Take Care (3)

My favorite sign-off for emails is “Take Care.” It’s pretty informal, but it conveys feelings of affection without inadvertently weirding out the recipient.

When I was in college, I encountered people who signed off emails with “Best,” which I found new and strange.

“Best what?” I wondered. Best wishes, best of luck, best punch to the throat? “Best” leaves things too open ended for my taste.

My favorite professor, however, signed off messages with “Warm Wishes,” which I thought was nice. I’ve borrowed it myself a few times, but I always go back to “Take Care.” Sometimes I end phone calls with it—and I mean it. I do care about the person on the other end and his or her “wild and precious life.”

“Take care” was one of Jesus’ last words from the cross, in a way.

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27).

Jesus cared deeply for his mom and for John, but he wouldn’t be around to care for them much longer. So he asked them to take care of each other.

John, take care of my mom. Mom, take care of John. Please take care of each other when I’m gone. Take care.

When Caroline was born, I experienced the privilege of actually taking care of someone. I’d really only been responsible for myself up until then, but with her I first understood caretaking as an honor—as well as (or maybe in spite of) being hard work.

Phil still teases me about the time she asked me to cut up her pancakes and I said, “It would be my privilege to cut up your pancakes.” Over the top? Yes. But sometimes I have to remind myself.

I’m convinced that “take care” is the seed—the beginning—of love. Taking care, caring about others, caring for others’ needs—that’s how the sheep get fed.

Jesus asked Peter a third time, “Do you love me?” and he replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17).

This is the third post in a multi-post series for Lent. Find the first one here. Thanks for reading. -Em : )

sheep

Photo courtesy of Jill Biehl, photographer and farmer extraordinaire.

Special to Me (2)

Just often enough to exasperate Caroline, I ask her, “Did you know you’re special to me?” As the words are leaving my mouth, I feel just like Mr. Rogers.

She’ll say, “Yes,” and I’ll gasp and say, “Who told you?!”

This bit of mommy-and-me theater played better when she was little. Nowadays, she pretty much knows that she’s special to me.

“You, Mom. You literally just told me.” (She recently caught the fever for “literally.”)

It’s no secret that Caroline is special to me. She’s our one and only, the child we prayed for, the daughter I never could have imagined. Personally, I think she’s pretty special, but I want her to know she’s special to me. In this superficial world of social media stars and kid celebrities with giant hair bows, I want to teach her it’s far better to be special to someone.

Every week, depending on the whims of the fickle public, people go from somebody special to nobody special and back again. Better to have one close friend than a zillion “likes.”

To some folks Jesus was nobody special when they crucified him. He was the man in the middle, hanging between two other criminals paying the ultimate price for offending the Romans. But he was special to his mother Mary. He was special to his best bud John. He was very special to a handful of people. Still, the special place he held in others’ hearts couldn’t shield him from being injured and insulted like a common nobody.

Of the two nobodies to his left and right, one of them joined in with the crowd’s taunts. But then the other nobody came to Jesus’ defense, asking, have you no shame?

“Jesus,” he then turned and said, “remember me when your kingdom comes.” And Jesus said he would. Because Jesus loves people. Jesus loves shoplifters and hookers and gangsters. Jesus loves thugs and nobodies, including the two crucified on either side of him. Jesus loves.

Something meaningful happened when the crook turned and asked Jesus to remember him. He became special to Jesus. His hands were tied, but he hoped it wasn’t too late to make a plea, to remake his life. Dying and scared, of mixed-up motives and mustard-seed faith, he turned to Jesus and asked to be remembered.

Jesus couldn’t forget him.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
fail to pity the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
but I won’t forget you.
Look, on my palms I’ve inscribed you . . .” -Isaiah 49:15-16

“Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” -from Toni Morrison’s Jazz

This is the second post in a multi-post series for Lent. Find the first one here. Thanks for reading. -Em : )

fred_spear_enlist

Detail of “Enlist” (1915) by Fred Spear, published by the City of Boston Committee on Public Safety after the sinking of the Lusitania.

