Archive for the ‘Inspirational’ Category

Clay Sculpting 2-Day Workshop with Kathleen Raven

Kathleen Raven

CLAY FIGURES

Confusing Jesus and Santa

I’ve been thinking  about Christmas or rather, about the power of the idea of Christmas.   Not just the combination of a Christmas tree; how we decorate them, why we bring them indoors, where we place them or the gifts; why we give them, who gets them, how many we give, but of the coming together with ‘family’ or a reasonable facsimile for family when our biological equivalents aren’t with us. As parents, we all feel sad if our children are not in the same room with us on Christmas morning. There’s even that nostalgia of longing for those little ones they once were. Even after a lifetime of transitioning from being the recipient of Christmas to becoming the creators of Christmas, we hold to our ideas of what Christmas should be and are disappointed, depressed, or drunk when it isn’t.

 

There seems to be no other celebration in our lives that warrants the same devotion to the memories of tradition.  Unlike birthdays with a cake and a present,  there is the tree and the gifts, the decorating and the food, and the person of Santa Claus with his role in rewarding the ‘good’ ones and punishing the ‘naughty’ ones. I remember vividly the fear of actually receiving a ‘lump of coal’ in my stocking, even though I had no real experience with coal, let alone knew what a lump looked like. Funny how always the word ‘lump’ was combined with coal; ‘lump of coal’ not ‘chunk of coal’ or ‘rock of coal’ a description that made you think of scary things like Quasimodo, witches or goblins, or things that go bump in the night, purposefully meant to coerce good behaviour  from any believing child. I had a vague notion of what a ‘switch’ was, having been on the receiving end of the Alder branch my father cut to administer his unique brand of discipline in the back seat of the Volkswagen. I doubt whether my parents actually considered putting a lump of coal and a switch at the bottom of my Christmas stocking,  but rather liked the idea of the threat and using it to make me behave.  Rather distorted when I think back.

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Read “T’was The Night Before Christmas”, any controversy surrounding its origins notwithstanding, made anonymously public in 1823 and attributed fourteen years later to Clement Moore, for a  description of Santa Claus as the “right jolly old elf” who lugged the presents in a sack and came down a chimney, and who was transported in this task by eight reindeer, all of whom he knew personally. These facts were impressed upon us at a very young age  by my father who recited all fifty-six lines every year until it became what we embraced as our own Christmas tradition. No less part of Christmas than his quirky rendition of the line; “tore open the shutters and threw up the sash” as “tore open the shutters and threw up on the sash”.  Every year we waited for him to make this ‘mistake’.  Very much like his singing of the Christian hymn, “I Shall Wear a Golden Crown When I Get Home” which he sang as; “I Shall Wear a Golden Crown, If I Get Home.”  Despite this, as children my sisters and I were not raised to believe that this jolly old elf was the bearer of our presents.  There was never that gut wrenching moment when we discovered the lie, no school chum let the cat out of the bag to ruin everything.  Instead, we knew our mother was really in charge of Christmas.  It was rumored that as a girl, she herself had been devastated to learn the truth of Santa Claus and wished to spare her own children this disappointment.  Instead of the whole thing hinging on one Christmas character, the myth was embraced as part of the traditions and we came to accept this willingly. Together with “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Keep Christ in Christmas”, we sang in Christmas concerts at church and wrapped up the celebration like everyone else.

 

It is in thinking about Santa Claus that brings Christmas to my mind this year, so distinctly attired we would all recognize him if we met him, and the associated premise of receiving a gift only if you are on the nice list. The naughty are acknowledged, but no child would believe for a moment they would arrive at Christmas on the naughty list. “You better watch out.  You better not cry.  You better not pout, I’m telling you why…” Even if there had been a year of extraordinarily bad behaviour, somehow arriving at Christmas exempts us all from thinking the consequence would be a lump of coal.  Children and adults alike catch the spirit of Christmas and for a season hope they’ll be excused, or forgiven.

 

Because Christmas is both a secular and religious observance, we spend our lives mixing the pleasures of retail therapy with “O Holy Night”, togetherness and good will toward men with the picture of Santa offering a thirst quenching Coca Cola, huge servings of abundance, with charity towards those less fortunate.  We know we are capable of better and Christmas is the season that reminds us the good receive gifts. This is where we confuse the two faces of Christmas, holy and happy.  Carrying on our Christmas traditions will make us happy. You will be happy if your children are in the same room with you on Christmas morning, opening up the presents you have worked hard all year to afford.  You have expended great energy in decorating the tree, and the house and labored long over the meal all of you will share.  You have given to those less fortunate.  You have even attended the church service, or the candlelight ceremony that gives a religious nod to the holy part.  It’s all so exhausting, especially when we do all that and yet we are not happy.

