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.

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

IMG_0343

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.