Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Lincoln BeautyWare

Breadbox and canisters – the language of another era of kitchen design.

For four years a movers box containing items from my parents’ New Orleans kitchen stood in my New England basement. Nostalgia rather than utility had motivated me to ask for these remnants of my home growing up. Kitchen renovations here two years back made the fate of these items nebulous.

The past two weeks I have had the task of outfitting a small room as a kitchen – or a kitchenette in older parlance. Guess what finally escaped basement shadows for a new life?

There are four canisters and a breadbox in the chrome Lincoln BeautyWare set that used to sit on my mother’s kitchen counter. I will follow her example and ignore the labels affixed to some of the canisters. There will probably not be coffee in the canister labeled “Coffee”; foodies’ habit suggests a refrigerator or freezer for beans or even ground coffee. Nor could anyone in good conscience these days use enough sugar in a year to warrant the tall canister labeled for “Sugar.”

Rather than prominently displayed in a symmetrical row on a kitchen counter the way they had been in my mother’s day, the canisters now line a shelf behind the doors of a wooden cabinet.

On the other hand, the breadbox has too many ready functions to be hidden in that way. Perched on a butcher block counter against one wall, the breadbox will, I am sure, be opened and closed frequently each day. A simple turn on a black knob releases a door on the front of the breadbox. Imbedded in the back of that chrome door is a wooden cutting board that lies flat when the door is open. One of my brothers reminded me of that feature just this past Sunday, on what would have been my father’s 98th birthday.

It struck me this weekend that my father had died within sight of this breadbox. His body as he fell to the kitchen floor after emptying the dishwasher that November morning may have been reflected one last time in the well polished chrome of the familiar door.

In the years after my father’s death my brothers and I would take turns visiting my mother, usually a week at a time. I used to sit at the kitchen table in the evening after my mother had gone to bed. Not five feet from this same breadbox, I would write or read alone, sometimes a novel, sometimes from a book of prayers. Far from my New England home, I would wonder about what I had learned and what I had not learned from my years growing up in this household years earlier.

I still wonder.

Imagine if I had actually heard my father asking my mother one day what she liked particularly about this Lincoln BeautyWare set. If I had heard him asking what it did for her to buy something this fashionable for her kitchen, how it made her feel. If I had heard them discuss together whether there were other ways she wanted a kitchen in her home to look and feel.

I wonder how I would feel today if I had actually heard my father ask her if she knew how happy it made him feel to see her happy.

Last night I turned on the lights in a mahogany case with my parents’ wedding china. I sat in a favorite chair nearby, and by the light from the china cabinet read through the messages that had emerged from my prayer last December. I have recorded them here before. One message in particular stirred me afresh last night:

I have done this much for you. Trust.

God has done this much for me in my life. I keep trusting.

Images of Lincoln BeautyWare from PeacockModern

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Let Me Just Be

In late September 2000 I made a weekend retreat with members of my worshipping community. I recently came across writing I had done on the final day of that retreat. It is personal writing, revealing writing about a troubled time in my life. I would gently warn off any readers for whom this effort is more than they need just now.

It is Sunday morning, an hour before the closing liturgy of the retreat. I am sitting in my room, using my desk for the first time, lighting the candle before the hinged icons I brought from home. Who wanted to be holed up in a room when all the sky and coastline rocks and walkways and chapels beckoned these past two days?

On the other hand, it seems only fair to the time spent away from home to attempt a thanksgiving for these hours and interior movements. I have just opened the window in my room to allow in the sound of distant waves and gulls and the smell and feel of rainy breezes. Autumn approaches, and the God of my autumn is waiting, it seems, for me to let him get close.

