Monday, February 11, 2013

Hi Friends...Here's an update for all four of you who have followed this blog through the years. It's been quite a journey, and I've neglected it far too often. That said, I am now going to be blogging at www.mattheweubanks.wordpress.com. I hope you'll join me there. I'll be taking tender humiliations down for good at the end of the month. Thanks for journeying with me, and I'll look forward to seeing you over at the new blog!

--Matthew

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Swim with the Fishes

If I screw my eyes tightly shut and twist my mouth just so, I can remember the night when, at the age of about four, I came to understand the food chain in an all-too-real, meal-altering realization. My Baptist minister father and my pristine homemaker mother and I were eating dinner at a Red Lobster in Mobile, Alabama. I was an only child until the age of six, so I fancied myself a miniature adult.

Anyway, as we waited for the hostess to lead us to our seats, apparently my eyes roamed every surface and thematic element of the early eighties kitsch d├ęcor until I focused my attention on the bubble-front aquarium which housed a host of brightly-colored fish. The wood plank walls, the ship’s wheel hostess station, the hand rails fashioned from thick, rough rope, and the warm glow of hurricane lamps—these were all interesting, to be sure. But the fish captured my every thought—my parents had recently taken me to the New Orleans Zoo, where I squealed in delight at all the creatures, but wisely and carefully managed not to get my hands dirty.


“Mom, do you see those fish in that fish bubble on the wall?”
Never one to ignore a teachable moment, my sweet mother probably said, “Well, Matthew, that DOES look like a fish bubble, doesn’t it? Those are special glass houses for fish. We call them A-Q-U-A-R-I-U-M-S. Can you say, ‘aquarium’”?

“Of course it’s an aquarium, Mom. What, did you think I was three or something? They talk about aquariums on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood all the time. But I’ve got a question about those fish.”
“Okay, babe. Ask me.”

“Well, okay. Are the fish in that aquarium the same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean?”
“Yes, Matthew, those ARE the same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean. Isn’t that neat that they are living in that AQUARIUM right here in Red Lobster?”

“If those are the same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean, are the fish on my plate the same kinds of fish that swim the ocean, too?
I’m not sure if my mother noticed the look of disgusted horror that had begun spreading over my small face.

“Why, yes, Matthew. Those are the very same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean.”
My memories are foggy at this point, likely due to the queasy shock that was spreading through my entire body. I’m sure my parents launched into a “Garden of Eden, Noah and the animals, God makes the animals to give us food” talk, but I was suddenly lost. I don’t think I ate any kind of seafood again for the next ten years. I was none too fond of chicken-on-the-bone, and luckily standing rib roasts usually were out of our price range, because it was just too much for my mind to assimilate when I saw a steaming plate of meat still in the shape of some kind of barnyard—or ocean-depths—carcass.

I remember fighting the urge to gag in Sunday School one day when the teacher started talking about the “Boy with the Loaves and Fishes.” I saw her move over to the electric skillet sitting on the piano bench and begin passing out her object lesson—fish sticks. I was in a second grade quandary. Do I risk hurting her feelings and not eating the fish? Or do I eat it and throw up all over the table?” I don’t remember how the situation resolved, but I’m sure I managed a politician-worthy smile and a “No thank you, Mrs. Betty. Thank you, though. What a neat lesson!” (Wow, did I ever lay it on thick.)
I finally acquiesced and began eating fish again in high school. In fact, lo these many years later, one of my favorite dishes to cook is a nut-crusted, pan-seared orange roughy with couscous, but you still won’t see me wielding a butcher knife and filleting it my own self. I’ve come a long way since then. I mean, recently I even roasted a whole chicken. I even managed to eat part of it at the flawless dinner party I was co-hosting. (It was great, but I’m just saying.) I still don’t like the thought of eating something with eyes still on it—whole fish, crawfish, head-on suckling pigs—these things are still beyond me.

*             *             *
With my less-than-stellar history when it comes to obtaining foodstuffs from the beautiful, briny sea, you’d think I would have noticed the ill omen when fresh out of graduate school, I walked up the hill to embark on an exciting new career—only to find that the place reeked of fish.

