Playing Church

When I was a little girl back in the mid-1970s, my brothers and I visited my grandparents during summers in dusty, windy Lubbock, Texas.

My grandmother was a professional seamstress and my grandfather was a carpenter, these were folks who made their living with their hands. Salt-of-the-earth people. Humble people. Wonderful people.

 

There wasn’t money for lavish entertainments when we visited, and my grandmother was always in the middle of sewing for paying customers, so our play was very simple. Simple and quite wonderful. In the cabinet where toys lived was a Dennis the Menace doll that I always played with, I am pretty sure it belonged to my father when he was a boy, or maybe one of his little sisters.  A can of Lincoln Logs kept me busily occupied, the can was of cardboard with a tin lid, they rattled and shook within that canister, letting us know that they were ready to build. There were board games and puzzles and paddle balls, lawn croquet was a favorite. I loved the way my grandmother said the word, “Wicket.” Her head kind of wiggled almost imperceptibly and her consonants were eloquently crisp.

 

But the game I remember best was when we “played church.”

It was always at Grandmother’s suggestion, but I didn’t mind. I was a little girl who loved church. My grandparents’ church was a beautiful one, with a sanctuary awash in sunlight. It was open and airy, with acoustics that made the robust a cappella singing that is the hallmark of my tradition reverberate through one’s chest and very heart. I remember Bible stories told on felt boards and enacted with puppets and singing “Roll the Gospel Chariot Along” with exuberance, running right over that old Devil with my tiny, righteous fists. There was a gentleman who kept his jacket pockets full of peppermints each Sunday morning so that the little ones in the congregation could slip their hands in for a treat and a sweet smile.

Back yard church was warm, the air sweet and juicy with the scent of my grandmother’s muscat grapes ripening on their vines. Bugs buzzed around our heads, as cicadas chirped an accompaniment to my song leading and preaching. My congregants were my two little brothers and some dolls; Grandmother fetched aluminum pie plates from the cupboard and set a handful of saltine crackers in them, and we were given a jelly glass of grape juice. With these sacraments in place, we passed the plates and imagined we were partaking of the body of Jesus.

I remember feeling loved and sensing God in those moments. It was a sweet game, a pretend with nothing but the purest heart of a little girl at its nucleus. Perhaps these memories are why I feel most in tune with the Divine One when outside, or in a small home church instead of in a building. Quiet worship suits me best.

Lots of folks “play” at church as adults, but their games are not genuine and wholesome. For too many, their faiths are not conduits to a true experience of God, they are instead a set of criteria, like chess rules, that are used to manipulate others into fear and compliance. Sometimes, the game-players strenuously clamber over others to be king-of-the-mountain, instead of walking in the shadowy low places, where humans hurt. The draw of the powerful is, to these churchgoers, more alluring than the ache of the broken and disenfranchised.

broken_cross_by_cantabrigianWe are, of course, seeing this play out on a national level, and our country is cracking under the pressure. There are politicians and public figures who are donning masks of piety, fooling some into believing there is no rot behind the facade. That matters, oh yes, it does.

It matters down here where the regular folk live, in church organizations where members play “politics-by-tithe,” more money is spent on smart lights or interior designers than on feeding the poor, or just plain old kindness is a rarer and rarer commodity. I don’t think that the problem in America is that we need more Christians, I think we need kinder Christians.

Put simply, faith is about kindness. It is “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” It is “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” It is “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”

I know I am imperfect in this. I sometimes speak cruelly. I often miss chances to serve, sometimes because I don’t realize, but also sometimes because I am just not into it.I can really screw this thing up.

There are days when I wish I could turn back the clock to when I was nine years old, confidently waving my arm back and forth as I sang “Blue Skies and Rainbows.” But I can’t. No, I just try to keep my soul connected to the One who matters. I watch and listen for Christians who aren’t playing games, who use the tenets of their faith to nurture, not needle. And I remember my sweet grandmother, her grapes, and pie plates of crisp, salty crackers.

