Waiting on Light

This just in from my email:

We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’ll get to that in a few minutes. Meanwhile, the post I’ve been struggling to finish all week is about how everything is different this year.  I keep saying these words to my students as old books hit this year’s raw nerves in new ways.

A few quick examples:

Tom, in the opening pages of The Great Gatsby, quotes white supremacists and warns about the downfall of the white race. “Oh,” I find myself saying this year, “this sounds just like our president.”

George Murchison, sometime boyfriend of Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, tells her to stop thinking. He’s sick of hearing her talk, he says; all she should worry about is looking pretty. Then he bombs in for a kiss she doesn’t want and has to push away. (American Lit refresher–he’s the rich boyfriend. They let you do anything when you’re rich.)

Finally, earlier this week, I pulled out the Ta Nahisi Coates Atlantic essay from a few years back, “The Case for Reparations.” I have my students read excerpts from it to get a sense of how government sanctioned red-lining has kept neighborhoods segregated and prevented African American families from accumulating wealth through home-ownership. It helps them understand that the Younger family isn’t heading into an uncomplicated  “happily ever after” when they move into an all-white neighborhood in Chicago.

Of course, that was different this year, too. Usually when I read that essay, I praise the Congressman who has brought HR40 to Congress every year since the mid-80s. You’ll recognize his name. It’s John Conyers.

Teaching English for seventeen years in a row makes you tired creates an interesting anthropological window into our culture. Ten or fifteen years ago teaching Gatsby, students often didn’t notice Tom’s racism. They would read the first few chapters and come in complaining about how much they couldn’t stand Daisy. After the chapter where Tom hits his mistress and breaks her nose, they would come in talking about how much they didn’t like Myrtle. They somehow didn’t see the big abusive white man hiding in plain site. (OH–I just re-read this and realized what I wrote. None of us saw them, did we? )

Five or so years ago teaching Raisin in the Sun, I would have encountered an earnest young student who argued that Mr. Lindner, the man from the home owner’s association who tries to buy out the Youngers to keep his neighborhood white, was actually being reasonable. After all, Lindner himself assures us, “that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.”

This year, we encountered this scene the day after David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Donald Trump’s reckless promotion of racist videos. In other words, a man who left the KKK to start his own white supremacist organization is praising POTUS. That’s new.

My students, though, bombed into class calling out Lindner’s hypocrisy before they even sat down. “Hurry up and graduate,” I told them. “You’ve got work to do.”

So, I was trying to figure out what to do with all these  random thoughts about how teaching literature is different this year.  Nobody needs another litany of the past week’s (or weeks’, either works here) horrors, and my trusty old optimism tic seems to be on sabbatical.

I thought I might write a cutesy “Five Things to Do…” essay like all the cool blogs do, but how would I end that sentence? Five things to do while…waiting for a new president? …wondering about nuclear war? …waiting for the next Evangelical pastor to endorse Roy Moore?

And even if I could end that sentence, how could I come up with five things? Who could possibly have five pieces of advice for how to live or love in these times? I’ve been having trouble coming up with one.

And then that Bonhoeffer quote showed up in my in-box.

Forget the cutesy, self-care suggestions. Don’t go for walks in nature. Don’t stop reading the news. Don’t pet a dog or drink tea or make time to relax with friends.

Bonhoeffer gives us advice that just might be hard enough for these hard times.  “Learn to regard people…” he tells us, “in the light of what they suffer.”

My first thought was to end this essay there and let that quote just resonate. Fred wasn’t impressed. “That’s it?” he said, when I stopped reading. “You’re just going to stop there?”

If I had stopped, I would have gotten this essay out into the world before the latest school shooting happened last Thursday, a few hours up the road in Aztec, New Mexico.

I wouldn’t have had to wrestle with the line I keep hearing the students say on tv. I wouldn’t have had to spend even five minutes thinking about just whose suffering Bonhoeffer wants me to attend to.

When I first started teaching, I felt what I think most new teachers or new parents feel–an overwhelming sense that I somehow had to be better than I am. After about ten years in the business world, I knew how to be a professional–I knew how to leave my real, messy self at home and take a shiny, polished version of my life into the office.

Then a few weeks into my teaching career, 9/11 happened. None of us had a shiny, polished version of ourselves ready for that morning.  I had to learn to stand with students in their fear while navigating my own. I had to accept my lack of answers and get busy working on me if I was going to have anything of value to offer my students.

Over the years, I’ve had to keep learning–teaching begs you to be more compassionate, more clear in your thinking, more solid in your knowledge of who you are. It’s never-ending: every year I have to scrub off more pretense, barrel through new fears, crank open my heart wider than I know it can go.

When you are a teacher, I’ve learned, you don’t have that luxury of having a “work” self and “another” self–ready or not, the work calls you into wholeness.

Maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about those teachers.  Thursday morning when the immediate danger had passed and the horror remained, they kept trying to protect their students. “Don’t look to the right,” they told them, as they ushered them out of their classroom-turned-bunker, past the body in the hall. I can’t stop thinking about how that walk, about how those words are going to resonate in their lives.

So it turns out, I still don’t know where I’m going with this. Thursday night after I watched the evening news I went to choir practice. It’s advent. We’re singing about waiting for light to be born into a suffering world. It occurs to me that things might not be so different this year.

It occurs to me that on Tuesday when the people of Alabama cast their votes for Senator, we won’t learn anything new about ourselves if Roy Moore wins.

If he loses though, I’ll be thinking about those teachers in Aztec. In that most awful moment, they were still trying to shape how their students see the world. They were betting, I think, on the next day, a day with algebra homework and band and cheerleading practice, a day where no one hears gunshots in the hall.

They were teaching us how to live and love in these times.

Waist deep in suffering, they were making a space for the light to come in.

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Doom, Gloom, and Glory

This post is a little different. I was invited to preach a sermon at my incredible church. What follows is the full text I spoke this morning. 

When Father Joe first asked me if I would ever like to preach a sermon, I thought we were speaking hypothetically. Then I got an email that said, “How about November 19th?”

I was thrilled. You see, when I was a good, young Catholic girl studying theology at Notre Dame in the 80s, my classmates were mostly men who were preparing for seminary. That wasn’t a path that was open to me. Even as a kid in Catholic grade school, I knew that. Every year some visiting priest would come and hand out pink and blue plastic rosaries and tell us to pray for vocations (pink nun vocations for the girls, blue priestly vocations for the boys.)  Even then I thought that being a priest and having one of those blue vocations might be pretty cool, but I had no interest in spending my life living in a convent with a bunch of women wearing the same boring clothes and sensible shoes every day. (I like shoes.) I had nothing against the nuns who were my teachers, but I prayed every single year not to have a vocation.

God heard my prayer, so I’ve spent my church life sitting in a pew or singing in a choir. Which is all to say I am grateful for and humbled by this opportunity.

Then I read the scriptures for today. I wondered if the 26th Sunday after Pentecost is one of those Sundays that seasoned priests know to give away.

