The Cross and the Stag- The Life of a Saint in a Graphic Novel

69641967_10157907034903352_5565236816191160320_oPerhaps I’m not the only mother of a child who struggled to read, nor the only to find that graphic novels, comics, and Big Nate style hybrid books were part of the key to helping such a child to ease into reading, spurred on by visual story to decode the text that would give the key to understanding.

When I met the author of The Cross and the Stag, Gabriel Wilson, at a writer’s conference, I was intrigued by his project with Ancient Faith, the Among the Saints Series.  Graphic novels with beautifully rendered illustrations that tell the stories of our beloved saints?  I immediately thought of my newly-illumined eleven year old son and how much he’d appreciate this way of learning about the saints.

The Cross and the Stag tells the story of the life of St. Eustathius, his wife, and two sons through their conversion to Christianity, their seemingly insurmountable trials and tests of faith, and their martyrdom circa AD 118-126.  I had heard his story before, but somehow seeing it illustrated placed and grounded my imagination into the scene, the horrors he faced as he lost all that he held dear were inescapably before my eyes, indelible as ink.

As a mother raising six children, I am so incredibly grateful for every tool available to teach my kids about the heroes of our faith.  Finishing the book in one sitting, my eleven year old wrote out his thoughts, among them:  “Never give up God, even in the hardest times.  It’s hard for me to find God when I miss a playdate or something, but St. Eustathius lost his cattle, servants, grain, and got his wife taken away from him.  He thought his kids were dead, but he kept praying to God.”  What a powerful example of perseverance for all of us to aspire to!

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Nature, Like White Paper

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We aren’t really playground material.  Unless, that is, if no one else is using it.  Then it can become an obstacle course for an intense game of tag or a jungle gym for my children who find no joy nor challenge in the “correct usage” of the equipment.  They go up the slides, climb on top of the swing bars, and try to spin themselves into white-knuckled, near-projectiles on the merry-go-round.

My four year old climbed a five foot fake boulder at a playground while I watched from about ten feet away.  Another mother was soon spotting him from below, asking anxiously, “OH HONEY!  Where is your mommy?”

“I’m here,” I said, giving a little wave, “He’s fine.”

Her eyes told me that he was indeed not fine, but she moved on.  I appreciate her care, I do.  If he’d been wandering toward a busy road or had been being bullied by some big kids, she’d be one I’d want to have around; a protector, an ally, a do-er.  Unfortunately, we don’t always see eye-to-eye about what constitutes acceptable risk.  I find the current culture of helicopter parenting to be exhausting.  Have you been to a playground on a busy day recently?  Kids are followed around, constantly!  They are directed on how to use the playground “correctly”.  There is a chorus of mothers saying “OKAY, no, no, honey, we only go down the slides.  NO, no, sweetie, take turns.  Oh, say you’re sorry for bumping into that boy.  OKAY, kids, not so fast on the merry-go-round; now stop it so this girl can get on, okay, go slowly, NO STANDING, okay stop it and let him off, okay….”  It’s like this delicate dance of politeness and correctness and fairness and safety, and really, I didn’t come here to direct a ballet; I came so that my children could dash about, climb, spin, and work off that boisterous and overflowing energy which is there for a reason.  And if you don’t follow the Momicopter Culture?  You’re shamed.  Shamed for letting your kid carry a small stick.  Shamed for letting them climb.  Shamed for letting them jump off the swings.  Shamed for letting them throw snowballs.  Shamed for not making them slow the tire swing down to a speed other parents comfortable with (even if it’s just your own kids on it!).  Shamed for letting your kid stomp in the rain puddles and get understandably cold.

I vividly remember the playgrounds of my youth.  They were made of wood and metal; they had precipitous drop offs, unforgiving angles, and slides that could fry eggs in the summer.  Tall towers to climb, high swings from which kids could launch into glory, and wondrously speedy, large merry-go-rounds.  And the moms?  Stationed on a park bench, book in hand, happy to have a rest while the kids exhausted themselves.  Kids got splinters, bruises, and the wind knocked out of them, sure.  They also got to navigate risk.

