Heraclitus on the Beach

I was talking on the phone with my brother on Thanksgiving evening when he said, “I don’t really care for the beach.”

If you’re reading this essay you probably know that I recently crossed the whole country, from New Mexico to Florida, to live near the beach. I wondered why he doesn’t like it.

“It’s always the same,”

Pat said. “The water comes in, the water goes out.” Look left, you see sand; look right, you still see sand. I can see his point.

Since early October, I’ve been walking the same stretch of beach almost every day. Some days there are birds everywhere, seagulls flocking on the shore, pelicans skimming the waves, egrets fishing in the surf.

Other days, I don’t see so many birds. It could be that I’m looking down on those days, hunting for seashells. Some days there aren’t any shells at all. Other days, you can hardly walk barefoot because thick shell beds threaten to slice your feet.

One day I saw a sea turtle lug her heavy body from the salt dunes into the water. Two other days I saw baby sea turtles washing in and out with the surf. One day a giant coconut washed ashore. It sat on the beach for days and then one morning it was gone.

Sunday morning we walked past a big dead fish that looked like it had just washed up. One especially calm day I watched a commotion offshore. A helpful man told me it was a bait ball. (I didn’t know what it was either. Follow the link–it was pretty cool.) One day Fred watched a fisherman catch an eel.

In other words, the beach is different every day.

I’m not saying my brother is wrong, just that we look at a beach and see different things.

So here’s the point where I was going to say something like, “As they say, you can’t step into the same river twice.” 

But then I got curious. Who exactly said that? I asked Dr. Google, and the internet’s short answer was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, hands down.

Then I followed a few links, and realized things weren’t so clear cut. According to the scholars at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, you can trace the idea that “everything is in flux” to Heraclitus, by way of Plato.

But scholars are still discussing what Heraclitus actually meant. I’m not going to try to summarize the argument, (you can follow the link if you want to get your inner philosopher on), but it hinges on a scrap of papyrus where Heraclitus presumably wrote,

“On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow. ”

It’s pretty, isn’t it? You can read it over and over and not really be sure what he meant. The scholars note that the writings of Heraclitus were marked by this “linguistic density,” and that he liked to speak in riddles.   

So let’s interrupt this weird foray

into philosophy for a minute so we can all figure out what we’re doing here. It’s Tuesday afternoon, and I haven’t posted an essay since the shootings in Pittsburgh sent me reeling. Lots of important and awful things have been happening in the world. Midterm elections, more shootings, horrific fires, and still more shootings. Those things crashed right into Thanksgiving, and I just couldn’t find a grateful path through it all.

I also haven’t been able to find my rhythm. Daylight savings hit just when I was starting to know when to expect the sun. I’m rising later, and evenings feel longer here. Diurnal tides sweep the ocean in and out each day, and I’m still surprised every time by just how far the water recedes.

None of which really explains why I’m writing about Heraclitus this afternoon and not something important like the vote that’s happening in Mississippi.

The Stanford philosophers explain that “…the message of the one river fragment, …, is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing.”

So all that is to say that my brother and I are both right–the ocean has to change in order to remain constant. The philosophers put it like this: “flux” is not “destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy…”

Now we’re talking.

Roughly eight months ago, my husband and I upended our perfectly good lives by deciding to move across the country. We could have remained constant; we could have just stayed put and continued to live as we had been. But this move felt, and continues to feel meant, even though it’s eight months later and we’re still in flux.

I’m inspired by Heraclitus to relax into the paradox. It’s comforting to think I had to change in order to remain the same.

Heraclitus also believed in the “unity of opposites.” I don’t have enough brain cells left today to try to understand what he meant, but it brings up another paradox I wrestle with. I am sure that we live in a world where love wins, and yet it’s clear that hate flourishes. I guess that’s a paradox for another day. Maybe I’ll think about it after we find out who won in Mississippi.

For now I’ll just note that Theophrastus, another Greek philosopher, attributed the fragmentary nature of Heraclitus’s work to “the author’s melancholy.”

That seems about right, too. It’s cold here today. I’m sitting at my friend’s desk and looking out the window at the sea. The water is coming in and the water is going out.

I think I’ll head out to the beach and see what’s new.


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Pittsburgh

It’s a chilly Sunday morning and I’m at St. David’s by the Sea  in Cocoa Beach. How this good Catholic girl (eight years of school at St. Louise, followed by CCD and Notre Dame) came to be attending an Episcopal church in Florida is a long and winding story, but what matters this morning is that the story begins in Pittsburgh.

Maybe everyone feels this way about their hometown: for my whole life, I have measured the world by Pittsburgh. Rolling hills, windy roads, trees that explode in color in the fall, even winters that stay gray so long that believing in spring becomes an act of faith are just examples of how the world is supposed to be.

