The Part I Can Do

I am sorry to have been so silent for so long, both for the offense and for the cause. My sister-in-law, Janet, died on January 10, after a three year battle with cancer about which she was very, very private. And I tried writing about her, but it just plain hurt too much. Also, I want to respect her privacy. But I’ve been thinking.

I don’t recall breathing at all, for the first seven pages, when I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, at the urging of my second MFA mentor, Kim Dana Kupperman.  Gornick describes a eulogy given for one female doctor by a younger colleague that let all the mourners grasp who this doctor was, what she meant to her colleague, and what the world will now miss in the absence of this woman. I wanted to write something like that about my sister-in-law, but I cannot. First, the pain is too raw and too strong (the astute reader will notice that I have posted nothing yet this entire year). Secondly, she was an intensely private person, and I don’t know how far I can go before I step into the realm of what Aslan calls, in the Narnia Chronicles, “someone else’s story.” And thirdly, my brother-in-law Mark, a far more accomplished writer than I, has already written the definitive piece.  But here’s the thing that I can do: I can write about the place she sent me to shop. Think of it as an exercise in metonymy. Or think of it as all I can stand to do.

I can’t write about Jan on the whole, about Jan and her sense of humor, and all her common sense. I can’t write about her telling me about Florence Foster Jenkins and sharing our love of PDQ Bach. I cannot write about how she came to be with me in the hospital when I was in labor and my husband had to be in church, or about her ability to cook around anyone’s allergies, or her ability to fix and create, to mend and adapt, to welcome and assist. I can just barely write about one small recommendation that she made.  But I think, with God’s help, I can pull it together to write about Friendswood, Texas and “The Shepherd’s Nook.

When my husband and I moved to Texas in 1989 with our two toddlers and 39 boxes of books, Mark and Jan had already lived in Friendswood, a Houston suburb, a number of years. They were high school sweethearts in Ann Arbor, and moved down so Mark could work on NASA projects after college. I met my husband, who was already an astrophysicist, when he was in seminary and I was in high school. We waited till I graduated from Wellesley to get married, and were living in my native Boston when the Houston parish needed a priest. “I thought because Father has a brother down there, it would be easier for you,” said the bishop who asked me to move a thousand and a half miles from my five siblings, thirty-four cousins, my almae matres and home parish.

So, we went.

Jan oriented me. “Up North, if you have cockroaches, it means you’re a bad housekeeper. In Texas, if you have cockroaches, it means you live in Texas. But hire a bug service, so whatever drops from the ceiling vent is dead.” She showed me where to shop and what to wear, shared her friends through the quilt group and taught me how to make a strip quilt. She guided me toward the best Mother’s Day Out program for her son and my daughter, who are less than a month apart in age, and shared the driving, especially when I had morning sickness. And around the end of  January,  she warned me about February.

“In February, the rodeo comes to Houston,” she said, “and the excitement is everywhere. The events are on the news every night. The cashiers at Kroger dress up in cowboy clothes. And the schools have something they call ‘Go Texas Day.’ They eat franks and beans from tin pie plates at school, so you’ll need to start saving them now to send in. They learn about roping horses and riding. And you’ll get a note that says they can wear their cowboy clothes to school. Now I know, I know, you don’t have any cowboy clothes now. Believe me, you will by the time they are all in school. You don’t have to go out and buy anything new. Around this time of year, they start displaying them at thrift stores, like The Shepherd’s Nook.

“I will take you there. It’s wonderful. It’s an old house that someone donated to the church, and they think of it as a ministry twice, to sell things for not so much money to the poor and then to use the money to help people. And they have everything, divided into rooms. They’re only open three days a week, so you have to catch them when they’re ready for you.”

The next week we loaded all the children into cars and took them to The Nook. We pulled into an unpaved driveway covered with gravel and walked into…. a little blue house.

The front room had the nice things, which is only fitting, for the parlor. Baby things were off to the left. A room full of men’s clothing was at the front bedroom, after which was a bathroom and two bedrooms facing each other, one for boys and one for girls. In the back of the house was the pay dirt — women’s clothes, household items, books, games, and tools.

We came home with cowboy boots and hats for everyone, after which Lardas Boy Child Outdoor Outfit became a diaper, boots (to fend off fire ants), and a cowboy hat. At two, they had to wear underpants, and at three, I made them wear something over the underpants.

