What I’m Thankful For

This fall I took an online class on the personal essay, never realizing how all consuming it would be. Between weekly readings, 3,500-word assignments, and a discussion board serving as our virtual classroom, I felt as if I was back in graduate school.

So I was relieved to finish up last week, eager to get back to my life. Two days later I flew to Philadelphia to visit my son Andrew and his fiancée, Kendall. On Saturday, we drove north of the city to the Woodmere Art Museum. Its exclusive focus is on artists from Philadelphia. None of us had heard of it before but were drawn to a special exhibit recently launched of the photographs of John Mosley (1907-1969). A photojournalist his entire career, he documented the Black community post-Great Migration. In more than 100 black-and-white unframed images, Mosley chronicled the positive, vibrant life of Blacks during this period of history: Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King; Langston Hughes; Joe Louis and Jesse Owens; the church, culture clubs, the YMCA, and Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City, to name a few.

On the heels of a decidedly strange political season and an even stranger outcome, where our country’s future is anything but certain, and the rules are being rewritten and roles redefined, I am suddenly grateful for art and its practitioners. Grateful that an entire army of creative people march to their own beat. Grateful that on any given day I can read an essay by Joan Didion, attend an exhibit by Haitian mixed media artist Charles Philippe Jean-Pierre, listen to K.D. Lang’s version of “Halleluiah” by Leonard Cohen, hear Billy Collins read his poems, and smile at how extraordinary it is to be alive.

I am grateful that artists care about truth and find infinite expressions for it. For Italo Calvino, writing connected him to a “collective enterprise.” Mary Gaitskill writes “to give form to things we can sense but not see.” Writers, according to Susan Sontag and many others, pay attention to the world. Vladimir Nabokov famously wrote: “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That . . . prism is the art of literature.” Art interprets life for us, giving us the rich texture of the most ordinary moments.

For my money and time, listening to an enduring piece of music, viewing the work of a visual artist, or opening a good book are not different versions of turning away from the events of the day. Getting “lost” in art—better, filling up on art—means glimpsing the very essence of what matters. Saul Bellow called it “opening life up down to the pit.” Artists, it turns out, are much less afraid of the truth than the politicians who spin it.

Back to School

I recently enrolled in an online class that starts in September. As soon as I signed up and paid, I felt a slight increase in heart rate, a twirl in my stomach, that eagerness that I associate with learning. Until the class begins, I am happy to visualize my much younger instructor, who teaches from a trailer she lives in with her husband on a cliff overlooking Lake Michigan and a Bible camp she attended as a child. Oh, the things I will learn!

When I think of going back to school, I am transported to Ogden Avenue Elementary, a solid three-story stone and brick structure six blocks from my home, straight east on the same street that connected me to the world.

There I learned multiplication and division. I discovered science and history. I argued (and won) that women were the stronger sex, thanks to my mother, who suggested my thesis: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” One day during recess I outran every sixth grader. I learned to square dance. I was friends with the janitor. What I remember most about my grade school was the absolute cleanliness that greeted me each weekday when I walked in the double doors. Every corridor and wall gleamed. Windows were free of streaks and grubby fingerprints. It was as if dirt of any kind would interfere with learning. All of which gave my early formal education an antiseptic smell, not unlike that of a sterile environment.

One year, probably second or third grade, a student reported me for writing in chalk on the sidewalks between home and school. The principal was a pale, thin man with my last name, differently spelled. I had written nothing offensive. I hadn’t even written on school property. I remember sitting outside his office barely able to swallow. My bladder was about to explode. All I felt was an overwhelming sense of wrongdoing. I’d never been in trouble before, at least not with anyone I didn’t live with.

He lectured me about defacing public property. “I don’t ever want to have to talk to you about this again, do you understand?” I nodded and bit my cheeks so I wouldn’t cry. I wouldn’t give him that satisfaction. Beneath the layers of Lutheran guilt that had already begun to rise like puff pastry, I knew I’d done nothing wrong. That the next time it rained, the directionals like “stop” or “this way,” the fanciful designs I had drawn on cement would disappear. My “sin” would be washed away.

My mother may have felt her own guilt for not defending me. She didn’t tell the principal his thinking was thin, his boundaries overreached, his notion of a lesson learned entirely wrong. Instead she picked me up from school at noon, a kind of offering on the seat between us—egg salad sandwich, potato chips, a cookie, and a lidded jar filled with milk of the off-brand powdered variety, which for years I considered a dairy product. I ate while she drove me to Ben Franklin so I could pick out a new outfit for my Barbie doll.

