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. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Valley of the Violets

In the summer months, my little sister and I spent most of our days outside.  At the farthest end of our backyard was little, tree-covered flood-bank that snaked along behind the houses.    In our yard, at the base of the flood-bank, there was a little wooden building, painted white with green trim.  It was an old bait house, but it hadn't been used as such for decades.  My sister and I could have used it as a playhouse, but for some reason, this did not occur to us.  Instead, we kept an old tire in there in which we made a nest of dry grass for a large smooth stone.  It was the house where we kept the dinosaur egg.

Behind the dinosaur egg house and up on top of the wooded flood-bank was a long trail. There were wonders up there that only my sister and I knew about.  There was, for instance, a tree in which a person, if they cared very little about dirt or insects, could hide.  You could also see the ocean if you stood in just the right place.  It was really just the grayish blue roof of a house seen through trees, but it was real enough for me.

On the other side of the flood-bank was the creek.  I still dream of that creek.  Behind our house and all along that wondrous wooded levee that accompanied it on its lazy trip through the village, it was buggy and surrounded by dense vegetation.  We could only walk along it easily in the dry summer or in the winter when the water and the ground around it were frozen and navigable.

Between the long, snaky hills built to hold the water back from the village, there was an entire world full of living things the grown-ups barely knew was there.  You could find deer and birds and rabbits.  Sometimes there would be a garter snake lying in the path.  We always tried to catch these because there is something very magical about a snake, but snakes, like fairies, are difficult to capture.  They are gone almost before they are seen.

There were plants there too.  I didn't know the names of them so my memory does not allow me to identify most of them.  There were raspberries in abundance and touch-me-nots and Virginia creeper, I'm sure.  But there were also the mean-grasses that cut at our legs and the dark, broad, and thin leaves of the tender plants that grow in damp places.  There were yellow and pink and white flowers but none of them stand out in mind like the Valley of the Violets.

I think my sister and I were the only people who ever saw it.  We were intrepid adventurers in shorts and tee-shirts, our arms covered in mosquito bites and our ankles smudged with creek mud.  There may have been other people who passed that way, but unless they had eyes to see, it was invisible to them.  Like my ocean, you had to be in just the right place to see it.  But more than that it wasn't the kind of place you could just walk to with only mundane intention or find without heart.  You had to make a journey.  It could only be reached by quest.  It was that special.  It was the kind of place that is not always there and if you turn your back on it, like the garter snake, it would disappear into the more prosaic reality of creek water and mosquitoes.

How my sister and I first found it, I cannot recall.  It was not in the territories we normally explored.  I imagine that we crossed over from our own backyard, through our neighbors' yard via the path on the top of the levee.  A street cut through the bank at the edge of our neighbor's yard and so there was an artificially steep climb down to the regular ground level.  You had to be careful about this.  A bit of a little sideways run down the hill with a few big, bouncing leaps at the bottom generally kept us on our feet.  Then we crossed the road which was, because of our age and immense fear of cars, a peril in itself.  It was a very little town and a very little street, but I was very careful to look both ways.  The creek passed under the road and the flood-bank, severed in the middle, picked up again on the other side.

On the other side was a chain link fence that extended all around the school fields and playground.   But the fence ended at the long hill by the creek and it was easy enough to slip around the edge of the fence.  There was a little elementary school, just for the primary school kids at one end of the field and sometimes we played there or road our bikes around the parking lot and sidewalks.  Very few children ever came back to the school grounds after school hours so it was almost as if the entire complex had been built for us.  In any case, we felt it was really an extension of our own backyard and were always resentful when we found other children there.

Nearer to the road and in the corner of the school yard there was a great cluster of trees that grew together to form what all of us kids thought of as a house.  The trunks and branches grew together to form windows and ledges and seats where we all loved to climb.  Of course, it was forbidden by the school teachers minding us during playground period, but that mattered little to my sister and me after school hours.  When all the other children went home, the entirety of the school yard was ours and the tree house with it.

