Hospitality / Ordinary Life

Matters of Perspective

Matters of Perspective
When we were staying with friends Leslie and John near NYC in October it was, I think, our second day with them – a Saturday. They were outside working in their pleasant yard with its meadowy borders of butterfly bushes, roses, and boxwood. I was relishing a nap in the cozy guest bedroom; the window was open and sounds of dirt scratching and pots thumping floated up. I was content to hear someone else purposefully engaged until John’s voice drifted in and I heard this snippet “Oh, by the way, Leslie, we have rats again, so don’t….” I sat up fast and looked around. Rats? Where? They didn’t mention rats when they invited us to stay with them. When there was no female shriek in response I thought, either Leslie is one tough chick (who writes business plans for Bloombergs anyway without some self possession?), or it’s just not that unusual to live in a sweet old neighborhood of Connecticut and have urban rats. I lay back down. Later I learned they’d invaded their garage for the second time. Leslie was apparently unmoved by nests of black plague and gnawed foundations, she merely intoned her favorite saying: “It is what it is.” Oh?

Chickens and the Egg
While in New York we also visited with friends Joe and Becca Schwen, who manage an organic vegetable farm at Stony Kill. This year they raised a little flock of hens which we stood around admiring. They were busy scratching for worms and being beautiful. One of the shiny black ones stood on a pile of wood and eye-balled us. She was giving innocent little praaawk praraaawks, but if you sat still in her pen for a minute she’d gladly peck your eyes out. You wouldn’t necessarily know that if you didn’t know chickens.

We talked about the strangeness of certain foods and how did humans ever perceive what was good for eating, and did God give Adam and Eve some hints? Denis’ favorite food is the lobster which looks about as ugly and threatening as you can get. Becca’s is the egg. She told us that twice, by chance, as she gathered eggs, placing her hand beneath a hen on the nest, it dropped a warm brown egg into her hand. She pulled it out and looked, wondering who ever saw this smooth hard thing that fell out of a chicken’s you-know-what and thought, I’m going to eat it? When you crack an egg open and see a sac of yellow oil surrounded by thick snot, what would give you the idea, now here’s a tasty little morsel?

It’s weird that despite the way an egg looks and the route it takes to open air, it is a nearly perfect food. You can serve it with almost anything that can be snipped, chopped, or grated. Fried, poached, scrambled, all good. Add it to any cookie or cake and it will be richer. Whip slimy whites to a tight froth, add them to butter, flour, sugar, and lemon and you get a soufflé that kills. And what crazy French person thought of beating olive oil into yolks until your arm breaks and suddenly you get mayonnaise? None of these things would exist if we had to rely on the way I look at things.

Human perspective, at least mine, easily draws erroneous conclusions from what look like unassailable observations. I shouldn’t do this, but there it is. It looks to me like God, The Master of the Universe, wastes a lot of my time. Why else should I need to spend fruitless hours waiting in line to renew my license, waiting for the schmuck driver ahead of me to decide whether they are turning right or left, waiting for beets to roast (they take FORever), waiting for weariness to leave, waiting for renewed joy in work and ministry when with a wave of his wand all these troubles could evaporate? Watching the hours and days escape one by one with unmet deadlines, duties left undone, emails unanswered (so why did I join Facebook?) surely that is not good for my health.

And speaking of health, I certainly have a rotten body. True, I should be thankful I have no terrorist organization after it, no rats are nibbling my feet, and I have a doctor who insists on adjusting my thyroid medication about every five minutes. But my body’s obvious deterioration disturbs me – funny bumps on the skin, wiggly waving triceps, and the only time it considers running is to the bathroom.

My need for severe adjustments in perspective is almost constant. For help I often consider the wisdom of those who mentor me through their lives and writings, they seem a lot farther along than I am. In The Good Works Reader, Thomas Oden writes about the Lord’s Prayer and the larger meaning of receiving our daily bread: “Ultimately the bread we most pray for is the clarity and truthfulness of our own purpose and destiny.” That is what I crave, I’m hungry to understand my purpose, to believe that human finiteness is okay, and to know and believe when God made us to live in daily-ness he said, “It is good.” I’d like to live with certain clarity that though the day inevitably comes with suffering, it’s still good, and I would like to gratefully receive that day with all its shuffling and waiting as a gift.

