Stage directions from the Bible

I am a huge fan of the works of William Shakespeare. Like a lot of people in strange lines of work, I was an English major, and so I was exposed to a lot of Shakespeare, not just the obligatory eighth-grade reading of MacBeth and tenth-grade reading of Romeo and Juliet, but throughout college. Last fall I had an ongoing discussion with my son about why it would behoove him, as a possible college English major himself, to take a Shakespeare elective in his last semester of high school. (He is having none of it.)

randjAs I’ve reflected these past few weeks on the Gospel of Mark, the thing that has me thinking about Shakespeare is not any particular play, but stage directions. Shakespeare’s stage directions were always very spare, essential three- or four-word instructions that Shakespeare left, instructions that always included a verb and only more if absolutely necessary. The most famous of these comes from “The Winter’s Tale”: Exit, pursued by a bear. Somewhere in the development of playwriting—and if your studies took you out of the 17th century you will know more than I do about this—stage directions became far more than the bare essentials. Some playwrights seem to need to spell out every minute detail of a scene, leaving nothing to individual directors, producers or, heaven forbid, the actors.

Mark’s gospel is like Shakespeare’s stage directions. Especially this Epiphany season. Our gospels resound with Epiphany verbs. These are the verbs that reflect what Jesus did. They also are our one-word stage directions for being followers: Come, proclaim, repent, believe, call, leave, go, follow, teach, heal. 

Much is left to the imagination. And, we hope, to the Spirit. As we strive to follow, believe, go, or teach, no one is going to tell us where to stand or what to wear or what to do with our hands. That’s up to us. Gloriously challenging and freeing. What Epiphany verbs are going to direct you in the coming weeks?

The fourth day of Christmas: no cats, not sorry

IMG_3371The first Christmas we lived in our house we had cats. Well, we had cats for lots of Christmases, but the first year, they were new, rambunctious kittens. So we got a live, potted tree instead of a dead, cut one. That was in 1993; a guy would drive around in his big pick-up delivering the trees with copious instruction on how to care for them. Then he’d pick them up again a week or so later—any longer and it would hurt the tree to stay indoors. Then he’d sell the tree, along with a hundred others, so some tree farm out in the country. His customers were basically renting the trees from him on their way to being delivered to their permanent home. In 1993 this rental cost about $35, back then the same price as a medium-gorgeous noble fir. After transitioning, once our cats simmered down, back to traditional trees, I looked the guy up a few years ago and he was still doing his thing, but asking $150. I continue to opt for a cut, dead tree.

We bought our cats Christmas presents every year: catnip toys or special treats. One year, I got them these ornaments that we hung each year at the bottom of the tree for them to bat around. We still hang them there even now that the cats have both been gone for several years.

IMG_3371Before we became parents, we had friends over for dinner and we spent the evening talking about our cats the way others talk about their children. A year or two later we had all had kids, and our cats were demoted from being family members to pets. As they got older, I realized I really wasn’t that kind of a cat person. I liked them young or middle-aged, didn’t mind if they were cuddly or indifferent, but wasn’t going to be a good care-for-them-by-any-means-necessary cat owner. I was grateful when they both passed on, and am grateful for the past few years of being pet-free. These little guys hanging from the tree are all the cats we need.

The third day of Christmas: what does this bug have to do with the Northwest Industrial area?

IMG_3372This bug is one of a collection of bug ornaments given to us by my mother one year. I think everyone got bugs from her that year. We have a grasshopper, a ladybug, this fellow, and a multitude of beetles. (Because, as we know from J.B.S. Haldane, “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”)

This ornament reminds me, every time I see it, of my mother’s far-reaching creativity and aesthetic. She is a woman of many talents, and brings an artistic flair to everything: sewing, cooking, home decor, gift-wrapping, horticulture. I have none of these talents but I like to think that what I have gotten for her is an equally wide-ranging aesthetic appreciation. Only with my mother can I laugh and giggle about the collection of bugs she gave us for Christmas. Only with her can I drive through Portland’s Northwest Industrial area and say: Isn’t this gorgeous? For that, as for so many things, I give thanks.industrial-area

The second day of Christmas: What do you collect?

