Why Dance?

“Why Dance?” grows out of some of the memories in “Snapshots of the Mind,” a collection of random recollections that came when I allowed my mind to float by free association from memory to memory.  The essay below expands the recollections about dancing.  A quick read of “Why Dance?” may give a few ideas for exploring one of your own lifetime passions—its roots and history, its highlights and byways.

Dancing designs a new reality
Within but apart from the old.

Dancing is motion
Inside of rhythm and melody.

Dancing releases everyday rules of being
To follow the reign of music.

Dancing aligns the life force
In all the muscles and organs of the body,
Especially the heart.

The patterns of the dance
Invite my spirit in
To paint a scene
And describe a dream
Made of feeling and flair
Enveloped in music.

At supper one evening when I was four, as we sat at our table in the kitchen of our little white house on Nichols Avenue, Mother and Daddy asked me if I would like to take ballet.  I couldn’t believe such a magnificent possibility was mine.  I rose from the table and spun around the kitchen, spinning my joy that I was now a ballerina.

My ballet teacher was Miss Peggy.  Her mother played the piano as we little girls in pink leotards crossed the room with our small grands jetés, as we stood at the bar for our pliés in the five positions, and as we practiced our routines for the recitals we gave for our families.  Before the recitals, our mothers basted short net skirts onto our leotards, and then more than ever we were real ballerinas.  I wished I could wear my pink ballet slippers every day, and not just once a week to dancing class.  We carried our slippers to class in little cases with felt dancers glued to the front.

Miss Peggy also taught us to tap dance.

For Christmas when I was six, Santa brought me a recording of The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty along with a little blue record player, which could be snapped together like an overnight case.  Sometimes I put on my ballet slippers, rolled up the rugs in my bedroom, and twirled to Tchaikovsky’s music playing on my record player.

Beginning in first grade, Friday afternoons brought ballroom dancing lessons: the foxtrot, waltz, cha cha, and Lindy Hop.  I especially liked the cha cha and Lindy for their turns and speed.  At the end of each class, we marched around the room to the Grand March from Aida.  We little girls wore our party dresses and white gloves, which covered the eczema on my hands and joined the music in giving me confidence.  The boys wore their Sunday suits and seemed happy to be dancing and to dance with me.  I remember that a friend’s mother told my mother that I was graceful.  I wasn’t a particularly vain child, but I was proud of the things I could do well, and so I kept the compliment in memory.

Mother and Daddy took dancing lessons for many years at the DuPont Country Club, to which any DuPont employee could belong.  I felt relaxed and happy hearing their bossa nova and tango music floating up from the basement, where they practiced while their dance records spun on my little blue record player.  Mother was exceedingly graceful, and Daddy, like me, had most enjoyed gymnastics in gym class and so also danced easily.  In the kitchen, when I was grown, Daddy sometimes taught me the steps to the Latin dances; that night, I‘d go with my parents to the Saturday dance at the country club.  Not only Daddy but also a couple of my parents’ friends would dance with me.

Boyfriends who could dance were scarcer.  Karl was a top-of-the-line jitterbugger, and we polkaed together at the rollicking German House parties at the University of Delaware.  But then until Fred, with whom I only danced on three occasions, all the other men of my generation with whom I danced did the shake-it-all-around and make-it-up-as-you-go moves that went well with “Proud Mary,” “My Guy,” and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.”  I liked the self-expressive, free-for-all dancing, too.  It could even be done alone, if necessary.

Fred had evidently gone to childhood ballroom lessons, also.  We danced together briefly the night we met and then during a visit with my parents, when we attended a Saturday-night dance at the country club.  As we stood in the middle of the floor, Fred and I had words over the correct execution of the foxtrot.  But then on New Year’s Eve, a couple of months before we’d utterly and completely had more than enough of each other, we whirled on the red carpet of the Kennedy Center as National Symphony musicians played Viennese waltzes.

