So ... this morning ...
Me: "We have to solve this mattress problem this week."
Him: "Just buy the right lottery ticket like I keep telling you."
Me: "Uh-huh. Well, here's what IKEA has ... and I've looked at Costco and Cotton Cloud."
Uncle: "Let's find a mattress that fell off a truck and got run over. It would be cheaper than buying a new one and more comfortable than that thing I slept on last night."
Him: "Figure out a way to buy one at the CAT dealer. They can always get money out of us even if we don't have any."
Now, this is a brilliant solution. All I have to do is buy a mattress at the Caterpillar dealer. They've got toy Caterpillar trucks, and parts for real ones, and coats, and mugs. Surely they carry mattresses.
It's much like hearing the voice of an actor I can almost recognize, and not being able to remember where I saw the actor before. This is a pretty common conversation at our house, actually. "Where have I seen him (or her) before? What was he in?" And, since it's generally true that almost everyone in this family is better than I am at remembering which actor is which, my question is generally answered by whoever else is in the room at the time. (And generally quickly - it's maddening, but I have to ask.)
So maybe it doesn't happen again for everyone. Maybe other people can remember where their other voices once were heard, and maybe they don't have to come around again to answer the questions again and again, in each season of their lives. But apparently I have to.
Here's one. Are the complainers and naysayers and worriers and doom addicts right about the world? Is it really worse than it was in the old days? Do we really have to suspect the bad before we can accept the good? Do constant warnings to "be careful" and "watch out" and "protect yourself" really set a body up for a good life?
I was almost convinced of it when I was younger. I thought the Fearing Folk knew something I didn't know. But they're just afraid - they're not wise. So I gave up on them and their silly bonging of doom, doom, doom. I decided to be happy.
The thing is, though, crap happens. And if you grow up and move away and go to college and get married and have kids and then the kids grow up and move away (none married yet, but this isn't complicated - I think I can figure out what's next) ... well, a lot of crap happens.
So I find myself trying to remember where I've heard this voice before. The voice is in my own head, so no one else in the living room can give me any help with this one. The voice is the youthful me, glancing around with an anxious face, trying to see what all those Fearers were seeing. Were they right after all? Is it true?
Should I have exerted more control over things along the way?
(No. In the first place, you couldn't really have had any "control" - you're just not that powerful. And in the second place, trying to do it makes people frantic and worried all the time. Look around. See them? No. More control along the way wouldn't have worked. It's obvious.)
Maybe my kids would be having an easier time of it if we'd been more conventional.
(Right. You've seen that kind of kid after a life of conventional education and conventional (utter lack of) creative input. Conventional movies and music and books and free time experiences. Your kids would've been better off that way? Your kids? Those people? Right. And besides - didn't you marry a man who's pretty much the opposite of conventional just so you wouldn't have to do that? Yes, you did. You decided on this life, and it's turning out pretty well, and you know it.)
Well, they would've fit in more easily if they'd had more practice fitting in.
(Fit in more easily with what? Convention? This would've been better?)
A more conventional life would've given me a more conventional house. I might even have a finished house by now. People do, you know. Foundation and basement and everything. Decor, even.
...The conversation is a lot longer than this, but I'll stop here. I remember this voice. And now I remember the answers. And now I have new answers - or rather, I have the same answers, all grown up.
The doom-and-gloomers were wrong then, and they're wrong now, and it's not silly to be happy or optimistic. But not because crap doesn't happen. It's not silly to be happy or optimistic for the simple reason that crap isn't the only thing that happens. And you know what else crap does? Rots. Composts. Dries out. Blows away. Happiness might be temporary but so's crap. And worrying about its happening doesn't actually make it not happen, so what was the point of that? To be prepared? That would be a great reason if it were true or if it ever happened. But the crap that's happened to me isn't on any list I ever had my hands on. There wasn't any way to be prepared for that stuff. It just happens. And then it stops happening. Or ... other stuff happens too. (Or you die. I guess that's the other option here.)
So, after all these years, even if it's still instant conversation success to talk to people about stuff that's gone wrong or will go wrong or used to be better back in the good old days or anything else that sounds all "wise" and cautious and knowing about the world - even though people still love, love, love to talk about how they "can't because" - it's still just as silly to go through life that way as it would be to stand by the potty all day to scrub and clean and beware just in case crap happened. There really is more to life than that.
I wonder if this conversation will sound different in my head when I'm eighty.
