eScapegoat 5

Each week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week.

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

No one volunteered to teach the Junior High Sunday School class, so I said I would. They weren’t much younger than me, but I was a warm body and I filled a needed blank, so I got the job. They handed me some curriculum, but I got my main inspiration from the Bible Storybook that sat on our home bookshelf. I thought we could plumb the magic of these stories, imagine ourselves as the different Bible characters, and explore how their stories and ours connected. Maybe, we could even create our own paintings of these stories and hang them in the church hallways.

My nerves ached as I stepped into the room my first Sunday teaching, but I found the students to be much more ill at ease than me, that I forgot my nerves trying to soothe theirs. I had only three students: two girls and an extremely shy boy. I began by inviting them to tear out shapes from construction paper that felt like them. They complained a little about paper tearing—it was too hard to get it right, it was a kid activity—but when talked a about the shapes said about themselves, they left that behind. Then I showed them how to find the story in their Bibles. I chose Moses in the basket boat because it was familiar, because it had such strong characters, and because it provided such powerful mind pictures.

I told the story aloud, backtracking when I forgot a key piece of information (like Moses having a big sister), then I asked them to share the part of the story they remembered best. All three recalled Jochebed leaving her son floating in the Nile River. One of the girls, Sara, recalled Miriam watching from the bulrushes. Our boy, Robert, remembered the slaying of the Hebrew baby boys. Why, I asked, did those parts feel important to you?

Robert realized he’d have been killed if he had been born in Egypt; Sara had a little sister, and wondered how she’d felt having Miriam’s job. Our other girl, Susan, imagined the baby inside the basket boat where it was pitch dark, rocking on the waves. She imagined the royal dress of the Egyptian princess.

I pulled out watercolors and paper and invited my students to paint scenes from the story—they could choose which. Susan got right to work, Robert looked at me as if I were kidding, then decided to humor me, And Sara sat staring at her paper until time was nearly up, then dived into the paints with a fury.

I decided to do the closing prayer, because I didn’t think anyone would volunteer. They filed out of the room without speaking, but I knew they were glad they came. I washed brushes and set out their paintings to dry before going to the worship service. I felt clean, somehow. As if I’d been newly baptized.

***

In my sixteenth year, our small congregation swelled by three. The news director for our town’s one TV station retired, making way for a newcomer. The Bower family arrived well pressed and smiling. The man, a dark-haired executive with weightlifter shoulders and a perfect smile, memorized names and occupations as we shuffled our way through the church’s greeting line. His wife, beaming under a Mary Tyler Moore hairdo and wearing a teal suit that accentuated her exquisite figure, clasped my outstretched hand in a surprisingly tight grip. The daughter, Sheila, was more amply proportioned than her mom; her almost white blond had escaped from its hair band, framing her face like a halo. She stuck out her hand for me to shake and gave me a nervous smile; she never met my eyes. At least one member of the Bower family was less than happy with her new situation.

***

“You look so pretty!” I told Sheila. “I love your dark hair ribbons in your blond hair and the way your ribbons match your shoes.”

Mrs. Bower’s face pinched as she looked at her daughter. “Pretty is as pretty does,” she announced.

Sheila’s smile flashed at my remark and vanished at her mother’s, replaced by downcast eyes and an ashen color of skin.

“You’re in the eighth grade, right?”

She nodded, her eyes still on the ground.

“Then you’ll be in my Sunday School class!”

I thought I saw a small smile at that. I hoped so.

***

“I try to find empire-waisted dresses for her,” Mrs. Bower sighed, “to hide that God-awful stomach. It’s hard to find anything in that style elegant enough for after-five wear.”

“Well,” replied our Chair of Deacons’ wife, measuring her words, “it’s clear you take great pains to dress her to her best advantage. You are a good mother.”

“Like hell!” I thought to myself, and then felt shocked at my internal language.

***

I came home disgruntled by Mrs. Bower’s remarks to find Wilda plastered across my bed, her nail polish and polish remover sitting at a slope on my bedspread, my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in hands. With a pen, she was writing on the pages.

What are you doing!” I demanded. “Get your nail stuff off my bed before it spills. Stop writing in my book!” I heard my voice shouting, heard the words pour out, knew I should stop, but didn’t.

Wilda sat up and blinked. Her wide eyes declared: Who do you think you are?

“I needed to annotate To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t have time to get a copy and you already have one. So I took it.”

I just stared at her.

Wilda picked up her fingernail polish and remover and set them on her desk. Then she slammed my book closed, threw it onto my bed, and flounced to the door; Wilda knew how to make an exit. At the door she stopped.

“I am surprised by your anger, Wanda.” Her tone was parental, patronizing.

Surprised at my anger? I, too, was surprised—because for the first time I recognized what Wilda said and what she meant did not match. Her phrase “I was surprised,” meant something entirely different. It really meant, “Shame on you. You are not allowed feelings or behaviors that inconvenience me. Remember your place.”

