Don’t (Ever) Write a Novel

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Attending two writing conferences in one summer has convinced me of one true thing – no one should ever even consider writing a novel. Simply put, it’s too much work.

The questions overwhelm: Present tense or past? How much physical description? – one class participant says it’s too much and one says too little. And while we are at it, what is 3rd person limited point of view anyway? My all-knowing omniscient voice splashes wisdom on every page with not only glee but apt and smart allusions – to kill such darlings would make even Faulkner weep.

And by no means should one try to write a novel when she is an essayist, or a poet. On my desk at school I’ve taped an index card on which I’ve written, If Marilynne and Flannery can do it, so can I, in that cute, colorful calligraphy all my students practice during class. On good writing days, I kiss the index card and hold it to my chest, pick up the phone, and pay my hard-earned money to come to the Mecca of American writing – Iowa City, Iowa.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that it may be time to rip up the index card and binge-watch Netflix. Seems like that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days. Just sayin’.

Never try to write a novel.

And while I have your ear, I’d like to advise you against having children too. And exercising. And eating well. And good personal grooming. And definitely gardening. Again, too much work. The day-to-dayness of such processes confounds the mind and wounds the spirit – things that must be tended to every day are simply not worth the effort. The payoff comes too late, if it comes at all.

Children are sticky. Exercise hurts. Plants wither. And Margaret Atwood tells us to “keep our eyes upon the doughnut,” so take that NutriSystem. I’ll just shop for bigger clothes.

So please. Don’t ever try to write a novel – at the end of your day. At the end of the day, go to bed. Embrace the darkness – invest in blackout curtains if you must. But rest. Let the children and the novel sleep.

Sisyphus’ stone has rolled to the bottom of the hill every day for millennia, and I think I’m unique?

We should write our novels in the morning. Kiss the children. Eat a banana. Go to yoga. Water the plants. Brush your teeth. Work on your novel. Push the stone up the hill again, today and then again tomorrow.

One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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She Entered the Woods a Second Time

Her return to the woods was both unexpected and unplanned – halfway home she realized she had left her book on the large rock beside the creek bed where she had been writing and, distraught, she entered the woods a second time that afternoon, but this time more frenzied than when she had entered earlier in the day.

Her father’s funeral had undone her, and she had not expected it. It must be somewhat easier when you know it’s coming people had said to her for the past few weeks, but they had been wrong. A slow demise is still demise, and death, when it bites, is no respecter of persons – its teeth are always sharp. She had come to the woods to be alone – the minister’s words had been apt and her brother had read a fine (and even funny) eulogy, but the girl was tired of comfort, and company; she needed to hear what the creek and the sparrows had to say. She’d stayed long on the warm rock and listened to the wind’s story. She’d written the Lord gives and the Lord takes away across the top of the page where she had taped a photograph of her father as a young man, and then she carefully wrote down most of the lyrics of the creek’s song, the lyrics she had heard and sung for much of her childhood, lyrics she thought she understood. As the sun began to cool, the girl turned reluctantly toward home – it was irresponsible to stay out so long with so many visitors in town for the funeral.  She knew it must seem rude. But halfway home she realized she’d left the woods without her words, she’d left her journal behind her somewhere, so she went back into the woods at a faster pace, the second time in the same afternoon.

The journal was not on the large rock by the creek bed. I know I left it here, she said out loud to the trees. I didn’t sit anywhere else. She searched beneath and beside the stone, but found nothing, save the small mounding of a night creature, maybe a mole or a small ground hog. The girl kicked the leaves around the stone and searched frantically behind trees she had not even been near, but her worn journal seemed determined to be lost.

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The day having defeated her yet again, the girl turned toward home, her head low.

“Can we help you?” said a quiet voice behind her and the girl started in alarm, and turning, she saw an unusual pair standing just behind her, close to the water – a very old man and a very young boy, holding hands.

“Can we help you?” the old man repeated in an ancient whisper, and the young boy nodded with a shy smile.

“I’ve lost my words,” the girl said and began to cry.

“Ah, yes.” He paused. “Is that all you’ve lost today?” the old man whispered.

“No,” the girl whispered back.

The little boy kicked at the grass around the large stone and look at the girl shyly. There was a long moment of quiet. Only the birds filled the silence with soft song.

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“This little boy don’t say much, he ain’t got his words yet, ” the old man said. “And I’m almost done with my talking, it looks like.” The old man smiled at his own story. “But I guess me and him are pretty content with things for the most part.”

Another long moment of silence.

“My father’s funeral was today,” the girl said.

