Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Writing Prompt 41

"Tell me everything you know about Jell-O."

-Natalie Goldberg Old Friend From Far Away

What I Know About Jell-O

When I was young and had the stomach flu, my mother made red Jell-O, strawberry or cherry in her metal mixing bowl and shoved it in the refrigerator to cool. When I was too restless to stay in bed, she helped me to the couch in the sewing room, tucked my favorite patchwork blanket around me and popped a thermometer in my mouth. While I clamped it between my teeth, she dashed to the kitchen and spooned a blob of slippery Jell-O into my plastic All-Gone bowl, the words printed inside the dish along with a clown. She set it on a TV tray next to me, along with a glass of warm flat Bubble-up, and an empty mixing bowl, in case I needed to throw up before I could make it to the bathroom. My mother turned on our black and white set to Captain Kangaroo and Sheriff John and Hobo Kelly and sat at her sewing machine a few short feet away, whipping up matching dresses for my sister and me. Every now and then she’d turn around and look at me, ask how I was and bring me more of whatever I needed, even her hand on my forehead.

In fifth grade, Kendis Lescher and I bought strawberry Lady Lee gelatin dessert, a Jell-O knock-off, as an alternative to Pixie Sticks, colored paper straws that you sucked flavored sugar from. We ripped open the paper packets of our generic Jell-O, and when Miss Coppack wasn’t looking, we licked our index fingers, cracked the lids of our desks open an inch, and navigated our fingers into the powder, popped our fingers in our mouths and sucked the flavored sugar off. I spent most of that year with a red dye #5 fingertip.

I didn’t think much about Jell-O for the next twenty years, until I was seven months pregnant with my second child. Peter Rivero died and the United Methodist Women called on me to bring a Jell-O salad to the reception after his funeral. I didn’t know Peter, who was Catholic, but I knew his wife, Jean. We served on the worship committee together, and she’d held my baby, watched her grow into an inquisitive toddler, and had given her car keys to play with. So I said yes.

Of course I’d eaten Jell-O salad, at Thanksgiving dinners and church potlucks, but I only knew how to make plain Jell-O; Jell-O for the sick. I didn’t know what sort of Jell-O salad was appropriate for the dead, or rather, those who mourn them. I hadn’t been to a funeral since junior high school. Our neighbor, Bob, had been killed in a car accident on his way home from work, leaving behind his wife, and two children, about my age. Everyone was grief-stricken. There was no food afterward. But this was different. Peter was an old man, seventy or so, an acceptable age to die, so people would talk about him while spooning Jell-O salad into their mouths.

I needed help. My mother was at work and as inexperienced with death as I was, so I called my mother-in-law, a widow who’d lost her parents long ago. She served Jell-O salads at Thanksgiving and Christmas in cut crystal serving bowls. I copied down her instructions. The night before the funeral I boiled water, poured it over emerald green powder, stirred with a wooden spoon, watching the powder dissolve. I added cold water, stirred more, then dropped in chopped canned pears and dollops of cottage cheese. I didn’t own crystal, or a serving bowl, so into a Pyrex baking dish it went to cool in the refrigerator.

I didn’t attend the funeral the next morning. I wasn’t ready to face death. I watched Sesame Street with my almost three year-old, felt the daughter I was going to have kick me under the ribs. I spread Saran Wrap over my Jell-O dish, buckled my daughter into her car seat and drove to my church.

I climbed the stone steps from the street to the sidewalk, unable to see my feet over my baby-belly, one hand in my daughter’s, the other balancing my lime, pear and cottage cheese Jell-O concoction, as it jiggled under plastic warp. So this is how it was going to be with me and death––a little wobbly, a little vulnerable. I walked into the social hall, bustling with women, many of them widows, setting out trays of coffee cups, cookies, and pies. “There you are,” one woman said, and swept my Jell-O into her capable arms. “You are going to stay.” She set me to work wrapping napkins around forks. My daughter helped stack them in a basket.

Soon Jean, the new widow, arrived with those who’d attended the funeral. Some of them wore black, some had puffy red eyes, but most were talking, some even laughing. I hadn’t known that was allowed. Gratefully, they received everything set before them like an offering––cups of coffee, oatmeal cookies and small plates of my Jell-O salad.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Writing Prompt 40

Imagine yourself in the scene on "Good Friday." What would you have named that day?

Good Friday

I never understood why they called it Good. Nothing that happened that day was good. A gruesome death and I was there, weeping on the hillside, powerless to help my son. And it appeared, at the time, that my son was powerless too, despite his confidence, despite his faithfulness to his call, his clear mission, his understanding of what his spiritual parent desired for him, and for the society around him.

Good. No. I can never call that Friday good. Necessary, maybe, but I wonder. Perhaps I’ll always see my son’s life differently from everyone else. He wasn’t born to die. That much I’m sure of. I cradled my newborn infant in my arms, gazed into his intense brown eyes, those eyes that saw only me. His tiny fingers clutched mine, holding on for dear life.

And what a life. He took such joy in the simple things. The moon appearing in broad daylight, like a slice of melon in a blue sea. The intricate grain of olivewood sanded smooth. He was curious, so eager, into everything, so full of questions. I told him everything I knew, and he pulled from my mind and imaginings, teachings and tales I thought I’d long forgotten. He came with me to the well and the river. We trudged with our water jars and pile of soiled garments. We talked of justice, the law, the words of the prophets. He knew my every thought, and I knew his. He didn’t know at ten, chasing chickens in the courtyard that he was going to change the course of history. He didn’t know at thirty-three, hands strapped to a wooden cross, what would occur after his death.

