July 20, 2017

July 20, 2017
Mary and Dosey

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ode to Joy

There’s a shoe-brown dog treat on my bureau in a milk bone shape. On the living room floor lies a menagerie of puppy toys: a grey bear that squeaks so it’s a little scary, a red mouse that’s bigger than the bear and squeaks but isn’t scary at all, and a shag bright green frog with a red tongue but no other facial feature. In the kitchen where the garbage can used to sit is a blue mat with pink and blue bowls for Dosey’s food. Salmon treats spill onto the chair-side table, and freeze-dried beef liver sits on our butcher-block table. The house smells like sweet cardboard (a description my friend Mary might use for her wine). Dosey has taken over our previously tidy house, and we love it.

Last week, my partner Ann, our dear friend Ellen, and I took the car to Spokane, a five-hour drive, to pick up a 4.6 pound puppy, Dosey. Ann and I had been on a waiting list for this cavapoo, a smart, affectionate, small, hypoallergenic child of a King Charles Cavalier and a miniature poodle, since last October: nine months. She was worth the wait, and we needed the time to get ready.

In that six months, we hired builders to put a fence around our backyard (though she’s digging under it already), read three books about raising a puppy, and watched several videos. The author of one book, the “The General” scared us about how easily in the first few weeks we could mess up this puppy for life. Were our puppy to pee or poop on the rugs inside (both of which she has done), we were instructed to roll up the newspaper and spank ourselves (which we have not done). Our badness in training her would have led to her badness; thus, we would need self-flagellation.

Sunday morning, we met her breeder, Jennifer, in a hotel parking lot and watched one of her brothers being taken away, tale wagging, by someone else who had a long drive ahead of him. When Jennifer handed little Dosey to me, she was willing to be held by me, a stranger, but she did not yet wag her tale. 

Dosey rode in her crate in the backseat beside one of the three of us all the drive home. She was remarkably mellow for the first four hours, but there was heavy traffic, and she was tired of the ride and her own patience for that last hour. She’s sweet, but she has her limits.

She has limits, and she can establish limits. We saw her ability to establish limits when we took her to a puppy play day nearby. Some of the puppies were more the size of ponies, so she and another small puppy played under the chairs, protected by the people sitting above them. Each time a rambunctious, pony-sized puppy approached and tried to smell her butt (a dog’s version of “How do you do?”), she barked once at them to back off, and they did. She approached a gentle giant of a puppy, one who dozed the whole time we were there, and said her own, “How do you do?” He just rolled over, but not on her, thankfully. She’s brave and not stupid.

We saw this combination of courage and caution when she met the vacuum cleaner. She didn’t squeal, but she also didn’t go up to smell its butt. (Where is its butt, anyway? How can you trust a noisy thing without a butt?)

Dosey’s tried to set limits with us as well, as we have with her. I’m not sure who’s winning to contest for alpha female. Sometimes, Ann says, “Dosey, you’re the best dog in the world.” Other times, Ann calls Dosey “Princess.” This is not a compliment.

Because Dosey is in the socialization period, we introduced her in her first week to as many dogs and people as possible. Last week was a busy week. Friday I counted 35 people that she had met at our home: over the weekend, she started visiting.

She went to church with us Sunday, and was a hit among the young and old alike.  After church, she made particular friends with Susan and her son’s Australian Shepherd, Rainie. Though Rainie’s much bigger and boisterous, the two dogs bonded. Susan took photos of them hanging out on the carpet, at one point nuzzling nose to nose.

We love this puppy already. At the beginning of the week, Ann (who is not given to hyperbole), kept saying, “We have the perfect dog. ” Since then, Dosey has peed and pooed  on the carpet a few times, chewed on Ann’s shoelaces and learned to voice her displeasure in a very high octave when we lock her in her play pen. So she’s not perfect (she fits in!), but she’s pretty darn fabulous.

