It’s time to walk tenderly
along the rutted road
feet blistered bare and dusty
trouble plodding doggedly
at your heels
When hope is all that remains
and your palms are rope-burned red
make of faith and doubt
a lifeline, not a noose
and grasp tight despite the pain
Gather up grief and despair
lay them in baskets
woven from reed and tears
then lay your woes
before the one who
will not stay entombed
Build an altar
caged by ribs
for the one who animates
your every breath
from birth to death
who soon (all too soon)
will cradle you home
What He Said After Dinner
In a moment I am leaving you
In a moment I am gone
returning to the One from whom
I have come
It will be time for you to be lost without me
Time for you to wander the landscape
of your familiar only to find it
utterly desolate completely foreign
I can’t tell you how to manage
how to create a life from ashes
only to say that you will do it
It is your nature to grasp
the limb of hope
hold fast against the river of events
that will sweep me away
When you arrive safe on the other shore
you will wail gnash your teeth curse
the one who made us
After you have blamed yourself
for what you did not do
you will catch sight of me
scratch your head and wonder
convinced that you are mistaken
that my return is impossible
Listen to your heart leap
In that moment the entire world
Wrestling the Good from Friday
On this day of your suffering
and crucifixion we
on the far side of the resurrection
more than we mourn—
Our hope refuses to die
but what of yours, Dear Teacher?
Do you know hanging
from your cross
as the sun is eclipsed
that you have not been forsaken
that “It is finished”
becomes a beginning?
O Sweet Savior
we weep for the many times
we did not understand or believe
the truths you tried to tell us.
For us the tomb is always
empty come Easter.
Though we have failed you
though we do not deserve it
We live through
these bleak days
we believe in you.
Now, we beg you
just this once,
to believe in us.
Saturday night I had the pleasure of reading from my short story "Impressions of a Family" along with four other readers included in Baobab Press' new anthology This Side of the Divide: Contemporary Stories of the American West, produced with the assistance of MFA students at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The event was held in Portland in conjunction with the AWP writing conference—14,000 writers gathered to take part in 550 official presentations, a massive book fair, and dozens offsite events, like the one I participated in at Mother Foucault's Bookshop.
I was fortunate and delighted to have four good friends cheering me from the audience. For those of you who couldn't join us, here are the excerpts I read. You can order a copy of the anthology here. And yes, that's Van Gogh's "Starry Night" I'm wearing, and yes my skirt received its own round of applause!
My father is dying. He’s been dying all week. I know it when I see him opalescent and shrunken, bony in the nursing home bed. My stepmother Janice leaves her place at his arm, and I shuffle in, nudging my son Jared in front of me. It’s the first time Jared and I have been together since August when he moved in with his father, my ex-husband, to attend an arts high school.
I lean alongside Jared’s shoulder, which tops mine now, and squeeze my father’s flaccid hand. I remember it firm and huge.
“Hi, Dad.” His eyes flick in my direction. “I brought Jared to see you.”
“Hi, Grandpa.” Jared inches closer and peers at his grandfather. The last time they met was almost a year and a half ago, after my father’s first stroke, and Jared was pissed that he missed his first day of high school to visit some stupid stranger, as he put it.
My father lets go of my hand and reaches for Jared’s. “Straight on ’til morning,” he says, quoting Peter Pan, his voice hoarse.
I see their interlocked palms—-pale and fading, strong and tan. The last time they held hands was also in a hospital. Jared’s newborn fingers, tiny pearls, curled around my father’s index finger, firm and golden. My father had driven the length of the state to meet his first-born grandchild, only to kiss us both, buy Jared a stuffed giraffe from the gift shop, then turn around and leave within twenty minutes.
I can tell Jared thinks I’m the only link between them, the one who holds them together. But I feel the inverse, the force with which their lives have forged me. First, my father’s distance, cool as ice in a whiskey glass, even before he left, then Jared’s infant need that demanded all my time, all my attention, all my wonder, and then evaporated before I was ready. I rest my hand on theirs for just a moment before Jared wriggles from our grip.
