Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Crazy things for love

Twice in the past two weeks, our friend Joanne, who is an accomplished belly dancer and one of my twin sons’ godmothers, has driven 100 miles to attend each boy’s eighth grade graduation.

In upstate New York, where I grew up, we didn’t stop and pass go for eighth grade. We just moved along to high school without fanfare or cash envelopes. But in Maine, where not so long ago, down these remote peninsulas where one could find ready work on a lobster boat or at your uncle’s boatyard, finishing eighth grade was something to be celebrated and cooed at. And it still is. The Kindergarten through Grade 8 school remains the norm around here and the eighth grade graduation is a community event. Though twins, our sons are very different people and for various reasons, one attended public school and one attended private. Joanne, who for some reason delights in these children of ours, made a point to attend both ceremonies.

“Can you join us for dinner after?” we asked as we sat down in the folding chairs in the gym before Colin’s graduation on Wednesday night.

“No, no,” she said. “Tomorrow night’s my belly dancing performance and I need to get to bed early.”

In the busyness of life, I had forgotten this.

“Tickets are five dollars with a non-perishable food item.”

“Okay,” I said warily. “I’ll be there.” I looked over her shoulder at my wide-eyed son, Martin, who looked exceedingly glad that I’d used the first person singular. “I’ve never seen anyone really belly dance before.”

The things we do for love.

Someday I will write an essay called, “The Long Con.” It will be about how my husband, Scott, whom I met when I was a 17 year-old college freshmen, told me on our first date that he yearned for a motorcycle. I’ve been firmly poo-pooing this idea for the past 27 years with such brilliant rejoinders as, “You’ll kill yourself! Or worse, you’ll maim yourself and I’ll have to care for you!”

I should have seen it coming several years ago when he talked me into letting him buy a scooter. “It only goes 35 miles an hour. It’s good for the environment.”

Then a few years later, “It’s not safe to drive on Route 1. When someone passes by, it’s dangerous. I might get blown off the road into a ditch.” Bigger scooter that required a motorcycle license ensued.

Then last year, “If I’m going to drive on the highway, I need a heavier bike,” he cajoled. “It’s a safety issue. There’s a Honda dealer in Chanute, Kansas that sells discounted never-ridden 2004s. It’s a great deal, but I have to pick it up in Kansas”.

That was the dumbest, middle-aged guy thing I’d ever heard, but it didn’t stop him from picking up two college buddies enroute and making a road trip to buy a mammoth scooter…which looks remarkably like a motorcycle … in Chanute. Kansas.

Early last Saturday morning our sons, who have recently entered their prime sleeping years, were in deep slumber. It was warm and sunny and I was drinking a peaceful cup of tea on the deck when Scott – or the Scooterian as he’s known among the on-line scooter community – stomped onto the deck in florescent yellow scooter garb and said, “We could go to Moody’s Diner for breakfast and the boys would never know.”

“You want me to ride on the back of the scooter all the way to Moody’s? That’s ten miles.”

“Sure. It’d be fun!”

I looked at this man on my deck with whom I’ve spent my entire adult life and with whom, God willing, I’ll still be eating dinner long after our sleepers have cleared out. And I said, “Okay, but no splaying of my body on the roadway.”

The things we do for love.

This morning, Bishop Chilton Knudsen and I had a conversation in her living room over apfelstrudel and coffee. After two years away working for a community development loan fund, I am returning to full-time diocesan employ in August. We had a lot to talk about.

We talked about the mixed signals we lay employees of the Church often feel in a work environment dominated by clerical types. Many of us have discerned that we are called by God to serve as lay people…that ordination isn’t necessary to do, as Rite One says so prettily, “all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” But despite that calling, sometimes our ministries are made to feel less important, less like real ministry, than those of our ordained colleagues.

The work I did as a communications director in community development and affordable housing was good work. It, too, was ministry. Low income Mainers and underserved communities benefit greatly from the efforts of organizations like the Genesis Community Loan Fund . And I never once had a phone call from a member of the press asking about human sexuality or financial misconduct or imminent schism or even “What is your organization’s opinion of the boycott of The Da Vinci Code movie by the Christian Civic League?”

My goodness, why go back to work in communications for the Episcopal Church? When I broke the news that I was returning to work for the Diocese to my boss - a wild and deeply caring man who is also cradle Episcopalian and a former senior warden, he smiled and said quietly, “That’s good for you. You should do that, but we will miss you terribly.” It almost broke my heart to part from these wonderful people, but my love for the mission of the Church is so compelling that it’s hard to explain.

