Bad Theology?

A few days ago, I was eating a roasted vegetable, pesto, and melted cheese sandwich in the school cafeteria when I overhead just enough of a conversation between my colleagues to become intrigued. “What is the meaning of life?” the historian said. The biologist replied, “What is life?” and then they both laughed.

I’ve been thinking about that second question. I learned this summer that a host of microorganisms calls my body home. I guess I’ve heard that before; I suspect in some long ago science class I looked at  a drop of saliva under a microscope and saw tiny things scurrying around, but this summer when I read an article about the The National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, I was hooked. The NIH is working “to characterize the microbial communities found at several different sites on the human body, including nasal passages, oral cavities, skin, gastrointestinal tract, and urogenital tract, and to analyze the role of the microbes in human health and disease.” It’s the human genome project all over again, with a vastly expanded notion of “human.”

Some of the things I’ve read suggest we might have several pounds worth of these creatures eating lunch, going to work, sleeping, making love, and raising families, all snug inside the cozy planet previously known as “Me.”

Is it hubris to get excited about the idea that colonies of microorganisms call my body home?

I remember reading an article years ago about the giant sequoias in California. The author had climbed into the uppermost branches with a group of botanists and wrote about the entire ecosystem she encountered. If I’m remembering right, a distinct species of huckleberry flourishes in the canopy. I remember being amazed as I read that a mini-world hides above the world  we know. I imagined how it would feel to be a bush whose roots sway in the California breeze. I like to think that to a root-bound creature it might feel like being part cloud.

I can’t really explain why I find these stories of mini-ecosystems so fascinating. Somehow the idea that bushes grow in trees or that microorganisms in my body are working beyond reach of my consciousness to keep me alive is oddly comforting.

Let’s be clear: I’ve never liked the idea of things crawling on me. When I was eight or nine, I used to tag along with a girl named Betsy as she delivered newspapers on Sunday mornings. I remember standing in her driveway, stuffing ads into the paper, and loading them into a big canvas Pittsburgh Press bag. At one point, while the rest of the neighborhood slept, my legs grew itchy. I looked down and was horrified to see hundreds of tiny aphids crawling out of my sneakers and swarming my legs. I jerked, I danced, and I howled, loud, neighbor-waking howls, until we finally dragged a hose out of Betsy’s garage and flushed the bugs away.

That was the end of letting things crawl on me. So it surprised me when I read about these studies to map the human microbiota and thought, “Cool!” In the pictures, they look like jars of multi-colored gummy bears, or necklaces of green, fuzzy jade, or twisty colored pipe-cleaners. These creatures, I’m reading, are linked to our health in ways that scientists are just beginning to explore.

As a young girl raised Catholic, I had lots of exposure outside of science class to the idea that my body was home to something other than “me”; in addition to being the container for that mysterious thing called soul, my body, I was taught, was also the temple of the equally mysterious Holy Spirit.

Honestly, that vision matches my experience fairly well. I have often felt deeply connected to the world. I’ve lived through solitary times when I have known, with the part of knowing that doesn’t happen in my head, that I was not alone. In her poem, “Some Questions You Might Ask,” Mary Oliver writes, “Is the soul solid, like iron?” and “Who has it, and who doesn’t?” The poem packs fourteen questions into twenty-one lines, including my favorite, “Why should I have it, and not the camel?”

Can you see where I’m going with this? I have just enough knowledge of science to put it to work to do bad theology. I’m not (quite!) saying I have discovered the soul and it is a collection of multicolored eukaryotes, but did you know they have been around for over a billion years? Do you know that they live in you and on you and that you are not, it turns out, ever really alone? It’s not our imaginations: something always pulses in the night.

One night in Pittsburgh I thought it was horses. I was staying with my parents in my childhood home and sleeping fitfully. The window by my bed was wide open, and late in the night I heard a horse whinnying deep in the woods. Longing spread through the trees as the animal called out, waited, called into the silence again. Finally, after what felt like hours, an answer came, and the two voices nickered back and forth. I fell asleep to their singing, bathed in wonder, gifted by this mysterious conversation.

Back home in Albuquerque, knowing there couldn’t be horses in those woods, I described the sound on an internet birding site. Within minutes, I received a link to a sound file identifying my midnight horses as screech owls. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Mated pairs may sing to each other antiphonally, both day and night.”

I want to say, I have heard the screech owls singing, each to each. In Eliot’s poem, after the mermaids sing each to each, “human voices wake us and we drown.” We all know that’s how the story always ends. A while ago, though, when I was still trying to decide if I should keep my guard up or settle in and trust the world, a priest stumped me by asking, “What is death, anyway?”

So here’s the thing I keep Googling. I want to know what happens to all those microorganisms when I die. Am I like those conifers in forest fires who open their pods and fling their seeds madly to the forest floor, shouting “Life Life Life!” into the flames? Do the bacteria in my digestive tract have a chance to flee their dying planet and strike out for a brave new world? Or do these same microbes who have devoted their lives to mine help me, one last time, to shed skin and bone and ease into element?

