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.

 

 

 

 

3 Nephi 3

For this week, I had a completely different plan. Cobalt blue bottles, the Virgin Mary, and a new middle-grades novel with African and African-American themes. Not finished maybe, but that’s what Monday mornings are for sometimes. Then I read the ten verses below and saw today’s theme: lies.

The most important element for the definition of a lie is intent. People say things that are factually inaccurate all the time, but to do so with the purpose of deception ups the ante. When I worked all those decades for Children’s Protective Services, I saw how much people abhor being lied to. Obviously, people lied to me all the time; it was part of the job. Most interesting, and most concerning, were the parents angered by their children not telling the truth. The reasons were generally to do with self-protection, and to me at least, didn’t seem serious, but some parents reacted more violently to the principle of lying than was appropriate, in my mind at least, because the intent was mitigated by the desire not to get beaten for whatever offense had occurred.

In the passage below, we have a master liar. Not a child. Not a teenager. He is a murderer, a thief, a leader of murderers and thieves. He challenges a ruler to give over his country and promises not to harm anyone if he does but threatens destruction if he doesn’t. What struck me on this reading was the subtlety of the wording. For all Harry Potter fans, it was like hearing Parseltongue. If you remember, the language of serpents usually indicates the presence of a Dark Wizard, so there is deep concern that Harry knows it. The liar below uses several techniques, strategies, whatever you want to call them, to try to inflict his will. It all sounded so familiar and so modern.

The year is 16 A.D. when Giddianhi sends a letter to Lachoneus, flattering him for being firm in trying to protect the liberty and property of his people. Quickly, he tells him that it is pointless to stand against the force that Giddianhi commands because they are ready and able to destroy Lachoneus and his people because of the wrongs they have wreaked upon his band. He promises not to destroy them if they surrender and learn the secrets of his order. None of this is true, of course. Lachoneus knows that and refuses to yield. Victory is his because he waits for Giddianhi to come to their newly fortified strongholds. That’s the short take, anyway.

Perhaps you’ll have the same experience I did when reading the actual words of the liar, whose skills are far beyond mine. Perhaps you’ll see applications all around just now. Or perhaps you’ll wait on the blue bottles, the mother of God, and a kid’s book. Excuse my diversion. Someone shared this quotation from J.R.R. Tolkien today: “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they have is not ours to rule.” It seemed to fit.

3 Nephi 3:

And now it came to pass that in the sixteenth year from the coming of Christ, Lachoneus, the governor of the land, received an epistle from the leader and the governor of this band of robbers; and these were the words which were written, saying:

Lachoneus, most noble and chief governor of the land, behold, I write this epistle unto you, and do give unto you exceedingly great praise because of your firmness, and also the firmness of your people, in maintaining that which ye suppose to be your right and liberty; yea, ye do stand well, as if ye were supported by the hand of a god, in the defence of your liberty, and your property, and your country, or that which ye do call so.

And it seemeth a pity unto me, most noble Lachoneus, that ye should be so foolish and vain as to suppose that ye can stand against so many brave men who are at my command, who do now at this time stand in their arms, and do await with great anxiety for the word—Go down upon the Nephites and destroy them.

And I, knowing of their unconquerable spirit, having proved them in the field of battle, and knowing of their everlasting hatred towards you because of the many wrongs which ye have done unto them, therefore if they should come down against you they would visit you with utter destruction.

Therefore I have written this epistle, sealing it with mine own hand, feeling for your welfare, because of your firmness in that which ye believe to be right, and your noble spirit in the field of battle.

Therefore I write unto you, desiring that ye would yield up unto this my people, your cities, your lands, and your possessions, rather than that they should visit you with the sword and that destruction should come upon you.

Or in other words, yield yourselves up unto us, and unite with us and become acquainted with our secret works, and become our brethren that ye may be like unto us—not our slaves, but our brethren and partners of all our substance.

And behold, I swear unto you, if ye will do this, with an oath, ye shall not be destroyed; but if ye will not do this, I swear unto you with an oath, that on the morrow month I will command that my armies shall come down against you, and they shall not stay their hand and shall spare not, but shall slay you, and shall let fall the sword upon you even until ye shall become extinct.

And behold, I am Giddianhi; and I am the governor of this the secret society of Gadianton; which society and the works thereof I know to be good; and they are of ancient date and they have been handed down unto us.

10 And I write this epistle unto you, Lachoneus, and I hope that ye will deliver up your lands and your possessions, without the shedding of blood, that this my people may recover their rights and government, who have dissented away from you because of your wickedness in retaining from them their rights of government, and except ye do this, I will avenge their wrongs. I am Giddianhi.

