28 October 2008

Halloween Rising

Halloween has been central to my life since before I can remember. I was born within a few days of October 31st and have had an affinity for the holiday ever since. It is one of the most creative times of the year for me and it holds a special place in my heart.

In kindergarten I took to wearing my queen cape (a ratty piece of blue fabric) and tinfoil crowns to school every day. I was Queen Kristin and apparently was not going to let anyone forget it. (I apparently skipped over the whole 'princess' stage-- going right for the throne. My mom still has one of my first legible writing samples-- I was Queen Kristin there also.)

I remember several of my Halloween-themed birthday parties when I was a kid. I don't know if they were annual events or if the one or two I can remember just stand out in my mind.

By the time I got to Junior High School I was making my own costumes. My sewing skills were always out stripped by my imagination, but that never stopped me. The one time I branched out and helped a friend make her costume was much more successful-- not only was she recognizable as a nun, she won third place at the costume contest at the school dance. My own costume-- Guinevere from the King Aurthur legends did not fare as well.

Wyoming weather offered an additional stumbling block to the would-be costumer. It invariably snowed or dropped to 20 degrees below zero on Halloween. It is very difficult to float about in the diaphanous robes of Aphrodite while wearing snow boots and a heavy coat. I remember leaving my coat with my mom walking up the drive to show off my handiwork to a bewildered neighbor (“Now what are you, dear?”) and scampering back to wrap myself up for the walk to the next house down the block.

During that time in my life, the candy was just a bonus, what I really craved was the connection I felt when someone guessed what my costume was.

When I went off to college I was lucky enough to meet and become fast friends with a fellow costume fiend. While I still favored obscure themes and characters, she helped me learn how to sew (I bought my first and only sewing machine while in college-- it still runs to this day) and more importantly she taught me how to research an idea and refine it-- a skill that can be applied to other creative endeavors.

It was also in college that another Halloween/birthday tradition got started. Another friend, on a whim, made a piñata and brought it to my birthday party. The man who was to become my husband figured out how to rig it between our balcony and a tree so we could take turns swinging at it blindfolded-- eventually cracking it open, without too much damage to the local flora.

Now I have a nearly-10-year-old son who has had a Halloween costume every year (he was a frog when he was 10 months old (a green sweat suit with 'Kermit' style ping-pong eyes sewn to the hood of the sweatshirt). By the time he was going-on-three he was giving “Aunite” (my college-costume-friend and now housemate) detailed instructions on what his costume should look like. Kitties ruled for several years, then dinosaurs, last year he was a preying mantis and this year he will be the Lorax who speaks for the trees.

The penchant for dressing up never left me. For all that I sometimes felt stupid, insecure, or awkward when I would go out Trick or Treating as a child (and particularly as a young woman) the impulse to create always overwhelmed those other, more negative feelings. Each Halloween was a clean slate, a chance to try again and see if I could do better. When I got to college and found like-minded friends I blossomed.

My birthday party has evolved into a Halloween party for family, friends, and neighbors. And while the theme changes every year we always have a piñata. Auntie and I consult on the design, I build the armature and do the mache work. Auntie paints it (frequently with help from my son) using her theater background to bring flour and newsprint to life. My husband rigs the piñata for hanging in our carport and once the party is underway, gives the annual safety lecture before we blindfold our guest and let them swing like mad at our joint creation.

03 September 2008


I am on the Island of Iona with my mother. We are midway through a trip that started in the south of England in Torquay and will end with our return to London to fly home.

One of the subjects under discussion at we amble about has been stupid things we have done over the years. My most recent memorable stupid moment was about two years ago when I decided that I could manage to roll my mini-van down the driveway in the dark after the battery had died. However, once I put the van in neutral and gave an initial shove it gathered momentum much faster than I expected and rolled into a tree.

Now all along, there had been a little voice in the back of my head saying, in a somewhat sing-song voice "don't do this, it's not safe." I ignored that voice and ended up having to replace parts on the bike rack that was mounted on the back of the van as it had cushioned the van when it backed into the tree.

I did start listening to that voice when the van rolled away and I did not try to leap into the open door and steer.

Today we decided to climb to the highest point on Iona. Yesterday I had nearly had a spill when I tripped on a pothole in Tobermory and my ankle got a bit twisted. Nothing too bad and it didn't hurt at all this morning, but as we climbed-- scrambled really--it started to complain a bit. So when we reached a wide flatish spot not quite at the top of the hill I decided that I had come far enough.

Mom decided to climb a bit higher but stayed where I could see her-- so she didn't get to go all the way to the cairn at the top either. As she climbed, I felt bad about coming all this way and not reaching the summit (such as it is), but I had a clear vision of other times I had not listened to the prudent voice in my head and suffered near-disaster as a result. I thought about risk and pushing one's limits-- was I being overly cautious? How would I find out unless I pushed on? What if I pushed on and then found out I had over done it? In short, I began to doubt my decision. Still, I stuck to it.

