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.

Regions

1nature photosT. S. Eliot tells us in “The Wasteland” that April is the cruelest month, but for many in the Pacific Northwest the cruelest are the bleak days of January and February when rain has rusted the fence, when clouds hang too low, and when time seems to pass in slow motion. What has fascinated me this winter season is how nature’s spaces—large and small—open best in hibernation. I have looked at the world from the vantage point of a withered twig and the ground, the tree pocket and evergreen beyond it, geometric shapes that form when stalks are stripped bare.  John Keats’ words of stars “cold about the sky” may not relate to my clouded Oregon universe, but he describes what we can see when foliage does not obstruct the view.

2berryThe other morning I tried to capture a bit of nature’s empty rooms. The hued space between the leaves and berries caught my eye. What rooms arise in the places between red orbs and angled twigs? I cannot explain that mystery, but I did see the air blush and (maybe) shame the nearby brick.

3tree with skyAnd, oh, so much sky to see through bare branches. If the ground were not a soggy mess, I would lie on my back and contemplate nature’s etchings. Maybe not “bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air,” but at the top of the photo a woman’s profile, complete with pointed nose, double chin, and hair in a bun. Just to the left of center, the bird would be safely hidden, but his black head and beak give him away, and that figure in the lower right-hand-corner? The man in flowing cape and gaucho hat could be Zorro without his mask.

Winter is not a time to mourn, but a time to rest and dream, to let sleep come early and stay late, to discover the soul’s inner regions that let me play “Where’s Waldo” with bare branches. If I choose, I have dormant days of imagination swinging me past rusted diamond enclosures, and up, up, through those burdened clouds—all the way to the wide open sky.

2020

As the trolley rattled to a halt outside the Portland Museum, an elderly woman vied with a young man, burdened with grocery bags, to climb aboard. The woman made it through ahead of him and he said loudly, “I hate old people.” As part of that vilified demographic, I wondered what about us incurs such wrath. Is it our slow driving on the freeway or our guaranteed monthly social security? Could it be our assumption, that because we have put in hourglass time, we’ve earned a certain deference? I claimed my senior citizen seat but asked myself, do I deserve a place of rest more than the pregnant lady with a three-year-old in tow?

serviceReuben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, recently wrote an article on eliminating elitism in whatever form it takes. The disease strikes not only politicians or the one percent, but is written into our history books, caught in the throes of our legislative process, and part of our human nature. It’s an affliction of both condescension and disdain. Elitism is envisioning myself as better than other people, when I am not.

So, still in the birthday mode of my 75th year, and far from the packed trolley, I reflect on how I want to see.

monkeyEven though this five-inch wonder with huge gremlin-like eyes can see even in the faintest light, that is not who I want to be. I want to be the photographer who waits, as a stranger and alien, to snap this creature’s twitching ears; to see the one-inch pebble toad (who cannot hop) stiffen its tendons, and catapult down the mountain to safety; to film the pufferfish creating a landscape design on the ocean floor.

As photographer of the soul, imagine what I would possess: the artist’s creative vision, the eye behind a camera, the clarity of patience that expects little, yet, when the editing is done, produces the miraculous. So, one more birthday wish: as the sand flows through that hourglass, may my inner eye gain focus.

Promises

Bus StopTo be honest, when I think of the word “wait,” I do not think of Advent candles and loving dogs. The first word that comes to mind is “bus.” Waiting for public transportation may demand attention, but does not lead to contentment. Anxious, I crane my neck to see if #48 rises about the stream of traffic. I check my watch against the supposed time of arrival. And when the big vehicle lumbers to a stop, I say to myself, Good thing I don’t have to wait any longer.

Advent wreathThat’s why I treasure this small December decoration. For a brief period, the lighting of the Advent wreath and the melodic Old Testament passages transform me into another Josie, pure attention and contentment. The first week’s single flame helps heals my cynicism. The second week offers two lit candles to sooth my impatience. Relief from the tedious happens during the third week when the pink candle flickers. And my desire for closure comes when all the candles burn in one lovely circle.

What then is Advent—simply a month to light candles and contemplate the virtuous life? Long ago, I focused on the Coming of Christ in history, mystery, and majesty, but the trajectory from Christmas to Final Coming became too grand a path. Now, Advent reminds me to live in the tiny flame of the present moment–because that is all there is. If the future sneaks in, let it be the hope of a God who keeps wondrous promises. Watch for red umbrellas in the rain—one way to sharpen the senses whenever the bus runs late.

Thanksgiving

Truly grateful people excel in generosity. Theirs is the open door, the feast, and the extra chair. They live outside the narrow corner of self-preoccupation, and they welcome to the table the beloved and the irritating. Albert Schweitzer described them in this way: “At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person.” He encourages us to give thanks to those who light the flame within us.

Just as the Thanksgiving meal is a time of nostalgia, gratitude takes us back to moments of good manners, civility, and refinement. In some ways, giving thanks has a medieval allure: folded hands and linen napkins, crystal glassware and virtues carved in stone. Gratitude seems painted in a bygone time, as old-fashioned as a handwritten note sent by snail-mail.

Henri Nouwen wrote that gratitude, the giving of thanks, is a discipline—a conscious act. When we are grateful, we live with new attentiveness. In turn, we bring new eyes to nature and to others, and so, of course, we give thanks. Wake up, smell the coffee, the roses, and a new day.
give-thanks

Gratitude does not come naturally. The newborn cry is not one of thanksgiving. If my mother brought in our birthday cake or our school lunches and we had no response, she would ask, “And what do you say?” Soon enough, we had learned the magic words of “Thank you.” I love Gertrude Stein’s “Silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone.” My mother would have laughed in agreement with Stein’s words: gratitude comes in verbal expression, or it does not come at all.