Think about it. The first words we heard today were “Be silent before the Lord God.”  You can see my dilemma. I decided to ignore the warning of the prophet and speak anyway, and we all know how that usually turns out. You can decide in a few moments if I should have just taken Zephaniah’s advice.

From that point, things only got worse. Zephaniah warns us that the day of the Lord is coming, and it’s not going to be pretty. It will be a time of “ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the past year, over the past few months, that began with one person saying something like, “It’s all too much,” or “I just can’t take any more.”

Of course, I don’t have to tell you how many of those conversations I’ve had. We have all been having them. The daily litany of suffering and sadness has been overwhelming. White supremacists are marching in the streets and getting jobs in the White House. Hurricanes are drowning cities. Earthquakes are toppling buildings and burying people alive. Madmen are murdering men and women and children while they pray or make music or ride their bicycles. Surely we are right now living in Zephaniah’s time of “ruin and devastation.” Surely these are “day[s] of darkness and gloom.”

Who wants to preach about that?

I turned my attention to the gospel, to the good old parable of the talents. I was thinking, “Ok, I’ve got this. Don’t hide your light under a bushel”, “be a good steward,“ and all that, but then I read the story. Then I read it a few more times. Then I read the chapters before and after it.

I can’t stand this story.

We all just heard it. The master goes away, having entrusted three slaves with some “talents” [read money]. The “good” slaves go off and, being fine, upstanding capitalists double their master’s money. On his return, the master is delighted with their work. Let’s look at what he says. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things.”

This might be a good time to pause for a moment and figure out whose side we’re on.

I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to think the master is the good guy. The problem is, I don’t.

Let’s imagine the scene from the perspective of the slaves who please him. In the “long time” the master has been away, you’ve doubled his money. You are feeling pretty pleased with yourself. You’ve had a chance to imagine what he’ll do with all that money when he returns. Think about it for a second.

I bet at least some of us were thinking that the master would give us some of that money. Maybe toss us a shekel or two for our efforts. But that’s not what happens. The master says, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things.” In other words, you’ve done good work, so I’m going to give you—wait for it–more work. Most of us have probably experienced this same phenomenon at some point in our own careers. As a teacher, it happens to me all the time. I think waiters refer to it as the “verbal tip.”

But, let’s get back to the story. Perhaps the master sees the fallen faces of the slaves when they realize he isn’t planning to share, so he magnanimously invites them to “enter into his joy.” They don’t even get to have their own joy.

To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have had that reaction to the master if it weren’t for the way he treats the final “wicked and lazy slave.” This character comes on the scene and speaks truth to power. “Master,” he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

And that moment is when I really started regretting saying that I’d like to preach a sermon. Why should I take the master’s word that this slave is “lazy and wicked”?

Let’s start with the fact that he’s a slave. By definition, the evidence that the master “reaps where he did not sow” is pretty compelling. Isn’t that slavery’s whole gig? Add in the fact that the master condemns this honest, frightened man to “the outer darkness” and a lifetime of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” not for losing his money, not for squandering it on wild living and sports car camels, but for keeping the money safe and returning it in full– the prosecution rests.

I can’t help but admire the third slave. Knowing he works for a “harsh man,” he refuses to benefit from that man’s ill-gotten gains. Granted, he was a lousy capitalist, but in my book, he’s the hero of the story.

I was still reeling from my discovery that I wasn’t routing for the “master” in the Kingdom of God when Matthew drops the moral of the story on us. In the kingdom of God, he says, “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

So let me get this straight. In the kingdom of God, the rich get more and the poor get, well, “thrown into the outer darkness”? That sounds a lot like a world I know. It sounds like a world in which the purchasing power of the Federal minimum wage peaked in 1968 and has been losing ground ever since. It sounds like a world in which, according to the Economic Policy Institute, many CEOs make more than 250 times what a typical worker earns. It sounds like a world where the richest country on the planet builds walls around its treasure shouting, “Me first! Me first!” It sounds like tax reform.

Did I mention that I don’t like this story?

At this point, I told my husband I wasn’t going to be able to preach a sermon. What can it mean if the kingdom of god is just like the messed up world we live in?  What happened to the harps and angels and halos? You can’t preach a sermon that says things are bad and they aren’t going to get any better.

But that is exactly how it feels lately, isn’t it? We can’t catch our breath from one atrocity before the next one hits. I was reminded of a time when I was in my late twenties; my sister died unexpectedly, a phone call in the middle of the night. At her funeral, while I was praying for perpetual light to shine upon her, I realized that in my gut, I didn’t believe any of it. There was absolutely no comfort for me in imagining my sister floating around in some ethereal heaven while her son, just four years old, lay curled up on less than one sofa cushion in my mother’s living room. My faith had always been important to me, so I was surprised to realize I hadn’t actually meant it.

Of course, I didn’t stay there. The day after I went to bed muttering that “the Kingdom of God is just like this world,” the cranes came. I could hear them gathering overhead as I drove across the Montano Bridge, through a corridor of cottonwoods so golden that they were shouting “glory!” That same day, a teenager at my school stood up in our morning meeting to ask if we could all pause for a moment and remember all the people who are suffering. Two hundred some teenagers bowed their heads and went silent.

What comfort I found after my sister’s death didn’t come from imagining her in some other, better world. How could there be a better world for a mother than the one in which she can hold and touch her son, who is alive and playing? What comfort I found came from my cousin, who put her hand on my shoulder and kept it there. It came from the old friends who showed up at the funeral home. It came from being a part of a community who made a decision to stand together to stare down sadness.

That’s how I learned to believe again in the resurrection. That’s how I learned to believe again that love, that life endures beyond dying.

And that’s exactly what we do here every single time we come together. I don’t know how people who don’t have a St. Michael’s keep going. What I do know is that it’s no coincidence that the kingdom of God Matthew and Zephaniah describe is just like the world we live in. This is, indeed, the kingdom of God.  We are the kingdom of God. We are the hands, the feet, the breath, even the laughter of the resurrected Christ in the world.

At the risk of talking back to a prophet, these are not times to be silent before the Lord God. In the day of the Lord, Matthew assures us, even the most lowly will be emboldened to speak truth to power.

I am so grateful to be a part of this community that stands together to create the kingdom, to stare down sadness. Thank you for letting me speak in this beautiful and holy place this morning. As Paul advises the Thessalonians, let’s keep building each other up, as indeed we are doing.

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Beating the Thanksgiving Rush

The cool thing about having a chronic illness, I’m learning, is that when you feel good, you feel really, really good. When rheumatoid arthritis snuck up on me a few years ago, I had some pretty bad months. Pre-RA, my joints and muscles have carried me through a couple of (very slow) marathons and even a few triathlons (ditto the very slow), but when inflammatory arthritis first struck, I couldn’t walk up the stairs without feeling like I needed to rest. My hands were used to doing things like playing  the piano and knitting crooked scarves, and for a while, I couldn’t reliably tie a shoe or open a drawer. I remember one morning when my school was about to have a lock-down drill and I had to ask our head of school, who was the only person nearby, to help me close the blinds in my classroom.

