Thursday, December 31, 2009

On the Road to Find Out

I was evicted once—from the adult section of the Rondebosch Branch of the Cape Town Municipal Library—for trying to check out Great Battles of World War II. I was 8 or 9 then, my library cards were an oak green with my name and the expiration date printed boldly across the front, 1976-03-03. The adult cards were bright yellow. I suppose that was the librarian’s first clue. The other must have been the small brown hand that came sneaking over the top of the counter, clutching three tattered cards, wilted by the summer heat. If she had peered over the edge, she would have seen me on the tip of my toes, nose crushed against the wood, straining for those extra inches. She told me, not too unkindly, that I was to go downstairs. I think the mortification of discovery was edged out by the pang I felt as I saw the Great Battles of World War II disappearing under her desk.

Children were not allowed in the adult library. We had our own library. It was at the bottom of the sweeping staircase to the right, behind tall doors with brass handles and a window in each, across which windows was spelled, in gold block letters like an old fashioned lawyer’s office, Children’s Library. We had our own librarian, our own books, even our own little armchairs with chopped-off legs. The library was beautiful. The light came through twenty-foot, white framed windows, sandwiched like archer’s holes between the sandstone cornices. The floors were hardwood, yellowish, maybe teak to match the staircase that wound up the center of the building.

I spent months of my childhood there, even with the strangely colonial hours of operation: Mondays and Fridays, 10.00-18.00; Tuesdays, 10-13.00 (adults), 13.00-18.00 (children); Wednesdays, 10.00-13.00; Thursdays, 13.00-20.00; Saturdays, 9.00-12.00 (to coincide with the farmer’s market taking place in the alley between the library and the train station). I can't count all the times I would walk over the granite threshold, holding my breath in anticipation to be faced by closed doors. I had forgotten it was Wednesday, and with ruthless Afrikaner/British efficiency, those doors were closed at precisely 13.00. It was a long walk home on those days.

The summers were long; we had no television; the library was close by; and the walk took us through the river and along the railroad tracks where the engineers would wave to us from the steam engine. Why not go to the library? Besides, it was a place my mother would let us walk alone from a young age. So, I spent my summers walking to the library, wading in the river, waving to the engineers, dawdling alongside the tennis courts. Each visit I checked out three books—one for each card. Each day, I would read as fast as I could, and then return. I remember one zenith of almost psychotic reading, when I checked out By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, and Little Town on the Prairie one day and returned them the next, all read from cover to cover. I had lived in a Dutch attic for months to evade, without ultimate success, the invading Nazis, and tunneled for what seemed like miles through German dirt, dropping that same dirt pocketful by pocketful as I walked the fenced perimeter.

Reading transported me; overcame the limits of my physicality; made other worlds and experiences possible. The day of my expulsion I already knew what it was like to fight in the American Civil War—I had read Across Five Aprils four times. I had already poured molasses on the snow and made toffee men; what molasses was, or snow for that matter, I had no actual idea, but Alamanzo had done it, and, therefore, so had I. I had caught clams, and picked blueberries in my overalls and gappy teeth.

I had one of those time-collapsing moments a few weeks ago. I ran into our public library to pick up Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs for book club. We were meeting that afternoon, around the lunch table, and I had about two hours to read those 90 pages. I had originally planned to check out the book, run home, ditch stinky gym clothes, shower, get presentable (not having a job to dress up for anymore makes every moment out of the house an occasion) and then sit down to speed read through the turn of the twentieth-century novella about Dunnet Landing, a fishing village in Maine. Then I saw, under the window, a row of armchairs with an end table a Shetland pony leg-length apart from one of them. My perfect fit. I thought I would sit down for just a minute. I sank into the armchair, pulled the table a little closer with my heel, crossed one leg over the other on top of the table, and began to read.

It wasn’t a quick read. Sarah had set coastal Maine—tongue, life and hearts—to paper. To rush through would be like running into the gift shop at Gettysburg and buying a t-shirt to say you’d been on the battlefield. So, I curled up and read. Then spread out, spread over, curled up again, and read more. Took the fifteen-minute snooze that tends to come on about twenty minutes into reading. You know that fugue state where the words start to blur, the patrons start whispering underwater, and your body goes noodle warm. Waking from such a state is gentle; the shift from sleep to wake unnoticeable. Then I read more in the hushed, twilight, dustmote sound that seems to permeate libraries the world over.

I showed up late to book club, unshowered, in my pilling Winter Olympics 2002 sweatshirt, and took the end seat at the lunch table. But I had met Mrs. Todd, the local herbalist whose rumbling, wide-bodied passage through her garden is marked by the scent of rosemary and thyme crushed by her skirts; and Mrs. Blackett, her 86-year old mother who lives with her bachelor son and her very best tea set on Green Island off the coast. And soon I would know Joanna who, after being jilted on her wedding day, put herself away to hermitage on a solitary island. She was, her neighbors said, one of those people better at “being loved than loving.” There—my shaft of light.

Andrew Carnegie paid for the construction of almost 1,700 libraries in the United States. According to his terms, he would provide the construction funds, and the town would provide the land and the operating budgets. Each town chose the design. There are Beaux Arts, Italian Rennaisance, Baroque, Classical Revival and Spanish-American Carnegie libraries in insignificant places like Grass Valley, California; Greencastle, Indiana; Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania; and Jefferson, Texas, population 2,024.

Yet, among them all, there were constant design features: Each library had a prominent, welcoming doorway. Each doorway was accessed by ascending a staircase, so that when the person entered the library, their physical movement would presage their intellectual. In both body and mind, they were be elevated by learning. Outside every library there was supposed to a lantern or light post. For enlightenment. Inside, the shelves were open stacks. An innovation. Prior to Carnegie libraries, a person had to request a book from a librarian, like a perpetual Special Collections. One book at a time. Now, each person would be able to choose their books for themselves.

Thank you Mr. Carnegie for that innovation. Does anybody else love those pregnant moments when you run your finger over book spines as you walk down the stack, feeling the curve of an author’s courage swelling beneath. A literary roulette. Where will the ball land? Where will the wheel stop spinning? Who’s the lucky winner today? In the library, me, always me.

I love the sensations the library makes possible. Simultaneously slowing and lengthening my steps. Running my fingers along the spines of books. Hooking my index finger over the spine and pulling out the book for a 45-degree angled peruse of the cover. The dilation of my pupils when a book I’ve been tracking finally shows up on the shelf. The whiff of papery air that puffs up when I open the cover. The author’s eyes that stare at me when I turn, mid-chapter, to look at his picture, thinking, “How on earth did that face, living as it does with its wife, two children and three cats in Birmingham, give birth to these words?”

I know I’m waxing lyrical. But just this afternoon, I asked Julia to copy pages of my favorite books before we returned them to the library. “Why are you doing this, Mom?” she says. “Because I need to keep these passages.” “Oh Mom, you are such a nerd.” She ruffles my curls. “Such a nerd.” I suppose I am. But these words have moved upon me. Wind on my water. I have become Zeno’s arrow that is caught, stationary in flight, page after page, words piercing my here and now with their shaft of light. For me, it is no mistake he is called The Word, given the power of words to transform, transport and transfigure.

Title: On the Road to Find Out, by Cat Stevens.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Here’s to You, June Williamson

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit - this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.


I've met her twice: June Williamson. Once standing in line at Einstein's Bagels, on the first Saturday in October, after my early morning soccer game. And the other, about a week ago, in front of the clearance racks at Old Navy. I never knew she existed before that October morning. I suppose I had driven by her house in the southern part of the valley. Our children might have played soccer or baseball against each other in the Summer and Fall Leagues. But, we don't live in the same town, and our children don't go to the same schools, and so we are destined never to meet . . . unless, by some twist of fate and luck, we both decide to head to Einstein's on Center Street to get a bucket full of bagels to help us make it through four hours of televised church on a Saturday.

There I was standing in line, behind the tiny figure of a woman dressed all in black. One of those ballerina figures. About 5 foot 3 inches, impossibly long neck, with thighs the size of large zucchinis, clad casual chic in black yoga pants, and black base layer turtleneck, and some kind of black jacket or vest, nipped in at the tiny waist. She wears semi-hiking boots, that look really good on her about size 6.5 feet. Her hair has lowlights. Her coffee-colored hands are long-fingered and I can see the sinews connecting wrist to knuckle.

There's me, 5 foot 8, in soccer shorts, from which protrude my very strong, Shetland pony legs, with soccer socks shoved down around my ankles, my size 9.5's shoved into my son's Adidas slides, the sweat imprint of the shinguard still visible on my calves. My hair's pulled back in the ponytail I've been wearing since grade school and which I still find the easiest hairstyle of all. And, just like grade school, the curls have escaped the elastic and are buzzing madly around my very red face.

