Just before Thanksgiving I was in Denver, eavesdropping on 10,000 religious scholars at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. It was a great chance to connect to a good friend, learn some things, shop for academic books (40 percent off!) and see a beautiful city.
I'm still thinking about those five days and some memories still are making me smile:
In a relentless shifting sea of well-worn brown oxfords, one male scholar was walking around in blue glitter ankle boots.
I heard two scholarly presentations that connected the Black Panther movie to biblical themes, one describing the film as an “empathy generating machine.”
In every restaurant, coffee shop or market, I overheard conversations about religion and scripture. When was the last time that had ever happened to me?
"If they want to know what I think about I Peter, they can read my book.”
"You find it all through the writings of the Desert Fathers.”
"To be an effective missionary in Madagascar, you have to speak French and Malagasy.”
I had no trouble topping 10,000 steps as I walked around downtown Denver during my free time. I hadn't had time to do any research on the city, so I just walked different directions and meandered through the city. One evening, I turned a corner and was enchanted with Larimar Square, dressed for the holidays (above).
And, finally, one evening I was reading through the next day’s offerings and ran across another familiar name (A lot of these names are familiar, people whose work I’ve read or interviewed for news stories). This particular scholar and I grew up in the same small northern Idaho town. We'd spoken once on the phone for a story I was writing -- I don't remember if I had the nerve to remind her then that we had known each other. But now it felt like I had nothing to lose.
“Are you Professor Brooten?” I asked. “I’m Nancy Haught. Our mothers were friends.” There wasn't time to share much more than my mother's name and her love of "opera night," when she and Mrs. Brooten and friends would listen to a recorded opera and indulge in dessert. That gathering meant a lot to my mom, who I suspect often wished she lived in a bigger city. And it meant a lot to me, fifty years later, to share a memory of our mothers with another woman who grew up in my hometown and went on to do great things.
This is a small world and an empathy generating machine.
With only a few days left on my pilgrimage to Ireland and Scotland, we landed on the island of Iona. I’ve longed to see this place since sixth grade, when someone gave me a bookmark showing old stone ruins against a blue sea and clear sky. Iona is a storm-swept rock in the Hebrides, an island a mile and a half across and three miles long. It was an early foothold for Christianity in Scotland; St. Columba established an abbey there in 563. Viking raids and the Reformation took their tolls on the good saint’s abbey. All that remains are a few bits and pieces, but it is the place that seems holy to me. Iona’s often described as a “thin place,” where heaven and earth are sometimes very close together and spiritual encounters are a possibility.
On my last morning on the island, I ate my yogurt and granola quickly and left my friends at the breakfast table. I wanted one more look at the rebuilt abbey before we had to catch the 10 a.m. ferry and begin our journey home to Portland. I half-ran up the spiral staircase to my room, grabbed my coat, dashed downstairs and opened the outside door of the inn. The early morning glistened. The torrent of rain that had pelted my window and woke me up before it was light had been swept away by winds. I could still hear them wrapping themselves around the hotel and ruffling the treetops. The odd sparkling raindrop fell on my uncovered head.
At the inn’s gate, I turned right right and began walking toward the abbey, maybe a block away if there were blocks on this ancient island. I walked on a road, paved but broken in places and awash with puddles. Wide enough for a few pedestrians or one car at a time. Verdant grass hugged the roadside and swept right up to the stone walls that keep sheep and cattle in their places. Between the inn and old but still used cemetery, I passed a metal gate. It's three horizontal bars reached across a wide opening in the stone wall. I stopped and as I lifted my eyes, expecting to see the blue-gray Atlantic and the shoreline of a neighboring island, a pair of large, wet brown eyes met mine.
Above them, red hair coiled between the two worn, brown horns of a highland cow, or as a Scot would say, a “coo.” This particular coo blew out steamy breath as she stared at me, so close I could have run my hands through her bonny curls.
Neither of us moved. Our eyes locked as I marveled at her size and solemnity. I wondered if she could bend the metal bars of the gate with her horns or massive hooves and walk right over me. But she held her power perfectly still, watchful, curious even. The island around us was quiet, save for a flock of small black birds that swept past me in search of food and the hesitant wind that buffeted the sturdy stone walls. Several seconds passed. I snapped a photo as unobtrusively as I could. Still she stared at me. I sensed movement over her shoulder and saw her friend ambling through the pasture toward our private meeting place.
“You are a beauty,” I said softly to her mate at the gate. “I will remember you.”
I turned away and resumed my walk toward the then-and-now graveyard and the re-emerging abbey next door. A handful of buildings have been mostly restored, including the tall and narrow abbey church. It is the crowning glory for a rugged landscape that never has promised safety or security, only the possibility of a thin place and the chance to be surprised by beauty.
Time’s up. My time, I mean. The 30 days I devoted to finding a measure of hope in these trying times. That I would even attempt such a thing is evidence that my mind is limping along like my heart. I focused on two books: Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America (I wrote about this last time) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu.
