Posts Tagged ‘life’

The Post – Good Friday…Last Book Chapter

March 21, 2008

It is Good Friday. A day for some reason, I have always loved. That, Lent, and Holy Thursday. Easter itself, I hate. It always seemed like such a noisy unnecessary thing after the sanctity of the soul’s connection to God on Thursday and Friday.

I loved growing up in Catholic school and going to Mass every morning. Six days a week while in grammar school, I was in Mass. Six days a week for 8 years, I listened to the stories of Jesus’s life. They were as real to me as my family, truly meaningful, and enjoyed as much as Nancy Drew. The readings that cycled every year, dictated by the seasons of the liturgical calendar were as much a part of my life and soul as the leaves changing color, skies staying steely gray, and the crisp cold that smelled of snow dictated by the changing seasons of New England.

Every year there was a constancy, a rhythm, something you could count on to return to. No matter what else happened in life – those were my touchstones. Raking leaves into piles you could jump into, short days and long nights, cold Halloweens with orange full moons in costumes bought at the discount store, my grandfather bringing pails of sand/salt mix home from the Town Garage, the rhythm of those happenings matched the Advent wreath candles and the church readings as we marched toward Christmas.

The anticipation of Christ’s birth matched the anxiety of waiting for Santa Claus. Midnight Mass in a candle-lit church, boughs of pine branches decorating the walls and door arches, being with all those old Slovak immigrants I knew so well, who built that church, even the way they filled the pews inside – old men on one side in the back, old women on the other side in the back, the younger families (unsegregated) in the rows in front of them – all those images and happenings was as much loved and needed by me, as going home to open presents. In looking back, I think actually, that those moments in the church surrounded by those people, those images, those sights, sounds, and smells, are what I remember more than going home and opening presents.

While the church images are crisp, the presents are kind of a fog. A few stand out: a Jon Gnagy art set, a microscope with dissecting kit, a map-making set, my Dick Tracy machine gun with Marine Corps helmet, canteen, and pistol, and in ironic contrast – soft warm new flannel pajamas, and a plastic carrying case with new pretty underwear each one labeled for a day of the week. Perhaps the ones that stand out in my memory are there because they connected with those parts of who I really am. …as to the days-of-the-week underwear…maybe that’s why I love planners???? 🙂 But the bottom line is that if I were told today that my memory was going and I could only retain certain memories and lose the rest, it is those memories of early weekday mornings in church, and holidays spent there, that I would choose.

So it is that same connection that continues to influence me throughout the rest of the year’s happenings and the rest of the year’s liturgical seasons. While I hate Easter – always HATED having to go buy a new dress and coat, then stand around like a china doll with an itchy crinolin slip, shiny shoes, straw hat and purse, and gloves (gloves – why wear something you always have to keep track of, in a season where it’s no longer cold enough to need them????), unable to run around with the boys in the backyard and have fun – I LOVED Lent, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday.

Lent itself was about focus, commitment, ritual and stories. You focused on something – the coming trauma Jesus would go through. You gave something up – allowance money, candy, gum, whatever, for something bigger than yourself. (Though in our house, you were allowed to indulge on Sundays) You did the ritual of the Stations of the Cross around the Church, every Friday and listened to the gospel readings. For both of those, it was about “story.” Each station was a painted picture on the wall that told a part of the story of the crucifixion. The gospel gave the whole story.

Holy Thursday nights were processions in church, long litanies recited in Latin by visiting priests, the smell of the hyacinths we carried as we marched, the sense of being together again in that place where everyone I knew was going to be, and…the stories. The story of the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, Jesus being taken to the Sanhedrin and to Pilate, Peter denying he knew Jesus. I loved the stories. They were like old friends.

Good Friday was a time to hear the whole long, VERY long gospel, so long that halfway through, the priest would stop reading, turn and kneel silently for a minute or two, then stand and finish the rest. It was a day when my mom would make us turn off the radios and TV and keep things “quiet” so you could honor what that day meant. It was a time when the church was stripped bare to symbolically represent the loss of Jesus, and to contemplate what that meant. It was a day to think about a story’s march through rising problems, crisis, and climax, with the relief and resolution Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday would bring.