She's trying to find enough bagels to fill two dozen but everybody has had the same idea this morning. All the blueberry, cranberry, chocolate, honey wheat, cinnamon sugar, asiago, and sunflower seed bagels have already found homes. She is left with only odd varieties, like one cinnamon raisin, two spinach, one rye, and several dozen sesame seed, chopped onion and pumpernickel. All I really want is a salmon lox—smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes, and capers on a toasted plain bagel. (Ten points if you know what the salty little caper actually is).

As she tries to find the assortment of bagels that will satisfy her children, I pull into the spot next to her along the display case to place my order.She turns to look at me, with a look of apology on her high-cheek boned face. "So sorry . . . there's just nothing left and I promised them that I would bring bagels." She has topaz eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles across her cheekbones. The accent is pure Midwest American.

We both finish ordering and move to the side to wait. The conversation starts easily. I can't remember what started it. But, by the end of the ten minutes it took to get our orders, and the extra five minutes we took just standing around not wanting to leave, I found a fellow traveler.

She's from Thailand, adopted by an American service man who married her mother. She came to Utah to attend university. Her name's not really June, but June was the closest English name to her Thai name, and so her father called her that. She's married to somebody she met in college, and has five children. They live in the southern part of the valley, in a town that, I would guess, has maybe ten darker than white faces. She finds out I'm from South Africa, that I too moved to the United States, and that we have both married Americans.

The conversation skips to high schools, and to why I like sending my kids to the "ghetto" high school in our town. I tell her about growing up in South Africa and not knowing about the other in anything but a very superficial way. I share that I want my children to not be able to know what the majority looks like and by choosing this high school, they have hard time identifying the power structure by the color of a person's skin. She tells of her daughter's struggle to define herself when her peers ask her what she is. Not many know where Thailand is. We question why it is that they even have to ask the question.We laugh that we look like each other's names. My name, Hispanic at first glance, and hers, the name of a fifty-five-year old, white matron with whirligigs in her front yard and a root cellar with bottles of parsnips and apricot jam.

I walk out of Einstein's breathing deeply, my face in a grin. I feel better for knowing that June Williamson lives near me. I think I might never see her again, or, if I am brave, I will call her up and say, "I would like to be your friend." Either way, I've had one of those moments when I come face to face with a soul I recognize. C.S. Lewis describes the feeling as that moment when one person says to another, "What! You, too? Thought I was the only one." I'm filled with a sense that this person I have known before. When we meet, it's not a "Nice to meet you" moment. It's a "Well, there you are . . . where've you been?"

Every winter, South African girls in primary school play either netball or hockey. I first saw Julia Elizabeth when I lined up next to her on the line that demarcated our defensive third from the center third. She was Micklefield's Girls wing attack; I was Oakhurst's Girls wing defense. We were ten, and playing netball in Cape Town in the mid-seventies. Julia, no doubt, wore her pink pleated skirt and white polo shirt; I must have been in my green pleated skirt and white polo shirt with my "takkies" recently whitened with a stick of shoe whitener to make sure they were sparkling clean and thus suitable shoes in which to play netball.

Our schools were both girl-only elementary schools, with about 200 pupils. I know Oakhurst had only one class per standard, about 25 students per class and 7 standards in the school. I think Micklefield was even smaller, housed as it was in an old mansion off Sandown Road. It was a private school. Our two worlds were completely disconnected, except for those 40 minutes twice a winter season when Oakhurst played Micklefield in netball.We met every winter on the line, and played against each other, Julia trying to pass the ball into her team's shooting circle, me trying to prevent their team's attack. On looking back, it seems strange that we played the same position for three years running, and thus always played against each other.

During the last game of our last year in primary school, we lined up again, big grins on our faces at seeing each other again. "So, where are you going to high school?" we must have asked each other, there not being a given area high school one attended, at least not in the white Southern Suburbs anyway. There was the girls-only Rustenburg Girl's High School for the academic, attended by my older sisters, or San Souci, for the not-so-bright; the religious St. Cyprians for the Anglican girls, and Herzlia, for the Jews; and then there was an upstart, a new school, only twenty years old, which was co-educational and English-speaking, called Westerford. "Westerford," we must have both replied. And then I remember grinning, knowing that Westerford with Julia wouldn't be half as strange as I imagined it might have been.

The first day of school, we were assigned to the same class, 6C with Miss Jones, who wore semi-sheer blouses through which you could see her slippiest of slippy bras. Five years with Julia Elizabeth, or Jules, or Raynham, both of us in plaid, collared dresses. Five years of every day, copying each other's homework because our handwriting was identical, watching Mr. Bisset's beautiful hands from our front row in History, visiting each other's churches and youth groups, growing older, growing apart, moving back together again.

I saw her for the first time in twenty years last year when I visited South Africa, for the first time since I left for college in 1984. We're older. She's a traditional doctor, practicing healing and medicine from a workshop in her garage, filled with bones, rattles, herbs and stones. She also choreographs for her modern dance troupe, which was flying out the next morning to Algeria to participate in a festival of French-African dance. Her fingers are just as impossibly long. When we hugged in the doorway of her urban farmhouse the width and feel of her narrow shoulders was as familiar to me as the curve of my own children's. I felt time collapse as I stood there in that hallway.

Here she was, Julia Elizabeth. We span thirty years, most with very little contact. Yet, she is one of the tallest flowers in Goethe's garden of souls. She is my hollyhock, I suppose. I have a picture of the two of us as teenagers pinned to my fridge. It's tattered and water-spotted. When I look at us twenty-five years ago, I am filled with warmth. To know that somewhere on this earth, she still breathes and laughs and pulls her hair back with those impossibly long fingers is just a wonderful thing. Just in case, to keep her close, I have named my only daughter after her. I have my own Julia, a Julia Rose.

So, this is my paean to the kindred and kind and beautiful spirits who have risen at unexpected moments and filled my life. I'm sitting here in America, thousands of miles from my childhood, from my teenage years, from my mission, probably thousands of miles of thoughts away from those I'm thinking of. Time though, seems, inconsequential. That I have been there, with you, at some point is all that matters. I don't even know whether you think of me like I think of you. It doesn't matter; I don't require it to be reciprocal. Like walking into the Gallerria dell'Accademia in Florence and seeing David, in all his marble beauty for the first time, when I walk into this particular garden, I am always breathless with wonder.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Leather and Lace

Mary took the mirror from the wall and threw it on the floor. It broke up into many angled pieces. Each piece reflected something of their house and the clothing of their children hung on pegs on the wall, and one large piece shone with the image of the sky and its early-morning adornment of cottony clouds overhead tumbling southeast in the early breeze and the bright dots of cottonwood leaves.

Two married people found themselves on separate and barren planets, alone in a place called Young County in the remote land of Texas. In an instant they realized that the bonds between them were not strong at all, but very fragile, and if these were broken they would be solitary and isolated for all eternity, and all that they had made together and the children they had made between them would be thrown out on long orbits like minor comets. . . . They were caught up in a rage of destruction, both hoping at some point the other would realize how serious this was.

--Paulette Jiles, The Color of Lightning

We have a painting in our hallway to our bedroom. It's called Lovers Running, and shows a man and a woman dressed in white on a green hillside, holding hands, and running in their bare feet. Sometimes, I get the title mixed up and call it Running Lovers. The same artist, Brian Kershisnik, has done another painting, which he calls, The Most Difficult Part. It shows a man and a woman in black leotards trying to perform a gymnastics move. One figure's standing on its hands while the other holds the feet. While the bodies look smooth and plaint, the move itself looks difficult and the stance is clumsy. Brian has said this piece is his metaphor for marriage. Not the only one, but one of those images that helps him makes sense of marriage. I know what he means. There are times in my marriage that I would feel more comfortable doing the reverse backhanded double Swedish helicopter backtuck with a triple twist, than in going forward.

At those moments, precipitated in particular for me when I have not been what I had hoped I would be for Kevin, I feel myself pulling away. I am literally the running lover. And I'm running to the corner, putting myself there and waiting for Kevin to come find me. I become silent, and watchful. I don't initiate any conversations, and my replies are brief. I try to take my cues from him. I suppose I want to know that I am still loved, despite my inability to even remotely balance a checkbook while being able to use one with dexterity (one of my difficult parts). But I can't articulate that. Some part of me won't say it. I want him to feel that and sense my distress. I want him to be my emotional GPS beacon. I want him to come running, my personal St. Bernard to rescue me from the avalanche in which I continue to sit.

All he sees is that I am gone. Tessa is gone, somewhere else. I won't speak to him, engage with him, flirt with him, touch him. So, he searches his memory for what he has done to precipitate this kind of distance. He doesn't know that all I want is for him to come find me and to reassure me that, despite it all, I am still loved. Instead, he feels that he is not loved, that t here is something innate within him that must be unlovable because his actions certainly don't warrant such a withdrawal. Therefore, it must be him. And if it is him, the very essence of him, then what can be done about that? How does one change one's very nature?

These are our individual thoughts, as we grow further and further apart. There we spin the two of us, in orbit around each other, wary, and always aware that the other is in the room.

