“I Love the Alphabet”

A truncated version of this, titled “The”, appeared on VineLeavesPress.com (“50 Words Give or Take”).

As a little child, I felt what I now know to be awe and excitement when the little shapes that clustered on the pages of the simple books my parents read aloud to me, began to fall into meaning.  The earliest word I recognized was “the”.  It seemed to float serenely amid a sea of angular and rounded shapes.  That realization was profound, and I was happy whenever and wherever I found my new word-friend.  I was fortunate that the world of reading, as well as writing, opened quickly for me.  When I entered first grade at age five, I already knew how to read.  

“Birthstones. Deathstones”

Writing class assignment for the prompt “gift”.

Many husbands like to buy gifts of jewelry for their wives.  Nothing remarkable about that, right?  I may be biased, but here’s a lovely story about my husband and two such gifts to me

The first gift took place when my son Alex was leaving for college.  That time is an emotionally fraught time for so many of us; it certainly was for me.  I was full of conflict that September so many years ago, and very sad.  I wanted to project confidence and enthusiasm and happiness.  I was not confident and enthusiastic and happy, and I have come to know that Alex was not either.  

But both of us put on a façade.  Unconsciously, I think now, we were modeling such qualities for each other, perhaps to convince ourselves, like that cliché of “whistling past the graveyard” that all would be well.  An additional factor for me (not for him, though) was that Alex’s 18th birthday would coincide with his departure.  The outside world, our culture, would see him as an adult, but he was still my little boy.  As I said, I was conflicted and sad.

Into this morass stepped my husband John.  For Alex’s birthday, John gave me a gift:  a pair of stud earrings, small textured balls of white gold imbedded with tiny tiny tiny sapphires — Alex’s September birthstone; nine in each earring.  

Need I say more?  I wear the earrings often.  I’m wearing them today!  See?  They are so discrete, yet they convey a powerful and very personal message.  They bring me back to a very tricky time, yet they free me to reflect on where I am now, where Alex is and where we are.  

As you see me wearing these earrings today, you can also see an additional earring — another stud featuring a precious stone, this time a small emerald.  And that’s the second gift.

When Dad died seven years ago, I was shipwrecked.  It was no surprise that he had died– age 90, so frail — but still, it was utterly shocking to me.  I grieved mightily.  One day, when I felt at rock-bottom in my loss, John gave me a gift … out of the blue … a very simple pair of emerald earrings, the emerald being Dad’s May birthstone.  The tears I wept over this gift were tears of joy.  They began to wash away the bitter tears that had been threatening to drown me. 

I often wear the sapphires and one emerald, or the two emeralds and one sapphire.  Having three ear piercings gives me a lot of freedom!  And it’s fun to have my son and my father with me.

And sometimes I go wild with one emerald and one sapphire and one amethyst, this last from the pair of studs that I bought as a gift to myself many years ago, at another very trying time in my life.  Not only is the amethyst my February birthstone, it’s Dad’s deathstone, if you know what I mean.  

Hmmmm.  What do you think about the concept of a deathstone?  

“Freckle”

Published on VineLeavesPress.com (“50 Words Give or Take”).

I’m four years old.  Dad is scrubbing my face with a washcloth.  He keeps scrubbing just under my lower lip, just above my chin.  “It won’t come off,” he says.  I giggle because I know why.  “It’s a freckle, not a dirt spot!”  It’s still there, along with the memory.

“What Inspires me? Who Inspires Me?

Everything inspires me.  Everyone inspires me. Everything and everyone come from God. Therefore, God inspires me.

It’s inspiring to know that there are many ways to think about inspiration.

In physical terms, “inspiration” is part of “respiration”, the breathing process that sustains life.  Without inspiration, there would be no “exhalation,” the other half of that vital process.  Inspiration nourishes me with oxygen, exhalation cleanses me of carbon dioxide.  Inspiration and exhalation cannot exist without each other.

In imaginative terms, inspiration draws God’s essence into my essence, into my very being.  Exhalation sends our co-mingled essences out into the world, where they can act in concert to bring about … oh, all manner of things that are full of truth, beauty and goodness. 

In spiritual terms, inspiration points me towards God, who does not need to be drawn into, or depend on, anything.  God is in and of everything.  Even so, the respiration process I have just described reminds me that I am a co-creator with God, a role I try to cultivate, in everything I do, in how I live and why I live.

In creative terms, inspiration gives me the impetus to fulfill the ideas that come to me through every experience in my life.  Inspiration helps me turn my ideas into realities. 

