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.

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Fighting the GOOD Fight (in Room 374)

Friday morning, a mere four days before the Presidential election of 2016, and a growing heap of poetry analysis papers has set up camp on my desk, begging to be read.  I’m trying to decide if I’ll cart the papers home with me for the weekend or let them settle in on my desk until Monday. We’ll see.

We are all exhausted.

It’s the end of what’s been an excruciating election season – our entire nation feels it.  United are we, but united in an odd, hard-to-name distemper. We are all tired of talking about it, all tired of listening to the worst episode of He said/She said in modern history. My senior girls are worried and sad, wishing they could be a bit more optimistic and excited about voting in their very first Presidential election.

Wondering what our world will look like on Wednesday.

At the moment, it is quiet in my corner of the world, classroom 374, and I look up from my work. Students are always in here – studying, debating, working out ideas, trying to write them down. St. Mary’s classrooms are filled with girls all day long talking with their teachers, constant conversations and grappling and learning to voice their opinions, every day, all day long – it’s what we do. Today, three girls sit together on my couch, hunched over quiet computers, writing. One writes of the abuse of women in Othello, another writes of the crippling nature of indecision in Hamlet. A third examines how T.S. Eliot’s late life religious conversion affects the tone of his poetry.

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Young women doing good work. Good, hard work. Scholars are these, girls who think. And for people who think, this election cycle has thrown us all for a loop.

My AP classes are reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment at the moment (apropos, thinks my cynical alter ego). We are at the point in the novel where the murderer Raskolnikov returns to the scene of the crime to admire his own bloody workmanship, only to find it cleaned up and freshly painted – whitewashed. Genuinely astounded that his handiwork has been erased, the killer screams with fury at the painter, “Where’s the blood, what happened to the blood?” Dumbfounded, the lone painter shakes his head and steps back to examine the man Raskolnikov, to really take a good long look, and then whispers in astonishment:  “What sort of man are you?”

Indeed, this is the question of this day. My students, young women I love, I want to ask you a question. What sort of person are you? What sort of person are you becoming?

Before I dare to ask you to consider this question, though, I feel the need to apologize on behalf of the many adults in your lives who have failed you, failed to give you worthy role models, failed to be honest. Shakespeare’s Falstaff said it like this ~ “Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying … every third word a lie…”
Alas.

World leaders and entertainers and politicians (Lord, help us!), CEOs and professional athletes and the media. Sometimes teachers, sometimes parents. People who may or may not have ever asked themselves this question – What sort of person am I?  We have not been examples of goodness for you.

Sidebar ~ Ironically there seems to be a great deal of Millennial-bashing these days (as if Baby-Boomers have the right to be judgmental about anything), but let me tell you something I admire greatly about Millennials – you guys don’t tolerate nonsense, and we have certainly thrown a lot of nonsense your way. Add the fact that we all spend so many of our waking hours with noses stuck in screens, we can so quickly become drenched in the muck of disappointment, I fear, and it seems easier than ever to lose the hope of goodness.

So, with that caveat acknowledged, I ask you this ~ Ladies, can you (we) set your (our) blaming mentality aside for just one quick second and ask ourselves to think honestly and vulnerably? If you can, then ask yourself this question – go ahead and say it out loud:  What sort of person am I?

Try to resist asking this question ~ “Well, what about everybody else? What sort of people are Hillary and Donald and Anthony Weiner and Soulja Boy and Lord Voldemort and Iago and Beelzebub and Nurse Ratched and the Wicked Witch of the West? What about them, huh? What kind of people are they?”

I’m not talking about them. I don’t know them. Ladies, this isn’t new, you know. The list of ne’er-do-wells stretches from the dawn of time to the edge of eternity. Always has, always will. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about you. It is you I love. It is your character and happiness that compels me to ask you to consider:  What sort of person am I? 

And a second, follow-up question, as important as the first ~ What about goodness? What has happened to goodness? Am I trying to be good?

What will you do or say on Wednesday if your candidate does not win? Not what your classmate or your neighbor or your parent will say, but you. This question is indicative of our character and who we really are as human beings.

A reversal is what we need. A turn from bigotry and noisy clamoring and shouting and name-calling and fear-mongering and lying.  A return to good. 

You may have to do the role modeling, my dears. It may be the children who lead us toward civility – you are the hope. You might remember that the Book says just that, “A little child will lead us.”

Will you consider a path of goodness on Wednesday morning? As our friend Prufrock asks, Do you dare? 

So Tuesday we vote. And Wednesday we will have an answer. Do not look for good role modeling on the news on Wednesday morning – I fear you will not find it there. Wednesday’s news cycle will be filled with all sorts of individual, acting as they will act, saying what they will say. But as I said earlier, I don’t know them.

I know you. 

So let us gather together and fight the good fight right where we are. Someone must do it. Someone must start.  For me, it happens in room 374. I’ll see you there tomorrow.

Until then, be good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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 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?

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.