Tuesday, June 27, 2006

mass to miss

It's only Tuesday moring and the week has been full already.

Eighty-eight of us made the trek from Massachusetts to Mississippi, thanks to three different flights on Southwest Airlines. We over came storms and schedules, but even under the best circumstances moving ninety people around is cumbersome. Sunday we worshipped with the folks here at Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson. During the rest of the day we took some time with our three church groups to get to know each other. On our first full day of work yesterday, we sent fifteen people to the Gulf Coast to work on a house, put a bunch to work helping with Vacation Bible School here at Calvary, and the rest went to work cleaning and repairing stuff around the church.

Calvary is an historically white church in inner city Jackson that has made a commitment to stay and minister in the city even though most of the white folks have long since move to the suburbs. Their commitment to incarnate the love of God to their neighborhood has not been lucrative. They struggle to pay the bills even as they feel more and more committed to the task to which they feel called. Yesterday afternoon, Linda, the missions minister, took about twenty of our group on a Prayer Walk through the neighborhood, which means the group walked, met the folks in the neighborhood, and prayed for and with them. We were the ones who came back most changed by the world we saw and the people we met.

Today, three vanfulls went to the coast and the rest of us stayed to do VBS and continue working around the church to do things they can no longer afford to pay a custodian to do. We are tired, but it's a good kind of tired. We are energized and focused. We feel alive.

We are in a town we don't know, and we feel at home

We are with people we don't know, and we feel welcome.

We are facing needs we don't know how to meet, and we feel challenged.

We came thinking we were the givers, and we are receiving.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

appliance time

I’ve been to Sears twice this week.

The first time was to mark a rite of passage in our marriage: we bought our second washer-dryer set. The first ones have been giving us indications that fourteen years was enough. The last time the guy came to do the regular maintenance, he suggested we need not renew the maintenance contract. so, some time tomorrow (between three and five, they say) the Sears truck will bring the new ones and take the others to wherever old machines go to die and we will begin a new laundry chapter in our marriage.

The second trip I made was to buy a new grill. They don’t build the grills to last as long as the washers, but we got four good years out of the one I hauled to the town dump on Tuesday. It was a gift from our friend Cherry, so admitting it had grilled its last was even more difficult. I found the one I wanted while we were washer shopping, but two big machines were too much for one day. I got a good grill on sale, came home, assembled it, loaded it back in the Cherokee, and took it to church to break it in. We had a cookout for the three churches going to Jackson on the mission trip, so we could get acquainted a little before we left.

The grill came through with flying (flaming?) colors. I’ll just keep pretending Cherry gave it to me.

I hadn’t really thought about marking time with appliances until I was driving home tonight. We are on our second coffee grinder (the first Krups one was awesome) and our fourth coffee maker. I have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, which was given to me by Ginger and my in-laws, that’s working on ten years and showing no signs of tiring. I have a Kitchen Aid hand mixer that’s older than that. I have a waffle iron that was a Valentine’s Day present at least eight years ago, and a Cuisinart food processor that was a wedding gift. Some get used everyday, some every week or so, some for special occasions, each one keeping time in its own way. When I plug in the Kitchen Aid, the memories and connections fill the room like the sound of the motor, infusing the ingredients with much more than what is listed in the recipe.

Lifelong machines also teach me patience and contentment. They came out with a bigger Kitchen Aid than the one I have. The newer food processors have dough hooks. We lived fourteen years with annoying buzzer that marked the end of the drying cycle. I’ve learned, over the years, that I don’t need the bigger mixer. The dough blade is nice but not necessary. And we knew to ask, this time, if the machine we bought had a buzzer that could be muted. (It can.)

If the first set is any indication, I’ll be almost sixty-five when we go shopping for our next washer and dryer. All the clothes of my fifties will be washed and dried in the machines that will be delivered tomorrow. I will see my twentieth, twenty-fifth, and thirtieth wedding anniversaries pass without having to hear the dryer buzzer unless I want to.