I bastardized a song for her from my childhood camp, Seafarer. You can sing it to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”:
Good morning, Dosewallips, how are you? (clap, clap)
Do you know that Ann and Mary love you, true? (clap, clap)
It’s time for work and play
In this urban scene today,
So let’s get started:
We’ve got lots to do! (clap, clap)

Music seems appropriate for the joy this puppy brings, but perhaps something less campy and more symphonic like Schiller’s "Ode to Joy" would be more dignified.

I sang the campier ode when I woke up around 10 am one morning (I even practiced), but Dosey and Ann had already been busy for hours. Ann took her outside for her morning constitutional and then for a walk down the block. Ann says Dosey stopped often along the way, sat down and looked up at her like, “What exactly is the point of this walking?” Dosey tried going up each set of stairs (she loves to visit people, and could understand a walk for this purpose.) When they reached the end of the block and Ann let Dosey turn around to head home, Dosey sprinted. I do that, too, in my run-like-a-drunk-person-who-uses-a cane kind of way.

True joy elicits music as well as poetry, but I haven’t had time to write any of my own yet, so here’s Mary Oliver’s  “The Sweetness of Dogs” with slight revisions:

What do you say, Dosey? I am thinking
of sitting out on the lawn to watch
the moon rise. It’s full tonight.
So we go
and the moon rises, so beautiful it
makes me shudder, makes me think about
time and space, makes me take
measure of myself: one iota
pondering heaven. Thus we sit, myself
thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Dosey, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up
into my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.

I would read this lovely poem to Dosey, but she is dozing at my feet. Which reminds me of Glenna Luschei’s modern haiku “Home”: 

Dog at my pillow. Dog at my feet. My own toothbrush.

I’m home. (There is actually no dog at my pillow. I love Dosey, but she has her own pillow.)

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Call to Not Look Away

Yesterday morning, my partner Ann and I were in Raleigh, NC, and visited Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, the church I grew up in. In some ways, the church is just like it was then: about 350 adults sit in the main part of the sanctuary, and teenagers dot the three balconies. (Maybe they slip out for the sermon like my friend Ande and I used to.) Royal blues and deep golds color the sanctuary: embroidered cloths, one of wheat and the other of flames hang from the two pulpits (I once heard the church split earlier in the 20th century over the split pulpit, and the Baptist church that split off had only a single pulpit—I suspect and hope the issue splitting that church was more significant than the number of pulpits. There’s nothing about this split on the church’s history website, so maybe it didn’t happen, but I think it did, and am curious about why it's not in the church history); another blue and gold embroidered cloth hangs from the communion table displaying the Alpha and the Omega, Greek letters that stand for Christ. The embroidery somehow manages to be both noble and homey, like this church.

Behind the split pulpit and choir, images of Jesus and other important men shine in vivid colors in the stained glass windows. (Jesus is the one in the middle with the dove flying around his head.) Over the side balconies, rounder windows tell Bible stories in the same vivid colors. They were just like this when I went here. On today’s visit, Mom, Dad, Ann and I sat on a gold pew cushion. I remember when there was a lot of discussion about buying the gold cushions: “Couldn’t the money have been spent on some better cause than easing Southern Baptists’ behinds?” some folks in the church wanted to know. It was a fair question, I thought, the kind of question that has shaped who I am and what I believe is right.

The church has always seemed to me to be a place that strives to do right, to understand what’s right, and to ask a lot of questions. J.A. Ellis the church’s pastor beginning on August 6, 1919, was “the first of Pullen’s pastors to make frequent application of the gospel to controversial social issues.” 

In the 1958, before my parents had married and years before I was born, the church’s constitution welcomed Black people and folks from other denominations into membership, and in the 1960’s protested against the Vietnam War. As I understand it, the church was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for these affronts. This banishment was a source of pride, an indicator of who we were: Christians more committed to Jesus than the Southern Baptist Convention.

