Wednesday, December 12, 2012 story, then a sabbatical

Photo by Edouard Bruchac, Springville, AL

Bare limbs and evergreen branches against a night sky laced with clouds and lit by stars: this is the deep south December sky I've known since childhood. Ed's picture reminded me of a solitary drive from the Raleigh-Durham airport to Chapel Hill two weeks before Christmas in 2001. This would be the first Christmas without my mother. The first after 9/11. The first with no family dinner. We would have only twenty-four hours to move between consulting assignments: first a flight to Birmingham, then the long trek down I-95 south to Fort Lauderdale. The fruitcake weather of Truman Capote's beautiful story, A Christmas Memory, had arrived but no baking would take place that year. 

As I drove up the North Carolina interstate, I saw it. December. Etched on the darkness. The twelfth month, repository of my best childhood memories, was, in 2001, an aching reminder of loss. But the season was not to be denied.

The previous year, we watched as Mother's memory rapidly dimmed. Her bedroom was next to ours so we could hear her. She'd get up frequently during the night, dress, and make her bed. Each time I'd go to her room. "Mom, you must've had a dream. It's only midnight." I'd help her back into her bedclothes and tuck her into bed. Thirty minutes later, the scene would repeat. All night, every night. A friend at The Birmingham News took a picture of me at my desk one afternoon. I was sound asleep. My mouth hung open and a bit of spittle trickled down my chin. You can imagine how overjoyed I was when the thing went viral on screensavers everywhere.

Amazingly, Mother shocked us all that year. She remembered she was supposed to bake fruitcakes.
Rewind to the Christmas our son was two, Mother asked Patrick if he'd like some more turkey. Instead he pointed to the fruitcake on the crystal cake stand and said, "I'll take that." From that year forward, Mother made three white fruitcakes. One for the family, one for Patrick, and one for my late husband. Her cakes were delicious, decorated with artfully arranged slices of red, green and yellow pineapple interspersed with red and green cherries and pecan halves. And they were her last tradition to slip away.

I bought the ingredients but she couldn't find her recipe anywhere. Nor mine. This did not deter her. We leafed through old cookbooks and pulled together what we thought was a close match. We shelled pecans. She counted, re-counted, and counted again: whole cherries, pecan halves, and slices of pineapple to decorate the top. I chopped the rest of the fruit and pecans. But she insisted that she make the batter herself. First she dredged all the chopped fruit and nuts in flour so they wouldn't sink to the bottom of the cake. So far, so good. Then came the measuring spoons and cups. She lost count repeatedly but still insisted that no help was needed. Finally, while I made cornbread for dressing, she put the batter into the greased tube pan and slipped it into the oven. The process had taken hours but she seemed at peace. Until we took the tube pan out of the oven. 

The cake, which measured perhaps two and a half-inches (a generous guess) from top to bottom, made up for it's lack of height with its tremendous weight. All Mother saw, though, was the plain, undecorated surface. She had forgotten to arrange the pineapple, pecans, and cherries on top. Tears rolled down her face and I cried with her. For her. Both John and Patrick valiantly ate several slices and, each time, bragged on what would be her last cake. But she knew. Oh, how I longed to see vague eyes staring back at me. But no. We were both denied illusion that day. 

My son asked me recently to put my memories into writing. So I am going to take a sabbatical from Abiding and focus on a private collection of stories for my children. After a season of quiet. I hope that you have a blessed holiday - Holy Day - season. Make good memories. And don't wait until you're sixty-one to write them down. 

Love. Light. Blessings. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

...and i thought my last nerve expired during the 2012 election

[Or done everything]

I recently read Donald Miller's Storyline blog post titled "The Failure of Twenty-Something Thinking and Why You Should Peak at 65." The title gave me hope...and indigestion. I have four years left to peak. Granted, the Eiger is in front of me but I'm nothing if not an optimist.

The post begins: "When I was in my twenties, I thought I had to succeed right now. It's the myth of the twenty-something mind. When we're in our twenties, it's true we have much more energy and fuel than we'll have the rest of our lives. And the energy is important. It's the launching pad stage of life. But when we are in our twenties, we often make the same mistake: we set short term goals of becoming successful NOW. And those goals, even if we achieve them, tend to backfire. The trick is to start to succeed a LITTLE BIT now, but a LOT later. Here's the trick: if you set a goal of peaking at 65, you'll succeed at 25 and keep succeeding for the rest of your life. If you try to become the "it" writer, speaker, leader of the moment, you might be guilty of trying to become a fashionable leader. Don't fall for it. If you become the fashionable leader of the moment, you'll be gone as fast as bell-bottoms. The same people who praise you today will be distancing themselves from you tomorrow. Instead, try to peak as late in life as possible. What I mean by this is lead for the long haul. Peaking at 65 means you don't chase fashion trends or try to assess your personal worth by Twitter followers or how many people have read your latest book (or blog post). Peaking at 65 means doing excellent work over the long haul." 

Miller has authored several New York Times best-sellers, starting with Blue Like Jazz. While not devoted to writers, the post does include the profession in the discussion. I read the comments that followed. Some from young people; others from older people who shared their experiences. A couple, though, stood out. In this context, "stood out" is, at best, euphemism.

