Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Conjectures of a Guilty Librarian: A Brief Novella

In honor of National Library Week 2019, I offer this brief novella. “Conjectures of a Guilty Librarian” is a work of pure fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental and unintentional.

 Early Reader

 “Take up and read.” 

I remember my older sister reading me to sleep. My mother is AWOL, already tucked into her boozy bed. P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? is one of my not so ironic favorites.  But what really rocks me to sleep are the cadences of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat.

I never make it to kindergarten.  I am no wunderkind reading at three. But I remember coming home from my first day of first grade screaming: RED! I can spell RED!

And from that day forward, I could read. Yertle the Turtle. Horton Hears a Who. Nancy Drew.

My dad’s library beckons.  The smell of pipe tobacco. Kingston Trio on the tape deck. So many books looking down at me.  Books of the Month Club. Heritage Press. Penguin Classics.

A playground for my gray cells.  In my dad’s library, I find my literary friends. Imaginary and necessary. They get me through school: elementary and high and launch me early into university.

Where I fall in love – head over heels in love –  with books.

For the Love of a Good Book

 “A library is a place where you lose your innocence but not your virginity.” 

My lover is an open book.

Currently I am intimate with White Noise by Don DeLillo “Hilarious, beautiful, and strange.”

It’s easy on the eyes, lovely to hold and stimulating to my gray cells.

The perfect companion to take to my bed.

Pillow talk with DeLillo is delightful.

Babette and I have turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night about our fathers and mothers, childhoods, friendships, awakenings, old loves, fears. No detail must be left out, not even a dog with ticks or a neighbor’s boy who ate an insect on a dare. The smell of pantries, the sense of empty afternoons, the feel of things as they rained across our skin.

Such language, it makes me jealous.

Books are sensuous things.  Smooth pages, ragged edges, the whiff of oak trees and earth.

Printed words slither from left to right clarifying things in black and white.

Yes, books are quite the tease.  Breathless, I dream of what’s on the page’s other side.

And the best of books not only get into my bed; they get into my head.

I’ll never be an astronaut, but I have explored the cosmos. I’ll never be a philosopher, but I have pondered by Walden Pond

All for the love of a good book.

Tumbled between the sheets, my lovers lie spent. Their covers lost. Their spines broken. Their pages torn. Their corners bent.

No man can possibly compete.

Next semester, I begin a two-year tour at Library School. There I will see and taste all this temple has to offer: its collections and its history; its legends and its lore.

A bibliophile’s dream.

Library School

“People can lose their lives in libraries. They should be warned.” 

The campus and quad are verdant and fresh.  Fall leaves crackle under my feet. Muddy gray buildings loom overhead.  At the registrar’s office, I drool over the curriculum as I wait in line.

The first day of class arrives. I sit up front. Eager to please. The Dewey Decimal System is a bit of a bore. The History of the Book more tedious than I care to admit. But Libraries: Ancient and Modern is nothing less than a revelation.

I could listen forever to the professor’s Irish lilt.  His cable knit sweater could use a wash. His bristly chin could use a shave. Stereotypically rumpled, he is a virtual card catalog of information.

He dazzles the class with tales from ancient Alexandria to the Papal Library at the Vat.  I imagine him unrolling a parchment scroll or pulling down a tome from antique shelves.

I check the syllabus and read ahead.  I cannot get enough of this stuff. And to be honest, I cannot get enough of this Scholar-Librarian.

Occasionally, he graces my nerdy lunch table. No better banter than book banter. Banned book lists. Fights over first editions. Salty stories from the stacks at Cambridge.

Cracking jokes with my classmates, along with a professor is just plain fun.  Deftly deploying my tongue, I hold my own.

We agree on much. We argue even more.

The best arguments of my life. Intellectual and spirited. Brutally honest and exceptionally kind.

I am listened to and understood in a way that I have never known before. Like a rare book, I find my value.

I find my home.

In the Library.

Book Jockey

“Libraries should be open to all except the censor.” 

Second semester, lucky me lands a job at the front desk. The most menial job a library has to offer. But the hottest spot in town. Through the front doors stream a bunch of biblio-types: faculty, students, researchers. I love getting to know them. Their peculiarities. Their preferences.

I love to watch the preening professor holding court. I love hearing researchers excited about their books. I even love the occasional overly-long conversations at the desk.

And though I am the most verbose of library assistants, the hierarchy believes me deaf. Like a mic hidden in a house plant, I overhear faculty squabbles and gossip of student affairs.

Libraries appear tidy but really, they are quite messy places to work. Alive with an eclectic cast of characters. Haunted by the ghosts of their past.

Meander through the stacks, open a carrel door, run your fingers along dusty spines, mystery permeates the place.

Thousands of books, telling tales, stand silent on the shelves.

They never speak.

Shhhh, the Head Librarian whispers.

At the front desk, I sit in silence. Quietly in the know.

Like a pastor, I hand out bibliographic advice. But I keep my own counsel.

Public Services are private. Circulation is secret.

And there is no censorship in the library.

The Scholar-Librarian

 “To build a library is to create a life.”

I want to be James H. Billington when I grow up. A recently retired Librarian of Congress, Billington is also an acclaimed historian.

A voracious reader, I dream of being a prolific writer. About what yet, I am not sure.

But I know that a Scholar-Librarianis everything I want to be.

Master of collections. Mistress of catalogs. Scribbling away in my private carrel, some passionate brilliance.

But I am held back by library anxiety. Yes, that is a real thing:

Confusion, fear and frustration especially when lacking experience while facing pressure to master a subject.

It leads to procrastination. Timidity. Feelings of inadequacy.