I was lucky, though. These sorts of diseases run rampant in my family, and when my nephew was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis as a toddler some thirty-odd years ago, my sister Judy decided to become a rheumatologist. (Note to any teenagers reading: you don’t have to figure it all out in high school. The path appears. Life emerges as you say yes and no.)  Long before I ever made it to a doctor, Judy had diagnosed my stiff, swollen hands over the phone. I didn’t have to go through years of wondering what was wrong as so many people do before getting started on a treatment plan that works.

The other thing that was cool about getting inflammatory arthritis when I did is that it’s what my brother Paul had. For about a year before he died, we bonded over my painful joints. He called whenever I had a doctor’s appointment, he told me what to expect, he told me I was normal when I talked about being tired. And I started to understand what he’d experienced, not always having good care, cringing when well-meaning strangers pumped his hand. I think about Paul every time someone gives my hand a particularly aggressive shake.

I wasn’t planning to wander down memory lane thinking about my siblings today. I was just going to talk about gratitude, like everyone does as Thanksgiving approaches. This was going to be a totally cliche post–life is good, give thanks!–which I might just still be able to pull off if I work at it.

Here’s the point. Yesterday I went to a “barre-fit” class at my gym. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. I used to do yoga, and I haven’t been able to keep that up. The few times I’ve tried, I’ve been frustrated at my inability to put much weight on my hands and wrists in downward dog, or to transition from a pose on the mat to standing without lumbering up like a stale marshmallow version of my former self.

So I went to “barre-fit” yesterday with some trepidation. (And yes, I know exactly what that word sounds like if you say it quickly! Not for nothing I teach teenagers.) I also went with some hope.

True confession. When I watch Dancing with the Stars (and no, the fact that I watch Dancing with the Stars is not the confession–I think I’ve admitted that here before), I imagine the season when they invite ordinary people to apply for a “normal person” slot.  And yeah, judge me if you want, but I want that slot.

Every year when they announce the stars, Fred jokes that he’s never heard of any of them. He calls them has-beens. I don’t care who they are. They agree to get vulnerable and to learn to feel things with their bodies in public, and I’m hooked.  I’m a “never has been” and I want to have to learn to dance a pasa doble before millions of cheering and jeering fans. I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I’m just telling you what’s true.

So, the sister who I admire for going to medical school when she was forty is the same sister who kept me from becoming the dancer I’m sure I was meant to become. “You don’t need to take ballet lessons,” I distinctly remember my mother saying. “You’ll just quit like your sisters did.” Perhaps Meg and Clare are also to blame here, but Judy is the one who ditched her ballet slippers under a tree in Elm Leaf park and pretended she’d lost them. (A pretense she maintained until my father’s liver cancer was well underway. When she finally came clean, it was too late for my career as an untrained ballerina to take off.)

Anyway, I’m just delusional enough to believe that there is still a path. Someday, Dancing with the Stars is going to call me, and God damn, I plan to be ready.

So. Barre-fit, or barf-it, or whatever you want to call it. I plie-d, I dipped, I put my feet in first position and held my arms out to my sides with intention, and holy Batman, what do you know, today I feel good. Sure, tiny muscles buried in the flab in my thighs hurt, but my feet, that have been screaming at me for about two years, feel like living things again, not clunky two by fours with nails in them. I’m hooked. I am getting my body ready for the day when Dancing with the Stars announces their “Every-woman” season. You heard it here first.

Now, back to that gratitude thing. Right now, as we speak, my church is welcoming a family from Angola to live in the rooms at the end of the hall. They are seeking asylum, and I’m a part of a community that believes we should welcome the stranger for real, not just metaphorically.

I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful for Judy who hated dancing and still blames her bunions on her toe-shoes, and for Saint Clare, the peacemaker, and for Pat, who kept his compass pointed home. And for Meg and Paul who left too soon. And for a lazy Sunday afternoon when Fred’s in Lubbock, and I’m cooking soup (again) and listening to the folk station on Amazon prime. Oh, and for Aurora and Cali, the granddaughters who just last weekend said, we’re choreographing Cali’s contemporary solo, will you help us? And for Luke, the grandson who in sixth grade can get through a Monday NYT crossword puzzle and likes doing them with me, and for Noah and Marissa who are making music in the youth symphony in Lubbock right now while I’m writing, and for Freddy and Cherisse who created all these grandkids, and for Fred, who opted in and has kept standing here next to me for some twenty-five plus years.

I didn’t even mention the friends, or the extended family, or the fact that my body feels flexible and energetic right now, or that the world’s most ridiculous dog is waking from his deep nap on the couch, shaking his head, nudging my knee with his nose. Let’s go for a walk, he’s saying, let’s prance, let’s throw a ball.

In her poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here“, Joy Harjo writes, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.” Every now and then, I think, it really is that simple.

Rusty doesn’t have time for poetry. He’s tapping my leg with his paw, losing patience. I close my laptop, dance up to meet him. It’s a good day to wag our tails. It’s a good day to go for a walk and kick up golden leaves. It’s a good day to give thanks for breathing in and out, for living in a body that can play.

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Things that Move, Things that Stand Still

One morning in July, Rusty nudged me out of bed at 6:30, amazed as always to have woken into another wondrous day. There were squirrels to see, bunnies to yearn for, birds to bark at. His whole body was wagging. How could I still be in bed?

I pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, slid my flip-flops on, and out we went into what passes for Eden. The air was cool, a good twenty degrees below the nineties we’d reach later in the day, and everything was moving.

Cottonwood fluff landed on my eyelashes; finches and cowbirds danced and dipped and dove. Trees quivered, a dotted line of ants marched crumbs across the sidewalk, and neighbors on their way to work waved from their cars. Rusty, beside himself in the brand new world, could hardly keep his paws on the ground.

At the far end of the street, high up in the cottonwood by the mailboxes, the neighborhood hawks are raising another family. The eggs have hatched and the birds are staying close; this morning one watches from the wall at the top of the hill while the other flies low overhead, gripping a doomed lizard. Tiny bits of bone and feather and fur litter the ground under the nest.

I was starting to think that maybe I would write about motion when I started noticing things that were standing still. I looked at the mesa, the Sandias tugging the sun over the crest, the thick trunk of the cottonwood I leaned on while Rusty sniffed and pawed at the ancient earth.

That was a few months ago. These days Rusty is sleeping later. Summer’s bright promise slid into golden fall, and I keep sorting the world into two piles: things that move, things that stay still.

I’m in my seventeenth year of teaching high school. I started in 2001, just before the Twin Towers came down. I was driving to work when I started hearing the story on NPR. When I reached my classroom, students were already crying. I remember saying something stupid, something to suggest that when we learned all the facts, things would somehow be ok, less terrifying than they seemed in those early hours and days of not knowing. Of course, that wasn’t true.

That day provided some of my earliest lessons in how to be a teacher. Understand that you don’t have what they need. Hold a space where they can cry. Try to be just a little bit stronger than they are, unless it’s one of those moments when they need to know it’s ok to be weak. Be grateful for structure; in a chaotic day, it can help to head off to chemistry class just because it’s 9:35.