So here it is today, Good Friday again. I was standing in the bathroom this morning talking to my husband about what I was going to get done today. I said that originally I was going to go to the gym and swim but that I canned that idea. I wanted this last chapter revision of my book finished today, no matter what. I said that it just felt like it needed to be today. He made a joke about it being like our son’s birth- our son was two weeks late, wouldn’t leave even when I started eating Mexican food, had to be induced, and during the last stages of labor I literally remember telling him to “Get out!”

I said, no it wasn’t about labor, but something about the fact it was Good Friday. And I wasn’t sure why. Just felt for some reason, the “season” of my book, needed to match the liturgical season of the day. I said, “I don’t know why but it just feels like this book NEEDS to be finished today, like today is the right day. So the hell with the gym, I’m just going down in the garage (where I work) and finish this damned thing today. At the end of today, I just want to be able to say that this draft is finished.”

Now, I’ll still have “polishing and cutting work to do in the next draft but that will now be a whole different process, almost fun. This draft, like draft # one, was like giving birth, like creating and writing from scratch. Now, I can “play.” The agony of the creating and writing from scratch phase will “be finished.”

As soon as the word “finished” tumbled out of my mouth, the lines from the Gospel of John flashed in my brain:

“After this, Jesus knowing that all was now finished, said, to fulfill the scripture, ‘I thirst.’ A bowl of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to His mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, He said, ‘It is finished’ and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” (John 19:28-30)

So today is Good Friday, a day I have always loved, though I cannot tell you why, other than to say that always on Good Friday, something in my soul has felt complete. So today, I will honor the silent moments of the liturgical season, with the silence of completing my book. If it takes until midnight, I will finish today, so that the two stories shall meet in the single line: “It is finished.”

Advertisements

The Post – Nursery Update, Ethics, Parenthood, Friendship, and Just Being a Mere Mortal

February 25, 2008

Just a quick note this morning as I’m on the run. The next installment of my author journey is partially written. Those take me a bit more time. Pondering, reflecting, remembering. Lots to sift through. So those will resume this week.

For now, just to update – Scarlett O’Hara is still alive in the new tank – the “nursery.” Frankly, I was worried. I’d have felt better if I’d set that tank up last week and it had a week to run and settle out. I just hadn’t come to the point of “embracing” trying to raise larval crabs and when I did finally decide this weekend to try, it seemed like birth was imminent. Kind of a go/no-go response needed to be made ASAP.

Last night she just wouldn’t settle down in the new tank. Kept running back and forth, kept trying to climb the sides of the tank. Was there something wrong with the water that was hurting her? All the parameters looked great, in fact the water in the new tank was better than the original – that one’s overdue for a water exchange and the nitrites and nitrates in that tank are rising. So this one is actually healthier. However, certainly there’s other parameters I can’t measure. So my worry was that I’d put her in something I thought was better for her, but maybe I was killing her and couldn’t tell?

I wondered if she was just disoriented and couldn’t find a place to climb out of the water to get air. I noticed air bubbles escaping from her mouth at one point and was afraid she would “drown.” She has this lovely live rock with all kinds of crevices she could hide in, better than her old live rock, AND it’s much bigger so she can climb on top of it, but I thought that maybe in her stress she couldn’t find it. So I scooped extra gravel out of the original tank and put it in the new one and built her two gravel hills so she could walk up the hill and be partly out of water. She found them, but that didn’t seem to be the problem. She just kept running back and forth and climbing the walls.

My husband wondered if she simply couldn’t understand why the sides of this tank were so clean and where was all the microscopic algae she likes to eat? The other tank, though the glass sides look clear, apparently have microscopic algae on them because the crabs are always “picking stuff off” the sides and eating it.

Or maybe she was just so stressed out, she couldn’t relax and would kill herself with exhaustion?

I also noted last night that the formerly clear water in the new tank was now cloudy. I was convinced something awful was taking hold and maybe the live rock had something bad in it. If so, you would expect the nitrites to be rising. I repeated all parameters last night and the water looked good.

So by this point, who is more stressed? Her or me?

My husband said little, just said “It’ll be what it’ll be. You’ve done all you can.” I told him it’s not easy being “God.” He patted my back and said “At least not a God who cares.”

Anyway, I struggled with “should I just bag this whole thing and put her back in the original tank?” I decided not to add any more stress to her by moving her back. One of those – just let it go and see what happens, moments.

This morning the tank looks less cloudy. My husband said he came down and she was sitting quietly in the water, “tending” to her egg mass – ie – giving it pushes and pokes, as if turning them. When I came down, she had found her way to the top of the live rock and was just sitting there on top of her world, soaking up heat from the lights and appearing totally relaxed. (Or is she dead? Should I poke her? 🙂 Just kidding).

