God has a sense of humor--even if some people reject that idea, claiming that the world has too many serious problems, such as disease, war, injustice, and death. Politicians alone should cancel out the possibility of a Creator Who laughs. All you have to do, however, is to take a look at the variety of creatures around us: a seemingly unlimited number and diversity of species with ingenuous appearances, some of which are capable of outlandish antics.
I'm thinking specifically about cats. The first one in my memory was a prize-winning male Siamese, in the neuter category, whose name was Foo Manchoo. At the state and regional Cat Shows, Mother displayed him in a large blue velvet box with fringed blue velvet drapes that parted in the middle. When the drapes opened, Foo stretched himself out on his side in order to get the attention he relished, but soon wearying of it, he dozed off for the photographers. He always brought home blue ribbons for Mom's collection, and because he was so wonderful, she fed him his favorite: simmered-for-hours-on-our-stove horsemeat.
Foo, or Fooey, as we affectionately called him, was the star performer in my young life. He was a true friend who made me laugh every day by doing something shocking or silly. I remember how reluctant he was to play "mommy and baby." Only after I shut the doors of our kitchen and wore him out chasing him around it, did he submit to being dressed in a frilly doll dress and to wearing a big, floppy baby's bonnet. When Fooey was tired, he even allowed himself to be carted around on his back in the doll carriage, but he'd jumped out when I tried to feed him soggy cereal with a spoon.
Fooey had a mysterious and frightening side, too. Some nights, as if pursued by cat-eating monsters, he'd race through the rooms of our three-level house, skidding around corners, gripping stairs with sharpened claws, scrambling through the upstairs bedrooms and downstairs again to slide to a complete stop right in front of me. I could hear his hard breathing and when I peered down into his wide dark eyes, I saw the soul of a madman. And suddenly, just when I'd think it safe to reach down to pet him, he'd jump with a start as if jabbed by a demon's pitchfork and tear out of the room.
I wasn't brave at those times; no, not at all. Just the thought of following him up the stairs into the darkness gave me the willies--I knew too well how he liked to scare me by lurking inside open closets or around dark corners, then jumping out at me standing on his back legs with his front paws clawing the air like some Frankenstein. My screams never stopped him from extending his claws from under the bedskirts to grab my bare feet. He played a kind of Tag with me, but I never won--I was always It. During one of his "devil's-after-him-spells" I wasn't prepared to take the chance that I'd survive a face-to-face meeting with him in the dark.
From those early days onwards, I've measured all my cats by the Foo standard. Unconsciously, I also apply this measure to human beings, because as it turns out, my favorite people have been those with whom I have had the most fun. By loving cats, I have also learned to anticipate the unexpected from people. I know when to join in the fun or run for cover. People, like cats, come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors; they are endowed with unique personalities that can either mesh with or rub against mine. Some are cuddly and some are stand-offish. Some are mysterious and might be dangerous, so I find myself relying on the lessons Foo Manchoo taught me 45 years ago: know your enemy; remember the places he can gain the upperhand; and don't go forward if you have the slightest misgiving.
Above all, loving cats has taught me to delight in creation and participate wholeheartedly with God's sense of fun. With Foo as my guide, I'm always on the lookout for people with an off-the- wall sense of humor, the infectious laugh. Pauleen Dolling is one of those people. I simply feel better when we spend time together because we always find something to laugh about. We've been buddies all these 25 years, so when my husband, Suresh decided to take me to Israel on a pilgrimage, he wanted to tell her about it. He knew she'd see the irony, since he's a cultural Hindu from India and not religious at all.
One night we attended a party, and when Suresh told Pauleen about our trip, she looked at him with a twinkle in her eye and stood a little closer. My Foo antennae perked up. She said, "You know, Suresh, you have to be careful over there. If a bird flies overhead and drops one on you, you'll become an instant Christian."
The conversations around us halted mid-sentence. I gasped for breath--this was quite a take-off on the image of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in the form of the dove. Pauleen's face flushed and she looked surprised, but we all laughed it off. "The things people say!"
Two weeks later, we met our tour group in Tel Aviv and spent the following ten days traveling around the country with a knowledgeable tour guide who knew the Bible well, both the Old and New Testament stories. Standing with us on a high vista on Mount Carmel, he related how the prophet Elijah met with 450 prophets of Baal and how God had sent fire from heaven to burn up the sacrifice Elijah had dowsed with water three times.
