Category Archives: Spirituality

thin places and times

Yesterday I saw a hawk circling almost right over my condominium complex.  He must have been finding some traces of thermals – air warmed by the ground – because with very little flapping of wings, he gained some altitude.  The hawk’s tail was rusty red in the clear October sunlight, and his flight was so beautiful that suddenly I could understand tribal people looking up into the sky and feeling awe at the sight of such a creature, feeling that flesh and blood intersects with supernatural spirit in a bird like that.

Then I brought up a pot of yellow mums, and put it on the balcony.  Immediately a honeybee buzzed up to briefly light on one of the bright yellow flowers.  It was almost as though the bee blessed the plant.  I would like to think so.  This potted mum is going to play a part in an ofrenda in my home.  Ofrendas are traditional Mexican and Mexican-American home altars where departed loved ones are honored on All Souls’ Day, November 2.  My ofrenda will be in honor of my beloved grandmother.  She loved all kinds of flowers, and gardening and growing vegetables.  She was also an Alabama country Methodist who probably never heard the word ofrenda in her life.  Creating this one is going to be interesting.

On the other hand, my grandmother sometimes saw spirits.  Don’t get me wrong.  She was no flake.  She was level-headed as the day is long – and occasionally saw spirits or had clairvoyant visions.  And she was part Cherokee Indian.  These things may put her closer to Native American spiritual sensibilities than her  identity would otherwise suggest.  For that matter, though, she had some Welsh ancestors;  and the Celts had their own sense of spirits and “thin places” between this world and the supernatural.

So the two days, All Saints and All Souls, follow All-Hallows’-Eve, i.e., Halloween.  Thin times all, at least if you ask the Celts or the Aztecs and their Mexican and American descendants.  I think my own home, the complex and the balcony and hopefully the wall where the ofrenda will be, is a thin place, at least some of the time.  As the Wiccans say, blessed be.

Homo Ingenious

Yesterday on the Braes Bayou hike and bike trail, I was passed by a fellow on what looked like a cross between a skateboard and a Nordic Track.  He was striding on it and making excellent headway – uphill.  Whatever it is, it’s ingenious. That reminded me of something I heard about at ArmadilloCon last weekend:  air jellies, which are lighter-than-air balloons with jellyfishlike appendages that hover around in interesting ways under radio control:  a video is on YouTube.

And that reminded me of something I read this summer in somebody else’s copy of White Trash Cooking.  (It is an actual cookbook with authentic recipes of which I recognize some from the church socials of my youth.)  There was a pudding recipe that called for a double boiler “or else rig something up.”  Heh.  There’s been a lot of rigging in Southern kitchens over the years. Then this morning I composed an e-mail and shortly after I mentioned “attached” in the body of the e- mail but before I actually attached it, Thunderbird ingeniously asked me if I had forgotten something!  This could save a lot of us from the embarrassment of shooting attachment blanks.

Homo Sapiens – Wise Man – is certainly a misnomer for our species.   Maybe Homo Ingenious.  I see courtesy of Google that the phrase has occurred to others, including radio essayist Richard handler in a 2007 piece about how the ingenious human mind wants to fix everything, including its own suffering;  but  meditative acceptance of suffering, as in Buddhism, can be a better way.

Our ingenuity can be stymied by politics, policies, the seven deadly sins, the Buddhist Three Cardinal Faults and on and on.  And in finding invention highly attractive we may give it more weight than it deserves in the annals of history.  I’m reading a book with that thesis:  The shock of the old : technology and global history since 1900 by David Edgerton. Perhaps we are truly (this is a widely occurring variant) Homo Fabricans – Man the Maker –  with the proviso that the making includes mischief and delusions, war and love, and all kinds of desires and devices, not just technological ones.  We would just like to be all Homo Ingenious all the time.

Beautiful Shore

The office of my mother’s neurologist can be a grim place.  Not the ambiance (well lighted and nicely appointed) and not the staff (cheerful and unfailingly professional.)  It’s the patients and their families facing Alzheimer’s.  Three years ago my mother and I were there.  I knew the gist of what the doctor was going to say and Mother suspected it.  That was a grim afternoon.

A couple of days ago we were back for her to have a follow-up evaluation of how her Alzheimer’s is progressing.  Short answer:  it is – but much less rapidly that would have been the case if the neurologist had not put her on the gold-standard Alzheimer’s drugs, Aricept and Namenda, three years ago.  Mother still recognizes me and we can have conversations.  Circular ones, because she loops back to earlier topics with some of the loops being three minutes or less.  But it’s bona fide conversation and typically pleasant.  She’s a surprisingly happy person, in large part because she lives in a wonderful Assisted Living facility where she has good care, nourishing food, and many friends.  And where there’s a Chaplain.  I like going to Chapel there on Sunday afternoons, like today.  It puts me back in touch with my Baptist-Methodist roots.