Shame was a potent weapon against me; I don’t know if Wilda was insightful enough to perceive that or if she just hit a lucky mark once and, finding success there, struck with it whenever it suited her purpose. And, for as long I could remember back, such remarks had assured my compliance. I watched her make her exit sure of her success, sure she’d hit the mark. Had she?

 

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eScapegoat 4

Each week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week.

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

 

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

 

I imagined the foods of Magic Land: glistening fruits with tart-sweet juices and colors so deep their beauty hurt my heart, and breads buttery crisp on the outside and steamy soft inside, baked on stones by the sun. I painted these magic foods and, though I never quite got them onto paper the way I imagined them, painting them, dreaming on them, awakened in me a craving for these foods alone. In comparison, the food served up at our table looked pale and tasted bland. It was plastic food and toxic to my system.

With my fork, I pushed the food around my plate, separating it into patterns, rearranging it to pass the time until I could be excused.

“…wasteful!” Mother was saying, her tone disgusted. “… work hard to cook for you and it just goes in the trash.”

I awakened in my family’s world to find everyone’s eyes on me, as if I’d been in a conversation. Looking down at my plate, I saw my meatloaf neatly cut into cubes and then arranged in a circle around the plate’s perimeter. Green beans formed spokes in the center of the plate.

Ashamed, I thought at first to cover my stupidity with a napkin, but I’d already been found out. Everyone watched as I picked up my fork and tried to eat, but my stomach turned traitor. I shoved back my chair and raced to the bathroom, terrified of making a further scene by vomiting in the hall. Vomit fumes filled my throat and the small amount of dinner I had ingested poured out of my mouth into the toilet basin. Mother stood at the door.

“Rinse with this, but don’t swallow it.” She handed me a glass of water and watched me follow her instructions. Then she flushed the toilet.

“Done?”

I nodded, fearful of opening my mouth.

“Go to bed. I’ll take your temperature.”

I complied, though I knew I had no fever. I couldn’t eat family food; I needed the food of Magic Land.

 

After that, I made myself eat something at every meal, though I had to force it down. Still, the meatloaf trouble gave me an inspiration. I could get rid of the family food and protect Mother’s feelings at the same time. I would force down as much as I could and, as soon as I had privacy enough, lock myself in the bathroom and make myself throw up. Sometimes just the thought of the food squelching around in my stomach was enough, other times I applied my finger or the handle of my toothbrush to the problem.

One night Wilda, ill with the flu, kept running in and out of the bathroom at all hours. I couldn’t get enough privacy to throw up, and thinking of the food slowly poisoning my system kept me awake all night. Finally, I thrust my finger down my throat and threw up in the wastebasket. Mother heard me retching, came in, and thought I, too, had the flu. She got that weary look on her face, but I got some privacy in the bathroom the next day.

If I couldn’t get to the bathroom to throw up before bedtime, I’d lie awake until the house slept, then go to the bathroom and purge myself of the food toxins. I started running, too, to sweat out any leftover poison through my skin. Then I washed it all off in the shower.

 

Always hungry, I yearned for the food of Magic Land. Painting it was the closest I could come to having it, so I made my paintings as real as my young skills allowed. I also painted my inner self—what it looked like with the food poisons attacking it, how it looked after I’d purged it and given it Magic Land foods. Always I found a way to include the unfinished circle in each painting. I grew more and more creative in its placement, often hiding it so the viewers I imagined looking at my work would have to search for it. These viewers were wholly imaginary, however, because no one saw my work.

In my imaginings, an gallery curator discovered me, and, astonished by my skills, gave me a show. How I would meet such a person and how he would see work I’d buried in the back of a closet behind a screen of clothing I never included in my imaginings. They were my consolation; they didn’t have to make sense. I imagined my work hanging in an art show where my parents (Wilda was conveniently absent from these phantasms) would see them and know, at last, that I was Somebody. Their eyes would light up and they’d really smile at me. They wouldn’t feel so tired of and burdened by the care of me anymore.

***

But someone did see my work. Someone did find my stash. I wasn’t careful enough. One day, as I was secreting a new painting, Mother bellowed for me to come, help with dinner. I didn’t respond quickly enough, and Mother sent Wilda to fetch me. Wilda didn’t like the bother of dealing with me, so she stomped into the room wearing an irritable frown. Panicked, I slid the closet shut too hard; it bounced off the frame and stood slightly open. I’d forgotten to screen the box behind the hanging clothes. I slowly slid the closet door closed, trying to appear nonchalant. But Wilda’s sharp eyes had caught my alarm.

“Mother wants you . . . Now!”

Wilda wasn’t leaving. She would stay until I left and then she would snoop.

I stood my ground. “I’m coming. In a minute.” I’d have to find a new hiding place fast.

She stood her ground as well, planting her feet and crossing her arms.

“Wanda, get in here now!” Mother yelled.

