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.

Love at the Met

I had been sorry I’d not reserved better seats to hear Andrea Bocelli perform a program called Three Centuries of Love at the Metropolitan Opera on February 10, 2019.  But as the experience unfolded, I found ecstasy in our lofty perch.  Seated in the Family Circle not far from the opera house’s gold ceiling, my friend and I sent our eyes and emotions out over the entire scene, the chandeliers like constellations, the balconies and box seats filled with admirers of our beloved Andrea, and the stage, the site of the glories to come.

The view from our seats: The audience begins to arrive.

My friend and I had left southeastern Pennsylvania at nine in the morning, crossed the bridge into New Jersey, and then followed the turnpike to Manhattan.  The morning was clear and still, although snow was forecast for late evening.  Near the Newark Airport, we witnessed the New York skyline rise on the horizon like a near miracle.  Choosing the George Washington Bridge instead of a more efficient but somewhat terrifying tunnel, we nevertheless reached the city before noon.

The night before, I’d consulted maps and online directions, checked repeatedly that the concert tickets hadn’t somehow jumped out of my purse, figured out what to wear—and been unable to fall asleep for half the night.  But from the moment my little blue car’s tires touched Manhattan pavement, excited energy made any lack of sleep irrelevant.

A few runners and bikers followed the path between the Henry Hudson Parkway and the river.  A taxi driver honked when I didn’t turn a corner from 79th Street fast enough to suit him.  Two dozen fat pigeons had lined up side by side on a railing, perhaps to watch the funny humans pass by in their vehicles and on foot.  Pedestrians swarmed across the street with no apparent notice of the cars and buses that needed to stop to let them cross.

My friend read aloud the directions to the parking garage that I had copied from the Internet.  Everyone we encountered was helpful: “No it’s not this entrance to the parking garage; it’s around the corner on Amsterdam.”  “No it’s not this Amsterdam entrance to the garage; it’s the next one.”  “No it’s not this barcode on your parking reservation; it’s this one—that’s why the gate wouldn’t open.”  We might as well have had a siren on the car announcing, “Visitors from out of town.”

But we visitors had a day we will remember all the rest of our still, we hope, many years to come.

After a quick browse through the Met Opera Shop, we searched for and found our chosen lunch spot—Indie Food and Wine.  The route there took us outside, down some steps, around a corner, and inside the Film Society of Lincoln Center, across from the Juilliard School.  Our sandwiches on ciabatta were large, inexpensive, and delicious.

Back up the outdoor steps we trudged (my friend was amazed by how many steps she added over the course of the day to her Fitbit total).  This time our visit to the Met Opera Shop was more thorough and included buying souvenir programs destined to receive Andrea’s autograph after the concert.  For most of the remaining two hours before we could find our seats, we sat on a marble bench inside the Met’s front entrance and people watched.

A few long-gowned, spike-heeled young women were among the early arrivals.  A see-through, calf-length skirt in gold lace got mixed reviews.  By the time we had a bigger sample to observe, outfits ranged from ready to dig in the garden to ready to greet the Queen.  By three, the hard-core fans were steadily arriving.  We, Andrea’s worldwide massively devoted following, tend to be middle aged and older, although with some exceptions.  In addition to watching the well-dressed young people in the lobby, we noticed the two glamorous, Spanish-speaking young women directly in front of our seats in the Family Circle; they seemed to be rapt listeners during the concert.

Waiting on our marble bench for the opera-house doors to open at four, I kept an eye out for Bocelli fans from Texas whom I’ve known online for years.  We never found each other, but I spotted two other online friends, friends I’d first met at Andrea’s 2011 Metropolitan Opera recital, when my then-93-year-old mother was also in attendance.  During Sunday’s concert, I felt my music-loving parents’ presence, sharing joy in the magnificent sounds.

About the time the lobby became nearly impassably thronged, the doors to the opera house opened, and we found our way up red-carpeted steps, then up an elevator, and then up more steps to our perch.  We had indeed reached heaven, as we would know when the concert began at five.

