Friday, June 30, 2006

Becoming an Episcopalian

It was from years of Christmases spent with my aunt and uncle that I came to be an Episcopalian. My aunt was my mother's older sister by three years. They were close in a way I never understood, being an only child. They had survived the depression as teenagers, had worked to put each other through trade schools, had double dated during the war. My aunt had sent the money for us to come by train to Portland, to help my mother rebuild her life there. She cosigned on the loan when my mom bought the little beauty shop in New Hampshire. She paid my way to camp in the summer. She and my uncle lived twenty miles away, and after the move, we went to their house for Christmas every year.

In addition to the love and loyalty, there existed a subterranean rivalry between the two sisters that was rarely spoken out loud. My aunt "married well". She hooked a doctor. My aunt was determined to rise above her station. She played bridge with the ladies, collected antiques, had a decorator furnish her house. I liked her style, which irritated my mother. My mom was much more down to earth, less fussy about things. The sisters shared a love of alcohol, though, and when they were in their cups the old animosities would surface. My mom took a perverse pleasure in reminding my aunt that she hadn't always been the doctor's wife.

Auntie Hon, as she was called, had immediately converted to my uncle's church... he was the cradle Episcopalian in the family, and every Christmas eve we all trooped out to midnight mass. My uncle loved the liturgy. He took great delight in my ability to memorize all the prayers. I took great delight in being able to recite everything at the right time and place, to kneel, stand and sit when I was supposed to. My mother suffered these midnight excursions with a wry humor. It wasn't that she didn't believe, she just wasn't into all the pomp and circumstance. "More hossin up and down than a three ring circus!" was one of her favorite descriptions of the Episcopal mass. There's a lot less of the kneeling/sitting/standing now. She might have liked it better.

My aunt was on the altar guild and took me along a few times to help her. I liked all that careful preparation and soaked up her instructions like a sponge. She'd be amused that I'm now the sacristan here at Melrose.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Emerging Church

One of the better takes on "Emerging Church" (yet another buzzword in our ongoing church evolution) can be found here. And while this post was written back in April of last year, (always a late bloomer... that's me), The buzzword is just now getting spread around at St. Bart's in Manhattan. They have a new 7:00 pm service on Sunday nights called Emerge.

They've had a 7:00 pm Eucharist for a few years, now. It was originally called "Come as You Are", which I personally liked. I loved the dress code and the metaphor. What better way to come to God's altar than as you are... stripping away all the pretenses... ALL of them. I haven't had an opportunity to check out Emerge yet. Maybe when I move back to the city I'll see if I can get a Sunday night off. But I digress...

In his post, Kyle Potter says:
Being together as a people, who are blessed to be a blessing, is the great work for God that we are called to do.

If that truly is what emerging church is all about, then we can certainly all use a little more of it these days.

Monday, June 26, 2006


In our community brochure we say that we are called to be "vessels of the Holy Spirit." Pretty Poetic language for a bunch of women who dig in the dirt all day. (Not that we all dig in the dirt. Usually I do not.) But at Melrose, our lifestyle does revolve around the farm and its needs. We take turns getting up to let the ducks out on our rest day, not everybody sleeps in.

We've had long discussions and planning sessions for what our work, our ministry here, will look like. Do we want to focus on programs? Do we want to get off the grid entirely? What would it take? We spend Sunday afternoons in a discussion course called Earth Cycles; the latest round is from the Northwest Earth Institute out of Portland, OR.

We sometimes fail in our efforts toward sustainability, but we are committed. It's not a fad for us. Yesterday we spent an inordinate amount of time discussing whether (or not) it was right to continue to support Blockbuster. They are not a local enterprise, but they are closer than the movie theaters, so require less gas consumption. Their rentals are cheaper than Netflix. (We tried them for a while, but kept the movies for three weeks at a time, so it didn't pay.)

Each choice has consequences. Examining all the variations on the theme used to drive me bonkers when I first came to community. Just make a decision! But each member's voice is heard and respected. It takes a while. We ended up deciding to try the library as an alternative. We'll see how that works and evaluate it in a few months.

In a few months I won't be here.

Carrying the commitment to a new location is tricky. It won't look the same because the community there is different: different needs, different voices. Yet if I am truly dedicated, my voice will be heard.

Vessels of the spirit... carrying the dedication with me like a water jar.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

My Nana

I like to write about my Nana.

