6/1: Even Her Enemies Brought Flowers

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(Note: This does not mean that any one honored in this cemetery has enemies. This story is about another cemetery many miles away. And no one there has enemies either.) < On Easter, Cathy made apple cake. Cathy’s baking is an … Continue reading

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4/5/15 Behind the Door

Calvary daffodils

After church, everybody flocked to Father K.

Priests at our Priory didn’t vanish in the sacristy after serving Mass. Each one would stand at the main door and wait for every last person who wanted to come shake his hand and bend his ear.

It took a while. Sunday noon was always full; church seats 400. The custom was nice, but I always ducked out the garden door instead, to stay off the celebrant’s reception line. It puzzled me that people pick the busiest hour in a priest’s life, when he’s fasting on his feet all day. That’s when they want his message for their distant kin, or signature on this petition, or appearance at that charity lunch, or blessing on their picture of the Pope.

The priests stood at that door though, for as long as anyone was waiting. For Father K., that meant students and teens, people coming for marriage preparation, newlyweds, new parents with infants. The parish had posted him to youth ministry; over on campus he held daily Mass and study groups and socials. He booked evenings at a frat-row pizza parlor, handing out dinner and lively doctrinal discussions. Even off duty he’d stake out beaches and malls, bringing his guitar and hymns. Kids noticed his tall strapping tanned good looks and thatch of dark wavy hair and flash smile. They’d stop to hassle him, and then find themselves attending church.

Among the Legions of Father K., I never got a word in edgewise.
People said “What! Don’t you join the line after church on Sundays? Stay after; go up to him and say hello!” So, on three different Sundays I gave it a try. I picked moments when no one else was queueing up, when he wasn’t off full-tilt with vestments flying to assist at the next Mass, when he wasn’t managing some fund-raiser in the parish hall. Three times I offered him a handshake and hello. His hand might have given mine a shake, his smile might have burned an extra watt or two; but he didn’t see me. Like paramedics at ground zero or blue heelers on a station ranch, Father was always scanning the landscape for any special needs jockeying for his attention. So three times he looked past my shoulder and kept moving, off to give a cheering word or quip or touch or sketched cross or attention. (“Of course I’ll pray for her; what is her name please?”).

Just today, typing this, it occurred to me: to talk to Father K. all I had to do was make an appointment for Confession. But that didn’t dawn on me then. Instead, I cooked up a big story to explain to myself why Father K. didn’t see me standing there. My story was that church was a place that celebrated people who were young or loved or had a vocation to religious orders or were going to be converts. The community life of the church had sacraments for all those people, but didn’t have a ceremony to celebrate the fact that women like me were over 50 and still single. So I went back to slipping out the garden door, and then faded out of church and didn’t show up much on Sundays any more.

It was months later, in November, before I ventured back again. At that particular noon service, the celebrant was Father Pastor. After Mass, Pastor announced that Father K. had decided not to seek any further rounds of medical treatment for his diagnosis, and that he wished to remain here at the Priory in the care of the priests.

Diagnosis?
One glance at the congregation showed that to them the news was sobering, but no surprise. Apparently they’d known something of the kind all along. On my way out the garden door, I felt sad and repentant for my way of withdrawing from people who looked happier than I felt. Here our handsome enthused Padre, as people called him, looked like a man in radiant fields of public acclaim, when all along he was a man in a private war.

At home that night, a bitter wind rocked the fir trees and my conscience.
Tossing and turning in my sleep, I realized “Here I thought he didn’t see me. But I’m the one who didn’t see him at all. How is he really doing?” In dreamtime mind I sat up, pulled back the covers, and stood on the bed. Passing through the frozen panes and up to the eaves, I stepped from the fir tops to the roof of the Priory and through its brick wall to the back cloister. There I picked a bedroom door and peered in.

Father K. was in white vestments, kneeling at an altar. It held a cruciform monstrance with a gold cross holding a glass disk, where the host of bread was placed for the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Father was so caught up in his devotions that the intensity of his prayer began to melt the molding of the white plaster wall. The wall wore thin as the shell of an egg, letting a haze of light glow in to the room. The ceiling began to fade, giving way to a stainless blue morning sky with faint light clouds. Sunlight streamed in; cherry blossoms budded out and opened into bloom. I took a breath of fragrance and reached out to touch them. But, “This is not your spring,” a voice from somewhere admonished me, and I sat up startled in my own bed.

In January I dropped by at another noon Mass. Father Pastor was our celebrant again. After his thoughts on the Gospel he stayed in the pulpit. He told a hushed church that next door at the Priory, the priests and Hospice nurses took all measures to keep Father K. free from pain. Father K. was resting as comfortably as possible, and was expected to remain deeply asleep until —

Father Pastor looked up and stopped.
With all eyes on the pulpit, we hadn’t seen the side door open. The Priory always had visiting priests; I’d somehow left my distance glasses at home and didn’t recognize this new one. This Father had a very slight thin figure with fine white hair combed straight back, and a pale complexion. With courtesy he waited, leaning in the doorway, catching his breath, listening to the announcement. Then he straightened up and climbed the altar steps, where Father Pastor stepped out of the way and turned over the altar and the Mass.

An hour earlier, after days of deepening sleep, Father K. had sat up and astonished the Priory with the words “Time for Mass.” Now he stood at the altar supported by one of the younger priests and the choir director. In sips of breath, in a scorched whisper, he called upon God’s blessings for Benedict our Pope, for…

He paused.
His Pastor concelebrant, the men supporting his arms, the congregation — any of them could have shouted out the name of our current Bishop. But nobody stirred.
The microphone registered a painstaking inhale as he recalled the name, and calmly forged ahead.

At Communion there were several priests and several Eucharistic ministers distributing the consecrated hosts and wine on several lines. But most people saw and converged on only one.
To me it felt very wrong to cost even a moment’s breath and attention on the longest line of all. So I walked to a Eucharistic minister line and on out to the sleeping winter garden. Then, leaving the true congregation to spend this last meeting all together with their Padre, I walked away.

But not too far, and not for long.
A strange impulse stopped and turned me back. Those driving glasses! How did I manage to forget them? With glasses, I could have seen Father K. one last time, from a discreet distance well away from the press of his parishioners. With one glimpse I could have wished him well and left for home. What was the point of staying? I already knew what he looked like. We weren’t acquainted. The sooner the man was left in peace and safely taken back to bed, the better.

All these arguments agreed in mind while my steps set out for home, then circled the building, then stopped at the garden door closest to the Priory. The garden gave me an idea: I could stand just to the side of the path, in the shrubbery, and have a glimpse as the men walked him past. Like Zacchaeus in his legendary Fig-Sycomore, I picked an ornamental vantage point and waited. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. Twenty-five in the damp January chill. Mass had to be long over, but the building was silent; not a soul was leaving.

I tiptoed up the steps and through the side vestibule, peered in, and gasped.
Father K. was finally finished with Communion. Now he was just heading down the center aisle, back to his old post on the receiving line at the street door.

I ran down the cloister walk along the roseless garden to the front. The massive wood doors were propped all the way open. A flash of inspiration sent me diving behind one of the doors to be close by yet out of sight, with a perfect view out between the hinges.

The people who filled a church that seats 400 came out in silence. For one more hour they eddied around three men in white holding fast to one another at the top of the stone stairs.

Father K., with his singed whisper and labored breaths, had open hands for every one of them; infants suspended in outstretched arms, elders who pulled his head down to whisper in his ear, rosaries thrust at him for his blessing. Behind the door I fumed at all these hangers-on. I wished they’d go away with their pathos and their endless little needs, and let Father rest.

But then my squinting unglassed eyes shifted wavelengths and blinked at a different kind of vision. With that, people’s gestures and urgent words, the abject distraught touches and sounds and weeping, were luminous tendrils and silks stringing together. The parishioners were not weighing down their priest; instead they were weaving the final meaning of his life, a web of light to bear him up for the day that he left them behind and stepped out alone.

When the hour was over and everyone went sorrowing away, Father K. asked the priests to take him on a short drive, to enjoy a last little view of the city that he loved. Then he went back to sleep for the next ten days.

There were three memorial services in three other cities, at previous parishes who begged to see their Padre once again. But the main vigil was at our church. A full company of priests turned out in black and white. It was all candles and baskets of hand-woven rosaries and boxes of tissues in all the pews. When the service was over, the priests opened the Parish Hall and served coffee and food to a line of mourners so long that they had to keep the church open until the funeral next day.

