Blowing Leaves

Once a month I take communion to Christians at a local retirement village who can’t make it to our Sunday church services. Last Sunday, I read from the Gospel of Luke. I looked up from my reading of the crucifixion account and saw Marge with her head tilted toward the heavens, eyes closed. Next to her is Floy, and she also is intent, but only because she struggles to hear as she cups her hand to her ear coaxing the words of Luke from my lips to her 93-year-old ear. Marge is 94 years old and I ask, “Can you see well enough to read the Bible?” She said, “No, and I can’t really make out your face, but I can see that your shirt is checkered.” I lied and told her I was handsome and she replied graciously, “I can tell by your voice.”

Marge always asks about my parents and tells me that she once lived across the street from them on Meadowlark Lane and I tell her that was the home into which I was born. She can’t always remember my name or what happened yesterday, but she can tell me details about the house from 1959. I tell her that Paul Stumpff, a fellow congregant, helped my Dad roof that house on Meadowlark Lane. Marge said, “I remember Paul on the roof of that house helping put up a television antenna and he got quite a shock and they drove him to the hospital and the doc told him, ‘You’ll be ok. If you had really touched heavy voltage, you’d be dead by now.'”

I don’t take these folks communion with the idea of taking up a collection for the saints. However, I hear Floy asking her husband, Morgan, if he brought the checkbook and he mumbles something under his breath and pulls out a check already prepared and filled out and I pray while remembering the Bible lesson that morning about the Rich Young Ruler who built more barns to store his riches. I pray for happiness found through giving, that giving will be a discipline we seek, like beggars pleading in a great reversal to give away our only two copper coins to a passerby on a crazy city street corner, while we sneak a providential smile, and as I say, “Amen,” and I realize there is no collection plate, so I reach out my hand and take a folded check and a crisp Lincoln bill from Marge and I put it away with the used cups and wafers.

I leave them and walk outside as wind-blown leaves somersault across the parking lot like fleeting beauty. Behind the eyes of the faithful, behind eyes that barely see, there is loveliness in simple memory. And there is music in simple scripture heard by brittle ears still stirred by the faith of their youthful soul, that resounds like a tower of bells.

 “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” John Keats


My New Tattoo in Old English

Yogi Berra was describing his own version of Einstein’s Relativity theory when he remarked, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

I thought of the future that used to be as I sat in a deep leather recliner at Eggbert’s cafe, waiting for a table on a Saturday morning, a pager in hand while sipping coffee. Sitting across from me separated only by a low table, was a very young girl, perhaps three years old.

She balanced her own Eggbert’s pager on her lap, the pager that lights up like a Christmas tree when it’s your turn to be seated for breakfast. She held it with both hands, looking down into the face of the device, both thumbs poised above, in the manner of a teenager preparing to text at warp speed. She was awaiting a sign of life, an electronic pulse of social interaction…she was trying to communicate with her pager.

That made me flinch, and I usually only flinch while eating raw sea urchins or when I see a tattoo on one of my kids.

I saw this kind of behavior once in college when I discovered my roommate sitting on top of the television watching the sofa while listening to a John Wayne movie. Now he is a school board member and a deacon at church. So there is hope for the little pager girl and for a generation of hyperactive thumbs.

We see what we want to see when looking back at another generation. When I see a tattoo, I think of a sailor with “Mabel” inked on a bicep. But my children think of something else. Batman, good coffee, a mission trip to Uganda. Which leads me to a recent conversation in our Bible study group.

“As far as I know, none of my children have any tattoos,” was how the older gentleman worded his comment in a way that implied that if they did, it would have reflected poorly on his parenting. Instantly, someone in our group asked the gentleman, “Do any of your grandchildren have a tattoo?” The question befuddled him, as if he had never considered that.

Every generation has a sense of what is acceptable, and when I look at my children’s generation, gaining on me like Secretariat chasing down a braying mule, I think of the generational riddle that older folks try to solve by observing superficial clues like tattoos, attire from Goodwill dumpsters, and bare feet in $300 loafers.

My generation was by no means easy to figure out. Churchill once said of it, “She is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  Okay, he might have also been describing Mother Russia.

Come to think of it, Russia and three-year olds are the same. They are not aware of the device they hold in their hands nor what buttons to push. Soren Kierkegaard said of the young, “Your own tactic is to train yourself in the art of becoming enigmatic to everybody. My young friend, suppose there was no one who troubled himself to guess your riddle–what joy, then, would you have in it?”

Coming of age requires both intimacy and mystery, vulnerability and come hither enigmas, a longing to be one of a kind, yet gently folded into a community of unconditional love.

Which reminds me of the chimichanga I ate from Maria’s Taco truck last week. It became a part of me, yet I had no idea what was inside it. I just liked it and invited it inside my soul. And if someone from the generation before communicates via a pager or skin art, I am a house guest invited into the parlor of that person’s mind and it’s rude to pick up the chenille throw off the floor and drape it neatly over the wing back Queen Anne chair. Just let it be as Grandma Mildred often said.

