Chrysler Pacifica: Take 2 (Artemisia)

Back in February, before the order of the world collapsed into quarantined chaos, Adam and I bought a new car. It was a high end plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica – far and away the nicest car I have ever owned. This was the car that would see me through the end of my parenting years and the beginning of my camping all the time years! It would be big enough for teenagers and their friends, and for me to convince Adam to buy more camping gear. But it would be guilt free, getting ~50 miles per gallon! Plus heated seats and heated steering wheels and fancy bluetooth stereo systems. It was a gorgeous car.

But before I’d had it even two weeks, I was driving back from New Hampshire with my mom after having dropped Grey off at Camp Wilmot winter weekend when the car flashed a weird warning message. At 11 pm at night on I93 south in 14 degree weather it just …. stopped working. Like, at all. We waited hours for the tow truck to take us to the nearest dealership, and then took a Lyft home. But I was confident they’d fix my car. I mean, it had like a thousand miles on it. It was two weeks old. It was really expensive. Of course it would be ok.

Midnight in the tow truck – there were four of us in the cab! Mom was still recovering from knee surgery. It was 14 degrees. So of course we couldn’t stop giggling.

The dealership they took it to, Bonneville and Sons, said that the error codes had mysteriously disappeared, they couldn’t recreate it, surely it was a fluke. They gave it back to me with a shrug of their shoulders after a few days. I was now nervous. Then COVID hit and no one went anywhere for a while. Finally in May, hiking became an option again and we headed up to do a quick day hike with Thane. On the drive back, at almost the exact same spot, we got the exact same error message. I got to with a tenth of a mile of Bonneville & Sons (I could see it easily from where we were) during business hours. Hooray! I thought! They’ll be able to access the codes! They’re right here! But the service department told me they were leaving in an hour, I’d have to wait for the Chrysler towing to move the car that tenth of a mile, and no. They wouldn’t even look at it. Or help me. It would just sit there over the weekend and then (I thought) the codes would be lost again. I was in tears, and incandescent with the incredibly awful service, and how little they cared. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that angry as a customer, or as little cared about.

Seriously? Come on Bonneville & Sons.

So I had it towed to Massachusetts, to Brigham and Gill where we bought it. They said that there was nothing wrong with the error codes, Brigham and Gill had just deleted them last time.

They replaced a few things and tried a few things and consulted with Chrysler and eventually gave it back to me after a few weeks.

Quality family time

A few weeks later, it happened again, stranding us in a rest stop in New Hampshire – this time on our way UP to our day of relaxing adventures. We left it there, rented a car at Manchester Airport and continued our day (three hours delayed). We moved the car as far south as we could the next day (it crapped out at exit 1 in NH). Then the following day we limped it into the dealership, cleared of all our stuff. The only consolation was that it was definitely and incontrovertibly a lemon of the lemonest variety. There could be no argument. (It has to fail three times to be legally a lemon.)

Goodbye Ruby Rider

But hey! I figured this would work out. I’d just get a new one. What would it take – a few weeks? Well. They had to pay my rental costs, but they only offer $35 a day. If you’re wondering, that is not the value of the car I bought. At all. So I spent most of the summer driving a beat up rental minivan with no Bluetooth capability (I didn’t even know that was still an option) that smelled strongly of the previous occupants smoking addiction and got like 12 mpg. I had to fight for that too – they wanted me to take a smaller car (which, uh, how would I go camping?). But the worst part was the extraordinary and slow and mysterious bureaucracy of the Chrysler process. There’s no documentation, or guidance on what to expect. There’s only being passed along to the next person who has no ability to actually do anything. My fingers itched to do some “process improvement” on whatever the hell they were doing with their internal machinations. It took MONTHS from the day we turned it in for the last time.

Finally, though, we did get the new car! My friends think I absolutely crazy to get the same vehicle again, but other than the bit where it routinely stranded me by the side of the road with 30 seconds warning, I loved it! I really don’t believe that all the Pacificas have this flaw, or they wouldn’t even be able to sell them. I am taking a huge risk, buying an extremely expensive vehicle from a company I know doesn’t take care of the owners of such vehicles. But it is still the only comparable vehicle on the market with fuel efficiency even close to that. And in a saving grace, I was really impressed with how the dealership we bought it from, Brigham and Gill, handled the situation.

We named the new car Artemisia after one of history’s most incredible women. She was a queen, battle-captain, regent and admiral of the Persian fleet with Xerxes during the Peloponnesian War (c. 450 BC). She made the incredibly sexist men of the era respect her, cleverly playing their expectations against them. She’s a woman for whom the name of her husband was unknown. She gets called out by name by Herodotus and Plutarch. She totally needs to have a movie made about her life. Until then, I’ll hope her indomitable spirit keeps her namesake at least on the road! We’ve passed the 1000 mile mark with no issues so far, so fingers crossed!!!

