Sunday, July 30, 2017

Blank Walls, Empty Space (and An Announcement)


It began with open space. 

Maybe, that’s how all things begin.  All good things, that is. 

And, it began with need which, so often, provides fertile ground for creativity to take root. 

This is what I remembered as I sifted back through layers of memory and experience, this is the conclusion I reached when someone asked, “How did you begin painting?”

I never intended to paint, that was not the point.  But when we moved to this enormous, old farm house three years ago, I found myself with rooms full of empty wall space and nothing to hang.  Need (or was it desire?) knocked and I answered.  I splurged on one large print from Ikea and two empty frames which I filled with fabric in a color scheme I adored.  But our budget would not allow for more. 

I kept my eyes open, though, and found ornate and tacky old paintings abandoned along back woods roads and languishing in thrift store bins.  I bought acrylic paints in magenta, teal, and tangerine.  I, like generations of women before me, decided I would ‘make-do’ and I did.

In the process of making-do, though, I discovered that painting felt like prayer – calm, clear, and filled with listening.  Painting, also, felt like writing, and I listened as I painted and learned about myself as a writer, as a creative, as an artist. 

All of this, from blank walls, empty space.

//

What open spaces mark your life today?  

What invitation might these spaces hold?  

What opportunity, adventure, unanticipated discovery?

//

I never intended to paint. 

But now I know that words on wood, in color, is part of who I am.  Those empty walls called forth some part of me long buried like a seed, causing the artist in me to sprout and blossom.

Now I continue to watch and wait, like a gardener eyeing empty soil.  What open spaces are here, now and what abundance might be sleeping in the rich, dark emptiness?  

//


Good news, friends, I now have an Etsy shop where you can order prints of my original paintings.  Visit The Broody Hen Shop to see current offerings.  

Monday, July 17, 2017

Mail Worth Crossing the Road For . . .


Our mailbox sits across a busy state road from our house.  It's an old metal box equipped with a nifty yellow flag that pops up whenever the door is opened.  This way, we can tell at a glance, whether the mail is here yet.  

I never cross the road unless that flag is up - it's that reliable.  But sometimes, when the yellow flag beckons, I brave traffic, rain or snow only to discover a handful of junk mail - a flyer from a credit card company or a weekly bundle of local retailer flyers.  Those days, I feel disappointed, and like a little bit of a sucker.  I was looking forward to something good - or at least something useful, but instead I risked my life for a few pieces of paper that will go directly into the recycling bin.  

Maybe you know the feeling?

What if I could promise you one piece of mail each month that didn't disappoint?  I want to invite you to sign up for my newsletter, Quiet Lights, where you'll receive more of the same writing you've come to expect here on This Contemplative Life.  Quiet Lights is bi-monthly (during the school year) and has slowed to once a month over the summer.  

No spam, no junk mail, just a few good words straight from me to you.  Sound good?  You can sign up right here to get the latest post :



Now, if you'll excuse me, the yellow flag is up across the street and I've got my fingers crossed that it's something good today. 


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Hare, A Shovel, A Pale Blue Envelope

(photo via Unsplash: Gary Bendig)

I walked out the back door and circled around toward the front of the house one recent Saturday morning, looking for the shovel.  I suspected it had been left leaning against the porch after a recent gardening project.  A few weeks earlier, we had pulled out yet another dying shrub and planted a few annuals.  The annuals – mostly Zinnias and Sunflowers sown from seed – sprouted and grew about an inch tall, then disappeared.  We figured someone ate them, most likely a rabbit.  

I was hunting for the shovel so I could plant some things in another flower bed, this one beside the Little House.  

I walked down our paved driveway toward the road and noticed the yellow metal flag on our mailbox across the street was standing at full salute.  I saw no sign of the shovel along the porch and continued toward the road, aiming to fetch the now day-old mail.  Along the shoulder of the road, just in front of the mail box, sat a large, speckled hare.  I figured it would run off as I crossed the road. 

The rabbit stayed still, though, as I approached.  Beyond the mail box, the gravel and grass gives way to a giant field of feed corn, a tide of green that rises slowly each day.  I stopped, just beside the rabbit, my sandal-ed feet pausing in the small strip where grass and gravel collide.  The rabbit's eyes bulged.  They were enormous, not right at all for a hare its size, and its breath came in short heavy pants.  The fur along one side of its body was rumpled and I leaned down to look for injuries. 

I couldn’t see any blood, so I reached down with my right hand to feel the rabbit’s back.  Its speckled fur was coarse and dense.  I gently pushed the rabbit toward one side, then another, looking, again, for injuries.  I wondered at its bulging eyes, were they rimmed with blood?  

Observing the hare, with its unknown injuries, I felt a familiar weight of responsibility descend.  I considered picking it up and carrying it to the house.  It would likely die before long, but I hated to think of it struggling through its last hours on the side of the road with the sun beating down.  Also, there was our dog to consider, and the cat – I didn’t want them crossing the busy road to catch it.

I turned to the mailbox, pulled out our mail, and locked down the bright yellow flag.  I noted a pale blue envelope – real mail, not junk – wrapped in the day's advertisements and crossed the street, heading back to the house.  

