5/9/21: Paving the Day

“…[G]et out of bed, take a shower, get dressed, eat your breakfast, go outside, and talk to people. Even if you feel miserable, smile and pretend you’re happy. Your emotions will conform to your actions, at least somewhat.” Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies, page 56, Chapter 2, “Can You Afford to be Nice?” 

Mother’s Day. It’s important, to a lot of lot of people.

And it made the morning look even more like an imitation life filled with air and made of papier-mâché (no idea how to spell that; had to look it up). A good reason to avoid everybody and spend the morning munching snacks and watching classic Russian movies.

But last week after reading Arthur C. Brooks I signed up for today’s shift as a registration greeter at church for the noon services, and to clean the pews after. A volunteer commitment greatly increases the probability of Mass attendance (superior to the Wake Up and Wonder Am I in the Mood Today? decision tree). It’s a new experiment in giving the weekend some social structure and a positive shared purpose — dress up, show up, work on the team like everybody else.

Greeting table duty looked pretty daunting. In order to check off the parishioners plus their kith & kin, or to write in the folks who didn’t register, one has to hear unfamiliar names pronounced and spelled through masks in a small crowd. Finally it dawned on me: turn the registration clipboard around, and let people point out who they are. Or hand them the pen so they can sign their own names in the Walk In section. That method left breathing room to pay attention to each person at a time. So with the Polish worshipper I got to practice some Polish. With the support pal dachshund (who announced himself by getting under the table and putting his cold wet little nose down my ankle sock) I got to play a little. With a young friend who got married and lost touch years ago, I got to see why — she and her husband showed up with three active hearty little kiddos. Giving everybody a big welcome to our church turned out to be a nice mood lift; one feels less alien when helping everybody else feel more at ease.

The high Mass was beautiful with its Latin chanting. The sermon had a lot of good to say about the very real sacrifices and effort it takes to be a mom of any age in any circumstances.

Cleaning and disinfecting the pews went like clockwork. The volunteers (our church has over a hundred of them) are a squadron of reverent millennials, a very different breed from the Woodstock folk mass slackers of my generation. These young Catholics have kind caring attentive natures and exquisite manners; one of them is preparing to enter a contemplative monastery. Even their attire is attractive and modest. (The girls’ long flowing dresses with vests or shawls or scarves are so lovely and becoming that they might just be handmade.) All of them are a sign of real hope for the future of the Church. Being in their company is good for the spirit.

Then there was a good long walk home, with a stop at the open air fruit stand for root vegetables.

All the while it felt as if small activities like these, no matter how one feels inside, still add at least a positive paving stone to the path of the day. It was a good plan for a Sabbath, worth trying again next week. 

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4/17/21: Chapel Appreciation Day

All was quiet at the Fatima shrine on Monastery Hill in Brighton.

Soon a procession of the faithful would gather here to conclude the monthly rosary rally. But first, they were assembling at St. Gabriel’s up the hill for evening prayers and a sermon by some illustrious and eloquent keynote speaker. 

Before the service I stopped by the shrine, sitting still in the dusk.

An elderly priest in a plain black suit and clerical collar walked in. He stood contemplating the statue of our Blessed Mother. Lost in thought, he tidied up a few devotional brochures, patting them into a neater stack. He removed a crumpled dollar bill from the brochure basket, and placed it gently in a collection box. He picked up a dropped rosary chaplet from the carpet, and placed it back on the table. 

   “Good evening, Father,” I stood up with a deferential bow. “Lovely chapel you’ve got here.”

Father blinked at me.

   “It’s such a nice place.” I came closer. “Really. The chapel is such a gem. A real treasure right in the city.”

Father looked around at the sentimental statues and pictures, silk flowers, heartfelt prayer intentions jotted down on slips of paper. As with so many of our older parish priests, including the retired clergy in the parish house next door, this poor man looked amazed at hearing any word of appreciation. 

Well, it was his turn to be appreciated today.

   “Too often,” I monitored his blank reaction, “we worshippers step in for a prayer and we move on — with no thought of the devotion and care it takes to maintain a place like this. Electricity, snow shoveling, cleaning the leaders and gutters. But it matters — on a visual level, and on a spiritual level. For now, only God sees how it has helped: the answered prayers, the consolation, the fellowship.” I gave his hand a quick light shake. “Thank you, Father.”

Father looked carefully neutral, making no sudden motions; in fact, registering no real response at all. Only much later did the pieces of the social context fill in for me; I’d picked a poor time in church history to ambush a member of the clergy that way.

At a moment like this, many of our other Boston priests would have resorted to rugged self-effacing humor. They would have asked my name and home parish and spiritual director, and made sure that I was active in church and receiving the sacraments. They would have introduced themselves. Then they would remember me at all future events like this, with some teasing each time. “Here comes Inspector MARY. Mary, my wee Colleen — did you give our chapel the white glove test today? How am I doing, polishing those doorknobs?”

We were interrupted by a group of petite ladies in plastic folding chapel caps, speaking excitedly in what sounded like Tagalog. They rushed at the priest and fell upon their knees. Bursting into tears, they grabbed his sleeves. More women rushed in exclaiming in Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese. They gripped Father’s arm, touching their rosaries to his hands to bless them, all of them genuflecting to kiss his ring.  

Catholics kneeling down? To kiss a priest’s ring? What? I backed out the door in mortified retreat, gathering dimly by the reactions of everybody else that I had must have failed to recognize a member of our hierarchical gentry, with no clue on what title or greeting to use anyway. (In retrospect it’s interesting that in all that pack of reverence and elation, only one person got his undivided riveted attention; that was the person who didn’t know him at all.)