I took my kids to our local playground today, which was blessedly empty.  I noticed that the huge wooden ship, where many of my kids’ early memories were staged of harpooning imaginary whales, leading a band of pirates, or braving typhoons, was gone, replaced by an open stretch of newly seeded grass.  First had went the open stairwell to the ship’s interior, boarded shut “for safety”.  Then the mast.  Then the slide. Then the whole boat itself.  I noticed quite a few more missing attractions; without a doubt they were deemed “unsafe”.  There remained nothing exciting; no apparatus which caused any tingle of fear.  There was no risk.

My kids solved it.  They climbed in the no-climb zones (atop partitions, over low walls, etc).  They dragged big gnarly downed branches in and made weapons and tools out of them.  They plunged headfirst down the small slides.  Their developing brains made accommodations for the lack of risk.  I scribbled out these thoughts on a scrap of paper in my purse and tilted my face to the sun.  “Nature is like blank white paper; anything can be wrought upon it; it can absorb any story you draw on it.  Playgrounds are like coloring books; the stage, the lines, are set, fixed.  There is a degree of success expected because of the proferred design:  here is how to enjoy this; follow the rules and it will turn out nicely.  Playgrounds with helicopter moms in full command are like paint-by-number pieces, where even the minutest details are not left to chance in the pursuit of excellent, safe, play.  I can think of no greater threat to imagination and safety than this current state of affairs.”  I wrote it out in hurried cursive.  My baby clambered past, slipping on patches of snow.  He hollered at the icy cold on his bare hands, shook off the snow, and carried on.

Appropriate risk is crucial to developing brains.  Overly coddled and protected children don’t have the tools to interact with their environment in the absence of their parent.  I’ll never forget the time when I hosted a stream-stomping birthday party for my son in third grade and invited several boys from his class.  One boy, whose mother was on the extreme end of helicoptering, asked if I was going to hold his hand on the walk to the park (it’s just through a development, no major roads nor traffic).  When we arrived at the stream, the boys clambered down through the brush and started exploring, splashing, and pretending.  He turned to me and asked “Where are the steps to get down to the water?”

“Um…there are no steps, just walk through the brush.”

“But what do I do?”

I was shocked.  Had this child ever been allowed to interact with nature without an adult telling him how?  “Just go explore, feel the water, run around, be a kid!”

After the creek stomp we headed back and I let the boys build a fire to cook our supper on.  The one boy looked on with a mystified expression on his face.  Fire was danger, danger is for adults.

I don’t pretend that every adult reading this is agreeing with my point of view, but I do ask you…if 100% of kids love to try to climb up slides, why are we always telling them not to?  When the worst case scenario is as benign as getting run into by a kid coming down, which automatically teaches the climber the risk involved and how to hedge against it, say, by observing by sight and sound whether another person is up at the top, why are we interfering?  Couldn’t it be that kids’ minds know what they need to do to grow?

It is my contention that good playgrounds enable rather than inhibit appropriate risk, and so do good parents.  I think the magic of kids’ play really takes place when they not only navigate bodily risk, but also learn the give and take of social interactions (sharing, apologizing, being considerate) without a parent prompting them.  When they screw up, of course a parent should pull them aside and reiterate expectations, but that should be a rarity.  They’re there to play, to learn, to risk, and to grow.  That will only happen if we get out of the way.

Until then, I prefer nature itself; there is no “correct usage” of a fallen tree spanning a small creek.  Maybe it’s a bridge, maybe it’s a pirate ship’s plank to walk, maybe it’s simply the risk-du-jour that needs experienced and conquered.

 

 

Write The Love

53651619_10157473629653352_4215585030375735296_oOh, the power of our words.  Bad habits can creep in like the dry leaves that blow in the front door, rattling across the floor, accumulating all sneaky-like.  We don’t notice, we’re busy doing this, doing that.  It’s only when one finds a pile of leaves, or an entrenched habit, that the problem is truly seen for what it is.

I’ve noticed our short fuses and resultant words that cut and sting.  The casual put-downs, the snide remarks, the jokes that hurt.  When did we let all these leaves in?

I was walking through our local thrift store, trying to find white clothes for our upcoming chrismations/baptisms.  There amidst a jumble of Christmas items was a little white metal mailbox, with a sticker on the side of cardinals and a cursive “Merry Christmas!”  Fifty cents later, it was mine.

I guess it’s not obvious why I had to have it, but I believe in the power of words, for wounding and healing.  Lent is nearly upon us; how can we remember to fast from hurtful speech?  Perhaps, just perhaps, by feasting on kind words.  Thus, the mailbox.

