Saturday, February 18, 2006

Snow Day II

(1) We had more snow!

(2) And so you know

(3) Out for a walk

(4) We had to go!

(5) Then home again,

(6) Good things have ends.

(7) What fun to walk

(8) With such good friends.

I suppose if I spent enough time at it, I could figure out how to do the layout more effectively. But who wants to spend time doing that when there is all that white stuff outside??

Would anyone care to share what they like to do on rare snow days? (Feel free also to comment on how cute our dogs are. They never get enough of it.)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Father Stevens and Turning 40

Recently I turned 40. And although I have never been one to fear growing older, for the traditional reasons and various reasons of my own, this particular birthday had me concerned. Would I fall into a funk when it actually hit? Would I suddenly start seeing more gray hair than I already do? Would I begin doubting whether what I'm doing with my life is really what I need to be doing? Etc.

Well, perhaps it helped that I've been busier than usual lately. And certainly it helped that I've had four official parties or dinners with dear ones in my life. And seeing the daffodils, surprise lilies, and flowering quince all make appearances right around the time surely has something to do with the sense of spring in my heart.

But I have to tell about another reason turning 40 hasn't been the dreadful event some would make it out to be.

It's because of Lee Anthony Gerald Stevens, or Father Stevens, as he is known.

I met Father Stevens almost eight years ago, when I was a mere 32. He lived at the retreat center, St. Columba, that I discovered that year. He has listened to me, prayed for me, made me cry, made me laugh, read my poetry, and shared his wisdom over the past eight years. He has become a dear friend.

When I met him, he had already lived longer than most people I knew. At 85, he lived on his own, cooked his own food, and kept more birdfeeders filled than I had ever seen in one place. He spoke with a soft voice and a diction that at first made me think he was British. He led a weekly prayer group, and on his own he prayed for enough people to fill a big three-ring binder.

In the following years, convinced of God's call, he obtained permission to return to the country of Liberia, where he had lived earlier in his life, working among people with leprosy. He had intended to remain in Liberia, but when a co-worker had health problems, Father Stevens accompanied him back to the States. And while he was here, the horrible warfare in Liberia exploded out of control, and he was not allowed to return for reasons of safety.

His heart never left Liberia completely, though, and a few years ago he went back there. He wanted so much to assure the people there that he had not abandoned them. Clearly, they did not hold a grudge. He has told me that some young men walked three days to come and see him when they learned he had returned! As I recall, it was again the political situation (lack of safety) that forced his return to the States, this time to the monastery in New York where he first began his life of ministry.

So, for the past few years he has lived in New York, and we have seen him only when he visits Memphis.

This past summer he came to our home for dinner. As you see in the photo above, he wore shorts and a Bahama-type shirt, and that tee shirt has a big red lobster on it. (He had been visiting relatives in Maine, his native state.) And we learned that evening that he could play more than one blues tune by heart on the piano! (It took just a bit of cajoling, but he clearly loved it as much as we did.)

So, when the phone rang in January and it was him, we invited him over again. He didn't play piano this time, says his arthritis makes it impossible. He leaned a bit more on his cabbage-stalk cane (which belonged to his grandfather!), because in the late summer, he took a fall down a few steps and has had a lengthy recovery. He asked our forgiveness more than once for "going 'round the barn," i.e., going off on tangents and forgetting what he was saying.

Clearly he is not exempt from the effects of aging.

But neither is he letting age rob him of life. He is still raising funds for his beloved Liberia, for ministry to those whose lives are affected by leprosy, and at 93 is making plans to return there again, having recently received a letter of invitation from the bishop.

His eyes are bright, his heart is passionate, he loves deeply and lives boldly. He asked me to play piano for him, Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp minor. I don't actually play that piece, but saying "no" to Father Stevens is not an easy thing, so I bumbled my way through what I could. I'm not sure he even noticed my mistakes, he was so caught up in the music. It was the first piece he ever played on a recital, and he asked us, "Can you hear the bells? It is just amazing!"

He is a man in love with life, with God, with people, with music, with beauty, with poetry, with nature, with Jesus Christ.

In a letter written a little over a month after his fall, while he was still recuperating in a nursing home, he wrote to me in reference to some struggles I had shared with him,

Put your whole faith in God, dear one. Here is what I live by:

"I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live but Christ Jesus who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me."

It works! When we really try . . . he responds . . . And we really begin to live as God intends for us all to live. There will still be crosses to bear just as there were all during Jesus' human life on earth. So don't give up. Believe. Give your heart to him in faith.

You'll see.

With a life like his behind those words, one can see they are more than just words.

And turning 40 simply doesn't seem like much more than another step into the life God intends for me to live.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Snow Day

It snowed today! As has happened more than once since we've lived in Memphis, the snow didn't come until after the daffodils had started blooming, but it did come.

This morning for me did not start well. I had a long drive out to Colliervile, and most of the way there I was behind a huge truck that was losing plastic bags all along the highway. My guess is that it played some part in the recycling chain of events, but even if it had a good purpose, I was irked to see bag after bag escaping in the wind and flying out to trash up the landscape, confuse the wildlife (I imagine), and take who knows how long to finally disintegrate. Those plastic bags had me thinking about the fall, the effects of sin, how even our efforts to do what's right sometimes mess things up.

