Thursday, April 26, 2012

Flash Fiction #5: A New and Novel Weapon Against our Common Enemy

The council was impressive. Every grass wanted to attend. Every grass had to attend. As the August sun broke the horizon, the light washed over the sea of rich green and tawny blonde stalks. Only the dome of the sky grew above them in this place. Here, at least, the tall ones hadn’t yet come. The open prairie was their own…for the time being.
But fear of the enemy on the horizon had called them here. Fear called them, and a need for action.
The din of one billion blades of countless species of grass swooshed in the gentle wind. A warm-season giant rose above them all, stretching his leaves outward. The other grasses—even some strange, scrawny forbs with pungent yellow leaves—took notice. The Monarch was a Big Bluestem, an ancient warm-season. He had ruled the prairie for decades. He survived fire, drought, flood, and wind. His tripartite seedhead looked like a foot of a turkey. Full and plump, each seed dangled, ready to deliver its genes to the wind, where Big Great Blue had millions of children.
As the morning wing stirred in the great-wide-open, Big Great Blue began to speak: “Warm Seasons, Cool Seasons, Forbs, Weeds, and fellow Sedge…” the Great One paused as the attention of the plains drew to him. He continued, “We have a great threat at our doorsteps.
“You know of the evil of which I speak.” An audible gasp flew up and murmurs made their rounds.
The Monarch continued, “Yes, yes. The ancient enemy, we must acknowledge, is far stronger than us.”
A cry came from the Ryes, “We can beat them! They can’t block it all!”
The full-sun species scoffed at the Ryes: “Quiet yourselves, shade-lovers!”
Always the politician, always willing to compromise and live with neighbors, Big Great Blue raised his leaves and boomed to the prairie: “We must not fight amongst ourselves! Our greatest strength is our diversity! Our roots grow strong. And deep. And we shall not outcompete each other while our enemy advances, year after year, to destroy us all.
“Yes, we know that some of us—the Ryes, Bluegrass, the Beebalms and Hostas—some of you are willing to live with them. But they will grow taller. They will dominate and wash away soil. They will push up and up and shove us down as they take up every square-inch of nourishing sunlight!”
The grasses nodded. All species knew Big Great Blue was right. He was always right. His wisdom came, after all, not from him alone, but from the eons of growth under the prairie soil. More than simply allies, the rhizobacteria and roots took invisible carbon and infused it into the ground, making it black and whole, full of life and experience from the ages. Big Great Blue’s roots went deep into the network. He knew what was best for them all.
The grasses wondered if their king was hesitant out of fear. After pregnant silence, he spoke four words. These words would be the true purpose of their gathering: “We need a weapon.”
“Fire! More fire!” Cheatgrass screamed.
A response came from one normally quiet. Not now. Winterfat, terrified at the prospect of more fire, replied, “I bet you’d like that, Cheat.”
“No fighting! And no, we shall have no more fire!” Big Blue boomed.
“But what? What weapon can defeat them?” Indiangrass and Needle-and-Thread asked.
“We require a new and novel weapon against our common enemy. We must enlist the humans.”
Porcupine Grass quivered. “The humans? The ape-people?”
“Yes. They are our best weapon against the high-ones. They may tame some of us. And to attract them, we shall need to be sweet for the four-legged ones.”
“Why?” an unnamed yellow grass asked. “They will eat us!”
“Yes. They will. We must learn to adapt. You see, the humans like to kill and eat the four-legged ones. The four-legged ones are not leaf-eaters. They belong on the plains. We attract the four-leggeds, the humans will come.”
Nodding Rye and Needlegrass nodded in affirmation.
Their King was indeed their One Monarch. He stood, inspiring. He knew his wisdom was true. He said, “The humans will chop. They will burn. They will push and pull out the seedlings of our enemy. With them, and the four-legggeds, we shall rule the earth!”
The wind swished across the flat plain and the infinite multitude erupted in applause.
Thus, it was foretold, that grasses made their compact with humans, the greatest weapon of all against the trees.
And the rain would fall. And the trees and shrubs would push into the plain. But the ape-people, with their cleverness, would push them back.
And the grass swayed in the wind, content.
But some looked at the ape-people with their clever tools. Some of the grasses wondered. Some of the grasses asked, "How long, O Monarch, will this peace last?"
Great Big Blue knew, but he did not share.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Theology Thursday #5: Anger and Perception