Maybe part of the reason this has come to my mind is In the division of labor in our household, Ginger is the one who does most of the laundry. I’m the cook, garbage, and telephone person; she’s the laundry, bills, and bargaining person. We both help out as we need to, and we are both happy doing what either comes naturally or what the other one can’t do well. Love gets lived out in daily tasks and responsibilities, helped along by washers and dryers and mixers and grinders. Getting a new one reminds me why it was there in the first place: we decided to live our lives together.

I won’t be here to mark the occasion tomorrow. I have a long shift at the restaurant. When I leave, the old machines will be here; when I come home, the new ones will be all hooked up and ready to spin so we can continue to stack up our days together like folded clothes ready to be worn once more.

When it comes right down to it, the washer and dryer matter because I’m in love with my laundry woman. As for the grill and the Kitchen Aid, the woman in my house is crazy about the cook.

And so one of the ways we mark time – and love – is with appliances.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

inch by inch

In my city living days, I volunteered at Club Passim, a truly legendary folk club in Harvard Square. In those days, they used volunteers for most everything; I ran sound on the nights I could, sometimes for folks I knew, sometimes for folks I did not know so well. Dave Mallett fell into the latter category for me. Hearing him was a wonderful surprise. His songs were full of heart and hope and his baritone voice warmed the room. Towards the end of the evening, he began singing a song that made me realize I was more familiar with him than I knew:

inch by inch, row by row
gonna make this garden grow

gonna mulch it deep and low

gonna make it fertile ground

inch by inch, row by row

please bless these seeds I sow

please keep them safe below

till the rain comes tumbling down
I first heard “The Garden Song” from Peter, Paul, & Mary, but that night I heard it from the guy who wrote it, which is always best.

I thought about Dave this past week as I was finally able to get my vegetable garden planted. This year took a bit more work because I was trying to do Square Foot Gardening, which meant building the boxes and preparing the garden to produce more than I could have imagined. I have six 6x3 boxes, which gives me room for about eight different kinds of tomatoes (Early Girls, Lemon Boys, Romas, Brandywines, Green Zebras, Grapes, and a couple of others), eggplant, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, green beans, zucchini, summer squash, and bunch of different herbs. I’m going to be able to keep the whole neighborhood in fresh produce come August and September.

This is the fifth summer I’ve had a vegetable garden. We’ve got lots of flowers, too, but I get special pleasure from growing food: stuff to eat and share. I’ve also learned a great deal of patience from planting. Digging in the dirt in early June means vegetables in August. In between, all I can do is water, watch, and wait. Growth takes time.

E. B. White, who wrote Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Elements of Style, was married to Katherine S. White, who wrote gardening essays for The New Yorker for many years. After she died, White put together a collection of her essays, Onward and Upward Through the Garden, and also wrote an introduction in which he said:
“Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katherine would get into a shabby old brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes and proceed to the director’s chair – a folding canvas thing – that had been placed for her at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry Allen produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment. As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion – the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”
I’m not planting bulbs in the balmy winds of autumn, but I am plotting the resurrection nonetheless. In a space behind my garage that has been mostly space for waste and weeds, I’m digging in:
pullin' weeds and pickin' stones
we are made of dreams and bones

need a place to call my own

'cause the time is close at hand

grain for grain, sun and rain

find my way in nature's chain

till my body and my brain
tell the music of the land
Several times on our trip to Greece and Turkey, we found flowers growing In the ruins. The huge cut stones were still stacked, as they had been for centuries and out of the cracks came beautiful blooms. Somehow those plants had plotted their own resurrection, ding a way to sink roots in unexpected places. Ivies grew up and around old stones, turning them into living shapes.

It’s true, you know, whether I'm among the ruins at Delphi or standing on my back deck: death doesn’t get the last word -- not as long as I keep plotting and planting.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

one of those days

Despite the first weekend of sunshine in awhile, my days have been feeling cloudier again. This time, there are some circumstances that help explain it to a point, which does help me in some sense. With the storm front looming, I was glad to come across Ronald Wallace's poem, "Blessings" on The Writer's Almanac this morning:


Some days I find myself
putting my foot in
the same stream twice;
leading a horse to water
and making him drink.
I have a clue.
I can see the forest
for the trees.

