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From the Geranium Farm
A Second Crop of Daily eMails
By Barbara Cawthorne Crafton
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2003 Barbara Cawthorne Crafton
All rights reserved.
Younger daughter of Barbara Crafton.
Community of the Holy Spirit
An Episcopal religious order for women. Barbara Crafton is an associate of the order, and practices spiritual direction in their convent in Manhattan.
Elder daughter of Barbara Crafton.
Gardening buddy and writer. Actually farms on the Geranium Farm from time to time.
Formerly Rose's grey tiger tabby cat, now makes her home at the Geranium Farm. Protégé of What's-Her-Name.
Sometimes called "HRH," for short. Den Mother of the Geranium Farm, a title whose corresponding duties are vague at best.
Tiny birds native to North and Central America. Not found on the Geranium Farm, despite Barbara Crafton's desperate attempts to attract them.
Q's tortoiseshell cat. Highly critical of Barbara Crafton.
Younger granddaughter of Barbara Crafton.
Richard Quaintance, Barbara Crafton's English professor husband.
Elder granddaughter of Barbara Crafton.
Well-known sociopathic calico cat of Barbara and Q.
Hope and Faith
"Let's stop at the bird place first," I say. We're on our way to the bird store and the grocery store. Unlike groceries, birdseed won't melt in the car. Besides, going to the bird store is a treat. I've always been something of an eat-dessert-first person.
"I need more of those sunflower seeds that don't make a mess," I tell the man who runs the bird store. But I am not looking at him. I am already gazing around the store at all the feeders and bat houses and birdbaths and bird books and birdhouses and a dozen different kinds of birdseed and gadgets to make squirrels quit bothering your feeder.
"You mean sunflower hearts," he says and brings out a big bag. "This is twenty-five pounds." The last twenty-five-pound bag we bought didn't last a month. Birds eat a lot.
"I want to get a bracket to hang a hummingbird feeder near the window where we can see them if they come," I tell Q, who is examining the bat houses. "Something that will let it hang a foot or two from the house. And I think we should get another hummingbird feeder."
Q looks pained. This summer of my obsession with hummingbirds has been a long one. "Don't you think we should wait until we see just one hummingbird?" he asks. Oh, please. Shouldn't I wait to start my degree until I already have a faculty appointment? Shouldn't I wait to begin exercise until I'm already strong? Shouldn't I wait to become an interesting, attractive person until I have a partner?
"No!" I say firmly. "They won't come if we don't show them we're ready. We have to have what they want before they come, or they won't come." I remind Q of his friend Pat, who has two hummers in her Metuchen yard. It can happen. I tell him about Margot, who waited two years before hummers came to her feeders. I mention that the hummingbird project is like evangelism in the church: you can't get new folks by doing only the things the old ones like. You have to do some new things, too. He says it's not quite the same thing. I tell him it's exactly the same thing, only for birds. I look to the bird store man for support. So does Q.
"Does anybody in Metuchen get hummingbirds?" Q asks the bird man.
"It can be hard to get them here," he says, with a frankness admirable in a man who makes a living selling birdfeeders. "But people in Metuchen do get them. South Brunswick, Somerville. They get a lot." He tells us about a person he knows who put a red balloon near her feeder—it bobbed around, and the hummers found it. I make a mental note: Buy balloons.
"You have to clean the feeders and change the nectar," the man reminds me. I do. I change and clean regularly. Q sighs. We come home with another feeder. He says he'll rig up a line to hang it from, so we can see it from the kitchen table. What a nice man.
You have to have faith. And more than a little patience. Moses and the Israelites wandered for forty days and forty nights before they reached the promised land. No, wait, it was forty years—Noah and his family were in the ark for forty days and forty nights until the rain stopped, and then a lot longer while they were waiting for dry land to reemerge.
I can see my hummingbird in my mind: I am at the breakfast table, and he comes to the feeder, hovering in the air while his long bill finds the sweet nectar in the garish red-and-yellow-plastic feeder. I know that my hummingbird may remain only in my mind—I may never really get one. But I do not tire of cleaning and filling the feeders for them, these hummers who may never come. For me, it is as if they were already here, as if I were safeguarding the health and well-being of bird guests I already knew. For me, it is like the food pantry at St. Clement's, my former parish in Manhattan: I wanted the food pantry to be full—always; that way, I knew we were ready for them. We have what hummers need—maybe not all of what they need, but some of it. They need what we have and they will come for it. We can be a part of their lives. In being ready for them, we are already with them in spirit. Even if they never come. They may not be in my garden, but they are in the world, and it is enough.
