My Cockapoo Is Smarter Than . . .

Have I mentioned that I think Oscar is exceptional?

Before I went to visit the BroFam last week, I had a few friends over for a Pancake Day party the week after Pancake Day (yeah–long story). At one point, one of said friends asked what Oscar, who is very timid, would do if I was ever actually in trouble. Would he try to protect me? This question came up in the context of the fact that when someone comes to my door, Oscar barks softly and goes right up to the door  . . . until it opens, at which point, he runs away.

“Nothing!” I laughed. “He would not do anything. If I hurt myself, he runs away.” I was thinking specifically of that morning, when I had had an asthma attack during my morning workout. I lay on the floor coughing for a good ten minutes, and he lay on the floor, too, not moving–not even looking up.

The day after this conversation, when I took him for his morning walk, I slipped on a patch of ice and fell on my tailbone, and he took off. When we got back home, I gave him a little lecture, more to make myself feel better than because I thought it would actually help.

“Now, Oscar,” I said, as I looked for my inhaler to use before my workout that day, “I really wish you weren’t so selfish. It would be kind of nice if, when I hurt myself or am sad about something, you showed a little concern. I know you can’t fix it; I don’t expect you to do that, but maybe you could at least acknowledge that I’m hurt and show a little sympathy?”

We went downstairs and I did my workout, and I didn’t have a coughing fit, thanks, I imagine, to the pre-emptive use of the inhaler, but I was breathing pretty hard by the time I got to stretches. Oscar sat up from where he had been lying and looked at me. Stared at me, in fact. “I’m concerned,” his stare said. “See? Look–I’m concerned.” I laughed and thanked him, because I couldn’t not, exactly, even though I wasn’t all that convinced about his sincerity.

Then I went to visit the BroFam for a week, and when I came back (which was an ordeal in itself, but we’re not going there), I picked Oscar up from his Favourite Babysitters. Upon returning to the house, we went upstairs and I began to unpack. I sat on the floor to do this–I like sitting on the floor–and once when I moved I twisted around strangely and got a cramp for a moment. “Ouch!” I said, not thinking much about it. But Oscar, brilliant doggie, came out from his hiding place under the bed and came right over to sniff me and see if I was okay. Wow. Really?

On Sunday I took my mostly-semi-annual tumble down the stairs (yes, it does happen that often; when I asked a doctor about it recently, she did a few cursory neurological “tests” and diagnosed me as “just clumsy, I guess–sorry!”), and though Oscar did run away, and very sensibly, too, to avoid being landed on, he came back after I stopped falling and investigated to make sure I was okay.

I’m not really sure what to be more amazed about: the fact that my dog seems to have understood my little lecture all those days ago, the fact that he seems to have remembered it after a gap of a little over a week, or the fact that he evidently took my words to heart and is acting on them.

 

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Purim

Apparently Purim was this week. I know this because of the BroFam’s having lived in Jerusalem and being pretty “up” on certain aspects of orthodox Jewish culture. Sister-in-Lu says the Hebrew calendar and the Christian calendar are frustratingly incompatible, because Purim, a holiday frankly characterised by certain excesses, always ends up falling in the middle of Lent. I can see the conflict.

We celebrated it on Sunday, minus most of the excesses (unless you count a fairly generous amount of Hamantaschen). The thing is, I kind of forget how not-really-kid-friendly the Esther story is. I mean, how much you have to edit it in order not to scar a child for life with it, or else in order not to have to answer scads of really awkward questions. Even with the pared down version (we totally left out the part about Vashti, for example), when we followed the tradition of acting out the story of Esther, TWCN, who played the title role, looked mildly terrified the whole time. Until the next day, of course, when she wanted to play dress-up again and kept insisting she was “the queen.”

I still remember when I was in 8th grade, I decided to write a fictionalised first-person version of the story of Esther for extra credit or something at my Christian school. I’m pretty sure I had read that book of the Bible before, and I had most certainly heard the whole story before, but this was the first time I really sat down with it and took any time over it. I remember reading the part about Vashti and thinking, “Wait a second. Was she wrong to defy the king?” I had always been taught–or at least picked up the idea–that she was “bad” because she “disobeyed” him or something. But reading it this time, my albeit very naive and innocent imagination started to wonder exactly what it was that the king had been asking Vashti to do, and if it wasn’t rather praiseworthy of her to refuse to cooperate, actually.

I also remember having the sneakingest of sneaking suspicions at that time that just maybe the king’s choice of Esther as his queen instead of Vashti involved something a little more or different than a simple beauty pageant. (I don’t believe, however, that I incorporated this suspicion into my extra credit story. Good little Christian school girls wouldn’t, and I probably wouldn’t have known how to add in such details in any case. I probably still don’t).

