Cardiac Conundrum

2017 has been, well, tough. My husband’s job was unexpectedly outsourced in March and we’re in a holding pattern in finding a new one. I awake in the morning wondering how will we pay our bills, and, more than that, what will happen to our nonprofit, A Spacious Place? The grant we’d hoped for, prayed for, fell through. The added stress of job searching coupled with nonprofit and small-business work netted me a respiratory infection that just wouldn’t quit. Hesitant to visit the doctor and add to our bills during the job-free season, I finally yielded as the Christmas holidays approached. I got the kind of surprise you don’t hope for at the doctor’s office.

I came in, expecting antibiotics and cough medicine, but found myself hooked up to EKG wires. (Once you top 60, you get extra scrutiny from medical professionals.) Something, apparently, was amiss. After my exam, the medical community moved at light speed. A little alarming.

Thanks to the antibiotics and cough medicine I’d received along with diagnosis “”heart questionable,” I was feeling better physically. But the wheels were set in motion and I found myself in an exam room at the Heart Hospital, staring at a three-D rendering of a human heart. “”You have a heart murmur,” pronounced the cardiologist. “”We need to do an echocardiogram.”

More money: my grad-school daughters this very year would be completing degrees and starting to pay off student loans. And more waiting: dandy.

My echo appointment was scheduled for 7 a.m. on Dec. 26. Fortunately, the holiday season kept us so busy there wasn’t much time to stew on “what ifs.” Still, it was there, in the back of our minds as we baked cookies, sang carols, and unwrapped gifts. What would next Christmas be like? Would A Spacious Place even exist?

At 7:05 a.m. on Boxing Day, a lovely and professional young woman, kind enough to ask about our Christmas even though her hijab evidenced her Muslim faith, handed me a hospital-blue poncho. As I lay on my left side, she pressed a wand against my chest. For 25 minutes, I breathed out, held it, took a breath, breathed out, held it.

“”You have a beautiful heart,” she said, finally. “”It looks like the heart of a teenager.” And then I breathed easier. When, two days later, I received a call from the cardiologist’s office stating that my heart pumping was normal, it was all-out celebration time.

Celebration time consisted of a sausage biscuit off McDonald’s dollar menu. But, accompanying our frugal feast rang in my head a snippet of a German carol: “How great our joy: joy, joy, joy/Praise we the Lord in heaven on high….” The tune played in my head through the day, particularly the three-fold rendering of the word, “joy.” The word swelled with each repetition until the final sung “joy” becomes joy itself.

We’re still in limbo: still job seeking, still seeking funding for A Spacious Place. But something has changed. A corner turned. A resurrection begun. Looking toward 2018 I’m determined. Determined not to accept the assumption that I should wind down my life because I’ve walked this earth for 63 years. Because the miracle of my journey through a cardiology conundrum is discovering I don’t have the heart of a teenager. I find today, beating in my chest, the heart of a child: eager, open, wonder-filled. And I can’t wait to see what God has in store in 2018. And in all the years to come.

 

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Sleeper Carol

It’s a sleeper carol. When I tune the radio for my yearly fix of holiday tunes, I rarely catch it. I have, however, survived a dozen renderings of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Since we’ve now realized men shouldn’t sexually prey on women, could we stop including in our holiday festivities a song that celebrates a man liquoring up a woman to seduce her ? Please? Pretty please?

Conversely, my sleeper carol lauds a woman who, through her own choice, “bore sweet Jesus Christ/To do poor sinners good.”

“The Holly and the Ivy” employs traditional English holiday decor as a metaphor (I love metaphor!) to celebrate Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth. The lyricist compares the holly’s bearings of blossom, berry, prickle, bark with the holy person Mary bore. But the song doesn’t stop there. We are led through the birth its pressing need.

The lyricist, or lyricists (unknown) begin with the holly flower—its whiteness depicting Mary’s purity. Mary’s was a purity of purpose: an single-minded allegiance to God so staunch she was prepared to endure a life-long reputation as Nazareth’s scarlet woman. And that was if she didn’t get stoned to death first.

