Sunday, September 25, 2011

Autumn Schizophrenia

Week before last it was 90 degrees. Last week highs struggled to reach 60. This week it's back in the 80s.  It's the same every year, but to hear people talk--including me--you would think it's the first time in the history of the world the temperature has been so schizophrenic. It is summer's last gasp. Now, with the autumnal equinox behind us, fall struggles for a foothold. I suppose we all let go of the past kicking and screaming; and we leave skid marks as we dig in our resistant heels to what is new. Eventually it all evens out. I, for one, don't let go of the southern summer kicking and screaming. I am more than happy to leave it behind; and I love autumn--bring it on! Yesterday, in celebration, I buy beautiful yarn. I am ready to build a fire, wrap in an afghan, and knit. Which reminds me, I need to go to the Farmers' Market and buy firewood.

Staff retreat is this week. We go to our favorite place in Durham, where we love the meeting room rocking chairs and the Sisters. The food is pretty good, too; and we get our own rooms. We are less enamored with the plethora of dead Jesuses. As friend Suzanne says, "You would think it time they resurrected Jesus." I walk the meditation trail twice with my camera, which seeks out the mushrooms. It is a good retreat. Two new staff members, who are as different from one another as two people could be, join us. The new blood is good as we seek better ways to communicate with and care for each other and the congregation.

Speaking of autumn and work... yeah. Lots of work around finances and budgets and program start-up publication needs (my schizophrenic job). But one task I brought on myself this summer, when I spearheaded a refurbishing project in the front office and the hallway outside the office. And now, along with the seasonal busyness, it must be completed. As the finishing touch, a church member and I scored 
a find at Habitat ReStore: a cabinet with work table top to replace the unsightly mishmash that was next to the copier. A volunteer repurposed it beautifully and brings it upstairs mid-week. That leaves me to empty out a large metal cabinet that had been in the office, then moved temporarily to the hallway. Now it's in the soon-to-be new administrator's office. It has been reproducing junk like field mice for a couple decades, and I unilaterally decide it's time to clean out the nest. The new administrator should not have to move into a storage unit. So, I spend Saturday morning purging.

Among the items I find are:
  • Enough hanging file folders to supply a large, pre-computer age business
  • 17 IBM Selectric ribbons (that's a typewriter in case you have forgotten, or never knew)
  • A box of labels for a dot matrix printer
  • One quadrillion tabbed notebook dividers
  • Tons of miscellaneous hardware (yes, in the business office); some neatly labeled, by a certain anal previous administrator, as to what long-discarded-whatever they belonged to. Others kept by someone(s) who had no idea what they went to, but couldn’t bear to throw anything away, however useless. Reminds me of my dad and his methodically-labeled box of "string too short to save"
I am not a saver. I have seen the consequences of keeping everything that someone somewhere might need someday--or not--and I travel light. When one lives alone, purging is a breeze. But I am not the only stakeholder at the church, so what doesn't get relocated goes back in the cabinet. Staff has two days to rescue what they can't live without and find someplace to keep it; on Wednesday it will be liberated from its decades-long cabinet captivity.

Back home I take stock of what's happening in the garden. I need to cut the grass, but in the past week or so there has been more rain than we have seen all summer. At least more consecutive days. With the ground too wet to mow, I take advantage of the soft earth and pull plantain weed out of the lawn. It has profited greatly from the rain. Eradication is like trying to rid the sky of stars, but I attempt.

I also clear the weedy grasses from the water meter cover. It takes me back to my childhood when it was my family's month as volunteer meter reader for the Seminary Hill Association, which bought water from the city. I love how doing something as simple as exposing the meter in my yard reminds me of going around the hill with my dad recording the meter readings in a little spiral notebook.

I wander through the yard looking for retreating plants, but I am surprised by what is experiencing rebirth. Yep, it's a schizophrenic time of year. Several of my ferns that had long since disappeared in the summer heat and drought, are poking cautiously back up, like it's spring or something! The Japanese painted fern isn't even being cagey. It's just full-out back. My favorite wild phlox that blooms wherever it wants--mostly in the yard--until the heat settles in for good, is up and blooming again. But the surprise that leaves me gasping with delight is that the Prairie Something bulbs I mail-ordered and planted three years ago that has never bloomed, is!

Every growing thing in my garden is my most something. Even the catbrier, which is my most detested something. The flower I love most for its multiple beautiful stages is the hydrangea. From the dead-but-not-dead winter canes, from which green leaves directly sprout in the spring; to its beautiful green, gradually morphing to pink/blue/purple long-lasting-if-you-keep-it-watered summer bloom; to the faded fall color that dries in the house for winter beauty, it is a most amazing plant.

