Fifty! St. John, Baptism, and Me.

Fifty!

On Saturday it will be fifty years since two of my brothers and I were baptized.

It will also be the feast, in ROCOR, of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, to whom we prayed that we someday could be baptized.

St. John

In 1973, Dad went without us to the All-Diaspora Youth Conference, held that year at Holy Trinity Monastery,  where he learned of St. John. St. John was a priestmonk whose care for his flock was noteworthy and laced with miracles, which continued after his repose. Dad had said, when he saw us again, “Now kids, there is a man I want you to pray to for help. He was very pious and really loved kids. He even had an orphanage. He isn’t a saint yet, but he will be someday.”

“Daddy,” I asked, what’s his name?”

“I knew I’d forget,” Dad said, “So I wrote it down.” He always had little pieces of paper in his pockets with Bible verses, names of those who needed prayers, and observations from his readings of scripture. He found the right paper, unfolded it, and said, “His name is Vladdika John.” He put the emphasis on the first syllable.

“How do we pray to him if he isn’t a saint yet,” I asked.

“You say, ‘Holy Vladdika John, pray to God for us.” And we did. For years.

Eventually our situation improved, and years later my youngest child was named for the saint, and was baptized, thirty years ago, on the day of his Glorification.

When my older brother went to Jordanville to be a Summer Kid, he came home and told us, among other things, that the proper pronunciation was “Vka-EE-ka.” We thought he was fooling us, but it turned out that he was correct. We pray to St. John often now, and are grateful for his help.

Us

My life has had many blessings and advantages – private high school, a good college, an amazing husband, children and grandchildren, and the opportunity to help my husband serve in three parishes.

But I got off to a rocky start.

My father had converted in 1970, and we three children also wanted to be Orthodox. My mother, who had asked Dad for a divorce prior to this, did not wish to become Orthodox. They were engaged in a prolonged custody dispute that was a battle both for our bodies and for our souls. I have written about it a little in my MFA thesis, and when I get my second wind, I will write some more.

During the custody battle, the judge sided with my mother no matter what she saw wrong in my mother’s health and behavior. When one of us had been hurt, Dad refused to bring us back to her after our weekend visit, and we fled to friends in Florida. Dad was arrested for contempt of court for refusing to tell the judge where we were. (“Some courts deserve nothing but contempt!” he yelled as he was being led away.) His lawyer made a deal. If Dad gave the lawyer enough information that the court could find us, the judge agreed not to return us to our mother, and to place us all in the same foster home.

The foster family, whom I call the Altmans because that isn’t their name, had one child from the husband’s first marriage, one son they had together, the husband’s granddaughter from the daughter of his first marriage, a brother and sister who were foster children, and a three year-old girl who was a foster child. They added us to the family. It was crowded and they were extremely frugal, feeding us mostly government surplus food and going perhaps too far in economizing on water. We arrived in spring and finished out the school year. But the family’s custom was to send away foster children every summer. Some were sent to other foster homes, or to relatives We were allowed to go to my father’s parents’ home so he could equip us for camp, and then we were sent to Camp Norwich in the Berkshires for eight weeks, at Dad’s expense.

We had been made catechumens a year before, when I was in fourth grade, but wanted to be baptized and be fully Orthodox. Dad had been waiting until he had full custody. When he realized that might never happen, however, his attitude changed. He had applied for a job teaching in Brazil and had obtained passports for us. If he lost custody, his plan was to take us where there was no extradition. That decided, if we wanted to be baptized, he no longer wanted to fight us. But the request had to come from us. And my older brother was supposed to be the family spokesman.

The excerpt

Many years later, I wrote about it in my thesis, “Words So Far from Roslindale.”

Baptism

            We had not been to Liturgy since Paul and Alexandra took us when we first returned from Florida. It was so good to be at the monastery, the convent, and our St. Mark of Ephesus parish once more. I asked Dad, “When can we get baptized?” We had been made catechumens the year before. A catechumen is someone studying to join the Church. We wanted to be full members.

            Dad said, “If you want something, you have to ask.”