Wilda gave me her “I win!” smile as I slinked from the room.

Mother kept me busy until dinnertime. I felt so sick over my paintings, I didn’t even try to eat. Wilda was all smiles and conversation.

“Are you ill?” Father asked with forced patience.

I nodded, blinking back tears. “Could I be excused?”

My parents exchanged glances and nodded. As I stood, Wilda took up the conversation, sweeping them into one of her stories. She didn’t want them thinking of me.

I entered our room nearly faint with fear, and opened the closet to find the box lid discarded on the floor and the clothes I usually piled around my box strewn like dead soldiers across a battlefield. I plowed through the wreckage and lifted the box—far too light in weight.

I knew what I’d find before looking. The box was empty. Not one painting, not one container of paint, not one brush remained. I looked across the room at Wilda’s desk. Centered neatly on her blotting pad lay paint containers and brushes: an eye-catching centerpiece for me. She’s claimed my paints and brushes and I’d never find my paintings.

I undressed and climbed between the sheets. The bedsprings groaned so pitiably, I wept. When Wilda came in later, I closed my eyes, feigning sleep. She didn’t try to speak to me. Why should she? She’d made her point without a word.

 

The next day, Wilda sat at the piano in a yellow flowered dress, practicing her recital piece. Over and over the same missed notes, over and over the same rhythmic errors. My head pounded with loss and rage. Driven by impulse, I rushed across the room and yanked the piano bench from under her.

Squealing, she went down—a flurry of yellow tangles and yellow blobs—banging her head on the bench seat. She sat, knees akimbo in a most unlady-like position, dress crumpled. Silence. Then wild screams. Shock, pain, rage—the screams spoke them all with economic eloquence. Terror pricked my spine. What had I done?

Silence again.

Wilda’s hands pushed against the keyboard, the air rang with dissonance. She pelted past me into the bathroom and slammed the door.

Mother and Father were out; I sat alone with my shame.

 

That night I confessed my crime to Father. I could think of no harsher punishment. He was reading in the den when I crept in and sat on the floor at his feet. I told everything to his hands.

“I’m sure you didn’t really mean it,” he said to his book. “Just don’t do it again.”

But I did mean it and I wanted someone to know that.

 

That night, as Wilda stripped to her slip before putting on pajamas, I saw train tracks of angry red where her spine ought to have been. I realized the piano bench had delivered a massive scrape, at least an inch wide and several inches long, down her back. As bad as the scrape looked, her head must have ached worse with the wallop it took.

She never told our parents, never retaliated against me. Maybe, like me, she needed punishment for her crime: for having violated my paintings. My act of violence freed her of guilt; she was thankful to bear the pain. But I had no one to release me. She’d won again.

***

I could control how much family food stayed in my system and, by now, my practice of purging had become a daily ritual. Father took to calling me “Scarecrow”: he meant it, I think, to shock me into eating more, but I liked it. I finally had a name of my own.

***

I went through childhood shadowing Wilda, following her through classrooms where she’d first sat and sparkled, seen puzzlement on the face of one teacher after another when they discovered my family connections. What happened here? their faces read. By the time I followed Wilda to Junior High, I discovered another difference: whereas I could walk through the school hallway unnoticed, Wilda’s presence, even unseen, attracted attention—particularly male attention. Boys paused in conversation, alert and searching, like dogs scenting a lush prey. Wilda strutted down the hallways, flanked by her army of hanger-on girlfriends, pretending not to notice. But she made them hope: a sly look to the side, a word spoken just a bit louder as she passed him by, a flip of hair or hip. Standing there, watching, I found myself wondering who was the hunted and who the hunter.

By the time I followed her to high school, I’d watched a string of hopefuls pass through our house under Father’s watchful eye. Some simply disappeared, others came again and again, their faces haggard, their eyes pleading. It was my job to do the lying: she wasn’t home or she was studying or she was grounded—which was particularly ludicrous, because Wilda was never grounded—at least, not until Hank.

eScapegoat 3

Each week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week.

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

            I took it into my head one day, bouncing in the back-facing seat of the wagon, to paint what I saw rolling behind me in the magic way I imagined it. I saw the painting, finished and just as it was to be, before my closed eyes. Before it disappeared, I had to get it onto paper. My toe tapped an impatient beat on the floorboard; I grew frantic for us to arrive home. What if I lost the Magic before I started?

The moment Father pulled into the drive and I felt the car shift into park, I was out of my seat twisting the back door handle and pushing open the door. I didn’t want to take the time to shut it, but I knew Mother would call me back if I didn’t, so I gave it a good shove and ran inside the house. In the hallway stood our trunk of art supplies: rock-hard play dough in lidless yellow tubs; manilla paper, mainly soiled or creased; crayons in the big box with the sharpener—we’d stripped down the crayons and sharpened many of them to nubs, because sharpening was at least as much fun as crayoning; a 16-color pan of watercolors (with the colors all muddied together)—brush included, and a sheaf of typing paper. These last items I snatched up and fled with into the bathroom. I shut and locked the door, rolled off a length of toilet paper, carefully moistened it, and began painstakingly to wipe each paint pad free of encroaching colors. How I resented the time this process took, but my project was hopeless without clear, clean colors. At last sixteen glistening colors—some nearly gone—blinked up at me from the tray.