Because I started teaching at this precise historical moment, my life divides neatly into before and after, just as in so many ways, the story of this country does. Because I started teaching at this precise historical moment, my work as a teacher has always been tied to my hopes and fears for the world.

Seventeen years isn’t as long as some things. It’s shorter than the time my sister Meg has been dead. It’s shorter than the number of years I’ve been married. It’s shorter than the number of years my parents lived on Marvle Valley Drive.

It’s longer than the lives of the students I am teaching now. When I started my life as a teacher, most of my students weren’t born. The students I taught in those magical early years are married, have children, lament on Facebook that they feel old.

My current and recently past students are in motion. They grow, they graduate, they move away, they come back. “How are you?” they ask me when they stop by on winter break. “What’s new?” Fine, I tell them. Nothing much, I tell them. I am still here. Some of them, I know, find this comforting, this returning to your past and finding your old teachers still mucking around in it.

Last week  The Birds of Chicago spent the week in residence at my school, making music for and with us. These people who tour over two hundred days a year taught classes, made us laugh, and yanked our hearts right out of our chests. We laughed and cried together while our hearts flopped around on the outside like fish at play in this crazy new thing called air. On Thursday morning after they played with our jazz band, I found myself talking to a colleague. “I want to go back and make every decision differently,” I heard myself say. Then the day took off as the days in a school always do, and I didn’t give it much more thought.

Do you know how, when you pray or meditate every day, answers to questions you haven’t even figured out how to ask appear fully formed in your head? Well, I haven’t been meditating every day, but I have been trying to write most days and to take a few deep, intentional breaths now and then, and, wham, somewhere mid-afternoon the answer to a question I didn’t know I’d asked popped into my head. “Do nothing safe,” it shouted, as though it was afraid I wouldn’t hear.

What the hell, universe? I’m fifty-three and ten twelfths years old. I’m healthy-ish, but that’s because I’ve got good health insurance that pays for one of those expensive drugs that flowy-haired women on horseback advertise on tv. I live in a beautiful, paid-for home in a marriage that works pretty well most days. I can afford to take violin lessons with my granddaughter and pay for the gym membership that keeps my joints moving. Sure, it would be nice to have a bigger number in my 401K, but I can’t really think of a different number that would make me stop thinking that. My only real gripe is that, when I read that the average age of menopause was fifty-one, I took it as a promise. That hasn’t really panned out for me.

So what’s up with envying people who spend two hundred days a year on the road, and what does the universe mean when it tells me to “do nothing safe”?

The next day I’m talking with my friend Nina who tells me about her friend the successful entrepreneur. His motto is “Think short term and rely on good luck.” It sounds like a prophecy, so I write it on a notecard and tack it to the bulletin board in my classroom. It’s terrible advice for teenagers, but I can’t bring myself to take it down.

So. October is sweeping the floors, getting ready to close up shop. November is dusting off the shelves, hanging the grand opening signs. I hear the cranes have come back. I haven’t seen them yet, but I believe they are here. The sycamore in the back yard is gold and going bare. The plum in the front is still green and going red. Some things are moving. Some things are standing still.

The problem is that I can’t figure out which one I am doing. On any given day I love my work. I love standing like a ledge, or a rock, or a launchpad in my students’ lives. On any given day I’m background noise or a faint breeze. On any given day I support or chastise or applaud while my heart swims out beyond my body and back again, over and over.

Those early lessons about teaching still hold. Just this week I’ve had students who needed strong, and students who needed to know it was ok to be weak. Just this week, I’ve held a place for them to cry. Just this week, I’ve realized for the millionth time that I don’t have what they need.

The problem is, lately I can’t figure out whether I’m living out my calling or avoiding it. Something is moving in me, stretching at my seams.

Maybe it’s just my body’s stubborn refusal to quit producing eggs, or all this Halloween candy, or another chronic illness come to swell my joints. Whatever it is, when it reveals itself, I hope I’m paying attention. I hope I will remember to do nothing safe. I hope I will remember to think short-term and rely on good luck.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, you might want to check out The Birds of Chicago.

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Googling Poems about Hope

I started this post a few weeks ago, when the places on my mind were Houston, Florida, North Korea, Mexico City, and Puerta Rico.  I wrote, “It’s Monday night and as far as I can tell, the world is a mess.” Now it’s Monday night again, and I’m adding Las Vegas to the list. As I write, CNN is reporting that they’ve recovered forty-two guns from the hotel and the shooter’s home, and they are replaying for at least the thousandth time the sad staccato sounds of the gunshots.

I feel like I should post something, but I can’t write about guns again. Read this old post if you want anger about guns. I posted it after Sandy Hook. Then I posted it after Orlando.

On nights like tonight, when I can’t keep up with the hurricanes and earthquakes, the shootings, the news of human suffering on scales I can’t begin to imagine, I page through the books of poems on my shelves. Usually I find something there that keeps me going; Ruth Stone or Robert Hass comes through with some poem with a long view that helps me look through the immediate suffering and remember beauty.

Tonight I strike out.

I turn to the internet, google “poems about hope.” I pass over the ubiquitous “thing with feathers” and stop at this one, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” by a Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski. It’s a beautiful poem, and you should stop now and read it. I’m not going to say anything here that is more poignant or beautiful or helpful than what you will read in that poem.

I know better than to turn on CNN when something bad is happening in the world, the same way I know that I should eat less sugar and make it to the pool more often. But it’s there, and Fred keeps flipping to it when Monday night football goes to a commercial. All evening I hear tiny snippets of sadness, stories of loss or survival.

Fred flips back to the game and I look back at my laptop. I love how the title of the poem draws you in. “Just try,” the poem says. I’m picturing the poet standing in my family room tonight, looking over my shoulder to the tv, reading the skepticism in my eyes.  “I know the world is all fucked up,” I imagine him telling me, “but try to love it anyway.”

A little later in the poem, he’s not so gentle. “You must praise the mutilated world,” he argues. He says this after the memories he’s sharing have gotten a little darker, and it’s like one of those moments when you’re at your worst in the classroom and you’re trying to dodge a question before a student even asks it. There’s a “because I said so” quality to the line that I find poignant. The imaginary Adam Zagajewski in my family room sees the images on my tv, looks at the shooter’s sight line from the thirty-second floor. He knows I’m not buying it.

He backs off. “You should praise the mutilated world,” he tries. I can’t tell if he’s losing confidence or just trying to read me, trying every construction he can to win this argument.

I remember years ago I had a statistics teacher I loved (pause here for a moment–that may be the first time anyone has ever put those words together in a sentence). Whenever he introduced a new concept, he’d give a long, convoluted explanation of how we could tackle the problem. Then he’d say, “But that would be…too hard!” Over the semester, we learned to shout “too hard” whenever he began the sentence. Then, he’d show us what we needed to learn, and it would seem easy.

I want to yell, “too hard,” at Adam Zagajewski, but honestly, my heart’s not in it. I’m remembering how the hawks came back to their nest at the end of my street last summer. I’m thinking about how the adults guarded the fledglings, carried lizards to them, soared overhead in watchful joy. I’m thinking about how the moonlight iced the branches of the sycamore across the street tonight when I walked Rusty, about the urgent rustling we heard above us in the leaves.

