Can Hate Be Unlearned?

What lurks deep and lies quiet beneath the prim masks we so carefully wear?

People put on masks to hide ugly things – prejudice and fear, hostility and enmity, foolishness and faintheartedness. With proper clothing one can look respectable and right, she can conceal and mask what lies deep in her heart, in spite of all the honest mirrors around.

We fallen folk often cannot recognize our own contempt, for we have grown quite accustomed to it; its presence has become a part of us, like sunspots or freckles on our bare backs. In a mirror, at just the right angle, with some exertion and effort, we can bend ourselves enough to take a quick look and examine what’s happening back there, but most of the time it simply requires too much effort. Hate and its effects are easier to see in others – it is so much simpler to look forward than to look inward. No personal twisting or bending required.

Shakespeare’s Iago knows his hate and enjoys it, loves it, declares it properly and proudly early in his story, I hate the Moor he says. The other, in his mind. Iago hates the black guy, the Muslim, the guy who married the most beautiful white woman in town. You gotta hand it to him – he knows who he hates, and more, he admits it proudly, no hidden agendas with him, no masks.

He simply daily dons his coat of only-one-color and puts his hate and racism right out there on the Internet, proud.

Iago lives to hate, a lover of destruction.

othello-movie-poster-1020211771
“I hate the Moor.”

 

Madame Khoklakov, in The Brothers Karamazov, is more subtle, hers is a genuine question. She asks the Elder, “What can I do to get my faith back?” “Actively love your neighbor,” is the Elder’s apt and humble reply. “Get up and do something loving for him.” Pause. “But,” she reasons, “I don’t like my neighbor. I love mankind profoundly, but I don’t like my neighbor at all.” Hmmmmm.

arsenios
“Active love is a hard and fearful thing compared to love in dreams.”

 

And what about old Jonah, that odd prophet-of-God, the man who runs from God to Tarshish? I wonder if that ancient one knows what landed him in the belly of a fish or if he ever admitted to himself why his story ends with him pouting under a dead tree, an angry and embittered man.

Does he realize his own hate?  Do we?

Remember the one about Jonah?  It is not about the fish…

 

One day long ago, God’s Word comes to the prophet Jonah: “Get up on your feet and go on your way to Ninevah. Preach to them. They are in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”  Jonah hops up and immediately runs in the exact opposite direction. He hires a boat to Tarshish, as far away from Israel and God’s voice as possible.

002-lumo-jesus-storm

This story rests in our Western consciousness, I think – Man hears from God, Man runs from God, a storm comes and overwhelms Man, Man cries out to God and God sends salvation.

Do you want to know why this Jonah is running?

 

Hatred and animosity are certainly not new ideas. From the moment Cain chose anger, picked up arrogance and killed a brother, we humans have followed suit, donning rage and violence as protective outer-garments. Swords and guns and words do their nasty work today as they did yesterday and will do tomorrow.

Hate has been around since the dawn of time, since the fall of angels, since a serpent arrived in a virgin garden.

This prophet-of-God is a man, fallen like any other, and he runs for one simple, uncomplicated reason – he despises the people of Ninevah and is repulsed at the thought of their redemption. Glad he would be if God doomed them all to hell and beyond – they deserve it for all the grief and agony they’ve brought on so many people. So Jonah hits the road out-of-town to Tarshish, full speed ahead. If anyone must bring the Ninevites a message of love or hope, it will not be him. He simply will not be a part of offering grace to such a people.

Why such hatred? From what well does such animosity spring? Is hate a wretched inheritance from which we cannot escape?

 

Ninevah was the capital city of Assyria, a kingdom that had been enslaving and destroying nations to the north of Israel for over one hundred years, and Israel feared the prospect of their coming south. Jonah must have grown up with the stories, felt the great weight of the fear of Assyrian oppression, grew into manhood in the dark shadow of terrorism just around the corner. Every merchant and caravan that arrived from the north brought a more brutal tale than the one before. Assyrian art reveals headhunters with piles and piles of heads at their feet, quite accomplished they are at their hunting, men impaled on spikes, heaps of noses and hands and ears cut off for mere sport, the arts of skinning and beheading their forte.

Where there are people, there are slave stories, it seems. And violence.  This is a hard truth.

God asks His prophet Jonah to take a message of love and forgiveness – and grace for any who will receive – to Ninevah, to some of the most violent men of all human civilizations. A message of mercy to murderers and rapists, pillagers who wound and kill for sport and then laugh and make jokes about atrocities, tweeting and re-tweeting – and yet, “repent, and disaster will not befall you” is the grace-message.

Messages of grace and mercy seem decidedly unfair when God offers them to those we hate, and Jonah wants no part of it, he will not be God’s vehicle of grace to these barbarians. He doesn’t want grace for such a people – he wants justice.

So he runs away and hires a boat.

Up comes a storm of storms and nearly destroys the boat. Jonah finds himself sitting in the belly of a great fish for a few days, until he is finally spit ashore on the beaches of Ninevah, the very beaches from which he has so vehemently run, smack dab in the middle of the people he has learned to passionately abhor.

Grace’s message always finds its audience.

