Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Decent Melody

In American society, there are times when a court has to decide what the legislature meant when it drafted a particular law or statute. One of the rules of statutory interpretation or construction requires that every part of a statute be presumed to have some effect, and should not be treated as meaningless unless absolutely necessary. In other words, when reading a statute, the court must read the language to allow all parts of the statute to stand. If a court were to read a statute in a way that a particular provision was superfluous, the reading of that court would most probably be overturned on appeal. Logically, it doesn’t make sense for the legislature to include provision (iii) if the way the statute is applied makes provision (iii) unnecessary.

For example, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of Tennessee states that “the General Assembly shall have no power to . . . alter the salary of any office” until the term of that office is over. So, when the Commissioners of Shelby County voted themselves a pay raise while they were still in office, the Tennessee state court got to decide whether they could do that. The court looked to the Sixth Amendment, and, reading the language, decided that, if they allowed the Commissioners to change their own salaries while they were in office, the introductory phrase of the statute would be unnecessary i.e., the General Assembly shall have no power, was superfluous. The only way to make sense of the whole statute was to actually give the General Assembly no power. So, the court held that the Shelby County Commissioners acted in violation of the Tennessee Constitution when they gave themselves a pay raise.

This rule of statutory construction has been on my mind lately. Not as it relates to reading statutes, but as it relates to trying to make sense of the triumvirate of divine mandate, prophetic counsel and a personal inspiration available through the Holy Ghost or Spirit. Seems to me that many of us live using only two of the three. It’s safer that way; less room for error. Which one of the holy three is superfluous? Individual spiritual discernment.

I remember reading a fridge magnet about twenty years ago. The language on it boggled me. Sort of still does. It read: “When the prophet speaks, the discussion’s over.” I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that believing that God speaks to a prophet and provides guidance and counsel through him requires the cessation of all discussion. I still can’t.

The application of the prophetic utterance is, I believe, my jurisdiction. That’s where I take the counsel, consider the underlying commandment, and contemplate the most appropriate way to live that in my life and the life of my family. That “application sphere” is where I practice becoming an agent. Problem is that in becoming that agent I could make the “wrong” decision. By that I mean a decision that might, at worst, lead to pain, heartache, or, invariably, just messiness and ambiguity. (A decision is not wrong just because my application of it looks different than another’s.) To eliminate the potential pain and to live as “clutter free” as possible, it’s tempting to live only according to prescribed formulas (preferably published by Deseret Book, because it makes them all the more righter). Where do we find these formulas? Sometimes, we just make them up.

In our religious culture, the interpretation of direction/counsel tends to morph beyond principle into dogmatic prescription. Counsel, provided initially in principle form, mutates into rigid steps on how to live (with a plaque/locket/charm to commemorate them). Not that the giver expects such lock-step adherence; it’s the hearer’s reluctance to be found wrong or out of line that creates a need for prescription, for lists, and for turning to authority on how to live.

Take green tea for example. (I chose this because I just encountered two diametrically opposed viewpoints on it. Both believers convinced.) Can we or can we not drink it? The thought never crossed my mind and I really have no idea. But my trainer’s convinced it’s verboten, and an other friend swears, uneasily, by it. So she's going to her local leader for permission. I'm thinking that if you’re coming to your leader to determine whether you can do something, then something’s amiss. That fact that we feel to ask means that somewhere in that internal mechanism which measures our ethical temperature drinking green tea feels slightly out of line. But we want to drink it; it helps us lose weight. So, to reduce the internal discomfort, the nagging fear we might be doing something wrong, we seek confirmation outside of ourselves on a position that actually runs contrary to our internal promptings. In essence, we seek to make our gift of spiritual discernment superfluous. We turn over to our leaders the responsibility for our actions.

Never are we a happier people than when we are told exactly what to do, because then we couldn’t possibly go wrong. Rather than deciding what a principle means to us and finding the way to live it that sits well, we turn elsewhere: back issues of the Millennial Star, obscure treatises published by who knows which press, our local church authority. Yes, there is a security that is found in specifically following prescribed ways of living. One never really has to consider whether that way is right, wrong, appropriate for the situation, or optional. One doesn’t have to question one’s position. If things go wrong, we are safe from the self-reflection that normally accompanies mistake, error or reversals of fortune. After all, we were following the counsel of our leaders. The danger in this approach is that that we learn to trust only authority outside of ourselves, and we develop very little personal capacity to reach our own decisions, to practice the necessary art of choosing and deciding when there is no clearly defined way.

