Friday, May 15, 2015

Happy Birthday, Mother

Today is my mother's birthday.  I'm embarrassed to admit that I lose track of the exact number, but it probably won't hurt her feelings for that piece of data to go unmentioned anyway.  Let's just say that she is older than a couple of decades or so...and leave it at that.

Born and reared in New Mexico, she found her way to Texas in pursuit of a Christian Education degree from T.C.U.  It was there that she met a slightly older seminarian whom she married, and with whom she launched into a life together and a companionable ministry of her own.  While he spent time in the pulpit, she spent time in all those classic ways -- in the choir loft, at the organ bench, in the Sunday School classroom and ginning up the Women's Fellowship.

Somehow they found the time to start a family which, as she later acknowledged, she considered to be her primary vocation.  I was her second and final round in the maternity ward, my brother preceding me by a couple of years.  She might have preferred a daughter along the way, but she never intimated that we were anything but the answer to her dreams.  Besides, she had prior experience with boys -- growing up as she did with both an older and a younger brother.  So she was prepared for testosterone, and made the best of  it, although it hasn't hurt our standing that in addition to attentive daughters-in-law and a couple of cherished grandsons, both of us have offered up granddaughters to fill the feminine void.

But as I say, if we two sons hadn't been her first choice no one in the universe could have known it. Never  have there been two more adored boys, from childhood through adulthood.  We could do no wrong, even though we often have.

She was our first piano teacher, sitting us down at the keyboard around the second day after we were discharged from the maternity ward.
Right after we got home from Sunday School.
If we weren't the most attentive students, it should cast no shadow on her teaching.  We simply had other things we thought we needed to be doing.
Nonetheless she was a happy meeting of firmness and indulgence.  She set the kitchen timer on the piano and insisted that we practice until it rang, and pretended not to notice when we advanced the needle on the dial to abbreviate the torture.  Long after she handed us off to more "professional" teachers, she insisted that we practice and play the "serious" music we were assigned, while also promising to buy us any popular sheet music we wanted to learn.

That's been pretty much the story:  tough and tender, inseparably intertwined.  Our strictest overseer; our biggest cheerleader, encouragement, publicist and support -- through heartsong and heartbreak; through aspiration and humiliation; through accolades and disappointments, contentments and unsettlements she has been there to nudge, console, embrace and celebrate.

She might move a little slower these days than in some previous years, but her heart still beats as adoringly and warm, and she has never put down her maternal megaphone.  She is still close by in the bleachers, cheering us all on, enjoying our little victories even more than we do.  How great is that!

So today we'll do a little celebrating on her behalf -- in thanks for her birth, in thanks for those to whom she has given birth, and for all the many and vivid ways she bears witness to the image of God alive and well among us.

Happy Birthday, Mother!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Peace, and the Powerful Legacy of Hope

We had been out of touch for a few years.  My life had taken me in a different direction and, depending on the week or the month, his life had taken him in new directions...or not.  With some degree of shame I admit that perhaps more instrumental in my psychological remove than simply moving to a different constellation of communities, and unlike many of my friends and former co-workers, I had simply worn out.  Gary -- let's just say this at the outset -- could be both exhilarating and exhausting, encouraging and disappointing in often wearying juxtaposition.  And then yesterday we buried him. 

At 56 years of age.  Again, however, let's agree that however many years have literally elapsed since he came into this world, his body was some number of years older than that.  Lifestyle issues had almost certainly levied a tax on his system; who can really be completely surprised that the bill finally came due and his heart simply gave out? 

