I miss hearing her play.

•May 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Go to Youtube and search “Sanctus from Saint Cecelia Mass” by Gounod, and you will find several lovely renditions; but you will not find the rendition my mother played.  Every Easter Sunday I stood with the choir in the rear balcony of our church, listening and watching as she sat at the organ, downstairs, with her back to us, playing the Sanctus.  She was not a professional organist, but she was good; and something about the Sanctus connected so deeply with her soul that, for that one Sunday a year, for the 3:28 minutes her version ran, woman and music became one.  I would stand in the back and see the music rise and hang and sparkle in the air like angels’ wings, and I would feel, for just a few seconds, the blast-furnace-and-butterfly’s-kiss of pure Ruach, swirling around and through me.

She retired long ago from playing.  In more ways than one.  The last time I heard her play the Sanctus was for my ordination thirteen years ago.  She came specifically out of retirement, that one time, and I stood in the back with the others, waiting to process, with tears streaming down my face – watching for the angels’ wings, listening for the Ruach, but mostly trying to absorb and appreciate the costly gift of love which my mother was giving on that Sunday afternoon.  I knew it was the last time I’d hear the Sanctus played by that particular, temperamental woman on that particular, temperamental organ, and I loved it, every last note of it, until the last note faded away.

Now, as we go about the work of downsizing her from an eight-room house to a one-bedroom apartment, I keep looking for her battered copy of the Sanctus.  Neither I nor anyone else could play it like she did, but it seems like a thing that should be kept.  Perhaps there is, on its yellowed pages, just a bit of dust left from the angels’ wings.  Perhaps a last wisp of music hangs in the air around it.  I don’t know.  But I would like to find out.  I hope she hasn’t thrown it away.

…”I’m Here.”

•February 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment

We know the day is coming, although we don’t know when or how, or whether it will come all of a sudden or creep up slowly from behind.  The day when you look at your parents and realize that they have become much shorter than you, and younger.  So much younger.  Too younger.  Parenthood 2.0 is upon you, ready or not, and “not” is not an option.

This early in the game, I am in full-on crisis mode: detached, efficient, dispassionate.  Call this doctor.  Order that equipment. Marshall the troops.  Pass the meds.  Arrange the time off.  Grief and anger are cobwebs to be brushed aside; primal child-terror is a background noise to be tuned out; overwhelmedness is a wave to be surfed in a surfed-or-die game where “die” is not an option.

Only in oblique ways does the emotion leak out.  Searching in the mirror for silver hairs.  Studying her form:  “Will that really be me someday?” And moments like this morning.  Daughter snapping awake as I pass her room.  “Mom?!?” the short sharp cry that sends me flying to her bedside, never mind her age.  “I had bad dreams,” she said, and I sat and wrapped my arms around her…still just old enough and big enough to hold her.

But I won’t be forever, will I? -without my consent the tears come and I hide them in her hair, forcing steadiness into my voice, speaking the truth that, for now, at least, still stands.

“I’m Here.”

A Night Like This

•October 31, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Every culture has a night like this.  A night that hangs darker and heavier in the air; a night full of whispers that are more than wind and dry leaves; a night whose chill runs deeper than the thermometer can measure.  In my culture it is called ‘Halloween’, and celebrated with varying degrees of delightful  ridiculousness that whistle in the dark against the more ancient undercurrent.

Before there was candy in a plastic bowl, there were cakes and ale.  Before there were pumpkin carving contests, there were candles guttering nervously in turnips.  Before there were polyester ghosts and adorable little goblins thronging our suburban neighborhoods, there were capricious, inbreaking spirits to be placated, tricked, or avoided.  Superstition runs as old and deep as our mortal awareness:

Others were here, and are here no more.  I am here, and will one day go where they went.

Where did they go? Where do we go? -It is in our nature to believe, or at least hope, that our dead have not gone too very far from us.  We give names to that place:  Hades, Sheol, Valhalla, Heaven, the Otherworld.  We pin hopes and fears upon it.  And on a night like this, we try with our various prayers and rituals to come to the edge of it and touch fingers with our dead.

Tonight I call them to mind:  Nana, Pappy, the Ol’ Man, my Familiar, my Calico, and all the bright souls I have loved and known.  I call to mind my living loved ones and think of them as they call their own dead to mind.  Like my ancestors before me I do an old thing, setting food and drink and candle for the ones I wish were still here to eat and drink and enjoy the light.  There is power in symbol, and power in remembering; and whatever our beliefs (or lack thereof), there is power on a night like this, when we pause and miss them and realize that, from where we’re standing at least, love is still stronger than death.