First of all, let’s get something straight: when I perceive there is an injustice, no matter how small, I turn into an asshole.
Take your pick...
They're both valid angry faces.
Banking regulations demanding I pay for a service that is pointless, poor service at a restaurant, another driver cutting in on the highway, or any life-isn’t-fair situation...they all make me fume. Typically, I turn that fuming on someone who has little power to change the situation. Typically, it hurts no one but myself when I do this. I don’t know why I do it. But I do know that other people have this problem, too. So I’d like to look at this from a theological angle, both as a therapy for myself and for others who may read this blog and find that it may help them, too.
I think my obsession is rooted in something good. That is to say, I think an understanding of “how things ought to be” is a gift. Without a common understanding of justice, there would be no order; only the powerful and oppressive would rule. Some might say this is already the case, but I’ll leave that for another time.
My selfishness and my temperament make the injustice seem like something that is threatening me right now. My perception is distorted. So I react. I rant and rave and try to argue my way out of it. Rarely, it works. Most of the time, I get so worked up about it I hurt no one but myself. I’ve learned through my 12-Step program to recognize when this is happening. But I wish I could prevent my reaction to begin with!
This is a spiritual issue, because spiritually I make the center of my understanding (my world) of all that I can perceive. My emotions take control. That doesn’t make emotions bad in themselves. It just means that emotions without perspective and spirituality are like a railroad car going off the tracks.
I’d hate to be on the receiving end of my ranting.
What’s the solution?
An experience I have weekly is my service commitment at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. Weekly, our men’s AA group hosts a meeting in the Chemical Dependency Unit or the Mental Health Unit, depending on the week. It’s incredible. The people are very appreciative that we come there. We appreciate them, because they show us where we came from and we can share the experience, strength and hope of the 12 Steps.
After the meeting, I’m never thinking about my piddley little problems. I’m energized in helping others. It amazes me that in order to get out of myself, I have to help others. To really help myself, I have to be there for someone else. To live I must die to self.
That’s all spirituality is. It’s not rocket science. It’s about how to live a whole life. It’s about seeing God in the suffering, the forgotten, the needy… and providing.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday #5: The Royal Empress

I found this piece a challenge to write, since stylistically it is quite different from my other work. Also the first-person, present-tense written from the point-of-view of a seventy-year old woman is something I've never done before.

I think it turned out OK. What about you? Please leave your comments on the blog, I love to read them.


As I sit down at the keyboard of my gray little typewriter, I wonder whether I can measure up to all the younger writers in my class. I'm seventy-one years old; I must be as outdated as the 1951 Royal Empress typewriter sitting in my husband's old fly-tying room in the basement. Since he passed in '99, I haven't thought much about what I was going to do down here in the dank basement. I decided that, aside from the lack of sufficient lighting, it would make do to set this area up as my writing studio.

I was surprised the writing instructor selected me. After all, I didn't think I would get in, at least the first time around. (This course is only offered once per year, you know). I had applied for the course "On Crafting Your Novel." They only took ten applicants; I was one of them. I think they said eighty people wanted to get in. I still can't believe I'm one of them.

It was the first class this evening and all of the other students are under fifty. They were nice enough, though. Jack Dennis, our instructor, told us that next week he will be assigning writing partners. I hope I'm not paired with the young man who is writing about the mutant gorillas. That's the way it will probably be, though. Because, despite the fact I was accepted in the course, Mr. Denn-- ... er, Jack... told us that we were in the class together because he found our stories interesting. "The differences in us would make us less diffident." I think that's a rather clumsy way of saying that we will learn from each other.

And the topics...people are writing about such different things. I told you about the mutant gorilla--that's a sci-fi writer's project--but there are also several stories set in the antebellum South, a Romance set in Brazil, and two different historical fiction pieces--one's a story about Van Gogh and the other is about Joan of Arc. One young gentleman is even writing a story about a dog trainer in North Dakota. How interesting.

I wonder if my piece will be up to par. I know the topic is interesting enough: it's a romance and a bit of a mystery. It's about a young woman who went to Kenya in the 1830's. That woman was my great, great grandmother. I only found her diary this last May.

And now, I'm sitting here in the basement at the little gray typewriter, because I can't sleep. I'm too excited. Finally, I will get to write. Finally, my dream has come true. Finally, the basement doesn't seem so dank and dirty as it did ten years ago. I'm happy tonight. The Royal Empress even has ink left in the ribbon.