For one thing, she's been dead a long time now. (The dead never advise you that your blog has hurt their feelings.) For another, she was an integral part of my life from age seven to twelve. She was an odd mixture of folklore and bigotry, graciousness and secret-keeping. She loved to sing and to cook... She taught me how to pull taffy. She had odd words for things: she called a fry pan a spider, and my outlandish combinations of clothing rigs. "Just where do you think you're going in that rig?" she'd ask before sending me back up to my apartment to change. She was also a large woman, and very huggable. She wore a corset. I saw her once (by accident) in her corset and she screamed to high heaven, then chased me out of the room.

I had a cousin a year older than I, and she was always worried we were doing "dirty" things (translate: sexual things) in the bathroom. We'd lock the door, hide behind it and giggle. She'd come racing down the long hallway and pound on the door. "You come out of there, right now! I'm going to tell your mothers when they get home!) She never outright told on us, but she would make statements that implied we'd been up to no good.

We had been up to no good, but not in the way she imagined. We had found a treasure trove in the medicine cabinet: my grandfather's false teeth, a shaving brush and gold razor, a cobalt blue eye wash cup, Nana's douche bag. We took turns putting in the teeth and tried to smile in the mirror. That endeavor was good for ten minutes of fits of laughter. We washed out our eyes with the little cup. We filled up the douche bag and squirted each other with it. I wanted to see if we could water the potted plants, but we were afraid to take any of those things out of the bathroom, which is why we kept getting caught behind the locked door.

Apparently Nana had reason to worry about "dirty" things being done behind her back. From the bits of overheard conversations, my grandfather may have been arrested in his youth for his penchant for pedophilia. I have personal knowledge of at least four people he molested: my aunt, my mother, my cousin and me. These could not have been isolated cases. Although no one ever admitted it, I think our move to New Hampshire (when I was twelve) may have had something to do with an underlying fear that he might not have changed his ways. And although people were willing to say outright that Nana liked to gamble, nobody ever said that Grampa liked to undress small children. Nothing was ever mentioned by anyone until I was married with two children of my own, and I brought it up once when my aunt and mother were visiting. I don't remember how the topic came up. I may have mentioned it in passing, or I may have wanted to finally spill the beans about something that had haunted me for years. I do remember that there was a period of complete silence where both sisters looked at each other uncomfortably, and then my mother said very quietly, "I always wondered." My aunt replied, "Well, you know what he did to us..."

Great. Thanks so much. A whole helluva lot of good that did me at age seven. But that's me speaking now. At the time I was too dumbfounded that they knew about him, that they had experienced the same treatment. Wow. Really?

My mother went on the defensive. "This shouldn't have happened. Where was Nana? I paid her good babysitting money. She was supposed to be home!" Ahhh... but don't you remember? Nana liked to gamble. She was out spending her babysitting money on Bingo.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

No addicts

Nana likes to gamble. That was the way we talked in my family. Not Nana has a gambling problem, or Nana is a gambling addict. There were no addicts of any kind in my family. We didn't go off the deep end, no therapy or support groups needed, thank you very much.

Which explains why my mom was so embarrassed when I (in my forties) saw a therapist after my divorce, and then enrolled in a six week writing workshop for Adult Children of Alcoholics. It was a twofold threat: first, people might think her daughter had gone off the deep end, and worse, they might think her mother had been an alcoholic. The idea that she still might be an alcoholic wasn't even a consideration.

My mom liked to drink, (as they say in my family) and sometimes she liked it a lot. She was a binge drinker. She could go all week with a few cocktails after work, but come Saturday morning, she'd finish her morning coffee and within half an hour would mix her first drink. A fifth of Old Mr. Boston Pinch Bottle would be consumed most weekends. Her reasoning was: if she was on her feet, ready for work on Monday morning, there was no problem. And, marvel of marvels... she always was.

She rarely missed a day of work due to illness. She had a couple of bouts with colitis and was hospitalized for those, but otherwise she was one healthy woman. And strong. She was five feet three and a half inches, and she could lift furniture like a man. I inherited those heavy lifting genes. My stamina isn't what it used to be; I have to set things down more often than I once did, but I can still lift.

The other day I was perched at the top of the wire shelving units in the pantry at St. Bart's. (Did I mention I also like to climb?) I was trying to stack cases with #5 lb. cans of tuna fish twelve high. Six cans to a case = heavy. I was teetering the final box up over my head when I got tired. It started to slip and, overcompensating, I lost balance. I grabbed the steel mesh and caught both the box and myself, and thought, "I could break my neck falling from up here."

