When people say, “Why are you moving to Florida?” I don’t have an easy answer. A job? Not really. Retirement? Not that either. An ocean, I want to say, and the color green outside my windows. The weight of the air at sea level. Tall birds.
A few facts and figures:
Albuquerque, New Mexico sits 35.0844 degrees North of the equator; Vero Beach, Florida: 27.6386. I’m moving closer to the fat middle of the planet, a more direct view of the sun.
I’m also moving closer to Greenwich, England (Albuquerque latitude: 106.6504 West, Vero Beach: 80.3873 W). From oldest to youngest, my siblings live at 79.9959, 70.8606, and 82.5863. In other words, we’ll all be in the same time zone now.
I’m also moving a little further from the sky. Depending on where you measure, Albuquerque, NM sits at an altitude of 5,312 feet. My new town clocks in at 13. Maybe I’m moving to Florida because it has a little more oxygen in the air.
I’m moving to Florida
because living in Albuquerque for thirty years was an accident. I moved here when I was twenty-four because I thought it would be fun to see the Southwest. The woman sitting next to me on the plane said, “If you wear out a pair of shoes, you’ll never leave.”
For thirty years she was right. I don’t have any of those Chicago shoes left in my closet. (Technically speaking, right now I don’t actually have a closet at all, but let’s not get hung up on that.)
When I say spending thirty years in Albuquerque was an accident, you shouldn’t think about a house fire or a car crash. You should think of a wrong turn that leads to the best strawberry shortcake you’ve ever had, or heavy traffic heading west on Montano that puts you in the right place to see the cranes fly in. You should think of a flat tire that strands you by the side of the road so you could see a murmuration of birds at play in thin air. Or the kind of accident where you fall in love and find a family and a new job and a great church and great friends and mountains and roadrunners and green chile and tumbleweed.
Living in Albuquerque for thirty years has been that kind of accident.
I’m moving to Florida
I’m moving to Florida
because when we were driving around looking at houses, I kept chanting in my head, “Rivers, Lake, Mountains, Ocean.” I was writing my autobiography, mapping the geography of my life. From Pittsburgh through Chicago to Albuquerque to Vero Beach. From the place the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers flow into the Ohio, to the icy rocks along Lake Michigan, to the high desert slopes of the Sandias, to this long stretch of sand flanking the Atlantic.
It’s as though I need to make sure I have all of the words. “Ask what I want, and I will sing: I want everything, everything”–some old Barbra Streisand song that’s been stuck in my head since high school.
There are other reasons.
Some ties had to loosen enough to let me go. Some ties had to grow so strong that I could leave without fear of them ever breaking. Some pieces of this landscape had to lodge themselves so deeply in me that I will always be able to see them, the way I can still see the sunset spreading through the cherry branches from the back window of the house on Marvle Valley.
Only then, it seems to me, when you’ve loved a place and its people so deeply that it hurts like a goathead to say goodbye, only then are you allowed to put on some brand new shoes and walk away.
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[What follows is the text of the sermon I delivered this morning at St. Michael and All Angels on the text of Mark 7. I’ll be back next week with a more typical blog.]
To be fair to Fr. Joe, every time I have preached he has asked me if I’d like to look at the scriptures for the upcoming weeks and choose a date. Every time, I have told him no, that I would be happy to speak on whatever date was convenient. Which is true. The opportunity to stand here and share my words with all of you is an incredible gift. But that’s not the only reason I have refrained from choosing: I have found it to be a powerful spiritual practice to grapple with the gospel of the day, however hard that sometimes is.
Which brings me smack into today. You heard what Jesus said. The Syro-Phoenician woman begs Jesus for help, and he says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The first time I read this gospel having, remember, already agreed to preach on it, I slammed my laptop shut and said, “Are you kidding me?” There was one other word in that sentence, but I don’t think I should tell you what it was.
The second time I read the gospel, I decided I would just avoid that part. After all, there’s a lovely healing of a deaf man in the second paragraph. Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears and says Ephphatha, or “be opened”—surely there is enough metaphorical content in those two words to hang a sermon on.
The third time I read the gospel, I knew I couldn’t preach on anything if I couldn’t preach on Jesus’s reaction to this desperate woman who begs him to cast a demon from her daughter.
We are not living in times when we have the luxury to hear a man call another human being a dog and pretend we didn’t hear it.
My next step
was to start re-reading the gospel of Mark from the beginning. Surely, I thought, I’ll find something there that helps me understand. In the first six chapters of Mark, I counted seven specific healing stories: Jesus cures a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, Simon’s mother-in-law who has a simple fever (there the text seems to suggest that they were hungry, and they needed her to be well so she could feed them), a demoniac, a leper, a woman who touches his cloak, and the daughter of Jairus.
And those are just the people who are named. In Mark 1, the “whole city” comes and gets cured; in chapter 3, we hear that he had “cured many,” and even in Nazareth, his home town where they don’t believe, he “lays his hands on a few sick people and cures them.” By the end of chapter six, even the disciples have started healing people.
Do you see what I’m getting at? In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is a veritable Oprah of healing. You get a cure, and you get a cure, and you get a cure!
And then, the Syro-Phoenician woman
comes to him because her “little daughter”—Mark calls her that—her “little daughter” needs to be healed. And Jesus, seeming to refuse, says to her, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
I did some research to see what other people have said about this gospel. One writer suggested that the Greek word was closer to “puppy,” than dog, and somehow (I don’t remember the details of the argument) that was supposed to make it all better. Another emphasizes the fact that Jesus did, after all, come specifically for the Jews. Still others focus on the woman’s faith, and suggest that Jesus was simply testing her and had planned to help her all along.
In another era, I might have bought one of those explanations. Today, though, living right here in this particular time and place, that rationalization feels irresponsible. It is too easy to say, “Well, what Jesus meant when he said x was y.” or “By suggesting that healing her daughter would be throwing crumbs to a dog he wasn’t actually calling her a dog….” But I can’t do that. In these times, it feels particularly important to hold people to account for the words they actually say.
I found myself at that now-familiar moment, wishing I had opted to read ahead and choose a different Sunday.
I went back to the story.
The gospel tells us that Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” As I said before, Jesus had been very busy curing people. For this one moment, he wants to be alone. He’s longing for solitude. He wants to recharge, to rest, perhaps to pray. We’ve all had that moment.
And then one more hurting person barges in, demanding that he help.
In my idealized version of Jesus, he has infinite energy and infinite patience, and he leaps at the chance to give up an evening on the couch with his feet up to help this woman.
But we tell ourselves we believe that Jesus is truly human and truly god.
