Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn

You can learn things just by taking the garbage out to the garbage cage and saying hello to people that you see walking down the street. Last Sunday some folks passing by said a hearty hello back, speaking in a faint but very pretty accent. It turned out that they speak Polish. Well, so did I, back in college days, so we had a nice chat. “Wait right here,” I asked them. “There’s something for you upstairs.”

Running up to the kitchen, from its place of honor on the fridge I took down an icon of Our Lady.

That icon came from the thrift shop, where it sat on the bargain shelf because someone had defaced the bottom of it with a magic marker. At the time, wondering who would do an irreverent thing like that, I picked up the icon for a closer look. And glory be — the inscription was in Polish: “With Blessings — John Paul II.” Well. If anybody gets to write on an icon, it’s probably the Pope. So for 99 cents I brought the icon home. It’s lived on the fridge for 12 years, while I took it on faith that some day a nice Polish family would appear as the true and rightful owners. And now here they were! So I ran outside and handed the icon over to the family.

What I didn’t know, though the Pope probably did, was that this portrait is the beloved Mother of Mercy “Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn” (Polish, Matka Boża Ostrobramska). The original (see above) hangs at the gate of the city wall of Vilnius, Lithuania — which used to be part of Poland, as my Polish neighbors emphasized to me. Then when the Russians took over Lithuania, the family’s ancestors got away to safer ground in Poland, carrying a replica of the icon with them. That icon brightened and warmed the little room where the family all lived together.

Now the next generation has moved here to town, where some total stranger burst out of the garbage cage and presented them with yet another replica of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, with a handwritten blessing from their own newly canonized Polish Pope.

They, being Polish, insisted that the total stranger come inside and join them as their guest for a full course Sunday dinner. Then we all discovered that we attend the same large Catholic church, they in their favorite corner on the far right back, I in my favorite corner on the far left front. Next Sunday we’ll try swapping sides and meeting in the middle.

A humble house chore errand, but a pretty good adventure in the end.

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Gene Stratton-Porter, An Indiana Author

Mrs. Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924) was a favorite childhood author who I still re-read today. Nowadays we can take with gentle grains of salt her occasional sallies into soapbox crusading (an anti-immigration phase, lamentation about high heels and jazz dancing, warnings about “the scarlet woman” and the “dress of unearned cloth”). Most of all, she deserves credit as an enterprising woman who hiked considerable distances with camera and notebooks. Her novels are a vehicle for her considerable knowledge of nature photography and nature study passages, and glimpses of everyday housekeeping, natural health advice, traditional holidays, family bonds, and aesthetic tastes; these passages are still brimming with charm.

Over the years, browsing dollar-clearance book carts and garage sales, I’ve pounced on any available copies of her novels. Each lucky find was a scuffed worn fragile little treasure, with intricate woodblock or engraved illustrations and ornate covers. Just seeing them in their place of honor on the bookshelf felt like a moment’s interlude to beautiful settings described a century and more ago.

This week it was time to pack up these old friends and donate them to the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site and house museum in Indiana. After all, I can read them at the library, and even on line. But it felt as though those original editions really belonged at the author’s cabin house, back home in Indiana.

I emailed the Museum to inquire. They emailed back right away. And sure enough — the Museum welcomes donations to sell in their bookstore. Visitors enjoy buying vintage copies, and the proceeds go to maintain the house and wildflower grounds. The books were due for delivery there today. Maybe they’re on display now, in this appealing shop:


Here below is my favorite passage from The Harvester, my favorite Stratton-Porter book. It impresses me to think that the author took it on faith that the Youth of Today would recognize all of these wildflowers; maybe in 1911 they really did. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone painted them all in a landscape? Copies of The Harvester traveled with soldiers going to Europe for The Great War; apparently the men even read it aloud to one another in the trenches and field hospitals to keep up their spirits! It has certainly done my spirits good over the years.

The Harvester, Chapter 13, “When the Dream Came True”

…Everywhere flamed foxfire and cardinal flower, thousands of wild tiger lilies lifted gorgeous orange-red trumpets, beside pearl-white turtle head and moon daisies, while all the creek bank was a coral line with the first opening bloom of big pink mallows. Rank jewel flower poured gold from dainty cornucopias and lavender beard-tongue offered honey to a million bumbling bees; water smart- weed spread a glowing pink background, and twining amber dodder topped the marsh in lacy mist with its delicate white bloom. Straight before them a white- sanded road climbed to the bridge and up a gentle hill between the young hedge of small trees and bushes, where again flowers and bright colours rioted and led to the cabin yet invisible. On the right, the hill, crowned with gigantic forest trees, sloped to the lake; midway the building stood, and from it, among scattering trees all the way to the water’s edge, were immense beds of vivid colour. Like a scarf of gold flung across the face of earth waved the misty saffron, and beside the road running down the hill, in a sunny, open space arose tree-like specimens of thrifty magenta pokeberry. 