It’s been a long day. It’s getting late, and the game just ended. The poem is coming to a quiet end, too, and I’m thinking I should head up to bed. It occurs to me, as the line changes one more time, that maybe Adam Zagajewski isn’t trying to tell me anything at all.

He’s turned his back to me now; he’s headed out the door. “Praise the mutilated world,” he says one last time, glancing over his shoulder, putting on his coat. It’s loud enough to drown out the staccato sound of the shots coming again from the tv. I repeat it to myself after he closes the door.

It’s as simple as a breath, I think, as urgent as a prayer.

 

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O’Reilly Auto Parts and Other Things You Can Count On

There we were, reaching what was supposed to be the easy part of a meandering drive from Denver to Lubbock. Late July, and we are on our way to reclaim our faithful golden retriever from sleep-away-camp at my step-daughter’s house. He’s spent the last three weeks playing with her black lab and entertaining her family by barking at the animals on tv.

I call the drive meandering because, when our son-in-law told us where to turn to take the direct route, neither of us was paying much attention. Instead, we woke up in Denver, plugged “Lubbock” into my phone, and followed the google over the river and along Ranch to Market Roads and through the woods until at last we found ourselves skirting the southern edge of Amarillo.

A straight shot down I-27 would get us to Lubbock any time now. I put my phone away, try to find a radio station that isn’t telling me to turn my life and money over to Jesus, and look up at the sky.

I wish I hadn’t. It’s that purpley-black color that always makes you think you’re about to see Aunty Em and a mooing cow fly by. We’ve been playing keep away with these clouds all through Texas, and now it looks like the clouds are going to win. Sure enough, we’ve barely merged on to the interstate when rain comes bucketing down. Even before anything goes wrong, Fred is straining to see the car in front of us, and the clouds are so thick that I wonder how we’ll ever fit two of each kind of animal into the Subaru.

Let’s stop here for a thought experiment. Pretend Mary Anderson had never invented windshield wipers. When it rains, you have to catch a crow and use your shoelaces to tie him to the windshield. Then, you roll down your window and toss handfuls of grubs or worms or kernels of corn to entice the pissed off crow to hop back and forth across your windshield, dragging his wings to clear the water.

I don’t expect I’ll win a design award, but that’s exactly what I think when the windshield wiper on my side breaks and starts flapping around like a broken wing. The near-zero visibility we’ve had since the rain started drops even further.

Now, this essay isn’t about how differently my husband and I see the world when we can’t actually see the world, or I’d explain that his response to our life and death crisis was to turn the windshield wipers off so the wiper that was flopping around like a pissed off crow wouldn’t scratch the windshield. At the time, this strikes me as a remarkably bad idea. I start praying the Memorare, certain our flimsy ark is about to go down.

In everyday situations, I wouldn’t describe Fred as calm. In a crisis, though, he’s a rock. He’s driving the car through the blinding deluge as though he’s the only one wearing swim goggles. “Ask Google to find the closest O’Reilly Auto Parts,” he says. I take a break from reminding the blessed virgin Mary that she’s never left anyone who implored her help unaided to ask Google to find me an O’Reilly’s.

Google and Mary both come through, and we finally drive out of the storm into Plainview, Texas, an aptly named town. Young Frank steps away from his computer to verify that our windshield wiper is indeed as useless as a dead crow and snaps on a replacement. $7.00 and five minutes later we’re back on the road, ready to brave the next storm.

“You can always count on O’Reilly’s,” Fred says. He sounds like a radio ad at the end of a Garrison Keillor broadcast. His words feel loaded, like one of those ordinary sentences that ends up meaning more than it meant to. I’m strangely reassured.

I have one of those moments when you realize that even after twenty-five years of living with someone, you can still learn something new, and the rest of the summer passes uneventfully, with lots of live/love and no other close encounters with leave.

Last night I read this essay out loud to Fred as I often do before I post them. “You’ve got too many different stories,” he said. “You should just let it be about the drive.”

He has saved you all from some rambling diversions in the past, so I tried to listen to his advice. I cut the part about Jerry Lewis dying and the memory about the neighborhood carnival where I dressed up as clown and sold popcorn for Jerry’s Kids. Maybe I’ll put that in some other essay. But I keep feeling like this next part belongs here, even if I can’t quite put my finger on why. (If you can’t get past it, write the problem into your work, I tell my students.)

So, summer passed and I’m back at school. The theme for our opening faculty and staff meetings this year is play. Thursday morning while people with very different jobs than mine are performing knee surgery or nailing two-by-fours together, I’m in our black box theater playing rock paper scissors with seventy other adults.

By the time the champions are crowned, the rest of us are lined up in two long chains behind them, our hands resting on each other’s shoulders, chanting the names of the last two people standing. It was another one of those accidentally meaningful/O’Reilly Auto Parts moments.

But that’s not why I don’t want to cut this part of my essay. In the next game, we’re given a notecard. We close our eyes, and the facilitator’s voice guides us on a long, long walk through a beautiful forest. At certain points she tells us to write things on our card: a favorite animal (Rusty, of course), a favorite color (that morning, it feels like yellow).

Then she tells us that we have reached an immense wall. It’s so big there is no way around or over or through it, and we’re too tired to walk back. “What do you do?” she asks. I write my answer on my card, and before long we’ve moved on to the next game. My small group has already started planning how we are going to turn our bodies into three still photos that tell a story when she interrupts us.

“By the way,” she says, “here’s what those things you wrote down mean.” It turns out it was one of those games like the ones you play at bridal showers–someone writes down people’s random comments and later reads them back to the bride as things she’ll say on her wedding night. The animal and the color we chose had something to do with how we see ourselves and how we want the world to see us. But it’s the last phrase, the one about the wall, that I can’t stop thinking about.

“That’s how you feel about dying,” she says.

If this isn’t the first time you’ve read one of my essays, you know I think a lot about that “leave” part. Usually I’m writing about death from a place of grief, or anger, or fear. At best, it feels like a design flaw. “Let’s give them unbearable beauty and the capacity for love,” a generous creator says. “Yes,”a trusted assistant chimes in, laughing, “and expiration dates!” You have to wonder how the idea even made it out of committee.

One time years ago I was telling Sr. Therapist about a dream I’d had. (“You’re still adding stories,” I can imagine Fred saying. He’s in bed, though, so I’m not listening this time.) It was terrifying. I was lying in the grass on a tiny raft when a huge storm came. The raft was tossing in wind and waves, and I was certain it was going to overturn. When drowning seemed imminent, a voice in my dream spoke, calming my fear. “It’s not a raft, it’s an island,” the voice said.

By the time I’d finished explaining the dream, Sister Therapist was beaming. “That’s your subconscious,” she told me. “It’s telling you that you are going to be ok.”

When I unfolded my card to learn what I really think about dying, I felt that same relief I felt in my dream, that same relief I felt when we pulled into the parking lot of O’Reilly’s. When I reach that insurmountable wall, the wrinkled notecard of my subconscious tells me, I’ll “rest against it, letting it support me.”

