Catching Up on Reading

Did anybody but me wonder about the literary references in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity? I am resisting googling the reviews (except for PW). The Dickens reference to Great Expectations is explicit, but I found myself thinking about the way the murder is written and the kind of fever dream that Andreas Wolf’s mind eventually becomes, and thought of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment,  given how much force the murder assumes over time, given how deeply it is buried (pun intended). The querying of ideological purity also called to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Dirty Hands, which perhaps really dates me or at least says something abut the literature and philosophy I was taught.

I hated the characters so much I almost didn’t finish the book. But it did keep hooking me, even though I would have shortened it. Tom’s and Andreas’s back stories are too long and tediously male-centric; Franzen’s editor ought to stand up to him a little more. Still, I am glad I read it to continue reckoning with the reaches of contemporary tastes and forms. Such a sea of difference between literary fiction and genre fiction.

God’s Hands

I haven’t had a chance to reflect on seed collecting as being God’s hands. Christ has no body, no hands but yours, wrote Teresa of Avila. Last Tuesday I dove into tallgrass prairie, leaving the path and heading into the grasses, seeking leadplant. Our steward Cindy has told us that the presence of leadplant is a sign of eco-health, and the Schulenberg Prairie is a vigorous being this year, bursting with leadplant. If the earth is God’s body, what organ are the prairies? The kidneys, maybe, filtering waste products?Image

Leadplant was pretty in bloom, with purple lupine-like flowers (the two are cousins, both members of the bean family) and fuzzy leaves. The dried flowerheads are easy to spot, of middling height next to tallgrass. It’s also easy to collect seeds, stripping them easily and then feeling like I could pat the plant as I might a just-sheared sheep, saying thanks and go on now. We only take half the seeds and leave the other half to reseed the prairie on its own. The week before I did coneflowers, and those were just as easy but differently textured, pointed seeds bordering on prickly and so needing clipping of the seedheads. Leadplant by comparison is gentle on the hands.

At the end of long summer days on the prairie, dried forbs mix with early autumn plants in bloom: purply-blue asters, cream gentian (I haven’t seen the blue variety). Many of the varied yellow composites are still hanging around, but the blooms of summer are aging into seedy maturity, losing eye-candy appeal and settling into the rhythm and imperative of reproduction. The yellow coneflower ages well, drying into drooping grey florets but gaining olfactory appeal with its anise-smelling seedhead, so many individual seeds tightly packed, poised to parachute to earth, take hold, and flower next year.

“There are no women on my theology bookshelf…”

Now you all have no excuse, thanks to Maggi Dawn.

maggi dawn

Last year on Twitter, someone wrote to me “there are no women on my theology bookshelf. Who should I read?”.

I followed up with a blog list, and was pleased to discover that without even looking up from my screen I could easily think of well over a hundred female theologians, ecclesiastical historians, biblical scholars, sociologists of religion, and others who figure on the theological landscape. More names appeared when I actually looked at my own bookshelf.

Replies flooded in through the comments, adding many more names of women authors – both academic and devotional, theoretical and practical, in every area of the theological landscape. Now the academic year is about to begin again, one or two people have mentioned the post again as a resource – so, incomplete though it is, here is the updated blog post with names added from the comments section.

10897776_469733266514841_7639664988515007378_nWhen people ask about “women…

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Meditation: Lobstah Land

To my prairie-formed Midwestern eyes, Maine looks like nothing else I’ve seen: big water and hard granite. I come from the land of lake and limestone, where one watches for deer darting across the road, not massive moose that will best your car in a collision. The water around the island of Vinalhaven, where I am visiting, is dotted by colorful, bobbing buoys that mark the location of lobster traps. It’s lobster (or lobstah, as Mainahs call it) roll time and the season for summer people, down east and midcoast or wherever it is I am, not at home but visiting someone at her home.

My friend’s family is as native to Vinalhaven as its granite. Her great-grandfather polished the granite columns on the library; she points them out to me, and later shows me the farm her grandfather sold during the Depression. It’s now owned by summer people from Boston. Some people have been here a long time; her family name helps her fit in to the community of year-round residents, which is smaller by a few thousand than the summer population. Everybody wants to be in Maine in summertime, especially those who live the rest of the year in hot cities elsewhere.

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It’s not easy to get there; you need to know the ferry schedule. And the weather might mean the ferry won’t run, so you need to be ready with a plan B. Your car might not fit on the boat, which is OK because there’s no place you need to drive. The commercial strip is a few blocks long, and then it’s trees and rocks and houses sprinkled in outlying areas.

Besides granite, water, and lobsters, it’s all neighbors. My friend knows the vendors at the farmers market; one apologizes for not recognizing her. Stops to chat with people she knows are frequent. It’s a small place: small means everybody is up in your business, but pretty discreetly so. They give you your space. They’re Yankees: self-reliant and industrious, respecters of privacy, but there if you need ’em.