Lord, Have Mercy (1)

Last week I went to Nashville, Tennessee for a writing conference. I’d been to Nashville only once before—on a high school field trip—so I hardly know the place. I landed in the evening, rented a car at the airport, and drove to the hotel. Easy peasy. It wasn’t until the next day, trying to follow Siri’s directions during rush hour, that I realized I can’t see.

My glasses are nearly two years old, and I do just fine driving around familiar places where I don’t have to read highway signs. However, while approaching a fork in the road in exotic Nashville, it’s hard to know which lane to take if you can’t read the numbers inside the blob. Thankfully my rental car had Georgia plates because I was driving like a true out-of-towner.

After the conference, I made the drive from Belmont University to the airport during rush-hour traffic—arriving in one piece only by the grace of God and the mercy of strangers. May God bless the driver of the white Jeep Cherokee who let me merge from the random exit-only lane in which I was trapped, not realizing it was “exit only” until I was exiting.

***

Lent is again upon us. I’ve grown to appreciate the contemplative mood of Lent and its traditions. Last year, I studied the Seven Last Words from the Cross and wrote a short piece on them for each week of Lent. This year, I’m writing in the same general vein but thinking about my seven lasting words. By seven lasting words I mean persistent words, durable sayings that bounce around in my head, phrases that I say every day to myself or to God or to others.

The first of Jesus’ Seven Last Words is, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” I was less magnanimous while white-knuckling it to the airport. Unlike the last words of sweet Jesus, my words were peppered with curses and pleas, the chief of which was, “Lord, have mercy.”

Straining to make out the overpass signs, squinting against the sun setting in my rear view mirror, I simply repeated, “Lord, have mercy.” And the Lord showed me mercy even as I muttered my favorite bad word. (It’s “shit.” Super versatile.)

God didn’t give me miraculous vision or send angels to carry me to the airport, but God’s mercy appeared in the gaps that opened amid bumper-to-bumper traffic so I could merge. God mercifully allowed me to miss important turns—twice—and still get to my gate in time to find a seat and work the USA Today crossword start to finish before boarding.

I learned that day what is meant by the phrase “traveling mercies.” I also made an appointment for an eye exam. Lord, continue to have mercy.

Thus, not mild, not temperate,

God’s love for the world. Vast

flood of mercy

flung on resistance.

-Denise Levertov, from “To Live in the Mercy of God” from the collection Sands from the Well

Brook Watson shark painting

Watson and the Shark (1778) by American painter John Singleton Copley. I would have titled it Lord, Have Mercy.

 

Looking Back on Fave Reads

So, lists like this are supposed to come out at the end of the year. However, the end of 2017 afforded me no time for reflection, much less thinking back on things I read.

Of the 35 books I read last year, three were fiction. I strongly prefer nonfiction to fiction. Not sure why. A few years back I went through a phase when I couldn’t stand music. These days I can’t tolerate most fiction. Give me a stylized slice of real life, and I’m happy.

The exception to my nonfiction preference was Diane Glancy’s The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha. I’m not sure how I came to read this work of historical fiction, since it’s far outside my usual taste in books. Still, I could not put it down. After I finally did put it down, it haunted me.

Glancy narrates the story of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk woman who was converted to Christianity by the Jesuits. A smallpox epidemic has left her badly scarred, nearly blind, and orphaned, but her life in the aftermath is both piercing and tender. (Another novel I read last year, Molokai, similarly told the story of a girl whose entire life was altered by leprosy.) My fave quotation:

Father James de Lamberville read the scriptures for scriptures to read to us. He told us about the cherubim in Ezekiel—they had four faces, a man, a lion, an ox, an eagle. They had hoofed feet on wheels and wings. They were full of eyes. There were animals in heaven, they said. The Indian spirits were counterfeit of these (30).

