Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I Have a New Blog!

Come on over and visit me at my new blog, a woman again.

"I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again – as I always am when I write." ~ Virginia Woolf

My first post, Back to School, will explain a bit why I'm moving.  But in a nutshell: it just felt like time for something new!  

Hope to see you soon!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Summer Reading List

This summer we're going on a six week road trip to New York (a week at Chautauqua with Julie's family to celebrate her folks' 50th wedding anniversary!), Wisconsin (Bob and Bobbie at the lake!), Iowa (Mark, Jennie and Gillie on a farm with a pond!), Indiana (beer and books with Gordon! and Neville!), Ohio (Erik and Claire and two scrumptious nephews, Asher and Noam!), Vermont (paradise with Dad and Anne!) and New Hampshire (paradise revisited with Suzanne et al, in which Meg and Micah go to camp for a week!).

Yes, we're counting the days.

I'm also compiling a summer reading list, and am open to suggestions. The general themes this summer are 1) short stories 2) Virginia Woolf 3) James Joyce 4) books on the craft of fiction writing.

Here's my list so far, a somewhat random collection of books I already own (it's a budget summer reading list, but if you have suggestions that are classics, I can download them to Trixie's Kindle... and when we're at Prairie Lights, I'll probably have to spend a little money, right? Because it's important to support independent bookstores and writers, right?).

Short Stories

[edited to add:] The Mother Garden by Robin Romm
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Welding with Children by Tim Gautreaux
The Best American Short Stories of 2009 edited by Alice Sebold
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Great Short Stories of the Masters edited by Charles Neider
The Paris Review Spring 2010
Tin House Volume 11, Number 3
The Iowa Review Volume 40, Number 1
Canteen Issue Five
New England Review Volume 30, Number 4
Antioch Review Spring 2010
New Yorker -- the past several months

Joyce and Woolf

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (I'm half way through)
Homer's The Odyssey (any suggestions of a good translation for me and Trixie to read together?)
To The Lighthouse or Orlando (what do you think if I only have time for one this summer?)
The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Fiction Craft

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

You May Be Wondering Why I've Called You Here Today...

You may have noticed that I haven't been blogging much.  No?

Well, anyway, I haven't been blogging much.

When I started this blog, I was mostly looking for a place to publish my essay You Can Always Fry Eggs in Missoula, Montana, about my dad, as well as the book reviews I write for Gordon.  It was around when I realized that not only do I really like writing, but I kind of need to write to stay sane.  And I thought, I have a pretty interesting life, and some quirky ideas a few other folks might like, so maybe I'll write an essay or two a month, no big deal, and throw them up on a blog.  I didn't give much thought to craft, and no thought whatever to getting published; stuff just sort of poured out of me, and I hit "publish."

A year after starting this blog with such modest ambitions, I took a fateful trip to New York to sit on Patrick's couch in Harlem and I wrote for four days non-stop.  Okay, not totally non-stop, but I wrote a lot, and when I wasn't writing I was hanging out with other writers.  Since then I've been back several times, I've made friends with more writers, I've joined a writing workshop called Rittenhouse Writers Group, and I've gotten this idea in my head that I might be a writer of short fiction (though I haven't given up on the essay; I like the essay a lot, I will admit).  And while I still have fairly modest ambitions, I'm less inclined these days to write a draft and hit "publish."  Indeed, I'm relearning that the real work of writing is revising.  (I say "work," but really?  I'm a pig in mud.)

So I'm not publishing much on the blog these days, and what I am writing now I probably won't publish here, at least not until it has been soundly rejected by any number of other venues.  But I'm not ready to close up shop.  There are still my book reviews, with many, I hope, to come this summer.  And I want to finish the Midwestern Marriage piece, even though I don't have time now to give it much revision.  That will be going up in parts over the coming months -- and then?

We'll see!

Friday, June 4, 2010


Patrick Lacey and I are pretty sure we are twins separated at birth.  I can't tell you how dear this man is to me.  So even though I didn't know his beloved brother James, my heart still aches with Patrick and his family as they continue to mourn James' sudden death in a car accident a year ago.

It's an awful thing to have so many friends lately suffering the awful, untimely deaths of young men in their families, but it is an honor to stand with them in their grief, and to offer what small comfort I can as it unfolds.  As Patrick notes in his current post at his blog Loose Ends, he and I have a mutual friend, Ellen, whose brother Mark also recently died.  When I was last in New York, writing on Patrick's couch in Harlem, Ellen asked all of her friends to celebrate her brother's birthday by eating an Entenmann's double chocolate donut.  Patrick and his boyfriend Bill and I were only too happy to oblige, and on the theory that where one Entenmann's is good, a dozen is better, we clogged our arteries good and hard that weekend!

The Laceys are now coming up on the first anniversary of James' death, just days after what would have been his 42nd birthday today.  Patrick has compiled a joyful, playful list of ways we might honor and remember James -- everything from eating salad to walking a dog to running an errand for a shut-in.  And my favorite, kissing friends (you never have to ask me twice, right?!)  I didn't know James personally, though I know the rest of the Laceys and feel as though I knew James from the exquisite posts Patrick shared on his blog in the months after James' death.  And what I know is that James was one of those souls that lives on a different plane than the rest of us, that he had some things figured out that the rest of us can only hope to understand if we're blessed with a long life.  I'm going to be trying to live a little more like James Lacey in the next few days, with Patrick's delightful suggestions as my guide -- as a way to honor James, of course, and to remember him, but mostly because trying to live more like James is probably as sure a path to a good life as any of us is likely to find.

Even if you don't know Patrick or James from Adam, I encourage you to read this lovely post, eat some salad, kiss a friend -- and hold the Laceys in the light in the days to come.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Book Review: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black

Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010) [*****] In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably tell you right up front that I pretty much think Robin Black hung the moon these days because, after meeting her very briefly in a book signing line at the Free Library where I heard her read from this collection recently, I contacted her (through Twitter, no less -- I have completely drunk the social media kool aid...), and she very, very generously (as though she had nothing else to do while on a busy book tour) put me in touch with the leader of her old writing group, of which I am now a very happy and grateful member. I'm pretty sure, though, that even if I were entirely objective, I would just love this collection of short stories. Black's writing is beautifully unadorned, without flourish; it doesn't show off, and it doesn't need to, because in not getting in the way (as I felt Mary Karr's lush metaphors did a bit in Lit, a memoir I otherwise loved), her language ends up being mesmerizing. It's as easy to get caught up in these stories as in a great novel, which is saying a lot coming from someone who used to hate short stories because I thought of them as "failed novels." I no longer feel that way about short stories in general, but I still think it's a very rare thing for a short story to capture a world as thoroughly, to realize a character as fully, as Black can in ten or twenty pages. She also has an uncanny ability to write about very peculiar characters and circumstances --- a father and his blind, college-aged daughter picking up her first seeing eye dog; a eerie, prim school girl at a hippy Quaker school who was kidnapped for ransom as a young child living in Italy and is now bent on revenge; a woman whose child is almost electrocuted by faulty wiring at almost the same moment that the woman's mentally ill father steps in front of a train -- and yet it all seems completely plausible, quotidian even. I think that is one of the things I like best about these stories, the way they play with the adage that "truth is stranger than fiction" -- this is fiction that compellingly and convincingly draws us into the truth of the strangeness of life. What I love most about these stories, though, is the clear-eyed sympathy Black brings to her characters, for the most part unremarkable men and women in middle age or older, experiencing losses or transitions -- there is a lot of death, divorce, infidelity, and illness in the worlds of these stories. In many cases it would have been easy to cast villains or victims -- especially victims -- but Black is both unblinking and kind, and thus creates characters who are nuanced and real. Black helps us know not only them, but ourselves through them. This is the quality I love most in my very favorite writer of all time, George Eliot, and I have often said that if I am to be judged for my own foibles and self-delusions, I hope it will be by someone as clear-eyed and sympathetic as Eliot. I would now gladly add Robin Black to my jury pool.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Aren't We All Immigrants?

edited to add:  I've already gotten good feedback/pushback from a friend at church, challenging me on this notion that we are all immigrants.  That's what I'm looking for!  Help me think this through -- please feel free to leave respectful comments, even (especially) if you I'm headed in a wrong direction!