 

A petulant Jonah delivers the message of God’s love, probably looking quite the worse for wear, one must think. If the work of cetacean digestive juices can be imagined, what an untidy role they must have played on this runaway – a man with no hair left, lips and skin bleached white as snow, eyelashes and fingernails vanished. Odd prophet indeed, tasked with bringing God’s message to a people he loathes.

Even you can change. Anyone who will can be saved.

Herein lies the ironic rub ~ Jonah cannot hear his own message. As the story goes, the King of the Ninevites hears the message and believes, fears God enough to turn from his ways and humbly receive the hope of grace’s message and leads his people to do the same. It can happen, it has happened.

At this moment, under this tree, Jonah seems to love his anger more than his own soul, and his response to God’s grace to his enemy is a decidedly and predictably human one:God, I knew it! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy,” he laments, “Not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness.”

The story ends with the odd prophet sitting alone in sullen petulance, sunburned and offended.  Bitter. Angry. Man.  The message of God is simple and has been summarized in one sentence: “Love God and love your neighbor.”

Jonah does neither.

 

Who is my neighbor? the Pharisee asks in Luke 10, wanting to justify his lack of love for certain kinds of people.  Jesus answers him with a story about a helpful Samaritan, a man of kindness ~  “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  The Pharisee replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love? Who am I supposed to love in order to be in good standing with God?  The question can be petulant, but the answer is incredibly simple.

Everyone. My neighbors, all of them.  But I don’t like them. They are not like me. They are cruel and stupid and cruel and not worthy of my love.

 Petulance is the opposite of grace, it seems. And the opposite of love.

 

Hate and condescension are mighty blood brothers – clothe these twins with disgust and derision, and you’ve created yourself a powerful potion, a mighty, killing draught. And it must be quite tasty because people seem to be drinking it all over the place these days.

Why don’t I love my neighbor?  I do not love my neighbor because I find him offensive and worthy of the scorn of my superiority. He is other-gendered. He is a Republican. She is a Democrat. He’s gay. And what about atheists and Jews and Muslims and Catholics and African-Americans and the rest of the foreigners with whom we skirmish?

Where in the world does this hellish hate-list ever end?

Under a bush. With Jonah and Iago and Madame Khoklakov. My neighbor is too different, too difficult – the work to try to love him is too much. So I sit under a leafy tree, angry, pin an American flag to my lapel, and nurse what’s left of me – my contempt.

Our brother Cain smiles.

 

Can hate be unlearned? Can it be untaught?

The answer is yes – it must always be yes. I want to make excuses and say that we have so few examples of true neighbor-loving from which to learn these days, but that is blatantly untrue.

Kindness and generosity and love are not lost – active love still exists and hate does not get to win. Turn off the news, put down the screen, and go outside and take a look – and you will see your neighbor.  Love him.  The Good Samaritan did not help the foreigner just so his story would go viral; he did it because he understood that loving one’s neighbor is the antidote to hate, and he played his part.

Small acts of love – and large ones – outweigh hate and can defeat it.  I believe this, I must.  We learn from the Samaritan that any act of love for my neighbor helps, active love chisels away at the hard bedrock of hate.

Love wins. This world’s story is not finished, it is still very much being told.  Let’s get busy.  There is so much at stake.

Including our own souls.

4484eac6764e0cba81c2f28969e05072article-2309788-1950D471000005DC-403_634x383kind-people-helping-friend-in-needm12240198_HelpingPeople9c8ea3929ce13eaeff7780ae4143b47a

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

On Being Stymied

For anyone who has felt stuck and sad.

I haven’t written anything since Orion died.

No, that’s hyperbole. I’ve written much since Orion died – so many sentence pieces, bits and fragments live slant on the insides of all my books, rough beasts waiting for their time to come round at last. Virgin nouns spend lazy days at their windows, pining for mates, watching the highways and hedges – some have their lamps trimmed but most are unprepared when bridegroom verbs appear.

Word clusters litter the cool lakebed of my winter purse, index cards and paper scraps bulge with phrases unbloomed, still in their ninth-month. Yet nothing worthy seems to come.

When Orion died, I wanted to write something beautiful about death, something grand, seminal. And in particular, I felt the need to write something important about the death of a friend. I wanted noble words – poignant and memorable and apt. But the metaphors always seemed to fade just before delivery, images came stillborn.

It is hard to find birth in death; there’s no delivery room at the funeral home. How can two polar things peacefully live together when both vie so vehemently for the attention of the immediate?

When something dies – a person, a job, a friendship, a dream – all we have left are the memories of the thing, good and bad. Like our universe, memory expands in all directions, swirling and moving, unreliably, at the speed of thought. Changing with every capricious retelling, story evolves as time barrels through space, and when you hear even your own tale told twenty years later, it’s not the same story at all, but much better.

Or much worse.

spiral-galaxy

Even when story is written down, not to be changed, the meaning rests in the fragile interpretation of the reader and again, who knows what side of the bed she woke up on?

Who dares to touch such a thing? Do I dare?

