Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Intervening in the Lives of Goats

Intervening in the lives of goats

By Heidi Shott

Fifteen years ago this week five friends enjoyed a picnic on the west coast of Ireland just north of Galway. We had ham and cheese, good bread and a tube of spicy mustard perfect for a cutlery-free, wayside lunch. I suspect there were cookies and cherries and probably pickles. We ate perched on a jumble of rocks – not unlike the coast of Maine – high above that side of the Atlantic. It was a wonderful lunch, full of happy banter. It was the kind of lunch I would have remembered years later even if what happened next hadn’t happened.

After lunch, my friend Denise and I decided to pick our way along the rocks. We hadn’t gone far before we heard the insistent, unmistakable bleat of goats. We walked toward the sound and looked over a precipitous edge. Twenty feet below three goats – two grownups and a kid – balanced on a narrow ledge. Bleating, panting and standing amid clumps of goat poop, these were not happy goats. The drop facing the sea was much greater than the 20 feet above.

Oh dear. A goat crisis.

Denise, a physician, is used to fixing things and immediately started to make suggestions about how to effect a rescue. We tossed a few implausible ideas around but after a moment we yelled, “Scott!” My husband, the best kind of troubleshooter, ambled over with our other companions, Chris and Mo, whose turn it was to pack up the lunch things.

“They’re goats. They’ll figure it out. That’s what goats do,” he said dismissively. “They leap up and down rocks and ledges.”

“But they look hot and panicky,” I moaned.

“There’s a lot of goat shit down there and they appear to be dehydrated,” said Denise. “They’ve been stuck down there a long time.” She looked around to a couple of cottages a quarter-mile in either direction along the coast. “Maybe we should tell a farmer.”

Scott howled and his native West Virginian accent suddenly shifted to Irish: “Now, Jimmy, do you remember the time when we were kids and the daft Americans stopped by to inquire as to the welfare of the goats?” He looked at Denise and me. “They’ll be telling that story 50 years from now.”

After another ten minutes of heated goat debate, we conceded defeat and piled into our rental car. We stopped for the night in Galway where, at the modern Cathedral, I looked around for my friends before dropping an Irish punt into a tin and lighting three candles for the you-know-whats.

The goat affair wasn’t the first time I’d been tempted to intervene in matters outside my sphere of responsibility. About four years earlier, just a few weeks before we moved to Maine from West Virginia, I sat down in a colleague’s office at the newspaper and told him that there was something I thought he should know. I thought he should know that there were rumors floating around town that he was having an affair with a church secretary. I said I knew the rumors would be hurtful to his wife and daughter. I admired this man.

“I don’t know how these things get started,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I appreciate you telling me, but there’s nothing to it.” He deftly shifted the conversation to some loose ends with a story I was working on. He walked me back to the stairs.

“You did what?” Scott asked me when I told him I’d talked to Keith. “It’s not your place to intervene.” Months later we learned that Keith and the church lady had run off to North Carolina. It hadn’t lasted. After a month he slouched back to his wife.

Despite my acute embarrassment, I wondered if I still hadn’t done the right and caring thing by talking to him. I had intervened with a good heart and loving intentions. But feeling burned, I also decided to never put myself in that position again. I’d mind my own business in the future. Later, when it came to the goats, I didn’t insist on intervening and it’s haunted me ever since. My good friend Denise knows this and every few years, after we’ve had a few glasses of wine, she’ll lean back in her chair, look to the ceiling, and muse, “I wonder what happened to those goats?”

I was pondering this fine line between saint and busybody one morning last week while driving Colin, one of my 13 year-old twin sons, to school. For someone who considers himself an agnostic with deistic leanings, Colin has an awful lot of questions about religion. We’d been cruising along in pleasurable silence when Colin asked me to buy him a copy of the Koran. “I need to know more about Islam,” he said.

“You need to know more about Christianity,” I countered. By the time we crossed the bridge over Great Salt Bay, we’d moved onto the central theme of Christianity. As in, “So, Mom, what is it?”

Easily nailed! “Matthew chapter 20-something: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” (I realized, however, such imprecision would not impress my high school Bible quiz team coach.)