Finally camping with the car I bought to go camping with

Hot Air Ballooning

There was a moment where Thane was born when I had an epiphany. It’s funny, I know when it happened and what it did in my life, but I don’t remember the actual epiphany at all. Maybe it was a gradual realization. Maybe I was doing dishes. Adam and I had spent our 20s trying to be grownups – being reliable, showing up on time, gardening, learning how to cook, reading books, staying at home. We didn’t make big money, but we lived thriftily. I started my 401k with my first professional job when I was 21 years old – before I even graduated college. We were dead set on Being Grownups (because of course, we didn’t feel like it). But then I had Thane and I turned 30 and I realized that this was my one and only precious life, and my life would only include the things that I did in it. Moreover, I really only remembered the things that I photographed and/or wrote about. I bought a digital camera. I bought a book on photography. I started this blog. And I started planning to do things that were important and memorable.

First camping trip – Thane is only 9 months old.

We started camping. I ramped up the picture taking. We began to travel more, to visit more places and go on excursions. And I took more and more pictures of all of it (of course, the improvements in digital photography helped – taking pictures when you actually used film was a pain in the rear).

I suspect sometimes I now overdo it. Hundreds of pictures on a memorable day is not unusual. Last year, going through my pictures to put together a “Best of” album, I had over 10k pictures to review. And during precovid times we were exhausted and strapped by my insistence on constantly *doing things*. But then life hit the biggest collective pause button our generation has ever seen. In the year in which Adam and I celebrate 20 years of marriage (and 24 of sharing our lives), we were supposed to go on a romantic trip to Italy in April, which clearly didn’t happen. And as our anniversary approached, I was jolted by the realization that this really rather tremendous milestone was on its way to being lost in the sameness of these quarantine days (nice meal and dressing up aside). So I cast my mind for something truly memorable, something that wouldn’t erode with the currents of time, and was appropriate for a pandemic. One of those sorts of things you never have a good enough reason to justify the cost for doing.

And I had a brilliant idea

Despite a widespread fear of heights among the assembled family (not me!) I got very little pushback for my crazy scheme. Even the 4:30 am wakeup call was handled with grace, fortitude and coffee. (It turns out balloon rides are almost always at dawn, when the winds are calmest. One of our co-fliers had tried 4 times to get in a balloon ride to be stymied by high winds the previous three). We got to the site at 5:30 and watched as they unrolled the balloon, tested the gear and started inflating the vast room-sized, rainbow balloon. We first had to hold down the basket, and then we climbed in. As gently as an escalator, the balloon started taking off next to its competitor compatriot, and ascended into the quiet of the New England dawn.

Still waters and smooth sailing

For some reason, the heights in a balloon are much less scary than other heights. The basket is firm beneath you. The rates feel human-scale. The margins feel large. We skimmed across the tops of trees – close enough to grab a handful of needles from a pine. We swooped low over the water of a lake, catching our reflection. Then we rose up high high high until the cars were smaller than Matchbox cars. Differences in height changed our direction. Our pilot Andre, who appears to have trained every other hot air balloonist in New England, told a series of well practiced jokes and tales, his persistent love of his aeronautical craft seeping through his customer facing banter. He was like a magician, seeing things in the future. It takes a long time to make a hot air balloon change where it is (heat is not the world’s most efficient method of steering), but he was somehow always seeing ahead and moving us to these invisible air currents made somehow visible to him.

The balloon face of the other balloon only got creepier as it landed

The landing was rather exciting. They really only control up and down in a balloon, and to land they need quite a bit of cleared space, without power lines. New England is rather on the wooded side (Andre was vehemently anti-tree). So the cul-de-sac we landed in had seen balloons land there before, although the neighbors still turned out in delighted appreciation of the gem landing in their street. Except for one person, who was _BESIDE HIMSELF_ with anger that we would land there. He was hopping up and down with rage and cursing and generally making a scene, which shouldn’t have been funny, but absolutely was. The capper was when one of his long suffering and patient neighbors, in the midst of his profanity laden tirade against the balloon, greeted him with a very phlegmatic, “Morning Lenny”. Landing a hot air balloon does require a certain amount of diplomacy, and a canny and quick ground crew to literally sprint to catch the landing lines.

The mostly volunteer landing crew

We ended our adventure with a glass of champagne (I looked up only to realize my Very Tall son had one as well – ah well! Good time for a first glass of champagne, I suppose!) in balloon cups with good wishes (including “friendly landowers) and a history lesson on the first aeronautical adventurers. And Andre gave us this toast, in his muted French accent:

May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

MOSTLY friendly landowners

It was a lovely, beautiful moment my friends. Much has been abandoned, or prevented, or cancelled. There is fear everywhere, and grief and anger. Many traditions have been broken, and others forever lost. But we are humans. We are at our greatest when what is called for is stamina, forbearance, patience, humor, creativity and wonder. If the old is no longer possible, we can ask ourselves – what new things has that created space for? When we account for our lives, what will we – in the end – remember?

Smile!

If you want to see all the pictures of our adventure, I’ve put them into this album for your enjoyment! I would definitely recommend A&A Balloon Rides in NH!

Smiles behind masks!

