Thursday, December 31, 2009

Christmas Cards, to the Unchurched

I know that in many Christian homes the sending of Christmas cards is an activity fraught with uncertainty and guilt: Should we buy separate religious and secular cards? What about the hybrid cards, with secular graphics but a religious message? (The picture to the right, by the way, illustrates one of our trifecta of card designs for this year, carefully chosen for each recipient based upon his or her anticipated reaction.) Am I "ashamed of the Gospel of Christ" if I don't send an explicitly Christian Christmas card?

Well, this year Fellow Traveler and I, as guests in our children's home, got to see firsthand the reaction of non-churchgoing, non-religious individuals to the reception of such cards.

Some background: The Kids are getting heavy pressure from Son #2's biological father and his partner to have our grandchild baptized -- preferably in a Roman Catholic church, although I understand that Grandpa, without consulting me, offered my services for a marginally acceptable substitute baptism. (I told Daughter-in-Law that I both understood and appreciated her viewpoint that making religious vows that she and Son #2 have no intention of keeping in regard to their child's religious upbringing is not living with integrity.)  So religion has become a newly prickly issue. 

Then, to make matters worse, The Kids received a stealth-Christian Christmas card from maternal Grandpa -- someone who has no discernable religious affiliation, whose bad behavior has estranged him from his children for some time -- featuring a quaint English village illustration, with a non-sequitur Bible verse tucked inside.

With this subtext in mind...let's just say that the reaction was not pretty. "What the hell?..." I think was the common response of both kids to Maternal Grandpa's stealth CHRISTmas card.

Points made:

- Christmas cards that look religion-neutral but have Christian stuff written in them are interpreted as being pushy and proselytizing in an especially creepy way.

- Both overtly and covertly religious cards, if sent by schmucks, are subject to particular scorn and ridicule. If you don't live it, then don't try to promote it.

- An alternative interpretation of a religious card sent by a family member to another family member known to be non-religious: They must have pulled this one out of the bottom of the drawer. If they really knew or cared about us, they'd know we wouldn't appreciate this.

Even though Fellow Traveler and I were not on the receiving end of this sentiment (we are not dumb enough to provoke our children to anger by sending them potentially objectionable holiday cards)...I for one still felt like I was taking one for the team listening to this excorciation of Christmas-card stupidity.

Why are Christians so pushy? Why do we think that some non-believer is going to have a metanoia moment reading a context-free Bible verse cut-and-pasted into a cheesy Christmas card? What are we proving, and to whom? Do we have a fantasy that God, working on the heavenly Excel spreadsheets, is saying, "Ah -- LutheranChik took a defensive stand in the War on Christmas by quoting the Gospel of Luke in her Christmas cards! Well done, good and faithful servant!"? Oh, please.

So Fellow Traveler and I will be, for the foreseeable future, maintaining our custom of multiple card designs for our multiplicity of friends, and hope that, for people who have issues with organized religion, what we do all year long says more about our faith than what Christmas card we send.

There's Something About Mary...

...that turns certain Protestants into complete jerks: Read the comments generated by this Internet Monk blog post. (I am not a regular reader of iMonk, but every so often another blogger links to it; and I always leave it feeling like a tourist fleeing a particularly unfriendly, uncomfortable region of Christendom, eager to get back on the plane for home.)
Now, I'm sure that Mary, tough Jewish mother that she is, can take care of herself when confronted by what always appear in my mind to be frowny-faced, Evangelical 30-40-somethings with the requisite alpha-male goatees and bowling-alley sartorial sensibility ("I'm just a fun, sensitive, cuddly guy who also happens to be a homophobic misogynist fundamentalist"). But the vehemence with which some of the respondents reject any notion of according the mother of our Lord with any significance or honor whatsoever makes me want to get into these fellows' faces and snarl, Hey -- you leave her alone.

Since I can't, though, I'll just volunteer a two-word armchair analysis of what lies underneath the theologized veneer of the Marian discomfort I read in this discussion: Mommy Issues.

Addendum: This discussion came up on Beliefnet's Lutheran forum, apparently even as I was writing this friend Wayne provided this article on Luther's attitude toward the Virgin Mary.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Singing Mit Feeling

A wistful Rod Dreher post about men singing together, and our experience of Christmas Eve Mass where the otherwise engaged congregation fell silent during the hymns, got me thinking this morning about singing in general, and how all of us do so little of it.

I love my congregation -- I really do -- but apart from the nursery-school-aged chitlins they're the most terrible, unenthusiastic singers in all of Lutherland. I just don't get it. Even on Reformation Sunday, a day when most Lutherans are belting out "A Mighty Fortress" with the vigor of Cubbie fans singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at the seventh-inning stretch, our congo sounds like they're in painful recovery from major oral surgery. Sung liturgy? Fuggetaboutit, except for a few brave souls during Holden Evening Prayer at Advent and Lent.

My dad, who thanks to his arts-averse family could not read one note of music, was nonetheless a robust church singer with a good ear, constantly at the receiving end of entreaties to join the church choir. He always refused. "Someone's got to lead from the pews too," he'd argue.

