Sunday, April 22, 2018

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking and bicycling by the house.  Cars drive slowly down our street with windows wide open.  The park has been full of people all day.  The daffodils are finally blooming and the hyacinths do not seem far behind.  I even noticed some buds on the lilac bush.  The sunshine, the flowers, the happy people-- it all seems so unlikely and so wonderful.  I think we all half-expected that the winter would never actually end.  Just three days ago, it was still snowing.  I know I was not alone in my winter resentment.  Other members of my family have been belly-aching for weeks and last night, as I was preparing to give a speech at a convention in another part of the state, the elderly woman helping me get set up commented that she had been just disgusted with the snow.  I think she almost took the foul weather personally.

In all this sunshine, it seems impossible to ever be gloomy again.  What funny, inconsistent creatures we human beings can be.  My hope rises and falls with the sun.  Or maybe it isn't hope I'm feeling.  Maybe hope isn't a feeling at all.  I think it might, like love, be something far more than an emotion.  We feel affection and cheerfulness more readily when we are warm, comfortable, well-fed, and in good health.  We blossom and sparkle in the bright moments of life and then, when the dark times come, we are all prickles and sharp edges like bare trees in the winter.  But affection and cheer are not the same as Love and Hope which are ours even when we are alone, afraid, tired, cold, and in pain.  I am reminded of a little stained glass decoration my parents kept in our house when I was little.  It said, "I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.  I believe in God even when He is silent."  Do I still believe?  I'm not sure.  I'm not sure, but I think, maybe, I might.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Warming Up

The weather outside is foul.  Thus far, spring has been little more than a technicality that the everlasting cold has, with obvious contempt, dismissed as irrelevant.  My bulbs and seeds, purchased months ago in a fit of calendar-inspired hubris, sit, unplanted, by my kitchen door.  A layer of ice has coated the bags of potting soil I piled on the back porch.  I really wonder why I bothered at all.

Still, even as I grumble and cuss, I know the spring will come--eventually.  I will plant seeds and bulbs and young trees.  I will feel the sun on my skin and I'll be able to wear two or three fewer layers.  Soon, maybe, the aching cold in my bones will also go away.  For most of  the day, to save money and the planet, the house thermostat is set at 59 or 60 degrees.  When we surrender to a riot of extravagance, we crank it up to 63 degrees, but even then, extra layers are required- leggings and leg warmers, long underwear and thick cardigans topped with one or two more layers of knitted shawls.  I don't notice the cold as much when I'm working around the house, but if I settle to read or write, the cold settles too.   It is a mean-spirited thing, the cold.  I am mightily tired of it.

Again, I remind myself, spring is coming.  It is, even now, knocking on our door.  All that has been real in the past several months of a western New York winter will become a memory.  Then spring itself will fly away and we'll have a western New York summer of oppressive heat and humidity, a condition I can forgive only because it ensures that my curls maintain their bounce.  It does not seem possible that such a fate awaits me.  Like Thomas, I have my doubts.  We all congratulate ourselves on our intellect and imagination, but we are still plodding creatures much tied to what we can sense in the here and now.  All things seem improbable until we are in the midst of them. 

I must take it as a matter of faith that the trees outside my front door will blossom.  There will be birdsong and children shouting and music played from front porches and passing cars.  There will be parades, picnics, and ball games.  People will go into the water- on purpose!  They'll fill the canal again for the first day of the boating season and people will glide by the house on boats both little and big.  We'll drive up to the lake and the water will be blue and clear and the white ice structures, so imposing now, around Niagara Falls will melt away as if they were never there.  The people will come back too and we'll hear the whole world in their accents and languages, as bright and colorful and lovely as the flowers around us.  The spray from the Falls will rise up and coat my glasses in a fine mist and I won't mind one bit because the sun will be warm at my back and my children will be at my side.  All these things are coming with the spring.  I know this from experience.  It has always been so and therefore does not rise to the level of inspired expectation.

I do not need faith to tell me such things are true.  I have lived them and know, experimentally, that the spring will come.  This year.  But what of ten years from now?  Or twenty or fifty?  What then?  The world is changing- has changed already.  We are at the end of many things and one of those things may be us.  I write this last paragraph sparingly, abruptly.  But there it is.  The warmth I so crave will come and after that, more and more and more until there is too much of it.  And now, in a way that I find unsettling, I find I need my faith and wonder where I left it and if it will welcome me back if I ever find it again.  I find that after such a long time of being busy and largely content in my life, I need to write again.  I must have a place for my fear (and hope too maybe) to exist outside my head where it has settled like the bitter cold and chilled me- relentless, unforgiving.  So I return to this blog.

