Monday, February 29, 2016

Dear Friends, apologies for my 4-month silence. Perhaps some of what has transpired will make it  to this blog eventually, but for now, please allow me to (quietly) toot my own horn and share this essay with you. It earned Honorable Mention in the Cape Cod Times Writing Contest. I submitted it back in the fall of 2015, and waited not-very-patiently for the issue (March 2016) where winners were announced. When we saw the headline on the newsstand, Mom said, "Well, if you didn't get first prize, maybe you got Honorable Mention." She's quite the prophet! 

The New Journal

I open the hard-bound booklet and gaze with eagerness upon Page One. The clean five-and-a-half-by-eight-inch blank fills me with anticipation.

Like the first Summer scent of salt sea air in my nose, or that flavor burst of the first Spring strawberry on my palate, this new volume stirs my imagination beyond its wordless first impression.

Ah, yes! That first whiff of sea air finally reaches me after driving two hours, east on the Turnpike and then south on Route 495. I open my car windows at the rotary in Buzzards Bay, and breathe deeply. Some travelers stop at the Canal, most keep their focus on the Sagamore Bridge and their ultimate destination cottage or hotel. Me, I need to ease myself into this eden, its warm sun, lulling surf, soothing sand, and familiar coconut lotion smell. I take my iced coffee down to one of the large rocks overlooking the Canal to sip contentedly. I’ve rented a cottage for two weeks, at the end of which I’m sure I’ll wish I’d taken three.

And then there’s that first annual strawberry taste - whether at a farm stand or right off the plant in a friend’s garden. It drives me to my own garden to check the rhubarb plant. Pie tonight? Sadly, the stalks are still too thin to cut. So back to my kitchen to whip up a batch of baking powder biscuits for shortcakes. Pre-baked, store-bought spongecakes just don’t meet the high standards of First-of-the-Season Strawberry Shortcakes.

How odd, it dawns on me, that I am opening this new journal in late-fall, not a season identified by newness. By this time of year, kids are back in school, the Red Sox may or may not have made it to the World Series, leaf-peepers are heading home from viewing colorful foliage in New Hampshire and Vermont, and local stores are covering their bases, displaying all their end-of-year options - Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas - right next to each other on the shelves. Can’t risk disappointing.

The journal is new, even if the year is not. 

I’ve kept journals for as long as I can remember, some seasons more faithfully than others. They hold poetry, Scripture, insights, and jokes. I pray, vent, cry, surrender, and plan great feats of bravery and creativity on their pages. Not one of the journals will ever be pulled from the oblivion of my bookshelf to be made into a movie or play, but every one of them guards thoughts, hopes, visions, and possibilities as priceless treasures. 

This new journal is as inviting as past ones: clean, white pages, hundreds of them, recto and verso, pristine but for the college-rules that pin-stripe the leaves. And what is the invitation? To write? To create? To imagine? I hesitate before setting pen to paper, thinking “I wish my handwriting were prettier. I wish  I could draw and include illustrations in my entries. I wish I were more eloquent.”

Or is the invitation actually more of a dare? “You’ve written in these booklets for years. Are you going to rehash the same stuff here? The same prayers, the same arguments, the same defenses, the same anxieties? Don’t you have any new ideas? You call yourself a writer? Be creative! C’mon, find something new!”

Ouch! That’s not very encouraging! There’s a process, you know. 
First, I get the preliminary, unsure, partial, undecided, indefinite, questioned stuff out of the way.
Then I go on to the clear, positive, solid, encouraging, uplifting, world-changing stuff. 
I need to get past “me” before I can get to the gems. 
Let me get “me” out of the way first. 

Page One lays open before me, staring me down. I don’t blink.

The Pen is mightier than the Sword. I take Pen in Hand.
I set Pen to Paper.
I write. 
Easily at first, as I record my joy over this new volume. Then more haltingly, as I think through the challenges I’m currently facing as a new foster mom. We are a childless, middle-aged couple who took in a “temporary daughter” with open hearts and absent minds. I am the liaison to the blood family and the “bad cop” for the relationships under our roof.  
Ill-equipped is an understatement. As one girlfriend put it when I first told her: “What do you mean you have a 21-year-old living with you? Good grief! At least I had twenty-one years to learn how inadequate I am. You got thrown in the deep end!” 

Deep end, indeed! And I’m one who watches underwater scenes in adventure movies through my fingers. I wish I could have seen the trailer of this chapter of my life before buying the popcorn.

The Pen accelerates, recording recent joy-filled gifts and blessings: the thank-you note for my presentation at church last Sunday, the highly-anticipated weekend with an old (read: long-time) friend, Mom’s good report from the doctor, and the safe arrival of our service team at the orphanage in Africa. There is so much to be grateful for. I don’t need Oprah to tell me to make a list. 