It is during these times that I want to touch Kevin so desperately my teeth ache. I orient myself to where he is, to the distance between us on the couch and to the console between us in the car, and his right hand resting on his thigh. The pull to him is actually physical. But, because of some rule I have devised about who makes what move first and when, I don't actually close the gap. I'm sure there are some of you out there who find this behavior completely baffling. You touch easily and often. Your preferred manner of sitting next to your family on the pew or in the car includes a backrub. That doesn't come easily for me. I watch people who touch easily, wondering how they do it. How do they push past the force field of personal space and march in with arms outspread, hands at the ready to grab shoulder, or wrist, or, our personal favorite, perform the double-thump man hug?

At night though, my resolve crumbles. It's hard to sleep in the same bed with your lover and not touch him. More than hard, it's unnatural. The entire exercise seems like a farce: Get into bed, speaking politely, take care to wonder what the other one wants to watch on TV, blankets pulled up, both lying flat on our backs, not turned to the other or turned away as comfort dictates. Kevin manages to slip into sleep slower than the three seconds it normally takes him—a full five minutes or so. He turns his back to me. I start to read signs in the sheets.

Obviously, I don't sleep well. After much soul searching and bluster, I decide I'm just going to use his body for my own gratification in a reverse of gender roles. I reach out and slip my left foot into the space between his ankles bones. He doesn't respond. His breathing doesn't even change. I then spend the hours calculating what it means that he doesn't respond. Perhaps the snoring should tip me off that he is actually just fast asleep and doesn't feel me reaching out. But still I think and ruminate, my mind hesitant and fearful.

My body cannot wait though. I push my foot further, turning my body to spoon against his. I slide my right arm around his chest, and slip my left under his pillow. I rest my head against the broad of his upper back. Then, in his warmth, whether he is asleep or not, I don't know, I can finally sleep. Sometime during the night, the rigidity in his back will loosen, and he will sink toward me. His arms, which have been folded over his chest, will unwrap themselves, and his right hand will find mine. No longer lovers running. And maybe not then, but soon, just lovers. After, always the words: explanation, seeking forgiveness, giving forgiveness and reassurance, the laughing, the disbelief, the sheer relief that we are back together again.

I've written before about the capacity of the mother's body to teach me what I didn't know I needed to know. Things like the capacity of the body to provide sustenance for a child even though the spirit is unwilling. About the sacrifice required to mother well, giving all the body has to provide a safe haven for children entrusted to my care. Lately, I've been thinking about another lesson my body teaches me: when my heart and mind are so at odds with themselves that I cannot see straight and cannot talk straight, and when the distance between Kevin and I grows longer and longer, my body aches for him. I want him, with a hunger that's not, at least for me, a daily occurrence. I want his hands, his bare flesh next to mine, his fingers in my hair, his feet against my calves, our fingers knit together. I have been taught since childhood to learn to subdue my body, to discipline it, and to shape it, to take control of it and to push aside the urges and desires. In this case, wisely so, I am learning to listen to my body talk.

This hunger is, I think, my body's way of getting to where I want to be when I cannot get there myself. When my thoughts are so jumbled, and my ideas so convoluted, and my motives not even apparent to myself, my body knows with a wisdom beyond my own experience that what I want—body, mind and soul—is to be one with Kevin. My body knows how to start the process of healing, of restoring unity, and it will drive towards that with a pressure that cannot be stopped. It's my body's way of saying, this unity you seek, this oneness, where he reads your mind and you read his, that's not attainable yet (or ever). But this love, this physical unity, is . . . and it is the taste and the mirror and the bedrock and the promise of what can be.

I know some couples can't make love until it's all worked out, until all the talking is done. (Sometimes the talking takes months, and that's really too long of a time to ask somebody to wait.) But I cannot talk freely until I have made love. Chest to chest, with his arms around me, with my forehead pressed against him, I can talk. What I say then is what matters. It's not the jumbled thoughts, the half-formed recriminations, and the accusations that filled me before when most of me was worried I wasn't loved or even lovable. It's just my feelings, my fears, my thoughts, and my reasons for doing and for reading into what he did. And it's half of what filled my head before. The rest has settled or been blown to the wind, like the chaff, that inevitably grows up amongst the marriage wheat.

Title: Stevie Nicks, Leather and Lace.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wanna Talk About Me, Wanna Talk About I

Faith Stages are not to be understood as an achievement scale by which to evaluate the worth of persons. Nurturance is required for growth in faith, but there is no substitute for life experience and the passage of time.

--John M. Rector

I'm sitting in a group of women, in suburbia. We're all the same faith. It's Monday morning, and we've gathered together to discuss, it turns out, exactly that, this faith. I think we are, ostensibly, gathered together to learn how to love life. The group has just started meeting and new attendees trickle into this front room, with its temple print, family photos in engraved frames, and flower swag framing the front picture window. As we introduce ourselves, some in the group are delighted to discover that there are other body talkers present. As I am sitting across the room from my sister L, I cannot whisper to her for clarification. (I'm thinking it has nothing to do with Wind Talking and Nicholas Cage.) L, who teaches yoga and attends meditation retreats and has just completed her brilliant service in the young woman's auxiliary (no connection between end of service and meditation retreat), has invited me. She is the link between me and the others. The woman who leads us is an alternative healer. I tend to take 4 Ibuprofen as a guard against everything, and will happily down expired Amoxicillin with a glass of cranberry juice to head off the UTI. The approach, while not exactly mainstream, is probably more neglectful than alternative. I am not well-versed in the language of this universe. Even after I ask L what a body talker is, I'm still fuzzy. The answer, "They use different modalities" does nothing to heal my ignorance. But, I have time on my hands (subject of another post about lay-offs and self-worth) and I am interested in learning about other ways of learning and experiencing the world.

One woman in particular has an anxious energy this morning. She says, "I am a gay marriage supporting, democrat, feminist Mormon." She throws the words out there like they're a challenge to a duel, not knowing her kind makes me feel all cozy. (I confess to being more fascinated and bewildered by hunting, homeschooling, John Birching, survivalist, natural childbirthing Mormons. Feminist democrat Mormons are a walk in the park.) She's taking a transformative leadership course, surrounded by lesbians who constantly challenge her very core, wanting to know how she can be part of an organization that supports something that will deprive hundreds of thousands of others of their heart's desire. Consequently, she is examining herself and her belonging, perhaps trying to find the terms upon which she and the church can agree to live amicably. She asks, "How can I be part of something that, at some level, is contrary to my personal truth?" I smile inside and I hope my eyes are soft as I look out. You see, I recognize her. I have asked those questions; have thought those thoughts; have resented the feeling that big brother is watching over my shoulder to see what I would do wrong next. I have lived with the tightness in the middle of my chest and the weight on the shoulders that seems to get darker as the three hours progress. I have also come to know it is largely self-imposed.

When I return from the gathering, Kevin asks me what we talked about. I reply, with a smile and with sincerity, "Oh, the usual . . . how difficult it can be to be a thoughtful, intelligent woman and to be a member of this Church in a predominantly Mormon culture."

I will admit I am struggling to write this post, but it is nagging at me. I can't find the images to give substance to the words. They are after all, very plain and simple words. But, I don't want to come off as a "wiser than thou." Taking strength though from John Rector's words that, in the development of faith, "there is no substitute for life experience and the passage of time," I'm writing this as my stone on the cairn marking this particular way.

In any organization, which an organized religion is definitely one, there will be policies and procedures. Some descend like the dews from heaven, some are drafted by committee; others are reactionary and arise out of situations for which there was no official response until the crisis arose. Some might be heavy handed; others might be shortsighted; others are the best we could come up with in the time allowed, while it is entirely possible that certain practices and procedures are inspired, the very best of man's mental effort lightened by grace designed to bless our lives. How does one proceed in the face of this bouillabaisse of practices? With patience and an open heart and mind, realizing that just because I have not yet had need of or experience with a particular program or procedure or policy doesn't create irrelevance. It also means realizing that my not knowing doesn't preclude others from knowing.

Just because I don't quite know yet doesn't mean others can't or that the principle or doctrine is unknowable or false. I was standing at the kitchen counter this past October, watching a session of General Conference. I believe I was eating an apple. As he proceeded to bear quite vigourous, and, in my mind, violent witness, the apple stopped halfway to my mouth. I could feel myself reeling from his language. I heard myself say, "Wow . . . wow . . . whoa!" His whole approach to testimony made me shiver and want to step sideways to escape the onslaught. Then I thought, or somebody thought for me, "Just because I don't know like that doesn't mean he can't and doesn't."

A woman tells of sitting in a Buddhist seminar. She is not Buddhist but she has come to Colorado to immerse herself in Eastern methods of learning. She expects something different than what she finds. There are gongs, bells, and circles she has to walk at prescribed times. The teacher is autocratic. She will brook no discussion as to when the bell rings, and how the circle is walked. Even the crossing of the legs is not open for interpretation. The woman bristles at the imposition of this structure on what she expected to be a freeflowing, gentle wind of learning. She fights against it in her mind and her soul. Ironically, in this retreat devoted to gentle Buddhism, she finds herself awash in antagonism. As she struggles against the restraints, she gains an insight: "There will always be a prescribed way. And, I will, at times, rub against it."