He did know he was going to die. I knew it too. He made enemies each time he spoke, challenging the law, accusing the powerful of failing to live by the spirit of the law. As his name and influence spread, the religious authorities grew afraid and began plotting. You should have seen the energy around him. That’s what kept us going, kept us believing. We saw the healing that took place wherever he went. Illness evaporated, demons fled. He brought peace to the troubled, health to the sick. Crowds gathered everywhere he went, hungry for the taste of his words. We’d hear them later, walking back to their villages, beginning to question the old assumptions, ready to embrace this new law of radical love.

Word of him spread like wildfire. I didn’t ask my son or his friends to keep quiet, to keep silent to save his life. He said it himself, “Even if we said nothing, the stones would cry out.” Did he have to die? Did God require it? I can’t believe that. I know it came to that, but I always hoped there could have been another possibility, the path not taken.

In my deepest prayers, I envisioned that road. I closed my eyes, emptied my heart and saw a vision of the world Jesus said was possible. Pharisees and Sadducees and Scribes who put away their pride, who let go of their power over others long enough to listen, listen with all their hearts and souls and minds, to the words of my son and the testimony of his life. I saw them kneeling side by side with tax collectors and carpenters and Samaritans in the synagogues and temples, praying for signs of understanding. I prayed for them too, for openness, forgiveness, and mercy. I believed there could have been conversion and reform and hearts turned anew toward God who made us. The promise of a changed world that wouldn’t need death as its catalyst. I glimpsed a world that could embrace the possibilities for life that my son offered.

If it were up to me, what would I call it? Evil Friday? Lost Friday? Brokenhearted Friday? I don’t know. But I do know that the Great One took the events of that terrible day, took the death of my son, the death of hope, and fashioned something new and beautiful from the remnants.

Mary and I found the tomb empty. The smell of embalming spices clung to our hands as we wept into them, finding no body to prepare. My son had vanished. I didn’t know where or why or how. I can’t say that I understood the meaning and impact of that morning we now call Easter. Even after all this time, so much remains unclear in my mind, a mystery.

This is what I do know. The power of love always proves stronger than the power of death. The journey into the abyss can lead us into the light. Grief can lead to rejoicing. Somehow, my son lives on. The message he had for the world is still being spoken. Ordinary people like you and like me have been changed; we have been given hope, not only for ourselves, but for this world, through the life of Jesus. God has carved an eternal place for him in the heart.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Writing Prompt 39

What does "Take up your cross" mean to you?

Take Up Your Cross

We carry our crosses
hung from our necks
lashed round our shoulders
nailed to our feet

No wonder we smack into doorframes
knock over our neighbors
slam face down in the street

All that dead wood
weighing us down

If only we dared look up
we might see him this Christ
head wreathed in thorns
nail studded palms
inclined toward us

What if we each rose
took up our splintery cross
and bore it in our arms
like a broken gift

What if we each rose
took up our cross
and followed the one
who forms hope from dust

©Cathy Warner

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Writing Prompt 38

Write about the last meal you had with someone you loved. Did you know it would be the last? Do you remember the menu, the table settings? Were you able to eat much? What do you say or not say?

That Last Supper

March is here and so are my thoughts already about Holy Week and those pivotal events during the last week of Jesus' life brought to us in so much detail in the gospels. It does seem that we remember the events before everything changed much more than we remember the content of living out each day, even when we're using our gifts and heeding our call.

Here are some thoughts about the Passover meal Jesus shared with his friends:

Jesus knew that things were heating up; that the Passover meal was the last one he would spend with his disciples, his beloved community. Never again would they gather in this same manner, a teacher and guide not simply with his followers, but with the people who were closest to his heart, who had shared intimately in his ministry, who had journeyed with him, who had tried to make his vision their own.

By the time they gathered for dinner, Jesus knew that a crisis in his ministry, in his life, was unavoidable. He knew that he would have to endure death to remain faithful to his call. He tried to explain this to his disciples, but they couldn’t fathom it. They weren’t ready to understand or comprehend the way Jesus’ death would tear apart their lives. There was no way for them to predict the Resurrection.

Imagine how it must have felt for Jesus. His closest friends incapable of understanding what he’d said to them, what his ministry was truly about. It must have been heartbreaking, yet he trusted God’s power to transform lives, even beyond death. Jesus took common items from an everyday meal, bread and wine, and offered them to his dear ones as a way to remember his life and God’s promises.

How powerfully this symbol lives on. Proclaiming the mystery God worked through Jesus, bringing healing and new life out of brokenness and death. Throughout time and throughout the world, the mystery continues, and we gather around a table, like the disciples, to eat the bread and drink from the cup. Through this act, we are brought into community. We are held in relationship with each other and with God.

We share the grain of the fields, the fruit of the vine, and we are offered the chance to be recreated and transformed. When we, like the disciples, say yes to the gift without having to understand it, we demonstrate our faith. We proclaim our willingness to follow Jesus into the broken places in this world and in our hearts, and we offer ourselves to the holy, to be God’s instruments of healing. Through the ordinary, we encounter the profound.