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 3

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

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

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“See what I did?”

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

“Yeah, I know. I just . . .”

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

eScapegoat 2

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

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

 

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

Hard Times & A Holy Night

carols-small

Our car, affectionately dubbed “The Dude” after our nonprofit’s icon, has quite a story. An enraged woman keyed its driver’s side, stem to stern. For months I drove the car, sickened by the violence pressed into it, praying for direction. I didn’t want to hide the scar—I wanted to transform it. In the end, the gash became part of a living tree from which dudes, created and named by our spacious folks, blossomed. I even took the art up onto the car’s roof, painting a dude cloud formation. More spacious folks joined the fun, creating personalized dudes to sail among those clouds.

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“The Dude” has been, for years, integral to our nonprofit’s ministry: trunk crammed full of supplies to inspire creative expression; wheels traversing the miles from our place to the places we serve; interior transporting children, safely buckled, to clubs and camps.

I got rear-ended last week. And, due to The Dude’s advanced years, he’s history. Just like that.

For me, the wreck and the unexpected costs it incurred just piled onto months and months of hardship and loss.

Too much.

And right at the beginning of Advent.

 

I share this story, because, sooner or later, we all get piled on. Overwhelmed by hard times and their attendant emotions, we cry with the psalmist, “How long?”

For me, faith isn’t reconstructing reality to match a smaltzy Christmas movie (but don’t we love those?). Faith is choosing God no matter what life throws my way. Driving around in a rental, a snatch of the carol, “O Holy Night,” struck me: “…till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

Those lyrics describe what Advent anticipates. They also reminded me why we do what we do at A Spacious Place: through creative expression, we help souls know their worth.

A Spacious Place moves forward with deep gratitude to The Dude. I won’t paint our new car—at least not at first. There needs to be a reason. But she—I’ve a feeling this one’s a dame—needs to be blessed. In this season of hope and expectancy, will you join me in blessing The Dame with best hopes for her years of service?

Whatever life is for you this holiday season—Wondrous, Even-Keeled, or Hard Timed—I hope you will come to know your soul’s worth.

 

Thank you for your service, Dude. We love you and we’ll miss you. So much.

Depression Danger

depressionI have depression. Severe at times. I share this because recently we’ve heard news stories in which persons with depression harmed others. A pilot crashed a passenger-filled plane into the Alps. A woman hanged herself in an elementary-school playground, potentially traumatizing students. A suicidal man crashed his car into another, killing himself and the other driver.

We might determine from such stories that all persons with depression pose a threat to others. We’d be wrong. It’s true: depression can skew thinking, but generally in self-torturing ways. Like those green gunky guys in the Mucinex commercials, Guilt, Shame, Dread, Worthlessness, and Despair arrive, toting luggage, intent on setting up a homestead in our souls.

Put another way, it’s like trying to keep our noses above frigid waters*. Makes it challenging to fry an egg, focus at a board meeting, and help with the kid’s homework while trying not to drown. I call depression an invisible disability, because the determination needed to keep on keeping on is not readily evident. But depression can be just as debilitating as any other bodily challenge.

And, far from seeking to harm others, it’s often the love of others that prods us out of bed in the morning when we want to pull the covers over our heads, assume a fetal position, and beg for the bliss of unconsciousness.

What do people with depression need?

  • First, not to be labeled by our depression: we are, each of us, individuals.
  • Second, not to be feared: we tend to accept blame that’s not ours anyway.
  • Third, to know we didn’t choose this. Depression can be caused by life experience, by temperament, by physiognomy, or by a combination of these. We choose to eat right, exercise, take medication as needed, get enough rest, and pray pray pray, but it’s no guarantee. We can still find ourselves near to drowning in depression’s chilled waters.
  • Fourth, have expectations of us. Creating, contributing, being depended on remind us that we’re valued and needed. And that keeps us keeping on.

The reprehensible choices of some persons who share a diagnosis does not define us all. Get to know us— each of us—as a unique person. Because for a person with depression, blame is toxic, but acceptance is balm.

* My book, When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion, provides further insight into depression, including its spiritual potential and how it differs from the dark night of the soul.

World Peace

World Peace

Advent Piece 9

Each day of Advent, in honor of Word becoming flesh, I’ll seek, with art-making tools, to flesh out a word of the season. No conclusions here, though. These interactive “art samples” are more about raising questions than providing answers.

Today’s piece ponders the shape of peace in today’s world.