All joking aside about my being so worried, I guess I felt guilty. As I said to my husband – Did I put her at risk of dying because I so wanted to try and raise the babies? Did my ego cause harm in this and should I have just left it all alone?

The ethical questions are never clear or easily answered. It’s like being a parent. You try your best, knowing that even when you do, you don’t know if you’ve made the right choices. And in your less than perfect moments, and we all have them, you wonder, will they be okay? Why does God entrust such a big job to mere mortals?

I think Lee Woodruff’s final comments in her book, In An Instant, apply here, at least for being parents, maybe not for being God to fiddler crabs. She worried about how her kids were affected by all the turmoil and intensity when her reporter husband, Bob, was in the hospital with a head injury. She had to be away for long periods to be with him. Things were in an upheaval even though family and friends were looking after things. I so loved her observations, because they are the truth. In thanking her kids she added:

“May you always remember that there are no perfect parents, just mothers and fathers doing the very best they can. And there are no perfect spouses either, just those who love each other enough to stand by “for better or worse.” Don’t be fooled: that kind of endurance is, perhaps, the greatest expression of love.”

I think she could only come to that lesson because of the messiness of life. I think it’s the messy low moments that teach us the most about being human, and about understanding the “human moments” in others. Those times teach us about being compassionate to ourselves and to others, especially when life is at its least pretty. We all want to look like we’ve got it together. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t. Life gets messy. Thomas Moore, a former Catholic monk, in his book, Care of the Soul, I book I read, reread, dog-ear, highlight…in three different colors, quotes something from the Renaissance humanist Erasmus, that applies. Erasmus wrote in his book, The Praise of Folly, that “people are joined in friendship through their foolishness. Community cannot be sustained at too high a level. It thrives in the valleys of the soul rather than in the heights of spirit.”

So, from one very imperfect human, friend, wife, mother, fiddler crab God, go gently into your Monday. It’s really okay, no matter how it goes.

The Gift

February 19, 2008

“… start where we are…develop compassion for our own wounds…If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them.

True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”

Pema Chodron, in her book, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.

The Post – Another Side Trip – In an Instant, Life Changes – The ER and Patton

February 17, 2008

One minute you are moving through your day, clearing tasks off of your to-do list and anticipating all the things you will still tackle during the rest of the afternoon. The next moment you’re wondering if you will make it through the afternoon, and can you ever get what is choking you, out of your throat? In an instant, life changes.

I talked the other day about “awareness and staying in the present moment” in relation to my racquetball game. Shift to the future and you blow the present shot. The same thing happens in life.

My meditation class talks every week about paying attention to what you are doing, and that anything can be a meditation if you do it mindfully, full of awareness. I never thought about this extending to swallowing pills. I also never thought about how I swallow pills as a possible life-altering moment.

It’s something we do automatically. Grab the pills, toss them back, throw in a mouthful of water, all while in motion through the day’s to-do list. As you tip your head back to swallow, your mind is already on the afternoon’s plans and everything you want to get done. Suddenly there is this sense of something horribly wrong.

It is said that when we are in pain, our world narrows. While that’s usually said about emotional pain and our tendency to pull away and close down our connections to the world, the same is true of physical pain.

In just a second or two, the brain, reacting to that sense of something horribly wrong, starts reeling in the attention and cranking down the focus. It shifts gears from 4 p.m. back to 2 p.m. Within another second or two, it registers panic and pain. It tries to rally its resources to deal with the emergency. Whatever was on your mind before evaporates. It is suddenly incredibly irrelevant. You may never get to it.

Now focused very much in the present the brain is frantically trying to get a clear picture of what the hell is happening. It’s processing emergency signals from several places in your body simultaneously – heart rate, throat, blood pressure, lungs, mouth, cervical nerves. The eyes bulge, hands go up to the throat, and the left brain finally grasps that the pills you swallowed without thinking, tumbled down the wrong way. In a one-in-a-million shot they’ve lodged side by side in your esophagus and are blocking the whole passage.