I have been wondering if the toad lily is going to bloom this year--I can't remember its estimated time of arrival. A couple week's ago I notice buds. I check it out again, not blooming yet. Something to anticipate; maybe next week, or the next. I pull more marigolds; they are mostly gone now. Only the black eyes of the black-eyed Susans remain. The zinnias, vinca, and that Annual I Can't Remember the Name Of are blooming like they have no intention of stopping. Ever. The late-planted lantana has finally taken off and the Mexican petunia that struggled this year is blooming. I even spotted some morning glories this week. I keep accidentally pulling the vines with the ivy; I am pleased by their tenacity. The volunteer cosmos just keeps coming. And the sedum that I didn't remember having a bloom is lovely.

I confess I have been lonely this week. Maybe it was the two days and an evening with people at the staff retreat that makes my beautiful home feel temporarily empty. Maybe it's the rain, which I love, but which raises a yearning for a snuggle-buddy. Maybe it's watching the season-opening Grey's Anatomy and Christina's reference to Meredith as her "person" and feeling like my persons have all faded away, and I will never have one again. Being in what I thought would be a garden in full-out retreat, but isn't, reminds me to never say never. Everything is seasonal. The person-drought will come to a close when it's time; and probably when I least expect it.

Autumn. I exchange my spring/summer porch decor for the autumn/winter version. I welcome fall, which will come into fullness in its time. I am glad to cycle along with the seasons. They come, they move on, they return. All is as it is ordained.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dance Like Your Hair's on Fire!

All week the weather-tellers predict a 25ยบ temperature plummet Thursday night. My anticipation can not be greater if the forecast were for snow. And I love waiting for snow. As promised, Friday and Saturday, under a gray sky, the drizzle-filled air does not get over 60. The heat is not over, but it has loosened its grip. Human beings will never stop trying to control whatever they can, but at least for now, they cannot keep autumn from coming. The autumnal equinox begins Friday, at 5:05 AM, ready or not. It doesn't mark an absolute cross-over, but it throws up the signal: the change, it is a-coming. The annuals are blooming their hearts out, but they can't keep it up. The perennials that didn't succumb to the heat and drought are beginning their descent into the earth to rest and renew. The geese honk over my roof this morning, heading south.

There is nothing cold about the emotional temperature in Raleigh this week, though; it's on fire. Early in the week, the State legislature voted to put an anti-gay marriage amendment  on the May ballot. Of course they don't call it that; they call it protection, not discrimination--it's a scary line. I am weary of this regressive state. I just do not understand how a same-sex couple wanting to legalize their love is threatening to straight marriages. Truthfully, I'm not sure why anyone thinks it important to legalize love. In my humble opinion, I think tax laws should not address how and whom a person loves. I think any adult should be able to say who they want to make decisions for them if they are incapable of making them themselves, and who they want to leave their stuff to when they die. And if they write it down, that should be good enough. Why should you need a state sanction for that? The government should not be involved in whatever ritual of commitment feels right for two people, and men and women of the cloth should not sign a civil document for anyone. I say ban all marriage laws. And Brian at Cafe Carolina, who gave me free coffee this morning, agrees.

People are afraid. That's all I can figure out. And I understand fear: fear of change, fear of losing control, fear of dancing. But the world changes every single day--the political world and the natural world. Our families change, our job responsibilities change, we change. And we never had control to lose, only the illusion. A historical note of interest about North Carolina: in 1920 our beautiful state--marred only by the frightened, control mongers--had the opportunity to be the final ratifying "yes" that gave women the right to vote. But the legislature defeated the measure by two votes. The next day Tennessee had the honor of ushering the 19th Amendment into law. When did North Carolina ratify it? 1971.

Within the state both pro-suffrage and anti-suffrage groups campaigned vigorously and distributed materials to persuade others to support their cause. Just as they are now on the issue of who should be able to marry the person they love, and who should not. Those opposed to the amendment did so for a variety of reasons, including:
• the belief that voting rights should be the purview of the state 

• women who became involved in politics would neglect the home 

• women would be forced into roles they did not want, such as having to serve on juries 

• giving women the vote may lead to Negro suffrage.

In hindsight we can ridicule those individuals and groups for their short-sighted bigotry and misogyny (though sadly there are still people who believe those things). They were afraid then. They are afraid now. They are still trying desperately to hold on to some kind, any kind, of control and power. Everyone is dancing like their hair is on fire to make happen what they believe it right.