I climbed down and wondered (briefly) if I'm a riskaholic. Hmmm. Good thing we have no addicts in my family.

Friday, June 23, 2006

God loves:

Metaphor, Mystery. Beauty, Variation... He/She loves to laugh, with a wry sense of humor and a compassionate heart. How did I come to this conclusion? The clues are everywhere, reflected in ourselves and the nature of our world.

Putting clues together is part of the adventure of the mystery. Creating us "in His/Her image" is yet another mysterious metaphor. Do we look like God? We hardly even look like each other.

So just what is an image? A reflection...? God looking back at God? Too radical?

Finding sacred patterns (that exist everywhere) is one clue. The fish swim their dance, humans build (and walk) elaborate labyrinths. Spirals, circles turning in on themselves. Time, as we measure it, has been trial (and error). Always.

Practice. It's also about practice. Getting it, learning it, having it be second nature. Like a repeating pattern in a great tapestry. If our first nature is to be like God—to reflect who and/what God is... then why do we keep falling so short of who we think God is? Maybe the mirror is distorted, like the fun house mirrors at the circus. Maybe our idea of who God is is distorted. Oops... too radical?

Our church has elected its first woman presiding bishop. Wahoo! This decision appears to have been a huge surprise for some. Our community saw it coming, I think. But then we know her; she's one of our bishop visitors.

She, like God, has risen from the ranks of turmoil and dissension: a vital, creating, reconciling force that finds power, rejuvenation— in the stillpoint of the void. She pauses, considers her answer to some thorny question before she speaks, and then blows us away with her wisdom. God speed, Katherine.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Moving on

It's just been decided... I move back to the city the first of August. There are mixed emotions all around. I know some sisters will be glad, others will be disappointed. I'm a mixed bag over the whole thing, even though it was my choice.

"There are no preferences in the religious life." I was told my first year of postulancy. But the truth is more like "We'll be glad to consider your preferences, but the needs of the community take precedence." That's as it should be, but in this case the needs of the community weren't affected. It was a one-for-one personnel swap. The other sister couldn't decide, so my vote won the toss. (I just hate when that happens.)

Riding into the city this morning was strange. I looked out the window of the train and thought... "Only a few more opportunities to watch the seasons change from here." As the knowledge sinks in, I realize I am already in move mode, with still a month and a half to go. I looked at my to-do list this morning and mentally changed priorities. Certain projects moved up in urgency, others plummeted to the bottom of the list.

I don't feel excited yet, but that will come. I'll begin by taking inventory, and then start packing, a box at a time. Right now I'm just a little sad. Both convents are home to me... choosing one over the other was tough, and my choice was based on a desire to live with elderly sisters who have unpredictable life expectancies. Time is running out to be with them. I don't want to miss it. But every choice has sacrifices. I'm already being confronted with them.

The city convent is a bastion for conservatism. There, God is always a boy's name. I'm so spoiled by the creative liturgies we've been developing here. Last night was our monthly full moon fireside... we celebrated the summer solstice this month instead of the full moon. It was the first one of these events I've totally enjoyed, and now I'm leaving. It takes me a while to adapt to new ways. I feel like I'm just getting there and everything will change.

My mentor says she understands my choice. Why can't I believe that? Maybe because I'm not sure I understand it.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Truth and Consequences

I f*cked up. (Sorry, but no other word suffices.) Looking back on my life... at things I've done and said... this isn't new. Maybe the truth is it's part of human nature. (Look at Adam and Eve.) And looking at them, it's obvious the first response to being called on the carpet for your sins is to justify your actions. "She made me do it... it was the snake's fault."

Only no one made me do it and it was my fault. Is my fault. The pen is mightier than the sword is a cliché for a reason. It happens to be true... (In my case, the keyboard. Same difference.)

I wrote a post debunking a myth that women in religious communities spend their days in compassionate harmony with each other, unlike the outside world, where it can be dog eat dog. I specifically wrote about annoying habits—those of my own, and those of some of my sisters. That the post was mostly about me and my own uncharitable response to irritating events—went unnoticed by the one sister who honed in on the two sentences that described the dark side of her personality.

She was shattered.

I should have known better. I'm older, supposedly wiser. Ha! She confronted me with her hurt, told me I was not her friend. Of course I denied that. I like her (love her) more than many of my sisters. I explained and justified, apologized that she was hurt, feigned ignorance of why she was so hot and bothered by what I'd said. We talked for a long time... quietly, tearfully, compassionately. Well, she did.

