Thanks Giving

For the last several years, I’ve shared this post that ran originally as a column 5 years ago in The Dallas Morning News. Since mid-March 2020, we’ve been living in a plague world. There is no place to flee. I have nothing worse to say about that than has been said. And now, an election in which more people voted than in any other–contentious, dividing, unresolved in the minds of some–has heightened already fracturing emotions. The advice below, then, remains adequate, if nostalgic. Pandemic and politics aside, we’ve been getting on each other’s nerves for a long time.

And yet: The sun does come up. It goes down, and the stars and moon come out. We may be hurting more this year, a little or a lot, but it’s still one foot in front of the other. This 11-minute video is perfect, far better than anything I can write. Consider taking time to listen to a “prescription” for happiness and peace through thanksgiving

This week’s picture features stained glass called The Glory Window in the spiral tower of the Chapel of Thanksgiving at Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas. It’s been my privilege to work on the Interfaith Council that calls this beacon its home. I think it’s not only for religious people, however. You can find this meme everywhere: “It’s not happy people who are thankful; it’s thankful people who are happy.”

So this year, with drastically reduced opportunities for families and friends to gather (eating outside, distancing, masking, singing fewer of those Thanksgiving carols we’ve been asked to avoid), let’s do our best to be our best.

“It’s November: The pumpkins are out, along with their various spiced lattes, cream cheeses, and sausages. Christmas trees made a showing before September ended in some stores. Yes, it’s that time again. The holidays. After Halloween, it’s all over but the shouting.

Help is here! Four words to improve your season: Boundaries, expectations, change, and change.

We call boundaries many things. Manners and good sense make the list. Simply put, you don’t do or say things that you shouldn’t. If it were that easy, of course, Thanksgivings with family would go a lot easier. Children would spring forth fully operational, Minerva-like. Love really would mean never having to say you’re sorry. Oh, and no more wars. If the human race were good at boundaries, though, we wouldn’t need police, or parents. In a word, set some, for yourself anyway.

Now we get more personal.  Expectations have ruined many a holiday. Set too high, the right events, the perfect gift, the happiness, the thrills are not enough. Too low, and the time goes by with drudgery and boredom. Expectations are not reserved for parties and pleasantries. You wanted a pumpkin pie made from a real pumpkin with hand-grated nutmeg? Mom bought one at Costco this year. Expecting the reverse works as well. The holidays offer a swell opportunity to monitor your expectations. See the section on boundaries if you need help being quiet. The exception? Do more good than you expect to get.

Even closer to home. Change, twice, is not a mistake. First, you can’t change other people. Lots of clichés help with this—Horses to water comes to mind. “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still” has more detailed instructions and could avert many a political rampage. Yet many of us would so like to improve our fellows that the idea blinds us to the impossibility. It’s a boundary issue, yes, but a field so rife with abuse that it needs its own category.

Second, you can change yourself. Hurray! Gyms memberships will explode in January. Self-help books do a booming business. AA works. Negative cycles are broken every day. But it’s not easy. Try this exercise: Clasp your hands so your thumbs cross. Then draw your fingers up and cross your thumbs the other way when you clasp. It feels most uncomfortable. Really, most of the time, we’d just rather not. Perhaps it’s no accident that the last gasp of the holidays is that wondrously impossible list, New Year’s resolutions, some of which actually get done.

If you’ve been paying attention here, you may have realized that this piece violates all its own precepts. It gives unsolicited advice and asks you to expect something positive for your trouble by changing. An intrusion, no? How, then, is it possible to instill some sense of “I-know-this-is-right-so-please-listen”?

I’ve struggled with boundaries. For years, I had an account with a florist for the times I made too big a misstep for a simple “I’m sorry” to make me feel better.  As for expectations, one more year is here when I’ve not planned and saved for cruises for all my kids. (Sorry, guys.) Change? I feel pretty good about this one. I’ve asked any random relative to remind me to stop if I begin a sentence with “What about…?” The world is tough. At home, let’s be safe, even if it’s from each other this year. I wish us all a happy and a merry.”

Dear Friend (D), Dear Friend (R)

This topic has been brewing for a long time: How to explain one political side to the other. The task has proved daunting: Some 77 million Americans do not understand why 72 million Americans voted the way they did, and vice versa. Usually one side rants against the other to call names, to sling accusations,  to foment conspiracy theories, (both sides), to claim mistreatment, and to worry about the loss of the country (both sides).

My goal, however difficult, is not intended to sway or convince, simply to inform. I could say simply “Read the platforms.” The Republican one is 67 pages long, unchanged from 2016. The Democratic Platform is new, and, just as the Republican one did in 2016, rebukes the policies of the sitting president. At 92 pages long, it covers the same topics and adds others. The problem, of course, is that neither (D) nor (R) would get past the first sentences, much less the first paragraph, without collapsing. 1) “We believe in American exceptionalism.” 2) “We honor the communities native to this continent, and recognize that our country was built on Indigenous homelands.” If you don’t know which belongs to what party, well, you are not reading or listening to anyone’s news.

Having changed the letters below many times, having talked to multiple people on each side, I believe that capturing the essence of the parties’ cores can be accomplished by reflecting on one word each: liberty (R) and compassion (D). I’ll feel successful if you can say, “I didn’t know that. Wow.” We can be friends (a la Ginsberg and Scalia), but a cease from judgment and, more importantly, argument, are likely necessary.

