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Artichokes & City Chicken
Reflections on Faith, Grief, and My Mother's Italian Cooking
By Jan Groft
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2015 Jan Groft
All rights reserved.
if a tree falls in the forest
God's silences are actually his answers.
— Oswald Chambers
It has been three months now, and I am still lost. Anything I have ever known about writing seems to have evaporated. Absent, gone. Nonexistent. It is worse than constipation. I try pushing through it, not counting the three-hour breakfasts with a neighbor, the Zumba lessons, the week spent organizing recipes. Pencil markings on paper, hands folded in prayer, teacup stains on a desk bearing elbows, hands holding head. Still, nothing.
It makes me wonder. Who am I and where did I come from and what am I doing here on Earth, other than devouring dark russet potato chips?
Do I even have a voice?
This subject of hearing, of being heard, has been prominent throughout my life. I could talk, I could shout, I could sing, and chances were that my mother, severely impaired by Ménière's Disease, would not hear me. Or, if she did, that which was heard may not have matched that which was intended. Yet it was more than the physical ailment that stymied connection. With a swat of her hand through the air, she'd dismiss my words as though they were pestering flies or turn her back on me, endlessly stirring sauce simmering on the stove. Or, unable to recognize my voice, she'd slam down the phone when I called, the silence between us impenetrable. The old philosophical query comes to mind: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Now the writing, which I nursed and rocked and held close to me, has gone silent. The separation gnaws at me. It is true that I've been among those pooh-poohing the idea of writer's block, an annoying just-do-it type, but now the frantic search for a topic leads me to a small black box perched on my study bookshelf — the one labeled "Ideas." It is the repository for a mishmash of ponderings that I someday might tackle on the page. This is the first time that I am lifting the lid in the hope of finding — versus depositing — a nugget of inspiration.
There in the box is an index card. It is dated August 3, 2006, and contains these notes:
Mother moved to Structured Living.
"My Mother's Clock" (possible essay title)
Mother's clock is off by four and a half hours. This is nothing new. In the past, the timepiece has been wrong by six, eight, even ten hours, slowly losing time, but she has refused to adjust it. It is a Sonic Boom model purchased for its thundering alarm to compensate for her hearing loss. Across the side buttons, she has taped a sliver of a Band-Aid to keep my sister and me from fiddling with the settings.
I barely remember capturing these thoughts on paper, but I do recall the clock, the way it lost time, and that Mother wouldn't allow us to reset it or change the batteries for fear of breaking it. (We did these things only when we could sneak them past her.) Dementia had set in, possibly confusing the essence of time, and compounding what had already been distorted reasoning, distrust and suspicions, agitation and anxiety. In addition, she had been deaf in the left ear for as long as I could remember.
"Nobody tells me anything!" she would snap.
The feelings of isolation emanated, in part, from this impaired hearing. It is also true that I, for one, was reticent to open up to her. The recurring negativity felt like stabs: Get away from me. Looking back, I see how unequipped I was — and, finally, too calloused — to understand that the anger and snide remarks were billboards for pain.
After Dad died and we moved Mother north from Florida to care for her, it was like discovering a bundle on the doorstep, foreign, unknowable, as my sisters and I groped through the webs of dementia and hearing loss, now affecting her right ear, as well. She was eighty-six, and she lived until age ninety-two.
On the back of the index card: a conversation between Mother and me. We'd been sitting in her room, she on the loveseat and me on a nearby chair. Most likely I'd recorded it to illustrate the mounting difficulty she and I were encountering in our never-ending effort to communicate.
Me: Did I tell you our cat died?
Me: Did I tell you our cat died?
Me: OUR CAT DIED!
Mother: DO WHATEVER YOU WANT!
The exchange occurred some time after the heartbreak around the veterinary table as my husband, younger daughter, and I witnessed Murphy's lethal injection, half-blinded by an avalanche of tears. I'd hesitated to mention this sooner to Mother, knowing the challenges of explaining it, not only because of the barrier imposed by the hearing limitations but also because of the fear of her response. Neither of us had mastered the skill of tending emotionally to the other, a reality that made grief even lonelier. When my best friend died at age forty-one, and I shared the excruciating news, Mother had shrugged, "Oh, well, what are you going to do?"
On one level, I was able to acknowledge that her reaction was nothing personal. It's just who she was, addressing the nuisance of pain by refusing to acknowledge it. On another level, I longed for even a tiny sign that she felt my sadness, a hug or some small inflection of voice.
At the time that I jotted the notes on the index card, I had no idea that in less than three weeks, Mother would fall, break her hip, and rush toward death as efficiently as she used to sweep dust from our breezeway floor. The sonic boom clock had slowed down in much the same way that my mother's heart would soon stop beating.
The card triggers memories, and the scribbling takes off: the reprimands over mumbling "just like your father," the slap at the air to dismiss words that were unintelligible to her. And then, the dementia. It arrived like an uninvited guest, illuminating our failure to connect and slamming the door behind itself.
