Singing with the Choir (A Story of Minor-League Baseball, Music, and Joy)

The Church of the Holy Child Choir, in which I am an unremarkable second soprano, sang “God Bless America” just before the start of the Friday evening, July 12, Wilmington Blue Rocks game.  The Blue Rocks are a minor-league baseball team affiliated with the Kansas City Royals.  On July 12, their opposing team was the Salem Red Sox, from Virginia.  Ninety-one of us from our church, including the choir, made the trip from the church parking lot to the Daniel S. Frawley Stadium on two sleek Delaware Express coaches.

Frawley Stadium, by RevelationDirect – Own work, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

Many of the bare facts of the evening would not lead you to think that I loved it, but I thought ahead of time that I would, and I did

Rocky Bluewinkle, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

In the moments before we sang, the Blue Rocks’ mascot, Rocky Bluewinkle, posed with us for pictures.  Mascot Mr. Celery made no appearances during the game because the Blue Rocks didn’t score any runs.  They won the makeup game—needed because of the prior day’s storms—played just before ours, but until after the conclusion of that makeup game, our choir was cloistered, standing on the side of an access road outside a fence separating us from left field.  Our “green room” was a sunbaked, chewing-gum-infested patch of dirt and grass from which we could see the high overpass carrying I-95 but see nothing of the action on the baseball field.  It was possible, however, to see the scoreboard over the fence and so track the makeup innings moseying past.  Our buses arrived at the stadium about 6 p.m., and we finally took the field for our brief performance about 7:30.

Other than a slight case of indignation, I didn’t much mind the long, uncomfortable wait because I knew our fun would eventually arrive.  But the long time standing in the heat and humidity caused two women in our choir to come close to fainting; one was unable to recover in time to sing with the group.  When you weigh our discomfort against that of, say, refugees who, after traveling many hundreds of miles, must wait for days in the heat at the U.S. border only to be herded like ill-treated cattle into holding pens, the comparison is between our grain of sand and their mountain.  I will say, however, that the existence of situations infinitely more difficult than ours didn’t give our hosts justification for keeping a largely senior-citizen choir waiting on our feet in the heat for well over an hour.  Fortunately, on arrival, our church members who were not in the choir were able to take seats in the stands.

While we waited outside left field, our wonderful young choir director took us through a few warm-up drills, and we sang a practice “God Bless America.”  I chatted with some of the other women and stood a while with my own thoughts.  I was determined not to feel like the odd-woman-out, in spite of my being a newcomer to the church, and I didn’t feel like an outsider, in large part because of the friendliness of others but also in part because of the resolve within me to love the evening entirely.

Finally the time came for us to line up.  We hurried—trying to keep our two parallel lines in a semblance of order—past third base and home plate until we took our places on the field between first base and the stands.  Rocky Bluewinkle knelt in front of us; family members and our priest—who had been standing outside the fence with us—snapped pictures; our director took his place, blew an F on his pitch pipe, and cued the singing.  We opened our mouths and vocal chords for the brief climax to it all.  Here we were, after months of anticipation, after rehearsing our parts in our choir room, after selecting our sizes for the golf shirts our priest ordered for us with the Church of the Holy Child 50th-anniversary logo on them (“Rooted in Faith – Growing together” and a tree with spreading branches and roots), after donning our shirts at home, along with the khaki pants we had each come up with to wear.

I sometimes struggle to stay in the moment, as one is advised to do to keep life from skidding by and to arrest consuming worries over the past and future, but I was absolutely in the moment as we sang in Frawley Stadium that Friday evening just after 7:30.  The next day, the wife of one of our talented tenors shared a video.  Watching myself, I’m reminded of an excessively enthusiastic kindergartener who plants herself in the middle of the front row and emotes during her class’ special concert.  The cheerful tension in my body as I face and lean toward our director would have worked well had I been preparing to win the 100-yard dash.  My mouth opens wider than anyone else’s on every note.  The video continues a moment after the conclusion of the song: most choir members look relaxed and relieved; I keep grinning.  And throughout the brief song, I felt as thoroughly happy as I looked.

I should explain that I am less affected by the heat than many.  After our singing, once I’d located my seat in the stands, I found the weather pleasant—warm and humid, yes, but with a slight breeze.  For several minutes, the Sun shining on our section of the stands hurt our eyes.  But once the Sun dropped below the stadium walls, the air softened into, for me, an embracing summer night.  The Moon, three days past its first quarter and kept company by Jupiter, floated above the stadium behind us.

Another evening with a just-past-quarter Moon

I had trouble following the game.  The section I was in was nearly directly above the patch of field where we had sung, but the cage around home plate somewhat obscured the action there, and not a lot of action was to be had.  A few of our Blue Rocks players looked especially small and young.  Before boarding our Delaware Express coach, I’d known nothing about the players or their team’s fortunes, and I hadn’t learned any more by the time the coaches dropped us off back at the church about four-and-a-half hours later.  I like baseball, but the game itself that night was for me a stage set, a context, rather than the main event.

The extravagant fireworks display following the game was worthy of a major city’s 4th of July extravaganza.  Children’s races and birthday celebrations between innings, less than spectacular ball playing, long lines for food (which I did not attempt to procure)—not to mention our choir’s pregame “green room”—did not lead me to anticipate the evening’s culmination in magnificently layered chandeliers and exploding stars.

Another view of our “green room”

Overall, some might call the evening uneven, but I call its gestalt glorious, with each element contributing: our boarding the comfortable coaches, our bus’s route past my high school and the neighborhood where I grew up and lived in recent years, the races and other antics staged between each inning, the uneventful game unfolding on the field, my sitting in the stadium with folks whom I have come to care about from seeing them at Mass or in choir practice, and even our long exile outside leftfield.

The entire evening is bathed in the joy of our singing.  I have always loved to sing.  When I was an elementary-school child in the Wilmington Friends Meeting, a woman named Evie Young, who was somewhat older than my parents, played the piano every Sunday morning for us children to sing hymns and other songs before Meeting for Worship.  Evidently I practically drove my parents out the door if I thought we might be late for the singing.  Throughout my life, singing has been one of my favorite activities—singing at camp during meals and around a campfire, singing with my parents around the piano, singing in a congregation, singing in a choir, singing and playing the guitar or piano with friends in college and in recent years.  And here we were singing at a baseball game!  It wasn’t Citizens Bank Park or Fenway Park; the ball players weren’t the Yankees and the Dodgers, but I was doing something special I had never done before.  I was singing at a ballpark with the choir I now love, and my joy overflowed.