More later.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

In Which I Remember Grandma Two Years After Her Death

Two years after her death, my grandmother, with whom I lived for many years, is often in my thoughts.  The other day, I found her Bible improbably pushed off its place on a shelf and onto the floor.  I lifted it up to look inside to find, in her spidery handwriting, a note about a gift she gave to my husband when he joined the Masons.  Reading her note put me in mind of that time when I, hoping to please her,  had also joined Eastern Star, the women's auxiliary to the Masons.  My husband and I thought this would give me an opportunity to spend time with Grandma, a devoted member of Eastern Star.  It was my way of doing something "grown-up" with her.

My timing was off.  Grandma was recently widowed and began to withdraw from many of the social functions that had characterized younger years.  She immediately stopped going to formal meetings after walking me through my first (and as it turned out, last) Eastern Star function.  Even so, despite me being a member of her beloved Eastern Star in name only, she said to me, with both pride and affection, "Now we are sisters!"

Later, my husband, children, and I moved into my grandmother's house where we all lived for many years.  She was getting old and my children were very young. She and I both struggled with limited agency and movement.  When all the other adults in the house went off to their jobs, meetings, and ramblings, Grandma and I were home with the little ones where we were able to help each other with all the little problems of life.  In those years, she gave me guidance as a senior and experienced mother of six, grandmother of thirteen, and great-grandmother of  ten. Her very presence in my life relieved my anxieties.  It inspired my confidence to have the attention of the unquestioned family matriarch.  She modeled femininity, authority, and  care, and taught me how to be a woman and a mother. 

But it was more than that.  It was more than her guidance and benevolence, as worthy and valuable as those gifts were.  In those years, I also had her friendship.  We laughed together and stayed up late talking and telling stories. It was as if I had discovered that the queen herself was a pal.  But Grandma was a very formal person.  One did not hug my grandmother.  One might be permitted to place one's hands lightly on her shoulders, lean forward and give her a ritualistic parting kiss, but that was the extent of any physical embrace.  One could say to her, in parting, "I love you, Grandma" and hear in return a cheerful chuckle or, at most, a few murmured words of approval.  But in all those years, she never told me she loved me.  She never had to.  I knew.

As my children grew up, she grew old, very old, and needed more and more of my mother's and my help until, finally, painfully, she had withered away to almost nothing. The bewildering and exhausting final months of her decline in which she was increasingly distant, irrational, and difficult culminated in her last days of complete infantile helplessness.  Yet, as deeply sad and difficult as that was, it was also beautiful.  At the bittersweet end, she wanted to be touched and held.  She seemed to take comfort in hearing us speak to her of the people in this world and the next who loved her and would always love her. With all her matriarchal authority surrendered and her dignity set aside for an even higher calling, she was finally able to accept my embrace.

Since her passing, I find her with me all the time.  I speak to her sometimes as I move about my life.  My new home is full of her old things.  I find myself repeating some of her favorite stories and phrases.  I like to tell my kids about her.  "Your great-grandmother used to say," I begin.  I want them to know her, to know the essence of her as far as I can communicate it.

 She is with me day and night.  This week, as I slept, I dreamed that I found my grandmother struggling to lay herself down on her bed.  I rushed to her and caught her up in my arms so that I might help her.  I settled her gently onto the bed and said, "Grandma, your clothes are all twisted!" as I helped her straighten polyester trousers with elastic waistband, so familiar and dear in my memory.  Then, when her clothes were smoothed, I also smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead saying to her, "I love you, Grandma!"  She answered my declaration as she never had in life, "I love you, too."  No uncomfortable laugh affectionately dismissing my sentimentality, no awkward words acknowledging the sentiment but falling short of reciprocating it.  In my dream, finally, I had her voice, clear and calm, telling me what I always knew but needed to hear.

Dreams have their own funny logic.  All through my dream, I knew that she was already gone, that she had already died and that I was merely speaking with a shade who would soon fade away from my sight and leave me once again without her.  When I woke, the dream lingered longer than most- allowing me a chance to get hold of it and pin it down in words.  I am thankful for such a dream that seemed so simple and so real.  I am thankful for the reminder that I had that time with her when I was permitted to hold her.  I am thankful, if only in a dream, to hear her tell me she loved me in a voice both gentle and certain.   Maybe it is not the first time.  Perhaps she told me she loved me when I was a little girl.  She was often more affectionate with children than with adults.  But if she did, I don't remember it.  I do remember her hands, elegant, cool, and fragrant, brushing my hair from my forehead when I was little. I also remember her hands at the close of her life, frail and trembling, grasping my own and placing them against her hair so that I could do the same for her.

