Tuesday, August 26, 2008

My Basil Has Blight


I’m having a hard time growing things. Last summer I got enthusiastic and very domestic, even for me, and decided to grow some basil. I love it, my husband loves it, and like my friend Faith, I put it in almost everything I cook. Lemonade with Basil Syrup? Astonishingly delicious. I was tired of paying $3 for a clump of basil at the grocery store, only to have half of it rot and be thrown out when I didn’t use a whole basil bush in one week; after all, there are limits. Basil Oatmeal? Not so much.


I picked out some inspiringly colored pots (in the color that I wanted to decorate the house in, but that they only started making available after our wedding, when all the gifts were in use and we no longer had any decorating money) and got a bag of potting soil. I went home and planted, ready to save money and contribute to an atmosphere of superior breathability. So, I sprouted the little seeds, they grew like weeds, and then, just when they started to look really promising…a suspicious-looking fuzz appeared on the soil. I was on the phone with my friend Amy.

“Amy—” I interrupted our conversation about the relative literary merits of Lewis and MacDonald “Amy, what is the matter with me? There’s moldy looking fuzz on my basil dirt! I think I really do have a black thumb!”

“It could be a blight,” she replied calmly.

“How would it get a blight? It’s brand new dirt!” I said.

“Where did you get the dirt?” she asked.


“There ya go. Your basil could have a blight.”

“Are you kidding me? My basil has blight? Stinking Walmart dirt.”

“You gotta watch that Walmart dirt,” she said solemnly.


So, I threw away my poor little choked basil sprouts, and hoped that the lavender plant I had going in my other brightly-lacquered pot would fare better. After all, it was a sturdy plant when I acquired it, and since the stuff is used, in the wild, to growing on barren moors akin to those in a Charlotte Bronte novel, I thought it had a good chance. My pleasant dining room, with dazzling sun in the mornings and a moderate, balmy clime all afternoon, would be an excellent place for a rugged, already-thriving woody bush.  Perhaps in some other home it would. The lavender waned, and waned. I trimmed, watered, coaxed, prayed, and re-read the planting instructions that accompanied the ill-fated shrub. It died a lingering death unbecoming to a plant of such benevolent reputation.


I gave up on plants for the year, but halfway through this summer, I was again seized with aversion to the flagrant waste involved in purchasing hydroponically-grown basil at Wegman’s. I bravely entered the savory foliage department of the local farmer’s market, and picked up a questionable-looking pot of yellowing basil. It looked like it had already spent a few weeks in my house, but it was only $.099, and I figured the odds were already against it and if it died quickly I wouldn’t have lost much. I took it home, watered it, and tried it in the kitchen this time, where there is a brief but brilliant time of sun in the morning, followed by a dining room-like atmosphere of cheery light throughout the remainder of daylight hours. In a day or two I was delighted to see the yellow leaves turn to their wonted glowing green, and the little plants seemed to grow and thrive in their miniature starter pots. I watered them well and gave them the best spot in my tiny kitchen, and it seemed my basil plight had rounded a fortuitous corner.


Until one day when the whole plant appeared wilted and yellowish, despite a thorough watering and flourishing appearance just two days before. I decided that perhaps in their accelerated proliferation they had outgrown the plastic starter pot they’d come in, and so I once again got out my pretty planters and the dubious Walmart dirt. (It was just sitting there being dirt, and we were broker than the previous year. It can’t really have been the dirt, I thought to myself.) I transplanted. Then I gave them extra extra water, put some more water in the planter dish underneath them, and went on vacation for 10 days.


When I returned they were still alive. But not thriving. I examined the dirt with deep suspicion, but no fuzz appeared. As of today the basil remains living, but it lives with a tenuous and questionable sort of existence, not the kind you would expect from a plant that makes summer salads worth boiling pasta for on a 98-degree day in a second-floor apartment with no air conditioning. Not that kind of life from a zesty, saucy herb. I expect it every moment to clutch its throat in a dramatic, last, gasping frenzy, and fall with desperate finality to the fuzzy carpet below, on the blighted Walmart dirt.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pop Isn't Always Bad



Basically, it’s like this: if you have any kind of taste or discrimination at all, you are not supposed to like pop music. Pop is generic, rote, and plebian. Intelligent or cool people do not like pop; they like jazz or fusion or indie. Now, if it’s called “rock” that’s a little better. (As far as I’m concerned, Kelly Clarkson is just as much pop as she is rock, but it sounds so much better to call it rock.) I have always enjoyed pop music, although I do consider myself an intelligent person and I do have a college degree. After several years of being with my husband, who is a classically trained theory-perfect musical critic, I figured out that it’s just that I like melodies. Pop produces melodies. There it is.


However, I spent some time learning about the music industry, and I was taught to be (at least somewhat) discriminating. I do not love all pop music, and especially with R&B, I hate when it all sounds the same and I sometimes make sweepingly critical statements about the state of creativity across the musical board. I have made my share of derisive comments about the Xerox-bubble-gum Christina Aguilera-Britney Spears-Avril Lavigne-Lindsay Lohan situation that raged in the first part of the decade. Not that I thought it was all talentless trash, but that whole scene isn’t something you put up as a monument to musical or social brilliance.


