Wednesday, April 26, 2006

brendan's station

This is Brendan's collage to represent Jesus' "scourged and mocked," for the Stations of the Cross at our church. See the story below, Mean Old World. Posted by Picasa

Monday, April 24, 2006

my break from spring break

It’s easy to look across my almost-paradise this morning, and look past the clothes peeking out of the hamper, the dirt on the windowsill where a potted plant has spilled, the mysterious sticky stuff on the kitchen table. What I see is a house empty of people, on an ordinary morning.

It’s nine a.m, Monday after Spring Break on Cape Ann. My husband and children left for school more than an hour ago—children with bright happy faces and Scott lost in concentration, thinking about the classes he will teach today. Scott made sure kids were in bed very early last night, remembering a few of the last “mornings after” school breaks, so the children are rested and mostly helpful today.

Madeleine and Brendan are eager to see how their school friends liked the letters in their mailboxes. Each mailed a dozen sweet letters to their friends over the break, asking if they had a good Easter or Passover, saying how much they loved them, and enclosing crayon pictures made with care. Scott had to buy a new box of envelopes and a pack of stamps. He is better at transcribing their dictation than I am, answering requests for word spellings and looking up addresses.

Brendan left me a bowl of cantaloupe he painstakingly scooped into melon balls, “for you, Mama, when you eat breakfast later.”

And when I do eat my breakfast, later, I have my pen handy to unpack the last ten days or so. I worked my regular store hours, I attended a ten-hour writing retreat, and logged a lovely day in Boston with my family. And I served as personal assistant to a woman who is recovering from a stroke. That’s a total of thirty-four hours for pay this week, plus ten hours of professional development, in addition to an Easter feast for nine people, plus a labor-intensive Easter morning for children. It’s the opposite of “break,” for me, but it’s all been good.

The real treasure of my week is the unexpected pleasure of serving Karen, who is legally blind, but she is decidedly not “a blind woman.” She is unable to use her hands for most everyday tasks, but she most certainly is not an invalid. Karen utterly defies labeling—she is in recovery, and she’s one of the most mentally healthy people I know. She is a stickler for organic foods, and a chain-smoker. She is fiercely independent and yet I need to peel and slice apples for her. “I recognize you from the store downtown,” she said by way of introduction at our first meeting. “Sit down and let me make you a cup of tea. You look tired.” Karen’s range of vision is very small, the size of a thirteen-inch television, she tells me. But what she sees in that thirteen inches, she sees with her whole heart.

I am writing this down as an initial sketch, like I would write a letter, to collect my thoughts. What I’m puzzling is the incredible blessing that has come my way, this week. Assisting Karen is my friend Suzanne’s job. Suzanne approached me a month ago, to ask if I’d substitute for her while she travels over break. When she described assisting Karen, I said I would absolutely not enjoy these duties, but I could use the income. I said I was definitely capable, though I worried about my impatience. There are more complications, possibilities of anaphalactic seizures, instructions to drive Karen to a particular hospital an hour away in case of emergency, not to allow the local ambulance drivers to take her. To be honest, the job sounded overwhelming and scary. I thought it would feel like servitude.

The truth is, though, I don’t mind cooking and cleaning for someone who would cook and clean for me, if she could. The truth is I truly love to cook for anyone who is attentive and thankful. I made a simple salad of baby spinach leaves and avocado slices, with a bowl of dried apricots and toasted almonds on the side, and another bowl of sliced pears. “Thank you so much for the putting the fresh garlic in this salad dressing, dear—I taste it and it makes all the difference in the world to me.” I sat down for an hour with her to eat and talk over this simple meal, rising only to refill our teacups. “Did Suzanne tell you I am a former chef?” she asked. Karen would sit at her table and talk with me while I prepared a fresh lunch and prepared the food for her snacks and dinner, every day.

One day we walked the beach, talking, and another day Karen did not feel well, so I created a filing system for her medical papers and financial papers. I hung pictures on the walls and I scratched the cat behind the ears while I waited for Karen to emerge safely from the shower.

But for the hours Karen was well enough, she talked to me at length about my “career” in writing, how to organize my time, how to get my stories published, how to invest in this project until it pays off. “But I need to make money!” I lamented. “Like you are making money, now, honey? This is not money, not really.” I shrugged and laughed—I am so thankful for this paycheck, yes, but it is quite little pay for my time.

“Karen, I am deeply grateful for good work, work that matters, work that does good in this world.”

“That’s why you need to put your energy into writing. It matters. It does good in the world.”

“How do you know that?”