Such knowledge of another soul is greater than any words we use to describe our feelings.  She was matriarch, sister, friend.  She was Grandma to me...and I was myself with her.  And that was always good enough.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

In Which I Discuss My Recent Move

Much has changed since my last post.  I now live in a dollhouse on a corner lot nestled between the canal and a city park.  We have lived here for one year now and have fallen in love with our gardens and our favorite walk over the aqueduct.  We love the lake and the waterfall, the thriving old-fashioned downtown, and the lovely stretches of farmland surrounding our new village home.  As the year unfolds, we are delighted by new surprises and new traditions.  The flowers come up in the spring and summer followed by the burnished colors of autumn.  The winter brings us a parade of lights and fireworks downtown as the snow makes a wonderland of the park outside our door.  In many ways, this has been a good year, political tragedies notwithstanding. 

I would not, however, be honest if I did not acknowledge that in some ways, despite our appreciation for our blessings, it has been one of the most difficult times of our lives.  In the end, the personal is political and this year, more than most, the political became very personal.  I am haunted by the what-might-have-been of the election last year.  Since that day in November, the world has been distorted for my family.  At first it was just the horrified realization that the nation had elected an individual we felt to be predatory and unethical.  We were afraid for immigrants, the poor, for the environment.  We imagined dystopia and braced ourselves for the work we would be asked to do to defend the vulnerable. 

But those were all impersonal fears, the kind that you find in television reports.  We were still safe.  Our move was still ahead of us, and we knew how valuable my husband was to his employers.  Hadn't they just transferred his employment to another refuge out farther west, and weren't they thrilled to have him on their team?  We knew how much they needed his labor, and so, while the worry that something (so unlikely!), it was not severe.  In fact, there was great promise that it was just a matter of time, perhaps only months, before his term position would be translated to a permanent position.  After four years of paying his federal worker dues with an "internship" in which he worked full time for frankly lousy pay while attending college part time, we knew it was his turn. 

Part of the fun of the move was hearing all the important things he was doing at work.  His sense of purpose and dedication enlivened all of us.  He wore his uniform with pride and told us about the job he was doing to protect the water and the wildlife that relies on it.   Then, just as the summer months approached with anticipation of all the work required in a refuge during the warm months, he came home early to tell me that he had been let go.  There was a federal hiring freeze and multiple employees were summarily dismissed from all the refuges.  In our district in the Northeast, two individuals had been tasked by their administrators with the unhappy responsibility of traveling from refuge to refuge to fire Fish and Wildlife workers.  The guy who fired my husband was very nice, and very sorry, but that doesn't count for very much.  Just like that, all the promises he had been given, all the support from his supervisors and co-workers came to nothing. In a moment, all the time, dedication, skill, and pride he had invested in what he thought was his career were all swept away. As he told me the news, I could barely stand to see the hurt in his eyes.  He was winded, sucker-punched, and even a little ashamed.  He felt that he had somehow let us down.

So that was that.  He was unemployed for three months and the money we had set aside to fix up this dear old house was eaten up.  In the midst of this, my grandmother passed away, and two of our dogs died.  I have found also that even on the happy days, I miss my parents and my son, still living back east on the old homestead, so much that it hurts. On the loneliest and most difficult days, I wonder if we made the right decision when we decided to buy this frumpy, old-lady of a Victorian house out here so far away from my folks and my old memories. 

My husband finally found a job as a truck driver for a recycling company.  The pay is reasonably good, but the hours are terrible.  He leaves for work at 1:00 each afternoon and, on a good day, comes home around midnight.  More often he is out much later, sometimes as late as 5 am.  The man who just six months ago was so bursting with pride in his work that he kept his uniform on even after he came home, now winces as he puts on his neon yellow work shirt and calls me during his breaks to help calm his anxiety and to buoy his spirits.

Meanwhile, I am working from home as an online adjunct instructor.  I don't get the good assignments I had grown accustomed to.  These days, so far removed from the political structure of the main campus, I'm lucky to get any courses at all.  I've been busy with my work as an historical interpreter of 19th century women's rights history.  This is the 100th anniversary of New York women's achievement of suffrage so there have been plenty of gigs.  These help pay the bills and give me some sense that I have not sacrificed all of my career as an educator to come out here to live.