We do all these crazy things for love. We attend tedious graduation ceremonies and enter dark theaters for mysterious belly dancing recitals. We ride on the back of dangerous two-wheeled vehicles because we know it will please our beloved.

We work for a Church that sometimes can’t find its way …when the way and the truth and the life is spelled out for us so simply: Hello, people! Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God, fear nothing, love your neighbor, tell the truth, teach your children kindness and respect, honor all people by seeing Christ in them.

God expects such hard and crazy things from us.

This afternoon I stopped with my sons at our local hardware store to buy rabbit food.

I’ve known the owners, Louis and Judy, for 20 years and charge everything I buy there without looking at the price. Their son, Mark, the manager, will glance at the sticker on whatever’s in my hand – a paint brush or a box of nightcrawlers - and say, “You’re all set,” and wave. Their store is as far from a big box as you can get and I will pay anything for it to be here 20 years hence. Today Judy weighed my bag of bunny pellets and wrote it down on a charge slip. Behind me in line my sons waited to buy a candy bar with their own money. They didn’t bother to waste their breath to ask if I’d buy them candy.

“Last day of eighth grade!” I said as I stepped aside, smiling because Judy’s known them since they were babies.

“Eighth grade!” she exclaimed, handing Colin back his dollar. “My goodness, that’s a big day! This one’s on me.”

Perhaps not everything we do for love is hard, but it’s almost always a little crazy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Martin's Graduation Speech and Awesome Sax Solo

Here is Martin graduating from 8th grade at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Proof Enough

Last Sunday evening my family and three others gathered for a picnic supper at the old farmstead that serves as the headquarters of the Damariscotta River Association, a conservation land trust here on Maine’s midcoast.

The main reason for our gathering, besides sharing a meal and one another’s company, was to search for spring peepers (pseudacris crucifer) and wood frogs (rana sylvatica) in the DRA’s fresh water marsh just below the farmhouse. Our friend Tom, a biologist, had led a walk in search of frogs and salamanders just two nights before that drew 40 people. His friends, we losers, had missed it, so he and his children, Andrew and Jenny, agreed to host a private peeper hunt.

Among our party was Mamiko, a woman in her late fifties who came from Japan to spend this school year teaching Japanese and learning English at our local high school. She lives with our friends Ned and Denise and their sons Abe and Lucas.

By the time we finished our potluck meal, the sun was setting over the tidal river beyond the treeline. As we donned hats and zipped jackets, Tom and Andrew stopped to put on waders. I looked down at my Converse All Stars (white) and my sons’ sneakers and experienced a moment of maternal inadequacy. I looked over at my husband Scott and knew, after almost 23 years of practice, that he was just along for the company… if he didn’t get his feet wet and see the diminutive peeper up close, that was just fine with him.

Mamiko was wrapped in her full length winter jacket but hatless. On my way out of the house, I had grabbed several wool beanies and still had one in the car. It had been a beautiful spring day but now the air chilled to remind us that spring is a fickle friend to Mainers.

“I will get a hat for you, Mamiko,” I gestured the universal sign for hat and ran off. A moment later, with peepers in full voice as dusk dropped quickly upon us, I returned to her. Everyone else had started down the hill to the marsh: Andrew, who is 12, swinging his long-handled net marched ahead and Audrey, who is two, tried to keep up with the big kids despite the uneven grass.

“Not many Americans get to do this kind of thing,” I told Mamiko. “This is special. This is rare.” She turned to me as we walked along.

“I know,” she said, smiling in her shy way. “I am very happy.” And forgetting to be reserved with her, I put my hand on her shoulder.

Earlier Tom had explained that the call of the spring peeper is pitched so high that it makes it almost impossible to identify where the sound is coming from. “They’re only an inch long and you can practically look right at one without seeing it.” Now, down at the marsh’s edge, everyone fanned out with flashlights. After five minutes we’d found a lot of big spiders but no frogs whatsoever. In the dark I’d lost my husband, sons, and Mamiko, but found myself beside my five year-old godson, Lucas, whose responsible and loving mother had supplied him with a headlamp and rubber boots.

“Okay, Lukie, I’m depending on you to find a peeper.”

