Sunday, April 30, 2006

Sunday Some

As I said before, I am going to steal shamelessly from TJ and her weekly look at blogs to let you know about some that I'm enjoying every week. A specific number is way too restrictive for me, plus I would have a hard time remembering what it is -- Sunday Seven? Six? Seventy-Six? "Some" is more in line with my nature.

Herewith, the first batch:

Judi Heartsong
has been writing about a recent trip to Arizona. The skies are blue, the hotel rooms are blue, the rocks are red.

I my personal self got to come up with
The Round Robin Photo Challenge word. If you haven't already, take a look at some of the other entries. It's always so interesting to see the realm of possibilities one word can generate.

The photographs in the
Blue Ridge blog are always exquisite and this past week has been no exception.

Same for
Yellowstone Wolf. Go back a little further to see Coyote and Moose.

Red in her spectacularly designed blog
Collage of Clouded Lucidity posed the question: Why do we blog? It's been my plan ever since she asked to write a brilliantly incisive response. Here it is:

I have no idea.

But if you feel more insightful about your motivations than I do then, by all means, give it a shot.

And one more:
Paul has gotten started on his recent trip to England and Scotland.

Places and photographs. And that bothersome little question: why are we doing this?

Saturday, April 29, 2006


My new plan is to whine more often. Eighteen comments on that entry about how people don't comment! Cynthia was right; whiners are well-compensated in blogland.

My other new plan is to steal an idea from
TJ and inaugurate Sunday Some -- tomorrow! -- featuring some of the blogs I've enjoyed over the previous week.

I'm working on a paper on movies about St. Francis, so in the last couple of days I've watched Rossellini's
The Flowers of St. Francis and Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon. One an artistic post-World War II look at transformation and redemption, the other a 1970s hippy version of conflict and drama in an incredibly clean medieval Italy in which Donovan sings. Clare is a paragon of beauty and virtue in both; Francis is way too beautiful in the second. But I'm happy.

Most recent novel read: A Thread of Grace. All I can say is: go and get it and start reading. The Jews and the Italian Resistance movement during World War II.

And while you're at it, pick up
Mary Doria Russell's other two novels. I haven't read the middle one yet. I was telling one of my colleagues ~ a young rabbi ~ about A Thread of Grace yesterday, and he said his wife had just purchased it. Then we talked about The Sparrow and he started laughing and said, "If you're going to have science fiction with priests, they would have to be Jesuits."

The novels do, in a strange kind of way, fit with the Francis films.

The Holocaust does , too, except that it fits with nothing. This past Tuesday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. One of the survivors who spoke at our school, once a Czechoslovakian youth, now a retired cabinetmaker, told about getting off the train at Auchswitz, where Joseph Mengele was the man pointing, "Left, Right." His mother and sisters were sent in the direction of murder. No good-byes, only the horrific, screaming, gasping deaths of young women and little girls as Zyklon B poured out of the shower heads. He and his father and brothers were sent the other way. He was eventually transported to Buchenwald, where he was saved with, quite literally, minutes to spare, by the delaying tactics of a Christian political prisoner and a terrified young Jewish boy, and the surprising arrival of Allied planes overhead.

Francis in the fields of Umbria
and my students' teenaged grandfather carrying the stones at Buchenwald. What I've learned this week. No whining allowed.

Friday, April 28, 2006

In the Middle of Life

I don't know what it is about a trail, but they all seem to be in the habit of calling, "Come on, come on!" My two-week vacation when all of my children are away at school isn't good for much beyond clearing out the house and grading papers ~ and following a compelling call to get outside. Hence, our little trip to Harper's Ferry. We stayed overnight at a modest but pleasant little resort outside Berkeley Springs, which is a fun and funky and artsy little town, and we had a fabulous meal overlooking the Blue Ridge at Panorama at the Peak. If you're within an hour or so of Washington, D.C. and you want a little week-end break, or just a wonderfully peaceful, elegant, and scrumptious dinner, follow all the links.

That earlier entry's view of Harper's Ferry came from those rocks in the photograph below; you have to hike up above them and take a series of switchbacks down. My only two comments are that (1) the view is worth it and (2) I won't be taking any long distance hikes until this body is completely re-formed.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


I had a little trouble with my own Round Robin Photo Challenge: Holy. I worked on one image for a couple of days and then changed my mind. Then I tried to choose just one other. Then I gave up and decided to go for some undefined number, which turned out to be four. The original choice didn't make the final cut. Please be sure and visit all the entries (and click on the photos!); maybe the other photographers were more discriminating.


The cloisters of the Benedictines, who've been with us for fifteen centuries and vow lives of stability; the exquisite craftsmanship of their Italian stonecutter descendants, who have left their handprints all over the cemetery where I walk; birds on the water, on the beach, and on the move. All holy.

Benedictine Monastery

The Wild Geese

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer's end. In time's maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed's marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

~ Wendell Berry ~

Faith, Hope, and Charity (Gravestone)

"They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time."~ Henry Beston

More Harper's Ferry

My husband called it the "church on a perch."

(As usual, click on the image for a better look.)

It really is amazing to see such an exquisite town built into the side of a hill.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Thirty-four people have visited my blog since I went to bed last night. Not one of them left a comment.

Dozens of people came by when I was writing about New Orleans, about Prince Edward Island, about Passover and Easter. With one or two exceptions, the few comments came from people I've "known" for most of my blogging life.

A couple of months ago, I heard Kathleen Norris speak a couple of times. One member of a student audience asked her what the best thing about being a writer is, and she said, "Readers."

To that I have to add, "Readers who have something to say." It's so depressing, writing away, playing with my photos, and hearing a silence as loud as if I were just messing around all by myself with my hard-cover journals.

I'm tempted to go back to AOL with its rampant advertising just to find more company.

I try to leave comments most of the time when I visit other blogs. The comments may be inane sometimes, but I do try to demonstrate my appreciation of the effort that went into the writing or artwork.

