To 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.
That’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.
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.
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.”
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.
Maple, dressed in scarlet, dawn-
dappled, asks the nest of fawn-
blotted leaves beneath her feet:
“What is it like to wilt and fall?”
Wind, the roving rustler, bides
time and taunts the squirrel who hides
oval nuts, hard-candy sweets:
“Think you, Sir, I’ll not tell all?”
Starlight whispers to the moon
“Clouds, like tarps, are coming soon,
sliding rain and bitter sleet.
“Do you mind the shroud, the shawl?”
Listen: stay and wait and keep
watch on leaves beneath the trees,
squirrels digging treasures deep,
moonlight wrapped as if in sleep.
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.
When 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.
The 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.
In 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.
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.”
As 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.
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?
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.
On 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.
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?