All around me people
are making silk purses
out of sows' ears,
getting blood from turnips,
building Rome in a day.
There's a business
like show business.
There's something new
under the sun.

Some days misery
no longer loves company;
it puts itself out of its.
There's rest for the weary.
There's turning back.
There are guarantees.
I can be serious.
I can mean that.
You can quite
put your finger on it.
His words are helping me step into the sunshine. Ginger finally comes home tomorrow night (a day early!), I'm a week away from Mission Trip with my youth group, and summer is just getting started.

I think this is going to be one of those days.


Friday, June 16, 2006

think on these things

Forbes Magazine released its “Celebrity 100” today, which is a list of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry. How one makes the list is best described by the folks at Forbes:

“But generating headlines isn't enough to solidify your standing in Hollywood. A fat paycheck won't do it, either. Only a combination of earnings and sizzle will land a celebrity a coveted spot on our Celebrity 100 list of the most powerful names in the business.”
I first learned about this year’s list when I logged on to AOL yesterday. Along with the teaser for the story, AOL had a poll to accompany the list:
Which celebrity do you admire most?

Jessica Simpson
Nicole Richie
Paris Hilton
The Olsen Twins
Sean “Puffy” Combs
Of the almost 23,000 people who had voted when I saw the poll, the results were:
The Olsen Twins 39%
Jessica Simpson 28%
“Puffy” 22%
Paris Hilton 8%
Nicole Richie 4%
The whole thing bothers me on so many levels that I’m going to have to respond with a bulleted list, mostly so I don’t resort to real bullets.
  • How can they use the verb “admire” in reference to any of those people and do so without irony? The dictionary says the word means, “to regard with pleasure, wonder, and approval; to have a high opinion of; esteem or respect.” What’s to admire? Talent? Compassion? Sense of Social Justice?
  • Why these five? It’s like asking people to vote for their favorite ice cream flavors and then asking them to choose between Garlic, Monkey Puke, and Chicken Ripple.
  • Based on my calculations, there are a little over 900 people who say they admire Nicole Richie and about 1800 who say they admire Paris Hilton.
  • Be afraid, be very afraid.
(Brief pause while I run screaming from the room.)

Since I read the story yesterday, I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond – beyond screaming and ranting. I’m choosing to leave out the paragraphs where I do little more than swear and lament the trajectory of our crumbling democracy, as well as the words aimed at the idiots we allow to call themselves our leaders. Though the venting would feel good, and much of it would be true, I don’t see how it would be constructive. I want to be something more than alarmist, curmudgeonly, or resentful. I want to be something more than a cultural counter puncher.

I will choose, instead, to tell you who and what I regard with pleasure, wonder, and approval. John Brashier is the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. He and I have been friend s for a long time. Calvary is an historically white church that chose to stay in downtown Jackson after most of the white folks decided to leave. They work hard to minister to their city and their neighborhood. When Katrina hit, they spent more money than they had helping people whose lives had been devastated by the storm. They are continuing to do so, even as they struggle to figure out how to be faithful to their calling and pay the bills at the same time.

In about a week and a half, the youth groups from out churches Hanover, Marshfield, and a church in Duxbury are heading to Jackson on our summer mission trip. We are taking ninety kids and adults for a week to help with the continuing hurricane relief efforts, help do some needed repairs at the church, and plug into the ongoing ministries at Calvary, which include Vacation Bible School and a meals program. Thanks to the recent hikes in airfares, we too are working hard to be faithful and pay the bill for the trip, which probably costs less than Puffy’s latest piece of bling.

