Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Eucharist Project

Thirteen months ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, my husband went to Kroger, bought a gift card and drained our bank account onto it. I finished my workday, stashed a twenty dollar bill between cards in my pocketbook and packed up the last of the food in the house, except for some flour, some dried beans, herbs and spices and a couple of bags of frozen food. As I recall, all the milk, cheese, cereal, oats, fruits and veggies- fresh and canned- were cleaned out. Almost every bit of food we had was in the coolers and baskets. Except for spending my twenty on the last gift, an Amazon gift card for a sibling, we were set to start out for the annual Reynolds' Christgiving. 

Our sixteen-year-old daughter carried her lime green comforter, stuffing coming out of huge gash in the seam to the Camry  Over her shoulder, she had slung a pillowcase, stuffed with her MP3 player, a couple of favorite stuffed animals, books, games, snacks and her coat. She squeezed her items on top of the packed out back seat and maneuvered her long legs in the cab. My son hefted in under his ratty blue comforter. --Back in our seminary days, when parishes helped Seminarian families buy the Christmas gifts, the kids had opened the blankets.-- This was our second year crawling out of seminary debt and scaling back on all those gifts. Liam too had a pillow case stuffed with toys for the drive. Both kids looked snowed in the back seat, but excited for our trip. 

For the twelve hours drivng, they sharing earbuds, groaned against the unbalanced baskets of gifts and food. Road-weary in the wee hours of the morning, they car-napped and snarked at each other.  We have driven this path so many times, it is no longer adventurous, especially when we cannot bribe them with sodas and Subway this time. 

During seminary, we drove from Pennsylvania to Indiana, for two weeks of Christmas or three months of summer. We stretched our hands and feet as we crossed back into the Hoosier state, joking that one of us had made it home first.

Now we do a four-day round trip in the opposite direction. It's not so bad on the way out, with the anticipation of Christgiving-- Christmas celebrated back to back with Thanksgiving in November-- It is a necessary tradition for an extended family with several ordained clergy. We smooshed together Christmas and Thanksgiving on a lark and ended up with the newly christened Christgiving, a lovely accident since it blends the gratefulness with Christ's gift.  It's a family kind of Eucharist. Eucharist is what my clergy husband and our parish offer up to God every Sunday. It means thanksgiving, literally. 

Last year, I trembled the whole trip, not with the joy of the Nativity season either. I was excited to see family I hadn't seen in months. I was excited to give out my handmade gifts, but spending our last two hundred dollars on gas and tolls scared me. The empty pantry, refrigerator and freezer flashed to mind as the mile markers passed. I pushed  back tears and gulped down the  lump in my throat. We were going on faith. There was no food or paycheck expected for the entire week following the trip. I reminded my husband to hyper-mile. He made up reasons the kids did not need sodas and fast food. In the backseat, they knew. They ate in silence. Thanksgiving felt like oxygen on a mountain peak, thin.

We made it home on what we had. My husband asked the parish for his check early. We bought groceries. In the following weeks, we had enough.

 We stuffed St. Nicholas stockings with socks, undergarments, candy and bubble bath. We bought our modest presents for the kids, even a small bit for each other. Folks in the parish gave us books, gift certificates and little extras. It was festive in a kind of restrained and beautiful way, like a slow and sparkly snowfall. That the week after Christmas, with a full heart, but empty pocketbook, I was looking for a way to give more outside our family. I started a 5000 mile challenge, of walking and running for the year, with the hopes of fundraising for several missionaries, mission groups, ministries and non-profits.

DISCLAIMER: Before I continue, I should tell you that my dream of raising a dollar a mile for the year resulted as well as a sales-drive test by Herff Jones went years ago. I am terrible at the ASK, that is the asking of money, it turns out. I got about five cents on the mile this year because I'm worried about putting people out. I went 5400 hundred miles. Actually, I'm finishing those as we speak, thanks to a free treadmill from my friend Melissa. It probably has 5000 miles on it since she gave it to me five years ago.