This coming Sunday is the twentieth anniversary of the death of my mother, who was an immigrant, and whose story I have been feeling compelled to tell lately (it's a great story!).  This coming Sunday is also the first of two Sundays for which there is no plan for adult Sunday school, due to a cancellation of the class that had originally been scheduled (I serve as the Director of Christian Education at my church, Old First Reformed, so filling this void falls to me, lucky me...)  These two facts have me thinking about how I could both tell my mother's story and have something to offer at Adult Forum ....

So I have an idea that keeps swirling around in my brain, but won't quite cohere.  I'm thinking about how much more likely it is for us to care deeply about an issue if it touches us personally.  And as I think about my mom, and her immigration story -- which is also my immigration story -- I keep thinking about the ways that we are all immigrants.  Right?  Every one of us has a story about how our families came to this land.  Some of them are stories of men and women seeking opportunity and hope.  Others are stories of people fleeing persecution.  Still others are stories of ancestors brought here forcibly as slaves.  Some of us know more about our stories than others of us, but every family story ultimately takes on mythic proportions, every family story is both real and imagined.  Indeed, it seems to me that if this land has a creation myth, that myth is an immigration story!  Even Native Americans have immigration stories, albeit ones that likely must be mostly imagined because they are so ancient.  Still, doesn't it highlight even more how much immigration is this land's creation myth, if we think of even Native Americans as having come from some other place?   If we see that even peoples who have been here for millennia are immigrants too?  Well, this is where it's still sort of vague in my mind, but somehow, it seems to me that by telling our immigrant stories -- all of our immigrant stories -- we highlight the absurdity of singling out the most recent immigrants among us as "illegal."

I even want to say -- and this is where it's still really fuzzy -- that somehow, if we all document our status as immigrants, doing so somehow compels us in a way that is more immediate and urgent to stand in solidarity with those who are supposedly "undocumented."  I say supposedly, because of course, every immigrant has a story that should be heard, that we should care about, that should be -- and can be -- documented.  I keep playing in my mind with the word "document"...

As I said, I'm not sure where I'm going with this.  But for starters, I was thinking about telling my mom's story -- that is, my story -- at church on Sunday in the Adult Forum, and then trying to figure out ways for everyone else to tell their stories too.  And because I'm a writer, I was thinking of trying to get folks to write them down.  And because I'm a blogger, I was thinking maybe I would find a way to share them  more widely ... I haven't figured it all out yet, but stay tuned.

And let me know what you think....

Friday, April 23, 2010

Gathering Madness

It’s not too late: Call Gov. Brewer NOW & ask her to veto SB1070. English: 866-996-5161- Espanol: 866-967-6018

* * *

It occurs to me that if I were me, the same old Marta – everything about me the same – except that I were of Mexican, and not European, decent, and I lived in Phoenix rather than Philadelphia – it occurs to me that the SB 1070, which seems poised to become law in Arizona, would effectively require me to carry my birth certificate at all times or risk being stopped, arrested and jailed until I could prove my citizenship.

As I write this, I keep checking the news to see if Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has signed into law recent legislation which would make it illegal to be an undocumented immigrant in the State of Arizona.  SB 1070 would not just allow, but as I understand it, would require police to stop anyone whom they reasonably suspect to be an undocumented immigrant, and demand documentation.  Any suspect who fails to produce such documentation could be arrested and jailed.

It occurs to me, in fact, that if I were me, but of Mexican decent and living in Phoenix, that the danger I face as a lesbian would pale in comparison to the danger I would face as a United States citizen who rarely thinks about her family’s immigration story.

I am not of Mexican decent -- my mother came to the United States as an immigrant from Sweden in the early nineteen-fifties.  She was actually Dutch, but the Dutch quota was full.  My grandmother, Marta, was a Swedish citizen though, so they came from Sweden, on the Swedish quota. 

But for that small fact – Sweden, not Mexico – my citizenship could now be something I must be prepared to prove in the state of Arizona.  The entire rest of my family’s immigration story could be exactly the same and it wouldn’t matter one bit.

My mother and her family were legal immigrants.  They did everything by the book.  They came with almost nothing – almost literally just the clothes on their backs – to make a new life in Flint, Michigan.  Theirs is a classic immigration success story – my grandfather was a waiter, my grandmother a chambermaid, my mother went to school consistently for the first time in her life as a thirteen year old who did not speak English when she arrived here.  They all worked hard, my grandparents bought a home, my mother got good grades, went to college, eventually earned a Ph.D.  She also had a family, named her first-born after her late mother, her second-born after her favorite Swedish uncle, Sven-Erik, and occasionally told us stories of life under Nazi occupation.  But other than that, she raised two thoroughly American kids.  We grew up in Indiana speaking only English, with flat, Midwestern accents.  We have white skin, blue eyes; my nephews (the only children in this country biologically related to that little 1950’s immigrant family) have my brother’s childhood blond hair.  There is nothing to distinguish us from the majority (at least for a little while longer) of full-fledged, legal, born-and-bred U.S. citizens. 

Perhaps for this reason, it’s easy for me to forget that I am first generation American.  That I have only to scratch the surface of my native soil to expose my immigrant roots.  It’s easy for me to view immigration as just one more issue among so many that progressive folks like me should care about.

But the gathering madness in Arizona has shaken me up a bit.  If everything were the same, except that my family were Mexican, not Swedish … Because in Arizona, what “reasonably” marks someone as an undocumented immigrant?  Brown skin and fluency in Spanish, of course.  There’s really nothing else. 

This legislation has me shaken up, even while I am clear that the target and the real victims of this legislation are not anyone remotely like me, but rather are the hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of whom have lived and worked in Arizona for years, who are undocumented.  This bill is very specifically intended to terrorize undocumented immigrants, making their very existence illegal, and I have no doubt it will do a very good job of pushing individuals and families even further into the shadows, into the margins, further and further away from the opportunities and responsibilities and protections of civil society.  That those who crafted this legislation do not care at all that American citizens could be swept up in its police-state tactics is just evidence that SB 1070 is the work of extremists motivated by nothing more than racism and xenophobia. 

We should not oppose SB 1070 because a midwestern white girl like me suddenly, for the first time in her life, is able in some small way to personalize the very real threat facing brown-skinned immigrants.  We should oppose SB 1070 because it is awful, and hateful, and wrong.  But still, I can't shake this feeling, what a small accident it is that I am not, in fact, at risk.  That I am safe and they are not.  In 2004, I felt unsafe as a lesbian, as Dick Cheney and Carl Rove cynically fanned the flames of homophobia.  Maybe the memory of my fear then, whether real or imagined, is also part of why this issue suddenly feels so visceral and urgent.  