The Gospel according to Saint Matthew
Fair peace on earth to bring,
In lowly state of love he came
To be the children's King.
And round him, then, a holy band
Of children blest was born,
Fair guardians of his throne to stand
Attendant night and morn.
And unto them this grace was giv'n
A Saviour's name to own,
And die for him who out of heav'n
Had found on earth a throne.
O blessed babes of Bethlehem,
Who died to save our King,
Ye share the martyrs' diadem,
And in their anthem sing!
Your lips, on earth that never spake,
Now sound the eternal word;
And in the courts of love ye make
Your children's voices heard.
Lord Jesus Christ, eternal Child,
Make thou our childhood thine;
That we with thee the meek and mild
May share the love divine.
Laurence Housman, 1906
"Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it's important." Eugene McCarthy
"Politics, n. Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles." Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), The Devil's Dictionary
"I have come to the conclusion that politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians." Charles DeGaulle
"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy." Ernest Benn
"Benazir Bhutto is dead after gunfire and a suicide bomber targeted her vehicle as she left a campaign rally." Pakistan is in chaos today. The collective voices of the people cry out in rage and grief. The news shows the crowds. I am sure, however, that what God hears is the voice of this one man. And each other single human being. I believe in the power of this man's voice.
This is not the US Army's ill-advised former recruitment slogan of "army of one." An army of one is a pretty bad idea. That's a mercenary. Or a maverick zealot. Or someone utterly deranged. Armies need more than one, even if they must move as one. (And if you talk very long to anyone in the army, you will discover that the reality behind the seemingly organized and unified movement of an army is mostly the stuff of legends and ideals. It's actually a bit messier than that. Okay, a lot messier.)
No, the power of the single human voice is not the idealization of the individual. It is, I think, quite the opposite. The power of the single human voice comes from its place in the whole of the choir of voices.The whole choir of humanity knows the ancient tones of grief - and sings the parts in the songs of freedom. Every once in awhile, a soloist stands out. Above the voices of the rest of the choir, and woven in among them, we hear that one voice, "soaring, dying 'round Thy throne," and calling us in "the moment to decide." Its clarity sears us deep within our souls and we can try again to tune ourselves to the human song.Today I hear the voices of the people in the streets of Pakistan. God hears them too. And I believe - because I think I have seen it over and over in just my own short lifetime - that when the one voice sings the True Song, others will hear it and join in. I do not think the soloist's voice, in true pitch, once heard, can ever be silenced. That is its power. "Heal the anguish of the world" is a prayer that gets answered in the choir.
Studies show suicides go down over the holidays by as much as 40 percent. One Oxford researcher told The Los Angeles Times that studies contradict the popular view of Christmas as a time of stress and arguments. And remember, George Bailey didn't jump.
Then there's this one:
It's called "Christmas Thieves" - look closely - see them?
One thing that is a distinct difference between American Christmas and Euro or Brit Christmas is that crazy sense of the slightly off-kilter - the magical in the same sense that faeries and wood sprites and ogres are magical. There's a keen sense, especially in all the British literature, of the things just beyond the boundaries of ordinary human sight, and at Christmas time they break through and bother us.
Charles Dickens' is well known for his ghost story A Christmas Carol, and we shop-n-smile 'mericans are generally okay with what could appear to be a morality tale about not being selfish at Christmas time. (Shopping's good if you're doing it for things you're going to give to other people, right?) But did you know our Mr. Dickens also wrote a whole book of other Ghost Stories for Christmas?
The Publishers Notes on this newest edition say: Utilizing fascinating and often little known facts about each story, Peter Haining also argues that it was Dickens who inextricably linked Christmas with the supernatural, together with perpetrating the idea of a White Christmas.
Maybe. But he sure didn't invent the idea of the supernatural sneaking or breaking or popping into the safe, natural, "known" world. Dickens didn't do that. God did that. And there's something particularly British in the understanding and story-telling about things at Christmastide that come out of the darkness ... and then walk right up to you and tweak you on the nose.
If tears roll down your face today because of this - if you were disillusioned in some way - then it's probably time that this part of your life came into the real world, and the sports guys seemed more like humans to you. And if your child has been disillusioned about his heroes, shame on you.
See, today, my husband (the one driving the one car) took the time to hunt down some lovely saffron for me. It wasn't cheap - because saffron isn't. I told him I wanted it for making a St. Lucia Crown tomorrow on St. Lucia Day. So - good man that he is - he bought me some.