            So after the Liturgy at the monastery, I waited for Joseph to speak up and ask Fr. Panteleimon to hurry up and baptize us. But he was too polite, and the window of opportunity was coming to a close. So I piped up and said, “Hey! When are you going to baptize us?”

            This is not a textbook way to address a clergyman, but it was effective. We had to leave for camp on June 30. So early, early in the morning on June 29, Serge and Mother Stephania met us at Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Serge was to be our godfather, and Mother Stephania was there to slather me with oil. The Russians simply anoint those about to be baptized, but the Greeks say that you have to be oiled like a wrestler so there will be no place for the demons to catch you.

The baptism begins with an exorcism, and spitting at the devil, which Serge did with panache. I was bad at spitting, barely produced anything, but the boys did us proud. Serge anointed the boys, Russian style. Mother Stephania first slathered me and then went and slathered the boys with olive oil, as well. The monks had an old oil drum, painted blue, which they used for adult baptisms. There were steps leading up, and Fr. Barnabas, the deacon, held our hand as each of us climbed up and in. He lifted each of us out of the font. I thought he was trying to put us on the step, so I kicked out that way and caught my foot in his broad sleeve, but in the end I made it to the floor safely.

Next, we were chrismated. “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit!” the priest said as he anointed my forehead, hands, throat, knees, and feet. We had our hair cut in four places, in the sign of the Cross, a first offering to the Church. We were dressed in new clothes, over which we wore a white “garment of gladness” on which the nuns had embroidered a cross. We were handed a candle and a cross and led into the church for the Liturgy, at which we communed for the first time. I don’t have words for the joy and contentment which that service brought us. To this day, when I am in need of spiritual refreshment, I remember the feel of the water against my skin.

When we entered the church, each of the monks came up and kissed the crosses we held and then our hands and asked us our new names. Danny and I kept Daniel and Ann, but Frankie’s original patron saint came after the split between Constantinople and Rome in 1054, so he, like Dad and Sophroni, had to choose a different saint. Dad had chosen his confirmation saint, St. James the Brother of the Lord. But Fr. Panteleimon said that Frankie would be named for the Elder Joseph of Mt. Athos’s patron saint, St. Joseph the Betrothed. And so officially my older brother became Joseph at church and at home, and Frank everywhere else. Sometimes we were naughty and just called him Franz Joseph, because of his imperial ways.

After trapeza at the monastery, we went to the convent, where the nuns rejoiced over our baptism and made a fuss over us. The next day we went to our parish, St. Mark’s, in Roslindale, which was a little dicey because we didn’t want to run into anyone from our mother’s circle of friends while we greasy from the baptismal oil, which we weren’t supposed to wash off for a week. But the only relative we saw was my dad’s younger brother, Sophronious, who was also Orthodox. Before this we had always left for the church hall just after the Gospel, when the deacon says “Ye catechumens, depart!” This time we stayed for the consecration and were the first to commune. It was the happiest weekend of our lives.

We had been worried about Mamma learning we had become Orthodox, but we had decided that it was worth whatever fallout would come. We were also concerned about Dad’s family learning of our baptism and being offended. But, we had started to tell them the horror stories about life at the Altmans. (Dad went to court, while we were in camp, and had an order put in place that we be able to bathe alone in fresh water at least twice a week.) When we came home from Saturday night Vigil with our hair oily and kissed everyone and went straight to bed, our aunts decided that we had been treated for head lice, and decided not to mention it or ask us any difficult questions.

Glory be to God. I am grateful.

When You Want to Play the Button Game

When You Want to Play the Button Game

I won’t use names, just, Latin.

Earlier this century, when we lived in Connecticut, we had friends whose three-year-old twins needed to be exposed to germs gently. One had been treated for Hodgkins Disease, successfully, but her immune system had taken a beating, and she couldn’t start pre-school until it was stronger. Her sister also could not start school yet, because she would bring home the germs.

The girls had fun. Our house was full of toys they had never seen, and had four children around for them to play with. They loved my daughter, who later became their babysitter, and ignored one of my sons while doting on another. They decided, however, that there was one son whom it was okay to treat cruelly, and often hit him for no apparent reason. He was older and bigger and knew he could not strike back, so the situation was unfair.

