Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On Lightning Rods

While my mother and grandfather nailed shingles on the house, a storm stirred and lightning flashed. Thunder rattled like my grandfather's great bass in my chest. The green skies warned them, "Git down." They shooed us into the crawl space as a tornado tore the neighbors' cornfields. It left a walking path winding along for miles. It shattered a summer kitchen next to one neighbor's house, left the house standing. How strange to think, a little wind, a little rain could be so selective. But my mom warned it wasn't the tornado we had to fear. Don't stand under the trees in the storm. Grandpa thought about the lighting rods on the top of the house, grounding it. My uncle, an electrical lineman, broke out a few whoppers about the lightning that hits the aerials on cars, of men who stood in bare fields inviting the lesser gods to scorch them. The National Weather Service says chances of being struck in your lifetime are 1/12,000. Chances of knowing someone struck: 1/1,200. How common the chances, more common than winning the lottery.

Some people, like Father Matthew and Presvytera Katie Baker, attract lightning.

Folks warned us when we arrived at seminary that Matthew and Katie were smackdab in the midst of a row already. Women warned me to keep my space, for she was one of those women. She'd nursed her infants in the monastery church, a scandal to the monks. --None of the monks ever peeped about these women's issues, about head coverings, nursing babies, and skirts or whatnot.-- The only folks who spoke of the scandals whispered of all manner of scandals.

 I never had occasion to know Katie well, young mothers and old mothers keep different hours, different spaces. She corralled toddlers and nursed babies at church. She made home and church possible for her husband. I worked. In church I could deliver a fierce warning at my older children -- "Behave, or else" and could pray without much interruption in services. Since my income supported our family, I spent little time with the other wives, or the other families, for that matter.

Father Matthew and Katie preceded us at seminary by a few years. He arrived in the same state as my husband: without undergraduate credentials, neither ordained.

Matthew looked like a blond Abe Lincoln, a rail tall man, topped with a swirl of strawberry blond hair. He had Abe's ridged cheekbones. He wore a beard that softened the angles. He came with a reputation of being philosopher-type, a genius, a Kierkegaard kind of smart. Deep, you know?

All of us were scholarship families, our husbands too busy in theology and liturgy to work. Wives with wee ones earned the keep by home-making, by thrift and grit, by keeping hours at the WIC, CHIP, LYHEAP, and other aid offices: every month they put up with degrading waits and invasions of privacy to prove residency, income or lack thereof, legal dependents, and accumulated assets. I never suffered this because I taught. Either way, the unidentified they whispered to the wives, "Remember to kiss the hands that pay your husbands' tuition. Keep the appearance of modesty in finances and appearance." Some of us lived abject and long-suffering. It took all my energy to survive. I never took up a challenge or a fight. I took the time to learn to be quiet.

Katie spoke up for her right to feed her children, and to pray.

Some people are lightning rods, attracting energy good and naught.

Smart men like Matthew cannot abide voices of extremism, of abuse of power. He picked his audiences, picked his fights judiciously, but he spoke up. I know this because of the stories, the insights, the tidbits my husband collected. My husband reported on a sparing word spoken in class, a defeated seminarian resurrected after a talk with Matthew. The voice of reason, of gentleness, of the opposite of the power-mongers. Men like him cannot help but cross the powers-that-be. Some of those powers swore they'd never lay a hand on Matthew. He'd never be ordained on their watch. Others stood up for Matthew's right to study, to graduate, to contribute to the theology of the day. Matthew graduated, with a reputation for brilliance and with the aura of a man with strength and the scars to prove it.

Matthew, Katie, and three children moved to Massachusetts. He filled his quiver with degrees, papers, admiration, friends, and more children. A bishop saw fit to ordain him. Katie went on feeding her babies, being a patient mother.

I've seen her in pictures recently and she looks just as young as ever. Sometimes she comes up on my Facebook feed. "You might know this person." I did, sort of, but never well enough to friend her, especially after all these years. I admired my memories of her. Any woman with the grit to stand up to the nameless they for her babies, who could keep intellectual and spiritual stride with Father Matthew, who could birth child after child, six living, one recently stillborn, is a cult of personality herself. How would I friend her nonchalantly? You don't remember me, I'd write on her wall, but I heard stories about you that left me in awe of you. I don't know how to sort the legend from truth, but if it's half true, I wish you and Father Matthew hadn't been put on the roof, lightning rods for all the cursed negative energy of seminary.

So, I her pass on my Facebook feed. Contentedly, I listened my husband's tales of Father Matthew's deepening presence in discourses of faith in our church.

Some people, like the Bakers, attract more than their share. Last Sunday, while driving home from Vespers for Sunday of Orthodoxy with three of his six kids, Father Matthew's van flipped. He died, reposed. Now Katie will feed her babies without him. I cannot ever tell her in the right context that I find it profoundly, fiercely unfair that some people tried to fry her at seminary, because something far worse has consumed her. How do I now convey that whatever strength she'd always lent Father Matthew, who shared it on with my husband and the entire community, that I admired it?

