Friday, December 31, 2010

Books and Bookstores

Where is nature so weak as in the bookstore? -- Henry Ward Beecher

I confess. I'm a bookaholic. I always have more books than I will probably ever read and spend more on books than I truly ought, but I can't help myself. I hear of an interesting book and I'm off to find it at B&N, Borders, Amazon, Alibris or anywhere I can find it.

When I moved from the house in Litchfield, I donated 23 boxes of assorted books to the library for its annual sale. Some of them were so hard to part with like my full set of Anne McCaffrey's dragon series, while others were books that I'd read years before and really just needed to get rid of. Mysteries, thrillers, cookbooks, a few biographies, a few nonfictions, and a few religious books. Some were easy to dump, others were wrenching. I still packed up and brought with me more books than I probably needed, and certainly more than I have room for, but somehow I always find room for just one more --- or ten more.

I used to read voraciously, 12-15 books a week even while I was working full time. The library called me their best customer; my reading helped up their statistics in the county-wide system and so they got more and better books. That was flattering but it was a small library that I was rapidly out-reading. And I was finding interest in kinds of books a small library wouldn't carry or would have trouble getting.

My friend Marthella and I used to go shopping quite often, always on Saturday when we could make a day of it. I'd tell the spousal unit I'd be home by 2 pm but he didn't blink if it were after 4 when I got home. He knew the lure of bookstores and that Marthella and I would spend at least an hour each in one or more of them on every outing. I'd usually come home with one or two bags with bookstore logos, and for a week or so I'd be indulging almost every free moment curled up in my reclining wing chair with cat on lap, devouring the latest purchases.

The computer opened more doors with immediate and constant access to bookstores so vast no one building could hold them all. Whatever book I want, I can usually find somewhere. Sometimes I laugh and say that Amazon and Alibris are my two best friends. JJ and Mouse know it is they who really are, but they understand the comment anyway. Mouse and I swap books from time to time, care packages sent across the miles with stuff to read and discuss just as we have done for years. When a box comes (or a box gets shipped), it's Christmas, even if it's July 4th.

My friend Anne, a retired priest, once told me I needed to spend less time online. I didn't see it that way then but I've come to realize the wisdom of it. Gradually I have been withdrawing from online places I once felt were my lifeline to the world. Now I see them more as crutches, places I would go to make myself feel better and learn things but which almost always led to heartbreak and isolation. With the cutting of those particular ties, I've got more time to actually read some of the books I've acquired but never had time (or energy) to read. I still go online, and not only to buy books, but I'm more selective about where I go, how often, and how long I stay there. Meanwhile the wing chair (which shows the years of use) and the books await, and a new generation of cat curls up on my lap as I read.

Clothes? Give me blue jeans, t-shirts, Birkenstocks and maybe a pair of nicer pants, a nicer shirt and newer Birks for dress-up and I'm fine. I do admit to weakness for iTunes and the addition of new music to my iPod collection, but heck, I've been involved with music for years as both listener and performer (none to write home about in either case). I can spend quite a bit of time in hardware stores (adult toy stores, in a way, with all kinds of fascinating gizmos), electronics stores and even grocery stores (choosing this brand over that can be a fascinating study). Still, let me loose in a store that has books, preferably lots of them, and go get lunch. I'll be there when you get back, probably trying to make up my mind which of three or four books I've examined I really want to take home. Two if it's a good week, pay-wise.

I can find God in bookstores. Lord knows, I gravitate to the theology section now instead of the latest thrillers. If it says Brueggemann or Chittister or Borg or any of half a dozen writers, it's probably going to the top of the possible purchase lists. I don't want "feel-good" religious books, books written to convince me that God has a purpose in making life tough or that I can beat any addiction (even books) if I just pray hard enough and believe God will heal me without doing any of the work myself. I've read enough of those. While I don't object to books that can point the finger at the moon, I don't want to mistake the fingers for the moon itself. Make me think, don't just give me pat answers. God's there in the process somewhere.

So Henry, thanks for summing up in a single sentence one of the major passions of my life. Now please excuse me; I got a gift card from Barnes & Noble for Christmas that's burning a hole in my wallet.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Inventory at Year's End - 2010

The end of a year, like the end of a chapter in a book or a period of time in one's life, is a good time to reflect on where I am, where I've been and speculate on where I'm going. In a way, beginning this in the cold dark before sunrise seem so appropriate as I know the process will be ongoing through the day. Usually I can write a blog post in under an hour but this one may take longer, I think. You see, examining the past and its effect on the present not to mention trying to map the potential influence on the future isn't something that happens in a single flash.

