Oh, That I Were an Angel

Continuing last week’s theme of things I’m not (coyote), I move on as not an angel. I wish I were. Here’s why. Someone dear to me received the second-worst possible news a person can get. Even though I didn’t say it, the only response was “Oh no.” But if I were an angel, perhaps I would have some words. What mere mortal can comfort, assure, relieve?

Rather than offer words, then, I thought I’d go in with some music. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” (not beast, sorry), but it goes on to add “to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” William Congreve, 1697. Powerful stuff, indeed.

First, simple beauty. There are two possibilities. Ralph Vaughn Williams wrote “The Lark Ascending” in 1914, inspired by a poem of the same name by George Meredith. The music is better. One story suggested that Vaughn Williams wrote the piece while watching the British troops sailing off to World War I, but it’s unsubstantiated. Regardless, the work soars and will take you with it.

Edward Elgar wrote the famous “Pomp and Circumstance March” that many of us processed to at graduation. On a lark, he wrote a series of variations after a long day of teaching violin. The theme was his own, and he dedicated each to a different friend. The one named “Nimrod” is to his friend Augustus J. Jaeger, whose name means “hunter” in German, with Nimrod the great Old Testament hunter. The orchestral version is common, but this one features 8 young people singing.

Second, delight. The Charles Widor Organ Symphony concludes with a toccata that is incredibly popular. In this version, Diane Bish introduces the piece that she played at the dedication of the organ at First Baptist Church in Dallas. And then she plays the work faster than I’ve ever heard it. In a church, of course, the dynamics are different than on a laptop. Hear it if you can there. Bish gets a standing ovation; perhaps you’ll see an old neighbor in the audience.

Third, mystery. I have heard this piece live in the past week, as well as this recording. David Maslanka wrote his Symphony No. 4 (no visuals or here, the US Navy Band) for my alma mater, the University of Texas. They got a bargain, as it was only supposed to be a brief band piece. A friend made me promise to listen to it before the concert, and I loved it on first hearing. I can’t explain why. I don’t usually love modern music, but this one takes me to a noble, profound place. You can find excerpts that are shorter than the 28-30 minute playing times, but I hope you’ll listen to all of it.

The bottom line is that I feel helpless. I’ve written before about the failure of words, and this is no exception. And yet I try. We are so compelled to do something. When we can’t, we try at least to say something of use. That can be oh-so dangerous. So I’ll end with Emily Dickinson’s “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” She captures what I cannot, with a bird and not an angel.


Animals have many things to teach us: unconditional love, loyalty, devotion to the young, unrestrained delight, curiosity. They are not perfect beings, of course. A once-protective pet can snap at a toddler. A cat can abandon her kittens. Play can turn into competition. But for millennia, humans have trained and used animals, loved them and needed them.

This feeling does not extend to all species, however. No matter how young, no tarantula could be considered cuddly. Snakes in most cultures are shunned. The word “vermin” extends to a healthy number of animals in the kingdom. Such is the lot of the coyote.

One warm spring morning, my dog snorted and sniffed with particular interest in a corner of the yard. A quick first glance revealed nothing obvious. As time went on, however, and the attention continued, I investigated more closely. The old adage of “Where there’s smoke there’s fire” cannot match the diligence of a dog on the trail.

Wedged into a tight spot between a shrub and the fence was a hissing ball of fur. Suspecting a kitten, I pulled more leaves away, but this was no sweet meowing thing. The need for protection arose, so I brought out a thick pair of gloves, moved the rest of the brush, and pulled out a coyote pup. It should be noted, of course, that this might not have been the wisest course of action. Something about small animals attracts us, however. Thinking more carefully, I realize I should have left the animal alone and taken the dog away, but then I wouldn’t have a tale to tell.

The pup safely in a pet carrier, I went about locating a rescue organization.  Our family had rescued fallen birds and taken them to rehab centers. We had adopted three dogs from organizations that rescue particular breeds. (Retired greyhounds are delightful: They smile, they don’t bark, and they love their time on the couch.)

For all my research skills, I could not find anyone who would take the pup. The pound would take him away, but not release him. Wild animal groups, even when they included the word “coyote” on the websites, offered no services. Some said that there was no one who offered coyote relocation; others had discontinued the practice.

Something more needs to be said about the coyote and its reputation in the southwest. The most common—and the most negative—adjective used to describe them is “cowardly.” Rather than hunt real game, coyotes often come into yards and take small, slow pets. Unsuspecting, rotund dachshunds are particularly popular. Housecats left out at night, especially males, wander too far at times. Coyotes attack swiftly, moving far faster than we are used to seeing dogs or cats run. Top speeds of 40 mph are possible. Theirs is not the luxury of play, however. They live as predators. They also eat squirrels and mice, but those animals, smaller and less meaty, cannot compare to the pets that humans hold so dear. In the country, they eat small livestock. It is understandably hard to find nobility in a coyote.