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Short and Sweet: Prickles and Sugars

This photo really speaks to me these days. It was taken at my cousin’s ranch, I encountered this still life while out on a wandering. I see so much of my own current life situation: a skull, backed by barbed wire…death binds, but also frees. There’s parched earth, but it’s sustaining a green cactus. Said cactus contains both spikes and a gorgeous splash of fuchsia floral joy.

I’m in a weird place. My career is shifting, and I feel both constricted and free, cowardly yet dauntless. It’s like I’m at someone else’s untrustworthy beck and call, all while I start grasping the wheel of my own ship. Life is like that, I guess.

Also, it’s just a super cool Texan kind of image, don’t you think?

Short and Sweet: Vintage Spring Radiance

“It is so small a thing to have enjoyed the sun, to have lived light in the spring, to have loved, to have thought, to have done.” -Matthew Arnold, 19th century English poet

It’s the first day of May, the grass is lush and green here in south Texas. The evening breezes are gentle, the morning sunlight is soft. My grandmother, pictured above in her teens, lived her life in the softness of a heart filled with Divine light. Happy May!

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I’m Too Darn Hot!

I love Cole Porter. In one of my favorite musicals, Kiss Me, Kate, the cast of the show-within-a-show takes a break in the alley to sing about the heat. They dance an athletic, amazing number which I honestly can’t imagine helped them cool off at all:

“It’s too darn hot
It’s too darn hot
I’d like to fool with my baby tonight
Break every rule with my baby tonight
I’d like to fool with my baby tonight
Break every rule with my baby tonight
But pillow, you’ll be my baby tonight
‘Cause it’s too darn hot!”

I know the feeling.

It’s spring in south Texas: the trees are pollinating, yellow dust covers everything, but mornings are still blessedly cool enough for a sweater. My dog loves to lay in the sun, and baseball season just opened. Spring in south Texas really is gorgeous; wildflowers abound, the light is soft and the flora is a rich green, not yet faded by the brutality of our sun in summer. I walked our tiny yard with my fertilizer spreader last weekend, this Saturday I’ll be digging weeds out and mulching the flower beds. My back hurts when I do this, by the way. Who knew that the simple act of upending a bag of pink fertilizer crystals could be so risky?

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Like many of you, I have been spring-cleaning out clutter as well. “Kondoing” has become a verb at my house, and every item has been subjected to the question: Does this spark joy? My husband is imploring me to stop. I have never been much of a clutter collector anyway, and he fears that if I don’t cease he will have nowhere to sit in the house, as it will just be nearly bare walls and a couple of throw pillows. Oh, and sufficient wine glasses. Can’t let those go.

So I was getting dressed this morning, and decided to see if a particular ivory colored poly blouse sparked joy. I’ve been putting every item on to determine if it gets to remain in my closet. The blouse is a fairly new addition to my closet, nice and flowy with pin tucks at the chest and a lace I can tie at the keyhole neck. I put it on, and within moments I was red-faced, sweating, and ripping the damn thing off.

Spark joy? No.

Spark heat? Hell yes.

Turns out wearing rayon or polyester or basically anything but cotton is impossible when you’re doing the whole menopause thing. These days I find myself wearing cute cotton tees (my current favorite is bright yellow and says “Practically Perfect in Every Way” a la my hero Mary Poppins, though I also love my “We Should All Care” and “Powered my Fairydust and Wine” shirts, seen below). I just throw a sweater or denim jacket over the tee (theoretically making it look more business appropriate), lace up my Converse low tops, and head to the office. Said sweater then gets stripped off in times of flush, then put back on when the radiation fades and the air conditioning makes me shiver. Off and on. Off and on. All day long.

I’ve started collecting cute statement tees just to survive this stage: thin, soft cotton is a must, preferably a women’s cut so it has some shape, and I am happiest when the shirt rocks some sort of motto or a fictional character that I love. I figure if I am fifty-one years old, I can choose what I want to wear and what I have to say. It just so happens that soft, breathable cotton that sweat washes out of easily and requires no ironing is the very thing!

