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This here is it: Christmas Letter 2017

On the weekend before Thanksgiving I jumped in the car to make a last-minute drive to Memphis for an office luncheon celebrating my father’s upcoming retirement from the practice of medicine, which will actually coincide with his 92nd birthday later on December 30. A very long run he has enjoyed, indeed, and I wanted to be there to celebrate him. He started out with a small cadre of young men in medical school at The University of Tennessee during World War II, had several colorful side jobs like sharpening surgical knives, for one, and has ended up in the long span afterward being an army doctor, an internist, a medical school professor, head of medical education in the hospital, director of the EKG lab, an entrepreneur, and one of the first practicing cardiologists in that region. And a damn good golfer and tennis player. Dr. Gene and one other gentleman, Hiram Sturm, both the same age, are the last two surviving members of his medical school class, and Dad will be the very last to retire.

The five- or six- hour drive to Memphis alone gave me a lot of time to reflect on things– especially things that are coming to an end. Sounds a tinge sad, but if you’ll hang with me, I promise it ends up being hopeful. This is what Advent looks like– i.e., turns out good in the end. The end of the year, too, is a good time for this sort of recollection, which I like to think of as the process of re-gathering the parts of yourself you’ve left scattered across the past year, or season, or region, or road. Or lifetime. It’s not a bad exercise to undertake.

In our family this year, we’ve found ourselves in the middle of at least one very significant ending. Marianna graduated from high school last May, and all of a sudden, we’ve become “empty nesters.”  I like to describe the situation like this: in 1994, we brought Marguerite home from Piedmont Hospital; in 1998, we brought Marianna home from Piedmont Hospital. Then they both went to Westminster for thirteen years; and then in August of 2017 Marianna got in her Mazda, (which we bought from our friends the Whites–thank you!) which was packed to the gills with food, clothing, and her most essential personal effects, and drove out of the driveway headed to Auburn University. As she says, “I love it because it’s three turns from our house.” And here we were, Yvonne and I, alone, literally for the first time since February of 1994. That is the strangest feeling. Not altogether bad, mind you, but definitely different.

About a week before leaving for Auburn, Marianna remarked to me, “Well Percy (our dog) is gone now, and the chickens are dead, and all you have is Walker (our smug, self-satisfied cat). When he’s gone, that will be so depressing: it’ll just be you and Mom!”  But you know what, Marianna? It’s actually not depressing at all! We’re really happy– after all, that’s how we started out: just Mom and me. So, War Damn Eagle! Dinner is so easy now. We go to bed half the time at 9:30 PM. It’s actually quite dreamy at our house these days. And now that Marguerite is super settled in her second year of graduate school to be a counselor, she calls us a lot and keeps up really nicely, so we actually feel like we hear from her more than we have for years.

And Marianna, too, is super happy at Auburn, with a lovely roommate named Kate Wallace, who in a crazy turn of fate or Providence, is the first cousin of one of Marguerite’s longtime roommates from Rhodes. What are the chances? Marianna pledged Pi Phi, and has a sprightly group of both new friends and old cronies from Westminster to hang with, and she and Kate keep themselves entertained going to Wal-Mart and Kroger and Ubering to search for their cars at the student parking area that is like fourteen miles away. She nailed Honors biology, which I certainly did not as a college freshman. They’re living the Auburn dream. Big shout out to James Walker Dickey at Sewanee. Miss ya’ around here!

Marguerite has a lovely old house in Memphis with her super roommates McKenzie and Taylor, and she gets to visit with my family a lot. She actually lives on Harbert, a street in Central Gardens near the neighborhood where my mother grew up and used to play or stay over at the house of close family friends in the Thirties. Within her graduate program, Marguerite’s working for the University of Memphis in the Office of Disability Resources, which is wonderful experience for her as she prepares to enter her year of practicum, next. And she nails all her classes. Margue and sweet Ben are still dating and burning up the road between Memphis and Knoxville, where he lives and works as a PA.

Now that Marianna is at Auburn, I’ve gotta confess, yes, it’s kinda crazy, but we have become erstwhile football fans. (Yes, that is the earth that you feel opening up beneath you.) Or at least we buy some tee-shirts and pompons and stuff and go to maybe the first fifteen minutes of a game or two and sneak out because we’re having a heat stroke; or, like, have the Auburn game on TV in the background while I read Rilke poems or look at Cecil Beaton books. It’s quite remarkable for us. Yvonne really does watch the actual games– from bed, though. For real.

In work life, the two of us are still at Westminster. Yvonne’s also been super busy with her wedding planning biz. After each wedding, she misses the bride and groom and their parents like they were her own family. I still get to do some fun design work around the edges of my time, plus I’m still playing piano for Christ Church Anglican, which is a sweet little gig for some very lovable folks. I’ve also been working on a novel for about eighteen months, and I’m headed to a thing called Writer’s Hotel in New York in June, where a bunch of writers and agents and editors hole up in, yes, a hotel and try to hammer manuscripts into some publishable form. So, I hope some of my lengthier musings will find fruitfulness in that endeavor, and that maybe by next December I’ll have something you can read besides a super long and self-congratulatory Christmas letter! Or it could just be another one of my many attempts at pomposity.

