Zoo Church

Zoo Church

I shouldn’t be here. It doesn’t seem right. I keep expecting someone to show up and ask me what I’m doing. Or tell me to leave.

Yet, the urge to explore pulls me on. I walk down the hill, under the tunnel, full of anticipation.

How often do you happen upon an empty urban zoo?

The Snow Leopard yawns from a rock high in its enclosure, long, soft tail flicking, huge paws like oversized furry mittens. A few feet further up the path, I see a tiger, its vivid markings all the more striking in the dull light and drab surroundings of a snowless Pittsburgh winter day. Across the way, the winsome Red Panda is curled asleep with its back toward me, and I want nothing more than to stroke its auburn fur.

Photo courtesy Caroline May

Photo courtesy Caroline May

Animal-viewing is often better in the cold, and this day in early February is perfect. It’s cool at mid-forties but not too cold, as I shoulder my heavy bag of books and walk. I’d planned to be sitting on indoor-outdoor carpeting with a dozen or so other parents, swiping at iPhones or shuffling pages while our kids took their classes.

You see, the zoo is closed to the public — only those signed up for prescheduled events/classes can enter — yet the friendly girl at check-in told us parents we can roam.

A few others opt to wander. There’s the guy with the huge telephoto lens clicking away. The couple. The other mom shouldering her bag of books too. And me.

{There are also a handful of zookeepers. And, of course, a veritable menagerie of animals.}

And, I think: We are the ones who’ve chosen to play.

We are the ones who hear the little voice telling us you should not be here, but we go on anyway.

We keep our distance, allowing each other this precious time and space and quiet. Today, this is how we do zoo. No heat. No crowds. No kids. No agenda. Just us and God’s spectacular creation.

The majestic lion pair recline on their favorite rock, but the nearby giraffes, the ostrich, the rhino, and the springboks must be somewhere inside.

I can see the flamingos in a glass enclosure — something like a greenhouse, only for growing tropical salmon-shaded birds, rather than plants.

Photo courtesy Caroline May

Photo courtesy Caroline May

I tentatively try the doors at the Stinky Monkey House {a.k.a., the “Tropical Forest”}; they are open, and the house is relatively odor-free. I ogle Ring-tailed Lemurs, White-faced Sakis, and Black Howler Monkeys. I’m drawn by their intelligent, wizened old-man faces and the fluid, effortless way they navigate the limbs and vines around them.

I stop at the capacious gorilla enclosure and am fascinated by the intelligent face of the large female in repose on a trunk a few feet from the glass. I am held by her unwavering gaze and when her baby ambles around her, I am all the more enthralled.

{If you are wondering whether anyone has ever told me not to stare down a full-grown Western Lowland Gorilla, the answer is No. Further, if you know how wise it is to stare down a gorilla, however benign your intentions, you won’t be surprised by what happens next. She jumps swiftly and directly at me and hits the glass. Hard. I instinctively cover my head and duck. Message received. Heart pounding, I exit.}

Now, I see the construction and wind around it, past the safari overlooks emptied of warm-weather residents, past the bear enclosures all bare — with the exception of the lone black bear, a scruff of fuzz in a huge golden-straw pile.

leopard

We missed church today, and I can’t help thinking of this as playful worship, right here, right now. I can’t help feeling this calm, focused, and uncomplicated joy. I can’t help praising Him for these diverse, awe-inspiring, adorable, lethal, colorful, scaled, furred, striped, spotted, and sleek creatures that inhabit the earth with us.

I’m used to worship full of Sunday hymns to sing and daily Scripture passages to read and bedtime prayers to say. But getting into the fresh air of woods or mountain or off-season zoo brings me close to God with a startling and crisp clarity that blows the cobwebs right off my spirituality and hits the heart of me.

magenta jellyfish

I count my blessings in thumbnail-sized jellyfish lit in glowing magenta, slippery sea lions splashing playful, whiskered Amur leopard hisses, and leathery elephant ears large enough to wrap a grown man whole. My body courses with amazement at the myriad colors, textures, and shapes.

I don’t do the worship as much as it does me. I don’t think it; rather, it sings through my bones.

When the class is over, I collect my daughters. My oldest’s eyes are shining. Can we explore?

And, we walk worship all over again.

The Heart in Soles

The Heart in Soles

I’m following flowers. They’re going my way, and so we keep company. They’re accompanied by a utilitarian pattern of tread — all geometry and no poetry — and I realize that the bottoms of my black-and-white plaid knee boots are, sadly, quite plain. 

On this solitary winter’s walk, the flower prints trekking across the snow pique my interest:

Who thinks to make the bottom of a shoe beautiful?
Who takes a stretch of rubber no-one might ever notice and designs a fanciful floral?
Who finds value in such a lowly place?

And, more to the point, who will even see this unsung piece of whimsy?

What are the conditions for its revelation? A sunny dry day in a grassy field won’t do a flower sole any favors. But, throw in some snow or mud — or both — and the bit of beauty is revealed.