That probably sounds ridiculous, considering I moved away after college and probably won’t ever move back, but it’s true. When I got to Albuquerque, the big Catholic families I met felt like home to me. New Mexico’s farolitos glowed just like the luminaria that lined Pittsburgh’s streets every Christmas Eve. Riding the tram to the top of the Sandias felt like riding the incline to the top of Mt. Washington.

Albuquerque surprised me and stretched me, but it was the ways it felt like Pittsburgh that turned it into home.

When I say Pittsburgh,

mostly I mean aunts and uncles and more cousins than I could keep track of. I mean directions that include lines like “Turn right where the Heigh Ho used to be,” or the time my husband asked, at the bottom of Marvle Valley Drive (and once again, spell check, I am NOT misspelling Marvle), “Should I turn right or left?” and I said, truthfully, “It doesn’t matter.” I mean kissing my high school boyfriend in the woods at Lions Park and balancing on a lightning-struck tree at the end of the circle. (We never said “cul de sac” back then.)

When I say Pittsburgh I mean neighborhood block party parades and  carnivals to raise money for muscular dystrophy and roller skating parties and holding hands at the mall. I mean putting empty bread bags on your feet before you put your boots on and sled-riding until you couldn’t feel your hands. I mean playing pinochle, and Parchisi, and Life.

When I say Pittsburgh I mean anise cookies at Christmas, nuts for cracking in a bowl on the hearth, and the way bare branches etched the sunset into panels  of stained glass in the backyard. I mean the cinders in my knee from falling on my way to the bus stop and Mrs. Wuske bandaging me up before the bus came.

I mean sitting outside on long summer nights with Billy Wuske and Roger Oldaker, calling up truckers on Billy’s CB. And I mean the football players gathered at John McMillan UP church for Billy’s funeral, when we were all way too young to die.

When I say Pittsburgh,

I mean home.

That might be an example of a literary device called metonymy, but I’m not sure. For all my years as an English teacher, I avoided that term. It sounds simple enough on the surface:  “a literary device in which one representative term stands in for something else. For instance, ‘the Crown’ is a metonymy for monarchy rule.”

I could give kids that definition, but once they started throwing out examples and questions, I’d lose my confidence. So maybe Pittsburgh is a metonymy for home. Or maybe it’s just an ache, somewhere between here and Route 79.

Sunday morning at St. David’s by the Sea

an Episcopal priest reads the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish, ending each invocation with an invitation to the congregation to say “Amen.”

Not surprisingly, I don’t know this prayer. I am expecting sad words, pleas for help, psalm-like cries for deliverance. What I hear instead are words of life, of praise. Words like these:

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world

I’m stunned. I remember the little white candles my father-in-law kept in the pantry to light once a year, and I see, I think, how these words, recited over and over, might call a grieving person back to joy.

Later in the service, the pastor points to the glass windows surrounding the sanctuary. He reminds the congregation that there is a code word. If we hear the word, he tells us, we should run to one of five rooms in the building that have solid walls and locks on the doors.  He points like a flight attendant reviewing a safety card to the two doors behind the altar.

He doesn’t say that we will probably hear the shooting before the code word, or that it might not matter that we have a plan.

I am hearing blessed and praised, glorified and exalted…

When I say Pittsburgh,

I never meant Las Vegas, or Orlando, or Blacksburg, or Charleston, or Sandy Hook or Sutherland Springs. Those words, I think, have become metonymies.

What matters this morning is that the story started in Pittsburgh and that, one more time, people are mourning.

In Washington, the man who calls himself a nationalist (which I believe just might be a metonymy) is tweeting that the “Media is the Enemy of the People.”

In Pittsburgh, Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue reports that he has lived with anti-semitism for his whole life, but this is different. The hate, he says, is getting worse.

Then the Rabbi said, “I will not let hate close down my building.”

To which we say: Amen.

No Lie: Vultures on the Beach

I’m trying to sort out the birds. It’s not like I’ve never been to the ocean before; it’s that this is the first time I’ve ever been here with the intention of starting a long term relationship. I don’t want to start off with a lie.

A few evenings ago when the little white bird with the black legs (who might be a plover?) yanked a ghost crab (I’m fairly sure about that one) from the swash, he ran up the shore into the wrack and tried to find a nice quiet table for dinner.

No such luck. The brown bird with the long legs and the long beak (perhaps a willet?) started chasing him. Up the beach, down the beach, into the water. Every now and then a few other birds that might also be plovers joined in the chase.

The bird that might be a plover with dinner in its mouth kept dropping the crab and trying to take a bite, but every time, the bird that might be a willet would close in. Nothing for it but to grab your ghost crab and run.

I must have watched this dinner dance for ten minutes. Finally the bird that was the best at fishing gave up and tossed the remains of the crab on the sand. I expected the long-beaked bird to run in and grab the crab, but nobody came. Apparently all that drama was just about the chase.

The other brown bird that looks like an overgrown sparrow on orange stilts (that might be a sandpiper?) played no part in this story.