Sometimes I regret moving out here.  I am homesick for the Finger Lakes and my family still living there, I resent the loss of our jobs, and I worry about our ability to keep this house.  I am sometimes angry to the point of tears when I see that so many of the dreams we had as young people will never be realized.  He will never retire from the federal government with a retirement sufficient to provide for our children and ourselves.  I will never be a tenured faculty member with the respect of my peers.  But these moments of remorse for this move, one of the biggest decisions of my life, are rare.  Far more often I am thankful for a home I love and still hopeful that what sometimes feels like a series of misfortune and petty injustice is really just more transition, painful at times, awkward, and scary, but ultimately leading me to a greater depth and wisdom as my husband and I walk together into middle-age.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Battling Spring

It has been an exceptionally slow spring with several false starts.  The flowers poked their daring heads above the ground only to be covered by several inches of snow.  Again and again this would happen.  Tantalizingly, temperatures climbed as we, throwing caution to the balmy wind, celebrated spring only to have our hopes dashed with the next bout of deep cold.  And then we'd say, "What did you expect?  This is New York" and go about our business properly chastened.  It is a rookie mistake to expect spring during the spring months in Western New York.  But those little flowers and green leaf buds were indomitable and while I hardly dared dream, I kept consulting them like oracles.  Today I dare to hope that we have turned a corner.  There was a bit of ice in yesterday's rain, but the lilacs are in bloom and despite the chill in the air this morning, there is too much green on the trees and too much promise in the sunshine for me to believe that winter can do any more than leave us with a parting cuff and cussing.  Winter can be a bitter old man, but there's not much bite left in him.

On the branch just outside the window sits a robin.  He's a robust fellow who persistently flies against the windowpane--thump!--and then returns to his perch to glare in at us.  We are told that he sees his reflection and thinking another cheeky male has come to disrupt his household, he stands guard periodically giving the perceived interloper what-for by smacking his fat little body against the glass.  We've attempted to discourage this delusional behavior by a variety of means, but he is persistent.  In fact, this is his second year of window-smacking devotion to his mate.  He is delusional, but he is also admiral in his loyalty.  What worries me, however, is that he will do himself harm.  I worry not just about his plump little robin body, but about his dear little robin spirit.  For two years he has lived with the anxiety of another male robin invading his peaceful domestic life and potentially causing harm to his little robin family.  I may know that he need not worry, but the robin doesn't know that.  He stands guard day after day with worry in his tiny heart.

Perhaps I anthropomorphize too much, but it is difficult not to feel great sympathy for the robin.  My spring has been thematic.  I might file the entire thing in my brain as Worried Hope.  Since my grandmother's passing, all the energies in my life that seemed frozen have begun to thaw.  For an eternity, I waited sometimes patiently (but mostly impatiently) for Something Good to Happen knowing that I could not really move toward that Something until "Grandma Doesn't Need Me Anymore."  Well, that time is now.  And now, like the spring itself, there have been persistent indications from the Universe that change is coming.

My husband has graduated from college ending his long internship at the wildlife refuge where he works.  This took us by surprise since we thought they planned to either keep him on a few months longer or maybe even open a permanent position for him.  No dice.  This was not a tragedy.  Having satisfied his obligations in a special federal program, he has earned assistance finding  a permanent federal job somewhere in the country and has already landed a term position that will pay the bills while we search.  I tried to be enthusiastic about the idea of moving to a new place, but I failed.  I was too frightened and sad about the situation to muster up anything like believable enthusiasm.  I suppose I gave it all away when I couldn't stop crying about it.

 My career as an adjunct lecturer also seems to be coming to a close.  I always said that if my husband found work elsewhere or if my father, with whom I work, retired, I would leave my thankless job and good riddance.  I hoped for one of those two things to happen.  Longed for it.  Prayed for it.  And now my husband has found work elsewhere and my father has announced his retirement.  And me?  Far from feeling good about these changes for which I've prayed, I'm just unsettled and uncertain.  Everything is changing.  Too fast.

My family is changing too.  Grandma is gone.  I can't even wrap my head around that. 