Dear Friend (D),

Liberty. The ability to be free goes back to our nation’s beginnings. From thousands of miles away, an English monarch thought he could tell us what to do. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” formed the basis of all the complaints Jefferson listed, and when the 56 signers pledged themselves to it, they became, officially, traitors. As Republicans, we believe that the gifts and blessings of liberty set our nation apart, that the founders’ sacrifices were not in vain. When that freedom is imperiled, even by its own government, we cannot abide the transgression. We are the party of Lincoln and believe that people do better when free, not fettered; when informed and educated, not manipulated by bias; when expression is open and robust, not threatened with cancellation.

The phenomenon of Donald Trump captures the essence of a continuing battle for liberty. For all his flaws, especially his communication style and language which proved a bridge too far for some Republicans, Trump delivered on promises of liberty from government intrusion through lower taxes, a stronger military (even a Space Force!), a return to strength on the world stage, a lessening of regulations on businesses. He weakened ISIS and brokered a Middle East peace many thought impossible. Immigration policy tightened loopholes better than any fence could have done. He signed the first federal bill implementing reform in the criminal justice system. Before the pandemic, unemplyment rates were the lowest in over 50 years. Despite his unpopularity, 56% of polled registered voters said they are better off now than they were four years ago.  And despite an impeachment and the negative media coverage—90% by some estimates—he received more votes than any other presidential candidate in history, except for Joe Biden.

We believe most people prefer to manage their lives, and if the government must do more than defend the borders and deliver the mail, it should have our consent. We believe in submitting to just laws. When we feel the disdain, the hate from the other side, we do not become “bitter clingers” who defend the indefensible.  But we do choose new leaders, those willing to make startling changes that are restorative.  We do not follow anyone blindly, a principle that would go against the grain of liberty.

To conclude, it is important to dig deeper into the meaning of the word “liberty.” Freedom “to do” is as important as “freedom from.” Trump was not re-elected, but the base of those pursuing liberty increased, as has its availability. Liberty has as its most ancient root pri, which means “love.” We do not believe in loving our country, right or wrong. We believe America is founded on inspired principles within the frame of a Constitution and its amendments, that will, if rightly honored, see her through the ages. We also believe the best way to love others is to respect their homes, their families, their beliefs, and their hopes; to give them a hand up, not a hand out. There will be–with effort, change, and, yes, love of freedom–liberty and justice for all.

Dear Friend (R),

Compassion. Democrats care. While that concept may not seem related to the wording of the Declaration or the Constitution, we believe that the most vulnerable among us must receive our attention. That vulnerability extends to the environment, to the refugees of unnecessary wars, and even to the foundations of a country we love and believe in but know must change. This cause cannot be left to individuals or charities or corporations; the scope is simply too wide. While the rule of law is essential, its applications and enforcement need deeper scrutiny and, in places, adjustments. Regulations go hand in hand with the law to extend additional protections. Education and opportunity must extend to all, not just a favored few.

The old and the young have suffered most obviously. We support programs that address their needs.  All Americans should have access to health care and food and housing. Other groups—long marginalized—have inspired us to extend a helping hand: People of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, Indigenous peoples, workers in low-paying jobs, the disenfranchised, the homeless, and the poor. We have the resources in this country, and we must use them wisely and well to reduce suffering. It is in this regard that we have taken issue with the president. From the beginning, his words denigrated women, ethnic minorities, Muslims, even our beloved veterans and their families. It has been intolerable, causing division and strife at a level not seen in our history.

During the past four years, we believe campaigns designed to frighten the American people have led to serious misunderstandings. Democrats do not believe in open borders, for example. Immigrants and their children must be treated humanely. Nor do we plan to abolish guns. Common sense protections from violence can be improved through universal background checks, a move supported by 90% of Americans. Taxation is nothing new. Democrats believe that those who can do more should pay more. Defunding the police became a catchphrase recently. Not only does president-elect Biden not support this effort, but he has also called for more police—better trained and better able to serve and protect their communities.

As we look at the word “compassion,” we learn just how specific it is. According to Merriam-Webster, compassion means “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” The Constitution is a wonderful document, but we do not believe we can enjoy its promises unless all of us, each of us, has access to them.

Contranyms

Observation 1: All about us, all the time, things are going on that we don’t notice; hidden bits of information are available for the taking. Examples abound. When I was a senior in high school, driving around a neighborhood with a friend, she pointed out all the wisterias growing up into the mesquite trees. Until that moment, I’d never seen the purple-flowered vine. Suddenly, they were everywhere. (I announced “hysteria for wisteria,” but no one thought it was terribly clever.) Just last week, I found the cabin filter in the glove box. Never knew such a thing existed, but it obviously needed replacing. I also learned the term “baking sheet dinners” and found dozens of recipes. My foray into newly-discovered ice cream bread was an abject failure, but maybe you’ll do better.

Observation 2: I’m not the only one. Scientists go about all the time discovering things they didn’t know about, but they seem to take such events in stride. For example, we’ve been living in these bodies for thousands of years. Only last week, in a PET scan, scientists found what they are calling “tubarial glands” in the area behind the nose and functioning as part of the salivary system. I love how the researchers worded the news: “To our knowledge, this structure did not fit prior anatomical description.” In private, they’re probably doing a “Oh my goodness, look what we found!!! dance. Sometimes, of course, such stories are hoaxes. The Memory Palace podcast recently featured the tall tale of traveling stones, a joke from 1867 in which journalist Dan De Quille reported finding metal spheres that, when separated, travelled back to each other. PT Barnum offered him $10,000 take them on tour. Scientists wrote to him from around the world. De Quille tried without success to get out of the loop by directing people to Mark Twain. It didn’t work.