I was still stinging from the rebuke, downplaying the two sentences that had hurt her in the midst of several paragraphs that had nothing to do with her. I emphasized my final conclusion that "we are not our annoying habits" but the damage was already done. I could see that, and nothing was going to change her perception. Because it was her truth.

When people hurt each other, whether on purpose or by accident, they have to face the consequences.

As I typed along, did I know what I wrote would hurt her? Maybe. Did I care? Not enough. Ouch. All my adult life I've journaled, but blogging is my first attempt at writing for an audience. I'm just beginning to flex muscles I never knew I had, and the truth is I don't know my own strength.

The thrill of exploring a new creative avenue feels good, like when I first learned to cook from scratch. But a fallen cake can be dumped in the trash and all I've lost is the expense of the ingredients. Nobody got poisoned. Not so with my writing. What I wrote and how it was received poisoned our relationship. It may die. I may have killed it.

To say I didn't know it would end up like this is folly. I should have known. Ouch. To say I'm sorry and expect that will make it all go away is folly too. Because the truth is my need to write overpowered my need to be compasssionate. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Merging stories

I've detected a trend lately.

Some days I'll write an autobiographical chapter (from the vast and terribly interesting annals of my life,) and then I'll write about something I'm grappling with today. Whether it's the unique challenge of living in community or some new thought about God, there's a see-saw effect going on that I can't seem to control.

That's not new. I've been a "flitter" from the day of my birth... short attention span. I can come back to an idea and pick it up and run with it for a while, but then I drop it and go on to something else. I read three to five books at a time, a chapter here from one, a paragraph there from another. I will eventually get them all read, but it takes awhile.

So here's an attempt to merge two streams of thought... something from my past that has cause and effect on my present.

I mentioned a few posts back that I have money issues. More accurately: lack of money issues. In the day to day living of my life, it's no big deal. I don't have a huge wish list of things I want. It's when I go out into the world and interact with friends and relatives that I fall back into the old tape recordings of my childhood.

My mother came of age during the Great Depression. She and Nana stilled called it that when I was little, and they'd tell me stories about how awful it was. There were the "food" stories: supper might be a single boiled potato, or a bowl of saltine crackers and milk. (Crackers and milk later became one of my mom's favorite comfort foods, especially during the summer when it was too hot to cook.) There were the "make do or do without" stories. When my mom graduated from high school, the girls were required to wear white dresses. She couldn't afford to buy one, so she embroidered a tablecloth and napkins. For weeks she sold raffle tickets door to door for a quarter. She earned enough money to buy the material to make her dress.

My mom was an excellent seamstress. She made all my clothes, until I reached the age of wanting something with a label in the collar, just like the other kids. When I was pregnant with my first son, tent dresses were in fashion, and she altered a basic pattern to make me maternity dresses. Our tastes were very different though. My mom loved big splashy prints in loud colors; I liked little Laura Ashley flowers. We both liked plaid, so that was the compromise. She admitted only once that she had wanted to be a dress designer when she grew up, but Nana had told her "Just get that idea out of your head right now!" There was no money for design school. Instead, my mom worked as a maid to put her older sister through nursing school, and then her sister worked to pay her way through hairdressing school. She didn't want to be a hairdresser, it was my aunt's idea. (It was one of the cheapest trade schools.)

Later when my dad left, she would say it was a good thing she had that profession to fall back on, because we'd be starving if she hadn't. Having a profession to fall back on became a regular theme of any discussion of what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I learned our family's complicated money dance. It went like this: something handmade was nice but something bought and paid for was special. A handmade gift or card produced a wan smile and "oh isn't this nice? She made it." While something purchased with allowance or later, babysitting money received a standing ovation. "I love it! You shouldn't have! You spent your hard earned money to buy me this? This must have cost a fortune." (Translate: You must really love me.) Of course it makes sense in retrospect, but it was a piss-poor way to encourage the creativity of an artistic child.

The way to solve problems, the way to express love, the way to feel worthwhile revolved around money. You pursue a career that makes good money means you're ambitious... a success. You manage your money well... you're a success. You spend lavishly... you really love me. And our culture definitely supports that view. Buy, buy, buy... to keep the economy strong.