My children love rituals, traditions, and surprises.  They delight in the suspense, the sense that normal time has been suspended, that a special season is upon us that we are compelled to feel, down in our marrow.  Could I make kindness, encouragement, and love a tradition; could it help us use this gift all year?

I had to make it easy; who has the time and energy to track down a working pen, nice paper, and so on?  I had to make it intentional; it needed a space of its own, right in the heart of the home.  I had to make it fun; personalized and anticipatory.  My Made In China, cardinal-clad mailbox put the rest into motion.

53545858_10157473629373352_6883640889567084544_oFolded cards and writing implements at the ready.  The cheerful mailbox, sporting a paper sign (sorry, cardinals!), stands ready to receive missives.53357806_10157473629448352_4832568313785614336_oUsing glass gems, a drop of transparent glue (you can use clear silicone too), tiny scrap pieces of paper, and little round magnets, I made these little alert gems to signal when the recipients have mail waiting for them.  This protects the privacy of those who are receiving notes as the other children aren’t allowed to look inside the box unless their name is on.  53679360_10157473629488352_5180555068142780416_oHe’s got mail!53089500_10157473629688352_5572183762583683072_oRight beside the writing station is an alms box.  I spoke with the children at length that any giving into it needed to be done in absolute secrecy, so that only God sees.  At the end of Lent we’ll count it together and donate it to a charity we agree upon, or a person we know needs timely help.  53472775_10157473629943352_3927092712758575104_oTo the left of this I assembled a Lenten bouquet; dried weeds and plants from a recent walk, that in their death, still are beautiful.  The brittleness reminds me that Lent can be difficult and can make us feel a bit dried up, especially as important work is done on our souls.  As Holy Week progresses, so will the bouquet, ending up resplendent.  53793183_10157473629773352_5414610397565026304_oOur candle calendar sits ready to mark the days of the Bright Sadness.53270766_10157473630008352_4616132898716647424_oAnd finally, our Lenten devotional, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts”, which will help us once again to gather each evening and be blessed, challenged, and encouraged in our journeys to Pascha.

Tending the Garden of Our Hearts FINAL COVER53509571_10157473629888352_9020214349972635648_oAnd, prayer, sweet, glorious, challenging, prayer.

May your Lenten journey be blessed!

I Didn’t Know THAT Was Going To Happen

I was a pretty proficient funeral director as a child.  The small mammals of our house were always laid to rest with soft tissues lining their checkbook box caskets.  I wept over them, sang my dirges, and laid flowers over their backyard graves.  I’d visit their plots, I’d agonize over them being in the cold, dark earth, all alone.

All of my love had nowhere to go, no furry heart to land on.  There was Murphy the Gerbil, Lougee the Mouse, and Blueberry the Hamster, plus a neighborhood bird with a broken wing.  If love could cure, they’d have lived forever.

I’ve read a new book, “Piggy In Heaven” by Melinda Johnson which gently and joyfully tells of a beloved guinea pig’s first day in Heaven.  He rolls in the grass, munches, and hops about, sans cage, and his new pig friends gradually reveal where he is and why.  When they’ve ever so tenderly explained to him that he died he responds, “I didn’t know that was going to happen!”  Isn’t that just the bewilderment that children experience when their pet dies?  How I wish I’d had this book as a grieving child!  It would have revealed to me that God too loves his creatures; that I was not alone in my love, nor my grief; that the end of earthly life means a beginning of eternal life.

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What is perhaps most beautiful to me personally is the reminder that love is never wasted.  We do not need to hold back our fullest and deepest love in order that we might be less vulnerable to eventual losses.  We can live full-heartedly, and hope in God’s wonderful mercy that the ones we love might just be waiting for us on the other side.

So, if the little ones in your life are mourning the loss of a pet, consider this beautiful, hope-filled book, and if you’re crafty I’ve included a pattern I made with the help of my dear friend Kristina Wenger (Plush-Maker Extraordinaire!) for making a stuffed Piggy to go with it!

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Materials needed:

  1. minky fabric, 1/4 yard in the color you like (you can make several piggies with this!)
  2. a small bit of felt, I chose light brown
  3. pink embroidery thread or a stuffed animal nose or button
  4. black beads or stuffed animal eyes on posts
  5. fiberfill
  6. needle and heavyweight thread
  7. Piggy Pattern printed (say that five times fast!)