But let me get back for just a moment to that theme of endings, and that trip for my dad. That interminable stretch of road reaching out of Atlanta toward I-20 to Birmingham, then up old Highway 78 to Tupelo and onward to Memphis, has to be one of the bleakest and most tedious stretches of road in America. It’s like something that you damn sure wish would end, but just won’t. It reminds me a lot of what I heard a preacher say about sin when I was a kid: “Sin will take you farther than you wanted to go and keep you longer than you wanted to stay.” And the fact that the state of Alabama took from the 1970s until 2017 to finish the divided highway roadwork of 78 and hook it up to I-65 is one of the most remarkably dilatory acts of civil engineering in modern history. But it did shave off about 28 minutes of road time in the end. (Kinda wonder if that was even worth it?)

This selfsame stretch of brown asphalt, my friends, cuts through the heart of what some have called “the South of the South,” and what occurred to me on the drive was that the spare poverty and isolation of that region is precisely why after college I booked it to a place like London, then went to New York, and finally ended up in the ATL, hoping never to look back. Except for special occasions. Yvonne and I have often traveled that road as a couple, then later as a family, and actually most often at Christmastime, because it’s been our tradition to spend that holiday with the Memphis folks. And after Delta bailed on their Memphis hub, airfare got crazy enough to keep us in the car far too often.

We’ve always taken up the road time by reaching deep with our conversation– gossiping about family members; talking about what kind of house we would build if we were designing the ideal thing (still haven’t actually built it); and then I often make historical references along the way that nobody cares about: “In 1862, the Confederate encampment was temporarily located about here.” And I can’t miss the opportunity to say how this or that Church of Christ with a crazily convoluted roofline is ultimately derived from Le Corbusier. My dad got his money’s worth from all my graduate school, by damn.

One December I’ve lost track of– maybe 1991 or so, Yvonne and I drove late at night through that Alabama and Mississippi landscape when it was heavily glazed with ice and barely illuminated by the dim glow of tiny sleeping towns– a sight reminiscent of the familiar Christmas poem of Christina Rosetti:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Making painfully slow progress across icy highways, we desperately wanted to stop many times, but it was as if the entire world had closed, and everyone moved away. The soft quiet and peacefulness was palpable, but there was a stony silence and desolation to it as well. Finally, somewhere north of Tupelo (and this was before the furniture manufacturing industry had perked up the central Mississippi economy– after all, where do you think the Sofía Vergara collection at Rooms to Go comes from?), we finally stopped at a nameless, numberless exit to look for gas or distraction or barbecue pork skins or anything. As it turned out, that particular exit was even darker than the open road, with only a few houses and no name-brand gas stations, and no visible populace. It was as if a wintry hydrogen bomb had landed there and exploded into icy, splintery desolation. Still, the quietness, still the beauty, though; still the eerie solitude.

Foraging neither gas nor snack, uh, nor bathroom in that remote hamlet, we soon wheeled Yvonne’s old Volvo back onto the dark, flat highway determined to persevere another hundred miles or so, unrefreshed. Depleted of interesting conversation we could muster in the previous four hours, Yvonne set upon a single, plaintive query, which she kept repeating not so much to me, but just rhetorically, to the frosty air: “What do people do out here?” To which, I would answer– starting with the most basic sustenance up to the highest level of economy I could observe around me:

“Well, I guess they grow things in spring and summer, so obviously some people work the land, and somebody has like a farm stand to sell vegetables somewhere; and then some people sell farm equipment, and other folks work on equipment and cars; and some people run gas stations, and some people also work there, and then some folks have children, so I guess there’s at least one doctor around here somewhere; and then I guess there’s got to be a school, so there must be some teachers, and then there has to be a church, which would also mean there must be a pastor. But judging from all the TV’s on the front porches, they could just watch TV preachers and not have one of their own. And then maybe if it gets so boring for them, too, somebody’s got to be running a cinder-block juke joint, though I sure can’t see one tonight. Oh, and timber. They cut trees and sell those, and they deer hunt like 24-7.  So, there must be some stores to sell camo and boots and orange vests and all that. And guns. And taxidermists! Well, and then cotton! Yeah, and William Faulkner was over there in Oxford at Rowan Oak writing novels up and down the walls and shit.”

I realize now I failed to mention the catfish and poultry industries. And that was about all I could think of, honestly, but Yvonne, who really grew up as a city kid, from parents who were city kids, would just reiterate, “But, Robert, really. What do people do out here?”

So here I am still making the same trek twenty-six years later, and the main thing I’m thinking is that I just can’t bear it to make this drive again, like I just don’t have it in me to endure the length and bare tedium of it one more time in my whole life. About the only new things that have cropped up along that one piece of road from Birmingham to Tupelo since 1986 is a huge auto dealership with an American flag the size of a football field; and this one nuclear plant you can see in the distance, puffing out steam. Super cheery.