I had no trouble in singing “God Bless America” with feeling.  Our country—the entire world—is profoundly in need of God’s blessing, given through each one of us filling our nation and planet with kindness to all people everywhere, with an absolute commitment to working together for the common good of all, and with an unrelenting dedication to healing the Earth.  How could I not have sung “God Bless America” with sincerity and enthusiasm?

Irving Berlin, the composer of “God Bless America,” photograph by Unknown – book: Irving Berlin’s Show Business, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

Landmark moments, such as Friday night’s, trail after them other life moments with which they are kin: seeing my parents holding hands as we walked through the Montreal baseball stadium on our way to an Expos game, watching the Moon rise behind the fireworks on the miraculous Labor Day my parents and I spent together at Winterthur, playing softball in the yard behind our house and hitting the ball far beyond the reach of the boy with whom I was playing, watching game 6 of the 1975 World Series, the game when Carlton Fisk hit a home run to tie the series for the Boston Red Sox.  I was watching with the couple who shared dorm-parent duties with me at the Maine boarding school where we taught.  After the game, the couple and I drove around Augusta in a celebratory excursion with no destination and no purpose other than happiness.

Trying to will oneself into happiness in the middle of pain, crisis, or loss may be impossible.  But Friday night showed me once again: deciding that a potentially pleasurable experience will, in fact, be filled with pleasure and interest can help me ride safely across small rip currents that otherwise might drag me down, if not into unhappiness, at least into disappointment.  The resulting pleasure is genuine, not forced.  The real joy inherent in the experience has been uncovered and released.

On Friday, I was not in the least disappointed, and I am blessed with new happy images to add to my long life’s vast collection of memory keepsakes.

Changing the Past

This is a long piece because it is a working-through-a-question effort.  If you choose to read the post, you will probably want to do a lot of skimming!  I’m including the piece in case any of the issues resonate with you.  The change in point of view comes when I consider what wiser voices than mine would tell me.

Just now, as I glanced through sheer curtains to the sunny morning and waving shadblow outside, I felt for a dreamlike moment the veiled scene was our backyard in Wilmington.  When I have a difficult spell, I sometimes say aloud, “I want to go home; I want to go home.”  “Home” is the little white house my parents and I shared, the home I pray they have found again in heaven.  I am not asking to join my dear ones in heaven yet—when my time does come, I beg to be with them for all eternity.  Instead, I am longing for us to return to our earthly little white house, for us to relive the joys and for me to be a better daughter.

Our little white house, drawing by Mason Hayek

What can I do to make up for the mistakes I have made that hurt those I love and others?  Can I revise, even now, the times I might have offered encouragement and loving understanding but, instead, turned away in hurt, anger, or frustration—not even understanding myself?  Can I in any way rectify the unkind things I have done?  Even though I can’t recall hurting another ever to have been my goal, it has too often been the sad result of my deficiencies.

Dear guides and loved ones in the Light, how can I make up for the unkind things I have done?

You wish with all your heart, with all your soul, you could take back the hurts you have inflicted, from your teenage years when you dreaded school and cried for loneliness to a few days ago, when you sought the cause for your not writing in external conditions instead of within yourself.  Before giving three responsibilities in “making up for” regrets, we’d like to offer a small but important and perhaps unexpected perspective on what some call “sin” but we prefer to call “mistakes” since the behavior grows out of a mistaken sense of oneself.  We would like to ask: have you not learned from the mistakes of others, from the times they hurt you through their own deficiencies?

Others’ growth from your mistakes is, of course, deeply insufficient reason for spreading sadness and dismay, but it is an outcome of which to be aware.  It is a small bloom accompanying the understanding you must seek of why you responded as you did to the confluence of facts and forces—some objective, many misread—leading to your being other than you wish to be, for the sake of others and for your own peace of mind and growth.  We mention the tiny flower of wisdom purveyed through mistakes to give you a measure of serenity as we begin our lesson.

When you are unkind—whether this unkindness is inadvertent or emerges out of your own sadness, whether you are missing an opportunity to encourage, or whether you are otherwise nourishing hurt where you might nourish love—you have three responsibilities.  The first is to figure out why you acted as you did and to grow so that you do not repeat your mistake.  Meeting this responsibility is a lifelong journey.  Our mistakes tend to sprout from the same deep roots within us.  Replacing these roots with healthy plants and tending them so their leaves and flowers thrive takes great reflection and wisdom and is gardening for a lifetime.  God gives us our lives in part in order for us to nurture and tend our souls through living, through surmounting our own mistakes and the mistakes of others.  When we acknowledge our weaknesses in a spirit of hope and then find our way to doing better, no matter the byways and detours, we are following a part of God’s plan for us.

Speaking to you individually: you have had a recent reminder of your need for the courage to mention small discomforts or concerns as they arise.  You fail to speak up because you think you may be wrong or unjustified, worry that your comments will ruffle the otherwise tranquil surface of a relationship, or, above all, fear you will be rejected or thought less of in some way.  But you know through repeated experience the answer to this question: Is it better to mention small issues calmly as they arise or to wait until a time of vulnerability and frustration blows the top off the mountain?

The fact that you have suffered (and caused suffering) all your life from your desire to please, to be perceived as each valued other would have you be, is not sufficient reason to let this problem continue to taint your days and your relationships.  Once a problem is clearly identified and understood, excuses for changing fall away, no matter how frightening the leap into change may feel.  Jump off the high dive into the beckoning, life-giving waters of growth.  Your diving may be awkward at first, and you may occasionally balk at the plunge, but to turn away is to fail to make your mistakes meaningful instead of purely cause for recurring regret and remorse.

For you another deep need for change has been within your creative life and your quest for a sense of purpose and meaning.  We will cover that challenge as part of the second responsibility we have in working with our mistakes.

That second responsibility is toward those we’ve harmed.  No matter what the hurt, we can show through both words and actions that we love and care for the other or others, sincerely and profoundly regret our hurtfulness, and have learned from it.  Words, no matter how sincerely spoken, are a beginning but are not enough.  We most honor those we have hurt, as well as ourselves, by changing the patterns that caused the unhappiness.