Some who've noticed this non-singing phenomenon in the culture in general blame the entertainment industry and its professionalization of music; back before the days of easy access to musical recordings, families and friends used to sing together for amusement, and coworkers would sing to relieve the tedium of repetitive work; now we rely on our sound systems and radio to supply our music. Likewise, church musicianship -- and just so I don't get pounded for firing a shot in the worship wars, I think this is true in traditional worship modalities as well as contemporary ones -- has developed a kind of self-conscious, aspirational quality that makes people uncomfortable with the idea of providing their own untutored sung praises to God, instead of delegating that responsibility to a trained choir or "praise team."

I don't know what the solution, if any, is to this. But if you happen upon a traveling band of itinerent singers willing to seed the pews of a non-singing church, please send them my way.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Terror in the Skies

I found out about the attempted bombing of the Delta/Northwest flight landing at Detroit Metro the day after it happened, glancing at a New York Post over at the bagel place down the street. It turns out that Fellow Traveler had seen it on the news the evening before, when I was asleep, but didn't want to tell me about it because she thought it would make me too anxious flying home.

She needn't have worried; I was frankly more anxious about briefly losing track of my driver's license in my handbag the other day. But I am angry -- specifically over an article in the Detroit Free Press which quoted a member of Detroit's Nigerian Muslim community hoping aloud that the attempted bombing wouldn't lead to profiling members of that community at airports.

Really, now? That's the big concern of the Nigerian Muslim community in Detroit? -- that one of them might be subject to a secondary search at the airport? Hmmm. I would think that -- hello -- getting blown up by a fundamentalist fruitcake might be of slightly more concern to any human being with half a brain and a normal impulse to stay alive.

I am sometmes made fun of for exhibiting political correctness, but this is one area where I'm not going to do so: If someone fits the ethnic and religious profile of an Islamic terrorist, then for heaven's sake the TSA and local law enforcement should profile them...and their innocent coreligionists/countrypeople need to stop whining and cooperate, like people who find terrorism repulsive and unacceptable.

If a cabal of middle-aged Lutheran lesbian grannies gone bad suddenly began creating life-threatening mayhem on board airplanes, I would gladly volunteer to go through an additional airport screening; because I have nothing to hide; because I'm not doing anything wrong. And if my fellow Lutheran lesbian grannies started sniveling about harassment and privacy and prejudice, I'd tell them to woman up and do what needs to be done to identify the bad apples and prevent them from wreaking more havoc.

Many years ago, when a spate of films depicting gay and lesbian villains hit Hollywood at the same time, provoking an angry response in the gay community, I remember some gay activist -- maybe Larry Kramer -- noting that a community has not really reached a state of maturity, self-acceptance and self-confidence as long as it can't acknowledge the fact that some of its members are bad people. Maybe someone should convey that bit of advice to Muslim groups who publicly express more outrage over perceived insults to their community than outrage over the carnage and fear generated by terrorism.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


This morning Fellow Traveler and I are being quiet in the living room/dining room area while the rest of the family sleeps at the opposite end of the apartment.

We're in a brownstone -- for those of you whose experience of New York is limited to films and television, this is the real deal, with long stone stairways and black iron gating, that looks so picturesque when, say, the Law and Order cops are interviewing a witness in front of one.

When you open our doors, though, what you will find is not the sparkling modernity of a made-for-television set, but a real taste of old New York, circa 1890's.

Space, as always, is at a premium in this town. So our kids' living spills out of their rooms into the hallways, into ponderous antique dressers and dorm-style shelving units. The bathroom -- featuring a fin-de-siecle sink on clawed metal feet and a bathtub whose rim is nearly a yard high, necessitating the grandmas' summoning of all the dexterity they can manage to crawl inside -- is chiseled out of a corner in the hall, and is small enough that I can pretty much touch the opposite walls with outstretched hands. The kids' actual living space consists of one large room, divided up by sliding doors into a dining/living area, storage area and sleeping area, with a tiny kitchen/laundry off to the side facing the neighbors' back yards. Grandmas are staying in a small spare bedroom off to the side of The Kids' apartment that actually belongs to the landlord -- it's where he houses his son when his son pays a visit -- but that he has graciously donated to our extended family during all the new-baby visitation.

Logistics gets tricky in this patchwork of living areas. Grandmas have easy access to the bathroom from our room at the opposite end of the hallway...but we can't get into the kitchen without opening the door into The Kids' bedroom, which we are not going to do until they're safely up and dressed. Likewise, our coats are in a closet in the central part of the apartment, walled off by the two sets of sliding doors, and trying to get at them involves more noise than we can safely manage in the morning. The tininess of the kitchen -- just to give you an idea, in order for us to set up the crockpot for dinner yesterday we had to park the coffeemaker in the hall, and the top of the dryer also serves as stand-in storage space for cooking implements-- provided me with new insight into why The Kids live on takeout. Sometimes I sit here and wonder what it was like to dwell in these buildings with the large families of past generations.

Not that everything is cramped and crowded, though. We have very high, airy ceilings, and a nice bay window that's a great place to eat breakfast and people-watch. And the architecture is fascinating -- all the turned wood of the stairs; the elaborate moldings; the (closed) fireplace; the colorful surprise of a stained-glass skylight at the top of the stairwell.