I decided to get a towel to carry the rabbit.  Once it was safely inside, I'd ask my husband to take a look at it.    

Walking toward the house, I reflected on the foolishness of nursing a hare to health.  I, who routinely stands along the fence kvetching with our neighbors about the havoc rabbits wreak in gardens and flower beds.  I remembered the plush Angora rabbits I recently petted at my friend’s farm, their dense cashmere-like coats so different from this wild hare’s hide.  Mostly, I hoped the kids wouldn't catch wind of the rabbit before I could decide what to do with it.      

It was the first morning, in over a week, that all six of us were home together.  To celebrate, I had gone to the grocery store after work the night before to buy Buttermilk, intent on wowing us all with a new pancake recipe.  I envisioned a delicious, family breakfast, but the recipe was a flop and I gave up on the lumpy bowl of batter after producing a few half-cooked pancakes with a texture like silly-putty. 

My husband, John, was in the hot kitchen trying to salvage my mess.  I found him there and lured him outside to explain the rabbit situation.  Armed with a beach towel, and fully prepared for a rescue operation, I led him across the road.  The rabbit was still there, but had moved a little, turned toward the field of corn.  John guessed, by the way it moved, that its foot was broken.  He also commented on the bulging eyes.  

“Can rabbits get rabies?” he asked.  He didn’t want to touch it.  I mentioned I already had. 

I bent down, then, to look at its face and saw that its nose was bloodied and raw.  “Its face is bleeding,” I said. 

“I don’t think it’s going to make it,” he said. 

“I don’t think so either,” I said.  “But I don’t want to leave it here.”

“Should I throw it out into the corn field,” he asked, “or get something and just hit it so it dies?”

I hated the thought of whacking it over the head, but I hated the thought of its slow, confused, demise even more.  “Do you think you could break its neck?” I asked, thinking of the young rooster we recently dispatched.

“I’m just going to hit it,” he said.  “I’ll get a bag and the shovel.”

“I can’t find the shovel,” I said as we crossed the road together. 

It seemed we had come full circle. 

He found the shovel, I know not where, and headed across the street with it and a plastic bag for the body.  But he returned, soon, with the empty bag.  “It went off into the corn field,” he said.  “It was already pretty far out.”

//

Afterwards, I stood in the disastrously dirty kitchen, leaning against the counter, and opened the pale blue envelope.  It held a card with a small pile of cash tucked inside along with the signatures of three dear friends.  They had asked, a few weeks earlier, whether we would accept a little money to help us do something fun with the kids this summer.  

//

When I think of these two events - the injured hare and the pale blue envelope - coinciding, I am reminded of one of my favorite poems, 'Shoulders,' by Naomi Shihab Nye.  In her poem, Nye describes a man cautiously crossing a street in the rain.  The man carries his sleeping son.  As he walks, 

"His ear fulls up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy's dream 
deep inside him."

Nye concludes her poem with a prediction,

"We are not going to be able 
to live in this world
if we're not willing to do what he's doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling."

Nye's poem gets at the heart of what I was doing that Saturday, what my friends were doing through their inquiries and gift.  We were each crossing the street, pondering how another's need might intersect with the abundance of our own lives.  It's not like I heard the hum of the rabbit's dream deep inside me, but I did hear the hum of a deeper truth.  All of the many roads that divide us are nothing compared to the impulses of Love and Compassion that bind us all together.    

(Click here to read or listen to the full poem.)

Monday, June 26, 2017

It Was Good

Photo credit: Damien Taylor - 
Novelist Billy Coffey gave a great talk and reading Saturday evening.

This past weekend, three writers gathered two dozen more behind barn walls.  In a square room, wrapped in wood, floored in concrete, we sat around white plastic tables in folding chairs while a fresh breeze blew in through barn doors thrown open wide. 

We held space.

We held silence.

We honored words – ours and others’ and others’ still.

Then we held more silence, listened, and held space for words unspoken and words yet unheard. 

We pruned words – ours and others.  We trimmed back the dead, exposed new shoots, sank small sleeping seeds deep in darkness and watered them with attention and simple care.  We plotted out the landscape of our days, made plans to fence in empty spaces right in the middle of our back home, work-a-day, noisy, crowded lives.  We envisioned fertile ground, held apart, separate, where words and silence might wed, like water and sun, and bring forth bright blooms, arching vines, gnarled roots.     

Blue sky, rolling hills, and passing clouds wove mountain magic around us and we believed, again, in ourselves, in each other, and in the truth that “what we need is here.”  We found ourselves both hungry and fed, both giving and receiving; and it was good.  

//

Friends, I am just back from helping to lead the annual God's Whisper Writers' Retreat in Radiant, VA.  We've already set the date (June 22-24) for next year's retreat and will have the website up and running soon.  Meanwhile, you might want to nurture your writer's heart, by signing up for Andi's Discover Your Writing Self course which begins July 1st. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sidewalk Flowers: Carry, Gather, Spread

I had the joy of speaking at our little church this past Sunday and, because I got to choose the text, I focused on 1 John 4:7-19.  I talked about the love of God that we are made from and for - the love of God that abides in us and invites us to abide in it.  