So I have written nothing substantial in a long time, nothing I dare to share, for several months, far too long. And it is not for lack of effort, I’m sad to say, but rather the sheer fear and deep understanding of my ordinariness. Four essay beginnings sit like hard stumps on my screen – the one entitled “An Hour Badly Spent” beckons me every single morning, begging to be birthed or at least given a chance, but alas, I have to wonder if I’ve become afraid. I sometimes think I read too many great writers, for my own writing so pales and I’ve grown weary of the comparison.

Self-doubt is hard ground to till.

Water is required for birth and growth, digging must happen for a thing to be planted, and planting must occur if there is ever hope of a harvest.  I have felt the hard ground and know its infertility – being stymied and stuck is a place to run from, I conclude. The desert gives birth to nothing but the ugly twins of worry and angst, brutish children who only take and never give.

What does one do when she finds herself stymied? And who hasn’t found herself sitting among dry leaves in a dry time? The loss of last season’s crop was so painful and the winter so long, who is brave enough to believe in spring?

Oh, and also, I want to know what to do in this stillness when the muse is silent.

Much I’ve read and prayed and seen, and a certain vision appears to me in dream. I jump from my bed and snatch the pencil; I must write it down before it flits away, teasing, like mist or memory.

The question must come before the answer, always ~

 

What must I do to be saved?  I am stuck, stymied, full of pride and sorrow. In short, I am afraid.  What must I do?

 

Believe.

Stand up. Walk. Don’t sit back down until you have walked a little longer than usual.

Pray. Say the words out loud.

Pick up a pen and write the letter you’ve waited too long to write.

Ask for forgiveness. Give forgiveness.

Grieve. Tell someone about it.

Write down your biggest worry on a piece of paper and then burn it in the fire. I realize it’s a metaphor, but it feels good anyway.

If you made a mistake, fix it. If you can’t fix it, live with it. You are not dead yet, so live.

Find a good counselor.

Quit complaining. Quit gossiping. Try, even for just one quick hour.

Give someone a real compliment.

Get a job. Get a new job. Decide to like the job you have and then do it well.

Turn off the television. Turn off the television. Turn off the television.

Read something.

Write something.

Quit making excuses.

Give something away.

Give something to a homeless person without questioning his motive. Someone important said it is better to give than to receive. He is right. The gift is in the giving.

Make that phone call, today.

Kiss a baby.

Smile. Do it again.

 

Writer ~ You are not dead yet, so get up and live.  Write.

 

I get up this morning and start to write again. I will try to set aside my visions of grandeur and dreams of critical success and pick up my sheer ordinariness, my words, not Annie Dillard’s or Flannery O’Connor’s or Marylynne Robinson’s.

Mine, in their brilliant mediocrity.

I respect the hard ground and know now that my vast hubris hardens and heavies, rather than lightens, my load.  It is time to set down grandeur and work, time to dig, and the overwhelming fear of it all subsides just a bit as I pick up my pen.  I’ll dig with it.

Good, decent words will be my seed.  And I will water it all with tears.

Things grow again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sing Hallelujah, and Remember ~ The Best Christmas Pageant Yet

For Orion

I am happy to report that the St. Mary’s Christmas Pageant hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years.

The old-fashioned pageant box once again holds senior girls in tableaux, showing-and-telling the greatest of stories – the birth of the baby that changed the world.

AD9A2720

 

 

AD9A2707

Serious second and third grade choristers march hand-in-hand up the long church aisle, heads erect and hair brushed, to take their place on this chancel and embrace its history, rich and long. These white-robed songsters sing the same songs their sisters sang, and their sisters, year after year, following in the footsteps of St. Mary’s women before them.

AD9A2667

AD9A2724

Did the Sisters of St. Mary’s Constance and Hughetta teach little girls these songs in their moments, just before the yellow fever came and so many of them died?

Did they sing these words even then, in the midst of such troubles?

Sing Hallelujah, Brothers, Sing Hallelujah, Sisters / Worship the Jesus Child and praise His Mother mild / Glory to God on high, the angel hosts above are singing / Listen to the story of the Jesus Child.

 I think they must have. It’s an old song, an even older story that we remember.

 

I stand near two boy-babies this year, fine boys with fine strong names, Davidson and Teddy.  Life brand-new overwhelms.  As girl-children sing songs about the Mother and her newborn Son, both of these new-boys sleep, nestled in the confident arms of aunts and mothers. They wake and look, listen wide-eyed to the angel voices, and then rest again, at peace, no crying they make. Bright boys who will grow into strong men, who will know of troubles (because there are always troubles), but who will know more of love.

Just like Mary’s little boy. We will tell them His story, for it is our great hope.

IMG_2391-1.jpg

Emmanuel, Emmanuel, they call His name Emmanuel.

 

I look over the heads of the new-boys to see my good friend Orion standing at the back of the church, watching, long arms by his sides. He stands tall among freshman faces, girls who do not know him, girls he’s never taught. Orion and I have taught together for many years – he Math, me English – unlikely friends, we.

Orion watches the pageant with fresh eyes this year, for he is quite ill. The tumor won’t stop growing and the doctor says his days are short.  I ask him what it feels like to know your days are short, and he says, Weird.  I ask him if he is afraid, and he says he is not.

