Why

“Why do you have chairs?”

“Why do you have a backyard?”

“Why did you make us bread?”

“Why did you put nuts in the bread?”

“Why does the dog have legs?”

“Why do you have like lights?”

“Why do you have flowers?”

“Why do you like ‘Grandma-Birdie Days?'”

“Why do you have a porch?”

“Why did you get me a bike?”

“Why do you have a flag?”

Five hours and a thousand questions later, his mother returns. I am amazed but the volume of Why questions, a seemingly never-ending, bottomless well of curiosity in him. I am wrung out.

When does that relentless questioning end? Does it? Or do we begin to seek out the answers on our own in an eternal questing to know and understand?

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Vigil for the Dead

At 11:40 the church was ablaze with lights, a shining, welcoming jewel in the darkness. I had changed into dress pants and blouse out of respect for the solemn, sacred duty ahead.

I rattled the front door. Locked. Checked the side entry. Also locked. I returned to the front and, being early, waited outside. The warm wind whipped through my hair. It was late, but comfortable enough to spend a few minutes seated on a bench awaiting my time slot. I wanted there to be some overlap in case there were instructions to pass on.

At ten ’til I rapped on the door. Moments later, a woman opened the door, scarf wrapped around her hair, still reading out the Psalms from the psalter she carried.

The deceased lay in his coffin, peacefully facing the altar area, the faces of Christ, the Theotokos, angels and saints surrounding us. Above him the beautiful chandelier, imported from Eastern Europe, is ablaze, brass shining. Candles flicker from candle stands, from tall, narrow jars beneath various icons, and next to the readers stand.

As the clock flipped to midnight, the reader finished one Psalm and handed off to me. As I began, she made her reverence to the icons as we usually do when entering or upon leaving a service, and hurried off into the night.

I enjoy chanting. Chanting in this temple is a delight. The architecture allows the voice to fill the space with little effort. Something happens as I pray, read, chant, or sing. It feels as if my voice is joined by something unseen.

My head turned to catch a perceived movement from the corner of my eye. Though I saw nothing, I felt something there–something glorious, ethereal, warm, bright, otherworldly. At this point, it would have seemed normal to find angels winging overhead.

The newly departed looked peaceful. He had not been embalmed, so I was surprised to find him looking like this. It was an honor to chant the Psalms for him on his last night above ground.

Have you ever noticed how many of the Psalms talk about death? Standing vigil, you become aware in a new way. Reading aloud of God’s goodness, His faithfulness, His mercy, and His glory in the presence of the dead imbues it with a sense of depth, of eternity, of…dare I say, holiness.

There aren’t proper words for what happened last night. The departed, asleep in his beautiful handcrafted casket, resting in this peaceful ceremony, so full of humanity in its best form, and in the divine, the veil between this world and the heavenly so thin it seems a mere breath could pierce it and heaven blaze through…it seemed entirely reasonable and to be expected for the deceased to sit up, to rise from his casket and join in praising God.

I was surprised he didn’t.

This duty, this task, despite chanting myself hoarse, did something unexpected. I went, thinking I was doing a service for the deceased and for his family, but left feeling honored and privileged to have been able to participate. Something happened there that is more than reading, more than praying, simply more. I sense that I am changed in some way. I feel more…human.

Quiet Radical-Drafts From the Past

I am at heart a quiet person. I like stillness; I enjoy silence. I like quiet talks with friends and I love to sit and read beside other people I love who are enjoying their own quiet pursuits.

I enjoyed a quiet walk to the beach with my brother and his wife on a recent weekend. While I would enjoy knowing what my brother thinks on a wide variety of subjects, we are not people who speak easily of deep things, particularly if we are contemplating or meditating on things. Mid-contemplation is not when we are able to speak, or so it seems to me. I, at least, am unable to have discussions on ideas and situations which I am musing on. So often, having spoken before I was ready, or expressed a strong opinion which I later thoughtfully reversed, I am ashamed of my haste. Having in the past published some of those opinions, I am presented, from time to time, with evidence of my former self. I’m not sure I like her very much. But I read, beneath the strident tone and harsh words, the fear that gripped me. I was afraid of so many things, but probably of myself most of all.