Now I am an adult, and new friends have helped me rethink and reshape. I'm much better than I was, but some days I just can't get that old song out of my head.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

It's All Small Stuff

Living in community is not for wimps. it's the day-in-day-out annoyances that rub so raw... not the big stuff. The big stuff is easier, it compels our compassion, forgiveness. The small stuff just wears me down.

I've been told that men in community are not catty like women. (Their issues revolve around testosterone.) But women are catty. I am catty. One sister talks to the air. She chatters incessantly to herself and anyone else in close proximity. "Are you talking to me, sister?" I ask (translate: won't you just shut up! I have no interest in what you're rambling on about! I can't think when you're running your own to-do list out loud...) Why does that bother me so? I also talk to myself; it's not an isolated disease. One reason: I can't selectively focus anymore. Ambient noise distracts me. That includes music with lyrics or a strong beat, two or more people chatting while I'm trying to think. I need quiet when I'm cooking, driving, writing. I need it... and when I can't have it I'm irritated.

Another sister is often in high drama mode, even when she isn't. Insecure about her own self worth, she needs to be the center of attention. Her presence can be draining. Another wants to pontificate about how the religious life should be lived, giving all kinds of illustrations and examples from her own experience, as if only she has the key to understanding. She has no clue how condescending she can come off. I don't believe she means it that way.

God only knows how many obnoxious things I do to annoy them... but I can probably think of some: rattling on about someone's comment on my blog, talking in the voice of a three year old, insisting that the cutting boards be stacked a certain way. I'm quick to criticize and can be sharp and sarcastic. (Besides falling into the catty trap... again and again.)

I have a theory. If you're the least bit neurotic when you enter, you'll be more so the longer you stay. We live too close together: 24/7 in each other's faces. It's a double edged sword. The bad news is we're often irritated with each other. The good news is we get to face our issues over and over, until we decide to work them out. It's not for wimps.

The other good news (that we maybe don't articulate to each other often enough,) is that we also know we are not our annoying habits. We are so much more than that, such a complex blend of delightful and exasperating. Each sister has gifts, strengths, a unique personality. We give generously of our love and compassion when the chips are down. When the chips are up we can too easily focus on the small stuff.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Gravity and Dangerous Friendships

Apparently it's not liturgically correct to transfer a feast day backwards, and certainly not unless it's a double feast. Only special saints get the high holy days... the Virgin Mary, apostles and evangelists, people who founded religious orders, even Mary Magdalene gets a double.

Bernard Mizeki was a Christian martyr in Rhodesia in 1896, and his feast day is tomorrow, Sunday, so the Sabbath takes precedence and he just gets bumped this year. But one of our sisters spent a good deal of time in South Africa. It's still in her blood (probably always will be) and she asked if we could transfer him to today, which is a feria (which means nothing particular is happening.)

The first response was: "No." No, as in it's just not done, not liturgically correct. Then it was explained that he was an African martyr and we got why it was important to our sister. I (a bit sarcastically) asked, "When have we been worried about liturgical correctness?" That's true. We're experimenting a lot these days... finding things to pray and sing that reflect our new understanding of God, the Universe, our place on Earth, our Mother. We're reading from other religious traditions and focusing on a paragraph a day from The Universe Story for our wisdom sharing. (Translate Bible Study without the Bible.) So we sang the collect for Bernard at Morning Prayer and read from Sam Portaro's Brightest and Best, an updated companion to Lesser Feasts & Fasts. Transferral accomplished.

Today's paragraph in The Universe Story was on gravity. All of these intersecting ideas were whirling in my brain as we shared our thoughts. I was thinking gravity, not as in Newton's "force" which causes us to stick to the ground instead of flying off into space, but as in the gravity of the situation... the seriousness of it. Martyrdom is a grave issue, (pun intended) and Portaro's portrayal of Bernard Mizeki was one of "dangerous friendships". He fled oppression in Portuguese East Africa and was befriended by missionaries and became a Christian. He went on to convert other Central Africans and was trapped (and killed) by the conflict between Europeans whom he loved as friends, and the natives, whom he loved as friends.

Jesus never said it would be easy. Simple, yes, not easy. And so, as I think more about what friendship means, what gravity means, what Jesus means... I'm beginning to put it all together. It's all of a piece. Nothing separate, all in relationship... my sisters are my sisters, but they are also my friends. Portaro says: Even when they are not fatal, friendships can be life-changing, introducing death in another guise. That's serious.

It occurred to me...