The affable landlord -- a very entertaining guy, a Renaissance man whose knowledge base covers everything from deep-sea fishing to the more notable residents of Greenlawn Cemetery, and who could easily create a profitable sideline narrating tours of greater Brooklyn -- took us on a grand tour of the entire building yesterday, which he has been lovingly restoring for the past 25 years, repointing and renovating the basement and stripping the wonderful beechwood moldings section by section to rediscover their original honey color. He lives on the first two floors of the building.

The Kids are planning on moving to California in the next year, so this will be our last time in this place. Despite its logistical challenges, I think they'll leave with a touch of sadness.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas in Brooklyn

Happy Boxing Day/St. Stephen's Day to all. Grandmas offered to babysit while The Kids went out for breakfast -- I think this is, like, their first date alone since the baby -- so I'm sitting here in our living area, laptop on my knee, with Miss Ruby nearby in a little vibrating baby seat; she is mightily fighting the urge to sleep (in a good-natured way), but her little eyes keep closing. Fellow Traveler is in the kitchen making sangria for our Mexican formerly-Christmas-dinner-turned-LC's-birthday-party feast. (Our Christmas Eve lobsters arrived late Christmas Eve because of weather delays elsewhere, so we have moved our menus back one day. While nervously tracking our lobster that evening, we encountered a FedEx customer service rep who, when we explained our problem on the phone, seemed to begin weeping uncontrollably. We felt terrible -- maybe our call was the one holiday problem call to send her over the edge, we thought -- but then she explained she was trying to tamp down an uncontrollable cough from a cold that wouldn't go away. We had her laughing when we hung up; so we trust she was finally able to have a semi-Merry Christmas.)
The Kids are not churchgoers, so we really didn't know if they would have plans to go to church on Christmas Eve; but Son #2 seemed inexplicably moved to attend services. So after Ruby was up from a needed nap we walked about five minutes up the street to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a huge basilica church with attached school that takes up an entire city block, for its 10:30 pm Spanish Christmas Eve Mass. We passed Santa Claus in a pickup truck, and gave him a wave -- I love New York -- and numerous families carrying elaborately decorated Baby Jesusi to be blessed at Mass, and proceeded up the formidable steps into the main worship area. No one paid a great deal of attention to us; a few elderly ushers were stationed in the narthex, but when we took what we thought were bulletins we found to our disappointment that they were simply a list of persons who'd donated poinsettias to the altar.

We had a great time as church tourists -- even our rather more skeptical daughter-in-law, who is also still experiencing postpartum discomfort of various kinds familiar to readers who are also parental units, and who spent an awkward hour half-sitting/half-lying sideways on a hard old-school church pew, with a leg propped against the kneeler. She was a very good sport about the whole thing. 

Our little party accounted for five of the maybe eight Anglo worshippers present -- along with a tall, very Hibernian-featured young seminarian in a black cassock who smiled throughout Mass and kept bobbing rhythm with the uptempo music, and a couple of non-Latino women across the aisle from us. Every bit of the Mass was in Spanish except for the chorus to "Feliz Navidad" -- ironic, that -- and I was only able to follow along because I know the liturgical drill and know enough entirely passive pidgin Spanish to pick up the important words. Sitting, or more appropriately sitting and standing, there, I  developed a new empathy for both immigrants and nonchurchgoers like DiL, thrust into the mystery of the liturgy with little clue as to what is going on.

Music was provided by a small folk group who sang what we assumed to be traditional Mexican hymns, although worshippers sat poker-faced throughout; every once in awhile the leader of the group would motion for the congregation to join in, but no one took her up on the offer. Having been in a folk group in college that often garnered the same response from the older generation in churches we visited, I sympathized with the woman, who who looked a little sad as she beseeched her fellow worshippers to sing along.)  The liturgy, however, was a livelier affair, with the crowd actively participating and even a few charismatic hands thrust into the air.

Our Mass was celebrated by three priests and two deacons, assisted by an equal number of girl acolytes; something I found pleasantly surprising. Two quietly self-assured and neatly attired teens, a girl and boy, read the lessons.  The homilist was earnest and lively and worked without a net, speaking extemporaneously as he wandered back and forth in front of the congregation; I caught the phrase "The glory of Christmas is love," and gleaned from the rest of the homily that in our tendency to romanticize the Christmas story we miss the amazing story of God in Christ becoming one with humanity in a way that's hard for us to comprehend. After the Eucharist the sequin-bedecked assortment of little Baby Jesusi laid at the altar by families were censed and blessed. We sang "Feliz Navidad" -- featuring the one English sentence of the entire Mass -- as our final hymn.

Not that I am prejudiced or anything, but Miss Ruby gave the blingy El Ninos some competiton for attention at church; the priests made much of her during the recessional ("Oh -- this one is real!" exclaimed one cleric with a grin as he approached our pew), and the people around us were all smiles as they saw her in her little polar-bear snowsuit.

A good time was had by all, even though we didn't get home until very late indeed, and promptly tumbled into bed.

I hope all your Christmases were equally wonderful!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Welcome to Brooklyn!

I am writing this from The Kids' dining room table, on the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone flanked by sycamores. The snowman belongs to a neighbor on the other side of the street. (We took this photo a couple of days ago, when the snow was still fresh; he's looking the worse for wear today, missing a hat and one eye.)

