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Red-Letter Profession

Monster copy

Image credit here.

Whole months have rushed by. I have been working harder and keeping busier than I would like. This season of labor feels necessary and therefore regret-free.

I can be a bit of a workhorse. Tackling challenges often invigorates me. But an excess of work without the benefits of regular exercise and restorative solitude is numbing. Add to that picture my recent lapse in the practice of spiritual disciplines, and the result is a high-functioning sleep walker. At least until the lights go out. That’s when the monsters come out to play.

Last night, I dropped into bed sleep-deprived and fighting a virus. As soon as my breathing settled and I drifted off to sleep, the monsters kicked open their cage and ran amok. I saw them from the insides of my eyelids and felt their scratchy nails as they raced circles around my brain. They yanked down my lids and released, snapping them open like window shades. The creatures moved next to my chest and began their vigorous warm up. They were planning a protest march, and they wanted to make sure I was awake to appreciate it.

The monsters had demanded my attention many times in recent weeks but I had tossed them Facebook, Netflix, and coffee and told them to shut the hell up. I should have known better. I can handle one or two small monsters with no more than a few mild abrasions. It’s a wrestle-and-release scenario, much like fishing for sport. I definitely should have known better than to ignore them for so long. The fiends had grown to a frightening size and multiplied unchecked.

Have you ever faced an army of chanting monsters? I hope you will be spared. They are shrill, tone deaf, and lacking in rhythm. The only part they can reliably perform is the chorus. They have that down.

They sound something like this:

You are going crazy and your arms are flabby and you are going crazy and you are a bad supervisor and you are going crazy and you haven’t folded the towels and you are going crazy and you forgot to refrigerate the milk and you are going crazy and your shower is moldy and you are going crazy.

If you try to ignore them, they just get louder:

You are going crazy and you will get cancer and you are going crazy and your mother is going to die and you are going crazy and you will have to work forever and you are going crazy and your children will suffer and you are going crazy and you will get bedbugs and you are going CRAZY!

I crawled out of bed, turned on the light, and retrieved my Bible. Henry was out of town so I didn’t have to worry about waking him. I randomly opened to the book of Mark and began reading. The monsters did not like this.

I read the words in red, Jesus’ words. I rested my palm on top of them. I don’t know why I did this.

Across time and space, I felt his breath and heard the words from his lips. I thought about “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14). In defiance of all logic, we were sitting on my bed palm to palm, Jesus and I. I borrowed his strength to wrestle and release each monster. Jesus and I talked for a while, and I drifted off to sleep.

Think what you must. I am not going crazy.

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Chocolate

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

2013

Writing seems to be at least as good as drugs. I went to sleep after finishing my essay on becoming invisible and had the oddest dream:

The weather was chilly. I stood just outside (Irish Name) Hall, an academic building on the (Jesuit) University campus. A man smiled and hurried by on my left as he made for the door. I didn’t take too close a look. Why would I? I was accustomed to the rhythms of student life, and I no longer noticed their comforting background hum.

I can’t recall his face other than to say that he was youthful looking and without facial hair. I assumed he was a fellow student. He had brown skin, and his dark hair hung about to his shoulders. My peripheral vision told me that he wore jeans and a dark leather jacket. Something flashed bright red—a knit cap or a winter scarf?  In passing, he held out his left hand as if in greeting. Without thinking–and perhaps in recognition of some unspoken solidarity among those who labor for knowledge–I held out my left hand in return. We briefly clasped hands.

I felt an immediate, sharp pain.

Stunned, I opened my fingers to find that his touch had transferred a loosely-crumpled wad of wood shavings. I soon discovered the source of my discomfort. In the ball were hidden four nails: two small wire brads and two larger wood nails. His grip had driven the larger nails into the bottom of my palm and the smaller ones into my wrist directly below. I spun around, confused. But he was already gone.

I brushed away the nails. Their tips had become embedded just deeply enough to draw a trickle of blood. I felt piqued and violated. He had smiled even while planning to harm me, and I had held out my hand in welcome. But what was to be done? Finding no recourse, I went about my business.

