Bike Fail

“Find another way to keep fit,” said the podiatrist in uncharacteristically stern tones. Decades of walking had netted me two very unhappy feet. What to do? I needed time out in God’s nature and, never much good at sitting, had used the rhythm of my steps to focus my prayers.

I rummaged up warm memory from my youth: cycling home from the library with a basketful of books. Eureka! Calling in wifely and motherly chips 2016 Mother’s Day, I requested the gift of a bike. I loved her on sight: old-style frame, cream-colored paint, and stenciling that reminded me of ice cream parlors and The Music Man. I named her Cordelia.

Worry: would I remember how to balance after all these years? A surreptitious ride around the neighborhood allayed those fears: you really do never forget how to ride a bike! But an altogether different problem arose. The slopes that seemed gentle to my walking feet grew Everest-sized when I pedaled them. Breezes that mercifully cooled my walking skin buffeted my biking body with maniacal force. And, it turns out, you use different muscles bi-peding than you do bi-peddling. My quadriceps screamed, “What did we ever do to you?”

I finished the ride on willpower. I was clearly past it. Done for. Failure with a capital F.

But what of Cordelia? She was a gift of love and hope. I couldn’t give up on her. I painted my bike helmet like van Gogh’s Starry Night and, following the advice of the ages, got right back on the, um, bike.

Not great. Not disastrous.

Today I can ride longer before my legs turn into overcooked noodles. I can manage inclines with a bit more panache.  It’s not as easy as I’d like, but it’s worth the effort. Plus, I learned that failure, while harsh, has benefits. I learned

  1. Failure doesn’t kill us. Even though at the time our mortification might wish it did. In surviving failure, in a larger sense, we win.
  2. Failure defines our values. Sometimes we give something a go and failure tells us, in no uncertain terms, “Nope. Not for me.” Other times, when we face a challenge that’s hard, but somehow energizing (what I call God energy), failure spurs us on. We test unused muscles and set our determined chins.
  3. Failure fosters humor. We grow in self-acceptance when we can laugh at our humanness. Not in a derisive way, but in a way that says: “Yep. That’s me. Warts and all. Gotta love me.”
  4. Failure cultivates community. We all fail. Sharing that honestly helps us discover—and share—the refreshing truth that failure doesn’t define us.

Sure, it’s frustrating to re-tackle with determination (and Ben Gay) a skill I once mastered with nary a thought. But it’s frustration with benefits. I feel a kind of wondering joy as I wheel Cordelia out of the garage and slap on my helmet. There are adventures out there just waiting for me. I intend to pedal out and find them.

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Housing Grief

In our neighborhood sits a fire-gutted house. For months it sat, its yard weed ridden and rodent infected, its shattered windows like eyes into a dead soul. How long would it be left in that state? Why not just tear it down and rebuild?

Then in came the troops. First, the lawn was mown. Then, inside, fresh wood transformed the space from empty into potential. Outside, the crew built additions onto the existing structure. The house was, at its soul, what it had been, but also something new. A resurrection house.

The house reminds me that fires come. They destroy what has been. And we grieve. Grief takes the time it takes. Slowly, we’re opened to hope—not for what was, but for what might be. A resurrection. A soul house transformed.

This Eastertide season finds our family in loss. Last month, my husband’s job was outsourced. The life we’d known, the life we’d counted on, is gone. At 60+, we look out at the world through broken windows. Around us, as we wait and watch for what will be, we see resurrection. In nature. In the lives of others. In fire-gutted houses.

Whatever you are grieving, I hope for you clear evidence of resurrection. And with it, anticipation of fresh, new life.

eScapegoat Easter Reading

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 Eastertide. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Into the Wild

Never at home with the points of the compass or even with directions left versus right, I stopped to get gas, apparently turned the opposite direction I needed to return to the Interstate, and found myself deep in a neighborhood of weary houses and weed-ridden yards. Kids played in the street without adults around to yell at them. I pulled over, made myself breathe, and then turned the car around, looking for familiar landmarks. Thinking backward, I retraced my drive through the neighborhood, down the drag of decaying convenience stores, through light after light, until finally I saw the Interstate cutting across my vision: a ramp of gray marked with huge stars—we are the Lone Star State, after all! Following the blue and red shield signs, I made my way onto the Interstate, which immediately sloped upward into the sky.

