Thursday, January 26, 2006

Dorothy Day and Al & Gladys

Sometimes, things people do, don't make sense. Ralph and I were talking about this last week after we had Al and Gladys Geiser over for dinner and a visit. Al and Gladys are members of our church. A few years ago, Al sold his successful business and they went to live in Afghanistan. Al works with an Afghan partner in a small business they started. They create hydro-electric power for rural villages. Al said they are able to supply homes enough wattage to have three light bulbs.

Sometimes it takes a lot of work to create enough communty cooperation to move forward with the projects which require a lot of manual labor--done by the Muslim members of the community. He said he thinks the experience of working together may have more value to the villages than the electricity.

Gladys works as a teacher in a school for international students and has her own interesting stories to tell--for instance they way the bomb-sniffing dogs came to check out their playground after a child found an old landmine. When I tell some people my friends and fellow church members are working in places like Afghanistan and Liberia, they wonder about it. It doesn't make sense. Al said their presence in that country is also a mystery to most of the people they work with there. He said that while Muslims will often help their own needy relatives, philanthropic work beyond that is rare--making it all the harder for anyone to understand why an American would leave home and country to bring "hydro" to an isolated village on the other side of the world.

Soon after Al and Gladys visited, I read a newspaper article about Dorothy Day. It caught my eye because I once read her autobiography—The Long Loneliness. Dorothy Day was the leader of the Catholic Worker Movement. She was another American who believed we all share a responsibility to care for the poor, the lonely. and the downtrodden. As I read the article I remembered the Catholic prayer card for Dorothy Day someone once gave me. I found it in my desk drawer. On the front is her picture. On the back is the "Prayer to Dorothy Day"--words which recognize her concern for the needy as well as her work for the cause of peace.

Friend and partner of the poor,
Guiding spirit for the Catholic worker.
Home always open to the unwanted,
Early, often lonely, witness in the cause of peace and conscience,
Eloquent pattern of gospel simplicity--
Dorothy Day, disciple of the Lord:
May we continue your gift of self to the needy and your untiring work for peace!

I admire and support many Christians who hold similar values. There are many present-day saints who work in dangerous and uncomfortable places to show the path to peace. They too demonstrate an "eloquent pattern of gospel simplicity." Their work doesn't go unnoticed.

The article I read said the process to have Dorothy Day canonized as a saint in the Catholic church was initiated three years after her death in 1980. Her organization has survived for a quarter of a century past her death. It has no paid staff, governing body or church authorization. A quote at the end of the article, attributed to Dorothy Day, made me think of people like Al and Gladys, adventurers who choose to sacrifice comfort and convenience in order to help others. "To be a witness doesn’t consist in engaging in propaganda or even stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Keeping the Fire

On Sunday, January 22, I was worship leader at church. The theme for the morning was "Lose the Weight of Fear" and the hymn prior to my remarks was "Holy Spirit, Come With Power," #26 in the Worship Book. The Spirit is active in our lives--especially when we need help for a challenging task. The second verse of the hymn fit perfectly with my words of welcome. but I wrote them before I'd seen the hymn. Below are my comments and prayer:

I’ve been keeping a fire in our fireplace most days this winter. Keeping the fire has become a ritual of my day. I literally "keep the home fire burning". Once or twice a week I fill the woodbox from our large woodpile. Each morning I carry armloads of wood inside and early in the day I scrape & shovel ashes from the hearth, lay the fire, and light it.

As the day wears on, I check the fire from time to time, stirring it and adding wood. Sometimes the flames die down and the fire seems to be going out. Then I add a fresh log or two. Taking the poker, I stir the logs to rearrange them. In no time, a nice flame is burning again.

Sometimes when I’m stirring the fire I think of the words at the beginning of 1st Timothy. "I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity—of fear--but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. "

I think with gratitude of the people in my life who encourage and support me in my faith. Just as Timothy had his devout grandmother, Lois, and his faithful mother, Eunice, I too have been grateful for those who help me use my gifts. The darkness of our world seems to grow in our minds. News headlines day after day are like a smoldering fire that makes us feel cold, weak and worried. But this morning we’ve left newspapers and television talk shows. We’ve joined together here to contemplate the Good News.

God stirs the fire—the flame within us. We have the warmth of Christian fellowship to rely on and The Good News to fill our hearts with hope.

“Holy Spirit, come with fire, burn us with your presence new. “
As we gather this morning Be among us and burn within us.
Open our hearts to receive the good news you have for each one of us .
Stir the embers of our souls so we will respond in new ways to your truth. AMEN

Friday, January 20, 2006

Dirty Words

I had a call from my Dad who is in Florida for the winter. Down there in the sunshine he isn't dealing with Ohio dirt and mud this month like I am. He told me he's reading my novel, KAIROS. He even gave a copy to two of his friends. Also, he likes my blog, especially the part about my dog.

