Monday, February 20, 2012

For an Awesome Young Lady

Once Upon a Time, I wanted to do a project. It was Christmas and I was going home on leave, but I wanted to do some kind of cool thing. I also had a cousin that I hadn't gotten anything for, and as I am her confirmation sponsor, I thought it ought to be something that some thought and effort went into. So I thought to myself, "Why not make a box? How hard could it be, right?"

Accordingly I bought some lumber. The original idea was to make the thing out of cedar, but the cedar wood at the hardware store was kind of cheap and grainy looking. The red oak, however, was smooth and crisp, hard and solid. It had a weight and smell to it that spoke to me, and as for the feel? Well, I'm a pretty tactile person, so I do not exaggerate when I say that I fell in love with the feel of it. So it was a match. I bought the wood and lugged it upstairs to the woodshop in the top of the shop.

Conscious of safety at all times, I ensured I had emergency medical equipment on hand in case of an emergency involving power tools.

 Also, on a job like this it is critical that you keep your strength up. Running the risk of passing out from hunger while operating powertools is simply irresponsible. So I made sure I was provisioned up. Then I ate my provisions in the first two minutes. Several more supply runs had to be made throughout the duration. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, you know?
 I measured twice...

 And cut once...
 And repeated a few doxen times, and voila! (That's French for, "It's not as easy as it looks, and there were some setbacks and a steep learning curve, but I managed to do it anyway, and decided to put it in montage format to condense the story-telling." That's really what voila means.)
 I decided to use a combination of glue and mechanical fasteners (dowel rod pins in holes in the planks.) The forms I built to keep the holes consistent weren't perfect so there was a little error. Some of the seams were really good, others were horrible. A little bit of sanding with a belt sander fixed that, but whenever I set up my own workshop, I think I'll probably use a disk sander instead.
 Once I got the holes drilled and was ready to pin the sides and bottom together I had to build frames so that I could clamp them. Otherwise there is too much gap and the seam ends up ugly with lots of glue bulging out. They still ended up like that. More sanding.
 This is the bottom of the chest.
 Once all the sections were set and sanded I had to put them together. The corners were all cut at a 45 degree bevel but I only had two large clamps. I tried using kettlebells to weigh it down, but they didn't put anywhere near enough pressure on it.

 So I used slats of wood, ratchet straps, and twine to jury rig 24 separate clamps, one for each corner and direction. It looked crazy but it worked. If i ever really get into woodworking I'll need a bunch of those long clamps.
 Starting work on the top.
 I took a break over Christmas day to enjoy the day. I sauted up this mushroom dish, which turned out to be really good. I don't know why the picture ended up on it's side though. It isn't on it's side in the folder I uploaded it from. Oh well. It's probably gremlins. If you're using a laptop I suggest you turn that on its side for optimal viewing. If you are using a desktop you could probably turn the monitor on its side, but lying sideways on the desk might be easier. While you're doing that I'll jot down the recipe as closely as I remember it.
2 things of white mushrooms
2 things of baby bella mushrooms
1 thing of oyster mushrooms
1 thing of shittake mushrooms.
First you heat the pan with olive oil just covering the bottom, and toss in the shittakes. Mince up 5-6 cloves of garlic and add them. Three or four heaping spoonfuls each of basil and oregano, and couple of tsps or tbsps (whichever is smaller) of ground rosemary. Then the oyster mushrooms (the shittakes should be getting rubbery by now if you've been adding things quickly. Throw in a bunch of thyme and sage and keep stirring. The heat should be on the lower side of medium by now. The baby bellas go in next,
 and the whites can go in shortly after. Now I would keep stirring for a while, but you're going to need to add salt (and I like just hint of pepper as well) so you'll just have to keep adding, stirring and tasting unti it is just the right amount. You want it to bring out the flavor of everything else, not take over. When its done you should eat it while it is still hot. It probably wouldn't be good leftover.

There should always be food and family. Whoever invented those two things would have my vote if He was running for president of the universe.
 Back to work, putting the top together.
 You can tell I was wearing the headphones while I used the belt sander. My entire head is covered with sawdust, except for the one strip right across the middle. If it looks like my mouth is hanging open it's because I'm singing along to some L'Angelus.