Words can express the content of the heart and spirit and can presage and reflect change.  About your recent emotional outburst to your dear friend over your writing, you might say to your friend (and yourself), “I have been greatly frustrated by my inability to work on my writing in any consistent way.  As you know, I place meaningful writing on a high pedestal and judge my life as severely defective if I am not able to leap high enough to reach it.  Throughout the years, I’ve sought the reasons for my not writing consistently, trying out one reason and then another, begging for insight and a way forward.  At the time of my recent outburst, my ongoing frustration with my writing linked with fatigue and an episode I felt confirmed the meaninglessness and unacceptableness of my writing efforts.  Still looking for reasons for my intense, fifty-years-in-building distress, I landed on my old standbys: inferiority in the eyes of others and failure to feel whole.

“As I emoted, you were intensely kind to me—in spite of the onslaught, in spite of my flinging out complaints.  Your kindness has given a gift of serenity, serenity enough for me also to recognize your wisdom: I’ve been trying too hard and so destroying the peace I require to write.  Others have said the same to me, but I have never, until now, been able to accept alternatives to striving, begging for insight, and praying in desperation for inspiration.

“The epiphany came last night: Write for the pure joy of writing, for the pleasure of arranging words and expressing thoughts, for the bliss of exercising a God-given skill, no matter its scope.  Write because, as you, my friend, wisely said, good thoughts flying out into the world—even those unheard or unread—help to create a better world.  We are literally all connected; consciousness is one; how can the thoughts and words of one soul not affect all others?  And through being written down, thoughts gain clarity and strength.  Writing matters to the world even when the words live only between the covers of a journal.

“After searching all my adult life, I have stopped seeking the writing route to finding my place and purpose.  And writing for the joy of writing brings with it time to write.  Before the long-sought epiphany you helped to gift to me, my ‘time to write’ meant all the details of my life were perfectly aligned and I was buoyed by ideal energy, inspiration, and the assured attention of others.  Of course, it is surprising that ‘time to write’ ever came at all.  When I’m not trying too hard, times to write become rampant.

“While I understand now why my fifty years of building frustration erupted in one more lava flow, as you witnessed, I ask your forgiveness for the distress I gave to you and all I said that felt unkind.  With all my heart I wish I could remove the pain I gave to you.  What I can do, must do, and will do is, with gratitude to you and to God and our loved ones in the Light, remember and practice what you have helped me, finally, to see.”

You can share these words with your treasured friend face to face.  In much the same way, you can share newfound understanding with your parents and those others in heaven whom you pray to heal from your hurtfulness, from the hurt or hollowness within you that erupted to scald them or fail to bolster their courage and joy, honor their wonderful strengths, and help fill their own hollow places.  By your words written and spoken to those who have gone to the Light, you can share your insight growing out of experience.  They hear you.  And above all, they see your growth.

And what of those in this life with whom we have lost touch or severed ties?  We can speak or write to them, too, even when we know they will not directly hear or read our words.  As you and we have said, healing words and thoughts put out into the world, through prayer or through any sincere expression of meaning and emotion, touch every other soul because all of us—on Earth and on the other side—are linked through the unified consciousness pulsing through God’s creation.

Our third responsibility in the face of hurtful mistakes is to deny ourselves the right to wallow in remorse.  While we are actively mourning our past behavior, we are holding back our ability to change in the present.  The goal is not to forget the regretted past; the requirement is to understand it, release (as best we can) the regret we feel into the river of life, and renew our place in Ongoing Conversion, as the Franciscans describe the God-given river of life’s ever-flowing, ever-nourishing offer of learning and growth.

Finally, we would like to mention a difference between Earth time and God’s time.  We on Earth view time as linear, with an unchangeable past and a relentlessly approaching future.  In God’s time, in which our loved ones in the Light share, the whole is visible: all you are; all you can be; your hurts and your hurting of others; the vast love, joy, and kindness you give, have given, and will give; the lessons you have learned; the ways you are continuing to struggle; the glorious soul you are; and the unwavering brilliance of your spirit even as you feel your light has dimmed.

So go on with optimism, courage, and peace of mind.  Even on the other side your spirit will continue to evolve.  Along with releasing the reasons for failing sometimes to make the world a better place for you and others, release the remorse you feel for your lapses, even the most distressing.  Never cease to learn, never blame others for your not growing, and strive never again to be unkind or unloving.  But let the pain you feel dissolve in God’s endless river of life—helping to guide your journey but not becoming boulders and rapids hindering your way.

Time

“I am illusory,
But yet you worship me;
I am real as a dream is real:
With meaning
But without substance.

“Why do you bow down to me
With fear and anxious hurrying?

“The Universe asks me to serve,
Not to rule,
To give moments, memories,
The years of your life.

“Walk with me
As I walk with you:
Gently,
Although unceasingly.

“If you slow your pace,
I will not drag or push you;
I will beckon, but patiently,
Cushioning the future with beauty
From the past you have known.”

Escaping the Swamp

Good morning.  I have wasted mornings, days, weeks, years, decades—perhaps my life?  I look back and see that some things did happen, that I even helped a few good things to happen, but I have much to regret.  As I type now, Pachelbel’s Canon in D is playing on my computer.  Almost exactly half of my lifetime ago, I skated for a minute-long solo to Pachelbel’s Canon, as played by James Galway on his gold flute.  I was taking part in a skating competition held in a small rink in College Park, Maryland.  I was in the second category: silver.  The best skaters were in the gold group.  But because of that afternoon, I know what it is like to be alone moving on the ice to the melody and rhythm of the music playing, the music I’d chosen, the routine I’d developed.  I was terrified, and my closing spin spun very little and threatened to tip over.  I won first place in my small category, in which at 35 I was the eldest by far.  Winning the ribbon wasn’t much of an accomplishment, but my minute on the ice is a moment I call to the surface from time to time, happy to have known it, to have had the chance to move to the music across the smooth ice, all on my own.

