Sunday, April 23, 2017

2017.04.23 Hoping Upon Stars

Stars light the way. I watch for them every night. Despite the glare of city lights, I can see a few stars. In the summer on Nantucket there is little ground light so my stars spread across the sky making a blanket of light. They are poetry.

“Poetry and other arts come from acceptance of little signals that immediate experience contributes to beings who are alive and fallible, and changing. Any conscience relevant to that kind of activity will tend to be un-national, not American or foreign, or North or South, or Black or White, or East—but alive and ready to confer.”  William Stafford, poet.

William Stafford (1914-1993) was poet laureate of both Oregon and the United States. He was a conscientious objector in WWII. He chose not to fight—for the sake of his country.  He also said that what our country is about is: “Creating emergencies that justify emergency actions.” Is this what we do? Really? By god, it sounds painfully like American politics right now. Ponder it anew.

This Stafford poem is from “Every War Has Two Losers.” Us AND them.

by William Stafford

Our father owned a star,
and by its light
we lived in father’s house
and slept at night.
The tragedy of life,
like death and war,
were faces looking in
at our front door.
But finally all came in,
from near and far:
you can’t believe in locks
and own a star.

This poem gives me hope for a day when we do not have to lock doors or live in fear of our neighbors, near and far. A day perhaps when churches will not be afraid to remain unlocked, be open for prayer all the time—or at least during the day. How can anyone imagine that God desires to love them unconditionally when god-houses are shut up tight: no admittance?

Locked doors are easier to tolerate than locked hearts. As long as we lock our hearts there will be wars in which everyone loses. Easter is the time we are invited to open our hearts without reserve. Ponder the starry skies and pray.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

2017.04.16 Easter Morning: Choose Life!

Easter Morning
    by William Stafford.

Maybe someone comes to the door and says,
"Repent," and you say, "Come on in," and it's
Jesus. That's when all you ever did, or said,
or even thought, suddenly wakes up again and
sings out, "I'm still here," and you know it's true.
You just shiver alive and are left standing
there suddenly brought to account: saved.

Except, maybe that someone says, "I've got a deal
for you." And you listen because that's how
you're trained––they told you, "Always hear both sides."
So then the slick voice can sell you anything, even
Hell, which is what you're getting by listening.
Well, what should you do? I'd say always go to
the door; yes, but keep the screen locked. Then,
while you hold the Bible in one hand, lean forward
and say carefully, “Jesus?”

A friend of mine, some years ago, opened his door on a Sunday morning to face a young man standing there holding up a Bible and his pointer finger, saying: “Repent!” My friend was suffering the pain of a serious hangover and was horrified. He slammed the door in the man’s face, and then made jokes about it for a few years, most of them mocking this stupid Bible-thumper. In time, my friend did “repent” in the way he needed to. He stopped drinking and joined AA.

The poet who wrote about Easter morning is William Stafford (1914-1993). He was poet laureate of both Oregon and the United States. He wrote relentlessly honest notes, in part gleaned from his own experience as a conscientious objector in WWII. During that war, Stafford worked in Civilian Public Service camps in several states. He wrote and spoke quietly about the sanity of nonviolence and the madness of violence. He did not fight for the sake of his country, as everyone thought was the highest value. He chose not to fight—for the sake of his country.

Personally, I think the choice NOT to fight for the sake of his country was a courageous one. What could happen if everyone in the world chose likewise? Seems like kind of an Easter choice to me.

Who knows how and when, or exactly why, our choices are made? Yet make them we do. In the Book of Deuteronomy the voice of God speaks to the people of Israel, saying: “See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. . . ” (30:19)  I often remind myself: Choose life!

Every small choice, for better or worse, counts. Here’s one………

The Squirrel
    by Brian Doyle

Here you go. Here’s a moment to ponder carefully.
We think that there are greater and lesser moments
But how immensely and ridiculously wrong this is.
For here is a boy riding along the street in summer.
He is perhaps six years old. His bike is wildly blue.
He sees a smear of squirrel in the street. He pauses,
Using the heels of his sneakers as brakes. He looks,
He dismounts, he sets his kickstand, he looks down.
He kneels and gathers up the shredded creature and
Walks to the shady ravine where we saw the coyote
That time and he gives the squirrel to the tiny creek.
He washes in a muddy puddle and then he rides off.
I am the man who saw and testifieth of these things,
And what I say is true. I saw a boy bow before holy
Things, for all things are holy, and he reminded me,
And so now I remind you. Go thou and do likewise.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

2017.04.16 Palms, a Kiss, Betrayal, Prayer and Hope

Palm Sunday is a chaotic Sunday in the Christian church. Most churches pile in all our praise and stack up all our hopes in order that we will have enough stamina to get through the week ahead. We need all this triumphal hype. It wasn't so fine for Jesus who prayed his agony out in Gethsemane—while his followers slept. They didn't get it. Do we?

It's Holy Week. We are to follow Jesus out of Gethsemane and on his death march, inevitably leading to crucifixion and a hideous death. Will we hear him scream? Will we watch, or will we run away? We don't know.

For today, we are left with silence and hope. We've waved our palms. We've wept our tears. We've read our parts in the passion gospel very well, even standing up for the moment when Jesus is taken up to Golgotha to be executed. It is drama and trauma. We have done our part well. Now what?  Wait.

    by Lisel Mueller

It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
     it shakes sleep from its eyes
     and drops from mushroom gills,
          it explodes in the starry heads
          of dandelions turned sages,
               it sticks to the wings of green angels
               that sail from the tops of maples.
It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
     it lives in each earthworm segment
     surviving cruelty,
          it is the motion that runs
          from the eyes to the tail of a dog,
               it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
               of the child that has just been born.
It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.
It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.

Lisel Mueller was born in Hamburg in 1924. She is a poet and translator, daughter of teachers. With her family she fled to the U.S. from the Nazi regime when she was 15 and settled in a suburb of Chicago. Mueller is fond of language, imagery and memory, obviously a writer after my now heart. She is aware of her good fortune and the grace of God—“the miracle and the accident it is that any of us are who we are.”  (from her volume of poetry entitled Alive Together.) “We all live together in the world and in my poems.”

We too wait today, and each day, in hope. We wait together. We pray and sing together. We are doing our part in the best way we can.

And so our hearts are shaped today
by palms, a kiss, a friend’s denial,
to hold a very simple prayer—
God, save us from the time of trial. 

                   Michael Hudson

Sunday, April 2, 2017

2017.04.02 Kindness

Confitemini domino. That’s Latin for "Praise the Lord for good." We sing it in chant—over and over to warm our hearts toward each other and Godde. It is a very kind prayer.