 Top and bottom done, mostly, but not attached to each other. Getting them to line up, while I was pretty close all things considered, still tooks some creative sanding.
 Inscribing the lid. I borrowed my sister's woodburning kit, and after I finally figured out how to use it, it went pretty well.
 This is the inscription, traced and partially burned.
 Spille half my varnish. Oops.
 The varnishing was the hardest part. The darn stuff wouldn't set. It's supposed to be applied in temperatures between 50 and 90 degrees farenheit, but the weather took a turn for the arctic. It hardly got above ten degrees I think, that whole week, so I had to keep the stove going in the shop constantly. As you can see, the shop isn't fully weatherproofed yet (my brother is working on it.) The warmest place was at the top of the stairs with the trapdoor to the upstairs shut. So that's where I stashed the pieces while they were drying. That was a tricky bit of work, trying to move heavy pieces, wet with fresh varnish, without smudging them or dragging them through the dust. It worked, sort of.
 Layn wanted to do a project.
 Archie and the cat. "Dude, it is too dang cold out. How about a truce. I won't tell if you won't."
 All finished from the back.
 All finished from the front.
 It's even finished on the inside!
This post has been burning a hole in my pocket since December, but I could post it until it arrived because I didn't want the surprise spoiled. Totally worth the wait. :-D.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

How Boys Become Men

This evening, after I finished my kickboxing routine, I decided to go out and enjoy a little kettlebelling before I was done for the night. Accordingly I went out to the truck, unstrapped the 44kg kettlebell I keep in the back of it, and started doing swings. My goal was 20 sets of 10, although I got a little froggy in the middle of the workout and threw in two sets of twenty (took the frogginess right out of me.)

As I was nearing the end of my workout a little boy came out of one of the nearby apartments. He was small enough to be about seven, but spoke well enough to be about ten, so I’m not sure how old he was. He was wearing black jeans and a black coat and carrying a power-ranger’s sword and I’d seen him running around the complex with other kids before. This time he walked right up to me, bold as brass, and said, point blank, “Are you strong?”

I chuckled (under my breath) and said, “Strong enough to lift this thing.” I nudged the kettlebell with my toe.

The young feller looked down at the ugly chunk of metal and strode over to it with a swagger practically oozing testosterone. He seized the iron handle in his two small but mighty hands (they didn’t even come close to wrapping all the way around) and heaved. He heaved with vigor. He heaved with vim. The kettlebell scraped on the sidewalk as it slid a little, but it weighed, I would guess, roughly twice what he did. He let go with a gasp, “Whoa! That’s heavy!”

I laughed a little bit, not in an unkind way, but he wasn’t finished yet. He manfully stepped back up to the plate, as it were, and once again gripped the iron beast with determined mitts. He pulled and pulled and pulled, and this time managed to tip it a little to one side. “Don’t hurt yourself,” I said, momentarily falling into my obligatory role as responsible adult. He let go, huffing and puffing.

“You’re a bit small for that, kiddo,” I told him, sympathetically. “You’ll have to grow into it.”

But he ignored my condescending remark with righteous scorn, and undaunted, seized hold of his enemy one more time. His face was focused, his miniscule fingers were clenched, his every fiber rocked with masculinity. Mighty was the struggle! He tipped it, he tilted it, he rolled it, and dragged it, but still one stubborn corner would not come off the ground. With a final, all-or-nothing effort, he pulled it on top of his bootlace (which was completely untied) and let go of it. “Whoosh,” he said. “I almost got it.”

“Yeah you did,” I agreed, because he had.

He turned to walk away, but it was the kettlebell’s turn now, and it yanked back on his bootlace and would not let go. “What the…” He exclaimed, glaring at his nemesis. I lifted it up so he could run away, calling over his shoulder, “I almost got it!”

A few minutes later he came running back out of his apartment. This time he had added a hood and some sort of face wrap, transforming his coat into a ninja suit. He was tearing across the yard for all he was worth, but he spared enough breath as he went by to say, “Sorry, buddy, but I got to go. See you.” And he was gone.

That is a kid who is practically made of greatness. Blessings on him!