Sometimes the insight you need is right there waiting for you, in plain view.

 

 

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Clowns to the left of me…

It’s Peace Sunday at my church today, so maybe I can finally get this damn essay finished.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever done this: You’re at a movie, and the people behind you won’t stop talking. The previews are still running, and you’ve already heard about his dog’s kidney stones, her cousin’s messy divorce, and every single calorie he’s eaten for the last two weeks. You glance over your shoulder once or twice–aggressively, you think–just to see if they might notice there are other people in the theater.

They don’t. They keep talking, and even if the movie is Taken 17 and you know he is saying “Hang on, Kim, I’m coming for you!” you still want to hear Liam Neeson talk.

If you’re like me, you are getting angry. In your head, these people behind you are losing their “peoplehood.” They’ve become idiots, or jerks, or, my husband’s favorite pejorative, clowns. Any hands up yet? Hold that thought.

Last year I started doing water aerobics, and I loved it. No matter how old you are, you probably won’t be the oldest person in the class. Ditto for how much you weigh, or how long it’s been since you’ve worked out. Unlike upstairs in Body Pump or Spin Like a Lion is Chasing You, you don’t need to be fast, perky, or own cute leggings. Sure, we’re all wearing bathing suits, but we’re standing in water up to our armpits, so no one is judging anyone else’s jiggling. It’s perfect.

Make that almost perfect. My only problem with water aerobics is that you do it with other people. It’s not like yoga, where everyone downward dogs on her own mat. Here in the pool, as soon as the music starts and you’ve claimed your turf in front of the four-and-a-half-foot marker, the Man Who Breathes Too Loudly will move into position just off your left shoulder. You take a step to the right, and the Man Who Stands Too Close will move in. Before Buddy Holly is done singing about Peggy Sue, you’ll be one flutter kick away from giving a stranger a bloody nose. Some days I think I would like water aerobics better if I could do it inside a shark cage.

Case in point. All last winter, the Man Who Won’t Stop Talking and the Women Who Egg Him On came to every class I took.  These people [by that I mean clowns, idiots, jerks] don’t care that I teach teenagers and had heard my name called by someone who needed something seven hundred and ninety-two times that day. Sensory overload is real. One time years ago when I got home from school, my husband said, “Let’s go to the grocery store,” and I started crying. Maybe water aerobics isn’t for me, I thought more than one time.

If your hands aren’t too full, hold that thought, too.

As I said, it’s Peace Sunday, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to be a decent person while our president does things like wake up one morning and try to ban transgender people from serving in the military.

It’s easy to be outraged, to call him a clown or a jerk or an idiot. But if I’m honest with myself, it’s not like I emerged from the womb knowing that gender is about what’s in your head and sex is about your genitals. For a long time, I was weirded out by the idea that someone with male genitalia could know deep down they were a woman, or vice versa. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, so I didn’t try to wrap my heart around it.

Then a few summers ago my school did some seriously powerful training about children who get marginalized. Jess Clark from the Solace Crisis Treatment Center in Santa Fe came and talked about the trans community and how to support trans kids in schools. He talked us through the difference between things like the sex you are assigned at birth (“It’s a girl!”), your gender identity (“I’m a girl”), your gender expression (I present myself to the world as a girl), and your sexual orientation (I like boys).

Jess’s message was simple: Gender is more complicated than we’ve been raised to believe. In one of my favorite moments, he pointed out with gentle humor that in polite society we don’t tend to go around asking people what their genitals look like. Check.

I thought about the kids I teach who are gender nonconforming and how they struggle. I thought about the kids I taught years ago, kids who were living with an unspoken, and at the time unspeakable, pain. Some of those kids have transitioned since I knew them, and their stories make so much sense now.

Bear with me for one more awkward transition. Recently I read in The Sun an excerpt from an interview published in April, 1984. In it, Deena Metzger says, “I’m really interested in what I call personal disarmament–learning to disarm in the inner world so that the inner can become a model for the outer world.”

She was explaining how hard it is to think about achieving world peace when “Even on the inner plane we bring in the troops against inner characters we don’t like.”

You can put down all those thoughts you were holding now; I think I’m getting to the punch line.

One night a funny thing happened after water aerobics. The Man Who Won’t Stop Talking followed me into the hot tub. He kept talking. I closed my eyes, hoping he’d talk to someone else.

“You’re a teacher, right?” he finally stuck his arm into my shark cage and asked. At that word, I opened my eyes and dragged my better self off the bottom of the hot tub. Then he said, “I must drive you crazy.”

There it was. I laughed, agreed with him, and just like that, The Clown Who Won’t Stop Talking and The Stuck-Up Jerk Who Won’t Talk to Anyone (that would be me) turned back into people.

So then there’s Donald Trump and his terrible idea. I want to tell him to lean into the idea that makes him uncomfortable.  I want to tell him that trans kids have a higher than average suicide rate, and we should try not to make their lives harder than they already are.

I want to tell him to believe those trans soldiers when they tell him the truth about their lives.

But, of course, I can’t tell Donald Trump anything. In most of my circle, his name is code for idiot/jerk/clown. And I don’t disagree–I think he’s dangerous, and sad, and unhinged. But what I learned that night after water aerobics is that if I want someone to stop driving me crazy, I have to build a relationship, not a shark cage.

I don’t have any idea what that means on dry land. I don’t know how to keep resisting things that appall me while staying in relationship with people whom they don’t appall.

I just know it’s Peace Sunday, and that quote about disarming on the inside won’t stop following me around.

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Estranged

Late one evening in Cocoa Beach I was having a glass of wine with my friend and her sister after Fred had gone to bed. Somehow the conversation drifted to the idea of friends or family members who have become estranged. It’s not a word I’ve ever given much thought to.

Most of the old friends I’ve lost have been through carelessness. You mean to call, of course, but there’s all that life stuff going on, and before you know it years have passed. We didn’t have Facebook when I graduated from high school or college to make it so easy to retain at least an illusion of connection. That’s an excuse, of course, but it’s one of those excuses that works a little bit because it’s true. I’ve squandered more good people than I like to admit.

That night we were talking about how silly it was to let one or two stray comments end a long friendship. We were talking about a relationship that ended because someone said something that rubbed the other person the wrong way, and it burrowed in like a tick and festered. How easy it would have been to have a different ending, we told each other. We ended the evening laughing, declaring we were all now estranged and making plans for the next day.

I went to bed and didn’t give the conversation any more thought. The next afternoon, my friend of over thirty years and I were sitting way out on the end of the pier at the Tiki Bar, watching pelicans dive for fish and surfers paddle out to catch waves. “Whatever happened to your old friend [who I’ll call] Amanda?” Kathy asked me.

I told her I had no idea. Come to think of it, we were estranged. We had been close, things had happened, and we had both felt the need to close the door on the friendship. At least, that’s how I remember it. In retrospect, I am not sure how mutual the decision was. Nevertheless, the door closed more than a decade ago, and over the years neither of us ever knocked on it.

