The Way I See It

By Cheryl Anne Tuggle

mosaic tile

I have these odd times when what seem to be unrelated experiences will suddenly arrange themselves, like the tiles of a mosaic, into a pattern I can see. And with a flash of insight I am certain there is a Big Picture and all that puzzles my mind to weariness can somehow be fitted into it.

Such moments pass swiftly. At the speed of light, you might say. From where I tend to stand most days (myopically close), I have no such clarity. Ordinarily a moment that has brought me sorrow has a singular jagged edge, so sharp it pains my eyes to look at it. Joy, too, is a broken thing and not to be trusted. However bright it may appear, however much it glints like a ruby in the light, it is still a shard of glass and liable to leave a wound.

But, the mosaic.

I believe it is possible, by simply stepping back a few feet, to see all the fragments of shared experience being worked into the scene by the Artist’s patient hand. My eyesight is not good, though, and I soon grow tired of working to see from such a distance. A glimpse of the emerging pattern is about all I ever get before I’m standing with my nose to the wall again, peering intently at slivers.

I believe, Lord. Help Thou my unbelief.

 

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Love is a Weakness

loveisaweakness

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Submission. It’s the first thing a writer wants to know about when querying an agent or publisher with a manuscript. What are the submission requirements? How do I submit? And while submitting a short story or a few chapters of a novel is a wonderful and desirable thing to be invited to do, the actual process is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, the submission guidelines for lots of literary agencies refer to a work of writing its author wishes to submit as “a piece”. A very fitting term, I say, for what is about to be exacted is no mere manuscript, but a pound of the writer’s rib-flesh, carved deep from the bone with a dull knife.

Pretty twisted stuff. Nevertheless, it goes on in the literary world all the time. Just not nearly so often as many hopeful writers, myself included, would like.

If submitting sounds hard to do, that’s because it is. Not only for fiction writers, but for saner folks as well. There’s a certain humility, a lowliness, a bending of the ego required and usually we need some motive for doing it. The writer wants to be published, of course, will nearly grovel to make that happen. But there are lots of other reasons people allow themselves to submit. Employees submit to company policy because they want to keep a salary coming in, further their careers or earn a raise. In the hospital patients submit to tests and treatment because they want to be cured. Teenagers submit to peer opinion because they need to fit in, to know they belong.

There are those, too, who submit for reasons of the heart. Fans of the movie “The Princess Bride” will recall the scene with Westley and Princess Buttercup in which she gives him several commands in succession, addressing him with the rather humiliating title of “Farm boy”. To each command, Westley replies, “As you wish”.  The rest, of course, is cult classic history. Had Westley not answered the way he did, had he handed Buttercup an extend-a-reach tool instead and told her to fetch down her own pitcher, there would be no happy ending. No perfect kiss.  But Westley does obey when Buttercup commands and so the story proceeds.

The scene of Westley’s compliance is not written into the movie’s screenplay to convey a message of feminine triumph over the weaker male psyche. Not at all. We the viewers immediately understand that there’s something much more important going on between these two characters than dominance and subservience. Westley is being weak on purpose. For the sake of true love.

Love, then, is the best reason one can have for bending to the will of another. And it’s the only motive that comes anywhere close to pure.

It is love, after all, that motivates the Virgin Mary to submit, to take on the role of being Christ’s mother.  Out of adoration for God, pure and simple, she replies to the archangel’s incredible announcement with, “Let it be”.

Love is the reason, too, for Christ’s miracle at Cana. There is evidence of this in the command his mother gives just after Christ has told her that his time for working miracles has not yet come:”His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.”  Not only does Christ demonstrate filial love by turning the water to wine, Mary seems to know before he does it what his action will be, no doubt because for all his earthly life she’s been loving him.

The highest expression of this submission that is love is seen in the relationship between the three persons of the Holy Trinity, most beautifully illustrated in Rublev’s icon. With skill belonging to the other world, Rublev uses color, light and composition to evoke the perfect harmony that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Taken from the Old Testament story of the hospitality of Abraham, the three angels are shown, each with head inclined to another, seated in an intimate circle around a table on which sits a single vessel.

holy_trinity_-rublev (2)

For me, the great gift of this icon is in its movement. Gazing at it, I have a sense of perfect, selfless love being infinitely exchanged. I can almost see it happening before my eyes. Each bends to the other and gives the eternal answer, “As You wish.”

The Lingering Scent of Kindness

chicken farm sign (2)

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

When I was small my mother had what she called an “egg route”. With baskets of fresh hen eggs—washed and stacked into cardboard flats or single-dozen cartons—filling the back  of our station wagon, she drove over roads that twisted like pretzels from our farm in the small borough of Prospect, Pennsylvania to the larger nearby town of New Castle to deliver her wares. Many of Mom’s customers were homemakers, wives of men who left in the dark each day to work in the steel or coal industry. These were strong, capable women in middle-age who did not seem to know they weren’t supposed to love their jobs. With their wide, apron-wrapped waists and wider smiles they seemed to me as inseparable a part of their kitchens as did their flour-dusted tables and busy steaming stoves.

