Friday, December 2, 2016

Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #6: HOME EC.

Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #6:
Home Ec. 

I. This is the basement.
Cool, a little bit humid, spiders if you looked carefully. Or cared. My two brothers slept down here in a room with an old black and white. A bong not very hidden in a little shelf above the closet door. Other “supplies” hidden there too. For a while, a summer or so, we tended to congregate there once the folks had gone to sleep or at least into hiding.
Gordon, Noel, maybe Billy, sometimes Kerry (if he wasn’t out drinking cough syrup in the back of a car somewhere), and me. I was the least likely to be there, I guess. Going to be a priest. Going to be a scholar. Whatever, not supposed to be wasting my time like this. Neil Young blasting Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Indeed, everybody knows  this really is nowhere. Cinnamon Girl, Down by the River, Only Love Can Bring You Down. Maybe so. Or maybe not. Lots of things can bring you down.
Lies about girls. Lies about God. Lies, but some kind of love, I think. Some truths. Some signs of  grace.
This is the basement.
I used to love lying on one of my brother’s beds on a lazy summer afternoon watching bad Japanese horror films, for some reason a regular feature on Denver Saturday television.
I’m not sure I’ve really relaxed since. It’s a grace to rest. To be at rest. The Japanese know these things, we just don’t expect to draw that conclusion from Godzilla vs. Reptillicus.
One day we put on Stevie Wonder You are the Sunshine of My Life. It was a few years later, bong was gone or the boys had hid it so I couldn’t find it. Mom had quit drinking and was happier and more lucid than we had ever known her. Perhaps the joy of knowing that about herself and knowing that her boys knew that about her just overwhelmed her. But we all started dancing. Gordon and I taking turns dancing with our crazy mother, which would have embarrassed us all a year before.
I still see Gordon wearing that old Russian winter furry hat, twirling mom around the little basement room. We were Jesus freaks by then. Mom was just starting in AA. We were angry with her about dad. I’m sure she was angry because we refused to buy her cigarettes at the store now that we were holier than her.
But for that moment, the one I’m remembering right now, the one I'm treasuring and chewing one, we were dancing in the little basement room. Home of “the little boys” as we always called them, even when they had grown to be over 6 ft. tall. And, by the way, Stevie Wonder? He was the man.