 

Religion has done Jesus a disservice I think, it has made Him out to be Santa Claus. Years of holiday advertising allows us to recognize Santa but Jesus has remained a baby in a barn and at Christmas, that’s how we celebrate Him.  Jesus, like Santa becomes a  benevolent creation with gifts to give to those who are good and we all believe we are good. There is no other time of year when this becomes more apparent than Christmas. We may not believe in the existence of Jesus, like  Santa – but we still hope to be happy if we just uphold all our traditions and celebrate with everyone else. Even though as kids we knew there was no Santa, we still believed we would get presents.  No. That’s not true.  We didn’t just believe we would get presents, we knew we would because our mother was in charge of Christmas and we had faith she would create all that we came to believe was what Christmas should be.

 

Have you heard?  You won’t see it until you believe it.   We had faith. Somewhere between there and here religion tried diligently to convince me that if I was good, I would get gifts.  This I know, is a myth of Santa proportion. The gifts have been given to me and they are already mine and there is no correlation between my goodness and the giving of gifts. Believing in myself is not required. In fact nothing is required of me. That is the essence of a gift. Even though I had no idea what coal looked like, I knew it wasn’t something a ‘good’ child received at Christmas.  Instinctively I knew as well, that candy canes and chocolates were more to my liking. No one had to tell me the difference. I knew what a good gift was. James says “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

 

I believe the real joy of Christmas is just accepting the gift. If you choose not to get past the layers of religion that has wrapped up and covered the simple giving of a gift,  it matters little how well you celebrate Christmas or whether you celebrate at all.

 

The Woods

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“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and sorry I  could not travel both.” Michael J. Fox celebrates many years married to the same woman.  Robin Williams commits suicide. “And be one traveler, long I stood. And looked down one as far as I could. To where it bent in the undergrowth.”  One disease. Two choices.

 

Testaments of time tall and imposing reach far overhead, unwitting of the life on the ground.  Straight up without bending, against a foreboding and darkened sky, they split the horizon.  Other trees reach beyond their roots and like the peacock, spread their array in colors of dead and dying leaves. Something in me resonates with something in them.  One walk midst their kin and that something in me responds.

 

“Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear” The duotone honk of the geese signal their watery launch as if by some schedule their leaving was arranged.  Soft full underbellies hang in the air neath a gaggle of wings flapping up to speed.

 

I stop with leash extended while the dog roots out another foreign scent.  Look up, look way up. Just overhead, so close the whisper of synchronized flight. I could almost touch them. Standing still I watch the one lone procrastinator honk from far behind; “Wait for me!”  Two others break formation, circle back and gather the straggler ahead of them.  A lesson in teamwork. “Though as for that the passing  there, Had worn them really about the same” Contrast the geese a moment later, the protracted landing of the graceful Heron as it glides to rest on the bank of the creek.  The long and elbowed neck drawn back betrays its’ dinosaur DNA. The dog, impatient pulls the leash to urge me on and the dirt almost mud, squishes beneath my sneakers. “And both that morning equally lay. In leaves no step had trodden black.”

 

Far and away I thought the leaving to be a beginning, the chance to answer questions or ask the questions that would bring meaning. “Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” Serendipitous the chance to discover these woods, the one the dog now knows.  She turns to take the path before I discover its’ opening, so secret and covered with growth the way goes down and turns toward the creek bed and the wooden bridge.  It’s protected.  A place where the wild salmon run.  Not the bison – different way to run. But run, nonetheless. In hurried panic I search to find a stick, a poker, with which to introduce myself to the long and twisty thing, on the ground, in the reeds, by the beach.  It’s coiled and quiet, just waiting there shiny black and yellow.  “Hello, who are you?”  Before the hello, it is gone.  The stick made redundant. No need then to say hello with a stick. “I shall be telling this with a sigh. Somewhere ages and ages hence:”

 

I search the shore to try the thing ancestry has tried for ions before me.  I seek the smooth and even surface of the rock that will skip to the horizon.  The small but mighty statement I can take in my hand. I balance the leash in the one hand and comb the contents of the shore with the other.  I am beach combing. I have not done this with diligence since the discovery of the dead porpoise, the washed up and thick carcass that was poked with a stick as a child.  What is this poking with a stick thing? I gather my technique and with all my talent, hurl the rock with great force across the glass like surface of the water. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

 

The Road Not Taken
By Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

IF ONLY

If only

Rock Star Rock Climber

Rock ClimberI know nothing about the art and skill required to ascend the heights of stone. I don’t fit the picture of daredevil wannabes scaling vertical precipices, but I discovered there is a rock climbing role given expression in the word:  ‘belayer’. The verb is ‘belay’ – the noun; ‘belayer’.