To those of you who comment regularly, thank you so much. You have no idea how grateful I am for your feedback and your willingness to reveal your presence.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

We Hiked Up Pretty High

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia
as seen from Maryland Heights

I'd always wanted to visit Harper's Ferry.
I'd always wanted to see this view for myself.
(Click on the image for a better look.)
And the historic buildings, and the remnants of the Civil War (John Brown and Mason-Dixon Line Country), and the trains (former railroad lawyer here ~ that's a C&O freight run down there), and the confluence of the Shendendoah (in the back) and Potomac (in the front) Rivers, and the Appalachian Trail ~ well, it's a good place to be.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Pamela Hilger

Scroll down to April 17 entry.

And please stop here (scroll down a tiny bit) to see an exceptionally beautiful tribute to Pamela's life:

Aurora Walking Vacation

Easter: A Look Back

I started my observation of Holy Week with a question: what was God able to do in the human form of Jesus that God could do in no other way?

Visit with friends; have dinner; humbly wash the feet of his companions; share his brokenness with them; experience abandonment and betrayal; suffer the indignities and humiliations of arrest, questioning, trial, sentencing; know the fear and actuality of physical suffering and death. And that list represents only the briefest summary.

In the Bible as many of us learn it, God begins as the intimate companion of God's human creatures and gradually becomes an increasingly distant presence. It has long seemed to me that in the creation stories, it is a lonely God, longing for companionship, who creates human beings. God is actually walking through the garden in the cool of the evening, seeking them out, after their disastrous encounter with another earthly presence. As the writings of the Jewish Bible unfold, God gradually removes himself from the intimacy of those early relationships. He talks to the Jewish people through Moses and travels with them as a pillar of fire. He makes the prophets thoroughly miserable. In some of the most personal stories -- those of Ruth, Esther, Joseph -- he appears through the lens of interpretation of the protagonists. And when he speaks directly to Job, it is not to lament their broken relationship, but to ask him, out of the whirlwind, how he dares to question the powerful Creator.

I try to steer clear of the distinction Christians have so often made between the "angry and vengeful" God of what we call the Old Testament and the "loving and forgiving God" of the New. I hear that dichotomy stated frequently by adults in my own church and, when I do, I'm thankful I missed out on all those years of Sunday School indoctrination and got to approach the issue as an adult. The Jews see God's self-revelation in Torah as loving and forgiving, as Christians see God's self-revelation in Christ. And there's plenty of anger and boistrous righteousness in the New Testament for me.

But it is clear that something happened in the intervening centuries between the last compilation of Hebrew scriptures and the first letter of Paul. I asked one of my pastors once if she thought God had actually changed his mind about how to relate to human beings somewhere along the way , and she told me that I had stumbled upon one of the major debates of the contemporary church. Is God all-powerful, all-knowing, and unchangeable? Or is God someone we don't understand and those adjectives, like all others, cannot do God justice?

I don't know much about the theological debate, but I do tend to think that God changed his mind. Or at least had a new idea. As a human being, God would have experiences different from any that he could know as Creator or Spirit. "Walk a mile in someone else's shoes before you judge them," my father used to tell me when I was a little girl. Not such an original idea. Maybe at least 2000 years old.


I started this entry back on Sunday, and then got derailed by the death of Pamela Hilger. Several people wrote about how her death on Easter Sunday had a special meaning for them. I thought about that, but I couldn't write about it. I had already been writing about how the time period after a death is so bizarre and confusing in the context of Mary Magdalene's experience, and about Easter morning in the cemetery here, and I decided to leave it at that. Because bizarre and confused and disoriented and so very sad were just how I felt.

And those feelings would be part of the answer to the question as to what God could experience as a human being and no other way.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Accidental Gardener

Most people would have called them weeds.

Pam. When various green things, including, astonishingly, corn, began to sprout from a patch under a tree in her yard, she dubbed the collection her "Accidental Garden" and began to nurture it.

At that point, her life was already somewhat circumscribed by her recently diagnosed lung cancer. But she was hardly ready to pack it in.

I hadn't read Pam's journal before she got sick. I picked up on an alert put out last summer by one of her many friends, urging journal readers to head on over to offer her support and encouragment as she battled a disease already far advanced.

I was sadly aware of the devastating nature of her diagnosis, since my stepmother had died of lung cancer only a few months earlier. A year before, I had had no idea what terms like "IIIB" and "IV" meant in terms of lung cancer staging, or what chemotherapy and radiation could do to a body. By the time I began reading Pam's journal, I knew only too well, and whenever she was silent for awhile I feared the worst. But Pam hung in there.

She was unflinchingly honest about her daily challenges. She relayed the trials and tribulations of her various therapies, surgeries, and refined diagnoses. She talked about the persistent and miserable side effects. She analyzed the daily struggles inherent in life as a divorced mother of two, with her college son living far away and her daughter moving in with her father and his new wife.

We could feel the warmth surfacing from the computer screen when she beamingly reported that her beloved son had taken a leave of absence from college to care for her, or when she took note of time spent with her beloved daughter.

Just ten days ago, I think, Pam posted some pictures of herself modeling the pj's some of her online friends had sent as a gift. She looked thin and gaunt -- but irrepressible. What a smile! I didn't happen to see that post until day before yesterday, and I mused to myself that perhaps she was on the mend. And then, yesterday -- no, that wasn't to be.

I've been keeping track of the magnolia blossoms as they have emerged over the past week. They begin so tightly wound in upon themselves, and then as they unfold they open to a beauty unimaginable only a few weeks ago. Pam saw that kind of potential in her world and the people who shared it with her, and we all saw it in her. May her new adventure be one of ever-unfolding beauty.

PS: I didn't need to write this at all. All we really need to do is go back to read one of Pam's earliest entries in Just One Girl's Head Noise.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter VIII

It was something of a disorienting experience to walk over to the cemetery for the Sunrise Service this morning.