These things happened as I’ve told them. This is a true story. I was there. I watched it happen, and then I wrote it down.

You might be wondering

what this has to do with Daniel Dale, a journalist from the The Toronto Star. Then again, maybe you weren’t wondering that. Maybe that was just me. Either way, a tweet from NPR popped up while I was writing. In it, Dale was explaining why, when the guy we put in the White House just makes something up, Dale uses the word “lie” in his reporting.

It’s a complex argument but I’ll try to simplify it for you. (Actually, that last sentence is a lie. It’s still as simple as it was when your mom explained it to you in kindergarten.) If you make something up and tell people it is true, you are lying.

Call it a “definitional thing,” if we need to pretend it’s complicated. Dale’s bigger point is that if you are a major newspaper (he’s looking at you, New York Times), and you don’t use the word “lie” to describe a lie, you are, well, how can I say this…you are lying.

On a day when pipe bombs are flying around the country, I would have loved to tell you that the little bird that might be a plover caught a crab and the other birds cheered and they all shared the crab and lived happily ever after. That would have been a nice uplifting story, but it wouldn’t have been true.

Likewise, if I had said that the bird that might be a willet had flown across the border from Honduras planning to kill Americans, that would have been a lie, too. (See how easy?)

You might be wondering

what this has to do with vultures on the beach. This afternoon when Fred and I were walking along the beach, I saw three huge blackish-brown birds gathered on the beach above the scarp. Before a passer-by told me they were vultures (with a gently implied “duh” and a nod to their naked heads), I was planning to tell you that I had seen beach turkeys. Actually, I was trying out both “beach turkeys” and “sea turkeys” in my head.

I wasn’t going to tell you that they were actually called sea turkeys, because that would have been lying. I was going to tell you that I called them that in my head to help me remember what they looked like until I could get back to my friend’s condo and look them up in her helpful beach book.

Most of the time, I find it’s not all that hard not to lie.

Anyway, the vultures are on the beach because Red Tide is here in Brevard County. That means there are dead things on the beach, and vultures eat dead things.  I watched while a vulture dug in the sand and pulled out a dead fish and ate it calmly while his buddy vulture looked on politely.

No lie.

You might be wondering

where I’m going with this little collection of true stories from the beach, and I can assure you that you are not alone. I snapped a few photos of the vultures to prove they were there, then Fred and I continued on toward the pier.

Here in Cocoa Beach, sea turtles nest in the dunes. If you live along the beach, during turtle nesting season you have to turn off your lights or close your blinds at night so the turtles don’t think your light is the moon. The moonlight on the water draws the turtles into to the sea.

I find that fact to be both beautiful and true.

So this afternoon, while pipe bombs were flying around the country, an algae bloom was poisoning fish and gumming up the seafoam, and vultures with good table manners were digging in the sand, Fred and I kept walking toward the pier.

We hadn’t gone far before we saw the turtle, lugging her heavy body toward the sea. She lumbered through wet sand, a small crowd of beachcombers snapping photos and quietly cheering her on.

The “duh” woman  appeared at my side. “There’s so much life here!” she marveled. She was right. That was a true statement.

You might be wondering

how I’m going to tie these true stories from the beach together and draw this essay to a close. Again, let me assure you that you are not alone.

It’s just that I think it matters to learn the names of the birds, to be diligent in calling things what they are.

Yesterday I saw a news clip where the guy who lives in the White House claimed that Democrats are trying to get rid of coverage for pre-existing conditions (one of which I have) and Republicans are trying to protect that coverage.

That is a lie.

It’s driving me crazy. A vulture isn’t a willet isn’t a sea turtle. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.


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Albuquerque’s North Valley

Photo of a cow lying under a Cottonwood

Picture a little kid’s drawing of a house: at its simplest, a triangle perches on top of a square.  Then imagine the kid with the crayon getting restless.  She stretches the square into a long skinny rectangle and topples the triangle over the edge. The triangle lands in the rocks next to the rectangle and turns the little house into an arrow.

You can’t get comfortable in an arrow. We sold that house and decided to head off in the direction the the arrow was pointing. We moved in temporarily with my friend Ken in the North Valley and gave our granddaughter one of our cars. That’s why I’m walking down Guadalupe Trail this morning, past some cows and a singing pyracantha hedge full of invisible birds.

I’m looking for the little half-sized road that will take me to the ditch bank. Among the many gifts of spending the last  six week’s as guests in my friend’s house has been the chance to fall in love with this little stretch of Albuquerque’s North Valley.

Things happen here

that never happened on the West Side. A few days ago a woman wandered into the yard with her beagle. She wanted to know if I had lost a turtle.  When I said no, she left and came back a few minutes later with the turtle she had found wandering in the road. “I’ll just leave him here anyway,” she said.