In the seventies and early eighties, as I advanced through Sunday School, I didn’t learn the books or stories of the Bible, but I did learn songs like Pete Seegar’s "Garden Song" (“Inch by inch and row by row, I’m gonna watch this garden grow….”) and “OneTin Soldier”  (“Go ahead and hate your neighbor, / Go ahead and cheat a friend. / Do it the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end….”)

I was always encouraged to ask questions in this church. (I remember a service in Poteat Chapel when we were asked to share a doubt with the person next to us, so I turned to my mother and said, “I’m not sure Jesus is the son of God.” It seemed to me that all of us were God’s children, so the distinction didn’t make sense to me. This is not the only time I shocked my dear mother.)

Our minister in those years, Reverend W.W. Finlator, was often in the newspapers challenging the next-door university and the rest of us to recognize racist policies. (I loved the man and appreciated the time he said he’d pray for snow so that I wouldn’t have to take a test in school the next day and an unexpected blizzard indeed closed the schools, but his sermons seemed painfully long and dull to me.) The next minister, the good Mahan Siler, who came to the church after I had moved out of state, led the church through a “discernment process” in which the church decided to sponsor a gay commitment ceremony in 1992 (and this time was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for good.) I wasn’t out to myself or anyone else at the time, but my parents and I feel so lucky that they had been through that process and stayed in the church while many long-time members left.

Along with all that’s the same are differences, but the similarities and differences both connect to the church’s core of “radical community.” For example, the church building and parking lot have changed significantly in the decades since I frequented the place. Poteat Chapel is now a meeting room. Finlator Hall, which used to be Fellowship Hall, has moved from under the sanctuary to the addition on the back of the church, near the Hope Center, which serves homeless youth. That’s new to me, too. When I was young, the church had a relationship with Coventry, England, and youth went regularly to see the church that was bombed during World War II. Thirty-five years later, as Ann and I headed to the sanctuary, we read about sister churches and communities in Nicaragua; Cuba; Coventry, England; Zimbabwe; and The Republic of Georgia. The current minister is a lesbian, a white woman who works for racial justice with the African American leader Rev. William Barber II. (If you haven’t read his book, The Third Reconstruction and want a cause for hope concerning racism in our country, don’t walk but run to your Kindle or your favorite local bookstore and start reading.)

There were other changes to indicate the decades that have passed since I attended the church regularly. In the service, I didn’t recognize others in the congregation, nor did I recognize the giant art hanging on the sanctuary walls, feminine representations of the divine to balance all the men in the windows.

I did recognize the accents. I loved it when I heard a woman behind me talking to the folks sitting there. As she left them, she said, “If y’all wont to, come own up this a way.” (No, I didn’t misspell anything.)

I also recognized the spirit of the place: people there seemed glad to be there and glad to see one another. During the service, one woman gave a talk encouraging others to come to a meeting about environmental justice.  Such a talk might have occurred at our littleMethodist church in Seattle, WA, differing in its size (only seventy people attending most Sundays) but similarly devoted to radical community. Oh, and we have a lesbian pastor, too.)

I hope that one day our churches will build a sister relationship, not across oceans but across this continent, where there’s such a regional divide. I think we could find solace in such a relationship and that our Pacific Northwesterners could learn about liberals in the South. I think our pastors would love and respect one another.  I’m working on that, but for now if you’re on the left coast and visit Raleigh, I’d recommend a visit to Baptist church, and if you're on at Pullen, (or anywhere else), I invite you to our little Methodist church with a big heart.

On our visit, the minister, Nancy Petty, preached an intelligent, heartfelt, and challenging sermon about one of the Bible’s most disturbing stories, Genesis 21:8-21. This is the story where aging Sarah directs her husband Abraham to have sex with their younger slave woman, Hagar, so that he’ll have descendants, and then when Sarah has a child of her own, she directs Abraham to send the slave and her child to the desert. (Nancy pointed out the problems of abusive power in this dynamic—thank heavens she didn’t ignore it—but saved that sermon for another day.)