Observation 3: It’s a big world, so such opportunities abound, no matter your expertise. If you’re feeling confident about your savviness, look over this list of hundreds of misconceptions. Usually, if my field is words—grammar or punctuation, usage or plurals, vocabulary or literary terms—I think I know a good bit though obviously not every. When the term “contranym” (one word that can mean two opposite things) swam into my ken, I saw that I should have noticed. When I asked a clever grandchild if he’d heard the term, he said he hadn’t but then rattled off several: “Oh, you mean like…” Yes, like that. I am not as bright as that.

Observation 4: The introduction of new material can be overwhelming or can inspire new thought. Often both, of course. I particularly liked the contranym “leave” and “left.” Kids and grandkids typically leave their things when they leave. When I started working on the poem below, I thought it would be a new and clever sort of thing but found that it led me places I didn’t know about. It wasn’t until I was discussing the problems I was having with it that I saw the solution. So, not simple work but a puzzle. As now-almost-forgotten novelist James Branch Cabell once said, “Cleverness is Not Enough.” Just that way.

Contranym

When you leave, you leave

Socks, toothbrushes, wolf ears.

We rush through the house

“It’s time to go! Everything loaded?”

But you always leave something

When you leave,

For me to find through the tears

To pile for next time.

 

The cobwebs remain,

Left only the fly’s dust

Which I dust and destroy

But no laughter stuck there

Caught in the spinning out of days.

I wish I could catch hollers, smiles

Screams of delight

Or horror or hurt knees.

 

Oh, just stop: Cleverness will not do.

I miss you, all of you, but perhaps especially

The four-year-old, whoever he is right now

On his way to five.

I need how he loves me.

It’s not a technique,

Some new figure of speech.

No. I just need to hear him

Call my name. A tear comes.

There. That’s better: Joy.

 

Overmorrow

Yes, it’s a real word. One of the grandkids had it as Word of the Day recently. We have “tomorrow,” of course, and “overmorrow” is the day after tomorrow. Archaic, but useful…today.

First, some disclosures. I am a Republican, technically a National Review Republican, not a Trump Republican. In January 2016, as Trump was heading to the party’s nomination, the editors at NR ran this scathing piece called “Against Trump.” They called him a menace, and the party retaliated. More recently, an issue ran three articles: yes, no, and maybe. Perhaps you’re not interested enough to read all three, but the point is that the magazine is no cheerleader for the president though in some quarters he has gained some respect. That’s sort of half of a half. And if this isn’t clear, you should know that I am a Republican after years of saying I was independent. You have no right or reason to know for whom I vote, however. In the past I have been wrong discussing my vote and those of others. Jay Nordlinger, a favorite at NR, left the party after Trump was nominated. He discusses both that decision and the vital importance of a secret ballot here.

Second, I was in an elevator with Joe Biden in August 1974. So was my husband. I think we said hello. Irrelevant, of course.

Today, November 2, may be remembered for many reasons, not the least of which as the day before a momentous, contentious election. It’s overmorrow we need we need to think about, maybe worry about. Various scenarios are offered below.

Biden wins decisively. Polls have him ahead by a little or a lot. On the 538 site, here, you can see a zillion polls. A landslide for Biden is unlikely, though not without its proponents.

Trump wins decisively. One pollster, Robert Cahaly, who was right in 2016 when no one else was, says this is a possibility for the Electoral College at least; here is his website at The Trafalgar Group. Cahaly is an outlier. A landslide for Trump is unlikely, though one hears that in certain quarters.

There is a literal tie. This happened only once, in 1837. This is probably more than you want to know, but to summarize, the Senate votes for a vice president, with each member getting one vote and a simple majority deciding the winner. It is the House of Representatives that elects the president, with each state getting one vote. If the House can’t come to a 26-24 win, they must work until they do, essentially. The vice-president-elect governs until a majority is reached, but if the Senate has not been able to reach a decision by January 20, the Speaker of the House takes the reins. This writer sees the situation as reason enough to abandon the Electoral College. This writer gives five reasons to keep it.

There is a delay, briefly. This is likely because of the length of time some states allow mail-in ballots to come in. Landslides aside, this would be my bet, but the wait should end by the end of the week. Vastly more are voting early this year than did in 2016; the New York Times says more than half of the number cast then have voted by now. (Update: In Texas, more than entirety of 2016.) Two reasons: the pandemic and concerns about the post office.

There is a long delay. Some of us remember the 2000 election between Al Gore and George Bush. Florida’s results were not in on election night because the margin was so narrow that a recount was mandated. The resulting discrepancies (see hanging chad) led to a 5-4 Supreme Court decision that favored Bush. Only 537 votes separated the two when the recount ended,but Bush won Florida and the Electoral College with 271 votes. Contentious, indeed. (My freshman comp students were asked to write an essay using process analysis to explain the winner for the day after the election. They couldn’t, obviously. I used eyeshadow to give myself a black eye, symbolic of having assigned an impossibility. The students understood, but it was interesting to watch my colleagues’ reaction. The ones I knew well asked, “What happened to you?!” My artwork was that good. The ones who didn’t know me well just ignored it. Lessons learned.)