 

At my age, there is no desire or will sufficiently strong enough to compel me to rappel. Most of us do not climb literal mountains, but we scale daily figurative mountains; obstacles that hinder what we believe should be our way forward. Whether managing the same set of stairs for 20 years until the day you slip and fall and really hurt yourself, or struggle to change the habits of a lifetime, they are just hills, to me they are like the stone upon stone my thoughts construct and I imagine that is partly why this new-found word, belayer brings such appeal. 

 

With it there comes the awareness my best self lives today and not tomorrow or yesterday and that my best self climbs mountains safeguarded by the belayer who holds the rope at the base of every climb. Between us a sacred trust is growing because I never climb alone.  Each toe hold I discover and lean in to for support, is guided by a slow release of rope, fed to encourage advance and secured by the belayer who threads my way as I lead the pitch. It is less and less possible to remain in the same place; advance or perish.  We are a team. I can only go higher when I let go of fearful ideals and under a watchful eye, reach for the vision of the summit. As I learn to trust the skill of the one who holds the rope and who will carry my weight when I fall, my reach exceeds my grasp and I discover what a heaven is for.

Bob & Debbie Finally Found Someone

 

“For Such a Time as This”

I was reading in Esther the other day. A short book, it tells the story of a Jewish girl who is an orphan and who gets adopted by her cousin.

 

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.

 

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.”

 

The BUS The BUS


The Bus The Bus

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.

 

I’ve got my heart on my sleeve…

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, adoration.
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.

 

Laugh Lesson

Dame EdnaThe lesson was not taught in her grade ten class, it was learned in my grandmother’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 told.


Barbara you laugh like a horse.” Her teacher had declared one day over the classroom din. If you were Barbara in that moment I imagine you’d cling to a faint hope the sting would be lost in the clamour that is a grade nine class.  More than likely Barbara should have been crafting English lettering rather than her lesson.  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 the 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, was demonstrated in copying one of her favorite poems; “I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog, and lone”; page after page, much like her hands’ ability to fly over piano keys for she could already translate what she heard as music, it was just a matter of getting the keys to repeat what she felt, or lend her own harmony to the songs she knew.


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 very proper 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. 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 of it stuck.  Children can manufacture absolutes, 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’ve lived the 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 clues 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 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 hovering authority 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 had 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, my mother. 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 marvelous 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.

What Makes A Difference?

Abe Lincoln

Numbers Game

It was an amazing story really, I watched the video before he made it to MSN or Good Morning America. He had a wild look about him and a mouth full of teeth, but when he opened that mouth, there was this voice. I want to call it the K-TEL voice, the Casey Kasem voice. Perpetually vibrant, always young, this voice could launch ships, sway nations and smooth the troubled countenances of a thousand children!


The only encouragement required was a rolled down window and a microphone pointed in his direction. And he seemed so humble, thanking the microphone for taking the time to stop. Excessively so. There was the video on WIMP.COM, then MSN ran a feature, Good Morning America picked it up and then we watch as he reunites with his wheel chair bound mother, pleading “Mommie, Mommie” twenty feet before he reaches her, cameras rolling. It seemed like a too good to be true story. The hints were there, just a few fleeting moments where you wonder if you heard correctly. He strides toward her, arms outstretched, she reaches up from the wheelchair to glasp her arms around his neck and pull him toward her. He continues to mumble gratitude, she says “Don’t disappoint me”. Well, she has other words but the words that resound like a beacon in a dark night are the ones that leave him obligated, on the hook. You may have a chance here son, but whatever you do, don’t screw it up, and more than that – Don’t disappoint me.

