Mid-way Through East of Eden

“…I want to ask you something. I can’t remember behind the last ugly thing. Was she very beautiful, Samuel?”

“To you she was because you built her. I don’t think you ever saw her — only your own creation.”

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Like most of our country, I’m still trying to understand what happened in Washington on Wednesday. The mob scenes from the Capitol play over and over in my mind. It’s like when every station on the car radio is playing the same song. And it’s not a song you like.

I’m reading East of Eden right now (and not reading the back of the book first). This won’t be a spoiler for those who haven’t yet read it because I’m smack dab in the middle and I don’t know how things will turn out. Plus, who knows? Maybe I’m all wrong in this middle of the book assessment. But here goes —

Adam, the main character, is the one speaking in the quote at the top of this post. He had recently been seriously injured by Cathy, a woman he loves. “I can’t remember… Was she very beautiful?” he asks.

Samuel’s answer to Adam helps me understand Wednesday’s events. “To you she was because you built her. I don’t think you ever saw her — only your own creation.”

Other people saw Cathy, Adam’s wife, for what she was – dark and evil. But Adam was smitten. He saw something in her that wasn’t there.

There are people in my life — some of them family members — who see our president very differently from how I see him. I can’t fathom their vision. It feels twisted. But they may wonder the same about me.

And as I continue to read about Adam working through his feelings, I’ll be working through my own, trying to make sense of something that may never make sense to me.

Prayer for a Divided Country

… In the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail.

Book of Common Prayer, “For Our Country”

My heart caught in my throat when I saw the news yesterday afternoon. I couldn’t look away from those scenes I didn’t want to see.

Immediately I was back on September 11, 2001. Mid-morning that day, my brother had burst into our home saying, “Turn on the television!”

Over and over we watched planes crash into the World Trade Center. We watched chaos on the streets. Smoke. Confusion. Bodies falling. Then it would loop back again to planes hitting the towers. Our country was under attack.

I remember looking at my children watching the screen with big eyes and shooing them out of the room. Finally I shooed my brother out, too, and turned the television off.

But some things you can’t unsee.

I tried to fall asleep last night but the images of marauders scaling the wall to the Capitol Building kept playing through my mind. Their garish outfits, their over-sized flags, their fake patriotism. Ach — it was all too much.

Yesterday was a day of prayer for me. I fasted until 6 PM, praying often, especially when reminded by pangs of hunger. Around 3 PM, my words were gone, and I reached for Lancelot Andrewes to help me remember what words I should pray for my country.

In his prayer “For Our Country”, he says with, “Bless our ingathering, Make peace within our borders” — but peace doesn’t come without a cost.

Around the same time as 9/11, we had a terrible man as pastor of our church. He was divisive. He used the pulpit to bully and berate. I was called in for church discipline because, as chair of the Missions Committee, I questioned him, his motives, and his tactics. I’ll never forget sitting in his office for my “discipline” and watching him lean back in his chair and lace his fingers behind his head — the picture of pompous confidence — all the while saying untrue things. The Board of Elders sat by and said little to nothing.

Shortly after that — I think it was Palm Sunday — that pastor once again began making untrue divisive statements from the pulpit. This time the head of the elder board, a man named Zig, rose from his seat, pointed his finger at the pastor, and said, “You, sir, need to stop.”

Shouting ensued. I herded my children out of the sanctuary and into the nursery. I didn’t want to hear. I didn’t want my children to witness any of it. A sanctuary should be a sanctuary.

Zig passed away a few years ago but I thought about him a lot yesterday. He remains for me a picture of what it means to push back against a bully.

I spent time last evening intentionally reading posts of Facebook friends that I know to be Trump supporters. One by one, I prayed for them and then “snoozed” them. I ache for them, but I can’t fill my mind with their vitriol.

This morning I reached for The Preces Privitae of Lancelot Andrewes again and settled on this prayer — For Unity —

The Preces Privitae of Lancelot Andrewes, translated by F. E. Brightman

… If in anything we be otherwise minded,
to walk by the same rule whereto we have already attained:
To maintain order, decency, steadfastness…
With one mind and one mouth to glorify God.

Lord, our country is so divided. It will take a miracle to reunite us. I’m so glad You are a God who specializes in miracles. Amen.