Dreams of Churches

•October 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

From the time I was old enough to walk, my feet have walked, run, tiptoed across the floors of countless churches.  The fifties-style one-story unpretentious little church with its Me-Generation vibe and all that went with it.  The grand old dusty monster with rooms that went on and on forever, one leading to another, all full of whispered stories and that peculiar smell that only clings to old Sunday-school hymnals.  The glorious cathedrals where footsteps echo like muted gunshots off huge sculpted-stone walls and stained-glass windows throw patterns of colored light across rank upon rank of varnished pews and the pipe organ notes hang in the air.  The varied hallways and sanctuaries in countless churches visited, all blurring into a fuzzy tapestry in my mind:  red carpets, wood panelling, dated linoleum, sachet-festooned restrooms, old nursery toys, varnished pews and that one blond-haired blue-eyed square-jawed Jesus picture that hangs somewhere in every church building – by law, it seems.  Sometimes when I’m in a new church and it’s socially acceptable to do so, I explore the building, looking for that picture, a sort of ecclesiastical game of ‘Where’s Waldo’.

I have dreams of churches, quite often.  Sometimes the churches are mash-ups of all these different churches I’ve been in, but usually they are one, or sometimes an amalgam, of the two church buildings I know every inch of.  I could walk blindfolded through either one and know not only which church I was in, but which room of that church and even which place in that room.  I know how the different flooring feels beneath my feet, how the air feels on my skin; I know the subtle changes in smell and acoustics and that strange feeling in my soul that I can only call ‘resonance’.

These two churches, and all the strong and varied emotions and memories and associations that come with them, are the scaffolding which has shaped my life and sculpted my soul in so many, many ways.   As the old Sunday school song goes:  “The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is people…”    -but that is not entirely true.  Yes, it is the people who can make or break us and who determine whether a church is a dream or a nightmare.  But for those of us who were churchborn and churchbred, the church IS also shaped in our minds like a building, or a steeple.

When I worked in the city and had a full hour for lunch, I would often go to the cathedral next door.  They didn’t mind if people came in and prayed.  Without fail, I was the only one who ever seemed to do so; so it didn’t bother anyone when I would sometimes take off my coat and set my bag down and lie down on a pew like I used to do when I was little, and watch the dust motes dance in the sunbeams, and pretend that they were angels, or the prayers and echoes of organ still hanging like ghosts in the deafening silence.

Even now, sometimes – sometimes – a church can still be a resting-place.

The Veil Between The Worlds

•October 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The Blood Moon rises and naturally it’s cloudy, so I walk beneath the clouds in faith that the moon is there.  Shadow among shadows, I slip through the streets and alleys of this scrappy river town. Everywhere I look, the silent battle rages.  Overneat yards and overdone Halloween decorations beat bravely back, fence by fence and wall by retaining wall, against the encroaching blight and the rough, relentless wild.  Dried brown leaves swirl and skitter onto manicured lawns and straight, upkept walkways.  Soon the sun will rise and the armies of homeowners will come outside armed with brooms and bags and leafblowers, and they will take back their small kingdoms – until the sun sets, and the leaves return again.

Tonight my money’s on the leaves, and the blight and the wild.  Death is on my mind, and the flickering of TV-light in the neighbors’ windows seems nothing more than normalcy’s desperate and futile last stand.  A stand I cannot make.  The black hole is feeding – four since August and counting.  Nothing to be done, no God to placate, no theodicy to tangle in; just the cold face of nature, doing what nature does.  Hearts stop.  Blood clots.  Cancer grows.  The wild takes everything back.

It seems that this should be more depressing to me than it is.  But under the Blood Moon I find, curiously, comfort.  Comfort in letting death be death and life be life.  Comfort in the melancholy of night and dry leaves, comfort even in the sharpness of fresh grief.  Perhaps, because I am not fighting it, the veil draws closer and ripples, river-silent, beside me.  Like the Blood Moon behind the clouds, I cannot see them on the other side, but I walk in faith that my dead are there, and that I am here; and tonight, it is enough.

Holding The Pooh

•August 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Before she could walk or talk, she latched on to that little stuffed Pooh bear, and for the next several years he went with her everywhere. By extension, he became a child of Husband’s and mine as well. We would wipe juice off his chin after she lovingly gave him some from her sippy cup – “Dat good? Hmm?” We would sew his seams back together after she flung and swung and wrestled him joyously around the house as she (and I swear he) both smiled and laughed. We would dash frantically through stores and parking lots, looking for where she dropped him, as she wailed “Pooh, Want Da Pooh!” -and very soon we learned to keep as sharp an eye on him as we did on her and Son after her. There was the heartbreaking lesson we had to teach her on the day when, in a fit of tantrum, she threw Pooh out of the car into the parking lot, and we scooped him up and hid him for five heartbreaking minutes as she wailed inconsolably, thinking that she had left her friend behind and he was lost forever. We gave him back to her and she hugged him close, hating and hating us…but she never threw away anything precious again.