So, obviously, in year 26 of these iterations, I’m using this whole journey theme as a metaphor for life, duh. And what I am asking myself, I ask you, too: what are you coming to the end of at this point in December, 2017? The ancient Greeks had a wonderful word for this state, pleroma, that is sometimes translated into English as “the fullness of time.” I’ve been pondering that a lot, or at least for that couple a’ hours between Birmingham and Tupelo. What exactly is “the fullness of time?” Christian folks will recognize the phrase, especially this time of year, because of St. Paul’s use of it in Galatians 4:4. “In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son…”

I began to imagine the fullness of time as something you can’t bear any longer, like that road trip, or something that is about to burst, like an overfull water balloon at the end of a running hose; or I even thought about something my Italian grandfather said about this enormously pregnant dog he and I saw together once: “She’s full,” he said, echoing an Italian idiom, I think, that didn’t quite make the translation, but was packed with meaning nonetheless.  Yes, I get all that, and that’s where my mind first went.

But investigating the Greek term Paul uses, it appears that it doesn’t not so much connote the fullness of pregnancy or the exhausted, burnt out sense of “I’m so sick and tired of this” that we all get to in our own heads. It seems that the Greek term means something more akin to preparedness, readiness, like a ship fully loaded with everything it needs for an adventure or encounter.

Putting that particular spin on it all, then, being totally exhausted, burnt out, bored, finished, surfeited, traumatized, blocked– insert human condition— may not have anything to do with an ending at all. The metaphor then shifts away from the boring old road to something more like Marianna’s Mazda, completely overloaded with all her necessary and appropriate stuff, headed to college. And the crazy ironic thing about her particular experience is that she’s going to college in Alabama! WTF, college in Alabama? It shames the damn Vanderbilt right out of me. College in the Deep South.

And remember that whatever you think about Alabama, ha, or Georgia or Tennessee, or Mississippi for heaven’s sake, or the Midwest, or the Outer Hebrides, Jesus’ big message, his big ole good news, is that God is coming out to meet all the people who thought they’d never see God, who thought they weren’t ready, didn’t believe, weren’t worthy, weren’t part of a religious in-group, didn’t want to be in one anyway. And God showed up where religious people said God was not supposed to be, and to people who weren’t supposed to be God’s friends.

So, everyone, y’all, it’s December 23, 2017. Are you bored and sad, or are you ready?

It’s the fullness of time. 

-RS

 

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Dog Stars: Lessons on Love, One Dog at a Time

Because they tell me to go round back for pick-up, I park alongside the dumpster, walk up to the unmarked metal door and ring. An attendant buzzes me in, circles behind a recently disinfected laminate counter, asks me to sign a document, and places a plain cardboard box about the size of a microwave into my arms. My friend waiting in the car jumps out to help me, and we easily slide the package onto the back seat. Never a bother, I think to myself. Back at the house my wife says frantically, “You don’t have time for that right now; we have to be at Marguerite’s picture party in an hour and a half.” My daughter Marguerite has her senior dance tonight and I still have to shower and dress. “And what exactly do you suggest I do with it in the meantime?,” I rejoin. It won’t fit in the freezer.” “Well, please hurry, Honey.” It’s only May in Atlanta, but the temperature has already cheated up to 85 degrees, without rain for a week. I thrust a dull spade into the earth beneath the ivy in several choice spots in our far-back yard until the tool finally discovers one soft space, and I hastily carve out an opening slightly larger than the box, lower it down, drop in a blue collar and a plush toy, say a hasty prayer, and re-cover the spot. Patting it down and placing as large a rock as I can find on the new little mound, sweat and what might be a tear, commingle, drip from my chin, and touch the stone I place for Truman, the best dog I ever owned. Showering off the dirt from my arms and hands, I hear Marguerite in our bedroom asking my wife Yvonne to help her finish her hair and how her makeup looks. Pets pick the worst times to die.

My sophomore year in college, my parents phoned one evening to let me know that our family dog Corkie had died of old age and allergy complications, which so many Westies have when forced to adapt to the Southern heat. Life-long steroid treatments had compromised his liver. They naturally assumed I’d be distraught and felt uneasy telling me while I was away from home. My noticeable absence of grief puzzled them. They thought I would have been much more attached. “Any worthwhile human would have been,” my mother risibly remarked later. And when she related the news of my non-reaction to our life-long housekeeper the next morning, she commented authoritatively, “Ms. Spiotta, you know Robert don’t care nothin’ about no dog!” That sort of stung; but it sort of fit. And our housekeeper knew me well– she practically raised me from the age of three and didn’t fall for the “sensitive youngest-child” con game I was running on the rest of the family. She was, in fact, quite accurate. Did I care much about anything? Did I even have a heart, I wondered. If you don’t even care that much about your family dog you’ve had for years,
what or whom do you care about at all? But, I was a college kid with finals looming, so just I put it out of my mind for a few more years. And to be fair, my mother herself was originally not so crazy about no dog, either. But Corkie managed to slip through the back door of her heart and made a home there.