Be that as it may, a couple weeks ago I felt a strong need to find angry, expressive girl songs, and stumbled upon Avril Lavigne’s music, which I haven’t really listened to in years. It hit the spot. It wasn’t a good spot, but the thing that was great was that it hit the spot. Country music will often do this, however much people don’t want to admit it, but there are times the twang will not sufficiently address the depth of feeling that pop will.


I’ve often wondered what it is about the honesty of human emotions that is acceptable to us in the lyrics of a song, but is just too raw if they’re only words. The vulnerability, the kind of emotional desperation that we too-often despise in others and almost always in ourselves suddenly seems alright in the words of the Angry Pop Princess.


…I tried to belong

It didn't seem wrong

My head aches

It’s been so long

I'll write this song

If that's what it takes…

(Avril Lavigne, Unwanted)


…When you walk away I count the steps that you take,

do you see how much I need you right now…

(Avril Lavigne, When You’re Gone)


Or, when the person whose steps were counted did not respond—the song is called Unwanted:

You don't know me, don't ignore me

You don't want me there, you just shut me out

You don't know me, don't ignore me

If you had your way, you'd just shut me up

Make me go away


(so unwanted)

No, I just don't understand why

You won't talk to me

It hurts; I'm so unwanted for nothing

Don't talk words against me

I wanted to know you

I wanted to show you

(Avril Lavigne, Unwanted)


There are few things that hurt worse than reaching out for help and either being rejected or feeling rejected. And when you are hurting that badly, it hardly matters whether the rejection is real or perceived. It doesn’t matter whether it is a lover or a friend—it’s just the fact that the tenderness of your heart was damaged. Something that is precious when it is accepted and celebrated is doubly piercing and shameful when it is pushed aside as if it doesn’t matter, as if perhaps, it wasn’t even seen.


Are you aware of what you make me feel, baby?

Right now I feel invisible to you, like I'm not real

Didn't you feel me lock my arms around you?

Why'd you turn away?


I was left to cry there, waiting outside there

Why should I care?

'Cause you weren't there when I was scared

I was so alone...

You, you need to listen!

I'm startin' to trip,

I'm losin' my grip

And I'm in this thing alone...


Cryin' out loud

I'm cryin' out loud

(Avril Lavigne, Losing Grip)


Some of the pop princesses aren’t terribly angry. I randomly came across a song relatively new to the charts, and whether or not the song is about good or bad blood flow, the chorus struck me:

I keep bleeding keep keep bleeding love

I keep bleeding I keep keep bleeding love

Keep bleeding keep keep bleedin love

You cut me open

(Leona Lewis, Bleeding Love)

The seemingly trite repetition of the words is nevertheless how you feel when you’re bleeding emotionally.


And that’s the point. When your heart, for whatever reason, is just so battered that all you are aware of, moment by moment throughout the day, is the constant, aching, bloody gush of pain, you feel. That is what pop talks about—our feelings. In stronger moments we may dismiss our feelings in lieu of “reality,” in better moments we balance our feelings with right actions. But there are times in all of our lives when all we can do is feel; there are days when getting from morning til night is a monumental task of posing, and when no one understands or seems to care, the only reality that counts is in those moments when you are finally alone and are fully embraced in the crush of your own agony.


I have always been thankful that God put the Psalms in the Bible. Not just the ones that remind us of His sovereignty, or that we must remind our souls to praise Him despite the sorrow of life, but the ones that match the days we sometimes have. Not the bad days, the really bad days, or even the terrible days. The days—mercifully rare—when you just cannot seem to rise above your pain. The days you look for songs filled with anguish and frustration that do not have answers, because your day does not have answers. The days you go home alone and get on the floor because that is how low you really are, and you ball your fists and sob and ask God “WHY!?” if He loves you can He let you hurt so badly. For days like that, I am thankful that He gave us Psalm 38. It is one of the few Psalms that does not end with praise or a remembrance of good. It merely says “Do not forsake me, O LORD;
O my God, do not be far from me! Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!” On our worst days we still acknowledge God as our Savior, but a broken and desperate plea for help is all we can manage.


And the wish for someone to see, to understand, to offer just a little comfort, a little validation of the feelings that hurt so deeply and carry shame for their very depth—I think this is what somehow makes a song acceptable when to actually voice a cry for help would be unthinkably risky.


I'm looking for a place

I'm searching for a face

Is anybody here I know


Cause nothing's going right

And everything’s a mess

And no one likes to be alone


Isn't anyone trying to find me?

Won't somebody come take me home?

(Avril Lavigne, I’m With You)


What’s hardest on the hurting heart is the very reaction that’s actually pretty normal to someone who isn’t hurting or doesn’t remember their own times of emotional suffering: a song like Nobody’s Home, when you’re not hurting, seems so superlative that it’s easy to dismiss, because this kind of emotion seems melodramatic unless you’re living it.  