Later on, I learned that Esther is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t explicitly mention God (although Esther does fast and pray before going in to see the king to plead for her people). And later still, I began to consider the violence that is perpetrated in the story. It isn’t just that Haman (a certified heathen and a villain worthy of the name in any sort of literature) intends violence on Mordecai’s people. It isn’t that “fortunes” are reversed and he gets hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai. That is only poetic justice. It’s that, in order to reverse the original decree against the Jews, the Jews themselves are permitted, nay, enjoined, to kill anyone who tries to attack them. I still sort of wonder why anybody bothered attacking them, with that kind of deterrent, and the glee with which the slaughter-reversal is recounted kind of gives me pause.

Maybe it is better as a children’s story after all. Leaving out the male-female dynamics anyway, children generally have a much more black-and-white way of looking at the world. (I think I’ve said this recently.) They have a higher tolerance for the violent justice of fairy tales, and although I believe the Bible is true in a way that fairy tales aren’t, I believe that their terms of justice are similar, and with reason (which may be discussed in another post, but if it isn’t, go read some stuff about story by Donald Miller for a while and you might catch what I’m talking about).

There are a lot of people who think stories like Esther are a good reason not to trust the Bible, and maybe it’s only because I’m a contrary soul, but I guess to me stories like Esther, though they fill my head with question marks, help me trust the Bible more. It’s been said (though I can’t remember by whom–likely multiple people) that most religious documents give the sanitised version of their heroes. I guess I haven’t read all religious documents to verify this, but from the ones that I have, that generally seems to be the case.

In contrast, the only person that the Christian Bible describes as sinless is Jesus, and even He did stuff that people thought was sketchy. As for everybody else in the Book–well, they bumble or “sleep” (being a euphemism for something else–wink, wink) or hack their way through life, and it’s all kind of a disaster, really. Not one person upholds the standards that are being promoted, except for Jesus, and He does it in a way that people don’t expect and therefore can’t even always perceive. But instead of trying to downplay this, or justify this, or change the rules, the writers of the Bible just throw it all out there. We’re left either scornful at a lot of unreachable ideals and uninspiring people, or relieved at the grace that acknowledges sin and inconsistencies and travesties and major failures, but offers hope anyway. The Esther story has issues, and is a product of its time, but it’s a story of reversals, and in the end, that’s what the whole Bible is about. I’m banking on it, anyway.

That Was Some Party . . .

Smiley-Guy is TWCN‘s younger brother. He is also smiley, but not so much this week, when all his energies are invested in trying to breathe. Nearly everyone in the family is getting over some sort of malady, and Smiley-Guy seems to be having the hardest time getting over the sniffly part of it. It’s a good thing he’s so cute, because he’s definitely doing a great job of fulfilling the stereotype of toddlers and their noses.

A year ago yesterday, Smiley-Guy was born in Jerusalem, and today we had a party. TWCN was excited about it for him, since he didn’t know what he had to be excited about. We went and got him a pretty cake from a fancy bakery and wrapped his presents. TWCN picked out a nice purple bow for the one she was giving him. In the late afternoon, Sister-in-Lu’s brother and his wife and two children came over, and suddenly there were four kids, each respectively representing a year between 1 and 4.

Smiley-Guy got to open his presents first thing. “You must’ve got good presents,” his other aunt remarked after they had all been opened. “Everybody else wants to play with them.” Smiley-Guy didn’t seem to mind though; he appeared to be more than satisfied with the purple bow his sister had affixed to his gift.

After that there was pizza, and then there was this Israeli snack that looks and feels like cheese curls but tastes of peanut butter, and then there was cake. The four-year-old cousin was highly enthusiastic about both the pizza and the peanut-butter curls, and then he drank loads of water.

After the cake, there were balloons. Four-Year-Old-Cousin and I batted two back and forth between us for longer than I was aware was possible. (It might also be noted, however, that I enjoyed doing this more than I would have suspected was possible.) Two-Year-Old-Cousin held onto her balloon demurely for the most part. TWCN alternated between having one or two balloons at a time, trading colours with people, looking at the world through them as brightly coloured lenses, or biffing her relatives on the head. Smiley-Guy crawled about looking for unattended balloons he could chomp on before somebody could get to him and prevent it. TWCN and her cousin spent another lengthy period of time methodically but energetically running between Brother-Dave, Sister-in-Lu and me and sliding down our legs as if we were a human playground.

As aunt, uncle and cousins were leaving, TWCN cavorted about crying, “This was a fun party! This was a fun party!” Then Four-Year-Old-Cousin threw up in the kitchen. I guess it was.

The melt-downs happened progressively after that. Two-Year-Old-Cousin lost it when her brother lost his dinner. Smiley Guy was completely inconsolable as his cousins left, though probably, at that point, not because they were leaving. TWCN lasted until her brother went to bed, but then she threw a tantrum that resulted in spilled water and having to change her entire bed . . .

I’ve decided that really, all you need to have a good party is some blue frosting. It really was quite the event. And the kid is only one.