Although I love to take my walks there, I don't usually give that much thought to its primary purpose. My adult kids are grossed out -- "Mom, there are gravestones all over the place and underneath them, there are bodies! How can you walk there?"

"The worms go in, the worms go out..." I sing back as they roll their eyes.

Seriously, the place is an arboretum as well as a cemetery and, with the number of locally famous people buried there, it's a historical site as well. And, since I have been living here for more than 20 years now, it's also the final resting place for an increasing number of people whom I knew. But I don't focus much on that latter aspect and, when I do, I am well aware that what lies underneath me are the remains of bodies. Bodies of people who are not coming back here.

So yes, it was disorienting, after all these months spent so intensely with the human Christ via the Spiritual Exercises, to walk into the cemetery and see it in a new way, to see it as if it were that cemetery outside Jerusalem so long ago, a cemetery in which someone did actually come back here. I had never really grasped before how completely unexpected the appearance of Christ must have been to those who saw him that morning. I'm sure I don't grasp that yet.

(Think about it. Think about the most recent death of someone close to you. In no way, shape, or form do you expect to see that person sitting on his or her gravestone if you go to visit it.)

And so then, Christ? Someone not quite so human anymore? Have I entered a different realm at this point in the Exercises? Or was I always there and just not too clear on that point?

I'm a bit flummoxed. I'm sorry I got so far behind on my retreat by getting sick and missing most of the month of March. Although I'm on my own schedule, not trying to keep in step with a group, I wish I had gotten through more and reached Holy Week in the Exercises at the same time that we reached it in real life. Maybe I would have been better prepared for this morning. But, maybe not. Maybe it's not something you're ever prepared for.

Easter VII

4:30 pm ~

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord."
(John 20:18)

Mary Magdalene, the first preacher in the Christian church. Sometimes called the Apostle to the Apostles.

When I went to the sunrise service this morning, hosted by four Methodist churches in the cemetery where I so often walk, I still had Mary Magdalene on my mind.

And then it turned out that all four pastors officiating at the service were women. Two African-American, one Korean, one WASP -- all women.

Their presence seemed particularly meaningful to me today.

Easter VI

9:00 am ~

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Easter V

4:00 pm

No, I didn't forget about the women. I did go back and look at the gospel accounts of Thursday night, and the only women I could find were the woman with the alabaster jar who appears prior to the Last Supper and the servant girl who afterward provides the occasion for Peter's first denial of Jesus.

But on Friday, as Jesus is formally tried, sentenced, forced through the streets of Jersusalem, crucified, and dies, the women who know him are in evidence, among them Mary Magdalene.

I like Mary Magdalene a lot. I like a woman who goes where she wants to go on her own, asks a lot of questions, and pays close attention to the answers.

So today I started looking for how she has been painted through the ages. She appears as an Eastern Orthodox icon, hair and body fully covered and looking severely at her observer, a serious elder of the church. She is portrayed in some Renaissance paintings as decidedly lacking in clothing, presumably due to her unfortunate mischaracterization as a prostitute by a pope hundreds of years earlier. But there are also some portraits in which she looks more as I would imagine her: solemn, sad, understanding that she is caught up in something beyond comprehension.

As a Jewish woman on an early Friday evening in the spring, she must have been frantic in her grief and her desire to reach the tomb and take proper care of the body. It takes so long to get dark -- almost 9:00 -- and then, unable to work on Saturday, she would have had to wait until daybreak Sunday to leave the house safely. The day or two after a death is always bizarre and confusing; it's easy to imagine Mary and her companions trying to comfort Mary the Mother of Jesus and at the same time approaching the edge of rationality themselves.

Passover III

9:00 am ~

Seder to which I was invited Thursday night was hosted by the family of one of my eighth grade students. It was a small gathering -- the parents, the two girls, the mom's sister, and me -- but an intensely educational one. The mom is a teacher herself, and spent much of the evening explaining everything to me -- the progress and symbolism of the meal, the related stories, the family and community traditions.

I was so grateful to have been asked to participate, especially since I could see that my presence created a tiny bit of stress. We all hope, when we have guests, that they are comfortable and well-fed and enjoy the company, but all of those hopes are heightened when the celebration is a religious one and the guests follow a different faith tradition. What if they don't like the food? What if they are bored or, worse, offended, by the religious rituals? We have often had Jewish guests for Christmas Dinner and, when Christmas and Chanukah have overlapped, we've lighted Chanukah candles and Christmas candles, and I've always felt that our guests were happy to be there. But you never know.

For the record, let me say that I was indeed happy to be there. I learned a lot. The food, as my friend Carol pointed out in one of her comments, is endless. And I as engaged in the readings and conversation, I also quietly observed the meal from the point of view of a Christian who had just left her own Maundy Thursday church service in which the Last Supper was celebrated as a communion.

As soon as I arrived, the girls pulled out some of the Passover plates they had made in elementary school, so that they could show off their artwork and explain the symbolic foods. As we made our way into the dining room, I was inundated with various copies of the Haggadah, the "telling of the story" that we used as a sort of program for the fifteen steps of the meal. Some of them contained detailed readings and explanations; others were more in the line of summaries. My favorite was one illustrated with copies of medieval illuminated manuscript pages -- I hadn't even known that Jews as well as Christians created these exquisite book illustrations. One colorful page particularly caught my eye -- four of the ten plagues, with one picture of people scratching a voluminous infestation of lice, another inundated with bright green frogs, another with sadly dying animals, and a forth depicting wild animals on the attack. The page I've used above is from the Barcelona Haggadah, from the mid-1300s.

