Friday, March 31, 2006

Mean Streets Run Through Wounded Hearts

Desmond Tutu described the meaning of the African word Umbuntu
"Umbuntu: my humanity is inextricably caught up in yours. What affects one of us, affects all of us. A person is a person through other persons"

I looked back over the list of my posts here and I started to see a theme emerge...the posts about images that surface and won't let go -- the Lenten discipline of forgiveness -- the posts about Vietnam -- posts about interrelatedness. My threads of thought here seem to be woven around the healing of memory - my own and others. I find myself reading things by Desmund Tutu and Thich Naht Hahn lately.

I think that the healing of memory is a journey we all have to make, individually and as a nation -- and by all the subgroups leading up to 'nation' -- by family, and community.

Socrates said ,"An unexamined life is not worth living." It is also true that an unexamined life is not whole, and may cause unintentional harm to ourselves and those around us.

The lenses through which we see and experience the world are shaded by our prior experience. If we have walked down Main Street and been greeted in a friendly way, the next time we go we will feel well-disposed to being there. If we walk down Main Street and get mugged, our next visit will include fear. Or, we may never walk down Main Street again; or we will generalize things and decide to not walk down streets again but to drive. Or we stay at home, too frightened to leave. Or perhaps we start carrying a gun down Main Street. Or down every street. Or we start a campaign to destroy Main Street.

Or maybe we take some action to heal the fear. To get what happened in perspective. To focus on healing the perpetrator at the same time that we focus on protecting ourselves.

It seems that the healing of memory may include reaching out to the one who tore the fabric of events,who scarred the lens.

But this is one person, one event. Look around. Think big. Think nation-as-person.

We are a nation of unhealed wounds -- from the destruction wrought on Native peoples, through slavery, through what we have done to our warriors, including the wars we have asked them to fight.

When you walk down the streets of the American Dream, listen. That is weeping you hear in the background. It is the sound of an unhealed nation. A nation full of amazing people, humble greatness, and deep, deep wounds.

But be aware, you will hear the same sound in Iraq, Germany, Israel, France, Kenya, Australia, England, Chile..anywhere in the world.

The world we live in is wounded.

We are called to heal. To realize that when we look in the mirror, we should see someone else's face, and they should see ours.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Images for the Night

© Laura Marshall 2006. All rights reserved.

This painting by Laura Marshall is called "Embarkation".

It feels like an old wish, like the dream that is happening in the corner of my eye. It is a memory of something that never happened, but always will, a tug at the senses.

It calls me out of myself and makes me wonder.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Joyful, Joyful Turkey Vulture

I love the Turkey Vulture. It is absolutely, unreservedly my favorite bird. Don't let its scraggly face and its roadside eating habits fool you, this bird is a charmer. Oh sure, it has a face only another turkey vulture could love. And it eats recently dead herbivores. Just put all that aside for a moment.

It is extraordinarily playful.

The turkey vulture weighs about 6 pounds - much of that taken up in a wingspan of just over 6 feet. Imagine that. Take Jay Leno, lay him on his side, and the wings of the turkey vulture will reach from his head to his feet. And, like Leno, you have a zesty, life-loving creature.

Turkey vultures soar with slightly uplifted wings, in a slight V-shape. (Fancy schmantzy bird books call this a 'dihedral formation'.) They wake up in the morning, stretch their wings out in the sun to warm them up and they are off. It is time to seek out some warm air, and start riding the great circles of the thermals.

They can glide as far as 6 miles without having to flap their wings. They "feel" the air as they play the updrafts with their wing-tips acting like fingers. They are often seen in groups (the word is not 'flocks' but 'venues') of several turkey vultures all swooping around in the thermals. They are not, as is often thought, circling something waiting for it to die. (They actually prefer their meat very slightly aged.) They are just playing. A venue of vultures at play. Sheer delight!

One woman reports a story of having several bright colored balls for her kids in the back yard. She looked out her window and saw several turkey vultures in the yard playing with a ball, nudging it back and forth at eachother with their beaks. They only liked the orange one. They did this for days on end.

Another report is of a Turkey Vulture who took a liking to a young boy. He would wait for him in the morning on a telephone pole, fly overhead as the boy went to school, and would escort him home every day.

People who rehab injured birds report that the Turkey Vulture can get very attached to them, following them around like a dog -- and that they learn very quickly, and love to play fetch and tug of war.

The Turkey Vulture's digestive system kills any virus and bacteria in the food the bird eats. His diet includes as much as 50% vegetative matter, and his droppings are actually clean and do not carry disease. Essentially the Turkey Vulture consumes animals that without him would rot and spread disease. By the time the turkey vulture finishes with them, his system has sterilized them.

The Turkey Vulture lacks strength in its tiny grasping claw and does not and cannot kill. This is why the Cherokees call it the "Peace Eagle" as it is mighty, but does not kill to survive.

They lay their eggs in little scratched out areas in the dirt, or in gaps between rocks, but at night they roost in a nearby tree with others who share their roost. They are very communally oriented, and will come back over and over to the same roost after migrating. They and their immediate descendents have been known to occupy the same roost for over 100 years.

So there they are at night, about to settle in, but what do they do for the last half hour or so before sleep? They play -- things like follow-the-leader , or they fly straight up almost out of sight and dive bomb back down.

