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Praise song: for church ladies, for learning, for daily miracles

December 1, 2017

The world burns.

And in addition to being mostly in news deprivation, because the hurricanes and the earthquakes and the flooding and the fires, and oh my Lord is this freaking Armageddon but without Bruce Willis?, I need to focus on something positive.

Elizabeth Alexander wrote “Praise Song for the Day” for Barack Obama’s first inauguration.  I watched her read it, probably shivering inside her long winter coat as she read it to the millions of people tuned in, as I and my students and colleagues were, to that historic moment.  She describes the simple tasks of daily living:

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, 
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

So: this starts with a funeral.

Our neighbor, who had lived for years with Alzheimer’s and for the past few years in an adult family home–her husband visiting her every day–fell and hit her head, and died peacefully two days later.  I went with other neighbors to the funeral and noticed this:

Joy, my neighbor, had been a Church Lady.  She had sewed vestments and altar cloths.  She had been on various liturgical and church-related committees.  And her friends–Carol, Caroline, and Irene–sat in front of us at the funeral.  They had organized the flowers in the sanctuary.  They had directed the rosary prior to Mass.  And as soon as the funeral ended, they went to the reception to help set up.

Both of my grandmothers were Church Ladies.  And yes, of course, some Church Ladies are like Dana Carvey’s Church Lady:  condescending and holier-than-thou, worshipping the religion but not the tenets of forgiveness and inclusion that its founder promoted.

But my grandmothers and so many others of their generation were, and are, kind Church Ladies.  The ones who bake pies to fundraise for the new parish roof.  The ones who organize the prayer list and say the rosaries intended for those who need them, and bring communion to the sick and elderly, and visit the homebound.  They decorate the church and run the funerals, all without praise or even acknowledgement.

They have names like Betty, and Mary, and Linda.  They are getting old, and some of them, like Joy, are dying.  Then women with names like Kathy, and Cindy, and Susan will have to take their places.  Eventually women with names like Michelle, and Lisa, and Jennifer will have to take over too.  Praise be for the Church Ladies of the world, the ones who, to paraphrase Tina Fey, get stuff done.

Praise also to the small miracles that happen–not without us noticing, but often without us acknowledging our gratitude for their appearance:

  • Theresa lost her four favorite stuffed animals at church a few weeks ago (yes, four–that girl has so many stuffed animals that we are practically a plushie zoo).  I called the parish.  I called one of our Church Ladies who always goes to daily Mass.  I called a friend who works at the parish school.  None could find the two bunnies and two foxes, one of which she got as a newborn from the hospital and is irreplaceable.  I went to the church on my next day off…and found them.  St. Anthony does good work, people.
  • When my parents came to visit us for a week in October, they not only helped me clean and organize our garage, but my dad vacuumed our van.  On their vacation.
  • Today I facilitated a culminating discussion on women’s issues in The Scarlet Letter.  Before the discussion, I made them watch a TED talk about emotional awareness and how to have hard conversations with people they may not agree with.  They had solid conversations in each class, and it seemed like (at least I hope this is an accurate assessment) that they really listened to each other.  At least a couple of students said they learned something from what their peers shared.  It sounds cheesy to say so but I will anyway, that these moments of horizons broadening, of worldviews shifting, are what make teaching the best job in the entire world.

The world burns.  It has burned before.  Hope is the space between despair and naive optimism.

Praise to Rebecca Solnit, who wrote Hope in the Dark which I’m listening to now, who reminds us in her introduction of both James Baldwin–“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced–and Martin Luther King, Jr.–“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

I’m trying to pay mindful attention to what Virginia Woolf calls the “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.”

“Praise song for walking forward into that light.” (Elizabeth Alexander)

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