I came to church very early and picked a corner to the side and out of sight, well out of the way of the family and closest friends. But the open coffin was carried to that corner and set down right in front of me. Gazing at Father K. was a gentle kind familiar experience, like seeing a perfect sepia photograph of his own cherished grandfather. Sitting right up close in the shadows with the banks of flickering tea-light candles was in its austere way a beautiful experience.

But meanwhile, on that last Sunday, at the top of the steps at the end of the line, one last petite elder wrapped up her long story of personal distress. Father bowed down to see her eye to eye. “Of course I will do that. And… apologies, but — remind me of your name?”
When she made her way down the stairs, Father’s supporters circled his back with their arms and turned him toward the Priory.

“Hard to believe this is the end,” he confided to them in pure open wonder. “But I guess it is.” He gave a worried look in toward the vestibule, and murmured a question.
“No no,” the men told him. “Church is empty. We’re just locking up.”
“But someone else…” he ventured.
“That’s everyone,” they assured him. “You’ve talked to everyone today. Let’s go back to the Priory. They’ve all gone home.”
“One more,” he said, anxious, dogged, scanning around. “One more, last of all.”

In murmurs and arm clasps, his care team gently guided him to come along.
But “Somebody’s out there,” he whispered. “Somebody. Somebody…”
Behind the door, I finally poked my head out of hiding.
The men blinked at me. “Would you like to come out of there,” one of them asked, “and say goodbye to Father?”

Father K. shook off the men supporting him, and turned to me. Each precarious step took all his concentration; each step rocked his frame. But in the grip of some enormous force he kept on walking, on his own, reaching out with both arms. His alabaster complexion and the fine silver of his hair set off his eyes: dark, enormous, pupils dilated from morphine into absolute black.

Our hands met and gripped together.
Father gazed and gazed, searching my face as if I were the last living being in the world. Laboring for his next breath he delivered a message, as if he’d saved it all this time, and all for me:

“I am sorry. But. I. Have. To. Go.”

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1/17: Chute-ing Star

First, take stock.

Grab an expired SALE price tag and a golf pencil. Jot down whatever’s running low: cranberries, pomegranates, bananas, green beans, satsumas. Get the handcart. Wrench open the door on the walk-in cooler. In through the clear heavy plastic insulating sheet, slit into clacking slices that slap you in the face and drag themselves over your clothes. Pull the string for the 40 watt light bulb. Step from wood slat to wood slat in the shadows, reading the waxy cartons: Golden Girl, Tru-Blu, VitaBee. If new cartons of stock got stacked on the older squashed cartons of the same item, you move the new shipment to one side, load the old shipment on to the handcart, move the new stock back to the floor, shove your shoulder into the door, duck through the clacky slats, and hang on to the handcart while it eases down the ramp. Watch you don’t tip the whole caboodle at the corner where the linoleum wore off the floor. Customers and their kids will stand right in front of the cart and won’t see you, no matter how much you say “Scuse me!” But if you sing it makes them nervous and they’ll move. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” works fine. Put the handcart back for Jasper in Bulk.

Rake those green beans to one side and pour the new cold beans on to that green astroturf base, then pile the older beans on top. In the snow pea bin, pick out the green beans that strayed over, and put them back where they belong. Same drill with the other stock. When the cartons are empty, flatten them out for the loading dock.

Stack up the satsumas in a pyramid. Of course, when you’ve got the pyramid mounded all nice, that is when everybody wants to buy a satsuma. Then you’ll have to pile up more because everybody wants fruit from the freshly made pyramid, not the same exact fruit from a bin running low. If you’re too busy to pile the pyramid again, stand with your back to everyone and wave your hands over the bin. Same thing happens; customers will come right over to whatever bin you just paid attention to.

But that’s too much like fooling people. So just go get more satsumas.

Okay. Stocked up.
Now take the water bottle and spritz the leafy greens. Get some crushed ice from Mac the Knife in Butcher, and sprinkle it around the medium-fragile things like broccoli and peppers. Make sure the plastic bag dispensers have enough bags. Empty the garbage. Take out your box cutter and trim those brussels sprouts when you have a minute. Check the tubers and roots, because they get limp when they dry out. Tote them to the back room and drop them in the soak sinks until they perk up and you can put them out again.

Then, start all over. Take stock. Get the cart again from Jasper in Bulk.

At closing time, dunk the burlap cloths in the soak sink and load them in the bins and take them out front; tuck the burlap in all over the roots so they stay fresh until tomorrow. Then haul the delicate leaves and whatnot into the bins and stack them in the walk-in cooler. On the aisle, sweep off the rubber mats. Roll the mats out of the way. Push-broom the floor. Unroll the mats. Empty the drainage pans into the utility sink and scrub the slime out of them. Put the pans back under. Scatter some more crushed ice. Drag out and unroll the plastic drop cloths to cover the display bins, and you’re done.

General tip: Loose clothes in layers, because you’ll get too overheated and also too cold. Rubber gloves slow you down and get full of water anyway, but galoshes are good over shoes what with all the water from the soak sinks. These surplus khaki drawstring pants and khaki turtleneck are from Kenmore Army Navy, they’re $5. Calcutta Quality Wear has these long black tunic dresses full of pockets for box cutter, price cards, and pencils. The pushcart guy at the farmers’ market has these big thin white cotton shawls; I keep this one wrapped around my head and neck like Lawrence of Arabia so when you take cartons to the dumpster you can bite the edge and keep your teeth out of the wind chill.

Most of all, pay attention to the people. There’s all kinds, and they have stories going on in their lives and heads, and often all they want is a little attention.

Especially on a holiday like this. So thank you for lending a hand in Produce.

_____________________________________

That was how I planned to talk to my assistant, in case I ever got one. I pictured somebody right alongside, helping out. Like the angels who helped St. Isidore with plowing, only instead of fields in Spain we had our basement with low ceiling and blinky fluorescents and a long staircase with the sparkly tarpaper treads coming loose and a street door going ka-slammo every ninety seconds.

This was a big night, full of shoppers. They weren’t your brisk serious cooks who showed up at opening time with shopping lists; those all came and went the week or two before. Tonight it was students and young couples and kids, and people of all ages who like me enjoyed having a place to go on a holiday. Shoppers were drifting around discussing what to eat, standing in separate aisles calling and waving merchandise (“Howzis?”), giving each other rides in shopping carts, helping themselves to seedless grapes. Sometimes couples joked to me about his terrible taste in food, or her using up every pot and pan in the house. These little foraging and nesting displays were fun to watch; but I did feel the contrast between them and my status of having nobody to forage with myself. That’s why I was working Christmas Eve, hoping to cheer up by serving each person who came my way.

At the next counter, sturdy Mack the Knife from Butcher with his long hair and sleek black bandana was coaching Peter from Dairy, our gentle bespectacled lacto-vegetarian.

Mack the Kn: Now to carve this here beef hunk…. Anything I need to know about you, Boy, before I hand you my sharpest cleaver?

Peter: Mm… you do kind of remind me of my stepdad.

Mack: I remind you of him? (Thoughtful pause) You’re getting this dull spoon instead. Now WHAT is that racket?

A customer seemed to be shouting for help.
I dropped the Brussels sprouts, closed the box cutter, dropped it in my pocket, and ran to the front. At the top of the stairs, our only passageway in or out of the store, there was a petite elderly lady in an old fur-trimmed coat and knitted leggings. “Is GRECH NAUGHT?” she called to us, gripping the bannister in the freezing wind. “GRRRECH NAAAUGHT.”

Mack got there first, wiping his hands on his apron. “The hell she say?! ‘Grape Nuts’?”
I stared at her, chafing my hands to get some feeling back. My brain ticked helpfully like a gambling machine in an old cartoon with fruit pictures spinning in the windows, until a row of linguistic lemons spelled a jackpot. “Greek,” I realized. “It’s Anglicized Russian. Grecheskie orekhi?” I hollered back at her. In Russian it means Greek Nuts. That’s “walnuts” to us.

“Grecheskie, grecheskie,” she sang out joyfully, waving her little knitted handbag as if her cruise ship were coming in to port. I ran up the stairs and stood a step beneath, letting her lean on my shoulder. It was a long painful walk down for her, step by gasping step on the loose sparkly stair treads. But she nestled into the circle of my arm, pouring out in Russian her relief and happiness at finding herself understood and in friendly company. I walked her across the store, steering around the missing linoleum, way over to Bulk. Jasper was on cigarette break (at least his combat boots were, pacing outside the cellar window), so I got her a plastic bag and a bin sticker for the cashier. She asked me to pour out exactly one single handful of walnuts and close the bag with a twisty-tie and price.