First, let me give you a quick crash course in the wild and wonderful world of therapeutic rehabilitation. Intended for adults with chronic or severe mental illness and/or developmental challenges, these programs offer clients (or consumers, as the current literature dictates) a structured program of work tasks and recreational activities intended to help them transition back into society after hospitalization. Each member participated in work tasks depending on their interests and previous experience. The “Office Unit” answered the phone, made photocopies for therapists, and kept the center’s store, at which clients could earn points to buy candy, cigarettes, and other sundries. The “Activities Unit” planned and carried out bingo, karaoke, and other table games. The “Maintenance Unit” attempted to keep the premises clean…You get the picture. In addition to group and individual therapy sessions and administrative paperwork (all for which my schooling at least somewhat prepared me), each staff person was expected to lead one of the aforementioned “units.”
As the newest staff person and thus the low man on the totem pole, I faced a completely unexpected joy for which I was neither prepared nor particularly suited—the “Kitchen Unit.” On my first day, after introductions to clients and staff, the director smiled at me with an odd little smirk and led me into the kitchen to meet the client who served as the head cook. I met a lady, who I’ll not describe here for the sake of confidentiality, other than to say that she was a delightful, talented, witty, and intelligent person who had faced a series of difficulties in life that I can scarce imagine. All of that I would learn later—but on this day, I must admit that she seemed like Attila the Kitchen Hun, bedecked in her plastic apron and hairnet.

My eyes were watering and my stomach quivered at the noxious fish stink, but Attila the Kitchen Hun grinned toothlessly and told me the day’s menu: Tuna Fish Salad Sandwiches with Potato Chips. I had to completely step outside myself as I snapped on a pair of yellow elbow-length rubber gloves. Holding my breath, there was nothing to do but dive arms first into the enormous vat of oily tuna, mayonnaise, and chopped sweet pickles. Apparently, when one mixes tuna salad for fifty, one finds it easier to use his or her hands. And said tuna salad leaves an odiferous lingering au de sardine that lasts all day, pervades car interiors, and causes roommates to exclaim, “My LORD, where have you been today? Good grief, go take a shower!”
Given my early horror at the eating of fish and my lifelong distaste at getting my hands dirty, I’m surprised that I lasted as long as I did in the wonderful world of therapeutic rehabilitation. For a year and a half, in addition to therapist, confidante, cheerleader, and encourager, most importantly, I became chief menu planner, grocery shopper, and Attila the Kitchen Hun’s sous chef.

So…if you need tips on feeding 40-50 people, 5 days a week, for under two hundred and twenty-five dollars, I’m your man—as long as you like tuna fish salad.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Back to Work, Slacker...

It’s been just about two years since I turned in my 30 days notice, packed up my office, and got the heck outta dodge. In the months before my Descent Into Voluntary Underemployment, I bid farewell to several dear lifelong friends due to cross-country moves, mourned a murdered friend, and turned thirty. I didn’t have many clear expectations of the new life I would build, but I knew I was ready for something new when my day-to-day work life made me seriously consider drinking Clorox and setting my hair on fire. It’s not like I was digging ditches, but as I saw clients and tried to provide effective therapy for kids and families, I eventually passed burn-out and found myself crazy-eyed, laughing maniacally, and entertaining fleeting murderous desires.

I worked for a private, non-profit community mental health agency that provided state-contracted counseling and psychotherapy services for a wide range of clients. Just reading that sentence gives me the beginnings of a migraine headache and slightly vomitous rumblings in my digestive tract. Don't get me wrong, I’ve known some amazing people who worked in community mental health for their entire careers without wanting to shove their clients—or even more to shove their colleagues—through an industrial-sized food processor. It just so happens that I wasn’t one of those noble and amazing people, I guess. Sure, I started with lofty ideals of rescuing the world, but after almost five years of clinical work, everyone around me was coming to realize that I needed a break.

I remember one particularly noteworthy meeting. After two years of keeping detailed records of supervision notes, client contact hours, and passing a ridiculous licensing exam, I could finally operate as an autonomous counselor. But one fine day, after a tirade from the higher-ups about medical records or billable hours or some other such nonsense, my supervisor and I had assembled in the big boss’ (who just happened to be a dear friend and wise mentor)’s office. I knew I needed to begin exploring new options when I stepped outside myself for a moment—only to see me pacing the floor, pulling at my hair, and expelling flecks of saliva from my mouth with every near-yell. I’m just glad they didn’t alert security. I probably wouldn’t fare very well in the clink.