Learn to draw in 30 days

We all have different ways of coping with the crazy times we find ourselves in. This summer is a strange one in so many ways. It’s been beautiful and hot and precious here in New England, but as we tip into fall all of us are bracing for a school year far from normal, and the possibility of another winter trapped inside our homes. I’ve tried to be extra diligent lately with self care – doing things to build up my strength and nourish my spirit. And during a run a few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to draw.

My desk of joy – as opposed to my desk of work

It’s been interesting to discover my learning style. Lately, the trend has been towards video education. I hate hate hate and loathe learning things by video. I’m not sure why. I pretty much never go to Youtube for anything but workout videos (which are for some reason an exception). I know that there are probably infinite channels dedicated to this very task, as well as the entire video footage of Bob Ross. But I learned how to learn from books, and the written word is still 100% my preferred method. So I bought myself:

1) “You Can Draw in 30 Days” by Mark Kistler
2) A crazy complicated set of drawing pencils which did not come with any sort of guide on what to use when, or even what things are
3) A sketchpad. If I’d realized how BFFs you become with your sketch pad I would’ve bought a nicer one, but here we are

The first thing we drew was a pretest. We were supposed to draw a house, a plane and a bagel in five minutes each. I hesitate deeply to show you mine. You see, in my school, you either did art or you did music. And I definitely and 100% did music. And then some extra music. So I think my last formal education in art might have been … 3rd grade. And I wasn’t very good even in 3rd grade. Since then, I have improved not at all due to never trying to. So what you see below is not sandbagging – it’s actually my best attempt. DON’T MOCK ME. (Or, you know, only mock me behind my back.)

I’m really this bad

Obviously, any skills at all will be a vast improvement on the impressively-retained 3rd grade drawing level I started with. Since then, it’s been a real joy. The book is canny in showing you how to do something that looks and feels like a real accomplishment, and only sneaking a little theory or technique in along the way. It has those things, but the overall tone of the books is one of joyful experimentation on basics being taught. Here was my first real success, a measly three lessons in:

I’m a particular fan of the “alien jumping out of a hole” technique, which is recurring in my opus.

Then we moved onto squares. There are a few places where I could stand a little more explanation (like how do you get the length of the squares right? But my architectural friends better watch out – I’m not only doing open boxes, I’m doing treasure chests!

Boxes, treasure chests and foreshortening

Then yesterday’s lesson was wild! Out of left field! After 7 days of circles and squares we suddenly went to …. koalas.

Brenda’s first bear

Then last night, from the giddy heights of Lesson 8, I thought …. what if I put all these things together in one crazy, overlapping circle, open box with pedestal, koala-combining extravaganza. Could I do it? Such a complicated piece? How do people not smudge their drawings when they do this? But I sat down and didn’t stop until I had … this.

With bonus bopping alien

I mean, compare to my pretest. Pretty amazing, right? There’s plenty of problems with it – probably more problems than drawing. But it was super fun! And it made me feel really good and accomplished and like I’d learned things. And that was a great feeling to have during this crazy time.

Here are my key takeaways so far:

1) Erasing is a tremendously important part of drawing – by intent. No artist is “so good” they don’t need the eraser. The eraser is a key tool.
1.5) I wish I had an eraser as precise as a pencil
2) I like to sketch in a high-hardness pencil (like 4H) and then texture in a high smudge pencil (like 4B). It’s somehow much easier to erase the Hs. I had to experiment a lot with the pencils to figure out what they did, and why you would use one over the other.
3) How DO people avoid smudging their drawings with their hands? Do they always move left to right (or non-dominant to dominant) in their drawings?
4) Someday I will not have to actually draw (and then erase) the sun to get the angles right. That day is a long time from now.
5) I still can’t tell with boxes whether I should shade in alignment with the angle of the box or the sun. Is the answer “it depends?” (Narrator: the answer is ALWAYS “it depends”)
6) It’s useful to redraw (in the bolder pencil) lines you want to have visible, so they really pop from the page
7) I’ve started thinking about drawing when I’m not drawing and noticing things in drawings I’ve never seen before.
8) This is fun.

I’m sure that if I power through to the end of the 30 days, I’ll inflict updates on you (or at my Instagram account – look for fairoriana).

The power of going from 0 to 1 in a skill you totally lack is intoxicating, especially when you get immediate rewards from the efforts. I’m looking forward to high powered doodles in my notebooks from here on out! Have you ever picked up a skill like this – where you could do nothing and then got to do something? Has that been a part of your COVID journey too? What have you always wished you could do, but never actually had the time and space to learn?

Downright architectural!

Twenty years of wedded bliss

Twenty years ago the world was a wildly different place. There were no cell phones (although some people had car phones) – and definitely not smart phones. You couldn’t really take a selfie. We’d just flown through a crisis that we expected to be much worse (Y2K) and 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. It was a peaceful last year of youth, and a gentle entry into adulthood.

I woke up in my own bed in the house I’d then lived in longest (our current house has overtaken it, quite some time ago). I had gotten my Bachelor of Arts in English and Medieval Studies a scant 8 weeks prior, and was ready to join Adam in an apartment in Boston I’d never seen. I wore my mother’s wedding dress, and invited the whole church (all 25 of them) to our wedding. My knee trembled through the entire ceremony, making my bouquet jiggle incessantly. Adam mouthed “I love you” the whole time. Our guests held programs hand stamped and assembled by my family – my grandfather complaining delightfully about his slave labor contributions. We watched my brother in “Once Upon a Mattress” the next day before flying from Seattle to Boston, and then Boston to Athens for our honeymoon.