I opened the door and entered the building. There I found myself standing in some sort of dimly lit café or general store. To my right stood Rodger, a former professor turned colleague. Rodger’s class and way of being had been a great help to me as I was coming to the end of a long and exhausting spiritual slog. He continues to be a wise and helpful presence though we rarely interact.

Rodger stood at the end of a long wooden table which reached nearly to his chest. In the low light, I could make out a wall of shelves behind him. He was preparing to take orders, to serve people. He looked worn out.

Still startled from my encounter a moment before, I unclenched my fist to share with him the story of what had happened. The dripping blood had formed a jelly-like blob of crimson where it had congealed in the center of my palm. I wiped it away and showed Rodger my hand. He told me he was sorry about what had happened to me. I shrugged it off.

I asked how he was doing, and Rodger confirmed that he was weary. I thought some refreshment might help, and I asked him why he didn’t fix himself some tea. I remembered he was not a coffee drinker. Rodger replied that the tea had run out.

I wanted to find some way to help but couldn’t, at first, think how. I thought about my habit of carrying a bit of dark chocolate in my purse for just such emergencies as these. Rodger said he would be glad to have it.

I felt pleased to know I had something to offer and pleased that Rodger would accept it. I hoped it wouldn’t be covered in lint.

As I began to dig around in my purse, the room filled with people. They lined up along the sides of the table facing Rodger and waited to place orders for hot drinks and make requests for foods and dry goods. As the crowd grew, I was pushed farther and farther down the table and away from Rodger. For some reason, I remember that the woman who stood directly in front of me, near the back of what had become a throng, was wearing a beige overcoat.

Once I extricated myself from the tangle, I returned my attention to the excavation of my purse. To my surprise, I found two large, unopened bars of chocolate! Their labels promised a delicious treat.

I tried to recall buying these bars but I was unable to account for their presence in my bag. I realized they must have been in the bottom of my purse for some time because I could feel that they had they had begun to break along their fault lines into smaller squares. Finally, I came upon the single dark square I had originally sought. I was delighted! Not only could I serve Rodger; I could even offer him choices. I had more than enough to share.

My alarm went off. I got out of bed and pushed the dream to the back of my mind. Later as I sat in church, I woke up with a jolt: Nails. Palm. OH.

I recounted last night’s dream to my husband as we took a long walk together. He immediately saw what I had completely missed. And now, as I sit here finishing this account, I begin to wonder about something else. I had assumed the man had intended malice.

What if this was not the case?

Because of the timing and context in which I dreamed and recorded this dream, I have decided that it belongs to The Story of Hanna. For the prior installment, click here. For the next installment, click here.

The Brownie

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I am a very selfish person. I like to come and go as I choose. I prefer my own company. I readily ignore the needs of others when they bump up against my immense longing for solitude, my need for achievement; or when my ideals are challenged. I am deaf to your requests, and sometimes your cries. My heart is small and flinty. The Grinch and I are twins, separated at birth.

This does not bode well for a married mother of three.

How is it that you, my husband, and you, my daughters, have taken up residence in the largest chamber of my heart? You have warmed my blood and massaged life into that atrophied pump, transforming its creaks and clanks into chocolaty purrs. Your dwelling there causes me to declare war daily, such that each hard-won battle yields the gifts I want to give—or rather, want to want to give—but can’t. Yet somehow, I do. Again and again.

I give you my time; my sleep; my cooking; my cleaning; my chauffeur service; my presence, spoken words, listening ears, and comfort; my tutoring; my prayers; my tears; my praise; my privacy. I gave you things I didn’t even know I had given you: my makeup; my socks; my cds; my pony tail holders; my stacks of index cards; and apparently, my laptop. I gave you my belly, my breasts, and my shoulders. My bed. I give you my dark chocolate, and I just gave you the blueberries I had stashed at the back of the fridge. I didn’t even mind. At times I become tired and impatient but the struggle is well worth it. In the end, I am happy to give to you, whom I love so dearly; you, who have enlarged and softened my stingy heart. I can authentically say, most of the time: “These are gifts to you, freely given.”

