In a television advertisement this month, Oprah – the great maven of all things positive – compels us (as she gazes intently at the camera) to “Let 2016 be our best body year.” I think this is a commendable entreaty. When she tells me she’s not getting ready for some Red Carpet event, she doesn’t have some fancy outfit she’s gearing her weight loss toward, but simply – wants us to have our best body year, I think – hmmm… nice, she cares – for all women, everywhere – for all of us. All of us out there in television land who are struggling with having a best anything, let alone a best body year. I think it would mean a great deal more to me if I did NOT know she had just purchased a 10% share of Weight Watchers – the sponsor of her entreaty. Kind of puts a little different slant on things. Weight Watcher stock went through the roof by the way.
A recent devotion headline states: “This could be the year.” We use the modal, “can” to make a general statement about what is possible and “could” for the past tense of “can”, or to state that in the future something is possible, but not certain; expressing an idea that something has a possibility, but may or may not happen. I like to include that grammar moment to qualify any resolution I attempt, being loathe to even speak the resolution out loud.
I’m resolving this year: 1. To talk less – listen more. 2. To surrender my will more, as in: “My utmost for His highest.” 3. To walk 4. No drink, cheese or soda. 5. To eat well.
My preparation to date and I am aware of good ole Ben’s warning:
My purchase of a scale to weigh my progress and to assess my body composition is just one of the components of my planning. That being said, the first order of business was to establish the parameters of age, gender and height so that this marvelous piece of technology could assist in my resolution objective. Perhaps I could consider it an omen, but after flashing my current weight, the scale should then display my body composition – as in percentage of fat vs. percentage of muscle mass. A careful read of the instruction booklet tells me a wee burst of electrical current shoots its way through those layers and pronounces the result on the viewing window at my feet.
You can imagine my confusion when the display read: ” ERRCL “. What was I to determine from that message? Back to the instruction booklet and the last page explains that if the fat percentage is beyond the ability of the scale to measure, ERRCL will indicate this error. So, I am beyond measure. This guide to the weight conscious cannot participate in my fitness recovery because I am, shall we say – “Just too much”. Well now – this is something I’ve known for a very long time. I cannot be measured. Perhaps my pride could be wounded. Perhaps I could reconsider this whole affair and return to the world of the blithely overweight. Allow me a moment to think about that. Nope.
I have just handed over $80 and there was no other model of scale available to purchase at the store. Therefore, I am sorting through a week’s worth of garbage, to find the receipt I did not believe I would need. I could consider this physical activity and add it to the required energy expenditure, the one where I lose at least one pound per week by increasing 500 calories output per day. Now there’s a could I can get behind.
Stay tuned. The journey continues.
Christmas as a non-event. Long ago in the land that was childhood, I joined family, friends and peers in celebrating Christmas. The Christmas that was. From the early beginnings, my mother helped to form certain expectations about the season and in the way she fashioned, I grew to celebrate Christmas in a traditional, baby-boom kinda way. There was the baking of intricately decorated short bread cookies, with one tiny piece of green and red cherries, the massive mounds of fruitcake dough, date bread, and candy called “chicken bones” and barley toys. A five pound box of red-wrapped chocolates was $5.00 and it always signalled the end of the season when all that was left were the chocolates at the bottom of the box with thumb prints in them.
As a child, I entered the world of my parents only when it concerned me. What I mean by that is, what I knew about the world and my place in it, revolved around what made me happy, what made me sad, what appealed to me, what interested me – do you see what I mean? I didn’t much know whether my parents were happy, well adjusted or financially stable, because these were things beyond the scope of my personal self interest. Any disappointment was truly only mine like no one else could ever be disappointed. Any injustice was done to me, without regard for how those around me were affected.
Snippets of memories wrapped up in Christmas included the tree. The tree was purchased from a local tree lot with extra boughs that accompanied it so that my father could drill holes in the trunk and insert just the right amount of added fullness, under mother’s supervision of course. There was a specific method of trimming the tree, an order that must be respected; first the lights, working from the top, the first set had to be centered to provide a yellow bulb for the star, allowing half the length down either side, woven in and out, the style of lights was hardily constructed, with wire that bent and bulbs that screwed into sockets. Once placed, you stood back and squinted your eyes so that the lights blurred, this helped to see if there were any holes. The pièce de résistance was placing a metal reflector behind each bulb. Sometimes a spray of artificial snow from a can added a touch of authenticity. After the lights, came the ornaments and each one was wrapped in the tissue paper of the year before, stored away in cardboard boxes. As each ornament was unwrapped, the paper was saved and top honor was given to those ornaments that had survived the longest.
After ornaments, the silver lead tinsel, held gently as each strand was freed and hung separately – one short end over the branch, not doubled. I found a box of this tinsel for sale online for $15.00 a box – under the heading “Vintage Christmas”. In fact, most of the ornaments I trimmed the tree with are now considered vintage.
The trees my mother supervised were always placed in the same corner of the tiny living room in our two bedroom apartment. With my sisters, I delighted to push to top button of the light switch, just outside the room. The tree lit up and Christmas had officially arrived.
