THE PLEASANTEST THING

THE PLEASANTEST THING

He can sing the last word of every line—

the swing song I sang to his father,

that my mother sang to me.

 

In his small world, the garden

is still green and the wideness

he sees is safe. “Turn up your toes,”

 

I tell him. And I push him

on the orange soles of his shoes

and he laughs. Later, we’ll have

 

lunch, and maybe he’ll take a nap.

I can protect him from bees,

from sunburn, from sharp knives,

 

from tumbling down the cellar stairs.

Not from overturning boats,

from hunger and guns. Pushing

 

the swing, singing away,

I think about grandmothers

lifting children above the waves,

 

breaking the last bread,

huddling behind the last wall.

Their strength, their tears.

 

What can they do

but hold tight and die too.

There is no fiercer love.

FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, CONSIDERING THE LILIES

FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, CONSIDERING THE LILIES

The white plaster image

of crucified Jesus hangs

above the altar.  Its feet

are deep in potted Easter lilies.

 

I’ve always prefered Christus Victor

to dead Jesus, and I do not care

for potted lilies, sitting there

in their green-foil pots, trying

 

to represent Resurrection and Spring.

They smell like overheated rooms

full of unnecessary things. It’s odd—

the white lily is one symbol of Mary

 

who had no idea what she was getting into

when she said yes to the improbable task.

Look at those Renaissance paintings—

the poor girl looking up from her prayers

 

at that angel with its lily.

When I am an old lady

confined to my house or some other place,

I pray that no young minister will come

 

calling on the fifth Monday of Easter,

bearing a potted lily.

When I was a young minister,

I bore far too many,

 

though I suppose I meant well.

The old ladies, who knew a thing

or two about prayer, were,

for the most part, gracious.

I WHO HAVE DIED

I WHO HAVE DIED

I who have died am alive again today.

~e. e. cummings

I have surrendered to the darkness

of loneliness, of foreign spaces.

 

Where did you go when you were afraid?

I sat on the kitchen floor and wept

 

for my golden house, the porch,

the rock in the meadow.

 

Broken butterflies predicted loss,

so many losses. And today

 

I live again. On New Year’s Night,

two owls flew over my head

 

in the dark garden. This morning,

there is snow. Again I live, again.

 

This was inspired by a lecture by Br. David Steindl-Rast  about the practice of gratitude.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM–part 6

31. She works in a Day Care Center in a dying city. She is tiny, and too old for this work. She has bad knees and a smoker’s cough. And she loves the children. She sings to them, embraces them, wipes their noses, listens to them, talks to them as if they were equals since she knows they are. She recognizes their fatigue and anxiety and takes it very seriously. When she cannot reassure them—and many times she cannot—she comforts them with her kindness. When she was five years old, her own parents died in a boat fleeing a country at war, and her older brother saved her and raised her. When she was too young, she married the wrong man. He tried to kill her, and he killed her baby, and killed himself.  Every night she sits before her cardboard altar and lights candles for the baby, and her brother, and her parents. And she lights one, too, for her husband.

32. She is a librarian in a middle-sized mid-western town. When she was in college, she had a great deal of trouble deciding on a major, so she has a background in English, History, Latin, and Philosophy. Later on, a library degree made a great deal of sense to her. She likes to catalogue. She likes things that fit together, and she likes incongruities. When she prays for the library patrons as they come and go, she imagines them in their proper settings: this matron working tapestries in a castle tower, that high school student taming eagles in Mongolia. Sometimes she recommends books that fit her visions of them, and she is always right.

33. He is a jack-of-all-trades in a hardscrabble rural town, doing his best to support his family.  His wife has a bad back and is not able to work. They have three children, two in high school and one in fifth grade. He plows driveways and mows lawns, does some brush-hogging and ditch-witching and logging and roofing, and in the winter sometimes he makes snow at a small ski area. He has a backhoe left him by his father, and he recently bought a small elderly dump truck so he can haul gravel and crushed stone. He will, his wife says, “give the shirt off his back” to anyone in trouble, and she smiles fondly as she says it. They’ve housed neighbors whose house burned down, they’ve taken in runaway teens and stray cats and abused horses. And there’s always enough. “The Lord provides,” he says, and his wife laughs and rolls her eyes.

34.  Her early marriage ended in divorce, and now she lives with her elderly mother, three fat ginger cats and an obnoxious Yorkie. She used to be an office manager for an electronics firm, but after she recovered from breast cancer, she decided that she needed to spend more time outdoors. Now she has two jobs:  in the winter she teaches skiing at a Mom-and-Pop ski area, and in the summer she is a flagger for a traffic control company.  Her favorite of the two jobs is flagging, something that her friends find very surprising. “It isn’t at all boring,” she says. In the evenings, she enjoys making small books from nice papers, and she writes happy things in them and hands them to the people waiting in the first car in the line. She has dog biscuits in her pockets, too, for their dogs.

