366. Breathtaking

Walls of snow line the streets of Turtle Town. For some reason, lack of funds maybe, the Boro did not remove the snow as it usually does with an army of heavy equipment and dump trucks large enough to rival a Baltic nation’s. So it sits like instant mix mashed potatoes piled alongside the black macadam roads and alleys of our humble, shepherds pie kind of town. The rising temperatures help with the less than meager removal effort, which is actually counterproductive because this week is Ice Fest, a downtown merchants group idea featuring ice sculptures placed along two blocks of Main Street. Yep, frozen water sculptures in the middle of winter; and here the temps are warming up, threatening the entire enterprise. One year, oh fifteen years ago maybe, it rained the whole week of Ice Fest, which resulted in Slush Fest. The finely carved figures were turned into watery gargoyles and grotesques. Needless to say, it was not a breathtaking experience.

Which got me thinking:  what takes your or my breath away, Blog Breathers? Is it a tragic moment or a spectacular vista that pulls your breath out of you? Incredible beauty or incomprehensible grace? A letter from the IRS? Seeing your ex- with a new partner? Seeing yourself naked?

Breath is the essence of life. If a baby does not breathe at birth, no oxygen flows and brain damage begins. For adults it’s about three minutes, I believe, before brain damage commences. So whatever takes our breath away must connect deeply to our slice of humanity, for better or worse, way down in the brain stem where our automatic survival instincts and reflexes reside. Breath was tenuous 25 years ago for my then infant daughter. The die was cast. Which die? half a pair of dice or a metal form? Instead of the facts, your perspective will answer this question

Last night at the winery my lovely daughter was singing at her best. Lo and behold, her first grade teacher showed up, pushing her walker slowly across the floor as her husband steadied her gait. “I saw it on Facebook. I had to come,” she exclaimed. “I might have to leave before you are through because I’m older than dirt. Don’t let that distract you, Jessi. I just can’t stay out late any more. Do me a favor and let one rip full throttle, Angel, okay?”

Now I am used to my daughter performing at a high level, her lush voice paddling through rushing rapids and cute chutes of tricky syllables like a skillful kayaker in white water. I don’t get as anxious or rapturous at her gigs as I once did. The new and exciting have become the familiar and comfortable, a steady joyous cadence nontheless.

Lois sat next to me very comfortably like family should, oozing kindness, appreciation, and joy. Some disease was trying to take her breath away. She was having none of it. Instead she ordered red wine and sipped optimistically. She chatted up the connections, remembering twenty years ago when our precious daughter was the only girl in her first grade class. Having been an outcast at the parochial kindergarten the previous year, we had been anxious about how Jess would fare in a public school classroom. Lois was the Answer to our prayers. After a few weeks Jess came home with a big cardboard star covered with decorative stickers and positive adjectives. She was Star of the Week. That star hung in her bedroom for years, radiating love and acceptance over her as she slept, breathing quietly as a happy puppy curled against its mother.

I spent a morning in that classroom twenty years ago. It was so filled with love and acceptance. I recall that all ten kids played musical chairs at one point. Lois would hug the kid who wound up chairless. After a while I started to wonder if her hugs were more desirable to the kids than a silly chair without her in it. That day I saw more love and validation in an hour than I recall having seen in a lifetime around schools. I almost forgot to breathe because a big balloon of gratitude clogged my airway briefly.

At 9 pm Jess started singing. Lois lit up, put her hand to her mouth repeatedly as she gasped. “She’s beautiful!” “Oh dear God she is precious!!” “What a voice.!!!” Tears dribbled over her cheeks. She reached across me to grasp my wife’s hand. Deep down in her brain stem, I believe Lois wanted to jump and dance exuberantly as the musical kayak shot through her veins and all across the rivulets of her frame. “I love that song.” “I’m so proud of her.” Oxygen flowed; feet tapped; hands clapped; heads nodded; smiles spread; and warmth expanded solar plexuses. Another minor musical miracle occurred.

God is good.

Just like in the old musical chairs protocol, Lois had to hug Jess as she finished her set. She didn’t, no, couldn’t leave until Jess sang Carol King’s “I Feel the Earth Move”, full throated and beaming with joy. Music is her oxygen. Surely she would die without it.

Goodnights were shared and broad plans made for the next time. I felt the residual glow left behind from Lois and Don linger in the empty chairs beside me. I was sure now that those kids slipped out of musical chairs on purpose. Love and beauty are in the eyes of the beholder. And what power the beholder exercises over the loved one.

