Christ is Risen Mary Karr

Gabriel convened a plushie meeting a week ago Saturday night (attendees had to bring their “yes” tickets as proof of invitation) to discuss our plans, each of us, for the following day.

His were concrete and Easter-basket driven: get up and have a special breakfast (pancakes or waffles count); wait for daddy to hide the Easter eggs; find the Easter eggs; come back inside and see what the Easter bunny brought (his belief in the power of the Bunny still rooted and strong).

J went next. J, with his grown-into, contrarian, slightly depressive (particularly as the day wears on) nature: Easter isn’t about a reedonkulous Bunny! I want to read the story about Jesus rising from the dead!

G proceeds to crawl under his bed, feelings hurt. John tells G that J has a right to free speech, and that we need to honor that. Come out, he says. Don’t get your feelings hurt. G crawls back out and puts his head on John’s lap. I admonish J for being mean about his free speech; we are in his bed cuddling as all of this unfolds.

My turn. I say that what G says sounds great. That I’d also like to read the Easter story, as this Lent has been a wash in many ways, particularly churchwise. [Birmingham is the nearest full-blown church (we attend a reader’s service in nearer-by Moundville—a church where the priest fell asleep in the Lord over a year ago), but the drive isn’t an easy one and I’m too tired to do it most weekends or with any regularity during the week. The church itself is on the rigorous end of the Orthodox spectrum, and I dread shepherding the boys through it, particularly since they’ve become accustomed to a much shorter reader’s service on Sundays. I only go to Bham when the boys are out of town or sick. So much for my parental and Christian responsibility for their spiritual formation. Epic fail? Perhaps. While I’m OK with that for now—gentleness and patience with myself being my self-chosen spiritual practices this Lent around—I acknowledge a change need be made in the near future).] In the moment, I don’t verbalize that last parenthetical. Instead I add I’d like to get up and have my coffee in my room and rise slowly to the day. Every one seems to approve.

Your turn Daddy, says G. I just want what you guys want, he replies. To the uninstructed reader, this may sound like a cop-out, but G’s cool with the answer, and considering I earlier unleashed my “I-feel-like-a-single-parent” diatribe on John just hours before, having taken the boys to a wondrous creek of a nature preserve by myself earlier in the day, I know he’s doing his best to do what he barely finds himself capable of doing. Suffice to say, I don’t know what it’s like to live his life, and best as I can imaginestand (my just-now-made-up word to convey how I try to understand his particular way of being in the world), surrender to our wishes is a spiritual discipline he practices quite regularly, willingly, and graciously.

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The day itself comes quietly and peacefully. The sun couldn’t have been brighter. All progressed as most all of us wished: coffee in my room (served by John), check; waffles, check; egg hunt, check; Easter baskets, check; Mediterranean pieced-together feast, check. We didn’t get to the Easter story until Monday night, but we aren’t known for being timely. In the afternoon the boys and I vacuum up the spiders in their basement hideout, followed by my sweeping up buckets of pollen-laden fallen leaves and dried up blooms. Late in the afternoon I finish reading Lit, a book by Mary Carr about her journey to sobriety, community, and, in turn, the Catholic faith. The book ended up being my unexpected but welcome companion throughout Holy Week. As Bright Week progresses, I turn to Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, by Kate Hennessy (Day’s granddaughter). Though I have no plans for such, I may yet end up a Southern Catholic of a sort, that being what’s available in this Tuscaloosa of an Alabama. My true home is forever Orthodoxy, but considering my Mennonite Baptist Methodist Presbyterian Episcopalian road trip so far, well, the Lord only knows.

Around here, Southerners like to part with a kind of conversational benediction. Rather than “Have a good day,” they up the ante with “Have a blessed day.” Maybe it’s simply that the novelty of it hasn’t worn off, but I feel a true intention in their words, like a prayer being said over me.

Blessed may it be.

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Bright

After a characteristically intense Holy Week (Eastern Orthodox Easter is today—Christ is Risen!) and a late night/early morning long Paschal service (it was nearly 4 am by the time Jonah and I went to bed), I am happily, if somewhat foggily, enjoying a very Bright Day of rest.

I’m rather basking in the day. My impressions of the week, and particularly last night, fade in and out like satellites. When I try to focus on one in particular, it goes fuzzy and disappears. But there, I catch it again on the periphery. By suppressing my focus it reappears. One is material, another just a sense. Something that was leading me somewhere. If I am still, maybe I will be able to catch on again and follow.

Jonah’s head on my lap, my hand shielding his eyes so that he could fall asleep as the priest shouted “Xristos voskres!” and the people around us shouted back, “Voistinu voskres!”

The woman’s hair catching on fire while we stood outside, inching forward toward the open doors of the Church. Her son’s large hands smothering the flame. The distinct smell of hair on fire. The strangeness of hardly anyone noticing.

The bells. Jonah clamping his hands over his ears, pressing hard. Excited, over-stimulated, and asleep on his feet.

Sophie and Lucy having simultaneous chasing dreams, their erratic breathing and dream barks, all eight paws sleep running.

