Thursday, March 30, 2006

Happy 100th!!!

My grandmother, born March 30, 1906, on the African savannah c. 1970.

Monday, March 27, 2006

New Orleans: "A Heck Of A Job"

Some people are doing a heck of a job. For instance, college students. I'm particularly proud of the one in the top photo.

High on Halifax: Maritime Travels 12 Out Of 12

Halifax, Nova Scotia stretches up a hillside overlooking a spacious harbor and capped by the Citadel, the highest point in the city and home to a 19th century fortress. The city is small enough to be easy navigable on foot, but large enough to host a plethora of restaurants and retail establishments, ranging from international news storefronts to the most elegant of dress shops.

My daughter and I began and ended our August Prince Edward Island trip in Halifax. The first layover was a something of a disappointment -- we had dinner in a harborfront restaurant where we were encouraged to "get with" the relaxed atmosphere of the Maritimes, which meant that we had a two-hour wait for service after a long day of travel, and then had only the next rainy morning left to see the city. I hiked up to the Citadel, only to learn that it doesn't open until 10:00, so we decided to go ahead and make the trip across the province to catch the ferry to the Island. We had better luck on the way home. We had a great dinner in a little Italian restaurant and disovered the various passageways that make trekking up and down the steep city somewhat easier as we finished our shopping for family and friends. We visited the Citadel, checked out its detailed and beautifully presented historical exhibit, and watched the Regimental Association perform.

Halifax has always been a significant port for its inhabitants; it was THE port of embarkation and arrival for Canadian troops during World War II. It was also the site of a devastating
World War I explosion when two ships collided in 1917, levelling much of the city, killing over 2,000 people, and injuring 9,000 more. (New Orleans, take note: Halifax today is charged with vibrant energy.) Halifax history is fascinating, especially for us Americans who tend to be oblivious to the stories of our neighbor to the north, and Halifax streets are definitely hopping at night.

It's a great city -- it's easy to imagine building a life there.
For us, however, it was the end of a spectactular trip. This entry originally appeared in Midlife Matters on September 11, 2005, when I had calmed down enough from the real last day (planes and storms and airports oh my!) of our trip to write about its many pleasures. And I would just as soon leave it that way. My daughter and I never would have taken our trip to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island if we had had a crystal ball that would have enabled us to see the not insignificant expenses of Katrina and to know that, after several extra days in Louisiana, she and I would be making a completely unanticipated trip to Oregon. It's often just as well that the future is a mystery.

As it was, we had a week to embrace a new and invigorating piece of the planet, and embrace it we did.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Thoughts on Mary Winkler

I can only imagine that she is lying on a narrow bed in a jail cell, glazed and sleepless eyes staring at the ceiling. Not knowing her reasons, or anything about her life other than what has been reported as the facade presented to the world, I am left to speculate only that she must have been in terrible pain and turmoil, pain and turmoil that has now deepened into something unfathomable.

Several of my friends have commented that we have a double standard for situations in which one spouse or lover kills the other. With men, we wonder how swiftly and completely we can punish them; with women, we wonder what terrible underlying distress caused them to act? Perhaps the real double standard is that we ascribe rage to men and anguish to women with the same thoughtlessness with which we consign boys to blue and girls to pink.

What is Mary Winkler thinking? Can she even formulate coherent thoughts?

Will I ever hold my girls again?

Will the older girls remember me? Will my baby even know who I am?

What will their lives be like? Who will guide them? What kind of women will they become, besides women who must live with the knowledge that their mother killed their father?

Have I protected them? Or ruined them?

How did I go from being the Perfect Wife and Mother with a Lovely Home to an accused felon in red-and-white stripes trapped in these four walls, possibly for the rest of my life?

There was a better solution. What was it and why did I not see it?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Notes to Self

Sigh. Too much on my mind and, as a result, I've got a miserable cold. I slept away most of the afternoon.

One son still home; flies back to school tomorrow. He talked to a couple of people about summer job possibilities this week, but nothing has panned out. Mostly he hung out with. . .