Well, I suppose we were all surprised.  Gary, after all, had played the phoenix so many times before.  However much his booming, resonant voice was his calling card, his real art was rising from the ashes -- determinedly pulling himself up by his fingernails and force of will every time those ashes had claimed him once again.  "Pulling himself up", that is, along with the help and encouragement and advocacy of friends.  There was, to be sure, a large and ever morphing circle of strength that tenaciously pulled for Gary.  Like migrating geese that constantly change positions to relieve the one flying in the point position, new faces constantly cycled into seasons of advocacy when others of us fell back from compassion fatigue.  There were, of course, constants in his life who refused to give him up to his own bad choices -- families by choice, if not by blood, who never closed their door -- but there were more veterans than soldiers in the war to save Gary.

And now that the war is over -- an armistice arranged by death rather than defeat -- it's hard to know what to think, let alone feel.  There is sadness, to be sure; disappointment, a bit of latent guilt, and, if I am honest, something gnawing around the edges of my soul that smells a bit like anger or more likely exasperated frustration.  Neither Gary nor the circle of support arrayed around him could finally pull it off. 

I don't mean to suggest resentment.  Once, years ago, in one of those initial forays in pursuit of some legal redemption, we approached a public figure of some influence for some kind of support and, after hearing the summary of Gary's story, asked, "How many second chances does someone get?"  From my reading of scripture I think the answer is, "However many someone needs."  I regret none of our efforts, nor resent none of their ultimate futility.

No, it's neither resentment nor regret.  Perhaps what I feel has more to do with existential bewilderment.  Never have I known a person with more extravagant gifts.  Gary possessed the kind of voice that shower singers like me only dream about and routinely pay large ticket prices to hear.  He had been well-reared by devoted parents, well-trained by the world's best teachers, and well-introduced to some of the most prestigious stages and most discerning audiences in the world.  And his talent was up for the challenge.  Unfortunately, the rest of him wasn't always that prepared.  And then after his great fall and our providential introduction, Gary's innate giftedness was augmented by the circle of hands determined to hold him up and, as was repeatedly necessary, pull him back up.  God had equipped this instrument with all the assets one should need to soar and yet Gary could never stay in flight for very long. 

All Gary wanted to do was sing, but circumstances were such that he spent as much or more of his time groveling. 

What do I make of that?  Is Gary simply a poster child for the ultimate place of "free-will" -- that no matter how fully and richly God wants and equips a person to succeed, God will not finally do for that person what he will not do for himself -- or is Gary's story simply a testament to the tragic power of addiction?  I am neither a good enough theologian nor an experienced enough social worker to have the answer.

I only know, as I told a friend who spoke at the funeral, that it is somehow appropriate that Gary died cradled in the space midway between Advent's Sundays of Hope and Peace.  Despite all of his ups and downs he never lost the former; and now, by the grace of this God of second chances, he has finally found the latter.

Blessings, my big and beautiful and complicated friend.  Life in your company has been a cherished, and I suppose "appropriately operatic", duet.  Thanks for singing, and teaching us all something about aspirational determination, and the power of hope. 


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Less the Data Than the Life

Lori and I write Christmas letters.  I know that not everyone thinks that’s a useful practice.  They can sound grandiose and braggadocios.  They can read like saccharine.  All that, plus the tendency of such epistles to over-assess the reader’s interest in the minutiae of the writer’s life.  If we really wanted to know the intricacies of someone’s everyday life – paper or plastic, one-ply or two, gel or paste, the current odometer reading -- we could simply read Facebook.

I understand all that.  But still we write the letters.  In our defense, we try our best to capture some essence of the forest of our year rather than naming every tree.  We keep it to one page.  This year's narrative will almost certainly make note of Lori's retirement in June and the addition of chickens to our little homestead in March.  Readers might detect a note of smugness when we report how many elements of our Thanksgiving Dinner came out of our garden and coop, but the availability of such foodstuffs is as much an occasion for surprise as gratitude.  The letter will, in other words, include a few details.  But we assume that any interest by our friends has less to do with our calendars than our growth and well-being and try to write with that editorial eye and ear.  Essentially we try our best to write a letter that we would want to read.

