tidy hens, paschal moments

Posted by on April 23, 2014

Egg dying before Easter © 2014 Julia Mason Wickes.

Egg dying before Easter © 2014 Julia Mason Wickes.

I married a wife by the light of the moon,
A tidy housewife, a tidy one;
She never gets up until it is noon,
And I hope she’ll prove a tidy one.

And when she gets up, she is slovenly laced,
A tidy housewife, a tidy one;
She takes up the poker to roll out the paste,
And I hope she’ll prove a tidy one.

She churns her butter in a boot,
A tidy housewife, a tidy one;
And instead of a churn-staff she puts in her foot,
And I hope she’ll prove a tidy one.

She lays her cheese on the scullery shelf,
A tidy housewife, a tidy one;
And she never turns it till it turns itself,
And I hope she’ll prove a tidy one.

* * *

I had a little hen, the prettiest ever seen,
She washed me the dishes, and kept the house clean.
She went to the mill to fetch me some flour;
She brought it home in less than an hour;
She baked me my bread, she brewed me my ale,
She sat by the fire and told many a fine tale.

From Marguerite de Angeli’s Book of Nursery and Mother Goose Rhymes

* * *

Today is Bright Wednesday– the Wednesday after Easter. When I opened my eyes this morning, I realized that I had been having intense dreams all night that were about the collapse of civilization and the anarchy and havoc that would ensue if our systems for getting food, clean water, and transportation fell apart. The setting was local but felt like a scene from war-torn Syria– a novel experience for a spoiled, la-dee-da American girl with freckles. I was trying to get home from the far side of town via streets controlled by gangs, bandits, and terrorists. My bright idea–my strategy–was to avoid main streets and keep the hood of my striped zip-up sweatshirt pulled up close around my face. In my pocket, ready to go, was my beloved pair of sewing scissors, it’s blades in an open position for self-defense (don’t laugh– they are heavy, made of steel, and very sharp). When I woke up my husband was already tidily dressed for work, giving our youngest daughter bread and butter for breakfast (our perennial early riser from infancy on), and telling me (nicely) that I needed to get up since he was leaving. For many seconds I wasn’t sure what day of the week it was. It was 7:30 am, which could still be considered relatively early, but inevitably, if my husband wakes me up and he is already dressed, I feel incredibly lazy and slothful, no matter how early it might be. With the additional post-apocalyptic dream-disorientation, this was a strange beginning to a beautiful, sparkling, cool spring day, so close on the heels of Easter.

I don’t normally allocate so much nocturnal dream real estate to post-apocalyptic scenarios, but the book club I participate in had, the night before (last night, in fact, as I am writing this) read and discussed two articles authored by historians who have studied the collapse of complex civilizations in the past and who now predict, based on many parallels between our modern technological civilization and these from the past, the collapse of our current civilization. In retrospect, the theme was a little ill-timed for Easter week, but interesting nonetheless, from the vantage point of a cozy corner booth at a neighborhood pub. I do wonder about our fragile systems– food, medical, transportation (oil dependency). I do often wonder how much longer it can simply go on the way it is. I am trying to grow a pretty big garden this summer, and I am a little fascinated with the idea of homesteading and moving little by little toward some (however minute) degree of greater self-sufficiency. Yes, I know that this makes me sound a little peculiar. But don’t worry. The reality is that my family is all too normal: miles away from being self-sufficient to the point that we would probably whither from starvation if we had to go more than a week without a trip to Trader Joe’s.

But I wanted to write something about the Feast of Feasts (Easter/Pascha). For, as Rilke wrote, “It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.” There was some strangeness this Lent. For one thing, we did not do a very good job as a family keeping the Lenten fast per Lenten fast (as prescribed in the Orthodox Church, which means no meat or dairy for forty days, plus Holy Week). I think that although I am no longer a pregnant or nursing mother, I am in general a slow person, and slow to shift into new gears, so it is hard for me to shift into the realization that I am no longer disqualified from fasting (it’s only been over three years– give me time). My children are still too young to really fast. I am uncoordinated and discombobulated with daily food as it must be distributed daily within a nuclear family even in the non-fasting seasons. Fasting and meal planning during Great Lent while my children are crying for cheese crackers at my hip makes me feel harassed even in theory.