Realistic fears: Already people hide their conservative views; only 22% of Trump voters were willing to share vs. 90% of Biden’s. I know that from the experiences of friends on mine who made it very clear that I was never to disclose their information to anyone. Sadly, that meant I couldn’t even tell them about the others. What used to be simply “political correctness” has evolved into “thought police” and “cancel culture.” Further friend and family schisms are likely. Don Lemons’ unfortunate wording for “getting rid” of “delusional friends” chills. Violence is assumed, regardless. Trump has engendered such hate that his win obviously will incite. A Biden win will not turn Republicans into maniacs but may embolden violence against them.

Unrealistic fears: Re-education camps (sensitivity training? see this article by John McWhorter at The Atlantic about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility; McWhorter happens to be Black.) Targeted identification of conservatives (markers for the people that people like Keith Olbermann wants “expunged.”) Loss of free speech. Dissolution of the Union. Civil war. Financial collapse. Communism or socialism won through smiles and promises made by  power-hungry, vision-less millionaire politicians. Pooh-poohing my unrealistic fears (wait: that belongs in realistic fears.)

Conclusions: None. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow or overmorrow. No one else does either. A pandemic has only heightened already-existing tensions. Tribes and echo chambers, idle hands and fearful minds–many factors have culminated in out general malaise. The curse “May you live in interesting times” (probably not Chinese ) rings true anyway. Actions for today: Put in some food storage and water. We learned about toilet paper and Clorox wipes this year, too. I assume you voted. Pray 2024 will bring better options. Have a good breakfast. Call a friend. Finish that novel. Best plan: Enjoy today.

The Vegetable Dinner

One thing must be addressed first: Dinner was at noon. Supper was in the evening. One might go out to dinner in the evening or to lunch at noon, but those were special occasions, not everyday life. These days, some of us use “dinner” and “supper” interchangeably, but I never hear anyone calling the midday meal “dinner” anymore. It is the big meal of the day which, in the 1960s, was at noon.

A minor point, that. It does put in perspective all the differences between those days and ours. The patriarchy aside, more women were at home, and many men came home at noon to eat. There are many things to write about this week, but I’ve chosen this one because it seems to be an anchor and what I need just now.

First, the menu. It was very particularly designed. A green salad with iceberg and a sliced tomato, dressing either oil and vinegar, Italian, or French. (This will come as a shock to young readers, but there was no such thing as bottled ranch-style dressing, and it would be some time before even the Hidden Valley Ranch packets would show up. We had to make our own for years. Interesting enough history here.)

Fresh green beans were destringed and snapped; some people may still refer to them as “string beans” for that reason, even though the strings are mostly missing now. These were boiled with salt pork, a staple for flavoring. New potatoes were boiled separately.

Greens (turnip, collard, or mustard) were also boiled until tender, perhaps with a ham hock or salt pork; these had to be washed at least three times to get the sand out. They were cut fine and served with hot peppers in vinegar, which you can still buy. The condiment could also be put on the green beans, with finely chopped onion. Green onions were served on the side.

Corn on the cob was husked and desilked then, yes, boiled and served with butter. We called them red beans—really pintos—and cooked them with onions and salt pork. (I don’t know why we called them “red beans” but wonder if it had to do with some family moving to Texas from Louisiana perhaps.) Regardless, the two make a whole protein. Obviously,this meal is neither vegan nor vegetarian, however.

Cornbread sticks in the shape of little cobs were served with butter. If there was dessert, it was likely a Mrs. Smith’s apple pie. Our grandfather would take his with a slice of sharp cheddar: “Apple pie without the cheese is like a hug without the squeeze,” he’d say, and then lie down for a brief nap before heading back to the office. I expect my grandmother just collapsed for a few hours. A likely supper was cornflakes.

Some observations: True, that’s a whole lot of salt pork. It was delicious. I can’t justify it and don’t buy it, but trust me, it was delicious. Next, this meal was a whole lot of work, beginning right after breakfast and coordinated carefully to keep everything hot. It didn’t come around often but was perhaps the most favored meal plan of them all. Was it worth it? Yes. My grandfather was happy, my grandmother had her glory, and on life went. Finally, if it is such a beloved meal, why haven’t we continued the tradition? That question is hard to answer. I don’t know, really. Each part of the menu has been tried and tested, well, maybe not the greens, but they haven’t come together in over 50 years.

When I used the word anchor, I did so because it’s not an uncommon simile: Our traditions are anchors that keep moored throughout our lives. Here is a picture of a literal anchor. Of course, it must have weight to stay down, but that would be easy enough to design. The part of the anchor I didn’t have a name for is that hook that secures it. That word is “fluke.”

Usually we use the phrase “that was just a fluke,” meaning an unusual occurrence or bit of luck. (It is also a fish, a parasite acquired from undercooked crabs, and a company that makes electronic testing tools.) So that fluke is really what holds the anchor in place. For a simile to work, there must be a parallel between, so what is my hook to that dinner?

An attempt: My attendance at the work as well as participation in the accomplished deed may be more significant than any holiday dinner at which there was more excitement. It was a bit better than an everyday event because of all its specificity (see salt pork, boiling), though Thorton Wilder’s Our Town makes good use of our inability to appreciate the sweetness of everyday-ness. I learned it by doing it, I appreciated my grandmother’s willingness to teach it and to cook it. I think, finally, it was a way to love and be loved, unique in its own way, impossible to replicate. We all have losses; I know I have. This dinner memory is a fluke that holds it all together. I wonder if I have left flukes for mine youngers. If you have, please share.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing Merrijane Rice

She is, after all, a winner. Published in many places including the Ensign and New Era, Merrijane Rice also enters and wins contests for LDS poets. Her latest book, Grace Like Water, resulted from mentoring through Mormon Lit Blitz and a commitment to write a poem each week based on her New Testament study in the Come, Follow Me curriculum. It’s not easy work, this kind of writing and this way of sharing. In this article from the Association of Mormon Letters, she uses the title “Nobody Reads Poetry Nowadays,” but Rice makes her offerings approachable, beautiful, rewarding.

