Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Entertaining Angels

Photo courtesy of the morgueFile
It must have been right after Thanksgiving. It must have been, because we still had all those cookies. We decided to make cookies instead of pies and the kids and I went a little insane with it, like it wasn't just the four of us for dinner, like any other day. We had more leftover cookies than we could ever eat. It was afternoon, but dark. Bitterly cold in that freaky freeze we sometimes get the end of November, where it acts like real winter with frost and hard, crunchy ground, visible breath in the air and numb fingers and toes. It was laundry day, too. Whatever day that was. Wool sweaters were drip-drying all over the kitchen tables and chairs. I was getting ready to start dinner and it was that gloaming time. Not full dark, but dark enough; homework time, but not quite dinner, Daddy not yet home from work. It was that itchy time of day where we're all a little sleepy, almost done with being productive, but not quite ready to settle in for the night.

A knock on the door around Thanksgiving isn't all that odd. Usually it's the UPS man, knocking quickly and running back to his truck. Probably cursing the housewives who sit in yoga pants and do their Christmas shopping online. But the knock kept coming and my daughter interrupted her cello practice to tell me that there were two men on the doorstep. The "men" were little more than boys, standing bright and clean with pink, smooth cheeks in their crisp white shirts, dark ties and name tags. Missionaries.

I smiled and listened and praised their efforts. My usual patter when they come to my door. "I appreciate your zeal. No, I'm not Mormon, but I am a Christian. Godspeed." My daughter stood just under my heels, peeking through my armpit. The boys outside smiled politely through chattering teeth, nodded at my own spiel meant to preempt theirs. The taller one, Elder P, finally said, "Well, is there anything we can do for you? Hang your Christmas lights?" My daughter giggled and tugged at the back of my shirt. These young Elders tugged at something less visible than my shirt.

"It's freezing out there, do you want to come in and have some coffee?" Duh. Crazy lady, offering the Mormon missionaries coffee. "Or some decaf tea?" I recovered. The boys prevaricated and the smaller one, Elder G, cocked his head, "Hot cocoa?" Deal. And I let them inside. My daughter skipped and squealed, always thrilled to have visitors. She's a natural-born hostess and would fill the house daily if she had her way. In another era, she would host a salon in our living room, I'm sure of it.

I apologized for the mess and scooped sweaters off the table and went about the business of cocoa. My daughter filled a plate with those cookies - so many cookies! - and the boys started to thaw out and open up. We chatted about their mission, about their lives. Elder P was Utah born and bred. He could trace his ancestry back to the pioneers. This was his birthright, a foregone conclusion long before he was born. Elder G was from Las Vegas, a recent convert. Raised Jewish and discontent, he searched for something to keep himself out of trouble in high school and found it in his new faith. "I think what sealed it for me were the families. I never had a family like the ones I saw among the Mormons." My little girl ran and got her Bible, read her favorite verses to the boys and asked a lot of questions while plying them with cookies. When the cocoa was gone and their fingers and toes had warmed up, the Elders stood to leave. We packed up more cookies for the road and some boxes of mac and cheese. I let them out the back door, the one for friends and family, and sent them on their way into the full dark cold with our phone number and names, in case they found themselves in need.

"That was fun," my daughter said as we closed the door. "That was good."
"Yes, it was. Now go practice your cello." Back to business as usual. I thought we'd done our good deed for the day and helped make their evening a little more interesting and that was that.

A few days later, the kids and I were waiting at a stop light, on our way to an orthodontist appointment, when suddenly, my son squealed: "Look! It's the missionaries!" And there they were, walking down a busy street in the cold. The kids rolled down their windows and hollered to them and were thrilled when they came and poked their heads into the car and gave us an invitation to the Ward Christmas party. What an odd coincidence, we marveled together. How fun.

For the next several weeks, though, it was not at all uncommon to hear a knock in the early evening and find what the kids had come to refer to as "our missionaries" on the doorstep. We celebrated Elder G's 20th birthday, we got updates on their families from their precious Christmas phone calls home; we talked about our respective faiths, about Santa Claus, about music, about flame throwers, and about their adventures in the mission field. My husband entertained them with silly stories from his childhood and commiserated about the filthiness of Paris; my kids showed them their new toys and the lizard, they talked Star Wars and Jesus and the best way to eat Ramen noodles. I mostly listened and bustled in the kitchen, because that is what I do. We always sent them home with food of some sort and my little girl tried to give them her allowance when Elder G bemoaned spending too much of his stipend on Christmas cards.

