Christmas Sermon with Plumeria

On the island of Kauai, near the town of Kapa’a, at the head of Opaekaa Falls, lives an 86 year old man named Fred.

If a visiting couple–on their honeymoon, say–were to pass by on a cloudy Christmas day and happen to catch Fred in his yard, he might call out to them.

He might say, “Hey!  Are you visiting us?”

“Yes,” they might call back and stop, mid-stride, relieved for the break from a non-committal jog they embarked on mostly out of a rain-induced malaise and holiday nostalgia.

Fred might wave them over, and they might watch him cross his yard, bend with a surprising amount of dexterity toward the freshly mown grass, and pick up a perfectly five-pointed, pink plumeria, yellow pooling from its core.

“Here,” he might say to them and hold his hand out.  “This one is pretty.  And this one too.”

He might lean over then to inspect another flower.

“Thank you,” one of the honeymooners will say, the bride probably, and hold the pink plumeria up to her sweaty ear.

“People use them to make leis,” Fred will say.  Despite his spryness, Fred might not notice that he has stopped the couple in the middle of a workout.  That, or he thinks workouts less serious business than plumerias.

“You have nice teeth,” he might say to her then, suddenly, causing her first real laugh of the day.  “Take care of them,” he says.

He will tell the couple about crossing the continental mainland of America five times in his youth.  He’ll  make them guess his age.  Seventy, they might say to flatter him, but they will still feel shock when he says no, eighty-six, and shows a whole set of teeth with his grin.

One of the honeymooners will finally explain that they have no way to carry the two plumerias, because they’re headed two more miles down to the sea.

“You’re going ALL the way down?” he might gasp.  “Oh, to be young again.”

“Listen,” he’ll say.  “I’m going to place these flowers in a paper bag and put that bag right there between the mail boxes, so you can pick them up on your way back.”

On their way back up the mountain and into the inland jungle of Wailua, the couple might cross the street from left to right, noticing the Danger signs that mark the ledge near the waterfall.  They will feel curious and skeptical about the bag of flowers.

But there it is.  A brown paper bag between two mail boxes, folded pristinely at the top into two hems.

They might open the bag them, expected one pink plumeria and a slightly wilted white plumeria.  Instead, they might find twenty flowers–red, pink, white, and yellow–stuffed to the brim of that bag.

In their rental cottage far removed from seaside resorts and condos, they’ll steep the flowers in a small glass bowl filled with water and set the bowl, blooming, by their bed.

In her sleep, the bride will dream she has grown old.  In her dream, she will wear a long dress that billows at her feet.  At her feet, a yard sewn from soft petals.  She might wake late that Christmas noel to remember the story of Bethlehem: the manger, the inns with no more vacancies.  The simplicity of the divine and our call to welcome the stranger.

She might think, of course, this is the best any of us can do, especially in the second halves of our lives.  Her Christmas gift, a lesson that says: Let us gather the flowers from our yards before they wither and brown, let us offer them in plump bundles to strangers, passersby and young people, that they might wear the flowers like tiny sunbursts in their hair as they walk to the shores and stare out over the wide horizons of their new lives.

Amen.

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Sermon for a Honeymoon

The alarm tolls at 3:45am.  We groan our way out of bed, shuffle to the bathroom, brush our teeth, and jam deodorant, facial moisturizer, Sensodyne, and sample lotions into our see-through travel bags.  This is an ungodly hour; we prove incapable of smiling at each other even though this, this journey, this honeymoon, marks the beginning our marriage.

The cab driver is chatty.  I grimace; my husband squeezes his eyes shut and open and shut.  She is new at the job, so it takes her a few seconds to start the meter.

“Everyone’s allowed to make mistakes when they’re learning,” she tells us.

Based on her skin tone and thin accent, I start guessing in my head: Eritrean?  Somali?

“I’m from Ethiopia,” she says, and then proceeds to tell us her entire life story.  Her sister has just given birth to a baby girl.  When she delivered, the doctors inadvertently found a tumor in her brain, so this woman, our driver, has moved from Sacramento to San Francisco to care for her sister during chemotherapy and, God willing, surgery.  She hates the cold and all the people crammed onto the steep streets here.

“What brought her to California from Ethiopia?” I ask, hoping to keep her talking so I won’t have to.  I dig some sleep crust from my eye.  The city still sleeps, the hills heavy and dark, a few dim lights blinking at every horizon.

