Thursday, December 21, 2006

O, Christmas Tree

It is not a perfect Christmas tree. Several of its branches dangle in slings made of fishing line to minimize gaping holes in its architecture. The lights are not exactly even. Some of the ornaments are faded and bent into something other than their original shapes. But it is, like Charlie Brown’s tree, infused with a real-ness that arises from the something other than lights and ornaments.

Dangling near the window and sending erratic flashes of light around the room is a tiny brass ornament with my name engraved along the bottom. My friend Pam’s mother smoked Lord-knows-how-many-packs of Virginia Slims to redeem the personalized ornament offer for the six of us our freshman year at Wesleyan. On one of the lower sturdier limbs is a three-dimensional representation of a runner lighting the Olympic torch, Sandra’s acknowledgment in Christmas of 1996 of the great fun I had in being a part of the relay through Statesboro.

The mouse dressed as an angel was a gift from Jessica who sat at my conference room table one day and nearly lost her breath laughing at stories of my rodent phobia. The sea horse is made of Saint Simons sand. The ceramic Claddagh reminds me of Mandy and Celtic music and all kinds of secrets.

Scattered over the limbs are the snowflakes and balls that Mama crocheted and the tiny Chrismons I cross-stitched when I got my first place. There is a glazed dough pig and a little balsa wood birdcage, a china bell painted with a dogwood blossom and a silver one engraved with my initials, a baseball that opens on a hinge to reveal Santa Claus in red and white pinstripes. A tiny porcelain cross hangs from a green ribbon near the top.

At the top of the tree is a big Waterford crystal star, a gift from Lucy and her parents the year we all stood in front of the judge whose hurried and harried attitude could not dampen our awe and delight at the legal acknowledgment of what we’d all known for some time – that Lucy was home.

There must be over a hundred ornaments on the tree, each one placed there by my hand, the touch connecting me to people and places and times, some of them gone forever except in my memory. It is not a perfect Christmas tree, but like every tree in every home in every town it is a representation of the life that is sheltered and nurtured here. It is, like the Little Prince’s rose, unique in all the world.

Soon it will be taken apart, piece by piece, ornament by ornament and packed away in the attic until next year. But on this Christmas Eve, between heading off to church in early morning to light the fourth Advent candle and heading back in the early darkness for Communion, I will still my thoughts and my heart long enough to sit and stare. To remember Pam’s mother. To think about Sandra and Jessica and Mandy and Lucy. To say a prayer of gratitude for the hands that crocheted the snowflakes. To invite the spirits of all the people I love to join me under the tree in marveling at all we share.

Copyright 2006

Sunday, December 10, 2006

In Tandem

It bothers me sometimes when I go to church and the preacher raps me on the head.

Not all the time. Sometimes the rap is a "Hello? Anybody home?" and it just wakes me up to something I already know but just hadn’t considered in a while. And sometimes it’s a "Hey! Guess what!" that makes me sit up straight and open my eyes a little wider.

But sometimes, every so often, when I’m sitting there in a column of sunshine slanting through the stained glass window on my pew, the preacher takes out a mallet – no, make that a meat tenderizer with all those spikes on it – and whacks me with a blow so sharp that it’s hard not to yell, "Ouch!" right there in front of God and everybody.

So I’m walking around this week with a big purple bruise underneath all this hair and still wondering why that one remark, not even a major point in the sermon, is still pulsing so hard and so regularly through whatever artery it is that connects the brain to the heart.

This is what he said: "The fear itself is a sign that God will keep His promise."

Say what? Isn’t that a little, well, untheological? Isn’t the whole idea of believing in God and ultimate eventual good supposed to produce something like spiritual endorphins? Isn’t it supposed to leave us with, if only a platitude, at least a platitude when the Wicked Witch and all her flying monkeys surround us and our cowardly, ignorant and heartless companions?

And especially on the first Sunday in Advent when we’re supposed to be focusing on the promise of peace on earth and good will toward all of us and the angels are telling us to fear not, should those two things – promise and fear – really be riding on the same float in the Christmas parade?

Every year about this time I find myself pulling out my well-read copy of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book of sermons, Home By Another Way. In the one she titled "Singing Ahead of Time," she talks about Mary, the teenager who managed somehow in what had to be the most frightening moment she’d ever experienced (but which would pale in comparison to the one she’d face about 34 years later) to believe, to take as truth a promise as yet unfulfilled. Taylor reminds us that Mary has no ultrasound, no DNA test identifying God as the father of her baby. "All she has," Taylor writes, "is her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be a part of whatever happens next."

Promise and fear. Together.

Promise belongs to the future, that unseen and untested place to which we would be drawn by our hearts even if our minds hadn’t created it. And we are drawn to it even as we ask ourselves trembling, "What if it isn’t so?"

Joan of Arc. Christopher Columbus. Martin Luther King. Everyone who ever teetered on the edge of the high dive. Everyone who ever asked for a raise. Everyone who ever fell in love. Promise hand in hand with fear.