From the tree house, there was another climb back up to the top of the long hill where it began again from where the road interrupted it.  There was a path at the top on the school side of the road too, but it was not as well-traveled as the side behind our house.  This made it feel far more dark and dangerous a path for us.  One had to brace oneself before venturing down that trail.  Eventually, the path would get narrower and narrower until it disappeared altogether.  I suppose that's why we decided to walk down the "Other side" of the path not toward the school yard but toward the creek.  There must have been a path, or something like a path leading down the side of the hill away from the school yard.  Maybe the bugs were bothering us or maybe it was the prickly plants at the top.  Perhaps a deer had passed that way or maybe it was a fairy trail.  Whatever our reasoning, we followed it down.

And then we were on the other side of the world.  The school yard, our neighbor's yard and our yard were all part of this side of reality.  It was the reality of casseroles and warm sweaters and homework and bedtimes.  It was a comfortable and predictable world full of watchful adults who only saw the roofs of houses and never saw oceans.  The flood-bank was a boundary world.  It too could be seen by parents and teachers.  It had well-worn paths, often walked by grown-up hikers and nature enthusiasts.  Then there was the creek beyond it.  This was more mysterious.  We were to be very careful around the creek and there was more danger there.  It was really too shallow for any mortal danger, but it was unpredictable in its own way with rocks and mud at the bottom that could not be seen and fish and crayfish and snakes.  And then, most mysteriously of all, there was the other side of the creek.  We almost never went there.  I cannot tell you why.  It looked very much like our side of the creek, but it wasn't somehow.  It was like walking through the looking glass.  We might dare to stand in the water with the minnows brushing past our bare legs and the cray fish hiding under rocks, but that was usually as far as we got.  That last barrier was mighty and it was there that we usually turned around to go home.

But not that day.  Trying to remember it now with my adult brain, I realize that it could not possibly be as I remember it.  It was just a little creek behind a earthen barrier to prevent flood damage to the village.  And I honestly can't exactly remember how we finally made it to the Valley of the Violets. There was the wood and the water and the mosquitoes and the trees.... and then, we were just there somehow.   It was as if we were venturing in one world and then stumbled into another.   You have to be not looking while you are looking or you will never find your way.  The moment you plan to find such a place, it will stay hidden.  Such places only unfold themselves to the unwary and the willing.

Over the creek, through some trees, quite ordinary.  And then a bit of dense brush and prickly hedges and the old wispy trees one finds growing beneath the bigger, sturdier species.  Duck down beneath branches, climb over roots, watch your step, mind the prickers, and the stick-tights, and look up to see.  And there it was.  A dark and quiet place removed from all the world.  Trees leaned over it protectively.  Bushes completely surrounded it.  There in the hollow of earth made by creek and wood, it rested just beyond reality.  And everywhere, everywhere, were violets.  The light filtering down through the trees revealed a carpet of purple so deep and rich and holy that I have never forgotten it.  We stood there together, my sister and me, and were just glad.  We were just glad in that solemn quiet way that only happens when you are too foot-weary to insist upon reality and settle instead for Truth.

We could have stayed and the whole world would have gone on without us and we would have gone on without the whole world.  We could have made a bed of the flowers and lay among their petals like the velvet of a king's robe.  Perhaps, if we waited for just a few more moments, we could have become a part of that magic.  But we knew that we could not.  Not really.  The mosquitoes reminded us or our hungry bellies, or the darkening sky that it was time to go home.  So we did.  And that was that.

I don't remember if we ever made our way back to the Valley of the Violets again.  If we did, it was not exactly the same as it was that first time and so it was edited out of the stories we told to each other.  For years and years, we have told each other the story, and it always begins "Do you remember?"  I could call my sister today and the two of us, middle-aged ladies now, would feel, albeit fleetingly, like little girls again.  For a moment we could be ducking beneath the pricker branches and over the meanest ribbon grass to a world of darkest green and richest purple fading to the palest lavender.

I always meant to go back.  I think part of me was left there and lives there still.  Part of me is always there living in the deepest part of that magic and content to wait in the dimming light just before our mother calls us home.  But that part of me I left behind and the wood itself are gone from my grasp now.  I am all grown up and the woods are gone now too.  Men came with big machines and cut into the long hill to flatten it out.  New grown-ups too young to remember the big flood decided they didn't need the levee anymore and that it might be better to put a discount store there instead.  So they brought in those big machines and dug up the creek and and hill and the snakes, and the prickers, and the razor grass, and the mosquitoes, and the violets and my memories too.  All gone.  Gone and replaced by a parking lot and a big, ugly discount store.  And then more years turned and the discount store went out of business and became a community center.  Which is good, I suppose, in its own way, but it isn't really.  Not really.  Because I remember.  My sister and I remember what was there and what it meant and how we learned how there are some places in the world where you can never ever stay but that will be with you forever.