I wish now that I’d bagged the nuts and beelined to the cashier to buy them for her as a Christmas gift. But it didn’t occur to me; my wallet and knapsack were locked in the Manager’s office, the Manager with her office keys was on a ladder changing the blinkiest of the fluorescents, the line at all cash registers was 20 shoppers deep, and I was AWOL from my Brussels sprouts and frantic to get back to my post. So I handed her the nuts and wished her a good evening.

But wait: My Russian visitor could not quite see the bin label. How much were these nuts per pound? I read her the price.

“SKOL’KO? HOW much?” she cried. “For a handful of GREEKS? Why, Gristedes Neighbormart sells Greeks for 11 cents a pound LESS! You made me walk down all these stairs! You lured me in to trick me with outrageous prices. I could have broken my neck! And on a holiday!” In tears of vexation she slapped my hand from her elbow, threw the walnut packet on the counter, and charged up the stairs.

I beat a retreat to my peaceful cooler to sop and dredge the burlap.
By then, like the tubers and roots in need of soaking, my spirits and energy were starting to flag. A spontaneous single person’s prayer came to mind:

“Dear God,
this Christmas,
could You please let me not be
the loneliest person in this whole store.
Thank you Amen.”

Then with the burlap bins I got back to the floor.
Couples still frolicked with wagons of food and flowers and wine.
Our Manager screwed in the new light bulb, climbed down some shaky portable aluminum steps, and walked away with the ladder on her shoulder. Peter and Mack were still at their male bonding banter. Jasper and his combats boots flashed down the stairs and loped back to the bulk bins. Tinsel still glittered and waved on the acoustic ceiling tiles. Children scampered by gripping headless marshmallow Santas in red tin foil. The store DJ, Krista in Whole Body, changed the music CD to a hit from The Pogues.

“The boys of the NYPD choir /
Still singing ‘Galway Bay…'”

I scooped up the tubers and roots, bedded them on crushed ice, and wrapped them in wet burlap. I straightened my tunic, hitched up my belt, stretched out my spine, and blew on my hands and clamped them up under my arms to get some feeling back.

“Fashion accessory?” said a soft pleasant voice behind me. It was a tall fair handsome cleancut young man with bright eyes and a shy friendly smile. He was eyeing my belt; my brown wooden rosary had slipped out of my pocket and was hanging looped by its cross on the belt. “Punk rock style,” he explained.

“Not this rosary,” I laughed. “Strictly functional.”

“I’m glad,” he smiled. “So is mine.”

And so we talked, one of us with an armful of plastic bags of nuts and berries, and the other in galoshes dripping on the floor. We reminisced about Catholic things that made us happy as children: his first time as an altar boy serving at consecration, my happiness on each third week of Advent when the priest and the sanctuary are decked in pink, his Sodality of Mary boys’ club in Jesuit boarding school, my rare chance when the church was under renovation to come peek into the sacristy where girls don’t get to go.

Then in all quiet earnest he confided something. “Our Blessed Mother appeared to me.”

“She did?” I had a lifetime of practice being a courteous listener for perfect strangers who walked up and told me their life stories. I was also raised to see any and all attention from a man as a compliment. Besides, traditional Catholics will take at least a second look at even primitive naive reports of saintly apparitions. This man’s approach was unusual, but his story seemed quaint and nostalgic, and his behavior seemed friendly and polite.

“She appeared to me last night,” he assured me. “In a dream. She said she was sending me a godly modest wife this very day, for the feast of her Son. She said ‘You’ll recognize my handmaid because –‘”

“Mary in Produce. Come in, Mary in Produce,” Mack yelled over the loudspeaker. “Git yer crushed ice now afore I lock this joint up. Over & out.”

“Mack in Butcher — right away!” I hollered.

“Wait — your name is Mary?” asked my visitor.

“Yes, nice to meet you. Gosh, got to run and close up my aisle.”

“You take your time,” he said. “No rush. I’ll be waiting up front.”

At the utility sink I was scraping slime from the drainage pans when our Manager walked in after putting away the ladder. She was a willowy poised young woman with a radiant smile. She ran the coop with assurance and ease; like all good leaders she circulated among us, zeroing in on our problems and lending the right hand at the right time.

Standing at the utility sink, I told her half in humor and half in shyness about the Catholic shopper and his dream. Back then, I’d never heard of a man walking up to a strange woman and saying “Divine intervention has chosen you as my mate.” (Gavin de Becker writes books about overtures like this, and the safety precautions women can take in response.) I was sure that the Manager would laugh as part of our shop-closing banter.

But she dropped her smile and stood very still. “You say you’ve never seen this man before. But he’s waiting out there now, saying that you are his ideal spouse? Because of a dream?”

“About the Virgin Mary, yes. He’s at the front stairs. Tall, denim coat.”

She took a glance out the round porthole windows on the swinging doors. “Stay here. Right where you are.” She arrowed out and came back with Dairy Peter and Butcher Mack. “Mary and Peter. Out the dock. On the double.” She threw her van keys at Peter’s chest, and tossed me my knapsack and sweatshirt. “Take her straight home; see her in the door of her house. I’ll close up Produce tonight. Mack, you’re coming up front with me.”

Peter hustled me out of the cooler and back to the dock. Behind us, up front at our only customer door, there was a murmured voice of reason interrupted by a primal howl of panic. “My wife! Bring ME MY WIFE! She’s taking me home to her room tonight!”

“I’m doing what?” I whispered to Peter.
Peter was busy unlocking the loading dock. In one upsy-daisy he swung me on to the dark empty ramp. On the steep incline, with its rows of loose wheels set on edge like belly-dancer cymbals, I gripped the edges and hoisted myself along. With admirable strength and agility Peter flung himself up over the side of the chute, and shoved my ample frame up and away toward the planet surface. I emerged on my elbows, on to frozen pavement and cheeseburger wrappers and previously owned bubble gum. Peter stayed behind to padlock the dock after me, sprinted out the front and around the block with the van, saw me home and in my front door, and rushed back to Dairy.

At home, my sweet contemplative accountant roommate was back from visiting his fiancee and her family. Lying comfortably next to the radiator chewing spruce gum, he glanced up from his book, took a look at me, adjusted his glasses, took a second look, and said “Wha hoppened? Wash up; dry clothes. This is a job for COCOA.”

He bundled me in his car with two thermoses of hot chocolate, popcorn, and blankets. Scraping the windshield and turning on the heater he hit the road, singing Cindy Kallet’s “Marblehead Neck” at the top of his fine tenor voice. At a sheltered lakeside cove he parked the car. In our blankets we tapped ice bubbles with our shoes and listened to hissing phragmites and migrating voices crossing the midnight sky. He skipped flat rocks on the ice to chime and chime and chime in migratory voices of their own.

At first all I felt, other than cold, was that Christmas creche-to-crash letdown, the sense that one has Missed Out on the holiday that everybody else is celebrating. But at least my spontaneous prayer had been answered: clearly, I was not the loneliest person in the store that night. Besides, I had a boss and two trusty macho sidekicks on my side, plus a roommate who gave up a warm radiator and “Prairie Home Companion” to forge out in the cold and give me a nice drive. That was a lot to appreciate while munching the soft squeak of popcorn on molars snf hopping up and down in a blankie.

In rosary terms. Christmas is called a Joyful mystery, but not called a Happy one. Mary and Cousin Elizabeth expect miraculous babies, and Mary sings a Magnificat over it. They don’t know their babies will be arrested and put to death. They don’t know about Herod and the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the flight into Egypt, or Simeon’s prophecy about the sword in Mary’s heart. There’s her bridegroom who wants to “put her away privately” (where??), the unhappy people wandering around for taxes and censuses, the innkeeper overrun with customers, the tired donkey. It’s a disaster.

So in all that context of away in a manger, this up a down chute was a pretty traditional holiday after all. Maybe the Christmas story is all about people thrown together with their dreams and flaws, wandering to implausible places of strange appearances and stranger gifts. One soul journeys down to Hades, evades Greek-bearing giftors, and rises in triumph from Gristedes Neighbormart with nut bargain in hand. One awakens from his dreams to find his Virgin’s virgin. One sings along a beachfront (“… Marblehead Neck, by the ocean we’d go…”), chiming skip-rocks to ring on ice. One with visions of companionship strives with sackcloth and roots, and disappears out the cat door.

Night for marvels. Divinity in a child; bells in a thrown lake stone.

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11/27: The Thief of Charms

Scene 1.

