Sunday, May 27, 2007

Crunchy Cicadas and Zoological Bigotry

The story was only about cicadas, but but still it made me wince. It is the time of year when the 17-year cicadas emerge from their Rip Van Winkle slumber. The story in today's paper reported on the budding appetites at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo -- how the little creatures are "more than just really noisy insects: they're delicious treats." The good news for zoo nutritionists is that cicadas "may seem like candy to the animals -- crunchy on the outside and soft in the center -- they're actually health food."

But that's not the part of the story that caused my discomfort. Maybe I should, but I'm not really losing sleep over the animals' culinary free-for-all. I don't want to join them in the snack line, but I'm happy for their treat. The pain was in the article's closing quote, offered by the zoo's behavioral husbandry manager: "Getting eaten by exotic animals is a better way to go than being eaten by a squirrel or a crow."

I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. I'm sure he was trying to be cute, or give voice to some parental pride in the breeds under his care, but his comment caught me as one more expression of the kind of cultural bigotry that picks the scabs of our social wounds and keeps them from healing. Must we continue to divide the world into "exotic" and "ordinary" -- "special" and virtually "disposable"? How long will we continue to shove certain segments of creation over the cliff of desirability just to sweeten the neighborhood of those who remain?

And does the cicada really get some larger satisfaction from being masticated by a bearded dragon lizard than by the nibbling of a squirrel?


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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Babies, Baptisms, and Graveyard Wreaths

I'll admit there is a note of irony. Tomorrow in worship we will be celebrating new life on this weekend set aside to honor the dead. It is yet another common, if not altogether comfortable, cohabitation of the calendar by church and state. Throughout the weekend and culminating on Monday, our public life is consumed with Memorial Day, a day technically set aside to honor our nation's war dead -- initially proclaimed in 1868 to remember casualties of the Civil War and later broadened after World War 1 to honor Americans who died fighting in any war -- but long since more popularly expanded to remember all those loved ones who have died. Originally known as "Decoration Day," the occasion now finds decorated not only the graves of soldiers, but of husbands and wives and children and grandparents who died at the hands of disease or accident or old age or disaster, as well. Our public life has found in this weekend an occasion to remember all those for whom we have grieved, regardless of their transport into death.

But as it does every so often, the national observance of Memorial Day coincides with the church's observance of Pentecost, that day in the Christian story 50 days after Easter marked by the movement of the Holy Spirit in a way so dramatic that the storyteller could ultimately rely only on metaphor to capture it, because mere description proved inadequate --

"And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.... Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit..."

The episode proved to be so powerful, so transforming that, according to the story, 3000 people were baptized that day. We look back on the day as the "birthday of the church," when the disciples came into their own as the "Body of Christ." Whatever took place, a fairly flimsy fold of followers became a bold company of advocates. It was the beginning of a new kind of life as they took on the vitality of the one whose spirit -- and mantle -- they assumed.

And so in our particular congregation we have come to use the day to baptize young people who have been studying and praying and watching and learning about what it means to be a Christian. Tomorrow in worship -- Pentecost Sunday -- the baptistry will be filled not only with water and one after another newly-professed disciples, but also the stirrings of the Spirit and the beginnings of new life. Just to add to the celebration, we will also celebrate the birth of a new baby in a service of the "Blessing of Children," giving thanks for new life in a more literal sense.

And so the odd and circumstantial juxtaposition of death and birth -- baptism, blessing, and Memorial Day; reverently remembering, and joyfully celebrating. And in both places -- sanctuary and cemetery -- giving thanks for the precious and marvelous gift of life.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Showers of Respite and Blessing

Already the break is welcomed. It has been mere days since we punched holes in the soil and filled them with flowers; a scant week since we fingered the clumped roots of begonias and pansies and geraniums and various other blossoms-in-formation into their new homes with a pack of potting soil, a prayer for growth and a commitment to tend. And dutifully each morning I have trekked to the deck with a full water bucket and sprinkled each thirsty pot. Every morning I have unwound the hose, first in the front and then in the back, to spray the beds. And it has felt good -- grounding, if that's not too close to a pun; participatory. I have felt a certain and satisfying stewardship of the nascent stems and leaves.