“So if you do those two you’ll automatically keep the ten commandments?” Colin asked as we turned into his school’s driveway. “They sort of take care of all the wrong things you might otherwise do?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I said, the ever-deficient carpool theologian.

But as he leaned his head in the rear passenger door to grab his backpack, he delivered the zinger: “Well, I don’t need to be a Christian to love my neighbor.” And then with a cluck of his tongue – our schoolyard signal that means ‘I love you but I don’t want to say it in front of the whole world’ – he turned and was gone.

He’s right, of course. Some of the most wonderful, selfless, appropriate interveners I know would not characterize themselves as Christian.

The problem is that I’m not one of them. I’m not at all selfless but I am a Christian. After all these years of trying to live this stuff, I am yet to figure out where the line should be drawn between loving involvement and benign indifference to the people I walk this world among.

Amid the ridiculous busyness of two jobs, two kids, two school boards, many friends, one house, one garden and one husband who is lobbying to host a lobster feed for 60 people on the fourth of July – amid all this – I can’t quite figure out whom to love first or in whose life I should intervene.

Jesus commands me to love my neighbor, which, according to the wristband I’m wearing, means everybody in the whole wide world. It also means enforcing a consistent computer policy with Colin. It also means visiting my 84 year-old mom more than once a year and supporting my brother in his care of her. It also means checking in more regularly with my friend who’s going through a hard divorce. It also means making time to go to town with my sons to choose goodies to send to the four children of our friend Alex who are living on their own in Ghana while he works to support them in England. It means everything in between.

In this world where it’s possible to know so much about so many, how can we possibly manage to do what Jesus asks?

In the Galway Cathedral, I lighted three candles and prayed for the goats. If we’d jumped down onto the ledge to try to hoist them up, we would have failed and irredeemably soiled our shoes. If we’d gone to the nearest cottage to report the goat situation, we would have been the worst sort of tourists. So I prayed, dropped a coin in the box – such good work as had been prepared for me to walk in. That was June 1992. Four years before I’d sat trembling in a chair just before I told a good and kind man something I thought he needed to know, something I thought no one else would tell him.

Last Christmas morning, I opened a package from Denise. In recent years we’ve tried to scale back on the gift-giving and have taken to donating to good causes in our families’ names. Inside the box was a card with the Heifer Project logo. “In honor of the Shott Family: Three Goats.” Below, in her hand, I read, “They’re not Irish goats, but I did the best I could.”

Heifer International

Uncle Walt Keeps the Gate

July 18, 2007

My Uncle Walt died last Tuesday, just a few weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. An extremely pious Roman Catholic, he considered my father’s older sister, Alene, his wife until the day he passed on – 32 years after she left a short note and skipped out of the house like a school girl.

He was a goofy kind of guy, but I always liked him. He played the guitar and sang; he wore moccasins; he liked to play catch. He was a terrible driver. He liked to swim in the lakes in our part of central New York and appreciated my mother’s willingness to swim with him when no one else would. He used Grecian Formula on his gray hair and everybody knew it.

But his outstanding characteristic was his profound devotion to the Church. He made his daughters say the rosary every night. As a small child I remember staying overnight at their house and reading comic books while they fingered their beads and murmured the prayers over and over. It was both extremely exotic (they were the only Catholics in our extended clan) and extremely boring. It seemed to last for hours and hours as I lay flopped on their living room davenport, as Aunt Alene always called the sofa, listening to the cadence of their voices and watching my two older cousins glance at their watches and one another.

Uncle Walt was exceedingly frail when I saw him last at my father’s funeral in 2000. As we sat with our baked ham and potato salad after Dad’s informal service on the side lawn of the family farm, Uncle Walt told me how he drove each Sunday to Syracuse (at least an hour’s drive) to hear the Latin mass. The thought of an 85 year-old Uncle Walt driving on the New York State Thruway was truly terrifying.

He died on Tuesday, the day Pope Benedict XVI released his statement which contends, in part, that Protestant denominations are no more than “Christian communities.” This reiteration of the “Dominus Iesus” declaration of 2000 and the news last week about the lifting of restrictions for the Latin mass may very well have been too much of a good thing for the old guy. He must have died a happy man. Things were finally swinging his way!

