Wednesday, August 15, 2018

You Could Make This Place Beautiful

A week's gone by, and a full one. My girl has survived the first 6 days of a new school, a much bigger one than she's ever been to. She knew only one person in only one of her classes. A week later, she has a lunch group and a few theatre friends. She's auditioned for a play, didn't get cast, but might work tech. And, then she surprised me by applying to be a representative for her class in student government. Considering that 2 weeks ago, she was almost overwhelmed with anxiety, I'm so proud I could burst. If she can face her fears with this kind of aplomb, she can handle whatever life throws at her.

And, I worry every day about what it might throw.

The news has dragged me down lately. Children separated from parents, racially-charged conflicts, and now horrific news from the Catholic church in Pennsylvania. I find it hard to believe that humans can be so callous about the harm they do to other humans. I've let my girl see my feelings, and I realized I was bringing her down, too, when she asked, "Has it ever been this bad before?"

Oh, hon. My first thought was of slavery, lynchings, the separation of slave families, but the more I thought, the more atrocities I thought of. We humans have been horrible to our fellow humans for all of history. The near-genocide of native Americans. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Any targeting of civilians by any wartime force. The horrible treatment of so many political prisoners and prisoners of war in various places around the world. It's even in the bible. The bashing of babies against rocks. We humans have a bottomless capacity to be heartless, and we always seem to find a way to feel justified when it's us committing the atrocity.

Oh, hon, the truth is, it's hardly ever been this good. There are people speaking up, exposing the things that need to be exposed, calling for everyone to recognize the dignity of all people. We still pray every day that God's kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. I don't think he'd ask us to pray for that and work toward that if it couldn't ultimately be accomplished. It's just a long, long, long process, and our lives are too short to grasp the eternal perspective.

Good Bones
by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I've shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I'll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that's a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones:  This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Raising Daughters and Words

I need to write more. I need to read more fiction. I read three books, 2 fiction and 1 non-fiction, while we were on vacation last week, and they were the first books I've gotten fully through in a while. They were all life-giving. I downloaded Matt Haig's Reasons To Live on Kindle, and it might be one of the best books I've read on depression. He has no remedy to sell except your own remedy, all the while writing with great sympathy for the varieties of ways depression presents itself, and a generous, vulnerable account of his own. I picked up two novels in the used bookstore at St. Simons Island, and both were fantastic. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin kept me glued to the pages for a solid 2.5 days, which for me, is saying something. But the book that got into my bones was Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. After two chapters, I had to look up the history of the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in the 50s, history I had never been exposed to. But it was the story and the mesmerizing language that really captivated me. It stirred my inner poet and made me want to write again. And so, here I am, writing again.

I've struggled about what to do with this blog. I want to write, and I want to write for an audience. But, while I've done it with previous blogs, I find myself resistant to just keeping an online journal of my days/feelings/thoughts. I want to structure it with "music on Monday," "words on Wednesday," "thoughts on Thursday," etc. It assuages my worry that blogging is mostly just naval-gazing. But, artificial structure is not working for me. It feels contrived, and it turns writing into a duty. So, I'm going back to a more organic way of writing. I don't know quite how it will come out, but maybe that's okay.


My girl starts 10th grade at a new school on Wednesday. She's nervous, but she doesn't realize that she's so much braver than I would have been at 15. I marvel at her. She has become so much her own person. But, then, she always was.

When she was born, I felt the strangest sensation. It was as though another person had walked into the room. Of course, she was indeed a newly arrived person, but I had expected it to feel more like she was still part of me, not so much like a stranger had arrived. She came with an unmistakable message - "I'm not you." She was a presence. After a few tense seconds while we waited for her to cry, she finally let out a quiet, sweet, almost unbearably endearing "graaa." Soon, that weak little "graaa" was a big "WAH," And, now "WAH" has become, "I need you to take me to Ulta so I can buy some more makeup." (So not me.) And I'm so thankful that she is so normal.

On Wednesday, she'll arrive at a new school, her own person. She knows a few of the students, but not very many. She'll know them soon enough. She'll start with a graaa, progress to a WAH, and end up a leader. And I'll marvel at her again.

Maybe writing is like raising a daughter. You can't structure it. It takes you down avenues you weren't expecting. It exposes you, surprises you, scares you, exhilarates you. And then, ultimately, it humbles you because you realize that she, or it, belongs to itself. It is not you.


Is it weird to say that my writing has its own identity? Some writers like to talk of a muse, and I understand that. I don't speak the way I write. I don't even always think the same way when I write. Things come to me when I'm writing that don't come to me at other times. It's similar to when I'm playing and the music takes over and I become its servant. These things happen. Art has its own personhood. I don't know how to explain it.


