26 September 2015

In the Dark

My nephew was visiting. He's an exceptionally bright kid, probably on the spectrum, but highly verbal and outgoing. It's just that he sees everything and lacks a filter. So when we took him to visit a young friend who had build a model of the solar system, I had to warn my nephew not to point out any errors. There were bound to be errors, of course, because no matter how carefully you measure, you can't build a whole solar system out of styrofoam and fishing line. Our young friend had certainly tried his best. This was no mere coat hanger science project. It filled a large room, and in addition to the styrofoam and fishing line, there was a projector that created a horizontal screen of light that showed more stars. Maybe it was a whole galaxy, not just a solar system. There were a lot of things, whatever it was.

My nephew was trying to tell me that the projection looked different from above than from below, so I lay down and looked up, and asked him to put a finger through the light right were some object was. I had to screen my eyes from the brightest part of the light which glared down at me as if I were in the dentist's chair. My nephew's voice was muffled, and he wouldn't put his hand through the light, no matter how many times I called to him. Finally I reached my hands up through the light, hands grab mine and help me pull up to standing.

It is dark. So dark I cannot see anything. I can only feel hands holding mine. Someone is talking to me, about me. They can't find me and they seem not to be able to hear me.

The most terrifying thing about the dark is that you think things will just be less terrifying if someone would turn on a light, but you know that whatever you can see might be even more terrifying than the darkness.

I am time shifted, dimension shifted. I am here but not here. I am lost and un-findable even as I stand in the middle of a room full of people looking for me. I am still holding the hands. They are solid hands. I realize they are my husband's hands, attached, conveniently, to his body. I squeeze hard, but he cannot feel me any more than he can hear me. I release his hands and touch his body, I begin pinching his arms and chest, hard. I can feel his flesh between my thumb and forefinger. I am surely leaving bruises, but he does not react.

I am dying, maybe dead already. I have gone to sleep or had an accident or gone under anesthesia and I will never wake. Anesthesia, yes, that's it. When I got up it wasn't from the floor of a room with a particularly detailed model of the stars but an operating table. Except clearly I didn't get up at all and I am dead.

It is dark and I am dead and I cannot see or be seen or be heard or felt. And if this were a dream at all I would be awake because I have closed an opened my eyes many times already and still it is dark and I am alone and pinching, pinching, pinching and then without moving I am climbing up. Up. Wake up!

My eyes open in my own bedroom. It is dark, but only the usual amount. I can see a stripe of moonlight and streetlight at the edge of the window blind, and the glow of the alarm clock. My husband is asleep next to me, his breathing steady. I do not pinch him.

02 September 2015

Every Day is the First Day of School

A Baker's Dozen Tips and Tricks for Substitute Teachers

1. They're probably lying to you. Not the students, the other teachers. Whatever the teacher or anyone else tells you about a group of kids will not be true when you're in the classroom because how kids behave with a sub is unrelated to how they behave with their regular teacher. It's your first day, and you have to set the expectations for your classroom.

2. Introduce yourself. Write your name on the board.

3. Act like you know what you're doing. Children, like dogs, can smell fear.

4. Be loud enough to fill the classroom without yelling. Practice this ahead of time.

5. Never yell. If you yell, they win. More importantly, if you yell, you lose. Don't lose.

6. You are not their friend. They will ask you if you are married, if you have kids, if you like dubstep, if you go to clubs, what your favorite football team is. An enterprising atheist will ask if you're religious so they can debate religion with you. Don't answer personal questions. You may reveal some personal details in the course of a conversation, but do not allow them to interrogate you or to speculate aloud about you.

7. Do not smile indulgently when they try to get you off topic. There are no indulgences on the first day of school.

8. Develop an attention grabbing, portable skill: play blues harmonica, juggle, whistle Stars and Stripes Forever, recite The Jabberwocky from memory.

9. Do your best to learn names. If you are bad at names, tell them that, and apologize for it. Knowing their names is a sign that you're paying attention to them.

10. Wear a watch. If you can find the clock in the classroom, it may not be correct, and you cannot keep checking your phone.

11. The students are probably also lying to you. If you have plans from the regular teacher, stick to the plans. You can add more stuff if you know the subject or you have extra time, but don't skip something, even if the students tell you they did the day before, or that the regular teacher never makes them do that part. Your job is to get the work done.

12. Everything will conspire to keep you from getting the work done. Someone will pee their pants. Someone will cry. Someone will run around in circles for an hour. Someone will try to hone their stand-up routine during independent reading. There will be a tornado drill. Take a breath and get back on track.

13. Write a note to the regular teacher thanking them for sharing their class with you, and letting them know how the day went, how far into the lesson plans you were able to go, and if any students were particularly disruptive or particularly helpful.