I think Jesus just snaps.
I think he has a “truly human” moment. He says something awful that he clearly doesn’t mean and quickly makes right.
I don’t know why the gospel writer chose to tell this story, but I think it shows how hard it is–for anyone–to love relentlessly in a broken world. I think it shows that even the best of us inhale the stereotypes and slurs and the fears of “the other” that swirl around us every day.
A few Thursday nights ago,
four of us were walking out of choir practice together when a woman popped out of the bushes at the East end of the parking lot.
“Hello?” She called. “Hello? Can you help me?”
I can’t speak for my fellow travelers, but my initial reaction was to hope that one of them would answer her. She had sprained her ankle, she said, walking to the gas station to get a coke. She needed a ride home. She had one of those voices that suggested a hard life, a life quite different than my own.
I am nothing if not well-trained in distrusting “the other.” I didn’t believe for a second that she had sprained her ankle. I looked at this small, old-ish, utterly non-threatening woman with her large bag and wondered if she had a knife in it, or maybe a gun. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for helping people within the friendly confines of the church or in a time and place neatly designated for “serving the poor,” but this was a voice in the bushes in the night, and, almost as a rule, I fear those voices.
I think Jesus was tired,
and he snapped at the woman in words that came straight out of the world he lived in. If I’m honest, perhaps it is at precisely this moment when I can see myself most clearly in Jesus.
But, of course, that’s not the end of the story. The woman doesn’t go away, leaving Jesus alone for a long night of wishing he had treated her better. She has heard the stories. She knows who Jesus is. The gospel says she “bowed down at his feet” (you might even say she took a knee) and demanded better treatment. She said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
As one of my grandkids might say, “BAM.” She demanded that Jesus behave as the best version of himself. She demanded that he live up to his own teachings. She held a mirror up to his words and gave him the chance to do better. The Syro-Phoenician woman, it turns out, is the person who taught me not to run away from this hard story.
my choir friends and I got it right in the end. We gave the woman who popped out of the bushes a ride home, and it turned out that her house was right on our way, and she didn’t have a knife or a gun in that big purse, or if she did, she decided not to pull them out to use them on us. “God bless you,” she must have said half a dozen times as she got out of the car. The irony was not lost on me.
So. I began by saying that grappling with hard scripture was a valuable spiritual practice, so it’s fair to ask where all of this grappling has gotten us.
Today’s gospel, I think, teaches us that it is hard, even for Jesus, to live in this world as a child of God. Every day we inhale air polluted by racism, misogyny, and the fear of the other. Not even Jesus, truly man and truly God, could remain entirely free from its influence.
I find that comforting.
We come together today, arm in arm with Jesus, as a people in need of healing. The Syro-Phoenician woman teaches us how to live as people of faith in a world that gets it wrong. She reminds us to speak the truth, to demand that our leaders and our institutions and even our God live up to the best versions of themselves.
On this healing Sunday, she reminds us to ask God boldly for what we need. She reminds us that the love of even a weary God is abundant, that even the crumbs have the power to heal.
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It’s Wednesday afternoon. I’m pulling out of the Standard Diner parking lot after having lunch with Emily, one of my favorite millennials. I’m replaying our conversation in my head, hoping I didn’t say anything stupid that she might mistake as wise. (It’s a job hazard. All these years of teaching and blogging lend me a confident tone that tricks people into thinking I know what I’m talking about. Sometimes I even trick myself.)
We’re eating Parmesan truffle fries while Emily fills me in on what she’s been up to. At twenty-two, she has graduated from college and is killing it at her job in a local law firm. Not surprisingly, they love her and want to mentor her into their world. Emily would be a great lawyer; she has a solid core, an expansive heart, and a discerning intellect.
Emily is thinking about law school,
but she’s not sure. Because she’s Emily, having a full time job after college isn’t quite enough; she has also been studying to get a real estate license. And who knows? Maybe someday she’ll pursue a different dream and run her own kindergarten. I can imagine her succeeding in any (all!) of these worlds.
“Nobody tells you your twenties will be hard,” Emily says, as our meals come.
I think she’s right about that, and I’m wondering why we keep teaching young people that there’s only one path, and that it’s their job to leap onto it and make all the right turns, as if life is a series of subway stops leading to a career, instead of a stream, singing through a mysterious forest.
Someone told me that Ray Bradbury said one should “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” I could have told Emily that, too.
Or, I could have just said
“It’s all journey.” If I were actually wise, I might have told Emily about the time I couldn’t decide if I should quit Quodlibet, an acapella choir I sang in for a while. It was during that hard time when I used to drive across the bridge to see Sr. Therapist on Monday afternoons.
I’m sure cranes were grazing in the fields and geese were hurrying each other along overhead. The Rio Grande was low, and I probably said a quick prayer as I passed the overlook where we tossed the flowers into the water.
“I can’t decide what to do,” I told Sr. Therapist that day. “And I feel stupid talking about it, because it’s such a mundane decision.” Quodlibet met for a few hours every Sunday evening, and I found the music challenging. My days were stretching at the seams and I knew something had to give.
At some point, Sr. Therapist looked at me and said, “By saying yes to continuing with this group, what are you saying no to?”
Bam. It’s a question that has served me well ever since. Every yes comes with a rich bouquet of implied nos. Tease those out, I learned, and decisions become much simpler. I should have told Emily to ask herself what she would be saying no to.
I should have quoted Wendell Berry. In “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” Berry writes, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”
A few days after my lunch with Emily I was still packing up my house and thinking about my own crazy journey when Fred and I took our favorite ninety-five year-old out to dinner. We’re eating manicotti at Caruso’s on Menaul when Marge informs me that I am now her daughter-in-law because she has decided to claim Fred as her fourth son.
Marge’s journey began in 1923 on a ranch in Wyoming. She married an oil prospector who died too soon to see his own success, raised three sons, and became a successful artist.
At 95, Marge is wise enough not to go around trying to give people advice. At 54, I’m not. Here’s the advice Marge’s life is giving me.
You are never too old to buy a big new house and throw a party. When Fred and I decided to sell our house, Marge decided she wanted to buy it. At fifty-four, I’m downsizing; Marge is upsizing at ninety-five. The party is in early September.
2. Stay in touch with your friends. When we picked Marge up for dinner she was playing cards with a friend. As we left Caruso’s, she stopped to talk to another old friend. A few weeks ago when we took her to the credit union, she ran into someone else she knew. Don’t believe what you hear about your circle shrinking as you get older.
3. Ask for what you need. On the way home, Marge lets us know she needs to stop at the vet. She tells the vet that Wendy (her dachshund) is afraid of storms. The vet gives her some pills and tells her to give the dog a half a pill when she sees a storm coming.
