Here’s a slightly different post this week: my awesome church let me preach another sermon this morning. What follows is the text of my remarks. See you next week with a new essay!


“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”

Many of you know that in addition to teaching just down the road at Bosque School, I write a blog. The last time I had the opportunity to stand here and speak to you, I posted my remarks.

Shortly after I put that essay online, a woman wrote to tell me that I “gave the most erroneous ‘sermon’ on one of the most beautiful gospel readings.” She implored me to stop preaching, and to pray and talk to my spiritual advisor.

I just thought you should know what you are getting into.

Seriously, I am grateful to be speaking again, and you are warned.

Today we heard an odd little story from the book of Numbers.

Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt, but this morning, they are not grateful. They are like kids in the backseat four hours into a ten-hour road trip. They are bored and they are hungry. They are kicking the front seat and taking turns asking, “Why did we have to go on this stupid trip, anyway?”

So God, Yahweh, does what any loving parent would do: he sends poisonous snakes to bite them, and they die.

(It’s probably best to let go of that analogy about the kids in the back seat now.)

As the snakes slither through camp, though, the Israelites get it. They go back to Moses and say, “Hey, Mo, our bad. Can you do anything about the snakes?”

Yahweh steps in and tells Moses to make a snake and raise it up on a staff. If anyone else gets bitten, Yahweh explains, she can gaze at the snake on the stick and live.

Notice that Yahweh doesn’t make the snakes don’t go away. That feels like it might be important.

Let’s leave the Israelites wandering in the desert

for the moment and shift our gaze to the New Testament.

Years ago, I was talking with a friend who was wishing she had a place like St. Michael‘s in her life. She said, “I’d love to have a church like yours, but I don’t believe in God.”

“Oh,” I replied, without giving it any thought, “you don’t have to believe in God to go to church.”

That conversation kept popping into my mind as I thought about today’s readings. In his letter from prison to the Ephesians, Paul writes that “by grace you have been saved by faith” and in John’s gospel we hear that “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found this whole believing business to be hard. I think part of why I’ve sought out faith communities my whole life has been to surround myself with believers (people like all of you), so that I can hop onto your faith and ride it like a train clear into glory. One time when my parents were visiting, I woke early and looked out the window. I saw my father sitting outside on the deck as the sun came up, praying the rosary.  Those are the moments that carry me.

If I came to church only on those days when I could say with certainty that “I believe,” and have any idea what I meant by that, I would spend many Sunday mornings at home.

I think that’s why I’m normally over there, singing with the choir. Over there, I don’t have to think about believing. When the spirit breathes through us, turns our bodies and breath into instruments, my critical mind goes silent, and I know God.

But this moment, this space, is about words.

So I’ve been trying to make sense of one of the most beloved passages in scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Think about it—that one sentence feels like it captures the whole thing: the whole New Testament, the whole mystery of faith in less than thirty words.

I’ve been imaging this scene:

Jesus is talking to God over some heavenly dinner table in the sky. He is begging his father to let him go live on earth. And you’re, you know, God. You can keep your child safe in heaven. You can save him from every scraped knee, every broken bone, and every heartache. I’d understand if God had said no.

But of course, to do that, God would also have to deny his son the full moon tilting over the Sandias, the feeling of the sun warming bare skin, that swelling thing your heart does in the presence of glorious art, or music, or poetry. That whole ability to feel embodied love.

Every parent lets him go. You cross your fingers, say a prayer, and watch your child walk out the door. You so love the world that you send your child into it, even though you know there’s a crucifix waiting on every hill.

Jesus says,

“Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already…” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having a rough Lent. On Ash Wednesday, when those children were gunned down in their school in Parkland, I lost my footing.

I began Lent swinging from grief to anger, wobbling from cynicism into despair. Some days it’s just too hard to love the world. Some days the world (this beautiful earth, “our island home” as we’ll say when we celebrate the Eucharist) feels so old, and heavy, and tired.

In the second week of Lent, when my own school conducted a lock down drill, we drew the shades, turned off the lights, and sat on the floor in my classroom against what we euphemistically call the “safe wall.” Nineteen teenagers and I sat in complete silence for more than twenty minutes while we waited for the all clear. Every one of us was imagining what it would be like if this were real.

As the drill ended, I had to give the kids a break so I could compose myself. I had to figure out how to move out of the swirling morass of love and terror and cynicism and sadness that threatened to swallow me. I had to take a deep breath, turn on the lights, and remind myself that God so loved a world that was every bit as broken as this one.

