Mennonite Princess

We are on a long roadtrip travelling through and along the southern edge of an expansive, midwestern farm state, when we stop for some much needed body and vehicle fuel. The town  where we stop is small and, technically, in the middle of “nowhere.”

Once,  when I was asked about roadtrips and how I ever “get through” one of these hours-wide, midwestern states, I told the woman questioning me that I spend most of my time in prayer, thanking the many rural families who have given up urban amenities to commit their lives to feeding the rest of us indolent city dwellers.

Spirituality

Now, I am not much of a fashionista, but as a result of my travels, I have observed that clothing function in rural regions almost always trumps form. In farm or ranch country, the reality is this. What woman really needs a pair of low-slung, small-heeled pumps, when she might be called upon to drive the pickup truck to help in the field or when she is canning vegetables all day? And, what rural, working man needs dress shoes made of supple Italian leather?

Add to these practical considerations the knowledge that being fashionable relies upon a person being “seen.” Being seen as fashionable or unfashionable requires an audience. This is in some sense a state of formal judgment. It is easier to find an audience of critics and admirers in the city than it is to find an audience of critics and admirers in rural America.

Thus, technically, fashion consciousness is something of an urban luxury which is rendered almost foolish in the face of real-life concerns, such as soil quality, germination rates, weather, pests and crop reports. These are but a few of the concerns for rural, farming folks who need to feed their families, as well as produce enough food to feed the rest of us. Yet, in terms of fashion, there still emerges some sort of aesthetic around clothing and self-expression in rural locations–large audience or not.

As I sit in the truck outside of this rural gas-station-slash-convenience-store, I see four Mennonite women leave through the station’s front door.  Mennonites are a Protestant denomination, who along with the Amish, choose to observe a code of dress which is “plain” in nature. Plainclothes religious people are supposed to keep their attention and energy focused on their relationship with God, rather than focusing their attention and energy on personal “vanities” such as appearances or self-expression–through something so fleeting as seasonal fashion. Still, among this small group of women, there is one young woman who stands out very clearly.

The young woman who stands out appears to be among, perhaps, her sisters. All four women wear dresses cut from the same, conservative ankle-length pattern. And their dresses are of the same fabric. The only thing that varies is the shade of Easter egg they represent in their gentle pastels. So what causes this one woman to stand out?

Attempting to discern what makes this woman appear so regal, among this group of plainclothes believers, I notice her deportment. She carries herself like a princess–tall, erect and with a beautifully level head. Her movements are conscious and graceful. She walks and behaves as though she has an audience. Still searching for some external expression of her uniqueness, I notice her foot gear.

Somehow this woman has managed to push the envelope on her clothing restrictions via one pair of strappy roman-soldier sandals she has chosen. The sandals are requisite flats, yet very fashionable and quite provocative in the manner in which they hug her well-turned ankles.

Amazing, is it not? The human heart and its desire for expression is able to shine through such restrictive circumstances. How do you choose to shine?

Heart Lessons

We have something of an informal gardening club in our extended neighborhood. There are no scheduled meetings. No one keeps track of who gave what to whom or when—nor do we track whether we are exchanging a medicine-bottle full of saved seeds, a shovel with flowering rhizomes, egg-carton grown seedlings or some recently separated tubers, which had to be split due to overcrowding. In our neighborhood there is a free flow of thingsglowing, flowering or fruiting. We exchange the plants and seeds we love to cultivate.

A “weed” has been described as a plant that grows where someone does not want it to grow, which in my experience is pretty much true. A lot of what we term “weeds” also has to do with how useful a specific plant is to us as human beings.  In terms of categorization,  I like to imagine that somewhere in a person’s brainstem there is a little room, where a singular, primordial agent sits with a green visor and a nineteenth-century bank clerk’s cuffs sorting things of this world into overly simplistic categories labelled, “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong.” And, we need to remember that these designations tend to come about as a result of our personal experiences, me-based opinions (from who knows where) and impressions which we have taken on as a result of our society’s or culture’s molding influences.

Next garden day. Next garden channel. An older neighbor came over recently to invite me on a short walking tour to look at everything in bloom. Her granddaughter tagged along. Neither of us were really following the young girl’s activities closely, as she skipped along our quiet streets beside us and, then, otherwise trailed politely behind so we could talk.