It is almost 5:30 pm, but we are on lobster watch -- according to FedEx, the lobster we ordered for tonight is on the truck...somewhere. We called a very nice, very ill customer service representative who is helping us figure out what's going on. But we have a Plan don't worry about us.

 We had planned on attending family Christmas Mass down the street at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. This will not happen, partly because of the lobster but mostly because Miss Ruby, who's had a fussy day, is finally asleep, and we're overjoyed about that, and not about to interrupt her slumber. (We think Baby Jesus would understand this.)  We may go to the Spanish service at 10:30...there's also a Chinese Mass at 12:30, but that's pushing it...we'll figure something out.

Meanwhile, the other neighbors have been decking their halls, or more accurately their brownstones, with wonderful Christmas bling; this is a much more festive neighborhood than ours back home. I'm just sitting here with Fellow Traveler, watching the lights and the neighbors and the traffic.

No matter what you and yours are doing this Christmas Eve, we wish you a blessed and Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Five: Christmas Traditions Edition

It's an easy, seasonal RevGalBlogPals Friday Five this week...all about:

•traditions you always do
We always put up a tree -- even this year, when we won't be home, we'll still have the tree up to greet us when we get back.  Because I brought my tree and bling with me from Cold Comfort Cottage our ideal is to have the "family" tree with more whimsical and homemade ornaments in the living room, and then the blingy traditional tree with my collection of blown glass ornaments in the front room...but that scenario will have to wait a year.

Since we've been together, I've always bought a romantic Old World-y blown glass Christmas ornament for Fellow Traveler and myself -- hearts, snuggling birds and the like.

We always have Christmas creches. I usually put up my old family one with the mismatched shepherds and the gimpy three-legged sheep; but in the meantime we've collected others we enjoy, that we display elsewhere.

For years I've always taken a tag off whatever community Christmas tree I happened to live near, and buy presents for the indicated giftee. FT loves to do this too. We also buy a critter for Heifer Project.

We also open our presents on Christmas Eve -- this is a tradition I've brought with me to our home. FT is the kind of impatient giftee who's shaking and squeezing and sniffing wrapped gifts weeks before Christmas, so she's fine with adopting the custom of my people.

FT's family, unlike mine, is big on Christmas stockings, which are filled with an assortment of little goodies and practical items, all individually wrapped.  Everyone in the family has a monogrammed L.L. Bean stocking for this.

And of course we go to church on Christmas Eve, although at this point we're still wondering if, when and how this is going to happen in our kids' Brooklyn neighborhood.

And you read about the cookie thing...I'm still feeling like that's a "left undone" this year even though we just mailed off two hearty tins of cookie-walk cookies to the younguns in the family.

traditions you always cook or eat
Growing up, my mother always made her good tuna noodle casserole (the solid kind made with eggs as a binding, that you can cut into squares)  for a fast Christmas Eve supper. Christmas dinner was generally ham. We on the other hand tend to eat Mexican food on and before Christmas. (FT notes that the only other positive of her relationship with her ex-husband, apart from the existence of our two kids, are the recipes she learned from her Mexican ex-mother-in-law, who couldn't speak a word of English but who nonetheless taught FT how to make tasty dishes like chicken mole'.)

•traditions you would like to start
Our tradition plate is pretty full, thanks...although we think we might start buying granddaughter Ruby an ornament each year. This year her parents are getting a glass baby bootie with her name on it.

•traditions you would like to discard
I very often have a cold at Christmas, and/or one of those [TMI alert!] perimenopausal female-plumbing issues that make the middle years of my life so very special. Those are two traditions I'd be happy to dump.

•anything about your family Christmases
It's wonderful to live into family Christmases that are much better than the ones I grew up with -- much less relational Sturm und Drang, much less anxiety, much more fun. As someone once said, it's a wonderful life.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Kids

For Constant Readers who've always wondered about The Kids:

Daughter-in-Law and Son#2, coming home with Ruby.

Son#1 and Son-in-Law.

This instant-fully-raised-and-grown family thing is great. I highly recommend it.

Another G-Baby Photo!

" come here often?"

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Mid-Michigan Advent: Only a Week Away

And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, 'Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.' -- Revelation 4:8

A healthy amount of ink has been devoted, I'm sure, over the years to a discussion of what the "living creatures" in Revelation represent. An interpretation that resonates with me is that they indeed creatures; the created world.

We have a soft spot in our hearts for other living creatures around here. We feed the birds. We chuckle at the individual idiosyncracies of our neighborhood deer herd, and worry about the two late-season runts who were still in spots when the leaves began turning color.  We try, each year -- albeit with minimal success -- to enliven the ecoystem of our backyard pond. We take personal responsibility for two four-legged creatures in our own household, and have been friends to others in our neighborhood (rest in peace Charlie, our neighbors' geriatric pointer, who wore a track through our yard on his multiple daily treks to our patio door for biscuits).

To us, making our designated space on the planet a healthy, welcoming place for other created things isn't an option; it's something we do. It makes us feel good, but not in a self-serving way; it feels good because it is good; it's making something right within our little scope of influence, and it's respecting the right of other living things to live here with us in this place.

I'd like to think that this is just a basic Christian environmental ethic. But I've met more than my fair share of Christians whose terror of "paganism" (as if they have an inkling of what this even means) is so deep and gripping that they are afraid to love the nature around them. Their theology offers the false dichotomy of nature worship or Gnostic disdain for nature as nothing more than, at best, an interesting backdrop to the human drama.