I feel no need to rush this contemplation. It will end when it’s finished. And it does, when the strawberry flavor of last Spring, and salty breeze of last Summer waft back to my memory. Weren’t those shortcakes delicious! Didn’t that two-week vacation just fly by! The force of the surf at high tide, the stars beyond number in the cloudless sky, the sweetness of the first fruits of each harvest, I sit speechless before the not-at-all-random creation. Now, alone, comforted and understood, I lay my skill, my talent, my art, on the altar before the Creator of the universe, the Father to the fatherless, the Rock on Which I stand, Who will meet me again tomorrow morning to write in my New Journal.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Faith,  Family,  and Freedom

Friends, please excuse this five-month absence. As I mentioned in my last blog, this motherhood stuff does not come naturally to me, having had no practice in my first 62 years. Indeed, the Summer of 2015 slipped right past me. 

So on this glorious fall day, I’m back at my keyboard. Slight breeze blowing, few leaves falling, sunshine streaming low through the trees.  These are the aspects of Autumn that I appreciate. On the other hand, driving west after 4pm and the earlier sunsets are not among my favorite traits of the season. Still, fall is a great time to reduce the pile of “to be read” books on my nightstand. 

It won’t surprise you that I had been gifted some months ago with another wonderful book by my friend, Anne. It is not a new publication (the copy I have is a Tenth Anniversary Edition), but the New York Times Book Review Section is not the first part of the Sunday paper I reach for. ((You know me, it’s the crossword puzzle in the magazine section.))  

Please welcome to your own "must read" list James McBride’s The Color of Water. I opened the book on Wednesday, and chided myself for having waited so long. I put it down to run errands for two days, and finished it this Saturday morning. Engrossing? Yes. Enthralling? Yes. Compelling? Definitely.  An excellent investment of your time (which will fly by)? Without question!

The sub-title is A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. His dedication reads "... for my mother, and her mother, and mothers everywhere." But his story is different, just as each one of our stories is different. 

His mom was Jewish, born in Poland in 1921. Her Jewish name was Ruchel which was changed to Rachel when they moved to America, and eventually to the even more American-sounding Ruth. Her father was a traveling rabbi, her mother, a polio victim. When he stopped traveling, he opened a grocery store in the black neighborhood of a small southern town, where the whole family worked every day but Saturday. 
               Ruth's family said kaddish and sat shiva when she married the author's black, Christian, preacher father. She was dead to them.

What is the book about? Race? Yeah. Faith? Sure. Education and opportunity? That too. But mostly it's about facing challenges, training the next generation to do the same, and daring to stand up for one's inalienable rights, even before a government body takes it upon itself to decide who has them. Ruth raised twelve children, put them all through college, and counts among them doctors, educators, college professors, and ... oh, yes... a musician/composer/writer.  

The title comes from a conversation the author had with his mom about whether God was black or white. 
         "He's not black or white. He's a spirit." 
         "What's a spirit?" 
         "Stop asking these questions! What color is water? That's the color God is.”

There can be no broad-brushing of the issues "of racism, sexism, classism, and socioeconomics” without diminishing the importance and impact of this book. As the author notes in the Afterword:

“… hard-line intellectuals have already had a field day with this book, using it to promote every sort of sociopolitical ideology. But at the end of the day, there are some questions that have no answers, and then one answer that has no question: Love rules the game. Every time. All the time. That’s what counts. 
 “For me, this book has always been, and will forever be, a book about a mother and her children, and how that mother raised her children with love and respect and God.”

Like I said, different, like everybody else’s.

At the end of Chapter 21, Ruth recalls a particular Yom Kippur ritual where her mom waved a chicken over their heads:

 “I don’t want to do that in America,” [Ruth would] say.
 But [her mother would] say, “That chicken is just showing God we’re thankful for living. It’s just a chicken. It’s not a bird who flies. A bird who flies is special. You would never trap a bird who flies.”
         She used to sit in a little rocking chair in her room upstairs and watch the birds. She’d lay crumbs on the ledge of her window and the birds would gather there and eat while she sang to them, but she’d always shoo them away and make them fly off so they’d be free again. She had a little Yiddish song she used to sing to them. “Feygele, feygele, gay a veck.” “Birdie, birdie,  fly away.”

To all moms and honorary-moms who have birdies in your lives and on your ledges, feed them, sing to them, but be diligent
  to shoo them away, 
  to their freedom, 
   to go where they are supposed to go 
                                  to become who they are supposed to become.