As you may know, I am spending a few months in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments. Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.
Contest submissions closed. Winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana, announced mid-February…
Now I am further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing. If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June, August, and September retreats are now booking and filling fast. Email me for more info: Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com
It’s amazing how the simple things bring happiness when we’re brave enough to stop and pay attention. Please enjoy this lovely piece by Katie Andraski. yrs. Laura
How the Teacher Introduced Herself to her Class on The Joy Diet Or The Teacher Writes About The Happiest Time of Her Life , by Katie Andraski
This happy time I’m in now, started with a pot of soup three years ago. It’s been the longest, most consistent time I’ve been happy. My husband, Bruce, and I had just driven five hours from Albany to Bath, Maine. We’d almost bought it three times when semis merged into our lane with us in it. Our nerves were shot. And we were headed for our second family, the Proctors.
I’ve known them since I could think. Gene has told the story that she met my mother when my brother started kindergarten and met her son Bruce. I had to be two, so I’m not kidding about how long I’ve known them.
There are all kinds of stories I could tell you about the Proctors. Martha Beck’s descriptions about how doing nothing can be a frightening exercise because “if you have suffered greatly and not yet resolved your pain, you may find it literally unbearable to become physically still, the moment you really quiet your body, you’ll feel the monsters of unprocessed grief, rage, or fear yammering at the dungeon doors of your unconscious mind” reminds me of my own resistance to taking up Buddhism. Bruce Proctor had challenged me to look into it, but the weird visions a person might see while sitting seemed too close to the demons I didn’t want to welcome into my life. Bruce Proctor literally did nothing for hours on end, days at a time. Sitting practice. I saw him move from a jiggly would-be rock star who couldn’t keep his legs or his eyes still to a man with a calm presence. It was as profound a conversion as I ever saw. Though to be truthful I saw him blast right past that to seeing auras on trees and gremlins hopping in branches and hearing Jesus’ voice. It was creepy how he’d sit on the love seat and weave like a cobra. He’d walked from Paris, Maine to Albany, New York by himself, following old rail beds. He had hooked up with the outfit in Boulder that became known for its excesses and sexual abuse during those years. Eventually he found his way to the Zen Center of New York. Now he photographs his visions using the light and shadow of desert landscapes and junkyards.
I could tell you about Ron Proctor sitting behind me in eighth grade because Proctor came right after Pauley, and he’d kick my chair and call me The Beast. But I was vindicated when I saw what he wrote in Donna Wright’s yearbook how she should be more like me. He is drop dead gorgeous and never been married. One year we were visiting his parents, and he took us to Pemaquid Point, the site of a well-photographed lighthouse where I imagined riding a brown horse along the rocks and into the sea.
He borrowed a skiff and took us to the Kennebec River fishing. The Bath Ironworks are awesome anytime you see them, but we were down in the river looking at sparks bright enough to blind us. Cranes big enough to tower over a naval frigate frightened me; they were so big. Hell, all that iron swept up like cliff faces frightened me. Somehow a hull that is halfway made is more awesome than a finished one. Is it the emptiness that makes it so big? My husband pulled a striped bass as big as he was out of the river. And the water was alive with chop and the amber colors of sunset.
These are men who I fell in love with as a young girl. Bruce Proctor as much as anyone inspired me to write and to think. Ron was my gorgeous classmate. I tried to convert them both to evangelical Christianity in these wonderful arguments about faith and atheism, Buddhism and Christian mysticism. My prayers and Bible readings around them shaped me into the kind of Christian I am, someone not so sure the hellfire preachers of my childhood told the truth. Oh I’d cry they’d come to know Jesus because hell was real as the gravel road and night I walked into. Then the Bible started to speak mysterious things about God not willing anyone should perish, about how praying in God’s will would make it so. So if I prayed for Bruce and Ron, even their whole family to know Jesus, than it was in God’s will, and they’d come to know him. They’d be saved. Don’t ask me how free will plays into this. I don’t know.