In hindsight, my mother and father must have worked hard to uphold this traditional style of Christmas. I say this because every year every unrealistic expectation I had was met. While that may not be the absolute truth, it is true in my memory. Purchases would be hidden behind my mother’s bedroom dresser and in her closet. The long work sock that became our Christmas stocking, had a large McIntosh apple and a navel orange in the toe, followed by a candy cane, life savers, some chocolate and a gadget or two. Photos prove we had an abundance, each pile of gifts under the tree equal to the others. Visiting family at Christmas meant you had to suffer through the “showing’, where each gift was held aloft as the name of the recipient and the giver was proclaimed, the gift described before returning the gift to its rightful place under the tree. No one was allowed to wear any clothing or remove any gift for a set length of time after Christmas.
When the time of life arrived for me to fashion my own Christmas, I followed in my mother’s footsteps. A path I had come to believe was the right one, the only one. But marriage, brings the challenge of blending traditions. No longer did I re-construct a tree, no longer could I trim with lead-filled tinsel. Gone as well were the traditional ornaments. I think the die was cast when I knit Christmas stockings. Thick craft yarn is stretchy and when finished, each measured three feet long and looked like a cabled fishermen’s knit sweater. One red. One green. These I proceeded to fill – every year. While baking was never my forte, I made up for that in decorating and by now it was ingrained that both of my children should have the same piles of presents that sat beneath my childhood tree.
For as long as I could, I held on to the traditions; the tree, the presents, the decorating, the visiting, the meal. I remember singing in childhood Christmas concerts at church. The big productions involved lots of time and practice and getting together with friends. We got to dress up and feel pretty. The elderly woman in the bed at the nursing home our youth group visited, listened to our attempt at Christmas carols and expressed so sincerely how much she appreciated us coming, even inviting us to come again. “Oh” I replied “They have us quite busy with other things right up to Christmas.” “That’s all right.” she said. I’ll still be here after Christmas.” I had totally missed the point.
Most of my own anxiety surrounding Christmas was preserving this idea of Christmas. That perfect Christmas out there that looked like the ones in my memory, only I wasn’t a kid anymore and nothing could ever be how it was in my memory. In my self absorption, those memories were skewed anyway. Rather than a true historical record, they suffer my perspective, my recounting and any other kind of Christmas became an impossible compromise, a counterfeit, a bone of contention.
The Christmas that changed everything, was the year after the divorce and I gave my son a laptop that I couldn’t afford to give. I couldn’t afford to pay outright, but I could afford to put it on my telephone bill. In the end, it meant I paid twice as much for the laptop as it was worth. A fact I knew when I made the arrangements. It was not the laptop of his choice. He made this clear Christmas morning. I heard the words “piece of junk” – but I’m not sure they came from him. Given that I had over-extended myself, and considering the outcome, I don’t know whether I was angry or sad. I was well accustomed to angry but on this occasion, I wasn’t sure where to direct the anger. Don’t blame him. The traditions I worked so hard to uphold had become a trap. The ideal Christmas reality aimed for, but missed. Christmas had become a time to eat lots of food, buy lots of stuff, drink lots of alcohol and otherwise spend the following year paying the bills, or the cost – however you look at it.
Last year we did not do Christmas. No tree. No decorations. No gifts. No meal. We can say that that is not all of Christmas and admit, we can honor Christ’s birth amid all the gifts, the food, the decorations, but every year Remembrance Day acts as the starter’s pistol to a race that no one wins. Beginning in the first part of December, television takes the one plot Christmas story, changes the actors, tweaks the scenery, the dialogue and then perpetuate a mystical Christmas where the guy always gets the girl, the community, business or season is saved, and all children have plenty.
I thought that once I had let go of this kind of celebration, I could easily walk away from it forever, but I admit I still struggle. So much of what I believed as a child, a teenager, a young adult, and even in middle age, oh! especially in middle age, has been refined in the fire of letting go, the process of asking why, the curve of beginning again and I’ve sacrificed some very sacred cows.
Christmas, in the way I’ve always celebrated Christmas, is one of those sacred cows. As a result, my faith has become something else, something it never was; less of a stick and more of comfortable shoes. Less something to wave around in defiance of loss, and more of solid footing.
I can’t go back; not to a childhood I left long ago, not to perpetuating a mythical solution to the same old set of issues, not to the pinnacle of the ideology of the perfect Christmas. I don’t want to go back and pick up that kind of Christmas again. Instead, I can go forward to a different way to honor the birth of Jesus, to discover Advent, gratitude, forgiveness, and the celebration of letting go.
I’ve been pondering some resolutions, hesitant to write them down, fearing their death knell. “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!” I’d given up my little spark of madness. I’ve gotten parked in neutral so to speak, waiting for revelation. Trouble with waiting is after a while you forget to get out of your PJs, comb your hair, take a bath. You stay late to bed and shuffle in your slippers and before long the days stretch into endless amounts of monotony. Great expanses of scenic beauty stretch before you every day and you watch the clock. I simply want to know why.
I’ve had seven years of un-gainful employment; mind-sucking, energy sapping work that is much like minimum wage; keeps your head above water but only after you’ve taken a few mouthfuls. I discovered the world of non-profit employment and envisioned fulfillment and purpose, thinking divine intervention had positioned me appropriately and my talents at long last would be tapped. But alas, all did not go as I had envisioned and I simply want to know why.