However, this was also the son who owned the best toy in the house, the Nintendo game, which the girls called “The Button Game,” or simply “Mintendo.” They loved playing this game, and he graciously let them use it. And so the solution was clear.

“You must not hit Primus,” I told them when they had struck him and giggled. “It isn’t kind.”

The girls echoed each other in everything they said. “But we only like Secundus,” said Prima. “We only like Secundus,” said Secunda.

“That may be,” I said. “I would rather that you liked everybody. But at the very least, you cannot hit people just because you don’t like them.”

“But we want to!”

“We want to!”

“I know you do, but here’s the thing. If you hit Primus, you cannot play Nintendo. I can’t let you play with his things if you do not treat him properly.”

“But we like Mintendo!” said Secunda.

“We like the Button Game!” said Prima.

“I understand that. But if you don’t apologize, and stop hitting Primus, there will be no Button Game for you. I will just let Primus play it by himself. And all you will be able to do is watch!”

They cried. “But we like to hit Primus!” “We like to hit him!”

“That’s very sad. And if you hit him, no Nintendo.”

The conversation continued in this vein for quite some time, ending with an apology and a Button Game marathon that day, and while we had an afternoon of no Mintendo another day, eventually the hitting stopped. Playing Nintendo was more fun.

This comes to mind because for Orthodox Christians, Great Lent is starting. We begin with Forgiveness Sunday, where at the end of Sunday Vespers on the eve of the beginning of the fast, we ask each other’s forgiveness, and forgive each other. “Forgive me a sinner!” “God forgives and I forgive!”

In the week to come, as we start giving up milk and prepare for the full vegan Lent to come, we think about whose forgiveness we need, and whom we need to forgive.  I was doing very well at this, I thought (and that should have warned me that something was off). Then I came down with a week-long virus, with fever, chills, and intestinal unhappiness.

While I was shaking and baking and nibbling at my BRAT diet of bananas, rice, apple sauce (I can’t have apple juice) and toast (pumpernickel, because of diabetes), I thought of other rotten things that had happend. I remembered why I gave up an extra-curricular activity I had enjoyed as a teen. It was because of him. I’ll call him Malus.

Malus was someone who had hurt me rather badly at a time in my life when I was a vulnerable teenager.  It doesn’t really matter who he is or what, specifically, he did, except to say it was inappropriate and a misues of power. (Before the fever, I might have dished all the dirt.) I complained to various people, and two of my favorite teachers gave me advice on how to avoid him, and all his drama. That stopped the problem but didn’t heal my mind.

I had forgiven a lot of people for a lot of things, but I was, so many years and so many miles away, still chewing on what Malus did when he was twice my age and should have known better.

But even in my fevered state, I realized I was chewing on an old bone when God had given me so many better things and people to contemplate. I realized that I had never shown this person mercy, not in my thoughts, not in my words, not in my actions.

I had not seen him since the last century, and here I was, carrying him around in my head, letting him loom larger than he ever had in life, and seeing only the bad he had done. I was tired of lugging this burden of judgement around with me.

And, I want to play the button game.

If I want to go to Heaven when I die, I have to forgive this person. Utterly, from the heart, and mean it.

I had thought of him as a villain in my life for so long that he had ceased to be a person to me. But to God, he is a person. Then I did some math. And I realized that at the time that our lives bumped against each other, this man was younger than half my children are today.

How lonely he must have been, to feel more powerful than no one but an awkward teenager.

And how good it was for me to learn what it felt like to be powerless. It turned me into an advocate, as I became older, for others who were being treated inappropriately and did not know where to turn.

Forgiving him does not diminish what he did, or what it did to me. But it frees me from clinging to my complaint. I am more than three times older now than I was then. I have room in my brain for only so many memories. Is this what I want my last thought to be?

One of my favorite quotations, in high school, was an Arab proverb:

“A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”

I had not been a friend. And I don’t know what the grains were that his heart held. But from my own heart, at least, I could blow away the chaff and be glad for what I had survived, for friends who helped me through, for the way it taught me to find and use my voice, for the fact that I am no longer that scared teenager and never again have to be.