Well, I'm not buying it. Nor do I buy C.S. Lewis' argument that our animal friends' lives have individual meaning only insofar as we individual humans assign it to them. That's hubris I'm not willing to assume. I'd rather choose to see "all my relations" in the vision of John of Patmos, their lives in everlasting song to the Creator.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Christmas I Didn't Bake

This is not only the first Christmas I'll be spending away from home -- it's the first Christmas, since my junior high school days, when I will not be baking Christmas cookies.

It's weird; very weird. I am okay, even excited, by the prospect of worshipping at a Lutheran church in The Kids' neighborhood where the parishoners are predominantly Asian. I can get behind the Mexican menu requested by Son #2 (who lives with a vegetarian and who has been hosting mostly vegetarian extended family for the last month now and has rather plaintively requested that the moms provide some meat entrees during our stay there). But the thought of the cookie cutters, rolling pin and my mother's collection of holiday recipe books lying dormant during this time of pre-Christmas preparation is very hard to deal with. I think I'm going through withdrawal.

Last weekend we attended a cookie walk put on by the Presbyterian church in our little community, to procure some homemade cookies for Son #1 and his partner and for our nephew, a hearty eater who loves our annual cookie box. Nice cookies; many fancier than my usual selection. They tasted swell too. (We purchased a few extra for quality control purposes.) But -- it just wasn't the same packing them up.

Fellow Traveler suggested that we bake a pan of raspberry bars -- an easy, forgiving recipe -- while we're in Brooklyn.  That might help.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Mid-Michigan Advent -- What Day Is It, Again?

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens: 'I know your works." Rev. 3:7-8

I haven't had many "aha" moments with the Daily Office readings in the last week, as is obvious by my paucity of posts here, just occurred to me that this statement, taken on its own and individualized, could either be very comforting -- You know me! You know my works! -- or very frightening.


I got a card from my aunt this weekend.

It wasn't a Christmas card; just a notecard. And no "Merry Christmas"; instead an 'I"ve been trying to find you" followed by the story that one of her neighbors had found something belonging to my deceased uncle, and she wanted to know if I wanted it.

Let me be frank: I don't like this aunt. If you can imagine an Upper Midwestern version of Keeping Up Appearances'  Hyacinth Bucket, you'll have an idea of what she's like: vain, overreaching, self-important. She was an interfering force in the early years of my parents' marriage and made my mother's life miserable long afterward. She was also unkind to my mother's family, and never missed an opportunity to indicate, in word or deed, that she felt her brother had married down in the world.  In my adulthood, the only time she has ever contacted me it's been to ask me to do something for her -- to get her a job at my former place of employment; to help her find an apartment; to look for in-home help for an uncle (my suggestions promptly ignored).  My aunt is a Church Lady with a wide network of churchy friends and two sons, and doesn't want for any kind of advice or assistance in living.

Since my father died, my aunt has also been engaged in a kind of silent war of grave decorations at his cemetery. No matter when my mother and I, or later on Fellow Traveler and I, would arrive in May with our Memorial Day flowers, we'd find our aunt's there front and center. The year before last I conceded defeat and let her flowers have the prime headstone spot; last year I moved her flowers back to one of the other relatives' graves. Yes, this is petty; I'm just sayin'. 

When my maternal aunt died last year after many years in the nursing home and we arranged a quick private burial service, I received a sympathy card  shortly thereafter with the terse message, "I didn't know!" Well, of course you didn't know -- because you weren't a part of my other aunt's life, and didn't need to know. My aunt is the kind of woman-of-a-certain-age who thrives on glurge and positively glows when given the opportunity to attend visitations and funerals; as I told Fellow Traveler, I wasn't about to give her an occasion for personal entertainment and nosiness regarding my own life at the expense of my poor other aunt, who was so often intimidated and shamed by her presence.

My experience of extended family has rarely been a positive one; I actually feel much more comfortable around Fellow Traveler's relatives. So my response to my aunt's note was a sigh, a roll of the eyes and a call, not to her, but to the neighbor she cited in her note, to resolve the issue with my uncle's stuff. I sent my aunt a nice Christmas card with a brief note thanking her for her concern and noting that the situation had been taken care of.

But I can't help feeling guilty about this. But I don't know why. I don't know why I can't be a grownup about this and say, "These are the boundaries I have chosen in regard to the people I'm willing to engage with on a regular basis." Maybe I'm channeling my mother, and her anxious, guilt-ridden relationship with her in-law. Then I think, "If Aunt ______ is affecting my mood, then she wins, doesn't she."


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A Mid-Michigan Advent, Day 10

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. -- Third Song of Isaiah

There's something about the first decisive blizzard of the winter season that seems to wipe off the slate and make room for new possibilities.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Mid-Michigan Advent, Day 9: Saved For What?

