Monthly Archives: November 2014

Four & Twenty Blackbirds

During our Thanksgiving meal this year, huge flocks of black birds rose and fell in a choreographed, synchronized dance in the field outside our window.  It’s that time of year here.  They are migrating south, stopping for respite in bare cornfields along their route.  If you’re driving, you can see the power lines drooping with the weight of them, looking like musical notes penned in the sky.  Trees bare of leaves appear full again, until with some secret signal the hundreds of birds posing as foliage fly away as one, de-leafing the tree in one fluid movement.

We remembered the old nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence, where four and twenty blackbirds were baked into a pie that apparently was good enough for the king.  My daughter, the picky one, predictably wrinkled her nose and declared she wouldn’t eat that.  I just smiled to myself.  There was a time when I would have said the same thing.  Heady with the audacity and arrogance of youth, I made lots of similar proclamations of things I would never do, wear, say, or eat.  In time, my “crow pie” would be repeatedly served to me steaming and piping hot, beaks bursting from the crust.

In my teens and twenties, the world was my orchard, fruit ripe on the tree ready for my haughty hands to deign to pluck it.  We were a large, middle class family, and I never wanted for anything, really.  The fact that in junior high, my mother wouldn’t buy me a pair of Jordache jeans that cost more than our week’s worth of groceries I chalked up to her stubbornness and lack of fashion rather than any financial reality.  I took lessons at the local rec center:  baton twirling, horseback riding.  If I could’ve combined the two, I probably would have tried because why not?  Couldn’t the world use more sequined girls twirling batons on horseback?

But, the best laid plans of mice and men, as Robert Burns says, oft go awry.  I once had a showdown with my high school physics teacher as I dropped his class in favor of an English class more to my liking and abilities.  “I’ll never use this stuff!”  I told him.  My first job out of college:  science writing.  Then, I got married and so many of the things I said I’d never do seemed to be swept down the aisle as fast as my white heels could traipse.  I’ll never iron a man’s shirt; he’s got two hands.  When you’re home for the day and he’s rushing out the door to make an appointment at work, how mean spirited would it be to just sit with your judgemental cup of coffee, declaring “you should’ve thought of that yesterday”?   The compromise and give-and-take of married life was something I’d never imagined at seventeen, or twenty-two, or even sometimes now in my mid-forties.  “I’ll never,” “I won’t,” “That’s not my problem,” are statements of petty selfishness that do no one any good.

Then came children and all bets were off.  I’d never go a day without a shower and being presentable.  Big mouthful on that one.  I’d never let my child scream like that in a restaurant/airplane/grocery store/church service, etc.  I’d never sit my kid in front of the TV so I could have a moment of mental sanity.  Chomp.  I’d never let my child walk around without shoes/pants/diaper/tissue applied to nose/scrubbed cherub cheeks at all times.  Crunch.  I’d never drive a minivan.  Open the hangar, here comes the airplane.  I was always going to be put-together, classy, with well-behaved, polite, scrubbed children.  How hard could it be?  Did Jackie O. ever have to catch a child’s vomit in her bare hands?    Did Grace Kelly ever open her palm for someone’s chewed gum?

I’d be modest and in control at all times.  During my firstborn’s birth, I vomited repeatedly and didn’t care who was in the room.  “Students?  Bring your friends, just get this baby OUT.”  I’d always have the same metabolism I had at twenty-three and would never “let myself go.”  I see now it’s not a deliberate “letting go” at all.  It’s more of a desperate plea: “Wait! Don’t leave me!”  I had a mammogram a couple of years ago, and the tech said something that never gives you warm fuzzies at your annual exam:  “Well,that’s weird.”   She invited me to come behind the monitor and look at the picture that had somehow appeared on her screen upside-down.  For a second, I was elated.  “That’s the perkiest the girls have looked in about 15 years!”  I said.   From then on, I always request my mammograms be viewed that way.  It just makes me feel better.

I would always have cute shoes.  Well, heels are just out.  Don’t even bring them in my house any more because I can’t wear them without being crippled within 30 minutes.  The word of the day is comfort, ladies.  I can work with that, except for some days when I apparently can’t manage to pay attention long enough to put them on so that I leave the house with a different shoe on each foot.

After looking at old photos of my mother-in-law, I once remarked to her that I would never dye my hair.  It was just so fake and not who you really were.  (I know.  Can you believe?  If I were her, I would’ve broken up with me then and there.)  My mother was prematurely gray in her 20’s.  I was totally asking for it.  So, between you, me, and my hairdresser, I’ve had two or three entire pies for that one.

It took a long time (I’m a slow learner), but I’ve stopped making blanket declarations.  Learning this is a lot like making bread.  You add things to the dough a little at a time, folding in the ingredients and kneading them together gently but firmly, letting the dough get used to the new bits.  You sit it aside and give it time to rest and rise.  And, if you’ve done it right, when it comes out of the oven lovely and browned, the product is much, much better than what you started with.  Something worth sharing with others, even.

Over the next forty years if I’m blessed to have that many more, I hope I’m a lot more gracious, a lot less judgy.  I’m racking my brain for things I’ve said I’ll never do when I get old and trying to take them all back.  Plastic surgery?  I’m game!  Cruise ship to the Netherlands?  Sign me up!  Babysit for large numbers of grandchildren at once…..well, ok.

