Monday, December 23, 2013

An epiphany at the manger

Shortly before we left northern New York, a friend took us to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. It has a museum with a collection of eight hundred nativity scenes from countries all over the world. There is one huge one, more than life size, that takes up an entire room.

I spent a long time examining that nativity scene, moving from one figure to another: the shepherds, the Magi, the animals, and, finally, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. I had never seen a nativity where the people and animals were so large and so life-like. I was fascinated.

After a few minutes, I realized that the appearance of the figures reminded me of a nativity scene my parents gave me when I was two years old. It contained a wooden stable and manger. The people and animals were made of plaster and hand painted: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a donkey, a cow, a shepherd, four sheep, three wise men, a camel, and an angel.

I still have it. Setting up that nativity scene every year has become a sacred ritual for me. It’s traveled with me to all the places I’ve lived. Some years it’s been set up under the Christmas tree, some years on a desk or table, some years in my office at whatever church I was serving at the time. It dates from the same era as the one at St. Joseph’s Oratory, which may be why the room-sized one reminded me so much of the little one I’ve had almost all my life.

And then, as I stood pondering the bigger-than-life nativity scene before me, I had an epiphany. At the manger. How appropriate, our friend noted.

The epiphany: my childhood nativity scene was my first experience of faith, at the age of two. By the time I was in second grade, I wrote out the whole account of the story of the birth of Jesus in pencil on the double-lined paper we used in school to help us learn good penmanship. Years later, after my mother’s death, I found the pages in her desk. By the age of seven, I had that story down cold. I could recite every detail, without hesitation.

Our friend commented that the nativity story was probably the first experience of faith for many children, not just me. I think he’s right. And what a wonderful teaching tool a nativity scene can be! As I look at mine, I realize that today the manufacturer would have had to recall it because some of the pieces are small enough for a young child to swallow. My parents must have supervised me carefully and taught me to treat it with care, because I didn’t swallow any of the pieces.

However, when I was four, one of my little friends picked up one of the sheep and, to my horror, threw it on the floor and broke it. I screamed and cried inconsolably. Fortunately, only one piece broke off the base. My mother carefully glued it back together, and to this day I can still see the tiny seam when I turn the sheep upside down.

So maybe a child’s nativity scene should not be made of plaster, glass, or some other breakable material. Wood, perhaps. Non-toxic paint. And big pieces, too big to swallow. It’s important for a child to be able to pick up each piece and feel the shape of it, admire the color of a robe or the hump of a camel, turn it over, and listen to someone tell the story behind each piece.
When I was growing up, my church put on a "living nativity scene" on the lawn each Advent. For several evenings in December, church members – adults and older children – would dress in costume and stand perfectly still for thirty-minute shifts as cars passed and people came to stand and watch. When I was in junior high, I started to take part: first as a shepherd, then as a wise man, and when I was sixteen, as the angel, perched on a ladder at the back of the stable. It was freezing cold that night – for New Orleans, that is, which means it was probably in the forties. Still, that’s pretty darn cold when you can’t move for thirty minutes.

Years later, as an adult, I was Mary. I got to sit in the stable for those thirty-minute shifts, which in my opinion made it the best role to have. That year it was so warm that I was discreetly slapping mosquitoes around my ankles as I sat beside the manger.

Time passes. Much of the nativity scene was stored under the raised choir loft and was destroyed in the flooding caused by the levee breaches after Katrina. The costumes were on the second floor of the education building and survived.

The congregation is much younger today than it was when I was growing up. This year, some of the men built a new stable and set it up on the side lawn of the church. Last Friday night we had a "reimagined" living nativity scene: a reboot, if you will. The children of the church right now are much too young to stand still for thirty-minute shifts. In fact, five minutes would probably be too long. So, led by Pastor Fred, we all streamed onto the church lawn at twilight, children and adults in costume, and had a combination living nativity - impromptu Christmas pageant right there, with the cars going by and people stopping to see what was going on and taking pictures and videos with their smartphones (something else we didn’t have back when I was growing up).