At the same time you’re looking for a waste basket to throw up in and get those things out of you, additional panic shoots through you. The brain has further grasped that not only can’t you swallow, but that the water you took with the pills has backed up into all of your air passages and is now choking you. Inside your head you hear the liquid close off passages. For an odd moment, like time standing still, you notice that the sounds in your head right now are the same as when you’ve dived underwater and everything is flooding with fluid. Except you’re not in someone’s pool. You’re standing in an office wondering if you’ll ever take another breath.

The breath. All those meditation classes. Come back to the breath. Breathe in your pain and fear, breathe out caring and calm. But even the breath has been taken from you. Panic. Focus. Panic. Focus. The battle in the brain begins because it knows if panic wins, you may lose the battle completely.

Suddenly the water drains out and you can breathe. The breath. Come back to the breath. You’ve been given another shot. Don’t blow it. The brain is in command. Stay in the moment. Just this moment. Breathe – just one breath. Assess. What’s your next move? Think. Take stock. Breathe again. Just one breath.

You determine you can’t swallow except for tiny amounts. Okay. Focus. One swallow at a time. Look around. What are your options? Get help. Someone to be here in case they have to call 911. You remember the pills are large. Hard. Coated. They’re not going to dissolve. You need assistance. Get to the ER.

Someone stays with you. They’re trying to help. It’s a comfort and calms you, even though you can’t really respond. You’re using all your focus and energy on “Breathe – just one breath. Swallow – slowly. You cringe. Intense pain shoots up your throat as the liquid shoves the pills against the esophagus wall and ever so slowly drips around them and down your throat. Breathe. It takes a few seconds to swallow saliva that you normally don’t even notice is there. A few seconds more and the swallow is finished. Take another breath.

The brain starts to race – how long will it take my husband to get here? How long to get down the street? How long to the ER? How long before they can do something to make this better? Panic. The brain takes charge again. Stop. Stay in the present. Breathe. Swallow.

Every shift of the car gears hurts. You want to be sick. Take a breath. Swallow. Another bump. Breathe. Rounding the corner. Still a mile to go. Breathe. Swallow. Traffic backing up. Panic rising. Breathe. Swallow. Close your eyes. The ER doesn’t exist. Just this moment. Breathe, swallow. Breathe, swallow. Lean forward because it doesn’t hurt so much. Breathe. Swallow. You turn into the hospital. The ride to the door might as well be an eternity. Close your eyes. Breathe, swallow.

You struggle through admissions. Whisper name, date of birth, insurance, address. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse typing in your vitals seems to be taking forever. Will you ever get relief? Come back to the moment. Breathe. Just one breath. You spot your blood pressure and heart rate. It scares you. Close your eyes. Breathe. Swallowing is harder. Lean forward. Get ready. Breathe, swallow, tighten your fist to take your mind off the pain in your throat. Breathe. Stay calm.

I know my husband is there. His presence is calming. I can’t respond to him. Can’t even focus on him because I am focused on breathe, swallow. For a second I feel his hand on my back. Its warmth relaxes me, radiates through my muscles. Calms them. But I can’t tell him yet. Just breathe. Swallow.

The doctor is approaching the room. Breathe. Swallow. You stare past the doctor and see a room across the department that looks just like the one your husband almost died in a little over a year ago . . . when he almost choked to death. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse pushes in the needle for the IV line. Breathe. Swallow. Meds are moving through your veins. Breathe. Swallow. Breathe. Swallow. Calm. The meds are calming. The muscles in your throat unlock. Breathe. Swallow. Suddenly, a tiny burp. Air is moving up. Breathe. Swallow. They give you water. Tiny sips. It slides down your throat. Pills shift and hurt. Breathe. Swallow. Ever so slowly, the burps get bigger. The sips of water larger. The medicine slows your heart rate. Your blood pressure has dropped. You can swallow and breathe without total concentration. Will you ever take another pill unawares?

Joan Didion wrote a book, The Year of Magical Thinking, about what it was like the year after her husband died of a massive heart attack. She was with him when it happened. It happened in an instant. In that moment as he fell, dead, everything changed.

Even as Kate Braestrup stared at her husband’s cereal bowl in the sink that morning, he already lay dead in his state police car, killed when another vehicle lost control and crashed into him. Her life changed in that instant as she described in her book, Here If You Need Me. Lee and Bob Woodruff wrote a book, In An Instant. He was covering a story for ABC News in Iraq when an IED exploded near his vehicle. In an instant he nearly died. In an instant everything in her day changed dramatically.