Other opportunities to ballroom dance with a man have been scarce.  I’ve spent a couple of evenings at dances with guys who needed to be steered around the dance floor as if they were lawn mowers.  One lovely evening in Massachusetts, I attended a singles’ dance with three friends—interestingly, they were all former nuns.  An Italian man who was a miraculous dancer (and quite beautiful himself) danced with me much of the night, but only because my skills were the best he could come up with on that occasion.

I have always loved to move my body, even before the time of swinging on the jungle gym that Daddy built for me in the backyard and of showing off my handstands, cartwheels, and somersaults.  In motion, then and now, I am cleansed of shyness and self-doubt.  In some adult decades when dancing was scarce, ice skating was my happiest way of moving.  Ice skating felt like dancing with extra speed, a lovely combination.  In recent years, as I danced around the apartment after an episode of Dancing with the Stars, I thought how fine it would be to find enough fame to join the show for a season, to dance hour after hour and day after day.

In my earlier years, I could not have imagined that the greatest outlet for my grownup dancing drive would come after I retired: tap dancing on Mondays and line dancing twice a week.  Then at a recent Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program in Kentucky, I was probably the most enthusiastic participant in our daily square-dancing and line-dancing lessons.  In retirement, I can once again dance as often as I did as a child.

I do still sometimes dream of dancing with a willing partner:
Wishing for a man—
To love and be loved—
Crept back today
As I danced with the women
In our line-dancing club
To a country tune our leader played.

The singer was holding his lady dear,
And I waltzed-two-three,
Turned-two-three,
Wrapped within motion,
And the words pulled longing
Out from under the years,
And it waltzed with me
Again-two-three.[*]

But my life is full and happy, and I don’t think I have time for a dancing boyfriend just now—even if a man should decide he’d like to fill that role.  When our dance groups perform, I seem to give some pleasure to audience members, and I am grateful for that blessing—it and the joy inherent in dancing are treasure enough.


[*] From my book A Woman in Time.

Snapshots of the Mind

When the urge to write is not accompanied by a promising subject or theme, one possibility for answering the writing call is to begin with an image, a scene—any image, any scene.  Then free associate, letting one image, one scene, lead to the next, no matter how circuitous the path through memory.  Taken together, the seemingly random recollections create a sketch of the past and suggest ways the past has led to the present.  Here’s a short example of the approach that does, in fact, help to remind me of who I was, and still am.  If I choose, I can mine these memories for subjects to explore in more depth.

I carried my pink ballet slippers in a blue case decorated with a felt ballerina.

I liked spending school lunch hours in the clearing under the weeping willow beyond our playground.  I wove bracelets from the long willow branches, but I don’t remember wearing or even keeping the bracelets.  The act of braiding the pliable thin branches was the pleasure, much as with making clover chains in the front yard at home.  With my fingernail I poked a slot near the end of the stem of one clover and inserted the stem of the next through the slot.  Sometimes I put a clover crown on my head or tested a clover jump rope, but any such usefulness was superfluous.  I imagine Daddy had to deal with piles of discarded clover chains when he mowed the grass.

One afternoon when I was in first grade, I was showing off my handstand skills for a neighbor girl and a boy from school.  When I flipped over after the handstand, I sat in a pile of manure that the girl’s dog had left behind.  My patient mother took crying me to a sink in our basement to clean off the mess.  I was mortified by the outcome of my effort to impress my friends.

Daddy made me a pair of wooden stilts, and I was proud of being able to tramp around the yard on them.

When I was small, Mother helped me bake a chocolate cake.  A picture from that afternoon shows frosting smeared across my smile.

Mother told me I once said, “It’s the frossin’ what makes it good.”

We put salt or sugar on grapefruit in those days to cut the sour taste; I preferred sugar.

I made meatloaf for some of my fellow teachers at the boarding school where we taught.  I put eggs, ketchup, and breadcrumbs in my meatloaf, which was the centerpiece of my most reliable menu.  When my friend David came to eat meatloaf with me one night, my dog, Maggie, chewed his wallet, so I had to buy him a new one.  I don’t recall having to replace any cash.