The next day Janice and I join my father at the convalescent home again. We make small talk and greet visitors.
“Oh, you’re the teacher from Napa,” they say. “Isn’t your son the one who’s attending the high school for the arts? He wants to be a painter, right?” I’m invariably surprised they’ve heard of us.
An attendant brings in lunch, solids exchanged for purees, and Janice feeds my father, though he seems barely conscious. “Just one more bite,” becomes her prayer, but he’s helpless as a newborn bird, and with each meal less able to prove his love for her. I flip through a magazine and try not to watch.
That night after his ski trip, I lure Jared to the Best Western with the promise of all-you-can-eat pizza and in-room movies. When I pick him up Don’s new wife fills the doorframe with her big hair, big teeth, and big breasts. “You’re early, Jared’s in the shower.” Rhonda pauses. “Won’t you come in?”
We’d both prefer that I wait outside, but it’s dark and sprinkling and that wouldn’t be civil, and we try to be the poster family for modern divorce.
Jared takes the stairs two at a time. He’s carrying his portfolio on one shoulder. His wet curls glisten.
After he’s eaten seven slices of pizza, and about eighty-seven people are killed in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s latest movie, I ask Jared how he likes living in L.A. Instead of answering directly, he spreads his portfolio over one of the beds. He’s done dozens of sketches and almost as many paintings this semester. He holds each piece, framing it with his delicate fingers.
“There are five principles of organization,” he explains as if he’s giving a school report. “Balance, movement, contrast, emphasis, and harmony.”
He has me compare a series of charcoal sketches, and we determine that I favor irregular rhythm, and asymmetrical over radial or formal balance.
“You’re catching on, Mom. Now, there are five basic elements of design: line, shape, color, texture, and space.”
I study watercolor, oil, and pastel renditions of the same still life until I can correctly identify realistic from abstract shape, dark from light values, actual from simulated texture, and positive versus negative space.
He shows me an experiment in Pointillism. “Everything is made up of tiny dots using only primary and secondary colors. What do you think?”
“It feels static.” I do my best to sound like an art critic and not a mother who wants to snatch her son back for purely selfish reasons.
“Exactly. The precision of color sucks all the life out of it. That’s why I like Impressionism. This is my favorite.” He holds up a painting of our yard in Napa.
From across the room I see everything clearly, the dilapidated barn, the almonds and magnolia in flower, chickens pecking near the pond. When I come close, the images blur and become indistinct. They could be anything.
Jared falls asleep while I floss my teeth. He’s sprawled across the bedspread, face down. I pull a corner over him and rest a hand on his back, feeling the shallow rise and fall.
When he was a baby, Jared couldn’t fall asleep without my hand on the round of his back. Until he was three, I eased him into his crib after our ritual rocking and countless verses of “Bye Bye Baby Bunting.” I stood for long minutes with my hand across his spine waiting for the breath of sleep. Gradually, I retracted my hand into the space above him, feeling the connection between us diminish. Finally, I’d turn to tiptoe away, but often he sensed me move, and I’d repeat the process again. I was everything he wanted, and everything I could give him was enough.
But I wonder now if that was ever completely true. Because Don was there, too, often taking my place on the second and third rounds of hand-on-the-back sneak-away. My marriage is over, but Don did not evaporate from Jared’s life the way my father evaporated from mine. My son has a father whose love is visible and present.
I lift my hand and crawl into my bed. Jared doesn’t move.
In the morning Jared asks me to take him to the Rose Parade New Year’s Day.
“It depends.” I park on the street.
“I mean, if Grandpa doesn’t kick off tonight.”
“That’s rude.” I open my door.
“Sorry.” Jared shrugs.
“But it’s also true.”
Don is a landscape architect who specializes in ripping out lawns and flowerbeds and replacing them with gravel. He calls it xeriscape. This morning he is washing his truck with some eco product from a spray bottle and pretends not to see me while I walk to the front door with Jared’s portfolio while they talk.