As for my end of the mother-daughter relationship, well, it’s true that Alzheimer’s is a long goodbye.  On the other hand, in her case the disease lost no time knocking out some of her dysfunctional circuits, especially her crippling inhibitions.  In some ways she’s a more normal – less crippled – person and mother than she used to be.  She’s in a more invigorating and resilient social matrix than when she was almost a recluse when I was young.  I travel from Texas, where I live, to Georgia, where she’s in Assisted Living, about four times a year for week or so.  Every time I visit, she introduces me to several of her friends and neighbors.  Sometimes more than once to the same people, but they don’t mind. To be brutally honest, my mother’s Alzheimer’s has given me gain as well as loss.

She’ll worsen in every imaginable way if she doesn’t die first.  She could suddenly deteriorate at any time.  For the days of this fleeting week, though, I’ve enjoyed seeing her.  With financial, legal, and practical things squared away after three years of hard work, this time around I have time to visit her and, well, just relax.  Alzheimer’s is not utterly incompatible with people relaxing and even having fun.  We’ve laughed a lot.  Thank  God so far she still has her same sense of humor:  self-effacing and kind-hearted, never mean.  She reminisces, pulling up old memories with startling clarity compared to her blurry grasp on the here and now.  That’s typical for Alzheimer’s people.  I’ve gleaned bits and pieces of her family and personal history that I never knew before.

The neurologist ran late.  Given his intrinsically unpredictable clientele, I was not surprised.  Mother and I had time to sit in the pleasant examining room with its view of a lake and pine trees.  She  sang a ditty from when she was in the Women’s Army Corps that went on for several pointedly funny verses. Alzheimer’s people tend to retain songs even after they lose almost everything else.  Soon she was singing the old popular song “Blue Heaven.”  There’s a line in that one about whippoorwills calling.  She demonstrated a whippoorwill call she learned how to do growing up on a farm.  Then she recollected how her mother, my saintly grandmother, used to play the piano, one old Baptist hymn in particular.   I remember it.  We sang together, “There’s a land that is fairer than day…in the sweet by and by we will meet on that beautiful shore.”   Lord only knows what the doctor’s staff thought about what they heard through the door.  Probably they appreciate having happy patients and families for a change.

If you believe that love is stronger than death, and that our ancestors can care about our welfare and even in some way visit us or help us if we ask them to, then Alzheimer’s is a conundrum.  The mother or father, wife or husband or sibling that we knew raggedly fades until in the end there’s a demented and severely impaired stranger in their husk.  When do they really die?  With this question on my mind, I asked a spiritual director if she thought it possible that our ancestors may  partially, or paradoxically, slip into the nearer presence of God before the body dies.  She slowly said yes – that might be.

The truth we don’t know.  I do know it gives me comfort to think of my mother as being already partly in the nearer presence of God and in the embrace of my grandmother while it’s my job to be kind to the person who is still here.  She’s partly familiar, partly strange in a crazy-making way.  She’s heartbreakingly impaired and frustrating to deal with.  And sometimes something shines through her like light through a darkened house on a stormy night with a dark wind twisting the curtains.  The house of her mind is ill-lit by guttering candles of rationality.  The dim rooms of her soul are haunted by gentle old memories and ungentle, ugly paranoid notions.  But through the flailing curtains and rattling shutters and framework falling apart, there’s a gleam of dawn beyond the house, behind the storm.

Congregation on Galveston Bay

On the Fourth of July, a couple from my church, Martha and Bob,  invited me, along with another couple, James and Bill, to sail on Galveston Bay.  James and Bill have been partners for many years, and they’ve sailed with Martha and Bob on the Fourth of July several times before.  Bills loves it.  Every year James valiantly finds better ways to fend off seasickness.  It was my first time sailing with Martha and and Bob.  Their sailboat is named Allegre (French for “lively, having joie de vivre.”)   She’s a 35-foot, seaworthy boat with one main mast and graceful lines.

It was a beautiful day to be on the Bay.  A brisk wind blew under blue skies and cumulus clouds.  With only the forward jib sail unfurled, the boat raced the wind, diving and lifting over the waves.  James did fine.  I was marginal but determined not to get completely seasick (or think too much about it, either.)  Finally Bob steered the sailboat back to Kemah to get a good position for the Kemah fireworks.   My photos show various boats arranging themselves at anchor – making sure they wouldn’t inadvertently drift into another craft as night started to fall.  From the galley belowdecks, Martha miraculously produced a delicious light dinner of cold grilled salmon and salads.   Perfect for the dicey stomach.  My seasickness went away.