Nancy focused on the scene where Hagar, in the desert and out of water, placed her baby under a bush, a make-shift grave, and wept for him. This scene reminded me of stories women in El Salvador told by peasant women forced to let their crying children die so that they and others with them would not be detected and might escape violence. Though Ishmael lives in the Biblical story, I know that many children in this situation did not, and I know the mothers will grieve for a lifetime. I cannot hear this as a happy story in which God provides for those who mourn and was glad that Nancy didn’t take the easy way out, didn’t suggest that if we just feel the pain deeply enough, God will make everything all right.

Nancy focused on this passage in the story:  “and as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy.” Nancy pointed out the oddness of these lines, that God heard Hagar weeping and heard the boy’s voice. This, she argued, teaches us to pay attention to another’s suffering, and she told stories of paying attention this week to homeless women she passes on her way into the church each morning. In this story, she said, she is called to notice others’ pain. She said, “I must always remain suspicious of my serenity in a world that’s suffering.”

Ann said she wished she’d heard this sermon before she tried to teach this story in Sunday school a couple of years ago. I remember how frustrated she was at the time: “How do you talk with kids about this story?” she’d ranted. “I just skipped some of the hardest parts and rushed through the rest until we got to a game that was in the curriculum.”

To be honest, I haven’t done Nancy’s sermon justice. When the sermon is posted on the church’s website, I recommend you read it yourself. I so appreciated not only her willingness to challenge traditional, pat interpretations of the scripture, but also her close attention to language. Just as she paid close attention to Biblical language, I paid close attention to her language. She made linguistic choices that interested me and that I feel sure weren’t accidental. For example, when she recounted Biblical dialogue and action, she used present tense, the tense commonly used when we talk about literature, rather than past tense, which we use in journalism and history. This choice revealed that she thinks of the Bible’s truth as literary rather than historically factual, as Biblical literalists do. (Don’t get me wrong: I know, love and respect some Biblical literalists. I just don’t think that way.)

Also, when Nancy talked of paying attention to pain in the world, she said, “I tried to not look away.” Now, split infinitives (placing an adverb between “to” and the verb in an infinitive), drives my English-grammarian self nuts, but I trust that Nancy knew what she was doing. The opposite of looking away in this case is an intentional not looking away. This, then, is what she says we are called to do, to not look away.

I’ll try, also, to not look away, and if y’all wont to, come on up this a way, too. And if you have prejudices about the South’s stupidity and bigotry, go to Raleigh, NC, and visit Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. They’ll give you a lot to think about. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Grandma and Grandpa

Grandma and Grandpa are three-foot, apple-faced dolls who hold hands and look vacantly towards the middle of our living room. They came to live with us in 2004 after an auction at a high school where Ann was consulting. I had come to the auction late, working long hours at my own school, and went through the silent auction by myself. I was the only person who bid on them: $27. Heck, I thought, the bench they’re sitting on was worth that much.  What luck!

Grandma and Grandpa looked a lot like older people I’d met in the small town of Spring Hope where my dad grew up in Eastern North Carolina: Grandma’s white hair is pulled back in a bun. She’s not smiling. Her face is somewhat wrinkled, but not overwhelmingly so, and her blue eyes look intelligent (even if she is in this moment staring vacantly: I’m guessing Grandpa was telling a long story). Grandpa’s hair is white and thinning, and he is smiling (pleased with his story, I’m guessing). Both used to have glasses, but when my nieces Lucie and Gretchen were in town for our wedding eight years ago, they tried them on and broke them. Since then, G and G have been without glasses, but they’re still holding hands unless our friend Ellen has put them in compromising positions. (I never saw that in Spring Hope!)