We all have buttons that push easier than others, and like the heel of my foot in a new shoe, there are places that will rub. My particular button happens to be women and their place in society. My sister doesn't happen to have that button but I do. Because that button is both my vocation and my burden, I bristle at times as I practice my faith. Typical of my issues is a conversation I had this summer with a friend whom we were visiting in Bermuda. He is the lay leader of a very small congregation, perhaps 25 people who attend on a Sunday. He was asking me about the things I wrestle with in the Church. I replied, "the role of women and the lack of power." He laughed, and said, "Really . . . the women run the church. They do everything." I replied, "I'm not talking about doing, Clar. I'm talking about power. About decisions, about who is sitting around a table when the decisions are made, about the different kinds of questions women would ask as opposed to men, about the different lines drawn and the different concerns raised if there were women involved in decisions and decision-making. It's about looking up at the stand and seeing dark suits, with a token woman. It's about women giving opening prayers and men giving closing . . . and everything that represents." His wife, the leader of the children in their small congregation, chimed in, "Clar, you know, when I propose a name, you don't just agree; you have the final say. I can't do anything without male approval." To his credit, he tipped his head thoughtfully. I feel the scar on the back of my metaphorical heel begin to throb.

My childhood faith was nurtured in a wood paneled chapel whose twenty-foot long windows were outfitted with gossamer curtains that used to float in the Sunday evening breeze out over the congregation and back again as the light left Mowbray, a southern suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. We were joined at some point in my childhood by Brother Wiseman, a black man who shuffled up the stairs, his three-piece suit folding dovegrey around his ankles, his grey felt hat with jaunty feather in band held between his hands. He shuffled his slow way from Sea Point, a wealthy Jewish enclave on the sea front, from a small dark room, probably in the basement, from whence he worked as a night watchman. I didn't know his story well; only heard snatches of it while I hung upside down from the handrailings, but it involved a Book of Mormon and a complicated combination of public transport to get him here on a Sunday morning. So, there he sat, a perfectly round, black head melting slightly at the jowls, atop a short, black body, sitting three seats from the door, two years before the Priesthood was restored to all worthy male members and twelve years before apartheid ended. What would possess him to spend his precious mornings off travelling on busses to meet with a bunch of white people in a white suburb who spoke a different language and who would not allow him to officiate in the priesthood ordinances like every other male there?

Surely, upon feeling the pull to join, he would have had the same kinds of questions, "How can I be part of something that continues to marginalize me? How can I be part of something that feels, in one part, so wrong?" (Part of me wonders whether this is the kind of question asked by the fish that has never lived without water, and now, being so familiar with the substance, wishes to swim in filtered Brita with a hint of lime? Perhaps when you're a fish that has finally found water deep enough to swim in, you are not so perturbed by the murkiness of certain corners and the silt which tends to gather in the bottom swells. You're just grateful for the air flowing over your lungs and for the increased ability to breathe deeply.) So, as to Brother Wiseman's answer to this question . . . I don't know the particulars but I could imagine that it would sound something like, "Here, in this place, you can find truth. You will not find all truth just yet, but you can find truth, and, you will continue to find more and more truth." Keeping in mind the image of Brother Wiseman sitting three seats from the door, greeting us as his calling required but with the two-handed clasp as his culture dictated, helps me when these questions arise. Why am I any better than Brother Wiseman who, along with Mary, kept these things and pondered them in his heart? Why am I anymore special than the black man who joined this faith in the mid-70s in South Africa? To what high and holy calling have I appointed myself when I believe that the entire organization of 13 million must change to reflect my personal inclinations? What is so special about me that I am precluded from also waiting, as countless others before me have waited—pondering and keeping?

One last ripple in the stream: In the waiting, there is always light. For me, my rubbing against the policies, procedures and practices of my religious faith has tutored me. My "woman" cross, as it could be called, has lifted me up to see that, in fact, the Father and the Son are the gentlest of men. What is more important for me, with my particular scar tissue, to know than that?

Title: from Toby Keith, "Wanna Talk About Me."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Springing Fresh from the Word

Go and find him when your patience and strength run out and you feel alone and helpless. Jesus is waiting for you in the chapel. Say to him, ‘Jesus, you know exactly what is going on. You are all I have, and you know all things. Come to my help.’ And then go, and don’t worry about how you are going to manage. That you have told God about it is enough. He has a good memory.

Jeanne Jugan, 1792-1879

Sometimes, late at night, after a hectic day when it seems like all six of us prefer to live in the same 400 square feet of the thousands of square feet that make up our house—newspapers, shoes, wrappers, preteen male wrestling and bodily emissions, iCarly, Farmtown on Facebook, iTunes updates watching the Flight of the Conchords, dance offs, sardines on the long couch with all 5 of us crunched hipbone to hipbone because Julia is sprawled in her princesshood on the short couch and nobody wants to sit by themselves on the yellow chair—I like to watch the Eternal World Television Network, particularly if there’s a mass on. The patterns and rhythms and words I don’t quite understand quiet me. They help me think in different ways, to approach what are familiar ideas in different clothing. Hearing ideas differently, I see them new.

Late Sunday night, after just spending what seemed like ten hours in close quarters and watching the Angels lose to the Yankees, I watched the Mass of Thanksgiving on from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I think this is in Washington D.C. The Mass, which was conducted by a very handsome cardinal with the longest fingers in silvery, almost light green robes, was to celebrate the canonization of Jeanne Jugan, the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Even the phrase, the Little Sisters of the Poor soothed me. Lying there at almost midnight after a long Sunday evening, I was tiredly moved to make the acquaintance of Jeanne Jugan, and to watch the luminous faces of her Little Sisters of the Poor as they recited the portions of the Thanksgiving Mass.

I am to read later that each of these faces has professed vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and a special fourth vow, that of hospitality. Their mission is to provide care to the elderly. In 32 countries and 202 homes, over 2,700 women have devoted their life to taking care of the elderly. I found out all these facts later, but still, I sensed light as I watched their eyes, their skin, their lips and hands. The faces of the nuns shone like pearls. I’m trying to think of another way to describe it, but I can’t. They were luminous, almost transparent. Devoid of make-up, of artifice, faces framed in grey and white wimples. I thought as I watched, “There is the beauty that comes from devoting one’s life to others, and to having a daily walk with God.” It’s a beauty of light.

Almost familiar phrases ran over my tired body and mind like water: “send these the angels and dark angels”; “Let us profess our faith,” whereupon the entire congregation stood to claim their belief in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Sister Constance Carolyn, of the Public Relations Office of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Bethesda, Maryland, says they’ll have the text next week. So, I’m waiting. I’ve tried to remember the phrases verbatim, but I can only faintly sense their presence. They spilled through the cracks in my soul, settling in the hollows.

Sometimes when I’m on the treadmill at the gym, I also turn to EWTN. I particularly like it when they’re saying the rosary. The combination of feet slapping the mat and the rhythmic voice of Mother Angelica and the Nuns of Olam jars something loose in my head. Almost as if the physical work of running and speaking sets my mind free quicker than if I were just thinking alone.

Today, I have been saying my rosary of sorts. The same prayer, over and over again. I sense today, as I work through my day, why the rosary beads. The anxiety that fuels the repeated petition would be released by rolling beads through my fingers. Or perhaps tugging on the edges of my prayer shawl. Or rolling my forelock between petitioning fingers. But I have none of those aids at my disposal. So I fold laundry. Each fold and crease a word. Each t-shirt added to the pile a sentence. After an hour, I have prayed my work to completion; the couches are filled with fabric petitions piled high and neat like an obsessive compulsive tidied up the Wailing Wall.

My behavior that morning reminds me of Catholic Lebanese Materia, a worried mother in Fall on Your Knees, who’s “always murmuring these days, her lips constantly moving, whether mending a sock or changing a nappy. Worst, while making her glacial way through town.” Her Protestant Scottish husband says to her, “Don’t be traipsing up Plummer Avenue nattering to yourself woman.” “I not talking to myself.” “Then who you talking to.” “Mary.”
In the cool dark of Mount Carmel Church, Materia . . . looks up into the serene alabaster face of Our Lady. Mary recites the Memorae: “Remember , O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to you I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful; O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer me.”

Our Lady will think of something. Merciful are her ways.
I don’t pray to the Virgin Mary. But I know why Materia natters her way through her day. And I love this Memorae. I normally dress this idea in language that he will be on my right side and on my left, and he will buoy me up. Coming across the new words for the same idea, my ears and mind trip. I stumble to a stop to contemplate the imagery of fleeing to a divine source for protection and of seeking intercession. I stand still, moved, before the notion that “never was it known” that those who flee and those who seek have been “left unaided.” As I read this prayer in the novel, I felt to read it again, to pick it up, for my own daily walk.