I always liked riding along with Mom on a delivery day, but never more than at Christmas or Easter time, when these women would be slow roasting meats and baking sweetbreads stuffed with dried fruits and scented with anise and icing dozens of cookies.

“You must come in. Come in,” they’d command, in heavily accented English, when we knocked at their back doors. And Mom always obeyed, to my great delight. Not only did those egg buyers’ houses smell like I imagined heaven would, but I knew from experience that for the next fifteen minutes to a half hour, while she visited over a cup of strong coffee, my brother and I would gorge ourselves on sweets. (We were the youngest in a family of five at the  time—all boys, except for me.  A platter of anything never lasted long on our table.)

lingering scent of kindness

The extra minutes we spent visiting with  Mom’s customers could be seen as wasted, especially since they extended our delivery day considerably.

But they were not wasted.

Throughout my life I’ve kept the memory of those women and the gift of their warmth, recalling the effect their neighborliness had not only on my brother and me but on my mother. Young as we were, we could tell that Mom enjoyed our visits in those homes as much as we did. Although she wasn’t the type to complain, I think her customers knew she had troubles. In their kind kitchens the pain and fatigue that came with her rheumatoid arthritis seemed to lift for a time. Refreshed by their friendship, her brow would smooth, her spirits would lighten, and she’d break into song or entertain us with a story from her childhood as we drove up and down the hilly streets of New Castle, finishing the day’s deliveries.

There have been other moments like those over the years, instances in which other human beings, other children of God, showed a bit of generosity or did me or my loved ones a kindness. And it strikes me that a few of those gestures—an encouraging grin, a sympathetic glance on a difficult day—could be considered so ordinary, so commonplace, so slight, as to be downright insignificant.

They have in truth all been earthquakes, changing the landscape of my life.

It’s an amazing thing, and awfully humbling, to consider how huge a small offering—just a plate of cookies and a bid to sit a while—can be.

 

Of Soil and Hearts

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Reading is one of the ways writers hone their craft. And there is no literature better for this than the Holy Scriptures. The parables of Christ are especially rich in imagery and contain some fine examples of literary device. Probably because I was raised on a farm, I’m particularly drawn to the allegories that have agrarian themes. When our Lord talks about dirt, barns, grapevines, or sheep and goats, he’s speaking my language. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”.

Where I go deaf is in the lesson.

 Luke 8:5-14 paints a typically vivid picture: “A sower went out to sow his seed”.

 Here, I’m all ears and inner eyes, seeing the planter setting to his task. I’ve never been to the Holy Land, so the sower of my imagination, heading into the dawn on a misty morn, is wearing—not a tunic—but overalls, and the burlap sack slung across one thick shoulder bulges with cotton seed.

Jesus is a great storyteller. Character and setting are established in a single opening sentence. The scene building continues and just three sentences later the tale has a beginning, middle and end.

“And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up it withered away because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.”

The next line caused me to roll my eyes when I read it as a young girl:

“And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?”

I was unimpressed with the disciples at that point. Anybody could see the Lord wasn’t just spinning yarns for the fun of it. I don’t remember now what I thought the meaning to the parable was at age 7 or 8, but I recall thinking them awfully slow for not grasping it. Those poor fellows just hadn’t been steeped in fairy tales and folklore like I was, I figured, or they’d have gotten the message right off. Being God in the flesh, Jesus is of course more patient in his answer than I would have been. He even gives his disciples special status as receivers of the mysteries of God before saying, “Now the parable is this.

The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are they that hear; then comes the devil, and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.”

sprout (2)

That child, so adept at gleaning the moral from a fairy tale, is gone. As an older adult I seem to be growing denser by the day, more lesson resistant. According to our parish priest, who gave a homily on this parable not long ago, my difficulty is a common one and chronic. With the passing of childhood, so goes openness and simplicity. Children might fib to each other and on occasion to adults but, unlike us, they do not lie to themselves. The key, then, to restoring spiritual childlikeness to a soul grown stony and hard, to giving it the freshness of new-turned earth, must lie within the last passage of this gospel reading, the line our priest stressed his homily. In it, Jesus defines good ground:

…“they which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it.”

Wayfaring Strangers

ozark mountain sceneby Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Orthodox coming to our church from another country are often surprised at the number of converts and seem shocked that Americans, especially Ozarkians, can show such zeal for traditional worship. “You drive so far, and seem happy about it,” a woman from Moscow once remarked. She had just moved with her husband and daughter to Branson. “It’s very hard to be an Orthodox Christian in America,” she said. “Here it takes effort to go to church. In Russia it’s easy. There’s one on every corner.”

