Thursday, February 22, 2007

the grudge

Mary Ann Riddlebarger stopped me on the way into the gymnasium for my high school graduation, and she smiled at the funny badge on my robe, claiming I was a “Glad Grad!”

“You know, Denise, I always hated you for telling on me when I ate the popcorn instead of stringing it in Mrs. Shaw’s first grade,” she mused.

“I was actually in Mrs. Barkowski’s first grade, Mary Ann,” I bit off the words. “You’ve held a grudge on the wrong person for twelve years.”

“Isn’t that funny? I could’ve sworn it was you!” Her confident laughter filled the hall.

“It’s not funny,” I said, turning before I could grow too spiteful on such a good day for leaving. “It’s people like YOU, Mary Ann, people like you,” I stomped down the hallway, shaking my head in fury. Welcome to Farmland, Indiana, a place to gain a reputation for mistakes I didn’t even make.

She was my cousin—fourth cousin, to be exact—and in third grade, when MaryAnn’s father fell from a tall scaffolding, my mother asked me to be extra kind during his long recovery. So I was. I shared my handmade poncho during a particularly cold recess, two of us sitting side by side for warmth. I often invited her to play hopscotch, though her competitiveness meant she often beat me. A year later MaryAnn cornered me in the girl’s locker room after gym class, to say I don’t know why you are being so nice to me, but for God’s sake stop. “I don’t want people to think we are friends,” she said through clenched teeth. I didn’t look up at her, holding back fiery tears, but continued tying my shoes as if I hadn’t heard, as if I wouldn’t fall down against the lockers crying as soon as her footsteps were gone from the stairs.

“What did I ever do to you?” I thought, in that locker room. And now I know: I guess someone told on her in first grade, someone worth never forgiving.

But it wasn’t me.

I was a shy nobody with no sense of “cool” whatsoever. Telling on people could get you killed, as everyone knew, so that wouldn’t have been me. I’m big on eating popcorn. Regardless, would it have done her harm to continue being relatively nice to me, to just let it go, to say, “well, she is my cousin, after all, and she’s not so bad.” But what do I know? I never had fragile popularity to lose.

I hear MaryAnn is a city councilor in Farmland, Indiana, and my father tells me she is quite good at her job, that she takes no nonsense from anyone. She’s a real person with real responsibilities.

So now I’ve been gone from Farmland, Indiana more than 25 years, ruminating on why I could never live there, and it’s me who nurses a grudge over nothing. She is my cousin, after all, and she might have had some bad moments as a child, but I suppose she’s not so bad.

MaryAnn, I confess that I did not tell on you in first grade, that I wanted to spit on you at my high school graduation, that I was glad to leave you behind forever. I’m telling on you now, that you were spiteful when I was kind. I’m telling on myself that I was spiteful and superior, right back at you, when I was probably old enough to know better. I am telling on myself that I have used this illustration of small town life, at your expense, hundreds if not thousands of times.

Dear MaryAnn, let’s have a bowl of popcorn sometime and put all this behind us, next time I visit Farmland, Indiana. Let’s throw the popcorn in great handfuls, just a couple of cousins telling on everyone in sight, for old times sake.

You be well, and be good to my dad. I’ll see you next time I’m in town.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

matthew's treasure bag

This is the other cuff from the sweater used for Ben's treasure bag.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

the song we sing in mitten weather

When I have occasion to be at my children's school near lunch-time, I hear the nursery school children singing their way down the halls, following their sweet teacher, in their mittens.

Thumbs in the thumb-place

Fingers all together
This is the song we sing in mitten weather

When it is cold, it doesn’t matter whether
Mittens are wool or made of finest leather
This is the song we sing in mitten weather:

Thumbs in the thumb-place
Fingers all together

No snow here, yet, but mighty cold wind.

Designed my favorite sort of Valentine for Brendan's classmates: easy for a seven-year-old to make, made from materials on-hand (watercolor-painted school-work-- anything with red in it), dear (includes his school picture) and beautiful. Do-able and nearly free, sigh. If only all of life was so satisfying. We'll probably finish them today-- I'm in charge of printing the photos and using the hole punch, while Brendan traces, cuts, and threads each watercolor heart with a gold string for hanging.
I'm not certain if Madeleine will agree to the same design. She sees the flaws and foibles of every idea these days, choosing to noodle around at her own projects with the pace of a child named Denise that I used to know, so busy dreaming very slowly that it's hard to get anything finished.