IMG_3373Every year I think I’m going to have a smaller, simpler tree. Or a themed tree; do you ever do that? Restrict the tree to ornaments that are white, or hand-made or given to us as gifts, or angels, or birds?  Each year, no matter what, my handful of Margaret Furlong ornaments, which I miraculously store in their original boxes year after year, are always the first ornaments on the tree.

Each year when I re-encounter these white porcelain ornaments with their satisfying weight my mind goes to phenomenon of collecting things. Some people do, and some don’t. I’m in the “some don’t” category, but I always want to jump ship into the sea of collectors.

I get oddly envious when I encounter others’ collections: pie birds, vintage bottles, conch shells, antique tape measures, or anything else that it would never occur to me to collect until I see it on someone else’s shelves. Years ago I worked with someone who had a snow-globe collection. She was being interviewed by someone from the New York Times and she didn’t want to have the person come to her apartment, so she brought all her snow-globes into the office. They lined all the shelves on three walls; probably about 300 snow-globes (she really didn’t want that photographer in her apartment!). They chronicled every trip she’d ever taken, as well as every friendship with anyone who cared enough about her or her collection to contribute.

What make some people collectors?

To a non-collector, it looks like it’s about loyalty and discipline. These are not qualities I lack, so there must be something else. It’s not like I have trouble holding onto things. But my things are more accumulations than collections. Yarn. Greeting cards. Knick-knacks. Perhaps the loyalty and discipline that sets collecting apart from accumulating is wed to particularity, a singularity of focus that sets collections apart from accumulation.

I’m left with more questions than answers. If I’m lucky, you who are collectors will comment: what do you collect? Why? What does it mean to you? What are your plans?

Ornamental thoughts….the first day of Christmas

IMG_3377Behold, a train. One of far too many Christmas ornaments in our family’s collection. Every year I try to cull through them; the past few years I’ve been somewhat successful. One of these years I will remember to get the box of cast-offs to someone who will appreciate them at just the right time of year. December, not February.

We got several train ornaments when my son was of the age when trains provided infinite excitement and collectibility. I realize that some for some people, this could be any age. For our boy, it was about three to six.

But this train ornament, today, is symbolic not of our family’s train era so much as of that  train that we all have running through our heads, that train that is at times fascinating, at times tedious.

Train of thought.

My husband and I are particularly fond of writer Nicholson Baker, who manages to make great writing out of even the most tedious train of thought. Long ago we incorporated the phrase “Nicholson Bakerian” into our domestic lexicon as a way of introducing a meandering yet—one hopes—followable explanation of the mental journey one took to arrive at what one is about to say. With the right level of consciousness and detail, there are no non sequiturs, ever.

What strikes me every Christmas when I put the ornaments on the tree are the associations I have with each ornament. Because I obviously have a little more time on my hands these days than I am used to (and you can read all about it here), my offering, for these twelve days of Christmas—in addition to the reminder to myself and my secular friends that there are, in fact, twelve days of Christmas—are brief meditations, meanderings, on these associations.

Ten things I learned about Mexico City, myself, or both

1) I love this city. Before I came, I knew only what most people know about Mexico City: it’s crowded (20 million at last count), with terrible traffic and smog. What I didn’t know until I got here is that it is monumental, as in full of monuments, like Washington, DC, or Paris. It is sprawling with hundreds of distinct neighborhoods that seem to go on forever, like London. It has its own distinct food smell, like Taiwan. It’s got that particular urban intensity that one finds in, say, Times Square. And I haven’t seen a bit of smog.

2) Unlike the only other part of Mexico I’ve been to (Puerto Vallarta, which hardly counts, really), I spent most of a day wandering throughout the most touristed parts of the city and saw only a handful of people who looked like they came from the U.S.

mexicomap3) Mexico City is really far away. Take a look at a map sometime. It’s pretty far south and east of most places people I know go in Mexico. This may explain why hardly anyone seems to speak English here, even in the areas that seem to cater to out-of-towners.

4) I must learn Spanish. I’ve always insisted that it’s easy to get around in places like this because a) everyone speaks some English (but they don’t, duh) and b) I can usually pick out every second or third word in written Spanish. (Big difference from generating speech. Duh.) On my first morning in Mexico City I put together the most spoken words in Spanish than I ever have in my life: Buen dia. Por favor: habla Ingles?