So, how do I score? Much too high. Though I might ace a project, I fall all over myself presenting it.  I fumble with my notes. I look down and not up.

Practicing in my living room, I’m polished and funny. In front of the professor, I am an intellectual klutz.

Why?

Middle child, in a crazy household, it was best to disappear. Teacher’s pet in parochial school, I gave only the right answers. Rebel without a cause in high school, finally my questions started to fly.

But I am swatted down. Hard.

Which drives me underground. Secret and subversive.

And so, in college, I become an amateur philosopher – arguing with the sages of the ages.

Term paper wise, but never really in person wise.

Bookworm, I am drawn to the Scholar-Librarian like a moth to a flame.

Basking in his light, terrified of getting burned.

Bibliolatry

 “Anyone who’s worth anything reads just what she wants.” 

I love spending other people’s money on books.  Well, I don’t actually spend the money myself, the Head Librarian does but I do get paid – minimum wage – to find them.

There is a lot of down time at the desk. I flip through the Times Literary Supplement. I skim the Chronicle of Higher Education.I scour professional journals for the latest and greatest of books.

An academic pursuit. But not entirely.

When the first little Library of Congress burned, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell Congress his books. Jefferson had one of the finest libraries in the young United States. His shelves were packed with history, philosophy and the arts.  He had volumes on every topic: bee keeping, Italian cooking, magic tricks.

Congress balked. They just wanted the law books.

But Jefferson argued: “There might not be subject to which a member of congress might not need to refer.”

In other words, he was passionate about everything.

“I cannot live without books,”Jefferson famously said.

6,487 of them.

Reading cultivates desire.

I have long played it safe in my life. I am the girl next door hesitant to leave the house. I am a good girl with a crush on a bad, bad boy. My love life does not amount to much. Study groups. poetry readings, book store crawls.

And now I want more.

Epic poetry, mystery, astrophysics.

I fill out bunches of book-recommend slips for the Scholar-Librarian.

I write little notes.

Does he read them?

I don’t think so.

I really don’t’ think so.

 Reading People

 “One must be an inventor to read well.”

I am undercover. Circulation is not a simple as it appears. Like a secret agent, I take a read of everyone who comes in the door.

I am expert, of course, because on my break I read an article in Psychology Today. Look “past the masks into the real person. Logic alone won’t tell the whole story about anybody. You must surrender to other vital forms of information.”

 Surrender. I love that.

Pay attention to appearance, posture, movement, expressions of the face.

Trust your gut. Honor your feelings

Monitor the mood.

Tune into the tone of voice.

And eyes, of course, are windows to the soul.

Head Librarian?

Tweed suits. Oxford cloth shirts. Master of tasks.

Reference Desk?

Polyester mix & match. Counter of fines.

Rare Books?

Sweater sets. Tome duster. History buff.

Archives?

Dockers. Button downs. Glad hander. Ghost story teller.

Scholar-Librarian?

Here, I pay very close attention.

Not just to the sound of his voice but to sentence structure, punctuation. He laughs louder than he should, his sense of humor raw. His clothes are sloppy, on the preppy side. Solid as an oak tree, an inquisitive sage. Tenured and comfortable in his Ivory tower.

Sometimes he climbs down. His disciples as his feet.

Monday. Wednesday. Friday. First period. 8:30 AM.

Surveys, seminars, group discussions.

All four semesters, I turn my life upside down, so I can take his every class.

Every single one.

On the Shelf

 “Speed now book and make yourself known. A thousand hands will grasp you with warm desire.” 

Flipping through National Geographic, I happen upon an article about mating rituals in the wild. I read it, of course. The subtle art of seduction is what book displays are all about.

Maybe I can learn something from a preening peacock.

Apparently in the animal kingdom, Birds of Paradise find tickling a turn on. Hooded Seals blow up like pink balloons. And Bowerbirds collect tiny trinkets to lure females to their bachelor pads.

Thank you, Nat-Geo.

Displays are front and center. To entice you.  To tempt you.

Current affairs. Famous authors. Or maybe something more unorthodox.

Having closely read the Scholar-Librarian, I design a few.

October.  History of Halloween. Haunting, delightful.

March. Mental Health. A public service, of course.

And in May, the sexiest of all – Books about Books.

These are the books literally in the Z section— where only librarians go.

Books that make me weak in the knees:

A Gentle Madness

The Library at Midnight

Paper

Touch me.  Crack open my cover. Check me out.

I take note of the readers who stop by my display.

The Dewey-Decimal professor.

The periodicals specialist.

And yes,

The Scholar-Librarian.

 The Librarian’s Apprentice

 “From this slender beginning, I have gradually formed a select library, the foundation of my works and the best comfort of my life.”

Unpacking a cardboard carton of moldy books, I find a hand typed term paper from 1976: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: A Case Study in the Role of the Mentor. A heaven- sent self-help title. Wearing library gloves, I unpeel it from the bottom of the box and begin to read.

The Scholar-Librarian, approaches the desk.

Books on Books. Are you the curator of this little display? “Well done,” he continues without waiting for an answer.

“Your work is really fine. Your projects. Your papers.”

“Would you consider applying for the Heritage Apprenticeship? Applications are due end of the month. Interviews start next week.”

Cheshire grin on my lips, I reply: “‘Thanks. I’ll give it some thought.”

I Google the program: Preservation. Oral Histories. Archiving, Digital Curation. Special Collection.  Rare Books. Museum Libraries.

Of course, I’ll do this. I download the application. But before filling it out, I do a little homework.

What sort of sorcerer is he?

Look first to Homer’s Odyssey the moldy term paper says.