In truth, though, I suspect we would write the letter even if we never mailed it out.  A Christmas letter is simply the mechanism we have adopted for reflecting on our lives.  Who have we been this year?  Where have we grown?  What have we attempted; to what have we aspired?  What has moved us deeply?  What have we set aside; what have we moved beyond?  The Christmas letter has become for us a kind of annual physical for our marital soul – our inside version of the question Ralph Waldo Emerson reportedly posed to his friend Henry David Thoreau after a long separation, “what has become clearer to you since last we met?”  Or, otherwise phrased, “what have you learned…?”

What have we learned in the course of this year?  What has become clearer? 

Today is the day we’ll be sitting down over a cup of hot tea in the company of each other and something of those searching questions.  Maybe a few of their answers will find their way into a letter. It could be that someone actually reads it.  But whatever words ultimately find their way polished and on the page, the point will not simply be a letter that has been written.  The point will be a year gratefully lived; one, we trust, will end up piquing our curiosity about the next one beginning just around the corner.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chickening Out on Future Deals

Ultimately, of course, it's my own fault.  I bit the bait.  As the old adage reminds me, "If it sounds too good to be true it probably is."  But we needed new sheets, so when the "Deal Chicken" offer landed in my "inbox" trumpeting 1200 Thread Count sheets at 79% off the retail cost I couldn't resist.  "Deal Chicken", for the uninitiated, is the Groupon-like daily "deal" promoted by the newspaper.  That, too, should have prompted dissuasion since months ago I lost respect for that publication and cancelled my subscription.  Still, and despite all the internal cautionary voices, on December 5th I pressed "purchase" and allowed myself the indulgence of anticipating that promised luxurious night's sleep.

By December 20, when I still had neither seen nor heard from the order, I spelunked  down through my emails, found the order confirmation, excavated a Customer Service phone number and called to solicit an update.  The kindly voice on the recording confessed that the seller was experiencing higher than usual call volume and encouraged me to call again later.  Click.  I did.  How many times I have long since lost count.  Ultimately I emailed my query and received in return a FedEx tracking number whose detail indicated that the shipper had, indeed, been notified on December 12 of an impending package.  There had, however,  been no activity since.  The seller's website had proudly assured that all orders placed prior to December 12 would be delivered before Christmas, so trusting the integrity of this vendor that I knew nothing about, I resolved again toward patience.

Until, that is, December 26 when I resumed my telephony.  A subsequent email query had garnered me the same tracking number that reported no additional movement, and I was determined to hear a more detailed explanation.  No longer was it really about the sheets; it was now the principle of thing that irked me.  Numerous calls later, and just as I was about to hang up, a human actually answered the phone.  She offered me a tracking number.  I allowed as to how I already had that, and that it only reported the vendor's negligence.

"I beg your pardon?" she asked.

"The tracking number merely reports what you intended to do, not what actually happened.  And what has actually happened is exactly nothing."  I recounted the notches on the calendar and their promised Christmas delivery.

"Well," she ventured, "I am aware that FedEx has had some delivery delays."

"That's rather disingenuously opportunistic, don't you think?  If I had placed this order on December 23rd I might accept your dodge. In fact, however, I placed the order a week prior to your web-announced delivery deadline, well before the shipping company's unfortunate Christmas woes.  Don't throw FedEx under the bus.  This is your fault, not theirs."

The customer service agent was disinclined to continue the conversation, but I hung up only after being assured that the package had, in fact been shipped.

A week later I can report two things.  First, I'm still waiting for delivery although I can see, using the tracking number, that the package has in truth been sent.  Second, something has changed in me.  In the ensuing weeks the aggravation has transformed into something closer to fascination.  I've almost lost interest in the sheets.  Instead I am simply curious how -- if ever -- this process will be completed.  The company's "free shipping" offer apparently took advantage of FedEx's ant-back delivery method.  The package's progress is almost glacial.  Since leaving New Jersey it has traveled about 30 miles each day.  I have squash bugs in my garden that make more progress than that.  I may not live long enough to take delivery.

