Friday, February 7, 2014

Teach Your Children Well

My grandma with my cousin
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
--Robert A. Heinlein, American science fiction writer

My aunt
My mom called me this morning on her way to work. 

Did I want to change our plans for this weekend and bring the boys over to her house instead of my dad and her coming to mine? She asked.

Not really, I replied. I wanted my parents and sister to come up to our house so my dad could hang some shelves for us with his cordless drill (a power tool we do not own). Oh that's right, Okay, she agreed.

After relaying this conversation to my husband, his face fell. At first he was disappointed; he wanted to break our string of stir-crazy winter days with a visit to my parents'. Then, he was almost (being the perpetually cheery soul he is...) a little indignant. 

"It just seems silly to have your dad come all the way up here to do something I could do myself," he remarked.

Yeah, I realized as I thought about it for a little bit. It did seem silly. Not only was it silly for my dad to do something for us that my husband probably could do himself, it was silly that my husband really doesn't know how to hang a shelf. (Not yet, at least).

And for that matter, I realized, it was silly that I couldn't hang a shelf either!

My dad (left front) getting early experience hanging things 
We must be swift as a coursing river
With all the force of a great typhoon
With all the strength of a raging fire
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon"
Those lyrics from the Disney movie Mulan sprang to mind as I thought over the shelf hanging situation. "I'll make a man out of you..." I thought, regarding my boys-- and even myself-- in the sense that all of us should be able to learn certain "manly" skills

Now, this is not some gender equality manifesto, because really, I believe there are ways men and women really are different. But it might be a learning manifesto. That is, I think Heinlein is right: there are certain things human beings should be able to do, and why not add "hang a shelf" to that list?

My grandpa
Habits form in families as well as individuals. My dad was always the one who did the hanging, the painting, the assembling, the driving on trips... Once, on a trip to Washington, D.C., my husband asked me to drive. I'm tired, he added. I looked at him, puzzled. What was he asking? Driving was the man's job. But why? Did I not know how to drive? So why not?

It's not that we all have to be good at everything. Or that we shouldn't rely on each other. But, sometimes certain torches need to be passed so that I can do some of the things my mom or dad always did when they're not around anymore.

My aunt (again)
"Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can”
said Methodist minister John Wesley in his day.

The thing is, you--and I-- can do more good the more we know how to do. 

That actually isn't to say anything against specialization. I do happen to believe that specializing in something is a good thing... that is why I spend my free time writing blog posts instead of building tables. I happen to be better at this. And yet, I can also do laundry, make a basic soup, drive a car, clean a toilet, and play Go Fish (but don't ask me to play euchre).

In seventh grade, I was scolded by a home economics teacher (yes, that really was a class we had) for not being able to thread a bobbin in a sewing machine, even after I was shown several times. And yet, in tech ed., I could drill a mean hole with the drill press. I guess I'm just more of a man in that way. 

A photo from my uncle's photojournalism days
My hope for my children is that they will be able to thread a bobbin and drill a hole. My hope is that, whatever their "specialty", it will not limit the skills they have as men, or as Americans, or as people living in this century. 

I want my children to be able to navigate a G.P.S. and an M.A.P.; to work an iPad and a pressure canner; to change their oil and their loads of laundry; to knit together a computer program and a scarf. 

There are trade-offs, I suppose, in all things. Will I make them sacrifice hours of practice at doing something they love and/or are good at just to learn calligraphy or stenography or some dead language? 

Eh, probably not. 

My aunt in college
But I don't want the whole of their existence to be pressing buttons and swiping cards. 

I want to teach them as many things as I can so that they can do good in many different ways in many different places for many different people.

I want them to be able to sweep their own floor and not have to rely on some iAutomatic device to do it for them. 

I want them to be human beings, not machines.  

My oldest son after his birth
"Teach your children well..." instructed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Sometimes to teach them well, I have to learn something myself. 

So here's to threading that bobbin and drilling that hole in the wall.


Dear Uncle J., I stole most of these photos from your FB page. Thanks and I hope you don't mind. :)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Soil

Long blue shadows reach across a gloss of snow in late afternoon. Filtering through winter grey and wide windows, sunlight lifts the heads of sprouts peeking through pellets of peat moss. 