It happens so often. It happens to everyone. Yet we all try to ignore that an end will come. We pretend that reality doesn’t exist even though it does. In an instant we are reminded that though we think we are masters of our fate, we never are. It’s out of our hands.

Friday night, terrified after what had happened to my day, my body, and with the calming effects of the valium wearing off, I scrambled to put myself in a place that brought me back to a time where I felt I had power. I retreated to the movie, Patton, about the controversial, powerful, and legendary World War II general, George S. Patton, Jr. His nickname, given by his men, was “Old Blood and Guts.” He never retreated.

It’s a standing joke in my house, that especially when I was younger, I was Patton. I was the general. I ran the situations. Whatever needed doing, I gave the order or executed the action. Failure or retreat was not in my vocabulary. Back then, my thought was, work hard enough, push hard enough, refuse to be defeated or back off, and you can do, achieve, overcome anything.

In the movie, there is one scene where Patton, played by George C. Scott, speaks and my family looks at me and laughs. Patton, has been reprimanded and his command taken from him. Patton, like him or hate him, was a brilliant field commander. He also put his foot in his mouth constantly, and some of his actions were controversial. Yet he was a power to be reckoned with. He bludgeoned his way through things, though aware of the pecking order, did manage to yield some deference to God. In this scene he is speaking to his aide after being told he might be sent home from the war in disgrace:

“I feel I am destined to achieve some great thing, what I don’t know. But, this last incident is so trivial in it’s nature and so terrible in its effect, it can’t be the result of an accident. It has to be the work of God. The last great opportunity of a lifetime . . . an entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?! God will not permit this to happen!! I am going to be allowed to fulfill my destiny!!!” [LONG PAUSE] “His will be done.”

The last four words are said almost as an afterthought, Patton remembering that God just “might” have some say in things. For some reason, at that time in my life, maybe even now a little bit, my family saw a lot of me in that scene. 🙂

So Friday night, I took comfort from retreating to a place and time in life where I felt powerful and in control of everything. Yet, in truth, even as I watched that movie I knew it was just an illusion, a temporary salve for a traumatic day. None of us are really in command of our destinies, only our responses to life’s questions. Even the powerful General Patton learned that. He preferred to die in battle. Instead, in Dec of 1945 he was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of injuries in a car accident. He died a couple of weeks later from an embolism.

I took temporary sustenance from the movie, even as I am aware that we can only take charge of some things, our choices, but for the rest, there is just the one and only powerful tool we can use: stay aware in the present moment, and breathe.

The Gift

February 17, 2008

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Anais Nin

The Post – A Sidetrip to Essays – But the Bus NEVER Came Up This Far on the Curb Before!

February 16, 2008

Before I start talking about the Under the Pier process, I need to address the one side that calls to me in a big way – essays. I’ve sold a couple already and I yearn to do more. While this blog is a collection of all the bits of me, perhaps the one area of my soul most fed, is the ability to “speak in essays.”

I have spent most of my time over the last 12 years calling myself a children’s writer, though I have noticed that a lot of my focus is geared toward adults. Is this a contradiction or betrayal of a certain writing path? I don’t think so. Perhaps Madeleine L’Engle handled it best. She used to hate it when she was referred to as a children’s writer, as if that was all she was or it was a special category considered “not quite a writer.” She insisted on being referred to as a writer and considered her children’s writing just one aspect of her career, though certainly not the easiest or least important. Her observation there was: “If I have something that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children.”

So in the same vein, I am first drawn to writing for children as there is the very alive open child within me who wants to speak. However, like everything else in my life, I do not fit neatly into categories. The label “children’s” writer is not totally accurate because I find, I just write. Who it fits, I leave for the readers to determine.

As to my essays, they run the range – spiritual, humorous, nature-based, flippant. One current essay is a list I keep of irreverent things to put on my tombstone: “But it was HER fault, really!” “But I had the right of way!” or “But the bus NEVER came up this far on the curb before!” – the last one from a moment at Colonial Williamsburg where my husband and son expressed concern at how close to the bus stop curb I was standing. When I reassured them the bus never comes that far up, they offered to put that one on my tombstone. 🙂

I love to write essays because my right brain revels in being able to take a single quote or line of dialogue, a comic, photograph, painting or a life question, and just write. Something that starts in the specific and ends up at a universal truth. A journey where I start with the concrete and wander around always surprised where I end up, usually someplace emotional.