The first time I saw them, I thought UGH what UGLY birds! They seemed creepy and villainous. But then I started to learn about them. Now when I see them soaring high overhead, gliding with more grace than I have ever seen any bird have, I stop to watch and admire them. Now that I know about them, I can appreciate them. (No need to drive that lesson home, is there?) Now they just make me happy and giddy whenever they are around.

So keep your fluffy little sparrows and robins, your cardinals and juncos, your plovers and sandpipers. I like them, mind you. They are all fine little chirpers. But when I seek real beauty and character in the bird world, I will be found admiring the beauty, friendliness and the joy of the Turkey Vulture.

They may well be the happiest birds I know.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Raging Bull and The Secret of Protection

Many years ago I knew an Iroquois man who told me that art was not a Thing. Art was a Way.

I have learned something this Lent.

Forgiveness is not an Event. Forgiveness is a Way.

When I began my Lenten discipline of forgiving someone or myself of something every day, I had no idea how I would manage it -- or even what the full nature of forgiveness would feel like. I knew however that forgiveness was volitional, that it didn't just happen on its own.

I suppose my unthought-out sense of forgiveness was that it was some event of letting go that would return things to normalcy that had been previously damaged.

And I was wrong.

I started out with some small forgivings - things that did not really move the needle on the imaginary "Upset-o-Meter".

Remember, release. Remember, release.

It wasn't quite that simple, but that is close. Eventually I had to start facing larger things, bigger offenses, deeper hurts.

And there the problems began, thanks be to God. I thank God because the problems are leading me to a deeper understanding.

I'll start with one very clear, if dramatic, example. My father had a temper. A big one. When I was a little girl, I remember a night he and my Mom were arguing. I was upstairs in my room, but I could hear them downstairs. There was a lot of yelling. Then my father was clumping loudly up the stairs; and then there was a loud almost Olympic shot-putting shout from him, followed immediately by a thunderous noise. It sounded like lightening had hit just outside my room. I was terrified.

My father called my mother upstairs, and told me to get out of my room and into the hall. He showed us what he had done. He had driven his two fists into the hard plaster wall about 4-6 inches in, leaving two deep fist marks in the concave fist-blasted plaster.

He said "I want the two of you to see this." His voice got ominous. " Next time it could be you," and he walked away.

He never hit us, but he refused to let my Mom plaster over those holes for many years. I walked by that grim reminder of my father's lurking rage every time I went to my room for a long time.

A few years before he died, with him in his 80's and me in my 50's, I asked him if he remembered that day. He said, "Sure, but that was just rage. Everyone feels that." I calmly told him that actually everyone really does not feel that, and that in some homes it would be entirely foreign.

He looked at me as though I had dropped into his kitchen from Saturn. "Then they are lying to you," he said with utter certainty, and got up and went into the other room.

Conversation over.

Rage was what my father knew. Like Jake laMotta in the film, Raging Bull, to him the words "life" and "rage" were indistinguishable.

I decided to forgive my father for that time. That one isolated time. Two nights later, I wasn't done -- three nights, not done; four, not done. The event still held a charge for me. (It clearly still does, as I can recall it vividly and in great detail. )

I do find pieces of things - the knowledge that his rage wasn't about us or anything we did - the history in his own childhood of violence - the fact that he was not educated and had never been exposed to real gentleness before my mother - and I throw piece after piece of it at my memory, but with no full luck.

It is starting to dawn on me that he also did great violence to himself with his own temper.

Also, some less than pleasant things dawn on me - ways in which I am frightened to forgive -- afraid it would open me to more rage, more abuse -- even though my father is now dead. There can be absolutely irrational protection around a wound. But here is the secret -- the protection can irritate the wound so that it does not heal. (Read that twice if you have to.)

Now I begin to understand that forgiveness is a journey, a way of being in the world -- not an event. It is not a magical eraser. It is a way of unfolding the past differently.

It is not about restoring things to some magical place where the reality of our lives did not happen.

It is partly about establishing a spiritual practice where I can let go of the parts of myself that are still living in the past.

It is partly about finding the similarities between the part of myself that cannot release that memory, and the part of my father that could not let go of his rage.

Practicing forgiveness is an opportunity that God gives to me to fundamentally change the terms with which I encounter the world. It is rigorous, but it is freeing. It is like letting a wound be exposed to the clean air so that it can heal.

I do not pretend to know all that I need to about forgiveness, but this journey is teaching me a great deal. Tell me about forgiveness in your life -- will you tell me what you think it means?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Auntie Stella -- Schav, Love and Potato Salad

My Auntie Stella was really named Stefania Apolonia, and she wasn't really my aunt. She was my mother's second or third cousin. As adults, Mom and Stella were cohorts, comrades in arms, adventurers.

Stella was dear. She worked in a factory all of her life. Her husband died in his late 40's. So Stella was largely on her own to raise her daughters. Her life had been very hard for all kinds of reasons, but she was,nonetheless, a deeply joyous woman.

She was one of those women of my Mom's generation who just put her shoulder to the wheel and kept moving. She was a round woman, with a ready laugh and blue eyes that always twinkled with some kind of mischief. Even in her 50's and 60's she always had the ability to give you a look that transformed her into a happily sly little girl who was definitely up to something.