I like that idea. I’m trying to say that I’d be ok if it turned out that the secret to eternal life, to God, is symbiosis. I like to think that that huckleberry bush doesn’t know her roots never touch the ground, doesn’t know that the whole thing she calls the world is cradled in a net of branches, doesn’t know that she, too, is part huckleberry, part prokaryote, part bacteria, part fuzzy jade and twirly pipe-cleaner, part every other thing that teems and swims and breathes in this abundant world.

Just now, my ten year-old granddaughter asked me what I was writing about. I tried to explain without going in to too much detail that we have these tiny things living in us, and that I think it’s really cool. She got quiet for a minute, then stuck her tongue out. “Ew,” she said.

That’s another way of looking at it.

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Little Dog

IMG_1836This morning as I write, a little barrel-shaped white dog is sitting on my desk. Her tail is curled across the edge of my laptop, and she is calmly surveying the scene behind me. In other words, she’s got my back.

Officially, her name is Snow White, which is the same name that her predecessor (a little white cat) had, but we call her Little Dog, because she’s about a tenth of the size of Rusty, who we call Big Dog when Little Dog comes to stay. We’re dog-sitting.

*****

A few weeks ago, I was eating breakfast when I heard a persistent squeaky chirp outside. I listened for a little while, not sure whether it was a bird or something that needed tightening on the porch swing.

When I finally got up to look, I saw a robin hopping around, picking up juniper berries and rose hips from the rocks. The bird would pick up a berry, knock it on the ground a few times, and then hop over to the little spot of shade by the wall. There, the source of the squeaky chirp would open his mouth wide and wait for the big bird to drop the food in.

The funny thing was that the little bird with the wide mouth was almost as big as the big bird. Its breast was more speckley than red, and it was easy to imagine him as a chubby little kid. I am not an expert on how to raise a robin, so I laughed when I found myself thinking, “Isn’t that bird big enough to get his own food?”

I watched them eat breakfast until Big Dog lumbered out his dog-door and scared them away.

*****

In July in Albuquerque the sky does somersaults. If you turn in a slow circle on a wild day you’ll see clear blue over the mesa, towering white cumulous over the south valley, dark gray storm clouds teasing the mountain, rain falling in Placitas, and way off in the distance, virga, that broken promise of rain that evaporates before it hits the ground.

The other night driving to a baseball game, I saw a fully formed sculpture in the sky. I looked up, and it was as though I were standing in a museum. Back-lit against the horizon laughed a white marble cherub, rivaling any you might see in a Renaissance collection. A few nights later, driving west just before sunset across the Montano Bridge, it happened again. This time I saw the carved bust of a beautiful woman.

I’ve been searching for links online that might give a sense of what I saw. This National Gallery of Art image of the work of  Tullio Lombardo comes closest.

My mother delighted in ordinary things, so it wasn’t unusual for us to look for faces and shapes in the clouds. “Look at the sailboat!” she might exclaim as walked onto the front porch, or “Ooh, do you see that old woman?”

These sculptures, though, are different. I wasn’t looking for anything when they appeared; I just glanced up and there they were, solid and luminous in the summer sky.

*****

Last week, we traveled to Cocoa Beach, Florida, to visit one of my dearest friends. While there, I spent two mornings standing in the Banana River, really a salt lagoon, staring at manatees. At least a dozen of these giant sea creatures swam all around me, sometimes mere inches away, for hours. One came right up to me, flipped onto his back, and lay there gently flapping his flippers. Another, whose back was more barnacled than the others, kept swimming by my knees underwater, but wouldn’t surface until he was about ten feet away. Often I didn’t even see him coming; I’d suddenly sense movement in the water, look down, and he’d be there. Another swam up with her baby and nudged him up for air by my knees; I had the distinct sense that she was showing him off.

The next morning when I went back, the manatees were back, too, and we did the whole thing again.

*****

The longer I’ve lived in the desert, the more each trip to the ocean has come to feel like a sacrament. I’m gripped by the urge to see and to name every feature of this watery creation. On our first day, we saw laughing gulls, royal terns, skimmers, American oystercatchers, a white ibis, lots of pelicans, and a strange new bird that looked like what you might get if you crossed a vulture with a flamingo.

From a distance, wood storks are tall and elegant. White wings the birds fold around themselves like robes hunch solemnly atop long, dark legs, giving them the gravitas of old-time dons. This scholarly air is enhanced by their bald, reptilian heads.

My husband and friend head into the restaurant while I stay behind, taking pictures and talking to the birds. Eventually I turn away and join people I love in the known world for happy hour at Fish Lips.

*****

As I’ve been writing, Little Dog has relocated to my lap, so now I’m typing tilted to the right, with my left elbow up in the air and resting on her head.  At the beach, we watched a crow take funny, lurching side-steps into the water, as though he were climbing over things we couldn’t see; that’s how I’m moving now, as I shift and reposition myself around the thick skein of fur trying to get comfortable in my lap.

*****

Reading other people’s writing, I’ve always believed that using asterisks between paragraphs to separate ideas was a cop-out; a shortcut writers use instead of finding and making evident the connections between one idea and another.

Playing with this technique myself, I suspect I’m  right.

*****

When I went to the post office to stop our mail before the trip, the woman in front of me was buying stamps. The postal worker fanned her choices on the counter. “Are those Forever stamps?” she asked. He answered yes each time she picked up a different booklet and repeated the same question.