Does the phrase mean for good, as in, that’s the last hurrah for praise?  Or does it mean to give thanks to God who is good?  Probably both. Whatever its exact meaning is, it kindles warm love in me.

I think of Psalm 136 in which— over and over— we give thanks for the goodness of God’s imprint on the world and say in refrain: “ . . . for his mercy endures for ever.”  In Pamela Greenberg's translation of 136 the refrain is. “. . . for God’s kindness is toward the world.” Kindness sounds fresh to my ears and to my heart. Why?
    -it’s more intimate than mercy
    -kind relates to kin….I think of kindling to get a fire ablaze
    -it’s not condescending, toned with superiority
    -it’s not love, love, and more love
    -it’s not gendered
    -it’s reverently vernacular
    -I can imagine myself being kind, without aspiring to divinity

Let’s call kindness manageable. It goes a long way when you’ve lost your grip and/or your ground. The poet knows.


Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri to a Palestinian father and an American mother. She is an award-winning poet, songwriter and novelist. A visit to her paternal grandmother on the West Bank was life-changing for her. She lived there for a year and says that being part of both a minority and a majority in cultures influenced her political views and the message of her poetry. Naomi calls herself a “wandering poet”.

Nye's poem “Kindness” came to my attention through a friend who told me that an unknown woman in an elevator on 9/11 gave him the poem, saying, “Here, you will need this today.”  The woman was right. When my friend, professor of pastoral theology at Boston College, teaches on 9/11 he always begins his classes with this poem.

May I suggest that we begin each day with this poem—not just for Lent but into Holy Week, all through Eastertide and beyond. God’s kindness is toward the world. We need it now.  Oh, we need it now.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

2017.03.26 Hail Mary/Ave María

Dios te salve María, llena tu eres entre todas las mujeres. El Señor es contigo. Bendita tu eres entre todas las mujeres y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre Jesus. Santa María madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora ye en la hora de nuestra muerte. AMEN  

(Hail May, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb: Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. AMEN.)

Congratulations on your big moment, Mary: March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation (Luke 1) when the angel told you you were to be pregnant—with God, no less—and you said OK, adding a few questions of your own.  Good woman!

And congratulations to me as I remember the 29th anniversary of my priestly ordination on March 25th, 1988. Mary’s day in ancient times—and mine in 1988. We share.

I first learned to say the "Hail Mary" in Spanish when I spent a summer with a very pious family in Santander, Spain. In 1960, Santander was a smallish fishing town in northern Spain. Now it is my bank. I love the connection, and, despite complaints about questionable banking practices, I will never change banks. Nor will I ever forget Spain, the cradle of my devotion to Mary. I lived with a family who said prayers every single night. The Señora would clap her hands loudly like two small shofars, and we would all come running—for our food, yes, but first for our prayers. 

Lucia Perillo, who wrote this poem to Mary, was known for her humor and being shaped by living with multiple sclerosis. She was born in New York City in 1958 and died in 2016. I find her humor most attractive, because it does not attempt to hide truth but rather expose it. Perillo was a Pulitzer finalist, a blythe spirit. May she rest in peace and make angels laugh with her as they pray.

The worst of it was the fruit of thy womb business,
through which the boys muddled in pig-latin sniggers
but being a girl you thought of plums, then grapefruit,
a catalog whose offerings led incrementally
to the one in school who’d gotten breasts,
her mother alky and her dad a pencil mark rubbed out.
After the bell rang she bundled her sadness
and walked it home in her serious coat,
the kind of girl who carried an umbrella, whose socks
defied the gravitational tug. And if other prayers
had someone offstage fumbling sheet metal, this one
made the woof of a broom swatting a rug,
a rhythmic thump below the scream
of the laundry tree she sent off on its wheel
around the backyard like a minor angel
flapping underpant-and-towel wings.
Someday she’d get pregnant by the shy and not-
unhandsome captain of the variety baseball team
without even getting a bad rep; everyone knew
they’d marry quick and he’d die slow
from all those years of Red Man packed behind his lip.
But she wouldn’t have loved him if there wasn’t something
about him to work on; you know the type:
you loved her, you hated her
for ruling your life as penmanship queen,
and you wanted to be her friend except you knew
beside her you’d be dirt. As far as Hailing Mary,
all you wanted to do was get through its last word,
though everyone knew this death was second-rate.
A man-god could get you bread or heaven, but pray
to a woman and all you got was prayed for in return.

    Lucia Perillo, Luck Is Luck. Poems. Random House, 2005

Red Man, in case you didn’t know, which I didn’t, is chewing tobacco. But if you don’t pick the poem apart too much, which is a great temptation because you want to understand it, you get the full picture of a Roman Catholic girl trying to make good as she tries to grow more than breasts and wombs in a patriarchal world and Church full of Mary-Hailing. 

I was a Protestant girl of twenty-one in Spain, also trying to grow more than breasts and wombs while ingesting Catholicism on steroids—too much and never enough. I found a woman who prayed for me.

Yes, Perillo is right: when you pray to a woman all you get is prayed for in return. I will take it with gratitude and affection. Gracias, María, and all women who pray with open heart and blessed intention. I will pray back.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

2017.03.19 The Loveliness of the Sow

"To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment."

Contemporary American poet Galway Kinnell, born in 1927 in Providence, R.I., said this. Kinnell, I first surmised, was Irish—I suppose because of the name Galway, which makes me think of the virtuoso flutist James Galway who is Irish, from Belfast, and sometimes know as “the man with the golden flute.”  Although our Kinnell was a New Englander, ending up in Vermont, where he died in Sheffield in 2015, and in which he was Poet Laureate from 1989-1993.

Kinnell also said: “Never mind. The self is the least of it. Let our scars fall in love.”

The quote about poetry being someone standing up and saying what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment brought to mind the biblical story (John 4:5-42) about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the town pump, so to speak. Jews and Samaritans were arch rivals, having very distinct religious practices. Nevertheless, the Jew and the Samaritan in this biblical story, made a kind of poetry with their theological conversation—debate really.

Jesus stood up with little concealment before a woman from whom he wanted a drink of well water. To her, a foreigner, a divorcée many times over, or perhaps a widow, and a woman whose religion and ethnicity the Jews did not countenance, Jesus revealed who he was on earth at that moment: the Christ of God with access to Eternal Life aka, “living waters,” and the slaking of all thirst forever.

The woman, for her part, likewise stood up with no concealment before Jesus in total honesty about her situation—not precisely sinful by today’s standards, but not exactly stable either, being on her sixth intimate relationship, this time with a man not her husband. Yet she was truthful, open, and theologically astute in her perceptions of this Jew. Jesus took due note.