4. Drug the dog if you have to. When we get to Marge’s house, she looks at the clear blue sky and winks at me. “Looks like a storm is coming,” she says. Fred slips Wendy’s pill into a piece of hotdog so Marge can finally get a good night’s sleep.
I think I’m trying to say
that it’s not about the destination. There’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein said. People keep asking me why I’m moving “to Florida,” as though that little prepositional phrase is the important part of the question. I have trouble answering that question. But ask me why I’m moving, and I can tell you that I grew tired of standing still; that it’s more tiring to tread water than to swim.
It’s all journey. Wendell Berry said, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
These days I’m celebrating Marge and Emily and that singing stream. I’m grateful for the cliff edge as it falls fast away behind us. These wild things we call our lives are streaming out all around us and not one of us is alone. You can hear it in the whistle of the wind–the voices of so many friends, helping us build our wings on the way down.
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It’s any Tuesday afternoon in June and I’m at the pool at the gym with the grandkids. “How do you do that?” Cali asks after I swim a few strokes, and I’m confused. All of their other grandparents have pools in their backyards; these kids have been swimming forever.
“Go under water without holding your nose,” Cali explains, in answer to the confused look on my face. The oldest, she’ll be a sophomore this year. The other two, a rising freshman and rising seventh grader, move in, curious to hear the answer.
It’s like that moment
in the classroom when a student asks a basic question about something you’ve “just known” forever; I have no idea why I don’t get water up my nose while I’m swimming. I go under water and take a few more strokes, trying to notice what I’m doing.
“I blow bubbles,” I tell them, and we head to the edge of the pool. Some buried childhood memory of holding onto the edge and bobbing is surfacing, and I try to explain how it works. I’m doing a bad job, and they aren’t buying it.
And then, in exactly the way my life has been going since this past March, a swimming teacher appears by the side of the pool. She suggests they hum. That does it, and after a little more coaching from the generous swim teacher, they are blowing bubbles and experimenting. Their hands, newly freed from nostril-pinching duty, are free to wave about in moves that resemble swimming.
Let me step back
for a moment to make sure I’ve made this clear. I was trying to teach the kids to swim, and a swim teacher appeared at the side of the pool.
Moments exactly like this one have been flooding my life for the past four months. I don’t mean to suggest that my life wasn’t already blessed before we decided to yank ourselves up by the roots and drive across two time zones; it’s just that, lately, the blessings have been remarkably specific, obvious, and well-timed.
It has been wondrous and just a little bit scary.
And of course, my gift of near daily small miracles stands in stark contrast to how life has been going for so many other people. When I started this essay, twelve little boys were stuck in a watery cave and immigrant children were being separated from their parents. While my essay languished, neglected as I focused on packing, a duck boat capsized in Branson, record high temperatures and flooding ravaged Japan, and fire tornados raced across California.
All over the world people are suffering, and if I so much as need a swim teacher, one appears.
I’m not sure
what to make of that phenomenon yet, so I’ll just let you know what else has been happening. On Friday, the movers came and whisked our furniture off to a warehouse in Austin, where it will live for the next few months while we gradually wend our way east. They were gentle with our things and left us feeling fairly confident that we’ll see them again.
On Saturday, we took the grandkids back-to-school shopping. Big mistake. School starts a week from tomorrow, it was tax-free weekend, and everyone who lives in Albuquerque plus most of the people in Grants and Roswell and Tucumcari were at Coronado Mall. Lines for fitting rooms and check-out counters snaked around end-caps overloaded with backpacks, t-shirts, and pencil cases.
I should admit that I made that last one up. I didn’t see a single pencil case, but I feel like I should have. There’s nothing like a new pencil case full of freshly sharpened #2 Ticonderoga pencils to get the school year off to a good start.
Luke, who does not love shopping with his big sisters, found a bunch of things in the first few minutes. The rest of us decided to skip the crowds and try again later in the week.
So, that’s the latest installment
in How I Spent My Summer Vacation. After that whole month of not writing, you might think I’d come back with essays that are less prosaic, more moving, and brimming with pent-up wisdom, but I’m going to have to disappoint you. This whole cross country move seems to be grounding me in the literal.
There’s just this one thing. When we picked the grandkids up on Saturday morning, Aurora’s hair was purple and Cali was wearing a t-shirt I’ve never seen before. “Everything is grace,” the shirt said.
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Shredder, lamp bases, frogs. That’s my favorite of the 151 labels I’ve written on boxes since I started packing back in June. For the last two months, I’ve been running up and down the stairs, lifting, sorting, tossing, carrying, wrapping, weighing, taping, and stacking every single thing my husband and I own.
Rusty has been watching me with his head tilted to the side. He is worried that I might pick him up, wrap him in newspaper, and throw him in a box labeled winter coats, wine chiller, dog. (And if you want to know why a person moving to Florida would have a box labeled winter coats in the first place, you are already beginning to understand what this process has been like for me.)
Rusty’s distress aside, I’m now happy to report that the movers will be here in a few days, and we are ready. I hadn’t planned to stop posting essays while I packed, but once packing was underway, I couldn’t sit still long enough to complete anything that wasn’t going to end up swaddled in cardboard.
I like to think I was just listening to my old friend Rilke. He says, “You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines.”
I don’t know if I’ll pull off ten good lines here, but I do feel like I have been packing for a whole lifetime. Perhaps I’ve even gained a little sense and sweetness. Here is what I’ve learned while my blog was dark.
ONE: I can only be single-minded about one thing at a time.
What’s that thing that’s the opposite of an oxymoron called again? Oh, right, a tautology. That heading I just wrote fits perfectly, because the term single-minded already means one thing. But believe me, it takes more than a tight tautology to convince me that I can’t finish a paid writing project, prepare two Sunday’s worth of music to play in public, write a guest post for another blog, and keep posting on my own blog while I single-mindedly stuff 3,500 hundred square feet of house into 151 cardboard containers.
Nope, what it takes is exhaustion, sore feet, sore hands, a few tears, and a few dozen eye-rolls from Fred. Things got better when I realized I could just stop doing everything else for a while. (I offer this as a cautionary tale–if you are like me, you will conclude that unlike me, you have what it takes to pull off doing everything at once. To you I say, “Hello, kindred spirit.” We can talk again when you reach the other side.)
Two: I should have been great at Tetris.
Remember Tetris? All those little Ls and Ts and squares fall from the sky, and your job is to stack them into a perfectly filled-in wall. My step-daughter is great at it. No amount of practice could make me good at that game. I just played for free online and confirmed that I’m still terrible at it.