For me, this method of decision-making violates the rule of statutory construction. This particular world view makes the gift of the Holy Ghost as a tool for decision-making superfluous. Of what use is the gift of the Holy Ghost, if we're asking others how to live our life? Did God give us a party favor? Sort of like a “Thank you for coming, here’s a treat for the ride home.” Where is the growth, the emotional, intellectual and spiritual confidence that must naturally come by wrestling through life’s choices and decisions and coming to stand, however uncertainly at first, within the circle of your own conclusions and decisions? If I don’t do that, how can I be the agent I am designed to be, how can I bring about that good of my own free will and choice? If the answer is always to be found somewhere else outside of myself, how do I develop the self-sufficiency, the self-reliance to make decisions for which I stand fully accountable? In order for the gospel to have any internal consistency, I have to believe that I have been given what I need in order to make informed decisions: a mind, a scriptural base, inspired counsel and the discerning power of the Holy Spirit that is mine and mine alone to listen to. I must use all four of those components in order to reach an authentic, responsible position.

Here's a position I have reached recently. After the vigorous discussion following the post concerning my sister-in-law, I’ve done some thinking and reached some conclusions about the counsel to marry the right person, in the right place, by the right authority. I might not end up in the same place you do, but I have found a place for me to stand, my “decent melody, [the] song that I can sing in my own company.” Here’s how I reached my conclusion-for-now.

The initial, grounding commandment is to multiply and replenish the earth. Is the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth qualified by the “in the right place” counsel? If so, then should one only marry when one has the opportunity to marry in the “right place” or “the right person”? Essentially the question becomes, which holds more power: the first commandment given to our first parents: “multiply and replenish the earth, that you might have joy in your posterity” or the counsel given centuries later, “in the right place, by the right authority, to the right person.” (For some of us, this question never arises, because our life facts are different. But for others, it is the crucible in which faith is tested. Each of us has a question like this, one in which we face the hard edges of our realities.)

What happens then when you live in South Africa, and there is no “right place” for thousands of miles? Do you not marry, even though you might be marrying somebody of the same faith? Of course not. You marry and then save up for the trip to London, even if it takes ten years or it never happens. This application of the right place counsel seems to suggest then that the right place initially, for some, is not always within the temple. That a Rwandan right starting place, given the situation, will be different from the right starting place of another.

Or what happens if you never have the opportunity because you’ve never been invited to marry by the right person i.e., somebody of the same faith? Are you barred from marrying at all? Does the fact that there are no men of the same faith who find you attractive and have asked you to marry them bar you from experiencing the sweet fruits of marriage? Is it really God’s will that a woman is barred, in this life, from the experience of loving a man, of making love, of bearing children, of feeling the child turn in her womb, of teaching and raising children, of working side by side with her husband to fashion a home, a family and a life because a particular kind of man didn’t ask her.

When push comes to shove, I’m not sure I believe in a God who says, “Yes, because of the cultural anomaly which has developed in western civilization where marriage is dependent, not upon family ties and contracts (which used to ensure that just about every woman but those destined for the convent married), but upon men asking and women waiting, women who are not asked by “the right person” do not get to experience marriage in this life.” I just can’t believe in that kind of Father. The Father I prefer to believe in, and I fully concede I might be creating God in my own favorable image, is one who provides the possibility of “the right time, right place, right authority” to all those souls who seek it.

As I think through this, my mind starts to realize that perhaps some interpretations of the meaning of “in the right place, at the right time, by the right authority” are far more circumscribed than the Lord intended it to be. That in our determination to have very clear rules about marriage so that we are taught it correctly, teach it correctly and apply it correctly, we have narrowed beyond divine intent the meaning of his words. Some have created a marriage construct that allows for no deviation, for no alternatives. There can be only one way of approaching marriage; only one way to start; and no other way to get to that right place and authority. (I ache for those with this worldview who find themselves before the unexpected, completely different altar, offering up their fondest desire in order to stay consistent with their beliefs. I only hope it’s a sacrifice God really requires.)

For me, when it comes to the application of principles, the only Christian response is one which starts with “as for me and my house” and which allows all others the same privilege to decide and live how, where or what they may. Can it possibly be that an answer to this, and any other question including green tea, is yes for some, no for others, doesn’t matter for whoever is left over? How can that be? For the same reason that Nephi slew Laban, and Martha cooked while Mary listened. The spirit’s way is a mysterious and personal one. It’s a way which I must come to recognize and trust in my life.

