Saturday, February 6, 2016

H is for Hawk or leaving the wild

H is for Hawk. By Helen Macdonald. This book has been winning awards and is wildly popular. As often is the case, I’m late to the party. But now I’m glad to have read it.
When Macdonald’s father died no one anticipated it, least of all Helen. In her grief she went a little crazy. As a child she was fascinated by birds of all kinds, but especially the predator birds – hawks, merlins, falcons, kites, kestrels. As an adult she learned how to train and fly some of the smaller species, but never the goshawk which is considered one of the most aggressive and difficult to train. Hawks, especially goshawks, are not pets in the way of dogs or cats, they remain ultimately wild and untamable. Intent on murder and blood, with their enormous talons and sharp beaks, they are perfectly, awesomely equipped to kill rabbits and pheasants. So in ways it felt natural to turn to the challenge of training Mabel, a young goshawk, in the hope that it would take her on a distracting journey out of grief. As the weeks passed she sank further into depression, withdrawing from friends and family, and identifying more and more with her goshawk. Until…

     It seems to me that the entire book could be summarized in this one paragraph. Don’t worry it’s not a spoiler – there is much more to the book that is fascinating: falconry –   what is required to train a hawk to fly free and then return to the gloved fist and Macdonald’s reflections on the layers of grief and the ways it manifests itself. As a research scholar at Cambridge, she was well equipped to write this book and also had the creative skill that makes it a good read.

     So here was the pivot – the wisdom garnered:

     “All the way home on the train I thought of Dad and the terrible mistake I had made. I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. Some had fixed themselves to the stars of elusive animals. Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens. Some sought wildness at a distance, others close to home. ‘Nature in her green tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’ 
            Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

     In a time when many believe that nature heals all afflictions, I admire Macdonald for bravely stating it does not, although I doubt she would call it brave. Because my roots grew out of a remote and rural place in northern Minnesota, I admit I’ve often been beguiled by the beauty of wild creation that can give a restorative perspective not found in an urban setting. At times in life I’ve been certain that leaving for the wild, perhaps forever, is what I need for calm and focus, but she’s right, the earth simply cannot heal everything. It cannot replace the community we were made to live in as human beings. We need relationships. It cannot heal all our sorrows – only God is able to do that even though we know not everything will necessarily be put to right until Jesus returns. So we wait for it in the now, but the not yet time. Meantime, I’m not quitting my jaunts to lonely places because they often serve to rephrase life, but it is good to remind your soul that those beautiful lonely places won’t deliver everything you need.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tracking the 4th dimension

Peering into another dimension
We, I, don’t see what is. I can’t see this other dimension. But there are tracks that lead me to a tiny sliver of what shimmers just beyond my knowing. We live bordering a park. The ravines behind our house are filled with lives we rarely see. As sure as I sit at my desk and look out my windows day after day and only see birds and a few squirrels, another unseen world exists. But let the land and woods surrounding us receive a fresh blanket of snow and suddenly, overnight, it reveals a universe of creatures that track all around us. Deer, raccoon, fox, coyote, owls who leave wingtip patterns in the snow when they capture mice, we are surrounded by life.

When I think of things I can’t see, of what powers, good or evil, exist “out there,” I sometimes recall Elisha, an Old Testament prophet, because he saw into a dimension of reality that surrounds us every day. It’s a reality I rarely think about and can’t remember if I ever saw it except maybe in a dream I once had long ago. That day that is written about may have started out like any other ordinary morning in Israel, but not to the servant who’d arrived on the rooftop minutes before Elisha to see that “an enormous army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city.” (I Kings 6:11) In that day, that amount of military power represented terrifying weapons of destruction aimed against an unarmed population without a rat’s chance in hell of saving themselves. Elisha took one look and with utter confidence in the God who surrounds and protects the lives of his people declared: “Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (Really, Elisha?) Then he prayed and his servant’s eyes were opened and what he saw must have been so extreme it had to have beggared belief. He saw the sky and “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around.” The air must have shimmered and cracked with their presence, though the servant couldn’t see them at the time, nor can we now.

We, too, look out on the world to see our homes, our livelihoods, our countries, the hills around us bristling with enemies “full of an army and horses and chariots” who bring terrorism and destruction. And if not such graphic, physical destruction to us personally, we look closer to find threats against our hearts, our minds, our families. Those are also real enemies.

I’ll insult you if I push the analogy much further. But here’s the thing: when I am most inclined to despair or cynicism or the thought of “we’ve lost the war,” whatever battle we are fighting, I’m glad to be reminded of, “ You have not come to a mountain… to darkness, gloom and storm … But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” (Hebrews 12:18, 22) I’m nearly undone by the thought of them and beg God to take my dull and unbelieving heart to this mountain. Make it snow right now.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Prayer Beads for the Forgetful and the Distracted

Rosaries always fascinated me because they were forbidden in the religious tradition I grew up in. They were one of those Catholic trappings, like incense and processing with a cross that smelt of idolatry, like one might just rely too much on them to get you on the good side of God when we knew only Jesus could do that. Of course, anything outlawed becomes what you want. So in high school, when I stayed with my best friend who was a devout Catholic and who slept with her Rosary, which entangled us during the night, I secretly fingered her beads and wondered about prayer. Did God hear us if we used a prop?