In church that night he was our illustrious and eloquent keynote speaker, 70 years old but by no means bent on retirement. He preached about the intercession of our Blessed Mother in our lives. The sermon did not mention his future promotion to an important post at the Vatican.

Ah goodness; to him, a friendly intention wrapped in social cuelessness must have come across as derisive sarcasm! An interloper in an empty chapel accosted Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, Archbishop of the Diocese of Boston, raving away at him about the spiritual meaning in building maintenance of clean windows and driven snow.

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4/11/21: A Harvick Social Call

Needless to say, I made up the names and swapped around obvious details. The visit really happened though. A secret to this day.

Our publisher sent me bicycling over to the glam edge of town, to courier an important floppy disk of ad copy back to a customer. Soon I delivered the disk, and was pedalling back to the office.

   “Go see Harvick,” a silent but clear voice demanded.

“He’s at work,” I talked back. “He is always at work. And so am I, on the clock.”

“Next left turn,” the voice nudged me.

   “He’s not home!” I argued. This was life before cell phones. There was no way to even call and check. 

   “Get going,” the voice replied.

So I pumped uphill to a posh cul-de-sac with turfy lawns and widely spaced faux castles and faux moats dressed with artificial concrete stone. 

The doorbell rang its Big Ben chimes. No answer. A glance through the garage window showed that the car was of course gone. With a sigh I hopped on the bike again.

   “Backyard,” the voice commanded. “Hurry up already.”

I hurried around to the backyard fence. Out by the pool, a very beautiful young woman was sobbing with head in hands. Now, Harvick’s yard had seen a range of guests and sophisticated props — for filming the time lapsed path of some comet, or solar-cooking mass batches of turkey jerky, or hanging up salvaged organ pipes as novel improvised percussion for touring musicians. What I did not expect to find there was a lovely young lady, or any lady.

   “Why hello, Miss,” I said. “Are you all right?”

She leaped to her feet, flinging back her hair. “No English,” she sobbed, hands up. 

   “Oh. What language do you speak?”

She named three languages. For some reason, people with zero English can all understand that one question.

   “Oh, okay.” One of her second languages was one of mine. “Hello. I’m Mary, an old friend of Harvick’s.”

Her panic turned to amazement. “I’m Edieta.” She opened the gate. We settled on chaise lounge chairs, and soon our languages warmed right up (her “No English” really meant “A fair amount, but I was too scared to talk”) for a nice bilingual girl chat.

Edieta lived with her large family on another continent and hemisphere. One Sunday they were picnicking at the beach. Harvick on one of his conference and research trips stopped by the waterfront. Soon he was entertaining the four-generation dynasty with his childlike enthusiasm, acute scientific curiosity, and improvised magic tricks using local props. The family was so won over that they invited him for dinner. He visited several times, extended his stay for a week at their house, sent gifts upon his return home, visited again for Christmas, and finally wrote her and her parents with an offer: Would she like to come to the States as his house guest? She could see what the country had to offer, and then consider staying and marrying him. He set aside a floor of his castle with bedroom and bath for her separate use and comfort, offering to take her anywhere she wished to go, to help her explore options for her future, and to buy her anything she fancied. 

(Disclaimer: This is not to suggest leaving the protection of one’s people and go stay with a new acquaintance in an arrangement of this kind. One can’t predict character from a hemisphere away on short acquaintance. It can work safely and well if the man is like Harvick. The arrangement with Edieta was very much to his credit and said a lot about him.)

Now, her six week American vacation was over. Did she like him enough to consider marriage? Or, would she head back home to her family? That morning she had waited for him to leave for work, and sat down outside for a spell of abject weeping.

   “Such a good man and respecting perfect gentleman. And so handsome!” Edieta exclaimed. “And works very hard — day and night.”

   “He is,” I agreed. “And he does.”

   “Even at home he has ideas, and hurries to write them. Or call the men and talk about it.”

   “Harvick loves and lives his profession. Always asking questions and learning.”

   “He says here I can study and work what I want, and he will help with college, career, buy a car, anything!”

   “Harvick respects women and supports their independent ideas. He pushed me to interview for my publishing job; he insisted that I could learn the work, and he was right.”

   “It’s just… he’s away a lot. Working, conferences, lectures.”

   “Yes; he has many invitations to speak and teach.”

   “And I’m here.” She looked around. “What life is this for family? Nobody visits or calls. Not one child or even dog or cat playing, no shops or place to walk. Neighbors drive by, don’t wave. Because I’m foreign?”

   “No no; because this is a ‘bedroom community,’” I tried to explain. “Young faculty establishing their careers. They just come home to sleep. Their social world is campus. In this neighborhood they need cars to get everywhere, so they are not out walking. And no, they are not avoiding you; it’s just that they don’t know Harvick. He lives here only because it is quiet and private for work. He does not take time to meet these neighbors. If you are on campus you will meet his colleagues, their wives, their students.”

   “Does he go to church? Our village goes to church three times a week. We all walk together.”

   “Well… he says that nature is like a church to him.”

   “He did not introduce me to his family! Why?” She threw her hands out. “They don’t visit or call me.”

   “Oh, they… live far apart, and are really busy.” Harvick was an only child. His folks divorced when he was two. The whole family had drifted out of touch years before. 

   “Back at home, families eat together every night, and big Sunday dinner. Sure, they work hard and not much money. But we shop at the bazaar together, cook together, stroll and chat and sing songs, play music, even dance on the plaza.”     

   “Your family sounds wonderful.” Harvick would pay happily for overseas calls and plane visits for Edieta. But he didn’t have a ready-made family or community to offer a new wife or new mother.

