A Church, in Darkness

cathedral-ceiling-lighting-ideas-suggestions-vaulted-ceiling-ideasLast week I went for the first time in some 20 years to the Holy Thursday service at my church where, by degrees, the whole sanctuary goes dark as the tale of the last hours of Jesus is read, and the experience reminded me  intensely of the long ago sleepover I once participated in with a couple of dozen 7th and 8th graders.

The parents had brought the kids to the church for some brief prayer-and-meditation action and then had left them in the care of a couple of us adults, myself and the interim youth minister. That lady told the kids they could either sleep in the teen meeting room in the church basement where they could hear the rumble of the furnace and be all warm and toasty or else sleep upstairs in the darkened sanctuary, which was cool and drafty but which had that ruby-red center carpet and the stained glass windows and the tall columns yearning up to the leaping vaults of the ceiling.

This youth minister, who served for only a matter of months,  a prim lady of middle age,  decreed that the kids who chose the smallish teen meeting room had to sleep head-to-foot. The 8th graders didn’t mind; they liked the proximity. And so they took that option, with her, while I took the sanctuary with the younger kids, who wanted to really feel the scary thrill of the night.

One 8th grader did stay with us, I should say, a boy who never talked in Sunday school class but who was a whiz on the cello. He chose to sleep under the keyboard of the church’s magnificent organ. I remember that.

I remember that the 7th grade girls spread out their sleeping bags in the side aisles where, until sleep overtook them, they buzzed quietly like a faraway hive of bees. I remember that the 7th grade boys choose to sleep in the balcony from which, until they too succumbed to the peace of the place, they winged Skittles down onto the pews below. And I remember that I pitched camp next to my little daughter and her best friend, right at the place where the long center aisle crosses the aisle that goes from side to side – in other words the place where, in this church, the casket goes at a funeral.

I had brought a couple of Bach CD’s and when all these children had subsided into sleep, I put on my headphones and listened to the music send its intricate branchings up into the darkness. Just for fun I thought I would cross my arms over my chest and pretend that this was my funeral. The minute I did that though, I felt the years of my life sort of collapse together as I realized that this was indeed the place where I would one day lie in a highly polished coffin of my own.

I have never forgotten that night though for the life of me I can’t remember a thing about the next morning when the parents came to collect their kids at 7 so they could shower and get back to church in time for the service.

But I remember this, I do remember this: I remember the way the quiet child who had slept under the organ’s keyboard that chilly winter night thrilled me through and through four years later when, on the sunny June morning, as a much older teen, he played for us all the haunting tune Ashokan Farewell.

This Old House ;-)

nixon and meIt’s tough being a woman; for one thing there’s thr chance that as the years pass you’ll start looking like a man – even like Richard Nixon in a wig. Yet I see all these age-defying products and I have to wonder what kind of fools their manufacturers take us for.

Just think of the skin creams that claim to be ‘age repairing’ and ‘youth restoring.’ I mean, come on: The human body isn’t some rickety old building whose floorboards you can pull up; whose walls you can tear down to let in more light.

I came upon a jar of face cream at the pharmacy the other day. From reading the labels on these moisturizers and creams all these years, I ‘get’ how alike they all are, but I bought the stuff anyway and told myself it was the high SPF factor that put it in my cart (yet if I’m honest I’ll admit I was mostly just mesmerized by the dark-crimson color of the jar, which reminded me so sharply of the votive candles of my convent-school youth.)

Generally, though, I’m a lot harder to mesmerize in the beauty products department. I know very well what’s happening in the regions north of my shoulders and I’m OK with it. I’m even OK with what’s happening to the south of my shoulders – although I do wonder why men get away with so much more than we women do.

Think about it: Men can have bellies the size of hot air balloons and still be cellulite-free, with thighs that look like marble columns on an ancient Greek temple. If their hair goes white, they just look more alpha male, more powerful. If it falls out, they just have to shave the whole dome, grow a beard, and they look like a dozen celebrities. (Think Bruce Willis. Brian Cranston. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.)

For us women, it’s a different thing. There’s a cultural expectation that we out do something about our cellulite. There’s an expectation that that we’ll be proactive about our hair, when it starts thinning or greying.