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Christmas Memory

Grand Central Station, New York City... it was undergoing a major renovation when I moved here in 1995. They were repairing the ceiling, which has outlines of the major constellations in our hemisphere. I looked up at the beautiful blue on the part they had already cleaned and didn't remember it. The marble floor I remembered.

I had just turned seven, and it was the middle of the night. (At seven, you're much closer to the floor than the ceiling, especially in Grand Central.) We had been traveling for three days from Fort Lauderdale, FL, and were changing trains to go on to Portland, ME. It was the day before Christmas, 1952.

I don't know why we weren't at Penn Station, now that I think of it; maybe that was a different railroad then. We were definitely at Grand Central. My mom and I had three suitcases and two shopping bags full of presents and a long pole thing wrapped up in brown paper. It wasn't heavy, but I kept dropping it and my mom kept fussing at me to hold on to it tighter. I was sitting on the biggest suitcase, studying the marble floor. She had gone off in search of coffee for herself and something to eat for me.

It was a layover, and our next train would not leave for another several hours. I was tired and cranky and wanted to see if I could play hopscotch using the marble squares as my guidelines. She had said not to move from the suitcase. It was heavy and we had pretty much kicked it all the way across the floor. Nobody was around to ask if we needed any help carrying things... those days people actually did that. But at two-something A.M., the place was pretty much deserted.

I was just about to risk a hop or two away from the suitcase when she arrived with chocolate milk and a ham sandwich, so I passed the time munching my snack. She drank coffee and smoked. I don't remember much else about the trip: we kicked our suitcases the rest of the way to the next train, (someone may have helped us) and we arrived the next night at my grandparents' apartment just in time for bed so Santa Claus could come. I was pretty worried about Santa Claus not getting the message, considering we had up and moved at the last minute. But everyone seemed so sure it would be okay. He was magic, omniscient, he would know we had moved.

That was the year I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up. I did not want to be a cowgirl, and so I had been pretty specific about the gift requests: cowboy hat, cap pistols, cowboy suit (meaning fringed pants not skirt) and a pogo stick horse. The horse I had seen in a department store window. It had a white striped pole above the pegs you stood on, and a stuffed white wool horse head with a black yarn mane. It was an advanced hobby horse of sorts, and I knew it would be the most perfect substitute for a real horse I could expect, since we were soon to live in a fourth floor apartment.

Christmas morning arrived and we gathered in the dining room at Nana's little table-top tree to see what Santa had left. Lots of wrapped presents? That was odd. Santa's presents were always just out in the open with no wrapping, everyone knew that. But, sure enough, all the tags said to me from Santa... so I started unwrapping.

Okay! a cowboy suit! Next came the cap guns. No, I could not shoot them off in the house. Or anywhere near the apartment, not even on the back piazza. We would go to "the Oaks" later, a large park down the street. The neighbors would not tolerate noisy cap guns. In fact, my grandparents revealed that the landlord had not wanted to rent the upstairs apartment to a woman with a small child, but everyone had assured him I was a quiet child and would not run up and down the four flights of stairs. I would walk quietly and be very ladylike. Awwww. Okay.

The next gift was a completely smashed red felt cowboy hat. We tried to smooth it out, and Nana said she would wet it down and reshape it for me, but I distinctly remembered having sat on one of the shopping bags when we were traveling. Hmmm. The adults began opening their gifts. My mother got a new pocketbook. That's funny, it looked exactly like one I had seen in Florida. Hmmm.

I was wondering what had happened to the horse. What good was a cowboy with no horse? I was afraid to ask. My mom had been crying earlier and I had heard Grampa swearing... "That bastard better not show his face around here!" and I knew bastard was one of the words I was not allowed to say and Nana had "shushed" him, and smiled at me kind of funny. So I didn't mention the horse.

By now, all of the gifts were open and the paper and ribbons were cleared away. Nana said "Isn't something missing?" Grampa chimed in, "Are you sure that's ALL the presents Helen?" talking to my mom. "oh. gee, maybe there's something else that we forgot..." as she got up and disappeared into the living room. She came back smiling, holding up another wrapped present... a long pole thing with lumps near the bottom. I opened it... a very modern shiny gray steel pogo stick. Where was my horse?!?

Everyone looked at me expectantly as I tried not to cry. This was not what I had asked Santa for and nobody seemed to get it. My mother looked hurt, "You said you wanted a pogo stick. This is a pogo stick." But I had wanted a horse pogo stick, not a Buck Rogers pogo stick. They still didn't get it.