I drove in another world: only gray barriers and clouds existed here. My car moved itself toward the embankment; I felt powerless to do anything to stop it. In a moment, I would be flying in these clouds, and then falling. It was fixed, it would be. My heart thudded and my stomach clenched. I felt dampness under my arms and a prickling at my scalp. I sat, helpless, as the car sped up and moved toward the barrier.

I told myself, forced myself to realize that I was pushing the accelerator; I was steering toward the sky. Since I couldn’t seem to stop it, I did the first thing I could. I eased off the gas. Looking behind me, I saw a single car approaching. He’d just have to understand—this was the best I could do. As my front bumper approached the barrier, I pulled my eyes away from the clouds and onto the road before me.

“Drive here,” I commanded myself. “Only here.”

My front bumper veered into the lane and I forced myself to hold the sides of the hood between yellow lines that depicted the lane’s boundaries. Below me, closer and closer, cars sped down the Interstate, grounded and going about their business. In a moment, I would join them. I would end this successfully.

Down the ramp, merging into traffic, accelerating to comparable speed—I had made it. Only then did I realize I’d been holding my breath, only then did I glance down to see my heart thudding through my t-shirt. Only then did I feel my exhaustion. I longed to pull over to the side of the road, close my eyes, and sleep. Since I couldn’t do that, I cranked up the radio and sang along at the top of my lungs. I was alive—more so than I could ever remember—and I found that I was glad.

***

I arrived at the dorm the day before my assigned roommate, accepted my key at the front desk, and plunked my stuff onto the floor. The dorm was empty, except for a few other women who’d arrived early. I nodded to them, head down, as I walked down the hallway. But mainly I stayed in my room, reading and rereading the college materials I’d received until, at last, my eyes forced themselves shut.

I woke with a start the next morning, fearful I had overslept and missed registration and orientation. An absurd worry, since both activities began after lunch. It was still quite early when I stuffed the campus map into my pocket, and decided to stroll over to the administration building and look around.

A catwalk spanned the street between my dorm and the administration building. I stepped out in one world and midway found myself in another. Below me, splotches of green—fresh spring green; sad, withered green; deep, restful green—covered almost my entire plane of vision. Here and there the hard gray planes of housetops evidenced the distance between my feet and the unseen ground below. A rusty guardrail spanned the catwalk. Since the rail was high enough from the sidewalk to allow a body to slide through, someone had strung metal cording through holes in the railing, cutting the space in half.

I couldn’t feel my feet on the ground. I felt, instead, drawn inexorably toward the guardrail. My feet would, of their own volition, propel me toward and over the railing. I would have no choice but to plunge over the side, down, down into the canvas of trees. I stopped myself inches from the rail, heart racing, and sat squarely in the sidewalk. I needed to feel myself on the ground.

I couldn’t stay here; already students were gaping at me as they hurried by. I waited until a break formed in the traffic, forced my knees to unbend and my legs to straighten, focused my eyes on the sidewalk’s edge nearest the street, and made my feet carry me there, away from the siren song of the guardrail. A car blew its horn; I ignored it, knowing that walking this traffic-riddled balance beam was the only way I could make it to the other side.

One step. Another. Another step. Another. After an eternity, I beheld a world like the one I’d left before stepping onto the catwalk; I forced my way toward it. When I stepped off the catwalk, exhaustion claimed me. I made my way to a bus stop bench and collapsed onto the searingly hot metal seat. I didn’t care. This felt real: evidence that I had made it out of the strange world of the catwalk and into the world of choice.

 

eScapegoat 7

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 (apologies for my late start this week).