No one else in our family was religious, including another uncle who was an American Baptist minister. The rest of us were Protestants merely because we weren’t Catholic or Jewish or Zen Buddhist. So it’s funny that my most enduring childhood memory of spending time with Uncle Walt and Aunt Alene is of those Sundays when they dragged me to Mass and I had to sit alone while they went up for Communion. It was my first experience of exclusion.

“You’re part of our family for everything else. You can wear hand-me-downs from your cousins. You can drink milk from the special Mary Poppins cup. You can fall asleep on our laps after you’ve run around in the backyard and we’ll stoke the damp hair off your hot forehead. But at Mass on Sundays you can’t approach, much less partake of the body of Jesus. Nope, sorry. Not allowed. Stay in your seat and be a good girl. We’ll be right back.”

It seems we Christians…of virtually every stripe…are very good at being gatekeepers of Jesus. When we humans attempt, through sophisticated theological debate or literal scriptural interpretation or the occasional lively claim of divine revelation, to have the corner on the Jesus market, it scares me. I’ve been there and can’t forget the sucky way it made me feel. Implicit in the act of keeping the gate is the notion that the keeper has access to information and power and knowledge and secret handshakes that the rest of us don’t.

I’ve always been tickled by the practice – started in Mormon youth groups, I recall – of determining one’s actions by asking the question, “What would Jesus do?”

Here’s my answer: “I don’t know! I’m not Jesus!”

As a parent of two young teenagers, I’m beginning to realize there’s a day in the not-so-distant future when they are going to shake our hands and say (I hope), “thank you, lovely parents.” Then they will walk out that door. When confronted with the inevitable choices life will bring their way, I hope to God they don’t ask, “What would my Mom do?” I want them to do the right thing because it’s what they know they should do. I want them to remember how we’ve taught them to live and to how we’ve taught them to treat the people they encounter. If they have to pause to ask the question, then I fear for the answer.

Jesus, that savvy teacher, left us such good, simple instructions. If we heed them well and faithfully, we shouldn’t have to stop and think.

There has been a lot of interesting talk about open communion in these parts and I understand (most of) the conversation and appreciate the arguments on both sides. The recent posts reminded me of my college roommate reading aloud a letter from an old boyfriend who was an agnostic and fairly cynical about Christian faith. He wrote that he was attending an Episcopal Church and that he liked the ritual. He “relished” walking up the aisle and taking Communion.

“Eeeuuuwww,” we both said when she read that part. “That’s creepy.”

But now I’m not so sure. Maybe the mysterious act of taking communion was the start of something for that young man. Maybe, as the songwriter Bruce Cockburn sang a few years later, “spirits open to the thrust of grace.” Who am I to say?

But then again, maybe being shut off from something mysterious and holy, something I didn’t understand when I was seven or eight, maybe that fed my yearning for the things of God. Maybe I’m still pondering these things decades later because they weren’t just handed to me. Does it matter how the gift is given? Does it matter how it is received?

But not everyone is an asker of questions. God gifts some people with the different propensities. Some people are like my Uncle Walt whose passion for the Blessed Mother and the Roman Catholic Church was all consuming. His need to keep that gate in place was as clear to him as breathing.

What does the question-asker do with an Uncle Walt?

Seven years ago, at my father’s funeral, I balanced a chinet plate on my lap and listened to him tell me about the Nocturnal Adoration Society. The next day I prayed he wouldn’t kill anyone while driving to the Latin mass in Syracuse.

Then today, I sent some flowers.

The Church of Baseball

may 22, 2007

On Friday afternoon my family and I make the three-hour trip to Fenway Park. As always, we stop at the Kennebunkport rest stop so my husband Scott, who would sooner jump into a leech-infested lake than get behind the wheel in Boston, can hand over the keys. Before long we find our worn, wooden seats along the third baseline and settle in for the evening.

As we munch our Fenway franks, sip our Sam Adams and juggle our stuff every few minutes to allow someone in or out, we let the pleasure of being at Fenway again sink into our bones.

“Welcome to America’s best-loved ballpark!”

