On Blasphemy

One day, walking through a parking lot, I saw on a car a few rows ahead a bumper sticker that said, in bold letters, “Jesus paid the price for my sins.” I smiled: kinship through bumper sticker, shared faith, unashamed proclamation. Walking nearer, I read the smaller letters underneath: “and I’m getting my money’s worth.”

My stomach churned instantly, not with anger, but with what I can only articulate as fear, fear for this driver’s fate, the consequences of his joking disregard for the most sacred event in history. God, who sees all, saw this banged up, dusty Dodge Intrepid and stayed his hand. The same God who denied Moses entrance into the land of his life’s quest, judgement for hitting a rock twice, apparently with the wrong attitude. The same God who sent a king out to pasture for surveying his kingdom pridefully. A withered hand. A dead baby. Sons dead in battle. Swallowed by a gap in the earth. Body eaten by dogs. Struck dead for lying. Sword-slain in the temple court. A God you don’t mess with, don’t joke with, don’t slap with a sticker.

But then, a second churning, feeling the corners of another bumper sticker peeling, curling, irritating the edges of my heart. Not so slickly, smugly obvious, but there. Disregard for the sacrifice. Assumption of forgiveness. Favorite fall back: my humanity, God’s grace. Cheap grace, not a big ticket item. Keep spending.

In heaven, the hosts do not sing, “Love, love, love is the Lord God Almighty.” That’s our favorite praise and worship chorus. There, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; who was, and is, and is to come” is the eternal song. Oh, he is love and forgiveness and grace, and we humans can understand a bit of that, for we too love and forgive and give grace. But holiness is beyond our scope, what separates the sheep from the God, and is the attribute of God we would most like to ignore, brush away with his love. We’re comfortable standing in line for a cup of love, Starbucks BOGO, thinking we’re getting a pretty good deal, love and more love for $4.95. But holiness? That’s a face plant, the posture of heaven, and we’re fallen and we can’t get up. Our cup of love, with its shot of forgiveness, spills at God’s feet.

God’s holiness, if we could conceive of it at all, would cost us more than our personal line of credit could cover. Thus Jesus. But a proper response of gratitude should be, at least, obedience, an antidote to our assumption that God owes us anything, an acknowledgement that we owe him everything. We don’t have money to spend; we’re in debt over our heads.

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Lightning Strike

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In the picture, she poses almost in profile, her smoothly brushed dark hair framing her face in soft waves. She is wearing a navy polka dotted dress with a white collar that primly encircles her neck. It is the only professional photo she ever had taken, when she was in her early twenties. The cheek facing the camera is smooth and tinted a powdery pink, a colorization of a black and white photograph. She is lovely and demurely smiling, a picture of 1940’s middle class success: graduated from high school, a stable job as a bookkeeper, waiting for life to take her further, beyond where she is now.

My mother grew up in the thirties, a twin born to her mother at age forty, and thus much younger than her other siblings. Her father was a farmer, poor like everyone else, resigned to hard work and predisposed to distrust enjoyment. Her mother worked alongside him, steady and strong, but neither of them with the energy or time to invest in her or her twin brother, born late.

She remembers little fun, only work. Few childhood memories have survived the eighty year span since then. Only one is vivid.

“We went sledding.”

Children do not register detail, only sensation or flashing moments, so the detail is mine to fill in, my task to re-create the story. These are really my memories, pulled from my own childhood, applied to hers, an attempt to vicariously experience the swooping descent of sledding.

So. It is a winter day, a Saturday, and they wake to snow newly fallen, fresh, smooth, and unmarred, sparkling silver in the light of a sun risen but frozen, a white disk like just another snowball waiting to be hurled. From the barn they drag their sled, a homemade wooden one which has survived seven earlier children’s daring dives down other winters’ slopes. Some of the boards are loose, a couple splintered, but they hold together between two metal tracks, rusted in the frame but slick silver on the runners.

They pile on, her brother first, head first and flat on the creaking boards. She sandwiches on top of him, the big buttons of her thick homemade coat pressing into her sternum, her arms tucked at her side, gripping with mittened hands his coat below his armpits. A push off with a rubber boot and they are flying, the snow plowed up by their descent blizzarding into their upturned faces. Their bodies compress into each other a bit more with every bump on the decline, jolting their lungs to expel foggy exhalations that are left like clouds behind them as they hurtle down.

