Friday, September 6, 2019

Job, the Problem of Evil, and Gleaning

Sometimes I think about Job. His life is a difficult one to process. It’s hard to imagine being in the middle of a divine tug-of-war. I don’t know what it all means or really how the Church in Her great wisdom has chosen to come to terms with it or explain it to Her children. This is strange given that I should. I think about him often enough that I really should have looked this up. But I haven’t. So I just think about him in an abstract way. No matter what I have lost, he lost more, and he deserved it less than me or pretty much anyone else. He still lost it. I still lose. It’s not a matter of being a good person or loving God enough. We still lose.

We lose all manner of things. We lose our tempers, our keys, socks, storage container lids, jobs, and even love. The tiny things can feel enormously burdensome because they seem to pile up on top of the greater things. In the end, the sense of loss can be pervasive. We both want to wallow in the loss but are also ashamed of that desire.

I can be nearly despondent over misplacing one of my shoes and even be reduced to tears. Then I find myself thinking of an acquaintance whose son drowned some years back. I both want to embrace my loss and hide from it at the same time because the loss of others is greater. I don’t know how to think about my loss, either the great or the small. I actually grit my teeth when people talk about smaller losses when they find out about my greatest. I struggle to forgive them because I am petty.

Maybe the answer lies in not what we have lost but what remains and what God gives back over to us. I have to think that is why we know that Job received so much back from God. What was taken and what was given had nothing to do with Job and his worthiness nor did it have anything to do with the worthiness of others. It was always a gift that was freely given. Gifts should be received with gratitude. I don’t know about anyone else but I am seldom as grateful as I should be.

Gratitude is what I need more of and it is what I see in the story of Job. I can be grateful for the other shoes I have so that losing one is not actually a problem. I can be grateful for the gift that is my children without insinuating anything about the woman who lost hers. I can even be grateful for her witness of profound love for her child. Her child is worth grieving over and over and again and again. We should all be so loved that we are so missed. I can be grateful that others trust their grief to me instead of being small and petty.

In being grateful and gracious, we are supposed to leave some of the produce in the fields for the poor. It is not our generosity but the generosity of God that gives these things over to others; we merely respect this. Or at least, we should. Often we do not even do this. We soak up all the goodness and horde it, weeping for what is lost when our cup runneth over. My inability to be grateful for what God has left for me is the same stoniness that causes me to harvest my blessings too carefully.

Sometimes I think about Job. I think about how he teaches me both to glean and to leave something for the gleaners.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Feeling like I am flying...

As a child, I was always in trouble for talking in class. It didn’t matter where the teachers moved me, I was always talking to someone. If I was sent to the office to do my work in a study carrel next to the disciplinarian’s office, I would talk to anyone who walked past. I just like talking.

I went to a Catholic high school and once a year, families of potential students took tours. At all small, private schools like this, the students are required to do some volunteer work and so the teachers always asked me to lead tours. I was happy to talk to people and tell them the same things over and over again. Of all the tasks that could have possibly given me, this was the best. Sister Mary Katherine of the Most Precious Blood told my father that she thought I liked to talk because I was too self-absorbed. I can imagine that it looked like that. The thing is, I like talking to people because they often talk back to me and I want to know what goes on in their heads. I talk, so I can listen.

I also have a weird habit of liking to glance in the windows of people’s houses as I walk down the street. I am not talking about being a weird creeper who sneaks up and looks in the windows but the kind of peek that I can achieve while not slacking my place as I walk along the street. I think about the people inside and what they are doing and what they are saying and what kinds of books they are reading and maybe what they are having for dinner. In a way, I am perpetually Alice asking her governess what the people lived on. I just like to know more about people.

When I am traveling, I like to look out of the windows of the plane as we approach the destination city. I like to look at the cars and trucks on the road and think about the people in them. I wonder if they are sipping coffee and what is playing on the radio. I think about the people in the houses and the lives they are living and the children who play on swing sets in backyards. Do they like to jump off the swing as it reaches its peak? Do they feel like they are flying?