And so… we use products to thicken it.  We color it.

And if we start losing the hair on our heads, we sure don’t turn to the male trick of growing it on our faces. Far from it. If we start to see the beginnings of facial hair, we pluck, baby. We pluck. Or we seek out the zap of electrolysis. Or we turn to hot wax as did my old pal from the ‘80s who would remark, in her Southern drawl, “Ah’ll be lookin’ like mah own Scotty dog soon if ah don’t go get mah whiskers snatched off.”

And that’s all aside from the many other signs of time’s passage – like what happens to the skin on the neck. Or the skin on the hands, which get all veiny.

Still, even while noting these things on my own skin, I have to stop and be amazed at everything skin does, from acting as a barrier to passing on sensation to regulating temperature. Skin is actually pretty great. In fact all the systems of the body are great, and their aging is just a sign of their faithful service to us.

So why treat our bodies like old fixer-uppers, knocking down walls to let in more light, when the whole time we all know that the best, ‘realest’ light is the light that comes from within.

OK now WHERE did I put those tweezers? 😉



Irish Malarkey

irishmanI sometimes feel irked by the image of the cartoon Irishman with his pipe and his cocked green derby and that frank ‘in your face’ wink. It reminds me of a saying, heard on the playgrounds of my youth, about how there were two kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were Irish.

I never heard that kind of talk in my own Irish-American home.

I think back to those early days and see again the people at our dining room table:

My single-parent mom, who, having borne children at the last possible reproductive moment, was by then pushing 50; my sister Nan and me, both so young we looked, in those big oak chairs, like Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann character from the old Laugh In show; two ancient great-aunties in their thick rolled stocking and Civil War-style shoes; and our widowed grandfather, also in his 80s, who had who invited all these people into his house, most recently the daughter who was our mom, a woman abandoned almost immediately by her charming blue-eyed groom.

It was this grandfather who, every March 17th, came home with the shamrocks in their wee clay pots, their bright-green foliage foaming up over the rims.

“Why do you bring these home?” my sister asked one year.

“Because we’re Irish,” replied the grownups as one. “But we’re Americans first,” they hastily added.

We lived in Boston, the nation’s most Irish-American city, but that’s how people felt in those years: Happy to be American. We all might have ‘been’ from someplace else, but now we were here – and wasn’t Nan pledging allegiance to the flag in kindergarten each morning?

Still, though at home we never heard that silly phrase about ‘two kinds of people in the world’, we knew the names ‘County Cork’ and ‘County Kerry’, practically before we could tie our own shoes. We knew that our family had come here in the 1850’s and in time we knew too the shameful tale of a people’s starvation.

So, I guess I do understand that ‘in your face’ pose struck by the cartoon Irishman. It says, “I’m still here,” which is just the attitude a person might well have after surviving the hardships most immigrants have faced in coming here – and the Irish certainly faced plenty.

As historian Frank Russell writes in his book The Irish Immigrant, they were “the base of the social pyramid, the unfailing source of exploitable labor. Construction bosses from all over America sent to Boston for fresh supplies of Irish workers. They went as contract laborers, in coaches with sealed doors, the curtains nailed across the windows.

“Along the Erie Canal and the new railroad lines, they died like flies.”

Try substituting ‘we’ for ‘they’ and say, “We died like flies.”

And yet, “We’re still here.” That’s how many people at the bottom of that so-called social pyramid might feel, from the willing immigrants, to the native populations they sought to displace, to the millions of Africans brought to the New World in chains.

My grandfather rose, but he rose only with the help of the older brother who borrowed against their little family farm to send him to college, and the older sister who gave from her earnings as a nurse to help get him through law school. Then, over a long life of public service, he chased down rascals of every stripe, got the Boston schoolteachers their first raise, and helped establish the Massachusetts state college system.

It’s a universal story. He benefited by the sacrifices of others and then gave back, as I believe we all wish to do and none more so than those newly arriving on our shores today.


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Back to Reality

IMG_1385It was so hard to leave the sunny desert, where even at 5:30am, in the dark, the Inn looked so lovely, with the moon still high in the sky..

