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.

Finally Summer

Supper was ready, but we were not yet ready to eat.

We went for a walk to celebrate the last of the light of the almost longest day, then came across the concert on the green, first time I ever went, even though we’ve lived here seventeen years now.

The Frank Porto band was playing in the gazebo, and singing some great numbers — “Close to You,” “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,” “Sweet Caroline.” We had been sitting on a bench across the street, and I put my head on his shoulder and sang the lyrics since we were too far for him to hear.

Then we crossed the street and were closer for the last few songs, ending with “YMCA,” and it was over and we sauntered toward home talking of everything and nothing. The sun was setting, and people were folding their chairs and rounding up children.

As we passed the corner he pointed out the Tree of Heaven and told me its history — tall, distinctive, invasive, pervasive — and we inhaled its scent, and I dropped my head and smiled and he lifted his and did the same, and it was night, and we were almost home.

Transitions — Listening to the Elephant

Transition is the hardest part of labor for a reason. I am working on making changes, and they haven’t come to fruition yet, so this is the sweaty grouchy part where I do LaMaze breathing and rant a lot. Remembering the four beautiful outcomes of transitions past (hi, guys!), and trying to remember to breathe.
Deep cleansing breath, then off for Morning Prayers and to tackle life anew. Already, all of today’s decisions feel good.

When I was seventeen my late, and great, Uncle Joe let me sit in on his interview with Blackstone the Magician, who had an elephant in his act. Uncle Joe asked Blackstone something unexpected. He asked him how they know that a stage is safe for the elephant to walk on. Do they have a structural engineer travel with them, or what?
Blackstone said, “The elephant knows.”
Joe asked him to clarify.
Blackstone said, “The elephant knows what can hold him and what cannot. We bring the elephant to the stage early in the rehearsals, and the elephant starts to put his foot down. If the elephant won’t step on the stage, we don’t use the elephant for that venue. The elephant knows what can support him and what cannot.”
Today I listened to the elephant voice in my head, and did not step out to do something where I felt unsupported.
It felt like loss.
And also it felt good.
Truth does that.

Marching orders.
Yes to this.
No to that.
Maybe to so much else.
But let the yea be a yea and the nay a nay.
And breathe.

What Seemed Like a Small Thing

Photo credit: YourCastlesDecor via Foter.com / CC BY
Photo credit: YourCastlesDecor via Foter.com / CC BY

“I ran into Mary K. at the bank today,” my brother said, when he was a senior and I was a junior in high school. “You’ll never guess what she said.”
Mary helped in the kitchen of our school, Commonwealth School, the first year that he and I attended. The Commonwealth Kitchen was an amazing place where the ever memorable Ila Moore cooked gourmet meals for 250 every day. Mary was her right hand man, that first year, and was sweet and observant. I am pretty sure that she helped get me my job for the next year when she brought Miss Moore over to see the careful way that I wrung out the dish cloth.

Why was I wringing out a dish cloth at school? While the kitchen did hire student helpers, I was not yet one of those. But at Commonwealth, all students worked as part of the curriculum. Everyone had two weeks of a meal job — washing dishes, setting up and taking down tables, bringing food to the tables — two weeks of a non-meal job such as dusting the woodwork or sweeping, and two weeks off. As the oldest daughter in an ever-growing family, I had more kitchen skills than some of my classmates. I had started school behind the others, academically, and so this talent gave me a chance to shine, to instruct and to lead. I worked during my free periods for Miss Moore and her new helper, Audrey, for three years after Mary had retired.

My ninth grade year, I discovered on the walk from Copley Station to school that the newsstand on Dartmouth sold flowers, $2 for a bouquet and $4 for a basket, and that you could buy a cake and candles at the convenience store further down on the way to school. Whenever I learned that someone had an occasion, I shook down friends for enough money to buy a cake for classmates, flowers for faculty. I contributed, but I couldn’t foot the whole bill. At the time I was earning fifty cents an hour at the family store, so a whole basket was a little beyond my means.

But at the end of that freshman year, when I learned that Mary was retiring and that today’s lunch would be her last meal with us, I was shocked to learn that no fuss was going to be made. No. Attention must be paid. I made the rounds of friends and classmates and gathered enough to buy a basket of flowers, which I bought during my free period.

After lunch at school we were encouraged to make announcements about various things. I had made an announcement about Mary’s retirement, encouraged her to leave the kitchen to receive the basket, and led the school in giving her a rousing ovation. It had just struck me as the thing to do.

Now, two years later, my brother ran into her at the store and she had told him how touched she was by the gift. He said that she had dried the flowers and had saved the basket.

I had no idea. Giving people such things was just….what we do, something I tried to bring from our life into the culture of the school.

Now, when I think about doing some small thing and then decide it can wait till later, or that maybe it’s not a good idea, I remember that somewhere someone has dried flowers and an empty basket that she treasures. That’s the tie breaker, when I am undecided. It’s never a bad idea to give someone tangible proof of your love.