We brought Gabby the dog with us, not realizing we would be invited to take part. So we stuffed a sheepskin under her harness and made her a sheep. We grabbed a couple of shepherd’s robes and joined the children in being terrified by the angel and then running to Bethlehem to see this child the angel told us we would find there. One of the fathers was wearing a donkey costume (at least I think that’s what it was) and got down on his hands and knees in front of the stable. We went through the story twice, and a good time was had by all.

It was definitely not the living nativity of my childhood. But that’s okay. Back then, all of us in our different roles were characters frozen in a moment of time long ago (which never really happened in the Biblical account; the wise men didn’t show up at the same time as the shepherds). This year, we told a story. We were moving around, experiencing the events for ourselves, in our own lives and in our own time. And there’s something theologically appropriate about that.

Jesus is not frozen in time, way back when. Jesus is alive and active in our world, even today.

Our friend is right: The story of the birth of Jesus is the first experience of faith for many children. They learn it by picking up and examining the pieces of a nativity scene. They learn it by acting out the roles in the story. They learn it through the costumes, and the words of the story, and the songs they learn to sing about the birth of Jesus. Sure, some of them are hokey – at least that’s what it may seem like to some of us adults. But maybe not so hokey to the children, not yet.

In time, if their families make faith a priority, they’ll learn more about Jesus. And maybe one day they’ll decide for themselves that they want to follow him.

And here’s my nativity scene, set up for Christmas 2013, back in New Orleans again.

Monday, December 02, 2013

First Sunday in Advent, 2013

We worshiped on the first Sunday in Advent at the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, where I grew up. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) it is common practice to have communion on the first Sunday of the month. What an appropriate way to begin Advent, with the Lord's Supper.

At FPCNO, things are done much more simply now in a post-Katrina world, and communion is by intinction rather than with trays and little cups. Both wine and grape juice are offered. We were sitting fairly close to the front, so we were near the beginning of the line when we came up to receive the elements.

After we sat down again, I watched the people coming forward. I saw a father come up holding his young daughter's hand. I knew this man when he was in high school in the youth group and I was on the session -- thirty years ago. Now he is a church leader and bringing his own daughter to worship as his parents had brought him and his brother years ago. (His brother is a leader in a church across the lake.)

And I was reminded of coming to worship in that sanctuary with my own father, so many years ago, when I was this young daughter's age. Whenever I come to worship there, I think of him. Whenever I open the front door of the church, in my mind's eye I see him standing there greeting people before worship.

Faith comes down through the generations. It is passed from parents to children and grandchildren. I give thanks for my father, who brought me to church and showed me by his example what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to serve him through his church.

There are other ways people come to faith, of course. Some are invited by friends. Some have unexpected and powerful experiences of faith -- Damascus road experiences. Each person who came forward to receive the sacrament that morning has a different faith story to tell. And each person's faith experience is equally valid.

But it was powerful for me to see that father and daughter yesterday. Thanks be to God for parents who teach faith to their children by their own example.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

From north to south...

My writing colleague Judy Howard, whom I met at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and who blogs at, has written a book called Coast to Coast with a Cat and a Ghost. With apologies to Judy, I've just done North to South with Three Cats in a Tahoe. Four days and three nights, 1,676 miles, from Plattsburgh, New York, to New Orleans, about a thousand of it on Interstate 81, paralleling U.S. 11 all the way from Binghamton, New York to Slidell, Louisiana. The directional indicator on my mirror read "SW"-- Southwest -- pretty much the whole way. We drove through New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and finally Louisiana. Stayed overnight in Binghamton, Roanoke/Salem VA, and Birmingham. A big "Thank you!" to LaQuinta and Candlewood Suites for their pet-friendly policies.

I left a few days ahead of Papacat, who stayed with the dog to see the moving van off and to shampoo the carpets of the house that was about to go on the market. The weather was mostly good all four days of our trip, but he hit heavy snow going over the Adirondacks in his first hour out of Plattsburgh, a little goodbye present from the Frozen North.

As I journeyed southwest, traveling four to five hundred miles a day, I noticed that each day the temperatures rose about ten degrees and the price of gas dropped. The temperatures went from the forties to the fifties to the sixties to the seventies, and the price of gas went from $3.60 in Plattsburgh to under $3.00 by the time I got to Mississippi. Good deal.