My favorite 2017 book, nonfiction category, was Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink. Kurshan tells the story of her life as an American woman living in Jerusalem in the aftermath of divorce, and joining the “world’s largest book club”—that is, reading the daily page of the Talmud with fellow Jewish people all over the world.

First off, a memoir about reading is right up my alley. Second, I’m fascinated by Torah study and the wild creativity that seems to be not just acceptable but standard in midrashim. I lapped up this book. Here’s a favorite quotation:

I knew God—and I continue to know God—primarily in shadows cast by other people. . . . I sought out God the way a traveler through the forest might seek out the moon through the trees; sometimes it was hidden, other days it was just a faint crescent, still other days it was a full orb with mountains and valleys of variegated hues. But it was still just a play of shadows, as all moonlight is (70).

Other favorites in 2017 include Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (once I worked up the courage to read it), Bitten by a Camel by Kent Dobson (a work of astonishing honesty about finding God), and The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs (a well-researched book exploring infertility and the author’s individual experience of it).

What magic words will 2018 hold? Well, I just finished my pastor’s book, Love God, Love People, Don’t Do Dumb Crap by Rev. Shane Bishop, and I will soon crack open Philip Jenkins’s Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made Our Modern Religious World. (Caroline also assigned me some Rainbow Magic Fairy titles to read.)

What book(s) will stick with you beyond 2017?

school hallway

Dream. Read. Learn. Good advice from the hallway at East St. Louis High School.

Lowercase Life: happy arrival in christmasland

[Note: this is Part 5 of a 5-part advent series. If you missed the earlier posts, start here!]

Every year I’m surprised at how quickly Christmas is here and gone. In our house we extend the fun by having the whole family over in the evening on Christmas Day. We eat a big meal. Again. Then we scoot the furniture back and have a dance party, to the tune of Kidz Bop songs.

***

Jesus was born at the wrong end of time for many—too late for all the people who died awaiting their Messiah, too early for those who didn’t get the political firebrand they wished for. I think of Baby Jesus wrapped in linen and sleeping in a nest of hay, like the baby bird hatched at the tail-end of November.

He was born at the bottom of the staircase, among the animals, a horse of a different color, a baby bird nestled with hopes and dreads. Unlike you and I, who never asked to be born, Jesus freely poured himself out and put on animal skin.

***

Early Christmas morning, cold and dark, I heard the phone ring downstairs. I tried to go back to sleep, but I knew even then that a phone call at 4 a.m. meant bad news. Christmas 1984 was a blur of funeral arrangements and phone calls and disbelief that God hadn’t healed my grandma.

At the bottom of the staircase in her house of wonders was a wooden baluster topped with a finial that looked just like a fat cinnamon roll. She had stood at the foot of the staircase as long as she could, but that Christmas morning she was carried upstairs, healed into another place. When I meet her someday in brand new skin, I believe she’ll be wearing blessed assurance all over her face and gold dancin’ shoes on her feet.

***

On a recent morning too cold to exercise outside, I drove to the mall and stood in the warmth near Dillard’s while untangling my earbuds. Over the mall speakers a Christmas song I’d never heard before pierced the pre-shopping silence: Tony Bennett’s recording of “Christmasland,” with lyrics by Brian Farnon.

It begins with some pleasant holiday-song clichés: “Come along, follow me / Let me take you to Christmasland.” Then it veers in a whole new direction: “Waiting there for you / You will see all the friends you knew.” What is this place? It’s a place where all the friends you knew—past tense—are waiting. Christmasland sounds a lot like heaven: “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore . . .”

The song returns in the next few lines to twentieth-century Christmas themes: “Santa Claus will be there / There’ll be toys and some mistletoe / All the things that you loved as a child / Many years ago.” So, it’s like heaven, but it’s located in the past, somewhere east of childhood and west of nostalgia.

