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!