Ok. It’s a nice yard for a turtle. It had a neon pink Z painted on its shell. I watched him lug his prehistoric body around the garden until I lost sight of him between the flagstone path and the chamisa.

It’s not just that strangers bring you turtles in the North Valley. The other night Rusty wasn’t feeling well, and I found myself curled in a blanket, sitting in a rocker on the front porch at 2:30 in the morning. It was peaceful in the cool dark, and I felt almost lucky that I’d been drawn out of bed.  Rusty, instantly calmer in the fresh air, went to sleep at my feet while I rocked and daydreamed.

We might have stayed there all night if I hadn’t heard something breathing. It was a deep, grunting, wild noise, followed by some serious rustling in the garden.  For no reason that holds up to daylight, I imagined a wild boar, its giant tusks angling for the kill. I woke Rusty and hustled him inside, wondering what feral beast was sniffing for us in the night.

To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a wild boar sighting in the North Valley. In the rational light of morning, I see the holes in the grass, each one the size and shape of a skunk’s nose.

In the North Valley

I’m remembering how much I enjoy walking. Not just to walk, but to get somewhere. This morning the cows are out as I head South on Guadalupe Trail. I count four of them, with the biggest leaning against a cottonwood just beside the road. He looks at me without much curiosity and swishes flies with his tail.

When I get to the ditch,  I hang a right and then another one at the no trespassing sign and suddenly I’ve left streets behind. I’m walking beside an arroyo, flush with flowing water. Old land rights still dictate when farmers may open simple wooden gates to flood their fields. Sunlight dapples my arms as it sifts through cottonwood branches and lands in shards on the dry ground.

I bend to pass through the first stile, alarming a lizard that skitters up the fence post. A coyote appears about ten yards up the trail. He looks at me and prances ahead, then turns back, keeping a constant distance between us. Somewhere to the east on the other side of the ditch a rooster crows.

I step through the second stile. It’s morning in the North Valley, and I’m walking in an older version of the world. I was going to say I’m not at work, but I don’t think that’s true. My new work life is a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle before you get the edge pieces done–I’m still figuring out what will go inside. “Whose woods these are I think I know,” is running through my head. Who’s to say walking through the bosque on a sunny morning doesn’t count as work, if you’re trying to make a life  as a writer?

When I turn left to head toward the coffee shop, the coyote runs ahead toward the Rio Grande. I’m thinking about a few lines from the Navajo Blessingway Prayer: “With beauty before me may I walk, with beauty behind me may I walk.”

Just before the coffee shop,

the dirt turns back into pavement. The house on the corner marks the transition. Long skinny garden beds separate the house from the road. Signs are painted on water drums and fence posts and compost bins.  “Be joyful,” “Be You,” “Sit here and enjoy the new.” A few weeks ago, the sunflowers were blooming and the vines were heavy with tomatoes.

I turn toward Rio Grande and have coffee with my friend. On my way home, I pass the yard with the painted bench again. I’ve been trying to decide if it says enjoy the new or enjoy the now. A young man is working among the plants this morning, and I think about asking him. I say hello and thanks and tell him how much I enjoy walking by his garden.

“You’re welcome,” he says, “Would you like a zucchini?” And just like that, he pulls a knife from his pocket, cuts the long, thick fruit from the vine, and hands me a zucchini. I decide I don’t want to know if he wants me to enjoy the new or the now.

I walk home with my zucchini.  It’s just another morning in the North Valley.


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Moving to Florida

Photo of lot with sold sign.

When people say, “Why are you moving to Florida?” I don’t have an easy answer. A job? Not really. Retirement? Not that either. An ocean, I want to say, and the color green outside my windows. The weight of the air at sea level. Tall birds. 

A few facts and figures:

Albuquerque, New Mexico sits 35.0844 degrees North of the equator; Vero Beach, Florida: 27.6386. I’m moving closer to the fat middle of the planet, a more direct view of the sun.

I’m also moving closer to Greenwich, England (Albuquerque latitude: 106.6504 West, Vero Beach: 80.3873 W). From oldest to youngest, my siblings live at 79.9959, 70.8606, and 82.5863. In other words, we’ll all be in the same time zone now.

I’m also moving a little further from the sky. Depending on where you measure, Albuquerque, NM sits at an altitude of 5,312 feet. My new town clocks in at 13. Maybe I’m moving to Florida because it has a little more oxygen in the air.

I’m moving to Florida

because living in Albuquerque for thirty years was an accident. I moved here when I was twenty-four because I thought it would be fun to see the Southwest. The woman sitting next to me on the plane said, “If you wear out a pair of shoes, you’ll never leave.”

For thirty years she was right. I don’t have any of those Chicago shoes left in my closet. (Technically speaking, right now I don’t actually have a closet at all, but let’s not get hung up on that.)