 

Some reports say it was 20 years, others say 10 years since he last saw her. And then he meets Dr. Phil. Instant celebrity. One day you’re holding the lid from a cardboard box at a busy intersection, hoping beyond hope that some poor smuck will see your sign and take pity on you. Your crayon says Golden Voice, and a journalist recognizes an opportunity. Taking photographs at the very same corner for years has primed him to know a story when he sees one. The next day, or the next week, maybe even within the month – off camera, Dr. Phil is telling you to enter rehab.

 

Nine children, one ex wife, one former life. 11 Million people: “I have a God given gift of voice”. Two years clean. Second chance. Maybe it’s all in the numbers.

Joy in Music

“You’re not paying attention!”

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He had jumped from the piano bench accentuating the not with a pounding of the final chord and pointed his finger directly toward me. I had sung through a rest. The jolly good fortune of being five foot two and singing alto had placed me in the front row and with cameras and tape rolling, mine had been the lone voice carrying a single tone while fifty other voices had remained silent.  I thought myself wonderfully gifted to be in the church choir. 


A simple feeling of immense pride and we all know what comes as a direct result of pride.  My face radiated immediate warmth, my ears rung and my adolescent ego struggled to hold back the tears. We were spending another Saturday afternoon at the television studio, taping the musical numbers that would accompany our church program.  In my memory, it was very much a striving for perfection, a pristine line up of shiny satin robes edged in gold, smartly stopping at the edge of dutifully lined up feet.  There was little room for error.  In fact, there seemed little room for joy.  The older women brought bags of cosmetics and cans of hair spray, changes of clothing and were more than happy to donate their weekend to the endeavor that began early in the morning and lasted late into the afternoon.  That one rest changed the way I participated from that point on and it was only for a short time that I dutifully lined up for much of anything. Perhaps not the pivotal drama I remember, but
singing for me was all about prescription and following and being like everybody else.  The notes on the page were only a guideline.

 

But there IS joy in music. We humans do not put the joy IN music. It is there whether we participate or not. The irony being, we can take a lot of joy out of music, whether it be by order or prescription, or by the sheer pleasure of bending and blending tones with rhythm, words and phrases, stops and starts.  Or even a little rain.

 

 

 

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Abou Ben Adhem

James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859)

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Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)

Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,

And saw, within the moonlight in his room,

Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,

An angel writing in a book of gold:

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,

And to the presence in the room he said,

“What writest thou?” The vision raised its head,

And with a look made of all sweet accord,

answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”

“And is mine one?” said Abou, “Nay, not so.”

Replied the angel.  Abou spoke more low,

But cheerily still; and said “I pray thee, then,

write me as one who loves his fellow-men.”

The angel wrote, and vanished.  The next night

It came again with a great wakening light,

And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,

And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest!

 

 

 

The Mask I Make

It was something I knew nothing about. That’s a beginning.  I have had the good fortune to be placed in circumstance where status means little and privilege is a shared experience of a community of women in a transformational environment. This would describe the mask making workshop I attended at the local multicultural center.


The tables had been placed in the center of the large workroom and around the periphery of the room there were craft stations that included glue guns, extension cords, feathers, beads, paint and brushes, an assortment of buttons and shiny things, colored wire, brightly fashioned yarns, and a myriad of other crafty things that would satisfy even the most critical of crows. There was somewhere between fifteen and twenty women seated watching as our fearless leader introduced herself and asked us to think about our own definition of a mask. What is the mask’s purpose? When do we choose to wear a mask and why? What does our mask say about us? Are we able to take our mask off?


I knew none of the other women, for quite a few English was not their first language. I met Lois when I offered to her the seat beside me. Lois had the physique I remember my grandmother having, an ample bosom without a clear distinction between chest and waist. Her hair gray at the roots, her glasses frequently pushed up from the end of her nose. She fretted to me about her current predicament, one in which she had been laid off from a job she had held for twenty nine years and as a result had joined a local empowerment program for women. She had only attended the program for two weeks when her former employer had offered her work. She was fearful to leave the program; fearful to refuse the work. She was simply fearful. Our instructor demonstrated the mask technique, calling for a volunteer she seated her in a chair and proceeded to apply Vaseline to her face, outlining her hair, protecting her lips and eyebrows from the adhesive quality of the plaster that would form the shape of her face. Lois was worried; this might be more than she could endure. “I’m rather claustrophobic” she confessed. “When I have an MRI, the space is so close, they talk to me and that helps, but I might not be very good with having my face covered.” I attempted to assure her. It was all right, I would go first and she could apply the mask on me. She needn’t have one applied to her own face it if made her uncomfortable. I continued to watch as the instructor applied the plaster strips to the face of the volunteer. She had placed cotton gauze over the mouth and the eyes, pressing to outline the lips as she continued to work the plaster and smooth its surface. The volunteer had chosen to close her mouth. As I watched I became aware of the obvious personal symbolism, life had been bidding me silent for a very long time. I had so many stories and the storytelling always became animated with volume and gesture. For quite some time I had tried to be more subdued and submissive –  silent. Just realizing this brought tears to my eyes and I struggled to suppress the lump in my throat.


