Venturings

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This N.C. Wyeth painting has always been a favorite. I used it often in my classes on the day before Thanksgiving break. We’d review the history, and then I’d tell them to put themselves in the shoes of one of those pilgrims as they watched their only escape depart over the horizon. “Write what you’d be feeling,” I’d tell them, and kids did: terror and anger and fear and sadness. Longing. Stalwart resolution.

So here’s a refresher. Those one hundred passengers who we honor as forefathers started out two months late. By the time they set sail from Belgium, the Pilgrims and the other passengers had already been in cramped quarters in the uncomfortable hold of the Mayflower for a month and a half.   Sixty-six days later, they arrived at land, far off course. They had endured rough seas, horrible sea-sickness, and sparse provisions. They had expected to join other settlements, but instead they found only frozen land and an abandoned Wampanoag settlement. The men went ashore during the day to build dwellings and a stockade while the women waited on the ship. The cold, the damp, the snow and wintry winds, and meager portions combined to make them sick. And then sicker. In that first winter, ONE HALF of the people who had come on that ship with such high hopes of life in a new land were dead.

But here’s what grabs me in the story: the captain of the ship had contracted only to deliver them to the new world; the pilgrims had purchased one-way tickets.

Yet when he could finally in good conscience leave them (with only half of their number alive and barely a semblance of shelters,) the captain said; I will take back any one of you who wants to come. I will not charge you. You did not know it would be this hard; I will take you home.

But no one took him up on the offer.

And this brings me again to this picture.

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What must they have thought as they watched that ship sail away into the blue water and sky?

It would have been some version of this:

I am here.
I have decided to stay.
God help me.

And so it is with all of our new venturings.

  • You say to your boss, I quit.
  • You say, moments after that final push in labor, hello to your tiny new child, and now, you can never not be a mother.
  • You say, I am moving; you pack belongings into a U-haul and change states.
  • You say, through your tears, at the grave, a last goodbye
  • You say, “Okay, we’ll take her” to the adoption agency.
  • You say “I do.”

You are in a new land.

One young friend is in the early stages of marriage, and like those Pilgrims, it feels like winter for them: there is cold and bleakness inside and all around; provisions and hope are low. They feel diseased; they wanted marriage to be something other than what it is. Truthfully, I am not sure what they would say if someone offered an escape. But for today they have said; I will stay here. Misery or not, I will stay.

Another friend, an adoptive parent, finds adoption harder than she imagined. Why does their child not respond to love? Will I ever find unfrozen land to plant seeds, make fruit and vegetables grow?

And that job that had so much promise? It has not been what you wanted; it is not what you expected. Along with those pilgrims, perhaps you are saying: the task is too hard, God asks too much.

Thanksgiving is of course a day to ponder what is good in our lives and say thank-you. We are too slow, too slack in thanks.

But today can also be a day of resolution, of stalwart digging in. Our forefathers could have left, turned back, gone home. But they endured, to our great gain.

So perhaps like them, our prayer today should also be:

I am here.
I will stay.
God help me.

 

 

 

In the beginning are words, and Paris

In a writing class I’ve been teaching, almost thirty people have come for the past five weeks to take the brave step of writing down stories of their lives. Some of these mostly elderly writers have been urged by their families to tell the stories of their past. Others realize that life was different in their childhood than it is today, and they want to tell about the way things were. A few have a vague sense that what they witnessed or experienced years ago was noteworthy.

Very few knew how to start.   The task was daunting.

So we told them to write down one story. Because getting one story down is important. And then, we said, “You can get two stories down, or three. But just for now, write one.

“Perhaps you could write about a first job,” we said. So Art wrote about being ten years old and running out in a bowling lane to reset pins before the next drunk ironworker flung his second heavy bowling ball Art’s way.

“Or write about a holiday,” we prompted, so Phyllis wrote of the time she went in to a jail to bring “Christmas cheer” but instead, the inmates started crying, thinking of home.

We told them to think about just one summer afternoon as a child, and we heard stories of rowboats on farm ponds and fishing in the canal. Larry remembered when the pool was closed because of polio, but all he wanted to do was swim.

In the first weeks they were reticent, unsure. But when they started sharing their stories, they delighted us. The accounts were powerful. We laughed. We agonized, relating to the frustration or the sorrow or the disappointment of their experience. We nodded our heads because we, too, have also felt that way. In this society that says that our young are more valuable than our old, we came together to say that, no, your stories have value. You have value.

Writing down their stories helped them.

 And all of this because of words.