Mentor is the caretaker of Odysseus’ household while he is away fighting in Troy. Mentor takes young Telemachus, the warrior’s son, under his wing. Like a spirit-guide Mentor opens doors for his charge to an unknown world.  Mentor walks alongside his apprentice until he is ignorant no more.

Socrates and Plato. Freud and Jung. Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.

Spring water gushes from the pump. Cold and wet.  Like a slap to a baby’s bottom, the apprentice is woken up. The sorcerer spells out words, his hand in hers.

Yes, I am Helen Keller. And he, my Annie Sullivan.

Application done, interview behind me.

I am appointed the Librarian’s Apprentice.

It starts off slow.

Typing up his research. Culling books from the shelves.  Xeroxing notes.

Busy work turns scholarly. More time in the classroom.  More time in the stacks.

I arrive early each day.  I linger late.

Intellectual tinder.

Road trip to a conference. Study tour at the LOC.

The sexiest organ?

The one between the ears, of course.

Borrowing Privileges

 “The Library is a candy store, and everything is free.”

Libraries are for lending.

You will be carded, of course but there is no cover charge.

Miles of books free for the taking.

At least, for a little while.

It’s an illusion, of course, the book is not really yours to keep. You have to give it back.

Borrowing privileges are ranked. Night school: 2 books for just 5 days. Undergrads: 25 volumes for 5 weeks.  Grad students: 50 volumes for 100 days.  Faculty: Infinity books, forever.

That’s a whole lot of trust.

Libraries did not start out this way. Medieval libraries chained the books to the desk. A kind of book-bondage.

Before then, monks squirreled the books away in their carrels – for only them to see.

Chaining a book to a lectern, tethers the book to a place. A more public place where any novice who passes by can read.

Basically, a biblo-tease.

I chain myself to my sorcerer’s schedule. I let him read me whenever he pleases.  His borrowing privileges far outweigh mine.

Trucking books up the elevator. Shelving in the stacks. Cleaning up a reading room.

A professor and his student, a literary liaison.

Forbidden, like a banned book.

Does he love me? Does he love me not? My yellow rose petals fall to the ground.

Truth be told, I have learned, that out there, somewhere is a mousy little spouse, cozy in a faculty house, of whom he never speaks.

Matter and anti-matter should never collide.

Office hours fly out the window.

One more sentence, one more paragraph, just one more book.

Working away in the professor’s carrell, it’s publish or perish.

The Scholar-Librarian, working on tenure.

The sorcerer’s apprentice, hoping for more.

With a borrowed man and on borrowed time.

Running the risk of overdue fines.

  Tattered Covers

 “Literature is my utopia.”

A very smart person just died. How do I know? I know because a van just pulled up out front. The driver gets out and starts unloading boxes. Liquor boxes, produce boxes, Ivory Soap boxes.

Intoxicating, bubbly and luscious fruit.

It is the library of a lifetime.

It is an intimate process – holy even — to unpack them.

Classics and comics. Plato and pulp fiction. History and mystery. Anais Nin.

Which were beloved? Here’s how you tell.

Cracked covers? Multiple reads.

Marginalia? Conversation.

Folded corners? Returned again and again.

Ephemera flutters to the floor.

Postcards and birthday cards, letters and electric bills, business cards and theater tickets.

Once, even a 19thcentury blank check from a Chicago bank.

Vacations, celebrations, obligations, and complications.

This is how the Scholar-Librarian and I become beloved of one another.

Our lopsided couplings, exciting and brief.

And for now, I believe this is all that I need.

It seems presumptuous to ask for anything more.

So now — back to the boxes.

Up go paperbacks and hard covers to the used book shelves.

Fifty cents for the former, a dollar for the latter.

Imperfect, vulnerable, and beautifully flawed.

Don’t worry, beloveds, I will find you new homes.

You will be cared for.

Not cast aside.

Bibliomania

 “When I have a little money, I buy books. If I have any leftover, I buy food and clothes.”

My Facebook photo is a tower of book boxes.

Emptied, depleted, and totally spent.

I have caught the book lover’s contagion. I covet classics as well as the trash.  So, I steal a few books now and then.  (Actually, free for the taking.) They pile up in the backseat of my car.  Three grocery bags full in just a month’s time.

Inside my apartment, I can barely cram anymore. But somehow, I do.

Bibliomaniac. A hoarder of sorts.  Intervention is needed. But there is none to be had.  I am surrounded by addicts of a similar kind.

Book junkies. Library rats. Closeted collectors.

Just can’t get enough, we get it wherever we can find it.

Libraries, book stalls, drugstore paperback racks.

Now Bibliomania is an actual diagnosis. You can read all about it in A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.

Among the gently mad, I find my truest self.

Reading reveals the inner life.

Deflated, I barely focus on a dust cover.  Caffeinated, I buzz through a book in a day. Inflated, I consume half a dozen tomes at a time.

Surely the New York Times will ask me to write a few reviews.

I will dazzle the book world with brilliant commentary.

Utterly delighted. Hopelessly distracted.

This must be what passion feels like.

Touched with fire,

I have fallen madly in love with the Scholar-Librarian.

Romance Novel

“What wild desires torment the hapless soul who feels the book disease.”

Headlines scream:

CHANLER ESCAPES. Search Fails to Find Wealthy Demented Man. Former Wife, Also Insane.

This is the dark and delicious tale of Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age.

Archie is John Armstrong Chanler, heir to the estate of John Jacob Astor.

Amelie Rives is the goddaughter of Robert E. Lee.

Archie’s family fortune was built on ‘the fur trade, clear-eyed capitalism, and Presbyterian rectitude. Orphaned, Archie and his siblings were “a wild and willful bunch.”

Intellectually curious, a romantic and eccentric soul, Archie“was an inventive young man full of ideas and boundless generosity.”