Finally, he said, “Lady, they’re all Forever stamps now.”

“Oh,” she responded. “And how long are they good for?”

He paused a moment, while she fingered the stamps and the question grew heavy around us.

“As long as forever is,” he told her. “Just as long as it lasts.”

 *****

Last night lightening ricocheted around the sky for hours, and thunder chased Little Dog far under the bed. I stayed up watching the sky explode until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. This morning dawned soft, and blue, and humid.

I’m trying to say that I love it here.

I’m trying to say that some days creation flops into view like a fish leaping in the Banana River and laughs at us for trying so hard to understand.

I’m trying to say that some days it is exactly enough to open my eyes in a wet world, to breathe salt air, to bask in a planet at play.

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Wobble Board

Have you ever stood on a wobble board? Mine is a sixteen-inch wooden disk, mounted on top of a hard plastic dome (imagine a circle of wood glued to half a baseball, with the round part of the baseball touching the ground). After I tore ligaments in my ankle for the second time a number of years ago, my doctor suggested I use a wobble board to try to prevent future injuries.

The point is to rock back and forth on the board in every possible direction without letting its edges touch the ground.  Theoretically, I’m not just strengthening lots of little muscles in my ankles and calves by wobbling around, but I’m also improving my proprioception, my body’s ability to sense where it is in space.

It’s comforting to think that my muscles know where my elbows are in relation to my earlobes and how to keep me upright if my left foot lands halfway on the curb and halfway on the road. I like that my body is working to keep me balanced without any conscious intervention on my part.

Not that long ago, I went through a period when I felt every day as though I were standing on that board. Accosted by a loss that knocked me off balance, I couldn’t figure out how to make the earth stand still beneath my feet. It was as though aftershocks from an earthquake were rattling the ground every day, reminding me that destruction was immanent.

Friends, well-meaning strangers, and grief counselors all recommended I “talk to someone.” For weeks I carried scraps of paper with names and phone numbers in my pocket. I was terrified that I’d call the wrong person; how do you choose among strangers which one to invite into your vulnerability? It wasn’t until I finally decided to talk to a trusted priest and even he handed me a scrap of paper with a phone number on it that I finally decided I wasn’t going to be able to find solid ground on my own.

A few months after I started “talking to someone,” I had a dream. In the dream, my husband and I were lying on our stomachs on a raft. We were somewhere beautiful, maybe off Hawaii or Monterey, in the middle of the ocean. The raft was also somehow a spacious field of grass, rocking gently on the waves. For some reason Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World” always comes to mind when I think of this dream, although looking at the painting now, seeing the way the woman in the grass looks (purposefully?) toward the house in the distance, I can’t really explain why.

There was no purpose in my feeling in the dream. Years ago after breaking my wrist I woke from surgery to a stranger wrapping me in hot blankets. That was how I felt in the dream: enveloped, tended to, almost surreally peaceful. I found myself craving that feeling long after I was awake. I can close my eyes even now and almost feel it.

At some point in the dream, though, the waves picked up. The raft started rocking aggressively. As the waves grew menacing, I became terrified, certain that the next one would capsize us and pull us under. I dug my hands into the grass as the dream that had begun as a beautiful respite became, literally, a nightmare.

Just as I was trying to scream myself awake, a voice in the dream said, “It’s not a raft; it’s an island.”  I don’t know whose voice this was, but it spoke matter-of-factly into my fear. It repeated those words, “It’s not a raft; it’s an island.”

Somehow, saying it made it true. I looked around, and I could feel the column of earth under my feet, reaching all the way down to the ocean floor. We continued to dip and lunge in the waves, but we weren’t going anywhere. We were on solid ground. I could relax back into the movement.

When I told the woman I had finally chosen to “talk to,” about this dream, she smiled. She said something like, “That’s such a powerful message from your psyche, telling you that you are going to be ok.”

The thing is that I believed her. The ground didn’t firm up instantly, but “It’s not a raft, it’s an island” became available to me as a mantra, as a little stone I can worry in my pocket whenever the earth starts pitching beneath my feet.

I remember one time flying over the Southwest and being terrified for a moment at how tiny all the cities are, how desolate the spaces that sprawl between. “We’re so alone!” I remember thinking, feeling a wave of compassion for all of us, tiny people scattered like old seed on dry land.

If you zoom out even further, beyond the airplane, who is to say what’s raft and what’s island? What is there, really, that’s tethered all the way down?

In his poem, “The Abduction,” Stanley Kunitz writes,

Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.
What do we know
beyond the rapture and the dread?

There was a time when lines like those could paralyze me, when all I wanted was to make the world stand still. I thought I needed the “shapes of things” to stop “shifting in the wind.” I wanted to be able to say with certainty, “The world is this way; therefore, it isn’t this other way.”

For some reason walking the dog with Fred in the rain tonight, I’m thinking about this dread and rapture. It’s a gentle rain by the time we head into it, but just half an hour ago, it was wild; lightening arced into the ground and wind twisted the sycamore in the back yard sideways.

The streets are wet and I walk balancing on the curb, still working on my proprioception, still trying to figure out how my body is positioned in space, still learning to keep my balance in a whirling world that holds both love that rocks you gently on the waves and loss that tries to drown you.

