Friday, April 27, 2012

...when all the walls come tumbling down

The day after the storm hit Tuscaloosa: once, a neighborhood...photograph by William Nolen of William Nolen Visual Media

One year ago today, tornadoes swept through Alabama with a ferocity that left homes and hearts crushed across the state. Three weeks earlier, my son's family had been touched by a small F-1 that took the privacy fence in the back yard and blew the windows out of his car. He was at work when he looked out a large, glass wall and saw the funnel drop in front of the business. Capricious and lethal, these storms are an increasing rite of spring - and now, autumn - in the southeast. Tornado alley has expanded.

I was in Dublin, Georgia to attend my high school reunion when I heard the news. Bill's sister, Bonnie, was with me at her mother's house that week. Bill flew from California and joined us. We were getting ready for dinner when the first reports of a monster tornado with a mile and a half wide debris path were broadcast. The large storm scoured Tuscaloosa and then headed toward Birmingham, where it moved through a number of small communities just north of the city. 62 confirmed tornadoes in Alabama alone that day left behind total destruction, 247 fatalities, huge numbers of injuries - physical and emotional - and sorrow. Today's Birmingham News blog about the April 27th 911 calls captures the horror in the post's title: "The town is gone. Is there anybody coming?"

After many failed attempts to reach the kids that afternoon - cell towers were among the casualties that day - we finally heard from them. A short conversation: "We're ok but we're in the bathtub because another warning has sounded. Ciara's wearing my bike helmet..." Then silence. The thought of the kids huddled over my then-two-year- old granddaughter left me nauseated. An F-4/F-5 twister is merciless: roadbeds are lifted and eighteen-wheelers become gigantic pretzels wrapped around trees. A call from my daughter in Roanoke followed. Her husband was away on business and she was desperate for word from her brother. (Note to readers: I remember when they lived not-so-peacefully together at home...never expected this seismic shift in adult relationship. Sometimes I just say "thank you.") Unable to reach him, she reached me. I recall my exact thought when I heard her voice. "Thank God she isn't in the path of these storms." Then she said, "Mom, I'm in a closet with the dogs and cats (no small feat since the dogs are huge and the cats are, well, cats) because we have a tornado warning." In Roanoke, Virginia. My heart sank. We were lucky. Our family remained intact. Many did not. 

This week a storm of another sort: a young man I love with all my heart was injured in an accident. Prayers for his recovery, for patience, for a deeper awareness of love are headed to his family from all-directions. Northern California Catholics who've never met any of the them are sending prayers. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Buddhists, and the Great Unlabeled have sent precious messages of encouragement, sympathy and hope. Two nights ago, as I lay in the dark and ached in the knowledge of his injuries, I heard myself say, "I've seen enough violence to last a lifetime and beyond. No more violence. Please, dear God, no more violence." 

I trimmed my "asking for" many years ago when I came to understand that I needed much more than the cosmic butler to whom I submitted my time-stamped, prioritized action list or a heavenly insurance agent. I needed mercy. I needed grace. Nothing wrong with asking but I needed to live in faith with my focus more on gifts freely given than my own wish lists. I needed to listen more and talk less. Still do. But this week, I issued a plea. 

"No more violence, please." My words won't change the world. Wars and weather and accidents are outside my purview. But I think of the words of Thomas Merton: "Violence is not completely fatal until it ceases to disturb us." 

I am disturbed. Somehow, I think that the Great Goodness is not offended by my plea. 

I prefer to see the army roll in to re-build...I think they do, too
Photograph by William Nolen of William Nolen Visual Media

Wars are not to be cheered but the men and women we send to fight them 
greatly need our love and support.

When weather strikes, hammers and hearts bring much healing.

And when a body is hurled with irresistable force against immovable objects, 
the menders mend and pray-ers pray. 


Please visit these associated Links:

The Birmingham News: On April 27, 2011 Alabamians' lives changes forever: an hour-by-hour account    Part One

The Birmingham News: On April 27, 2011, Alabamians' lives changed forever: 'They're not breathing. They're not moving.'    Part Two

William Nolen Visual Media

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

...note to self

At late walk's end
out back by the garbage bin
promises of shimmer pink
found me

In his novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote: I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one...Humans are caught - in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too - in a net of good and evil...There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well - or ill?

Before Steinbeck's "Was it?" comes a "Shall I?" I am learning that everything hangs in that moment of choice. Before the next doing, a thinking helps. 