The old man nodded and said nothing and the little boy smiled at her gently.

“I wasn’t ready for it, even though he’d been sick a very long time.”

The creek gurgled softly and the quiet pair said nothing.

“I wrote all about it in that journal,” the girl whispered. “I wrote everything for the last year there, and now it’s gone too.” And with that the girl put her face in her hands and wept.

The very old man and the very young boy stood very still and said nothing, but the birds kept singing.

After a long time the old man finally said, “Well, we seen your book a while back, floating down the creek. Must’ve fallen in when you stood up to go home. The little boy here jumped in to try to grab it, but it was in the fast, deep water by that time. Anyway, he was too little to get it and I am too old to swim now. We tried, did what we could, but we couldn’t save your treasure.”

“It’s a great loss,” the girl said.

“Yes,” the old man agreed. “The loss of one’s words is a great loss, maybe the greatest of all. I been feeling mine fading for a while now. And the little boy ain’t got his yet.” He smiled a gentle smile and the little boy patted his hand.

It was quiet again for a long spell before the girl spoke again. “Well, I guess I’d better head on home. I’ve been gone long enough. Everyone will worry.”

“There’s maybe only one thing as important as words,” the old man said as she turned to leave.

“What is that?” she asked.

“Can you tell her, little boy?” the old man asked the young boy.

The boy had picked a tiny purple flower from the edge of the creek, his fingers still wet from the picking. He put it to his ear for a moment before he gave it to the girl with a gentle smile. Then he opened his lips and sang with the birds – the sweet song of the woods, the song from his deepest memory – the song from before his time here began, since before time began at all. The rocks and flowers and winds joined in the chorus and the air was sweet with the ancient music of the woods.

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The girl stood still in the majesty of the moment. As the boy’s song faded, the old man spoke his last words, in a whisper so soft the girl wasn’t sure if it was the wind.

“Memory may be our greatest gift, maybe better than words,” he said. “When you have lost your words, hold fast to your memories, for they are your sustenance.”

And without a good-bye, the very old man and the very young boy turned and walked deep into the woods. The girl, her words lost, took the memory of her father out of the woods with her and carried it deep within her for the rest of her days.

And it sustained her.

 

Larry Joe Ray – 1934-2018

 

Surprised by Enemies

Consider the Sparrows

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” Matthew 10:29

 

There is great drama in the order of things; quite often a tragedy of grand proportion unfolds before one’s very eyes, if one can keep her eyes are open long enough to take a good look. I watch a spectacle unfold each morning at the bird feeder in my yard, pecking order tight and unyielding, rules clearly defined. Nature works like that, its lines are unimpeded, its codes unflappable.

Birds of all types abound in my small side yard, and they storm fearless the moment I bring the birdseed, flitting and flapping and helping themselves to the easy food, the metal feeder hanging solid in the angled shade of my roof. The birds are not afraid of me anymore – I show up most days. They wait patiently in branches and eaves for the few seconds it takes for me to fill the feeder each morning, then flutter fast to the food just as the screen door slams safely behind me.

The sparrows always arrive first and they are plenty. These simple house sparrows share the seed. They flit and float about for a place to perch (my feeder is not large), but they do not fight much. Some gather on the dirt below for the seeds that fall, others find a place on the hard metal ledge of the feeder as it swings in the breezes of each season, but there is little argument. I neither see nor sense any dissension. I buy my birdseed in bulk, and these sparrows seem to understand the nature of such abundance, they realize there’s plenty to go around.

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The doves understand this less. They always arrive just after the sparrows. I hear them first in the mornings, their gentle cooing precedes their arrival. I can see them from my chair on the back porch as they perch on my neighbor’s triangled roof and spy on the unsuspecting sparrows, planning attack strategies.

Doves are bigger and much heavier than mere house sparrows. The average house sparrow weighs just a few ounces, barely heavier than a feather, while an average dove weighs around five ounces and is almost double in length to a sparrow – around these parts, anyway. The time comes, as it always will, for the dove’s attack. She flies from her perch on the roof and lands heavy on the feeder, scattering sparrows and seeds akimbo. The dove eats what she will, when she will. The sparrows stay below on the ground, taking what she scatters and wastes, waiting.

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Cardinals arrive next in their fire-engine-fury and scare the doves away, pushy redbirds these. Bullies. The doves must flee the cardinals, yes, but not without proper protest, their noisy high-pitched cooing meaningless to the new set of bullying birds, who feed steadily and hurriedly until some predator comes for them – the way of the world.