And I have to stop hitting him, in my thoughts and with my words, because really, I would rather play the button game. I want to go to heaven when I die. And so I have to want that for him, too, and ask forgiveness for him for what he did and for me for the way I continued to hold it.

And I have to stop calling him Malus.

Lent is a time for this, but so is any day in which we breathe.

I have been unable to find him on the internet, and that’s probably a good thing.

But I bow to the shadow in my brain in which he had been living, and ask forgiveness for imprisoning him there.

And to you, friends and readers, for all my sins of omission and commission, quick, before Lent starts, quick before we die, I ask you. Forgive me, a sinner.

The Sad Iron in My Trunk, and Other Mysteries

I had not intended, mind you, to purchase a sad iron.

And yet there it is, in my trunk, waiting to find its new home.

Let me go back.

When I read Maria von Trapp’s autobiography, I was intrigued by her description of all the really nice furniture that she bought at a discount at the local auction house near where the family lived in Pennsylvania. The auctioneer understood that Maria wanted to rescue items that were underappreciated, and hoped to put them to better use, so he often steered her to such things and manipulated the auction so her bid could win.  She stored the pieces in her barn while her husband grew increasingly concerned as the tables, chairs, and beds accumulated But when the family wanted to retire from touring and bought the property for their music camp that later became the Trapp Family Lodge, she was able to use her stash to furnish each of the rooms for the guests who came to sing, swim, and find friendship. I longed for a place like that auction house. Every American wants to be the catcher in the rye. I wanted to save underappreciated things, with no real sense of what or how or why,

Since we moved to Ohio, a friend whose taste I admire told me about the website she uses to find rare and special things, often at a good price. The first time I logged onto it,  “Everything But the House,” I was captivated. Books, maps, furniture, clothes, toys, antiques, overstock – so much available, and often for so little money. I have a large family and many godchildren, besides, and so I started searching for and acquiring unique gifts.

My favorite part is the lots, and they have become a metaphor for my life. I bid for a lot because it contains one thing I want, and I find myself with other, unexpected items. I bid on a lot for the clear plastic storage items, but it came with non-stick pots and pans from Germany and a set of three stacking orange, plastic mixing bowls. The pots became my go-to for bringing things to church. The mixing bowls serve as serving bowls for autumn themed parties. And the containers, the thing I wanted, have replaced some of the sour cream containers as homes for our leftovers. It was a very good upgrade.

The site has its Proustian moments. They had a glider just like the one that graced my grandparents front porch in West Medford back in the day. I did not buy it, but I shared the link with my cousins on Facebook and we all had a chance to remember sitting with Grandpa in the cool of the evening.

And I have found gifts for those for whom it is hard to shop. One brother-in-law is a Revolutionary War re-enactor, and he sometimes camps out at re-enacting sites. I never know what to buy him, but when I found a wooden box meant for carrying yak butter, I knew it was for him. And nobody bid against me. My goddaughter’s sister wants to be an “archeologist nun” when she grows up. In a lot of Dynasty Dolls, I spotted a nun in a white summer habit and black veil. She sported wire rim glasses and certainly could pass for an archeologist. The entire lot cost less than a Barbie doll, and the future monastic was thrilled with her gift.

I put things to use or give them away as fast as I can, so they don’t accumulate, but sometimes I have a residual stash. And so I have three hand crocheted afghans that came in handy at the River Blessing but that we won’t need till next year. I have extra copies of some Longfellow poems that I bought from a classroom set. The song books from 1973 that I just purchased came, inexplicably, with a roll for q player piano. And then there is the sad iron in my trunk.

Sad irons are not unhappy, they are just heavy, “sad” being an old form of the word “solid.” This formerly useful item came in an eclectic lot that included a cobalt blue oil lamp that I am saving for the next power outage, a beautiful glass bottle in the same shade that now holds our Holy Water, and an assortment of “bridge scoring sheets” that turned out to be useful small notebooks.

 I have a plan for the sad iron, which is why it is in my trunk. My first plan is to offer it to our local museum, an old house that has been furnished with period pieces. If they don’t want it, I will have a good excuse to visit local antique stores trying to sell it. My seemingly random purchases give me the means of helping and meeting others. They tickle my fancy. They give me something to share. And they give me something new to write about!