II. The kitchen.
This is the kitchen. When Noel was fifteen or maybe fourteen, he was the first boy to ever sign up for Home Ec. at Denver’s East High. It was a no-brainer. If you are getting high every night, and you have the munchies every night, and your mom is a depressed alcoholic who rarely cooks anymore, and your dad is barely holding things together so you’re lucky if there was maybe some ice cream in the fridge (to go with lots of beer), you need to adapt. So you learn how to bake stuff. 
Noel made the most awesome cakes and treats and bread and such late at night in that kitchen. Or we thought so at that very hungry time of life.  We devoured what he cooked like lifelong atheists devour the sacrament after tasting and seeing for the first time.  We didn’t say "Grace." We didn’t say "Thanks." Not then, anyway. I am doing it now.
Mom loved antiques. She had a store once, earlier, back in Texas, before everything went to hell and dad lost his job and had to take a huge cut in everything and move us to Denver. It was called Nita’s Hobby Shoppe. I used to call it Nita’s Hobby Shoppy. Sarcastic even then. She had a lot of cool stuff, but, hey, we lived in Mercedes, Texas, on the Mexican border. Not a real big market for 19th Century spinning wheels. Or antique books with the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. She never sold them, but I got the itch to collect old books and things from here. 
 It’s a sickness. Thanks Mom.
         So on the counter in the kitchen, we had this antique radio, you know the kind what that wonderful gothic shape, a kind of medieval pointy arch (just slightly tapered and rounded). And it still worked, of course only with an AM dial. But that didn’t matter. We loved that old thing. And we all loved music too. That's something we really did share. Dad’s “Streets of Laredo.” Mom’s “Redwing.” And we ALL loved the Beatles. Obviously, all you need is Love.
Dad and I would sit there and listen to minor league baseball games on that thing night after night. He’d fall asleep sometimes and I’d have to try to get him up to bed. Depending upon how much beer he’d had, that could be more or less difficult.
Kitchen is a very strange word if you listen. Sounds more like a sneeze than a place to be nourished.
Missy hated that room, because when mom was bad, which was most of the time, Missy would have to sort of play mom to the other three even though she was still in high school. I don’t remember a lot she cooked except grilled cheese, but I know we ate. But Missy hated that room. She hated mom too. For a while. I can’t blame her. Not one bit. That was then. She was 17. It still hurts, but now it's a lot more complicated.
One day Mom, Nita, was standing in that room with her scotch and whatever drink in hand (maybe she said she had a toothache, she said that a lot). It was early evening and she was in her bathrobe. I don’t remember much else except that Missy was cooking dinner (though she had school, homework, boyfriends, and teenage angst on her plate already). She should have been out with her friends, not doing this.
Something finally snapped and Missy started prophesying. OK, she wouldn’t call it that. But I do, now. And these are my meditations, so just go with it. Missy told mom she was leaving. Not yet, but as soon as she finished high school. She had had it. She had never been a child. She had never had a mother. She was sick of her drinking. She was sick of her. And she was leaving the day she graduated.
It was difficult to say difficult things to mom; because she was either genuinely a deeply wounded child or she really knew how to impersonate one. You felt guilty saying things like, “try being a mother for a while.”
But Missy did. At least that time, the time I’m remembering. Obviously, that’s kind of a bad memory from the old kitchen at 1825 Albion Street. But not all bad.  There was truth there. Buried love. A certain strange grace. You can't see everything at once, you know. Old T. S. Eliot probably said something like that once. Or should have if he didn't.
So time passed, as it does in memory. Missy left. The kitchen was quiet that summer. I was getting ready for my senior year of high school, working out, trying to get ready to go to state in basketball.
The boys were running around with Billy and Kerry, kind of wild. Who could blame them? Mom had cut her wrists and spent some time in Presbyterian Hospital where I was working my first job, washing dishes and putting trays of food on the tray line for patients.
Dad was drinking more and more. Mom came home. Missy was up in the mountains somewhere. And mom, one day, couldn’t take it anymore. Something finally snapped. Eudora Juanita Ricke started prophesying. OK, she wouldn’t call it that.
But she said, I cannot live this way. Maybe I can live another way. Maybe I can make a life that my children will look back on in their Ironic Advent Meditations and see a sign of grace, a kind of redemption. I'm pretty sure that's what she said.
Anyway, she opened up the phone book, sitting on that old stool in the kitchen, by the phone, just next to the door to the “living room” where people lived, but not too well in those years.
         She called a guy whose name she found in the phonebook. He told her to come to a meeting. She did. Then another. And another. And she never drank again for the rest of her life. It wasn't easy. I skipped some stuff. But it's true.
There was grace in that kitchen, though it sometimes, maybe most of the time,  looked like something else.
        A couple of years later, after mom had kicked dad out because of his drinking which was just way too ironic for us and way too mean we thought, I stood there talking to him, next to that radio where we had listened to all those games and listened to music when he was sinking further and further into what looked like the end of the line or the bottom that they always say you have to hit before you figure it out. 
He was one amazing bigger-than-life man, a born performer, always the life of wherever he was. When I got a call that said he had died, my senior year of college, I just wrote a little note (for some stupid reason I was taking notes), "You're too big to die, daddy."
        Well, anyway, now, or then, or whatever it is or was or will be, he'd hit that proverbial bottom. He'd been living on skid row. Then . . . he met some guys from a mission who brought him back. Cleaned him up, gave him a job (just like my first one, washing dishes), helped him get sober. And stay sober.
So there he was, looking healthier than I could remember him ever being. Strong deep blue yes. Sort of clean shaven, at least better than the wildly uneven drunken shave I had gotten used to. Forty pounds lighter. He was clear—that's the best word I can think of. Clear. In thought, word, and deed. And those blue eyes. And animal  movements.
Graceful. Graceful, gigantic dear broken healed daddy of mine. Charles Ricke, Navy vet, fought the big one, Knight of Columbus, businessman, father, lover, helluva dancer, drunk, now dishwasher.  Healed.  Better, anyway. Better than I'd seen him in a long time. As they used to say in the Pentecostal churches (and maybe still do), “happy to be in his right mind.” Restored is a good word. A sweet word. 
As I chew on my roots this Advent, I think of these dear people, all of them wounded and all of them wounding. Many of them gone now. The house in Denver is still there and looks pretty much the same. I have more memories to unpack from that place if I ever get quiet enough to ponder further. Perhaps it’s our crazy present and our possible future(s) that has me so much looking backwards.
But Advent time is so messed up that I’m not sure which way is past or future any more. Advent starts, as it did Sunday, with the future, with the end, in which all things will change (if not pass, see George Harrison). But it also asks us to think of the past, long ago by our standards, which it also, somehow, foretells and points toward (right?).  The prophet says, a baby will come, or a family will move to Denver, and it will all kind of look like heaven. Until it doesn’t. Then the coming King will not look so glorious and, in fact, things will really get messy. Skid row. Skull hill.  And we say, and we’re . . . looking forward to that?  And, what exactly were all those songs about?
This is going to sound like heresy I guess in terms of the Christmas liturgy, but I’m going to say it anyway. In a small font, though. You can’t really be looking forward to the birth of baby Jesus, Ricky Bobby. If anyone appreciates the irony, I do, so you can rest assured that I’m going to keep singing the songs and pretending to look forward to what already happened, but unless we are chewing on the past and trying to figure out what the hell happened and what that means for all of us, we might as well just turn the whole damn thing over to Macy’s and
The more I chew on my roots this Advent, the more I’m seeing a story of ironic love and redemption, and, believe me, it’s not one that anyone would choose ahead of time, especially if I were in that Robert Frost poem and had other choices. The gaps in my life and the cracks in my story (and yours, dear reader) are nasty and brutal and damn sure worthy of some kind of Divine sympathy if there is any. While we are waiting on that, let’s share some of the human kind. That may be how we get ready for the other if there is the other.
In Paul Gerhardt’s lovely hymn for the first Sunday of Advent, “Wie Soll Ich Dich Empfangen?" (“How Shall I Greet Thee”), one that Bonhoeffer references several times in his Prison Letters (which I wrote about in Meditation #3), it is exactly this world-weariness and disappointment that the sympathetic savior comes, now (a fraught word in Advent time), to heal. The most popular English translation of this hymn, by Catherine Winkworth, misses the passionate intentionality of this love by translating the great expression of the kenosis thus: “Love caused Thy incarnation, Love brought Thee down to me . . . .” A more faithful translation is something like: “Nothing, nothing, could drive you from your heavenly home (tent, actually) but your love above love . . . .” An earlier, more literal though still problematic and heavily-condensed translation renders the key “incarnational” verses of the hymn like this.
Nought, nought, dear Lord, had power to move 
Thee from Thy rightful place,
Save that most strange and blessed Love
Wherewith Thou dost embrace