Other son; took bus back to school tonight. Loaded down with meds and mom's repeated harrassment about combining drugs and alcohol. A young lady, age 17, died here in the past week; vodka on top of perscription meds. He has no summer plans either beyond a desire to return to language school in Spain. After this harrowing week involving dental crisis after crisis, I'm a little lerry of that.

Daughter trying to make plans for summer, decisions for next year. Hard to help her via four months of instant messaging. I would like to go down and see her, but next week-end is my grandmother's 100th birthday and then she's off to see her friends in Oregon.

I'm having a very spiritual and literate week-end when I'm not asleep. This morning our little church group that's headed for Iona this summer had a mini-retreat with an Episcopal priest-musician-photographer who has spent time there. We also talked over some practicalities; we have a rather astonishing number of less than intrepid adventurers in our group. (I'm more of the hand-me-a-ticket-and-I'm-gone variety.) Tomorrow morning I'm providing the confirmation class with a whirlwind introduction to the Old Testament. I've had it prepared for a week; now I just need my head cold to depart so I can stand up without passing out. And somewhere in here I am theroetically writing a paper on the Song of Roland, a medieval French epic grounded in battles between the French Christians and the Iberian Muslims. Let's just say that (1) there's been little change in the world in 1200 years and (2) graphic violence was not invented by 20th century television and film producers. This little poem is full of swords slicing through bones and guts, brains splattered across the ground, blood of men and horses running freely -- all described in minute detail.

In the meantime, I have become temporarily obsessed with the sad case of Mary and Matthew Winkler. I am usually repulsed by the press fixation on violent family tragedies, but this time I am mesmerized. Was he someone quite different from the man people thought they knew? (One of my sons, in response to a news report in which they were described in some detail as the "perfect couple, " said, "It sounds like the woman never had a second of privacy.") Was she suffering terribly? -- her youngest is only a year old, so severe postpartum depression comes to mind. Did she become temporarily but completely unhinged by something unimaginable? That momentary lapse in which lives are forever altered is horrifyingly fascinating.

Meanwhile, all of the above is of substantial assistance in my procrastination of what is becoming a rather urgent need to overhaul virtually every aspect of my life. That's what I have really been wanting to write about, but I can't think clearly enough at the moment. My cat is staring fixedly at the floor molding, causing me to wonder whether she is attuned to a tiny rodent presence or simply meditating on peeling paint, and my brain feels basically nonexistent. It sounds like the men in the household are back to basketball watching, so back to bed for me.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Sunrise: Maritime Travels 11 Out of 12

About 6:00 on our last island morning. The lighthouse is still there, the tuna boats are heading out, and the sun begins to bubble over the horizon.
I have a confession to make. I used these same sunrise pictures, in reverse, for my New Year's Eve entry. It wasn't until I started to work on this series and to sort all the pictures, arranged as haphazardly as possible in computer files, that I realized that these were of the sunrise over Northport Harbor, rather than a sunset elsewhere. Oh well. So you can look at them twice, one group backward and one forward. Personally, I think it was such a magnificent morning that there's nothing much to complain about.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Edge of the Island: Maritime Travels 10 Out of 12

Our last night on Prince Edward Island meant -- surprise! -- another sunset, another lighthouse, another moonrise.

This time we headed to West Point (see map in March 10 entry), for a walk through the woods, dinner at
the lighthouse (where you can also spend the night, right on the beach), a walk along the ocean as the moon rose over the dunes and children splashed out on a sandbar, and a drive home along the coastline.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


My life is pretty stable these days. But there are those weeks when everyone is moving around.
Today, one son at home recovering from that little root canal procedure.
Another en route home from Chicago.
A daughter collapsed on her bed in New Orleans after a morning spent picking up garbage in the Ninth Ward.
I doubt that she took any pictures, so I found some here.
No commentary necessary.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Better or Worse