Perhaps it is time for my first tattoo, the first line of George Eliot’s Middlemarch written in Old English on my right forearm. It seems much more practical than mismatched clothing. However, getting older means unwrapping the mysterious cloak, telling the world who we really are, people who sometimes didn’t get where we wanted to go, and we are naked, broken, and bleeding.

I’ve been revealed. I have fewer riddles and zero tattoos. And now I am being replaced by children with fast thumbs and fast phones, by the tattooed and mysterious, wrapped in the cloak of potential.

Maybe that is what grace is all about, impossible to describe with words, easier to say with children and old people who understand grace across time and space. Grace, that great cornerstone of the Christian faith, is received by the enigmatic and the revealed, the young and the old, the bumbling and the nimble, the broken and the bleeding. People who belong to one master creator, yet are somehow still marvelously one of a kind.

“Let these children alone. Don’t get between them and me. These children are the kingdom’s pride and joy. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Words of Jesus from ‭‭Luke‬ ‭18:15-17‬ ‭

All the Laughs on Your Side

“Do you have time to come home and help Dad? He fell and broke his leg.” Well, yes Mom, since you put it that way, I think I can find the time. And thanks for phrasing it in a non-urgent way so as not to alarm me and also give me an out in case I had an important meeting.

“I’m on my way,” I told her. Mom has a way of not wanting to impose and so even emergencies are cloaked in the soft composure of her Midwestern tendency to not make a big scene when her husband snaps his tibia like a hard pretzel.

I walked into the bedroom of my parents house and found my Dad on the floor at the foot of the bed, clothed only in white briefs and a small plate of breakfast goodies, holding a glass of grape juice and reclining on his side like the lord of beige carpet. He had been woozy before falling and went to sit on the edge of the bed. He was eating to remedy the blood sugar level that perhaps caused his fall.

“Are you hurting?” I asked. “No, not really,” said my Dad as he dangled the leg for me to see. I texted my brother, the physician from New York after we got to the hospital and sent him a picture of the leg with the caption, “His foot is floppin’ like a mackerel on a hot deck.”

“Isn’t it too early to make light of the injury?”, my brother texted back.  I replied, “Yes…maybe, but the image just got into my head, sorry.” Laughing through side-reclining pain on the carpet reminds me of a Soren Kierkegaard story about his dream of getting to heaven and having one wish to spend.

“A strange thing happened to me in my dream…I was granted the favor to have one wish…”Do you wish for youth, or for beauty, or power? Choose, but only one thing!” For a moment I was at a loss. Then I addressed the gods in this wise: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughs on my side.” Not one god made answer, but all began to laugh. From this I concluded that my wish had been granted and thought that the gods knew how to express themselves with good taste: for it would surely have been inappropriate to answer gravely: your wish has been granted.”
Søren Kierkegaard

Many people have asked me, “How’s your Dad doing?” I usually give the upbeat pc answer, but occasionally I tell the truth, “Terrible, he’s not doing well,” and the inquiring person looks surprised, like that wasn’t what they expected to hear. Dad is 80, his bones are brittle, his heart is weak, and diabetes is relentless. And now he’s working through physical therapy for six weeks doing exertions he couldn’t do even before he broke the leg. So, yes, Dad is not doing well. But God still loves him, along with his family and friends, and he still has the wish of Kierkegaard, “…may I still have all the laughs on my side.”

Dad is irreverent with his caregivers, but calls them by name and is considerate in his own ironic way, always looking for someone to laugh at his jokes, even though he’s hurting. The nurse in charge of diet told him that he was 25 carb grams short of his daily goal and Dad told her that she could keep bringing it but that didn’t mean he was going to eat it.

I remember what Dad did when he woke up from heart surgery fifteen years ago and found himself alive in the recovery room draped in devices and tubes…he sang, “Oh Lord My God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made…”, and when he left the hospital, we had instructions to go next door to the Olive Garden where we bought $200.00 worth of bread sticks and pasta and brought it back to the medical staff at St. John’s. It was Dad’s way of having the last laugh, of understanding that all the laughs were on his side.

Kierkegaard was not a cheery fellow. He said things like, “What if everything in the world were a misunderstanding, what if laughter were really tears?” Dad isn’t Kierkegaard, he comes from the hills of Oklahoma near Bluejacket, where a yes is a yes and a handshake is a contract and pie suppers are don’t miss social events…and where laughter rings out even in the darkest night.

Dad chooses to live as if laughter is reality, and the hospital nurse takes him in the wheelchair to the table for dinner as he sings Willie Nelson, “On the road again, I just can’t wait to get on the road again.”

Dad knows all the laughs are on his side.