Some years ago, I sponsored the first poetry contests for AML. Things changed, personnel changed, and they no longer needed my grant. And while I didn’t judge the entries, those who did invited me to read the winners and perhaps share some thoughts. I can’t remember much of what I said except the one thing that was most clear: They were all better poets than I. Yes, Rice is a better poet, too.

Her process is as important as her product. Feeling called to repentance about her scripture study, Rice realized she was reading scripture but not studying it. She took notes, asked questions, cut pictures out, and recorded her impressions. For those of us who know the New Testament, her resulting insights are deeper and sweeter, often unexpected, because of her diligence and, I believe, her inspiration. Note to all ourselves: It is a great idea we could emulate.

Not all my readers read scripture. That’s fine. The scriptures are not simply rules and begats; they are the stories of people wrestling with angels and life, demons and death, surprises and lambs. Noah gets a few chapters in Genesis, Ruth and Job their own books. But the regular people are everywhere, a verse or two here and there. Poems are also about people, even if the occasional creature is thrown in for color: Keats begins his “Ode to a Nightingale” with “My heart aches…”

The three poems below were chosen for particular reasons, but the others are just as fine. Each reflects a reaction to specific verses. My expectation is that you, too, have wondered about some of these passages. I also hope that I can commit, myself, to a deeper, sweeter study of the book I’ve read so many times.

“Anna, the Prophetess” is about the widow who had lived in the temple for decades. She gets her three verses in Luke 2: 36-38 when she sees the infant Jesus and recognizes Him for who is. Next, in “Joseph of Arimathea,” we read about those moments after the Crucifixion. The Savior was dead, in body, and that body was set for burial in Joseph’s new tomb. The scene is wrenching in realistic details. Finally, watch Rice capture our dusty origins as she reminds us of our purifying future in “Judgment Day.” Enjoy them, share them (they are copyrighted), and find them at the Amazon link under the title above.

Anna, a Prophetess

I was blessed, really—

so many widows are left

with small children to feed

and no means to do it

but asking alms at the temple gate,

poor mites.

My husband was better than ten sons,

though he gave me none—

only affection and tenderness.

Wealth to keep me comfortable

after his death.

More empty time than I could spend.

I had enough to tempt new suitors,

hagglers over my loneliness.

But I didn’t want another husband.

Why try fate?

Instead, I did what other widows do:

went to the temple to beg.

And how I begged—

poured out my youth in prayer,

troubled heaven night and day

for some small morsel to fill my barren fast,

pled with a vengeance

for the Lord to hear me—

until today, after eighty-four years,

I heard Him

wailing in the courtyard,

over-tired and wriggling in his mother’s arms.

Some days you see in an instant

how really blessed you are.

Luke 2:36-38

 

Joseph of Arimathea

From behind the cross,

I pounded out nails

protruding through wood

till loose enough to pull free

while others in front

supported him against

further tears to hands and feet.

 

We lowered him slowly

like a child from a great height,

swaddled him in linen,

laid him on a makeshift cot.

I looked to his mother.

She nodded.

We lifted,

 

and carried him one last lonely mile,

our backs to Jerusalem,

dust clouds rising in puffs behind us

from the soles of our feet.

Matthew 27:57-61

 

Judgment Day

History is deep sediment

melted together past telling

except where patterns repeat,

burn through to surface—

Sodom is Nineveh is Babylon is Rome.

 

There are those who regret

but don’t repent—

ears stopped tight,

hearts hard as bone,

senses dead to pleasure,

 

but your remorse throbs

with bottomless accusation.

When you reach breaking point,

break open to God.

He will read you,

 

make you as transparent glass—

understood and understanding.

Distinct yet enveloped.

Enduring and malleable

as pure gold.

Revelation 20:12; 21:18

 

 

 

 

 

The Magic Cookie Jar

Once upon a time, in a century before our own, there was a magic cookie jar.  If you put cookies in it, they would never disappear. You could eat one, but by some magic power it was replaced. This continued until you decided you wanted a different kind of cookie. Then you would say, “Cookie jar of magic, may I please have coconut cookies now instead of chocolate chip?” If you asked nicely, your wish would be granted.

One day, the cookie jar stopped working. You would put in your hand for a good cookie, and instead you would get a garlic crunch flumgabob. Or a sour pepper whatchamacallit. It was a serious problem.

The owner of the cookie jar, Mrs. SillyWilly, needed help. Luckily, she knew four detectives—PBJ Lobster, TinyTom Starfish, McDonald Octopus, and SlammerJammer Turtle. They were brothers and ran a good business out their residence at 413 Hillcrest Gulf Bottoms. They were glad to take the case.

“When did you notice the problem, Mrs. SillyWilly?” asked McDonald.

“Just today,” she replied, wiping away a tear. “What could be wrong?”

“We don’t know yet,” said TinyTom. “Any ideas, PBJ?”

“No, I think we’d better take this cookie jar back to the office.”

“Great idea!” exclaimed SlammerJammer. “This is the plan. We should try it every hour to see if the same thing happens.”