Do you have a story, an experience, that puts you close enough to this issue to make it feel real and urgent?  I hope so, because it's time to stand up and let your voice be heard.  Please take a minute to call Governor Brewer, and to ask her to Veto 1070/Veto Hate.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried (1990)[*****].  This seems to be the phase of my life when I read a lot of great books I should have read a long time ago.  I've known that Tim O'Brien is a great writer I ought to read, but sort of like my resistance to reading Mary Karr (yesterday's review), reading about Vietnam is just never what's calling me in the moment, and I'm a pretty capricious reader.  Again, Julie was the impetus to read The Things They Carried -- she teaches this book (she got a free classroom set when it was the One Book, One Philadelphia selection a couple of years ago) and recently was invited to hear O'Brien speak.  Her rave review is not overstated -- I too just loved this book.  It's categorized as fiction, and I suppose can best be described as a set of related short stories, but I'm really intrigued by the genre, which is really a blend of memoir and fiction, short story and essay.  Many of the characters in the stories are real people, including the men O'Brien served with, and Tim O'Brien himself.  O'Brien was a recent college graduate with a scholarship for graduate studies at Harvard when he was drafted, and he tells in a very moving story about his decision to serve rather than to flee to Canada, which was his first impulse.  He concludes that it was a failure of courage on his part, and simple fear of embarrassment and shame, that drove him to Vietnam rather than Canada.  In the title story, he tells, literally, of the things he and his buddies carried -- first the literal things they carried on their backs, how much they weighed, what they were for, what it felt like to carry them -- and then the more metaphorical things they carried, and what that felt like -- and his writing -- the cadence, the images, the pace -- is just exquisite.  His experiences in Vietnam have clearly marked him so deeply that he has spent the rest of his career writing about them -- the war is pretty much all he writes about, I think -- and this book is as much about Tim O'Brien the writer as it is about the war and Tim O'Brien the soldier..  As a character in the book, Tim O'Brien the writer very explicitly grapples with what it means to tell the truth about war, and whether there even is such a thing as truth when it comes to war, but at the very least, he concludes that to tell the truth, he has to make stuff up.  He tells many compelling stories, and then he retells them, and then he tells you they are true, and then he tells you they are entirely all made up, and then he tells you what really happened, and then he tells you that's all made up too, and then he insists that nonetheless, it's all true.  It reminds me a lot of how thoughtful people read Scripture, and I suppose that's not an accident, though O'Brien does not appear to be a person of faith.  Nonetheless, he seems to be seeking some sort of redemption through his story-telling and his meta-story-telling; and while I suspect he might argue there is no redemption, this gorgeous and provocative book is perhaps as close as it gets.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review: Lit by Mary Karr

Mary Karr, Lit (2009) [*****].  I know I should read Mary Karr's first two memoirs, The Liar's Club and Cherry, as she has been credited with practically singe-handedly sparking the memoir madness of the past couple decades, but the brutal subject matter -- parental alcoholism and psychosis, childhood abuse and neglect, adolescent promiscuity and drug abuse -- have just never called me at the moment when I am thinking, "What shall I read next?"  Julie, however, has read all of Mary Karr, along with the whole wretched-childhood genre she pioneered -- what we call the "Bastard Out Of" series, after Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (so Liar's Club is Bastard out of Texas, and Push is Bastard Out of Harlem, etc.).  Julie recently read Lit, and insisted that I really had to read it, she loved it so much.  And I'm very glad I did -- it is beautiful and very compelling -- though I didn't love it quite as much as Julie.  Lit is the story of Mary Karr's adulthood, in which she writes poetry, marries a poet, becomes a mother, drinks an astonishing amount of alcohol, attempts suicide, spends some time in a mental hospital, gets sober, divorces her husband, converts to Catholicism, and becomes a successful poet and memoirist.  Her story-telling is funny and thoughtful -- this is a very fast and engaging read.  And I know I should say that it is beautifully written, luminous even, and it is!  But....  I will admit there were times when I grew weary of yet another simile or metaphor.  And don't get me wrong - every one of them was fresh! original! illuminating! But every other sentence, really?  It's not an accident that the first half of the book is more lush with metaphorical language than the second half, which is much more sober.  I get what she's doing, and she's really good -- I'm eager to read her poetry, in fact -- but sometimes it just felt like too much, distracting even.  My only other criticism is that Karr strikes me as a bit falsely modest at times -- it was easy to believe, as she told it, that her career as a poet suffered terribly from her extreme alcoholism, but then when fellowships and book contracts and teaching offers kept falling in her lap, it seemed possibly she had been a bit disingenuous about what a hit her writing had taken. These are minor quibbles, though, in an otherwise fine memoir that does a lot of really hard things well:  Karr convinces us that she really can love and forgive her totally crazy and self-absorbed mother without seeming like a martyr; she tells her side of the story of her pretty unbearable marriage without bitterness and with, what seems to me, a great deal of genuine generosity to her ex-husband; she acknowledges the pain she inflicted on her son with open-eyed clarity, but without narcissistic self-recrimination and self-pity; and the story of her conversion from atheism to Catholicism is moving and convincing and mercifully lacking in evangelism. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Conversations with Micah: On Food

"Hello squishy belly."  Micah wraps his arms around my hips, buries his face in my tummy.  "I love you, squishy belly."

"What if I started running all the time and got really skinny Micah?   What would you think about that?"

He looks up at me, very serious.  His cheek is still resting on my belly as he ponders this.

Then, with all the passion of Micah:  "Eat! Eat! Eat!"

* * *

It's Ash Wednesday, and we've just returned home from services.  The quiche and the bread were not done in time -- everything always takes longer than it should -- so we had a snack and the kids are eating their meal now, late.  Julia Child's quiche, so much better than Molly Katzen's.  Heavy cream and butter are quickly climbing to the top of my list of life's greatest pleasures.  Also, white flour.  I've made a loaf and two baguettes, all white flour.  All of this, I know, goes against every bit of sound nutritional wisdom, but oh my.... I just can't stop.  I'm thinking of giving up risk-aversion for Lent.

I'm tidying the kitchen, wiping counters, loading the dish washer.  The kids are at the table in the dining room.

"Trixie?" says Micah.  "What's your favorite thing about this family?"

She has a fork-full of of cheddar-sausage quiche in one hand, a hunk of baguette in the other.  "The food," she says, between bites.

"Yeah, me too."

* * *
Dinner the next night.  Gratin with potatoes, cheese and pork sausage.  For some reason we have two dozen eggs in the fridge, and Julie is coming home with at least another dozen in the winter farm share tonight.  So I'm using up eggs like crazy.

Micah doesn't like the gratin, because he doesn't like potatoes, so he's eating another piece of quiche.

"Nial and Zach and I are the only ones in my class who eat healthy food," he says.

"Is that so?"  This is an interesting development.  Until very recently, he's been mostly horrified by his homemade lunches.  "The kids will laugh at me," he would moan, "if I bring that to school."  But when I relent, and buy him some awful yogurt in a squeeze tube or something, he doesn't actually eat it.  It's just about street cred.

When Trixie was Micah's age, she began a boycott of MacDonalds after I told her about industrial beef production.  It was an ethical boycott, though she didn't really like the food much either.  A couple of times on our road trip last summer we stopped at MacDonalds in desperation, and because Micah begged, but eventually even Micah declared he wouldn't eat there anymore.  "I just like the toys in the Happy Meals.  But that's not real food."

Apparently he has embraced being the kid with the healthy lunch.  "I'm teaching my friend Nassir to eat more healthy though."

"That's great Micah.  Has your teacher been talking to your class about eating healthy?"

"No, I just decided to teach Nassir."

"What did you tell him about eating healthy?"