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

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

I let two students present before raising my hand. I thought if I didn’t get it over with, I’d scream or vomit or maybe both. I’d planned out and practiced my first sentence: “People of Ireland take care choosing names for their children.” My hands shook as I set the posters on the chalk rail. I heard some say “Whoa!” in an awed tone. I gathered my breath and made my way through my opening sentence, then turned my attention to the poster, read through the names, and explained the illustrations I’d done for each one. The room fell silent as I spoke; I felt the other students’ attention on my work and found myself relaxing and even enjoying their regard. At last (though it was probably four minutes, max) I sat down, surrounded by applause and smiles. The teacher asked if she could keep the posters to show her other classes. I nodded yes.

“Creative,” she said, looking at the posters and nodding. “Unique and well executed.”

After that, I was able to attend to the other students’ presentations. I saw lots of white, blue-lined index cards, heard sentence after sentence initiated with “Ummmmm…” and, not surprisingly, heard the names Joshua, David, Benjamin, Rachel, Mary, and Esther defined time and time again. One name, Azazel, caught my attention, partly because I liked the sound of it (it sounded like lightning looks), and partly because it meant a demon of the desert. I imagined fiery eyes peering out from under a scorched stone, then shivered with delightful horror. I thought I would paint Azazel someday.

***

In a small-town high school, word—any word about just about anything—spreads fast. A student in my class told her little sister about my project, and it was soon known that I painted. The other students, noticing me for the first time, seemed to feel I was, myself, some kind of rare art piece: something to be placed under glass and examined from all sides, while remembering to keep your hands clasped behind your back and not to get too close. Painters were a rarity in my family’s town. No one knew quite what to do with me.

***

“You paint?”

“Yeah.” I hesitated before owning it. I didn’t know where the admission would lead.

“I want to see.”

“Oh, they’re not that good. I’m still working on them some.”

“Please. I want to see.”

I tingled with some composite emotion borne of terror and hope. “Okay. They’re in my room.”

We mounted the stairs and Sheila thumped onto my bed, grabbing the pillow and hugging it close. She kicked off her sandals and folded her legs under her. I fished the box from the back of the closet and tenderly lifted the stack of paintings, now warped with water and paint. I silently apologized to the works for any misunderstandings or hurtful words they might be forced to endure. “We’ll be all right,” I soundlessly assured them.

In neat rows, as I imagined they would hang in a gallery, I laid the paintings on the floor at the foot of the bed. Sheila flopped over onto her stomach and surveyed the process. When I finished, she lay there silent, staring. I didn’t know where to look—at the paintings? At Sheila? Out the window? I could hear blood pulsing in my ears like an ocean trapped in a seashell. Would she never speak?

“Wow! These are wonderful, Wanda. I could never do this! Where do you get your ideas?” She stared again and said quietly, “I could never think of these things.”

“I don’t know. It just comes. Thank you.”

“Yeah. I mean it. Really. These are more than just beautiful. I could never paint trees like that.”

“Sure you could. Want to learn?”

Her eyes widened. She sat up and pushed her pale hair behind her ear. “Really? You could teach me?”

“Sure! We can start now.”

I’d never had anyone want me to teach them what I so loved to do. Euphoric, I pulled my paint box from under my bed and searched out two pads of watercolor paper.

“Let’s paint outside so we can look at some trees.”

Her large blue eyes shone with anticipation. “Okay!” she bounded off the bed and grabbed the paper. “Let’s go!”

***

I loved Sheila as I’d wanted to love my sister, and Sheila responded to my love as my sister would never allow herself to do. The guarded expression Sheila wore around her mother vanished, and the brightness of her soul shone on her face. I knew her mother was ashamed of Sheila’s size, so when Sheila and I were together, I stayed far from the subject. Instead, we spent hours in the library, we flew kites that dipped and danced on the winds of March, and, in every season, we painted. With me, Sheila allowed herself to open up, and I tried to be worthy of her trust. She called me “Big Sister,” and, for the first time, I felt the word “sister” might mean something good. She knew I loved her as she was. I knew we’d always be important to one another. I didn’t know then that comfort is an all too common, if unrecognized, addiction.

***

“Do you know Mrs. McKenzie?”

“The seventh-grade English teacher?”

Sheila nodded, gazing at the ground.

“Sure. I like her. She introduced me to Sherlock Holmes. A hard grader, but fair.”

