Too Small a Pot?

Too Small A Pot?

(A small offering today, one that has been waiting in the wings.  After a mild winter it has been back to back snowstorms on the Front Range of Colorado and my thoughts have turned to my indoor plants, an eclectic bunch of oxygen generators that lift my spirits, especially on these dark winter days.)  

In May of 1977 I became the proud owner of a schefflera plant. I bought it from a nursery in Buffalo and brought it home in my 1976 Ford Maverick, blue with a white vinyl roof.

A couple years later, after we moved to Long Island, I took the plant to my office. It was in a twelve-inch pot, happy as a schefflera could be. New shoots erupted every season and the plant looked beautiful against the window. Whenever Cathy came to the office she told me I needed to repot the schefflera. The plant seemed happy so I rejected her overtures until we moved to Colorado.

Shortly before we left East Islip I repotted the plant in a much larger container and moved it to the Long Island apartment I kept for seven more years. Much to my chagrin the plant grew – like kudzu. The schefflera turned into a very spindly tree. Every time I returned to Long Island the plant looked like it had sprouted another arm. It looked like the leader of the Knights who say “Ni” in Spamalot. The plant made me want a nightlight. The person who watched the apartment for me watered the plant once a week. I thought of asking her to skip a month, or six. I should never have repotted the plant.

I had a friend who was a fine husband, a devoted father, a good pastor. Yet everyone told him he should leave his vibrant ministry to take a big church in a big city. Insinuating he lacked courage they would ask, “Are you afraid to grab the brass ring?” But my friend had already grabbed the brass ring. He loved his wife, tended his garden, cared for the parishioners in his small church. Like the protagonist in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, he loved well and was well loved. Nothing was broken. Nothing needed repotted. He had bloomed where he was planted – a happy man.

When I gave up my New York apartment I gave the gangly schefflera to one of Jana’s friends. Much as I disliked its looks I couldn’t throw it out. I’d had it for 36 years. Instead I cut it back, squeezed it into my SUV and took it to her house. It’s still in its gigantic pot. Jana’s friend says it is beautiful. I have my doubts.

Knowing One Place

Knowing One Place

There was a lean hiker who climbed New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock every day for seven years. One June, after an hour and a half scrambling up granite boulders, I saw him on the summit. It was my 4th or 5th trip up the second most climbed mountain in the world. (Mt. Fuji is first.)

Mr. Every Day Climber was carrying a walkie-talkie to relay the summit conditions to the rangers at the trailhead. I did not talk with him but my hiking partner did. Mr. Every Day said sure enough, he was the guy, and he had to get down to go to work. Not exactly an inspiring conversation.

Mr. Every Day knows every inch of every route up Monadnock. He knows the subtle changes in each season, and the exact spot where the skyscrapers of Boston can be seen on a clear morning. He knows the slabs of granite that hold warmth on a brisk fall day and misery in a January nor’easter. Mr. Every Day knows his mountain.

My paternal grandfather was a railroad man who lived on the left bank of the Ohio River all his days. My other grandfather was a Kentucky farmer who rarely ventured beyond the next county. Both men knew every nook and cranny in their neck of the woods. They gained the wisdom that comes from knowing one place.

And me? As I write this I am sitting in an A-321 flying 30,000 feet over Missouri. Last December 31st marked 20 straight years in which I flew more than 100,000 miles. I can tell you everything you care to know about a 727-200 or an E-175. In my sleep I hear the propeller wash of a deHavilland Dash-8 and the three bell signal the captain gives the flight attendant five minutes before we land. Why do I take this short detour to commercial aircraft? Because that is what I know. I do not live on the banks of the Ohio River. I fly over it – quickly, thoughtlessly. I do not have the wisdom that comes from knowing one place. I have the wisdom that comes from knowing one airline. Somehow it just does not compare.

I have recently found myself in uncharted territory, a brave new world for someone like me, a serial overachiever. I have entered a land devoid of striving. There is no one to impress, nothing to prove, no kingdoms to create or evils to conquer. I am a new resident in the land of being, undistracted from taking in the four robins that stayed for the winter, or the mourning doves nesting beneath my aspen. I watch fingers of snow claw their way over the Continental Divide and listen to the winds howl against my worried windowpanes. I do not beat myself up for being unproductive. With Mary Oliver I declare, “Tell me, what else should I have done. Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?”

Mary Oliver concludes The Summer Day by asking, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Today, as clarity arrives on tentative wings, pixel by pixel, I am only certain of what I will not do. I will not return to the Kingdom of Striving. I will not revisit the State of Perpetual Production. I will not fly over 100,000 miles again this year. I will keep my feet on the ground. I will fall down into the grass and be idle and blessed. I will pay attention to the robins and the mourning doves. I hear there is wisdom there.