On the second day of our trip, we went through five states, all on I-81: New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. When you cross into Maryland, you cross the Mason-Dixon Line. Even the geography looks different. And suddenly you start seeing signs for Waffle House.

The mountains are beautiful. In central New York, there are hills running north to south, and it's clear they were left behind by the glaciers. In central Pennsylvania, maybe they were glacial mountains also, but they're much steeper; I'm not sure. But the broad valleys of Pennsylvania with lovely towns and cities spread out over them are awesome.

In Virginia it's the Shenandoahs. More incredible beauty. The autumn leaves in New York were finished by the time I drove through, the first full week of November. In Pennsylvania they were rust-colored. But by the time I got to Virginia, they were peaking, all shades of red and gold and brown.

In Tennessee, it's the Blue Ridge Mountains. Again, gorgeous colors in the leaves, and sunny warm daytime temperatures when I'd stop for gas, food, or to clean cat carriers (the less said about that the better).

The longest leg of the trip was Roanoke to Birmingham, 515 miles. That last stretch from Chattanooga to Birmingham took about two hours, and night fell as I drove. In the west, just after sunset, bright Venus was in conjunction with a sliver of crescent moon, a little like this *  ). Lovely.

Traveling with three cats (and a lot of worldly possessions) in a Tahoe: oh my. The cats are the Ponchatoula boys, all rescued from various situations in my first parish. Each cat has his unique challenges: Sweetie has diabetes and needs insulin every 12 hours. 'Teebie has liver disease and is in failing health. And Little Bit can find the darndest places to hide in a hotel room. No cat left behind, Little Bit. But his "I ain't going!" routine in the mornings delayed our departures and did not-so-good things for my blood pressure. 

The first night's hotel had open area under the beds, so of course he went to the middle of "under the full-size bed" and wouldn't budge. I  managed to crawl under and drag him out, mother-cat style, and of course he was not pleased. The next two nights had real pet-friendly platform beds with no way to get under them. (Thank you, hotels!) Yet I was using wastebaskets, pillows, cat carriers, etc. to try to block Little Bit from getting behind the head of the bed, but of course he found a way. Again, I did a mother-cat "drag him out" in the morning.

That third morning was the worst. All three of them disappeared. I finally found Sweetie, all twenty pounds of him, on top of the kitchen cabinets in the suite. He had jumped from chair to table to countertop to top of refrigerator to top of cabinet. Sweetie's diabetic neuropathy must be doing a lot better since we upped his insulin!

It took awhile, but I finally found a black tail ('Teebie) sticking out under the bedskirt. And Little Bit was there, too. I was terrified they had managed either to crawl up into the mechanism of the reclining chair or jump behind and under the refrigerator, but apparently even Little Bit was not that suicidal. And so I put them into their cat carriers, loaded them onto the luggage cart, and wheeled them to the Tahoe.

Among the gazillion things in the back of the Tahoe was the huge spider plant from my office in Plattsburgh. That first night in Binghamton, the predicted low was below freezing, so I brought it into the hotel room. Did I mention that Sweetie loves to eat spider plants? So it hung from the shower rod that night and the bathroom door stayed closed. Fortunately, as we traveled south, the nighttime temperatures rose and I could leave it in the car overnight. It arrived in New Orleans with some leaves slightly bent, but it has a happy new home in the conservatory off the dining room and seems to be recovering just fine.

We arrived in New Orleans at rush hour on a Thursday afternoon, and of course there were accidents that had the interstate tied up, and don't you just love having to pull over for emergency vehicles when there is no place to pull over? Back to life in the big city. We made it home safely, just before sunset. As I unloaded the car, I saw Venus and the crescent moon appear in the west. A good sign. Welcome home.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The big four-oh

I thought hitting the big four-oh was traumatic. Now I have hit the big four-oh of my graduation from Syracuse University in 1973. It was great to go back to campus for reunion last weekend. Didn’t see anyone I knew, but I had my main man with me, and that made it all worthwhile.

The homecoming game, Syracuse vs. Clemson...well, we knew going in it wasn’t going to be pretty. We won’t discuss the score, except to say we were not shut out. We had seats near the end zone where SU scored its two touchdown runs, which was pretty exciting. And the stadium was almost at capacity, nearly 49,000 -- and everybody in orange! I have never seen so much orange in my life! The tailgate party at the Sheraton (one of many going on before the game) was fun, too. The alumni were all friendly and a lot of them were older than we were – so maybe there’s hope that I’ll make it back for the big five-oh in ten years. Although going up those hills and stairs is going to be a real challenge.