   “Mary?” Edieta leaned close, whispering. “He’s got GUNS. Why?? He can buy meat at the store!” 

   “Right. He’s all licensed, and they’re registered. The guns and the cabinet have combination locks. He’s a really safe responsible gun owner. It’s only a hobby to relax from work. He and the guys go out to… like an academy where they practice shooting at… oh, I don’t know; bottles or cans or whatever. It’s common here.”

   “Shooting the bottles?” She gripped her head. “At home they will call it a strange guy. And that snake. This terrifying thing in glass. Just stares at me.”

   “The boa constrictor? That’s Bilbo.” Bilbo was only four feet long. For a boa that’s shoelace size, but he wasn’t going to get any smaller. “That tank is locked. And he’s pretty chill. I’ve cleaned his cage and given him baths. Just scrub your arms real well with anti-bacterial soap before and after.”

   “No way. We can’t stand snakes at home that they are falling right out of the trees. Put one in the home? Why? By the way, he does not eat.”

   “Sure he does, every month or so. Just mice.”

   “WHAT? No no no, not Blobbo. No, I meant Harvick. Even I am cooking all day, make the table nice and dress up? He can eat in two minutes reading a magazine, say thank you off he goes. Did not help and chat over the dishes. Did not notice food or me.”

   “He noticed. He notices everything.” I sighed. Harvick always read books at the table, and didn’t really notice food. He didn’t chat over dishes either; he washed them at high speed as soon as the sink was full or every single plastic dish in the kitchen needed washing. “He appreciates what people do. He just might not mention it.” 

She looked at me with new interest. “You know him pretty well. How did you meet?”

   “We were students years ago, and then we lived next door in student housing. At the publishing job I edit his magazine articles. I was his secretary on campus. I house sit when he’s away.”

   “Then why didn’t he marry you?”

   “Well…” Right at the start, Harvick had explained his checklist for a future spouse. Criteria included slender, petite, optimally proportioned, adventurous, vivacious, upbeat, appreciative of French wines and hot spices and jazz and direct sunshine and tennis, secular or agnostic a plus. “Because he needs someone like me who he can telephone at two o’clock in the morning to talk about his research! Just so you know.”

   “But no dates?” She sounded incredulous.

   “One. Years ago he saw me read a poster on campus about a dance party. He joked that he’d take me.”

   “Really? What happened next? Did you say yes??”

   “Absolutely! I bought a party dress and got all ready. I waited outside for an hour. Then I waited inside for two more hours. I understood perfectly: he was out in the field with his research and forgot.”

   “No. What did you say to him?”

   “I never said a thing. He was working. It was an innocent mistake.”

   “But all that time together, did he ever try to… well…”

   “No.” My spirits fell a bit at thought of my own legion of Harvicks: brilliant, super-achieving, breadwinning, handsome, cultured, generous, loyal, eager to seek me out to discuss their achievements and dating adventures with me as a good listener and all-round pal. They marched through my life like the Terracotta Army warriors of Shaanxi. Some are still good friends. Some found spouses and moved on.

Edieta shook her head, gripping my hands. “Please don’t think too bad of me! But really — just I like to go back home. Is it all right?”

   “Have you called your family about this, Edieta?” I was very touched that she cared what I thought, some accidental visitor who she’d known for all of twenty minutes. It sounded wise for her to take more time to think, perhaps make an extra trip or two, than to rush into a wedding. And right now she needed her family’s shared view and support more than anything.

   “No, we didn’t talk! No phone in our house. Only my uncle has a phone, but he’s an hour of walk away.”

I felt sorry about missing these six weeks with Edieta. If only that intuitive voice had come along 40 days sooner! I could have borrowed a bicycle for her. I would have taken her with me to church and the farmers’ markets and music events. There were other language speakers among the faculty and their wives and students. She could have been happier then. Would that have helped? Why didn’t Harvick tell me! A friendly sociable guest with hesitant English — was leaving her alone in suburbia the best courtship approach? Maybe it was his adamant respect for women and their right to make up their own minds. Perhaps he was showing her a realistic slice of his life as it was. 

Harvick never did mention Edieta. Neither did I.  

Soon afterwards, at a conference, a high-tech software entrepreneur spotted him at the podium as a keynote speaker. She read about him in the printed program, then sent her business card to his hotel room with a bottle of French wine and two tickets to dinner at a jazz club. After that weekend, she spelled out for him exactly when and where and how he was going to marry her, and it didn’t take him any six weeks to make up his mind. After the honeymoon his new wife moved to town and invited us friends and the neighbors home for a torchlit Indian feast with all the spices. She was lithe, soft-spoken, gorgeous, poised as a lion tamer. With a single up and down glance she approved of me and Harvick’s wee-hour phone calls; I guess she got more rest that way. Soon she coordinated his career and tenure promotion and invitation calendar, his patents and grants and interviews with the media. She found a home for Bilbo and the organ pipes, sold the castle, bought a Mediterranean villa with vineyard and beach for their early retirement. Last we heard, they do a little remote consulting for fun, bottle their own wine, take the boat out, cycle around, play tennis. They’re doing fine.

It is remarkable that both young women probably had the same opinion of Harvick’s well customized single lifestyle. One of them was like me; she tried to cope by being patient and gentle and deferential and good with a dish towel and frying pan. The second one serenely ignored the traits that weren’t going to change (like her partner’s dismay whenever a pub beer menu was missing the umlauts), and then she tackled everything else. It is remarkable what excellent prospects are out there, for a woman who takes initiative and lets a man know that she has chosen him, and that his life is about to change to suit her vision of their future together. That approach doesn’t appear in the Elisabeth Elliot books on my shelf, but it sure looks successful and makes for some solid happy couples.