The holly berry portrays Jesus’ shed blood and its leaves recall the thorns that speared His brow. A holly bush grows in our yard, and its leaves have drawn my blood more than once. Holly leaves are unusually thick and rigid, so its pointed edges pierce the skin like thorns. Last, in the holly branch we taste the bitter gall offered to Jesus as He hung, dying, between heaven and earth. I don’t know who decided to munch on a holly branch and, thus, discovered its foul taste, but I hope there weren’t additional unpleasant after effects.

But here’s the thing about the sorrowful lyrics: they’ve woven into the merriest of tunes. It’s as if the composers wanted us to know, in the singing of “The Holly and the Ivy” that Mary’s sacrifice and Jesus’ suffering are a prelude. That the minor chords will resolve in a glorious culmination. That happened was terrible. And necessary. But it’s not all there is. We’re invited to a rollicking party—date TBA. But Jesus and Mary are hosting and our names are written on the guest list.

So instead of cheery tunes about sketchy seductions, let’s tune up “The Holly and the Ivy” and belt out its lyrics. As I feel sure the lyricists and composers hoped we would do.

Follow this link to enjoy a beautiful rendering of “The Holly and the Ivy”: https://youtu.be/57l6dSbVppM.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

And in despair I bowed my head;

”There is no peace on earth,” I said;

For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

As he penned the poem that would become a beloved carol, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had good reason to despair. His wife had died in a freak fire; in seeking to save her, Longfellow was so badly burned he could not attend her funeral. The resultant scar tissue made shaving impossible; Longfellow wore a beard for the rest of his life. The grieving widower and father of six then watched his nation turn against itself. His son, a Union Army soldier, now lay at home, wounded: doctors warned that, due to the path the bullet took, paralysis was a real possibility. On Independence Day the July prior, over 4000 soldiers lay dead following the Battle of Gettysburg. Their families would meet Christmas Day wearing mourning.

So on that Christmas day in 1863, Longfellow sat down and bled his soul into a poem. Later, John Baptiste Calkin gave melody to the words. The alchemy of lyric and melody resounds through our bodies like the deep sounding of bells. The tune feels weighty, austere: a cold winter beauty that shocks the heart.

Knowing Longfellow’s story lends potency to his final verse. Here is faith forged in the fires of harsh reality. No fair-haired cutesy angels or quippy platitudes here. Rather a resolute belief in Something larger than a single life, or even of a single lifetime.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

“God is not dead, not doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”*

 

I don’t know about you, but this Advent season I could easily bow my head in despair. In addition to personal concerns with job loss, health issues, and a tax “reform” that sinks our grad-school daughters already drowning in student loans further into debt, the global and national picture looks bleak. Mass murderers wage war on anyone not like them. No canons this time: its planes and cars and backpacks. This Christmas Day families across the globe mourn.

In addition, the threat of nuclear war has reemerged. And we’ve seen, yet again, the powerful prey on those less powerful. Cutesy angels and quippy truisms just won’t cut it.

But Longfellow’s poem? That’s my challenge. I am grieved that a man with such a heart had such a life. And I am deeply grateful he put his pain—and his hope—onto a page. For those who know something about despair.

And who yearn for a reason to hope.

*Check out Longfellow’s poem in its entirety. It’s well worth a Christmas read.

 

Clown Series Interview

 

The Clown Series

The author of the Clown book series answers questions about the books and about her motivations.

Q: Why a clown?

A: People wonder about that. Truth is, despite the horror industry’s bogarting of clowns, true clowns embody qualities of God that resonate with me. When I imagine God in human form, I see a Clown.  Capital C Clown.

Q: But a clown? There are lots of other human types you could have chosen.

A: Clowns intrigue me. Always have. And they set my thoughts on God. A clown embodies joy, benevolence, virtue, and love.  Sure, there is hiddenness behind the greasepaint, just as there’s hiddenness in God. But, let’s face it, a clown’s hiddenness is what makes them magical.

Q: How did you come to write these stories?

A: Since my early teens I  imagined my life as a story: how would I write what happened today for someone to read? During my late teens, I became intrigued with the magic of clowning. And I’ve always loved Jesus’ stories (parables, to use the literary term): so brief, but with such punch. In some kind of magical alchemy during my twenties, this image emerged of a clown spinning these timeless stories and those stories working a powerful good for those who had ears to hear.