My son turned 18 and let us know that he didn't plan to come with us when we moved deciding instead to take up my parents' offer to him to continue to live with them.  My younger son, while still "the baby", is increasingly independent and rapidly approaching his teen years. My daughter turned 17 and became very interested in being herself.  She is still a loving and conscientious girl, but is now much taller, hipper, and more obviously assertive in her quest to be unlike her mother.  I knew this was coming, but when I saw her dressed for her prom, I was a wreck of pride and sorrow.  I bought her dress, shoes, and make-up, helped her pick out jewelry, and watched her father take a thousand pictures as she and her best friend vamped for the camera.  She is so different than I was at her age.  I was too much of a nerd to ever contemplate going to prom, but I did my best not to let her know how scared I am of that difference.  I cheerfully joined her in prom preparations.  Dress, hair, make-up--I tried to be as cool as a mom can be.    As she and her friend pulled out of the driveway, I sat on the front porch in my sensible shoes and long skirt and waved a happy good-luck-and-have-a-great-time! good-bye to my gorgeous short-skirted, long-legged daughter.    Then, when she was down the road, I burst into tears and wept for at least half an hour straight.


So that's how it goes.  Spring is beautiful and heart breaking.  It is too much for me.  At first, you just see a few green shoots, a little blossom, a budding tree.  You feel that you can observe it, understand it, keep track of it.  I miss the discipline and certainty of winter, agent of ice and dormancy.  Blessed winter keeps checking life's haste, calls it back to order, cautions its wayward ramblings.  But the dear conservative winter can only hold on so long before spring well and truly breaks through those bonds and erupts in a riot of green.  I walk outside and try to imagine the still winter, the austere lines of gray branch against white snow and white sky.  I try to remember when the air was not full of a cacophony of bird song.  Spring is a time of hope, but like my robin friend, I worry and stand guard at the window.  I see threats to my family everywhere in this unruly eruption of change.  I feel like I must, if I am to be at all vigilant for my family's sake, run up against the hard edges of reality again and again.

But it occurs to me that this too might be delusion.  Is it possible that while the warm spring welcomes growth all around me I am only staring down a delusion. Perhaps I am no less foolish than the robin outside my window.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Now. Look Here.

Note:  I delivered this sermon on the Sunday before Martin Luther King's birthday and two weeks following my grandmother's death at 99 and 1/2 years old.

These years have been difficult and unsettling years.  Often when people speak to me of the future, they do so as if it is a haunted and unwholesome place.  I have become afraid of the future.  I’d rather rest in the pages of history with my heroes  but the world seems so damaged and hurting that their victories have become like accusations.  “We played our part,” they seem to say to me, “what will you do?” 
I can’t answer the question.  Sometimes I think I’ll drive myself crazy with trying.
Not that it would have mattered much if I could find the answer.  I do not know what work I will be called to do in the future, but up until last month, I knew my place and that was with my grandmother.   

These years have been difficult and unsettling years for her too as one by one she surrendered her connection to her life and to those of us who had shared it with her.  Her body weakened and her vision and hearing failed her.  She lost her ability to walk, to stand, to sit up without assistance.  She lost her ability to cook, to feed herself, and finally to swallow.  Most painfully for us, she seemed to always be somewhere else, away from us.  Days would go by without a word from her or even a smile.  In our multi-generational home, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered around her, and year after year as she drifted away from us, we all drew closer.  My mother retired early and dedicated herself to my grandmother’s care.  She even began to sleep on the floor beside Grandma’s bed.  My children grew up with the mandate that every decision must be made with their great-grandmother’s needs and comforts in mind.  Shawn and I together decided that whatever we pursued in life and career must honor her as the center of the family.  
Through it all, I’d watch and read the news with a growing sense of dread for my children’s sake.  I became jealous of my grandmother who, with nearly a century behind her, had moved beyond all care for tomorrow.  And I resented her too because in satisfying my duty to her, I felt I was neglecting my duty to the future.  My career stalled.  My writing stopped.  And the more vulnerable she became, the more time she required of me, of all of us.  I loved Grandma but I resented her too. I missed the person she had been and dreaded the final loss of her.
For eleven years I helped my family protect my grandmother’s independence and dignity.  But despite our best efforts, her independence fell away, and then her dignity, and then, many long, painful months later, she was gone too. 
 
