If we’ve learned nothing at all in recent years – and there is an argument to be made that we have not learned anything – it’s that more than one thing can be true at the same time. That’s the challenge facing any thinking person during an election, watching the news or observing their own lives. For me, right now, it’s a challenge during Advent, the Christian tradition of anticipating Christmas.
I think often of a principle(pal) we studied in seminary, the idea that some religions consider time to be linear – with a beginning, a middle and an end. The notion that human experience is moving toward an end time and the consequences it will bring. Time marches on.
In other traditions, time is considered to be cyclical, that life returns over and over again to a starting point. Time moves in cycles.
In my own life, facing abbreviated but still daunting to do lists for Christmas and a coming trip to Israel, I find myself searching for moments when time stands still. Quiet early morning or late evening moments sitting in the dark with my lighted Christmas tree. Catching glimpses of stars in the clear dark sky through the bathroom window. Staring at snow falling on a quiet Sunday morning. I am embracing those moments, knowing they will be rare in the coming days, but trying to file them away in hopes that their memories serve to slow me down, if not stop me in my tracks.
Time is complicated. It marches on, it cycles through, it stands still. All three can be true at once.
Early this morning,
I stepped outside my front door
to get the newspaper lying at the foot of the drive.
The air was cold, dry and still.
No traffic. No walkers, with dogs or otherwise.
My neighbors’ blinds were down,
the windows of their cars covered in frost.
I walked carefully down the driveway,
remembering to bend my knees and keep my back straight
as I bent to retrieve the paper.
As I stood, turned and started back up the drive,
I heard the smallest tap.
Not sure what it was.
Maybe a cat? Maybe a crow, like the one that had sideswiped me
when I was out walking a few days ago.
Out of the corner of my eye,
I'd seen a fig leaf fall from my neighbor’s tree:
the size of a salad plate,
yellow with scalloped edges.
I’d watched it land on the driveway.
I smiled to think I’d heard a leaf fall –
in real time, as they say nowadays.
And then I heard other taps, one at a time,
and noticed the red and gold leaves falling
from my cherry and dogwood trees.
One by one they settled with tiny taps
on grass already covered with an autumn patchwork quilt.
While I stood silent and alone in my front yard,
I realized how many leaves had already fallen
without my hearing their tap, tap, tap.
And I think of myself as a good listener.
I just finished a novel that was heavy on heart-break and, thankfully, fleetingly hopeful. Why do I read books like this? Books that describe a world so removed and so much harsher than my own? Part of it is I am sporadically compulsive. Only rarely do I begin and then abandon a book. Years ago, when my book group chose The Trial of Socrates, I read part way through it and gave up. Three decades later, I still feel guilty.
A friend of mine always reads page 50 of any book she’s thinking of reading, and if it doesn’t hold her attention, she casts it aside. Such discipline. Me, I finish books – and too many middling movies – just in case there’s something I might miss.
So, I just finished Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart. I’d heard it reviewed on NPR, but I was probably half asleep, so I wasn’t sure exactly what I was in for when I put it on reserve at the library. Now I know: A Protestant named for the patron saint of Glasgow (odd, that), Mungo lives on the brink of manhood. Questions about his identity, intellect and sexuality are as twitchy as his fuzz-covered cheeks. The plot leaps forward and backward in time – a challenge for linear me – from a hellish fishing trip with two “adult” strangers, whom his alcoholic mom entrusts with her most loving son, to brutish hand-to-hand combat between Protestant and Catholic youths who aren’t sure why they hate each other but can’t overcome their addiction to violence. Poverty, ignorance and pervasive ill will set the stage.
Here is the opening paragraph: “As they neared the corner, Mungo halted and shrugged the man’s hand from his shoulder. It was such an assertive gesture that it took everyone by surprise. Turning back, Mungo squinted up at the tenement flat, and his eyes began to twitch with one of their nervous spasms. As his mother watched him through the ear-of-wheat pattern of the net curtains, she tried to convince herself that his twitch was a happy wink, a lovely Morse code that telegraphed everything would be okay. F. I. N .E. Her younger son was like that. He smiled when he didn’t want to. He would do anything just to make other people feel better.”