“I can hear them but I can’t see them,” he said, earnest but exasperated.

“We’re going to have to go closer to the water. Tom said they’d be in the water or on the grass at the edge.” As I stepped closer, a surge of frigid marsh water seeped into my All Stars and socks. I trained my flashlight on the tufts of grass that made cozy little inlets for frogs and searched. After another few minutes in the deafening roar of lovesick frogs, I heard Lucas’s brother call out to him and off he stomped in hope of allying himself with someone with better luck and eyesight.

Alone, I realized that the only way I was going to get close enough was if I knelt down in the water. Another plunge and my left leg, knee to ankle, was soaked. Argh. My flashlight probed every little nook of the brown marsh grass for the evidence of just one of the gajillion tiny amphibians making all this racket. It’s obvious that they’re here, so why do I feel compelled to see one? How uncomfortable must I become before I’m rewarded with the proof.

After another few moments, I decided to try something. I switched off my light and in a few seconds, I heard a call that was just inches away. I hit the button with a “haHA!” but nothing. I tried it again and the little voice returned from a tuft near my left hand. On with the flashlight, a quick grab, a plop. My light picked up a tiny frog doing a froggy kick in the water. Splash as my hand went in and came up with nothing. Well, I saw the critter at least. That would have to do.

Standing up, dripping, cold and happy, I heard a commotion 20 feet away. Andrew had succeeded in catching one in the water. He sloshed over to the edge of the marsh in his waders and we gathered around. “Bring it inland so I can see,” I heard my husband call from higher ground.

There it was, a tiny frog, just as we’d been told.

How powerful is this need to see with our own eyes, to feel, to taste, to hear, to smell. Though the aural evidence of the presence of peepers was overwhelming, a sound I’ve welcomed every spring of my life, the urge to actually see one and – better still – to hold one for a few seconds was strong. It was strong enough to compel me to get my shoes and jeans soaking wet in the chill of a spring evening, to turn off my flashlight and kneel alone in the dark. It’s not a far leap to liken this human requirement for evidence to how we demand such proof from God.

Though when it comes to delivering sensory input, it’s hard to beat the Episcopal Church. The feel of an oil-slickened thumb making the sign of the cross on your forehead; the smell of smoke emanating from the thurible; the sweet taste of the wine; the swell of a well-played organ or a practiced choir; and the sight of the backs and shoulders of your loved-ones – or, better yet, strangers – as they kneel at the rail and wait for their turn or intimate gaze of people’s eyes as you offer the chalice to their lips.

These physical points of confirmation give us license to believe the unbelievable. They embolden us to make choices that the world deems foolish. They feed us enough in the way of faith to last until we become faint and doubting again and then provide the space to return to be replenished, week after week, year after year.

ee cummings had it right:

how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any--lifted from the no of all nothing--human merely being doubt unimaginable You?

Even if Andrew hadn’t caught a peeper to show around, seeing the quick flash of the little frog in the mucky water would have been enough.

I think of my young friend Lucas for whom I couldn’t deliver the goods. Despite my willingness to soak my shoes and pant legs for our efforts, he went over to the big boys who could. But still he’s my friend. In fact, as we climbed back up the hill, he told me and Mamiko all about it. And the warmth of his mittened hand resting securely in mine is proof enough to last awhile.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Hidden Zippers

Yesterday the ironing crisis in our house reached a critical point. The piles of shirts, skirts, and slacks balanced on a maple rocking chair in my bedroom attained such historic proportions that I could no longer ignore them. At least three dozen articles of clothing – most of them mine because long ago my husband Scott learned to send out his shirts – required the attention of a hot, steamy iron. That doesn’t count the 30 or so linen napkins that graced our table at various dinners from Thanksgiving to New Years, which were washed and then relegated to the realm of forgotten textiles.

This is embarrassing and I am loath to reveal it in such a public, Oprah-esque way except that I can’t think of a better way to tell this story.

Scott gave the rocking chair to me 20 years ago on my birthday. I’m fond of it but haven’t sat in it for years because, well, because it’s always covered in wrinkled clothing. But in the late fall of 1993, in a different house six miles inland, I moved the rocker from my bedroom to the room across the hall that, with its new dormer and fresh carpet and built-in cupboards, would serve as a nursery for our imminent twins. I bought some lovely watercolory fabric for the curtains with enough left over for a seat and back cushion for the rocker. I figured I’d be spending a lot of time rocking over the next year and I was right. The seamstress I hired did a beautiful job fashioning both the cushions and the curtains, immeasurably better than I could have dreamed of doing myself.