Over the past year, the Wake County school board majority has been passionately working to repeal the school system's diversity policy. They have all sorts of faulty rationale, but what it really comes down to is socio-economic racism. They don't want the privileged among us to have to put their children on a school bus, or to sit next to a student in the classroom who doesn't look or dress just like they do. Both sides are dancing like their hair's on fire.

I watched a disturbing (Danish) movie last night, In a Better World, about bullying. Bullying comes in all shapes and sizes. The child who befriends a bullied child and uses the power of that friendship to talk the grateful recipient into wrong-action, is as guilty of victimization as those who name-call and beat children not like them. Politicians and preachers who lead their disenfranchised and fed-up followers toward the wrong star are just as oppressive as a dictator.

On a happy note, three weeks ago, my daughter and her girlfriend became engaged! No, they cannot legally marry in the state of Washington. Yet. But Washington is a progressive state. If not always pushing the envelope like their neighbor Oregon, they don't like to fall behind. I am thrilled for Emma and Wynne. Thrilled that they can openly share their love. Thrilled that they are not afraid to post their happy news on Facebook. Thrilled that my 95-year-old mother is honored that they want to have a ceremony next summer in her side yard, and that she loves Wynne as much as I do. Thrilled that perhaps in some way I eased the path for my daughter to know herself and to not be afraid to be who she is. I am not an outwardly cause-passionate person, but in my own way, I dance like my hair's on fire. I have tried to know and be true to myself even when the path was rocky.

I have a confession to make though. None of us are without our own insidious homophobia, even those of us who are gay ourselves. While I have referred to Wynne as my daughter-in-law (jumping the gun in a way I would not have until the fact of the wedding, were they a heterosexual couple), it took me several days to realize that I am to be the mother-of-the-bride. It kind of hit me like brick. I will need cute shoes and an outfit! I just was not thinking of this marriage in the same way I did when my son told me he was engaged. I am on the path now; I hope that is enough to forgive myself, and for Emma to forgive me. We move slowly, the important thing is that we move. Start the dance slow, but move on to jitterbug.

It makes no difference to me if the state recognizes their life together; but if it is important to them, I hope they dance for the right like their hair is on fire. We all have causes about which we are, in whatever way, passionate. I am unlikely carry a sign on the Capitol grounds (though I might, and I have marched for a cause) or write a letter to the editor (though I am writing a blog) or give a speech to the masses (no way in hell). That doesn't mean I'm not on fire. And no one can tell me what causes I should be dancing for. I am irritated by people who think everyone should throw themselves into every fire. There are people dancing for one important cause and who, though they may be passionate about others, do not have the energy to throw themselves completely into another dance. I have mentioned here three causes--gay rights, protection of diversity, bullying--that are really about the same thing: holding one group of people down so another group can stay on top. Dancing for one is dancing for all. They are all about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That rings a bell.

People intent on passing legislation to hold back love for all and among all will be no more successful than keeping women from voting or keeping autumn out of the garden. Religious leaders who use the Bible to justify their bigotry will not be successful, because the Bible is all about love. "Weeping may come in the night, but joy [and dancing!] will come in the morning." The One who is More is doing a new thing in the world...and the sun will rise on the new day.

“Be fully passionate about something. Let your heart be moved. Know what you love. Shout it for others to hear. Write, sing, paint, live--like your hair’s on fire.” (Patti Digh) And dance!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Way We Were

All over the world--or at least in America--religious leaders and bloggers are sharing their words and arguable wisdom about the events that happened in this country ten years ago. And people are recalling where they were and what they were doing when they heard about what was happening in New York and Washington, DC and Pennsylvania. Some are remembering the event and some are wishing they could forget.

I was doing pretty much what I am doing right now, except in a journal. I had been working part time at my current job for about a month. I wasn't working that Tuesday morning, and I was at my outdoor table--as I am today--at Bear Rock Cafe, down the street from home. A young woman sitting at the only other occupied table was talking on her cell phone. This was before cell phones were pervasive--it would be a few years before I had one--so that in itself was of some interest. It was 
her conversation that was really getting my attention, though. She was talking about an airplane and fire. Her voice was serious, but calm. I thought "There must have been a plane crash somewhere," and I said a prayer for the pain the loved ones of those lost were experiencing. I finished my journaling and my coffee and scone, and walked toward home, stopping at the Hallmark store, perhaps for a card for my nephew's birthday. Over the radio piped through the store, I heard what really happened. I abandoned my search for the perfect card and ran the rest of the way home, where I turned on the TV. I watched in horror the live view of what was happening in New York City, and the replay over and over and over of the planes hitting the skyscrapers. And then I saw the second tower fall.