And maybe it is melodramatic. Thank God that most of us don’t live in this kind of pain all the time, or even most of the time. I don’t think we could handle it if we did.  But whether or not the pain seems trumped up or circumstantially disproportionate to someone else, there are days and seasons that we all experience the pain, the loneliness, the searing solitude of our own darkness. And we know how real, how desperately wrenching it is. 


On days like that I don’t care if the song is cool or intelligent, or that the fact I like it makes me lame. I’m already lame, I’m hurting, and the only comfort I may have that day is that somebody out there knows how it feels to be me.



"Nobody's Home"


I couldn't tell you why she felt that way,

She felt it everyday.

And I couldn't help her,

I just watched her make the same mistakes again.


What's wrong, what's wrong now?

Too many, too many problems.

Don't know where she belongs, where she belongs.

She wants to go home, but nobody's home.

It's where she lies, broken inside.

With no place to go, no place to go to dry her eyes.

Broken inside.


Open your eyes and look outside, find the reasons why.

You've been rejected, and now you can't find what you left behind.

Be strong, be strong now.

Too many, too many problems.

Don't know where she belongs, where she belongs.

She wants to go home, but nobody's home.

It's where she lies, broken inside.

With no place to go, no place to go to dry her eyes.

Broken inside.


Her feelings she hides.

Her dreams she can't find.

She's losing her mind.

She's fallen behind.

She can't find her place.

She's losing her faith.

She's fallen from grace.

She's all over the place.

Yeah, oh


She wants to go home, but nobody's home.

It's where she lies, broken inside.

With no place to go, no place to go to dry her eyes.

Broken inside.


She's lost inside, lost inside...oh oh yeah

She's lost inside, lost inside...oh oh yeah

(Avril Lavigne, Nobody’s Home)


Friday, August 22, 2008

I Walk Long for a Short Person

A few weeks ago one of my friends made a comment about how I was walking ahead of and out of sync with everyone else, including my husband Bob, who is very tall. I am not tall. I told her I used to get in trouble when I was a kid because my mom said it was rude for me to walk ahead of everyone else, and it’s funny because Bob’s legs are so much longer than mine. “I walk long for a short person!” I said.

Then I added, “That would make a good title for my autobiography.” I’m always more or less planning this autobiography, as if I were a famous person preparing ahead of time to document their own life, out of consideration for other biographers. “Wouldn’t it be great if people in the old days had written with us in mind?” I asked one of my old journals. Long have I labored under delusions of future grandeur.

But the phrase has stuck with me for some reason, and I have been pondering how that simple phrase, uttered in a moment of playfulness, may say more about a lot of us than we realize. To Walk Long for a Short Person—it implies an aberration, a variation from an expected deduction from a theme, but in an unexpectedly positive way. A short person should walk short—their stride limited by the length of their legs. I, however, walk surprisingly long—my stride covers more ground faster than one would expect from a person with far-from-super-model legs. My aberration is good.

What I want to say is that our God is good and has built unexpected strengths into those of His children who would otherwise be sadly inadequate, who would be otherwise pitifully unable to cope with the tiring onslaught of life in this broken world. Earlier this year my pastor’s wife, Tricia, gave me an unusual prophetic word, essentially “God thinks you’re Amy Winehouse.” Amy Winehouse, of course, was the year’s Grammy Award It Girl, a talented but troubled singer who had to get leave from a rehab center to perform her award-winning Song of the Year “Rehab” at the Grammys via satellite link (chorus: “They wanna make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no.”) Amy’s unstable life, talent, and surprising award were a big joke around the church office where I work. I knew God had a sense of humor, too, though, because what Tricia meant toward me was, there’s this poor girl, jacked up on drugs and hardly able to stand at her own moment of glory, yet she still gave a solid performance and won one of most prestigious awards in the world. She walked long for a short person that spring. What Tricia was saying to me was, that despite all the difficulties in my life, all the struggles and disappointments, I was still there. I hadn’t crashed and burned into oblivion.

In the months since then, I have seen how I am not alone in my struggles. People all around me are struggling hard, not just with small inconveniences in life, but with the big ones: chronic debilitating disease, decimating divorces, shattered families, the devastation of their hopes and dreams. Yet these people go on—not only living, surviving, but hoping, praying, worshipping, and giving to others in such a way that most of the people they give to are not even aware that the cost of the gifts are secret tears and pain carried in loneliness.

That there are so many of us carrying the pain alone and shedding tears in secret is topic enough for its own consideration. But the fact that these people have not given up, cursed God, or turned their backs on the church—the fact that they press on, in all their small humanity, and retain hope and love….

That is an abnormality from an expected outcome—a result inconsistent with the apparent resources—that is far superior to what one would naturally expect. Deviations in nature usually result in birth defects or a broken version of the ideal image, not improvements. I don’t think it requires a great deal of theology to explain why a short-limbed girl should outstride a tall man; I am content to call it a gracious and pleasant mystery. That is also what I call the reason some people shine when they should shatter.

I call it the gift of a good Father. It is a stride you wouldn’t expect from short legs.