There’s even a formal, studio-done, paid-for-with-money, family photo: Mom, Dad, three-year-old Daughter…and Pooh. Sometimes I groused about having to keep track of him, keep laundering him, keep sewing him back up; but Husband wisely observed, “Someday, we’ll be left holding the Pooh.”

On her first day of school, Daughter was insecure and worried about having to leave her special friend behind. It was an older, colder world in Kindergarten; she could no longer tuck him safely in her preschool backpack and take him along. I promised her that I would hold on to him while she was gone and bring him along with me to pick her up. I did hold him, a bit tighter than I realized, as I watched her disappear into that school. It didn’t look like it – she shouldered her backpack, stayed half a day and came home, same as preschool – but subtly, under the surface, everything changed that on that first kindergarten morning.

The next day I held her Pooh for her, and the next, until one day I noticed that she was no longer asking me to; she was leaving him behind on her bed without any trouble.

Then came another day, a day I didn’t notice because I wasn’t looking, when she grew taller and stopped swinging him around the house, and he became a bedtime-only buddy.

Then, a bedtime-only-sometimes buddy, left behind on sleepovers and weekend trips.

Then, an old buddy I would often find face-down at the bottom of a pile of clothes, not really missed at night.

Today, on her first day of classes, Daughter readied herself quickly, downed her breakfast and coffee, grabbed her books and her lunch, and, with a quick peck on my cheek, flew out the door and drove away. No backward glance. It didn’t look like it – she’ll be home in time for dinner – but subtly, under the surface, everything changed on this first college morning. Even though she’s commuting, I suspect that we will not see too much of her. Every new friend made, every late-night study session, every opportunity set before her, every on- or near-campus activity, will expand her orbit a little wider and a little wider, until she reaches escape velocity. This is exactly what is supposed to happen. There’s a future out there; it’s her job to go after it.

And it’s my job, now, not only to support her in the present, but to be the keeper of her past. Because the days will come – not every day, not many days, but some – when she will want to take it out and look at it. She will want to visit her old room, look through old pictures and mementos, remember where and who she’s been. We plot our future in part by our past, and sometimes, like toddlers do, we “check back” with our safe places and people. Sometimes. When the exploring gets a little scary. When we need that little reassurance.

Some days, for one reason or another, she will come here, wanting her Pooh. I’ll hold him for her until then.

show me my lions.

•August 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In my dream there were four of them, lions, standing shoulder to shoulder, chasing me slow-motion down the long carpeted hallway. Not a growl, not a fang bared, not even running, and yet they had me running, screaming, terrified because I knew they were going to catch me and maul me and leave me terribly hurt. I locked myself behind a familiar door, slamming it shut just as they got there. My last glimpse of them: sitting outside the door, four of them, shoulder to shoulder. Waiting for me.

All night and all morning the dream stayed with me, and in the afternoon I dozed and half-dreamed again of the little room and the locked door and, outside, waiting, the lions. The lions mean something, I whispered to my frightened self. Who are they? what do they mean?

So I opened the door wide and commanded them: “Show yourselves. Show me what you are.” And the lions opened their mouths, wide, and inside each mouth swirled tendrils of voice and image, memories and feelings from my past. I stepped close and looked long and deeply down each lion’s throat. Here a painful memory. There an old, sad feeling. Down here, inarticulate rage, and over there, a well of tears with no bottom. Like a private horror movie, the memories and feelings played out in the jaws of my lions, showing me everything I wall off, run from, lock myself away from in safe, familiar rooms. As I must, as must we all; how else could we live from day to day? But the lions are always outside, and sometimes, they open their jaws and they dare you to look inside.

But as I looked, a new thought found me: All these things have been, but I am still here; all these griefs are strong, but I am still stronger. A new thought, a brave thought, a powerful and surprisingly lion-taming thought. In the strength of that thought I stepped away from my hiding-place, passing unharmed through the line of lions, walking with purpose on my way I knew not where. And in the last fading images of dream I saw, to my left and to my right, walking as allies beside me now…my lions.

Hubris may be a sin, but in a difficult world, it never hurts to have a little pride.