But isn’t that the hidden tooth in all vacation idylls, that you have to come back?

I had no idea how much I needed the time away. There was so much to ponder, so much to see once I opened my eyes in that clear light.

I think the desert air really has cleared my mind and led me to ask myself certain questions:

Like how much do I want to keep in my life and how much am I ready to leave by the side of the road?  And what is my path forward?

If only all our paths were trimmed with flowers like these inn flowers, softly underlit by the lights nestled under them. 


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Just Do What the Signs Says

cactus signMaybe I’ll never learn to believe that a sign means what it says; I guess a lifetime of parking tickets will attest to that fact. Still, I really did think that the prohibition against going into this cactus bed was meant to protect the cactuses.


My family and I have been staying these last few days at an inn in Tucson that is a veritable oasis in the desert, where the branches of orange trees curtsy low with the rich burden of their citrusy gifts, and sunstruck lizards pose like wall art, and whole jewel cases of blossoms border every lawn. On top of all that here at this inn we have:

  • the wide blue eye of a swimming pool, with gently eddying waters;
  • a tennis court with nobody on it (racquets available at the front desk);
  • a taut little badminton net on an emerald green lawn, its attendant equipment standing by in a sweet wooden cabinet….. and finally;
  • a ping pong table sheltered from the sun by a hula skirt of undulating palms.

I have resisted the tennis and badminton so far, but the ping pong set-up proved too much for me just before lunch today: I began playing the game just by myself, hitting the ball here and then there, bouncing it up off the paddle until, inevitably I suppose, it rabbited down off the table and into the cactus garden.

My choice: either to fetch it or  to abandon the fun. I thought, “Fetch it,” right? Fetch it so I can play more now and somebody else can play later with a full complement of ping pong balls.

I stooped under the above-pictured bush and scooped it up – and within seconds felt something like the sting of a thousand insects. I looked at my arm: nothing. Were these the bites of some kind of desert fire ant? Did I have mites under my skin? Had I developed a sudden allergy to the desert sun? I rushed back to our room, pulled off my top and saw…


And yet the pain was stunning and had spread as well, I now realized, to my back and all along one hand. But what was its cause? What could be the cause  of all this pain?

It took going out into the bright noonday sun to finally see: at least a hundred infinitesimal cactus spines, imbedded deep in my skin.

I couldn’t rub them off and I couldn’t pinch them off – all that did was remove their heads. It took going out into the bright noonday sun with the medical tweezers I thank God always travel with to squintingly one by one begin prying them from my poor inflamed hide.

It looks like it’s going to be l-o-o-o-o-ng night – and how I do sympathize now with any dog that meets a porcupine and comes away with a snootful of quills!


The Guy Was Just Mad


taxiHey, how’s it goin’?” the man called over his shoulder as I climbed in the back of his cab.

The Boys of Summer were on his mind, I guess because of the start of Spring Training all over. “Those jokers, what a buncha crybabies” he said of our local team and then went loudly on and on about their faults, sprinkling his remarks with various peppery terms.

“You sound like those call-in shows on sports radio,” I told him.

“Seriously, talk about mama’s boys! Tell ya what, you don’t get BS like that in football. In football a guy F’s up and the coach is all over him. With these bozos it’s ‘Well we all have bad days,’ and ‘there are no bad players, only disappointing games.’  Gimme a break!”

This guy was about 50, and stocky, with a tattoo running the length of his arm of naked lady cradling a guitar, and as I studied the back of his head he began to feel weirdly familiar to me, as if he had to be from the city where, long ago, I had been a teacher.

“Are you by any chance from _ ?” I blurted, naming the place.

“Where else?” he sneered.

“And did you go to the high school?”

“Ya, for about three hours after I left the Trade  School! Basically all I have is a ninth grade education. If you can call it an education. They kept passing me on from year to year even when I wasn’t gettin’ it.”

“Oh no! Did you realize you weren’t catching on like the other kids? “

“Of course I realized! I couldn’t f*in’ read! I still can’t spell for sh*t. But they didn’t have no ADHD or nothin’ then. “

“But… can you read OK now? The sports pages, say?”

“Oh sure. Well, I can take my time with them.