“Dad said okay.”
“I love you, Mom.” He hugs me.
I hug too hard. He bounces into the house.
I walk toward Don who looks up.
“I’ll probably be over really early tomorrow,” I say. “I hope it won’t interfere with your New Year’s plans.”
“It’s fine. It’ll be good for the two of you. Jared won’t say it, but he misses you.”
I nod. “He seems happy here. I’m glad.”
“I’m sorry about your dad.”
“I never liked him.” He smiles, quick and sad, a lapse in the usual reserve.
“I know. Thank you for that.” I return the smile and remember the afternoon I told Don about my father.
“What kind of scumbag runs out on his family?” he’d asked while we were twined in bed. “I will never leave my family. When I get married, it will last forever.” It was a proposal, a confession, and an opportunity for someone to hate my father for me.
Jared is a kid who sticks to his New Year’s Resolutions. “What did you resolve, Mommy?” he used to ask, showing me his crayoned list.
“Nothing.” I’d reply. No resolution, no failure.
This year it’s different. Alone in my hotel room, I can’t sleep. There’s a party in the lobby, firecrackers in the street, and a new century ready to impact me. I take a sheet of stationery from the bedside table and write resolutions for the first time in ages.
I want to write something about coming to understand in a deep way the difference between being alone and being abandoned, but I can’t figure out how to phrase it. I fall asleep with pen in hand.
A meditation based on Luke 13:1-9
I imagine myself among the crowd of thousands surrounding Jesus, peppering him with questions, trying to determine if he’s cut out to be our leader. Half a dozen of my friends and I are fuming over the massacre in the Temple. Some pilgrims from Galilee were worshipping, offering their sacrifices, when Pilate sent in his soldiers and slaughtered them. It was horrible, the sort of thing that makes headlines, and we want to know what Jesus is going to do about it. A friend elbows me, so I shout out:
“Hey, Jesus, what about those Galileans?” Not really expecting an answer. But he turns my direction:
“Cathy, Do you really believe that misfortune comes to only the wicked? Do you really believe that you can guarantee your own safety? That by following all the rules and pointing a finger at every infraction, and by believing we only get what we deserve, that you’ll avoid trouble, that disaster will never strike you?
Well guess again. The Galileans Pilate murdered in the Temple were no worse sinners than you. Taking up the cause of blame, hatred, retaliation, and plotting the overthrow of the government after their death will do you no good, and I will have no part of it.
Likewise, walls tumble down, and the innocent are crushed. Earthquakes strike without warning. Workmen are shoddy. Towers collapse, and you might well be standing in one when it does. You cannot escape the perils of life by hiding out at home, or cowering in fear. From where you stand, life appears arbitrary and capricious, and absolutely nothing you can do will save you. You will suffer and one day, you will surely die. But that does not mean you’re doomed.”
Well, that shut me up. How well Jesus understands my inclinations toward cowardice and blame, my reflexive reaction to pin the responsibility for my circumstances and actions squarely on others—not only in these extreme events which seem out of my control, but in my own relationships as well. Assigning responsibility to the government or the weather or the full moon or my disagreeable neighbor seems easier than having no explanation at all; and it’s certainly easier than scrutinizing my own thoughts and actions for complicity.
“Repent or perish,” Jesus says. “Repent or perish.”
What does it mean to repent? It’s not simply about feeling guilty or offering an I’m sorry.
Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, writes that repentance “is, at its root, about thinking and perception. It refers to a wholesale change in how a person understands something. It implies an utter reconfiguration of your perspective on reality and meaning, including (in the New Testament) a reorientation of yourself toward God. Your behavior might change as a result of this new perception, certainly; but repentance first involves seeing things differently and coming to a new understanding of what God makes possible.”
In my own life, repentance began in 1985 when I was twenty-four. I was attending a training weekend for the anti-nuclear group Beyond War, with the goal of saving the world from nuclear annihilation.