It has been a rough Lent.

And yet, the days are growing longer, this morning there is actually a little water in the air, and today’s gospel calls us to believe. When Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light,” I think he is reminding us that we are called to love the world. That to sink into the darkness of cynicism and despair is to be “condemned already.”

To believe in the resurrection is, I think then, to keep believing that this tired, heavy, broken and breaking planet is bathed in light and remains worthy of our love. To believe in eternal life is to believe that in the long game, the eternal game, love doesn’t just win, love has already won.

Oh—remember those Israelites we left wandering in the desert?

When Yahweh answered their prayer, he didn’t make the biting snakes go away. Instead, he gave the Israelites what they needed in order to survive them.

On this fourth Sunday of Lent, as we yearn toward Easter, as we trudge on together toward resurrection, that feels like it might be important.


Crossword Puzzles and Grandmothers

I’m working a crossword puzzle. A little help, please?

94 Across: G-Man Hoover’s middle name.

103 down: Port on Zuider Zee, occupied by Nazis.

117 down: Nazi submarine base in Belgium.

Notice anything funny about those clues? The puzzle I’m struggling with is the first crossword puzzle the New York Times ever published, dated February 15, 1942.

I was taken aback by the matter of fact references to the Nazis in the clues. In 1942, World War II was raging on. HistoryNet tells me that in February, the Japanese captured Singapore, taking 60,000 British soldiers captive. It would be three more years before the Germans surrendered.

The puzzle is part of a birthday present: “The First 75 Years of NYT Crosswords,” and I’m having fun with it. The puzzles are printed on newsprint and there’s a puzzle for every year. Mixed in among the clues are ads and stories from the paper.

Among the more interesting ads is one for “REIS Scandals,”  which seem to be men’s briefs. These aren’t your run of the mill Hanes. These scandals are “patterned and cut to conform to male anatomy.”

The ad boasts of a “Dart-stitched pouch” that “fights fatigue.” (Those italics are theirs, not mine. Oooh! A dart-stitched pouch! And for the record, I’m not touching “fights fatigue.”)

Photo of 1942 ad for REIS Scandals
1942 ad for REIS Scandals

I worked on the puzzle last night during the Super Bowl, occasionally getting help on a clue from Fred or the grandkids. (Cali came through with 54 Down: Reluctant allies of Germany). Then I woke up this morning thinking about my grandparents.

Mostly I have gaps where grandparents should be. I only ever knew one of them, my dad’s mother, Clare, whom we called Gram. The others had all died before I was born.

This morning when I woke to thoughts of my grandmother it was early. I like to get up at five,  when time feels spacious. As I sit down at my desk, my neighbors’ houses are dark, and Fred and Rusty are sound asleep down the hall. These minutes feel like bonus time, time that isn’t owned by demands of the day.

Still sleepy, I google my grandmother. Clare McCann (who became Clare O’Shea when she married Thomas John) was born on Christmas Day, 1897, and died in August, 1980, just before I started my junior year in high school.

I was up the street babysitting the LeBlonde kids when she died. I want to say there was a storm that night and the power went out, but I might be making that up. I am sure about the rainbow I saw, and that I heard the news later that evening when I got home.

For some reason I did a double take this morning when I saw that my grandmother was born in 1897. She lived through World War II without knowing how it was going to end.

Then I realized she lived through World War I in the same way. She lived both before and after there were planes in the sky and electric refrigerators in the kitchen.

In the middle of the day, working on writing a sexual misconduct policy with a group of young women, I realized my grandmother was born without the right to vote, gaining it as a young woman of twenty-three.

Oh, to have been the teenager smart enough to ask her how that felt!

When I think of my grandmother, I see her sitting at the kitchen table at my Aunt Emma’s house, talking and drinking tea. I feel like a spectator in these memories this morning. I can’t put her in motion. I can’t put us in relationship.

For the first time since I’ve started posting essays every  Monday, this week I worried that I’d hit my deadline without figuring out what I needed to say. It turns out that writing a post for this blog every week is considerably harder than writing a post whenever I feel like it.

Then I woke up this morning with my grandmother, and little memories have been seeping in all day. There’s this one: If you told Gram you liked something, she would give it to you.

I admired this sweater once, and even though it has always been too small for me, I’ve held on to it for three states and more than thirty years. I used to try to make myself give it to Goodwill, but I’m done with that now. It’s staying.