Bank of Foods, they call it. Open every month. First Saturday. 

Get the shopping cart and grocery bags. Button your collar! That parking lot gets icy. Windy too.

They open up at nine, so we’ll save our spot at quarter to eight. If we show up at nine for nine, maybe the queue gets in ahead of us and they’ll run out and then what? No food, is what. 

Here comes the church ladies in their cars. 

Tell them “We come in please NOW.” Tell them we’ll just stand there and watch them unpack.

What’s that they said? No? Well, we’ll ask again next time. 

No reason they can’t let us stand there early and pick up things and just have a look.

Okay, they’re opening up. About time. Watch your step on that floormat.

Take off your hat or you won’t feel the benefit when you go back outside.

There they are, all smiles. Bank ladies and Little Father in black with his apron on, waving from the kitchen counter, turning on the kettles for coffee and tea. 

We can just point and nod. They’ll bag it up. 

This table here is canned tuna and hash. That one’s the jars: green beans, little onions,  pepper slices, apple sauce. That there is cans of milk and juice. Then cookies and candy. Then toilet paper and soaps. That last table is your spaghetti and porridge. And stashed away in boxes they have real cereal too, with vitamins built right in.

Got everything? Take more of that butterfly pasta. Tie it to your walker with my scarf.

Don’t trip on that floormat. Button your collar. Look both ways; okay, we can cross. 

Got your Senior Home key? Wait wait, here’s mine. I’ll get the door. 

Here we are. Don’t let the cat out. Pile it all on the table; I’ll stack it on the pantry shelf behind the ironing board. Line up all the labels facing out so the little pictures and names match up. 

I got us some headless fish in cans with twisty keys. Oh, you got these olives with bright pimiento eyes, and canned peaches with syrup and no pits. Here’s chewing gum and the crackers with herbs on top. 

It’s all good for something fancy when people drop by. But it’s mainly for the grandkids when they stop in after school. The kids want their English television, and they won’t sit around waiting for a hot meal; they want to help themselves to snacks from the same packages that they see on TV commercials with their favorite shows. Food that looks like TV — that’s what matters. 

That’s how we let them know how much we wait for them to visit, and how we wish we could talk to them and understand a word they say.

And for that, standing in a parking lot is no trouble at all.

________

Scene 2.

The whole caper sounded doubtful from the start.

But the church lady squadron worked me over for weeks, with “Come on down you’ll love it,” and “We have such fun.”

Finally I promised them I’d stop by once before Thanksgiving.

They gave me the whole rendezvous MO: Front door, not back. Don’t let them see you.

Down in the parish hall HQ, it was all hands on deck.

Lolly proudly hung up her new food-handler certificate. Bett and Ellie set up tables. Nan fixed the doormat so the guests could drag their carts in without tripping. Tizzie brought warm socks and mittens as gift surprises for everybody’s shopping bags. Father waved hello from the open kitchen in Tizzie’s polka-dotty apron over his long black cassock and cross. He was heating cocoa and cinnamon buns for the team before heading upstairs to vacuum the church for Vespers.

   “Finally!” the volunteers hailed me. “The ladies will hear a welcome in their OWN language! And you are gonna love our babushkas. Dearest lil’ sweethearts. So appreciative. When you talk to them, we all want to watch their cute faces light up.”

Oh-nine-hundred hours minute zero. Show time.

Lolly manned the doors. 

Clients fell in across the threshold gripping shopping carts, wiping their feet, casting an anxious but practiced eye at our selection. 

I was Table 6, Porridge Groat Gruel Central, with classic down-home favorites on display for them to snap up. My welcome speech was practiced and polished with the right agricultural terms memorized for all the goods. To deliver my lines, I called to mind our professors and lecturers from college days; their diction and intonation and phrasing, and how well they could work a podium. “Zdráaavstvuyte, uvazháemye gósti!” I sang out. “Hello, respected Guests!” 

The women froze in their tracks in a jaw-dropped collective double take. 

   “Today,” I declaimed onward, “in our Breakfast Food department we have an assortment…”  

   A kto zhe ETO vpustíl? Who let THAT in?” one woman gasped. 

   “Does she think she’s running the place now?” 

   “In OUR bank of foods?” cried another.

The volunteers beamed at me and at the clients, waiting for the magic to kick in.

   “Say Honey?” Tizzie whispered a hopeful hint. “That is Russian you’re talkin’ to ’em. Right?”

I stopped, looked around, and tried again. “Here we have rolled oats, whole oats, Scotch steel-cut oats, corn meal, rye porridge, brown rice cereal, pearled barley, farina —“

   “Girl! What did you do with it?” one woman challenged me. 

   “Where’s our food?” chimed in another.

   “The REAL cereal!” one demanded, rapping her cane on the floor. “Go. Fetch it now.”

   “Dear Friends?? It’s all here,” I assured them. “All the cereal we have is out on the tables. Look!” I waved it trophy-high — buckwheat, the very Tsarina of all grains.

 

They squared their shoulders, hands on hips.

   “Listen to that one go on. ‘Buckwheat,’ she tells us. So brazen. Right in our faces.”

   “Palming off old food that real Americans don’t want,” said another.

   “Deceiving senior citizens,” cried one. 

   “Shame!” they shouted. “Discrimination. Elder abuse!”

   “Hiding the real cereal.” One neighbor shook her head. “Cheating us with this cattle fodder.”

   “Probably took it for herself, and sells it on the side.”

   “Feeds it to her own kids.”

   “Ha. She wouldn’t know from feeding a child. Probably never had any.”

   “We want the GOOD cereal,” they agreed. “With extra vitamins. Made from fresh fruits in all the different fruit colors: Yellow moons, green leaves, orange stars, pink hearts.” 

I turned to the church ladies.

   “Hey Tiz?” I asked her. “They want yellow moons and pink hearts. Is that Lucky Charms??”

   “Sure, Hon. We had Lucky Charms for a couple months. Just tell the ladies we’re all out.”

 

The Lucky Charm deficit news did not go over well.

   “‘All out,’ it’s called? That’s one word for it.” They glared at me. “As if!”

   “You expect us to dish up this village stuff to our grandchildren?” the babushkas challenged me. “If we do, our kids WILL NEVER COME AND SEE US ANY MORE.”

With that battle cry of anguish, frail-looking neighbors stormed the barricades. 

For the next sixty seconds, we volunteers flung our upper bodies flat on the tables to keep bottles and jars from cascading to the floor. One patron nosedived for a milk crate under a plastic tablecloth; she surfaced with a cry of victory, waving a packet: “I found it! Real cereal!”

   “That’s not cereal!” I tried to tell her. “It’s confectioners’ sugar morsels, to sprinkle on cakes.” 

The women were done listening to me. They grabbed for dear life, seizing armfuls of everything in reach: birthday candle holders, tartar sauce, pork rinds, candy corn. One shoved aside a table and seized Bett’s shoulder bag, making off with a lemon Bundt cake and a bottle of sparkling cider as Bett cried “Stop! Please! I need that today for my niece’s wedding shower!” 

Bett and Ellie threw my coat around me, and with thanks for my help rushed me outside.

I stood there blinking while the parish hall doors boomed closed. I picked my way up the icy drive, across the street, past Senior Home, along the dumpster-lined alleyway, and up four flights to my studio room. I pried off my boots, hung up the coat, wrapped up in a blankie, and settled in the rocking chair to look out the window.

_______

Scene 3.

The chair rocked along, swinging the view in peaceful little arcs.

Panes and frosted glass. Everyday convoy of base-thumping cars in the alley with the usual resourceful businessmen banging dumpster after dumpster with crowbars to shoo away the rats and hook out sellable items. Sootish yellow brick outlines of Senior Home on the corner. Across the street, the church with its main onion dome, its topmost cross, the little upper windows shaped like high risen loaves of bread. It was a lovely sight on clear evenings, when a westering sun flashed east and lit the cross gold; but today it all looked weary under the blank noon sky.

Maybe I should have known better.

Our patrons came from purges and wars, collectivization and blockades, labor camps and famine. In the lifetime and memory of the food bank patrons, Leningraders under siege made tea from handfuls of topsoil dug from under a bombed sugar factory, or pancakes out of glue fried in crankcase oil, or boiled leather cut from boot tongues. Even in the 1980s there were shortages; a cashier at a grocery had the power to hide the best stuff behind the counter and pass it out the back door to her friends. Now on top of all that, here was some American with nice intentions and language homework, showing up trying to help and just getting in the way.

But the real problem was, I wasn’t supposed to let it get to me. 