As I look back on this season of my life almost two years later, it’s no surprise that I ended up needing a break. During my brief career in community mental health, my experiences ran the gamut from odd to exhilarating, from heartwarming to nauseating, and everywhere in between. I befriended pet ferrets, imaginary guardian warrior angels, and dotty grandmothers. On the other hand, I saw a few clients overcome incredible odds and celebrate major victories—even if these moments were just a bit too rare. I lobbied judges on behalf of parents about to lose custody of their children. I watched proudly as kids graduated from high school, scored in the big game, or clarineted through their first band concerts. On the other end of the spectrum, I somehow experienced any and all possible human fluids depositing themselves somewhere on my person at one time or another. The work wasn’t rocket science. Most of the time the job just required that I show up, nod my head, and try to keep up with the never-ending paperwork. While I couldn’t have seen this truth as I left my farewell lunch (especially since I could hardly keep from jumping in the air and clicking my heels together Mickey Rooney style), some of my clients helped me, changed me, and brightened my life exponentially more than my piecemeal therapy did for them.

Now it’s been two years of building a new life in a new place. I’ve found a church home, made some great friends, and studied spiritual formation with some of the most wise and kind people in the world through the Upper Room’s Academy for Spiritual Formation. I’ve learned volumes about myself, and I’ve even kept up with the heinous CEUs required to maintain my counseling license, which I’m saving for a rainy day that I hope never comes! I have edited countless doctoral dissertations, transcribed sermons and speeches, written book proposals, and tried my hand at ghostwriting (which turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself). I’ve written political pieces from both sides of the aisle, tried my hand at travel writing, and edited so many chapters of curriculum and standardized tests that I should have more honorary degrees than a former head of state. I’ve spent hours at my local gym, trying to burn off too many fast food meals and late night snacks. I’ve accompanied choirs, played piano for churches, catered dinner parties (I make a mean Swedish meatball, let me tell you!), and even gone back to that favorite money maker of adolescents everywhere—babysitting!  

In the meantime, because of the wisdom of a generous friend, I experienced Reiki for the first time, and then eventually found the root problem for several years of frequent illness and poor sleep. Chronically inflamed tonsils coupled with a severely deviated septum (thank you, long ago car wreck) are like little bio-terrorists! Thank God for COBRA health insurance—the surgery went well and I now have a new lease on life. My family has welcomed a new baby, and I’m enjoying being an uncle to my 6 year old nephew and my new niece.

So for two years, I’ve been pretty busy. Through all of the other day-to-day excitement, I’ve read about writing, I’ve thought about writing, I’ve talked about writing, I’ve dreamed about writing…I’ve even written about writing. But what do I have to show for it? I have the initial chapters, outline and the skeletal framework for a novel about an unlikely friendship between a young African-American man and a white preacher in South Alabama. I have the beginnings of another novel about two aging southern socialites who lose their husbands, lose their money, and decide to hit the road bedecked in sequins and glitter as velvet leisure suit wearing Pentecostal revivalists in the 1970’s. I have a journal full of reflections on my experiences in the north Alabama foothills during the Academy. Lots of ideas, some of which I think are pretty good. Now I just need the fortitude to finish something. Perhaps putting it out here in the blogosphere (is that a word?) will give me the impetus to get back to work. (Nothing like a little accountability from the 3 and a half people who actually read this blog).

Someday soon this season of my life will draw to a close and I’ll go back to the 9 to 5 world—which may not be so much of a bad thing, after all. Retirement, insurance, and paid vacation days are quite the perks! But until that day comes, I’m a man on a mission…

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Homily from the Hundred Acre Wood

The Academy for Spiritual Formation - Spring 2010

I haven’t ventured into the attic at my parents’ home in several years. Nevertheless, I’m sure if I climbed up the ladder into that vast storehouse of memories, if I peered underneath scrapbooks, looked behind stacks of quilts, leafed thru reams of kindergarten papers, and heaved aside my mothers’ clippings from long-faded issues of Southern Living, I would find a vacuum-sealed bag filled with my old stuffed animals. There’s at least one friend there with whom I wouldn’t mind spending some quality time. He’s an approximately thirty-one year old orange-colored bear wearing a bright red shirt, and he’s probably best described by the words of an old song we sang together once upon a time.


“Deep in the hundred acre wood

where Christopher Robin plays ...

A donkey named Eeyore is his friend...

and Kanga and little Roo.

There's Rabbit and Piglet and

there's Owl, but most of all.

Winnie the Pooh...

Winnie the Pooh...

Tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff.

He's Winnie the Pooh...