These boys. They would cringe to hear me call them that. They are technically adults, twenty and twenty-one. But so young, and so clean, and so fresh-faced. My daughter was besotted and flitted like a fairy when ever they came around. My husband called them my adopted sons. If I'd started early, I am old enough to have been their mother, I suppose. It was for their own mothers that I took these boys in. We see them everywhere, we sometimes make jokes about them. But those two shivering boys on my doorstep, just after Thanksgiving, were no laughing matter. At a time in their lives when most of us were out making a royal mess of things (or at least I was), they forgo home and security and most material things and head out to where ever they are sent, knocking on doors. Whether you agree with them or not, they show a kind of courage and a kind of steely backbone that most of us only aspire to. They believe in something, so they sacrifice. They believe in something, so they are out there getting it done. I respect that, and I respect their mothers for letting them go. For hoping their babies are all right while they disappear for two years, only to be heard from on special occasions. The faith involved on all fronts is staggering. Even the faith to step into a stranger's home and accept a cup of cocoa, when there is no reason to trust me.

My phone rang the other night. An unfamiliar, local number.
"This is Elder G. I wanted to let you know," his voice faltered a little, "I wanted to let you know that we are both being transferred. We leave on Tuesday." I knew this would eventually come, but I didn't really know that it would feel like a punch in the gut. They have both been transferred to a notoriously rough suburb south of here. "I'm a little scared," Elder G whispered, sounding every bit the young boy he is, "I wanted you all to know, though. Pray for us."

My life is littered with people to whom I've been attached for a season, never to see again. It is the legacy of my own upbringing, as the child of a different kind of missionary. I have been transient most of my life and have learned, along with how to pack a bag, how to love and leave with minimal fuss. I have rarely allowed myself the luxury of missing people. I know how to say goodbye. I am finding, though, that... is it age? is it that I'm more settled now than I've been in my entire life? I am finding that these ghosts cling to me. It has begun to sting a little to let people go, even as I know full well I must. It is uncomfortable and new and it makes me want to keep people on my doorstep with my preemptive spiel: "I have enough, thank you. Please go away."

I was all bluster and practicality when I told my little girl with her big-hearted crush that the missionaries were moving on. "It is how it works. They chose to do this and they have to go where they're told." She nodded solemnly and her eyes were just a little bit brighter, her voice just a little bit smaller as she said, "I know. But I will miss them. I hope they're OK." As always, she reminds me that my heart is not my own. If I had truly never wanted to be touched, to never feel the sting of loss, I would not have joined my life to her father. I would not have brought her and her brother into this world to pry open the parts of me that no one else is allowed to see. She is small and settled in her life. She has the security to say "I will miss them," and to know that life goes on. To give away small bits of her heart to the people she meets and trust that in so doing, her own heart will expand. I held her hand while she prayed for their safety and said thank you for letting them into our lives. And I thought of their mothers, doubtless on their knees day and night, praying for the safety of these pieces of their hearts that wander strange streets and knock on doors. I said a prayer for their mothers, too. It is not an easy or comfortable thing, letting all these strangers in.

But this is part of the promise I have made. It is a battle in the war I have declared. It is a door that must be thrown open and I thank those two shivering boys, so sweet and earnest in the gathering dark shortly after Thanksgiving, for knocking. Their faith drove them to knock that night, and I find it was my own faith that drove me to invite them all the way in.

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, 
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
Hebrews 13:2

Monday, January 13, 2014


We're all around back to Monday again.

The days have begun to blur together with the ribbons of icy rain that have filled our drainage ditches and nearly drowned my little rock wall of hardy succulents. Too much of a good thing. Over the weekend the wind just howled and brought the rain sideways and mixed it with sleet. Or is it hail? I can never remember. It's all little ice rocks that fly from the sky. When the wind kicks up, it has behind it the full force of the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes the North Pole. It funnels through our little valley here and rips the trees apart and scatters them around the road. Days like those, it's a firm reminder that we live here in borrowed space in the laps of mountain ranges and hanging onto the edge of the country.

Last week brought three momentous occasions for me, all in a row.

Elvis' birthday on the 8th, whereupon he would have been 78. I was stranded in Elizabethtown, Kentucky once; a hundred years ago in a brutal winter snowstorm, in a brutal time in my life, on the birthday of The King. It's a story I'll tell another time, but every year on the anniversary of his birth, I find myself taking care of that young girl who thought she was all grown up, shivering there, stuck and clawing at the snow.

Audrey's birthday on the 9th. She is my best friend from high school's eldest child and she just turned 13. I met her mother the year we both turned 16. We were both in a new school in a foreign country and I started my period in her swimsuit the first time we ever hung out. When something like that happens, you are either friends for life or you never really speak again. I am blessed to say it was the former and her daughter was the first born of my close friends. I remember the awe as I beheld my friend there in the hospital, a new mother, exhausted and happy. I had no interest in being a mother at that point and she was like a warrior or a saint, treading ground I dare not touch. Now her baby girl is officially a teenager and my friend soldiers on ahead of me as I continue to watch in awe.

My darling true love's birthday on the 10th. He says the day is cursed. He doesn't like to celebrate. Ever since his 8th birthday when his dog died and no one showed up for his party. I cry and want to hold that small, sad boy. This year he spent it shuttling the kids to and from a birthday party and running errands while I lay in a fevered heap on the couch and my heart broke for him again. One year, though, the year we first met, he bought me a new dress - all shimmery maroon velvet - and took me to see Christoph Eschenbach conduct the Houston Symphony in Beethoven's 9th. Ode to Joy. Shortly after, he asked me to marry him. Which, of course, I did. For our honeymoon, we took a road trip to Graceland and I made my peace with Elvis.