Now it is the blue jay’s turn. He arrives in grandeur with his majestic blue crest and white chest, his royal plumed head turned tall in its finery. No bird seems prepared to stand up to him, none as beautiful or grand, not at this feeder anyway. Each species that arrives is weightier and grander than the one preceding it. As long as there is no crow or chipmunk in the neighborhood, the blue jay stays a while, eating his fill.

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Soon enough every bird seems to grow bored with the process or the food runs out, for eventually they all fly away to other feeders, greener pastures, better seed selection.

All except the sparrows.

All along, throughout the entire procession of the bigger bully-birds, this spectacle of the more threatening, more beautiful species, the sparrows have waited patiently, some in hiding but most standing just slightly off to the side, and they are everywhere – on the ground, in the bushes, on the trees. They sit to wait and watch. When all of the bigger birds are fed and move on to grander climes, the house sparrows return peacefully to the feeder and eat, as if being overpowered by the stronger is of no consequence at all.

As if it never even happened. Accustomed they are to this pecking order and they seem to be at peace with it.

If there is no seed left, then I simply refill the feeder. As I said, the sparrows seem to understand the idea of abundance and scoot out of my way as I come, seed in hand.

The sparrows offer no thanks for my contribution, but I am privy to the chittering and clicking of their feeding. I wonder if I will ever understand their song.

I find the pecking order at my yard feeder hard to stomach and a bit difficult to watch; its ugly pushiness seems more of a disorder to me. The larger shove the smaller, the prettier trump the plainer, the stronger peck the weaker; it is indeed survival of the fittest out there in the garden, at the mere feeder under the eave of my home. Bullies make demands, they want what they want, when they want it, and they push hard until they have it. They will achieve it.

These house sparrows do not seem to mind. I ask them how they accomplish this with such peace of mind, but they do not answer.

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I can forget about the sparrows in the winter. Most common house sparrows do not migrate in the winters, especially down South where our winters are mild, relatively speaking; so the sparrows stick around. I don’t know where they roost or why their song is so still in the cold months, but they are here, quiet or not. I think of them occasionally in the winter, rising from the warmth of my sleepy couch to give them a bit of seed, but it’s sporadic, I’m afraid. They fend for themselves without fear on cold, dark days, for they have stored up for the winter. Yet when I do show up, seed in hand, they gather at the feeder and wait for me to fill it. They neither toil nor spin, no worry or angst seems to invade their patient chirping. They do not even scold my forgetfulness, they are very patient with me. They simply eat what is given.

Where are your bullies now, sparrows? Do they push you from your feeder and steal your seed in winter like they do in summer? I do not see them in winter, seldom does a cardinal or blue jay show up to the feeder in the cold, no doves, no crows. Even the chipmunk stays away, somewhere munching on buried pecans, or asleep.

Sparrow, are you alone in the winter or are you bullied in the quiet shadows? Do your enemies leave you solitary in the cold or are they merely harder to see? Do they ever just go away?

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I need to know because I have a personal stake in this game.

One day an enemy-bird flies up unannounced to the feeder where I feed, where I’ve been spending my long days and years in what I thought was relative safety, just munching on seed and soaking up a little sun. Reading a book, writing a story or two. I do not see him coming for I have sensed no need to be watching my back. I think he has been perched on my neighbor’s roof for a while, planning his attack, but I cannot be sure.

What surprises me the most is the ease of the assault, the sheer speed of it all, just like the swooping in of the grand blue jay among the humble sparrows. Whoosh. One phone call, one poorly written email or a letter not written at all seems to be all it takes to acquire an enemy these days, one misunderstanding and all communication breaks down completely.

I guess it has always been that simple. I should have seen this coming – I read. Othello has his Iago, David his Saul. It is still a great shock to my system, I must say, as I have been quite oblivious to enemy activity in my area for most of my days.

Enemies are for other people.

But my hour comes round at last, as everyone’s does. My enemy-bird arrives and he is hungry, demanding to be fed, pushing and pecking, and I realize I am completely unprepared, no weapon honed for such an assault, no quiver from which to pull a ready arrow. Not a single bow in sight.

How should I then live?

Maybe I should try acting like the simple yard sparrow, flitting here and yon and staying out of the way, low to the ground, just trying to wait it out. Hiding in shadows, trying to be unseen. But this doesn’t always work well, I’m learning. The enemy pokes and prods, talks and squawks and tries to flush me out of my hiding places.

