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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

For Those On Whom Brokenness Is Not Wasted

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”  Rumi

 

He doesn’t looking both ways when he crosses the street.

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He runs out scared onto Poplar Avenue, our busiest thoroughfare, and turns back confused, back and forth scurrying, between car dodging, not knowing. How can a stray dog be expected to understand the comings-and-goings of life in the fast lane or vacuous people operating large machinery or the simple fact that things move too quickly around here?

He is hit and I am witness.

The offending car stops abrupt, driver distraught. I never saw him, he came from out of nowhere are the words we wail after the deed is done, and they are true. We seem to never see it coming. Dog and driver are both injured, both wobble weak onto the hot summer street – one broken leg, one broken heart.

Time slows after injury, after tragedy – even city traffic seems to respect the moment. The pup tries to stand after his brief encounter, but only once. Unable to walk, he scoots and drags himself to find ironic shelter under the very vehicle that broke him; he lies to rest in the shady spot under her car.

Good people get to work, as good people will. Cars pull over and out of the way, one man directs traffic while another stoops to calm and rescue the pup. So many people stop to help that it becomes problematic; my car is motioned out of the way and down a side street.   It is not my day to be rescuer; today I am but observer.

I do not know the truthful ending of this story, so I will tell the proper one instead, the better one.

The dog lives.

He is taken to the vet where his leg is carefully set, and now only a tiny limp remains to remind us all to watch more carefully as we bulldoze our way through this life. The woman who hit him now adopts him and he is homeless no more, a stray properly rescued, loved and cared for by the very one who injured him most.  The essence of grace.

His leg heals and so does her heart, a beautiful conclusion.

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I live with and love two dogs, Joe and Andy. I must insist upon this ending, the better story.

 

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I am a great fan of irony. The fact that the English language has two words with precisely the same pronunciation but the exact opposite meaning intrigues me. (I can think about these sorts of things too much, I fear.)

Consider the words raze and raise ~ identical in sound, opposite in meaning.

The Amish community will raise a barn this afternoon. Or will they raze it? Unless one sees the word in print or has a solid grasp of the context of the sentence, one cannot know whether the Amish are building a barn this afternoon or tearing one down.

Could it be the same is often true with us, we regular folk living our regular lives? We want to raise each other up and be raised up by others, we want to encourage and support and exhort, and sometimes we do – we raise another up in purity and compassion, seeking nothing for ourselves, only the good of another.  But too often in our petty fear and selfish insecurity and natural discontent, these sins that so easily beset us, we tear people down in futile attempts to raise ourselves up in the eyes of others and, of course, in our own eyes.  I will gossip and impugn you, lie about you and ignore you, or even shoot you in your own church in the subconscious and ugly hope that tearing you down will somehow raise me up.

I sometimes raze to raise ~ do you do this?  While I adore this wordplay, the truth of it aches.  And the kingdom of God suffers.  Mankind suffers.

 

The story of the wounded pup exemplifies this irony.  In the better story, the woman who razes the dog also raises him.   There is hope.

The better story looks different from person to person, but mine is oddly like the pup’s.

I too was hit by a car once. Collision head-on, in the rain, the other driver passing on a hill, full speed ahead in the wrong lane, his headlights shining bright in my unsuspecting eyes.

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Broken, wounded, torn ~ I was razed completely.

The process of falling and standing again is sometimes long; mine was.   Femur and liver and gall bladder ~ surgeries three, like weird sisters. We want you to sit up in the chair today, can you try?  Breathe, don’t forget to breathe.

I eventually move from bed to chair, one day I am introduced to a walker and then a pair of crutches, I even spend a few days with a cane. It is oh-so-many months before I plant two feet hard onto terra firma and take a first confident step.

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Head-on collisions are figurative as well as literal.  You are thinking of yours, I’ll bet.

Like those who stopped to help the pup and those who stood beside me to help me walk again, there is a sympathetic community of the broken that surrounds when one is razed, literally and figuratively.   https://rolltheboulder.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/the-community-of-the-broken/

This community is comprised of other broken folk who can be honest and remember their own pain, they can see and feel in your moment the time of their own weakness.  It is called empathy and there are those who practice it. Those who have tasted the bitter pill of hopelessness and can remember its acrid pungence – these are folk on whom brokenness has not been wasted.

Find those, for they will carry you.  And they are out there, I promise – just look for the open hands and quiet, calm hearts.  Come to my church ~ we are a band of honest, broken folk who have not forgotten what that feels like.  And it is magnificently beautiful.

Pray without ceasing, be honest about your pain, and then do not be surprised when empathy knocks and brings a lemon cake to your door. And good listening ears – empathy always listens more than it speaks.

Some folk fall and do not get back up; sometimes that is the story. But sometimes, often actually, the fallen rise again. The community of other broken folk brings them crutches and kindness and patience and pie.  This community stops for the hurt pups on the side of the road and actually cares for them, taking them to get their legs mended and bringing them water.  And human compassion.  And hope.

 

People raze others to raise themselves.  We see in all around and far too frequently ~ this very week a white supremist shot nine congregants in their own house of worship.  We feel this despair and know something must be done about this.

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But do not lose heart, beloved ones; not everyone lives this way, not all people carry hate and guns. Compassion can be taught and people can forgive, even the very man who murdered their family.  Unthinkable, unbelievable even.   And yet… http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/06/dylann-roof-manifesto-forgiveness/396428/

They are our example.  They embrace the Example, and so can we.

He Who was razed, raised.  He lives.  He is raised from the dead.   He Who razes, raises.  Though he slay me, though I fall hard and feel like dying, yet will I trust in Him, says Job-the-destitute.  Says me. The unexpected by-product of all this falling and standing, falling and standing, falling and standing can be empathy.  I will stand alongside you as long as it takes and you will stand by me.

