Going-Home Faith

February 12, 2014

The Americans’ story, in The Boys in the Boat, of the 1936 Berlin Olympic 8-man rowing race for the gold was so riveting, frustrating and exciting that I could barely get through the race chapter (called “Touching the Divine.”)  I don’t know that I would’ve been able to, except that I knew the outcome of the race before beginning the book.

The chances of the boys in the boat for the gold medal looked doomed.  They had a drafty, cold place to sleep.  The race was rigged, in that the best lane assignments were given to the host country (Germany – a few years before WWII) and to Hitler’s buddy-country, (Italy), rather than by qualifying times.  Their own stroke man was so ill he was practically in a coma during the actual race.  The starters were out of view from the coxswains, causing the race to begin before the boys knew it.  It was a mess.  They won anyway.

They found that Joe had been lying awake there all night.  He had spent much of the night simply staring at his gold medal, contemplating it as it hung on the end of his bunk. As much as he had wanted it, and as much as he understood what it would mean to everyone back home and to the rest of the world, during the night he had come to realize that the medal wasn’t the most important thing he would take home from Germany.

Immediately after the race, even as he sat gasping for air in the Husky Clipper while it drifted down the Langer See beyond the finish line, an expansive sense of calm had enveloped him.  In the last desperate few hundred meters of the race, in the searing pain and bewildering noise of that final furious sprint, there had come a singular moment when Joe realized with startling clarity that there was nothing more he could do to win the race, beyond what he was already doing.  Except for one thing.  He could finally abandon all doubt, trust absolutely without reservation that he and the boy in front of him and the boys behind him would all do precisely what they needed to do at precisely the instant they needed to do it.  He had known in that instant that there could be no hesitation, ho shred of indecision.  He had had no choice but to throw himself into each stroke as if he were throwing himself off of a cliff into a void, with unquestioned faith that the others would be there to save him from catching the whole weight of the shell on his blade.  And he had done it.  Over and over, forty-four times per minute, he had hurled himself blindly into his future, not just believing but knowing that the other boys would be there for him, all of them, moment by precious moment.

…Now he felt whole.  He was ready to go home. 

                                                  (p. 355, Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown).


“Boys in the Boat” (1936 Berlin Olympics)

February 6, 2014

     …it wasn’t until he began to talk about his rowing career at the University of Washington that he started, from time to time, to cry….None of [his] recollections brought him to tears, though.  It was when he tried to talk about ‘the boat’ that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

     At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory.  Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing’s greatest achievements?  Finally,…I realized that ‘the boat’ was something more than just the shell or its crew.  To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both–it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition.  It was a shared experience–a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love.  Joe, was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.      (Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown, 2013, p. 2)

George Washington’s Secret Six

January 9, 2014

Since I’d just finished this book the day before, and since we were talking about something else that made me think of it, I told our 5 1/2 year old grandson a few things about it.  “Yeah,” I said, “Benedict Arnold wasn’t a nice man; he was kind of mean, and he owed our country a lot of money*, then he had to figure out how to pay it.”  (We were playing with some pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, so it just came up).  “He made a lot of bad choices and decided the only way to pay was to ask the British commander, General Clinton, if he needed a spy.  Adrian was all ears.  He knew about the kids’ book, I Spy, and often uses that particular phrase in conversation, but this took “spy” to a whooole new level.  During this telling, his mommy got home, but he barely heard her (and he loves it when she gets home), but he just hardly noticed, since we were at a good part:  Benedict Arnold, in all of his badness, on the one side, was too much to pull away from.  And on the other side, to tantalize further, were our spies, the true Patriots: our unsung, unnoticed, unknown American heroes, who had provided so much valuable information to George Washington, while living in constant danger.  Since we’d been in the middle of playing store, I told him about Robert Townsend, the quiet storekeeper who learned lots of good stuff from the British officers who frequented his store.  Gosh, we had really only begun to scrape the surface of the story when Emily returned home.  But it was probably enough for one day.   I recommend the book, a true story, since I could hardly put it down.  Besides, you might have an interested little one in your family who’d be all ears, too.