Words spill onto paper, the pangs receding. Breathe, breathe. The page is my harbor. I write and write, and like an image developing through darkroom chemicals, there she is, locked in silence, watching lips move, wondering are they talking about me? The distance that existed between us sharpens in focus, not in a way that explains it, but in a way that shines with the indisputable fact that it was not intentional.
My grasp tightens on the pencil, and there is a glimmer of hope: My mother no more wanted to shut me out than she wanted to feel disregarded. Could this struggle to hear my own voice spark the mercy, at last, that might connect us? The thoughts form words; the words lead to an essay; the essay becomes a submission; the submission is rejected. After rereading, I concur that a rejection was deserved. The effort is incomplete, as is my knowledge of the mysteries that were buried in the coffin with Mother, unanswered questions about which I am unable to speculate, hurts that were rooted so deeply in her heart that they led to criticism, bouts of agitation. And yet, at the same time, she was compelled to slough off pain as though it were inconsequential. Finally, I file the piece in a folder labeled "My Mother's Clock."
The attempt, I see now, was a crucial step, an unleashing of sorts. Even more significant was the filing away of it. The letting go. The respite from striving to be heard. Still, the yearning does not go away, for now here it is again — the wrestling with nothingness, a page that is every bit as blank as Mother's expression when I tried and tried to make her hear me. Does God separate me from my words because forcing silence is the only way to penetrate this stubborn skull of mine?
Zip it! is what I begin to hear. I want you to listen.
"When you cannot hear God," writes Oswald Chambers, "you will find that He has trusted you in the most intimate way possible — with absolute silence ... because He saw that you could withstand an even bigger revelation."
A light flickers, a message illuminated. The silence. The longing for closeness.
"We have run away from most of our pain for so long," writes Stephen Levine, "that we now have no idea how to deal with it." With Mother long gone, I wonder if bridging the gap left behind is still a possibility. I want to believe that it is, and that she has been resurrected through grace by a God who is master of second and third and hundredth, no, infinite chances.
* * *
At times, our hearts feel so shattered, our brains so distraught, that we question whether God is anywhere in the neighborhood. We might even feel irked, believing, as Mary and Martha did, that Jesus is dillydallying elsewhere, while our own needs for help are profound.
When their brother, Lazarus, fell sick and died, both women complained, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
The parable of Lazarus encourages faith in a higher power, even when trust appears to arrive too late. With God, it is never too late. And so Jesus commands those surrounding Lazarus's tomb to take away the stone.
Ugh, Martha insists. It's been four days since he died. The odor will be preposterous.
"Did I not tell you," says Jesus, "that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"
As Lazarus walks out of the tomb, with hands and face and feet still wrapped in burial linens, the glory of God is nearly blinding. It's a promise we've heard again and again: Nothing is impossible with God. Resolution can be found even after years of unforgiveness. Reconciliation can occur even after death slams the door. Hurts can heal. Peace can arrive. Nothing is impossible with God.
The same heart that holds hurt, aching and broken, can also be the vehicle for healing. For it is through the heart that we listen. It is right there in black and white: the word "ear" tucked into "hear," both cradled into "heart."
* * *
They say that to show love, one must feel loved. Does this mean that to hear, the heart must first feel heard?
I think of my father's mantra, staunchly delivered: Think positive! Mind over matter! As a literal-minded kid, I began shelving negative feelings in deference to my father's unflinching brand of optimism that appeared to conquer all. By over-subscribing to this philosophy, I succeeded in some ways. At the same time, I learned to disregard a small, hurting voice: my own.
Yet even Jesus got angry (remember how he flipped over the merchants' tables outside the tabernacle?) and sad ("Jesus wept" at the sight of his friend Lazarus's lifeless body) and desperate ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). Nobody ever called Jesus a whiner. It seems telling that the man for whom God's voice was most audible was deeply in touch with his own heart's bidding.
After years of practice, my adeptness at tuning out the negative grew. It is not easy granting ample airtime to sorrow, when one's tendency has been to head up the search team for the silver lining. A positive attitude can be a handy asset; don't get me wrong. Gratitude and hope are the makings of a life filled with joy. But in addition to the Norman Vincent Peale books and Dale Carnegie lectures, perhaps our hearts could use some listening lessons.
* * *
Can a person learn to listen? Grow in it?
God promised that if we listen and try to understand, if we seek out insight as we would hidden treasure, we'll find knowledge and wisdom, protection. We'll understand what's right and what path to take.
"For wisdom will enter your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.
Discretion will protect you,
and understanding will guard you."
