Monday, November 11, 2013

Enchantment, Evil and Innocent Children

I am always both haunted and horrified by Schubert's setting of the Goethe poem, "Die Erlkonig." If you don't know it, it's more than worth taking a listen to mid-twentieth-century baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's calmly chilling version.

Note how he sings all four voices--the neutral narrator, the frightened son, the confused father and the evil elf king. And the piano's racing horse-hooves convey the mounting terror at the invisible, but inevitable danger.

Read the English translation below the German and then take a listen:

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

"Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?" –
"Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?" –
"Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif."

"Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel' ich mit dir;
Manch' bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand." –

"Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?" –
"Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind." –

"Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein." –

"Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?" –
"Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. –"

"Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt." –
"Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!" –

Dem Vater grauset's, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh' und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

The English translation:
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

"My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?"
"Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and tail?"
"My son, it's a wisp of fog."

"You dear child, come, go with me!
Very lovely games I'll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has some golden robes."

"My father, my father, and don't you hear
What the Elfking quietly promises me?"
"Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling through withered leaves."

"Do you want to come with me, pretty boy?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters will lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing you to sleep."

"My father, my father, and don't you see there
The Elfking's daughters in the gloomy place?"
"My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey."

"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you're not willing, then I will use force."
"My father, my father, he's grabbing me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!"

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with trouble and hardship;
In his arms, the child was dead.

Click on the link and take a listen. And then, when you've gotten through that, read the Yeats poem just below, "The Stolen Child." It puts me in  mind of the unsettling Maurice Sendak children's book, Outside Over There. And I wonder, at the Yeats' poem, if the child is happier with the faeries than he is in the world "more full of weeping than he can understand." What do you think?

The Stolen Child

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than he can understand.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

When Being a Wife was More Controversial Than Being a Bishop

When the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton was elected as the Evangelical Church in America’s first female presiding bishop, it made news. After all, women have only been ordained in the Lutheran church since 1970. So it only took forty-three years for the glass ceiling to crack. (And as any Lutheran readers will tell me, that’s not even accurate since the ELCA has only been around for twenty-five years. But still…)

The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton
Anyway, amidst all the news and interviews, an acquaintance shared his opinion with me that though Martin Luther might have been surprised, Luther's wife, the ex-nun, Katherine Von Bora, might not have been. From what we know of Katie—and we know a lot because Luther was a prodigious letter writer—she was a spunky woman who ran the Luther household with a keen head for finances and a brisk managerial style.

But how did Martin end up finding Katie? Here’s that story:

In Luther’s personal letters he long railed against celibacy and spoke of the God-given need for partnership. And by 1523, he had already booted out the practice of the priest receiving both bread and wine during Holy Communion while lay people got only bread.

So he used the same scripturally-driven logic to condemn a celibate priesthood. What good was it for a man to be alone? Or a woman, either? If what was good for the priest was good for the people, then what was good for the people was also good for the priests.

And eventually he began to play matchmaker with skillful efficiency, drawing from an ample dating pool, pairing off monks with sisters as more and more of them left their monasteries and convents. To his friend, George Spalatin, he writes of nine nuns in particular who had escaped from a Cistercian convent in Saxony in April 1523.

Nine apostate nuns, a wretched group, have been brought to me by the honest citizens of Torgau…I feel very sorry for them, but most of all for the many others who are perishing everywhere in their cursed and impure celibacy.

This sex, which is so very weak by itself and which is joined by nature, or rather by God, to the other sex, perishes when so cruelly separated. O tyrants! O cruel parents and kinsmen in Germany! O pope and bishops, who can curse you as you deserve? Who can sufficiently execrate the blindness and madness which caused you to teach and enforce such things! But this is not the place to do it.

You ask me what I shall do with the nuns. First I shall inform their relatives and ask them to take in the girls. If they are unwilling, then I shall have the girls provided for elsewhere…They escaped from the cloister in a miraculous way.
Within a few months, Luther was successful in finding husbands and dispatching the ex-nuns into new lives as married women. Finally, only one was left: Katherine von Bora. Marrying her was a logical next step.

Katherine Von Bora
If logic is what led him into marriage, it was love that sustained it. Nearly all his personal letters are peppered with references to ‘my Katie,’--sometimes ‘my lord Katie.’ His greeting in one letter says: “To my dear wife, Catherine Luther, doctor’s spouse in Wittenberg, keeper of the pig market and gracious wife whom I am bound to serve hand and foot.”

But when Martin’s Katie became pregnant speculation ran rampant. What kind of demon could emerge from the fornication of an ex-nun and an ex-priest, especially an ex-priest known to be a troublemaker and a rabble-rouser? Catherine would push out a wreck of a child--a two-headed monster. A spawn of Satan.