I was struck by how the song conflates Christmas and heaven in a way I’d never seen before—in a way that losing my grandma on Christmas morning had already whispered to my subconscious. It allows for seemingly unlike things to sit side-by-side: anticipation and sorrow, Baby Jesus among the animals, expectation and not knowing just what to expect. In the subtlest way it sweeps from hope to peace to joy to love to the arrival of a long-expected savior. It’s a song of advent, in the lowercase.

“Come and take my hand. / We’ll find happiness. / Let’s go to Christmasland.”

Tony Bennett Christmas

We’ll go, you and I,
To find our Christmasland . . .

Lowercase Life: fourth regular old sunday of advent

[Note: This is Part 4 of a 5-part series. If you missed Parts 1, 2, and 3, start here!]

The problem with fixating on the big holidays, Christmas and Easter, is that it collapses the life of Jesus into too small a space, like Alice in Wonderland, grown to gigantic proportions in a little room. This mash-up of birth and death suggests that Jesus was born only to die, was given a newborn body just to grow up to be brutalized, the cradle no more than a casket. But Jesus had three decades of lowercase years in between—a lifetime of playing with his brothers and sisters, of studying the Torah like a good Jewish boy, of growing facial hair and learning a trade beside his dad–three decades of love.

***

When I could take the suspense no longer, I texted my mom. What happened to baby bird? She wrote back, We forgot about it! Will try to look tomorrow… Then, the next day she sent this message: Baby bird was gone today!?!?! She’s not punctuation-shy. I felt the same way as her !?!?!, surprised and perplexed. I wanted to believe the baby bird learned to fly and claimed a high branch in the big oak tree. I suspected it was a midnight snack for a hawk or a cat. Hope and dread a single breath. We’ll never know what happened to the baby bird, born at the wrong end of the calendar. All we know is the nest is empty.

***

Summer 1984 I was glued to the TV in my grandparents’ spare room since Mary Lou Retton had won my heart. Years later, I learned that same summer my grandma had been fighting lung cancer. I remember the watch on her wrist getting looser as her body grew thinner. I remember her not having much energy. I did not think we would lose her. After the new school year started my mom told us that Grandma was very sick. I believed her, but I was certain she would be healed. At age eight, I overflowed with faith, hope, and love.

To be continued . . .

empty nest2

The bird has flown the nest.

Lowercase Life: third regular old monday of advent

[Note: This is Part 3 of a 5-part series. If you missed Part 1 or Part 2, please read those first!]

As an outsider to the practice of Advent for most of my life, it seems to me a useful kind of imagining. It reminds those who know Jesus of the anticipation of Jewish people in ancient times waiting for someone to save them—and the dread of wondering whether rescue would come in their lifetime. Advent thus collapses the expectant mood of centuries of ancient Jewish history into a four-week window on the calendar. They were expecting but didn’t know just what to expect.

***

I thought about the baby bird off and on all weekend. Did it make it through the cold night when temps dipped down into the thirties? One moment I was sure the mama bird fed it and kept it warm, but the next moment I pictured a tiny, feathered body, unmoving and alone for the winter to come. Hope and dread in the same breath.

***

I have many happy memories of Grandma’s house: sitting at the kitchen table slathering saltines with butter, hiding under the dining room table with the long lacy tablecloth that made it as cozy as a tent or a womb, watching envelopes drop through the mail slot onto the linoleum floor, making unwelcome contributions to Grandpa’s crossword puzzle. But Grandma holding out her golden “dancin’ shoes” for me to see might be the most vivid.

When she told me her gold house slippers stored high in the spare-room closet were “dancin’ shoes” I didn’t question it. It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I realized she was joking. Talk about a delayed response. I can’t remember ever seeing her dance, and I’m pretty sure my grandpa never went dancing in his life. The shoes that dazzled me that day were a pair of house slippers, fancy ones that lived in a box, unworn.

To be continued . . .

gold slippers

“Like these? They’re my dancin’ shoes.”