In a lot of respects, though I’ve started this blog in the midst of writing a novel for upper middle-grade/Young adult readers, a lot of it so far has been more essays, journaling, unearthing the soul of the writer, rather than a lot about the Children’s Writing business. That’s okay. I need to have that soul of the writer to do that novel. The reality is, that novel has been a journey to answers in life. Maybe in a way, novels are just one long essay because the characters in those fictions worlds still ask the same life questions we all do.

This blog is also my “raw material” that I can mine at will for whatever projects come along. It’s my toy box of thoughts that I can spin into something for adults or children. Truth, is truth.

My “internship of the essay craft” has involved continuing education classes at nearby Duke University, as well questions. Always, questions. They are the catalyst for life, for growth, for wisdom. At least to me, if I stop asking questions, I stop growing. I lose the path to peace

The internship has also included reading countless books. Fiction, philosophy, spirituality, nature guides, and of course, books on essay writing. One in particular is my favorite, and has been the most useful for seeing how to first collect, then transform life experiences. I recommend it highly:

Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal – The Art of Transforming a Life into Stories, by Alexandra Johnson. She teaches memoir and creative nonfiction writing at Harvard and has been published extensively. The book is divided into three parts. It’s possible to only use one of the three at a particular time in life, or ever. The first is about having a journal – creating one, the various types, what raw material to collect; the second part is about transforming your life – finding the patterns and meaning in what you’ve collected; the third section is called “Crossover: Moving a Journal into a Creative Work.”

Whether you just collect raw material, mine it for meaning, or use it to create fiction and nonfiction works, the process changes you. Like that overly used cliched example of a rock thrown in a pond, change one thing and it touches places unseen. Even keeping a list of favorite phrases over a lifetime does something deep inside to your soul and alters your outlook on life.

So I am a writer for all ages. I love to write essays, whoever reads them. They are my journey to answers. They are the playground of the right brain, and the compost pile that fertilizes the rest of my works.

The Post – Reflections on a Belted Kingfisher

February 7, 2008

The first time I saw the belted kingfisher, I nearly missed him.

It was that brief time in the early morning when the pond and woods behind us are still shrouded in night’s shadows. The sun hasn’t yet come up and the view is mostly dark silhouettes that blend together against the steel-gray mirrored surface of the pond. It’s the time of day when nothing is quite what it seems.

In the pond, there is this large tree trunk that lies on its side, a casualty of Hurricane Fran in 1996 when the wind snapped a large oak tree into three chunks and threw the largest one into the pond. It has remained there since, a gift to the wildlife. Everybody hangs out there, from spiders, fish and ants, to hawks, muskrats (at the same time no less), and ducks. It is the inter-species resting place, the sunning spot for 10 or 12 turtles, and the staging area for birds fishing in the pond.

On this particular morning I looked out, my eyes barely open, at the odd collection of shapes and shadows in the backyard. You couldn’t make out anything clearly. I think if an elephant had been out there, you might just have mistaken it for fog. As my eye skimmed the pond’s surface, I noticed this shape – rather clearly defined, which is why it caught my eye. It looked almost like a bird.

Being a bird-watcher, I immediately woke right up and looked closer. It was the image of a bird, perfectly outlined on the water. But where was the bird? I didn’t see one anywhere. I dug out the binoculars and scanned the area until finally I could make out a similar shape on the tree trunk right above the water. It had blended so well into the darks of the woods behind it, you could barely make it out. I never would have seen it if I hadn’t noticed its reflection in the pond.

It was a belted kingfisher. He is a maniacal-looking bird. He’s got a white ring around his neck that makes it look like he had been leashed, but escaped. His blue-gray feathers stick straight up out of his head like he stuck his foot in an electrical outlet. He has large wild eyes and a fishing technique that would do the Three Stooges proud. Essentially, he jumps up, flaps his wings, then flings himself at the water. He doesn’t so much dive as plows in a full body flop, through the surface of the pond. He’s effective – he always comes up with a fish – but he gets failing grades for aesthetics.

I see him out there a lot now, especially now that I know what to look for. And it’s usually on those foggy mornings.

It occurred to me that life can be like that. There are gifts or important truths, understandings, that we often don’t see. They blend into the background fabric of our lives, and we overlook them unless something reflects them back at us and they catch our eye. Without that moment, we’d never know they were there.

I think the thing I keep in mind now is that Belted Kingfisher rule: When something catches your eye in life’s fog, take the time to look because some things in life can only be seen on reflection. You never know. It might be a gift.