Maybe I should try acting like a dove when the cardinal arrives, shaking my fist and protesting, trying to have my story be heard. Listen to me, there is another story here, listen to me, I sing and squawk and sing. But it does not work. No one hears my song, for my enemy doesn’t care and his squawk is louder. He is simply stronger and more colorful and has more energy than I can muster.

I have no wings prepared for such a battle.

I try one more tactic, a human one this time. I try to reason with the enemy-bird, tell him my side, try to listen with empathy, try to smooth things over and find a peaceful branch where we both can perch, or at least a common tree. Everything I do makes it worse. The enemy-bird flies away more angry than before and I realize, for the very first time in my life, that I am no peacekeeper.

Worse, I am no peacemaker. (I had always thought I was.)

Humans are not sparrows and I am no god to fix this universe.

Reading once, I come across this doozy in Matthew 5 –“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them…” Pray for your enemies? Love them? Bless them that curse you and do good to them? Who can do this, what does this even mean?

I teach at a wonderful Episcopal school where we have chapel every day, and at the end of each service we kneel to say the school prayer – a quiet act of praise, a time to pause, and to bend.

Kneeling this day, I forfeit the school prayer and ponder instead this idea from Saint Matthew – Do good to your enemies. I wonder to God, how can I do this? I am estranged from my enemy. How can I accomplish such a task as loving my enemy when I do not even see him? – I just hear of the cruel words and jibes that remain, floating ever-aloft in the constant sky overhead.

If I quiet, if I will, sometimes I can hear whispers of response, answers blowing around in stillness.

This day I hear God in a quiet voice that sounds like young girls praying, chanting a school prayer – “Almighty God, Fountain of all wisdom, be with us, we pray thee, in our work today…”

Your work for today is to look to your left, the Voice prompts, so I look left. Beside me, across the aisle, sit the littlest among us, the fifth grade girls. Heads bowed, fingers laced, they kneel to pray – and I look, gaze hard at their innocence, the moving of lips and reverence collective.

God speaks, I can hear it and feel it in my soul, deep deep down – You can love your enemy by loving his children. Love the children. If you cannot yet pray for your enemy, if you cannot do good to him because he will not let you or you simply do not want to, then start by praying for his children.

Try paradox. Do what an enemy would not do. Be kind to those who have hurt you – pray for his child. I bend my tired back, try to relax my wounded shoulders, open my mouth in faith and hope for words to come.

Very often words precede feeling.

I pray for the children of my enemy. As the words cross my lips, I soften (albeit just a little). The children – Christ reminds me that the kingdom of God is made up of such as these.

When cruel words resurface, as cruel words always will, I bend and pray for the children of the slanderer.

When hate overwhelms and consumes, I bend and pray for the children that love will permeate their lives and the adult’s anger will find no home in them.

Where I could not accomplish peace, I bend and pray the children will develop peaceful relationships, honest conversations, I pray for their protection from the anxiety of hatred. I pray for love, for them and for me.

When I taste the cruelty and relentlessness of the enemy, when I am reminded of this bitterness and taste it afresh on my tongue, then I bend and pray for his children.

It’s a start.

 

(I will write more about this.)

Thirteen Reasons Why

Yesterday was Miss Sally’s second funeral.

The first was a few weeks ago, just for the family.  The Preacher and I stood with them as her ashes were spread over the graves of her parents, then over the life-sized statue of the standard poodle she so adored. The wind was blowing, so we were instructed to not stand down wind, which ended up being a very good idea. I was struck by the idea of how funny Miss Sally would have thought this was, all of us moving this-way-and-that so as not to be in her way (like we’ve always done with her), and I giggled out loud during the eulogy, snorted a little, actually. But as I said, the wind was blowing, so I don’t think anyone heard me.

The wind blew as Sally joined the other souls departed from Elmwood Cemetery – Shelby Foote and soldiers from the Civil War, the Martyrs of Memphis, Sister Constance and her companions – Sally joins all who have gone first into the brilliant hope of life everlasting.

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I stood apart from the rest of the group; one of Sally’s relatives asked me to take pictures of the ceremony, handing me her phone before she sat down. It’s always remarkable what one sees at a funeral, human fallibility especially magnified through the vehicle of a lens – wet eyes, dry ones; interest, lack thereof; humor, agony. One man kept looking at his watch while the woman beside him wept with no restraint.

Living and dying are unique to each of us – what a paradoxical wonder to watch it all unfold on the extra large screen of an iPhone 7.

Life is brief.

 

Yesterday’s funeral was for her neighbors, arranged by the neighbors, for the neighbors. The wind is blowing again, but today there are no ashes – just memories rising from them, the most beautiful of things.