Just don’t take my brownie.

Today I sat at the table after lunch, quietly contemplating my afternoon cup of coffee when you reached across the table, Hand. Thoughtless and confident, you slithered over to the lone brownie on my plate and began to pick at it. Four feet away sat a full plate of brownies, one of my gifts to you. You knew this. I watched your leisurely fingernails dig out a walnut and carry it away.

Startled by sudden rage, I felt myself begin to tremble. Scalding words rushed from my chest and poured out of my mouth. Words a mother should never speak to her child. Violence was discharged in one beat of that same heart.

Jesus.

Aunt Mimi

Image courtesy of Cath

Image courtesy of Cath

I had to tell you more about Aunt MiMi because I’ve been thinking about her so much.

My Uncle Stanly’s position as a bigwig in the MVA of major city had afforded my aunt plenty of opportunities to indulge in her favorite pastimes: shopping, going to parties, and making friends! Aunt MiMi was both flashy peacock and hardworking pragmatist. She had worked a full-time secretarial job downtown and earned every inch of her big, fat Cadillac and every ounce of flounce in her ample closets. She could easily have become pretentious and jaded. She never did. Aunt MiMi maintained a girlish enthusiasm for life until her last day on this earth.

Aunt MiMi was as vivacious as Uncle Stanly was stern. We kids were instructed to keep our voices low and tiptoe around him. He never really talked to or acknowledged children; in fact, he rarely spoke at all. I don’t think I ever heard him laugh. He usually sat like a statue, his pipe clamped between thin lips. I do have one warm memory of him, however. One Thanksgiving he sat to my right. As he passed me the next dish, his lips curled five degrees heavenward, and he spoke: “I bet you don’t love lima beans as much as I do.” That was it.

Unburdened by angst, Aunt MiMi kept things simple. She didn’t introspect or ruminate. Her world was populated by Good People and Bad People. She had it on good authority that Bad People existed, but she had never actually met one herself. She was the kind of woman I could imagine disarming a burglar with a frying pan and then serving him a side of ice cream and cookies to go with his ice pack. He’d end up thanking her and swearing off a life of crime. She probably had such faith in people because of her childlike faith in God. She was childlike but not childish. She attended Mass weekly, prayed faithfully, cast her burdens upon the Lord and didn’t look back. She believed. She had God to do the heavy lifting, so why should she?

Aunt MiMi was fiercely loyal. Loyal to friends, family, brands, traditions, and institutions. Make no mistake about it: those cookies would have been Chips Ahoy; the ice cream, Breyers Natural Vanilla. And both would have been purchased at the same family-run grocery store she had been patronizing since it opened its doors in 1946. Aunt MiMi couldn’t help but make fast friends everywhere she went.

Incredibly, she genuinely doted on dour old Uncle Stanly. Aunt MiMi even doted on her mother, the formidable Odessa A. Tilghman. Once known as “The Belle of Georgia Avenue” (said she), and pursued by the entire male sex (of course), she had become a jowly tyrant in a flower-print house dress.

Though it may seem at odds with her mischievous nature, Aunt MiMi was not a fan of change. She managed to make it work for her without ever seeming stuffy. The style and color of Aunt Mimi’s teased hair never changed throughout my lifetime, and I never saw her without coral-painted nails. She never seemed to change size, either. As far as I could tell, she stopped buying clothes at some point and just rotated through her two-million-and-fourteen outfits and their matching accessories.

Aunt MiMi’s house got the same treatment she did. I don’t recall Aunt MiMi’s ever changing a stick of furniture or a stitch of upholstery. She and Uncle Stanly had never been able to have children, so I guess nothing ever wore out. Her blue velvet armchairs fascinated us kids during our more formal Sunday visits. If we rubbed the fabric in one direction, the color lightened. If we rubbed it the other, it darkened. The chair cushions were another matter. Sitting for decades with scarcely a warm bottom for comfort, they had petrified disconcertingly.