Last year, we took the boys to Greece. At the time I was like “Drat! I should have saved this for our 20th anniversary instead of our 19th!”. I’m so glad we didn’t. Adam and I had plans for a trip – just the two of us – to Italy this April. Obviously, that did not happen. It is unclear when it will be safe to climb on an airplane and wander across the world. Certainly by our 25th? I hope?

Panos and Gelen now
Same folks, circa 2000. There are exactly 0 pictures with both Adam and I on our honeymoon. This is as close as it gets.

This year has been far from placid and peaceful. Pandemics, violence, unrest, fear, division and murder hornets have crowded headlines we’re increasingly exhausted from reading. We are trapped in our houses looking at a world through screens that only show us horrors and seek to divide us. But I will say this: that girl twenty years ago who gazed over a bouquet of pansies to marry the boy she loved chose very well. Being locked in with someone has shown many people whether they are really compatible or not. I’ve only come to love and respect my husband more as we’ve spent every day, all day together. Not JUST for his elite baking skills (although I am so not complaining) but for his patience, humor, thoughtfulness and service. He’s a remarkable man, and I’m lucky to have married him.

We were so young!

This anniversary snuck up on me. I mean, I had a plan and it was a really good one! Then it got interrupted, and things got complicated, and planning more than a week or two in advance seemed like a loser’s bet. So instead of one great grand gesture of the Amalfi coast, we’re doing a few things. Last night, we made steak for dinner, dressed up, set the table with silver and the dry clean only tablecloth (who DOES that?) and played a Cthulu game during the howling winds of Hurricane Isaias.

After 20 years of marriage

Today the plan is to sneak to the beach after work to catch some epic waves and linger in the heat. And then I have one of those “I’ve always wanted to do this but could never justify the expense” adventures planned for a few weeks from now.

To my beloved Adam – Happy 20th Anniversary!

“How well we pull together, don’t we?”
“So well that I wish we might always pull in the same boat.

Be a sheep

My tiny, rural home county of Lewis County (approx the size of Connecticut with approx the population of Somerville MA) made the national news this week. The Governor of Washington has made masks mandatory to attempt to slow or stop the crashing wave of Coronavirus infections. In response to this legal edict, the Sheriff (you know, the hand of the law) for the county got on a bullhorn (maskless) and advised people that the choice of whether to follow the law was theirs. His exact words, repeated more than once, were “Don’t be a sheep”.

Not a shepherd

As someone who loves people in Lewis County, and worries about their safety and well being, I have a lot of thoughts about this medically, socially etc. But the thing that really struck me was how profoundly un-Christian this advice is.

You see, throughout the Bible – and especially Jesus’ words – he over and over again talks about his people as sheep. There are incredibly clear stories that came immediately to mind, putting God’s beloved in the role of sheep. The first is, of course, the parable of the Wandering Sheep (Matthew 18:10-14) “If a man owns a hundred sheep … In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

Of course, we have Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10) “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. … Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. … I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

If you’re Catholic, you should care a lot about being a sheep, because of John 21:15 when Jesus, THREE TIMES, asks Peter for one thing, “Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me? He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” This is part of the story that establishes Peter (Simon = Peter if you’re confused) as the Pope. The Pope to this day carries a stylized shepherd’s crook.

The last story comes as a warning (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus has just explained that in the end, we will be judged on whether we have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger and visited the prisoner. (I often wonder why religious rights folks haven’t been fighting restrictions against prison visits harder – or at all – for infringing their religious duties). But the end is an apocalyptic scene, where at the judgement day …

“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. … Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

So take a longer thought. If you are a Christian, should you want to be a sheep? Or should you fight against being a sheep? Will you be led, and guided, by the law, medicine and the need to care for others? Or would you rather be an individualistic goat, wandering in your own free, will not caring who you harm? And if the latter – how do you square that with being a Christian?

Be a sheep. Wear a mask.

Baaaa!

The mysteries of the Holy Spirit

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.

Jonah 3:1-3

My family believes in two concepts that are not very common in our modern American parlance. The first is calling. The concept is generally that if you pay attention and are open (and obedient), you may discover a purpose divinely intended for you. You have the choice, in those circumstances, to either embrace the call and follow where it leads, or reject it and follow where you will. (Well, unless you’re Jonah. Then you’re just stuck.) The second thing is related. Christians believe that ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, or paraclete, or spirit, or dove, or tongues of flame, or what you will call it) came to us and landed upon God’s people and changed them. And we believe the Spirit is with us today. It is the Spirit, in our theology, that sends us those calls we may or may not ignore.