This stone of “never was it known” along with worried Materia’s socks and Saint Jeanne Jugan’s God with the long memory and the faces of the Little Sisters of the Poor, I gather. They sit in the in pockets of my mind, waiting for when I will need them, to roll them again between the minutes of my day.

Title: Cat Stevens, from "Morning Has Broken."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My, My, My, It's a Beautiful World

Saturday evening, we took eight Utah children (kind of like Kobe beef, somewhat sweet and largely untouched; submitting picture of Julia and Alli, to the right, into the record as evidence to support this proposition) to an other way of life.

Ocean Beach, California is a surfing town that, when time ran across it, time crossed over to the other side of the street. Squatting on the wrong side of Mission Bay, it’s home to the homeless with pitbulls, the goth, the vegan skateboarders and tattoo parlors, the longest concrete municipal pier in California, and Hodads.

We found out about Hodads from Guy, on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives on the Food Channel—Adam’s favorite show along with Landscape Smarts. It’s a burger joint on Newport Avenue that plays heavy metal so loud your crowns vibrate on their posts. If you’re lucky (or unlucky, according to Austin, a seventeen-year old senior, “how embarrassing”)), you sit in the front seat of a VW bus that sticks out of the eastern wall and eat off the table propped on the dashboard. The blurb under the name says, “Under 95 gazillion served” and “Open 24 hours, just not in a row.” It’s hands down, the best burger we have ever eaten.

Hot ground beef, slightly pink in the middle; cold, cold thickly sliced white onions; chopped lettuce; tomatoes cut rough like Aunt Lorraine cuts them, in the palm of her hand with a jagged knife at the family reunion; bacon strips hanging like tongues over the edge of the melting cheese slices; all this wedged into a toasted bun, and wrapped firmly in wax paper. I think they serve within ten seconds of taking the patty off the grill. The heat of the burger sizzles your tongue until your teeth crunch down into cold onion and toasted bread. Divine! The shakes are served in tall, frosty metal shake containers, with a scoop of the hard ice-cream from which they were made propped on the brim. I think perhaps a teaspoon of milk had adulterated the pure ice-cream. Brilliant!

Picture this: Six children, ranging in age from 18 to 11, perched on the surfboard bench of the long middle table. They’re mostly blonde—like most Utah children. The two eighteen-year old college freshmen have styled their hair for the football game, straightening their bangs with the Chi straightener, and wear silver hoop earrings. One’s got on a lime green BYU Cougars T-shirt with Hawaiian flowers; the other a sun dress with a white, sleeved, t-shirt underneath. The boys, to a man, wear basketball shorts and t-shirts with Nike Athletics or Basketball Camp Champion 2007 across the chest. Across from them sit their parents, and two other boys, age 10 and 12, similarly attired. The man wears a navy blue collared shirt with BYU embroidered on the left chest, as does one of the women.

Around the BYU blue, the walls are covered floor to ceiling in black paint and license plates, devised by those brilliant minds that make me laugh as I drive down the freeway. Surfboards hang from the ceiling. Van Halen’s jumping out of the stereo system, soon to be followed by Nickelback (Latest song: Burn It to the Ground). The homeless guy outside is playing his two songs on his portable keyboard, one about Sierra Vista, and the other about Saturday night. The servers wear black, not by mandate, but by choice. The black is alleviated with designs that resemble skeletons, or halfpipes, or retro Kiss concert Ts. Little goatees, fluff under the lower lip, which I have subsequently found out is called a “soul patch,” are de rigueur, as are chains from back belt loop to front button. Some sport Mutton Chops, the reverse goatee. The chef has a Mohawk and spreads, at the very most, 170 pounds over his 6 foot 4 frame. Gauges seems to be the most common, visible piercing (I had to ask the college freshman on the name for that one)—some at least the size of a dollar coin.

I love it. I love that Adam is watching, with his mouth slightly open and drool beginning to gather in the corners, as he watches the shake man, with multiple piercings, dancing at his machine. If I could see myself, I know I have a crooked half-smile on my face. You see, I love to watch my kids around things they don’t know; and more than that, things they perhaps even fear slightly. Love to see them watch “different” people doing something well. In this case, running a restaurant, serving killer food in complicated orders without a hitch, schmoozing at all the tables that include families, young couples, students from UCSD, surfers and boarders, and moving diners through their restaurant with a casual aplomb that belies the speed with which the tables turn over. (Kevin and I had come earlier in the year, just us, and the service was just as charming and efficient. The music was also just as loud at three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in February. Consistency—the sign of a good business.)

After dinner, the kids strolled down to the pier, admittedly under duress at first. (Adam: “Mom, you’re not the boss here. Nobody wants to go to that stupid pier. Seven people don’t want to go. Why do you get to decide?) To get to the steps, they had to maneuver by the homeless man in his twenties with a massive trench coat and an even bigger pit bull tethered by a rope leash to his waist. Pitbull Man was being soundly chastised by another man who was bothered that his behavior, at some previous occasion, was aggressive and had bothered somebody who had taken offense. Pitbull Man took his talking to with a penitently lowered head and muttered, “Dude, dude . . . I know, I know.” I had to drag Adam away who stood glued to the spot, his eyes wide.

Up onto the pier, and into the Saturday night fishing village that probably blossoms at dusk on every pier in California. Each side of the 1,971 feet of the pier, as well as the two wings that form a T-shape at the ocean end, was dotted with fishing groups. Judging from the languages, mostly Spanish-speaking and Asian, the fishers were largely Hispanic and Hmong. Fathers, mothers and babies in strollers; kids on scooters; preteens throwing nerf footballs to each other; teenagers in circled camp chairs texting and chatting while their lines bobbed in the inky water below; young children played in little pop-up tents that, if we could have seen, were probably decorated with My Little Pony decals. Dinner in coolers, live bait and the fresh catch in buckets, green glow-in-the-dark lures attached to the end of the lines so that they don’t get tangled on the cast. I’m walking next to Kevin with the weight of Adam tucked into the crook of my arm as he twists backwards and forwards, trying to see whether he is brave enough to let go completely.

Again, I love it. I love the wafting scents of salt water, French fries from the restaurant/bait shop perched halfway down the pier, tobacco, kelp rotting on the shore and barnacles smashed under foot that float by. I love that our group breaks into groups: parents and little, bigs and inbetweens. I love the self-centered chatter that stills as they walk further and further onto the pier. As we get to the T, I roll my eyes at the “OK, mother, we’ve walked the pier, can we now get out of here before we get raped” that comes from the older group. “No, we’ve got to walk down both sides.” I love the silence that follows, while they take it all in—the tents, the coolers, the chatter, the fish, the lures.

I love that, though they will not admit it, the thoughts process through their brains that for some teenagers, it was considered a fun thing to gather on the pier with their camp chairs, cell phones, Big Gulps and fishing rods to catch fish on a Friday night. Judging from the hair styles, the girls had taken just as long to get ready, and the boymen were sporting their most potent aftershave. I love the questions that follow: Why do people fish? (Have I really raised such city slickers?) What do they do with it? Why would they need it? What followed, while we strolled, was an explanation of fishing licenses, free fish, cheap food, and possibly the benefits of sitting on a late fall night under the San Diego sky with the waves crashing beneath you, and the moon rising while waiting for your lobster pots to fill up.

For ten-year old Adam, the Pitbull Man figured foremost on his brain that night. But not the questions I thought he would ask like, how does he feed that huge dog, where does he sleep, and what do you think he did to become homeless. What Adam was most concerned about was that Pitbull Man had been smoking. “Mom, why do you think he would do that when he just knows that smoking is bad for you?”

I tried to explain that smoking actually kills the hunger pains, that maybe it helped him not be so hungry, that sometimes you are so addicted to something that even though you know it’s wrong you do it anyway. “So, Adam, when you hit Seth, you know it’s wrong but you do it anyway.” “Yes, well, that’s not going to affect me in the long run; that’s not going to make me die.” For the life of him, I couldn’t get him to see that smoking might not be as bad as deliberately choosing to hit your brother. He wouldn’t even budge from his certainty that he would never do something that he knew was wrong AND that would have a long term effect. He just knew that if he were homeless he wouldn’t smoke. (I think he also remains convinced that hitting Seth will have no effect on his eternal salvation. Funny how the things we do are never worse than the things done by someone else. )

After about 30 minutes, we headed back to Newport Avenue, passed Pitbull Man (who was still smoking), passed the all-night taco stand, and the pawn shops, and climbed into our cars. As we pulled out of the parking space and headed back to Mission Beach, Julia sank into the seat behind us. “Thanks,” she breathed out, “that was really fun.” I smiled again. Chalk one up on the “enlarge thy borders” quest. For me, at least, I left Ocean Beach reminded that other is just another way, that our family’s way is not the only way, and thinking to rearrange my life so that I can spend a few Friday nights under that California moon atop a concrete pier with the swell sulking beneath me as I waited for the queenfish to bite.