Photo of a sweater from my grandmother
The sweater my grandmother gave me

Likewise for this plate. I don’t remember why little-kid me admired my grandmother’s plate, but sure enough, it came home with me. For years while I was little it lived in my mom’s kitchen, then traveled with me to Chicago and Albuquerque.

Photo of a plate my grandmother gave me
The plate my grandmother gave me

The Home Book of Verse that stood on the bookshelves in my parents’ living room came from my grandmother, too. My dad brought it from down home to our house on Marvle Valley. That’s how my dad and his siblings talked about the house they grew up in on Arlington Avenue. The two volume collection was edited by Burton Egbert Stevenson (enjoy that for a moment) and was first published in 1912.

One time when my grandmother was in the hospital, I tried to memorize “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to recite for her. It’s on page 2,473, and I think I got most of it down. What remains today is “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” and the deep knowledge that you can make words sound like galloping horses.

Poetry books from my Grandmothers house
The Home Book of Verse in two volumes

I was still unsure of where this essay was heading when late this afternoon, the connection came.  I saw my grandmother sitting at the kitchen table with her tea, and this time the picture zoomed in and I remembered her hands. Her knuckles were big and knobby with arthritis, and she was holding a pencil.

Next to the teacup on the table was a newspaper, folded open to the crossword puzzle. It occurs to me that my grandmother might have solved the puzzle I’m working on. She would have been forty-four in February of 1942.

She probably would have known who the famous one-eyed general was (1 across) or —

And I have to stop there. I was trying to find another clue to add to that sentence, and a funny thing happened. I stared at this puzzle for hours yesterday, and only managed to enter about ten words. In the past two or three minutes, searching for a clue that might capture some essence of my grandmother, I’ve answered at least that many again.

I’m not making that up. It’s almost as though someone who has done the puzzle before is looking over my shoulder, whispering answers in my ear.

So here’s the thing. The essay I was trying to write today wasn’t about my grandmother. I was thinking about the light again, and the fact that I’m hearing birds in the morning. I was trying to process the fact that the latest school shooting barely made the news.

I had thought I might use the crossword puzzle as some kind of metaphor to figure out how to live in times like these. I thought that if I reminded people that it feels like spring in Albuquerque, it might help someone be hopeful that better times are coming.

I couldn’t get there. But my grandmother, who lived through World War II without knowing how it was going to end, stopped by for the day. We worked a few clues together, and I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a little better.


Ursula Le Guin and I Go Way Back

I never met Ursula Le Guin, but we go way back.  I was in college when I read The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time. I was fifty-one or fifty-two the last time I read it. In all the readings in between, it’s never failed to teach me something.

If you haven’t read the book, or if it’s been a while, here’s the gist of Le Guin’s story. Genly Ai, an envoy for the Ekumen (think intergalactic UN), travels to the planet Winter. Winter is a cold place where the humans are not exclusively male or female. Sometimes, when they enter “kemmer,” their sexually active phase, they develop male genitalia. Other times, they become female. In other words, the same character that gives birth to one child might father another.

Photo of Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
My well-loved copy of Left Hand of Darkness

Le Guin explains, “The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to childbearing,’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically.”

Genly’s mission is to invite the people of Winter to join the Ekumen. He isn’t there to coerce or cajole, but simply to enter into relationship. Estraven, sort of  “prime minister” to the King of Karhide, is the sole character on the planet who believes the truth about Genly and responds to it with an open heart. Genly, unfortunately, is too ensnared by his biases for most of the book to receive that friendship.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you. Instead, I’ll share a few things I’ve learned through my thirty-plus year paper friendship  with Ursula Le Guin.

In My Twenties, Ursula Le Guin Taught Me that Having Gay Friends Didn’t Mean I Wasn’t Homophobic

My twenties started in 1984.

I remember one time when I was home visiting my parents. I was in the backseat, and Rush Limbaugh was on the radio. “Why do you hate him so much?” my father had asked.

“Because I spend my days teaching kids that critical thinking matters. I tell them that being loud and sarcastic isn’t the same as making a good argument,” I replied. (Probably more snarkily than I might have now. And I wouldn’t have used the word “snark” back then.)

We probably didn’t talk much more about Rush Limbaugh on that trip. And it would be many more years before my mother would tell me that I “had the wrong opinion about everything.”

Besides, that’s not my point, and I’m cheating. That conversation belongs in my thirties, after I’d started teaching. But because listening to my mother’s favorite radio talk show wasn’t conducive to having a good visit, my dad changed the station.

Babe the Sports Animal came on next. I don’t know if Babe the Sports Animal was a Pittsburgh thing or if other people have heard of this program. I’d give you a link, but the quick search I just did led me to  a bunch of sites that pissed me off.