"Like, he should eat his sandwich before his chips and snacks.  And his fruit, he should eat fruit.  Like that."

"That's great advice, Micah," I say.  "Maybe you should take your own advice, though."

He looks at me.

"You didn't eat your sandwich today.  And only part of your fruit."

He looks away, shrugs, the sly smile.  He is his own boy.  He will be a good man.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Welfare of the City: Scenes from a Neighorhood

The second in an occasional series; the first:  Sister Margaret (or: the first time I walked away from poverty)


The snow has been relentless.  I missed the first wave, having been forced – entirely against my will, I’ll have you know -- to stay another day on my writing retreat in Manhattan because there were no trains home.  The kids and Julie had off Monday, which was a gift, and they went to school Tuesday, which was also a gift.  But they are off the rest of the week, which is, well, a mixed blessing.  If I could have one more day to get on top of the mess in the house, to get my head back in the game, that would be a good thing.  Instead I’m trying to catch some quiet moments alone where I can.  Which is why I’m going to be late to the neighborhood snow day potluck at Kate and Pete’s house.  The Brussels sprouts are my excuse – my, but they take a long time to roast, with just some olive oil and kosher salt.

When I arrive, the house is teeming.  I’m laden with the Brussels sprouts (roasted to perfection, if I do say so myself) and half the sticky buns I baked this morning with Micah and his pals Ada, age five, and Zady, age four.  Micah likes to measure and mix and roll things, but hates sticky fingers.  Ada and Zady, on the other hand, are girls after my own heart.  When it came to smearing soft butter on the rolled-out dough with their bare hands, they couldn’t get enough of it. 

“Ooohhh! It feels so good!” They giggled, pinching off more butter and finger-painting it on the rectangle of soft, sweet dough.  Micah sprinkled the cinnamon, I rolled it up, and everyone helped pinch the seam.  I cut thick slabs and arranged the pin-wheels in the slurry of sugar and butter the kids had just spread with a spatula all over the bottom of the baking pans.  The warm, sticky cinnamon swirl buns are… well, words fail.  Possibly too much.  I’m taking half of them to the potluck.

I take my food to Kate and Pete’s kitchen and put it on the counter.  My Ada Ruby, their oldest, greets me with a hug.  Jen and Tim arrive with a bottle of wine.  Julie has put good beer in the fridge, Long Trail I think.  Folks keep arriving, with salads, corn bread, chocolate cake.  There are brownies in the oven, and the whole house smells sweet and chocolaty.  The main course is sheer perfection:  tortilla soup with lime and cilantro, avocado and red onions to sprinkle on top.  There’s also black bean soup, but I can’t eat any, I’m already so full.  I can’t find a plate to put Brussels sprouts on, so I just pinch a few with my fingers, then lick the salt off.  Zady’s dad Zach sees me and smiles.  He leans in and whispers, “I did the same thing.”

“Marta, those are so good,” says Pete as I squeeze out of the kitchen.  “Brussel sprouts are much maligned and I just don’t understand why.  I love them.”

“Me too!”  There’s not much food I don’t love though.  Licorice is the only flavor I really can’t abide.  Everything else is about texture: oatmeal, tapioca, rice pudding – I can’t do it.  It’s a shame too, because I love the idea of all those foods.  I mean really, is there anything more cozy and comforting than a bowl of oatmeal with cream and brown sugar and raisins?  Too bad it makes me gag.

“Hey Aaliyah, can I have that baby?” Aaliyah is one of Trixie’s best friends and our next-door neighbor.  Trixie has known Aaliyah and her sister Qudsiyyah since they were all two and three year olds.  For several years I took care of them before and after school, and had baby Ada during the day.  “Marta’s daycare and taxi service,” the kids used to call it. 

Aaliyah smiles and hands me baby Levi, Kate and Pete’s third child.  Josiah, their two-year old middle son is showing us a few dance moves, much to everyone’s delight.

I settle on the couch and bounce the baby on my knee.  Jen is beside me, hugely pregnant and looking uncomfortable.  “How you doin’ babe?” I ask, and lay my hand on her belly.  Jen is not only one of my dearest friends, but also my yoga and pilates instructor, with a studio in her home that is directly across the street from us.  I take private sessions with her, and we’re bartering for childcare.  It’s only recently starting to feel real that this isn’t just a plan, but a relationship.  A new baby in my life!  Suddenly I am so eager to have this baby on the outside.  Not as eager as Jen is, though.

“I’m okay.  I’m kind of sad, actually, but it feels pretty hormonal, not existential, you know?”  I stroke her knee absently, assure her I do indeed know exactly what she means. 

“I don’t think I’m going to stay for the movie,” she says. 

I shake my head and whisper, “Me either.”  I look round at this house full of people I love, every one of them a neighbor on my little block of rowhouses, most of whom I’ve known for years and years.  Jen (the other Jen, Zady’s mom) and Q & A’s mom Kelley are hanging a sheet on the wall; Emilia has just arrived with an LCD projector.  Movie night on the Terrace.  This is a good life.  My gratitude is deep.  Still, I know my limits.  “I’m going to leave when the movie starts, enjoy a little solitude before I put the kids to bed.”

I turn to listen to Michelle, on the other side of me on the couch.  She’s talking about food.  “We had a lunch meeting at work, and I’ve been trying to recreate this green been dish ever since.  With cranberries and pearl onions.  Oh my, it was so good.  I can’t quite get it right though – I think I’m putting in too much olive oil.”

“Shelley, how many years have I known you? Seventeen? And I didn’t know you like to cook.”

“Has it been that long? Really?  You know, you mentioned recently about knowing my father, and I didn’t realize you’d been on the block that long until you said that.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember your father.  We moved here in 1992.  I was just trying to remember how old your Erich was then?  Maybe eight or nine?”

“Yeah, that’s about right.  He’s grown now.”  She sighs.  “But food, yeah, I love food.  I love everything about food.  You know, some people say they like to eat, but don’t really like all the preparation – all that chopping and cooking, you know?  But I just love it all.”

I smile, nodding.  I remember last summer, when there was a huge block party to celebrate because Shelley had completed her degree.  I do remember now eating some amazing barbeque pork on her stoop that day.  That was when we talked about her father.  How he went to Tuskegee.  How proud he was – never bought anything on credit.  Walked to the car dealership on the Avenue, paid cash, drove home with a new car, no note.  Her parents were good people.  Shelley is too.  And I don’t doubt she can cook, because that barbeque was amazing.  It’s all coming back to me.

“I was talking about this once with a girlfriend at work,” says Shelley, nodding her head in a sort of circular motion. “I said, ‘I love everything about food.  I love the way it looks, I love the way it tastes, I love the way it feels and smells….’  And my girlfriend, she looked at me and she said, ‘Shelley? Are you talkin about food or are you talkin about sex?!’”

I touch her arm, laughing.  “Shelley, good food and good sex?  Just two sides of the same coin, if you ask me.”

“You got that right!” She’s still chuckling and nodding her head.  “You sure do got that right.”

