It was 1958 or Nine

I grew up in a beautiful America.  Dad was Dad, and Mom was Mom and every home had those two individuals.  Kids were either boys or girls, and very generic after that.  When our mom and dad made friends with other moms and dads, we always demanded to know about their children, eager for playmates of our own age and gender.  When two families got together, it was an instant party, a house full of laughing people, with food the mother of the house had grown in her garden, baked in her oven, or “fixed for us” in her brand new kitchen.

It was an era when each American felt freshly vindicated by having conquered the Nazis who tried to murder millions of innocent civilians simply for being Jewish, or having Jewish “sympathies.”  We were born several years after the end of World War II, and knew no suffering, no lack, no fear.  Our parents were children of the Depression who had known hunger, lack, and bone-chilling cold in winters that seemed endless.  By contrast, our homes were heated in winter, and Union Gas showed up monthly to refill the fuel supply in our basement.  As a child I would watch out the window and call out to my mom, “The Onion Man is here!”  When she asked why I called him the onion man, I said, “That’s what it says on the truck.”  (I was a Phonics kid. For me, the word “Union” did not start with a “Y” but with a “U” so UNION man it was.

Our parents would never discuss the war, but the Depression was frequently mentioned.  The tone was unanimously informative and cautionary from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  It was as if they had barely survived total immolation, but for God’s hand, and if we were not careful, we would suffer the same.  This awareness of God’s grace, and their relief at His providential solutions to poverty,  genocide, and starvation was real, and no small thing, nothing to take for granted.  We were occasionally warned that our days of careless play and full bellies could well be numbered.  We laughed behind their backs, certain the stories were only fables meant to teach us manners and godly behavior.

Freshly laundered clothing flapped in the sunshine outside, and long white diapers and sheets caught breezes as my grandmother bent to the heavy basket and pinned up even more.  She would raise a cranky voice and tell us something in Norwegian as we chased each other through the wet billows in an effort to run without being caught in them.  We knew what she was saying, even though we spoke nothing but English.  In those days, children listened for tone, more than the words themselves.  Adults spoke “grown up” and we spoke “child” and it seemed two separate things.  We listened for “angry” or “inviting” or “pay attention” or “stop it.”  Other than these simple tones, we ran freely past them, paying no attention.

50s

We were so confident of their love and provision we took them completely for granted, and when they told us of their impoverished childhoods, they spoke in hushed and embarrassed tones.  They spoke of their memories in shame, and it humiliated us that our own parents had known that kind of lack. We would edge away from their sad narrative, scared and suspicious it might be congenital in nature.  It was not in keeping with the sunshine of our own experience, and we knew they were speaking truth, but we had no place in our hearts and minds to file these stories.  It was important to them.  It marked them.  It was our heritage and they wanted us to have it, but we were not willing to receive it.

to be continued…

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We Have Missing

Votive

Votive (Photo credit: selva)

At times, the awareness of what it all means escapes us, and at other times, we totally comprehend the meaning yet cannot find the courage to share it.  Writers  have a responsibility to bring some kind of meaning to events both large and small, happy and sad, and we toil to bring sense out of the senseless.

This is where the authentic, sad, and monstrous stuff of life threatens to immobilize the very people who carry the light.  We stand with the votive candle in our trembling hands, fearful the rain and wind will extinguish the only light we have.  In past times it has.  This was before.  It was before we realized we had these candles for a reason.  We do not need to figure out why we have them.  We need to figure out what to DO with them while there is still time.  Tonight I will light and relight and keep lighting my small source of light until others find the courage to do the same.

At the Vermont Studio Center last summer, I made a tiny and casual observation at the conference table of twenty or so writers who had come to study the craft of candle bearing.  During the introductions, each was doing his or her best to present himself as someone who had studied, accomplished, published, and was continuing to do even more.  As I listened to each one, I was in awe of the talent, the degrees, and the literary work they were doing on a daily basis.  For example, one handsome youth who appeared to be about 17, was actually a college professor who was working to translate Chinese poetry into English.