Orion’s eyes look forward with great intensity at the pageant. His senior students stand in the old-fashioned tableaux box, clad as shepherds and kings and the blessed Mother (seven Mary’s this year!) – the way St. Mary’s girls have done it for many many years, and the way they will do it for many many more. This pageant and its story transcend time, but not memory.

AD9A2558.JPG

AD9A2501

 What a gift is memory!  Could it be the best earthly gift?  Memory softens things while also intensifying them, it expands through time and gives the past an emotional beauty too grand for the present. 

A gift richer than gold and frankincense, God gives us memory so we might have flowers in December.

Orion stands pensive; he is remembering, I think. I know he is watching the tableaux and listening to the beauty of the hundred-voice angel choir, but I think he’s really watching Nancy, and remembering. Orion’s wife Nancy is the pageant’s inimitable choral director. From my standpoint on the north wall just beside the pillar, I watch her as she directs – such energy, this one, like none other, actually. She stands erect, strong of arms and voice, and leads her child-choir, her glorious smile content in this moment. Perfect articulation, perfect harmonies – a few fine moments so beauty-filled one must weep, for what else can we do. This day she seems able to set aside the weight she bears, the heaviness of her husband’s sickness, and she leads us to worship.

AD9A2636

Joy to the World, the Lord is come!

Orion slowly makes his way forward to the front of the church. When students and alumnae spot him, he is swarmed with admirers, young and old. Former students want him to see their babies and meet their boyfriends. He is papa to so many children; they adore him. This year’s math seniors gave him the tie he wears, made from a picture of them all at Derby Day, muddy and grinning. Orion sports this tie every time he makes it up to school. It seems some girl or another is always giving me a gift or a card to take to Orion’s house, and they all say the same thing ~

                              Mr. Miller ~ I love you.

IMG_2382

So. The pageant is over and girls go back to class. Life goes on, as we all say when there’s nothing else to say. Orion finds Nancy and gives her a gentle kiss and tells her what a fine job she did on this year’s pageant. Somehow this pageant is a bit different for me – more special, more vibrant, more intense than most. Perhaps it is the man standing in the back, reminding me about beauty, to look for it, to seek it and to find it.  The glory of living each day well, the only real message.

Orion and Nancy walk slowly down the aisle toward the door, hand-in-hand, like always. I will remember this.

For to see love given and received is the gift, glorious and perfect.  Just like the Baby was, and is.

So today we sing Glory Hallelujah, even in the midst of troubles. We sing it today, loud like the second graders who lead us.  I sing it for Davidson and for Teddy. I sing it for Nancy.

And I sing it for Orion. And remember.

 

Hallelujah, Glory Hallelujah – Our hope forevermore.

AD9A2634_1

 Photos by (the fabulous) Lisa Buser

 

 

 

 

 

Shoes Matter ~ A Different Cinderella Story

Have you ever considered the existential weight of your footwear choices? Ever given any thought to the idea that whether one wears boots or flip-flops or sneakers on a given day might actually matter, nay, may change the course of one’s entire life, or at least the grand timing of events in a life?

The fact that Cinderella was shod in glass slippers seems to really matter to her story ~ but what about my story? Yours?

Disney-Cinderella-Shoes-964x644

I have just a bit of philosophical advice for you.

Always choose your shoes carefully. You never know when a prince might show up.

 

Memphis

Almost-Mama is eight months pregnant and sitting in the exam room at her doctor’s office, trying to remove her knee-high boots. She had worn tall boots to work that morning, professional and stylish, but now it is the late afternoon and, due to the girth of a profoundly round belly and newly-swelling ankles, she couldn’t get her own boots off her own feet. Tug, tug, tug, to no avail. She is having trouble reaching her feet, and the tugging required to remove these over-snug boots is simply more than she has.

Dilemma.

Standing from the chair and poking her head out of the exam-room door, she beseeches the first kind soul she sees, a doctor, not hers. “I’m so embarrassed, but could you help me get my stuck boots off?” she asks. “Of course,” the doctor laughs, entering the room. Almost-Mama perches once again on the side of an exam-room chair and, smiling, raises her leg to Kind-Doctor who takes it into her confident hands with a grin to pull the boot off.

Tug, tug, tug. Pulling shoes off ~ an antithetical Cinderella story.

Tug, tug, tug, this time a bit harder ~ we insist on things when we must. Boot finally budges and flies off into capable doctor hands.

And Almost-Mama’s waters break. At eight months, thirty-six weeks. Swish, swoosh.

One quick exam later and the doctors (and nurses and general staff who have gathered to giggle at such a story – waters breaking at recent boot-tugging event) all agree – it’s time to go to the hospital.

“Did you drive yourself here?” the doctor asks.  Yes.  “Can you drive yourself to the hospital?” Yes.  “My husband is out of town. Shall I call him?” Almost-Mama inquires.  Most definitely. Call him right now.  “Do you have someone to call to bring you a bag?” Kind-Doctor wants to know.  Yes.

So this becomes the new birthing plan.