But meanwhile, Edieta began to weep again. “Of course he is so kind and share everything,” she cried. “But… Mother of God, I am lonely! Really this house alone with snake looking at me and town of the dead will make me off my mind. Back home, I did not even know how happy we are together. I miss them to break my heart!” 

She walked me to the gate. We hugged goodbye. “Please Mary, don’t tell him what I said?”

   “I won’t even tell him I came here and found you.”

   “When you came here and found me,” she confided, “I was praying to my mother and my grandma. Mommy? Grammy? Come here I am so scared! Come help me now! Wait — You knew he was at work today. What are you doing here?”

   “No idea,” I had to admit. “Just a feeling.”

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Good Friday, 2021: Message in the Bin

One of the brothers was wronged by another. He came to Abba Sisoes, saying “My brother has hurt me, and I want to avenge myself.” Abba Sisoes pleaded with him in vain to leave vengeance to God. Finally, Abba said “Brother, let us pray…. God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we do justice for ourselves.” Hearing these words, the brother fell at the Abba’s feet, asking for forgiveness. — The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG. Cistercian Publications, Abbey of Gethsemani, KY 1975.


What a scene.

It’s a peak moving out day in our complex. Household belongings, from pillows to pots, are heaped up in the dark in the garbage cage. Once again I’m dragging debris out of bins and re-sorting because once again, people didn’t heed the signs. They threw glass bottles a-smash in the landfill dumpster, disposable diapers in the food compost, and even a plastic infant crib/dresser in the recycle bin, leaving the lid jammed open to the rain — as if plastic furniture is ground up into plastic atoms to clone a fresh new crib. Before moving out these people should have planned ahead, maybe posted this to a giveaway website so some other family could use it.

The open crib drawer has a torn envelope and a note with official agency letterhead, a date several months old. Pounce! As Helen Mirren said (film role Mrs. Porter, “Door to Door,” 2002) “Now I have proof!” A glittering shard of crafty cleverness worms its way to mind, insinuating sweetly that I should take this note to Management, so they can have a parting word with these carefree sorting scofflaws. One triumphant righteous glance at the address, and… it’s a message to this effect. Now that we have taken your baby away to foster care, we have discontinued your medical and maternal benefits. Last year, your child’s father sent you child support for a total of [fillable field] $39.17. 

She was our neighbor. She needed help, and now she’s gone. And I’m in a cage with windblown debris under a yellow floodlight. Cradling a letter in hand and rocking back and forth, pulling up the inside of the sweatshirt to wipe my eyes. One baby with no idea where Mom is now. One Mom needing all the maternal benefits and support and care in the world. 

Soon the letter is smoothed out, refolded, tucked inside the envelope, put in the closed crib drawer. After some careful dragging around, now the recycling lid will close and shelter the crib as it waits for the truck. Like an emptied fish tank or hamster wheel, but with purple ponies with big eyes frisking around. They look full of fun and ready to play.

Along the path back to the house up the steps and through the trees, the cage floodlight grows fainter and fades out. The rain turns into snow.

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3/11/21: Calling Security (or, You Really Oughta Be in Pictures)

Being detained by Security was only one small part of a day that was not going well.

The guard (strong build, square jaw, sharp gaze, raised voice, military air of authority) kept me for 20 minutes of rapid-fire inquiry before letting me go. And, no wonder: security personnel are trained to pick up on erratic and evasive behavior, even in a crowd.

The whole fracas came from Dean’s photo shoot idea. Dean (not his real name) was a new graduate teaching assistant in the doctoral program of a neighboring department. He had good prospects, affluent background, showy good looks, and a sunny disposition. All day every day, at the hourly rush from lecture to lecture, he and his friends jostled past me and my friends in the halls, calling hellos and good-natured jokes. Dean’s teasing was erudite, witty, cheerful, and deeply observant of me and my appearance. Now according to the culture where I grew up, any demonstration of attention whatsoever from a man toward a woman must be appreciated as flattery and answered with a smile. So I smiled through Dean’s hazing during department receptions and parties, and when Dean and his buddies invited me and my roommates out for pizza. One night he gave us a ride home in his car. Next, he decided that I ought to be in pictures.

Dean’s creative Muse stipulated a photo session alone at his apartment, without his friends or mine, and a glass or two of wine to enhance the mood. He offered to pick me up at my house, and to drive me right back to my door. And, he instructed me to first go out and buy a flattering feminine blouse, and apply some makeup. “Let’s find out who you are when you’re not running away with your girlfriends or hiding under those turtlenecks and head scarves and glasses and hair.”

Any English ballad would say that all you fair maids should beware of guys who hold out a promise of greater glory, cut us out of the herd, take us off our familiar turf, lay down rules, and pay lots of attention that we didn’t think to ask for. The ballad would add that with facial recognition technology, you don’t know where that picture will go or why. What’s the rush? 

But my roommates were thrilled. My parents were thankful that I was meeting nice college men. My graduate advisor, who hailed from Dean’s same Alma Mater, pointed out my admirer’s advantageous connections. At our university, people were expected to network all the time, positioning ourselves with strategic key figures in government, law, the economy, international relations, and the media. My social circle recognized right away that an hour with Dean was a good piece of luck for me.

