Sunday, April 26, 2009

One sunny April morning

This past Sunday morning (that's when I started to write this) wasn't really all that sunny, just very very warm. A jolt of summery weather at the tag end of April. When I stuck my face out the kitchen door around 6 a.m. I was astonished to find the air quite warm already--53 I think it was--and moist and earthy smelling, too. 

After a long walk on the beach at near-dead low tide, making the beach seem to stretch for miles, I found myself singing an old children's song from way back in my childhood--was it from first grade? I taught it to Bekah and Anna, too, when they were younger.

One sunny April morning as I was walking through the wood
I came where Jack the Preacher upon his pulpit stood.

I bowed to him politely and said, "What is your text today?"
But Jack the Preacher stood there without a word to say.

(It's a little early for Jacks-in-pulpits to be visible around here, though they will be up before long.  Maybe the song was written for a more southern location like Connecticut or even Pennsylvania. Or maybe April simply fits the song's rhythm better than May.)

"But Jack the Preacher stood there without a word to say." 

I had a good time pondering that line--first, the unlikeliness of a preacher wordless in the pulpit (or anywhere else for that matter).

Then, the resemblance of Jack's tongue-tied state to a clergyperson's worst nightmare, a common feature of my own anxiety dreams for years: to find myself in church before a full congregation without text or sermon notes and with the sure knowledge that I've forgotten to do any preparation at all. 

I flip back and forth through the Bible and/or the Book of Common Prayer, but the light is dim and the pages have gotten scrambled. Nothing's in its proper place. The congregation grows restless. 

In some dreams I wing it--such eloquent nonsense!--and in other dreams I keep stalling (oh so gracefully, of course) and the people give up and leave.

And finally, the thought came to me Sunday (this entire reverie lasted about 90 seconds) that a preacher wordless and speechless at sermon time might not be such a bad thing.

Silence. Ahhhh, silence. A chance to breathe, settle down, get still; to look out the window (if the glass is clear); to smell flowers,  candle wax, dust, whatever is there; to feel your own heartbeat. Silence beats fluff or filler most days.

And that reminds me of those rare times (in real life) when I was "pinch-preaching" at the very last minute, and rather than try to make something up, I would invite some silent reflection after a very brief comment or two. People usually LOVED those "sermons"! 

(By the way, a little internet research tells me that Jacks-in-pulpits are poisonous, causing nasty things to happen to one's lips, mouth, and throat if ingested, and worse things if not treated. I can't imagine wanting to eat one, however.)

About the image: I've recently been playing with colored paper (it all started with some post-it notes). This one feels kind of "sunny April morning"-ish to me.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Digory's Pack

It amuses me no end that the only time our corgi, Digory, howls is when he hears sirens, which around here is rather rare. If we lived in a city and he were howling all the time, I might tire of it. But as it is, it simply delights me. 

I figure the siren sounds trigger some deep canine connection in him. He responds as if the sirens are his own pack calling from a distance and it's the most natural thing in the world to call back in "family style". From the YouTube clip I've linked to above, clearly other dogs do the same thing.  

It reminds me that even "domesticated" animals have a touch of wildness within. Maybe that includes us humans, too.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Encore! Encore!

I went to bed last night planning to blog this morning about Susan Boyle, the 47 year-old unemployed spinster Scotswoman who totally wowed the judges and audience on "Britain's Got Talent" last Saturday. And of course I woke to find that everyone on the planet who emails or blogs has already written about her many times over and sent the link to someone they know.

Well, just in case there's one person out there who hasn't yet bothered to click the link or to watch and listen to Susan's performance, here it is again. An encore

It's hard to maintain your defenses when she opens her mouth and sings. And the astonished and stunned and enraptured looks on the judges' faces only increase my utter delight and, yes, my tears, while watching and listening. And I am not alone.

As another blogger, Chris Matyszczyk on CNET, puts it:

They're crying in Calcutta. They're bawling in Brussels.

Why? Because watching someone so far removed from anyone's physical conception of a star finally get an audience for her extraordinary voice is as moving an experience as you're likely to enjoy this year.

Here all the unrealized hopes and dreams that so many harbor till their death are laid bare in an operetta of just a few minutes.

Here is a woman who suffered mild brain damage at birth, who was laughed at in school, and who has probably been laughed at for most of her 47 years because she lived with her mother, because she lives with her cat, and because she doesn't look like friends are supposed to look.

But if, on watching the YouTube clip, you do not spontaneously burst into tears (I give you at the most 30 seconds into her performance), then you are either an alien creation of Ray Kurzweil or you should pop along to your local shrink for some considerable surgery.