As unsettling as Young Mungo was to read, the book surprised me with sweet, though quick to disappear and often tarnished moments of grace, along with startlingly detailed descriptions of deliberate harm to loved ones and virtual strangers. It made me think in ways that pages of beautiful prose often don’t – about the roots of violence, hatred, fear and suspicion that thrive in overwhelming want, and how the phrase “working class” really does define all of us who struggle to understand who we are and why we are where we are.
In some ways, my life has little to do with Mungo’s, his shattered family, the threat of where he lives, and the love of his life, James. But in other, even irrational ways, I find myself wanting to pray for this imaginary character. Stuart breathed life into this young man, faced his torment, discovered his surprising resilience and somehow, shook me into finding a little of my own. Mungo was so worth the struggle, and so was the book about him.
Like lots of people my age, I just attended my 50th high school reunion. My first one. Always before something else was going on – I had to work, was moving that weekend, or already traveling. This year I had no excuse. And this year, I had a friend willing to go with me. So, we went.
Memories – good and bad – came to me in the days before, during and after the reunion. In no particular order, I remembered the friend whose eyes teared up as she told me that she’d miss me when she got to heaven (a Presbyterian at the time, I had no chance in her eyes), another who often told the story of me bumping into a wall and immediately apologizing to that wall, my debate partner who had a weekend job minding the town dump so we sweated over our speeches beside the wood stove in his tiny sentinel shack. Of those three friends I remember so fondly, two have passed away. I missed my chance to laugh at myself through their eyes.
At the reunion events themselves, I talked to a handful of people. Some I’d known since grade school, others since our days as Camp Fire girls, some I’d known from my church youth group, and one whom I’d never spoken to before. She told me that night that she’d joined our class as a senior because her parents had moved. In three events over three days, I actually talked to about a dozen people – probably breaking my actual high school conversation record. I was a sorry teen-ager from a monumentally dysfunctional family. I suffered from that odd intersection of no confidence in myself most of the time and the occasional you-can-do-it blunder into embarrassment. As people passed by me, reading my name tag and giving me a glimpse of their own, I recognized a lot of names, if not faces. If memory serves, the beautiful people from my class are still beautiful, brimming with confidence and reveling in the friendships they forged a long time ago.
I had a few surprises over the weekend. I did a little hiking with a friend I’d known since grade school but know a lot better now. She has endured a lot with grace, humility and faith-shaped common sense. She inspired me. And there was a guy I remember as funny and kind and too handsome for me who came out of the blue to take my arm and make sure I boarded the lake cruise ship without falling. I am really not a doddering old woman trying to cross the street. But maybe the three gin and tonics I’d had before we met the night before convinced him I had a tendency to teeter.
My friend since fourth grade and I took the time to drive past the houses we’d lived in (all of which seemed a little worn and much smaller than we’d remembered), the elementary school we’d attended where we swept fallen pine needles into lines, marking out houses and stables and pathways in our pretend villages. We stopped by the beach where we swam every summer day. These days an iron fence runs from the private yards of fancy houses down into the water. It seems that after years of beaches being public property, as they continue to be in more enlightened communities, this stretch of lake shore now may be owned, fenced off and buried in driftwood, trash and junk because their private owners don’t use or clean it. Apparently land-use laws are like good high school friends. The good ones die too soon.
So lately, I’ve realized that I like to read books with my cell phone. No, I never have caught on to reading books online. I love the smell of paper, ink and a hint of dust or must. No, as an old-school reader, I love books. But I also love the luxury of Googling about whatever I might encounter in a book. A while back I read The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson and Googled the blue people of Kentucky.
And when I read Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, she argued that first contact in North and South America resulted in the death of 56 million lives, by violence and disease. That accounted for 90 percent of all the lands’ original inhabitants, actually changing “the amount of carbon in the atmosphere,” an outcome no one could have imagined then. That was hard to believe until I Googled her source, Alexander Koch et al., “Earth System Impacts of the European Arrival and Great Dying in the America after 1492." (I admit it was just an astract, but the actual report would probably have been over my head.)
When I read The Brutal Telling, another of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache mysteries, I wondered whether Emily Carr was a real artist. I Googled her and found that she was. I also discovered that her paintings of British Columbia and its indigenous villages were mesmerizing. So I bought a novel based on her life and a jigsaw puzzle of one of her paintings – so this winter I’ll have more projects.
