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.

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

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.

EVERY SINGLE TIME.

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.

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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!

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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.

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