One thing I have learned through this is not to trust "the Chicken."  Yes, I know their offers plainly absolve themselves of any responsibility; that fulfillment of the offers is solely the obligation of the seller.  I simply expected a more careful vetting of the merchants they represent.  It's in their interest, after all.  I'll not likely remember for long the name of "Luxor Linens" or whatever the name of the company who has allegedly sold me sheets.  But I will remember "Deal Chicken" with something considerably south of satisfaction.

Perhaps the larger lesson for me, however, is one I already knew, but had largely applied to different kinds of purchases.  "Shake the hand of the farmer who feeds you," I have taken to heart for sometime now -- buying eggs from the guy who lifts them from the coop each day; buying meat from the guys who have opened the gates and pulled the calves and backed up the trailer; buying vegetables (when I need to buy them) from the CSA whose care and farming practices I try to emulate.  There is, this silly shopping experience has reminded me, good reason to practice the same kind of relational localism when it comes to other goods as well.  I may not be able to shake the hand of the person who weaves the sheet, but I can darn sure shake the hand of the merchant who will be behind the counter when I have a question, a compliment, or a concern.

It may cost a little more in one form of currency, but will be far cheaper in another.  My blood pressure, emotional tone and marriage are already assessing that "79%-off" as quite likely the most expensive discount I have ever received.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Speckled Plume of Blessing

A pheasant flew across the road this morning as I made my way toward town.  The stubbled corn field perhaps looked more promising than the mowed hay field it was leaving. Or perhaps it was simply bored with its view and was ready to move on.  I have little experience with pheasants -- turkey, quail and doves were the game birds common to my growing up -- but I instinctively recognized it…
...the speckled feathers
...the plumed tail
...the bottom-heavy flight that seemed little more than an airborne “scoot.”

And in a moment it was gone, lost in the camouflage of the bordering culvert, and me further along the gravel road.  

Blessings are commonly like that -- surprising, glancing, easily missed for our constant motion, and theirs; but recognized somehow, even in their unfamiliarity.

I rather believe that advent -- this subtler time of watching, waiting, hoping, even aching that precedes the celebration of noteworthy fulfillment -- is intended to be a training season; a time spent practicing the discipline of paying closer attention; of willed awareness and studious openness for that being of beauty and wonder that, at any random moment, might wing its way across the roadway…
...of my heart
...of my loves
...of my insight
...of my soul.

It’s not that December is more fertile than other seasons, as though blessings are more plentiful this time of year.  Quite the opposite might well be true.  There is snow on the ground, after all, and virtually anything still protruding from it is stripped and brittle and dormant -- if not altogether dead.  People shuffle cautiously along, mummified in goose down and scarves and gloves and hoods, concentrating on safe footing and expedient return to someplace warm, reluctant to pause and chat. 

The season’s austerity, however, just might benefit us by affording a clearer, more unencumbered view.  And it is worth the practice, because there is almost no telling what we might manage to see fluttering and flitting across our path…

...if we are looking.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Winter Walk, and the Warmth Inside

It’s more complicated now, and requires a bit more preparation.  With the drop in temperatures and the dusting of snow there are gloves to find -- at least the missing partner to the one that remains in the pocket; there is the scarf to wrap, the coat to zip, the boots to lace.  And there is the separation anxiety from the warm flames dancing in the fireplace as the brisk air hits your face through the open door.  Still, it is worth taking walks outside.  There is a crunch to the footsteps.  Breath is as visual as it is pulmonary.  On sunny days the air has a purity unique to the season, and the few surviving leaves flutter proudly, encouragingly, on the otherwise naked branch.  Even a winter landscape has its artful, instructive and centering voice; quieter, perhaps, without the birdsongs and branches muffled in hoarfrost, but nourishing nonetheless -- perhaps even medicinal.