Just before concert time

The exceptional Metropolitan Opera Orchestra took the stage.  The concertmaster played the tuning note for the other musicians.  Conductor Eugene Kohn entered to applause; he is well known and admired by Bocelli fans.  The orchestra opened the concert with the ballet music “Navarraise,” from Massanet’s Le cid.  The forceful beat and accelerating rhythm fed my state of near levitation as I anticipated who would come next.

The conductor left his podium and returned with Andrea; we, the audience, greeted our hero.  He opened with an aria from Le cid that I don’t think I’d ever heard him perform: “Ah, tout est bien fini . . . Ô, souverain,” an aria rich with melancholy and courage.  As Andrea’s unamplified voice floated through the large opera house to surround us in our aerie, I felt my spirit expand into the rich, pure perfection of his singing.  Throughout the concert, Andrea’s voice was as thoroughly magnificent as I have ever known it to be—and I have loved every note I have heard him sing for the more than two decades I’ve been listening to his recordings and performances.

Next was “La mia letizia infondere,” from I Lombardi, an aria familiar to all longtime Bocelli fans.  During the concert, Andrea was at times joined onstage by Aida Garifullina, later by Isabel Leonard.  Nadine Sierra and Andrea ended the first half with “M’odi . . . Sulla tomba che rinserra,” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor: very little can surpass the beauty of that lilting, tragic melody.  Before Lucia, Andrea and Aida Garifullina had sung a thrilling, emotion-filled “È il sol dell’anima . . . Addio, addio,” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and then Andrea had performed “Pour mon âme,” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.  Each of that aria’s nine high C’s was strong and rich, filled with resonance, accuracy, and loveliness.  How, I wondered, can I absorb and seal into memory the blissfulness of every note, the impossible blessing of being in this place of fantasy listening to the voice that moves me more than all other voices in this world?

Every note from the orchestra and from the guest performers was exquisite.  Every note from Andrea was celestial.  His voice never dipped below perfection.  In the second half, he performed arias from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, first a solo—“L’amour . . . Ah, lêve-toi soleil”—and then an extended duet with Aida Garifullina, “Va, je t’ai pardonné . . . Nuit d’hyménée.”  Andrea was in character for every aria, filling the opera house with emotion carried on the blissful, soul-filling quality of every note.  He showed no evidence of nervousness.  Here he was singing for 3,800 in one of the world’s most famous venues—and I’d been nervous simply anticipating the car trip to see him.

The second half included “Il faut nous séparer,” from Massanet’s Werther, sung with Isabel Leonard; “Recondita armonia,” from Puccini’s Tosca—wonderful, too, as an old favorite for Bocelli fans—and finally “O soave fanciulla,” with Isabel Leonard, from my favorite opera, Puccini’s La Bohème.  When Andrea soared high at the end, he did so with all the finesse and elegance of every note that had come before.

Andrea’s two encores continued the delight of the main part of the program.  First he and Aida Garifullina sang the ethereal “Ave Maria Pietas,” from his new recording, .  And then the encore I had hoped would come arrived: “Au fond du temple saint,” from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles.  Because bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was profiled in the printed program but did not appear on stage during the listed arias, I think many of us suspected we would get to hear the much-loved duet that, in fact, closed the concert.

The performers again acknowledged the applause.  Andrea applauded the orchestra.  He was presented with yellow roses.  Walking toward backstage, our dear tenor waved his characteristic farewell to us.  The applause finally faded.

The crush of people at the bottom of the red-carpeted stairs made any forward motion impossible for a few long minutes.  Those of us who wanted Andrea’s autograph were told to move to the left.  The challenge was simply to avoid losing ground.  Eventually some of us were ushered into a line outside to wait until the autograph line inside advanced enough to make room for us to join it.  Andrea would be signing autographs in a room beyond the grand staircase.

Looking at night into the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, by Paul Masck – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons.