What I find telling is that the announcer, in greeting the crowd, doesn’t say, “Welcome to the home of America’s best-loved ball team.” Fenway Park, and the game that’s been played there for 95 seasons, is what New England fans love. Except for the nasty year of the strike, fans have trusted that a bunch of guys wearing Red Sox jerseys will take to the field at 7:05 p.m. and play baseball.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s not always the same bunch of guys. Sure, we have our saints…down in the box in front of us I spy an old duffer wearing a Carlton Fisk jersey…and last year I saw a sad-looking woolen Yastrzemski jersey on a fellow whose face looked like he’d never quite gotten over Bucky Dent’s homer or the horror of watching the ball go between Bill Buckner’s legs. I’m not quite over them myself.

When I left the staff of the Diocese of Maine last year to downshift to a consulting role, our Canon to the Ordinary – to make me feel rotten – started addressing me as Pedro and signing her emails as Manny, a nod to Pedro Martinez’s departure to the Mets and the loss felt by his friend and countryman Manny Ramirez still in Boston. Players come and players go, but we fans love the game and we love the Red Sox beyond the individuals, even when they’re stars like Pedro or Nomar. It’s the game, it’s the team, it’s the park…and somehow the magic works even if you’ve never seen a game at Fenway.

With the Red Sox seven games ahead of both the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles, whom we’re playing, I luxuriate in being able to enjoy the game without feeling like every pitch matters. Our American League East lead slows everything down. There is no rush; there is no pressure. The pleasure of being in the park on a lovely Spring evening with my husband and sons and with no drunken fans in close proximity is a gift. We lose, 6-3, our boys can’t hit the ball worth beans and the terrific fielding of the Orioles’ shortstop nixes a few promising opportunities. But so what? We’re in it for the long haul, both the 2007 season and for the rest of our lives.

One gorgeous spring morning nine years ago I sat on a hard pew in the nave of St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland, Maine. A priest from Chicago named Chilton Knudsen was about to be consecrated Bishop. As one of our retired bishops passed the row in the processional, my neighbor, whom I’d met a few minutes before, whispered, “That’s my bishop.”

“What? Are you nuts?” I wanted to hiss back. “You can muster loyalty to only one bishop over the course of your whole life? Give her a chance! She doesn’t even have the mitre on her head yet and you already prefer a bishop who retired 13 years ago?”

That comment still worries me because the future of Christendom, specifically our Anglican brand, cannot depend on superstars or even supervillains. It should not depend on individuals at any level. The Body of Christ depends on people coming in and sitting on the same worn, wooden seats every Sunday – seats, like those at Fenway, that have borne witness to moments of profound joy and deep sadness; good singing and bad singing; restless children and restless souls.

As years pass, the priests, the altar guild ladies, the choir members, the acolytes and even the bishops enter and depart. The Church depends on our enduring and often exhausting faithfulness to Christ’s charge to love God with all of our hearts, minds, bodies and souls and to love those we encounter with the great passion and intensity we usually reserve for our lovers and our children and ourselves.

The demands of really living this kind of life…of really doing the work of the Gospel day in and day out… rarely allow us to luxuriate in the mystery of the liturgy or the beauty of the prayerbook language. How important it is to remember what a rare and magnificent thing it is to be a part of a vast and loving community that existed long before us and will extend far beyond us. If only we could keep such a vision before us.

At Fenway Park, that kind of crazy thinking is what makes the people over in the left field bleachers start a wave.

What could it do in the Episcopal Church? It’s impossible to say.

Does God Ever Stop Nagging

august 20, 2007

A dozen years ago, when our twin sons were toddlers and my transmission went kaput, I spent one long afternoon in a car dealership in Augusta, Maine. As the hours slowly passed, one of my fellow waitees - watching as I tried to distract and entertain my wiggly boys - suddenly revealed herself as an oracle of the gods.

"A boy turning 15 is God's way of helping parents accept that he will leave home someday," she proclaimed out of the blue. "Until 15, it's hard to imagine not wanting him around."

I thought, first, "Shutup, lady. Who asked you?" Then, "I'll always want my boys around because they'll be delightful teenagers – bright, perspicacious, engaging and kind." I couldn't imagine a universe where these boys weren't under my constant gaze – to protect, to teach, to cuddle, to read to, to joke with, to love so fiercely.