I picked up the brush and instinctively felt the bristles: rock hard. If I’d known a curse word, I’ve had used it. Back to the sink: water had no effect on the stiff bristles, so I tried soap. Deep-pink suds slid off the brush, puddling in the sink base. More soap and water and more pink suds. I repeated and repeated the process. Rose pink suds faded to pale pink and, at last, to white.

“Let me in!” Wilda bellowed, pounding on the door. We had another bathroom, but Wilda knew instinctively when to torment me.

“Just a minute!” I wrapped the brush in a wad of toilet paper, grabbed the tray and paper, and opened the door. Wilda stared at the assortment in my hands; I could tell she wanted to take them from me, but the call of nature was too strong. She dashed past me and slammed the door.

I feared that, once she finished, she’d find me out and take my precious, clean materials away, so instead of working at the kitchen table, I grabbed a photo album from the living room and dashed outside. I chose a hiding place behind a tree and settled down to work.

Rats! No water. I skulked into the kitchen, looking and listening for Wilda. Mother, up to her wrists in dough, gave me a raised eyebrow.

“Thirsty,” I lied, pouring water into a large plastic glass.

She gave a half-nod and went back to kneading.

Back in my sanctuary, I finally got started. Using the photo album as a desk, I settled a clean sheet of paper on its top and dipped the brush first into the water and then into the pad of purple paint. At the top of the page, I created a purple night edging into blue at the horizon, then a landscape of sky yellows, greens, and pinks. I wanted to paint in an animal I’d imagined, but I didn’t know how. Toward the bottom of the page, the colors muddied, and I cursed myself for not bringing extra cups of water. Hadn’t my kindergarten teacher taught us to change out the water when it got muddy so the watercolors would stay pretty? How could I be so stupid?

***

I emptied the muddy-colored water onto the grass, which hopefully didn’t care about the murkiness of its refreshment, and headed toward our outdoor hose. I’d have to be careful; inside they might hear me turning it on. I scrunched up my face and inched the faucet knob open. Water trickled into the cup. When the cup was as full as I could carry without spilling, I turned off the water, set down the cup, and darted into the garage. I grabbed some margarine tubs Mother had stashed there. These I filled, too, terrified at being found out and my project interrupted. When I returned, my painting had dried, leaving one small section of typing paper, just in the bottom left corner, free of paint. I decided not to paint it in, but, rather, to edge the brush all around it until a circle of white, untouched by paint, winked up at me. Then I went back to the landscape. By adding just a hint of water to some colors, I made flowers pop out from their surroundings and each of my magic land’s three moons take on her own personality. I didn’t attempt any animals, though.

I set that painting aside and started a daylight scene at a shoreline, filling the air with weightless birds and washing the water with the colors of Magic Land. Again I left a circle in the bottom left corner clean of paint while I painted a shoreline dotted with fantastic plants and—almost hidden from view—strange, small animals. Since I could mostly hide the animals with the plant stems, I felt I could risk putting them in. I created several, each with wide, honest eyes that looked right out of the painting at me.

With the next painting, I moved the unpainted circle into the sky in place of a sun. I filled the sky with blue-green paint and, below the sky, created a forest of silver and golden trees, their branch-like arms reaching upward. I painted trees right down to the bottom edge of the paper, so that only the top branches of the closest trees appeared in the painting. The blue pad of paint was now empty and the green nearly gone. The sky of my parents’ world was darkening as I carried the treasures into the garage. Father was out there, sorting out the twisty-looking nail things and metal octagons in his toolbox.

“See what I did?”

He looked over the lid of the toolbox and nodded. “Nice,” he said. “I never saw a green sky, though.”

“Yeah, I know. I just . . .”

“Sure. It’s nice. You should put one on the fridge.”

I surveyed the three paintings. Which one most deserved the honor? I chose the final painting of gold and silver trees. Holding it before me and taking careful steps so the wet paint wouldn’t run or the painting blow up against me and smear, I threaded my way into the kitchen. On the fridge, I had to move the family photos and one of Wilda’s coloring book pictures aside to make room, but Father said I could. I chose tiny magnets that could hold my painting’s corners without taking away from the look of the scene. I stepped back and looked. The sun circle could be rounder on one side and some of the trees weren’t quite the right shape, but I liked it. I felt proud of my work and I could do even better next time.

At dinner, Father said, “Did you see Wanda’s painting on the fridge?”

Mother looked over and nodded. “Very nice, Wanda. Very nice.”

