View from the Pew

I was really looking forward to Easter this year. After sitting in front of our TV two years ago, watching services streamed from post-apocalyptic empty sanctuaries to nervously stepping back into masked and temperature-checked in-person worship last Easter, I was ready for a pull-out-all -the-stops celebration.

But for the first time in as long as I can remember (last two years not withstanding), I did not sing in an Easter choir. Earlier this week, I noticed some cold symptoms—sore throat, a little congestion. I immediately took a home Covid test which was negative and so for the most part, went about my business including a choir rehearsal and two Holy Week services. But yesterday, whatever virus had taken up residence migrated south into my vocal cords. My voice was reduced to a whisper and singing anything above middle C was impossible. I was relegated to the pews.

But despite my disappointment at not being able to sing in a truly glorious Easter celebration, I will say there is something to be gleaned from sitting back and allowing worship to happen without anxiously paging through my folder for the next anthem or hymn. It was a chance to be still and really listen for the voice of God which came through loud and clear in the rector’s sermon. It was almost like God was saying to me, “Ok, just stop multi-tasking for an hour or two and pay attention.” And it was a chance to people-watch. Currently my husband and I are dividing our time between two different churches, which, odd as it sounds, is working well for us. This morning I was at the church where we are relative newcomers so I could observe in anonymity.

At the first service, an elderly woman sat in the pew adjacent to mine. She was stooped and frail and yet, when the procession came up the aisle, she not only sang Christ the Lord is Risen Today, with gusto, she kept time by swinging her right arm as if she was conducting the brass choir. She was the picture of joy. (Although later she was less than joyful when told she could no longer intinct her wafer in the communion wine. The Episcopal Church is still trying to sort itself out when it comes to receiving communion.)   

I watched people re-connect with family members and friends they don’t often see. I watched the brass choir sing the hymns and service music when they weren’t playing. They weren’t just there as paid musicians but were engaged in the worship experience. At the beginning of the second service, a woman in front of me turned around to watch for the beginning of the procession with as much anticipation as if she were looking for a bride to come up the aisle. I saw the expressions on people’s faces as they took communion—gratitude, humility, smiles, even a few tears. I watched teenagers proudly carry the processional cross, entwined with Easter lilies and later one of those same teens brought the tray for pew communions. Seeing them gave me hope that the church may yet last for another generation or two, despite the media’s dire predictions of the imminent demise of organized religion.

Yes, I missed the singing, but I realized this morning that sometimes I’m missing the point. The opportunity  to be an observer instead of a participant allowed some much-needed space for other things in my mind and my spirit, and I’m grateful for that.

Happy Easter.

Update from the Kitchen

It started with a mighty crack that sent both dogs into full defcon 5 barking. The dishwasher, my stalwart kitchen companion who served 25 years without a single repair, had finally broken a door spring, and I knew there was no hope of a replacement part. It limped along for a few more weeks, loyal to the end, but a getting a new dishwasher was inevitable.

All new appliances seem to come with an attitude and require much drama with their installation. This time around there was no shut-off valve for the dishwasher and the one for the kitchen faucet wouldn’t turn the whole way so the hot water heater had to be shut down and well, on it went. I was informed that I needed to get a plumber to put in new valves (which I did but now there’s an issue with the hot water pressure in the faucet but that’s another story.)

The new dishwasher swept in like a fashion model on the runway, dressed in her chic chrome ensemble with this annoying (but oh so trendy) handle that sticks out a little more than I’d like but there was a six- month wait for one with a “concealed handle.” I put a load of dishes in, forcing myself to give up my long-ingrained habit of scraping and rinsing them first. “Put them in dirty,” the installer said. “The stuff in those little packets dissolves protein and food particles and if it doesn’t find any food, then it turns around and leaves etching marks on your glassware.” Wow. Nice, ok, so I’ll leave them dirty because I don’t want to be punished by the Cascade pod.

I was used to a dishwasher that sounded like a crew of sailors on KP duty laughing and joking as they slammed pots and pans around. My old dishwasher went to work with a vengeance and there was no question that it was running. If we wanted to watch TV, we didn’t turn on the dishwasher.

This machine takes polite sips of water and occasionally produces little sighs of effort but there is no raucous clamor of things being cleaned. This one is stealthy and just a touch arrogant.  I opened the door after the first load was finished to discover everything in it was wet. Not just a few droplets wet but needing to be hand-dried wet. A few phone calls later, I was told by a very helpful GE employee, that a “dry” setting must be chosen before each load or otherwise it defaults in all its ecological correctness to not drying at all. Who knew? I was used to just pressing “normal” and expecting the machine to operate that way. (In my defense, it should be noted that full instructions no longer come with an appliance. You must go online with your model number, sift through the website to find your 79-page product manual, select what pages you think you’ll need, and print them yourself.)

I suppose we’re settling in. The machine is cleaning my dishes (quietly) and drying them. I do like the top rack for utensils, and I’m gradually learning to leave food residue on the plates although at times that causes me great anxiety. (What if that cheese gets baked on forever???)

Meanwhile, across from the new dishwasher, the oven lies dormant, suffering from a blown baking element. The technician didn’t know for sure because the baking element in this five-year-old oven is hidden to allow for the less than effective “aqua bath” cleaning of the unit.  The “part is not currently at our distributor in Ohio, so it’ll be a few weeks.” Fortunately, we’re coming into grill season, and baked potatoes are great in the air fryer.