We visited the port of Joppa and the guide showed us where Jonah must have departed when he ran from God toward Tarshish, some 2500 miles away. He hadn't wanted to deliver God's message of repentance to the Ninevites and ended up in the belly of the whale to reconsider his disobedience.
By the time we reached the street by the house where Simon the Tanner had lived, the Bible was coming together for me. Our guide told the group about the day when the apostle Peter had been up on the roof of Simon's house, in a trance, when he received some extraordinary news--God was going to include the Gentiles in His plan of salvation. He told Peter not to call unclean what He had proclaimed clean.
During the guide's recitation of this event, we were all looking up toward the roof. I was considering the gravity of this vision, thinking of the long-range impact of God's declaration on the whole world, when suddenly Suresh jumped, raised his hand to the side of his temple and found a large bird dropping sliding down his face.
I wish I had had my camera ready to capture his look of total surprise and incredulity. No one else in our group had received this flyover offering. I don't recall having even seen any birds around. Timing and target were unmistakable evidence that God was at work, and He was funny! The muscles in my stomach doubled me over, and the laughter bubbling up inspired a dance in little circles. The rest of the group could only watch and wonder what had caused this silly display.
At the Jordan River where many pilgrims are traditionally baptized (and our tour group was not a religious one, so none of us were), Suresh gave me the camera and told me to take his picture. "Now that the bird has dropped one on me, I have to be baptized," he said. He went down and sprinkled the Jordan's water on his head.
On arriving back in Brigham City, the first place Suresh wanted to go was over to Pauleen's. She wasn't prepared for the story he told or the laughter inside her that caused her to double over and dance around in little circles.______________________________________________
This essay is a chapter in my memoir, The Wings of Morning
Saturdays are the best days of the week for my cousin Bobby and me. We're first in line to get our favorite seats in the Lakewood Theater--near the front, in the middle. We settle down quickly with our Cokes and bags of popcorn just as the lights dim and the heavy crimson curtains sway gracefully away from the center of the stage, revealing the huge screen and the movie we have long awaited: Titanic.
I am not involved with the story until a frightened sailor in the crow's nest screams "Iceberg!" Then I'm instantly transported onto the deck, hearing what the crew says and trying to prepare myself for disaster. I'm running to save the passengers, but it's so hard to watch husbands and fathers give their wives and children into the lifeboats, knowing they'll never be together again. Uncle Lefty said there hadn't been enough lifeboats for everybody on the ship. "They thought the Titanic was unsinkable," he'd said on the way over to the theater in response to our questions.
I'm seven years old and not at all prepared for what I'm feeling. As I watch the few lifeboats pull away, I am sitting next to desperate, grieving women shrieking and pleading for their loved ones. Hopelessness envelopes me as we watch the Titanic's bow pulling her down, down, down. The ship's huge stacks blast mournful cries into the night, calling for help. But we're alone.
Before long, I'm back on deck with those who are going to die. I watch the father find his son to face fear together. I yearn for my own father who, three months before, had already faced death and gone under. He'd never stand with me and tell me how proud he was of all I'd ever done in my life. I'd always be missing that. Suddenly, we begin singing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the merciless sea swallows that huge ship.
Years later, in August of 1965, the Titanic has been long since shelved in the recesses of my mind. I climb aboard a Greyhound bus in Denver and head for New York City to catch a small student ship bound for LeHavre, France. I am one of 1100 students and crew on an eastbound nine-day journey of the M/S Aurelia .
Students from all over the U. S. and Europe meet and mingle in the many social/cultural/learning activities packing each day. We discover our differences and common bonds and relish being young and single. On the third night, I meet Serge from Paris, and I enjoy dancing with him. I never see him during the day, but each evening when the band strikes up their theme song, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, he appears at my side. He is good looking, suave and mysterious. My cabinmates tease me about having the coveted "shipboard romance." One night they pay me back for being the lucky one by short-sheeting my bed, and on another night by sprinkling sugar between my sheets.
On the seventh evening, we dress up in our best clothes for the Captain's Dinner. Unfortunately, the weather during the afternoon has changed all our plans--and for me, the direction for the rest of my life. By late afternoon, The Aurelia is in the clutches of seas whipped into a frenzy by *85 mile-an-hour winds and waves sometimes 30 feet high. The sounds of straining, creaking seams are deafening, as if a gigantic sea monster is demanding entrance. It's too much to comprehend, so I try to block the sounds out. To accept them would be to face my mortality. I wonder what it would feel like to be swallowed whole by the sea and never emerge?