Winnie the Pooh...

Willy nilly silly old bear.”

A. A. Milne originally wrote the “Winnie the Pooh” stories for his son, Christopher Robin, about the little boy’s make-believe adventures with his stuffed animal friends. If you aren’t familiar with these stories, might I suggest a few additions to the reading list for next session? We’ll talk about that later.

In the classic Winnie the Pooh Disney cartoons, the opening credits began with a camera panning over an array of stuffed animals in a child’s room. Then, the magic happened. (And nobody does magic quite like Disney, do they?) As the narrator began describing the antics of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin, words on the page of an animated book slowly erupted into little black rainclouds and honeytrees, until the book faded away entirely and gave way to a blustery animated world. Before the magic, I saw just an ordinary run-of-the-mill stuffed bear sitting on a window box in a little boy’s room. Patched and worn, glassy-eyed and lifeless, he was just a stiff, stuffed toy. Only Christopher Robin’s friendship made Winnie-the-Pooh come to life. For Winnie-the-Pooh, friendship made him real.

We all could list icons of friendship from our culture and from our childhoods. Bert and Ernie. Lucy and Ethel. Jonathan and David—what beautiful pictures of friendship there. Anne Shirley and Diana Barry from “Anne of Green Gables,” Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, Gus and Call from Lonesome Dove, Celie and Shug Avery from The Color Purple… Can you see a trend here? We resonate with images of friendship. We hunger for such images in our own lives.

I’m not suggesting to you that my only childhood friends were stuffed bears and TV characters. Still, it seems that I learned early on to keep people around me at arm’s length. Indeed, there parts of me they could never accept, never hold, never celebrate. Deep down, beneath my well-rehearsed soft shoe, the smoke and mirrors, the sequins and glitter routine, it was just a show. I remember many times when I would literally hide behind my hands lest someone read my emotions betraying my face and telling my secrets.

About eight years ago, I began meeting a small group people with whom I could be fully honest. Slowly I realized that I could fire my internal censor, and free my internal prisoner. Eventually I realized I didn’t have to hide anymore. I could look them in the eye and see my reflection. Through the mystery of the Incarnation, not only could I see my own reflection in their faces—I saw Jesus smiling back at me. I felt the laughter of Jesus in their jokes, the grief of Jesus in their tears, the temptations of Jesus in their struggles. And yes, I have even known the justice of God’s kingdom in their fist bumps of solidarity. I eat with Jesus when we share meals—and I felt the arms of Jesus when I sat on their enormous green couch, or rested in their collective embrace. We have walked together through births, deaths, marriages, break-ups, graduations, cross-country moves. Together, we have chronicled going in…and coming out…And, as we journeyed together, we walked in the blessing of the Father, fellowship of the Son, and in communion with the Spirit.

A wise friend told me—in his funny little Texan accent, “Church people are always saying how we need to be more like Jesus. Make me Christ-like. Be like Jesus. Well, what if in order to be more like Jesus, ya gotta be more fully human! You can’t be like Jesus and be a durn robot at the same time!”

Well, these friends gently convinced me that my charade was up. As I related with them in an embodied, human way, I met Jesus all over again. You see, their friendship—and my friendship with the Incarnate Christ—made me real.

When one of us needed assurance of acceptance, of grace, or even just a place of mutual understanding, we would lower what we laughingly dubbed the “Cone of Safety.” Anything could be spoken there. It was just all okay. All—each hidden place—is welcome in that cone of friendship encircling us. Within these holy friendships—this Cone of Safety, I have encountered the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Not only did their friendship make me real. With my friends—and Jesus within them—their friendship makes me safe.

I just love the healing story in the fifth chapter of Luke in which Jesus healed the paralyzed man. Just picture the scene:

One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there. And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven."

A few verses later, we read:

Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, "We have seen remarkable things today."

This man’s friends provided him with access to Jesus, and Jesus called him friend. And the friendship—made him well.

This sounds familiar to me. Maybe it does to you as well. These friendships made me real. When I found myself unable to see the face of the Holy in my life, these friends dragged my mat into the presence of Jesus. They carried me, quite literally sometimes, to encounter Jesus. They made me safe and showed me the face of Jesus, and Jesus called me—as he calls you—friend.

And as it did for the paralyzed man, this friendship—this miraculous, grace-filled, holy friendship—makes me, and makes you—well.

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount sound so near to me—almost as near as it must have felt for that paralyzed man on that mat, who depended upon the persistent, unconventional, life-giving love of his friends.