It is so easy to be fearful and anxious in these days where the world is loud and insistent, full of it’s own troubles and wanting to make them yours. Red-faced politicians and pundits holler at us, social media assaults us with perversity. People assault my heart with their anger.  I’m not suggesting there aren’t things to be angry about, and I’m so pleased with people who can DO SOMETHING about the things which disturb them, but I am suggesting that I needlessly let my inner stillness be broken by the clamor of the outside. I don’t want to live in a bubble and I don’t think I do.

The way I deal with the homeless problem is face-to-face, one-on-one, as I am faced with the homeless man outside 7-11 on a frigid day. When I am faced with the young couple who appear to be carrying all their worldly goods on their backs, or the woman pushing her cart full of the things that make her feel safe, even though she swelters in the summer and shivers in the winter. When I come to the woman in her wheelchair, the one who is rumored to live in the woods, this is where my thoughts must become action. If I pass her by, that is one action. If I stop and talk, or bring her water, that is another. And while some people might simply act, my acts are usually results of contemplation. Facing who I am takes time. Changing my thought processes takes time. I struggle to talk in those times, to grasp thoughts that vanish like mist, to explain concepts I see vaguely, like an unfamiliar landscape through fog. I have to wait until the thoughts solidify, till the concepts are seen clearly.

Weird Guy-Drafts From the Past

I think of him as “weird guy.” You know, as in that weird guy who never looks at you, and never responds when you say “good morning” or “hi.”

She is “Cruella DeVille.” I call her that because with her particular hairstyle and big fur coat (probably faux) she resembles the villain from 101 Dalmatians movie.

I think of this woman I know as “she who must be obeyed” because she likes everything her own way and gets upset if anything is moved. She acts as if she is in charge of absolutely everything.

These are my confessions. I tend to think these things are funny, but today I’m struck by the thought that I must be kinder than this. I am mocking these people in my own mind, and thus I am not treating them with the respect I should give to another human, made in the image of the divine.  If our thoughts determine our lives, if our thoughts emanate from our hearts, then my heart is critical, prideful, and mean.  Lord have mercy!

I have excused this as humor, and it IS funny.  I can be VERY funny. But it is cruel.  Would I call that woman Cruella Deville to her face?  That would be mean.  Why is it acceptable to call her that when she isn’t present, even if it is in the recesses of my heart? It isn’t!  This is the point.  And to retrain my mind and heart is the task of today and tomorrow and every day thereafter.

How to do so is another matter.  It’s okay to have nicknames for people, but I need to make them something positive, charming, lovely.  I recently re-read a series I wrote some time ago chronicling my adventures in a diner near my office. It was funny, true, but now I cringe when I read it. The nicknames I gave to people were so mean.  “Stalker 1”, “Stalker 2”, etc., as a sampling. The thing is that I would never have said those things to their faces. That is what tells me it was wrong. And if you aren’t into value judgments like that, perhaps you can teach me how you do it.

Chapter Titles-Drafts From the Past

“I’m writing a new book.” His voice and face displayed the triumphant expectation of deserved adulation. “It’s about our family.” He waited for my praise.

Horrors. 

“What family? Do you mean Grandma and Grandpa and how the whole family emigrated from Sweden and Norway? Or do you mean you, Mom and us kids.” My stomach churned.

“It’s about us!” he said, “Me and your mother and you four kids. I have so many stories to tell.” I looked at mom from the corner of my eye. She had a tightly controlled expression that would conceal her dread from most. I made careful note of it without letting anything show in my own expression.

He continued telling all the great stories as he remembers them.  His memory has been kind to him, it seems. And he edits out the ugly stuff. I think he edits those things not only from his manuscript, but from his memory as well. My memory is not so cooperative.