I am still processing de Chardin’s book. There is much in it that I like, and much that I don’t quite understand. I want to share his faith that our experience as Christians involves us in the upward movement of the universe toward God. He says it so eloquently:
“The doctrine of the Cross,” he writes, “is that to which all men adhere who believe that the vast movement and agitation of human life opens on to a road which leads somewhere, and that that road climbs upward. Life has a term: therefore it imposes a particular direction, orientated, in fact, towards the highest possible spiritualisation by means of the greatest possible effort.”
He writes about “communion through diminishment,” which is what I am beginning to feel now that I am growing older, in body, mind and spirit. He composed this prayer:
“When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am ill or growing old; and above all at that last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself.”
Both of these books -- and the hope that I long for -- come down to faith. Which is great and, at the same time, grating. It is hard to have faith without hope, and hope without faith. It may be that my self-defined crisis of hope is one of faith. I am getting ready to go on pilgrimage and I certainly have a lot to think about as I start this particular journey.
I had this ridiculous notion that I could find some answers in 30 days, the period of time that one yoga program, advertised on television, assured me would increase my strength and flexibity. The ad claims are probably true; the crucial factor would be me -- would I practice faithfully? And, as it turns out, that may be the crucial factor in my search for hope -- will I practice faithfully? We’ll see.
Reading Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America, has shaken my own soul. I knew the argument that the United States has endured terrible times when racism, poverty, greed and the pursuit of political power have threatened what I think of as our deepest national ideals. But to read about specific examples (the Civil War, the Great Depression), the presidents and the people involved was eye-opening. To see the duplicity of elected leaders, who said one thing and believed another, to see laws enacted with great intentions gutted by even greater greed, to see Americans veer from openness to foreigners to become citizens of an us-first country reminded me of two-steps-forward-one-step-back thinking I hear so much of today. And the question inside me, “Yes, but now what,” grew louder with every chapter. I am so impatient with progress that happens one faltering step at a time -- especially when the two-step, backward stumbles are so stunning.
But now that I have read the last chapter, I see five behaviors Meacham advises:
Enter the arena: “. . . The paying of attention, the expressing of opinion, and the casting of ballots are foundational to living up to the obligations of citizenship in a republic.”
Resist tribalism: “Wisdom generally comes from a free exchange of ideas, and there can be no free exchange of ideas if everyone on your side already agrees with one another.”
Respect fact and deploy reason: “To reflexively resist one side or the other without weighing the merits of a given issue is all too common -- and all too regrettable.”
Find a critical balance: Theodore Roosevelt said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
And, finally, to keep history in mind: Harry Truman said, “The people have often made mistakes, but given a time and the facts, they will make the corrections.”
So, surviving these trying times does not require rocket science, only attention, thought and action, all shaped by compassion, courage and humility. Ah, if only it was that easy.
The Soul of America is worth reading, of course, because it reminds us of our shared history and reveals the sometimes surprising wisdom of our leaders, including this quotation from George W. Bush, who never seemed very wise or eloquent to me. After 9/11, he said that God created a world of “moral design,” and added:
“Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness,
remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds
all who die and all who mourn.”
Next time, The Divine Milieu.
Back to the process at hand -- my personal search for hope. In thirty days -- or more. (See entry for August 1.) I realize now that while my body might adapt to yoga poses in four weeks time, it will probably take longer to wrap my mind around some of the philosophical ideas described by Teilhard de Chardin in The Divine Milieu. He was a scientist, and I’m not. But I have always been intrigued by scientists who are people of faith, that their understanding of science -- evolution, for example -- does not hinder or cancel out their faith in God.
Honestly, I don’t know much about de Chardin, who died before I was a year old. I know that during his lifetime, some of his philosophical writing was considered controversial by leaders of the church. Much of his written work was suppressed, and he was ordered not to teach. Then, as sometimes happens, his work is picked up again after his death, reconsidered and now church leaders are inspired by his writing.
So de Chardin was a scientist -- a paleontologist and geologist -- who found no inconsistency between science and spirituality. For de Chardin, the more he understood the world around him, the more deeply he believed not just in God but in the idea that creation is still underway and moving, inevitably, toward Christ. I’d like to believe that, that we and this earth are moving toward ultimate unity, but it sure doesn’t look like that right now.
In The Divine Milieu, he writes about a connection between the human soul and God. “What is most divine in God is that, an an absolute sense, we are nothing apart from him,” he writes, following that with this: “ . . . the general influence and practice of the Church has always been to dignify, ennoble and transfigure in God the duties inherent in one’s station in life, the search for natural truth, and the development of human action.”
Right action, he says, must begin with “good intention,” “the necessary start and foundation of all else . . . . it is the golden key which unlocks our inward personal world to God’s presence.” And one of our chief tasks, as human beings with souls, is to sort the myriad influences that wash over us in waves:
“Through every cleft the world we perceive floods us with its riches -- food for the body, nourishment for the eyes, harmony of sounds and fullness of the heart, unknown phenomena and new truths, all these treasures, all these stimuli, all these calls, coming to us from the four corners of the world, cross our consciousness at every moment.”