I was an ungrateful brat. I hurt my mother's feelings, at a time when she was most vulnerable. I never learned to hop on it, never really tried. And I did shoot my cap gun off the back piazza when Nana wasn't home to tell on me. Until the caps were all gone.

Oh, and I figured out a couple of days later that the pogo stick was exactly the same size as that pole thing I'd been dropping, if you unbolted the pegs at the bottom... Santa Claus was a hoax.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Straddling the Abyss

I've been away for a long weekend in Newport, Rhode Island. My friend bought a little summer house there in 2003, and I've been going there for rest time ever since I entered the community. I actually lived in Newport once, a million lifetimes ago. It's always just a little weird to go back.

Most everything has changed (for the better) but the sight of old buildings, wrought iron fences, sailboats in the harbor... all jog memories of my first attempts at homemaking and child raising. My older son was three weeks old when we moved into one of three converted chicken coops in Middletown, RI. Later we moved to an upstairs apartment in the Portuguese section of Newport, just off Thames Street. We found that apartment, but never could locate the chicken coops. They must have torn them down.

This trip there were four of us, (all team members from the last Cursillo weekend) and they all knew me "before". They all work: one is a lawyer, another a school principal, another a creative consultant, coordinating communication packages for corporate benefit plans. I was once a member of their hectic and hassled lifestyle. Now I'm different. My body clock is hardwired to my monastic schedule early to bed and early to rise... and that made me a party pooper most nights. It also meant I was generally the first one up.

The ritual of quietly padding down the wooden stairs in my bare feet to turn the coffee on... that was lovely. The stairs are quiet, (unlike our convent stairs that creak and groan) so the only perceptible noise was my ankles crunching. If I step carefully the sound is deceptive, but when I move quickly the rhythm matches that of those little rice-filled eggs we shake at our drumming circles. My rice-filled ankles made me smile.

I did things, ate things, enjoyed everything that is no longer part of my life as a sister. I read novels, stayed in my jammies all morning, didn't make my bed. I ate fried clams, lobster, hot pastrami sandwiches. I went shopping. At the same time, my internal censors were on keen alert this year... everything from not composting garbage to soft toilet paper to sleeping in a way too comfortable bed: all a blended tapestry of delightful and guilt-ridden. Where was I in all of this luxury? I lost the edges of myself trying to reconcile it all.

I am the odd girl out... and what I love so much about these women is they cut me slack. They knew me when, but they support me now. And that means a whole lot more than just letting me duck out to bed early while they stay up to play. It means putting their money on the line. A vow of poverty is a tricky piece of work when you're trying to maintain girlfriend relationships with women who still have to earn their own living. They have bills to pay and budgets to maintain. As pathetic as my income is (we receive a $25 stipend each month), it's all discretionary. The community puts the roof over my head, pays for my food and dental bills, buys me new shoes when the old ones wear out. I am a kept woman. (Claire Joy—Kept of God.)

But any vacation, even the most modest, takes money. Two of us were out shopping and found the most wonderful tee shirts with a cartoon of four women and the caption "Girls' Weekend—Newport, RI" They were so perfect. They were also expensive. My friend bought four: one for each of us. FOUR. Now that's something I probably would have done three years ago, but I can't do it now. I couldn't even buy one. Then there was the dinner party we hosted Saturday night... everyone was chipping in and I felt like the widow in Jesus' parable... with my mites. I did what I could. I cooked. But Jesus never mentioned how embarrassing it is to be the cheapskate of the group. It's my issue. And I'm having a furball of a time dealing with it.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Blogger has been a royal pain in the you know what lately...
I'm taking a que (or is it cue?) from KPJara here and going on
blog-cation too.
It's pouring down rain (has been for four days here) but I'm off to the beach anyway. (Just don't expect any visible tan lines.) I'm taking a good book: Plan B, Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. See you next week.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Well it is 06/06/06...

gif animation

New life in the country (saga continues)

In a small town everyone knows and minds your business. We lived on the main street (called Main Street) of town, because my mother had purchased a small beauty shop and was trying to build a client base. Since church was a way to be seen and to meet people, we now went to church. Our new church was my mother’s standby: Congregational. I loved the new hymns and the sermons were interesting, topical and short. There was an active youth group. A new minister had arrived with two teenaged sons, and the older son was in my class. We became friends.

But my mother was not enjoying the rural environment. She was drinking heavily, and as I entered my teens our clashes became more hostile. We argued over everything. I was not the daughter of her dreams, and she was definitely not the mother of mine.