But I was not going to beat myself up this Lent. That was the plan: to be lax-ish Lent-wise and not beat myself up. But I have fasted strictly before– oh yes, especially before I had children– and I know from experience that there is a qualitative difference in the experience of Easter that is directly proportional to the degree that one has seriously entered into the disciplines of Lent. Easter and the breaking of the fast– that grand thing, eating lamb and brie and salami at 1:30 am after many weeks of rice and beans– is really something special. But that was just not how it was this year. Things were lax. But still, life is hard, and Lent is hard, and, in the end, we laxness monsters were ready for the feast as much as anyone, and we were approaching it “as if” we had fasted well. That is to say, I had a raw hunk of pork loin in my refrigerator and, for a time, five people slated to come to our home for dinner. As things turned out, our guests all had to cancel, for very valid reasons. But in that canceling of our guests, we ended up spending Easter day alone as a family. I wondered, as I drove home to where five pounds of meat were slow-roasting in the oven– whether we should go into the highways and byways and invite the down and out to our feast, as in the gospel parable. But in the end we feasted alone-as-a-family (even saying that, I realize what a privilege it is to simply have a family on a big holiday). But even alone-as-a-family is kind of a bummer on such a big feast day, even if it does spare you from the last minute frenetics of wiping toothpaste blobs out of the bathroom sink ten minutes before the guests arrive. I told my husband that maybe we were being put on some kind of cosmic Paschal probation. Next year we needed to do a better job of Lent. Then we would be mystically rewarded by a more eschatological Paschal celebration in proportion to our efforts.

And there were other things. On Facebook I learned that a former neighbor and friend from Notre Dame lost her baby at fifteen weeks in the womb right before Easter. The family that was supposed to come over on Easter Day canceled because their baby woke up with a double eye infection. Another family at our current church showed up during the Paschal service with half of their members missing because their fifteen month old son had broken his leg on a slide at the playground on Saturday and spent that night at the hospital with his mother, getting a cast. And yet another family from our former church just found out that the mother (of four children, one a newborn baby) was just diagnosed with a degenerative muscular disease that has no cure and will eventually put her in a wheel chair. All of this so close to Easter.

But during Holy Week, after the gentle encouragement of confession and communion, I found myself drawing very close to the Church and all the beautiful services. Our large urban Greek parish is so busy. There are people coming and going. There are so many pairs of fancy shoes clicking against the floors of the entryway. There were Greek boys in preppy pink and turquoise pants, young women in pencil skirts and heels and many a head of impressively coifed hair. There are so many faces passing by– too many to note or keep track of– mostly Greek-American, some Ethiopian women, swathed in white wrappings, with their adorable children in lacy dresses. So many candles and flowers– everywhere. There is Ms. Stacey, Elsa’s Sunday School teacher, whom Elsa adores, whose name is really Anastasia, which means “Resurrection,” (she explained this to Elsa, upon whom it was totally lost). There is the choir leader, who, from an early stage, memorized my children’s names and greets them adoringly each time she sees them. I asked if she was tired from all of her choir directing during Holy Week and she said that she figured Holy Week was a lot harder on Jesus than it was on us, and, even if we didn’t survive Holy Week, it would be a great way to go out.

My youngest daughter turned five on Holy Friday. At first, leading up to the day, as I thought about it in theory– in the ghostly and never-accurate projections and images and imaginations that my brain concocts– I felt sorry for her for having the misfortune of a birthday on Holy Friday– possibly the most somber day of the year. But when the day actually came, everything changed. We had a special little breakfast for her at home and hid some gifts around the house, so that she could go on a scavenger hunt for them (over which her older sister immediately took full control). Then we went to church. I told her, on the way, that her birthday was falling on a special day in the church and that there would be lots of flowers everywhere. She seemed excited. And indeed, it was beautiful, a truly beautiful day to have a birthday. The tomb of Christ sat in front of the church adorned with beautiful lilies and orchids. The atmosphere was so hazy and peaceful. There was the Old Testament readings– the stories of those stalwart characters– so familiar and warming. The girls brought their dolls and a coloring book. They were good, and quiet. Then my oldest had to go to the bathroom and seemed upset by something trivial and didn’t want anyone to see her crying. I was about to acquiesce but then I saw that something special was about to happen. Our priest Fr. Doug was gearing up to come out into the aisles with something– something to throw at us. This happens a lot in the Orthodox Church– the priest throws things at you, or gives you bread, or flowers, or an egg, or swabs oil on your face. There is always something. This time it was leaves– lots of them. He had a basket, and was coming out into the aisle, throwing great handfuls, generous handfuls, of leaves onto the heads of everyone in attendance. They turned out to be bay leaves, those little things that soup recipes call for, one at a time, which I pick out of a little spice jar from our spice cabinet and never come to the end of, one at a time. But instead of one at a time, like those parsimonious recipes, he was throwing them by the handful; he was chucking them. They were cascading to the floor like little helicopter blades, all over the place, crisp and dry, that olive green color against the plush red carpet. It was extravagant. When I told Esme to wait– let’s see what this is– she saw well enough and had no trouble waiting, and forgot all about escaping to the bathroom, and crying. Having bay leaves showered down around changes the mood.

To be perfectly honest, Orthodox traditions vary a little bit from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and this showering of bay leaves in the Greek church we attend was a new one for me. I didn’t really know what it was about. Later we read that it represents the shattering of the gates of Hades by Christ when he descended into the lower regions, trampling down death by death. I suppose bay leaves are a little shard-like; the way they fly in the air mimics a sort of shattering.