But I'll confess that when the rains showered our neighborhood yesterday and again today I betrayed a quiet sigh of relief. It's not that I'm already sick of the task. It is, after all, a paltry 10 minutes of very little effort. It makes no dent in my schedule; takes no toll on my energies. It is, rather, the knowing responsibility; the burden of constancy; the implied tether to the tending. I don't want to over-dramatize it -- we are just talking about begonias, after all -- it's just that my altogether trivial, if daily, sense of responsibility and the welcomed respite of the rain have given me pause to reflect on a more significant conversation I had in recent days with a neighbor. He had taken the toddler boy who lives next door to him for a walk around the cul de sac -- to pet a dog's nose, to touch a new blossom, to toss grass clippings, but primarily to give the single mother a break; a welcomed chance to catch her own breath and look into the mirror for a moment to recollect something of who she is. It isn't unlike another neighbor I see early each morning walking the dog that belongs to another neighbor increasingly disabled and limited.

A break. A blessed and blessing rain shower of grace that even if only for a few moments relaxes the ever-present responsibility for keeping nascent life stretching, instead of withering.

And if I appreciated the rain, I appreciate even more my neighbors who take it upon themselves to offer a little shower of their own.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Pots, Plants, and Dirty Fingernails

The landscaping stars finally aligned -- energy, weather, time, motivation. This weekend we finally recreated the flower beds excavated for foundation repair last fall, and organized the flats of annuals purchased from the church youth; finally re-engineered the rail-hung planters on the back deck and weeded the front flower bed of perennials. And as the sun was setting, the complaints of our muscles were outshouted by the satisfaction of our eyes -- and souls. It is, if I do say so myself, beautiful. Oh, there are prettier, more elaborate gardens. To call ours "modest" would be charitable. Three simple beds and a few accent planters and pots are our claim to horticultural fame, but our few hours shoveling and fingering the soil and the roots and the mulch are satisfying enough, at least for the time at hand.

Why is that we are drawn to such endeavors? Why is that people all over the neighborhood, all over town and country, from sea to shining sea and beyond are drawn to gardens of one kind or another? It could be a longing to contribute some mark of beauty wherever reasonable. It could be some instinctual drive to participate with life in the nurture of growing things. Perhaps it is the residue of childlike impulses to sink our fingers in the soil and get playfully, deliciously dirty, or perhaps it is the echo of our divine image prone to acts of creation. Perhaps, in the swirl of 24/7, it is the craving to see some task completed -- or if never really completed, at least plainly reflect the satisfying result of hard work contributed. In my day job it's often hard to see that anything ever comes from my efforts. A well-tended garden, while requiring some measure of patience, is not ambiguous or demure about its flattery.

Perhaps the breadth of attractions reveals the depth of the appeal -- beauty, satisfaction, creative endeavor, a sense of the holy; tactile, visual, and spiritual gratification. All of which is to conclude that we better keep gardening. How else will we stay grounded --in more ways than one? Suddenly the soil beneath my fingernails looks like commendation...

...and call to prayer.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Moonlight and the River of Discontent

The bike trail parallels the river toward downtown. Recent flooding has left certain parts of the trail underwater, but the stretch we followed last evening through the last hour of daylight was high and dry. The swollen river was not only stretching its banks, but was running so swiftly I began to wonder if was chasing a deadline. One bird was taking full advantage of the flow, having landed on a piece of driftwood, cruising downstream. Whatever gets you where you need to go!

The bird's migrant perch was not the only wood drifting. Caught around the pylons supporting one of the over passing bridges was a logjam of myriad detritus, swelling in width like a downhill snowball swells in velocity and girth; first a log that catches a second, which together snag a branch whose wider spread entangles still more. At the time of our forward passing, the jam was emulating urban sprawl, of such a size to merit its own zip code. Whether or not it had actually grown still larger by the time of our return stretch an hour or so later, its skirt certainly seemed to cover more of the surface. Undisturbed, it won't be long before the jam becomes a dam -- feeding itself like a giant, webbing spider.