The trick I’ve learned on the wobble board is this: If you don’t want to fall off, you have to go with it as it flings you face-forward; you can’t panic as your body falls backward or dips to the left or right. You can’t fight the motion.

You have to let go. You have to trust that somehow, in some way you don’t have to understand, the center will hold.

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View Christina’s World

Read The Abduction

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In Vino Veritas?

When I was in sixth grade, I wrote an essay about an old family story and was asked to read it over the P.A. system. I don’t remember all of the details, but the important part of the story happens when Gracie and Vader (some degree of great-grandparents) hear a knock on their door late one night when they are in bed.

The knock is followed by their daughter’s voice, saying, “Mom, Dad, I’ve come to say good-bye.” She was living far away at the time and couldn’t possibly be there, but they both heard her.

It wasn’t until sometime the next day that they heard a different knock on the door and learned from the police that their daughter had died the night before. They knew then that she had indeed “come to say goodbye.”

I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to know something. My husband will confirm that I’ve never met a button I didn’t push. “What’s this do?” I’ll say, already pushing the button, whether it’s on the dashboard, or the furnace, or his new camera. It’s not enough for me to hear his answer, “it adjusts the zoom,” or “it lights the pilot”—I have to see what that means by trying it out for myself. Once I’ve poked, prodded, and explored, I can relax, confident that I know exactly what that button does.

I found some tangible evidence of things I know while I was looking for a copy of that old essay. I pulled a folder labeled “St. Louise” out of a milk crate in my closet and was astounded to see all the things I know.

Apparently, I have hand-written, illustrated, and gotten good grades on lab reports on such diverse topics as Basic Principles in Electricity; Micro-Organisms (this one includes a drawing of the life cycle of a mold); Chemical, Physical, and Nuclear Change; and lots of reports on phylums, including Chordata, Arthropoda, Echinodermata (those cool spiny-skinned animals), and Molluska.

I have also written broadly  (and in cursive) about diverse topics in the social sciences, including Racial Relations in the North and South During the Gilded Age (which I covered thoroughly in 2 pages), Steamships (which includes a drawing of The Clermont), The US Indian Policy, Eli Whitney, Lillian A. Wald, and The Development of Air Power during World War One.

I also found a scrapbook from the 1976 Presidential campaign that includes my in-depth analysis of the choice between tickets: “Pineapple or peanuts?” Wait for it.

Sadly, I have no memory of knowing anything about any of these things.

Do you know that moment when you are watching Jeopardy! when you find yourself saying words like spirilla or manganese phosphate or cheliped with utter confidence and wondering how you know these things? I learned today that the answer to that question is  “What is seventh grade science?”

So. Here’s another thing I know.

A few years ago my niece was considerate enough to get married at a winery in the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Glenora Wine Cellars has an inn, a restaurant, and down the hill toward Seneca Lake, a cottage. My sister rented the cottage, and I stayed there with her and her husband; my nephew, his wife, and their baby; and Sarah, until her wedding night. The two families slept in bedrooms upstairs while Sarah and I shared a closed-in porch on the back of the house.

On Sarah’s wedding night, I had the porch to myself.  Sometime around two or three in the morning, I woke up and heard people talking in the front room. My porch was separated from the main house by a sliding glass door that we’d been leaving open. On the other side of the glass door was a small dining room, and directly in front of that was the family room.

The soft voices made me think the baby had woken everyone up, and now that he seemed to have fallen back to sleep, the parents and grandparents were relaxing together before heading back to bed.

I had to go to the bathroom, but I was afraid I’d wake the baby if I went into the front room and joined the conversation, so I tried to stay invisible as I slipped through the open door. I could see shapes in the dark room that matched my assumption of what was going on, and I could hear them all talking softly. As I came out of the bathroom, I saw and heard them again. It was a sweet moment, and I fell peacefully back to sleep.

Sometime in the middle of the next day I turned casually to my nephew’s wife and said, “So, you guys must have had a rough night.”

“What do you mean?” she asked me, genuinely confused.

“Mason had you up for a while, didn’t he?”

“No, he slept great,” she said. She looked at me a little funny when I said, “Seriously?” and reassured me that she and her husband and baby had had a deliciously full night of sleep.

A little later I tried to get a different answer from my sister. “Were you guys up with Mason last night?” I asked Judy, thinking that maybe the thoughtful grandparents had heard the baby crying and decided to let the tired parents sleep.

Again, “No, we slept all night.”

Imagine that you know that you ate a bowl of shredded wheat with blueberries this morning for breakfast. You know it the same way you know everything: you touched it, you saw it, you pushed its buttons. Then imagine that people you love and trust insist that there is no such thing as shredded wheat.  That’s how I felt all day as we hiked the waterfall in Watkins Glen. I kept reliving those nighttime moments, trying to find a way to believe they hadn’t happened.

As we climbed toward the top of the waterfall, I found myself wondering about the Underground Railroad. Now, I am not a person who goes through life spontaneously thinking about historic events. At no other time in my forty-nine years has the Underground Railroad popped into my head as I hiked along a waterfall. But there it was; as the afternoon passed, I became convinced that the family I had seen, heard, and felt emanating peace and love from that room had something to do with the Underground Railroad.

