Of Disability & Dreams

I have done something awful to my back.

It feels familiar, like the resurrection of an injury from 20 years ago when I was a very physical gardener. I remember my huge front yard in North Carolina, and my youthful zeal to conquer it and all of the stones just under the surface of the grass. I worked hours on end, hacking at the rocky soil so I could transform the flowerless landscape into something beautiful.

Then, it happened. I knew it the instant my foot hit the spade. I did something irrevocable.

In my egotistical desire to demonstrate that I could do all of this hard labor myself, I slammed my right leg down as hard as I could onto the shovel blade, thinking of nothing but defeating a large stone lodged in the concrete-like clay earth.

My lower back tightened into the stone I was trying to best. Fire-like aches shot down my left leg. I fell down and had to drag myself to a tree to try to stand again. I ended up in physical therapy, and managed to restore myself to basic functionality, but I knew. I knew what I had done would never be fully undone.

Today as I hobble about my house and try to remember all of my old therapy exercises, I remember a woman I met the same year I hurt my back. She ran the most beautiful garden center I have ever known, and I secretly wanted her life for my own. She had acres of family property that she had transformed into ponds, herb gardens, sculpture gardens, and sheep pens. Visiting her land was a spiritual retreat for me and many others in the community, and I coveted her lifestyle. I’ll call her Linda.

One day, someone told me that Linda had been a very successful CEO-type in New York in a financial services company. It turned out her property was her father’s land. She lived with him in a large old house, just the two of them. Such a dramatic U-turn in life begged to be explained, and eventually it was.

On a typical afternoon in the city, Linda walked into a telephone booth. (Remember those?) She was on the phone when a truck speeding out of control plowed into the glass box that housed her body.

And that was all anyone could say.

I never knew how severely she was injured. I never knew how long she was in the hospital, how many surgeries she endured, or how close she came to death. What I did learn was that she could not be vanquished. She put all of her strength into her recovery, looked around and apparently said, “OK, what’s next?” She rebuilt her body and her life. She created a place of beautiful dreams from a blood-spattered nightmare.

There is so much we can never know about other people, what they want, why they are where they are, who they will become when they have to look at the death of their first dreams. It comes to us all, that realization that we have to let some things go. The question is, can we take up new dreams, and fight just as hard for them as we did for our first-borns?

I like to think the answer is yes.

2 Women. 1 Town. 10 Stories.

If you love to write, then you know how it goes.

One day you’re writing, drinking French wine and smoking imported tobacco in a garret, showering the village with sheets of your glorious thoughts and tales.

The next thing you know, Old Jed’s a Millionaire is about the most brilliant thing you can think of and you find yourself hiding from your own blog and taking pictures around town of things like this:

What to do….what to do….you love to write. You love your blog. You need inspiration.

I say try what my friend Karan and I just did. Go to lunch, talk about everything under the sun, maybe even talk about writing, but don’t over-analyze it.  Then drive home from lunch while the sun shines, listen to some music, blur the mind’s eye and — ta da! Receive a gift of energy and inspiration.

Karan and I both cherish writing, and we both find ourselves thinking and talking about writing a whole lot more than we are actually WRITING.

So here’s the deal: Starting on Monday, we will trade stories about life in Charleston, West Virginia. Our writing prompts to ourselves will be simply our experiences around town. Those experiences may be sad, happy, funny, enraging, or anything at all.  What they have to have in common is that they are real.  One of us will post, then punt to the other writer. We will share each other’s stories with our networks and encourage your thoughts on our posts.

We are going to tell you some real stories, and we hope you will come along for the ride.  We call it Esse-a-Go-Go.

Are you ready?

Let’s go!

Wonderland: Radar Love

It is an honor for me to share via Esse Diem writing by my college friend Lucia, who often posts her sermons and thoughts on faith as Facebook notes.

Lucia’s meditations were inspired by a  parishioner’s tacking on the bulletin board an article about the novelist Anne Rice’s announcement that she remains “committed to Christ” but is “quitting Christianity.”  (Note: I’ve shortened the sermon considerably for this post.)

Radar Love

I really enjoyed Lucia’s angle on the idea that, deep down, many people act as if God can’t keep up with modern life.  Regardless of your spiritual background or perspective, if you believe in a higher power or a spiritual energy that influences our lives, it’s a good self-reflection to consider if you hold that intelligence at arm’s length.  For example, do you think God understands blogging?  Social media?  It can get pretty funny when we process the human limitations we place on the idea of God.