Back in the day, when I was that high school where I gave tours, I used to sit in class and think about the people flying away in the planes that took off from the nearby airport. It was back when Denver’s Stapleton Airport was still in action, long before Denver International Airport’s white peaks stood in stark contrast to the eastern plains. Machebeuf Catholic High School was also its old location in Park Hill. The sounds of planes were so common that I usually didn’t even notice them but on Fridays, it seemed like there were so many more, and by the end of the week, my attention was waning. I would find myself thinking about the people on those planes and wonder where they were going and why and hoping it was for some beautifully tragic and romantic reason.

As an adult, I think about the children whose homes and schools pepper the landscape around the airport I am flying into. Do they think about us in the plane? Are we maybe thinking about each other at the exact same moment? It could happen. I could be landing in this city and passing over this child’s house at the exact moment that he is out in the yard and despite how many planes pass over his house, he thinks about the people in the one. I always want to wave but I don’t because I don’t want the people sitting next to me to think I am crazy. Of course, I am a little crazy, I am a writer and we have to break our brains a little to write. It is just part of the gig.

I flew into Chicago recently and I had all these same thoughts that I always do. As I flew in, I looked at the houses and schools and all the cars along the road and I thought about all of these people and especially of the children. This trip did not turn out the way I had wanted it to because my flight from Chicago back to the Upper Peninsula was canceled because of weather. It was mid-May and it was snowing back at the farm. I could not get rebooked for a full twenty-four hours and the airline temporarily misplaced my bag, they found it later, and I ended up grabbing a cab to a dumpy motel at the end of the runway. I didn’t have so much a toothbrush but I lay down to sleep, closing my eyes while the planes full of people who were actually going places took off and flew over my head.

In the morning, I washed up the best that I could and I put on the same clothes that I had worn the day before, and I checked out of the motel. I walked to the cheap pancake restaurant in the parking lot of the motel and ordered some breakfast. I don’t like eating alone. I like eating just fine, in fact, I like it a lot, I just don’t like eating alone. I was approaching the novel that I had bought I started to get a little concerned about how I was going to keep myself occupied. My unfinished knitting was in my bag and somewhere in the bowels of the airport along the with the novel I was borrowing from a friend. I was killing time with coffee and even dessert.

A friend of a friend of mine was coming to get me and give me a couple of hours of respite from the airport along with more (better) coffee and a toothbrush. I decided to wait outside. Sitting on the bench outside of the restaurant, I looked up at the airplanes taking off over my head. I thought about how I had listened jealously to the sound of other people’s flights leaving the night before and how I had looked down as I was flying in yesterday afternoon. I wondered if I would remember to think about the people in this restaurant when it was finally my turn to take off later today. Will I remember to think of the people scattered around the area who might be hunkered down and waiting, waiting for flights that are delayed or even canceled for all kinds of reasons. I took a photo so I could send it to my husband. He probably didn’t understand why it was important to me but it was.

Later on, in the late afternoon, I was sitting in the airport, waiting for my plane to take off and hoping that I would be home in my own bed in a few hours. I had bought a new novel, a good thick one, and settled in with a water bottle and enough room to stretch out a little. At the gate next to us, a tired throng of Canadians moved in after their gate had been changed. They all looked tired and uncomfortable and all of them just wanted to be back home.

“This always happens when we come to America,” an older woman leaned in to tell me.
I wasn’t sure if she assumed I was Canadian as well but she opened the door and I was ready to talk. I chatted and got to know the circle of people around me. I will talk to anyone who is willing to listen, sometimes I find myself talking to people who are unwilling, but I keep at it. Suddenly an announcement came over the loud-speaker and we all hushed to hear it. I was afraid it was my flight but it wasn’t. The Canadians were being delayed again and moved to another gate. I felt awful for them because I had been at the airport for most of the last twenty-four hours. I also felt bad for the Canada-Air representative. The passengers reamed him in a strangely polite and quintessentially Canadian way.

A woman in a beautiful sari run through with glittery threads got right in his face and said in a clipped Indian accent. “I am sorry but if we are to talk about what is bad service, it would be this, you know. This is what we would call bad service. I am sorry but it is.”