Finally, one woman spoke plainly: “Really, sadly, coyotes just do not have an advocate.”  The application to me was obvious and immediate: how blessed am I that I do have one.

The word “advocate” comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning “to speak.” Because of their reputation, that little hissing pup I’d found had no one who would speak in his defense. More specifically, there was nothing he could do to change his situation: he was what he was.

The woman who told me his plight had a solution, however. His mother was likely nearby and would come back for him, so I should keep him safe for her and place him where she would find him. That process went smoothly, and so far as I know, the pup has matured now and remembers not to come to my house. I became neither his tormentor, nor his destroyer; neither did I become his advocate.

And so we may find ourselves at times. We feel cowardly at best, stained at worst, and we believe no one either could or should defend us. Sometimes we may think we can defend ourselves, forgetting the fool that an attorney has for his client if he represents himself. What may happen, however, is that we literally cannot speak for ourselves because our lives do that for us. We live, we act, we sin. It shows, in our hearts if not our faces a la Dorian Gray.

Years ago, Henry Lee Lucas declared himself a serial killer, with 3000 murders under his belt. The figure is more likely about 40. For one trial he was in my hometown, where he appeared in the newspaper wearing this shirt. I was deeply offended. My husband, not a particularly religious person, said Lucas was as likely to need salvation as I was. It was a startling realization. Henry Lee had a horrible life as a child, and he inflicted pain and death as an adult. Yet he has an advocate, if not a place in heaven. I am thankful, this year, because I can know, recognize, and do good. Coyotes aren’t bad and can’t be evil. They just need to eat.


Out, Out–

A hundred years ago, Robert Frost wrote a poem called “Out, Out—” about a boy who dies after a chain saw cuts off his hand. The injury oughtn’t to kill him, but it does. The last line of the poem reflects Frost’s sometimes-brutal honesty: “And they, since they/Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” The pain here, of course, is that’s what we’ve done again: watched another horrific news cycle unfold, wondered why it happened, learned what there was to learn, mourned with those that mourned, hoped without reason that it won’t happen again, returned to our lives.

But we don’t have to see it this way. Notice what Frost has done with the word “they.” Twice he makes us stop for it, a special kind of emphasis. Reading the poem aloud it’s possible to hear the pause because of the comma. The effect shifts our thinking: He means people who are not us. That sounds confusing, but perhaps he wants us not to be the “they” who so quickly turn from the death of the boy but the “we” who do something constructive. In fact, the poem does that very thing. A 16-year-old boy named Raymond Tracy Fitzgerald died in 1910, just as Frost describes. They were friends, and the poem is his memorial.

So these days, when the call goes out against “thoughts and prayers,” what are we do to? First, obviously, we should think and pray. Not to be reactionary, but these are indeed the actions that will lead to the best outcomes. How might we be of help in our communities, our families? Our minds can list possible ways because, after the surge of shock, reflection comes, ideas come. Prayer can be public or private. If you are not a praying person, you can respect those who are. If you do pray, you could remember that its purpose is not to change the mind of God; however, you can ask for any imaginable blessing. Not to be circular, but you can ask for ideas, for your thoughts to be guided to ways to be of use.

Sometimes, nothing can be done that will change anything. Sometimes, the only change that comes is within ourselves. When Frost stops us with that “they,” I wonder if he had come to understand that love may not stop suffering, but it can make it bearable, that the “they” of the poem did not know better than to turn back to their lives, but we, wiser, can do better. The title of this poem comes from a passage in Macbeth following the queen’s death. Macbeth murdered pretty much everyone else, but she has killed herself. He is about to die, though he doesn’t know it. Shakespeare’s words are beautiful, but they are not true. When Macbeth concludes that life is a tale “signifying nothing,” he is wrong. Life—and love—do matter. We can make sure of that much at least.

When in Late November

Aaron watched the tower of cranberry sauce cans go higher and higher as he stacked them in a fancy spiral. He could just see Mr. O’Donnell’s face when he saw it. “Just pile ’em up, Aaron. This ain’t an art class.” And then Aaron would explain, so carefully, that the cans were arranged in a Fibonacci series, all the way from the top to the bottom. Down it went one, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one. Just like in nature. Just like the spirals of sunflower seeds or rose petals. No, this wasn’t art class. It was advanced mathematics. Aaron imagined Mr. O’Donnell turning that great shade of red and muttering under his breath.