High around the blue-green surface of the lake waved lacy heads of wild rice, lower cat-tails, bulrushes, and marsh grasses; arrowhead lilies lifted spines of pearly bloom, while yellow water lilies and blue water hyacinths intermingled; here and there grew a pink stretch of water smartweed and the dangling gold of jewel flower. Over the water, bordering the edge, starry faces of white pond lilies floated. Blue flags waved graceful leaves, willows grew in clumps, and vines clambered everywhere….

With wide eyes she stared around her. “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME IT WOULD BE LIKE THIS?” she demanded in awed tones.

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4/30/19: New York

On a recent trip, there was a free weekend to visit New York. Here were some of the sights.

Here is the Ashokan Reservoir, one view in very early morning with the mist on the water, and one view an hour later in the sunshine.

Here is the Poets’ Walk park, overlooking the Hudson River.

In the town of Rhinebeck, here is the Dutch Reformed Church built in 1807.

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3/17/19: Joyful and Not-Quite-Joyful Noise

A Jewish friend once admonished me for passing up a recreational day trip. He let me know that one day when we face God, He will say “I filled this world with innocent wholesome pleasures. What pleasures did you go and enjoy?”

Well here is a new innocent wholesome pleasure to add to the post-bucket list.
I can pull out my cell phone and say “Look at all these nice hymns all about You that I figured out how to record right on my cell phone. At night while flossing or ironing, I could turn on the phone inside my waist pack pocket and play them back.” It’s a great way to learn those grand old German Lutheran hymns that we Catholics missed along the way while we kept the indulgences and relics and Luther left with the really good music, and then composed more.

And today’s catch of the day was especially good, including “I Bind Unto Myself Today,” with the lilting Irish melody “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” Why have I never once heard this melody in a Catholic service? To make up for lost time, here’s a clip with the Keble College choir, ending with some wonderful harmonies:

And another with the sheet music:

When first recording hymns three weeks ago, I couldn’t help noticing that the phone picked up a sound which wasn’t audible to the naked ear in church. It happens whenever our gifted organist strikes the first note of a hymn. It’s an awful whirring howling growl, starting low and ending high and angry. The first time I heard it on a cell phone recording I thought “Goodness. Did a cat jump into the organ?” How strange — it happened every time the organ struck up a song!

It was only while standing in church today that I figured it out. Eager to record the very first note, yet not wanting to appear that I was texting or surfing the ‘net during the hymns, I would whip out the phone, press Video, aim the camera at the name of the hymn in my worship book, drop the phone back in the waist pack, and — Whirrrrrrrrrrraugh!!!! yank the pack zipper closed. Mystery solved.

Next time the world dismays me with its noise, it is worth checking to see whether the racket, external or internal, begins with me. Meanwhile, Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Let’s put on the breastplate of the Trinity and go appreciate some innocent pleasures!

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01.21.2019 Winter Antidote

It was fortunate that a resourceful co-worker persuaded me to take a walk today. I resisted the whole idea, thinking of all the chores awaiting and the usual state of Sunday meaning-of-life blues. But she persisted in thinking that this was a good idea, and so off we went to a local playground and ball playing field with a little park nearby. And being a team of two instead of a team of one, we ventured farther into the park than either of us would have alone. We found that the shore had plenty of people and their dogs, out enjoying the very unseasonal balmy sunshine. It was such a privilege, to have a space in easy driving distance and a friendly companion to stroll with. It’s easy to feel alone on weekends, and easy to forget that even an hour outdoors can work wonders for the mood and outlook. I hope to carry this sense of gratitude out into the work week and its tasks and chores, and to remember our Sunday walk.

These gulls lined up along the water, with two boss gulls parking their little selves atop one post each.

These pictures show the rapid shades and changes in the clouds, bringing a rain storm expected later tonight.

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Nicholas the Wonder-Worker (Николай Чудотворец)

St. Nicholas? Why?

That question rose, quiet and bright as the moon melting up into the sky over the black and tangled trees. It was Christmas Night. After my week of upholding and returning and conveying the sweetness and blessings of the season, the dark tide of holiday melancholy was catching up; high time to curl up and get some sleep.