Properly admonished, he replied, “Yes, ma'am. I am sorry.” They nodded at each other and the Canadians all shuffled along to their gate. I was left alone with my novel while I waited for my flight.

Ultimately, my plane did take off and I did get out of Chicago. My plane left flying over all the little houses and other buildings that pepper the area around the airport. I forgot to think about the pancake restaurant and dumpy motel and the people who might be down there waiting for their planes. I forgot to think about the children who might be getting ready for the night or even reading their own novels next to bedside lamps. Instead, I thought of my own bed waiting for me in a little green and white farmhouse near the lake and the many Canadian beds waiting hopefully for tired and spent travelers.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Review of "Spyridon's Shoes"...

Several weeks back, I received a review copy of Spyridon’s Shoes by Khouria Christine Rodgers and I have been meaning to get that review actually written and not just outlined. Every time I sit down to work on it, another of my kids picks up this book and starts it so I wait for them to finish. Today, I had a teen get the book for me and one of the middle schoolers called out, “I put it there to wait for me! I was going to start it today!”

“Haven’t you read it once already?”

“No! I read it to the little girls, this time it is for me!

This is the kind of book it is. It's a quick read, taking only about an hour, and is well suited to kids in the middle school years but was easily read by my ten-year-old. It is engaging enough that my sixteen-year-old read it as soon as the mail was delivered, in a single sitting.

It opens on the main character, a boy, which is well noticed by my children who feel like most main characters these days are girls. I think this an important point because even though I have six daughters, I also have five sons and I know that often boys like to read about other boys. The cover shows a scene in the second chapter in which Spyros is helped by an elderly monk who washes and bandages his foot and gives him his own shoe to keep those wraps in place. The story grows from this very tender and compassionate beginning.

This story is about St. Spyridon but rather than an account of his life, it is rather a story about this boy’s encounter with him. I like this perspective. While it might be in my daily life that I come across people who are living saints, I won’t be able to appreciate them. It’s a sad truth. I think that this is something that kids can agree with because their lives are often full of not truly appreciating what they have. This is okay, it's a learned skill, one I am still not very good at yet. I can be patient with them on this.

There is another reason I really like this approach. As a child, I liked reading about saints but I always wondered about the people they interceded for and what happened in their lives. Growing up, I was surrounded by images of saints. My Mexican grandmother had a print of the Christ Child, the Santo NiƱo, surrounded by smaller little images of people being saved by Christ. Around the frame of the print, she tucked in photos of people she had prayed for or was currently prayed for so that they could be another widening circle of grateful recipients. Sometimes I would ask about this person or that one and she would happily tell me. Only one little image on the print was unknown to her. It featured two women with their hands held up in the air as a bandit wielding a gun approached them. They had been saved and I always wanted to know more but she didn’t have more to offer.

As an adult, I carry this wonder with me. I think about St Spyridon and his worn-out shoes and wonder about all those people he has walked out to help. I can wonder how it would feel to approach him and offer a small measure of gratitude. In this book, the boy has this very opportunity. Khouria Christine gives us an opportunity to think about this saint and his very real work in the world and what it would be like to approach him. I think this is why my children keep returning to this book again and again. They want to know what it would be like to step into his shoe and walk with Spyros, touching holiness and being healed by it.

I won’t spoil this book for you but I will tell you that I, with my tender little heart, cried at the ending. I think I will also have to pick this book up again and again. You will, too.

I was not compensated for my review and was not required to provide a positive review. I did receive a free copy which is super cool because we really, really liked it. The book is available from major online retailers but also through the publisher HERE. Ask your church bookstore to carry it.

The hard things...

Every day, I pull out my big three-ring notebook and help my children memorize poetry. Eli is memorizing a new translation of Psalm 50 and it is killing him. I don’t know this translation myself and I have to stare at the words otherwise they morph into one or another version or maybe just one that I am making up as I go. This is really hard. This translation is so similar but also so different and he keeps sliding into his old one, that one that he hears every day when his father reads the morning prayers which just happens to be the same as the one that lives in my head. So we work on it, just a few words at a time, every single day.