In sixth grade I’d spied an ad in the Mid-South Shopper’s News: “Moving out of State: West Highland White Terrier Needs Loving Home.” We’d never owned an “indoor dog,” so this was a big family happening causing much discussion about how spoiled I was becoming. I hounded her relentlessly until she gave in and let me bring the beast home. And the fact that my grandmother had already moved to a nursing home was about the only thing that made this even show up on the radar of possibility.  (Granny was a bit of a grande dame, and she would never have countenanced such a thing.)  Ironically, his previous owners had named the pup Robbie (also my name), so we had to change it to avoid confusion. He was a good enough dog, and I did play with him a lot over the first year, and even fed him a couple of times a week. Gradually, though, like most kids, I lost interest, and my mother picked up the slack.  I swiftly moved on to tropical fish, which were actually always dying, a pretty interesting thing in itself, because I had to ride my bike and look for hours every week at new and different fish to buy. And I could focus my ambitions on continually graduating bigger tanks with more rocks and bubblers. And then there was salt water. But even I would admit this was all about dominion and entertainment rather than love of creatures. Sensing my ambiguity about him in those years, Corkie’s affections migrated to two others– 1. my mother and 2. the automatic pool-sweeper machine, whom he chased around the edges of the pool every single day. We had Corkie about eight years, which were also the high season of my adolescence and teens. I think my mother thought I would be sentimental about Corkie because she herself had grown sentimental about him. Maybe he even represented a connection to me, the last of her six children, and I had grown up and was fast breaking free of the family orbit. Toward the end of his life, Corkie stuck close to her, and she even allowed him to sleep on the floor of her large closet, underneath the St. John knits, a place of privilege and intimacy.

Fast-forward twenty-seven years. A dog named Truman, another dog changed my mind, or my heart, completely about dogs, and maybe about love. And yes, it took about that long. He’s the pooch I was burying at the start of this story. Truman came to us in such a gracious and unexpected way, appearing one early morning at the top of our street, unwilling to leave another dog (his traveling companion), who had been killed by a car. Our merciful neighbor Diana had the courage to take the strikingly bad-looking chihuahua-mix (emphasis on mix) to her home first. He was malnourished, skittery, had advanced tooth decay, a curly tail, and big poppy eyes. He was definitely wary of me (good instinct!), didn’t like any men in general, but immediately bonded with my wife Yvonne and especially my younger daughter Marianna. Marianna, of course, took very quickly to him, and begged us to keep him, which was the furthest thing from my mind since, after all, “Robert don’t care nothin’ about no dog.” And honestly, Truman was hideous, mangy, and needed expensive veterinary attention. Well, you know who won that battle. My own daughter is just as persistent as I was at the same age when I was scouring Mid-South Shoppers News for West Highland White Terriers. As it turned out, this orphan mutt was the smartest, most faithful, most obedient dog ever. But I’ve left out a lot. Despite how I’m characterizing myself, I will have to tell you that I did have two more highly-bred Westies after college and before Truman to break me in to the whole “attachment thing,” not to mention a wife and two children! Bear with me for a little more background: our first Westie as a married couple, named Shelby, was really a step toward even having and caring for children, because Yvonne and I got him as a present for each other on our first December together, and we treated him as tenderly as any Christmas baby. Shelby was a great dog in many respects: he never barked or caused the least bit of fuss or trouble. Because we lived at that time on the backside of a large condo building next to a thickly wooded spot, our place was so quiet that Shelby never learned to bark. There was nothing to bark about. Except for the stripper who lived next door to us. But that’s another story. He was also noble and handsome. He was the kind of dog I could have loved if that was something I did. Ten years later, when he was killed by a skidding car on an unusually snowy evening in January, I experienced genuine sadness; but I was even sadder for my wife, who really took it hard. And then, frankly, I was sad for myself, because I knew Yvonne would need a dog on the rebound! Six months later, in sullen resignation, I even flew to Chicago to fetch the new puppy from the breeder (he and Shelby were cousins from the same kennel), and then experienced a harrowing unexpected landing and layover in Chattanooga on a drastically hot summer afternoon. They had to open the airplane doors on the runway to keep us all from passing out because there were no available gates, and Atlanta was closed down from lightning. He yelped the whole flight, and I finally had to hold him in my lap for a full hour to keep him quiet. It was a sort of a bonding experience, though, and he took to me right away and always hung around me (still does) like a side-kick, so I’d say I like him very much as a buddy, but even now, I wouldn’t exactly say I love him. Well, not like Truman. But Truman’s spirit pulled me in: cold-hearted me who viewed pets as amusements and decoration. Why? I suppose the answer would be partly because he gave my daughter and wife such constant affection and defended our family and home with territorial honor, which caused me to have enormous respect for him. But bonding and friendship and high esteem are not exactly love, though they could be part of it. So here at the risk of sounding like “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” I confess that something other than these sub-loves, something like real affection (er uh, love?), began welling up in me over time from somewhere. I don’t know how it happened, but it did–maybe because I wasn’t expected to love him, didn’t seek him out. There was nothing on the surface that made him desirable or lovable. Here I begin to question whether love is something that comes from the qualities of the object, and I have to say, NO. Real love comes from the heart of the lover, if it’s there at all. You don’t love because of qualities in the beloved; you just love because you have it in your own heart to do so. One day you just see someone or something, and bam, you love them and you know it.