Back to school. Even students weighed down by backpacks filled with supplies and egg salad sandwiches know the secret. Probably learned it before kindergarten. If you ask them, they will tell you that learning doesn’t fit into a 9-month period, and doesn’t happen only within the classroom. That the world itself—its storms and force fields, molecules and mountains, honeybees and chimpanzees—is our school and playground. That the events of the day—shootings and protests, politicians trying to convince us that their sins are more forgivable than their opponents’—are where we can practice critical thinking, careful listening, civil discourse. Somewhere in all of the haze, we just might stumble onto a truth.

In my back yard, the monarchs and hummingbirds have shown up to feast on the orange Mexican daisies grown from seed to six feet. Students of life, these elegant winged creatures are fueling themselves for the journey ahead.

Half a Cucumber

I didn’t realize I knew where I was going

Two months ago Jim and I were standing in early light at Port Allen on Kauai, waiting to board a catamaran. The itinerary was to snorkel while the waters were calm, then head up the Napali Coast and, if we were lucky, see some whales. I unlocked my phone and, as if I needed any justification for being there, checked the weather in Minnesota. Minus 20 that morning. The weather where I stood in shorts and sandals, 68.

I checked e-mail, quickly deleting a few. Then I noticed one from the Minnesota Women’s Press. A solicitation, I decided, wondering how I got on that distribution list. We still had 15 minutes before departure, so I opened the e-mail.

The editor was asking permission to publish an essay I had submitted. Essay? What was she talking about? I admit my brain wasn’t fully revved. I had avoided coffee that morning, concerned about how my stomach would handle the motion of the boat for six hours. But I wasn’t so dull that I was sure I hadn’t sent anything to the press. Ever. There must be a mistake.

The editor even attached the article I had submitted, perhaps by way of saying, “You probably thought we never received your submission since we didn’t acknowledge it or decided it wasn’t right for our needs at this time.”

Curious, I opened the document. My submission was dated October 2014, 16 months ago. Gradually, the haze lifted. I had picked up a copy of the magazine once, seen a column called “My Story,” and thought I could share mine. And so, apparently, I had.

I read words I’d written, then forgotten. Yet they were familiar. The essay, “Life after Death,” is a kind of overview of the memoir I’m working on. I was surprised, more than anything, to read that even a year and half ago I had a sense of what I was doing, where I was going. (Or, that I am just as confused today as I was back then.)

As I muddle my way toward a structure that will hold these events and reflections, I feel reassured that I have some clarity about what I’m doing. Which was just the assurance I needed yesterday when I opened the freezer to pull out the fruit to make a smoothie and found, under the bag of strawberries, half a cucumber.

You can read the essay from the April issue of The Minnesota Women’s Press here.

Work as Prayer

Finding the sacred in what we do

I am 62, an age when the word “retirement” comes up frequently in conversation.

“I can’t wait to retire in June,” Jim says, but will.

“I doubt I’ll ever retire,” a woman laments, having never quite recovered from accumulated debt.

“I can’t believe how busy I am since I retired,” another Jim says who has devoted much of his time to mastering the cello.

“I worry I will spend all of my time on Facebook,” a friend who will retire later this year confesses.

For me, the word “retirement” doesn’t quite fit. I’m no longer an employee or independent contractor. Yet, by my calculations, I spend more than 25 hours a week in my home office. “Working,” I tell myself and others, to give “writing” some heft and credibility. We writers are an insecure bunch at heart and will do what we need to to elevate our craft—which we labor over with few if any guarantees—to a legitimate pursuit.

Near the end of the Ash Wednesday service last week, my mental gears were already shifting. Which route should I take to get to St. Louis Park, where I planned to visit my mother-in-law and then spend the evening with the grandkids? Should I have picked up Valentine’s Day cards? Did I remember my slippers? If 2-year-old Charlie looks at my forehead funny because of the dark smudge, should I tell him Grandma forgot to wash her face?

The words from the final prayer of the service broke through my wanderings: “. . . work as prayer . . .” Huh. The confession, the psalm, the sermon had all held me briefly with their power, but “work as prayer” wouldn’t let me go.

During my drive across town I turned the phrase round and round in my mouth and in my head until “work as prayer” became its own petition. May my work be a sacred conversation. May my writing reflect the longings of the heart. May all that I do be a sign of thanksgiving, forgiveness, and love.

Some of us still work. Some of us are glad we don’t. Still others have found different pursuits to enrich our lives. Imagine that whatever we occupy our time with we call prayer. How would it change the nature of what we do? How would it change us?

Writer-friend Nancy J. Nordenson talks about work in her elegant book Finding Livelihood. “Like Studs Terkel’s workers,” she writes, “I am on a search for daily meaning as well as for daily bread . . . I want to cast my net on the side of astonishment . . . I want to find God at work in me and through me.” (p. 4)

Nordenson’s wisdom on the subject of livelihood has drawn me closer to understanding work as prayer. Work as provision and work for the sheer delight of it. Maybe “astonishment” is the word I seek. Maybe it’s the and that retirement allows.