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Dutchman's Wife

Margaret awoke while it was still dark. Hans had coughed, and his wheezing breaths had paused, then stopped for too long and it had awakened her. He was breathing again now, and she allowed herself to relax. It wouldn't be long now, she knew. He could not hang on much longer, and it was better so. She reminded herself vehemently that it was better so, and looked over at the clock. Her vision was not what it once had been, but she could just make out by the light of the embers on the hearth that both hands were pointing nearly straight down and just a little to the left of the six. It was about six-thirty. She sighed and slowly eased her old feet onto the floor, finding her old worn slippers. Then she knelt painfully for her morning prayers, letting Hans sleep as she always did these days. There was work to be done and no one to help her with it so she prayed quickly, sure that the Lord would understand. The chickens needed to be let out into the yard and fed, the eggs needed to be gathered, the fire needed to be built up both on the hearth and in the stove, the dog, an ancient German shepherd named Fala, needed to be shooed up from her bed in front of the hearth and sent outdoors. By the time Margaret had breakfast heating on the stove the sun was up and she could see the mills swirling through the frosty air in the distance, on the other side of the canals. If it warmed up enough they would walk along the river for awhile, if he felt strong enough.

Hans was awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, his thinning, tousled hair looking like straw in the shafts of sunlight from the barred window. His eyes were curious today. He didn't know where he was, or who he was. In some ways that was better. On the days that his mind was blank he was easier to deal with, more pliant. Other times, when he fancied he was a little boy again he ran everywhere as fast as his old limbs would take him and she could never keep up. The few and far between times when he knew things were the most painful. Then he would reproach himself and beg her pardon for being such a burden all these years. Today he was a blank slate. Perhaps she would teach him his alphabet, later. For now she had to feed and bathe and dress him.

He liked the food today, sometimes he didn't. The eggs and biscuits were warm and done perfectly, she still cooked as well as she ever had. He didn't want to bathe at first, until she convinced him, mostly by signs and gestures and the reassuring tone of her voice, that the water was warm and nice and wouldn't hurt him. Then she dressed him like a large baby in his old, old shirt and overalls, and the wooden shoes that no one ever wore anymore. She dressed him just like the children that they had never had, and in many ways he was very much her child. The innocence and trust of an infant looked out from his china blue eyes, or sometimes the petulance and weepiness of a two-year old, or the playfulness of a schoolboy.

"Aunty Lars," he said, suddenly.

She started. He was a child again, and in this particular fantasy he thought she was his long dead aunt. "Yes, Hans," she answered.

"Aunty, Captain Decker comes by today."

"Of course he does my love," she said. His eyes were the eyes of a little child, out of place in his gray stubbly face. There were only a few days in the month in which she could shave him without danger of him moving suddenly and cutting himself. He rocked back and forth and bounced a little, a potbelly he had never had as a boy jiggling as he did so.

"Can we go see him, Aunt? I want to wave him by."

"It is cold out today Hans," she said.

He laughed. "Silly Aunt, it is summer. See the tulips," he waved towards the window with a withered hand, blue splotches showing through the transparent skin.

"No dearest, that is snow."

"Yes Aunty, but the tulips are under the snow, of course."

"Asleep?" she asked.

"No Aunty. Tulips only sleep during the night. Don't you remember when you took me out into the garden at night and we watched the tulips go to sleep. But in the winter time they are awake beneath the snow."

"Maybe they are my love, maybe they are. But it is still cold out."

"I'll wear my muffler Aunt, and I will stay warm. Please let me go out and watch the boats."

She sighed. It was still cold out and would be until the afternoon, but he would not be kept indoors until then. She nodded and got his cap and coat off the pegs on the wall. He tried to put them on, as she wrapped up some cold biscuits and cheese for their lunch, but he couldn't remember what to do with the buttons. She buttoned them for him and let him carry the lunch because he begged her to. And they stepped out, a bent old man trying to run ahead of a gray haired old woman, she holding him by the hand and telling him to stay close. They walked across the fields, still covered with snow in some places, despite the warm April rain of the days before. The canals lay on the other side, and beyond them the Zuider Zee, and at the end of that, the dikes and the harbor, the ocean with all the ships that he used to build. A flat bottomed river boat drifted by, and Hans called out to them and waved. "Captain Decker, Captain Decker, it's me, Hans." The man in the striped shirt stared and then tried to pretend he couldn't hear. Hans continued to call, disappointment in his voice. He broke his hand out of Margaret's and tried to run after the boat for a few feet until he came up short of breath and had to stop, bent over and gasping. He cried and Margaret held him and told him it was all right, but he soon forgot all about it. A patch of tulip buds, breaking out through the snow caught his eye.

