Swimming With the Grandkids

Photo of striped beach towel and swim goggles

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.

Indeed.


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Packing: Five Things I’ve Learned

Photo of stacked boxes

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.


Thanks for coming back! If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to pass it on and tell a friend about LiveLoveLeave. If all goes well, I’ll be back in a week. 

Learning to Drive

Photo of rose bush

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.)

It’s June,

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.

And yet,

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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Not Talking about the Trinity

Photo of three small lit tea candles, but we are not talking about the Trinity.

[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

Photo of Rusty, my golden retriever.

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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Hard Days

Photo of hikers emerging from a cave into sunlight.

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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Adventures in Bird Watching #1: Meet Oscar the Egret

Oscar the Egret standing just outside the open door, looking for a turkey dog.

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.

Oscar the Egret standing just outside the open door, looking for a turkey dog.
Oscar the Egret standing just outside the open door.

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 the Egret perched in the kitchen window.
Oscar the Egret watching us cook salmon.

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…?”

Well, I’ve got one idea.

Busy

The word of the day is busy.  Can anyone relate?

In the past two weeks, I’ve done every extra thing I ever do and then some. When I finished writing student narrative comments for midterm grades, I started working on a freelance writing job that fell into my lap from the sky. That work would have been easier if it didn’t appear in the same week my student service learning group was hosting a film screening and panel discussion on Tuesday night to raise awareness about HPV (click here to see a seventeen minute film that might change your life).

And those complications were complicated by the fact that on Thursday and Friday night, I had a rehearsal and performance of a staged reading of Angels in America (more on that in a minute).

Oh, and it just so happened that in the same week  I had agreed to preach a sermon, and I was trying to learn a bunch of piano pieces to be able to play in church the following Sunday.  For good measure, let’s toss in the dentist appointment to trade out the temporary crown on my back left molar for a permanent one. That appointment took an hour and a half before the dentist realized the permanent crown was defective and I’d have to reschedule and come back in three weeks.

Did I mention I’ve been busy ?

What I haven’t been is reflective. It’s finally Tuesday morning, and I have put a check mark in every single box. I’m at the front end of two glorious weeks off,  and I finally have time to glance back over my shoulder into the whirlwind.  What’s coming into focus is a group of chairs in a blowsy room in the back corner of the Peggy Ann Findlay Performing Arts building.

It’s Thursday afternoon, a few weeks ago. Three-thirty, to be precise. I’m sitting in a circle in the green room with a handful of students, two drama teachers, and three other colleagues. The students are highlighting their scripts, eating cheese and crackers from a plastic tray in the center of the circle. I was their age and a lot less busy the last time I did anything like this.

“When we reach a difficult scene,” Meghan explains, establishing the ground rules, “let’s just read it. Then we’ll stop and talk about it, and see if we think we can do it.” The play we are about to read is Angels in America, and if you know it, you’ll understand why reading it with high school students could get complicated.

The mood in the room is relaxed and expectant. None of knows quite what we’re in for. What unites us is that we are the people who said “yes” a few months ago when Meghan sent out an email saying, “We’re going to do a staged reading of Angels in America. Who’s in?”

The plan is to read the play from start to finish in the next two and a half hours and then to read it on stage tomorrow night, followed by an audience discussion; we’re calling it a reading and a “talk-back.”

Tony Kushner’s masterpiece deals with the AIDS crisis in the 90s; both the language and the themes are adult and explicit. Thursday afternoon in the green room we press on. Students and colleagues are becoming new people as we bring our characters to life. Students are saying words we’d correct them for if they said them anywhere else. Here, we’re just correcting their pronunciation. (One good teacher moment came when the unasked question took the floor–whose job is it to correct a student’s pronunciation of fellatio? If memory serves, none of us stepped up.)

We make it through one of the most explicit scenes: a character who has abandoned his dying lover is seeking punishment through a random encounter in a park. A little nervous laughter from the students and the adults, and then, “It doesn’t feel gratuitous,” a student says. “It shows us how bad he feels about abandoning his partner,” another adds. They are competent, these kids, and wise. The scene stays in.

I am playing an old rabbi who presides over a funeral in Act I. Later, I play Hannah Hill, mother of Joe, a gay Mormon man. When Joe tries to come out to me in a late night phone call I agree with him that his father never loved him, tell him to stop being ridiculous, and hang up on him.

By six o’clock we’re nearing the end of the reading and we’re all spent. It’s been an emotional afternoon. We’ve laughed and cried and created something intimate and holy together.

It strikes me that one of the things we’re doing in this little circle is dropping the pretenses that normally shape our relationships with each other. For this teacher/student thing to work  during the normal school day, teachers pretend the adolescents they are teaching are more innocent, less complex than they are; students keep up their end of the bargain by pretending their teachers’ lives end at 3:20,  and that we’re more innocent, less complex than we are.

Tony Kushner says that the thing about live theater is that you have to show up for it. Friday night, we sit in a straight line across the stage, a music stand in front of each of us displaying the name of the character we’re playing.

After the performance in the talk-back, a man in the audience thanks us. “I’ve been HIV positive since 1990,” he says. “I’ve lived through everything in this play.” He talks on, and I’m far from the only one weeping. Others praise the students’ courage in taking on these adult roles.

Another student expresses her gratitude for the chance to participate, saying, “Now I know I have all these questions I didn’t even know I had.” Teacher friends will understand that there is no higher praise.

The moment I’ll carry forever, though, happens when a tenth grader a few chairs down from me addresses the man in the audience. “I’m a gay man,” he says, “and it hasn’t always been easy for me.” He is choking up as he adds, “but it has been so much easier for me than it was for you. I just want to thank you for everything you did to make my life easier.”

I’ll skip the part where the whole room is crying. Another student in the audience rescues us and brings the light back when she comments that she just “got to hear the head of her school  say the F-bomb nineteen times.”

And just like that, the evening came to an end, and just like that, my insanely busy two weeks have dissolved into these few quiet moments when I can look back and catch my breath.

One of my favorite poems is James Wright’s “A Blessing.” You can follow the link if you want to read the whole gorgeous  thing, but it  ends with these lines:

Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

And that is exactly how I feel. Looking back on these crazy, busy weeks, I’m struck by the fact that I was never stressed out. Life was over-full, and yet time felt ample.  Each claim on every busy day claimed it fully, and then left the other times alone. I think that for the first time in my life, I might actually be learning to understand what the Buddhists mean by being present.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t miss some things. I kept my head down in my busy march from commitment to commitment. That explains why I was so surprised this morning when I walked out the front door to get the paper and was shocked to see the flowering plum in the front yard in full blossom.

I hadn’t seen it coming. Surely over the past few weeks I could have noticed the swelling buds , the water-color green of leaves eager to emerge. There must have been signs. Spring doesn’t turn on like a light switch;  it meanders in like a ten year old boy, pausing here and there to kick a rock, or run a stick along a fence, or chase a dog.

So often when I’m surprised it’s by bad news; a phone call jarring the night or a tragedy scarring the world.

This morning I’m surprised by the way the light is sifting through pinon branches, by how much noise these gabbling desert birds can make, by the way this sad old earth has cast off winter one more time.

While I was too busy to pay attention it came back to life; it burst, inexplicably, and at last, into blossom.

________________________

Believe

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.

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