Amelie Rives was a gifted young writer — gifted — with a dark sensuality. Her first novel The Quick or the Dead? both shocked and impressed reviewers of her day.

Amelie’s Virginia home had “an air of civilized taste and ancient leisure.” Her ancestors included revolutionary war heroes and ambassadors to France.

A siren, Amelie cast aside her corset for flowing robes. “A sizzling vessel of molten lava, she made her reviewers blush and her suitors swoon.”

Archie madly pursued her, proposing three times.

Like fire and ice, their eight-year love affair was doomed from the start.  The first two years the couple was more unsettled than not.

Amelie seemed to love Archie most when he was absent. And when together, Archie never quite knew how to rekindle her heart.

Eight years later, Amelie runs off with a penniless prince.

Divorced and disgraced, Archie, still hopelessly in love, supports Amelie until the day he dies.

The truth be told, they drove each other mad.

Their marriage was heaven and hell. Episodes of bliss.  Bursts of passion. Disrupted by storms. Overwhelmed by sadness.

It could not possibly last. Indeed, it did not.

Sheer madness.

Biblio-therapy

“Many people feel better at the mere sight of a book.”

Books are the answer to everything.

When lost at sea, I grab a book. To navigate my way.

Having never written a book, I bought a bunch about how to write one.

The Art of Memoir.

Fiction Writing.

How to Write a Novel.

I confess that I have not read them. Really, I have just skimmed the tables of contents.  The Art of Memoir,I managed to read a third. Mary Karr is very good.

This seemed enough to get started. But I keep them close just in case.

As Jane Smiley says, “Many people feel better at the mere sight of a book.”

It’s reading for healing’s sake.

Often self-administered.

Also, a field of psychology, “Biblio-therapy can help people with the emotional challenges of existence.” 

Dealing with acute physical pain, Ceridwin Dovey took the cure. He was doubtful at first.

The insights are still nebulous but therein lies its power.  I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of myself, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.

Lose  yourself in a book to find yourself. So, what to read?

Flipping through The Novel Cure, I diagnose my maladies– alphabetically.

Without editorial comment, here are a few:

Anger:   Old Man and the Sea.

Breaking Up: The End of the Affair.

Cry, in need of a good: The Fault in Our Stars.

And we are only up to letter C. From A to Z, there is  enough therapy between these covers to last a lifetime.

“One sheds one’s sickness in books” D.H. Lawrence wrote.

Read. Return. Repeat.

Two years of biblio-therapy, I break through, leaving the Scholar-Librarian behind.

At least, so I think.

Dominatrix of Library Science

“This is a library. Crossroads of civilization. Refuge of the arts. Armory of truth.  You stand on sacred ground.”

Decreed my MLS, I am at last a Mistress of Library Science.

Not quite a Scholar-Librarian but on my way.

And I have arrived here alone and on my own.

I take the Librarian’s Oath:

I solemnly swear to execute professional practices to create, select, organize, manage, preserve, disseminate and utilize collections in all formats. I promise to pursue scholarly endeavors that may benefit the Temple of Learning in which I serve. In the name of Demetrius of Phalaeron, the ancient Librarian of Alexandria, this is my solemn vow.

I sign my name with a feather quill.

A name I have not told you and never will.

Out go resumes to libraries great and small.

Then I shoot for the stars.

The Library of Congress.

The Bodleian.

Leaving Library School is just about the best thing that has ever happened to me.

My car’s overloaded with boxes of books.  A suitcase of clothes. A carton of kitchen stuff.

I turn the key in the ignition.

I leave no forwarding address.

Not even for the Scholar-Librarian.

 “Betsy returned to her chair, took off her coat, opened her book and forgot the world again.”


Broken Toys, Childhood Nightmares & Grownup Dreams

I have never put much stock in dreams. I am not into Freudian analysis of a bygone age. Aren’t dreams just the random firing of brain waves in your sleep? Your brain showing midnight movies to lull you through the night? And we don’t recall most of these fleeting REM sleep snapshots, right?

So, what’s in a dream?

Well, I grew up in what many would have called a dream house. My dad was a doctor, the Chief of Surgery at Greater Southeast in D.C. My mom, a stay at home mom. We had the nicest furniture and the nicest cars.  We wore the nicest clothes and ate the nicest food.  We had household “help”: Nan and her daughter Cornelia cleaned our house and did our laundry. Cora came once a week just to iron. And Sonny, (really Mr. Simpson) stripped and polished our hardwood floors. Floors that were covered with Karistan carpets.

But inside 5408 24thAvenue, the fairytale fractured. There were six of us kids, just nine years apart from the oldest to the youngest. And there was a ton of chaos within our walls. Not just the Brady Bunch kind of chaos. What I would not have given for the Brady Bunch kind.

My mom was a stay at a home – but not what you would call available. Either manic or dark, my mom tried to drink away her bipolar moods. She was either sky high shopping till she dropped or in her bed days on end behind the bedroom door. Delightfully, I remember her once spending $1000 on Hallmark Halloween things. But, I remember just as well, my father screaming obscenities at her as he flushed her valium down the loo.

My mom was a bipolar alcoholic housewife. My dad a raging workaholic who was hardly ever at home.

God bless them, my Grandmother Cady who lived with us, cooked and cleaned and got us off to school. And my barely elder sister often read to us and put us to bed. But this was not supposed to be their job – especially not my sister’s — just four years older than me.

A bit of a nightmare, if you are a little kid. So, middle child me did my best to hide, to be ever so good, not make a fuss. It was safer that way.

 A brown nose in parochial school, I would stay after class to clean the nuns’ quarters, so I would not have to go home to all the yelling and screaming and name calling.  I was ten years old.