* Arnold owed over 1,000 pounds to the Colonial government for undocumented expenses during the unsuccessful raid of Quebec in 1775.

“In The Garden”

December 8, 2013

It’s December and a strange time to title a post “In The Garden,” but that’s where I was today:  in the garden of my childhood.  As we sang the old hymn by that name today at a sort-of-cousin’s funeral at the church where my Aunt Sara played the organ for so many years, I traveled instantly back through time.  I was six years old again, singing in the car with my mother and sister as my father drove.  I was a little girl singing in the pew of Kennedyville Methodist Church as my Aunt Hilda played the organ.  It was the same song, then as today, sung the exact same way, with the pauses coming at the exact same places:  “And He walks [pause] with me, And He talks [pause] with me….” It was my sister who sat beside me today in the pew, just as she’d sat beside me when we were young.  My cousin, his wife, and their grown son – more of my family – sat in front of me.  The nurse I used to sing duets with sat behind me, then on the way out, I saw Carol filing out also, just a few people back from me, after the service.  All of them knew me when I was just a kid. Carol was my dear friend who loved me in that same church when I was just 24 years old, when I knew nothing but thought I knew everything.  So today when we all knew some of the same things and some of the same people, in that same place, singing that same song in that same way, it was a gift.  Merry Christmas to me.  Thank you, Lord.

Three Waves

December 4, 2013

One of our guests was the one who’d told me the “trick.”  I’d been telling him about the 4th grader I’d been working with (around the corner at our local elementary school), and he said he’d been a teacher, too.  Since I’d explained that my young charge couldn’t read, our guest patted his own arm 3 times, beginning at the top, then in the middle and at the wrist, one pat at a time, at first slowly, then in quicker succession, then finally sort of sliding down all three spots into one smooth motion – to illustrate the trick of sounding out an unknown word for a beginning reader, then blending the sounds together to form the word.  When I’d shown it to Pete (name changed), he’d grasped the concept immediately and had begun using it.  He used it today during our 45 minutes together as he was reading me pp. 8 – 17 in The Cat in The Hat, and I was thrilled to see him do it.

A focused fiend in figuring out and finding new words, Pete’s attention and determination are unwavering as he both reads and listens to me explaining things during our sessions together.  I sit in awe and delight as I watch the lights in his eyes shine brighter as he reads line after line.

Today, we began with planning a paragraph.  (Our assignment by his teacher has been to tackle the theme of topic sentences as we ferret them out in pre-written paragraphs).  Because he’d been so excited the other day as he was telling me all about his sister’s upcoming birthday events, I thought he might want to use those experiences to write his own paragraph with his own topic sentence.  So today we began with Pete first taking notes about the birthday excursion.  When he told me about the laser tag, I said, “OK.  Write ‘tag.'”  He did.  For the bowling, I said, “Write ball,'” so he did that, too.  And so he continued punctuating his animated descriptions of the activities with his one-word notes.  In trying to steer him towards writing the topic sentence for the paragraph that we would write tomorrow, I asked him what each of those activities had in common, expecting him to say something like, “They were things that we did.”  But he said that each one involved speed.  Oh.  “Right,” I thought.  That certainly was a common theme.  My incorrect low expectation was duly noted and corrected mentally.  His astute answer will be the perfect jumping off point for his topic sentence when we pick it up again tomorrow.  He was excited about finishing it.

When he’d read today’s first page of The Cat in The Hat, I knew he was ready for me to say to him, “Now read it with expression.”  He took the bait and he re-read the sentence.  I grinned at him and said, “Do it with more,” so he took a deep breath and tackled it again, reading like the champ that he is – like he was onstage.  He read the whole page that way.  I pumped my fist up in the air and practically shouted.  He beamed, and continued reading.  Time was growing short but he finished 3 more pages.  At the end, and as the rest of his class was gathering their things together for recess, he finished his reading and I shot both of my hands in the air, declaring him the undisputed reading champ of that 4th grade table in the back of that room.  I signed his tiger paw sheet (the school’s redeemable reward system) and he got his own things and went into the line by the door.  After I’d gathered my things and stopped behind them in the hallway, he looked back at me, grinned and waved.  He did that 3 times:  three waves and three grins.  My heart was full and I left Garnett Elementary School for the day.