Auntie Stella had one amazing and extraordinary talent. When she was with you, you knew 100% that she loved you.

She just plain radiated love.

She has been on my mind lately, and I have been missing her with the sweetest missing. Who is to say why those we love crowd our memories at certain times? So,I am giving her this public remembering.

Stella could cook. Oh mercy me, she could cook. She was among the best every-day cooks in the family. In the years before we knew to worry about fat and carbs, her kitchen was Mecca. She grew her own sorrel to make what we called "Schav" or "sourgrass soup", just like our families in Poland had made it for centuries. I put a picture of sorrel above, as most of you probably have never seen it -- let alone had it in soup!

Her stuffed turkey was magnificent, and we all gobbled down the stuffing (which was made with bread and sausage and ground sirloin and I have no idea what else) before we ate anything else. Her pineapple cheesecake, made the old-fashioned Polish way (with a shortbread crust) would make your taste buds sing in seven languages. And her stuffed cabbage? My mouth waters just to remember.

But my most favorite of her recipes was one I actually asked her for - her famous potato salad. In memory of this wonderfully loving woman (you should all have an Auntie like this) I pass along the recipe for Potato Salad ala Auntie Stella. It's a cook's recipe - so don't expect exact measurements.

1.Peel and boil cut-up potatoes. When done, drain and let them cool in fridge. Don't overcook them.

Follow the next steps and place items in a bowl..a big one.
2. Dice up about 1 onion for every 3 medium potatoes.

3. Hard boil and cut up in chunks about 1 hard boiled egg for every 3 potatoes.

4. Dice up a cucumber for every 3-4 potatoes.

5. Add at least a handful of finely chopped fresh dill, probably more.

6. Equal amounts of mayo and sour cream.(yeah yeah I know -- just do it)

7. Salt and pepper to taste. (you can throw in some celery salt if you'd like, but sparingly)

Mix the above and add the potatoes. The 3 things here you may need to adjust and balance are the dill, the salt and the cucumbers. The cucumbers taste fabulous in this, but they swallow up a lot of seasoning, so you may end up using way more dill than you ever used before, or a touch more salt. Do not be afraid to add cukes. Seed them if you like before adding, but that is optional.

And when you enjoy this, please thank my Auntie Stella. Should you pass it on to anyone, just do us the kindness of listing it as Potato Salad ala Auntie Stella.

She would have liked that.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bernie and the Healing of Memory

Bernie Duff is going to Vietnam for the third time.

The first time he was just a kid, an American soldier like so many others, new and innocent, thrust into the torturous horror that is war. He was nineteen.

The second time was last year. This time he was over 50, and a disabled veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And this time he went because of a painting.

Bernie has sent much healing to his inner wounds through painting. He paints his memories. Sometimes he paints his nightmares, the images that stalk him in the night. The painting above is called "Price Tags". Yesterday's posting about Stacy reminded me of this painting.

He has a site on the web called "Paint and Suffering" that is a mixture of moods, with some of the paintings not easy to view. (If you are a vet, or someone sensitive to violence, please be cautioned that some of the paintings on this site might trigger difficult feelings.) The site is found by clicking here.

One of the paintings he did was of Sharon Lane, the only US female military nurse who died from hostilities in the Vietnam War. To make a long story short, Sharon's family has built a local clinic in Chu Lai, Vietnam in her honor; Bernie donated the painting; the family invited him to be in Vietnam at the dedication of the clinic, and placed one of Bernie's paintings of Sharon there.

I cannot imagine the courage it took for Bernie to get on the plane, let alone to be back in the place that caused such deep wounds. The healing of memory is not a trivial thing. It is the deepest of journeys into the deepest wilderness of our souls. It takes a courage and a faith deeper than many of us will ever have to know.

Here is what Bernie told me after I emailed him asking for permission to discuss his site here :

One of the things that I began doing after returning from Vietnam on my last trip there was to begin mixing beachsand from Vietnam (places like China Beach and Quy Nhon, where I spent a lot of time) with my acrylic paints. Now, when I have them in shows and the kids here come walking by, I have them rub their fingers across the surface of the painting. Afterward, I tell them that they have just touched a piece of Vietnam, which always leads into further discussion. It also allows me, as well as many other vets, to become more "involved" with the painting itself, as well as it's image. Another thing that I've noticed, it allows those vets who say they will never return to Vietnam a chance to be there, without leaving the security of being here.

Now Bernie is going back with some other vets for several months to build a school for 1,000 children. Here are his words again:

I and a number of Vietnam veteran friends plan to return again to Vietnam to build, not only this school, but bridges between out two nations.

I am not a proponent of the current philosophy that we should be deterring terrorism by becoming terrorists ourselves. I have had a belly full of war and those who use it as a tool to align our world the way that it suits only our own interests and needs.

My paintings, although they display images of war and it's pain, speak against wars, past, present and future. Many say that peace is only a dream, but nobody ever claimed that life was an easy proposition. I'm sure it cannot be any more traumatic than war.

So, my friends and I seek another way. We build a small school to educate kids who otherwise may never have had an opportunity to get a basic education. We are looked upon there as angels, when for us, it is the opposite that is very evident. Sleepless nights once so full of truer than life images of death and destruction are replaced by gentle laughter.