Hear the words we heard just a few moments ago. This time, from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

9-10"I've loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you'll remain intimately at home in my love. That's what I've done—kept my Father's commands and made myself at home in his love.

11-15"I've told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I'm no longer calling you servants because servants don't understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I've named you friends because I've let you in on everything I've heard from the Father.

16"You didn't choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won't spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.

17"But remember the root command: Love one another.

As we came together for the first time some months ago, perhaps our Divine Narrator began weaving together the stories of our Academy antics like words on the page of an animated book. Maybe those words slowly erupted into little black rainclouds and honeytrees, until the book faded away entirely and gave way to a blustery animated Academy world. Maybe we’ve found ourselves in this blustery new animated world, and perhaps like for Christopher Robin and Winnie the Poo, our friendships make us real.

As I first encountered unquestioning acceptance from the people with whom I share my life, I met Jesus in a new way. I realized—their friendships make me safe.

We see Jesus in each other, and Jesus has called us friend. If we are to follow his way, to bear the fruit of love in our lives, then we must reflect the face of Jesus to the world.

Now, I’m not a preacher. Perhaps I should have offered this caveat to you before I started this wild ride a few moments ago. But as I prepared for this moment, and as I thought of what I could possibly tell you all—I realized that through the beautiful mystery of this community, I can draw from your deep wells of wisdom and experience. And somehow, I can become “greater than.” Isn’t the same true for the elements before us?

Since I’m not a preacher, I don’t say these words over the elements. But I do so love the Communion liturgy that says, “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, so that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” In the same way, may we provide each other, and provide people everywhere with access to Jesus, so they might say—“their friendship made me real. Made me safe. Made me well.”

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Circles in Time

I am growing more and more convinced, especially of late, that time must come to us in circles rather than in lines. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no astrophysicist. Stephen Hawking probably could tell you much more on that subject than I have ever known about the intricacies of space and time—and likely more than I care to know, for that matter. Perhaps you are beginning to ask questions about my qualifications or maybe even my sanity. Let me put your mind at ease and tell you how I arrived at my cosmic conclusion. I’m a Southerner, and this part of my identity seems to permeate to my very depths. The land, the food, the music, the stories and people—all these flow through me like the mighty Mississippi winds its way through my homeland’s loamy soil.


Sometimes when walking on a sun-dappled path or meandering down a country road, I tend to disappear. I could just as easily be walking on the periphery of an antebellum garden party or on my way to meet a steamship down by the river. When I lived in Washington DC, I often would go to the National Museum of Art to relish masterpieces by Monet, Renoir, van Gogh, and Degas. My real treat, however, entailed stopping in the rotunda to see the burst of azaleas that bloomed there every spring. One look took me far from the bustle of subway trains, honking car horns, and posturing politicos. The sight of those azaleas transported me to Easter Sunday morning in Monroeville, Alabama—complete with new pants for church, a slightly sick stomach from too much Easter candy, and fighting with my brothers as my mother tried (in vain) to take a picture of us in front of the azaleas and still make it to Sunday School on time.

If I bite into a sumptuous dessert, suddenly I’m sitting at my Granddaddy TJ’s kitchen table years ago and biting into a piece of his chocolate pie. Granddaddy’s not making pies in this world anymore, but if I follow his recipe I swear I can almost smell his Old Spice aftershave and hear him say, “Now Matthoo…” In a similar way, a good devilled egg always takes me back to those formal Sunday dinners at Mrs. Etta’s house. I couldn’t have been older than about six or seven, but I remember biting into those salty, creamy bits of goodness and sitting up extra straight in her slightly musty but exceedingly proper parlor. The marble-topped tables, velvet-covered furniture, and imposing draperies seemed to whisper dinner conversations from another world.

And the music? Well, I could write for years and never scratch the surface of that topic. Sitting down at a grand piano never fails to transport me to Mrs. Saranne’s house. What a magic place that was! I can still hear the clacking of her laquered fingernails up and down that keyboard. Chopin preludes take me back—given just a few more years, I know she would have had me playing them. My lessons with her are just as productive now as they were then. They just occur in another dimension, in my own soul. (And yet even now, all these years later, I still cannot bring myself to write on my music in pen. She did tend to live on the edge like that.)