And this week, as I renewed my practice of reading, my cell phone has also played a role. Reading The Other Bennett Sister, Janice Hadlow’s account of Mary, the reticent and plainest of Elizabeth’s sisters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, I found myself in the midst of a conversation about poetry. I Googled William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” which I hadn’t read since college (remember the Norton anthologies of poetry?). And that prompted me to pull a couple of books of poetry off my shelves, reread some favorites and a few new ones.
I may be the last reader of physical books who refers regularly to my cell phone as I turn the paper pages before me. But now, with a couple of clicks, I can illustrate and footnote every book I pick up. That’s another way to reinvigorate my reading habit!
Forgive me, but I feel like boasting. I got up early this morning, savored half a grapefruit with my almond butter and toast. (That’s a rare treat because I’m not supposed to eat grapefruit because of a medication that I take. Occasionally, I cheat.) Once the neighborhood was awake, I washed my ancient car. I do it once a year and, while I know it’s more ecological to take it to a carwash (and I’ve done that), this year, I did it in my driveway. I tried to be conscientious about the water. I used it sparingly and I rushed to finish. I set a record for my 67-year-old self: I washed the car, using a toothbrush to scrub off some of the mold and mildew, in 45 minutes. I pulled the car into the garage and decided to vacuum it out as well and managed that in 15 minutes. For some reason that I don’t want to dwell on, I take a perverse kind of pleasure from accomplishing tasks that sometimes surprise my adult children.
But that’s not all. As I put away the rags, brushes and bucket I’d used on the car, I noticed that my backyard was shady and peaceful. By late morning, it’s usually sunny and often hot and the sounds of kids playing, lawn mowers and leaf blowers disturb the early morning peace. But while I was still in bed this morning, I had read a good piece by Alissa Wilkinson in VOX, “How to fall back in love with reading,” with the subhed, “Even when your brain feels like mush.”
Apparently, in 2021, almost a quarter of Americans said they hadn’t read a book in the past year. Yikes! I have kept track of all the books I have read since a friend gave me a journal for just that purpose back in 2001. Over the years, I know that I’ve read fewer books than I once did and that sometimes depresses me. But I’ve never not read a book – for a few days or a month or a year.
The article includes several reasons for readers to pick up books. This was my favorite one: Research revealed “a short-term decrease in the need for ‘cognitive closure’ in the minds of readers of fiction.” In other words, “those with a high need for cognitive closure ‘need to reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion,’ and thus, when confronted with confusing circumstances, tend to seize on fast explanations and hang on to them.” The point being that such readers are “more susceptible to things like conspiracy theories and poor information, and they become less rational in their thinking.” And here’s the bottom line, “Reading fiction . . . tends to retrain the brain to stay open, comfortable with ambiguity, and able to sort through information more carefully.”
So, this morning, after washing my car, I dragged my Adirondack chair to the back corner of my backyard, filled a glass with ice water, set my cell phone timer for 30 minutes and, in the middle of the day, in the midst of a sizeable “to do” list, read a novel. With only the birds and one low flying airplane to keep my company, I enjoyed a few chapters of The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. Prompted by the plot, I did take a few minutes to Google and read William Wordsworth’s poem, “Tintern Abbey.” But more about that next time.
If you are a reader whose dedication to reading has been lagging during the pandemic and in the course of the world going to hell in a handbasket, I urge you to read Wilkinson’s piece and take a few minutes to resume your reading practice.
*A phrase from "Tintern Abbey"
I am a knitter. I have a project going most of the time and work on it almost daily. It saves me, keeps me company, creates gifts and, these days, is helping me reduce my stash – the skeins, balls and bits of yarn that I have collected over my 67 years.
Right now, I am knitting a scarf, using a couple of skeins of fine, dark blue silk that I bought years ago. I wound one skein into a ball and gave up. This yarn knots when I look at it. But recently I found a simple pattern. The yarn is perfect, the stitch – once I practiced it a while – is absorbing – almost hypnotic. There’s only one catch – aside from winding the second skein into a ball.
This pattern, with regular yarnovers and pairs of stitches knit together is impossible – for me – to tink or frog (technical knitting terms that result in undoing a piece of knitting in order to recover a dropped stitch or correct another error). I’ve tried over and over and the results are unsightly gaps, but I’ve decided to keep knitting. I don’t think the mistakes will be obvious when this soft scarf is wrapped around my neck. And I do believe that errors in human creations are reminders that none of us is perfect.
