December 26, 2017

When I was a girl, I thought Mystery looked something like this:


… except I saw the background as a sort of velvety dark cobalt blue.  But the sense of hugeness and the sheer brilliance of it were present to my spirit as I crossed the yard from our house to church for the Midnight Mass.  The question that crosses my mind now, but didn’t occur to me then, was: what does this sound like? Is it silent? is it booming explosively (and if so, how does sound travel in space?) or is it music? I would have voted for music.  A large part of Mystery has always been music, not the jolly or sentimental sort, but the ancient chant “Hodie Christus natus est.” Music that aches and reaches for something outside human grasp.

Back then, I knew already the beauty of deep woods and the way they teased me with the knowledge of Creation’s deep breathing.  Woods were one way to God. So was the right kind of music. As I grew older I discovered other mysteries, the flash of a school of herring or the wheeling dance of huge flocks of starlings in murmuration.  I found mystery in water, just in the physics of it — it’s very odd stuff, water — and in biochemistry, and more lately in the static beauty of Picasso jasper and ametrine and the soft blue flash of moonstone.

Mystery in Creation: it’s all over the place.  If you believe, as I do, in a Creator, whose will and design are moving but not compelling the whole shebang, then you can see Creator’s thumbprints all over the place.

In humans — that’s where I’ve had trouble. Oh, I have no problem understanding that God sees the beauty in each and every person, even when that beauty is hiding under masses of psychological sludge, even when the person’s actions stab agony into God’s heart.  I get that part.

But at a very real level, the mystery I see in Creation is safe because it’s indifferent; it has no interest in me and will neither harm nor hurt me.  It is incompressible as water, as undifferentiated as clean air, as neutral as a fern shoot.

People, on the other hand, have the power to hurt me, especially if I love them.  I’ve loved people in error more than once, but only people-love can cause that sort of deep and lasting havoc.  I’ve never loved a cat in error, although I have loved some cats more than others.  Dogs haven’t been part of my life, nor horses, nor porpoises, but again, love for them is clear and uncomplicated and as reciprocal as their natures allow.

But I cannot speak the language of stars or herrings or starlings, or of cats or dogs or horses or porpoises.  My tongue, like my life, is human.  I am commanded by God to love other human beings.  It’s a problem.

God chose a sneaky way around this problem of Mystery: he tucked the fullness of Mystery into a baby’s small, vulnerable body.  It is deep in human nature to love young things with round foreheads and big eyes — just look at the way we react to kittens or puppies.  And babies lack the power of cruelty, because they are so vulnerable, so helpless.

The thing I found when they laid my firstborn in my arms was the same thing that young Miriam will have found: a baby is the perfect weight, the perfect warmth.  A baby’s head fits the hollow of your shoulder like nothing else does.  Being skin-to-skin with your new child is an indescribable feeling.

So that’s God’s bait-and-switch trick: here, hold this baby and I’ll hand you Mystery in the bundle.  It will not hurt you.  It will draw love for the child through you like water through a pipe, and in the process, I will slake the pipe’s own dryness.  Gaze into this child’s eyes and you will see cosmoses forming and new stars sweeping up the dust clouds from which they form.  You will see green woods and clear water and the majesty of desert places and the flash of blue at the heart of a moonstone.

It’s all there, wrapped up tight, in the hay in a cave in Bethlehem.




The Road to Jericho

December 3, 2017

The Road to Jericho

There are roughly a gazillion ways of ignoring another’s suffering – or if not ignoring it, at least reducing it to a point where it no longer troubles you enough to do something about it.

There’s blindness of one sort or another. As the train passes through the slums with their fly-ridden children playing in puddles between the leaning shacks, draw the curtains. Learn the fine art of tunnel vision as you scurry along your city streets. Turn the page of the newspaper; switch the channel.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a bad or selfish person. In fairness, sometimes the sum total of human suffering feels like a wall of wet mud about to collapse and overwhelm you, and there is so little you can do to help. Haiti, the Sudan, the Rohingha people, Yemen, the ruins of Syia… you could throw every penny and bit of energy you have at any of these, at any one desolated village or refugee camp, and you’d be broke and exhausted and it wouldn’t be enough. This is true, and sometimes it feels paralyzing.

But that’s not the situation here, on the road to Jericho. There’s someone in the bushes, maybe a drunk, certainly trouble, and you don’t feel equipped to take on the situation. It might even be one of those robbers this road is famous for. No; whoever it is is down on his belly by the roadside; a quick sideways glance relieves you of immediate panic.

You avert your eyes and cross the road, and you begin to hurry a little. You’re running late for a meeting and thinking what you’re going to say when you get there. You’re worrying about your daughter or your mother or the dog. You’re on your way to worship and you need to stay clean and neat to honour the Lord, and also because that’s how you were brought up. Showing up with blood on your hands – the thought makes you queasy.

You were also brought up to turn your eyes away lest you be seen to goggle at accident-victims: nice people don’t notice these things. Don’t intrude on his privacy. He doesn’t want you to notice. You can’t solve everyone’s problems; you have enough of your own. The authorities will look after him – you’ll make sure to notify them. You’ll only remember later, after the office has closed, but that’s okay – someone else will have seen to it.

Someone else will always see to it. Besides, from the sound of things, there’s someone coming up behind you; maybe he’ll take over. You trust in that belief and walk on, relieved.

You’ll pray for the guy. That’s what good people do. Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers.

Boot Route

December 27, 2012

(Yes, I know I missed Advent and Christmas. I’m having serious processing work around the theology of Jesus’ birth and I’m not ready to write about it yet. Until I’ve done that work, I couldn’t be Adventish or Christmassy, but I couldn’t insult the seasons by ignoring them either.)

We finally got real, serious snow, for the first time in at least a year, a foot or so, and it’s still coming down. It’s hard to describe the quality without resorting to Inuktituk snow-vocabulary, which I do not know but which certainly would include a term for “heavy dense fine snow which, given a day to settle, will make for superb sledding”.