Holy Week was beautiful, but human habits, sins, and stupidities die hard, and on Holy Saturday (when I still thought that we would be hosting guests at our house on Sunday) I was still carrying around my fair share of dumb burdens in my mind, heart, and soul. I was worried about hosting. I was fretting about the meal, about having a clean bathroom. I was mad at myself for being so disorganized, disgusted with myself for being such a doltish housekeeper/homemaker/wanna-be-homesteader, and generally thinking all kinds of bad things about myself. Although I made my youngest daughter her Easter dress and it was a success, with its invisible zipper, lining, and inset sleeves, that was not enough– oh no– no achievement or skill could ever be enough, could it? My sewing area was a mess– fabric scraps, threads, and pattern pieces were strewn everywhere. All this would need to be picked up before we had people over to our house.

Jeff took the girls to the playground. The windows in our house were open and I had it to myself. And I did clean up and restore order to the room, in my slow, doltish way. Finally I sat down in a rocking chair by a window, in a sunny, tidy room. I had the Paschal service book in my lap, just because– I don’t know why– and opened up, looking for something– maybe some kind of Paschal message or feeling. And as I flipped I found the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom, and proceeded to read it about five times in a row, and cried a lot. “Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave.” Sitting in our ugly brown glider rocking chair that we bought to nurse babies in and is still hanging around, so darn oversize and comfortable, I had the Paschal Moment I so needed. In our world of possible things, this is, apparently, possible.

After all was said and done, we made it to the midnight Paschal service with our children (who actually did quite well), and we came back to the church on Sunday for the Agape service. On the way I realized that I had forgotten to wear a slip underneath my dress and was seriously worried that my dress would be see-through and surely wreck any plans I had to take a decent family Easter photo. We thought about turning back so that I could get my slip even though it would make us late to the service, which was so short that being late would mean basically missing it. The petty worries of the world were already creeping back and taking over. In the end, I decided to recklessly go to the service sans slip rather than burn up ridiculous amounts of gasoline and making us late to the service by driving back home. In the sunshine, walking toward the church doors, my husband confirmed that my dress was, in fact, opaque, and this eased my troubled mind. At the conclusion of the Agape service, at which I had a coughing fit when the church was censed and had to leave for a large portion, the priest handed all the women a lily taken from Christ’s tomb, which is, Fr. Doug said, “as we know, a life-giving tomb.”

It was strange to spend Easter alone this year (as a family), and my husband and I ended up having some strangely serious conversations on Easter Day– about how things might need to change, about our next steps as a family, about finances (YUCK) and continuing this ongoing journey at a crawling pace that I like to call Growing Up (GROAN).

Maybe next year–next Lent–will be better, God willing. Surely it will be. It seems as if our children are turning a corner; they will both be School Age, which, actually is huge, and they are so much easier to take to church. But for this year what I realized is that although I obsess a lot over the meta and the micro– over the collapse of civilization and my performance as a person in our tiny home, which probably looks like a speck from the perspective of Google Earth, I know now that it really doesn’t matter. The gates of hell are forged out of steel, as are the gates of my heart, and both are easily shattered– will be shattered and have been shattered. This will happen; it has nothing to do with me. None of my little thoughts or ways–functional or dysfunctional, rich or impoverished– are strong enough to stop this salvation from sweeping me up in its power. Our achievements, our failures, amount to nothing more than a Mother Goose rhyme. Can I just say that, while I wouldn’t mind having a hen like the one in the poem above living under the same roof as me, to make me tea and go to the store and wipe down the kitchen counters, she might also be annoying at times, and just as unworthy in the end as those of us who blog in our pajamas while the dishes pile up in the sink. There is none good, no not one. The smug and perfect older brother will, in the end, feast with the prodigal son and, probably after a few drinks, be dispensing hugs all around and grateful just to be there. The rich and the poor, the sober and the heedless, the tidy and the messy, those who have labored from the beginning, and those who have arrived at the eleventh hour will hold high festival together. For Christ is Risen, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Poetry Wednesday

  1. A M B E R
    April 24, 2014

    First, I really like the redesign of your blog! The banner photo is great. And I'm glad you shared your paschal moments. I feel better hearing about your Lent, since we didn't really fast this Lent either, not even the family ascetic, Charles. I also have a hard time realizing that I have no reason not to fast anymore. It has been nearly three years since I stopped breastfeeding, so I could like really begin fasting a little again. Your posts always make me miss you! oxox

  2. Manuela
    April 24, 2014

    I also love your new blog design, and as usual, this was a great read. I could have kept going….

  3. Julia
    April 24, 2014

    Thanks, both of you. I was content with the way my blog looked in the past and then one day I *accidentally* changed the template and it became unbearably ugly for the last six months or so, but I've been too preoccupied to tinker with it. I finally sat down and gave it a little makeover yesterday. Now I can rest easy knowing that I no longer have the ugliest blog on the block–phew.

  4. Veronika
    April 25, 2014

    I am sobbing so hard! My Great Lent experience and feeling of Universe to burst into a war and chaos is absolutely precise with yours! The girls are about to be released from their ballet class, so I cannot write a long comment, but I will try to catch up on emails one of these days. I miss being near my friends.
    Christ is Risen!