"Look, Sis, tulips. I'll pick some for you, pretty Betty." She was his older sister now and he scampered off to pull the tulips up by the roots and bring them back to her. He insisted on putting them in her hair and teased her about beaux that she never knew. They meandered down the banks of the canals into the village. Margaret pulled the tulip stalks out of her hair before they went in, but he didn't notice. He liked the town, it was so alive. He ran between the stalls in the busy market, calling merry greetings to long dead friends he fancied he saw. Most of the people were regulars, and they knew him and greeted him back. Hans begged Margaret to buy some ginger that she might make some ginger snaps, and she did, knowing that Alice, the pretty young girl who watched the stall, would let her give the ginger back as soon as Hans forgot about it, which he did in less than a minute.

He moved down by the shipyards, and she followed. She tried to turn him back, but for once he would not let her change his mind, though the day's outing was becoming longer and longer and very soon it would be too late for them to get back before dark. He would not listen, he wanted to go down to the shipyards. She remembered long ago, when he was a young man. She had first met him on her way home as she walked past the docks. Some sailors on shore leave had jeered and catcalled as she went by, and she had blushed bright red at their words, too frightened and embarrassed to do anything but put her head down and walk past, trembling and not daring to look right or left. And then, suddenly, a young man with broad shoulders and thick, calloused hands had stepped out from an alley and was walking beside her. He did not say a word to the group of jeering men, he just looked at them with his blue, blue eyes as cold as ice, and his hands clenched into fists. He had been a very tall man then, well over six feet and immensely strong from his work in the shipyards. The sailors shut their mouths and looked away. After that she had never walked home alone. He was always waiting for her at the end of the street, and he always walked with her, at least part of the way home. And she loved him for it.

Now he stared out into the dry docks, where men were building ships unfamiliar to him, new ships without sails that burned coal and put out a dreadful smoke. He didn't speak, but looked very hard as if he was trying to remember, but whatever thoughts and distant dreams that were dancing in his head, they faded and eluded him. She could almost see them like wisps of smoke curling away from his groping mind.

But perhaps they were not gone entirely. He took her hand in his and squeezed it with all his feeble strength and said. "Come on, little Meg, I'll walk you home. No one shall harm you while I'm around."

"I know they won't, Hans. I feel safe with you." She had always used to say that, as she leaned her head against his shoulder, and it had always made him beam with pride and happiness. It still did.

"You are safe with me, Meg. Pray God I am always around to keep you so." He walked with shuffling steps the length of the dock, going still further from the way home, following the streets that they had traveled so many times in their youth. He forgot his fancy before they made it to her father's old house, and they were now walking through narrow, deserted streets. He seemed no longer able to feel her hand in his and he began to tremble with fear. He hated to be alone. It was the worst when he got lost in his own mind, no longer able to see, hear or feel her. He called out to her, "Margaret, Margaret." He didn't hear her answer and kept calling, "Where are you Margaret?" There was nothing she could do but put her arms around him and hold him until the fit passed. Sure enough, he suddenly forgot about it as if it had never been, the evil of loneliness swallowed up in the childlike purity of his withered mind, like a drop of poison dripped into the ocean. Gone, erased from his memory.