And I had dreams. Recurring dreams. All set in my growing up home.  I will tell you about one.

In my house we had a basement laundry room which sported a double washer & dryer set. Huge, it was equipped with multiple clothes baskets and ironing boards. There was a “toy shelf” built into a back wall.  Stacked with puzzles with missing pieces, board games without all the cards, baby dolls missing an eye or without any clothes, these broken toys belonged both to all of us or to no one at all. 

I dreamed of snowdrifts of laundry piled high in that basement. And just like snow, I dreamed that I tunneled through it to build igloo forts.  But while hidden in the snowy mounds, somehow, my mom scoops me up with a load and tosses me into the dryer. Tumbling and screaming, “Please, let me out. Please, let me out.” But no one could hear.

Growing up, I dreamt it again and again. Not really a dream but a nightmare and a metaphor for more.

And once upon a time, in 1972, this middle child herself became great with child –  totally smashing and fracturing my family’s fairytale façade. Such a scary house of cards.

And I got myself out of that house. I got the child in my belly outside of that house. And through an adoption agency I found in the Yellow Pages, I found her a house that I thought was safe and happy and secure and good. Where she could grow up and live happily ever after.

I thought and believed at seventeen that by placing her, that I had saved her. And in 1972, it was the best I could do.

And I have never really told this to anyone before, but after her birth I began to have dreams — recurring dreams of a baby in a basket. A baby I lost. A baby I could not find. A baby crying for me. A toddler lost at the mall. A child left at the playground. And it was all my fault. 

Nightmares, really. Nightmares which I wish I had confessed long ago.

Reunited with my first daughter, with hindsight I have learned so much. I thought I had escaped my nightmare so, she could live a dream. And while she is happy, healthy and whole – happily married and a great mom of three, I have learned from her about the complicated and deeply felt conflicts of adult adoptees. Being cut off from half of who you are, an adoptee’s life is not always an easy road. It has lifelong repercussions for mental health, relationships and work. 

As it does also for first moms like me.

I have no time machine. I wish I did but I do not and I cannot undo what I did decades ago. But I believe in redemption in the here and now. As her first mom, I am just as much her forever family as her adoptive mom. Different, of course, but physically and viscerally connected from the start. She is my first daughter. Her children are my grandchildren. My children are her siblings. My brothers are her uncles. My second cousins are her third. And I hope and pray we will never separate again.

It is not a fairytale. But it is a f*ing gift.

For me this is not an either/or proposition, it’s my celebration of both/and.

So, to heal the past and create a different kind of future, I am reading books and going to conferences and taking a deep dive on my therapist’s couch. I have signed up with Saving Our Sisters – a family preservation group and I have volunteered to be a “Sister on the Ground.” 

Click here and take a look if you would like to find out more about what they do.

 “We are such stuff as dreams are made of…” Shakespeare said. I choose now to dream better dreams, loftier dreams, dreams filled with possibility and hope. The nightmares be damned.


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Jesus: The Electric Album

Take out your pencil. Today’s post begins with a pop quiz on that Jesus-on -a-mountaintop story in the Gospel of Mark.  Have you read it? Have you heard it? Do you know what it means?

Don’t worry. There’s only one question on this quiz and it happens to be multiple choice:

Trans-fig-ur-a-tion means:

a. First century plastic surgery

b. A biblical plan to compute your tithe

c. A Christian weight loss program

or….

d. The glory of God breaking open the heart of a man on a mountaintop.

(Ding. Ding. You’re right. Of course, it’s “d”.)

To be transfigured, to have your whole self, your whole person turned inside out, is an experience that many a mom knows well. Carrying a child for nine months reshapes everything.  Your heart swells with love and your body with life but so do your hands and your feet. Rings no longer seem to fit and shoes are too tight.

And just when you think there is not a single inch of you that this little person does not occupy, delivery day draws nigh.

Upon a tidal wave of contractions, you surf the ecstatic — burning stages of birth.  And with every fiber of your being, this little tiny person is propelled into the world.

You feel like you have just climbed a mountain.

And when they place that little slippery purple person on your naked chest, there and then, life itself is transfigured. In the baby’s face, you see your loved one’s eyes and maybe your grandmother’s nose.

The spitting image of your hopes and dreams.

(And I know that adoptive moms go through their own transfiguring experience, too. And it often takes a lot longer than nine months!)

Bring that little person home and very soon your mantel and your hallway are lined with photographs: baby pictures, school photos, family portraits. Images, reshaped and transformed and transfigured over a life time.

Some of us work like the devil to try to live up our parents’ expectations. While some of us run like Hades to avoid turning into our mother or our father, our parents or grandparents.

Most of us are also scared to death, I believe, to discover whose image actually is stamped on our souls.

The catechism says it is the image of God — the image of Christ. Can you believe it?  In a culture that is prone to value firearms more than families, in a society where profits are often more important than people, can we still believe that each and every on of us is created in the image of Christ?

Jesus of the People by Janet McKenzie

“Jesus of the People” by Janet McKenzie

At the turn of this century, there was a contest that called on artists to create an Icon of Christ for the third millennium. It was sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter and it drew nearly two thousand entries from over nineteen countries. Sister Wendy Beckett selected the winners, as well as, the runners-up.

The chosen images drew visceral responses – many written up in the Washington Post.

One anonymous e-mailer shrieked: “It is nothing but a politically correct, modern, blasphemous statement reflecting the artists’ and the judges’ spiritual depravity.” 

 Another critic complained that a certain entry made the Prince of Peace look like the artist formerly known as Prince. And yet another called the winning entry – a blatant rip off of Jimi Hendrix from the Electric Lady Album!