I am pretty sure that de Chardin is thinking of positive stimuli, but in this moment, I am nearly drowning in negative information about our government, my fellow citizens, our treatment of each other and the “outsiders” who come here in search of safety and food to put on their tables. So, when I read the previous quotation from de Chardin, I see a good description of being overwhelmed. And then he observes that all the stimuli bombarding us (that of course, is my phrase) “will merge into the most intimate life of our soul and either develop it or poison it.”
Is the choice facing my soul between development or poisoning from all these stimuli? What’s surprising to me is that we have a choice at all. Then de Chardin observes that “that the human soul, however independently created our philosophy represents it as being, is inseparable, in its birth and in its growth, from the universe into which it is born. In each soul, God loves and partly saves the whole world which that soul sums up in an incommunicable and particular way. . . . It is we who, through our own activity, must industriously assemble the widely scattered elements.”
Easier said than done, I say. But here’s why it may be so important:
“We may, perhaps, imagine that the creation was finished long ago. But that would be quite wrong . . . We serve to complete it even by the humblest work of our hands. That is, ultimately, the meaning and value of our acts.”
So, what do I take away from the past few days of reading de Chardin? That as a believer, it is my job to sort through the influences around me and not allow them to poison my soul but find, maybe among them, a good intention and work toward that end, even in a humble way. Maybe that means helping with voter registration -- a good intention and a positive effort.
But I suspect there is more to it. In my circumstances, I want to engage with people who don’t agree with me (good intention, check; positive action, check) listen to their fears, (positive action, check), think about where those fears come from (positive action, check) and to resist, resist, resist the temptation to judge them, scream that their fears are unfounded and, in the process, contribute to the discord that characterizes Americans these days (not so postive). I don’t think I’m there yet.
Next time, mulling over The Soul of America.
I am still reading Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu and Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America on my 30-day (what was I thinking?) quest to rediscover a sliver of hope connecting my spirit to my country. And I promise to write about that soon, but I just got home from my neighborhood jog and I feel like writing this.
I lost my husband almost six years ago. Just typing that sentence brings tears to my eyes. And I feel a stab almost every day of my life when I remember his intelligence, sense of humor, faith in God and pride in our sons. I have done all the usual things since he passed away. I saw a counselor, talked to friends, spent time with my kids, gained weight, got sick and have made some pretty strong efforts to get healthy again. Part of that last bit has been re-learning how to run. I used to run, years ago, back when there was actually a race called the Cascade Run Off.
But over the years, I gave it up. My husband didn’t. He was a runner the whole time I knew him. He ran in marathons. Got up at 4 a.m. every morning to do yoga, lift weights and swim laps before he’d come home at 6:30 a.m. with a tall, nonfat latte, for his wife, who almost always was still in bed.
Anyway, after he died, I took a class at my gym and got back into running. Actually, it’s jogging. And in my more cynical moments, I think of it as wogging -- walking for a minute between lengthening intervals of running. I am so slow that my sister-in-law has been known to push a baby carriage and still keep pace with me.
Over the years, I’ve found the flattest two blocks in my neighborhood and I run around them repeatedly. My trainer has urged me to run a race, and occasionally, I run around two different city blocks or even the whole distance to the grocery store or library, but mostly it’s those two blocks. I know them well enough now that I don’t need to watch for uneven pavement, so my mind wanders as I take in the trees, the flowers, the puddles, the ice, the for-sale signs and the remodeling projects as I jog by.
And often, I think of my husband, who somehow managed to run even in that last year when he was sick. I remember one day, after eight months of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant that he told his doctor he’d started running again. His medical team was pretty impressed. And I remember his last day, when we weren’t sure that he was still aware of the boys and I sitting with him, that a nurse came into the room and asked if he had been a runner.
Yes, we all said together. And she nodded and said, “I thought as much. His heart is so strong.”
When I am running and thinking of him, I often come across something that makes me stop and pick it up. I have a shelf in my kitchen devoted to him, covered with dry leaves, pine cones, wisps of cedar, ragged pieces of birch bark, blue bird feathers, acorns, even rocks. But this morning, something caught my eye, on a new piece of pavement. I took a moment to take a picture. When I stood up, my heart and spirit rose. And now there’s no way that I’ll ever change my running route again.
Still reading The Divine Mileau and The Soul of America, but I spent yesterday babysitting my oldest granddaughter. It was a different kind of research in my pursuit of hope. She’ll be a year old in September. Her ready smile, her occasional reach for me, her energy and determination, her fearlessness, all call forth and nurture hope in me. She and her parents are the next generations and maybe they can do more than we could. That’s my prayer as I hold her in my arms, breathing in the scent of baby soap and sweat, while she watches the cars go by on her street, or drifts off after finishing a bottle, or clings to me because she’s not quite awake and ready to take on the world.
Those are the moments when I worry that the world we are leaving her may be bleak. And so I pray more. A day spent in her company is a lesson in being present, trying to let go of worries beyond the sharp edge of the coffee table and whether or not the basement door is closed. I must confess that when my mind drifts off to current events, she calls me back quickly. So, today, a brief respite from reading and writing.