You notice that our two other dogs, Shelby and Percy, were all perfect and precious, costly, came from a legit breeder, possessed notable documented blood lines. Truman, on the other hand, was a citizen of the street. I have this thing about naming pets for Southern writers, so naming Truman was a bit of a challenge. (“Kerouac” somehow didn’t fit.) Shelby was named for Shelby Foote, and Percy for Walker Percy. Percy and Shelby, the writers, were life-long friends, and both were extremely well respected for their literary achievements. Like their namesakes, those two terriers of mine possessed genuine nobility, even gravitas. Truman on the other hand showed up without a pedigree, without a home, without a name. But he displayed honor right from the start, because we found him standing watch over his poor fallen friend, unwilling to leave or desert him. Homeless Truman I named for Truman Capote, because he just had a whole other vibe going from these previous dogs I’d owned.

In fact, Truman was all about otherness, about “alternativeness”: everything about his persona messed with my shallow notions and measures of worth. He didn’t come from my world, my value system, my mind, or even my neighborhood. Who better, then, to open my heart to real love? A couple of years into the Truman adoption I began to remark almost every day that he far outstripped our other pets in character. He went outside and did his thing with great dispatch; he came immediately back when called—like a damn bullet. By contrast, Percy could only be coaxed with extreme measures to come out from under the bed to lower himself to the semi-diurnal deed. Then outside he always barked annoyingly not at brigands, but at squirrels, neighbors’ cats, even butterflies. Insufferable. When you hollered and bellowed for him, he made no pretense of hearing you. His ears were sealed as if with wax, like the Greek sailors in mythology, and his head was thicker than the concrete driveway. Sure, but he looked good in his all-white fur that required constant upkeep. But don’t try to coax him to play with you, because he’s not so interested; and as for his watchdog ability, let’s say that if we experienced a home invasion, he’d just lie low until the last of us was zipped up in a body bag, floors were mopped clean, and detectives had put yellow tape on the door. But all of this is characteristic of the breed, manipulated by human meddling to yield dogs that are persistent ratters and hunters of small game, not responsive lap dwellers.

By contrast, Truman was not formally bred at all but landed on this earth much like he did in our hearts, by accident. Truman easily and naturally became our best watchdog and companion. He recovered quickly from a few residual tricks from being on the road most of his life and settled down with a family he loved. Never a bother. Marianna photographed and filmed him constantly, dressed him up in outlandish costumes, put him in shows, carried him up and down the street. He was a willing side-kick. She invented something called the Chihuahua Club with her friends, where they got various dogs together for different neighborhood events that were not far short of animal cruelty, but which Truman seemed to delight in. How surprised I was when the trouble-free Truman began piddling in the house during the night, in the same spot under the breakfast room table. Why couldn’t he wait to go out in the morning? Plus I always let him out last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Percy could hold it a month if he had to, and sometimes preferred to in rainier seasons. I started to get a little fractious about it and barked at poor Truman on a number of occasions. He would just look at me rather sadly and tilt his head.

Then it happened: Truman was outside one morning trying to “go” while straining and circling about agitatedly. He kept lifting his leg desperately, but nothing was happening. I took him to the vet, who found his system full of big kidney stones that were virtually inoperable on a dog that tiny. I immediately rushed him up to a specialist animal hospital, where the doctor suggested that only the direst and most extensive surgery would possibly help him, and then only with mixed results and sure complications. So there I stood, looking into the eyes of this incredibly loving, trusting animal, who was in pain, and would surely die even more painfully within days. And there was nothing I could do for him, and I couldn’t explain it to him. But I would have to explain it to my wife and children. I would have to explain it to myself. In this small crisis of the heart, I began to feel what people do who experience unfair and unexpected losses of very precious things. I also felt the sting of having to do something awful but necessary. I had to put him down. So, I sat and held him for a while longer, and then I looked into his eyes, told him goodbye, and I actually said, “See you in heaven,” as corny as that sounds.
Then it was over. I asked them to keep his body for a week because we were then looking after Yvonne’s mother who was in the hospital, and the trauma would have been too much for us that week. I went home and broke the news, and we all mourned genuinely. I once heard someone say that home is where your losses are buried. Think about that. In fact, I didn’t bury Shelby at home, because when he was hit by a car during that snowy January, the distressed “perps” took him home and buried him at their own house after a dramatic death-bed scene, related to me later by telephone. We didn’t know what had happened to him, so we put signs all over the neighborhood, which the woman finally saw. He’d been in the ground for a while at that point, and the wife asked her husband if he remembered if the dog had a collar. The man (typical unfeeling bloke like myself) said he thought so, but he’d buried the dog with its collar on! The wife had the poor fellow exhume the dog and check; sure enough it was our Shelby. She was brave and kind nice to call us and identify herself and even offer to bring the dog back to us to bury at our own house. (I decided these were actually good people; they just couldn’t drive in snow.) “No,” I said, “just let him be.” Maybe I didn’t even feel the loss enough to insist that he come home.