“That’s fine,” Mrs. SillyWilly said. “Just don’t break it!”

“We won’t!” The detectives said all together.

Back at 413 Hillcrest Gulf Bottoms, the team started working.

“How does it work? How can we fix it? Are we sure we can do this? What if we can’t?” These were some of their questions. Actually, they were a little worried. How can you fix magic, after all?

They began to work carefully. At 9 a.m. PBJ pulled out a cookie and looked at it. There were raisins (they hoped) and pecans (they wondered). But the rest of the cookie was a purple-orange glob of yucky something.

“Who’s going to taste this one?” asked PBJ.

There was a pause.

“Ummm…nobody,” offered the rest of the detectives.

“Let me try,” said McDonald. “Maybe you’re not doing it right.” PBJ sighed.

McDonald put his hand in the jar and pulled out a green brownie with pink marshmallows in it. There was a strange smell, like fish.

“This one smells pretty good,” said McDonald, “if you like fish.”

No one would try to eat it. This went on for awhile. One of the brothers would pull out a strange cookie, no one would taste it, and they would toss it aside.

“I have an idea,” said PBJ. “Let’s look inside the cookie jar. Maybe there’s a clue.”

TinyTom went for a flashlight. He always knew where one was.

“Let me look first!” he demanded.

“No, me! Me, me I’m first!” The others all wanted to see inside because they hadn’t thought of it.

PBJ settled it: “It’s my idea. I’ll look first.” Everyone else agreed. It was fair.

TinyTom held the flashlight. PBJ got closer and closer and peered into the dark interior.

“Oh! Cool! That explains it!”

“What?! What do you see?” The others shouted.

“There’s a switch that says RESET, but it has some blue sticky stuff on it. SlammerJammer, do you have your tools?”

“Of course!”

“You look and see if you can get the blue sticky stuff off.”

“Of course!” SlammerJammer put his best needle nose pliers into the cookie jar. He pulled and turned and pulled some more. Nothing happened. “I think it’s stuck too hard.”

“Let me help! No, me! My turn!” screamed the others.

“You can all help. Just get behind me and hold on. When I count to three, pull!”

The other detectives held on to each other. PBJ held SlammerJammer, McDonald held PBJ, and TinyTom held McDonald.

“One! Two! THRREEEE!” Everyone pulled with all his might. Nothing happened at first. Then there was a huge PPPPPOPPPP!!!!! Everyone fell down.

“I think that got it,” said SlammerJammer, from the bottom of the pile. “Let’s see.”

He held up his pliers which had at the end a big piece of blue bubblegum. “Yes, I think that got it.”

“You get to try the cookie jar first,” said PBJ. “If you’re brave.”

SlammerJammer was brave. He put in his fin and pulled out a white cookie. It looked beautiful, with sparkling silvery icing.

“Looks good,” he said, remembering all the sour, smelly, purple and green cookies. He took a little bite. Everyone watched excitedly.

“Well???”

“It’s the best cookie I ever tasted,” he said. “I think I’ll have another.”

“NOOO!!! Me next! You’ve had your turn” the others shouted.

“OK, OK, here you go.”

Each detective pulled out a beautiful, best-ever cookie. But no two looked alike. They took the jar back to Mrs. SillyWilly.

“Is it fixed?” she asked.

“Yes, and no,” explained PBJ. “It works but not like it used to.”

“Oh dear and oh my,” worried Mrs. SillyWilly. “It always gave me cookies before.”

“Yes, it will give you cookies again. We pulled a big piece of blue gum out that was clogging up the works,” said SlammerJammer.

“But now each cookie is different,” continued McDonald. “Each one is best and wonderful, but no two of them are alike.”

“They’re beautiful and delicious,” said TinyTom.

“Perfect but no two are the same,” added PBJ.

Mrs. SillyWilly began to laugh. She laughed and laughed and laughed some more. “I see now,” she said. “You fixed it AND made it better.”

“How could good be better?” asked SlammerJammer.

“It’s simple,” she replied. “Before, it would just give cookies. Good cookies, delicious ones. Now it gives cookies that are like the one who pulls one out.”

“But, we’re not perfect!” said TinyTom.

“No, not yet. But you are beautiful. You can be perfect later,” said Mrs. SillyWilly. “I know you can’t see it now. When later is over, you can all be perfect and can do anything!”

“Fly?”

“Why not?”

“That is magic,” PBJ said. The others all nodded. They all were proud of fixing the cookie jar.

“One more thing…can we have another cookie?”

“Yes, of course,” smiled Mrs. SillyWilly. “You can have another beautiful, perfect cookie!”

Battle Fought, Victory Won

Last week, I apologized for getting fight and flight out of order. This week, I see that had to be. We fight everything:  poverty, crime, drugs, injustice, racism. We fight impulses, hunger, illiteracy, childhood obesity, hair loss. In cancer obituaries, we read that the deceased fought hard, whether the battle took months or years. Suicide victims fought their illness or their demons. We don’t learn of death by myocardial infarction but by heart attack. I doubt anyone would blink if I said we have to fight for peace. So as we go through some places where battle is the theme, let’s realize that while there may be times we want to go hide under that bed, it’s more likely we’re going to strap on armor, take up swords and shields and words, and go to war.