Thanksgiving Prayer

November 25, 2013

Standing there among the granite markers with a woman she’d barely known until today, Betty Jewel felt pieces of herself fly off and hover over them like blackbirds.  Until today she’d been sure of her own color and of her own place.  Now, with her heart opened wide by the kindness and unexpected possibilities of Cassie Malone, she saw herself in a different light, a woman with mercy and grace pouring over her like water, and hope spreading through her as fast as kudzu on a ditch bank.  In spite of the fact that her daughter was still missing, Betty Jewel sat down on a pink marble tombstone, her lips moving as she silently gave thanks.

p. 138, The Sweetest Hallelujah, Elaine Hussey

Holden and Hand-Holding

November 23, 2013

I’d never read Catcher in the Rye, so I borrowed it from our daughter’s bookshelf the other day and have been tucked away with it tonight for much of the evening.  I am enjoying Holden Caulfield’s commentaries on life but was getting a little weary of reading so many g__d__’s.  He has far too much sense to use such limited vocabulary, but one of his anecdotes made me stop reading to copy the passage down.

     …she was terrific to hold hands with.  Most girls if you hold hands with them, their…hand dies on you, or else they think they have to keep moving their hand all the time, as if they were afraid they’d bore you or something.  Jane was different.  We’d get into a…movie or something, and right away we’d start holding hands, and we wouldn’t quit till the movie was over.  And without changing the position or making a big deal out of it.  You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not.  All you knew was, you were happy.  You really were.

One other thing I just thought ofOne time, in this movie, Jane did something that just about knocked me out.  The newsreel was on or something, and all of a sudden I felt this hand on the back of my neck, and it was Jane’s.  It was a funny thing to do.  I mean she was quite young and all, and most girls if you see them putting their hand on the back of somebody’s neck, they’re around twenty-five or thirty and usually they’re doing it to their husband or their little kid–I do it to my kid sister Phoebe once in a while, for instance.  But if a girl’s quite young and all and she does it, it’s so pretty it just about kills you.  (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, pp. 79 – 80).

There you go:  some Saturday sweetness for you.









Turkey Neck Time

November 12, 2013

Barbara, (my high school friend who also lives locally with her husband), and I just returned from a 2 mile walk – where there was a crisp chill in the air (and even some snowflakes) and thoughts of Thanksgiving in our hearts.  She was reminiscing about her grandmother always reaching into the bottom of the Thanksgiving turkey pan to grab the turkey neck to have as her before-dinner snack, a memory she held from the time of her early childhood until that day when Barbara asked if she could try it, too.  Her grandmother told her she probably wouldn’t like it.  But she did try it and she did like it, and it became Barbara’s from that day forward….until recently when her own daughter asked about the turkey neck, tasted it, and the mantle passed again.  But not a problem; today we have everything.  So Barbara, before the next turkey time, stopped at the Centreville Food Lion on her way past one day and discovered an entire package of turkey necks!  Oh my!  The wonder of this modern age and country that we live in!  Maybe there’s not a chicken in every pot, (and that’s another story) but there are at least enough turkey necks for those who want them.

My memories are similar to Barbara’s, except that her grandmother prepared the necks differently from my mother.  As for our single turkey neck (before the days of multiple ones in the grocery store, and oops, sorry for the possessive spoiler alert, but my poor mother never had a chance with me salivating at her heels at every step), she boiled our’s on top of the stove, along with the giblets.  And quite frankly, I really don’t know how I would’ve survived holidays in our house if I couldn’t have eaten both the turkey neck in its entirety along with the gizzard and liver.  The heart was my sister’s because I had to share something. or I would’ve eaten that, too.)  And this was survival, since Sunday and holiday dinners were always at 2, when everyone else got there, and there was certainly not going to be any lunch offered when there was all of that food glory happening in the kitchen.  Good heavens, that would’ve been unthinkable, so you had to grab what you could, when you could.  Which was what I did.  🙂

Recently our British guests asked us what the traditional Thanksgiving foods were, so I described some of the tables of my childhood – although I forgot the turkey necks – but I doubt those reading this post need that same explanation.  Our’s was always wonderful, but it was standard fare.