More even than the land, the food, and the music, the South’s stories and people are the cosmic movers that send me reeling through time. I grew up literally in the shadow of the Old Courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama. Back then, we really could hear the bell in the clock tower strike on the hour. I first read “Ms. Nelle’s” book, To Kill a Mockingbird, before I could begin to understand its angst. While in middle school, I memorized passages from the book, put on a pair of overalls, and played the role of “Jem” in my town’s springtime performance. With my friends Kelli and Stewart alternating in the role of “Scout,” we sat in the balcony overlooking the courtroom where trials such as Tom Robinson’s surely took place. I did my algebra homework while I listened to Atticus and Mr. Gilmer fight for Tom Robinson’s life. No wonder I made better grades in literature than in algebra! While we read Mockingbird in my eighth grade English class, I watched the events of that incendiary trial play out every Tuesday night during practice. We were amateurs, for sure, but dichotomies such as art and life, the now and the not yet, yesterday and today, real and imagined—early on in my life these distinctions began to blur.

I reread the book every few years, and each time I read it, the magic of Ms. Nelle’s words take me in and out of time and in and out of reality in new ways. While working in community mental health in rural Kentucky, I listened to a recording of Sissy Spacek reading Mockingbird. The distinctive lilt in her voice pricked my conscience at least to try to follow Atticus’ advice to consider life from the other’s shoes—or maybe even from inside their skin. This sounded like a noble pursuit over the speakers in my car. As I pulled the car into a potholed driveway and walked into a house surely only inhabitable by Ewells, Atticus’ words proved more of a challenge.

Last week I had a new experience with this timeless story—maybe it would be better described as a “time-full” story—too bad Webster doesn’t consider that an actual word. It seems to me that the best stories of the South are not timeless at all—instead, they encompass every time and all times. One evening last week I went with a friend to see a community theater production of To Kill a Mockingbird. To be honest, my expectations were not very high. Having read the book in the very town that nurtured its author during her formative years and having experienced with work with actors (amateur though they were) who could just as easily have been characters in the novel, I expected to watch the play with detached amusement. Not so!

From Miss Maudie’s opening lines to Scout’s closing, “Good evening, Mr. Arthur,” I cried. My tears soaked through the barbeque-smeared napkin left in my pocket from dinner, through my friend’s stash of Kleenex, through both my shirtsleeves, and even onto one of my socks. (I’m pretty bendy from my weekly yoga class. What can I say?) The theatergoers seated around me must have thought of me as Boo Radley’s cellmate out on a day pass. This time the themes of acceptance, equality, and justice did not so much pluck my heartstrings. No, this time the faces of Ms. Nelle’s characters—or more accurately the faces of my friends and cast mates—spoke to me from years gone by, and I scarce could contain my tears or my laughter.

As Calpurnia, the Finch’s cook and maid who reared the children after their mother’s death, swatted and fussed at Jem and Scout, I thought of Ms. Lena, our Cal. While the actress playing in last week’s cast fit Ms. Nelle’s description of “all angles and corners” to a tee, some folks might have thought our Calpurnia miscast. Sweet, good-natured Ms. Lena had not seen an angle or corner on her figure in years. A retired home economics teacher, she was all curves and hugs and stories, and I loved her. She died several years ago, and in that moment I missed her deeply.

Then there was Reverend Macmillan, or “Mr. Mort,” our Atticus. In his seventies when he played my Mockingbird dad, sometimes we laughed and called him “Granddaddy Atticus.” Despite his advanced age, he lived the role in a way that last week’s Atticus could never hope to achieve. Mr. Mort, a retired Presbyterian minister, lived and worked in Alabama during the Civil Rights era. Surely like Atticus, he could have said of Mockingbird, “…this is no ideal to me. It is a living, breathing reality.” I had not seen Mr. Mort in years when I heard of his death. When I heard, I could almost hear Mr. Crook, our Reverend Sykes, say, “Scout, stand up. Stand up. Your father is passing.”

I laughed as I watched their Miss Maudie attempt in vain to mask her Minnesota accent. My Miss Maudie, now a U.S. Circuit Court Judge, was then a lawyer in town whose riotous laugh could undo the entire cast with a mere giggle. When I worked at her law office during high school, I learned to appreciate the beauty of a good story—and a well-placed expletive! Yep, I loved every minute of it—except for the moment on Valentine’s Day when I wrecked my car while taking her children home from elementary school. Oops.