Then, as we stopped near a particularly amazing garden location, the woman’s granddaughter came forward, thrusting her arm out toward me.

The young girls heart was wide open. She had entered the enchanted, “green land” of plants. In a very short time, the girl had amassed a bouquet of beautifully arranged dandelions, forming a perfect umbrella in form and of singular color. With her outstretched arm, extended in my direction, she said very simply, “These are for you.”

As I reached for the flowers, the girl’s well-meaning grandmother, bent upon teaching her social etiquette, gently smacked the girl’s hand and stated emphatically, “Those are ugly. She doesn’t want those. They are weeds.”

The dandelions fell, scattering across the sidewalk. I saw the girl’s heart close. I watched bewilderment take hold of her emotionally, as the young girl’s face flushed red.

Spirituality

I would like to report that I said or did something to save the day—or at the very least the moment. The abrupt shock of the exchange rendered me mute, as did my deep fear of offending the girl’s grandmother. All I can hope is that the sunshine, held in that perfect act of innocent generosity and present in the bouquet of yellow flowers that day, will return to that girl’s pure heart…someday.

Going Mobile

Honky-tonk oldies play over a battery-operated radio strapped to a neighborhood man’s indoor/outdoor scooter. The twang of the tunes announce and accompany him on one of his daily “walks.” While steering his scooter deftly around me and my two dogs, he thumbs his well-loved VFW baseball cap to gesture, “Hello.” He does this whenever he sees us approaching.

Spirituality

Because the tires on his scooter are wide, getting out into the weather is not much of an issue. We both pass one another without talking almost daily—wanting to feel the fresh air on our faces, the thrust of the sun when it is out, or otherwise enjoy the spitting moisture of an early morning—a gift from the sun-obliterating clouds above.

Once past us, I watch the long plastic stick with the small fluorescent-orange flag attached to it sway and flutter in the violent wind. Today, the man in the scooter is bent in his seat leaning into the chill of this morning’s headwind with the flaps down on his billed, winter hat. Yet, the weather does not keep him from dancing in his seat. I wonder what steps and with whom, in his mind, he is taking the polished floor.

The music playing in my head is audible only to me. Sometimes, I wonder whether or not I would ever have the gumption to share the music I play as liberally as he shares his. Maybe. Maybe not. What his free-wheeling passing teaches me is that whether we are running, walking or rolling, we all need to carry music inside (or outside) of ourselves which causes us to sway with joy in all manner of weather.

Turning to Salt

“But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” –Genesis 19: 26

Prior to the destruction of the city of Sodom, Lot, his wife and his two daughters are led out of the city by two insistent, visiting angels.

As Sodom is being destroyed behind Lot and his escaping family, Lot’s wife turns to look back. Perhaps the noise or the heat from the destruction proved too seductive, pulling her attention away from the present and future Grace was so graciously paving for the family as they fled.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Whatever the reason  or reasons for Lot’s wife’s backward glance, the narrative shows us the need to remain focused on the ever-present, loving and guiding hand of Grace because, when we divert our attention away from Grace by looking back, we turn away from the immediacy and warmth of God’s clasp in the present moment. And we also, potentially, lose sight of the future places Grace is inviting us to go, grow into and otherwise BE, while Grace accompanies us.

The very act of looking back toward “what was” causes us to  lose forward momentum in relationship to what might be during that moment when God first takes us by the hand. And, in turning to salt, we may dissappear with the very next rain storm, dissolving into the sands of our own, private desert.

A Tale of Two Women

Walking into the Children’s Center entryway to drop my son off at preschool, I run into a new aide. She is an older women, impeccably dressed, whose pacing seems out of step with the general energy of pandemonium pervading the Center. I watch her guarded movements as she maneuvers her way through a throng of low, bobbling heads.

Internally, I catch myself wondering what her story is. There is not a trace of joy in countenance, nothing that says, “I am glad to be here.”

Across campus and across the studio from me in Advanced Life Drawing, paint is flying at a large sheet of hand-made paper from France. Above the rakish tilt of Betty Schneider’s large drafting table, I can just barely see her salt-n-pepper head bobbing as she works to capture the essence of the live model’s pose in abstract. Hers is a Pollack-esque dance which is difficult to confine to one cramped corner of the studio. Betty’s vigorous application of pigment to paper leaves a history of telltale red marks spattered across the model’s walled changing station, as well as giving measles to the room’s painted cinder-block walls in insitutional green.   

