friend possesses the gifts an aspiring writer needs: humor, honesty, and wisdom—a Hobbes to my Calvin. Crossing that cover off my list, I looked critically at my other etchings and admitted I was out of my depth.

Enter Ray Rhamey from “Flogging the Quill.” He works with FUZE authors and is a designer, teacher, and author. With utmost patience, he sent me numerous designs of woodland paths, an open window, a door and garden gate ajar. None of these seemed to fit the memoir.

When he asked, “What do you envision as the central theme of the book?” I thought immediately of my childhood and of the Lindberg’s Heilege Schutzengel painting that had hung above my bed.

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Ray liked the theme of youthful adventurers but thought the image too childlike. What he did send were five more designs of “on the move,” but it was the woman stepping across river stones that caught my attention. Ray, creative man, shaped the title to mirror the reflection, and he extended the rocks into a wrap-around affect from front to back.

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Calvin wanted his teachers to say “Wow!” That is the factor which generous, noted authors Shirley Abbott and Kim Stafford lent. Their words of praise not only complete the cover story, but begin the tale contained inside.

The book jacket is more than Calvin’s plastic cover. What I am hoping for is not to fool a reader, but to offer an invitation. Pick up the book, hold it in your hand. Like Abbott and Stafford, move beyond the jacket’s limited tale and travel undercover into where a new story, mysterious and slippery as river stones, awaits.

Loops

Two weeks ago, I had a reading in Bend to promote my book, Far from Home. One of the side excursions was a trip to the Old Mill District, located along the Deschutes River. Two hundred plus acres that were once occupied by lumber mills are now a beautifully landscaped mixed-use area of historic buildings, new galleries, shops, and restaurants. This Old Mill District sculpture in the perfect visual definition of loop: a structure or process where the end is connected to the beginning.

That has been my experience, not only of writing my memoir, but also sharing my personal journey with audiences in Oakland, Ashland, Portland, and Bend. It is the experience of retracing steps from here to there and back again, seeking what T.S. Eliot promised in “Little Gidding,” that we will journey and “arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.” For me it has been an exploration of my novitiate years, touching old photographs and old letters to come in contact with who I was, what forces shaped me, and how I remain the same.

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Toni cheerleading 3 (4)What these photos and documents remind me is that there is nothing quite like the idealism of the young who cheer life with colored pompoms; that memories let us walk in a childhood landscape that Rebecca Mead speaks of in My Life in Middlemarch. She writes that this enthusiasm is not a desire to return to an earlier time or wish life had been different, but to appreciate the waters from which we came and along which we travel.

I needed that trip to Bend, to walk along the Deschutes and look at nature’s loops. So, I am grateful for a trek around the river, wildflower and pine cone designs, and that lucky connection I wrote about on Facebook—a woman who remembered the joy of cheerleading over a half-century ago. My circular path resembles that of T.S. Eliot, once again:

Pinecone BendThrough the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.

—Little Gidding

Entry

The lovely entrance to the home of my niece Andrea Bigcraft is a metaphor for the welcome I have experienced during these weeks of promoting my memoir Far from Home. The doors of family and friends have opened wide in Oakland, California, Ashland and Portland, Oregon. It is the hospitality Judy Collins celebrates in “Song for Judith”: “Open the door and come on in.”

My love for doors did not just arrive because of a published book. Entrances are both works of art and a way to learn about treasures inside. Below are my door photos from travels to Denmark’s Kronberg Slot, better known as Hamlet’s Castle, and a building in Riga, Latvia.

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Years ago, Sister Helena Brand, SNJM, literature scholar and extraordinary educator, introduced me to the theme of hospitality. We studied Greek myths, like The Odyssey and the story of Philemon and Baucis (so similar to the angel story in Genesis 19). A poor couple welcomes into their home Jupiter and Mercury, the gods disguised as weary travelers. Rembrandt, Rubens, and van Oost depicted the story in art, but this engraving caught my eye.

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There is no beautiful door leading into the cottage, simply a wooden structure meant to keep out the cold, but open to pilgrims. “Come on in,” Baucis and Philemon say. “Share our fire, fruit, eggs, and wine.”

Nancy Haught’s wise and wonderful Sacred Strangers explores the same theme of open doors in Scripture. The universal lesson is this: welcome others into your home because you never know if and when you will be in the presence of the Divine. And the way in is through a door.

Doors Frick (2)If I had my preference, entries would possess carvings, color, and beauty, but more importantly, there would be someone on the other side ready to turn the knob and share hospitality, like Andrea. Judy Collins’ song continues, “I’m so glad to see you, my friend.”

So here I come, full circle, to where I started with my Facebook post, outside the splendid woodwork of the Frick Museum doors, sure that welcome and beauty are right across the threshold.