Title: Colin Hay, from "Beautiful World."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Set All The Beacons Blazing

Have you ever thought about those conversations that have changed your life? In other words, once the piece of information slotted itself into place in your brain, you couldn't look at the world the same way. Here are mine that I was thinking about this morning . . . three of my most recent, and so precious that I am grateful for the people who were in my life to have those conversations with me.

Conversation #1
I'm sitting in a car in Camps Bay, South Africa talking to my high school friend Tracy last summer. I have spent the past twenty years in America, living life on the family fast track. Marriage, children (within about twenty seconds of each other, if the timing of Julia's birth is anything to go by), degrees, homes, business, career, pets, soccer teams etc., etc., etc. I have returned, alone, to my homeland, which I left in 1984 as a college freshman. The teenage ties I had before I left Cape Town and which had suffered the inevitable severance have been resurrected through cheap long distance phone calls, Internet, email and Facebook.

In the early 80s, Tracy and I played netball and waterpolo together. We wore the school uniforms and, even at seventeen, kept our hair up high in pigtails. In 2009, she is a physical therapist with her own practice; I am an attorney. We are both wives to American husbands, and mothers to children. We're in our early forties, but her face is the same, her staccato speech delivery the same, her hunger for a good life still the same. I recognize her--her laugh, her grin, her accentuated hand movements--from decades ago and she is as familiar to me as the Westerford maroon plaid dress with notched collar.

We're sitting in her car after an evening at the beach, I think, talking about choices, about her experiences in Texas, and mine in Utah; about raising kids, about what guidelines she lives by; about how she deals with a cross-cultural marriage and the assumptions that each culture brings to the marriage. The conversation veers to children, about how to raise them, about the kind of discipline, about what standards are appropriate. I am eager to talk to somebody from the outside. Somebody who knew me before, when I was still young and eager and naive and cocksure about life. She's talking about disciplining her son, who is, from my meetings with him, a delightful, well-mannered, talented high school senior. "You know, Tess," she says, "sometimes, I see him do things, and I'll say: 'Uh-huh, no . . . we are not those kinds of people. We do not do those kinds of things.' It's important for me to a good person, to do good things, to help, to be kind. I want my children to be those kinds of people as well."

The words seem quite mundane now that I write them out in full conversation. But, when I heard Tracy say, "We are not those kinds of people," the light bulb flickered on in my brain. There was no language about what kind of "people" she should or shouldn't be. I felt no sense that she was aligning herself with an imposed notion of goodness or of appropriate behavior. Neither was she waiting for the memo from the Vatican City to tell her what kind of person she should be. Rather, Tracy was speaking about what she was choosing to be, about the life she was choosing to create for herself and for her family. I sat there in the front seat of her car and thought to myself, "I will choose for myself the kind of people I will be."

In the past eighteen months, I have asked myself this question quite often: What kind of person do I want to be? I have come to some realizations.
  • I choose to pray, not because I should, but because I want to be the kind of person who knows how to speak to deity and to hear its voice. I also want to be the kind of person who teachers her children how to listen to and recognize God's voice.
  • I pay tithing not because I want open heavenly windows but because I want to be the kind of person who contributes to the organization to which she belongs. I want to pay my dues.
  • I attend church every week and teach in its organizations because I want to be part of a faith community, and I want to be a person willing and able to work beside and love those I would not have chosen for my own company.
  • I take my children to church, not because I should, but because I want to be the kind of parent who shows their children that personal comfort is not always as significant as service for the greater community. I also take my children to church because I want them to know that there, in this place, there is time set aside to know their God and a redeemer.
  • I am married, not because being married is the only way to salvation, but because I love this man, and together we make great children and find great places to eat, and he makes me laugh and think. I stay married to him because, even though there are times I have consciously chosen to walk back through the door, I want to be the kind of person who, after forty years, smiles across the table at the same man I promised to love four decades before.
  • I tell the truth not because my soul will burn in hell if I don't but because a truthful way is a peaceful way. I would like to be known as an honest person.
These are my choosings. I see them as such now--actions chosen by me. Not shoulds, not musts, but my choosings. Perhaps the outside of me doesn't look much different than I did before, but the inside feels so much more genuine.

Conversation #2
(Written with permission of my husband, who's flinching a little at the kitchen counter).

I've long maintained that it would do our community a whole lot of good if we had a version of the village pub. You know, a place where you can go at the end of a day, or in the middle when it's five o'clock somewhere, to find your mates and have a chat. After a beer or two, or a shandy if you're an Englishwoman from the novels I've read, conversation starts to flow. I imagine it's the kind of conversation where you tell stories about yourself that make others laugh, and they reciprocate in turn. You share your troubles, your everydays, your regulars, your normals, your ups, whatever comes to mind. (Perhaps the scrapbooking allnighters that go on out there approximate the village pub, but I've never attended and don't know a curling iron from a die cut). So, I long for a village pub. You see, I want to know about married sex.

I know one couple that schedule Tuesday and Thursday, and alternate Saturdays for sex. That way he gets taken care of and she doesn't have to be bothered by him on the other days. They say no feelings get hurt that way. But what about, if on Friday, they go out, and she's looking striking and she makes funny conversation, and her hair's just been colored with low lights around her face, and their hands brush under the table, and they share the Great Chocolate Wall of China at P.F. Changs. What if, after all that, they go home and because it's Friday night, there's nothing going on. I'm telling you, he's not going to feel taken care of. And she'll feel just fine with Roast Almond Fudge out of the carton and the Secret Lives of Women on WE.

You see, it's hard, when you've only had one real sex partner i.e., all the way, to know what exactly is normal, average, regular, married sex. What's normal? Factor in a little history of sexual abuse, and there's a whole lot of "normals" for me and Kevin to get to. How often and how long? And where do you go to find out? The scrapbooking allnighter doesn't work because that's from a woman's perspective. From all accounts and personal experience, the male perspective is different. How exactly does that conversation start, in Utah, in the most LDS town in the known universe? Do you ask the church elders who visit once a month, "So, Brother Bullock, I know you're 93 and your wife died seven years ago, but what do you think is normal for married sex?" Might hasten his longed-for demise.

So, about eighteen months ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine. The kind of friend that knew me when my knees were the widest part of my legs, and I wore pigtails, brown lace-ups, and longed for a Walkman. He's married, with six kids. But, more importantly, lives a continent and a complete culture away.

"So, how do you get your team to attack through the wings without making the center redundant?" He replies.
"So, can I ask you something else?"
"Go ahead"
"If you had your way, how often would you make love?"
"Aah, go on . . . ."
"No really . . . how often?"
"Every day."

You mean wanting everyday is normal. Everyday isn't perverted, oversexed, or insatiable. Everyday is just male, just different from me. Oh!

Now that was a thing I never before had supposed. And just knowing that changed everything for us.

Conversation #3
About three weeks ago, I sat again in a car talking to a friend--a twenty-something version of me (except I was never a concert pianist). Just graduated from law school, mother of two small girls, wife of a student, dealing with all those issues that go with being female, intelligent, in your early twenties, and LDS. We'd been walking through the foothills talking about polygamy and guilt, and veiling your face, and polygamy and guilt, and in-law issues, and polygamy and guilt, and eating issues, and polygamy and guilt.

Her: I don't want to live in polygamy in order to receive the highest degree of exaltation.
Me: You don't have to. Do you really think the God you worship and know will make you live in a situation that turns your stomach? Has he ever forced you to do anything? Why would he start then?

Her: I don't know whether I believe it all.
Me: You don't have to. Just believe what you feel to believe. Let the rest lie until you need it or want to know. There's nothing that says you have to believe it all, lock, stock and barrel, right now.

Her: I don't want to live in polygamy.
Me: You're not now . . . and now is all there is.

Her: I just don't know. There are so many holes in things. So many ideas I wish we had . . . like a heavenly mother.
Me: Where is it written that the theology contained in the four books available for public consumption is all there is? Borrow ideas. Start with the Virgin Mary. Feel to connect with Mother Earth. You want a heavenly mother . . . go find her. If she's all the mother she is supposed to be, she'll make herself known to you. Why, I wonder (and this is where time slowed for me, like I was Cameron Diaz in Charlies Angels doing her roundhouse kick.), do we wait to be fed what it is we individually need to know? If the general theology doesn't yet have it, it doesn't mean it's unavailable, or out of print. Perhaps this is where we get to know, just for ourselves, our personal mysteries of heaven.

As I drove away, I felt as if I had swallowed a pearl.


Those are some of my crucial conversations. What are yours?

Title: David Gray, from "Flesh"

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Standing Outside the Fire

Question: Does God really prompt to inaction?