I learned this weekend about intertextuality, the idea that reading and studying two or more written texts can further our understanding of each of them. That is, of course, a grossly simplified definition. But, in a way, that is what I am doing here, reading two books and thinking about whether the themes of one shed light on the other. And vice versa. And how they both might help me in my search for hope.
So, this morning I read about Teilhard de Chardin’s understanding of “Christian detachment” and his efforts to reconcile renunciation with active involvement in the world. “He realises that the consummation of the world can be achieved only through a mystical death, a dark night, a renunciation of the whole being,” his friend writes, wondering if this renunciation is “a practical proposition for the whole body of mankind.” Certainly, most of us do not practice the traditional sort of detachment or renunciation -- we live and work and relate to the world every moment of our lives, even when we daydream about withdrawing from it all, even temporarily. But de Chardin seems to have believed that his service of Christ (his acts of renunciation) “had to be reconciled” to participation in the world.
“. . . What matters is that not only the self-denial of the ascetic and the renunciation of the sufferer, but also our positive efforts to achieve natural perfection and to meet human obligations, should lead us to a consciousness of our spiritual growth,” de Chardin’s friend writes.
That’s sort of where I find myself. I don’t believe I have been called to a life of renunciation in the traditional sense -- through asceticism or even suffering. And I cannot, in good conscience, ignore the political divides in my country now. But I am looking for “positive efforts,” opportunities to “meet human obligations.” I do believe that “a consciousness of our spiritual growth” is an element of hope.
Turning to Meacham’s book, I read about “the twin tragedies,” referring to our treatment of slaves and Native Americans, which “shaped us then and ever after.” The truth is that this country, described as the “new Jerusalem” mentioned in the Bible, the “City upon a hill,” never really was “shining.” It turns out Ronald Reagan adlibbed the adjective in modern times, Meacham says. So, from the beginning, we have been a country founded on contradictions, some of them deadly, and I am not sure how we move beyond them.
There was also a fair amount of disagreement about our form of government, whether or not we needed a leader and what sort of power that individual should wield. When I read even the briefest summaries of our national beginnings, I am astounded by the efforts of people to smooth them out and carefully place God or Jesus as the center stone in an elaborate setting. But from the beginning, there was a sense among the founders that the president of the United States should speak for the whole population. And to the extent that he (or she ) does that, then the greater his (or her) presidential power will be.
Thomas Jefferson observed, “This alone, in any case where the energy of the nation is required, can produce an union of the powers of the whole, and point them in a single direction, as if all constituted but one body & one mind: and this alone can render a weaker nation unconquerable by a stronger one.”
But now, we seem to have a president who talks about representing the whole, but speaks only to his base and chooses his words for their divisive power. What has happened to our wholeness?
OK, now, relax. This is only day two.
So, since last I posted a blog entry at the end of June, I have not been deluged with hope-filled suggestions from my dedicated readers. I hope it is because you are so overcome with energy and successful, meaningful projects that you have not had time to write. But I have been wallowing for weeks in despair. Then a friend recently reminded me of how lucky I have been to have had some good mentors so far in my life.
Years ago, when I was a high school religion teacher, I had a mentor who advised me that when I was faced with a challenge, I should be proactive, be the one to take action and not wait to see what someone else would do to me. Over the years, I’ve dredged up that advice and found, all in all, that it was wise.
Therefore, I have decided to devote three weeks (this is because this morning I resisted the urge to order a guaranteed, three-week, at home yoga course that would give me long, lean arms, a tiny waist that bends without pain and totally toned legs that reach from my armpits to the sacred earth) to recovering some hope. And, because I am someone who loves school, I have decided on two text books.
Starting today, I am reading, at the same time (which is a big deal for memory-challenged me), Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (Random House 2018) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu (Harper & Row, 1960). And, by doing so, I am determined to find hope. I will find hope.
So, Meacham’s book is a historical argument that our country has survived wrestling matches with our worst angels in the past and managed “to keep the national enterprise alive.” Here’s a sample from what I read this morning:
“Our fate is contingent upon which element -- that of hope or that of fear -- emerges triumphant.”
“To know what has come before is to be armed against despair. If the men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward that most enchanting and elusive of destinations: a more perfect Union.”
Another of my mentors recently mentioned to me the power and solace she’s found in reading The Divine Milieu, the musings of a Jesuit scientist, philosopher and priest born 137 years ago. This particular edition includes an essay from another Jesuit who knew him. His friend writes that de Chardin was, during his lifetime, “misunderstood,” “condemned to silence” and tormented in ways that threatened to overwhelm him. But, then, there’s this:
“In all that he did, as in all that he taught, there was no bitterness nor disillusioned cynicism, nothing but a constant optimism. Far from railing against the pettiness of men or the chaos of the world, he made it a rule never to assume the presence of evil. And when he was unable to deny the evidence of his eyes, he looked not for the damning but for the saving element in what he saw: a mental attitude that surely, if unexpectedly, provides the only road to truth.”