I vote we lose the word “retirement” because it no longer applies. People of a certain age are doing anything and everything but our parents’ version of retiring. They are helping their children. They are reading more. They are sharing what they know with others. They are pursuing hobbies, seriously or not. They may be employed part-time in a no-stress job and loving it. Perhaps, after all these years, they are finding their heart’s passion. Or they’re enjoying the legacy they built during a long career and mentoring others to do the same. Each is a prayer of thanksgiving and gratitude. A prayer that whatever we do, whenever we do it, our “work” is done with a fullness we may never have believed possible.

The Narrow Eye of Dawn

I am in my office this sixth day of a new year, shades open, houses and trees visible outside my bank of windows. The clock reads “8:25.” This time of year I am used to starting my days in the dark walking Indie. I make little effort to see much, since there is little to see. I am also used to night fading to a dull neutral and calling it day.

Then, I look up and see a small fire through the bare branches. As if an artist dipped her brush in copper pigment and placed it on a blank canvas, letting the paint form a pool of color before moving the brush in a single broad stroke to the right. I keep watching. “And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” The stroke of color intensifies. Now I see a brilliant band of light: the narrow eye of dawn.

Even a quiet dawn is a beginning. This is when it happens. This is when I think of a loved one. This is when I resolve to be a better person. This is when an insight comes to my dull brain, sparking new energy. Even as gray, dawn is noticeable. Even as a thin streak that is gone as quickly as it appeared, dawn brings more light.

Unravelling All Around

The terror, and necessity, of starting over

In the movie “Dances with Wolves” Kevin Costner plays Lt. Dunbar, sent to a remote fort in the midst of Indian country. On his way there, he and his driver Timmons come upon the skeletal remains of a settler killed by an arrow. Timmons, perpetually coarse, can’t help himself. “Someone back East is saying, ‘Why don’t he write?’ ”

I have asked myself that same question the last few months regarding my blog. Why don’t I write? What is stopping me? How do I explain the silence? I can’t point to an overly busy schedule, though I am spending more time with grandkids and loving it. I can’t blame it on the weather, even though I’ve lived in Minnesota more than 30 years and should be good at making that the excuse.

Sometimes we need silence. In the world, in our lives, in our hearts. A quiet place where the noises are muted and we can be still and listen.

Last night I was reading about murmurations, the phenomenon where massive numbers (think thousands) of birds in migration pattern the sky with unusual shape shiftings as they bend and turn in synchronicity toward their destination. Besides the roar they reportedly make, so many throated creatures clamoring together, they are continually changing while staying essentially the same. And who isn’t pondering the unravelling in Paris and Beirut, Mali and San Bernardino, events that make me wonder if the world itself isn’t coming undone.

I thought I was close to finishing a revision, even announcing as much to some and daring to think beyond. In a moment of quiet, brought on as much by a sudden lack of confidence as by the world’s horrors, I heard a voice, one that had been trying for some time to offer me a different structure, a better way in. Finally I listened. As if I needed fifty thousand winged creatures moving across the sky or bullets tearing flesh and air to get my attention. I finally listened to the persistent voice. “And what about you, Lenore? When are you going to step forward and speak?”

Maybe this is what unravelling yields. Out of the chaos we begin to assemble the pieces in their right order. We resolve that what we believe, who we love, the words we choose, are more important than ever. That is what we have to lean on.

It is a terrifying thing to start over. To take a manuscript I’ve labored on for two years and see it again as different colored threads, not a nearly finished garment. It has left me, temporarily, at a loss for words. Unravelling the strands of narrative, forcing open scenes, reimagining the chronology has forced me to ask, Is this who I am? Is this what I am trying to say? Is this what I believe?

If to any of these questions the answer is no, then we aren’t ready to dare something different.

The Adventist

It’s embarrassing, really, that she has posted nothing in almost two months. She sits at her desk in her office, inches from me, every day, and claims to be writing. You gotta wonder. It doesn’t much matter to me, as long as I get walked, fed, petted, and told I’m a good boy (which I totally deserve) at least three times a day. The space heater inches from my nose, a few treats are nice touches.

She came home from church talking about Advent, like I don’t know the waiting drill. Excuse me, but I recently “survived” Thanksgiving. Even though I was trembling outside while they bellied up to the table, plates heaping, then was physically blocked from getting anywhere near the kitchen—that mega mecca of mouth-watering morsels—then had a token piece of meat thrown out “to the dogs.” A phrase I like almost as much as “it’s a dog’s life.” You take what you get, I guess.

I’m the ace of waiting—patiently, expectantly, eyes fixed on the prize (or the hand that might deliver the prize), nose twitching, acting half-bored all casual like while my eyes are lasers. For me Advent is no four-week period. I wait in hope all year. Call me an Every Day Adventist, the high priest, the grand poo-bah of hope.

I smell meatballs. Gotta go.