Q: Isn’t there a Pollyanna quality to these stories? Can such problems as your characters encounter—from eating disorders to desertion even to death—be fixed by a story?

A: Fixed? No. Stories open us to possibilities. There’s a eureka moment in the reading or telling: we blink before a new and transforming thought. What will we do with our eureka? That’s where our work begins. I see the Clown books as realistic tales: ones that accompany readers through good times and bad; stories dusted with God-magic and grounded in hope.

Q: Why do you keep writing these books?

A: I thought there would only be three. But God keeps giving me stories and I never feel more alive, more connected to God, than when I’m writing. Plus, I keep hoping a child—8 or 80 years old—will pick one up at the time their soul longs for its message. I hope I’ll keep writing Clown stories until I meet the Clown face to face.

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.

 

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 8

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.

“John McKenzie is on the deacon ballet for our congregation. John certainly has served us well. He drives the bus for our children’s church and he rarely misses Tuesday night visitation. So I can understand why members of this congregation would wish to nominate him for deacon. We have a difficulty here, however, that John and I have discussed at length and prayed over many times. Let me begin by citing the biblical mandate for our concern.”

Brother Jake lifted his black leather Bible—the leather cover draped itself over Brother Jake’s hand—and flipped toward the back. “Beloved, we find the passage in the book of 1 Timothy: one of Paul’s letters to his son in the ministry. If I could have a son in the ministry, I could do no better than John McKenzie. In Chapter 3 we read: ‘Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.’ Now the crux of our difficulty lies in verses four and five: ‘He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)’

John has sought repeatedly to involve his wife in our congregation, but he has been unsuccessful. John, you asked to speak to this matter, correct?”

“Yes, pastor.” John stood and faced the congregation, his face convulsing with repressed emotion. He stood for a moment, grappling with strong feelings, trying to bring himself under control.

“Thank you to everyone who wanted to vote me in as a deacon. I am…I am honored. But a deacon is to have management of his household and I have failed in this. My wife refuses to leave her church and join us here. I cannot convince her. I don’t deserve to be a deacon, but I will continue to serve as I can, if you will allow me.” He barely got out the final words; he sat down in a rush, resting his head in his hands. His shoulders heaved—up down, up down, pushing his emotions inside.

“Thank you, John. We are honored by your continued service,” said Bro. Jake, reclaiming the front. “That took great courage. Now, I propose someone make a motion in keeping with this biblical mandate: an bylaw stating that only men whose wives join this congregation and whose children regularly attend our functions may be considered for the role of deacon. Then fine men like John won’t be put through trials such as this one. Who among us, after all, can say we live totally in keeping with biblical command?”

Heads bowed, then nodded solemnly.

A deep voice from the back pronounced, “So moved,” and another, in rapid response, “I second.”

“Thank you, brothers. Let’s put feet to our convictions. All in favor, stand!” declared the pastor.

I could not stand; my legs wouldn’t allow me. All around the sanctuary, feet slid together, books were set aside, skirts smoothed. Knees straightened. I looked across row upon row of empty pews. With chins thrust forward, eyes bright, deep breaths taken, everyone stood, proud to be counted. Everyone, everywhere in my family’s world had taken to their feet. Except me.

I felt my father do a double take at me, felt his eyes on my downcast head, felt shock reach his brain. I needed to stand for my family, with my family. That was reason enough. I needed to spare them the difficulty of me. I must stand. Wilda, standing on the other side of Mother, bent toward me, motioning me with determined hand to rise. At the movement, I lifted my eyes and caught the pastor’s gaze—he reacted a split second behind my family, having just caught sight of me.

“Everyone in favor please stand,” he declared in an effort to clarify for the slow girl. Then he looked at me, bobbed his head up as if indicating the direction my body needed to take. I think it may have been the first time he ever really saw me.

I met his gaze, held it in an unspoken apology for the inconvenience, and tried to rise.

“No!” a shout declared. Had someone spoken? No, I alone heard the voice. “No! You can’t. You know it!”

What power was this, dictating the actions of my body? What had gotten into me? Then I knew. I had spoken. My self.

***

It took an eternity of seconds for my action (or lack of action) to communicate itself around the sanctuary. Heads turned as if I were a magnet and they metal shavings. As whispers hissed, I felt the burning of my family’s shame.