On the first evening David and I were in Germany with the students we were chaperoning, I asked him how to say, “Could I please have some change?” in German.  On subsequent days, when I had a chance to get away from David and the students, I used my phrasebook to figure out how to meet my needs.

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I cried listening to Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.”  I wanted a boyfriend—if not a Beatle then one of the boys at school.

Ringo was my favorite Beatle, probably because in the early days he looked more like a little boy than like an intimidating young man who might reject me.

My love for Ringo—if not my affection—faded by the time I was in college.  My love for Andrea Bocelli hasn’t diminished in twenty-two years.

When I was six, Santa Claus gave me a record player in the form of a small blue suitcase.  Coordinating with Santa that Christmas, my parents gave me two records.  The first included Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty.  The second was Haydn’s Surprise Symphony and the Toy Symphony, then attributed to Haydn but now more often attributed to Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s dad.  Even after we moved to our new home, I often rolled up the small blue hooked rugs in my bedroom so I could dance to a Tchaikovsky ballet playing on my little record player.

Sunlight filtered through light-green leaves on the first morning after the last day of school.

The woods behind our house, drawing by Mason Hayek

At summer camp in Maine, after we campers were in bed, the camp director’s Doberman thundered down the cabin line like a galloping pony.

When I was a camp counselor, I played taps on my flute in the evening.  The sound drifted out over the lake as infinite stars drifted overhead.  The Milky Way was a broad stripe across the sky.

And so, as perhaps these memories suggest, it’s nearly impossible not to be able to write if the mind is set free to jump here, there, and anywhere.

Dulcimer Tunes

About thirty years ago, my parents bought me a mountain dulcimer in Berea, Kentucky.  We were in Kentucky to attend a cousin’s wedding in Harrodsburg; it was the last Kentucky trip the three of us would take together.  Since the passing earlier in the 1980s of my mother’s mother and sisters, my parents and I were no longer making our frequent trips to Harrodsburg, where my mother’s sisters and parents had moved after my mother was grown.  While my mother and her sisters were growing up, their family had lived in the little village of Paint Lick, Kentucky, about forty miles south of Lexington.  My dulcimer symbolizes for me both my parents’ infinite kindness and encouragement and Kentucky’s vast place in my heart.  Seeing, holding, or playing my dulcimer opens a trove of memories.

When I was a child, Harrodsburg, the oldest town in Kentucky, was thriving, with Main Street filled with busy stores, including the Gem Drug Store—my uncle’s store.  The “Gem Store,” as we called it, had a jewelry counter and a lunch counter, two amenities that especially attracted me as a child.  My Aunt Winnie worked nearby, managing the office of the Landrum Insurance Agency.  She and others who worked in town regularly took their coffee breaks or ate lunch at the Gem Store, which my Aunt Ruth kept supplied with her homemade pies.  When my parents and I were visiting Harrodsburg, we and our relatives often ate at the Gem Store after church on Sundays.  I was particularly partial to the five-cent ice-cream cones.

By the time my cousin married in the backyard of his grandfather’s (my uncle’s) home, my grandmother and aunts—who, other than my parents, most meant Kentucky and family to me—were gone.  The wedding ceremony itself was something of a miracle since the day had begun with torrential rain and a backed-up sewer, but by wedding time, the backyard was dry and lovely and filled with family and friends, including a friend who sang and accompanied herself on a small harp.  Nevertheless, I strongly felt the absence of departed dear ones and later wrote a poem that began, “If you are avoiding ghosts, / Do not go downstairs in search of an extra platter or chair. / Downstairs, no living voices muffle the past.”  By contrast, “Upstairs, their voices mingle with ours, / And I watch them being as they were. / Aunt Ruth is cooking oyster stew. . . .”  I could imagine our lost loved ones mingling with us as we tidied the house in preparation for the wedding guests.