I've read elsewhere that Susan Boyle is a shy person who has loved singing since she was twelve, but who up until now has only sung in her church choir. (And appropriately received an ovation when she arrived at church on Sunday--Easter Day! She says most of them never knew she could sing so well, because they'd never heard her sing alone.) She even stopped singing for a while when her mother died two years ago. But now all that has changed.

So there's that possibility that she awakens, the questions she poses to each of us: What dream am I still waiting to dare to claim? What would it mean for me to "show up and sing" with that kind of unselfconscious courage and humility and abandon? What would it mean for you?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Another Inspiring Country

Without really setting out to do so, I seem to be gathering a list of "countries I admire" as I read and come upon interesting stories. First, there was Ecuador when they passed a new constitution protecting the rights of non-human species, whole ecosystems, and the process of evolution to work its way in the natural world. 

Then (although I had first read of this a couple of years ago) after my new year's post about happiness my friend Barbara Babkirk reminded me of the Kingdom of Bhutan, one of the first nations to begin to consider policies and actions from the perspective of a "gross national happiness" index, which embraces all sorts of quality of life issues, instead of the dominant "gross national product" approach (which, as we well know, can lead to all sorts of excesses, abuses, and social and environmental distress).

Now, comes Costa Rica in Thomas Friedman's column on Saturday's New York Times. Costa Rica began in 1997 to build on an understanding that protecting the incredible beauty and bio-diversity of their natural environment would be key to the economic health of their country, and they have structured their government ministries and policies accordingly, with impressive success.

There may have been a time (well, yes, let's say roughly from election day 2000 until the eve of election day 2008) when I actually imagined moving to one of these countries. I'm sure there are others to consider as well, if I were really going to get serious about it. 

But now it's clear to me that my "short list" of admired and inspiring countries are for me signs of hope, sources of inspiration, and a reminder that whole nations (albeit smaller ones than ours) really can commit to saner and more sustainable ways of living and doing business--and succeed! Oh yes, and be happier in the process! What's not to love about that?

Anyone else have a favorite admired and inspiring country to brag about?

By the way, speaking of bragging, aren't you at least a tiny bit impressed by my new-found facility with adding hyperlinks to my blog? (Thanks, David!)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Bells

Knowing that Bekah and a friend plan to experience Easter morning at the Washington National Cathedral, I find myself remembering bits and pieces of my own experiences living in the literal shadow of the cathedral from October 1981 to June 1982, when I was a seminarian intern at near-by St. Alban's Episcopal Church. 

For a month, before arriving on the cathedral close, I shared, with numerous crickets, a tiny one-room basement apartment in the suburban Maryland home of Francie and "Jerry" Bremer, that is, L. Paul Bremer, later to become the first US Administrator of Iraq (and now, I learn from Google, an oil painter of landscapes! Finally, he and I have something in common!! He was a solid Reagan Republican, as I recall.).

Thanks to some fortuitous connections, I moved to roomier quarters when I became the sole resident of a large, stucco home on the cathedral close, the house being temporarily vacant while the College of Preachers sought a new Warden. I inhabited only the downstairs of the house with borrowed furniture (the Bremers' outdoor patio table was my dining/writing table) and the barest of kitchen equipment.

And though I found doing laundry alone at night in that huge, dark basement truly creepy, I loved, loved, loved living in that house on those grounds. From my bedroom windows I looked across the driveway and up the grassy slope toward the apse end of the cathedral with its fascinating flying buttresses. When viewed from standing close to them, looking up, they seemed to be toppling toward you if clouds were moving behind them across the sky. 

During those months I got to know favorite parts of the Cathedral at odd hours and considered some of them to be my very own personal sanctuaries. I often walked around the grounds in the evening and got sprayed by the wind-blown water of the garth fountain. I enjoyed evensongs and organ recitals--endless free concerts!

And perhaps best of all were the bells! Once a week--was it Wednesday evenings?--the change ringers would rehearse on the peal bells, the immense cast bells swung with ropes from the floor below them in the Cathedral's tower (it's way too loud and probably too dangerous to be on the same level as the bells themselves, and besides, you need some purchase on the ropes to swing the heavy bells). During rehearsals, the bells were usually muted. But on Sundays and other  special occasions, they let loose their magic. (Try this link, for a taste of peal bells.)

I remember my wild delight when I discovered that in winter, when all the doors and windows of the house were shut tight, the music of the bells came down the chimney! I could stand in my living room bathed in this audible grace pouring down my chimney through the winter air!

All this has come back to me as I hear from Bekah about her own visits to the Cathedral now. When I remembered the bells, I called to let her know to be sure to stay long enough after church to listen.

In celebration of the bells, I can't resist adding one of my favorite lines (and a half) from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The whole poem, "As kingfishers catch fire," is a favorite, but I always especially savor with tongue and ear the rich and playful music of Hopkins' language in these lines:

. . . like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name." 