“She was escaping an arranged marriage,” she says.  “She ran away. To Oakland. Me?  My parents arranged for me to marry at 14 to a man who beat me.  I have two sons.”

My husband sits up taller.

“I’m happily divorced now,” she beams.  We exhale slowly, in unison.  We all three laugh.

“Flying home for Christmas?” she asks.

“No,” I say.  “We’re going on our honeymoon.”

On the quick flight to L.A., where we’ll catch a connection to Kauai, I feel a dull pulling between my collar bones and my stomach rumbles.  Something isn’t sitting right with me.

Yesterday we walked a mile in a steady downpour, tucked under the same umbrella, to City Lights Bookstore, where my husband perused the philosophy section and I grazed among the literary magazines, flipping through the tables of contents and making a note of all my friends and contemporaries in the writing world who have published this month.  There are many of them—in one journal, I find five: two authors I graduated with and three others I’ve invited as readers for a series I help organize back home.  When my husband meets me at the register he has Anne Carsen’s translation of Euripedes.  I have The Virginia Quarterly.

“You okay?” he asks.

I nod.

“I should be writing more,” I say.  I nod again.  “I’m okay.”

Am I okay?  I’m married.  I’m a wife.  Does that make me okay?  It’s funny—I have a friend who told me it never felt weird for her to use the term “husband” once she married.  She had much more trouble, she found, hearing herself referred to as a “wife.”   I have had the same experience.  I wanted my husband.  But I’m not sure I ever wanted to be a wife.  The titles “mother” and “woman” and “author” our titles I have long coveted.  But wife?

It’s not polite to say what I’m about to say.  In our culture, we do not allow much room for grief. A blushing bride has no right to grief or worry.   But every major life change requires grieving time.  For every thing we gain as we grow, we also leave something behind.  So I’ll say the impolite thing.  Standing in the bookstore and listening to our early morning taxi driver, I found myself grieving, confronted by the conundrum of many ladies of my cohort.  I know that “wifedom” isn’t always great for women (especially women from certain cultures and of certain less traditional persuasions); it’s one way to become tied to the “particular” as Aristotle and Socrates first referred to the domestic sphere where women supposedly reign, and which they used as a rationalization for keeping women out of the universal, the vita activa or active life.  Generally, I loathe domesticity—I like to travel, I moved 12 times in my twenties, I let dishes stack up in the sink, I avoid buying clothing that requires an iron or a hangar, I balk at routine, preferring improvisation even when it means disorganization.  I do love to cook, my one concession.  Statistically, marriage improves men’s lives more than women’s.  In a recent study on longevity, researchers found that, contrary to findings in earlier studies, single women live longest, beating out the runner’s up, married men.  Single men have the shortest lives.

Alas.  There’s this little bugaboo: I fell in love with a man who tugs me toward the domestic, in a good way, and at an age where some semblance of settling down makes sense.

But on the airplane I wonder about honeymoons.  Traditionally, they mark a period of celebration before the hard stuff, the inevitable messiness of living with another person. Another friend recently told me “marriage is harder than having children.  It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”  But I think she didn’t mean that living with another person is the hardest thing so much as living with one’s self in the presence of another self in another kind of life that might, even unwittingly, subjugate you.

I love my husband.  I expect our partnership to be one of the less painful variety, even at its most difficult.  I will not have to escape to Oakland.  I will be treated with respect and decency.  But for me this honeymoon is not so much a prelude to marriage with a man as it is a prelude to the greatest challenge of my life, a prelude to the Sisyphean task of living as both autonomous “woman” and committed “wife.”  And I must be able to live as both.  I must.  Motherhood and wifehood are honorable, respectable, important roles, and I want them, but I must be a citizen in the world of women and the world of wives, and this dual citizenship–a straddling–is not always so stable a stance as my feminist foremothers evangelized.

In the plane, I hold my husband’s hand as I stare out the window.  The backlit clouds hover low over the coastline, cloaking the land.  They divide earth and sky with a fat veil.  As we descend, my husband says, “I hate this part.”

“What part?” I ask.

“The part where you leave the open sky for the ground, but you’re stuck in the clouds.  That’s where the turbulence always is.”

And then we enter the clouds.  For a few moments we hang there, suspended in a thick fog that from afar looked impenetrable, but in fact holds our weight with ease.  The aircraft barely stumbles.

“I don’t mind it so much,” I tell him.

This, after all, is where I will live.

Amen.