It all comes full circle.

I wrote last week about our two faces. If it's all a circle and you are looking in both directions at once, you will eventually come around and meet yourself again. We think in opposites as absolutes. We think they are opposed, rather than part of the whole. Our rain and wind have softened today into tentative sun. I have pictures in my head of how this works. I will draw them for you sometime.

For now, another momentous occasion on the very near horizon:

Tomorrow, The Burrow Press Review will feature one of my pieces. It's a little different from what I write for the blog, but not. It is a tiny snapshot of my history, embellished with words. So here, now, in the bold sunshine of my current life, a whisper of that frozen time all those years ago will see the light of day. It's a strange thing to consider, as I could not be who I am now without having been all the things I didn't want to be.

This life is not an arrow, rising on its own trajectory until it ends. It is a doodle. An intricate design that winds in and out through pain and growth and joy and triumph and change. It folds in on itself and expands, it crosses itself and traverses new ground. It is a symphony. The theme keeps recurring. Sometimes in a wild crescendo, sometimes quietly in the background, but always there is harmony. Keep listening, keep doodling. My last days have been full of gray and relentless rain; sadness mixed with celebration. Today, the sun glances through clouds. It all comes around again.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

When In Rome...

Photo credit
Janus has two faces. The one that looks behind and the one that looks ahead. He guards the doors of our lives; keeping track of where we've come from, looking ahead to where we're headed.
He presides over war and over peace. He looks after entrances and exits, births and deaths, comings and goings. He gave us January.

I wonder if Janus approves of the grocery store in his special month. In our neighborhood store, the escalator comes down slowly through a vista of the entire store. The escalator bisects the seasonal items and I stand like a captain, surveying the seas of consumer goods around me. To my left, shiny new displays of organic and "healthy" foods. All green and white in their carefully marketed finery. They flank the throne-like center display of juicers, fat-free grills, and exercise accessories. To my right, the clearance Christmas candy, tattered and picked over in jumbled heaps, with the luster lacking like prom dresses the morning after. Sometimes it seems we all stand like Janus on this descending escalator, a head in both directions, wondering which way we'll turn when we reach the solid ground. Mercury and Ceres know this, I think. Commerce and harvest join hands and catch us no matter what we choose.

It seems I spend half my life in grocery stores. They become a microcosm of our great teeming American life. They know us well. They know what sells. It deflates me that we fall for this year after year. Soon the New Year diets will be discarded, just in time for the Super Bowl and Cupid's mad celebration in Mylar and chocolate. The clean lines of green and white will be shoved aside for great towers of beer, salty chips and disposable dishes shaped like footballs. Barely a few steps out of January and the keen resolve of so many will be broken. The clean, fresh calendar a forgotten whim as televised gladiatorial events take precedence. Are we really so fickle a lot?

In ancient Roman culture, Janus had no particular feast days or specified priests. His two faces were invoked at the beginning of everything, regardless of the occasion. The Romans of antiquity, it would appear, knew what was up. We stand with both our faces in the beginning of all things. Holiday foodstuffs aside, we know this is true in the deepest of our natures. We spend a lot of time looking in two directions at once. Where I've been and where I'm headed. Who I am and who I want to be. What I should have done and what I'll have to do now. What will end if I start this new thing? We invoke Janus throughout the year, regardless of the month, because what is life if not a series of beginnings and endings of things? We really are so fickle a lot.

I have made no resolutions this New Year. I rarely do, in fact. There will be no new calorie counting or Stairmaster regimen in my coming weeks, mercifully. I will not be eating what I imagine the cave men ate, nor will I learn to dance the Tarantella. A trip down the escalator in my grocery store is evidence enough of how that is all so much marketing. My calendar, decided all those centuries by Pope Gregory, tells me that it is January, the beginning of a new year. January, named for Janus, the god who swings both ways. In honor of this new year and every new year for the last several years, I choose a guiding theme, an idea to cling to in the center while my Janus self looks this way and that, watching my back and scouting ahead.

My theme is personal and will remain so this year, but I share these thoughts on our two faces as we launch into the new year. In ancient Rome, the temples of Janus kept their doors open when the Empire was at war. In peacetime, the doors stood closed. I believe there are times for closing doors, keeping the world at bay, retaining the peace within. But with the doors shut tight, you'll never get out or in; you'll never go anywhere. To consciously open some doors is to invite conflict and unrest into your life. We are, I believe, conditioned to avoid this. But perhaps it was with greater understanding of our nature that the Romans invoked the god of two faces, the god of gates and doors, at the beginning of all things. The god whose one face understands and accepts peace and the god whose other face knows the necessity of battle.

So it is, that I start this new calendar, in the month of Janus, by recalling the words that William Shakespeare put into the mouth of another illustrious Roman, Julius Caesar:

"Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!"

It's time to open some doors.