30 August 2015

Erstelesenendentraurigkeit, and the pleasures of reading slowly.

Is there a word for the sadness you feel when you realize you are almost at the end of a book that you love and you will never be able to read it again for the first time?

I asked that on facebook, and my friends answered "No, but there should be, because that's definitely a thing and you should tell us what you just read because we want to feel it, too."

Normally I am a glutton of all kinds. I eat too much. I drink too fast (water, I mean. Also beer and wine and whatnot, but I limit myself strictly on those so I don't end up doing something stupid.) I binge watch TV shows. And I swallow books whole. I read the first three Harry Potter books in a single weekend, and the rest in one or two marathon sessions each.

I'm also a re-reader. Books that I raced through the first time often get a slower, reread. I dip in and out of them when I have a bit of time. I know how they end, so I'm not in any particular rush to get there and I can better enjoy the ride, watching the author lay out threads and weave them together. There is pleasure in this. I can appreciate the art and notice clues that seem to be placed there especially for the re-reader to find. And over time books become comfortable old friends. I can start Pride and Prejudice or Anne of Green Gables anywhere and know exactly where I am in the story and still want to keep reading.

I do not, in general, read new books a bite at a time. I either race through if it's a book I'm enjoying, or if it's a book that doesn't speak to me I read a bit, give up, come back and start again until I get traction or give up entirely. Usually those are book club books, recommended by women I love and respect and I feel guilty, stupid and boring for not loving the books. (I'm looking at you, Rushdie.)

Bird is far too old for picture books at bedtime, too old, even for the simple chapter books. Left to his own devices he eats books the same way I do. But he's not too old for bedtime stories, because there is no such thing as too old for bedtime stories, so I've been picking out middle grade novels and reading him a chapter or two every night. These are often books that are new to me, too, so we discover them together. Tempting as it is, I never read ahead, so when Bird begs for just one more chapter I usually oblige for my own sake as much as for his, until it is really too late and I am really too tired and we must go to bed for real.

Reading aloud slows me down, and while I might be irresponsible about my own bedtime I'm pretty serious about Bird's, so it takes a few weeks to get through a book. And they are delicious weeks of slowly discovering the next thing, of having to wait to find out what happens next, of looking forward to bedtime, of knowing you'll find out what's behind the door in the old tunnels, but not yet. It's an entirely different way of falling in love with a book, one I don't allow myself to enjoy often enough.

The most recent bedtime book was The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blakemore. It's a completely charming book about magic and science and family and friendship and belonging and growing up, and if you have a child of nine years old or thereabouts I recommend it. It's a book that lends itself to slow reading. The story unfolds over generations, and you need time to digest one bit so that the next bit will make sense. There are things left unsaid. Things that Bird, bright as he is, missed. Things that will be waiting for him when he reads it again in a few years.

The end of the book sneaks up on you, because you're sure there's more to resolve, and because there's a first chapter of another book hiding there in the end, filling out the back of the book with pages you think are going to keep your new book friends with you for a few more pages. I was reading along and suddenly there were only two pages left, and I needed a minute to collect myself, because I had to leave the Castle and its inhabitants without spending nearly as much time as I wanted to in the tunnels and the strange, impossible rooms.

One of my facebook friends noted that if there were a word for the sadness at the end of the book, it would be German, which led B the B, who belongs to Maud, to suggest Erstelesenendentraurigkeit, a completely made up mash-up of a word that the facebook translator helpfully renders as "first reading ends sadness."

Opinions entirely my own. I did not receive remuneration of any kind for this review and this post contains no affiliate links.

03 August 2015

An Hour on the Beach in the Early Morning

There is no quiet at the beach, because the ocean roars at you from across the dunes, says good morning before you can even see it.

I’m not the first person out. I pass a man with a baby strapped to his chest. The baby is watching the ocean. The man walks, eyes front. I wonder if the mom is sleeping in for once, or if he’s always up early, or if the mom is actually another dad instead. Did the baby sleep well last night and wake early? Or did no one sleep well last night and this is a desperate attempt to get someone some sleep.

The dogs are almost certainly not allowed on the beach, but there’s no one out to tell the owner to leave as he throws tennis balls into the ocean. The dogs race out into the surf. The bolder, stronger swimmer goes past the crashing waves, while the more timid one is tossed under wave. They race back with their prizes, tails wagging, ready to go again.

There are fewer joggers than I expected, but more fishermen. Fathers and sons, brothers, men alone. I see chairs and poles and bags of bait, lures flash as the lines are thrown, but no buckets for the catch. The catch is not the point, I suppose. Only when the walk is almost over and I start to wonder why there were no women out fishing do I see a young woman with a pole, out with her father. I almost stop to thank her for coming out, thank him for bringing her, but I don’t need to be the crazy woman on the beach, and they don’t need me to tell them that taking your daughter fishing is awesome.