Mission Trip is my favorite week of the church year because we are called outside of ourselves, outside of our comfort zones, and into the lives of others. Whether we are hanging sheetrock, pouring Kool-Aid, picking up garbage, or sitting around at night picking guitars, we will have the chance to find a thin place where we can remember what is admirable about life, faith, and one another. As Paul wrote:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phil. 4:8)
I wonder how much swearing he had to edit out of his letter before he got those words on paper.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

not alone

If this can be termed the century of the common man, then soccer, of all sports, is surely his game.... In a world haunted by the hydrogen and napalm bomb, the football field is a place where sanity and hope are still left unmolested.
~Stanley Rous, 1952
I have a confession: for the three weeks Ginger has been gone, I’ve been eating alone.

Other than my periodic trips, my life has been about going to work and then coming home and hanging out with Schnauzers and working on projects around here. I have been somewhat of a hermit, pulling in from most contact with people around me, and trying to figure out what that means in my life right now. Much of my time at home has been spent digging in the dirt, planting both flowers and vegetables, which is therapeutic for me, and trying to clean up the yard as a welcome home present for Ginger. The other consistent activity in my life this past week has been watching the World Cup.

I’m one of the few people I know my age who grew up playing football – uh, excuse me – soccer. More afternoons than not, as a kid, my brother and I got home from school, changed out of our school uniforms, and ran out into the back yard to meet the neighbors for a football match, playing with anything from a ball to a tin can. When we lived in Lusaka, Zambia, the family next door had four boys. A girl lived on the other side of them. Behind each house were servants’ quarters where even more kids lived; it was easy to find enough players for a game: Stephen, John, Michael, Chubbs, Elena, Sampson, Aleti, Sadie, Goristino (he had six toes), Miller, me.

In those days, the player we all wanted to be was "Zoom" Ndhlovu, who was to Zambia what Pele was to Brazil. He played club football for the Mufulira Wanderers and I got to see him play several times. When we all got in the backyard, we imagined our feet moving like his, masterfully guiding the ball around opponents and into the goal. The other big name in Zambian football was a commentator called Dennis Liwewe. He is still a significant voice in Zambian sports life. Liwewe’s description of Zoom’s moves were as deft as the player’s ball handling. So, when we played in the backyard, not only did we have to try and be like Zoom, we had to provide the color commentary as we moved the ball: “Z-o-o-o-o-m-m-m-m!” Day after day of pick-up football games shaped much of my childhood. Some of us played at school, but we knew nothing of little league or any other kind of organized sports. Our repeated play wore out the lawn in our yard, so we played on a dirt field with balled up shirts for goal posts.

I was, however, a part of one Championship Team in my life.

In Lusaka each year, there was a five-a-side soccer tournament among the schools. My fifth grade class at Lusaka International School put a team together. I was the goalie. the tournament was a one day affair, beginning early in the morning and going until a champion was crowned. What I remember of those games was Dickie, our forward, racing down the field to score; Robert, one of the fullbacks who was larger than anyone else on the field, clearing the ball most of the time so I didn’t have to make many saves, and getting the trophy at the end of the day. I held it over my head the way I had seen Zoom do it.

I’ve never been one what has gotten much out of the sports-as-a-metaphor=for –life perspective for two reasons: one, I’m an amazingly average to mediocre athlete and, two, it was my father’s primary metaphor, which often left me feeling less than adequate for whatever might be coming. At the same time, I love playing team sports. I miss the church softball leagues we had in Texas. The afternoons playing soccer were fun because we were all playing together, not because of who won. When I lived in Dallas, I played in a noncompetitive volleyball league where we only kept score so we knew when it was time to quit playing and go for beers. Sports as a metaphor for community is meaningful to me.

I know the guys playing for their nations in the World Cup are playing for blood. And I love that I get to watch the games and enjoy the sheer beauty of it. Ecuador beat Costa Rica this morning in an amazing display of teamwork, precision, and art. Soccer calls a player to be patient and creative, deliberate and opportunistic, accomplished and grateful. What a wonderful game.