Before all of that, though, I shared the video below of the children's book, "Sidewalk Flowers," by JonArno Lawson.  I told the congregation how flowers - particularly wildflowers - are a symbol, for me, of God's love.  I told them to pay attention to the use of color in the book, to pay attention to the flowers.  I told them we can be like that little girl - carrying, gathering and sharing the love of God.  

Maybe you need a gentle reminder?  

You are loved by God - this is who you are - God's loved child.  God's love is in you, like a seed, just waiting to unfurl, to sink roots down deep, to grow you up into your one and only vocation as one who loves and is loved.  

May you carry love with you today.  

May you gather and spread the love of God wherever you go.   



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

How It Has Always Been



Summer hit our house like a freight train when the kids got off the bus last Friday at 1:15.  It's all good, but intense.  I'm still writing, but with preaching this Sunday and preparing for next week's (!) writing retreat, I didn't get my usual post out on Monday.  In lieu of anything new, I'm sharing this poem that first arrived in June 2014. Enjoy! Also, scroll down for a preview of some of the paintings I've been working on this spring. 


How It Has Always Been


The vicar general, shying away from ‘paganism’ hangs back and sits under a tree reading the guidebook.  I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. – Thomas Merton describing his visit to the sleeping Budhas in "The Asian Journal"

My son comes walking to me, barefoot, 
across the wet summer grass.
The morning light lays soft around him  
and in that moment I see how it is,
how every child is a contemplative, 
exposed in every way to the Now.  

“This is what you must become,” Jesus whispers 
and I see now how it has always been, God 
and his children, barefoot, the morning grass 
cool and wet beneath their feet.


* I stopped by Infinity Graphics today to get some prints of recent paintings. These bright beauties (the picture is a little dark) will soon be available to purchase as small wooden block paintings. Stay tuned.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Miss. Ann's Zinnia's (The Kingdom of God is Like . . . )


Sunday afternoon I left my husband with seed packets of Zinnias and Dahlias and walked up, across the yard, to look for a spade in our overflowing garage.  The planting of those flowers, four packets, was what I requested for Mother’s Day this year. 

I don’t know why planting seems, for me, an impossible task.  Maybe it’s that simple act of letting go and watching the impossible seed fall into darkness; maybe it’s the familiar struggle of facing an unknown future.  Whatever it is, my husband plants the garden each year and I, in time, tend it. 

Walking up from the garden, across the green expanse of lawn, I looked over at our neighbor’s yard.  They have a small, fenced in, vegetable garden and the wife, Ann, has a separate flower garden.  Their garden, like most in early spring, is a miracle waiting to happen – a tilled expanse of soil, a pregnant pause.  My eyes saw the emptiness there, the open waiting space, but in my mind I remembered the Zinnias. 

During our first summer here, we planted a good-sized vegetable garden filled with the practical means of nutrition.  Our neighbors did the same in their fenced-in plot, but around the outside edge of the fence grew large, splashy, red, purple and pink flowers – a fiesta of color that started blooming in late summer and stood strong into the fall. 

Oh how I envied Miss. Ann's Zinnias.  I eyed her flowers hungrily and finally, in September as the flowers were beginning to fade, asked if I might over and cut a bunch.  From that moment on, I was hooked. 

The following summer, I bought a packet of seeds and grew my own riot of reds and pinks.  I cut them and filled our house with vases.  I carried them to friends’ houses.  Everyone loved the Zinnias.

Then, last year, we made a farm stand for selling fresh, free-range chicken eggs.  I again planted my Zinnias (or rather, my husband did) and, when they grew and bloomed, I started cutting large happy bunches of purples and pinks, oranges and yellows and selling them in old tin cans at the farm stand for $1 each. 

It was a real steal for fresh cut flowers and they flew off of the farm stand’s two tilted shelves.  A friend suggested I should charge more.  But I refrained. 

I was already making a profit, but, what’s more, I know what it’s like to not be able to afford fresh flowers.  I know, also, how beauty feeds the soul.  I also know the feeling of finding a wonderful deal, how it opens our hearts and minds, makes us feel the expansive mystery of goodness and provision in the world that’s so often buried in layer after layer of unmet need. 

I wanted people to feel what I felt in my garden, the sensation of wonder and delight, the absurdity of so much color available for mere ornamentation.  

Returning to the garden with the trowel in hand that Sunday afternoon, I thought, the kingdom of God is like those Zinnias.  The Kingdom of God – heaven in our midst – blazes and waves in the place where it is planted.  It attracts the eye, captures the heart, fills those who are awake enough to notice, with longing.  The Kingdom of God is like a packet of seeds, bought for $1.49, that yields one hundred fold.  The kingdom of God is color cut and watered in an old tin can, bright joy on the side of the road bought with a handful of change – a deal too good to be true.   

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Other Virtues



Memorial day weekend plays a dual role in modern America - offering an opportunity to honor those who died in active military service and ushering in the beginning of the summer holidays. Here's hoping summer offers us all an opportunity to practice the art of playfulness and live in awareness of the great freedom and vulnerability of our humanity.  