My aunt often said that if you could just hang on to things long enough, they’d come back into fashion. And she walked her talk. Her house was a magical museum of exotic tchotchkes, fine china, and 1940’s Americana. Her kitchen never changed. Not one iota. It was a delicious study in strawberries, one of her favorite foods. Her downstairs bathroom was amazing too. My sister Gwen and I could scarcely stay out of it. It had sparkly butterfly wallpaper and a crystal dish of scented soaps shaped like tiny roses and other lovelies! Her attic and basement were chock full of treasures, and I lived for the day she’d invite me to rummage through them. I sneaked into her basement for a quick peek whenever I could. The attic sang to me like a siren and promised Ali Baba’s Cave of Wonders but I didn’t dare chance it. I would have had to sneak upstairs, through the master bedroom and then up another flight to reach it.

Sadly, I never made it to Aunt MiMi’s attic until after her death when my mother and I helped our cousin sort some of her belongings. It did not disappoint.

On January 27, 2005, at one hundred years of age, the fabulous Aunt MiMi slipped peacefully out of this world and into the next. She fell asleep while waiting for her bowl of strawberries and woke up in the arms of Jesus.

Does He tango? Because I’m pretty sure there’s a party in the house.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

Photo credit here

Good Friday Gone Bad

rainy night stadium lights Grant Frederiksen

Image courtesy of Grant Frederiksen

I went to Jesus’ funeral last night. He was the best man I had ever known, and now I’d never see Him again.

Good Friday is the one day in the year when I sit quietly next to His lifeless body and weep. I weep because I miss Him. I weep because He suffered. I cry hot tears because He is dead, dead, dead, and now the unfinished business between us can never be put right.

I know how the story ends but I need to feel the loss of my Lord and reflect upon His pain. Pain I should rightfully have borne were justice served. Feeling the loss of Him prepares me to feel the joy of His resurrection. Not only is He not dead, He still likes me and is glad to see me even though I helped to kill Him.

I went to Jesus’ funeral last night and discovered that someone had scheduled seven other funerals at the same time. One funeral for each of the Last Seven Words of Jesus. Services were held for the victims of ISIS and Ebola; Robin Williams; Brittany Maynard; and Eric Garner. There were others I cannot now recall, and that is a shame because all of those mourned last night deserve to be recognized, grieved, and laid properly to rest. The daily news is full of sadness, injustice and horror, and we are called to hear and act.

But I went to Jesus’ funeral last night.

I could not get to Him to say goodbye. One after another, the funeral processions crowded by, forming a continuous throng of mourners through which I was unable to pass. Here and there, I caught a glimpse of Him before He was eclipsed. Finally the crowds began to dwindle, and I began my trembling approach.

The service ended before I made it to Him. The music stopped. It was time to go. The man in front of me began talking about a movie he had seen. There were bright lights and friendly chatter.

I sobbed it out in the car on the way home. My husband was lovely to me.

The sermon had been thoughtfully crafted and intended for good. I knew that. But it had gone terribly awry, and I felt cheated and bereft.

Now that my tears have dried, I wonder: Maybe I got the point after all.

April Fool and Beyond

Image courtesy of Shane Adams

Image courtesy of Shane Adams

My family loved dogs. We even involved them in our pranks.

One year while my family was having dinner at my mother’s house, the conversation drifted to the topic of her Chihuahua. Bella made it her habit to camp out under the table so as not to miss any falling goodies.

Bella was a licker. She was the smartest and most affectionate little dog, and this was how she showed love. Given the chance, Bella would more or less bathe you. Having grown up around dogs, this had never bothered me. In fact, it was kind of comforting.

Come to think of it, I could feel her starting on my right foot. How sweet! It was as if she had known I was talking about her.

I bent down to peek under the tablecloth only to see one daughter’s tiny face grinning back. I screamed without thinking and nearly fell backwards out of my chair. Victory!

