Saturday, January 29, 2011

the great divorce

We took an unexpected trip to the book store this morning (unexpected by me anyway, the boys had it planned while I was in the shower). Indulged a little by my husband, I bought three great fiber-arts magazines and two books by C.S. Lewis: "Miracles" and "The Great Divorce." I read "The Great Divorce" this afternoon, over a couple hours of intermittent attention, while fending off my husband's increasingly-desperate bids for attention. (He tried to distract me by putting "Baby Mama" in the dvd player.)

The urge to peruse the Christian section at Borders is one I often resist, because I have a long track record of reading the first two chapters of any book on spirituality or religion. Before sticking a place-marker in it and leaving it to gather dust in the growing pile. Writing style can be a huge turn-off for me, and to be wise one would sit down and skim at least one chapter before buying; which I seldom have time to do. What, get a library card you say? Yes, that would be very mature and resource-conscious of me, wouldn't it.

Anyway, today I gave the section a fleeting glance from at least eight feet away, and immediately caught site of the Lewis books. Knowing Lewis is supposed to be among the more accessible Christian writers (and certainly one of the best known), and hearing some distant bell related to a recent conversation with who-knows-whom about Lewis' great style, I got sucked in. The flyleaf for "The Great Divorce" promised to take me on a trip through moral and theological landscapes that occupy my thoughts regularly. I accepted the offer. "Miracles" just looked like something I'd enjoy, and I suppose I've been wanting some antidote to the shades of skepticism I routinely encounter; several of my good friends are Christians who really struggle with the supernatural elements of Christianity. (Virgin birth, Resurrection, Jesus as God.) And I'm married to an avowed agnostic.

"Divorce" reminds me just a little of Richard Matheson's 1978 novel "What Dreams May Come," and a quick Google search confirms that Matheson and Lewis both read Swedenborg (though it's as likely that Matheson read Lewis and just doesn't cite him.) There's a basic premise at work: Hell is a state of mind, a direct reflection of one's life-reality and the burdens of the soul that one clings to. Lewis' Heaven is, by contrast, the only true Reality, and never mere "state of mind," a direct manifestation of God in all things. Unlike Matheson, who apparently felt more comfortable with Eastern religion, reincarnation and many dream-like afterlife levels, Lewis in "Divorce" strives from the Introduction to make it clear that there IS such a thing as eternal damnation, that the one true Heaven is not won without sacrifice -- "If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell." There is a disclaimer of course, "The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world."

Well. Be that as it may, I find I must have absorbed at some point some of those mushy, poorly-considered and liberal concepts of Heaven and Hell as I've gone along: notions like perhaps there's no Hell at all, certainly no place like the vivid horror described of old, and not a place God assigns to gays and babies who die before they are baptized. I've even been willing to believe that we make our own Hells in life, and that afterward we all retire to Heaven, forgiven regardless of our crimes. That notion never really rang true however, though my doubt there comes as much from a vague cultural fear of heresy as from any contact with the Old Testament. So Lewis' Heaven and Hell make some sense to me, acknowledging his disclaimer the while. Hell is a choice we make, and consists chiefly of our worst moral and personal baggage. Heaven is letting go of those burdens, as well as our successes, letting go of our hubris and fear, and any affection for the material; once freed, we receive Joy and begin our final journey to God.

And so I think about those burdens I might be reluctant, surprisingly, to put aside: bitterness and envy, as well as a love for the material reality of this Earth, the beauty of creation as I see it. Lust, and worse: yearning for what I do not have, desiring what I do not possess; coveting what can never be truly mine, and desiring to possess another. My feelings of thwarted romantic entitlement, and whatever else prods me to toss and turn at night and to feel anger towards my God. As if, as if. It sounds like God will forgive me, if I want to be forgiven, AND if I will agree to give up the sins themselves -- which must be much harder than it sounds at first. We define ourselves as much by our failings and sorrows as by our beliefs and joys. Leave everything behind, and follow me, says Christ.

Who would I be, without my insistence on being "in love?" At almost any cost?

And what about the pleasures of Earth, the trees and the water and the birds, the rocks and the boots and the handbags, the children and the adults and the smell of the rain? Lewis' Heaven seems to contain all of these things in a state of resounding perfection, could it be so? Lewis also seems to say that sensuality might be a lesser crime...  do I see myself in the ghost who belittled her husband to death with constant bitter perfectionism? Do I see myself in the ghost who writhes and poses as if to tempt the angels, and shuffles back to Hell in disgust when no one is moved by her lust? Do I see my situation in the woman whose former lover returns to her in Heaven as a ghost, only to try one last time to coerce her into some greater adoration with guilt and self-pity? Am I the man who makes the mistake of thinking that we can, somehow, attain blamelessness on Earth?