Like Auntie, Like Niece

You know how you’re supposed to end up with kids like yourself so you know what your parents went through? Well, clearly I didn’t. My brother did, though. I mean, he ended up with a kid like me. I would say I’m not sure what he did to deserve that, but she’s actually super-adorable, so I don’t think he did too badly on the deal.

Of course, everybody wants their child-relatives to take after them, so maybe I’m just biased. But I’m also out here visiting them (finally, after the thwarted trip in December) and (unless you’re Brother-Dave or Sister-in-Lu) you can’t really gainsay me, now can you?

We were getting in the minivan (yes, the BroFam has a minivan–they’re so . . . family) and TWCN (which, for the uninitiated, stands for “The World’s Cutest Niece” and is pronounced “toucan”) stumbled her shins into the step up while getting in. She set up a wail. “I hurt myself!” she howled.

“Oh,” said Sister-in-Lu, picking her up but not greatly concerned. “Here.” She kissed her on the shin. “Better?”

“No!”

It was really hard not to laugh, because I remembered both getting overly upset about very small things (I remember it because, unfortunately, I still do it) and people trying the “kiss-it-and-make-it-better” technique and not feeling any discernible change in pain-level. I remember having this suggested to me on occasion and feeling something highly akin to toddler scorn–as if a kiss could undo the pain I was feeling! And since it couldn’t, well then, clearly it was a pain worth crying about.

TWCN looked at me and redoubled her efforts, trying to redouble the sympathy. Sorry, kid. I know how this works. “Ohhhhh!” she howled. (It should be noted that her eyes were entirely dry this whole time.) “Ohhhhh!” I said back, with the beginnings of a grin. “You’ll be fine.” All of a sudden she started laughing. She laughed and laughed and laughed and got in her carseat, and for the rest of the trip said things like, “Here we go!” over and over in hopes of an echo, or “We’re going to Global Market. It’s in Midtown. Where is it? There it is!”

She also likes to pretend she’s book characters. Apparently after Christmas for a really long time she pretended she was “Mama Mary” and her favourite bear, a formerly white and fluffy and now grey and scraggly toy usually named “Lovey-Bear” was “Baby Jesus.” (This is interesting if you know anything about the book I haven’t been working on much lately.) Right now she seems to be in a phase of pretending to be fictional characters, but she talks about the “real” versions of the characters she’s being as if they weren’t. Gender is unimportant in this game; it’s character that’s important. Tonight she went back and forth between being “Lily,” who is a mouse, and “Chester,” who is evidently also a mouse, though when I was a child reading books he was a cricket and Tucker was the mouse.

I used to do exactly the same thing. I was “Peter Rabbit” or some such “Kitty” or whatever. I think my parents finally put their feet down when I insisted they say the prayers for me before bedtime for “Peter Rabbit” instead of “Jennie.” I was (and still am, relatively speaking, I think) a weird kid, and I’m pretty okay with that now, so I find I’m glad my parents let my imagination run wild, but there’s also a little part of me that feels like there was a little part of me back then that was trying to be contrary, and I still like to be contrary. I started wondering what would it would be like not to cooperate with the fictional character name thing. I started thinking it might be kind of like telling little kid me to stop trying to be someone else and just be herself.

Except that TWCN isn’t little kid me, in spite of our similarities. Treating her as if she was would not be allowing her to be herself either. And maybe part of how she’ll find out who she is, is by pretending to be these other characters. I suspect so. In the meantime, who she is, while sometimes a little contrary, is pretty great.

When I arrived at the house she welcomed me by having arranged a number of her “lovies” (stuffed animals) on the futon where I would be sleeping. She spent the evening running up to me and giving me hugs, and mwah-ing air-kisses at me across the room and grinning at me. We played with my retractable brush and brushed each other’s hair, and we made a mess in the living room that we forgot to clean up. Her daddy had told her that I was going to miss Oscar-Doggy a lot while I was gone so she should give me lots of hugs, and so sometimes, along with the hugs, she would ask me, “Do you miss Oxar-Doggy?”

Tonight she had a bath and wrapped up in a big yellow towel with a hood that looks like a lion’s head. “I wanna go back to Auntie Jenn’s room like a lion,” I heard her say. She was in her pyjamas already by this time, but they put the towel back around her and she trotted down the hall to the doorway of the study where I’m sleeping. “RaH!” she said.

I pretended to be terrified, and then I laughed and said, “Can I give this lion a hug?”

“Yes,” she said.

I got down on my knees and gave her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. “I love you, TWCN,” I said.

She smiled and looked away and then said, “I’m Lily.”

Making Arrangements

I’m letting my Netflix account peter out, because I really don’t have time to watch movies while working full time and taking three grad classes (and I haven’t even begun teaching any flute lessons yet–partly because I’m too busy to remember to advertise). But I still have a few movies left in the cue and I can’t quite bring myself to delete them and shut the whole thing down yet, so over the weekend I watched a film called Arranged.