 

“If I Were King of the Forest…”

Leadership. One of the current tropes is that we have a dearth of leadership. There’s nothing modern about the lack, of course. Leaders lead; followers complain (see Moses et al.)

While the foursome wait for the Wizard of Oz to receive them and award their witch-killing efforts, the Cowardly Lion sings “If I Were King of the Forest.” His odd list of what would happen reflects an odd view that’s not consistent with modern sensibilities. (High-falutin’ words, I know.) Sure, it’s just a lyric, but to think of trees kneeling  and chipmunks genuflecting—even if he shows “compash/For every underling”—just doesn’t sit right. He disses queens, too, to which I will take offense in place of former female monarchs. Princes and dukes too, but they’re just fillers. Nathan Lane’s concert version throws in “the performer formerly known as Prince for good measure and good fun.  Even more odd, however, Cowardly Lion believes that courage alone will allow him to be a king, a good leader. Maybe so. That’s a really short list compared to the ones I’ve seen.

This one ends with courage and includes others that we would expect: vision, compassion, “walk the talk”, and communication. This one adds “Be human,” which I guess lets the robots and mean folk out. Here and here we have lots of possibilities (41—who could remember all those?). All this admittedly shallow research led me to think about the real leaders I’ve known, one of whom we’ll learn more about: Robert “Bob” Callanan.

A little history first. One year my college didn’t need my talents, nor did the State of Texas. About the same time, the federal government encouraged employees to explore long-term care insurance. I agreed to listen to the sales pitch but had no intention of buying anything. Although my grandfather had brought insurance to West Texas, paying for a non-tangible (that’s the real term) has always irritated me. Not that the woman who came tried to be persuasive, and even though I was prepared to say no, we bought a policy after I thought of an aged future when I’d hate to ask my children to do the care I might need. Men die first, usually, and that glimpse for me was sure. But not only did I agree to buy this insurance, I also decided to sell it. Paperwork was submitted, approvals were garnered, and an interview with the regional sales manager was arranged. From that first meeting with Bob until our last, I learned what the rules of leadership are.

  1. This mission comes first. His was taking care of people, whether his family by earning a good salary or his sales team by expecting their best or our clients by educating them and providing them the best possible product. Nothing came between him and the mission. That meant corollaries. For example, although he never used these words, there was never to be the appearance of evil. He would meet me at What-a-Burger rather than come into my home alone. We all sensed that he loved his family above all, so nothing that might jeopardize the family would ever happen. His faith was strong and deep and tangible, another support to the mission. As long as he was able, he attended Mass every morning. Even for those of us who consider ourselves faithful, that commitment is above and beyond. The long lists, the short ones—he lived them. He had his favorites (Diet Pepsi and “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”) but the integrity of his character earned him what might be called followers. Most of us aren’t very good at following (see, again, Moses), but Bob was good at what he did, so we were glad to be with him, going where he was going.

And that’s it. To quote Stephen Covey, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” So there aren’t 40 other things to say or remember. Today’s leaders—good, bad, or indifferent—should take note. Robert Callanan, 1940-2019. RIP

On the Importance of Discomfort: Two Documentaries

Strictly speaking, I’m not a huge fan of documentaries. Or, more accurately, they aren’t my first choice in viewing because they ask a lot of me that I’m not always ready to give. Sometimes, I find them memorable. One example was New York Doll (2005), the story of Arthur “Killer” Kane, former bassist of the group New York Dolls who had overcome drugs and become a Mormon. Reviews were excellent, and since I know virtually nothing about the rock band world, I found it compelling on many levels. However—and this is the point—it never made me uncomfortable.

Two people recently recommended two documentaries, one of which I avoided for at least six weeks. Once I’d conquered that one, I could move on to the next. Warning: I can pretty much bet some will be offended by one, if not both, of these films. Discomfort may not be the word you use, but the feeling will be at least contentious or negative or worse.

The first, Larry Elder’s Uncle Tom: An Oral History of the American Black Conservative (2020), consists of a number of Black men and women talking about their conversion to the conservative side of the political divide. The old saying that there’s nothing like a convert seems relevant enough. The stories these people tell, however, reflect a depth that a simple dismissal like that doesn’t capture. Reviews are hard to come by. This one from the Chicago Tribune quotes from the film and lauds the effort. Rotten Tomatoes is largely silent, with just one review. Yet even there the documentary earns a 94% audience score. The opening was verifiably successful, making Uncle Tom one of the most successful documentaries on record. And it’s not about Trump, if that’s an immediate turn off. It’s about conservative Republicans.