And I had a sermon to write.
I wanted to write of important things and chose hymns and readings that focus on interpretations of the healing presence of the Divine in our midst.  The gospel writers called it the Paraclete, which is sometimes translated as the Advocate.  The early church named it the Holy Spirit.  Generations of mystics have called it the Inward Christ, the Indwelling Spirit, “that of God,” Holy Wisdom, Intercessor, Comforter, Helper, Beloved.  
But this message is not about theology or the history of Christianity.  I wanted it to be because I love that stuff, but I couldn’t manage it.  Our household is in disarray.  My words also do not follow good order and they keep wandering.  I find that they want to be with her.  
Grandma was not a prophet like Dr. King or a mystic like Julian and I never heard her use the words “holy” or “spirit” either alone or in combination.  Still, I keep hearing her voice in my head.  “Now, look here!” she would say as she was always pointing out little details to us--a loose thread on a sweater, a bloom on an African violet, a jack-in-the-pulpit in the garden, an error in our grammar.  I have a lot of stories about her and I’ll be telling them all my life, I suppose.  But if I had to choose one to tell you now it would be how she used to take me outside to show me the plants in her garden.  My grandmother’s garden was never going to win any awards for style, but I loved it.  It was green and cool and full of interesting things.  She was not a boastful gardener with flowers set to impress, as much as she was a steward of the lowly things.  A tiny plant in a hidden place was as much a joy to her as any prize bloom.  
  
She was our matriarch, a sovereign and mighty force in our life surrounding us with houseplants and crocheted mittens and afghans and other signs, visible and invisible, of her love.    To outsiders, it might have been difficult to see that love.  In her affections as in her garden, you had to know what you were looking for.  She was not going to gush over us, call us sweetheart, and bake us cookies.  She was not that kind of grandmother.  I knew she loved me because when I was little, she listened to me with the same respect she would give an adult.  I knew because she hung mirrors and towel-rings down low so that we kids could reach these handy tools of life without having to ask for help.  I knew because if anyone teased one of us little ones, she would sternly defend the child with the words, “She is a person!” 
Her kids and grandkids (and there are a lot!) are an eclectic and eccentric set and we brought more odd ducks into the family when we married people of different races, nations, sexualities, and religions.  In the boxes of photographs and cards that she saved over the years is evidence of just how weird we sometimes were.  She took it all in stride.  Whatever our condition, whatever our passions, whatever our place on the spectrum of life, she welcomed us back without question or condition.  We were all persons, unique and changing, and always, always entirely acceptable and beloved in her eyes. 

Her theology, and she would never use that word, was very basic.  The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit that religious literature describes so mytho-poetically is really quite an ordinary and humble thing.  It is, finally and simply, a presence that seems to be always there, though we hardly ever take the time to notice.  It is the impetus, pathway, and action of love.  It is the divine part of us that makes humanity humane and informs the way we deal with death and grief and memory.  It is Spirit seeking itself and finding it in the hidden places.  It is what we learn from folks around us as they pass in and out of our lives--whether they are Jesus of Nazareth or Martin Luther King, or my grandmother, Prudence Mary, of a tiny town in central New York. 
It was difficult to wait with her in her last years.  Like a little kid, I was restless and eager to run off and away, but instead I held her hand and followed her as if we were still together in her garden.   Except there were no more gardens.  No more painting or pottery or furniture refinishing.  No more shopping or visiting or Eastern Star meetings.  No more crocheting and knitting, croquet or dominoes.  No more delicious cakes or horrible casseroles.  All of that was long ago and all that was left was an old woman, sometimes selfish, very frail, and wholly dependent.  But she was not done teaching me.  As the silence grew around us and between us, it was still as if Grandma was saying, “Now, look here!”  The woman who had taught me all I know about personal dignity and self was also teaching me how to let those things go. 
Revelation can be a humble thing.  The Apostle Paul and Dr. King found it in a jail cell.  My grandmother spent her life seeing worth and divinity in small and humble places.  She was not a big picture person, my grandmother.  She made her life in the everyday.  It is a very human, and very holy thing to do.  Look here.  This is the stuff that justice is made of.  This is where kindness grows.  As I struggle to understand just how my life will continue without her in it, I keep encountering her lesson that it is not the outward success but the such-ness of a life that deserves our attention.  Do not mistake greatness for importance, power for strength, or piety for faith.  
For nearly a hundred years, Prudence was simply herself, formal and formidable, stubborn, brilliant, irascible, creative, witty, and kind.  Sometimes I wanted to set aside my duty to her and become important, to roll up my sleeves and seek a ministry outside the family.  But it was never that time--so I waited.  I waited until the morning after Christmas when I took my turn with her as she lay quietly breathing…breath after purposeful, intentional breath.  I listened to her sigh in what sounded like a young woman’s voice.  It was a beautiful sound.  The household around us continued to bustle and live, but Grandma and I were caught in a moment of blessed quietness when I said, “I love you.  It’s alright.  We all love you.  It’s alright.”   Then, though she had seemed barely conscious for days, she set her jaw in one final moment of determination and was gone.
Now it seems that she and I are both free and I must decide how to live in a troubled world without her.  I do not know what I will do.  I hesitate to bring so private a message to you.  I feel selfish in doing so, but this is the only thing I could write.  I have not yet received my new orders.  I do not know what to do next.  “We wait in the quietness for some centering moment that will redefine, reshape, and refocus our lives,” wrote Howard Thurman. I think I know what he meant.
For my entire adult life, I have been my grandmother’s apprentice and companion.  But that is all over, and I do not know what is next.  Perhaps for the first time in my life, I feel ready to rest in a faith I cannot understand or describe except to say that I do believe and I have known that a Comforter has come and does abide with us forever though we are sometimes too busy to notice.  “Now,” my grandmother would say, “Look here.”  The Beloved has been with us all along.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Treasures in Heaven