Another small skating milestone

But when I look back at my remembered moments from the past year, relentlessly massing games of Scrabble loom above all else, and I feel sad for what I have done and not done.  Somehow much good happened, too: evenings with a soulmate friend, a new spiritual home, our choir, the Follies and My Fair Lady, the interfaith service where I shared with my friends and neighbors a little about my dear sweet mother, acceptable classes taught and taken, even somehow a billiards trophy in the fall for my pool partner and me.  But the past year has ridden on a swamp of words on my Kindle’s Scrabble board, along with words repeated over and over again on the news channel that is my choice.

Where are the words I want so vehemently to send in good order to pages in my journal or my blog?  I’ve lost the train of thought undergirding my life, submerged it in the words of distraction from my desperation, wishing and fishing for something of worth to think, note, and share.  My thoughts have drowned in random words found within seven letters and the relentless repetition of distressing news—because this past year, as in all the years of my life since age six, I couldn’t figure out who and what I was supposed to be.  I wouldn’t choose among the limited possibilities that came to mind, all failing to announce, “Here is what you have to offer, to say, to share.  Here is how you are meant to write in order to serve.”

And so here I am, about to move into another decade, one that those still young or middle aged consider several steps into decrepitude.  Living where I do, I know that friends and neighbors twenty years older than I are moving not into decay but into ongoing vibrancy and meaning.  So it is not too late for me—and not too late for anyone who has a future of even a little time.  But how much longer am I going to wait before I live every day, before my life is no longer a series of green islands poking up out of vast swampy waters?  These waters are not within God’s ocean but are murky places in which the sustaining, renewing minerals, vegetation, and living beings are choked out and the air is filled with ensnaring expectations and Siren songs.  The luring voices tell me to find more, be more, discover my calling, change lives through my words (when I’m struggling to keep my own afloat), and expect Epiphany to leap from the wasteland words to rescue me, finally, from the frustration and years now drowning me.

I own both a Kindle and a Nook.  Last night, in the middle of my hours of bombarding myself with random words and others’ words while hoping, of course, for my own to appear and arrange themselves into meaning and purpose, I scrolled through the titles on my Nook and was aghast at their number.  Dozens and dozens of other worthwhile books fill my five bookcases and my Kindle.  I pick up a book, read several pages, leave the book for a few days as I sample another, lose the train of meaning in the first book, and go on to a third, all the while praying that my life’s meaning will rise from the pages.  I lose courage again, of course, failing to find salvation in my library any more than I’ve found salvation in accumulating games of Scrabble or the pronouncements of pundits on MSNBC.

During my summers in a girls’ camp in Maine, one of my favorite special activities was canoeing or paddling a small sailboat in the swamp at the far side of the lake.  I loved the mysterious entangling fronds, the inlets leading nowhere, and the dragonflies hovering over the murky water beyond the tiny one-tree island we called Japanese Island.  But after a half-hour of exploring the shallow water filled with weeds and the stumps of long-submerged trees, we always traveled back into the broad open expanse of the lake, paddling or sailing on toward our destination: a point on which to unroll our sleeping bags for the night or the lodges and cabins that were our home for the summer.

As another decade in my life turns over, will I, finally, paddle or sail out of the maze-like swamp that I have allowed to hold me captive all these years and find my way to open waters—waters where the landing places and destinations, if less exotic than the swamp, are nevertheless places of shelter and possibilities?

I have, in fact, attempted countless times to exit my swamp.  Often I’ve tried constructing a detailed map: a schedule of what I will do and accomplish every day.  My record for following a schedule is one month, and that schedule was only a calendar giving the two or three tasks I absolutely must complete each day in order to have any hope of meeting a mass of responsibilities looming like an iceberg.  Most often my schedules are ambitious outlines specifying the times—10 a.m. to 11, 6:30 p.m. to 7:15, and so on—during which, I decree, I will write poetry and prose, practice the flute and piano, pay bills, compose letters, clean my apartment, learn the dulcimer and ukulele, study Italian and French, read worthy books—every day.  Success in following such schedules has rarely lasted even a single day.

As I approach and enter my new life decade, I have chosen a simpler, more direct route for exiting my swamp.  Each morning I will meditate and write something—just something, without requirements for length, style, meaning, or merit.  Many writing gurus opine that writing by hand, with a pen in a physical journal, leads to the most satisfactory alignment of thoughts turned into sentences.  But I’m allowing myself to write on the computer if I choose.  I type rapidly and easily, and so when I open a new document in Word, I can find it filling with words before I’ve had a chance to frighten myself with the weight and magnificence I think each phrase should carry.  As I write, I will listen to music.  Right now, I’m typing as my hero Andrea Bocelli sings “Au fond du temple Saint” with Bryn Terfel.  I love music, am lifted by music, but in my swamp, I’ve usually failed even to decorate my days with the voices and melodies I love—perhaps partly because music can wallop us with memories, loss, and regret.  Yet the gifts of music are greater even than the sadness it can evoke.

Throughout every day, I will carry a small notebook to record impressions from any reading I may do and from the day’s meaningful moments.  I will make no demands about the pithiness or purposefulness of my notebook entries, which will be designed to prevent impressions and experiences from slipping below the murky surface of memory.  Some of the entries in my notebook may—or might not—inspire my morning writing or other writing I choose to do.

The rest of every day will be made of conscious choices, instead of reactive floundering in the grip of swampy weed words—Scrabble, television, and the discouraging messages filling my mind.  I may play the flute one morning and spend another at Mass with my friend.  I may make a bead necklace, play show tunes on the piano, walk by the pond, practice my lines for an upcoming play, read an entertaining book or great literature, review Italian grammar, pull together a blog entry, or briefly see what my friends have to say on Facebook.  And yes, I may watch a television program while I play games of Scrabble on my Kindle.  But I will undertake each activity purposefully, whether it is a short visit to the swamp or a trip across the open waters of creativity, friendship, and learning.  Of course some things should be or have to be done; life’s demands balance life’s delights and opportunities.  And helping when the possibility appears gives joy as well as service.  Balance is hard to find when I am living in—not just visiting—the swamp.

So get ready to come about: I’m sailing out of Swamp Winnie and heading for open waters.