 

To make, trace out the pattern pieces on minky fabric, or any other furry material that delights you, being aware that the fluffier it is, the harder it will be make the eyes and nose findable!  Make sure you flip the body pattern piece when you cut the second one so that you have the fur right side out on both sides.

I recommend cutting out the furry parts outside as you will indeed be covered in foof, and the pieces can be shook out to disperse the fluff out of doors rather than on your floors.  Also, you will now look like you’ve taken up another job at a pet grooming shop.IMG_8157

Cut out the ears from felt and pinch together and hand stitch to make a curved shape.

Clip open the ear slot and either machine or hand stitch the ear in place.  If using stuffed animal eyes, insert them now too.  If using beads as eyes you’ll attach them later.

Using a 1/4″ seam allowance, sew one side to the tummy panel (right sides facing) beginning and ending at the dots A and B on the pattern.  Sew the opposite side to the tummy panel as well.  Sew shut the back, leaving a 1.5″ gap for turning it right side out.  Double check all seams to make sure there are no holes.

It may be tricky to work the presser foot around the eye posts, so hand sewing that area may be necessary

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Turn right  side out and if using a post nose, snip a tiny hole at the front and insert and secure from inside the piggy.

IMG_8177Stuff with desired fiber fill, hand stitch the hole shut.  For beaded eyes use heavy thread, doubled, and a long needle.  Position the needle and pull the thread through the face to the other side making sure the eyes will be even.  Add a bead and plunge back through, adding the other bead, and go back and forth until the eyes are quite secure.  Pull the thread slightly so that the eyes sink inward, forming the face shape  guinea pig style.  Double knot and snip threads close to the surface.  The same looping-pull is done if you used eye posts to give it a nice shape.  If you didn’t add a nose yet, use embroidery thread to add a pink triangle nose.

 

Have the eyes disappeared on you?  Time for fur-scaping!  Using sharp, small scissors trim away the surrounding fluff so that the eyes stand a chance of peering out at the world.

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You are done!  Snuggle at will.

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The Gift of Risk

IMG_0624I watched my two and four year old sons ascend the ladder of the tall slide.  Twenty, twenty-five feet?  Metal and a steep grade; this slide survived from the early days when playgrounds were actually pretty exciting, a place where you could feel a thrill of adrenaline-pumping weightlessness as you peaked the arc of the giant swings and hovered there, lifting out of the rubber saddle, gasping.  Sometimes you let go and went flying through the air, attempting to stick your landing, or at least not get your wind knocked out.

I lay back on the sun-warmed merry-go-round and watched the heavens circle above me.  Memories of white-knuckled thrill rides, holding on for dear life while centrifugal force tried to turn all of us wide-eyed kids into projectiles, sometimes succeeding, were as vivid as the smell of the chipping hot paint beneath me.

There was a high look-out platform at my elementary school, accessible by climbing a network of intersecting chains, clambering over the top edge, and standing with a simple rail between us and a bone-shattering fall.  There were rumors about kids who’d fallen to their possible deaths, but I don’t think anyone got seriously hurt on it.  We loved leaning over that rail, mentally picturing the ground zooming up at us, feeling butterflies of fear in our stomachs.

My children use playground equipment improperly.

If the spiral slide is too slow and not long enough, they’ll climb on top of the outside of it to challenge themselves; to seek that line between pushing away fear and holding back from foolishness.  To test their balance, their nerve, their ability.  If the swings are too low to achieve a good speed and height, they’ll climb the support poles and walk across the tops.  And when we find a precious vintage playground with merry-go-rounds, calf-crunching teeter totters, and high swings?  They’re in their glory, even if, and sometimes especially if, they get hurt a bit.