Everyone's writing about Father Matthew this week, in memoriam. For a minute, I want to mention Presvytera Katie. Her husband lived and died in the service of others. So too, has she. She goes on. Thanks, Katie, from someone you probably never knew you affected.

Also, as a disclaimer. I realize my memory of the details have been obscured by time and the blurry-eyed weariness of those years. I know half of what I must have heard was legend, sixty percent was probably false and, I bet, ninety-percent of the silent credit I give you is credible.

I know that's two hundred percent, but I am a music-maker. I am a dreamer of dreams.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

What I pray for, by the numbers

By the numbers,

A friend once asked me how many times I'd made love to my husband. What a wonderful joy to count those little pleasures in life. What do you count?

Lady Lent: Week 1
How many children you have?

How many godchildren?

How many nieces and nephews?

How many vacations have you taken?

How many books have you read?

How often do you enjoy chocolate?

How often you enjoy a meal?

How often you pray?

How often you get a night's sleep in a comfortable bed, under warm blankets?

How often can you flush your toilet without using a bucket of water and how often does it go to a sewer system, not out the back of your house and down a rivulet by your street?

How often your car starts on the first turn of the key?

How often lights turn on with a flip of your wrist? How often you find enough funds to pay the fuel or the bill?

These are blessings.

Now here some other numbers to consider. Recently, I've been heavy-hearted about these. It seems every day I add someone else to these lists, or lose someone. I pray a lot. I am not sure I thank God as much for the thousands of things above as I do lay my heavy-heart before God for all those below.

How many people I know living with cancer? I have three in my family -- a younger sister, an uncle, in my family now. More have already gone on.

How many have already gone on? Three. All grandparents.

One cousin survived his. I have many friends who are cancer-free. I know many others who are living it with

How many people do you know have lupus, or multiple sclerosis, or cystic fibrosis or celebral palsy? I know of three. At least. One of my father's cousins died last year after years with MS. A friend from childhood had a mother with it.

What about Spina Bifida? Or other genetic or developmental disorders

How many people do you know on the spectrum (autism)? How many in your family? None in my family but oh so many friends and students. How many have ADHD? How many kids have you sat down with only to discover they have so many meds in their system they cannot function on all cylinders? How many don't have a hobby? Can't read? Don't eat vegetables and fruits? How many lack impulse control, self-control?

How many people have divorced parents? How many have been hit, neglected, abused? How many knew too much about sex at too young an age?

How many have depression? Anxiety? Bi-polar? Schizophrenia? Too many and it's too delicate to say how many in my family, how many among my dear friends, how many I know.

How many do you know are transitioning from one gender to another. I have three students and a friend. Maybe more.

How many do you know are attracted to members of their same sex? How many colleagues? Friends? Family?

How many have given up on God? Never believed?

How many people have lived in your home while addicted to substances, more than sugar or nicotine or caffeine?

During this Lent, I find myself asking, what is the balance of my litanies? How much am I dumping on God? How many times do I say thank you? He's so big, you know. I don't worry about  taking more heartache than gratitude, but it helps to bring my thanks and my hurts.

So many days, I want to cry about all the brokenness. I put on my big-girl panties and don't cry.
On Friday, at ten am, I came downstairs broken. I'd spent an hour with a girl with "mild cognitive disability" who was seventeen, engaged, living with her mother and her fiance, who couldn't read words like thesis, or proposition, or objective. She couldn't read, really. She could write. She's supposed to pass my 11th grade English class. She has an 82 percent but couldn't fluidly read a single passage from the curriculum. I sent her to the dictionary to look up words she didn't know and she couldn't read those words.

A couple of years ago, I had a senior, with a cognitive disability in Philadelphia who wrote me one day asking which teacher it was from the school I taught who wanted to meet her on the corner of her street. None of us did, that I know of. I was horrified. I called CPS because someone was going to take advantage of that girl. She was already pregnant. She too couldn't read, couldn't write, could synthesize or analyze.

I have students who are transitioning who are afraid to tell their parents of their "other" names. I have so many female students, bright and capable, with one or more children, whose next step is cosmetology school, because it's a quick training to a job they hope will support them and their children. I have girls failing high school who think they'll be able to hack nursing school. I have students who've never been to church but think the world was created in six days. I have students who think "colored" is still a word they should use in academic essays to describe another human being.

I have a long list of heartaches.

And I have two amazing kids. A phenomenal husband. Parents and a mother-in-law I'd nominate for sainthood. I have ancestors who prayed me into the Kingdom of God. I have a few neighbors who knock my socks off with love, kindness and grace for the tiniest mammals to the most dysfunctional families in neighborhood. I have a spiritual family who carries each others' burdens. I am blessed. I have the Mysteries and a great God and Savior from who all blessings and gifts flow.

Glory to God in All Things, for All Things.