Over the next few months the cushions stayed perfect. Then the babies arrived and before long the cushions weren’t so pristine anymore: baby spit-up, stray squirts of breast milk, later juice and gummy cheerios, still later crayon marks and smears of play dough. Though the cushions turned dingy, I never thought of more than spot cleaning them because I assumed that the cushions had been permanently sewn into the covers.

Ten years ago, when our sons turned four, we sold that house and moved closer to town. I left the curtains for the new owners, but the cushions and the rocker made their way to our new home. The smart thing to do would have been to chuck the cushions, but I felt the need to keep some remnant of that fabric close at hand. It spoke to me of hundreds of dimly-lighted midnights with a baby or two in my arms, the sweetness of rocking and singing or the desperate whisperings of please please please, darling boy, go back to sleep. In a corner of our new bedroom, the chair began to take on clothes faster than a leaky boat takes on water. Until yesterday, I hadn’t had a visual on those cushions in years.

When I removed the ironing for triage, out of the corner of my eye I noticed something I had never seen before: an overlap of fabric indicating a zipper. Fourteen and a half years since I tied them onto the rocker, I realized the covers were removable.

“No way.” I said, shaking my head, and in a moment both the back and seat covers were in the machine for a long-delayed bath. The mechanism to keep them clean and fresh had been there all along but my lack of curiosity and the fuss and busyness of daily life had not given me eyes to see.

Why is it so easy to get used to the familiar, grimy things in our lives that they become virtually invisible? How many hidden zippers are lurking under our piles of ironing or among our daily comings and goings? What else waits 14 years to be discovered, ripped off and scrubbed clean? Eastertide isn’t a bad time to look for the zippers in our lives – for that quiet moment or that seemingly random encounter that causes you to see something clearly.

For many years now I’ve been writing personal essays that start with simple moments of daily modern life and then eventually wend their way to matters of faith. And what a hypocrite I’ve felt each time I’ve written about reconciliation or doing hard things or choosing to act in a Christ-like way. And here’s why: Since 2000, with the exception of one phone conversation when she had by-pass surgery, I haven’t seen or spoken to my sister nor have I made an effort to do so.

However, the events of recent months have served as a Gordian knot to reverse this estrangement. I’ll call my sister “Peg” because her story is complicated and not mine to tell. Peg has lived in the Midwest for years, but agreed to come to upstate New York to care 24/7 for our mother in December when Mom was essentially kicked out of a nursing home for refusing to do physical and occupation therapy.

In advance of Peg’s arrival, we spoke on the phone several times. The conversations were focused on train fares and arrival times and our mother’s condition. While initially strained because of our long lack of communication, they became remarkably natural and cordial as long as we stayed within the confines of the current situation. Arriving at my mother’s apartment the night before we were to spring her from the nursing home, I felt anxious about seeing Peg after so long. She is 16 years older than I am, and, as the oldest of the four children, she often took care of me, the youngest by many years. Her older son and I grew up more like siblings. Still we never had the close sisterly relationship that I often envy my friends for sharing with their sisters and a sad set of family circumstances led to our years of mutual silence.

But there I was at the front door with my bag and my laptop. The gap of eight years, since she last came to New York to make peace with our father who was dying of lung cancer, had pushed her into her sixties and me into my forties and we both stood at the doorway gulping back the shock.

Because it was snowing hard, I had called her when I turned off the Utica exit on the Thruway. She had put the tea kettle on. After I dropped my things, we sat at our mother’s kitchen table and drank tea and talked. And talked and talked and talked.

Gently and instinctively, we didn’t talk about the past or any hurtful, sorrowful, regretful things. We talked about our families, and our brothers, and what the heck to do about our mother. We talked about today and tomorrow.

Here’s the hard truth: On my best day as a Christian, I could not have picked up the phone to call her in the Midwest to start that conversation. My mother’s health crisis became an opportunity, a suddenly revealed zipper that allowed us to whip off the veil that separated us…not completely perhaps...but enough for healing to start.

Last week my sister returned to the Midwest. My mother is on her own in a new apartment with meals on wheels and Lifeline. We don’t know how long this equilibrium of our extended and far-flung family life will last but for today, this day, all is well.