Virginia Owens startles me with her sweet patience and observations about bodies: “Caring for my mother has, as you might expect, changed both my perception of my own body and the rounding off of my life. I accept my aches and pains with better grace these days, knowing how hard my body has worked to do its job, uphold its end of the bargain. I realize now that however well I look after it, it’s still going to break down, first in one place, then another. I’m no longer impatient with it when it does, though, nor as frenetic as I used to be about staving off its losses. Joints, lymph nodes, retinas, I’m grateful they’ve carried me so far, filtered my juices, filled me with light.” (Caring For Mother. See 2007 Gift List for a review.)

Old Eyes
From the Advent story one of the characters we don’t hear much about because she’s such a minor player is Anna. What attracts me is that she’s old, like really old. Luke tells us “she was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Luke 2: 35-37) It seems she never forgot the memories of her young husband and his untimely death which could have left her angry and bitter. Probably her joints ached, her skin sucked, and her eyes got gunkier each morning. From a modern perspective she didn’t have much of a life, although her contemporaries called her a prophetess. One morning in walks this couple with a baby, one among hundreds, maybe thousands she’s already seen, but she has the clarity of truthfulness and purpose that helps her recognize something different about this baby – he’s The Christ of God. She walks over to touch this child that all the world is waiting for, and there in front of everyone she blesses him and thanks God.

In the Gospel of Luke in the chapter just before we hear about Anna, Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, says a profound thing, and I think it captures exactly what Anna was doing with her life. He says that the Messiah is going “…to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days…” (Luke 1:74,75) Which is exactly what Anna was doing, right there in the temple with corns on her toes and moles on her neck.

If I am busy considering either my body or time as enemies then I have succumbed to a limited perspective which is informed by my senses and, more subtly, by cultural pressures that determine whether we are good, successful, disciplined, worthy people, thanks to iCalendar, diet, and proper exercise. Both body and time are gifts that enable me to serve God in holiness and righteousness “before him (embodied) all our days.” That means being contented with twenty-four hour days where God says it’s good to live – from babyhood to end the of life. If I understand Anna’s life correctly, this child she blessed has the power to transform our fearful concentration on self (in whatever form), forgive our complaints, and direct us in acts of service to others.

As Anna Sees It
Our friends in CT have a gap in the hedge surrounding their yard where a path leads from their back porch to the neighbor’s back door where John and (by coincidence another) Anna live, confined by age and poor health. Early each morning the Eddys carry a carafe of fresh decaf coffee across the dewy grass, up the steps, and quietly leave this small token of care. Each day John totters back with the empty carafe. When Denis met his wife, Anna, who is bent and frail, Denis told her how many wonderful things he’d heard about her. She grasped his hand in both of her dry, papery hands, pumped them up and down and without missing a beat rasped, “My g-d, they LIE ALL the TIME!” We could see how much John and Anna adored this younger couple who have chosen to love them with something so simple as a cup of coffee.

Jesus said: “And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” (Mt. 10:42)

It’s those little acts of mercy that are large in the Lord’s eyes.

I Give You: The Monster Gun of Tanjore
When we were in NYC and visited The Met, I saw an exhibit called “Impressed by Light” and was fascinated by this piece. Linnaeus Tripe, a British photographer, shot it in India in 1858. He was employed by the military and his photos have become valuable pieces in art collections.

The curator didn’t explore this, and I don’t know much more than what was printed on the little tab beside the photo, but it set me thinking about men and their relish of useless weaponry. I suppose it’s no stranger than the nineteenth century feminine love of the bustle. A matter of hindsight, or perspective, I guess.

In a way I love them (men) more for the flawed thinking demonstrated by The Monster Gun of Tanjore. It was, according to the museum, “24 feet long and 10 feet in circumference, made of rings of iron encircled by brass rings, and welded together. It was said to have been fired once. On which occasion the inhabitants of the Fort were warned by the beat of a drum to leave their houses. A train of powder was laid for 2 miles, and 40 minutes elapsed before fire reached the gun. The sound, it seems, was as if Mount Meru had exploded.”

Perhaps my own flaw (a love of Wile E. Coyote) makes this amusing. But I include it so you can look, too, and enjoy the absurdity of telling your enemy … “hold still while I arm this darned thing with two miles of gun powder. I’ll be right back.” Or envision the inventor bent over paper, drawing the plans, thrilled to sell the military on his idea of how to blow the landscape to smithereens.

Perhaps it’s thinking of Christmas and what to get the males in our family. Do we go practical or useless? Should it be something that makes a lot of noise? Drums? Guns? Music? I think I’ll shoot for music – that lovely art still reminds us we are created in the image of God. No matter what our perspective and in contrast to our absurd, and sometimes destructive inventions, music can help us restore the ordinary and catch glimpses of the sublime in the everyday.