Saturday, February 20, 2016

Perfect Pitch

I don't usually post these, but I realize not everybody reads the News & Observer, where my columns appear once a month on Sundays. So here it is. It appears in the Feb. 21 edition of the Arts & Living section. 

Perfect Pitch

Though I began my career slugging out words in a newsroom, for more than 20 years I worked from home. I loved the freelance life, leaving the office long enough to search for a story or meet with writing students, but I also loved that by the end of the day I was home and ready to collect whatever jewels my children chose to share when they came home from school.

Then college happened, and my husband looked at me and said: It’s time you got out  of the house.

Just about that time, my church called a new priest, a man so young I could have been his babysitter. (After hours, he plays bass in an indie rock band.)
He set to work, and his youth brought a new energy to our congregation, and soon he began to build a team to help him lead our parish through what would be a time of tremendous growth.

Some of these wonderful folks already worked there. Others, like me, he found within the pews. When he approached me about joining the staff for communications, I was reticent. I cherished my freelance work (and my flexibility). I liked attending church and volunteering, and though I loved the people, working where I worship? I wasn’t so sure. 

Then he took me to lunch and talked about that “call” thing, and well, that got me.

In those first weeks I sat in a tiny office filled with somebody else's filing cabinets, trying to invent a job no one had had before me. But soon I was sharing space with my friend Lee, who had a similar lunch and was now leading our newcomer program. Then came Charlotte for endowment and Abby for youth — the Episcopal logo tattooed on her wrist long before she ever thought about working for a church.

Today we are a baker’s dozen — working in music and finance, youth and children’s ministry, administration, preaching and teaching, forging deep friendships as we go, doing what I now know is God’s work.

I think too often when people hear the word “ministry,” at least in the Episcopal Church, they think of hands folded, voices low, lots of fancy language and all that kneeling.

There is that, of course, but there is so much more.

Our weekly staff meetings begin with prayer, surely, and with sharing plans of how our work will help bring our people closer to God. But sometimes our spiritual conversations morph into how popular culture competes with Church, and to mask our frustration, my boss might ask us about our favorite characters in stories as diverse as “House of Cards” and “Star Wars” to “Mary Tyler Moore.” 

The Mary Tyler Moore thing grew from a discussion about the preaching rotation (or ROTA), which morphed into “Rhoda,” and of course for most of us, there is only one Rhoda. The entire staff broke out with the theme song, and as it ended, our newest priest, with us only a few months, tossed his collar into the air like Mary did her hat. (No irreverence intended, of course.)

Who does this at work?

Everybody, I wish.

We often leave our meetings laughing, ready to take on the sadness our parishioners sometimes share with us. We’re here for specific jobs — taking care of the building, planning the Sunday anthem, counting pledges — but we listen, too, as we make copies, share lunch and conversation, hearing our people out, even when they think we are not doing our jobs.

A few weeks ago, the collar-tossing priest answered a new call, and we’re heartbroken. He pulled our circle in even tighter, and we will never forget his ministry to and with us.

When we heard he was leaving, the boss opened our staff meeting by saying a friend had asked him what it was like to work with us. 

“You know the last episode of Mary Tyler Moore, when they all gather for that group hug? That’s what it’s like,” he said. Later Charlotte posted that image on our Facebook page, and we all wept a little.

Yes, at my office, love is all around, and on most days we try not to waste it, knowing this perfect pitch may be tossed our way again.

++++

Susan Byrum Rountree is director of communications for St. Michael's Episcopal Church.  

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

Monday, February 15, 2016

the kind and unexpected thing

it's the day after Valentine's Day. my husband and i have been bonding for the past five days but not as valentines. on thursday he had shoulder surgery... not the awful kind that takes weeks to recover from, but traumatic enough that he has been unable to drive or lift or pick up things or put his own clothes on at first.

in all these years of marriage, he's only been really ill two or three times, so he is not used to me taking care of him. i'm not used to it, either, but it's just part of what we do for each other, part of the bargain we made almost 35 years ago, though he at times in the past few days has seemed surprised when i have willingly cut up his meat if needed or helped him slip on his socks.

i remember years ago when he contracted pneumonia and could hardly get out of bed, i brought up some canned chicken and rice soup one day for lunch, and he was overwhelmed at what felt to him like enormous generosity. and that was years before i began making soup from scratch! had i been that unkind to him that it was a new experience when i was not?

the day after the surgery he told a friend i was a saint. drugs talking, surely, and a couple of days later i'd lost my sainthood, as was expected.

i've been thinking about this a lot today, about how people care for those they love in all sorts of circumstances. three years ago it was my mother's turn, when after almost 63 years of marriage, my father contracted pneumonia himself and spent the better part of three months in the hospital. Eighty-four at the time, my mother drove to see him 45 miles (one way) almost every day, and as each day passed, she grew to be more beautiful. i know he saw it, too. 