In that darkened theater as Ms. Nelle’s Pulitzer plot unfolded before me, I laughed and cried as faces passed by my mind’s eye. Mr. A.B., our court reporter, died last year. His late wife, my beloved Ms. Saranne, lives on all these years later. I think she's become my muse. But Mr. A.B. was special to me in his own right—he sang for nearly thirty years in my dad’s choir at church and brought me candy every Wednesday night after choir practice. When I was an awkward thirteen year old with a cracking, creaking, changing voice that couldn't quite make up its mind whether I should sing boy soprano, adolescent tenor, or just sit there with my mouth shut, none other than Mr. A.B. gave me a glimmer of hope. He said, "Matthew, if you'll just keep right on singing through the break, you won't ever lose your voice. That voice'll deepen and you'll never miss a lick." Those were kind words to a would-be pubescent soloist with a four note range, you'd better believe it! Even at eighty years old, A.B.’s voice was so mellow, so lovely. I remember hearing him sing “My Tribute.” How, can I say thanks / for the things he has done for me…” I pray I have a voice like that when I'm eighty.
The truth is so much stranger than fiction. As I walked into The Beehive today (a local coffee shop/bookstore and my Monroeville writing spot), I was greeted by the owner’s mother-in-law, Ms. Pat, another of our “Miss Maudie’s.” She mentioned in passing that Charlie McCorvey, our Tom Robinson, died a few weeks ago. Mr. McCorvey was a reading teacher at the middle school, and he played the role with a quiet dignity that moved me to tears even as a kid. If I had known of his death last week as I watched the play, I surely would have had to leave the theater.

Sometimes fiction is all too real, and real life is all too surreal. The lines blur, and time is less of a forward march and more like so many currents in a river. The same water that carried Mark Twain down the Mississippi cycles through and somehow fills my parents’ pool. The same dirt that made up the floor of those sparse slave quarters now grows the tomato—that on a sandwich with white bread and real mayonnaise makes a perfect summer afternoon. I can’t explain it—and an explanation just might ruin the magic.

For now, I’ll join the chorus of voices. Maybe I’ll play tag with Scout and welcome Kelli’s new baby girl into the world when she makes her debut in a few weeks. Lord knows I've got stories to tell that precious little one--her Mama would kill me, though. And even now, I know I’d better obey Calpurnia or face my peril. In moments when I need a hug from Ms. Lena, I’ll have to wait till I cross that river and meet her on the other side. I pray justice for all the Tom Robinsons of the world, and I'll mourn the loss of Mr. McCorvey, who taught many of my friends to read. When I sing our songs, I’ll remember Mr. A.B. and Mrs. Saranne. And come to think of it, while I’ve never spoken with her at length, every time I hear a good story, maybe I’ll breathe a silent thanks to Ms. Nelle, and all those wise folks who chronicle our comings, our goings…and our circles in time.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Thoughts on the [I'll Do Anything To Avoid] Writing Life

For the first time since I began this trippy adventure in July, last week I had no editing assignments to work on. After months of proofreading dissertations, transcribing sermons and HR videos, editing standardized tests and study guides, and even writing my first book proposal, my agenda was clear. I finally had time to work on my own projects. Oh, I had so many ideas! Fictional plotlines, personal essays, and random tidbits of prose show up all over my life on the back of dinner receipts, cocktail napkins, used envelopes—you name it. But oh no. When faced with actual opportunities to write these ideas into existence, I seem to find any number of diversions. Quite frankly, it’s getting ridiculous.


As the restful weekend rolled over into last Monday, I immediately thought, “What better way to plan my week of luscious writing productivity than to write a ‘To Do’ list?”

Sidebar: The word “productivity” immediately induces gags and shudders, since it was the primary buzzword in my previous life. My “productivity” (i.e. weekly average of Medicaid-billable client-contact therapy hours) was the ultimate measure of my loyalty as an employee and worth as a person, it seemed. Of course, supervisors meant well, but in the end it was all just a numbers game. The bosses couldn’t help it—they were cogs in the same wheel in which I was spinning. Still, just that momentary jaunt down memory lane sent me to the medicine cabinet for the bottle of Pepo-Bismol. Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve used it since July—it’s probably out of date. Oh well. Gulp.