I helped Lois get prepared to apply the plaster to my face. I knew she was anxious, her hands were hesitant and I sensed she was not confident about her ability to do this “right”. The process took but a few minutes and Lois was relieved when a volunteer came to speed the process along and help with the application. The plaster sufficiently hardened to remove the form of my face and we placed it on the table as Lois took the chair. I admired her bravery for it was obvious this wasn’t something easy for her.


In turn, each woman shared in the creation and we proceeded to the blow dryers to speed along the drying process. Many women chose to reinforce their masks with additional strips of plaster to strengthen the shape, sanding down rough edges, polishing the surfaces to perfection. Many applied Gesso so that the form could be painted, as others lingered over the craft stations to choose just the right accessories for adornment. Silver hair, tiny shells, golden faces, and sparkling hues, all speaking of women whose hands shaped their story, silently their messages were created.


Time is always a consideration and for the women in the class, other obligations hurried them to complete their maskIMG_5184s. As we sat together in a circle with our gifts in our laps, there remained only six women, a testament to busy lives. Lois was one of the six. Her mask was painted green, “Mother Earth” she said. There were diagonal lines of vibrant blue, and brilliant yellow. “The sky and the sun.” she explained. Haltingly she interpreted her mask as representing her place in the universe, she was a part of it all. “I’ve always put the needs of others before my own needs. I’m learning that I don’t have to do that.” As the others shared, a quiet spirituality was expressed through tears. Individual stories captured hearts as we realized how much we had in common.


When my turn came, I gently held the face toward the women. It was not painted on its exterior, no gesso, no color, and the edges were rough and unpolished. The lips were outlined in red and where the paint had escaped my inexperienced hands, a red mole held prominence to the right of the lips. I quietly offered that this was who I am; part diva, yet unfinished, rough around the edges, not very polished. I had gathered fanciful yarn in hues of azure and sapphire, tacked on tiny sparkling leaves of aqua and draped this from the back toward the front of my mask. This, I explained was a hint of what was on the inside. I IMG_5183turned the face toward the women so that the inside was visible. There, the eyes were beaded bright, turquoise gemstones and buttons, wiry teal glitter and ceramic bobbles surrounded the eyes. I had found these treasures would not adhere to the outside, that discovery had confirmed what I already knew. The mouth was surrounded with crimson reds and small scarlet spikes of wood peeked out from the edges of fire engine red feathers. Here is where my words could be expressed from the open mouth, here is how I would speak my truth, see the world, and find my voice.

Some Day when I’m Awfully Old

stressed-womanThey had warned me not to talk. So sure were they that I would push the air with my finger, or disturb the delicate boardroom balance, they had warned me not to talk. They were much more experienced in these things than I. They had witnessed verbal outbursts and assertive behavior and wished to shield me from any bias that may result if I talked. So I wrote out my words and I practiced reading them, straining to keep my face neutral, my demeanor calm. I answered all of their charges skipping over any judgment. I had decided I could be content in this job that had lasted the longest of any I had ever had. I heaved a heavy sigh as I  realized I could stay if I did not talk.  As long as I did my job, I thought no one could complain. I had practiced the ritual of being employed for a life time.  Desperation could not force me to reconsider now. Work, filled with tedium and monotonous repetition,  was a worthy pursuit. One could pay the bills. I had compromised; passion for pay check. Along with my coffee I gulped down doubts every morning and got in line behind hundreds of other women masterful in the art of subterfuge. And it almost worked. For awhile.