The story goes on for, well, a long time. We started at about 9:00 and got to the regular meal by about 11:30, by which I was so full of parsley, potatoes, matzoh, horse raddish wrapped in lettuce, eggs, and sweet sauce with nuts that I couldn't even imagine adding meat and vegetables to the mix. I was fascinated by the degree to which the girls were engaged in the story. My student, the older one, had brought a couple of the Dvar Torahs she had written in class so that she could read explanations of a couple of the passages, while the younger got into something of a protracted argument with her mother over another passage. Just like school! One of the most fun -- and sometimes, admittedly, exhausting -- things about teaching in a Jewish school is the endless enthusiasm of the students for questions and debate, and I could see how carefully those attributes are nurtured at the family table. The Jews are admonished repeatedly in the Bible to tell the story to their children and to answer their questions, and they take those instructions seriously.

From a Christian standpoint, I was curious as to whether Jesus would have celebrated a similar Pesach dinner -- the
answer apparently is yes, although his meals may well have included a sacrifical lamb, an ingredient discontinued after the destruction of the Second Temple during the Roman Empire. I've given some thought to the differences betweeen the traditional dinner, with its emphasis on God's powerful liberation of a people through a series of mighty actions, and the one we know as the Last Supper, where the emphasis is on God's liberation of all humankind through God's own human brokenness, but I don't have much to say about it yet. Maybe in a couple of days.

Two final points. Remember how depressed I was over God's destruction of the Egyptian people? I knew that I had read something in connection with that, and it turned up in the Haggadah, where 10 drops of wine are spilled in recognition of the Egyptian losses during the ten plagues. "If your enemy falls, do not exult," says God in Proverbs. And in the Mishna, the rabbinical teachings of later centuries,
the following story is told with respect to the destruction of the Egyptian troops in the Red Sea:

"Rabbi Yohanan daringly transposed this verse to the celestial realm. The angels on high sensed the imminence of Israel's salvation and wanted to unite in song. But God did not let them assemble, that is, come near to each other. Jubilation was inappropriate to the moment. Rather, God rebuked the angels: "My creatures are about to perish in the water and you want to break out in song?" Again, victory is tinged with sadness, not at the loss of one's kinsfolk but at the destruction of the other. No matter how merciless the Egyptians may have been, they too bear the imprint of God's image. Rabbi Yohanan projects on to God a standard of human behavior that runs counter to our instincts. We should never perceive the other as wholly other. "

Finally, when I left the Seder at nearly 1:00 am, under the full Pesach moon, another family was emerging from a house across the street, going home after a similarly lengthy celebration. I found that I felt much as I do on Christmas morning, when my son and I typically return from a midnight service along the several streets in our neighborhood where luminarias have been lit along entire blocks and left to burn all night. There is something deeply profound about participating in a ritual that is being celebrated around the world, whether among your own people or in fellowship with another.

Passover II

7:00 am ~

I've only participated in one Seder before. When I was in about eighth grade, I was a student at a Catholic boarding school. Religion classes were required, of course, but the nonCatholic girls were assigned classes of their own, run by nuns who taught what they knew -- Catholic doctrine.

Poor Sister Collette. Our teacher that year was a very young woman who had to face the sullen and accusatory responses of her Methodist, Baptist, and Assemblies of God students every day. "You're wrong." "That's not what we believe in our church." "I don't think so." "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard." All you have to do is imagine a group of thirteen-year-old girls, cornered but refusing to be cowed, and you can easily picture those classes.

At one point, however, Sister Colette looked around, threw up her hands, and said, "I don't know anything about other religions." (How could she? Those were the days when young women went straight from twelve years of Catholic schooling into the convent, which sheltered them on its grounds for two years and then sent them to Catholic colleges and universities for their advanced training.)

"I think we should find out, " she said.

And thus began our inquiry into other faiths, with explorations of their texts, buildings, and celebrations. The Ursuline nuns whom I have now known for 50 years are faithful Catholics, but they are also unfailingly gracious to everyone they encounter and genuinely curious and eager to learn about the beliefs and practics of others. My first Seder took place in a pastel-colored classroom in rural Ohio, and was presided over by a nun in full habit and celebrated by a group of Protestant girls in navy skirts and white blouses.

I don't remember a thing about it except what I learned from Sister Collette who, it seems, was not so impoverished after all, in either spirit or response.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Easter IV

I'm way too tired to write tonight, but I think that the above image from the Shining Rock (NC) webcam is an appropriate one for Good Friday.

Easter III

9:45 am ~

I can't believe I'm even awake. It was nearly 1:00 this morning when the Seder ended, and then my son, home for Part III of the Dental Disaster Recovery Effort, and I stayed up another hour and a half talking in the kitchen. And I talked to my daughter, who's in Oregon for the long week-end, visiting her Katrina-semester college friends and trying to decide whether to transfer back. Of course, it was three hours earlier in Oregon.

Holy Week and Passover take place in the context of the real world, as they always have.

Tenebrae Service at our church early in the evening was quiet, solemn, and moving. Tenebrae means "shadows," and apparently many churches use that service for Good Friday, but it's also an appropriate service for Thursday night. As we progress through communion and several readings of the beginning of the Passion Story, the seven candles on the altar are extinguished, one by one, and then finally the Christ Candle, first lit on Christmas Day, is also extinguished. At the end of the service, the paraments -- the various fabrics used for the altar, lectern, and pulpit -- and the pastors' vestments -- all of which are Lenten purple this week -- are all removed as silence and darkness descend.

As I have been looking around online, I have come to realize that Protestant churches often skip the observances of Holy Week, as they do any significant acknowledgement of Lent. We tend to be uncomfortable with images of darkness and reminders of evil. In Advent we read from the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel of John that "the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it," and we want to stick with that. We don't want to think of a world encased in a shroud of seemingly inpenetrable hatred even for three days.