 

Lean In

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On a sunny day in Redding, California, the magnificent Sundial Bridge tilted in greeting. Santiago Calatrava’s design is a glass-decked wonder, 217 feet high. That day the Sacramento River glimmered into a diamond-flecked waterway, and I was awed by the bridge’s 710 foot span across the water.

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Often we hear of “intentional slant” as partisans bicker, but crossing Sundial has little to do with politics. What a phenomenon to have a creation meant to tilt one way or the other. There are plenty of architectural designs that had no intention of ending in a slant. Tourists bemoan the leaning of Bologna’s Garisenda Tower and London’s Big Ben. The listing often occurs in foundation issues, soft ground, or unexpected geological faults.

In direct contrast are the intentional slants of The Gate of Europe in Spain and the Nationale-Nederlanden in Prague—the latter referred to as “Fred & Ginger.”

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Architects know that tilt offers fluidity, natural light, dancing movement, and shading.

Calatrava, in his design for the world’s largest working sundial, takes the knowledge one step further. Telling time is as old as our first ancestors watching the sun rise and the sun set. The irony of the sundial is not that people stared endlessly into the sun, but that they studied shadows, and that is what his creation does: casts shadows on a large dial plate and into the nature garden—the gradual ticking of nature’s clock.

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Emily Dickinson wrote about the tilt of life which applies to poets and architects and travelers across a bridge:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight . . .
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

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Anticipation

The awe and surprise on my sister Mary’s face came not only from the possibility of an adventure, but the magic of riding high in the saddle. That little girl, captured forever in Kodak images, is a sure bet to elicit smiles and laughter.

The photo is also a symbol for expectation. Perfect for right now, for isn’t anticipation what we celebrate during days of Passover, Springtime, and Easter?

 

The Festival of Freedom, April’s flowering dogwoods, and the Resurrection tell and retell familiar stories. Passover commemorates God’s people breaking free of enslavement. Spring discovers new nests in the crotch of a tree. Easter celebrates the risen Christ. Age-old traditions, arriving annually, encourage us to be like my sister Mary: clasp hands in anticipation and then sit high on Life.

One of my favorite poems is Swinburne’s “Atalanta in Calydon.” These verses, humming with expectation, describe a similar passing from grief to joy, death to life, past to present:

For winter’s rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in the green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

tulipsToday, daffodils and tulips opened and birds ate from a grassy green table. Since Nature’s festivals of freedom and communion are in full celebration mode, I wish us (expectant children of the universe) Happy Passover, Happy Spring, Happy Easter.

Home Bound

green mashed potatosAs long as I can remember, every St. Patrick’s Day had one constant: green mashed potatoes. My mother created this ritual of praties and food coloring to make her Irishman smile. It worked every time.

Yet it was not just St. Patrick’s Day when my family celebrated being Irish. My father had a collection of John McCormick’s 78 records, so that our early vocabulary (along with “See Spot jump!”) included Mother Machree and Tipperary, Minstrel Boy and Tralee. We learned some Irish history from my father’s recitation of Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock, and by the time each of us reached the age of reason (seven years old) we could declare without faltering Emmet’s opening lines:

“My Lords: ‘What have I to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced on me, according to law? I have nothing to say which can alter your predetermination.’”

Thomas Moore poetry collectionOne of my favorite books was my father’s marbled, battered copy of Thomas Moore’s poetry. From this book I memorized all the verses of “Last Rose of Summer” and “Oft in the Stilly Night”:

Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me

By the time I made my trip to Ireland in 1995, my father had been dead for twenty years, but I felt his spirit with me every step of the way.

Collage of Ireland consisting of flowers, the Cliffs of Moher, a house in Doolin, a ferry to the Blaskets, and a glassblower at Waterford

Man of fine manners and lover of sports, he would have relished watching the glassblowers in Waterford. And when he saw the hedgerows with the verdant fuchsia spilling down, he would have stopped, just like I did, to snap a photo. Never a swimmer, he still would have crammed into the ferry boat—minus a life jacket—to ride the waves over to the Blasket Islands where crumbling structures remain, bitter remnants of suffering and loneliness of those who lived there until the early 1950s. The Cliffs of Moher would have stunned him: sky and water splattered with rock and grass. Perhaps, after a day and night in Doolin, he would have decided that the hospitality, scenery, and music were fine reasons to stay there forever.

Coole Park treeBut then my father would have missed Sligo, Yeats’ country, and Coole Park’s Autograph Tree where the Irish literary greats— Shaw, Synge, Lady Gregory, O’Casey, and Yeats—have carved their names.

St. Patrick’s Day is for wearing green and wishing friends and enemies a road that rises in greeting. But the day is also for memories of past times that will, no doubt, slip into the present and flow free into the future. Yeats’ poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times” contains another version of a Happy St. Patrick’s Day greeting:

And Time bade all his candles flare
To light a measure here and there;
And may the thoughts of Ireland brood
Upon a measured quietude. 