Father called these discouraged interludes of mine my Terrible Mantle of Self-Consciousness (in gentle fun he would say it with a droll Buster Keaton face, clutching the collar of his cassock as if its sheer weight were dragging him down). At Food Bank that day, Father was upstairs beating carpets on the balcony; otherwise he would have sailed right in to the fray. With a firm cheerful word he would have charmed our patrons and calmed things down. Then once everybody was in a good mood and on their best behavior, he would have put me right back to work.

After all, work was what Father did all the time himself. The church had four services a week, and more at feast days. Father came early and stayed late, usually with his lovely wife and kids, and they’d bustle around with hedge trimmer or vacuum or bread-baking mitts or the citrus oil-&-scraper for polishing the beeswax off the candle stands. Whenever I lingered in the church to pray or just to sit and think, Father would sing out his greeting for me: “Quo vadis? Where are you going — to The Kingdom?” He turned workaday tasks into spiritual lessons. For every person who stopped by, he gave them a chore to tackle, and a special story told just for them. 

One day while washing the windows, Father gave a special story to me.

It was all about Elder Macarius the Great of Egypt, one of the early 4th Century Desert Fathers. One time Elder Macarius sent a young disciple to the cemetery, to spend the whole night cursing the deceased who lay there in repose. Then in the morning, when the weary and bewildered follower returned, Abba Macarius sent him back for another night, this time to loudly sing the praises of the townspeople laid to rest. After that, Abba asked his exhausted disciple, “What was the effect of your harshest reprimands, or highest praises? Did your strong words make the dead more dead than before, or bring them back to life? Be as they are! Abide in peace with others, whatever they may say of you.” Ending the story, heading off that day with his bucket and squeegee, Father encouraged me to “Go and do likewise!”

Today’s whole pratfall was one more proof that I wasn’t cemetery-ready just yet.

No wonder Father had prayed over the question and decided early on, to hold off on my interest in ever being baptized Orthodox. “In this case, we will make haste slowly,” he smiled. Then he paid careful attention to see how well I merged in with the rest of the congregation. But even with eight years of Liturgical services I didn’t seem to merge in, and church functions generally found me backed into a corner, peering anxiously and trying to follow the thread of multiple interactions. “You are so terribly determined to not be hurt any more,” Father said gently. “But the kind of safety that you look for? It’s in The Kingdom. And you’re not there yet. And neither am I, or any of us. And church is not a pleasant escape; it’s an arena.” The only solution, as he kept urging me, was to plunge in to the living Body of Christ, that awkward and mess-ridden morass of human interactions, elbowing and jostling around with imperfect people and forgiving one another and ourselves. 

 

I left the rocking chair and with a heavy heart fixed some millet kasha with rice milk, sweet butter, and raisins. Then munching on my kasha, I was finally able to smile: our food bankers were missing out on a nice lunch here, the signature staple grain of the Soviet Army (“Served every day for two years,” a veteran told me in Moscow; “but as a cold lump, with two flavors — lard, and grit.”). The ad team at General Mills missed out too. They would have loved to film today’s excitement for their next campaign: “Lucky Charms: Worth A Good Donnybrook.”

_______

Scene 4.

Six weeks after, on New Year’s Eve, Lolly called with another of her glowing business ideas.

Outside the parish hall, a local grocer had just dumped off a big box of half-pound tubs of fancy whitefish salad. The whitefish was perfectly good, but stamped with a sell-by of December 31. Somebody had to pass it out right away, and according to food bank regulations it had to happen before midnight. The church ladies all had family and festivities to fuss over; they needed a messenger now, to walk hundreds of dollars of windfall over to Senior Home. The ladies figured I could just knock from door to door, and tell the residents what this food was and who sent it and how they’d need to eat it right away.   

I held the phone, twirling the little cord loops around my fingers, gaping dully as the window panes hissed with small but menacing crystals of precipitation. I’d been counting on a hot bath and flannel nightie, Bible study and early bedtime . “Now Lolly. If your babushkas panicked at having some spy show up at their food bank, how will they feel if the spy tracks them down to their own doorsteps? I’m not confident about putting my foot back in that culture bee’s nest.”

But, the bees were all in Lolly’s bonnet. There was no reasoning with the woman. 

Finally to get this whole disaster over with, or at least prove that it couldn’t be done, I jotted down her list of two or three dozen names and apartment numbers. In the dark church parking lot I shoved the box step by step up the icy driveway. I considered dragging it to the dumpsters for the entrepreneurs in the car convoy; but finally I made it to the door of Senior Home. I hacked open the carton by scouring the corner against the brick edge of the building, stabbed open the sealing tape with my apartment key, and fought the whole caboodle on to the elevator. Then setting up the box in the middle of the hall I knocked on doors, holding up fish tub labels to the security peepholes and hollering in Russian “Food Bank sent me.” 

Through each door crack, apprehensive faces peeked through security chains. 

They took in my little speech, and blinked at the whitefish label. Then something dawned in their eyes. This was a role that they all recognized and cherished: the relative or friend who by some miracle hits upon a queue and snaps up a lifetime supply of gauze pads or bobbins or typewriter ribbon or #5 wire or support hose, and buys enough to deliver to everybody.

Fish salad, yet! Something nice to treat the kids when they stop by to ring in the new year!

Doors slammed. Chains fumbled open. I was in. 

Some neighbors just stared at the whitefish with trembling lips. Some gripped their heads or covered their eyes. Some shed silent tears. Some threw their hands skyward or around my neck, stroked my hair, kissed my face and hands, tugging at me to come inside. I promised them I’d come right back after the fish was delivered and safely in cold storage. 

Finally the box was empty. After that the evening was a blur of doors, with neighbors in the hallway calling greetings back and forth, waving their fish salads overhead. And inside (don’t let the cat out!) it was studio after studio of photograph albums on doily-covered TVs tuned to classic seasonal American films, tiny blinking holiday trees, whistling kettles, knocking radiators, interested parakeets looking on, and of course authentic Food Bank treats — bagel crisps, Necco wafers, maraschino cherries. Naming me their Little Daughter, their Sweetness, their Goldilocks Angel, their Dovey-Dove, they saw me off at the elevator wafting goodbye kisses at the random fishwife who showed up out of nowhere, who nobody recognized at all.

_______

Scene 5.

At eleven going on midnight I minced my way over the slick pavement, hood pulled tight against the sleet. I tromped the box flat at an alley dumpster, and climbed the four flights to the rocking chair by the windows.

A rising wind lashed the bare trees and phone wires, cursing and praising the quick and the dead.  Senior Home was all alight with family celebrations. Distant fireworks etched out hopeful skyscrapes in pink and green. At the church, a moment’s gleam of moon shone against the upper gold cross. The cupola and little breadloaf windows glowed with warmth and light. Over the onion dome, the copper storm clouds sped past. The cathedral sailed through the wild sky, both beacon and ship for the travelers who came for bread or for prayers, in fresh and ancient hopes of the journey to the Kingdom in a New Year.

 

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11/1: Ark Church at the Movies

The Ark Church film company, “Кинокомпания Ковчег,” is introduced here in the post before this one.

A You Tube browse of the Arketeers shows them performing in a long mix of short films and songs. But for these ready-for-eternal-time players, the main feature is the 2+ hour movie Не убиваете меня, пожалуйста! (Don’t Kill Me, Please!), acted in Russian Sign with Russian voiceover and no subtitles.

What’s to like about this film?

1. For someone interested in faith-based beliefs, ethics portrayed in popular media, Deaf culture, and all things Russian, this offbeat discovery is an absorbing and surprisingly enjoyable little film.

2. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors (women are everywhere, talking constantly — and not about men, but about their own reproductive options and choices, and how they expect the men to support them).

3. It takes place in an exclusively Deaf community with no hearing people around to make waves. Being Deaf is never portrayed as a problem. In fact, it’s not even an issue!

4. Nobody needs a cell phone or computer to get through their lives. When they have a question or problem or just want some company, they just knock on the nearest door and start Signing away.

5. When people pray in this film, they really seem to be praying; prayer appears to be something that they actually do in real life. As with Dinah in Adam Bede, prayer inspires them to say sensible things in a perceptive way that comes across as believable and productive.

6. The personable enthusiastic congregation members and their graceful performance Sign make the film heartfelt, sweet, and linguistically interesting. But first…

Little Disclaimer:
As always, I’ll give away the ending.

Big Disclaimer:
This is a teaching platform of dialogues to warn young people away from participation in abortion, and to turn them toward Church fellowship. The anti-abortion message (perhaps brought to Russia by the American founders of this congregation?) is drummed across with maximum emphasis, repetition, and drama.