But, when Truman died, I had them put him in that little box and I personally brought him home to bury in our own yard. I absolutely wanted him to be back at home with us. One evening soon after, Marianna stopped me in the driveway and grabbed my arm. Leaning in close, she pointed high above and whispered, “Look, Dad: It’s Truman’s Star.” I hugged her tightly and whispered, “He was the star, baby. He was the star.”

Old School

I sort of pride myself on looking relatively young for my age, but a couple of things happened this morning that pretty much beat me down with a walking cane.  First, I go to get my usual Starbucks, and the guy working the register is a sort of newbie that I recognize from messing up Yvonne’s latte a couple of weeks ago.  I had asked him his name back then to try to help him not feel so bad and also remember our orders better in the future (not).  Well this morning he kind of looks at me with his head tilted and says, “Oh, yeah, I recognize you; you’re a regular, right?. What’s your name?”

And I say, “I’m Robert; and you are Tyler.”

He looks surprised, and says, “Wow, I hope I have that kind of memory when I’m you’re . . .”

“Thin ice, buddy; you are walking on thin ice.”

Then I go to Whole Foods to browse the hummus aisle and price organic blueberries, and I can’t find any prices on the shelf labels or on the packages themselves.  Hummus is next to Sushi, and those folks are super cheerful, but their English is more limited.  So I resort to asking the person at the prepared foods counter to come with me to hummus, and he says, “I think the prices are just on the package.”

And I say, “No I looked all over.”

Then he picks one up, and pointing, says, “Yeah, see, it’s printed right there: $ 3.99.”  But I totally can’t read the small print with the glasses I’m wearing.  Damn.

Out of mortification, or at least plain frustration, I turn tail and go to Trader Joe’s, whom I also suspect of having blueberries on sale today.  Then I find my two items and head to the register.  The young guy there greets me enthusiastically, as they do, and exclaims, “Blueberries and hummus: awesome lunch!”

And I say, “Well, brunch, actually,” and present him with a ten dollar bill which he snatches and holds up to the bright morning sunshine streaming through the front windows.”

“Wow, totally Old School,” he exclaims with disbelief.  I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen one of these old tens (it’s one without the new anti-counterfeiting features). “I should totally save this.”

I think I’ll go back to bed and watch daytime television!  Where is Bob Barker when I need him?

Need a little love?

“For this reason I tell you that her sins, many as they are, have been forgiven her, because she has shown such great love. It is someone who is forgiven little who shows little love.” Luke 7:47 (NJB)

This translation hit me square in the face this morning.  I had always thought of this concept in different terms, something along the lines of needing to forgive people more in order to experience love better.  And that’s certainly a valid interpretation. But this particular framing of the text reminds me of Thomas Merton’s description of the Gospel as “the turning inside out of all values,” because here what I saw today for the first time is that my own failure to show love often flows out of living with a stingy sense of self-forgiveness.   When you can own God’s love and forgiveness, when you can own God ravishing you with love even in your most flawed, immature, or incomplete state, you suddenly become free to love other folks.  You somehow begin to see the people around you with pity and acceptance.  I tend to be a judger, and I’m my own prime victim.  As Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote, “My own heart let me more have pity on.”

Amen.

DRIVEN AND DRUNK?

I’m thinking this morning of Luke 21:34: “And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that day come upon you unawares.”  Hmm, what the heck is he saying here?

Well, okay, I get the intemperance part.  I mean, every Sunday-School teacher or personal trainer you ever had warned you about overdoing it, right?  But worrying about making a living is our national pastime!  Don’t mess with me, Luke!  But what else is up with this passage?

After pondering it a bit, here’s my own very amateur rough paraphrase of the Greek (which I totally fake from the Interlinear Greek New Testament):

“Don’t let your head ache with hangovers and your heart ache with worries about making a living.  This is a trap, so watch and pray instead.  Wake up to the Son of Man standing right in front of you.”

I hear Luke encouraging us just to get off the pendulum of DRIVENNESS / DRUNKENNESS altogether, to realize there are other ways of living, other lenses through which to see the world.  Instead of busting it all day and blowing it all night, watch and pray in each moment for the awareness to recognize God’s work and presence.  Blowing it for you might not be alcohol.  For me today, it’s Dunkin’ Donuts cinnamon powdered-sugar donut-holes, which I’ve been pounding with strong coffee all morning because I’m stressed about how much I “need” to get done today.  But it could be anything, any destructive compulsive behavior that you use to calm and balance yourself, but which ends up tearing you down in the long-run.  Could even be relationships!