I listened to everybody’s pep talk about taking on some glamor and coming out of my shell. Still, I wondered: When shelled animals unshell themselves, doesn’t that generally indicate a state of death? And “glamor” was originally an accusation that a woman was casting fairy stardust into men’s eyes, inciting them to lose their sense of reason. To call a woman glamorous, charming, fascinating, enchanting, intriguing, beguiling, alluring, tempting, bewitching — those used to be fighting words, shouted by villagers gathering with torches or stones in hand. Why a new picture of me, when other pictures of me looked bewildered and constrained? Why not meet on campus, for a scenic backdrop? Why bring in alcohol? Why not invite the girlfriends, who were all beautiful, dressed the part, and were eager to be seen. For that matter, why not photograph them?

My roommates objected to all this existential hand-wringing. Would you rather sit alone at home for the rest of your life? Go out for an hour to a man’s apartment! Drink a glass of wine! He’s FACULTY, for pete’s sake; what can go wrong? Dean himself cut off my questions, spelling it out in basic English: Show up for the portrait this Saturday night, or he and his social set would never speak to me again.

Wait, Saturday night? That meant no sacrament of confession, no evening Mass, no weekend stroll to the Cathedral to sit in the winter garden at sunset and watch the red-tailed hawks sail in figure eights around the bell tower. It meant missing weekend dinner with the roommates and our piling up on the couch with quilts in our jammies and robes, with pasta and ice cream sundaes for girltalk and TV. 

Instead, on Saturday I had to set out on Dean’s homework assignment to go buy a new blouse with some style to it. That ruled out my cherished one-stop wardrobe solution,  Zed’s Army Navy. Zed’s industrial loft had nice dim lights and a ripply wood floor and laconic retired veterans on staff who took a shine to me, and would point me toward surplus bargains that they could tell would make me feel comfortable and protected. 

But no, this mission called for a trip to the department store. There in Women’s Fashions I stood gaping amid fluorescent lights, ceiling announcements and bells and boings, disco muzak, echoing toddlers, aromas of cinnamon buns and popcorn butter and fabric dye, and the touch of static-cling textiles in counter-intuitive indigestible colors. The store security guard tracked me at a distance while I rummaged along with rising anxiety, speed-reading through the racks. Then, in Last Chance clearance, there was a burlappish corduroy the color of tan M&Ms with a high wrap-around collar. The $14.99 made me wince (for that money you can go to Zed’s and get two rugged turtlenecks.) But it was hands down the ugliest ragmop imaginable, which was exactly my hidden agenda.

Now to beeline for the cash register and pay up. Or… was I supposed to go in the dressing room and take off half my clothes and try this contraption on? I gripped the shirt, looking for the exit. Pay and run? Try it on? Try then pay? Drop it and flee? Unable to act or think, I zoned out for a moment and fixated on a mirror display of silk flowers and felted wool songbirds. The stuffed birds made me smile. They looked like the tiny felted partridges in Grandma’s Christmas decorations from childhood. I wished that I could take a bird home for my room. 

Another shy customer materialized at a side mirror panel, looking as miserable as I felt, drawn close by the same felted fauna. He was a tall cowering young man with long hair and abjectly blanched complexion. Reaching out to pet a bird, I threw him a sympathetic glance. He glanced right back. It took a moment to figure out that the shrinking youth was my reflection. By then the security guard had seen enough, and marched me to the back room. 

After the security guard had checked on my story and let me go, I bought the blouse and trudged home from the department store in the cold, worn out and shivering and increasingly apprehensive. It felt as if Dean’s camera shutter was going to take away a piece of my soul, and forever after I would have even more trouble recognizing myself in the mirror. To avoid being alone with him in his car, I called Dean and told him I’d get there myself on the bus. (“I’ll drive you home,” he quipped. “Tonight or tomorrow — your choice.”) I hung up the phone feeling desperate for some hot cocoa and a long nap and early bedtime with a good book. But, to keep from making everybody angry at me and then sitting alone the rest of my life, I laundered and ironed the tan M&M burlap shirt, showered up, and washed my hair. I packed a turtleneck and head scarf in my knapsack. I added a hot loaf of my fresh baked Anadama molasses bread as a gift. I dressed up and sat, feeling like a sheep at a 4-H judging show, while my roommates applied my makeup. They brushed back the curly thatch of bangs that sheltered my eyes from the world and the world from me, and pinned my hair up tight with a mist of hair mousse. They clipped on earrings, sprayed on perfume, and hollered advice as I headed out for two buses and a long walk. 

At Dean’s, the adventure fizzled out in about seven minutes. My host was seriously miffed that over his strenuous objections I sweetly held my knapsack and coat on my lap, instead of letting him take them away to the bedroom. He was appalled by the shirt. He was offended that I took only one sip of wine and no more, and that I clearly wouldn’t appreciate an excellent vintage if I fell in the oaken vat. He insisted that I pose with a lighted cigarette, which was not part of our original agreement; so I resorted to Fool of Gotham mode and clasped it like sidewalk chalk, breaking the filter. Then under the tan burlap collar he spotted a gold cross, Mom’s gift for high school graduation. That was the last straw. Urgent as he’d been to get me into his apartment, he was practically frantic to get me out of it again.

And that was fine, because we found out that the photo shoot was a practical joke. Dean figured that the image of me trying to look sophisticated would make for a hilarious pinup girl at the honors fraternity house. But the guys there were indignant at his choice of a sporting target. Word through the grapevine reached my graduate advisor, who took a very dim view of such shenanigans from a fellow Bearcat or Trojan or however the men at the old school fancy themselves. My girlfriends were furious, and rallied to my defense and support. Later one roommate reported that my name came up at a beer keg bash, and Dean ventured cautiously that I seemed like a nice girl. He remained a successful man about town, but somehow his presence didn’t really cross my radar; I just didn’t seem to notice him any more. 