***

A few weeks after the March 2023 elementary school shooting in Nashville, I was at Sunday Mass.  In the pew in front of me was a family with four children who looked to be the age of those dead children in Tennessee or even younger.  I was stricken, not for the first time but somehow as if for the first time, by the horror of what has become epidemic in our country.  Those innocent little children.  

But what could I do?  Over the years, I had angst-ed with my friends, I had prayed, I had educated myself.  I had signed petitions, I had marched, I had written to my congresspeople, I had mailed postcards to voters when gun-control measures were on the ballot.  I thought I had gone as far as I could.  But my good works were intellectual, performed at a distance.  “Think global, act local” goes the saying.  Again, what could I do?

Clear as a ringing bell, it came to me.  “Gradually and then suddenly,” to borrow a phrase from Hemingway.  The inspiration was sudden, but also the culmination of much rumination and reflection.  I had held the lock in my hands for a long time, but now I had the key that would allow me to “act local”: my lifelong love of reading.  

Fast forward.  I joined a program of adults trained to be “reading friends” in our community’s elementary schools.  Once a week now, I spend 90 minutes at “my” assigned school; a half-hour in the library reading aloud with each of “my” three students — two first-grade girls and a second-grade boy.  These children all like to read but just need a little extra one-on-one attention.  With literacy at grade three being a marker for future success in almost all aspects of life, “my” kids are at a vulnerable stage … maybe I can make a bit of difference.  Maybe I can inspire them.

***

Each year, three days after Christmas, the Catholic Church observes the Feast of the Holy Innocents … those children murdered by King Herod in an attempt to eliminate the Baby Jesus, the “newborn King of the Jews”.  This past Christmas season, such “ancient history” became relevant to me, because “holy innocents” were murdered in that Tennessee school last spring.  

That ironically inspirational event is never far from my mind these days.  When I make my weekly reading trip to school, I need to be buzzed through two locked doors to gain entry … and then sign in … and then get the badge that says I’ve passed a background check and am a trusted visitor.  Finally, I can head to the library to meet up with my three “holy innocents”.  On the way, I offer a little prayer for our safety.

“Flat Tire”

Writing class exercise, 10 minutes, no revisions, to the prompt “flat tire”.

Any nail or screw in any road will find its way into any one of my car’s tires.  Thank God, I have never had a blow-out.  But I know well that sinking feeling of coming into the garage in the morning, prepared to rush off somewhere, and seeing my car literally sinking slightly in one direction or another.  The tell-tale signs of a slow leak … phphphph … We don’t live far from a Les Schwab place, so I scrap my morning’s plans, drive carefully to the tire shop and … wait … while a repair is made.  The guys there are always so cheerful and accommodating, which makes up for my spoiled plans.

“Sorrow and Joy”

This piece appeared on March 11, 2024 on CatholicArtistConnection.com, as part of that website’s Lenten Reflections series.

Mid-way through the penitential season of Lent came yesterday’s bright spot of hope and joy: Laetare Sunday.  The liturgical color of the day — rose — shone like a beacon against the unrelenting purple of Lent, a visual sign to the faithful that Easter is within our sight.

Today, as we embark on the fourth week of our Lenten journey, donning purple once again, we remain heartened.  As always, God’s grace, mercy and unconditional love surround us.  New energy underlies our seasonal practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  We sharpen our focus on how to live in right relationship with God, ourselves and others.  

In the First Reading for today’s Mass, Isaiah (65:17-21) speaks of the joy, happiness and delight of God’s creation, and assures us that “no longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there, or the sound of crying”.  The Responsorial Psalm (30) continues the theme: “You changed my mourning into dancing.”  And the royal official in the Gospel (John 4:43-54) could be any one of us, “who believed what Jesus said to him”, after he pleaded with Jesus and then experienced the healing of his son.  

Yes, the sorrow of Christ’s suffering, crucifixion and death loom ahead of us.  And yes, we are living in a great big world seemingly drowning in war, violence, tragedy, discord, uncertainty, grief and gloom.  In our smaller personal world, we may be living with circumstances that are deeply troubling.

But the hope and the joy of Laetare Sunday are still fresh for us this day.  We are reminded that sorrow is not the end of the story.  From sorrow will rise the salvific reality of Christ’s Resurrection, with the assurance that we all share in the miracle of eternal life and light, of redemption. 

With our faith thus strengthened, we can resume our Lenten observances over the next three weeks with renewed commitment.  By leavening sorrow with the gifts of hope and joy that God bestows so generously, we can face any challenges that the world and our individual lives bring us. 

***

As a Benedictine Oblate, I (try to) live according to the Rule of St. Benedict.   Chapter 49 of the Rule begins with this instruction: “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.”  I (try to) reach that state by allowing the meaning of Lent, with its intertwined sorrow and joy and its promise of redemption, to remain relevant throughout the year, in every liturgical season. 