I had a whole house to furnish and equip. But I also had another way of life to learn. And so I often went to the Nook for cookbooks and dishes, linens and pillows. I saw things from America’s bicentennial and Texas’ sesquicentennial, both of which happened before my time there but still loomed large. The grocery stores still sold (and still sell) the Texas shaped pasta that were created for the latter event, and red white and blue were everywhere anyway, not so much from the bicentennial as because it was Texas.

We had more children, and all four of them grew. My husband was priest and engineer, and there were lean times in each field. But when someone ripped their pants or outgrew their sneakers, I knew I could find what they needed at the Nook. More than that, I found fabric and yarn, toys and utensils. I bought cookbooks from local church fundraisers, and learned to cook like the neighbors. And I bought all of us books.

All my children were avid readers, and the women who staffed the Nook appreciated that. Local retired engineers and teachers donated their libraries, so I found gifts for my husband and stacks of books for the children. I found things donated by kindred spirits, copies of books of poetry that I’d lost in the move or which the kids had ruined. I was part shopper and part archeologist, learning about this new place from its artifacts. The farm stand down the street a block sold similar things, along with local produce and gorgeous plants, and became my second stop on the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays when the Nook was open.

Sometimes Jan came with me, and helped me develop my taste. She explained why one thing would be uncomfortable to wear and another would have to be dry cleaned. We would raise our eyebrows but not giggle at some of the color combinations of afghans from the sixties and seventies that people donated from their grandmother’s estates, but, I also bought some of these and tucked my children in under them. We’d talk about recipes and kids, what to plant and how to cook it when harvested. Time spent in her kitchen or living room, with kids everywhere asking questions or seeking justice, with Jan telling me her stories from Michigan and me adding mine from Boston, was formative and healing. I was so homesick that I would listen to “Car Talk” on NPR for the accents as I drove down planned roads past cattle, palm trees, and oil rigs. But at Jan’s and at the Nook, I felt like I was in the home of family.

 

This past Ascension Thursday, my youngest son and I landed in Houston, his first visit since we moved when he was five. Now 23, and an environmental engineer, he made acute observations. “Mom, there’s no place for the water to go when it rains here! Why would anyone build a city on a swamp?” And, as we passed a retention ditch, “Mom, water is just never supposed to be that color.”

We were there for the wedding of the youngest daughter in a family of friends that we knew through Jan. She and my son spent many hours together, each the baby of a large family, and they stayed in touch through letters and Facebook. They shared a love of God, theology, bad puns, and our families and friends. The groom even looked like my son. We were there to celebrate. We were there for the wedding. And we were there to see Jan before the cancer took her all. John stayed with the groomsmen at the bride’s house (she and the bridesmaids were at her sister’s home) and I stayed with Mark and Jan, so I had a rental car.

Jan had lost weight from the cancer, and her luxurious  long black hair was replaced with a thick shock of greyer hair that still looked healthy and stylish. She did not have a lot of energy, but she insisted on doing the dishes herself, and cooked us a casserole and gave me the recipe as she gave me pointers on beating diabetes. She gave me tricks for living with my difficult medicines, and described how she overcame the need for it through diet.

We all understood that she was dying. She had surgery and chemo, radiation and immunotherapy, and each thing worked until it didn’t. I had been de-cluttering our house in preparation for downsizing, and our mutual friends had been helping her do the same, finding homes for her late mother’s doll-making things and for Jan’s fabrics and notions.

I think that part of being a good guest is to give the family chunks of time without you. Mark had to work, and Jan had to sleep. I was to drive a guest to the wedding, and I went out to learn the route to her place, the wedding site, and the reception site in advance, so I wouldn’t get lost on the big day.

I also took a side trip.

I drove past our old neighborhood in Webster, Texas; I drove to our old house (but didn’t leave the car), past the children’s school, and off to Friendswood. The stores had all changed names and places, the library was now in the old bank building, but the Shepherd’s Nook was still there. I pulled into the driveway with a familiar crunch, and opened the door to find the store was ever the same.

I walked through the rooms with nostalgia and appreciation, stopping to choose a gift for my friend’s granddaughter and a dress for my own. I chose some books for the flight home. I wandered past shoes and boots, hats and negligees, silver trays from someone’s 25th anniversary and balls of yarn, marveling at the continuing kindness of strangers. Before I came, after I left, and surely after I came home, these volunteers collected, sorted, and displayed donations, told which color looked best on you and set aside good books for someone’s kid, folded and re-hung the things people had tried on so the shop would be orderly and the customers would have dignity as they looked for what they needed, and what, thanks to these kind people, they could afford.