If I look for successes this past year, probably the number one success was finishing Ginger's book. It took just about two years and there were still flaws in it but Ginger seems pleased and people have said she wrote a good book. It was important to me for her voice to be the only one heard even though my fingers were all over each word. I think I accomplished that so I mark that as a success.

Another success is going to work every workday (and sometimes on a few holidays) with the exception of a day I took off for mentor training in August. It is hard to get up and go somewhere that I don't really enjoy being but the alternative is not being able to feed and house the fur-kids much less myself. So I count a success every day I go in, trying not to grit my teeth when someone says, "Just be grateful you have a job!" and looking forward to coming home when my shift ends. Of course, I am grateful for the paycheck that comes every two weeks, something that helps keep body and soul (and fur) together.

Also on the success side is a couple of realizations I've made in the past year. I've discovered I really enjoy being a co-mentor in an online EfM group. Being co-mentor means I have time to be both student and mentor. I work with two of the very best in the business and I'm always in awe of their knowledge, experience and support.

I've also discovered that I really enjoy being at home. I look forward to days when I don't have to go out and do anything I don't want to do, and even find ways of putting off what has to be done outside so that I can do them all at once and be done with it. The boys drive me nuts from time to time (primarily at am when I still have an hour and a half before the clock goes off) but having one curl up on my lap as I read or waking up to find three lumps in the bed with me pretty much makes up for any inconvenience or trouble.

I've found again that I really do enjoy reading books and not just conversations online. I cut the tie with Facebook over a week ago and I'm finding that I have more time to read books I've had in the bookcase or in the pile on my desk. My Kindle has never been so well used as it has been this past week and I'm discovering how lovely it is to be able to read a book, turn pages and even change books with one hand while the other caresses soft fur and ears curled up on my lap or against my shoulder. I've found new music that I've put on my iPod to use at work both to block out noises that are to me almost like fingernails on a blackboard, and also to keep me calmer and more able to focus on those things on which I need to focus. I said in my spiritual autobiography this year that my iPod is like a connection to God because, like a Buddhist prayer wheel which, set in motion by someone passing by, keeps the prayers rising to God even while the one who set it in motion has gone on to do other things. Maybe a lot of Christian friends won't see that as a "Christian" thing or analogy but I do, and right now, in that part of my life, I don't so much care what others think as I do what I think, know and believe. Oh, I still care what they think, but in most areas it feels irrelevant. They will think what they think, based on fact or not. I am only responsible for me, not what someone thinks of me.

On the failure side, there have been so many I can't count them all. I can't make it through a single workday without apparently making multiple errors. That leaves me feeling very insecure and very very stupid but, no matter how hard I try, I never seem to get better or at least make fewer errors. I've discovered that no matter how hard I try, I seem to find the perfect way to end conversations in which I only wanted to participate. I've found that I tend to want to speak when I should remain silent but sometimes am silent when I ought to speak. I know I need to work on that particular kind of discernment.

Some things have become more valuable as this year has progressed like having a few truly good friends around whom I can be myself and not worry about whether I have the right "face" on in order to be accepted, much less loved. I've found that saying goodbye to people of whom I am very fond each time we part, get ready to hang up the phone or end an email or letter as if it were the very last time is important enough to make sure there's nothing to regret leaving unsaid or undone. The gift of listening is often much more valuable and more needed than something that needs to be dusted, exchanged for a different size or color or even not really wanted in the first place. It is also a lot easier on the budget yet gives something many people don't realize is priceless – the gift of time, interest, caring and support. The obverse is the gift of being able to speak freely, knowing the listener will sift out the good, toss the bad and encourage healing. I also remember those who have made an impact on my life but who have gone on to greater glory. I miss them, I still care greatly for them and I have hope that one day I will be able to express to them my gratitude for all they taught me.

All in all, it's been quite a year. A lot of it I wouldn't care to repeat but it has left me with some lessons learned, thoughts to sort through and knowledge that I can still make choices. I hope that in the next year those choices will be wise and well reasoned, not impulsive and often destructive. Above all, I hope that the next year will bring peace – for me and for the world.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

"Here I am. Here am I."

"Here I am. Here am I."

How many sermons start out with a funny story or something from the life of the preacher?

I woke about the usual time this morning, Christmas Day 2010. The boys (my cats) decided that Christmas or not, it was time for me to wake up, get up and be about the daily duty of preparing their breakfast. Today, though, I rolled over but not to go back to sleep. I reached for the remote, fumbled for the right combination of number keys to get to the channel I wanted and lay back to enjoy Lessons and Carols from Trinity Wall Street in New York. The boys, realizing I wasn't going to move any time soon, settled in with apparent reluctance. Oh, there were some distractions -- Domi walking across me like traffic on a busy bridge and Sama being sorely tempted by the twitching of his brother Gandhi's tail (and they're almost 4 – supposedly "big" cats, no longer kittens). Still, though, for the most part the boys and I enjoyed the exquisite music and excellently well-done readings. It was all the best of Episcopal services , rich with pageantry, tradition, sound and visuals. I can think of about a hundred different ways to wake up but this has to be about the very best.