Another time at that same table, I switched a different daughter’s eggroll for a rolled up piece of basted rawhide. It took her a few minutes of perplexity before she gave up with a scowl. Meanwhile, the rest of us were fighting back snorts. She was about as outraged as a four year old could be.

And so it goes. Some of the most embarrassing moments provide some of the best laughs later.

In keeping with the canine theme, I want to admit to you that not all of my tricks were so nice. Of course I chased my tail, begged, and rolled over. Those performances were expected and rewarded. But when the leash was off, I growled, menaced,  and bit. I fed Kendra Patrick cubes of Camay soap dipped in dark chocolate. I dumped a spade full of gravel into the mouth of my trusting sister after an inviting sing-song intro: “Close your eyes and open your mouth…” There were so many nasties over the years. So many.

Who was the fool here?

This dog.

Are you laughing?

I’m not.

After many years of returning to my own vomit, I made a decision. If I’m going to be a fool, I’m going to go for broke. I’d rather be a Fool than a Bitch.

I have given my life to Christ, and He is slowly reforming my shit-eating ways. I will be a fool for Him.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (I Corinthians 1:18, NIV)

This is how I want to live—unashamed of the Gospel.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. (Romans 1:18, NIV )

If I am honest, I must say: This is how I want to want to live. Sometimes I want it actively. Sometimes I work to want to want it. But in my heart, I know what Christ has done—and is doing—for me, and I can’t unknow it.

This is no joke.

The Chicken or the Egg

The Chicken or the Egg

A little girl lives within the wrinkling woman.

She answers only to Pippi—if she answers at all. She is semi feral.

Pippi looks at me with her cool, unblinking grey eyes. Her head cocks slightly. And then she is gone, pigtails swishing. She moves like lightning.

For the longest time, I didn’t know she was there. She skirted the corners of my vision but was gone before my mind could fully apprehend her.

Things went missing here and there but I still doubted–until one day when she went too far. She carried off a jar of green olives I had been saving for myself. I caught her sitting against the bricks of my childhood home in the secret spot beneath the shrubs. I know where kids like to hide. Her toes were happily kneading the clean dirt while the rest of her was engrossed in my olives. One by one, she popped them in her mouth, sucked their delicious brine and then, as penance, swallowed the lifeless pulp.

I watched her for some time before she noticed my spying. We sized each other up in silence for several moments, and she did not run. Her calm unnerved me. It was I who backed away. I had the odd feeling it was I who had intruded instead of it’s being the other way around.

I tried offering Pippi food and clothing. The clothing she had was worn and dirty, her bare feet stained green with grass. Something sticky and now dirt covered ran down her chin and neck. I am pretty sure she had been in my peach tree. She ran from me every time I held out my hand.

I learned to pretend. Usable items ended up on my doorstep in a paper bag designated for charity. I looked the other way when articles disappeared. Other times, I made a big show of leaving the house after grocery shopping or cooking a good meal. Of course, I forgot to lock the door behind me. Warm sugar and spice cookies were her favorite.

I guess Pippi needed to know I wouldn’t try to control her. A wild creature senses that dependence can be dangerous. What if she allowed herself to rely on me? She might lose the stamina and skills she needed to return to life on her own, and that could be fatal.

Over time, we have become friends of a sort. Pippi can talk, but she says little. She doesn’t seem to have need of it, as she prefers the ways of leaves and earthworms.

Once Pippi decided I was no threat, she became comfortable enough to continue her singing in my presence. I learned she could read when I saw her sitting in the boughs of her beloved apple tree last August singing Christmas carols from booklets she could only have pilfered from my attic.

I took an enormous risk one day and hired a neighbor to build a sturdy tree house in her tree. I knew she would never ask. But would she accept? She did. As if in thanks, she walked into my kitchen the next week in broad daylight and whispered: “Cookies and milk, please.” We celebrated communion.

We’ve entered a new chapter. Every now and then, Pippi sneaks into my bed at night and curls up against me. I pretend not to see her even as I stroke her head and listen to her sighs of contentment. I cuddle her the way Jesus does me.

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