Theology Thursday #5

This week's TheoThursday is going to be a link. Some people say true faith is what you do in action to care for others. I agree. Rachel Jones has a great take on this about Somalia. Check it out!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Flash Fiction #4: In Deference to the Precious Nature of Time

            Pete looked at the bulging heap of paper in his hand; it was thick as the ham sandwich he had brought to work that day. He looked at Mr. Knowles and asked, “Do I really have to read all of this?”
            “Why, of course not,” the man said. “It would be burdensome to peruse such an onerous document, especially since time is so precious.” The man spoke with a distinct English accent. His speech, however, had an artificial tone to it. It was as if the man’s words had shellac brushed on them as he elaborated each syllable.
            Pete looked around his cubicle. God, he hated this job. Software support, my ass, he thought to himself. It wasn’t his fault that no one used the damn software. How was anyone supposed to, either? Bugs larger than cockroaches filled the computer program and the development team did nothing to fix the problem. Any of the calls that came in he handled readily enough. They had become less and less frequent since the majority of their customers were switching to the competitor’s accounting software. He wanted out. Mr. Knowles, if that was his real name, had his full attention.
            “That is, after all, Mr. Cayle,” the man spoke with a strange cadence, “the purpose of our discussion, to come to an agreeable arrangement between us. “
            Pete had only arrived at Mastodon Software minutes ago. Having walked to his cubicle past the wooly mammoth logo in the entrance, he had noticed a man in a pinstripe, double-breasted suit carrying an aging, black briefcase. This man had promptly approached him and invited him to consider an offer “to change his life forever.”
            Pete hadn’t considered it until now: Mastodon Software had a strict solicitation policy, no one was allowed in without first speaking to management. Why was he speaking to him? And where was everybody? The office space seemed empty.
Mr. Edward Knowles
(aka Mephistopheles)

            It had all happened so fast—as he entered, he noticed the man, and soon he was following him. He spoke fluidly, as if every word were rehearsed, “Allow me to introduce myself, Mister Peter Cayle,” the man spoke with a bizarre rhythm, “I am Mr. Edward Knowles. That is pronounced noles but spelled K-N-O-W-L-E-S. I represent the Apollyon Corporation. Please, forgive me, since this is your place of employment, might I suggest we enter this conversation in a more private locale?”
            Pete didn’t say what he thought he should have, which was, “no thank you.” Something itched inside him, fighting the reasonable response to remove himself from this remnant of the late 19th century. The curiosity had won: “I…I guess you could come to my cubicle.”
            Mr. Edward Knowles had begun to spell out a fantastic offer for him: fantastic as in not believable fantastic. Fantasy world fantastic. The man’s sing-songy words dripped like golden liquid and continue to reverberate in his head:
            “Mr. Cayle, as you well know, your employment at this software establishment is lack-luster. You slave away, daily, not with what is productive and beneficial to your life, but with the pointless distraction of social-network-games and internet surveys. To be candid, Mr. Peter Cayle, your life contains neither hard work nor joyous recreation. It is a glum, piteous, pointless existence, to which its end can only be disappointment and regret.
            “However, Mr. Cayle, I have an offer for you, that, once you carefully consider, shall send you into a world devoid of boredom. Every day, Mr. Cayle, you will find yourself not only entertained, but also driven by the passion, which still flickers within your soul. If you are interested, I have prepared a document for your consideration.”
            The whole encounter was weird. What was this guy selling?
            He hadn’t had time, because Mr. Knowles grabbed the thick stack of papers from him. The salesman continued, “Yes, yes. Time is, indeed, a precious commodity, Mr. Cayle. One of which I know you cherish readily. Well, this is your chance, Pete,” the man winked and poked him with his elbow, “sign at the bottom and you’ll get what you want.”
            It was too much. Was this guy for real? His curiosity could only go so far. Now all he wanted was to be rid of him. But he had to ask, “Yeah, so what do I get if I sign?”
            The man leaned back and stared uncomfortably for three seconds, smiling, and replied, “Extra time.”
            “Extra time? Like, extra time during the day? As in extra time like I-don’t-need-to-wait-at-the-stoplight extra time?”
            “To you, yes.” The polished gentleman gave only a hint of a smile and nodded.
            “Okay. Get out of here. I’m calling security,” Pete said, irritated.
            “If you sign, I will be happy to leave,” the man said. He did not waver, but sat statue-like in the chair next to Pete in the cubicle.
            “Fine. Whatever,” he said. He grabbed the stack of papers and read the cover sheet:

To the Advancement of Time
Mister Peter Jay Cayle
On this day the 28th of April, 2012

            Peter brushed through to the last page, scribbled his name, and threw the cheap ballpoint pen on his desk. He looked at the man and said, “There. Will you leave now?”
            “Certainly, Mr. Cayle. I would be happy to oblige,” the man said. He smiled and nodded, picking up the stack of papers and placing them in his old, black briefcase.