When I started a year ago, I was full of hope and thanksgiving, trepidation nagged at me, because I had just overcome a pretty nasty sprain. On Dec. 31, 2011, I was running a 9-minute mile. Still it seemed a good idea, a good gift for my running and my restless, worried body.

In the past year, I trained non-stop. Before my marathon this October, I was running a 7:21 minute mile. I ran the marathon well, though I tripped. i finished in 3 hours and 41 minutes. Within a few weeks, I hit my 5000 mile goal. The same week, I felt the sprain. It traveled down my legs and knotted up my feet.

I'm nursing it back to health, running once a week, at most, and slow. I'm running 12-minute miles. I hurt. And the thanksgiving this year, well, I think I'm cresting Mount Rainer, or K2. It's been thin and I'm ragged.

Twelve months ago, when I began, I acknowledged the unknown snarls that might undo my plans. Injury aside there was job uncertainty, and many demands and choices that years bring. I knew I would be facing the annual uncertainty that my position for a Pennsylvania virtual school creates. I live too many states away. If I were not such a committed teacher, they might have let me go, as they have to several friends who moved after me.  

I started a graduate program, to hedge those fears about my job. It's like working two full-time jobs, while being a mom to a teenage girl and 'tween son. Spice that up with a few other roles, like ingredients in my identity and energy: priest's wife, partner, supposedly a friend, sister and daughter. 

Of all of those, parenting has been the biggest challenge this year. Maybe because I feel time is running out with my beautiful daughter. She has a boyfriend, is apply to colleges, and starting her first job. She texts people all day and aces her AP and Honors classes. But, if you have heard the adage that parenting a teenager is akin to parenting a preschooler, heed it. Preschoolers need mom and dad at all hours and have no sense of time or general awareness outside of their sphere of existence. Teens are like this too, but the situation is deceptive, because parents can convince themselves this is not normal, that these kids are older and more mature than this needy-ness they exhibit. It is normal, and they are age-appropriate. -- Too bad I haven't been age appropriate. If I graded myself, I would get F's in some of those positions, and none would hold at higher than a B on some tests. Most F's come in the area of parenting a teenage daughter. Just when I need to be flexible to start a tearful heart to heart at 11pm, I am bleary eyed, demanding the shower, and nodding off, or just plain intemperate at her imposing need for reassurance at that hour of the night.

That's just speaking to my failure as a mother. 

So, when Rachel, who started going to my church this year, handed me a book last week, Ann Voscamp's 1000 Gifts, I got the sense it was providential.

Voscamp is a protestant, but she had me at her epigraph on Chapter Two, words from Fr. Alexander Schmemann from his book For The Life of the World:

Eucharist is the state of perfect man.
Eucharist is the life of paradise.
Eucharist is the only full and real response of man
 to God's creation, redemption and gift of heaven.

Remember that Eucharist is the oblation- the obedient offering- of Thanksgiving that involved the Body and Blood of our Savior. We say the Church is a hospital, that Christ came to save not the righteous but sinners, that the Body and the Blood are for healing, for the life of the world.

In thirteen months, in more ways that I can count, but close to 1000, I have not been thankful. I have grown sick and shriveled, akin to the figs on the tree cursed.

I need a 1000 thanksgivings. I cannot do all those liturgies in one year, I cannot take in the medicine, literally, 1000 times. I can begin, though. I can begin by offering a thanksgiving for every mile my feet take me this year. I would love to replace every curse, every complaint, every groan and growl, every sigh of hurt and anger with a thanksgiving, but I know my stubborn will. I will pair Thanksgiving with the use of my body, which gets hurt and tired, and joyful and energetic in seasons. I will learn thanksgiving like one learns prostrations.

And perhaps, I will find the joy of the Lord is my strength,
That He gives beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness,
His peace {He} gives to me, that passes all understanding,
That He clothes the lilies of field resplendently,
That he heals bruised reeds,
That he comforts those who mourn,
That He might be glorified.