I don’t know much about the history of the Rosary, but I know that traditionally it included praying The Lord’s Prayer and saying The Apostle’s Creed which are pretty universally believed among Christians. I could see it being a cross-cultural help to many. Like, what if you didn’t know how to read? If you loved God, you would be happy for something that framed and directed your prayers to him.

Whether it’s my age or the pace of modern life, I don’t know, but the least thing can distract me from prayer. An Asian beetle crawling on the ceiling. My grocery list. The tag on the back of my shirt, and somehow I’ve leapt across three continents and an ocean to a Greek Island in the Aegean Sea. When a friend gave me a set of Anglican prayer beads, I was interested. First, their beauty pleased me – he made them out of jade and onyx. Second, their smoothness is calming, holding something physical in my hand helps keep me from wandering off to who-knows-where?

So the other day a friend contacted me. She had purchased several sets of prayer beads as Christmas gifts and wondered how I used them. She wrote, “I would love to include your suggestions for use. The ancient prayers that came with them just didn’t seem right for these particular friends.”  Somewhere in my murky past I had written about them, but I couldn’t find it, so, oh well, I started over and came up with this which I thought I’d share. You know. Just in case you are the friend who gets a set.  

Prayer Beads for the forgetful and the distracted.

There are four sections of seven beads each separated by a larger bead.

The larger beads, I use to frame my prayers. Beginning with the cross and moving around the circle, for me, the cross is, of course, obvious – we send all our troubles to the cross. We begin with the cross and end with it. (How appropriate!) The larger beads represent some aspect of Trinity – for example the desire of the Holy Spirit to comfort us. Or the Father to protect us. The Savior to rescue us. Sometimes I might have read a section of the Bible or a daily reading of some kind that reminds me of some characteristic of God and I use that large bead to thank Him and to ask for some of that holiness to be seen in me.

The first section of seven represents the world – what’s out there – outside my personal world and family. Crisis, tragedies in other countries, friends who may need prayer for something specific. I recognize my finiteness in trying to remember EVERYthing,  so this at least helps me to be focused outward and whoever or whatever comes to mind gets assigned a bead even if temporary.

The second section represents my primary family members. Some of them get their own bead!

The third section is me. All seven beads.  I always have a lot to pray about regarding myself. My work, my calling, my attitude, my body, etc etc. But the other sections help me not to be COMPLETELY self-focused.

The fourth section is Thanksgiving.  Each bead represents something I am thankful for.  I think of Phil. 4: 6-7   “Do not be anxious for anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

This is all purely my own invention. Nothing particularly sacred about it.
Hope this helps as you come to God with all your baggage and mess knowing he will receive a humble heart.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

How the Holidays limited my chance of getting more presents than my brothers and sisters

More, more, more

At certain times of the year women are more fertile, more likely to get pregnant than at other times of the year. I don’t have scientific evidence, but if you take a little toll of women you know who’ve had several children – the more the better – you’ll likely come up with a cluster of kids who showed up during the same season of the year. I know. I know. But check it out. You might be surprised.

Take my mother, for instance. She had twelve pregnancies. Six of them miscarried. But of the six of us who made it three are in December and one was late October. That’s four out of six. That meant that December, with its major holiday, was a difficult month especially during our birth years, because our mom was too busy lactating or laboring to pay us much mind. You know how those last weeks are with contractions in the middle of the night as you lie staring at the ceiling, wasting precious hours of sleep as you watch the clock and wonder if you can make it until morning. If Mom wasn’t pregnant, then she was busy scratching at the budget and wondering how badly we December babies would feel if our birthday presents were rolled into Christmas. Sure, we were poor, but as the oldest I considered myself more entitled than two of my younger brothers, who shared my month, and Randy who was a little more distant coming at the end of October. Dallas was on the 3rd of December so he had the best chance of getting a gift. Mine was smack in the middle, so it could easily go either way depending on the price of the pulp Dad hauled out of the woods and loaded onto a flat car in town. But poor Rex was born on December 26th in the middle of the night, missing Christmas Day by only a couple hours. Poor baby. He wouldn’t have a rat’s chance in hell of getting a party. Ever. He was never convinced that it was an honor to almost share his birthday with the baby Jesus. And let’s be honest, we all, especially me, wanted the presents as much, maybe more than I wanted to be Mary the Mother of Jesus in the Christmas Pageant.