The Harbor Gawker restaurant, celebrating 40 years, is for sale. It’s called that because as it was originally sited, before the street was re-engineered, customers could sit and gawk at the harbor. The tablecloths are red and white checkered oilcloth. The menu is neatly printed on chalkboard after chalkboard after chalkboard, listing a dizzying variety of ways to serve fish and shellfish and, of course, lobster. It’s known for generous servings. My lobster roll is so stuffed with hunks of mayonnaised crustacean that I eat it with gusto and deliberation, so none of it ends up in my lap.

Place: what you see, what you hear, what you eat, how people live. Foreign or familiar, offering roots yet changing. Work, food, ancestors, neighbors, weather, the horizon of history and rock and big water. Millions of permutations of home.

Lament

Both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jon Stewart have spoken my mind on the murders in Charleston. I feel heavily the charge that white people need to speak more forcefully against racism. One thing I can do is use my particular gift of writing; I’m also privileged to be in seminary these days, wrestling with understanding the Bible. I know for sure: the Bible speaks about violence, understands violence, portrays it. Who needs Game of Thrones to understand exquisite cruelty, anger, revenge? The seeds of violence are in the human heart and it is a most persistent weed; it is evil in the garden.

The sin of racism has allowed this weed to flourish for centuries. When violence arms itself with guns, wraps itself with flags, seduces the cowardly or weak-minded, the result is lethal. There is lament in Charleston and throughout the land.

Do what you can. Those of us who are privileged cannot afford despair. Read, march, weep, pray. There are many prayers of anger and lament in the Bible:

Don’t kill them,

or my people might forget;

instead, by your power

shake them up and bring them down,

you who are our shield and my Lord.

For the sin of their mouths,

the words that they speak,

let them be captured in their pride.

For the curses and lies they repeat,

finish them off in anger;

finish them off until they are gone!

Then let it be known

to the ends of the earth

that God rules over Jacob.

Ps. 59: 11-1

No Fixing

“No fixing, saving, advising, or correcting each other.”

A Circle of Trust “Touchstone” at Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage and Renewal

I am always tempted. Tempted to fix, save, advise. Someone says something to me and I wonder: what is that person really saying underneath what she is saying? Is that person saying: I need you to fix this? Probably not. So why should advice come out? And yet it does.

Someone in my meeting sent me some queries with an open-ended request: what do you think? Well, it depends. My usual reaction is to think the situation depends on me: I have to fix/save/advise. What would happen if those responses were unnecessary? If I were only being asked to listen because someone needed to be heard?

On the surface listening would seem to be easier. Yet it can require holding back, not responding unless requested. In practice listening is harder than it appears. It’s not for the lazy or what the Buddhists might term “unskillful, ” a term meant to suggest that one needs to practice a skill, and practice makes one more better at it.

We who are Quakers get regular practice in listening. In our Meetings for Worship, we listen expectantly. We expect to hear something from the Spirit. That listening is hard. Spirit is invited, but cannot be dragged in. Making an effort is less successful than stopping effort and only noticing. The body is still but the mind is very active, thinking about fixing/saving/advising: Now that committee meeting didn’t go well. I should have said…

Listening is hard because we live in a noisy world and the insides of our heads reflect that. Sitting in silence we eliminate some noise, but not all. Sitting in silence means not eating mental junk food, reaching for a Flamin’ Hot bag of habits and distractions.

There are of course times when people need to be saved. But these should be obvious. An earthquake in Nepal has killed thousands of people. Those who were trapped needed to be saved. Nepal will need fixing for years to come. We who want to help need to be advised on how best to do so.

But when life offers not dreaded emergencies but blessed opportunities to connect with others and grow, are we listening expectantly? Or are our own ideas getting in the way, like false gods?

What if saying nothing were a gift to be given? Go ahead: I’m all ears. Oprah Winfrey, one of my favorite spiritual teachers, said pretty regularly: people just want to be heard. The Spirit, too, wants to be heard. Very occasionally, the Spirit shouts if you’ve really missed the message. But usually the Spirit speaks, or listens, through others or in a sudden tiny epiphany: a thank you or good job or isn’t that beautiful. Isn’t that beautiful doesn’t need correcting.

noddingtrillium

Listen for the epiphany. It’s on the other side of the anxiety, beyond the fixing and saving.

Queries: What do you hear when you listen?

Is there more than one kind of listening?

(Nodding trillium, depicted, lives in Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, which does need fixing.)

Thank You Prayer for Spring

Thank you for all the plants pushing new life out, green newborn nubs.

Image 2Thank you for the green grass of scilla, topped by delicate blue stars.

Thank you for the sunny yellow trumpets of daffodils.

Thank you for the fat buds of saucer magnolia, ready for their cue to open.

Thank you for the nodding white umbrellas of snowdrops.

Thank you for the heady perfume of hyacinths.

Thank you for the spiky yellow plumes of forsythia.