While chives still sleep, stalks of dill and marjoram silently slip through, a little green to break the malaise of winter. 

"Life begins in the soil..." 

is scrawled across the back of a glass milk bottle, a local dairy delight currently lining our family's bottom refrigerator shelf.

Sunday, while Superbowl parties swept the nation, I sat around the wide, wooden kitchen table of a farmhouse. Chickens scuttled and clucked outside the window behind me, while a sea of seed packets, steaming soup and bread sprawled out before me. 

The "Garden Freaks" group, an amalgam of friends and family from around this little corner of the Midwest, was gathered together for the first time to share stories, skills, and seeds.

The click of knitting needles and laughter filled the farm house as a group filed down the stairs. In the back of the stone basement, the glow of white fluorescent lighting illumined several rows of seed shelves waiting to be filled. 

The soft voice of the farmer reached through the small crowd, humbly relating his family's process of diligent farm work over the years. A generational exchange followed his presentation as a seasoned group of gardeners imparted their wisdom to a new generation of garden enthusiasts.

As he closed, I meandered back upstairs to survey the selection of seeds stretching across the table. I scooped up sunflower and nasturtium, a hopeful bounty of bejeweled beauty and delight to crown the summer garden. 

Just before I left the farmhouse, I stole a glance of the Eastern Christian icons on the wall: stopping for a moment to whisper a prayer, to savor the mystery. 

Food and friendship, family and faith: a narrative of life all wrapped up in Sunday soil and seed. 

Taste and see how good it is.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


"So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one's days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words came as though from the air. The situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends"
from Graham Greene's The End of the Affair.

This afternoon, chocolate sunlight streams through sheer curtains. Behind them, smoke spins from chimneys into brilliant blue and shovel rests against grey garage, a foot deep in snow. 

House is quiet, the foul mood of my nearly daily afternoon malaise wiped away by a nap. 

It's true. Sometimes all it takes to solve the "flow of problems," crankiness, or "existential despair" (as a friend recently described to me in an e-mail) is to sleep on it. 

The afternoon nap: though it often garners a bad reputation for being "unproductive," "lazy," or a "waste of time," I like to take it anyway when I can. 

For me, it seems to boost my moods and productivity by eons when I'm sinking under the heat of that "noonday devil" which makes all the world's problems (and my own) seem to fester and seethe in larger-than-life proportions. 

Didn't Winston Churchill even make use of a "napping couch" during WWII?

"Puzzles?" spoke "the mother" in last night's episode of How I Met Your Mother. "What kind of name is that for a bar?

"Or maybe..." she continues, with a dramatic pause. "That's the puzzle!"

Ha ha. Okay. Sometimes problems just need some comic relief, especially at day's end. 

For today, may you find some time to "sleep on it."

May rest open constricted flow of thought, allowing sunlight to stream into your refreshed mind.

May you find the solution to at least one of your puzzles! 

Monday, January 20, 2014

How to Proceed.

I am crouched on my hands and knees, scrubbing stubborn linoleum. With a bottle of Murphy's Oil Soap in one hand and a scruffy blue scrub brush in the other, I slowly chip away a layer of sticky film speckled with black splotches of grime. 

Yes, gross, I know. 

After a year of living here, I've tried everything--well, almost everything, it seems-- to get this kitchen floor to look good--or at least sort of good: lavender Pine Sol, vinegar, washing soda, Borax, Dawn, Mop and Glow, lemon themselves and in DIY combinations that people swear by online. 

And yet, 12 months later, sticky film and murky residue remain. 

Until now. 

I pull back from my test patch and discover something strange: a smooth gloss, not sparkly or pristine necessarily, but sort of--well, clean! 

"Today, are you avoiding something or some place unpleasant because you don’t want to deal with the necessary responsibility you have for a situation? Why? What’s stopping you from faithfully even going where you don’t want to go? What is the barrier, either internal or external that’s standing in your way of being faithful no matter what? Is it fear? Is it pride? Perhaps you simply don’t know how to proceed. Get with a wise spiritual father and talk it out"
writes Fr. Barnabas Powell in his blog Orthodox on Purpose.

