Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mary's Lullaby

I have no affinity for sappy extra-biblical Christmas songs that portray baby Jesus in pastels through soft camera lenses. I put those songs in the same category as 99 Cents Stores, teacher’s pins, Christmas lawn inflations, Macdonald’s hamburgers, Hallmark’s religious cards, pink stucco, and baby shower games. I can hardly sing a line of some such songs without whispering some snide remark as a tag-line to the person next to me.

“The Night is dark, with snow descending,
Bells gaily chime a festal song!”
You must mean cowbells. 
And what the heck is a festal?
“His Mother bending over him smiles
Upon his face sublime.”
Until it was burping time 
and then he spit up quite a bit,
 and it wasn’t sublime
“No warm, white covering in the manger
To keep the Babe from bitter cold;”
What is this? Siberia? 
They didn’t have a cloak?! 
What about the swaddling clothes? 
Heresy!
“Only cobwebs for the stranger
From rafter high they hang gray and old.”
Oh, I see. 
They wrapped the baby in cobwebs. 
Good thinking.
“He on the fragrant hay is sleeping,
Warmed by the breath of friendly cows;”
AH! Putrid!
“The oxen gentle watch are keeping
Around the little Child divine.”
And fourteen year old Mary is cool with these two-ton beasts crowded around her son, 
who’s lying where they normally eat lunch!


A Frenchman wrote that song. It’s called “Noel.” I think it should be called “Murder in Bethlehem Stable.” Oh dear. I get myself into quite a bit of trouble on Wednesday nights during choir rehearsals. Kathy Little tries to keep Kristy Cowell and me in check, but we’re as obedient as fourteen-year-olds. At least we know not to let cows near babies.

We doodle and whisper and giggle, then put on our straight faces for the next riveting song! Oh my! What will happen to poor baby Jesus next? I leave you to your own commentary.

"Amid the roses Mary sits and rocks her Jesus child,
While amid the treetops sighs the breeze so warm and mild.
And soft sweetly sings a bird upon the bough;
Ah baby, dear one, slumber now.
Happy is Thy laughter;
Holy is Thy silent rest,
Lay Thy head in slumber fondly on Thy Mother’s breast.
Ah baby, dear one, slumber now."

Aside from the dizzy feeling I get when I read these words, the melody is very soothing. It makes me think of uncharted waters like a construction worker considering biochemistry. There is a field of study in which I’m not well versed, nor am I accustomed to think it valuable, but I am wrong here. The carpenter shouldn’t think less of the biochemists because some biochemists choose their jobs and others are thrown into the mess without knowing the difference between an ectoplasm and a mitochondria. Nor should the carpenter think less of his biochemist friend because the carpenter can readily point at the fruits of his labor while the biochemist only hopes that his efforts will benefit the world someday. I am speaking of motherhood.

I know nothing of cradling a newborn, but the whole ordeal looks as delicate as catching soap bubbles on the tip of your finger. I’m reminded of how my little sister and her friend killed my brother’s hamster by squeezing it too tight. Oh dear. 

Their honeydew melon skin is transparent, their sleeping eyes look like brush strokes from a Japanese brush, their little mouths make their cheeks ripple like drops in a bucket of water. Such tiny things: one moment their inside, the next moment their out. There you go. Here’s your baby. Sustain it in this world of genocide, porno conventions, ego-trips, materialism, and broken hearts. Fear, hate, pain, and uncertainty: they will know all these soon. But until then… 

Before then… 

Ah baby, dear one, slumber now.



Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pennies Thus Far



"The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is a dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of pays. It is that simple. What you see is what you get." -Annie Dillard


My homeroom class of thirty-one has begun bringing pennies to class to help me support my World Vision sponsor child, Rocio, from Ecuador. I projected her picture on my LCD screen and told my students that I didn't want dollars, quarters, dimes, or nickels. I wanted pennies. Heights already collects enough money from the students for various reasons: needy families, the eighth grade D.C. trip, the homeless, a school in an Indian Reservation, technology updates... I didn't want to burden my kids with more incentives, so I made it simple. Bring in pennies. Help Rocio in Ecuador. What you don't bring in, I'll pay.


In the first week one boy brought two gallon-sized Ziplock bags full of pennies. I ripped the bags on the way home and spent all afternoon stacking them in their paper sleeves. The next week, if I'd forgotten to pass around the old salsa jar with Rocio's picture taped on the top, the students reminded me. When I forgot, they came up after class with their baggies full of pennies. I don't imagine that the pennies cost much for the students to give, but they support the livelihood of a six-year old child in Ecuador.