35.  He is a widower in charge of programs at an adult day care center. There is never enough money, but he always manages. His salary is ridiculously low, but he remembers the birthdays of all the staff members and all the clients with corsages or boutonniers. In season, they are made from flowers from his garden. He knows hundreds of popular songs and sings them while he plays his banjo. He invites people from all over the community to come offer programs at the center, and he rewards them with bouquets.  A cartoonist comes regularly to give free lessons. Every spring a woman who does bird calls comes with slides of the birds she imitates. A group of junior high students come to sing a capella music. A retired history professor leads a current events discussion group. The only problem he has is scheduling: so many people want to come that he has trouble fitting them all in. He likes eating at the center because he is a terrible cook. Left on his own, he eats cold cereal and microwaved baked potatoes.

36.  She is the Lunch Lady at an elementary school in the town where she grew up. Five years ago, she graduated from a prestigious culinary institute, and after some consideration decided she’d rather work in a school than a restaurant. The breakfasts and lunches she prepares are beautiful and good. There is almost no wasted food in the school now. She has convinced many community members to grow extra vegetables and fruits for the school, and she freezes the surplus for winter meals. With her own money, she bought a grow light system so she can make fresh salads all year. Children are always welcome in the kitchen, and sometimes teachers send restless or troublesome children there to help her. She always has something for children to do:  washing vegetables, arranging things on trays, making decorations for the cafeteria tables. She is engaged to a young orchardist who also drives a school bus. They hope to marry as soon as they finish building a little house on the edge of the orchard. She meets regularly with a women’s circle for meditation and earth-honoring ritual.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM– part 5

25.

She is a clerk in a city bookshop, and since she has an MFA, she specializes in books about music and art. Customers always ask for her when they want to find the perfect recording to give to an aunt who loves opera, or the perfect coffee-table book about the pre-Raphaelites.  She lives alone in a one bedroom apartment two blocks away from the bookshop, over a stationery store, and she has a tiny, elderly dog whom she rescued from a high-kill shelter five years ago. She lives very modestly, without a car or television or computer, though she has an excellent, though compact, sound system. Once a week, she takes the night shift at a shelter for homeless teenagers, and she gives a third of her income to support the shelter and the local food pantry. She also attends AlAnon meetings twice each week, in the basement of the synagogue on the corner.

26.

He’s a high school senior in a small-town union high school. He’s not an athlete, nor especially gifted academically, though he is a solid B student. He isn’t part of the crowd of “popular” students, although he has a good circle of friends who, like him, are creative and funny.  He lives with his parents and twelve-year- old sister in a double-wide on the edge of town. Both his parents work odd hours, so he does most of the cooking for his sister and himself, and he keeps an eye on her after school.   During his junior year, he came upon a group of people teasing one of the special education students who attend his school, and he put an end to the teasing, and defused the situation. He also has a knack for stopping fights before they become violent. This has been noted by one of his teachers, who is encouraging him to go on to work with troubled teens. He likes that idea, and has decided that if he can’t get a scholarship to college, he will work for a couple of years on his uncle’s farm, and then become a classroom aide. He plays the ukelele.

27.

She is the music director in a large church, responsible for two choirs, music for all the services, and a concert series. She is also in demand as an organ soloist and a teacher, and has several advanced students, although her favorite students are the beginners. She loves music, especially Bach and Fauré, and she loves her work. God, she believes, is best known through music, and she once told her husband that if she had to choose between music and God, she would choose music. Her choristers respect her and always give her their best because, as one soprano says, “She cares so much—not just about the music, but about us.”  Her husband is the principal cellist in the city symphony orchestra, and they have one daughter who is in junior high school and plays the clarinet. She has a dry sense of humor, and privately considers the disbanding of the church’s handbell choir one of her greatest accomplishments.

28.

He was born again two years ago when he attended a revival meeting at a Baptist church in the suburban neighborhood where he lives in a duplex with his girlfriend. The early glow has worn off, but he still feels the love of Jesus in his heart. His girlfriend, a massage therapist and yoga teacher, calls herself a secular Jew, and is bemused by his religious fervor, although she loves him dearly and does not make fun of him. He attends a community college, hoping to get a degree in management. To pay the bills now, he is a picker in the warehouse of a large catalogue company. But in the back of his mind, he is always singing hymns and saying prayers for the world, especially for the people whose orders he is filling. His co-workers are very fond of him. He does not proselytize, but they know that he’ll pray for them if they ask him. He likes to bake, and often brings homemade cookies to share at breaks.