In front of me a plastic cup filled with water holds a promise that will wilt by day's end. Tomorrow, another will appear in some unlikely spot. Something winged this time perhaps, a butterfly or hummingbird. Or you, with your smile... or tears. A beautiful photograph from a friend or a new stanza from a poet. A bit of loveliness to prime the spirit. 

Sometimes a bit of beauty makes all the difference in the world. 
Between despair and hope hangs a blossom. 
Between loneliness and communion, a song. 
Unless I close my eyes. 
Stop up my ears and sing "la-la-la-la-la" to drown the music. 
Shall I? 
The answers to the hard, clean questions are born of such choices. 
I am grateful for all these little memos. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

...thank you, my sweet friends

On the street (Knox) where I a child

It is sweet to think I was a companion 
in an expedition that never ends 
Czesław Miłosz

A note from a dyslexic "sweet 16" to the friends of my youth and beyond...

I clapped and stomped my feet at a pub in Ballinhassig, County Cork, where we celebrated after a day's jaunt to Cork City, the Lee Valley and Blarney. After food (that never stopped coming) was served, the tables were pushed back to the walls, Sean got out his squeeze box and the music started. Sister Mary and Sister Mairead danced to Shoe the Donkey. Joan and Maureen sang a beautiful duet. Then Finbar Furey's aunt took to the floor with a song and a dance. We all joined in at the pub then continued the singing on the bus drive to Kinsale...everything from Irish drinking songs to Amazing Grace... all in various stages of harmony. 

My memories of Ireland are set to music. And this particular song, Sweet Sixteen - sung by the Furey's - is especially poignant. I think of a dear, sweet little Irishman who called me his "Sweet Sixteen". I was fifty-five at the time. Whenever we met on the street, he would give me a peck on the cheek. Oh, how his blue eyes twinkled. I loved Monday nights at The Spaniard where Michael and Jimmy played and sang and Thursday nights with Liam O' at An Seanachai. Know this: whatever happens in Ireland doesn't stay in Ireland. Oh, no. A song is written and the story is sung in pubs all over the Emerald Isle and beyond. Forever.

Today my thoughts belong also to the more distant past. So much has happened in the years since I left my home in my first Irish settlement, Dublin, Georgia. With what seems a blink of the eye, the number sixteen has reversed. At sixty-one, I am astonished to find that - however dinged my chassis - I feel young inside: young at heart if old in experience. I have laid claim to the good memories and laid others to rest. 

Like you, I have been challenged by life and wear some scars by now. I am thankful for ties to the past and celebrate especially those that have been renewed. Whether we connect online, at a reunion, in groups of two or three, or in memories, I hold these hopes in my heart:

... that the journey will make us stronger, not harder

... that our dreams will always be worthy

... that we'll honor each other with each choice, each thought, each spoken word

... and that we'll remember those who are no longer with us with gratitude for the time we had together

Lately, on my afternoon walk, I go past trellises filled with star jasmine and wisteria. At this age, I don't care what anyone thinks when I stick my face into the fragrant blooms and breathe in the sweetness. I'm transported to an earlier time before the real lessons started. But I know that the lessons learned (in spite of me) - lessons that brought me first to my knees, then to full face-plants - are life's conversation with me. I love the words of Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz (in quotes here and below). "What has no shadow has no strength to live." 

A little closer, closer...there now. Doesn't this smell fabulous!?!!
I do not understand this continuum but I give thanks for all the echoes. When I look up at the stars in the night sky, I marvel still that some of those pinpoints are history: light that has finally reached our good earth, eons after the star itself died. I pray that our lights shine, beyond "I and not-I".

Thank you for your birthday wishes. How uplifting two (or a few more) words can be. This has been a lovely day. The chil'ren, friends and family have written, texted, FB'd and called. Bill sang first thing. Margy texted her birthday song early and made my iPhone dance, proof that if you have rhythm (her) not even cyber space can vanquish it and if you don't (me) then nothing can make it appear. But I am a great audience! My son sent his usual greeting at midnight last night...same message, slightly different words each year. This one: "HAPPY BIRTHDAY! You are older than the Super Bowl." Son, some days I feel it in my bones...I feel it in my toes. But I wouldn't trade a single gray hair or wrinkle for the lightness of being that age has brought. I wish the same for all of you. 