What’s the danger in this approach? Institutionally—that there are many different versions of righteous living, and facing that variety gives some heartburn and leads to interesting conversations with children around the kitchen counter. It requires individuals to stand more fully grounded in the reasons for why they live as they do when others don’t. Personally—that there will be times when I flail around a bit, when my life is not so graceful, when months and years look like rehearsals, instead of the grand performance. I might get it wrong. Perhaps because I desire something so much I cannot see the way clearly. Perhaps because I search and think through with a desired end in mind, instead of an open heart and an open mind. Perhaps because I am listening not to spirit, but to ego, pride or fear.

No matter. Getting it wrong, being clumsy is to be expected as I learn how to make good applications--not right, just good. For the privilege of becoming good and of using all the faculties I have been given, I am willing to stand corrected, in a new place, and begin again the process of finding my way.

(Title: from U2, Stuck in a Moment)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The First Cut

When I was twelve I learned the meaning of despair. It was the Christmas holidays--a six-week stretch of summer days we filled with beaches, movies, and selecting two rand Christmas gifts for the nine members of our family. The closest shopping center was two suburbs away, about two miles, along the Main Road, in Claremont. We walked there and back. It took about half and hour at a brisk pace, weaving in and out of oak trees planted in British rows next to the pavement.

One afternoon I set off for Claremont alone. I'm not sure where Kim was, my other part. But no matter. I liked walking alone. I conjured up the lives of the people who lived in the houses I walked by. I wondered who put the shawl in the window, who drank all the beer in the bottles piled outside a gate, and why in the world would anybody own a Pekingese.

The walk that day took me past Newlands Cricket Club, where I caught a glimpse of the pitch as I went by the ticket turnstile. Suddenly, just as I started my hands running against the bars of the wrought iron fence, I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn't move. I felt as if somebody had tied my insides to a stick and was slowly turning them, like I had seen Indian dyers doing to sheets of cotton streaked with indigo. Twisting, turning, wrapping my intestines round and round until all I could do was breathe. I sank to the ground, leaned against the bars, gripped them with my hands and squatted there under the trees. ( I would later become very familiar with but never accustomed to menstrual cramping, but this was my first severe attack.)

I waited for the pain to pass. It didn't. I made myself walk ten steps before sinking to the ground. I started to pray, to plead, to beg to anybody who would listen or could hear. To my mother whom I knew was at home, to the people driving by in the street not twenty feet away, to God who could pluck me up and transport me home if He really wanted to. I must not have been desperate enough. My mother never came. She didn't hear my cries as I was sure she would. Every moment of those two hours it took me to creep my way home I expected our red-and-white VW bus to pull up to the curb, with my mother rushing out, saying, "My darling, I heard you. I knew you needed me. I'm here." Even God didn't seem to see me, bent over double, hanging on fences and walls, as I tried so very hard not to cry out loud. All I wanted was the pain to subside so that I could run home. That didn't seem very much to ask. I held my breath after every wave, waiting for a longer break, for some sign that He had noticed me. But the pain continued to come, a relentless assault.

That was the first time in my memory I made bargains with God, bargains I fully intended to keep, and bargains that apparently fell on divinely deaf ears. It's been thirty years. I still remember the bewilderment as plea after plea floated uselessly heavenward. I couldn't quite believe He had acted so callously. I knew that if I had had a child, I could not have left her alone to suffer so. I carried the betrayal around with me for weeks, like a bruise in the center of me. What hurt most was the thin ribbon of hope that sustained me after every cramp/prayer combination, that perhaps that prayer was fervent enough, maybe this one was offered with enough faith to cause Him to turn His gaze my direction. Post-episode, I felt embarrassed, almost shamed at my neediness, at believing, so hopefully, that if only I prayed properly, He would come.Inevitably, I thought I was somehow less loved, less worthy.

It's a lonely place to sit in. That place where you meet the real God, not the fairy tale version. The God who does not come in on the white horse, charging to your rescue. The God who does not heal you, make it stop for you or work a miracle, delivering seagulls and parted seas on cue. The God who is not the heart of it all, moving pieces and parts to His pleasure, and whom we curse then abandon when things don't work out. The God who appears to forget His side of bargain that we've, unilaterally, made with Him. That place where you slowly realize that because he is God, He does not always act or intervene or even warn.

