Blessed are the weak?

I pretty much feel like this today:
daffodil in snow

Everything in me wants sun and warmth. I dream of yellow summer dresses (never mind that I don’t look particularly good in yellow). When I walk, I close my eyes and lift my face to feel what rays I can. I want to feel strong. Strong in my legs and strong in my soul.

But I don’t. Not so much.

My ears still pop with an occasional twinge of pain when I swallow—the remnant of a lingering head cold I haven’t completely fought off. I’m working like mad on an editing project, and I’m certainly not getting enough sleep. While the Holy Week services this week are beautiful, they are also exhausting, and I feel like I must choose between my work, my health, and attending as many of the services I can. I could go on, but I’m tired of listening to myself moan about it.

So it occurred to me as I trudged up a hill I usually don’t think twice about but that was kicking my butt this morning—maybe being weak has an upside.

As a kind of Lenten supplement, I have been reading Shusaku Endo’s Silence. It has been a balm to me, in a strange bright-sadness-kind-of-way. Set in seventeenth-century Japan, it tells the story of Jesuit missionaries and the hidden Christians they serve. Throughout the book, Endo explores the silence of God as the Christians (most of them peasants born into, what seems to be, a life of hardship and suffering) are tortured. The priest need only trample on the image of Christ and the torture will cease.

A Judas figure, Kichijiro, figures prominently throughout. Having apostatized several times, the priest questions him:

“And yet you know how to look after yourself. Mokichi and Ichizo have sunk to the bottom of the sea like stones and yet . . . . .”

“Mokichi was strong—like a strong shoot. But a weak shoot like me will never grow no matter what you do.”

He seemed to feel that I had dealt him a severe rebuke, because with a look like a whipped dog he glanced backwards. Yet I had not said these words with the intention of rebuking him; I was only giving expression to a sad reflection that was rising in my mind. Kichijiro was right in saying that all men are not saints and heroes. How many of our Christians, if only they had been born in another age from this persecution would never have been confronted with the problem of apostasy or martyrdom but would have lived blessed lives of faith until the very hour of death . . .

Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, the heroes and those who respect them. In time of persecution the strong are burnt in the flames and drowned in the sea; but the weak, like Kichijiro, lead a vagabond life in the mountains. As for you (I now spoke to myself) which category do you belong to? Were it not for the consciousness of your priesthood and your pride, perhaps you like Kichijiro would trample on the fumie [the image of Christ].

I keep thinking about this passage. Maybe I would be strong; maybe I would trample to keep myself or those I love (my children, my sisters, my family, my friends) from suffering. In all, hypothesizing is pretty useless, and the distinction between strong and weak matters little. The strong are just as likely to stomp on the weak as they are to help them. Endo (through the priest Rodrigues) says as much in his definition of sin: “Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious to the wounds he has left behind.”

What matters, what Endo brings up in myriad ways, is that we share the suffering. We bear it together. We try to ease it for each other as we can. In the beginning before the two priests split up, they are able to share the hardships they encounter: “When I was with Garrpe we could at least share our fear as one shares bread, breaking it in two; but now I was all alone in the black sea of the night and must take upon myself the cold and the darkness and everything else.”

Later, the silence is finally broken. The priest hears Christ tell him:

Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross. 

The only way God makes sense to me is Christ. So many things in the world scream at me that God is dead or never existed in the first place. But love is real, as real as weakness. And the upside of weakness is that it can lead to great love.

Present

Finally, birds. Bird song, bird color.

Finally, crocus. Snowdrops. Glory of the Snow. The grass might even need to be cut soon.

glory of the snow

Chionodoxa (Glory of the Snow)

Peter Matthiessen died this past weekend. I’ve only read one of his books from beginning to end, The Snow Leopardwhich I recommend. A nonfiction account of traveling the Himalayans after the death of his wife, it’s lyrical and the kind of stark that strips you down to feel more free than bone-naked.

Matthiessen was a longtime practitioner of Zen; The Snow Leopard  is an amalgamation chronicling his physical journey (in glorious, stay-with-you detail), memories of his wife, and his search for the plainest of mystical experiences: the “wholehearted acceptance of what is” (The Snow Leopard, 242). As Jeff Himmelman in The New York Times Magazine puts it, “the various strands of Matthiessen’s journey cohere into a kind of fable, in which the potential for clarity and insight struggles to fly free of the past and the people that he (we) can’t ever really let go of.”

