samedi, décembre 16, 2006

Blessed are the dead

This was the first time I'd attended the lighting of the memorial tree. A few years ago one of our board members, an energetic ball of fire who is a genius at fundraising, thought of lighting a holiday tree as a way of raising money for our Romanian kids who live with, and die from, the effects of AIDS. Standing outside the home of a friend on an eeriely warm evening, we struggled to see the words of the liturgy. Knowing that I was to give the closing prayer, I attempted to follow along in the dim light of the tiny flashlights. When we got to the prayers for the dead, I saw a name I had not expected. "No one told me Bertha had died," I thought sadly. A parishioner at my former church, Bertha was a librarian for the choir. A tiny, bird-like woman, she had big glasses and a bright smile. Because Bertha's sister in law Eleanor was not able to attend church, I had many occasions to visit them. Sitting in their neat living room, we'd exchange conversation on church matters, health issues, my work and other topics-with my short skirts and unorthodox manners, I came into their quiet lives like a minor tempest. But we grew to appreciate each other. When Eleanor died, I missed those moments of grace in Bertha's living room. Now Bertha was gone-and I had not had the opportunity to mourn. So permit me to grieve a moment now. Bertha, you are missed-for all the work you did organizing the music, work that is not undertaken by those who prefer the glow of public acclaim, but by those who see a job that needs to be done and do it. For the uncomplaining way in which you dealt with your physical challenges in your latter years. For your faithful care for your sister in law. For the servant leadership you brought to each task before you. A childless widow, you may not be remembered often on this earth. But I am sure that you are celebrated in the celestial choir-blessed indeed are the dead who die in the Lord. Godspeed, dear Bertha.

jeudi, décembre 14, 2006

The paradoxical meets the nearly impossible

Tuesday and Wednesday of this past week I traveled to Lancaster County to attend classes for potential substitute teachers. I have to admit that the idea had not occured to me until a friend who earns a living as a painter told me she was thinking about this as an income source in between other assignments. The more I thought about it, the more appealing it was. I like children, both eager and ingenous young ones and the more complicated, drama-prone questioning older ones. As a parent, it would offer me an unparrelled opportunity to find out something about standards and practices in teaching-assuming they have improved since I was last in elementary school. It would also, I thought, be a good way of earning mortgage money (boy did I turn out to be off-base about that) whilst preserving some flexibility so that I could take writing assignments. I'd be home at about the same time as my children. As to the demands of the job? Hey, I'd led worship services for little kids in a day school, taught Sunday school classes, and worked in academic institutions where sometimes the faculty acted like big hard could it be to act like a den mom to two dozen eight year olds for seven hours? When I showed up for my training at the Lancaster County IU, with perhaps a hundred other professionals of all ages and stages of life, I realized that the art of being a substitute teacher had paradox, incongruity and frustration engrained in its very being. Teaching is a deeply relational discipline-but few of us are good at meeting 25 new people and remembering their names in the course of a day, let alone getting to know them. Each child has his or her own learning style-what can they possible learn in the company of someone who sees the lesson an half an hour before they do? I'm definitely a right-brain person-making lists, following a set schedule doesn't just mean I have to use my shadow side, but have to find where I mislaid it yesterday-underneath the mismatched socks, maybe? I wondered, and asked one speaker, how a person who is not compulsively organized would fare in this environment. Finally, there is the whole question of compensation. In many districts substitutes are paid less than I pay my babysitter. In another sign of how messed up we are about compensating people fairly for doing work that few of us have the backbone to do, aides in emotional support classrooms are paid 60.00 a day. My conclusion? Anyone going into this for the money, or because they thought it was going to be a cakewalk was going to be quickly dissilusioned and disappointed. But as I chatted with my desk set neighbors-a retired teacher, a former director of development, a communications generalist, a singer-I realized that most of us were there for a whole grab bag of reasons that had little to do with making a fast profit. Their motives were as mixed as mine. All in all, however, the school system would be very fortunate to have us show up on any given morning looking for the lesson plans, the cafeteria and the bathroom. As I observed my colleagues, what I saw was a group of highly trained professionals who still hoped-against hope-to have a positive impact, even for the space of a day, on the life of someone else's children.

lundi, décembre 11, 2006


This past Saturday morning the house was quiet-children with their dad, my neighbors sleeping in or already gone, the nocturnal animals returned to their lairs until nightfall. In the bedroom, our orange tabby slumbered off the effects of her morning exercise chasing game pieces and bottletops across the dining room floor. With all of these forces inviting me to procrastinate, I was proud that I made it to Bethany Farm before 9:00. Not too proud-the farm is only a couple of miles down the road from me. The air was frosty when I got out of my car, farmers nowhere in sight. Christmas trees, both cut and with root balls still attached, filled the field nearest the road. Shivering, eager to make my choice of tree and be done, I walked towards the sound of voices-they seemed to emanate from the milking barn. Introducing myself to Farmer Dan, I hastily balanced the advantages of white-barked pine, Norway Spruces, and Fraser Firs. This year, I decided to buy a live tree-impetous as usual, I figured that I would dig the hole for the tree myself-after all, how hard could this be? I have to admit that I'm really excited about returning a tree to the ground instead of putting it out for the recyclers. Farmer Dan told me that his main business is raw milk-free of the antibiotics that goes into the stuff sold in the grocery store chains. Take the cream off the top, and you have fat-free milk. Leave it in, and you have milk the way your anscestors drank it 3000 years ago (apparently lactose tolerance is relatively new on the evolutionary chain). As we talked, we stumbled into one of those amazing minutes of serendipity-turns out that he is related to one of my best friends. She and he come from the stock of two brothers who settled in this area more than 300 years ago-and never left. When he bought his farm and took a look at the ownership papers, he found out that the land (and the fields across from Bethany) had been farmed by his (great?) grandparents a hundred years ago. After arranging for delivery of the tree, I drove out towards the mall, very aware of the irony of this pilgrimage to the altar of materialism. Still, I was warmed in the chilly air by the conversation with Farmer Dan-by his affirmation of the value of faith, community and family. In an era of exburban developments and bland malls, Bethany, with its stock of milk and homemade bread and apples, does indeed seem anomalous. Named, said Farmer Dan, in honor of the hospitality Mary and Martha offered Jesus, it welcomes weary travelers not sure of what they want, or even of what they need.