Thank you for the sweet song of the cardinal, birdie birdie whistled at treetop.

Thank you for the orange-breasted robins hopping hungrily on lawns.

Thank you for the brightening gold of goldfinches, swooping through the yard.

Thank you for the rabbits at dusk, munching the short new grass.

Thank you for the discreetly lengthening daylight, the temperature inching toward warmth, the surge of plant life tuning up for its return.

The Still Days

After the service of Holy Thursday, lights dim to shadowMichelangelo_Merisi_da_Caravaggio_-_The_Entombment_-_WGA04148, and sound ceases: no organ, no bells, no singing. We mark the three-day passion, death, and entombment of Jesus in silence. In earlier times, these were known as the Still Days. No sound until Easter morning, when we, like Mary, will discover that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Yet until we learn that, time is interminable and still. The three days that mark the nadir of the liturgical year for all Christians are days of betrayal, agony, suffering, death. How could that be? Jesus’ followers must have wondered at the terrible turn of events: a close aide betrays him, his frightened friends scatter and hide. The man whose words drew crowds is tortured and crucified, bearing a painful and humiliating punishment that brazenly trumpets the mightiness of the Powers That Be over the lowly people to whom Jesus gave bread and hope.

We reflect on this on the still days, in the quiet. We are alone; where is the Lord? They have seized him, they have murdered him. Stillness is the frame for tears, anxiety, fears, despair. The minutes of the still days stretch on. The sun will not set; sleep will not come.

As a follower in mourning, what would I have done? Walked, I think, down dirt paths and byways, trying to hide, in order to be alone and weep, trying to somehow run fast enough to run back into the past, before the horror happened and the world was not rent, like the curtain in the temple. On the still days, sorrow muffles any feeble words that might offer consolation but utterly fail.

We wait in the still days for the time to pass, the air to move. We wait for nothing, hearts broken, numbed, dazed, cried out.

What next? No answer. Only stillness.

Resurrecting That Old House

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:19

That old house has finally sold. It’s been empty for a while, and what used to be a grand old place on West Main Street now looks more ramshackle than rambling. It’s a big red brick place, a relic of Richmond, Indiana’s, 19th century economic glory and also a street side memento of the family that once lived there and likely hosted grand gatherings. The house looks like it’s easily suffered years of neglect. I’d like to interrogate it: why are you empty? What were you like before?

The whole place takes up an acre in the city, along a busy thoroughfare. Most of it is a yard so overgrown with woods and weeds it resembles the forbidden forests of fairy tales. One year I saw plenty of poison ivy. This year I have seen a collective of cats. I’m guessing the Enchanted Forest hosts a feral colony that can live there discreetly and safely. I’ve even heard the cats live in the house, which wouldn’t surprise me; it would certainly have enough bedrooms to accommodate an extended feline family. There are still curtains on the house’s front window, a leftover touch of elegance, an intimation that light and hospitality once were there and can come again.

It will take work for that old house to be resurrected. These past two weeks at seminary while studying the subjects of poverty and justice I’ve seen photos of Resurrection City , the tent city erected on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1968 by the Poor People’s Campaign begun by Martin Luther King Jr. It is both a good idea and a rough place there at the intersection of hope and faith, a fixer-upper in a less well-heeled neighborhood of the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the pictures I’ve seen, Resurrection City looked pretty depressing, a shanty town. If it had beauty, I guess you had to know where to look for it or know how, through a very active imagination. Dr. King certainly knew; his mind’s eye opened by God, he told us he had seen the Promised Land. In the speech he delivered in Memphis the night before he was assassinated and months before his campaign marched on Washington, he saw something very few others could see. ,Beyond the Memphis sanitation workers strike, beyond the snarling dogs and fire hoses and jail cells of the civil rights movement, he could see the kingdom, because, like Moses, he had been to the mountaintop. The rest of us lack imagination or are hustling along in our lives. Some are angry; others lack faith.

I wonder where the flowers were in Resurrection City. Cities need little details to make them livable and pleasing: cats padding around at twilight, flowers that bloom welcome, kids playing. Did those city planners want only to tell the truth? Truth is not always beautiful; sometimes it’s simply the medicine you need when you’re sick, bringing healing and tasting bitter. If Resurrection City was a failure, perhaps it was because they didn’t plant flowers. They certainly planted seeds. How long, oh Lord, till those seeds flower?

Thank You Note, late winter

Thank you for juicy bright oranges on winter-gray February mornings.

Thank you for the chimes ringing in the stiff wind that blows a little good.

Thank you for seed catalogs that burst with the promise of later bloom.

Thank you for stopping the snow before it got too heavy to shovel.

Thank you for cats that lounge in the afternoon sun, relaxed.

Thank you for the citrus-scented steam hovering over the teacup.

Thank you for the light in darkness, warmth in cold, simple in complicated, silence in tumult,

Every blessed day.

Amen.