The Dean's Breakfast for alums of the Newhouse School of Public Communications – Newhouse was the reason I went to Syracuse – was great. Lobster quiche, anyone? There were three presentations by faculty from the magazine department (my major), the television, radio and film department, and the broadcast and digital journalism department, the successor to the television-radio department, or TVR – I think. A lot of high-tech, really cool stuff going on. Magazine students can now take a course on developing smartphone and tablet apps that add content and whiz-bang graphics and video to the magazine experience. (Afterward, I checked the curriculum on the website and found that magazine students still take many of the same classes I did 40 years ago in an introduction to the industry, writing, and editing – although the graphic design class would be dramatically different in the digital age.)

We all were invited back next year for the dedication of the Dick Clark Studios. (More about that on the website, They have knocked out an imposing back wall of concrete/stone of Newhouse II on the Waverly Ave. side (described as "fortress-like") and are putting in a beautiful glass-walled addition for the studios. I think there will be five small studios that can be used for all sorts of projects.

A lot of new buildings have gone up on campus in the last 40 years. The old Victorian houses on University Ave. are gone, replaced with modern brick structures from the 1980s. In retrospect, Newhouse I and II and Bird Library seem really ugly to me, products of the 1960s and 1970s, and out of place on a campus with grand old buildings dating from the 1870s. The newer buildings try to bridge the gap between the Victorian elegance of the Hall of Languages (pictured above) and Crouse College and the utilitarian style of the present day. There’s lots of glass and a very open feel to Newhouse III.

News flash: You can now buy Clinique products in the Bookstore! And there is a cafe in Bird Library! Back in the day, the very idea of having food and beverages under the same roof as a library was heretical. Thank you, Barnes and Noble, for the cafes in your bookstores that prompted university libraries to create spaces to hang out during those long study and research sessions.

The alumni association ran free shuttle buses from the hotels to campus, so we didn't have to hassle with trying to find a legal place to park on campus. Thank you, alumni association. I owe you a big donation for that one.

Our hotel was in East Syracuse, actually northeast Syracuse, not too far from the airport, in a cluster of hotel chains and extended-stay places. But the rest of East Syracuse was shocking. It looks like New Orleans East post-Katrina. Abandoned manufacturing plants, employee parking lots with crumbling concrete and grass growing in the cracks, boarded-up gas stations, vacant lots overgrown with weeds. I asked a waitress at Denny's what happened. She told me Carrier pulled out two years ago (their world headquarters was right there), Chrysler shut down its plant, and GE shut down its plant. It's pretty grim. I guess a lot of these manufacturing jobs have gone overseas.

At one time Syracuse University was the largest employer in the area. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still is. The university and the adjoining medical complex are booming.

All in all, I'm glad we went to my big four-oh. I have a deep and abiding love for the place, even after all these years, and I was sad to leave at the end of the weekend. Syracuse University was a young girl’s ambitious dream for preparing for a future in the magazine business. It didn’t let me down. I treasure the years I spent there, and I treasure the memories of wonderful friendships made. Today I see other young people coming to campus with dreams just as ambitious as mine were all those years ago. They are being challenged to think, to create, to imagine new possibilities. I am proud of them. I am glad to call myself one of them.

And here I am with SU mascot Otto the Orange at the alumni barbecue. Why yes, it was raining, and yes, my hair is plastered to my head.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Back to the future?

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a new college graduate working in my first job as a magazine editor in a place called Norcross, Georgia, in what was then a rural area northeast of Atlanta. I was a "junior" editor on a magazine called Industrial Engineering, published by an engineering trade association. I worked there four years, with a wonderful editorial staff led by a man named Bob Rice, who invited me to his church, which started a long chain of events that led to my changing careers twenty years later to go to seminary. But I digress.