Last month, all by itself the car careened backwards over an embankment while parked in first gear and the insurance company was only too co-operative to pay out the lease when it was written off. But this leaves one driving a 16 year old toy truck that chugs along in cold weather without a rear window on the cap and a pillow propped to position me sufficiently close to the gas pedal. I declined the dealer’s offer to lease a new vehicle without benefit of employment realizing at long last, this option was not offered to honor my worthy financial status, but to place a check mark beside their sales objectives. And I simply want to know why.
And I may never have the why. I only have the now.
When the prophet Jeremiah gave this word to the Israelites, it was after they were told they would be spending the next 70 years in a foreign country, far from home and everything that mattered to them, under hostile authority. Many of their family members had been killed, all of their possessions had been taken from them. Before Jeremiah says this, you know in what must have sounded like; “Yeah, right – you’ve got to be kidding!” He says; “Thus sayeth the Lord” and then proceeds to tell them to increase and not decrease, plant and harvest, marry and have children, bless those in authority over you because when they prosper, so will you. Then and after that, he tells them what God already knows about them…. I have plans for you.
So as this year comes to a close I am affirming what I believe; God has plans for me and God has plans for you. God has plans for us. In my case, I am sure it embraces just a little spark of madness. In your case, it may take you into unexplored territory where you’re asked to take a leap of faith. You may not understand and that’s okay. God knew when He created me that I would ask why. I can trust Him. Someone out there must have heard Him and took that leap because today I received cash in the mail, tucked inside a Christmas card, without a signature.
My son told me I should write. He is far too young to know why I do not, though I confess, I can. I cannot write in the genre he prescribes – the web blog; the potential money making endeavor that gets followed and shared and becomes popular both from a profit and loss perspective and a therapeutic one. Instead, I find myself lingering in the shop window of the antique Underwood, the enameled keys and cloth inked ribbon waiting for inspiration to peck at it with possibilities of storytelling and intrigue that keeps a reader reading.
I am old. I think. My life thus far has been filled and until this phase brought comparison, I did not realize it was filled. I worked. I created things. I fed children, kept a house, and ran down the road with sneakers on, pretending to get fit. In wonder I remember Winter stand offs with snow plows in the early morning darkness as I vied for my place on the pavement, my eyelashes heavy with ice crystals, my breath, a frozen tunnel in my throat. Who was that woman? Where did she go?
My mother taught me to make a bed, protect my modesty and struggle with place; my place in the world. I watched her do that, struggle with place. Like her, I laughed too loud and often talked too much. Even now, other women tell me our times are filled with them listening while I talk. I try very hard to make that something else, to be thoughtful and intuitive, and to wait. But my mind speeds ahead of me, of them and conscious effort makes futile the attempt to remain connected to someone else’s pace. Now I find myself pacing the halls of my house wondering what to do with the rest of each day.
The season has changed the leaves and I watch from the window how brilliant colors have faded and floated to the ground. The river signals the coming Winter as hues deepen with the change in the air. A lone kayaker paddles in the late morning, a great bright banana gliding across the water’s surface. I have been before this window for what seems a life time. I have sat watching and waiting in front of this window for friends to come in their parents’ car and take me with them, devastated when they didn’t show. I have drawn its curtains, and trashed those same curtains once the sun had reduced the fabric to shreds. I have pushed in nails around its frame to hold scores of Christmas trees, trimmed it with twinkling lights. I have watched hundreds of runners run past this window. Thinking I should join them I would lace up my sneakers and puff through a distance, but it would never stick. The hedge planted five years ago, grows high enough to block the view of the driveway and I’m happy to let it grow high enough to block the view of the road, to see only the river. I won’t know whether someone is running down the road any more.
From a point where life loomed ahead it now closes in. My children are no longer children; the level of care has changed. This is as it should be yet all that time those efforts required is now a gaping hole. I managed, organized, ordered, arranged, prepared, and dictated first to a husband, then to children. It was as I thought it should be, how my mother showed me. But her marriage ended in divorce, and so too did mine. And I am here, about to turn 55. I think about the raging grannies, those old women who break the aging stereotypes. I think about the Red Hat Society, and the frivolity of having far too much free time on your hands. I think about an 82 year old Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. And I think about me standing in front of this window, season after season.
She’s off – into the world of work and I’m torn between despair it would never happen and sadness that it has. “You’re not supposed to wear yoga pants, but everybody does. I’m the rookie, so I can’t” She had just given me a sideways glance, now she stared straight ahead as she talked in the car. “I don’t want to go” she said flatly. “I haven’t been paid yet so it seems like I’m working for nothing. Maybe it’ll be better once I get paid”. “What is it?” I asked. “Is it you don’t want to work, or you don’t want to be a rookie at work?” Even though she thought it was rookie anxiety, I could sense it was more than that.
She had just graduated but school hadn’t prepared her for work. Her loyal girl circle had acquainted her with the idea of work, but at the age of 18, she had never really experienced it first hand. Cleaning one’s room and doing one’s own laundry were paltry facsimiles offering up no pay and little reward even if your mother insisted on the minimum of standards. Years of advice on how to dress modestly, how to express your own opinion and be kind, how to follow something through to the end had not given any motivation for finding employment. In fact, from the eyes of a teenager, it was far more logical to ask your father to cover extracurricular expenses, knowing he would always come through.