I endeavor not to complain too much. For the longest time, my own shame that I was daring to age kept me muzzled. I wouldn’t admit that I was dealing with the changes to my husband, my doctor, my daughters, or my friends. Mark my words, I carried shame about this! Shame is insidious, and it’s more damaging than embarassment. I couldn’t ask my mom how she’d endured the process, she didn’t live long enough to go through this stage, having died at the age of 46 from complications that arose due to years and years of opioid abuse and mental illness. She barely had time with her first grandchild before she was gone. Last night, I rocked and cuddled my three month old granddaughter as a hot flush swept through me- they seem to start in my chest and cheeks, then the warmth just spreads all over. I asked my husband to turn on the ceiling fan, then rode out the heat with sweet Hazel’s tiny fingers curled around mine. She gives me the kind of joy that enables me to wait until  the heat subsides and look forward to the next phase of feminine humanity.

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Cuddles and tee shirts aren’t my only coping mechanisms: in my purse, there’s a balsa wood fan tucked into a pocket. In January, I wore shorty pajamas lest I find myself awake at 3:00 am, ready to combust. I think I put on my quilted puffer jacket three times this winter, it’s an odd sensation to be flushed with warmth when it’s 30 degrees outside.

But the most vital, necessary coping mechanism has been my sense of humor. For the longest time (well, just the last year or so, really, but it felt much longer), if my body got hot or I got grouchy, my sweet husband would just smile indulgently at me as if to say, “You poor crazy lady, I’ll stick with you through this insanity.” Well, that just made me mad. Until my doc and I sat down and decided to take me off birth control estrogen. She figured it was time to just let my body do its thing. When I tossed that last pill box, its bubble packs all popped and empty, I figured I might as well start laughing at myself.

And ordering tee shirts.

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‘Round the Bend

CarouselI love carousels. Maybe it’s because I remember riding the Six Flags Over Texas carousel with my dad, back in the 1970s. I took my own kids on that carousel in the 90s. Last spring, I rode the carousel at Disneyland. I was over the moon to sit on Jingles, the horse especially created for Julie Andrews.

I encountered the gorgeous carousel above at the Galveston Pleasure Pier on a cloudy January day. I was there for a solo getaway. I have found that alone time is one of the great pleasures of my middle age. Perhaps because it’s my choice when I spend some time in solitude, whether it’s to write, explore with my camera, or eat delicious meals while reading a book, I never feel alone when it’s just me.

 

 

A Wintry Walk (Texas Style)

Just a few days ago, one of our vendors stopped in the office to say hello. He lives in North Dakota when he’s not working our (or others) festival. He says it’s 10 degrees below zero there!

So I went out walking on our site. It was chilly for a south Texas winter day, but I had a jacket on (and by jacket I mean just a fleece hoodie) and encountered, among the brown, dormant plants, little pockets of color. Enjoy these little fluffs of joy during the off season, courtesy of Mother Nature.

 

Isn’t nature magical?

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Peanuts, Cracker Jack, and Fairy Dust!

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It’s late September, and for many folks, it means pumpkins, golden and red tree leaves, sweaters, and hay rides. In south Texas, it just means it’s a high of 88 degrees instead of 98, but not a whole lot changes down here. We keep wearing our flip flops and shorts while envying our neighbors up north who crow about snuggly sweaters and hot chocolate. It’s not even cool enough to enjoy a full-bodied red wine yet, I am still sipping crisp sauvignon blancs. I did hang a wreath on my door this afternoon, it’s of red, yellow, and orange preserved fall leaves from some clime obviously far from here.

For this south Texan, autumn’s arrival means baseball playoffs are coming soon.

I love baseball. I know I am not alone in this, it’s America’s pastime, and many of my fellow citizens feel the same- over 70 million fans attended games last year. It’s right up there with hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet as the most American things ever. Even another great American institution, the Broadway musical, has gotten in on the act with Damn Yankees and a fantastic song called “What a Game” in the masterpiece Ragtime. 