OK, I guess it's really best to give you the whole of it!

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Happy Easter!


Last night well after sunset I drove Anna and some friends to Falmouth. Suddenly from the dark roadside the sirens of spring peepers filled our ears. My first of the season!

"Peepers!" I cried out, at the same time as one or two other voices in the car. I slowed the car, and we put the windows down to take in the sound. It was a small pond that must have been chock full of peepers (and a few croakers among them), as the sound was so loud it made my ears throb. I wondered how the nearest residents could sleep on spring nights. 

According to wikipedia, their Latin name is Pseudacris crucifer, the "crucifer"(meaning cross-bearer) because many peepers have a dark, x-shaped cross on their backs. (How fitting that I happened to hear these on Good Friday!) Wiki also tells me that the typical peeper is .75 to 1 inch long. Only the males sing the piercing siren songs, to attract females of course, and not a few human beings as well.

After leaving Anna and friends at their destination, I drove back to the pond,  pulled the car over and sat for a while with the windows down, just to soak it in (so to speak). Welcome, spring!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Interview with a Whale

I recently found an article from an old Sierra magazine (May/June 2006) that I had saved. The article, called "Interview with a Whale" by Douglas H. Chadwick, was adapted from his soon-to-be-published (back in 2006) book, The Grandest of Lives: Eye to Eye With Whales. He had teamed up with a National Geographic photographer to do an article about the National Marine Sanctuary System, and in the process his life was changed by his encounters with whales off the coast of Hawaii.

He describes his encounter with one particularly curious and friendly humpback whale as follows:

"I passed from the gunwale into the Pacific, took a quick breath through the snorkel, and ducked my head under. . . . I suddenly had a crisp view stretching in every direction for 100 to 150 feet. It was an opalescent universe of borderless blue, gradually dimming to gray in the distance. And it was empty save for flecks of plankton drifting by. Then I looked past my feet.

"The whale was suspended head down with its pectoral fins spread as if frozen in a swan dive, a pose often assumed by singers. Its music came straight through my flesh and played loudly in my bones. I felt strummed. . . . I don't recall the exact sequence, but I know that this enormity, this sentient presence with a body about 7 times my length and 400 times my weight, approached very closely, eyeing me, and its passing took an achingly long time, and at one point a pectoral fin swept by inches over my head. . . .

"Next came another approach straight at me. This time the humpback flared its pectoral fins and braked less than a yard from my face. We floated there nose to nose, scarcely moving. . . . Songs of other humpbacks came throbbing through me while my own blood pounded in my ears.

"I felt wary and off balance but never really frightened. I was too overwhelmed, treading water slowly while facing a force so utterly beyond mine that I couldn't begin to make sense of the situation. There was simply no experience in my lifetime to use as a reference. I hadn't come with any preconceptions about whales being extraordinarily gentle or wise, but I somehow trusted that the force hovering before me was benign. This megamammal appeared able to keep track of exactly where I was and to fine-tune its movements accordingly. It showed no intention of doing anything except making inquiries after its fashion. I was before an intelligent, purposeful, immanent being. It had questions.

"Maybe this is what an interview with God would be like."

I know that this doesn't seem to have a shred of anything to do with Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter (nor does it necessarily need to, given my present status!). But somehow the nose to nose encounter between Chadwick and the whale, the awe, the out-of-our-element-ness, the whale's song strumming through him, the silent conversation between them, the mystery and the love there, just makes me want to put it out there. And now feels like the right time.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What I Do in Church (Hint: d-r-a-w)

I figure I've spent quite a bit of time in church over the past thirty years (I started seminary in the fall of 1979, and I was pretty obsessive about church attendance before that), so now that I am not professionally obligated to be in church on Sunday mornings, I often exercise the "free choice" option.

When I do go, I have to confess that I go with rather modest (some might say, depressingly low) expectations. If I get to sing a couple of hymns I really love, I consider that a good day in church. 

I also confess to drawing in church, sometimes before the liturgy begins, but mostly during the sermon. It kind of keeps the little kid in me happy and quiet. Actually, I think it keeps the big kid in me happy and quiet, so that other things that might ordinarily tick me off or get my dander up don't bother me so much. (Which doesn't mean I don't notice them!)

Contrary to what you may imagine, I don't believe that my drawing during the sermon keeps me from listening well. I believe it actually helps me to listen, precisely because I don't get quite so distracted by my inner monologue of reactions and criticisms, because I'm enjoying my drawing!