It's a terrible realization, arriving generally after significant pain, and at a significant price. A daughter is molested by a family member. A father backs his truck down the driveway and runs over his son, killing him. Parents are left with a shell of a child after a doctor infects the newborn with a virus that attacks her brain. A wife, faithful and true, is left by her husband after decades of marriage for a younger woman. A son is killed in war. Another son returns, maimed physically and mentally. Yet another survives unscathed. A bus driver over corrects and destroys a school bus filled with children. A single woman yearns desperately for marriage; a childless couple desperately for a pregnancy. A woman ends her own unwanted one. A child is born apparently defect. Hundreds of thousands of children die of starvation in the horn of Africa, while the U.S. government pays farmers not to plant corn. A young father contracts cancer and dies a protracted, painful death. A mine shaft collapses trapping miners underground, and collapses again, killing the rescuers. Or a young girl, hardly out of puberty, crouches, wracked with pain, on a busy public street.

Hardly seems fair. Hardly seems right. Seems completely within His power to change; and if not to change, at least to hint; maybe even just the slightest cough behind His powerful hand or a breath of whispered warning.

I read a powerful book about a month ago: The Judas Field, by Howard Bahr. (I'm working my way through his series of Civil War novels.) Bahr described, more truthfully than most things I have read, the proper place of God and his connection to our human existence. This particular novel follows the journey of three Civil War veterans who return to a battle site twenty years after the war, accompanying a childhood friend suffering from cancer, who is gripped by a desire to unearth the bodies of her father and her brother who died at Franklin and bring them home. As the veterans wander through the battlefields--both real and remembered, they try to make sense of the carnage and waste war requires. Included in their reverie was a question asked of God: "Where were you?"
"Well, where was He?" asked Lucian [an orphan newly conscripted to the company].
"He was there," said Roger [a piano teacher ill-suited for war]. "He was there all along, watching and grieving. If we live, I will take you over the next field myself, and maybe you will learn what you can only learn the hard way: that God is there with you, and whatever sorrow you are feeling--well, how infinite must the sorrow be in His heart? It is the only way. Once a man decides that God planned all this, once he points to God as responsible, then his faith is gone. No mortal can bear that, no matter what he says. We have lost pretty much everything, but faith we cannot lose. That is why we pray, and fervently--but not for preservation, mind. That article is left to you and your pards, not to God. To ask Him for it, and be spared when so many are not, will only doom your faith.
"What do you ask for then?" said the boy.
Roger pulled the quilt around his shoulders. "To be forgiven," he said.
After the battle, Lucian, the orphan who has joined the company, wanders, dazed and deafened through the battlefield:
Lucian knew Cass [self-appointed, reluctant guardian of both Roger and Lucian] spoke to him, but he was still deaf and couldn't hear his voice, only felt it. He couldn't hear, but he could see, and he could smell the odor that hung over the battlefield as if the earth itself were bleeding. . . .what Lucian beheld by [the illumination of the torches] was more terrible than anything old Pelt [the preacher at the orphanage] had ever told of hell. He remembered how the little ones of the orphanage had listened to old Pelt. They cowered and were silent, and later in their dreams they saw once more the torn and blistered souls consumed in flame, burned and swollen to bursting, only to be made whole again, to burn again. Still that was only imagination. Now, at Franklin, the boy . . . had come to that place old Pelt had spoken of, and he knew [Roger] was right: God, if he loved as He was said to love, could not be blamed for this, could not have planned this back when planets were still being flung across the sky. Something else--vanity, madness, illusion, he would never know--had risen from the Will of Man and laid all this under the moon. God grieved among them, as bent and helpless and alone as any, while each prayer of the dying pierced Him like a nail. God suffered more than any, for He had seen this countless times before and knew He would see it again and again, and the hammer would ring again and again. God was greater than them all and must suffer more than any, and suffer for them all.
In the closing moments of the book, Cass, the sole surviving soldier stands in the cemetery at the grave of his adopted son Lucian, watching a cat play death games with a mole who has surfaced, unluckily, in just the wrong spot:
In spite of all he had seen, Cass still believed in the fundamental decency of cats and men. He knew that God believed in it, too, in spite of all He'd seen--in spite of all His grieving and all the lies told about Him down the bloody ages. He was God after all, and had made all creatures, and He had taken the noble chance of granting to one of them a will of its own, and in the end, the gift had been worth all the trouble. Maybe the right to choose was the best gift of all and the best proof of love. It was more precious even than life itself, for without the possibility of defeat, the victories would have no meaning.
The realization that God does not always deliver us from evil, while costly, is perhaps the most liberating of all realizations. Why? Because then it's not all His fault. It's my fault. It's my neighbor's fault. It actually is, despite my protestations about the system, my child's fault. It's a random universe. It's Matthew's rain that falls on the just and the unjust. It's Job's trouble and sparks flying upward. It's the shadow cast by other's self-absorbed choices. It's the evil, vanity, and selfish will that can rise up in all of us and wreak havoc--loud, bloody destruction or quiet, multi-generational, rippling havoc.