I liked it a lot (apart from the henna tattoos part; I love henna tattoos and have been known to wear them myself, but why do they have this whole scene about henna-ing Rochel’s hands and another of her aunt objecting to it, and then make it obvious that her hands have not been hennaed for the film at all? It’s one of those film errors that’s more glaring than most). But it got me thinking about something that I occasionally get thinking about anyway, and that is arranged marriages.

Yeah, I know, that’s probably not normal for WASP’s like me, but I never claimed normalcy really, now, did I? (The Matchmaker coined the term “sweet weirdness” the other day and we decided that I am “all about” sweet weirdness. To the extent that I may just have to change the subtitle of my blog . . . )

When I was a junior in college (a time which simultaneously seems like last year and the Dark Ages), I went to India (during the summer, which is probably not really recommended, although I still like being able to say I spent my 21st birthday stranded in a bungalow in central India during a monsoon–which is why I just said it again even though you may have heard it a million times already). I went with a team of 8 other people, two of whom were an Indian brother and sister just slightly younger than I was. They had been born in India but relocated to the United States when they were pretty young, so they could have “westernized,” I guess, and they were Christians, but they were part of a traditionalist Indian Christian community and both of them, though especially the sister, anticipated having their marriages arranged for them.

I don’t remember specific conversations about arranged marriage on that trip, but I do remember that when I came home, considering Mini and Aby’s prospects and the fact that I was a 21-year-old WASP who hadn’t even dated yet, never mind had a boyfriend, I told my parents I would like them to arrange a marriage for me. I said I trusted their judgment, they knew me pretty well, and I thought arranging marriages was a good idea.

Their basic response was, “Um . . . no thank you.” Which I guess makes sense, because it’s a lot of responsibility to take on–someone else’s marital bliss or agony.

But occasionally I still think this method might have worked for me. Better than the alternative anyway. For one thing, Mini and Aby each did have their marriages arranged, and from all appearances and reports, they are very happy.

Let me make this clear: I understand that there are tremendous downsides to arranged marriages. I know that historically there have been miserable couples forged by this method. I’m not in favour of the abuse of women that has been fostered on occasion by this practice. I’m just wondering if statistically this method of spouse-finding is any less successful or potentially abusive than the practice of serial dating that is enjoined by postmodern Western culture.

What I started thinking after watching this movie was, “I wonder if conservative religious cultures almost have an imperative to arrange marriages for their adherents,” and “I wonder if the Western church abdicated it’s authority in marriage and family when it abdicated a prayerful and godly practice of arranged marriage.” I can imagine an outcry from all over the place about these ideals, and I hope you know me well enough to know that although I can be pretty staunch and stubborn about certain beliefs and principles, I’m not really a fan of having my life circumscribed by shoulds and shouldn’ts, and my staunchness and stubbornness has more to do with relationship than rule-following. I even cringe, myself, at thinking these things, because then I think about class-based societies and people marrying for money and all kinds of other shallow reasons. I also think of books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which I confess I have never read, but which, in spite of never having read it, I have never truly approved of (although I imagine I have lived my life according to the main principle!) and which I suspect doesn’t really address the problem of establishing Christian marriages in this culture.

But still. Hear me out.

Evangelical Christians today are in an uproar because, from our perspective, the sanctity of marriage and family is being totally undermined by fornication, adultery, pornography, homosexuality and abortion. (Yeah, I said it. Argue/discuss with me later if you want. I’m not as much of a jerk as it might sound.) Then-Church is sustaining a spate of divorces lately for some reason, and Now-Church doesn’t really blink at cohabitation, and it seems like you either just have to sigh and resign yourself to current trends, or wring your hands and try frantically to dam up a waterfall. We start yelling about marriage being a union of one man and one woman, and about true love waiting, and about abortion stopping a beating heart, and all those things may be true. But yelling and hyperventilating about it isn’t really endearing us to anybody, and meanwhile, all the slogans are not really helping Christian young people or not-so-young people make good decisions once they get out into the world of “dating = sex,” and “marriage = whatever makes you happy.” It’s like we have all these noble ideals, but the ideals somehow became porous and absorbed this liquid of “surrounding cultural mores” which are actually idealistically incompatible with what the church, when orthodox, asserts about marriage and family. People have to put these two polar opposites together, and one is definitely easier than the other, so eventually one gets tossed out or just kind of dissolves gradually.

I thought that the thing about Arranged was that both the Muslim and the Orthodox Jewish cultures had their presuppositions about what marriage was for (family) and what family was for (community), and in order to uphold these presuppositions or values, they also had a structure in place by which young people were helped to find someone with whom to embark on this kind of life. This movie depicts the protagonists from each culture as having a fair amount of choice, and as also having a little bit of internal conflict when their own personal desires don’t match up with their parents’ desire for expediency in the process. So, naturally there are drawbacks. But both women also were intentional about remaining in their communities and observing the traditions, and when they find some men who are, but who are also attractive to each of them respectively, they have a good chance at making a go of successful, lifelong marriages.