I offer this with my thanks to one of my favorite blogs,  Friendly Skripture Study which recently explored Matthew 6:19-21.  You can link to it here.

 "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

When I read this, I could not help but think of two people who passed out of this life many years ago.  I will interpret this biblical passage through the lens of my memory of my great-grandmother, Beth, and of her son-in-law, my grandfather, Theodore.  They were ordinary people without much of what the world would call treasure to their names.  They worked all their lives on farms and in factories and shops.  They left me with no inheritance apart from their wisdom and their love.

While reading Matthew's comments on treasure and heaven, my great-grandmother immediately came to mind.  She once said that she would gladly give up her place in Heaven if she could give it to a criminal here on earth.  Some folks receive blessing after blessing in happy childhoods and strong communities.  Their physical and emotional needs are fulfilled.  Others begin life with such injustice and pain that they seem to fall from grace.  Poverty, violence, and inequality are heaped upon some far more than on others.  She did not take credit for her virtue but believed it came to her as an unmerited gift of circumstance.  Her life, full as it was with love, made making good decisions easy.  It made being good easy.  She felt that those who committed crime or could not find their way to virtue, were in that situation because they had, for whatever reason, been deprived of the soul-sustaining comforts and the helping hand of loving relationships.  They had not known the privileges of connections, security, and safety.  She told her family that she had experienced her Heaven here on earth with those she loved.  She would give up her place in Heaven for another soul.  Her view of Heaven and the way she linked it to social justice have always stayed with me.

My grandfather came to mind because he taught me how to seek treasure. I remember how he told me that he wanted me to go to college not to learn how to make a living, but to learn how to make a life.  Even if I didn't use my knowledge to earn money or make a career, to seek knowledge and to love it would make my life more meaningful, more valuable, more rich in treasure.  Because I know the man he was, I also know that he did not simply mean knowledge for its own sake but as a means of increasing wisdom and understanding.  Grandpa organized his entire life around love and found the deepest meaning in that love.  I felt clear that he sent me off toward my education with a strongly implied directive.  "Seek out knowledge, beauty, understanding, and wisdom.  Be full of gratitude for the wonders you find in the world and the people in it.  Be generous.  Be kind.  Be light-filled.  Magnify the good."

Now mind you, if my grandfather had ever made such a speech, it would have knocked us out of our chairs.  He was painfully shy and very quiet.  He was more likely to say a few short words of support than to make speeches.  He was more likely to smile quietly than to laugh out loud, but his eyes would twinkle and he would gaze at us proudly when we came home and told him about our projects and our passions. He believed each of us was an expression of life's miracle.  When I was a small child, I sat on his lap with my little hand in his.  He would tell me how marvelous the human hand was and what a miracle could be found in the opposable thumb.  I remember gazing at my own hand and feeling connected to all humanity and its potential.   He sent each of his children and his grandchildren into the world with his expectation and hope that his curiosity and wonderment would go with us.  And so it did and for that inheritance of treasure, I am ever thankful.

My great-grandmother and my grandfather believed their lives were blessed, rich, full of treasure.  Others would have disagreed.  Theo had a speech impediment and walked on bowed legs.  He lost his oldest sister to a fire and his father to tuberculosis.  Finally, just as he was coming of age, his mother died and he and his orphaned brothers and sisters were cheated out of their family farm.  As a young adult, he watched sibling after sibling die at a young age and lived his entire (ironically) long life in fear of death and separation from his loved ones.  He worked until he was 85 and then, following his doctors' medical neglect, nearly died of an long-untreated aneurysm which was followed by five long years of dementia ending in his death. 