I want to help out. I hope you do as well. I'm going to mention where you can send money. But if you don't want to do that, or cannot do that, may I ask that you send your prayers and positive energies to this effort? We can help heal, too. We can be a part of something that we know is real and tangible and decent. Donations to aid Bernie and his friends in this effort can be made to :

Spring Valley Rotary
P.O. Box 59
Spring Valley, N.Y. 10977
Att: H.Goldin
All checks should be made out to Spring Valley Rotary Club
and in the memo section put "Vietnam Project."

Monday, March 20, 2006

Stacy and the Tags

At Vietnam Dog Tags a 35 year old woman who only says her name is "Stacy", is collecting dog tags from Vietnam and reuniting them with their owners or their owner's families. She visited Vietnam and went to the Independence Palace (the place that had the big iron gates that were broken through by the Communists in 1975.) Here is what happened:

Downstairs, in the palace, I saw for the first time, Military Identification Tags ..."Dog Tags." I stood there for a long time just looking at them disconcertingly. Then, with my hands, I motioned to the Vietnamese girls behind the counter. They didn't speak an ounce of English, but understood that I was asking to look at the tags in the case. I wondered if they were real? I wondered why our government hadn't come over and bought everything up...The tags looked old, tattered, soiled, bent and rusted. There were not many of them. I bought them all... As I walked outside, my steps slowed. I took one of the tags out and looked at it closely as the traffic whizzed by. Suddenly, it dawned on me...maybe THIS was what I could do for the Veterans. Something so small and yet it was "something." That day, I decided to search for as many tags as I could find in the weeks to come. Even if they were not genuine, the optimist in me said, there had to be at least one tag that was real. And, if I could find that ONE family and return the tag, somehow everything up to this point would be worth it.

She traveled alone with a backpack. She went through village after village with a crumpled up note written in Vietnamese asking villagers if they had any dog tags to sell. She took back a backpack weighed down with dog tags to America. She still seeks more tags.

To date she has "reunited" 502 dog tags with their owners or with the families of their owners.

This story moved me greatly. It was a website I had come on quite randomly, if such things are random. Here is this remarkable young woman who was barely born when Vietnam battles were raging.Yet she decides to do something, her something to help healing happen. And she ends up trekking through Vietnam, on her own, to make it happen. She has a list of all the tags on her site, including those that have been distributed. The most poignant entries are entries that say "contacted, did not want".

And why did she do this? She knew some veterans who confided in her. Some of them had PTSD (Post Traumatic Shock Disorder). She let herself hear them. She opened her heart.

She was moved.

God Bless her.

It's a powerful message to a veteran of those years to say,"Here is something you thought you lost." They have lost so much. It must mean a great deal to the families of the departed to have some tangible memento.

I don't know this woman, but I feel so thankful to her.

I will be talking about Vietnam off and on in the next few entries. I think there is a lot to say.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Woman In Duckhat

I love this picture. It is found here.

I am posting it because it cracks me up every time I look at it. The site, Conservation International, is worth a look-see.

But mostly I just love the picture of the woman in her duckhat.

Friday, March 17, 2006

In Praise of the Ordinary Things

I think it is important to celebrate the ordinary. The simple things that we enjoy without really noticing them. The non-flashy elements in our lives that are felt only by their absence. I therefore declare today's celebration In Praise of Ordinary Dill.

Ah, dill, fragrant and beautiful. Dill - the crowning embellishment for everything from borscht to gravlax. Ethnic and mysterious, graceful and refreshing. Dill. Dill the color of deep forest grasess, tart and crisp, distinctive and alluring.

My Aunt Sophie used to put great clumps of it in her gallon jars of dill pickles. We'd open the lid and the scent of dill would rush out, dazzling our senses.

Auntie Stella put it by the handsful in potato salad.

I add it to poached salmon, gravlax, salads, borscht, roast chicken, boiled potatoes, scrambled eggs, pickled herring and anything else that I can think of. Almost.

I suppose if Poland had a national herb it would be dill.

So here is to that lovely, lilting herb. Here is to a plant that is as graceful in our gardens as it is tasty in our luncheons. To its versatility! Its simple splendor!
Its unrivaled panache!

Dill, your humility obscures your majesty! We salute you!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Invasion of the Goose Gangs

Yesterday I posted that wonderful poem by Mary Oliver called "Wild Geese". Lest you think am all sweetness and light about any old bird that crosses my path, let alone any old goose, I offer today's entry.

Canadian Geese make me laugh. I am not fond of them at all, but I sure do admire their pluck. About 30 years ago, they were almost extinct, so all kinds of protections were put in place. They are now about to run over certain areas, with hundreds of these big bruisers invading a populated pond area and dropping huge cigar sized droppings, honking loudly on serene summer afternoons, and chasing anyone away that comes within too close a distance to their nests or their young.

My little east coast town has a park with a small man-made pond in it. And a Canadian Goose invasion. These big, honking waddlers forage and swim all day long, covering whole sections of the park at a time while 100 or more of them dine on lawn-food. These geese are quite turf protective and they have been seen to take menacing runs at small children and small animals who cross that invisible turf border. This prevents people from using that part of the park, and when the geese vacate, and the people do use the area -- well, see above comment about droppings.

