Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Change in the Landscape

It is eight o’clock on the morning after Christmas. One shelf of the refrigerator holds nothing but blue-lidded plastic tubs crammed with leftovers. The trash can by the back door is stuffed with paper and ribbon, cardboard and plastic, tin cans and Styrofoam. The closet where I keep the wrapping paper is gorged with empty boxes that I will eventually make the time to break down and store until the next broad round of gift-giving.
Everything is full. Even the clouds. So full that they are saturated and dripping in heavy wind-swept drops over Sandhill. The road is slippery, but not very. Rutted, but not too. Muddy, but not markedly. The rain is hard, but the warnings of possible hail seem a bit dramatic. The weather is annoying and not much more.
It is now about 9:30. I look up from my computer and realize that the sun is out. The sky is a translucent baby blue, the clouds are high and white, and the puddles in the street look like mirrors. It occurs to me – not for the first time, of course – that it doesn’t take long for the landscape to change completely.
The fraction of a second it takes to make a choice in anger that would never have been made in calm. To speak simple words that complicate everything – "It’s cancer." "I’m going to have a baby." To pull a trigger.
I was driving home from Kate’s graduation when I heard the news about the Newtown shootings. Just the night before I’d been sitting high up in the stands at Kennesaw State watching her confidently stride across the stage to receive her master’s degree. There was a little plus sign by her name in the program – honor graduate, 4.0 GPA. My heart swelled and my eyes watered and I couldn’t stop smiling. It was one of those moments when the future was the largest thing in the universe.
In a few hours, though, that future – for 20 first-graders and six women who tried to protect them – would not exist. It doesn’t take long for the landscape to change.
The light outside my window grows brighter and I think that, in a matter of days, a single stroke of the clock will turn one year to the next. Advertisements and fluff news pieces and conversations are littered with the phrases "new leaf" and "clean page" and "fresh start." We live as though change is voluntary, that it waits to be initiated by our desire, that we are never its victim, its passive object. In doing so, we live in deep denial of the fact that we are, far too often, powerless against the winds that drive the clouds that empty the rain of adversity and pain and heartbreak onto our flimsy umbrellas.
Are those the only alternatives then? To convince myself that I can exercise and organize and meditate myself into perfect stasis or give in to the reality that at any moment the foundations of my existence could crumble?
On Christmas Eve I watched intently as the presents were distributed. As each recipient accepted a package, Adam’s Jackson, two-and-a-half and an uncanny recreation of his father, hurried over to assist with the unwrapping. He reached up to touch the bright, curly ribbon first. “Ooooh!” he whispered.
His tiny fist curled to grab at the taped seam on the box and pulled to hear the satisfying rip. “Ooooh!” he whispered again. And as the paper began to fall away and the contents came into view, there was always one final, elongated, “Oooooooh!” before moving on to assist with the next treasure.
That, I’ve decided, is the third alternative. I don’t have to pretend I am in control or despair in the knowledge that I never will be. I can approach each moment, this present moment as the gift it is. I can resolve to be amazed over and over again, acknowledging every change in the landscape with an appreciative, “Ooooh!”
Copyright 2012