And the poet takes due note of the loveliness of one of the most maligned creatures in God’s array of critters: the sow. St Francis blessed and beheld ever living thing as sacred. So must we.

Saint Francis And The Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

© 1980 by Galway Kinnell  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

2017.03.12 Life's Blood—Born and Born again and Again

God, I feel sure, has many wombs. One is the baptismal font. Womb-like, it evokes birth and is filled with water, which breaks when we emerge. We are sealed by baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

Another is the womb of Earth, the planet we call our island home. From it we derive all our nourishment and a full supply of water and air for Life. We cannot sustain biological life without this womb. It must be born again and again. Too often we take it for granted and abuse its rich yield— to our peril and to our shame.

Another womb is the womb of Incarnation: the womb of our own flesh out of which we birth God’s life over and over again. We live in this womb all our life, and each time we connect with enlivening feelings, we are born again. 

Finally, there is the womb of the tomb. From that womb, God births us back into Life forever in God’s own soul.

Here are two poems that bring the mystical experience of being born— and born again—down to  flesh and blood and embodying divinity at once. Both are by the Rev. Regina Walton, a colleague, poet, and Episcopal priest in the diocese of Massachusetts. Regina is the author of The Yearning Life. Poems 2016, Paraclete Press. With her permission and with gratitude, I share these poems.


I started out small
And got smaller.
Loved, humiliated, self-enclosed.

Some days lifting up my hands,
Others carrying my cross
where my shoulders meet spine.

I was knit together,
And know I’ve knit someone else

Not that it happened without a thought,
But surely
It wasn’t the thoughts that did it.

I bled out when he arrived,
So they filled me back up
With the blood of another.

Now I am the same
By half.
Thank you

The baby: hale and pink and strong and fine.
But beached and bleached, you are much less sanguine
And so, two pints of blood by plastic line
Leach their slow way into your opened vein.
The scarlet bags like lungs suspended from
The scarecrow pole, unwanted hanger-on
This trinity: child, mater, sire gone
To sleep in a hard chair.

                                     Now the bald sum
Of all your pains naps in a plastic bin.
Your web of tubes a tether to the bed;
The buzzing, ringing, beeping, healing din.
Who thought, on your first day, who expected
So soon, to find so much of yourself gone?
In time, you will get used to being wrong.

from Songs for the Cycle by Michael Hudson.

. . .Seek to grow as all things grow
and trust what grace assumes—
That time will manifest the Life
Received within the womb.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

2017.03.05 Steadfast Love

I, having loved ever since I was a child a few things, never
        having wavered
In these affections; never through shyness in the houses of the
        rich or in the presence of clergymen· having denied these
Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having
        grunted or clicked a vertebra to the discredit of these
Never when anxious to land a job having diminished them by
        a conniving smile; or when befuddled by drink
Jeered at them through heartache or lazily fondled the fingers
        of their alert enemies; declare
That I shall love you always.
No matter what party is in power;
No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied
        interests wins the war;
Shall love you always.

"Modern Declaration" by Edna St. Vincent Millay from Selected Poems. © Yale University Press, 2016.
My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night, but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1852-1950) was born in Rockland Maine. Her mother raised three daughters on her own, after asking her husband to leave when Vincent, as Edna preferred to be called, was a child of seven. She was a tomboy who loved to write poetry. Her poem “Renascence” won a prize in a contest and earned her a scholarship to Vassar.

After graduation from college she moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village where she lived in a one-foot wide attic and wrote anything she thought an editor would publish. She and other writers were, according to Millay, “very very poor, and very very merry.” From her experience, and others like her I suppose, we get the romantic stereotype of the starving artist in the garret. At least we know these artists were merry.

Millay was openly bisexual and wrote a lot about female sexuality and feminism. In 1923 she won a Pulitzer for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Millay, openly bisexual, married a widower Eugen Boissevain, a self-proclaimed feminist. They lived like two bachelors. Today we’d call it an open marriage. He died in 1949; she died in 1950.

Intense romantic love comes like a godsend and excites. To me the best kind of love is one that is steadfast—through thin and thin— something like the way the Bible describes divine love. Love is essential to human well being. There is nothing more glorious or soul-quenching than love. By its lack, love is soul-starving. Love is elusive and indescribable, though it is not fickle. Poets and profaners through the ages have tried to capture love in words. Glimpses must suffice.

Millay get to the eternal quality of love in her poem. She does not limit her affections to one  person but to just a “few things” all of which she will love always. This sounds impersonal yet the never-waveringness she describes is true love. It does give a lovely light.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

2017.02.26 Poetry Review: Setting the Mood for Lenten Reflections

I plan to post a poem or two each Sunday during Lent to signal the season and also to remind myself and others that the gift of good poetry is that is gets to the heart and soul of an idea with perfect words and not much persiflage……………  I begin with this review to kick off the season. 

It’s All God, Anyway. Poetry for the Everyday
   by Jennifer (Jinks) Hoffmann
2016, Wipf and Stock, Resource Publications

Jinks Hoffmann’s everyday poetry is the perfect mix of earthen and mystical. As I read Hoffmann's poems I was reminded of Jewish memoirist Etty Hillesum’s wisdom about scraping raw reality down to the bone before one can dare to be mystical.

Jinks Hoffmann is a spiritual director and the poetry editor of Presence, an International Journal of Spiritual Direction. She was born in South Africa and has lived in Canada with her husband Alan, to whom she dedicates this collection. The poems are organized into five sections: A Way of Being in the World, Mysticism, The Work, Family and Friends, and Roots> The collection is like a psalter—intimate and profound enough to sit on my bedside table.

Etta Hillesum died at Auschwitz on 30 November, 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. She wrote: “I am sometimes afraid to call a spade a spade. Because nothing will then be left to the imagination? No, things ought to be called by their proper name. If they can’t stand it, then they have no right to be. We try to save so much in life with a vague sort of mysticism. Mysticism must rest on crystal-clear honesty, can only come after things have been stripped down to their naked reality.” (An Interrupted Life, Diaries 1941-1943)

Hoffmann and Hillesum are spiritual soul sisters. In Hoffmann’s words: “Everything is God: sunsets and a baby’s death; the stillness of a mist-clad lake at dawn and a hurricane; joy and gratitude, grief and despair; kindness and ‘schmutz’ (messy humanity).”
Reading Hoffman's  poetry, I experienced the deeply sacred quality of all life—with no overt religious doctrine or academic aridity. Like writing, prayer, and the keen observation of minute details revealed in their varied elaborations, Hoffmann’s poetry exposes the profound oneness of all life—and all religions, in fact.