But for right now, it needs to be removed from at least some surfaces if we’re to get on with life: driveways, streets, walkways, steps. It wasn’t a big a job as it might be because the next door neighbours had already had someone plow out our mutual driveway. I had only to clear my own parking space and make a boot route* for the mail-person. This is serious: I have goodies incoming from Ebay.

And so this morning, I put on my snow suit — alpaca socks, bibbed snow pants, old parka, ear-flapped hat, gloves-under-heavy-mittens, and wool scarf — slipped on my warmly lined rubber boots and headed out, shovel in mitt-hand, most purposefully and with a glimmer of dancing light in my soul.

It’s been a long time since I shoveled like this. It used to be a job that I bitched about while snuggling it close to my own chest. I had my ways, learned over years (“clear wide, in case it’s one of*those* winters”) and I loved the intense solitude of the work. Shoveling snow is the best form of meditation I know, better even than sorting children’s socks, because your mind gets out of the way and it’s body-and-soul working hard but pleasurably with each other, a synthesis of vision.

Robert Frost got at this in his poem on splitting wood, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”. When it works — and shoveling snow almost always works for me — the work is more joy than duty. It settles something in the soul, lets things drift into their proper orientation, as the snow drifts in its wind-appointed patterns. Things come together in work like this, and opposites shake hands and make peace with each other. It’s easy to toss away a resentment and heave fear onto the growing pile of snow-boulders. It’s a safe place out here in the quiet white, with only the occasional car going by. Just me and God and the white stuff.

This morning, what was settling into my soul was my own aging. My arthritic thumb kept its mouth shut and my back and shoulder muscles, built well up from all my work in the pool, enjoyed the lifting and tossing, feeling fatuously pleased with themselves. But while I probably have years to live, I may not have years of being able to shovel out a foot of heavy powder without much effort. My body has begun to hum little tunes of decline, which is hardly surprising given my age. I have, in fact, been very lucky in being physically years younger than my chronology would predict. Good genetics, not lifestyle choices.

Still, sooner or later, I must decline and die. This prospect has never much bothered me, and I view as foolishness the scrambling of my aging cohort to stave off the inevitable. We’re finally starting to realize that maybe, just maybe, digging our claws into mere existence like a drowning person clinging onto a life preserver may not be the best use of our personal or corporate resources. I am going to get old. Shoveling snow may, in a year or ten, be beyond me. Nu, so what else is new?

I can mourn in advance or I can simply enjoy each chance as it comes. Next year, maybe my arthritis will have seized up hip or knee or shoulder, or I may have serious cardiac issues. Tomorrow I may get squashed into pulp by some fool on the 401. And the point is?

The point is that whatever my doubts about faith, no matter how much I squabble with church, no matter how I find “real” theology as informative and interesting as user manuals, no matter how unpalatable I find the grimly sweet candy-pink icing or the weak sweet tea or the rock-heaving all-managing righteousness of contemporary Christianity — come whatever may, I do believe in a life after this one. It’s not just wishful thinking but something that goes bone-deep and is not “pie in the sky when you die”. Not one bit. I think C.S. Lewis got it right when he proposed that our soul-work begins in this life but continues in the next, as we are set to rights and become all that God intended us to be.

And so I can lift each shovelful knowing that the effort might send my cardiac muscles into quivering spasms and drop me dead as a doorknob in my own driveway. I do hope not; I’d sooner clean out the closets and arrange my banking beforehand. But life and death will be as they will be. My job is to do the work set before me with humble joy and without worrying about getting it exactly right, and to trust God for the rest. Even if I still can’t say something Wise and Meaningful about the Incarnation.

So just for today, I will let my mind drift away like a helium balloon on a very long string (and if I drop the string, too bad), and my body will take joy in its continuing well-being and my soul will continue on the path of healing and learning, in age, all the lessons youth never taught it. Believe it or not, it’s *fun*, and I expect it only gets more so on the other side.

The snow is still coming down, but lightly. I may put my snow suit back on in a little while and go out and widen the boot route. Or maybe not.

(In loving memory of Deborah Griffin Bly, who is giving the pitch note to the heavenly choir.)

*CBC’s “Wanted Words” came up with the useful expression “boot route” to describe a walkway cleared exactly one shovel’s-worth wide, to allow for foot passage as long as you don’t waddle like a duck.


November 19, 2012

The word that comes to mind as I listen is “true”. The man’s singing voice is true in the musical sense, of being accurately pitched, not sharp nor flat. Its truth has another musical quality, that of plainness: no ornaments, no vibrato, no blues notes. A voice presented this simply is naked and therefore vulnerable; it’s just out there, no hiding, no veiling what comes from the throat and soul.

True in another sense, too: that of integrity, plain and severe, a rightness as of plumb lines and sharp, straight edges and joints properly set. This man might sometimes be wrong, but you cannot imagine him ever being false to truth as he sees it. His beliefs are things he’s examined and found righteous in the Gospel way, and he has faith that that is the right way of being. He’d change his beliefs if someone convinced him they were wrong, but that somebody would have to be as honest as he is himself and the evidence would have to be tuned true to the Gospel and ring clear when he smote it. He is passionate for this truth as Jesus was for the same truth when he walked among us. But it’s passion lightly presented, not shouting or shrieking but powering a deep, serene warmth. It’s love, sung with clarity and humility.

I first attended seriously to this particular version of this particular song back when I was a very young woman. This version was quieter and slower than most — it’s usually jaunty, a quick dance — and I liked those qualities, which I needed then, in Interesting Times. My very young Canadian husband had had to go “home” to a country he’d not seen since he was three because the alternative was likely Vietnam. I was to move north myself at the end of the summer, away from everything and everyone I knew.