The old woman, a term I use with deepest respect and admiration, dressed in a beach cover up and a bright floppy hat, stands at the water’s edge, her feet rooted in the sand. Her hands move up and down with the rhythm of her breath and the waves. Just looking at her is surely good for my blood pressure.

At the fence line that marks the beginning of the private beach, I am reminded of the story we were told in elementary school about the Native Americans selling Manhattan to the Europeans for 25 beads.  The Europeans thought they’d put one over on the Native Americans because they’d paid so little. The Native Americans thought they’d put something over on the Europeans because you can’t own the land. I am in full sympathy with the Native Americans at that moment. Who can own the beach?

The sun and the moon are up at the same time, which is one of my favorite things. There’s the vast expanse of interstellar space out there, and we’re just sitting in the middle of it.

A man is settled in a chair in the sand, no fishing pole, no book, just a thermos of coffee (probably, it could be whiskey for all I know.)  He sips his coffee and watches the sun and the waves. He is also good for my blood pressure.

The town is beginning to wake up. There are more walkers and joggers, more fishermen. Two men are setting up canopies by the dunes, preparing shade for a large group that will come later. The dogs are gone, but the three swimmers are still in the water. The man with the baby strapped to his chest is still out walking. He’s turned around, heading back. The baby is asleep.

20 July 2015

Snapshot: An Annotated List of What My Kids Will Eat Right Now

While I'd like to say that the boys will eat anything you put in front of them, they won't, and none of us like mushrooms very much. 

Apples, Fuji preferably, one boy prefers them sliced, the other whole.

Red seedless grapes, only red, only seedless


Cheese pizza (boys), veggie pizza (grown ups) but not mushrooms, as noted above, and not green peppers, because cooked green peppers are gross and they make everything around them taste like cooked green peppers

Anything in the black beans/ rice/ cheese genre 

Fixings for grilled cheese (damn you, public school breakfasts, for introducing my child to American processed cheese food product) or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. One child now eats pickle and lettuce sandwiches.

Blueberries, but really only the frozen ones, preferably wild, because while my children are American cheese eaters, they do know that the smaller, wild blueberries are delicious, while large cutlivated blueberries are flavorless blobs

Strawberries, in season. (See blueberries, re: flavorless blobs)

Carrots, sometimes with ranch dressing sometimes without. 

Peas, straight from the freezer is fine.

French fries with gallons of ketchup, tater tots and home-baked potato wedges are also acceptable.

Egg and cheese sandwiches, sometimes. Sometimes they'll just eat half of one and the rest will sit there on the plate congealing as the children scamper off to do something else until they are brought, sighing and rolling their eyes, back to the table to dispose of their plates and leftovers properly.

French toast/pancakes/waffles with real maple syrup, or that stuff called breakfast syrup. These items may be served at any time of day. In my house, French toast is what's for dinner when I don't know what's for dinner.

Boxed cereal, which I wish I would rely on less often, especially during the school year, when they often have cereal for second breakfast at school. 

Oatmeal, usually with blueberries and honey.

Dill pickles

Almost any corn or potato based item that can be called a chip.

Toast, preferably with butter and jam or apple butter.

18 July 2015

An Itch I Cannot Scratch

I would very much like to move. I would like a fresh start in a fresh place. Someplace closer to the beating heart of a city perhaps. (Much as I like to pretend I’d enjoy living further afield, I know that having to drive a long way just to get to the grocery store that’s not even my favorite grocery store would drive me crazy.) I want to live somewhere new where I have not eaten at all the restaurants or seen all the monuments, where I have not memorized the weather patterns. I would like to know more things about a place than you can learn in a single visit. I would like to try being a new person with new people. This is more lovely in theory than in practice, of course. I would like a really compelling reason to go through my belongings one at a time and decide what is important enough to keep and what should go. I would like to box up everything I don't love and put it out for the charity shop to pick up so that it can be used by someone who would love it. I’m pretty good at that kind of thing. I have little trouble being ruthless, but it’s hard to get excited about it. I want to be a minimalist, but I’m fairly sure I have to move to make it happen. But . . .

All of this would hinge on a job change, which seems unlikely, and it would mean leaving a village of friends that I love and that I rely on for physical and emotional support. So this moving thing is an itch that will go unscratched unless something changes drastically. I will stay here with a problem that isn’t really a problem and maybe I’ll clear out that corner of my bedroom.