To my delight, I learned many Hebrews words—one of them schmutz, a perfect descriptor of the human condition without reference to sin.  That there are seventy-two names for God in Hebrew delighted me.  And we Christians are picked on for having a mere three?  “Love” is the name Hoffmann uses to address God, as in: what now, my Love?

She does not mean, or imply, that God causes everything that happens, but rather that everything that happens and exists is in God. God is transcendent and also intimate. Is this a particularly female perspective? Maybe, yet it reminds me of the biblical Paul’s insight: “In God we live and move and have our being.” This is what Hoffmann’s superbly crafted poetry accomplishes.

The best way to get myself out of the way and let Hoffmann’s poetry speak for itself is to share a poem, my personal favorite.

 I Don’t Believe in God.

My wife complains a lot.
Mind you, two small children,
my working all those hours,
I don’t blame her. Once,
I was driving along the Don Valley,
and a mattress was laying
right in the middle of the road.
I guess the young men driving
the other car didn’t learn
good knots in Boy Scouts.
Mind you, I shouldn’t talk.
My parents couldn’t send me
to Scouts. I needed to help
in the store. I’ve done better
than they did. I almost own
this cab. When they came
from Pakistan they had nothing.
They don’t have much, even now.

It was a bad winter this year.
Lots of snow. Icy too.
Once my car slid all over
the highway and ended up
in the opposite direction.
I don’t believe in God, but something
saved me. My passengers too.
They were nice, didn’t yell or shout
or anything. My parents came to Canada
with nothing. Look at me now.
A Wife. Two kids. She complains
a lot. It’s hard with small kids.
I get to work seven days a week.
Almost own this cab. Sometimes
I even bring Swiss Chalet
home for a treat. Maybe God
believes in me.

You see what I mean. Buy this book, available on Amazon the “almighty” or from the publisher Wipf and Stock, my own publisher.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

2017.02.19 HIstory on Trial

Recently we watched an intriguing—also superbly well done—movie called “Denial.”  It sounds as if it’s about addiction or the common and dangerous psycho-emotional defense called denial, however that is only true secondarily. 

“Denial” in a 2015 film about a legal trial which took place in the UK in 1996 in which David Irving, an historical writer filed a libel suit against American history professor (Emory University) Deborah Lipstadt and her British publisher Penguin Books for publishing the British edition of Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust, first published in the US in 1993. Lipstadt called Irving a Holocaust denier, falsifier and bigot, and said that he manipulated and distorted real documents. Irving fought back with the libel suit.
The fascinating dynamics of this trial are the subject of the movie. We have watched it twice, each time marveling at the intricacies of the British legal system in which the accused is guilty until proven innocent. In our American legal system the accused is innocent till proven guilty. This assumption has always seemed ethically right-minded to me, yet seeing another system work justice from such a different starting point kept me riveted—in awe and admiration really, especially watching the attorney and an on-high judge in all those top heavy white wigs.

Another difference is that the UK court has two attorneys, specialists, simultaneously at work representing one defendant. The solicitor is the attorney who, with a team of able trainees, researches the data on the case, gathering relevant data to use to prepare the case. The other attorney is the barrister—the one who actually tries the case in court. This latter is the one with sharp legal skills, a steel trap mind, eloquence and calm persuasive presence under stress.

These differences alone make this movie worth watching. What is on display at all times is the value of teamwork, each member, including the defendant herself, bringing individual gifts and passions to the same case for one purpose alone: to win.

Some of the questions raised seemed eccentric but are tragically relevant today: what IS a fact anyway? What IS history anyway?  What kind of data helps most to make a case without direct witness testimony? What is on trial in this movie is the integrity of history itself. How do we tell the truth, swear on Bibles to speak the facts and nothing but the facts, without slant? Is that even possible? What about perspective? What about perception? How do you prove that something happened you know happened but for which evidence, except human testimony, is scant if not absent?

David Irving, the plaintiff, claims to be a Hitler historian, having invested much effort in exculpating Hitler. Annoyed by Lipstadt’s book and her accusations against his manipulations of facts, Irving represents himself, claiming the Holocaust never happened.” He goes on to say: “Why more people died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car in Chappaquidick than ever were killed in the Holocaust.”  He calls attention to the arrangement: he—as “David” (chosen of God of course)—stands alone, while she is surrounded by her team—the mighty Goliath. The visual is telling. The solicitor at one point quotes Goethe: “The coward only threatens when he feels secure.”

What needs to be proved is that Irving manipulated data that proved that Auschwitz was “a killing machine.” And further, that he did not make honest mistakes of commission or omission in his own case against the historicity of the Holocaust, but that he deliberately falsified data in support of his own antisemitic bias. Freedom of speech is a human right. Lying is not. Neither, for that matter, is hate speech.

Lipstadt is aware throughout of her intense desire to have a voice, to exercise her conscience. It is all she has besides her own scholarly research. She is an historian, a Jew, and a woman in pursuit of justice. She wants the voice of suffering to be heard. She wants this hearing desperately, desperately, but not enough to go insane. She keeps her stability in part by running. She runs a regular route through the city, stopping before a large statue of Boadicea—both to lament and to thank. Boadicea was a woman who led a Celtic tribal uprising against Roman occupation in the middle of the first century in the British isles.  Lipstadt could be a modern Boodicea—well, an American one. 
It was painful for me, as a woman with a Jewish grandfather, to watch Lipstadt’s silencing. It made me cry, as well, to see the tender sensitivity with which the older barrister persuaded  her that silence was the best strategy: “Stay seated. Button your lips. Win by an act of self-denial. What feels good is not always what works best,” he tells her.

And then he persuades her that Irving would relentlessly mock the testimony of survivors and outdo the intelligence of jurors unschooled in their history. This case will be decided by a single judge, another piece of a brilliant strategy.  Lipstadt’s superior intelligence kicks in and she knows her lawyer is right. It helps that he is also kind and humble, because one needs these qualities to cement relational trust and hold it secure. 

There is no gore or grim torturous scenario with screams in this movie. It is silent horror. The view of miles and miles, or so it looked, of millions of shoes gathered and left in caged enclosures at Auschwitz, was witness enough. A necessary visit to Auschwitz was part of the barrister's investigation. He had never been there. He carefully walks the bounds and stands to stare at the empty chambers. “This is what I do,” he says. “It’s forensics. How could Auschwitz be just another brief.”
Small details, which are many and carefully orchestrated, make this case. It is often said that the devil is in the details. I think it is more often that God is in the details. “We will box him in with the truth.”