The year he was born I was seven years old and it felt as good as if I’d won a trip to Disneyland because on Christmas night I got to stay with my mom who was waiting for a baby, we were told, at my Grandpa and Grandma Frolander’s in town. We lived thirty-six miles from the hospital and it was too far and too risky to remain on the farm when you didn’t know how fast a baby could come or if a blizzard might put you in the ditch when it was 30 below. Helping a mare drop a foal or pulling a calf out of a cow with ropes was one thing, but getting that intimate with the birth of your child was bloody alarming. Dad could not imagine being that present at the birth of his children. Plus, on a cold night with the wind howling up your backside, how were you supposed to bend to your wife’s need along a country road only to have the baby die of exposure? Some things only required half a brain to figure out.

On Christmas morning Dad, Randy, Jan and I arrived in Warroad excited to see Mom who’d been away for years. We opened presents and then we feasted on Grandma’s Christmas trimmings. We scraped our desert plates clean and ate one chocolate-covered cherry each. Not long after, Dad had to leave as the cold afternoon turned fast toward night. Cows had to be milked twice a day. Jan was crying and Randy’s big eyes spilled tears as Mom helped Dad wrap them for the drive home. Someone had decided I could stay and I didn’t know what to make of such good luck.

That night Mom and I snuggled down into the same bed with quilts piled high. She had been gone for two weeks and every day my stomach had filled with dread that she might never come back, but here she was all warm and sleepy. My mother.

I was wakened by a lamp shining in my eyes. Urgent whispers caused me sit up. Towels were lying on the on the floor soaking up something that had been spilled. There was a stack of clean sheets on the chair. My grandmother was wrapping Mom in her bathrobe and coat. Grandpa appeared, put his arm around her and led her down the stairs. Where are they going, I asked. It was alarming, her leaving in the middle of the night. My grandmother shushed me and moved me aside where I shivered as she pulled sheets from the bed. What happened I asked? How did the bed get wet? “We’ll be done in a minute,” she said, “then you can hop back in bed.” But where is mom going? My voice was swelling and my stomach lurched. “She went to the hospital to get a new baby,” Grandma told me brightly. In the middle of the night? “Don’t worry. She’ll be back soon.” She kissed me, switched out the light and I heard her footsteps fade down the stairs.

Poor Rex. He still doesn’t get much out of his birthday. Maybe this year I will remember to send a card.

Monday, November 23, 2015

I am a person, not an animal

“I am now confident and strong. I know I am a person, not an animal. My wound, my deep wound, is also my strength, because it makes me help others … those who bear scars must help the wounded.”

Would you guess this is a quote from an Iraqi woman, a rape victim, a former prostitute who has spent the past nine years rescuing women trapped in the horror of sexual violence that exists in Baghdad? I wouldn’t have. 

I left out part of the quote from an article that appeared in The New Yorker, October 5, 2015 “Out of Sight” by Rania Abouzeid, the part where she says, “Sometimes I don’t think it can be stopped.” When she sees victims, “I feel like my insides are ripped open. I am hurt witnessing this” (During the interview she was called to the scene where a woman had been dragged from her home and shot in the street because she worked in a brothel.)  
Illustration by Aude Van Ryn

And yet, in the face of what seems completely hopeless she continues her work because “my wound, my deep wound, is also my strength, because it makes me help others.”

We’ve lately heard and read much about women who are beaten, starved, murdered, forced into slavery, marriage, or who are sold to brothels or must choose prostitution and its terrifying risks in a Muslim culture just to support their children..

I can’t imagine. And can only pray and pray for them and the world – that God would soon come to them with all the power and might he holds against evil – and his great and mysterious ability to be both just and merciful at the same time. Unlike myself who would like to simply kill where I saw fit and be done with it.

I can’t imagine being Layla whose suffering has become her motivation, even her conduit for helping others. She’s not the pitiful, self-focused loser I might become. No.

I can’t imagine. And yet I can. In my small way. I am drawn to this woman and her wise words because somehow she speaks across oceans of divide to touch our own lives. To whatever degree we bear wounds, if we can remember who we are – humans bearing God’s image, persons, not animals, that in Christ we can be strong and confident –  “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him.” (II Pet. 1:3) This will enable us to live lives that are meaningful.

So here’s the thing: If what I do, however small and seemingly insignificant to others springs out of my own suffering (again, even if comparatively small to Layla’s) isn’t that the gift or at least part of the gift I am to give to others? “Those who bear scars must help the wounded.” We all bear scars. So, if I walk out of this office and plan our Thanksgiving meal with love and thought for this small group of people who will gather with us, including our granddaughter who has her own past wounds from holidays gone awry, won’t that be doing what I can to lift a corner of darkness here, where I live?

Layla is my hero. I pray God will guard her steps and protect her heart and all the women she rescues.