Spring Hope was once voted most like Mayberry, Andy Griffith’s small town. It has a couple of stoplights and several churches. The cemetery is across the railroad tracks from where Von’s Beauty shop (also her house) was, where my Grandmother got her hair done. The town’s best restaurant is The Grill, where I would get a North Carolina barbecue sandwich (no coleslaw) and fries with a real chocolate milkshake instead of the sweet tea everyone else was having. The country folk lived on farms, mostly tobacco, like the ones where my grandparents grew up: a detached kitchen (in case of fire), a gazebo (for curing pig meat), and a giant bubble in the green linoleum floor (where Uncle Bill had installed an electric heater when they were invented.) Dad grew up in town.

My favorite Spring Hope story gives me a sense of the people who grew up with my dad: When his teenage friends wanted to look wealthy one hot August day in 1956, they drove a convertible to Chapel Hill, the nearby college town, with the top and windows up so that pretty college girls would think they had air-conditioning. (In my day in the state capitol, convertibles were cooler than air-conditioning, but this was their day, and this was Spring Hope.)

I never came out to any of my grandparents. My Granddaddy Edwards died when I was three and my Granddaddy Matthews died when I was 23, and I didn’t come out to myself until I was 30, so I never came out to them. Still, I didn’t come out to either of my grandmothers who were 88 and 78 when I came out. My parents’ greatest fear, I believed, was that my grandmothers would find out I was a lesbian, and only the good Lord knows what would have happened. Therefore, when I mailed coming out letters to my whole family, I did not send my grandmothers the letter that I wrote everyone else. Both grandmothers, however, let me know in Southern code that they knew my secret and that they loved me.

When Dad, Ann and I visited my Dad’s mother in Spring Hope, he and I left the room to dish up ice cream for everyone. Ann stayed in the spare living room with grandmother, who sat in her red faux-velvet chair near the window where she could see the pecan tree and yell at the squirrels in the bird feeder. (The squirrels were not faux.)

As soon as we left, Grandmother said to Ann, “Are you the one who lives with Mary?”

Ann said, “Yes.”

Grandmother said, “I thought so,” and that was that. Grandmother was a woman as frugal with words as with money.

(When Grandmother was in her early nineties, she told my father that her dryer was on the blink. He said, “You should get a new one. You have the money….What are you saving your money for?”

(Grandmother’s blue eyes twinkled and her dentures grinned when she replied, “My old age.” I imagine my silent Grandma doll would respond the same way if she came to life.)

I imagine my Grandpa doll might have been a Yankee visiting Grandmother Matthews and family in the state’s Queen City. Though I don’t know if the Matthews family ever hosted a Yankee, I feel sure that they would have been Southern-friendly, asking about his family and life up North. They would have wanted to know about his kinfolk. What did he think of Sherman’s march through Georgia? Was he Southern Baptist, they would have asked, and if not they would have wanted to know about his religion. If he’d shown up without being expected, Grandmother would have pulled a Thanksgiving spread from her two refrigerators. In the summer, Granddaddy would have brought in some fresh “maters” from the garden, and there would have been a chocolate cake to top it off. “No,” was not an option. Not even, “No, thank you, ma’am.”

I didn’t come out to this grandmother either.

My partner Ann met this grandmother when Ann and I visited my mother’s family in Charlotte. Aunt Mary Ann had everyone over for Sunday dinner, the main meal in the middle of the day, after church. (It's not a meal with this family unless there are at least 15 people at the table, so aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins and Grandmom came to the table with Ann and me.)

Grandmom took a seat in the middle of the long table, seating Ann to her right and me to her left. Auntie Susan said, “Pass the potato salad,” and Cousin Lori said to her son, “Would you like some gravy with your fried chicken?” We focused on the food. Then everyone was talking at once.
Aunt Mary Ann told me about my Great Uncle Bubba. “He looked just like Clark Gable. I’ll tell you. We’d walk down the road together and cars would stop to look. Once someone got out to get his autograph. I’ll tell you. Did I tell you that the cat next door had kittens? They’re so cute. I’m keeping one that’s completely white. Her name is Snowball, and she’s so cute.”