Maundy Thursday services are short and spare, but emphatic. At our church, one of the pastors welcomed us to communion , as he always does, with a reminder that Christ's love is for everyone -- male and female, white and black, gay and straight, Christian and Jew and Muslim, every single person in the human family. That message never goes without saying in our church. But by the end of the hour it is clear, in the silence and the darkness, that evil and disintegration and division can overwhelm the light if we are left to our own devices.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Easter II

5:00 pm ~

I don't, as a rule, go to Maundy Thursday services. Maybe a couple of times in my life. This year is different, for a variety of reasons, although I have to admit, I'm a bit hesitant to write about it. The peals of laughter elicited by my Ash Wednesday Service entry, when I wrote about the veritable feast provided at out church prior to the service, in genuine innocence of the fact that certain readers had been taught to lean in the direction of fasting rather than feasting prior to penetential moments, has been etched into my memory. Looks from the church calendar like there's another pre-service dinner tonight. OK, I'm not going there, either literally or figuratively.

Anyway, today I skimmed through the Borg & Crossan section on Thursday, which was helpful in terms of sorting out the varying accounts of the Last Supper strewn across the four gospels and in developing a theme of failed discipleship as emerging from the Gospel of Mark. It seems that this is the year for Mark in the lectionary, so it's helpful that Mark is the focus of that particular chapter in the book. However, the authors do skip back and forth among all the gospels, and remind us that Thursday night is packed with action, with events that have been retold so many times that it's a surprise to find that they all happened within a few hours of one another: the Last Supper, the washing of feet and the first communion, the night in Gethesmane, the sleeping disciples, the arrival of the Roman soldiers with Judas, the trumped-up inquisiton of Jesus, the betrayal by Peter.

The focus tonight across most of the western Christian world, however, is the Last Supper. Or the First Supper, depending upon how you want to look at it. I think I've written before about how I'm not a very sacramentally-oriented person, and communion is the one that has often been troubling to me. Body and blood? Do I want to eat someone's body and drink his blood, whether for real or in a symbolic way? I'm hardly the first person to raise questions about this particular ritual of Christianity, but I find that this year, as with other aspects of this faith I'm kneading into different shapes, my feelings have changed somewhat. I'm a good deal more focused on the brokenness of Christ, which means on the personhood of Christ.

Which brings make back to the question I started the day with, and a first stab at an answer. One of the things God does in the person of Christ that God can do in no other way is that God has dinner. I certainly intend no disrespect toward my Jewish friends when I say that Christ does, indeed, change some things, for people who find the Christian story credible and compelling. Insistently compelling, actually. In the Exodus story, God tells Moses how the Jews are to celebrate Pesach for millenia to come, but God doesn't join them. In the gospel story, God in the form of Jesus celebrates what is probably that same meal with his friends, as a companion, and promises to do so for the next millenia. The body and blood, the brokeness and spattering of them, make sense when we think of Christ as emphatically human. He has the same physical parts and vulnerabilities that we all do.

As far as the original event is concerned, it's kind of intriguing to wonder where I would have been. The DaVinci Code and Leonardo's ambiguous rendering of the disciple John notwithstanding, there don't seem to have been any women present at the Last Supper. That's not terribly surprising to me -- in the Jewish community, as in my own social community, men and women often do things separately. And it doesn't bother me as a feminist issue -- if we want to have a competition, well, we all know which gender group showed up at the tomb on Sunday morning. That's really not the point -- but it's an interesting question. It seems to mean that Jesus' women followers were not privy to the same information that he shared with the twelve disciples at the Last Supper. They would have learned what was going to happen later -- as it was happening.

I think I will try to fit in a quick re-reading of the Thursday night portion of the gospels, looking for women, before I head out tonight.

Passover I

11:20 am ~

I'm more or less familiar with the rituals of Passover, because I teach in a school where Pesach cleaning was in full evidence last week. Not the tiniest bread crumb is permitted to remain in residence in an observant Jewish home, pursuant to God's instructions in the Exodus 12:

"You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance. In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread."

But even though I am familiar with the events and their celebration, I re-read the text this morning before heading out on my walk. It leapt from the page differently than it has in the past. When God says to Moshe, after describing what is about to happen on the first Passover night -- "This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance" -- well, yesterday I was talking on the phone to a colleague, friend, and mother of two young men whom I have taught as she laughed about the astounding amount of cooking she has done over the past few days in response to those 3000-year-old words. It is, like most of what I find in faith, a remarkable juxtaposition: the ancient words of God and the activities of a suburban American woman.

At the same time, I was reminded of one of the essays in the book Killing the Buddha. Of course, I can't find the book, so I can't credit the writer, but he's a Jewish man explaining why he no longer celebrates Pesach, the holiday on which the firstborn of the Egyptians were killed. By God. He notes that of the Jewish women he knows -- lovely, gracious, hospitable women -- not one of them would feel anything other than horror at the prospect of harm coming to a child -- any child -- and yet they spend this week preparing to celebrate an event at the center of which lies a grave harm to children.

Yes, there is that, too.

As I started on my walk, I imagined what it would have been like to be a Jewish woman on the night of the original "passing over." A woman in a pre-Mosaic law, pre-rabbinical Judaism; a member of an exhausted group of people enslaved by a megalomaniac pharoah. A people with a couple of old stories about a god who had promised our ancestors Avraham and Sarah that they would be the progenitors of a great nation, a god whose man Yosef had claimed that what his brothers had meant for ill, God had meant for good. What had happened to all those promises? I would have worked all day for someone else and come home to pull together a poorly prepared meal of not enough food for too large a family. And when my husband came home with the news that God was intervening again, and that we were to sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on the doorway, I would have looked at him in frustration, knowing who was going to have to scrub that blood off the next day, and told him to do just whatever he wanted. And then we would have taken our children into the house and emerged the next morning to find that the world had changed and that our moment had come.

And then, being who I am, always wondering about all sides to a story, as we grabbed those belongings that we could carry and made our way into the wilderness, I would have wondered about my Egyptian counterpart. What was her experience?