A Belated Happy Mother’s Day, Dear Mother

Next week, at an interfaith Mother’s Day (belated) service being held in the community where I live, I’ll have the pleasure of talking about my mother.  Here’s what I plan to say:

My parents—Doris Lynn Burgess Hayek and Mason Hayek—and I were a team.  I am an only child who never married or had children.  All my life, whether we lived in the same home or several states apart, my parents and I were almost a single individual, forever present in one another’s heart, always seeking to come together to complete the whole.  If a misunderstanding arose, it was a temporary indisposition within our indivisible being.  In honor of Mother’s Day just passed, I would like to tell you about my mother.

Many of you knew her.  Today I want to recall a little about what my mother gave through the beautiful example of her life.  I was infinitely blessed to be her daughter.  She was an ideal mother.  (I was not, however, always an ideal daughter.)  I have, I hope, learned some from my faults and regrets, and I have learned what I aspire to be: as much like my mother—like both my parents, in fact—as I can possibly become.  I still have a ways to go!

I would like my recollections to bring to mind experiences of your own, ways a parent, child, or spouse, another relative, a friend, or even a stranger has touched your life.  And I hope you will think about how much the gifts of love and nurturing that you have given—and simply your wonderful ways of being—continue to matter.  I want to show how much what may seem like the little things can change a life—and, by extension, help to change the world.

On May 4, 2007, I was with my mother as she received the key to her Maris Grove apartment.  How touched I was to see her name plate on the door and then to enter my dear little mother’s new home, her first alone.  We had lost my father almost three years earlier.  I came to visit my mother at Maris Grove nearly every day after work and then moved in with her four years later.  I will likely live in our apartment for the rest of my time, but it will continue to be hers in my heart—her doll house, as she once called it.  Now, sitting at the little table where we ate, I crave to ask, “Mother, for breakfast, would you like one egg or two?”  Almost everything in the apartment carries history that I love and tells me I am not alone.

When I see the piano my father gave my mother, I am grateful for my mother’s love of music, which my father shared and which my parents passed along to me, giving me lifelong joy.  Mother also played the saxophone in her college marching band and sang solos, and in ensembles, beginning in her childhood.  My father said she had the most beautiful soprano voice he had ever heard, and I agree with his assessment.  We three often sang together at the piano, and my mother and I played piano and flute duets when I was young.  At Christmastime, neighbors came to sing carols around the piano while my mother, playing by ear, accompanied us.  Throughout the years I loved to hear my mother’s spirited rendition of the “Maple Leaf Rag” and other Scott Joplin tunes.

My mother was a talented actress who starred in community, high-school, and college performances and directed community and school plays.  In more recent years, she enjoyed theater courses at the University of Delaware’s Academy of Lifelong Learning.  As her memoir, called Paint Lick, shows, she was likewise a skilled storyteller; in her 90s she could still recreate conversations from her girlhood, including accurately doing the voices.

For those of you who did not get to meet my mother, as well as for those who knew her, I’d like to share an excerpt from my mother’s 2009 Maris Grove Follies monologue; my mother was 92 then.  The monologue is “Housecleaning,” by Arthur Strimling; it describes a system for avoiding housecleaning in favor of more pleasurable activities.

Mother was delightfully sociable and delighted in company.  Even in the last months of her life, she wanted us to have neighbors come to tea or visit on our patio.  My mother loved and valued her friends and community, from Maris Grove back through her girlhood village, tiny Paint Lick, Kentucky.  In her memoir, my mother writes, “We neighbors were almost like a single family. . . . And I was a child who had an appreciation for family and friends and for all the things that happened in our lives.”

The joy that my mother—both my parents—gave me in my early years has bathed my life with comforting love that endured even during the years when I struggled to get my feet under me.  The embracing love continues to hold me now.  I can’t imagine any young child feeling happier than I was.  My mother invented games for long, rainy afternoons and read me stories and poetry—about Reddy Fox and Old Granny Fox and about the elephant whose trunk got tangled in the telephone.  When I was very small, Mother let me take out pots and pans and items such as little salt and pepper shakers so I could line them all up on the kitchen floor in what I thought of as a parade.  I was thrilled to be doing such a fun and daring thing.

On my birthdays, beginning when I turned two, she invited children from the neighborhood and baked pretty cakes decorated with gumdrops.  She drove away the big boys who scared me, took walks with me, had the courage to let me swing upside down between the swing set and the jungle gym Daddy had built for me, made Ovaltine when I couldn’t sleep, drove my friends and me to ballet, bathed my foot in baking soda when I stepped on a bee, didn’t mind when I took my child-sized doll—Suzie—swimming in the wading pool, and held my hand when we shopped together in Wanamaker’s.  I wish I could hold that dear little hand right now.

I remember walking with Mother in Hearns grocery store in Fairfax, north of Wilmington, when I was four.  We were in the far aisle near the frozen foods, and I looked up at her and thought, “My mother is so pretty; I’ll never be able to be that pretty.”  And her beauty was complete; it included, as Daddy said, everything she did and everything she was.

Just as I knew at four that I could never live up to my mother’s beauty, I have known all my life that she was filled with beautiful qualities to which I can only aspire.  She was dainty and refined, yet she was also strong in the very best sense.  She lived with integrity and, above all, was the essence of kindness and caring.

In addition to her music and acting, she drew delightful pictures of whimsical characters, danced gracefully, along with my father took numerous courses in Adlerian psychology, baked the best bread anyone ever ate, encouraged others through her teaching and the parent study groups she led, and could host a crowd for dinner with skill, warmth, and grace.  When I heard her speak in our Quaker Meeting for Worship, I knew I was hearing wisdom informed by love, by the infinite love in her heart, by the love I feel from her still.

One of her Meeting messages stressed that Jesus told us to be kind to one another.  And my mother was universally kind.  I recall a visit my parents and I made to my cousin Shirley, who then had a far-advanced illness and was in a care facility.  A frail woman who was clearly lost and distressed wandered into Shirley’s room.  I’ll never forget my mother’s putting her arm around this woman, reassuring her, and guiding her to someone who could help.  This gesture reflected the kindness my mother radiated throughout her life.  She gave unconditional love, and her last words to me were, “I love you.”

My mother kept her enthusiasm and spirit of adventure.  At Maris Grove, she was an early member of the Players, took Janet Ellwood’s memoir-writing class three times, including twice with me, co-founded the Writers’ Group with me, and aspired to learn to play pool, although time got in the way of her reaching that goal.  One of the Maris Grove Thru the Lens television episodes was my mother’s account of her first year of teaching, in a rural two-room school.