To be honest, I’m not sure that this particular stream of consciousness is what the preacher had in mind when he chose the lectionary reading from Luke as his text. Then again, it’s not about what he had in mind when he entered the pulpit and it’s certainly not about what I had in mind when I entered the pew.

It’s about Christmas and the miraculous conception of not just a baby whose individual life would change every thought and idea and action that came after, but the conception of every thought and idea and action that would come after and change every life.

It’s about, as Taylor put it, "singing ahead of time." Singing before there’s a reason to sing. Believing the promise while feeling the fear. Standing between the two, holding out our hands and becoming a bridge.

Copyright 2006

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Friendly Fire

A couple of months ago Lily and Tamar got into a terrible fight. It was Saturday night. We took them, in separate vehicles, to the animal emergency room, driving the 20 miles into town with all kinds of fear and trepidation that the vast amounts of blood spread all over Mama and Daddy’s deck and laundry room were an indication of horrible, horrible injuries.

As it turned out, though they both had to stay the night, the only serious wound was one on Lily’s left front leg that required stitches.

Once we got them home, we undertook a complex logistical effort to make sure that the two of them had no contact with each other. One got to play in the yard in the morning, the other in the afternoon. After years of sharing a bed, the two were banished to not just separate rooms, but separate houses. It was exhausting.

And emotionally draining. These two dogs have been bosom buddies for nearly six years. With the exception of four or five incidents involving bared teeth, otherworldly growling and bites that drew blood, they were completely simpatico. They cried for each other when they were separated. They chased deer and rabbits and squirrels in tandem. They began each morning licking each other’s faces as though to reassure themselves that all was right with the world.

When I took Lily back to Saint Buddy to get the stitches removed I asked him what we could do about the problem. He presented me with a copy of a scholarly article on "intraspecies female aggression" and warned me that what I was going to read would not make me happy.

He was right. The experts say that IFA, as I’ve come to call it, is not an unusual problem. There were explanations about canine society and the necessity of an alpha dog, warnings about trying to treat dogs equally as one would people and suggestions about behavior modification.

The experts’ conclusion was that IFA is not easily solvable. In fact, they wrote, it is unlikely, once IFA has been introduced into the relationship, that the two dogs can ever be trusted with each other again.

It made me sad.

And it made me even sadder to think of the human application. It didn’t take me long to thing of more than a handful of relationships, mine and other people’s (and not limited to females, thank you very much), that had gone from close and loving and attached-at-the-hip to distant and cruel and vicious. And, like the veterinary experts said, most of those relationships cannot be healed.

With dogs the aggression is instinctual and arises from fear. We humans, with our advanced brains and social connections, are supposed to live beyond the reach of instinct and, yet, it occurs to me that the source of all those broken relationships can, in one way or another, be traced back to fear. Fear of loss, fear of separation, fear of fear.

We’re working with Lily and Tamar, carefully reintroducing them to each other. When I take Lily up to Mama and Daddy’s each morning I hold her leash tightly and allow her and Tamar to touch noses through the wooden gate on the deck. We’ve even taken a couple of long walks, one on a leash, one loose, making sure that a safe distance between the two is maintained.

Neither one gets so much as a pat on the head until she responds to a command of, "Sit!"
Will it work? Will they somehow figure out the parameters of their relationship and learn the behavior that will allow them to once again run freely over hundreds of acres together? I don’t know.

What I do know is that every time I look at them, separated by barriers that they created themselves, I see not just their faces, but human faces. And it makes me want to cry.

Copyright 2006

Monday, November 13, 2006

Deed of Gift

Just the other day I was headed cross country toward Valdosta – one of those places in our wide and wonderful state to which it is difficult to find a straight shot from here. Having gotten widely varying estimates of time and distance from three different internet mapping services, I decided to play rabbit and head out in what I knew was the general direction, the back roads known as the Woodpecker Trail. I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a drive more.

It was early Saturday morning. There were few other cars on the road so I could watch the landscape skim by. The yellow autumn light came through the trees at such an angle that the changing leaves all looked as though they’d been plated with precious metals. Acres and acres of cotton spread out on either side of the road and were so thick with fat fluffy blossoms that I couldn’t help but hear the voices of my childhood preachers singing out from the pulpit about the fields being white with harvest.

Rounding a curve I saw a neatly-painted sign dangling from a limb on a tall oak tree: Fresh Eggs - 1 mile. I was half-tempted to take the detour down the narrow dirt road just to meet the kind of folks who still sold eggs from their back porch.

At a county road crossroads, three shiny new pick-up trucks, each one with a grill as big as a cattle gate, were parked on the gravel outside a cinder block store. Men dressed in various degrees of camouflage leaned against the fenders, hands in pockets or crossed over their chests, soaking up sunshine and swearing to the number of points on the buck that had been just out of range.