I think they shrieked at the thrill and the terror of it, hearts pounding faster than their speed, loving something about the abandon of the ride, the sensation of not being in control despite his hands clutching the steering bar. I’m not sure I ever heard my uncle laugh, and for mom laughing too was atypical, so sober were their childhoods, packed with chores, silent Sundays, rigid respect. But this Saturday they are laughing, his chest heaving up and down on the sled, hers thumping into his back, adding to the joyous pain that only eases when the slope levels out and they are spilled to a stop, their sprawls creating fallen snow angels on the ground.

Then up again, almost instantly, shaking flattened shards of snow out of their pant legs and tramping back up the hill for another ride. How many times did they repeat the cycle, each time working to increase their speed, to go further and faster on the descent, before their longest ride, the one that hurtled them into a barbed wire fence, the rusty prongs ripping a bloody path through my mother’s pale, cold cheek?

They were poor, but they could have gathered the money to pay for stitches. Instead, they washed the shreds of flesh and patted them into place, bandaging the wound, hoping for healing. Instead, when the bandage was removed, strands of scar had laced the mangled shards together into a jagged geometric, a lightning bolt raging in the taut hollow of her cheek, the bas relief of reddened ridges the smolder after the strike.

I don’t remember when I first heard that story, but I know it was in answer to my question about her scar, a curious question asked when I was perhaps the age she was when she acquired it, a question unrestricted by the tact that would halt anyone older, a tact that would stifle the question but not the stare. That one question, so many years ago, diffused the scar, melted its fiery force on her face. After that, I never saw it again. In fact, it always startled me when someone meeting her for the first time—a college roommate, my husband-to-be—would ask about it, because it flickered and faded whenever she turned her face to me.

But she, of course, still saw it with every look in the mirror, traced it with her fingers every time she rested her cheek in her palm. It is etched in her mind’s eye even as she sits for her only professional photo, as she carefully turns that cheek from the camera’s blinding flash. Behind her demure smile is the nagging worry that this tentacle scar will nudge away any potential beau who might come near. She is getting older. All her friends are married. She is in her mid-twenties and is not.

Now she is much older. Her skin, thinned to a papery translucence, sags and creases into furrows, creating a matrix that absorbs the scar into its larger pattern. Now when I hold her head in my hands to kiss her forehead, her skull feels fragile and light between my fingers, her skin a mere drape over curve of bone, socket of eye, ridge of cheek. Now the scar is only a delicate fold in the drape, like heat lightning flickering in soft, soundless night, no longer a lightning bolt that blazes livid against a smooth sky. It is stilled between my hands, its thunder muffled, my fingers smoothing the edges of its dying fire.

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Mom

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In my women’s Bible study at church, we’ve been studying Philippians and so I’ve been thinking about Paul. At the time he was writing the letter to the Philippians, he was in jail, something particularly difficult for a man of action. Earlier in his life, for better or for worse, he was proactive and always on the move, whether he was persecuting Christians prior to his conversion or roaming throughout the Middle East and beyond, preaching, planting churches, making tents.

Most people, if forced to give up this busy, involved life by being tossed into prison, would consider their lives over, their mission a failure, but Paul did not. He simply regrouped and continued his activity in a new form: the palace guard was his new mission field; instead of visiting churches, he wrote to them, in spite of what appears to be his encroaching blindness.

At the time Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians in around 61-62 AD, he was, by Biblical scholars’ best guesses, in his mid fifties or sixties, though he refers to himself as “aged”: beatings, jail stints, shipwrecks, snake bites, and standing trial evidently take their toll. Four years later, he was dead.

My mother is eighty-eight, having far outlived Paul by any account. She is imprisoned by her own body, her mobility severely limited by scoliosis, arthritis, and osteoporosis.  In her younger years, she hoed gardens, scythed weeds, sewed wardrobes for her three daughters, cooked and baked for hundreds in her job at the school cafeteria and in her sometimes-summer-job at church camp, hauled wagon loads of grandchildren across a bumpy lawn.

Now she can do none of those things, her body so  twisted by scoliosis that she cannot even stand erect. Dependent now on her walker, she taps unsteadily from room to room; trips outside her home usually exhaust her. But inside this prison, she is largely free. Her mind remains sharp and lucid, and even her senses of sight and hearing are remarkably intact.

In a culture that privileges mobility, autonomy, and youth, people like my mother are devalued. Yet I see in her a glimmer of Paul. While in “house arrest,” she also writes notes and sends cards to her children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren, rarely missing a birthday or anniversary. She calls–even occasionally texts!– her friends and family, trying to encourage, to demonstrate care, to maintain a thread of connection with an expanding family that spools further and further from the home she herself has rarely ventured far from.