Yet when Katie brought forth the first Luther child, all was intact. Ten fingers, ten toes, two arms, two legs. Only one head. And as if to re-state the point, Katie and Martin had five more children, a minivan’s worth of offspring, each of them equipped with the usual number of appendages.

So there were six Luther kids at play in the fields of the Lord at precisely the same time that the church considered marriage between monks and nuns to be both an offense against doctrine and a mockery of matrimony.

Relationships evolve, roles change, marriage changes. I like to think the Lutheran Church’s First Couple would support a female bishop and all the ways that marriage is evolving. They themselves were, after all, bad-ass rule breakers!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Let's Play Dodgeball!

Is there such a thing as forgetting how to write?
I’ve never, ever thought so.
Because from the time I was a schoolgirl, being dragged outside for gym, I wrote in my head. I wrote in my head because in the classroom, where I was learning, I didn’t need to write. I was learning, for Pete’s sake! I knew I would—and could—write about what I was learning, but first I had to learn it. I was one of those weird children: I liked to pay attention. I believed the teachers had something there for me. Honestly, they mostly did. So I learned.
I learned because then I could score well on tests. And I could write about what I learned.  That’s the kind of kid I was—one who liked to learn. And why? Because learning was the brain’s version of eating. And I liked to eat. Who didn’t?
So why wouldn’t the brain want to eat, as well? The Krebs cycle was a cupcake for the frontal lobe. The geological epochs spoke to the medulla: the earth breathes and we breathe. Something about the earth beats and our hearts beat. I was always sure, as a sixth-grade biology student, that there was a correspondence between our physical needs and the needs of the brain. I mean, I guess, that I thought we needed to learn. That is, we needed to learn if we wanted to fully live.
That’s how I felt about being in the classroom, anyway. I mean, of course it got boring. And as I grew past elementary and middle school I began to recognize mediocrity in teachers (and I vowed that, if I ever became a teacher I would damn well not be mediocre about it) as well as a certain brilliance, or at the very least, a facility that some teachers had.
This came to be even more true when I was in college, then graduate school and then seminary. The very best teachers made you want to learn, made you want to postpone that endless need and urge and compulsion to write, postpone it long enough, just long enough, that you could write for them--about what you’d learned, learning from them.
But back to elementary school: Every day that I was dragged outside for gym, there was just nothing that I wanted to learn. Nothing. It wasn’t that I had—or have ever had—an aversion to physical activity. In fact, I love it. I was a dancer till my early twenties, then became a serious yoga practitioner and still am, as well as a yoga teacher. I far more trust my body than I trust my brain—or, to quote the bumper sticker, ‘I try not to believe every thing I think.’
But elementary school gym class? With Mrs. Crochina? And Miss Pettigrew? And that dumb-ass Mr. Crochina who subbed when his wife was out on maternity leave? I never cared to learn their games. So I just wrote stories in my head while I was waiting to run around the stupid orange cones or waiting to be the next walloped on the head in “Duck, Duck, Goose” or waiting for my turn to stand at home plate swinging a plastic bat at a Whiffle ball. Sheesh, puhleeze!
Now I know—these decades hence—that Mr. and Mrs. Crochina and Miss Pettigrew and Miss Hill and Mrs. Maru were my very first writing teachers. They didn’t know it, but they were. Because Mr. and Mrs. Crochina (and I did like that long vertical groove on the outside of her thighs), Miss Pettigrew and Mrs. Maru bored me to tears. I didn’t care about gym and stupid games. I had ballet class where I had to learn French words in order to make my body move the right way.  
But my gym teachers set my mind free so that it could wander and wander free. So much of gym class was about waiting: for the next girl to get out of the water so I could have a timed lap, for the next girl to run the hurdles so I could encounter my own, for the offensive team to be replaced by the defensive team (and vice versa) in flag football, in basketball and in softball.
These days, I just want to take a gym class. No, not a class at a gym. A gym class, one in which you must stand and wait and daydream and be impatient and let your mind wander because there is not one single thing interesting that is going on. And therefore, in the absence of other things to learn, you learn how to write.
Sometimes I worry that I’ve forgotten how do that, what with all the good stuff there is to learn in this world.
But then I remind myself of the dullness of Dodgeball and Mrs. Crochina’s interesting thighs. And I remember that I haven’t quite forgotten how to write.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

For some, "nice" is another "n" word

I'm more than willing to accept the fact that my hipness factor is non-existent and I fly below the radar of popular culture. I do not really know how to turn on my TV and the fact that I can stream from Netflix to my laptop does not redeem me.

So maybe I have missed the e-alert that says rudeness is the new form of social discourse with absolute strangers you will never, ever even meet at a cocktail party.

Some background: I got connected, without my consent or knowledge, to a national group of Lutheran clergy who post questions and subsequent threads on Facebook. For the most part I find it interesting, even helpful--there have been a couple of times when I have posted questions and gotten a stream of thoughtful, useful responses.