I think loving the game is in my genes: my dad played when he was a kid. So did my mom, though of course, she played softball, in the 1950s that was the only option. Schools didn’t have teams yet so she played in an outside league. When our family moved to the Dallas area back in 1972, we started going to Texas Rangers games. Jim Sundberg was the team’s star back then, but I had a crush on a player whose name I no longer remember,  he had curly hair and bright eyes and reminded me of singer Mac Davis. I kept a photo of him on my wall and sometimes I kissed it with my virginal little six-year-old lips. The only player I have ever since come close to loving like that is Jose Altuve, the current Houston Astros second base player; he’s just my type- short, stocky, and impishly cute. I don’t keep his photo on my wall for kissing, but I do have his card pinned to the cork board on my desk at work. When the huge Texas grocery chain HEB runs ads featuring George Springer, Carlos Correa, and cutie Altuve, I stop whatever I am doing and giggle like a thirteen-year-old ridden with acne and bashfulness. Fortunately, I have a tolerant husband.

Baseball is woven into my family’s quilt of memories (rather than quilt, I’ll say “pennant”). When my poor, drug-addicted and mentally ill mom felt good, we played catch; she gave me one of her old ball gloves, and its leather was soft from years and years of play. The thud of a ball hitting the pocket against my palm is embedded in my sense memory, as is the smell of the leather. I played in my town’s girls softball league, and I tried, just once, to play with my index finger stuck out of the hole just above the logo patch because I’d seen a pro player do it, but it didn’t work for me- I felt awkward and unstable. No, my index finger wanted to be snug inside its finger sleeve.

Daddy coached Little League for both his sons’ teams, and when they outgrew the League, he kept signing on to coach anyway. He lit up at evening games played by the huge halide lamps at Cottonwood Park’s baseball fields, baseball diamonds gave him abundant joy. He and Mom had not had a good marriage, nor a good life, really; and I would go watch his games. When my brothers weren’t on the field or at bat, it was my dad I watched. It was a joy to see his face brighten, and a gift to observe as his shoulders relaxed amid the chatter of the outfielders.

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I grew up, got married, and had three kids, and baseball was the first sport my son Travis signed up for. At the tender age of just five years old, he donned a navy blue shirt with “Minnesota” across the belly in block letters and the Twins’ logo on his cap. We sat in bleachers and watched the boys pick flowers and sit in the dirt of a wee little field, dads standing at each base to teach the kids how to run the circle (hopefully  in the right direction) and catch a rolling grounder. That was the start of ten years of spring practices in cool Texas spring evenings, stiff legs and sore butt from sitting in bleachers too long at All Star tournaments, rejoicing at home runs and celebrating with ice cream, and picking up the pieces to rebuild my boy’s confidence when he missed a ball or his team lost.

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When seven year-old Libby told us she wanted to play baseball, we were sure we misunderstood, and corrected her, “Don’t you mean girls’ softball, Sweetpea?” She most certainly did not. The Little League rules allowed for it, so we signed her up. She was “drafted” into a team whose coach refused to take her, but a hero came to the rescue and traded one of his boys for her. Libby excelled, she loved the game, and her team made it to the playoffs. My husband and I loved going to games, we stood in the space between son’s and daughter’s two fields and watched both kids play simultaneously while eldest child Hilary did her homework in the bleachers. Because sometimes the Universe loves to bestow karma, Libby’s team faced the team whose coach refused her in the championship game. Libby’s team won, and the coach presented her the game ball. I have a photo of the exact moment, and my daughter’s face is sweet and proud.

I am lucky enough to have a father-in-law who loves baseball, too. I don’t know that I have ever seen a football game on his television, but I have, many times, seen baseball. I think he loves the strategy of the game- he’s an analytical guy. Me? I love the stillness. There’s a moment at a home game, just before the pitcher winds up, when the crowd holds its breath, collectively waiting to see if the ball will go low or high, outside or in; and will the batter swing? If a fly ball goes to the high infield, we wait again to see if it will be caught or whether it’s safe for the batter to run.