“I see how you think, how you organize ideas. Suzanne is quite confident about your work—did you know that? But if she hadn’t told me that, I would have asked if you were a writer in the first hour I met you, because you obviously think and talk like one.”

Some days I marvel at how lucky I am—this week I got to spend twenty-five hours with a new career mentor, and be paid for it. This week I had the incredible privilege of serving a brilliant woman who could just as easily choose bitterness as gratitude, could just as easily be needy and demanding, could meet pain with dark fury. And she does have a little dark fury also—you should see the veracity of her smoking! But she chooses to smoke outside her own home, to be thoughtful of those serving her. And she chooses to be a gift.
I have a beautiful pewter magnet from my store, a Christmas gift that reads “The winds of grace blow all the time. All we need to do is set our sails.” The quote is attributed to Ramakrishna, and I have no idea whether that is the name of a person or a wisdom tradition. Though I set my sails, expectantly, still I am surprised what blows in, the strange blessings that come my way.

“I get paid for this,” I say and shake my head. It has not been a break from work, this week, but a break from the ordinary. I am thankful for Scott, who took on forty-five hours of childcare with barely a blink, during his vacation week. (He also got a full day off and a night at Fenway in the deal, and a few more drops of income in our bucket, so he’s happy.) I am thankful that most days have been “outdoor days” for my children, warm enough to play wearing a light jacket. I’m thankful for Jim and Mimi, who offered a night of childcare so Scott and I could go out for a few hours of coffee and reading, a special date.

And, as ever, I am thankful for this quiet, rainy Monday morning, many things to do and I’m not doing any of them for the next few minutes. I am pouring another cup of coffee and watching the rain come down for a bit—my break.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

two small children and the mean old world

My entryway into the Bible was Good News Club—a lovely grandmotherly lady down the street offered Bible stories (with cutout paper figures placed on a flannel board, the technology of the mid-sixties), followed by chocolate cupcakes. During winter months, children would arrive at her sunporch, to find a fire crackling in the fireplace, and those cupcakes waiting in the kitchen. She would read the text from the King James and move paper figures around the board, and we would sing Bible songs. Somehow I learned those stories well enough that I remembered basic plotlines and characters a decade later, in college Bible courses. Of course I also remembered the characters as clean, pale-skinned and well-shaven, but that’s another story.

A few years back, remembering my affection for those stories, I found a tastefully-done video of Old Testament stories to watch with my children. I started with Joseph and His Brothers, but my poor Madeleine wailed “Turn it off!” just when the brothers began to toss Joseph in a pit. “How can people be so mean, Mama?” I was wishing for those chocolate cupcakes to distract her. And I had to agree with her. I decided not to tell her that the world can be very mean, sometimes. She will learn that soon enough—but not yet. Montessori education says, “follow the child,” to see what she can handle, and I see that my children may be more delicate than most.

So what is the developmentally appropriate time to introduce delicate kids to the story of the cross? I haven’t spent a lot of time wondering—I simply put off making a decision.

Each Lenten season, my favorite Montessori-trained teacher Jane leads extraordinary art workshops: children produce The Stations of the Cross over the course of six weeks, then they lead congregants through that worship service during Holy Week. Each year Jane chooses a different medium. Like my childhood Good News Club, there are great snacks and great times together. But the Stations of the Cross? That’s walking step by step through the worst that humanity has to offer. That’s the mean old world, at it’s meanest.

Last year Madeleine was old enough, but I kept her back—if she thought Joseph’s brothers’ meanness would drive her to tears, what would she do with the story of the cross?

This year, Brendan turned six, and he caught wind of Jane’s Lenten art project, and was immediately determined he and Madeleine should “do the Art.” Is a parent going to say “no” to that? I spoke with Jane about their readiness, my hesitance. They studied in church school how the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. They studied how the grain of wheat must die to bring new life. She had prepared them, she said. Of course, we say each week in the liturgy, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. They know about the cross—they just don’t know in any harrowing, bloody detail. I trust Jane, so I took a deep breath and I dropped them off the first week to sketch out their collages.

Brendan arrived home very excited. “What does ‘scourge’ mean again? What does ‘mock’ mean? What does a spear look like?”

I tipped my head skyward to blink back tears, and I answered his questions with definitions and sketches. “Did Jane read through the whole story, Brendan?”

“Yes. I am making a collage of that word, scourge.”

“Tell me what else happens in the story. How does it end?”

“Jesus gets dead. People are mean and hurt him. Then he gets alive again and no one knows how.” He pauses, but only for a moment. “What’s a spear made of?”