There were thirteen of us present. So many of her neighbors have already passed away – theirs is an old neighborhood. There was a goodly number of walkers parked in the aisle of the small chapel at Elmwood. Larry and I were the “young ones” present and, if you know us, the absurdity is hilarious. The weather was bad yesterday, alerts on the iPhones screaming with regularity, so several of Sally’s neighbors were afraid to drive in the storm and had to stay home.

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Peg brought pictures of Sally from her house. Peg has a picture of Miss Sally at her debutante ball in 1947 – she was a knockout. I mean really, like an old movie star, with those magnificent lips and eyebrows. She modeled for Oleg Cassini for three weeks in NYC until her mother summoned her home saying, “Southern girls don’t do that sort of thing.”

Jeanne played Amazing Grace on the old chapel piano (that should have been tuned a few years ago), and we were glad to sing a song that everyone knew the words to. Jeanne played with aplomb, like pianists did in churches years ago – lots of trills and flourishes – and we sang accordingly.

Larry read Psalm 23 (what Sally wanted), and we all cried at the phrase, My cup runneth over.  Hers did and ours were, and we all understood it and there is great power in the collective feeling of such an overflowing.

Barb told stories about how Miss Sally welcomed her when she was new to the neighborhood, with tea and cucumber sandwiches – days gone by.

Margaret, who worked at one time for the Memphis Press Scimitar, told of Sally’s visiting the elderly on Sunday afternoons with her poodle and a tiny kitten in tow, for the old folks to pet.  According to Margaret, the old folks adored Sally.

 

Miss Sally had a wicked Southern accent, and we all tried to mimic it in our storytelling, but it’s a bit like trying to mimic the voice of Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty. Sally’s in a category all her own, a true Southern dying breed (no disrespect intended), above us, really, in ways of elegance and charm, so we sit in the wonder of it and pretend to be her for a minute or two in our collective memory.

Thirteen of us gathered to remember her, through wind and rain.

I’ve been pondering the idea of friendship in the last years. What it really means to stick with someone, through thick and thin, what it means to live a full and complete life, in all of its times, good and bad. I think a real friendship is like a real marriage – for better or worse, in sickness and in health – those words mean something to me, and they meant something to Sally.  C.S. Lewis says, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Sally’s friendship gave my life great value – I hope I added to hers like she added to mine. I learned more about loyalty and personal strength from her than just about anyone I know.

Thirteen of us gathered yesterday, through wind and rain, to love a woman who taught us about loving deeply, who taught us to love even through disappointment and pain, because that’s what life entails, a real life, anyway.

Thirteen of us. Thirteen reasons why life is wonderful and friendship makes it better and true friends stick no matter what – through wind and rain.

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Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

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Sally is one I was sure of.  I want to be more like her, a surer friend today than yesterday.

Surely goodness and mercy followed her all the days of her life, and she is dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

 

Surprised by Grit

As a kid, my brother Eric had a rock tumbler. In my opinion, a rock tumbler was a very cool machine to have, especially in the ‘70’s when smooth, tumbled stones were super popular for jewelry – hippies loved this stuff. He tumbled rocks and made necklaces for our mother and, needless to say, we were feelin’ groovy. Growing up, we camped as a family, and my brother found rocks everywhere we went, stones from the Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Buffalo River in Arkansas, collecting and hauling rocks home to see what would happen to them in the tumbler.   Remember Lucille Ball in that movie “The Long Long Trailer” where she collects rocks everywhere she stops on her honeymoon camping trip and the camper nearly tumbles over the side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains? That was us, my father pulling our Shasta trailer up and down the mountain ranges of Tennessee and Arkansas, once all the way to Carlsbad Caverns, Eric picking up rocks to toss into the tumbler back home.

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The reason anyone would tumble rocks in the first place is simple: an ordinary stone is placed into the tumbler for a period of time, and when the polishing process is finished, the stone is completely different. The dirt gets washed off, the rough edges are worn and broken away, and ultimately it is smooth and clean, a better version of itself. Not a metamorphosis, not a changing of its essence, just better than it was.

Not even stronger, this process is not about strength, but about beauty. A polished stone is just simply more fascinating, more magnificent than it was before its polishing.

Occasionally a stone comes out of the tumbler and it is extraordinary, other-worldly.