Canadian Geese are now in the same category as deer - they have few natural predators left, and they have diminishing natural wetlands to inhabit. And it seems the latest trend among Canadian Geese is to not migrate. They are pretty methodical birds, so even those that do migrate come back to the very same pond year after year. town decided to "think outside the box" and they put a stuffed or resin (not sure which) coyote on a raft and floated it on the pond. I'm not kidding. A fake floating coyote. This is its real picture.

I almost drove up onto the sidewalk when I first saw it. They erected silhouettes of coyotes around the pond. They floated beachballs on the pond. They floated resin dead Canadian geese on the pond.

In essence, they completely messed up the look of the pond. And this was a deterrent. For a few weeks.

Then, bingo, back came the geese.

Geese may be slow and mean, but they are not stupid.

In fact, the returning geese had a smug lilt to their beaks as they swam in lazy, untroubled circles around the Phoney Coyote. And this time they brought friends. What once had been a merely irritating flock of 50 had grown to an arrogant 100 birds with bad looks. They had the town by the short hairs and they knew it. If they had been wearing t-shirts they would have had packs of Lucky Strikes rolled up in the sleeves. If they drove motorcycles they would have Harley's.

The latest I heard was that my town had contacted or had been contacted by GeesePeace (I kid you not) an organization that helps towns get rid of geese that they are not allowed to kill.

As I watch this little town spend what must be a small fortune on whether or not one of its several parks has geese in it, I wonder how many people in town are going hungry tonight. And how many would love a roast goose dinner.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Poem Worth Savoring

In the midst of a Lenten season full of searching, this poem comes as a sweet balm.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Dream Work

Wild Geese © Mary Oliver
Oliver has won the Pulitzer Price and National Book Award for her poetry.She is a professor at Bennington College in Vermont.

Monday, March 13, 2006

You Know It Just Ain't Easy

Two moments have been nagging at me today.

What they have in common is that they each irritated me, not slightly, but with that kind of irritation that comes on in a rush, as if suddenly ones soul broke out into a rash. As I think about these moments, they each occupy opposite ends of the same spectrum.

The first is the James Blunt video of the hit song "You're Beautiful". If you do not know it, click here and see it. Bottom line: He sees a beautiful woman on a subway with another man, and knows he will never have her. So, he leaps into the cold ocean on a snowy day from on high, presumably to kill himself.

The second is a comment I read recently on a bulletin board complaining that some people who said they were Christians weren't happy, and didn't they know that believing in God and Jesus should just make us happy all the time? Period.

What gets my feathers in a ruffle here is some notion that a life lived well, or purely or sincerely or passionately has to be a life lived on some pristine and shallow edge.

Either we have to commit some beautiful artsy schmartzy act of orchestrated suicide as some sort of odd act of love, or we have to act like our lives were scripts from "Leave it to Beaver".

I want to say to James Blunt and to the anonymous poster - "Want to see some real suffering? Some suffering you cannot just deny?" I'd let them talk to Immaculee Ilibagiza, from Rwanda, who hid in a 3 foot by 4 foot bathroom with seven other women for 91 days while millions of people,including her whole family, were slaughtered outside. 91 days. 3 feet by 4 feet. 8 women. She weighed 65 pounds when she came out. Her book, Left To Tell describes her torment, and her eventual seeking out of the killers to forgive them. She has experienced a world I cannot even imagine. And she didn't jump into the ocean or try pretend that it wasn't horrible. I believe she may be a saint. The proceeds of her book are to help people traumatized by that war.

But what of us, the Un Saints? Life, even everyday non-heroic life, is messy stuff. When you live honestly and openly in the world you get your hands dirty, you get disappointed, you cry. Things are not always clear, or just or sensible. Sometimes we just live life in a fog with a kind of emotional Braille, feeling our way along the walls of our own limitations.

I get so upset with people who try to iron life out, homogenize it, build it into some frosted romantic tableau or rarefy it into something symbolic.

I want people around me who know how to feel like hell sometimes and live through it. People who get it that sometimes being sad is the only appropriate thing to feel. People who can eventually laugh and move on. People who plunge their hands deeply into the interstitial places, the crevices and folds of life, and mold it into something good and decent and serviceable. People who pay the everyday price of life by feeling each moment of it. By telling their honest stories. I want to be with people who find God by feeling their way to Him every day over and over. I want to be with people whose souls are like messy, well-lived in houses.

I want to be with people who do not live in an imaginary world. There is just too much at stake in this one.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


© Laura Marshall 2006. All rights reserved.
I love trees and their great leafy branches rising out of the earth. My mother's favorite childhood book was passed down to me. It is the story of a young boy who is befriended by a tree. He sits up in that old tree every day and the tree tells him the stories of all the other trees -- why the Quaking Aspen quakes, for example.

Trees have always had personalities to me. I understand why St Francis could address a tree as "Brother Tree". It makes sense to me. I have nothing profound to say - my brain and soul need a break. I just want to say that I love trees, and I love this painting by Laura.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Forgiving those who are not sorry

OK, here is where the spiritual rubber meets the spititual road for me.

Let's say someone is sorry for what they have done, and they approach me sincerely asking forgiveness. That I can do. I no longer live out of that wound. My resentment goes. I am in fact thankful. Moved.

Then let's say soemone did something ordinary-sized that hurt me or someone else a long time ago, and they are no longer around. My letting go can happen, even if they do not apologize. It's not always a walk in the park, but it is possible.