“We bow the necks of our souls…” from the Bridegroom Service.

Meeting the woman we often stand next to for the first time at Pascha. J was asleep, there was no G, so it was finally possible. Her name is Debbie. She lives in Fairlawn. She’s gone to St. Nicholas her entire life.

Hearing Jonah say “Indeed He Is Risen.”

Jonah’s utter amazement at the midnight service. “You mean, these people do this Every year? It’s crazy! They walk around the building in the dark! I’m shivering all over.”

The abdominal cramps that started at the very first of the 12 Gospel readings at the Thursday night service. If you’ve never been to this service, well, they call it the 12 Gospels for a reason. Every ounce of Gospel scripture dealing with the crucifixion and resurrection as well as the Sermon on the Mount are chanted, interspersed with many hymns and prayers. I almost fainted. I broke out in a complete body sweat. I stumbled to the cry room to recover and made it back in by about the 5th gospel. I was asked: “Are you having a heart attack?” and “Are you pregnant?” I’m not sure which terrified me more.

Seeing just one set of lights pass me on a six lane highway on our way back from the Pascha service at about 3 :15 a.m. The world at 3 a.m. feels like an entirely different place, eerily so. I thought about what it would have been like to travel through the area where I live in the dead of night with no streets, no streetlights, no cars, no civilization as we have come to know it. How people must have longed for any sighting of human life. A home lit up from the inside. Other bodies. Technology seems like a warm thing: the lights, the heat, the possibilities of communication and commerce and resources. But as we like to say around the Estes homestead (talking about you G), it’s a tool. Not a replacement. Not that any of us would consciously think of it so, but I certainly think we act as if it were, without thinking. No doubt it’s easier to live with your phone than the person in your bed.

Waking up humming a version of the “Christ is risen from the dead / trampling down death by death / and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” Hearing Jonah hum it unconsciously.

Stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts at 3 a.m. to get Jonah a classic glazed. I don’t think they see a lot of 7 year olds at 3 a.m.

The wonder that my priest asked, “No Gabriel?” How many times has G interrupted his homily? And I’m not even counting the fire alarm incident.

That Holy Week was the week that G finally got his shit together. Literally. Thank you Gabriel Keats for finding your way around that fear-of-pooping-in-the-toilet-thing. And no, mama is not going to continue to give you a lollipop every time you do.

g found it       all gs eggs in one basket

mail egg       over there

upside watch       monkey hang

beauty broken       beauty fix

Bring me out

Western Easter and Eastern Easter are more than a month apart this year, so as the West gets ready to celebrate Palm Sunday, we are just entering Great Lent. A gap this wide is hard to bridge, and it’s tough explaining to a seven-year-old. G’s just barely getting the concept of birthdays (so far he’s had three this year—his, Jonah’s and his dad’s). An understanding of Easter (or Pascha) will be a few years coming.

In the Russia church we attend, Forgiveness Vespers (a service akin to Ash Wednesday) is celebrated directly after Liturgy (in some churches, the service is held in the evening—making it easier to attend alone). Instead of being anointed with ash, the Orthodox shift into the season of repentance by asking forgiveness of every one attending the service. The first half of the service reads like a typical vespers until halfway through. As the choir sings a penitential hymn, the colors of the church—vestments, altar cloths, etc.—are changed from gold to dark purple. I missed most of the prayers while I tried to keep J and G fed and in the pew, but the phrase “bring me out of my affliction” caught my ear. Gabriel was sitting on my lap, and I asked him, “Are you afflicted?”

“I’m not afflicted, you’re afflicted!” he returned. From the mouth of babes.

This word pleased him to no end, and he continued to repeat his phrase with mischievous glee. “You’re afflicted! I said you’re afflicted mommy!”

g prayerA little later, both the boys were intrigued to see everyone drop to their knees, pressing their foreheads to the floor. We did a number of prostrations during the Prayer of St. Ephrem, and by the last few, G and J were laid flat out on their bellies at the appropriate time, or thereabouts. By this time Gabriel was super antsy. We’d been in church for more than two hours, and he was dancing around at the entrance to the pew as Fr. Nicholas gave a short homily. But he was still listening. At one point, Fr. Nicholas made reference to “the tools we use” in the Lenten season (prayer, fasting, alms), and G called out in the megaphone voice he saves especially for church, “He said the tools we use!” And then, “Mommy!”—as if it was possible not to hear him the first time—“He said the tools we use!”

Then it was time to make the rounds. The priest started, prostrating himself and asking our forgiveness. The altar servers and deacon followed. Two-thirds of the congregation was ahead of us, so by the time it was our turn, Jonah had a good sense of what was going on and was understandably nervous about the whole deal: “I can’t do it. I’m too shy.” I gave him the option of just kissing Fr. Nicholas and then returning to his seat to read a book, but he hung in there, pulled along by welcoming hugs and head pats. The Russians like to kiss. One gregarious old man gave Gabriel three kisses on the lips. By the last kiss, G’s expression could be read as either “Who the heck is this guy?” or “Get me out of here!”