“But I have nothing to wear,” realizes Almost-Mama as she and all of her new best friends hovering at the door frame of the examination room suddenly understand that  her old work clothes cannot be donned in their current waterlogged condition.

Another dilemma.

A nurse arrives with a hospital gown in hand and a question on her face. Will this gown work? Almost-Mama tries it on. Won’t work, everyone decides. Too risky for driving oneself to the hospital. Another gown is produced for Almost-Mama and she experiments with this duo-ensemble ~ one gown for the front and one for the back.

elizabeth_front

The audience is still sartorially unsatisfied.

The goodly doctor has quietly gone and now she returns with a pair of her own clean scrubs in hand. Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo! Cinderella quick-dresses and profusely thanks the fairy godmothers of obstetrics. Dressed in borrowed scrubs, she is ready to dash off to the hospital ball.

See you tonight, the smiling doctor waves her blessing.

But wait. What about shoes? Her tall boots, the instigators of the day’s theatrics, would barely come off her feet ~ there is no way they will go back on.

How does Cinderella go to the ball if she has no shoes?

 

On the road, Somewhere in Arkansas

Almost-Dad is on his way to a speaking engagement in Arkansas, a three full hours away from Memphis, when he gets the text.

Mom: Hey. Turn around and come back ~ my water just broke.

Dad: Is this a joke?

Mom: No joke. I’m on my way to the hospital now. Come home. We are having a baby tonight.

Frantic Almost-Dad turns his car around as fast as a car can be turned and heads eastward toward home. In this panicked moment, he cannot know nor can he believe it, but be assured:  he will make it there in time.  The ball cannot start without him for the clock has not yet struck the magical hour.

800px-040i_ar_exit_007

 The Cinderella story is all about good timing.  And shoes.

 

Back Home in Memphis

How does one go to the ball when she has no shoes, you ask? The answer is most simple ~ barefooted.

Barefoot and extremely pregnant, scrubs-clad Almost-Mom shuffles her way out to her car, drives herself to the hospital, searches for a spot and parks in the lot as if it were any other normal day. But alas, it is not any normal day. Time’s majestic clock will strike in just a few short hours and her life will begin again.

this is simply the way Cinderella’s story goes.

The lady at the hospital check-in desk looks up and sees a scrubby and shoeless woman shuffling alone through the sliding glass doors. We are expecting you, she chuckles and escorts Nearly-Mom to the ballroom.

Cinderella has arrived. The music begins to swell.

It seems there is indeed existential weight in the footwear choices of a day.

 

 

Germantown Methodist Hospital

The kindly doctor arrives just after the stroke of midnight, scrub-clad, the apparent dress code for this evening’s fete. A giddy Chorus has gathered throughout the course of the evening to cheer on Cinderella and her timely groom (he made it!), laughing and singing and texting and photographing and the good doctor now addresses them with a grin.

This dance is just about to begin. Will you all be staying and dancing with us? Scrubby-Doctor asks.

Not this time, retort Cinderella and her groom in unison.  This dance is just for the two of us, nay, the three of us.  The noisy Chorus is ushered to the waiting room to do what waiters do ~ twiddle our thumbs and sip on diet sodas and look down at our shoes.

radiology_waiting_room

It’s almost time.

 

The stage is set and all the players are in the right places.  The delivery room clock strikes one and, just at the appointed moment, Cinderella’s charming prince finally arrives.

And she names him Teddy.

 

Dreams really do come true.  Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.

-2

-5

-4

To Be or Not To Be Ophelia

A note to all of my St. Mary’s girls (for nearly 20 years) and all of the women in their lives.

Each October I open up the dog-eared smudgy pages of my copy of Hamlet to once again teach a new batch of budding girl-scholars this magnificent story – a tragedy of such epic depths that many call this the greatest of all plays and Shakespeare the greatest of all playwrights.

Shakespeare-Plays

hamlet-front-cover-source

If it’s really that good, then read it we must.

Spoiler alert: If it’s been a long time since you’ve read or studied a classic tragedy, then I will remind you that almost everyone dies in the end. This is what makes it so tragic ~ this and the tragic flaws that most people simply cannot seem to overcome.  So, by the conclusion of Hamlet ~ Polonius dies – stabbed.  Laertes dies – also stabbed.  Hamlet dies – again, stabbed. Gertrude dies – poisoned.  Claudius dies – stabbed and poisoned (quite a villain this one, to deserve this double-death).  Whew.

None of these deaths bring a tear, for me at least. At the risk of sounding a trifle cold, all of these folk earn their untimely demises and their deaths ring of some poetic justice, even Hamlet’s.

After all, it’s fiction; we are to learn from it.

But it’s Ophelia’s death that resounds, her death that stays with me after the pages are once again closed and the book stored away for another year. Ophelia’s death lingers with my girl-scholars as well; it is her name that re-enters the discussion in the weeks and months to follow, her sad story that finds its way into college essays and senior speeches, and it is for her we weep.

Alas, poor Ophelia. She drowns herself ~ she is found floating in the brook, arms full of wildflowers.

ophelia

Alexandre_Cabanel,_Ophelia

But WHY? That is always the question. Why such despairing, even of life?  In short, the answer is this ~ there is simply so much Ophelia lacks.

