Monday, December 31, 2012

Spectives, retro and pro

Nearly all the bloggers I follow are looking back at their 2012 accomplishments and regrets, musing on the year past. I'm in that spirit, too. So I read all those posts with interest, peering between the lines to discern the joy or frustration, weariness or energy, tedium or adventure in their recollections.

I have a lot of summing up and looking forward I want to do. Much more than one post's worth. I made a lot of things. I watched my children (and my husband) change and grow. I found myself at a crossroads and began to engage in deliberate, regular introspection to understand its opportunities and pitfalls.

For today, I want to focus on one tiny thing that seems to represent my 2012. It's so insignificant, and yet that very fact indicates how critical it must be to my self-understanding.

I'm still making beds.

Every morning I straighten the sheets, smooth the blankets, pile on the pillows. I do it first in our room, then after I'm dressed and while getting out clothes for the kids, I do the same for their beds.

Why do I do this every morning? Nobody is making me. Nobody would say a word if I didn't. If they even noticed, it would be fleeting, with no emotional color one way or another. Even that driver of so many things we women do, What Would My Mother Think, isn't in the picture. I went for decades with unmade beds; any guilt I might have felt occasionally was diffuse and sporadic.

My bed-making appears to be unlike almost anything else I do. It is entirely voluntary. It is not a step toward a larger goal. It is maintenance work, undone a few hours later, then done again. Nobody and nothing depends on it.

Why do I make the beds? Why have I kept making the beds? Will I continue, and why?

Clearly I do it because I want to. But what makes me want to?

There is some satisfaction in the neat appearance of the made bed. There is a sense that something is begin attended to, cared for. There is the control I have over one tiny corner of my environment. There is the welcoming, inviting mood created at bedtime by the bed that is ready to be occupied. There is the division between time for sleep and time for waking activities, created by closing and opening the bedcovers in turn. There is the opposite of the "broken windows" effect for both me and my kids, where a tidied bed seems to lead to a room kept tidier and less cluttered, as if it breathes an energy that impels us to put our things away, or vibrates with a frequency that resonates with clear space and order.

All those things are true. I don't think about any of those things when I make beds, though. I have a fleeting thought, most mornings -- "I could skip this" -- and then it goes away, not with a sigh or a whimper, but just fades as irrelevant. I'm always surprised at how little time it takes. And then it's done, almost before I made a decision to do it.

In the rest of my life, I have two main areas of activity. There are assignments, deadlines, obligations, disciplines, and nagging areas where self-improvement is badly needed on the one hand. And then leisure, creative pursuits, contemplation, recreation, and escape on the other. In my current crisis thinking, the two are sharply delineated, and each defines the other; when pursuing activities of the second kind, I'm constantly aware of the obligations I'm putting off, and when doing work of the first kind, I'm longing and looking forward to the time I can put it aside for something of my free choosing.

Making beds isn't either. It falls outside the dichotomy. I think if I could understand my bed-making, I could find a way out of the trap of guilt and escapism that seems to form the shape of my mid-life crisis.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

One after the other


When Grandma Libby visited over Thanksgiving, she brought something special for Cady Gray: Her portable sewing machine. Since she was upgrading, and since I've embarked on sewing this year with the usual interest from my daughter, Cady Gray got the benefit of a sturdy, small Janome 3128 of her very own.


As every weekend since then has approached, CG has asked me if we could sew with her new machine. There was only one big obstacle in the way -- my vision of a work area in the corner of her room, with a multipurpose table where the sewing machine could live and all kinds of work could be spread out when needed.


We went antiquing and flea-marketing a couple of weekends ago to see if we could make the vision happen. And there at our last stop was this used table sitting in a warehouse. Fifty bucks, said the man. We'll take it, we said.


That very day we started sewing. First some practice sewing straight, guided by stripes on fabric. The next day, armed with more scraps and the tail-end of a bag of lentils, and made a quick bean bag.


Before the next weekend arrived, she prompted me to start looking for a project we could do. I saw this felt garland project on a blog I follow, and I knew it was perfect. Straight to the sewing after cutting -- no ironing and measuring and clipping. And once I got CG started, she could sew as many miles as she wanted without supervision.