But others were deeply moved by these newly cast images of Jesus. A Catholic priest wrote, “I am sitting here with tears brimming over and running down my face.  These are magnificent images of haunting, inviting serenity. Jesus would recognize himself in these images.

Jesus as a thick lipped and broad nosed ebony woman. Jesus as an olive skinned, dark haired Middle Eastern peasant. Jesus as a gaunt, gray haired, gay man. Jesus portrayed in bursts of color and glorious light.

Jesus transfigured before our very eyes.

Now the transfiguration of Jesus as the Christ, a scholar writes  “is one of the strangest tales the gospels have to tell.  Even with the voice from the cloud trying to explain it, the transfiguration is a cosmic and a confusing event. Even Jesus — who spent his life in conversation with the prophets — has no words.”

Instead, a vision erupts on a mountain top and images appear. Up the mountain, Jesus climbs with Peter and James and John. When they reach the top, Jesus can no longer contain the glory of God.  It splits his heart in two. It spills out of his every pore: blazing and blinding, exquisite and ecstatic.

The image of Elijah is seared onto his soul. The commandments of Moses beat in his heart. The holy three enveloped in a cloud. But when the cloud is lifted, only the image of Jesus remains.

And it is the same Jesus, the man with whom his friends had traveled a dusty mile. The same Jesus whose mother and brothers they knew. The same Jesus they had seen hungry and tired and sore. Out of the cloud, steps the spitting image of God. Jesus of Nazareth. Flesh of our flesh. Bone of our bone.

In this last flash and blast of Epiphany, walk down the mountain, friends. Take a look around and try to catch a glimpse of such glory. In the eyes of a child. In the arms of a beloved. In the voice of a friend.  In the face of a stranger.

Just about anywhere. Just about everywhere. Just around the corner, the human face of God waits to greet us – if we but recognize him.

May God’s glory break open the hardest of hearts – no matter who we are – no matter how impossible that might seem.

May God’s love transfigure and transform us into the likes of love, into the likes of him.

So, let us pray. Day by day.
JoaniSign


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The Third Peacock

Middle child of six siblings, this third Peacock often got lost in the crowd.

Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy. Our six birthdays, from the oldest to the youngest, spanned just nine years.  No wonder my mom could barely keep us straight.

Maureen. Tim. Joani. Bernie. Clare. Joseph. She would rattle through our names till she found the one that fit.

It’s me, mom. It’s Joani. Remember me?

And with six kids in the suburbs, it was no wonder that my mom made use of all the help that she could get. My Grandma Cady, my mom’s mom, would cook, make lunches, and help get us off to school. My dad was a doctor, a surgeon, so we could afford to hire help. Cornelia cleaned, Cora did the ironing, and Sonny, Cornelia’s brother did all the heavy lifting.

Outwardly, we all appeared neat and tidy, organized and orderly. But that was so not the case. My mom’s bipolar disorder, along with my dad’s addiction to work, wreaked havoc on our home.

But we six kids, whether because of our circumstances – or in spite of them — compounded the chaos tenfold.

There was a lot of yelling, screaming and name calling. Middle child, I learned to keep my head down. Middle child, a translator at the bargaining table, I tried to keep the peace.

As much, as any little kid could.

the third peacock book cover

And there was more than just a little competition. Who has to do the dishes.  Who gets to sit up front in the car. Who gets first crack at the Oreos – when my mom got home from the store.

Our birth order was also our pecking order — but often in reverse. My grade school idea of fairness was quite literal. I remember sneaking down the stairs, on Christmas Eve, after everyone had gone to bed, and counting the packages under the tree. Invariably, Baby Brother Joseph always got the most.

Always.

Joseph, was the most beloved, it seemed. Too little for household chores. Too adorable to be held accountable. He could always hide behind my mother’s skirts.

Or so it seemed to me.

Who wouldn’t want to murder their little brother? Or throw him into a pit? Or sell him off for twenty pieces of silver?

This is the story of Joseph. Not my baby brother Joseph. But Joseph of Genesis. Joseph, one of the great novellas of Hebrew Scripture. Joseph, the youngest and most favored son of Jacob. The one who got the awesome coat.  Baby brother Joseph, who did not endear himself to his siblings.

An angst filled family story of biblical proportions.

Joseph was seventeen years of – shepherding the flock with his brothers. Joseph, the apple of Jacob’s eye, put his brothers in a bad light. He ratted them out for some unnamed offense. And Jacob rewards him for betraying his brothers — with that amazing technicolor dream coat. The child of his old age, he loved Joseph best of all.

His brothers hated him for it. They could not even spare him a peaceable word.

Jacob sends Joseph out to find where his brothers are keeping the sheep. Before the distance is closed between them, the siblings conspire to do their little brother in.

Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into a pit.

We’ll tell dad a wild animal devoured him.

No, the eldest counters. Let’s just steal his coat, go with the pit and not kill him.

It being a waterless pit, this was Joseph’s brothers’ singular kindness.

Callously, they sit down to eat – while up comes a wandering band of Ishmaelites – nomads and merchants on their way to Egypt.

This inspires in Judah, another of the brothers, a very profitable idea.

Let’s sell him to the highest bidder!

So, they pull him out of the pit and hand him over for twenty pieces of silver.

 Joseph, the youngest, the interpreter of dreams, quite ironically is put in the middle. His protective father behind him – ahead, his brothers plotting his demise.

They could all use a little family therapy, don’t you think?

So, could we all.

Our families of origin. Our communities of choice. Our workplaces. Our psychic spaces. Our social circles and political cul-de-sacs. We all tend to hang out with our own tribe. The folks who look like us and think like us and agree with us.

All could use a little family therapy.