When I say spending thirty years in Albuquerque was an accident, you shouldn’t think about a house fire or a car crash. You should think of a wrong turn that leads to the best strawberry shortcake you’ve ever had, or heavy traffic heading west on Montano that puts you in the right place to see the cranes fly in. You should think of a flat tire that strands you by the side of the road so you could see a murmuration of birds at play in thin air. Or the kind of accident where you fall in love and find a family and a new job and a great church and great friends and mountains and roadrunners and  green chile and tumbleweed.

Living in Albuquerque for thirty years has been that kind of accident.

I’m moving to Florida

because goatheads.

Kidding/Not kidding.

I’m moving to Florida

because when we were driving around looking at houses, I kept chanting in my head, “Rivers, Lake, Mountains, Ocean.” I was writing my autobiography, mapping the geography of my life. From Pittsburgh through Chicago to Albuquerque to Vero Beach. From the place the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers flow into the Ohio, to the icy rocks along Lake Michigan, to the high desert slopes of the Sandias, to this long stretch of sand flanking the Atlantic.

It’s as though I need to make sure I have all of the words. “Ask what I want, and I will sing: I want everything, everything”–some old Barbra Streisand song that’s been stuck in my head since high school.

There are other reasons.

Some ties had to loosen enough to let me go. Some ties had to grow so strong that I could leave without fear of them ever breaking. Some pieces of this landscape had to lodge themselves so deeply in me that I will always be able to see them, the way I can still see the sunset spreading through the cherry branches from the back window of the house on Marvle Valley.

Only then, it seems to me, when you’ve loved a place and its people so deeply that it hurts like a goathead to say goodbye, only then are you allowed to put on some brand new shoes and walk away.


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The Syro-Phoenician Woman

[What follows is the text of the sermon I delivered this morning at St. Michael and All Angels on the text of Mark 7. I’ll be back next week with a more typical blog.]

Good morning.

To be fair to Fr. Joe, every time I have preached he has asked me if I’d like to look at the scriptures for the upcoming weeks and choose a date. Every time, I have told him no, that I would be happy to speak on whatever date was convenient. Which is true. The opportunity to stand here and share my words with all of you is an incredible gift. But that’s not the only reason I have refrained from choosing: I have found it to be a powerful spiritual practice to grapple with the gospel of the day, however hard that sometimes is.

Which brings me smack into today. You heard what Jesus said. The Syro-Phoenician woman begs Jesus for help, and he says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Come again?

The first time I read this gospel having, remember, already agreed to preach on it, I slammed my laptop shut and said, “Are you kidding me?” There was one other word in that sentence, but I don’t think I should tell you what it was.

The second time I read the gospel, I decided I would just avoid that part. After all, there’s a lovely healing of a deaf man in the second paragraph. Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears and says Ephphatha, or “be opened”—surely there is enough metaphorical content in those two words to hang a sermon on.

The third time I read the gospel, I knew I couldn’t preach on anything if I couldn’t preach on Jesus’s reaction to this desperate woman who begs him to cast a demon from her daughter.

We are not living in times when we have the luxury to hear a man call another human being a dog and pretend we didn’t hear it.

My next step

was to start re-reading the gospel of Mark from the beginning. Surely, I thought, I’ll find something there that helps me understand. In the first six chapters of Mark, I counted seven specific healing stories: Jesus cures a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, Simon’s mother-in-law who has a simple fever (there the text seems to suggest that they were hungry, and they needed her to be well so she could feed them), a demoniac, a leper, a woman who touches his cloak, and the daughter of Jairus.

And those are just the people who are named. In Mark 1, the “whole city” comes and gets cured; in chapter 3, we hear that he had “cured many,” and even in Nazareth, his home town where they don’t believe, he “lays his hands on a few sick people and cures them.” By the end of chapter six, even the disciples have started healing people.

Do you see what I’m getting at? In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is a veritable Oprah of healing. You get a cure, and you get a cure, and you get a cure!

And then, the Syro-Phoenician woman

comes to him because her “little daughter”—Mark calls her that—her “little daughter” needs to be healed. And Jesus, seeming to refuse, says to her, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

I did some research to see what other people have said about this gospel. One writer suggested that the Greek word was closer to “puppy,” than dog, and somehow (I don’t remember the details of the argument) that was supposed to make it all better. Another emphasizes the fact that Jesus did, after all, come specifically for the Jews. Still others focus on the woman’s faith, and suggest that Jesus was simply testing her and had planned to help her all along.

In another era, I might have bought one of those explanations. Today, though, living right here in this particular time and place, that rationalization feels irresponsible. It is too easy to say, “Well, what Jesus meant when he said x was y.” or “By suggesting that healing her daughter would be throwing crumbs to a dog he wasn’t actually calling her a dog….” But I can’t do that. In these times, it feels particularly important to hold people to account for the words they actually say.

I found myself at that now-familiar moment, wishing I had opted to read ahead and choose a different Sunday.

I went back to the story.