IMG_29955) There’s constant noise, and it doesn’t seem to bother me. For one thing, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything by spending two or three hours knitting in my hotel room while the life of the city goes on around me, because I can hear it. Street preachers, vendors hawking tamales and tacos, police directing traffic with their whistles, groups of children squealing with delight, street performers drumming and singing…all of it is right outside my room. The sounds change only slightly as the sun goes down, leaving more and more of the Catedral out my window in shadow.

6) The guidebooks aren’t kidding when they say it gets cold after the sun goes down. This morning out my window I saw people in down jackets, hats and scarves. By the time I went out around eleven, it was warm on the sunny side of the street. By three, everyone was in t-shirts. By seven, when I ate dinner at a rooftop terrace restaurant, I wished I had a hat and gloves.

7) My French is much better than I thought. Three years of high school French forty years ago has stood me in good stead. The problem is, it comes out when I’m groping for a word in Spanish. Hardly ever helpful. I love it here, but maybe I’m overdue for a trip to Paris sometime before my memory goes. Or Italy. Seems I know how to say molto bene and it keeps coming out when I mean to say something else entirely.

8) It’s much more fun traveling in a non-English-speaking country when I’m with my husband. He knows how to say please, thank you, and beer in about fifty languages, and much more than that in Spanish, French, and German. And he’s generally into adventure and learning. I’m not.

9) When you’re me and you’re traveling alone in a country where you feel awkward and out of place because you can’t speak the language and because, unlike every Mexican woman under the age of 80 who is not a nun, you don’t dye your hair, it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate every little victory. Getting a new watch battery. Finding the best side street café. Finally getting up the nerve to order and eat a street taco (and learning the difference, once more between picante and caliente—the former refers to spiciness; the later to temperature). Like when I bought postcard stamps, making hand motions for how many I wanted and even messing up the hand motions so the clerk both started laughing. She typed numbers on a calculator, showed it to me and asked: Quatorze? Si, quatorze! Gracias.

10) When I arrived I wondered whether I’d made a mistake to plan a couple of days here alone before joining a group for an 8-day retreat in Cuernavaca. Did I really want to spend 48 hours feeling vulnerable and stressed in a this crazy-stimulating place when I’m in a wee bit of internal turmoil due to recent changes and losses in my own life? How would I do in a disorienting place when I am interiorly disoriented to begin with? Turns out it’s been the perfect place to unravel and then collect myself in the middle of this hot mess of a city and get grounded. I love this city.

Your body, my body

Over lunch the other day I occupied myself by cutting out photos of naked people.

The photos came from the last three years of ESPN’s annual “The Body” issue, in which accomplished athletes from many different sports are depicted demonstrating their art. With no clothes on. It’s an amazing photo shoot that gets more impressive each year.

It occurred to me, when I put my scissors down on top of a satisfying stack of torn-out pages, that some of my ministerial colleagues and former parishioners might be shocked. These athletes are, after all, naked. And we don’t, after all, pay much attention to our bodies in the Christian tradition, except to complain among friends or to our doctor when we’re not happy with the way something is looking or working. (I dare say this is true of most people from most expressions of western religious tradition.)


But honestly, I was drawn to the photos because of my faith. I have enormous faith in what the human body is capable of, not just the bodies of these super-humans, but yours and mine. I used to look at photos like this and say: “I am not in the same species as that guy.” Or that gal. But I am. And so are you.

My faith tells me that God created us to move, and to push ourselves to move well and often. Never mind that some humans are born with long, thin, springy muscles and and broad shoulders while others are born with short, non-elastic muscles, narrow shoulders, and a pot-belly that just won’t quit. That’s almost beside the point. Each of us has the potential to get stronger, faster, more flexible and more agile than we are now. Everyone. Even just a little bit. And each of us has the potential for transformation in our bodies as we do in our hearts and minds. Conversion needn’t stop at the neck.

From Psalm 139:

My body was not hidden from you,
while I was being made in secret,
and woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book.

Those of you who are part of traditional churches probably just finished participating in some way in a fall stewardship process. Someone might have asked you to think prayerfully about how to spend the time, talent, and treasure you’ve been given. Did you think about your body as a treasure? As I think about my own stewardship of time, talent, and treasure, I don’t want to forget about stewardship of my body.