Dick and I were very silent watching this film—twice. Gratefully so in fact. No one got up to get more cookies. We were stunned into awe—not a bad thing at all. It’s not as if we needed the outcome which was obvious really. But we needed the process, the process of viewing history on display and watching its integrity speak for itself by the skill and passion and yes, appetite for good, that motivated the principals.

Oh, did I not relive the trial of Jesus as it is told in the New Testament gospels? I know it by heart and I do not know it at all. The elements were all there in this trial: loud and quickly changing crowds, glacial deliberations, clever questioning, prayers, terror, a clear portrayal of injustice, and then the pungent question right in the middle of it all posed by Pilate to Jesus: What is truth? 

I think I have always wondered about Jesus’s silence, saying I understood it, refusing to accept any stupid ideas that God planned it this way, but really not fully understanding it at all. Seeing such a precarious legal strategy, which could as easily have failed as succeeded,  in which a people’s integrity was at stake, was daunting. Would the discipline of history done honestly prevail? 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

2017.02.12 A Different Kind of Valentine Out of Left Field From the Right Brain

We have been engaged is a difficult task on this gloomy dark day. We are trying to plan something that isn’t really plannable: death. What do we want? What do we not want? Who will serve as health care agents when we are unable to make decisions for each other or ourselves? What kind of burial? 

We are using a document called The Five Wishes. It is a legal document intent on assisting people to die with dignity by allowing them to have some control over end-of-life care choices. It’s thorough and specific, including spiritual needs, even hymns for a funeral.

We have been postponing this for all kinds of nonsensical reasons, all of them labelled denial or fear. We started out in a mood of “let’s get serious” and ended up laughing our heads off. I mean, how many appendices can one add to such an already thorough and elaborated document with plenty of room to add personal notes to clarify?  Can we really control how we are remembered? Is it possible to specify that no burial liturgy have any atonement theology in it at all? You see when you have an opportunity to control a few small things, you suddenly want to be running the universe. We made a few clear decisions then dumped the project for today—choosing life, as the biblical book advises.

This kind of planning is halting and predictably vulnerable to total emotional regression and hilarity, or fits of sorrow. It’s altogether schmutzy. To expect smooth and rational end-of-days planning when there’s no urgency, except that it’s sensible so to do, is like putting a tutu on a hippo and expecting Swan Lake.

We love life too darn much to imagine not being in it anymore. But then on the Writer’s Almanac arrived this valentine kiss to life-in-death by Emily Dickinson.

Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord,
Then, I am ready to go!
Just a look at the Horses —
Rapid! That will do!
Put me in on the firmest side —
So I shall never fall —
For we must ride to the Judgment —
And it’s partly, down Hill —
But never I mind the steepest —
And never I mind the Sea —
Held fast in Everlasting Race —
By my own Choice, and Thee —
Goodbye to the Life I used to live —
And the World I used to know —
And kiss the Hills, for me, just once —
Then — I am ready to go!   

NOTE: the use of the title Lord to refer to God, or Christ, was first used in the first century by early Christians who discerned the work of God in Jesus and used a mantra to invoke the divine presence they saw in Christ: Maranatha, which means Come Lord or Our Lord come was the cry of the early church. The word is actually two words in Arabic: maran atha. It does not mean overlord or ruler, but rather protector. Paul used the expression in I Corinthians 16:22 as a prayer for the early return of Christ to confront deniers. In the Book of Revelations 22:20 it is translated: Come, Lord Jesus.

To call on Christ the Lord to escort her at the time of death, the poet anticipates a swift rough ride with a strong escort as she goes, assured that her Lord will kiss the hills for her, “just once.”

This poem is a prayer, a wish, a hope, a metaphor of the spiritual imagination. It soars above duty and fear, leaving behind any left brain temptations to theorize or make it reasonable.

It’s my Sixth Wish: Tie the Strings to my Life, my God!!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

2017.02.05 What About The Children?

“And WHO will take care of the children?” The very tall bishop towered over me, looking down at me— and on me. His query was not curious, but aggressive. I cringed. The national church had just voted (1976) that women could be ordained priests. I wanted to be a priest in the Episcopal Church and this bishop put me in my “rightful” place: mother at home with kids. (I promise I did not fuzzy-up the photo.)
The Rt. Rev. Warren J. Hutchens, Connecticut
His question would prove my undoing. It would prove as well to be the Church’s rationale of choice for turning women, especially mothers, down as they tried to enter the ordination track.

This question is not unusual, or new, or over and done with. It’s loaded with patriarchal assumptions about the fixity of gender roles, many of which were not justified, not to mention sexist. Yet this question is alive and exclusively addressed to women, please note.

It’s now some forty years since that question froze me in my tracks. I pursued my vocational calling and have been an Episcopal priest since 1988. Besides being a priest, I am a mother, a counselor and spiritual director, a marriage partner, and yes, a writer—delighted to have read in Poets and Writers Magazine (March/April, 2016) an article “A Residency of Her Own” by Melissa Scholes Young. She ran into the same question I’d encountered in the church, but in a secular context. (To be honest, I think the categories “sacred” and “secular” are far less oppositional than people assume.) She was planning a month away from her family to get some time to write. Writing is her job, her income, and, yes, her soul-quenching passion.

What about the kids? Here is Melissa’s take:

“The problem with the question ‘What about the kids?’ is that it assumes the only way to care for my children is to be home, awaiting their needs. It also insinuates that, as a woman, child care falls solely on my shoulders—that my partner, perhaps because of his gender, isn’t as capable. The question also suggests that my children aren’t self-sufficient enough, physically or emotionally, to survive a month without me. I’m happy to say they are both. At eight and thirteen my daughters are becoming young women of their own, navigating choice, trying on ways of being, walking to friends’ houses and doing their own laundry.

What would Virginia (Woolf) say to the “what about the kids" question? She’d say it was my choice to become a mother, And she’d be right. She’d say it’s also an authentic choice not to, and she’d be right again, She’d pat my kids’ dear heads, high-five me for my success, and leave my girls outside my residency room’s door. Choosing to be a mother doesn’t mean I have to choose not to be a writer. It just means this complicated path is my own.    . . .

I didn’t stop being a writer when I gave birth; I won’t stop being a mother during my retreat.”

Now I can think of a million arguments against this action, as well as much praise for it. Choice is choice and it has consequences no matter how right or wrong it may seem to oneself or to others. It’s not so simple. It’s also rarely either/or.

No one asked Virginia Woolf this question when she sat alone in her study composing A Room Of One’s Own—not to mention the fact that Virginia Woolf had no children  and took her own life.