Writing prompt: Look among your things, choose something unusual, and write about it.

How did you acquire it?

What were you thinking?

How is it of use?

What is its significance in the larger sense? Write about it touching on memory and desire, times and places it brings to mind, things you don’t want to forget.

Feasting in Heaven and on Earth

 

Thou wast transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God,

 showing to Thy disciples Thy glory as each one could endure;

shine forth Thou on us, who are sinners all, Thy light ever-unending

through the prayers of the Theotokos. O Light-giver, glory be to Thee.

Troparion for the Transfiguration

orthodoxaustin.org

In the Orthodox Church, we prepare for major feasts both spiritually and physically. And so we have Great Lent, but we also prepare decorated eggs and festal foods for Pascha. We have the Nativity Fast, but we also make treats and prepare presents for Christmas. On the Feast of the Transfiguration, we prepare baskets of fruit to be blessed.

Each Feast reminds us somehow of the others. Even though the Theotokos is not in the icon for this feast, it falls during the Dormition Fast, and it reminds us of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple. On that occasion, her father, St. Joachim, gave candles to all the little girls for them to hold as they accompanied the Theotokos to the Temple to live. On this feast, Christ took two trusted disciples up Mt. Tabor with him so they could understand that He is the God of the living and the dead, with Moses and Elijah appearing.

In the Church, we bless things. We do not believe that matter is evil. We bless water and we bless our homes with that water. We bless the ground and the harvest. We bless our vehicles and our journeys. We bless marriage and the children who come from it. And so during this season of fruitfulness, we gather and bless fruits. But just as preparing your house to be blessed or child to be baptised may not be intuitive, there is an art to preparing fruit to be blessed.

The late archpriest Roman Lukianov was my parish priest in Boston. He often drove me back to college after church, and took me on hospital visits and to nursing homes both because people needed a visit and because he knew that my fiance was a seminarian. (In the Orthodox Church, one should be either married or a monk to be ordained priest.) He also taught me how to cut the grapes for the basket of fruit to be blessed so that the priest doesn’t hand people either a whole bunch of grapes or a fistful of loose ones. Later, when my husband was sent to his second parish, the late archpriest Theodore Shevzov insisted on washing grapes a special way to remove all pesticides, and taught me how.

And sharing the good things are important. So, here is how to prepare a basket for Transfiguration.

Step One:

Preparing fruit for the basket to be blessed for the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord.

Step one: Clean the sink and fill it with cold water and a teaspoon or so of baking soda. The baking soda is to clean any residual pesticides off the grapes.

Step Two:

Put all your grapes in the sink and add more water if needed. Let them sit there while you do other things.

Step Three:

Carefully rinse the grapes in cold water and let them dry.
Prepare a place to put grape clusters, a strainer and bowl for loose grapes, and a good pair of scissors, but not your sewing scissors.
If you have a strainer to put over the drain, use it.
 
 
Step Four:
 
Cut the grapes into clusters and lay them out to dry. Throw out any nasty grapes and all the leftover stems. (Save the loose, single grapes for the Karnauch Family Transfiguration Dessert. Details to follow.)
 
 
Step Five:
 
Line your basket and one to give away with a clean towel, both to absorb water and to keep the wicker from scratching the fruit. Arrange the fruit as nicely as you can with the understanding that the baskets will shift en route to church and that we never fully obtain perfection in this life.
Cover the baskets with something pretty but not your Pascha basket cover because you don’t want grape stains on that. Put them somewhere safe near the door and buy a small candle to put in the basket when you get to church.
Don’t light it until the baskets are to be blessed.
Some parishes only bless grapes, other bless apples, etc. as well.
 
Karnauch Family Festal Dessert:
 
The Karnauch Family of Houston introduced us to the simplest and most wonderful dessert for the feast.
You spread a little honey on a plate.
You take the bowl of cold, loose grapes out of the refrigerator.
And you dip each grape in honey before eating it.
Best served when you have friends with whom to talk and share.
 