And it wasn't even 9am.

At 9, I attended a prayer service where Psalm 51 was read. Another reminder of sin and its effects, but a stronger reminder of God's grace which, while it doesn't do away with all the consequences, can give us clean hearts, fresh joy, and a right spirit.

Then a long talk with a spiritual mentor which among other things led to memories of some very dark times in my past when joy seemed relegated to the category of memory, and separately resulted in his giving me a book, The Cruelty of Heresy (by C. Fitzsimmons Allison). So over lunch I read about docetism and ebionism and thought about the current state of things in the church, how many distorted beliefs there are, even when people start out with good hearts. How much we need each other in order to understand and practice truth. Heavy fare for lunch.

Then a piano lesson, a welcome lightness in the day. Especially because while sitting at the piano, we looked up at one point and saw huge flakes of snow falling into the backyard. By the end of the lesson, it had accumulated on my car so that I had to sweep it all off to be able to leave.

Oh! Snow! We all know that it is water in a different form, with a scientific explanation related to temperature and timing . . . But it is also magic. And this snow was especially magic, because we live in Memphis, and because it looked as if we wouldn't have any snow this year, and because I was at the moment listening to a tape about C.S. Lewis and Narnia and the importance of the imagination and fairy tales.

And because this morning's reading had included "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice."

In Memphis when snow or ice appear in the forecast, people tend to panic. They shut down businesses early. They raid the grocery stores. I did go to get some milk, and I went to the bank (informed by a sign saying it would close two hours early) to deposit some money. My teller talked incessantly, afraid to drive home and unable to reach her father to come and get her. (She had apparently never driven in snow before!)

So with all this panic and the streets starting to freeze and clog up with cars going 5 mph, I decided to do the wise thing. I drove to the Botanic Garden, parked my car, and went for a quick walk. Before they too shut down early.

I say the wise thing because to me, the most foolish thing is to have all this wonderful white magic snow falling down, more than we have had in years here, and to spend the whole time in a house or on a street.

For the twenty minutes of my walk, I felt more alive than I had all day. No one else was outside. The snow muffled the sounds of traffic that you can usually hear even in the Garden. Quiet surrounded me. Trees were transformed, black branches beautiful, wearing white like a fur coat. Red berries peeked out from heavy white snow on dark green leaves. Tiny bird tracks were the only prints I saw most of the time, with some larger goose prints in places.

As far as I could see, nature welcomed the snow and simply let it be. Beauty sang its silent song, accented by occasional hoppings among the bushes, honking among the geese who huddled together with snow on their backs, too.

I thought of the plastic bags on the sides of the highway and rejoiced that at least for a while they were covered in beautiful snow.

I thought of the dark time in my life and rejoiced that I could feel joy again.

I thought of the dark periods in church history, and the darkness in current events-- the war, the Mohammed cartoons, the crazy way this world seems bent on doing itself in. And rejoiced that even with all that, this magic snow could come and create this breathtaking beauty.

I wish I could share all the thoughts in my mind from the Lewis interview I was listening to, and how it all merged together with this fairy tale land. But I can't remember it all. I just know it was magic. And better than magic, because grounded in the truth that God's love and grace really can and do wash us and make us whiter than snow, and that ultimately love and grace and goodness and beauty will overcome all the platic bags and wars and sadness.

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

(Photo once again from St. Columba retreat center. The sweetest bird feeder I've ever seen. And very soon I'll write about the man who used to feed the birds there.)

Friday, February 03, 2006

Blog name origin

When I decided to start this blog, I had to choose a name for it. Not an easy task. Several ideas I tried had already been taken.

The words I chose come from yet another poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I first encountered this poem as a junior in college, traveling in England. A brochure for the city of Oxford included the first two lines of it, and after spending a day in Oxford, I fell in love with both the university and the description of it that Hopkins gave.

It wasn't until later that I read the rest of the poem, where Hopkins expresses dislike for the newer buildings that have been built around the campus (creating the "base and brickish skirt") and then the final part about Duns Scotus, a philosopher who had a great impact on Hopkins' thinking and his decision to convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism.

When I was in Oxford, I had never heard of Duns Scotus. And I don't think I remembered then that Hopkins had gone to school there.

But I did know that C.S. Lewis had taught there, and I was eager to find whatever traces of him that I could. I was there on a Saturday, and most if not all the students were on break, so the campus was not very populated, and many of the buildings were closed.

I was there alone, and I guess I just walked up to someone and asked if they knew where Lewis' office had been. They did. This man walked me over to the proper building and showed me the steps that led up to Lewis' former office. In my enraptured naivete, I assumed that it would have been turned into a museum or shrine or something, like Keats' house in Rome that I had visited earlier.

But, no. Lewis' office was now someone else's office. I was so disappointed to learn this! Nothing I could look at or learn from. I could only look up the steps and think that he must have walked up them many times.