Ophelia lacks support.

Poor Ophelia has no women in her life. No mother or mother-figure, no female friends, not even a nurse (Juliet, at least, had a nurse). Ophelia is surrounded completely and only by men ~ and while that in and of itself does not necessitate disaster, the instruction she receives and the self-loathing she learns from these particular men does. No women with whom to bounce ideas around, no mother to ask her important questions to or learn from at the table, no laughter and secrets with female friends for Ophelia, tucked away in her lonely Danish castle on the hillside. She is alone, completely alone.

ophelia-ernest-hebert-1345731880_b

Ophelia lacks knowledge.

And since she has no support or female companionship, Ophelia lacks knowledge. It’s not that men cannot teach her; it’s that these men cannot teach her.  There is no one to explain to her the wiles of men and the ways of love. No one is gentle with her. Everyone makes great demands of her, everyone pushes. Her brother Laertes comes the closest to being kind, he is the tenderest with her, but he bolts back to college in France as quickly as he can and, once again, Ophelia is alone. No books to teach her ~ women were illiterate in the day. No older women passing down stories laced with humor and wisdom at the washing tub or the cooking table. No mother, no sister.

Just Ophelia, alone in her closet, only her sewing to keep her company.

Dearest Students of mine ~ Girls ~ Please don’t try to go through this life alone ~ it doesn’t work well like that. You need people, you need other women. Seek them out if they aren’t seeking you out at the moment. Be courageous to do this. Make amends with your mother. You need her. And if it’s impossible or your mother is no longer living, find another mother-figure, another woman of age that loves you and cares for you. You need this. And those times when you are feeling strong and supported, it is then you must remember to open your eyes and seek out someone who may be in her weak moment. Be her person. This is our task, our calling.  We know what to do, now let us do it. 

What else does poor Ophelia lack? 

Ophelia lacks opportunities to find her voice.

Quiet Ophelia never asks questions ~ no one has ever given her permission or opportunity to do so. She is constantly instructed and lectured by father, her brother, and even her boyfriend Hamlet, but she is never asked a question and she never asks one. They tell her what to think and what to say. When she tries to tell her father of Hamlet’s love for her and that Hamlet has tenderly almost mentioned marriage to her, her father taunts her and tells her she is just acting like a strumpet, and demands she stop seeing Hamlet for the damage she is causing to his own reputation! Astounded and taken aback, she murmurs only a slight, “I shall obey, my lord,” and the matter is forever closed.

Quiet, blind, verbal obedience is not the recipe for successful womanhood, even way back in Ophelia’s day.  It can drive one mad.

helena-bonham-carter-h

And then Hamlet, the man she loves and with whom she has probably been the most honest, betrays her. Too busy chasing ghosts and avenging his father’s death, Hamlet begins to toy with Ophelia verbally, his favorite pastime. No one can beat Hamlet in battles of verbal wit, least of all the frail Ophelia ~ she has no training or ammunition for such warfare. All she can do is listen (and cower) as he toys with her and tries to weasel out of her secret information about her father (his enemy). He is not truthful with her, nor is he kind. “I shall obey, my lord” is her only resting place, and it does not serve her well.

hamlet-1990--00

Girls ~ You have been taught to find your voice, to know yourself. Do not forget this teaching. Ask your questions well, firmly, with dignity and intelligence. Demand when you must, and then do so with courage and forthrightness. Surround yourself with people you respect and trust, people who listen to you and to whom you listen. Don’t worry if these numbers are few ~ they will be. Cherish the few trustworthy voices, and do not listen to unkind, mean voices. Separate yourself from those. Help who will be helped and leave the rest. It’s all you can do. I learned this the hard way and it took me too many years. 

We know what to do, now let us do it.

 

Ophelia lacks strength.

No one has taught her, nay, no one has shown her strength.   She is surrounded by only male dominance and the verbal abuse that leads to quiet servitude and fragility. Our Ophelia is very fragile. The only woman who could stand up for her, doesn’t. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, sees Ophelia, notices her distress, but is in such a guilty state herself (her affair led to her husband’s untimely death) that she can only worry about saving her own skin (which she ironically cannot do).

Thus our pretty Ophelia wilts, like the wildflowers she clutches. She fades out of sight, quiet and demur, pretty, thin, well-dressed ~ I know far too many mothers who would hail her as a paragon of beauty and grace. She looks beautiful, she looks the part, she fits in.

And with her little sad smile Ophelia heads to the brook, mumbling to herself snippets of old tunes, and goes quietly mad. Just before she takes her own life.

Girls ~ I ask us: where are the strong women? Where were they for Ophelia? Strong women stand up for themselves and for others. Strong women ask for help and call on other strong women when they stumble. Strong women care about the poor and illiterate and abused among us and seek them out.

Strong women have names like Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai and Joan of Arc and Eleanor Roosevelt and Harriet Tubman.

malala-yousafzai-ftr

EleanorRoosevelt_640x400

par0-018

They also have names like Elizabeth and Polly and Sarah and Whitney and Kat and Ashley. They are you, my dears.  You too are the strong women. Now let us stand up and help Ophelia. 