If I had been an Egyptian woman, I would have had a very different day. I'm sure that I would not have been anyone special, and would have had plenty of work to do but, being a poor cook, I could have left the dinner preparation to someone else, possibly even a slave. I would not have given much thought to her status; it was a hard world, in which slavery was commonplace. And after she left, and my family had eaten well and relaxed and talked over our day, we would have gone to bed without any premonition at all that the night would bring with it total devastation. We did not have the words spoken by God to Moshe:

"About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again."

I have three children, and I treasure my firstborn son, as I do all of them, beyond words. He is only two minutes older than his brother, but as twins and their mothers remind us, he is still the oldest. I cannot fathom what it would be like to go to check on my children in the night and find him dead, gone from us forever. And then to tear out into the street, hysterically looking for help, only to find that all of my neighbors had been visited by the same tragedy, and then to learn, as the word passed through the neigborhoods, what had actually happened -- how would I have contended with such a revelation?

Must it always be that one is saved and preserved at the expense of another?

As a Jewish mother, I would have seen God as powerful and liberating. As an Egyptian woman, I would have seen the same god as powerful and brutally vengeful.

In the ancient world, the violence of a god who had tried repeatedly without effect to free a beloved people would have made sense. In a post-Holocaust world, the story of liberation is paramount.

Still, it's a complicated story, and a complex celebration. It must have been for Jesus as well, who would have participated in a Passover meal every year of his life.

Easter I

6:50 am ~

The day started a few hours ago when the cat and dog, usually immovable lumps at the foot of our bed, distubed me with a sudden and frantic chase around the room. Thoroughly awakened and uncomfortably hot, I decided to go downstairs, where it would probably be cooler, to read for awhile and, I hoped, drift back to sleep. When I got to the living room and turned on the light, I discovered the object of the animals' frenzy: a newly dead mouse in the middle of the rug. A very plump mouse, meaning that it has probably been living expansively inside the house despite the onset of spring, and that it has relatives still doing the same. Sigh.

After I disposed of the mouse, I settled down to read for a short time, skimming through the material that I'm using for the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. I was feeling restless, too. My director had suggested that I read the scriptural passages for Holy Week with an eye toward the role of God in the events thereof, thinking about how engaged and involved God is, and how Jesus is able to do things that God cannot, because he is a human being.

I don't know exactly what any of that means yet, and I had tried to solve the problem last night by buying three books. (Obviously my 12-step plan with respect to book purchases is a total failure.) I wanted some poetry for the week, so after a short debate from which I thought Emily Dickinson would emerge the victor, I decided on Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins and read The Wind Hover before I went to sleep -- just in case I needed further images of restlessness in my life. I skimmed through a Eugene Peterson book: Living the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life. Eugene Peterson is a Presybterian pastor and prolific writer, and the title indicated that he had already figured out how to do what I'm attempting. And I took a quick look at a new book by Marcus Borg and John Crossan: The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus' Final Week in Jersusalem, because it sounds suspiciously like it was written by people who have followed a path similar to that in the Exercises; because Marcus Borg is one of my heroes as a Biblical scholar, someone whom I have read and heard many times; and because I am already reading an engaging and persuasive book by his theological adversary N. T. Wright.

In other words, I had returned to my usual feeble and ineffective attempt to address the question of Christ in my life: read what someone else has to say and avoid the personal encounter. As I have made my way through the Exercises, the futility of that approach has impressed itself upon me, but the habit is a hard one to break.

Feeling someone more, um, "authentic," as the Jesuits might say, at 3:00 am, I went back to the Exercises themselves and started asking the question I had been told to ask. It will take more than a few pre-dawn minutes, but I do have four days, and I think I'll use them to make a thorough exploration and keep track of it while I'm doing it.

A lot of people wonder about Christianity. Many of my friends (and my three children) are somewhat hostile skeptics, and I suppose that's not so surprising. I'm sometimes a hostile skeptic, too, and I've certainly spent more of my life in various states of unbelief than conviction. Yesterday I listened to Diane Rehm's recent interview of Frederick Beuchner (yet another prolific Presbyterian pastor-writer) and he quoted someone impressive, I forget whom at the moment, as saying that "Doubt is an element of faith." Definitely my own experience. And Christianity often emerges from the media as the province of those inclined to judgment rather than generosity, to supersition rather than science, to simplicity rather than complexity. That portrait often has more to do with the general ignorance of the journalistic community about virtually all things religious, theological, or faithful, but ignorance on the part of its chroniclers does tend to damage the credibility of an enterprise, whether it's ours of God's. Toss in the imbecility, rigidity, and violence that many people count among their youthful experiences in the name of religion, and it's no wonder that they greet the word "Christianity" with unbridled skepticism.

For whatever reason, it's been a long time since I've found that response adequate. I'm in a place in my life -- and it does feel like a place, almost like a geographical nexus -- in which the Christian message makes the only real sense in the world that I know. In some ways, becuase it makes no sense. What would be that point, after all, of a god who fit easily within the average human experience? If that were all we had, we might as well turn to ourselves. We would be an easier and less demanding source of religious experience than a God who insists on embodying love.

I don't have astonishing or profoundly worded insights to offer. I have only my own, those of a middle-aged woman who lives in the midwest, has to dispatch mice in the middle of the night, and is, no doubt like many other similarly unlikely adventurers, trying daily to find the way of Christ in an otherwise unremarkable existence.

Let's see where the last few days of Holy Week go.

An Experiment

I'm going to try something new for the last four days of Holy Week. Something new with both my experience and my writing.

As some of my readers know, I am in the midst of a 19th Annotation retreat with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. (What???) St. Ignatius developed the Exercises in the mid-1500s as an imaginative process for exploring the life of Christ and encountering God. His basic idea was that individuals would engage in an intense 30-day retreat, following and praying over a specified range of readings and contemplations, and meeting several times a day with a spiritual director to discuss the internal journey that inevitably happens.