That combination of mountains, journey, grief and . . . how to say? . . . absolute presence is right up my sky-loving alley. And because life is great this way (or is it because my brain, as a matter of course, sees connections between seemingly disparate readings and/or realities?), I must reference here one of my new favorite voices, Emma, of Emma’s Hope Book. Emma painstakingly makes her words and sentences by either pointing to one letter at a time on a stencil template or tapping the same on a qwerty keyboard connected to an iPad. Here she is discussing how she thinks, in contrast with the way her parents think (with whom she is having the discussion). Her father asks her to describe her internal experience, particularly since she only uses internal dialogue when communicating with non-autistic people.

Emma responds: Know that I am almost always happy and take great pleasure in sounds, color, fabric. Everything in life is beautiful if you are able to be here.

Emma seems to be saying she very much lives inherently present to the moment—the way that Peter Matthiessen wanted to live and think, the reason he trained and practiced Zen meditation for so many years. In “The Tree Where Man Was Born” Matthiessen writes,

Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content. The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was. 

Which seems to be a kind of holy Presence. Matthiessen calls it that himself, earlier in Himmelman’s story, when describing an experience he had at the end of a meditation session:

The silence swelled with the intake of my breath into a Presence of vast benevolence of which I was a part . . . I felt “good,” like a “good child,” entirely safe. Wounds, ragged edges, hollow places were all gone, all had been healed; my heart lay at the heart of all Creation. Then I let my breath go, and gave myself up to delighted immersion in this Presence, to a peaceful belonging so overwhelming that tears of relief poured from my eyes.

Grace is all I know to call it. And the reality that healing—real change—is possible.

 

Spring “break” photo notes

Okay, so I dread spring break a little bit. Maybe more than a little bit.

But we made plans, and we had adventures. It was cold most of the time, so this involved a fair amount of scheduling on my part. Me being a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of girl [which is just a cover for my true identity: homebody], I always expect planning to be painful, but it wasn’t. The shooting neck and back pain on account of me thinking I could jump with the boys at the trampoline park is another matter entirely.

Bullet points:

  •  Gave SkyMax a go. Intended goal accomplished: exhaustion. Unintended consequence: I couldn’t move without pain for about four days and G’s cold turned into an ear infection, resulting in a burst ear drum. Per usual, J emerged unscathed and ready for more.
  • Perry Sippo Lake library (coolest fish tank ever!), science center (Taxidermied bobcats and bears! Puppets!), trek around the lake (G moaning and whining all the way (hadn’t figured out the ear thing yet)!
  • Kelsey babysits! Jon Lincoln babysits! Jeff Pethybridge reads The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School!
  • Playdate with friends in Suffield. Multiple rounds of war games planned and executed. Legos constructed, deconstructed, and envied (G’s pockets turned out before our departure).
  • Surprise visit to J’s old Montessori school for recess with friends.
  • This week’s characters of choice: scary Heath Ledger Joker, Indiana Jones, Cat in the Hat.

That’s all I got. And pictures. Of course pictures.

At the museum:
mountain lion j
puppet j
puppet g
register
boys and bear
mountain lion 2
In the woods ’round the lake:
pensive g in woods
tunnel boys
tunnel run
Characters:
joker j
j the joker rubber gloves
cat in the hat
indiana

Quiet

The boys are spending too much time in front of screens this afternoon. They are. I know it and am consciously ignoring the good-parent voice in my head because I desperately Do Not want to interact. I love my children, and to be their mother, I sometimes need to do a screen-for-all afternoon because, quite simply, I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to answer questions. I don’t want to get juice or help initiate an activity (or provide oversight of said activity, the lack of which would result in physical harm to child or home or the loss of the child all together). I want Quiet.

Unfortunately, my handy screen-sitters don’t necessarily mean I will experience Quiet, not even when mandatory headphones are involved. Having told the boys I would no longer be available, that I was in the grey chair and for all intents and purposes did not exist for the next two hours, that they needed to use their headphones And go to another room where the grey chair was Not, they began to talk to each other with their head phones on, turned up (I imagine) just about as high as they would go. Talk isn’t the right word to describe the volume level. It wasn’t quite a yell either. More like that voice you use when talking to someone whose hearing aid is on the blink. Hearing an eight and four-year-old do that is kind of hilarious, even when I’m past frazzled.

