Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hangin' With the Amish

With the growing season underway, we've been stepping up our Amishing around the neighborhood, buying onions and strawberries and other delicacies from their local roadside stands.

One day I decided to give back, just a little. I planted dozens of tomato seeds this winter, with seedling mortality in mind -- but all of them flourished, and I wound up with many more than what I needed. So when we went on our weekly round of the farms, we stopped at a couple of the visibly poorer farms and asked the ladies of the house if they'd mind taking our extra tomato plants.

The reaction was interesting. "What do you want for them?" both women immediately asked, frowning.

I explained our predicament. "We don't want anything," I said. "You're doing us a favor. And we're thanking you for all the good food we get here."

That broke the air of formality in both households, and we had some enjoyable discussions about tomato husbandry and farming in general. The women seemed a little surprised, and approving, that I'd started the plants from seed, and wanted to know if they were heirlooms or hybrids. (I always feel woefully incompetent in survival skills when I deal with the Amish, so it was frankly  satisfying to show off my modestly green thumb.)

Afterward FT noted, "I wonder why we get more out of our relationships with our Amish neighbors than the 'English' ones."

We live in a community where people with life competency of any kind are in short supply -- long gone, thanks to Michigan's protracted economic doldrums -- so our 'English' neighbors tend to be, as our friends in social services say, lacking in coping mechanisms and a support network...fancy talk for My Big Fucked-Up Redneck Life. And, ironically, as gay folks, even though we know we'd not be accepted in Amish society, we also seem to have a common set of detractors and harassers -- fundamentalists and good ol' boys, both groups possessing a dangerous mixture of ignorance, inferiority complex, entitlement mentality and xenophobia. When we see a group of 20-somethings in a pickup truck trying to run an Amish buggy off the road, or read hysterical screeds by fundamentalist pastors bleating on about saving the Amish from the dangers and dysfunctions of their "cult," we nod and think, We get that too.

At the same time we hold no idealistic allusions about Amish society. We understand that their community is not immune from spousal and child abuse, addiction, out-of-control teenagers and the vagaries of an economy that affects even these most self-sufficient of people. We obviously have difference of opinion about everything from gender roles to the wise use of technology.And looking at the Amish through my Lutheran lenses, I might point out that, no matter how "called out" from the world Christians might presume to be, we're all still sinners, and no amount of good-works points is going to change that. Despite the grace I see in their actions, I don't always see a lot of grace in their theology.

But -- we still like 'em. We just do. And we love the kids, who -- unlike the sort of Stepford fundamentalist-homeschool kids I've encountered, or the jaded, prematurely "adulted" and technology-numbed children of the rest of the neighborhood -- actually act like kids; like the little boy who played hide-and-seek with us around his parents' roadside stand, or our furniture-maker  friends' toddler daughter who, while we were talking bidness with Dad,  was trying unsuccessfully to write on a bemused family dog with an ink pen, or the self-assured tweenage counter girl at the Amish bakery who, taking a marketing cue from McDonald's, always goes for an extra sell: "If you like that bread, maybe you'd like some cinnamon rolls too."

Our corner of Michigan may not be the hippest or the most scenic or the most historic. But our Amish community helps make it a better place to live.

Loving the Neighbors

Fellow Traveler and I have friends, a lesbian couple in their sixties and seventies respectively, who live a few miles down the road from us; FT met them at a neighborhood Christmas party shortly after moving to this area. The two live in a household I'll call Dysfunction Junction, a remodeled trailer on the edge of a river.

How can I describe this couple? They remind me of characters in a 1950's lesbian pulp novel, all growed up but still dressing and acting according to the Sisterhood's script of those times; think tough girls in jeans with a pack of Camels rolled into their T-shirt sleeve. Each has a past that she seems extremely reluctant to talk about. One partner has numerous health problems and hasn't worked for years; the other, younger partner has worked for years at a physically as well as emotionally punishing nearly-minimum-wage job. They've also been caregivers to two live-in invalid parents, although they seem to have burned bridges with many of their other family members -- including their children.

The two dwell in a cloud of blue cigarette smoke, so much so that we literally can't visit their home for more than a few minutes at a time before FT is sent into an asthma attack.They operate in a state of perpetual personal and household disshevelment; on the margins in a multiplicity of ways. They cycle through doomed money-making schemes; financial crises; caregiving problems; health issues; simultaneously exploitative and exploited "friends" who come and go. We in turn lose track of them for months at a time; then they'll call asking for help of some kind, or wanting to borrow some tool or appliance from us (that is inevitably lost or broken) and we'll briefly get involved in their lives again...until, once more, their neediness begins to overwhelm us.