So, there, that’s day one of my self-imposed, at home, three-week enterprise. Here’s hoping it helps me become leaner, stronger, able to move without pain, in the pursuit of (and, eventually,) in the presence of hope. I will keep you posted.
I began writing Sacred Strangers with very few expectations. I figured it would give me something to do after I left the newspaper. I thought it would be a piece of me that I could leave my sons. I thought it would keep my mind -- such as it is -- a little sharper for a little longer.
My friends helped me. First, Peggy McMullen, who had a writing project of her own. We met regularly, took a couple of trips to the beach and wrote away. Then JoLene Krawczak joined us, and finally David Stabler. We’re still meeting, doing our best to encourage each other, reading each other’s offerings, making suggestions, daydreaming about success and quashing each other’s excuses for not writing more. All three of my friends are working on fiction, which seems unimaginable to me -- not having much imagination. The amount of research and thinking they have to do to come up with characters and plot points is dizzying.
With their encouragement, I did finish my manuscript. I gave each of my sons a copy. And I swore not to bug them about reading it. At least, they’d have it, I told myself, imagining it being rediscovered during some massive basement cleanout twenty years in the future. I summoned the nerve to send a copy to Gina Hens-Piazza, a friend from seminary days, who teaches now at the Jesuit School at Berkeley. She suggested I send it to her publisher and, since she’d taken the time to read it and I wanted it off my mind, I did that quickly -- without much thought. Then I left with my sons, their wives and my husband’s family for two weeks in Croatia.
I came back in August. Had a phone call in September -- on my birthday, no less -- from an editor at Liturgical Press. They wanted to publish my manuscript. The following year was oddly nerve-wracking: consulting on a cover and title (final choices were theirs), figuring out how to write a blog (at the publisher’s suggestion), reading proofs, pinching myself.
The book came out in September. I did some speaking, book signing, even a reading. Wrote about it from time to time on this blog. Was nominated for an award and found out this week that Sacred Strangers placed first in the scripture category for an Association of Catholic Publishers award. It seems oddly surreal. My life hasn’t changed much. I’m on to another writing project. But our country is changing, in ways that are sobering and, from my perspective, troubling.
We are still giving into fear -- of each other, of strangers, of refugees, of migrants, of anyone who doesn’t share our convictions. And we are so convicted. I am considering a news fast -- which is weird for someone like me who has a secret crush on Chuck Todd. But too often now, news has become a place for people to state their opinions -- with few, if any, follow up questions, challenges and factual evidence. It seems like an actual conversation -- a dialogue -- is impossible these days between people from different perspectives. And if we can’t have that conversation, then whoever shouts loudest from whatever highest office will have his or her way. It is disheartening.
So, here I am back at the beginning -- with very few expectations. I pray, I read, I look for hope. You are probably doing the same. If any one of us finds some, please, let’s share it.
About the time that I became a mom, my relationship with my own mother fractured. We limped along for another decade or so. I looked every year for a Mother’s Day card that read, “I understand you did the best you could.” Never found one. My mom died twenty years ago and, if I’m honest, my life has been simpler since then.
Having my own children transformed the holiday for me. Both of my boys have outdone themselves, reminding me in writing of what it means to be a mom. I have stacks of cards and letters from them and, every now and then, I find one tucked in a cookbook or filed away in a box of newspaper clippings. I add these "new" discoveries to a keepsake box. But this morning, I woke up remembering two examples that didn’t find their way into that box.
One Mother’s Day morning, maybe a dozen years ago, I followed our golden retriever into the kitchen to feed her and make myself a cup of coffee. My kitchen cabinets -- three walls’ worth, above the counter and below it -- were covered with yellow Post-it notes. On each one, printed carefully in black marker, was one reason that my youngest son loved me. I stood in the kitchen and cried. I left those notes up for weeks, until their adhesive failed, the printing faded. I did end up throwing them away. But now and then, when the sunlight catches a cupboard door, I can still see smudges that remind me of those little yellow notes. And I resolve never to clean the cabinet doors completely.
Both of our boys went back East to go to college, and the oldest stayed in Washington, D.C., and New York City for a while. I remember a couple of Mother’s Days when I got a phone call from him and the promise to answer, in full, any question I wanted to ask. (All those years of telephone interviews and stodgy sources came in useful!) But the gift I’m remembering today, arrived in a plain brown envelope. I don’t think it even came with a card. But it was a new copy of a book that had made me cry every time I’d read it to my boys, “Love You Forever.”
I used to wince whenever they chose it from their bookshelf and asked me to read it at bedtime. It began with a new mother, holding her infant son and singing him to sleep: “I love you forever, I’ll like you always, As long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.” Page after page, the boy grows up, the mother sings her song -- sometimes under her breath -- until he holds his elderly mom in his arms and sings, “As long as I’m living my mother you’ll be.” It’s sentimental, I know. I’m a sap, I know. But my adult son sent me that book, without a word. I know. I keep it now on my own bookshelf.
Later this morning, all five of us will get together for brunch: my amazing sons, their beautiful wives and darling daughters. And I will revel in watching these four bright, clever, devoted, young people, already surpassing me as a parent. And I will think of my own odd childhood, of my husband and I doing the best we could, and I will find a weird kind of solace in that Mother's Day card I never did find.