“I grew up in the Projects,” he went on. “My old man was a real lowlife. Took off on us back F knows when.”

“The Projects, huh? Did you know ___” I asked, naming some names from back then, including that of the famous local gangster who was then in his heyday.

“OH ya! My ma hung out with his girlfriend,” he said. “Not the guy’s WIFE, mind you., his girlfriend. Ask me, any guy who’s got both is scum. Me I got three kids, never mind that they’re not talkin’ to me at the moment, and I paid their child support right up until the baby turned 21.“Their mothers are drunks” he added. “If I hadn’t been forkin’ money over to them all this time I could’ve maybe made somethin’ of myself.

“Even though I only have ninth grade education,” he said again. 

“If you can call it an education.”

“So what do you do for joy in your life?” I asked, just because I love asking this of people.

“Play with my band,” he said, indicating the tattoo of the musical nude. Then he darted quick as a minnow to the curb. 

“End of the line, $24 even,” he said, with an abruptness that made me think maybe talking about daily joy was not the story he wanted to tell.

No, I think the story he wanted to tell, during this cab ride anyway, was the story of how he had tried to uphold the social contract, to marry and be faithful to his kids, and of how the system had failed him, starting way back when he was a child.

The man was angry, with a deep underlying anger, and right now in this country? Right now it looks like he’s not alone.


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Back Story

mousetimeOne morning last week while making the coffee, my mate David reached for the sugar and was stunned to find a live mouse inside the salad dressing carafe that stands on the same kitchen counter.

Because the  lid of this carafe had been recently crushed in the garbage disposal, I had contrived a temporary fix by placing a sandwich bag over the top of the carafe and anchoring it there with a small inverted custard cup.

 But even with all this protection, the little guy  must have figured a workaround, because in one deft movement he seems to have dislodged the custard cup, nudged the bag off and dropped down inside the carafe where we now watched, astonished, as he wiggled and jumped, wiggled and jumped, executing a kind of high-speed pole dance in his attempt to get free.

Being the guy who will escort even a spider outside by his little parachute lines rather than kill it, David rushed the carafe onto the grass and set it on its side and, sure enough: The mouse scampered off.
 And yet for days after, the image of the mouse in the bottle came back to me, along with that line from Shakespeare where Hamlet says, he could be bounded in a nutshell and still count himself the king of infinite space.

But why did both that image and that line of verse linger so in my mind? I worked that question the way the tongue works the space left by a missing tooth until it finally hit me: They were lingering because of the injury I suffered some 11 weeks ago, when I broke a bone in my back and consequently became ‘bounded in a nutshell’ myself, told not to twist, or lift, or drive very far – and certainly not to stand or sit for more than 30 minutes at a time.

The standing ban has actually been sort of nice, getting me out of more than one cocktail party or coffee hour marathon; and for sure the wisdom of the twisting and lifting ban was brought vividly home to me that day last month when I tried leaning out a second-story window to shovel a layer of snowpack off the back porch roof.  It’s the not-sitting-for-more-than-30 minutes thing that’s been the most restrictive, in that it has forced me to find a whole new way to meet my readers in the paper each week.

My writing method now is this:  I scribble out a column from a lying-down position, leave it a while, come back later, give it the critical squint and pencil in corrections. Then I leave it again to ‘cool’, and once again come back later to scribble and squint some more – until, finally, I take my phone and, using Siri, read the whole thing into the record, email it to myself, import it into Word and send it to the printer, so as to see it in black-and-white. 

This method has slowed me down for sure, but it has had its benefits too, in that it has paradoxically helped me to write the way I talk, which is what you want in a column like mine.

And if I’m honest, I’ll admit that passing the long winter weeks bounded in my nutshell has been kind of  nice. For one thing, I’ve spent my time reading so many family journals and letters that I think I am starting to levitate mentally, to lift above my own little life to almost – almost! – glimpse that ‘infinite space’ that Shakespeare is talking about.

They say every trial brings its blessings, and certainly I am aware of the sense of peace I have enjoyed in this interlude. Really I’m only sad that things went a different way for the mouse, whom we found a few hours later, dead, not ten feet from his oily jail.