***

The next morning I surveyed the fridge. My painting was gone. The photos and Wilda’s coloring book page had been moved back to their original positions. Wilda had taken my painting. If I had any doubt, it was removed by the toss of her hair when she saw my eyes on the fridge. But if my parents ever noticed that the painting had gone missing, they never spoke of it. I never did, either.

***

I asked Mother to buy me more paints and paper and she did: a nice set this time and a whole tablet of paper to myself. I kept my paintings to myself after the fridge day, tucking them into a packing box and then secreting them under a mound of old clothes in that back of my closet. I created a screen of hanging clothes over the mound and felt myself secure. Wilda hated cleaning and picking up, and she never went into the closet except to toss something inside or to grab an article of clothing off the hanging rack.

Mother bought more supplies when I asked, but she never asked to see anything I painted, and neither did anyone else. I never volunteered to show them, so the stack grew and grew, paintings varying widely in subject—even some animals once I checked out books from the library that described how to draw and paint them—but always, always I found a way to leave a tiny circle unpainted. This had to be.

***

“Father, why don’t you like strawberries?”

“They’re sour. And the seeds get stuck in your teeth.”

I digested this information and decided there’d be no strawberries in Magic Land.

***

I sat in prayer meetings, my skinny bones aching against the hard pew seats, my body feeling small and lost, my mind posing razor-edged questions no one wanted asked aloud.

A man stood, spoke: “I’d like prayer for our down-the-street neighbors. They’re Catholics, and . . .”

Across the sanctuary, I heard sighs and saw heads shake in communal sympathy.

The man nodded in assent. “I’d like prayer that they’ll get saved.”

I searched the sanctuary, studying each face. Wiser, older heads than mine nodded in solemn agreement. I sat amazed at these people who could know the need of another soul, when I couldn’t even figure out my own. We, in this small space, understood the needs of everyone. We had the Answer.

I knew at once to be amazed at their certainty and conviction. And, at the same time, I knew I could not share it.

eScapegoat 2

Each week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week.

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

 

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

            Mother canned the peaches that grew, heavy with juice and fragrance, from three trees in our backyard. Each summer, I was handed a bushel basket and commissioned to fill it with plump, ripe fruit. I always had to tell my heart to slow its pace when I first placed a foot on the ladder that started on the ground beside me and ended somewhere up among the branches, leaves, and fruit. Stepping foot on the first rung, the transition between land and air always left me dizzy. But once I got a few rungs up among the gently curling leaves and the fragrant fruit, once I wrapped my fingers around a peach to test its ripeness—still hard and a little green or fuzzy soft and blushing orange and deep red—gave a gentle jerk, and heard the satisfying snap of stem, then laid the peach with its cousins in the basket, I left my fears in another world. These little friends, nestled among the embracing green of their own leaves, looked so wholesome and healthy, I knew everything was all right.

The kitchen would fill with steam and with the aroma of peaches and spice: Mother would ladle it all into Mason jars, her face moist and red from the steamer. I loved to load the cooled jars onto our pantry shelves. It seemed to me we had an infinity of gem-like peaches—some sliced, others whole—and, swimming with them in peach nectar, cinnamon sticks and little buds of clove. It smelled so good I sneaked a clove one time and, when I bit down on it, discovered it didn’t taste nearly as good as it smelled. A lick of cinnamon stick yielded a similar result. Some things, it seems, aren’t to be taken full strength.

But my favorite peach-time past time happened in the evening, when the temperature cooled just a bit and the sky turned a blue so deep it made my chest ache. Mother would hand Wilda and me each a leftover Mason jar. We’d haul out Father’s hammer and a nail and take turns pounding holes in the metal lid. We set the holey lid inside its screw top, grabbed the jars and went out looking for fireflies. Father called them lightning bugs, but that didn’t sound beautiful enough for such mysteries. Fireflies. That’s what they deserved to be called.

Darting and dodging between trees, I’d snag one after another in my jar, always telling them not to worry, I’d set them free in just a little while—I just wanted to look at them for a bit. Then I’d set the jar, filled with orbs of soft yellow light, on the picnic table, rest my chin in my hands, and be lost to wonder. The lights blinked on and off, gently moving around the inside of the glass. Their owners didn’t seem worried—they didn’t race around the bottom, trying desperately to scuttle up and over the sides like the spider I trapped one year. Fireflies just glowed inside the glass as they had done outside it. Like it really didn’t matter to them at all.

I’d stay there, chin in hands at the picnic table, trying to be really quiet so on one would think to make me go to bed, until someone finally did. Then I’d open the jar lid and watch the fireflies hover and then ascend, their lights at first concentrated above the jar, then dispersing into the sky like stars on wings.