I had nothing to compare.  I sat quietly, hoping to be skipped, but one of them said, “What about you?  Are you hiding back there?”  It was said in jest and with great kindness, but I actually was hiding because I had nothing to say to make myself relevant in such company.  Instead I proffered this, “I am Tandy Belt, and I write reality.  I am an online blogger.  I also write creative non-fiction.”  They seemed interested and also surprised.  I felt bold enough to continue,  “I have been listening to all of you and I must say the credentials are very impressive!  I am in awe of each one of you, but I want to say one thing:  In the dark of night, when you are alone and afraid you are not quite good enough, smart enough, or talented enough to continue, remember that you are.  In your own individual way, in all kinds of areas of effort, you are keeping the light alive.  If someone comes by you and blows out your candle, light it again, and again and AGAIN.  This is what I do, and will always do, and I will never let my candle go out permanently.”  I said it emphatically, because I meant it.

I am telling no lie.  Every single face around that table registered some combination of relief, agreement, empowerment and appreciation for what I had said, and I was surprised.  But simple truth has relevance, and is always immediately recognized.  It removes fear and brings goodness out of hiding.  It is empowering, even when stated with apprehension.

The next day, many came up to me, seeking me out for a private word.  I was absolutely stunned.  One sweet and shy girl said, “We had a gathering last night and talked for hours about what you said yesterday.  We all appreciated it so much!”  Then she embraced me, and kissed me on the cheek!

Seriously?  I learned something important right then and there.  It is not the published work, the PhD, or the high paying position at a prestigious school that brings security, because we are all afraid.  We all need encouragement.  We are all lonely, wounded, doubtful of our own worthiness to continue.  It is this pervasive fear that drives us to write, to light those candles, to hope.

Tonight I am struggling to light a candle whose wick is wet.  My matches are damp.  My hands shake.  Even here in the darkness, I cannot stop struggling to find a way to get it done.  AGAIN.

The numbing cold left behind by the massacre of kindergarteners in Newtown, Connecticut threatens to keep me in darkness once and for all.  Rain pelts my face, and has the sting of icy fingers around my throat.  I have nothing to say, I plead.  Let me hide my failure.  Let me give up my hope.  But my own words come back to haunt me so I keep struggling against the odds.  How can I think of even one thing to say?!  My candle is extinguished.  Yet I remember I am a light carrier, and people are waiting.  A feminine voice taunts from a faraway corner.  “And what about YOU?  Are you HIDING back there?”   THE VOICE IS MY OWN.

I strike the match one last time, and there is a small flame.  I hold it to the wick until my fingers get hot.  It fires and sputters, but the light has come.  The flame transfers to the candle and I drop the match with great relief.  I hold my candle carefully as the comforting light expands so I can see those who are suffering all around me.  I am not alone.  I was never alone.

I hold it up and the faces, though twisted with grief, turn to the sudden light.  There is an instant awareness not one of us was ever truly alone, despite our perceptions moments before.  The light reveals gaps in the crowd.  We have missing.  The small spaces between some parents…the tall spots among families with children.  We have 28 gaps all told.  We all see the gaps and say nothing.

What is most painful about being a light carrier is having to recognize both good and evil.  We must accept and acknowledge that both are true and exist simultaneously.  The simple truth I must share now is this:  It is in our own individual power to change the balance of it.  In addition, we are powerless to make that change for anyone else.

Someone blew my candle out, but I have managed to light it once more.  I will do this again.  This is my decision, even if I were the only one left who was able to do so.  I encourage you to do the same.

A Scarlet Thread

Mom, I think Jesus was anti-woman.”  I was 22, and everyone knew Mom was a Bible Scholar, deeply immersed in the Bethel Series http://www.bethelseries.com/home.aspx which was an honor in itself.  A handful of students had been carefully selected by the pastor of our church.  It was a two-year commitment, and at the end, these ten hand-selected people would be certified to teach the series to anyone who wanted to attend.

“Why do you say that?” she asked, surprised by my statement, but not threatened.

“Well, he had twelve disciples, and every single one was a MAN.”  I gazed into the face of my mom, expecting her to say I never thought of that! but what she actually said was, “True, but why do you think that was?”

“Because he was anti-woman, and if he despised them then, he probably doesn’t care about them now.”