It was with heightened gratitude for what was and what is that I went to the wedding, to my brother-in-law’s book signing, to our old parish downtown for Saturday vigil and to my in-laws’ Greek church for Liturgy on Sunday. When I got to sit around Monday with Jan and a friend and talk about nothing important — jury duty and road tests, licenses and quilting — I valued each second. Happiness doesn’t have to be complicated.

My life in Connecticut has been very different from our life in Texas, because suddenly I was the mother of teenagers rather than toddlers. We live in a town rather like Friendswood, though, full of churches determined to help people. The Episcopalian church in town even had a house turned resale shop, “The Golden Rooster,” until three years ago. And I bought nice silk scarves, a stunning jacket, and some kicky earrings there.

But the days of toddlers who outgrew their clothes, elementary students in need of toys and books, middle school students who needed new khakis for their changing bodies, and a baby who was happy with anything he could chew on are over. I miss those days. I miss our friends. I miss the little blue house of a store that provided for them so well for so long. I miss the straight roads, and the cows, the sunlight and the sky that stretched over them all.

And I miss my sister-in-law.

 

 

 

 

In Search of Light

I was glad to be up early enough to see the sunrise this morning, because it’s the shortest day of the year; we need all the light we can get. Sometimes the darkness goes beyond the physical.

In my capacity as a teacher, I have encountered some truly wonderful literature, books I wouldn’t have read otherwise because my children are too old for them and my granddaughter is too young. I would never have discovered Sharon Creech’s “Love That Dog” (which I later bought for my poetry loving father-in-law)  or Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy.” I would have missed the ungrammatical and annoying but funny “Junie B. Jones,” and I might have heard of “The Hunger Games” but I surely would have missed the “Gregor the Overlander” series that preceded it. But not all discoveries are happy. I recently encountered a book called “How to Catch an Elf.” I won’t provide a link; that book hurt my heart.

Let me digress: I have always found elves to be creepy. The idea that Santa exploits unpaid labor bothered me when I was younger. The elves in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” did nothing to alleviate my unease, and more recent phenomenon like Will Farrell’s movie or the “Elf on the Shelf” have made it worse. This book, though, is worse, because it’s geared toward early readers, many of whom know nothing else about Christmas.

The book is narrated by an elf. The verses are sloppy and the content is worse. The premise is that children who wanted to catch Santa have given up and have decided, instead, to capture the elf instead. Children on Santa’s route have devised traps involving tinsel, candy canes, laser beams and an ornament who, the elf reports, “zapped my tushy” with something resembling a branding iron.  It’s not just that it celebrates greed and violence. It’s that this book defines all that, for children, as what Christmas is. And real Christmas has nothing to do with elves.

Christmas is a miracle of light in darkness, teaching man, who didn’t know how to live, how to turn toward God. God shows us how.

When I was learning how to make the Sign of the Cross the Orthodox way, the priest teaching us didn’t understand why we were still going from left to right instead of right to left. Then he realized that he was facing us. Our hands did what we saw, now what he did. “Watch,” he said, “I’ll stand with you.” He came down among us and faced as we did. “I’m holding up my RIGHT hand,” he said. “UP to my forehead, down, but not below my belly button! RIGHT shoulder! Then LEFT shoulder!” That’s when we got it. That’s when we learned what to do.

Christ did something similar, only, better. He came down to live among us, to show us how to live. He came without rank or wealth, without so much as a room at the inn. He lived as a step-sibling and a refugee, an outcast. And He called to himself similar people, the poor, the fishermen, those who were wounded by illness, happenstance, or their own series of bad choices, and showed them how to turn to God in repentance, not just to be healed, but to become a source of healing unto others.

Light among darkness. In the darkest days and the coldest part of the year, we gather together and celebrate Him, with lights and gifts that we give to each other as He gives to us.

In the physical world of my hemisphere, tomorrow will be longer than today, and the next day even longer than that. And in the spiritual realm, each of us can embrace a little more light tomorrow than we did today. We live in hope. We walk in the light. It’s a gift. And we share it.

 

Glen Campbell and What Beauty Can Teach

Photo credit: jeaneeem via Foter.com / CC BY

Glen Campbell was one of my earliest crushes. I associated him with everything I thought was good about the sixties — acoustic guitar music, Aqua Velva, singing about love in public, denim and cotton. But through the lyrics of one of his songs, “Gentle on my Mind,” I realized how terrible people can be toward each other. I was four when the song came out and was maybe twice that age when the lyrics struck me.