But then there was this rising moon, implausibly bright, full at Solstice and now just edging into gibbous wane. And with it came that question. Why St. Nicholas? Why all that devotion by believers the world over?
Nicholas 12.28.2018

I knew only the basic basics about him. Born to a Greek family. Lived in the 3rd-4th centuries. Later served as Bishop of Myra. When a desperate destitute elderly father faced starvation, and was pressured to turn over his three young daughters to a brothel so they could have food and shelter, Nicholas intervened in secret in the dark of night by dropping gold coins down the family’s chimney, windfall enough to buy them survival and good dowries for solid upright husbands — effectively buying them a place in society where they would have safe lives and be cared for.

So next day I did some homework, learning a bit about the Nicholas story. (Some details are more peripherally negotiable. The gold coins didn’t go down a literal chimney, and neither did he, since chimneys were really not a feature of Greek houses back then. And Nicholas as an infant might have stood up straight unsupported in the baptismal font for exactly three hours in testimony to the three-fold nature of the Trinity. Or not.) The consensus over centuries and cultures is that Nicholas rescued people who were absolutely lost. And, he did it by any means at hand — appearing in a Tsar’s dream, encouraging his fellow prisoners, exorcising a devil from a storm-tossed ship, slapping an adversary in the face. He charged in to help people unjustly arrested and sitting on death row, travelers by land and by sea, poor folk dying for food and clothes or bereaved and hopeless, girls earmarked for prostitution, boys selected for trafficking. There is a wealth of traditions to learn and ponder But they all agree on a nicholosian stance toward life: attention, charity, courage, and resourcefulness.

Back to Christmas night.
There was still that implausibly bright moon, still making me wonder: Why Nicholas? Why are the Russians, for example, so devoted to him?
So shaking off and crawling out from under the holiday melancholy, I headed to the kitchen for the Orthodox prayer book. It has a 20-page Akathist prayer devoted to St. Nicholas. I’d never glanced at it. But now I turned on the stove light and stood in front of the icons on the fridge, chanting it start to finish.

In Church Slavonic it’s ornate and lovely, all virtues and flowers and lights and skies. Deciphering its dense brocade of images does depend on familiarity with the underlying tradition; each grouping of praises, all the many honorific titles of endearment, contain a hint of some cherished story shared by the reader and the saint: Rejoice! There was the time you interceded for these people here, and then you helped that soul in dire straits there. It’s an intimate tender outpouring, as in any relationship between life partners who have shared many trials and consolations.

The Akathist affirms that this Saint can still represent an idea of help and hope in unsettled times. Both Orthodox Christians and Catholics alike (though not my favorite Lutherans in the church up the street) believe that the saints are still conscious and present, that they care about us and can send us their support. And in a refreshing morsel of agreement, both Western and Eastern Christians are happy to share Nicholas, who came along 700 years before the great schism of 1054 A.D.

Now. This may well be the reverie of a person who really needs to get out more, who belongs out at “The Nutcracker” instead of looking to the 4th Century for companionship.
But there is also The Seven Storey Mountain (Part 3, Chapter 3:iii “The Sleeping Volcano”), where Thomas Merton wrote this:

It is a wonderful experience to discover a new saint. For God is greatly magnified and marvelous in each one of His saints: differently in each individual one. There are no two saints alike: but all of them are like God, like Him in a different and special way…. each one shining with his own particular sanctity, a sanctity destined for him from all eternity….
The saints are not mere inanimate objects of contemplation. They become our friends, and they share our friendship and reciprocate it and give us unmistakeable tokens of their love for us by the graces that we receive through them.

At the last verse of the Akathist, at the stove light, the moment of decision dawned. Could I ask Nicholas to look kindly upon one sheep more, me, starting this Christmas and for the rest of my life?
Taking the answer on faith, I curled up back in bed under the moon. After that, even in deep sleep, the holiday was not sad any more. It felt safer and happier, watched over by a new presence in a new way.

Today I downloaded a 6 x 4″ picture of one of the many conventional artist renditions on the internet. I printed a copy on scratch paper. It fit in a small picture frame thoughtfully left in the trash by the neighbors. Now, as it happens, today a dear co-worker is moving away, traveling to her new life for the next three days over mountains and snow. She is not a religiously inclined person. Still, in cleaning out her desk she delighted me with the gift of a battery powered candle. As her goodbye she laughed “You can light this, and say a prayer for me.”

Tonight I brought home the little paper icon. I set it up on my prayer table in the kitchen with two miniature daffodils and the battery candle. In tonight’s Akathist, the very first traveler by land or by sea prayed for will be this lovely girl, missed and remembered in St. Nicholas’s own new corner. Now he can watch over both of us.

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12/21/18: Velvet and Chains

At a conference a whole bunch of years ago, a social work colleague invited me to her agency, to sit in on a special support program. The program was for adults in their early twenties. The young adults all had something in common: some professional had classified their learning or interactive styles as falling somewhere on the autism spectrum.