And yet, if I do say so myself, I am a ninja when it comes to packing. That tiny empty space at the top of the box of kitchen bowls? It would be the perfect size for my mother’s old music box. That square wooden Cathy’s Kitchen sign (my mother’s again)? That will fit perfectly to reinforce the bottom of the box with the pots and pans. In perhaps my finest ninja moment, I emptied the third roll of packing tape and realized that the cardboard ring inside would perfectly protect the little glass globe my parents brought from Italy.
Don’t even get me started on tearing off the perfect size piece of bubble wrap for every picture. I’m telling you, if this writing gig doesn’t pan out, I’ve got options.
To be fair, I should mention that Fred has a ninja packing skill of his own. He can smell an empty cardboard box from three streets away, and charm grocery stockers, gutter shop owners, and my favorite winery into passing them along. Of those 151 boxes, I think we paid for three.
Three: The gap between what I have and what I need is immense.
I probably should say obscene, but being that honest might compel me to take more action than I’m ready to take. Ever since I packed up the kitchen, we’ve been living just fine with one skillet, one 2-quart pot for boiling water, and one French press coffee pot. If you look in the boxes you’ll find something like twenty-two pots and skillets. (I didn’t count them, but I’m not exaggerating and I’m a little afraid that I might be undercounting.)
And for the record, I found that barely used French press tucked deep in a cabinet behind some dried out bandaids as I fretted about packing my real coffee pot, the one that grinds the beans and has my coffee ready for me when I wake up in the morning.
I could go on and on: clothes, shoes, books, vases, tools, even underwear. I have too much of all of them. It’s sobering to pile up all the evidence of your excess in boxes in the living room. One night I was talking to my sister and Clare told me that she came to this same realization when she was packing for her own recent move. She said she found herself crying at the size of the job, until she realized that it was ridiculous to be crying because she had too much.
While I haven’t gotten rid of anywhere near as much as I should have, Clare’s words have helped me keep this work in perspective.
Four: One thing empties another.
I started packing the same way I start every big task. I made a giant list of every area in the house I’d need to pack. It included things like “upstairs hall closet, loft, upstairs master bedroom, closet under the stairs, china cabinet, bookshelves…” and so on.
I love lists. I’m one of those people who adds things to my to-do list after I’ve completed them just so I can enjoy the satisfaction of crossing them off. This list, though, wasn’t working. For weeks and weeks, I couldn’t cross anything off. I’d start emptying the hall closet, and before I knew it, I was running to my bedroom for a sweatshirt to wrap around a tennis racket. I’d find myself needing some stuffing to keep the mugs from rattling around, so I’d head to my sock drawer. Towels dribbled out of linen closets; shoes and plastic hangers filled gaps in boxes of lamp bases and tools.
I kept complaining to friends and family that everything was in process and nothing was getting done.
Then one day, Fred and I walked around the house opening closets and tugging on drawers, and there wasn’t anything in them. Somehow we’d packed up the house without ever crossing anything off the list.
One thing empties another. I feel like there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Five: Packing tricks you into thinking you can take it with you.
One gentle Tuesday a few weeks ago, my packing had a sound track. Aurora, the violin-playing-gymnast grandchild, is learning to play guitar. She doesn’t learn a new instrument the way I would, by buying books and obsessing over understanding every little detail.
“What are the notes for each string?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she shrugs. She’s just learning to play one song, gently, beautifully, confidently. This morning she plays the first eight bars of “Here Comes the Sun” over and over again while I pull plates and bowls out of kitchen cabinets, wrap them in newspapers, and seal them into cardboard boxes.
It’s a gentle morning, and Aurora’s playing is light and lovely. She and I have been playing music together since she was a tiny kid who wouldn’t talk and wanted violin lessons. In a few minutes we’ll both stop and slice some strawberries for lunch. In a few weeks, she’ll start high school. She is on a mission to finish in three years. In a few months, I’ll move.
Right now, though, I’m savoring this moment standing in the kitchen. I’m not thinking about where either of us is headed tomorrow. “Here comes the sun,” the music sings again and again.
I keep wrapping plates, surprised by how easy it is to believe.
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My oldest granddaughter is learning to drive. She fiddles with the levers under the seat to adjust it just so and backs out of the driveway. Her shoulders are up around her ears, and I have to coax her to relax a little.
Her eyes are glued to the pavement right in front of her. I encourage her to sweep the road with her eyes, to glance in the rearview mirror. It’s as though she is somehow paralyzed and in motion at the same time.
When I was learning to drive
someone told me to “Aim High in Steering.” It must have been a heading in the Pennsylvania Drivers’ Manual, because it’s been running through my head like a chapter heading ever since Cali first got behind the wheel of my Subaru a few weeks ago.
Today she wants a bigger challenge, so we head down Golf Course and hang a right on Montano. We’re heading for Unser, where the road cuts through the petroglyphs and intersects the far west stretch of Paseo del Norte.
The road opens out as we cruise past the volcanoes and the Double Eagle airport. The city falls away to the east, and if you aim high in steering, all you see is desert road unravelling before you. Cali takes the curves gently and doesn’t panic as impatient drivers zoom by on her left.
I’m usually a nervous passenger,
but for some reason, I channel utter zen cool when someone is learning to drive. My step-daughter still jokes that when I taught her, I would say, in a matter-of-fact tone, things like, “You might want to tap the brakes now before that semi flattens us.”
I can’t explain it, but nothing Cali does really throws me. She’s doing fine, other than the fact that she doesn’t quite get the idea of stopping gradually as you come to an intersection. (“You might want to brake sometime soon,” I say a few times.) I don’t even flinch when we hang a left and she turns into the oncoming traffic instead of the right lane. “Go to the right,” I say a few times, and she does. We don’t even have to hop the median.
My point is that while she’s cruising the desert, I have time to think about aiming high in steering. If I remember my Drivers’ Ed right, I think the idea is to pay attention to what’s happening up ahead, to lift your gaze beyond what’s right in front of you so you can anticipate problems before they happen.
It might be the advice Cali needs as she stares straight ahead, but for some reason I haven’t passed on this particular nugget yet. (“Ease off the gas when you see brake lights,” and “If there’s a ball rolling into the road, there will be a child”–these are the ones I’ve told her.)
so lizards are skittering up the back wall and the roses need a good dead-heading. Cali pulled uneventfully into the driveway after chalking up another hour and a half in her driving log, and I’m still chewing on”Aim High in Steering.”