 

 

352. The Most Wonderful Time

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”, goes the song, etching an idealistic Currier and Ives lithograph over a Norman Rockwell world inside a Martha Stewart silver picture frame. For many folks, however, it is anything but the most wonderful time. It’s the undiagnosable health disorder, or a loved one’s dementia, or a marriage that is out of gas, or a parent who won’t show up yet again. It’s the first Christmas without the child who died. It’s unemployment again. Loss. Fear. Angst. Unfathomable darkness that holds no sleep… only terror.

Andy Williams sang it…

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you “Be of good cheer”
It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
It’s the hap -happiest season of all
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings
When friends come to call
It’s the hap – happiest season of all
 
Well, even Andy Williams had some heart aches, as I recall. As popular and successful as he was, his ex-wife accidentally murdered her then boyfriend, and Andy showed up to defend her and pay her legal fees in 1976. I don’t think that was the hap-happiest season of all. More likely it was the awk-awkwardest season of all. She got 30 days in jail, which she served on weekends that she was not vacationing with her defense lawyer, whom she later married. Hey, this is starting to sound like a Kardashian movie where crème cheese cocaine cupcakes are served to celebrity guests on gold plated china at a brothel and no one ever goes to jail or work. They just go shopping. But with all those gay happy meetings and holiday greetings, who has time for consequences? Party on!! Consume, consume, consume.
All of that reality t.v. noise holds a certain appeal for the masses– curb appeal, sex appeal, surfacey marketability appeal, buzz and sizzle. But it holds onto nothing when the winds of purpose blow. It’s a silky tumbleweed somersaulting across a desert, dribbling seed pods of emptiness.  All the glitz and good cheer are no more anchored than champagne bubbles in a flute. Ever wonder why the bubble streams originate at certain points?
It happens when microscopic fibers ­– left by a kitchen towel or often just an airborne particle –  stick to the side of the glass, allowing molecules of dissolved carbon dioxide to coalesce and form bubbles.
In short, imperfect surfaces and dirt particles are the source of the fizzle. At a certain level we know this intuitively, but we lust for that fizz anyway. I suppose it’s always been like this because human nature is the same today as ever it has been.
In the pre-Christian era when Abraham parted ways with his nephew Lot, we know how that turned out because the word sodomy is still with us unfortunately, to remind us of the perverse depravity that was on the loose in the cities of Abraham’s time. Lot seemed to be thrilled with the glitz of the material world and was drawn to the fizz of city life. He chose the well watered plain of Jordan for his flocks.  On the other hand, Abraham was holy and stayed in the still wilderness near the trees of Mamre, near God. As you likely recall, he pestered God to intervene and save Lot and his daughters from a horrible encounter in Sodom. God complied. He blinded the Sodomites, allowing Lot, his wife, and kids an escape as he fireballed that perverse city.
Something like this theme appears in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart. The sappy sentimentality of this movie gags me as an adult, but it does demonstrate the difference a good man can make. The saccharin gag response comes from the ridiculously shallow spirituality of a Hollywood angel of God earning his wings. George Bailey is saved from suicide by clumsy Clarence, who shows him how life would look without his presence. What brings up my bile is the false focus on a man’s goodness, i.e., giving the credit to the messenger that belongs to the author of the message. George did not redeem himself. Clarence did not redeem him. Nor did the people of Bedford Falls redeem him. The savior of mankind redeemed him, but that does not work well on film. Instead we get a curly haired little girl,
spouting the predictable warm and fuzzy platitudes. Thus, sugar poisoning. Lot did not reform Sodom and restart the savings and loan. He barely escaped the depravity.
God is unpredictable, folks. You can’t get ahead of Him, so you might as well get behind Him. Problem is in our materialistic culture, when things are good, we think we are awesome, smart, sexy, precious, etc. The more stuff we give or get, the better we are. Ga-ga-gag. Time to reframe. Strip away the tarnished gilt and see your putrid guilt. Test your futile strength by feeling your awesome weakness. Reject your dying flesh and accept your God-given beauty. Blessings come in all shapes and sizes, even in silences and absence. God often works paradoxically, by pruning us of material things so that we can flourish in our faith. A pruned down grape vine is about as ugly as a wildebeest, but Jesus used it as a metaphor of Himself and His followers. Humble, thoroughly humble. Not sexy, popular, glitzy, stunning, or provocative.
Loss can sand down what is left behind, enabling us to accentuate and celebrate life’s broken beauties. We can still love what’s left after the stroke, the accident, the divorce, or the relapse. Even after life knocks the wind out of us, God can breathe for us and through us; that’s what spirit means, after all, breath. It’s more than bubbles of carbon dioxide. If we are God breathers, well, what a wonderful malady that would be, spiritual tuberculosis. .. to be infected and consumed by the breath of God.
So my jingle belled javelinas, it comes down to this:  consume more inflated emptiness or be consumed and saturated by your Creator.