So, in these my hermit days, I’m watching teams – those who don’t play (or eat) alone – demonstrate beautifully the art of being human. My favorite moments in each match are two: one, when whoever scores a goal runs to stand in front of the fans from his country and his teammates join him in exuberant embrace and, two, at the end of the game when the players from the different countries exchange jerseys. For all the emotion and competition, the last word puts us all on the same team.
To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.
~J.B. Priestley, The Good Companions, 1928

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

drive-by sacredness

One of my mother-in-law’s favorite toys is the paddle with the ball attached by a rubber band where you hit the ball and it comes racing back and you see how many times you can hit it without missing.

My life feels a lot like that ball over the last few weeks. Ginger and I both find hope in times like these in the chorus of one of Nanci Griffith’s songs:

these days my life is an open book
pages I cannot seem to find
these days your face in my memory

is in a folded hands of grace against these times
I have bounced from Boston to some Southern destination and then coming flying back to get whacked around a bit and head South once more. Over Memorial Day weekend, we were in Memphis for my nephew’s graduation; last weekend we were in Birmingham for my in-laws’ fiftieth wedding anniversary; and in a week and a half we head to Jackson, Mississippi on our youth mission trip.

I’m grateful to say, as the ball in this scenario, that the rubber band has held – so far.

The bookends to my weekend were the anniversary celebration in Birmingham and Children’s Day at the church in Hanover. Ginger worked hard putting together a meaningful celebration for her parents. What her folks knew was happening was family and friends were gathering for a reception at the church building where Ginger grew up (the church has since moved to a new site). What they didn’t know was Ginger had arranged a ceremony for the renewal of their vows in the sanctuary where she and I were married. Rachel and Reuben were married in a house and never had a church ceremony, which Rachel has always lamented. She was thrilled. Fifty years on, Rachel and Reuben said out loud the promises they have incarnated for most of their lives, creating a wide spot in the road of time where we could all celebrate with them and enjoy being together in sacred space.

My job was to cater the reception. I flew into Birmingham on Thursday, shopped Friday morning, cooked Friday afternoon and evening, and flew home on Saturday. (And yes, my arms were tired.) I got home about midnight, hugged Schnauzers, and then got up the next morning to get ready for Children’s Day. My job there was to help with food as well.

Church life in New England has a different rhythm than Baptist life in Texas. Summer time in Baptist youth ministry was busy time: we geared up for camp and all kinds of special activities. Summer in New England means life slows way down. We move to an abbreviated summer worship service without Sunday School and most committees take a break for a month or two. It is often said that even God goes to Cape Cod for the summer. Children’s Day marks the end of the regular church year. Part of our tradition is an all-church picnic after worship. Along with burgers and hotdogs, there are sack races, an egg toss, and a pudding eating contest.

We had a perfect day for our picnic and, for a couple of hours, we all got to step out of time and enjoy being together in a wide spot of our own on time’s road, equally sacred but a little messier.

As the pudding eating contest began, the kids gathered around a table lined with plastic plates, each one holding a glob of pudding. The challenge was to snarf the pudding without using your hands. Some kids were pudding high just standing next tot he table; others had to kneel to get to the proper height. Once they all got going, I noticed an untouched plate at the table and I couldn’t resist. I dropped to my knees and began to do some snarfing of my own. I didn’t care about winning. I did care about eating pudding and getting to feel the joyful abandon I saw on the chocolate covered faces of the kids at the table.

It worked.

After the picnic, I came home and crashed for a couple of hours in front of a Red Sox game and then stopped by a graduation party for one of the seniors in our youth group before going to Senior High Fellowship, our Sunday night high school gathering. Andy was the guest of honor at the graduation party. His family and friends filled up his backyard to mark his milestone with him, much as Rachel and Reuben’s folks had gathered with them only a couple of nights before. I was glad I got to be there, too.

These are days that don’t afford me much more than drive-by sacredness. I feel as though I’m passing through these moments rather than being in them, in some sense, even as I’ve been able to share In the celebration and joy. Just over a month ago we were tromping through Greece and Turkey, living days that were clocks without hands, resting in the layers of history that surrounded us, with time to both be present and reflect on what was happening to us.

I’m grateful to have been able to live those days.