The gospel tells us that Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” As I said before, Jesus had been very busy curing people. For this one moment, he wants to be alone. He’s longing for solitude. He wants to recharge, to rest, perhaps to pray. We’ve all had that moment.

And then one more hurting person barges in, demanding that he help.

In my idealized version of Jesus, he has infinite energy and infinite patience, and he leaps at the chance to give up an evening on the couch with his feet up to help this woman.

But we tell ourselves we believe that Jesus is truly human and truly god.

I think Jesus just snaps.

I think he has a “truly human” moment. He says something awful that he clearly doesn’t mean and quickly makes right.

I don’t know why the gospel writer chose to tell this story, but I think it shows how hard it is–for anyone–to love relentlessly in a broken world.  I think it shows that even the best of us inhale the stereotypes and slurs and the fears of “the other” that swirl around us every day.

A few Thursday nights ago,

four of us were walking out of choir practice together when a woman popped out of the bushes at the East end of the parking lot.

“Hello?” She called. “Hello? Can you help me?”

I can’t speak for my fellow travelers, but my initial reaction was to hope that one of them would answer her. She had sprained her ankle, she said, walking to the gas station to get a coke. She needed a ride home. She had one of those voices that suggested a hard life, a life quite different than my own.

I am nothing if not well-trained in distrusting “the other.” I didn’t believe for a second that she had sprained her ankle. I looked at this small, old-ish, utterly non-threatening woman with her large bag and wondered if she had a knife in it, or maybe a gun. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for helping people within the friendly confines of the church or in a time and place neatly designated for “serving the poor,” but this was a voice in the bushes in the night, and, almost as a rule, I fear those voices.

I think Jesus was tired,

and he snapped at the woman in words that came straight out of the world he lived in. If I’m honest, perhaps it is at precisely this moment when I can see myself most clearly in Jesus.

But, of course, that’s not the end of the story. The woman doesn’t go away, leaving Jesus alone for a long night of wishing he had treated her better. She has heard the stories. She knows who Jesus is. The gospel says she “bowed down at his feet” (you might even say she took a knee) and demanded better treatment. She said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

As one of my grandkids might say, “BAM.” She demanded that Jesus behave as the best version of himself. She demanded that he live up to his own teachings. She held a mirror up to his words and gave him the chance to do better. The Syro-Phoenician woman, it turns out, is the person who taught me not to run away from this hard story.

Like Jesus,

my choir friends and I got it right in the end. We gave the woman who popped out of the bushes a ride home, and it turned out that her house was right on our way, and she didn’t have a knife or a gun in that big purse, or if she did, she decided not to pull them out to use them on us. “God bless you,” she must have said half a dozen times as she got out of the car. The irony was not lost on me.

So. I began by saying that grappling with hard scripture was a valuable spiritual practice, so it’s fair to ask where all of this grappling has gotten us.

Today’s gospel, I think, teaches us that it is hard, even for Jesus, to live in this world as a child of God. Every day we inhale air polluted by racism, misogyny, and the fear of the other. Not even Jesus, truly man and truly God, could remain entirely free from its influence.

I find that comforting.

We come together today, arm in arm with Jesus, as a people in need of healing. The Syro-Phoenician woman teaches us how to live as people of faith in a world that gets it wrong. She reminds us to speak the truth, to demand that our leaders and our institutions and even our God live up to the best versions of themselves.

On this healing Sunday, she reminds us to ask God boldly for what we need. She reminds us that the love of even a weary God is abundant, that even the crumbs have the power to heal.


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Lunch with Emily, Dinner with Marge

Photo of Marge in her new home.

I should have said, “It’s all journey.”

It’s Wednesday afternoon. I’m pulling out of the  Standard Diner parking lot after having lunch with Emily, one of my favorite millennials. I’m replaying our conversation in my head, hoping I didn’t say anything stupid that she might mistake as wise. (It’s a job hazard. All these years of teaching and blogging lend me a confident tone that tricks people into thinking I know what I’m talking about. Sometimes I even trick myself.)

We’re eating Parmesan truffle fries while Emily fills me in on what she’s been up to. At twenty-two, she has graduated from college and is killing it at her job in a local law firm. Not surprisingly, they love her and want to mentor her into their world. Emily would be a great lawyer; she has a solid core, an expansive heart, and a discerning intellect.

Emily is thinking about law school,

but she’s not sure. Because she’s Emily, having a full time job after college isn’t quite enough; she has also been studying to get a real estate license. And who knows? Maybe someday she’ll pursue a different dream and run her own kindergarten. I can imagine her succeeding in any (all!) of these worlds.

“Nobody tells you your twenties will be hard,” Emily says, as our meals come.

I think she’s right about that, and I’m wondering why we keep teaching young people that there’s only one path, and that it’s their job to leap onto it and make all the right turns, as if life is a series of subway stops leading to a career, instead of a stream, singing through a mysterious forest.