All uncomfortable questions. I want to think I wouldn't resist, when the time came; would lay down my inconsequential affectations and embrace Joy. But I know Pride is a stumbling block.

And so I go on thinking. I've heard the Voice before, and I don't want to mess with my Maker, though every day I do it anyway.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

a moment of office-time

There are times when it is genuinely nice to sit in my office with the door shut. Often I'm just hiding from the sense of being overwhelmed by details, in my job as the administrator for a church, non-profit community center and food shelf (simultaneously). Our building, a large former elementary school, hosts a small charter school now for children with disabilities and special considerations. They are one of nearly a dozen tenants. My half of the reception area is generally a pass-through from one side of the building to the other, and along the route to the workroom where the copiers and supplies are located. I sit right across from the Nurse's office. Sometimes the loudest, most anxious children seem all to be picking up the same chaotic vibe from the universe, and the reception area becomes unbearably high-key as paraprofessionals seek assistance in calming their kids. At 3:15 when school is dismissed, the door buzzer beeps nonstop as bus drivers and care cabs arrive to transport the children, who are escorted to and fro by the staff. Parents are buzzing in and out with kids, meds, needs and questions. It's a very positive place, to be sure, and I love having company in my work the vast majority of the time; I'm pals with the school's receptionist/program coordinator, who sits back-to-back with me facing the school's side of the reception area. I like the kids who routinely visit the office for meds and moral support. I like the staff.

Sometimes though it's all a lot too much. And I walk into my tiny office, snap off the fluorescent overheads, switch on my desk lamp and open the laptop. It's far easier to blog here than at home; where my only uninterrupted hours tend to be in the middle of the night. Here, when I close my door it mostly stays closed until I'm ready to make an appearance. I can take a private call if I want. It's a new thing, a benefit of the new building. This may have been a vice-principal's office at some point. There is a huge framed cork board covering most of the long wall over my desk, and another smaller one near the door. Behind me there are three tall file cabinets and a bookshelf. My desk takes up about one-third of the room. I have a narrow window, which fortunately opens; the ventilation out in the reception area isn't terrific, and the air gets stale. Thank goodness we moved the teachers' microwave; no more burnt popcorn! Suffusing our hair and clothing.

I brought a small brown bear into the Nurse's office a couple of weeks ago, and sat him on the counter, when no one was around. He's the first stuffed animal I ever bought for my son, before he was born. He's cute, and fuzzy like a rug. He has long arms and legs, and an unassuming expression. But H never took to stuffed animals really (except for one, "lamby-Lamb" who only toured with H for two or so years before becoming a shelf item.) The bear never got a second look. I felt badly for him for years, before finally daring to re-home him. A bear needs friends after all. I thought the kids who routinely wind up on the cot in there would take some comfort from his presence. And sure enough, after a week or so one of the more forward children bubbled over with curiosity, and just had to know who's bear he was. D, the program director, guessed shrewdly that I'd had something to do with the bear's sudden appearance. I explained to the young man that the bear needed friends, and I'd thought he might find some at the school. "What's his name?" I was asked; the bear doesn't have one yet I replied. And so the young man christened him "Barry," and with a nice bandage taped to the side of his head, Barry now presides over the Nurse's office from the top of the med cabinet, always available for hugs and visits.

No office is safe for long however from our building manager, a loquacious fellow with a compulsive need to connect, frequently and for no particular reason (though he constantly strives to invent new questions about real or imagined dilemmas.) He's very good at keeping the facility in decent shape, has a long history as a church custodian for Catholics and Protestants alike, and is well-connected in the underground janitor's market of swap-n-trade goods. With little effort he can procure a hundred folding chairs, a floor buffer or a deck of lightweight dining tables at reduced or zero cost. He has licenses for boiler and electrical, and can improvise solutions to a wide array of obscure mechanical misfortunes. The catch is, he never shuts up. But he's harmless and funny, a good sport and an enthusiastic source of advice. It's only occasionally one wants to run away when one sees him coming.

