Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Feels like rain

Rain, rain, go away... is what we sing, right?

Yes... mostly... especially when I have a houseful of restless kids that I wish I could send outside to do whatever it is kids are supposed to do outside.  But in the last week or so, I've been thinking about the rain a little differently.

It's winter in the Bay Area.  Christmas Day, to be exact.  And it's raining.  Buckets.  Torrents.  Gutter-flooding, mud-shifting, hours of pouring rain.  That's what it does around here, usually from about late November or early December, until sometime in late March or early April.

However, we live in a climate where we get NO rain after the rainy season has ended in the Spring.  We have gorgeous, sunny, movie-perfect weather for weeks upon weeks upon weeks.  The sprinklers kick on every so often, the lawns stay green, and  life proceeds in the way that makes the whole world want to pick up and move to Northern California.

But outside the range of sprinklers, something different takes place.  The ground on the grassy hills gets hard and packed-down, the drought-hardy native plants grow and then wither through their appointed season, with the grasses and wildflowers drying up and ending their life-cycles in a blaze of sunlit gold while the ever-dark-green valley oaks look on.  By October, the hills are achingly beautiful in their sheen of gold against the blue sky that seems to both borrow and reflect the brightness of the sun-baked hills. That's when we enter another season here in paradise: wildfire season.  All those beautiful months of nothing but sunshine have left the landscape gasping for the relief of rain and threatening to burst into flame at the slightest ignition.

Boy, have I felt that way at times...

If I'm perfectly honest, looking back over so many "sunny" pieces I wrote before Andre's death, I have to say that I was living in that artificially-sprinkled dry season, sustained by whatever moisture I could find, working hard at staying "green" on the outside.  If there were people in my inner circle who could see that the "green" in my life was closer to astroturf or green-painted concrete, I never heard about it.

And so we have arrived at the rainy season in my life, and I am having a hard time not letting the mud get all over my soul's carpets.  The rainy season here, when it comes, is at once disruptive, overwhelming, occasionally destructive... and a source of astounding, miraculous transformation.  We watch the sun set on a Cezanne / Provencal landscape and wake up in an Irish travel poster:  from sun-bleached golds, browns, and ochres, to deep, velvety emerald and evergreen, almost overnight.  The rain changes dust-scapes to lush meadows and causes houses to slide off their foundations. It awakens wildflowers and causes traffic crashes.  It ruins outdoor plans and makes me want to pause for a cup of tea in a cozy chair by the window.  

I was living in that desperately dry "lovely weather" season for quite a while, about to go up in flames, it felt like, and now the rains have come in my life. Much of that rain has been disruptive, some in a horrifying way, and some of it in a good way, but disruptive and threatening nonetheless.

So, I'm wondering today, what if, just for a while, I could acknowledge that I'm in the midst of a pouring-down-torrents-that-drench-to-the-bone rainy season in my life, acknowledge that it feels like the house of my spirit might get washed off its foundation any minute, AND look at that rain as a blessing? I am indeed, greening up again.  My life is being watered more deeply now than at any time I can remember.  I can't help but see transformation, even if the rain feels overwhelming.  I can complain about the rain, or I can focus on the transformation and choose to trust that even if my retaining walls get washed away, I'll rebuild when the rain stops.

This new friend of mine, the one who told me that my passionate side is a gift (see my previous post ), has been opening my eyes to a new appreciation of the guitar work of BB King, Buddy Guy, and John Baldry.  This song by John Hiatt (performed by Buddy Guy and Bonnie Raitt in the youtube clip below) has a title and a decidedly sensual mood that has gotten me to thinking about this concept of rain being a blessing.

(Note to friends: Point me in the direction of stuff that challenges my brain, or touches my heart and you just might end up in my blog.  Whether that's a threat or a promise is up to you, I guess. :-)

Sorry, no ethereal, angelic hymns full of air, light and Holy Infants today.  Today, we're walking on the muddy earth, drawing music from a slightly different source.

Feels Like Rain - John Hiatt (performed by Buddy Guy and Bonnie Raitt

Feels Like Rain   (lyrics - first verse)

Down here the river meets the sea
And in the sticky heat I feel you open up to me
Love comes out of nowhere baby, just like a hurricane

And it feels like rain
And it feels like rain

(and then the last verse says)

Batten down the hatches baby
Leave your heart out on your sleeve
It looks like were in for stormy weather,
That aint no cause for us to leave
Just lay here in my arms
And let it wash away the pain
Feels like rain
And it feels like rain.