I’m also grateful for these days, packed with everything from t-shirt orders to tomato plants, pudding to Pentecost, Boston to Birmingham. God shows up in everything from fiery pillars to still, small voices – even flesh and bone. As I bounce back and forth, I keep reminding myself – and keep asking to be reminded – that grace travels well at any speed.


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

sometimes a light surprises

I’m going to start with a nod to a friend that I don’t want to get lost at the end of the post. My friend, Nathan Brown, whose poetry I have quoted a couple of times, has a website where you can find his work and contact him. Check it out at www.brownlines.com.


Today has surprised me.

This was going to be the day I finished the details for Mission Trip, planted my tomatoes and herbs, and got ready to head out for Birmingham tomorrow to celebrate my in-laws’ fiftieth wedding anniversary on Friday (I’m the caterer). Items one and three are still on schedule, but a raging rainstorm has kept me out of the garden and tucked inside the house with the Schnauzers. Ginger is already in Alabama and called this morning with a list of songs for me to create a mix CD for the party. Her folks were calling out song titles in the background. After I hung up, I set iTunes searching for Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, Roger Miller, Patsy Cline, and Alan Jackson.

Hearing some of those songs opened up memories I had not touched in years.

“Little Green Apples” was one of my father’s favorite songs when I was a kid. We had the Roger Miller version. In what may have been my first encounter with cover songs, I heard O.C. Smith sing it at a friend’s house one day and changed what I thought about the song. I found both versions today. I already had Ray Charles singing “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” I chased down “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” (Paul Anka), “Over the Rainbow” (Judy Garland), “The Way You Look Tonight” (Tony Bennett), “Hey, Good Lookin’” (Hank Williams), “Tall, Tall Trees” (Roger Miller), “Cattle Call” (Eddy Arnold) and “All Shook Up” (Elvis). I also downloaded “Remember When” by Alan Jackson, at my mother-in-law’s request.

When iTunes showed my all the songs by Alan Jackson, I saw he had recently released a CD of hymns. The songs he chose are ones deeply imbedded in my bones from years of singing them in Baptist churches. I clicked on a couple of them to hear the previews and before long I sent my ten bucks through cyberspace to but the whole record. He’s been singing in the background ever since. The songs take me back to Sunday night services where we got to call out hymn numbers and sing favorites for half of the service. Those songs are what taught me how to harmonize, how to feel moved by the Spirit, and how to love going to church. They also taught me to look beyond the familiar tunes for other songs. One I found as we sang one night was William Cowper’s hymn, “Sometimes a Light Surprises”:

Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises with healing in his wings:
When comforts are declining, he grants the soul again
A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.
One this day of rain, I did find a season of clear in those songs.

Faith is funny sometimes. There are good reasons why I don’t sit in Baptist services on a regular basis. As my journey going from God to God has unfolded, I’ve found a home in the UCC where I am deeply fed. And I hear these songs and wish for the heart and emotion of the worship services in Baptist life where people – at least some of them – came to church expecting to be changed in the encounter. I worship each Sunday, now, with people of deep and committed faith, but we hold our emotions close. And, I have to admit, there aren’t many hymns in the New Century Hymnal designed to move people to much of anything. We have a lot to learn about congregational singing.

Once again, the Spirit moves in the creative tension between the poles. God has a better shot at my heart when I’m reaching back with one had and forward with the other; I leave myself open and unguarded. In between the raw emotion and personal sentiment of the gospel harmonies and the deliberate intentionality of a faith that pushes out into the world seeking justice are the thin places (as Marcus Borg describes) where the Spirit breaks through. Who knew, on a cloudy day when I was looking for old love songs, the guy who sang “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” would remind me
I love to tell the story for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
The gospel song that moves me most is “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches me
I’m writing today to capture a moment more than make a point. A song blew in with the storm today and surprised me.

Feel free to sing along.


PS -- I'm off to Birmingham tomorrow and will be back late Saturday. You'll hear from me again Sunday or Monday.