Yahweh does not rescue Joseph from the pit – at least not in the swoop down from heaven – Deus ex machina — way. Instead, God, quite providentially, leaves his children –- including us — to our own devices. The devices, God has equipped us with. By our wits, by our skills, by our gifts — to work out this family squabble on our own.

To literally appeal to our better angels.

Three weeks ago, July 21st, the Washington Post reporter, Colby Itkowitz wrote:

On a Wednesday evening, Donna Murphy joined about 30 people in a nondescript basement…for a Better Angels’ “skills workshop” to learn the fundamentals of how to have difficult conversations, to bring Democrats and Republicans together for a three day Better Angels dialogue.

 Better Angels began as a civics experiment in rural southwest Ohio several weeks after the election. With the emotions of the campaign still raw, a room of 21 strangers, ten who voted for Trump and 11 who voted for Clinton spent an entire weekend together talking.

 They listened. They debated. They vented. There were tense moments and emotional ones.

 After 13 hours of discussion, the participants did not change their views but left with a softened view of the other side.

 Better Angels went on a thirteen-city summer tour to promote this red-blue dialogue – to facilitate conversations across a deep political divide.

 The program is the brainchild of David Blankenhorn, a Republican, and onetime opponent of same sex marriage – who later changed his position after a friendship with a gay man changed his mind.

 The group takes its name from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, will swell the chorus of our Union, when again touched, as surely, they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

 Blankenhorn concludes:

 “One consistent message we’re getting is, there are strong disagreements, but we’re not as far apart as we thought we are. There is passion and disagreement…but the main takeaway is that this is good, this kind of talking with — rather than at or about – our political opponents is good for us and good for our country.”

 Some of these groups have decided to meet on a monthly basis. Some not. But meeting even once like this could be a really good idea, don’t you think?

A really good idea, we could put into practice here in Alexandria.

Maybe?

On behalf of Emmanuel, I have sent Mr. Blankenhorn an initial inquiry of how, as a parish, we might sponsor a Better Angels training weekend in our own backyard.

Just a possibility that could come to pass early next year.

A way to equip ourselves, as sisters and brothers, to speak and to listen to one another in love.

Let’s think about it. Talk about it. Pray about it.

The third Peacock, in me, wants to believe that we can work towards healing our tribal divides.

This middle child wants to believe that we can work towards putting aside our self-righteous needs always to be right.

Dear God, please, help us to both temper and to tame

the destructive side of our, all too human, sibling rivalries.

JoaniSign


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Dirt Therapy, the 3rd

 

Easter, this year, began for me at Christmas Tide.

Sunday evening, December 11th, my phone rang. It was my baby brother Joseph on the line. “Are you sitting down?” he asks me. “Joani, we have never talked about this. Do you remember in 1972 when you were pregnant and gave a child up for adoption?” Dumbfounded, I literally respond,  “Yes, Joseph, of course, I do.”Well, she found me,” he says. “Through a DNA test on Ancestry.com, she found me.

The birth of a child to a teenage mother is a familiar story at Christmas. But the family trauma that resulted from my personal story, I had long buried.  And these forty-five year old memories resurrected a trembling seventeen year old child.

The very next day, December 12th, scared to death, I called my newfound child.  It was the best Christmas present I have ever been given. Her name is Rebecca.

We have spent the past four months condensing more than four decades, and without going into the details, I am happy to declare that all is good, very good. And if you like, you can catch up here: Scarlet Letter, No MoreThe “Nua” Normal“Knock the Unicorn Off the Cloud”

And resurrection has brought reunion.

It is remarkable how deeply Rebecca and I resemble one another: our personalities, our intellectual curiosity, our spiritual bent, our sense of humor. Not only our way of speaking but what we say. People have confused my writing for hers and her writing for mine. It is uncanny. It is remarkable. Rebecca says that distance reinforced her DNA. It was a form of rebellion, she says.

I do like the sound of that, though I am not sure exactly what it means.

Needless to say, this has been an incredibly healing experience.

I tremble no more.

Sprouted from the same soil,  Rebecca and I, our selves, our souls, and our bodies are intertwined.

So this Easter is all the sweeter:

Now the green blade riseth!  indeed!

So it seems very apropos to post Dirt Therapy once again.

A post that includes an anecdote about Jacob, Rebecca’s newly discovered little brother and a snapshot of my mother, the grandmother Rebecca never knew.

So, here we go…

Once upon an Eastertide, a little boy came home singing the Pete Seeger song: “Inch by inch, row by row, Lord, please help my garden grow”. At school the little boy, along with his class, had planted bean seeds in jelly jars. Each day they tended their little glass gardens, checking the moist dark earth. Some of the children drowned their seeds with love. While others, their seeds withered from neglect. While others, theirs actually and miraculously sprouted and grew.

Tiny green shoots poked their heads into the fluorescent light. Slender green vines wound around the inside of the jars.

And then one day — the little boy proudly brought his home and set it down on the kitchen table. His mom asked, “Okay, my little sweet potato, what’s this?” And the little boy replied:

”That’s Jesus, mom. That’s Jesus in a jar.”

It wasn’t exactly “Now the green blade riseth” but it was sweet indeed. That sweet little boy was my son Jacob (now 29 years old!). Sadly the little Jesus vine did not survive very long — but don’t blame Jacob. Sadly, you see, plants often came home to my house to die.

Even though I quite ironically once worked at plant store called “Great Plants Alive” most of the plants that crossed my threshold sadly met an untimely death.

And back in the day when I still had a backyard, I was quite happy to just let Mother Earth be my gardener. So whatever grew — grew –and whatever withered – withered. My yard was a little city patch of green. And since I had no green thumb, this was my rule:

If it’s green let it grow.