Melting Icy Fingers

Thanksgiving is not a result of perception; thanksgiving is the access to perception.

Virginia Stem Owens

By taking the time to be grateful, I can melt the icy fingers of fear that squeeze my heart today.

Today I am thankful for my neighbors down the road with the Trump sign in their yard and my neighbors in the other direction with the Biden sign. We co-exist on a single stretch of road in peace.

I am thankful for my co-workers who support different political parties and ideologies. We work side-by-side. We laugh together. We learn from each other. We have common ground.

I am thankful for my family members who believe conspiracy theories and for my family members who honor science. Although we may disagree — PASSIONATELY disagree — on issues we hold dear, at the end of the day, we hold each other dearer.

I am thankful that I live in a country where people can assemble peacefully and voice their opinion.

I am thankful for the thoughtfulness and perseverance of the framers of our constitution. I’m thankful for the many people over the years who have served in our government, hashing out amendments and other acts to guide us through turbulent times.

I’m thankful for mistakes because we can learn so much from them.

I’m thankful for wise decisions.

I’m thankful for the dog sleeping here who is oblivious to any of my internal angst. I’m thankful for the cat who tries to taunt the dog — and still the dog sleeps.

I’m thankful for friends who can reassure me that it will be okay.

I’m thankful for coffee.

I’m thankful for quiet mornings when I can gather my thoughts and offer them to God.

I’m thankful for snow. It’s so pretty.

I’m thankful for slush. It means I’ll get to wash the car.

I’m thankful for a woodstove and wood and a cozy room in a drafty house.

I’m thankful that the more things I list here, the more things come to mind. There is a magic in seeing blessings.

I’m thankful for tomorrow because it will come. And the next day, and the next day.

I’m thankful for you, whoever you are, for reading through all this because no matter who you are and what you think or believe, we can link arms and walk a few steps down the road together.

Primary Experiences of Life and Death

Many persons live their entire lives without ever seeing a human being die.

Howard Thurman, “Life Must Be Experienced” in The Inward Journey
My father caring for my mother in her last days

At the time, I didn’t realize what a privilege it was to sit with my mother and then my father as they passed from one life into the next.

In some ways, it felt like an awfulness. Especially with my mother, with that gurgle of excess fluid that the nurse would suction out to make her more comfortable. It’s a sound I won’t forget.

And I prayed in my mother’s last few days conflicting prayers of “Please, Lord, let her live until my sister gets here” and “Please, Lord, relieve this terrible suffering.”

She lived until my sister arrived. We were all gathered around my mother’s bed in the hospital — her living children and my father — as she died.

My father went more quickly. One day he was up, dressing himself, coming out breakfast. Before the end of the day, my children had to help him back to bed. The next day he didn’t get out of it and he died that evening.

My brothers were there. One sister-in-law. One nephew. Most of my children. His home health aide. My sister had not yet arrived. My brother played a song on a CD for him as he passed.

My sister got there in the wee hours of the morning and went to see him as he was laid out in his bed. The hospice nurse who had prepared the body had clasped my father’s hands across his abdomen and it looked so unnatural. He looked so dead, and I wished with all my heart that my sister could have seen him alive one last time. We had Face-timed with her in the afternoon, but it’s not the same.

These days, the stories that come out of the hospitals impacted with COVID are awful — the shortages of rooms, equipment, and personnel. The makeshift morgues. The isolation.

I wept one day in the car listening on the radio to a nurse describe staying over and over after her shift had ended to sit with a dying patient because she didn’t want anyone to die alone. How many patients had she done that with? I don’t remember — but it was many.

And I realized the great privilege I had — to sit with my parents in a non-COVID world and tell them I loved them one last time.

Dry Years

And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

My one New Year’s resolution was to get back to writing every day.

For me, that means posting here every day. Posting keeps me honest — and humble.

Posting every day means that I’ll probably post 360 of drivel and hopefully 5 days of something worth reading. (You’ll have to keep watching for those good ones.)

Today was a busy day for me. No problem, I thought. I have a ton of drafts available to draw from. (291 to be exact.)

For the past hour, I’ve looked through drafts that date as far back as 2011. I didn’t find a single one that I wanted to post. But here’s what I realized — those years that I thought were dry and hard, when I was helping with my mother and then caring for my father, actually weren’t dry at all. They were rich.