I whisper a prayer of praise for Jane, the blessed teacher. He crossed a threshold. It is time. Madeleine chooses Jesus entering the gates of Jerusalem for her collage, complete with palms, and chooses also to portray Simon of Cyrene lifting Jesus’ cross in a second collage. She has crossed a threshold, too.

Perhaps twenty people arrived for the Stations of the Cross, and each was greeted by Brendan, who proudly hand-delivered a church bulletin. A six-year-old boy who cannot read, he solemnly stood by each station as a candle was lit, and listened to the other children read verses from the Bible. He fidgeted a little, got a little distracted as older people meditated more slowly than he would like, but he stayed remarkably serious. Madeleine firmly planted her feet and read clearly, and talked with people ten times her age about how she developed her design.

Though he is two years younger than any of the other your artists, somehow Brendan’s portrayal of the scourging of Jesus is the most moving. The background is a collage of stone walls (cut from National Geographics). And in the foreground, left of center, two red-cloaked figures raise flashing silver swords and sticks over a third red-cloaked figure, arms slightly raised. There are no faces, and the only details are the swords, which are Brendan’s interpretation of spears and bludgeons, no doubt. That’s what scourge means, though. He may not understand the story enough to cry, like me, and I cry nearly every time I read through this story-- but he understands it.

Was it just last year that I lamented Easter translated to bunnies and eggs, for my children? ( )Each year I hold this tension, between one culturally-embraced Easter story and the central, life-altering Easter story. Unlike the years before parenting, I cannot claim any purity of lifestyle in the Easter holiday department. This year I crafted and sold bunnies and eggs for my store—not because I like their connection to the Easter holiday, but because I have a knack for beauty, and I confess to a weakness in the area of well-crafted cute things. My children and I decorated eggs, too, with Ukrainian tools and dyes, talking about the love of good work as we spent hours with the wax and candles. They laughed when I told them the lovely prophecy about the end of time, when the cowbells and pots and pans will be inscribed Holy to the Lord. “And even the eggs, too!” says Brendan, so diligently etching and dipping his egg in the dye.

There’s a lot to be said for beauty, for the turning of the seasons, for new life in blossoms and in chicks. But at last my somewhat delicate children and I begin this conversation about the true story of Easter, of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and life in this mean old world, which is not often sweet and certainly not often cute, or new like grass. Sometime I will tell them that we ourselves are sometimes “the mean old world,” when they are older and can understand a bit more. It’s going to be a long conversation, inbetween lots of silliness and kid stuff—they are six and eight years old, after all. I get the feeling we will etch a lot of eggs and eat a lot of chocolate cupcakes in the meantime, but I’m waiting for the story to unfurl a little further, when they are ready, and when I am, too.

Monday, April 10, 2006

minor obsession

Okay, last glimpse, though we will continue to "pysanky" after dinner each night, for this week, anyway. Madeleine wrote her teacher's name on one, with great love-- it fell to the floor with a cracking noise, but the front was unmarred. "It will stand up, now!" I said, and she tried it, and it worked. The multicolored ones are from the "bleeding tissue paper."

We talked about the Old Testament verse that says even the bells on the cows and the pots and pans shall be inscribed "Holy to the Lord," and how good it is to make things beautiful, to pay attention. Lucky me, to be a mom of children who like something to do. Posted by Picasa

I taught small children to make bleeding tissue dyed eggs, below, which require thirty seconds of attention and some white glue. Behind my table were the stations for marbleizing eggs, tye-dye eggs, and origami eggs. After the children left the hall, two lovely teenage girls taught me the basics of "pysanky," or Ukrainian egg dying-- just another of those crafts I told myself I would never, never do. But as soon as I tried it, I thought how much my children would love the concentration required. When a teacher told me the mixed dyes last for years, stored in glass jars, I picked up a kit. The bottom photo is a six-year-old's first freehand attempt-- Brendan took a long time, first to blow the eggs, then to make the design in hot wax, then to dye each color, then to melt off the layers of wax. Not being an obsessive person, well, I could become an obsessive person! Once you give yourself over to the insane amount of detail for an egg, it's awfully fun and satisfying. Posted by Picasa

Friday, April 07, 2006

spring beauty

I know I said mean things about the Easter bunny and all things cute. And I meant every word. But I am dying eggs with fifty people tomorrow. And making all the spring-ling critters, too. This bunny looks ridiculously real, in person-- the photo does not do him justice. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, April 01, 2006

composting at home, circa 2000