He casually sang, “And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother/ ‘Cause she turned and I was gone.” He’s singing it to a woman who knows that his presence and the comfort she gains from it (“sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch”) comes at a cost to someone she hasn’t met, whom he had previously tenderly regarded, and whom he knows that he’s hurt.

That was my wake-up for the down side of hippies and free love. They knew their choices hurt people who loved them and they didn’t care.

Whoa.

I was young, but the moment of revelation was formative in my life changes. I wanted a man who wasn’t like that. I wanted to be a woman who didn’t do that to someone else. I decided early that I only wanted what was mine.

Glen Campbell must have listened to his own song. He decided to give up his hard drinking, free loving ways and became a dedicated Christian. He stopped the drugs and drinking, mostly, and served his time with a song for others when he lapsed. His last wife, Kimberly, to whom he was married longest, steadied him in his new life, even when he fell off the wagon. He said that some music friends were more frightened when he turned to Christ than when they had been when he turned to drugs. But his music had a resurgence in popularity.

You can learn a lot from good music. Truth and beauty are intertwined, even when beauty reveals a truth that’s rot gut ugly.

He wasn’t done teaching us, after he cleaned up his act and life. His graceful and brutally honest approach to being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s was brave and helped many who had wrangled with the disease in private. He gave it an anthem.

We will miss him. We started missing him when he announced he had this disease. And he?

He’s not gonna miss us.

We’ll do the remembering.

Speaking at the St. Herman’s Conference

I am late posting this, but my talk is up, and it is pleasant to remember winter in July! My husband and I spoke at a youth conference for Orthodox Christian teenagers and young adults, 43 of them, with seven adults. It was a very great honor. The conference was dedicated to St. Herman of Alaska, a missionary saint who came to Alaska from Russia in 1793 both to serve the Russians who lived there and to minister to the natives, many of whom became Orthodox.

While the St. Herman’s Conference has been well established on the East Coast — I met my husband at one in 1980 — the midwest St. Herman’s Conference is relatively new. I spoke at the first one in 2008, when there were closer to 20 of us, and it was a joy to see how it has grown. The diocese now has a program to encourage the youth to sing in their parishes, and several of them conducted pieces for the services we sang together.

Each conference has a theme. The purpose of this gathering was to bring people together to discuss friendship, the internet, and God. The kids came from everywhere — Chicago, Alaska, Oklahoma, Texas. They listened attentively, asked sharp questions, shared their lives and problems, and learned to sing the services together. They played in the snow on snow tubes and in a human Foosball game, volunteered for four hours at a homeless shelter, and got to know each other over all- you-can-eat fish tacos and bowling after. We ended the services at the St. Herman parish in Hastings, where our friend Fr. Michael Carney is rector.

My talk was on how to “curate” your thoughts before sharing them on the internet. I could not have given this talk before the studying I did for my MFA in Writing. I had to learn to curate my collection of thoughts and experiences, to share them in the best light and with the right juxtapositions, before I could speak to the youth about what to share and how so we can lift each other up and support each other rather than tear people down though our online participation.

The camp where the conference was held is a place of great natural beauty. The dining hall overlooked a frozen lake, and the sky above was a study in blues and greys by day, infused with orange and pink at sunrise. I had thought of Michigan winters as bleak, because I looked at the snow on the side of the road. When you stand in nature and look up, everything changes.

A bishop friend says, “Private prayer is important, but it is only in the services of the Church that we find spiritual regeneration.” And online contact is important, but it is only by meeting face to face that we truly become close. The internet helped us to organize, but of incalculable value was the face to face contact we made, forging new friendships and deepening old ones.

The world can be so cold, both physically and otherwise. It is essential that we make every effort to overcome it, banding together to share and to spread the warmth.

When Change is Good

It was very strange to start today with eggs, because in my youth, this was a solemn fast day.

Every day is the feast of some saint, in the Russian Orthodox Church. Some days are fast days, on which we eat less and have no meat or dairy,  in preparation for joyous events like Christmas and Easter, others are feast days, others are fast days because the day commemorates something sorrowful, like the beheading of St. John the Baptist.