If you read the Canadian comic strip Better or Worse, then you know that the focus for the past several days has been on teenager April's sullen resistance to her adult's neighbor's willingness to lend a hand while her parents are out of town and her dawning awareness that adult assistance is perhaps of value after all.
Our most recent version features the following characters: college son (CS), age 21, previously blase about when he might come home over spring break, Dad, Mom, and various medical and dental professionals.
Thursday 1:00 am ~ Blissfully sleeping Mom is awakened by telephone. CS, who has been struggling against some kind of dental pain for a week or so, is clammy and sweaty and throwing up repeatedly and wondering if he might have taken too many painkillers (yes) and whether he should go to ER (yes).
1:00 am - 6:00 am ~ Formerly blissfully sleeping Mom talks to son and rommmate every 30-45 minutes as son moves though usual lengthy ER process, gets some fluids and morphine, and is finally sent home with no attention having been paid to underlying problem of dental pain.
7:00 am ~ Mom showers and crawls back into bed in a desperate and unsuccessful last-ditch attempt to grab some sleep.
8:00 am ~ Mom leaves message for roommate's father complimenting his son's willingness to hang out at the ER all night.
9:00 am ~ Mom is in charge of state testing at the high school where she teaches so is in action at work.
10:00 am ~ CS calls to report unmanageable pain.
10:00 am - Noon ~ Mom proctors test and manages collection of materials with cell phone glued to her ear as she tries to navigate university hospital system three hours away. CS goes to dental school clinic, back to ER, and back to dental school clinic. Dad gets in car and starts driving south.
3-5 pm ~ CS has numerous x-rays and exams. Dental resident says she has no idea what the problem is and sends him off with antibiotics and painkillers. Dad and CS start home.
10 pm ~ Everyone collapses.
Friday 7 am ~ Mom is up (those damn state tests await) and so is CS, unable to sleep and with jaw so swollen he can barely speak.
10 am - Family dentist takes about 10 seconds to diagnose what is later described as "an incredibly aggressive infection" and sends CS and Dad off to endodontist (new vocabulary word) who finishes Root Canal Part One by noon. Says he removed a TEASPOONFUL of pus from CS's jaw. How disgusting is that? Not to mention excruciating, which we already knew.
2 pm ~ Mom and Dad trade places. Mom makes trip to empty local pharmacy of heavy-duty antibiotics and painkillers. Mom herself found after surgery a few years ago that, despite universal claims to the contrary, Oxycontin was virtually useless. CS is mercifully having the opposite experience, since. . . .
6:00 pm ~ CS has been asleep on couch for four hours. We won't be completely out of the woods for another month or so, but at least he got taken care of by two terrific docs today.
Parental involvement ~ a terrible thing.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


It's been a year since my stepmother died, and I tried to honor her at that time with this post.
Today I'd like to say something about my father. He's 74, widowed twice before he was forty, divorced after a long third marriage, and widowed again last year. He said last year that it was harder than he had remembered, maybe because he had had work and children to occupy himself the first two times he lost wives. Who knows? Loss is always its own story. My mother, baby brother, and first stepmother died as the result of sudden accidents, leaving husband, children, parents and siblings all stunned by the insistent totality and permanence of death. My stepmother died last year after an illness of several months, which is a completely different experience for those left behind. Not necessarily any easier, just different. I don't think the fantasy of "this is not happening" is one that we ever escape, whether confronted by the immediacy of crisis or the drawn-out saga of a tormented decline.
Nevertheless, my father called the other night, when I wasn't home, and left the following message: he had just completed a terrific Sierra Club work week in the Ocala National Forest in Florida; he had spent a couple of days with lifelong friends in Vero Beach and felt that he had successfully disabused them of their erroneous Republican views, but was fearful of their backsliding in his absence; and he was at Cedar Key, sitting on the porch and drinking a margarita.
I don't for a second think that he is done grieving. But he is an extraordinary example of the human capacity for striking out anew in the face of catastrophe. I don't know where he learned that. As a child faced with similar demands, I certainly never appreciated the example he set. And as an adolescent, I behaved as badly as I possibly could, at least partly in retaliation for the failure of my family to make up for the loss of my mother. As if they could have done that.
My first inkling that they might have done something right came when an older relative, newly a member of the family by marriage just as I was beginning college, told me that his daughter had dropped out of college after her first quarter. "Of course, she couldn't go back after her mother died, " he said. Hmm, I thought to myself. No one had told me that I couldn't go back to second grade after my mother died. How was it that I had never heard of this special dispensation for children of dead mothers?
Many years later, when Princess Diana died, much of the press railed against her husband for his stiff upper lip as he escorted their sons to various events connected with her funeral. What's wrong with those reporters, I wondered? Do they think that real life is loved a la' Jerry Springer or Montel? Have they ever heard about dignity, or self-control, or moving forward?
When my stepmother was dying last winter, my father did many things differently than I would have. His decisions and responses are not my own. But he always behaved with such quiet generosity toward others, keeping his occasionally stinging comments about those who were more burden than blessing within the confines of his own family.
So, in a post he is unlikely ever to see, I would like to say thank you to my father, and to his parents, and to my mother's parents, for teaching me how to respond to life's traumas. I am grateful that, as a response to the capriciousness of death, they've always chosen life. Not always easily, or even willingly. But always eventually, and always with integrity.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Island Day: Maritime Travels 9 Out Of 12