In my family, we believe the Holy Spirit is perilous, and that calling is both real and usually profoundly inconvenient. As an example – my parents spent 4 years as missionaries in the Congo in Africa, where I was born. When they came back to the states, my mom went on a speaking circuit talking about the mission and the work. The little old ladies would swoon and tell her, with a three year old me on her hip, that she was so NOBLE. She’d always reply that if she was really noble she’d teach middle school. Well, my mom retired a few years ago from a 20+ year career as a middle school teacher. She’d often advise us children, “Never say what’d you’d do if you were noble!” Inside that joke is a belief – being open to hearing what God asks of you leads to you doing those things, even if you don’t want to. Don’t pray for God’s guidance unless you’re actually willing to take it, or like Jonah you might find yourself in Ninevah, pouting.

My own greatest calling was an anti-call. My junior year of college it occurred to me that I might have to do something for a living after college, and that reading medieval literature was not actually a job. (Even less a job when you don’t read Latin.) I had been given a grant for that summer, $3000, to do a cool internship or something. This was well before internships were the expected route for every college graduate. I’d spent the prior two summers waiting tables and working temporary jobs. I applied to a bunch of internships. I was really excited for NPR (form letter rejection), and also submitted to be a summer volunteer with the PCUSA, applying the hard work I’d done on my Spanish as a missionary. I got a call from the PCUSA asking me, “How’s your Portuguese?” and found myself headed to Mozambique, instead of to South America.

This felt like call. I had been very faithful in service of my small church community. My understanding of faith was only enriched by looking at 2000 years of how differently we’d approached the same God and scriptures. My gifts were so clearly useful to a church: I’m musical, I write well, I speak well, I’m pretty organized I care about people deeply. To me, this was clearly the beginning of a call which would likely end up with me pastoring a church. I prepped my besotted fiancee that this was a possibility. He was behind it all the way. And then I took the (at the time) world’s longest commercial flight from JFK to Johannesburg to start a summer of mission.

My friends, if you believe in call, you must believe in not-call. The complete absence of call, or clarity that this is NOT what God demands of you. Without the not-call, there can be no valid call. And never has anyone been so not-called as I was that summer. It didn’t destroy my faith (or even, I think, harm it that much?) but it was so the opposite of being invited and encouraged to pursue a career in the church that I never even looked at seminary. I focused on my half-hobby of writing web pages, and it’s been 20 years of technology since then.

It’s been a quiet few decades for call as I’ve gone from maiden to matron. The last 20 years, I’ve been a faithful and loving member of a small congregation, giving of what skills and time I have to serve God there. I’ve been a deacon, an elder on session (our governing board) for like 15 years. I taught Sunday School. I co-ran the youth group. I served on worship committee, christian education, hospitality, membership, stewardship, personnel and nominating committees. I’ve run the web presence, and restacked the web site twice. After our beloved pastor retired, I not only took on the Christmas Pageant, I also led the mission study taskforce as our interim pastor died of a brain tumor, and our pastor search after a long time in the wilderness.

My children were baptized in the church. I’ve vowed to other children as they were baptized. My roots there are broad and deep and filled with love.

Grey’s baptism

If you’d asked me, I would have told you that my funeral would be held there.

And then I was called, by the Holy Spirit, to leave. I was, am, deeply confused. Faithfulness is part of who I am. I love my church and congregation deeply. I have sacrificed much for this group of people. I have washed dishes and windows, and watched the children grow. I have preached sermons of encouragement and vulnerability. I do not understand how or why I am called away from the people I love. Like Jonah, I fought it for a long time, not believing that I could possibly be called to do anything as stupid and drastic as breaking up with a beloved congregation. What for? Why was I not being called TO something?

Truly, I don’t know. I can’t even tell you how I know it was being called, other than it seemed to be something outside my own volition and consistent and unmistakable.

I’m not sure why. I have some theories. These last few years I poured an unsustainable amount of me into the work of the church. I knew it was a burnout rate, but I did it anyway in love. But this year, I reached the end of myself. There was no more to give, and I was incapable of resting in pews while I watched my friends overworked. There is the sense of a breaking point reached, and I reached mine. Again, it was not my faith that was destroyed. But rather, how I express my faith HAD to change or it might in fact be sacrificed on the twin altars of duty and habit.

In Bethlehem

So I made a decision. I sat with it. I talked to a few people. (There are remarkably few resources on how to break up with your church with love.) I prayed. I sat some more. I spent months thinking, praying, and wondering if this could be right. And then, after Easter, I shared my decision with session. Since then, I’ve been gradually mailing my bewildered friends notes explaining myself, as best I could. On Pentecost, I hiked a mountain – a place I’ve often found close to God – instead of wearing red and singing hymns of discipleship and the Holy Spirit and tongues of flame.

I don’t know what comes next. I think that rest is a part of it. Part of God’s promise and commandment to us – both – is that we may and must rest. I will pray, and read the Bible, and sing hymns. I will climb mountains. I will visit other congregations and worship as a stranger. (Zoom is actually great for this…) And I will listen for that still small voice, and for it to call me to something, finally.

Pentecost

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter

tl;dr – I’m looking for penpals, or people who would be interested in getting a letter from me! No promises.