Is it the opposite of living in the moment? Usually when I hear kids planning out their whole future, I cringe a little. I know teachers are supposed to be in favor of setting goals, but so much of what teenagers are planning comes from other people’s goals and expectations for them.
Most of them haven’t found that thing that makes them vibrate yet; or, if they have, too often they have to set it aside to jump through all the other hoops we put in front of them and call school.
Live now, I tell them. You’ll figure it out. Life will ask you questions and you’ll build a life by answering them.
come October I won’t live here anymore. I yanked my gaze out of the present, and now I’m learning to drive into a different life. When I first made this decision, a friend told me that “the universe rewards boldness.”
It sounded encouraging, but I didn’t know what she meant until it started happening. Barriers, stress points, uncertainties–all those things are just evaporating. I’m aiming high in steering, and friends keep running out into the road ahead to clear the way.
This afternoon when I was trying to figure out where this post was going, I pulled The Art of Possibility off my shelf. In Chapter 8, “Giving Way to Passion,” the Zanders quote Martha Graham. She says, “There is a vitality, a life force…that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it…it will be lost.”
There’s a lesson there,
I think. Once upon a time, a Buddhist nun asked me to wash some special glasses. They had belonged to her parents, she told me. I washed them carefully, dipping them in the soapy water one at a time. As I placed the last one in the drying rack on the counter, I missed the peg, and it shattered on the tile floor.
I felt terrible, knowing that the glass was important to her. When I told her what had happened, though, she said, “It is the nature of glass to break.”
Back in January before I threw my whole life up into the air, I wrote, “It’s madness not to be who you are.” What I didn’t know then is that when you step deeply into who you are, into your unique nature, you step into energy, into Graham’s “life force.” It turns out, that force has (is?) a momentum all its own.
So that’s what I know as June warms up the lizards on the back wall. Cali is about eight hours into her life as a driver. Next time we go out, I think I’ll tell her to aim high in steering.
Right now, though, the rose bush is shouting for attention, so I’ll stop here. I’ve got to get out the clippers and make way for some new things to bloom.
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[This week, I’m posting a sermon I delivered at St. Michael and All Angels. Back to regular posts next week!]
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How many times have I said those words and made that gesture without thinking about it?
When Father Joe asked me to preach today, his email included this note, “Fair warning,” he said. “It’s Trinity Sunday.” To be honest, at first I didn’t really know why he was warning me. I guess I’ve never paid much attention to the feast of the Trinity.
So, I did what I often do when I’m confronted with mystery. I fired up my laptop and typed “preaching on Trinity Sunday” into google. I found things like “Dear Priests: The Top Five Heresies to Avoid This Trinity Sunday”; or this one: “It’s Heresy Sunday: Don’t Fall for the Trap”; and my favorite: “Tweeting Trinity: Because Heresy is Meh,” which unfolded as a series of 66 tweets. We’ll come back to #61 later.
I was starting to understand Father Joe’s warning,
so I made a snap decision. We’re not going to talk about the Trinity today. I’m going to leave deepening our understanding of the triune nature of God to the professionals.
Instead, I want to talk about Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus in today’s gospel. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. The Jewish Virtual Library describes the Pharisees as “blue collar Jews” who are the “spiritual fathers of modern Judaism.”
Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night,” presumably to avoid being seen. He starts the conversation with what seems to me to be an unequivocal declaration of faith. “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” he says. That’s his going in position: knowledge–not suspicion, not curiosity, not hope. “We know,” Nicodemus says. “No one could do what you do without the presence of God.” Of course, he doesn’t say that Jesus is “the son of God,” but if I get sidetracked by that technicality, we might end up talking about the Trinity, and we’re not going to do that today. Suffice it to say that Nicodemus knows that Jesus has come from God.
The last thing Nicodemus says is “How can these things be?” I have been thinking that living in the space between those two comments— “we know that you are of God,” and “how can these things be?” — might define our lives as Christians. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
It occurs to me that to call ourselves Christians
is to do exactly that: to declare our willingness to sit with mystery.
In between those two statements by Nicodemus, Jesus says a lot of important and famous things. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” and “no one can enter the kingdom without being born of water and the spirit.”
We know that Nicodemus is “astonished” by these words, because Jesus says to him, “Do not be astonished.”
But let’s leave Nicodemus with his jaw hanging open in astonishment for just a moment. I want to tell you about the butterflies. Not just any butterflies, but a few dozen specific butterflies hanging from the eaves at Bosque School about two weeks ago. On Wednesday morning, they began to emerge from their chrysalides. We watched in awe as each chrysalis first opened, as a new creature stepped gingerly into the world. They hung there for hours. While we watched, each butterfly unfurled one wing at a time, then the two wings would start to spread apart and stretch open. Finally, early that afternoon, the first butterfly stepped off the overhang and flew.
I couldn’t stop thinking about them. These beautiful creatures, (Cathy Bailey came by and told us they were mourning cloaks) have been here before. What I was witnessing wasn’t their first birth. They knew the earth first as something to crawl upon and now they know it as something to soar over. Maybe that’s what it’s like to be born from above, to be born of the holy spirit.
But we are not talking about the Trinity this morning.
Let’s get back to Nicodemus. In this country, we love to evaluate teachers. In that spirit, when Jesus turns to Nicodemus and says, “Aren’t you a teacher of Israel? I can’t believe you don’t understand this,” one might conclude that this wasn’t Jesus’ finest teaching moment.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if Jesus had said something like, “Oh, I see these metaphors aren’t working for you. Let me lay it out more simply”?
But far be it be from me, a person who is afraid to talk about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday, to rewrite Jesus’s lines for him. Instead, Jesus doubles down on the figurative language. He says,
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
In other words, be willing to sit with the mystery.
The wonder I felt that Wednesday morning
watching the butterflies emerge and soar lasted exactly forty-eight hours. Friday morning, at work at Bosque again, the chrysalides were hanging empty from the eaves, and I started getting texts from my husband. Sadly, you probably know where I am going with this. The names of the cities are starting to blur. That morning, it was Santa Fe, Texas where an angry young white man showed up at his school and started shooting. Two days ago, just before I left my house to attend a joyous graduation ceremony at Bosque, a seventh grade boy in Noblesville, Indiana, started shooting his classmates.
I find myself standing here before Jesus, among all of you, friends and fellow believers, and all I have are the words of Nicodemus. “I know you are from God” I repeat, almost like a mantra in the face of suffering, almost as though I am trying to convince myself. I know you are from God, I say. Yet “how can these things be?”