***

The lower shelf of our home bookcase housed a Bible storybook: glossy cover, deep colors, simple lettering: Bible Storybook. I don’t know who purchased it. To my childhood mind, it had always existed as part of us: one of the furnishings of our existence. I loved the stories, especially once I was able to read them to myself, but, for me, the pictures held the most magic. Mostly deep blues and purples, they called to me from a distant, magic place and I longed to follow. I studied them with wonder, noting that a blob of color set beside blobs of another color created a brand new color, that lines and squiggles, themselves only odd shapes such as I could make, put together in some mysterious equation equaled a flower or a donkey leg or the tiles on a roof. I remember especially “The Escape to Egypt”: under a deep blue sky garnished in cold stars Mary, on donkey back, clutched her babe, as Joseph, striding with determined purpose, held the reins. I felt such urgency looking at that picture, felt the terror in the mother’s heart, the resolve in the father’s. I lost and found myself, looking at that book.

***

I made what Mother called “mud pies,” except mine were more “mud pictures.” When I grew weary of forming rounds out of our backyard mud, I would smear a layer of it on our back porch and scratch shapes into it with sticks, rocks, and my fingernails. I wished for color, but mud didn’t come with much pigment range, so I contented myself with what I had. I grew accomplished with making do.

***

eScapegoat

escapegoatEach week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season.

After today, Ash Wednesday, look for posts each Tuesday of the Lenten season.

 

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands

From the beginning, I guess, Wilda and I existed separate. We ate the same food, shared the same bedroom furnished with twin beds whose burdened springs squeaked each time one of us turned over, went to the same schools, and, for a season, rode in the same backseat, sticking our tongues out at one another when we thought our parents weren’t looking. Yet I never dwelled in Wilda’s universe; my world was so detached from hers that she could not have imagined it, even had she cared enough to try.

At her birth, my parents named my older sister Wilda. When I came along, I was named Wanda. Two names starting with W and ending with A, three letters between. I always felt my name was a shadow of my sister’s, that I was more a shadow than a person in my own right. And shadows know their place.

***

I even looked like the stuff of shadows. Wilda was golden, literally, with burnished curls the strong color of corn and open eyes flecked blue, green, and brown. Wilda possessed honest eyes: eyes that drew you in. I, on the other hand, wore my straggly hair tied back in a ponytail that, according to my school photos, usually hung lank and off-kilter down my back. My eyes, gray almost to the point of iridescence, discomforted people. I kept my head down, because when I raised my eyes to others, they would meet my gaze, then their eyes would widen and slide away from my face. I chose to be the first to do the ignoring.

***

I saw a lot of my sister’s back. She claimed the seat behind and to the right of the driver’s seat, so Father could easily see her in the rearview mirror as he checked traffic. We pestered each other too much when we sat side by side—Mother’s words—so by the time I was five, I was relegated to the back-facing seat in the station wagon. If I swiveled around and craned my neck, I could see one of Wilda’s pigtails hanging down her back and the wispy strands of hair at the base of her neck. Craning hurt my neck, though, so I usually just stared out the back window, imagining the road that lay behind us as a magic path to a magic place only I knew.

At meals, Father sat at the head of our oaken table, Mother at the foot, and Wilda and I on either side. Wilda would angle her chair toward Father and inch it up by degrees until I was mostly behind her. Mother protested a few times, but Wilda could be obstinate. Mother gave up.

I ate my meals feeling alone at a table for four, wanting all the while to be really alone. During meals, Wilda was always full of stories: entertaining Mother and Father, holding them in her power as best she could. If the conversation came my way, she yanked it back and punished me later with a pull of hair or a shove in the back. As we grew older, she finessed her punishments with remarks designed to demean me in front of her friends or to discredit me in front of adults. But never in front of Mother or Father. Wilda was a survivor; she knew how to play the game.

I loved her: couldn’t help myself. Each time she abused me, I stepped right up and asked her do it again. And for that she despised me. I knew instinctively that she had always despised me. I could imagine no other reality than the one in which I loved my despiser. It never occurred to me that she could change the way she felt about me or that I deserved anything other than to be despised by her and largely ignored by both parents. I never wondered why I should be hated. I was just someone to be hated and the most loving thing I could do was to make myself scarce, to remove as much irritation as possible from before Wilda’s eyes.

I expressed my love by keeping out of Wilda’s way so as not to raise her ire too much, so as not to distress her. And my parents wore such weary expressions any time I approached them, that I kept most things to myself. I remained in the shadows and kept out of the way. I, too, was a survivor, if a barely visible one.

***

I do recall one time, though, when my heart overtook me. Wilda had been particularly abusive that day, so much so that Father noticed and spoke to her in his cool tone. In her flashing eye I saw the truth—his reproof made her hate me all the more. I ran to her, wrapping my arms around her waist.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” I wailed.

Her body tensed. She raised her arms over her head so as to reduce body contact with me. As my father watched with sad eyes, I stood there, alone, holding onto her, knowing myself to be repulsive. Then my heart burst open. Releasing her, I fled in tears to my bed.

“Wilda!” I heard Father reproach, his cool voice even chillier. She would hate me even more now.