They eventually settled in and settled down, during which time my heart rate slowed a little, the racing in my chest abated. I dug into a good book. (QuietThe Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.) I might have preferred a novel as I almost always prefer a novel, but I’m finding the premise of Quiet to be good medicine. Having long recognized my self as a member of the introverted species, I had to make myself dig in. What was I going to learn that I didn’t already know? Also: books devoted to the study of a multitude of studies make me want to skim, skim, skim.

I must now mention that the boys have exhibited self-limiting behavior, voluntarily plugging the screens back into their respective charging stations. Quiet no longer exists. Gabriel has opened the musical instruments box and is shaking a rattle and some bells while taunting his brother, who is doing math problems on a thirty-year-old adding machine, accompanied by all manner of vocal (I can only call it) stimming. Might this be the time to share a passage describing  the open-plan office?

Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol, the body’s fight-or-flight “stress” hormone; and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others. (Quiet, 84)

Well now. That just about describes me. Cortisol crazy, I want to run away. Sustained exposure to constant noise puts me completely on edge, my temper igniting at the smallest of small infractions. I have no desire to help anyone but myself. Because I cannot abandon my children I think we will go for a walk.

But here I am still: an introverted woman with two intense, quite extroverted younglings. To survive them, not to mention care for them and make some contribution to raising them up in the way they should go—as well as maintain (and grow) a relationship with my husband who is probably more introverted than I (but better, it seems, at ignoring the chaos)—I periodically revisit the subject of my identity. But first I must answer G’s existential question: Mama, what is a sock?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now night, the only sounds I hear are the tapping of my keys, Sophie snoring behind me, the furnace kicking on, and the muffle of the boys’ sound machine through a closed door. Not quite Quiet, but more so. Enough to be like food or sunlight or walking—my other best/necessary fuels. Though Kafka might not agree: “One can never be alone enough when one writes…there can never be enough silence around one when one writes…even night is not night enough.”

Back to that open-office plan breakdown. It’s got me thinking about family life, about cohabitation and identity, about contemporary culture, about self and the giving up thereof. Many times at church today, Fr. Nicholas spoke of quiet, particularly joyful quiet, and how difficult it can be to find. Or does he mean cultivate? I’ve had the same question over the last few days. I certainly feel an absence, having/trying to abstain from—or at least cut down on—sugar and wine, beer, cheese, meat, serial dramas, chocolate, and the listening to of music 24/7. I feel a hole those pleasures did fill, and I’m not comfortable with it yet. Makes me a little edgy, a life with fewer distractions—which is how I prided myself on living for the first ten years or so of my adult life. So it’s not that it’s unimaginable, it’s that the conditions have (obviously) changed.

I come from a tight, lively family. My mother is an extrovert par excellence—enough so that God saw fit to make everyone else in our family introverts, in varying degrees. But even my mother craves quiet and peace and works to create space for it these days. Growing up, and living on a farm as we did, it was pretty easy to get away. Quiet was more the norm than not. I could hole up in my room and read for hours. I could wander around our property, my sisters my only playmates for many years. But even then, in that relatively quiet environment, I needed to get away sometimes or I got cranky. It is a wonder to me how well I function now with only a minimal amount of silence and solitude. O wait! I’m on anti-depressant/anxiety medicine. Nevermind.

All of this to say, a little more cultivation and prioritizing is in order on my end of things. The hole fasting creates—okay, let’s call it space—helps me see myself more plainly, throwing into relief who I am and who I think I need to be, primarily for my children. A simple, physical example: as Gabriel and I sat on the pew today (J was braving it with the altar boys back behind the iconostasis), I found myself curving my body in a rather uncomfortable way so that he could use me as a human recliner. I instinctively reacted to this realization by straightening my spine, causing him to reorient himself to get comfortable again. In that small moment, I felt the pull between making someone (I love dearly) more comfortable and protecting myself from not only pain but also (more instinctively) subsumption. Convergently, I thought: I need to be the straight one. Whatever that means.

Gets messy, doesn’t it? And what’s the point, you ask, of my analyzing this seemingly simple action? It’s the way I roll. It’s quiet at work in me, amplifying my attention to my thoughts, environment, and actions. I notice things; it’s one of my gifts. Having neglected it, I am grateful it is still there, and that quiet, by God’s grace (a phrase I do not mean to use as mere vernacular or jargon), makes me empty enough to receive it again.

Spring Fever

I like the weather. I like to check the weather. I like to study the radar and the hourly forecasts. I like to be out in the weather.

