Monday, October 18, 2021

All of It


He asked me how much I wanted.
I replied, “I want the whole ball of wax.”
I immediately sensed I had made a mistake.
I was right. It took several people
to deliver it the following day.
It was huge, yellow, sticky,
and it smelled. Where would I store it?
Too ungainly and foul to spread on my floors,
how would I use it?
I vowed that the next time
someone asked me, “How much?”
I’d try simplicity and moderation.
No more wax balls for me.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Football violence on a Quaker campus: A modest proposal

Most people are delighted that American football has returned to George Fox University. I haven’t heard many observations on the irony—or the appropriateness—of this violent sport erupting in a Quaker setting.

Speaking of irony, it’s strange that I should be writing this. I’m the coach’s daughter. Or, more accurately stated, was the coach’s daughter. I grew up in a small town in Southern California where football was the center of community life. The Ramona Bulldogs reigned, and my dad was the coach. Friday nights the bleachers completely filled up with young and old, and the excitement crackled like fireworks.

[Coach Forsythe, center, back]

The sport dominated high school life. Of the 96 boys in Ramona High School in 1959, 54 of them were on the varsity or junior varsity team. Every girl longed to be a cheerleader. To give everyone a chance to participate, we had the first string cheerleaders, song leaders (who wore shorter skirts), pom pom girls, the baton squad, and the flag twirlers. I twirled a flag. In between games, we went to classes and studied.

We were good. In 1958, the Ramona Bulldogs won the Southern California Intervarsity Football championship for Class A high schools (very small). I remember the roar of the crowds as that final touchdown guaranteed the trophy. I remember the team carrying my dad off the field on their shoulders. For a shy, skinny girl in middle school, that was Big Stuff.  In 1959, Dad was named Coach of the Year for Southern California. I still have the newspaper articles in my scrap book.

I was raised on American football.

My years in Bolivia, however, converted me to the sport the rest of the world calls football and we call soccer. Latin Americans yell at their games, too, and go a bit crazy when they win. But soccer somehow seems safer, less brutal than our football.

It’s not just a matter of seeming safer. What we’ve been learning about American football in recent years should frighten us enough to have second thoughts about sponsoring this sport on any high school or university campus. A recent Time Magazine feature on the dangers of football is subtitled, “The Tragic Risks of an American Obsession,” and goes on to detail some grim statistics about concussions and the greater likelihood of dementia at earlier ages. This, added to the Quaker peace testimony, makes me wonder why more questions aren’t being raised about GFU’s new program.

I have a proposal. Since it seems unlikely that the decision to include football in the life of the university will be reversed, let’s at least even out the risks. My proposal is that we turn the new bleachers into a smoking area and that the university supply free cigarettes to one and all. Students especially should be encouraged to smoke as they cheer on the team. What this would do is spread around the dangers. While the players are bumping heads and giving each other concussions, the spectators will be puffing away and equally endangering their health and future.

If we university Quakers are a little lax in the arena of non-violence, at least we can give a testimony for equality.

It just seems fair.

[This article originally appeared on my blog in 2014.]

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Not Burdensome

I’m going through a period of grief that is common to many. Two of my grandchildren are leaving home on long term missions across the sea. They go into precarious situations which, while it makes us nervous, only makes them excited. We’ve been warned against mentioning over the Internet their names or the countries they’re going to. One will be gone three years, the other two.

We’ve enjoyed having them close during their university years, sharing meals and conversations, doing art projects together, and then seeing them graduate. We’ve watched them turn into young adults, responsible people, ready to follow their dreams. But why do they have to follow them so far away?

This is a common grief. Children grow up and leave home. Parents, at least some of them, grieve as they let them go. We did this to our parents. But being common doesn’t make the sadness any less real.

As I’ve been writing poetry through the Bible, I thought about my grandkids this week. I was working my way through 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John and I came across this passage: “This is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Here’s the poem:


Not Burdensome

Weightless, in fact.
Under the yoke of God,
there by our choice,
we float on his will
toward a destination
of his choosing.

-Give away all you own. Feed the poor.
-Leave your father and mother and come.
Follow me to the ends of the earth.
   I’m on the way.
-Set your grandchildren free to grab hold
of the dreams I put in their hearts. Let go.
   Yes, Lord.
-Give up your life for mine.
   Here. Take it.