* * * * * * *
            Peter sat in his living room, the holograph news projecting on the walls surrounding him. So much time had passed since he met Mr. Knowles. It seemed just like last week. That is what it was like ever since he discovered the document he signed gave him a power he previously did not have—the power to advance time when he was frustrated, sleeping, nervous, angry or simply bored.
            He advanced time a lot. More than he could keep track of. Now he sat here, wondering: where had it all gone?
            That’s the thing he asked himself, justifying every time advancement he made: why bear through this? This sucks, push it forward, Pete! Come on, come on, get moving.
            He figured that for every day that went by, every boring meeting he had sat through, every torturous hour in the cubicle he advanced into nothingness, he probably had lost half his life. You wouldn’t know that when you saw him, though. Pete soon learned that he aged as he did it. At least I didn’t have to sit through all of it, he thought. Yeah, yeah…it was worth it. 
            He looked outside into the rainy weather and pushed time forward into his death.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Theology Thursday #4: Every Moment

My Aunt found this picture of my Grandfather, Donald Peabody Abbott this past summer. I scanned it in my computer because I liked it so much. It's a classic St. Paul scene: the back alley in spring in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul. Judging from the car in the back, it was probably taken in the mid- to late seventies.

He's gone now. Has been for over 20 years. All our family has today - I all have - are stories and photos and memories, too. Moments 

Our lives are so temporal, so fleeting. A phrase I often used when I was an ELCA pastor was one that was given to me from my Grandmother - every moment's a gift. Some days that gift doesn't feel very much like a gift, though.

I think what it most unique about following Jesus of Nazareth is that the story invites you to understand that God chooses to be in all moments, all places. In this way, all things are filled up in him. I actually have a tattoo of this on my arm, to remind me that every moment is a blessing from the Creator himself. Every picture snapped is only a chemical reaction on paper capturing the light in that time (or, today, more likely digital pixels on magnetic media). The cross, I feel, isn't so much about sacrifice or atonement in the sense of blood sacrifice. It's more that God injects God's self into every moment, even the bad ones, so that all things are filled up in God, the Infinite One.

In light of my previous posting, it might be strange to read this, because of how agnostic a tone it took. What I believe is the story has power - that power is its ability to break into your life and make all things new, if only through hope.

By the way, this-filling-up-of-all-things is in the Bible. It's from Ephesians 1:10 and Paul uses a great word. Anakephalaiosasthai is the Greek transliteration. It comes from Greek mathematics as being the sum of all things. Christ, he then goes on to describe, is that sum of all things.

All things are filled up. All things are made new. Every moment's a gift.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday #3: Little Crocus

And now, for something completely different...

I restarted this blog to improve my writing and to share with others. No doubt some of the posts I will look back and roll my eyes, knowing full well the junk on the page should have been deleted long ago. But that's okay. If there's anything I've learned at the Loft Master Class, it is that writing is a craft, one that is honed and practiced. "Art," as Picasso said, "is much more destruction than construction."

This piece for Flash Fiction Friday is more poetry than fiction. My writing partner, Vanessa, told me that she wrote a  poem for me for our final presentation. I felt the need to reciprocate. Here's what I came up with:

I saw a crocus on the prairie, just the other day.
Lovely, fragile, she stood weakly in May.
How did she know that it was time to bloom?
That, given a chance, she’d leave her tomb?

Hidden deeply, fairies and dryads whispered, enticed.
And her soft petals wove gently, through snow and ice.
Not fragrant or showy, but beautiful, despite.
She opened her arms, light purple and slight.

Little crocus alone, your time here is brief.
Surely you know this, there’s brown on your leaf.
Summer’s heat is nigh; the snow melts away.
Grass will stand high, it will be a new day.

Will we remember rebirth, the spring and the sun?
Or will we forget, little crocus, the gift we have won?
The grass, how it withers and flowers they fade.
But the gift of spring blossoms, my how they save.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Theology Thursday #3: Made Up