The price of this realization requires me to give up my notions that God controls my world; that He sat idly by, blithely playing the fiddle while my world burned. It requires me to place myself fully centered in my own life, responsible for my acts and reacts. It forces me to abandon my anger that God didn't intervene. It does not allow me to abandon Him in a pique of self-preservation or indignation. Now, there is no reason--unless one can fault Him for the gift that allows us all to become, in all our terrifying, glorious forms. Because I know this, now I must ask the right questions. Not, where were you? Or, how could you? But, what have I done? What can I do? How can I help?

(Title: Rod Steward, The First Cut is the Deepest)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dreams in the Mist

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope,
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.
--T.S. Eliot

We have a sign hanging above our kitchen door that we can see every time we leave the house--if we look up. I got it from the Art Co-op on Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado one Thanksgiving weekend. It's a bronze sheet with the words of Thoreau cut out of the metal: "Live the life you've imagined." I bought it as a gift for Kevin. He unwrapped it that Christmas morning, and I promptly commandeered it. I wanted our family to have a mantra of sorts, to help us imagine something more, to give our kids a doorway to a dream or an imagining entirely theirs. (In my dreams, when Christian opens on Broadway or Madison Square Garden, he will thank me by making reference to the sign that hung above the mustard-colored kitchen door.)

I imagine lots of things. I imagine that the exercise balls at the gym have feelings. I imagine that when they see my rear end coming down on them, they try to move out of the way. Sometimes I start laughing so hard at the thought of what the balls must think/see that I can't stay centered enough to do my crunches. Sometimes I think my car talks to me, especially when Kevin's driving and he forgets that my engine has about twenty three more cylinders than his sensible European model and he doesn't need to gun it off the stop. I can't drive by a line of poplars that are the only indication of a now-crumbled irrigation canal without wondering about the people who planted them.

And if poplars and cottonwoods get me going, you should see what explodes in my mind when we happen upon a long abandoned homestead, with a still proud brick home trying its golden vain best to remain upright against a backdrop of tumbled silver barns, corrals and winter cheat grass. Julia and Christian will hear my sharply drawn breath and say, in mocking unison before I can give voice to the words, "Oh, just imagine . . . just imagine." They've heard it so often, they have the rise and fall down pat.

I used the exact phrase last night. I picked Christian (15-years old) up from his night out, and we were waiting in the drive through line at Wendy's for our mother-and-son midnight junior bacon cheeseburger, when he said, "I was born in the wrong era." "When should you have been born?" "Oh sometime in the Middle Ages, so that I could do heroic things with horses and lances and ladies in towers." "Oh, could you imagine what your teeth would have been like. . . . the snaggletooth hero. . . just imagine." I start laughing; he starts groaning. Our almost-joke is that he will still be wearing his braces about the time he earns his Eagle Scout which will be around the same time he finally gets his driver's license just after he graduates from college, which college might be ITT Tech, because not only does he imagine he wears his rubber bands, he also imagines he hands in his homework.

The problem with imagination is that it can be more powerful, more influential, and a whole lot more satisfying than what is right in front of us. We live, many of us, in an imagined world, upon which the real world sometimes intrudes. The strongest pull of the imagination is that which involves our notions of ourselves: who we are, what being "Tessa" means, in my case; what actions, behaviours and attitudes are consistent with my imagined self; what life situations are acceptable, and which are not.

Most of us have definite notions of what being ourselves means. For example, I don't dance in public--ever; Santiagos bring honor to the family name; Meyers forge their own path; our family volunteers; I come from a long line of married people; I am an athlete; I am not the kind of woman who gets manicures; I am the kind of man who provides for his family. Whatever our definition of self is, we act accordingly because we have imagined ourselves in those spaces and places and know what to do. Things get interesting when life presents us with situations in which we have never imagined ourselves, in which our imagined self crashes into what actually is, and there are only pieces left to pick up.

I have been watching the disintegration of a marriage in our neighborhood. For years, a man has been at a crossroads. His wife wants a different life: she doesn't want to compromise anymore; she wants a straighter, more committed way. She wants a more truthful road. She wanted it with him--initially. He has been invited, cajoled, and given options, opportunities to make different choices, chances to change and to create together a new vision. But he won't do anything at all. He is frozen by the idea that this, this reassessment of what his relationship is with his wife, is happening to HIM. He cannot conceive that he could possibly be part of a marriage that is troubled. Therefore, in his mind, he is not. The problem is, of course, entirely hers.