The LORD is the strength of his people,

a safe refuge for his anointed.
Save your people and bless your inheritance;
shepherd them and carry them forever.
-- Psalm 28

This morning on our church blog I wrote about salvation; I'm taking Advent a word a day there, and today's word was save. I talked about the word salvation's root in the Latin salus, health, and how the concept of salvation is so much more than "going to heaven when I die."
After I was done blogging, though, salvation took a decidedly more practical and conventional turn, as Fellow Traveler and I saved dozens of articles of clothing from dusty oblivion in the back reaches of our closets, or a quick, impatient dispatch to the trash, and delivered them to our local mission and to a Coats For Kids bin down at the supermarket. (Child obesity is such in our community that the community Christmas tree regularly requests large men's and women's sizes for youngsters, so I know our zaftig-middle-aged-lady jackets will find a home among needy local kids.) Ever since Thanksgiving, every time we pass by the mission we see a constant stream of people emerging with bags of rummage, so we suspected that our donations wouldn't stay on the racks for long.
Saving is also about conserving. Today as we came home from our trip to the mission I thought about our garage sale this year, and about how genuinely happy some of our visitors, particularly our Amish neighbors, were to purchase our old kitchenware -- some of it my mom's wedding-era pots, pans and casseroles that we simply had no need or room for. "My wife is really going to like these," one of the normally taciturn Amish farmers confided to us, clutching a few pieces of my old Revereware. And that made me feel good; I'd been a little blue at the prospect of losing these reliable old kitchen friends, but glad that they were in good enough shape to be of use to someone else.
One of my pastor mentors, back in my university days, used to respond to comments from Evangelical types about being saved with the pointed, "Saved for what?" I thought about that too, today, and about how our household collection of decent used clothing -- some of which no longer fit, some of which had been the result of unfortunate shopping choices, some of which we'd simply grown weary of -- might become a welcome, needed addition to some poor person's wardrobe. The too-small blazer perfect for someone else's job interview; the flashy red leather jacket that Fellow Traveler had picked up at our own church yard sale for a song, that we stewarded for a couple of years before it lost its appeal; the "It's not you, it's me" blouse worn perhaps once. We'd saved these items throughout the past couple of years -- actually, much of this stuff I'd brough with me from Cold Comfort Cottage -- and now they again had purpose and value. At least I hope so.
I was going somewhere with this thought, but I lost it. Something about God constantly salvaging us from meaninglessness and the consequences of our own and others' poor choices, washing us up, pressing us into presentability and making us into something new for our own good and the good of the world.

Monday, December 07, 2009

A Mid-Michigan Advent, Day 8: Plumb

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said, "See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by... -- Amos 7:7-8

The other evening, while we were waiting for baby news, I found myself traversing down an Internet rabbit hole that began with an online article about organic vitaculture that led to a link about biodynamic wine that led to a discussion of German crackpot visionary Rudolf Steiner that led to a discussion of conversing with the faeries that live in your garden; one of those kinds of rabbit holes parodied by the Bing! commercials.

Anyway, there are people out there who truly believe that God's hierarchy of angels includes a minor division of spirits whose job it is to tend particular species of plants in human gardens -- think of the Talmudic line about every blade of grass having its angel that whispers, "Grow, grow" -- and that human beings can assist in this process by communing with the spirits of the garden. A tool that these folks use in contacting the spirits is an old-fashioned plumb line; you take it into your garden, or even hold it over a diagram of your garden, and ask the spirits "yes" or "no" questions about what to grow where or how to amend your soil; the spirits jiggle the line around in a meaningful way and you get your answer.

For reasons I don't quite understand, I have a very strong affinity for a pagan way of thinking about the world; I remember being a little child, reading a children's book of mythology and being moved to throw flowers into a farm stream in honor of Mother Nature; I read a couple of Cecily Barker's Flower Faeries books and wanted to leave food outside for them. That coexists in my psyche with a pronounced skeptical vein that causes me to struggle mightily with the basics of the historic Christian creeds, let alone faeries and trolls. (One of the articles on cooperating with my garden faeries advised that the faeries are not at all pleased with equivocation; which leads me to suspect that I would piss off the faeries in my garden, and my plumb line would probably keep swinging around and hitting me in the head.)

So when I read today's famous Old Testament text about God's plumb line, it made me a little sad. There are days when I'd like nothing better than a big divine plumb line hanging down in a decisive way over my life, indicating, Do This. Don't Do That. While researching St. Nicholas for a post on our church blog I kept running into Eastern Orthodox websites where "wonderworking" is a very real part of those people's lives and where I think the plumb lines always aim straight and true for them. Me, there's always a lot of wobble; I can't always tell where God's plumb is, in the same way that my stained glass projects always seem to be "off" to some critical degree. But this is me, it's who I am, where I am now. And I suspect that our perception of God's plumb line is never as true as any of us want it to be.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Grandma Overload

Sorry about the Advent essay hiatus...grandmas are tired.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Oh, Baby...

We just got a text message from Son #2/Dad-to-Be: The baby is almost here. She has hair. (More or less verbatim message.)

UPDATE: BABY IS HERE! More to follow!


Welcome to the world, G-Baby.

Friday Five: What I'm Not Doing For Christmas This Year

The RevGalBlogPals Friday Five poses a very simple challenge this week: What five things  am I not doing for Christmas this year?