Time went on, as they continued to walk, and afternoon found them on the dikes overlooking the sea. The sunsets they had watched from there, the starry skies, the moonrises. She dared not stay long enough to watch another one, and at last he was getting tired, and allowed her to turn him homewards. It was a long walk, but she was not worried. It would do him good, he would sleep well tonight with no pesky dreams to disturb his slumber, and the memories that flooded over her were very strong, very beautiful. It would not hurt to take some time to turn them over in her mind, to thank God for them. She had long ago learned to live without bitterness, not like the first few years of loneliness after the terrible war had taken its toll on his mind and body. She had often thought it would have been easier to be a widow, rather than losing him while he was still alive. It had been especially hard when she was younger, for his mind had gone long before her beauty had faded into its present comfortable grayness. She had learned since then, painfully over long years, but she had learned. Now she lived to care for her husband and her love for him was so strong that he seemed to be more a part of her than a separate person. When it was time for him to go, she would feel the loss terribly, as if she had lost her right arm and right leg, but it was not time to think about that yet. The day had warmed up beautifully, and he took off his jacket and made a show of flexing his arms, fancying they still had the muscle of his younger days. She wasn't sure where his mind was then, but it didn't last long and then he was quiet again as they walked home together through the fields, following along the wagon trails. They still had a mile to go as the sun set blazing behind the windmills, washing the sky in red and orange, purple streaked with pink and bordered by the deepest of deep blues, rapidly fading to a satin black. There was one bright star with the temerity to shine out while the sun was still over the horizon as if impatient to start the night's festivities. It was alone at first, but as the sun sank and surrendered more and more of the sky the one star was joined first by a few, then a dozen of its stronger brothers and sisters, and then by hundreds more, and finally, all at once, a million of the smallest and youngest in the family appeared, twinkling diamond bright in the black. Sometimes he used to say the stars had voices and they sang, like a choir of very high, sharp chimes, voices that no human could ever understand, but with a beauty that would kill anyone who once heard it, or break their heart and drive them mad. She looked into his eyes, small dark circles with an entire galaxy mirrored in them, and she believed him.

When they reached their door, the wind was just picking up with a little hint of frost, reminding her that it was not yet May. He was in a quiet, melancholy mood, and she left him to sit quietly as she hastily did the chores and warmed up the leftover breakfast. She made him some tea, with a drop of whiskey and they ate quietly, and he sat still and listened to her as she said her evening prayers.

As she said "Amen" she heard his voice whisper, "Margaret?"

Her heart beat fast, and she met his eyes, realizing that he was having one of his rare moments of clarity. "Hans?"

"Thank-you, Margaret," he said, his voice trembling with age, but his eyes clear and steady. "I love you.”

"I love you," she said, but the moment was gone. His eyes were vacant again.

She began to hum through her tears as she dressed him for bed and rolled the covers back. It was an old song, one that had been popular when she was a little girl, but he recognized it as she tucked him in, and he hummed it with her, until his eyelids drooped, and he fell asleep. Margaret brushed two gray hairs away from his forehead, and then with a sigh, she leaned over and softly blew the candle out.

Written by Ryan Kraeger, June 2007: inspired by the 1968 song “The Dutchman” by Michael Peter Smith.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

If I Can't Take a Joke

Jokes that are laden with mirth are always, at the bottom, very serious things. They are serious with the seriousness that is love.

Think of God creating the world. He creates it out of love, in a single burst of brilliant self-gift. It bursts out from Him like a shout of joy, like a yell almost; exuberant, prodigal, mirthful, blinding love. It cannot be contained. It forms everything from nothing, life from non-life, better life from lower life and in a final exultant high note, God creates man, a being who can share that love and give it and receive it.

Everything in creation is still pregnant with that love, bursting forth with it, bubbling over with it, alive with it. It meets you in every breath, around every corner, under every rock. It is the impulse of delight, which freely pours itself out as if there were no end, for there is no end. It comes from God. It is too strong to be contained in grim, serious faces. God begs us to play with Him, but in order to do that we have to become like little children. We have to stop taking ourselves seriously but we do that by taking everyone else seriously, and above all by taking God seriously. But not seriously in fear, or duty, but out of love. We delight so much in the others that we forget about ourselves. Completely absorbed in this mirth, we joke. There is no other way to express the depth of our love than to see and delight, and invite others to join in our delight, even in the oddness, the quirkiness, the singularity of the other. Even in the defects. True mirth loves the beloved, defects and all, and makes light of it.

“But, what about evil!” The gloomy ones protest. Indeed, what about it? In this fallen world evil, ugliness and misery exist all around us. They are intensely unnatural and gloominess is a natural response to that reality. But mirth is a response to it as well, a supernatural response. It moves beyond the recognition of the battle to the acknowledgment of victory, and rejoices, even through its tears. Humility laughs.

Mirth, then, is the voice of love saying things too wonderful to be said straight out. It is strong fare, and can be digested only by strong stomachs. Stomachs too used to the soft mush of self-empowering and self-complimenting drivel may not be able to take the truth about themselves, may not be able to take a joke. They lose by this. They are so full of themselves that they cannot receive love in one of its most joyous forms.