Don’t miss Lucia’s line on “the art of loving dangerously” towards the end.  It’s a small reference, but a very powerful idea.

Lucia Kendall Lloyd is the priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Heathsville, VA. She holds a B.A. in English from Davidson College, an M.A. in English from Middlebury College, an M.A.R. in Religion and Literature from Yale Divinity School, and an M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary. Prior to her ordination, she taught English at two girls’ boarding schools and a community college. She lives in Tappahannock VA with her husband and two daughters.

Luke 13:10-17

The group of students was asked to answer quickly, without reflection, the question:

“Do you think God understands radar?”

In nearly every case the reply was “No,” followed of course by a laugh, as the conscious mind realized the absurdity of the answer. But, simple as this test was, it was quite enough to show that AT THE BACK OF THEIR MINDS these youngsters held an idea of God quite inadequate for modern days.

This little experiment was conducted back in the 50’s, and it now seems almost quaint to think of times when the cutting edge of modern technology was…radar.  The author pursues the topic with the teenagers:

“Subsequent discussion showed plainly that while “they had not really thought much about it,” they had freely to admit that the idea of God, absorbed some years before, existed in quite a separate compartment from their modern experience, knowledge, and outlook.

There are probably many people today with a similar “split” in their mental conceptions. The “Grand Old Man” is treated with reverence and respect –look what a help He was to our forefathers! — but He can hardly be expected to cope with the complexities and problems of life today!  If the absurdity of this “split” makes us laugh, so much the better.

The person who conducted it was J.B. Phillips, who writes about it in a book with a wonderful title: “Your God Is Too Small.”

But what intrigues me most about this episode with J.B. Phillips and his conversation with the teenagers and radar is that it is exactly the attitude Jesus himself challenges in today’s gospel reading.  Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  A crippled woman shows up.  Jesus takes the initiative, calls her over, and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  When Jesus lays his hands on her, immediately she stands up straight and begins praising God.

But what is the response of the leader of the synagogue?  He is, Luke tells us, indignant.  He is indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, and he keeps saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”  The important point in this passage is that Jesus is ready to roll.  He sees that the woman needs to be healed, and he sets her free from her ailment immediately.  The leader of the synagogue wants to slow Jesus down.  He says everyone needs to come back later, on another day that’s not the Sabbath, and Jesus needs to wait until then to heal them.

The great irony here is that human beings think we’re the modern ones and that God is old-fashioned.  But scripture shows us the real Jesus, the Jesus who is ready to move into the future, to go ahead with acts of love to change this woman’s life forever, setting her free immediately.  Who’s the one who is stuck in the past?  It’s not Jesus; it’s the leader of the synagogue, who insists that Jesus should not do anything new, that Jesus ought to do things the way they’ve been done in the past.

When God moves into the future, people get indignant.  And how does Jesus deal with the indignant people?  Does he give in to them and say he won’t do anything controversial if they don’t like it?  Does he say he’ll wait until everyone agrees before he does anything new?  Does he tell the woman, “I know you’ve been suffering for eighteen years already, but you have to wait longer because some people will be indignant?”

Jesus instead turns to the indignant man and says, “You hypocrites!  Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from bondage on the Sabbath day?”  Jesus says, “you give blessings to animals, how can you tell me to withhold blessings from people who have been putting up with so much suffering for so many years, and who now finally have the chance to be free of it?  How can you tell me to make them wait longer because you’re feeling indignant?  You hypocrites!”

Yeah, God understands radar all right.  And God understands quite a few other things that humanity needs to catch up on.  One of the things Jesus understands is the art of loving dangerously.  Jesus is willing to move ahead to perform an act of compassion for this woman even though he knows how vehemently indignant his opponents will be.  Well, if they’re going to be indignant, let them be indignant.  They’re not going to hold Jesus back.

As Luke tells us, “When Jesus said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

There are people who think that God can’t quite keep up with modern life, when in reality we’re the ones who have trouble keeping up with God.  But there are also people who are excited about following this Jesus who has the courage to love dangerously, despite the opposition from people who are indignant and want to slow him down.  There are people who respond to gifts from God not by criticizing, but by praising God.  There are people who join the crowd in rejoicing at all the wonderful things God is doing.