I pulled out this beautiful hand-finished circle-marking tool from the folks at WindFire Designs and started drawing circles for her to cut. As the circles piled up, she got more and more confident using the scissors we had gotten to be hers alone.


One right after the other. Maximum machine time, minimum fuss.


The garland piled up on the other side of the machine.


By the time she worked through the entire stack, the string was nine feet long.


And irresistible.


We hung it up near her ceiling, spanning a corner right above her new work table where the sewing machine waits for its next project. Thanks, Grandma Libby!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

By prophet bards foretold

I preached this past Sunday (Advent 2) at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway. The texts were Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 16 (Song of Zechariah); Philippians 1:3-11; and Luke 3:1-6. I'd love to hear what you think of the sermon.

Some people think the world will end in less than two weeks. Were you aware? Based on a questionable assertion about the length of time covered by the Mayan “long count” calendar, various new age groups and doomsday preppers have been promoting the idea that on December 21, 2012, our time is up. Pretty stingy of the Mayans to close up shop on the world right before Christmas, I think.

But the 2012 apocalyptic hysteria in some quarters is a reminder of how we look at prophecy these days. A good century of premillennail dispensationalism has popularized the idea that ancient documents spell out in detail our exact future. Our common-sense definition of prophet is “one who sees what will happen, before it happens.” Of course, almost all such prophecies are couched in vague, oracular language, so that one can fit almost any set of facts into the couplets of Nostradamus, for example. Those kind of prophecies remain so fascinating generation after generation, interpretation after interpretation, because they give a kind of illusory shape to what otherwise seems a chaotic, random world. If someone knew ahead of time that this would happen, doesn’t that give history a direction? If I was a part of their vision, doesn’t that give my existence meaning?

Earlier this week I wrote a blog post about seeing an owl in the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve on two different occasions in the last month. A friend responded with a quotation from the philosopher G.W. Hegel: “The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.” Sounds worthy of Nostradamus, doesn’t it? But Hegel wasn’t trying to be mysterious. He’s talking about what he calls the philosophy of right, a kind of ethical-political philosophy that would enable people to understand the proper shape of state and individual relationships. The owl quotation comes at the end of a warning he gives about this philosophy -- that it’s impossible to formulate or use it until it’s almost too late. The ideal society can’t be constructed in the mind until a fully mature society already exists in reality. So by the time we know what we ought to be building, Hegel says, we’re already living in what we’ve built. “The owl of Minerva,” the symbol of wisdom, only takes wing when the chance of applying that wisdom is drawing to a close.

Turns out that’s the way prophecy works in the time of the later Hebrew writers and in the time of the New Testament writers. Prophecy of the kind we read during advent, the kind from Isaiah that the author of Luke quotes, and the kind that we read in the passage from Malachi today, isn’t an supernatural tour of future events. It’s what happens when a crisis starts to bring down the curtain on the prophet’s society, and suddenly he can see the way things ought to be, and how different that is from the way things are.

The passage Luke quotes from Isaiah is from chapter 40, the start of what scholars call Deutero-Isaiah, written about two centuries after the first 30 chapters. This part of the book is directed at the leaderless inhabitants of Judah left behind during the Babylonian exile. That’s when it suddenly becomes clear to the prophet what the ideal Jerusalem will be: delivered from foreign powers, restored to its mythic glory, a sign to the whole world that Yahweh is not just a local Palestinian divinity, but a universal one. Malachi, writing at least a century later, has his own moment of clarity. The restored temple and client government being put into place had fallen short of the ideal Deutero-Isaiah had envisioned. Malachi sees the sharp distinction between, on the one hand, the kind of temple a pure and holy God would inhabit and the kind of servants who would serve him there, and on the other hand, the kind that his society is putting into place.  Like Hegel’s philosopher of the right, a prophet looks at the way things have turned out and can see, almost belatedly, the way things should be.

One of the tensions I always feel during the season of Advent is between the celebration of Christ’s coming, the culmination of history as the writers of Luke and Matthew see it, and on the other hand, the fact that we are still playing out a history that seems to have no end in sight. If it is all finished, then what are we still doing here? People who study doomsday cults talk about the psychology that takes hold the morning after the day the world was supposed to end. Surprisingly, after such events, people usually pick up and find a way to go on. They recast their focus on the end of the world into a commitment to living in the continuing world in a different way.