For the record, I know that I sound like a crazy person here. My husband’s cousin used to take pictures in graveyards, and she and my father-in-law would circle the spirits they saw in them, and I thought they were crazy.

By the time we got back to the cottage, I was hungry to press every button I could to learn about  the Finger Lakes’  involvement with the Underground Railroad. I was heading toward the porch to get my iPad when I noticed a book on the bookshelf. I don’t remember the exact title, but I think it was Emerson Klee’s Underground Railroad Tales: With Routes through the Finger Lakes Region. Remember that “They’re here!” moment from Poltergeist?

Here’s what I know for sure: There were people in that room that night. They were at peace, resting, lulling a baby to sleep. My family swears it wasn’t them. The Amazon blurb for Klee’s book notes the existence of “eight routes and 41 stations in the Finger Lakes Region.”

Here’s what my rational brain, and I expect your rational brain, thinks: It wasn’t just a wedding; it was a wedding at a winery. Of course, I had been drinking wine. I must have been dreaming. I must have seen the book on the bookshelves earlier in the week, and it filed in dutifully when my mind was looking for answers.

That’s a perfectly plausible, perfectly rational explanation. It’s not the one I believe, but it’s possible.

Later that summer, still pushing buttons to learn about my ghosts, I did some research. I found this book on Amazon: Ghosts of Genesee Country: From Captain Kidd to the Underground Railroad. The author, Ralph Esposito, leaves it to his readers to decide whether or not they believe his stories, but adds, “As for me, my money is on the ghosts.”  If I’m crazy, at least I’ve got company.

I have tangible proof that I knew a lot about the phylum Echinodermata when I was thirteen, but I didn’t know I knew those things until this afternoon. The list of things I don’t know grows exponentially as I get older. I’m not even sure this whole idea of knowing holds up very well. Emily Dickinson says “Wonder—is not precisely Knowing and not precisely Knowing not.”

I don’t precisely know if there is such a thing as a ghost, or a god, or what exactly happens to that thing we were in the second (or the century) after we take our very last breath. My great (or great-great) grandparents knew their daughter had visited them as she was dying. I know there were people in that room in Dundee.

When Hamlet has to explain his dead father’s appearance to his best friend, he says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

My husband, though, is more comfortable with the idea of me drinking too much wine than of me seeing ghosts. He points me instead to a quote often misattributed to Shakespeare that says, “The wine-cup is the little silver well, Where truth, if truth there be, doth dwell.”

I know what I think happened that night. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

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Eden

Yesterday at a school in Oklahoma, teachers lay on top of their students to protect them as a tornado smashed through town. This is what teachers and parents do every day; they throw themselves between children and danger, hoping that such a frail shield will be enough. We keep getting reminded that all we have are these flimsy, breakable bodies, that sometimes all we can do is throw ourselves to the ground and hold on.

I was already thinking about loss. All week I’ve been trying to figure out the connection between loss and abundance. I’ve never agreed with people who say that loss exists to make us appreciate joy. Joy is its own tangible thing. You know this if you wake early; every single morning, one bird sings first. Being awake to hear that wild call into darkness, that summoning of light, isn’t the absence of anything.

The day Fred and I walked north and south as far as you could go on the beach at Laguna, clambering over rocks, skinning our knees, and peering into tide pools, wasn’t the absence of anything either. Joy didn’t come that day because no one we knew was dying. Joy came because an abundant world had cracked open, and we had shown up to see sculpin, sea anemones, and starfish washing in and out of the tide pools.

If loss isn’t a joy-deepener, what is it? The callous “suffering is God’s will” has always struck me as an oxymoron, and a particularly unkind one at that. I prefer to imagine a distraught God trying to talk a stubborn son out of crucifixion. I can picture a strong-willed young man-god explaining to his horrified father, “I know you didn’t mean for it to go this way, but, trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

I guess deep down, I don’t know what to make of Eden.

For almost a decade, I spent one week every year at a Zen Buddhist center in the Jemez with a bunch of teenagers. Buddhism taught me that my thoughts weren’t my self and that I could acknowledge anxiety and then let it go. It taught me to breathe, and to chant, and to be still and wait for understanding.

One of the four Noble Truths says that the origin of suffering is attachment. My understanding of Buddhism is whatever you call understanding before you can call it rudimentary, but this one always bothered me. How do you love and remain unattached? How can learning how not to hold on be a good thing?

For the record, I excel at holding on. My step kids laugh at the way I grip the strap above the passenger door when Fred is driving. I don’t lift my hands in the air on roller coasters (or at least I didn’t back when I used to ride them). I never let go of the handlebars, or even the steering wheel for that matter. In the picture from the Tower of Terror, one of those elevator-dropping rides that I got on accidently, you can barely see me; I’m tucked in behind Fred and holding on. Even when I’m riding the tram to the top of the Sandias, where my biggest fear is that the cable will snap and we’ll plummet to the canyon floor, I hold on to the pole in the middle of the cabin, as though somehow that grip could save me. I’ve got holding on down.