Madeleine prefers to work on other's exciting visions instead of her own, and she likes projects she can dip in and out of, instead of being in charge. When our friend Merry visited for our standard Wednesday afternoon, Madeleine helped Merry construct a pair of felt shoes for her American Girl doll, and then she assisted as Merry decorated a "house" backdrop for her paper dolls. I cut and folded the standing backdrop from a huge piece of heavy cardstock-- my children each have one, and they've lost track of them somewhere in their bedroom. Merry is a passionate crafter, so we get along well-- She takes great care to choose "wallpaper" and flooring from my stash of scrapbook paper. She will not lose this paper house for a long time yet, taking nothing for granted. Her happiness with a project catches Brendan and Madeleine in it's swirl, and they are amazed by how much gratitude overflows from Merry as she folds her magic house flat and packs up her things to go. "It's just a piece of paper," Madeleine shrugs, as if dollhouses dropped from the sky on a regular basis. "No, it's not just a piece of paper. It's a kitchen and a parlor!" Merry insists.

With me and Brendan, Madeleine argues about each suggested activity, even if she might like it very much. When I "made" her read two days ago, she insisted I set a timer for fifteen minutes-- but she read Twelve Tales by Hans Christian Andersen right through the timer, until I insisted she stop for dinner, for bathtime, for bed.

She's a beautiful character these days, colored with the first shades of pre-adolescence. It's hard to believe her teacher once worried that Madeleine might be behaving "too good," bent on pleasing and peace-making-- Mrs. Babcock made note when Madeleine was caught throwing pencils during the reign of a substitute teacher. Madeleine assures me there is a perfectly good reason why she was throwing pencils... Mrs. Babcock and I speak firmly with Madeleine, then share a knowing look when the children are looking elsewhere.

Days are notably longer. Sun sets at 5 p.m., but snow is still a possibility. We need snow for our mitten weather. Perhaps we will need to drive north until we find some.

a fluke within a mistake

So here’s the assignment: describe an event that changed your life. The essay is for an organization offering grants to students who “are seeking spiritual maturity.” (Yikes! I mean, I think I am… yes, definitely.) Their materials suggest that they are looking for candidates whose faith is worldly-relevant, as opposed to other-worldly. (That’s me, too.) You have two pages. You probably ought to choose a topic that shows distinction from other candidate’s likely topics, from world travelers, volunteers in social justice, people studying medicine, and other kinds of young’ns out to change the world. Make your small life seem more than a trifle—find a way to say, “changing the world within my four walls IS changing the world…”

Two pages is so short that I’m afraid I omitted all logical transition sentences and shortcut everything to make it sound like instantaneous change occurred—my apologies to anyone who knew me at age 24, 25, 26… it’s actually been a long change of direction. Hundreds of small events contributed, hundreds of mistakes were made along the way, and I’ve probably made ten thousand arrogant remarks before this shift of worldview-- and theology-- settled in well.

I also cut out an entire paragraph about Isak Dineson’s tale Babette’s Feast, about a small grace-filled life bearing tremendous fruit. It broke my heart to remove it, but there was no room. I’m afraid it disappeared on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

The complete scholarship application added up to fifteen pages. This is the third scholarship application I’ve assembled in six weeks…

Sometimes transformation is so subtle it can barely be seen: my professor read a passage from a book. This professor’s presence was a fluke and the entire course was later named a mistake. This professor flushed with radiance and tears flowed from the corners of his eyes for love of a book. Who was I, coming into this reading? Why did this fluke-within-a-mistake draw everything together? What brought me to kairos, high time for what I needed to hear?

In George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, a girl is cursed with “a lack of gravity,” no weight of character or body. She spends much of the story tethered with a golden cord, to keep her from floating into oblivion. While my birth to an auto worker and an upholsterer ensured some gravity and an un-princess-like childhood, still I can identify with that girl, floating away from troubles “below” by dreaming, reading, and living much of life in my head, and as little as possible with my feet in the muck. The life of my imagination seemed superior to my day-to-day life. A few pleasures tethered me: riding my bicycle, playing shortstop, walking the rural fringes of my town. But mostly the Real World seemed empty, grimy, filled with excess noise and ugliness. In my education, later, I learned the phrase Greek Dualism, or The Mind/Body Split.

Mine is the story of becoming an undivided person. Mine is the story of gravity.

I learned as a child not to trust in my body. I've carried that burden through my life
But there's a day when we all have to be pried loose…
I’ve seen the flame of hope among the hopeless, and that was the straw that broke me open…

The Last Night of the World, from Breakfast in New Orleans, by Bruce Cockburn, 1999 Ryco Records

To name three “pryings-loose” from that weightless curse, first I entered a set of church doors as a teenager. A warm family asked me to share their pew. The four young children argued who would sit next to me, who would sit in my lap. Until that moment, no one in the world wanted my affection, let alone my physical presence. It was a cinder block church with crank-out frosted windows, so it’s not like I was transported to a place where Things Mattered. But I became a treasured person with a lap, worth welcoming. I grew immediately more comfortable, not only in church, but in the world at large.