***

I’m at annual women’s crafting retreat in the woods of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Every January, a few friends and I pack up photos and scraps of paper, adhesives and ribbons and brads and meet up at Lutherlyn — to sleep in spare wooden cabins, eat cafeteria food, and talk and laugh and craft to our heart’s content, sans kids, husbands, cleaning, cooking, or work.

{{Did I mention it’s magical?}}

This afternoon, I’ve turned out of the high-ceilinged room filled with light and warmth and the comforting whir of sewing machines and low womanly chatter into the chill, fading light of January.

The field stretches white in front of me, sloping slightly toward the iced-over lake; the sky spreads blue-gray, softened by clouds the texture of sheep’s fleece.

Yet, this loveliness lives humble. (No spring show-offs here, just the cold, dark bare branches against a cloudy sky, some trodden-upon snow.)

If I think about life now, my heart has felt like this winter sky, these sparse woods. Between the spring relapse and the October loss, I’ve felt a thousand little hairline cracks webbing ‘cross my heart.

And, it’s taken all I have to simply to keep things together. {And, even that has been more than I can manage some days.} I’ve had nothing left to spare — least of all, words.

In weather terms, conditions have not been sunny and fair. It’s been — by turns — wet, muddy, slushy, snowy, and generally inhospitable.

On this Saturday, as I see the setting sun blaze behind trees and gild the frozen water, I hear God whisper, and I understand: It’s perfect flower-sole weather. 

lake sunset lutherlyn

And, suddenly it makes sense. We notice the beauty at the bottom in bad weather.

We appreciate our underpinnings, we rely on our foundation. We see the ground when our eyes are downcast and our hearts sink low, because these days force us to go deep, to who we really are, who our God is.

And, if we allow God to perform his redeeming work on us even in the worst of conditions — we can leave an imprint at once practical and beautiful.

Sharing the Story: Pitt Med Magazine

Sharing the Story: Pitt Med Magazine

This summer I reached out to an old friend of mine, the editor of the University of Pittsburgh’s acclaimed Medical School magazine, Pitt Med. We worked together at the University back when we were both young and childless, and did things like play ultimate frisbee on the Cathedral lawn over our lunch break and run the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay with a team of co-workers. {Erica even drove me around the city for my unofficial bachelorette.} Suffice it to say, we go back. Way back.

Erica has since moved to California; she has one son; I have two daughters and a son. She has been at the helm of Pitt Med since its inception, and I’ve been a freelance writer since my kids were born. I’ve done some fact-checking and proofing for her here and there, so it wasn’t a total shock when I emailed her this past summer to tell her what’s been going on with Julianne.

Could this be used in some way for the magazine? I asked.  I’m not sure if our personal experiences would be of interest to you? 

I went on to talk about our kind, soft-spoken doctor. At the very least, I thought, perhaps I could drum up some publicity for him;  the medical school connection was there — Dr. K being the fellowship program director for Children’s pediatric rheumatology program (and, thus, a med school professor).

Dr. Kietz is an excellent doctor, but what makes him truly special is his personality — his kindness, his whimsy, his genuine concern and care, I wrote. If he can impart even a bit of his unique patient care approach to his fellows, he will be doing the next generation of pediatric rheumatologists a huge favor.Erica wrote back to let me know she wanted to pursue the piece as a personal experience essay. I wrote it over the summer, took photos at our inpatient visit in August, and, as it goes with all things magazine — after revisions, approvals, layout and design, fact-checking, and proofreading {or, four months later} — it was published.

I’d be honored if you stopped over at Pitt Med to read “A Doctor With ‘High Touch.’ “

 

Husk Wrappings

Husk Wrappings

In October we drive to Ohio under smudged skies. Though I look for scarlet and amber in the rolling hills, instead I see disaster along the roadside — a cross with faded flowers, its birth and death dates far too close; vultures circling over a field; the crash site of an ill-fated 1925 zeppelin.

But we arrive safe — exchange hugs with Mimi and Pa-Pa and unload bags, while each child searches for their favorite farm cat. After lunch, we check out new things — a freshly dug pond bed rich with clay-mud, the pumpkin patch with orange globes still veined green.

green pumpkins

Before long, we find the Indian corn, Pa-Pa’s humble patch, down by the Cave-woods, quiet and damp.

By now, the stalks lean down and splay to the side — homely, dark-flaxen things, spotted with mold. Giant pokeberries lace among them, glossy black-purple berries dangling from hot-purple stems, lovely but poisonous.

pokeberries

And, we begin peeling husks down.

White pearls, studded with amethyst-purple.
Burnished-brown knobs, shot through with cream.
Rich-red pomegranate seeds.
Translucent yellow kernels that look glazed with melted butter.

kernels

purple kernels

Varnished, pearlized, speckled, streaked — each ear holds a fresh surprise. We heap them, gem-like, in the bed of the Ranger.