 

There are often very crooked paths that get us to any given destination. The way is not always perfectly straight. So much so, that even when we turn back and run, the way from which we came is blocked – permanently and we have no choice, but to push forward. Like the day they said we are deleting your job and here is a list of all the others you can choose to occupy instead. You have a month to decide. Let us know. I thought I had chosen wisely with my little yellow highlighter marking out the ones I qualified for, crossing off the ones too tedious, circling the remaining possibilities and finally identifying the winner. Terribly complicated it all seemed initially; “We don’t know who we’ll choose to train you for this” they said, when presented with my choice. “It’d be best if you sat out for a week while we think about it.” In hindsight, that should have been a clue. But I was new and eager and scared someone might think me stupid so I sat out for a week. The first two weeks on the job I met my boss three times; once to be introduced, and twice in the office of human resources to identify the myriad ways I had failed to measure up; all within the first two weeks – quite a record, even for me. “Go home.” They advised. They had presented me with a list. All typewritten and neat, there on the table, complete with bulleted form and its own envelope. They made it official with the help of the rather tired and vacant looking personnel officer who only echoed the supervisor’s regrets. I had not just failed, but I had failed in so many ways and this with only four days on the job.

 

I’m not sure where it comes from but in circumstances that have every appearance of smelling badly, I am filled with a righteous indignation; a genuine compulsion to set things straight. I wasn’t sure just what the record was, who had been keeping score or exactly why it mattered, but I decided to take advantage of all those union dues I had paid over the years and request their attendance at a grievance hearing, where I promised not to push the air with my finger.  I would sincerely love to report they saw the error of their ways and expressed regret for the anxiety and inconvenience to me they had caused. How different my world would be if they had admitted the error, and welcomed me back. It was not until much later I could reflect upon the futility of the stammering union rep as he pointed to the lack of training, the only  misdemeanor he could prove. Maybe it was the point during questioning where her cell phone went off and she left to answer the call that I realized something. No, that’s not really true. I didn’t just realize something. I had an epiphany. Like a heavenly choir filled with angels singing from on high. I walked into this meeting today all ready with my defenses and my explanations and none of them were necessary because I came with the same dignity and integrity and a life-long quest for authenticity that I will leave the room with; unless I let them take it away from me. I understood that what was playing out before me was outside of my control. Some initiative, some edict, somebody’s assurance that the favored girl whose job I took would get it back and I would be asked to go home. The situation would be fixed.

 

So I went home.  I could be there still in that place where one tucks away dreams with your keys in your purse in the morning. I would be kind to those same women, two of whom sat across the table from me that day and by all appearances had achieved the success and associated status that eludes so many. They had tried to convince me that I had no value and this was why they had to meet me because I had failed. When all was said and done the union rep came to me and said, “They want to know what you want.” I told him there wasn’t enough time to tell him, I had to get to the rest of my life.

From Prositute to Royalty

indexShe was just a prostitute and as they go, not a very worthy one. In the age she lived, one did not often get the chance to outlive a label and she was known as a harlot, the old fashioned word for prostitute. Like so many nights before, this night she took in two men. You see, her home was ideally situated for her business. She lived within the walls of the city, making for easy access and undetected exits. Unlike so many nights before, the men welcomed by her were Jews and she knew why they had come; not to hire her, but as spies for the enemies of her city. For someone in her profession, it was unusual – to say the least – to have any kind of faith, let alone a faith in a higher power; a faith, not in her own government, not in the laws of her own city, but in the god of her enemies.

 

It wasn’t long before the city law enforcement heard of the presence of the spies and sent out search parties to root them out and dispose of them. But the reputation of this god had preceded them and the prostitute – who was called Rahab, could cite every episode of miraculous delivery, every battle where their god had intervened to their victory, every triumph of their conquests and what’s more – she believed.

 

Before she helped them to escape, she hid them on the roof of her house and she made them swear that before they returned; and it was not a matter of whether they would return, but when – they would remember her. Not just me she pleaded, but my family and all that belong to them. Not to be pushed around, the spies upped the ante by placing the onus of rescue squarely on her shoulders. Hang this red rope in the window, gather your family in this house and we will honour what you have done for us today. Otherwise – no deal. And she did. And so did they. In fact, before they burned her city to the ground, their leader – oh, his name was Joshua , ordered all those within her house to be removed and placed out of harm’s way, far from the fire. The name of her city? Jericho. For those of you who may not know, she made a life for herself among the Israelites and ended up marrying a guy named Salmon. They had a baby boy. They named him Boaz. When Boaz grew up, he took a wife, Ruth and together they had a baby boy they named Obed. As these things do happen, Obed later married and had a baby boy they named Jesse and Jesse became the father of King David; the royal line from which was born Jesus. Remember now – she was just a prostitute.

 

Words Past