Baseball is Community, for me. I guess all sports are, but for an introverted and quiet soul, the boisterous socializing of a football tailgate is too much. The violence of the sport makes me flinch, to be honest. No, I love a game that has order and moments of hush, when I can feel the love of the game in the fans around me. I join with strangers to sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” and we count our three strikes in the air, we yell “Charge!” at the organ’s cue, we do the wave around the seats of Minute Maid Park. The train conductor who sits in the locomotive above center field exhorts us to yell for our team, and the best mascot in the league, Orbit, twerks his giant bum to make the kids laugh.

Recently, my 27-year-old son and I went to a game, just the two of us. The giveaway that night was a replica of the 2017 World Series ring; we had the pleasure of being on the field for batting practice, visited the press box and control room, then bought adult beverages to sit and chat as the stadium slowly filled up. It was a good game, though the Mariners killed us when their pinch hitter slammed a ball over the center field fence, with bases loaded. Didn’t matter too much, though, because I was too busy being grateful for one-on-one time with my bearded, articulate, generous son. For a middle aged woman who’s trying to infuse each and every day with little bits of enchantment, that game, with its diving catches, synthesized organ riffs, and mother/son time was absolutely magical. Red infield dirt subbed in for fairy dust.

Baseball just might be the greatest thing about America (well, except the Constitution). I love it. Play ball!

 

 

Doors,the Second in a Series

While attending a play, I noticed these sad, old, cracked doors in this neglected auditorium. Sunlight streamed through as Shakespearean actors performed Macbeth.

Photo by Kimberly Bryan, FairyMiddlin’

Let’s Go To Camp!

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Did you go to camp as a kid? I did: Camp Pettijohn Springs just over the Texas-Oklahoma border. I started going when I was about twelve years old and went every summer until I was eighteen. It was both a broad, flat red-dirt plain and hilly, tree-covered wood. The girls got the cabins in the shady trees, the boys got the cabins on the sun-baked expanse.

The pool was at the bottom of a hill, and its deep end was full of algae and weeds, so that when I jumped off the diving board, I would curl my legs up under me, lest my toes brush those creepy leaves.

The mess hall was a favorite place. Here is where Bible Bees happened in my younger days, meals were wolfed down, and talent shows were put on.

We had an annual talent show act performed by our youth minister, a stand-up routine in which he acted like a silly little boy with a sideways baseball cap and puffed-out cheeks, then two of the senior boys set up that daffy thing you’ve probably seen where one guy has his hands behind his back and the other one does the actions- including the eating of whipped cream and squirting of ketchup and such. We laughed like maniacs every single year. All the singers, including me, would perform Contemporary Christian numbers, and I think I remember someone playing the spoons. Right outside the mess hall was a propane tank emblazoned with the word “Danger.” We sat on it like it was a horse, lots of harmless flirting happened around the Danger.

The traditional Sunday night arrival supper was baloney sandwiches, but for the rest of the week, food was pretty good. KP duty meant your cabin stayed after meals to wipe down tables and mop up cement floors. At meal times, you were not permitted to put your elbows on the table, if you did and were caught, a song might ring out:

“Get your elbows off the table, David H!

Get your elbows off the table, David H!

We have seen it once or twice and it isn’t very nice,

Get your elbows off the table, David H!”

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Molly, Angela, Chellie, the author, and Jill get ready to board the bus to Pettijohn!

It was always followed with another song, “Round the Mess Hall You Must Go,” which finished with a stipulation. You might have to run around the mess hall skipping backwards, perhaps hopping like a bunny or singing loudly. If you were lucky in love, you’d be assigned the direction “holding hands,” and the whole Mess Hall population would wait with bated breath to see who you picked to hold hands with.