Several things make this documentary remarkable. First, the speakers are diverse in backgrounds, professions, and narratives. In fact, the person with the most continuity is a contractor named Chad Jackson. We see him applying joint compound to PVC, cutting tin, and working on drywall. Yes, there are academics and politicians, commentators and pundits, but it is Jackson whose straightforward explanations are key. Some policies are discussed, but the message is more directed at the pressure to conform to one way of thinking. Another element of that is the suppression of Black voices that are successful but conservative. Biden made two mistakes recently: Telling a commentator who said he had more questions, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” (He went on that the NAACP had endorsed him every time he’d run, which wasn’t true; the organization never endorses anyone.) Later, he said, “…unlike the African-American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes.” He had to walk both comments back, and while neither is particularly terrible, each reflects the attitudes that the film takes on.

Second, the documentary is important not just for Black people but for everyone else as well. We often lack insight into the lives of others in general, but unless someone has told how things are in other cultures, we remain ignorant and, often, content with that ignorance. Culture extends to people from other parts of the country, other countries, other races, other denominations, other religions. Understanding should come after education, but that’s not always the case; understanding our own limitations includes awareness of the things we think we think we know but are wrong about. That’s inelegant. Mark Twain (well, probably not really) said it better: “It ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Oh, for a touch of humility. For example, while most understand that “Uncle Tom” is a slur, few may know that the character from Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had nothing in his behavior that would suggest he was a turncoat or disloyal or any other pejorative term. Stowe intended him as a “noble character” who stood up for his beliefs. He dies because he refuses to disclose the whereabouts of two women escaping slavery. It is also important to remember that the book was a powerful anti-slavery tool. Published in 1852, it went on to become the best-selling novel of the entire century. Abraham Lincoln said to Stowe when he met her in 1862 (well, probably not really), “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

Our next film also sports a long name. Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020). Peter Debruge writing for Variety: “Rather than making audiences feel bad about trans-themed movies they may have naively enjoyed in the past, it educates on the larger issues while unpacking a legacy of problematic representation.” His is one of 47 reviews, compared to the single for Uncle Tom. That bit of a discrepancy could be dealt with elsewhere perhaps.

Disclosure has much the same format as Uncle Tom, without the plumbing scenes. Actors, writers, and activists discuss specific scenes in films dating from 1914 to the recent past. We all know some of them: Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl, and episodes in The Jeffersons and Nip/Tuck, to name a very few. The subtext is more interesting, as they discuss their own reactions and histories. At one level, then, we are taught or reminded to notice what we are seeing. Running the gamut, the reaction is reminiscent of our innocence (Bugs Bunny dressed as the Wagnerian soprano here at 2:24) or revulsion presented as comedic in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The speakers discuss their own reactions to these depictions, and the result is that we are better able to understand their viewpoints on a topic we have likely never considered.  Suddenly, we remember making unkind remarks about a topic without realizing someone affected by that topic was standing out of sight. (I did this once in my youth, and I have seen it done recently. Perhaps you have your own example. It stings.)

Recent transgender transformations have been notable for their publicity. Coming out was something of interest years ago, but the difference is revealing orientation versus dramatic changes in appearance is stark. Bruce now Caitlyn Jenner is one. Lana and Lilly Wachowski of The Matrix films and Sense8 fame  are others. It is a small community, however, with a demographic of 0.6% of Americans identifying as transgender. Not of this plays a part in the film, however. Rather, the focus remains personal.

People are free to align themselves with one party or another. People are free to seek reconciliation with gender dysphoria in ways that make them happy. Disagreement with the issues, one hopes, does not extend to an individual involved. This FaceBook picture captures perspective. This video from an American church has a group-building exercise. This one from Denmark begins with the same stage and script but deviates in several places. This one is called #RethinkLabels; some words will likely make you uncomfortable, but the ending makes it worth it. This one and this one and this one dramatize being judgmental. Most of us like to think of ourselves as savvy. These videos reveal a side of ourselves that is also tender.

The idea about pearls got me looking at their origin. It’s not true, for example, that a grain of sand inside an oyster produce the reaction that generates nacre to make a pearl. Usually, the culprit is some sort of parasite. And there are many kinds of pearls in many shapes and sizes; the perfect round white ones are actually the exception. (My hometown of San Angelo includes three branches of the Concho River, a source of freshwater pearls that have been treasured since the 17th century Spaniards tried to market them.) So mussels and oysters have the ability to turn an irritant into something beautiful. It seems like a good enough metaphor. Notably, vinegar dissolves pearls. That, also, seems fitting.

With these two documentaries, I learned a lot, I realized I was wrong about a lot, and I confronted some discomfort of my own. I think they call that having an open mind.