Non-attachment always sounded to me like not caring, like protecting yourself to avoid inevitable suffering. I know how to do that, and for me, learning to be alive in the world has meant un-learning that skill. I had to learn how to love enough to be destroyed by loss, and then, when loss almost destroyed me, I had to learn how to tread water beside it without letting it pull me under. I had to come to grips with the fact that the children I teach can die, and still throw myself on top of them as though every nascent promise will have a chance to blossom.  I have to throw seeds into clayey ground and trust that something beyond my meager gardening skill will help them grow.

It took an Episcopal priest to help me understand this idea of loving without attachment. When the Rector of my church announced his upcoming retirement, I, along with an entire congregation, had several months to come to grips with the impending loss of a wise, compassionate, beloved teacher. Over those months, in sermons each week, he and the other clergy talked about love and grace and leaving.

At first I wanted them to stop. I didn’t want to live in the loss any sooner than I had to. But as they all kept talking, every week, in beautifully crafted sermon after sermon, I felt something in my grip unclenching.

Last Sunday after the final service, I went to a ballet recital. I watched as one of my students led a group of three year olds on stage. A minute or so into the dance, one little tutu’d girl stopped. She didn’t get confused or distracted or scared; today just wasn’t her dancing day. She folded her arms across her white leotard, dug in her white-tighted heels, stuck out her tiny lip, and pouted. Tiny tutu collisions followed as the other girls, their routine disrupted, lost their way on the big stage. My student danced on beautifully, her face relaxed and smiling, her dancing free and joyful.

When I first heard about our Rector’s retirement, I was that little girl in the tutu with my arms crossed. When the time came for our last service together, I was my student, able to keep dancing through a world that wasn’t organized around me.

One summer before I realized I like the idea of gardening more than I like gardening, I planted tomatoes, peppers, basil, thyme, and parsley in some clayey soil that gets too much sun next to a brick wall that radiates heat and cooks the plants all day. (My sister once added sage and rosemary to this mix and called it her Simon and Garfunkel garden.)

The parsley loved it. I put in two plants that year, and they grew bushy and tall, and I ate fresh parsley all summer. I remember those plants vividly because a parsley caterpillar spent July living on one of them. If you haven’t seen a parsley caterpillar, it looks more like something that came out of Pixar than out of creation. My grandson wore a Bee Transformer costume on his fourth birthday, and the parsley caterpillar looked a little bit like that. 1284088532SZTrNi-1

I spend just enough time paying attention to the world that it’s still easy to surprise me. The parsley caterpillar, striped in neon green and black, dotted with bright yellowy-orange spots, would lift his head and wiggle his two bright green horns when I came into the garden to water.  (Ok, I suspect I’m personifying, or at least canine-ifying here, but all I can do is tell you how the world feels to me.) I learned to water gently, so as not to wash him off his stem. Each day I’d peer at the parsley until I spotted him, say good morning, and update him on the dismal state of the other plants in the garden.

The first morning, certain I was experiencing something new on the planet, I did some research and learned that my little (ordinary) worm would grow up to be a black swallowtail. I wondered what he knew about who he was becoming. He didn’t seem concerned. He lazed on the parsley all summer. Back when we shared our house with three aging beagles, my sister described them as “decorations that follow you around.” That’s sort of how I felt about the caterpillar; he was a really cool animated plant decoration.

If you’re a real gardener, you already know how this story ends. One morning I showed up with the hose at my scrawny garden, and the parsley and the parsley caterpillar were gone. Every single leaf had been chewed to the stalk. It hadn’t occurred to me that one day he would leave and take the parsley with him, but it made sense. He’d had to find a new spot to spin himself into his shroud while he transformed. I looked around the garden, but I never found the chrysalis.

Mostly I don’t understand loss. I don’t understand how each loss holds every other loss. I don’t understand how we keep managing to live our way out of it. I don’t understand why sometimes these frail bodies are enough to hold back pain, and sometimes they buckle. For a while I wondered if abundance were about the present, the potential each moment has for bursting into beauty, and loss were about the past and future, and our fear of losing every impermanent thing. That doesn’t really explain it, though. Loss is every bit as present and tangible as joy.

Because my parsley caterpillar went away to cocoon, I missed the moment when the black swallowtail emerged into a new world. I didn’t see him light on the trumpet vine and wait quietly for his wings to dry. I don’t know if he burst out blinking into the sun, or unfolded himself easily into early evening.

1351460677oDGetxMostly I don’t understand loss. All I know is that that summer, the back yard was full of black swallowtails. I loved to watch how gently they brushed the planet. I can see them now as I watch my student dancing; they skip and flutter, they light for a moment on a branch that doesn’t bend, they swoop and hover. All they are is wing and wonder; nothing about them is built for holding on.

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Revelation

Am I really the only one who never realized that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the ABCs are the same song?

I learned this riveting bit of trivia from Hakim Bellamy, Albuquerque’s first Poet Laureate, at a workshop in January. It was a throwaway line, something like, “You know, the same way Twinkle Twinkle…” He wasn’t expecting to reveal truth with that aside, but for me, it eclipsed everything else he had to say.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about these songs since I was five. Twinkle is contemporary music for me. If that idea seems hard to imagine, you probably never had a child who played a string instrument. My granddaughter decided she wanted to play the violin when she saw Celtic Woman on TV. In retrospect, she was still in her princess phase, so maybe she just wanted to wear the sparkly dress, but we’re enthusiastic grandparents, so off we went to violin lessons.