A few weeks ago, after months of not hearing from them, one of the partners appeared on our doorstep. This time it wasn't about borrowing a saw. She told us that the other partner had been diagnosed with a large, inoperable tumor in her lung, and was about to undergo chemotherapy. She sank down into our sofa and, blinking away tears, began unloading about her partner's illness; problems with her live-in parent; loss of an elderly friend; her overwhelming physical and emotional fatigue and worries about money.

So here we are again, trying to help this couple without becoming completely sucked into the vortex of their household trials. We said we could help take the sick partner to chemotherapy once or twice a week. Knowing how difficult it was for the well partner to make meals for the household -- the sick partner tended to be the family cook, but is now too weak to do that -- we decided we'd make food for them once a week; enough for a good meal and leftovers. FT, who has facility with computers, offered to help fix their computer so that the sick partner can maintain some contact with her family through e-mail.

Yesterday we dropped by to pick up the computer. The ill partner, who just finished her first round of chemotherapy, met us at the door, ashen-faced, surrounded by a pack of yapping toy dogs (the result of a failed let's-make-money-selling-puppies Grand Plan, plus a rescue dog, plus Mama's dog). She let us in, then pulled me aside amid the chaos of the dogs and the durch-und-unter of the tiny living space and the vacantly cheerful, nonverbal mother-in-law who spends the day just sitting at the kitchen table.

"I need some spiritual guidance," she said. "I've been trying to pray. I pray an act of contrition and and Our Father every night. And I've been doing some bargaining with God too. But...I'm just really scared right now."

I can't remember exactly how I responded to her; something about how every prayer is a good prayer and to just keep talking to God; some sort of unnerved, caught-off-guard church-geek gibberish. I also told her to call me if she just needed to talk or wanted me to come over.

It's a daunting thought, being asked to provide the closest thing to pastoral care that this lady is willing to accept.. I had my Moses/Peter moment: "Um, no, God, you really don't want me to do this job. Because deep, deep down I'm shallow; too shallow to walk the valley of the shadow with anyone. You want someone with spiritual chops; not me." But now that I've had a day to think and pray about it, I know that I am being called to carry Christ, somehow, into the life of this individual. How that happens...well, we'll see.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Tonight we're attending what's being called a retirement picnic for one of my fellow lay ministers -- an "excellent woman," as they say, in her seventies who was a pillar of our congregation decades before going through the Lay Ministry Training Program. A little (okay...a lot) opinionated and stubborn and set in her ways...but an invaluable part of the church family; a lady who can terrify you if you fail on some point of church protocol, but who prays every single day for each of the names on our lengthy church prayer list, and who helped hold our faith community together during dark days in the late '80's and early '90's when its viability as a congregation was questionable on a week-to-week basis.

Shortly after being commissioned, this lady was diagnosed with MS. In the years that have ensued, she has faced down this foe with the same mixture of faith and cussedness that's earned her the rank of matriarch in our church. When her legs grew unsteady she (with much grumbling) began using a footed cane, then a wheeled walker, on her Sundays as assisting minister. When she was having a bad day and coudn't count on enough strength to make it through an entire service, she reluctantly allowed others on the team to help. Meanwhile, she defied her adult children at every turn when it came to driving or working in her yard. "They think they're the boss of me," she'd confide to a sympathetic listener. "I'm just going to do what I want to do." And that's the attitude she's had toward her illness in general.

This past month, though, on a weekend when FT and I were out of town, we heard that our matriarch had taken a bad spill while assisting during the service, and had decided that enough was enough; she was bowing out of the lay ministry team.

This is an added sadness in a year when a double share of life-threatening illnesses have been dealt to  our little congregation and community and wider circle of church friends. It's made me, particularly in these perimenopausal days, start thinking more about my own mortality, and priorities, and it's made me more impatient with the petty issues that junk up the life of the Church. When I hear someone going on about The Troubles in the ELCA or the color of the Communion wine or some line item in a church council meeting, I want to shake them and say, "There are people in our congregation who are fighting for their lives every single day -- and you want me to care about this? Are you ******* serious? What is the matter with you?" Although I suspect the matter is the same nervous whistling in the dark that keeps us all distracted from what's real and immediate and painful and scary.