Suddenly, we're punched from the left, and I hear everything loose in the ship--trunks, boxes, suitcases, chairs, dishes, people--skidding to the right. Like a fragile dollhouse kicked by a tantrum-throwing child, our enclosed world is jumbled and trashed. The lights flicker out. Screams come from every direction. The lights snap on. People laugh nervously, eager for reassurance. I'm uncomfortable being sealed up tight inside a very small ship in mortal travail. There's no way out. Heavy ropes and chains lock the access doors. Outside the portholes, tumultuous black waves are gaping jaws laughing at impotent lifeboats.
I am riveted to a padded bench in the ballroom, leaning hard against the wall behind me, holding on as if taking sharp turns on a roller coaster, mesmerized by the continual tilting, sliding, rolling, swallowed-and-belched-motion of the ship. Deep in Aurelia's belly, the incredible strains of her struggle grow in the fury of imminent breached birth.
Although it's just 4 p.m., the sun has vanished into night. The bars at both ends of the ballroom are crowded with people trying to stand upright to better chug their beers and down their hundred-proof vodkas and whiskeys. Heavy cigarette smoke hangs in the air, clothing denials, curses and pleas in several languages.
At the same time, I am sharply aware of the rapid pile- up of life events which have brought me to this place: Dad dying and resting mute in his cemetery bed; Mom hopeless in her grief, captured and tormented by booze; my younger sister and brother cast adrift; and in the past year, independent-me, pushing all the right buttons for a quick descent-to-hell in high gear.
It's apparent that by having preferred myself and my boyfriend over everything, that I'd usurped the throne of my heart. But I hadn't stumbled into willful idolatry out of ignorance or by anyone else's treachery. Rebellion had been a clear choice. I knew what was right, but chose to live as if the universe revolved around me and that I had control. Tonight there is no doubt in my mind where I really stand. I am merely one human being alive and breathing--only by the will of the Creator God Who is everywhere at once.
I am nine years old when I discover that I can't hide from God. In July of 1955 my cousin Bobby and I spend a week at Beth Eden Baptist Church Camp in the Colorado mountains. One morning after breakfast, the Explorers (the group I'm in) leave the Miners (the group he's in) to their canoeing and we follow the camp director, Jerome, up to the top of Lookout Mountain.
"Everybody please find a place to sit," he tells us as we catch our breath from the steep climb. We find places overlooking miles of fabulous green valleys below. We take our Bibles, notebooks and pens out of our backpacks in preparation for the morning lesson. "Turn to Hebrews 4: 12 and 13," Jerome says. "Who will read this for us?"
My cabin-mate, Natalie quickly raises her hand. She is the champion Bible verse memorizer and the queen of speed in finding the Old Testament minor prophets. "Okay, Natalie, please read these two verses for us, and the rest of you follow along."
"For the Word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight; but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do."
Jerome allows us time to think. I listen to the brisk breeze blowing through the Ponderosa pines around us. The fresh scent of mountain grasses, flowers and pine fills the air, and the valleys below are so overwhelming. I am deliciously at peace.
"Who will read for us from the 139th Psalm?" Jerome asks. I raise my hand. "All right. Diane, please read verses 7-12. The rest of you, read along."
I feel each word as I read: "Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit or whither shall I flee from Thy Presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me and Thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from Thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to Thee.'"
By the time we come back from the mountain, I sense a new inner confidence: God is with me, and He is everywhere at once.
Nothing has changed since that summer morning in 1955. Out here in the North Atlantic chaos, there is no doubt in my mind that God is HERE! And where does that leave me? Well, like the last of the bath water swirling down the drain, I am being sucked into a determined vortex, stripped of all the usual supports: family and friends; dishonesties that supposedly hide me; phony, trumped-up religiosity; assumptions, presumptions, natural abilities; and any control I thought I possessed. "Help--God. Get me out of this!" I whimper. When you're backed up against a flimsy- going-to-sink-and-suck-the-life-out-of-you-wall, there's no doubt about Who to call upon.
But the storm gets worse. The ballroom is packed, and I can see people stumbling off toward their rooms. Seasickness is an added benefit of this crazy ride. I can't make out if anyone else is being confronted like I am. I can only observe them drinking more and laughing louder, filling the room with their incessant smoke while the storm engulfs us. There's no way out. I picture Jonah, perching one last time on the ship's rail before being thrown overboard into the broiling sea....