The day following the wedding, my parents and I visited some of the several friends still living in my mother’s girlhood village of Paint Lick, and I had the joy of going inside the home where my mother grew up.  What a treasure to be able to picture the rooms my mother talks about in her memoir of her Paint Lick years.  The house was torn down four or five years ago to allow for highway construction.  I feel pain when I think of my mother’s home being gone.

My mother’s girlhood home, Paint Lick, Kentucky

With its Kentucky roots and heritage, my dulcimer carries with it what was, not only for me but especially for my parents.  My father, who was from St. Paul, Minnesota, moved to Louisville for his work in May 1943.  There he met my mother, who was then teaching school in Louisville.

On another day after my cousin’s wedding, my parents and I visited Berea, not far from Paint Lick.  Berea is the site of Berea College and of numerous notable craftspeople and craft shops, many of them associated with the college.  My grandfather played football for Berea College more than 110 years ago, and my grandmother attended the academy that was on the college grounds.  My parents and I stopped by Boone Tavern, the inn where my parents had had their wedding dinner, on October 18, 1944, and had stayed before heading on to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for their honeymoon.

Not far from Boone Tavern is the shop of woodworker Warren A. May, who is especially known for his beautiful handmade mountain dulcimers.  On our visit to his shop, my parents bought me a lovely cherry dulcimer with traditional wooden pegs and a traditional fretboard (the metal spacers that make it easy to play the notes of a scale or melody).  I had spoken for years of wanting a dulcimer, and my parents, as with so many of my interests, had encouraged my desire to own and play the instrument.

I’ve been back to Kentucky four times since my parents have been gone.  Their ashes are buried in Harrodsburg in our family plot, and even though I know my parents’ souls are not there in the cemetery, I sit among the quiet stones for a visit when I am in Harrodsburg.  And I visit, too, the places that were part of Kentucky as I knew it when all my dear ones were present in this life.  When I was in Kentucky in 2015, my cousins took me to Boone Tavern for lunch, and then we visited Warren May’s workshop, where I bought a music book for the dulcimer, new strings for my instrument, and a CD of Warren May’s dulcimer playing.

But until a few weeks ago, I had far from done justice to my beautiful instrument.  I had played with it but never joined a group or taken lessons that would have given me a clear sense of the instrument.  Finally, this month I attended the Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program Appalachian Folkways, held in south-central Kentucky near Lake Cumberland.  I chose this Road Scholar program in part because I wanted to spend time with and honor Kentucky itself.  And I wanted to begin playing my dulcimer in earnest.

Every morning of our Road Scholar program, musician-songwriter Anne MacFie played traditional music for us, often on a dulcimer.  Scots-Irish settlers in the Appalachians—perhaps some of my own relatives—played dulcimers beginning in the early 1800s.  Our music teacher, Anne, gave dulcimer lessons in the late afternoons to the four of us who wanted to learn to play.  Sitting on the porch of the comfortably rustic Lake Cumberland 4-H Education Center, part of the University of Kentucky, I didn’t want to stop playing on those afternoons to get ready for dinner.

Now I better understand my dulcimer’s range of musical possibilities.  The simplest approach is to play the melody line on the two closely spaced melody strings, with the two other strings creating a drone effect as with a bagpipe.  (Some dulcimers don’t double the melody string, or the two strings may be spaced farther apart.  Other variations include metal tuning pegs, which make tuning somewhat easier, and a 6½ fret—in the middle of the seventh space from the left—which allows the player to add a sharp.)  In the drone style, the player may use a noter, which is a wooden dowel used to press down the melody string or strings and to slide from note to note.

A noter

Dulcimer players may also create chords with their left hand, somewhat as a guitar player would.  Chords substantially expand the pleasing musicality and versatility of the instrument.  I most enjoy playing hymns and folksongs, and I get excited when a few chords make a song especially satisfying to my ears.  Whatever approach the left hand uses, the right hand sounds the strings by strumming with a pick or the fingers or by plucking the strings.