I was instructed to pull the car up to the back parking lot, behind the building, facing the staff entrance. We were early. Like the guitar lesson that began on the hour, a ten minute margin of punctuality was deemed ill-timed as one cannot arrive that early. I instructed her on the laws that govern parents driving children to jobs. “Joe says not to put my backpack in the lockers ’cause all the geeks do that. She says I should put mine in the bathroom cubby. But when I opened one of the cubbies, it was filled with all this junk and what happens if someone’s in the bathroom and you need your backpack?” Advice from a trusted source didn’t make it trustworthy advice. I told her to use her own common sense and to trust she could make choices based on her sense of right and wrong.
She was smart enough to realize that university wasn’t what she wanted right now. I wanted her to take a leap and leave home, trying out life in another city. I tried to convince her that an arts degree could help her find her way. No, it would not necessarily assure her of employment, but life is about more than employment. So I guess that makes me to blame for her sitting in the car on the drive to her first official employment trying to convince her that her attitude was all she had. With the face she made, standing there in her new black dress pants that she claimed were too big, she did her best to promise she wouldn’t be hard to get along with. I knew she wouldn’t be. But it was more than just that. She knew she needed to get going. Get her life going; step out, find out what working was about. It was time. As she held the car door, I leaned over from the driver’s seat, squinting up at her. “You can’t control what comes to you. All you have is your attitude, how you respond.” I hoped it was enough. I watched from the car as she approached the staff entrance. Backpack complete with lunch – amazing in its own right.
For a moment I was transported to the airport where she met up with the other members of the gymnastics team for a cross country competition. I was the interloper then, watching as if it would confirm she would be safe. Now I sit in the car, making sure they open the door for her before I leave as if she needed me to wait. She had pronounced her shift ended at 4:30 as if to impress upon me the importance of punctuality. I think my heart went in that door with her. I know it will be waiting for her in the parking lot after work.
I think if anyone ever doubted or chaffed against the designation of females in the Bible, one only needs to look at the prostitute Rahab and then perhaps to Esther. I’m sure there are many other women in the Bible who have made significant contributions, but really, the purpose here for me is to marvel at the position of Esther and the position of Mordecai, her cousin.
My father always said that when you show someone a photograph you have taken, they will not marvel at the technical ability of the photographer. Instead, their level of interest is determined by whether they themselves are in the photograph. This is what I see in Esther for of late, I have questioned God because I don’t understand so much of my current circumstance and I see myself in Esther’s place.
In chapter four Mordecai is answering a question asked by Esther. She is afraid for her life. She has uncovered information – a plot, that would see her people wiped out – killed. Esther is a queen and she is reminding Mordecai that even queens are subjects of the king, governed as it were, by the rules of the court that forbid them from coming to the King without first being summoned. But she has this information. Of course, it would be a very different scenario if she was completely unaware of the plot and it would be highly unlikely anything would be requested of her if she were the gardener for the king and not his queen. So it is by happy or unhappy circumstance that she is the queen and she knows her people are at risk. The question then becomes, what will she do? Does she chance coming to the king unannounced? If you read the first few chapters of Esther and discover how Esther became the queen in the first place, you will understand why she is hesitant to come before a king who has not asked her to make an appearance. Add to this dilemma the fact that the King is not Jewish and Esther is, only he does not know she is.
So Mordecai in a sense, is acting as Esther’s conscience. He’s telling her that she can step up to the plate – or not. If she doesn’t take the risk, he is sure her people will be saved even without her help but it will look real bad for her when it’s discovered she knew about the plot all along. There is an alternative. She can trust God. This too is her choice. The thing is, if she chooses to trust God, it is not merely trusting God to save her people, she is trusting God to spare her life. She knows that saving her people might mean forfeiting her life. Before she accepts the risk of stepping forward, she must accept the fact she could die. As I read this, Paul’s words echo in my head; “For me to live is Christ, but to die is gain.”
I really want to believe that in the moments Esther takes to make this decision the tipping point comes when Mordecai tells her; “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” There it is. That’s the turning point we all face – every day. The next verses outline the how. Esther doesn’t just flip a coin, she does her homework. She gets everybody on board or as it were, on their knees. All the Jews pray. All the Jews fast. She and her attendants pray and fast and then she steps out in faith. She plans to pray and then makes a plan.
It’s a fascinating story – you should read how it turns out. As Esther was positioned in the royal court, Mordecai was positioned at the front gates; great wealth on one hand and abject poverty on the other. Mordecai was abused, ridiculed, hated and threatened, but I believe he knew this was where he was supposed to be so that he could be there when Esther needed to hear; “… for such a time as this.”
I drove to town the other day and the sky hung low with cloud cover. Not that one looks up a lot while driving, but Winter has tried best to hang on to leap year and make Spring seem like a myth someone conjured up to relieve the boredom.
The car in grungy and cold. My seat gets warmed electrically and I shift through the slush and snow. It would have been an uneventful drive had it not been for one thing. I looked up. In low hanging clouds pregnant with snow, there is not much to see. Greyish white, no sun, one seamless expanse of blank atop the trees. You would believe there is nothing there. You can’t see anything. In the valley before the next hill, for an ever so brief moment, there appeared a jetliner. That’s it. One second. It was there, and it was gone. I stared into the space where it had appeared and vanished and I heard God’s voice.