I thought of certain behaviors that create a similar capitalizing effect -- one act becoming two becoming exponentially larger. Lies, for example; a new one required to cover the old one, requiring still more to sustain the charade. Deception, that requires more and more fuel. Indiscretions that become a cottage industry of manipulation and evasion, half-truths and full-blown deceit.

Someone will surely boat in or crane down and dislodge the jam in the river. It will not be left unattended forever, and I can almost imagine the river's sigh of freed relief. Our own varieties are usually dismantled in a way that usually brings more pain than relief -- sooner or later by the truth, which, like the river, can be blockaded for awhile, but pushes and pushes and pushes... be free.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Fragrance of Wonder and Grace

It frightens me to suddenly look up and realize that several days have passed that I hardly noticed. For me it has been hours and hours of contiguous meetings and hospital vigils -- much of which is the natural consequence of my disinclination to say "no" -- but my investments and distractions are nothing special. Everybody, it seems, is busy. But especially after spending the evening hours around a hospital bedside with a family, waiting for and finally catching in our souls the final breath of a loved one, I know how precious is every day. I am loathe to experience them only as the hazy blur whizzing past -- remembered more than noticed. Like squandering a rich conversation by concentrating less on what the other is saying than what my next comment will be, I feel like I am squandering every meeting I attend by watching the clock for the signal to leave for my next.

And then this morning, after grumping out of bed and dripping out of the shower; after the usual routine of squirting, brushing, shaving and swallowing; after turning mechanically and almost uncomprehendingly the newspaper pages, I remembered one omitted step. Indeed, I realized, it is one that has been forgotten these last several days. Returning to my dresser, rummaging around through the detritus of various emptied pockets, I found the special bottle of cologne and gently, expectantly pressed the plunger...

...and inhaled. There is nothing, to be sure, that is supernatural about cologne. The bottle does nothing but contain and occasionally apply an atomized mist of fragrance. But that, this morning, was enough to invite me back to the place where attention can actually be paid -- first with the nose, and then with the eyes and ears and fingers and tongue. Even the breakfast cereal -- bland and ignominious flakes -- tasted somehow more flavorful, and the mist-covered lake, on the drive to work, seemed somehow more alive.

And I, somehow, am too. More alive. Smelling better, but also participating more fully in even this key-clicking moment. And this day's length of one meeting after another smells, from this vantage point, more fragrant.

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Friday, May 4, 2007

Wearing an Environmentally Friendly Smile

Gadget envy. My wife just bought a new car -- of itself a kind of garage envy. When they first came out a couple of years ago I bought a Honda Accord Hybrid and felt quite smug and environmentally attuned. In truth, it doesn't get great gas mileage -- employing its hybrid technology to boost power rather than mileage -- but it felt good, nonetheless. And it is playfully equipped with more electronic toys than a driver ought to manage. I rationalize them because I spend a lot of time in the car and I love my music. I like having options.

Now Lori has upped the ante with a new Toyota Prius -- she is a Toyota kind of girl -- and the car, itself, is a fascination. Schedules have been such that, while I have sat it in, I have neither been able to ride in it nor drive it. Ah! Patience. And it has all these programmable features; more than the standard radio presets, we need to program the built-in garage door opener and the Bluetooth telephone connection. And, of course, after trying late last night we discovered that neither is as easy as the manual describes. Those will be tasks for another day.

And therein lies my problem. I don't want to wait for another day. I want to get it done immediately. I want to check out how it works and experiment and load it up with data. I want

Lori finds all this a distraction. It's a car, not a toy, and she has places to go and things to do -- and at 50-60 miles per gallon, she is proudly able to go there and do them. The details can wait.

Removing, now, my tongue from my cheek -- and all electronic curiosity aside -- it feels good to be making some changes we believe are good for the world. I suppose we had better be careful which SUV-drivers to sneer at; both of our vehicles are sizewise on the "70-pound-weakling" side. But it will be nice to merely "wince" when we notice the newest price of gas, instead of aching and trying to catch our breath.

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