Mirth is not the same as humor. Humor can only be shared by a thinking being, for humor is the recognition of incongruity. There need be nothing intellectual about mirth. An infant can experience it, when she claps her hands and coos at the antics of her parents. The mentally handicapped can experience it, laughing to see bright colors with perfect unconcern for what others around them think. Even animals can sometimes share in it. Dogs certainly seem to. No great intelligence is needed, only love. Mirth can be shared from the higher to the lower. It can be a bond between people of the greatest possible disparity, between the genius and the idiot, the educated and the ignorant, the adult and the child, those in the prime of life and those senile with age, the saint and the sinner.

For God shares His mirth with us. What greater disparity could there be?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Smile

In response to this writing challenge on lkjslain's site, I wrote this poem. I had no idea where I was going with it, I just started it and kept writing down what came to me. Then I liked it so much that I recorded myself reading it:


The Smile

I walked alone at night, through streets of gray,
Content to be alone, chasing tales
Hidden, obscure, in corners of crooked paths.
Secrets of those who passed that way before.
The walls and stones see all, and plain as day
Reveal the stories to me, their long lost friend.
For years I wandered thus, full well content
To slip unnoticed around the edge of life
Untouched by the swirling blizzard of human flakes,
I watched, and listened; marveled and passed on.

Then one day a new tale came to me,
Borne on a breeze of ice from the blackest heart
Of the shadowy ways of the City of Dreadful Night
The darkness at the center of that tangled wild.
Somewhere in the labyrinth a woman walks,
Or so the black breeze whispered in my ear,
Pale and tall, fragile and great of heart,
Mighty in soul, shrouded in hood of black,
Walking the city, weeping for her child,
And then, with tears used up, she still walks on
Through dark, dry, hopeless aching night.

I loved her then. It is not too strong a word.
Her grief scored deep my heart, my spirit shrank
At the deadening weight of pain that crushed her soul.
I shrank away in fear, but could not run
For awesome fascination at her strength,
For even yet, (the breezes sighed) she hopes.
The candle is all but snuffed, and yet one spark
One pitiful, stubborn, glorious, relentless spark,
Will not be quenched. She will not fade away.
She loves. There it is. Even still she dares to love.

Just a tale, passed on the fickle wind, and yet,
The weight of its fantasy shocked my sleeping soul
All my actions, pale, transparent and flimsy
Vanished in the shadow of such a love,
Such pain. I slowly turned my trembling steps
Into the night. The darksome labyrinth
Loomed before me, moaned and sucked me in
Into the whirl of pain, despair and hate
Harpies like a pack of howling wolves
Tore at my ears and shivered my resolve,
But yet it held. By ever so little, it held.
I sought her. Through narrow, devious ways I searched
Peeked through cracks in walls and peered through bars
In cellar windows. I kept an eye for her,
And the other looking back, always aware
Of the way out. For I purposed when she was found
That I would take her hand, and gently lead the way
Back, through treacherous paths and hateful looks
And clutching, clawing keepers, to freer air
To a place where light and music, silence and peace
Can still exist, and stories all end well.
Once in those early days I saw a glimpse
Of her face across a crowded, sullen street.
She stepped through a sickly yellow pool of light
From the streetlamp, but she never even paused.
When I crossed and looked again, she was long gone.
I redoubled my efforts, and vowed oneday to bring
A smile to those fair, set, determined lips.

Then one day I saw a fallen child,
With broken wings and tangled dirty hair
Caught in a pit, thrown in an abandoned crypt.
Worn out dreams lay wasted ‘round her feet,
Scornfully plucked in the bud, never to bloom.
Dirty hands tossed cold hard cash her way
To make her dance, or sing, or play to please her crowd.
So ugly, she was. Not the Lady’s child.
That child was long since dead, I know, but still
Once that child had suffered, as now this girl
Suffers. “It won’t take long,” I thought.
“I’ll show her out, and then return to the search.”
I did. I returned to her late at night and broke the lock
And guided her through the well-known maze of streets
To the tangle’s edge, and set her free. She ran
And never once looked back. I turned back in.