Pray for me. At the end of this, there will be fasting, repentance, joy and peace, In short, Eucharist.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Unruly Rosemary

The cheapest one to buy at Amazon from ProFlowers
     On the hottest, driest summer on record in Indiana, I cowered in my air conditioning and stared out the kitchen window at the herbs withering on my deck. I should have lugged the pots into my cool kitchen, I thought, especially the rosemary. She is a special plant. When I bought the Rosemary over three years ago, I paid fifteen dollars out of our grocery bill- a loaf of bread, several boxes of cereal, some fruit other than apples, that is what she cost us that week. Rosemary was trimmed like a mini-Christmas pine, with long succulent needles, but starting to look dry. She once cost twenty-five dollars, in her prime, all sprayed, waxed, trimmed, and wrapped in cheap, flashy foil. With holiday markdowns posted, I snatched her with glee, ready to wean her from the market fertilizers, repot her, and let her get a little native. She would join my indoor gardens, but because of the card rubber banded to a red bow on her girth, I would pay her an homage that my ivies, creeping jews, philodendrons, and peace lilies wouldn’t get.

      In our Pennsylvania duplex, my houseplants owned the enclosed porch. Here in Indiana, I have no garden room, and barely any windows with enough sunlight to foster sun-kissing herbs, like Rosemary. So she, and the parsley, thyme, oregano, mint and rue, grow in pots and planters around my deck. I pick fresh leaves off many of the herbs as we bring the food to the deck so dinner is freshly flavored. This summer, we haven’t eaten as often on the deck, with the heat and bugs so thick. The scorching turned our yard brown, and left my Rosemary gray with dust. She looked like a scrub, like the arid fauna described on the card Rosemary came with years ago. It retold the legend of the plant’s namesake Mary the Mother of God, fleeing to Egypt with Joseph from Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s baby boys. Like Hagar and Ishmael, or Jonah, the desert heat overtook them. Where Jonah found relief in a vine that sprung up, Hagar was rescued by the Angel of the Lord, and Mary flung her cloak over a scrub under which the holy family found refuge. In the cool of the night, they left, and behind them the bush flowered in white and blue, the colors associated with Mary’s purity and blessedness.

     On this hot summer day, my rosemary looked anything but blessed. Her arms branched out like an abandoned yew bush. One dropsy arm needed whacking. Her needles were brittle and stubby. I thought she was looking almost indistinguishable from her neighbor, English thyme. I might have seized a bottle of water, sprayed the dust away, and grabbed my shears to reshape her into a conical pine, but water droplets in July heat would burn her chloroplasts like ants smoking under a magnifying glass. Pruning should be in the cool seasons, when woody plants lie dormant. This was the wrong time to give her a makeover, though no harm would come in snipping the twisted limbs for roasted garlic and olive oil dipping sauce.

There is another trouble with pruning. I know that plants need some pinching and pruning to thrive: basil must be pinched to bush out, as should rose and berry canes. Whenever I snipped the canes, I imagined a disturbance in the force. I haven’t pruned in over a year because the last time I took the tools to the plants, I pretended I heard inaudible tones, like the screeing of my grandparents tube TV set, when I left it on but no signal was being transmitted, or the dog whistle. When I was eight, my grandfather kept two German Shepherds across the lot, guarding his tool barns. In his desk he kept a brass dog whistle that he blew when the dogs bayed. I could not understand, since the wind and trees carried away most of the sound. He said the barking troubled the residents- he owned the mobile home park in which we all lived. Whenever he took the whistle out of his pencil drawer, I slammed my palms over my ears because it made my spine twitch. My mother said I was imagining things. Like the weeping of the Firebush cut to size.