What I value most about her continued existence, though, is her quiet but persistent spiritual core that through the years has churned out countless prayers on our behalf. Her public prayers are quavering, choked with emotion, explained at least as much by her social awkwardness as by her sincerity. But I imagine her private prayers as fluid and fervent, sometimes wordless because grief has no language, at other times a lyrical line of private poetry, streams of praise.

It is a quiet mercy that often long after the body cripples and deteriorates, the soul retains its spirit, floats aloft, unconfined and forever young. This is the true person, the measure of worth, not the poor vessel that crumbles and erodes. In Paul, soul enlarged with age until it was all that remained, really; what happened to his body was of no concern to him. In Mom, soul is an undying point of light, something stable and real. It animates her prayers and keeps her alive in the only sense that matters. I cling to that, as she does.

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Suddenly Spring

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Cut off shorts already in American Eagle. Bikinis in Aeropostale. Sandals in Charlotte Russe–all efforts to catapult us into spring well before it appears, to get us thinking about spring break and breaches and sun that burns hot enough to shatter the ice in the air.

I am more than ready, though this winter, admittedly, is mild and I have nothing as a Midwesterner to complain about.  No sub-zero stretches, no piled up snow to plow through or get stuck in, no filthy stacks of ice crusted snow shoved from parking lots that don’t melt until March.

And the semester has just begun. I’m not supposed to even begin thinking about spring break until at least a month from now, when the freshness of the semester has gone stale and crisply sharpened pencils no longer send me to a happy place.

Monday, on the first day of classes, a colleague called out in the stairwell to a cluster of us who were trudging up to classes, “Only fifteen and a half more weeks!” I thought that a bad attitude then, and still do, despite my yearnings for eighth story condos along a stretch of Daytona, for talking for hours with friends that always feel comfortable, despite years away from Florida, for lying face down in warm sand, feeling the heat radiate.

Today it snowed, and oddly, given my wistfulness about spring, that event was something to delight in. I welcomed the peacefulness of flakes faltering in the sky, the cleanness of this stubbled barren ground swept with snow. Maybe what I really want is change, something to renew my life, nudge it in another direction. January and February are stagnant months, listless and stubborn, and anything that breaks through their monotony and deadness is okay by me.

 

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Notebooks

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I was raised in the pre-computer age, when typewriters were the only “high tech” alternative to writing by hand. Only when I graduated from high school and was embarking on my college journey, which would cement my career as English teacher and writer, did I receive my first typewriter; by then, my practice of handwriting drafts was already entrenched, so I never made the transition to anything more mechanical. Much later, in grad school, computers were so new and frightening to me that  I continued  to draft in longhand, though the editing capacities of the new technology were too helpful to ignore. I made a conscious decision not to adapt my writing practice to the computer–not because I lacked the finesse, but because by then I had solidified my love for the handwritten writing process, so even now, I compose entirely by hand, often writing multiple versions of passages on paper before I transcribe them into electronic form, where cut and paste, insertions, and formatting functions simplify the difficult revision process. Those first hesitant efforts at forming words, developing thoughts, stringing together sentences and paragraphs, are impossible for me to undertake on a computer screen.   I cannot compose in blue virtual space; words on a screen seem so insubstantial and unreal compared to words on paper, and a blinking cursor is a frantic little reminder, constant and annoying, that a new word must come.  Write!  Write! it screams.  Feed me another word!  Now!

Writing on paper slows my racing mind, makes me consider each word more thoughtfully, makes the process more deliberate and intentional.  Each one of these effects is worthy, each in itself is reason enough to hold a pen in my hand rather than hover over a keyboard, but paper is richer and deeper than any of these as well.  Writing on paper is also a tactile pleasure and a breathing transcript of a dialogue between the surface of paper and depth of mind.