Moving On

The Soul Lives Contented

The soul lives contented by listening 

If it wants to change into the beauty

Of terrifying shapes it tries to speak

That is why you will not sing

Afraid as you are of who might join with you

The voice hesitant and her hand

Trembling in the dark for yours

She touches your face and says

Your name in the same instant

The one you refused to say

Over and over

The one you refused to say

                                                David Whyte

The illusion of control was my comfortable companion. I kept it in my hip pocket, near my wallet. I unfolded it whenever I smelled panic. The future was mine to create. I controlled the variables.

Since I kept my pocketed illusion all the way through my 50s, I suppose it was working pretty well for me. If I didn’t like something thrown my way, I ducked. As a successful white male, my ability to dodge bullets appeared to be a divine right. I was comfortable. Then came the traumatic occasion in which I joined the human race and was forced to relinquish my illusion of control. I became angry with the people who took it from me. I ranted and raved and called down fire from the heavens. I was royally pissed.

Now that a fair amount of time has passed, I am reminded of how easy it is to hold onto hurt and blame and how hard it is to hold onto joy. Anger is a strong emotion, worthy of consideration now and again, but never worthy of an extended stay. After a certain point it is you being devoured at the feast of anger, made bite-by-bite a little less human, more a caricature than an embodied soul.

Richard Rohr says we suffer when we are not in control. He also reminds us that if you happen to be human, suffering is the norm. The question is not if we suffer, but if we suffer well. For all the distortions it bears on account of its adherents, I think Christianity still stands a notch above. It is the only religion in which God comes to earth and suffers with us, an acknowledgement of the random and capricious nature of things. God saying, “I’m so sorry, but this is a dark and dangerous ride. Proceed with caution.”

On this frightening ride most of us carry at least two iterations of our selves. Rohr calls one the false self. This lesser self is convinced we are unworthy of love. Since that self is sure our flaws will find us out and cause us to be banned from the garden, we are especially vulnerable when someone wounds the false self. Rohr suggests when we are offended and hurt by others, it is virtually always the false self that suffers the wound. The true self is already one with God, loved and accepted for simply existing. It cannot be destroyed by the insensitivity of others. It is grounded in love. When we are able to abide in the true self we can say with Dag Hammarskjold, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes!”

My decision to transition to life as a female came from within, from my true self. But great unkindness came my way and found its target in my false self. I was wounded, angry and hurt. Much of my anger was appropriate, even necessary. But anger too long nursed becomes bitterness, an emotion with no redemptive arc. There comes a time when you must move beyond anger and leave bitterness to fend for itself.

It is time to move on. I have been gnawing on my own bones long enough. For those who read the anger I chose to express on the written page, I am grateful for your graciousness. For those afraid I am giving up on a worthy cause, there is nothing to fear. My righteous anger is alive and well. Injustice toward humans is never okay. It is always wrong, and we all share the responsibility to be a part of the solution. I will not back down from the fight.

But I am ready to let go of the personal anger that only wants to nurse old wounds. I have dealt with the reality of what has been done. This is no cheap superficial moving on. I have wrestled with God and God did not decline the fight. We wrestled till morning, and the new dawn showed no open wounds, only scars.

It is not about me. It is about all who suffer – those close to me- Cathy – my children – their spouses – and those distant, the countless souls wounded by the capriciousness of nature, the arrogance of man, the silence of God. It is time to make crooked ways straight. It is time to speak with great confidence and paradoxically, great humility. It is time to trust my true self and speak the name I have been refusing to say, over and over.

That name is not Paula. I have no difficulty calling myself Paula. The name I have been refusing to say is Beloved.

I Thought I Made My Grandfather Die

I Thought I Made My Grandfather Die

When I was a child I had a pet rabbit named Lightning, one of a succession of rabbits. One was run over by a car. Dad didn’t tell me until I was twenty-three. He always said, “I dunno, he just got out of the cage and ran away.” Yeah, right Dad.

We donated another rabbit, Cotton, to the Akron Zoo after it scratched my arm and left a scar I can see to this day. The zoo had a little rabbit village. Cotton went with the other rabbits into the little church where they put the feed. I liked the idea of being fed in church.

Lightning didn’t get a chance to chow down on feed at the little rabbit church. One Saturday morning I came downstairs and Dad called me from the basement. “I have some bad news. Lightning died.” There was no apparent cause of death. He just died. But as I walked away from the house toward Pritchard’s Drug Store, prepared to drown my grief in a nickel’s worth of candy, I worked the sad magic of a ten-year-old.