I stood over a big green bucket today, pouring in the last of many cleaning essentials crammed into my cupboards. As I dumped a heavy, chalky mixture into an old water pitcher, the powder filled to just below the top, and I felt a strange confidence that this could be the recipe. This could be the laundry soap I've been looking for--just like that, the answer forwarded straight to my e-mail inbox! 

Sometimes you simply don't know how to proceed.

Then, sometimes, you do. 

There is something deeply satisfying about finding the answer to something I've been puzzling over for days or weeks or even years.

I almost laughed when my friend and former owner of our home told me the "secret" to her clean kitchen floors. Duh! With three bottles of Murphy's stuffed on top of a shelf, I couldn't help but happily kick myself for finally finding out an answer that had been right in front of my face, right within my reach the whole time. I just hadn't tried it. 

I just hadn't asked

Not everyone has a "wise spiritual father"... but often, there is someone who has the answer to the questions we puzzle over. 

How to clean the grime off the floor. How to concoct the perfect laundry soap. How to knit a cozy cap. What to do with that drawer full of writing scraps you're sitting on (on which you're sitting?). 

Perhaps it's a matter of asking. Perhaps it's a matter of listening for serendipitous (or not so serendipitous) answers. 

A professor told me once that writing a dissertation is like traveling down a funnel. You ask questions, you look for answers, the answers lead you to more questions, the questions lead you to better answers. It often can feel like going round and round a maddening circle, but, hopefully, the circle is more like a funnel, leading you down to a smaller point of focus. 

How to proceed: it seems this often requires a delicate tension between asking and listening, taking initiative and waiting for someone else to act...or respond. 

Maybe sometimes things haven't fallen into place because it's not the right time, or the pieces aren't all there yet. 

But, oh, bless the person bringing us the missing pieces we seek. 

For today, may we harvest the answers to our ripe crops of questions.

May the pieces fall into place; and may peace surround those that yet haven't. 

May we find out, in all circumstances, how to proceed.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Happy New Year!

My husband and I watched an educational special the other day on cathedral construction in the Middle Ages.The special's narrator commented that the craftsmen in those days built such elaborate structures in order to help people rise above the mire and muck of everyday life; to turn their perspective heavenward. 

I thought about attempting one of those photo "365" projects this year. Then I realized that with my shaky discipline--and little boys--and life being what it is-- it likely would be a "project 270" or a project "3 every 5 days." 

I'm already down to a project 358. 

Ah heck, I've never been much for New Year's Resolutions, anyway. 

Regardless, I'm still carrying a camera into the New Year, in hopes that it will, in its own little way, function as those Medieval cathedrals: to turn my perspective heavenward and magnify the Good. 

I'm looking for little moments that stir my heart to gratitude; little moments right in the midst of everyday life that remind me that THIS is more than the sum of its parts. 

Like pudgy fingers gripping a thick mug of Echinacea tea "for immune support", may gratitude and love support our spiritual health this year.

May negativity, criticism, and worry be shattered to dust, and may all that is true, lovely, and beautiful be built up in our homes, in ourselves: one brick at a time.

Arise, O my lazy soul! Behold the wonder of the day! 

Drink the goodness of 2014 down to the last drop!

Happy New Year! 

... and 8 days late. Here's to a year of losing perfectionism...

As my grandmother always said, "I'll drink to that!"

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Lament for the 14,000 Holy Innocents

"A Lament for the 14,000 Holy Innocents"

On this solemn day
tears fall from the sky:
"Rachel weeping for her children"
in a land pierced by Herod.

What can pierce a heart of stone
if not Holy Innocents' cries?
What sacrifices can be offered
for soil soaked red?
What reparation can erase
the stain of little lambs'

Are there but enough earthly tears
to water and bring to fruition
the prophesy of Amos:
"Let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream"?

More information on the Holy Innocents, commemorated on December 29 in the Orthodox Christian Church here.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Prepare Him Room

"A cave becomes a palace for the King of all, 
the throne of fire is replaced by a manger,
where the Virgin Mary lays Him as a babe,
for He comes to restore the first-created man,
as He is well pleased so to do."
from an Orthodox hymn for Nativity

"A cave becomes a palace for the King of all..."
Our priest spoke about this part of the hymn today after the morning Christmas Eve Hours service. 