This morning I watched a live stream of the funeral of James H. Cone from Riverside Church in Manhattan. (Here is a link.) It was a remarkable service: a deeply personal testimony from Kelly Brown Douglas, who remembered her first encounter with Cone -- she read one of his books twice in a weekend -- studied with him at Union and teaches there now. Fiery words by Cornel West. Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith captured the pitch, tone and cadence of Cone’s distinctive voice as she shared her interview with him from her play “Let Me Down Easy.” Bill and Judith Moyers read from Scripture.
Between speakers, the camera looked out over the pews. From that perspective, the casket that held Cone’s body looked so small. So much smaller than his impact on those of us who studied with him, or studied with those who studied with him, or even read a piece of his work, most of it so unflinchingly fierce it is hard to forget.
I shared a personal story about him last week, but I have been thinking since then about the last time I saw him. My husband and I visited Union, maybe seven years ago. We sat in on one of Cone’s classes. His subject was feminist and womanist theologies, and at one point he talked about Beverly Harrison, another of my teachers at Union who challenged and changed my mind. He said Harrison wrote about, and he quoted her on, “the power of anger in the work of love.” I remember thinking at the time that her phrase was a good fit for James Cone.
Here are some thought-provoking pieces written about Cone in the last few days:
From an opinion piece in The Washington Post: One of America’s most influential religious figures has died. He deserves more notice.
“In a nation where putative Christians supplicate before the modern version of a pagan emperor, a nation where liberals too often shy away from religion’s moral language, Cone’s vision is more necessary than ever.”
From Sojourners Magazine: Why James Cone was the most important theologian of his time
“Cone laid out both the challenge and promise of the true repentance that white people need to make before they themselves can be liberated from America’s original sin and discover true Christianity.”
And from The Christian Century: James Cone's theology is easy to like and hard to live
“There can be no reconciliation with God unless the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and justice is given to the poor. The justified person is at once the sanctified person, one who knows that his or her freedom is inseparable from the liberation of the weak and the helpless.”
It seems so odd to wish that Cone, so often angry in the work of love, would rest in peace now. Maybe he will, but the rest of us should not.
This past week, I saw a television piece on the new Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, an exhibit that lays bare the American experience of lynching. I watched a visitor walk beneath dozens of heavy, steel columns, suspended from the ceiling, one pillar for each county where lynchings took place. I could not imagine walking under all that weight, and then I remembered that we all do. And I said a prayer of thanks for James Hal Cone.
Dr. Cone, the father of black liberation theology, the author of a dozen books, scores of articles and uncounted brilliant lectures, was my systematics professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He died yesterday. He was 79. I got a group e-mail from the seminary president. I read one of the first of his obituaries. The remembrances of his life and work will pour out in the coming days. I have a few of my own. Here’s just one.
I went back to seminary when I was 35 years old, married and a mother of two small sons. My husband and I left good jobs, sold our house and moved from Oregon to the East Coast, so I could study theology. My selfishness and his generosity still stun me. Anyway, by the time I arrived at Union, Cone had been there for 20 years. He was already famous. His students argued over which of his books was the best so far. His systematics class was my first seminary course. I remember listening to him speak for 90 minutes, so spellbound I forgot to take notes. That night, I gathered a half-dozen books and headed to the library to begin my theological studies.
The reading room in Union’s library is one of my favorite places on earth. At a polished oak table, lit by small red-shaded lamps, I laid out the books before me, opened the first one and began to read. I didn’t make it through the first paragraph without shaking my head and starting it again. And then again. Slowly, it began to dawn on me that the words on the page made no sense to me at all. I read them, but I didn’t understand them. Try as I might, I couldn’t wrap my head around even one paragraph. I dissolved into tears, gathered my barely used books and headed home, deeply ashamed and frightened of the changes I’d urged on my family.
Early the next morning, I climbed the stairs to Cone’s office in one of Union’s towers and asked to see him. I sat across from his desk. I took a deep breath, stared at my folded hands and explained that I had made a mistake. With only a romantic idea of studying theology, I’d left a job that I was good at, convinced my husband to do the same and moved my family to New York. I’d spent last night trying to read Cone’s first assignment, and I’d failed. There was no way I could finish the course and be able, at the end of the term, to write an original theological statement. And, besides, I said, I am Catholic, and I think you need a license to do theology.
That last part made Cone chuckle. “Theology,” he said, repeating a line from his first lecture, “is talk about God. If you have experience of God, you can talk about it. You already are a theologian.”
And then Cone told me about his mother, how she had returned to school when her youngest child began first grade. Through the years, she sometimes sat in the same classroom with one of her children, he said. She persisted, and so could I. He handed me a worn copy of a theological dictionary and sent me back to the library.