She nodded, thinking of what she should say to this bit of blasphemy.  I did not flinch.  I waited.

Finally she said, “Tell you what, why don’t you do a Bible study on the life of Jesus as regarding women, and only women, and see what you find.”

I felt a little naked, because I was no Bible scholar.  I was flippant, self-satisfied, and careless regarding things of the faith.  I had been coasting on her coat tails, using her wisdom and knowledge as a convenience during the tough questions of life.

But I heartily accepted her challenge, narcissistically thinking if I could prove Jesus was anti female, I could debunk the rationale for following him.  (It was the early seventies, and most young women had burned their bras by then.  I was probably not wearing my own during this conversation.)

She kind of chuckled and said, “Remember one thing:  It was the men who fell away when he needed them most.  It was the women who stayed by his side.”

I left the house, and went back to my apartment, anxious to delve into my Bible study, determined to uncover examples of females being second class citizens.  Did it not say in the Bible story of his birth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth good will to men on whom his favor rests.”?  In the shallow waters of my biblical knowledge, I had openly challenged the Bible in its entirety with a Sunday school understanding of the Christmas story, the Easter story and the saga of the Jews roaming around the desert for forty years, until the ten commandments had been written on stone a couple of times.  Such was the naiivete of my approach!

Mom laughed as I went, unfazed by her wayward daughter, which made me even more resolute.  I am not proud of this history, but I will be forever grateful my mother did not “teach” me in that moment.  She invited me to teach my SELF, and I had no idea what I was about to discover.

The first story to occur to me was the story of his birth.  It made sense to me to begin at his beginning, and follow his life chronologically as he went along, underlining in RED, the many places where he would favor men over women.  What can I SAY?  It made sense to me at the time.

I found out Jesus (in utero) was a human child fathered by the Holy Spirit of God.  I had always accepted this, but it had never occured to me the human, flesh, natural part of him was no man, but issued from a woman, female, and God could have done it any other way, but selected a woman, and not one of any stature, but a young and “ordinary” woman.  The biological DNA of Jesus was female in origin.  God paired with a female to bring about the Son of Man!

At the time, I found this truth astounding.  I closed the Bible, looked out the window and sat there alone, contemplating the meaning of this news, realizing it changed everything I had previously believed.  It wasn’t I had never heard it.  I was schooled in it from birth, but I had never realized it.  From that moment I wondered what ELSE I had heard, but failed to understand.

There is a lineage of four women listed as progenitors of Jesus.  They were Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, not one of them “pure” even by modern standards!  Rahab, for example is labeled as a prostitute.  She is the woman who played an absolutely pivotal role in the story of the Israelites who were preparing to overtake the city where she was “working”.  Laughing…some versions call her an “innkeeper”!

Anyway, somehow two spies were sent into the city to see what they would be up against if they attacked the great city of Jericho.  She took them in, and told them the entire city and all its men were terrified, and emotionally unprepared to resist these special people of God, which was critical information.  When soldiers from the city came looking for the spies, Rahab hid them under stalks of flax on her roof.  She told the soldiers the spies had left, but she did not know which direction they had taken.  The soldiers left the city to hunt them down.  When it was safe, the Israeli spies came down and thanked her.  But she wanted something in return:  She brokered a deal with them to allow her and her family safety when her city of Jericho was attacked.  They would not be killed.

Rahab and the Emissaries of Joshua

Rahab and the Emissaries of Joshua (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They agreed she would hang a scarlet cord out her window, and she and her family would be spared during the battle of Jericho.  The grateful spies returned to camp and told the Israeli army about the scarlet cord signal ahead of time.  As the story goes, she and her family were the only survivors who walked away.  The battle left neither man nor woman, nor child, nor animal after the walls fell down.  Only Rahab and her mother and brothers walked away.

She joined the victors and lived as part of them thereafter.  An ordinary woman played an extraordinary role in one of the most famous battles ever recorded!  Her life was spared as a reward.  It all seemed so random at the time.  She probably blended in after that.

“God uses the foolish things of this world to confound those things that are wise.”  Rahab was one of the foolish, a street person, and one of female gender.  Even now, a woman of the streets is almost invisible as far as influence in society.  Back then it was more so.