By this I don’t mean those warning voices that stop eight-year olds from hopping onto wild stallions, or a mother of nine from driving her minivan onto a canyon road where an avalanche will overtake her the minute she turns up the south fork. By inaction, I the state I find myself in when I fail to act, even though I had been fully meaning to until filled by a cloud of negative energy that I interpret to mean God does not want me to go that particular way. Mostly, it is the inaction that follows the uneasy, unsettling feeling that seems to come over me (sometimes accompanied by a desire to repeatedly throw up if the activity contemplated is my first, unassisted jury trial) when the moment of reckoning draws nigh, that moment when I have to walk through the airport doors, or step out onto the college field and play third base, or say “yes.”

When I was seventeen, I spent a year in Australia as an exchange student with Rotary International. Ever since I was in eighth grade, and had seen my first exchange student (an American boy named Tim with wavy, golden hair just a little longer than the regulation South African school cut) at my high school, I had wanted to participate in the program. After a series of interviews, weekend selection camps, and waiting, waiting, waiting, I found out I was selected for the year long program. I was to leave in January 1984, about five weeks after writing my final state exams to matriculate from Westerford High School. The night before I left, I couldn’t sleep. Fear and anxiety filled the bedroom, pushing against my years of dreaming and hoping. The photos at the airport show me smiling, but my eyes are as round as half-dollars. I spent the first three nights in Dubbo, Australia, sobbing myself very quietly to sleep (I shared a room with my host sister). It was my first time away from home and I was realizing I wouldn’t see my family for a year. I experienced aching, aching night time loneliness, a deep ache that I had never felt before. But, it didn’t kill me. And when the sun came up, things were better and continued to improve, until, upon leaving a year later, I cried for three days solid on my return to South Africa. In between those book-ended six days of sobbing . . . so much more than I had ever imagined.

A few mornings ago, I pulled into my sister’s driveway a few mornings ago to pick up Adam’s backpack before school. She lives on a street I used to live on, before I traded a jacuzzi tub, easy glide kitchen drawers, and water pressure for fifty-year old maple trees, irrigation canals, and deer that eat my roses to twigs. In the driveway of another home, I see him. He’s cleaning the ice off the windshield. I do a double-take. I thought he was in Hawaii, starting his first year of university. I shout out the window, “I thought you were in Hawaii . . . Are you home for fall break?” After all, he was in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops. Perhaps he was just refusing to temperature adjust in honor of the islands. “No,” he replies, “I never went.” “Why?” I ask. “Well, I already graduated with my associates when I graduated from high school.” “So, what are you doing now?” I ask. “Nothing,” he replies. I drove away.

A young man lies in his childhood bed in his parent’s basement. He’s about 22, recently returned from his missionary service. He still lives at home. His friends, who are going to Vegas, about six hours away, invite him along for the ride. They suggest they can drop him off in St. George so that he can meet up with one of his missionary companions. His mother does not want him to go. She cannot explain her rationale other than to say she doesn’t feel good about him going down all that way, driving on those dangerous roads. He’s a naturally obedient, compliant soul but he wants to go. At the same time, he’s afraid of his mother’s words. He lies in bed thinking. He imagines the worst that can happen to him if he goes. Perhaps he will die a fiery death on I-15 between Parowan and Paragonah. What’s the worst that will happen to him if he stays? He would never go anywhere. He would stay right where he was–in the bed he grew up in, his parents’ basement. Safe.

She speaks over the pulpit about the Spirit and how it works. She mentions the regulars. It’s a still, small voice. It’s a feeling. It’s a flood of impressions. It’s a thought that doesn’t leave. Then she gets to, it’s a warning voice. “For example,” she says, “I remember driving a road with my friends. We were going to take a certain route, but when we got to the turn off, we felt we shouldn’t. So, we went a different way. I don’t know what would have happened if we went that way. But we just felt like that was a way we shouldn’t go.” I read another account of a warning voice that seems similar: two people walking a country road with which they were familiar at night. Suddenly, they both had an impression that they should go no farther in that direction. They retraced their steps and took another way home. The next day, they wondered why they had felt constrained to stop. They went back, this time in daylight, and found that, within a few feet of where they had stopped, a bridge had washed out.

I wanted that woman who spoke to us that Sunday to finish her story: “So, we went back to that intersection the next morning, and saw that . . . there was police crime tape stretched across the road; there was a sinkhole that had just opened up; there was a tree that had fallen across the path; there was an ax murderer at the door with the three Nephites/guardian angels standing behind him (oh, wait, that’s a different story).” I didn’t want her to finish that story with a witness of the unknown and the unknowable, “I don’t know what danger we missed by not going that way but I’m sure we did miss something bad and I’m sure we were blessed for listening to that feeling.”

This conundrum, of witnessing about the unknowable, reminds me of a logical fallacy: Arguing from Ignorance. The proof goes something like this: It cannot be proven that God does not exist. Therefore he does exist. Arguments from ignorance infer that a proposition is true from the fact that it is not known to be false. In other words, “I don’t know what danger we missed by not going that way but I’m sure we did miss something and I’m sure we were blessed for listening to that feeling.” Or, “Please don’t go. I don’t feel good about you driving that road. So many things could happen.” Because it cannot be proven that harm will fall, it feels as if by not moving, harm is averted.

I know there are times when a warning voice operates to constrain certain actions. But there are more times, more often than not, when in our desire to live unruffled, peaceful, even sedate lives, we run from the anxiety that growth and experience and agency require. When we feel the upswelling of anxiety and distress that accompanies a step into the unknown, whether it’s college or a road trip or a new paint color, we choose to interpret that mix of emotions as a sign that we should not be pursuing that course of action. Of course, when the anxiety-producing choice is gone because we’ve taken it out of the picture, then we feel just fine. All our emotions are under control; the hormones levels are back to normal; the adrenalin rush has subsided. This relatively peaceful, stable state, we interpret then as a sign that we made the right choice and that God approves of our inaction. It could also be just the cessation of the flow of adrenalin and the feelings of anxiety about facing the unknown and the new. But that would make our decision so much more mundane, not as blessed. Far better to think that God’s in play and calling the shots.

This thought process brings to mind another logical fallacy I learned about in Philosophy 305–Affirming the Consequent. This logical fallacy is set up like this: The first two premises are 1) If A then B; 2) B; and the conclusion drawn is 3) Therefore A. In words, it looks something like this: If Kevin wanted to really bug me, he would wear his sandals with his Sunday socks. Kevin’s wearing his sandals with his Sunday socks. Therefore, Kevin really wanted to bug me. So, I see Kevin walk out of the bedroom with those sexy, black Costco gold toe socks on and his brown sandals. Because of my logical errors firing in my brain, I think, “I know he’s just doing that to bug me.”Realistically, there could be a myriad of reasons why he’s wearing that particularly unappealing combination: He was too tired to take off his socks. It’s comfortable. He couldn’t find a pair of clean white socks. The sandals were the closest shoes to hand when he took off his wingtips. He didn’t even think about it. All of those are good candidates to explain his behavior. Any one of these reasons is probably more accurate than my inference of him wanting to bug me royally judging by the puzzled expression on his face when he hears me fire off, “You are so not getting some tonight.” (Churching until early evening and black Sunday socks and sandals on the same day is more than any woman should have to bear.)

About twenty years ago on a warm July morning, I sat next to my mother. I was dressed in white, the white hastily chosen between graduate seminars on a hot June day. It was about fifteen minutes before I married Kevin. After the rush of the morning (I was late arriving), it was the first time I had sat to contemplate. In the quiet, I was filled with the overwhelming sense of what I was doing. Feelings of uncertainty, of the unknown, of the horror of making a mistake filled me. To be honest, you could say I was filled with dread. I looked over at this man I was to bind myself to and wondered, “How on earth can I possibly be doing this? What am I thinking?” I leaned over to my mother and said, “Oh, Mom, I don’t know. Should I do this?” I suppose I was looking for some steadfast, immoveable reassurance that getting married to this man in this place was absolutely, without doubt the right thing to do. But I didn’t get that from my mother. She whispered back, “Oh, it’s not so bad. Give it try.” I took a deep breathe . . . and did just that.

Because I said “yes” in the face of fear and anxiety, I am utterly changed in ways I could not have imagined. Imagine if I had felt that dread, and, interpreting it as God’s sign that I should not get married, had done the Julia Roberts and run down Temple Hill, past the cemetery, onto Highway 89, and headed for Ephraim. Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it. How could a theology that proposes agency as its ultimate mode support a God that prompts to inactivity and approves of the static? It cannot. When we assign the blame to God for our own inability to act and to push through the anxiety attached to the unknown, it's akin to taking God's name in vain.

Incidentally, that young man who lay in his childhood bedroom went to St. George. He didn’t die in a crash on I-15. He’s still alive. In fact, today is his 45th birthday. He’s traveled I-15 hundreds of times since then (he’s even left the country) and has learned that the first time, for anything, is always, as it should be, tinged with fear and colored by faith.

Title: Garth Brooks, "Outside the Fire."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Are We Human, Or Are We Dancer?