So, anyway, we're toting two Amish pies to the picnic tonight, where we will thank our friend for her service and wish her well in the newest iteration of her ministry to our church.

Friday Five: It's Summertime!

An easy, light and breezy RevGalBlogPals Friday Five this week -- name our five favorite things about summer.

1. The light. I covet the sunlight of summer all year long...waking up in the morning light only to discover that it's 6:00 a.m., then working and playing hard all day in anticipation of the sunset, only to realize that it's now bedtime.

2. The food. I'm sorry, but wintertime's styrofoam-flavored out-of-season vegetables imported from God knows where can never compare to a sun-ripened berry just off the vine, or a fresh cob of corn five minutes from stalk to steaming pot, or a juicy tomato pilfered from the garden at midday.

3. The out-of-doors. As pretty and as exhilarating as a winter day can be -- most of us can only take so much of it outside. Not so during the summer. (Especially for those of us with shady patios or porches.)

4. The evenings. One of our favorite things to do this time of year is head out on a mini road trip after supper -- just drive down country roads where the trees meet overhead, watch the farmers finishing up their haying for the day, enjoy the colors of sundown. Or we sit on the patio with some iced tea, or wine, and review the day.

5. The water. This is ironic coming from a non-swimmer -- but I love the water. I love still-fishing on the edge of a lake, listening to the waves wash up on the beach; I love rivers in the summer, with the lush riparian flora and an occasional flash of fish.

Bonus: Thing I don't like about summer: Apart from the bittersweetness of the solstice itself -- it all goes downhill from here, lightwise, until the end of December -- I never feel comfortable in summer clothing; it always feels too binding, even in khaki shorts and oversized T-shirts.

Another bonus: Best ad campaign ever: Every time I see a "Pure Michigan" travel ad on TV I want to drop everything and head up north to Crystal Lake or the Leelanau or Taquamenon Falls. I was delighted to see these running in New York when we stayed with The Kids. Please, out-of-staters -- we need hybrid vigor and skills here; consider relocating; or at least visit and spend some money:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Question Time

Several weeks ago, in an effort to step up the content of our church blog, I began a series called "Worship Whys," where readers could submit questions about Lutheran worship.

Perhaps predictably, the first week no one responded until the last minute; and I suspect that was a mercy question from our pastor or a friend of mine. Our people are not communicators, and they also have a fear of standing out that may override the anonymity of blog comboxes.

Things picked up a bit in the weeks thereafter. We got some questions that sounded as if they were penned by unwilling young catechumens -- "Do you have to be confirmed?"...whinge a little as you read that aloud -- as well as a series of questions from someone who sounded like a lost Baptist who'd stumbled on our blog by mistake. Fellow Traveler, who is not a Lutheran by birth, also submitted a couple of very good questions.

I knew the feature had finally arrived, so to speak, this week, when a new questioner -- someone obviously a part of our congregation -- asked, "Why is apple [sic] juice a Communion option when it's supposed to be the Blood of Christ...and who the HELL picks out the hymns?" As FT notes, once you take the snark out of them, they're good questions. So I was happy to respond to them.

It's risky to begin an FAQ service in a church, for the same reason that it's risky to put up a suggestion box in a workplace: It's can become a vehicle for a lot of whiny passive aggression. On the other hand -- we might actually be teaching our people something. And there's not always the time or opportunity in the course of a church service to accomplish the same thing. So Worship Whys is staying on the schedule for the time being. And I'm actually looking forward to more cranky questions; because it means that people are reading the answers.

Wild Hares

I am spending much of this beautiful, post-storm June day on the sofa staving off a headache that I fear is the precusor to whatever viral bug has stricken Fellow Traveler.  I'm holding my nose and drinking Airborne (yes, I know, there's no proof it works; don't judge), and hoping that the heaviness behind my eyes doesn't begin a predictable chain reaction of sore throat, stuffy sinuses and fever.

I need badly to get outside and do things. Our last trees of the season arrived yesterday -- a pair of sourwoods and a Carolina silverbell -- plus a native autumn clematis vine, all of which need replanting somewhere in our increasingly crowded wood margin. And I'm behind on some of my succession planting plans, and in starting some perennial flowers for next year.

Amid this retrogressive two-step, though, I have developed a number of what Fellow Traveler calls wild hares...you know, those sudden new interests; those odd, persistent promptings to do some new thing.