Of course, we found out how to get to the island and its lighthouse. The know-it-all-lady in the hotel parlor the previous day was actually extremely helpful, and by the time we escaped her soap-box, we had the phone number of a boat captain who took groups out to the island for short day-trips. So the next morning I watched the sunrise, we messed around for awhile, and then headed for the dock.

It's about a 45-minute trip out from Northport Harbor to what the locals call "The Sandhills." En route, we saw a flock of
golden plover -- practically a life bird for me, since I have never been far enough north to see them in breeding plumage in the summer; that ubiquitous Atlantic seaboard resident, the willet; and high, high in the sky, so high that you couldn't have seen them unless you were scanning the blue with binoculars, a circling pair of eagles. The other ten or so passengers on the boat looked politely when I offered them the opportunity to see the eagles, and then went back to their conversation.

Their purpose was to ride the boat, make the ten-minute walk from the island beach to the lighthouse, and ride the boat back again. I'm never sure how people manage in the world when they don't bother to look at anything -- they missed the the plovers, the willet, and most of the island. Well, we missed most of the island, too -- but we did get to stay for a couple of hours, since the captain was willing to leave us there while he took the others back, and make a return trip just for us. I would have happily stayed an entire day.

Mostly we just walked and savored our time as the only two people on a tiny island off another island, our only company the 40-50 great blue herons fishing in the bay, The lighthouse has been closed for several decades, but there was a time when someone lived out there alone all summer. I wonder if he walked the perimeter of the island every day to shake off the boredom. Or maybe the morning and evening skies were enough.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Christianity in Action

For those of my friends who view Christianity with skepticism, ridicule, or boredom; for those over at The Blue Voice who wonder if anyone has ever heard of liberal Christians; for those who somehow equate Christianity with patriotism or the Republican Party or the United States of America; for those (I count myself in this group) who are just an apathetic group resting our behinds in the pews ~

just for today, read about and honor
Tom Fox.

Another 100 - The Saturday Six

I haven't done one of these in ages, but it's the 100th Anniversary of the Saturday Six and there are some fun questions this week:
1. READER'S CHOICE QUESTION #79 from Cat: If you could trade places with one person in your family for a week, who would you choose? And would you want to trade as they are now, or sometime in the past (or future)?
I think I'd choose my cousin Alex. He's an incredibly nice guy, an outrageously successful businessman in Chicago, and I learned a couple of weeks ago that he and his wife have a house up in the woods in Michigan. I'd love to be a successful executive in Chicago for a few days (with great clothes) and then go to my place up north.
2. READER'S CHOICE QUESTION #80 from De: What were you doing 1 year ago this month, and are you more or less satisfied with your life today?
I was doing pretty much the same stuff that I am today, plus keeping vigil from several hours away over the waning days of my stepmother's life. I'd prefer that she had not been subjected to the ravages of lung cancer.
3. READER'S CHOICE QUESTION #81 from Lisa: Do you prefer watching television over surfing the internet?
Well....I watch maybe six or seven hours of television a week, max. Plus the evening news once in awhile. I don't even want to think about how many hours I spend wandering around the internet.
4. READER'S CHOICE QUESTION #82 from Antonette: Outside of the U.S., where would you live and why?
The Cinque Terre in Italy, where I would be a writer with enough money to afford my little apartment overlooking the sea. Or Toronto, because what could be better than a cosmopolitan Canadian city? Nope -- make that Halifax. Better yet: Paris. In the 6th Arrondissement. You know what? I'm having some trouble with this question.
5. READER'S CHOICE QUESTION #83 from Elton: When you leave your home, do you ever feel paranoid that you've left something behind?
I don't have to be paranoid. I pretty much always have left something behind.
6. READER'S CHOICE QUESTION #84 from Laura: What song or songs would you want played at your own funeral and why?
Why so many choices today? I'll limit myself to five, in no particular order:
Thine Be The Glory ~ with brass and drums, please.
Holy, Holy, Holy ~ the opening hymn at every Sunday morning service at Chautauqua in the summer.
God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale
All Creatures of Our God and King ~ Yes, I have a creation/nature theme going here.
All People That On Earth Do Dwell ~ I have a lot of people from different places in my life. I'd love it if my memorial service would bring them together for a few moments. For many of them the Christian focus would be a tough sell, but if you leave out the last verse of this one it becomes something most of them could sing together, which is the point.
Well, from life in the funky 6th and on the coast of Italy to my own funeral ~ with great music. Not a bad existence, from beginning to end.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Equinox Countdown