"No!" I gasp, taking a few deep breaths. Couldn't this be a bad dream? One eye creaks open as the ship plunges sideways again into a deep trough. My stomach sinks and churns with scraping, skidding objects deep below. Men shout. Women whimper. I hold on, picturing the dangling lifeboats and the Captain staring into chaos with a slack, unbelieving mouth. We're all stuck inside this tiny vessel, plunging and thrashing in her final death throes.
Serge approaches my bench carefully, feeling his way along the wall. His face is grayish-green and as usual, I see his favorite book, The Stranger, sticking out of his brown tweed jacket pocket. All week he's been boasting about how reasonable existentialism is. He sits down hard next to me.
After a few minutes, he ventures, "Diane, do you believe in God?"
I open my mouth with the usual response, "I believe in God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth..." but nothing comes out. "I. . .well. . .I. . ." Nothing in my experience has prepared me to respond to this moment. I do believe, but I'm not on friendly terms with this God, the One out there in the wind and in this room in my face, demanding that I give myself up.
The next morning the Captain in his gilded white uniform calls the passengers together in the ballroom. He stands at the microphone. "We must all thank God for sparing us last night," he says. "There is something you need to know. According to the ship's instruments, the stresses from both wind and waves came within two points of breaking the Aurelia apart."
*All statistics for Hurricane Ana were provided by the U. S. office of Atmospheric Research.______________________________________________________
The act of writing a poem changes me each time I do it. I'm not a paper and pen person normally because the mental process is too quick, and I don't like seeing a page of lines crossed out or words piling up into an illegible mass. So I like to begin with a new document on the computer screen, typing out a few words to express my idea and then watch in surprise as a network of connections begins occurring. Not that every attempted poem is a success, but following the bends and curves in the trail leads me on so that an hour or two passes before I realize that the tea has gone cold in my cup, the cat wants out, and the government in Haiti has been overthrown.
A poem grows like an alive thing as I assume the job of stage manager, director and playwright. I design the backdrop for scene one, drag only the most essential furniture into place for the action, select the actors' costumes and decide on the dialogue as one character explains the turmoil, how the changes are coming too fast and her intuition is raging, how her life has never been more out of control when what should be happening is that she's happily packing her bags for the upcoming cruise to the Panama Canal.
Instead of plotting the story before I sit down to write, I find myself presenting the problem in a few lines and allowing the story to unfold in drama I hadn't forseen. I remember to show, not tell, to use language that fits the situation and those acting it out, and in the process to go fearlessly through this mirror of my life into the great unknown beyond.
Another way of looking at the evolution of my poem is to see how my own reading and viewing habits have produced possible connections. That means that since I was raised during the 50s and 60s that I am a rebel against doing things the conventional way and yet not quite so far out that I don't have my feet on the ground. I want my poetry not just to evoke a sensory image for enjoyment but to bring the reader into the the back alley where an assault victim conquers her attacker, to the front room where an estranged sister sits late into the night remembering, to the bedside where a husband holds the hand of his dying father.
What's important for me and what changes me each time is the act of actually seeing an edifice emerge from the page, a word panorama complete with sound effects, sensations of movement and confrontation between characters which brought me to the place of creation in the first place. Poetry is starting at one point with the known and by some mysterious, circuitous route discovering something surprising and true just beneath the surface that has subconsciously been there all along.
Perhaps what changes the poet begins with a natural inclination or a latent talent which has been ignored or repressed for years in favor of the expedient. Maybe it's God's gift bestowed alive, demanding its birth and release into the world. Whatever the source of its genesis, writing a poem leads to important and sometimes life-changing discovery. That's why it's worth losing a couple of sleep hours to sit before the computer screen, list ideas, form sentences, break lines, cut or replace words, and once in a while receive insight--even illumination.
Only after I had the rare opportunity to sit at the feet of William Stafford, a real master of gentling everyday words around corners and doubling back for the surprise, did I try writing my own poetry. Stafford was my mentor in a way, even though I only met him in person a few times. I've read so many of his poems that everything around me seems to be the best subject for a new way to connect with the essential, the eternal. Like Mr. Stafford's habit was, I want to capture my first thoughts in writing. This simple act of accepting them and building from there begins my transformation from the working woman who went to bed early last night into the writing one who will take off into the morning of today.
Spring mellows into long summer nights
on deserted country roads. Love songs
promise on the car radio. Only words.
Broken moorings. Accidental hands and
startled faces cross tenuous lines, but
I turn away to watch the rainbow-ribboned
bouquet caught by happy fingers in tune
with a robin's greeting.