He is angry that the wife that he thought he knew is acting in a way that he could not have envisioned, that she morphed without his permission. He is shamed that, on this particular occasion, he is the one to be found lacking. He cannot get passed the idea that this is actually happening, and worse, that it is happening to him. In his strutting and posturing and indignation, he has missed completely the opportunities for reconciliation, for change, the chances to make anew. He does not yet have the emotional humility to let go of his image of what his life was (never mind that it might never have been that at all), which imagining threatens to undo what and where he actually is--which is at the crossroads with the chance to choose anew, to start again.

The image that comes to mind as I think about the husband's reaction to the changes in his life is that of a wild animal, say a wildebeest, who has found himself trapped in the corner of game preserve where the rivers have run dry, the veld is overgrazed and the rainy season is still a long way off. He's being moved to another part of the preserve, where a watering hole is filled with water all year long, and the grass grows long and green. Only he doesn't know that. So as the wardens load him up into the trailer, he's kicking and snorting and hyperventilating. He injures himself in the loading process. He continues to kick and bellow, until the doors open and he sees before him a grassland lush and thick. But, it's not the territory he knows, the one he's familiar with, and so, he remains, backside pushed up against the back of the trailer, head thrashing, hooves flailing, stubbornly refusing to come out. Chances are when he finally emerges from his self-confinement, he will attempt, beyond logic, to return to familiar, barren ground.

His struggle, and ours, is to be brave enough to box and shelve our imagined self and life (perhaps donate it to the Salvation Army for somebody else to try on). We must live in what is actually before us. One of the most limiting beliefs is that there is no way other than the one we have imagined. We have visualized, time and time again, the future, including a particular path, or a way of living, or a notion of ourselves, our partners, our marriages, our children. This visualization becomes our way. We work towards it; we plan for it; in many ways, we bank on it. Then when the real is not the dreamed, we struggle because we have conceived of no other way. If what is happening to us is not as we have imagined does that mean that what is happening is not good, or will not ultimately become good? If we could stop the comparison to the imagined, would the now be so disappointing, so unendurable?

I had one of those moments in church this morning. (It's a small moment, I admit. It doesn't involve divorce, adultery, loneliness, death, poverty, or loss of faith, at least not yet. But it's still my imagined life pushing against the real). I sit by myself with our four children; Kevin's up in front, facing the congregation. Christian spent the last part of the service, including the closing hymn with his head tipped over the back of the pew, his jacket hood pulled up over his face, unibomber style. During the second verse, he broke from the pose to sucker punch Adam in the gut. Adam promptly doubled over, looking at me with stricken eyes, but as he didn't look up again or make a sound, just remained doubled-over and we were on opposite ends of the pew, I didn't know whether he was for real or not.

I felt the big sigh rising up from the pit, escaping through my shoulders. I sat there thinking, "Why is it that I have to do this on my own? When do I get to sit next to Kevin, thigh to thigh, shoulder to shoulder, enjoying whispered asides, passing written questions and responses to each other. Why am I the lucky winner of eleven years and counting of religious single parenting?"

I caught myself in the act of that thought; stopped myself as soon as I heard the multiple I's, and the plaintive creation of an ideal that served no other purpose than to make me feel worse. I considered the actual: Julia to my left, her arm across my shoulders so that she can tell me more about prom without drawing too much attention; Christian (prior to sucker punch) entertaining Adam with drawn cartoon adventures of the three brothers, clad in underwear and capes; Julia's fingers entwined in Seth's hair; Seth's quiet voice carefully picking out the tunes. Every Sunday I am like a nursing mother dog in the center of a brawl of puppies, my lap their basket. Two weeks ago, my body became the bed across which Adam sprawled on Easter Sunday, cadaver-like; he lay so still I noticed, and wondered if he might actually be listening to the choir. As they finished, his hands moved outward like he was signaling a touchdown, then he brought them slowly down again. He turned to me and said, "Oh . . . that was so good, I just wanted to clap. . . wierd."

This is my real, my actual, perhaps not the thigh to thigh warmth I have imagined, but good and sweet . . . which goodness and sweetness I can taste if I turn from the imaginary to the world actually before me.

(Title: from Heart, These Dreams) (Alternate Title: Maze of Imagination, from U2, Beautiful Day, one of my favorite songs)