Today being the first day of spring, I was pleased to see we might make it up to 50 degrees F. On their way to school, both boys mentioned they might actually get to play outside today, though G still gets a little confused about how the sun works. J too, for that matter. Maybe it’s because the winters are so grey, but when the sun finally makes an appearance, they immediately assume they will be flooded with warmth. They roll down the windows in the car.

Me: It’s only 30 degrees! I’m freezing.
Them (in certain denial): We’re not cold! We need fresh air!

Thank the Lord for window locks is all I have to say.

Back to the weather. As I set out to walk I was a little surprised to see snow flurries descend from what had turned into another gloomy grey sky in the time since I had dropped the boys off at school. So, naturally, I checked the radar. What looked like a decent patch of bright blue (snow) was heading our way. I checked the hourly forecast. 0% chance of precipitation, I read. But where the sunny/cloudy/rainy/snowy icon usually declared the current conditions, I was greeted with a bright blue question mark. I have never seen such a thing. Have even the forecasters given up forecasting?

Two hours later we have a good thick inch, maybe two, on the ground. And it’s still coming down.

spring snow

But it’s not just weather, is it? Spring is a kind of fever. My self inside bounces off the walls of my body, ready to spring, run, howl, make . . . Something.

Mark Twain:

It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!

It’s what makes a boy take off off his shirt and ride through a cold wind in only a puffy vest, because he is Sebulba, and it is what must be done.

sebulba rides

Or, climb a tree as such.

sebulba climbs

If you are another variety of boy, you might find a rotten piece of thick trunk fallen off the neighbor’s tree and take your mallet to it, again and again,

hammer to wood 1

and again.

hammer to wood 2

If you are me, it means a poem written (in part) while walking until my hips ache. To work my soul and body in tandem. So that I can match up with myself better, and sleep so well at night.

Late winter, Early Spring
      Pain is never permanent.  –St. Teresa of Avila

Snowmelt jetsam: uncleared summer
gardens border winter
salted sidewalks—how is the dog to know
what’s concrete or earth? Disintegrating
piles defy cleanup. Forgotten Christmas
lights blink on or hang busted, not
bright. You look for it. You look for it
and when you are not looking the crocus
finally shoots. The hangdog clouds
bring snow or rain, exasperating as a child
on the borderland of reason. Should you
sing or cry? The pull between sinking
and rising is a hard stretch.
Yes brightness but why gloom?

Walk until your hips are numb with walking.
The black fluttering in the highest
branches might be birds, might be the last of
what still must fall.

 

 

How we groove

So how it goes around here on (adult) birthdays is: the best gift is time alone. Almost without exception.

Yesterday was John’s. He chose to forgo the traditional cake/cookie/decadent dessert for spinach enchiladas with red and green sauce. We found a candle and slid it into the layers of tortilla, cheese, spinach, beans, onions, and corn. We sang. Homemade presents and a bottle of scotch were opened. The best gift might have been G’s unprompted, impromptu Happy Birthday song shortly after he woke. And here I must note that Gabriel Keats is not a morning person, not unlike his mother.

So though John has loads of grading to do, and spent much of the day doing just it, he was able to do it with a modicum of quiet, even as he binged on a Netflix offering to get him through. And when I needed a moment minus boys, he took them out for brunch after church. (When asked what his favorite part of the day was at day’s end, G promptly replied, “Going to the restaurant with daddy!”) Upon their return, John went back to grading and the boys reentered my purview.

That’s the way we groove. At our best, team Jantz-Estes works best through a series of baton passes. I take a few laps, he takes a few. He feeds the minions, I feed the minions. Our endurances shift, and we each specialize—he the master maker when the boys’ plans are bigger than their skill sets; I the incentivizer for outdoor adventure. Even the boys pitch in, understanding when mommy says she can’t talk or answer questions, that they must try to keep themselves occupied so that she can orchestrate a multi-faceted meal (enchiladas, beans and rice push my typical mix-it-up-and-put-it-in-a-bowl cooking pattern). To their very great credit (and increasing maturity), they kept themselves occupied in the basement with “clues” (piles of toys they did God-knows-what-with and then PICKED UP UNASKED when they were finished).

O, I almost forgot. Absolute BEST gift of the day (I will presume to say we all agree on this): as we opened a few presents after lunch in our front room, our hawk friend who lives on campus across the street, alighted on the branch right outside our window. He was close enough that we could see the beautiful spotted detail of his tail feathers and could be amazed by the way he swiveled his head from front to back without moving a single feather. He seemed quite content on that branch until Gabriel—who was bouncing his body up against the window in excitement—spooked him to the oak across the street.  

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