Monday, May 22, 2017

As Much As There Is


He catapults out of bed in the middle of the night and I hear his bare feet slapping against the hallway’s wooden floor as he hustles through the darkness.  All of this comes to me as sleep’s heavy shadow gives way to a dim and growing awareness.  Then, he stands beside the bed. 

“Daddy,” he says.

“What?” my husband mumbles.

“I love you as much as there is,” he says. 

“Ok, Levi,” my husband replies, his voice clearer now, rising to meet his son’s offer of love.  “I love you too.”

“Ok, good night.  I’ll see you in the morning,” Levi adds.

“Good night, see you in the morning,” my husband answers, completing the call and response.

Levi runs back down the hallway and sleep descends again upon our house.

//

“I love you as much as there is” is the latest attempt in five-year-old Levi’s ongoing effort to verbalize the depths of his love for us which, apparently, is particularly intense around two or three in the morning.  He’s fascinated by math and, for a while, tried using the biggest numbers he could think of to express the magnitude of his love.  “I love you 100 times 100,” he would say. 

But it wasn’t enough. 

He knows there are bigger numbers and he doesn’t want to undersize his love.  So, for now, he’s sticking to the enigmatic phrase, “as much as there is.”

Last night, before I fell back to sleep, I saw for a moment the simple humility of that phrase – a child’s willingness to believe in and try to convey that which is beyond words. 

//

Real love is like that.  God’s love is like that, so real and yet so big it’s hard to explain. 

The apostle Paul, struggling to convey God’s love to the church at Ephesus, put it this way,

“I pray that you might have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:18-19).”

Paul tries to sketch out the dimensions of what he realizes is beyond description, he prays for the Ephesians to somehow receive the ability to comprehend the incomprehensible.  In so doing, he invites them – invites us all – to enter into the depths of God’s love which is both measurable (because it exists) and beyond measure (because of the limits of human comprehension and communication).

Paul’s prayer comes to us like a voice in the night, the words of someone struggling to communicate what he clearly knows is beyond communication: God loves you as much as there is.   


Monday, May 15, 2017

Slow Down (an invitation)

(I call this picture "Converse in the Wild")


slow down,
just be

be still
be present

listen to, and dwell in, what is
here, now, this moment

what love?
what fear?
and what possible doorway
between the two?

(grace, always, is the door)


Monday, May 8, 2017

A Painter Stopped By, Out of the Blue


I started painting three years ago because our new-old farm house had large wall spaces; wide, paneled surfaces. 

I started painting because we couldn’t afford to buy art to hang. 

Driving home from the grocery store one day with the twins buckled in to their car seats in the middle of the van, I eased around a corner, down a steep hill in a wooded stretch of road and saw several large framed paintings and prints in a stand of overgrown brush, leaning against a tree.  I quickly pulled over to the side of the road, popped the trunk, and pulled the paintings inside.  Two, in wood frames with glass, showed hunting scenes, ducks rising out of wooded brush.   Another was a large print of a white wicker basket overflowing with pink, teal and baby blue flowers, something your grandmother might have hung over her couch in the eighties. 

I bought magenta paint, turquoise and midnight blue and started painting over top of the prints and on other found canvases.  I borrowed more colors from a friend.

I started painting because the bright colors made me happy.  The slick movement of spreading paint across a surface was calming, like coloring with crayons, like trailing your fingers through fine sand.

I painted words because I didn’t believe I could paint images and because the words in my head and heart needed space, needed a place to land, to become incarnate, objects of permanence.  I painted words because I saw a tutorial online about how to do it well with sticker stencils. 

I painted words and hung them on the walls of our house like tattoos.

//

Last week, a real painter stopped by our farm house.  He paints in oils, sells his work in galleries.  He wanted to know if he could take pictures of our chickens, our polish rooster in particular.

“I paint,” I said, “I just started this fall.” 

“It’s always nice to meet another artist,” I said.  

He showed me pictures of his oil paintings, scrolling through the images of landscapes and farm scenes on his phone. I didn’t show him my paintings, which suddenly felt like child’s play. 

“I paint words.  I’m a word person,” I said.

Later, after he left me with his business card in hand, I looked him up online.  His website is outdated.  I found grammatical and spelling errors and was pleased.  He, at least, is not a word person. 

//

I wondered if his visit was the encouragement I had prayed for fervently that morning; prayers filled with longing, prayers beyond words.  But after he left I looked at my own work with a cutting eye.  It’s hard to write when you’re discouraged, hard to create when you don’t believe. 

When I returned to my studio, my computer, I saw that a friend had sent a message about a job opening – an opening for a position I have kept an eye on for years.  I looked it up.  The job is full time, in my field.   It would leave no time for painting, for writing, for working at the library.  But, in exchange, there would be money, status, a title and many other things I image are more substantial, more valuable, than words tattooed on walls with stencils and acrylic, words strung across pages, hung like spiders’ webs, simultaneously sturdy and insubstantial. 

//

I had asked the painter whether he retired before painting full time.  He smiled and said, “In a way.”  Then, he explained that they live off of his wife’s job.  I told him about my husband who works for the state. 

“It’s a good steady job,” I said, “but we’re not getting rich.”  I didn’t say what I meant, which is that we’re not making ends meet. 