Monday, June 05, 2006

keeping up

Back in March, I added a third page to this blog called “don’t eat alone: the possibilities.” The idea grew out of my writing about the connection between cocoa harvesting and child slavery. When I first wrote about it, I generated a good bit of conversation. By the end of March, I wondered how to keep it from falling out of view. I thought I could keep issues closer to the front by giving them their own page and highlighting stuff I came across. It was a good idea and I couldn’t pull it off. I pulled the site down and will speak to the issues here as they come up.

I don’t want to forget what’s important, or be a slave to the immediate, and I have to come to terms with my limitations. As much as I would love to champion most every cause I come across, I can’t do it. There are too many important things for me to keep track of them all. That’s a hard truth for me to face.

I was in the car briefly this afternoon and heard the folks on NPR mention that this week is National Headache Awareness Week and June is National Accordion Awareness Month. When I got home, I searched for more accordion information and found those events are only two in a long list. In case you were wondering, June is:

Accordion Awareness Month, National (here’s to Flaco Jimenez)
Adopt-A-Shelter-Cat Month
Aphasia Awareness Month, National
Cancer from the Sun Month
Candy Month, National
Child Vision Awareness Month
Children's Awareness Month
Dairy Alternatives Month
Effective Communications Month
Entrepreneurs "Do It Yourself" Marketing Month
Fight the Filthy Fly Month (as opposed to the clean fly)
Fireworks Safety Month (so you can go nuts in July)
Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Month
GLBT Book Month, National
Iced Tea Month, National
Dairy Month (what about the dairy alternative?)
Perennial Gardening Month
Turkey Lovers' Month (or how to sell turkeys in June)
Men's Month, Intl (we need a special month?)
Pharmacists Declare War on Alcoholism (they’re bringing in the National Guard)
Potty Training Awareness Month
Professional Wellness Month
Rebuild Your Life Month (I only get a month!)
Rivers Month, National
Rose Month, National
Safety Month, National
Scleroderma Awareness Month
Soul Food Month, National (now we’re talking)
Sports America Kids Month
Steakhouse Month, National
Student Safety Month
Vision Research Month
Zoo & Aquarium Month (go pet a penguin)
If that’s not enough, this week is:
National Headache Awareness Week
International Volunteers Week
National Step Parents Week
National Fishing Week (go fish, your headache will feel better)
And today is:
Day Against Drug Abuse & Trafficking
National Hunger Awareness Day
National Gingerbread Day (tomorrow is applesauce day)
World Environment Day
Richard Scarry Day (I have no idea . . .)
Teacher's Day (always the first Monday in June)
National Attitude Day (what kind of attitude?)
It’s just too much. I don’t know what else to say.

May and June are family travel months for me. I went with Ginger to Greece and Turkey to kick off her sabbatical, then to Memphis last weekend to celebrate Scott’s graduation, and this Thursday I fly to Birmingham to cook the food for a party to celebrate my in-laws’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. I’m not home between trips long enough to establish any rhythm, so I’ve turned into a hermit, going to work and coming home. I wrote only once last week. I spent a great day in the garden today building my boxes for square foot gardening. I feel as though I’m in a separate orbit from my friends, which makes it hard to find much energy for anything other than getting through my day. I don’t like feeling so disconnected.

Without much else to say except I’m aware I’m out of sync, I was determined to write today. Taking time to find a way to make words matter is a crucial touchstone for me. I need the voices that remind me there is more to life than me – even when my time fills up with my stuff – to speak louder; I also need them to remind me that, even though I can’t speak to every need, I am called to pay attention.


Friday, June 02, 2006


I came home last night from dinner with my friend, Tim, who is in the area for a wedding and turned on the television for something to watch while I tried to make up with the Schnauzers for having left the house at all. What I ended up watching was the last few minutes of the National Spelling Bee. Two girls were left and the word I came in on was poiesis.

Fiona Hackett asked for a definition: “creative production.”

She said the word out loud; I said it with her. Then I got a pad and wrote down how I thought it was spelled before she began to spell it. I got it right.

And then I realized – again – I really am a geek.