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book Review: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)[*****] I've never before read any fiction by Virginia Woolf, though I read and loved A Room of One's Own as a teenager, and I read about VW many years ago in Nigel Nicholson's biography Portrait of a Marriage about his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, in which Virginia Woolf plays a role as one of Vita's many lovers (I loved that book too).  But I'd always been a little afraid of actually reading Virginia Woolf, cliche as that may be.  Recently a friend spoke highly of The Hours by Michael Cunningham, but I thought I should read Mrs. Dalloway first.  I'm so glad I did.  I just loved this book so much.  Mrs. Dalloway takes place in one day, throughout which Big Ben marks the passing hours while Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party.  The narrative is stream-of-consciousness, tracking the interior lives of not just Clarissa, but also of all the people with whom she comes in contact throughout the day.  The point of view is constantly changing, like a baton that gets passed from character to character.  So Mrs. Dalloway is walking through the park, and we are hearing the thoughts in her head about her marriage and her former lover who has just returned from India; she passes a young couple sitting on the park bench, and suddenly we are in their heads. Sometimes it took me half a paragraph to realize that the point-of-view had shifted.  Everything is very interior -- the thoughts, memories, revelations of the various characters, major and minor.  One of the reasons I loved Mrs. Dalloway is that its stream-of-consciousness interiority mirrored very much what it feels like to be inside my head sometimes.  All of the stories woven throughout the day converge at Clarissa's party that evening, a remarkably choreographed scene that is both biting and humorous in its social commentary.  Mrs. Dalloway is about many things -- love, marriage, war, mental illness, social class -- but I think I loved it especially because it is so much about youth and middle age and especially what it means to look back on youth -- ones own and ones children's -- from the vantage point of middle age.  Clarissa; her former lover, the adventurous philanderer Peter Walsh; and her former passionate friend, Sally Seton, are brought together for the first time in years, and are all confronted with the memories of what they imagined their lives would be, and with the choices that have brought them to their lives as they actually are.  I could identify so much with  the sense of confusion they all feel at finding themselves and each with such different lives than they had imagined, but also with the sense of passion and possibility they still feel in their middle age.  I think it is just as well that I am only now finding Virginia Woolf's fiction, because all of that would have been lost on me a couple of decades ago.  Now I am intrigued not only to read more of her fiction, but her letters and diaries as well.  She seems to have lived quite a remarkable life.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Guest Post: Julie's Director of Music Report for the Annual Meeting at Church (in its entirety)

Reflections on a Benign Dictatorship:
A Music Director’s Sonnet of Thanksgiving

I’ve been music dictator 13 years—
How lucky am I to have all of you?
To sing and play and do those things you do
So well and to God’s glory, festive cheers!
In thanking you, I might be in arrears.
Allow a shout out, first and foremost, to
The choir, week in and out, rehearsing, who
Up front, (LOOK UP!), sing as our Christ comes near.
Hey band!  You rock the sanctuary space,
True testament to multi-age: Believe!
When soloists enrich our worship’s verve
And pianists say “yes,” it seems like grace.
For Tim’s dual keyboard skills (please, never leave):
This congregation’s thanks you all deserve.

Respectfully submitted way past the deadline,
Julie Steiner
February 7, 2010

Sunday, February 7, 2010

writing retreat, the haiku version (with apologies to vw)

what's this passion for?
always: buzz, hum, soar, roar, dive
then buried in snow

Thursday, January 28, 2010

pardon our appearance

edited to add:  So whaddya think?  I think I like it.

I'm being impulsive and fiddling with the layout.  I'm also supposed to be cooking supper.  And I'm a total luddite.  This might take awhile!

The iTampon Jokes Yesterday Were Inevitable

edited to add:  more on Apple's new "intimate" product (apparently Steve Jobs actually used that word yesterday, with a straight face....)

But it just keeps getting better and better.  I will admit that I am totally intrigued by this new gadget ... but really, doesn't Apple have any women on its design and marketing teams?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Slippery Slope from Same-Sex Marriage to Bigamy

While I spent last summer and fall reveling in my own marriage (see part one and part two of my on-going series, "A Midwestern Marriage"), I pretty much had my head in the sand with regard to most political developments on the marriage equality front (truth be told, I’ve pretty much had my head in the sand about politics in general).  I have, of course, heard that Ted Olson, the conservative lawyer of Bush v. Gore fame, is challenging California’s Prop 8 in federal court, arguing it is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.  I will admit that my somewhat cynical (but not, I think, totally unwarranted) first impression was that this is some sort of conservative plot, wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing and all that, because this Supreme Court?  And I still think, yeah, good luck with that.

But I just read The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage by Ted Olsen in Newsweek , and I’m willing to concede that he at least seems sincere (though such deep cynicism is not beneath this Republican party, so if a we'll-show-those-queers, smoking gun GOP memo emerges some day, after the Court firmly establishes that gay and lesbian folks do not, in fact, enjoy equal protection under the law, I just want to go on record now as saying I won’t be surprised).

(edited to add:  read the rest of this essay after the jump by clicking "read more" below)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

On Resurrection, Redemption and Grace (for Neville)

When I was in college, it took me almost three years to hold onto the concept of “hegemony,” which now seems silly, because it’s not really a difficult concept. And it wasn’t that I didn’t understand the concept; at any given moment, if I looked it up, or someone explained it to me, I understood it perfectly. But an hour later, it was gone. I just couldn’t hold onto it, and I certainly couldn’t pull it up at will to use it or explain it. I had at best an impressionistic understanding, one that only occasionally came into focus. “Hermeneutics” is another one; I still have no idea what it means. And it won’t help for you to leave an explanation in the comments, because then I will understand it … but only until I turn off my computer. Then it will be gone.

Big theological concepts often feel a bit like that for me. But if I feel a little dumb when I can’t hold onto concepts like “hegemony” or “hermeneutics,” I feel like a downright fraud for having only a tangential grasp on concepts like “grace” and “redemption” and “resurrection.” This is one of the many reasons I love Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. I come back to these lovely essays about the “scary words” of the Christian faith over and over, not so much to set difficult ideas firmly in my mind, but rather precisely because what Norris gives me is permission to claim them even in the fleeting, “hope is a thing with feathers” sort of way they dwell with me.

Mostly I don’t so much understand big theological concepts as I experience them. And the thing is, whether you understand it or not, sometimes grace can just wash over you. Sometimes redemption can grab hold of you in an instant and deliver you from a captivity you didn’t even know you were dwelling in. Sometimes resurrection looks you right in the eye in the form of a teen-age boy, now a grown man, who revisits you across the decades through the magic of social networking.

Last night I got a Facebook friend request from Neville Stephens (that’s not really his last name, btw), a name that rang a bell, but which I couldn’t immediately place. Julie said, “Didn’t you have a student named Neville Stephens?” Right. Our mutual friends were two other former students, so of course I immediately accepted.

I’m now Facebook friends with several of my former students from my brief foray as a high school English teacher in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in Hancock County, Indiana. First was Radley; I found him at the Cato Institute when I was doing background on a potential donor to my kids’ school. I shot him an email; awhile later he wrote back, apologetic about the delay. I was actually in Indiana when I received his email, in a Holiday Inn Express, at Julie’s Nanna’s funeral. I was just miles away from Eastern Hancock High School, and his kind words about my influence on his intellectual life were most certainly a sort of grace, a totally unexpected affirmation from the least likely of sources. I’ve been a huge fan of Radley’s ever since, and will always be grateful for his thoughtfulness that began to redeem what was mostly a painful and difficult time in my life. I may have been miserable, but apparently it was not all for naught.

But miserable I was, for so many reasons. In no particular order, there was the fact that my introverted, anxiety-prone, bookish self was exquisitely ill-suited to a career teaching adolescents; there was the war, about which I held a distinctly minority opinion among my colleagues; there was my mother’s death at the end of my first year, the great trauma in my life, still; and then there was that toxic closet, which permeated everything. All around a bad combination. When I look back on those three years, my misery seems almost unremitting.

