At the end of a day

We have a few trees in the courtyard behind our apartment. Two silver maples and a Chinese elm.

Though they are luscious during the summer, they also carry for me the association of seeing them next to the highway on the rare occasions I would leave Manhattan by car many years ago. There—it seemed always to be in the 1970s—they stood humiliated behind wind drifts of plastic grocery bags and pieces of tarpaulin. Old shoes and cardboard boxes.

But on these July days, their verdant canvas and moist sheen and birds beckon our fourth-floor terrace into acting more like an Upper West Side tree-house. We have morning doves. Sparrows. And these orange-beaked birds that071209.1bluecanoe Karen spotted one afternoon and which gave her dreams that night about wild toucans and macaws and about two parrots—white and red—that adopted her as their mother when she said, “Polly wanna cracker? Rawwrr!”

When I was maybe five and spending my summers at Point O’ Woods on Fire Island, Mom told me about the “drink-your-tea” birds, known by adults as Eastern Towhees. (Known by mature adults as Pipilo erythrophthalmus, a dangerous name that if tossed out mindlessly at a cocktail party may invoke questions on whether you’re taking antibiotics.)

Because I first heard Towhees there, their three-part song has always been evocative of that magical place, where it seemed that all we did was drink tea, ride our bikes, and play in the surf. Also, it was Mom who first mimicked the bird’s invitational call as she stood on the front porch of the two-bedroom white cottage we rented. It was early in the morning for a boy, perhaps seven o’clock, in July, and after waiting first for the Towhee she proclaimed while looking down at me: “Drink your TEEEEEA!” Then she squinted and tittered. She would hunch her shoulders at me as she laughed, to let me know that this was a delicious moment shared just between us. A short-lived flower of time.

Two nights ago as Karen and I sat in our tree-house at the close of a workweek, I saw a morning dove. It perched on the brick wall at the edge of the roof about seven feet above our heads. It gazed quietly to the west, toward the Hudson, its head barely moving, its right eye fixed. The slightest of evening breezes left its smooth brown feathers unruffled.

My bride and I sat across from each other, eating olive tapenade on melba crisps and table wafers, white cheddar cheese, salami, fresh sliced green, yellow and red peppers, and a date-walnut cake. Her Pinot Grigio beaded on the outside of her glass. Since the early evening air was below 70 degrees, she wore a cream, long-sleeved, v-neck knit top and a flowery scarf fastened with a playful knot around her neck.

She would chirp about this and that, her knees pulled to her chest to stay warm, and I would smile. Zinnias in flower boxes and arborvitae in planters surrounded us. The sun dipping to the west of Riverside Drive illuminated the top five floors of the pre-war buildings on West End Avenue. We ate and talked, and sometimes were silent.

We stayed this way until it was time to go inside.

photo: 1bluecanoe

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Bootless cries

I cried out to God this morning and was surprised to hear not a thunderous response, nor a stern rebuke, nor a gentle cooing, but rather a velvet hush.  No, “hush” is too soothing, and “velvet” is too luxuriant.  It was more like a Mona-Lisa-smile of a sound.  No judgment, one way or the other.  Ambivalent.  Not uncertain but, rather, indiscernible.  Known by the other, hidden from the viewer.  Or perhaps it was like the sound of a kindly older relative, tapping her finger on the armrest of an oak rocking chair.  Not clearly directed at her audience, perhaps in response to some other thought, or memory, or hope, she happens to be considering at that same moment.  Not negligent in the strict sense.  Just otherwise engaged.

 

This made me quite angry.

 

I kept praying, waiting for something…anything.  I was in pain and I thought I had come to my Father in heaven and would get…comfort? ease?  lightness of spirit?  peace?  Yes, peace.  Peace is what I see promised all over Scripture.  And I also read about how if we come near to God, he will come near to us.  And how Jesus stands at the door knocking and if we answer he will come in and dine with us.  Sit down at the table and feast, convivially, joyfully.

 

But here I experienced none of that.

 

Rather, I completed my time, pried away from where I sat by the clock and not sated by any consummation, feeling like the writer of the 88th psalm, in which the closing line reads “…and darkness is my closest friend.”  This is actually one of my favorite psalms if not my favorite, since it aptly describes these times best, when after all my pleading and crying and begging, I face only…that ambivalent stare, that finger-tapping, from heaven.  It also reminds me that I’m not completely crazy.  Someone else – yes, even if it’s only one other human in history, who happened to have pen and paper – experienced what I am experiencing.