I'm finding pennies of my own as well: the golden fringe on the Crape Myrtle's leaves when the setting sun catches their color, the knock-knock of my neighbor's trash cans every Tuesday as the local trash-diggers search them for recyclables, the anticipated vibration in my coat pocket as my phone announces Phil's noon call, the juvenile layer of winter grass that grows beneath the hollow mustard in the Whittier Hills, the 7:55 bell that makes my heart quicken as if I'm about to give a performance, the ignored T-shirt lying at the foot of the bed every morning without fail, the fourteenth successfully completed Sudoku, and the suppressed giggles held back by lips that strain like the mouth of a balloon—I still cannot understand why Math is so funny to those second period girls, but if they can find humor in changing percentages to decimals, they'll find many more joys in life.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Hints Thus Far

The following are several things that I've started doing that have helped keep my life simple and sweet.

Hint 1: Keep green onions in a jar of water by the window rather than in a plastic bag at the bottom of your refrigerator. They will last weeks this way. Change water every several days.

Hint 2: If you have citrus trees, make lime and lemon cubes when the fruit drops from the trees faster than you can eat them.

Hint 3: Never chop up just one onion. Chop up several and keep them in the freezer. Be sure to label the onion sizes on the outside of the ziplock bags.

Hint 4: Schedule your dinners for a month. Make a list of all the ingredients you need, and make one major shopping trip each month. Meals are flexible; move them as your plans change.

Hint 5: Decorations need not cost a cent. Collect seed pods, rocks, colorful leaves, berries, and branches to arrange and liven up your home.

Hint 6: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

Hint 7: If you aren't going to remember something, write it down. I keep a little red book with me where ever I go. My mom keeps her palm pilot. Phil keeps his phone. If I remember something (instructions for my students, groceries I need to buy, an errand to run, a bill to pay, a gift idea) I put it into the notebook to prevent the idea from escaping into oblivion.

Hint 8: Read children's books and never forget what it was like to be a child.

Hint 9: Unless you want to find little white worms crawling across your ceiling, throw all raw meat items into the outside trash can.

Hint 10: Use baking soda and vinegar to clean. It's cheaper, non-toxic, and work just as well.

Hint 11: Maintain a wardrobe of colors that never go out of style: kaki, black, white, and gray. If you hate being a plain jane, accessorize with color and style.

Hint 12: Memorize scripture. Make God's thoughts your thoughts. I keep a laminated chapter in my pocket and I pull it out whenever I start worrying about something.

Hint 13: When criticism start bubbling in your mind, and your mouth is about to pop, say a compliment instead and see what happens.

Hint 14: Keep old herb jars for quick salad dressing bottles. My favorite mix contains: one lemon cube from the freezer, twice as much olive oil, a pinch of salt, and garlic salt. I put the top on the jar and shake! Mmmm

Hint 15: Save empty peanut butter, pickle, and jam jars. Wash them well, then use them to tote soup to work—you won't have to worry about any toxins when you heat it up in the micro. I also use my jars to give people cookies or candy.

Hint 16: Put an empty pail under the shower head while you're waiting for the water to heat up. Use the water after your shower to water plants.

Hint 17: Plant a lemon tree and name him Lehman. Here's Phil transplanting Lehman from his jar into a pot outside.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Hummingbirds



The seedpods on the Purple Orchid tree have roasted in the summer sun, split, curled back like ribbon, and fallen onto the asphalt for the cars on Beverly Boulevard to crunch. Philip says a perfect crunch consists of four crackles, which is only possible with a seedpod twisted twice at both ends. Philip derives great satisfaction through crunching these pods: something new I learned about him a year ago when we moved into our new home. The seedpods sprinkled Beverly at that time too; the crape myrtles were blooming; the Whittier hills were brown with dry mustard. Not long after we moved into our house we found a tiny nest in the bushes outside our front door. It looked like a hummingbird’s nest, but I had no way of knowing.

Now, a year latter, I know. Another hummingbird or perhaps the same one has built her nest again in the swaying branches of our crape myrtle. Over our dinners Phil and I have watched her tend her young in between her snacks from the Agapanthus just below her nest. Now two needle-like beaks poke out of the top of her nest, and I imagine soon the unused nest will fall into the bushes again.

Rich and ripe summer has come to uptown Whittier, but this time, I welcome it with familiarity. I have seen these sights, smelt these smells before. The pregnant branches of our neighbor’s lime tree have spanned David Coxes backyard and dipped into our yard again. It’s heavy with limes that are waiting for the autumn sun to ripen them. Last year, to keep busy during a family progressive dinner, my grandpa, Papi, gathered all the fallen limes into a neat pyramid-like pile on the edge of our yard.

The Queen Palm in our pink-housed-neighbor’s yard has shot new fronds into the air like the Trans-America Building in San Francisco. The beige seed capsules at the palm’s side have peeled back, revealing the golden lace of pollen, which hangs out of the capsule like tinsel. The bees and Japanese beetles congregate around the golden seeds as if it were a buffet for kings.