1. This is a biggie; it's huge: I am not baking Christmas cookies this year. Between preparations for our holiday trip to New York and our other commitments, we just don't have time for our usual full-tilt-boogie cookie-making operation. I told Fellow Traveler that my resolution was not very strong and that she might have to stage an intervention if she saw me rooting around in the cupboards for cookie cutters. Knowing that this is going to disappoint our extended family a great deal -- we literally ship pounds of cookies every year around the country -- we're thinking of hitting a couple of local cookie walks and obtaining some mercy canisters, at least for The Kids.

2. We are not going to attend/assist at Christmas services at our church -- again because of our trip to Gotham to visit the new grandbaby, who presumably will have been born by then. (She is a week late, and her parents are angsting because they're about to lose their reserved berth -- pardon the pun -- at the nice, wholistic-like birthing center where they'd wanted to have the baby.)  I've never spent a Christmas away from home before; it will be interesting. I did some research on churches in the immediate area of The Kids' Brooklyn apartment, and there's an ELCA congregation more or less around the corner -- one with a significant Chinese parishoner base. So we might be hearing the Christmas story in Mandarin on Christmas Eve. That's okay; part of the big-city experience.

3. I am not stressing over gifts this Christmas. We seriously dialed back on our Christmas buying this year, not only because of our trip but because we wanted to channel our gift-giving to people in need We really don't need anything; as far as that goes we've been trying to divest ourselves of things all year long. We were talking about this the other evening; the things we appreciate most are shared experiences, not stuff.

4. I am not sending out dozens of Christmas cards. I'd be surprised, in fact, if I sent out more than ten -- and those mostly to elder relatives. I'm a little conflicted about this because I myself enjoy Christmas cards (ooh, shiny!), and in our family we always made a big deal about displaying them during the holidays. But they do cause dead trees, clutter and a sense of obligation for recipients, and many people we know actually dislike receiving them. So -- hey -- I'm fine with not sending as many. (We will be sending some to Walter Reed Army Hospital, and probably the VA care facility in Saginaw as well, because we do know the patients there enjoy them, and sometimes don't get very many of them.)

5. I am not participating in any social-obligation faux-festivities. No joyless rounds of office potlucks, regifted candles and insincere organizational holiday blather. And I just can't stop smiling as I type this.

Bonus: For your Advent enjoyment:

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Mid-Michigan Advent, Day 5: Waiting

But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. -- 1 Peter 3:13

In our little town we have been waiting since the end of August for...our lake.

That's when the local lake, the centerpiece of our community, was drained in order for engineers to work on the old, crumbling city dam.

It was a shock, getting into the car one morning and driving a couple blocks down the street to find a huge muddy hole on either side of the bridge. The jagged ends of long submerged tree stumps poked up through the sludge. Seagulls, herons, egrets and even a family of bald eagles gathered to feast on the easy pickings left in what few streams of water were still flowing across the lake bed. After a couple of days a mighty, eye-stinging stench arose -- which we later found out was being caused by countless dead zebra mussels, those hated foreign invaders of first the Great Lakes and now our inland waters.

Many citizens were annoyed that this project began just before Labor Day, especially because our lake is a big draw for sport fishing. But the dam needed to be fixed, and the city had the funds to do it, so people sighed and shrugged and went about their business.

A month passed. Then another. The odor went away. Many of the birds went away. The lake bed had become dry enough for people to walk on parts of it, and local officials encouraged lakeshore property owners and concerned others to venture out onto the mud and pick up trash that had been discarded in the lake over the years -- cans; glass; fishing gear. One citizen even found an old half-buried canoe near his home.

 Everytime we drove over the bridge, we'd look to see if the water was beginning to rise again; but all we saw were the mud flats, criss-crossed by shallow ditches.

We heard that the dam was due to be finished in November. But November came and went, and there was still no water.

The latest news, according to the local paper, is that the dam project is 90 percent completed. The engineers involved promise not only a safer dam but a better, cleaner environment for fish.

That's good news. But it's still jarring, and disappointing,  to look out on the incongruous sea of mud next to our city park all decked out for the holidays.

Sometimes that's how it feels looking at the world, at the news, and waiting for a time when righteousness is at home.

Our Advent Bling

Crowning and Croning

As my Facebook friends know, our cell phones at the ready here as we wait for our granddaughter to make her grand entrance into the world. We talked to a weary Mom-to-Be today, who is more than ready for the big event...especially since her midwife had assured here that it was going to happen this past weekend.

So it's a little ironic that as nature keeps her waiting for motherhood, nature is also keeping me waiting for, as my doctor puts it, "that special time in life."

I am in perimenopause. And as the fertile stage in my life winds down, my reproductive system has started acting like a vehicle hitting 100,000 miles on the odometer -- the timing has gone wonky; the gaskets leak sporadically; the fuel injector misfires. Something like that.

This process started, in fact, a few years ago. The first time I had issues serious enoough to make an appointment with a gyno, I was terrified that I was in the latter stages of a horrible cancer that had somehow escaped notice during my annual exam. The second time I was concerned but not terrified. (Especially when a sympathetic coworker, hearing my tale of woe, said, "Oh, honey, I was that way for three years, until I had the ol' zip-zip.")  The third time, I sighed and thought, "Not this again." The fourth time..."Let's just get it over with."