(my husband can't say that about me, because i didn't even shower today til close to suppertime — well, to be fair, neither did he.)

my mother never balked at caring for my dad, giving up her days (but not her hair appointment) to make sure he was getting good care.(maybe it was because of all the times he cared for her through broken hips and other bones, though i doubt that played a role.) he barely talked, yet he knew she was there and doing more than he ever expected of her, to the point that she ended up in the hospital herself. it never crossed her mind that she might ought to stay at home.

i suppose on ordinary days, i have stopped going out of my way to do kind and unexpected things for my husband, though somehow i expect him to do unexpected things for me. i know there have been too many days when i stand at the stove cooking supper that i think: maybe this will be the day that he does so and so for me, when in fact, his just walking in the door and kissing me hello should really be miracle enough. kind and unexpected enough. but i have not been appreciative, i know.

maybe that's why he has been so surprised at my attempt at care, that finally, in his hour of need, i have done that kind and unexpected thing. i am embarrassed, if this is the truth. i thought i had been more attentive to him all these years.

why is that, when you're married so long that you forget that the small, personal gesture is truly important? in the beginning of a marriage, it's all we can do not to do kind and unexpected things, to work at what we hope will be a lifelong love. But it's the lifelong part of it that when you're young, you don't quite understand. at least i didn't. it includes days when you don't like each other, and when you have to do small but important things for someone when you'd rather not.

love creates such tangled hearts.

in these few days when my husband has been a bit immobile, we did get out for a short trip to a dessert store so we could test a few cake samples for the rehearsal dinner (i)  we are planning for our son. my husband is the dessert fan in our family, so i made him go. 

on the way home, knowing we might be stuck with ice or snow, we stopped off at the grocery store so i could grab some orange juice. 

i go to the grocery store pretty much every day, which is neither efficient nor particularly enjoyable, but it's i what do. i made him stay in the car because he  is rarely patient enough to follow me through the aisle searching for things i don't need.

on the way out, i recognized an elderly couple i've seen before. the wife shuffles, often unaware it appears of her surroundings, yet her husband takes her down each aisle as if she will be the one to choose Folgers over 8'oclock, decaf or regular.

on this day, they had not made it inside as I came out with my orange juice (and oranges and green onions). his back was facing the store, and he was pulling her along.

in an instant, another shopper and i saw her ill-fitting jeans fall to the ground, bearing her tiny wrinkled bottom to the world. we stopped, trying to help her husband pull her pants up, but it was a struggle. the young woman shrugged, assuming i had the situation at hand, though the truth was far from that.

as a diversion, i'm sure, i found myself thinking of my grandmother — though this couple was about the same age as my mother — and made an attempt to save her dignity.

she wore no belt, and her frail body would not, without one, keep the pants up. so her husband and i held her jeans as we moved her gingerly into the store, seating her on one of the motorized carts they keep for handicapped shoppers. naively, i thought she might stay.

'i didn't know she wasn't wearing a belt,' her husband said. 'she has Alzheimers,' looking at me as if i didn't know. 

though i offered to shop for him while he waited, all he wanted was a rope to tie the loops of her jeans together so he could pull her along while he did the shopping. a clerk found one, and together we threaded the rope through the loops, she batting at my hands as i tied the loop into a knot so he could get on with his shopping.

'she's doing pretty good,' he said, introducing himself as Ralph. 

'and how are you doing?' i asked, almost in tears.

'the best i can,' he said. 

'family nearby?'  