Bigger Warning:
The film is abruptly followed by street interviews with random accosted passersby, eliciting their views on abortion as if this would settle the issue once and for all. Then at 2:10:00, with no viewer warning (not even a heads-up for child viewers!), there is a slide show of aborted fetuses. Not only that, but a youtube search for this title in Russian will also call up in the sidebars another Russian film with a similar title and the same message, with even more graphic imagery. This could be so disturbing to any number of people that I did not include the film link here. The viewing audience will be Russian-speaking and Russian-signing internet users, and they probably know how to track down anything anywhere.

DKMP is a view of one apartment building with three young Russian couples (one married, one newlywed, one engaged) over a period of nine months as their decisions on abortion determine the shape and quality of their lives. All three couples are faced with the issue of unexpected pregnancy at the most inauspicious time in their young relationships. The plot is almost all dialogue, with everybody talking all the time. The women tell their stories, air their opinions, and share their deepest hopes and dreams with and among their partners, their families, their neighbors, their local congregation, and self-assured women doctors at the local obstetrics clinic.

The film opens with Couple 1 heading out to church, Couple 2 returning from their wedding for the home reception, and Couple 3 leaving the building for a date. Couple 1 offer Couple 2 a Bible as a wedding gift. But Bridegroom 2 pushes it away with a sneer, saying that he and his bride don’t intend to enter a monastery, boasting that God will play no part in their plans. Couple 2 walk off to their wedding feast. (Here some expressive back & forth film cuts contrast Couple 1 with their sweet congregation signing and singing hymns, while the rowdy wedding party members sing rowdy songs before passing out unconscious face down in their salad.)

At church, the remarkably downcast pastor announces that he was prepared to preach about joy, but that God has alerted him to preach on sorrow instead. He announces that someone in today’s congregation will suffer affliction that very week, and asks everyone to open to the book of Job. Couple 1 return home to pray together and reassure each other and their little girl, that no matter who in their circle has been singled out for affliction, they will keep their faith in God’s help.

Couple 2 begin their married life as the new husband playfully tosses new wife onto their big double bed. Literary foreboding alert: The two of them accidentally overlook and crush the little baby doll decorating the middle of the bed.

Film cut to Couple 1, carefully tucking their very living baby doll into her bed and then retiring to their own bedroom (which appears to have two single beds pushed to opposite walls) to share their sorrow that Husband 2 so brusquely pushed away their prayers and gift.

Next day, Couple 1 wife and little girl are happily waiting for Dad to come home. When the doorbell lights flash, they fling open the door without looking or asking to find out who is there. (This represents a dramatic departure from a whole tradition of Russian cinema, where “Who can that be at the door?” casts a dramatic shadow over the whole plot.) Fortunately, it’s Papa, who for some reason rings the bell before entering his own home. Mom and daughter have big news for him: God is sending the family another baby! The doorbell flashes again; the wife’s parents are here to visit, but Grandma doesn’t take the news very well. She launches into a fine speech of alarm, giving Grandpa no chance to express his own feelings, demanding (in front of the kid) that the couple go for an abortion. She dares them to test their God and find out just how well He is going to take care of them.

And say, how are those newlyweds?
They’re popping open champagne and having a candlelight dinner. Wife 2 asks whether Husband will still love her when she is old. He insists that she, among all women, will remain the most beautiful and will never grow old.
Then Wife 2 asks why he pushed away the gift Bible.
Husband demands that she stop associating with Couple 1. “I want my freedom!” he concludes, and distracts her with a wedding gift: tickets for a one-month cruise, to start tomorrow.

Next day, before departure for the honeymoon trip, Wife 2 explains to Wife 1 that they are going to postpone having children and spend some time living for themselves. As the travelers flit away, Child 1 asks “So does that mean when I came along, I was a burden to you and Papa? And what does it mean to live for yourself?”
Wife 1 explains that no, all children are a gift from God. And people who live for themselves simply have not learned the happiness of living for Christ. Off they go to fix dinner.

Girlfriend 3 is heading home in the park.
Three men attack her.
Husband 1 comes along, sees the situation, and intervenes. Girlfriend 3 escapes, but the men stab Husband 1 in the back.

Back at the 1 House, wife and daughter are waiting dinner for Papa, who is never late and always keeps his promises. Then the doorbell flashes again. Wife 1 flings open the door.
But it’s Girlfriend 3, bloody and hysterical. Instead of calling the police, she reports (right in front of the kid) that she has been raped and that Husband 1 is still lying “in the park.” Since St. Petersburg is full of miles of park, there is no time to lose. Instead of calling the police to help or to start an investigation, Wife 1 runs out to start searching in the dark shrubbery, a place which we already know is not an optimal setting for young women alone. She finds Husband 1 just in time to receive his final blessing.

For the next 10+ minutes, Daughter 1’s wailing will obscure the dialogue while the glum pastor tells Mom to bear up. Then he and everyone else in the church walks off and leaves her and the child standing alone at the grave.

At home, Grandma makes the abortion speech again (in front of the kid), telling the expectant mother to pack two bedsheets and a robe and come with her to the clinic — because, after all, why rely on God? Where was God when Husband was killed in the park?

Wife 1 chooses instead to go for an ultrasound to rejoice at her future baby. In another room at the same clinic, Girlfriend 3 receives an abortion referral with the level of kindness and counseling one expects from a toll booth operator giving change on the Jersey Turnpike.

At Grandma’s house, Wife 1 is talking to Girlfriend 3, asking her to keep the child and give it to her, Wife 1, to raise herself since Husband 1 gave his life for the sake of this child. Grandma walks in with a sweeping speech about money, and how she and Grandpa can’t afford to buy even a baby carriage, even though the hardwood detailing and glass-front cabinets in their kitchen must have cost a packet.

Couple 2 comes home from their trip. Wife 2 has something serious to tell Husband 1. He makes sweeping extravagant promises to listen and give her anything she asks, even the moon. She announces that their “life for themselves” is about to be joined by a new little one. He demands that she get an abortion. Wife 2 pleads with him to let her keep the child, dreaming of a baby and its little smile and happy face. He insists that the child and its noise, unattractive personal habits, and expenses will “destroy our youth” and “send our plans to the devil,” while ruining her attractive figure.

Warning: This is where the movie gets intense, and is likely to be quite disturbing to children and to women affected by abortion.

With a heartbeat soundtrack, Wife 2 has a dream of a little girl saying “Don’t kill me, please!” Husband 2 gets her a sedative and promises to take her to a top-notch clinic, perhaps one which provides bedsheets.

Girlfriend 3 discusses her new plan, to keep the baby.
Boyfriend 3 is upset that Wife 1’s request has come before his own feelings and objections, and departs in great upset.

Meanwhile, a church member is reading in her Bible the phrase “Bear one another’s burdens.” God inspires her to visit Wife 1 to give away her baby carriage and baby clothes. In a nice scene at Grandma’s house, the women embrace in a mutual shower of blessings. The generous visitor leaves, and Wife 1 settles down embracing the new baby clothes for a tender cry.

Wife 2, holding a birthing magazine, is still having dreams about an unborn daughter promising to be a good girl and to love and obey her in everything. By the light of an artificial fish tank full of fake fish, Husband 2 demands that Wife choose between him and the baby, and rips up the birthing magazine. Next day, he takes Wife 2 for the abortion. Afterward, the two walk home through a playground. She is surrounded by happy playing children, and dissolves in tears. Back at home, Husband 2 praises himself for solving her problem. The two argue in front of a backdrop of artificial flowers painted on the wall, to contrast with the nice flowers grown by everybody else.

Wife 1 brings Girlfriend 3 to a surprise church baby shower.
All the women spend their evening treating each other to tea and goodies, gifts, affection, games and excited stories about their pregnancies. They even enact what might be quite an old custom: the women play a spontaneous trick on their imminent guest; they all grab balloons and place them under their shirts so that their expecting mom will see that pregnancy has made the rounds of the whole group. The delighted guest strokes and pets the balloon tummies of her friends, and all adjourn for prayers and tea in a room full of natural light and lavish potted African Violets. In this atmosphere, Girlfriend 3 is welcomed with her pregnancy and feels for the first time that sharing motherhood with these women strikes a responsive chord in her as well. This makes her want to attend their church.