She had no idea it had been anything more than a “deal” even while living out the remainder of her days.  She was a woman of desperation who chose to trust the enemy instead of taking her chances on the streets of Jericho.  She knew the meanness of those streets and the people who walked on them.  She took a chance, and lived to tell the story of how she saved her family with a scarlet cord hung out the window.

She had no idea she would eventually be mentioned in the lineage of Jesus, no awareness he would share her DNA when he was born.  But this is exactly what happened.

No life is random.

End Of Days…Why Grandmothers Are Like This

I decided to select a photo from my collection from October a few years back, more than a couple of years, really! I chose October 2008, which held a series of pictures of my grandson Cavin on an all day adventure at “Dodie’s House”.   I wish I could insert the entire album! He was maybe twenty months old.   Running in only a diaper, I snapped photos of him in his brother’s cap, my wide-brimmed sun hat, and a bent up cowboy hat. He tried each on in turn, trying out characters, as if to learn who he might become.
He spent an entire day in various get ups, and while I played paparazzi, my photos show him climbing, squatting, licking spoons of brownie mix, wiping his hands on his lil belly. He is inside, outside, devouring slices of watermelon, and patting dogs from the neighborhood. In the series he is never still, and I feel joy in the memory, with a keen awareness of the gift he was to me, and his cavalier disregard for me snapping photos of his antics.
I remember thinking how different boys are from girls in the way they play and do the work of childhood. I had been a mom of girls, never actually knowing how completely my experience differed from my friends who had sons.
Then I got a slew of grandsons, and realized my joy was only beginning!
I admit it was challenging to me to allow the climbing, jumping, and mechanical experimentation that never stopped. Their serious faces, intent on bugs, guns, and machines would change suddenly, brilliantly, into bursts of unbridled movement…and I felt each was on the verge of death if I failed to keep up! It was tiring, aggravating, and scary.
But then there would come this moment in early evening, when the boy would become quiet, truck still in his hand, and the tipping would begin, softly at first, gently, like soft snow falling…the squat became a sit, and the sit, a belly roll, and the army crawl lightly became a rolling over, with one last look at the ceiling before the stillness, a toy truck falling from open fingers, and suddenly silencestillness.
It would come like some kind of spell, right in the midst of chaotic and jerky movement, as if this boy who moments before had been inexhaustible, had accidentally hit the kill switch, the safety switch, the off button, and just fell asleep in his tracks.
This moment, that special and amazing moment happened over and over again, and my mother’s heart would return to me. All of the annoyances of my day seemed sinful on my part, and the shrieks of “No!” and “Watch out!” and “What is wrong with you?” confronted me there, in the waning daylight, and I would silently ask forgiveness for my harshness over his day of development.
It is different when you become a grandmother. We take time. We feel no obligation to get it right.  Yet we are still mothers.  MOTHERS, with all the accompanying guilt, frustrations, hopes, and dreams, while at the same time knowing we will not be there to watch over them when they are growing families of their own unless we are very, very lucky, and do a very, very good job preventing their deaths as we boldly face our OWN.   Whether our time left is short or long, we spend it lavishly, as if we will always be here.

I leaned over him, smelling his breath, turning my face to feel it on my cheek, and counting his eyelashes when I turned back to look at him, marveling at the length of them.  I set my camera on the bedside table, and leaned closer  to study his face for several minutes. The sheer miraculous beauty of the boy with his lashes sweeping over a perfect (but dirty) cheek lying there, with his heavy head crushing his cowboy hat astonished me! I gently tried to take the hat from him, but he stirred, firmly lifting his strong little hand to the top of his head, preventing me from removing the thing. He was a cowboy, at least for that day, and early signs show more of the same. I allowed it then, and allow it today.
I lifted the camera for one last shot. Somehow I needed proof for myself that hard men all over the world had once been like this child. ALL men, all over the world. Yes. ALL.
Were it not for mothers of boys, the world would have destroyed itself long ago. I will never fully understand it, but I am grateful for every girl who is one of those mothers chosen by God to be one of them.

Red cowboy hat

Red cowboy hat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)