 

If you are Ophelia, get help and get it now. Seek it immediately. You can do it.

If you are not Ophelia, please look for her as you come and go. There are too many Ophelias, motherless, sisterless, helpless, weak.  Can we see her, can we try?  Try to be her sister, her helper, her person. Help her know she is not alone. My own mother has lived her life doing this very thing for younger women; she does it still, and she has saved many.  Quiet heroes, strong women, helping each other.

Helping Ophelia.

To be or not to be Ophelia? Absolutely not.  It is simply out of the question.

How To Be A Really Good Teacher In One (Easy) Step

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Back to school is a most hopeful place.  Clutches of pointy pencils, newly sharpened.

pencils_h

Unlined journals, clean and ready.  Desks cleaned, the slight pungent scent of Clorox wipes lingering in the eager air.  Book bags, summer hidden, sleeping soundly under messy beds, are now shaken out and dusted off and stand at attention near newly-purchased lunch boxes.  Summer reading almost complete, dog-eared pages of lines too beautiful to be forgotten.  Names printed neatly in permanent marker.

StackofBooks

I am ready for school to start again.

My room is clean, syllabus ready. The day before school starts, I stand in my classroom knowing this is the last time it will be completely quiet for many months. I pause to listen and I can already hear the sound of feminine laughter wafting up the stairway, finding its way into the fiber of my walls.

My classroom is on the freshman hall. Freshmen have been in the hallway all morning, clinking and clanging their books into nice rows in their lockers, the first and last last time these books will enjoy such order. A father is helping his freshman daughter learn to use a combination lock for the first time, their heads bent together over the stubborn digits, concentration thick.

I wonder if he isn’t taking more time than necessary teaching her this skill – love-lingering with the pleasure of a moment that won’t come again.

1c94b4e

I meet these people, parents of students who will not be mine for another three years. “I’m the senior English teacher,” I say again and again. And still they talk with pride and introduce their fourteen-year-old and tell me snippets of her story, what’s she has done all summer and how much she loves to read and ask me if I know she is a dancer. Girls glance shyly over their shoulders at our talking, wondering if they should be embarrassed or pleased by such conversation. I smile and wink. I like these stories.

In the excitement and noise of this chaotic moment, sixty-plus freshman girls and their parents all in one hallway at one time, I can hear the tune of a very old song hovering above the din, if I stop and listen. I hear it every year and sang it myself when I stood in their shoes, watching a child cross the tremulous and glorious threshold from child to teen.

The song of growing up. Going to high school.

So many fears haunt the notes and lyrics of this old melody. Fears birthed, maybe, as we stood on this threshold ourselves so many years back, wondering what was waiting for us on the banks of this unknown shore. And now a child of our own stands on the same shore and all the roles have changed, everyone seeking firm footing on these shifting sands.

The lockers on the freshman hall echo the melody this morning – they listen as new people arrive on the hall, and they smile as we all hear the old words wafting again up the school stairs.

New kids, new parents, but always the same lyrics, the same song.

Is she ready? Am I?  Is she good enough, smart enough, prepared? Has she done her work well? Have I?  What unexpected trial lurks around some dark corner I didn’t even know existed?  Will she remember not to get in cars with strangers?  Did she eat a good breakfast?  Will she remember to bring her books to class?  Will people be nice to her?

4257800468_0ba918b500_o

Will she be nice to them?

I know this anxious song, have heard it countless times, with young ears and old. But I remember what these folks may have forgotten on this day of moving in and moving up. Someone is here all day long, waiting to help her, ready.

Her teacher.

To be a good teacher, a really good one, I must remember one essential thing every day, the most significant fact of all. Not the iambic pentameter of a sonnet or a certain chemical equation or irregular French verbs, as important as those things are.

I must remember that my student is a person, someone’s child. And I should treat her as I would want someone to treat my child.  I must.

Not as a number or a disruption or a form or a label, but a human being God has placed in my path, someone very special placed under my tutelage for a few brief months, a person who will change and transform under my instruction, hopefully for the better. Someone who may be under a terrible strain away from school, a fact I must remember when her face is long or bitter or when she is uncooperative. Someone who may remember me as kind and helpful, someone who made her life better, easier, richer – this simply must be the case. Each student who crosses the threshold into a new classroom this school year deserves this chance, the chance to be loved and accepted and well-taught as if she were my own.

There is simply no other alternative, there cannot be.  This is my job, my privilege.

This is the calling of a teacher.

00003512565719

The girls are loud, chattering and squealing and giggling. Happiness is noisy, I’ve learned.

Each day as I walk this hallway and cross the threshold of my room to teach another group of girls, I will adjust my glasses and remind myself to see this, really see it.

Then I will remind myself that each one of my students is someone’s daughter. And I will treat her as I want people to treat my child.  And my grandchild.  I will do my best, and I know scores of teachers who do the same.  Will you join us?

It’s a pretty good way to live a life.

UNLEASHED

Sometimes I wake up too early.

Wander outside to see the sunrise from my back porch, coffee hot in hand. Take a little stroll to the top of the lane and listen to the sounds of sparrows waking. Read a little, write a little. Try to master Sudoku (current book Deadly Sudoku – working quickly toward Fiendish Sudoku).