It all started on the First Sunday of Advent last November. As you can see, I drew David's shoe, and as I was drawing, the preacher was recommending that we (the people in the pews) make an Advent practice of keeping occasional minutes of silence. And I, being ready for the sermon to end, made a note on my drawing: "Why not a minute of silence NOW?"
I next drew on February 1. First as we were settling in I did a very quick line drawing of "people sitting in church" in the pew ahead of me.
Later, during the sermon,  I drew my left hand. It may look as if my hand is clasped in an angry fist, which would not be a good sign, but really, it is only clutching the cap to my pen.
Finally, just the day before yesterday, I drew a somewhat fanciful portrayal of palms in a lopsided pot, columns, and a displaced portion of reredos. Without thinking I laid my little sketch book down on the pew when it was time to "share the peace" with the people near me. The man sitting behind me said, "I like your drawing!" Perhaps he had watched over my shoulder as I drew, or maybe he saw the drawing for the first time when it was finished. 

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Renouncing Vows: The Day After

I had fantasies of waking up the day after renouncing my vows and feeling like a whole new person, "living free" as it were, as unrealistic as that might have been, given the enormity of this passage.

I wrote in my journal: "April 4, 2008. Today I start a new life. Today I start a new life. [Yes, I wrote it twice--like "a thought to be rehearsed all day"--see below.] 

"I am so, so tired--deeply exhausted in my bones. I feel like I've been run over by a truck, or as if someone very dear to me has died. [That's pretty close to the truth.] 

"I need at least a day to let it sink in, to recover, to sit by the tomb and wait, like Holy Saturday on a Friday, the space between death and new life."

I cancelled any plans I had for that day and curled up on the sofa under a blanket and napped.

Later I remembered the beginning of a poem by Wallace Stevens and looked it up:

"After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket's horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. . . ."

And it was.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Renouncing my Ordination Vows: One Year Out

To continue the story from my latest post, "Looking back, looking forward," I consider my renunciation of the ordained ministry to be a break for freedom, a coming out party, and the laying down of a very heavy burden. Yet however light-hearted that may sound, it was anything but easy. There was death, there was grief, there was fear. There were no guarantees. 

Was I making a mistake? Would I some day come to regret taking this essentially irreversible step? Maybe. Maybe not. 

On Sunday, March 31 I awoke feeling heavy, raw, and vulnerable. The enormity of what I was doing had really taken hold of me the day before when I'd received in the mail copies of the documents that I and the bishop and witnesses would sign on April 3, Thursday, just a few days away.I had read and discussed the contents with the bishop, but this was the first time I actually held copies in my hands. 

Grief for what I was leaving behind and fear, especially fear, obscured the clarity I had known for most of the past several weeks. Tears were just below the surface. I told myself to tread softly, to be gentle with myself, and maybe I could avoid a major meltdown. 

"It's not that I'm changing my mind," I told David on Saturday after the mail had come. "It's just hard. Really really hard."

On Sunday, per my usual morning habit, I sipped my mug of tea and wrote  a little in my journal, though that didn't seem to help any. I found myself remembering something a friend had told me several weeks before, that when she is struggling to get clear about something, she finds it helpful to clean out clutter. Meaning: physically sort and clear out material stuff from some part of your home. I had already found this helpful, though never in a clear, linear, cause-effect kind of way. It was just that things I'd been mulling over would somehow resolve and get clearer after I did some sorting and tossing.

"OK," I said to myself as I left my small upstairs study and headed downstairs, still wearing my morning outfit of nightgown, hooded fleece, and sweatpants. "Just pick one small task, one shelf of books. That's all you have to do. Just do that." 

I chose one short section of bookcase in our dining room where the extra books were tucked sideways over the upright ones. A box for collecting give-aways was already there from the last time I'd worked on these shelves. 

I worked along quickly and easily without stopping to browse or to give much thought to each book. I seemed uncharacteristically decisive: some I left on the shelf; some went in the box. No looking back!

I worked from right to left until only two books remained. I saw their titles and stared. 

Death in Holy Orders, by P. D. James.

And  Living Free, by Joy Adamson.

"OK," I said. "I get it." I started to laugh, and probably cry, too.  "I get it. I remember why I'm doing this."

Somehow I knew I would be OK. Not that everything would be rosy and simple, but that I would survive. I could renounce my ordination vows, and I would be fine, maybe even more than fine.

"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

When Thursday morning rolled around, I knew I would tell this story at my "renunciation ceremony" in Emmanuel Chapel at the Cathedral. I had asked the bishop for a chance to say something, although at the time I hadn't known what I would say. I brought the two books with me as visual aids and to add a little drama and humor to the day.

I also gave out cards of a drawing of yellow tulips I had done for David's good friend Nat on his birthday. I've been wondering just how to mark this day today. Maybe a bunch of yellow tulips would be just the thing.