“Yeah…” Sheila separated out a strand of her almost white hair and inspected it for split ends. “I like her, too. It’s just…”

“What?”

“Well, I overheard this argument—her and her husband. It’s weird thinking about teachers having problems…”

The turn of conversation dimmed the joy of our reading time; I wished Sheila would either say what she wanted to say or just drop it. She pushed her hair behind her ear and sat up with her hands in her lap as if she were on one of those lawyer shows as a witness. “Okay. So Mr. Grosman asked me to make photocopies of this handout, ’cause we were short eight for the class. He told me to make the copies in the office—he chose me over Beverly, who had her hand up to volunteer—and come right straight back to class. So I was hurrying and the paper jammed in the copier. I got really scared I had ruined it, and I didn’t want to tell Mr. Grosman, ’cause he gets mad kind of easy and ’cause Beverly would know about it, so I went to see if someone in the office could help me. The teacher’s lounge door was open a little, so I pushed on it. It smells like cigarettes in there, did you know?”

I nodded, hoping she’d move on along with her story.

“Mrs. McKenzie was standing there, talking to her husband. I thought they’d tell me I needed to leave because I was right there, you know? But they never even saw me. I knew it was Mr. McKenzie, because I’d seen him at our basketball games with Mrs. McKenzie. He goes to our church, right?

“Who?”

“Mr. McKenzie. John McKenzie.”

“Yeah.” Strangely, I hadn’t put John McKenzie and Mrs. McKenzie together as a couple, I guess because I’d never seen them together.

“Anyway, his eyes were really…pleading, and she—she had tears in hers. She said something like, “I just can’t, John,’ and he said something about Bro. Jake. Then she just shook her head. I backed out of the lounge and I don’t think they ever saw me. When I got back to the copier, Mrs. Teague was working on it. She said it happens all the time and it wasn’t my fault. Then she helped me make copies and I ran back to class. When I saw Mrs. McKenzie the next day, she was just like usual, but I kept thinking of her with tears in her eyes. What could make her so sad? Do you think she’s getting divorced?”

In our community, divorce carried as much shame, if not more, than distributing birth-control pills. “What God has put together,” Bro. Jake proclaimed from the pulpit, “let no man put asunder.”

“I don’t know,” I replied, wanting to get back to reading. “Could be anything. Adults worry a lot about money. Maybe it’s that.”

“But Mr. McKenzie mentioned Bro. Jake.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen Mrs. McKenzie at church, so why would she care about Bro. Jake?”

Sheila shrugged and I forgot about the conversation. I didn’t think it had anything to do with me.

eScapegoat 6

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.

In World History class, we studied cultural names and their meanings. Four our class project we could choose: Native American (the new, approved name for Indian), Greek, Hebrew . . . or Irish/Celtic. I liked the sound of the name, “Ireland,” and the idea that an island so small had such a big, ancient, mysterious story. For centuries, Ireland survived foreign invaders—both human conquerors and microbes that blighted their potato crops. It seemed magical to me: this faraway isle where people lived and died centuries before Columbus discovered my country.  I admired the attention the Irish gave to naming their children, and I wanted to learn to pronounce their beautiful, unpronounceable names.

No one else chose Ireland; most of my classmates favored Hebrew, since we’d already learned many of these names and their meanings in Sunday School. The project required us to research at least ten common names from the culture of our choice, to discover the meaning of each name, to learn whether the name was male or female or both, and to discern approximately how long the name had been in use.

I rode my bike to the library and sorted through card after card in the file drawers. I found lots of books on the history of Ireland, on St. Patrick, and on the Potato Famine, but nothing on Celtic/Irish names. Could I change my mind? Would the teacher let me do Hebrew names, after all? Would she count off?

I sensed a presence at my side and whirled around to find the librarian standing at my elbow. She was shorter than me (her head just reached my shoulder) and, in her straight skirt and crisp white blouse, she looked as neatly packed as the file cabinets.

“I noticed you searching our files.”

“Oh . . . I . . . I . . .”

She just stood there, squarely and comfortably in her space and surveyed me with open, blue eyes.