I went back to my quest, but once again,
I came upon a child, and once more paused
My dogged search long enough to get him out.
Another glimpse of her, but when I arrived,
Not her, instead two more of these pitiable urchins.
By now the keepers had learned I knew the way.
This time I had to fight to make it through
To the edge, and then frantic I rushed back in.
These distractions had to stop, or I would never find
The Lady; but now whichever way I turned
Were pitiful faces, children, women, the old
The lame, the sick, the hungry and the weak.
I walked with them. One or two at a time I got them out.
I couldn’t turn them away. They told their tales
And I listened, and wept and fought to clear the way.
Every time was harder than the last,
These middle years were years of many scars.
The Keepers scarred my body, the children my heart
And both bled freely, but each time I went back.

And now I am old and tired, and winding down.
My back is bent, my beard is gray and wild
And my hands are crooked, gnarled and lined with scars.
My heart looks much the same, or so I’d guess,
Inscribed as it is with so many tales of pain.
I have not seen the Lady these many years,
Perhaps she lives no more, perhaps never did.
I might have made her up, a silly dream
That will not go away, but holds more firm
Than the rocks I hide behind. Pitiless is hope!
Weariness covers my soul like a hood of black.
I am dying. That’s how it is. I’m glad to go.
Even though there are still so many more,
But I am full of other people’s pains.
I’ve drained to the dregs that goblet of human sorrow.
From the first to the last the stories stay with me,
Of kept and keeper alike, and scars of both.
And now I’m done. Right now, this trip, my last.

I know this one is my last, because I fell,
Just like that, my face hits the city street.
I cannot rise to my feet, my breath is short,
My chest sinks like an anvil on my heart,
As it finally breaks.
                               I have never seen her smile.

But what is this? The falling darkness breaks
The sky goes gray, then teal, then blue, then gold
And light falls on my head with searing heat
And all the weight of gold, poured liquid hot.
Intolerable for one brief hellish breath, far worse
Than life itself, and then a gasp of air;
Only not air. Or rather, this is at last is air.
Before this moment I’ve never tasted air.
I’ve never yet known light before this day.
The brightest day of life was shades of gray,
And air before a vacuum next to this.
This air could make a meal, this light a bath,
A shower, an ocean of curling waves of gold
Washing over and through my broken frame
‘Til Every scar shines out with borrowed light
A gift, a jewel, a royal diadem.
I draw this joy up from the very grass
And a laugh rings from my chest, the very first
I ever truly laughed. Mirth pours out,
Sounding a mad, triumphant organ fugue,
Answered in kind, in brave bright jubilee
In the Lady’s eyes; for there, at last, she stands.

Beautiful as the glowing moon, radiant with light
Over, around, with and by and through
The Light is pleased to shine, and even thus
Lovingly tempered still it is too much.
She smiles.

                   Too much!

                                        I could almost die again.

She stands amid a joyful throng, a Queen
A Mother. Her children, whose stories now are mine
Keeper and kept alike, now whole and free.

Thus I lived and all my life was this.
Was bliss, for I have made my Lady smile.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Hugged Upon: A Social Commentary

Yesterday I went to Mass before going to work. It was only a weekday Mass, even if it was the feast of the Presentation, so the church was mostly empty. One of the things about this parish that I don’t particularly care for is that at the sign of peace, everyone leaves their pew and walks all over the church to shake hands with everyone. It’s not wrong, as far as I can tell, but it rather distracts from the real focus of the Mass. After all, at this point in the liturgy, the Host is consecrated and Jesus is sacramentally present on the altar. That is the focal point of the entire universe! It’s not really the time for a social event.

However, as I said, I don’t think it is wrong, and I certainly don’t think those who do it mean any disrespect by it so I did what I usually do. I shook hands with and asked God’s peace upon those in my immediate vicinity, and any others who wandered over from other parts of the church, and then turned back to the altar to get back to the Mass. Upon turning back, however, I saw someone moving towards me from the front of the church. She was a largish lady, in her fifties I would guess, with a look of intense focus on her round face. She had me in her sights, so I prepared to shake hands with her as well, but as she bore down on me (she had to cover enough ground that I had time to size her up) her arms stretched out wide. My thoughts were not coherent, but they could be translated, “That looks like… but no it couldn’t be… but it really… no…”

Then she said loud enough to be heard through the building, continuing to advance at a high rate of speed, “Can I get a hug?”