That night outside his apartment I shook my hair down and took off the earrings. I pulled the turtleneck and head scarf out of my knapsack, and bundled up. Instead of waiting around alone on a corner downtown for the hourly transfer bus home, I decided to catch the student shuttle by heading down to the waterfront and over the interstate bridge and up to campus. Halfway across the river I stood munching my Anadama and admiring the city skyline, and the lights of our Cathedral miles away, up on our hilltop.

Still, there must be some shared ancestral vision that delights in discovering unexpected glory in unlikely places. We thrill to fashion makeover magazines, or antiques on appraisal in TV shows, or ancient gold coins plowed up in a cornfield. Maybe that’s what Dean was looking for. That’s certainly what I dreamed of, on that stone bench in the winter garden, and that’s what my girlfriends wanted for me: to be seen in the eye of the right beholder — by someone perceiving genuine beauty without, because that someone carries genuine beauty within themselves.

Happily, genuine beauty in the right beholder is how this English ballad ends. Because that’s what she had and that’s what she was, with her strong build and square jaw and sharp gaze and raised voice and military air of authority, when she muscled in to my reverie of flowers and birds.

   “Come with me,” the security guard ordered. “In that door. Sit down. Whatta you got?” 

   “Shirt, Officer. Ma’am.” I held up the price tags. “Just going to pay for it.”

   “I did not ask what that is, Miss. I asked what you GOT,” she demanded. “I was talking to you out there, and you didn’t even notice. You got diabetes? Pregnant, faint, or what? You are white as a sheet. Need a doctor? Husband or boyfriend here? Parents? Somebody I can call?”

   “Why… no, Ma’am. I must be coming down with something. It’s okay. I can walk home. It isn’t far. I’ve got four roommates right there.”

   “Hold on.” She stepped out to a vending machine and bought orange soda and cheese crackers. “You are not leaving this room for twenty minutes. You sit here, and eat those.”

If only I had acted with more presence of mind than any other scrap of wildlife fished from an oil slick and thrown free. If only I’d been able to think straight, get her name, tell store management what she did for me, go back with that hot loaf and give it to her instead. But with that dissociated mind and dislocated conscience I have no memory of eating those crackers or thanking her or leaving that back room.

Over the years other Deans, bigger smarter ones, came and went; they are all around, common as rocks. And every time one showed up, with every decision correct or incorrect, I thought about that guard and wondered what she’d say. If only I could let her know that. “Security” was the right name for her calling, because security is what she gave to me. God willing, maybe I can give some to someone else one day.

Next morning, Sunday at sunrise, I threw the M&M shirt in the garbage can and headed out for early Mass and on to the Cathedral and the winter garden. 

Up over the bell tower the red-tailed hawks still soared in circles, free as ever.

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3/2/2021: Lent with Father Seraphim

Father Seraphim Aldea out in the Hebrides is preparing for Orthodox Lent by taking a walk to the shore, and is bringing the camera along. (I don’t know who held the camera while he hopped the fence and approached the water, but it made for some pretty scenery.)

Twice a week he posts these very small talks about monasticism. An endearing theme in each talk is his response and self-effacing humor to the technical details that pop up in filming: mud underfoot, a migraine, a storm, criticism from the readers, struggling to get used to new eyeglasses, waiting for the tea to boil. (My favorite was the time a goat stood behind him during filming and quietly started to eat his cassock.) For me in this pandemic year, living and working in solitude, his small clips have always brought something good to hear and see and to think about during the day.

Today Father talked about how for Lent we can set aside a little secret place between our hearts and the heart of God.

“How to Go Deeper During Lent. A Heart’s Secret with God & the Courses of our Thoughts”


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2/22/21: Why Not Serenade The Neighbors

Taking out the recycling one night, down at the apartment complex garbage bin cage I saw our two delightful neighbors from Iran.

After friendly remarks about the weather and our pandemic, as a conversation pleasantry I said “Why don’t I go learn an Iranian song, and sing it for you?” Whatever they were expecting to hear coming from a figure in the dark emerging from a garbage cage, they responded with gracious good humor. “A song? Sure!”

So I got to work learning “Jan-e Maryam,” because it’s a glorious song and who wouldn’t want to learn it? especially after hearing beloved singer Mr. Mohammad Noori:

Jane Maryam- جان مریم https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7DbEmNukh8

The next week as promised I sang that at the garbage cage. Our two neighbors rained down appreciation upon my head. That was a good life lesson. Namely, it doesn’t matter a hill of beans whether we can sing or not, we can still pick a musical tribute and just go surprise somebody.

Next, our two neighbors enthusiastically suggested a new Iranian song to learn, from the classic film “Soltan-e Ghalbhaa,” or “King of Hearts.” In this finale below, the song interrupts a wedding and reunites the prospective bridegroom with his long-lost wife who had lost her eyesight and so couldn’t find him but he finds her because of her singing voice, and as the credits roll the reunited characters join hands and sing their song together. How sweet and appealing is that??

Iran’فردين در سلطان قلبها Fardin in Soltane Ghalbha’_low.mp4


“King of Hearts” was a big hit down at the garbage cage, so our good neighbors assigned “Cheshme Man (My Eyes)” by Dariush. In this clip, whenever Dariush starts the refrain, he can just turn the microphone and point it at the audience, because they are leaping to their feet singing it themselves.

Dariush Eghbali – Cheshme Man (My Eyes) – English Subs


Meanwhile, the dear wife of my old friend expressed a fondness for “Ay Que Noche Tan Preciosa,” which is the “Happy Birthday” song as it is done up properly in Venezuela, composed by Mr. Luis Cruz. Here is Mr. Cruz himself at a party, with his friends singing away at minute 5:21.