And a dreadful summer it was, too: the country was tearing itself apart over the war, and my own particular corner of it was a toxic soup. I was (I now see, looking back) very ill, frightened, lonely, lost; I knew I couldn’t stay where I was, and I was terrified about leaving it all behind me and stepping out into cool blank Canadian space. People wonder why other people stay in conditions that bring them down. But it’s hard to find the courage and energy to step out of the soup when there’s nobody there to hold out a hand to you and you can’t see a floor to set foot on. You *know* the soup, after all. You’re used to it. The thought of stepping out of known space paralyzes you, even though you know it’s what you need to do the most.

But into that summer’s spiritual murk the words of the third verse came clear and calm, with a deep certainty that I now know for the voice of Whoever-It-Is rising into my aching soul: “Con los pobres de la tierra/ Quiero yo mi suerte echar”: “with the poor people of the earth I want to share my lot.” *This* felt like a place I could set my feet on with assurance. It was a good place to start, a resolution to work with. It was true to the best of all I’d learned and inherited and it left all the not-so-good behind.

I had more illusions about the poor then than I do now, but I know one thing now, for sure, that I didn’t know then: there is no “the poor”, but a mass of individuals with particular faces and lives, and we can’t read their minds or their intentions. It is profoundly irritating when another person who doesn’t even know you tells you what you think and feel, without having asked you first. I’m a Christian, and I get judged and dismissed for my faith, just as the group we lump together as “the poor” (or, for that matter, “the rich”) gets judged and dismissed by people who haven’t a clue what their lives are truly like. “Contempt prior to investigation” is ugly stuff.

It’s not up to me to excuse or to judge groups of any sort, but only to walk the Gospel way to the best of my ability, which is not very much. Some of the poor are lazy; more are hardworking; many are tied into knots by their troubles; many choose self-medications that just make their lives much, much worse. The same is true of the rich. Some adhere to political beliefs that make me cringe. Some behave very badly. Ditto the rich. Most of those whom we call “the poor” simply try to get by, when getting by means multiple dead-end minimum-wage jobs and moving whenever the rent goes up, and hope to give their children a leg up in this world. Which is getting increasingly difficult as those who already have much want even more.

I have, in general, found more kindness and grace among those who have little, and less self-pity or excuse-making than the have-muches would expect. It’s the Samaritan, the no-goodnik, who stopped for the naked, robbed, and beaten man by the side of the road; the priest and the Levite find the whole situation too *messy* and degraded (and besides, the victim must have done something to deserve what had happened to him because God gives good to the good and bad to the bad, no? and we all make personal choices, right?).

I’ve found that disinterested love often comes where lives feel broken; I learned that on a psych ward where I fought with deep depression. I have found the most excellent spiritual examples among those who’ve really truly hit rock bottom: recovering drunks in AA. I remember, in the cold prosperity of the Canadian city we moved to, that the most warmth and kindness I encountered in those frightening, lonely early days were in the rough folk near the bottom, some with faint blue numbers tattooed on their inner forearms. Yes, these are people with whom I feel at home.

Recently the song rose again to my mind’s surface, likely because of the American election and a frustrating email exchange I’d had with a conservative friend. So I downloaded the version I’d listened to (on LP!) four decades back and a bit, and here it was again, that clear, warm tenor voice, trilling the “r”s as he sang “Con los pobres de la tierra…”

On this side of my life as on that earlier one, I’d make the same choice again and again and again: with the poor people of the earth I want to cast my lot. I wish I’d spent more of my life doing more to put that into action, but I did the best I could with the hand I’d been dealt. My greatest admiration goes to those who actually live the song out and who fetch God’s blessing to those who have little on this earth like living water in a battered tin cup.

“Con les pobres de la tierra” is what Jesus the Christ chose, and if his is indeed God’s voice, following his choice is choosing God. Or so I truly believe.


November 12, 2012

They sat on opposite sides at the middle trestle table in the big basement dining room/ kitchen. Most people had gone back to their rooms to wait for the hourly cigarette break in the pinched, grey smoking area outside. Two staff members left after putting food away in the fridge, plates of shepherd’s pie and vegetable frittata neatly wrapped, labelled and dated, so that anyone who wanted something to eat could get something nutritious quickly, before the healthy impulse faded.

She was playing with a bead bracelet. He was picking at a scar on his wrist. Her lank hair, purple over dirty blonde, and the tattoo dragons circling his neck, both stated much about what they likely looked like on the Outside, but in here, they had stripped down to their basics. She wore no Goth makeup and he had checked his ‘tude and his ball cap at the door. They both looked pale and grey in the overhead light, but there was an odd peacefulness about them.

“Can you eat at all yet?” she asked in her thin high voice.

He held out his hands, which shook, and grinned wryly. The grin made him look young and very handsome. “Some of it stays down.”

“That’s good. It’s a good sign when you want to eat and it doesn’t come back up again.”

She spoke not as a flirt or a sister or as anything else, but simply as one who already knew. She had only just stepped out of the slippers he had just slid on: they walked the same road, a day apart. Her words to him had nothing to do with advice or seniority, only with an understanding complete to the bone. There was no self-pity or complaint in her voice either, just quiet knowledge.

Not that the knowledge was always quiet. The night before, she had heard him thrash his way through a violent outbreak, held safe and restrained by a very large, steadfast, inexorable staff member. This morning, coming out of the washroom where he’d deposited breakfast in the toilet, he had seen her storming her way down the hall from the payphone, eyes and nose streaming, chanting a rage of foulmouthed distress because her mother had just told her that this time Children’s Aid was going to put her baby into care and she wouldn’t get him back, maybe not ever.

But for right now, the two of them sat in companionable stillness sharing suffering. Neither was whining about it; they knew perfectly well what withdrawal meant and they had been here before, more times than they could remember (which might be three or fifteen, for all either could recollect). They might be here again in future. They might be here again and again and again until something broke, either the drug’s hold or life itself, because it might kill them. Come to think of it, each thought, maybe that’s best.