I want to be flexible, open, teachable.  The more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know.  I’m sure there are things I know for certain right now that will only be rendered laughable in a decade or two.  So, be patient with me.  And save me a piece of that blackbird pie. 

Faith of Our Fathers



first communion, 1st grade

One of my great uncles had 11 children.  They came to our house once, some of them having to sleep in our camper out in the driveway.  At our house, when one of the five of us deserved a scolding, my mother tended to run all our names together as she yelled, too distracted to zero in on the one who was at fault.  I tried to imagine what it must be like to mentally juggle 11 kids, so I asked my uncle what his kids’ names were.  He got all the way to 10–twice–and could not for the life of him recall who he was leaving out.  This both shocked and amused me.

In my Catholic childhood, big families were part of the scenery, as were loud, over-the-top wedding receptions, midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and sweating nervously in the confessional box.  I went to parochial school for several years and wore a white blouse and blue plaid skirt with loafers every day as the nuns taught class.  On a couple of occasions, I had to hold out my palm to be whacked with a ruler for talking too much.  I can recite the Hail Mary, Our Father, and Grace Before Meals in my sleep.  We went to mass with my father on Sundays, but my mother did not go.  She had a falling out with the Church before I came along, and she spent Sunday mornings with her coffee and the crossword puzzle. I always missed her presence there, wished I could have heard her voice blending with my father’s in song.

I’ve always been a questioner.  This did not always work in my favor (hence, the palm whacking).  In third grade, the nun asked the class to close our eyes tightly and tell her what we saw.  I said I saw blackness with bursts of flashing lights.  (Try it–tell me I’m wrong.)  Apparently, the correct answer was “nothing,” but I would not give in to that fiction.  I knew what I’d seen and, like young George Washington, would not tell a lie.  Lesson: people in positions of authority could tell you what you should believe, but they could not make you believe it.  From then on, I questioned lots of things, which finally culminated in a hostile car ride on the way to mass one Sunday, when I demanded to know why I had to go.  My father, at his wit’s end with my incessant questioning, gave up, pulled over, and told me I could walk back home if I couldn’t bear to endure a mere hour with God.

I stalked back home to my mother and the crossword puzzle, but he’d missed the point.  It wasn’t God I was questioning.  Him, I got.  For me, God was personal and experienced.  He was my Aibileen Clark, from The Help, whispering to me that I was kind, smart, and important, when everything else in middle school seemed to say the opposite.  It was logical and reasonable to me that God was holding the world together.  It was either that or Bermuda grass–an easy choice.  It was the particular trappings of church I had trouble with.  We read from the hymnal each week, with prescribed scriptures and songs according to what day it was.  We sat, stood, and knelt as dictated. The “smells and bells” of the church were beginning to wear thin.

For the next few years, I read, studied, investigated, asked.  At my father’s request, I had a Q&A with my priest, took lots of classes in college.  The world of faith was a petri dish that I gazed at intently, curious to see what would appear, certain that something would.  I found a more grounded, personal, rubber-meets-the-road faith in the Protestant tradition where I landed.  It seemed more engaging, challenging, and best of all, encouraged questions. I watched and experienced a dynamic, alive faith in the lives of people I knew. So now I guess I have a sort of dual citizenship.  When you’re raised Catholic, it’s something you carry with you, even if you’ve lapsed.  It’s like being German by birth, but not walking around in lederhosen carrying a stein of beer.  No one would even know by looking at you.

This past summer our family toured Israel, historically holy ground for three major world religions.  There, you literally wear your faith on your sleeve.  You can tell by hairstyles, dress, and language which faith someone holds, unlike in America, where we tend to hide it well.  At the wailing wall, amidst dozens of orthodox Jews praying and chanting with a fervent rocking motion, I experienced a presence of the sacred so moving I wept.  Walking in the historical steps of Christ, in the stone holding cells beneath the chief priest’s house, again there was a sacred awe.  People at several of the Muslim sites we visited were openly hostile.  There, I felt the opposite of peace, yet it was still a spiritual experience.  Israel is an intensified microcosm of faith displayed in a bell jar for the world to see on the nightly news.

Despite how culturally adversarial and balkanized different faiths can be, tradition can be a useful talisman, a beacon shining on the path behind and lighting the way forward.  Revisiting the church of my youth, I can appreciate a depth that I was oblivious to as a kid, squirming in the pew, and more importantly, I appreciate that others find a depth and a comfort there.  I hope I have matured in many ways since that long walk home when I was banished from the car.  One thing I have noticed is that much of my walk in faith has been like that moment in third grade—bursts of light in the blackness.  Moments where I totally get it and feel a grateful peace, and moments where I stumble along in the dark stepping on Legos, ignoring lights along the way.  I still question, seek, occasionally doubt or wonder, and encourage my kids to do the same.  It warms my soul that they can hear their dad and me blending our voices in the pew on Sundays, not because we make some lyrical harmony, but because we are creating a tradition and a beacon of our own, one they can draw a peace from and build on themselves.  I am grateful they know a personal Father who will always, no matter the chaos or multitudes, be able to recall their names, leaving no one out.