“You see” He said, “I am here. You may not see me, but I am here.”
I knew this. In some deep fathom of myself, like the airliner that can fly at all – so massive an engineering miracle sustaining flight in the air above us; I know this. On a practical, rational level, we all know airplanes can fly. Aviators have trusted this fact with their lives; yet it does not diminish the awe with which we see them ascend into the heavens, or descend back to earth. The split of clouds, the glimpse of wing tip; Is it suspended there? Is it flying? What about the people on board?
“I am here.” He said to me and I knew, wherever one must know these things, I knew He had allowed me to see this marvel. That I needed to see this miracle of flight, suspended hidden above me, yet even so – present.
“Vocatvs atque non Vocatvs deus aderit.” Bidden or Not bidden. God is there.
Listen to ole wives’ tales while wearing mother’s blood red gloves.
Patch up dreams with hope from ages past.
The stars they will not fall today though their light may briefly dim.
The bus, the bus, I’m riding this Bus
and my pen gets to the page.
Coffee hot and shiny, sipped between radio calls
The driver more plump than the last time.
Tis cold, tis cold and my toes protest.
I alone sit across from “Flight” and “Vivamus mea Claudia”
- Poetry on the Way; I could do that I think and
scratch and scratch without glasses.
The sun beams and warms my face
How brilliant it peeks through highway trees
I am warmed, my card punched, my thoughts my own.
The Lamb of God the scripture read
This morning John proclaimed His right to praise and worship,
Fear not, for I am with thee – even to the ends of the earth.
I know, I know – not because the Bible tells me.
I know because the sun warms my face and the bus ride is short
and I write.
She was leaving today. Not so much unlike other trips; vacations, school, or to hang out with friends. She had her bags packed and any attempt to persuade her not to sandwich her laptop between her beach towel and her clothes went unheeded. I had to let her decide. However much I tried to influence, there was that point I had to let her decide. Plenty of help got her bags to the car and she settled in beside me for the drive to the airport.
The moments in life that appear while we are attending to the business of living, can be much like speed bumps, designed in a way to slow us down, stop our hurry, force us to pause and it is in those moments our hearts can fill with thanksgiving or dread, or something caught between the two but defies explanation. Maybe it is a sadness that time will not wait for you as we fluster about attending to the business of living we forget.
Her passion had turned toward rugby in high school and she struggled only briefly with inadequacy. She was impatient to become an expert. All of her ran down that field clutching that ball, not just her head filled with passing advice, not just her legs conditioned from years of gymnastics, not only her heart and lungs, protesting her lack of capacity, but all of her. Every fibre, every nerve, every sinew grabbed that opposing player to tackle, hovered in the wings to assess the play, ran when her time arrived and despaired when performance fell short of some inner expectation that pushed her for better. And she played. If the photo captured what it was, it was the same essence the coaches saw, because she played in every game in most of the minutes in every game and she only wore the scrum cap because her mother warned her the next concussion she suffered would be in the last rugby game she ever played.
I looked at her in the passenger seat and realized how much I wished I could have been like her when I was sixteen. But assessing the past with a measure of what might have been only deepens sadness and at this moment, I only wanted her to share a sense of what I was feeling so I launched into the story of my father driving me to the airport not all that long ago. I was going to Italy. A dream. So much in life had eclipsed for me by then, the trip became pivotal to my personal liberation. It wasn’t an accident then that my husband had gone to work, my children had gone to school and my father came to drive me to the airport. He had lugged all four suitcases to the trunk of his car and I sat where my daughter was sitting now. I had no way of knowing he had but a couple of years to live. When all was arranged and my time to enter the passengers lounge approached, he stood with his hands in the pockets of his jacket, the one it seemed he never took off and the look on his face was a mixture of hope and pride, love and dreams and I hugged him goodbye, wishing he would just go already. Typically, I was impatient to begin the adventure and now I realize I missed what might have been the most important part.
I had never known my father to spend money frivolously. He recorded every amount ever spent; fearful to the end there would be enough to see him off. But he gave me a thousand dollars to spend on my trip. An astronomical amount even then. He presented me with a National Geographic coffee table edition of the Vatican and had slipped inside the cover a neatly typed, one page epistle on his sentiments about Roman history and the Popes and how the auspicious occasion of my trip to the seat of the Roman Catholic church demanded a certain reverence. “Love Dad” he had written in pen at the bottom.
My daughter sat patiently while I wove the story to the point where I mentioned one thousand dollars and wide eyed with amazement she repeated the amount, just to be certain she understood. “Did he give you a thousand dollars to help pay for your trip?” she asked. “No. He gave me a thousand dollars just to spend.” I tried to get past the money part and express the sadness I felt at my impatience with my father. I needn’t have bothered. We parked the car and from my change purse, I began to extract the change I would need for the meter when it occurred to me. I walked back from the meter to the car. She was heaving the suitcase from the trunk, collecting her sports bag from the back seat. “Should I put all my change in the meter?” I asked her. The flight didn’t leave until eleven o’clock and it was now quarter to ten. She understood. “If we go in there and all of your friends are there, will you want me to wait with you?” She didn’t have to reply. I understood. I wonder what my father had done. I never bothered to ask, it never occurred to him to ask me. I put all my money in the meter.