Mom climbed back down to where I waited and we descended together. I voiced my concern that I had held her up and she reassured me that each person on a hike has to be aware of their own limitations and not overdo it so that everyone travels safely.

I found that comforting.

In this case, while I did not make it to the summit of the hill, I did make it safely back down again and me and my ankle are free to continue having further adventures, thanks to the still small voice of prudence.

24 August 2008

A Far Foreign Land

My most recent solo travel experience was to Norway in 2005. I had made a concerted effort for three years beforehand to learn Norwegian after having a wonderful time on my first trip there in 2000. While I was in Norway I made a concerted effort to speak only Norwegian. Luckily I had supportive cousins to practice on for the first week I was there. They were all very patient with me and even tried to explain Norwegian jokes to me. I remember following the explanation (just barely) but now all I can remember is the feeling of almost getting it.

After the first week in Oslo, I traveled to Bergen on my own and spent a week wandering around on my own. It was strange and wonderful. I entertained not a few shopkeepers with my basic language skills. One of the most comment comments I got from them was that it was nice to take a break from speaking English all day. I can't say how wonderful it was to have so many strangers be willing to play along with my somewhat odd attempts to communicate. I know I sounded funny (I still mix up the words for 'it' and 'they' when speaking) but no one gave up on me.

Upon returning to Oslo, I had even more time to myself and I went into downtown nearly every day. I think I went to church more times while in Norway than the entire year beforehand. There was something about experiencing the Eucharistic service in a foreign language that made the Mysterious feel very near indeed. For while I had a basic grasp of the language, my skills were nowhere near keeping up with liturgical-poetical language.

I thought a lot while I was on my trip. I had never traveled alone to such an extent and so had plenty of time for my thoughts to wander as my feet did. During one of my ramblings around the city I thought about death, and how it is sometimes compared to sleep or a long journey. I don't now remember the complete chain of thought that got me there, but one of the things that struck me was how much work goes into getting ready for a long trip or vacation.

Before I left the United States, I had get get my work to a place where my absence wouldn't cause a major problem, book tickets, pack, weigh suitcases, repack, shop for essentials, pack more, pay bills, get finances to a place where someone else could pay the bills while I was gone, etc... The list of chores just kept growing as the date kept getting closer, and then suddenly, like magic the day came. Whatever I had packed was what I was taking with me. The time for repacking and regrets was past.

I don't have a lot of experience with death, but for what little I do have, this image resonates for me. In particular I think of my maternal grandmother. She took a turn for the worse and the whole family came to see her off. It turned out she wasn't quite ready to go. She got better for a time and was very busy 'settling' things for a time. She had a long awaited visit from friends, dealt with her finances, kept an eye on the brother she felt responsible for and generally kept people busy around her-- and then, one day, she died. Just like that.

She had everything arranged and suddenly it was time to go. No regrets, no excuses, with whatever she had with her at the time.

We come to our end sooner than we would hope and all we can do is have our suitcase ready.

08 August 2008

Faith formation through fiction

Rev Gal Blog Pals had a question come into their "Ask the Matriarch" column asking what children's books would be good for a pastor's bookshelf.  

In thinking about the books that most strongly made me think about my concept of god and my relationship to faith, I realized that most of them are Science Fiction or Fantasy.  Not only that, but they are books that made me think.  I don't know that a priest would want to have these books on their bookshelf (I suspect they might offend some sensibilities) but they were instrumental in my faith journey.

The following are books that spoke to me when I was a kid-to-teen reader and newer books that I wish I had had back then.

Madeline L'Engle's "Wrinkle in Time" trilogy (Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet).

C.S. Lewis's  Narnia series (read in publication order, please!) :).

His  Perlanda series is also good, but a little weird, and I found the last book too scary to read initially (the cover scared me). I remember reading several of his other works (The Screwtape Letters is the only specific title I can remember) and finding them interesting as a teen.

Anything by Ursula Le Guin-- though her "Earthsea Cycle" (now up to about 5 books) is probably the most accessible for younger readers. She is someone who is fun to read because I 'got' more and more of the layers of her writing the older I became.  My favorite book of hers is "The Dispossessed."  Every time I read it, it changes the way I think about the world.

Frank Herbert and poet Bill Ransom had a series of science fiction books that I liked as a teenager-- not sure how they hold up now: "Destination: Void," "The Jesus Incident," "The Lazarus Effect," and "The Ascension Factor." (I have not read the fourth book-- I just found out about while looking up the titles of the first three).

As an adult I discovered the Terry Prachett Discworld series-- those are excellent for thinking about human relationships, and relationships to the divine while being entertained. "Feet of Clay" and "Small Gods" are particularly interesting from a religious standpoint. (Though "Small Gods" might be too grim for younger readers). The thing about Terry Prachett's work is that if you were one of the characters experiencing the events it wouldn't be the least bit funny, but the way he frames the setting his word choice makes his books easy to read, fun, and yet a bit spiky. He has a series that is more specifically aimed at younger readers (starting with "Wee Free Men") that features a young girl as the protagonist. I don't know that they have particularly religious themes in them, but really any fiction contains the seeds of theological reflection.