Anyway, we were driving down McMurray Road listening to Babe the Sports Animal talk about the Steelers. After a little while, my dad revealed that Babe was a woman, but I couldn’t believe it. I had just spent twenty minutes or so thinking I was listening to a man. Try as I might, I couldn’t put that voice back into a woman’s body.

I yanked that story into the wrong decade because that’s how Genly Ai feels on the planet Winter. He says, “Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.”

Much of Genly’s work on the planet, he’ll learn slowly, is not to change the Gethenians. Instead, he realizes, he has been sent alone so that he can be changed.

As Genly’s friendship with Estraven deepens, (at one sexually charged point Genly notes that it “might as well be called, now as later, love”), Genly finally learns to accept Estraven as he is. At the moment of his revelation Le Guin writes, “And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man.”

Something cracked open in me when I read this book in my twenties. I realized that I’d been holding on tightly to the idea of the “other.” A few friends had come out to me in high school, and I was pleased with myself for my “acceptance.”

Le Guin taught me that my “acceptance” rested in a firmly lodged sense of difference. It was an acceptance that created a chasm, rather than bridging one.

At one point in the novel Le Guin writes that on the planet Winter, “One is respected and judged only as a human being.” Twenty year old me took that as a call to action, and it made me a better person.

In My Thirties Ursula Le Guin Taught Me That Being A Feminist Didn’t Mean I Wasn’t Biased Against Women

My thirties started in 1994.

Remember the story about Babe the Sports Animal I just told you? I don’t know if it was Babe’s particularly deep voice or my particularly deep bias that made me certain that The Sports Animal was a man.

I do know that every year (until my very most recent reading), when I read Chapter 7, “The Question of Sex: from field notes of Ong Tot  Oppong, Investigator, of the first Ekumencal landing party on Gethen…” I assumed the investigator was a man.


Le Guin knew  I was reacting that way. Why else end the chapter with this sentence: “I am a peaceful woman of Chiffewar…”?

Early on, Le Guin received criticism for some of the choices she made in the book. Despite her groundbreaking work with gender, she chose to use masculine pronouns throughout. Her descriptions of the “male” and “female” characteristics of the people of Winter stay largely true to stereotype.  The descriptions of the relationships between the characters are largely heteronormative. (I’m cheating again. I wouldn’t have had that word available to use in my thirties.)

In a 1976 essay called “Is Gender Necessary,” Le Guin defended her choices, sometimes defensively. She wrote, “The fact is that the real subject of the book is not feminism or sex or gender or anything of the sort; as far as I can see, it is a book about betrayal and fidelity.”

A copy of Ursula Le Guin essay described in the text.
The original 1976 essay published side by side with the 1988 do-over.

But then she did something remarkable. In 1988 she wrote “Redux,” in which she responded paragraph by paragraph to her former self. “This is bluster,” she says of her earlier statement. “I was feeling defensive.”

It wasn’t enough that Le Guin wrote a novel that helped me to see my own biases. Then she wrote an essay that taught me how to forgive myself for them.

In My Forties Ursula Le Guin Taught Me that “Progress is Less Important than Presence”

My forties started in 2004.

These were the years when I traveled with students to spend a week practicing Buddhism at the Bodhi Manda Zen Center in the Jemez Mountains northwest of Albuquerque.

I sat zazen, swept sidewalks, and filled birdfeeders. Ursula Le Guin said, “Compare the torrent and the glacier. They both get where they are going.”

In My Fifties Ursula Le Guin Taught Me That the Fact That I’d Loved Her Book for Decades Didn’t Mean I Knew Anything About What it Means to be a Transgender Person

My fifties started in 2014.

As the country moved toward the 2015 Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, I wondered if the book had done all the work I needed it to do. It seemed like it might be time to stop teaching it.

Then I read it again after I’d learned a little about the transgender community. I finally realized it had never been a book about overcoming homophobia. All those years I was assuming Genly was uncomfortable with his feelings for Estraven when Estraven was a man, but the text had never said that. That was my bias speaking again.

At the end of the novel when Genly is reunited with beings like himself, he is uncomfortable. “But they all looked strange to me, men and women…Their voices sounded strange: too deep, too shrill…”

He remains uneasy until he is again with a Gethenian. The young physician has “a human face.” It is “not a man’s face and not a woman’s.” Genly can relax at last, at home with a human being.