When it comes time to go home, we pile three bag-fuls in the van. I wonder what I will do with them all, already having the first installment of Indian corn at home, gracefully mounded on tables inside and tucked round pumpkins outside.

What do we do with this bounty?

***

One week later, just as I tell my husband he should call his parents to check on his dad — one day home from the hospital after a major surgery — the phone rings. I watch, helpless, as my stricken husband runs out the door for the two-minute drive to his parents’.

And, I am left alone with two distressed daughters, who I pull close. We huddle around the worn chenille family room couch and pray for a miracle. A phone call five minutes later lands with startling finality on my heart, flat and hard as stone.

The girls’ eyes, brimming blue and brown, seek mine and they know, though I have to deliver the news regardless.

I don’t know what to do, in the hours that remain, while the police come and the empty ambulance goes.

So, we clean. I take the remnants of my life as it was before — suddenly so false, so flimsy, so naive, and tuck them away. The tiny hand-felted pumpkin I was working on. The bowl of shelled corn kernels from the farm I was soaking to string for Thanksgiving necklaces. I pack away the jewel-toned wool skeins, the needles and foam. I drain the kernels and wash the bowl and set the corn to dry on a paper towel in the basement.

I clear away toys and wash dishes; make the bed in big room for Nunny, who I already know will be sleeping with us. We work silently, me and my girls. I finally tuck them all in with little man around 10 p.m., on Caroline’s bedroom floor, in a huge nest of blankets and pillows and special stuffties.

I take the dog out back in the dense velvet night while I wait and hear no less than three separate owl calls, all within the space of a minute. The tremulous, quavering whistle of the tiny screech owl, the classic hoots of male and female great horned owls.

They do little to distract me from the question at hand. What do we do with this loss? So much bounty we have had — but, now, this scarcity, this lack, this loss — it mows us down.

We get through the next week in a daze of condolences and visitations and the funeral day.

She comes up to me at the funeral home, her whitish fuzz of new hair just sprouting. She gestures to her head and says: It’s been a tough year. And we talk about the son-in-law lost suddenly to a heart attack while out of town, her home burned down, the cancer. She and her husband are living with her newly widowed daughter and her grandkids now. She knows loss.

And then they come, the couple — also from our church — who just lost their 33-year-old son in the summer after a brave but brutal fight with cancer. We mourned with them a couple short months ago, and now it is us?

***

Now, it is us.

We find our fridge bursting with food, but we are out of Motrin and coffee and tissues.

I take the few flowers we bring home and haul out an army of vases. Because I can’t stomach the stiff pyramid arrangements, I pull the flowers out, stem by stem. I cut and tuck and make something new. I give a ribbon-tied bunch of larkspur to a friend, gather peach carnations and purple stock into a violet jug for Julianne, make a clear vase of red rose, white snapdragon and blue delphinium for Caroline.

I work on writing assignments in the dining room the week after the funeral, filled with clean tupperware containers, photo boards, the lockbox of important documents, and my father-in-law, sitting on the chair in front of me.

I have to turn the portrait around, though it seems cruel. But looking at his smile, I can’t help but be convinced he’s just on my front porch having a smoke in his red flannel shirt. I can hear the scrape of the tin on our kitchen counter as he reaches in to give Jasper a treat. I can still conjure the timbre of voice, recall his expressions — remember I probably owed him a hemmed pair of jeans.

And, now, at home, we set a place more and a place less each night. My mother-in-law is here and he is not. And, I struggle to understand. I wish I could say I have wrangled with words to describe what we are feeling over the past month, but I have not even had words.

The stories written weeks and weeks ago about my daughter’s health struggles and just now published (at The High Calling and Pitt Med Magazine) may make it seems as if I am blissfully batting about metaphor and meaning, but I am not.

All I can think of is the dried cornstalks, their lush green living exchanged for the harvest bounty of fully ripened corn. Their death yielding burnished beauty. Their bodies, dried husks serving as a temporary wrapping for the glory within.

But the life-from-death metaphor that works so neatly for seasons and harvest, how can we accept it for the loss of those we love? What beauty can come from such pain?

I do not have the answer.

***

One morning of the numb week that follows the sudden loss of my father-in-law, we sit in the Pretty Room with Pastor — the three who have lost their husband and father, and me.

We are planning the funeral service.

It comes time to talk hymns and scripture passages and, before I know it, I’ve jumped up, grabbed car keys and am making the short drive to my in-law’s to find his bible. What was he reading most recently, we wondered?

red bible

Pastor takes the red bible, his spot marked with a flier for a campground in the Pennsylvania mountains he so loved, and smiles.

Listen to this, she says:

If the earthly tent that we live in is torn down, we know that we have one from God, not made by human hands but lasting forever in heaven. … So while we are in this tent, we sigh, feeling distressed for this reason — that we do not wish to put off this dwelling, but that we wish to put on the other and have life swallow up our death. It is God who has prepared us for this and who has given us His Spirit as a guarantee. And so we always feel confident. We know that as long as we are living in this body we are living away from the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5: 1-6