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 10

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 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.

…he is to lay his hands upon the scapegoat, symbolically laying the sins of the people upon it. He then sends the scapegoat away into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the sins of the people with it.[i]

***

I couldn’t live in a world where I could believe Sheila would betray me.

I would not believe she had.

I was going insane trying to disbelieve it.

I imagined her apologizing for what she had done or what she’d failed to do; I thought I could keep my sanity if only she would own her actions. If that happened, these tormenting thoughts could, at last, end. But day after day went by with no word from her. It was as if our friendship happened in a bubble and when that bubble burst, the friendship no longer existed, at least not for her.

I realized I didn’t want to live: even more, that I hadn’t wanted to live most of my life. I begged God to kill me. I wanted to kill myself, but I’d embarrassed my family enough. At night I prayed to die in my sleep; I awoke each morning discouraged to discover breath in my body. I stopped painting, stopped eating, stopped imagining Magic Land. Still I lived, still I endured every unendurable moment. My family no longer even feigned interest in my welfare, exerting no effort make me eat or sleep. And still I lived on.

 

When it became clear God would not let me die, I realized I hated Sheila. I hated myself, too, for being fool enough to believe she valued me. Fool enough to believe myself valuable. Sheila would never apologize; I knew that now. I didn’t matter enough to be stood by. Shadows can take only the form given them by substance. In my family’s world, in Sheila’s world, I had no substance of my own. Days went by and weeks as I existed in the sterility of my family.

Weeks turned into months; I ceased going to church. I imagined everyone sighing in relief at my absence. Especially my family; they had grown smaller, tighter. They’d closed ranks: reformed themselves with me outside the door. Wilda’s place of seniority was secured. My shadow hardly darkened our family’s consciousness anymore.

I made plans to simplify their lives. My plans grew solid at the mailbox; one evening at dinner, when a lull formed in the conversation, I spoke.

Everyone jumped; I rarely spoke these days and it seemed in poor taste to put myself forward. I kept it short: “I am going to East Texas College and majoring in art. I’ve been given a full scholarship. I start next month.”

***

The goat that was to be sent into the wilderness was designated by a black mark on the head, the other one on the neck.[ii]

***

Thanks to my job at the hobby shop, I’d bought myself a car: a used Pinto with more miles on it than my parents’ ancient station wagon, and a stain in the back seat I tried not to think about. I had it loaded: Mother had bought the necessities: towels, sheets, flashlight, crackers and Velveeta cheese for snacking. The three of them stood in an awkward semi-circle at my car’s door. Then Mother lurched forward and gave me a hug, the others followed suit, laying cold hands on my back, doing their familial duty.

I could feel their relief as I closed myself into my car and cranked the engine. Then, astonished, I felt myself relieved as well. I was alone in the truth of myself. In my family’s world, they spoke of their faith as the peace that passes understanding. For me, it’s been more the pain that does.

***

He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head.[iii]

[i] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Gen. Ed. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Baker Academic Grand Rapids, MI 2005, p. 449.

[ii] Orr, James, Gen. Ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI 1955,   p. 344.

[iii] Lev. 16:21a NRSV.

eScapgegoat 9

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 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.

Other closed doors followed. I had long held a secret torch for Bro. Jake’s son: a tall, slim boy with curling red hair and warm brown eyes. He was named Jonathan after King David’s best friend, and he carried himself with a nonchalant confidence I couldn’t resist. He spoke to everyone, even me, and he even, occasionally, looked me in the eye.

I learned all I could of Jonathan: what music he liked, what subjects gave him trouble; even that he had a raunchy sense of humor his Father knew nothing about. I gleaned all my information by observation because, though Jonathan spoke to me, I rarely said more than two words to him. Instead, at school and at church, I placed myself where I could observe and adore him. I dreamed he would recognize me as The Special One and then we would be happy ever after. I told no one of my feelings. Still, somehow Wilda knew. She had a gift for reading people.