    My plants are my pets. I remembered how declawing our Katy Kitty wounded her. We planned to let her keep her claws, until she began etching our 200-hundred year old woodwork. She became my enemy then. The front claws had to go, agreed my husband. I think it was his idea of a peace accord. She came from the vet’s office drugged, and we gently laid her on towels, pulling her water and food within her reach. I cooed, actually made the cutsy teenage girl noise, “oooohhh, I feel so sorry for her” when I found her with her paws in her water dish. She didn’t move them for two days. Katy is a rescue cat with the hypochondrical tendencies of a pure Russian Blue. She has a psychological condition requiring rehydration after every flea bite and when she ruled the house, a small bowl of cat food lasted for days. She is not mean, but aloof, more so after she got a housemate, a twenty-pound hairball called Charlie. She stalked Charlie on his first few days, staring him down and hissing at him. My husband renamed the two cats after that. When she resigned herself to Charlie, she was hereafter called “Skinny Bitch,” behind the kids’ backs. My husband likes his craft brews and Skinny Bitch needed a good pairing, so Charlie became Fat Bastard. As a rule, I call them both Cat.

     “Move, Cat,” I’ve yowled as Charlie plodded down the stairs ahead of me. His specialty is doing this when I have an armload of laundry in hand, and with his middle-age beer-belly slowing him, he trips me. But it was not the tripping or his endless shedding that drove me berserk. It was how he violated my houseplants and my herbs. This is why Rosemary was consigned outside most of the year. He chawed on her leathery firs and yakked up green mucus on the carpet.

     “Cat! You’ve violated my Rosemary one too many times,” I’ve bellowed for ten years. The Philodendron, which is poisonous to delicate kitty livers was shuttered in my bedroom. The grape ivy keeps it company. I put the tropical palms, the peace lily, the Arrowvine up and as close to window real estate as possible. Our old home is snuggled within arm’s reach of the house to its left. I thought I could coach some lettuce and herbs out of my few sunny windows, homesteader style. I might be successful one day too, when the cats die, or move. When Charlie lounged lardily across the lettuce starts, I unleashed my worst.

    “Move your fat arse,” I wailed. Indeed the plants were my pets. The cats belonged to my kids. When Katy dropped turds in, then tipped the box planter, she fled the kitchen her rear claws scraping tile. I heard it and roared. I could baby my herbs outdoors in spring, summer and autumn, what would I do in winter, when my herb-babies need warmth? I was willing to risk the thyme, oregano, parsley, mint and rue, but this particular Rosebaby had that pedigree from the Virgin Mary. I had been getting schooled on the Virgin Mother, trying to unlearn my distaste for her. It was like trying to find palatable recipes for asparagus, after being raised only the tinned, reheated mush of childhood. I learned to braise asparagus sprigs in olive oil over an open grill, sprinkle with sea salt and now revered a once-revolted vegetable. Growing up evangelical, the Virgin Mother was as foreign as fresh herbs and delectable vegetables. My rosemary was the first corporeal link to the Mother of God.

    It was in that legend. When I read that card, no one else told me that Mary’s desert respite was akin to Hagar, another obedient handmaiden keening before God for mercy upon her son. No one else indicated that the dusty scrub was the antithesis to Jonah’s vine. A worm ate his, but hers flowered because she held no judgment and bitterness in her heart. The folktale was another of the missing links between the Old Testament, with its stories of sinners in the hands of an angry God, and the New Testament. If the latter seemed effeminate by comparison, with a God-figure whose love is so encompassing that He lays down his life for humankind, it had something to do with Mary, and I’m Mary’s namesake, Maria. The mystery of who I was, or am, or will be, has been all wrapped up in Mariology. The trouble is, my parents, who named me Maria, who told me my name meant something, and to let God reveal what Myrrh, or bitter, meant for my spiritual life, also raised me evangelical and indoctrinated me to avoid venerating her. Then, I betrayed them. I converted to a church that honors Mary by a fancy title, meant to validate her son’s identity as God. The title commonly used is Mother of God, or the Greek Theotokos. Ever-Virgin and All Holy. I’ve had a hard time adjusting to some of those concepts, especially the ever and all ones.

     Maybe it’s a stretch, but the Rosemary staying evergreen meant something to me. I stared out the window, into the heat, thinking about the days ahead, about saving Rosemary from frost and feline. I wondered, though, if I won’t even dare to go outdoors to rescue her from the desert scorch, if I don’t dare to touch her shriveled branches, what would survive?