A solitary woman at the next table nursed her cup of tea (herbal; caffeine was on the no-go list) and watched them, but lightly and unobtrusively. She knew rather than felt that she was herself quite ill, but just for this long moment she had moved, as they evidently had, into some sort of inner peacefulness where time seemed to stretch long and thin like silly putty. Her body’s deep protesting ailing was simply there, nothing to get bent about.

Detaching herself from herself, she saw the two at the other table with a warm clarity, a willingness toward unspeaking affection in which she had nothing at stake. They would or would not succeed in walking out of here clean and ready for a new life. They would or would not be able to hold onto sobriety. The girl would or would not get her toddler son back (the woman had heard all about that, but between the speaker’s wailing incoherence and the listener’s fogginess, not much of it stuck). The woman knew better than to have any expectations.

She thought, how plain they are, and how beautiful. Neither was worth a damn in this tough little city; both failed to contribute, took more than they gave, wronged and hurt all who loved them, did unmentionable things for drug money, could not be relied upon, might never get their act together. Each was likely doomed. The brain changes, when it’s bathed on a daily basis in the drug of choice. Her own had been alcohol; theirs might likely be meth or maybe cocaine, stuff that digs hard into the synapses like a barbed steel hook in a fish’s mouth.

She thought: each of these children once lay pink and squinting and impossibly new in a mother’s arms. She remembered the perfect weight of a newborn, the perfect warmth, the sweet fit of brand-new head into the hollow of her shoulder. She looked at the graceful curve of the girl’s wrist with its razor scars and the boy’s well-muscled thickly tattooed arms and she mourned.

Not that either would have desired or accepted her compassion. Compassion is too hard on the recipient’s self-esteem when that part is tender, and she knew from her own addiction how the addict’s self-esteem twists in pain. Society’s shaming had nothing on her own self-shaming. After all, her aim was better. She knew better than the righteous which words would hurt.

So: no compassion, and no sympathy, which is too distant for these purposes. No empathy either. She was not walking that particular road, had never walked it, would never walk it. Her path was parallel but different. So no, not empathy. False empathy is utterly useless, as the male hospital resident found when he said to a woman in labour “I know how you feel.” (His testicles were later discovered under the fetal monitor.)

If not those, then what?

What’s wrong with love, then? An old hymn came into her head, an ecclesiastical earworm that had been haunting her since she stood on the concrete front steps with her little rock-bottom suitcase two days since: “Love to the loveless shown that they may lovely be.” Not lovely as we use the word, meaning beautiful, but lovely in an older sense, of being love-worthy. You can, in that sense, love from a distance without intruding, without hitting the open sores. If you love the loveless, then perhaps you can help them learn to receive love, to begin the long, difficult, slow upwards spiral of healing.

She could love them from this distance, be willing to be of humble serice to them as God had been, was being, would be in future to her, and hope — believe — that it would do them as much good as it did her. Which was considerable.

Almost half-past the hour. The young people swung their legs up over their respective trestle benches and went off to their separate quarters to get their cigarettes and coats — November’s damp is biting near the lake. The woman cleared away her own cup and their plates (not her job, but) and washed these and the other remaining dishes, wondering if she could lower a corner of her own calloused spirit and maybe let the loveliness come in.

Maybe. In time.

My song is love unknown,
My saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown
That they may lovely be.
(Samuel Crossman)

For All the Saints

November 5, 2012

The church kitchen was busy, bright and warm, with three cheerful ladies putting together platters of crustless sandwich quarters — the inimitable, the unutterably delicious Church Lady Sandwiches — for the weekend ACW bazaar. They said hello in passing as I moved through, iPad in hand, to the quiet church beyond the parish hall.

There all was still except for the overhead fans. I didn’t turn on any lights. I settled down in a forward pew, opened the iPad and summoned up the day’s appointed scriptures — the Propers for All Saints’ Day — and opened up the playlist for the music I had, with some difficulty, managed to sync just an hour ago.

I listened to the lovely anthem “O Taste and See” while I read the commendation from Wisdom about the souls of the faithful: they have been tried and purified, and their going from us is no longer a tragedy but a triumph. The spark of their faith runs through us like fire through long dry grass. That passage was one I first encountered through grace conveyed by one of the saints on my own personal list, a much-beloved wise and diffident man who now rests with God and who would be horrified to be called anyone’s saint. I called him Mudge, because he claimed to be (and sometimes was) a curmudgeon.

As I listened, reading Wisdom and thinking of Mudge, I almost felt as though I’d been struggling for a long, long time, an unendurably long time, in cold lake water, all mucky on the bottom, with long, strong, half-rotten vines trailing through it, clinging to my aching legs. Periodically one of the galleys of the Fundamentalists, religious or anti, would scull past, banging tin pots and screaming righteously into the fog, and usually giving me a quick clip upside the head without noticing. They never watch where they’re going. But mostly I just tried to keep my head above water, all on my self-isolating lonesome. Because isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be done?

Another soul struggling alongside me had, the day before, slipped a marvellous neologism into a moment of conversational confusion: the phrase “defaults of character” (a cross between “character faults” and “defects of character”). “Defaults of character” — those were the vines against which I’d struggled so long: the long-problematic settings with which I’d been programmed during a scrambled early life and that I’d since taken completely for granted. Old ways of coping, old and crippling memes.

Back to the cool dusty quiet and my iPad. Psalm 24 and “Ye watchers and ye holy ones.” Both about being God’s own — not in the possessive sense, but in the sense of recognition and renewal: not an owner’s “you’re *mine* but a suitor’s “it would please my heart to call you mine, if you wish to be.” I am God’s critter, if I will have it so. On to Revelations, a new heaven and a new earth in which all tears are wiped away and memes are sorted through, most discarded, the good ones refurbished. If I so desire — and I do so desire — God will clear away the strangling vines in which I am entangled.

These words of All Saints propers told me of God’s power to reset the defaults, if I’d turn them over to God. It’s my decision to trust, or not to trust, in the power of love to make all things new. That choice is about staying in the water or choosing to get into the boat.