Then let's say something bigger and meaner happens. Acts of Cruelty. And the person is not sorry.

This is where my spirit goes into fetal (or is that "fist") shape.

I want to lead a good life. I know I am commanded to love. To love even those who persecute me or anyone else. I am called upon to forgive, not once but 70 x 7. But I don't always answer those calls.

When I speak of being forgiven by God, I can speak about unconditional forgiveness, given to me even if not merited or sought. I tell people there were no qualifying exams given by Jesus at the foot of the cross to see who did and did not get forgiveness. And when I speak of God's forgiveness, it feels like what I am describing is God's promise to love me even though I am not perfect, not whole, not full of only virtue. I say and know that Calvary was about God not letting my sins stand between us.

It's one of those cases where "I can take it, but I sure have trouble dishing it out."

I try to talk myself out of forgiving, start refining what forgiveness is. Start ignoring that it is a giving to someone else.

I tell myself it isn't my job to fogive everyone. To love everyone. To not let their sin or mine stand between us. S'not my job, mister.

But isn't it? Is it right to be selective about who is allowed into the heart of forgiveness and who is not? What does it mean if I forgive someone that I think is heinous? If Christ died for everyone's forgiveness, what right do I have to withhold mine?

And then, what does it MEAN to forgive, if after I forgive I want nothing to do with that person. What have I given them?

I keep thinking of Holly Cole's song, in which she catalogues a list of low-down and dirty things that her lover has done saying "Who'll keep on wanting you..etc..." You expect her to say "I will"..what she says is :

God will but I won't
God will, but I don't
That's the difference
between God and me.

It is supposed to be amusing -- but tonight it just makes me even more pensive.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Joseph, Forgiveness, Burdens, Perplexities

As I've mentioned here before, forgiveness figures prominently in my Lent this year. The deeper I go into this, the more amorphous becomes my definition of forgiveness. One of the dictionary definitions I like says that to forgive is : To renounce anger or resentment against.

That I understand -- to detach from something bad. Anger is as strong a glue as love, just not nearly as satisfying.

Here is what I know so far: Forgiveness does not have to be a "pardon" -- no one has to yell "Olly Olly Oxen Free" at the end of a forgiveness. The largest benefit of forgiveness accrues to the forgiver. And forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things.

In Genesis, Joseph, a man horribly abused by his brothers, describes his forgiveness of them and his reconciliation with them when they repent to him. They sold him into slavery. They apologize much later, and he forgives them.

He says " 'Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.' And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them."

Joseph is a better person than I am.

And luckier, in that all his abusers were repentant.

But that aside, what he accepted as part of his reconciliation is that every wrong done to him gave him strength in some way -- that his life and his ability to help others was fired in the furnace of adversity. If he had not had his life's misfortunes, he would not have had his eventual life's fortunes.

I stand in perplexed awe. I am not certain I could ever have that much grace.

But what I do understand is, reconciled or not, how important it was for Joseph to see God's intent as larger than his evil brothers' intent.

That I can do! I can understand the proportions of things.

Still, I find I can define forgiveness more by its absence than by its presence.

Signs of the absence of forgiveness (and the consequent spiritual pain) seem to be:

When we get tied up in the muck of other people's past wrongdoings.
When we do not seek justice, but rather revenge.
When we see the world through the eyes of our pain.
When something someone said or did to us limits the freedom we have to experience any good thing.
When we find ourselves telling the story of a past injustice over and over and over.

Here is how I spoke about forgiveness in a recent email to a dear friend:

Imagine that we all look at the world through a lens. Whenever anyone in our lives abuses us, or hurts us in some way that lingers in our thoughts, it is like they smear some Vaseline on a bit of the lens -- so that as we look at the world we sometimes see it through the aftermath of our pain or abuse. What was done to us colors how we see the world. It colors what we see and how we see it, what we believe, what we do. Everybody gets hurt in life. Some of the pains we have are so big, so deep, so scarring that they can't all be shaken. But many can be.

I believe I can surrender my attachments to a lot of my old pain - and that I can stop living through the results of those pains - and clean off some of the Vaseline that is on the lens through which I see my world. I cannot do that just by ignoring things that happened. Or by being angry about them years after the fact. Or by feeling resentment, ongoing woundedness, or any of those things that attach me like glue to old hurts.

Let's use the trivial example of the kids I mentioned in a prior blogpost - while it is not a big deal at all, even today I know that a tiny part of me watches people's faces when I tell them I am Polish, waiting to see if they say something unkind or make a joke. I know that tracks back to those kids (and some other stuff) -- but at least in part to those kids. If, through forgiveness, I can let go of my attachment to that event, to any piece of the fear that still lingers as part of that -- then I no longer have to live out of the wound, or incorporate it in the way I see others, or worry about their opinion.

Forgiveness (at least in part, the part I understand) is the putting down of a burden of bad feeling. It is a Great and Holy Unraveling. It is saying "I will no longer see the world through this piece of pain." It is, for me, a way to freedom. Generally, I just want a lot of it to be over. I want to walk free of a bunch of old crap. I want to lay down those burdens.