In many ways, now that they are 13 and a half, I still can't imagine a world where they are out of my line of vision for more than a week at a time.

But it's a world I'm approaching.

On Saturday, my husband Scott and I picked up our sons, Martin and Colin, after a two week stint at Bishopswood, our diocesan camp. Colin, the more reluctant camper, was finished, whereas Martin, a true believer, was to return for another week after being treated to lunch, ice cream, and a trip to the Rite-Aid in Camden to restock flashlight batteries and sunscreen.

Later in the day back at home, Colin and I lay flopped on the porch reading. Colin, a fast and sophisticated reader, was intent on Barbara Ehrenreich's book about white-collar unemployment, "Bait and Switch." I looked up from Richard Ford's "The Lay of the Land," finally out in paperback. This beautiful child of ours, so interesting and complicated, so funny and demanding and kind, is growing up. Over the last year he and his brother have become so much less needful of us, not as people, but as parents. I'm learning to cede control over things that don't matter and learning to back away so they can make mistakes and learn from them. As they enter eighth grade next month, I vow to be less the homework bitch and more the homework angel…available for intervention when called upon but otherwise, "You're on your own, kid."

I look at them and see how far they’ve already reached beyond me…in math, in music, in reading, in skiing, in the formation of their personal political philosophies. I marvel at Colin's vacuuming up "War and Peace" unabridged as a seventh grader and delight in Martin's poetry and memoirs and his ability to stand up and blow an amazing sax improv solo the moment the band director gives him an imperceptible nod. Still I nag and repeat myself constantly. I still holler, "Don't you give me that look" and "Knock it off with that tone" on pretty much a daily basis.

In less than 18 months, when they turn 15 on New Year's Eve next year, they may turn into awful people, but I think not. I hope not. I hope our love and care and frankly less-than-perfect example of how to live this life will have been enough to see them through to the day they walk out our door and beyond.

As I looked at Colin reading and enjoyed the pleasure of his quiet company, all this swirled though my highly distractible mind. How does this pattern of parenting and growing independence play out in our own walk with God?

Having come to faith as a teenager in an evangelical church, my daily personal walk with Jesus was constantly at the top of my mind. For years I prayed and read my Bible daily or felt guilty when I didn’t. I chose a Christian college where I met my husband and made many good and lasting friends. As a junior I transferred to a southern women's college and became involved in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and was confirmed in the Diocese of Southwest Virginia the week I turned 21. The presence of God hovered over me like a benevolent seabird throughout those years: nipping, nagging, loving, and keeping me safely near shore.

In the years since it's not that I've lost the ability to sense the presence of God or really need it any less, but perhaps God – having accompanied me so closely to a certain juncture – is trusting me to get it right with a less supervision.

I'm beginning to wonder if what we experience as children and, for some of us, as parents in this world doesn't teach us how God functions as a parent/creator in the realm of our Christian faith. When we turn the equivalent of 15 in Christian years (however long that takes for each of us), does God start to treat us differently – not because we're annoying – but because we've earned a measure of trust? And does that freedom allow us to flourish and grow into stronger, more Christ-like disciples than we'd be if we were more closely shepherded and nudged along the way.

Yesterday, we went out on Damariscotta Lake in our motorboat with Colin and our friends, Rachel and Jay. We live on a millpond and to get out to the open lake we must motor under a bridge. For years, to safeguard my personal sanity, I've reminded the boys to duck so they wouldn't fatally clunk their heads on the unforgiving steel girders a few inches above us. (Actually, I used to sing the chorus of the Erie Canal song – "Low bridge, everybody down…" – until last year when they begged me to stop being so profoundly embarrassing.) As we approached the bridge and yelled out to the kids who were jumping from above to hold it a minute until we passed through, I was about to remind Colin, who was sitting in the bow, to duck his head. Suddenly, as my mouth opened, he dutifully bent over, well beyond need.

"Jay!" (who was sitting behind Colin and at 62 knows enough to duck), I barked. "Duck your head!"

Apparently, unlike God, I need someone to nag.