Spirituality

Without breaking the continuity of the room’s informal drawing circle, Betty’s neighbors have carefully tilted, shifted and otherwise distanced their own drafting tables as far from hers as is possible. Spattered paint aside, I think of them as shrinking from her creative exuberance.

Four weeks into her new role as a preschool-teacher’s aide, I find the older woman who is a new hire standing alone outside of a classroom. With a few words from me, her story spills forth. The narrative rolls out of her in a series of sorrowful sentences impregnated with the shock of fresh bitterness.

Her husband is on faculty. He found a new, young thing. She gave up her education and potential career to bear and raise four children. Her tiny studio apartment, which she can barely afford, is nothing like her former home—a rolling ranch affair with a large yard. Taking care of children is all she really knows how to do. Now there is no time for grandchildren. All of this after forty years of marriage.

Her heart has been broken. Her former dreams have died. And, her adjustment to her new socioeconomic circumstances is neither smooth nor easy. Then, the classroom door opens. I leave the scene in a stunned but unsurprised silence.

Betty Schneider is one of the most innovative and prolific students in the art department—middle-aged or not. Betty returned to the university to mend, after a nonamicable divorce and the recent loss of her beloved mother. Her method is Gestalt. What she creates has a one-of-a-kind strength in design. Yet, nothing she makes looks like anything recognizable. The art faculty actually fall silent in group critiques when approaching her engaging work.

Betty wins a major award during spring semester from a nationally recognized visual artist who has been brought in to curate and judge a regional art show. The entrants include local professionals, faculty members, as well as students.

Unreleased grief can cause a person to drown. Bitterness over past circumstances can lay like so many weeds under life’s moving waters—entangling even the most advanced of swimmers.

Even the natural joy that abounds in the Children’s Center seems to be passed over by the new aide. She is not managing to awaken to the gift that is each new day.

Betty Schneider has made up her mind. She is changing her name to Claire Shakti. Claire is for clarity and Shakti embodies the divine, feminine power which she IS. Claire has let go of all but a few of her personal belongings. Chicago awaits. After thirty years as a stay-at-home mother, she is going to work at the Chicago Art Institute as a guard. During her free time, Claire will be studying the French horn, taking the music lessons she has always wanted.

Going Home

Sitting on a bench under the sun at seven-thousand feet, I wait for the bus scheduled to carry me home. My bus happens to be running late today.

Next to me, on the same bench, a Native-American man is waiting to pick someone up. At some point, he begins asking me questions about who I am, where I live and why I am visiting the American Southwest. In way of explanation, I mention that I have come to visit old friends, dear to me since the time we lived in this region almost ten years ago.

Spirituality
Spirituality

In talking about travelling, the man explains that he has not actually travelled much himself, though he helped to raise funds for his son’s travelling expenses. His son has been as far as Georgia to compete in a national contest as an athlete.

“He had the advantage of training in altitude,” I comment at one point early in our conversation.

Then, the man explains, “I am Hopi. I cannot work for myself. I work for the good of my community.” This explains, in part, why he has not travelled extensively. “I helped raise the funds for my son’s travel. His mother travelled with him.”

The concepts of community service and strength over that of individual wealth and stature are philosophical threads common to both the Hopi and Navajo cultures of this region. Given the historically sometimes brutal and definitely difficult nature of self-preservation, farming and hunting in this region, these precepts make complete sense.

The sun is now at its zenith. I feel my skin growing overly warm, yet I stay in the full sun to soak up its rays and breathe the fresh air of the out-of-doors, anticipating the long bus-ride home.

My bench companion continues, “My home reservation is not far from here. Can you believe two teenagers recently beat up an old man and threw him off the mesa? Meth. It’s terrible. We are having to lock our doors. We never had to lock our doors at night.”

Not sure about what to say, I nod my head in silent sympathy.

His face is full of sorrow. “I told my daughters, ‘Watch your little children. These meth users are not right in the head.'”

Finally, I respond, “Meth is ruining a lot of lives.”

More quietly now, he continues, “I am almost afraid to be there—on the Res. It is safer here in town. Isn’t that sad when you’re afraid to go home?”