I don’t really think one blog-post of an almost middle-aged Christian spinster is going to change the entire evangelical substructure of how we meet and mate. (Which I realise sounds really impersonal, but I think you know what I mean.) Maybe I can blame the early Church Fathers for taking such a low view of marriage and sex, and assuming celibacy was a higher spiritual state. (It might be, but I’m not convinced, and the fact is that very few people excel at it so it might have been wiser to be a little more even-handed about the whole thing, and allow people in vocation ministry to marry, for example.)

I’m just saying, the Western evangelical community is kind of an anomaly, in that it tries both to be up-to-date and culturally-savvy and yet religiously conservative, and maybe the ways in which it tries to be these things are not always the right ones. Maybe, given Jesus as our “founder” and Lord, we could have a more traditional method of creating conjugal unions, while at the same time, a kind of out of the box approach. No need to pressure people to marry if they don’t wish to or if they can’t “settle” on one of their presented options. No need for the woman’s will to be railroaded in deference to the man’s or her family’s. No need for single people to feel like second-class citizens (while simultaneously spiritually superior? huh?). But a framework that says, “This is what a marriage is–a partnership under God to serve Him in the world while delighting in Him and each other; and this is what family is–kind of the same thing, actually, to bring His truth and love and glory to the world. And we know it’s kind of tough to tell who that is in singles’ groups and dating websites because people say what you want to hear and at the same time try to pretend they’re only interested in a friendship first, so there’s simultaneously an intentionality and an artifice that are hard to break through. So here, we’re going to help you find someone who thinks the same way about marriage and family, and with whom you can find mutual enjoyment and service. And when you have trouble, because you will, we’ll help you to get through it.”

I’m sure it still wouldn’t work for everybody. But I’m also pretty certain it would work a lot more of the time than this hash of dysfunction and confusion and selfishness and loneliness and damage-control the church has got going on right now.

Ash Wednesday and the Long Thaw

(And a public service announcement. A little later.)

The point has already been made over here that this has been an excessively snowy winter. Not only did it snow for almost the entire month of January, but it never warmed up enough in between blasts for any of the stuff that had already fallen to melt. Now that it has started, it’s taking forever. Well, a month and counting. That’s not forever, but it’s a long time for a melt. Even in Narnia, where it was “always winter but never Christmas” for years on end, once Aslan got “on the move,” things thawed out pretty quickly.

(We need some Aslan around here.)

When the first tiny thaw happened, I think people were skeptical, and rightly so, because the six- and seven-foot plow-drifts lost maybe an inch in height, and yet puddles formed everywhere, and then the very next day, the temperatures plunged again and suddenly we were all ice-skating. Things have carried on like that for quite a while. The front walk at my house collects rainwater in the summer and melt-water in the winter, and just about every other day for the last few weeks it’s been a toss-up whether I need to put crampons on my shoes to get over the ice floes in one piece, or whether I need to invest in some Wellies. Sometimes both. Sometimes the ice is a very thin layer over the mud underneath.

Pastor Barry went on vacation to a nice, sunny warm place, and when he came back he asked the Early Service what had happened while he was away. One parishioner said, “Well, we had a mini-thaw.”

“Yes,” said Pastor Barry, “I noticed that the snow in my yard is now only two feet high instead of four.”

That is not a mini-thaw. That is the kind of thaw that would clear the residue of most snowstorms to make room for the next one. It only looked like a mini-thaw because there was so much snow to begin with. Over the weekend a Couple of Friends from New York stayed over and the wife observed, “You still have so much snow up here!” And I thought, “We do? The deck’s almost clear, and I can see grass.” There are still remaining drift piles standing in strange places now that their surrounding landscape is turning to grass and street, but most people’s yards are still primarily covered, I guess. But it’s going. Little by little it’s going.

It’s kind of cliche, I guess, but it’s so much easier to hope for things–for myself, for my friends–when spring is on its way. (You might notice, if you go back to March-ish posts from my old blog, that I often get a little hopeful at this time of year.) Today, and it may only be for today, but let’s run with it, I’m thinking: Sometimes people get so much winter dumped on them. It just snows and snows and is always winter and never Christmas, and people look at them and think something like, “Man. That person has the worst luck ever.” And they think to themselves, “Nothing ever changes,” and they give up. Everybody thinks that people can’t change. Unless they’ve seen it happen. So I’m thinking: I don’t know the future and I only know snippets of the will of God from what He says about it in His book, and I’m still kind of a skeptic, but maybe some people just need, and will have, a long thaw. Maybe they’re thawing already but nobody knows it, maybe least of all themselves.