I know the sound of him opening the heavy door from the hall to the reception area, the way he pushes the handle down and puts his shoulder into the wood panel, swinging the door wide before he even enters the room. I think it's a habit associated with pushing the large trash barrels on wheels: make an opening big enough to shove the barrel or a cart in ahead of you. It's a different sound from the one my boss makes when he walks into the room. The pastor has a lighter touch, but moves faster; he plays basketball two or three times a week. He slaps the handle down and lets it spring back on its own as he thrusts the door open just wide enough to admit his narrow frame, before ducking immediately into his office on the right. And I know the sound of a student entering the room from my side of the office, the tentative turn of the handle and the soft sliding shush-sound of a small person using their whole body to slowly open a heavy door.

There are a million small things to know about this place.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

the dark watches of the night

Awake at 3am, always a problem... up since 1:30 after spotting rest between 9pm and Midnight. Listening to my son's cold worsening...more head congestion, and now, a fever. I can hear him getting a fever, I know the character of his breathing and how it changes. I watch as the thermometer goes from under 100 to 102 in just an hour... listen to him snore. This has progressed from Thursday's sudden cough, two days, three... school holiday tomorrow, which is good and also not good, given the normal household routine on Mondays. Tomorrow being Monday...having slipped into Sunday a few hours ago... "the dark watches of the night" as Tolkein said. "Who knows what you have whispered to the walls of your prison, in the dark watches of the night?" Or something like that. Laptop knows... who else reads? I'm always curious, not about the folks who leave comments but the ones who don't. Yet I've stopped caring about my Google stats.

Tripping over toys, picking my way through the carefully arranged detritus of pretend play, refilling the humidifier, feeling his forehead as though that would resolve anything... as he gets older I suppose this becomes more routine, funny how I would choose even the slightest cold or headache as my own if I thought it would spare him discomfort. The mothers pray, give it to me! I'll take it Lord. Ease his suffering. Of course, it's just a cold. 

Blogging is not Facebook. I've stuck with FB where other friends have not, realizing there's some comfort in the handful of responses I always see linked to my status updates. Advice, reassurance, support, humor. And the connection to friends who have trouble working coffee into busy professional, school, childcare schedules. Better than the phone, if less meaningful. Of course, there again I find myself wondering who has read and not commented -- I know people who are mindful of their professional associations and never post status lines, seldom posting on walls, doubtless communicating through "likes" and private messages. Makes sense if you have hundreds and hundreds of friends... too. Do blogging and Facebook negatively augment my introversion? I imagine so. And yet... here we are my friends. "You" and I.

How ya doin?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

spaghetti plates

Yes, it snows and snows.

I'm drinking a .... hold on, phone's ringing again.

OK, another church call, this one from a pastor looking for the communion supplies that perished, along with one of the refrigerators, earlier this week. I didn't see labels on the stuff I had to throw out, I'm sorry. I remembered to tell the fellowship coordinators, but not the people who set up Communion.

Anyway, I'm drinking a nice glass of Dolcetto. Since arriving home from church at 12:30 I have cleaned floors, done laundry, and thoroughly cleaned the bathroom. I helped my son with his piano lesson, and have largely tolerated the fact that my husband's ass has been nailed to the couch all weekend as he watches playoff football (with the rest of himself.)

My week was really, really trying. Thank God tomorrow is a holiday, which means I'll only have to work for a couple hours in the morning, at the food shelf. Plate-juggling -- that's my job. My vocation.

In a figurative sense, anyway. And I make about as much money now as this guy, running a 52,000 square foot facility. I deserve this glass of wine. Burglary, no-show volunteers, unloading two full pallets of food shelf goods by myself, last-minute projects of an urgently-needed nature, a pay cut across the board in 2011 and a handful of brand-new proximity alarms in the stairwells that debuted this weekend and confounded numbers of people who all figured it would be okay if they ignored the "do not enter" barriers. Spin! Spin! Spin!

I can handle it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

last night I dreamed...

... that a church group "hijacked" my food shelf and took over the operation, releasing a statement claiming I wasn't "doing the job very effectively."

... that Al Greene (who looked like someone completely different and sounded like Barry White) was producing a new radio show ...

... that I entered a rock-tumbling contest in the "Best Agate" category but showed up late to register and missed the judging. At least I received a nice bouquet of flowers from a co-worker...

... that I was lost in a huge Las Vegas hotel with Art Deco elevators and thousands of rooms, and a lobby that looked like an international airport lounge... I couldn't remember my room number, and kept walking into rooms that didn't belong to me.

WTF, I ask you. Every night, it's at least a triple feature. That, and night sweats. Ugh.

With the exception of the Al Greene appearance, none of these dreams are exceptional; all are versions of work, worry, and typical dream-settings for me. Thing is, every night is similar. It's entertaining, unless the dreams become frightening (a few nights ago I dreamed my child fell off a cliff.)