Aaah. I feel it’s cool, soothing calm coursing through my digestive system. But alas, I digress…

Anyway, I started my “To-Do” list: Call the Cone. Call sweet Nana. Write letters. Pay bills. Transfer counseling license from Kentucky to Tennessee. Mail books to Mom and Neen. List items on Ebay. Plan meals for the week. Grocery store. Go to the gym. Sync calendar and emails. Answer the 400 random emails lingering in my inbox. Answer all 50 of my forgotten Facebook messages. Return the last 10 calls on my phone that I’ve been avoiding.

From there, however, my list grew from mildly neurotic to full-on crazy. Ablaze in my manic, agenda item-checking glory, I added more and more bulleted points of banality. Alphabetize CDs. Organize library. Detail inside of car. Find missing Pampered Chef measuring cup (Really? REALLY? I’ve lived in 3 states in the past 10 months, and I’m really going to look for a missing glass measuring cup? Perish the thought!). Make a SPREADSHEET for my “To-Do” list. (For real. Have we met?) Organize photo files on computer. Clean out hard drive (I don’t really know what this even means.) Clean out closet. Go to goodwill. On and on and on.

No lie, by Thursday I was making a master list compiling all my other lists. A shopping list, a house list, a meals list, a writing list, a life list…Good grief. No wonder I didn’t get anything done last week.

I read about writing—Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, J. Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (and everything else she writes), Writer’s Weekly, Writer’s Digest, Steven King’s On Writing… You name it. I listen to audio recordings from writing retreats and seminars. I think incessantly about plot construction, character development, secondary storylines, settings…you name it. In their own way, all these people seem ultimately to say, “Get your butt in the chair, shut the door, and start writing.” And this makes so much sense, doesn’t it?

Yet last week, I cooked, read, cleaned, organized, napped, and even went to the gym. I hate going to the gym. The only thing that sustains me through an hour on the elliptical machine is an extra long playlist of Amy Grant songs from the 1980s, and I still don’t feel particularly happy about it. Then I made a spreadsheet. Never in my life have I done such a thing. I’m not sure that I ever will again, to be honest. But now I have a neatly organized and existentially profitable record of the areas in my life that need my attention. I can add internet links for comparison shopping, highlight and/or strikethrough items upon completion, and reprioritize the list according to events of the day/week/month/year/moon cycle.

What I don’t have is anything to show for my week of [non]writing. Still, I suppose writing on “why I’m not writing” is a start—a circuitous start, to be sure—but a start, nonetheless. So…off I go into the wild blue yonder. That’s the beautiful thing about this crazy writing life. The muse seems always to be sitting in my office, patiently waiting for me to finish my tap dance, ready to hear what I have to say, ready to change the station. Then I’ll stop flailing and invite my muse to join me…maybe in a waltz. No tap this time, though. And definitely no spreadsheets.

Shall we dance?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Being and Doing

I'm still unpacking my luggage--and my thoughts--from last week's session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. For much of the week, we discussed the difficulties we experience trying to hold "being" and "doing" in some sort of symbiotic tension. Our world is full of word pictures that describe this balance.
Harmony vs. dissonance. Stillness vs. busyness. Silence vs. conversation. Introvert or extrovert. Type A or Type B. Yin and Yang. War and Peace. Mary and Martha. You get the picture.

All too often, we see these dual states as some sort of false dichotomy. Sometimes we celebrate one side of the equation and vilify its apparent opposite. As I sit with the tension, I'm reminded of the 1965 classic by the Byrds--"Turn, Turn, Turn [To Everything There Is a Season]." The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote the poignant text, but Pete Seeger set it to music and introduced it to a whole new crowd. (Does this mean that Seeger's music is inspired? Hmmm. Something to think about!)

This week I've thought alot about this delicate tension. I wrote these words as I pondered...

Stillness (with pacing)

Always thinking, “I’ve got to DO something…”
Maybe an org chart or a detailed action plan
I’ll add to my agenda.
But then I see another word—just a tiny helping verb.
Righteous fervor has its place, but just “to be” is fine, sometimes.

Let’s sit down—I want to look you in the face
and eventually give you and me some space.
I’ll hear you say, “be still, you’ll see.”

Want to argue? I’ll SAY something:
“There’s neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free.”
But I still wear the labels.
You know, I’ve heard their music charmed the nation,
but when they sing those words, I change the station.
I just don’t want to hear them saying, “Let it be…”
So I’ll sit down and give you and me some space
and I’ll hear you say, “be still, you’ll see.”
Maybe I can let it be.

So I’ll sit down and look Jesus in the face.
Yeah, just give him and me some space
to hear him say, “Follow me.”