07 October 2016

Scent Memory


Joy smells like lying in the dark in my bedroom, pretending to be asleep 
when my mother came in to check on me after coming home
from a glamorous grown-up party, the kind I never go to, 
because no one is glamorous anymore.
Joy smells like the sound of her charm bracelet jingling 
as she took off her fur coat, 
and the rustle of garment bags as she put it away in the spare closet.

Sometimes the parties were at our house.
 My parents would hire a man to tend bar,
 and his wife to manage the kitchen for the evening 
so they could mingle. 
My sister and I put on our best party dresses and carried trays of hors d'oeuvres
 through the sea of people, offering up ham biscuits and shrimp puffs
 and showing off our best manners. 

We were never relegated to watching the party from the top of the stairs. 
My mother knew there was no chance we would sleep 
and she might as well get free labor, 
and the pride of parenting such well behaved children. 
If there was music no one could hear it over the voices and laughter 
and the ice in the glasses as my parents’ friends drank up
jugs of whiskey, vodka, and gin flavored with olives, onions, and tonic.
It’s a miracle the whole generation of them 
didn’t run their cars into trees on the way home. 

Sometimes the parties were at my grandmother’s house.
 My grandparents would hire a man to tend bar, 
and his wife to manage the kitchen for the evening 
so they could mingle. 
My sister and I came in our best party dresses and carried trays of hors d'oeuvres
 through the sea of people, offering up ham biscuits and shrimp puffs
 and showing off our best manners. 
A tray of ham biscuits was dropped once. 
I don’t remember if I did it, or my sister did. 
It does not matter now. 
We both wanted to die, 
to sink into the floor under my grandmother’s disappointed gaze.
 A well mannered child would never drop a tray of ham biscuits, 
not even by accident.

Joy smells like the car ride home,
 (where my father was always sure to compliment us on our manners, 
even long after the age when it was necessary
 to ensure the proper development of our characters) 
and carrying my mother’s coat upstairs to the spare closet before bed.

My perfume does not smell like that, and I almost never wear it. 
My children will have to remember something else.

03 July 2016

A Guest's Hospitality

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 9
(track 2)

If there is a theme that stands out in today’s readings it might be joy.  The prophet Isaiah tells the people of Jerusalem to rejoice and be glad. The Psalmist tells all the lands to be joyful in God. In the Gospel the seventy are sent out ahead of Jesus and they return with joy. The work that God has for us to do is meant to fill us with joy. If that’s not good news I don’t know what is.  What is the work? In Galatians Paul tells us to work for the good of all and to bear each other’s burdens.

I could just give a nice three sentence sermon today.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Be joyful. Great talk. Enjoy your holiday weekend.

Except there is a little bit more to say.

Our readings today are also about vulnerability. The people rejoicing in Jerusalem were home from exile and everything was supposed to be great again. For the whole time they’d been in exile the prophets had been telling them it was going to be great. And then they got there and the city was in ruins. The buildings were crumbling. The fields were full of weeds. After years in exile the Israelites troubles were supposed to be over. Instead they have more hard work to do.

The prophet uses the powerful image of a mother caring for her child to encourage them once again to trust in the promises God had made to them, and to be willing to do the work that is necessary even when the outcome seems uncertain, to have faith that their hard work will reap joy.

In the Gospel, we see an even greater vulnerability. The seventy are sent with no food, no water, no spare tunic, no money, no way to defend themselves against bandits on the road and no way to respond to those to who reject them except to shake the dust off their feet. They are to go to strange places bringing nothing but peace with them, enter the homes of strangers, eat their food and hear their stories.  And it works. The seventy are sent out and they return with joy.

That vulnerability is also a kind of hospitality. Of course there’s the hospitality of the strangers who welcomed the seventy. They opened their homes to these wandering prophets, but it’s also about the hospitality of the guests. The seventy who were sent were subject to dietary and other purity laws that would have made eating at a stranger’s house impossible and yet Jesus asked them to go and sleep in these strange beds and eat this strange food.

It’s not, when you get down to it, the hospitality of the hosts that is astonishing here. It’s the hospitality of the guests. How easy would it be for you to go to a stranger’s home, someone who didn’t look like you or sound like you or act like you? You can bring a friend with you, but you cannot bring a snack or your favorite pillow. How comfortable would you be eating their food, sleeping in their guest rooms, listening to their stories?

Listening to other people’s stories is harder than you might think. You have to listen fully, without interrupting, and you have to believe that the story they’re telling you is their real experience.  And you have to listen for points of agreement, instead of jumping in to tell the storyteller why they’re wrong,  even when the story makes you uncomfortable

This kind of listening doesn’t come easily to many of us. But it is a skill that can be learned, and one that is worth learning because it makes it possible to build relationships with our sisters and brothers beyond these walls.

The diversity strategy of this church, for as long as I’ve been here, and of every other church I’ve been involved with, has been founded on the hospitality of a host. We are happy to welcome people into this building. We are glad when new people show up, and we want them to stay and be fully engaged in the life of the church. We are so firm in our belief in the hospitality of a host that we are sometimes willing to go as far outside as the front lawn to eat lunch with each other and as many of the passers-by as the children of the parish can cajole into joining us.