What about the kids?  (Here are children when I began my midlife breakout:)

The question haunted me all through the ordination process. To be a mother and a priest was not doable—a “dual vocation” the church committees and bishop called it. Nothing about fathers and not to mention the sexual orientation of some of the male interrogators who made these judgments.

I admit that when I made my choices my soul suffered much shame. I broke the sacred cultural rule about childcare and the centrality of mothering. It was Betty Friedan’s fault, and secondarily Godde’s, I told myself. But it was my choice. I handled it clumsily—with help from my then husband who fled the scene in his own way. I broke all the rules my mother ever taught me. Sins beginning in “a” were my favorites: adultery, alcohol, and abandonment. I hurt myself and those I loved most: my four children. I’m neurotic, so it took years to heal my shame. It was apparently less of a problem for Godde who supported and strengthened me all the way. Self-forgiveness, however, is easier to preach than to inwardly digest.

What about the mother? Few people ask about the well being of the mother, even today as abortion debates rage on. The choices are still framed as either/or although they are a complex blend of messiness one navigates with as much prayer, compassion and good council as possible. I did not choose against the children. I did chose the well being of the mother, and tried to balance things as best I could.

Change that matters, and, I dare say, such change is divine, always hurts. It hurts more for mothers and women because of cultural expectations and, yes, a womb. I broke away from the shell of my role as wife and mother—shattered my own comfort and my children’s. Humpty Dumpty affair.

“What about the kids?” lingered in my flesh for years.  (Here I am ordained priest by ten years:)

It took a very long time for me to stop apologizing. One of my daughters got fed up one day and said: “Mom, stop apologizing!” This same daughter later said, amidst tears: “Mom, religion took you away from us.” The other daughter called me a wimp, and we used up a whole box of Kleenex together in a therapist’s office. My sons were easier, don’t know why. Maybe because at the time of my breaking- out they were microscopically intent on managing their own social standing.

The only people qualified to answer the question: “What about the children?” are the children. Mine answered it with their own resilient lives, by hanging in with each other and with both parents, by establishing satisfying work lives, by tolerating all my apologies, by therapy and recovery meetings, and by making their own series of not-so-great choices and keeping on. None of us ever stopped loving each other. I never stopped being their mother. There is no way I can thank my children enough. 

I have answered this question by not asking it any more, and by living my own life and thriving in it.

 P.S. Just as I was composing this post I read an article in the Boston Globe (February 4, 2017) about self-care outranking childcare. Genevieve Shaw Brown, editor and reporter with ABC News, recently authored The Happiest Mommy You Know: Why Putting Your Kids First Is the Last Thing You Do.

Well now that is too either/or. Still, there’s a reason why airlines instruct people traveling with young children to put on their oxygen masks before helping the kids put theirs on.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

2017.01.29 Doucement Chérie

Doucement chérie is French for Slow down or Take it easy —more literally, Go sweetly. In Arabic, it has a lullaby lilt—phonetically, Shwaye, shwaye. In Spanish, cuidate or, tellingly, vaya con Dios. In English we might today say, Breathe!  None of this suggests falling asleep.  How can we remain alert and awake and still go doucement?

I have no friggin’ idea.

Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon and quite intense himself, wrote recently in the New Yorker (Jan 23, 2017) about the nature of heroic intervention in medicine: “Tell Me Where It Hurts?” Heroics is the paradigm for surgeons. They set people free and send them home happy, glowing with health and new life—sometimes but not always.

Gawande became fascinated with the work of primary care medicine. How did it work—this unglamorous, long, hard, slow, attentive work of caring over time? Such physicians, it should be noted, are underpaid and overworked.

Interventionist miracle-medicine is excitingly dramatic, but Gawande discovered that the long slow steadiness of incremental treatment over time had better, if less immediate, results: greater longevity, faster healing, more willingness to trust doctors and seek treatment early, just plain happier. Why? Well, duh (an adverb meaning obviously:)!  It’s the relationship that warms and continues to fuel the well being of both physician and patient. They connect. They talk. They communicate. They are not afraid of each other. They get to know each other. Topics other than medicine are not taboo. Really?? Yes, really!!  This is relational medicine. 

There is theological resonance in Gawande’s wisdom. Theology is my own favorite discipline of thought and soul. I mean really who gets orgasmic over theology? I do! How God is and what God cares about matters to me. It’s my spiritual juice.

I remember a New Testament professor in seminary who once practically screamed at us students, “You want to know God’s agenda?”  (I held my pen poised and ready. Now at last I’d know God’s will.)  "It’s Micah 6:8.”  What? Not even Jesus? Not even New Testament?

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Slam bang, that’s it, O mortal. How does one do this and also maintain some kind of slow steady  doucement spirit to the process?  How do you do this and, at the same time, allow for incremental theology, aka primary care spirituality? Hint: you have to be a good juggler.

Here’s some wisdom I keep on my home altar from French Jesuit scientist/theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Please note the three factors that come into play over time— evenly and equally— while we try to live according to Micah 6:8: divine grace, your own good will, and circumstances. No single factor of influence is consistently dominant.

Patient Trust in Ourselves and The Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
     We are quite naturally,
impatient in everything to reach the end
    without delay.
     We should like to skip
the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being
on the way to something unknown,
     something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
And that it may take a Very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually—
      let them grow
let them shape themselves,
  without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
circumstances acting
on your own good will)
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of
feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

2017.01.22 Breakdown/Breakthrough?

Often a breakdown is a necessary precursor to a breakthrough.

We know this in personal experience, and we see it in the Biblical stories, in which there is a regular pattern of breakdown and breakthrough. Remember Peter, the putative “pope”?  He denied knowing Jesus, let alone following him. Jesus predicted this,  signaled by the old cock crow, cock-a-doodle-do times three. At the cock crowed Peter broke down. Peter was a disciple who thought he had solid faith and did not.

Judas Iscariot, on the other hand, thought he had no faith, abandoned the Jesus movement, and left.  After Jesus died and stories arose of his resurrection, Judas discovered faith. He was a disciple who thought he had no faith at all and did. In one account he took his own life in remorse. 

Both men had a breakdown to have a breakthrough. Both of their stories live on; both  characters live in each one of us; both are integral parts of a whole gospel proclamation of divine love ever-evolving toward cosmic wholeness. 

I am assured that the story of Jesus lives on, and that its message is still heard today by people who think they have faith and don’t AND by those who think they don’t have faith and do.

Peter’s breakthrough took time. He experienced visions, wept himself back to life, and joined with Paul to use his gifts to make sure that what Jesus had envisioned did not die. One could argue that the institutionalization of the gospel was not such a good thing. OR . . . one could grin and realize that that’s the way things are preserved—until the next breakdown and breakthrough.