The heat has shrunken our house doors back into their normal sizes so we can close them without lifting or slamming. Come October our neighbors will start littering their front yards with fake spider webs and gaudy Halloween decorations. I have seen them before.

The earth has spun a full circle and what has been gained? Who am I now? What has become of all the time? A year ago I roomed with my cat, visited the garden for my daily servings of vegetables, didn’t know the difference between a frying pan and a sauté pan, and was determined not to be the cutesy 50’s wife who sewed curtains and made chocolate chip cookies.

I know I’ve failed in keeping up appearances. When Mike Hamilton and his friend came by the house to drop off some spare dishes, his friend informed Mike that he felt like he’d just stepped out of an old fashion house. I suppose I don’t care so much about appearances. What I thought I ought to be is irrelevant. And what I’ve become is far more interesting. Who knows what we’ll be in the future?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Psalms 36

Of Abby

1 Contend, O LORD, with those contending third period students;
be obnoxious to the kids who are so obnoxious to me.
2 Take up detention slips and referrals;
arise and come when the bell rings.
3 Brandish answers
against those who ask stupid questions.
Say to my soul,
"I am the teacher."
4 May those who speak without raising their hands
be disgraced and put to shame;
may those mouths that comment incessantly
be duct taped shut.
5 May they be like accelerated reader books,
driven to the lost and found by the day care teachers;
6 May their dilly dally walking,
drive them straight to the principle’s office.
7 Since they persist to talk without cause
and without cause drown out my own voice,
8 may mass quantities of homework overtake them by surprise—
may their parents give them extra chores,
may they lose their lunch money, to their ruin.
9 Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD
and delight in his salvation.
10 My whole being will exclaim,
"Who is like you, O LORD ?
You rescue the teachers from those dirty little Junior Highers,
the learned and exhausted from those who outtalk them."
11 Ruthless naggers come forward;
they question me on why they must have homework.
12 They repay me with laziness for all my efforts
and leave me working harder than they do to do their work.
13 Yet when they didn’t understand, I came to their desks
and humbled myself with answering questions.
When my answers returned to me with a, “I don’t get it,”
14 I went about mourning
as though for my friend or lost teaching career.
I bowed my head in grief
and wished I was back in bed.
15 But when I said 16 times 4 was 54, they gathered in glee;
attackers gathered against me when I was unaware.
They slandered me without ceasing.
16 Like the ungodly they maliciously mocked;
they whispered and scoffed at me.
17 O Lord, how long will you look on?
Rescue my life from their adolescence,
my precious life from these lion cubs.
18 Then I will give you thanks in the teachers lounge;
among the faculty and staff I will praise you.
19 Let not those 13-year-old’s gloat over me
who are my pupils against their will;
let not those who squeak their erasers
fling rubber bands across my classroom.
20 They do not speak coherently,
but devise unnecessary disturbances
to pester those who sit around them.
21 They gape at me and say, "Teacher! Teacher!
When does this class get out?"
22 O LORD, you have seen this; be not silent.
Do not be only in Bible class, O Lord.
23 Awake, and rise to my defense!
Teach for me, my God and Lord.
24 Give me many vacation days because of your righteousness
do not let them succeed over me, O Lord my God.
25 Do not let them think, "Aha, just what we wanted!"
or say, "She cannot make us do work."
26 May all who gloat over my frustrations
be put to shame and academic confusion;
may all who exalt their vocality over mine
be clothed with shame and disgrace.
27 May those who sympathize with my strife
rejoice in my vindication,
may they always say, "The LORD be exalted,
who delights in the well-being of his math teachers."
28 My tongue will speak of your righteousness
and of your praises all day long at Heights Christian Junior High.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Glorifying Sickness

“She’s back!”

“Hey, we missed you!”

“Feeling better?”

I hadn’t expected to be bombarded by so many warm welcomes from the Granada Heights Friends Church choir after being absent for three weeks due to that terrible, fever, sore throat, vomiting, runny nose flu that’s been frequenting the masses. The choir’s welcomes made my return twice as sweet. I’d missed seeing Micah Cowell, whom Kristy brings every Wednesday practice to coo and gurgle and giggle. I’d missed Brian Trevor’s tangent stories. I missed trying to decipher between meso fortes and meso pianos. And I had missed the sound of our voices working together.

Upon my return I learned that I haven’t been the only one out sick. During our prayer request time I learned that Jack Schwartz permeated a disk in his back. Dotty Stark has officially retired from the choir because of her knees. Gary Myers mother died recently. Gail’s Neil, and the others had been out sick.

Before we bowed our heads to pray I leaned over to Kathy Little and said, “How do you do this? How do you cope with seeing your family and friends declining in health?” I asked. “How do you keep from being depressed?”

She pressed her lips together and nodded, confessing that she struggles with the same questions. “Funny you should ask, Abby, because Don and I were just talking about this. Don says that its just a part of life: getting older.”