I knew my grandfather was sick. Dad had told me about the cancer around Christmas time. At some point soon I would have to experience the same emptiness I had felt five months earlier when Mom’s father had died. The same feeling I was having now, at the corner of Roslyn and Maple, as I walked to the drug store. Moving across the concrete squares, taking care not to step on a single crack, I thought the terrible thought out loud – “If Lightning has to die, then Papa might as well die too. Let’s get it all over with.” There. I said it. I prayed it. And then I stepped on a crack. A few days later Papa died. Just as I had prayed. I dared not talk to a soul about it. All through the funeral all I could think about was that I had prayed a terrible prayer an awful God had answered.

I trudged unknowingly through the cycles of grief. Every now and then I thought about what happened at the corner of Roslyn and Maple, but I pushed it deep inside. I grew up and the torn memory was relegated to some cobwebbed corner in my heart. But these things always find their way to the light of day.

Thirty-three years after my grandfather died I was on vacation with my family. After getting gas at a station just off Interstate 70, I looked across the highway to a cemetery on a hill. Though I really had no idea where my grandfather was buried, I had a sense this serene spot in the gently rolling hills of eastern Ohio was his final resting place. I had only been there once, on a cold April day in 1961. Yet here it was the summer of 1994, and I was confident an unhealed memory lay nearby.

Over the mild protestations of my family I headed into the cemetery and drove around until it felt right. I stopped the car and started walking past the gravestones, all flat markers flush with the grass. I walked about thirty feet and looked at seven or eight markers before my heart caught in my throat. There was Papa’s grave. I fell to my knees and cried. I pulled weeds away from the marker, touched the stone and traced the letters. I had not been to that spot in a third of a century. I had never asked where the grave was. I had not wanted to know.

But now, the grave marker wet with tears, I finally redeemed the memory of a child’s lonely prayer. I thanked God the Spirit speaks for us the words we do not know to speak, and I finally forgave a little child for being, well, a little child, full of the kind magical thinking that can hobble a memory for decades.

It is all these little graces, given quietly in tender moments, that convince me there is a God in whose image I am made, a God who gently cleanses vulnerable souls.





A Matter of Perspective

A Matter of Perspective

We were shooting television shows in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, a picturesque Canadian fishing village.  I was on camera working on the third of three segments of a 15-minute show. Every single take had been interrupted by some intrusive sound – a boat motor, a truck backing up, seagulls so noisy they weren’t ambiance but interruptions, a mother yelling at her child – those kinds of things.

Everyone was desperate to get the segment done before Nova Scotia’s notorious tide started coming in.  I was on the last couple of sentences of a take that was going well when I saw a worker turn on a power washer to clean the walls of a boathouse across the bay.  With the great difference between the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) and the speed of sound (.213 miles per second) I knew I had a few seconds to finish the segment before the sound made its way to our set.  I was down to the very last phrase when the power washer arrived and the take was ruined.

We tried three or four more times but the power washer was just too loud. Finally one of our production assistants drove over to the boathouse and paid the guy $100.00 to stop for the remainder of the afternoon, but by then the tide was coming in and we had to strike the set.  When we got back to the hotel we were all tired and cranky. I could usually shoot 10 – 12 segments in a day, but we had only managed 8. We would have to work twice as hard the next day.

I remember that day in Lunenburg very well because it was September 10, 2001.  While shooting the next morning on a bluff overlooking Portuguese Cove, our videographer received a call from his brother who worked in the Air Force Strategic Command. His face turned ashen as his brother told him America was under attack. Suddenly the previous day’s frustrations were put into perspective. They meant nothing. There was a whole new bar for what could be considered disturbing.

Over the past year I have had my times of self-pity. It’s been tough, the hardest thing I have ever done. I have lost so much – not just jobs and financial security, but friendships and good work. For two or three years I had been doing the best work of my life, and I knew it. Now, suddenly, no one wanted me to do that same work. Everyone says, “You could have anticipated this?” I did, in fact, anticipate this response from the Evangelical world, but that still doesn’t take away the sting of rejection.

Two movies I have recently seen have reminded me how small my suffering is compared to others. As I wrote two weeks ago, I was profoundly moved by Selma. I was equally moved by Morten Tyldum’s brilliant movie, The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing, the father of theoretical computer science. Turing saved an estimated 14 to 21 million lives in World War II by breaking the Nazi Enigma code. His thanks was to be prosecuted for being gay and forced to undergo chemical castration. The things humans do in the name of moral outrage. Turing died at 41 years of age, his death officially recorded as a suicide. In 2013 Queen Elizabeth granted a royal pardon to Turing, though his conviction has never been overturned.

The offerings I have brought to this world have been modest by any measure, certainly when compared to those of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Alan Turing. They made the world a better place and brought about lasting change, though their great accomplishments were accompanied by great suffering and early death. What I have gone through, by comparison, is little more than the disruption of a rogue power washer on a sunny Canadian day. For most of my days I have lived a very privileged life. Only now am I beginning to taste, in just a small way, what so many have known through the ages. It really is all a matter of perspective.