Today is Ash Wednesday, and it’s a day of solemnity and discipline and maybe self-deprivation, but I feel happy and hopeful today, more than I have in a while. Because it’s Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent which is, in a way, a “long thaw” before the transformation of life that is Easter. I know some people find it really hard to imagine, let alone believe, that some dude got slaughtered and then got up three days later as if He had been taking an excessively long nap, but I believe it because I’ve seen lives transformed by His Spirit, and I believe lives can be transformed by His Spirit because I trust He really did come back to life. I have a lot of stuff going on this Lent, but I hope and pray to find some stillness during which to reach out and touch His face, as it were, and to wait for the life and transformations that are coming. I hope and pray you can, too. It might snow a few more times between now and then, but someday the thaw will be complete.

(In the meantime, if you live in the United States in one of the states that observes Daylight Savings Time, don’t forget to change your clocks this Saturday night!)

Route 9

Route 9 might be like Amphisbaena, the snake with a head at both ends that I saw in an Eric Carle book today. It meanders up and down across the state, one end heading toward a plunge into the Atlantic, the other heading toward upstate New York, but not really long enough to end up in either place. It has some notoreity because it is not the fast way to get anywhere. (I’m talking about Route 9, not Amphisbaena, but I’m sure she has some notoreity, too . . . among people who have heard of her.) The only time it’s really worth driving on is if you are not in a hurry to get wherever you’re going, and even then, once you start driving on it, you may discover you’re in a hurry after all, it takes so long. But it is interesting.

If you start in Our Fair City and drive east on Route 9, the businesses on either side get more “businessy” and industrial, but are liberally interspersed with ethnic restaurants and lots of shopping. If you start in Our Fair City and go west, the businesses get more “farmy” and artsy. Or . . . the art has a different personality in the west than in the east. In the east, you might find a gallery in a modern building made of metal; in the west, it’s likely to be in a refurbished barn or something.

Today I was planning to meet my friend Long-Lost-Kimberly. (She’s not really lost and it hasn’t really been for that long, but for some reason we only ever manage to get together once a year, so it kind of feels like it.) We were going to go to the Eric Carle Museum of Picturebook Art. So she drove north from where she lives and I drove west from where I live. I drove on Route 9. Someday, when I feel both ecologically irresponsible and financially solvent enough to justify the petrol usage, and when I have an entire day with no agenda, I’m going to drive all the way west on Route 9 and just stop and get out at every single farm stand/ice cream stand/general store/museum/gallery that looks interesting to me. Or just picturesque. Maybe I’ll take pictures of it without even going in. I wonder who stops at these places. Then another day I’ll drive all the way east and eat Indian food the whole way, and get out and browse in furniture stores, and buy myself a cute dressy outfit even though I’m not sure what the occasion for it would be. And maybe stop in the arcade I know of on that stretch and play laser tag . . . as long as I wasn’t by myself, obviously.

Today, because Route 9 only meanders, and sometimes stops at stoplights, and for at least six miles had someone on it in front of me going 15 miles below the speed limit, I was a little late to the Eric Carle Museum of Picturebook Art. Fortunately or unfortunately, Long-Lost Kimberly is used to this by now, and she didn’t seem very phased by it. As I was buying my ticket, the young woman behind the desk who was giving me the lay of the land said, “And behind you is the art room, where you can go and make an art project if you like.”

I turned around and looked, and down a short hallway across the foyer was, in fact, an art room just visible through a doorway. What kind of wondrous place was this, that was designed for children but knew and acknowledged that the adults who went there were likely to want to play, too? “Yes!” I said, not overstating my enthusiasm but probably startling the young woman a little bit.

Long-Lost Kimberly and I walked through the three galleries first–one of Eric Carle’s art, one of illustrations by different artists for the ecclectic and prolific Jane Yolen, and one special exhibit of illustrations by a guy named Etienne Delessert. I had never heard of him, but I’m glad I have now. All the art was amazing. I guess it could have daunted Kimberly and me, but mostly I found suddenly I so badly wanted to glue bits of paper and fabric to other bits of paper and fabric that it didn’t really matter if I couldn’t compete with Eric Carle. Fortunately. Because I can’t. But I don’t remember the last time I was so completely engrossed in a project. Kimberly was, too, and I suspect part of our mutual enjoyment derived from the fact that neither of us felt pressured by the other to hurry up and move on to the next thing.

First I made a picture of a cardinal flying across a cloudy sky toward the sun.

Then I had a strange brainwave-traffic-jam in my head, the primary casualty of which was the memory I had of two days before when I had had a sudden urge to litter. It might have been the only time since I learned not to, that I have ever actively wanted to, social-activist child that I was. Some of the items you could collage in the art room included candy wrappers and other sorts of things, so I came up with this Potential New Children’s Book Character: the Scrap Dragon. Here he is:

The text, in case you can’t see it, says, “Beware the Scrap Dragon, Litterbugs! He’s made of trash; he’ll eat you up!” There are arrows pointing to the Scrap Dragon, a Litter Bug, and a tiny piece of litter. Then the dragon says, “RAWR!” and the Litter Bug says, “eep!”