I love this building. This building, this physical space with its stone and stained glass and wooden pews, artful altar hangings, and vibrant flowers, is a joy and a comfort. We use the walls of this sanctuary and the rest of the building to do a lot of good things. We marry and bury and baptize people, we feed the hungry and the lonely, we house the homeless, at least for one week a year, and we collect money to send out into the world reach the people who aren’t here. We come to Christ’s table for solace and strength, pardon and renewal.  We pray for each other, and lift each other up and sometimes we even allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to admit weakness, to ask for help, to weep in the pews.

 But this building’s stone walls can keep people out and our message in. Yes, we feed the poor and house the homeless and clothe the naked. Yes, as we say in our baptismal covenant, we seek and serve Christ in all persons, and we strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being, but as long as we are within these walls, the people who most need us to do those things won’t know about it.  And as long as we are within these walls, the only stories we will hear are our own.

The last time St. Andrew’s was in a time of transition, the Rector Search committee held a lot of listening meetings. People told the stories of how they came to St. Andrew’s, what they found when they got here, and what made them stay. Those were good meetings. We learned a lot about each other and about what St. Andrew’s does well. But there were a lot of stories we didn’t hear.

We didn’t hear the stories of the people who came to St. Andrew’s for a while and then left. We didn’t hear the stories of the people who would never think to walk through our doors in the first place. What was it Paul said in Galatians? Work for the good of all. All is a big word, a lot bigger than the number of people who fit in these pews.

Have you ever wondered why despite being in the middle of a majority minority county, St. Andrew’s remains . . . how do I say this . . . less diverse than we might be? We have friendly greeters, a strong and growing children’s program, beautiful music, and an ample coffee hour. Within these walls we have much to recommend us. I think the answer is that while we are pretty good at welcoming the stranger, we are not very good at being the stranger.

I’m not suggesting we give up the hospitality of the host. This is not an either / or question. It is a "yes, and . . . " question. Yes, we should continue and build on all these good things that we’re doing, and we should begin to build up new things we’ve never done.

 The question is then, where do we start? I don’t feel equipped for this kind of ministry. But then the seventy weren’t equipped either. They were de-equipped. They had only the clothes on their backs and each other. What do we need to start being gracious guests in our community? Where should we go? These are questions I don’t have the answers to, but I believe we can answer them together, with God’s help.

This time of transition is the perfect starting point. We’re already standing in the doorway between what was and what will be, and if we’re already in the doorway, we might as well step outside. I’ll be very much surprised if we don’t return a little better at bearing each other’s burdens, a little better at working for the good of all, and, as the seventy were, filled with joy.

"Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide"

04 March 2016

Mechanical Pencil on Blue Post-Its

What I did instead of paying strict attention during the meeting.

It wasn't my meeting. I didn't have a job to do. 

I was only there by accident, really.

A mechanical pencil is not an ideal implement.

But it did the job once I got the hang of it.

02 December 2015

Brynja and Eirikr, Chapter Zero

Everything that I've ever written that was even remotely worth reading began with words that were cut from the final project. They were beautiful words that I loved, but they had to go. They weren't necessary to the reader and they slowed everything down. But they were very necessary to me as a writer. They told me things about the story I was writing that I needed to know. Chapter Zero will be an occasional series of first things I've written. If they ever grow into bigger things, these first things will almost certainly pass away. In the meantime, I welcome comments, questions, suggestions and harsh criticism. 

Eirikr and I have a once in a lifetime love. Once in several lifetimes, actually. I have loved him in seven lifetimes that I remember and I have lost him in six. Now his sits before me, thinking his name is Jason and that he is a student in my Introduction to Ancient History class. He came by during office hours seeking feedback on his research paper.

I am Brynja, and I am one thousand years old. My body is Mary Ellen and it is forty-six. Eirikr's body is Jason, and it is 20. 

His paper is garbage and I was in the middle of telling him so when I recognized him and everything about us came back to me. I nearly shouted his name out loud. He would have known me then. He would have called me Brynja and he would have kissed me and all hell would have broken loose in the history department. Instead I told him I had a phone call I had to take and I asked him to step outside so I could do the math.

This is what I know: Eirikr and I fell in love a thousand years ago in a dark, cold place in what is now Scandinavia. We were young and we were sure we would live forever. I died in childbirth. The baby died too.

I knew myself again when my Bridghid body heard his Eaderyn body call my true name. A week later he died in my arms of a disease modern doctors would easily cure. 

We believe that we have found each other in every life we have lived, but we cannot be sure. We are sure that once one us recognizes the other, Eirikr will die within a week. In my most recent life I was Anna, godmother to the infant son of my best friend. I recognized Eirikr in the bright blue eyes of that boy just as the Priest asked me to name the child. I nearly choked. The godfather, spoke the boy's name, Gilbert, and no one asked why my voice had been so muffled. That night I wrote a letter to my best friend.

Dear Sarah,
 I have to leave. I am sorry that I cannot explain, and I am sorrier still that I cannot stay to watch Gilbert grow up. Please know that it is for the best and that I love you as dearly as if you were my sister.
Please forgive me.

I fled across the country to a tiny place and lived another 30 years. I knew that if I stayed Eirikr would eventually recognize me, or I would blurt out his name and one of us would die and while I had faced a lot of death in my lifetimes, I could not face the death of that tiny child. The only hope to save him was to flee so that he would never recognize me. I didn't know if it would work. I had to try. And if it didn't work, and my best friend suffered the loss of her son without me? It was still worth the attempt.

His Jason body is 20 and when I have taken a few breaths to steady myself I realize that he could have lived a full life as Gilbert before dying and being born as Jason. It might have worked.  

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.


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