In My Sixties and Beyond, I Don’t Know What Ursula Le Guin Will Teach me.

Ursula Le Guin died last Monday at age 88.

My sixties will start, with any luck, in 2024. Tomorrow I’ll turn fifty-four. I’ve bumped up against the edge of where this story can take me for now.

I realized, though, that despite having read Left Hand of Darkness ten or twenty times, I haven’t read much of Ursula Le Guin’s other work. I always meant to. In that way, Le Guin lives on for me.

If you’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness, you know that I’ve left whole themes, maybe even the most important ones, unmentioned. The book, to me, will always be mostly a love story. But it’s also a book that questions our ideas of power, masculinity, and government.

In fact, I feel like I should leave you with one final quote. After his beloved friend skied off to meet his fate, Genly “wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of… and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry.”

Rest in peace, Ms. Le Guin. I’m confident we’ve all still got a lot to learn.





How She Got Back on Her Bike and Why It Matters: A Bike’s Story

Hello. This is Heather’s bike. Not the big burly teal one; I’m the slick Cannondale at the bottom of the picture. Shiny. That’s what people used to say when they saw me coming. Slick. That’s another thing they used to say.

Teal and the Cannondale perched on their rack.
I’m the cute one on the bottom.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that Heather used to take me out of the garage fairly often. She wrote about the things we’d see on the trail or how she nearly broke my spokes when she tried to learn to ride with clipless pedals. She even rode me in a few sprint triathlons. I remember cruising down that hill in Rio Rancho…

Then the summer of 2o15 happened, and she quit riding me. I heard her tell people that no matter how much she stretched, her body kept getting stiffer. Then her hands and fingers swelled up, and it was just a quick hop, skip, and a jump (or a stumble, droop, and a nap) into her new life with an autoimmune disease.

As she and her rheumatologist experimented with medications, she had to dial everything back. I, her fancy new bike,

A close-up of the Cannondale Quick
That’s me again.

spent my days leaning against the wall in the garage. Even when she got settled into a good treatment plan, she didn’t want to hang out with me. I’d see her leave the house with a gym bag and come home with wet hair. I didn’t know if I’d ever get out of the garage again.

Then, one day she opened the garage door and the wind felt fresh around my tires. She walked up to me and squeezed the brakes; it was as though she was trying to see if her fingers were still working. I tried to encourage her by helping a little, but there’s only so much a bike can do.

Months passed. Everyone now and then she’d squeeze my brakes again, but I knew not to get my hopes up. It was as though she had stopped being a person who couldn’t ride a bike and become a person who wasn’t riding a bike, but she hadn’t figured that out yet.

I started keeping notes in order not to drive myself crazy from the loneliness and boredom. Sure, I had Tealy-bike to keep me company, but she wasn’t going on any rides either. What else are a couple of bikes going to talk about?

Anyway, I heard that I’m not the only one who had a rough  year in 2017, and the idea of Oprah running for president (what, you don’t think bikes follow politics?) has gotten me hopeful again, so here’s the story of how I finally made it out of the garage.

January, 2017

Yippee! She has pulled me out of the garage and into the driveway. She’s got the bike pump out. WE ARE GOING FOR A RIDE! My spokes are tingling and my gears are feeling loose.

Wait, what’s happening? OW!–something doesn’t feel right. She’s working up a sweat pumping, but the air is just whooshing around and my tires still feel all limp and saggy. I’ve been sitting on the cold garage floor for  years months. It looks like I’ve got a hernia in my back valve stem.

She half-rolls, half-drags me back into the garage and leans me against the wall. She’s just going to leave me here? When the door closes, Teal Bike feels so bad for me she doesn’t even gloat.

Worst of all, Heather looked tired and discouraged after all that pumping and I think her hands and wrists were aching. She went inside and called it a day.

March-ish, 2017

For two months, I was back to my bored self, leaning against the wall. Nothing to read, nothing to look at.

Then in March, my neglectful owner remembered that standing on the cold garage floor wasn’t good for me. One boring Saturday she lifted me gently into the car and took me to the bike doctors. They repaired my hernia, gave me new valve stems, and pumped me full of air and confidence. They also chastised Heather. They explained  that if she hung me on a bike rack instead of leaving me on the cold floor, I’d survive the winters better.

She bought the bike rack, but I still had problems. Apparently it looked like it was going to be complicated to install, so she decided to wait for her son-in-law to visit. Teal and I rolled our pedals at her, but she didn’t notice.