I told him about working part time at the library, about adding a tab on my website for design services.  “But how much can I do?” I asked myself aloud and him, because he was standing there.  “How much can I do and still be able to write?”

He didn’t have an answer.  But he said he’d stop by sometime to take pictures of the chickens, the view of the fields, the distant mountains across the street.  I told him if he was going to take pictures of the hens, he’d want some of our handsome black cat too.  Maybe he will set up his easel here sometime and paint plein air.  The kids would love that, I would too.

//

A letter came in the mail recently, notifying us that the farm land across the street is in the process of being rezoned; if the local vote passes, it will be protected farmland, unable to be sold or divvied up for development.  We never expected to buy a house like this with its view of open fields and rolling hills in the distance.  We’ve often assumed it would someday be sold for development like so many of the surrounding fields. 

I mentioned the rezoning to my Dad the other day, over lunch.  “It’s good for us,” I said. “Value-wise,” I added.

I don’t know why I said that, though.  Maybe because that’s the way he thinks, the way he talks, in dollars and cents.  But, the truth is, we don’t want to lose the view to progress and development because we love it.  It's something like the way I don’t want to lose my life with words and paint to a paycheck and a title: I love it.

I started painting and writing because I needed to. 

I’ll keep painting and writing because it’s still true.


Monday, May 1, 2017

This is What God is Like


Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for fish, will give a snake?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!   - Matthew 7:9-11 

Our kitchen has a drawer we refer to as “The Snack Drawer.”  Unlike “The Weapons Drawer” – which is a thing of my five-year-old’s making and does not actually hold weapons, but instead holds things that could potentially be used for weapons – The Snack Drawer, as its name would imply, does hold snacks. 

Each of my four kids are allowed to have a snack during the day at school, so each of them reaches their hand into The Snack Drawer once every morning or two to grab something to stash in their backpack for later in the day.  Some things in the snack drawer (like Cheezits or Goldfish crackers) are considered to be top notch, and these go first.  Mid-level snacks (like pretzels and granola bars) go next.  Last resort snacks include, but are not limited to, boxes of raisins and things they claim to be allergic to.    

On a recent morning, a murmuring and rumble of discontent arose in the kitchen as three of four kids stood peering into the snack drawer.  From where I stood, near the kitchen sink, I could see the drawer wasn’t empty.  But still, they complained.  I moved in for a closer look and the children split like the sea and lifted their gaze from the near-empty drawer to me.   

It was, indeed, time to replenish.  

“Hold on,” I said.

I went to the pantry in the laundry room and pulled out the box I’d been saving.  I carried it into the kitchen, with the twins trailing behind me, and held it high over the open drawer.  I tipped the box, dramatically, and assorted snacks in red packages, orange and green, poured down like rain.  The kids circled and pawed at the pile, as though I’d cracked open a piƱata. 

My one son, the one with the Weapons Drawer, grabbed an off-brand peanut butter granola bar.  

“Mom!” he said, in a deep voice he puts on when he feels the moment demands, “I LOVE THESE!”

Everyone’s hand found something good.  

Isaiah, exuberant in the face of so many good choices, eager to hoard the things he loves best, announced that he was going to take four or five snacks to school with him that day.  I quickly restated our one snack a day limit.    

That moment, with its flash of color and exclamations of delight hangs, like a snapshot in the corner of my mind.  That's what God's like, I think.  God - the giver of good gifts, the filler of drawers we once thought too empty or sparse to satisfy.  

* I'm well aware that too often 'the drawer' of life is empty, sparse, or filled with things we'd rather avoid.  But, scripture is clear that there may not always be a direct correlation between the circumstances of our lives and the character of God.  So, rather than drawing conclusions about God based on what we find in life's drawer, we might be better served to see the good things as signs of God's presence because, even in the midst of life's struggles, we can still be certain of the God's character.   

Monday, April 24, 2017

Communion (A Seminarian's Perspective)


During Seminary, another student and I, interned at a tiny, historic, Methodist church in New Jersey.  She was Methodist, I was not; but we were both welcomed into the fold in equal measure. 

The congregation was small and aged and the thing they appreciated most about the few sermons I gave was how well they could hear my voice and how clearly I enunciated.  The thing I appreciated most about preaching there was how the cleric’s robe covered me from head to toe, obscuring my feminine figure, rearranging me into a blank slate of black polyester.  Only my flat, tan shoes and the bottom of my dress pants showed and only then when I stepped out away from the pulpit, which was not often. 

My fellow intern, a heavyset single girl, shorter than me and rounder, also wore the robe while speaking.  On other Sundays, though, she dressed to the nines in strappy dresses with tight waists and full skirts like the ones housewives are pictured wearing in magazine ads from the 1950's.  She completed the look by pairing the dresses with impossibly high heeled shoes, the height and skinniness of which, caused her to teeter and totter precariously.

She didn’t seem at home in those dresses and matching shoes and I wondered why she wore them.  But I also probably didn’t seem at home in my drab business-casual attire that I’d purchased specially for the internship and possible future interviews.  Neither of us, I guess, were entirely at home in ourselves or our pastoral positions, which I suppose is the plight of many an intern.   