At church a friendly Deacon offers the 2 women handmade baby beds. Two parents bring their infant to be blessed, and their downcast pastor explains the importance of children to Christ, who stressed that theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

At home alone with the fake fish and plastic flowers, Wife 2 is drinking heavily from a bottle with a black label, seeing apparitions of her would-be daughter all the time, and gripping a pregnancy-sized cushion under her shirt for consolation. Husband 2 in apologetic mood comes home with a nice bouquet for her and finds that she has hanged herself in the bathroom, still holding the surrogate baby cushion, with a note “Left to be with my daughter.” (To his credit, the church member in this role does a plausible acting job here. Most movie characters happening upon a disaster will put their knuckles in their mouths and scream. He takes a minute to stand there dumbfounded trying to wrap his mind around what he is seeing, just like a real person would.)

The suicide angle is the concerning aspect of the film. It does not seem to represent or serve the genuine spiritual and emotional needs of women who have had abortions. Nor does it recognize the Soviet women who had abortions and went right on fighting to survive famine and war, struggling to nurse their relatives at home, and carrying the country with their labor and endurance. The approach called to mind the “Scared Straight” program in the States, which took at-risk youth and placed them for several hours in a prison with selected convicts, who would berate the visitors about the realities of prison life. The program was supposed to make prison look so unappealing that youth would simply resolve never to commit a crime. Naturally, the program recruited at-risk teens, those most likely to be raised without role models of self-control, at an age when the decision-making of their brain’s frontal cortex is not even fully developed, in a milieu where they can not even escape their circumstances or companions. Research showed that terrifying these teenagers may in fact have undermined their worldview enough to make them even more vulnerable to risky behaviors. In the same way, the message “After her abortion, this woman succumbed to marital breakdown, addiction, madness, and fatal despair” seems an unlikely way to inspire and galvanize a young girl to take heart and seek other options.

The film wraps up with Wife 1 walking her infant in the new baby carriage to church with Girlfriend 3. Boyfriend 3 joins them with a peacemaking bouquet. He expresses his commitment to marry Girlfriend 3 and raise the child together. Back at Grandma’s, Baby 1 is being a basic all-round bundle of joy. Grandma tells her daughter “Thank goodness you did not listen to my advice.” Grandpa finally gets his first word in edgewise: “Children are a great happiness.” Granddaughter 1, who’s been a radiant expressive little trouper through this whole production, chimes in with the last word: “Yes, we are a gift from God.”

It might have made for nice texture if the film could have shown a bit more that it takes only one to keep a baby, but two to make one to begin with. Where is the outreach for men who carry a sense of guilt for their role in these pregnancies? Maybe the story could have shown Husband 2 coming round and joining the church too. What about accountability and redemption for those three hooligans in the park?

But all in all, this could be a springboard for some interesting discussions. And even at fifth viewing the film left me in tears. It makes me look forward to my morning bus commute tomorrow, when the toddlers will hoist themselves on to adjoining bus seats and promptly park their boots in the lap of my dress.

If God willing I make it back to St. Petersburg, I’ll go check out Ark Church for a visit and say hello.

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10/5: Ark Film Company (Кинокомпания Ковчег)

The Ark Film Company of St. Petersburg is known for creating short edifying films and songs for young people. The troupe is sponsored by the congregation at the affiliated Ark Church, which one Sunday years ago found themselves with Deaf visitors attending a service. The Church arranged for a dedicated volunteer to interpret the services. But unlike other venues offering Sign interpreting, The Ark didn’t stop there; they added an outreach for the Deaf community, and the hearing members began learning Sign too. They even cast their Deaf members to star in movies that Deaf and hearing family members can enjoy together.

Here is the letter “A” in their Dictionary of Christian Sign Terms.)

Here’s a sweet upbeat video in collaboration with the rock group Глас Вопиющего, meaning “Voice [of One] Crying Out” (as, “in the wilderness,” describing John the Baptist), performed by Aleksei Chernovolov. In English translation, the equally sweet upbeat lyrics run along like this:

“This song is for you, my friend;
this song is for me and for everyone around.
This song is about Him and about your dreams.
I know that you hear it….
This new song is about His love.
This new song — I know that you hear it.”

This calls to mind an interesting question. “Where is the Orthodox Church in all this? Do they have Signed services too?” They might, but compare the above song with a typical line from an Orthodox Sunday service: “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim, and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares.” Lyrical language like this during a two-hour Liturgy would make interpreting a formidable task. Besides, Russian Orthodox services even in America are not necessarily in Russian; they’re often in Slavonic, which was never a spoken language. Are there even Signs for that?

Advance disclaimer for the usual readers of this blog:
Ark films are Evangelical Christian morality plays of temptation versus virtue. The overall lesson is that young people who pursue immediate gratification instead of wise counsel meet disaster, while those who invite Jesus into their hearts and join a Christian fellowship (say, The Ark Church), recover and thrive and find terrific supportive friends. The moral dilemmas and character portrayals are stylized and emphatic. Still, the quirkily appealing homespun low-low-budget featurettes serve as a unique sociological view of the post-Soviet Evangelical Christian movement, and of linguistic and cultural conventions among the Deaf characters.

Here meanwhile are four Arkettes (one up front, three behind the scenes in flannel mittens) in a Signed puppet fable. The lyrics are lovely; I’ll probably translate them here at some point. That sweet silver voice is singer Tatiana Shilova:
“The Ballad of Three Sons” (Баллада о трёх сыновьях).

The main Ark opus, a two-hour film created in Sign and later dubbed in Russian,
is reviewed in this next post here.

Back soon! M

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4/27: Underfoot

The Artist was coming to town.

Our department was arranging it all: the airport welcome, the red carpet rollout at the college club, the public meet & greet; refreshments, parking, audio-visual aids, seating, all the fanfare. For one festive week he’d be on center stage, showing videos and telling stories of his past performances and the luminaries who worked with him over the years.

No wonder people liked him so much. He made a name for himself by doing 3 things well:
1. He mastered one traditional art form, as apprentice to the elders of a remote and insular culture;
2. He preserved that culture in new media and genres to form a fusion product that no one else thought to mix together; and
3. He popularized the result, making it understandable and accessible for everyone to enjoy.

That’s what gifted artists often do.
Michael Flatley mastered Irish dance, and sparked in flamenco and country-western and his signature 28 foot taps per second. Paul Pena forged through adversity to write blues songs that made money for other musicians, then taught himself throat singing (!) and put the two together to win the national singing competition in Tuva. (If you haven’t watched his work, here he is with Mr. Kongar-ol Ondar in documentary “Genghis Blues.”)

No wonder people were excited about meeting our guest. I was too, the first time he came along. So I created a little tribute: a quote from one of his own books on technique. I wrote the calligraphy on parchment-looking paper, with ornamental trim that looked like gold leaf but was really the inside wrapping from 3 Dove Bars. It looked swell mounted on a foam backing and shrink-wrapped at the copy shop. I offered it to him with a little speech. “…and so in appreciation, this is for you. I made it myself.”
He brushed my drawing out of his way and walked past me. But first, ace performer that he was, he answered back in a pitch-perfect imitation of my eager little voice: “And I could not care less.”

I stood there blinking, holding the picture to my chest. After that I kept to my place and stayed out of his way. I went on registering participants and confirming performance space and working with the caterers.

But then, between events, he seemed to find novelty and amusement in learning just what kind of assistant was handling his arrangements. He began asking me questions like these:
What is your alma mater?
What is the size of your alumni association’s endowment fund?
What performance hall events have you patronized this year? To what seasonal memberships do you subscribe?
What interesting local grants have been awarded lately to talented young performers? For what amounts of money?
Just how much do you know about my career?

He figured out soon enough that my participation in the fine arts ran to cutting up Dove Bar wrappers and playing Irish whistle tunes out on the office park bridge at lunch. The response he got from me was a bunny-in-a-headlight gaze that really means “Hoo boy, did I remember to give Eddie the Bagel Guy my cell phone number for when he shows up with our dozen dozen doughnuts at the loading dock?”

At a staff meeting in front of our upper-level colleagues, he asked me about the business management of the local sports team. To me it called to mind the scene in Remains of the Day, when Lord Darlington’s dinner guests liven up their evening by calling Butler Stevens on the carpet to answer questions about politics. The Artist and the upper brass enjoyed a good laugh. I just sat blushing and tongue-tied and thinking back on the words of a very good Orthodox priest, who told me “You wear a terrible mantle of self-consciousness. In interactions with people, it weighs you down.” I believed in Father’s point of view, but right then I just took my terrible mantle out of the meeting to go back to the office park and sit with the egrets.