The Truth about You

april 24, 2007

Maybe most long-term relationships develop similar weirdnesses, I don’t know. But I do know that every few years my husband Scott latches onto a phase that he repeats several times a day for no discernable reason. In the late 1980s, when we first moved to Maine, he started waking me up by saying, “These are the things we’ve come to expect from you. These are the sorts of things.”

Throughout the middle years of the last decade, whenever he entered a room, I’d hear, “You don’t care. You don’t care. I know you don’t care.”

“You got that right, bud,” I’d say without looking up from my book.

A few months ago he invented a new line that I find entertaining.

Out of the blue he’ll catch my eye and say, “I know the truth about you.”

Now this is someone I met when I was a 17 year-old college freshman. He knows a lot about me, but despite all we’ve shared – twin sons, several house renovations, his middle-aged scooter obsession, those few bad months when he was senior warden and the person renting the rectory was keeping a secret flock of chickens, all this day-to-day life for more than two decades – he can’t begin to know the truth about me and he knows it. That’s why it’s funny. That and because we both know that the truth about me, known and unknown, is not outrageously exciting.

Last June at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention I found myself alone in a hotel elevator with Martyn Minns, the newest Virginia-based bishop in the Anglican Church of Nigeria. I could have asked him anything in this intimate space, (I am, after all, supposed to be a church journalist,) but what I heard my idiot-self say was, “I have a son named Martin.” Now this is indeed true, but who the hell cares? After a second, I caught myself and added wryly, “but we spell it the traditional way.”

So for a few moments before the elevator stopped for more passengers, we spoke about the return to old-fashioned names. He told me his children were naming his grandchildren names like, (let’s say, for example, because it’s slipped my mind,) Celia and Walter. He seemed bemused and slightly perplexed at this return to the old ways. Here was a man I’d read a lot about over the past few years standing right before me, but it occurred to me that there was no truth about him that I knew with any certainty. Nor did he know anything about me. The video piece I’d done the night before for the General Convention Nightly News about the newest split in the Episcopal Church – those who like jello dishes at potluck suppers and those who don’t – didn’t tell a fraction of the truth about my history or my life or my faith or what is dear to me. It merely suggested that one opinion I hold is that we Episcopalians take ourselves way too seriously.

I know the truth about you. When you come face-to-face with someone, when you look him in the eye, it is impossible to say with any certainty “I know you.” When we examine our burgeoning on-line culture of chatter with its easy, facile insta-response, we kid ourselves by assuming we can know anyone simply by what he or she writes on a given day in a given mood.

The saddest and most horrific example of this unknowability was made manifest on the Virginia Tech campus this week. Mental illness and a deep detachment may have made knowing the truth about Cho Seung-Hui impossible, but those who knew him as “the question mark kid” didn’t know him at all. And in my deepest heart, though I so wish it were different, I suspect I would have looked over him as well. When people are unappealing or difficult or somehow different, isn’t brushing past them the easiest way?

There is so much to know in this remarkable age. As I sit at my desk each day, my head reels at all the pieces I don’t have time to read thoroughly. Things I want to know as well as topics and ideas that pique the edges of my interest. How quickly my opinions are formed by the fleeting glance of this person’s response on this particular blog. How much I assume I know about people I know virtually nothing about.

As Christians this business of being deeply known and loved by God is at the core of our faith. Being completely known and loved anyway is what allows us to reach to those who may not be loveable or agreeable or fathomable in any way. The truth, Jesus assures us, will set us free. In the swirl of that kind of knowing and love we are free to be vulnerable, free to ask questions, free to place our lives in the hands of people we don’t entirely know…and will never fully know. That kind of vulnerability and self-revelation is hard enough to do with those we draw deeply into our daily lives. How much harder to know and be known by the people at our margins.

“I know the truth about you,” my husband says to me this morning as he knots his tie at the foot of our bed. “You are a slug.” It’s true. It’s school vacation week. I’ll get to work when I get to work. But because he has nailed me, I resent him. From the middle of the bed I grab the big body pillow he sleeps with to keep his shoulder from becoming stiff – the pillow he’s named Evangeline after the actress who plays Kate on the TV show Lost – and chuck her onto the floor.

“Ha,” I say.

He looks aghast, but recovers quickly. “These are the things we’ve come to expect. These are the sorts of things.”