Aaron’s mother knew he liked to do things differently. This year, at sixteen, he had a plan for Thanksgiving. The week before, they’d have a dinner of a bowl of rice, to remember all those in the world who had too little to eat. The money they saved would go to feed the poor. Everyone in the family thought it was a good idea. Although he’d read about it somewhere, he decided not to tell them it wasn’t his idea. Jennifer, his little sister, seemed so proud of him.

Aaron had done more research and told his mother the menu.

“No, Mom. They didn’t have roasted turkey, mostly all white meat. Maybe a wild one and other game birds. Smoked venison, corn, dried cranberries. No pretty jellied cranberry sauce, no soft rolls. Pumpkin boiled with vinegar for flavor, not sweet pumpkin pie with whipped cream.”

She’d relented and agreed to the authentic meal, but Jennifer’s eyes, deep blue and big even for a six-year-old, clouded over with tears.

“I hate vinegar, Mama,” Jennifer cried. I want some punkin’ pie and with cream. Those old Pilgrims didn’t know nothin’.” She proceeded to wail so much that she was sent to her room.

“Anything, Jennifer, not nothing,” Aaron called after her. People needed to learn things. Not do things the same old way. Be creative. The traditional dinner had its place, of course, but it was illogical to have two meals so much the same, Christmas and Thanksgiving.

As the cans neared their final, triumphant height, Aaron heard the swoosh of the doors opening. Who could be coming out so late two nights before Thanksgiving? The store was about to close. Even Mr. O’Donnell seemed anxious to leave.

Aaron picked up his duster so he could at least look busy. Oh, Mrs. Tran. She often had to come in late because of her shift at the nursing home. He’d heard that she was a doctor, really, but she worked as an aide until she could learn English well enough to take some test. She looked a bit worried tonight and went looking for Mr. O’Donnell. She always spoke to Aaron because he and her son Phong had classes together, but he noticed that she never asked him questions. That honor fell to Mr. O’Donnell.

Tonight she went to him right away, without trying to find anything herself. They talked for a few minutes, Mrs. Tran shaking her head several times and putting her hand on her mouth. Aaron watched as she followed Mr. O’Donnell directly toward him on 4A. They didn’t acknowledge him as they walked backed to 4B. Mr. O’Donnell handed Mrs. Tran a small package of flour, two pounds, and some shortening. Aaron thought Mr. O’Donnell seemed a bit more patient with her than usual. Perhaps it was his famous Christmas spirit hitting early.

“Must be ten kinds of pie, Miz Tran. There’s apple, cherry, pecan, chocolate cream, coconut cream. The fruit is on 4A, custard mixes on 3B with the gelatins, of course. Some old folks like gooseberry ’cause it’s tart and syrupy. My personal favorite is buttermilk. It’s rich and creamy and my wife puts this little dusting of nutmeg on . . .”

“How make pie with milk?” Mrs. Tran looked puzzled and her brow wrinkled. “Milk go out. Slip slosh. No, not milk pie. What pie Phong say?”

“Well, what’s it for? He ‘sposed to bring it for somethin’ special?”

“Yes, oh yes. Very special. Church party. Must bring pie for Thanksgiving. Only right pie will do. Most important.”

“Some folks make apple, some cherry, lots do pecan. Very popular. My wife makes hers with all halves.”

“No, no. Never heard of this before.”

“Well, ma’am. I’m not sure what else to tell you. There’s lots of pies.” He started counting them on his fingers again.“Cherry, apple, blueberry, lemon, coconut cream, mince.

“Pumpkin!” Aaron blurted. “At Thanksgiving people have pumpkin pie!” The adults looked at him, startled.

“Sure, some people like pumpkin,” Mr. O’Donnell allowed. “This time of year.”

“Yes, yes. Oh, thank you. That is the word. Very important. Must be pumpkin.” Mrs. Tran looked pleased and bowed slightly toward Aaron. “Yes, must be pumpkin.”

Later, as he prepared to leave, Aaron took off his deep green apron and folded it carefully. He slid it into his back pocket and removed a limp, crumpled dollar bill. He went back to the Fibonacci display and took the top can of cranberry sauce, then walked to the counter where Mr. O’Donnell was checking.

“I expect your mama has plenty of cranberry sauce.”

“Not this year. I thought we ought to do something authentic. Venison, some birds, boiled corn. They didn’t have milk, the Pilgrims, you know? And no sweets like we make them.”

“Sounds…like your idea. Changed your mind, Aaron?”

“Well, no, not really. I don’t know. . .Yes, I guess.”

Mr. O’Donnell looked at the cranberry sauce as if trying to put it all together.

“It’s what you’d call a symbolic gesture,” Aaron explained as he headed for the door.

The old white pickup door creaked its familiar welcome. He tossed the can onto the passenger side, rolled down his window, and headed home. It was going to be a fine Thanksgiving.