******** Come on in, but take off your shoes and let me lend you some slippers, ok? ******

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Gifts -- skip the wrapping paper

A new friend in my life, someone I'm just getting to know, made an observation the other day.  This friend told me that my "passionate" (I would call it "silly, heart-on-the-sleeve lack of restraint") nature is a gift.

Huh.  A gift?  Some part of me, separate from what I can do, separate from what I make, accomplish, produce, serve... is a "gift"?   As silly as it sounds, that felt like news to me, even though I could probably write an entire essay from my head on the topic.  But I'm not talking about intellectual assent these days. If you've been around Presbyterians long enough, you can give a dissertation on grace, on innate worth, complete with footnotes and bibliography, but I'm not writing a paper here.  I'm sharing from my (silly, unrestrained, "passionate") heart.

What  wakes me up in the middle of night, or early in the morning is not my list of things to BE, it's my list of things to DO, particularly in this season, when the Christmas presents that haven't been purchased, (or haven't been wrapped), the cards that haven't been written, the cookies that haven't been made, the flannel pj pants that haven't been sewed, the mittens and scarves that haven't been knit, the pile of papers on the desk that are still un-sorted,  the made-from-scratch dinner that didn't happen, the petition that I didn't sign, the homeless person that I didn't give to... are fairly howling at me.

And then there's the stuff I've done that I should not have: the thoughtless comment, the lost-temper moment, the private thought that should have been kept private, the selfish impulse that should have been checked.  In the confessional prayers in the Anglican "Book of Common Prayer", there's a line that pretty much covers it for me:  "Forgive us for what we have done and for what we have left un-done"  Yup.  I tend to think in pretty existential terms:  I am what I do (or leave un-done).

Yesterday (before I caught wind of the tragedy in Connecticut--that's a subject for another day) I was swirling in my own ridiculously petty sea of guilt and self-condemnation over my un-done stuff and my should-have-left-undone stuff.  So, I poured out my anxious heart (in writing, as has been our long custom) to an old friend, one who has known me more than 25 years.  And in his inimitable style, he took the focus off my "doing" and reminded me that he sees the value of my "being".  He wrote:

You are worthy.
You are loved.
You are perfect, as is, right now.
You need no one else to complete you; you are complete.

You are human.
You are flawed.
You are angry.
You are full of sorrow.

It still amazes me how many times that Grace--un-earned favor, un-earned love--has to bop me over the head with an angel's wing before I can wrap my mind around it.  It's a good thing that I am so surrounded with people (angels) who are so willing to keep reminding me.. they might want to check those edge-feathers for over-use injuries, though...

So, this morning, when my swirling thoughts (and an antsy dog who always seems ready to "do" in the wee hours of the morning) woke me, I decided to use the extra awake time for some "being" time.  I laced up my sneakers and headed out to the ridgetop that has often been my outdoor practice room for singing over the past three years.  As I got to my solitary spot, the sun was just coming over the shoulder of Mount Diablo, setting the frost-covered ridge alight with sparkles.  I stood there, drew a good singer's breath, made a few happy sounds, and realized that I was in the presence of another gift.  I didn't do it, I didn't make it happen, I didn't earn it.  It was just there, as it is there every morning: another invitation to just BE, to breathe, to pray for those I love, to love those I meet.  It's all a gift, and I didn't have to clip the coupon from the Sunday paper, go get it, or make it, or earn it.

At Christmas time, we celebrate that ultimate gift -- The Being of the universe, willing to live for a time, reduced to our human form:  to BE with us-- "Emmanuel", which means "God with us".  Baby Jesus in the manger, the man Jesus living among us for a short time and an eternity with us in Heaven.  Being with us.

And to think that among the people who surround me with their being,  there's someone who thinks that my sappy, overly-expressive way of being is a gift, and someone else who can remind me that I'm worthy and loved, regardless of what I do or fail to do...?  My Christmas stocking is full to overflowing this year.  

And, no thanks, I don't need a gift receipt for that... I have no intention of returning or exchanging it.  I might see if I can re-gift it a few times, though.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Oxen - some thoughts from a few years back that still seem relevant

We're in the midst of trying to "do" Christmas here at last:  setting up Andre's locally-famous front-yard trains, bringing out the ornaments, attempting to make some cookies...  and I've been ambushed by tears and the feeling of simply going limp and numb in the face of the layer-upon-layer of memories, both good and bad, of Christmases past.