On March 20, 2006, at precisely 1:26 P.M. EST, the Sun will cross directly over the Earth's equator. (I copied this from a website. I think they mean that the earth's equator passes directly in front of the sun. Actually, I have no idea what they mean. Whatever. The important point is that we will be halfway there.) This moment is known as the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. For the Southern Hemisphere, this is the moment of the autumnal equinox.
All I can say is, thank GOD (literally) we do not live in the southern hemisphere.
I can barely imagine making it for nine more days.
In the meantime, the red-winged blackbirds are calling in the marsh, the red-bellied and downy woodpeckers are flitting among the tress and pounding their little heads silly, and four pairs of hooded mergs appeared on one of the small lakes this morning.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Tip of the Island: Maritime Travels 8 Out of 12

You can see the outline of our travels pretty well on the map: from the ferry landing at Woods Islands west to Charlottetown, then north to Cavendish and North Rustico Bay, then further north to Alberton, from which we traveled to the North Cape and West Point.

When we left Cavendish, our plan was to explore as much of the upper west end of the island as we could cover, and that's exactly what we did. We purchased a map and I think we hit almost every gravel and dirt road on that portion of the island.

As far as accomododations were concerned, we had definitely saved the best for last. The
Northport Pier Inn provided luxurious accomodations and excellent dining on the edge of a small fishing village. The first thing we saw off our bedroom deck was the Sandhill Lighthouse, located on a small island out in the harbor, which immediately became the focus of intense longing on my part. A deserted island with a lighthouse ~ how would we get there?

Between an enthusiastic desk clerk and a matronly guest holding forth in the parlor, we were able to lay out a plan for the next couple of days. The desk clerk insisted that we head down to the dock for dinner in the hope of seeing a tuna boat come in. She was bubbling over with the news of one that had arrived a day or two earlier and, seeing our blank stares, burst into a peal of laughter as she recalled the baffled hotel guests whom she had urged down to the docks that day.

"I guess they couldn't understand what all the excitement was about," she said. "But a tuna can weigh 600 pounds, and watching the arrival of a successful tuna boat is quite a sight." I started to laugh, too, my knowledge of tuna being limited to Charley of Starfish commerical fame. She explained that a tuna could be worth $15,000, but was quick to point out that a crew might fish all summer without catching one. Life in a fishing village is not easy; she herself, preferring the pace of the island's edge to the bustle of Toronto, held three different jobs, and was concerned that her son was thinking about taking on the hard life of a fisherman.

In addition to sending us out to dine, she directed us to the North Cape for our after dinner sunset quest. She was eager for us to get an early start -- apparently at low tide you can walk far out into the Gulf on a sandbar that stretches north from the lighthouse. We didn't quite make it before the tide rolled in, but we did make it for the sunset itself. The glint off the red rocks of Prince Edward Island was dazzling, the fifteen or so windmills staggered just behind the point were eeerily beautiful in the dusk, and the moonrise behind the lighthouse was the perfect cap to the evening.