“The motion carries,” the pastor was saying, “with… almost unanimous support. Thank you, everyone. Now let’s be seated and vote on the remaining deacon candidates.”

I sat in the pew between my parents just like I’d sat as far back as I could recall, but I was not in the midst of anyone. Bro. Jake called names, there were seconds and discussions and votes. I raised my hand when other people did and lowered it on cue. It didn’t matter anymore. For one instant—the moment in which I did not stand—I was seen. I mattered terribly then..

“Let’s stand and close in prayer.”

This time I managed to stand. As one of the deacons, known for his marathon praying, droned on, I searched the room for Sheila’s fair head. I caught sight of it in the center section, a few rows ahead of us. She was easy to find because, instead of bowing her head, she looked straight ahead, her gaze open and hunted. I could feel her confusion across the room. Sheila, I felt sure, wished she could have joined me, could have summoned the will, but she was young and it was too hard for her. I forgave her in an instant and felt Mrs. McKenzie would have, too.

She must have felt my gaze, because she turned toward me. Then it happened: the scene that replays on the screen of my brain and leaves me cringing. Her eyes went cold, her face hardened into a replica of her mother’s, she breathed out fiercely as if expelling me from her system, and then she took her mother’s hand and turned her back to me.

“Amen.”

Congregants surged forward pretending to stop by our pew for a visit, but actually offering my parents

their condolences.

 

“What’s going on with your youngest?”

“The teen years are such a trying time…”

“With more life experience she’ll come to realize…”

 

Next, forced smiles and warm greetings descended on my bowed head, as people did their Christian duty on me. Sitting there, I could feel Wilda’s wrath, Mother’s embarrassment, Father’s anxiety: he wanted to get me out of there, to get himself out of there.

A familiar voice sounded above me. “Just checking in to see how the Schaefer family is doing this evening. How are you, Bro. William?”

“Just fine, Bro. Jake,” I heard my father’s respond.

“You, Sister Schaefer?”

“I am well, thank you,” replied my mother.

“Wilda?” I could hear the smile in his voice as his lips formed her name.

“I am quite well, Bro. Jake. Thank you for asking.” Wilda’s voice shook with barely repressed anger.

A pause. “W…Wanda?”

Eyes on my shoes, I sat silent, my toes squirming. Then my father’s voice, stern and reproving above me, “Wanda, Bro. Jake asked you a question.”

“Fine,” I told the floor. Then almost, but not quite, involuntarily: “She gets to choose.”

“What? Excuse me?” Bro. Jake sounded startled, rattled.

I met his eyes, watched them slide from my face, then I swallowed and said in a trembling voice: “Mrs. McKenzie. She gets to choose.”

The pastor stood, digesting this. Then he turned to lay a comforting hand on Father’s shoulder: “She’s young, William. With time…” With a nod and a smile, the pastor turned away.

To the others grouped around us, Father murmured something about having work to do at home, then moved us into the aisle. Eyes turned on me; whispers pierced my back. I could feel them; I could taste them.

***

In the car, Wilda exploded: “What were you thinking, Wanda? You embarrassed all of us!”

“Be still, Wilda,” said my Mother, for once speaking successfully. All conversation ceased. I knew when we got home, there’d be an inquest; Mother and Father would demand that I explain myself, and I couldn’t be silent before them. I was so churned up I knew my response would come as a flood of tears and a rush of passionate words. I was sick with revulsion at myself and, at the same time, I knew I’d make the same choice again, if given another opportunity.

We trudged into the house; my cheeks burned with shame. Father closed the front door and said, “Wanda, go to your room.” Wilda started to join me, but he said, “Not you, Wilda. In here.” I trod up the stairs, and then stopped at our bedroom door. Quietly, I retraced my steps and looked down on my family below. Father’s head ushered Mother’s and Wilda’s heads into the den, his hand pressed the door firmly closed. I sat at the top of the stairs, gazing at the block of wood separating me from my family. I was the topic of a secret discussion. I was a problem to be solved.

 

What transpired behind that door I never knew. No one spoke to me that night—about anything. I never had to defend my choice, because no one in my family ever spoke of it before me again. I guess they decided that was the Christian thing to do. But if I felt like a burden before, I had clearly become one now.

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.