Do you notice something startling about Luke’s assumptions?  Unlike me, Luke actually assumes here that God will show up!  But we’re too consumed by the worrying, the working, the donuts, and the shopping.  We miss God’s whole big light show.  Every day.

The watching and praying against unawareness, is partly “mindfulness,” in current parlance.  It reminds me of something Flanner O’Connor said of her daily writing routine.  Her habit didn’t result in unfailing productivity; rather, her habit made her available for revelation when it came:

“And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there.”  Letter to Cecil Dawkins, September 22, 1957

God does appear.  But God is e’evanescent, like a mist, like the wind.  He shows His glory when He chooses to.  He’s also warmly present, like your breath.  He comes moment by moment.  Breathe in, breathe out.  There He is.  Wow!  I almost missed Him; thank God I was paying attention.

I think that’s part of what is meant by Moses encounter with God in Exodus 33:21-23:

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock.  When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.

It may be that we only know that God was here until we at last sense Him slipping already out of sight, see only His back.  But the encounter will change us, will sustain us.

So with Luke, watch, pray. 

Amen.

Christmas Letter 2013

Tuesday night two weeks back, our dog Percy woke me at 3:00 AM (I call that night) by barking and chasing madly around our bed.  He has always been one to sound alarms.  It’s a terrier thing.  (Remember the Scotty in 101 Dalmatians?) Yes.  Usually these night-fits indicate that he needs water (which is perfectly plausible since in the habitual rush we sometimes forget to give him water until he alerts us), or that there is a coyote in the backyard (also plausible), or that the garage is being burglarized (also who cares, because what is all that stuff in there, anyways?); or alternatively that he has to “go” really badly because we actually gave him water and he drank too much before bedtime.  This is a bone of contention with him and me because he knows that I’m the only one in the house who will actually rouse and address his needs, and I regard these outbursts with extreme suspicion.  Actually I do feel sorry for him, because like me he also has reached, OMG, middle age.  I can barely get that out of my mouth.  The problem this night with taking the little annoyer outside was that I was tethered, yes, tethered, to my bed by a six foot CPAP hose.  When I said “tethered” some of you ladies went automatically to Fifty Shades of Gray. Well Fuggetaboutit!  Welcome to my world, gals!

Yeah, these days it seems to be all the rage– sleep apnea.  So I got the CPAP machine.  My sleep doctor tells me that basically I’ve had no deep Z’s for say, uh, fifteen years, so maybe that’s why I’m tired, cranky, and don’t exercise.  And my joints hurt.  The magic machine is supposed to fix all that.  So this was Night One on CPAP.  However, Blue Cross/Blue Shield will only fund my health-journey if I use it for at least four consecutive hours per night, and twenty-one out of every thirty days.  And they have the technology to enforce their threats: a little transmitter right there in the machine.  Where is Edward Snowden when I need him to protest this invasive collection of personal information?!  I can just see Obama in the Oval Office reading my CPAP record: “Hmm, only 3 ½ hours last night?  Cut him off now, Michelle!  And what’s that barking I hear in the background?” (And this is a comical statement, not a political one, dear friends!)

So I just lay there for at least fifteen more minutes, trying not to feel claustrophobic with the full face- mask on and the wheezing hose forcing air into my gullet.  Of course Yvonne was in dreamland, because apparently she has been sleeping super well for the last several decades.  The good news for her is that the noise of the machine is better than the noise of my snoring.

The next night it was Marguerite who woke me by text-bombing my phone and rapping on the door with her keys at 2 AM, returning from visiting with her many cronies who reassemble for the holidays.  Again, I woke from a dream like that poor guy who was on the bottom of the African ocean in a sunken boat until divers rescued him after five days.  (Did you see that video footage?!)  Gasping and dragging the machine behind me at first, I found her locked out of the house, having picked up the wrong key.  (She’s almost twenty, and we’ve lived here since 2005, but it’s evidently so easy to get keys mixed up.)  Fortunately she is a beautiful sight to me and her mother, as she is a divinely happy sophomore at Rhodes College, and a Chi O.  (Question: Are sororities like the military?  Does she get any veteran’s benefits or anything?  Because she’s an English major!)  In Memphis for college, Margue benefits from the proximity of my large and loving family who keep an eye on her.  Thanks, y’all for what you do—meals, airport pick-ups, office-visits, kitchen-counter psychiatry.  It means a lot.  She is a child who loves family, so she has regular doses of meaningful time with my parents and sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews.  The other good part is that she has enough privacy, too.  Memphis being a smaller city, everyone’s perception of distance is a tad skewed.  Even though she’s only about twelve minutes away from my parents, for example, and the Memphis traffic never gets all that bad, my mother will say, “I just never get way over to that part of town!”  Marguerite brings her dearest “roomie” Brooke over to have dinner with them now and again, despite the brutal twelve-minute commute!