Hearing the reading of the Annunciation, something struck me. The angel is speaking to Mary, giving her some information that surely would have given anybody pause if not an immediate urge to flee. The angel said that she would become pregnant without having been married first, something that in those times (and even sometimes now) would be cause for disgrace and possibly even death. Yet Mary answers with a simple "Here am I, the servant of the Lord." "Here am I." That phrase she uttered had echoed down through Biblical history as a response to a call.

Abraham said, "Here I am" to God, little knowing what God had in mind, namely the sacrifice of Abraham's beloved son, Isaac. He said it again when he had Isaac bound on the altar, ready to be slaughtered like a sacrificial lamb. This time it was an angel who called, causing Abraham to stay his hand and then find a ram in a bramble bush to serve in Isaac's place. (Gen. 22:1)

Jacob had his moment. In preparation for meeting again the brother whose birthright he had stolen, Jacob sent his family, most of flocks and herds away to safety. As he lay alone that night under a tree with a stone for a pillow, a voice called and Jacob responded "Here I am." That ended in Jacob's wrestling with someone – an angel? His own baser nature? God Godself? – before dislocating his hip in the wrestling match. From this he got a new name, Israel, that came to represent a nation chosen by God. (Gen. 46:2)

Jacob's favorite son, Joseph, responded to his father's call with "Here I am." Jacob's charge to him was to go and give a message to his brothers who were all out tending sheep. That little journey would cost Joseph his freedom for years but ultimately saved the lives of his family in a foreign land and set the stage for the next chapter and call. (Gen. 37:13)

Moses saw a burning bush. Surprisingly, a voice from the bush called Moses by name and Moses responded with the very expected response, "Here I am." We know what that response let Moses in for. (Ex. 3:4)

There was Samuel who, hearing a voice calling him in the middle of the night, ran to his teacher, Eli, saying, "Here I am." He did that several times before Eli caught on and told Samuel to respond to the One who truly was calling him. When God next called Samuel's name, Samuel again responded, "Here I am." (1 Sam. 3)

Isaiah the prophet described his call: "Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' and I said, 'Here am I, send me!'" (Is. 6:8)

There are others, but these seem to lead us to Mary's response, so like those of those we have just noted and some others as well, "Here am I." (Luke 1:38). She faced a very daunting prospect, one potentially dangerous to herself and her family. I'm sure she recognized the immediate problem, how were her family and fiancé going to respond to this, but she assented all the same.

Mary's son, Jesus, whose birth we celebrate today, is, in a sense God turning the table and saying "Here I am" to the world. Throughout his life Jesus' presence would say "Here I am" again and again, to God and to the world. Only once did he say, "Please, no" but before a breath could pass it became, "not my will but yours."

We like to think that our response to a call from God would be "Here I am" but I know for myself there are times I would (and probably have) said, "Er, would you mind waiting a bit? I'm a little busy right now" or "Uh, I don't think so but thanks anyway." As with Samuel, God is patient and keeps calling. When will I (or you) say "Here I am" and wonder what we've let ourselves in for but willing to go for it anyway?

Mary and all those exemplars said "Yes" and went on to do what God wanted and needed to have done regardless of personal preference, inconvenience or outright danger. Courage? Foolhardiness? Perhaps a bit of both?

May I have the courage and wisdom to say "Here I am" if and when a call comes. God won't accept answering machine assertions that I'll return the call as soon possible. Maybe I'd better practice.

Here I am. Here am I. I am here. Here I am.

Try it. It just might be the answer to some questions.

Have a blessed Christmas.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Memory of A Christmas Past

I was reading Episcopal Café today and ran across this entry at the Daily Episcopalian. Something Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt said at the outset sent an unexpected surge of memory down my synapses:

A recording of Messiah was the first “adult” Christmas present I remember receiving. I was 16, and had sung a few choruses from Messiah in high school chorus. My parents gave me the Robert Shaw Chorale’s performance, my very own – probably the first classical album I owned, too. I cried when I opened it. I hadn't realized how much I really wanted to be able to listen to this music.
I grew up in a good Southern Baptist household where hymns were learned in church and Lawrence Welk's program was a staple on Saturday night. Some tunes became familiar through my piano lessons but those were mostly Strauss waltzes and the like.