The retreat started with a vivid sense of the reality of past retreats. My usual attempt to imitate or re-create those earlier retreats seemed useless this time, but I wanted to know myself as someone who still wants to know God and find God. It has pained me at points in the past months to imagine that I had made facing God a venture too fearful or shameful to attempt or even envision. I thank God for trying to get the real me in touch with the real him in these forty-eight hours of retreat. Even listless hours, waiting for focus or insight or clear reward, sitting in the sun with a breviary lifeless in my lap, were contact of a sort.

“I wish I knew more… I’m not at all sure.” That was the refrain that came this Sunday morning sitting in the small chapel from 6 to 7:30. “I am someone worth living with.” That phrase as well was key to realizing the ferocity of the self-judgments with which I have been living. Later I sensed an anger building within me as I thought of what I had put up with over the years by my eagerness to be liked, to meet with approval, to get on people’s good side, to charm and disarm. What a waste of time, what a waste of energy! I pray now to take a little pity on myself, to unlearn lessons about how to get along with powerful people who could, I thought, make my life miserable.

I want to be chaste, I want to be good, I want to be strong, but ultimately I think I just want to be God’s. And why do I persist in thinking that I may not want that or that I am not in fact God’s? That real God – beyond my feeble, ferocious attempts to grab and capture his attention and ultimately control and show him how to do his job!

O Mary, Mother, calm me, rock me into careless abandon, accompany me as I age and become someone with friends in their fifties and sixties. Let me know my true worth and stance before God with you by my side. Let me welcome this task of being a 48-year-old man, a 49-year-old man, a 50-year-old man. Does everyone fight it so much? Does everyone play the sad clown attempting to pretend it’s perfectly okay with them when it galls them, hurts them, seems like one more piece of evidence that you were a mistake all along, a bad bet, someone not worth living with?

Let me just say “Amen.”

Let me just say “I love you.”

Let me just say “Thank you.”

Let me just say my name.

Let me just sleep and sigh.

Let me just be.

Let me praise.

Let me sing.

Let me live till I die.

Let me die when I will.


I love you.

Thank you.

-- only John

Photo uploaded by John Fenzel

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Place of Honor

Last weekend I had the privilege of officiating at the wedding of my niece Theresa and her fiancé Carter. After submitting the requisite applications, I had received a one-day authorization to be the solemnizer at their service. My niece is a church musician, and Carter is a research psychologist one of whose recent projects required a stay on Mount Everest. Reflecting on the readings they had chosen for their ceremony was an opportunity for me to wish them well on their venture and to say some things about the journey they were undertaking:

Theresa and Carter, you are on a high mountain today. This is a high holy day in your lives.

Theresa, you know better than most how to make an hour on a Sunday feel elevated, how to make it feel different and important, at once festive and inspiring. You choose your music to help people feel elevated and festive and inspired; in a way you choose music to help people feel that their lives are important – with all their dreams and mysteries.

Our Gospel reading today comes from the Feast of the Transfiguration which Christian churches celebrate this week. Jesus leads three of his closest disciples to a high place, and they see and hear things about Jesus that overcome them with wonder and with fear.

Carter, after your time on Mount Everest this spring, you know better than most of us what begins to happen when people live too long at an altitude to which they are not accustomed. They may see or hear things that disorient them without their being aware, things that can overcome them with wonder or with fear.

So, Theresa and Carter, between the two of you, you appreciate better than most of us how important it is to live well the rest of a Sunday AND how important it is to live with our feet on solid ground. I think that’s what the Letter to the Romans means by “thinking with sober judgment.”

Theresa and Carter, it will be hard for you ever to hear the words of Ruth again without remembering this day on the mountain. Live all your days in the confident belief that you deserve to hear those words spoken to you. Over the next twenty-four hours, over the next twenty-four days, over the next twenty-four years, you will need to keep finding ways of saying to one another, “Your God will be my God. What is important in your life will always have a place of honor in mine. I cannot imagine the day when I will stop being your strongest advocate, your best friend, the person whose dreams and mysteries I will not tire of asking about and marveling over. It is still good for us to be here.”

Photo of Everest by Himalman