In my spirit’s eye, as I struggled in the murk, Mudge was out in his skiff, inarticulate in love but ever competent with a boat, and now — in this reading and this music — it was as though he had reached a hand overboard to pull me up to safety. And I took his hand and the two of us heaved me roughly over the gunwales and into the skiff’s bottom among balers and ropes and bait buckets and his old rubber boots, and we laughed in joy and sheer relief. Or so it seemed in the quiet church.

I read of Lazarus called forth from death, even after he’d begun to reek of decay, and I listened to the Miserable Offenders singing of the wide kindness of God’s mercy, and I felt something in me shift and settle in a slightly altered way.

And now it seemed that we were rowing toward another shore, where folk were out in joy splashing in the water, having picnics, tossing peanuts to the squirrels and the ducks, while the lamb explored the lion’s ear with its tender inquisitive lips. Our beloved Matt the Muttster was holding forth on the true nature of barbeque to Richard Hooker and J.S. Bach. The Wolfmama listened intently to Niebuhr and Dr King talking beisboll and the Anglo-Catholics, led by Auden and two bishops of Maine, were swinging 360s, censing Mahalia she led the saints a-marchin in, and their singing shook the heavens.

Yes, I thought. This is for real.

And then, just to set the seal on things, there came rolling into my tiny earbuds that hymnodic dreadnought, the greatest of hymns by that irreligious Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams, with its huge stompin’ bass line rolling up my doubt like a charge of heavy cavalry and behind it the clear, calm, utter certainty that all will indeed be well and all manner of things shall be well:

“From earth’s wide shores, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:

Alleluia, Mudge. And thanks for the hand up.

in memory of Andrew Auld, 1947-2008.

The Dye Pot

October 29, 2012

It’s been years (at least five) since I tried to dye anything fiber-ish. The contents of my bottle of concentrated blue food colouring, the easiest option for a clean, quick dye job, had consolidated into a knobby mass that I had to dig out of its little plastic bottle with a kitchen knife before I dropped it into the big reserved-for-this-purpose dye pot, where vinegar and water were warming on the stove.

The lump I dropped in was well past dark blue and could pass for coal, but as it sank to the bottom, it began to dissolve: long ribbons of rich blue pigment reaching out into the water, with the stainless steel of the pot walls gleaming behind. I watched mesmerized as the tendrils of colour shifted in vibrancy, midnight blue to deep royal to joyful {SCILLA!!!}-blue to delicate snowlight, unfolding, moving like lengths of brilliant silk snatched up and fanned out by the wind, slowly feathering into lighter strings of colour. This is a moment I always love: the colour so pure and powerful as it first meets water, so graceful, so random. A dance.

It reminded me of how I sometimes feel in the pool, when I’ve been working hard in body and soul and I can feel hard lumps of Stuff (grief, fear, anger, all the old darknesses) loosen up and soften. Sometimes I get the feeling that the Stuff is flowing down my limbs and out through my toes and the tips of my fingers, and into the pool’s mild water, like this dye. Since the pool holds a great deal of water and my Stuff, while highly concentrated, is not high-volume, I picture the darkness fanning off out into the blue-reflecting water, vanishing into overwhelming dilution, until it’s maybe a few parts per gazillion, hardly enough to measure even by the most sensitive instrumentation. And I come away feeling somehow … softer. As though maybe Love is real, after all, for all life’s other lessons.

But as I watched the dye in the dye pot, my imagination ran the film backward: the dye retracting into its little coal-like nugget, the water refusing it; Stuff coming back into my soul. The soul can treasure Stuff; it can store it, concentrate it, add to it, preserve it by freezing or by boiling it down, as one makes a fine demiglace by boiling good beef stock down to the viscosity of molasses. I know the temptation to hold onto a hurt or a grievance as Gollum hung onto the Ring (a fine metaphor for addiction if ever there was one!) — “my precioussssss” that will destroy me, but which I can’t let go because it is so beautiful, so dear.

Take that lump of well-concentrated Stuff, purify it, put it under pressure, crystalize it out to hardness, hone it well and give it a polish, and you have what looks like a brilliant dark jewel. You can call it righteousness or moral purity or idealistic conviction, and you can shoot ordinary schoolgirls in its name and tell the world that they’d forced you to it. A quote about Sir (St.) Thomas More observed that while he died for his own convictions, a number of other people died for his convictions too.

It occurred to me, then, that this image can run Godward in either direction. In the pool, Stuff can leak out of me into water that, for me, passes for love, and the love dissolves it to vanishing point without being itself affected. Pure water doesn’t have Stuff, only hydrogen bonds (which is why it’s liquid at room temperature). Any Stuff it has, we’ve likely added out of our own sheer stupidity. But my Stuff just isn’t big or toxic enough to cause any real pollution, and the pool itself stays clean (well, as clean as pools ever are).

But God, having observed our tendency to boil our Stuff down and beat it into bayonets, played our game with a twist. Jesus soaked up all the Stuff that was in the air filled with screams of pain and hatred that his human lungs took in and out and his ears heard for all his thirty-some years; he took all our crud and cruelty, our broken lives and smashed relationships, all the Stuff of every soul who ever is, was, or will be, and concentrated it in his own person, and in dying, obliviated it: rendered it null, gone, finished. In him, it exploded into God’s love and vanished. He showed what Love has the capacity to do.

Of course Stuff comes back. You can’t live in this world without acquiring Stuff because it’s still that sort of place — more so in some ways than it was in Jesus’ day, far less so in other ways. Our souls have stains on them, just as paint wears dirty after a few years. No matter how we scrub, we can’t get our own Stuff out. Not by ourselves. Over our own Stuff, we are helpless.

For that we need Love, the one and only solvent that does anything for Stuff — because it’s love, not water, that I swim in in the pool, as I listen to my music and stretch my aging, aching joints. When I forget about the past and stop fearing the future and simply move in the water, dancing as the dye dances in widening circles in the pot, then Love can flow in and the Stuff can flow out. It takes time, of course. There’s still more Stuff to go, and I know that. Which is why my bathing suit is packed again for tomorrow.