'yes, but always gone.'

always gone. like me? i hadn't seen my own mother in about six weeks.

i imagined this man at 58, my age, and how their love story had evolved into this — her sitting in the handicapped cart with mittens on the wrong fingers, her jeans stained with her own excrement, unwilling to accept help from anyone but her Ralph.

but he insisted i not stay. so i didn't.

at home, my husband and i made a pact that we would never allow ourselves to be this way with each other. maybe they could not afford help he said, which made me want to search for every Ralph in my extended neighborhood until i found them, so i could give them enough money to change things for them. but how? 

later, when i couldn't sleep, i imagined what other kind and unexpected thing Ralph might be doing for his wife in the middle of that sad night. and i could feel how alone he must be, no matter how he loves her.

it's likely that this small woman did a lot of kind and unexpected things for Ralph as he made his career. she raised their children, and when they were the age of my husband and me, maybe he had some kind of surgery, and she took care of him, made him soup and helped him put on his clothes, and he is doing the same thing, in kind, and in love, still, and even though, he really, really, needs someone to help him.

+++

my husband is much better, though an ice storm has kept us homebound for five days, and so today we escaped to our corners and set to work. 

later i made supper. he cleaned up. now he sweeps the kitchen floor, which for years has been his favorite thing to do when the evening ends.

expected. yes. but a kind thing that does not go unnoticed on this night.



writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

the kind and unexpected thing

it's the day after Valentine's Day. my husband and i have been bonding for the past five days but not as valentines. on thursday he had shoulder surgery... not the awful kind that takes weeks to recover from, but traumatic enough that he has been unable to drive or lift or pick up things or put his own clothes on at first.

in all these years of marriage, he's only been really ill two or three times, so he is not used to me taking care of him. i'm not used to it, either, but it's just part of what we do for each other, part of the bargain we made almost 35 years ago, though he at times in the past few days has seemed surprised when i have willingly cut up his meat if needed or helped him slip on his socks.

i remember years ago when he contracted pneumonia and could hardly get out of bed, i brought up some canned chicken and rice soup one day for lunch, and he was overwhelmed at what felt to him like enormous generosity. and that was years before i began making soup from scratch! had i been that unkind to him that it was a new experience when i was not?

the day after the surgery he told a friend i was a saint. drugs talking, surely, an a couple of days later i'd lost my sainthood, as was expected.

i've been thinking about this a lot today, about how people care for those they love in all sorts of circumstances. three years ago it was my mother's turn, when after almost 63 years of marriage, my father contracted pneumonia himself and spent the better part of three months in the hospital. Eighty-four at time time, my mother drove to see him 45 miles (one way) almost every day, and as each day passed, she grew to be more beautiful. i know he saw it, too. 

(my husband can't say that about me, because i didn't even shower today til close to suppertime — well, to be fair, neither did he.)

my mother never balked at caring for my dad, giving up her days (but not her hair appointment) to make sure he was getting good care.(maybe it was because of all the times he cared for her through broken hips and other bones, though i doubt that played a role.) he barely talked, yet he knew she was there and doing more than he ever expected of her, to the point that she ended up in the hospital herself. it never crossed her mind that she might ought to stay at home.

i suppose on ordinary days, i have stopped going out of my way to do kind and unexpected things for my husband, though somehow i expect him to do unexpected things for me. i know there have been too many days when i stand at the stove cooking supper that i think: maybe this will be the day that he does so and so for me, when in fact, his just walking in the door and kissing me hello should really be miracle enough. kind and unexpected enough. but i have not been appreciative, i know.

maybe that's why he has been so surprised at my attempt at care, that finally, in his hour of need, i have done that kind and unexpected thing. i am embarrassed, if this is the truth. i thought i had been more attentive to him all these years.

why is that, when you're married so long that you forget that the small, personal gesture is truly important? in the beginning of a marriage, it's all we can do not to do kind and unexpected things, to work at what we hope will be a lifelong love. But it's the lifelong part of it that when you're young, you don't quite understand. at least i didn't. it includes days when you don't like each other, and when you have to do small but important things for someone when you'd rather not.

love creates such tangled hearts.

in these few days when my husband has been a bit immobile, we did get out for a short trip to a dessert store so we could test a few cake samples for the rehearsal dinner (i)  we are planning for our son. my husband is the dessert fan in our family, so i made go. 

on the way home, knowing we might be stuck with ice or snow, we stopped off at the grocery store so i could grab some orange juice. 

i go to the grocery store pretty much every day, which is neither efficient nor particularly enjoyable, but it's i what do. i made him stay in the car because h  is rarely patient enough to follow me through the aisle searching for things i don't need.