The Birds at My Window

I grew up in a family of backyard bird-watchers. My grandfather hung feeders on poles high off the ground that aligned with the windows of what he called his den—the room with the old-fashioned typewriter and a worn green leather recliner smelling faintly of Old Spice after-shave. He’d crank the casement windows open, and I would help him fill different kinds of seed feeders and dab peanut butter into logs with holes drilled into them. He taught me to identify chickadees and male and female cardinals and different kinds of finches, and in the spring, we’d listen to their calls.  My mother kept feeders although she was a little less diligent, so hers were more prone to squirrel reconnaissance and destruction.

This year I moved one of the suet feeders outside a window near our kitchen table. The nuthatches and downy woodpeckers convene there for morning coffee hour–nibbling at the seed-encrusted block of fat and chatting amongst themselves. A crowd of obnoxious starlings shows up in the late afternoons, and I’m occasionally greeted with a view of a spread-eagled squirrel balanced on the pole. The terriers are happy to dispatch all unwanted encroachers.

The feeder is positioned in the window right above the small TV where we watch the news, and I can’t help but notice the contrast between what I see on the screen and what I see outside my window. In fact, I’m not sure I could watch the news without knowing those birds are right outside, doing what they always do – eating and chattering and sipping from the birdbath, now warmed with a heater. They are a source of comfort and reminder that nature is still there in the midst of the terrible chaos of the world.

Some days I think my jaw can’t drop any lower in shock and horror with what I’m seeing. It’s all I can do to watch the innocent people of Ukraine having their lives and country destroyed by a tyrant consumed with greed and lust for power. Almost worse than what I watch is what I hear—the barrage of lies, cruelty, and manipulation of the truth that has become our new normal. The mass consumption of disinformation, fueled by the rants and blathering of social media, is not only tearing us apart but creating an epidemic of rude and selfish behavior everywhere from stores and airline flights to school board meetings. Last night, when I heard shouting during the President’s speech, I thought perhaps hecklers had gotten into the House Chamber, but it came from two of our own elected representatives.

Each morning, this curmudgeonly retiree stares out her window to hold onto some balance and perspective. An entire flock of red-winged blackbirds gathered under the seed feeders this week, so they’re officially back in the neighborhood. I saw a bluebird inspecting the house in the front yard for possible occupancy and the finches are hitting the thistle seed especially hard—maybe it takes extra calories to start turning yellow? In another month, I’ll replace the wire suet feeders with red plastic bowls of sugar water and start checking the migration maps for the hummingbirds’ progress. As I provide food, water, and shelter for these beautiful creatures, I long for the innocence of the days when I learned about wild birds at my grandfather’s side. But the fact that the birds I watched as a child still return with each passing season gives me hope, and I am grateful for their song.

Valentine Memories

I’ve always been sort of ambivalent about Valentine’s Day. I can remember the childhood excitement of classroom Valentine parties when we sat at our desks opening silly paper cards in tiny envelopes and  eating sugary treats. (Do schools even do that anymore?) I also remember when I was about twelve, getting a “real” Valentine from a boy in my neighborhood who had asked me to moonlight skate with him at the last skating party. When he called the local radio station to dedicate the song “Windy” to me, I thought we’d end up getting married. Hearing “Who’s walking down the streets of the city, smiling at everybody she meets” made me feel slim and beautiful with swinging hair even though I was kind of dorky and chunky, and my hair definitely did not swing.

Years later, the middle of February brought the death of my mother which forever cast a shadow on Valentine’s Day. Even now, when I take a Christmas wreath to the cemetery where both my parents are buried, I can still feel the bitter cold of that winter day in 1980. I can see all of us in our funeral-dress-up shoes carefully picking our way across the ice patches and hard-packed snow to reach my mother’s gravesite where we huddled together under the canopy, watching her casket being lowered into the frozen ground.

When I was teaching, Valentine’s Day marked a milepost in the seemingly endless slog toward spring concerts and the oh-so-distant end of the school year. I remember chaperoning nervous adolescents at their first dance and smiling at  those few brave souls who broke loose from the security of their friends and wandered out onto the dance floor, gingerly touching each other’s shoulders or waists, as they swayed back and forth to a slow dance.

And then there was the Valentine’s night in 1996 when I found a bouquet of red roses at my front door.  I had been on a date or two with a man I met through—no surprise here–choral singing. We had been to dinner, and on another occasion, I met him in the lobby of a theater for a concert. We both enjoyed the time we spent together, but we were tentative, careful. He was a lifelong bachelor, and I had been divorced after a thirteen-year marriage. That night I had come home after a rehearsal and was getting ready for bed. I remember the two Scottie dogs I had at the time fussing and barking until I finally went downstairs and looked out the front door. There was a beautiful bouquet of red roses with a card attached that said something clever and prophetic. (I just asked him if he remembered what he wrote on the card but that was 26 years ago.) I picked up the bouquet, closed the door, and sat right down on the floor and burst into tears. It was so unexpected and so kind and at that point in my life, I was not anticipating receiving flowers from someone who was falling in love with me.

I was twelve again and felt slim and beautiful with swinging hair.