So I studied up and sang it to the two of them over the phone. That inspired my old friend to sing us a real treat: “Happy Birthday” as sung for generations in his family with a lovely childhood poem, to the refrain at minute 3:05 of this “Merry Widow” waltz by Franz Lehár.


So I practiced that at work today while filing papers. By the time his birthday rolls around it would be nice to try singing it to him.

Yesterday I sang the Venezuelan birthday song to a friend during a long-distance phone call. It wasn’t her birthday, and she’s from Guatemala not Venezuela, but she was happy anyway and asked me to send her the words and music.

Now out of the blue two old friends invited me to join their virtual choir! They went and talked to their musical director and put in the paperwork and paid the membership fee! That’s five new pieces to learn and a whole new experience of singing just one track and just one exact set of notes as written, and learning how to videotape too.

After recording those, who knows what song requests will come up. But one for sure will be learning “Cheshme Man,” just like all those people in the audience did because it meant so much to them. It would be nice to learn more birthday songs too.

Now this is just one vote in a blog whose readers live mostly in Kyrgyzstan and China. (What do they sing for birthdays there?) But if we can’t touch people or eat with them or visit their house or nursing home or invite them over or go somewhere in the car or bus —

Why not go serenade the neighbors?

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1/7/21: An Ethiopian Merry Christmas

Orthodox Christians in much of the world observe Christmas by the Julian Calendar on January 7th. My dear co-worker on the facilities crew is from Ethiopia. He prepared for Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas throughout their Advent fast: 43 days with no animal products whatsoever, no oils or fats, and no food (or water?) before or after his one small everyday meal at 3:30 in the afternoon. But all through the fast he kept working, charging ahead through the same laborious heavy tasks as always, on his feet from 6:30 to 3:30 every day. During fasting seasons year round, like his 50 days before Paskha, I like to bring fasting food to work. We sit and share our lunches; beans, vegetables, injira teff bread. He tells me wonderful stories about the culture and customs back at home.

Christmas festivities, church at Lalibela

On Christmas Eve, after a strict fast all day long, everyone enters church holding a lighted candle at 6:00 pm. There they stand chanting until 3:00 am — the hour of the birth of Jesus, when families go home for their Christmas feast. Here is a small glimpse of the festive celebration. (The churches of Lalibela are made of one solid block of stone, created by hand-carving down from ground level.)

On January 8th my colleague came looking for me, to wish me a Merry Christmas. In these pandemic times his own church was closed down, and he couldn’t travel to visit any of his relatives or friends in other cities. We couldn’t even share our lunch breaks; I had to leave his lunch in a labeled bag in the company fridge. All he and I could do to celebrate was stand with our masks on 15 feet apart, shouting greetings in Amharic and exchanging air hugs. But he was radiant with the joy of the season, and eager to leave a Christmas treat for me: the beautiful card shown above, and my own home-baked slice of fragrant honey cardamom whole wheat bread.

And to think that until this kind generous man came to work several years ago, I knew absolutely nothing about Ethiopia or its beautiful culture. Every day, there are people who live and work around us, carrying inside themselves the most amazing worlds of wisdom and beauty. Sitting in my cubicle and eating my bread, it was a blessing to think how human connections like these are a real treasure of life.

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12/20/20: The Play House

(The house in this picture is not the same dwelling as the one in this story, for reasons which will be clear soon. It is added here only for ambient nostalgia value.)

On Day 1, Mom was kneeling in the back room. Planks and wood pieces were stacked on the floor. On graph paper she was marking measurements and angles, and penciling the wood using a tape measure and yardstick. 

   “Mom?” I was back from the bus after my half day at school. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Never you mind,” she said with a smile, and went on working on her latest project.

Mom was always working, doing everything perfectly and fast. She could make anything out of anything. She thought things up, then made them with her own two hands. She scrubbed and painted and polished, cooked and baked. In spare time she sewed clothes,  knitted sweaters and scarves, and crocheted afghan quilts. She painted rooms and hung wallpaper. She got bricks and concrete and built steps and a garden wall. She raised fruit and vegetables. She made glass pendants and silk flowers and stuffed animals and tartan wool plaid covers for my schoolbooks. One time she traced my feet on a piece of thick cork and cut it into soles and crocheted snug sandals out of cord with wool tops. I was excited about trying them on, but she threw them away because they weren’t as good as the ones that she imagined. 

On Day 3, the back room was all cleared and swept.

   “Where is the wood?” I asked.

   “Go out back and look,” she said, mixing up a meat loaf in the kitchen.

I ran outside. There in the backyard under the neighbor’s dogwood tree was a brand new little house, just the right size for someone like me. The light solid wood shone palomino color in the sun. The house had a step, and a plank floor, and a door and window, and a peaked roof with a scalloped strip all around, like a gingerbread house in a fairy tale.

I ran in to the kitchen. “Mom! A play house? For me??”

   “For you.” She patted the meat loaf into shape and lit the gas oven.

   “Can I invite my friends for tea parties, and take the doll dishes outside?”

   “Yes. It’s your play house. You can play any way you want.” She scrubbed the potatoes.

   “Can I put my blackboard there and play school?”

   “Yes! It’s your play house. Go ahead.” She wrapped the potatoes in foil.

   “Can I grow flowers in the window and put crumbs there for the birds?”

   “YES,” she laughed. “It’s YOUR play house! Wash hands for supper.”