For a long time I did not want him to work on this book, but now I think I do. I don’t want him to publish it, but to give me the rights to the book so that I can edit it and get it ready to print.  I don’t think he would be happy with my revisions, however. I see this book as a sort of parallel Bible.  His version, then my version, or at least a combined version compiled by all of us kids.

For instance, to hear my dad tell it, my mom decided, at 7 months pregnant with my older brother, to make “one last backpacking trip” on the Pacific Crest Trail while she still could. This shows a remarkable lack of understanding of my mother, who dislikes backpacking, despite the decades of doing it. She would NEVER have suggested such a trip while pregnant or at any other time. It’s rather hilarious that he really has convinced himself that it was her idea. “You know that’s not true?” my mom questioned in a quiet voice. “Of course,” I laughed.

This came about during a visit that had stressed me greatly. My parents were not only distressed that I joined the Orthodox Church, but my dad was openly hostile and combative about it. My mom was less open about her anger, but let it show in quiet barbs, small nasty comments, verbal jabs that a polite woman leaves unchallenged.

I have spent considerable time thinking of potential chapter titles and, sadly, mine are often pointers to traumatic events that I’m sure Dad would leave out. Let’s not go into those. There are others that are amusing, “Mom Buys a Milk Truck”, “Chasing Fire Trucks”, “Vienna Sausages”, “Chores: or, Dog Poop and Vomit”, and “Killing the VW”.

Maybe it’s normal to rewrite history, remembering the stories in which we are heroes and forget the bad stuff. Maybe as I get older I will see myself as sweet and kind.

Nihilism-Drafts From the Past

I know a man who says he would kill himself before living without legs.

I know a man without legs.

I know many who support euthanasia as humane as they don’t believe there is value in pain.

I live my entire life in pain.

For some, it seems that life only holds meaning for them if it is a certain kind of life, one of usefulness, however that is defined, or of beauty and engagement with others on their own terms.

One man I know does not seem to find it incongruous to be totally opposed to abortion, but supporting euthanasia, or assisted suicide for end-of-life patients or the disabled. What I hear is “I wouldn’t want to live like that.” As if that is what matters. Even then, his objection to abortion is two-fold: he has a visceral disgust for the killing of the unborn, and he resents utterly that “the father” has no say in the process. But he sees no incongruity. He seems to find paralysis to be a fate worse than death, but watches Charles Krauthammer editorialize about economics and politics on a regular basis. Stephen Hawking has done amazing work from his wheelchair, his body increasingly locked up, but his mind free. It troubles me that this man sees himself as no more than the hands that can carry a tool, arms to lift burdens, and legs to carry him about. It seems he sees himself as little more than an animal.

It disturbs me.

Ticking, ticking, ticking -Drafts From the Past

All else slept on so I tiptoed through the living room to check the weather report on my phone.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

I looked to my left at the large clock on the wall. The second hand stood still as it had for months, since The Dude tried sleeping on the couch and found himself annoyed by the ticking. Other clocks kept their movement going silently.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Puzzled, but seeing nothing amiss, I checked the report to determine what to wear this spring day.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

My eye caught a hint of movement. Ah, the clock we bought at a thrift store some time ago, a lovely delicate ceramic thing which reminds me of my grandmother. I’ve never noticed the ticking before and have to wonder why. It sits less than three feet from my chair. Then it occurs to me that I have nothing else to capture my attention. No one else is in the room, the dog is still sleeping, no one is watching television, and in the silence I can hear what has been here all along.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Perhaps this is why we are to embrace silence. In the silence we can still our thoughts, or try, and we can hear what has been here all along.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

I look to the dark skies at night, remembering the skies of my youth, but these skies, though dark to my eyes, are too light from the combinations of the lights of civilization and most of the stars are hidden from me. I need the visual noise to go away to see what is here.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

I need the outward silence to realize how noisy my interior world is. I need to silence my loud thoughts to hear the “still small voice” in fullness.