“How depressing,” I said. “Is that all I have to look forward to?”

Kathy waited before answering and her pause made me think, Oh my! I thought. If I was so angry with God for giving me that terrible fever, sore throat, vomiting, runny nose flu, I’m going to make a very angry old person.

We sang another song: “As Long as I Have Breath,” by Sue Farrar. At the end of the song Wayne Day said that this piece particularly resonated with him, especially the line that said: “In times of sore distress; in times of loneliness; as long as I have breath, I will praise You, Lord.”

Kathy Little then tilted her head towards me. “I like to look at Wayne Day,” she said, and I began to think.

Wayne Day’s wife died a year or two ago, but he still faithfully sings with joy. Here is an example that I would love to learn to follow. I want to praise God when my body fails because it is a reminder that a better body awaits me. I want to thank God when injuries slow me down because in my weakness, He is made strong. I want to thank God when I am bedridden because only then do I remember what people need most when they’re ill. And I want to continue singing when my family and friends die because God has ordained that I glorify him here for what will seem like a little longer.

I must admit my attitude was not like this when I have that terrible fever, sore throat, vomiting, runny nose flu. But maybe God will give me another opportunity by blessing me with another sickness so that I may say in my suffering:

As long as I have breath, I will praise You, Lord.
As long as I have life, let my soul rejoice.
In times of sore distress; in times of loneliness;
As long as I have breath, I will praise You, Lord.

As long as I have breath, I will bless You, Lord
As long as life is mine, I will sing your song.
Your joy brings forth my praise;
Your peace fills all my days’
As long as I have breath, I will praise You, Lord

Let me know Your loving kindness everyday,
As you walk beside me pointing out the way.
As long as I have being, I will trust in You;
You are my God;
I lift my soul to you, to You!

As long as I have breath, I will serve You, Lord.
As long as life is mine, I’ll exalt Your word.
And when this life shall pass, and I’m as home at last;
Thru all eternity, I will praise You, Lord.

“As Long As I Have Breath” by Sue Farrar Beckenhorst Press, Inc. Copyright: 1987

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rubber Bands in the Dryer

I have taken to eating one chocolate ball every day after I come home from an exhausting day of work. The balls are wrapped in golden and red aluminum foil, and they sit in a clear jar next to where Philip and I keep our keys. I haven’t liked chocolate since I was six, and I’m not sure I like it now.

There’s a one-legged man who walks down Lambert every morning at 7 am. I see him on my way to work. He has a billowy white beard and looks ever so much like a sailor. He uses crutches.

Rubber bands are invading. I find them on our front porch. I find them beside our trash cans. I find them on the bedroom floor, and I find them in the dryer. They are always in the dryer.

One of the math teachers at Heights Christian Junior High has taken a temporary leave of absences, and the remaining math teachers have taken up his classes while he’s gone. We are all over our heads. Perhaps this is why I’ve taken to eating chocolate balls.

My birthday this year was the best I think I’ve ever had. It was certainly better than those silly sixth grade slumber parties when my parents scolded me for being too loud at 12 am. One of the highlights was when one of my students presented me with a Costco-sized chocolate birthday cake with nondairy frosting. I ate several licks of the frosting. Students, teacher, and family wished me well. My brother Jacob sent me an edible bouquet of fruit. Gretchen, my mother-in-law gave me a balloon and card. My family all pitched in to get me a laptop computer. This is shocking when considering my family’s usual disregard for birthdays.

There’s a rubber band around my wrist as I write.

I have started shopping at Gigante’s. Salespersons try to solicit me in the parking lot for pimple products and oranges. The cashiers attempt to carry on conversations with me in Spanish. The Jicama is never put in the same place of the produce section. One week they have poptarts; the next week they don’t. One whole aisle is devoted to beans, and half a row to tortillas. No feta cheese, but cojita, yes. They sell bananas in 3 sizes: tiny, normal, and gigantic. The lines are often held up with people trying to get cashier checks or using food stamps. But I believe it’s better than the Super Bueno Market on Lambert.

Typewriters are the devil. I don’t know why Parkville Insurance still uses one. I don’t know why I don’t just figure out how to do 1099’s on the computer instead of the typewriter. The machine goes bonkers every time I return and when I push caps-lock I have to push shift to uncaps-lock. I dream of throwing that contraption over a balcony.

My students have been unusually cooperative lately. They listen when I talk. They pass in their papers when I ask. They tell each other to shut up. They compete to do better. They understand my rules, and don’t take it personally when I tell them to go out of the room and come in again quietly.

I have made a keen connection. More than once Philip has told me how he and his coworkers shoot rubber bands at one another for momentary office stress relief. He has even taught me the proper way to shoot a rubber band. He is particularly impressed with the three-inch wide rubber bands. I haven’t found any of those in the dryer yet.