June, 2017

The days are long, and sunlight seeps in through the crack under the garage door. Son-in-law finally showed up, and Teal and I love our new digs! Tealy got the top bunk, which I was happy about because I don’t really like heights. I also thought that the bike on the bottom was much more likely to get ridden, and (spoiler alert!) I was right.

July, 2017

Disaster. They got home from vacation. The man she lives with takes a big dog blanket out of the car and throws it on me. Out of sight out of mind.

The Cannondale under a blanket.
Transformed from a proud bike into a poor imitation of a linen closet.

Every now and then I hear her complain to the man that the blanket he has piled on top of her bike is keeping her from riding. I’m a little skeptical, but what do I know. I’ve never been married.

October, 2017

It’s scratchy and dark under the blanket, and I’m having trouble maintaining my self-esteem. How can a light, slick, bike like me feel good about myself when I’ve been reduced to living as a shelf?

Every day when she comes into the garage I concentrate the energy in my spokes and try to communicate with her telepathically. “Move the damn blanket yourself,” I whisper.

November, 2017

The days are growing shorter again. Tealy’s joints are drying out. I hear Heather tell a friend she has given herself a deadline. She says she has “written it down” and “told her friends” which is supposed to make a resolution stick.

Rumor has it her deadline is December 31, 2017. On December 24, I watch her line the driveway with candles and imagine us riding out between them, paparazzi cheering and snapping photos as we go.

On December 31st I stay up late, not wanting to believe she’ll miss the deadline.

When I hear the fireworks at midnight, I understand why people say the holidays can be hard.

January 1, 2018

10:00 AM. The new year dawns without me noticing. I’m in a deep, dejected sleep when she appears. She rolls me out of the garage, puts some air in my tires. My tubes feel good. My valves feel good. This is it.

Then she starts rubbing her hands. She’s cold. She goes inside. Damn; I hate hope.

2:00 PM. She’s back. My gears sing when I notice she’s wearing her bike shoes and her neon yellow jacket. She tosses me in the back of the Subaru. I’m not sick, so I don’t think we’re going to the hospital.

2:05 PM. Are you kidding me? I’m lying on my back, cramped up at a funny angle in the Subaru when she notices that her helmet is missing. She blames her husband for misplacing it.

2:25 PM. She finds her helmet. I hear her say, “What is it doing on a shelf in the hot water heater closet?!”

Messy closet with bike helmet on shelf
Can you spot the bike helmet?

2:30 PM. She pulls her Subaru into  the gravel lot at the west end of the Montano Bridge. I’m so excited my pedals are spinning. She straps on her helmet, takes a swig from her water bottle, and swings her leg over my back.

2:49 PM: She’s on the Bike!

I only have a few more things to tell you. It feels so good to be out on the trail that I’m gulping in air, shifting more smoothly than I’ve ever shifted, dancing around like one of those Arabian ponies we saw practicing their moves on the ditch bank last time we were out.

I can tell she’s feeling it, too, and regretting all that time we spent apart. I know that because we ride too long. The mountains are on our right and the river is just over there through the cottonwoods. I can hear the cranes and geese and we’re even picking up speed and passing a few people. At one point, she gets brave and clicks into my pedals. We’ve never been closer.

Then a whole flock of crows gathers right above her head. She laughs and takes her hands off my handlebars and for a minute we are drafting, until the crows speed up and pull away.

Later we saw them sitting all pretty in a tree like Christmas ornaments (hey, bikes can appreciate beauty) and then something got them all excited and they started flapping and squawking. We both looked around for an eagle or a coyote, but the trail kept its secrets.

4:00 pm

Back in the parking lot, she’s tired and she leans me way down to get her leg over my back. Her hips are stiff and she’s shaking her wrists like they might be hurting, but we’re both smiling as she lifts me back into the Subaru and gives me a little pat on my seat.

So, this is Heather’s bike, and that’s my story. I heard it was a hard year outside of the garage, too. I just wanted to let you know, if you have been hanging on the wall in a cold garage for months on end, that the cranes are still making wide Vs over the river.

The planet is still swinging wide, making slow, graceful loops around the sun.  I’m here to tell you that those long months in the cold garage can end. Tealy says it’s because hope with action gets rewarded.

I’m no philosopher. I just know that when she got back on, we both remembered how to ride.


Five Things I Know As the New Year Dawns

Whew! That was a close one, wasn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’m ok with putting 2017 to bed. We did it gently. After watching some football and eating tacos with the grandkids, Fred and I watched a little Jeopardy, complained about how inane the Times Square coverage was, and talked about how hard it seemed to stay up till midnight this year. Wild times in Albuquerque!

