"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

28 August 2009


Just in case anyone here is interested, I've created a new weblog, Reflected Light, at wordpress.com. It's mainly my course website, with the syllabi, schedules, assignments, and so on for each of the courses I'm teaching. I've also posted some of the presentations I've done for the college chapels and various forums.

26 August 2009

Omens of Beauty

Late rising (wondrous summer!) and staying indoors most of the time to avoid exacerbating my many allergies have conspired to keep me from Phoebe's sight for quite a long time now. Last night, as we drove home from the college's opening convocation, there she was, halfway between quarter and new, shining boldly amidst stormy clouds that seemed to quail at her brilliance. Her loveliness so filled the sky that I half-expected to see her still there as we left the house this morning.

If I believed in omens, I would believe that she showed herself at just this time to warn me to delight in the beauty of the new year beginning, at last, today. If I believed in omens, I would praise the Son for giving me just this image of the loveliness of His reflected light at just this time.

A monk once replied to a young man who asked if a rainbow had been a sign to him, "Do you really believe that God determines the weather just for you?" At the time, I laughed with him in a gentle mockery of his questioner. Now, I would urge that young man to say, "Why not?"

For the beauty of Phoebe last night and the beauty she presages: Praise Him.

12 August 2009

Unintended Consequences

The catering service at my college decided last year to eliminate the use of trays. You can still get them if you are arthritic, say (or even just cantankerous), and if you know where the small stash is set aside or are willing to ask for one. But they are no longer available in the regular line and only a few of us use them.

The decision was based on research that shows much less food waste when customers don't have trays on which to stack multiple plates or multiple rolls, brownies, and so on. I applaud this; food is a valuable resource and I am glad our caterers desire to steward it well -- not to mention that it helps keep the cost down for the students. It's also a good thing, I believe, for students to see stewardship in action and learn to be more moderate in what they take.

Some negative consequences were, I'm sure, considered, such as the need to make multiple trips to get silverware and a drink. For some of us, this is a genuine difficulty because of health problems (or even time constraints between classes at times); but the trays are available if one is really needed. And for everyone else, it's one of those minor annoyances that it's not that difficult to become used to. New students may never even notice it.

But there has been a negative consequence that I'm sure was unintended. I won't claim that it outweighs the savings on food and food costs, but I do think it's worth noting: the lack of trays has made it more difficult for us to serve each other during a meal.

For example, a colleague returning to the line to get a cup of coffee and a dessert can no longer offer to get something for two or three or four others, because he can't carry the cups or plates. This was always a boon to conversation and often an important service to someone with a health problem. It's harder to let someone serve you if he has to make multiple trips to do so, after all, and so you do it yourself or say you don't want anything, even if you do.

And this is even more noticeable when people are finishing up a meal. With trays, one or two people who didn't have classes coming up, or one or two of the men when it was a mixed group, would gather all the plates and cups and glasses and silverware and return them to the kitchen for the rest of us. Over and over I was benefited by this service and was glad when I could offer it to someone else, and I was often surprised at who offered it -- not infrequently a student from the next table over would swoop in on us and take our dishes.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with getting one's own after-dinner coffee or taking care of one's own dishes after finishing a meal. But the giving and receiving of service teaches us humility and reminds us of the bond we share with each other in this community; it helps to develop fellowship and Christian charity. I miss its easy availability.

Again, I am not opposed to our caterer's decision; I think it is a good one. But I think it is also a good example of how choices have consequences that are not always directly related to the reasons for making them. No one, after all, would deny that serving each other is a good thing; no one wanted to end or make more difficult our service to each other. Yet it has happened, and it has reminded me once again of the fact that in a fallen world, we cannot "solve" problems; we can only make trade-offs. Every choice we make that ameliorates some difficulty will have some unintended consequences that create or exacerbate other difficulties. If we see it in such a simple thing as whether or not to use trays in a cafeteria, how much more so in the political and social decisions that affect entire communities and nations?

God help us to take seriously the fact of unintended consequences, to consider carefully what they might be, and make our choices with wisdom and understanding, realizing the fallenness of this world.

06 August 2009

Ninety Years

Monday was my daddy's 90th birthday. I've been supremely blessed to have known him for nearly 57 of those years (my brother for 61); he and our mother have been married for 66.

He served in WWII in the Air Force; he managed a pecan orchard; he worked as the landscape architect and the building and grounds supervisor at a major university. He hunted quail and pheasant and deer (a prize-winning deer head is now in the Rockefeller mansion); he fished for trout and redfish and whatever other fish he could catch. He served faithfully in his church at every level, and participated in work trips to a sister church in Mexico, teaching them horticultural techniques and helping with building projects.

But most of all, he has loved his family. I never for one moment in my life doubted his love. At nearly 57, I am still the same daddy's girl that I was at 7, and if I could I would curl up in his lap again and laugh with him over the happenings of our days.

His body and mind are rebelling now. He lives in an assisted living home (and thank God for lovely people who love and honor the elderly), a difficult thing for both him and Mother, but necessary for the health and safety of them both. When I left after a week there last May, Mother went to see him and he said, "Maribeth was here?" But when I had arrived, he had known me immediately, and never wavered in knowing me during the entire week. His mind might trick him about when he saw me last, but it doesn't forget who I am when I'm there. And if it does in the future, if he looks at me and thinks I'm my mother or his sister or whoever -- I am confident that some part of him will still know me and love me, because nothing is stronger than that love.

Last year when I was able to visit for several weeks, he talked to me once or twice, when we were alone together, about his sense of failure -- he was of course upset over not being able to do the many things he has always done and being dependent on Mother and the rest of us, and was feeling useless because of it, but when I assured him that his lack of activity didn't change his value to us or his ability to love us, he teared up and said he "hadn't been as good as [he] should be." It startled me, but opened the way for us to talk about the love of Jesus in a way we rarely had before. He knew it, but the newly clear view of mortality was forcing him to think of it in more urgent ways.

Daddy has never been demonstrative about his faith, but I've never doubted its reality -- not because of his work in the church so much as because of that unwavering love for us. One of his few regular shows of faith was the mealtime prayer that he always spoke. It was a memorized prayer, which he would occasionally change a bit or add to in honor of special occasions, like a birthday or our visits after we'd grown and gone. At one time, in the hubris of a young belief, I scorned this -- but I have learned since then, thank God, that repetition needn't be mindlessness, that it can hold great value in so many ways. And last summer, as I first saw for myself the way his mind had begun to trick him, I prayed that he would never lose that prayer.

Mother called me last night (my late-sent birthday card had still not arrived; I'm a lousy daughter) and told me about the birthday dinner. My brother brought venison for the main meal, my aunt (Daddy's "baby" sister; she's only 81) brought cake; Mother brought flowers for the table. The staff set them up in a private spot. The meals of course are communal as a rule, and there is always someone who says grace -- so Daddy has had very few occasions to pray before a meal for over a year now. So when Mother said, "Let's say grace," she assumed she would need to do so -- but as she reached for his hand, she saw that he had already bowed his head, and he spoke his prayer, perfectly, without so much as a second's hesitation.

And she tells me that the last couple of weeks he's been doing something new: he sings "Jesus love me, this I know / for the Bible tells me so" -- and then says, in complete confidence, "And I know that's true."

Ninety years. I want him here for the rest of mine, and I fear the loss that will come sooner rather than later, but I will always think of him singing "Jesus loves me" as the inevitable approaches, and be thankful in seeing that, indeed, love can't be taken away.