I'm ready to be a crone. I really am. I've been dancing my hormonal cha-cha since 1972, and I'm tired. I don't want to prolong my youth pharmaceutically; I don't want to go through an expensive invasive procedure to make the annoying perimenopausal symptoms go away. I just want the whole thing to stop. My hair is already gray; I already take my calcium supplements; I'm halfway there.

Crones are cool.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A Mid-Michigan Advent, Day 4: Patience

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. -- 2 Peter 3:9

My gardening enterprise has been a challenge this year. My new vegetable garden is at the edge of the trees that separate our property from the neighbors' on the west side. Half the plot gets less than optimum light for hot-weather summer vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers. The sunny side of the garden is, alas, also the lowest part of the garden, and if we have a hard rain both the garden itself and the surrounding lawn are sodden for at least a day. The soil is so naturally acid that even after regular applications of lime I still had to fight new flushes of moss creeping onto the cultivated soil. My garden compost pile -- the small-scale nutrient factory that I've nurtured according to expert advice, that is supposed to provide me with regular batches of rich, dark soil amendment -- is functional but slower than I'd hoped. One online resource advised that it might take two years for one year of kitchen refuse and dry organic matter to fully compost in such a system.

I'm not the most patient person in the world. I'm also not the most forbearing of persons. I have abandoned more projects midway through than I care to count.

But I have, for whatever reason, a heart for my garden.

Earlier this fall, when I cleaned up the last of the summer vegetables, I raked in another application of lime. I made a raised bed for garlic; the first of a series of 5-inch raised beds that I'm going to dig within the present perimeter. After planting my garlic bed I raked natural fertilizers into the rest of the garden, and planted a green manure crop of white clover over the whole thing, and in all the other fall-cleared beds around the house.

Because I think I can make something of this. I really do. I am okay with this year being a building year. Next year I will be a bit more mindful about liming and fertilizing, about planting the right plants in the right places, about tending them more faithfully.

The epistle lesson in today's Morning Prayer can be read as a baleful, wait-until-your-father-gets-home eschatological red alert. That's how I read it at first. But then I started thinking instead of God's patience and forbearance; how God, unlike me most of the time, can wait for a positive, fruitful response from God's creation, "not wanting any to perish."

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Virtual Advent Retreat

It's at the RevGalBlogPals. Very nicely done.

The Mystery of the Hidden Advent Wreath

Our new, cloth Advent calendar from Bronner's is on our wall, and we've been taking some childlike delight in velcro-ing the first two objects onto their appropriate spots...but our Advent wreath is AWOL.

It's actually down in our crawlspace, somewhere amid our other numerous Christmas boxes. Because we wont' be home on Christmas itself, we're still debating how much, if any, of the Christmas bling to put up; but we did really want to use our Advent wreath this year as a helpful daily reality check this especially busy season.

We have, as our furnace man recently noted, one of the nicest, best-lit, cleanest crawlspaces around...but it still necessitates a real crawl, since there's only about a four-foot clearance. I find something penitential in shuffling around on my knees on the cold cement, getting clear about wants versus needs as I survey our seasonal stuff collection.

Don't Worry 'Bout a Thing...

How serendipitous of me to find this on YouTube a few minutes ago...

A Mid-Michigan Advent, Day 3: Finding Refuge

But all who take refuge in you will be glad; they will sing out their joy for ever. You will shelter them, so that those who love your Name may exult in you. -- Psalm 5:13-14

We had our first stay-on-the-ground snow last night, just enough to dust the property, and today our bird feeders were a flurry of activity as chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers came to stock up on our offerings of suet and oil seeds. (In the interest of full disclosure, the lovely photo to your right is not of our suet feeder, although it could be; thanks to the anonymous Flickr patron who took this picture.)
One of my responsibilities in this household is care and feeding of the birds -- something I've done since I was little. Both sides of my family, in fact, have always fed and housed backyard songbirds. Fellow Traveler is a city kid who admits to having little knowledge of or experience with birds; but she enjoys their presence too, and helps as needed with this task.
Over the past couple of years our once rather strangely quiet backyard has become a local meeting spot for familiar suburban species -- chickadees and titmice; sparrows; assorted woodpeckers; goldfinches; nuthatches; a skittish pair of cardinals. Every so often we're visited by something a bit more dramatic, like the local flock of turkeys. The birds enjoy our proffered foods, and also the assortment of shrubs around our house that provide them with an extra bit of shelter from weather and predators. (Mollie the cat, who spends more of the daytime time indoors than out, will catch birds if an opportunity arises but much prefers furred to feathered quarry.)
Providing our winged neighbors hospitality and temporary respite from the vicissitudes of life in the wild is for us, as the saying goes, a duty and a delight, particularly when we see evidence of rapprochement with our little friends. I notice that when I venture outside and come near the feeder, a chickadee will often appear out of nowhere, hop onto a branch very near to me and cock an inquiring eye in my direction: Dee-dee-dee? "What's up? Got anything new to eat?" When one of our normally shy cardinals starts fluttering and chirping directly in front of the living-room window, it's a very good indication that our seed feeder is empty.
Sometimes in the Church we get nervous when laypeople seem to think of the Church primarily as a place of refuge from the vicissitudes of life; they want to sing "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," and we immediately want to correct them with "They Cast Their Nets."  But life is hard; and we need one another; and it's a good thing when we can provide a space for peace and restoration for one another.