Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Brainy Groveland

Early in the school year I sat side by side with a third-grade boy in an empty grade school classroom in our town. He stumbled over simple words in a chapter book and could not make sense of the narrative.
I saw him again last week. It was a different story. He handed me his chapter book, Nate the Great Stalks Stupidweed.
“What does “stalk” mean?” I asked him.
He smiled broadly, got a stealthy look on his face and mimed crawling through brush on his belly.
“It’s when you sneak around and spy on someone,” he said gleefully. I stalked my sister. I snuck up and watched her send a text message on her phone.
Then he began to read with confidence and comprehension. When he finished he looked up at me with wide eyes and said,
“I’m getting better at this!”
“Well yes you are,” I said. I pulled out the paper that listed all the books he’d read during the school year. He counted them -- twenty-three.
“My sister doesn’t believe me when I tell her I’ve read a lot of books,” he said. “But I have!”
“Would you like me to write her a note and tell her how many books you’ve read?” I asked? He thought that was a great idea.
“Dear sis,” I wrote, “your brother has read 23 books this year.” And I signed the note. He went back to class, his note stuffed in his pocket and the title of the next book he wanted to read in his head.
Steve and Kathy Ryan are the sponsors of Brainy Groveland, a reading incentive program in our town modeled after many other reading programs across the nation. The children get 1:1 time with mentors (over 30 volunteers), a dollar now for each book read (two dollars, if it’s over 120 pages) and a matching amount of money in a lump sum at the end of the school year. Programs like these are reported to be successful.
If you have a story about reading with a child, please share it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Compassion Cocktail

I'm sure I'm not the first to define Existentialism as:
God is dead.
Get over it.
The book of Ecclesiastes might in turn be defined as:
God lives.
Get over yourself.
When I was at university, I found Existentialism to be compelling. Not the God is dead part, but the part that suggests that we might have the ability to live well and die with courage and dignity even if God were not in the equation.
I've always found Ecclesiastes to be heady stuff as well. Living well is not living for enjoyment, but it's a good second.
I just finished reading The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman. In this book a man loses a piece of his soul in a passionate act of selfishness and cruelty. The young girl who witnesses the scene loses her will to live. Both are redeemed by performing acts of compassion. In essence, the only way they could get on with life was to move past their own experience of joylessness and focus on the needs of others.
The dictionary definition of compassion is:
The deep feeling of sharing the suffering of another in the inclination to give aid or support, or to show mercy.
The proper mix of elements found in Existentialism, Ecclesisastes and compassion can be a powerful cocktail Consider this recipe:
Add together one living God as the base (the single spirituous liquor), the people around you as a modifying agent (aromatic wines, bitters or fruit juices that soften the raw taste of alcohol and enhance the natural flavors) and a dash of your abilities (the special flavoring and coloring agents). Stir with ice, strain into a glass and serve.
Other mixes are possible, but maybe not as powerful.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Signs and Wonders

When nature commits a volcanic act of terrorism, we really have no one to blame. Legally of course, we blame God. When Mother kicks dirt in the face of travelling humanity, we know it is in her Nature to do so. We do not blame her, we stand in awe.
Some souls question if there is intent in this passionate spewing, beyond the Earth's need to occasionally belch a big one. If we connect the dots between the shake, rattle and roll occurring around the globe, might we wonder if Someone is trying to get our attention? Never mind to what purpose, that we should take time to meditate on the life force in creation is enough.
Our sympathies are with the stranded travelers. We've all been there. It's uncomfortable to spend anymore time in an airport than you have to, and it's annoying to see your plans erupt in ash. But in the angst over missed weddings, funerals, vacations, deadlines, let's not miss the opportunities.
Saturday night we heard Vietnam War veteran Captain Charlie Plumb account for his six year stint as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. He credited a parachute packed in his youth by a network of preachers, teachers and such, and a thin strip of wire the prisoners rigged to communicate with each other. These were the simple tools that helped him survive and thrive.
When our life plans get interrupted, at what point do we stop pushing for our right to a seat on the next plane out? What blessing is there for the family who accepts the kindness of strangers for lodging, or the couple who takes the theme park up on the offer of free tickets?
Signs and wonders come in all sizes.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I have been at stalemates when it appeared that nothing I could do would really make anything better. Transitions at work, when I had no work to do, no one to assign work to me and making work no longer made sense. It's like being in a maze, taking a wrong turn and finding yourself on a path square in the face of a hedge that prevents you from moving ahead.
Best to turn around and patiently seek another way through to the exit? Retrace steps to the entrance and explore the surrounding field instead? Be bold and punch a hole in the hedge in hopes that some new way will reveal itself? Or take a moment to stand quietly before the hedge and observe its form?
I might find this hedge is rosemary, not cypress. I may snap a sprig off a seasoned twist of branch, breathe deeply its pungent fragrance and be refreshed. Many paths may emanate from this place, many options to step onto a different path that takes me to a place of my choice.
Be easy, fellow pathfinders. Undue effort often seems to produce questionable results. While, according to Thomas a Kempis, the more a man is united within himself, and becomes inwardly simple, the more and higher things he understands without labor; for he receives intellectual light from above.
Modest effort can sometimes produce great reward.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Marvelous Fear