Now for the cake. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 and Alcatraz, truth and grace

"Bliss Dance," a sculpture created by artist Marco Cochrane

Forty feet tall, she dances precariously on one foot to the beat of the bay wind. Sunlight and moonbeams pass through her steel mesh frame. Within her are imbedded a thousand tiny LED lights that can be controlled by an iPad application. Kinetic energy streams from this stationary not-so-tiny dancer on Treasure Island. 

What serendipity to meet this amazing creature. She was silhouetted against a golden late afternoon sky that morphed into chiaroscuro as clouds rolled over the bay. Then the sun punched through and shone down on art...and Alcatraz.

The old prison sits empty except for tours. I've trekked through a couple of times, once listened to an old gentleman who had been a guest of the establishment. An orphan in the wrong place at the wrong time, he had been hauled out of the backseat of a car whose driver robbed a store. Like most inhabitants of the island prison, he was first an escape artist. The young depression-era boy, terrified, alone in the world with no defender, kept running. All the way to The Rock. The prison superintendent and his wife took note of him and brought him into their home on many occasions. Their efforts resulted in his release. With the marriage of a rocky foundation and love, he built a life.

Ah, the strange juxtaposition of art and prison, choice and consequence. Freedom: at times, a dance, often an entreaty. Hear Rilke's words. [Think you're not creative? I beg your pardon. We are made in the very image of creation.]

Go into yourself...describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty - describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. 

If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. - And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.
 ― Rainer Maria Rilke

"...your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories." For many, the memories are vicious. But Truth, the wellspring of grace, is rooted in that fallow ground. When I faced the facts about myself and others (kicking and screaming all the way) - with no excuses or revisionist history - acceptance followed. Haltingly. After all my plans went up in smoke and then down the hill in a flood...when the walls literally tumbled down...I hit the ground, too. Face-down. The mercy that had always been present washed over me. Bein' a good Southern girl who aspired to a gracious life, I finally learned the difference between gracious and grace-filled.  The former was, at best, good manners and, at worst, a performance; the latter, a gift. Here lies the eternal tension: Truth and Grace. You can't have one without the other.

Odd couples, you gotta love 'em.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

...important public service announcement

Trust me, thinking is easier with one's feet up

I have neither the time nor energy to address every situation on a moment's notice. Therefore, I am listing my responses en masse to recent encounters. Take what you need or want. Leave the rest. Please.

A lovely illusion is a delusion in high heels.

Nothing in life is free, especially those opportunities that claim to be.

If I hold sway over you, something is seriously wrong with the equation. Choices and consequences and lessons learned are exclusive property of the owner. You'll figure out your way if you listen to that quiet voice of the spirit. You'll make mistakes and, if you have the courage to own them, you'll make a life. One step at a time. Faith. 

That last one reminded me that I still want those earrings George Michael wore in his "Faith" video...way, way fabulous. But I digress.

If I say, "I can't [do, go, participate]", don't take it personally. I subscribe to the belief that we all have the right to say "no" from time to time.  Oh, and one more thing: your " but yes" doesn't over-ride my "no"... in case i was a tad vague. We are all expendable.

Put away the smart phone, the computer, FB for at least an hour a day. Increase this prescription weekly. Quiet and space. See my last post. 

Dance in the kitchen when a good song plays. In your head or on the radio. 

Do not walk around with a toothpick in your mouth. You might run into me and skewer me. 

Do NOT apply deodorant to your underarms, Miss Blue Silk Strapless Dress with the Boat Load of Rhinestones, while posing for prom pictures in the foyer of a nice restaurant. That's why God created bathrooms. At your house. Or Motel 6. 

Even I am stunned by the need to include the previous two entries. However, since a dear, genteel friend was exposed to these unfortunate choices last night, I decided to be painfully specific to spare others. Note to guilty parties: redundancy could prove fatal to the perpetrator. A copy of Miss Manners hurled at high speed packs a wallop.

Do NOT eat dinner at a restaurant, no matter how nice, that is filled with toothpick-wielding, post-prom types whose subscriptions to US Magazine and People should be cancelled ASAP.

Young man, if you are considering marriage to the afore-mentioned Miss BSSDWTBLOR, wait six months. A minimum. Watch (at least) six episodes a day of "Bridezilla" and "Say Yes to the Dress". A minimum. You'll thank me. Refer to the next item.

Write thank-you notes. The afore-mentioned Miss Manners would be verklempt over a text message or an email, but I am a rational woman. A simple acknowledgment is a good start. Consider, though, how nice it is to receive an envelope addressed in cursive. One that doesn't have a bill in it. 