Years ago, a friend presented a scholarly paper on war imagery in Southern Baptist hymns. We all have them, I learned. You know the obvious ones, of course: “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” even “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” are but a few of hundreds. The British “I Vow to Thee My Country” and “Jerusalem” at a royal wedding or socially distanced may seem less battle-fied, but the use of weapons and fight belie peace. We’ll come back to the idea of spiritual battle, but the concept of enemies and conflict is everywhere, so much so that I puzzle over non-believers who think of Christians as docile. Christ fought the ultimate battle against death and won; today’s title is an allusion to “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”

Second, sports are always considered wars. Chess is an ultimate sublimation (a la Freud), quiet but pointedly strategic moves between powers. Football broadly (rugby narrowly?) pit brute strengths against each other. Even more confrontational than the big leagues are the college rivalries. You can move towns; you chose your school for a reason. In our neck of the woods, these contests go back decades. Our grandfather didn’t watch television, ever, except for the traditional UT-A&M game on Thanksgiving. He had a law degree from the former, and his children (now grandchildren and great-grandchildren) attended. Family lore had his father-in-law teaching there when the 1918 flu closed the university. For the Longhorn-Aggie feud, even the fight songs mention the other school as the one despised: The Aggie War Hymn and Texas Fight. I find both rather rousing, but don’t tell my siblings or son or daughter-in-law. George Orwell wrote, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

So, yes, now to politics. Again, the language reinforces the message. There are campaigns which muster foot soldiers to combat foes or enemies; there are election victors who vanquish; losers concede defeat. These additional terms are used regularly. Jabs and darts, bombshells and nuclear options, battleground states and political casualties, insults and smears—battling for the soul of a nation has its casualties. The incredibly popular musical Hamilton depicts not one but two deaths by duel. There are other options, but they’re rare.  Judges Scalia and Ginsburg were close friends, but they did not discuss politics or ideologies; her grandson told her biographers there would have been no point in such a conversation. They famously shared a love of opera, proving that there is more to life than politics.

There is a key to all this struggle, sort of the One Ring, though it leads to light not darkness. My faith tradition reflects Biblical verses and Dead Sea Scroll passages concerning a War in Heaven. This summary, quite short, makes sense only if you know the topic and have read the Book of Revelation and Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which we find the character of Satan going about to make Adam and Eve as miserable as he is. What the discussion fails to catch, however, is the core principle of agency or free will. Albert Bandura defines it this way: “The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness.” The Heavenly war was not one of arrows but of arguments. Milton’s Satan is the basis for what most people think they know about the Adversary, but the portrayal fails to capture the history of what was at stake. We were intelligent beings who had developed as much as we could without a mortal experience. The question was whether we would be free to choose (and fail when the choices were wrong) or whether we would not be free to fail (and thereby learn nothing). Satan wanted the glory of engineering a system in which none of us would fail. because none of us could choose. It was never a real possibility because it included dethroning God and subverting forever our progress. The scriptures say that the archangel Michael led us against the being then known as Lucifer. I don’t know what we understood, of course, since we don’t have a memory of the battle. All we know is that we won.

And here we are, walking in faith without being able to see our leader. Sometimes the only thing we can choose is what we can think, a concept Victor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist,  articulated in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

In our current climate, the struggle for the freedom to choose what we think or do remains and, if anything, is amplified. In a recent confrontation of wills, a woman in Washington DC refused to raise her arm when BLM marchers demanded that she do so. It’s not clear what place race played; she and all the protesters are white. She’d marched with them before, but somehow, just at that moment, she wanted to exercise choice. She wasn’t harmed, thankfully, but she felt attacked.

Who knows what will happen in the next month, the next year? As sure as the sun comes up, people will try to intimidate to the point of harassment. And just as surely, people will resist. We already won the right to come here and decide what to do. Anything that challenges that hard-won prize tramples on the most basic element of our beings: to do and say and be and, yes, vote as we choose. We are on sides, which sounds benign enough, but the word “bigot” comes to mind. Says Oxford Lexico, “A person who is obstinately or unreasonably attached to a belief, opinion, or faction, especially one who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group.” I urge you not to be one although, of course, I respect your right to make that choice. Let the right in you win.

Under the Bed

My grandmother left us almost fifty years ago. I think of her every day. And if I didn’t, I’d be reminded of her anyway: I sleep in her bed, I see her art, I use her cooking techniques, and if I were smaller, I’d still wear the tailored wool suit she wore to the State Fair of Texas in 1936 which hangs in my closet. A connection on a molecular level, someone suggested.

We called her “Moo” because I could say neither the French grand-mère she coveted nor her second choice, “Mother Ruth,” that I as the first grandchild morphed. She was a character. That she could bear good-naturedly such an odd name says something, and perhaps enough for now.

William Wordsworth used the phrase “spots of time” to explain experiences which help us through the hard times or, really, just the times. We don’t necessarily choose them, and they need not be considered “Great Moments,” but somehow they’re there. I remember, for example, when Moo took me to get my first perm. I was probably nine, and the hair salon was an entirely new but not necessarily wonderful experience. For the next 30 years, periodically I either went to a salon to get one or, more likely, wound my hair around rods, applied an ammonia-based chemical, waited (outside, at my husband’s request), rinsed, and neutralized to stop the process. It was brutal, but Toni made it cheap. The link to the Wikipedia article above reminds me that our process could have been much worse.

Another memory takes me to the First Methodist Church in San Angelo with my grandmother, her friend, and her friend’s granddaughter. There was a quilting bee on, with the women’s work stretched taut on frames. We crawled around at our grandmothers’ feet and generally stayed out of trouble. My grandmother was not a quilter, and I don’t have any idea why we were there, but that feather’s touch of  time remains.