On we kissed, asking forgiveness of every man, woman and child. Old and young. J hung in there, and by the end was giddy with all the love. “Mom, I did it! I was too shy, but I did it!” As we waited in our arc of the circle for the rest of the congregation to greet us, two teenage altar servers kept an eye on the nursery door while G played. It worked out just right—better than I could have hoped or planned.

In years past, we either fled before the service started or didn’t make it at all. I am grateful for the grace of these people, for Gabriel and Jonah keeping me occupied during the service so that I didn’t have time to worry about the logistics of moving two more-than-slightly feral children through a line of strangers patting, kissing, hugging and shaking their hands. If Lent is a great sea, my children—and these people—are my life rafts. Bringing me along, out of myself.

Your grace has shone forth, O Lord:
the grace which illumines our soul.
This is the acceptable time!
This is the time of repentance!
Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,
that passing through the Fast as through a great sea
we may reach the Resurrection on the third day
of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls.

(Aposticha from the Lenten Triodian for Forgiveness Vespers)

What it takes

Jonah and I had a date for church this morning. We’ve gotten to the point where Gabriel goes a couple times a month. There’s only so much racing and chasing we can manage, and really, we’d rather he were outside running circles than making a mad dash for the altar.

J was a little more squirrelly than usual. We’ve been out of the church proper for almost three months, meeting in the social hall while repairs were made. He was very excited to be back in “the big church.” Usually we can get a solid five minutes of ease out of him upon our arrival, but today he was squatting atop the pew with Where’s Walrus wide open, rocking from side to side and talking a kind of bookish gibberish to himself. There’s always been a Gollum-esque quality to Jonah, minus the creepy “My preciousssss” obsessive chatter. It’s in the way he moves. He has a wonderful litheness about him—creaturely in a kooky but charming sort of way.

But what it takes somedays is full body contact. At one point he was on my lap, facing me and showering me with kisses. On my nose, my eyes, my neck. Then he had a piece of my hair in his mouth, then he was sniffing me. Every few moments he would look me straight in the eye and say, “I love you mom.” Either that or, “How long until Holy Communion? Five minutes? Twenty?”

One routine that must be particularly strange to watch involves me putting my hand down the front of his shirt so that I’m touching his skin while my other hand clamps down hard over his eyes. “Tighter, tighter!” he whisper-commands. It’s hard to know how hard to push. I fear shoving his beautiful big eyeballs into his skull, and my hand can stay clamped like that for only so long before it starts to cramp.

It must be a lot to take in. Of course it is. I remember my first visits to an Orthodox Church. I would plant myself in a pew behind a large pillar so that I could watch and hide all at once. As soon as the service was over I’d break for the door. There’s still a little of that tendency in me. The icons, the chanting, the incense, the bright stained glass. Priests and altar boys in robes moving about. The periodic Paschal shout of “Christ is Risen!” answered by a hundred voices shouting back, “Indeed He is Risen!” Of course he needs someone to clamp down hard on his eyes. Sometimes it’s just too much. Turning all of his attention on me seems to have the same calming effect. Sniffing my hair brings him down to a more familiar, less stimulating place.

On the spectrum of sensory input, Jonah’s a seeker (to the often extreme), so I can forget that even he can be overwhelmed. I’m starting to think it happens more than we know or have in the past discerned because he’s almost always smiling. He’s game and he’s goofy. His goofiness is probably the biggest sign that he’s got more than he knows what to do with. When he starts slapping his head three-stooges-style and falling to the ground, you know it’s time to bail. Get to some heavy work or a swing. Whatever it takes…which is how I tend to approach Church these days. I try to ignore the looks that come our way. Some are real, some imagined. I have to admit that there’s part of me saying, “Screw ’em.” (I know. Nice sentiment to be having in church.) But if there’s one thing Jonah’s given me, it’s perspective.

It’s so easy to judge. It’s so easy to be unkind and think you know best. Jonah has taught us how to be his parents. Through his cries and his caresses, through his climbing and running and spinning he shows us what he needs—which is sometimes to be left alone, but more often to be helped along. To be calmed down so he can be with us better. So we can be better with him.

Eleven

I would be completely remiss if I didn’t post Something on 11/11/11. Why? Because I love eleven. I cannot tell you why eleven, but eleven it is. Mystical? Maybe. Intriguing? Assuredly. Several times a week I look at the clock to see it read either 1:11 or 11:11. Go ahead, say it. You’re a little silly Jennifer. But I know what I know. And I know eleven.

It’s months still to Pascha (Easter), but you can never go wrong with John Chrysostom. His Paschal homily is one of my favorite pieces of writing. Click HERE to read the homily entire and read on for a little something about the eleventh hour.

If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.

If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.

If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.

If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward.

If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast.

If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.

If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.

If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.

For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.

He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious.

He both honors the work and praises the intention.

—John Chrysostom

A good friend passed on an eleven/11 mug. I drank an inaugural cup of coffee from its thick ceramic this morning. Cheers to eleven! G contributed his trucks for the photo. Here’s a link to a favorite Sesame Street clip (or two or three). Okay, I’ll stop now, except to say,

Happy 11/11/11!