If you want to compare your insides to my outsides, go right ahead.  I won't lose any sleep. But you might. I can, however, suggest a couple of really good under-eye concealers.

Walk in the rain. Count it as your bath even. But not in a lightning storm. If you think that last one is too obvious, look in the mirror and say "Lee Trevino". Twice.

For you golfers out there: "If you are caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron." This from Lee Trevino. He learned the hard way. At both ends of the stick.

Study history and civics. Shhhhhh. Just do it. ALL our lives depend upon it.

Good manners trump is real, the other a lie.

It IS possible to be disciplined AND happy. Really. The two are not mutually exclusive

Say grace. 

Count blessings, not slights. 

Love yourself. Laugh at yourself. Love others. Do not laugh at them

There is more where this came from but dinner calls. Be alert for further notices.

Thank you for your attention and have a nice day.... :-)

Sincerely yours,

Friday, April 13, 2012

...out for lunch

This is why I love life on the boat
Blessed peace and quiet

  Unfortunately the Berkeley bulletin board pictured below is 
a disturbingly accurate twin of my mind map

I am packing a sandwich
chicken salad on buttermilk bread
and heading over to the dock

The sky is blue 
The wind has calmed
The gulls have called

Lunch on the deck

Wherever you are today, I wish for you a quiet moment

Sometimes I need to pull the plug on distraction
that I feel I will burst without space 

the option isn't available

I have ferreted out the odd five minutes of meditation
in the middle of large crowds and on noisy airplanes

I have felt distracted alone in a Zen garden
even all by meself on the boat
My inner noise the deadliest 

 What's even more insidious,
more often now
the stuff I stuff
pretty good stuff

blog posts

Inner Space
all finite
even if my interests aren't

Today, I have this opportunity 
for the silence to find me 
for a while

I am actively seeking 
a re-charge
the small still Voice


Love you,

P.S. I'll bring you pictures soon

Thursday, April 5, 2012

...mama, i hardly knew you but we're not through

Today is Maundy Thursday.
Tenebrae, the service of shadows,
ends with the slamming of a door and a silent leaving.
No candle to carry out into the darkness,
only an empty-handed walk into the black night.
Haunted by my thirty pieces of silver exchanged for what?
The illusion of respectability perhaps?
A temporary fix for some emptiness within?
Odd, how sharp and clear is my vision in the dark,
with nothing to distract the inner eye.
Only the death to which I am called...the death of self. 

Thoughts of my mother are with me this morning. She is, in death as in life, a mystery to me. That she wanted me was never the question. What I wanted, though, frightened her: her humanity, an intentional sharing of her unedited self, a glimpse of courage. The world can be a frightening place to a small child. And Mama was afraid of the dark.

The main character of Anita Diament's novel, The Red Tent, is based on Jacob's daughter, Diana. This rather obscure character from the Old Testament is at the center of a story about relationship, community, the powerful bond between strong women. I encountered a quote before I met the book: “If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully. Stories about food show a strong connection. Wistful silences demonstrate unfinished business. The more a daughter knows about the details of her mother's life - without flinching or whining - the stronger the daughter.” 

An aside, sort of: an Amazon reviewer wrote this: "This is the first book that I've read that was based on the Bible. I had my doubts, but being an avid reader of historical fiction I decided to try it. I was not disappointed." What a sad commentary that ancient wisdom has been so abused by zealots of all walks and labels that many turn away without investigation. I am glad this reader dove head first into the story.

Stories about my grandmother almost always involve food. Decades after her death, she and I live in foodie communion. With my mom, also deceased, the wistful silence is deafening. She was smart, creative, and loved. I know enough, from my grandmother, to piece together bits of her past. Her identical twin sister died suddenly just before the age of three. A portrait of my aunt that hangs in my son's house is based on a hand-tinted photograph taken less than twenty-four hours before she died of rapid-onset diphtheria. The image of the tiny blond girl haunts. 

One of life's awful dilemmas: the raucous toddler who went to bed with her sister/playmate - her carbon copy - and awakened without her; the mother whose beloved child died...who, in her deepest grief, embraced a living reminder daily. But the story doesn't end with Mom's twin. She had an older brother, Uncle Raymond, the golden-haired, laughing boy. A delight. And a younger sister, Jo, whose health was delicate. The first kept my grandmother in stitches. The latter carried her back to memories of her lost child. In the middle, my mother, always a bit of a challenge, I gather, from stories that have made the family rounds.