When I was a college freshman, I struggled with a music appreciation course. The professor, Truman Bullard, was a renowned maestro, balding and compact. His passion for the classics energized the classroom. With grandiose gestures and a boom box on his desk, he brought them alive — Gregorian chants, symphonies, opera — like an orchestra conductor coaxing out the woodwinds. In spite of Dr. Bullard's efforts and my long hours wearing headphones to study in the library, I was lost. The music was lovely, but remembering and identifying which composer scored which piece seemed beyond comprehension. I was failing the course.
Then, during Christmas break while I was at home, it just so happened that the opera to be covered on our final exam, Don Giovanni, was scheduled to appear on public television. I was glued to the set. By seeing the characters, I came to know them and the pieces they performed. With the addition of the visual dimension, I was able to hear. In the end, I aced the test, catapulting my grade to a more respectable level.
The One who created us knows that we each have our own unique way of hearing and is more than willing to oblige. All it takes, God promises, is faith as tiny as a mustard seed. Not a whole crop of it, not even the sprout, just one tiny seed. So faith, as infinitesimal as it may be, comes first. In the words of St. Anselm of Canterbury, "I do not seek to understand so that I can believe, but I believe so that I may understand."
Author Catherine Marshall writes of how the Bible underwent a transformation for her once she committed her life to God.
"The more I read in this remarkable book," she asserts, "the more surely I knew that in its pages God Himself was speaking to me." The affirmation — the ability to hear and recognize a divine voice — springs from faith itself.
"We arrive at surety by one of two routes," she notes. "With questions pertaining to our bodies or material matters, we are convinced by intellectual, scientific or evidential proof. With questions pertaining to man's spirit, we are convinced only by personal revelation. For instance, a question like 'How do I know He loves me?' can never be proved by reasoning or in the laboratory. For love is in the area of spirit from whose door the scientific kind of proof is turned away every time. Yet the flooding inner revelation: 'He does love me! He loves me!' is valid, bringing such surety that I am willing to commit my life to my love."
Yes, the flooding inner revelation. The grace that rises from loss, the trials that instruct, the overwhelming encounters with nature. Can it be that receiving divine love means standing before God even in our ugliest, sorriest, saddest moments, and opening up to revelation? Even as unpracticed in receiving as we may be?
The flooding arrives in the quiet or amid crowds, in times of prayer or deep sorrow, in the beckoning hours of awakening or the weighty moments before sleep, in the crusty fields of farms or the soul-cleansing warmth of the rain shower, on drives through the countryside or across the interstate. It can also be triggered by the printed word, most notably, as Marshall conveys, on the pages of the Bible.
At a time when I was concerned that the manuscript for my first book, a spiritual memoir, would make its permanent home in a file drawer, a scriptural verse prompted me to reconsider. Propped against pillows in a hotel room bed after a grueling day at a writers' conference, I encountered the words. The publisher I'd met with that afternoon advised that the time wasn't right for getting a memoir to print; various workshop leaders concurred. These were the experts; they knew the state of the industry and, according to them, regardless of writing quality, the climate was such that publishing houses were not willing to invest in autobiographical material written by high-risk (a.k.a. unknown) authors.
Years of crafting the manuscript tumbled free fall through my mind. I wanted to catch and save it somehow, but I felt powerless, uninitiated. Riding the Dog had been my first major effort at spiritual writing. My own experience of flooding inner revelation had inspired it: an unmistakable holy presence during a summer of intense grief. Now, in the hotel bed with a Bible resting on my lap, I randomly turned to a page. And there, a verse, which did not seem random at all, awaited: "I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.'"
The words made a beeline for my heart. I read them again. It was true. I am just one voice, a small one, to be sure, and isn't every single one of us just one voice? A renewed determination stirred within me to use my God-given talent in a way that felt right. It wasn't easy, but within six months, the book was under contract for publication.
How does this stirring arise? From where does it emanate? I think it goes something like this: The minute we believe, even in a tiny-mustard-seed-size proportion, the voice of the Holy Spirit stirs within. It encourages and inspires with no other motive than to help us become who God created us to be. Peace-filled, profound, tenacious, and true, it arrives in our hearts like a holy whisper.
* * *
Long ago, a sign was posted along the Pennsylvania Turnpike in areas that were under construction. On the sign was an illustration of a white-bearded man wearing a red, white, and blue top hat, apparently "Uncle Sam," pointing his forefinger at passersby. The words in capital letters accompanying the drawing were: "YOU, SLOW DOWN." I am typically not a shouting person, nor do I respond well to those who shout at me. My reaction to this sign was visceral. Whenever I saw it, my inclination was to step on the gas.
Excerpted from Artichokes & City Chicken by Jan Groft. Copyright © 2015 Jan Groft. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: if a tree falls in the forest,
Chapter Two: waiting,
Chapter Three: the discernment committee,
Chapter Four: subtracting,
Chapter Five: mattering,
Chapter Six: wandering and watching,
Chapter Seven: the unfathomable character of life,
Chapter Eight: drinking the water,
Chapter Nine: the moravian trombone choir,