We walked together to the entrance. I carried her sports bag, she dragged her suitcase. Once inside it was obvious from the row of rugby hoodies that we would hug our goodbyes then and I would not blurt out all the hope and pride, love and dreams but quietly whisper in her ear that I loved her, be safe and I will pray for you. I did not anticipate the tears, mine. How very strange it was to leave and drive home alone. How my father must have felt from a lifetime of seeing me off, tending to my wounds, making sure I was safe. I can’t be sure he knows how it has made me. My daughter will know, because I’ll continue to tell her his stories. Somehow they have become our story.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’
Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
King James Bible Matthew 16:18 Jesus says to Peter;
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
I’ve always understood that verse from the perspective of Hell’s gates. I have no idea why but the picture of Hell’s gates conjured up something impenetrable, colossal in height and width. Massive planks of oaken wood, secured together with the strongest of iron clasps. Should I picture myself approaching such stature, I would be dwarfed by comparison and any chance of entry or exit would be beyond the realm of mere physical ability. To imagine the occasion in which I would be standing before said gates, would conjure up the depths of fear and trembling. Even if one possessed the strength to physically assault such a behemoth, already the heart would be weak with doubt. I hazard it would be not unlike David approaching Goliath. Adding my own lack of confidence in any knowledge of the supernatural world, serves only to heighten my despair and I would collapse from foreboding.
. . . and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Wait just a moment. Could this be a reference to the strength of the Church Jesus would build and not to the gates of hell? Here now we have a body of believers. Just mere mortals like Peter who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Who fought among themselves for the right to be first. Who struggled to understand the stories Jesus told them, and yet. Jesus is telling Peter; “. . . upon this rock I will build my church . . .” and not even the gates of Hell can (has the ability to) stand up to His church. Well now. That changes everything. I am a member of that body. I am a part of His church, this rock, this stronghold, this strength that not even the gates of Hell can withstand. Not some puny little weakling getting ready to run for cover, but built upon a rock and none other than Jesus himself has assured me; you have no need to be afraid.
I remember a song from childhood that told the story of His death and subsequent supernatural (somehow I always thought, underground…) visit to free prisoners from Hell, The words went something like this:
He yielded Himself to the death of the cross,
cried “It’s finished” and slumped to die.
In the regions of hell the devil celebrated,
we’ve destroyed the King, they cried.
In the midst of the celebration
footsteps were heard,
walking the corridors of hell.
Then the shouting stopped
when a voice rang out,
a voice that rang like a bell.
Satan then trembled
as he recognized Him,
He came to deliver His own.
Shut the gates, He cried,
He must not ascend to his throne.
Then the gates swung shut
in the face of the King
to prove God’s salvation untrue,
but He shook hell’s gates, and cried,
lift up your heads, the King is coming through.
Then out of the devil’s prison house
came a procession led by the King,
shouting, Now oh grave where is thy victory
and death, where is thy sting?
A throw back to the Baby Boomer generation would name it the Unemployment office, but in the political correctness of the day, it is now the Employment office. Makes a certain sense I think. You go there looking for work not unemployment, although you wouldn’t go there is you were employed. The likes of life’s ambiguities always catch my attention. I don’t think it’s because I’m special. I don’t possess any peculiar gift of intuition. It used to be something I couldn’t wait to share with my father, having in common that same quirky sense of reality. Some might even call it humor, or maybe irony. But now that he’s gone, it’s rather lonely to sit and chuckle all by oneself. The very definition of irony conveys opposition, something seen that is often not what it seems. Like the receptionist at the Employment office. I couldn’t say with any more than a passing glance that she struck me, until I’d taken a seat to wait for an employment counselor to speak with me. A wonderful vantage point.
The waiting room wasn’t filled, there was no real flurry of activity, yet she met every person who approached her counter with a mouthful of food, gingerly fingering the morsels that attempted escape, pushing and shoving them between the muffle of words she would try to voice at the same time she chewed. How very odd I thought. The spectacle drew my focus downward for it was hardly possible to ignore the cut of her dress. I love the phrase “ample bosom” all by itself that phrase creates a visual. You can imagine, without encouragement, what an ample bosom would do if restrained inadequately by a neckline meant for an after hours soiree. It might have been in the moment she checked herself in the mirror that morning; it might have been in the car, when she pressed her lipstick to her lips in the rear view mirror, the neckline might have passed muster, for it only allowed an inch or two of cleavage to peek atop the straight cutaway of her dress. It all might have worked if not for the fact her job moving was in her job description. Bend over. Straighten up again. Turn around. Lean back. This was her plight. Little imagination needed. She simultaneously pushed the food back, checked appropriate responses to repetitive questions, and kept the girls at bay, oblivious to talent that could rival a circus clown juggling as if his life depended on it.
I would have dismissed the whole affair as a “one off”. You know, those occasions where training facilitators convince you the customer service received by their company was an exception to the prescribed exemplary behaviour; very close to not really ever having happened at all. On this occasion it made me think about being the one there for employment help, while clearly this woman needed help. I would have ignored it if it were not for having occasion to be in the same office the following week.