In Walden, Thoreau wrote “We need the tonic of wildness."  Presumably that need extends through the winter.  A recent article in the Huffington Post put a sharper point on it:  "We can never have enough of nature” ("What The 1960s Got Right About Health, Happiness And Well-Being," by Carolyn Gregoire, 11/22/2013).

Holy in its own way, that walk in the woods or the field or the sidewalk through the neighborhood may be medicinal not only for body and mind, but for the soul as well.

In the Preface to his recently released collection of Sabbath poems, Wendell Berry notes that, “the idea of the sabbath gains in meaning as it is brought out-of-doors and into a place where nature’s principles of self-sustaining wholeness and health are still evident.  In such a place -- as never, for me, under a roof -- the natural and the supernatural, the heavenly and the earthly, the soul and the body, the wondrous and the ordinary, all appear to occur together in the one fabric of creation.  All stand both upon the earth and upon the fundamental miracle that where once was nothing now we have these creatures in this place on this day.  In such a place one might expectably come to rest, with trust renewed in the creation’s power to exist and to continue.”

Last year Lori and I bought snowshoes to better navigate the trails through the prairie behind the garden.  For sabbath walks in winter.  Because the soul has a hunger irrespective of the season.

And the fire will be waiting for us when we return

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Little Tomato that Could

Early in the summer my Mother-in-law planted a tomato -- two, if the complete truth be told.  But while one of them thrived in its new location, the future of the other one was none so bright.  The story of that first one is common enough -- seeded in some unknown greenhouse, sold in a local store, planted and eventually harvested.

This is the story of that other one.

It started out in that same common way, purchased alongside the other one and planted in the same backyard.  To be sure, they were planted in a garden bed exposed to the usual threats -- it's always a gamble to offer up desirables to the Fates.  But for some reason this one proved to be especially appealing to the critters of the great outdoors.  Not long after planting it my Mother-in-law discovered it uprooted and dutifully tamped it back into the soil.  Some time later, while working in another part of the garden, she noticed something dark out of the corner of her eye laying on the grass in that tomatoey part of the yard, but things are always laying on a yard, after all, and the weeds at hand or the song of a nearby bird or thoughts of the afternoon errands claimed her mind and she paid no further attention.

Days went by.  Eventually her horticultural ministrations took her to that region of the garden where she discovered that that "dark" object from days before was, indeed, that same seemingly cursed tomato plant once again uprooted and cast aside by a foraging rabbit or a tugging deer.  By now, as I mentioned, several days had passed and surely it had shriveled beyond resuscitation.  With nothing, however, to lose but a little extra effort, she laid the waylaid plant in a wheel-barrow where some water had collected and left it to soak awhile in hopes of some supernatural rehydration.  Later, she troweled a fresh space in the soil and replanted the little sprout with only the thinnest margin of optimism.

But it grew -- well, in fact -- and now this little tomato-bush-that-could is replete with rewarding fruit.  A true survivor.  She thought it nothing short of miraculous.

She mentioned the story to someone at the local weekly paper but he betrayed little interest in the story.  I can understand his reticence.  After all, a news outlet needs to be poised and ready should any breaking news...well, break out.  You wouldn't want your word processor clogged up with a tomato story.  That "breaking news" for a weekly paper is almost an oxymoron is beside the point.  They clearly had more pressing concerns -- a litter bug, perhaps; or too much pressure in the water fountain at the little league park that nearly squirted someone's eye out.  "All our reporters are busy."

I wasn't there but I can almost hear the editor thinking, "we are in the NEWS business -- civic education -- not inspiration!"

The rest of us, however, might value the humble, quiet reminder that it's tragically easy to give up too soon on the possibilities of life.  And when that happens, everybody misses out.

But for those who persist -- those who loyally replant the uprooted and those who keep on out of the sheer determination to grow -- there is, more often than you might think, something flavorful and sweet at the end.

I'm just saying...