He really has to focus and so do I because I don’t know it and I just keep sliding into the one I actually can say. I kick everyone out of the room and I stare at these words as he sips his coffee and I can see the wheels turning in his head while the ones in my own head struggle to stay on track. He does not have to do this, he is not obligated, but he is doing it anyway. He whispers under his breath, “This is the hardest thing that I will ever do.” He is on to something here.

Just doing hard things is hard. This is something that is a such a mental workout that it feels like an exercise in futility, like watching Sysophis rolling his rock back up the hill every morning. Just like that but, only not, it is just a mental workout. It is not like Eli is climbing Mt Everest or anything, I am not his sherpa dragging myself up a mountain with him; it is just memory work. That is what makes it harder. We have a hard time doing the little hard things, the ones that are actually possible, the ones that show up in our daily lives, the ones that feel both so insurmountable that we cannot muster the strength to even consider doing it but also ones that feel so small that they aren’t worth doing. So, we don’t learn to do hard things. We learn to stop before we even start. I think that we should learn to the little hard things, and do lots of them, and to celebrate them. I am never going to climb Mt Everest but I just might memorize this prayer.

Why is he even doing this? Well, our religion has very scripted services and over thousands of years has developed a number of books that help us to say the right things and do the right things as we stand in the right places. Sometimes, it is easier to memorize pieces of these services to make it easier to do the other things, like hold lots of lit candles and gold plated pots of burning incense that we swing around. One of the publishers of these books is making some changes because of some weird modern day, first world problems, like copyright law. It’s easier for them to publish books if they own all the pieces inside so some of the translations are changing. My husband is adamantly opposed to this. He gets so upset and anxious and downright irritable at the thought of memorizing these little pieces over again using this new translation. He thinks it’s impossible. To him, he might as well be climbing Mt Everest and he is not alone. There is a large contingent of clergy like himself who also think they will never memorize these prayers. They don’t even try because it is just impossible.

Eli has his eyes on the future and he knows that if he does become clergy, like his father, then he will have a leg up if he already knows these translations. That is why, every day, he chips away at Mt Everest. He is starting with one prayer, just one, and only a few words at a time. One of these days, he will look down from the top with this prayer safely tucked into his pocket, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice, and then steel himself for the next mountain.

“This is the hardest thing I will ever do,” Eli tells me.

He might be right. I think the next one will be easier because he did this one first. That is why I sit at the table with him and sip my own coffee. Mt Everest, here we come.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Feeding as Prayer

Most of you won't have been to the retreat I spoke at last fall so I wanted to share this with you. Great Lent, like all fasting periods. is often a time of vulnerability for us. It is easy to feel small and weak and what we need to remember is that this is really what Christ asks us.

Ancient Faith Women’s Retreat
Antiochian Village, November 2018

Ora et Labora.

This is a Latin phrase which means, “Pray and Work”, as in a command to pray and to work. This phrase is meant to remind us that while we must live and move in the world, our home is actually Heaven and we should always direct our material work in that direction. It tends to conjure up images of monastics busy in sunlit fields and engaging God with the corners of their minds while their hands work.

Monks keeping bees.
Nuns hoeing gardens.
Birds, and sun, and wind, and rain.

It is a way to clothe our manual work for our material needs with the flesh of deeper spiritual wisdom thus connecting our physical selves with our spiritual selves. All too often though, we forget that all the tiny movements of our lives also qualify, especially those not found in sunlit corners. Things like cooking meals for our families become in our fantasies something like Babette’s Feast, we in the kitchen sampling the wine for the meal as the doves are delivered by a rosy-cheeked boy. Reality is rougher around the edges and, in my own life, finds me in the kitchen sampling the lentils on the stove while a recalcitrant preschooler cries over the color of her cup. Finding the manner in which I can pray without ceasing is a mental exercise of turning over those lentils and cups to God in a way that is fundamentally material and perhaps not obviously spiritual. It is not surprising that the way I consider this activity is through the lens of food.