My grandmother always had what was referred to as “help.” One at a time, these women lived with the family when the children were young in a bedroom designed for them. It wasn’t part of my experience, and the only one living when I was aware remained a family friend. Her name was Viola, and after the children were grown and gone, she’d finished college, earned a master’s degree in education, and taught third grade for many years. Her family were country people and lived in a small town where they gardened and sewed, canned and quilted. And oh, could they cook. They came to a smaller town near San Angelo, Christoval, for a reunion every year. My grandparents contributed meat, and we were invited to the main meal which we regarded as heaven. I remember the afternoon naps in dorm-like, dimly lit rooms. But mostly I remember the cakes and pies and roasts and yeast rolls.

Somehow, all of this came together some years ago in the poem below. The phrase “funny-turned” is from Viola. The images pile on, so try to imagine a kid wanting to retreat, getting under the bed, having been under quilt frames like we were, hoping for better times. Writing in dialect is hard, maybe not always successful. About now, getting under something doesn’t seem that strange. And not coming out until I gotta!

Bed

If it gets any worse,

I gonna get unner the bed

An’a ain’t comin out never

An’a ain’t gonna cry none neither

 

Unner the bed is safe

unner the bed quiet

jus’ me, jus’ so

 

And the quilt’s over there

pink and green and white

purple red blue

Stars, made ‘em stars

Little bigger bustin’ over

An’ them women hands made it

An’ they talk bout me,

unner the frame way high

Proud I come home

after I go away

proud of me

funny-turned kid they say

talk bout me while they sew

six million gillion threads

 

Hold me down safe in there

unner the bed

for safe keepin’

only’s if it get any worse,

though, but till then

An’a ain’t comin out

till I gotta

 

For V.A.

What Am I Seeing?

Among my habits that others find irritating: reading a book before I gift it. This isn’t as bad in my mind as just giving a used book, like my great-aunt used to do. I may be wrong. The latest giftee/victim is Max, a grandson who turned eleven. His conscientious mother listed a book sponsored by his favorite author, Rick Riordan. Max loves Greek and Roman myths, so the Percy Jackson novels are a good fit. By sponsor, I mean something more complicated. The publisher is Rick Riordan Presents, part of the large Disney-Hyperion firm. Most offerings reflect a multi-cultural approach to the YA fantasy genre. So, the book I began reading before Max is Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia, a young man who lives in North Carolina and whose parents were scholars at the University of Wisconsin. It’s well written, fast-paced, and sure to engage Max’s interest. The gods in the plot are both African and African-American in origin. The one most familiar (at least to Southerners) is John Henry, represented here in a short video. A classic man-vs-machine tale, it  is based on fact; however, those of us who know the song remember Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version (great voice) or Harry Bellafonte’s (great voice + art).

But that’s not what caught my attention. Instead, Mbalia uses a bottle tree to introduce the idea of “haints” that challenge our young hero. Perhaps you’ve seen these garden creations—often a dead tree with its branches holding bottles, usually cobalt blue ones. The story, the explanation, was new to me. In the South, people saved the blue bottles from Milk of Magnesia, for example, turned them upside down on tree branches or whatever was handy. Evil spirits couldn’t resist going inside but once there were trapped and destroyed when the sun came up. So what I was seeing, even in my neighborhood, was more than a decoration. It was full of meaning.

Another rich example came this week when I listened to this podcast, “Rediscovering Mary, mother of God.” Catherine Taylor (no relation) earned her PhD from the University of Manchester and published Late Antique Images of the Virgin Enunciate Spinning: Allotting the Scarlet and the Purple. The title is a bit daunting, but when the author explains it all, I can almost understand. We have the birth of Jesus in Luke 2. An apocryphal book, The Protoevangelium of James, goes much more into detail about Mary’s life and history. When we see pictures from centuries ago, everything is symbolic: colors, animals, artifacts. Dr. Taylor discusses the weaving aspect in the podcast/transcript having to do with the making of Christ’s body. The spindle and distaff produce yarn, manually as the spinning wheel does more mechanically. This picture features a medieval woman holding a set; the background should remind you of the unicorn tapestry, which may further remind you that the unicorn is a symbol for Christ. So, Mary as a craftswoman has a deep history. This picture of the Holy Family shows the parents working and Christ in a walker, which is certainly a first for me. This one has Mary in the traditional blue dress, weaving. Thank you, Dr. Taylor. (Sorry. I just like the sound of it, really.)

Finally, a lovely gift arrived last week. It’s hard to describe: A rattle that is shaped like a heart. A spirit rattle. Actually, you can see it here. Without knowing its meaning, a rattling heart wouldn’t make sense: “Native Americans used rattles to ensure blessings upon their crops. Use your inner spirit rattle to help rattle some rain into your life, some rain out of your life, to rattle your worries away, or (if you insist) just to keep your papers from blowing astray.”

Sometimes on FaceBook I ask “What am I seeing?” Often there is a hidden frog (or snake!), not to mention the color of a dress or a shoe. That’s a literal interpretation, though. Most often, if we aren’t getting more, it’s because we don’t know to ask not just for an explanation of something that seems obvious (the dress dilemma wasn’t one unless someone explained people saw it differently) but for its deeper meaning. It’s a lifelong pursuit, and not everything we don’t get means it’s a symbol. I have, however, taken one of my cobalt blue bottles outside and hung it on a crape myrtle. Just for fun.