26 April 2007

Top Five

To honor the last day of National Poetry Month (and to try and keep up with the Muffins, the Two Sheds, and the Sics) I shall hereby post a Top Five:

  1. Four Quartets by TS Eliot (well, and "The Rock" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," but 4Q tops them all).
  2. "Epithalamion Made at Lincoln's Inn" by John Donne (but oh the Holy Sonnets!)
  3. "In Memoriam" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (but let's not forget "Ulysses" and "Crossing the Bar")
  4. "Upon the Circumcision" by John Milton.
  5. and "Birches" by Robert Frost, because earth really is a pretty good place for love.

I have much dismay realizing that those Five are all dead white men, but they are indeed my favorites, at least the top five poems that I go back to and read over and over. Of a whole host of other beautiful poems, though. Five is too hard.

Travel for Jacks and Goober

The organizers for C. S. Lewis: the Man and His Works, a 21st Century Legacy were "pleased to inform" me today that my proposal has been accepted to be read at the conference. To quote Myles, "yeeeeeehaw!"

Now I've just got to write the paper. . . . And plan for a busy fall, what with parading around North Carolina as a Lewisite and parading around Florida as an honorable matron while my sister becomes Mrs. Menefee. Should be eventful.

25 April 2007

Speaking of Mrs. Hagler

Yesterday we celebrated Libby Choate on the occasion of her early entry into the perfection of our faithful King. I would like to say more about all this later, but suffice it to say now that we remembered her wit and melancholy with glad tears, and we honored her affection for music with some fine tunes indeed: the Nicholls women started with "Great is Thy Faithfulness" and Lin Norman closed with a capella "Amazing Grace" featuring beautiful gospel rolls and rhythms. April commented afterwards, "If anyone doubted Lin could sing before. . . ." Indeed.

Though I have hardly played at all over the past year, I broke out the violin for "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," which Libby requested long ago. With Myles on voice and guitar, it seems we did reasonably enough, and I am grateful for the grace that made it so. But apparently there was some dissension from the pews. Specifically, the pew hosting Mrs. Joy Hagler.

Libby was a faithful participant in the church's widow ministry, which enjoyed a particularly high swing when I was in college. During that time, Libby and I, along with Mandy Yeager and April Callaway (as they were then known), cleaned Mrs. Hagler's home bimonthly under the able leadership of Jenny Weimer (also as she was then known).

We all had our stations, and Mrs. Joy informed us when we failed to clean them well. The learning curve was steep, and she swatted at you with her cane if she wanted you to attend better to your duties. The shag carpet was always my favorite: vacuum, then take the "carpet rake" out to lift the flattened lines. But she was generous, and we learned lots there . . . about cleaning and about ministry too. I highly recommend regularly cleaning a widow's house for rigorous spiritual formation.

But if you have asthma, be careful what widow you choose. Mrs. Joy is now 86 and she has smoked vigorously since well before her 20th birthday, so the woman has a terrifically scratchy voice. A lover of art and exotic things, she has interesting nicknacks all over her house, and a wonderful record collection too. She has a certain beauty about her too: Mrs. Joy liked to take out her photo albums and remind us that she won a contest (in Las Vegas, I think) with her long, shapely legs when she was young.

So here's the picture you need: a 60-year cigarette expert, long white hair in a ponytail, bright and beautiful big eyes, spunky mind and smile. She doesn't go many places, but she came to Libby's memorial service yesterday, and that should tell you something . . . about Libby and Mrs. Joy.

But get on with it, you beg. The point is that after the service, she commented on my part: "You sure have gone a long way since I heard you last," she began, and I said "Yes, ma'am?" still unsure about whether she meant this as a compliment or complaint. "But you still sounded good," she finished, with down-turned eyes that meant to convey a little shame.

So I chuckled a bit and repeated, "Well, yes ma'am." Oh my, got to love Mrs. Joy. She does tell it like it is.

06 April 2007

Lenten disciplines

It's Good Friday, which means it's the best day for the exercise of my favorite Lenten habit: reading TS Eliot's Four Quartets. Eliot wrote these four five-movement poems late in life, arguably adapting sonata form to written language, and I esteem them as some of the best poems ever. (Maybe one day I'll post a fives list of poems.)

Two of the quartets, "Burnt Norton" (Quartet No. 1, if you will, as Eliot placed it first in the collection) and "Little Gidding" (No. 4), are highly anthologized, but my favorite is "East Coker" (No. 2), not least because it ends with the line "In my end is my beginning," which one day maybe Micah will let me have as a tattoo.