My mother and I had wonderful fun together, from my first year to her last.  When we were together at Maris Grove, she often asked, “What are we going to do for fun today?” or “What do we have interesting on the schedule?”  “Let’s take a walk,” she frequently suggested, or “Maybe we can eat on the patio tonight.”  In 2006 and 2011, we drove to New York City to attend Lincoln Center concerts by Andrea Bocelli.  We loved our humbler pleasures, too: shopping trips to Whole Foods, joint games of solitaire, our breakfasts at the little dining table in our apartment, summer afternoons on our patio, and of course the clubs to which we belonged.  At an informal Maris Grove concert and then at a friend’s wedding, we danced a brief cha-cha.  We sang “You Are My Sunshine” on the way to supper.  We loved window shopping in catalogs, visiting with neighbors, riding in the community bus—while holding hands—phoning our relatives, hugging, and simply soaking in the pleasure of each other’s company.

Throughout her almost 97 years, my mother continued to be fully engaged with the present and to anticipate the future with optimism.  She read extensively on alternative and complementary medicine, seeking ways to improve her own health and that of those she loved.  In her early 90s, when my mother was suffering from multiple bleeding ulcers, her doctor and other medical people who saw her condition did not expect her to survive.  She herself fully expected both to survive and to recover her health, and she succeeded in doing so for almost five years.

On Labor Day in 1999, my parents and I shopped at a craft fair held at Winterthur, north of Wilmington.  My mother and I bought the silver and glass necklaces that were among our favorite jewelry from then on.  I still wear one of these necklaces more days than not.  For an afternoon meal, we drove a few miles up Kennett Pike to the Mendenhall Inn.  When we returned to Winterthur, we parked in the lot nearest the visitor center and took a jitney to the area where the Delaware Symphony would be performing that evening.  Fireworks followed the concert, and the rising full Moon outshone the bursting colors.  When it was time to return to our car, we realized the jitney was no longer running, and everyone else in the throng had parked on a nearby field.  The three of us walked down the long road to our car together, holding hands in the moonlight.  Now every night when I talk to my parents and say my prayers, I revisit that walk in my memory.

And when I take my nighttime walks along the Maris Grove hallways, I talk and sing to Mother and Daddy, pause by benches my sweet mama and I once shared, and look out from the bridges at the night sky.  Sometimes I extend my arms and hug my dear ones, hoping they are with me.  I believe they are.  And I believe everyone you have most loved—parent, child, other relative, or friend—is with you.  And every gift of love you have given to your dear ones continues to bless them, wherever they are, now and forever.

Notre Dame de Paris Burned Today

Drawing by Mason Hayek

Notre Dame de Paris burned today,
France’s cathedral, the world’s cathedral,
And mine,
A place of the soul, the heart, my heart
Burning with the toppling spire,
Collapsing roof,
Melting glass,
And now-charred altar.

Parisians sang hymns
As ferocious flames
Flew embers of what had been
Across the City of Light,
Nearly extinguished tonight.

I was in Notre Dame de Paris
On a January Sunday—
The 2nd, according to my journal—
Forty-seven years ago;
The organ’s melodies and harmonies
Billowed into the vaulted roof,
Through the rose windows,
Along the flying buttresses,
Into the Paris evening,
And then a priest chanted Mass.

I was twenty-two that evening
And had craved French and France
At least since I’d been nine,
And there I was:
Paris and her cathedral
Welcomed me to a world
Where desires turned into possibilities,
And then became true.

I wrote in my journal that 2 janvier 1972,
“C’est les fois comme ceci quand je voudrais être catholique.”
And this week I will turn Catholic,
Five days after Notre Dame has burned.

Perhaps from a city, a world, of prayers,
The walls and towers of our cathedral
Still stand;
I hear the organ has been saved,
And some of the art,
Perhaps a rose window;
Already hope has returned:
Notre Dame de Paris
Will one day again be whole,
Not as it was,
But remembered, honored,
Resurrected.

I, too, am not as I was,
But I carry my weeks in Paris,
My visit in Notre Dame,
Within me as I make my way,
Burned and illuminated,
Through time.

Just as the first flames ate into the spire,
I finished my turn as the day’s leader
For our French literature class
Of lifelong learners whose love
For the language and culture
Still burns,
Lighting our aging lives.

And above my bureau
Hangs my father’s drawing
Of Notre Dame de Paris
Beyond the Pont Neuf.

Rising with Lazarus

Vincent van Gogh, The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt), oil on canvas, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

In the RCIA[1] Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday of Lent, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  Through this story, in John 11:1-45, we receive dramatic proof of Jesus’ divinity and his power as the Son of God.  But we also learn that Jesus—and so God—experiences the deeply human emotion of grief.  And it is Jesus’ love and empathy, as reflected in his grief, that represent the greatest of the lessons John conveys through the story.

Jesus weeps, even while knowing Lazarus will continue in this life, as well as gain eternal life after his time on Earth.  Jesus understands and shares the sorrow that Martha and Mary and their friends experience; he takes their grief into himself and weeps for the loss of his friend, however temporary that loss.  Jesus is like us in loving his friends and mourning their suffering.

Yes, the story is also about having absolute faith in Jesus, in God.  And it is about God’s extraordinary, absolute power.  And yes, the story reminds us that after our earthly death comes eternal life.  Through Martha and Mary, the scripture shows us models of faith rising out of doubt.  But it is John’s portrait of a loving Jesus as he performs his miracle that matters most.

Love is the heart of Jesus, and love must be the heart of Christianity and of us all.  Love must be our essence if we human beings are ever to rise from our suffering—our wars; our cruelty and indifference; our bickering and antagonism toward one another; our world filled with violence, starvation, inequality, cruelty, and selfish disregard for our brothers and sisters around the globe; our false value of pernicious power.  When Jesus uses his power, it is for the benefit of others, not for domination over them.

Jesus said, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).  Nothing else—not humanly defined success and not our humanly conceived laws, rituals, and judgments—are as important as love for God and for one another and all of God’s creation.  If we are not acting out of love, we are not acting as Christians.  In what to me is the most moving sentence in the story of Lazarus, John tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”  Jesus loves each one of us; he loves every single human being without exception.  We must rise to follow his example if we are to raise our world from the near death to which we have brought it.