I passed his class “with distinction” that term. I took as many more as I could fit into my schedule. Cone was critical, challenging and compelling. He had this ability to speak with anger, bitterness, outrage, sorrow and passion that did not drive me away but pulled me closer in an effort to understand what he was saying. He convicted me over and over without pulling any punches but also with a sad sort of gentleness because he suspected that what he was saying would be painful for some of us to hear. I will never forget his lecture on the racism buried in the language we used every day and the idea that, as a Christian, I had an obligation to listen to those who were oppressed without interrupting them, without overpowering their voices with excuses of my own.
The last book I read by Cone was The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It is remarkable: painful, disturbing and hopeful, especially now, as the lynching memorial opens in Montgomery and Cone goes home to God. Here's a Bill Moyers' interview with Cone about the book. And here's something Cone wrote about his project:
"Jesus was the ‘first lynchee,’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on the American soil. He was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America. Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States. God saw what whites did to innocent and helpless blacks and claimed their suffering as God’s own. God transformed lynched black bodies into the re-crucified body of Christ. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.”
And we all walk under that weight.
Since Easter I have been struggling with a mighty cold. I lost my voice (my actual one and my writing one), my hearing, my ability to breathe through my nose, my concentration, my energy, the whole nine yards. Today is the first day that I feel like my old self -- who knew I’d ever miss that! I have chapters to edit, meetings to attend, friends to write to, actual social engagements. Whoa, baby, as Freddy used to say.
In the midst of all that coughing, sneezing, sleeping, complaining and fretting, my publisher, Liturgical Press, wrote that my book made it into the finals in the scripture category of the Association of Catholic Publishers’ Excellence in Publishing Awards. I find myself surrounded by scholarly efforts. I am humbled, excited and back on the rollercoaster ride that comes with writing a book just to keep myself busy. I never imagined any of this. Not even that monster cold.
I read a lot of mysteries. Escapism, I’m sure. But I also enjoy a good novel, one that pulls me into a world that seems real to me, at least in the moment. I wonder if I’m drawn to both kinds of books because they elicit such different reactions from me, the reader. I like a well-written novel, and by that, I mean one that has interesting characters, a vivid setting, and a twist or two. I have very little patience with plodding plots, flat characters, too-timely coincidences and gift-wrapped happy endings.
I just finished Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, which was wonderful. It took me to 1930s New York and into intriguing social circles and complicated, fascinating relationships. And, much to my surprise, it included a brief passage that comes close to explaining why I like a good mystery, too. Towles’ narrator is talking about those by Agatha Christie.
“You can make what claims you will about the psychological nuance of Proust or the narrative scope of Tolstoy, but you can’t argue that Mrs. Christie fails to please. Her books are tremendously satisfying.
“Yes, they’re formulaic. But that’s one of the reasons they are so satisfying. With every character, every room, every murder weapon feeling at once newly familiar as rote (the role of the postimperialist uncle from India here being played by the spinster from South Wales, and the mismatched bookends standing in for the jar of fox poison on the upper shelf of the gardener’s shed), Mrs. Christie doles out her little surprises at the carefully calibrated pace of a nanny dispensing sweets to the children in her care.
“But I think there is another reason they please -- a reason that is at least as important, if not more so -- and that is that in Agatha Christie’s universe everyone eventually gets what they deserve.
“Inheritance or penury, love or loss, a blow to the head or the hangman’s noose, in the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. Poirot and Marple are not really central characters in the traditional sense. They are simply the agencies of an intricate moral equilibrium that was established by the Primary Mover at the dawn of time.”
Intellectually and spiritually, I have accepted the fact that we live in a world where justice will eventually be served, maybe not in our lifetimes and not as we expect or envision it to be. And I believe that doesn't let us off the hook -- we still need to work for justice. I know we live in Job’s world, but sometimes I long to live in Agatha’s.
If your weekends are anything like mine, they’re full of errands and e-mails, maybe with a little entertainment on the side. Rare, quiet moments are a prize, and I have been known to seek them out. So, if you have a hectic weekend ahead of you, and you’re anywhere near Northeast Portland, drop by The Grotto, a peace-filled spot just off of Sandy Boulevard. There are wooded paths for quiet walks, benches suited to sitting and thinking and a gift shop full of art, books and beautiful reminders of our better selves. I’ll be there from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, signing my book, Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians, if you’re interested. But mostly I’ll be eager to talk to you, to hear about the strangers you’ve encountered in your life and what you’ve learned from them.
It’s been two days since Joe Soldati and I read at Broadway Books. I spent yesterday swinging from overwhelming gratitude to pinching myself (hence, the black and blue). My deepest thanks to all of you who turned out for this event; to Don Colburn, who had the idea and pitched it to the bookstore (and to Joe and me); to the owners and staff at Broadway Books, who put us on their schedule, moved the furniture and stayed late with all of us.
The audience, all of them serious readers with senses of humor, was wonderful. The youngest was my two-month-old granddaughter Dot, who though she looked bored, didn’t vocally object to being there. The farthest traveled was my first city editor, who lives now in Seattle and spent most of two days with me dissecting “The Post” (she, with her firsthand knowledge!); members of my writing group, who’ve read my manuscript as often as I have. One of my dearest friends brought her husband and discovered that Joe had been her English teacher back in college. Poetry fans who came to hear Joe were interested in my book, too, and vice versa.