So, you see what I mean? I guess this museum isn’t right on Route 9, but it’s not so far off of it. You just never know what you’re going to run across when you travel back and forth on the meandering Amphisbaena . . .

A Diller a Dollar

Yesterday I had to go to the Dollar Tree.

There are, as you know, variations on the theme and grade of Everything Stores. In my opinion the progression is something like The Dollar Tree–> Ocean State Job Lot–> Walmart–> Target. What they have in common is . . . well, probably a lot of merchandise made in sweat shops in faraway countries, and I should never go to any of them. To be fair to myself, I rarely do. But when I do, I invariably feel this almost gravitational pull to buy stuff. This is mostly accomplished by the fact that there’s so much “everything” in there, something’s bound to take me by surprise, not cost as much as I would have expected and suddenly strike me as just the thing I’ve been looking for for the last few months. Or years. I am, in fact, pretty good at resisting this gravitational pull, although some times are more difficult than others, particularly when I see something I have been resisting for years.

What differentiates these stores from each other is mostly dollar amount and probably class-of-foreign-sweatshop, if there is such a thing. Stuff at Target definitely looks and feels classier than stuff at Ocean State Job Lot, but sometimes all you really need is Job Lot quality (if that isn’t an oxymoron–look, you can get anchovies (yes, I like anchovies) there for less than $2 a jar, and their Lyon yarn is very nice, so there).

In a way, though, the Dollar Tree is in a league of its own. I feel kind of conflicted about it. There’s a part of me that wants to grab some of whatever glittery swag is hanging on the walls for your next party, throw it around my neck like a boa, and start dancing and singing up and down the aisles while the staff and other customers sing and dance back-up for me, like in a musical. Or in this Michael Buble video. (This will never happen, by the way.) There’s another part of me that is afraid if I touch anything in there–anything at all–I will contract some as yet undiscovered dust-bourne illness and end up with more than, say, a dollar, in hospital bills.

Dollar stores are so surprising. By the time you get to Target level, you expect them to have some kind of everything. But if you go to a dollar store in order to buy some aluminum pie plates, for example, and discover they have fancy metal flower-shapes with coloured glass “stones” in the middle to stick in your garden for a decoration . . . well, it’s kind of mind-blowing really, isn’t it? I think I’ve finally desensitised myself to all the candle products in there, but I can’t get over greeting cards for 50 cents. Everything’s a dollar or less! (I am, by the way, speaking specifically of those stores where everything really is a dollar or less, not stores with the word “Dollar” in their name but don’t even blink at hypocritically charging as much as $13 for something.)

Yesterday when I went to the dollar store, it was to get some last-minute supplies for Now Church’s next Sunday school lesson rotation, and I refused to let myself buy anything personal, partly because I should probably sit down and decide how many of my hard-earned dollars actually deserve to be traded in for the stuff (necessary or not) I might find in there and think I need, and partly because it’s easier to turn in a receipt for expenses if you don’t have all this other stuff on it. But I thought, as I always think when I go in there to buy Sunday school supplies, which is the only time I ever go in there, “I should visit this place more often!”

But dollar stores do have a dark side. (I’m talking more shallowly than about the sweat-shop issue, by the way. That is truly a dark side, which I’m going to horribly ignore for the moment in the interest of attempting to be mildly funny.)

Or else I do. When I was in junior high and high school, I think a lot of people thought I was a snob because I was pretty shy and insecure. I used to feel so hurt by the fact that people would think I was a snob. Me? Really? Only problem is, I’m pretty sure I’m in some ways a snob. Sometimes I go into a dollar store and see a bottle of some kind of dish detergent that you could get for three times as much money in a regular supermarket and I think, “Waitasecond . . . this can’t be that great a product if you can get it here for a dollar.” This doesn’t mean I won’t buy it. It just does something to my psychological impression of whatever it is.

Also, the stuff that isn’t brand-named is so . . . frank. The labels just tell you what something is or does without euphemising at all. Instead of bland, benign, familiar-but-completely-undescriptive names like “Vaseline” and “Desenex,” for example, the dollar store sells “Petroleum Jelly” and “Smooth Baby Butt.” (Why was I in the aisles containing petroleum jelly and smooth baby butts? Because I went up and down every aisle in the store in case I missed something, that’s why. Sheesh.) I never realised how subconsciously impressed I am by labels that obscure until I saw, and was taken aback by, the “Smooth Baby Butt.” (Or it might have been “Baby Butt Fixer” or something. All I know is that the word “baby” was also in a smaller font than the other words and it was just kind of an alarming product all the way around.)

I suppose one of the reasons I go to dollar stores so infrequently is that it’s always kind of psychically stressful. Although I might want one of those metal flowers to stick in the garden sometime, I’m not sure I can bring myself to go back just yet. And anyway, there’s still snow all over the place.