An Exploration of Fear: Part 1: Courage, Performance, and Phobia

I'm not always sure how I would define courage, but I know that I am not a courageous person. One of my friends, a very practical and soulful woman, has a matter-of-fact way of responding to me whenever I say I could never be strong if faced with more adversity.  She has no time for such nonsense.  "You could, if you had to."  Perhaps she is right.  She certainly has a higher opinion of my abilities than I have.

I suppose one definition of courage is doing a thing that makes you afraid.    I'm afraid most of the time so that gives me many opportunities to be courageous.  I very rarely take them.  For instance, I do not drive although I have a driver's license.  I never wanted to drive.  Ever.  When I was a teenager and it was time for me to take the test, I hid the practice booklet in the dog's bed so I wouldn't find it, and then was actually able to block the hidden location from my memory for several weeks.  It took forever to find the darn book.  (Likewise, I have the ability to un-remember how much student loan debt I accumulated.) Sadly for me, the book was found, the test was taken and passed, and I began to drive to college when I was eighteen.  This independence lasted for one year, but after transferring to a four year school I all but stopped.  And then, after meeting my husband, I pretty much stopped entirely.

My family is very supportive of this.  On many occasions, especially when I have had a conference, performance, appointment, or other obligation, my husband has taken time off of work to ensure that I have a chauffeur.  (He was, in fact, a professional chauffeur at one point in his working life.)  My parents also drive me.  My mother takes my children and me to appointments and on outings.   My father drives me to and from work.  Since he and I work in the same building, this is not a hardship except that I must arrange my teaching schedule to coincide with his commuting schedule.  This means that our division chairperson also accommodates my phobia by ensuring that our course schedules won't conflict with our transportation pattern.

It is not merely the driving that terrifies me.  I do not like to be without my family.  I live with my grandmother, parents, husband, and children.  I work with my father and share an office with him.  In many ways, I am more like a nineteenth-century woman than a woman of today.  Always accompanied by a relative, I live a protected life.  My parents, my husband, and now even my children watch out for me and handle social interactions that upset me.   They make phone calls for me and accompany me when I need to interact with people who make me nervous (nearly everyone!)  They shield me.  I mean this both figuratively and literally.  I often walk slightly behind my husband and hold onto his arm or elbow when in public places.  He waits for cues from me to know whether or not I dare risk interaction with people outside the family.  If he sees me withdraw, he takes over.  I note my children often scan my face to see if I need help or am feeling overwhelmed.  It is impossible to articulate how much gratitude and shame I feel when they come to my rescue.

There are noteworthy exceptions to my usually anxious, socially-phobic behaviors.  For instance, when teaching, giving speeches, "working a crowd", or otherwise engaged in my work as a teacher or a performer, there would be no way anyone would guess how painfully introverted and anxious I am.  I will strut, pull faces, tell jokes, swear like a dockworker, tell stories, and play both fool and philosopher for an audience.  If I can do it in costume, all the better.  They do not need to know that my family drove me to the event and is waiting in the wings to collect me.  They do not need to know that I will return home full of conflicting feelings of glory and self-doubt, headaches, anxiety, and depression.  They don't know that it will take me several hours and perhaps even days to recover once the adrenaline rush subsides.

People say I am brave. They are wrong.  They think I am being brave when I perform or when I reveal my vulnerabilities to strangers in my writing.  But such things are not difficult for me.  Disclosure of vulnerability is performative rather than courageous.  I do not mean that it is false, but that it is incorporated in what I have always felt called to do.  The weaknesses that limit me and that make my life so very private and shielded "in real life" can be safely exposed during performance.  I do not know why this is the case.  Ask me to expose the tender-most part of myself before an audience, and I will do so.  You may call me brave, but that cost me very little.  Returning your phone call, on the other hand, took everything I've got.

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 ...