I passed a sign that told me I’d entered the Big Hammock Wildlife Management Area, 7000 acres of flood-plain habitat owned and managed by the state of Georgia. A few miles further down the road I drove into Appling County and the road widened, took me over a new concrete bridge. Underneath ran the Altamaha River. It is the largest river of the Georgia coast and the second largest river basin in the eastern United States. It flows for 140 miles through southeast Georgia toward the Atlantic Ocean.

On this day the water was low, barely moving, and the sand looked like cake icing, creamy white and spread in gentle waves along the edges of the water. All was silence and stillness and I was suddenly struck with an instinctual protectiveness toward the river and all it represents. It was as though by being there at that particular moment I’d been vested with an ownership interest in that particular piece of creation.

I’ve experienced it before – at the foot of a waterfall in North Carolina, on the banks of a creek that runs along one edge of our farm, under an oak tree too big to circle with my arms, on top of the Temple Mound in Macon – and each time I’ve found myself breathless.

What is it, I wonder, about untouched nature that speaks so deeply to our souls? Do we hear our own breath in the wind? Feel our own pulse in the current?

There’s been a lot of talk over the past 30 years or so about preserving our natural heritage and cleaning up the environment. We’ve spent a lot of money as a nation to do just that. And, yet, I’d bet that the majority of Americans don’t see themselves as the owners, much less the caretakers, of a single square foot of dirt on which they are not paying a mortgage.

We have become so distanced from that which we didn’t create that rain is just something that delays a baseball game and wind only something that interferes with the satellite signal. And 7000 acres of nothing but wetlands seems like a lot of wasted space.

Until you see it. Until you feel it. Until you own it for yourself.

Copyright 2006.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Loose Change and Pieces of Moon

At low tide – not on my beach, but another beach, one where the sand is less like confectioner’s sugar and more like sandpaper – I went looking for, I thought, shells. But not exactly shells. Pieces of shells.

In our part of the world it is a rare occasion that presents a whole, unbroken, unblemished shell on the wet edge of the continent for someone to pick up and tote home, so I walked with my head bent, my eyes scanning the crunchy water line for interesting fragments.

Just a few strides from the boardwalk I found half a sand dollar. It looked very little like the whole ones you find at sea shell stores, the ones that are bleach-white and completely round, the ones whose five sets of pores on the top make a perfect Spirograph star. This fifty-cent piece of a sand dollar was exposing its inside, the cavity that in a living specimen is the water-vascular system that enables it to move, the cavity that – in death and dismemberment – was only an empty room.

I found more, smaller pieces as I walked. I picked them up, rattled them around in my palm. Pieces of a dollar. Quarters and dimes and nickels. Loose change. Not quite as easy to carry as a single bill, but still spendable.

Further down the beach something glinted in the sand. I reached down to pick up a piece of moon shell. Smooth as glass, curved like a scythe, it was about the size of my thumbnail. I couldn’t decide whether it was pink or brown or something in between. Either way, I thought and smiled at my vanity, it would make a pretty lipstick.

As I kept walking and scanning the water line, it appeared that, in an effort to get my attention, the tide had deposited an embarrassment of moon shell pieces. Slivers, slices, chunks. All different, but all recognizable and all evocative of a full moon shell.

Just the night before I had stood and looked out over the ocean at a full moon. Its reflection in the water pulsed with energy, scattered illumination in all directions, outlined the landscape in softness like a filter on a camera lens. I had watched it and remembered other full moons, other nights standing under a shower of pewter light. I had stared at the pumpkin-colored ball poised in the sky at the exact point where its surface could be fully illuminated by the sun and thought of the mystery and magic we attribute to something that occurs only once every 29½ days.

Why, I asked myself, holding the fragile pieces of moon shell in my hand, don’t we see mystery and magic in the other days? Why do we reserve the awe and wonder for one night a month? Why do we save things – good china, linen napkins, our deepest emotions – for what we call "special occasions"?

The tide had turned, the roar of the waves had softened and I could now hear in the rhythm of my footsteps the sound of thousands of shell fragments dissolving beneath my weight. Shells becoming sand.

Back over the dunes, through the sea oats, I carried my treasures, bits and pieces, parts and fragments, remnants and shards. I carried them with my palms turned up and open, the way I’d been told by a friend that one must carry anything of value.

It would be lovely some day to happen upon a sea shell, whole and unbroken and unblemished. A pink and white conch or a tiger-striped chambered nautilus or a tightly spiraled whelk. But it is better still, I’ve decided, to look for loveliness in the pieces and parts and fragments that get scattered like crumbs along the shore.

Few dawns are heralded by full moons. Few shells survive the wash of the tide unbroken and unblemished. It is the other moons, new and waxing and waning, that usher in most mornings. It is the pieces of shells, worn down by the wash of water and broken by the weight of travelers that form the beach. And it is the awe and wonder, the mystery and magic of the everyday that is the currency of our lives.
Copyright 2006.