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Friday, July 22, 2016

The Year of the Squirrel

Image result for acorn image      Mark 2

Yesterday was my birthday.  One more year and I'll be 40, that dreaded year where "over the hill" actually starts to mean something.  And today I'm thinking about newness, about what that means as we get older, about what birth is and how we crave it even as our bodies start to show their wear: varicose veins (yes, I have them), wrinkles, weak joints, wiry, silver hairs that stick out oddly in the part of our hair and even our eyebrows.

Newness takes on a fascination it didn't before, and we see people older than us struggle to be re-born. Every semester I teach stay-at-home moms who are now college freshmen. My mother's step-brother left his career as a scientist and his position as a university professor to become an apprentice to a renowned painter.  He's working on his own paintings, hasn't sold any yet, but every day he shows up, eager to be taught. Every time I talk to him I think, we are never done becoming.

It's been a strange summer.  We've done the usual things: hiked in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains; camped, fished, and kayaked at Flaming Gorge; watched Monday night family movies on the grass at the city's amphitheater; barbecued in my in-laws backyard with great-grandpa simultaneously chewing a hot dog and hollering for my toddler to come give him a hug.  But something odd has been afoot in our own backyard, literally.

At the beginning of the summer, as I was walking out to water our kitchen garden one afternoon, one of the neighbor kids who'd grown tired of jumping on the trampoline and was playing with a firetruck on the patio ran over to tell me that we had a squirrel stuck in our window well.  I looked in, and sure enough, there was a frantic little squirrel running around in circles down there with the rocks.  I wondered if he was feeble, since I've seen squirrels scale brick walls all the time, but this one didn't seem capable of getting himself out.  I climbed in and after about two seconds of trying to get him out with my bare hands and yelping each time he scurried up my arm, I wised up and put on a pair of gardening gloves.  He was so skittish it took about five minutes to finally just scoop him into my hands and then toss him out.

By the time I crawled out and brushed off my pants, I was tired and sweaty and a little embarrassed by all of the squealing I'd just done in front of kids. I watched the squirrel dash haphazardly around the toys and tables on the patio, completely ignoring the dozens of trees we have around our yard, and then, to my dismay, he ran right back over toward the same window well at top speed and fell back down.  It was almost cartoonish: a little Wylie Coyote running over the edge of a cliff, holding there for one second, and then dropping into an abyss.  I climbed back in again, yelped, cursed, and flung him out.  He scurried over to the carport and hid there behind the Acura.

"Don't go near that squirrel," I warned the kids. "He's crazy or rabid or just incredibly stupid.  All of which means he's dangerous."

We turned back to our usual business and forgot about him.

The next day as I was cleaning up from lunch, my son hollered to me. "Mom!  He's back in the window well!  That squirrel is back!" Luckily my husband was home, and, in his dress shirt and tie, he crawled in and repeated the same routine of scoop and toss (minus the squeals) and once again the squirrel scurried around the patio and promptly fell right back in.

After screaming in laughter and frustration, we finally got him out and once again hoped it was the end of it.

That night I heard screeching noises coming from just outside our window.  It was too dark and I was too tired to look, but the next morning I peeked in and sure enough, there he was.  Only this time he had burrowed into a corner and lay there twitching, the little bag of his belly moving in and out slowly with each breath and no sound coming from him now. He was determined to die there.

My husband decided we didn't want a squirrel corpse rotting by our vegetable garden, and in a last hope to reunite him with his own, he scooped the squirrel into a shoe box and drove him a few blocks away to the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains where there are miles of trees and thousands of squirrels.  Maybe his own could take care of him somehow.  My husband drove home and we all washed our hands of the whole affair.

The next morning my son screamed that there was a dead squirrel in the window well.