The family lived on a small farm during the Great Depression. The post-Reconstruction south was brutal enough without the added economic woes. Everyone worked hard. My dad told me that my mother picked cotton as a child. Not for fun, like the two handfuls I pulled off the thorny stalks with my grandfather's help.  I recall as an adult, when I drove my late husband to the old farm, he looked around and said, "All these years I thought your mother grew up on Tara." She would have denied with vigor any shame associated with country life. But she lived it in a million ways. Her woods were dark and deep, but not lovely. Her life was a study in contrasts. Over time, her escape backfired. The world she created - that she thought would satisfy - became a prison. In the end, her deepest desire was to return to that small south Georgia community, to family and friends, to those woods.

I never saw her happier than when she dropped the veneer of so-called respectability and lapsed into southern talk. My grandfather taught music. Mother learned to play the piano, the fiddle, and the guitar as a youngster. I never saw her touch any of them as an adult. Because she wasn't "good enough". Oh, perfectionism, that oppressive taskmaster, a killer of souls. She never quit humming, though...the music never left. I hope that she knows how much I loved her unguarded moments when she forgot about what we looked like or what someone else might think if the word got out...and belted out a Hank Williams song with gusto. 

This fabulous cook, creative sewer, master gardener needed only her own approval...and this she could never give. Oh, Mama, I wish you could have heard - really heard - what Henri Nouwen said: “Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, "Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody." ... [My dark side says,] I am no good... I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved." Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

And this: “To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit,l from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.”

Mama, you planted beautiful gardens. Won countless blue ribbons. But your fear of the garden of solitude left you in a perpetually lonely place. I wish you could have understood what it means to be Beloved. We all are, whether we know it or not. But Beloved does not come without cost. The price is Truth. I had to come face to face with the depth of my own depravity to appreciate grace and mercy, undeserved and freely given. The price, in this case, is right. And righteous. 

If Stephen Hawking can't explain the universe, I'm not going to tackle the subject of time. Except to say this: we don't seem to have to be physically present to each other to be in relationship. The dialog continues beyond the grave. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

...from this broken hill

Don't tell me the moon is shining
Show me the glint of light on broken glass

― Anton Chekhov

Lent with Leonard...the journey was not planned. His songs found me. Particularly this one, "If It Be Thy Will". Click the title to hear Leonard and the Webb sisters perform this beautiful song.

If it be your will that I speak no more 
And my voice be still as it was before 
I will speak no more 
I shall abide until I am spoken for 
If it be your will 
If it be your will that a voice be true 
From this broken hill I will sing to you 
From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring 
If it be your will to let me sing from this broken hill 
All your praises they shall ring 
If it be your will to let me sing 
If it be your will...if there is a choice 
Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell 
If it be your will to make us well 
And draw us near and bind us tight 
All your children here in their rags of light 
In our rags of light all dressed to kill 
And end this night if it be your will 
If it be your will.

He knelt alone in a garden and prayed. His friends, nearby, fell asleep as he agonized over his destiny. He asked that the cup be lifted - "if it be your will" - but ended with..."if not, then your will be done." In that moment, all that he sought was fulfilled. From his broken hill, mercy was spilled. From his agony, truth. Out of chaos, song.

"Please"...I have often asked to be delivered from the consequences of choices, mine and those of others. Agony is no stranger. And I am well acquainted with Anne Lamott's observation: “I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered...that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” 

Each year the journey becomes more precious. I understand better what Thomas Merton meant when he wrote: "Be still: there is no longer any need of comment. It was a lucky wind that blew away his halo with his cares, a lucky sea that drowned his reputation." My illusions have been stripped and my pride flogged. I have fallen. Many times. And I have been lifted up. I have dragged crosses of my own construction over rocky paths I did not have to follow. 

This morning my Irish Jesuits posted this: "Everything has the potential to draw forth from me a fuller love and life. Yet my desires are often fixed, caught, on illusions of fulfillment. I ask that God, through my freedom, may orchestrate my desires in a vibrant loving melody rich in harmony."

Here I abide until I am spoken for. If it be your will, may light shine on my shattered bits. From my broken hill, I pray that your mercy spill from me, that your grace pass through me, and that alleluias resound.

If it be your will that a voice be true 
From this broken hill I will sing to you 
From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring 
If it be your will to let me sing from this broken hill 
All your praises they shall ring 
If it be your will to let me sing