This morning the new year was waiting for us like the newspaper when we woke up, wide open pages swelling with invitation and possibility.  I’m planning to check off my first resolution (“Get back on my bike”) today, but right now it’s a little cold out. While I’m waiting for the temperature to crest forty, I thought do some of that new year’s reflecting and make a list of things I know.

One: It’s madness not to be who you are.

I thank Franz Kafka for this one. I’ve been thinking about him lately, since this was one of those years when words like “Orwellian” and “Kafka-esque” could be used unpretentiously in pop culture. Who didn’t imagine, at some point this year, that they were waking up like Gregor Samsa, freshly transformed, into a world that was different than the one you went to sleep in? or like Joseph K, summarily arrested one morning “without having done anything wrong.” That’s just how the year felt, I think.

I’ve always felt a kinship with Kafka. In his diaries, he reveals how his writing life torments him. “My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background,” he tells us. “Nothing else will ever satisfy me.”

And yet, Kafka, like most of us, artists or not, got up every morning and went to his day job. His art had to elbow its way in at the edges. In a letter to Max Brod, his friend, biographer, and editor, he noted that “a non-writing writer is a monster inviting madness.”

It was in something of that spirit that I started this blog, back in April of 2013. That feels like such a long time ago! A handful of you have been reading since that very first post, Into the River, and I’m grateful that you’ve walked through these years with me.

Two: Living into your real life is self-perpetuating.

When I started this blog, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I woke up one morning, and the insect I’d been transformed into was a blogger. I spent the rest of that day much like Gregor Samsa, figuring out what to do with this new body I found myself in. I learned what a blog was and how to start one, and then, I started writing.

Since that morning in 2013, I’ve kept my feet in the river, and my life has been better for it. Every day the silty muck oozes between my toes and convinces me, again, that we can help love have an edge in this achy, beautiful world.

Writing is like prayer or meditation; it keeps calling me deeper and deeper into myself.

Three: Things change.

I know you didn’t need me to tell you that, but sometimes I need to remind myself that I’m ok with change. In the years since I’ve been writing here, I’ve lost a few important people, deepened some old relationships,  and gained a few new pounds friends. I’ve developed an autoimmune disease and joined a gym. The grandkids have started turning into teenagers. My hair is longer and lighter because I’m still too vain to let it just be gray.

Four: Things stay the same.

Who knew? A lot of things have stayed the same in these years. I live in the same house with the same man and the same dog. Some nights I cook great meals and some nights I still eat Oreos for dinner. I still struggle to be the teacher I want to be while writing all the words I want to write and playing all the music I want to play and loving all the people I want to love.  I still have days when lines from Rilke follow me around (see this old post if you’re curious).

Five: The road appears when you start walking.

I thank Tolkien for this one. It’s right there in the walking song.

The road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began

Now far ahead the road has gone

And I must follow if I can

I like how Bilbo Baggins assumes the road is out there, and it’s just a question of “pursuing it with eager feet.” I don’t have to plot the course, bulldoze the rocks out of the way, or lay gravel. I just have to start walking. Looking back over these past few years, I can see that the road has been unrolling itself before me as I set out on it.

That’s pretty damn reassuring, now that I think about it.

So there you have it.

It’s a new year and I already know five things. You probably know more. If 2018 is anything like the year we just lived through, we’re all going to have to up our games. Living, really living, in this raggedy, awful, glorious world isn’t for the faint of heart. These times are calling all of us to step into the river, to listen to whatever it is that is knocking in us, to keep living ever more deeply into who we are.

My plan for the new year is to slow down and keep listening. I want to hear my life as it pounds on the door of my hectic schedule. I want to write about what I hear to make sense of it and to remember that I’m not alone.

Thanks for coming with me on this journey so far. Let’s keep walking through it together.


Note: I’m planning some changes for the blog, including one all of you email subscribers will have just seen. Please let me know how you feel about them!


Sun in the Window

Last time I wrote it was advent, and I was waiting for the light to come.

Tonight I’m outside in the front yard, coaxing the light in. Fred is spacing the paper bags evenly along the sidewalk and driveway. I’m setting the candles upright, grounding them in the sand, making sure the wicks are ready to catch a flame. Neighbors who walk and drive by silently most nights are stopping to shout “Merry Christmas!” as their curious dogs look on. There’s something old fashioned and magical about these little bags of sand and light.