Now the Artist was coming back to town. He was looking forward to his airport welcome, a comfortable car to the hotel, and fascinating shop talk with informed colleagues over dinner with a nice bottle of wine. But at the last minute, with his plane already on its way, the welcoming committee came apart. Everybody had something to tend to: sick child sent home from day care, car troubles, flooding pipes. None of the right people could go. That left the one with no kids or car or house to fix.

So in the early morning I set out to meet our guest, to escort him and his luggage on a crowded airport bus to his hotel, then to take him out on the town all day to cultural events. That is, if I could figure out where the culture was.

On the pre-sunrise bus, wedged in with airport workers and a passenger or two, I cradled my bag lunch and gazed at my anxious reflection in the window. How was all this going to pan out? How would our Artist feel about this personnel change? And how much was my alumni association’s endowment, anyway?

To shore up my spirits I took out my rosary and prayed through the sorrowful mysteries, hoping for inspiration.
Then, something happened.
In the dark rocking bus, to my tired vision and troubled mind, an overhead image flashed of the feet of Jesus crucified. To be clear, this was not the kind of spiritual illumination experienced by, say, the anonymous Lady living in the church of Julian of Norwich. This was only a plain picture of plain everyday reality, at least to a Catholic mind: that Jesus’s feet walked a path of service, and then were trampled and spat on and nailed to a cross.

Why did the image show only feet? Probably that was as much of the crucifixion as I could handle in that startling moment. (The cosmic joke of course is that after a lifetime of prayer before crucifixes in plaster, wood, paint, and brocade, the Catholic was surprised when all that contemplation actually started to work.)

But startling it was, to glimpse the physical implication of a sacrifice that I’d always taken for granted. It was like another revelation moment with some Muslim grad student neighbors who invited me over for supper. During the meal, one of the guys arrived home. He wanted to tell us his distress about a picture he had seen that day: Jesus wearing a Statue of Liberty hat with points all around it. The men came from a cultural heritage that had no public churches, no religious portraits at all. They asked me what it all meant. I explained about the crown of thorns, and why the Roman soldiers made one and put it on Jesus as insult and injury. My Muslim neighbors were appalled. They believed with all their hearts that Allah had intervened, rescuing the most peaceful prophet from crucifixion and assuming him directly to heaven. To them, this crown of thorns idea was a dreadful shock. “How can those people even THINK to do this to Issah al-Messiah, peace be upon him??” they exclaimed. The one who saw the actual picture was seized by a splitting headache and went straight to his room to lie down. The reaction of those young Muslim men was very moving for me. Back at home, at bedtime, I thought back to the times I enjoyed a laugh at The Onion and its spoofs about the Catholic church, showing Jesus working out at the health club or shopping for groceries, thorns and all. “How come I’m not the one with the headache?” I wondered. “Where has my empathy been all this time?”

Now the image of those battered feet stayed right with me, like the moon in a rearview mirror, fitting right in with all the other feet on that bus. This was mostly people on the early shift, lunch boxes instead of luggage, sturdy dark uniforms, murmurs in soft Spanish and Haitian and Somali, with a few Anglo women of 50-plus in skirt suits, a few teens with tinted hair. They were the baggage handlers, security guards, leaf-blower operators, concession stand baristas, custodians, and hotel cleaning crews. These were quiet tired-looking people, sitting still before being on their feet toiling away all day. And chances are, they weren’t forking over their minimum wage on custom orthotics or foam sole liners or disposable moleskin bunion pads or podiatry appointments for their comfort either. In the whole footbound underpinning of laboring people who bear up the weight of the world one step at a time, those feet on the cross stayed with the bus, feet that stood for us when they were no longer in any shape to stand up at all.

We trooped off at our stop, and headed into our terminal. The plane touched down. There was the Artist, standing right out in the crowd in a black silk shirt and black tie and dark glasses, jacket over shoulder, head up, scanning the terminal in anticipation of his welcome committee. For a guy who’d been traveling all night, he looked terrific.

With a little sigh, I started walking toward him. My posture began to shrink and my tongue to tie in knots. For an instant I thought of escaping on some escalator or baggage carousel, and running back home.

But those feet! Their bleeding battered image didn’t go away. Instead, they arrested my attention with a new idea: This is the condition of my own Lord and Master; then how should I expect people to treat me any better? And at that, the feet changed from an image to a physical feeling, an actual presence that was walking a mile in my own shoes. Then in a flash, they spread out across the terminal to walk in everybody else’s shoes of all the working people in sight. In their endurance, the disrespect thrown at them, the tasks they did to keep these planes in the air — they were all sharing in the tracks broken in on Calvary. I spun around, staring at this whole airport Via Dolorosa. When I looked again at the Artist, even he looked different.

He was still at the gate, but he had no way of knowing which direction his committee would come from. So he wore his best demeanor: photogenic from all angles, poised to take over and start entertaining. But behind his winning smile and knowing eyes, he looked (for just that moment) like a tired timid elderly man, one who without an audience didn’t really know what to do.

At that, some weight shucked right off my back.
Was it the terrible mantle of self-consciousness? Was it the chip on shoulder of my reverse class attitude? Whatever it was, I sidled up to the Artist with a soft unobtrusive greeting and a brief apology for the absence of his usual cohort. He tossed his head and gave me a droll dressing-down for not doing a better job of mustering the troops. But his verbal derring-do didn’t get a grip on me. With the new heft and centering inside my shoes (our shoes, really) his opinion of me really wasn’t my concern. I was there to serve, not to impress.

So I took the carry-on bag out of his hand, leaving him to grab the suitcase and follow me. We scrambled into the bus with the other passengers. The driver suddenly lowered the coach; before I knew it, my arm flew out and braced my companion’s back to continue on up the steps. As the bus set out through some poor neighborhoods toward downtown, we settled in with people just getting off the night shift.

At first he was all curiosity, taking in the view, critiquing the layout of the city. He mentioned a particularly large construction contract, asking me about a conflict of interest with stakeholders in the local government. I felt some regret that the upper colleagues weren’t here to answer him. All I could do was break out my box lunch, the raw vegetables and dried fruit and nuts and hummus sandwiches. “You ought to eat,” I told him; “we’ll be on the bus a while.”

As we sat there eating our apricots, something about him changed. He laid aside his usual verve and wit, and instead shared an open vulnerable fact: one of his best collaborators had cancelled his appearances and checked in to an alcohol detox center and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. “He told us he’d been depressed for years. How can a person who achieved so much be depressed? He’s at the peak of his career!”

So that’s how it went.
Stuck on the bus, we worked through our snacks and talked it over. He asked me question after question. But these questions didn’t put me on the spot and shut me down; they opened me right up. He wanted to know all about these AA meetings, about addictions, about how people get depressed, how they get over it, how he could help. Then it was questions about what keeps people going, and how they create meaning, and what they live for, and what they leave behind.

After that, we just sat there. Just sitting, just wedged in. And somehow the things I knew about him settled in like snowflakes to form a whole new picture. It showed a man working well past retirement age; a champion insomniac who wore out his staff and almost never went home to rest in his stately house; one who started out poor, and spent his life honing and honoring a craft. Most of all, he didn’t forget young artists, but shared his time and advice with them now, and his wealth in trust for them in the future. (Sure, his response to my gift was a little eccentric; but maybe instead of acting like a fan that first day I should have asked him for a scholarship instead.) He worked harder than I ever did, for long years. In terms of sacrifice, the real Underfoot servant here was him.

At our stop, we headed for his hotel to drop off the luggage. But halfway there he put down his suitcase and turned to me.

“You know,” he confided, “Honestly, I’d like to go lie down and rest. Would you let the office know that I’ll call them later this afternoon?”

“Sure,” I told him. “Air travel is tiring. You have a big week ahead; a rest is a wise idea.”

“I do hope you don’t mind. Thank you for coming to meet me.”

We both took a step forward at the same time and stood there in a big hug for a long minute.

“Good bye, Dear,” he said. “Take good care of yourself.”

Walking away, we both turned back at the same time to wave goodbye. He went to rest, and I went to the office and sat for a while at the bridge with the egrets and thought Well, you never know about people. They can surprise you.

After that, it was still chop wood carry water.
The Artist’s visits went along same as ever. I still met Eddie on the loading dock for our doughnut orders, still printed up registration slips, still ran to the copy shop to proofread invitations. I still couldn’t keep up with all the enlightened conversation whenever the Artist was in the room.

But from then on whenever we crossed paths, no matter who was lining up to have him answer questions or autograph his book, he’d always break away to collect a big hug from Dear before going back to his public, and on with the show.

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