The sun has set while I've been sitting here on the porch, all hot pink and orange between the pine trees as I listen to the kids at the neighborhood pool and the crickets and cicadas start their songs. The mosquitoes have been merciful, and the Georgia heat is not unbearable. I've a glass of wine and a sleeve of crackers, and the night is kind. I've written enough for tonight. Time to read again.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Music On Monday: Be Thou My Vision

St. Patrick's Day is later this week, and so it seems like a perfect time to write a post on a favorite hymn, Be Thou My Vision. I'm willing to bet that this is one of the most-sung traditional hymns apart from Amazing Grace.  Legends abound about this song, and they are charming stories that add to my enjoyment of the hymn, but we don't know much about their veracity. Here's what we know for sure. The Old Irish text predates the song itself by centuries, and we have copies of manuscripts from the 10th or 11th centuries. There's a good chance that the text existed long before that time within the Irish monastic tradition. Mary Byrne wrote a modern English translation of the poem in 1905 and just a bit later, Eleanor Hull wrote a translation in metric verse. The first published version of the song set to the Irish folk tune Slane (which has charming legends of its own) was in 1909 in a collection called Old Irish Folk Tunes and Songs. The title leads me to believe that the text had been paired with that tune for some time.

The original poem has been attributed to a blind Irish monk named Dallán Forgaill. The request that God would be his vision is even more poignant if this is true.

I wish I could read it in Old Irish, but since I can't, I enjoy Mary Byrne's translation - it's much richer than the metrified verses we sing in the hymn. 

Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.

Be thou my meditation by day and night.
May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.

Be thou my speech, be thou my understanding.
Be thou with me, be I with thee

Be thou my father, be I thy son.
Mayst thou be mine, may I be thine.

Be thou my battle-shield, be thou my sword.
Be thou my dignity, be thou my delight.

Be thou my shelter, be thou my stronghold.
Mayst thou raise me up to the company of the angels.

Be thou every good to my body and soul.
Be thou my kingdom in heaven and on earth.

Be thou solely chief love of my heart.
Let there be none other, O high King of Heaven.

Till I am able to pass into thy hands,
My treasure, my beloved through the greatness of thy love

Be thou alone my noble and wondrous estate.
I seek not men nor lifeless wealth.

Be thou the constant guardian of every possession and every life.
For our corrupt desires are dead at the mere sight of thee.

Thy love in my soul and in my heart --
Grant this to me, O King of the seven heavens.

O King of the seven heavens grant me this --
Thy love to be in my heart and in my soul.

With the King of all, with him after victory won by piety,
May I be in the kingdom of heaven O brightness of the son.

Beloved Father, hear, hear my lamentations.
Timely is the cry of woe of this miserable wretch.

O heart of my heart, whatever befall me,
O ruler of all, be thou my vision.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Words on Wednesday: The Light and Lightness of Ash Wednesday

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

It's Ash Wednesday, the day on the liturgical calendar when we begin the season of Lent. Lent commemorates Jesus' 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, and on Ash Wednesday, the church encourages us to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It's a time for self-examination and repentance. Of course, we are called to do these things daily, but I think we believe that in Lent we are supposed to repent... harder. Instead, what I feel today is relief and thankfulness to be mere dust. It means that I can give up the burden of saving the world and saving me and trust that God is doing both of those things. The great thing is that the examined life can become the unburdened life, if you're healthy about it. But for some, the call to self-examination can result in self-blame and a failure to truly experience the joy of being forgiven. While I appreciate the liturgical calendar and the rhythm it can supply to worship,  I also think we need to guard against allowing the culture of an institution to suggest extra-biblical practices that seem to be more dark and heavy than light. If we're not careful, lent and Ash Wed observance can make us turn in on ourselves and try to repent harder than is necessary.

I'm protestant, but blessed to have served in a variety of denominations, including Catholic. They have a term that touches on what I'm trying to describe as over-repentance:  scrupulosity. It's a sort of religious perfectionism in which someone feels they can never stop confessing or feel able to enjoy forgiveness. It's a sort of spiritual OCD. I think that at times, I've been like this. So, this year's Ash Wednesday when I feel relieved to be dust - feels like a victory.

The pressure to participate in church programs can result in a sort of scrupulosity, too. I have in the past felt a duty to participate in as much as my time would allow. I've cut back. WAY back. Right now, I'm attending only one thing - a spiritual formation class that has been like manna from heaven. We have great discussions, and yesterday we talked about the difference between doing "great things for God" versus simply living fully into every moment being fully ourselves as God created us and sharing the gifts of the Spirit's fruits - love, joy, patience, goodness, kindness, self-control, etc. These are greater gifts than any earthly skill or talent. We talked about the ripple effect something as small as a smile can have - the ministry of welcome and love to those we encounter. We talked about Jesus' lack of an agenda or program. He had no schedule like this: 9:00 am: Woman at the well. 1:00: Take on some Pharisees. 3:00: start a ministry to the leper colony. Instead, God incarnate walked through life ready to encounter whatever came his way. I'm not knocking ministry or relief programs. They do good work. I'm just giving up the idea that I have to adopt an agenda or join a program out of duty. God will put in front of me what he wants me to do in his time. I don't have to get ahead of him.

