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.

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.

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.

Goodbye Goody Two-Shoes

“Of course I know who I am,” we say.  “Of course I know what I think and believe.”  But do we really know ourselves, especially why we do what we do and feel as we feel?  Can we fully articulate our core beliefs?  And how effectively are we able to live our beliefs and the values that flow from them?

Several years ago, I was a leader for a spiritual-life discussion group at the Quaker meeting in which I had spent most of my life.  We were a group of ten or so who enjoyed wrestling with spiritual questions, such as, “Does prayer work?” and “What does it mean to serve others?”  One Sunday morning, I asked, “What do you believe about God?  And who was Jesus: what is the core of his message to us?”

Wilmington (De.) Meetinghouse, pencil sketch by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

Everyone had surprising difficulty in articulating his or her beliefs.  I had a similar challenge in a discussion with the deacon who is leading the process through which I am converting to Catholicism, specifically to Franciscan Catholicism.  The deacon asked me to describe Jesus according to my understanding.  My picture of Jesus (and God) is still incomplete in my mind’s eye and understanding.

Everyday Spirituality

Some parts of the picture are filled in in detail:  I believe that what Jesus asks of us, what makes us good people, is our love, kindness, and caring for all of God’s creatures and creation, and above all for our neighbors nearby and around the globe:

And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?  And Jesus answered him. . . . thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.  And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:28-31, King James Version)

However thoroughly I am ever able to clarify my beliefs, Jesus’s commandments to love God and to love my neighbor give me plenty to work on for the rest of my life.  For instance, how can I simplify my life in ways that will help to protect God’s creation?  And as Jesus taught, loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength includes loving every neighbor, everyone everywhere.  Each is a creation of God, is loved by God, and has the light of God within, no matter how obscured or shining.

How can I speak up on behalf of neighbors from around the world who are suffering from injustice and the thoughtless and cruel acts of the powerful and greedy?  And how can I respond in ways that will not merely inflame my near neighbors who think differently from me, inflame without changing minds and actions?  Above all, how can I better share my beliefs through the way I live my life and not only through the words I speak and write?

A Test on Practicing What I Preach

Last weekend, a friend with whom I disagree politically forwarded an e-mail expressing her political position while disparaging mine.  I was included in her distribution list of ten people.  I felt I couldn’t ignore the message, which opened with a request “asking everyone to forward this e-mail to a minimum of 20 people, and to ask each of those to do likewise.”  The message was supporting a national figure who is not loving to many of our neighbors near and far around the globe.  I’d also felt the message was not loving to near neighbors like me: it closed, in part (and in all caps), “No wonder they’re [“they,” meaning folks like me] fighting everything he tries!”

For anyone forwarding on the message, my name might be coming along for the ride, perhaps suggesting that I was in sympathy with the views expressed.  I stated my disagreement—clearly but, I hoped, not angrily—in a “reply all.”  My friend responded in a phone message, and later repeated, that she had not noticed the political tone of the forwarded message’s opening and closing and was only passing along some ideas that looked interesting.  A visit, a hug, and a bit of further misunderstanding followed.  As part of the follow-up, I stayed awake virtually all one night worrying about what I’d done and whether or not I’d been rash, unfair, hurtful: in my response, had I been loving to my neighbor close at hand?

Cover of the 1888 edition of Goody Two-Shoes, by an anonymous author, U.S. public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

Goody Two-Shoes: Not So Good After All

Regardless of whether or not my e-mail response was fair, respectfully worded, and appropriate, I see another problem behind the uproar: Most of the time, people think I’m an elderly child, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Goody Two-Shoes—and I have been good-naturedly called the latter by the friend with whom I had the differences I’ve just described.  After months or years of my oh-so-cheery-and-sweet persona, I meet a line in the sand, and I make a stand, shocking everyone. If I were clear, direct, and mutually respectful in all of my interactions all of the time, I would be less likely to be viewed, when I do take a stand, as Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde.  I am unintentionally engaging in false advertising, a sort of unpremeditated bait and switch.

If I weren’t Ms. Goody Two-Shoes most of the time, if I always spoke up kindly but firmly, if I never brooked nonsense—whether expressed unthinkingly or designed to poke me—I might never have been sent the e-mail that offended me, and if I had, I could have responded with a simple, “I disagree.”  (The good news is that all involved in the political e-mail kerfuffle and its aftermath were together a few days later, and the friendships remain intact.)

Alfred Adler (1870-1937), unknown photographer, U.S. public domain, from the Ann Ronan Picture Library, copied from Wikimedia Commons.

Alfred Adler: A Treasure Trove of Insight

My responsibility to know myself includes understanding why I do what I do, behave as I do.  I have just finished reading The Courage to Be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, which presents the fundamental tenets of Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology as a conversation between a philosopher and a young man.  Alfred Adler was a contemporary of Freud but broke with him.  In his approach, Freud looked for the reasons, the history, that explained subsequent behavior, attitudes, and emotions.  In contrast, when Adler looked at behavior, attitudes, and emotions, he found the reasons for them in the individual’s current goals rather than in that person’s past.  Adler’s Individual Psychology also stresses that it is not what happens to us that determines our wellbeing but our views about what happens to us, the meaning that we have attached to the facts of our lives.

My parents, Mason and Doris Hayek, had a deep interest and did extensive study in Adlerian psychology, and I, too, have found merit in Adler’s principles and those of his followers.  I find The Courage to Be Disliked to be not only a helpful quick refresher for Adler’s notable views[1] but also, and above all, a magnifying glass helping me to understand myself and the problems I have encountered periodically over the years—including last weekend—in feeling pushed over the line at the limit of my acceptance.  The Courage to Be Disliked reminds me to ask, “What is my goal in being a people-pleasing perfectionist?”  The book also helps me to understand, “When I feel personally attacked, what are the dynamics involved, and how can I best diffuse the situation?”

Individual Psychology (and Scripture) Applied to Me

Following Freud’s approach, knowing that I was bullied in school can suggest why I’ve adopted people-pleasing and perfectionism as life strategies, but it is, as Adler posits, recognizing the current goals I have for these behaviors that will let me change both my goals and my life.  I can’t change the past, but I can change what I think and do now.  Changing takes courage, as The Courage to Be Disliked stresses, but the results can be worth the risk.  In my Goody Two-Shoes persona, I am trying to avoid criticism; I genuinely want to be nice to others, but I also want to be judged as nice, as a good girl, as smart and talented, as above reproach.

Here are more serviceable goals for me:

  1. Rather than seeing myself as the perpetual child in a world of grownups, practice mutual respect: loving my neighbor as myself.
  2. Speak up consistently—using the principles of love, kindness, and mutual respect—on behalf of justice, peace, the Earth’s wellbeing, and the wellbeing and value of all human beings.
  3. Avoid what Adler calls “power struggles,” even when I feel I’ve been intentionally provoked.
  4. Have the courage to be true to my values and convictions regardless of whether I am applauded or rejected for my words and actions.
  5. Have the courage to be seen as flawed.
  6. Focus on others and my love for them, rather than on their opinions of me.
  7. Understand that others’ opinions of me are their business and not under my control.
  8. Recognize that my value doesn’t depend on others’ opinions of me.
  9. See myself as, and actually be, courageous, strong, loving, and kind.

I think that a person who has these goals will be someone who not only has greater peace of mind than I have now but also is a more useful, effective citizen of the world than I have been so far in my life.  At the same time, living these goals will help me do a better job than I’ve done in living Jesus’s teachings.  I’ll no doubt continue to make many mistakes, and I certainly have lots to learn, but I am mustering the courage required to change for what I think is the better for all concerned.  My friends may not notice many obvious alterations, but I’ll know the difference, and others won’t have to wonder when the next surprise Winnie-cyclone of ire and indignation will be blowing onto shore.

Goody Two-Shoes signing out.


[1] A much more in-depth, scholarly (but readable) presentation of Adler’s Individual Psychology is the Primer of Adlerian Psychology, by Harold Mosak and Michael Maniacci.  The book is expensive to buy, even used, so if you are interested in it, you may want to try getting it through a library.

Boundaries

The voice in the essay may be that of my literal guides or may be the Inner Light that shines inside each of us.

Kentucky Stone Fence, drawing by Mason Hayek

You say your boundaries are too porous. If you would strengthen your boundaries appropriately, you will ask yourself why you are erecting barriers between you and others of God’s creatures. It is not really barriers, or boundaries, that you seek. It is a stronger sense of self.

            And how to achieve that stronger sense of self? The way is by knowing your values and needs, as well as those of others. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is fair, but the only way to judge is by looking inside yourself and asking, “Am I trying to give more than I have to give at this particular time?” If the situation is an emergency, you do all you can and more. But most situations are not emergencies, and you have time to think and plan: how will you renew yourself sufficiently so that your soul and body are able to flourish and grow, along with those of the person you are trying to help?

Brandywine State Park, Wilmington, Delaware, drawing by Mason Hayek

            It is not much good to help another and harm or destroy yourself. God wants all of his creatures. You are not more important than the next, and not less important. Give all you can but not more than you can without draining your reserves and denying your gifts to the world, for we all have gifts, every creature, heavenly and on Earth; we are responsible for saving and healing ourselves, as well as others. We don’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

            Remember the Parable of the Talents, and think of those as literal talents, your talents. They are not to be buried under arduous work or sacrifice that robs them of their value and gloss. Build your talents to serve and serve through your talents, not by denying them and burying them in the burden of every day. Your kindness and love are talents, too, and giving them helps them to grow unless you are giving more than your body and mind can afford from their store of energy and time. This is the way the Lord wants you to reason—not that you must give and give and give so that there is little left in you and you are half destroyed from fatigue and exhaustion of your nerves and patience.

            We your guides are with you and will help you to understand if you are not doing your share. Generally that is not a problem with you, but we know that it worries you. You think you are not being fair, not doing your part, not helping enough. When you are exhausted or have not released your creativity through valued outlets, say so and do so, rather than plowing ahead. This is the way the Lord wishes for you to do so that you help others and respect yourself at the same time.

My parents following their inspiration

            Ask in prayer if you are uncertain, or come back to your journal and write, for that will free you and sort out your mind so that your spirit is unencumbered—so that you are able to give without pain and receive from God your talents and their multiplying on your behalf and that of others. You are not a slave. No human being was made to be a slave, literally or figuratively, and do not enslave yourself through your own misunderstanding of who you are and what you must do to give to others balm for their needs, their worries, and their suffering.

            We are with you. We care. We are not telling you to be selfish, and being selfish is not your nature even though all people are selfish from time to time. But we are telling you that treating yourself right according to your gifts and your physical limitations and possibilities is not selfishness. The adage of paying yourself first is appropriate, if we may return to the money metaphor. More accurately, we would say to be sure to pay yourself as you are giving to others—not in the sense of payback or bribe but in the sense of adding to your fund of energy, enthusiasm, ideas, and inspiration. This is our recommendation, and it has stood the test of the ages.

            So try, even if the advice does not seem easy to follow. Actually it is easier than you think, and the guidelines are here. If you are too tired physically and/or spiritually, and if your creative outlets have not been followed sufficiently to stem your frustration and sense of self-denial, you need to “pay” yourself before continuing unless a true emergency situation exists for another. And even then you must return to yourself as quickly as you can—to renew yourself for your sake, God’s sake, and that of others. You will give far more from a base of fulfillment and physical wellbeing than you ever can from an empty vessel of self.

            We speak truth, and we will help you to follow it if you turn to us with your doubts. We leave this subject now but can return to it when the need arises, after you have given these principles your full attention and effort. Blessings to you and to all of God’s creatures. We love you. Love both yourself and others.

Namaste

Beyond Anapests and Heroic Couplets: How to Like Poetry

800px-SamuelTaylorColeridge
Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Peter Vandyke [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The annoying poetry professor begins, “All right, pupils: listen up!  What rhythm do we have here in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’?”

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:[1]

“I’ll beat on the desk to show you.  The pattern of unstressed (short) and stressed (long) syllables goes short long, short long, short long, short long—‘In Xan-a-du did Ku-bla Khan.’  So what we have—if you are paying attention—is iambic tetrameter, four poetic feet of iambs.  How are you [asks the annoying professor] going to appreciate poetry if you don’t know an iamb from a dactyl or an anapest from a trochee?”

Hold everything, Professor: Stop right there!  Probably you were trained by pedants much like yourself, but the way to read a poem is not to rip it to shreds.  A poem is not a code to be cracked.  The way to read poetry is simply to enjoy yourself, as I am about to explain.

Come to know a poem gradually.  Begin with an overall sense of its subject and tone.  Read the poem all the way through, aloud or silently. Visualize the images—the words that paint pictures or arouse your other senses.  Absorb the tone and mood.

Here is a well-known short poem by Emily Dickinson:[2]

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of Me.

Emily Dickinson
Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson taken about 1848, unknown author [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

It might take reading the poem a few times to figure out fully what Emily Dickinson is saying here, but the sense comes through immediately that she is speaking of hope as a bird that sings in spite of the storms and buffeting of life.  Also immediately evident is her conversational tone, which is enhanced by the punctuation slowing the presentation of her thoughts.  (Early editors “corrected”—i.e., damaged—Emily Dickinson’s poems by making her punctuation more traditional.  Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s work restores the poems as she wrote them.)

NPG Ax27807; Matthew Arnold by Elliott & Fry, published by  Bickers & Son
Matthew Arnold, Elliott & Fry, about 1883 [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes getting a general impression of a poem—simply sinking into its sounds and the mood it creates—is enough.  If the poem inspires a second look, move on to such details as characters and situations and develop a clearer sense of the theme, the central idea the poem is expressing.  The speaker in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” for instance, is standing at a window overlooking the English Channel: “Come to the window, sweet is the night air!” he says to his companion.  For the rest of the poem, the speaker talks about the view before him and the thoughts the scene inspires.  For him, love is the only peace available in a world full of uncertainty and sorrow:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain:[3]

If you want to dig still further into your poem, the next step is to take a look at its rhythm, rhyme, and word choice.  By noticing these, you will better understand why the poem affects you as it does.

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Portrait of Alfred Noyes, Alexander Bassano, 1922 [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Look to see if there is a consistent rhythmic pattern, such as the alternating unstressed and stressed syllables in the professor’s lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”  Another fairly common pattern is the galloping rhythm used in Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.”  You will see that the rhythm is well chosen to support the mood and meaning of the poem:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
               Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.[4]

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Title page of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, quarto published by Thomas Thorpe, London, 1609 [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Rhyme is a feature present in most poetry written before the mid 20th century, as well as in some contemporary works.  In William Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds,” Sonnet 116,[5] the first four lines discuss what love is not, and the next four lines explain what love is.  (A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that follows established rules for its rhythm and rhyme.)  The rhyme scheme in Sonnet 116 supports the poem’s content:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments: love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.

Minds, love, finds, remove.  And now the next four lines use different rhymes:

Oh, no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Mark, shaken, bark, taken.  Lines nine through twelve continue the established pattern (rhyme scheme) with new rhymes and further establish the qualities that mark genuine love:

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Even if you don’t realize how a poet is using rhyme, the patterns can have a strong subliminal effect.  Such is especially true for the sonnet’s rhyming closing couplet—two lines—which create a satisfying summary comment on the entire poem:

If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Finally, vivid and well-chosen words are essential to a poem.  They should evoke sharp images and appeal to your senses.  Particularly take note of a poet’s inventive comparisons.  For example, “Her Legs,” by English Renaissance poet Robert Herrick, creates a pleasingly silly picture because of an unexpected comparison.  This is the entire poem:

Fain would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg,
Which is as white and hairless as an egg.[6]

In her poem “A Work of Artifice,”[7] contemporary poet Marge Piercy makes the point that many women live constricted lives.  The poem compares a woman and a bonsai tree.  Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds” compares steadfast love to the North Star.

 

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Draft by Samuel Taylor Coleridge of his poem “Kubla Khan” [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

As you can see, poetry is not about obscure language and singsong meter.  It’s not about figuring out that “Kubla Khan” goes da dah, da dah, da dah, da dah.  It’s about experiencing the magic, mood, and meaning created by lines such as these:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

If technical terms and analysis interest you: great!  I like them, too.  Recognizing and understanding poetic techniques can help reveal the soul of a poem.  But if the literary terms and tools overwhelm you,  why not simply enjoy poetry on your own terms?

Reading contemporary poets, as well as the poetic heros and heroines of the past, is thrilling.  Browse the poetry section of a bookstore to see whose work appeals to you.  You can also get leads by searching online for “best contemporary poetry”; here’s a link to one useful site.  If you don’t enjoy a particular poem or poet, go on to another one.  The world is filled with so much incredible poetry that it would be a shame to get stuck wading through poems you don’t like for whatever reason.  Try Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Wislawa Szymborska, Langston Hughes, Billy Collins, Richard Wilbur, and hundreds more.  Jump in and discover new poetic heroines and heros.


[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan,” first published 1816.

[2] Emily Dickinson, Poem 254, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960).  This and other Emily Dickinson poems are also available on several online sites, including https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/hope-thing-feathers-254.

[3] Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach,” first published 1867.

[4] Alfred Noyes, “The Highwayman,” first published 1906.

[5] William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 116,” first published 1609.

[6] Robert Herrick (1591-1674), “Her Legs.”

[7] Marge Piercy, “A Work of Artifice,” 1999.

Backyard Being

The backyard is both a place and a state of being. The front yard is partly for the neighbors. In the front yard, the grass must be cut and the crabgrass kept to a minimum. Even if the homeowners think dandelions are pretty, the neighbors will expect the flowers to be mowed before they turn to seed. Children may play in the front yard from time to time, and company is greeted there, but the real living takes place in the backyard.

In our first little white house, where we lived until I was six, I loved our backyard. Mother planted wide beds of flowers along both sides, and my parents grew vegetables—I liked the green peppers best. My wading pool sat partway down the yard. One day I took my life-sized doll, Susie, swimming with me; doing so made her seem like a real girl, and I wanted Susie to share my fun.

When I was four, I came home from a playmate’s late one afternoon to find my father brushing forest-green paint on a wooden jungle gym he had just finished building. A long ladder with smooth round rungs was suspended between shorter vertical ladders. I couldn’t believe this magnificent structure was meant for me. On it, I could hang upside down and then flip over to land on my feet. I could travel hand over hand down the long horizontal ladder. I could swing over to the bars on the swing set. I was fearless on the jungle gym, and my parents trusted me to stay alive.

At the far end of our backyard, where the area known as “the mud” began, other neighborhood children and I wandered and explored, stopping to look up when the occasional airplane passed overhead. One afternoon, accompanied by Inky the spaniel, we children set off on a turtle hunt. “Inky is going to find us a turtle!” I called to my mother. Against the odds, Inky came through for us. After she helped us take off our muddy shoes, Mother found a box for the turtle and lettuce for his lunch.

The backyard of our second little white house did not include a jungle gym, which I was sad to leave behind, but half of our new backyard was wooded. Wild plants, dry leaves, and boulders surrounded hundred-foot-tall trees. When I was in the woods, it screened out all memory of bullying classmates and teachers who piled on the homework.

The woods behind our house, drawing by Mason Hayek

The branches of an ironwood tree bent down to meet the top of a tall granite rock, and in the space between, my friends and I played house. A flat rock by the largest oak created a porch, as we called it, for sitting a moment and deciding Native Americans had worn the nearby path. Around us grew blueberry bushes, spring beauties, dog-toothed violets, and jacks-in-the-pulpit. Tadpoles lived in the small pools of water left from the spring rains. On the June morning when summer vacation began, the woods greeted me with still-fresh, light-green leaves. Sunlight illuminated the last of the mist from the cool overnight air.

In front of the woods, on the backyard lawn, my friends and I played croquet and softball, sat on another of the yard’s boulders to converse with our dolls, held handstand and cartwheel contests, and swung on the swings. Unlike some parents, mine didn’t mind that our feet wore away the grass. I liked to swing high and then jump to the ground. The neighborhood girls shared some traits with my classmates—as in, “We’re in a club, and you have to pay five cents to join.”—but in our backyard, I never felt second-rate or thought about needing to be different than I was.

Outdoor dinner at Aunt Ruth’s, with my grandmother and my Cousin Shirley

Every summer, we visited our relatives in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The backyard I most loved there was behind Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry’s big white house on College Street. We ate dinner outdoors on long tables: a big family eating late in the evening after Aunt Ruth’s lengthy preparations—green beans cooked for hours with country ham, corn on the cob, huge pieces of lemon-meringue pie. Two-year-old Kelly toddled toward the side of the property, to be brought back and then start off again. Mark, a year older, called me “Cussin Winnie” and wanted me to play with him. No one rushed away. Nannie and Aunt Winnie had only to walk next door to be home.

Aunt Ruth

One evening, my cousin Shirley and Shirley’s husband, Duffy, danced for us all: Mother and Daddy and me, Nannie and Aunt Winnie, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry, Cousin Carol, and Mark and Kelly—their sister, Ruthie, was not yet born. The Landrums were there, too; Aunt Winnie managed the Landrum Insurance office. The layers of Shirley’s party skirt swirled as she and Duffy waltzed to the music from the record player. Afterwards, Aunt Winnie and Mr. Landrum performed a comic routine. She stood in back and extended her arms in front of him; he kept his arms hidden. As Mr. Landrum told a story, Aunt Winnie spread her arms wide to emphasize the dramatic points and wiped his eyes at the sad parts. Her dainty arms made an incongruous contrast to her boss’ tall frame. Daddy told his story about the hoarse ice-cream waitress. “Do you have laryngitis?” asks the customer. “No,” the waitress replies, “just chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.”

The world in which summer evenings brought time to climb on the jungle gym, backyard games of Mother May I? and Harrodsburg family suppers has long since spun away. Present life includes more front yards than backyards. But in my mind, I see my dear ones gathered on the tranquil, broad, green lawn of Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry’s backyard, from which no one will be forced to leave, torn away from the pleasure and affection. Shirley dances; Nannie gives her saucy commentary; Mother tells a funny story; and Daddy soaks up the textures of the layered trees against a brilliant sky.

Relief

Je l’aidai de mon mieux, c’est-à-dire, en essayant d’écrire un chef-d’œuvre immortel.
(I did my best to help her, that is, by trying to write an immortal masterpiece.)
–Romain Gary, La promesse de l’aube (Paris : Gallimard, 1960) 185.

Relief for me is finally, finally being good enough in my own estimation, within my own head and heart.

I haven’t felt good enough before now.  I would have liked to be a great novelist who stirs readers’ souls.  Or perhaps, I thought, I would be good enough if I earned a doctorate and became a tenured university professor, or even if I earned a Master of Fine Arts in writing.  My master’s degree in literature is not a “terminal” degree and so is not good enough, or hasn’t been.  I began a doctoral program at the University of Maryland but changed states and jobs when I was just two courses into the program.  Even at this point in my life, I’ve thought about earning an MFA or PhD.  I’ve explored university websites from time to time, hoping to discover the path to wholeness.  I would enjoy the academic work; I love to learn.  But I can learn outside an expensive degree program.  The degrees have appealed to me because I’ve thought they might make me, finally, fully sufficient.

For most of my life, I have felt insufficient, second rate next to the world’s full professors, full-time writers, musicians with careers, people with a life mission.  Above all, I have with desperation sought a mission for my writing.  I’ve been searching for fifty years.  Having a mission would, I was convinced, permanently ignite my writing, giving it drive and meaning, carrying me past procrastination, past wondering what to write, past the paralysis of feeling overwhelmed with projects calling to me but languishing unsupported by confidence in how to do them and in their offering others something of value.

I have with frantic intensity tried to find my writing niche—my life niche.  Good ideas have come and given me hope that I have finally found this longed-for writing and life niche.  But inevitably I’ve bogged down sooner or later from a loss of energy, inspiration, momentum, and belief in the merits of my plans.

I want to write about so many things, but the pen becomes too heavy to lift if I think I must write specifically about X or Y and do so at a suitably high level—what that is, I am uncertain.  I bloom at intervals, even finishing substantial projects from time to time.  But then I sink back into the slough of discouragement, fatigue, and endless games of Scrabble on my Kindle Fire.

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The truth is that, in contrast to my ambitions, I love being a Jill of all trades.  I have not proved willing, or even able, to give up the quantity of my interests and hobbies in order to achieve quality, to overcome my master-of-none status.  I love the full range of my enthusiasms.  I don’t want, for example, to give up my French class in order to spend more time on Italian, or give up Italian in order to practice my flute daily, or quit billiards, tap and line dancing, or my occasional acting to reestablish a regular program of reading literature.  I don’t want to give up my meaningful visits with friends in order to have time to produce masterful creations, as much as I am driven to express myself creatively.  I’ve joined a choir and signed up for spiritual retreats with a dear friend.  I want to organize my possessions, walk down by the pond, meditate, make jewelry from beads.  And still I’ve craved—begged—to find my overarching purpose in life, my reason for being, my way of serving.

Flute

Can I possibly serve merely by being as I am—rather than only as I have, all my adult life, longed unsuccessfully to become?

My Fair Lady 5

I can’t be a great writer and also spend long hours studying my part for a play, or figuring out how to fill seventy-five minutes leading a book discussion in French, a language I love but in which I lack confidence.  I can’t be an accomplished musician if I spend my days on other than practicing music.  Yet perhaps, after all, my failure to reach the heights I’ve been thinking I must scale if I am to count, to serve, and to overcome my sense of not measuring up is because God didn’t form me to be an Isabel Allende, James Galway, or tenured professor.

Maybe I’m meant to serve as I can by savoring smaller bites across the vast smorgasbord of life and by sharing my enthusiastic efforts—whatever their limits and deficiencies—with others.  I can encourage others, too, to find their joys in the world and to embrace their own God-given ways of being.

I suppose it is shortsighted of me to smother the pleasure and satisfaction of my Jill-of-all-trades temperament and opportunities because of my shame and discouragement over my master-of-none status.  I’ve been damping the fires of who I am.  I’ve spent large portions of my days mourning the failure to materialize of the person I thought I ought to be—but couldn’t figure out how to make myself become.

What profound relief I feel as I begin to move forward, having decided that who I am is not simply enough but is also who God made me to be.  I have the responsibility to grow, to serve and to seek to master being me, but not to become other than the nature I was given.

Dear Deacon

Update: I shared the letter in this blog post with the deacon who is leading the RCIA sessions for me.  In spite of my views, he has responded very kindly, telling me that I am welcome in the Church.  I’m grateful to him for easing my mind about a great source of worry and fear.

———-

My letter below represents the next stage in the thinking shared in “Church Bells and a Riptide,” which describes my struggles with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process through which I am possibly converting to Catholicism.  I feel great affinity with some groups within the Church but have deep reservations about many of the attitudes and teachings of the more traditional, conservative Church powers.
“Dear Deacon” restates a few of the points in the longer essay posted earlier, but it also reflects new self-understanding: The key to my converting is the Church’s acceptance of me as I am and as someone who can add my own gifts, however limited, to the Church’s wisdom, insight, and understanding.  Equality and mutual respect are the basis of all healthy relationships, whether within an individual friendship or family or within a vast country or religion.

Vatican Silhouette

Dear Deacon,

You have been very kind to me and have listened to my opinions with great courtesy.  I nevertheless am uncertain about the answer to this important question: Are you able to welcome me into the Catholic Church as I am, with my 69 years’ experience, spiritual reflection, education, strengths, and weaknesses?  In other words, are you able to feel that through joining the Church, I will, in my small way, bring gifts as well as receive them?

Or do you, in contrast, believe that the Church’s formal teachings are the sole and complete answers?  Do you see the RCIA process as one of pouring the Truth into me as if I were an empty vessel?

I cannot accept having any human being set out to change me through the conviction that he or she comprehends the Truth and I don’t.

As a member of the Church, I would have the opportunity to gain immensely from the examples and insights of countless Catholics.  For instance, many Franciscans will be—and already are—mentors to me.  Certainly as a Catholic—or as I am—I would/will change over the coming years, evolving through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation.

At the same time, if I join the Church, I will bring with me my lifetime of wisdom, mistakes, and understanding.  I want and expect all of me to be welcomed.  I have much to gain, and I also have something to give.

Here is what I would like to ask of you: I hope you believe and will explain that through the RCIA sessions, you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views.  I am eager to learn more about the Church, and I value hearing your perspective.  But I also hope you acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding of the Gospel and God.  I ask you to recognize that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect.

Forio at Sunset 2

No one, and no human religion, grasps all the answers.  There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered perspectives.  And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings.  I want to be a part of that process.  I want to give to the Church, as well as to receive.

So I’ll rephrase my opening question: Is there room in your Church for me as I am, or only as the strictly conceived RCIA teachings would like for me to be?  If there is room for me as I am, I am eager to continue with the RCIA process.

Thank you for your contributions during our sessions and for your thoughts on my concerns.

All the best,

Winnie