As if that weren't odd enough, a week later we found two newborn squirrels lying on the ground just outside of our covered porch.  Hairless and fragile, skin stretched over their eyes, freakishly large heads, they looked alien.  My toddler kept calling them baby giraffes.  My oldest thought they were shrews.  We stared at them for a minute, clueless about what to do, when suddenly an adult squirrel raced over, picked up one with its teeth, dropped it in its paws, licked it all over, then picked it back up by the back of its neck and scampered into the trees.  All of that took about 5 seconds. Mesmerized, we slowly backed away so that it could return and claim the second one too.

Over the next week we found two more newborn squirrels, same place.  I've searched all over and can't find a nest, can't figure out how they got there or why, after living in our house for 10 years, we are seeing this happen now. It's raining baby squirrels. The old are choosing their place to die. There's a whole world at work I can't quite understand.  

So what on earth does this have to do with Mark Chapter 2? This is where Jesus tells his adversaries that "no man putteth new wine into old bottles" or "seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment." New things have to start fresh. The old dies and the new begins and makes its own way to become what it is fully meant to be.

I guess that goes for the Mosaic Law and Jesus's gospel as much as it does for, say, the life cycles of small animals and even the way we, as humans, evolve. Not that we don't draw from the old.  We always do.  But what is new, what is born or re-born, has to live in its own way.  As much as we try to rescue the old, revive it, it is determined to die. It's time.

I'm determined to appreciate the new.  Birthdays always make me reflect on my life more, and that can be productive.  Sure, it can be depressing when I look at the list of "101 Things to Do Before I Die" that I wrote when I was a teenager. Globe-trotting, as it turns out, is far more expensive than I'd realized. But I'm so glad I included things like "learn how to make strawberry shortcake from scratch," which is pretty do-able in a day.

I hope I keep introducing myself to the new, that I remain open, interested, malleable. That, when it's time, I let the old in me burrow its way into a place to die and let the new, as odd as it may seem at first, as gangly and vulnerable, find a place to thrive.  

Europe in three weeks!  Strawberry shortcake today.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

To have a normal life

Image result for paper star

Mark 1

Last month kids all over the country celebrated Dr. Seuss Week, dressing up in red and white striped hats, gathering around the librarian to read Green Eggs and Ham, laughing still at all those clever, surprising turns. I helped out with the festivities at my sons' school, and one of the activities we had kids do, aside from vote for their favorite Seuss book and dress silly all week, was to decorate a paper star and write on it what they want to be when they grow up, in the spirit of Oh, the Places You'll Go!

After I gathered these stars from the teachers, a gaggle of PTA moms met to help hang up them up, and we laughed reading what the kids had written.  Astronaut, ballet dancer, fashion designer, Navy Seal were typical answers.  Some tear-jerkers said things like "be a teacher and change lives," and it made me think what heroes these teachers are to the kids they encourage every day.  A handful of truly brilliant children wrote "candy maker," an occupation I surely would have pursued if I'd ever been bright enough to think about it.

In the midst of our talking and laughing and reaching for the scotch tape, someone found a star, uncolored, undecorated, that said simply, "To have a normal life."  It was written in kid print but was steadier, more fine, so was clearly someone from the older grades, and since there was no name written on it, the anonymity made it all the more haunting.

Someone laughed about how it was probably a kid just comparing their little dramas to everyone else's, like we all do, imagining they're always left out of the fun stuff.  A little pity party kids often throw.  But I couldn't help but wonder if it was something more.

The first chapter of The Gospel According to Mark opens with John the Baptist dressed in what sounds like really uncomfortable clothes and surviving on a diet that, in the best of terms, could be called spartan and unvaried.   Which is generous, of course.  Locusts have never been what I call appetizing.  Thank heavens for the wild honey.  It's as if he's camping, but permanently, living a kind of exile in the wilderness, away from the comforts and company most people crave.  He spends all his time telling people to repent, that God's coming and they need to shape up. This doesn't seem entirely normal.

Then there's Simon and Andrew.  They're out in their boats fishing, doing their jobs, and Jesus walks up, and in one instant, talks them into walking away from everything they know and following him, a total stranger.  Then the same thing happens with James and John, who not only leave their nets but their own father.  There's nothing normal about that either.