Yesterday on NPR the news anchor said it was the "worst terrorist attack in history." And that is what I have been thinking about for the last 24 hours. Who decides, I wonder, what is "worst"? Who defines "terrorist"? Nature's terrorist attacks have changed lives this year: floods, tornadoes, typhoons, earthquakes, hurricanes, and fire. Certainly those cataclysmic events have changed the people they affected far more than 9/11 did. The holocaust was surely the worst terrorist attack for European Jews in the 1930s and 40s, when nearly 6 million of them were murdered. Surely two atomic bombs dropped on Japan was the worst terrorist attack if you lived in Japan in 1945. Being black in the US south in the 1950s was daily terror. The Vietnamese in the 1960s and the Americans who involuntarily joined them there could not possibly have imagined more terror. And we didn't and don't have to live in those places at those times to be horrified at what human beings can do their brothers and sisters.

And that, to me, defines terrorism: one person treating another person with disrespect for their humanity. Any act of physical or emotional aggression is a terrorist attack, one-on-one or many-against-many. A husband against a wife, a mother against a child, a boss against a subordinate--just because they can. Some straight married people who think their way of life is threatened by love between two gay people. And gay people who are terrorized because of who they love. One religion or one political party thwarting the efforts of another just on principle. One socio-economic group holding another down just so it can stay on top.

But, one could argue, flying planes into skyscrapers changed the whole world. Did it? Or did it just change for privileged Americans? The vast majority of the world's people have never and will never fly in an airplane. They don't care that people have to stand in line to take off their shoes and go through security now. I admit to waxing nostalgic at not being met at the gate by someone who loves me, but already my children barely remember that. We grow accustomed to such change. I don't mean to make light of what happened ten years ago, but is keeping me safe from a terrorist more important than feeding people in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Women and children in Africa were starving before 9/11, and they are still starving. It didn't change their world. In fact they are dying in greater numbers, perhaps because money is being diverted to killing the terrorists we can see, rather than the invisible killers--the one that kills a child somewhere in the world every six seconds. Yes, for some--for my children's generation--it was the beginning of a loss of innocence and feeling safe in their own land. But generations of people in the Middle East and many other places--including America--have never experienced that. Not in their country, nor in their cities, nor in their own homes--if they have one. They didn't have innocence and safety to lose that day.

And was it the attacks that changed us, or our reaction to them? We in America certainly had the opportunity to change the world because of that day. The whole world was watching to see what we would do. The whole world was in our corner that day. Yep, we changed the world alright. For the better? Each of us must decide what we believe about that.

Defining moments. Moments that changed the way we were.  The historical event that defined the moment of lost innocence for me was November 22, 1963. I was sitting at my desk in my sixth grade classroom when the principal came in and, without speaking, put the radio on my desk near the door. We heard that the President had been shot. That was the day I knew there was evil in the world.

I am also thinking today of the good things that changed the world in ways we will never return from. I just feel like looking at the positive and hopeful on this day of remembering sadness. Penicillin. The electric light bulb. The automobile. Air travel. The telephone. Internet. These were not events, of course, but all were tied to someone's aha moment. Moments when everything changed.  Some days even some of those things seem evil, but there is no stopping ideas from blooming. Plastic! Environmentalists may disdain that aha moment, but I am glad not to have the slippery glass Breck shampoo bottle to deal with. "What?" my children might ask. "Whoever thought glass in a ceramic bathtub was a good idea?" My dears, plastic was not affordable to the masses until I was nearly through my teenage years. And now, of course, most bathtubs are plastic, too. It is hard to believe. What we so recently thought was life-changing, like airport screening, quickly becomes "the way it has always been."

Air travel, television, and the internet have made the world smaller. And mostly that is a good thing. It brings with it the opportunity to see the terror in the daily lives of others; and what we know about we can potentially do something about. And it sometimes brings the opportunity to perpetuate terror. Unfortunately we have spent more time and money dealing with those who hurt us than we have on the more prevalent issues that face our world. I fear that we have only brought more terror into the garden.

For good or evil, our world changes with great frequency. It is not just a single biggest or worst event. I believe, or at least I hope, that the events of September 11, 2001, eventually will prove to have strengthened the search for love and hope and compassion among all the world's peoples.

“A pattern that others made may prevail in the world
And following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”
                                        --William Safford

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bird on a Wire

I resurrected my early morning walk three weeks ago, after a long hiatus: too dark, too cold, too hot, knee issues.... I love being out at dawn. In the beginning I vary my route, until the morning I head for the cemetery after not being there all summer. And now, though I may think of going elsewhere, my feet go toward the grave stones like a hummingbird to nectar. I walk silently with the Vietnamese caregivers of the dead as they head out with their equipment. (I think I would like that work.) I observe the ground fog loitering around the marching white stones of the war dead. I watch and wait for the sun to rise behind Bartholomew Figures Moore, a huge red orb preceded by pink then orange clouds.