It was a lazy afternoon at the beach. Kathy had known Amanda too, so she said, “I’ll just look her up on Facebook and see what she’s up to.”

Sometimes that’s a good thing to do. We’ve probably all looked up an old friend from our childhoods just to see how things turned out. I’ve reconnected with a number of people I’m happy to have back in my life. Many of my old students have found me online, and I love to see who they’ve become as adults.

That afternoon on the pier, though, Kathy got quiet. “You’re not going to like this,” she said. And if you are reading this post, you’ve probably read enough of my other essays to know that what we found was Amanda’s obituary. She died two years ago, apparently from some sort of cancer.

So there’s that. I still haven’t figured out how it makes me feel. I’m sad, of course. A vibrant, joyful life was cut short. I don’t think I feel regret, but maybe that’s just bluster. I feel tender toward that thirty-something-year-old me, doing the best that she could. And yet, it turns out it is different to be estranged from an old friend who is going about her life in the world and an old friend who has died without your ever knowing she was dying.

Kathy and I sat there quietly on the pier, watching the waves wash in and out. Then we paid the bill and headed off down the beach, two old friends, as the late afternoon sun sank inexorably toward the water, and the waves erased our footprints as we walked on.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

If you called an old friend after reading this, tell us all about it in the comments!

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Big Potatoes

"Mercy as it is here contemplated is said to be a virtue influencing one's will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another's misfortune. It is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that although mercy is as it were the spontaneous product of charity, yet it is to be reckoned a special virtue adequately distinguishable from this latter. In fact the Scholastics in cataloguing it consider it to be referable to the quality of justice mainly because, like justice, it controls relations between distinct persons." The Catholic Encyclopedia

It’s mid-May. The rose bushes are blooming and I’m thinking about the school year ending, and about the fact that I never posted in April, and about the things I should be grading tonight. But mostly I’m thinking about mercy.

It’s my Uncle Larry’s fault. Easter morning found me flying out of Albuquerque into the sunrise. I was on my way to Pittsburgh to get home for his funeral. Having held on deep into Holy Week, Uncle Larry had died on Wednesday, and we had to wait for Jesus to rise from the dead on Sunday to bury my uncle. He’s a Catholic priest. Something about flying into the light on Easter morning felt right.

By 1:00 Monday afternoon the family had gathered, filling the 18th-century sitting rooms at Beinhauer’s on West Liberty Avenue in Dormont. My sisters and I were sharing a room at what Judy calls Bereavement Hotel. (People who stay there for other reasons know it as the Crowne Plaza across the street from South Hills Village.) My brother Pat and his wife Pat were standing near a fringed lampshade when we got there, and the rooms were filling quickly with my cousins, their kids, and their kids’ kids. These cousins are the people, my generation, about whom Uncle Larry said last year, “There were twenty-two of you. Five are gone.”

That was at my brother’s funeral, and my uncle’s pain was palpable. “It’s too much,” his body seemed to be saying, while his mouth said “Our Father, who art in heaven” and “When I say ‘Lord have mercy, you say Lord have mercy.'” Today Uncle Larry looks like he is at peace, flanked by the flowers surrounding his open casket.

All day long we meander through these rooms like disorganized extras on a film set. Along with the four sitting rooms, there’s a kitchen stocked with coffee, tea, and, for some reason, cherry slushies. The kitchen opens into a playroom. “That’s where they have the birthday parties!” one of the cousins’ kids’ kids explains.

In Catholic tradition, the corporal works of mercy include such things, among others, as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and “harboring the harborless.” All day long, my uncle’s former parishioners and friends merry-go-round through the funeral home, sharing stories about the times my uncle did these things for them. “Your uncle came to the hospital every day while my wife was dying,” one man says. “Your uncle got me into AA,” a woman whose kids I used to babysit for tells me. “Your uncle opened the rectory on Christmas Eve and made a great Manhattan,” says a man with twinkly eyes. I can vouch for that one.

At some point after we’d been there a little while, Uncle Larry put his glasses on. I didn’t see him do it, but there they were, where they hadn’t been just a few moments before. I don’t question things like this at funeral homes. I know there are funeral directors who take care of these sorts of things, just as I know there is a moment when a doctor can declare a person dead. But I’ve also been there for that last breath, and in those days just before that last breath. I’ve walked through that shimmery space, that opening between what we know and what we can’t imagine.

So I’m glad Uncle Larry put his glasses on to see the room fill with his old friends and parishioners, all those people who called my Uncle Larry Father John. My cousin Tommy, the oldest cousin/acting patriarch, greeted every single person who came through the door.

On our way to St. Bernards that morning, one of those fancy osprey helicopter/jet hybrid thingies flew right over my sisters and me as we drove down Fort Couch Road. It turns out President Obama was in Pittsburgh for a funeral, too. Dan Rooney, long time Steelers patriarch, was put to rest about an hour before my uncle. The Bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese sent a letter to my family explaining that he had to be at the Rooney funeral instead of Uncle Larry’s. My uncle would have said something funny about this situation, but I don’t know what it would have been. That’s the thing about people dying.

Even though Bishop Zubik wasn’t there, St. Bernard’s in Mt. Lebanon was full of priests that morning. Thirty or forty of them in solemn robes billowed into the first five pews across the aisle from my family. The priest who gave the sermon was the same priest who had been smiling from the altar since the mass began.

He talked about my uncle’s faith. “We’re sad,” he said, “but don’t begrudge your uncle his joy on this day.” I thought about Uncle Larry’s words at everyone else’s funerals: my sister’s, my brother’s, my father’s, my mother’s. “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” he would say. And I thought about his wry smile in the coffin after he put his glasses on.

The smiling priest reminded us that when Uncle Larry/Father John wanted to get people’s attention, he would say, “This is important–this is big potatoes.” I remembered how Uncle Larry would come up to me, the “caboose” as he once described our shared position among our siblings, at other funerals, and say, “You’re going to say something, aren’t you?”

The first time this happened my sister Meg had died. It was 1990 and I was twenty-six. I don’t remember everything I said, but I remember quoting Dostoevsky from the Brothers Karamozov. “…let us remember how good it was here, when we were all together, united by a good and gentle feeling, which made us all, perhaps, better than we are.”

To bury the dead is another of the corporal works of mercy. On Tuesday, Tommy (who would later snag some yellow roses from a bouquet outside the mausoleum saying “The O’Shea girls should have roses”) said a few serious, gracious words, and the funeral drew to its end. The closed coffin perched beneath the altar, the holy water was sprinkled, and the pall-bearers stood in position. All that was left was to sing one more hymn, process out of the church, stick a black flag on our car, and fall in line behind the hearse on the way to Queen of Heaven cemetery.

And then Bishop Winter went off script. “I want to say one more thing,” he said. “There was a huge snowstorm in Pittsburgh one night.” He paused and looked away for a minute, the way you do when you feel like you might cry but would rather wait until later. “If you had made it home, you were happy,” he said,  “and you stayed home.” He paused.  “I stayed home.” He paused again, and I thought of the way my father couldn’t speak the only time I heard him mention the baby who would have been my fourth sister.  “Not Uncle Larry,” he said,  “I mean Father John.”  We laughed as the man we knew as our uncle merged with the man the Bishop knew as a priest.