Fireworks from eight or nine small cities on the edges of Galveston Bay shimmered and sparkled on the horizon.  Then the Kemah fireworks barge started sending them up and transfixed everybody.  It was a spectacle of ascending rockets and red exploding sparks turning blue;  explosions of yellow points of light that each trailed down like the petals of a chrysanthemum;  twisting rings of red or green sparks.  Dazzling explosions layered on each other.   Bright white flashes with booms that rolled across the water to thump your chest.  The response from all of us on Allegre was “Wow” again and again.  Clear firm wows, like  liturgical response – after all everybody aboard was Episcopalian!

what’s wrong with this picture?

This regrettable billboard goes two for two in debasing the English language.  “Box of happiness”?   Happiness is more than a cheap fried food!   “I’m lovin’ it?” Love is for important  things!  And fries are not good for you, either.  Boo!  Hiss!

Nobody takes happiness and love seriously in the context of a billboard like this.  But beat the drum of cynical, crass uses of good words long and loud enough and the words may end up empty.  Of course the ad industry has been doing this for years and managed to misuse, mock, and devalue practically every profound word and numinous image known to the Western world.

What’s wrong with this picture is the bottom half.  The sky with the clouds is nature,  weather, the dynamic atmosphere, reminders of the magic of flight.   Cumulus clouds – always changing, sometimes growing mountain-tall with lightening and ice in their hearts, other times staying pretty and fluffy – they can make you happy.  They are worth loving if you’ve ever looked up and imagined clouds to be the shapes of things, or watched hawks soar, or day-dreamed about flying, or actually been up in a small aircraft dancing with clouds.

Squee! Squee!

Interesting to watch Mom Pigeon feeding her little ones.  Pigeon parents first provide pigeon milk, then later they regurgitate seeds and grains for their hungry babies.  Meanwhile the little ones grow bigger and stronger every day – until feeding time rather looks like assault and battery.  Baby pigeons squeak frantically, flap their half-feathered wings, and reach into Mombird’s craw for the good stuff.  Today I pulled the corner of the balcony curtain back to see Mombird from behind with both little ones simultaneously squeaking, flailing their wings, and reaching into her craw – both greedy little beaks stuffed into hers at the exactly the same time.   Human kids can be a handful – evidently, baby pigeons are a beak-full.

Later in the day I crossed the Rice University campus after several hours of  rain.  On the mulched, sodden ground near Herring Hall,  robins were much in evidence, especially ones with the streaked breasts of half-grown birds fledged this year.  They were eagerly hopping around after juicy worms flooded out of their worm-holes.  Young birds are definitely creatures of hearty appetite.   Bon appetit to them all.

king of the world

Yesterday Junior Pigeon was hopping around on my balcony (including hopping onto the wrought iron bench and into the potted rose bush), watching the other pigeons here in the corner of my building’s courtyard, and so wanting to fly.  He preened nervously and stretched first one wing and then the other.  I marveled at how baby pin feathers had turned into strong gray flight feathers.

This morning I found him peering down from the roof of the building across the courtyard.

He’s a more relaxed bird today, easily flying from building to building and back to my balcony to perch on the bench and preen at length.   He’s a bird who can fly.  Even with silly strands of yellow baby down strands still remaining on his head, like an absurd crown.

flight path

This morning I saw the fledgling pigeon on my balcony take one of its first flights. Junior Pigeon was standing on the wrought  iron bench, making squeaky feed-me noises, while Papa Pigeon walked  around on the balcony floor.  Junior upped and fluttered down off the bench to Papa.  It wasn’t a great flight, but it wasn’t falling like a feathered rock either….

Junior can fly upward too, from the balcony floor to the wrought iron bench to the balcony railing.  A balcony with a bench and a railing may be a perfect pigeon playground to give Junior little flights less drastic than falling out of a nest on the edge of a cliff!

Now (Wednesday morning) Junior is perched on the railing, watching Papa fly from the balcony to the roof of the other building and back again and a few other pigeons flying around.  Papa is making encouraging cooing noises.  Junior is restless, scooting back and forth on the balcony rail, doing some quick anxious preening, looking all around.   Quivering with anxiety.  Junior so wants to be a flying pigeon like Papa.   He’s just not sure he knows how.

Like every human student pilot, Junior won’t really know he can solo until the right time comes and, with encouragement from an attentive expert, he does.

Collect for Healing the Life of the Gulf

Prayed in church today:

Oh merciful Creator, our waters are bleeding through the work of our hands and our consumptive appetites.  We are mindful of the infinite complexity of your world and the limits of our knowledge and skill.  Send your Spirit of healing, wisdom, and comfort upon those who are affected by this tragedy and those who seek to make right this awful wrong.  May we, remembering the account that we must one day give, be strengthened to be more faithful stewards of your bounty.