In the midst of my ironing marathon, my sister called and I happily picked up the phone. We talked about her trip home, her grandchildren, my sons, our mother and how the hard it will be to get through the next four weeks without the TV show Lost.

Despite how well this has turned out, I’m frightened to think what other sorrows and difficulties in my life could be redeemed if I choose. What possibilities are there for forging new relationships and challenging old fears and casting aside old stumbling blocks. As one who knows I am lavishly beloved of God, I should be able to open my eyes to see how easy it is to do such things. But without the miraculous grace of the previously unseen zipper and the knowledge of how to work it, I’m not so sure how to start.

As I walked back into my bedroom and the pile of clothing on the floor, my eye caught the empty rocking chair. Instead of returning to the ironing, I sat in the chair and turned my face to the familiar cushion: stained, faded but so so so sweet.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The art of being still

In 1979 a small island in the Southern Caribbean made a bold move by designating the real estate between the high tide mark and 200 feet below the surface a national marine park. Rules require dive boats to use moorings instead of reef-damaging anchors and make illegal spearfishing and the use of diving gloves, lest divers be tempted to touch vulnerable coralheads.

Nearly 30 years later Bonaire, one of six islands that comprise the Netherlands Antilles, has done more to preserve the complex ecosystem of the coral reef and the variety and abundance of fish life than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Not only have the Bonairians preserved their natural resource, but they have also ensured steady economic growth by drawing divers to their pristine underwater park year after year. My family has returned to dive off the island ten times over the last 15 years. We’re in a rut, but it’s an awfully nice rut and very affordable once you get there.

Diving is something my husband Scott and I have shared throughout our life together. The thrill of seeing a sea turtle or a eagle ray or to swim in the midst of a huge, flock-like school of silversides or to have dolphins frolic along side our boat, binds us in a way that is hard to explain. Scott learned to dive at 14 in the mid-seventies in the murky lakes and frigid quarries of West Virginia. I learned in 1985 in the tropical waters off the Micronesian island of Saipan when we were first married and teachers at the island parochial school.

During our most recent trip in January, our twin 14 year-old sons learned to dive. Finally we could dive together as a family. We spent two weeks diving, reading, playing scrabble and gin rummy, and watching the sun set from our porch with boat drinks and snacks – no phone, no email, no computer games, no TV, no diocesan or hospital emergencies that required our response. When we awoke in the morning, the drill was not the mad morning rush to school and work but to drink some tea with a slice of toast, gather our gear bags, squeeze into the bottom half of our wetsuits, and make our way down the dock to the happy camaraderie of the dive boat. “So where we goin’ this morning?” the day’s dive leader would ask.

“Salt Pier!”

“La Dania’s Leap!”

“Carl’s Hill!”

“Anywhere, it’s all good!”

Under the Caribbean sun we would arrive at the dive site and hoist our air tanks onto our backs, the acrid smell of hot neoprene in our noses. How delicious to let the weight of the gear flip us backwards off the side of the boat into the cool ocean.

As a diver, one skill I’ve paid close attention to over the years is controlling my buoyancy. I’ve learned to rise and fall in the water by gauging the amount of air in my lungs and to control my pitch and yawl by the flick of a fin or the twitch of a hand in the water. I’m not an expert – I don’t dive enough for that – but after a dive or two the fluency comes back. By maintaining neutral buoyancy a diver can get close to things…really close. This is important because so much of what goes on in your average coral reef neighborhood is tiny and complicated and if you want to get a sense of the intricacies of life on the reef, you need to be as close and as still as possible.

What an honor to be a visitor to this little corner of creation. It takes hundreds of years for the coral reef to grow: one generation of a hundred of species of coral dies to form a minute layer over the great exoskeleton of the reef, a millimeter at a time. One of my favorite things to do, and I taught my sons to do it as well, is to kick back from the reef into the deep water and pause to take in the whole wide expanse of the scene. We’re looking at part of creation that was in this very place doing its silent, magnificent thing at the same time Henry VIII was beginning to grow a teensy bit dissatisfied with Catherine of Aragon, when our boys were shooting themselves to bits at Second Bull Run, and when my grandfather was in the trenches faraway in France. For millennia tiny blue-lipped blennies have bravely defended their two inches of territory, orange frogfish have extended their deceptive lures, the spectacular and shy spotted drum has swum in and out of the hollows of brain coral…over and over and over again. For the past 60 years, since M. Cousteau and his friends figured out how to breath underwater, we humans have been privileged to observe this world for up to 75 minutes at a time.