Nicodemus shows up two more times in John’s gospel. In chapter seven he reminds the chief priests that the law requires them to give Jesus a hearing before convicting him. Then, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus brings the burial spices and, with Joseph of Arimathea, wraps the body of Jesus in the burial cloths, and lays him in the tomb.
I have one more short story
to share with you this morning; my third, if anyone is counting. (Not that the number three has any special meaning to me today.) In between those two school shootings, while I was trying to write a sermon that either would or wouldn’t be about the Trinity, I met up with an old student to have a drink and catch up. He’s in his thirties and highly successful by any measure. As a person who served in the military doing dangerous work in Afghanistan, he has experienced more suffering and death than I likely ever will. Talking with him I was reminded of a time when I experienced a great loss. In 2011, a student I loved killed himself a few days before the beginning of his senior year.
In the wake of that loss, I was trying very hard to pretend I was fine. When people kept pointing out to me that I wasn’t, I finally went to talk to Brian Taylor. When even your priest tells you to talk to a therapist, you figure it’s time. My problem was that I had become terrified to love in such a fragile world. To heal, I had to remember to love anyway. I had to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and retain my ability to function. I like to think that that’s what Nicodemus was doing as he laid Jesus’s body in the tomb.
So. If this had been a sermon about the Trinity,
you might be tempted to think that the story about the butterflies was a story about God the creator, and that the story about the school shootings was a metaphor for Jesus’s earthly suffering on the cross. You might even think that my own slow decision to let love call me back to the things of the world reveals the movement of the spirit.
But you would be wrong. The only thing I understand about how God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one is that love wins. Tweet 61 from “Tweeting the Trinity because Heresy is Meh” says “So can we speak of God? Yes! (because of revelation). Do we know what we mean? No! (because what’s revealed is a mystery).”
What I have to say on this Trinity Sunday, on this Memorial Day weekend, is that all that I know about what I mean is that as Christians, we are called to sit with the awesome mystery of Christ’s redemptive love.
In the name of the creator, and of earthly beauty and pain, and of the mighty, mysterious power of redemptive love. Amen.
Happy Memorial Day weekend! This post is the text of the sermon I preached at St. Michael and All Angels this morning. (At some point, that link should take you to the audio version.) If you enjoyed reading my work, please feel free to share and to invite your friends to follow LiveLoveLeave.
I am not a robot. In the past week, I have had to move a cursor to a little box, thumb-click my touchpad, and assert my non-membership in the robot species no fewer than five times. (I must be signing up to follow too many blogs!)
“No, o great internet gatekeeper widget,” I say again and again, “I am not a robot.” Then the robot asks me to type a strange message that only a robot could decipher, and, voila! I pass the non-robot test.
It turns out that joining the “I Am Not a Robot Club” is as simple as joining AARP.
Then one day I started feeling philosophical. How do I know, I wondered, that I am not a robot? Do robots know they are robots? What does it mean to know, anyway? All of a sudden I started to remember words like epistemology and ontology from way back in Philosophy 101.
Before things got out of hand, I decided to make a list. Here’s what I came up with.
1. I am certain that I am not a robot because my eyes hurt.
I woke up a few weeks ago feeling like my eyes were too big for their sockets. The last two times my eyes felt like this I had a condition called iritis, or inflammation in my retina. Apparently this “-itis” comes as a free give-away with certain auto-immune diseases. (“If you call by midnight tonight, you’ll also receive…!”)
2. I am certain that I am not a robot because it is spring in Albuquerque.
The wind is gusting and the pollen is swarming like a gnat cloud. Those are both perfectly reasonable explanations for why my eyes hurt. If I were a robot, I would have an algorithm to weigh those explanations against my fear that I have iritis. That algorithm would have crunched all the data and concluded that I should go to my eye doctor.
3. I am certain that I am not a robot because yesterday when I had lunch with some friends, I kept taking my glasses off to clean them.
First, real robots don’t have friends. I know, I know. You are thinking about C3PO and R2D2. C’mon. That was Hollywood. Real robots also don’t wear glasses. And they wouldn’t have to clean them because they wouldn’t be feeling like there was a blurry spot in their vision because they would have gone to see their eye doctor when their eye pain indicators first started beeping.
4. I am certain that I am not a robot because I am thinking about Christmas.
The part of my eye that is usually just green is green and red now. Even though it’s April, you might be thinking about Christmas now. But if you live in Albuquerque and you just thought about Christmas in April, you probably meant that you wanted both red and green chile on that burrito you just ordered.
(Spell check wants me to change how I spelled chile, but don’t worry, Albuquerque friends, I won’t be bullied by my computer. I’m not some robot it can push around.)
(And if you have no idea about this Christmas thing, come visit. Experience Albuquerque!)
For the record, I never should have started down this path. Now I’m thinking about having chile in my eyes and that is making my eyes hurt.
5. I am certain that I am not a robot because when I finally went to the eye doctor she told me that my eyes are just dry.
Yippee! I don’t have iritis again. That news made me feel happy and relieved and a little embarrassed for overreacting and for letting my eyes shrivel up. I am pretty sure robots don’t get embarrassed or feel relief.
So there you have it. In a world full of uncertainty, I am certain that I am not a robot. If you are craving certainty, too, give it a try. Sign up for some free blogs or newsletters online and answer confidently when you are asked if you are a robot. It feels better than it should.
Before I got around to hitting “publish” on this post, I learned that April 26 was “Poem in Your Pocket” day. I started wondering if there were any poems about robots, and I found “Robot Poems” in the Yale Literary Magazine. They are really worth reading, so click that link if you have a few more minutes.
Then one other funny thing happened.
Do you remember The Partridge Family? Well, Fred doesn’t. Somehow that fact came up in conversation a while back (we are nothing if not high-brow at my house). I told him stories about how my friends and I used to stand on a picnic table and sing into a hose.
Set the Wayback Machine to something like 1973 and you might even be able to see me playing the triangle (just like Tracy Partridge!) and rocking my bell bottoms in a red polyester pantsuit.
So, the other night when I was getting mad at the evening news, Fred changed the channel. “Here, I found these,” he said, and the seventies sprang to life before us. If it’s been a while, click this link, listen to the theme song, and it will all come back to you.
In one of the episodes we watched, the local department store has just gotten its first computer, the 1984Z. (And you thought The Simpsons were the first to insert clever literary references into a sitcom!) The computer turns Shirley’s $29 cuckoo clock into a $290 bill, and then things get really zany.
Before long the furniture has all been repossessed, and the lesson (every episode has a lesson) becomes clear:
Humans are better than computers. Groovy, isn’t it?
I was thinking about just how quaint that idea seemed when Fred switched back to the news and I remembered that bots have been planting fake stories on social media.