Out of Sorts

I can't put my finger on it ~ I'm just in one of those states where I am completely on the outs with everything and everyone.
Is it the terrible day I had at work yesterday, bad from beginning to end?
Is it the website I visited where most of the posters were talking confidently about "God's will" as something reflected by even the worst things that happen ~ a belief that I do not share and that, when articulated, always leaves me depressed and angry?
Is it the frustrations of parenting college-age children who seem as incapable of "getting with the program" as their mother has always been?
Is it the fact that, while several people visit my blog every day, few of them bother to leave a comment, thereby leaving instead the nagging feeling that I am wasting my time by trying to put one word after another?
Is it reading repeatedly about situations in which the responses are the polar opposite of my own?
Is it the Bush administration?
Is it that someone yesterday sent me Romans 8:28 ("We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose"), a verse that turns my stomach every time I hear it, since it was first said to me by someone attempting to offer comfort during the lowest period of my life and has therefore become for me an emblem of bad timing and devastatingly exclusionary theology ?
Is it the realization that I have accomplished exactly nothing NOTHING nothing in my 52 years and that, while I have been attributing my pathetic inability to show anything for my existence to the realities of mothering as I have practiced it, which has meant many fitful starts and stops as I have tried repeatedly to find a satisfactory way of merging my aspirations with the practical realities of daily life, maybe the simple truth is that I just never get around to finishing a single damn thing because I am such an extreme example of whatever Myers-Briggs permutation can't get anything done?
I don't know which feels like it is slipping away faster, my control over the details of my life or my capacity for shaping it into anything remotely resembling a creative whole.
Well. I wonder if that made me feel better. I'm going to take a shower and go to work.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Look Back

Occasionally I go back and read journal entries from a year ago (amazingly, in a few weeks I will be able to read entries from two years ago) and, as February and March have rolled around, I've given a lot of thought to my stepmother, whose vitality and joi de vivre were stopped in their tracks by lung cancer last spring. Herewith, from last March 8:


My father called very late last night, which he never does, to tell me that the doctors have finally advised that my stepmother move from their care to hospice care. After four months of grueling chemo and radiation, four months in which she has barely left her couch (and amost never without assistance), they have concluded that they have no more tricks up their sleeves.

The third eagle chick has hatched at Blackwater.

My stepmother was canoeing in the Algonquin backcountry with my father and sons in September. After her diagnosis, she insisted on following the doctors' treatment schedule to the letter, even though her chances were almost nonexistent and the hour-long trips (one way) to the hospital and the drugs administered there left her exhausted, often physically sick, and sometimes mentally disoriented.

The third chick is a few days later than its siblings and therefore comes into the world with the distinct disadvantage of being much smaller than its competitors for food.

I've already explored my feelings about the path my father and stepmother have taken,
here and here and here and here and here and here. I don't think I would have made the same choices. I know I would have asked more questions. But I have to honor my stepmother for being a woman of incredible grit and determination, and my father for his exquisite care of her.

The eagles don't ask questions. There is the next day, and the next, and the next. They sat on a nest for weeks, even when they were buried in snow. For the next months, the mother will be a dedicated nurturer and a ferocious defender, and the father will be an exhausted provider. In the summer, given hours and days and weeks and months of unremitting attentiveness, with some luck tossed in, five eagles will soar over the nest and the Blackwater refuge.

Despite the fact that I would have liked to have seen the hospice folks called long before today and despite my personal view that death is best anticpated with openness, in community, I feel a terrible weight of sadness this morning as those things are all about to fall into place. My stepmother is a woman of vitality and vivacity and my father is a man of great gentleness and love for the created world. It was surprising that they even encountered each other, but it's not surprising that in the aftermath of painful endings to prior marriages, each would conclude that the other offered hope for a new life and risk falling in love again. They have that, that surprising and life-affirming love, to celebrate now.

I won't see them in person, but I feel a great joy when I wake up in the mornings these days and remember that I can come downstairs and, with a couple of clicks, see what the Blackwater eagles are up to. The adults are nurturing beginnings, entirely devoted to the prospect of filling our skies with magnificence.