"Why do we repeat this line?" He asked us.  

To get us to pay attention, he went on to say. Like all good poetry, the services, hymns, and prayers of the Church are structured with repetition to get us to pay attention--calling our minds, wandering and distracted though they are, back to the Mysteries of the Church. 

"God was born in a hole in the ground," our priest went onto say, marveling at this mystery of the season; the wonder, really, of the incarnation. 

What does it mean for God to come in the flesh? For one, that a simple cave becomes a palace, a place of beauty. 

"Beauty," our priest noted, "is what God has created." Sizing himself up, he went on to say that as a man, he is nothing. And yet, insignificant as he, as we all are: common, pieces of flesh, even we can become dwelling places for God. 

"We eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood in order to share in His life and in order to share our life with Him.

"Our use of the things of this world with regard to others can become communion if we treat those things in the same way. If the things in our life are a means of sharing—both our own lives and in the lives of others—then they can become communion.

"A gift, given and received as an act of sharing, and not simply an act of consumption, can quickly rise to the level of communion. There are gifts I have been given through the years whose value comes not from the market but from the giver and the “life” of the giver that is carried by the object. Such things in our lives bring remembrance and communion with every use"
writes Fr. Stephen Freeman in this post in his Glory to God for All Things Blog. 

The Incarnation makes it possible for us to commune with God: to find Him and meet Him in even the most common materials in which He might be carried, including-- especially-- that of human flesh. 

"...That Jonah was without joy at the prospect of Nineveh is well recorded. Less famous is his disinclination for any intercourse with unbelievers, whom he, out of habit, identified as the unwashed. From birth, he had been protected from most embarrassments: body odor, poorly cooked food, substandard grammar. And so the Lord, in His compassion, undertook to deliver Jonah from his own sin—not fastidiousness as such, only Jonah’s insistence upon it.
"His time in the fish’s belly was like death. At the very least it smelled like death to Jonah. In retrospect, the experience, fully imagined, might still provoke a necessary sense of how the body, unadorned by ointments, oils, or silk is little more than meat, mere meat for fishes. And if, in that confusion of digesting debris, Jonah chose to distinguish himself from other meat, he would have to come up with other criteria, and pretty soon.
"Consider any brute swimmer driving with all his energies against the tide; notice how ineffectual (and potentially comic) the effort appears from the chalk white cliffs above. Gross facts aside, the monster was Jonah’s deliverance, a more than sufficient transportation to a more likely perspective, from which Jonah was then fully willing to embrace anybody..."
wrote Orthodox poet Scott Cairns in his essay "Jonah's Imprisonment"

To be "fully willing to embrace anybody" seems the truest response to the Incarnation. If beauty is in what God has created, then truly anywhere, anything, anyone may become a palace of beauty, a temple of God. 

I watched an episode of the animated TV show, The Cat in the Hat, last night with my children. The kids in the show were talking to two snails (named Lewis and Clark) about their shells. 

"We carry our homes with us wherever we go," one of the snails said to the children.

The cat, going on to explain the phenomenon of a snail shell in whimsy, says,
"A snail has no house, no tent and no baggage. 
It's easier that way when searching for cabbage.
He has a neat way to stay dry, safe and well.
It's swirly and pretty and we call it a shell."
This flesh, this skin I'm in, is no more than a "piece of meat" or a flimsy shell that will eventually wither and become ash. And yet, it can also become a home, a habitation, an "earthen vessel" for Christ. 

"Abide in Me, and I in you..." Christ speaks in St. John's Gospel 15:4.

Even as we strive to prepare a habitation for Christ in ourselves, so does He become our home. Like the snail, so do we carry our Home with us wherever we go, bearing the Light and Life of Christ to all the world. 
"Joy to the World! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her king!
Let every heart prepare Him room 
And heaven and nature sing."
May all of earth truly receive her king. 
May He transform earthen vessels into palaces of beauty.
May we become "fully willing to embrace anybody" with the Life He gives.