By ten o’clock in the morning that day, it was already hot. Stepping inside the double set of heavy doors, anyone having to wait was grateful for the air conditioning. I had slipped into a permit parking spot rationalizing that if ticketed I could plead necessity, for the visitors’ parking lot was already full. A police cruiser was pulling up as I entered, joining another already parked outside the main doors. The reason became evident the moment I stepped inside. To my right, in my peripheral view two officers were snug up alongside a young heavy set man with short dark hair. I vaguely recall his offsetting, straight ahead focus.
In crisp sharp black uniforms, they crowded him and he bolted. Striking out like a wild horse in the last moments before inevitable capture. I made a wide circle around the melee where the officers had him to the cool of the stone floor, face first at their feet, hands behind his back. A flash of shiny chrome as the handcuffs were employed. I had reached the receptionist counter where at least a dozen people were standing in awe of the proceedings, not really sure how to respond. Many backed away. A few expletives betrayed the surprise, most were on their feet or standing at a safe distance.
At this moment the receptionist stands behind the safety of her counter and turns her attention to whatever the commotion might be. “Someone call the police!” she cries with a great deal of authority. “They are the police.” came the meek reply from a young girl protecting her coffee cup.
I wasted no time to find the room where I was to join the seminar. I lingered no longer than it took to confirm the young man was in custody and the remainder of his day would not go as he may have planned when he got out of bed that morning.
I’m one of the lucky ones I thought as I found a chair close to the front of the room. I wasn’t taken away in a police cruiser that morning. I didn’t freak out at a government clerk trying to explain some convoluted policy of reimbursement or re-training. I wasn’t the government clerk. I wasn’t the angry young man. And more grateful I was than any of those in attendance that morning, I was not the gainfully employed, fully benefited, duly trained and utterly unaware receptionist.
The lesson was not taught in her grade ten class, it was learned in my mother’s grade nine class sixty years ago. You might think it odd to have such a memorable lesson skip a generation, rather the lesson was learned through a generation and will probably continue to be learned long after I am gone.
“Barbara you laugh like a horse.” Her teacher had declared one day over the din in the classroom. If you were Barbara in that moment I imagine you’d cling to a faint hope the stinging barb would be lost in the calliope of noise that is a grade nine class. More than likely Barbara should have been doing something other than what she was doing and this would contribute to the frustration of the teacher. Otherwise it is hard to imagine why any adult given charge over children would compare a young girl or more precisely, the laughter of a young girl to that of a horse. Big stain topped teeth, enormous lips, sloppy saliva, horses don’t actually laugh, but neigh and whinny; who knows why, certainly not because they have found humor in their wild oats. Barbara expressed her boredom with education by practicing the art of English typeface, the anatomy of which required painstaking attention to craft the ascenders, descenders, serifs and stems. Fluid and flowing bowls and bars measured up to invisible lines that kept them straight and for Barbara, marked the beginning of her favorite prose; “I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog, and lone.” Page after page. Much like her hands’ ability to fly over any keyboard for she already heard the music, it was just a matter of getting the keys to repeat what she felt, or sing her harmonies to the songs she grew up believing.
He was right you know – really, for she did laugh. Not the measured restraint of polite society, but the stuff of deep bellies, head thrown back, mouth wide open - laugh. I suppose it was not very lady-like back then. I’m sure her straight laced mother disapproved. Barbara spoke bluntly, loved fiercely and more often than not, her humor bordered on the bawdy. She was not a submissive, quiet type. She had no need to find her voice, it had pretty much found her and once settled in, spoke with frequent passion and as she aged, often with regret. She was never afraid to laugh, whether at embarrassment she herself had caused, or at the foibles of others who were often at her mercy. Grade nine marked the end of her scholastic career.
That story was often repeated as I grew up. Or maybe not – maybe it was only told once and the memory just stuck. Children can manufacture absolutes at will, believing in a moment a thing accomplished only once is a thing that was always done so the story might have been always or only once but it’s too late to say. I don’t remember for I’ve lived that story for a lifetime. My own had no horses but brief quiet lapses of time where silence hung before it was snatched away by the jerk who exclaimed; “Ya think you could say that louder?” Recollection saves my ego for I’ve lost count of the number of chances I was given as stories were told, jokes repeated, sympathy was shared. A combination of symbols recognized too late; the hand at shoulder height, elbow bent, brushing the air up and down alternatively bringing forefinger to lips in a plea to keep it down and a shushing motion to just be quiet. I would sense rather than know it was coming, always after the punch line or the story’s finish. I couldn’t take the words back and try again with decorum but I’d vow the next time, the next time I would know or stop or be somebody else before it went too far, before the eyes darted away from my face to the faces of others looking for a place to escape. There was always the unseen authority hovering overhead like a trip wire that if ignored, would bring a ton of bricks down on your head. The authority had those unspoken (yes they were always unspoken) set of rules that meant you were not to talk a lot, preferably not at all; in the schoolroom, in the workplace, in the choir practice, over drinks. I tried so hard for so long to be that somebody who politely shook my head in acknowledgement of a conversation going on around me instead of jumping in with both feet – yes, I must say it – usually in my mouth.
After years of practice one day she came home and said; “My teacher asked me today if I had to talk that loud.” My heart sank. Progressive grades had seen a jigsaw puzzle of desk displacements, always to temper the chatter, reorganize classroom dynamics, shift focus – still the tongue. Out of the class. In the hallway. In the principal’s office. Stop talking. Other parents shared the back seats of their cars for their little girls to chatter, but mine would be asked to lower her voice.