I've always had a thing for magnificent obsessions. One year, as a child, it was learning shorthand from my mother's old high school textbook. (Not terribly successful.) Another year it was stamped embroidery and rick-rack lace. Then I become completely engrossed in poultry raising. As an adult, I went through The Year of Knitting and The Year of Self-Help Psychology and The Year of Two-Mile Walks and the Year of Making Cakes From Scratch.

Here are a two of my latest wild hares:

Going to the library. I used to be a library geek, even in our book-deprived community. I used to take out a half-dozen books at once and read them all in a weekend. (And then forget to return them; I hope the library board have invested my fines in some fund for a future expansion.) Then my mom died. Then I met Fellow Traveler. Then I got busy. And I forgot about reading books. Wow; I can't believe I just typed that; but I did. This summer, though, I want to read some books, just to read them. The other day we were talking about antiques, and I remember how my aunt used to find interesting old books in secondhand stores -- books that sold for a dime, or by the foot -- and read them. I'm interested in reading a couple of those -- jackets long gone, covers faded, signed in fountain pen on the inside by some long-gone owner. Maybe a travelogue, or a treatise on botany or beekeeping, or one of those progressive novels for girls featuring a plucky heroine defying convention by tenting with the Campfire Girls or going off to college. That and a book by a Michigan author. Traverse magazine's latest issue has a list of 30 beach reads by Michigan authors; that might be a starting point.

Mosaics. We spent many weekend afternoons last year learning how to work with stained glass. Fellow Traveler loves this. I love the look of it, and there are parts of the process (like grinding) that I enjoy and think I do fairly well...but I don't have FT's ambition to launch into a full-bodied, serious art project in this medium -- because frankly I don't think I'm good enough. If I'm going to fail, let me fail with some fairly small, low-investment objet d'art. But the other Sunday we took an afternoon trip to our stained glass instructor's shop for some supplies, and while we were there I found myself attracted to the mosaics in progress in her classroom; someone was in the process of covering a cement replica of the "Bird Girl" statue made famous on the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and I marveled at the tiny bits of stained glass the student was carefully placing on the statue. Then in a book I saw a mosaic patio table using bits of broken china and other colorful tiles, and a mosaic bird feeder made out of a basic $10 pine model covered in ceramic pieces and flat-backed marbles. I can do that, I thought. Not only can I do that, but I can do it using the rather large amount of scrap glass generated by other stained glass work.

I have strangled other wild hares. My interest in terraria, for instance, died a-borning, mostly because I realized we don't have adequate natural light in our home for most houseplants of any kind, and no spot in our living areas that would really do such a project justice. I also experienced a momentary interest in making cheese -- you know, like Martha Stewart telling us that homemade mozzarella is "quite easy and fun" -- but after coming to from that patio reverie I had to remind myself that, no, what I really like doing is eating artisanal cheese.

I haven't had any church-related wild hares of late...ironically, the more involved I am in lay ministry the less proactive and innovative I want to be. My pastor and a couple of other folks want me to lead Bible study Sunday mornings, and I've enjoyed the couple of times I've led Bible studies for our quilters' group during our pastor's recuperation from heart surgery; but my reaction to the sample Book of Faith Bible study we ordered was a big "Meh," and flashbacks to my mind-numbing experiences sitting in on Navigator Bible studies in my college dorm.

We'll see what becomes of the hares bouncing around in my brain this summer.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Joy of Not Working

I'm writing this on a cold, wet, sinus-swelling day here in mid-Michigan, after a quick walk outside to inspect the grounds (those last stubborn holly seedlings are still resisting greening out, but dum spiro, spero), and to quickly pop a four-pack of sweet williams into the new perennial bed before they became too sodden in their plastic container. Earlier this morning I wrote a review of Sunday's lessons, with questions for reflection, for our church blog. When I'm done with this post I might wander into the kitchen and clean up a straggle of evening dishes before they begin to multiply in worrisome ways.

It's a slow day, by both choice and circumstance. But as I sit here I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to have a slow day, in a way I didn't have when I was working for a paycheck.

What would I have done on a day like this back in the old office -- a day where I didn't feel on my game either physically or mentally? Probably a lot of purposeful action with little work product actually being done, and some surreptitious Web-surfing and subsequent self-guilting in between.

So it's a blessing, even as I'm swallowing my Advil, to enjoy the freedom of a dark, dreary day where not a lot gets done, without the looming presence of multiple bosses and incoming assignments from other people.