The preparation itself is part of the sweetness. Not just presence, but anticipation of presence. The Jews know this: they expect the Messiah, and prepare for the Messiah, and the Messiah has not yet come. And still they prepare. Again and again. And the songs they sing about their preparation are joyful songs. Because they expect. Their expectation has become part of who they are.
Soon the heavy heat will break. Soon it will rain. Soon we will awaken to the tiniest beginnings of a nip in the air, and soon the hummingbirds will begin to fly south. If a couple of them want to drop by for a snack, I'm ready.
Was Jesus Always Right?
I thought Phil seemed a little too enthusiastic. "THANKS FOR TAKING THIS SUNDAY!" he wrote in his big scrawl on the church bulletin he sent me. No problem, I thought, as I glanced through what I would be responsible for. "IT IS NICE (FOR ME) TO BE AWAY THIS SUNDAY," he scrawled at the top of the Gospel reading. I saw why: this week's Gospel is the one about the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter who is possessed by demons, and Jesus says something really rude back. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," he says first. Then the woman kneels before him and asks again, and he says "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
This is one of the Scripture passages that fall under the category "The Hard Sayings of Jesus," those recorded moments when he doesn't behave as we think he should. Who wants a Savior who acts like a New York waiter? Earnest church people have gone to great lengths to excuse such hard sayings or find a way around them—that Jesus didn't really mean it, that there was an obscure slang linkage between gentiles and dogs, so that this is really a commentary about first-century Judaism. We have a pretty rigid idea of what Jesus should and shouldn't do, and we'll do just about anything to protect it. We sing a cradle song at Christmas time about a baby Jesus who never cried. We hear of a runaway twelve-year-old, find him lecturing his elders in the temple, and refuse to scold him. We talk about a Jesus who "was in every way tempted as we are, yet did not sin." And we think this means he was without error.
But being without sin doesn't mean he never did anything incorrect. "Without sin" means that there was no separation from God. Jesus was truly human and truly divine, we say. If so, surely part of being human is learning from your errors. You grow from your mistakes, and deepen from repentance. These things are our primary means of moral and spiritual learning, and Jesus—as both the Son of God and a human being—is meaningless if we strip him of them.
Why be afraid to take this story at face value? Jesus was mean to the woman and she called him on it. "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table," she said. And he thought about what she said, and then he thought better of his actions and did something different. He allowed an old woman—and a Canaanite one, at that—to instruct him.
Who would I be if I had not seen my errors and learned from them? Who would I be if I were right all the time? Nobody of any use. I would be so far removed from human experience that anything I might say about it would be irrelevant. And who would Jesus be if his temptations were somehow less real than ours? His temptations were terrible—and they would get a lot worse than having a bad day and snapping at somebody.
It is never too late to do things differently. Correction can come from some pretty unexpected places, and we'd better be ready for it—if we want to become everything we can become. We should not be ashamed of error when it appears: shame cannot correct itself. It can only hide in silence, or stammer out a self-justification that doesn't hold water. Better to hear ourselves, and hear others, and have the guts to change.
This eMo, like several others in this book, was written on a Friday in anticipation of the Scripture readings specified in the lectionary for use on the following Sunday. The lectionary (see pp. 888–931 of the Book of Common Prayer) is a three-year cycle (Years A, B, and C) of scriptural readings that gives the regular worshiper a good overview of the entire Bible. This particular eMo, written in Year A of the three-year cycle, anticipates the Sunday in the church calendar known as Proper 15, for which the Gospel reading is Matthew 15:21–28.
We swam through the clear water, looking down at the white sand as we went over it. So clean. Lit by the strong sun so that the sand sparkled even under the water's surface. Absolutely free of anything beyond itself. Savannah Bay on Virgin Gorda is a Caribbean postcard, a white arc of pristine sand edging turquoise water, surrounded by palms and sea grapes. On and out we swam, my little girls and I, but it was not the sunny swim over the clear sandy bottom for which we came. It was what lay beyond it.
In the distance, something dark: the sunny water ended abruptly ahead, and all was mysterious. Tall shadows, looming. Approaching the darkness, I felt a sudden foreboding. You shouldn't take your children here. This is dark. Go back. The dark place seemed to pull us toward it, as if we would be sucked into it and never escape. It grew taller as we approached. Perhaps we should turn back. Perhaps we shouldn't go any closer.
No. This is the sea. You know it well. There is nothing bad here. This is what you came for. Go forward.