On the way to the cemetery one day this week, I spot a bird sitting on a utility wire. Just sitting. Perhaps watching for the sun to come up. Or resting. Or waiting until the time is right to move on. A few steps farther and I look at the three faux Tibetan prayer flags (bandannas, really), tied to a cable fence. And still farther, a forked branch caught on the wire high overhead, blown out of a tree by Lady Irene I expect. As I enter the cemetery, one of the first markers my eyes rest on is the odd fox permanently guarding Mr. McKee's final resting place. These are the images that stick in my mind through the week.

Thursday after work I go out for a beer (and, incidental to the beer, supper) with a newish friend. Lisa is one of those rare people with whom I have found a quick and easy connection. Not confined to the slow death of small talk for months, we are comfortable with getting to the nitty gritty of life in conversation, even though we have known each other for such a short time. She tells me she is thinking of leaving her job of 15 years. She's tired. She's tired of the crap, of incompetent assistants, of being unappreciated and underpaid. She has an opportunity to go to work in her husband's office she says. And she is thinking about it. But she's sitting on the wire. "What is the worst thing that could happen?" I ask. "I hate working with my husband," she says. "And then what?" I counter. "I quit," she replies. "And then what?" I say, pushing the envelope. "I get another job, " she answers. Me: "Uh, huh." She: "Oh."

That bird can sit on that wire as long as it wants. And it can fly off anytime. It just has to decide it's ready.

This has been a really hot summer. How do I know? Last year I made peace with the heat, I adapted. I spent a lot of time under the dogwood tree. This summer, I have rarely sat on my new patio under that tree. I can't bear the sizzle. There are no moles. I don't know if that's because of heat or lack of rain or what; I just know the yard doesn't look like it's been strip mined after I mow. Last summer I had grape tomatoes until I picked a huge bowlful of green ones just before the first freeze. I made green tomato soup, bread, sweet and savory pies. This year the vines are already nearly dried up. I'm sad about the tomatoes. Not for anything else.

Someone hurt me this week, not for the first time. But just when I was thinking we were done with that, wham! gotcha again. I don’t like it when people disappoint me; I want them to be better than that. But really, after I got over being slugged in the gut, I realized I’m just sad for her. I wonder if she likes who she has become. Cuz that is all I really care about. She can’t hurt me; I just hope likes herself.

Those bandannas? They can't choose to leave the fence, and wind won't blow them off. Someone has to untie them. There are so many people in my life who don’t disappoint. They are the shining helpmates in my life. They have all the power. They untie me from that cable of hurt, and they give me reason to untie myself. And each time the pain returns, its grip is loosened faster. But I have to be willing to let them in.

There are signs of the coming change of season in the garden. As I sit on the deck, puffs of wind blow dead leaves off the branches and they rattle down through the trees. Birds fill the grove last night, flitting from tree to tree; they clamber around my feeder, oblivious to the fact of my presence or that of the cat. I imagine them bulking up for winter. Yesterday I notice the dogwood tree and nandina suddenly have berries. I have always loved autumn. I love the very word. I love the anticipation of cool air and stillness. The Burning Bush is starting to show its color; it is still so subtle--unnoticed until I stop and look at it. I am reminded of Moses, who saw the bush burning and didn't go right on past it. He went out of his way to get a closer look. And that is when the One Who is More spoke to him. Not until he left the familiar road.

The branch on the wire can't get off by itself; it will take a blast of wind to blow it loose. Just as Moses needed the help of a distraction to lure him off the path, sometimes we need the the pull of something curious to pull us toward new opportunities. Sometimes there is a force outside of our bidding that propels us, and sometimes we have to watch for the what calls to us--and be willing to leave the wire.

An acquaintance died yesterday, following several months of illness. I am told she has been sad, angry, and cantankerous since her husband died, more than a decade ago. I think of the stone fox. Stuck on that gravestone. Neither choice, nor distraction, nor the winds of time can blow it off. That is death. It is sad to choose death early. What wire are you sitting on? What is calling you or pushing you to leave? Who are you letting in to help you loosen your grip?

I watch a favorite movie from my small collection last night. Meg Tilly is blown off her wire; Christine Lahti chooses to leave hers. They help untie each other. They don't stay in their dead places. It isn't easy. It seldom is. And we often don't know what the outcome will be. But we will never know if we don't take the forward leap. “I have to act like things are going to work out, cuz if I sit here for one minute and look at things as they really are…” (Leaving Normal, 1992)