When I was about nine I was reading a book of stories and one of the stories was about a boy who was in a choir which was to sing Messiah at Christmas. I don't remember any more of the story than that, really, but I do most vividly remember wondering what this marvelous music was and wanting very badly to hear it.  That year I asked for my own recording of Messiah and, Christmas morning, there was a copy done by the Huddersfield Choral Society. I couldn't wait to put it on the record player (that was what we had back about 55 years ago) and when I heard it, it opened up a whole new world of sound and music.  Like Staudt, it was my first classical recording, my first "adult" record and is still one of my favorite works.  It "spoke" to a nine-year-old in a very clear and direct way.

What a way to be introduced to the world of classical music.  No, the Strauss waltzes I had to learn in my piano lessons didn't count, nor did Beethoven's Für Elise. Like Staudt, the libretto was pretty familiar since it was Biblical text and Suthun Babdists (as it's usually pronounced) LOVE Biblical texts.  The recitatives were okay, like short bursts of speech in between the melodiousness of the arias but the choruses ---- oh, my, the choruses with their runs and harmonies and counterpoint.  They made my heart soar and they still do. 

Mostly I hear Messiah at Christmastime but some places save it until Easter because Messiah doesn't end with the Hallelujah Chorus, as glorious as it is. Still, whether I hear all or part of it, I respond to it.

Sometimes it amazes me how one small, seemingly unimportant thing like reading a story about a boy in a choir singing a great oratorio can seem to reach out and touch something within that grows and develops into a passion.  Oh, possibly I'd have stumbled onto something classical that would have done the same thing.  I confess to having gone through an "Elvis" phase as well as the rock-n-roll music of the late 50s and early 60s, but nothing "stuck" like this has.  It never ceases to amaze me, though, that something written in the 1700s could still speak so clearly and directly to my heart and soul also reaches the hearts and souls of others who don't always share my penchant for Baroque music. I guess it serves to remind me that inspiration is timeless, be it literature, scripture, music or a combination of all three.

I think Messiah will be on my playlist for tomorrow. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent 2010

The Christian world (or at least the American part of it) is racing toward Christmas.  Funny, it's been running , at least here, since before Halloween. For me, that's rushing things a bit but I guess with the economic climate the way it is, merchants want to get as early a start as they can on the annual avalanche of customers seeking the best deals on presents they give to loved ones, friends and even some people they really don't know or can't stand but feel they have to in order to show charity or perhaps collegiality.

Advent gets lost in the shuffle. Advent? What's that?  Most Christians probably don't have a clue as their churches and denominations don't "do" Advent. Radio stations certainly don't; they play Christmas carols in increasing frequency as Christmas Eve approaches. There may be one every hour or so on December 1 but by December 23 there's almost nothing else played. Funny -- I don't remember hearing much Hanukkah music even though that holiday lasts 8 days! Advent hymns and carols? They don't have a chance.

The world needs Advent. Advent is a time of waiting, of inward-looking and quiet observation. It is a period of expectation, much as a pregnant woman looks inward to the child she carries and feels the stretches and kicks of the life within her that herald its presence and coming birth.  Advent doesn't rush around, trying to put up more lights on the house than the Joneses next door or buy a bigger, better present or even host and attend the most interesting parties.  Advent sits quietly as if in the hour before dawn when the world begins to wake from sleep. Advent doesn't come with a roar like an oncoming freight train but more like the first bird songs at dawn or the rustle of quiet movement as one arises from bed and stretches the muscles before getting on with the duties of the day. 

Advent is a time of pregnant pause --- a deliberate break in speech and action to give time for contemplation of what had been said or done and to allow a buildup of expectation of something significant to follow. Christmas is certainly a significant celebration in Christianity, even if the date is most certainly not the actual birthday of Jesus, because without a birth there wouldn't have been a death and resurrection. Still, Advent calls us to pause and reflect, to hear the message of the prophets, not just about the birth but about the meaning of it and what its significance is. It's about what is expected of us beyond giving expensive presents, lavishly decorating, and feeling some sort of burst of good will toward people we don't notice, think of or even think kindly about the rest of the year.

Tomorrow's collect begins "Stir up, O Lord,"  a rousing to action and movement.  One can't sit and contemplate forever, even during a season that is built on and encourages it. Pregnant pauses come to an end and the time for activity arrives just as Christmas Eve arrives and the churches fairly explode with light, color, pageantry, bells, smells and exuberance at the celebration of the birth of our Lord. That's not a bad thing, in fact, it's probably one of the biggest draws the church can have, looking at the faces of folks one doesn't see in church but once or twice a year. 

Still, we mustn't rush to Christmas without extracting all the meaning and purpose of Advent. The pregnant pause is there for a reason.

Enjoy it, celebrate it, contemplate it, savor it, but don't rush past it or the full magnitude of the significant event to follow may be lost.