on the way out, i recognized an elderly couple i've seen before. the wife shuffles, often unaware, it appears, of her surroundings, yet her husband takes her down each aisle as if she will be the one to choose Folgers over 8'oclock, decaf or regular.

on this day, they had not made it inside as I came out with my orange juice (and oranges and green onions). his back was facing the store, and he was pulling her along.

in an instant, another shopper and i saw her ill-fitting jeans fall to the ground, bearing her tiny wrinkled bottom to the world. we stopped, trying to help her husband pull her pants up, but it was a struggle. the young woman shrugged, assuming i had the situation at hand, though the truth was far from that.

as a diversion, i'm sure, i found myself thinking of my grandmother — though this couple was about the same age as my mother — and made an attempt to save her dignity.

she wore no belt, and her frail body would not, without one, keep the pants up. so her husband and i held her jeans as we moved her gingerly into the store, seating her on one of the motorized carts they keep for handicapped shoppers. naively, i thought she might stay.

'i didn't know she wasn't wearing a belt,' her husband said. 'she has Alzheimers,' looking at me as if i didn't know. 

though i offered to shop for him while he waited, all he wanted was a rope to tie the loops of her jeans together so he could pull her along while he did the shopping. a clerk found one, and together we threaded the rope through the loops, she batting at my hands as i tied the loop into a knot so he could get on with his shopping.

'she's doing pretty good,' he said, introducing himself as Ralph. 

'and how are you doing?' i asked, almost in tears.

'the best i can,' he said. 

'family nearby?'  

'yes, but always gone.'

always gone. like me? i hadn't seen my own mother in about six weeks.

i imagined this man at 58, my age, and how their love story had evolved into this — her sitting in the handicapped cart with mittens on the wrong fingers, her jeans stained with her own excrement, unwilling to accept help from anyone but her Ralph.

but he insisted i not stay. so i didn't.

at home, the two of us made a pact that we would never allow ourselves to be this way with each other. maybe they could not afford help he said, which made me want to search for every Ralph in my extended neighborhood until i found them, so i could give them enough money to change things for them. but how? 

later, when i couldn't sleep, i imagined what other kind and unexpected thing Ralph might be doing for his wife in the middle of that sad night. and i could feel how alone he must be, no matter how he loves her.

it's likely that this small woman did a lot of kind and unexpected things for Ralph as he made his career. she raised their children, and when they were the age of my husband and me, maybe he had some kind of surgery, and she took of him, made him soup and helped him put on his clothes, and he is doing the same thing, in kind, and in love, still, and even though, he really, really, needs someone to help him.

+++

my husband is much better, though an ice storm has kept us homebound for five days, and so today we escaped to our corners and set to work. 

later i made supper. he cleaned up. now he sweeps the kitchen floor, which for years has been his favorite thing to do when the evening ends.

expected. yes. but a kind thing that does not go unnoticed on this night.



writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

Friday, December 25, 2015

this christmas

this would be 
the Christmas 
that our children
gave us our past
in DVD without
our even asking.

we sat,
watching our 
younger selves
at just the ages 
the kids are now
maveling at 
how young we looked
and how rested,
at a time when 
we were not.

i had triangular hair
and I thought myself 
beautiful
though now 
it's questionable. 
at least i was thin.

it is also 
the Christmas
that the soul of
our family 
didn't make it.
and that happens
when december 
feels more like july,
when weather 
and flight schedules
rule our plans.
our Christmas morning 
was not nearly as punny,
with him not here,
we just did not feel
complete.

it was the Christmas
that i was reminded
that my father 
once jumped rope
to please (maybe impress)
his grandchildren,
and it was a joy
to rewitness
his conversations
with me
from so many 
years ago.

it was a Christmas, 
when my boy brought
his bride-to-be
home 
and he gave me 
the gift of time
with him,
which is so rare.

and it was the one
when my mother
told the story of
how she met 
my father, and
of the dress she wore
on their first date,
and my daughter found 
the dress
in her closet and
brought it 
down for 
show and tell.

it was also 
the Christmas
when i was 
so busy cooking
i forgot to 
take a picture
of my kids.

so.

it is like
every Christmas:
some sadness.
some joy.
some Christmas.
yes.







and writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.