Early morning stuff, often way too early.

 

This hot summer day we do something new.

Dogs in tow, we head down to the river, the grand and mighty Mississippi that lives and moves and breathes its stories at the edges of our busy city. The river has been above flood level for most of the summer, its banks bulging, waters running high and climbing over the trees and grasses of riverside parks. Currents are up and swirling hard and I want to see it in its wildness.

10flood1_4982711_ver1.0_640_480

Sunrise+on+the+Mississippi+R.+in+Lousiana%2C+MO

43938_Memphis_Mississippi River_d783-29

We go to walk in the morning quiet, to see what we can see. No one much is out yet, only a few early birds like us. Silent long-necked herons fly high overhead, three of them. Wait, there’s a fourth, moving slowly, almost black, ghostly across the lightening sky. Sparrows twitter and flit in girlish groups and two white-chested hawks sit high, majestic and still on the stiff branches of trees standing proud amidst dark floodwaters. I join the hawks and we watch the river, listening – we all want to hear her voice today.

Little-Blue-Heron-in-flight

Screen-shot-2011-11-01-at-4.36.19-PM

I need to hear something new.

A man stands straight just at the river’s edge and practices his yoga, pensive and strong. His movements are deliberate and prepared, but in his disciplined quiet, his mind is free to wander and explore. To hear and surrender.

 

Tall white tugboats push small islands upstream and down, muddy waters splashing wild against these sluggish barges, lapping and teasing the impossibly heavy loads. What’s on board today, what’s your haul? Is it beans or corn or cotton? I wonder. Steel or river rock or some kind of fuel? Does it matter to you what the load is? The regal tugboats are silent, content to do their job on high waters, pushing unknown cargo on to the next port and the next.

“He works his work, I mine” Tennyson wrote.  The strong barge knows his day’s work and forges forward into it, happy, free on this river.  Unleashed.

twin_EMD_crowley_tugboat2-484x351

628x471

218

The dogs love it here. Unleashed they run, far and fast. The river waters have overflowed their restrictive banks and so have the pups, running on splashy grass, jumping and barking with loud delight at the unexpected coolness the water offers. Joe is the older and usually more cautious of the two, but today he is wildly free, galloping from the soggy shoreline up the steep levee and back countless times, the stoic hawks in branches overhead eyeing him and nodding in approval. Run wild the hawks exhort as they depart their morning branch to do the same.  Andy, the pup, dives in nose first at every chance, rolling happy, water flying high with his every shake. Nose in again, he dives headfirst, all morning long.

Living all of this moment, living this day.

3217805025_872dbf555b_o

dsc_0067

Everything at the river’s edge is living in this moment of freedom – no thought of yesterday or tomorrow – the way we are created to live.  Unfettered.

I stand quiet on the morning bank and try to do the same, toes in water.

 

I take a last quiet look upstream before the morning gets city-noisy and I spot a unexpected raft on the far side of the river, built only of logs and rope. I lean in and see two men aboard the homemade craft – no, it’s a man and a boy – long poles lunged hard into the swollen river, pushing forward, forward. They move with great purpose this morning, carefully executing the boy Huck’s grand plan of heading to Cairo, at the bottom of Illinois where the Ohio River comes in. There they plan to sell the raft and take a steamboat into Ohio – one of the free states – where the man Jim won’t be in danger of being sold back into slavery.

Huck+JIm+River

Raft

Trying to be free, unleashed.

At the core of it, at our deepest place, this is our collective heart’s greatest longing.

What Jim and Huck do not know is a critical element in the story, heavy with irony  – Jim is free already – the Widow Douglas died and freed him in her will.  I shout this story to them across the river – You are free, Jim, already free!  You don’t have to make this difficult journey upriver, come back! – but the two cannot hear me.  They are on the far side of the river, heading north, planning freedom.

 

It is then I can hear the river’s whispered words, what hawks and herons hear as they fly over muddy waters, what all of it is trying to tell us if we could ever be quiet enough, if we have ears to hear the paradox.

Freedom is work. It is the work.
It is for freedom that we have been set free.  Staying free is a lifelong struggle.

Part of what brings  joy in freedom is the work it takes to get there and the extreme effort one must exert to stay there, the return again and again to one’s purpose.  Roll your boulder uphill and when it inevitably rolls back down, turn and do it again.  It is in the turning, the choice to try again, the great effort where one finds her joy, her humanity, her purpose.

The freedom is in the turning, in the daily doing of the work.  We shall not neglect the double-duty of freeing ourselves from the leash and freeing others – for therein lies great joy, a secret too easily forgotten.

And when it is finally fulfilled, when a yoke is finally broken for you or one you love, it is the tree of life.


The sun rises hot and white ~ summer in Memphis is a brilliant heat. The city awakes.

144461707_640-1

JimBraswell-B5DMK3-3107-MississippiSunrise-2

Pushing and pulling, we all make our way along the river. Unleashed, or trying to be.

This struggle is our greatest story.

 

 

Galatians 5:1 – It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.