The small church was traditionally built, with old wooden pews and a long center aisle that led to a kneeling rail and altar.  Each service began with a processional from the narthex, down the center aisle, to the altar where candles were lit while the organist played. 

One of my most distinct memories of that church is of watching my fellow intern make her wobbly way down the carpeted center aisle with a plate of communion bread in hand.  The plate was wide, flat and loaded with bits of bread and she was so precariously perched in her heels that I felt for sure she was going to wipe out at any moment, scattering the body of Christ across the dense carpet.  I held my breath as she mounted the altar’s two steps and exhaled when she finally set the plate down. 

Having grown up Baptist and turned Anabaptist, the rituals of the Methodist church were foreign to me and struck me as overly formal.  I longed for something more personal, less prescribed.  I imagined with equal measures of horror and delight, what it would be like if she simply dropped the whole plate.  Some part of me longed for the broken body to spill, even just once; for us all to have to deal with the sudden beauty, the surprise of Christ spread among us in such an earthy, unscripted way.  

My colleague never dropped the host, but crumbs did often fall as we handed the bread to the congregants kneeling along the rail.  No matter how rigidly we try to contain him, Christ is always breaking through.  Mercy and grace scatter everywhere like crumbs, and who we are and who God is, is always being revealed.  Christ is always spreading out in our midst, disrupting our scripted ways, like the beige shoes and dress pants of a young woman sticking out beneath her robe, like a young woman in a flared out dress and heels making her wobbly way up the aisle, truth that cannot be hidden or disguised. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Communion (A Five-year-old's Perspective)


The Communion with God is simple, so we will not be dazzled; so we can eat and drink His love and still go about our lives; so our souls will burn slowly rather than blaze.  . . . the Last Supper did not take place on one night in one room, and to eat God's love, we do not have to even open our mouths; we can be walking, sorrowful and confused, with a friend; or working on whatever our boat is, fishing whatever it is we fish for; or we can be running naked, alone in the dark.  The Eucharist is with us, and it is ordinary.  To me, that is its essential beauty: we receive it with wandering minds, and distracted flesh, in the same way that we receive the sun and sky, the moon and earth, and breathing.  
                   - Andre Dubus in Meditations from a Movable Chair

Five-year-old Isaiah loves bread almost as much as he loves his Mama, which is to say, quite a lot.  He also loves juice.  When there's no Sunday school and he's forced to endure the long church service upstairs in the pews, communion - with its tempting combination of both bread and juice - offers a bright respite in the midst of the otherwise boring service. 

Seated during prayer at the service’s beginning on Easter Sunday, he bobs and weaves his head from side to side, searching out the low table at the front of the church.  Then, he exclaims, “I see bread and juice!”

His brother, Levi, sees it too.  “Mom,” Levi says, like someone who’s just discovered cake and ice cream is on the menu for breakfast, “We’re dippin' bread!”

I turn to them, scandalized by their outdoor voices, and stretch my neck forward, my eyes wide, one finger pressed to my lips.  I silently tap my finger to my closed lips.

They settle back in the hard pew to wait.

My boys love communion and my hunch is it’s because they love to eat.  Sometimes this strikes me as sacrilegious, but, mostly, something in their enthusiasm - the way simple appetite and desire breed longing and consummation - also feels right to me.  They're happy to be part, to take part, and receive something good and nourishing.  

When the time comes, at last, I send Levi under his father’s guidance and push Isaiah along ahead of me.  I wonder again, as we exit the end of the pew, about the rightness of allowing children so young to participate in communion, but they’re so happy, so eager, I can’t see holding them back.  We move slowly toward the altar in two lines that bulge and clot the aisle as adults shepherd groups of children.  Seeing my older son behind me, I push him forward too, intending to lean over he and Isaiah both and orchestrate, regulate, their reception of grace.  

Isaiah reaches the half loaf of Italian bread first.  It sits on a plate outstretched in front of his face, level with his big brown eyes.  He reaches for it two-handed, manhandling the loaf which slides forward precariously the slanted plate and the server and I both lunge to stop the fall.  In my mind, Isaiah’s hands are everywhere (germs!) and I grab the loaf to steady it, tearing off a small piece of soft white dough while he wrestles with the dry, flaky crust.  He peels back a sturdy piece as big as his forearm and we turn to the dipping, then back to our seats.  

While the rest of us have quickly dipped and swallowed our own crumbs, he sits in the pew tearing off bite after bite of flaky crust.  When his twin brother asks about the size of his serving, Isaiah replies, with deep contentment, “I didn’t try to get it so big, but it came off, so I kept it.”  

Monday, April 10, 2017

To Experience Resurrection (a Poem for Holy Week)


You have to return to the tomb
to experience resurrection. 
Return to the place where once
you knew without doubt
all hope was gone, the last
dying gasp of breath expelled.
Then silence, stillness
and the great tearing open
of sky and earth. 

The first sign of spring
is the revelation of all
that’s died.  Snow’s clean
slate hides decay,
but when the sun’s warmth rises
its first disclosure is the depth
of loss – the grass,
brown and trampled, barren
broken limbs scattered, earth
exposed and the empty stretch
of field filled with brown stalks
of decomposition.