Desiring God and . . . Other Stuff

There’s this verse in Psalms that Christians love quoting to each other–especially happily married Christians like to quote it to their single friends. It’s meant to be an encouragement, and it probably should be, but I’m not finding it very encouraging right now, and no one has even quoted it to me recently. (Thank you. Please don’t.) In the version I memorised (back when I thought it was comforting), which isn’t a version included on Biblegateway.com apparently (NRSV), it says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

The entire Psalm is really fantastic actually, and wise and heartening, and I think that the above verse, which is only four verses in, must be true. But if it is, then I’m not delighting myself in the Lord very well. I would like to, but He and I both know I’m not, and part of why I’m not is because there are only two heart-desires I’ve really had for any length of time (pretty much as long as I can remember), and so far they’re still largely unfulfilled, and when I start thinking about it, I get a little ticked off. Which makes it somewhat difficult to delight in the One I’m ticked off at. It’s kind of turned into a vicious cycle.

There’s a certain school of thought (which I don’t think is that erroneous actually) that says that if we delight ourselves in God He will give us the desires–that is, He will actually cause us to desire what He wants for us. By this line of reasoning, He must really want me to have these two things, because I can’t seem to stop wanting them. But maybe I’m still wanting the wrong things because I can’t properly delight in Him. I don’t know. It’s turned into a scenario kind of like those ones in some churches where people are told their prayers aren’t answered because they don’t have enough faith . . . and then they keep trying to have more faith and just feeling guilty, which probably doesn’t help anybody’s health, for example, at all.

I think it would be great if I could wholeheartedly pray what I have often hopefully and half-heartedly prayed, which King David said in another Psalm: “One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27.4, NIV). I think there is a teeny tiny part of me that really means this prayer, and that part might be right at the center of my being, but there’s so much else of me surrounding it that hasn’t gotten to that point yet, that it’s pretty hard to access the little delighting-in-God part of me who is truly and blissfully happy just in His presence.

I am now reading the book of Numbers, which in my opinion is far worse than Leviticus. Numbers is full of censuses (censi?) and names of tribal leaders and . . . well, numbers . . . and if you know me even a little bit you know that numbers have a switch-like psychological effect on me, the direction of the switch always being “off.” There are a few actual narrative sections, but, while some of them are actually interesting, they’re all sort of uniformly depressing in that people keep being selfish and thereby displeasing God, and He keeps getting creative in His destruction if you know what I mean.

What I mean is: this very morning, I read Numbers 11 through 13 and in those three relatively short chapters, there was a fire, a sickness-plague, Miryam (Moses’ sister) gets leprosy, and the Israelites cop out of going into the Promised Land because they’re afraid of giants. I guess I don’t entirely blame them, but it was clearly the wrong answer.

The fire and the plague were both in response to the Israelites’ whining about how sick they were getting of eating manna and how much better the cuisine of Egypt was. It’s easy to forget slavery, I guess, once you’re not a slave anymore, but they probably were really right that the food was better back there. God’s not really okay with their discontent, so He gets mad and initially sends a fire.

Then Moses gets fed up. He’s sick of the whining, too, so he starts taking it out on God. He wants to know what he ever did that God inflicted these whiners upon him so that he has to baby them into the Promised Land.  “I can’t carry this entire people by myself alone–it’s just too much for me!” he cries. “If You are going to treat me this way, then just kill me outright! — please, if You have any mercy toward me! — and don’t let me go on being this miserable!” (Numbers 11.14-15, CJB).

At first when I read about the people whining, I thought what a good thing it is that I live in my parents’ house (even though they don’t) because maybe God would keep from burning it down around my discontent out of deference to them. I guess I’m starting to have a little more sympathy for the Israelites than I used to, in spite of the fact that they had a lot of recent-memory miracles which you would think would have bolstered their faith a little bit. But when I read Moses’ approach to God, I felt much comforted. “Hey,” I thought. “That sounds like me!” And God didn’t even grant His death wish. He actually helped him (although both God and Moses continue with a bit of snippy dialogue for a bit after that).

But then I started wondering: why was Moses permitted to talk back to and argue with God and the rest of the people weren’t? Am I one of the people who’s allowed to argue, or am I one of the ones who gets sickened by a plague? I think . . . I hope! . . . the difference was that Moses had God’s Holy Spirit and the rest of the people didn’t. Now anybody can have God’s Holy Spirit, since Jesus sent the Spirit to us that first Pentecost. I believe Jesus is the form of God that Moses, and no one else at the time, was allowed to see. Jesus has opened the way in to the Holy Place; if we know Him and His Spirit is in us, I guess we can come before Him and tell it like it is.

It’s just that, if and because that’s true, it sure seems like I should be a lot more delighted. I really want to be, whether those desires are ever fulfilled or not. (Although, that would be nice, too.)

What Is The Famine – 30 Hour Famine

What Is The Famine – 30 Hour Famine.

This is what the youth group at New Church is doing Easter weekend. If you want to sponsor me or any of them (once they sign up on the site), please, by all means, do so! We hope this will be life-changing . . . for us, and for kids around the world. Thank you.