Betwixt and Between

The question these days is the sincerely spoken “How are you?” It is appreciated, of course, but I’ve come to believe the more appropriate question would be “Where are you?”

On one hand, the research on grieving began in earnest with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, about whom I wrote briefly just over two years ago in “Instead.” She identified five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. A nice visual can be seen here. Interestingly, depression is not at the bottom, and acceptance is actually pictured higher the starting place. The “Where” could mean one of these categories, and that could be helpful, but it’s not quite right. For the past 15 years, the process of loss moved between these various places, jaggedly, sadly. The last one—acceptance—assumes a moving on, but that is another complication. If I have, wouldn’t I know?

Where to, then? Betwixt and between, the place where the fairies are. It’s called “liminality.” You know far more about it than you may think. More common is the word “subliminal.” We’ve heard about advertising that inserts a suggestion onscreen too quickly for us to see it consciously (questionable) or the many examples of brands using subtle messages within their logos (the entire word “Toyota” is one). This sentence from Jon Goss, contains the message as well as a great pattern: “The market, standing between the sacred and secular, the mundane and exotic, and the local and global, has always been a place of liminality.” But the real scholar on this issue is Victor Turner, writing here about rites of passage. For graduates and mourners, bridges and grooms, many of those fell prey to the current pandemic.

No, I’m not teasing about the fairies. In popular culture, fairies are, well, very popular. Even the elves in all those Lord of the Rings movies were likely supposed to be fairies, according to this source. Their near-mortality, unusual beauty, and otherness support this idea. With the dwarves on one side and humans on the other, who wouldn’t prefer fairies? In the 1691 The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, Reverend Robert Kirk, minister of the Parish of Aberfoyle, Stirling, Scotland, wrote: “These Siths or Fairies they call Sleagh Maith or the Good People…are said to be of middle nature between Man and Angel…” (Oddly, the only Siths I’ve heard of are the bad guys in Star Wars.)

Their history extends far into the distant past, 5000 years with stories from India about nagas, beings who combined in form serpents and humans. Note, Harry Potter fans, that the females were called nagini, which is the name J.K. Rowling gave to Voldemort’s deadly serpent companion. She did her homework, possibly unlike a certain Darth-maker. The scholars in this hour-long podcast discuss all this at length (redundant?) and seem to be quite immersed.

There are a great variety of fairies: Sweet flowery ones as painted by Cicely Mary Barker; bad ones, often Scottish; beautiful Edwardian ones by Edward Robert Hughes; prank photographed ones, the so-called Cottingley fairies. Mention must be made of the most Americanized one of all, Tinker Bell, who was not, in fact, modeled on Marilyn Monroe as touted in urban legend. Most of these miss the point, however. When J.M. Barrie wrote, “When the first baby laughed for the first time, his laugh broke into a million pieces, and they all went skipping about. That was the beginning of fairies,” he hinted at fairies’ role at birth, but they also attend deaths and keep a place at hearths. They are to be found at the bottom of gardens, wherever that is, and near bridges.

So, back to liminality. It seems a long way to go, longer than usual because I get easily distracted and take myself places. The truth is, of course, that no one can go with me to mourn, not really. Early in the story of Job, when he has lost everything—all his children and all his wealth and was covered in boils—his three friends come to comfort him, but their reaction to his suffering is unexpected: “So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” There is nothing they can do besides be with him. They are, then, in the place that is between the happiness he had and the future he cannot see.

It’s often said we don’t know how to handle death in this country. I think, rather, that we don’t know how to mourn in this country. People do still wear black at funerals, but not for a year or more afterward, as was once done. It was an expensive custom, all those black outfits, but perhaps it signaled to the world where the mourner was. Many friends feel helpless, not knowing what to do or say. Worse, encouraging the bereaved to move on suggests that there is a choice in such things, reflecting perhaps the observer’s own discomfort at seeing grief.

The picture of the threshold is, of course, intentional. It’s earthy and underfoot. A more glorious symbol, the rainbow, more literally unites heaven and earth. A friend who lost a husband when both were young told me great stories about seeing rainbows when there was a reason, a need. I love them, too. ( Here is a horizontal rainbow, though the “bow” doesn’t seem apt: the actual term is circumnavigational arc. I didn’t know of such things.)

Having learned a good bit about fairies, and withholding my own potential tale of angering some Irish fairies some years ago, I think I have come to the conclusion that “I’m okay” is not a place but a signal. I’m in here, somewhere, where the new reality has formed just yet, so I can’t really leave the here and now for what is beyond the betwixt and between. I have indeed felt the comforting husband presence, unseen, unheard, but somehow here. It’s a place where words don’t so much can’t help but fail in their inadequacy to describe. And that is, at least for now, okay.