My lawn was covered with crab grass, wild violets, clover, and dandelions. The fence was covered with tangled honeysuckle vines, ghetto pines, a struggling maple tree, and poison ivy. Plastic baseball bats and dead tennis balls dotted my lawn. A sad little wagon and outgrown bicycles littered the grass.

Occasionally I would attempt to tame this wilding place with my lawn mower and a weed whacker. But much more often, I would retreat and recline in a plastic chair on the patio to read a good book.

If it’s green let it grow.

My manic-depressive mom, Mary Lou was quite the gardener. While I have been blessed with her bipolar brain, God did not see to bestow upon me her green thumb. And hers was very green indeed.

When I was growing up, my mother could lash out like lightning just as easily as she could erupt in joy. Her highs and lows were beyond her control, tamed only by a regular shot of bourbon, a little lithium, and the occasional session with Dr. Freud. My beloved mom did the best she could.

And she did her very best in the garden.EA11B186-69B7-45E1-8E52-41A174207E9A

Mary Lou was totally at home in her rock garden. She relished her trips to the local greenhouses and she spared no expense at the nursery.

The back of the station wagon would be overloaded with peat moss and potting soil, flats of flowers, hydrangeas and azaleas, and a shrub or two — or three.

The lawn would be littered with empty plastic pots, as she dug down deep in the dirt planting geraniums, petunias, and marigolds. I have a snapshot of her doing just this. Her sun kissed skin is freckled and bronze; her auburn hair peaks out from her kerchief; and golden hoops dangle from her ears. Gorgeous.

Resplendent and radiant, digging in the dirt, all is right with her soul.

Digging in the dirt is therapy.

Sowing seeds is therapy.

Fertilizing the soil is therapy.

Watering the ground is therapy.

Gardening is therapy.

Dirt therapy.

Wordless, holistic, holy, hopeful, dirty therapy.

My mother’s daughter, namely me, no longer has a backyard. But I do have a little balcony. And each Eastertide I plant my little English garden in half a dozen clay pots. I am partial to bright colors: Shasta daises; hibiscus; and geraniums. I am partial to plants of the forgiving kind, the kind that forgive me if I don’t water them as often as I should.

A little Miracle Grow, a little sunshine, a little dirt, and all is right with my soul. At least for a little while.

In the beginning, the Creator walked in the cool of the wet garden at the time of the evening breeze. God made us out of the dirt of the garden. God made us out of the dirt of paradise.

And so in all the deaths we die — both large and small — we return to the Garden. We go down into the dirt like seeds forgotten and buried in the dark earth.

So as we are in the beginning, we are in the end. The Alpha is also the Omega.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala, came to the garden and she saw that the stone was rolled away. And there stood the Gardener, the same Gardener who had walked at the time of the evening breeze. Mary did not know him until he called her by name. And then she knew. Here stands the very tiller, the very tender, the very lover of my soul.

Now the green blade riseth.

Dirt therapy.

JoaniSign


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Little Sister, the Movie

little-sister-poster

My firstborn Zach Clark is an indie filmmaker. And a successful one at that. He is the writer, director, and editor of all of his films. All five of them have played in festivals all over the world including SXSW. Gifted with his own unique John Waters sensibility, his movies are dark, quirky, funny, and sad.

Zach’s movies are autobiographical but not literally so. The characters are composites and each film a mosaic, pieced together from his experience and boundless creativity.

Zach is also partial to holidays. At 34 he is still just a great big kid at Christmas. His previous film White Reindeer came out in 2013. It is an outrageous, hysterical, and touching film about grief and loss at Christmas. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll feature throughout. The New Yorker called it “and instant holiday cult classic.” It’s available on Hulu! Click here to watch trailer!

And Zach’s newest film, Little Sister, is now playing in 20 cities and available on demand. And the critics are raving about this one too!

“As sweetly funky and improbably pure hearted as its young heroine, a trainee nun and erstwhile Goth making peace with her troubled North Carolina family…” Variety

“A strange spiky movie that refuses to beg for our attention. ‘Little Sister…molds the classic homecoming drama into a quirky reconciliation between faith and family.”
The New York Times

“Nothing less than an up-to-date vision of the new weird America.” The New Yorker

Again autobiographical but far from literal, Zach developed the story with his “creative life partner” and coproducer Melodie Sisk. And the lead characters share our family names and some of our traits — all mixed up.  “Colleen” is the hopeful young nun (played by Addison Timlin.) “Joani” is the manic depressive mom (played by Ally Sheedy. Yes, Ally Sheedy!) And “Jacob” is the wounded older brother (played by Keith Poulson.)

Politics lurk in the background in the election season of 2008. And Zach’s favorite holiday – Halloween plays into the plot:

“October 2008. Young nun Colleen is avoiding all contact with her family, until an email from her mother announces, “Your brother is home.”…Her parents are happy enough to see her but unease and awkwardness abounds. Her brother is living as a recluse in the guest house since returning from the Iraq War…Tenions rise and fall with a little help from Halloween, pot cupcakes, and GWAR. Little Sister is a sad comedy about family — a schmaltz-free, pathos drenched, feel good movie for the little goth girl inside all of us.”

Really timely topics this crazy election cycle, when dark and darkness, depression, and despair pervade our public discourse. Little Sister takes on faith, and family, and politics with a deeply personal lens. Its not a happily ever after movie, but it is a very hopeful one.

Lord, knows we could all use a little hope right now.

Click here to watch in a theater near you!

OR

Click here to watch on demand via Amazon, iTunes, or Vimeo!

And every ticket sale and every rental goes right back to the filmmakers, cast, and crew!

So pop some popcorn, invite over some friends, and watch Little Sister. Its a balm for your soul.

JoaniSign