This weary world and all her woe,
Her load of grief and ill
And sorrow, more than man can know;--
Thy love is deeper still.

Oh write this promise in your hearts,
Ye sorrowful, on whom
Fall thickening cares, while joy departs
And darker grows your gloom.

Despair not, for your help is near,
He standeth at the door
Who best can comfort you and cheer,
He comes, nor stayeth more.

         Gerhardt is careful to remind us, something which Bonhoeffer points to several times, that this door is one we can’t open for ourselves. One would think, though, on the strength of reading the gospels and the prophets, that one way we do Advent, that is, get ready for the Bridegroom, the baby in the manger, the Coming King, the Lord of the Universe, Doctor Strange, the Wonderful Wizard, all the things, is by doing what we can to open doors for as many others as we can in the little time we have.
                And I’m starting to see that this includes even those who are gone from us. We can open doors and let them in or out, as the case may be. Welcome them (back, perhaps) into our lives.
                So now (?) I’m standing, reunited with my healed (or at least mid-healing) father in the kitchen of the old house on 1825 Albion St. The bong is well-hidden. The Beatles or minor-league baseball is playing on that antique radio. I’m taking him out to dinner and to a Broncos game. My treat. The first time I’ve ever treated the old man. 

But first we grab some brownies that Noel had made and left out on the counter for us.

The door slams, and we leave the kitchen. I'm leaving the kitchen. I left the kitchen. I will leave the kitchen. But I'm leaving the door open, so we won't forget the things we learned in Home Ec.

Note to reader:
*Home Economics (usually called Home Ec.) was a previously (that is, before Noel) gendered class in high school taken by girls to prepare to be good homemakers (sewing, cooking, slaughtering and butchering buffalo, and so forth—depending upon where and when you took it). Guys took shop to learn how to make leather straps and benches and crap like that. I went to Saint Anthony’s, so I took Latin instead. 

[after A. A. (just about Stevie Wonder time) but before skid row]

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