In my journey toward generosity, courtesy, discipline, and expression, I have reasons to be grateful. At Thursday’s feast, those seated around the table will join hands, as always, and begin by giving thanks to the Giver of all good: “Bless us, O, Lord, and these Thy Gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty . . .” In keeping with tradition, we will lift our glasses and say to one another, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Super Men

We may enjoy make-believe heroes, but in real life we check for pedestal cracks. “No one is that virtuous or that unselfish,” we say. Often we size up individuals and assume they are too good to be true.

But, once upon a time, we loved heroes. We rode on their shoulders.

Today, I’m drifting into a past that gave the world quite a few good men: Paul Robson and Will Rogers, John XXIII and Daniel Berrigan, Bobby Kennedy and Archbishop Romero.

Closer to home were my brothers.

Mike & Alan

I love this shot of Michael and Alan, my childhood heroes.

Brother. St. Francis called Sun, Wind, and Fire his brothers. They brighten our days, clear the air, and play—nature’s Supermen before Clark Kent. In childhood, Michael’s advice kept me safe,  and Alan’s humor kept me laughing. For a young girl, those actions equal a leap over tall buildings.

51qdd8YTSvL._SX288_BO1,204,203,200_In the 1970’s I participated in a retreat given by Jean Vanier, a giant of a man in physical height and capacity of heart. Founder of L’Arche, the community that welcomes the developmentally disabled, Vanier spoke to us of the mutual enrichment occurring when people live together in love.

So, what, then defines a super man? Is it our memory of someone who emerges larger than life? Is it the one who accomplishes what we could never achieve ourselves?

The poet May Sarton describes one essential element: “One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.” Sarton opens the door to a deeper humanity for men and women alike: think heroically in order to act decently.

Backseat

Although a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine features “The Greats” in music, theater, art, and fashion, Nancy Haught’s Sacred Strangers prompted me to consider the vital role played by secondary characters.

peterandthewolf2When Prokofiev composed Peter and the Wolf, he chose the prestigious violin to represent Peter and the powerful horn for the wolf. It is the oboe that the composer uses for the supporting role of the duck. As the story progresses, Peter remains a primary character, the wolf captures the duck and swallows it whole. The humble oboe might disappear from view, but the narrator tells us that “If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear the duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly.” And so it goes. That clear, unassuming sound will oboe its way into the ear of the listener.

cover_emma2The pampered main character in Jane Austen’s Emma did not capture my sympathy, but Miss Bates, Emma’s unequal, did. Miss Bates spills words without punctuation until one day Emma annihilates her publically with one sentence. Emma, regal heroine, shrinks into a petty doll. Miss Bates expands into a forgiving friend. Austen must have loved placing her talkative creation in the back seat where she could glow and chatter to her heart’s delight.

beartown2In Fredrik Backman’s Beartown, the main characters fascinate me as they struggle with hockey and love.  However, the scene that caught me by complete surprise came, not from the conflicts of star athletes, but from Zacharias, supportive friend and outsider, who carried a bucket. I will not give away any more (no one likes a spoiler), but he is just one of Beartown’s citizens, just one of Backman’s marvelous cast of supporting players.

So what about these secondary characters? They fill essential, small spaces of a best seller, like the duck in the lower right hand side of the painting, the figure in blue that stays close to Emma’s elbow, and the invisible character who lives in a house not drawn on the cover. They play lesser roles. Since they take first bows, the applause has not gained momentum, but is saved for “The Greats.” Yet principal roles have no meaning unless linked with secondary ones. A front seat is defined by the seats behind. That’s why the world needs supporting players or even a cameo appearance of the versatile oboe, tender chatterer, and empathetic loner.

Compass

Once upon a time before iPhones and iPads, computers and even television, my parents and the four of us children sit in silence. The living room is dark except for the fireplace aglow with burning logs. My father holds the maroon Decca record in his beautiful hands and sets it on the turntable. Static blends in with stringed music, so soft it cannot interfere with Orson Welles as the narrator and Bing Crosby as the “Happy Prince.”

happy-princeAs children we heard the story—over and over—of the statue of the “Happy Prince” which stood high above the city. On his way to Egypt, a swallow rests at the statue’s feet. The Prince asks, “Little Swallow, will you not stay with me one night and be my messenger?” The bird stays one night and another. Through warmth and frost, the bird does as the Prince asks. From the statue he plucks first the sword’s ruby, then the sapphire eyes, and finally every gold leaf. He flies over the city and drops these as gifts among the poor and hungry. The city thrives, but the Prince is now stripped bare and the bird cold and weak. When God tells his angel to bring the city’s two most precious items, the angel returns with the Prince’s lead heart and the dead bird. God’s promise?  The Happy Prince and the swallow will love and sing in Paradise forever.

wilde

What early tales helped provide a moral compass for me? Certainly Bible stories contributed, but fairy tales, especially those of Oscar Wilde, are the first ones that captured my imagination. In a darkened room with my family, I listened to recordings—funny, sad, and wise—of love stronger than death. These tales described how to walk in a troubled world. The path was a clear one, just as Oscar Wilde believed: “Morality, like art, means drawing a line.”

If each of us had to choose one story from childhood, a story that drew a line toward goodness, which one would it be? Where did we first hear the words? How does the story act as compass in our hearts today?

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.

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.