The first commenter: "Advice to all people, not just those in your twenties: don't be a [VERY bad expletive deleted here] writer. The world needs fewer writers every day and so the compensation with the associated careers are dwindling. Be a scientist, an engineer, leave the philosophies to the people who don't mind going through the merry-go-round without getting paid or achieving progress. Anyone with a college degree can be a writer. [Really?] Don't make it your goal. [I cleaned up your comma splice here. No need to thank me.] Make it your cathartic relief, your ability to reflect, your time-waster. Just don't devote yourself to a dying profession."

Hmmm. Mr. Miller's post wasn't a call for all to become writers. But wait. There's more. Another young man added this: "Had to laugh at this one [the afore-mentioned comment] because it is so true on so many levels. I would tweak your idea and say that writing is hard and does not reward for most people because they all live out of the same boxed life. Everybody doing the same thing and experiencing the same hours, same music [Oh, I doubt that], same experiences...People are not interested in like content. I think that contributes greatly to the falling season of the industry. So I think you are right to a large degree! Change has to come from The Producers! You and me!" 

Mel Brook's outstanding movie/play, The Producers, aside [now humming "Springtime for Hitler"], may we agree to disagree? I'm not opposed to success but I do think Mother Teresa was on to something when she wrote, "Live simply so that others can simply live." While I'm on a roll: not all are writers but neither are all wired to be financial gurus or engineers or scientists. AND I can name several writers who have been catalysts for change not only in society but in my personal life.  Artists (photographers, painters, sculptors, et al). Musicians. Any many worked at several jobs to support their creative gifts.

Here's to evolution. On so many levels.

For poems are not words, after all, 
but fires for the cold, 
ropes let down to the lost, 
something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. 
Yes, indeed. 
Mary Oliver

Thursday, December 6, 2012

...sometimes a detour is the path I trust. Sort of.

Don't ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Howard Thurman

From the Wiki: "A curator (from Latin: curare meaning "take care") is a manager or overseer. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., gallery, museum, library or archive) is a content specialist responsible for an institution's collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material. The object of a traditional curator's concern necessarily involves tangible objects of some sort, whether it be artwork, collectibles, historic items or scientific collections. More recently, new kinds of curators are emerging: curators of digital data objects and biocurators."

My goal was to become a curator. I had hoped to follow my B.F.A./Architectural Interiors from the University of Georgia with a masters in art history. Later, after gaining on-the-job experience, a doctorate. Yep, that was the plan. Didn't quite turn out as imagined.

Then I read that, in Scotland, the term "curator" means the guardian of a child. So it seems I've curated unawares for decades. As a parent, as a citizen, as a fellow human, I have the privilege and responsibility to maintain my cultural heritage. I archive memories through photographs, journals, conversations. And as all good curators, I strive for truth, not sensationalism or revisionist history. When I encounter other cultures, I try to build bridges, to honor differences. It would seem my deepest desires have guided me unawares in my "every-days". You can call me "curator".

Here's to the active waiting and listening of Advent. And gratitude.

"The Moments of My High Resolve" from For the Inward Journey by Howard Thurman

Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.
Despite the dullness of the days that pass, if I search with due diligence,
I can always find a deposit left by some former radiance.
But I had forgotten.
At the time it was full-orbed, glorious, resplendent.
I was sure that I would never forget.
In the moment of its fullness,
I was sure it would illumine my path for all the rest of my journey.
I had forgotten how easy it is to forget.
There was not intent to betray what seemed so sure at the time.
My response was whole, clean, authentic.
But little by little, there crept into my life the dust and grit of the journey.
Details, lower-level demands, all kinds of cross currents...
nothing momentous, nothing overwhelming, nothing flagrant...
just wear and tear.
If there had been some direct challenge...a clear-cut issue...
I would have fought it to the end, and beyond.
In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading Presence of God,
my heart whispers:
Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve,
that in fair weather or in foul, in good times or in tempests,
in the days when darkness and the foe are nameless or familiar,
I may not forget that to which my life is committed.
Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

...into the darkness

The morning after I took this photo, I saw the name of the large boat that blocked the wind and tide,
keeping Forever After still in our berth: she was christened Amazing Grace. 

The first day of Advent, the liturgical season that calls us to wait patiently for Light, is possibly the most practical of times. For a few weeks, I'm reminded of what I frequently try to ignore in my daily walk: I tend to wander through the wilderness of life like the lost tribes of Israel. To add to the confusion, I focus on fixes. "Take a note, Siri." I'm waiting for the day when she can create and maintain a large matrix. And if I can't solve my own problems, I'm happy to think about yours. I wish my motives were truly worthy. But, truth is, this practice at best reduces you to a diversionary tactic. And at worst, robs you of your personal spiritual journey. Ever watched a cat who's injured? Still. Quiet. As in "In stillness and quiet, there lies my strength." 

Perhaps these next words of Frederick Buechner are a good way to acknowledge Advent's presence: 
"Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you...remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God's business...even your own life is not your business. It is also God's business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought...unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy. What deadens most to God's presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort than being able from time to time to stop that chatter."

Darkness does not last. The psalmist wrote, "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning." Until the dawning, I honor the darkness I experience. I honor yours.

Life is grace.
Sleep is forgiveness.
The night absolves.
Darkness wipes the slate clean,
not spotless to be sure,
but clean enough for another day's chalking.
Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace

I invite you to listen to 
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
by The Civil Wars