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The process of rock tumbling is also simple, though not quick. There are two main kinds of rock tumblers – rotary and vibratory. I am told most people who do rock tumbling use a rotary tumbler. One simply places his rocks into the rubber barrel of the tumbler, adds tumbling grit and water, and then lets it rip. Turn on the machine and then get out of the way and let it do its work. There is actually a four-step tumbling process if one wants to achieve optimum shine – coarse grind, medium grind, fine grind, and then polish. Each of these steps takes about a week, so the whole process is upwards of a month long. I read that people who want superbly shaped stones will run their rocks in the coarse grit for up to four weeks.

Anne Lamott says that Christianity is about water. May I add grit to the equation? Water removes the dirt and smut of living a real life and brings the hope that I can be clean again. I will probably get dirty tomorrow, maybe even more so, but there’s plenty of water in Christianity. Plenty of mercy and grace, daily washing and forgive your brother seventy times seven; add confess your sins one to another to the equation and you will be healed. Hope for a cleaner tomorrow.

But life adds the grit, the irritants, the unavoidable dirt that comes from stepping outside of your own door every day and knowing that either someone will make your life harder and dirtier or you will simply do it to yourself. This sovereign God of ours allows the course grit, even adds it Himself to the tumbler and sometimes lets us tumble for a long time.

I guess He is interested in superbly shaped stones.

But the truth is, we often don’t trust Him with our lives as tumbling stones, at least I don’t, with His adding of the grit for extended periods of time, washing, refining.

I guess it’s the tumbling itself I hate. The feeling of existential dread, that sense of falling, the wondering when I will find my balance again. Will I survive this and if so, is there actually a hope that I’ll come out shining?

Dread, existential or otherwise, is just like tumbling down a deep well, bumping, bumping hard against all sides. You grab at things, footholds and crevices in the stone, to keep from falling harder, falling faster, but all of those things are just a tease, it seems. They will hold you up for a moment or two, but eventually they break and you start falling again, like you were already pretty sure would happen in the first place.

You just simply know one thing and only one – it’s not over yet.

More grit. More water. More tumbling.  There are not enough things to hold onto. I need a person to hold onto.  A Person.

This gritty tumbling is a bit like being chased, I think. I watched this video of an English bloke getting chased up a tree by a fierce and bellowing stag, huge rack of horns on his head. The man is on a walk and encounters the stag and simply gets too close. It happens sometimes, getting too close to danger. The stag grows increasingly agitated and starts charging the man, chasing him until there is simply nothing left to do but to climb up the tree and wait it out. The woman narrating the video says she will call the police, but we never get to see the rescue.

That’s how dread feels, like being chased up a tree and being stuck there for a while, until either the stag gets bored and leaves or someone comes to help you. Which can often take a very long time.

Sometimes we have to sit in the tree for a long time and ride the storm out, winds blowing and tossing us about. Sometimes the strong winds blow us down from our perches, then a stag shows up again, and we have to scramble back up to the top branches, no help in sight.

Why? Why must there be so much falling and tumbling and chasing and grit? Is this the necessary process? Is this really what it takes to be superbly shaped?

I think it is.

An ordinary stone is a good and fine thing. A little muddy, a little rough around the edges, somewhat brown. Ordinary.

But, when an ordinary stone has been tumbled, rolled and rolled for an extended period of time, with more and more grit added intentionally by the craftsman – when this stone is finished tumbling, the end result is extraordinary.  Better.  More beautiful, more smooth, magnificent.

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Water, to cleanse. Grit, to smooth.  Tumbling, to work out the imperfections.  When the polishing process is complete, the stone is completely different than it was before.  This is the work of God in our lives.

Of this I am sure.

A Word for All the Children ~ Old and Young

“The soul is healed by being with children.”  Fyodor Dostoyevsky

For Teddy, my grandson ~ (And for all my students, old and young) ~

Perhaps my favorite song to sing in chapel at St. Mary’s is “The Servant Song” – I will teach it to you soon, Teddy, one afternoon on a walk, and we can sing it together as loud as we want and as many times as we like.  Here is my favorite stanza – it makes me think of you, every time:

“We are pilgrims on the journey / We are brothers on the road / We are here to help each other / Walk the mile and bear the load.”

We are created to walk alongside one another, pilgrims on this grandest of journeys. How kind of God to put us here together! Of all the billions of folk who have come and gone, you and I get to walk along together, and this is such a very fine thing, it almost takes my breath away.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about being here, my dear(s), is that you are not alone here. Teddy, you already know this, deep in your bones. That’s why you want your mama to sit beside you when you play in your pirate tent, and why you stand by your daddy in the yard when you both rake the leaves.

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Try to remember this, for it is a very precious gift – you are not alone. I’m so glad to be one of the gentle folk walking alongside you in this life.