The Suzuki method leaves nothing to chance. There are games for learning to hold the bow, games for naming the parts of the violin, games for getting to violin lessons on time. (Ok, I made that last one up, but there ought to be.)

The first thing that happens when your granddaughter takes up violin is that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star becomes the music of your life. She’ll play the twinkle theme in quarter notes (the way you are used to hearing it), and then she’ll play it in triplets (think twin-twin-twin-kle-kle-kle), which she will understand as “lavender octopus.” She’ll play Twinkle to the rhythm of “fuzzy yellow caterpillar” and to “I practice each morning.” Just last week she started playing it to “I’m [pause] a monkey.” My point is that she will spend some part of each day for the next two or three years (and counting) playing the song I didn’t know was the ABC song.

The second thing that happens when your granddaughter takes up the violin is that you realize she’s having a lot of fun, and you’re just watching. Hence the third thing: you buy a violin and start playing Twinkle Twinkle every day yourself.

I have to admit that I thought it looked easy. I’ve played the piano on and off for a long time—how hard could it be to learn an instrument when you only have to read one clef?

It turns out, there are at least three reasons it’s harder to learn to play violin than piano.

1. The notes on a piano know who they are. If you put your finger on middle C, the 24th white key from the far left of the keyboard, the tone you hear will be, with a high degree of statistical certainty, middle C.

Not so on the violin. You will put your finger in the same unmarked location where you are certain you put it yesterday to play a D, and you are likely to play a D flat (who plays a D flat on purpose?), or a D#, or if you haven’t been practicing enough, you might actually play a C or an E.

2. Learning to play piano, you might have to practice scales in contrary motion (one hand singing do re mi fa…the other do ti la so…), but both hands are doing roughly the same thing in different directions. You do not have to finger a scale in your left hand while your right hand makes unnatural stroking motions with a stick.

3. You do not have to hoist a piano onto your shoulder and hold it in precisely the right place with your chin to play it.

Finally, if my husband or my dog were writing this list and loved me less than they do, they might add that it never actually causes your family physical pain when you practice piano.

So.  All that is to say that I’m quite familiar with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; it’s not an abandoned relic of my childhood.

Which brings me to the ABCs. With five older siblings, I’m sure I knew the alphabet well before first grade, but circa 1970, I (and the forty-four other students who would line up in front of and behind me through eighth grade) marched around Sr. Esther’s room, carrying canes with letters on them. Along the way, we jumped in tires and probably even clapped out beats as we sang the alphabet song. I loved those canes.

I remember 1970 as the year we colored everything yellow and circled words that rhymed. At some point, we also learned to say the alphabet backwards, presumably to make looking up words in the dictionary easier. (I can’t say this skill has ever helped me figure out if equanimity comes before or after erotic on the fly, but it does make it easy to impress teenagers on the first day of class. As does writing your name forwards and backwards at the same time with a marker in each hand, which is really no different than playing a scale in contrary motion, but I digress.)

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve had a love affair with the alphabet since I was a little kid. I used to say periwinkle was my favorite color, just because I liked how it sounded. And when I checked the dictionary just now to make sure periwinkle really is just a fancy way to say purple, I learned it is also a sea snail, which is every bit as much fun to say.

So at some point when I was three or four or five, I learned the song that taught me to cast my wonder onto the stars, and I learned the song that gave me twenty-six tools I could use to explore that wonder.

“How I wonder what you are” still pulls me onto the back deck with my sleeping bag each November to watch the Leonids. “How I wonder what you are” still calls me to my keyboard to explore that mystery, the way Rilke does when he explains life in eleven syllables: “it is alternately stone in you and star.”

When Hakim Bellamy said casually, “You know, the way Twinkle Twinkle and the ABCs are the same song,” what I heard was, “in the beginning was the word,” or, in the words of my old teacher, John Dunne, “if it all means the same thing, it means God.”

Back when I was first learning to sing to the stars and to love the world with letters, I had to leave for the bus stop when the trolley came for the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Today, I have to stop writing and get ready for work when I hear my neighbor’s garage door open.

Before I turn off my desk lamp, a little pool of light illuminates my hands, spidering over my laptop. The backs are flat and my fingers curl gently toward the keys. If I were to put pennies on them while I type, an old piano trick for practicing scales, they wouldn’t fall off. If the moonlight caught me just then and you looked in the door, you wouldn’t be able to tell if I were playing at a Bach Invention or playing at salvation.

Click here to read Rilke’s poem Evening  

  Click here to get to know Hakim Bellamy

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Company

One Wednesday evening last fall, I found myself sautéing sage leaves. I can’t claim to do this with any regularity; my October Bon Appetit just happened to show up as I was trying to decide what to cook for my relatives, who would be getting off a plane at ten-thirty that night. I was looking for food that would satisfy them if they hadn’t had a decent meal since Pittsburgh, that would say “I’m so glad you’re here!” and that wouldn’t reproach them if all they really wanted to do was say goodnight and go to bed. Who wouldn’t fry sage leaves in that situation? By the time I left for the airport I had chilled the champagne and done everything but drizzle the butternut squash tart with the Serrano pepper honey simmering on the stove.