***

The Wednesday following the deacon vote, I stood near the door to Jonathan’s classroom, ostensibly sorting my books. As he neared his classroom door he stopped, turned, and walked toward me. I tried to meet his eyes for a moment—just that much—and succeeded only in glancing his way.

He stopped. Right in front of me.

“Hi, Wanda,” he said in a voice surprisingly deep for a high school boy.

“Hi,” I whispered, wanting him to stay, willing him to go.

“I was just wondering. The game Friday night. You want to go with me?”

Me?” Misery and ecstasy collided and I was lost to them.

Then I heard. That repressed snicker. I knew that sound; I grew up on it.

I turned my head toward another: one of golden curls bobbing with repressed expressions of glee. A covey of other heads, snorting heads and giggling heads, surrounded the golden one. Somehow I found the strength to turn my eyes toward Jonathan. He cut his eyes toward the circle of giggling girls. Color filled his cheeks and he lifted his shoulders as if to say, “What choice did I have?”

I rushed away before he could see my full devastation. At the end of the hallway, I gathered courage enough to turn for a last look. Jonathan stood with his arm around Wilda’s shoulder, talking and gesturing, drawing in the group, working his magic. Her head rested on his shoulder.

I locked myself in a bathroom stall, sat on the toilet and put my hands over my head while my body shook with shame and sorrow. I guess Father’s distant, silent approach was too indirect for Wilda’s temperament. I had embarrassed her; she needed to see me humiliated. Point to Wilda.

***

The next day, Father announced that Bro. Jake had called to say that, for the next several weeks, the Junior High students would be doing a special study during Sunday School. I could take a much-deserved break from teaching. Rummaging under my bed, I hauled out my plans for Sunday’s lesson and tucked them in the bottom of my art box. I couldn’t bear to come across them, unprepared, but I couldn’t bear to part with them, either.

Outside, I walked to the tree where I first painted Magic Land. I sat against it, feeling the harsh roughness of its bark against my back. And I wept.

***

Junior High Sunday School Lesson for Sept. 13: The Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16

1.Tell the story.

First, the High Priest stripped off his High Priestly garb—the breastplate inlaid with three rows of sparkling jewels, the ephod, the robe, and the tunic, and donned the white linen apparel worn by all the other priests. He then acknowledged his sin in full view of the people, offering a bull as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering. Then for the one and only time that year—and all alone—he prepared to enter the Holy of Holies. Inside the Tabernacle tent, he created a censer from the glowing coals on the altar. Bearing this before him, the High Priest, carrying the blood of animals who died that his sin might be atoned, entered through the veil into the holiest of holy spaces: a space so holy, so “other,” that it was kept in darkness. Human presence was allowed only during this one visit each year. To obscure the face of God so that the priest’s life might be spared, the priest now lit the censer. Smoke filled the space to its corners. The Holy of Holies measured ten cubits in each direction (a perfect cube), and lay behind a blue and scarlet curtain.

In utter and pressing silence, the priest seven times sprinkled the blood of the slaughtered animals onto the holiest space within the Holy of Holies: the mercy seat. The mercy seat—known also as the lid of the Ark of the Covenant—was crafted of acacia wood and overlaid in gold. On the lid sat two golden angels, stern and regal, facing one another, their wings touching. The priest cast the sacrificial blood onto angels’ wings already besmirched from past years’ atonement offerings.

The priest returned to the people; he cast lots to determine the fate of two goats that bleated forlornly, edging forward and backward against their ropes. Two goats that served one purpose: the banishment of sin from the community. The goat chosen for the LORD was taken into the community in the deepest sense: it was slaughtered, its blood taken behind the veil into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled onto the front of the mercy seat.