I hate art. Art doesn’t matter. Who cares if I do the assignment on perspective? What difference does it make if I pass in the shading homework? Two weeks for vacation and missed art assignments and no attempt to catch up. Who asked you if you had to talk that loud? The art teacher. And then I hear from the art teacher.
“Up until yesterday your daughter has done no work or made any effort to catch up on the work she missed when she went away. She’s now making an effort to do the currently assigned work. She is welcome to come in at noon or after school to get caught up with her pen and ink drawing and the “wall paper” assignment. I’m here all lunch hour except for Tuesday and Friday when I do 20 minutes of duty. I’m here most days after school until 5 pm. She should have an “A” in this class. She’s more than capable but needs to put in the effort to complete assignments.”
I thought about Barbara. I thought about her a lot and then I wrote to the art teacher;
“Thank you for letting me know how my daughter is doing in your art class. I think it’s obvious you care about how she is doing or you would not have taken the time to write. I think it’s safe to say you probably care about all your students, or you would not be teaching art. Because you care about her, I’d like to share a bit of background with you so I’ll ask for your indulgence for just a moment.
When my mother was in grade nine, she became more preoccupied forming intricate old English lettering and practicing the art of calligraphy than her school work and it wasn’t long before that became a problem for her teachers. The story that resounded throughout my adolescence was the one where she was in class one day and in front of all the other students the teacher turned to her and in exasperation declared; “Barbara! You laugh like a horse!” You can imagine how that must have made her feel. The fact that 60 years later, I can still recount that story tells you of its impact. Fast forward to my own school years and I, as I was often told, was very much like my mother. Outgoing, friendly, enthusiastic, moody, animated, talkative (sound familiar?) and I remember vividly the number of occasions I gave people the opportunity to similarly declare how very loud my voice was. It left such an impression on me I have told both of those stories to my daughter many times.
Many years practice have allowed me to distance myself from the resulting inferiority and dismay those comments brought to me. I have learned to love the person God made me to be and when I am now given the chance, I make that love affair what I share with others – and that includes my loudness.
My daughter loves art Ms. Art Teacher. She is an artistic, gifted, sensitive young woman, who loves to express herself, give of herself to others and cares very deeply about how people think of her. I have been adamant and consistent in my attempts to help her be glad for who she is – loudness and all. In time, age and maturity will factor out the loudness and give her the discernment necessary to use that voice of hers when it is most effective.
I am sorry Ms. Art Teacher, but I cannot advise you on how best to coerce my daughter into doing as you instruct in class. I cannot even advise you on how to get her to pass your class, that is up to her. If you love art Ms. Art Teacher, I am sure you will find a way to share that love affair with my daughter.”
I never heard what Ms. Art Teacher thought about my words because she chose not to respond. I know my daughter was mortified that I should write to a teacher of hers. That I would express confidence in an ability she herself did not believe she possessed. “I think you think I’m better than I really am.” she told me. Frankly I was a little offended. I had ridden in on my valiant steed and rescued the fair maiden – all be it a mix up of fairy tales, I did think I had behaved appropriately – for once. A few weeks later when my daughter came home from school she casually mentioned Ms. Art Teacher’s mother had died. I sent her a note of condolence and it too was accepted without recognition.
So be it. Another story filed in the annals of memory, if that were the end it would have been enough. But it was not the end for you see in the weeks before school finished something quite marvellous happened in art class. I only know because amidst guitar lessons and rugby practice my daughter happened to mention that Ms. Art Teacher had given us a different type of assignment. We get to decide what to create; there are only a few guidelines. She said it was more like the art we’ll take in grade eleven. We can use our vision to come up with whatever we imagine. As if that was enough, no wait – there’s more. A week later Ms. Art Teacher caught herself saying; “My! But aren’t you becoming artistic.” I’m not sure how or why my daughter passed grade ten art. I’m not at all sure whether her art appreciation has been expanded or narrowed, but I am sure Barbara taught me more than how to laugh.
. . . a few wise words from Frederick Buechner “Listening to Your Life”
“The way I understood it,” she says, “you were supposed to devote these talks to religious matters. Incarnation and Grace and Salvation were some of the noble words you used.”
I say that feet are very religious too. She says that’s what you think. I say that if you want to know who you are, if you are more than academically interested in that particular mystery, you could do a lot worse than look to your feet for an answer. Introspection in the long run doesn’t get you very far because every time you draw back to look at yourself, you are seeing everything except for the part that drew back, and when you draw back to look at the part that drew back to look at yourself, you see again everything except for what you are really looking for. An so on. Since the possibilities for drawing back seem to be infinite, you are, in your quest to see yourself whole, doomed always to see infinitely less than what there will always remain to see. Thus, when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”
There is for me a real humbling effect when I view the Japanese devastation caused by the recent earthquake. I cannot view the images or watch the recorded video of a reality so far from my own and think for a moment that I am immune. I believe there is a God. I believe there is a time that mankind will exist and that his time is limited. When I view “mother nature” and the irrefutable power she wields over man’s puny and insignificant resistance, I am cognizant of the God of my beliefs playing out His purposes and His times under heaven.