As they came toward me through security, the gate agent was pushing Uncle Don (at 87, my last living uncle on my mother’s side) in a wheelchair. He was wearing his Marines Semper Fi baseball cap and talking to the agent. My cousin Tommy (proud bearer of the title of oldest cousin on my dad’s side) was pushing Uncle Don’s fancy red walker, wheeling his own suitcase, and almost succeeding at balancing Uncle Don’s little blue suitcase on the seat of the walker. Uncle Larry (last living uncle on my father’s side and newly retired from the priesthood) and my brother Paul were carrying, dragging, and balancing the rest of the luggage. All of them looked like they might be rethinking that decision not to check the bags.

That was the last moment anyone looked back on. It was a magical five days, the kind of visit you always imagine having until your real company has replaced their fantasy doubles, set their glasses down without coasters, left the gate open to let the dog run away, and failed to be duly impressed with the view of the mountains from your backyard.  This company wasn’t like that. (And if you have ever stayed at my house, rest assured that I’m not talking about you.)

That first night, we didn’t get to bed until four; it was as if we’d all agreed to wring every last bit of life out of these few days together.  Thursday night I baked a six-layer cake I’d found in that same issue of Bon Appetit. Nine eggs and fourteen squares of dark chocolate later (this was a serious cake), we were singing happy birthday to Uncle Don, as he turned eighty-eight. “You know,” he said, “you live alone for so long, and then people do something like this for you, it just makes you want to weep.”

Mine looked almost like this.
Mine looked almost like this.

Saturday morning I make pancakes (plain old Bisquick and blueberries now that we’ve reached day three) shaped like sixty-fives to celebrate Tommy’s birthday. My husband takes Uncle Don to the casino so he can play bingo, and the rest of us launch into another day of sightseeing. When we meet for dinner later, Uncle Don raves about the two (“not one, but two!”) hotdogs he ate at Wienerschnitzel and slyly shows me the bingo markers he has slipped into the trunk of his walker for the ladies in his “harem” back home.

I forget to warn my relatives not to make eye contact with the mariachis, so soon an orange-haired woman and her husband, who met fifty years ago in their church choir, are serenading us. They sing happy birthday and Una Paloma Blanca, and we’re all fast friends by the time the check comes.

I’m still singing about that white dove flying up to the sun as we walk out of the restaurant and see fireworks exploding in the east against the Sandias. We sit down on a bench in front of the restaurant like we’re sitting on the front porch on Marvle Valley Drive (and I won’t change that to “Marvel” just to make spell-check happy, because that street was misspelled my whole life, and I’m trying to tell the truth here). We watch until the last flare fades.

No one feels like going to bed when we get home, so we turn the Notre Dame game on, play some pinochle, and listen to Uncle Don tell stories about how he met Aunt Ann. For some reason we start googling our birth years. Uncle Don was born in 1924, the Year of the Rat; 1955 puts Paul in the Year of the Sheep.  For some reason we find this hilarious. Sometime after midnight we talk about how fast the days are going and call it a night. In bed my husband and I marvel (there, spell-check, happy now?) at how these days are glowing so richly by.

Sunday morning the sky is full of hot air balloons, and I’m trying to decide if I should wake everyone up to see them. The coffee’s ready, and the last thing I expect Paul to say when he comes out of the guest room is “I think Uncle Don is dead.”

But that’s exactly what he says.

I could tell you a lot more about this story; I could explain how the police came and Uncle Larry said last rites and I cooked a pot roast and we all moved into that shimmery borderland you walk in when death reminds you that it’s been there breathing beside you all along.

I could tell you about Uncle Larry’s Christmas card this year, in which he said he’d love to visit again, “with a slight adjustment being that all who arrive together will depart breathing.” I could tell you about Uncle Don’s comment, earlier in the week he died, that some nights he would lie in bed alone and say, “Ok, God, why don’t you take me now, I’m ready,” and how sure I am that he said that prayer that night in my guest room.

I could tell you about all the jokes we make now about the thorough vacation experience available at my house, and about how happy everyone is that Uncle Don died here, surrounded by family, at peace in his sleep after a day that included mariachis, bingo, pinochle, fireworks, and hotdogs.

I could tell you about the envelope the funeral home sent me, full of left-over laminated flag bookmarks with Uncle Don’s obituary on them, and the mass cards bearing the dates October 4, 1924-October 7, 2012, along with the complete text of The Halls of Montezuma, but I’ve said way too much already.

It’s a short story, really.

It’s the one I told the people whose names I found in his address book and called that Sunday morning: Uncle Don came to visit, had a great time, and died.

In her poem “Train Ride,” Ruth Stone writes, “All things come to an end. No, they go on forever.” The lines repeat throughout the poem, and you can feel the train jogging along through the music. I used to think the poem was arguing with itself, trying to decide what kind of a world we live in, what kind of lives we live.

I don’t think that anymore. Monday afternoon I drive my last living uncle, my cousin, and my brother back to the airport. I watch as planes pull away from the planet. I know that when Ruth Stone (who didn’t publish her first book of poems until she was sixty) says, “All things come to an end. No they go forever” she’s not arguing with anyone. She’s just telling all the truth there is to tell about the world.

 

 

 

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