Saturday, March 24, 2018

A Pre-Passover Lament

Seder plate with origami shankbone

The Parable of the Wise Maidens and

 the Foolish Middle-Aged Woman

The holiday of Passover shall be like this:  It shall be one week before Passover; there remain only six days before the feast.  The wise maidens shall take their lamps and their flasks of oil, and seeking out the matzo meal and the eggs, shall begin to prepare the feast. The foolish woman of the Common Household shall confess she has not whipped one egg white, nor soaked one matzo, nor formed one single matzo ball.

The wise maidens have already filled their pantry with the unleavened bread that is Kosher for Passover, while the foolish woman shall go late to seek provisions, and find there remains not one box of Passover matzo.  Lo, all twelve boxes that the grocery store had on display have all been bought by the more savvy maidens who were actually paying attention and looked at their calendars.

Though the Lord God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them in six days, the foolish woman will be hard pressed to see how she can create even one seder meal, with all the requisite parts, in six days.  Her soul shall wax weak and her bones shall be vexed.  She shall spill forth her remorse in a blog post, thus confirming her status as the Queen of Procrastination. 

In days of old, the Common Household Mom would gird her loins and form her battle plans for the Passover meal in the month of Adar. Lo, even before the Purim costumes had been dreamed of, she had mapped out each meal of Passover.  A full three weeks before the Exodus from Egypt, the Common Household freezer would burst in its abundance of Passover bagels, lemon squares, and chicken soup.  Like the wise maidens, she was ready for the feast.

But behold, says the Lord, I am doing a new thing on heaven and on earth.  Half the point of this holiday is that The People left the land of slavery in such haste that they had to bake their bread into forms very like square pieces of cardboard with evenly spaced perforations.  As in days of really old, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, I the Lord will give strength to the weary.  O foolish woman, despite your nasty cold, you shall rise up and begin to whip the eggs.  You shall ask your son to bring matzo that is Kosher for Passover from another town with a larger Jewish population. You shall have the strength of an unicorn, or at least enough strength to make the apple-matzo kugel that is the joy of your husband. 

You shall no longer eat the bread of idleness.  Truly I tell you, you shall not eat bread at all, for eight days (or maybe seven, but who’s counting?).  You will make ready your chariot and get to the store to buy your brisket and matzo ball mix.  You shall find succor in the story of the Israelites, who trusted that whatever journey lay before them, God would be with them. 

And so it is for both the wise maidens and the foolish middle-aged woman:  keep awake, for, at least this time, you do know the day and the hour:  Friday at sundown. 

                                                                                           - The Book of Exertions, 12:1-28

Sometimes with this child, one has to be precise.

Update:  I did manage to get two boxes of Passover matzo, so we'll have enough to get by, if Son isn't able to come through with the out-of-town matzo.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

First Lines: Jan-Feb 2018 edition

In February I only finished reading two books, and one of them was a children’s book.  In January I read four books.

Here are the first lines of those books.

Book 1
Chapter 1: Ash Wednesday
I was late.  That in itself was a novelty. It was a dark, gusty evening in February 1969, only a few weeks after I had left the religious life, where we had practiced the most stringent punctuality.

Book 2
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses.  Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles.  Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say.  Depart immediately to open country.

Book 3
It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express.

Book 4
 “I think you’re getting things a bit out of proportion, Mr. Parsons,” Burden said. He was tired and he’d been going to take his wife to the pictures.  Besides, the first things he’d noticed when Parsons brought him into the room were the books in the rack by the fireplace.  The titles were enough to give the most level-headed man the jitters, quite enough to make a man anxious where no ground for anxiety existed:  Palmer the Poisoner, The Trial of Madeleine Smith, Three Drowned brides, Famous Trials, Notable British Trials.

Book 5
(The book begins with graphic pages)
“Happy birthday to Youuuuuuuu.”
“What’s this, Donald?”
“This is your birthday present. It is a Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 200X!  Happy birthday.”
“It’s a vacuum cleaner.”

Book 6
Welcome to the office of Clerk of Session! You have joined a unique and important group of people within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

* * * * * *

But what in the heck was I doing, that I had no time to finish books?  Mostly I was doing my new job, which is quite intense.  But also planning an overseas trip, getting election petitions signed, Clerk-of-Session-ing, protesting my Congressman’s actions and inactions, attending a candidate forum for the US Congressional candidates (in our ever-changing district).  Oh, and a three-day trip to the Next Church conference in Baltimore. I didn’t even have the time to go to book club in February. I am exhausted.  Sadly, I’ve had no time to formulate thoughts, much less write them down.