Someone told me that Ray Bradbury said one should “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” I could have told Emily that, too.

Or, I could have just said

“It’s all journey.” If I were actually wise, I might have told Emily about the time I couldn’t decide if I should quit Quodlibet, an acapella choir I sang in for a while. It was during that hard time when I used to drive across the bridge to see Sr. Therapist on Monday afternoons.

I’m sure cranes were grazing in the fields and geese were hurrying each other along overhead. The Rio Grande was low, and I probably said a quick prayer as I passed the overlook where we tossed the flowers into the water.

“I can’t decide what to do,” I told Sr. Therapist that day. “And I feel stupid talking about it, because it’s such a mundane decision.” Quodlibet met for a few hours every Sunday evening, and I found the music challenging. My days were stretching at the seams and I knew something had to give.

At some point, Sr. Therapist looked at me and said, “By saying yes to continuing with this group, what are you saying no to?”

Bam. It’s a question that has served me well ever since. Every yes comes with a rich bouquet  of implied nos. Tease those out, I learned, and decisions become much simpler. I should have told Emily to ask herself what she would be saying no to.

Better yet,

I should have quoted Wendell Berry. In “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” Berry writes, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”

A few days after my lunch with Emily I was still packing up my house and thinking about my own crazy journey when Fred and I took our favorite ninety-five year-old out to dinner.  We’re eating manicotti at Caruso’s on Menaul when Marge informs me that I am now her daughter-in-law because she has decided to claim Fred as her fourth son.

Marge’s journey began in 1923 on a ranch in Wyoming. She married an oil prospector who died too soon to see his own success, raised three sons, and became a successful artist.

At 95, Marge is wise enough not to go around trying to give people advice. At 54, I’m not. Here’s the advice Marge’s life is giving me.

  1. You are never too old to buy a big new house and throw a party. When Fred and I decided to sell our house, Marge decided she wanted to buy it. At fifty-four, I’m downsizing; Marge is upsizing at ninety-five. The party is in early September.

2. Stay in touch with your friends. When we picked Marge up for dinner she was playing cards with a friend. As we left Caruso’s, she stopped to talk to another old friend. A few weeks ago when we took her to the credit union, she ran into someone else she knew. Don’t believe what you hear about your circle shrinking as you get older.

3. Ask for what you need. On the way home, Marge lets us know she needs to stop at the vet. She tells the vet that Wendy (her dachshund) is afraid of storms. The vet gives her some pills and tells her to give the dog a half a pill when she sees a storm coming.

4. Drug the dog if you have to. When we get to Marge’s house, she looks at the clear blue sky and winks at me. “Looks like a storm is coming,” she says. Fred slips Wendy’s pill into a piece of hotdog so Marge can finally get a good night’s sleep.

I think I’m trying to say

that it’s not about the destination. There’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein said. People keep asking me why I’m moving “to Florida,” as though that little prepositional phrase is the important part of the question. I have trouble answering that question. But ask me why I’m moving, and I can tell you that I grew tired of standing still; that it’s more tiring to tread water than to swim.

It’s all journey. Wendell Berry said, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

These days I’m celebrating Marge and Emily and that singing stream. I’m grateful for the cliff edge as it falls fast away behind us. These wild things we call our lives are streaming out all around us and not one of us is alone. You can hear it in the whistle of the wind–the voices of so many friends, helping us build our wings on the way down.


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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.


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Dogs I’ve Known

Photo of Rusty lying down
Excuses, excuses.

I’ll tell you about some dogs I’ve known, but first I need to make some excuses. Last week I was ahead of the game. I wrote a full draft of a post on Sunday afternoon, so when Monday got busy, I didn’t worry. I figured I’d revise Tuesday morning, post my essay, and call another week of blogging a success.

That plan worked great until Tuesday morning, when I reread my essay and couldn’t stand it. I’m not sure what was going on in my head. I’ve fought that “it’s not good enough” demon many times before. Every other time, though, I’ve managed to wrangle my ideas into some sort of small truth, hold my breath, and press the “Publish” button.

Tuesday morning, I couldn’t even stay in the game. I bailed. That unrevised essay is sitting abandoned in my “drafts” folder, where it might just live out the rest of its days. “It will be ok,” I told myself. “I can still post something later this week.”

Then Wednesday, I got sick. By Thursday evening my eyes were streaming, my nose was dripping, and I felt like I was breathing with lungs full of honey.

So, as I languish on the couch not writing next to a full box of Kleenex and an empty box of Kleenex that I’m using as a trash can, Fred says what he always says when I say I’ve run of things to say.

“Write about dogs,” he says. “Or dead people. People like that stuff.”

So last week passed

that way, and through my coughing, sniffling, chills, and fever, I’ve been thinking about all the dogs I’ve known.