I asked the man if there were anyone around who might have known Lewis. He pointed me to a gardener, an elderly gentleman busy among the bushes. I spoke with the gardener briefly, asking him to tell me anything he remembered about Lewis. He basically said, "Well, his office was right over there, so he used to walk through this way a lot, and I did see him. And he was a nice chap, quite friendly." And that was it.

It wasn't what I expected, to say the least. I guess I had wanted in some way to pay my respects and thank Mr. Lewis somehow, and there seemed no way to do it.

And yet because of that experience I feel a little kindredness with Hopkins, in roaming that beautiful city and breathing the same air that someone before me had breathed, seeing the same lawns and leaves, trees and towers. And reflecting on how deeply that person's writings had influenced my thinking and my understanding of faith.

So, here's the poem, and now you know where "folkflocksflowers" comes from:

Duns Scotus’s Oxford

TOWERY city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping—folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

TV and Me

Occasionally it comes up in conversation that I don't watch TV. People often ask why. Here is an attempt to answer that question.

This is a picture of the window to the bedroom I lived in from about age 9 to 18 and for some periods of time after that.

If the camera lens had taken in a few more feet to the left, you would see the antenna for the house of my growinguphood.

When I was 16, that antenna was struck by lightning. It blew out our television and the computer that was hooked up to it at the time. (I'm dating myself, I know.)

My parents did not replace the television, so I didn't watch TV the last three years of high school. When I moved into the dorm for college, we did not have a TV in our dorm room until my senior year. My senior year I took 21 hours in the fall and 19 in the spring, in addition to copy editing the yearbook. I know I did watch and enjoy "Moonlighting" and "Thirty-Something" a few times that year. And I would watch "Newhart" whenever I got a chance. But I was too busy living life to spend time sitting around watching other people's real or imaginary lives.

After college I moved to Lubbock, TX, to study in a mission preparation program. I know we had a TV in the apartment, because I remember watching the news sometimes and crying over the famines and wars going on around the world, and deciding that I couldn't handle watching the news, that I would just pray for world events and inform myself through reading. And I had more homework there than I'd had in college, so there wasn't time for just sitting around watching things for fun.

Well, then I moved to Italy. If you've ever tried to watch TV in Italy, you know why I didn't spend time in front of the screen there! The 30 minutes of American news we got each morning (actually the evening news from the day before) was all I watched, if I got up in time for it.

Then it was Croatia. We did have TV there, because one was left behind in the apartment we rented. But I did not speak Croatian when I moved to Croatia, so all I could understand were the American sitcoms they would show with subtitles. And I guess after such a long fast from sitcoms, I had lost the appetite for most of them. Besides that, the war was often on the screen, which was harder than watching the news in Lubbock had been, because the war was also part of our daily life.

My husband and I knew that TV was pretty officially not a part of our life when we heard about a show that we did want to watch. We turned on the TV set, and nothing happened. Then we realized that we had never reconnected it after using it with a video recorder to produce a video production about the humanitarian aid program we worked with. We had finished the video more than three months earlier.

We've been in the States over eleven years. In all that time, I know I've watched a few PBS programs, some Olympic ice skating, and news coverage of September 11. I've seen some children's TV when watching children at other people's houses.

But for the most part, TV is just not part of my life. I love a good movie, and we subscribe to Netflix. And we have rented and watched reruns of Northern Exposure and The Bob Newhart Show.

So, back to the question, Why do I not watch TV? Honestly, I think it is largely because that bolt of lightning broke the habit. I watched quite a lot of TV before that. I don't know what would have happened if I had been a regular watcher throughout high school. Probably would have watched more in college and might not have been able to imagine and live life (at least American life) without TV.

What I can say for sure is that I'm thankful that I feel no need to watch TV. When I do occasionally catch bits of shows, I am generally motivated to leave the room. Once you're no longer accustomed to TV, it can feel like an assault on many levels!

And today I read this:

Much attention has been paid to the amount of time Americans spend watching television. Cultivation theory has been important in exploring behavioral effects of television viewing for many years. However, psychosocial health has received much less scrutiny in relation to television viewing time. This investigation examined the hypotheses that television-free individuals and viewers adhering to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations (up to 2 hr of viewing per day) would display a more positive psychosocial health profile when compared with more frequent television viewers. Results confirmed the hypothesis for women, but not for men. Our analysis showed that moderate television viewing, as defined by the AAP, provides a similar relation with psychosocial health as being television-free. Results are discussed in a cultivation theory framework.

Life without TV? cultivation theory and psychosocial health characteristics of television-free individuals and their television-viewing counterparts.

Hammermeister J, Brock B, Winterstein D, Page R.

I find real life challenge enough to my psychosocial health. Why mess it up with TV?

So, thank you to the lightning, and to my parents for not replacing that TV. I'm not sure they considered the lightning a sign from God, but I know it brought me blessings.

Hope that answers the question.

(And don't you think the view from my bedroom window is prettier than anything you can see on TV, anyway?)