It’s important to have someone older to walk along with, to protect you a bit and teach you a few things, to read all the books and to keep you away from the fire.

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But perhaps the converse is truer, if there is such a thing. It’s more important to have someone younger to walk with, too, someone to remind us that rocks and sticks are not only important but beautiful, and that you can stand again after falling, even if you only have one person to help you back up.  (Sometimes there is more than one person to help you back up, and that’s one of the loveliest of experiences in this life.)

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said in The Little Prince, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”

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Teddy (and students, sweet girls) – I hope you will not grow too weary in your tutelage of me, for I have so much to learn. Please know I’m listening, even when I seem sleepy.

But there are a few things I want to tell you, some differences between you and me, the young and the old. I think they are true, for the most part.

 

When we are young, we explore ~ When we are old, we reflect.

So go and explore everything, and sing very loudly and kick over all the rocks you find so you can see what’s just underneath the surface. Play hard in your tree house and squeal loud when you go down the slide.  And I’ll bring a pencil and write it all down so we won’t forget.

Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
I think he’s right.

 

When we are young, we seek justice ~ We we are old, we seek mercy.

You haven’t really started playing with other kids at the playground yet, but it’s coming, fast.

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People will tell you it’s a jungle out there (on the playground and beyond), and there’s truth in that, the ever-present Push-Come-to-Shoveness of living among other people.  But there is a bigger truth ~ the knowledge that what we the people really want is equity. We want what is fair for us and ours.  And when we are not treated fairly, we want justice, and we want it now.  When we grow impatient for it, we start to hit and throw stones.

Justice is a good thing, but like all things, there’s an ugly underbelly to it. It can be cruel and heartless, and left untreated and unchecked, what is cruel and heartless can become a monster.

When you are older, you will realize how you’ve been wounded, but you will also realize how you have wounded. A wise man, which you will be, will then start to see the beauty in mercy. The luckiest of us have nice balance of justice and mercy in our lives. When you find yourself stuck between the hardness of justice and the softness of mercy, choose mercy.  Always choose mercy.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”  I think he’s right.

 

When we are young, we grow prickly ~ When we are old, we grow soft.

The young will often fight and choose to alienate on principle, for they are out to save the world. And that’s good, because the world could use some saving. Passion is a fine, fine thing, for what is the purpose of fire, if not to burn?  But the old know the world can also be saved in small chunks with a little softness, one kindness at a time, one gentleness at a time, loving one broken person at a time.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “For age is opportunity no less / Than youth itself, though in another dress…”  I think he’s right.

 

When we are young, we cry ~ When we are old, we weep.

“I will weep when you are weeping / When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you / I will share your joy and sorrow / Till we’ve seen this journey through,” we servants sing.  I hope we mean it; I think we do.

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The young cry, for there are many losses here. But the young also know how to giggle, for there is far more delight, if one will just open his eyes and take a look (your remarkable stick collection is an excellent example of this). I find such beauty in my students’ art and their wordy journals bring me great delight.  And good music, and good food, and the moon and the stars, and cold water, oh, it seems there is endless beauty!  “Oh earth, you are too wonderful for anyone to realize you,” Thornton Wilder was able to pen.

So keep your young eyes wide open, Teddy. There is also so much to laugh about, so much joy here!

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We older folks giggle less perhaps – we have tasted the deep bitterness of loss, we know its sting. But when we are old, we also know how to laugh, deep and long and soulfully, the kind of laughter that lasts a while, the kind one remembers.  Your grandfather and I laugh like that. Your great-grandmother Nanny and I laugh like that. I would bequeath that to you if I could, but I think you will simply learn it by observing – you are a very good watcher.

Watch your mother and father the most – they are experts at this.

 

Here is a very good poem. I think you will like it.

The Little Boy and the Old Man
by Shel Silverstein

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.

 

The old have the young to hold hands with, and to climb into tents with, and to read with, and to nap with, and to giggle with. It is actually the best of times, or can be.

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Teddy – I just want you to know, and never forget – as long as I have it to give, I will always give my attention to you. And all my love.  My soul has been healed by you, just as Mr. Dostoevsky said.

I Love You ~ Mimi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So What Do We Do Now?

In his poem “The Second Coming,” Yeats says it best, and most succinctly ~ “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

If you’ve been around here more than a minute or two, you’ve seen it, breathed it, felt it settle deep into your lungs and bones – the bent quality of things here – the bent quality of being. One never forgets the acrid taste of brokenness, long-lingering on the tongue, like a bitter pill or a bite of chalk. We all know things fall apart, and will do so again and again, and if we live long enough, then yet again.