As our kids have grown up, our traditions, of course, have changed, with the first major one being when my Aunt Sara didn’t host a holiday dinner that first time at Christmas.  The food was the same, but that year marked the beginning of the real changes.  This year we’ll have a noon time brunch at our daughter’s house in Philadelphia (easy and lovely).  The old memories shared and the new memories made will still be just as warm as my mother’s hot-just-out-of-the-oven-homemade-rolls and I can’t wait.  But I still need that turkey smell in our house…so hopefully I’ll get a free one at the Acme.  Oh, and Barbara’s going to pick me up a pack of turkey necks, too.  Happy Thanksgiving to you and your’s.

Chocolate War-Gifts

October 27, 2013

Santi made room for them.  In the moonlight a bruise revealed itself on his cheek.  Yohan pretended not to notice.  Instead he unwrapped a chocolate bar and shared it with them.

…Yohan had tasted chocolate for the first time at the camp.  It had been sent from America. A nurse rested the bar on the damp operating table, then cut it with a surgeon’s knife.

She shared it with those in the field tent.  Pieces the size of fingernails.  He stood in the corner and placed a piece on his tongue and kept his lips pressed together, unused to the flavor, the sweetness.  Watching the men on the cots and the other nurses do the same. All of them silent as though they each held a secret.

The nurse had also given some to a boy who lived beyond the camp.  In the days that followed Yohan would see him through the fences, standing in the fields, looking down at his shirt where there was a chocolate stain, which he licked.  When the taste vanished he continued to lift the spot on his shirt and sniff. He did so long after the scent faded.  Each time he grinned.               –  Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon, pp.77-78.

Before the call and response section during the Percussion Party last night at Music Life, the music store downtown, Bill told us that rhythm is sound and silence – that the silence is just as important as the sound.  Yoon’s chocolate speaks for itself.





The Lone Ranger Volunteer

October 22, 2013

OK, so not exactly the Lone Ranger.  BUT as I left our great-nephew’s 4th grade classroom today, one of the boys at the back of the line, just before the last of them walked out their classroom door, said, “What was your name?”  And later, I couldn’t help but smile.  (I told him my real one.)

Up until today, I’d been an invisible volunteer.  Which I was happy to be.  I’d signed up because I’d wanted to help in whatever way I could.  Jack’s class was infamous in the county – a too-full class of unruly, troubled children who stretched the term “classroom management” to new levels.  This year, with a brand new school superintendent and a brand new, tough little teacher, even that classroom seemed full of promise.  And when Jack’s mom mentioned that she was volunteering, I’d thought, “Sheesh.  Why didn’t I think of that?”  So I signed up.  I’d emailed the teacher and said that I was a good trash-putter-outer, an especially bright capability of mine, and she’d emailed back, saying that had made her laugh.  But bottom line: she got the idea.  I was pretty much willing to do anything.