I was in a car on a dark night with my high school boyfriend Al listening to the radio. Cuban boats had just been warned away from the American shore. For the first time in my life, I felt terror. There was a shore in my life that wasn't safe.
This was the first time I realized that the world was not a safe place and that my life could end violently.
I remember the safe feeling inside the car, the anchor of a warm body next to me. Thoughts flashed like 10-second ads in my head. I will never have sex. I will never have children.
But the fear was bigger than that. It was the possibility that everything I knew could end, maybe within the half hour it took for the Cuban boats to decide whether or not to turn back.
How much, really, was "everything?" I recall being outside of myself and marveling at my ability to cope with this fear. It wasn't groveling fear, it was marvelous fear.
I learned a lot that evening about the stuff I was made of. The fear peaked at about the time that acceptance set in. What will be, will be.

Monday, April 5, 2010


An interesting exercise is to write yourself a birthday greeting. Today I stumbled on the one I wrote myself on my 50th birthday. Here's an excerpt:
Happy Birthday girlfriend! You are happy at 50 and happy to be happy at 50. You suspect there's a lot more ahead, and you're right. You can't imagine how many people are yet to enter your life, grandchildren and great grandchildren. You can't imagine the pain you will feel as people you love leave your life, can't imagine allowing yourself to go so deep down that well of pain that you will finally have to push yourself hard to resurface and gasp for air. That's the price you pay for living so long. Perhaps though, you'll be rewarded for being awkward in youth with a graceful old age.
Of course, I wasn't happy at 50. At 50 I realized that my life was half over (I'm an optimist) and that anything I wanted to change about my situation, I'd better start changing. Fifty is a good time to revisit the mortgage and renegotiate the contracts on relationships.
I've discovered other milestones related to age. At 20, anything you don't like about yourself you'd better work on changing because when you reach 40 those character traits are pretty set. At 60, it's time to take stock of all the things you said you would do when you had the time, the money, the freedom...the time is now, the money is what it is and you have all the freedom you grant yourself to do now what you've left for later.
Are there dreams you need to let go of with a clear conscience? There's power in making that decision yourself before life makes it for you.
Can you now be the child you never were? No do overs in life, but we sometimes can move ahead with a passion we've long held and reimagine it.
Even if it's not your birthday, write yourself a greeting.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Life and Death

Last night I watched American Songbook on PBS. I was again deeply touched by Paul Robeson slumped against a dockpost by the Mississipi, summing up a bone weary lament with the refrain, "I'm tired of living, but scared of dying."
We deal so efficiently with the fear of death by focusing our attention elsewhere. When death does manage to get in our face, we may be willing to put our earthly affairs in order for the benefit of our heirs, but we put off any reckoning that may be required of us until another day. It's a handy self-deception with consequences we all complain of daily -- busyness that robs us of joy.
Though I've always sought to account for my soul, more often I have lived the deconstructionist life of a brain ticking in a body with God as the clockmaker who winds us up and leaves us to wind down on a timetable only He knows. Consequently I've tried hard to stay wound up, fearing to remove my hand from the key that locks me in place.
What freedom there is to remove my hand from that key. In the existentialist view, I can do merely that and let whatever will be, be. Or, I can go further. I can yank the key from the keyhole to my being and toss it to God. My ticking ceases and I begin to match my breath with His, my steps with His. This is prayer, and it is a whole body experience, often expressed as a dance with God.
I imagine this dance. Raising a torchlight above my head, I lose the shadow of myself as I illuminate the path ahead and move toward that light. Taking in breath, I test new ways to move, stretch forth my leg, point my toe, place my foot down lightly with purpose, shift my weight over my leg and find balance. I reach out my arms and link my fingers to the strong fingers of One who tugs me into a new positon and whispers in my ear, "See what you can do?"
With a touch, my soul lover helps me find my balance. Like a pas de deux partner, or a yoga master, He closes strong hands around my wrists as if to say, "I've got you now, I'm with you."
When we've worn out our bodies with the business of life, when we finally tire of ticking off the days of earthly existence, is there a dancer inside us to be gotten?
At the end of Paul's song in Show Boat his people, who have gathered around him in sympathy, turn toward the river and wave a greeting to the boat coming that is coming by. And that, perhaps, is the choice.