* * * * * *

Titles and authors revealed:

Book 1
The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong (for one book club).  This book club likes Karen Armstrong, but I am not as enthusiastic.  This one is a memoir.

Book 2
All the Light We Cannot See (for the other book club).  Second reading.  I think this is an extraordinary book. 

Book 3
Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie.  I read it because I wanted to see if the same values were expressed as the values I saw in the recent movie.  They weren’t, as far as I could tell.

Book 4
From Doon with Death, by Ruth Rendell.  It started slow, and got more interesting in subsequent chapters.  It’s the first in the “Inspector Wexford” series.  I’ve read that this author came into her own in later books.  This one is rather mundane, but I would like to read more of this author.

Book 5
Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, text by Kate DiCamillo; illustrations by K.G. Campbell.  © 2013.  Delightful characters and whimsical writing. 

Book 6
Handbook for Clerks of Session, February 2016 by Office of the Stated Clerk of Pittsburgh Presbytery.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Rend your hearts

Last Wednesday, which did double duty as Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday, Pastor stood in the pulpit to read the scripture Joel 2:12-17.  First he said that he doesn’t often read from Joel.  Then he read this to us:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart
    and not your garments….

On a day when we were called to contemplate both love and death, this was an excellent scripture choice.  But I was left curious about what else is in the book of Joel that makes it unlikely to be read.  That evening I started in on the first chapter, and found this:

Lament over the Ruin of the Country

Hear this, O elders,
    give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
    or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell your children of it,
    and let your children tell their children,
    and their children another generation.

What the cutting locust left,
    the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
    the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
    the destroying locust has eaten.

I don't know about you, but when I read that, I get an image of teenaged boys at a high school cafeteria table eating off each other’s plates. But put that aside, and ponder the utter destruction here.  In English it sounds like All Locusts All the Time, but in Hebrew, it’s even worse: those are four different types of pests.  In the King James Version, one of them bugs is called the “cankerworm.”  Okay, grossness and not one crumb of food left.  Annihilation.

We have met the locusts, and they are us.  We seem intent upon slaughter of ourselves.  Perhaps it is we ourselves who have not demanded loudly enough a solution to the ills that plague us.  We are content to let the killing continue.  I rend my heart. 

It’s true that I have never had a run-in with actual locusts that ruined my actual crops.  Let’s acknowledge that locusts are Prophet Joel’s metaphor for invading troops, but still, I haven’t experienced that either.  (Although I hear there are some Russian bots…) Life in modern America is, by most counts, a vast improvement over life during the time of the prophet Joel in ancient Palestine. 

I can’t say that my country is ruined (yet), but I will lament over its diminishment. Just this week, there’s the inability of the Senate to pass legislation on immigration, there’s another mass shooting, there’s the gutting of the American with Disabilities Act, and there’s the Secretary of Agriculture’s “American Harvest Box” proposal, a dignity-smashing way to keep poor, hungry people in their place, while enriching canned food and shipping companies. 

Calls for “thoughts and prayers” from my legislators make a mockery of addressing God, as if those legislators had no possible means of bringing change for the better.  No, Mr. Congressman, I will not pray for those who died.  They are dead. 

They are dead, Mr. Congressman. 

I will pray for you, Mr. Congressman, to, at the very least, set up a permanent tax-payer funded pool of money to cover the costs of the people who survive our incessant mass shootings and who, because of your cold-hearted votes, have no health insurance.  I will pray for you, Mr. Congressman, to have the courage to pass a ban on bump stocks.  To have the courage to allow research on gun violence and prevention.  To have the courage to give back the money you took from the NRA.  To have the courage to…

It seems entirely right to rend my heart.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Favorite books read in 2017

Little Free Library

The best fiction I read in 2017

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.  
Far and away the best writing of any book I read in 2017.   Based on this book alone, the author's Nobel Prize is well-deserved.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (translated from the French  by Gallic Books).

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway.

Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck. 

Standard Deviation, by Katherine Heiny.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. 

The best non-fiction I read in 2017

Gender Revolution: Special Issue, National Geographic magazine, January 2017.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder. 
I read it twice in 2017. 

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah.  
I really enjoyed this fascinating memoir. 

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson. 
This was a difficult read because of the subject matter.  Nevertheless, I recommend it to white American Christians.

How about you?  Do you have any favorites that you have read recently? Have you ever used a Little Free Library?