We should not leave the Gospel story of Lazarus without further considering its implications for us.  Of course the most astounding event here is Lazarus’ return from the dead.  Beyond allowing Jesus to show that he is, indeed, the Christ, the Son of God, the story invites us to let resurrection come into our own lives through our belief in Jesus, his love for us, and the power of love, hope, and faith.

So many of us allow small deaths to enter our lives.  We lose hope because of illness, infirmity, aging, and countless other losses.  We tell ourselves, “I am too old (or too whatever) to learn.”  “I can’t change now.” “I’m just a burden; what do I have to give?”  “I was never any good at ___.”  (And we all fill in the blank differently.)  But Jesus’ love for us teaches us that we do matter.  We wouldn’t be here if we did not have God’s Light within us, if we had nothing to learn, if we had nothing to give.

Let the hope fed by God’s love be rekindled within you.  Follow love’s leading, as Jesus did.  Let God’s love raise you out of any discouragement keeping you from the life you could be knowing—loving others, loving yourself, and using the vast gifts God has given you.  Without your gifts, the world is poorer: whether those gifts are in the kindness of your smile, the beauty of your music, your skill in organizing or inspiring, or your grace in allowing others to help you in your genuine need.  It is never too late to be reborn within God’s love.


[1] RCIA stands for the “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.”  I am the only convert coming into our parish this year.  If an RCIA participant is present, the Gospel readings for three Sundays during Lent are selected to apply to the RCIA conversion experience and are the focus of a three-part ceremony called the Scrutinies.  This week’s Scrutiny is based on the story of Lazarus and will likely focus on my (and all converts’) “resurrection” from the supposed deathlike state of being a non-Catholic; of course I reject any notion that one religion has a corner on spirituality.  While I see the Catholic Church’s considerable faults, I love the church I am joining as reflected in the beautiful lives of practitioners around the globe, such as the Sisters of St. Francis, who live the Gospel through their service to others and celebration of God’s creation.  And I find great joy worshipping within our welcoming congregation and honoring God through the music I have the privilege to sing in our choir.

Summer Camp Lessons for Life

During my summers at camp in Maine, I learned all the usual things, such as how to do the backstroke and how to climb back into an overturned canoe. I learned to shoot a bow and arrow and grout the tiles in an ashtray. I learned to use a compass, build a fire, and dig a latrine. I learned a new level of humiliation by crashing my sailboat into an opponent’s during the camp regatta. While I no longer grout ashtrays, dig latrines, or sail in regattas, seven of the lessons from summer camp have kept their value throughout the decades.

Lesson One: If you win praise, some folks won’t be happy.

I arrived at camp the first summer determined to master all the camp activities in eight weeks. I was eleven and didn’t have much skill with which to begin, especially in swimming. When I was tested the first day, I closed my eyes, jumped into the lake, and swam in circles while the counselors hollered at me to stop.

By the end of week six, I still wasn’t out of the beginners’ area, but I could swim in a straight line. The counselors awarded me a swimming “badge” for my effort. I came back from breakfast one morning to find the decal had been added to the others on the green felt banner over my bed.

That same morning, I heard my cabinmate Samantha complaining about what a goody-goody I was. She hadn’t received her swimming badge yet, even though she was one of the best swimmers in the entire intermediate unit. The next day during cabin cleanup, Samantha grabbed my tennis racket and hit me over the head with it. Just before rest period after lunch, she hid my toothbrush, my jacks and ball, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and my regulation green bathing suit. After supper, Samantha and two of her friends chased me around the outside of the infirmary building. When I managed to escape and hide in the shower house, I heard them call me a witch as they passed by.

The following morning after breakfast, Samantha had a swimming badge on her banner. We learned she should have gotten it the day I received mine, but there had been a mix-up. Over the course of the day, my toothbrush, jacks and ball, book, and bathing suit reappeared on my bed.

Lesson Two: If you’re really good at something, people will pay attention to you.

During my first year at camp, I was not very good at tennis or canoeing, but I could beat everyone at jacks. I knew fifteen fancies, like “Pigs in the Blanket” and “Around the World,” and I could remove a single jack from a tangled pile without disturbing the rest. I won both jacks tournaments that summer and was considered one of the camp’s all-time best.

Being tops at jacks did not bring me lots of friends, but practically everyone wanted to play jacks with me. Even if most girls were just attracted by the chance to beat me, I didn’t mind. I never had to play jacks alone.

Lesson Three: Events with the boys’ camp won’t live up to expectations.

One Friday night during the summer when I was twelve, we older intermediate girls put on our Sunday uniforms and traveled by open truck to watch a movie at our brother camp a few miles down the lake. Missy, Laura, and Samantha—the first, second, and third most popular girls in our unit—wore pink lipstick and rubbed some of it into their cheeks. We all curled our hair.

The movie turned out to be a western. The boys sat in the back of their lodge, while we girls sat in front. I barely even caught sight of a boy.

The following summer we were old enough for dances. Truckloads of boys were deposited at our lodge, or we were trucked to theirs. The counselors teamed up for bush patrol. Each year there seemed to be exactly three cute boys, one each for Missy, Laura, and Samantha. I liked it best when the dances were held at our camp because I could sneak back to my cabin and read a book by flashlight. The year I was fourteen, my best friend, Louise, and I survived two dances by hiding in the woods and discussing the Beatles.

When I was fifteen, I did actually spend a dance with a boy, but I found him highly uninteresting. After the last slow song he kissed me, my first kiss.

Lesson Four: Some of the folks in charge simply won’t like you.

All of my cabin counselors were lovely and kind young women, except for Betsy. Betsy let me know I had no hope of ever being popular like Missy, Laura, and Samantha. Therefore she found me boring and not worth her attention. Betsy had been a camper before she was a counselor. I figured she had been just like Samantha. Betsy told me about my flat singing, mousy hair, and feeble tennis strokes. Once when I had such a bad sunburn that my back blistered, Betsy was annoyed because I groaned in my sleep and disturbed her rest.

Each summer on the second-to-last night of camp, we had a special banquet. The counselors decorated the lodge with pine boughs and candles and danced and sang songs they had made up about the summer. When I saw Betsy up there singing about Sports Day and the Fourth of July and all the other now-past times, I started to cry a little. Maybe I was going to miss Betsy. Maybe she was not such a bad counselor after all. Maybe with more time we could have been friends.