The Post – Gab to Go

February 4, 2008

Given it’s Monday, you expect to see someone sitting at their desk with a coffee cup sipping tentatively before plunging into whatever awaits. So it’s not a surprise that I have this Styrofoam cup on my desk. The odd thing is it sits next to my regular ceramic mug, which is what’s actually holding my caffeinated drink of choice – tea. So why the Styrofoam cup?

Ah, a throw-back to yesterday’s post – start this one with a question, right? Well, questions are the order of the day, and that’s exactly the point with this Styrofoam cup. It doesn’t contain caffeine. It’s loaded with . . . questions. No it’s not some mystical beverage, or some liquid whose swirls you gaze into or whose curls of steam you study for the secret of life. It’s a game. And to a writer, it’s like a playground.

Questions are the staple of a writer’s life. It doesn’t matter if it’s nonfiction, essays, or fiction, you write to answer questions. Whether it’s what killed the dinosaurs, why we should care, or a story about bringing them back to life in a doomed amusement park, all three start from a question. No questions, nothing to contemplate, and hence nothing to write.

A question here: In an era of You Tube, My Space, video games and Instant Messaging, how do you cultivate a love for, and the ability to confront questions? No this isn’t another essay bemoaning all of this technology in our kids’ lives. Technology is here to stay and frankly, a lot of it is great. Just see the effect on homebound elderly who’ve embraced email and the web and thus feel connected not isolated. And let’s be honest, even adults are glued to all of the above, not just teens. It’s simply a realization that unless the power goes out, everyone is plugged into something electronic (like this blog?) and when is there time to sit across the table from someone, ask a question, and ponder an answer?

One family confronted this on a vacation trip. They realized each was plugged into their own electronic device, and hence, their own world. Fine up to a point. But there was no conversation. No connection. Now I’m not dissing this completely because hours of several people jammed together in a closet on wheels can get old. Each having their own space for a little while can be a relief. However, I did grow up in an era of “See how many different states’ license plates you could find” or “look for whatever object came up next on a list” as you traveled down the highway. Like it or not, you interacted. So I can understand this family’s concern.

They came up with a simple yet elegant solution. They came up with a list of questions, things like: “What is something about you that would surprise most people?” “What word do you really dislike?” “What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?” Simple questions. Yet even one person’s answer could lead to not only an extended conversation, but a newfound appreciation for people you reside with and ordinarily take for granted. We often find talking to “new people” exhilarating because it’s something new and different. Yet how many new and different things are within the very people sitting next to us that we may have grown bored with?

The family went ahead and created a product – a bunch of question cards in a Styrofoam coffee cup – and have recently started to market it. It’s called “Gab to Go.” It started locally and is beginning to spread as people realize what a gift asking a question can be.

For myself, I could probably take each question and write at least one post on it, maybe more, depending on how I slanted it. The possibilities, if not infinite, are pretty extensive. In fact, I may use a question/essay approach on a regular basis in future entries. For now, I revel in the new worlds and travels never imagined, with people very close to me, all because somebody thought to ask a question.

If you’re interested in learning more about the how and why behind this couple’s game, and news articles on their idea, check out “Gab to Go.”

The Post – Father, if Jesus exists, Then how come he never lived here

January 28, 2008

I had planned to write about the serious soul process that underlies the seemingly frivolous hours of fiddler crab watching – the quiet transformation of heart that yields the creation. However in moving the freezing car out of the driveway so my husband could leave for work, I caught a request from the Universe in the form of a song lyric, to share some thoughts about something else, so I decided to do the writing post tomorrow. For what I write here, these are simply my thoughts, how I make sense of things for me. No one else has to believe this, or agree with it.

I turned on the car and immediately the request blurted from the speakers. On the car’s CD player, Sting’s The Soul Cages; the song, “All This Time”; the words: “Father, if Jesus exists, Then how come he never lived here.”

I’ve spoken similar words SO many times in life, though mine were less eloquent and much more enraged. “Where ARE you? You don’t even care, do you? You did this to me. I did what you asked . . . I prayed. Every single day in Catholic school I went to Mass. Loved being there in that quiet with you. BELIEVED in you. In everything you said. And THIS is what you leave me in? How could you?” The rant usually ended with a 4-lettered action suggestion for God. And I meant it. There’s a saying – we give out as much pain as we feel. Truer words were never spoken, and I threw every last bit of it back at God.