Before we hung up he told me he'd gotten to the part of KAIROS, where Mel Martin makes a word-play on the old saying, "Make hay while the sun shines." Mel was hauling manure and said to Angie, "Haul s _ _ _ till the barn's clean." My dad said he "didn't know I talked like that." And I told him I didn't. But Mel does-Mel Martin, that is.

Just so everyone's clear on this--my farmer character, Mel Martin, has many, many wonderful qualities, but he isn't an exact copy of my dad, Mel Horst. Mel Horst would never, ever, say something like that! Back in 1998, when I started writing KAIROS, my dad went by the name Melvin. More recently his Florida name, Mel, began to stick. Martin is the last name of my maternal grandpa whom I admired greatly. So my book character's name is a loose combination of two farmers I love dearly. (Grandpa Martin wouldn't "talk like that" either!)

Another difference between my dad, Mel, and Mel Martin is that my dad isn't a literary type who reads Whitman and Gary Snyder and other writers mentioned in my story. My dad, Mel, went to a one-room grade school and never got extra help with reading skills. Maybe he had a learning disability, or maybe he just likes conversation better. His family cared more about farm work than school, anyway. They were great storytellers, though. (In that way Mel Martin and Mel Horst are alike).

The point isn't to tell you about my dad's short-comings. The point is, I'm so impressed that he's actually reading my book! I've also heard from both my sisters and several friends who read my book, too. (I can't tell you how often I've met writers who tell me their family members never read or comment on their writing).

I was mulling over my transgressions yesterday as I took another long walk. It was a beautiful day and I wanted to stay outside longer so I walked back the lane to see Esther Miller, my neighbor. Esther, Reuben and Edna are Amish and they have a 120 acre farm. I garden with Esther and vicariously enjoy farm life without having any of the responsibilities or financial risks. When I got near the barn I heard piteous bleating of lambs and realized lambing season has begun already! They have ten and more on the way. Esther came out and we checked out the situation. Two lambs from a set of triplets had gotten into a lean-to. The door was too small for the mama to come in. Esther shooed them out but they just ran into the barn. Mama was in the pasture so they were still crying.

We talked for awhile longer. Esther said she's getting rid of three of her geese. She wants to keep only two geese and one gander. Someone told her is she has just two, the geese will be more likely to hatch out their eggs. Esther wanted me to stay a bit because Edna was walking home from school and would be disappointed if she didn't get to see me. We decided to walk partway to meet her. We walked down a cow path past a fabulous old Catalpa tree, dodging mud puddles and cow s_ _ _. I thought about the time I heard Edna say "the S word" as naturally as if she was saying "manure." Maybe in Pennsylvania Dutch one word is as good as the other, I don't know.

My dad is a little worried they won't put my book in the church library because it has a dirty word in it. I guess all I can say to him is that I'm still the same girl I always was--a little rebellious and naughty. But I didn't really say a swear word, did I? It was just "dirty." One of my friends who writes for a religous press says her publisher wouldn't have let the word stay. My editor mentioned it, but let Mel keep his barnyard talk.

My storybook character, Mel Martin, was just trying to shock his girlfriend, Angie. Mel Martin and I both got what we wanted--shock value. But now I have to ask myself--was it worth it to bother the real Mel this way? I don't know. Yes, the "barnyard of life" is full of this stuff I wrote about. When you put it where it belongs--on the fields--it turns into fertilizer. That's what Mel Martin said in the story. But let's hope in the future, Mel Horst's daughter the author, will clean up her language so her books aren't banned by the church librarians.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Our pastor, Terry Shue, likes to use the word "unleashed." Habits of speech are interesting and I have no idea how Terry got so enamored of this particular word. It is a wonderful word, though--full of energy and life. I hope he'll continue to talk about "unleasing the power of God in the world" and all the other unleashings that are so exciting to contemplate. I was thinking about being unleashed the other day while I was out with my dog.

Today is a cold, blustery January day and I'll be inside all day. My black lab, Beauregard, is curled up in his dog house in the straw waiting out the storm. I'm here in my loft doing the same. It's been a mild January for the most part and Beau and I have been outdoors together often. He's an outside pet, so I have to go out to spend time with him.

He's also extremely active, so I've fitted him with a "head collar." We walk down the road together when it's nice. The head collar fastens high on his neck. A loop goes over his snout and attaches to his leash. He can still snif and chew, eat and drink. But if he tries to drag me down the road his head turns to the side and feels bad to him. I slow him down a lot, but he's learning to be a good walking companion. There seems to be more potential for him slowing down than there is for the other option--me starting to jog and keeping pace with him.