I’m not counting the Farrell’s Lhasa Apso that barked ferociously from the top of their stairs and made me afraid to feed him. Or Pepper, the Watchen’s lab who I sometimes watched for a weekend when they went away.

I’m talking about dogs I’ve known like Benny the Beagle. He was the first dog. I didn’t want a dog. Then Fred and I went to dinner one night and as we ate, he told me stories about the dog that slept under his crib when he was a baby.

We went home that night with Ben, whose sole talent in life was to look soulfully into your eyes until you gave him food. My father-in-law used to cook him steak, and eggs, and chicken. (On the same day–that was breakfast, lunch, and dinner.)

Many years later, when Peter and Ben were both much older, they would sit together on the couch watching tv and eating peanuts out of a giant can.

Then somehow

(and this part is still a little fuzzy), we got Annabelle.  She was a puppy when we got her. I remember that we used to say, “No, Ben,” a lot, but take it from me: “Just say no” doesn’t work any better as birth control than it did with drugs.

So for a little while, I knew a bunch of beagle puppies. In those days, we still had the waterbed Fred owned when I first met him. That’s where Annabelle went when it was time to bring her babies into the world. Let’s just say that wasn’t an ideal choice for any of us.

Of all the dogs I’ve known,

I remember three of those puppies. Our friend Ed and his wife and four kids came to visit as the puppies were just getting old enough to give away. Ed didn’t want a dog. No dogs allowed. He absolutely didn’t want a dog.

On the last day of their visit, we went shopping for a crate so they could take their puppy on the airplane. Sherlock was a beloved member of their family until he died happily, many years later.

I also remember the puppy that didn’t make it. I held him in my hands as Fred drove to the vet. She said some things I don’t remember, and then I held the puppy as she inserted the needle. I remember watching his heart go from beating to still. Outside Fred leaned on the hood of the car, and his whole body crumpled in one lone sob.

The last puppy I remember is CT, or Lester Crooked Tail, to be official. He was born with a gimpy tail and an opportunistic bent. Fred’s dad Peter didn’t think the dogs should be alone when we went to work, so a few days a week, we’d drop the dogs at Grandpa daycare.

CT knew a good thing when he saw it. While the other dogs romped and rollicked like normal puppies, CT glued himself to Peter. Sure enough, he got himself adopted by the man who cooked meals for his dogs.

Years later

when we sold our house and built a house that was big enough to live in with Fred’s parents, the beagle family was reunited. My sister Clare (not a dog person) once described Ben, Annabelle, and CT as furniture that followed you around.

While I’m thinking about it, Clare is the only person I’ve ever known whose houses come with pets. Every time she moves, there’s some animal that “comes with” the house. Bentley, who came with her house on the hill in West Virginia,  is another dog I’ve known.

He lived on the land at my sister’s before she moved in. He moved over and made some room for them and slept on their porch for years. When I’d visit, I’d feed Bentley ham and he’d let me brush him, much to my sister’s surprise. I was sad when I learned Bentley died. He was a good dog.

When Ben died, I learned that dying is something that happens to your mouth. Ben had been slowing down, hinting that something was going on, for a few weeks. Then, he rebounded. For a full week, he ran up and down the stairs and  followed us all around the house.

Then one afternoon, he lay down for a nap in the sun near the back door and didn’t wake up. You could see it in the funny set of his mouth.  CT died under a table in the living room. Annabelle was harder. She didn’t want to die. By the time we took her to the vet, she was so obviously close to dying that we wished we hadn’t taken her. I held her head and she was gone.

Other dogs I’ve known include Snow White, who smells bad and sits on my lap when we watch her. And Circuit, who pushes Rusty away and flops his crook-eared head into your lap, pledging affection without a price tag.

And then there’s Rusty.

Rusty has always been more person than dog. He worries a lot. Change unsettles him. He watches tv and barks at the animals, even if they are fake animals. Every time. I’m talking to you, Geico gecko. And you, Trip Advisor owl in your bathrobe. Rusty knows you’re up to no good.

Lately, Rusty has been having a lot of trouble standing up. His back legs aren’t working so well. We tried going up to bed without him, but he’d wake up after an hour or so and bark from the bottom of the stairs. Now we sleep downstairs in the guest room.

Rusty has an appointment at the vet on Thursday, and I’m hopeful that there will be something she can do to help him get more mobile again. A pill, a shot, a fancy “hip harness” device like I’ve seen online. Once he’s up and going, he’s all puppy.

So, there’s a quick tour of the dogs I’ve known. I’m grateful to them for their uncomplicated dogginess and their unwavering love.

Being sick has made for a strange day. I was too miserable even to read, so I’ve been writing a little and dozing in front of the tv.

It wasn’t a great day to watch CNN. In between writing about dogs, I’ve been looking at pictures of kids in cages and listening to tapes of children crying for their parents.

The thing I remember best about my father-in-law was that he liked dogs more than people. On a day like today, it’s easy to see why.


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