She was close enough to be breaking the comfort zone, you know that little personal bubble area in front of you where someone is just too close for conversational purposes? As she broke it I retreated half a step back into my pew, and held out my hand, mumbling something stunned and lame under my breath. I didn’t register her reaction, except that she shook and walked back to the front of the church. In retrospect, I suppose it might have embarrassed her a bit to be so obviously rejected. She’s fortunate I didn’t have time to collect my thoughts or I would have just said “No” in the driest, most end-of-story tone I could muster. No doubt many would consider my reaction rude enough as it was. I wish I knew how she viewed it, since at the moment she represented a mindset almost entirely alien to me and I would like to understand it better.

Since I couldn’t figure out her reaction, I spent part of my drive into post this morning trying to analyze mine. I was surprised, not only by her action, but by the fierceness and strength of my reaction. It took a while for me to bring my thoughts back into the realm of charity. You see, I hate being hugged upon by strangers. I don’t even like having my space invaded (with some exceptions), and my initial reaction is always defensive, but when someone I don’t know tries to hug me (it happens very rarely) my first instinct is to shove them back, create some space, and just say “Whoah, hold on. Back off, I don’t know you.”

She obviously had no such reservations, and I had to question my reaction. After all, she just wanted a hug, right? Aren’t we supposed to love one another? Well, that wasn’t a very loving thing to do, now was it? Isn’t that what the sign of peace is all about, showing the love of Jesus? Doesn’t Saint Paul tell us to greet each other with a holy kiss?

I suppose she must have decided I just didn’t like hugs or something, and it was this supposition that gave me an insight into why my reaction is always so strong. You see the fact is I actually don’t hate hugs. I love them in fact. I hug the heck (literally) out of people I know well, family and really close friends. In going through the list I realized that there are people that I love well enough to take a bullet for, but I would never hug. Most of my patients have been like that. Even that lady in the church, I certainly wouldn’t say I didn’t want to have some charity for her. But a hug is still unthinkable, even repulsive. It isn’t the person that repulses me, but the act of hugging someone I don’t know.

And right there is the crux of the matter. There are some people who say that a hug or a kiss is a statement of love, and therefore to be expected between Christians united in the Love of Jesus. After all, you don’t have to know the person to know that Jesus loves them. Very true, and yet that doesn’t call forth the hugging instinct in me. To me, hugging is not so much the language of love, as a language of intimacy, to one degree or another. Love may be possible without knowing the person. Intimacy is not. Charity is guaranteed, or should be, simply on the basis of the shared love of God. One of the results of charity is that it should encourage us to seek to know the people that God loves so much, but it does not change the fact that we are human. We don’t know people right away. It takes time and patience to get to know a person, and this “knowledge” is not simply awareness of facts about that person. It is a matter of trust, a mutual exchange of part of the soul of each. It is a mystery how one person can “know” another at all, but one thing I do know: intimacy exists only in relationship. There must be giving and receiving, gift and regift over and over again. The longer this has been going on the deeper that intimacy becomes. If it hasn’t happened at all, there is no intimacy. You don’t know that person.

This is what “knowing someone” means to me. So I realized that it isn’t because I hate hugs that I recoiled so profoundly from that lady’s well-meaning gesture. It is because I love the act of hugging rather jealously. I want it to have some meaning, not just be a flippant thing we throw around to whomever happens to be within arm’s reach. It seems dishonest. It is lying with your body, pretending that something is there which isn’t there at all. Like a man who vows undying love on the first date, it means nothing.

I guess this is just one symptom of my overall critique of our culture’s approach to social interaction. We tend to be so very friendly and open and “frank” and we tell people just exactly what is going on in our minds. Our heartbreaks are emblazoned on the shifting sands of our facebook walls, there to be pawed over by the crowds for the few hours or minutes or seconds it takes to work its way to the bottom of the feed. Our every thought, emotion, action, and relationship must be dragged out into the cyber streets and vivisected. And what of those thoughts so casually thrown around on twitter? Did that thought even have time to grow up before I stuck it out there? What happens when you put the hops in the still, and then pour out the juice before it has time to ferment, let alone age? Can we even think for more than 140 characters at one time anymore?

I applaud the willingness we have to lay our cards out. The ability to be vulnerable is a prerequisite for relationship, but I wonder. Do we really gain anything by it? Have we increased the breadth of our attachments, but sacrificed the depths? If you try to be intimate with everyone, you end up losing the ability to be truly intimate with anyone. That seems to me something too precious to give up.

One Real Hug is worth about five and a half bazillion fake ones.