And then we were there. And it wasn't really dark at all. It was the beginning of the reef. The first ancient arms of coral spreading in the water, and the first fish—creeping, nibbling, darting, nosing into little holes, disappearing into crevices and coming out again. Tiny black damsels with iridescent, electric blue sparkles that glowed in the dark. Red-eyed squirrelfish that poked quietly near the bottom at something tasty on a rock. Great parrotfish in psychedelic colors—fish with beaks! You could hear them pecking at the great corals. Flotillas of squid, steaming past in wedges like the wedges in which geese fly, turning all at once and jetting off in another direction. Strange exoskeletoned trunkfish, striped like zebras and triangular in shape, with pipelike noses and strangely intelligent eyes. Wary barracuda, minding their own business at the bottom and warning us without words to leave them alone. Motionless urchins, showing their spines among the corals: DON'T TREAD ON ME.
And the plants: funny flower ones that retracted suddenly into their holes when you went to touch them; tall green ones that waved in the current, stretching for the sun. And the corals, stony memorials to the billions of tiny animals whose bodies comprise them, whose completed lives still host the lives of other animals. Purple fan corals like undulating lace. Ancient brain corals hosting a score of small fish at once. Many-armed giant corals, like petrified cacti.
When we swam toward the reef, it was frightening. I don't want to go there. When we got there, it was beautiful, more beautiful than any bland expanse of clean sand could ever be. Sand is dead. The reef is alive, a community of souls, great and small, breathtaking in their individual beauties—a cathedral, taken as a whole.
A cathedral. The reef is like a cathedral. Weeks and years and centuries, layers of experience, eras of building and fallow eras, witness to countless lives, repository of destinies. The stone and glass souls of nameless craftsmen, alive still in the things they have left us, things whose origins are forgotten, whose meanings are forgotten or changed, whose wonder shines through the age and wear, the coral of human aspiration and skill.
And the people in it are very like the fish. Many of them, there from many places, for many reasons: intent on business, striding across the nave, kneeling in a chapel, gathering in groups to look and see, sweeping the floor, talking in pairs, hearing the organ, sitting in silence, thinking secret things, preaching public ones. The whisper of their presence remains in the cathedral after they are gone: long gone, or just gone. They lie in ashes in the columbarium. They stand in stone in the niches. Some were cut off in the prime of life, their names inscribed in a book eloquent in its heartache; others lie in dignity beneath their own effigies, dead from a gentle and dignified old age. The living light candles and weep, marry, and laugh. And the dead provide a place for them.
The great edifices of the natural world and the world of human creation are made of countless small lives. They are large, but they are not strange. They are ours. In them, life and death form a continuum. Life is not found in the uneventful swim over unblemished dead sand. It is found in the reef, that place that looked dark before we arrived there. When we arrived, it was lovely.
"You think about death too much," somebody said to me yesterday. I think about death some. We think death is dark. We are afraid. When we arrive there, we will find it is not so. I think we will find that it is alive.
Too Much Motet?
It's the radio announcer's birthday, and he gets to play anything he wants, he says. So he starts off with the Tallis Scholars doing a forty-voice motet. Forty? Good Lord. How many Tallis Scholars are there? They must have had to bring in temps.
Polyphony from composers like Thomas Tallis must have been terrifically exciting after all those centuries of music that barely moved. Two voices, three voices, four, eight voices interweaving with one another, becoming more and more unearthly as they climbed around each other—into the sky, like the Gothic cathedrals that were going up at the same time. Sublime.
Of course people wanted to add more and more. If eight voices is amazing, twelve will be more amazing. How about twenty? Human one-upmanship would inevitably come into play, and the goal would become the stuffing of voices into a short piece of music—like the way stuffing nuts and syrup between as many layers of phyllo as you can becomes the goal of baklava.
But music isn't baklava.
The motet started off well: one lovely tenor, joined by a treble. Then the organic interweaving began, more and more complex, lovelier and lovelier. Ah, I thought, and stretched under the covers as I lay and listened. As the voices piled on, though, it began to sound like one of those New York restaurants that caters to really hip people: crowded and noisy, like a gym. It ceased being music and became noise. There are limits to everything. A forty-voice motet is just too much motet.
It's so hard for me to admit that there can be too much of a good thing. Moderation has never been my strong suit. In the chapel at seminary, a thoughtful architect inlaid the seven fruits of the Spirit in beautiful ancient-looking letters right into the mosaic floor in front of the choir, where the students sat. He must have known we'd have trouble with some of them. My friend Denny and I used to sit as close to "Temperance" as we could, hoping that some of it would rub off on us. But it never did. Such moderation as we learned, we each learned later on, the hard way.
If one job is a good thing, three isn't necessarily better.
If one donut is delicious, that doesn't mean you should have six.
You don't double up a prescription drug on your own. You call your doctor.
Excerpted from From the Geranium Farm by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Copyright © 2003 Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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