L'Chaim -- To Life.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

PEI Churches: Maritime Travels 7 Out Of 12

As we traversed the western end of Prince Edward Island last August, my daughter got used to screeching wheels whenever we went just a little too fast past a churchyard. A couple of times she even sighed and said helpfully, "Mom, you actually missed one," and then waited patiently while I tried to find the right photographic angles.

They are all my favorites. I was entranced by Celtic echoes in the graveyard of the church in the top photos, which I happened upon early one morning when I was out looking for birds along the coast. People often associate the Celts only with Ireland and Scotland, but Celtic tribes covered most of northern Europe until they were pushed to its fringes by the Romans, and many of their descendants from France, Britain, and Ireland turned up in the Canadian Maritimes hundreds of years later. The one with the reddish roof is St. Mary's of Indian River, and boasts the most astonishing carvings, I presume of the disciples, around the base of its steeple. (Remember, you can enlarge the images with a click.) And the last one -- I just loved the glint of sea and sky through the window.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Ashes and Ambivalence

I was probably more aware of Ash Wednesday this year than I have been in decades. Not because I am such a deeply religious person, or even particularly attuned to the church calendar -- I've been close to oblivious since Epiphany. Nope -- this year it was all because of Mardi Gras. With a daughter in college in New Orleans, what I was attuned to was the potential for disaster. I didn't see my girl online for a few days, so I hoped she was having fun, kept an eye on the French Quarter by watching the news more often than usual, and waited for the soothing email that finally came ~ "Hey, Mom, I haven't been jailed or hospitalized."
(Thanks for the update, darling.)
So there I was, completely aware of what day it was. What to do? T.S. Eliot and a prodding sense of obligation in my head. I could, I supposed, go to Mass and get some ashes placed on my forehead. Not as straightforward an idea as you might think, since I teach in a Jewish school. Would it be an "in your face" thing to go to work with ashes on my forehead? An obnoxious thing? Should I go to church and then wipe them off? I was sure that none of the rabbis would say anything, but the kids would be full of questions and no doubt at least a few of the adults would be grossly offended. I would also have to go to a really, really early Mass, and I'm not Catholic, so I would have to fumble my way through the sitting and kneeling. Plus, I was going to go to my own church in the evening. I decided that that was enough.
The really, really early need for Mass would have been because I had an 8:00 a.m. appointment with my spiritual director. A Catholic priest. I only said that I'm not Catholic. That doesn't preclude my seeking major guidance from a priest. We talked about Fugitive Pieces and the woman at the well. I'm not sure how anyone gets through the Spiritual Exercises with attention to all the readings that might be included, espcially when there are novels and poetry to absorb, too. I tend to get one reading in my head and wrestle with it for days. I had been stuck at one point in the story of the woman at the well for most of the week and then suddenly, the night before, a little epiphany carried me right through the rest. So we talked about language and loss and Kathleen Norris, whom I had heard speak the week before, and vocation and that woman and what she said to her friends.
And then I went and taught about the colony of North Carolina and affirmative action and the development of Italy as a nation-state and worked on the yearbook and tried to organize standardized testing and gave the AP students a hard time about getting their test payments in and somewhere in the middle of the day I took the dog for a long walk in the cemetery, which is where I saw the red-tails (who were not the least bit happy to see me), because after an hour spent talking over the Exercises I usually need a huge chunk of time later in the day to recover.
And then there it was -- Ash Wednesday again. Still Ash Wednesday.
I had to go to church because I had made a committment to help serve communion. In the Presbyterian Church, that's an elder thing, and it seems that I am an elder. So I got there, and had some brownies and talked to a lot of people, because there had been a Lenten dinner first with lots of people and lots of amazing food. Then the four of us who were serving communion with our two pastors got two sets of instructions from two different people, none of which I understood because I am just not very good with choreography. The main thing was to follow the right person and not spill the wine. (OK, grape juice. Presby, not Catholic.)
And then the service began and suddenly it was awesome. In a quiet way. With soprano solos like liquid through the nave. With candles raised high and candles extinguished. With the confusing admonishment from Jesus to make your observances in private, confusing since we were about to engage in a communal observance with a very public result. With the reminder that we were entering a solemn time of year. And with what seemed like a very personal and intimate set of exchanges and connections during communion. Since it was a small service, I knew almost everyone there, which means that each time I held out the cup and said, "The blood of Christ, shed for you," it was a brief moment of intimacy.
We left the sanctuary in silence and within seconds I was back in the other world. I had agreed to pick up a friend after church and go out for margaritas with her so that I could provide the requisite cheerleading for her job interview the next day. It was about the last thing I wanted to do right then, right at that moment when I wanted to be alone to pray and savor the experience of the previous hour. I decided there was nothing for it but to view that particular demand of friendship as a Lenten discipline. And suddenly I was back to the same questions with which I had begun the day: those ashes. Leave them or wipe them off? I was so taken by the contrast between the solemnity of the service and the prospect of entering the bar of a noisy Mexican restaurant that I decided to wipe them off. I simply could not make the two experiences coalesce in my mind.
That was, I think, a mistake. The whole point is to work 0n the coalescing, however hard it seems.
I was reminded of that tonight, just before I started writing. I went over to the Presbyterian Bloggers site to see what some of my more thoroughly ordained colleagues in blogging might have had to say about Ash Wednesday. Almost nothing, as it turns out. But Reverend Mother has a lovely Ash Wednesday sermon that takes us from Katrina to the Beatitudes, which seems to be the exact same path that I have been on since August.
The coalescing. Everything is connected. Blessed are the revelers and the peacemakers. All of us.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Century