 
And a Story:
 
God does all things for a reason. One year when my children were all home, we were running VERY late and I couldn’t find any of our nice towels or basket covers. I made my cross and tore up an old white sheet from the rag bag and used part for lining the basket and part for covering it, because the higher value was to be at the service on time. The fabric was soaked, because I didn’t have time to drain the fruit properly, and I was mortified.
 
When it was time to bless the fruit, some latecomers shoved the baskets that had been placed on the tables earlier into my basket, with all the candles lit, and the corner of the sheet I used caught fire. Before I could react, however, the flame hit the soggy part of the sheet, the fire sputtered and died, the service went on, the fruit was blessed, and it was delicious, and it was a feast.
Come to church. Bring what you can. And if all you can bring is yourself, that is enough. Just come.
 
 
 
 
 

Coming Back Soon. Meanwhile…

Life has been complicated, and while I have many first drafts of posts on file since October, none were worthy to go up yet. My thoughts were too scattered and cloudy, as has been my heart. I traveled a bit. I drove to Boston to have a turn taking my sister with cancer to one of her chemo treatments and saw some of my adult children and siblings and their children en route. We’ve been blessed with more grandchildren, I’ve reconnected with old friends both online and in real life, and for this year’s plot twist, after I had been told that I had more basal cell carcinoma on the bridge of my greatly changed nose and to expect surgery, I was called in, instead, by my two awesome doctors for a second opion biopsy today because they looked again at the slides, conferred, and had doubts that it was that bad. It may be something easier to treat.

I thought I was reconciled to more of everything that recovery required this past year — scraping, slicing, and bandages; surgery and recovery; sleepless nights in the recliner downstairs so neither my husband nor I undid my stitches; numb minutes watching strange animal videos and old sitcomes while not being able to wear my eyeglasses to read. This isn’t exactly a complaint. I’m not especially brave or stoic, but when the choice is death or discomfort, I will celebrate discomfort as the much better outcome. Cheerfulness is a Christian duty, and courage can be contagious. It can even spread from person to person but also within us, unannounced. That was my aim, but I have been strangely subdued. I hadn’t realized that, like the smoke from Canadian wildfires, the anticipation of going back down the rabbit hole of Treatment had tinged my world view and kept me from making solid plans.

but this new development has made me feel like Mole casting aside his paintbrush at the beginning of “Wind in the Willows.” All of the sudden I am writing again, I am editing things and creating canva posts, and looking at new submissions to the press where I work and I plan on going back to camp, after three years away, to help once more in the kitchen to work with friends and family. I am looking forward to this, and have been in training in my own kitchen so I can prepare fruits and vegetables and clean pots and pans cooking for so many more than two. This is much better than whitewashing.

“The first pancake is lumpy.”

When the essays that were percolating in my brain are fully brewed, I will share them here. In the meanwhile, just a short slice of life, some talk in the car between my husband and me. His Russian is better than mine. What you have to know is this: the Russians have a saying, “первый блин комом,” meaning, “the first pancake is lumpy.” I use it a lot when I cook, and when I write, and even when I sing. And now I am contemplating all the many lumpy pancake varieties I can create.

Conversation in the car on the way to the doctor:

Me: “Sweetie, if one were to write ‘первый блин’ in English transliteration, how would one do so?
He: “Let’s see…. ‘p-e-r-v-y b-l-i-n.'”
Me: “Aw. Not ‘p-e-r-v-i-i?'”
He: “No, it’s ‘ы’ and not ‘и.'”
Me: “Drats.”
He: “Why?”
Me: “Well, you know how I’ve just tried making saurkraut, and my pickles and all sometimes come out great and then other times do not?”
He, cautiously: “Yes….?”
Me: “Well, it occurred to me that someday, when I get better at it, I could start a food business, and call it Pervii Blin Productions, but if I spell it the other way they people will think I mean ‘pervy’ in English, which is altogether different, and then I may as well call it Enron or something.
He: “It’s unfortunate, but, yes.”
Me: “And also, First Pancake Productions just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
He: “Alas, no.”

Back to the proverbial drawing board.
I am impressed at the fact that for the most part he kept his eyes on the road.