At last the dye was dissolved; reluctantly I stirred the last feathery bits in with the wooden spoon appointed for the purpose, and I dropped in the warm, wet hank of rough yarn that will (I hope!) take on the colour I see in my mind’s eye for my next needlework project. I stir the pot, working the wool in deeper, smelling the sharpness of the vinegar.

Next time: yellow.

The Wood Duck

September 9, 2012

All is still green, but the days are shortening and cooler than they were three weeks ago. Some days are still gorgeous, and on those days I bring my embroidery

Work in progress on the verandah.

out to the verandah and set myself up, listening to an audiobook as my practiced fingers work the needle front and back, front and back.

The current embroidery is a counted-thread cross-stitch Celtic cross, a fairly demanding piece that I have properly mounted on a scroll frame to keep it stretched taut. The scroll frame in turn sits atop a stand that my neighbour John and I cobbled together (he had the band saw and the drilling experience) on this very verandah a few weeks ago.

As I sat at work the other day, a fairly elderly car drove slowly past my house, faltered, and came to an illegal stop (no parking this side of the street). An equally fairly elderly man got out, opened his trunk, and began to rummage among the contents, glancing over his shoulder at me as he did so. I sighed, pulled off my earphones, and prepared to be neighbourly.

“Wanna show you something. Need some help wi’ it,” he opened, and I went to look at what he held: a frame, perhaps 12 by 14 inches, enclosing an embroidery of a duck. “‘S a wood duck,” he told me. “I love them wood ducks.” Frame and embroidery had seen outdoor time, going by the superficial grot. Tenderly he brushed some plant matter from the canvas. “What is it?” he asked. “You were doing this embroidery stuff; I thought you’d likely know.”

I knew at once. Crewel embroidery, I told him: wool on what looked almost certainly like linen. One bit of a reed at the side hadn’t been finished (not enough yarn, perhaps) and I could see the pattern underneath: stamped, not drawn, so the duck had likely been a kit, linen with stamped design, lengths of crewel yarn pre-cut, and stitching instructions, long gone now. Kits like these are common start-out projects.

Now, I have been doing embroidery for a very long time. I first learned from the elderly neighbour who served as stand-in grandmother, when I was perhaps 7; I got serious about embroidery in my late teens and worked piece after piece of crewel for almost 30 years and then, for no good reason, simply stopped. The impulse to thread colour through needle and make patterns on cloth has only just re-seized me, years later, but all the old skills and craft-knowledge were there all along.

It was those skills and that knowledge that informed me with calm certainty that this duck was a truly crappy piece of embroidery. It was crude, uneven stitchery; the edges of the design segments failed to meet neatly, leaving gaps of exposed linen, and the back, if I could see it, was probably a mess. A neat back, free of starter knots, is the traditional hallmark of good-quality work.

But I didn’t say any of this. You don’t critique refrigerator art either. This was a piece that had absorbed a number of (probably struggling) hours by some unknown, but unpracticed, hand. “It looks just like a real wood duck,” the man said wonderingly. “I’m gonna clean it up, reframe it, hang it in my TV room.”

So instead of being snide about the thing, I made some gentle suggestions that involved dry cleaning, told him what the materials were (he made notes) so the dry cleaner would know what to do, and handed it back to him. He went back to his car without (thank God!) asking to see what I was working on myself.

I got back to tracking my tiny cross-stitches on the printed chart. It’s work that requires your undivided attention while leaving your soul free to wander away and poke around, which is why I love it. My brain tends to get terribly underfoot, so giving it some absorbing toy to play with is generally a good idea, spiritually speaking.

Yes, the wood duck was a mere shmatte, embroidery-wise. I know good work; this was not it. I don’t do work of the highest standard either, and it was probably the gap between my best skills and the best skills of the best embroiderers that had caused me to put my needle down, years ago. I cannot do fine white-work or cut-work or needle-made lace, the embroiderer’s equivalent of Olympic figure skating. I’m just not all that good with a needle. The fact that my own stuff — not made from kits but my own designs — is really quite good wasn’t quite good enough for my own anxious perfectionism. And the wood duck said something important about that very problem.

What made the piece valuable wasn’t its own merits but the fact that the man loved it — loved it enough to rescue it (as he’d told me) from a pile of discards, brush it off, and try to find someone who could tell him what to do for it. It was ugly. It was shabby. It was in serious need of proper cleaning. It was merely a mass-produced kit of the schlocky persuasion, and the designer had rotten taste in colour choices (trust me on that one). But it was loved and would be lovingly cared for.

Maybe its maker had loved it too, or at least had had hopes for it as her (almost certainly her) fingers struggled with a wool-laden needle. She probably didn’t know about the technique that is, to me, second nature. She had chosen this particular kit, quite likely because she like the man loved wood ducks. It’s so easy for us to mock dreams that aren’t up to our standards or tastes. I don’t much like the sentimental stuff that abounds among my stitching peers, but that doesn’t make their work less loved than mine.

We mock others for their failure to dream while ensuring that their dreams are out of reach, because we also fail to understand their realism and intelligence. We fail in humility and humanity — the great failing of “clear” thinkers like Ayn Rand — because we feel ourselves separate from and superior to (and also victimized by) those Other People, who value stuff we see as sentimental dreck and fail to value (indeed to worship) us and our clear, hard, sharp-edged vision of how the world should be.

The sun felt strong enough to ripen peaches, and my eyes had begun to cross like the stitches on my work, so I put aside the Celtic cross and went inside to retrieve the Fat Cat, who is much less demanding, being worked in big sloppy stitches (!) in fat pearl cotton (!!) of every bright hue I can lay hands on (!!!) on black polyester twill (!!!!!). This one breaks every rule in Mrs. Beeton’s fearsome Book of Needlework. It says “Shmatte? I’ll show you shmatte”. As embroideries go, it’s a slut.