That's one thing. And I'm also blessed to be able to (when weather finally permits) engage in some heavy, sweaty, grunt-inducing physical labor. Who needs a weight room when pounds of soil await moving outside? Who needs special flexibility exercises when there are seeds and seedlings that must be planted, and unruly growth that must be pruned? And it's labor that results in a tangible, seeable, living result; unlike years of PR pitchmanship on the sinking boat of  increasingly irrelevant social services -- services that most of the intended recipients emphatically don't want.

So my days have a rhythm and a purpose even without a timeclock. I usually work on the church blog and its Facebook companion very early in the morning -- I'll occasionally work on drafts for other days of the week, but I haven't really gotten into multitasking here. Then FT and I have morning coffee and breakfast together and informally review the day ahead. Mondays, and sometimes another day each week, we go to church for a half day; FT works on church software issues while I check phone messages or work on my own church-related tasks. Oftentimes we pair our "church day" up with grocery shopping, since church brings us a few miles closer to Midland, or we go visit FT's elderly, infirm aunt and uncle, and help them with a few outdoor chores.  We come home and do household and outdoor work. In the early evening we like to take a family "ride" around this or that neighborhood, a ritual that we tell ourselves if for the benefit of our easily bored dog but is really about spending quality time together. FT paid a profound personal price to earn the freedom of this kind of life; but we're so thankful that we can live it.

We never don't have anything to do. The other day we were wondering how we managed when I was working 40 hours a week. And we have some big projects looming ahead, most notably finishing up work on our garage office and really, truly getting started on working with our stained glass, instead of playing around at the edges of this pastime; and, next year, getting our honeybees.

I think about looking for a paying job again -- not this summer or even fall, because our schedule is too full to attempt a new job, but sometime. I worry, not about our current living expenses, but about the future, and also about keeping my skill set sharp. I'm frankly not sure I want a job, as they say, "commensurate with my education and experience"; that's the phrase that keeps getting me into situations where my job winds up eating my life. This old dog is willing to either learn a new trick or to keep busy in some non-status-laden, non-high-commitment position; a job I can truly leave behind when I go home. (Are there even any such things left -- status-laden, high-commitment jobs?)

But in the meantime I'm happy to "chop wood and carry water" in our own little world of work here.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Talking to Trees

Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, "Grow...grow." -- Talmud

I found myself doing just that bright and early this morning as I made a post-rainstorm inspection of our yard and the many seedlings I"ve been planting this spring.

This is part of what I call Project Bee Here Now: Enhancing the bee-sustainability of our property by planting species favored by honeybees for nectar and pollen. Yes, this is a long-haul project. (As we noted ruefully today, with the economy the way it is we may as well invest in the maintenance and aesthetics of our home, because people aren't exactly burning asphalt to relocate to our little burg.)

For the last two months I've scoured online nursery catalogs, extension-office tree-sale lists and other sources for inexpensive bee-friendly trees and shrubs. And I've purchased some: red osier dogwood; redbuds; basswood; ninebark; sumac; elderberry; buttonbush; highbush cranberry; winterberry, aka Michigan holly. Most of them have gone around the periphery of our yard or our backyard pond.

It's been very rewarding to watch the very unimpressive bare twigs of these seedlings suddenly sprout little green leaflets. But the holly -- a deciduous species, fairly common here in wetland areas and  much beloved for its prolific orange-red berries in the wintertime -- has been a tough case.

I planted the hollies in a  humus-y raised semicircular bed at the margin of our woods -- a neglected spot in the yard that until recently had been home to a few half-dead rhododendrons and a burgeoning colony of poison ivy. Those are gone now, after much effort, replaced by the hollies, a pair of pieris shrubs and some wildflowers; and for the past month I've been silently willing the leaves of the wispy holly twigs to emerge.

"Come on...grow," I'd wish each morning, staring disappointedly at the bare seedlings. "All the other seedlings are growing -- even the buttonbushes I stuck right in the pondwater. You're slacking off here. Grow. Please."

Then last week, after being awakened in the wee hours by our bored dog more interested in an outdoor romp than a morning constitutional, I trudged to the forlorn holly bed, expecting to be disappointed again and wondering what I might plant there instead. I focused my sleep-bleary eyes at a holly twig.

A tiny green leaf was protruding from the end.


In the days to follow, four of the six seedlings have shown signs of life; green buds or full-blown leaves. I thought the last two twigs looked somehow bumpier today, but that might just be wishful thinking.