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I want to live like this.  Join me in living like this.  We can change the world; community like this can change the world.  It can.

The poet Rumi is right in saying “the wound is the place where the Light enters you.”  Let us embrace the wound and thus embrace the light.  Let us not be ones on whom brokenness is wasted.

 

 

 

 

The Community of the Broken

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The girl in the elevator at Memphis’ new Bass Pro Shop said to be sure to get the fudge, it’s famous!, but not today because we are out of fudge today. So I am standing in line at the fudge store to buy my father some sugared-pecans and a Diet Coke instead when a cool hand gently touches my warm one in recognition. I turn to look into eyes I do not know, an older gentleman with a lovely silver-haired woman by his side, but somehow his touch is completely familiar.

It is a touch I have felt all my life.

“We have something in common,” he says before he introduces himself.

“Indeed we do.”

The kindly gentleman takes my three-fingered hand into his own fingerless palm and pats it warmly with his other hand, his “good hand,” an overly intimate gesture in almost every other circumstance, movement far too fast and familiar for strangers.  But we are not strangers.

We belong to the same community.

We stand together in the fudge-less fudge line and talk of background (he’s from England) and education (I’m a teacher) and spouses (ours stand beside us smiling and nodding knowingly at each other – between them they have watched these interactions, these immediate friendships bloom year after year).  We talk well past the time everyone else is ready to go.

My pecans and soda arrive as does his popcorn and coffee, so it is time for me to step out of line and take my father to see the rods and reels. My new friend and his wife are going to the boats.

“It was so nice to meet you,” I say. “Always is.”

“You are beautiful,” he says, patting my hand one last time.

“You are too.”

We wave our little hands at each other in parting solidarity. Our spouses grin and wink, all of us having been on this stage before.

 

I was born into the community of the broken, a unique place of loveliness in the universe. Humility dwells there, as does compassion and kindness; empathy is birthed in the fertile ground of this company. This is an enviable lot in which to toss one’s hat.

It is easy to be a part of the community of the broken; one must only admit her brokenness. Something slightly easier to do when you are born that way, I think. I was born with a limb difference – only three fingers on a short left arm. Symbrachydactyly is its proper name.

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So my brokenness is physical, visible.

The great and unexpected blessing in the visibility of one’s brokenness is that there is no denying it, no hiding;  it’s out there for all the world to see. Other broken-folk, like my new-best-friend in the fudge line, can see my brokenness and come forth with theirs, if they choose.   On crutches and in wheelchairs, limb-differed and limbless, the mentally-challenged and the sick, I can see your brokenness and you can see mine.

And the Lord said, It is good.

Here I am, world, as I am. Take it or leave it is the battle cry of the broken ~ a beautiful, liberating anthem.

So when a member of this community approaches me in line and takes my little hand into his, it’s a touch with which I am familiar, something much more than mere compassion. It is the humble touch of understanding. Our love is deep before we ever even speak.

He gets me.

 

It’s harder, I’ve found, with invisible brokenness. No one can see our hidden things, and we’ve all been experts at hiding since the dawn of man.

Adam, where are you?

This broken community is harder to find because of its invisibility.

Sadnesses and failures, despair and distrust, wounds ancient and un-mended comprise the universal fabric of human brokenness, and yet we all camouflage and deny and pretend it isn’t happening to us ~ we hide our hurt behind the odd, heavy cloaks of smiles and lies and, in the worst case scenarios, we try to protect our own hidden broken places by exposing the brokenness in others. 

Judgment and prejudice and petty gossip and intentional cruelty are perfect garments to cower behind.  For pointing out the ills in others just may buy one a little bit more time and space to dig her own hiding holes a little bit deeper.  Whew.

 

When I was a teenager, I didn’t like walking on the beach in the summer. The beach ~ where pretty girls strut and fret their hours walking to and fro, with good-looking guys following an acceptable distance behind, everyone hoping. I didn’t mind the walking when my right arm was beachside and my little arm was oceanside, but when we turned to walk back, it was harder.  You know this feeling.

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It is the fragility of exposure.  A very hard place.

The community of the broken can help to heal this place.  Honest brokenness strengthens the fragile and emboldens the weak.  Gentle, healing grace is where the broken are made whole again. 
Please be gentle.

Christ’s brother James tells us to confess our sin [broken places] and to pray for one another, so that we may be healed.  I’ll tell you mine and you can tell me yours because it’s all the same brokenness ~ we all need the healing.

The beautiful community of the broken is made up of people with gracious eyes and ears, who see and hear our stories of pain and loss and respond not with judgment but with empathy and understanding deep.  Folk who take your hand ~ physically, emotionally, spiritually ~ and say, “I acknowledge your loss and sadness and pain because I acknowledge my own.”

We are the same, all cut from the same tragically-flawed but intricately-designed human cloth.

These are the people who walk hand-in-hand with you down the beach and, rather than trying to hide their stuff, they get t-shirts instead. Ten fingers are overrated her shirt proudly confesses.  No hiding here.

What would your t-shirt say?

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This is the beginning of healing ~ the confession of broken places.  This is a better way of living ~ praying for each other so that we all may be healed.

I happily and humbly join and rejoin the throngs of the broken.  You?

 

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I see my fudge-line friend again before I leave Bass Pro. He’s holding an ice cream cone in his good hand and waving maniacally with his little hand. I wave back with my little hand and shout across duck-laden ponds, “It was so great to meet you. Have a safe trip!”

“You too, dearest,” his British accents wafts lightly over the country music. “So much love to you.”  He means it.

I receive this healing.