In a second “prying-loose,” an ad on a college bulletin board enticed me to Estes Park, Colorado for a summer job in the Rocky Mountains. I knew nothing, no one, and I found I was hungry for anything, bold, and new as the day I was born. I’d never left Indiana for more than a few days. Even the air smelled exotic, like pine and vanilla and snow. My summer roommate spoke five languages and grew up on three continents. My co-workers were from places I’d never imagined, and they saw the world differently. Still, we all loved Colorado, and all we could taste, touch, smell, see and hear.

I grew frustrated that I’d been living my life on pavement, unconscious of the direction of the wind or the means of predicting weather. I grew frustrated that I’d wasted so much of my life watching television! I bought hiking boots, snapped photos, learned the names of peaks and wildflowers. I lived on earth, now, and loved its undeniable charms.

When I returned to my college, I understood Christianity to be suspicious of worldliness and pleasure, so sometimes I threw myself into my experience, and other times I held back. It’s not that I didn’t see instances of theology in action: my favorite professor showed me how to compost. I spent a week in inner city Chicago for a course on Social Justice, and spring break with Habitat for Humanity in Boston.

But there was a deep rift in my theology, a weakness where I’d grown up protecting myself. In my small town, mistakes are never forgotten, and one doesn’t outgrow timidity easily. So I more or less did everything right. And that’s who I was.

I trained to work for the world’s best college ministry, where I attended the fluke course on the foundations of Reformational thought. For the third prying-loose, the professor began to read. In The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, Robert Farrar Capon describes recipes and principles of cooking, physical heartburn and the inconsolable heartburn of longing for the kingdom of God, a love that is “vast and inconvenient.”

It is tempting, of course, to blunt [love’s] edge by caution. It is so much easier not to get involved—to thirst for nothing and for no one, to deny that matter matters and… to make your bed with meanings which cannot break your heart… such faintness is unworthy…

If I am to lift music [into that city of God], I must lay such hands upon it as not only give me power over it, but also give it power over me. If I am to be the priestly agent by which some girl with high cheekbones enters the exchanges of that [future] city, I must be prepared for the possibility that she may wind my clock beyond all mortal hope of repair…

…playing it safe is not Divine. ..God saved the world not by sitting up in heaven and issuing antiseptic directives, but by becoming man, and vulnerable, in Jesus. He died, not because he despised the earth, but because he loved it as a man loves it—out of all proportion and sense. (p. 189-90, Harvest/HBJ 1969)

Capon—and my professor—presented a God of extravagance and heft, a God of grace who loves every particle of this creation. That’s the God I love, I thought, the God I’ve always hoped to know. Matter truly matters! Alongside big ministry visions and dreams, I learned to cook, penciling notes in the margins, and bought my first bottle of wine. I began to look for the grace that creeps through the cracks of our lives, usually through the flukes and mistakes and the feeling that we don’t know what on earth we are doing. I embraced the mysteries my mind cannot touch. I didn’t give up on my teenage faith: I filled it, or left it open at last for God to fill to overflowing.

Over dinner, my husband asked about my essay topic, and smiled about Capon. My nine-year-old daughter asked why I did not write about her birth.

“I can write whole books of events that changed my life,” I said. “In fact I wrote a whole different essay that simply listed forty events that changed my life-- including your birth. But I like this essay better.” I needed to love this life to be capable of marriage and “being a body,” of childbirth and making a real home.

As a writer, it’s the real sensation of the world that inspires and gives power. As a mother, the scent behind my son’s ear spins the planet, and alertness to my children’s vulnerability colors each day. As a reader of biblical texts, I need us to see those characters as human, without the veneer of fantasy about good people “winning” and bad people punished. Culturally, faith seems confused with “morality,” an ungracious denial of this glorious and messy world God has created. All I can do to speak into this cultural vortex—all I can do is speak honestly of my experience, and to teach others to do the same.

It’s a small tale, this story of the simple incarnation of spirit in one woman’s life. I heard a magical call to live in the world I’ve been given, to love my world beyond “all proportion and sense,” for God’s sake. I see the effects, when I look at the people in my life carefully. It’s a joyous assignment, to live a life rooted in reality, by the best sort of gravity and grace.

Addendum: it’s a bit too much to claim, living in reality, when I am also choosing to live so much of my life with stories stirring in my head, and so much time at the keyboard ignoring the realities of the housecleaning, located just over my shoulder. I’m hoping they won’t see that massive inconsistency, though! If you see it, please humor me.

And wish me luck.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

wishful thinking

Madeleine is still hoping for snow. So am I. Winter without snow-- what's the use of it?