This is the time of waiting,
the time in which we grow
weary and lose heart. 

You have to watch the barren
earth, pull back brown leaves,
lean close scanning the hidden
places.  You have to stand beside
the stone, Martha would tell us,
your trembling hand pressed against       
its cold, hard surface.  You have to enter
the dark cave, Peter whispers, not knowing
what you’ll find. 

You have to sit through the long,
dark night to see the first light of morning,        
to feel the sharp intake of breath
as the sky’s closed eye, cold and gray,
cracks open slowly, then with growing
determination.  This is what you must do
to experience resurrection. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Twins, the Cross & Community


(A stomach bug arrived at our house last week and returned again today, wreaking havoc on my writing plans and life in general.  So, I thought it might be a good time to re-post this one from the archives, from back when the twins were just 18 months old and we lived, daily, in a sea of chaos both deep and wide.)  

Looking at Stars

The God of curved space, the dry
God, is not going to help us, but the son
whose blood splattered
the hem of his mother’s robe.

- Jane Kenyon


“You know you have blood on your shirt, right?” my husband asked.

I was getting ready to meet a friend at a restaurant after a long, exhausting day and my husband was concerned with the bloody stain on my shoulder. 
“No,” I said, “I already changed my shirt once.  Did you see his clothes?”  I led him over to the laundry basket and showed him our eighteen-month-old son’s clothes, streaked and stained with splotches of red.  It had been a bloody day. 
That morning I stood at the bathroom sink holding Levi who cut his finger on a can he looted from the recycling bin.  I turned his body out away from me, hoping to avoid staining my new shirt.  But while I rooted through the medicine cabinet, looking for a band aid, blood gushed out of the tiny cut. 

It ran in a bright red stream
     down the hand that held him,
          splashing onto my pants and shoes as he waved his little hand around.
It drop,
      drop,
          dropped
                    to the beat of his pulse, 
falling onto the white counter-top like so many crimson beads off of a broken necklace.  I felt it clinging to the hairs on the back of my hand and marveled at its rich scarlet hue. 
I called my four-year-old to fetch a washcloth while Levi's twin, Isaiah, wandered in anxious circles by my feet.  Finally, we all sat down at the dining room table and I doled out band aids with great liberality.  I put two or three on the finger that still gushed and two or three on other fingers and on his other hand in hopes of distracting him from pulling them off.  Then, of course, Isaiah needed some too and my assistant, the four-year-old, as well as the little girl I was babysitting. 
It wasn’t until later that I noticed Isaiah had blood on him too, places where it had splashed and splattered as he stood nearby watching me tend his brother. 

Looking at Isaiah’s splotched clothes, I thought, “When your brother bleeds, it gets on you.  This is what it means to be a brother.  This is what community really is.” 

*   *   *   *   *

Blood is messy and vital, rich, and yet we talk of it so complacently.   Somehow, in our dainty sipping of communion cups, we manage to miss the mess and I wonder if, in missing it, we don't also miss the communion.

Christ came and died on the cross, where blood drop,
                                                                                  drop,
                                                                                       dropped out,
splattering onto those who gathered near.  This is the community that Jesus establishes, a blood-splattered, blood-drinking communion of sinners turned saints.   

 *   *   *   *   *
The stomach bug hit later in the week.  It started with Levi in the middle of the night standing, crying in his crib and we went through layer after layer of sheets and pajamas, as my husband and I tag-teamed the dual tasks of comfort and cleaning.  Isaiah stood in his own crib, just a few feet away, looking-on, bleary-eyed and curious and each time we laid Levi back down to sleep and crept our way back out of the room, Isaiah laid down too. 
By the next day they were both down with the bug and I sat holding them on the couch while John took the older kids to the store to stock up on saltines and Pedialyte.  I sat in the corner of the couch with Levi in my left arm and he drifted into a deep sleep, exhausted and drained.  Isaiah fussed, tossing and turning in my right arm, slipping off, then turning and begging his way back up into my lap the second his feet hit the ground. 
Levi slept on through it all, so I didn’t dare move and just about the time I was getting frustrated with Isaiah he turned, suddenly, and threw-up all over me and his brother.  Levi woke, of course, as I grabbed a changing pad and laid it across my soaked chest.  But then, just like that, they both dropped off into a heavy sleep. 
When my husband came home some forty minutes later, we were sitting there still, the three of us covered in Isaiah’s vomit and I thought, again, “This is what community is.  When your brother, throws up, it gets on you.” 

*   *   *   *   *

I wonder sometimes about how we do community these days, all distance and convenience, all house-picked-up and table-manners-please.  Community, real community, is a cracking, bleeding thing.  It’s the voice that breaks into a sob on the phone without holding back and the “oh, thank God, you stopped by because I didn’t know how I was going to make it through this day.” 

Maybe we settle for something less because we’re afraid that, if anyone gets too close, we’ll vomit our messy lives all over them.  But isn't it possible, my friends, that this bloody, messy communion, this breaking open of our lives like so many loaves of of bread, is what it’s really all about?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Burp (verb) syn. bolt, rout, ruck


Burp verb
1. noisily release air from the stomach through the mouth; belch.
2. a noise made by air released from the stomach; a belch.