The cloistered Passionist nuns, he told us, had quietly tucked in that cold evening when they heard a knock on the door. It was Father John, the Bishop said, braving the blizzard, checking to see that the sisters had everything they needed to weather the storm.  “That’s what I remember,” the Bishop said. Then the organ clanged a chord and they rolled the coffin down the aisle.

We filed out, pew by pew. The church was packed, and the person standing at the end of each row was holding a lit candle.  Tuesday afternoon we followed Uncle Larry, one more time, through the light, into the light.

One of my favorite memories came years ago when my brother Pat had my last two uncles use Skype for the first time. Self-conscious on camera they joked, and then, somehow, my mother’s sister’s husband and my father’s brother decided to sing “As Time Goes By.” Just for fun just now, I looked up the lyrics. Reel Classics begins with these lines I’ve never paid attention to before:

This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension…

And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.

In my uncle’s last Christmas card, he wrote, “I don’t like Skype.” He also said, “I love the old phones that had mouthpieces that you spoke into,” but not the distance that had flung my sisters and me across the country. “O well,” he concluded, “times are changing, I’m not. I don’t understand.”

The simple facts of life that cannot be removed are these: Easter morning I flew home to Pittsburgh and Wednesday afternoon I flew back home to Albuquerque. Sunday afternoon at five to twelve I opened Skype, right on schedule, to join my niece’s online baby shower. We broke bread and drank wine and I can’t stop thinking about mercy, about my big and scattered family, how strong the bonds are, how fragile the strands that bind us to this world.

It’s big potatoes.

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Two Gyms

The Sunday after forty-five first hung a “Closed” sign on the Statue of Liberty, my granddaughter had a gymnastics meet. Sunday afternoon found us in a gym full of sparkly tweens, cheering as Aurora balanced, swung, jumped, flipped, and tumbled.

The meet began as they all do. We stood and turned toward the flag hanging way up in the corner. Kids and adults put their hands on their hearts, men took off their hats, and a scratchy recording of the national anthem blared through the sound system.

Many of the people I spend time with are cynical about this ritual, but I’ve never really been one of them. It’s not that I don’t understand the perils of blind nationalism or know the way a flag can be draped over deep flaws to camouflage them; I do. But I’ve always been a sucker for words sung or spoken aloud together. Maybe it was all those years of Catholic school where we began the day by reciting both the Our Father and the pledge of allegiance, or those long Pittsburgh Lents when we walked around the church, praying aloud at every station of the cross, We adore thee o Christ and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world. I have a vivid memory of a Girl Scout ceremony from elementary school. We were standing outside in someone’s backyard on the other side of Clifton Road on a cool Bethel Park evening. We finished saying the pledge, and somebody’s little brother said loudly, “Amen!”

It was all one thing back then, even before I got to Notre Dame and read “God, country, Notre Dame” engraved in the doorway of Sacred Heart church. It’s the same thing with the national anthem. I’ve always been that person standing in the row behind you at the baseball game, singing along. If I’m being all the way honest, I’ll admit that I even tear up a little in those moments.

I’ve never before stopped  to interrogate those tears. Trying to understand them now I think they might be about the fact that thousands of strangers are sharing a unifying moment, any moment. But now that I say that out loud, it sounds terrifying.

So last weekend in that gym, standing between two of my grandkids, looking out on a floor filled with little glittery girls in leotards, I couldn’t do it. My hands were clenched in fists at my sides and nothing was going to make them move. All that intellectualized fear of blind nationalism that I’ve carried for years moved out of my head and settled like weights in my hands. Symbols matter, I told myself. Now more than ever, it’s important to be clear. 

And then it was Monday morning. I went to work and headed into our gym for a full-school morning meeting. We were gathering to welcome the Mexican exchange students who had arrived that weekend. Thanks to some amazing Spanish teachers, my school has had an exchange program with a school in Mexico City for more than a decade. Near the end of every winter as the light returns, a dozen or so new students enliven our school. Then, a few weeks later, our kids head to Mexico City. For years, this program has built life-long friendships and deepened intercultural understanding. This year, it felt also like an act of defiance. We welcome you, my school said loudly, in the face of those who would build walls to keep you away.

I started writing this essay just after that powerful morning in the gym, and then life took over and sent me meandering down different paths, as it does. When I thought about the gymnastics meet, I wondered if I had reached some new understanding, some new point that would keep my mouth closed and my hands clenched tightly by my side.

And then I started thinking about Lorraine Hansberry. I read A Raisin in the Sun again with my eleventh graders this fall, and last week I kept thinking about the scene where Walter Lee has lost his father’s insurance money, including the part that was earmarked to pay for his sister’s education. His sister, not surprisingly, is furious. When she tells her mother there’s “nothing left to love” in him, Mama stops her. “When do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? …that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so!” she tells her.

Then one morning the students at my school announced an upcoming discussion about America. One of the young women publicizing the event said, “I’m trying to figure it out. Is it ‘America, yay, we’re great!’ or ‘America, oh, that’s not so good’?” She invited her classmates to join her in a conversation to figure it out together.

I was heartened by the students’ desire to make sense of America, and I still hadn’t figured out what Lorraine Hansberry was trying to tell me. Then I was unpacking some books and I came across an old marked-up copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night.  In his Nobel lecture, Wiesel said “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

I’m thinking about all those other moments I’ve spent in gyms and stadiums, cheering on St. Louise, rooting for the Blackhawks at Bethel Park Senior High, yelling for the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame and the Lobos at UNM. I’m wondering about all those times I’ve cheered and chanted and sang for our side, for our team. I’m thinking about how easy is to get pulled in to those moments, to think you care more than you really care.

I’m thinking about the fact that symbols matter, and that it’s important in challenging times to be clear. Let’s write 2017 down as the year democracy kicked us in the teeth and reminded us that we don’t get to keep it for free. It’s not a spectator sport or a pep rally. We can’t cheer from the sidelines and trust that somebody else is going to get it done. This is the year we need to remember that those same fireworks that look so beautiful in the sky are explosions here at ground level; those “bombs bursting in air” actually kill people.

Yesterday afternoon I walked out of the house with Rusty on his leash by my side. We’d only taken a few steps when we both came to a dead stop–I flinched, and Rusty pushed his belly toward the ground. We felt the air above us churn and heard a powerful clapping of wings.  A giant hawk had bulleted over the roof of the garage and passed just inches above my head; it was as though we had stepped right between him and the prey he was diving for.  Rusty and I watched, stunned, as the hawk changed course and skidded back into the sky.

I don’t know what the students at my school decided about America. I suspect, or maybe I hope, that they ended in ambivalence–that they weren’t so cynical to have stopped believing in the ideal of liberty and justice for all, but weren’t so blind to believe it will magically manifest on its own.

At the end of his speech, Wiesel said, “Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.”  We’re all charged with creating the world. Let’s use our hands and hearts and voices for that.

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