His mother-in-law, Beth, was an immigrant to the United States.  She lost her beloved brother to the First World War, had to leave her family in England to make a life for herself in the States, struggled to raise a family on a Upstate New York farm during the Great Depression, saw two sons traumatized by World War II, and despite being an artist, a poet, and a schoolteacher, had to take a job in a factory to support her terminally ill husband in his last years before his premature death.  She lived as a widow for many years before she died of breast cancer at 87. 

Both of them suffered their share of sorrows and carried their own heavy burdens, but they both knew and celebrated the treasures they had and the treasures that they passed along to us.  We cherish Beth's poems which are about the simple joys of life and her steadfast belief in human equality.  We have her oil paintings and her watercolors in which she lovingly captured the beauty around her, a vase of flowers, a favorite book, the woods in the fall.  She was a prolific painter and gave her work away to many friends and family who admired it.  Her paintings hang in almost every room in my home and in those of my extended family.  One of her oil paintings hangs in the community library and I love to point it out to my children to remind them of Gram's spirit.  Her poems and paintings are a wonderful legacy and we are proud of them, but they are still just things and those things, paper and canvas, ink and paint, will fade away.  What will last will be her joy, her love, her dignity and grace.  Her love of beauty in simple things was shared over and over again until it became a habit in all of us who descended from her.  Several of us have careers in the arts or have made craft and creativity a central theme in our lives.  More importantly, as we create, we do so with her central teaching that creativity matters.  Love matters.  Equality matters.  Any woman who would give up her place in heaven not only for "the less fortunate" but for the most despised here on earth cannot help but leave the world aglow in treasure.

Likewise, my grandfather, Theodore, through hard work and self-denial, left his wife, and therefore those of us who continue to care for her in her old age, a nest egg of savings.  He ensured that she would have a physical home to live in for the remainder of her life, that she could continue to pay for her health care, and that so long as she lived simply, she would not go without.  But that is just money and with prolonged illness and the relentless march of time, it too dwindles and disappears.   He gave us so much more than that.  We have story after story of wisdom and kindness from my grandfather.  These Grandpa-stories are shared each time the family comes together.  These are mostly funny stories that end with his constant message of patience, tolerance, and kindness. 

Beth must have seen that in him after he married her daughter.  My grandpa, the man who told me to go learn and seek out the meaningful and the worthy was her son-in-law and she chose to live close to him and to her daughter after her husband died.  She must have appreciated his loyal spirit, and she painted a special painting just for him.  She knew that his own vulnerabilities, his speech impediment and his tremendous shyness gave him gifts of sensitivity and gentleness.  When her husband was full of sorrow, she had called on Theodore to spend time with him, not to "cheer him up" but because she knew her son-in-law's heart was tender enough to listen closely and to love unconditionally.  Her husband, like her, was an artist and yet he struggled to make his way as a farmer.  He struggled with an injured heart, both physically and metaphorically.  So Beth sent Theodore out to the fields to spend time with him.  She knew that sometimes we do not need to be cheered.  We need to be heard.  We need others to see the light that shines in us.

In the end, and from the beginning, the Light is our treasure.  We are called to shine and we are called to see others shine and to glory in it.  I think we miss it because we expect something brash and bold and stupendous.  Perhaps we expect trumpets and angels, but sometimes, most times, it is a very humble and human thing.  You can find it in the treasure house of our curious minds and our loving hearts.  Once, long ago, Grandpa held my little hand in his and told me what a miracle it is to be human.  When he closed his great, work-worn hand around mine it was as if he had pressed treasure beyond measure into my palm.  Our riches are our passions and hopes and creative souls.  We build our fortunes when we work for each other, honor each other, celebrate each other.  Our treasure is Love, not of the Hallmark variety, but the kind of love my grandfather gave me when he looked at me and saw a miracle.  Our heaven is each other.  So go out and paint and write poetry.  Go out and raise children and work hard.  Go out and learn and be filled, forever, with the wonder of it.  Go out and let your paintbrush dance and your eyes twinkle and your heart ache.   Teach this human miracle to others.  Love them into the fullness of their lives.  Hear them into the fullness of their Voice.  Give without counting the cost. Follow the advice George Fox gave us:

  "Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you." 

Let your love for all people everywhere so fill you and enrich you that you cannot help but declare that it is enough and more than enough. Give up your place in Heaven for love's sake and Heaven's treasures will pour down upon you. 

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...