Food is the center of my life. I buy it and cook it and serve it and write about it and talk about it with others. Without meaning to, I often end up reading books and watching movies with food as a major theme. It is how I engage the material world with my hands. It is often how I engage people since I end up offering to cook for people as a way of sharing myself with them. If I meet you someplace, I will invite you and your mother and her neighbor for dinner. I suppose this is why I have never been fond of the lesson of Mary and Martha in the Bible. Modern women, myself included, spend a great deal of time breaking down and unpacking the relationships between these sisters, to their brother Lazarus, theirs to Christ, and then even to ourselves individually and collectively. As much as we try,  in the end, we tend to learn nothing about anything, especially ourselves. Ultimately who these women were and are and what they mean for other women is complicated. Christianity often is.

Christ Himself sanctified our human experience and made it holy, or at least gave it the opportunity—the possibility of holiness, by living in the Flesh. He ate and drank and gave others food and drink, and even directed us to do the same. When we feed the least of His children, we feed Him. To purposefully engage the people of God with bread, stew, and wine seems to be the proper way of putting ora et labora in action since it is a literal fulfillment of the commandment of Christ to feed others. I think this is why there is some sting to the analysis of  Mary and Martha, at least for me. We still have the physical need for food and in following His command, she fed not just ordinary people but God in the flesh. Who greater to serve? I am a lesser Martha, busy shuffling in the kitchen and covering over my bare, uncomfortable humanness; looking for that blanket of spirituality. I want to find sanctity and holiness and I want to find it in the comfort I feel in cooking, to find hope poured over like chocolate ganache. I do not understand what God calls me to do let alone how. Like Martha, I cannot bring myself to not work, to not think, to not cook. My ill-used hands are clumsy and forget their wisdom until I put them to work doing the things that they know so well.

Chopping onions.
Slicing garlic.
Kneading dough.

I realize that I do not know how to serve God, all I know how to do is to make dinner. I can measure out my joy, my pain, and my grief and turn these into something that I can feed others, that I can nourish others with because I don’t want to keep these emotions inside myself. I can instead release them out into the world and cover other people’s material needs with my spiritual ones. The emptiness is at times palpable, the loss I feel when I don’t know the things to say or do or my fear that I won’t hear the voice of God, and so I feed others from the only well that I have. I make dinner.

Still lost, I am comforted when I think of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. Martha may not have understood how to stop and be still in the presence of the Son of the Living God but she knew who He was and was not afraid to speak to Him, to tell Him what she needed. When Lazarus died, she left Mary at home and went out to meet Christ and to expose her broken humanness to Him. In that moment, she chose the greater thing.  Perhaps this is all I need to remember, that all He asks is that I give to Him my own brokenness. I fail to choose the greater thing in many small moments, I cannot count them out with each lentil and each cup and each night that passes and I let them slip through my fingers. Perhaps all I can do is show myself to God to allow Him to cover over both my material and spiritual weaknesses with the strength of His love. Today I make dinner. Today I work so that one day I may learn to pray.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Why do we tell stories?

I use the word “Lieutenant” as the device password in my house. I figure that once you are old enough to spell it, you are old enough to be trusted to not turn on a device without permission. Until my children can understand the reasoning behind this, they just need to cooperate, even unwillingly. This is like other things in life, like the way that we can unpack the stories of our childhood better as adults while as children, we simply must accept them.

When I was growing up, I was surrounded by the stories that my grandparents told me. My father’s Mexican family told me stories about La Llorona, the weeping woman. She had killed her sons and tossed their broken bodies into the water. God punished her by not giving her rest until she finds all the pieces. My mother’s Cherokee family had different stories. They were not afraid of the water, they were afraid of fire. I never played with fire as a child because I knew that fire sleeps and is angry when he is woken. That is why a proper fire sometimes feels hard to start; he can be difficult to wake. When he does, he is so angry that he becomes violently destructive. Wake the fire but trap the fire and never let him get out. Don’t turn your back on him, fire burns.