Last month, on the day before we were to fly home and resume our life in Maine, I jumped off the dock with my fins, mask and snorkel. We’d made our last dive earlier in the day and were now allowing all the dissolved nitrogen built up in our blood to dissipate before we flew." (Getting the bends in an airplane is a seriously dumb, seriously dangerous rookiesque thing to do.) Before long, I was swimming 30 feet above the terrain I’d dived inches from a half dozen times in the past two weeks. From the surface I recognized certain distinctive coral heads, a large prickly West Indian Sea Egg, brilliant purple stovepipe sponges and delicate, translucent vase sponges, five different species each of parrotfish, angelfish, damselfish, and butterflyfish, and little groupers called Rock Hinds. I recognized them from 30 feet above only because I already knew them intimately from close at hand. Fish we don’t recognize at depth, we study in our fish books when we surface so we will know them the next time. Divers sport the geeky enthusiasm of birders, we just don’t often talk about it in public.

As I paddled around in the gorgeous turquoise, warmer than our mill pond ever gets at mid-summer, I started to finger this essay in my mind. Out of habit and propensity, I often contrast whatever situation I’m find myself in to the state of the Episcopal Church or the nuttiness of trying to live like a Christian in this complicated world. It’s an annoying habit and I’ve tried unsuccessfully to break it. I’ve compromised by only writing about one in five ideas that wash over me. Still, what I was thinking was something like this: If one part of God’s glorious creation - such as the ecosystem of the tropical coral reef – is so amazingly complex and fragile, doesn’t it follow that other parts of creation – the family, the congregation, the diocese, the Church, the Communion – each would be just as complex. Think of how nuanced and complicated the life of any congregation or diocese is. Yet, if we’re on the outside, how easy it is, with a little bit of distant observation, to feel we have captured the nut of a place in the palm of our hands.

As a diver at depth, so careful with my breathing to remain close but not intrusive amid the life and death action of the reef, I can observe a world that I don’t belong to. I can learn a lot, but I’ll never be a fish. I’ll never know what causes the Pederson’s Cleaning Shrimp to climb onto that particular anemone. As a snorkler 30 feet above, I can see the bigger coral heads and the bigger fish, but I’ll never see the two-inch blenny defending his little home in the crack before darting back to safety or the baby spotted moray eel poking its head and mouth full of teeth from a burrow.

But my inability to really, really know doesn’t stop me from pretending I know the undersea world. In his song, “Laughter,” Bruce Cockburn sang, “A laugh for the dogs barking at our heels, they don’t know where we’ve been. A laugh for the dirty window panes, hiding the love within.” I’ve always loved that line because he calls us on how willing we are to be dismissive of people with whom we don’t agree or with whom we have little in common. We’re especially good at that in the Church.

I don’t know how to change that, but scuba diving provides some good lessons: control your breathing, be still, watch carefully, and, for God’s sweet sake, don’t open your mouth.

Accepting God's daily gift

Last August my sons and I made our way downeast to Mount Desert Island for our annual camping trip to Acadia National Park. Our stated goal – my stated goal – is to hike every named peak by the time the boys graduate from high school in 2012. Each year we update a master map of the park by circling the peaks we’ve knocked off. Last year we hiked Sargent and Dorr Mountains and were joined by my non-camping husband on the final morning for a hike up Pemetic.

By real mountain standards the peaks of Acadia are only biggish hills, but on clear days the views of the glacial lakes and the outline of the piney islands off the Atlantic coast still take my breath away. This annual trip at the end of summer is a touchstone for our family, a final time together before the new school year to pick the last wild blueberries along the trail, to walk around Bar Harbor with ice cream, and to savor the hot popovers with butter and strawberry jam at the park’s venerable Jordan Pond House.

Another touchstone has been reading aloud. From the time they were four or five until last summer when we finished the last Harry Potter book after a six hour marathon ending at 2:30 a.m., we’ve always had a read-aloud going. However, last summer the boys announced that after Harry Potter, we should call it quits. “It’s been fun, Mom, but we prefer to read alone from now on. No offence, okay?”