The two girls, both around fourteen, continued their semantic tennis match for several more words until they came to weltshmerz. Fiona asked for both a definition (“a weary or pessimistic feeling about life”) and the origin of the word. When the prompter told her it was a German word, I thought for sure she would have it. (I did!) Then she spelled it as best she could:

“V-E-L-T—“ The rest didn’t matter. She forgot the w comes out life a v in German. She was gone. Her competitor, Kerry Close, won on the next word, ursprache, which means “proto-language” – what came before the words. It was her fifth year in the Spelling Bee. She said afterward she was so excited because she knew the word. She has been competing at the national level since she was nine. This is one focused kid.

When the interviewer flippantly told her she would finally have time to do some other things, Kerry said, “Yeah” with a strong hint of sadness in her voice. I’m not sure she knows what to do next. Most people, like the interviewer, won’t understand.

A couple of weeks ago, Eleanor, a woman from South Congregational Church in Concord, New Hampshire came to our church in Hanover with the labyrinth some folks in her church made a couple of years back. Eleanor came, set up the labyrinth in our parish hall, and then gave about a twenty-minute presentation on what the labyrinth had meant to her church. Though I knew something about the history of the labyrinth, it was the first time I had heard someone contextualize the practice in terms of church life. After the presentation, about twenty of us spent a couple of hours walking the labyrinth together.

A labyrinth is not a maze. It is a spiritual practice that dates back farther than the words go, enriching faith journeys all over the world for millenia. The oldest existing labyrinth dates back to twenty thousand years BCE. When you start walking, you know you are going to end up in the middle and then come back out. You also have no idea of how you are going to get to the middle because you only have a sense of the path directly in front of you. From there, you have to trust your feet. It, too, takes you to a place before the words.

My journey was marked first, by sensory images. Eleanor had ringed the labyrinth with votive candles and placed a large three-wick candle in the middle. The canvas was purple, which warmed the room even more. We walked in our socks, so I could feel the surface beneath my feet. I then became mindful of the unexpected ways the turns took me around the circle. I would make a couple of quick turns and then, all of a sudden, find myself on the other side of the circle. I was also mindful of the others in the labyrinth with me, sometimes close and sometimes far away. We smiled or touched hands as we passed one another. My thoughts wandered from superficial to substantive. I wondered how long I had been walking, where Trish got her socks with giraffes on them, whether or not I would walk on every part of the labyrinth, and how long it took to paint it. I also thought about how the twists and turns mirror my life right now, as I have some sense of where I am going, but also know I’m not yet through with my changes.

Then came the words: one of my favorite descriptions of Jesus as he prepared to wash the disciples’ feet: “Knowing he had come from God and was going to God . . . .”

This morning, Kerry Close was making the morning show rounds after her win. One interviewer asked if was glad she had not gotten some of the words that took her competitors out. She quickly named two words that would have sunk her as well. “I guess there’s a little luck involved,” the reporter replied.

For all her years of preparation and focus, Kerry Close had no idea what words were coming when she stepped up to the mike. She could prepare, but she could not plan.

In one of his books, Henri Nouwen recalls going to a monastery for a personal retreat. While he was there, a youth group came, but their retreat leader didn’t show. The head of the monastery came and asked Nouwen to lead the retreat.

“I’m not prepared,” he protested, afraid, I suppose, he would not have the right words.

“You have spent your whole life preparing,” came the reply. “Speak from your heart.”

Nouwen goes on to recount an amazing time with the young people as he listened both to God and to them and found what Jesus also knew: he had come from God and was going to God; that was enough to make the journey matter.

Sometimes, I find a great deal of comfort in that story from Nouwen’s life, which I have carried with me for years. Other days, I wonder if what my life has prepared me to be is some sort of spiritual shiftless drifter who knows little about staying anywhere for long and mostly gets the words he doesn’t know. The truth – and the creative tension – lies somewhere in between. I have come from God and I am going to God. I have much to be thankful for in my life and I am not without direction.

I just wish I knew what was around the next turn. Once more, I will have to trust what was there before the words.