Industrial Engineering was printed at a company called The Lane Press in Burlington, Vermont. Some time ago it dawned on me that I was living just across Lake Champlain from Burlington, and I wondered if The Lane Press was still in business. It is. It has moved to larger quarters since the days when my magazine was printed there, but the company is now more than a hundred years old and still turning out small to medium press run magazines, many for trade associations and college alumni groups. It has been printing an incredibly beautiful magazine called Vermont Life at least since 1947. In the early 1970s, when Lane was publishing Industrial Engineering, our customer service rep used to send us copies, and we would ooh and ahh over the gorgeous photos of the famous Vermont fall foliage.

And this is what Vermont really looks like. At least it does from South Burlington, at the offices of The Lane Press. Imagine seeing this every morning when you drive to work.

Today we visited The Lane Press and got a tour from a very helpful and friendly lady named Erin, who took us through the plant. Much has changed in publishing from the days when we used to send them typewritten copy and they would typeset it and send us galleys. We would paste up "dummies" on 11 x 17 layout sheets, from which they would make camera-ready copy. After several rounds of proofreading, they would print the magazine.

By the time I left the publishing world in the mid-1990s, magazine staffs were preparing digital layouts on computers using a program called Quark XPress. Today it's even more complex. Back in the day, the one thing that got us home at night was that the last FedEx pickup in Atlanta was around 9:00 p.m., so whatever we were trying to get to the printer the next morning had to go out by then. Now, with the ability to send files back and forth over the Internet, who knows how late we would be at the office. Or maybe we could do this stuff on a computer at home.

Here I am at the headquarters of The Lane Press. It only took me 40 years to do a plant visit.

Next week, we go to my 40th class reunion at Syracuse. I am so excited! I look forward to the Dean's Breakfast at the Newhouse School to hear the latest in the world of public communications. I remember an afternoon I struggled in the graphic arts lab to get the type perfectly straight on a mechanical I was doing for a class project and just couldn't get it straight enough for the professor's standards. By the time I attended my 20th reunion, the graphic arts lab was full of Macs, and not a single drawing board (a slanted graphic artist's work table) was left. (So much for the phrase, "back to the drawing board." A what?)

Time marches on. I can't say I miss the old ways of doing things. Forty years ago, we didn't have blogs, either. But if they had been around, I would have had one.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Memories of Santa Barbara, 2013

The 2013 Santa Barbara Writers Conference ended three weeks ago, but I still have a photo of the hotel up on my laptop background to keep a little bit of the conference with me. What a great time I had! I so look forward every year to my week of a writing retreat and the great workshops and speakers and panel discussions.

I enjoyed going to some workshops taught by favorite leaders. I enjoy Wylie Wisby Dunbar's fiction workshop, and also Lisa Lenard-Cook's (got her new book on memoir; I have her book on The Mind of Your Story, highly recommended). Someone recommended to me Jerry Camarillo Dunn's workshop on travel writing, which turned out to be a great workshop for anyone writing articles; the latter part of the week he focused on interviewing. I was quite surprised to discover he uses the same tape recording method for phone interviews that I was using 20 years ago when I was writing some very complicated technical pieces for specialized publications. (I was also surprised to discover how well my iPhone records an interview, even from a distance away from the speaker).

Learned that literary agents are still alive and well, although some of them are a little bit behind the times (that would be the agent who sniffed, "When did the vanity press become entrepreneurship?" Five to ten years ago, actually, with the advent of e-publishing.) Agents can still do a lot for a writer in this day and age if they are willing to change with the times and offer clients services they can't get elsewhere.

The discussion on social media (i.e., promoting yourself and your writing) was interesting. Some panelists said they spent as much as 3 hours a day on social media. The older members of the audience (like me) muttered that social media was a "time suck." Marla Miller, who is my go-to person for such things, advised us to spend at least an hour a day on social media. I went up to her afterward and said, "Marla, for those of us who have fulltime jobs, we're lucky to get in an hour a day to write!" She quickly backtracked and agreed that writing was always priority number one. Thank you, Marla!

I haven't tried Twitter yet but I guess I should. And I guess I should get myself a domain name, website to come. O brave new world... I considered myself pretty au courant just starting this blog. NINE years ago. Eeek. Much has happened in technology-land since that time!

But the big lesson from Santa Barbara was, as always, write well. Practice your craft. Be the best you can be. And come back next year with that manuscript finished!