We shivered as the employee who was organizing the line inside studiously avoided our gestures and pleas to be allowed back into the warmth.  But finally the door reopened to us.  The concert had ended about 7:20; about 8:40, Andrea, Veronica, and their sweet daughter, Virginia, came into our view.  I thought Andrea by then looked exhausted, and he must have been, but he kept on signing souvenir programs and copies of .  None of the many hundreds of us in line went away disappointed.  Veronica helped position the programs and CDs for Andrea to sign.  Little Virginia greeted us with a smile and said, “Thank you for coming,” in perfect English.  Not yet in water, the yellow roses languished on the table.

After returning to our car, my friend and I found our way out of the parking garage, up Amsterdam Avenue to 79th Street, over to the Henry Hudson Parkway, and across the George Washington Bridge.  Eventually we grabbed our ticket at the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike, cruised along in reasonably light traffic back past the Newark Airport, and congratulated ourselves on the continuing good weather, with the temperature a reassuring three degrees above freezing.

Somewhere in the vicinity of Trenton, we stopped for snacks and gasoline.  It was exactly 11 p.m. and just a few moments after we’d rejoined the turnpike when the snow began and the temperature immediately dropped six degrees.

But our guardian angels worked overtime and kept us from harm.  Salt trucks formed a battalion along the turnpike, turning the wet highway into the Dead Sea and sandblasting the car as we passed.  The Commodore Barry Bridge, too, was merely wet rather than snow covered.  Only when we reached Pennsylvania Route 322, a few miles from home, did we find a snow-covered roadway.  I could sense a lack of traction, but a slow speed—and a few giggles at ourselves for traveling through snow at midnight after an adventure-filled day—brought us safely home.  My friend got out of the car at her building.  I parked and then walked to my building through the swirling snowy night.

Inside, for the next three hours I was too filled with memories of all we had seen and heard to sleep.

Learning from Mary

A dove stood peace in a tree by the lot where I’d parked my car,
And a partner dove held watch and comfort
Over the place where I met my friend.

And now we are visiting the beautiful convent,
Learning from Mary in our elder years,
Opening to God’s invitation to give, to do, to become.

Last Sunday I was welcomed to the Church,
The church of my new parish—
Where I thought I could never belong, fit in—
In a ceremony that once was oil to my water,
A little-known language, customs,
And ways of seeing Creation.

I, we, one can worship everywhere;
The congregation has shown me welcome;
And so I join a community of kind people
With whom I share love and the wish
To give love, kindness, hope,
To one another and the world.

And we sing hymns!
The music holds Creation;
Our notes link spirits and minds
Around the room,
Across time
To the beginning of the world,
To the beginning of my world,
When it and I were whole
And still becoming.

I have walked away from the Quaker meeting
That once joined hands, song, and ministry with the three of us
And other loved souls
With whom we gathered eagerly
Each Sunday
And special days between.

I’ve lost the sense of oneness with those
Who gather in the old meetinghouse
That remains full of memories
But no longer of belonging.

I feel that belonging here,
Among the Franciscan sisters,
Among the dear parishioners
In the church once foreign
That is now the place I sing hymns
And join hands in greeting.

I do not need to deny or distance
Who I have been and am
To enter a new spiritual home
As I go on seeking.

The Church, the church, the history,
Even the creeds, doctrines, and rituals,
Give a setting for building on what is within.

They can be an invitation,
A set of possibilities,
A place for new becoming
Rather than demanding
What and how to be.

The Rite of Welcoming embraced
My heart, my spirit and emotions
Filling with astonishment
For such extravagant concern for me—
One who is inclined, unless performing,
To escape disturbing.

After my more than sixty years in Quakerism,
After the deep gifts of spirit, wisdom, and leading
My parents gave our Meeting,
My leaving was met with little notice;
Can I be wrong to walk into newfound warmth?

Sitting on the sofa one afternoon,
Reading and relishing the day,
I felt a hand on my shoulder;
Sweet Mother sings to me at night,
And both my dear ones knock
To say, “We are still at home together”;
Settings change, but not the essence of souls.

And the great blue heron points her toes in flight;
The Moon waxes and wanes
Even in a sky of absent stars;
New friends link arms
With friends who have gone on,
And love glows in the center,
Expanding like sunrise
To enfold us all.

Namaste

Originally written 12/15/18; revised 1/29/19