They make me think of Pittsburgh. In  the neighborhood in the South Hills where I grew up, every house lined the road on Christmas Eve. The Shamrock Manor Women’s Club took orders every fall and dropped off sand and bags and candles as the holiday approached. On cold Christmas Eves, after we’d opened the gifts from the siblings, my father and brothers would put on heavy coats and strike their flimsy matches against the wind and dark.

Later, as we drove to my grandmother’s house and then to midnight mass, the world would be transformed. Luminaria decorated the hills like chains of earthbound stars. We’d sing Christmas carols in the car and go silent as we entered the darkened chuch.

That church is a gym now. My parents are gone. All of my aunts and uncles, two of my siblings, and a few of my cousins have passed beyond this earthly light as well. I’m thinking about them tonight,  dipping my hand into each bag, holding the flame at the end of my lighter against the wick until I see it swell.

I’m remembering one especially sad lunch with my parents. My father was already ill with cancer; my mother was overwhelmed by the thought of that loss, beginning her long slide into dementia. Soup and breadsticks were one of the few foods they could both still enjoy, so we had come to Olive Garden for lunch. The light was gray outside the windows and the trees were bare.

“What if none of it is true?” my mother wondered.

She was thinking about another life, a life they might share after they shed their aging bodies and met again in some promised, airy beyond.

I was thinking about how true it had all been already, how the spring had returned and refilled the branches every year, how the luminaria had stayed lit in the snow, how my parents’ love, swelling like two flames into one, had lit my childhood.

This year it hit sixty degrees on Christmas Eve in Albuquerque and the luminaria burned all night.  Christmas afternoon, a column of  sun poured through our dining room window like the beam from a light saber. All afternoon, this wide cone of light traced a path through the blinds, across the orchid on the table, past the Christmas tree, and into the hall.

Rusty felt it first, and went to lie in the glow.

I saw it while I was on the phone with my sister, miles away in Ohio.  It outshone the lights on the Christmas tree, which shrank back into the branches, recognizing that this wasn’t their time to glow.

A little while later, Fred came in.

“Look at that light,” he said, walking into the family room from his office. “I’ve never seen it quite like that before.”

I have been thinking about light a lot this Christmas season. Ever since Thanksgiving,  I’ve been enjoying the lights on my neighbors’ houses. The neighborhood is aglow with snowflakes, twinkling laser shows, a Santa Claus pig, and simple strings of colored bulbs hanging from the eaves. I like these little stands against the darkness; these tiny blinking beacons shouting into the night.

Recently as I was thinking about how hard churchgoers have worked to turn a religion born out of love and an explicit rejection of power into a hierarchical system hungry for power at any cost, I read an article that mentioned that Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a practice. It made me think about the weeks I used to spend with students at the Bodhi Manda Zen Center in the Jemez mountains. Once a year for a bunch of years I’d travel to the center with a group of eager teenagers.

We’d rise at dawn, don our robes, and sit zazen in the zendo. We’d breathe in and out until we’d pulled the light over the edge of the mountains. After breakfast on those cold mornings I’d take my coffee and stand by the river, imagining what it would be like to let the cycle of light sculpt my days. I’m wondering what the world would be like if more people treated Christianity as a practice, as a simple way of being light in the world.

On nights like tonight when the moon is small, I carry a flashlight when I walk Rusty in the evening. There’s a dark patch where the road loops behind my house, a wild space where the street dead ends into the mesa. If I’m carrying a tiny circle of light,  I move through it without looking over my shoulder, without listening for footsteps in the rustling  leaves.

Sometimes I think it is all real. Sometimes I think that the birds are the heavenly hosts, swooping in to warn us, singing to bring us joy, dancing on the wind to outline the breath of a holy spirit.

Sometimes on a quiet Christmas afternoon when the planet tilts just right, I walk into my living room and see a solid column of light.

Sometimes when I strike a match and light a candle I am certain that light has an edge; that fire will always find a way to outshine the darkness.

Sometimes when the  year has been full of aggressive shadows, when it has seemed like the darkness is swelling, I can toss a candle into a paper bag of sand.  I can strike a match, touch it to the wick, and watch the flame swell, as it passes from one torch to another.

Sometimes in Pittsburgh, rays of winter light would catch in the bare branches outside my parents’ kitchen window.

I can see it now, that light that stretches across time and distance. See how it chases away the darkness; see how it warms me still.


Doom, Gloom, and Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who wants to preach about that?

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

I can’t stand this story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Beating the Thanksgiving Rush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Googling Poems about Hope

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

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

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

Tonight I strike out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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