Are we now living in breakdown/breakthrough times?  The irony is that what looks like breakdown to many feels to others like breakthrough into light.  In the time of discerning directions, I look to my Christian faith. I also look for small lights.  

Our new president in his inaugural address called America a wasteland of carnage —a harsh assessment. Is there anything good here? The speech was a set-up for Trump to step in and offer himself as the savior. What upset me the most however was that he guaranteed that God would protect America (that means North America, note…) ALWAYS—helped by the people and the military, just in case. America first and only as a sign of divine will is idolatrous, painfully exclusive, and a sign of patriotism run wild. Where is humility? Where is grace?

Still, this culture was on the way to such self-idolatry anyway with its consumerism and its win/win/me/win attitudes.

    I did see some bright spots in the inaugural events.
    -I noticed that Melania Trump quietly went over to Hillary Clinton and gave her a small box nicely gift wrapped. I could not help but see this as a woman-to-woman gesture.
    -And then good old W. Bush got Hillary laughing with a hug and a chuckle—a very compassionate in-house gesture.
    -At the luncheon Trump did invite the Clintons to stand, and they got a standing ovation. I just wished he could have said something in his campaign-ish speech.
    -The Rabbi who offered a closing benediction used a phrase that stood out: “Any nation is blessed by its values not its vaults.” Amen. I pray that our “vaults” of corporate wealth will be opened and shared.
    -The January 22 Women’s March was enacted all over the world in cities. It was a massive demonstration of solidarity in favor of equality for ALL. To me it felt like a return of second wave feminism —this time as a tidal wave with potential to sweep away patriarchal assumptions and rank-ordering systems of social organization that defy our constitutional principles. A breakthrough.

Do you remember the movie Awakening?  It was based on a book by Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), a physician who had a deeply traumatic childhood, predictive of many painful physical and emotional effects. The miracle is that there are always sound medical and psychological predictions and some come true, but there are no prescriptions for what the human soul will do. None.

Sacks made schmutz of his medical career as a lab researcher. They told him to get out. “Go see patients. They matter less.”  A breakdown!  He also bumbled at his writing, until the poet W.H Auden suggested to him that he be “metaphorical, mythical, whatever you need.” ( Not such a bad approach to holy scriptures.) Sacks began to see illness as metaphor and myth. It lead to his taking risks with catatonia and a new medication for Parkinson’s disease. The medication gave some life to the all-but-dead. A breakthrough.

Watching the movie, I was entranced at what happened when these zombie-like people awoke. It was resurrection. One scene sticks in my memory. Sacks was tossing a ball to catatonic patients, hoping that someone would wake up to its movement, when suddenly a woman lifted her arm and caught the ball. Sacks tried it over and over and each time the woman caught the ball in her right hand. “Mrs. XX you caught the ball!” Sacks began to dance about with joy. Eventually, so did Mrs. XX.  An apparent near-complete breakdown became the breakthrough for at least partial return to health—new life. For Sacks as well. Resurrection.

What was required was close and careful observation, listening to all the patients first, the ones deemed by the research labs to “matter less.” It took intense empathy,  devotion and creative imagination. It took a passionate awareness of what it was like to feel destitute, terrorized, alone. It took enormous faith, hope and love. And then, as Sacks wrote in 1973: “To use a biblical term, I would ‘bear witness’ to their condition.” Is that not holy scripture? 

All it took was daring to follow a new idea.

What are your own new ideas? Do you voice them or keep silent? Do you deceive yourself about your own worth? About God’s love? Do you give up as Sacks might easily and expectedly have? 
In times of breakdown where are your breakthroughs?  How do you bear witness?

I confess to a kind of catatonia in the face of the crisis of culture we are in and the denial about its depth. The death throes of patriarchy are painful and necessary. It hurts me to listen to a leader who styles himself as THE savior, the agent of breakthrough. Yet that too is necessary.

At a recent meeting of our deanery clergy I said something about needing a breakdown to breakthrough, and a colleague replied a bit cynically, “Yes, but sometimes there is a collapse.” Isn’t that what a true breakdown is?

Blaming and shaming keep me paralyzed and negative—catatonic. Holocaust memoirist Etty Hillesum wrote to God: “Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last.”   (Essential Writings Maryknoll: Orbis Books 2009 p. 59)

Theology calls this perspective, this practice, deep incarnation—deep reaching into the soul. 

The only way this works for me is to get brutally honest with myself and with God. Like Etty did about God’s nature and her own. Sacks, too, didn’t kid himself about the state of his patients. Abraham didn’t kid himself about his advanced age, his sexual impotence, and Sarah’s. He said:  Well, let’s get food for these angels and listen to what they have to say. Sarah, bless her, laughed at the idea of a pregnancy. And Jesus didn’t play games with the conditions of his time. He knew the risks of bearing witness to limitless love without condition versus limitless power without condition.

We may have to maladjust, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to Trump’s  ME # 1/AMERICA FIRST/GOD-BLESSED ALWAYS vision. Exceptional in some areas we may be. Superior in all areas we are not. This vision goes beyond jobs, education, healthcare immigration reform. It wraps our souls up in a hubris that is disastrous—a spiritual breakdown.

Our new president could be kidding himself, and us too, but he can’t kid God, whose Love within us breaks through—no matter what.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

2017.01.15 Victor RCA

This is Victor RCA. He will always be a hero dog in our family. Victor saved the life of John Brakeman who in turn had saved Victor’s life. Victor died just before Christmas, 2016, at seventeen. 

Victor, a white Jack Russell with black patches over both eyes, a charmingly cocked-head pose, and a big barking mouth came into John’s life at the suggestion of his sister Jill the family animal lover. Victor was only a year old and living in a situation which was “plain no good.” He needed a loving home and good care.

John, just 30, was then living in a rented apartment, working as a teacher of fifth grade, and in the midst of managing a life-threatening medical situation that would end up requiring six surgeries, months of recovery, a frightening stint in the ICU, and all the grit John could muster. It was hardly the time to take on the responsibility of a pup, let alone one as noisy and needy as Victor. But the two fell in love instantly, and John took the dog into his home and named him Victor RCA.

During John’s hardest most painful times Victor was a constant companion, eagerly present to greet John when he came home and swift to cuddle up, lending his warmth and affection to John's every day and night. Victor loved to ride with John in the car often licking John’s neck and face from his perch between the front seats. And Victor would respond to John’s commands to, basically, shut up. He knew his master’s voice.

One of the “tests” of a good marriage partner for John was: could she manage to love Victor as well as John? Emily Hotchkiss Brakeman and Victor bonded quickly. The couple married and soon Victor occupied the space between them in bed. He was a dog who managed to worm and weasel his way into everything— even the love space.