Here is a practice that helps me: Often, daily if I can, I compose two litanies — two prayerful lists — on the facing pages of a notebook so I can easily toggle back and forth between them.  One page is headed “Blessings Noted” and the other “Prayers Needed”.  I bring these litanies to God, giving thanks and praise and asking for help.  Every time I compose my litanies, I start fresh on new pages with new blessings and needs.  This practice helps me appreciate the sacred rhythms of my life, fosters my growth in prayer and brings me closer to God.

“The Young Artist”

The apartment in Bayside.  Perhaps I am three or four.  I am sitting, crouching, squatting, whatever posture I need to be in, on the kitchen floor.  I am drawing with crayons on paper.  The only light is in the kitchen, where Dad is fixing his breakfast.  It is dark everywhere else.  Quiet, too, as Mom and Owen, and John if he has been born yet, are asleep.  Dad and I do not speak.

Am I drawing what I remember to be my first images?  Attempts to depict what it was like to be in the car and drive under the big towers of what I now know to be either the Whitestone or the Throgs Neck Bridge.  I remember trying to show, in a static drawing, what motion felt like — approaching the first tower, being under it, turning around to look up through the back window to see it recede, then turning forward to approach the next tower and repeat the experience.  Perhaps I should have been making a motion picture, not a drawing.  As if!

I wish I had those images.  Where did they go?  Crumpled up in the day’s trash, when Dad had finished his breakfast and gone to work, and Mom was up and starting her day with two or three of us?  Or filed away somewhere in a manila envelope that eventually got lost?  Or maybe still in the house in Connecticut?

“Cold War kids were hard to kill, under their desks in an air-raid drill” — from the song “Leningrad” by Billy Joel

I don’t remember why we were told we had to do this.  In 1958 or 1959, in first grade in Queens, we all went in an orderly line to the school auditorium, with its row upon row of fixed-to-the-floor chairs with flip-up seats.  We were shown how to crouch between the rows.  We were shown how to cradle the backs of our heads in our hands, and to draw our heads down towards our thighs.  I think this happened only once.  I don’t know when or how I learned or was told or realized that this was an air-raid drill in the event of a nuclear bomb drop.  I have no emotion around this memory.

A few years later, in Connecticut, I stood in the doorway to the living room and glimpsed my mother weeping in front of our small television set.  In grainy black-and-white, President Kennedy was on the screen, and I heard the words “Cuban missiles”.  This scene frightened me though I did not know what a missile was.  I did not want Mom to see me seeing her weep, so I backed out of the doorway and slipped down the hallway and up the stairs to my bedroom. 

Around that same time, I had a dream that Russian tanks came streaming off Exit 19 of the Connecticut Turnpike and lumbered towards our house.  This dream also frightened me.  I did not tell anyone about it.  

“My Oldest Friend”

I have known my oldest friend since both she and I were born — since even before that, because who knows what kind of consciousness exists in the womb.

My friend has never left me, though I have often neglected her.  Or ignored her.  Or worse, denied her.  But we have never truly separated; we always come back together, comfortably or not.

My friend and I know the best and the worst of each other.  We also know the mediocrity of each other.  Sometimes this knowledge is just fine, other times it is so disappointing.

Sometimes my friend and I fight.  There have been long stretches of time when we do not understand each other.  She pulls one way; I want to go the other way.  We each want to be how we want to be, regardless of the other.

Sometimes my friend criticizes me or tells me things that I don’t care to hear or learn about myself.  In fairness, I have also done this to her.  This can be unpleasant.

Often my friend enlightens me.  She tells me things I didn’t know but, as soon as she tells me, I know that I had wanted to know.  Aha moments, for sure!!  She often seems to know what I am searching for, before I do.

I try hard to protect my friend.  I don’t want anyone to hurt her.  I want to be safe.  Sometimes this chafes her.  She wants to be free.  She wants to be vulnerable.

Sometimes I try to hide my friend.  Sometimes I am ashamed of her.  She can be a fuddy-duddy, “not cool”.  She can be embarrassing.  She tries to make me do things, say things, that I might not want to or be ready for.

Usually, I like my friend.  She’s smart, sometimes funny, sensitive, perceptive, creative, spiritual.  I want her to like me back.  I think she does, and don’t want to do anything that would change her mind about me.

And then there are times when I really don’t like my friend at all …

But do you know what really counts?  The only thing that does count?  That I love my friend, and my friend loves me.  Not just because Jesus tells us to love one another.  But because we are to love the other “as yourself”.  Love your neighbor as youself.  

Yes, my oldest friend and I are one and the same — me, myself and I.