I thought I'd share something I wrote for my beloved choir folks, for our mid-rehearsal break, when someone from the choir reads a scripture and shares a thought.  My choir peeps were incredibly tolerant of some of my longer pieces back in those days.  This is from 2006, when I still lived my half-asleep existence: the ever-cheerful housewife, and mother of 4 small kids...  Even so, it feels somehow relevant today, if only for Hardy's touching poem.

(Devotional on "The Oxen" by Thomas Hardy) 

[1] [2] 

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
-Thomas Hardy “The Oxen”

I must confess, this year's Christmas music is not giving me those lovely warm-fuzzy moments, tears springing to my eyes, that the music of other years has done.  But, like other grown-up tastes, The Hodie  ( a choral piece with orchestra, choruses and soloists, by Ralph Vaughan Williams)  is beginning to grow on me in a way that I know I will eventually find very satisfying.  Like I do every year at the choir retreat in October, I read through the texts of our concert work, looking for a lovely verse to quote in my annual Christmas letter. I eventually found one, but it took longer this year than other years.  However, Christmas cards aside, the first time I read through the poetic texts for this work, this poem, The Oxen, was intriguing to me in a non-Hallmark-card kind of way.  So, I did a little light research and found out a few things.  And as I thought about the poem, and what the literary experts tell me about it, and reflect on what I'm feeling this time of year, some things have become a little clearer, and I thought I'd share them. 

This poem, according to some background I read, appeared in The Times of London on December 24th, 1915: a time, which, in some ways was a time similar to our own.  That Christmas, England was involved in the second year of a brutal, grinding war that was supposed to have been finished before Christmas the previous year.  The Industrial Revolution was transforming society.  The prevalence of rationalism, science and consumerism had begun its march toward overtaking faith and tradition.  I'll bet you can hear the echoes of that time here in 2006—science, rationalism, consumerism, a brutal, grinding war what was supposed to be over by now...

Hardy is writing wistfully about a time when he would have believed his elders when they told him about the magic that happens on Christmas eve—the English traditional myth that the animals whose ancestors witnessed Christ's birth would kneel at midnight on Christmas eve.  He's looking backward and longing for the good old days.  According to the author of the critical essay that I read, “the dominant feeling of “The Oxen” is one of wistful regret or poignant loss at the passing of a secure world buttressed by the allied senses of legend, tradition, faith in a presiding deity, and community.” 1

I must confess that even as I am in those “magical” years for my own kids—with their excitement over Christmas, particularly with what Santa Claus might be bringing them, I am finding the Christmas season to be a little “flat” and un-magical this year.  I have NOTHING to complain about:  I have a terrific, healthy family, a roof over my head, all my needs are met, and yet I keep wondering when I'm going to find that “zing”, that sparkling, pine-scented moment when my heart sings because it's Christmas. 

A couple of years ago, there was a commercial for... I'm not sure what, that began with a woman's voice, talking about her fond memories of all the wonderful things her own mother did that made Christmas magical... and then there was the pitch for whatever the product was—cake mixes? Bathroom cleaner?  I don't know... but the spot ended with “and this year, I get to be the mom”, somehow emphasizing that the joy of Christmas would come in being the one to provide the magic.  And while that's true, in a way... it's not the whole truth.  The truth is, once we adults become responsible for “the magic” of Christmas, it can sometimes be a little harder to find the “magic” in our own lives.  I mean, what if that “build your own solar-powered robot” kit that's on back-order right now doesn't arrive by Christmas morning, and what if I can't find time to put together the Gingerbread house whose pieces are in a box on the dining room table.  And what if my kids stage a meltdown on Christmas eve and refuse to go to bed while my husband is in charge and I'm here, singing the 10 o'clock Christmas eve service?   

AND here's where I hope to turn from whining to  rejoicing.  Paul, in 1Corinthians 13:11-13 reminds us that we, as Christians, have something more important than “the magic” to look forward to.  “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.  Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain, faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 

So then, it seems I have a choice this Christmas season.  I can get caught up in the wistfulness, the longing for the “perfect” Christmas of long ago, I can wish that I saw the oxen kneeling.   I can sigh over the way the world has changed since the “old days”.  I can worry  about being the one to produce the magic for my family, OR, I can turn my mind to the real miracle of Christmas, Christ's incarnation and his promised return.   This might be the year when I, “put childish ways behind me” and look forward to a sparkling moment when I “shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (v.12).   Can there really be anything more heart-satisfying than to know God fully and be fully known?  So, for now, if there's anyone else out there like me, feeling a little tired of  trying to capture the “magic” of Christmas, perhaps this is the year when we can claim a kind of grown-up consolation in the words of a familiar scripture.  (I'll read it again, slowly, so you can let it sink in, maybe in a new way)

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  And now these three remain, faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”  This Christmas, I pray that you will sense, above all else, God's great love, shown in his willingness to come and live among us and that THAT  miracle will be what sustains you through this season when we work so hard to find that magic that Thomas Hardy looked for, “in the lonely barton by yonder coomb our childhood used to know”.   