I need the smoothness of the paper under the heel of my hand, the dent in my third finger from clenching my pen too tightly, the smudges on the outside of my pinky as it presses the words into the paper.  I need the decisiveness of a turned page, its soft rustle and its faint scent of felled trees and clear skies.  I need to be able to hold a sheet close to my chest when it seems to have sprung from there or to savor the sound of a rip or a crumple if the words will not work. I write on paper because I need to feel the words forming on the page, the smooth glide of my pen and the quiet vibration that moves through my fingers.  Tapping computer keys is too harsh, staccato; words are reduced to letters placed in blocks.  Sentences are not marked by gaps, impossibly full of possibility, formed by lifting my pen, but by a jab at a space bar.  A computer monitor is a surreal landscape, a glowing, blue-bordered universe that exists nowhere in reality, and words within it are isolated and hard, frozen in a cube of photons that can not expand beyond the plastic frame of the screen.  Words on paper, however, are only gently contained within a page’s border; they cluster and nudge, sometimes sliding obediently across pale blue lines, other times spilling sideways down margins or wedging themselves between existing lines, piling up in messy paragraphs on the back of sheets or jumbling together on Post-it notes slapped onto the page.

I need to see the conversation of words visibly before me, to see one word chosen over another, to have a record of false starts, to preserve choices.  Lines can be crossed out–whole paragraphs even–and replaced by others, but still the first option is there, visible under my slashes.  There is not the finality, the irretrievability of a block and delete command; there is the possibility of a Lazarus thought, brought back from the dead.

My pages are filled with struggle: tangible grappling with words, spreading pools of ink absorbed by paper fiber to mark where no words came, complicated doodles in the marginsBwebs to catch, spells to conjure and animate language.  Occasionally, there are fluid, breezy lines unhalted by scrawled out passages or hesitantly chosen wordsBthese are hopeful lines, flung out and towing me home during the difficult times when I feel as though I can only go under.  By contrast, the neat, rigid lines of type on a computer monitor, with their fully justified margins, by virtue of their clean orderliness, fool me into thinking the composition is polished and complete. The absence of blood on the page is stultifying and makes it harder to see where language has gone amuck. Revision, with all the wonderful potentials of that word–re-vision, a new way of seeing–is harder when I cannot see the process of my first searchings.

Over the years, I have filled reams of paper with language. Paper is my greatest delight: blank pages, crammed edge to edge with possibility.  Loose leaf sheets, bound journals, tablet pads, spiral notebooks–paper has contained, maintained, preserved my spirit.  It has changed in form and content as I have.  It has held language within its margins–both the strong and the weak–and has recorded my writing life.

When I was a very young writer, newly thrilled with my recently unearthed talent, I faithfully watched The Waltons on TV, almost exclusively because I pined for John-Boy, who, like me, aspired to be a writer one day.  And because he wrote his journals in Red Chief tablets, I too searched for Red Chief tablets on Hornsby’s dusty shelves.  Much later, in grad school, I wrote both my thesis and dissertation on yellow legal ruled pads with thick cardboard backings.  I still have that stack of notebooks, with the start and finish dates of each section of the manuscript on each cover; they are self-affirmation every time I touch them, far more than the nicely-bound book version of the finished product.

When on my first sabbatical I tackled my third book-length project, I chose Goldenrod tablets bought in bulk from an Amish general store.  I remembered them from my childhood, but I had not seen them in years until I happened across them at this place that time had forgotten.  Dust motes dangled in shafts of light; the shelf where I found the notebooks also held jars of preserves and loaves of fresh bread in crinkly plastic wrappers.  To share a space with captured sweetness and sustenance–what better place for tablets of paper, which also preserve, sustain, fill with wholeness?  Their smaller pages with thin yellow sheets held months of ideas, connections, perseverance.  I loved their bright orange covers, their old-fashioned, comforting presence. They too hold words which confirm that my mind still works, that I have things worth saying. When that project resulted in my first book publication, receiving the first copies of the freshly bound volume in the mail was a thrill incomparable to anything else in my writing life, yet I will never part with the stack of Goldenrod tablets in which that book had its beginnings: process and struggle are worth remembering.

Even unfilled, notebooks are a pleasure. At bookstores, I always wind up in the journal section, touching the homemade paper, running my fingers over embossed bindings, holding them in my hands and testing their different textures and hefts.  I buy new ones even when I don’t have a definite purpose in mind for them, just because I love the potential they have to hold words or simply because I love their shape, their covers, the quality of their paper.  On a trip to England, I bought tiny notebooks as souvenirs, so now I have a box filled with small pads, none bigger than four by six.  I will probably never use them, and I am beginning to get over the guilt of that fact and my continuing predilection to purchase even more.  It eases my conscience to now claim that I collect notebooks–after all, no one expects stamp collectors to send their stamps afield on envelopes, or coin collectors to spend their coins as cash.  I have given myself permission to enjoy them for their own beauty, for the symbolic weight each one possesses in my writer’s hand.  I love them for the memories they stir, for the echoes of cathedrals and abbeys and castles and museums that I hear when I turn their pages.