I saw my first tarantulas and centipedes at Camp Pettijohn. I was so traumatized by the centipede that I could barely sleep for fear that one would crawl, with its hundred nasty little legs, into my sleeping bag.

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There was a small metal building that served as our canteen, and twice daily we queued up to get sodas and snacks with our canteen punch cards. My favorite was peach Jolly Rancher sticks dipped in a Sprite, the candy would give just a hint of peachy goodness to the Sprite. When we were teens, boys and girls might use their canteen cards to buy their crushes treats.

The only air conditioned building on the whole site was the chapel, which was a sweet little brick building overlooking a drop-off covered with trees. The windows at the front of the little chapel gave us a glorious view of Oklahoma sunsets over dense green leaves. If memory serves, it was carpeted with some sort of green turf. There were gorgeous devotionals in that chapel, and mid-day Bible studies in shady cabin breezeways.

I always came back from camp with an awesome tan, a suitcase full of dirty clothes smudged with sweat and red dirt, and a list of new pen pals. I slept for about eighteen hours, then got up to head to Sunday morning church, full of light and joy.

As a youth minister’s wife, I spent several years in my 30s attending a different camp, this one in Texas Hill Country along the Medina River;  while it shared some traditions and characteristics with the Camp Pettijohn of my youth, it had its own beauty and rituals. Here I was cabin counselor and lifeguard, trying to love on girls while calming my own introverted spirit. A cabin of thirty noisy sixteen-year-olds can be a lot to take in! I loved Bandina for the years I got to attend: its traditional camper vs. counselor softball game, its rope swing, its large, shady gazebo. The food, cooked lovingly by a team of folks from the various churches, was fantastic- way better than the food at Camp Pettijohn (sorry, Pettijohn peeps). Evening worship and talent were in a sweet little outdoor amphitheater, and hymns were accompanied by the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling the gravel that lined the aisles. Late night devotionals happened on the rocky riverside. During the dark hours while campers were sleeping, deer always came out to find snacks and crumbs left on the wide open field around which all the cabins were encircled. My favorite times were the singing sessions in the screened-in dining hall, when 500 people sang songs both silly and holy with every bit of their bodies and souls. The very best memories, though, are spending time there with my own kids. When my youngest wanted to be baptized in the river, I drove to be there and walked into that river with my baby girl and her big brother, who baptized her.

It made me sad when the folks who ran the camp told me I couldn’t come any more because I had switched to a different flavor of church. That sort of closed mindedness, that denies people whose walks might be a little off the approved path, can make it hard for folks to stick with church. At least, it did for me.

The best part of camp was always the friends. In both of these camps, you spent quality time with kids and adults from other churches, other towns, other states. You made real friends. I still have a handful that I am in touch with. Back in the 80s, you had to write real, honest, paper letters; and we did. Now, kids get to follow each other on Instagram- so cool! Camp creates connection. We all need it.

I have been asking people to share old camp stories, and have gotten some great responses:

“A raccoon ate my toothpaste.”

“Finding out I was very naturally good at archery, when I was struggling and behind on every other activity out there. It was nice to find my ‘thing.'”

“Breakfast in bed for having the cleanest cabin.”

“Pranks, kitchen raids, spying on others, building campfires – I worked camp staff for years. We had the most fun when getting in trouble was a possibility.”

“Hiking up Hermits Peak and holding hands with a guy by the time I got to the top.”

There have been a few stories that are sad: abandonment worry, being shunned, getting hurt. I guess every good thing has some dark stuff, too.

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My life now is defined by a mission to recognize magic in an ordinary life, and to share it; and I believe that for many of us, summer camp was, and is, magical. Whether church affiliated or not, camp gets us into nature. We swim and hike and tell tales under the stars. We sing- have you ever heard of a camp without songs? Whether it’s “Big Booty,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” or “El-Shaddai,” music is pure enchantment. We use our hands to make cool crafts. Best of all, camp creates friendship, and love between people is about the best magic there is.

What’s your camp story?

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