I was eager to meet the members. I wanted to experience their support for one another. I looked forward to small-talk-free conversations about their favorite islands of competence: maybe the Fibonacci ratio in the structure of sunflowers, or Jane’s directory of military armored vehicles, or the pioneering formula for the manufactured snow in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The counselors held the group in a college auditorium with a stage, in an activity corner stocked with art supplies and brightened with handmade festive winter-themed sparklies & bunting. The lead counselor gave me a warm welcome, and explained the educational objectives of today’s lesson plan. Then she opened the meeting by giving instructions to the group.
First, choose a magazine.
Look through the photos.
Find pictures of People Who Are Happy.
Cut out their pictures. Paste them to construction paper.
Fold them into holiday cards for the parents.

The counselor spoke in a strong raised animated voice. “Can you find the happy people? Remember what we said about happy faces? Look: The corners of my mouth go up, like so. My eyes are wide and bright. This is a HAPPY face.”

I was lost already.
Put pictures of total strangers on a card, and give the card to someone else. Was that to create vicarious happiness in the recipient looking at the card?
Was it a living skill likely to prove useful?
Since the magazines showed professional models paid to smile on cue — were we supposed to sort through all that elation and pick just the real Duchenne smiles described in Psychology Today?

The clients sat with folded hands and lowered eyes.
So did I. I was afraid the counselors were going to call on me to pick out a photograph showing happiness. Those aptitude tests that tell you to look at somebody’s face and then figure out what they feel? Well, I can’t make heads or tails of them. Clearly, a career as a spectrum-support counselor (or as a successful spectrum-support group member, for that matter), was not in my future.

A young man slid away from the table and started pacing a short path along the wall, arms stiff in a protective gesture against his sides.
“Jason,” called a counselor. “Would you like to sit down?”
Jason may have wondered, as did I, how his body language expressed a desire to sit down. He walked to one corner, turned around, and walked back.
“Jason,” said another counselor. “You really really need to sit down.”
Jason paced like clockwork in neat squared corners.
“Jason,” they said. “Wouldn’t you like to join the group, with everybody else?”

Then, I remembered a little boy.
He was a child at a faculty holiday party from years before.
The child had a loud unmodulated voice and a formal speaking style.
Despite some laughter and teasing and his parents’ humorous orders to “Chill OUT already!” the boy was showing real frustration, shouting above the stereo music to order the guests to arrange their party chairs as he advised.
“You’ve got a whole system for these chairs, haven’t you?” I asked him.
“Traffic flow,” he explained. “Front door, coat closet, kitchen, bathroom.”
His idea made grand sense. I knelt down and introduced myself, holding out my hand for a shake.
He looked dismayed by the handshake, but was soon mollified by my questions about his toy cars.
Soon he ran off to his room, and returned an hour later with a large poster he had drawn for me. It showed the location of all his model cars on their proper shelves, in case I wanted to play with them. The poster also showed a picture of his house, a cutaway view with all the rooms (and furniture arranged for traffic flow), so I could always find my way back to visit again. The kid had an x-ray mind; he looked at ordinary objects and saw the giblets and innards and connections that made it all work.

Giblets and innards, and how they all work.
At the craft table, that gave me a new idea.
I slipped away from the group to the far end of the auditorium. I sat in the corner, facing the wall. I picked up the heavy maroon velvet stage curtain and grasped a handful, letting it clink. “Huh. It’s a chain,” I said to myself.
In a flash, Jason was sitting beside me. His fingers followed along next to mine, picking up the heavy curtain hem and shaking it at his ear.
I didn’t look at him. “Heavy metal links,” I whispered. “They loop together and make the chain. Then the chain holds the curtain down.”
Through the velvet his fingers traced the link shapes, testing the connections between them.
“So the chain drags the curtain.” I walked away from him to the side of the stage. “Stage curtains run on a pulley. One side of a rope pulls the chain up, and the other side pulls it down. The rope must be in the curtain.”
Jason leaped on the stage, rummaged through the folds of velvet, seized the rope, and held a long loop behind him.
I took the loop. “One side rope pulls the chain open. One side pulls it closed.”
We each took a handful of rope. It took us a few minutes to take turns and work together; but soon we were able to open and close the curtain.

The counselors came and got us.
I guess that’s just as well; you can’t run a group if people start wandering around tugging on things. Besides, up on the stage Jason was on a roll, making an avid beeline for a control panel with buttons and switches. Who knows how that might have ended. Laser light show? Sound system test? Climate changes in the HVAC?

I hope the parents liked their cards; for a parent, that was actually a really sweet idea. And maybe some day some Mom and Dad will get a model as a gift, made by somebody curious and quick with his hands; a little stage with velvet and chains, handwork in another shape of happiness.

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