Sunday, December 16, 2012

This Year's Christmas Play

 It is the season of wonder, after all. And, so, I have been wondering. Wondering how long it takes to decorate that huge tree at Rockefeller Center. Wondering how a person is supposed to learn all four verses of any particular Christmas carol now that school music programs are “holiday” performances. Wondering how our little planet looks from the satellite that takes the photos for Google Earth when all the houses in all the cities and towns across America have their Christmas lights turned on.
But mostly I’ve been wondering who I am in this year’s Christmas play.
One year I got to be an angel, but that was only because there were only two blonde girls in our Sunday School class and the script called for three. I don’t remember ever getting to be Mary, gazing beatifically at the baby doll wrapped in a flannel blanket and lying in a what somebody thought looked like a manger filled with a variety of hay that would never have existed in Bethlehem. (Directors, even when they are elementary school teachers, tend to type-cast and meek and mild has never been my strength.) Usually, I was the narrator, the one with the words.
Which makes it interesting that this year the character I’m feeling an awful lot like is Zechariah. Pious and proper, wise and mature, he’s the one who couldn’t bring himself to believe in a miracle and got struck speechless as a result.
Maybe it’s just because I’m tired. Lots of time on the road, away from home, and the negotiation of more traffic and social conventions that I’d like is a slow but steady drain. Maybe it’s because, in the last few weeks, a lot of people whose mortality I’d managed to ignore have become seriously ill or died. Nothing like a thinning of the generational cushion between oneself and ultimate vulnerability to give one pause. Or, maybe, like Zechariah, it’s because I’ve been paying too much attention to the acting and not enough to the experiencing.
Put on the priestly robes. Check. Walk respectfully into the sanctuary. Check. Light the incense. Check. Get out of there and go home.
Mail the Christmas letter. Check. Hang the wreath on the front door. Check. Get the gifts bought and wrapped and delivered and the parties attended and the hostesses thanked and ...
Poor Zechariah. Doing exactly what he is supposed to do. Following all the rules. And he gets interrupted by an angel who offers him a miracle. But, because it doesn’t fit into what he knows, what he expects, what everybody waiting in the temple courtyard knows and expects, he doubts and, because he doubts, his ability to tell the story is taken away.
Poor me. Doing exactly what I am supposed to do. Following all the rules. Have I been interrupted by the offer of a miracle and doubted? Is that why I’m feeling speechless in this holiest of seasons?
Like most miracle tales, Zechariah’s doesn’t end in silence, but in cries of joy and shouts of laughter. The angel’s promise materializes. An impossible thing is made real. And, finally, Zechariah gets to tell his story.
A story made better by the building tension of imposed silence. A story made more compelling by the passage of time. A story made timeless by the knitting of skeptical and miraculous, human and divine, earth and sky.
This year I am Zechariah. I am lighting the incense and listening for the whisper of an angel. And I will be silent until the time for telling the story comes.
Copyright 2012

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Human Hearts and Veterinary Science

Once a month Lily takes heartworm medicine. It is a chewy, brown rectangle that, now that I think of it, bears a passing resemblance to the chewy brown rectangle of calcium that I take every morning. A long time ago Saint Buddy showed me a 3-D model of a canine heart infested with heartworms intending to make an impression. He did. So for 23 years – through Ginny’s life and now through Lily’s – I’ve dutifully administered what I’ve hoped would protect my dogs’ hearts from becoming the living representations of that model.

I operate under no delusion, however, that either of them remained completely heartworm free. Ginny lived, Lily lives in the country. Running wild through fields, chasing down and scavenging wild animals on occasion, spending their lives outdoors means that one can reduce the odds, but not completely eliminate the chance of getting the one bite from the one mosquito that will infest a healthy beating heart.
And, yet, I try.
A few days ago I dropped by Saint Buddy’s to pick up a refill. Whatever the number of cats and dogs that may be present, I am always struck by the clean chlorine-y smell of the place – like a swimming pool or a freshly laundered white towel. It is the scent of competence, a perfume made from a mixture of science and compassion. It makes me feel safe.
Among the many angelic beings who spend their working days at Saint Buddy’s is delicate and ethereal Amy, a near-doppelganger for a young Emmylou Harris. You can tell from the light in her eyes that she speaks the language of children and animals and I am always glad when she is the one to take Lily’s leash from my hand and lead her toward the treatment rooms.
As I explained to her the reason for my visit – to pick up heartworm medicine – she looked up from the computer where she was looking up the prescription and asked, “For Miss Lily?”
“Yes,” I said and then laughed. “Though I could probably use some myself.”
Amy laughed, too, and said something like, “Couldn’t we all?”
Our eyes met. And held. And in that second, that two, three seconds, something important happened. A social exchange became a real conversation. A commonplace chat became a significant dialogue. An ordinary encounter became a memorable moment.
My laughter faded to a breathy chuckle. “Some days,” I offered, “I’m convinced that my heart is absolutely full of worms.”
Still smiling, but now less photographically, Amy nodded and said, “And if somebody offered me a pill for it, I wouldn’t even have to have it wrapped up in cheese. I’d swallow it whole.”
I’ve known Amy for a long time. We’ve spent lots of moments together. But this moment, this particular moment, I will never forget.
There was another woman at the counter. She must have overheard our strange back-and-forth, but she didn’t acknowledge it. Just stood very straight, very still. I suspect that she was staring into a corner somewhere, pretending to be invisible.
I don’t blame her. I’ve been her. I’ve been the woman without the time, the patience, the courage to engage in the bigger, deeper questions. I’ve been the woman who just wanted to get it done, whatever “it” was. Couldn’t bear to think any more than absolutely necessary because I knew where thinking would take me.
Funny thing is, that never works for long. At least, not for me. I am convinced that we, all of us, are connected and it is in having the conversations, sharing the moments, telling the stories that we find the connections.
And, now that I think of it, it just may be that those connections are exactly the heartworm medicine that we humans can’t live without.
Copyright 2012