It's easy to elevate the value of the program or the institution and fail to embrace the wildness of the Spirit. Today, I could easily allow the cultural and institutional weight of Lent to weigh me down. But, I don't feel heavy today. I feel light. I don't feel dark. I feel light. I think it's appropriate. So does this poet.

Ash Wednesday
by Louis Untermeyer



Shut out the light or let it filter through 
These frowning aisles as penitentially 
As though it walked in sackcloth. Let it be 
Laid at the feet of all that ever grew 
Twisted and false, like this rococo shrine 
Where cupids smirk from candy clouds and where 
The Lord, with polished nails and perfumed hair, 
Performs a parody of the divine. 

The candles hiss; the organ-pedals storm; 
Writhing and dark, the columns leave the earth 
To find a lonelier and darker height. 
The church grows dingy while the human swarm 
Struggles against the impenitent body’s mirth. 
Ashes to ashes. . . . Go. . . . Shut out the light. 



And so the light runs laughing from the town, 
Pulling the sun with him along the roads 
That shed their muddy rivers as he goads 
Each blade of grass the ice had flattened down. 
At every empty bush he stops to fling 
Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats; 
While even the hens, uncertain of their notes, 
Stir rusty vowels in attempts to sing. 

He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds 
And throws an olive blush on naked hills 
That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white. 
Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads 
A carnival of color, gladly spills 
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Silver Linings

The last month has been a little chaotic around here, and I'm not just talking about politics. It's been a good opportunity to practice having a positive attitude in the midst of craziness. I've learned quite a bit this month and discovered a number of things to be thankful for.

The girl who checks me out at the local pharmacy remembers my name.

I'm thankful for good health insurance.

I learned that my gynecologist started out as a religion major. Now I know why he's such a great doctor.

I've learned that 9 (nine) places in my body don't have cancer. Well, we're still waiting to hear definitively about 5 of them, but they seem to think it's just a formality.

I learned how to work a car battery charger.

I learned which places in town have the best machine to pump up a leaky tire.

I'm thankful for the guy at our tire place who didn't charge me for a repair. We'll buy more tires from him.

I know which wrecker to call when the car just won't go anymore. I'm thankful for his promptness.

I now know the names of one of the guys at the car repair place and two folks at the rental car place.

I've had the opportunity to drive, in addition to my own car, a Dodge Challenger, a Jeep Patriot, and a Nissan Versa. In case you ever need to know, the gas tank is on the driver side for all of them.

I'm thankful that several people earned money for their families by fixing my car even though it was totaled the next week.

I'm thankful for the sheriff's deputy who happened to be just a few feet away when the wreck happened and could vouch that it wasn't my fault.

I've learned that my usual emergency care place doesn't do third-party billing for car accidents so you might as well go straight to the ER.

I've learned that you can get a concussion without even hitting your head on anything. I'm thankful that none of us had any serious injuries.

I've learned that I can survive a week that contains both a car wreck and unrelated surgery.

I'm thankful for a hubby who took charge of everything, handling insurance, rental car stuff, meals, and more and for piano students who don't mind rescheduling lessons.

I'm thankful that I am not a journalist for any major news organization right now.

I'm thankful that I am not a politician responsible to any constituency for my support or non-support of the current White House administration.

I'm thankful that I live in a country where freedom of speech is guaranteed, and I'm thankful for our founders for the wisdom and discretion they exercised in creating our government.

I'm thankful for the deep discussions I've had with my daughter as a direct result of the current political chaos - discussions on character, integrity, self-control, and all the other fruits of the Spirit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Words on Wednesday: Wendell Berry

Excerpt from "Sabbaths 2005" by Wendell Berry


If we have become a people incapable
of thought, then the brute-thought
of mere power and mere greed
will think for us.
If we have become incapable
of denying ourselves anything,
then all that we have
will be taken from us.
If we have no compassion,
we will suffer alone, we will suffer
alone the destruction of ourselves.
These are merely the laws of this world
as known to Shakespeare:
When we cease from human thought,
a low and effective cunning
stirs in the most inhuman minds.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Music On Monday: Where Charity and Love Are, God Is There

Yesterday, our associate pastor preached a strong sermon on the passage from Matthew 5:38-48 where we are told to turn the other cheek, hand over a coat as well as a shirt, travel two miles with someone who would compel one, and love our enemies. It made me think of the ancient hymn text Ubi Caritas. Some think that this text predates the formalization of the Mass and is from the early Christian church. It can be sung any time, but one of its traditional uses is at the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. This is a beautiful setting by contemporary Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjeilo.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ's love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
As we are gathered into one body,
Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,
And may Christ our God be in our midst.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
And may we with the saints also,
See Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:
The joy that is immense and good,
Unto the ages through infinite ages. Amen.