Today is the anniversary of the killing of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family — the  Empress Alexandra and their children, Olga, Maria, Tatiana, Anastasia, and Alexis. In the West, the deposition and murder of the Tsar is seen as a good and inevitable thing, but the exile and murder of his wife and children cannot be defended, and the results for Russia were catastrophic. The new era of equality and friendship that was supposed to be ushered in became, instead, seven decades of fratricide, genocide, misery, imprisonment — and martyrdom.

Although today is more about the Royal Family, who were killed on this day, in our parish in Boston it was a day to remember all those who died. Before the glorification (similar to canonization) of the imperial family and other new martyrs of Russia (those who died for their faith, rather than just for politics; my godfather, Serge Conus, gravely said, “My Dear One, not all those killed by the Communists were saints, but only those killed for the Orthodox Faith.” But so many were killed for their faith that Russia, in the 21st century, gave the world literally uncountable millions of saints), there was a solemn Liturgy, followed by a vegan, simple meal and long speeches in Russian by Cossacks in their church suits, some speaking with raised fists, others overwhelmed by tears. Their wives, the Sisterhood, dressed in somber colors, and made a penitential meal — kasha with mushrooms instead of sausage and potatoes. We drank our coffee black or with Cremora, and had to sit quietly and still for all the speeches in the hot, not even remotely air conditioned hall.  For us, as Americans, these events were distant and Other. But for our fellow parishioners, this was family, and now that I have lost my parents and brother (to illness, not even to evil people who still wield world-wide power), I begin to understand rather than observe their pain. Even then, we were moved by what we could see, especially when our friend who was translating stopped, saying, “This is not something for children.”

Only later did I learn Russian, and learn some of the stories. These men had lost family members throughout the years since the revolution — grandparents and beloved aunts, then fathers, and brothers and sisters. My godfather’s father, the famous violinist Julius Conus, whose exercises for students were the norm across Russia, died of starvation on the streets of Moscow in 1942; he had been declared an enemy of the State, and one could be arrested for feeding him. When I was thirteen, that was only thirty-four years previous, as if it had happened in 1983 now. Our priest’s father had been locked in a barn with other engineers at the beginning of the WWII and the Communists set the barn on fire so the approaching German army could not capture that much brain power. Others had seen their relatives die rather than be repatriated during Operation Keelhaul. Many of the people who killed their loved ones were still alive, still in power, gloating.

День Непримиримости was what the Cossacks called it, a day to come together for mourning and prayer. The Russians were mocked for their belief that Communism would some day be overthrown. I recall a reporter chuckling politely when the actor Peter Ustinov, a distant cousin of the bishop who later headed our church, was asked in an interview where he was born. “St. Petersburg,” he said, “temporarily known as Leningrad.”

There will always be someone who mocks you for having hope and faith that things will be better. They are often wrong, and always are short-sighted.

Things got better. 1981, our church glorified the New Martyrs of Russia, recognizing them as saints. In 1991, Communism was overthrown in an almost bloodless coup in Russia, and in 2007, our church reconciled with the Moscow Patriarchate, from whom we had separated ourselves until we were sure it was no longer the captive of a State hostile to its very existence, who used the Church for its own purposes. Lenigrad is back to being St. Petersburg. Churches that were turned into museums, theaters, toilets, and beer houses have been returned and restored. New churches are under construction to replace those destroyed and to hold all those who now freely pray. Miracles have happened in our lifetime.

Now the day that was a solemn time of prayer and mourning is instead a feast. As has happened so often in the life of the Church, the horrible things that those opposed to Her did to believers became trials they overcame, rather than brutal acts of suppression that ended something and someone. Their sufferings were a semicolon, not a period. The power of love for God transcends death and imbues sufferers with strength and love that can be used to help others. As Joseph said to his brothers, in the Old Testament, “ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.” (Gen. 50:20)

All over the world, in places that we know of and in places shaded by the darkness of oblivion, there are men, women, and children suffering because they choose to believe in God and to live the life that faith requires — praying, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, even when the sick and suffering have been declared less than human by the States in which they live. There are people in unspeakable conditions in prison, under political pressure at their jobs, forced into silence at home by hostile in-laws, silenced and punished by ideologically motivated teachers. But where there is love, there is hope, because God is love.

Today  this former fast day is a day for Divine Liturgy followed by festive foods, cake and ice cream and presents in the homes of those celebrating the feast of the saints for whom they are named, and we all remember that when things look their darkest, God has a plan in place for overcoming evil. If we don’t conform ourselves to evil, we may suffer in this life. But through suffering with love, we can be changed into saints.