So I was happy to hear from Radley that something good had come of all that misery. And when I became Facebook friends with Shawn and Amy and Webb and Todd, I had a similar experience. “Miss Rose! [“Marta” I have to correct them every time] It’s so nice to be in touch! Thank you so much for trying to open our minds there at Eastern Hancock, you really did make a difference!” Nothing begins to redeem misery like this sort of unexpected and undeserved kindness and generosity. Especially since not one of them seems particularly freaked out by my life (not my lifestyle, Todd … it’s just a life, and so is yours! Though yours probably has more style, come to think of it… ;-)

Then a couple of weeks ago, I was chatting on Facebook with my boy Cory, whom I sit with at church, while Julie is conducting the choir (Michael, my friend and pastor, says new folks probably think we’re married, ha!). He’s a new friend, and very dear, a Hoosier no less. I adore him. While we were chatting, he told me that Autumn, one of his childhood chums with whom he is Facebook friends, recognized my name on his page because she had also seen it on Amy’s page.

“Autumn?” It took me a minute. “As in Asha’s older sister? Really, you knew Asha?” What a small world, huh? Asha isn’t on Facebook, but I immediately chatted up Amy and caught up on Asha’s life.

Redemption all over the place. I may have been miserable, but these kids? Well, they’re not kids any more, for starters, and what’s more, they appear to have grown up to be fabulous human beings. Very rewarding and heartwarming, let me tell you.

So I was happy to get Neville’s friend request, in much the same way I was happy to hear from all of them. Neville was a great kid. They were all great kids. His photo, though, it didn’t look all that familiar. People change, as it turns out, quite a bit between their mid-teens and their mid-thirties. Someone else commenting on his wall thought so too: “Neville, what happened to your long hair?”

And then it all came back to me: resurrection, redemption, grace, all in one fell swoop. Because suddenly I really remembered Neville. I really saw him, his fifteen-year-old self, with his long blond hair and the fabulous smile and a certain open-yet-shy sort of head-ducking, looking-out-from-under-his-eye-lids gesture that was so, well, Neville. Like his young self was standing right there in front of me.

Michael recently preached a beautiful sermon about bodies (one of my favorite topics) and resurrection, which threw me for a bit of a loop at the end, because he proposed that resurrection is not really a metaphor, that our resurrections will be bodily and unique, right down to the expressions on our faces and our quirky personalities and the very gestures that make us unique. I loved this sermon right up until that point, when I fell right into fretting about being a fraud. Because resurrection as not-a-metaphor and not-a-symbol is not-so-much something I can easily wrap my mind around. A couple of days after that sermon, I made Michael go for a walk with me and quizzed him about it. We walked around the block in the sunshine, my first limping excursion of any distance since my last bout with plantar facsiitis. I was in a funk, and a walk in the sunshine and my new fancy running shoes with my pal Michael was certainly a resurrection of sorts. His further explanation of his sermon was helpful, too, but still I was left mostly scratching my head.

I still don’t really understand the end of Michael’s sermon, but this morning, when a flood of Nevilleness washed over me, I certainly experienced resurrection in just the way Michael proposed: specific, quirky, bodily, right down to the very gestures and expressions that make Neville himself. I have experienced this before: fifteen-year-old Radley is pretty easy to recall too, but here’s the thing (and I trust that Radley would take no offense): there’s not so much redemption or grace in recalling a fifteen-year-old Radley in all his smirky particularity. The redemption of Radley is in knowing he turned out to be a fine human being, a good man, someone who does important work in the world.

The difference was that my experience of Neville, resurrected, recalled for me that my time at Eastern Hancock was not all misery. Neville appears to have turned out to be a fine human being, like most of my former students I’m sure, one that I will be happy to know and be friends with, on Facebook and perhaps even in real life. But the gift that has redeemed those years like no other is in recalling – so specifically, so particularly, so vividly – how much I adored him, then, and how happy it made me, then, to know him.

In the two pages Kathleen Norris devotes to “Grace” in Amazing Grace, she recalls the story of Jacob, who, as Norris tells us, “has just deceived his father and cheated his brother out of an inheritance. But,” says Norris, “God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in open country, is not to strike him down for his sins but to give him a blessing.” Upon waking from his dream, Jacob responds, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Grace, suggests Norris, is in realizing that God is with us even when we don’t know it. “Even when we try to run away from our troubles, as Jacob did, God will find us and bless us….” (pp. 150-151)


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's for Dinner? Curried Apple-Butternut Squash Soup and Cabbage-Carrot-Beet Salad

Folks ask me for recipes a lot, so I'm going to start posting some of them. If you don't love food .... well, poor you. Because good food? Good food is on a short short list of life's greatest pleasures (and I'll send a yummy care package to anyone who can guess the other six. The Seven Greatest Pleasures in Life According to Marta. Sorta like the Seven Deadly Sins.... hmmm. Aren't there also Seven Virtues? Hmmmmm.)

Where was I? Oh yeah, food. I just read Michael Pollen's Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, and I can't recommend it highly enough. If you've been meaning to read Michael Pollen ... well, you really should read Omnivore's Dilemma, because it's awfully good. But if you're not going to (though you should, really you should), read Food Rules instead. It will take you half an hour. Forty-five minutes if you're a really slow reader. Food Rules is Pollan's explication of his own seven-word (seven again!) answer to the question "What should we eat?" Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.

Here are some of Pollan's 63 Rules that I particularly like:

#3: Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.

#7: Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.

#13: Eat only foods that will eventually rot.

#20: It's not food if it arrived through the window of your car.

#27: Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.

#39: Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.

#43: Have a glass of wine with dinner.

#51: Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it.

#53: Serve a proper portion and don't go back for seconds.

#55: Eat meals.

#63: Cook. (That's my favorite, I think.)

Speaking of cooking, here's what we had for dinner:

Curried Apple Butternut Squash Soup
(this is from my brother and sister-in-law; we had this for Thanksgiving, minus the butter)

Cut two butternut squashes length-wise and put then cut-side down on a cookie sheet with a little water. Bake in a 350 degree oven until soft.

Saute two small or one large finely chopped yellow onions in 4 tablespoons of butter (yes, butter!), along with 4 or 5 (or 6) teaspoons of curry powder or paste and two or three cored, peeled, chopped apples until soft, about 25 minutes.

Add three or four cups of vegetable stock (I made my own today, with roughly chopped parsnips, onions, carrots, cabbage, a bunch of old parsley, some bay leaves, and a tea ball full of thyme, rosemary and peppercorns) and a cup or two of apple cider.

Scoop out the squash and add to the pot. Salt and pepper to taste.

Bring the whole thing to a boil and let it simmer for a little bit.

Blend it all up with your immersion blender (and if you don't have an immersion blender? Get one! Everything is better with an immersion blender).

Serve with grated apples and/or a dollop of sour cream or just a scoop of soft butter if that's all you have.

Cabbage-Carrot-Beet Salad with Caraway and Cider Vinegar
(I made this up)

Boil two large or three or four small beets until soft, and then peel and cut into cubes or sticks.

Slice up a quarter-or-so wedge of green cabbage and saute in a couple tablespoons of butter, along with some kosher salt and a few grinds of pepper. Grate a carrot or two into the cabbage as it cooks. Grind up some caraway seeds (maybe a tablespoon or so) with a mortar and pestle and add to the cabbage. When the cabbage is a little soft but not totally wilted, add the beets, a little more whole caraway, and a couple of tablespoons of cider vinegar. Toss and cook for a few minutes until everything is warm and pink. Serve warm or room temperature.