And I had forgotten how rich.

The drought that we call COVID has been the ultimate dry. I feel desiccated.

So lest I forget, here are some photos from a richer time:

Our first day in France, May 2017
My father’s 88th birthday party
Dad playing with his great-grandson
When I accompanied my father to a charity event — 2016
When Helen coaxed a smile out of my mom
When Mom was putting marmalade on everything

This dry time will pass — and none too soon.

God, I need Thee

God, I need Thee.
When morning crowds the night away
And tasks of waking seize my mind;
I need Thy poise.

God, I need Thee.
When love is hard to see
Amid the ugliness and slime,
I need Thy eyes.

God, I need Thee.
When clashes come with those
Who walk the way with me,
I need Thy smile.

God, I need Thee.
When the path to take before me lies,
I see it . . . courage flees–
I need Thy faith.

God, I need Thee.
When the day’s work is done,
Tired, discouraged, wasted,
I need Thy rest.

Howard Thurman, “Deep is the Hunger”


When I first came across this prayer/poem by Howard Thurman, I read it through multiple times. I can honestly say that I had never prayed for poise but it made so much sense. To start my day with confidence, even though it may seem daunting from the outset, seems so powerful.

Not in an I’ve-got-this way. Rather, a You’ve-got-this-therefore-I-can-do-it way.

I go back to this prayer regularly and pray for poise, for God’s eyes and smile, for faith, and for rest.

It is my prayer for 2021.

Questions

There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“I’m showing you this because I think you want to know. You always ask questions,” my co-worker Michelle said to me the other day.

I started a new very part-time job a few months ago. I now work at the front desk of the facility where I’ve worked for years in Aquatics. The new role is mostly people-y. I greet people as they come in the building and I make sure they have a reservation.

The other front desk-ers remark often on the quietness. No kids are allowed with the facility’s COVID restrictions. Members only, no day passes. And everything is reservation only.

My new job also involves administrative work which has been eye-opening for me. This has been the biggest area of learning.

I would learn better if we were busy, but we’re not, so I DO ask a lot of questions. Most of my questions are “How do I do this again?” Some are “Why do we do it this way?” Others are “What if [insert a set of circumstances]?”

The other day when Michelle came to show me something it was because I had wrongly activated a person who was deceased. His widow had mailed in her renewal and I entered it into the computer. The main member was still listed as the husband, and they weren’t people known to me, so I just activated the whole subscription.

“See — he’s listed as ‘inactive.’ That’s because he died last year. But she’s only ‘expired’ so when we mark her as paid, she becomes ‘active’ again,” Michelle explained.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“Well, I know the people,” she said, but then she also showed me a clue on the registration form itself.

“So, let me get this straight. If they’re inactive, they may be dead, but if they’re expired, they’re probably alive.”

Michelle laughed. “I guess you’re right.”

Words are funny things — and fun.

And questions are good — especially when you’re trying to learn.

Another friend once told me that the only bad question is the one you have but don’t ask.

Maybe that’s why I ask lots of questions.

My father used to say we should learn something new every day.

Maybe that’s why I ask lots of questions.

Curiouser and curiouser. That’s me — in more ways than one.

The Clothesline

… one may find it extremely helpful to discover a clothesline on which all of one’s feelings and thoughts and desires may be placed.

Howard Thurman, The Creative Encounter

I woke up feeling irritable. Then, my cinnamon rolls didn’t turn out (I think I left out an ingredient). My pizza was cold when I got around to eating it. And now, it’s bedtime and I haven’t written anything. Humbug.

I found myself thinking about Howard Thurman’s clothesline.

Clotheslines have happy memories for me. My mother would dry the sheets on the clothesline up by the chicken coop. In the spring and summer, the sheets smelled like mown grass. In the fall, they carried the crisp fresh smell of autumn. When Bud and I bought our first house, I asked for — and got — a clothesline that stretched from the house to the garage. At our next house, he installed a shed-to-tree line with a pulley.

The idea of hanging thoughts on a clothesline appealed to me. Thurman was talking about putting our negative thoughts there to allow them to “float away” and then replace them with higher thoughts.

Honestly, I think I need two clotheslines.