And the rest of this chapter describes the situations of two more people: a man with "an unclean spirit" and a leper. These two men had long-term troubles, something that crippled them for life and made them outcasts to some degree.  In fact, no one in this chapter appears to be hanging with the usual crowd.  For better or for worse, they're weirdos.

Years ago I worked in a bookstore during graduate school, and I read a lot of book titles that came to the shelves.  One title still makes me laugh.  It was a book called All Families Are Psychotic, and even though it was fiction, a novel about a made-up family and all its troubles, it still spoke to me a truth that I've personally found comforting.

The family I grew up in I always considered the best (i.e. coolest, funniest, most creative), and there were oddities about us that made me particularly proud: no other girl's dad took them on twenty mile backpacking trips, no one else's mom was as beautiful or as talented, no one else's brothers were "wanted" by police at 5 years old or borrowed watermelons from neighbors or went fairy hunting with them up Logan Canyon.  And no one else had pets like us: tarantulas, newts, salamanders we'd caught in the wild, a python, a parrot, and Madagascar hissing cockroaches that really did hiss when you picked them up.  The neighbor kids approached our house the way you would an exotic petting zoo.

But we saw our fair share of frustrations, even heartaches.  As a teenager, I once confided in my friend some of our troubles and she didn't believe me - she thought I was exaggerating - so I stopped telling anyone and just kept things to myself, which was often lonely and heavier than I could always manage. I knew an adult would've believed me.  People talked about us, I was and still am sure of that.  

The older I get, the more I realize that our experience was not all that rare.  It might not have been the usual, but it wasn't unheard of, and besides, other families had troubles that, it turned out, we didn't.

Couched between these verses in Mark about troubled souls and lepers are verses that reveal they aren't the only ones suffering.  When people find out what Jesus can do, they come in throngs until, at one point, "all the city was gathered together at the door."  Suddenly everyone's a weirdo, everyone has problems they are begging to get fixed.

I still wonder if that student's star was a chance to express a deep-seated frustration at their own limitations and the unfairness of life that can feel (and be) crippling.  Each struggle is real and difficult.  At some point, everyone pines for a normality that feels out of reach.  For some kids, any kind of normalcy would be miraculous.  But it does help to realize, often later in life, that everyone is carrying their own burden and that even our version of abnormal is its own marvel.   After all, the miraculous moments in this chapter come when the abnormal happens: men strike out for a new life, either from the fishing boats to the streets or from physical impairments to healing.  Those moments, those transitions, are why we know them.  They are people who, thousands of years later, give us hope.

I just wish I knew how to find that student - walking the halls, stressing over tests, wondering where they fit in, just like everyone else - to tell them too.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Leaping Out

Image result for firehole river images

Matthew 28

It's Easter next week.  Two days ago my husband and I spent the day cleaning up the yard: dirt piles, rocks, and leaves on the lawn and in all the flower beds.  Our yard consists of two lots, both covered with trees - scrub oaks that scatter acorns and leaves all fall, and pines that drop their needles into thick piles - so the workload in the spring is heavy and monotonous.  My husband finally got rid of the giant dirt pile that's taken over our patio since last summer, when we dug out window wells to remodel our basement.  For months, the boys would climb the dirt pile, finding cool rocks and throwing them all over the patio or burying toys and then scavenging for them with beach shovels.  Their friends would walk the pointed ridge of the dirt pile like a tightrope, and scoot down on their bottoms, leaving a little bum trail.  Little Cooper took to eating some of that dirt, using the same beach shovels as spoons.  But ever since the window wells were finished and our indoor remodeling started coming to a close, that dirt pile has just needed to go.  Covered in snow for months, I forgot about it - it was just another contour of white out our bedroom window - but now, fully exposed, it's a blight to our backyard.  We wanted to clean things up for Easter, for an egg hunt, and it was finally good weather.  It was time.