And then tonight he asked me when I was making it. Tomorrow, I said. For St. Lucia. And then I realized what he was really saying - it was something resembling, "It's for us, right?" Oh. I get it now. He wants to eat it himself - and not have me take it to church for other people to eat. Mm-hm. I see. Well, he's in luck. I'm making it for us. And who knows? I might even do something weird and wonderful with the beef and spiced wine - and keep that just for us too!
I've found the Cozy. The holiday comfort and joy. The anticipatory sense of approaching happiness. The "spirit" of Christmas. That's what I've found. And I've found it in a dishtub of soapy water.
No kidding. Yesterday, in a house empty of people, and full of the sound of a very sappy holiday DVD, at a pace of quiet and leisurely contentment, I took my plastic dish tub from the kitchen into the living room and washed the windows and walls and electronic equipment (don't panic - I did wring out the rags and I did dry everything off) ... and all of a sudden, there it was. The Cozy. I've been coughing and tired and a bit stressed for the past month or so, and haven't really been eager to see the blessed season of Joy approaching. So I was surprised yesterday. But there was no denying it. There, in the minty green plastic tub of soap bubbles, was the blissful calm of waiting for the Birth.
I recognized it right away, you see. I know this one. It started its life when I was quite young, and it felt like someone whispering a secret in the dark. A really good secret. The kind of secret it feels better to keep than to tell because when everyone knows about it, they'll all be happy about it. The secret was all about the candles and lights on the tree and the presents in the wrapped packages under the tree, of course, but mostly it was about the darkness. At dinner time each night, the curtains on the dining room windows were drawn closed because it was really dark outside already. The usually relaxed twilight was shorter. The darkness sent us inside, where it was warm and light and where the scent of things cooking and the sounds of a family were held.
Later the Cozy could be felt from as far away as "cruising altitude" when I was flying home from college, on a plane more full of college students and military personnel than business travelers. In December, in Portland, the rain is chilly and nearly constant - or, it seems that way. The rain defines the city. And in the plane, on the way home one year, we suddenly heard the drops hitting the windows as we started our descent. The whole plane went silent - and then someone who sounded like a guy about my age, from somewhere across the aisles breathed out the magic words. "It's raining ....!" We all laughed in sympathy. We were all coming home.
Maybe that's what the Cozy is all about, really. Maybe it's about home. Maybe that's why the song "I'll Be Home For Christmas" has the immediate status of frank emotional manipulation. It's so blunt. "Home" and "Christmas" both in the very title of it!
It makes sense, of course. In the winter, in the northern hemisphere at least, the darkness sends us all indoors, and at the end of the work day, the people scurry home. And, in the winter, the Church begins the cycle again. In the darkness and quiet, the biggest secret ever whispered comes to us, and He was far, far from Home. In the quiet, and in the dark, and with the lowliest of creatures, the "creator of the stars of night" was whispered to us.
Yesterday, I found Him again - or, I should say, I heard the whispered promise of Him - I heard it in a tub of soapy water.
But I'm seriously considering getting a paint job on our car. Over and over, all the way around the car, it's going to say,
"Do the head check."
If you want to merge, do the head check.
If you want to change lanes, do the head check.
The life you save could be my own.
Yours the message we employ
Waiting for our Saviour dear
As we sing that Christ is near.
Gifts and generosity,
Nicholas, the people see
In the stories of your fame,
Children, sailors hail your name.
Shine in darkness candles bright,
Lucy's image brings us light.
Martyred saint your name recalls
That Christ's light shines for us all.
John the Baptist herald's cry,
Gives a signal, Christ is nigh.
His are words that do compel
Hope in Christ, all shall be well.
Thomas, once with doubt did sigh,
Now, My Lord and God, he cries,
Christmas leads to Calvary,
Resurrection sets us free.
Blessed Mary, full of grace
Chosen by the Lord's embrace,
Mother by whom God is born
On that wondrous Christmas morn.
Mary, Joseph, John, we pray
Lucy, Nicholas, we say,
Thomas leading songs of praise,
As our prayers to Christ we raise.