That night I couldn’t fall asleep thinking about the play house. We can have tea parties with the doll tea set. We can put up the blackboard and run a school for the little kids on the street. In the window we can hang flowers. Like, red geraniums or something bright. If I put out bread pieces and stay still, the birds can come and feel safe there with me.

On Day 4 I ran home from school. At our house there was wood at the curb. They were light lumber pieces broken here and there with the nails torn out, and strips of scalloping all next to the trash can waiting for the garbage truck.

I ran into the kitchen. “My play house! What happened?”

   “Oh I don’t know.” Mom was working hard, scouring the stove. “Some boys came through the yard and acted up. They wrote on the wall, or something. Don’t breathe in here, I sprayed oven cleaner. Go play outside!”

I went out under the dogwood tree and stood in the rectangle of flat grass. It was a wrong time to talk to Mom. She needed everybody to leave her alone and let her work. And even later, there was no point in asking. She moved on right away to her next project, designing and supervising every step when a construction crew put on a new second floor and new bathroom. Then she sanded down the floors, and got a team to put down varnish. She braided rag rugs for the doorways. She sewed upholstery covers and bolsters for the old sofa to make it look nice. She started running a Scout troop, and the church education program, and the school drama club. 

Now it’s miles and years away, in a town full of fine woodcraft construction. Older homes and yards come with toy houses, child sized. Some are in branches with rope ladders. Some are on boulders in rock gardens. Some have little box hedges and tiny gates. Some have shutters, flower boxes and curtains, or tables and chairs. There are name signs, ceramic lawn animals, bright colors softened down by weather and moss. All of them look well scuffed and played in, by people grown and gone. 

Passing by, I always stop and admire, and think back to a story with another ending that says “Sweetheart, sometimes when you build something beautiful, the world will come and try to hurt it. For us, it was boys who maybe don’t have a play house, or parents to build it. But you and I can scrub off what they threw at the walls, or paint over what they wrote there. Maybe the house won’t ever be as good as new. But we can still care for it. It can still be ours.” 

Little houses in older-fashioned yards have a cozy sentimental appeal. But they don’t shine like mine did, the night I jumped out of bed to look at its window and door and scalloped roof. In my dreams it’s gleaming there still, moonlit palomino wood and trim angles and fresh smell. It’s spilling over with red flowers and eager birds. The lady of the house is caring for them all, serving bread bits and tea for everybody. 

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Salve Regina

Tonight at the shopping center bus stop it was getting dark and cold.

I hopped around foot to foot singing “Salve Regina,” or “Hail, Holy Queen” — not the zippy number in the film “Sister Act,” but the chant at Catholic evening prayers.

We Catholics are fond of our Hail, Holy Queen; no rosary is complete without that prayer at the end. Thomas Merton writes about it in The Seven Storey Mountain, in part III chapter 3, “The Sleeping Volcano.” At that point in the memoir, after agonizing for ages over whether he has a vocation to the priesthood, he takes a long night walk at St. Bonaventure’s Monastery, and prays for help:

“Suddenly, as soon as I had made that prayer, I became aware of the wood, the trees, the dark hills, the wet night wind, and then, clearer than any of these obvious realities, in my imagination, I started to hear the great bell of Gethsemani [Monastery] ringing in the night — the bell in the big grey tower, ringing and ringing, as if it were just behind the first hill.The impression made me breathless, and I had to think twice to realize that it was only in my imagination that I was hearing the bell of the Trappist Abbey ringing in the dark. Yet, as I afterwards calculated, it was just about that time that the bell is rung every night for the Salve Regina, towards the end of Compline. The bell seemed to be telling me where I belonged — as if it were calling me home.”

Like Thomas Merton I was headed home too in a more ordinary sense, after a trip to the Goodwill Store to replace a pair of everyday trousers. The managers at Goodwill, God bless them with health & safety, came up with fine precautions. They’ve cleared out half the merchandise, widened the aisles, shut down the fitting rooms, mandated face masks for entry, put up hand sanitizer stations, and reduced the number of shoppers allowed in. That should have kept things in pie order. But then I got in line to pay for my purchases. All of a sudden, between me and the exit, ahead and behind and to the right and left, the cash-registers-&-donations corner suddenly turned into some post-holiday flash mob superspreader gleefest. I should have dropped the shopping basket and bolted for the door. But my first reflex for that last five minutes was to yank my sweatshirt up over my cloth mask, shielding my head toward a display of tutti-fruity gummy worms, with the judgmental thought “Is it so hard to count up to a social distance of six feet?”

Soon, outside under clearing but dark storm clouds in the falling dusk, while taking huge breaths of open air, I realized with repentance that anyone vaguely in touch with modern living would have realized that this was Black Friday Weekend (!), a sub-optimal choice for social distance shopping. Was I now just a walking viral vector? Resolving sadly to stay even farther away and barricaded off from absolutely everyone for their protection, my discouraged mind latched on to the evening prayer “Salve Regina.” In the wind and headlight glare I belted out the Latin words over and over until the bus appeared.

Upon arrival at home, sitting down with a nice bowl of oatmeal, it was slightly disconcerting to see my internet feed algorithm immediately serve up “Salve Regina.” But at least it was a sweet version of 450 voices in a virtual pandemic recording by Canto Católico.

The visual film calls to mind the gradual individual-to-group unifying theme that one would see from The Piano Guys, that is if devout Latter Day Saints went around singing to Mary at the bus stop. The video shows little clips of the contributing singers praying the rosary with their families. The thought of having a family to pray with had me bursting into tears right away.

Bedtime. Clouds are gone; we’re due for heavy fog and frost in the morning. The moon out this window is 98.7% full, waxing and rising. Tomorrow is the first day of Advent. Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, Holy Queen.

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