When we went back to the cabin after the banquet, Betsy hollered at me for accidentally banging into her foot locker.

Lesson Five: Yes, there can be too much of a good thing.

Every Wednesday evening, we had a cookout and ate hamburgers and hotdogs, with watermelon for dessert. On Sunday nights, if we turned in a letter home, we were given Italian sandwiches, and watermelon for dessert. For the first three summers, I ate two or three pieces of watermelon each Wednesday and Sunday. By the fifth summer, I passed up the watermelon entirely.

I didn’t grow tired of the ice cream we had at noon on Sundays, or of canoeing or sailing a boat, but overnight camping trips suffered the same fate as the watermelon. My first year I was allowed to go on an overnight to a small pine-covered point of land directly across the mile-wide lake from the camp. I was as happy as an adult on a ten-day cruise. When I looked up from my warm sleeping bag, all the stars in the Universe shone out there in front of me, with the Milky Way a nearly solid band of white. The donut holes and French toast we cooked over the fire for breakfast were, to my mind, among the best things I’d ever eaten.

Four years later, I was an experienced camper. As a reward I was scheduled to go on seven trips, most of them for three or four days at a time. That summer was unusually rainy. Between some outings, my sneakers didn’t even have time to dry out. My life was cold rain, dirt, and bugs. I learned about the impossibility of feeling warm and dry sleeping in a tent during a storm, no matter how diligently we had dug the trenches. The buzz of mosquitoes and black flies mingled with the sound of rain hitting canvas.

Lesson Six: Simple pleasures are enduring pleasures.

Right from the first night of camp, I loved singing all the songs. We sang at every meal, during evening program, on trips, and around the campfire. We tried harmony to “Witchcraft” and “Seven Daffodils.” We shouted out the happy songs, especially while we bumped along the Maine roads in the back of a truck. I still remember the words to our favorites.

On Sundays we could sleep half an hour extra. After breakfast, we were free until service in the pine grove at eleven. Counselors, counselors-in-training, and campers from the three units took turns presenting the service. Even when I was just an intermediate camper, I always felt peaceful in the pine grove. I’d lean back on my elbows against the steep hillside and look up to the very tops of the trees, where the green branches began. The sound of guitars and singing spread through the otherwise silent grove and over the empty cabins and quiet lake below. The motorboats didn’t appear until afternoon. As I listened to the music, my fingers played with the long, thick red-pine needles and the neat little five-needle bundles from the white pines.

After grove service, we were free until lunch, which always included chicken with cranberry sauce and mustard pickles. After rest hour we were on our own again until supper. The only activity scheduled was a free swim at four. As I grew older, I used all the glorious spare time in different ways. The first two years I spent most of every Sunday playing jacks. Other summers I followed my secret path along the lake to a huge flat rock in a clearing hidden from view at camp. I could read all afternoon. Some Sundays, Louise and I looked for frogs or four-leaf clovers while we discussed religion, philosophy, and rock ’n roll stars.

During the cold Maine nights—especially in August, when the first leaves started turning red—I slept under seven blankets and left my bathrobe on for a little extra warmth. The seven blankets served a second purpose. They created a tent under which I could read after “Taps” without being discovered. The dimmer my flashlight, the cozier I was. I read Little Women under the blankets my second summer at camp. I’d already read it three or four times before, but Jo and her sisters were a comforting contrast to Missy, Laura, and Samantha.

Lesson Seven: If you’re in charge, you have to act as if you know what you’re doing.

While I was a camper and counselor-in-training, someone else was always in charge. When I became a counselor, I had trouble with the fact I was the one who was supposed to know just what to do.

On one camping trip with a dozen eight- and nine-year-olds, we ran out of firewood. Sarah, the other counselor on the trip, had never used an ax. She and the little girls followed me into the woods to watch me fell a small tree.

When a thunderstorm broke while I was on top of a mountain with eight junior campers, I wondered whether my counselors had ever felt as nervous as I did listening to the thunder coming closer.

One night about an hour after “Taps,” another counselor, Trudy, and I heard screaming and running feet as we walked near our duplex cabin. Cabin Four was hers, Cabin Three mine. A bat was flying around inside. While Trudy and I were giving the girls a “bats are our friends” talk, the bat flew at Trudy, who screamed and ran out the door. I never did coax the bat to leave, but eventually he settled down and so did the girls. For the rest of the summer, he spent his days hanging upside down from a beam in the Cabin Three ceiling. If you’re in charge, you can’t complain about what lives over your bed.

Seeking Divinity

God is the Light in the oneness of being,
In you, in me,
In the rays of the Sun piercing evening clouds,
Moon reaching out to Jupiter,
Sycamore standing against the sky,
And homeless woman begging sustenance;
In the squirrel patting soil on his acorn,
Fly harassing the picnic,
Horse running free in the field,
And poacher killing elephants for ivory;
In families fleeing their bomb-wracked city
And tyrants unleashing their scorn.

God is the Light in the oneness of being,
In the child who is frightened of guns in his school
And the cowards who hide behind guns,
In gorillas, whales, and wolves,
In a wood-thrush trill and the coo of a dove,
In the killer who’s cruelly taken a life
And those aping virtue demanding his,
In destructive storms and stinging hornets,
Majestic rivers and ancient trees—
Those ruined and those that remain—
Whole countries nearly forsaken,
And an elderly couple in love.

God is the Light in the oneness of being,
Though smothered by cruelty and hate.

Winds of Change?

The whirlwind swirls:
I ride the coiling winds
Around the hollow core;
Flying off frequently
Into nettles on the verge
Or quicksand by the water,
I am, at other moments,
In magic-seeming meadows
Redolent with flowers
Riotous in scent and color
Decorating loneliness
Rather than serenity.

Rousing, I throw myself
Again into the vortex,
Rejoin the reassuring buffeting,
The enveloping pleasures
And constricting turmoil.

Having lost my perpetually sought path,
My road to meaning
Hidden in the tumult,
I ricochet through possibilities,
Jostle against necessities,
And trail beckoning
Attractions and distractions
Through another day, another month,
Through all my years.

So far.