Graf Albrecht Ernst Maximilian von und zu Katzenbottin, holder of the Imperial Teutonic Order of the High Silver Fish Head, aka the Fat Cat, work in progress with geranium in the background

But I love it and therefore it has value. God loves me and therefore I have value. God loves every schlub and schmendrick and man Jack and woman Jill who comes to set feet on God’s earth, even (perhaps even most) those whose needy humanity wraps itself around our ego’s aspirations and brings us, smarting, down to earth.

The Celtic cross I’m working may be a glory-to-God sort of thing, but the Fat Cat probably makes God grin, and I’m sure the crewel wood duck has a special place on the divine refrigerator door.


September 2, 2012

I see by the church bulletin that I am on after-church refreshment duty this Labour Day weekend. As it’s still summer, I can get away with lemonade (actually lemon soda, very refreshing) and bought cookies instead of coffee, tea, and baked stuff that could pass for homemade if you didn’t know me well. So, cleverly outguessing my own forgetfulness, I buy two 2-litre bottles of fizzy lemonade and stow them in the parish hall fridge for tomorrow. I leave the cookies ready to put out, and a tray to transport everything outside, if the weather continues fine.

After doing this, I wander, as I often do, into the empty and silent church itself. It’s late afternoon, and sunlight pours like warmed honey through the altar windows, making coloured splotches on the oak pews and the buff-coloured walls. The other windows, garlanded by pretty stenciling, glow more softly. There’s my fave: an improbable and anemic looking Good Shepherd with much more realistic sheep. I tucked myself up next to this window when I first arrived, sorely battered, in this building.

It’s a lovely church. So many churches are, in this diocese: built thoughtfully and reverently by 19th-century Anglicans, absolutely none of whom could ever have predicted what would happen to their denomination towards the end of the 20th century in the great transdenominational deflating floomph. Tomorrow, at the 10:30 service, we may have 30 people. With luck.

Still, I think, it is a lovely church, too small and intimate to be pretentious, hallowed by many prayers and seemly rites of passage. It is a thing worthy of respect and affection.

But not of worship. It is not God.

Tomorrow, among those with-luck 30-some congregants, at least half will be long-time members, people (mostly women, mostly over 65) who were children in the parish hall’s Sunday School back when it counted its children in the dozens, who were married before this altar, who brought their children and grandchildren here to be christened, whose parents and other loved ones were buried from this church. Their life-memories are precious to them, and their sense of the generations come before. Their very sense of self is bound up with this space. And these things too are worthy of respect and affection.

But not of worship. They are not God.

On Wednesday, a group of older people, almost all women, will gather for a Eucharist according to the Book of Common Prayer, that repository of poetic cadences and sonorous theology that we replaced (mostly) with the Book of Alternative Services, a generation ago, a move that caused considerable upset. For the BCP has deep resonance still for many Anglicans, and it is indeed a great gift from those thoughtful strugglers who, four centuries ago, strove with tenuous success to cobble together an English denomination neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant, balanced on a knife-edge over a sea of religious turmoil. But while the BCP too is worthy of respect and affection, it should not be an object of worship. It is not God.

After the service, they will sit down to coffee, tea, and the sort of baked goods that give nutritionists the collywobbles, for social chit-chat that will give them the sense of belonging and of continuity and interest in others, and so what about calories? They will go away happy. Isn’t that important? It is, of course, but pleasant social interaction is not worthy of worship. It is not God.

Neither is classical Anglican choral music, or our liturgical tradition (high, low, or middling), or our vestments, or our parish programs, or our finances. Our social action is probably closer to the centre of things than our fondness for four-part harmony (no syncopation, please — we’re Anglicans). These things are lovely and seemly and good to experience, but not one of them is a fit object of worship. None of them is God.

I thought, standing in the warm, harmonious beauty of this building, with all its memories and its mild disorder (no real untidiness, just that sense of a place often lived in), that they are most fortunate whom life strips to their undershorts and heaves bodily into the wilderness, because there’s a whole lot less temptation towards ecclesiastical idolatry out there. Our abbas and ammas of the first couple of centuries, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, got that particular point: we find our way to God in desolate places at least as often as we do in pleasant meadows. Waste places may not be much fun, but they are notably free of distractions.

We lost this understanding later on, when we made the huge mistake of becoming safe and respectable by striking a deal with the Roman Emperor Constantine. Thereafter, church became the pinnacle of what we thought was best and most beautiful and worthy of worth-ship — things, sadly, not souls. In our devotion, it rarely occurs to us what gilding does to the living, flowering lily.

The respectable English settlers who built this church ten years before Confederation gave high worth to beauty, as they saw it, and respectability, and the right way of doing things. They could not have known that 150 years later, so many parishes wear their lovely inherited buildings wearily, like so many albatrosses. I sometimes feel that what this diocese needs most is a good professional arsonist.

But not here, not this building, which I too love. Only I know it’s not God, and God does not particularly dwell here, any more than God particularly dwells out on the golf course or in the woods or on the river. We cannot specify where God is and isn’t (pace those who would “put God back in the classroom”) because God already is everywhere. To assume that we can include or exclude God, except from our hearts, is a theological error of the first order.

What may dwell here, and is worth cherishing (if not worshiping) is the space and time taken from ordinary life and made over, specifically and intentionally, to God’s service. But this self-offering is only worth cherishing if it goes out the door with us each Sunday, past the fizzy lemonade and cookies and well-mannered small talk, out into a world so desperately in need of the love of Christ. Out into the wilderness, where we really should belong. Otherwise, it’s just a pleasant habit, like Sunday brunch.

For ultimately, it doesn’t matter how dearly we love things churchly and sacred, except insofar as that love tumbles us that one step further into love of God and spills out and through us to the souls who most desperately need its tenderness and care. If it stops here, in this quiet, golden loveliness, no matter how we love it, it’s only a thing, and dead.