Maybe the seventies knew what they were talking about after all.
I’ll leave you with three last thoughts to wrap up this weird little essay. First, I might be the first person in the history of the world to have used the word epistemology in the same essay as Partridge Family. Enjoy the fact that you were there when it happened.
Second, twenty seconds into the first song, Fred said, “That kid’s not playing that bass.” He was talking about Danny Bonaduce, the red-headed smart-alecky kid. When the credits came on, Fred hit pause to show me the part where it said that the music was “augmented by” other musicians. Another childhood illusion bites the dust.
Finally, the point of that deep Partridge Family lesson about computers was that they aren’t reasonable, kind, or understanding.
My take-away is simple. The next time I declare that I’m not a robot, I’m going to do a quick inventory to make sure I mean it.
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Many years ago (call it 2007) I was in the middle of one of those long stretches of hard days. My father had just died in West Virginia and my mother-in-law was dying in my family room.
I was teaching high school and Fred was teaching at the community college. He had a great schedule: all of his classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so he had plenty of time to care for his mother. Part of this care involved managing the troupe of hospice workers who saved our lives every day.
They brought things Ann refused to use,
like oxygen and a hospital bed. They convinced her to do things she refused to do, like take a shower, or speak to the doctor, or sleep in her bedroom at night.
They took her blood pressure, listened to her lungs, and helped us find a good sleeping chair. Hospice workers taught me how to help with adult diapers and to apply the cream she needed for the rash under her breasts.
On good days, I’d listen forever to her stories–often fabulous tales with a recurring theme: life would have been better if only [fill in the blank] hadn’t wronged her.
On hard days I seethed while she complained about Fred or about the meal I had just made her. “I can’t eat this garbage,” she might say, on a day that wasn’t good for either of us.
That was a rough spell. Coming as it did on the heels of both my father-in-law’s and my father’s deaths, and in the midst of my mother’s worsening dementia, those were hard days. Even our dogs had started dying.
I look back on those hard days now
and can see how my focus telescoped in. Breathing and moving. Those were the things I knew. Inhale, exhale, and keep walking through the obstacle course as it unravels before you. One day you climb over a rotting fence, one day you belly crawl through thorny underbrush, and one day you leap over or (screw it) stomp through mud puddles.
Maybe you even have one day when you lie on the couch and pretend the world can take care of itself, because even the air has become too heavy for you to carry.
On one day like that, I stayed home from work. Ann must have been sleeping, because I can’t find her in this memory. The lone member of the hospice troupe scheduled for that morning was a woman named Mary.
I’d never met her before, but Fred knew her well. I don’t remember her title, but she seemed to be the “caring for the caregivers” member of the team. I put a pot of coffee on and she and Fred launched into conversation.
I hung on the fringes,
gave them some space, and poured the coffee when it was ready. Determined to be a spectator in this conversation, I wasn’t ready when Mary turned to me and said, “And how are you doing?”
What I mean by “I wasn’t ready” is that I didn’t smile and say something like, “I’m fine, Fred is really bearing the brunt of this.” Mary blew that simple trumpet, and all my walls came tumbling down.
When my mother-in-law was dying I didn’t dig; I didn’t open my heart to wonder why she was preparing to leave this world with so little affection for it. Her stories were set-pieces, polished works that I let pour over me like tiny stones.
I was afraid to pick them up and learn what they weighed. I smiled and nodded through Ann’s last six months, occasionally generous, often resentful.
When Mary asked me how I was doing, I talked and cried for a long time. I’m not exaggerating when I say she changed me forever. Her simple question gave me permission to feel what I was feeling. She taught me that I didn’t have to be strong, that I could set my little piece of sky down once in while so I could rest.
Oscar Wilde said
“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” He was right about that, but in those hard days I felt like I was being precocious in racking up so many losses.My friends were still visiting their parents for holidays and dinner parties, not going to doctors’ appointments or writing eulogies.
Lately, though, and sadly, that has started to change. My friends’ parents are receiving hard diagnoses, entering hospice, passing judgment on their own long lives. My friends are walking beside their parents, holding up the sky as best they can.
I’m watching from the other side, wondering how to be helpful.
All that comes is a line from a poem by John Matthias. “When my father finished playing dying/I began…”
The line is from a poem titled “Poem for Cynouai” that I first heard the poet himself read when I was in college. He was my teacher, and the poem moved me deeply. Whenever I forget what it means to write poetry, I read that poem and remember.
Right now, the book that holds that poem is sealed in a box in what used to be my mother-in-law’s closet. I packed most of my books a few years ago when we first thought we might sell this too-big house. We filled neatly labelled boxes and stacked them on top of one another like drawers in a mausoleum.
I can’t find “Poem for Cynouai” online (except in pieces in that review I linked to above). The words remain alive in me, but I can’t touch them. I can’t read the lines above or below the one line I remember. I can’t ask the poem questions or turn the page to see what follows.
It’s something like that, all of these losses.
I am not sure
why John Matthias showed up in my kitchen while I was writing this morning, or why Mary the hospice worker came to mind as the coffee brewed. What I do know is that a number of my friends are in the middle of things I’ve made it to the other side of.
I feel like I should have something to offer them: useful notes from the journey, maybe, or dispatches from the far shore. Instead, I feel like the friend I spoke with the other morning.
He’s in the middle of the obstacle course right now; he’s climbing, leaping, wading, striding, trudging–dealing with each hurdle as it appears. From where he stands, I imagine, there is no such thing as looking around or beyond or ahead.
“I wake up every morning,” he said, “and I don’t know.”
I remember that feeling.
In those long stretches of hard days it’s as though you signed up to run a race and no one will show you a map of the course or tell you how long you’ll be running. All you can do is put the next foot down, and then put the next foot down again.
Right now, though, I’m in the middle of a stretch of good days. Or maybe I am not in the middle at all; maybe I’m at the beginning, and these good days are going to unroll into the future as far as I can see. Or not–maybe I’ve lived through most of them already and my next obstacle course is waiting just around the corner.
In his poem “Evening” my old friend Rilke says, “It is alternately stone in you and star.” I don’t know. But if I were going to send any news from the star days, maybe it’s just that they came back. Life came to its senses eventually and got back to the business of living.
In the meantime, it’s good to have friends who help you hold up the sky.
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If I were funnier, I’d start this post like a joke: an egret walks into the family room and the dog says…
I’m not that funny, though, and that would give too much away. I want to start further back, maybe with the wood stork.