On Thursday, in a poetry project in in a local middle school, seventh graders showed me their poems about bullying and acceptance.   Ryan’s poem started with vague, non-descript lines, so I asked him if there were mean people in his school. “Well, if you’re good at something, people call you names. If you’re not good at something, people call you different names. So you can’t win.”

“That’s deep,” I said, and watched him as he wrote down new lines for a much better poem. I don’t think Ryan was used to being told that his thoughts are deep, and I caught a flicker of a smile. I told him his voice was worth hearing, and that was transformative.

The transformation that occurs anywhere and everywhere when people find and use their voice is why I loved my years as a high school writing teacher, and why, in my retirement, I have seemingly found ways to keep encouraging people to write. This week, as we’re hearing the news of the dark pain in Paris, I’m pondering the power of words in a new light.

There is nothing in me that understands why people become radicalized enough to slaughter their neighbors who are eating pasta at a cafe or listening to music inside a vibrant concert hall, but I know that the actions of these men are inexorably linked to the human desire to belong to something and believe that our lives matter. Did these men join a violent cause to express what they never could express with words?

Is it too naïve to believe that those young men who strapped themselves with bombs in Paris might have been different if they had learned that words also have power to affect people, to bring about change? Did they never sit in a classroom and hear that their opinions had value? What might have happened if someone had listened to their stories or affirmed and applauded what they had written down?

A few years back, I read that suicide bombers never come from families whose mothers have gone to school. If people read and write, they cannot help but see what others think and feel. They form opinions; they think; they empathize. They are changed by words, and they come to understand that words can change others, too.

In the beginning was the word, John’s gospel says. And the word was the life…. and the life was the light of all men.

 These words are hopelessly out of context, of course. They refer to God, not us. But words are the starting place. I saw it this week in the people that were old and in the people that were young; they were better because they spoke, because they wrote down words.

So, please, today, listen to the words of your friends, of your neighbors, of your enemies. Listen to what they say; read what they’ve written, and tell them: your words have value. You have value.

Perhaps it won’t prevent them from taking up guns. But perhaps it will.

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The past, the present

I don’t know why, but it’s easier to think about the past here.

Maybe it’s the lovely old barns that are literally along every road I drive, reminders that people have entered those massive rooms for decade upon decade of storms and weather, for years of seasons that have turned brown wood gray and windblown.

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Apple trees line my driveway, reminding me each day that people before me walked this land; they planted and pruned, got stung by bees, were delighted in the pink blossoms in the spring and the ripe fruit in the fall.

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As a child, we would walk far up the beach to the “Indian village” near Heins creek where, in fact, the Ottawa tribe had summered for several seasons in the late 1600’s. We would kneel in the soft sand to find chippings of arrowheads just a few inches down. The edges of those sharp, flinty rocks were sharp, so we had to walk carefully in our bare feet, and this was tactile evidence that people we could not see had walked here, worked here, swum here. They had been ready, even, to defend their lives in order to survive on this very dune where we now lolled about in summer breezes.

And then there are the lighthouses. Is there any better way to make someone imagine the past? Walk inside the homes of the former lighthouse keepers and read just a few lines from the keeper’s log, and it is hard not to imagine life 150 years ago. “Thirty ships passed today. Strong winds, most under full sail.” Or, “Visitors from town. Wife offered tea.” It was a desolate life, but an important one, and when I visit those light towers (because, by the way, there are thirteen of them in Door County,) my mind imagines the people who lived their lives at the bottom of those lights.

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There are an abnormally high number of historical societies on the peninsula. So there are books in shops and libraries that tell the stories and show pictures of the people that lived here long ago. St. Louis was an old place, and I lived in old houses for the entire time I lived there. But somehow I wasn’t as affected by the past as I am here.

I like the history of this place. It makes me feel that I am part of a long flow of people that have been before and will come after.   It also makes me imagine, which is always a good thing for the writer in me.

imagesWriter’s Prompt: How does the history of your place affect you?

Sunday Drive

After a week of working pretty hard to get our garage insulated for the coming winter, we drove a whole twenty miles to a state park that we’ve never visited before. (The curse of living close to one kind of beauty is not making the effort to see a different kind of beauty just down the road…)  But on this Sabbath day, how perfect to leave our project undone and to make the drive solely to see what could be seen.

And as God often does, his gifts are plentiful and more than we deserve.

We thought that most of the leaves were gone, but not in this place, not today.

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We meandered through miles of birch forest, their white barks standing above an orange and yellow floor of leaves.

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We climbed a high observation tower to watch a lone boat in the harbor, trying for the last few fish before winter.

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And worshipped, high above the trees.

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