I have a very long way to go in my dulcimer learning—including building up calluses on my left-hand fingertips, which get rather chewed up now on the metal strings as I practice my chords.  But if I wait until I have wonderful skills—not to mention impressive calluses—my dulcimer will go back to sitting nearly ignored in its case for many more years.  The dulcimer is an instrument on which would-be musicians can make music from almost the first moment of holding it on their lap.  So the dulcimer offers an excellent opportunity for me to send into the past one more vestige of my perfectionism, my tendency not to do something at all if I can’t do it well.

I vow to hold in my mind—and regularly recreate—the pleasure I felt strumming away on the porch of the 4-H center in Kentucky.  In addition to the delight of its music, my dulcimer carries deep meaning.  Instead of feeling I can never do it justice, I will play my dulcimer at least a little nearly every day in honor of my dear parents who gave it to me and the memories of Kentucky that resonate through its vibrating strings.

When you create—whatever you create, from music to meals—what memories and meanings are carried on your acts of creation?

Piano Notes

One of the goals on my Becoming a Classic—for Ourselves and Others list is to play the piano at least once a week.  I played this week.  Here is what I felt, remembered, and realized as I played.  Perhaps my experience will be relevant to you, whatever the creative endeavor you might like to resume.

I played the piano for perhaps an hour and found joy and longing in doing so.  The session began in a review of the songs I need to know for our community’s production of South Pacific.  Then came the “Maple Leaf Rag,” a relatively easy Beethoven sonata I first learned when I was thirteen or fourteen, and Handel’s Largo, which is also the melody for Handel’s aria “Ombra mai fu.”

When I left my apartment later in the afternoon, two of my neighbors were talking in the hall.  One said, “We enjoyed the concert.”  Then she added, “You don’t do that much, do you.”  As I was playing, I both regretted not having played more in recent years and understood why I haven’t.

I haven’t played the piano much because playing reminds me forcefully that I haven’t kept up with my music (Playing reminds me that I haven’t played!) and that I never fulfilled whatever musical promise I showed as a child.  In truth, though, I am not suited to a career in music, to the long hours of practicing, to focusing on a single pursuit.  I am a wandering explorer of varied life experiences rather than an expert, a specialist in one field.

As I played this week, I revisited memories flowing over me, recollections riding on the music:

  • Twelve years ago, shortly after she moved to the apartment we would later share, sweet Mother loved looking at photographs of her newborn great-grandniece Sadie as I played Handel’s Largo.
  • Over many years, Mother played the “Maple Leaf Rag” and other Scott Joplin pieces with skill and joy.
  • On July 21, 1998, as I waited for a friend to pick me up so that we could drive to Philadelphia and my first Andrea Bocelli concert, I played the “Maple Leaf Rag” over and over, and with increasing speed and volume as the time grew later and later.
  • A somewhat older girl named Julia gave me my first formal piano lessons.  My parents stopped those lessons and signed me up for the Wilmington Music School when they realized that Julia didn’t want me to learn much on the piano—out of her concern I might become competition for her.
  • When I was in junior high, I usually practiced the piano before dinner with my parents.
  • In our first little house,  before I started school, I was banging on the piano one afternoon when Daddy arrived home from work.  He thrilled me by kindly telling me I was playing just what was written on the music in front of me.
  • When I was fourteen, I waited with painful anxiety to play a Beethoven sonata—the one I still play—for a contest at the University of Delaware.  I received an honorable mention.  The year before I’d received an actual award.  I still feel rather ashamed—as if I didn’t try hard enough—over the honorable mention.  I eventually gave up piano lessons in large measure because I didn’t want to pursue the contests and competitions my piano teacher had in mind for me.  I also wanted more time to be with friends.  I tried briefly to major in music in college, but again the will was not there.
  • At summer camp and, later, after dinner when I was living in the French House at the University of Delaware, I often played show tunes on the piano, proving that at least for brief spells, I was capable of playing the piano just for fun.