Not burdensome.
Not burdensome at all.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Petting the Lion

Fear perched on my heart like a dirty crow. An unwelcome guest, he disturbed my thoughts with his cawing: “You’re not good enough. You’ll stumble. And they’ll all be listening.”

It was early morning and I was curled up in the easy chair, attempting to pray. I had been invited to give the public prayer later that day in the chapel service of the interdenominational seminary I was attending. I’d ministered in public many times before. Then why was I so nervous?

Maybe it was the occasion—the last all-seminary chapel of the year. Maybe it was the people. My favorite theology professor would be preaching, and the president, the dean, and many others would be there. Maybe it was the place. Wednesday chapels were always held in the large church down the street—a far cry from the simple Quaker places of worship I was used to. Normally, I loved being in that sanctuary, looking up at the arched wooden beams and imagining myself a minnow in the belly of the whale, a mouse in the ark, or a servant girl peeking from behind a pillar in the courts of Camelot. But, did I want to sit up front with the royalty and speak words out into the cavern of that hall? No, I did not.

Recognizing that my imagination was going into overdrive, I stilled my heart and asked the Lord for perspective. Then I simply waited in the silence.

As I sat there, several things came clear. I began to see what I feared. And I began to see what I didn’t fear.

What I did not, and do not, fear is—coming before the Lord God Almighty, addressing in person the King of kings and Lord of lords, speaking boldly to the Creator of the universe, petting the Lion of Judah.  I do this all the time. And I’m not afraid. Amazing.

I saw that what I did fear was no more than saying a prayer out loud in that particular place, on that fairly minor occasion, in front of a relatively small group of people.

I had the whole thing twisted around. Those people, be they professors or students, are like me. We all struggle with not getting enough sleep, tend to be petty when provoked, stub our toes, harbor our secret insecurities, and long for intimacy. We’re all people. But him—he’s the King.

If I had any sense, I’d fear the right things. I’d enter his presence wearing a bullet proof vest and a crash helmet. I’d whisper my prayer. I’d tremble.

The fear of the Lord runs like a dark thread throughout the Scriptures. It’s a theme that has sometimes confused me, and I’ve let it be explained away as reverence or great respect. But the Psalms, the Prophets, and the frightening narratives of the Old Testament beat out the rhythms of the awesome power of the Almighty and call the faithful to respond with appropriate fear. And while reverence and respect are undoubtedly part of our response, sometimes fear is called for. Real fear. Gut-wrenching terror.

Those shepherds on the Judean hillside were “sore afraid” at the angels’ appearance. The wandering Israelites trembled before the smoking mountain. Saul on the Damascus road fell to his face.

I think of our own heritage. The name Quaker was thrown in contempt at our ancestors because they literally trembled in the presence of the Lord.

I think of Lucy, in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, feeling the thrill of fear on first learning of the Lion and asking, “Is he safe?”

Mrs. Beaver answers, “…if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then his isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

The Lord is a God both dangerous and good, and that’s a difficult combination to come to terms with. The same Psalms and prophets that spell out the terror of the Lord also show his tenderness. The Lion is the Lamb. And our shepherd.

We Quakers have another name—Friends. Friends of God, those who love and are loved by God, intimate companions. Both names are appropriate.

My background has emphasized the lovingkindness of God, and I’ve enjoyed friendship with the Lord, probably taken it for granted. I sense mercy and gentleness. That’s all good.

But my early morning meditation on the day of the prayer pointed out a certain lack. My vision of God needs to be stretched. In addition to the grace of intimacy, I long for the wisdom of holy fear.

Chapel came and went. When my time came, I got up, approached the microphone, and prayed. God enabled me to pray to him and not to the people, to pray on behalf of the people with some sense of Who I was addressing. I’m asking God to increase that sensitivity.

Let’s remember our names. Let’s claim our heritage. We are God’s Friends. Let’s also be Quakers.

[First published in Quaker Life, March 1995]

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Morning at the library


I went to the city library
yesterday and engaged in my favorite sport,
browsing. Without saying a word out loud,
I walked the aisles and spoke
with many invisible friends.
After making my choices,
I went downstairs to the check-out
counter only to discover
that technology had made it possible
for me to check out my books
on a machine, without need
of standing in a line or dealing
with the library staff.
In the name of efficiency,
I need never again
look a human in the face,
hear a human voice, or waste my time
in idle chit-chat at a library counter.
The machine takes care of all that
in record time.
I left carrying only my books
and my imaginary conversations
with dead authors.
It’s called progress.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Anomalous Women

Several years back I was studying Greek. One day as I was memorizing the declension of a particularly pesky verb, I consulted my Greek textbook. This book took academic language to excessive limits, but if I managed to wade through the lingo, it was usually helpful. Concerning this verb, I would have said simply that it was irregular. But my text informed me that the verb was “an anomalous transcender of grammatical regularities.”