I remember thinking that none of us was exactly happy to travel so far, especially when we also had churches on every corner—our family passed up a veritable buffet of them every Sunday morning to get to Unexpected Joy—but I also knew what she meant. We live in the Missouri Ozarks region, the buckle on the Bible Belt. Our joy at having an Orthodox church within a two hour drive must have been to her a thing almost tangible. And it must have seemed very odd too, so deep in the Ozarks, to find a wooden Russian-style church topped by onion domes and filled with American converts lighting candles and fervently crossing themselves.

Although I spent my childhood in Western Pennsylvania, I’m an Okie, born into a family of Christians of various evangelical flavors, a fair portion of whom are now Orthodox. But the Ozarks have been home for a very long time. And the sight of a man born and raised in these hills serving like an angel at the holy altar can still move me to tears.

I am moved because Ozarkians are by nature shrewd, independent, self-reliant and cautious, characteristics that should make it almost impossible to desire the mystery that is Orthodoxy. Almost. Each of those traits also allowed Ozark people to endure poverty and hardship and together form the rocky, top layer of a deeper, richer character. No matter how young, within the chest of any Ozarks native beats an old, longing heart. To the ear of such a heart, Orthodox worship can strike a familiar chord.

Ozarkians, like all humans, yearn for paradise. Naturally, heaven is the soul’s true home. We are all strangers and pilgrims. But while modern music tries to numb the pain of that knowledge, to distract us from our homesickness, traditional American folk music—the music of the Ozark Mountains—did the opposite.

I know dark clouds will gather ’round me
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet beauteous fields lie out before me
Where God’s redeemed, their vigils keep.

For the people of this region, lush green hills hid a hardscrabble life and an often bleak future. Death was real and close at hand. Heaven was realer, and the hope of life.

I’m gonna tell God all my troubles
When I get home.
I’m gonna tell him
the road was rocky
When I get home.

Hardship and struggle fosters deep faith. And deep faith, like death, is a great leveler, equating kings with beggars. Cosmopolitans with hillbillies. Sometime around 987 AD a Kievan emperor’s emissaries entered Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople to observe Christian worship. More than a thousand years later a handful of curious Ozarkians happened into a tiny Orthodox church in rural Missouri.

All found heaven.

Feather Chase

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

On a rain-soaked day, not long ago,
I sat at the table in my kitchen,
tired of myself and tired of the world,
and read cover to cover
a book I’’d borrowed from the library.

I devoured it, really,
that book.
The collected sayings of saints.
Pearls abbas and ammas of the African desert
had strung in ancient times.
Those men and women who—
all skin and bones and dry as dust—
exchanged the world in return for their souls.

It was the sort of book to change your life.

Next morning I woke up alive.
(I had not been for a while.)

Weightless I rose, like an angel, from my bed.
Joy is an ether, I decided.
For while I slept the marrow had left my bones
and finding them hollow,
this sweet, buoyant substance had replaced it.

Back in the kitchen I gazed at the book
and wondered if by simply reading about detachment
I had somehow attained it.
Next I wondered how best to live (no deserts here)
in this new, enlightened state.

The day was sunny, if cool.
And because wooded land makes a fine venue
for any serious consideration,
I went for a walk.

Not five yards from the house I spied
a tiny feather lying on the ground,
the iridescent jetsam of an indigo bunting.

The feather crooked a blue finger and beckoned.
But when I bent to grasp it danced away
on a willy-nilly path determined by the breeze.

I followed, of course,
in a fever now to claim it.

A Death in the Family

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

My husband wants to know if I’m going to church. No, I say. It’s too soon. (Exactly four hours and 23 minutes short of 48.) I’ll just stand there and cry. He stops shaving and looks at me. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, I hope. I’ve soaked a handful of  tissues and we’re just singing the beatitudes. They are. I’m sobbing. Blessed are those who mourn. An audible, involuntary groan escaping the depths of my belly and inward parts. My godmother peers over her service book at me. A little brown bird in a silken sari. Exotic and warm. Stretching out a blue-feathered wing, she touches my shoulder. For they shall be comforted. A surrogate mother. I have a treasure trove of them here. In bone and flesh—my soul-sisters and brothers—and in spirit—the saints and martyrs alive in gold and wood and paint. Even my priest is a kind of mother, his faith in me beyond my ken. Through a veil of tears I watch him pray, his arms raised to heaven. Lightning rods for the Holy Spirit. I shift my gaze to wall on his left and catch sight of God’s mother. She holds to her breast the slack, lifeless body of her son. Do not lament me O Mother. But she does lament. She is weeping. A sword pierces my heart.