When we speak our minds, and he lets go,
I hold a vigil at the backdoor. And then
one languid night he sits again upon my
bed, stretches his six foot five and sings
me his old redundant overture, still void
of calico aprons, a fenced-in yard and
tiny eager faces playing tag.
A momentary retreat into contemplation
inspres catchy lyrics of my own to the tune
of Hit the Road, Jack. And on his way out,
this habitual stranger stumbles as the door
slams on his worn-down heels.
and we drink black coffee from her chipped Roundup Rider's mugs while we sneak looks at each other, trying not to be awed by the way middle age has settled on our faces.
You look like Aunt Billie when she was young, I say. You remark how much I take after the Girton's--and I bet you mean Grandma. Then our visit flies by and we hit the rapids.
You shout at me for being self-centerd and insensitive, how I never understood when Jim, drunk and mean, beat you in front of your babies and then one day walked out for good while you juggled three jobs just to stay together. And how I could never appreciate despair, the kind that swallowed
Mom when Dad died and left us. You are sure I've had everything I've ever wanted. But you can't hear me crying, and
I say it only once. We sit quiet awhile, and all I see is you in
the same backdoor, tanned, still lean, your hair braided thick, holding open the screen for me to walk in.
I worked as a writing tutor in the Weber State University Writing Center for several years and never failed to learn more from the students than I ever taught them. One day a girl in her twenties brought her paper in for me to read. Her assignment was to research her birth date in 1972 and explore a fashion trend advertised in that day's newspaper. She showed me a Xerox copy of a page of store ads where she had circled a model wearing bell bottom pants. I asked her if she was writing about bell bottoms. remembering when I was a teen and how I loved wearing the Navy issue bells. She said, "No, I'm writing about the phony plastic they called polyester.
As she read, I felt myself getting involved with some of her conclusions and responded, both as a writer and as someone who had grown up in a period of radical change in the 1960s.
In the middle of a run-on sentence which I'd pointed out to her, I said, "For the majority of women, polyester was not equated with the plastic skirt you mention here. That reaction reflects the hippie point of view. For the rest of us, polyester was our liberation. Kind of like the bra burnings were for the feminists."
She looked at me quizzically. "Oh, yeah. . . . I get it," she said.
"We'd had enough," I went on, "after years of tediously ironing our cotton blouses, skirts, and dresses and then arriving at school or work looking crumpled. Easy-wash-easy- wear polyester gave us a way to look tidy and feel confident without all that effort. It was wonderful for travel."
She corrected the places where I indicated she had comma splices and misspellings. "So much happened back then," I continued, visualizing the panorama of change I'd lived through.
"Pantyhose replaced girdles and those awful garters. And our hairdos became wash and wear. Mary--from Peter, Paul and Mary fame--you've heard of them, I'm sure. Well, Mary gave us a new look. I'll never forget going to one of their concerts and being bowled over with her long shiny, straight, blond hair that shimmered like silk when she moved. The next day I joined all my friends who gave up their scratchy hair rollers and the teased, hair-sprayed bouffant in exchange for the natural look Mary made so beautiful."
My client looked down at her paper and then up at me. Imagine! A world before pantyhose or the handy curling iron.
"Nowadays you girls buy those gaudy garter belts and call them sexy. In the 60s, those were torture to sit in all day. Sexy to us was finally being able to go bare: we had, in effect, rejected all the foundation garments that had bound women for too many years. Like I said, some girls even burned their bras," I continued, really into it now. "So you see, polyester started a huge revolution in this country."
Realizing I'd talked too much, I interrupted the stream of memorable liberations I'd taken for granted. It had been such a long time since I'd considered just how far we American girls had come.
"I have class in a few minutes," she said before reading the concluding paragraph about polyester reflecting the plastic, phony society of the time. I didn't disagree with her, but inside I was so glad she'd come to my desk for feedback on her paper. Thanks to her, I saw those days differently now and in much sharper focus.
"Grammatically, your writing should be revised in the areas I pointed out," I said when she'd finished reading. "But you could really strengthen your paper by including comments from someone who was not a hippie back then. You know--a counter-counter-culturist. Then you'd see what polyester meant to the majority of us."
"Thanks for your help," she said limply, gathering up her paper and stuffing it into her backpack. "But this is due in ten minutes. I just wanted my commas fixed."
I learned more than she did during that session. Writing a paper once may be quite enough for some. Not going deeply into a subject to explore all the ramifications reflects the society America has become: instant, but in real need of re-vision.