Now in my writing practice, I almost exclusively use Moleskines, 3 2 by 5 2 black-bound notebooks whose bindings lie flat for easy writing.  At the back of each is an accordion-sided pocket, for stashing scraps of papers with writing ideas.  A black elastic band neatly presses the sheets together, muffling the magic of the language they contain.  My sketchbook, my memo book, and my writing notebook are all Moleskines.  Their dimensions are perfect, compact enough to carry anywhere, to slip into a pocket of my cargo pants or field coat, or to ride in my palm or my bag wherever I go.   I feel like a writer using them, a professional with her little black book, a mystique that the makers of Moleskine claim that I share with Hemingway and Bruce Chatwick, fellow artists who also, they say, could not live without them. In the years since I began using them, I have filled over twenty from border to border with my tiny black script.  The stack fills a cubby hole of my desk top shelves and reminds me, every time I look up from the one open before me, that I am a writer.

There is life in paper pages, life that can seep from a closed notebook and spill onto the next blank page.  Life comes both from the writing and through me to it, a porous exchange, a reciprocal transfusion that I have come to depend upon as my life blood.

 

 

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Pencils

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On my desk in my office are three large mugs stuffed with a clutch of mostly unsharpened pencils. Collected over the years as cheap souvenirs from museums, state parks, tourist attractions, and airports, they chronicle my paltry travels.

I collect them mostly as symbols of my profession, because I do not write using pencils; but nevertheless, I love their fresh wood smell, their slick splash of bright colors clustering in their containers, the memories of place they evoke when I read their stamped sides.

Some are especially unique, standing out from the rest: an extraordinarily long one from Lincoln’s home, obliquely referencing his height; one with a metal raven atop it, a nod to the ravens which “protect” the Tower of London. Shakespeare is perched atop another, recognizable only by his ruffed collar and blousy pantaloons, a purchase from Stratford-upon-Avon. The clown fish Nemo swims above the sea of erasers, the pencil a gift from one of my girls, who was old enough to know I collected pencils and wanted to give me a special one, but too young to understand I only collected pencils from places I had visited. “Mood” pencils that shift color in the heat of my grip; iridescent ones catching light from the window; a few defying conformity in shape in their triangularity or chunkier diameter.

My writing utensil of choice is a black Pilot Precise, smooth, non-skipping, quick drying, strapped to my writing notebook with a wide rubber band, always at the ready. Yet this clutch of bright wooded pencils speaks of the distances writing can travel, the places it can take me, the worlds I ca create or remember or preserve, so they too are tools of my trade.

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Red Plaid Thermos

A red plaid thermos has been an icon of my writing life most of the years I have been serious about writing. I’m not sure when or where I first acquired it, but it has been a signal to myself and others of the beginning of a serious writing session. Holding only two cups of coffee, it measures roughly two hours for me, enough concentrated time to get a good start on a piece, if the Spirit is moving. I have carried it with me on woodland walks designed to gather inspiration for writing. I’ve filled it for a weekend camping trip, alone with parts of two days in front of me to write by bonfire light until dying embers forced me to bed. But most often, it has swung from my crooked finger countless times as I’ve walked the three hundred-odd steps across the lawn, into the woods, to my writing cabin.

Right now, my thermos is beside me, a plastic capful of its contents steaming at my other side. The hot coffee takes the edge off this chilled space, allowing me to stay a little longer at my notebook.

Before my cabin was built, I would carry the thermos to a small wooden table near the site. Three capfuls later, the bottle becoming perceptibly lighter with each refill, I was ready to return to my other routine, ordinary life, in which words were not as carefully chosen or artfully arranged. Later when my cabin was built, it perched beside me on my desk, warming words again. In tribute to it, I decorated my cabin with red plaid thermos accessories: three plaid picnic satchels with sandwich boxes and two huge thermoses each line high rafters; two plaid wicker baskets hold files, spare sweaters, socks; three large round metal picnic pails, three smaller thermos jugs, and nine other thermos bottles perch in a row at the point where the roof begins its pitch. Even a throwback car seat snack set hangs from the arm of my dumpster couch.

Surrounded by this warm collection of red plaid striped with sunny yellow, repeated in my walls, I am happily productive, as though each plaid container awaits being filled with words.

 

 

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