I ran across, courtesy of my vulture-reading husband, a construct recently that has the capacity to change the way I encounter life. (By accusing Kevin of being a vulture, I mean that he doesn't have the grandiose literary nose that I profess to. He doesn't look at the cover, and then at the publisher, and then at the date, and then smell the pages and read a few paragraphs to hear the author's voice before starting to read a book. If he's interested in the idea, he'll buy the book, give the author a long rein, and glean what he can. Just like a vulture, flying high above the veld to descend onto whatever train wreck of a carcass lies rotting under the baobab tree. Even if the stench reaches the stratus cloud levels, the meat can still be quite tasty if you can hold your breath long enough.)

Here's the idea, taken from Robert Fritz's book Creating: along with a myriad of other responses to our present, there are two responses that can determine how we process our daily living. The performer approaches life as if it is a performance. She plays a role in front of an audience. Because she is role playing, she has lines to learn and to deliver, and a precise set of blocked out actions to follow. When things don't go according to plan, the performance is a failure. Ergo, she is a failure. On the other hand, the learner approaches life's activities as opportunities to learn. When things don't go as planned, she stops, looks around, figures out what worked and what didn't and goes on. Mistakes are accecpted as an inevitable part of learning. They are not greeted with dismay, shame or embarrassment. Even horrible mistakes don't reflect on her inherent worth. They are indications that that particular approach is not going to work--at all.

They also indicate she is nowhere near to mastering the skill she’s practicing, whether that skill is public speaking, being married, raising a particular child, teaching, litigating a trial, or being a good neighbor and friend. According to Malcolm Gladwell, who cites other studies inOutliers, about 10,000 hours of practice is the tipping point to mastering a particular skill, whether it is the violin, tennis, bass guitar or computer programming. Taking that as a guide, think about how many hours you’ve spent at a particular endeavor. Then consider how many more hours you still have to invest to become a master coach, master wife, master husband, master parent, or master gardener.

I coach a soccer team of ten and eleven year old boys, including my son Adam. We've dominated every team this season, except yesterday. Yesterday, we lost 3-2. The average winning margin in previous games has been about 8-0. The team we lost to lost 8-1 to a team we beat 4-3. (Probably didn't help that the one linesman who negated two of our goals for offsides was the older brother of one of the opposing team's players! And that the final goal against us was a penalty kick on a flop. But, no sour grapes in this story. And in the next life, no 13-year old center refs who show up 20 minutes late because their mom was at parent-teacher conference and couldn't give them a ride.) So, essentially, you have a team of young boys who are great soccer players, and who over the course of the season, have been able to move away from the passing attack we started out the season with to individualistic runs down the wing (at a pretty good speed) and shots on goal into the top corner. This approach works when you have an undisciplined, slower team to play against. But yesterday's team had speed, and two players who could control the ball. So, we lost, even though we controlled the ball 70 percent of the time.

Now, for a performer coach, such as me, the loss could be devastating. It would mean that the performance went horribly wrong. The unbeaten record is gone. If the whole purpose is to give a good performance, and good is measured by winning, then we failed yesterday. (I will admit that the performer coach in me woke up at two this morning and couldn't sleep because I was playing the key moments of the game through my mind, and castigating myself for not preparing the team better. So I read the latest Sandra Brown novel (high brow literary taste!) to conclusion, and fell back to sleep at 5. 30.)

But to a learner coach, whose purpose is to teach soccer to these boys, that lost game is actually a really great teaching tool. The season hasn't really afforded us opportunities to learn that if you don't play fundamentally sound soccer, with a passing game that moves forward, backwards and sideways using the center as a fulcrum, then you have a one dimensional attack. They haven't, until yesterday, been on the learning end that a lone attacker who will not or cannot pass the ball to his support is easily contained in a double team. We learned all that yesterday. Sometimes, you can't learn those very important soccer lessons and still win. My job next training session is to communicate this to the boys, and to return to the horrible possession drill that they hate to play but which makes them so good at moving off the ball and looking for the pass. If my approach to the next few training sessions is to reinforce what they still need to master, then we're really learning how to play and coach soccer.

True confession: I think I am a performer lover, or at least have been in the past. Somehow in my brain, I had it wired that only people with perfect bodies could make perfect love. Making love was a performance—a well crafted, soft music playing (sometimes soaring orchestras with string sections), genteel kind of experience which leaves you glowing and stroking each other's faces. But making love well is also a noisy, sticky, messy enterprise. I can't think of how many times my brain had slowed down enough to stop thinking about what I would serve for dinner the next Sunday or what tiles would look better in the downstairs bathroom to register that what Kevin was doing down the left side there was really quite enjoyable. Just as I would be about to surrender myself to the sheer physicality of us, I would hear my stomach flap against his. And that noise would ruin everything. My love bubble would crumple.

You see, in my making love performance, you don't have stomachs flapping against each other scripted in. That's just not a part of the performance, of the ideal session. And if they did flap and flop, then it wouldn't be something to laugh at together. It would be an embarrassment. It would be me getting it wrong again. There's no fluids either, in performance love, or yeast infections, or flatulence, or leg cramps that tie you up like a hog. And because those events feature in my lovemaking, obviously, we must not be very good lovers, by performance standards. (Kevin's thinking we just need to hit 10,000 hours!)

If I were a learner lover, I would be willing to tell Kevin where and when and how and how quickly without feeling embarrassed (performance lovers know exactly when and where without having to articulate, I suppose). I would be able to laugh out loud, even scream if I wanted to (but not because that's what they do in the movies). I would be intent on learning how to make love as well as our two bodies and souls could, bodily fluids, noises and fat included. There would be no script and no standard of measurement except how we both felt at the end of it. And I would be utterly free to say, "I don't bend that way. Let's see if you do."

How about performance religiosity? I just returned from a walk with a friend of mine. She's worried that she cannot stand and unequivocally state that she believes that all the doctrines and the practices of her church are true. Because she cannot do that, she feels that she is apostate, and that she might as well give up now. Applying this performance/learner worldview to her dilemma, I question which script it is that establishes that we must know everything absolutely. Where is it stated that in order to be a faithful member of a religious community you have to have an unwavering knowledge, even belief, that all of its doctrines are correct? I don't know. Perhaps some of us act as if we do know. Our language is unequivocally without doubt. Our examples we use are capable of only one interpretation. The moments of inspiration deliver messages with complete clarity. When faced with such absolute certainty, I can't help but think, "Me thinks thou dost protest too much." But that might be me self-reflecting my own insecurities. Nevertheless, in every faith community, there is an ideal. Living up to the ideal can lead, if we are not honest with ourselves, to us becoming performers delivering lines and moving through scripted events right on cue. Some of those lines concern what we do and do not know to be true.

The idea that one must know and know absolutely in order to be a faithful member seems to me to be part of performance faith. It's part of that script we think we must live out in order to fit. When we fail to feel the part, we feel there can be no place for us in this particular passion play. But, the whole notion of knowing absolutely as part of religious faith is a contradiction of the very term, faith. In order to have faith, I choose to believe in the face of doubt. I am moved by the letters of Mother Teresa, published after her death, in which it is revealed that she experienced periods of great religious doubt, even darkness. She wrote to a confidant, "Jesus has a very special love for you. . . . [But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand." If I am learning to be faithful, I let doubt live alongside the things I do know. In Mother Teresa's case, she lived with the darkness beside the light for forty years. If I am to learn how to be faithful, the moments in which I feel to have no faith and all doubt are absolutely necessary. How else can I learn that faith is choice, and that I want to be faithful? I can't flee because I find myself in a place that is uncomfortable to me. I can't squish the doubt like an unwanted bug. The things I don't know I put gently on a shelf, and, maybe later, I'll take them out to look at them again when I have the inclination or need to really know. I have 10,000 hours of learning to be faithful before I can expect any kind of mastery from myself. I can be patient.

As a learner of faith, I am figuring out how to be faithful. In the learning, there is a risk that I will be faithless as I try to figure out what faith is and how I need to be faithful (not my neighbor's faithful, not the PTA president's faithful, not the skinny blonde who stays size 2 when nine months pregnant faithful; just my faithful). Learning faith requires a willingness to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to ask difficult questions for which there might not be institutional answers, but which answers can come personally. Learning faith requires me to recognize that acquiring this attribute/skill won't always be comfortable and that I will feel out of sorts, discombobulated, and stretched—just like trying to get back in shape after four children and fifteen years off. Part of learning to have faith means learning that it's okay not to know.

I recognize it's easier to become a learner when you live with learners and have raised learners. It's easier to try something a little different when there's no cosmic significance attached to your efforts, blown though they may be. When you live with learners, your entire life becomes your laboratory. The next step becomes something interesting, the outcome a little unknown. When you live with performers and perform yourself, the next step can become undercut with anxiety. The desired outcome is so specific and predetermined that anything but the bull's-eye can often seem like a failure. How often do we manage to hit the bull's-eye? Not too often. Thus, the lives of performers are colored by a nagging sense of failure, of not being good enough. Speaking from experience, it's rather an exhausting way to live.

Title: from "Human" by The Killers.