 

Shakespeare once lamented that he would “trouble deaf heaven with [his] bootless cries.”  I don’t claim heaven – or God – is deaf.  No, but on days like today it becomes even more painful to know that God hears – God hears, knows, sees everything; of that I have no doubt – and does not answer me clearly.  How dare he.  He owes me something.  Anything.  He owes me, his child, an answer.  Or so this mad rage reasons in my mind.

 

Usually the tears themselves are cleansing.

 

But this morning, they were just the precursor to the tapping, the stare.  I wept and wept for a few minutes, feeling like my tears themselves would melt his heart, that certainly now I would have some answer that eluded me moments before.  After all, didn’t my own sons get results when they turned on the waterworks and asked for dessert?…another two minutes at video games?…to stay up five minutes longer before lights out?  (And the truth is, to my shame, they too often do get results this way.)

 

I wanted a word…anything.  A simple word.

 

And there, in the tapping, I didn’t get a word but rather a reminder.  The writer of Psalm 88 acknowledges at the beginning that the Lord is the “God who saves” him.

 

The psalmist gave me the vine that was draped over the edge of the cliff I felt I was hanging from.  There was no doubt in there being a cliff, or that I was hanging, or that if I let go, I would fall.  But the vine was rooted in something I could trust.  The vine would hold, whether I believed it would or not.  So long as I held on to it, it would hold me up.

 

This God, who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in it…this God who was silent before me, by his own choosing, expressed his Being-ness to me.  His certainty.  His absolute reality.

 

This was the great “I AM” who held me up.  Here was the greatest of all realities, who created all the realities I trusted implicitly around me – air, carpet, coffee and pajamas – and who was pointing to his presence as enough for me.  And by no means was it a ponderous wave of knowledge that came over me.  It was more like a stubborn fact.

 

In that moment and the moments following, even to the moment now as I write, he did not give me a word but rather gave me himself to rely on.  The faith he was calling me to have as I wiped useless tears from my cheeks was to believe in him as enough, his reality as true, his completeness and his goodness and his ultimate control, as sufficient to carry me through.  No word about me or for me, no gentle breeze blowing in my ear with a reminder about some verse or doctrine, no vague sense of peace and well-being.  Only a pointer to himself.  A picture of One who is.  One who is, regardless of my belief or doubt in his Is-ness.

 

There is much more to say about him – what he gave up because of his love for me and others – but that’s not what’s in question here.  His love is not in question, his love is not on trial.

 

I was looking for an answer, a response, a sign, a signal, a knowing look, a comforting…feeling.  What I received was:  I AM.

 

It was enough for today.

 

 

photo:  Myles Smith; Clickr Clickr

Passages

Today, 9/11, is my middle son’s seventh birthday.  He turned one when it happened.

We celebrated that day, anyway, with a cake at lunch, candles, balloons, and the requisite photo op of a 1-year-old tearing into a baked good with abandon.  He didn’t know better.  Blissfully ignorant.

Today was my going away party at work.  My last day is Friday.  A bunch of people stood up and said kind things.  It was, I think, the first going away party I have had.  At most of my other jobs either my boss or coworkers took me to lunch, so it wasn’t a party per se.  And at two other jobs I was fired, so they might have had a party, but I wasn’t invited.  But it was balm to hear these kind words today.  I think at least 90% of them were sincere.  Which is a pretty fair percentage.

Today I went to the memorial service for the wife of one of my organization’s trustees.  Helen and her husband, George, our trustee, were married for 72 years.  She was 92.  Her faith in Jesus Christ assured her that when she died she would go to be with the One who 091107patapia1.jpgmade her, who formed her, who nurtured her in her spirit, who saved her from herself at times, who ultimately brought her to a place of peace, in his own presence, last Thursday.  A place that George knows he will go to be with her.

Helen’s granddaughter got up to speak at the end of the sharing time in the church.  She said that her grandmother had a gift of knowing how to serve others, of knowing just what they needed.  She told her granddaughter that the secret was simply “to look around you.”  It was maybe three days before Helen’s death, and the granddaughter was by her bedside.  She said, “Grandmom, is there anything I can get for you?  You are always so good at serving others, is there anything you need?”

Helen looked at her and said, “Just George.”

The granddaughter at this point in the service looked down at George in the front row and said, “I’m sorry granddaddy, I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

I saw George downstairs after the service.  There was a gleam in his eye.  Yes, a sorrowful departure after 72 years, but a step closer to her.  And to Him.

photo:  patapia1