Thankfully for most of us, Ignatius was nothing if not practical, and in a series of Annotations at the end of the Exercises, he mentions that some people might do the Exercises in the context of their daily lives, spending time each day in prayer and meeting with a director periodically. As a result, there are 3-day retreats (more of a sampling, I think), 8-day retreats, 10-day retreats, 30-day retreats, and 19th Annotation retreats, the latter having the potential, as far as I can tell, to run on past eternity for those of us with busy lives and more of a mosying style of moving through the spiritual layers of our lives.

I got started on this retreat in October and am finding it to be one of the most astonishing experiences I've ever had. I meet almost weekly with a Jesuit priest, in the midst of a life that includes teaching in an Orthodox Jewish school and active participation as an elder in the Presbyterian Church. I read the Bible, I read the Exercises, I read a lot of questions, I read novels and plays and poetry, and I rummage through Christ's life and my own. It's about as complicated and surprising and all-encompassing as it sounds.

I thought maybe I'd keep a more detailed and more public (and therefore, perhaps, less detailed) journal of these four days. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. I'll see how it goes. At first I was just going to write an entry each day, but I think I may split it up more. I notice that I myself am not much inclined to read long blogging entries, and I'm guessing that I'm not alone in that. It will be an erratic process -- tonight, for instance, I'm going to the Maundy Thursday service at my church and then to a Seder at the home of one of my stduents, so I expect to be gone from 7 p.m. until very, very late. And this may turn out to be just too personal for the internet. We'll see.

This is one time when I would appreciate it if you would leave a comment if you stop by. It really is a big sort of experiemnt for me and I'd like to know, from the viewpoint of a reader, whether if it's worth pursuing.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

New Orleans, New Orleans

I had sort of imagined her going to college among the ivy-covered Georgian and federalist buildings of New England ~


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Excavation or, Packrat Shedding Her Skin

How's that for a set of mixed metaphors?

Cynthia posted a wonderful piece today that, sadly, reflects many of my own failures in life. The battle to manage the paperwork is a never-ending one for those of us whose household documents reproduce like mice. A little spaceperson would never guess, after a survey of my house, that we have moved to a paperless society. And while I note that one of Cynthia's commenters has posted the wise, wise advice never to let a document pass through your hands a second time, I note also that that admonishment only works for the kind of people who alphabetize their spice racks. Those of us as likely to find the oregano tossed in with the pots and pans or, better yet, in the living room, have different DNA than the Julie Morgensterns of the world. They make it look so easy but, different species that we are, we can manage the household paper about as well as we can swing from trees.

I'm on vacation for two weeks, and one of my plans is to develop some control over the areas of my life that are forever spiraling out of it. Current papers -- the ones that had babies who toddled through the hallway while I was sick for a couple of weeks -- are on tomorrow's schedule. (There are, sad to say, the taxes. There are some bills that are, uh, unpaid. Hi there -- waving sheepishly at Cingular and Tulane University.) Basement papers -- the piles and files and heaps and hurricane remains that no doubt include essays written by students who have long since become NASA engineers and radiologists --are for Thursday.

Today? Clothing. I could outfit an entire nation from the proceeds of my basement, as long as its citizens were all female and partial to styles of 15 and 20 years ago. (A plethora of sizes is available.)

I've piled about seven or eight bags -- maybe 100 pounds -- of clothing into my car. I've found some places in the basement in which to hang winter clothes and the summer clothes that would look great if only 20 pounds would evaporate... . I've reorganized the racks in my closet. The shelf and the floor where everything fell off the shelf last month still need some work. My daughter's closet, the deep walk-in next to mine (old house) looks like it's been attacked by the grown progeny of the front hall paper creatures. So, actually, does her room. And the linen closet is calling as seductively as the Sirens to Odysseus -- here, here, veer this way.

So is Nancy Grace. And trash TV takes precedence, of course, over my journey toward glory and perfection.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Everything is Connected, Somehow

That's my mantra as a teacher -- "Everything is connected." When the kids want to know why we are talking or writing about something obscure, like the discovery of agriculture or the Enlightenment, I tell them that "Everything is connected."

Of course, sometimes it comes right back at me like a boomerang. One morning one of the eighth grade girls began the day by launching into an extended monologue about a recent shopping trip to Washington, D.C. When she finally came up for air, I said, "Sweetheart, that's all very interesting, I'm sure, but could you tell me why you are subjecting the rest of us to this particular topic during history class?"

She looked at me very seriously and said with great dignity, "Ms. C, we are studying the founding of our country, and I am talking about Washington, D.C, and you always say that everything is connected."


So, in furtherance of my conviction that Everything Is Connected, my day and thoughts:

Thanks to my comments, I have learned a great deal more than I ever thought possible about the waxing of various body parts. I am probably grateful to you all, although maybe not. I did sit between two women of my era (mid-50s) at the Anne Lamott presentation on Thursday, one a longtime friend in mothering, the other a newish-acquaintance and minister, and both of them assured me that they do not wax their brows. I am far too discreet a person to have asked about other anatomy.

This morning I did a Powerpoint presentation at church about religious history in America. We haven't made it to the Revolution yet, but I think it was very cool. And in the process, I learned to my dismay that Our Hero Sam Adams, he who never became president but is largely responsible for tea being heaved into the Boston Harbor and a number of men screwing up their courage to sign the treasonous Declaration of Independence, thought Catholics were worse than the Stamp Act. Well, no one is perfect.

Palms waving all over the place this morning, and a semon that included the following from Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah:

And love is not a victory march,
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

which you may, of course, interpret as you please, but this time around you might want to think about a procession involving a man on a donkey.

Went for a walk in the cemetery, followed by the calls of red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, and flickers and, since I didn't have a camera, encountered a deer who let me walk to within ten feet of her. She was standing on a grave covered in ivy, selectively munching those little purple flowers that are popping up all over right now. I hope that whoever planted those bulbs for the beloved departed got to see them in bloom this morning, because they are long gone by now.