But we're getting off the subject. Every year during Lent, I read the quartets because they explore the humility of this age and the glory of the renewed age to come. And every year, I find that I love the poems even more than the year before, especially my favorite section, that which celebrates Good Friday ("East Coker," fourth movement):

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
In these metered feet and careful rhymes, we see the beauty of the Messiah: he is the wounded surgeon, the bloody-handed healer, the ultimate keeper of the hospital which that ruined millionaire endowed with sin and death, our only food and drink. He makes us whole on this ironic Friday, such a day of death and terror, a remembrance of the most awful bad. Let the dying nurse tell us the story again so that we might again call it good.

02 April 2007

Things my grandmother gave me

Every time I go to my grandmother's house, she says she wants to give me something, and sometimes she actually does. Today, it was a hodgepodge as she puttered around her house finding things she had set aside just for me:

  1. Half a pan of yellow cake with crushed pineapple on top. She wanted me to take more, but I told her we would struggle to eat what I was taking before it went bad. She thought I was lying, but Micah has confirmed that he probably won't eat any, as it's "just yellow cake with pineapple on top." To take the cake home, Grandma provided a plate, three toothpicks, and some aluminum foil; the toothpicks are ostensibly to keep the foil from sticking to the cake top, but, of course, they poke through the foil immediately, no matter how careful you are. Micah thinks this is a hazard. She really wanted me to use another pull of foil to go crosswise and also wanted to provide a plastic bag and twist-tie to further secure the package, but I refused those.
  2. $5.50 cash. The $5 was an honorarium for taxiing her to the accountant's office this afternoon as she delivered her "tickets" (read: "receipts") and other tax-worthy documents so that he can prepare her W-2. (The papers were sealed with an entire roll of tape in the envelope her CPA sent last year's taxes to her in.) The 50 cents was repayment to Micah for scanning and printing two copies of an old family photo; she has asked multiple times "how much do I owe Mike for that work, now?" and we've told her the photos were only 20 cents each, so she doesn't need to repay us. She doesn't take anything for free, though, so she finally got out her coin purse and even gave him a 10-cent tip.
  3. A pile of scrap paper. Every time I have talked to her over the past month or so, her answer to the question "What are you doing?" has been "First one thing and another, cutting up these papers." She has a small table-top shredder that she feeds the mailing labels on everything she receives, along with bank statements and the like, but the shredder is so small that she can't just shove in a full sheet of paper. Well, she could on the trifold, but that's too simple. And she could just tear them into shredder-size bits, but that's not sufficiently neurotic. So she cuts them with old-school scissors: metal and pointed, with a pinky rest. It's a wonder she hasn't punctured herself with them. And she apparently maintains piles of "to-be shredded" documents somewhere in her house so that she can tackle them all at once rather than bit-by-bit. Ergo, the project requires a good month of paced work. She never throws her mailing address in the trash can (you know, the one that she puts directly in front of her house, a stone's skip from the mailbox) and she gets scrap paper out of the deal. What's more, she can share the scraps: all the size of 1/3 a full 8.5" x 11" sheet, these apparently indicate that the month-long project has come to a close.
  4. A spot of tea. In a common marketing endeavor, Tetley sent a sample of their round tea bags to postal customers and Grandma thought I might like to have them since she doesn't plan to brew tea with them. The envelope proclaims these are "FREE" and "Introducing" Tetley Round tea bags. And it seems that Tetley introduced those round bags in 1989. . . .
  5. A bag of baby spoons with one surprise fork. Each utensil is still in its original cellophane package, and they are bound together with a twist-tie. That package was then dropped into a cellophane bag that has some gold stripes on it, and that bag is closed with a gold twist-tie. Grandma thought we might like to have these for "Dola." When I told her that another silver spoon originally in the gold bag wasn't a baby spoon but one designed for some kind of serving, like the spoon we always use for cranberries, she took that one out and only let me leave with the baby ones. She said, "I found these before your shower and held them, case nobody gave you spoons, but if you don't want them, I can keep them, but if you only have one, you could have another, case Doel knocks one on the floor you can just get another one, don't have to clean it. But Jenny, you don't have to take these, now, if you don't think you'll use them, but I'd like Doel to have them. You know Avon gave me those, worked for them long time and they always gave us things like that, a spoon in every big order, and I worked hard."
All this came after several stories about snakes, a lecture about how to feed Noel in such a way as to obviate all crying, and an offer of a boiled-ham sandwich ("Don't tell me you're not hungry. Oh, Jenny, I know. I know you're hungry." At 3:30 pm? Some of us lunch on more than a handful of potato chips, which is what she said she had today). It was an ironic afternoon.