It’s been discussed quite a bit among those who study such; how managed risk helps to make kids safer.  How tame, “safe” playgrounds are simply boring for kids.  How kids who’ve never been allowed to test their limits are highly vulnerable to real dangers.  I think about that as I watch mothers forming an admonishing, controlling ring of managers around the merry-go-round.  The kids are made to stop the whole thing for each approaching kid to get on, and then painfully slowly they are given a light push, only to stop a moment later when the understandably bored kids want off.  When all their kids got off and they walked off to monitor other play with the same exacting interference, my kids got on.  The two year old hovered beside the spinning structure, tentatively reaching out and pulling back his hands as he gauged which bracket to grab.  He reached and his chubby legs pumped hilariously fast as he sought to retain hold, and he hefted himself inside, grasping for a handhold against the outward force.  He made it, and he smiled.  Moments later he misjudged and tumbled off; a scuffed knee and dull pain told him all he needed to know for next time.  Moms exchanged glances; I imagine that they thought there was some slacker of a mom around who’d let such shenanigans happen without stepping in.

 

IMG_2707 I gently lift the upper cover of each beehive, wafting smoke down through the inner cover’s vent hole.  I pry apart the structure, box by box, moving slowly, avoiding bumps and bangs.  Bees overflow and land all over me, some hovering at my bee veil.  Stings hurt.  A lot.  That pain informs the way I move, even the way I breathe.  It has made me a better beekeeper, and a safer one.

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There are no compromise times for me though; parking lots, streets, when I’m working with lye to make soap, when I’ve got a boiling canner going, when I deeply distrust a stranger hanging out near my kids; then the red flags are waving madly and I’m on high alert, and I’ll grip their hands just as white-knuckled as I’d held on to the merry-go-round bars as a kid.  But that fear all the time?  No.

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Sometimes things appear more dangerous than they actually are.  In Machu Pichu I posed for this picture which seems like a giant drop-off into the steep canyon below, but there was actually another terrace below me (and then the death plummet).  It took me a while to handle with some peace my older children being able to walk around town unaccompanied.  I imagined every creepy guy I’d ever seen, every wild driver, every scenario of disaster.  But what actually happens is that my kids experience new freedom and a sense of themselves in the world.  They purchase candy from the gas station and test their balance on low stone edge walls.  They talk to townsfolk.  They look both ways without me telling them to.

I don’t get a guarantee that they’ll be safe, only that they’ll have truly lived; a gift most of us grew up with, riding our bikes “no hands” on summer evenings.

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Dancing Little Screens

I’m the only one looking around, seeing trees swaying in the wind, and the play of shadows over rough bark; the way the light streams through twisting leaves.  Even the children, even the littlest ones, their faces still and passive, their squirming ceased, their eyes riveted by the dancing little screens, they miss the squirrel racing around the trunk and chattering.

Their parents stare hard and scroll, scroll, scroll, their thumbs stroking the glass of their miniature portals into otherness; other peoples’ beach photos, rapid-fire recipe videos, artful platings of food, and memes unending.  Now and then they’ll look up, around, at their child, and then, as though there were an invisible elastic from their neck to their wrist, they bend to it, raising their phone-clutching hand, and they leave again.

Grocery lines, stoplights, carpool pick-up lanes, waiting rooms, restaurants; they are no longer experienced anymore…they are only escape spaces to distraction, to otherness.

I love elderly people.  You still see their eyes; their eyes greet you, see you; there is a sense that they’d gladly connect and share life for a moment.  They remember the times before people carried all-engulfing entertainment in their pockets and used them at every opportunity.  They remember courtesy, conversation, presence.

I am alarmed.

Ever-reaching for phones, ever-scrolling, compulsive behavior that is becoming “normal”.  I’ve experienced it myself.  I don’t have a phone, and hopefully never will, but my husband’s smart phone is terribly tempting to reach for on the long drive to church.  I don’t even know what compels me to “check it”; what on earth am I longing for; why not let the passing landscape form my thoughts, rather than absorbing the experiences of others?

In my home my laptop is a severe temptation; always promising a moment’s escape from domestic cares and hollering toddlers.  But again, I have to ask, what am I longing for?  Do I ever feel any sort of fulfillment from “checking in” and “catching up”?  No.  Rather I feel the weight of wasted time and attention.  My childrens’ behavior also changes when I tune out; they are more irritable and uncharitable with each other.  They ignore my words, sensing that I’m not really “there” anyways.  Presence is necessary.  Not just at home but out and about in the world.

I will endeavor to change; to allot a time for online reading and interaction, writing, answering of emails, and ordering supplies for my business.  Lord, help me!  I don’t want to be absorbed by a screen, nor feel myself pulled towards it.  I am mindful of the little eyes that watch how I live; do I need a screen or use a screen?