J M ROSENTHAL 2003
Thursday of this week is Saint Nicholas Day. I have an antidote for you if you wish to eschew such inane and idiotic shopping sales pitches as, "Sure, peace on earth sounds like a good idea, but at my house it won't happen without two of everything." The woman in the commercial has twins - so of course, she has to buy two of everything right? What could be more obvious? For pity's sake, don't expect lessons like one for each and then sharing ... and it's certainly beyond the pale to consider the fact that peace on earth doesn't have much to do with brothers fighting over the plastic airplane or superhero cape. Just buy two. (Is anyone else as repulsed by that as I am?)
Anyway, this week, go to The Saint Nicholas Center, and find generous heaps and piles of recipes, stories, ideas, customs, projects, music, artwork, and traditions. Bake German Pancakes for breakfast and Speculaas Koekjes (Dutch Spice Cookies). Toast the season with a glass of Bishop's Wine, and take a break from the madness with the good Saint Nick.
Tomorrow is the annual Service of Lessons and Carols at our parish. Always beautiful, of course. Only ... I do wish I didn't overflow into tears at absolutely everything that "touches a nerve" in me. Apparently, I've become nothing but nerve - and not in a good way.
Yes, new life. Yes, starting over - beginnings - new hope, new warmth, fresh life upspringing again for another year. But today I think there is another meaning in the lesson of the new cycle of growth and harvest. Maybe it's not so much what Spring is for as it is the connection between Spring and Fall.
Yesterday we met a man. We met him because our eldest child and only daughter brought him with her for the holiday. On purpose. To meet the family. And be the future what it may, this beginning is a good one. It's obvious. It's also unanimous.
So, today, of course, because I'm me and I'm also the Mom, I got to thinking.
You know that parable where the sower sows the seeds, and some fall on rocky soil, and some on the hard path, and some among the thorns, and some on good ground where they give back to the sower an hundred fold? That's meant to be a parable about the Word of God. Jesus. God's own message. And the word - the message - the words. Nothing to do but sow and rejoice in the harvest. The sower can't make it rain or be sunny, and the sower can't make the summer shorter or longer, and the sower can't know for sure that his work will be for anything at all if disaster strikes. The sower is realistic - and he's careful about his sowing patterns - he's wise to the ways of nature. Some of that seed just won't bring back anything, and that's the way it is. Okay, I understand that.
But it's true all over the place. Not just in a field and not just with the Message and not just in the Bible. It's true with kids.
We've sown seed like crazy people. For more than two decades now. We've tried to time our scatterings and choose the things most likely to take root and the things good for the soil. We've tried to factor in weather patterns and pH balance and rainfall. And we've known all along that in the end, we have nearly nothing to say about outcome. All any parent can do is sow and try to hit the field with most of the seeds.
But one of the days in an upcoming season, the harvest is revealed. Then we know what we have done. Spring was meant for sowing. In this autumn of this year, on Thanksgiving Day, we could kneel at the edge of our field and thank God for the harvest. Our girl knows how to choose.
And now I am nearly done with book seven, and I can't help myself. I must say it. Ms. Rowling, modern, living now, has taken the centuries of all the folklore and heroism and danger and ideals of loyalty and love and honor of all the tribes and peoples of the heathenish and Christianized British isles, and she has told the old story to us. The characters are real in the best sense of the word. The settings are visual and visceral and emotional. The chain of events and the explanations of the old magic and the connections between eras and peoples and fortunes - it all rings true. She's done it! Ms. Rowling has done it.
Did you think the days of the Story were gone for good and for aye? Did you think we could put the generations of listeners and bards behind us forever and use them as movie sets, huddled around fires in the wilderness? It's not true. God bless J. K. Rowling - and whoever the fortunate person was who must've read to her as a child.
From Beowulf to C. S. Lewis and his Inkling friend the great Tolkein, and from Picts and Scots to St. Joseph of Armithea and Simon Stock, the Story has survived. It lives. Harry Potter's story is the Story. And no one could be more surprised than I am to find it out.
I think this is why humans tell stories. Every story comes from a world we've never seen - and yet the worlds are all our own worlds too.
itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something
which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the
artist himself. In becoming an end, it defeats itself."
See this ring on my left hand? What is it? It is a wedding ring, joined to an engagement ring. What does it mean? It means I am a married woman. Is the ring my marriage? Is it a wedding? Is the ring Love? No. But the ring means all those things, and it speaks in a language that does not have words. It is a symbol. It is an icon. It is a window, and the window opens into the reality.