“I . . . I . . . I’m supposed to do a project.”

She waited, nodding.

“ . . . on Irish names. You know (how stupid, of course she didn’t know). Oh, uh, how they . . . I mean what they mean, where they came from, how old there are. All that.”

“Yes, well. . . “ She opened the set of half-glasses that hung around her neck on a black cord and set them on her nose. “That would be in the 900 class, ‘Geography and History,’ sub-section 20, ‘Genealogy, Names, Insignia.” We have a few books on the subject. I’m sure a few have chapters on Irish names. Here we are. Check out the books numbered in the 929s—down that aisle on your left.”

I thanked the librarian and ambled down the aisle, enjoying the symmetry of the books, standing at attention one after another row upon row, flank upon flank. I had a good grasp of the Dewey Decimal System and soon found the section I needed. There were eight books. I needed three sources. When I checked out the chapter titles, I discovered the librarian was right—not many mentioned Ireland. Thankfully, three did—just enough. I fished out my library card and took it, with the books, to the desk. The librarian placed her huge metal stamper over the little date pad in the back of each book and pressed down, “Cha-chinggggg!” I loved that sound. I wanted to become a librarian just so I could play with that stamper!

***

It seemed fair to me to choose five female and five male names. I thought most people would start with “A,” so I worked backward from Z. Not many Z offerings in Irish, not many Ys either, a couple of Ws. For the boys I chose

  • Wynne (win), a Celtic name meaning “white, fair.” Also spelled Winn or Wynn,
  • Uaine (OON-yuh), an Old Irish name meaning “young warrior.” Also spelled Owain, Oney, Owney; also Owen
  • Tadhg (TAYG), a Gaelic name meaning “poet” or “honors god”; also can be Timothy. Tadc, Tiomoid, Teague, Taidgh, Tiege
  • Seán – (SHAWN), an Irish name meaning “god’s gracious gift”; can also be John
  • Cedric (SED-rik), a Celtic name meaning “chieftain.”[i]
  • Hewney (HEW nee), Gaelic meaning “green.”

For the girls I selected

  • Teagan, meaning poet;
  • Riley, meaning rye;
  • Keira, meaning dusky or dark haired;
  • Cadence, meaning a rhythmic flow of sounds.[ii]
  • Bridget, meaning exalted one.[iii]

Once I got my ten names, I started flipping through the books, searching out the names of people I knew. Wilda meant “wild” and Wanda “wanderer.” Both were German names. Were we German? Did my parents know what the names meant? In the Native American section, I noticed the name “Awan” which meant “somebody.” Awan, I thought. That should be Sheila’s name. She could name herself Awan and know she’s somebody.

Now to structure the report. Most students in my class stood up with blue-lined note cards, finding their way through the presentation as they talked. When I stood before the class it was as if I’d taken some drug that made all my body systems go into overdrive: I felt every eye that turned to on me as if they were lasers, colors took on life and assaulted me, sounds increased to a screaming volume. I’d stumble over my words, blood would pound in my ears, and my brain would freeze up, refusing to form a single thought.

If only I could find a way to turn everyone’s eyes onto something other than me. Then I could—I hoped—make myself think and talk. One reference book contained a photo of a beautiful page from something called the Book of Kells. The photo looked like a Bible page, except the letters were painted by hand in rich, shining colors, and illustrations around the page illustrating the Bible passage. I could do something like that! I could paint the names onto poster board and draw in the meaning next to each name. Then I could stand beside the poster, point out each section, and just explain my drawing.

I pulled out my paint box and got to work. When Mother called dinner, I didn’t want to stop, but I made myself. They’d get mad if I didn’t come and then I might not be allowed to get back to work after dinner. So I forced down the food, said I didn’t want dessert, and worked until Wilda crawled into bed and demanded that I turn off the light. I barely slept, imagining what colors fit which names and how I could illustrate the meaning of each. I got up with the dawn and, in the clear light of morning, worked until I had to dress for school. I took my work downstairs “to dry.” That was what I told my mother, anyway. I really just wanted her to keep an eye on it and on Wilda anywhere near it.