Please, dear ones, consider.  Leave the phone in your car, don’t let your kids play with one whenever they’re bored or fidgety (it’ll prevent them from growing in imagination and creativity and being present), and don’t teach them that zombie-like staring at screens is how to live.shortstory8

Bodily Tyranny

It made sense to me, laying there in the dark at two in the morning, after I remembered that moment in the kitchen, a few hours before, when he’d casually mentioned that he’d mixed his regular coffee into my leftover decaf.  I’d been just finishing up a reheated mug of it while cooking our dinner.  “Oh well,” I thought, “it’s just half-caff, shouldn’t affect me too badly.”

After prayers I went to bed because I should, not because of any tiredness gathering in my eyes.  I picked one of the five books on my nightstand, The Boys in the Boat, and started reading.  Since it’s a rowing book, and I rowed for six years, I thought it was the tense racing narratives that had me so alert.  My heart pounded as I read of the final sprints in the Olympic qualifying races; I could feel that pain and my lungs tightened in empathy, my legs stretching taut under the sheets.

Hours were passing, but I kept reading.  I was waiting for my body to signal me to sleep; any pinching around the eyes, any blurring of letters, any yawning.  None came.  And then I remembered what he’d told me as I deglazed the pan the sausages had been browning in. Half caff.

Then one toddler woke up, then the baby, who decided that he was also going to feel inexplicably chipper in the wee hours.  There were some hours of rest, maybe two of them, before the baby awoke at six.  All the tiredness the half caff had repressed had all piled up and settled on me like a ton of bricks.

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This picture was taken after laboring throughout the night and day and finally holding my dear Henrik.  I remember trying to smile but finding that I had only semi-smile-twitches left in my facial muscles.  My eyes felt like they were being pulled shut by invisible cords.  I was so full of joy and wonder and exhaustion.

I am still there.  At four in the morning I stroked my baby’s curly hair, even as my body screamed for rest.  I slogged my way into the boys’ room to comfort one who had cried out from a bad dream.  Parenthood has a way of subjugating the tyranny of the body’s wants and sometimes its needs; suspending them indefinitely, but it covers that insult to bodily comfort with sweetness and baby breath and the way a child sighs with joy when they are safe within our arms.

It is eleven thirty, and I’ve had my cup of decaf coffee (though I was greatly tempted to suppress my tiredness with the regular stuff), and have accomplished nothing except feeding my boys and monitoring their playful destruction of the house.  Oh, and writing this, of course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent.  It’s a far way off yet, but last year I participated in it in an introductory way, my priest encouraged me to fast Wednesdays and Fridays, since I would be doing so without my family.  Orthodox Christians fast from meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, and wine for the 40+ days of Lent, and I was amazed at how hard this diet was for me just two days a week!  No cream for my coffee nor butter for my toast.  No eggs.  And that was just breakfast!

My body wanted what it wanted, and it wasn’t used to being told “no”.  My body craved fat and protein; I missed cheese.  But like getting up in the middle of the night to comfort a child, it was time to tell the body no, and attend to the growth of things that don’t thrive in times of satiation and comfort; self control, humility, discipline, and meekness.  And the amazing joy and bright celebration of the feast at the end, Pascha, a wild frolic of meat and cheese and eggs and laughter; was only so sweet because of the bitterness that went before.

It’s like in rowing, when you’re halfway through a regatta and all you want to do, really, is die.  Just die and make the pain searing through your muscles stop.  But you keep slicing those oars into the heavy water, keep pounding the burning muscles in your legs, back, stomach, shoulders, and arms, in lung-crushing repetition.  You do it for the sweetness, at the end when the crowd is roaring and the air horn heralds your finish and you can flop over your oar handles and dry heave, so glad to have stopped, just stopped that torturous pain.  And when your legs and arms work again, to stroke back to the docks, to a pat on the back from your coach and medal around your neck and a hug from your double.

The sweetness, the prize, the thing that makes the “no” worth it; it calls us out of the plush arms of daily comfort and ease.  It calls us to be more than the collection of demands of our bodies and spirits.  But there has to be a prize, there has to be a yes at the end of no; whether it is a comforted baby, a medal, a feast, or a deep-seated sense that something wrong has been set right, and let us press forward to attain it.