What happens if we fail financially and have to shut up shop? It’s not unthinkable; it’s happening, as the smaller rural churches can’t pay for utilities or repairs, much less clergy. Could we walk away from all this and somehow make church elsewhere, and if so, how? People talk about an emergent church, but we are such staunch traditionalists that the thought is like a goose walking over our grave. What would become of this place? of us?

Why do we have such trouble imagining that maybe, just maybe, God really is running the show, and we should simply trust that whatever unfolds will not more than we can bear? God will provide. Maybe it’s time for a spell in the wilderness. With the summer ending (and it’s been a dry summer), the bugs shouldn’t be too bad.


August 19, 2012

I got my two in a couple of days before the deadline, huffing them in from the car to the dusk-dim church kitchen, where the others stood lined up like so many dwarf goblins on the long counters and tables.  I couldn’t remember how many we’d pledged to do up this year, but the number “40” stuck in my mind.  If that was right, this was no inconsiderable chunk o’ change.

When the neo-con Ontario government did its level best to strangle the public school system, back when my own kids were in elementary school, one of the “frills” it cut was school supplies.  No more free pencils.  That little job got handed off to parents:  pencils, pens, school binders, report covers, erasers, markers, scissors, the whole stationary store, all loaded (together with lunch bag and water bottle) into school backpacks, which also have to accommodate the second pair of shoes required for classroom wear. All paid for by parents.

Since said neo-con government also slashed welfare payments, this has turned into a Major Problem for poor families.  The hell with Justin Bieber t-shirts and the correct type of runners: they have to pour about $50 worth of basic school supplies into a backpack, and a cheap backpack costs $20. (And will promptly fall apart; speaks the voice of experience.)   Plus, of course, that required pair of indoor shoes.  We’re pushing $100 a kid even if you’re a canny shopper with access to a good dollar store.  That hurts.

My church is a-swarm with teachers, mostly elementary school, many retired, some still working, and so it was an obvious thought to assemble school backpacks for the needy kids at our local elementary school.  We’ve done this yearly for about the last three-four years, and the number of packs we send goes up a bit each summer.  The school tells us what’s needed. There is a sign-up sheet, divided by gender and grade group (primary, junior, intermediate, covering grades 1 to 8).  The church itself kicks in any shortfall.  I always sign up for two; this year, for the first time, I’d got intermediate girls, Grade 7 and 8.

This is not a big back-patting sort of outreach.  We don’t do it for the publicity (well, the publicity doesn’t hurt — like all small churches, we desperately need new members).  We don’t do it for any ideological or even theological reason, although I don’t think we’d have any trouble coming up with one.  We do it because it needs to be done and it might as well be us as anyone else who does it.  Kids need those backpacks.  If they come from low-income backgrounds, they don’t need the additional humiliation of not having enough pencils.

Who knows why they’re poor, whether their families are deserving or un-, if there’s drinking or smoking or drugs or order-in pizza in the house? Kids aren’t answerable for their parents’ lack of economic common sense, even if that’s part of the problem (and in this economy, it often isn’t).  It doesn’t change the need for those required indoor shoes.  We can’t just write the need off as someone else’s responsibility or try to hand it back to the schools (already underfunded) or to the government.  The kids need erasers, period.  Also scientific calculators, math sets, and coloured pencils (decent quality; the cheap ones are useless).

I get cranky with those for whom the poor — or the rich, for that matter — blur into a de-humanized mass of disposable units, like so many disposable Bic pens.  These kids are people, beloved by God, each one utterly unique and valuable beyond price.  We should be sinking everything we’ve got into treasuring each child, ensuring that he or she has what she needs, dealing promptly with learning disabilities, bringing out their gifts.  Elementary school  is, after all, a kid’s first full-time job, lasting (to completion) from age 4 or 5 to 18, and it is a huge determinant of the kid’s sense of self.  It is at least as important as parenting, I believe, and if we blow off the job, we pay for our failure later, although probably not as heavily as the kids do.

But then, children are a long-term investment and our society doesn’t think in those terms.  Bottom line now, that’s what matters:  max those profits, and if that means cutting back on social services, well, something’s gotta give, doesn’t it? And that something is not going to be my wallet.  Besides, the poor should simply haul their socks up and get richer:  easy. So those who already have most get more at the expense of those who have less, claiming that this trend just proves how much smarter and harder-working they are.  How they justify this state of things, especially if they’re Christian, is a thing I do not understand and don’t want to.  Probably they don’t need to justify, believing that prosperity is its own justification.  This is a position that likely gives God the divine equivalent to the collywobbles, but I’ll leave that up to Herself to deal with.  And She certainly will

Back to our backpacks…

We give to those who have little because we have more, enough to be generous.  I find it bemusing that those who don’t rank high on this world’s list of successes tend to be far more generous, proportionally speaking, than those who could afford to give a whole lot without suffering the least personal pinch.  The widow really does give her mite.  Some of our backpack donors are on retirement income, or living somewhere between the median income and the poverty line.  But the need is there and they step up to help meet it without a moment’s thought.

And why? Simply because it is the next right thing to do.  It’s simple social practicality.  There is a need; we can help fill it, therefore that’s what we do.  We’re like one neighbour who joins another in sociable weeding (always much more entertaining than weeding one’s own garden).  You don’t spout ideologies or engage in philosophizing or debate abstract economics; you just pick up the goddam hoe and have at the quack grass.  And if you want to be truly, selflessly helpful, you accept your neighbour’s offering of zucchini.

Yes, some will abuse charitable giving, just as some abuse our much-abraded social safety net, but I’m with Lettice Lady Falkland who, when her friends accused her of encouraging layabouts by her philanthropy, replied “with spirit”:  “I know not their hearts.  I had rather relieve five unworthy Vagrants than that one member of Christ should go empty away.”  I’m not even so particular about the recipient’s faith identity.

The girls who get my back packs will have no idea who bought the stuff, nor should they, and they are not obliged to shine academically or behave like little ladies because they have received my charity.  Ideally, they won’t lose all the pencils before the end of September, but how am I to know?