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.  -  Acts 10: 34,35 NRSV

If blasphemous statements easily offend some of you, you might want to skip this week’s column.
If you like to push yourself theologically, then read further, and consider the possibility that truth is often stirred up on the fringes, well beyond the well-paved roads of conventional dogma.
First, understand that I am a Lutheran Christian; this is my brand and it probably will be for a while. I seek to follow Jesus of Nazareth explicitly through this lens of understanding.
Now, the tough stuff…I’m going to make this as uncomplicated as possible (deep breath):
God doesn’t care if you are gay or straight, republican or democrat, socialist or Ayn Rand. God isn’t concerned about our silly little tribes, our flags, or our favorite sport’s team.
God certainly doesn’t care about religion or holy books or the rules we like to think are God’s.
You know what else?
God doesn’t give a rip if you are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Mormon, Atheist, Agnostic, Bahai, or Wiccan.
There is no doubt this religious symbol was made up.
After all, they are all made up.
Yes, you read that correctly. They are made up.
Religion (or lack thereof) is a finite, human construct manufactured to comprehend the infinite.
This applies to Christianity, too, and whatever flavor you choose within that brand (denominations).
Think that it doesn’t apply to your brand? Your flavor? Do you fear that if your brand or flavor is “made up” that it might not be “real”? Are you so convinced that it takes “an act of faith” to really believe in ridiculous, supernatural miracles to somehow prove that there might be a power greater than ourselves?
Think again.
Baptism of Cornelius  Wacky Clothing
Take this week’s epistle reading from Acts. Peter is talking to several people. Who are they? They are a Roman centurion named Cornelius who is “God fearing” and several other Gentiles. Peter begins by telling them the story of Jesus. They believe. Everyone is baptized and people are amazed.
Why did they want to follow Jesus? For Cornelius, he said he had a vision of Jesus. For Peter, he recounts Jesus’ teachings, death, and resurrection. Then here’s the kicker: he says, “God allowed [Jesus] to appear, not to all people, but to us who were chosen.”
Really? I mean, really?
You expect us to believe that?
Evidently, Cornelius and company did. Why did they believe? I think they believed because they needed to believe. Life, in all its struggles and meaninglessness creates a void to which the human psyche needs to fill with something. Then, just as now, people filled it with something: be it the cult of Mithras or Athena, secular humanism (this flavor isn’t new, marginal believers existed then, too), even outright atheism (the Epicureans were the hipster, angry, “rational” god haters, par excellance).
Whether or not Jesus “really” physically rose from the dead isn’t the point. The point is that something (faith, hope, community) came out of nothing (the void, silence, the terror of the abyss of nonexistence).
The story created it. The creation was real. Isn’t that enough? Why do we need certainty? Why are we compelled to prove, to know “for sure?”
And why Christianity? Why did so many choose this brand? I believe because they cared for each other in ways different than what they saw around them. Humans are constantly revising and struggling to give purpose, meaning, and value where none is found. Jesus of Nazareth was different, very different. And they wanted that. They must have gotten it, because it caught on.
Scholars only have a fuzzy picture of primitive Christianity. Even the source materials themselves (the gospels and epistles) were generations removed from the apostolic church. We do know that the message appealed to slaves and rich citizens alike. We also know that it caught like wildfire and the more the state sought to extinguish said fire, the hotter it burned.
As the years passed, Christianity, too, became a religion. It warped and morphed into a multiplicity of forms and expressions, always seeking to give hope and truth, but frequently not succeeding. Often the church of one flavor would seek to oppress other flavors, convinced their way was correct.
From the perspective of other religions (or lack thereof) each feels that it is right and correct. Come on, folks! Can’t we see a pattern here?
That’s why I say that all religions and philosophies are made up. I’m not denying that Jesus or Gautama or Mohammed existed historically. I’m saying that all the supernatural crap, as well as the built up rules and constructs we add to it, are simply window dressing to get more people to come into our ice cream shop to buy our flavor. It’s the story that matters. And different stories have meaning for different people.
Are all stories right, all religions equal paths to salvation? I don’t know. Really, I don’t. But I choose to believe that my story—the core message of Jesus—is that God (if there is one) probably doesn’t make as big of fuss over things compared to the way we do. This is pretty obvious when you look at the way we so easily kill each other. And that, I believe, God DOES care about. Causing suffering is anathema to being truly human. I think we all can agree that killing people = God not cool with that.
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Peter got it right. We’re all flailing about, trying to figure out the un-figure-out-able. If there is a God, then the story that touches us, and the people we care about, mean something.
Partiality comes pretty easily to us.
To me, the resurrection is real because Jesus’ love lives on. The story could be completely made up (and it probably is) and I “believe” it because the reality of Jesus can be found in glimpses here and there. It gives me meaning and value and purpose. More importantly, I can give this same love of Christ away (I’m not talking about proselytizing, I’m saying that we can feed people, clothe them, and care about them). This benefits others – without any thought of return or response from them. Remember, God shows no partiality. We’re all in the same boat. We might as well sing some sailing songs while the storm rages. I think this is what it means to be human.

It's ironic, isn't it? The place where we hear the story is the church, the bastion of the Christian religion. And the story of Jesus is against that very human construct! If there is a God, she certainly has a sense of humor.
I, for one, will hear the story this Sunday. I’ll “believe” it. And I will say it. Yeah, I’ll say it loud.
“Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed.”