I made matters worse by pouring her whiskey down the sink when she went on her weekend binges. I ran away from home once after she had gotten drunk one night and I could hear her on the sidewalk all the way from the bowling ally. She also had "dropped in" on our youth group leader, (whom I adored) who was working late in his office on Main Street. When she told me that, I was mortified and outraged. I disappeared the next morning and was gone well into the night. In my mind I was going to hitchhike to California and find my father, but whenever someone slowed down to offer me a ride, I panicked and ran off into the woods. I wandered lost most of the day. Each time I approached a house or roadway I turned aside and moved farther into the underbrush. If I hadn’t been so tired and cold, I might never have surfaced. My newly found guardian angel must have been guiding me, because I eventually emerged from the woods onto a highway, sat down and waited to be rescued. Some hours later a car stopped and the people inside were part of a search party. I had been hoping all day to be found by the youth group leader, the actual reason I had run away, and the only adult I thought would understand. I had prayed for this and was damn disappointed when he didn’t show up.

But God had heard, and was even willing to answer my prayers. His timing was just different than mine. This too would become a theme for my life… learning to accept God’s timing instead of my own. Because not long after that, this sweet man took a more personal and active interest in my spiritual growth. He became my human guardian angel, my absent father, guiding me through those turbulent years. He took me skiing, hiking, to afternoon concerts. I first heard Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols with him and was in tears by its beauty. We were good friends at first and then the relationship grew... into love. He was eleven years older than I, but I thought we were a good match. My hormones were raging and had he not had the resolve of a saint, I’d have seduced him. I tried for sure. But this was a small town, and he was more concerned with doing the right thing and keeping up appearances than I was. After my graduation, we finally went on our first “date”. I was ready to get married. And I was impatient with his reticence. He had protected me through high school, but he also wanted me to experience the world, go to college, create a life. He wouldn’t budge.

Monday, June 05, 2006

God: the Movie Producer

I was thinking of it this way: what if God is a movie producer... and all our stories, our lives are somewhere on a shelf in some Video Library of the Universe?

For some that image would imply predestination... that we have no choice in the plot of our stories. But suppose the lens of the camera is through our eyes. We're not only the main characters in our plots, we are the viewpoint as well. We're also making up our lines as we go along—the quintessential ad lib routine...because we don't know the plot. We've not been allowed to read the whole script through. Things may look pretty grim in Act III, but there's always hope for a twist of fate... a happy ending.

I've noticed that in most movies, a happy ending means just the opposite. It means that there's a promising beginning, pointing to some pleasant and productive future. It's why I cry at happy endings. (Well actually I used to cry because I never believed in my own promising or productive future.)

We seem to want to avoid endings in our own lives. Freeze the action right here, right now. Status quo. It doesn't work that way. Time drags us along, sometimes with dignity, sometimes kicking and screaming, but dragged along nonetheless. Sometimes time appears as the enemy, when in fact it is one of those survivaling laws of our material, natural world. "Survivaling"? is that a word? Okay so I made it up. Time warps, it slows, it speeds up, but it never stops. When it stops the world (as we know it) will end too.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

In Spite of the Evidence

It occurred to me that I could have saved us all a whole lot of time... all this storytelling—each little anecdote of my life one tiny brush stroke, laboriously painting the portrait...

I could have just listed my appropriate labels: adult child of an alcoholic, sexual incest survivor, divorcee... all of those labels gleaming like badges of suffering. Then I could have offered up my trophies to show how well I succeeded in spite of all that suffering: awards for animation, my CV, portfolio, blue ribbons for basketry, a list of corporate clients who have my art work in their collections. I could tell you these things and show you these things and maybe even weave it all together with a sprinkle of philosophical wonder and you would know who I am.

Nah... I don't even know who I am and I've lived all that stuff. One element seems to recur: survival. I took a lot of risks, (still do) trusted a lot of strangers. For more than half of my life I did those things pretty blindly, without much awareness. Awareness brought a little caution, but not much. Somewhere in my mid forties I realized I wanted something more "worthwhile" to add to my trophies, that in and of themselves, they meant very little. I craved something basic... feed the homeless, comfort the dying. Something was whispering "incomplete."

I've been "on the brink" of who I was to become so many times it makes me laugh. It especially makes me laugh to realize that life is so precarious and short that we are always on the brink without knowing it. (But sometimes I knew it.)