There were colleagues from my newspaper days (Vivian posted pictures!), friends from my kids’ middle school days, people I’d interviewed years ago, neighbors and strangers. And I know there were people who were out of town; struggling with colds; had plates so loaded they couldn’t imagine adding one more event; and people like me, who may have written the wrong date on their calendars. I don’t need to see you to know you all are with me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Broadway Books is my friendly, neighborhood, independent bookstore. That means a lot to a work-at-home writer who relies on reading and walking to exercise both brain and body. On Sunday, I weathered the cold to buy Anne Lamott’s Stitches for a friend recovering after surgery and a copy of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing for myself. When I opened the door to the light and warmth of the store, my glasses fogged up. As I waited for them to defrost, I remembered the best book I ever bought here -- J.R. Moehringer’s memoir, The Tender Bar. It’s a good book, but I remember it so fondly because my husband, who only read non-fiction (“Why would anyone want to read something that isn’t true?” the newspaper man in him often asked) loved that particular book. It was probably the best Father’s Day gift I ever gave him. Many of my memories of Broadway Books, which settled in Northeast Portland about the time I did 25 years ago, stack up with memories of the friends and relatives I’ve given books that I bought there.
And now this carefully curated store with wooden shelves and tables heaped with good, if not excellent, books is giving me a gift. They have invited Portland poet Joe Soldati and me to share a reading there, and I am inviting you to join us. Joe has published several collections of poetry; his latest is Sacrifices: Retold and Untold Stories from the Bible [Poems]. These are not the Sunday School characters you may remember. Joe imagines a letter from Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, who has no idea his wife has been carrying on with King David. Joe reads the minds of soldiers gambling for Jesus’ cloak at the crucifixion. These poems make me shudder, smile, reflect. I think you’d like them.
My book, Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians, has filled my time since I left the paper. I was inspired by my time as a reporter, when I’d reach out to total strangers and talk to them about their most closely held religious beliefs -- which often were very different from my own. This experience reminded me of Bible stories, in which the foreigners or outsiders behave better than the believers they’ve encountered. So I researched and wrote about six of these stories and raise some questions about them, all in an effort to spark the conversations we need to have now, when our fear of strangers threatens so many of our religious and civic values. I believe Scripture can help with these conversations because, whether or not you know or revere the Bible, it has probably influenced your life. As a culture, we invoke the story of the Good Samaritan and we think we know what it means. But do we know the story of Hagar and the light it sheds on racism, refugees and hope? Or the story of Naaman, an enemy general who overcame his own ego, his most dangerous foe?
Though I tried to write with humor, my share of this reading may not be as entertaining as Joe’s. I get it. But I’m not asking you to come and buy my book. Feel free to buy Joe’s, or find something else on the shelves that may be calling to you. Or don’t buy anything, just come and join the conversation. It will be thought-provoking and fun. And I guarantee you’ll leave feeling better, as I always do when I leave Broadway Books.
If you can come, the reading is Tuesday, March 6, at 7 p.m. at Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway, Portland, OR 97232.
What a week this has been: another mass shooting, more aggravations and inaction in Washington, D.C., a dear friend requires, receives and is recovering from serious surgery, another Valentine’s Day without a card from Fred. I did what I always do: I ate too much chocolate, I spent time with my beautiful baby granddaughters, I edited a book chapter for a friend, I knitted, I tried to pray and I read a lot.
This morning I picked up Anne Lamott’s Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, a book she wrote after the shooting in Newton. Here’s what I will take with me today as I head out on errands:
“Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, hope. The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbor, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry. You can also offer to do other people's laundry, if they have recently had any random babies or surgeries.
“We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we’d pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. . . .
“In the aftermath of loss, we do what we’ve always done, although we are changed, maybe more afraid. We do what we can, as well as we can.”
This morning I plugged the last remaining pieces into the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that I’ve been working on since Christmas. They were not the last ones. As it turns out, six pieces are missing, gathered up and thrown away as I cleared the living room on Boxing Day or devoured by the vacuum cleaner in the weeks since. Six gaps: Two of the skaters in Rockefeller Center are missing partners. Two high-rise walls have holes in them. A chunk of the night-time sky is gone, and one outline resembles a body falling from a nearby rooftop. I crawled around the living and dining rooms on my hands and knees, checking under furniture and rugs. I ran my fingers around and under cushions. No luck. Now what?
Can I give away a puzzle, knowing it’s not complete? Would I ever want to tackle it again without the sublime experience of seeing it whole and finished? Why does it bother me so much that I can’t finish it? It’s not like the pieces are lying in front of me and I can’t see how they fit together. For six or seven weeks, this puzzle has challenged me and entertained me, given me something else to think about when I need a break from the news of the world or my own to-do list. And I did find the right spot for every piece I had to work with. That’s something. But still they eat at me, these missing pieces.
Oh, come on! I am annoying myself now. This is a cardboard puzzle, not my life stretched out on the dining room table. That, I guess, I’ll finish some day. Some pieces of it will surely be missing, too.