I'm far past the days of recording my dreams in detail, in a dream journal or some such. I know myself well enough to understand that most of this comes from the ever-fecund recombination mill of mundane subconsciousness. In other words, these are just processing dreams. I talked with two acquaintances yesterday about buying rock tumblers and how much electricity they use. I think about the food shelf constantly and feel guilty that I can't give it my full attention each day. I feel lost and anxious all the time.

I have no idea, however, why Al Greene should run around singing Barry White songs in my head. While looking suspiciously like Aaron Neville.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

morning coffee

Being up alone like this, almost an hour before anyone else will get out of bed (and up for a while now), makes me think of my mother.

I'm walking around in a bathrobe and slippers, I've just made coffee. It's still dark outside. The furnace has just kicked in with its morning temperature setting and I'm feeling that strange, sleepy hangover feeling you get when you're up before you're really ready. Take an inventory of my aches and pains, pour a cup, try to wake up. I sound like a Maxwell House commercial. (Maybe you remember those. Here's a vintage 70's clip featuring "Cora," aka Margaret Hamilton aka "The Wicked Witch of the West.") If I had a radio with WCCO's morning show crackling away in the kitchen, I will have perfectly recreated a thousand school-day mornings in my mother's company.

I was not a morning person, a fact my mother recognized early on. She didn't make me talk much, nor did she prattle on randomly the way some women do around their children. I seem to recall learning to drink coffee in the morning at a younger-than-average age, no doubt thanks to my mother and her Midwestern reliance on strong brews. I notice in my son those morning habits which might be common to most young children: up more or less on time, taking that familiar position on the couch and curling up in a ball to wait until someone turns on the TV, and offers breakfast. It's not yet firmly established whether or not he's a morning person. His father certainly is, up whistling and making a racket at unreasonable hours, ready to poke and prod and hassle you out of bed to his own delight. Insufferable! But I guess someone has to be ready in the morning.

Mom's internal clock was a farm clock for many years. I don't know how long she lived on the farm -- it couldn't have been very long, given Grandma's tendency to change husbands -- but I know she remembered it fondly. I imagine she has always like animals better than people, she's similar to my husband that way, or he's similar to her. I remember her talking about cows, in particular. How quiet and shy they were, but intelligent she always thought, and friendly. I can imagine her up before dawn, milking cows.

As the oldest girl in a family of 12, however, she was more likely to be up before dawn getting breakfast ready. I wonder how long she's been drinking coffee? She's lived most of her years in a pattern that was set down for her, which is perhaps why she now seems so determined to live differently, though she obviously doesn't quite know how.

Yesterday I went to urgent care for a nuisance infection; and while there was asked to respond to a list of medical questions by indicating which of my family members, if any, had been diagnosed with these conditions. "My mother" was my response for at least a fourth of the items on that long list. No cancer, thank God, but a whole host of other ailments, physical and psychological, all shades of chronic. She's a mess. I've long suspected that Mom's history of pain and complications is a direct result of profound unhappiness. She was good at getting up early, raising kids, paying bills, fixing the plumbing, painting a house, growing a rose garden, whipping up delicious meals. She just never felt like she had what she wanted, and I'm afraid the malady is hereditary.

She is still a coffee drinker, still tough and funny and slightly bitter. She's making that transition into old age, sliding across that line that all women cross eventually if they live long enough: you look at their faces, and wonder what they could possibly have looked like when they were young, it's so hard to tell. But I know -- she looked like me, almost identically. I have a lovely portrait taken of her when she was 38, that Grandma paid for I think -- still lovely and dark, wearing a chain beaded with two large pearls. Those two pearls were found in an oyster, pulled from a tank in the Grandstand at the State Fair. Every year we went to the Pearldiver's booth, to add to Mom's collection.  I have a ring.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Quote of the Day

"What's the point of buyin' skinny jeans if you're just gonna sag them?"
Kyron, age 9

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bring me the head of John the Baptist

I say this mainly because it's a phrase that's been rattling around in my head for WEEKS now and I'm hoping somehow to purge the nuisance. A Cindy Sherman image comes to mind, but I think it's "Judith with the Head of Holofernes." I used to have a postcard. I used to have a whole book of Cindy Sherman photography, what n hell happened to that?? Probably some ex-boyfriend. Along with my book of Talking Heads lyrics illustrated by famous artists of the 80s, and a volume of work by Roger Dean. I used to have an extensive collection of pop art/album cover art/musicians-as-artists books, and over time they've scattered a bit... I've sold duplicates and volumes I didn't care much about, lost some in the aforementioned manner; and a few might be in Mom's attic. A gem that I haven't seen in ages, lyrics by Bernie Taupin for Elton John, illustrated not by well-known artists but by other musicians -- it included a collage by John Lennon. Poorly printed, but priceless in its way.