Carols, Camels, & Clay

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“We Three Kings,” one of the few American carols, is…well…off base. At least portions of it. First, the magi were star students—either astrologers or astronomers or some combination—not kings. Also, there’s no evidence they were three. Why do we picture that number? Probably because the wise men brought three gifts. Also, while we’re debunking myths, they didn’t come to the stable, as we often see depicted. Their journey took months, possibly even over a year, so they came to Jesus’ house. That’s why we celebrate Epiphany after Christmas—to give the magi time to arrive.

So why do I love “We Three Kings?” First, there’s the tune: mournful yet engaging, brooding yet hopeful. I love the way the tune plods upward as we sing: “field and fountain, moor and mountain,” then dances over “following yonder star.”

Second, the lyrics prophecy Jesus’ full mission: birth, ministry, death, and glorification. And they do so with such artistry:

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/Sealed in a stone-cold tomb,

and

Frankincense to offer have I/incense owns a deity nigh

and, of course,

Star of wonder, star of night/Star with royal beauty bright

Profound. And beautiful.

The carol’s epic scope is appropriate for Epiphany: the culmination of the Twelve Days of Christmas. After all, with the magi’s visit, the Good News went global.

One last reason I love this carol: in the late ‘80s, when Claymation animation was hot, the song was featured in A Claymation Christmas. The “three kings” lead off with the stanzas, then the tune rocks out as the camels take over. That’s right. Camels sporting bowties, awesome footwear, and even a fez. And these dromedaries can sing. You should check it out; it’s life changing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnIFTtW1pko

A happy 2017 to you all. May God gift you will all you need to be all you can be.

Hark! It’s Wesley, Mendelssohn, Paul, & the Peanuts Gang!

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It’s become a family tradition. We tilt our heads back, haul in a breath, and, with gusto, sing “loo loo loo, loo-loo, loo loo…” The iconic scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas lifts our smiles and our “loos” each holiday season. Even without the words, Felix Mendelssohn’s tune is recognizable: “Hark the Herald Angels.”  Mendelssohn, a gifted German composer who died too young, crafted a tune accessible to sing, as well. Every note works its magic within the treble or bass’ five bars: a range reachable for all. We’re not sure why Snoopy and crew had to assume that awkward head angle to produce the tune, but it’s their self-expression and who are we to judge?

I will confess that, as a child, the carol gave me visions of an angel named Harold who sported beard stubble and held a half-smoked cigar. A unique view of the angelic presence. And, yep, I was a weird kid. Charles Wesley, lyricist of the song and the most prolific hymn writer of all time, obviously had a different image in mind. Charles, a Latin scholar and Oxford graduate, is credited along with his brother, John, with founding Methodism. Charles also owned a poet’s heart, as we find in today’s carol:

Joyful all ye nations rise/Join the triumph of the skies.

“Hark the Herald Angels’” lyrics echo the poetic message of Philippians 2: 5-11 incarnation poem. Here’s a bit of St. Paul’s poem:

Christ Jesus,

 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

 

Paul’s message and Charles’? That Christ reduced Himself to human form: not to take advantage, not to punish, but to show us the face of God and to draw us Godward.

Light and life to all he brings/risen with healing in his wings.

Healing. Hope. Life.

Wow. That is good news.

We’re invited, via Mendelssohn’s melody and Wesley’s poetry, to lift our heads and voices in good-news song. Perhaps this is what Charles Schultz had in mind with his Peanuts animation.

So, are you ready? It’s not too late—we’re still in the Twelve Days of Christmas. Heads back, voices raised, now—give it all you’ve got! Here’s some inspiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP37k831y9U.

 

The First Noel

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No well, no well, no well, no well—

We have no water, ‘cause we have no well.

 

I confess this was a favorite childhood rendering of the traditional carol. But I loved “The First Noel” for other than its pun potential. The song’s melody moved along the scale with graceful assurance, coaxing my childhood voice along. The carol’s lyrics captured my imagination: “…a cold winter’s night that was so deep.” I saw the deep blues and purples of a star-drenched heaven, heard the intermittent bleating of sheep, felt the night air’s sharp chill. Beautiful. The alchemy of melody and lyric rendered a holy mystery that, to this day, awakens my yearning for the now and not yet.

In my teens, I learned to appreciate the song’s tenor line, especially the fourth “noel” of the chorus, in which the notes soar above the uppermost score and send voices into flight. Gave me chills. I heard a soprano take that flight an octave higher and, gaining courage, tried the run myself. Wow! “The First Noel” deepened my appreciation for four-part harmony and prodded me to take creative risks. A life-long gift.

Plus, I felt for the shepherds: stuck out on a hillside in the dead of night, prying their eyes open against insistent sleep, keeping those weary eyes peeled for predators or for hapless, wandering sheep.