I've thought about timing this morning as I write this.  For months, this last chapter of Matthew has hung around my head like a little cloud.  I had no idea what to say about it.  I wanted to be didactic and profound, to get it just right, because this is the final chapter for Matthew.  And what happens is a pretty big deal.  

According to Matthew, Mary Magdelene and "the other Mary" come back to the sepulchre after their Sabbath and outside it, sitting on a stone, they find an angel who tells them Jesus is gone.  This is the sum of everything Jesus has taught and would require the sum of all the faith his believers had shown so far.  But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself moving into defense rather than celebration.  After all, you either believe Jesus was really the Son of God or you don't.  You either believe he came back to life, or you don't.  I have no empirical evidence to convince anyone of what I believe.  But, really, they don't either.  

But something stood out to me.  Matthew says that Mary Magdelene and "the other Mary" left "with fear and great joy."  That those two emotions co-exist makes perfect sense to me.  In order to find that great joy, we generally have to step out into the fear.  And, in this life, they often remain together.  Fear comes because something great is at stake, something we don't want to lose.  And joy generally comes when we find or see or begin to comprehend that what is most precious to us is, in fact, ours or, really, that we are part of it, since it's often bigger than what we can hold or "own."  It's the yes and yes and yes where we feared the no.  Sometimes we carry both the yes and the no in our hands, trembling.  That's how I see the Marys, traveling back to the disciples to bring them the news, news so outrageous, so fantastic they won't believe them.

Timing can be everything in this too. There are times in my life when I've been more willing to risk the fear to get to the joy.  I was better at it when I was young, maybe best when I was just coming into that phase of life when the freshness of everything - the physical world, boys, my own internal life - was at its peak.  At just this time, in my first summer of college, I moved up to West Yellowstone, Montana with my four best friends.  

We all worked at Eagle's Store, and most days we spent making malts at the old soda fountain or selling t-shirts and trinkets or fitting cowboy boots for the flocks of tourists that came through town on their way to see the magnificence of Yellowstone.  We were stuck indoors those long hours while it seemed everyone else was out fishing on the river or hiking through meadows of wildflowers or sauntering down the streets of town, lingering in the doorway of souvenir shops, money in their pockets and a Dairy Queen blizzard in their hand.  

Life for us really started after dark.  We'd race back to our cabins from work, change into our swimsuits, grab the one towel we'd packed for the summer, and pile into a red Chevy Cavalier and a silver Geo Storm with a few of the boys from Jacklin's Fly Shop. And we'd drive past the empty park ranger station and on into the park. We’d wind along near the Madison River until we came to the small canyon drive that shot off from the main road.  And at the bottom of the cliffs that framed and hemmed in the Firehole river, we parked, stepped out into the night - no sound but the slamming of car doors, the music of the river, and our own laughter - and climbed the rocks to a ledge.  Twenty feet?  Thirty feet?  How high were we up in that moonlight above the river?  And what about those nights when the moon had waned into a thin sideways smile?  All that darkness around us and a long drop below.   

Our friend Nick would sit on a large rock below us and shine a flashlight onto the river.  One by one we would step out onto the edge and focus on a light that, in Nick's hands, jerked a little over the moving water.  The darkness all around and one small circle of light.  

Sometimes I feel like, in order to defend our own faith, we hold ourselves at gunpoint.  Give me the evidence, we often tell ourselves. More often I find that my faith returns when I've let go. But it's not as if it's all sunny and obvious when I do.  It's still work, often harder work. And the light is just enough to get back to a place I can hold onto.  And then it starts over again.

He is not here.

And then...

For he is risen.  

With fear and great joy.  

We would climb to the top and leap.  Yes, there was a light, but by the time we reached the bottom, it held us only for a moment and was gone again.  Instead, we swam in the dark, sometimes against a strong current.  The thrill of that falling we still carry in our bones, and the moment of standing under a starry sky, the river water dripping off of us and our breath returning in excited gasps. That was just as real as the darkness around us.  And the wonderful thing is not that we did this at all, but that we did it again and again.  That we still do.