Back to John the Baptist. Who loses his head to a woman, though not a woman he'd have anything to do with. The stepdaughter of Herod, wasn't it? Salome. Beheaded for talking smack about her mama and her Uncle StepDaddy. My daughter, you may have up to half my kingdom, so pleased I am with you. Anything you want.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #228 - 1990 

Caravaggio, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, c. 1607

I suppose John's appearance in the lectionary adjacent to the birth of Jesus is the reason for his gloomy spectre. Bring me the head, on a silver platter. John was beheaded in prison, where he languished for being a loudmouth and having too many followers, as well as for criticizing Herod's choice of mates. John the Martyr.
I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother. And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:21-29, KJV)

But in some accounts John was the cousin to Jesus, only child of Zachariah and Elizabeth, whose birth was foretold by the angel Gabriel and took place six months before Jesus' own birth. Mary visited Elizabeth immediately after Gabriel paid herself the famous visit, and when Elizabeth heard the news, the child in Elizabeth's womb "leaped for joy." But nowhere in the New Testament do we hear of Jesus mourning John's death, though he was certainly informed by all accounts. He went into the desert with his disciples. What happened there is none of our business. 

I read somewhere too that John's birthday is more celebrated than his martyrdom, since he is assumed to have possessed "prenatal grace." Now THERE'S a subject for consideration, prenatal grace. But it's not the reason John's head is rolling around in my mind. I suppose if there is a reason ... it might have something to do with those living waters up there. We'll see.  


At the end of Day 1, the beginning of Day 2...

As I posted elsewhere, 2010 was the year of Not giving up/Not knowing when to quit. I can be thankful for the following in 2010, a random sampling:
- for good friends, who were always interesting, mostly available, and always loving;
- for the blessings we received at the Little Kitchen Food Shelf, which made it possible to serve so many more folks this year over last, and proved to me again that God provides and feeding hungry people is Good;
- for Grace Center -- that we got the loan, navigated it and two complex real estate transactions (buying/selling), got everything packed and moved not once but TWICE without major incident, formed the nonprofit successfully, that we have a great building partner in Fraser Academy, that despite certain setbacks the dream is real;
- for my son, the light of my life, my reason for being;
- for Zoloft and its effectiveness;
- for the things I always take for granted: spouse, house, food, drink, entertainment. Those things that make life easier.

It was an incredibly difficult year at many points along the way, and for many reasons. But challenging is in some cases the better word to use -- I had to stretch well beyond my previous experience in order to cope and to measure up to what needed doing. I can be proud of myself (and several others) for simply seeing things through... sticking with it. Believing in what I was doing.

I made some mistakes, eyes wide open, and that's a fact. But I blame no one, except myself. My mistakes are almost always choices rather than accidents.

2010 was hard, no doubt, but the end results were almost always good -- so I am thankful.

"I learn by going where I have to go."

Saturday, January 1, 2011


I dreamed again last night a dream I seem to have every night, some variation thereof, this week. I dream I am watching the children and caring for the hungry while the others I know are off doing big, grand, publicity-worthy things. I dream that they don't always tell me what they are about to do, though they need me to support them. I dream that their children love me, and the people I care for love me. And the friends I'm supporting love me too -- but I want to be a part of what they do, what they have, and I get the feeling that I am not. And yet...what they do is good and glorious. It's not a depressing realization, or even the reality, this dream. I think I'm just nagging myself about my career, about the places where it intersects the rest of my life -- dissatisfied with myself. Making assumptions about my place in life that might not be true.

I used to always take my dreams as the unvarnished truth. Things I want; things I fear. Or communication from outside myself. Literal indications.

But no -- that's not wise. Maybe I can get to the bottom of this feeling, and not just berate myself for feeling dissatisfied. What is it that I want to DO that will satisfy the demons of insecurity? Or, is that the wrong approach as well? How best to dismiss them? For surely they will return, time after time, life is like that. For all but the blatantly oblivious among us.

Let's go.
"The birds, they sang at the break of day.
Start again I heard them say.
Don't dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be.

...Ring the bells that still can ring.
...Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."