Yvonne celebrated her fifth year anniversary surviving breast cancer with some close friends who surprised her with a sweet party; just like five years ago, when caring friends surprised her with an impromptu party at Starbucks.  She is well loved. And with good reason.  In other family news, Yvonne and I are still married.  Twenty-three years now.  Oh, and, we’re still working at the Lower School at Westminster, which is a terrific irony, since we started our relationship in fall of 1986 working together at Ann Jacob Gallery, and here we are again these many years later doing it again—still successfully ;).  She enjoys working with her great compatriots in the Lower School office, Kristi, Whit, Susan, and Lauren.  I keep my distance in admissions, near the library, and I’m grateful for my whole team, Sally and Julie, and the many faculty and staff who support the hard work we do in our area; plus I have great comrades in Julie and Taylor, and a great boss Marjorie, who has great ideas, is super smart, and gives me lots of sage experienced advice.  Plus I have the wonderful input and leadership of Kristi and the whole admin team.  Thank the Lord for good co-workers.  And my academic schedule leaves some room around the edges to do some tasty design and art projects, so that’s a great blessing, too.

Marianna is “turnt up” for 9th grade, as the youth say, beating Physics despite the long exams, still riding horses, raising chickens, and shooting photographs.  We’ve grown fond of our Inkwell, Carolla, and Ethel, and we share their daily eggs with lots of folks.  Marianna takes great care of these girls, and brings them into the house when friends visit, adding to the colorful tone of our household.  Her emotional attachment to all living creatures, and these in particular, manifests itself on occasions such as when I grill chicken, and she cries, “No, Dad, don’t let them get downwind; they’ll smell it!” Fortunately for her, I back-crashed the car into the grill this summer, so no worries there.  We remain “grill-less” for the near-term.  Marianna’s other passion is rescuing dogs from “kill shelters” and helping them get adopted.  Many Saturdays you can find her working with her sweet friends Ginny and Susan with Ginny Millner Rescue Group as well as Fix Georgia Pets.  She also wanted me to relate that she has three goldfish which she won at the Pace Fair three years ago who are still alive and well.  Secret: only change their water once a year.

This fall Yvonne and I have been small-group leaders in our church’s confirmation class, which includes both 8th and 9th graders.  Marianna is participating, too.  Out of sensitivity to her extreme embarrassment, Yvonne and I sequester ourselves with the 8th graders, far outside her range of vision and perimeter of shame.  My favorite comment of the year came from one of our 8th graders during the week when we studied the Incarnation, God becoming flesh in Christ.  (Obviously I’m taking a serious turn in the letter here, but I only have two pages J: get going, Rob!)

We asked the group, “What do you think it was like for God to become a man?”  One insightful girl immediately answered, “I’m gonna say it was a big downgrade.”  Yes indeed: the BIG DOWNGRADE.  I have thought about that so much during Advent.  There is something in our ascendant-minded culture that wants to make all of life a victory strut.  Or as Yvonne would say about me personally, “He never passes up an opportunity to be grandiose!”  As I’ve tried to point out in so many Christmas letters past, our life together for twenty-three years has been full of laughter and love.  But victory strut?  No indeed.  And my grandiosity, the children will point out, is quite laughable at this stage.  My daughters often tag their photographs of me #my500poundlife.  I like to think that with age, and weight, perhaps comes wisdom.  C.S. Lewis wrote a sermon titled “The Weight of Glory,” preached at St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, in 1942, about how the glorious will ultimately burst out of the ordinary, the dull, mundane, or broken-down; and how in the waiting, we steal rare but stunning glimpses of it.  Read it.  And Flannery O’Connor majestically conjures up that same awful-wonderful hope in her short story “Revelation,” where the hideously prejudiced and self-righteous Mrs. Turpin finally has her eyes opened while she stands hosing down her concrete “pig-parlor.”  (And all the while shouting at God about life’s inconsistencies!)

When I read Flannery, I see myself so much like Mrs. Turpin.  Except I’m driving to work, returning phone calls, going to church, cleaning up after an eleven-year old dog, urging my ninth-grader to clean out her chicken pen or goldfish bowl or finish her Physics homework, not cleaning out the garage, packing up Christmas ornaments, and dragging around a CPAP machine.  But I have to confess that every once in a while, in the thick of it, I too catch precious glimpses of what Mrs. Turpin saw while standing there before her hog-pen, when God opened her eyes for just a moment and she beheld a streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.”  What a beautiful transcendent thing to see from a hog-pen!  She goes on:

“Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.  There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives . . . and battalions of freaks and lunatics, . . . and bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself . . ., had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. .  . . Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. . . . At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house.  In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck, up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting Hallelujah.”

With all our love this holiday season,

Yvonne, Robert, Marguerite, and Marianna Spiotta

Percy, Walker, Inkwell, Carolla, Ethel, the fish, and sometimes Hannibal (neighbor’s cat!)