And now, I have to write a paper for my Medieval Writings class on El Cid -- another gory epic, this one in Spanish. And this one, unlike Roland or Beowulf or the Volsung Saga, has damsels in distress, which I guess means that we are moving on from the all-male action flic (in a manner of speaking) to the appearance of sex as an essential element of plot . . .

which brings us back to the waxing thing and demonstrates that yes, there are baffling connections in this world.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Happy Birthday Blog!

Unbelieveably, I've been writing online for a little more than two years!

April 8, 2004:

I wish someone would write a comment. Anything! Hey -- I know you're out there.

April 8, 2005:

I wonder if my journal has run its course? I did walk 3 miles today. Those shadows in the photograph happened only because there was SUN.

It seems that two years ago I was mostly focused on walking, birds, and my daughter's preparations for her junior prom.

One year ago? Walking, birds, and my daughter's college decision.

Today: Walking, birds, and where my daughter is going to college NEXT year.

I'm not sensing major progress here.

In fact, I have huge things going on in the spiritual realm, but I am finding them hard to write about. Impossible, actually, except in the hard-cover handwritten journals that I am filling to overflowing. I guess I can leave a little trail, though:

In the past few weeks, I've heard both Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott speak. In the car, I'm listening to the King's College Cambridge Choir, Celtic Woman, and Neil Young. I'm reading N.T. Wright -- how surprising is that? I'm wondering, in an intense kind of way: What if Jesus had never been here? How does it change things that he was?

And there are daffodils blooming out there in the cold sunshine.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Eyebrows or, I Have Failed at Life

I have a few great groups of women friends. I love them dearly. I really do. In all seriousness, my survival depends upon them.

One of them is a group of online friends who coalesced to form a book group several years ago. Needless to say, we have moved far astray from fictional plot and character analysis in our discussions.

A couple of weeks ago we were talking about various beauty regimens. Someone mentioned "getting her brows done" and I innocently asked, "What does that mean?" Wonderful friends that they are, these ladies quickly enlightened me about brow waxing, one of them noting how "low maintenance" I am.

Well, yes. It has now come to my attention, thanks to this morning's discussion of the new TV show The Real Women of the O.C., that there are OTHER bodily areas which one might have waxed. After I finished rolling around on the floor laughing, I went to check out the show's website and then I laughed some more. Decadent Slut City might be its other title. I can't wait to see it.

You have to understand my community. A few weeks ago when I was out with a group of close women friends, one was lamenting the fact that she had been urged by another friend From Away to get her hair colored. "I was amazed," she said. "I looked at her and said, "I'm from C.H. and WE DON'T COLOR OUR HAIR."

Now that's not entirely true. Many of us do, or have. I've given up, but my last haircut was so terrific that it really absolved me of any need to think about highlights, lowlights, or anylights. Thank you, God. Because now, apparently, I need to think about brows.

On the whole, in this town we are a clog-baggy-jeans-t-shirt wearing crowd. The college sweatshirts tend to say Grinnell and Brown and Chicago and Wesleyan, which might tell you something. We have some pretty cool jackets and jewelry (not department store-issue) and sometimes some of us wear makep. Some of us even get manicures and pedicures. That would not be an activity that I could tolerate, given my general ADD where no reading is possible, but I do paint my toenails in summer. I'm partial to dramatic reds and sparkly stuff. (In other words, it's fun. Not something I could take seriously.) I even bought a lipstick a few weeks ago and it looked pretty damned good. But I have no idea where I put it.

Thanks to my dear friends, however, I have started looking at eyebrows. I can't believe that with all the things I have to do and think about, eyebrows have found their way into my consciousness. But hey. Life can be very very silly sometimes, which is a good thing.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Me? I've been pretty sick. Yesterday was the first time in two weeks that I felt like a human being, and I have walked three miles each of the last two days, but my head is still full of gar-bage. The fact that I have made an actual appointment with an actual doctor means things are bad indeed, or at least dragging out far too long. I'm not sure when this aversion of mine to medical offices developed, but I'd better not turn into an old person with health problems -- one more visit than the two mammograms a year I've been having (because of all the ones I postponed) is one visit too many.

Family? Okay. Sons here and gone from spring break. Son's dental crisis resolved for the time being. Major Life Decisions happening all around me. I don't seem to be of much help. Grandmother turned 100 while my head was in a fog; slept all the way to her party in Cincinnati and all the way back.

Work? A quiet disaster. Try not grading papers for two weeks because every time you try to concentrate your brain swims away. The pile looks almost insurmountable. I may have made a major mistake in another work realm but I don't know because I can't remember. I seem to have taught a lot of stuff about the American Revolution and the Russian Revolution while my brain was otherwise not engaged.

My house? Oh my. It's a good thing spring break is almost upon us. The cat's problems have resulted in two areas rugs tossed out in as many days. I can't figure out how to use the new printer's copy function. I can't figure out how I scanned that picture of my grandmother. I'm hoping that I haven't misplaced the taxes, which are done but certainly not paid.

Mary Winkler? I am still obsessed with her case. I read the Jackson Sun and The Tennessean online every day now. And -- almost forgot! -- the highlight of being sick: I have discovered bimbo sensationalist prosecutor Nancy Grace on CNN. I can't decide which is better -- her appalling hair, her atrocious makeup, her dramatic poses, her slimy questions, or her calculated interruptions of guests who don't meet her ratings needs. I knew I was really, really, really sick when I watched Dr. Phil one afternoon, so I am grateful to Nancy Grace for having provided me with the diversion of a whole new level of trash televison. She is an embarrassment to the bar, but let me tell you: Steve Farese is The Man.

So that's my life. I'm going to try to get back to some blog reading and, eventually, writing -- in a while. But first I have to wean myself from Nancy Grace.

And does anyone know why all of a sudden I can't space between paragraphs?