On the other goat’s head—the one for Azazel—the High Priest laid hands and confessed the community’s corporate and individual sins: ALL the sins. He transferred all transgressions from the past year onto the head of the goat. Then a man designated for the task led the goat far into the wilderness to a bleak, deserted, desolate place, and left it behind. The goat was to be taken so far into the wilderness that it could never return to the community. Before returning home himself, the one who led the goat for Azazel into the wilderness was required to ritually wash his clothes and bathe himself, so that he might be purged from the sin carried into the wilderness by the goat. The skin, flesh, and dung of the goat chosen for the LORD, along with the bull offered for the High Priest’s sin, was carried outside the city and consumed by fire. He who burned these animals, too, was required to wash his clothes and bathe before returning to camp. So passed the most holy day on the Hebrew calendar: the Day of Atonement.[i]

 

  1. Invite volunteers to read the story from their Bibles and the definition of ‘atonement’ from the Bible dictionary.
  2. Invite students to paint a scene from the story that particularly struck them. Ask them to describe their work and talk about why they chose the scene they selected.
  3. Ask the group to pray silently, confessing their sins and asking God’s forgiveness.

***

The next time I went to church proved to be my last. It was deacon ordination. I saw Sheila hovering in the aisle before the service, searching for someone. I couldn’t keep the smile from my face.

“Sheila!”

I made my way through the crowd toward her. She turned, registered my face, terror took her over and then, close on its heels, loathing. She ducked between pews, steered for the main aisle, and skirted out the side door. Clearly, I had been the subject of conversation in the Bower family; I had become a pariah.

I claimed my seat in our family’s pew, head bowed more to avoid the stares and questioning of other congregants than to worship, and waited for my family to take their seats. In time they perched beside me: backs rigid, doing their familial duty.

Bro. Jake invited each new deacon to speak before we did the laying on of hands. Each spoke for an eternity. I don’t recall what they said. Then the deacon chair laid out three cushions and the men knelt on them, lined up as before a firing squad.

“Let us each come by, lay hands on these, our brothers, and give them our blessing,” said Bro. Jake.

The pianist began to play softly to cover the sounds of shuffling feet. I watched John McKenzie as he joined the line. He wore an expression of infinite, almost messianic, sorrow as he made his way forward. It entered my head that it is possible to enjoy even suffering. John laid hands on one new deacon after another while the congregation stared in wonder and admiration.

Our pew stood and shuffled its way forward. My father placed a hand on the first man’s head and, leaning to whisper in his ear, placed the other on his shoulder. His gesture appeared warm and fatherly. I imagined the words were, too. He moved to the second man and mother stood before the first. Mother’s hands levitated above the man’s head. Her words sounded low and hurried. She moved on. Wilda rested her hands on the first man’s head and leaned over, careful to show just enough leg beneath her skirt. I couldn’t hear what she said, but the man smiled. Even deacons smiled at Wilda.

I stood before the man, awkward and unbelonging. Aware of probing eyes on me. I placed my hands on his head. The sanctuary vanished. Before me stood Mrs. McKenzie, her face streaked with tears; in another flash I saw John McKenzie, shoulders heaving with repressed emotion; then Bro. Jake’s Bible binding his hand in leather. My insides quailed, forcing food up my throat. I swallowed hard and tasted bitterness and bile. I lifted my hands and the visions snapped shut. I moved on, feeling the man’s surprised eyes on my feet. After that, I followed Mother’s example with the next two deacons: placing my hands just above their heads and then moving on.

Back in the pew, I stared at my palms; they felt like foreign things, as if poison had entered and altered them and was now threading its way up my wrists. I was going to be sick. Panicked, I squeezed past my Father, down the aisle and into the foyer bathroom. Kneeling at the toilet, I vomited again and again until only dry heaves racked my body. Then I wept into my hands—tears and mucus that glistened on my palms and seeped between my fingers. I washed my hands, thinking of Lady Macbeth and of Pilate, then walked across the parking lot to the car and waited for my family. The ride home this time was not silent. The three other family members chatted and laughed. Together, they had moved on from me.

[i] The Day of Atonement Story based on 1) Leviticus 16, NRSV; 2) Keck, Leander E. Ed. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1 Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994, pp. 999, 1109-1111; 3) Werblowsky, R. J. Geoffrey Wigoder, Ed. In Chief. The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Oxford University Press, New York, 1997, p. 666.

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 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.

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.