But just now, knitting my way through my morning coffee break, I was looking at my work so far and thinking about the image of Mary, the undoer of knots, and realized that this imperfect scarf is a metaphor for my life right now.
I am at the point in my life when I am trying to use up the mountainous stash of yarn I have accumulated. So I search to find projects suited to the limited amount of a particular yarn that I have (I’ve knitted linen table-runners that use up one or two balls of yarn, for example). In this project, there is no going back to correct mistakes – just efforts to restore the pattern and move on. I’m not paying attention to measurements or sizes or whether the resulting garment will fit. I am just determined to knit until there is no more yarn left. One of these days, I will need to take a break – I have a Christmas stocking to knit for a new niece and a few holiday gifts to finish. But for now, I am knitting a metaphor, surprised that it so suits my life.
Woke up this morning to a radio report, another in a long line of stories about the courage of Ukrainian women as Russia invades their country in an act of war. Retelling the story of the old woman who scolded Russian soldiers and then offered them sunflower seeds to put in their pockets so that when they die and are buried in Ukraine, something good will come from their abhorrent presence.
Reminded me of a story I read years ago about Russian mothers traveling to Chechnya to reclaim their soldier sons, rather than sacrificing them in another stupid war.
Scrolling through Twitter, I came across an excerpt of Samantha Bee on her television show, Full Frontal, where she manages to infuse the facts with a mother's sarcasm as she lambasts the Russian leader.
Sitting with Diana Butler Bass’ daily online reflection, part of A Grounded Lent, I see more clearly the connection she is making, the Bible is making, that Jesus made. “Jesus gives water, and he is water,” she quotes her book Grounded: Finding God in the World -- A Spiritual Revolution. Today Bass revisits the story of the woman at the well in John 4:10. Jesus says to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’”
Sifting through my own writing, I found a piece I’ve written about Miriam, the sister of Moses. Many who know her name think of her saving her infant brother by putting him in a basket and setting it adrift on the River Nile. Some also know that she sang and danced after the Israelites passed through the Red Sea. A few know that later, when she and her other brother, Aaron, questioned why Moses thought God only spoke through him, she was struck with leprosy and forced from her community for seven days.
A handful of feminist Bible scholars know the powerful end of her story: When Miriam died and was buried at a place called Kadesh, “there was no water for the congregation” (Numbers 20). Water had flowed in and out and over Miriam and her people for years and years, sometimes summoned from the ground as Moses struck it with his staff. But without Miriam, there was no water. It was if the earth itself felt the need to mark her passing.
Still thinking about and women, war and water.
The magi finally made it. The thousand pieces of my holiday jigsaw puzzle took some time to assemble this year – two have gone AWOL in the past decade and one reminds me that our golden retriever Klickitat used to like to chew on bite-sized bits of cardboard. Anyway, I finished the puzzle and, after I write this, I’ll tuck it away for another year. Yes, I know pieces are missing, but I’ve had this one a long time. Its pieces are smaller and larger than in other puzzles and cleverly cut so it isn’t easy to fit them together. It’s a challenging task. Completing it – as best as I can -- is satisfying. I won’t part with this one.
Today I read a piece in America, the Jesuit magazine, that has given me new ideas for my devotional reading. “The Black Writers All Catholics Should Read” caught my eye because some of the authors mentioned are familiar to me and others I’ve not run across before. James Cone was one of my professors in seminary. The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation and his more recent book The Cross and the Lynching Tree have confronted, convicted and challenged me. If The Lynching Tree had what we in newspapers called a “nut graf” (a concise answer to the "so what" question) this might be it:
“Theologically speaking, 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.”
I know of Bryan Massingale because his work was quoted in Alison Benders’ Open Wide Our Hearts, a study guide on the U.S. Catholic bishops 2018 letter on racism – yes, they did issue one that year. This essay reminded me that I want to read one of Massingale’s books. I think I’ll start with Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.
Through the years, I have prayed and read scripture for as my devotional time. But now I find myself – quite literally – by focusing on books that break me open, scatter my pieces and slowly help me put them together again. The magi were strangers, even outsiders, who contributed wisdom to the story of Jesus’ birth. Better late than never.