07 June 2015

Unforgivable Sin and the Gift of Grace: A sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost B

Today’s readings are packed full of things that we as a church would rather not talk about: disobedience, shame, exile, despair, demonic possession and the unforgivable sin. Oof. It’s no wonder that the first commentary I read about these suggested that preachers talk about Jesus expanding the boundaries of family. That’s a nice gentle thing to talk about on a Sunday morning, isn’t it? Jesus sitting with his followers and claiming them as his brothers and sisters. I’ve already written at least one sermon about that idea, and I’m sure I could write another. But I’m not going to do that today.

I’m also not going to spend a lot of time on the Fall of Man in our Old Testament reading. If Carol would like to invite me back to preach in June of 2018, when this reading comes up in the lectionary again, that might give me enough time to put together a coherent sermon on snakes and apples, maybe.

Our Gospel reading is just a snippet of Mark which we’ll be hearing more of as the summer goes on. Mark is the earliest and the shortest of the Gospels. It begins with John the Baptist proclaiming “Prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight paths for him.” At the time of today’s reading, Jesus has been baptized, has spent 40 days in the wilderness being tested, begun his public ministry, called his disciples, driven out unclean spirits and healed many people, even on the Sabbath. In short, he had made a lot of noise, gathered quite a few followers, annoyed a lot of people, made himself notorious.

A crowd of people, both disciples and critics, had followed Jesus into a house. There were so many of them that Jesus and the disciples couldn’t sit down to eat. Now, Mark is not big on colorful details, but I imagine that the room was chaotic. In contrast to the peaceful paintings of Jesus teaching while disciples sit a respectful distance from him, quietly eager to absorb knowledge, this crowd jostled to get closer, to hear better. Men who had studied scriptures their whole lives didn’t just listen, they would have questioned and debated with Jesus. Healings would have been met with outbursts of surprise, delight and disbelief. Multiple small groups would be having side conversations about what they had heard and seen.

One of those groups was the scribes. No mere local rabbis, these scribes were the equivalent of a group of Vatican theologians. They had come, or been called, specifically to see Jesus, to figure out what was going on with this itinerant rabbi that was causing so much trouble. They had watched and listened and discussed among themselves, maybe they even had a small crowd gathered around them listening in. They had seen miracles, heard testimony from the crowd of even more miracles, and they knew that whatever this Jesus person was, he was not a charlatan. He has real power. It’s possible that they considered and rejected the idea of Jesus as God, but more likely the idea of God walking among them was so outrageous, so outside of the boundaries that defined their relationship with God that they couldn’t see it, even with the evidence in front of them. So they declare that Jesus is Beezlebub, the devil himself. And they say it loud enough that Jesus can hear them.

The upstart rabbi had been called out by the respected, established religious leaders. Shock must have rippled through the crowd as the Scribes declaration was heard and repeated, and then there was quiet, because everyone, disciples and Scribes alike, would have wanted to know what was going to happen next.

Jesus is not known for giving straight answers to religious authorities, especially the ones who are questioning his identity, so it’s no surprise that he starts by asking them a question: “How can Satan drive out Satan?” And before they can start to answer the question he tells a two sentence parable.  “No one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.”

This short parable is also Jesus’ mission statement in the Gospel of Mark. This world is controlled by an evil power, and our job is to tie it up. But, as our Old Testament reading shows us, we lack the character to choose good over evil, and we don’t have the power to make good come out of evil. The Gospel of Mark is short, but it could be even shorter. It could be just this parable. Jesus has come to bind up the strong man and loot Satan’s kingdom. It plays out small when Jesus casts out demons, and then on a much larger scale when Jesus, having annoyed too many Scribes, is arrested and crucified, only to bind up the strong man that is death, freeing God’s good creation.

The Scribes of course, can’t see that. The gift of Grace that Jesus offers them is too different from the rigid structures of their faith. The radical change necessary to heal the sick and cast out demons, even on the sabbath, to eat with sinners, that love it is too hard for them, they’d rather follow the rules. So where they should see the Holy Spirit, they see the devil instead. And it turns out that deciding that “Love is too hard.” is the only unforgivable sin, that’s the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

So maybe I am going to talk about the expansion of family after all. The crowd pressed in on Jesus, wanting to hear his words, to be healed, to have one touch, one point of contact with the grace they saw in him. But Jesus tells them that they are his brothers and sisters, his family, and all they have to do, all we have to do  is see the gift of Grace that is placed before us, and do God’s will, and follow Jesus in healing and love. We will fail as Adam and Eve failed, as men and women have always failed, but if we get back up again, follow again, we will find that the touch of grace we were looking for has been paid out more abundantly than we could possibly imagine.

Lectionary Readings (Track 2)
God Calls Us to Expand Our Family (Sermons That Work)
Preach This Week (Working Preacher)


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