Then, into that deep quiet blasts a nuclear-explosion of light. The deep dark sky burns with brilliant light. A voice—but so much more than a human voice—speaks words these regular joes can scarcely take in. Now, row upon row, battalion upon battalion of blinding beings join in, giving praise to God.

How does angel voice sound to the human ear? How does a host of such voices resonate against its bones and blood? No wonder the shepherds were sore afraid. Nothing in their experience had prepared them from such a message delivered by such messengers. Yet, instead of trotting off to the nearest pub, instead of agreeing, “let’s just keep this between us, okay, guys?” the shepherds went. They sought out the child, offered up their honest, awkward homage, and then buttonholed the townfolk to share the news. The shepherds probably got a lot of weird looks.

I’ve learned, since childhood, that Jesus was probably born in spring, when shepherds were more likely to take their flocks into the hills, and that scripture describes the angels as saying, rather than singing, their message, as so many carols depict. Okay. Not a cold winter’s night, but a deep one. And I’ve no idea how the angel message sounded to the shepherds’ ears. What I do know from the carol and from the scriptures it celebrates in song, is that God sees big. Bigger than our social systems. For God messaged blue-collar shepherds and foreign dignitaries with good tidings of great joy for all people: “a Savior has been to born to you.”

All of you. Each of you.  It’s enough to make anyone sing!

Sweet Little Jesus Boy

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I can’t recall when, in my childhood, I first heard the spiritual. It’s one of those memories so early and formative, it knits itself into your bones. Since then, I’ve heard “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” sung by church choirs and perfectly inflected by opera stars. The spiritual is a prayer offered to both the baby and the grown, murdered, and resurrected Jesus. It speaks to Him of poverty, of cruelty, and of spiritual blindness.

Sweet little Jesus boy, they made you be born in a manger.

That we would relegate a birthing mother to a cattle cave is bad enough.

We didn’t know who you were.

That we didn’t see the abhorrence of our act, unfathomable. Yet that’s what happened. And to what “Jesus Boy’s” creators could relate. Not to be seen. Not to be treated as God’s children.

Didn’t know you’d come to save us all
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind we did not see
We didn’t know who You were

“Jesus Boy’s” creators knew what it meant to be made invisible, to be treated as “less than.”

The world treat you mean, Lord.

Treat me mean, too…

Felt the pain of cruelty in their bones. Yet…

Just seems like we can’t do right
Look how we treated you
But please, Sir, forgive us Lord
We didn’t know it was you.

They don’t choose to see themselves simply as victims. Owning their part in the need for Jesus’ coming, they ask forgiveness. Asking for anything requires courage, because asking makes us vulnerable. Asking forgiveness takes extraordinary courage, because that kind of asking also requires humility.

You done showed us how you been tryin’

Master, you don’t showed us how,

Even as you were dyin’.

 

Faithful unto death. Can I do that? I don’t know. The song’s creators didn’t, couldn’t know. But, in Jesus, they saw a courage for which they longed. In the Little Jesus Boy, Murdered Man, Resurrected God they found hope.

For me, the song best finds its truth when sung by a single voice. One that’s known some tears.

Check out this rendering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5_w2XpG7DI

Filthy Rags & Faithful Treks

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Growing up, each Wednesday night and three times on Sunday, I got told I was a sinner. More than that, even my “righteous acts were as filthy rags” to God. I got the distinct impression my preachers and teachers thought Jesus erred in judgment when He came to save me.

For a sensitive child leaning hard toward perfectionism, the words were toxic. Shame soaked my soul; to this day I battle its dreary chill.

Recently, I heard a Ted Talk speaker share results of her research on human connection. Shame, she discovered, disconnects us from relationships: well-connected persons believe they deserve love. That’s a profoundly different message from the filthy rags exhortation.

“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”                            

Joyful? Triumphant? Could God really want that for me? If so, where does such joy abide? Over what might I triumph?

“O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

Dame Julian of Norwich described sinning as falling in a ditch, the benevolent Christ reaching down a hand to draw us out. What a compassionate image of sin—who would not adore such a Lord?

That’s the joyful journey: to live Godward, to adore Christ. I can do that. I want to do that. Sure, I’m going to foul it up; I’m going to sin. But that’s not the big story. For Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

“O Come, All Ye Faithful” depicts faith as a journey to seek and then to adore the Christ child. Along the way, there will ditches to fall into, brambles and ambles to divert and distract. But as long as I get back up, or turn around, or clear away the rubble, God is waiting with a hand to help me up. Not to slap my face.

As an adult, I wonder and I worry about the motives of my early teachers: did they truly want me to struggle with self-loathing all my life? Or were they, too, soaked in shame? If so, I hope they, too, discovered Jesus’ gift: life to the full. Because, wow, that’s cause for joy and adoration.

Prayer: Jesus, it’s a confusing journey down here. I’ll sin. Lose my way. Forget my first love. When I fall in a ditch, reach out Your hand; I will gratefully grasp it. And adore You. Amen.