So what do I do when things don’t go the way I expect or want, when my something falls apart?

I tried stamping my foot and arching my shoulders back and throwing my chin Heavenward (is there anyone listening?) and shouting and shouting, What do I do now? How shall we now live? But so far my tantrums, even my tears, have not yet straightened the bent, not even one little bit.

Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy says we have landed on “a blighted star.” He’s not the first to think it.  I must ponder yesterday before I can consider today. History startles me every time.

Yesterday an election was lost and won.  Yesterday somewhere between 50 and 80 million people died in a second world war.  Yesterday a brother slew his brother and then hid from God – Cain, where is your brother? 

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Yesterday a mother would not forgive a father, and he left, moved away.  Yesterday 15,891 people died in a tsunami in Japan.  Yesterday six parents died in an airplane accident, leaving eleven children behind.  Yesterday another young girl was sold into sex trafficking.  Yesterday a baby girl was born with a deformed arm and hand.  Yesterday my husband died after a hard bout with cancer. Yesterday two airplanes flew into two tall towers.

Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.

So what in the world are we supposed to do now? What in the Sam Hill is going on here?  It seems God knows, but He doesn’t tell.

We need help.  Who among us shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? Whom shall we send?

Who among us shall ascend? I scan the Internet but find no takers, no one suitable. There is no one to send, no hand or heart clean enough, no body courageous enough, not one innocent enough, and there never has been. We are so busy. We think yesterday was somehow more wholesome and honest, easier, and certainly less busy. We seek our saviors in voting booths, and then riot afterward in the online streets, realizing (yet again) that women and men live among us, not gods. We are surprised every time and always have been.

We think our hour is unique in time and space. And so it is. And so it isn’t. It’s simply our turn, our day, nothing more. There will never be another day like this one, until tomorrow – ah, the paradox of time.

Whom shall we send? Who among us shall ascend?

Yesterday Abraham was the chosen one, but in a human moment of raw weakness, he lied, calling Sarah his sister and giving her (in his fear) to a neighboring king.

Yesterday Moses was chosen, but wasn’t it he who smashed tablets in anger, who literally broke God’s word into dust, to blow away into the hot desert sands and to the ends of the earth?

Yesterday David was chosen, but it turns out even giant-killers are mortal, mere men, with hearts grand for God and wills fragile as ice.

Abraham Lincoln was the man chosen for his time, but I read he was known for sacrificing principles in the name of expediency. Can I believe everything I read?

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In a letter estimated to be from 1961, Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote: “Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—” Even Mother Teresa.  Alas, now on what shall I stand?

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So in my weakness I shout again, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?

To be human is to become accustomed to the sour after-smack of pain and fear lying on your palette, yesterday and tomorrow. To know the slap of disappointment (especially of self) and to bear its subtle sting on the cheek like a numbness, post-op. To remember the bent-ness of things and people, to remember that Life is curvy.

But that is not the whole of it. Turns out, the sum is greater than its parts. Could this be the definition of hope?

Whom shall we send?

Alas. There is no one but us, and no time but now. Bent us, crooked now. What an odd system.

Yeats’ poem concludes with this terrifying question, apocalyptic in tone, its breadth of scope enormous and eerily ever-relevant:  “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”  Yeats asks the question on everyone’s lips, then and now, whether we realize it or not – Who is next? What is next? 

What rough beast will rise up next, heading even now toward his town to be born?

But again I say, that is not the whole of it. Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a Heaven for?” asks the poet.

If I dare to change one small word in Yeats’ text, I have an entirely different question. One word indeed makes that much difference – maybe that’s why Christ’s metaphor for Himself was the Word.  If I replace the word rough with benevolent, the poem is hopeful.  If I replace the word rough with kind, the poem is confident.  If I replace the word rough with loving, the poem saves me. The hour has come at last!

What a difference one word makes. So for Heaven’s sake, replace the word!

Is it as easy as that? Are kindness and grace and humility and goodness born and reborn like the sun, new every morning? Can I really choose to put these on like a mantle, re-clothe myself in this character?  Am I allowed these sartorial choices even here on this messy planet in my messy life?

Yes. And yes. Like salve on a wound, like oil on the head, there is indeed a balm in Gilead.  Put it on!

Whom shall we send? Who shall ascend? Who can make a difference today, small or otherwise, you ask?

Me, bent and broken me. You, crooked and splintered you.  So what do we do now?  Get up and put your clothes on. Let’s go to work.

I may slouch a bit. But I will head toward Bethlehem to be born.

I pick up my crutch and walk.