Tell me please, those of you who read this -- what do you know for certain about forgiveness - and what do you wonder? More even than the what of forgiveness, let us talk about the how of forgiveness.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Stumbling on Forgiveness

I just stumbled onto this amazing site called The Forgiveness Project. In its own words:

The Forgiveness Project is a young charitable organisation – with no political or religious affiliations – working at a local, national and international level to promote conflict resolution and restorative practices as alternatives to the endless cycles of conflict, violence and crime that are the hallmarks of our time.Through collecting and sharing personal stories, and delivering educational and self-help programmes, The Forgiveness Project aims to reframe the debate about how individuals and communities can learn to celebrate difference and overcome division, thereby fostering positive social change

Please look at this inspiring site and check out a few of the personal stories. Just click on a picture there when you view this link to see more stories.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Harris Hawk

In 2002 I visited The Cotswold Falconry Centre in England, which is in Moreton-in-Marsh in Batsford Park. The Cotswolds are, as my English friend Mike is fond of saying, "very Oldy Worldy". Towns there have names like Chipping Norton and Stow-on-the-Wold, and one can well imagine a curious dragon peering out from behind one of the ancient oaks. Nestled in the heart of this blissfully British countryside is the Cotswold Falconry.

I had always wanted to see a real falconry. I had only ever seen one falconry demonstration, and that was with a Peregrine Falcon in upstate NY many years ago. However, I can still hear the sound of that falcon screaming as it shot like a bullet down a mountainside and through the mist of an autumn afternoon as it dove fearlessly for its prey. Its predatory singlemindedness was chilling.

The Cotswold Falconry not only does wonderful demonstrations with very knowledgeable falconers in charge, but they have a large number of breeding pairs which are protected in very large enclosures for the period of breeding and gestation.

We had arrived somewhat late in the day. My friends and I were almost the only visitors. I stopped to spend some time looking at the Harris Hawks, great imposing brownish/black birds with rust shoulders. Not inconsequential in size, they can have a wingspan of up to four feet in width.

I stood at the front of their aviary, and the male came right up to the mesh fencing and looked me square in the eye. It felt very deliberate of him. I started to walk away, and he made the oddest sound - not a bird noise at all -- more like a cross between a moan and a purr in a higher register.

It stopped me dead in my tracks.

I turned back to look at him, and he began to do this odd little dance, rather like shrugging his shoulders repeatedly at me, never taking his eyes off me. But it didn't feel as though he was trying to intimidate me. On the contrary. Then he made that sound again.

And then I did something wildly foolish.

I made the sound back at him.

He stared at me. Then he made the sound back at me, with a different lilt.

I tried to emulate his response. He was silent, and then purr/moaned at me again.

So, there we stood for over 20 minutes cooing and purr-moaning at each other, looking at each other straight in the eye with an unwavering stare.

Moan, stare, purr, stare.

And although I probably looked like God's own idiot, the urge to do this was undeniably strong. It felt like this bird was trying to break through to me, and I to him. And so we kept up this odd conversation, with me pouring feeling into my sounds to him, and with him sounding as though he was pouring feeling into his sounds back at me. Whatever the motive, it was clear to me that this bird "got" me in some deep way, and I "got" him. We had managed to connect in some bizarre way across our independent species.

It came time to leave, and I confess it was hard to go. I'd look back over my shoulder as we walked away, and the Harris Hawk kept moving to a part of the enclosure where he could see me. He stood on branches right at the mesh, looking, until we were out of sight of each other.

The strangest phenomenon was that for weeks I found myself missing him, missing him the way one longs for something that makes us feel whole, missing him as though something of great value had been taken from me. And perhaps it had been.

I wonder, on this chilly March afternoon, if I returned would he recognize me? But I only wonder for an instant. Then I know.

Friday, March 03, 2006

PBS and Springsteen

I watched a PBS special tonight -- a long lost BBC film of a live performance of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band from 1975 in Hammersmith, England. The album "Born to Run" had just come out. I was 25.

About 5 years later I had emergency abdominal surgery. Three days after I was released was the night of the Springsteen concert in Denver that we had saved up for and purchased tickets for months prior. Bruce had just released the album "The River". I could barely walk without gut pain, let alone take a chance on a crowd jostling me. Well, that is what my friends thought.

I went to the concert.

I padded up my 14 inch recently unstapled incision with thick cotton pads. (Translation: I taped rows of Kotex across the incision.) I wore loose fitting clothes. My friends walked around me like a phalanx of Roman soldiers.

Lordy me that concert was great. Two hours of Bruce and Clarence and Stevie and the band rocking the stadium up one side and down the other. Thunder Road, Born to Run, Hungry Heart, New York City Serenade, The River, Cadillac Ranch, Crush on You, Drive All Night...and on and on ...

(The postscript to this concert was that I woke up the next morning in agony and had to be re-admitted to the hospital. It seems I had pulled a few internal sutures. My doctor asked if I had done anything out of the ordinary. I gave him a blank look. I sure as hell wasn't about to tell him I had gone to a Springsteen concert. I figured that would be my little secret.)

I have always loved the open road, and Springsteen is definitely an open road kind of guy. There is something so magical about a vast expanse of road on a summer's night. I have driven across country a few times, and the lure of the road is very powerful -- that feeling of being unhinged from one's life, on the roam, not being in any set place is absolutely delicious to me -- so much so that in 2002 and 2005 I took long solo driving adventures.