Hand Full

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Probably because the Olympics are still in recent memory, the book cover of a Lord of the Sun made me think of those relay runners, beginning in Athens, scaling the steps in Pyeongchang, and placing the torch into the hands of Yuna Kim. What must have it been like for each of the runners and this gold medalist figure skater to complete the lighting? Like containing infinity in the palm of a hand or eternity in an hour?

Bird in hand (2)Some of what we hold is small, like the hummingbird my niece Andrea attracted to her gloved feeding station. Demanded of her may not have been an athlete’s endurance and skill but surely the watcher’s patience and tenderness. How did she sit still so that the bird could trust to eat out of her hand? The same miraculous feeling that arose during the lighting of the Olympic flame Andrea shares with this exquisite photo. This must be the experience of the poet Mary Oliver who writes of the grasshopper—the one with “enormous and complicated eyes”—who eats sugar out of her hand.

book-in-handsThere are objects I have held over the years (even a pet rock in the 1970’s; a pet I never bothered to train), but most days I do not consider them precious. Blake’s words remind me that if I look closely, maybe there is a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. Today I will catch hold of blessings: my Shih Tzu’s tiny face, rosary beads, a Dove soap bar, a mandarin orange, and oh, my soon-to-be published memoir that, at long last, fits perfectly in my hands.

Enigma

Domes on Russian churt

I imagined Moscow as a bleak city, wounded by repression. Although the Kremlin left me wondering about intrigue within its massive complex, and some buildings reminded me of Stalin’s reign, I was in awe of the old architecture, the cathedrals, the Hall of Remembrance, and a subway that is an art museum in itself.

Subway in Moscow

The bigger-than-life expression continued in Novodevichy cemetery, where the dead are honored with spectacular tombs.

tomb monument: hands holding ruby-colored gem

So many unique monuments exist: the circus entertainer and his dog, the inventor, the dancer, Raisa Gorbachov, and the six crew members that died in the 1973 Paris Air Show.

Monument to the Russian pilots who died in the 1973 Paris Air Show

And Moscow at night brought a new dimension. We stood on Sparrow Hill, the highest point, and the city spread out below us. We walked Red Square at midnight. We strolled through a park whose pond stretched across to the Novodevichy Convent, the pond, some say, that was Tchaikovsky’s inspiration for Swan Lake. In the dark, near rippling waters, a group of young Russian men insisted upon reciting Pushkin’s Eastern Song:

Novodevichy Convent
Photo: Anton Zelenov

I think that you were born for this.
To set the poet’s vision burning
To hold him in a trance of bliss
And by sweet words to wake his yearning

Tonight, earlier Russian memories come to mind: Paul Robeson’s new home, Van Cliburn at the piano, Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment,  unending white in Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, sables running free in Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, and the book that hooks me now, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow.

icon of saint with a bird on his shoulder

Russia, more than a headline. Land of the enigmatic story, I think that you were born for this.

Contradictions

Oak dresser drawer cracked openOn an Ash Wednesday—long before we knew sugar could hijack our bodies—I kneel with my classmates at the marble altar railing, feel the priest’s thumb mark the sooty cross on my forehead, and hear him murmur in Latin, “Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” For six weeks I sacrifice what is dearest—Heath bars, Hershey bars, Milk Duds, and Black Crows. Candy. For forty days we four Kennedy kids do not eat it, but we do stash it. In the hallway, in the scarred top drawer, we line up our candy. Abstemious child that I am, daily I sacrifice, and daily I count my treasures.

cup of coffeeToday’s theology says that sacrificing sweets may not be the best preparation for death and resurrection, but I hold to old ways. Candy, for the most part, holds little appeal, but doing without peppermint chocolate in my coffee? Now, that is denial of the highest form. Once more, for six weeks, I drink my coffee straight, counting the days when I can scoop a rounded teaspoon of Stephen’s Candycane Cocoa into my caffeine.

purple clothLent’s color is purple, the hue of triumph and defeat, death and resurrection. Six weeks set aside annually to let bruise and dignity, darkness and elegance share a common table. In the delightful Hailstones and Halibut Bones, Mary O’Neill writes of purple’s conundrums: jam and a pout, air without light and violets in spring.

Years ago, my wise mentor, Sister Theona, read aloud T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”: The desert in the garden the garden in the desert.  She would look up, as if to say. “Do you hear this delicious wisdom?” Wanting to please, I nodded, the rhythmic words resonating, the meaning far beyond me—except for the poet’s repeated prayer, like a cup brimming with contradiction:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

For the next forty days or so, I will hang out with Old Testament passages, aware of my purple shirts and the purple crocuses, hoping to face the truth of my falsehoods, trying not to care too much, even about the foaming chocolate coffee to come someday soon.