In 30 days my grandmother will be 100 years old.

I've written about my grandmother before, but I have to admit that, in the face of such a landmark, I feel a little in awe. Still, it seems appropriate to insert something, however brief, at this point in the midst of my Maritime Canada travels. (And for those of you who have been baffled by the titles, they merely reflect which entry out of how many you are reading. I've written six so far, so yesterday's was the sixth out of six.)

My grandmother, you see, is the reason all of her grandchildren hit the road periodically. For decades, she loyally accompanied my grandfather to Vero Beach, Florida, for increasingly lengthy stays. My grandfather died in Vero just as he was turning 80 -- he had insisted on leaving in October for the winter, and then promptly fell desperately ill. He was overjoyed when my family, twin babies in tow, arrived for a visit in December, but most of his observation and commentary came from his hospital bed or living room couch.

My grandmother never went back to Vero after he died. What she had wanted to do was see the world. Her husband wouldn't get on a plane or boat, a problematic attitude for a world traveler. In her late fifties she had turned to her grandchildren for companionship, starting with me and a weeklong visit to Colonial Williamsburg. Her last trip, made shortly after my grandfather had died and she had acceded to my advice to obtain a new hip and get out of the house, was to Trinidad and Tobago to see the birds. In between, she covered most of the western United States, Europe, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific. She would be wild with delight if she could see my photographs and hear about Prince Edward Island.

For the last several years, she's been encased in a prison of almost total deafness and blindness. My father is the only person whose voice she understands; she recognized me the last time I visited, but that was after a couple of devastating attempts on my part when she apparently thought I was an assisted living employee and glared at me for invading her afternoon. I hope that her still brilliant mind is full of memories of roads long since travelled; I know that she is delighted whenever my father can make her understand that some one of her great-grandchildren is off exploring the world.

Here is some of what I have learned from what my grandmother did NOT do:

Get rid of your stuff and sell your house when you're eighty. If your hearing and sight start to go, learn to sign into the palm of a hand and make sure your family does, too. Tell your story.

Here is some of what I have learned from what my grandmother HAS done:

Get on a train or a boat or a plane whenever the opportunity presents itself. Read. Your most important relationships may well come after 60, with people 50 years or more younger than you are. Give everything away that you can. Don't waste time on home decorating; people come to dinner for the conversation. Learn to identify birds. Don't die without having seen the fjords of Norway. You can stand it, whatever awful thing it is. Watch a monarch emerge from a chrysalis whenever you can.

Happy birthday month, my darling and lovely grandmother. I didn't call the plumber today, but I did see a pair of red-tailed hawks in a mating flight. You have only yourself to blame.