Uncle Tommy heard her desultory story and said, “Dear, the train has left the track.” (I admired the sweetness of his observation: both have family histories of Alzheimer’s, and they’re helping one another notice when they lose track of a conversation.)

In the midst of this chaotic conversation, Grandmom turned to Ann and said, 
"Who does the laundry?"

Ann responded, "We both do."

My grandmom said, "Oh! That's good."

Then she turned to me: "Who does the cooking?"

I said, "We both do."

Grandmom again exclaimed, "Oh, that's good!" before going on to the next chore of her life. Grandmom, like God in Genesis, looked at my world and called it good.

These dolls remind me of my family and our stories. They have been a grounding tie to my past in these years when so much has changed after my brain tumors, and I have sometimes felt like I’m dangling in this world, not entirely tied down. Now, however, I’m ready to move on.

In July, Ann and I will welcome our puppy Dosey into our family, and I don’t see Grandma and Grandpa being a delight for Dosey like they are for me, so we have put them up for adoption, and before Dosey comes, Grandma and Grandpa will go to live with my friends Susan and Rod. (They weren’t home today, but Susan said we could leave on the front porch. By themselves?! With squirrels and bees and all manner folk around? No way!)

I’ll miss Grandma and Grandpa in our home.  I’ll miss the way that older women go directly up to Grandma and say, “Hey girl. How you?” (or in the case of Sister Josefina from rural El Salvador, “Hola Senora. Como esta?”)

This feels like a marker in my new life, a letting go of the old dolls and an embrace of  a new puppy.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Ann and I have been working with our neighbors Sue and Robin recently to have a fence built between our yards. The people who owned their home, the house next door, when we moved here in 1996 had the current fence built by someone who didn’t know much about building fences but didn’t charge much. It was never a lovely fence and has deteriorated over the decades, particularly where squirrels have chewed the top.

It would be nice to leave the space open, without a fence. After all, the yards’ gardens are lovely, and it would be easier to visit one another that way. However, each couple plans to get a dog, so we need a fence. The posts are already in, and in a few weeks we’ll have the boards.

As we’ve been working towards this fence, I’ve been thinking about Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,”  that ends repeating its most famous line, “‘Good fences make good neighbors.'” Though critics differ in their poetic analyses of this poem, all agree that this last line does not summarize Frost’s thinking on the subject of fences and walls. Frost is at the very least questioning the value of walls and using this last line ironically, though there’s some disagreement about exactly what Frost means to say.

It seems to me that Frost criticizes the kind of thinking that builds walls, the kind of thinking that derives from a darkness that is “Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” There’s a “savage” quality to such thinking.

Though Frost wrote the poem in 1915, his reading to the Russians in 1962, the year following the beginnings of the Berlin Wall, suggests political implications. The poem begins, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It seems to me that Frost is aligned with that “Something.”

We used this first line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” on the front of our church bulletin when a group of us organized a service to share our experiences from a trip to learn about the border and immigration issues at the El Paso, USA/Juarez, Mexico border.

I feel sure that Frost would similarly criticize the thinking behind the U.S./Mexico wall. Writer Alexander Nazaryan argues that Trump should read the poem, but I suspect, if anything, he’d skim to the last line and announce on Twitter that the great American poet Robert Frost agrees with him about the border. “So glad.”

Much of what we learned at the border was painful, and fears of Trump’s leadership deepen the pain, but we saw hope in quiet fighters for justice who devote their lives to supporting vulnerable neighbors on both sides of the border.

I realize my writing has often been amusing, even about difficult subjects like my brain tumors and disabilities, but I haven’t been funny since Trump’s election. I do not find humor in the pain he causes. However, I am beginning to see hope again, and my funny bone is healing. I’ll write about that next time.

For now, let’s in all seriousness challenge the idea that good fences make good neighbors. Let’s wonder with the poet what we are walling in and walling out. Let’s create hope.