Yet even as I did that, there was this small tiny place inside that knew He wouldn’t get mad at me for it – He was more like a gentle parent with an overwrought two-year-old. The child doesn’t understand. The parent knows it’s useless to explain because the child is too young. All the parent can do is hold the child while it cries in frustration and fatigue. Underneath my rage, I still felt a small voice saying He knew, He understood, He wished He could change it right that minute. For a moment it would comfort me, but then the rage would start again. “Great! So you feel bad I’m in pain. Why aren’t you fixing it?”

It was Buddhism that actually helped me understand that Catholic/Christian God I grew up with, forgive Him, let go of the rage, and learn to love and trust Him again. Buddhism has something called the Four Noble Truths. The very first one is short and sweet, but when I heard it, I felt such relief – Life is suffering.

Now at first read, that almost sounds depressing. If that’s the case, what’s the point? For me though, I heard that and almost immediately felt years of rage drain out of me. I realized . . . God didn’t do it. Suffering. That’s just the way life is. It is the result of living in a world where God doesn’t interfere and let’s us choose. It is the logical result of living in a natural world where sometimes there will be ecstasy and sometimes ultimate black despair. God honors His word to let us have the freedom to make our choices. He lets the world unfold in its natural way. He makes suggestions, but we don’t always listen. As a parent, I know how hard that is, watching from the sidelines while your kids choose something, crash, and choose again. And you want to tell them, but you can’t. So all you can do is suggest, then step back, watch, and stand by them no matter what.

If suffering is, then our role is to choose how we will respond. Either we take it and see what can we create with the hand life dealt us . . . or we give up and die. At least to me, that’s what it comes down to. What will I choose? Life? Or death?

So where is Jesus in all that? Right at my side. He stays there through it all, letting me be mean, letting me vent, lifting me when I can’t go on, whispering suggestions when I’m totally lost. It’s that Latin line: Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit – Bidden or unbidden, God is there. If anyone thinks that’s not very much of a gift, think about the last time you were with someone you loved when they were in tremendous suffering – illness, dying, life misery of some kind – and worst of all, you could only watch. You couldn’t help them. If that isn’t the ultimate suffering in life. Most normal people want to run the other way rather than stay with someone in pain. How many people go to visit someone who just lost a spouse or a child or are dying? It’s hard to watch that, sit with that, not run. Well, consider what it’s like to sit with an entire world of people in pain, support them endlessly, and NEVER leave, get impatient, or tell them off. That TRULY requires a God.

Now, all this said, it’s not to say there aren’t times I want to tell God to go to hell, that what He’s asking for is JUST TOO MUCH. So many times, even when I’ve agreed to do what He’s asked, it’ll come to a point of despair and being driven to my knees and all I can say is ‘I thought I could do this for you but I can’t. Take it away. Please. I just can’t do this anymore.” And the quiet voice just says – try again.

It’s like that parable (Luke 5:1-11) of the apostles spending all night fishing and coming up empty. Exhausted, frustrated, despairing, they return to shore. Jesus is waiting for them. Does He comfort them? Commiserate with them? Put an arm around their shoulders? No. He tells them, go back out and put your nets out. I wouldn’t have blamed the apostles if one of them told Jesus to go pound sand. I mean they worked themselves to the bone all night and all Jesus can say is “Go do it again”??? And if that wasn’t enough, He still didn’t make it easy for them. In spite of whatever they thought, they went back out and did what He asked. Now yes, their nets were filled to the breaking point. Well, great. So yeah, He gave them lots of fish. But still He made it hard. I mean, why didn’t He make it so the fish nets were filled and the fish jumped in the boat or they got tons of fish and God magically transported them to the beach so the exhausted guys didn’t have to kill themselves hauling them all in?

Because…that’s life. God doesn’t change the rules of the world. He helps us work with them, sustain, try again, look for solutions, even when we want to quit. But we still have to do the work.

So. I guess my answer to Sting’s lyric is – He does live here. I don’t always feel Him in the middle of the despair and rages. These days at least, I’ve learned that sooner or later, I will feel Him there and to just trust in the meantime that He is there. All I can suggest is do what the Buddhists say, or that line from Tom Hanks’ movie, Castaway – just keep breathing. Just keep walking. Just keep going. See what you can create with the hand you’ve been dealt. Choose life. Death comes fast enough.