Synonyms: bolt, rout, ruck

Earliest known use: 1929

My eight-year-old son has discovered the art of burping.  I don’t know where he stores them in his wiry frame, but he’s mastered a long, loud release of wind that rumbles through the air like freight train rattling down the tracks.  I’m pretty sure he learned the skill – practices it, daily – with the other third grade boys in the back seats of the school bus. 

For the most part, I dismiss his frequent eruptions.  I figure, it’s part of having a boy and, while I don’t want to be talked at or hear the alphabet song sung in burp (a skill he’s also working on), I’ve decided to save my outrage for other more offensive aerial explosions that I’m sure are soon to become a hobby as well.   

The burps, though, light a fuse in my otherwise rarely lit husband.  He says the mere sound of it is like nails on a chalkboard.  I find this both surprising – he is a former boy, after all – and amusing.  My husband is so seldom angry while I’m so frequently irritated, it does my heart good to see him lose his parental cool from time to time. 

We both agree on one thing, though, no burping at the dinner table.  Otherwise, in the living room, the van, I tell my husband he’s just going to have to let it go.  He gives me a pained expression in reply. 

//

I have a habit, sometimes, of repeating things.   Every couple of months or so, I turn to my husband in the middle of the mundane and announce in a voice filled with surprise, “Apples make me burp.”  Usually, I say this after burping, as though I myself am just discovering the funny little quirk.
 
“I know,” he says, “you told me that.”

“Oh,” I say.

// 

One night, sitting on the couch watching TV, my husband burped.  “Ba-ba-ba-bup,” he said, opening and shutting his mouth as the air passed, breaking it into a multi syllabic expression. 

I looked at him.  “What was that?” I asked. 

“A burp,” he said.  “It’s what you do.”

“What?!  I don’t do that!” I said, incredulous.

“Yes, you do,” he said, surprised by my denial.  “You do it all the time.”  

“No, I don’t,” I replied, scrunching my forehead as though searching through a mental catalog of past burps.  “I never do that.”

He couldn’t believe my denial and I couldn’t believe his accusation, so we returned to watching TV as the long-married are want to do during an argument, especially if they want to stay long-married.  Later though, who could say how long – a day? a week? – I happened to burp with my husband nearby. 

“Ba-ba-ba-bup!” I said.  Shocked, I looked him in the eye and laughed.  “Oh, my gosh!  You’re right, I do do that!”

//

I’ll never forget learning to burp a baby, watching the lactation consultant sit my tiny, hours old daughter on her knee.  She cupped her hand just under the baby’s jaw bone, tilting her fragile body forward precariously, pounding with her other hand on the soft, rounded back.  Holding my daughter that way, whacking her back, felt completely counter intuitive, but I quickly learned that, aside from slinging her onto my shoulder with my bone pressed just so against her diaphragm, it was the best way to get a burp.  

There are few things as satisfying as mastering the art of burping a baby and knowing, with that hearty gush of air, that you’ve saved your baby pain and yourself hours of broken sleep.

//

I started out this morning wanting to write about fish burps.  Fish burps, I now know, are a common side effect of fish oil supplements.  Review after review on Amazon had customers who switched from one product to another explaining, “I couldn’t take the burps anymore!”  The highest complement for fish oil online seemed less to do with its effectiveness than with the consumer’s relief, “No fish burps!”

I don’t like fish and I was hoping maybe the general sense of alarm over fish burps was nothing more than hysteria.  But then I got my first fish burp last week.  It was round and full, a small explosion of fishiness that rolled up into my mouth, silently.  I was shocked, surprised.  I thought to myself, “Fish burp!”  Then I texted my husband, who loves fish and who I assumed would be more than a little envious.  

“I had my first fish burp,” I wrote. 

“How was it?” he replied.

“Fishy,” I wrote.

//

It occurs to me that, unlike the word ‘hiccup,’ which can be used to describe an unexpected interruption, the word ‘burp’ has no positive use aside from its frowned-upon bodily function.  This, I think, is too bad.  Is there no potential for positive association with the humble burp?  

Author Anne Lamott has a well-loved quote in which she describes laughter as "carbonated holiness."  It's a lovely idea, but we all know what carbonation leads to - an accumulation of air in the stomach that must somehow be released.  Maybe, then we could push Lamott's metaphor to the extreme and suggest that burps themselves are unexpected explosions of holiness.  Maybe.  

The truth is, I didn't know what to write about this morning, except I kept thinking about (and enjoying) those round, full fish burps and the thought of those burps - the thought of writing about them - felt like a lump of air building pressure right in the center of my writer's digestive system.  It soon became clear I wasn't going to have room to get much else done if I didn't make way, somehow, for that content to escape.  So, I wrote almost 1000 words on burps and found I had much more to say than I thought I did and perhaps this post itself is a bit of a 'noise made by air released.'  I suspect, like every good burp, it's hit you in one way or another - igniting offense, laughter or a simple reflective pause.  And, now that I think about it, that's what holy things always tend to do.