The music with the drums in steady rhythm and the sound of brass and wind and marching ... is it an army? Is it a war? Is it triumph or resolution or sacrifice or noble aims or brutality or bravery? No. It is music. And it speaks without words. Its language is melody and the beat of a legion of marching feet. It means something.
When the Harry Potter books first burst onto the scene of homeschooling families, there were those who decried (again - again and again) the use of the genre for story telling with children. We must not pretend. We must tell our children the "truth" and not give them the impression that there is any such thing as a witch. (Or a talking animal - or anything fantastical.) The "truth," these people - these adamant, shrill, hyper-vigilant, eternally worried people - is confined to our five senses combined with our "reason."
Susan Pevensie: Are you saying we should believe her story?
Professor Kirke: Why not?
Susan Pevensie: Well, it can't be real, logically.
Professor Kirke: Logic? What are they teaching at schools these days?
Susan Pevensie: Lucy thinks she's found a magical land...
Professor Kirke: Hmmm.
Susan Pevensie: In the upstairs wardrobe.
Professor Kirke: [eyes widening, he rushes to the children] What? What did you say?
Peter Pevensie: Our sister... she thinks she's found a wood...
Professor Kirke: What was it like?
Susan Pevensie: Like talking to a lunatic...
Professor Kirke: No, no, not her, the wood!
Susan Pevensie: [stares] You don't mean you believe her?
Professor Kirke: And you don't?
"Faith, our outward sense befriending,
Makes our inward vision clear."
And so, instead of immersion, there was a distance. And in that distance there was awareness of all that was not the music.
Outside the building, people walked by, skateboarded by, and drove by in the street. I could hear snippets of conversation and the noise of the bus at the stop.
And then, from inside myself, in the distance between my thoughts and the music, came the words from the end of "prayers before Mass" - unbidden came the thought, "heal the anguish of the world."
Anguish? In the midst of that achingly beautiful music, the word "anguish" bubbles up from inside?
Perhaps it is my age - or the season of unseen warfare - or the fact that our children are not children and are beginning their adult lives in earnest now, and the Mom Reflex is at full alert. Whatever it is, the anguish of the world does not hide from me right now. Darfour, and Pakistan, and beatings and brutality and anguish - those things are in this world, and they are still there, even when I do not think about them in my safe and comfortable life.
But there is music too.
That's what came into my thoughts last night. The choir's closely articulated harmony soaked into the bricks of the walls and pillars, and reverberated off the frescoes and stained glass. This thing of auditory glory is in the same world with pain and hatred.
There are willfully stupid people who listen only to their own reactions - who never get a broader perspective because they energetically refuse all perspectives but their own. Racism and greed and dominations in the name of self - these things are ever with us.
But so is song.
Usually we rich, fat, safe, swaggering Americans say this the other way round. We must feel a bit guilty or we are unable to just say "thank you" for all the blessings of this life. Whatever the cause, we say "yes, there is this good thing, but think about the people who have less than we do." All of us talk like this. It seems to make us feel better to end with the thing that is not the blessing.
So my thoughts feel a bit subversive. But I can't ignore them. During the music last night, in the dark and chill of a November evening, with the music soaring into the clerestory and the careless laughter and honking horns on the doorstep, the order was reversed. The presence of the eternal Good kept finishing the sentence.
Heal the anguish of the world; there is music.
Somewhere right now, some unspeakable act of cruelty is happening. It's true. I know it's true. But there is beauty. Somewhere right now there is a choir with voices raised in song. Yes, somewhere there is a nasty argument over a petty bit of transient power. But there is also a child practicing the violin. There is a dance. There is an embrace.
Yes, two and three is five; but it is also true that three and two is five. The world holds both at once. Not later. Not eventually. Not when all is weighed in the balance and Good ultimately overcomes. Here. Now. There is beauty.
Love is all around, but hatred is still with us.
Anguish breaks the world, but there is beauty.
This is the thought the choir brought me. Heal the anguish of the world; there is beauty. Beauty is here. Right now. Listen.
It's the season, you see. At the end of September, we ask St. Michael and All Angels to come with us into the gathering darkness. The days shorten. The darkness gains in strength. And even on the sunny days the shadows are sharper.
Sense sharpens too. If you are very very still inside yourself, you might, in this season of the ancient battle, catch the last echoes of the whisper at the very outer edges of the war. Every year, it comes again, and every year it comes close enough to us that we can almost hear it.
Abide With Me
Abide With Me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word;
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.
Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen..