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

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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

Church Bells and a Riptide

To my friends and readers who are Catholic: Please forgive me for sharing my disagreements with the Church.  I am struggling with the question of whether or not I should become Catholic.  To all my friends and readers: I would value your perspective.

On Thursday morning as I sat in church with a dear friend, the bells calling worshipers to weekday Mass took me back to hearing other church bells a few miles away.  On warm evenings, my parents and I ate dinner on our screened porch, and daily at 6 p.m., the carillon at the Methodist church out on the main road played hymns.  If we sat down early to supper, we might say, “Well, we beat the Methodists tonight.”

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The back porch on our “little white house”

As I listened to the Catholic bells this week, I could see in my mind the three of us on our porch at the back of our little white house.  I saw the scene from above; I was a ghost revisiting a place and time of joy from a life now past.  I wondered, “In some dimension, are the three of us still together, sharing evenings on our porch, listening to ‘the Methodists’?”

So much has changed—is changing—at least that is how existence feels to me.  In my spiritual life, too, the past seems to be a distant shore from which I am cut off on this ocean of being.  I had thought I was now among those whom the bells call to Mass.  I thought I’d found a new spiritual shore toward which to sail.  But I fear I am steering toward the edge of my world, of my understanding of God’s world.

The Riptide

I am distressed to find myself caught in a riptide in my spiritual ocean as I meet with the deacon who is dealing with me in the RCIA[1] process by which I am, perhaps, turning from Quaker[2] to Catholic.  The deacon is a kind man who does not abruptly reject my views that conflict with his; he even appears to give my opinions some consideration, at least out of courtesy.  So ours is not an adversarial relationship, but he and I are spiritually oil and water.  Engaging in a process that causes me to focus squarely on the swirling chasm between the deacon’s perspective and mine causes me to question the wisdom of the voyage I have begun.

My Reasons for Setting Sail

I was raised a Quaker and continue to resonate with the Quaker peace testimony, conviction that all people—and that includes men and women—are equal, belief that no ministers or priests are required to intercede between the laity and God, and rejection of rituals as a necessary part of worship.  But in the past decade, I have lost the sense of a Quaker home.  Like our porch at our family home, the Wilmington Meetinghouse filled with Quakers I knew and with whom I felt kinship has disappeared from my everyday reality.

Wilmington Meetinghouse
Wilmington Meetinghouse, drawing by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

The Meetinghouse is now frequented by new generations of Quakers, generations with whom I share the tenets of a spiritual philosophy but not the spiritual temperament and enthusiasm I used to feel in our Meeting.  When I lived in other places, I never found a Meeting that came up—in my mind—to our Wilmington Meeting.  And now the Wilmington Meeting I loved—and the inspired ministry of my parents, others of their generation, and the elders still with us then—lives in timeless eternity.  It has joined our little family listening to the Methodist hymns and the katydids as we sit together on our porch.

But through a dear friend, I have come to know the Franciscans.  Franciscans and Quakers share a similar social testimony and belief in the value and dignity of every human being.  Franciscans are warm and welcoming, as Wilmington Quakers once more vigorously seemed to me.  Franciscans love and care for the Earth and its creatures and growing things.  Franciscans notably live Christ’s teachings of love and kindness with devotion and sincerity.

And Franciscans sing hymns with a joy I haven’t known in congregational singing since my childhood, when the Wilmington Quakers sang with gusto, too.  Music is not part of a Quaker meeting for worship, but we sang enthusiastically beforehand, when Evelyn Young, of my grandparents’ generation, played for us children, and afterwards, when everyone, old and young, gathered to sing hymns.  We closed each week with “As We Leave This Friendly Place”:[3]

As we leave this friendly place,
Love give light to every face;
May the kindness which we learn
Light our hearts till we return.

Music no longer lights the hearts of the Wilmington Meeting, in spite of the kindness there.  And to me, music is the most thrilling and perfected way of praising God and creation, of expressing joy, gratitude, and the unity of us all.

I crave regaining a spiritual home.  I crave a spiritual community in which I find mentors and partners for trying to live the essence of Christ’s teachings: be kind to one another; love one another; act always through kindness and love.  I find such a community among the Franciscans, especially the Sisters of St. Francis and their Companions in Faith.

But to join them as more than a welcomed visitor, I need to work through a parish church—thus the deacon.  The Church has a need and a right, of course, to ensure that those joining are committed to Christ’s teachings and to being active members of the Church community.

I try to bridge the gulf between the deacon’s religion and my own by telling myself that rather than joining the Catholic Church per se, I am joining the Franciscans.  Within the Franciscans, the pieces of my spiritual faith and desires fall into place.  I also love the profound contributions of numerous other Catholic groups and individuals on behalf of suffering people around the world and on behalf of peace.  And I love the magnificent architecture, art, and music growing out of the Church’s two millennia of devotion to Christ.  There is much to love.  And the terrible actions of a few do not erase the good of multitudes.  But I would be a hypocrite to pretend that I am a fit within the religious picture the deacon is drawing for me.

Melrose Abbey, Melrose, Scotland
Melrose Abbey (12th century), Melrose, Scotland; drawing by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

Manageable Waves or Tsunamis?

I don’t expect a perfect Church.  Of course I know that like each human being, no human institution is perfect.  Nevertheless I am struggling to decide: Can I in good conscience join a church with which I have significant disagreements?  If I had been raised Catholic, I believe I would stay Catholic, revel in the Church’s great attributes and contributions, and work from within for necessary change.  Whether or not to sign on at this stage of my life feels like a different sort of decision, however, one that should be made based on a strong concurrence between the Church’s teachings and my own values.

I do not love the Catholic Church’s—and society’s—continued denigration of women.  Keeping women out of the priesthood is purely a continuation of many men’s ongoing desire and determination to retain power.  Those who don’t realize how much is being lost by barring the door to women priests should come listen to the homilies that our local Franciscan sisters sometimes deliver in their convent chapel.

And I do not love the Church’s placing priests above the rest of humanity, men and women.  Priests are not singled out by God, by Christ; they do not stand above us mere mortals.  Priests (and ministers and other religious leaders) contribute enormously to their congregations and the world when they are filled with love and wisdom conveyed through their ministry and lives.  But priests are not uniquely the descendants of Jesus’s Apostles and keepers of their responsibility to preach Christ’s message.  We all are.

I do not need a priest to intervene between God and me.  Every human being can commune directly with God.  Similarly, priests have no right to believe they alone among people can absolve me of my sins, and I do not intend to ask a priest to do so.

It bothers me deeply to see a priest sitting on a throne-like chair, holding himself physically and symbolically above all others present.  At Mass yesterday afternoon, we heard James 2:1, “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”  And Philippians 2:3 tells us, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” Verses 5-7 continue, “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

Yet within the hierarchy of the Church, the concepts of equality and humility are too often given mere lip service.  The position of conservative Church officials concerning LGBT members is another example of Church hypocrisy about equality within the Church and in God’s eyes.  In an additional example, the elaborate church vestments worn by priests and higher church officials, while perhaps aesthetically appealing, are certainly not symbols of humility and equality.  And, of course, as with any population feeling holier- or higher-than-thou, the sense of entitlement and superiority that some priests nurture within themselves helps to allow them to rationalize abhorrent behavior.

Friend deacon, among the other disagreements I have with you, I reject your message that deep knowledge and insight are infused in the individual through baptism in the Church.  Baptism can be a beautiful way of committing oneself to striving to live according to Christ’s example.  Through baptism, one symbolically becomes a part of the local and worldwide community of those who have made the same commitment.  God does not, however, dump knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding onto the person along with the baptismal water.  Knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding can develop only in the course of living one’s life with the guidance of the Inner Light, God’s blessings, and the example—not dogmatism—of others.

God loves each person infinitely regardless of his or her baptismal status.  Quakers, who do not believe in baptism, can be as wise and good as any Catholic—and so can Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, agnostics, and so on.  And in determining our afterlife status, God doesn’t care one bit about whether we have been baptized.  Deacon, you are not wiser—or possessed of greater insight into Jesus—than I am simply because you have been baptized and I have not.  By seeming to believe that you are wiser, you inspire me to form a shell to protect myself from your message.

The position of the deacon’s Church on who can take communion is another source of distress for me.  (Some Franciscans, such as Father Richard Rohr in his insightful books, also disagree with the deacon’s version of the Church on this point.)  I believe Jesus likewise would have disagreed with the mainstream Church’s requirements for taking communion.  Jesus said, “. . . I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).  Jesus’s teachings and example emphasize inclusivity.  But the deacon’s Catholic communion is too much about saying, “I’m in the club and you’re not.”

No One True Humanly Charted Course

I believe we are all seekers who can learn from each other, and some individuals are outstandingly wise, but I have never been able to accept the notion that anyone has a corner on the truth.  When I was a senior in high school, a member of the Meeting decided that in our Sunday school—which Quakers call “First-day school”—he would teach us young people exactly what we “ought” to know and believe.  In response, I immediately stopped going to First-day school.  I have not (at least as yet) decided to stop going to meet with the deacon because I still want to be among the Franciscans as more than a welcomed visitor.  But how can I join them without having to pretend to be in agreement with the deacon and the vast elements of the Church that he represents?

Deacon, here is what I would like to ask of you: Tell me that you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views.  But then acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding.  Acknowledge that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect as the next person’s.  No one, and no religion, has all the answers.  There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered understanding.  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.

Assisi_San_Francesco_BW_2
Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi, Italy, by Berthold Werner – Own work, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

The Wrong Direction Altogether?

When I am with the Franciscans, I feel as though I have found a spiritual home.  It is not the home of my earlier years, the home I will miss forever in this life, but it is a beautiful home, filled with love and deep satisfaction.  The bells and music of the Catholic faith are not the bells and katydids accompanying long-ago family suppers on the porch, not hymn-sings in the old Quaker Meetinghouse at 4th and West Streets, but I thought they could be welcoming and meaningful to me.

Am I going to have to turn back into the emptiness of living without a spiritual port, a spiritual home that counts me fully among its family?  Do I have to turn away because I am having profound difficulty accepting the lessons I am supposed to be learning in the RCIA sessions–conforming enough for the deacon and those he represents to let me in?  Should I join the Church feeling as I feel?  I want to be a Franciscan, but for now I am not sure I am suited to be a Catholic.

[1] Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (even the name bothers me: I am already Christian).

[2] The formal name for the Quakers is the Religious Society of Friends.

[3] Vincent B. Silliman, 1935.

My Turquoise-and-Silver Pin

The poem and story I’m sharing here make a companion to my recent post “Embracing Now,” in which I tell about hearing my mother’s voice, in spite of the veil between worlds that separates us for now.
Being Psychic
Being psychic
I would know for sure.
Glimpses
Would become vistas
Over all sides of creation.
I could help others,
But above all,
Doubt would disappear
To be replaced by knowing,
By reaching out to you
And finding you,
Not just sometimes
But always,
And then forever.
–Winifred Hayek

In the fourth grade, our teacher taught us about the Navajos. I loved drawing pictures of pueblos and became fascinated by Native American jewelry.

Under the tree at Christmastime that year, 1958, I found an interesting-looking gift about four inches square and an inch deep. The tag said the present was for me from Mother and Daddy. On one of the long days before Christmas, my impatience overwhelmed my self-control. I slipped off the package’s ribbon and carefully unstuck the tape on the wrapping paper. The box inside was stamped “Marjorie Speakman,” the name of a local store selling children’s clothing. In the box was a turquoise-and-silver pin. My parents had forgotten to remove the price tag, which gave the cost as eight dollars. Thrilled and awed by the present, I reassembled the paper and ribbon around it.

From December 1958 until May 2007, the turquoise-and-silver pin from my parents was my favorite piece of jewelry. The pin—about an inch tall and just over an inch across at its widest point—was in the shape of a three-branch spray of little turquoise leaves, fifteen in total. The silver branches joined toward the bottom and ended in two little silver knobs. I wore my pin on the collars of my blouses, dresses, and sweaters. It came with me to college and to my first apartments. When I was twenty-eight, my parents gave me turquoise earrings for my newly pierced ears, and from then on I wore the earrings with my pin as it continued with me through my years in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Delaware. When my father died in 2004, I moved back into our Wilmington, Delaware, family home to be with my mother. I continued to wear my pretty pin.

On May 7, 2007, my mother moved to the Maris Grove retirement community, and I went to an apartment in nearby West Chester. We shared the same moving van. The movers delivered my mother’s furniture and boxes and then drove the seven miles up Route 202 to my new home.

I had left my clothes, jewelry, and other possessions in place in the dresser drawers. But in my new West Chester apartment, the first time that I opened the drawer where I kept my turquoise-and-silver pin, it wasn’t there. The missing small pin left a cavernous gap. Perhaps the drawer had come open while the men were loading or unloading my dresser. I imagined my pin lying on the bottom of the van, crushed now under the legs of other people’s furniture. Or perhaps, I hoped, I had put the pin in a different drawer or left it on a collar the last time I’d worn it. I searched every drawer and examined every collar I owned, without success. The pin seemed irrevocably lost.

For the four years and three months I lived in West Chester, I missed my sweet pin. In my mind, I saw it as it had been for five decades, among my other jewelry and decorating my clothes. How could I have been careless enough to allow its loss by any means?

In August 2011, I prepared to move in with my mother at Maris Grove. As I was readying my belongings for the movers, I opened my jewelry drawer. Sitting in an open box in clear view at the front of the drawer was my turquoise-and-silver pin.

I cannot unequivocally explain how my pin returned to my drawer after being gone for more than four years. But I have chosen to adopt one of the possible explanations. I choose to believe my late father somehow recovered the pin and returned it to me. The idea is not preposterous. My father in several ways showed my mother and me that he continued to be a part of our lives—as both my parents now continue to be in my life. I believe my father found the means for me to have the pin again. This time, instead of honoring my interest in the Navajos, the gift honored the life my mother and I were to live together, always with my father in our hearts.

Pin

“My Turquoise-and-Silver Pin” and the poem “Being Psychic” are from my book A Woman in Time.  If you wish to read more about afterlife communication, I recommend the four books I’ve listed at the end of “Embracing Now.”

Embracing Now

This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side.  If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.

Returning to the Patio

I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together.  Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing.  But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me.  The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring.  While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.

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The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together.  We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then.  I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home.  Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors.  This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.

Wicker chairs

On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now.  Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together.  And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.

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Holding Back, Weighted Down

In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life.  Yet I’m already what most would consider old.  If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.”  I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly.  I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation.  It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least.  What am I waiting for?

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Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.”  Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.

You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness.  And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what.  Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.

Turning Blessings into Joy

I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests.  I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian.  I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient.  I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness.  I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces.  I have lines to master for the play that I’m in.  And on and on.  But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.

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When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage.  I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books.  I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment.  It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately.  And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.

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My mother’s apartment at Christmas 2010, eight months before we began sharing the apartment

Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings.  If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do.  I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.

Choosing Contentment

As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what.  And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face.  Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.

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Mount Vesuvius, near Naples 

And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy.  Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived.  Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality.  I now choose contentment and serenity.  And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.

Hearing an Answer to My Prayer

Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity.  In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real.  I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known.  And then my prayer was answered.

I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady.  (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.)  To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder.  Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC.  I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”

When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script.  And the singing voice is not mine.  To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer.  During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep.  Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer.  On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.”  I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.

Glee Plays the Game Playbill
My mother, Doris Burgess (later Doris Burgess Hayek), was in the cast for this production at Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College (now Eastern Kentucky University).

In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice.  Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard.  Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage.  How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in.  I am blessed by this gift beyond words.  I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible.  Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever.  And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.

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If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Answers about the Afterlife: A Private Investigator’s 15-Year Research Unlocks the Mysteries of Life after Death, by Bob Olson
Afterlife Communication: 16 Proven Methods, 85 True Accounts, edited by R. Craig Hogan
(The first chapter in this collection is “Voices of People in Spirit Recorded on a PC,” by Sonia Rinaldi.)
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec
(In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit.  I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
Hello from Heaven: A New Field of Research – After-Death Communication Confirms That Life and Love Are Eternal, by Bill Guggenheim and Judy Guggenheim