But lately I've noticed a tendency for some people to--let me put it sensitively--become querulous. Let me put it not so sensitively: they become snotty, bratty, cutting and rude.

Responding to one thread questioning whether or not it was good practice to wear a clerical shirt and collar when on a family outing, I became incredulous at the charges volleyed across FB gunwales. This person was being "snarky," that person was being "bombastic." And sheesh, this is all about some bloody collar?

So I posted, "Everybody, play nice. I don't see what's to get upset about."

And apart from the fact that I ended my sentence in a preposition, I still don't. Though clearly I was wrong.

One person responded by saying that "'playing nice' is born of angst: anxiety, fear, dread and shame are at the root of playing nice, because playing nice is the sharade [sic] called avoidance."Another said that niceness implies superficiality, falseness and pretending--the latter two being the same thing, yes? But not necessarily nice....Yet another poster quoted Beyond Nice by Patricia Davis: "niceness is the opposite of spirituality" (for which another yet poster responded with "Amen to that"). Some pro-and-anti "nice" banter ensued during which I was silent because....because, really?

When I finally did respond to say that I didn't think we needed to check our senses of humor at the door and that I also didn't like having my spirituality judged by someone who knows absolutely nothing about me, I was met with--well, I hate to say it--a snarky asssessment of my motivation in writing and the further declaration by this clergyperson that she feels no need to be nice in this forum.

Well, let me just say right here and now that my late, flamboyant, rule-flouting, beautiful red-headed mother would not cotton to anyone saying that they ever had a right to feel they didn't need to be nice. At any time. That is, unless you were being seriously insulted. "You catch more flies with honey," she always used to say. And, simple girl that I am, I think she was right.

But maybe I'm out of touch. Maybe it's become chic to be snarky if you believe you're right. Maybe it's cool to be rude. Who knows? I never really know what's trending now, apart from the Kardashians, who are always, unfortunately, trending now.

And yet I do wonder how rude and snarky will fare in growing congregations....

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Give us pleasure in the flowers today......

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
                                                --Robert Frost

Last night I sat with friends in my backyard eating and talking and drinking until well-past sunset. There were tiny new potatoes and ears of sweet corn. And fresh-picked strawberries, blueberries and biscuits, still warm. There was whipped cream sweetened with dark maple syrup. And I was wearing a billowy skirt made of bright bands of color—watermelon and coral and rose.
The air was heavy and it threatened to rain. But the rain didn’t come, only warm winds that made the candles flicker like an image in a flipbook.
Happiness, I’ve decided, is a matter of the microcosmic. To be happy is to be, however fleetingly, undistracted from all that you taste or see or smell or touch or hear. To be happy is to know that, yes, pain is both relative and absolute. But happiness is just as real.
I remember being ten, the day of my sister’s wedding. I had been a bridesmaid. Yes, a bridesmaid! That had to mean I was important. And I got to wear pantyhose and shoes with little heels. I was almost a woman.
After the ceremony we got into our cars to drive around and around. People still used to honk their car horns for newlyweds and as we drove the air filled with lovely, staccato beeping. I couldn’t have said why, but all of a sudden I felt so happy I thought I’d burst right out of the lime-green satin bridesmaid gown my mother had made for me to wear.
But then, like a slap in the face, came dread: It would end, this happiness. There would be not simply the things of daily life, but the awful things of our sometimes-tragic lives. I hated the happiness. It scared me. I didn’t want to remember, later, what it felt like to feel so good.
I know better now.  I know that happiness is small. Large enough, but still small.
I know, too, that there is no logic in happiness. The things designed to make us feel great sometimes feel like chores—another year of Christmas shopping, another vacation to plan, another room to redecorate.
Other times, what makes us cry makes us happy—a poem so gorgeous your voice cracks trying to read it, the shape of your daughter’s neck when her hair is upswept, Elvis Costello singing “My Funny Valentine.”
And, like they say a woman forgets the pain of labor—a myth, by the way—I do think we forget we were happy. So when we are happy again, it catches us off-guard. It is new each time. There is never anything but this moment of happiness. The poet Galway Kinnell writes,
the mouth
which tells you,
here is the world
.” This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.
With happiness there is nothing more to be done than to really be in it.
We can’t photograph it with our hearts and when we speak about happiness we have to reduce it to the dimensions of metaphors.
The other night there was a firefly in my bedroom. It was like having a traveling star in the room, brilliant sparkles in unexpected places. I lay there thinking, happiness is like this firefly—both unpredictable and certain.
Of course, I was all wrong. Happiness isn’t like a firefly. Or a rainbow or any kind of silly metaphor. Happiness isn’t like anything. It simply is—a span of randomly-timed seconds, the time in which we know, past doubting, we are awake and alive.