The first lasted 6 weeks. The second lasted 11 weeks. I would wake up each morning and decide where I was going to go on that day. Maybe I would go there, or maybe I would be distracted by some byway or roadside attraction and not get there at all. I'd sometimes drive at night, the windows open, late night radio on, headlights carving out my path.

This snippet of lyrics from "Thunder Road" gets me every time

Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night's busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back: Heaven's waiting on down the tracks
Oh-oh come take my hand
Riding out tonight to case the promised land
Oh-oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road,
Lying out there like a killer in the sun
Hey I know it's late we can make it if we run
Oh Thunder Road, sit tight take hold, Thunder Road

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Mr. Apology

"Forgiveness is not to condone or minimize the awfulness of an atrocity or wrong. It is to recognize its ghastliness, but to choose to acknowledge the essential humanity of the perpetrator and to give that perpetrator the possibility of making a new beginning."
(Desmond Tutu - Nobel Laureate, South African Archbishop)

I gave my second Lenten forgiveness today (I will remain silent about the details).

But it caused me to wonder about the very nature of forgiveness.

Many years ago in NYC there was a man who went by the name "Mr Apology". He was a conceptual artist and an amazing human being. He started a free public service. Anyone could call in to Mr Apology's answering machine and apologize for anything. Every week "Mr A" as he was known to regular listeners, would have a program on that answering machine made up of listener reactions to the past weeks recorded confessions, new confessions and a chance at the end to record one's own confession or commentary. Mr Apology wanted to bring victims and perpetrators into contact, with the object of dialogue and forgiveness. A good article about him appears here which is an interview with his widow

It was a riveting "listen" - a full program each week, edited and assembled by Mr A which included his commentary, his asking of pertinent questions in addition to the input of apologizers and listeners.

What made it interesting to me, and I was a regular listener, was the compassion of Mr A. He just wanted to understand why people had "done wrong", and wanted dialogue between the thieves and the robbed, the abusers and the abused, the unfaithful and the betrayed. It was his belief that this would promote healing, one dialogue at a time. He commented once about "bringing things out of the darkness".

Confessions ran from the expected to the bizarre to the poignant (I recall one young boy calling very nervously to apologize for snapping a girl's bra strap in class.)

Mr Apology ran this phone line for well over a decade. He always had plenty of calls. He didn't advertise, except to put up some stickers on phone booths. Then of course, there were the inevitable newspaper articles that would appear from time to time.

What deep human need fueled this line! I believe that as creatures we WANT to apologize and to forgive, but fear losing something in the process. For some it was just a relief to "finally tell someone". That it was anonymous was what made it at all possible. People were at least willing to be held anonymously accountable.

I bless the fact that Mr Apology walked the earth, but I am so sad that all the institutions and systems that we have do not provide a place where the folks who called in to this line felt they could go.

So tonight I give thanks to God for the life of Allan Bridge, known as Mr. Apology, and for all those who help make the miracle of earthly forgiveness possible.

1st forgiveness - The Stone Throwers

Yesterday I completed my first Lenten forgiveness (see prior post). I don't think I will talk about each one here, but as I started with what I thought was a "little one", I'll tell the great amorphous "you" about it.

I really had no idea where to start, so I got quiet and decided that I would respect the first memorythat came to mind, letting my soul decide what that would be. I immediately had a memory of the long-forgotten stone throwers. I knew that this occasion must need some healing or I would not have recalled it in this context. Trust the emergent image.

My family moved to our first house when I was 5, leaving apartment life behind. My folks bought a home in a small, largely blue-collar town of less than 20,000 in Western Massachusetts, nestled in the Berkshires. I had just started school in the fall, and it was the day of the first winter snowstorm. I was walking home from school, as I did every day. When I was about two blocks from home, some kids started chasing me and throwing snowballs at me and yelling ,"Dirty Polack! Go back to Poland! Polack! Polack!" They threw snowballs that had rocks inside them. One hit my ear as I ran home, terrified. I was less than a block from home. I fell down screaming in pain-- at which point they ran away. I saw two of them and knew who they were.

My mother was beside herself when I told her. My ear was ringing and sore and she ran me to the doctor immediately. There was no lingering physical damage. We then came home and told my father. My father was known for his legendary wrath. In this one instance it worked in my favor. He went to the home of the two brothers that I had recognized. They lived nearby. My father spoke to their father and said very clearly that if his sons ever touched a hair on my head again, that he would kill them. The boys said, "You'll go to jail if you do!" My father looked them and their father straight in the eyes and said "I don't care. It would be worth it," and left.

They never bothered me again.

But they had damaged me -- not where anyone could see. I had never had anyone suggest that my ethnic background was bad before - but in this little town I was to experience many such examples of prejudice. This was, after all, the town in which my grandparents had had crosses burned on their lawn by the KKK because they were Polish Catholic immigrants.

So last night I sat quietly and forgave those boys for being stupid and cruel. I told God that in forgiving them, I hoped that any damage done by them could be healed and undone. I asked for healing for the little girl inside me who didn't feel safe. And I asked that if these boys had become men who hated people because of prejudice, that their prejudice be lifted.

In forgiving, I found myself praying for these two bullies. It was a powerful moment.

I began to understand that part of forgiveness is to allow the undoing of damage.

I struggle for a working definition of forgiveness and would welcome any thoughts about it...
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