One book I was giving away to everyone I knew for a while was "Beauty" by Sherri Tepper. It is also better suited for older readers (includes scenes of violence and rape) but explores the human need for beauty and mystery and what might happen to us if we lose both our real and mythological 'wild' places.

I include the "Thomas Covenant" books in the interest in completeness.  It was the first book I read with a (vile) anti-hero as the protagonist and several things about it creeped me out, however it did have an interesting concept of god and free will-- something I reflected on often while in my teens.

Another series that came out when I was an adult is Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasy series that begins with "The Curse of Chailon." My favorite in the series is second book: "The Paladin of Souls." In this universe, gods clearly exist, but can only move in the world if a person opens their soul to the divine. A lovely, gritty, exploration of what it means to ask for a miracle.

I'm sure there are more-- but these are the ones I could clearly remember having an impact on how I viewed the world.  Looking back over this list, one of the things it brings to mind is the fact that my parents, while very happy to censor my TV and film viewing, never put any limits on which books I read.  That freedom to choose was a wonderful gift and led me to discover many wild imaginary lands.

13 January 2008

Building Together

13 January 2008

Every January, I spend some time reviewing the family finances.  My husband is better with numbers than I am but he is also the main breadwinner in the family, so when I left my previous job in 2002 I took over the day-to-day books.  Every month I pay the bills and balance the checkbooks.  We have multiple accounts (mostly to keep us from accidentally spending money we are saving for another purpose) so it’s a bit of a chore to get through everything.

At the end of the year, as I begin doing the prep work for the taxes, I see how much we spent on various fixed expenses and how much we saved during the year.  This year was not a saving year.  We determined at the beginning of 2007 to take out a loan to pay for two major purchases, as well as some smaller projects around the house.  It was very satisfying to get the work done but also a bit worrying to take on more debt.  We try to live as debt-free as possible– avoiding carrying balances on credit cards and trying to save up in advance for large purchases, so, other than our house, we don’t usually have a lot of outstanding debt.

When we were first married, over 15 years ago, we had very little debt thanks to our parents.  We had both been fortunate enough to have parents who were able to save up and pay for our college educations.  We both worked, as well, but the money we made mostly went to help defray basic living expenses.  My husband got a job right of college.  I did not.  We moved to Texas where his job was and started learning how to live on what we earned.  David made enough to make ends meet and I eventually got a part-time job.  We had one car and were living in a small town with no public transportation.  We saved a little money.

Then David needed a root canal.  That took most of our small savings.  We started saving again.  The car needed work and we were back to square one.  The bank account built up once more.  I had to go to the emergency room.  We had insurance through David’s work, but the ambulance ride wasn’t covered.  Back to square one.

Throughout all of this, David and I had been talking about buying a new, to us, car.  The 1972 Dodge Dart that we had was starting to cost a lot to maintain.  We saved up a few hundred bucks and went looking for a car, but everything we found that we could afford was a death-trap.  I still  clearly remember one car we went to look at that had a gas pedal that stuck at random times.  Even with this experience, I was resistant to taking out a loan.  Our daily financial life seemed so precarious to me that I couldn’t imagine a bank lending us money.

Two things occurred that changed my mind.  The first was on the drive to the airport that Christmas when the windshield wipers on the Dart failed and I had to reach in through the glove box and operate them manually (it was, of course, pouring down rain).  My knuckles were pretty beat up by the time we dropped our pet rats off with the people who had agreed to watch them and our friends gave us a ride to the airport from their house.  The second was when my in-laws offered to loan us the money and give us a longer term to pay it back than banks were at that time.  Normally I wouldn’t borrow money from a friend or relative, but David’s folks have always been very clear about what is business and what is personal.  We signed a contract with them, got the money we needed, went to the used car dealer, bought a car we liked, and wrote the largest check either of us had ever written to that point.

The business we were working for ended up being sold off to another company in another state.  David and I took the opportunity to move back to Seattle.  We moved in with his parents until we could save up for a place of our own, and even with all that upheaval, managed to never miss a payment on the car loan.

We’ve come a long way since then.  We’ve purchased and refinanced our house and seen even larger checks go out the door as various home repair and remodel projects have been completed.  The confidence to handle our finances was built in those first few years when we had very little to manage– when we were living paycheck-to-paycheck and anything unexpected could devour what little we had managed to save.  No matter how little we had, we made the decision together on how to spend or save it.  David was willing to try to get a car loan months before I was, but he held off, waiting for me to adjust to the idea and for us to find a way that would work for both of us.  I, in turn, learned to push myself to take more risks when David was ready to take action.

Being in this together gives me confidence.  So, when I review last year’s finances I see not just a record of money coming in and going out, but also a record of discussions, debates, and decisions that stretches back to before we were married.  We haven’t always been right, but we’ve always known that, not only were we in the same boat, we built it together.