That’s the feeling that gripped the writers of Isaiah and Malachi. Wait, it wasn’t supposed to be like this, they say. Let me tell you what it should be. What it will be, when the Lord comes and puts things right. And even though those visions aren’t glimpses of us or of our offspring in some actual future, they are powerful, indispensable expressions of the difference between what is and what ought to be. The prophet is not resigned to current conditions. The prophet is not cynical about the prospects for change. The ideal world is so clear to the prophet precisely because the real one is so stubbornly actual that the contrast leaps out and demands to be articulated.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Here in Advent we only know about the coming dawn because the owl of Minerva flew in the gathering shades of night. Our understanding of the world to come arises from the glaring imperfections and injustices of the world we inhabit, our understanding of Christ’s rule from the failures of our governments and corporations to lead rightly. It isn’t just Christmas day that is a gift, the ideal become incarnate at last. It’s this season of darkness, too, when we can see clearly and prophetically what that ideal must be.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Strix varia

Monday, November 5 was the day before Election Day. I was anxious as the last hours of the campaign ticked away. After spending part of the afternoon calling voters in North Carolina, I went out to the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve to run.

Thirty minutes of my usual slow jog, and I was exhausted. My iPhone app told me I was done, so I slowed to a walk and went a few more steps down the trail, out of the restored prairie and into the bordering wood. A circle of benches beckoned; I flopped down on my back, the Decemberists ringing in my ears, and let my arms dangle. Blood roared through my head, and I felt gravity tugging at my face like I was in a centrifuge. I lay there for a few minutes, utterly immobile, as the evening began to fall around me.

When I decided to get up, I did so slowly. Upright at last, I raised my head and took a step forward -- then froze. A gigantic owl was sitting in a tree not eight feet in front of me, maybe another eight feet above my head. Staring at me.

Barred Owl

I didn't want to move, lest I break the spell. But the owl couldn't have been less rattled. It gazed at me, then swiveled its swivelly head to look out toward the prairie. Its sudden presence felt like a portent. I moved carefully around it for twenty full minutes, watching and periodically trying to get a cell phone picture -- nearly impossible in the gathering dark, against a silhouetting sky. This is the best I could do:

Huge owl perched 8 feet above me.

Until it left me of its own accord, I didn't feel I could leave the owl. It was the one who had the right to declare the encounter finished. And finally it spread its wings and flew a bit deeper into the trees, and I went home with my head spinning. To have such an experience on such a day. Surely it must mean something.

When I got home I told Cady Gray, my budding birder, all about it, and we went looking for pictures of Arkansas owls. A barred owl -- that's what it was, I realized. The owl commonly called a hoot owl.

I was thinking about that barred owl while walking through the nature reserve this past Friday, almost four weeks after that experience. "It was just about here," I recalled idly, and then -- I saw it again. This time on a low branch, fifteen feet down the trail, below my eyeline. Staring right at me again. And once again, I froze with my heart beating faster in my chest.

Was it the same one? From this angle, it looked a bit smaller than the almost two-foot length of my election eve owl. Maybe the coloring was a bit different, not quite as white around the face? I wasn't even certain it was another barred owl. While I was still wondering, it gathered itself, spread its wings, and flew right past me on its way to a higher branch overlooking the prairie. Involuntarily, I spoke aloud: "It's you!"

My walk abandoned, I followed the owl when it moved, in a completely unrushed fashion, to another tree after ten minutes or so. Then it seemed settled. Finally my time was up; dinner would be waiting for me at home. I had to back away from the owl's lead. I left it perched against the disappearing sundown in the western sky.

In the reflective, contemplative, self-assessing mood I've been occupying for the last month, the owl looms large. Birds represent freedom, owls in particular wisdom. I've thought about Athena and Harry Potter. I've turned over the long stretches of time I spent with this owl, searching for clues to its significance. The way it transcends its environment, refusing to be startled or spooked, moving its its own good time. The way it observes, turning its gaze on everything in all directions as it chooses. The fact that the barred owl is the only eastern U.S. owl with brown eyes rather than yellow ones.

I don't know if the owl has anything to teach me. But after two encounters in the past month, both up close and unbidden, it certainly has my attention.