161. First Day of School

Back to school feels eerie this year. It’s unusually cool. This chilly air may actually help the kids accept going back into the warehouses of education, which are starting to resemble super-sized box stores. But honestly, these crisp sunny days are the choicest fruits of summer, far superior to the hazy days of June and July that oozed fat sweat drops of humidity which collected in fleshy creases and overlaps. No, days like these are brisk, sharply defined, cool and brilliant… and precious.

Heather downstairs was late coming across the parking lot, and I pretended that it mattered to me, tapping my left wrist as if I had a watch, which I don’t.

Flustered as usual, Heather gushed, “First day of school and I had to take the kids in…and my daughter’s soccer coach murdered his wife and killed himself last night. And I had to break that to my daughter this morning. She loved her coach and his two sons. She cried. I said it was an accident. Some other day we’ll say what it really was. Can you believe that? Have a nice first day, Sweetie.” Disturbing as a snake in a bird’s nest, gulping down hatching eggs whole.

Whoa! How do you do that? Kill your wife and then yourself as your two innocent sons sleep? The lady at the coffee shop had been mumbling about this murder/suicide twenty minutes earlier. “I would have just left,” she offered. Another patron reading the morning paper suggested that at 3:30 a.m. the wife may have been asleep. Single gunshot to the head. Boom. Over. The how and when are covered, but why? No reason can justify killing the mother of your two sons, leaving them orphaned. It smells like a guy who was out of control and tried to regain control with a gun. We may never know all the details since he killed the only other witness, himself. And yet, we think somehow that sense can be sifted from the ashes of senselessness. You may as well burn the newspaper and then try to read its ashes.

These sorts of stories are becoming ordinary events. When we moved out of the D.C. beltway madness in 1980, my wife and I rarely heard or read of a local killing in our rural Franklin County. Someone would be killed while hunting, perhaps mistaken for a turkey, but cold or hot blooded murder was pretty rare. Now, it happens with regularity. I don’t blame guns; they do not fire themselves in the night at point blank range. However, I am perplexed by a lack of emotional regulation, mostly by men who feel threatened by a wife or girl friend who is leaving. Not that women haven’t done the same thing. There was the lady at the mall a few years ago who shot at her husband repeatedly but was a bad shot, killing some glass and a couple of mannequins at J.C. Penney. How is it that a person gets so completely overwhelmed by rage or jealousy that killing their loved one seems like a logical choice? In that moment the loved one becomes a coiled rattlesnake with super toxic venom; it’s kill or be killed at some reptilian level of consciousness. Blogitzers, we need to stay out of that reptile zone or risk becoming a rattlesnake that strikes and eats its mate.

And school, somehow schools and school children keep coming up as preferred targets for out of control young men with arsenals at hand. How is it that so many disconnected young men seem to all arrive at the same conclusion– go to a public school and kill as many folks as possible. Why not rush a nursing home or hospital? Why a school? I don’t blame videogames either. Even though they seem to be training grounds for extreme violence. The fact remains: millions play them obsessively but few of the players offend. I don’t like the obsession with videogames, but folks always find something to obsess over.

Here’s the sad fact: Human life is not sacred to humans. Not even little kids’ lives. If it were, what would our world look like? Unimaginable grace would flow from one to another in all our relationships, husband to wife, parent to child, neighbor to neighbor, teacher to student, provider to customer, employer to employee. Utopia would be someplace near instead of nowhere. If I treated you as holy and you treated me as holy, wow. We’d both be holy and honor one another with words and deeds. We’d spend a lot more time thinking and praying than running around doing and competing. Holiness requires a lot more meditation, I think. We’d have to live in smaller units because of the demands of holiness (which means “set apart” for starters); and then the practical application of holiness would limit group sizes, don’t you think? How many holy men does it take to change a light bulb? None, they don’t need light; they are light bearers, radiating truth like neon angels in the desert darkness. Oddly though, they seem to be born in or live in deserts.

But human life is sacred to God, so the more we choose to honor and seek out God, the more we must treat human life as sacred. This opens a huge can of worms from abortion to euthanasia and cloning and war and famine and immigration and poverty. The easiest way to deal with the clamoring of all these issues is to get rid of God, but that just gets one back into chasing his own tail or shooting his loved ones. I wish it were simpler, like finding limes fought off scurvy. Simple. Or the world is round not flat. Simple. God values all life; and if we value God, then we must also value all life. Hard.

Perhaps if that were the first lesson taught on this first day of school, we would have some small holy tile moments that comprise the universal mosaic of sacred life.