1.Allingham, Philip V., “Image, Allusion, Voice, Dialect, and Irony in Thomas Hardy's 'The Oxen' and the Poem's Original Publication Context”, www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/poems/pva141.html


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On angels' wings

Sing, choirs of angels!  Sing in exaltation!  Sing all ye citizens of heav'n above....

It seems that no matter what else is happening for me as the calendar rolls around to December, there's a moment when my heart knows it's Christmas.

It has nothing to do with decorating trees, or seeing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on tv, or getting started with the cookie baking, or even a specific day or date.  It happens when my fellow church-choir sopranos and I "uncork it" (as a tenor friend used to call it)  on the third verse of "O Come All Ye Faithful" with that glorious, soaring David Willcocks descant. At that moment, when I draw that deliciously low breath I'll need to get through the phrase, I feel like I'm drawing that breath from the ground under my feet. I'm rooted and grounded in the fellowship of people I love, firmly tethered to the love of God. And because I'm that securely tethered, I am, paradoxically, free to soar above whatever else has come before and whatever else will follow.

(If you have no idea what a "descant" is, or what this particular one is, click this link, then skip to time marker 2:17 in the video. O Come All Ye Faithful - David Willcocks arr. Kings College   and listen to those little choirboy sopranos "uncork it".  It's actually more outrageously fun when it's sung by women with a bit more heft to their voices, but you get the basic idea.) 

This year, as the kids and I drove home from a place without malls, gaudy yard decorations, or a "hurry up Christmas" Thanksgiving celebration, I was unprepared for what the onslaught of "The Holiday Season" would feel like this year. (In the spirit of "do you hear what I hear?", I think I hear, floating back from you all a chorus of... "DUH !!!")  Yes, it's only been five months since my husband's suicide, and yes, the economic reality connected to that is a little daunting, but (oops! Make that "and"-- see my previous post, "getting off my 'but' ")   I'd been feeling optimistic that I'd be able to help my kids sail through this season with just a little extra effort.

And therein lies the rub: a little extra effort.  Let's be real here: if you're a Mom, Christmas is already the Feast of the Thousand-Item To-Do List in a good year: cleaning, baking, decorating, party planning, the cards (or, in my case, The Letter), shopping for the gifts, making the gifts (Ok, that usually starts by late August or mid-September for me), church events, school events (please bake 6 dozen exactly symmetrical gingerbread men)... and for each of those things, there are a million details that must be juggled.  So, this year, I was thinking that a "little extra effort" might be possible??  (Yes, everybody feel free to sing along:  "DUH" !!!)

I've been shaking my head in denial when I run through the to-do list in my head and the paralysis begins to set in. I've been feeling so guilty that I just can't seem to gather up the energy to "make the magic happen" this year, for my kids' sake, for my friends' sake.

And then on Sunday night, there I was, in my silly sparkly Christmas sweater, wearing a green felt Christmas tree on my head, in the company of probably 200 other singers, from age 4 to mid 70's, getting ready to walk in the processional to the choir loft.  John began the introduction on the organ, we began the first verse, sang the second verse, and by the time we got to "sing, choirs of angels..." I realized that's just where I was, in the company of angels, young and old who are with me every year, filling that sacred space with song.  These are some of the same angels who have been carrying me through the days and nights since July 13th, when my life turned upside down and I temporarily lost my capacity for flight.  I realized that I was taking part in one ritual of Christmas that had remained untouched by Andre's death.  Andre had never really been part of this particular Christmas tradition, preferring instead the quiet of an empty house while the kids and I sang in our respective choirs.

And so, this year, as I sat in the choir loft, or stood to sing, joy washed over me in waves as I realized that I was in a part of Christmas that was not haunted by memories.  Nor would it require my lists, my planning, my chasing after the details.  All I had to do was be present in each moment.  And there were so many moments when my heart was almost too full.  This year, watching and listening as our Cherub Choir (age 4 and 5) sang, I silently added my prayer to the verse that they sang:  (I have a "thing" for the inner verses of well-known carols... anybody else?)

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for Heaven, to live with Thee there.

And for that moment, and many others that followed that evening, that's just what God was doing.

(No, this isn't this year's photo or this year's tree. It will have to do, though.  )