That made me laugh. But then I realized that it also described me!

Yesterday I discovered another anomaly, this time in the Bible. I was beginning the book of 1 Chronicles, part of the history of Israel. I was skimming the first nine chapters, which contain pure genealogy, not the most interesting reading. As is typical of a patriarchal society, the lists are primarily of men and their sons. Occasionally a woman is mentioned, usually identifying her as some man’s wife, concubine, sister, or daughter. Sometimes the listing notes her contribution, usually as bearing some man’s sons, all of whom are named. (I assume these women occasionally gave birth to baby girls, for the propagation of the race.)

1 Chronicles 7 includes the male descendants of one Ephraim. The section mentions that he “made love to his wife,” an unusual statement about an unnamed woman. But then, tucked in the middle of these paragraphs, comes this verse: “His [Ephraim’s] daughter was Sheerah, who built Lower and Upper Beth Horon as well as Uzzen Sheerah” (vs. 24).

A builder of three towns. Clearly an anomaly. Apparently Sheerah was nobody’s wife and nobody’s mother. So she went out and built towns, and named one after herself! Nothing else is said about her. The list of male descendants continues unabated.

When I was a child I knew someone else like Sheerah. I collected comic books and had the largest collection on the block. Every time I got my allowance, I would go to the used book store and buy more at two for a nickel. I loved the action hero comics—Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Tarzan, and even Mighty Mouse. I did notice that they were all male.

Until a new series came out, featuring Sheena Queen‘a the Jungle! Just like Tarzan, Sheena could swing through the trees on vines, befriend ferocious beasts, defeat injustice, and fight for animal rights. She was a wonder and a marvel. And a woman!

The name Sheena even sounds like Sheerah. Sheena, of course, wasn’t in the Bible. If she had been, I suppose her name would be Sheena Queen‘a the Wadies.

The discovery of Sheerah made my day. She was clearly an anomalous transcender of cultural regularities.

I hope I am too.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Language of Poetry


At an intercultural poetry reading, a man from the audience challenged me: “Aren’t you frustrated at having to write your poetry in English?” he asked. “Such a harsh, irregular language. Spanish, on the other hand is lyrical, sensual, musical, and more logical than English. And the sounds match the letters.”

He had a point, but he had missed several others. I sensed his question was more than rhetorical so I responded as kindly yet as honestly as I could:

“I’ve listened to you and others for whom English is a second language, and you’re right. The language is unsuited to poetry. The English taught in countries around the world focuses on business, industry, academics, or medicine. Most of those studying want to migrate to the US or England for further education. Or to make money. That English, however, doesn’t make poems.

“You’re also right about the irregularities of English, a great frustration to many learners. Coming from so many cultural roots, borrowing from such a multitude of languages, it does seem like a mongrel tongue.

“That’s one of the reasons I love it. Those who live the English language at a deep level, experience its twists, contradictions, impossible puzzles, and incredible variety as a delight, a playground of words with possible poems filling the silences between the words.

“Poetry in Spanish, Arabic, or Japanese is often beautiful, lyrical, following the logic of its language. It’s like walking in a sunlit garden. The splendor of the flowers, laid out in orderly beds, overwhelms. The paths curve and meander in expected, or unexpected, ways. If one gets lost, it’s likely because of the beauty, not the lack of order. The paths eventually lead home. There are poems for the picking.

“Writing poems in English is taking a hike in the wilderness. I may begin on a trail, but it soon peters out among the scrub brush and high altitude keswara trees. The upward climb challenges my strength and energy. Deep chasms surprise the unwary. Danger lurks. But condors and eagles soar overhead, and tiny alpine flowers peak out in more varieties than I knew existed. As I approach the glacier, poems are hiding everywhere.” 

Which language is better for poetry? is probably the wrong question. Each mother tongue carries its own music. For a full-blown symphony of poetry, we need them all.