The Lexicon of Social Networking (by my boy Patrick)

I was in a grumpy mood this morning (just ask my family), but this snapped me right out of it. Patrick is one of my boyz and I do love him. He doesn't know it yet, but I'm scheming a trip to New York to sit in his Harlem apartment and write for a few days. Soon. In the meantime, I'm trying to pound my way through a list of onerous tasks that I keep putting off because, well, they're onerous. But I'm pretty sure I will feel so much lighter when they are done. So, more soon, but in the meantime, enjoy!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Review: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (2009) (*****). Taking a page out of Gordon’s book, I gave this to Julie so that I could read it. I justlove Barbara Kingsolver’s stories. This one actually took me about one hundred pages to really get hooked – a day on jury duty did the trick (law school and five miserable years practicing law is a high price to pay to never again get chosen for a jury, but it works; on top of that, I actually loved law school, so I guess the get-out-of-jury-duty-free-and-read-a-book-all-day card is really a bonus, not consolation). The Lacuna is structured as a collection of diaries, letters, newspaper articles and congressional testimony, assembled by Violet Brown, the secretary of Harrison Shepherd, a popular writer of romantic adventure novels. Shepherd is the product of an ill-fated marriage between an American government bureaucrat and a Mexican woman who leaves her husband and returns with the twelve-year-old Harrison to Mexico, in the futile search for a wealthy man to marry and keep her. While living on the hacienda of a rich oil man, and without any school to attend, Harrison swims in the ocean, reads adventure stories, learns to cook from the kind Mexican chef, and writes everything down in the little account book he steals from the housekeeper. From the chef he learns a technique for making perfect pan dulce with European white flour, a skill that turns out to be similar to mixing plaster, which lands the young Shepherd a job with the muralist Diego Rivera. Shepherd eventually joins the staff at the Rivera-Kahlo household, first as a cook and later as a typist. When Lev Trotsky, in exile and fleeing Stalin’s assassins, joins the household, Shepherd becomes his typist. I wonder if this section of the novel would have been quite as intriguing if I hadn’t recently read a biography of Freda Kahlo; at any rate, I’ve always suspected I was born in the wrong decade of the twentieth century, and should have been a bohemian communist, not a middle class housewife. At any rate, I loved the quiet, quotidian portraits of these larger-than-life figures, as seen through the eyes of the understated Shepherd (even while I suspect that the portrait of Trotsky might be a bit overly-sympathetic -- I might have to read one of the new biographies of Trotsky soon). When Trotsky is assassinated, a deeply traumatized Shepherd returns to war-time America, settling in Asheville, North Carolina, where lives a largely reclusive life, forever bemused by his own wild success as a popular novelist. That success turns sharply sour when Shepherd is brought under the surreal scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which ruins his life and career on account of his former associations with Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky. Among the intriguing questions The Lacuna asks is whether and how is it possible to capture a life in words, and how differently it gets captured, depending on ones perspective. The Lacuna is the intriguing story of a life, one lived in the shadow of the epic political drama of the twentieth century. But it is a life filtered through multiple lenses, unintentionally told, in which, as the title suggests, what is left out – the missing pieces – are likely as important as what is left in. The relationship among words, silence, story and truth are intriguing to me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Guest Post: Appreciating Others' Religions As Well As Your Own

NOTE: This sermon was delivered by the Rev Dr Donna Schaper, Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church, on Sunday, January 10, 2010. Like Old First Reformed UCC, Judson Memorial is an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ. Donna Schaper was one of the clergy arrested along with Michael in protest of Jean Montrevil's detention and threatened deportation. I am still praying and fasting for and with Jean. You can also help by signing this petition demanding his release. If you would like any more information, leave me a comment, and I will get right back to you.

This sermon is posted here with Donna's permission.

When we woke up in our several beds on the morning of December 30, 2009, we were one people. Now we are a different people. One of our members, Jean Montrevil was detained at his regular check in and first put in a detention center on Varick Street, right down the street from our solemn assembly. He was later moved to the detention center in York, Pennsylvania where he now resides, precariously perched on the tip of deportation from his country, my country and your country. For the details of this captivity, please come this afternoon for the gathering at 2 or refer to the web site. There will be several people at the welcome table who can give you a thumbnail sketch of this injustice, which is a dam in the river of justice and blocking the flow of the everlasting streams.

I have a problem this morning because all of you are on different learning curves on this egregious manner. Some of you know how these things can be, how a father of four and husband of one can be summarily and unjustly uprooted by the state. Others are just figuring it out. My own husband, who is intimate with me and with this matter, asked me in a quiet moment yesterday, can you explain to me how this could be happening? I heard his plea and while I can explain it legally, I cannot explain it morally What is happening is just plain wrong, in addition to being stupid. Like the government’s current intention to not even allow some immigrants to BUY health insurance, Jean’s captivity by the state is stupid, impractical, uneconomical and risks putting a whole family on welfare, which welfare the same punitive tax payers who want to be safe above all, will end up paying for. Immorality joins stupidity in this potential deportation.

Rev Eleanor Harrison, Rev Susan Switzer, C.B. Stewart and Rev Sherrilynn Posey arrested Jan 7, 2010, as part of nonviolent civil disobedience demanding the release of nationally renowned immigrant rights leader, Jean Montrevil

Still others of you are here for the first time, hoping for some kind of spiritual experience to get you through your week, which is filled with its own detentions and captivities. And others of you are remembering that you joined 17 others in being arrested this week; outside of Varick Street, and that you have a court date on March 8. We are necessarily in different places of involvement in something, which at one level is just another oppression of another good person. You may care more about the homeless woman who shivered on your step last night or the fact that you can’t yet get health insurance. You may be more involved with your own addiction or the early failure of your New Year’s resolutions. Forgive me if I overdo one matter on behalf of creating a spiritual floor for us.

Today I want to stick to my topic, which is about appreciating our own religion in the midst of many competitors for our spiritual attention. Jean is one doorway to all the rest, including the doorway to things, which you may think are small, compared to his grievance.

Today we need to connect the dots. Yes, that is what the President said; we must connect the dots in order to be secure. One of the dots is Jean and the thousands like him, already detained. Another of the dots is the way our own religions are too pathetic to stop injustice. Another of the dots is the way we are overwhelmed with clusters of injustice. There is a good word for this cluster, and some of you know what I mean. It is like cluster freight or a cluster of fears or a cluster you fill in the blanks. The American people are experiencing a tsunami of trouble; so fierce are its waters that we can barely gather our forces to focus on one. But, and here starts the good news. We have gathered with hundreds of others this week to face what has happened to Jean and to say no to it. For a brief update on the situation, just let me say that we have a legal, political and spiritual glimmer of hope right now that Jean will not be deported. It is only a glimmer. But it is a glimmer. Again, I don’t want to get into the details of that glimmer so much as to announce that there is a glimmer. You may clap now.

The spiritual floor for this glimmer of hope in the face of the cluster of fears starts now. It begins with the text from the prophet Amos which has God announcing how sick God is of pathetic religion. Pathetic religion is a bunch of rituals which are empty. Pathetic religion is a bunch of symbols without any relationship to human reality. Pathetic religion is frequently the victim of nationalism or state security. Many of us are triple agents in these terms. We say we are Christians but we are more pantheistic than not, more nationalistic than not. When the president, whichever president, it matters not, implies that the purpose of the state is to protect us from dangerous others and we bow down in compliance, we are singing noisy songs or banging out music on bad harps. We have burnt offerings and grain offerings but no resistance to the lie. Let’s start with the big lie that is the basis for Jean’s captivity. The big lie is that we can fight off terrorism by deporting people or having more wars or better-organized national security agents. Terrorism will not be fought off by torture or war or deportation. Justice rolling down like waters, internationally and not just domestically, will tame terrorism. When righteousness comes, people will stop bombing us Religion that lets itself be lied to by the state is not religion at all. It is triple agent religion, saying it believes in the power of an almighty God who is our only security and whose laws is our delight but actually doing whatever the state tells it to do. At the heart of Jean’s situation is the absurdity of our foreign and domestic policy regarding terrorism. Of course it is scary when people get bombs on airplanes or penetrate the security systems we idolize. Very scary. If we really wanted to stop that kind of terrorism, we would not house potential terrorists together for years in Guantanamo so they could cook up better plots and more hates. We would not torture, hoard, or kill.