***

Hank was a high-school graduate; he went to community college and to church and he worked part-time to pay for his education. He was respectful, and he studied—a lot more than Wilda did. Hank was training to be a med tech; he was more mature and less tortured than Wilda’s other conquests. He was darned near perfect. Darned near wasn’t enough, however, because Hank’s part-time job was at a public health facility that, under certain circumstances, provided birth control pills. The Pill was the hot button for our church: it fostered premarital sex and promiscuity—period.

Hank filed medical insurance and refilled supplies at the clinic. He didn’t distribute pharmaceuticals; it would be against the law. Still, my family could not tolerate his presence in “that place.” Wilda pleaded and, to her surprise, found Father unmoved. She slipped out to meet Hank and found herself, for the first time in her life, grounded. Hank tried to explain his situation: he needed the job, it was honest work and it paid well, he worked with good people and didn’t want to let them down. He didn’t like the clinic giving out birth-control pills, either, but he thought people should make their own choices.

Father was immoveable; he had the entire congregation behind him—for support or serveilance—I wasn’t sure which. Wilda grew frantic, wailing at Father, pleading that she loved Hank; she couldn’t bear to be without him. A stone would have been more yielding than Father.

Wilda cried hysterically in her bed; I’d stroke her hair and tell her it would be all right. Sometimes she was so overwhelmed, she let me comfort her. Other times, she would bat my hand away and tell me to leave her alone. Wilda’s wailing and Father’s rigidness went on for weeks.

Then one day Father came home and asked to see Wilda in the den. She emerged a few moments later and raced to the telephone. Within thirty minutes, Hank stood at our door. Wilda, seizing his arm and smiling (her eyes gleamed) led him into the den. Voices rose and fell. Hank’s at first level, then pleading. Wilda’s pleading, then shrill. Father’s cold, clear, determined. At last Hank and Wilda emerged. Father shook Hank’s hands. Hank’s eyes look dead and his walk seemed robotic. Wilda danced at his side, chattering and patting his arm.

***

From snatches of conversation in the coming weeks, I pieced it together: Father had found Hank another job in another medical facility. It wasn’t a good job or a good location, but the facility didn’t supply birth-control pills, favoring abstinence as the only means of birth control. Together, Father and Wilda talked Hank into quitting his present job and taking the new one. He couldn’t stand up between the two of them.

A few weeks after Hank changed jobs, Wilda started bringing other boys home. Hank came by a few times, his eyes now tortured like so many others. I hated lying to him; we both knew the truth.

Hank may have been Wilda’s chance to love something other than what she was expected to love. I think Wilda tried, for a season, to break free with Hank, but between she and Father, they just domesticated him.

I sorrowed for Hank, made to bend under Father’s steady, strong thumb and under Wilda’s heady appeal. She didn’t want him after that; why should she? She’d had all of him; once he yielded, he could not help her be any more than she already was. I felt sorry for Hank because he had no choice but to comply, yet he lost Wilda and he lost himself the moment he shook Father’s hand. He’ll live out his life in the shadow of that. When I think of him, I hope he returned to his old job, regained his self respect, and moved on with his life.

As I thought on it, I came to a startling realization. Had it been me, I could never have yielded: not to Father, not to Wilda, not to all the powers that be. I could not have relinquished my selfhood. That knowing was the beginning of the end.

***

I got a job at the new hobby shop—saw the sign in the window, went in and got hired. Just like that! I get a paycheck and I get discounts on art supplies. And the people don’t know my family.

***

After I left home, Wilda married Edward, a business major she met while attending class at a nearby university. Edward had all the right credentials: right answers, right job prospects, right beliefs. To save money, the young couple moved in with my parents while he finished school. They went on to conceive and birth two children in that house. Edward drives two hours to another town for work and socializes there afterward until his children are in bed. Wilda keeps busy with church and civic affairs, passing off her children to Mother’s care. And Mother takes them. I begin to think Mother is something of a shadow herself. Maybe more so than I am.

***

[i] (http://www.irishwishes.com/)

[ii] www.babyhold.com

[iii] www.behindthename.com.

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

carols-small

“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!

carols-small

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.