With a hard swallow, I accepted this rare example of twin solidarity. Their tastes are, after all, diverging: Colin reads history and historical novels; Martin prefers contemporary fiction and poetry. And already, at 13, they are commending many hard and wonderful books that I’ve never gotten around to reading.

So in August, shoehorned into our tent at the remotest, raccoon-infested corner of Southwest Harbor’s Smugglers Den Campground, the three of us were each to our own book. Martin was sailing around the tent alone with the poetry of Billy Collins, I was halfway through Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, and Colin was reading an anthology of P.G. Wodehouse. (He dressed up as Bertie Wooster for Halloween and was disappointed when our neighbors mistook him for a croquet player). For me, it was sweet – each boy kept interrupting to read lines thereby annoying his brother – but not the same as reading together, immersed in the same book. I missed the plaintive cries of “One more chapter, please, or at least read to an asterisk!” After much phony reluctance, I always gave in.

In late November when it came time for Martin’s eighth grade conference, he shared with us the following poem he wrote early in the school year.

“Daily Gift”
“Each one is a gift, no doubt,
mysteriously placed in your walking hand
or set upon your forehead
moments before you open your eyes.”
- Billy Collins, “Days”

The first thing I hear
are the birds.

I am lying in a snug sleeping bag,
eyes closed,
absorbing the whistles
and tweets.

The second sound is the tap
of raindrops on a nylon tent
as they trickle from soggy trees.

The final noise
in my semi-asleep state
is the kettle reaching its boiling point.

Now I am awake.

I rise,
a zombie of the campground,
hair untamed,
and glare through trash-bag eyes:

a nocturnal adolescent
sore from hiking.

I clamber out of my cave
and utter the first word
of a fresh day:


Who knows what this day,
this gift,
will bring.

I only know one way
to find out.

- Martin Shott

How I wish I had Martin’s trash-bag eyes to see each new day as it is delivered to my bedside. In this new year, how I wish that we Episcopalians could focus on the gifts so freely and lavishly given to each of us by God: our capacity to love and our freedom to commit ourselves to whomever we choose; the thousands of opportunities available to serve those without a voice in our society and in the wider world. These gifts are already ours, no matter where General Convention stands on the matter at any given time or whether some among us have chosen to leave the Church altogether.

Years ago, my college’s chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship invited a Presbyterian minister from Charlottesville to preside at an evening called, “Hard Questions.” It was meant to be a particularly intriguing and evangelical night, drawing students who wouldn’t ordinarily attend one of our weekly meetings. We were hopeful this Presbyterian dude would be good on the stump. (Our local Episcopal priest who faithfully attended our meetings was a genial, laid back guy and glad to escape the hot seat.) While I recall we drew a good crowd including a couple of lively agnostics, I can only remember two sure things about the evening: one is that the Presbyterian guy had a beard and the other is his response to question, “How can you explain terrible things that happen in the world?”

I had just read the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamozov and was interested to see where he would go with the answer. I was also interested because my comfort level with my friends’ confidence in a fairly rigid Evangelical view of faith was beginning to shift. At the same time I was terrified of being left as a castaway to grapple alone with an increasing number of questions and an emerging vision of what it could mean to be a Christian. So I listened to the Presbyterian intently.

He said something close to this: A countless number of horrible things happen to people that we can’t explain, no one disputes that. But the Bible gives us a clue by fully explaining that God the Creator loved humankind deeply enough to redeem us by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. All the details are there, all the explanation is there. It’s the most complex and most horrifying deal in all of history, but God has seen fit to reveal it to us fully. A god who will explain an event of such magnitude…one that demonstrates such abounding love for creation… is a god who can be trusted with millions of things – the tragedies and the mysteries – we can’t explain in the world.

While I was disappointed with the answer at the time, I’ve found that I’ve remembered it for almost 25 years. The gifts are there. The child is born, and we know the how and why. While I miss the gift of reading to my sons, the closeness and the sweetness of it, their sharing of the books they read alone takes us new places and bestows its own gifts. I need to learn to let old gifts go and new gifts emerge, but it’s not easy.

Hark, friends, and listen closely in this New Year. Each day as you wake remember what you know is true; remember you are well-loved. Remember it is worth the struggle to climb out of your cozy tent and into the new day to accept whatever’s out there.

Just ask Martin, he’ll tell you.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Big Jon's tattoo

This was posted yesterday on the Facebook group, Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Perhaps a first!