We are in a religious fight here at the deepest of levels. We hear a God who is international, and not just American; tell us that there is no delight in our solemn assemblies, bunt offerings, grain offerings, and fatted animals. Instead this God wants one thing and that is for justice to roll down like mighty water. When that justice rolls down, we will be safe, saved, secure, and know salvation. Until that justice rolls down, there will be fights over security. At the deepest level of religion, we are not interested in our own petty safety. We are interested in it, of course, but we are more interested in justice for all and to just for ourselves. Some people have decided they need to be afraid of Jean, who did two crimes, as a youth, paid for them in prison, and now is paying again for them. Why be afraid of Jean? Because we are so deep in a cluster of fear that we don’t know how to get out. This cluster of fear will soon keep immigrants from getting health insurance. It has already drained the national treasury in undeclared and immoral and ineffective wars. If we want to connect the dots, we need to connect the dot of Jean’s oppression ot the national insecurity state.

The great sociologist, C. Wright Mills said, “The biographies of men and women, the kinds of individuals they variously become, cannot be understood without reference to the historical structures in which the milieu of every day life are organized.” Jean is right now the victim of historical structures, which now organize every day life, which structures are at their base petty. By petty I mean self-serving, selfish, and deeply nationalistic. Americans were attacked, Americans need to protect themselves, we are deserving of any kind or level of protection because we are the best of all people. God is laughing at this. Just laughing but in that painful kind of laugh which goes to tears of shame. There is nothing mighty about a river that flows only for one kind of people. It is actually terribly weak and invites others to attack it.

I said that Jean has a glimmer of hope right now. This congregation has worked tirelessly for over two years to work the system to make sure this captivity did not happen. It has happened. We are deeply sad when not just plain apoplectic. Because of this grave emergency, our efforts have quadrupled in size. We have been joined by a national movement that has said enough, enough, and enough. We have corralled and lassoed every political person in New York City who we could find. We have sat in on the street. W e have put up an enormous web site. 78 organizations have joined our efforts officially. We have talked to dozens of people in the press. Riverside Church has called an emergency council meeting for today to decide about whether they want to offer physical sanctuary to some of our other families who are equally endangered. Our glimmer is lighting up the hearts and faces of thousands of Americans who like us are tired of triple agent religion. Triple agent religion is pathetic and just keeps shifting its loyalties in a kind of espionage of spirituality. Something different is happening here. We are getting focused, not just on one man but also on how the injustice done to him is the link to the cluster of injustices our nation faces.

Rev Dr Donna Schaper getting arrested, as part of nonviolent civil disobedience, at Jan 5, 2010 rally to Free Jean

So let me summarize here with my little scaffolding about religion and its imposters. Religion that does not demand justice is not religion. It is triple agent religion. It is spiritual espionage and pathetic in its loyalties. Religion that does demand justice has deep action at its heart. By deep action I mean action that connects the dots between one man’s captivity and that of a nation’s heart and soul. Deep action reveals the apostasy of solemn assemblies that don’t do justice. Deep action shifts power, and we are experiencing the ever so slight shift of the tectonic plate. Ever so slight it is but it is shifting. And we are the shifters. We are shifting because we have been shifted, shifted to see how wrong our efforts at national security are. Once we have seen that, we can’t not see the rest. We will not be safe till others are safe. Deportation will not make people safe. Welcoming immigrants and growing a great openhearted nation will make us safe.

There is now a national movement for Jean, and you are at the heart of it. I almost want to do a roll of honor but that would sound too much like the noise of a solemn assembly. But I must give a few images of the shifting. Our offices were so full of humming computers and people all week that we got a message from our internet people. We are only paying for ten on line experiences at a time and had gone over our band width limit. When we explained why to the person with the concern, he said, “wow, that’s great.” Lenny Fox made sure we got the microphones for the rallies, which was no small thing. Many of you shivered through them.

I have always wanted to be like Leo Lionni’s Frederick. You do know Frederick, don’t you? He is one of the great children’s book’s characters. Frederick saves colors for the other mice so that in the winter they don’t get to grey. There is a ton of color happening in and around us right now. Watching Clover Vail be put into the police paddy wagon, I just wanted to paint the contrast of her white plastic hand cuffs and grey coat. One of the police officers took a good look at Lulu Fogarty and said he was thinking about coming to Sunday School himself. My assigned cop realized I had come out of my cuff links with ease and said, just put them back on when you get out of the paddy wagon. It’s all for the show, you know.

Jean and his US citizen wife and US citizen children

In DC on Friday, with one of our board members, Father Mark Hallinan, Janay Montrevil and her three kids. At one point, when Janay told her story to a congressional aid, she started crying. Then Father Hallinan started crying. Then the children started crying. Then the aid started crying. This is what we mean by spiritual transformation. We have begun to shed tears over the stupidity. The tears are the mighty rolling river of justice.

At another point, on what seemed to be our sixteenth security check, going from house office building to house office building, and Craig was carrying one of the kids, whose jackets and scarves we had to keep taking off, and we were all getting bored with the “who gets to push the elevator button” game, Jamiah said, “Where’s Daddy?” I knew Jean was with us in spirit and if anything just shocked and awed that we have put together so much energy for him this week. I think we are a little shocked too. Articles in CNN, Sunday School teachers in jail because how could she face her children, knowing that their father had been detained? Sequential arrests by people who didn’t know each other at all but now do. Money raised to keep our staff going..yes you may contribute.

Amusing things happened in each congressional office. At one point, Jamiah was wearing one of Charlie Rangel’s African masks in his office, as our legal back up team in New York was sending us non stop messages on our several blackberries. At the last hour on Friday, by the work of 7 of us in DC and literally dozens behind us on the net in New York, the same dozens who had been working all day and all night all week, we were told that Jean would not be deported on Monday. New information and new legal efforts are at work. That is our glimmer.

On the way home on the train Josiah totally took apart in the large ball of rubber bands someone had given him to play with. They were all over the train, amusing our entire car. This ball of rubber bands gave me the image of community with which I want to end. Somebody added one of those rubber bands at a time to the large circled web that it was. That was our action all week.

If you don’t want to be a triple agent in your religion, feigning commitment to a justice oriented God but living by the state’s self-protecting rules, all the while telling people you are spiritually drained and that you need a shift, stretch yourself now and join our ball of energy. Wrap yourself around it. We won’t let Josiah pull you off…. and some day maybe we’ll have the joy of taking all our parts off the center of this activity and putting them back together in a different way. For now, please stretch. Stretch to see one glimmer of justice that might grow into a flame. For now do us the favor of not snapping or popping or stretching yourself too far. There is a cluster freight of stuff trying to keep you down, trying to break your spirit, trying to sell you lies, lies that are actually very dangerous to you as well as being dangerous to others. For now every time you go through one more security check, ask yourself where your true security lies.