The apostle Paul himself talks about the Judeo-Christian mythology—Adam bringing death into the world–universal death that none of us escapes. Then the mystery—Jesus brings life and resurrection to the world, more so than Adam. None of us escapes. As far as I know neither one knows the Lord in the traditional evangelical sense I was thinking of as a kid.
Even after my father tried to talk Bruce into Christ, he’d lean back and say, “I don’t know about that. but you’re my second family,” which flipped when my parents and brother died and suddenly the Pauleys weren’t a family and the Proctors became my second family. It was Bob and Gene who took in my husband, Bruce, and I, giving us a second shot at the kind of love parents give—the pot of soup waiting at the end of a long day kind of love.
The wind had caught the sea at Birch Point, and the water was amber and the wind caught us as we got out of the car, whipping our shirts with enough chill that I didn’t want to walk out to the point. But my beloved Bruce settled himself as the wind and the waves blustered around him as joyously as a barking golden retriever.
Bob and Gene weren’t going to be home when we arrived because they had a wedding to attend. There was a slow cooker of vegetable soup and a pan of chocolate cake, and a Post It note telling us to eat up and enjoy. Which is what Bruce and I did. We took our bowls to the table and looked out their window at the amber light and point jutting across the way with a dock floating at high tide. Opposite us was a lobster boat tied to a buoy. We stared out the window hoping to see the funnels of the Scotia Princess below the horizon as the ship plied her way from Portland to Halifax. On the window ledge was a carved wooden fisherman, a wire hanging down, a line into the air, a line into water.
Part of hospitality is the home a family sets around themselves. That empty space where people live and move and have their being. The Proctors’ house is bigger than it looks even though it’s built on the foundation of a cabin, Maine’s rules for building on the coast, holding the Proctors to that space. It’s full of nooks and crannies with little things Gene has found at garage sales and flea markets here and there. When I’m there, I delight in looking at the dish full of sea glass, delight in the glass frog I sent one Christmas. I sit in the covered easy chairs, staring at the wooden ships and grandfather clock standing straight like a tall person who doesn’t have to stoop, standing tall under the cathedral ceiling, the moon in its face.
Part of hospitality is the home a family sets around their guests—two bathrobes hung on hooks in the bedroom, and orange juice on the front porch, the ocean as glassy and quiet as it was chopped the night before, the air balmy. Gene has stepped into a mother’s role, taking me shopping at Renys, a Maine department store or buying me a necklace and earrings because that’s what moms do for daughters. Bob has told stories of when he worked as a civil engineer in Alaska and New York, family stories that don’t belong to me because I didn’t grow up with them, but stories that welcomed us to the hearth. They have welcomed us into a solitary space and listened when we’ve needed counsel for our lives. And they have delighted in the gifts we’ve sent, the bulb garden that bloomed in January adding color to the front window, and the black raspberry jam Bruce made from wild bushes in the field across the street.
There’s something about simple loving hospitality that helped put me in my skin after a hard, hard winter that was as close to a dark night of the soul as I’ve come, that began with a sentence small as a lemon twist from relatives I wanted to visit, saying in essence, you’re family, but not for Christmas, not even the Christmas right after September 11, when I wanted to touch my own blood. Amazing how a sentence can twist open a whole bottle of loneliness.
It didn’t help to be reading the classic by St. John of the Cross, wishing I wouldn’t go through a dark night of the soul. But sure enough I did. The details aren’t important—my beloved cousin died, my students didn’t come to my classes, my writing turned me inside out so much so that I felt like an emotional burn patient thinking nobody wanted to be my friend I was so dark–but what is important is how one seems to go with the other—mourning shall last for the night, but a shout of joy will come in the morning.
And somehow that pot of soup and cake and wind tossed evening changed everything. Somehow Gene and Bob throwing their arms around us, saying, “It’s so good to see you” stopped the rule of darkness in my life. Stopped it dead in its tracks. Everything flipped, and I found joy and light and quiet in the simplest of things. And the people I felt were far away suddenly drew near on their own, without me doing anything. Maybe that’s why Jesus says it all hinges on a cup of water or should I say a pot of soup.