Raised in a religious and spiritual vacuum, I did not believe in God or religion. I believed in what I could see and touch, in science and empirical evidence, and the facts of the nuclear threat paralyzed me as I studied the Cold War learning that the promise of “mutually assured destruction” was all that kept the super powers in check. I dreamed almost nightly of bombings, mushroom clouds and radiation sickness, of moving through decimated cities.
I understood that saving the world was up to me, and knowing that, I knew we were doomed. I hadn’t been able to keep my parents from divorcing when I was growing up. How could I keep the US from launching ICBMs at the Soviets?
In preparation for the weekend training, I read all of Beyond War’s literature, and learned to draw their timeline: one that showed the rate of evolution speeding up drastically once our ancestors crawled from the sea, so that all we had to do was will ourselves to evolve. It was that simple. And quick. If enough of us said, “No more,” then war and violence would disappear like our prehensile tails.
That weekend in the mountains, with the timeline looming before me, I stepped from my cabin into towering redwoods. Their interlaced roots spread wide into bracken fern, neon banana slugs slid across fragrant duff, and a chorus of frogs and crickets filled the air.
Here was an ecosystem in perfect harmony, beyond my ability to completely comprehend and my capacity to save. In that moment, I knew I stood inside a miracle. The forest ecology hadn’t happened randomly as I understood evolution, or because the trees had willed it as I understood the Beyond War manifesto.
It was the first moment I felt God revealed—the creative presence in and behind all that exists. My repentance toward faith began then: a slow process of abandoning my fear outrage, unbelief and demand for certainty in questions great (how to prevent nuclear war) and small (when to start a family), and opening myself to the possibility of mystery, learning to trust in what I couldn’t prove.
I began to attend a United Methodist church where believers cared about the environment and social issues along with personal salvation. In the Bible and in church I heard, and continue to hear, stories of hope in the midst of violence, of change that happens not because of righteous indignation and demands, but through love, and faith, and accepting life as it painfully is. Along this spiritual journey, despite continual cries for outrage and fear coming from society, my own righteous indignation and fears about the state of the world have gradually ebbed. I have a part to play, yes, but as I learn that the limits of my power revolve around my own thoughts and actions, I surrender my ego, and come to embrace the existence of a far greater power always working for good in the world, whether I see it or not.
For me this reorientation of the self toward God, is a constant process. I fight against my “stuckness.” I forget that my opinions, understanding, and beliefs aren’t right just because they’re mine. I forget that my opinions, understanding, and beliefs aren’t supposed to be rigid or static, but are meant to grow and change with time and experience, study, prayer and self-examination.
And I hear Jesus reminding me to choose a life that bears fruit in the parable of God the Gardener tending the fig tree that closes the Gospel reading today.
Our growth can so easily be stunted in a society that feeds us with fear, outrage, scarcity, exclusion, and despair. And in our own illness, grief, and suffering, there is a necessary time for dormancy, for rest and suspended activity, for nourishment that takes place within as God tends to our battered souls. And there is also a time for responding to God’s invitation and desire for us to flourish. To leaf out and blossom, to ripen and mature, to become more of who we’re created to be, to bear the fruits of our individuality and faith, offering to a hungry and hurting world the sustaining gifts of beauty and comfort, signs of hope and reconciliation, our testimony to God’s abundant love, patience, and generosity.
A Prayer in the Manner of Fig Trees
O God, Gardener of our souls, may you fertilize our lives
through worship and prayer and fill us in presence and silence.
May all our failures and defeats, all our accomplishments and joys
all our human endeavors compost into wisdom and understanding.
May the rich nutrients of the spiritual journey sustain and enrich us
that we might bear fruit—and offering that fruit to others--
become through you a feast for the hungry world.
A poem for Ash Wednesday:
Smudge of ash smeared on skin
Repentance—remembering whose we are
Lent will lengthen before us
Bringing Seraphim and the bite
Of coal against our lips
The taste of fire searing
Our steps toward proclamation.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.