And as I played this week, I meditated as follows, showing myself that maybe I can overcome some of my hang-ups after all:

It’s okay that I didn’t keep up my piano studies to become a professional musician.  I clearly lack the temperament for such a life, whether or not I might have had the potential.  Studying the piano has given me a deeper connection to music and a pastime I still enjoy—that is, when I throw out the regrets and sense of insufficiency and simply play.  Playing the piano stirs countless memories, from the bittersweet to the painful to the blissful and beautiful; memories are to be welcomed as a life garden.  I am blessed that piano music is woven through my life, sometimes creating a bold pattern and sometimes present only in an almost invisible thread.  I honor the piano’s gifts to me by playing with pleasure now as inspiration strikes.  I dishonor its gifts by still imagining I must find a way to achieve some lofty level of mastery.

Is there a pleasure from your past that you would like to rekindle?

Becoming a Classic—for Ourselves and Others

Wishing you joy in your journey

Becoming a Classic means aging into ever-expanding meaning and value to ourselves and others. We can be like great works of literature that expand over the decades in their ability to give pleasure, inspire, and teach.

I now want to focus this blog more directly on inspiring readers and myself to grow in joy and wisdom as we age.  I’ll begin by listing my own current goals in four categories:

Being Useful to Others
Expressing My Soul
Engaging My Mind
Living Healthfully

I encourage you to glance at my list and then to identify and write down your own goals for Becoming a Classic.

I’ll regularly share my progress for one or more of my goals and hope that you will do the same.

Being Useful to Others

  • Seize opportunities to encourage others.
  • Refocus my blog so that it is useful and encouraging to readers.  Post at least once a week.  Build an online community, with online conversations about the topics covered.
  • Help friends and acquaintances with their computer projects, including self-publishing.
  • Continue leading a writers’ group and strive to make it motivating and encouraging to participants.
  • Teach a lifelong-learning course.  (Course for the spring semester: Where Do I Go from Here—Next Steps for Legacy Writers)
  • Through deeds as well as dollars, find more, and more meaningful, ways to contribute to my church and other causes that matter to me.

Expressing My Soul

  • Continue to see friends as among God’s greatest gifts.  Help close friends any way possible as needs and opportunities develop.
  • At least once a week, write an essay or poem about experiences past or present that matter to me.
  • Improve my dulcimer playing.
  • Improve my ukulele playing.
  • Play the piano at least once a week.
  • Play the flute at least once a week.
  • Work on a beading project at least once a week.
  • In my journal each evening, write anywhere from a sentence to a short paragraph each on five experiences, scenes, ideas, emotions, and/or impressions from the day.
  • Continue with the steps needed to disseminate my parents’, my close friend’s, and my books.

Engaging My Mind

  • Improve my French through reading and lifelong-learning classes.
  • Improve my Italian through reading and lifelong-learning classes.
  • Keep three books going: one for fun, one for spiritual growth, and one for renewing and building my love of literature (English, French, or Italian).
  • Practice and learn my part for any upcoming show or presentation.

Living Healthfully

  • Keep my apartment in a reasonable state of cleanliness and good order.
  • Find ways to display and enjoy my most meaningful keepsakes.  Downsize as appropriate.
  • Improve my financial security.
  • Develop and follow a healthful routine, including meditation and regular going-to-sleep and getting-up hours.
  • Keep up with dancing.
  • Continue to walk regularly.
  • Use technology as a tool and source of pleasure, communication and self-expression, productivity, and satisfaction—not as an escape.
  • When my to-do list and other challenges threaten to overwhelm me, allow myself to relax as needed but not to seek escape such as playing interminable electronic games or staying up half (or more) of the night.
  • Never shortchange time with friends.
  • Nurture connections with friends and family.
  • Seize opportunities to be out in Nature.
  • When a significant challenge erupts, mentally step back, breathe deeply to stay calm, and take one action at a time to deal with the challenge.  Deny myself the right to imagine possible negative outcomes.

And now: what are your goals?

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.

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.

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.