God is not just ready to roll, God is already rolling!  Let’s celebrate!

Men Who Eat Biscuits

I watched Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (2009) Saturday night, and was awed by his performance as a 57-year-old alcoholic “has-been” country singer trying to find a reason to live.  Bridges won the best actor award for this role last year, and I was remiss in not seeing this sooner. 

Jeff Bridges as Bad Black

Bridges is one of my favorite actors, and is a man who (much like my beloved husband) cannot disguise a core of masculine beauty, despite his best efforts.  His character, Bad Blake, somehow manages to shine glimmers of someone uniquely special and attractive, even grizzled, overweight, and covered in his own vomit.  To some degree it feels like he is trying to become as unappealing as possible to repel human interest so he can drink and die in peace, yet he is failing miserably.  Everywhere he goes, the people he encounters still want his attention and his story.  Part of the trouble is that he is encountering fewer and fewer people. 

The movie bills itself as about Bad’s ongoing struggle to deal with the success of a young man he once mentored who now is a mega-star out of Nashville playing to crowds of thousands, while Blake is playing bowling alleys.  I didn’t see this angle as key.  It was mildly interesting but seemed to be only a vehicle to drive dialogue about Bad’s real issues.  He abandoned a young son 24 years prior, and hasn’t written a song in decades.  He has almost no money, and what he does have he drinks.

Crazy Heart is the second movie I’ve seen in which the male lead is drinking himself to death.  The first was Leaving Las Vegas (1995), with Nicolas Cage.  Cage’s character Ben utters one of the most poignant statements on alcoholism I’ve ever heard when he says, “I can’t remember if I can’t stop drinking because my  wife left me, or if my wife left me because I can’t stop drinking.”  In contrast, the line Bad delivers that stuck with me after the movie was his statement to a four-year old boy, “Whole worlds have been tamed by men who ate biscuits.”  This was delivered with humor, but was like a laser cutting through all of his dysfunctional garbage.  Inside, this character clearly was still a gem who would get out if he could, he had just lost his way and had no idea where the door was anymore.

Both films are Oscar winners, and both use alcoholic disintegration as a lens into human pain and struggle.  LLV is a powerful movie, one that successfully explores some very difficult elements of the human condition; but it also presents a man who has no interest in disconnecting his life from alcohol.  It is very dark, and very depressing, and Ben’s problems seem so self-absorbed and self-centered it was difficult for me to have true empathy for him.  The human condition can surely be dark and depressing, but it can also be much more inspiring, and Crazy Heart shows a man on the edge of losing his options who grabs control of his life back in a very intentional and resurrectional way.  Directed by Robert Duvall, Crazy Heart shares some thematic relationships with The Apostle.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t ruin it for you with much more detail.  I will say that it does one of the best jobs I’ve ever seen of honoring characters who make unexpected choices, and of following them through the fallout from those choices to a thoughtful conclusion.  If you love character as the real story in film, you will like this movie.

Gardens and Goats

To two West Virginia bloggers who inspire me, I say a bright good morning and big “thank you” for your influence.

W. Va. Fur and Root combines a love of the natural world with a healthy skepticism about people.  The writer is well-read, loves food and wine, and is passionately loyal to her friends and family.  She reminds me of the old saying, “I won’t start a fight, but I’ll finish it.”  She’s willing to be intentionally vulnerable, and as such is always strong.  The humor is righteous, and the world she creates online is magical.

I wrote this of Connie in December 2009 and it still holds:  “I’ve come to believe her personal hideway is a corner of my own mind, a room where I can really go from time to time to both escape my own realities as well as find comfort in our shared human experiences.” 

Where else can you find Faulkner, barns, pop culture and accountability in spades?  Maybe one other place…

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

May I present The Goat Rope.  There is a degree to which it would be a crime to attempt to explain this blog.  One really should experience it on it’s own terms, and I hope you will.  I just popped over there for a visit and saw this line:  “One reason I’ve been strip mining Thoreau’s Walden these days is…..”  This is totally normal talk for Rick, and I love him for it.

On this blog, you will grow to anticipate Quaker theology, marial arts, razor wit and deep mellowness blended with a fierce and bright-burning quest for justice.

It might be a coincidence that both of these writers live on rural land, co-exist with animals and gardens, read like most people breathe, and have not an ounce of pretense or charade.  But I’m paying attention, just in case there is something to it.