It was Thursday morning, and Fred and I were visiting our friend Diane in Florida. We’d all gone outside because we saw the muscovy ducks walking around with their babies. The chicks were trailing behind them in a line like an old-fashioned Ugly Duckling pull toy.
Muscovy ducks are hilarious.
If you’ve never seen one, they look like the duck you’d make if you were finished making ducks and had some leftover pieces you didn’t want to waste. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology describes the muscovy as a “large heavy-bodied duck with warty red spots on face.”
One of the many charms of Diane’s neighborhood is that the muscovy ducks wander around all the time. Later in the week we’ll find ourselves in a duck jam when the muscovy space themselves evenly across the street, bringing traffic (by which I mean our rental Nissan) to a leisurely halt.
They won’t tell you this at Cornell, but muscovy ducks are flagrant jaywalkers.
Anyway, we were admiring the baby ducks
when we spotted the tall white bird in the water. Egret was the obvious choice, but that didn’t seem quite right. We grabbed the binoculars and took turns noticing details about this bird.
Huge, mostly white, black feathers along each wing, long beak, reddish feet. We watch him until our coffee grows cold then head in to find him online. In the end, it’s the scaly head that nails it. Wood stork all the way.
I’m not a serious bird watcher, nor do I play one on tv, but I do I come by my fascination with naming birds honestly. My parents kept a bird book on the divider by the kitchen table, and kept a list of every bird they ever saw in the yard for the forty-some years they lived on Marvle Valley.
I have that book and that list somewhere, but I’ll never get to Oscar the Egret if I go look for it now. I do remember that for much of my childhood, they were on a quest to spot a pileated woodpecker.
Here’s the cool thing about that quest–
once they spotted him, they were just as eager to spot him again. I think there’s some sort of lesson about love lurking there, but I promised Oscar I’d write about him, and I’ve already broken one promise to that bird, so I’d best get on with it.
Fred and I leave our friend after the wood stork morning and set off across the state in search of adventure. We find some (another story for another day) and then drive back to the Gulf.
When we return Diane is house-sitting for some neighbors across the street. We join her there and gather in the kitchen to prepare a feast. We’re cooking steak and salmon, roasting corn and asparagus, tossing a salad, and baking potatoes.
The back door is open, and before long Diane lets us know that Oscar the Egret is here. He’s standing right outside the open door.
I’m a sucker for tall birds.
I walk to the door and strike up a conversation. With the S in his neck uncurled, Oscar’s beak hovers about waist level. Oscar stares while I talk to him and start taking pictures. Diane tells us that the owners of this house feed him turkey dogs.
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology says that the great egret eats “mainly small fish but also eats amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals and invertebrates such as crayfish, prawns, shrimp, polychaete worms, isopods, dragonflies and damselflies, whirligig beetles, giant water bugs, and grasshoppers.”
Turkey dogs aren’t on the list.
Or in the freezer. We check. But hey, we’re cooking salmon. I tell Oscar to come back later and we’ll save him some. Oscar says, “That sounds good, but I’ll just wait here, thanks.” He has a very expressive stare.
He also keeps taking steps toward the open door, so in a moment of sanity we close it. We head back into the kitchen to work on dinner.
Diane is drizzling olive oil on the asparagus when we’re startled by wings, a commotion at the window. (According to Cornell, Oscar’s wingspan is anywhere from 4 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 6 inches. Fun fact, mine is 5 feet 4 inches. Fred just measured for me.)
Oscar has flown up onto the windowsill, apparently deciding to oversee our preparations. He’s a little cramped there, so he flaps over to the barbecue where he still has a good view of the salmon.
At some point Oscar gives up on us and flies off,
making it possible for us to have dinner outside on the patio. Good friends, a good Cabernet, a great meal–dinner stretched into the evening and it was late before we all called it a night.
The trouble started the next afternoon. Oscar the Egret came back, looking for the salmon I’d promised him. But the salmon was really, really good. I’d forgotten all about Oscar while I cleaned my plate.
I try to explain this to Oscar, but he isn’t buying it. Or maybe he just figures it’s time to take matters into his own wings. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what he is thinking when he steps through the doorway into the family room.
While we’re all standing around wondering what to do next, let’s try that joke again. An egret walks into the family room and the dog says…
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Ginger stands by Diane completely unimpressed. “Giant white bird in the family room. What’s the big deal?” This dog is one cool cat.
Diane saves the day when she remembers we’ve got some leftover steak in the refrigerator. For a moment, we look at each other and wonder if we are really going to feed steak to the egret standing in the family room.
But, seriously, read that sentence again. The egret is standing in the family room.
What choice did we have?
When the steak is in my hand and Oscar takes a few steps toward me, I realize that I don’t actually know how one feeds an egret. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology describes Oscar’s bill as “daggerlike.”
That seems about right. I realize (a little late) that I don’t know if Oscar catches frogs with his beak open or if he stabs them. (Fun fact: the answer is both.)
I panic and toss the steak toward him, and he snaps it out of the air with a speed that would make my golden retriever sit up and applaud. Diane’s dog, on the other hand, is enjoying his own leftover steak and ignores Oscar.
The giant egret runs outside to dunk the steak in the pool before he eats it. Of course, if you feed an egret one piece of steak in the family room, most of you can probably guess what happens next.
I’ll give you a hint.
The egret doesn’t say, “Thanks so much, I’ll be on my way now.”
I’m still trying to process the fact that I was just standing in the family room with a giant egret when Oscar runs back in. I toss another piece of steak, Oscar dunks it in the pool, and back he comes.
This goes on for a few rounds before we come to our senses and make a move for the door when Oscar heads for the pool. He looks at us indignantly through the glass, just like a dog when you won’t throw the ball the twenty-seventh time.
So there you have it: my close encounter of the egret kind. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful after that.
I’m left with a few random thoughts.
First, it worries me that I might be misspelling Oscar’s name. Now that I’ve gotten to know him a little, I think he’s more of an “Oskar”–there was something Germanic in that egret’s intense stare.
Second, to my friends who interact with wildlife outdoors, I want to reassure you that I do know better than to feed the wildlife. I would like to say that I’ll never do that again, but if a giant bird is standing in the family room, I might not be able to keep that promise.
Third, if you look up “egret poems,” you’ll get a lot of poems about “regret” instead. That might have been useful if Oscar had indeed speared my hand with his “daggerlike bill,” but that didn’t happen. The whole encounter left me feeling touched by wonder.
Finally, after you wade through the poems about regret, you’ll find this thought, tucked away in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mysteries, Four of the Simple Ones.” Oliver asks,
“And what else can we do when the mysteries present themselves
but hope to pluck from the basket the brisk words
that will applaud them…?”