The first morning I was supposed to show up, I forgot.  Oops.  So much for trash-woman-of-the-year.  I’d emailed the teacher again, apologizing in CAPS, so she’d be sure to get the intensity of my repentance, and give me a second chance.  I managed to show up, on time, the next school day….which unfortunately was a Monday, so of course she hadn’t gotten my email over the weekend, where I’d asked her if that day was OK – (no, contrary to popular opinion, teachers do not live at the school) – so I waltzed in with a very bright, willing smile, ready for my instructions, but since she’d had no idea I was coming, it was a complete surprise to her.  Oops.  (Again.)  BUT there was a man there, who was also a volunteer, and after I’d sat silently for a bit, he gave me some instructions.  I’d happily followed them and when I’d completed my assignment and was again sitting like a compliant little mouse (unusual for me, but I had messed up twice and wanted to do my best to improve my standing on the 4th grade volunteer list of the world, I wanted to put my best foot forward), he suggested that I maybe work on the books on the shelves, their classroom “library.”  Wow – that was exactly what I wanted to do:  a project to put things in order!  I’d be sticking small color-coded stickers on the spines of the books indicating reading levels, and yoo boy, I knew I could do that!  So I began following the directions to the “t,” putting on yellow stickers for the earliest reading levels, red for the next, followed by blue and then green.  After that, there were no more colors that would work (purple, pink and teal just didn’t come in the primary color package), but after a couple of volunteer days (one / week), I simply began identifying them by location on the shelves, while determining to find some of those rare colors some place else.  I went in today, ready to continue work on the books and oops:  the teacher wasn’t there.  There was a substitute.  (And she was a nice one).

I cannot imagine being a substitute teacher.  I have to have all of my ducks in a row.  I can swing along in some settings, but when organization and structure are needed (at least in one’s head, even if it’s not in the physical space), I need to know what’s what.  So the idea of being a sub where one arrives two minutes before the kids, with exactly that many minutes to read over an entire day’s worth of the teacher’s lesson plans, while figuring out the lunch money routine, attendance chart, seating arrangement and who-knows-what-else, the scenario does not appeal to me.  I’d be lost.  I wouldn’t care how much they’d be paying me.  I’d have to have those lesson plans at least 24 hours in advance.  And that’s just not how it works.  So the first thing that struck me was that the sub looked pretty OK.  She looked comfortable and OK, and this was saying something in that particular class (even though it had been split in half with an extra teacher hired.  It was not an easy group.)  I walked over to “my” table, where the book project always happened, and kept my ears and eyes open.  I was a teacher for too many years not to have my ears and eyes open.  And as I said, she was OK, but I sensed she might be still OK if I offered to help.  I approached her quietly and asked if she would let me read to the group while she got a bit more organized.  She very graciously gave her permission.  So I began reading the paper aloud that the kids had in front of them about the “Woodland Native Americans” in our region.  And then, right away, I knew I was going to have fun.  I’d never been in front of a group of 4th graders before, but before I knew it, I was in a groove.  At one point, darned if I wasn’t telling them about my Daddy chopping the heads off of the chickens that he butchered for us to eat.  (I knew they’d love the part about where the headless hens continued hopping and jumping and I was not wrong about that.)  They began really thinking:  one wanted to know if that’s why fish sort of jumped after they were dead, and there was another example which I cannot now remember but I told them they had great questions, that I thought that the reason was the same, but that they should go to the library and ask the librarian to help them look up the answer.  They really looked like they might want to do that.  When they began talking more than they should, I did hand clapping games and silent hand motions that they needed to copy.  Land sakes, it worked.  I let them act stuff out.  They did.  Good grief, I was in my glory.  And the sub just let me go.  I was so grateful.  The time flew for me, and gosh, I think it did for them, too.  I didn’t get to point out Wyoming, which I’d intended to do (it was related), and I didn’t get to define all of the vocab words (and I would’ve loved that) but they did get “plaza” before the end, I think – we’d acted that out – and they seemed like it had been pretty good.  When our time was up, Jack (one of the best students who has found himself in that particular class – before the split – every year since kindergarten and who has tried to let most of the difficulties roll off his shoulders) came up to me quietly before they all left and said, “Thanks for coming.”  And then there was the one at the very end who asked, “What was your name?”  So yep.  As I said, not exactly the Lone Ranger Volunteer, but it was fun enough to feel like it – for me, anyway.  And if you have fun with something and others are there, too, it can’t be all bad, right?  Hehehe.  So that’s how I spent my Tuesday morning, from 10 – 12 on this gorgeous October day.  🙂


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Location, Location, Location.

You might notice the WAC Administration Building cupola out of the corner of your eye as you walk onto Simply Bed & Bread's brick path, since our house is just a stone's throw away from the college. Or it might be the ...
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