Once Victor, who behaved most of the time as if he’d never been fed, managed to hop onto a counter and retrieve a box of chocolates, which he consumed with relish and then walked with his chocolate-covered paws all over a new beige sofa. Chocolate is supposedly toxic for dogs. Not so for Victor whose intestinal system was ironclad.

Victor got along with the more aloof standoffish cat and together they did food tricks. The cat cold execute the the far reaches of kitchen counters from which she would use her paws to bat food down off the counter to the eager Victor.

The family expanded to include a daughter Phoebe, now eight, and a son Dylan, two-and-a-half. Victor licked both children into the family with doggy kisses. John had been fearful that Victor might feel jealous, but not our Victor. His favorite perch soon became the infant seat.

Victor with Phoebe when she was his height.

Grampy Sim adored Victor. The attraction was mutual, including of course forbidden treats when possible.  Once on a visit we were going out and left Victor alone to guard the house. Believe me his incessant bark would scare off any break-in artist before he or she got in. We, however, had a new alarm system. It was as hypersensitive and hypervigilant  as Victor RCA. We set the new alarm and were walking to catch the red line subway for a day in Boston when the police called. Our alarm had sounded its harsh repetitive warning. John and I were puzzled, but Grampy Sim knew immediately what had happened. Victor was moving about, seeking the best bed after he’d given up hope that the door would open to reveal John, and set off the alarm which is movement-sensitive for the ground floor. Grampy sped home to rescue poor little Victor who was not only hoarse but aquiver with terror. It didn’t take long to silence the alarm but it took some time to quiet Victor. The two went for a leashed walk to the park and spent a man/dog day together.

The decision to put Victor down was heart-breaking. Compassion often is. Victor was not only quite old but had a condition that made it increasingly difficult to breath well. Veterinary care had been exhausted. John sent this text on December 21st to the whole family: “He was truly struggling. Last night we were scared for his life. I could almost tell by the way he was looking at me that he was saying, 'It’s time.' Em and I had to make the difficult decision to put him to sleep. It was the hardest thing I have even done because I love him so much. I’m hanging in there but am a wreck. Say a prayer for him. He will miss all of you.”

Victor’s death was sad and peaceful.  John held him and told me later amidst sobs: “I felt his little heart slow down and slow down and then it stopped and he was gone. He’ll never be back.”

Thank you for your life Victor RCA. In the spring we will have a proper burial with shared memories, blessings and prayers as we bury your ashes. Right now they are in a special container with your name and dates on it— and your paw print. You will never be forgotten, beloved dog.

P.S. Let no one in my presence dare say that there is no resurrection for animals—not just pets!!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

2017.01.08 Wish Upon A Star—Always

We in the northeast are in the middle of our first big snow storm. It’s no time to venture out—unless you’re a Magus in search of something more.

I stare at this beautiful and whimsically visionary image created by my sister and her late husband  many years ago.

The image is symbolic. It honors the three Magi of biblical story. They are out at night on a dangerous mission. All three together sit astride a single camel, with three humps, one for each of them.  All three wear crowns. The flirtatious camel winks. The image stands for hope in a new kind of world in which all people and their leaders are on the same page (or camel) truly committed to equality, justice, and compassion for all living things. 

It’s hard to see the three faces in this photo, but one is black, one oriental, and the third, riding high in the middle, is obviously a woman. It’s comical. It’s prophetic, and it’s a work of art that articulates a powerful biblical message of universal wholeness fueled by Hope—against hope. Here's a close-up.

These three storied Magi in the New Testament set out in the deep darkness of night on three camels to follow a star and a promise they sense is of God—the impossible possibility of a new kind of "king" for the world as symbolized by a newborn child lying in the hay in an improbable stable in Bethlehem.

As the story goes, they went at night for fear of the Judaean acting king (37-4 BCE) King Herod's  jealous rage. They returned home by a different route to deceive Herod who had uttered a sycophant-ish request about the whereabouts of this infant—that he too might go there to worship this new monarch. The Magi were political figures of some wealth. They wanted change and had followed a star that looked exceptionally bright to them. There are such stars of course, especially when your heart is expanded by hope beyond hope and things appear brighter than they are. That’s the power of mystical inspiration— sight and insight. It is what empowers us to keep on keeping on—no matter what. It’s why we keep telling the same story. It’s why we call such impulses spiritual—godly.

Hope has been the driving vision of the Obama administration (2008-2016) in the United States. President Barack Obama wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope. We have seen what many thought was an impossible hope: a black president and the hope of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual diversity with safety and freedom he and his family represent.  (It isn’t about policy or party politics, it’s image.)

In her recent farewell speech to a group of school counselors, First Lady Michelle Obama articulated this “star”:  “The infusion of new ideas, and cultures and talents is what makes this country great. . . . Our glorious diversity is not a threat to who we are, it makes us who we are.” She invited all young people to take this star into the future, to get a good education, to think critically and creatively, to believe in the power of hope, and then work for the vision. I wept.

Will we follow? Will we be like those Magi, risking deep desert darkness and hostile powers, filled with hope, spiritual and political, bringing their wealth to invest in something new. Godde knows we all have followed the wrong star from time to time and invested in empty errant causes. But we don't lose hope or stop trusting God. Nor do we stop envisioning new possibilities—always wishing upon a star. 

Three courageous outlaws pushed on through the cold desert night. Their apparent insanity, it turned out, was remembered and recorded in the Christian gospel of Matthew as well as other Roman writers, all proclaiming a new message to the ancient first-century world darkened by oppression, inequality, and desperate fear. This is why some Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6, el Día de los Tres Reyes, Three Kings day. It is why Christians honor a whole season called Epiphany, the season of light, a season to follow stars that look bright with hope. 

The Magi were wise adults, and their pilgrimage of hope inspires us forward as powerfully as that babe in the manger. As Michael Hudson writes in his Meditation on the Journey of the Magi:

God gave the child to love the world
that noticed neither child not light;
but love grew up, a brighter star,
to guide a pilgrim through the night.

May we follow their Hope and make it our own.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2017.01.01 Who Will Inherit the Earth?

May Sarton in her lovely poem “New Year Poem” calls us to see, to look around, to pay attention. It’s all there, she writes. I don’t make resolutions, I just suggest a few small things to my beloved spouse, like try to get the dental floss to land in the trash basket next to the sink.

Sarton’s closing line, however, this year rings of resolve the whole wide earth might make together, being more aware and profoundly conscientious about the gift we squander to our peril.

Unless the gentle inherit the earth
There will be no earth.

I resolve to inherit the earth with gentle gratitude and affection.