29. When he retired from IBM, he started volunteering. He drives elderly and low income people to medical appointments now, in all kinds of weather. Nearly all the staff at the small-town hospital and in the various doctors’ offices know him and greet him when he walks in with a patient. In order to do the job, he had to learn CPR, but he has never mastered the blood pressure machine. The people he transports are often anxious, and he listens to them but does not offer advice. Usually he gives each of them a small white stone from a supply he keeps in a paper bag in the glove compartment. “Put it in your pocket,” he says. “And remember that I’m remembering you.” He gathers the stones on a beach in Rhode Island where he goes every year to visit his wife’s sister, who is alcoholic and diabetic, and does not follow her doctor’s orders.   Her religious and political views are extreme, so the visit is always difficult, and he finds great comfort in his daily walk on the beach, looking for perfect white stones and praying over them.

30.  He worked all his long life as an editor, working his way up from jobs at small-town newspapers. By the time he retired, he was editor-in-chief of a major publishing company. He shepherded uncounted authors through the publishing process, and discovered several major writers. He cared passionately about language and thoroughly enjoyed the changes, including the evolution of slang words, which he defended vigorously against what he called “English-murdering snots.”  After he retired, he and his wife moved from New York to a small town in Vermont, where he occupied himself by writing letters to the editors of every newspaper he subscribed to. He became a warden in the church there, and developed a reputation in town as a curmudgeon, which delighted him. When he was in the hospital undergoing a fiercesome chemotherapy for lymphoma, the parish priest visited him and asked him how he was, and he said,  “Let’s just say I’ve had better days.”  Since his recovery, he has been recording books-on-tape for people who are unable to read.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM, part 4

19.

He is a professional stage hand, on the road all summer and into the fall, mostly on the west coast. His co-workers say that they always feel safe when he’s around. He is deliberate and thoughtful and does his work with great care. Though he is only in his forties, he has become a mentor to many younger people. Since by its nature, the profession involves difficult schedules, he impresses upon his young colleagues the importance of eating well and taking catnaps. He sets a good example. No one in the trade knows more shaggy dog stories. Sometimes he is lonely. He has a twelve-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Boston, and he calls her once a week, and sends half his salary to her mother for support.  When he has time, he likes to fish.

20.

When his wife and three children died in a boating accident, he changed his life. He sold the boat, and his business, his city apartment, his summer home in Vermont, his winter home in Santa Fe, his Lear 60, and his three cars. He liquidated all his other “assets,” and returned to the shabby city where he grew up. He found ways to give away all the money, always anonymously. Among other things, he bought a number of tidy little houses and gave them to Habitat for Humanity; he gave full college scholarships to four high school students from low-income families and endowed a fund to continue that practice; he bought a musical instrument for every promising child in the city schools who could not afford one, and paid for lessons. He rented a one-room apartment over a hardware store and got a job as custodian in the neighborhood junior high school.  The income just meets his needs. He takes pride in his work. The students like him, and find it easy to tell him their troubles. The teachers and guidance counselors know this, and often send students to him. He listens to them while he is mopping or sweeping or cleaning a bathroom. Although he misses his wife and children and always will, he has never been happier.

21

She makes jewelry from silver wire and semi-precious stones:  birds’ nests and flowers, intricate weavings, tiny children on swings. If she went to a high-end city or had a classy website, she’d make a great deal of money, but she sells her things at craft fairs and local markets. She determines the price of each item by the way she feels about the person who wants to buy it. She once sold a pendant— a silver rabbit under a garnet-studded tree attached to a chain of hand-made links—for five dollars, to a teenaged boy who wanted something nice for his mother.  And once, she sold a pair of hammered hoop earrings—that took half an hour to make—for one hundred twenty dollars, just because she saw the woman who wanted them slapping a little dog.  Her studio is in the old bungalow where she lives with her own little dog. She doesn’t consider herself “religious,” and indeed, she doesn’t think she knows what that word means, but she puts a blessing on everything that she makes, hoping that the people who wear them, or even touch them, will find peace. And somehow, people do, even the woman who slapped the little dog.

22.

She is the pastor of a small church in a small town. Because the church cannot afford to pay a full-time salary, she is also a substitute teacher in the elementary school. Because the rectory is large and she is single, she takes in overflow from the homeless shelter. When her brother asks her if she is afraid to do that, she laughs and says she’d be afraid not to. “Angels unawares,” she says. “Whatever you do unto the least.” Her parishioners worry about her. They think she doesn’t eat right, and they bring her casseroles. She has three cats, Patience, Prudence and Mephistopheles. She does not talk about her past.

23.