On our last walk, we sauntered along the road and Beau acted in his usual puppy-like ways. (I've heard from several people now that a black lab might be a puppy for as long as three years. One down, two to go, Beau!) He sometimes walks with his head up, sniffing the air as if there is something wonderful in it. He looks the perfect picture of a hunting dog--the kind they put on the calendars you get at places like Fin, Fur & Feather.

But, sometimes he grosses me out. Beau noses out the scent of road kill jerky. If I'm not careful, he'll grab it in his teeth and shake it until the mangled fur and bones scatter. Even worse is the way he snarfs up road apples left by the many horses that go down South Kansas Road. Oh yuck! I try to keep a handful of treats in my pocket and give him one from my (gloved) hand as a bribe away from Beau's self-selected "treats." I've noticed that as much as he likes the aforementiond stuff, he's less excited about Bud Light and Camels. He did seem halfway interested in an unfinished bottle of Mountain Dew.

On Monday, the weather was so nice we walked further than usual. I took him back a lane and into a field. As soon as we were safely off the road I unleashed him. Suddenly life as Beau knew it took on new meaning! He bounced up and down over the rough terrain, ears flopping, nose in the air, nose to the ground. He zig-zagged and drank from puddles and flew over fallen trees. He posed with his two front paws a fallen tree trunk and surveyed the world with brand new enthusiasm. He was "Unleashed!" All of the former constraints were gone. He was free to be his most beautiful and uninhibited doggy self. He was the essence of beauty and grace and he was free to explore the equivalent of the doggy universe. He was his true nature, through and through.

I wish I could tell you that in his unleashed state Beau lost interest in "jerky." Not so. Eventually he found the vintage 18 month decomposing dead deer at the back of the woods. He sniffed, but when I called to him came running up to me--tail wagging. Even when he's unleashed, he will come when called. He's a good dog and I've often told him so.

I tried to think how this "unleashed" analogy applies to me and to God at work in the world. There are limits to metaphorical language, I guess. But I've confirmed that Terry is right in favoring this word. I wonder, too, if there's a reason God is doG spelled backward. Are both of them leaping through the tall grass and leaving their paw prints scattered over the soft earth? Shall I follow them out as they survey the wide open spaces where who-knows-what awaits my arrival?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Life on South Kansas Road

When U.S. 30 cut a four lane swath through Wayne County, Ohio, things changed on South Kansas Road. Before, we could drive north to the Lincoln Highway and turn right or left. Now we can only turn left. If we want to go right (east), we have to take a less direct route. It's annoying when I forget and end up driving to the first exit on New Route 30--several miles out of the way--only to go back where I've come from and start over. Traffic that used to whiz by our house on South Kansas has diminished, too. Our road is no longer the most accessible path for carpentry, plumbing and roofing crews who are headed for the next county. Now, Amish-made furniture vans find other routes to get "down south" to Holmes County.

New Route 30 makes me both happy and sad. I guess I'm happy for the ability to quickly commute to the stores on the north end of Wooster where I can browse in a new Pier 1 and Kohls. But I still remember seeing a dead Canada Goose on a once-quiet road where the construction crews were working. I feel sad about lost farmlands and fields--the loss of the beautiful natural terrain of Ohio's rolling hills. This land will never look the same. It has been disturbed. For every square foot of paved-over land, there is a corresponding change in the flow of ground water. The sponge and clay of the earth's surface has been sealed off forever. I wonder if the land feels suffocated by all this asphalt.

Someone pointed out that this latest version of the Lincoln Highway--U.S. #30--is the third. If I try, I can find small remains of the oldest 30. The next one is still accessible but I'll probably only go that way when I want to visit one of the small businesses. They will no doubt struggle to stay alive with fewer potential drive-by customers on a daily basis. From New 30, I see the backs of buildings I recognized before only from the front. I drive over new bridges that span roads on which I still travel. I'm denied access where the new road is still under construction. I have no choice but to accept the new road with its limitations and its expansion. Eminent domain has re-shaped my landscape.

Terry Tempest Williams once said that one of the most radical acts in our time might be to stay at home. Of course, I heard her talk about this at a lecture at the College of Wooster--thousands of miles from her native Utah! But she has a point. Every day we make choices about where we go, which roads we travel and how we get to where we're going. Maybe it's truly a radical thing I'm doing--staying home more, shopping close to home and learning to appreciate the wealth of my own back yard.

It was a girl named Dorothy who said: "We're not in Kansas anymore..." Only after some adventures on the yellow brick road, did she really understand what mattered most. "We're home, Toto, we're home."