The first would be for those thoughts I need to put aside. They are easy to identify. They have to do with cinnamon rolls with forgotten ingredients, cold pizza, parenting challenges, and disharmonies in my life.

The second clothesline is the better one. I have quotes I’ve copied from books I’m reading, scriptures I’m working on memorizing, and little notes people have sent or given to encourage me. What if I make a little clothesline — a quoteline — of those encouragements? I could stretch a length of twine somewhere, write quotes on little slips of paper, clip them to the twine, and then reread them often.

After a year like 2020, I could do with regular doses of encouragement. Could you?

A Slower Tempo

Take your time and expect them to take theirs. Be very tolerant. Be as undemanding as you can. This slow tempo will help the contemplative side of your life: but if you get in a frenzy and want quick results, you will run into spiritual disaster. I repeat, disaster.

Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction, letter to a Papal Volunteer leaving for Brazil

Early yesterday morning I shopped at a warehouse store during their senior citizen hour. Yikes — yes — I qualify as a senior. I thought it would be a zip-zap-zoom trip. Nobody else would be there so I could grab my things and get home pretty quickly.

I was wrong.

It turns out that senior citizen hour at a warehouse store means that most of the shoppers are driving their shopping carts instead pushing them.

They drive slowly.

Down the middle of the aisle.

And stop frequently.

Zip-zap-zoom turned into wait-wait-wait.

I remembered taking my father to Target in past few years and he tried to drive one of those carts. I guess it’s not as easy as it looks.

I laughed when I read Thomas Merton this morning. He was writing to a volunteer heading to Brazil in the early 1960s. The different country, the different culture — it fit so perfectly with my shopping expedition. The slow tempo did indeed help the contemplative side of my life. I paused and listened to the Christmas music playing in the store. I prayed for patience when I realized that those one-way arrows on the floor don’t apply during senior hour. I prayed for a shopper who was struggling and short-tempered. I helped someone find something.

The warehouse store may not have been Brazil but it was another world.

What is Christmas, though, if not a venture into another world? The ultimate venture.

Lord, let me take my time and be tolerant,
not just at Christmas, but all the time.
Christmas is a good season to begin.
The world feels disastrous enough.
I don’t need to add to it.
Amen

The Last Page

Here’s an author’s perspective: We work REALLY hard to tell a story in a certain way–we edit and re-edit and agonize over what parts to tell in what order, because the *way* the story unfolds is integral to the story itself. And the ending–specifically the surprise of the ending–was, for me, the thing I literally worked toward for ten years. It’s like tasting one ingredient of a cake before it’s been mixed with everything else and allowed to cook. If the author wanted you to have that last page information at the beginning of the book, he or she would have set it up that way and told the story as a flashback. Last page readers: I beg you all to cease and desist. Repent, ye!

Andrew Peterson, part of a Facebook thread on reading the last page of a book while in the middle of a book

Dear Andrew,

You’ll be pleased to know that I have repented.

Your reader,
Sally

Mary reading one of Andrew’s books (2016)

It hit me the other day as I refreshed my favorite news site yet again, that my news-junky-ism and my back-of- the-book reading are symptoms of the same problem — a lack of faith in the author or The Author, as the case may be.

This morning as I was praying over the big things happening these days — things over which I have NO control — I was so convicted. 

Do you trust me? God whispered. 

“Yes, God,” I said. “I trust You.”

Wait patiently, He said.

I refreshed the news site a few more times while I waited.

Sally, do you trust me?, He whispered again.

“Yes, God,” I said. “You know that I trust You.”

Wait joyfully, He said.

I tried to focus on happy things while I waited… but the news on the screen caught my eye and my hand wandered over to keyboard so I could hit refresh.

Sally, do you believe me, He whispered a third time, not believe IN Me, but believe ME?

And I was grieved — not at Him, but at myself — because He had to ask me a third time.

I searched my heart before I answered. “Lord, I’m trying,” I said. “It’s just that I NEED to know what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen on January 6? What will happen on January 20? When will COVID be behind us? Just let me know a couple of pages out — I don’t need to see the last page.”

Hush, He said. Live today. Live it well. Tomorrow will be here soon enough.

I’m pretty sure He also added, And stop reading the last page when you’re in the middle of a book.