He lives with his family in an old farmstead on a back road. He grows vegetables and raises chickens and pigs. The pigs till the ground for the broccoli and tomatoes; the chickens fertilize the soil and pick out the seeds and bugs. He kills the animals quickly, with thanks. He picks the vegetables the same way. Although he could command high prices at specialty shops, he sells his eggs and produce and meat from a shop that was once the creamery connected to his old barn. People come from miles around and often stay to chat because, as one regular customer says, they always “feel better, knowing there is such a good man in the world.”  His wife has MS and can no longer help in the field, but his teenaged daughter and son work after school and all summer, and a retired farmer nearby always comes by to help during the time of the pig slaughter. “We’re lucky,” he says. “We have so much to be grateful for.”

24.

He takes photos for a local weekly newspaper and regularly exhibits photos in local art galleries. His portraits are especially arresting, and he has won journalism awards for several. One reviewer of his work wrote, “His ability to capture the feelings of his subjects is almost uncanny.” He does not talk much about how he works, and when asked, he smiles and says, “I guess it’s just intuition.” Always respectful, never intrusive, his presence at community events—even tragedies—seems to have a calming effect on the people around him. One woman whom he photographed as her house was burning down, said, “It’s like I knew if he was here, everything would be okay.” His wife is Methodist, but he is a member of a Quaker meeting, and he practices walking meditation regularly.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM, part 3

13.

He studies birds. He knows where wood ducks winter. He builds houses for bluebirds and gathers roadkill to feed the crows. He can imitate cardinals and robins, six species of sparrow and ten of warbler. Chickadees, titmouses, nuthatches, goldfinches all eat out of his hand. There are no luxuries in his small house. He has no companion, not even a cat. When he was young, he was a professor of zoology. Now, he says, he professes nothing but ignorance and love.

14.

She is a potter. She lives on a dead-end street in a northern town. Her studio is a shed attached to her bungalow. She was once married to a man who left her for another. Every morning, after her breakfast, she goes into the studio to work. She sings blessings into the clay so that the people who use the cups and bowls will feel happier and stronger. After lunch, she walks into town for a cup of coffee, which she drinks at a table outdoors if the weather is nice. People stop and talk to her, and she listens. In the afternoons, she walks and reads and in the summer, she tends her small garden. She sells her pottery at a local craft guild and online, and because her cups and bowls are beautiful and useful, she makes enough money to get by. She has two rescued rabbits who have the run of the house.

15.

He is a chaplain in a large institutional nursing home. Most of the patients live in double rooms with very few of their own possessions. Many have dementia, and many have no visitors. He makes the rounds six days a week, visiting each resident in rotation, and responding to emergencies and requests as they arise. Because there are not quite enough staff members, he knows how to change clothing and bedding and manage wheelchairs. He has a pleasant singing voice, and several of the residents enjoy singing hymns with him. On Sunday mornings, he conducts a simple worship service with music led by volunteers from local churches. Nearly every week, he conducts a funeral. He lives with his wife, who works in a yarn shop, in a modest house near the nursing home. They have two children: a daughter who is a pre-med student at the state university, and a son in high school who hopes to be a professional guitarist. Both of the children are easy-going, and they often attend the Sunday worship at the nursing home and talk with the residents there.

16.

She stays at home with her two young children and also cares for two neighbor children whose mothers work part-time. Her husband is trying to establish a car-detailing business, and she also does his bookkeeping.  She has been a social worker, and because she wants to stay in touch with the profession, she is on the board of directors of a local service agency. She also volunteers at their food pantry on Saturday mornings, when she can leave the children with one of the neighbors. Food pantry clients like her very much because she is fair and clear, and “treats them like real people.” Sometimes her fellow board members are annoyed with her for the same reasons.

17.

When she was a little girl, she always wore snow pants under her dress. The other children at school laughed at her because her shoes had cardboard soles and because she smelled bad. Now she is a buyer for a big New York department store. At work, she dresses like an ad in the New York Times, but at home she doesn’t. She lives in a one-bedroom walk-up in Turtle Bay instead of Uptown. Wherever she goes—Paris, Rome, London—she carries a pocketful of the local cash, which she gives to any beggar who asks. She has established a shoe and clothing fund back in the town where she came from, so that all the children can have decent shoes and something nice to wear. She also serves as a mentor for children who have been abused.

18.

She has a severe brain disorder and takes medicine, but she still suffers. She lives in a small apartment in the city, and many people in the neighborhood know her and greet her when they see her on the street. For many years, she has cared passionately about endangered chimpanzees, and she sends letters to local newspapers encouraging people to drink only shade grown coffee and to eat less beef. She has four godchildren, and out of her disability income, she buys them books for their birthdays. She sits in meditation for several hours each day, and keeps a prayer list of more than one hundred names.