My teens were filled with more stories because literacy mattered to my mother. We had a house filled with books, good ones. She bought all the classics and then some. Even if they were books that she had never read, if they were part of the great canon of literature, she filled the shelves with them. She signed us up for Great Books classes through school and bought piles of notebooks and pens and encouraged us to write so that we could make stories of our own.

I married young and my husband and I decided to be modern parents. We decided to do more of the latter and less of the former. I never felt that my childhood was frightening because of the stories but we were young and brilliant intellectuals and would do things the proper way, the correct way. Stories should be read and told and enjoyed but never used to control behavior. There would be no stories of La Llorona wandering in the dark, ready to attack children who are out alone when they should be home. We were different. We still had stories but we were less honest about what they were and how they were different. We still told the parables of Jesus but somehow failed to see how it was that He was teaching us.

I find myself rethinking some of this in light of the popular NPR story about the Inuits and their gentle method of parenting that is story based. I did not grow up Inuit and my family of origin did its fair share of yelling, as do I, but the storytelling intrigued me. If you have not read or listened to the story, you can find it HERE.

The older ladies who teach the Inuit parenting classes acknowledge that they were frightened by the stories as children but tell them anyway. A young child sometimes needs to trust the wisdom of those who care for him and admonishments to stay away from the ocean are less effective than scary stories. They have some pretty substantial evidence to support this belief. When we tell stories to our children, we are in good company. Greek Mythology and Biblical Parables are keen examples of abiding stories that shape us today.

Sometimes there is a concern that lying to children creates a sense of mistrust but I don’t think so. Children are more sophisticated than that. I also think that there is much to be said for organic and broad culturally derived stories. It is more like lying to invent cleaning monsters (as in the NPR story) than it is to tell the stories of your culture and your people but this gets tricky. A lot of Americans don’t have that history and that is a challenge. So what do you do? You can look to the stories that you do have. Recently I talked about stories with some of my teenaged children.

“What lessons does the story teach?” I asked my son when he asked if he could be allowed to watch a certain movie. He seemed confused because he did not think that this was a teaching sort of story but one that was purely for entertainment. I prompted him to think further.

“Every time we read a book or sing a song or watch a movie, the stories that they tell go on to live in our heads. They help us to understand the situations that we come across in our lives and even make decisions about how to react to those situations. We have to be careful about what stories we put in our heads because they create the framework on which we hang our thoughts. Is this a good story to put in your head? How will it help or hurt you?”

He was quiet for a minute before he told me that he did not think I would let him watch it. He was right, it was not going to be allowed. But rather than just forbidding the movie, I Iet him follow the logic of our analysis as parents. He saw where it would end, this would give him the wrong sort of framework. Starting this conversation gave us the chance to break down some of the movies that I have let them watch, ones which were popular but had good motives despite their entertainment value.

Stories do not need to be beautiful to be good. They can be full of the ugliest moments of the human experience but if they resolve properly, then they can be made beautiful. It is the triumph of the people in the darkest of stories that can help us to become stronger and better people. This is why we should not shy away from those stories.

Recently I watched the movie Signs with my teens, down the one barely thirteen. Why? Because God is real and life has meaning. It is okay to suffer and stumble but it is the getting up that counts. When they have those moments of doubt in their lives, and they will, they can recall a similar situation in a story they know. Perhaps this one? Maybe it will help them to see what they need to see when the things that matter are invisible.

Some of the saints’ stories fall into this category. The life of Saint Mary of Egypt is fraught with sin and misery and crippling mistakes. We go every year and listen to the whole story and there are moments when I cringe but the truth is that my kids will hear it and know that there is hope, there is a place to rebuild once we have faced our inner darkness. I want them to hear this story over and over and over again because when they face their own mistakes, I want them to run towards God like Mary and not towards death like Judas.

There is a reason that we tell stories and there is a reason that we listen to them. Piece by piece, story by story we build the framework where we hang our thoughts. Build the thoughts that we want to have and teach your children to do the same. Tell the stories.