June 16 2020 update – I’ll be happy to accept folks who want to be penpals indefinitely! I’m very much enjoying sharing correspondence, so don’t worry that it’s too late!

The older I get, and the longer we live in the digital era, the more I realize that I was born in the waning phases of another civilization. When I was a girl, methods of communication were different. I was thinking about this, as we’re all trapped without libraries right now. Adam and I have approximately 12 big tupperware tubs of books in our basement at the moment, because he’s in the process of building bookshelves for our hallway. In addition to those tubs, we have books in every room of the house: fancy books, cookbooks, gaming books, paperback novels, kids books, comic books. I confess, I bought two books just today.

Growing up, entertainment was much scarcer. 13 channels on tv. VHS tapes. Your parents bookshelves – and the library. Plus the radio. (Folks – I’m talking so long ago this was before you could get NPR in Washington State.) Trust me, I knew what time Paul Harvey would be on, and waited for it. If this had happened then, we would have both been better prepared for the boredom, and also had many fewer resources for dealing with it. I had read every even slightly interesting book in my parents bookshelves (blech – regency romances and naval sea battle fiction!) My sister and I had read through our classroom libraries (much less a thing), our school libraries, our town library (the librarian was very shirty and didn’t believe we could possibly be reading as much as we took out) and made monthly trips to our regional library.

In another example, I know how to navigate with a map. I know how to get unlost if you’ve gotten lost (lots of practice with my sister). I have driven across country with a Road Atlas and a AAA Triptik, the route highlighted by the patient woman at the counter who put it together from vast drawers that spanned the whole country.

But the one I’m thinking about today is the letter. I LOVED writing letters. I recently got some of my boxes of letters from my parents (they’re trying to clean out our crap) and there are so many of them. Half of the people whose letters I saved I don’t even remember. I’d pick up pen pals wherever I went. I ran into an exchange student from Indonesia while I was at summer camp (he was just visiting the campus) and we wrote to each other for YEARS. I wrote to my uncle. (All his letters were on yellow legal paper. Half the fun for me was my extensive stationery collection.) I wrote to whatever guy I was dating at the time. I wrote to the concertmaster of my orchestra. I wrote notes in code to the other girls in my class, cleverly folded to make their own envelope. I wrote to my grandmother. I wrote to the paper. Heck – my very first job in college was “email correspondent” to write letters in this new fangled technology. (I made the job up. It worked.) And I loved it. I think, looking back, that I was writing as many as 3 – 4 letters a week.

This was my all time favorite stamp. You had to lick it. The pixels gave it a lovely texture.

And I loved it. I loved finding and buying stationery, and picking just the right notes for the recipient. I loved the 19th century air of sitting at my desk “tackling my correspondence”. (I’ve always had a weakness for paperwork which is simply inexplicable.) Sometimes I’d steal my mom’s carbon paper (I AM SO OLD) and experiment with it. I loved going down to the post office and selecting stamps, saying with the sagacity of a fourteen year old that “pretty stamps are the same price as boring ones”. I remember when stamps went from 22c to 25C (it hurt my budget) and from there to 29c. Of course, the very best part was getting a nice, thick letter back in the mail, full of news and notables, or maybe stickers, or drawings. You just never knew, until you opened it.

I held on to mail for a very long time. As a young adult I bought about a billion rubber stamps with which to make cards to send out. Over time, it’s gotten harder (and more expensive) to buy stationery. You no longer find packs of colorful or saccharine or coffee-themed paper and letters in every drug store and bookshop as you once did. You only find single (expensive!!!) cards and a handful of increasingly lame packets of thank you notes.

I’ve never fully stopped sending letters. Sending a letter to everyone I know is a huge part of my sacred Christmas rite. But I’ve somewhat run out of people to send general letters to. But here we are, in this strange time, where we harken back a bit to those earlier eras. I’ve discovered the best way for me to pay attention in Very Important Business meetings is to … color. So I’ve been coloring in pieces of art, and stamps. And then during social Zoom calls, I’ve been crafting them into note cards. And on beautiful evenings and weekend days, I’m sitting in my back yard or my front porch and writing letters.

I’m working through my Christmas card list, and sending notes to folks as inspiration strikes. But even that list hasn’t kept up with the making of new friends. So here’s the offer – if you’d be interested in getting a letter from me, send me an email at brenda@tiltedworld (dot com) with your address. I make no promises that a letter will actually be forthcoming. If you get one and are moved to write me back, I’d love that! But you’re under no obligation, either.

This has happened too many times

It seems like every few months we’re broken-hearted by the treatment of our black brothers and sisters. I am thinking about George Floyd today, and I think about Ahmaud Arbery every time I lace up my running shoes. I’m still haunted by Tamir Rice’s death, as I look at my own boy stalk through the neighborhood with his NERF armaments.

It’s so hard not to wish these were aberrations – rare and unexpected events. But they’re not. There is no reason or excuse other than that we have created a system that does not value human lives as equal.

The only, small hope in this is that human systems are created by humans, and can be changed by humans.

Keep working, friends, until all people are as valued by the systems and habits of our society as you are.

Good fences

Back in February, in another age of this world, a bunch of boys were playing in the back yard on an unseasonably warm day when “a strong wind” knocked a segment of our 12 year old crappy vinyl fence out, snapping the connectors and boards both. After a conversation on how I don’t mind accidents but I object to lies, I actually felt a flush of relief. The vinyl fence was of the kind that looks good juuuuuust long enough to sell the house, and not a second longer. There were many broken boards. The whole thing was dingy with mildew and mold. And I’ve always hated it. So this was an excellent opportunity to replace it with something I would like better.

I called a fence company, who said they could get it up in two weeks.

Then the world fell apart. They actually did the estimate that first week we were home, and I thought how convenient it was to be here for the appointment. Granted, it was at 7:30 am so it was actually Adam who was awake for it, but usually he’d be on his way to work by then. In the suddenly collapsed world of the stay-at-home order, I spotted an opportunity to let Grey stretch his wings a bit. “Go ahead and practice your graffiti* on the fence!” I blithely invited. “They’re coming to take it down next week. But remember to keep it appropriate!”

You are all smarter than I am. You all see where this is going.

I actually got annoyed enough to scrub a good portion of the graffiti off

So for the last two months (which were, lest I need to remind you, approximately 5 years a piece) every time I sat in my back yard or looked out my window I was greeted by orange and black graffiti spelling out things that were juuuuuust this side of the “mom is going to make you repaint the fence line” and only if you accept the explanations for what that _really_ spells/means mom. This has been a thorn in my side, a pebble in my shoe and a hair shirt for me ever since.

Not Restful

To my great joy and after only about a thousand urgent texts following up on the status of my fence, whatever unexpected supply chain backup was holding my fence hostage was resolved. And through the beautiful middle days of this week, the old graffiti fence came down and strong men with post hole diggers and cement bags put a new one in for me. And so I woke up on the gorgeous May morning with a backyard ready to be made into a summer escape.

I understand why the previous owners put up a privacy fence on top of the nearly 12 foot wall they installed to keep the house from sliding down the hill. The wall cost over $100k and was the motivation for them to sell the barely occupied house. But they were private people, with heavy blinds on every window. So a privacy fence on the tiny plot of land – no bigger than a squash court – kept wind and prying eyes both out. But behind our house is a glorious series of unbuildable back yards with lovely trees and grasses and wildlife. Part of what I love about this house is this borrowed view.

Shown with May snow

And I decided on a fence that would keep us from falling off the wall, but allow us to gaze out at the small piece of nature available to us. And I love it. I have big plans for what to do next: with all the extra light now available, I spent today planting lilacs as a hedge against our neighbor. Maybe I’ll put a fruiting bush in on the other side. I’ve already gotten citronella torches ready against in the fence for fiery nights. I found a great new spot for the chairs and table. There will be bulbs and phlox and clemantis – a riot of color and fragrance and peace waiting for me whenever the weather is fine.

New lilac hedge for privacy and fragrance

This time spent at home – always at home – has amplified everything about all the places we live. Was it small before? Now you feel the smallness every day, ten times a day. Was the view lovely? Now you cling to that view with the ardent gaze of a lover on a honeymoon marking every small shift in aspect or trick of light. Our lot of land is small, our view is beautiful. I am grateful because small is so so so much more than none.

The new position of table and chairs

Last night I sat in the warmth of the night before the storm, gazing out at the view through my new fence. For a minute, it almost felt like camping. From where I sat, I could see six different groups out enjoying the fine evening. The intermix of not-quite-intelligible conversations felt so much like what it’s like at a campground in the evening. And I have noticed that everyone in my safe suburban neighborhood is also tending to their homes. Sheds have been installed, mulch delivered, garden boxes constructed, yards mowed, trees planted.

I know that this time is not like this for everyone. There are many people working long hours and living in cramped and unsafe conditions. But from my borrowed view, I can see everyone settling into what it is they have, and taking the gift of time to pour themselves into their homes in a touchback to another time. People are baking, and sewing for need. They are gardening. They are sitting in back yards they have manicured themselves and watching the breezes sweep away the warmth and herald the lightening. And we are all in awe of how much more we can see now that we’re standing still.

This was quite a cloudburst. I think we would have normally missed it.

*Stoneham is home to a fantastic graffiti tunnel, with exceptional and high quality art work. Grey admires this and wishes to emulate it – not to vandalize stuff.

Recent art work by my favorite artist

Do not tax yourself with forethought of grief

The world has been different now for about 7 weeks. I remember clearly that last pizza and beer I had, after climbing off a mountain with a friend, as the last day of the world as it was. The next day, with school cancelled, was he first day of the world as it currently is. I read online a statement that Coronavirus completely destroys some folks, while leaving others almost completely unscathed. I am so aware that I am in that latter category. My job remains secure (if requiring plenty of time from me). My home is full of food. My children are well (if at risk of becoming inert elements in front of their computers). My family is all still healthy. So far, I’ve escaped even serious inconvenience.

But even so, the days have been hard. I find that every Monday is worse than the last, attempting to marshall my resources to teach my children, do my job, keep the house, cook the dinner, maintain my relationships. I almost didn’t make it through last Monday, and I am staring at dread with tomorrow morning. (I have a plan. It includes wearing a dress and makeup, in a desperate attempt to channel my inner professional.) A walk in the forest involves people edging to the side of the path, as though you might be carrying some awful, transmissible disease. The main street is full of signs either optimistically promising better days to come, or saying “Temporaly closed” (sic) – a sign becoming faded in the strengthening sunlight. Life is feeling harder every day, as supplies of TP and flour dwindle, and the walls of my home crush me.

Still, there is the great blessing of New England. This has been a long, cold, rainy spring. It seems like those are particularly common after mild winters. We’ve had our fair share of spring snow and rain and sleet and misery. We’ve had weeks where it didn’t break 50. It’s been a great boon to our amphibian population, as every creek and rill and vernal pool is full to the brim of cold water.

Bleeding heart

But this weekend, oh!! This weekend was the glorious weekend of spring that doesn’t come just once a year in New England, it comes perhaps once a decade. The skies were blue, the sun was strong. The colors were all new-formed, as though God himself had just dreampt them up. Every color imaginable is suddenly bursting forth into joyous profusion, looking new washed and newly painted on the world. We are at just the tipping point between daffodil and forsythia, into tulip and, well, everything. Even the houses look jollier in the bright sun, which portends warmth and freedom and backyards in a way that is utterly and inescapably charming to all those of us who have been practically housebound since October. There seem to be few consolations in this newly-isolate world, but oh. Spring in New England is still one of them.

Confession: this man has brought me breakfast in bed nearly every day for those 6 weeks

Not being a fool, I early resolved that my plan for this weekend was to spend as much of it as was humanly possible outdoors. Given that it’s nearly 11 and I’m still by a backyard fire, I declare said plan fulsomely accomplished. Usually weekends like this would be subject to the whim of the calendar: had I already committed myself? Was it to something outdoorsy? But yesterday I woke to a clean slate of a plan, and (after the delicious breakfast prepared for my by my incredibly loving husband) I started with a five mile run along the bike way that I played a small part in ensuring was here for us, now, when we need it most. The Aberjona and Sweetwater were both running high along their banks, and the trail was crowded with folks enjoying the finest weather we’ve seen in six months. Most of them, including me, were wearing masks.

In glorious fashion, the day unfolded with sleepy hammock naps, letters to friends, and meals shared with my beloved family. I have always said that I cannot relax at home, because there is too much to do. But honestly, most of it has now been done so for the first time in ever so long, I find myself able to just … be. Here. In this 10th of an acre that is my homestead. I spent the whole day happy. I definitely interrogated myself several times over this. The world is in tumult. So many have died. So many have suffered. There is more to come. How dare, HOW DARE I be happy? It isn’t fair that I be happy when so many are caught in sorrow, grief, fear and distress. That is all, unarguably, true. But the thing I’ve wanted to tell you, across many failed blog posts, is that your suffering does not reduce the suffering of others. So if you have a choice between suffering and not suffering, do not suffer.

I have been struck by the poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” since it arrived as the answer to an advent Google search I initiated looking for poems of peace. It is strong enough that many of the lines can speak to you. But the ones that have slayed me – stopped me in my tracks – during this pandemic period are:

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.

Resident baby bunny

On this most beautiful day of spring, I find myself challenged by the question: will I tax this day to neutrality by forethought of grief (or by focus on the unfairness of my joy?)? Or will I let go. Will I come into the peace of the wild things and take this moment as it is, built on a complex scaffold but for a moment, full of joy? I think of the baby bunny who has taken residence under my porch, and who nibbles on dandylions in my back yard. Do I see that creature as a pestilence-spreading eater of bulbs, destined to destroy gardens before falling prey to the hawks and foxes that prowl my suburban neighborhood? Or do I just enjoy the meek cuteness of its ears, now, when it is a baby and before its destiny is fulfilled for food or procreation? Do I look towards all the consequences of rabbit-incarnate, or do I just smile across baby-bunny.

For the bunny, my decision does not matter (assuming I am unwilling to poison his bulb-eating self). This Coney will live to be a great big jackrabbit, or it will fall food to yet wilder animals. It is not in my power to control. But what I can control is my joy of it, in this moment. I can choose to sit in companionable silence with my little Lagomorpha. Or I can choose to tax my life with the forethought of grief.

Communion under a dying plum

So I decided, in this one shining weekend, to enjoy it. To nap in a hammock tied to my dying plum tree, and not look at the blight. To build a fire of the wood I have and not consider the shortage at the hardware store. To serve communion to my husband from the glasses my father brought from Ethiopia more than fifty years ago, and not wonder when I would sit in a pew again to receive communion in a sanctuary. To look at bleeding heart with a full and joyful heart, and not wonder how soon it will be before my heart bleeds. To meet with my friends through the miracle of technology, and not wait until we can be together again in truth.

What would you do differently, if you chose not to tax your heart in forethought of grief? What joy is there for you in the time, in this moment? In an era of grief, doubt, uncertainty and loss, where is it possible for you to find peace?