29 January 2014

To a Superb Langauge Arts Teacher

Dear Mrs. Becker,

I kind of feel like time is running out. When I was in your class all those years ago in elementary school, I promised that if I ever wrote a book, I would dedicate it to you. I'm within striking distance. It might be a few more years, but it's going to happen, and it's going to be the first of a lovely career, and even though there are so many others who have helped and loved me along the way, it would be right for your name to have the epigraph page all to itself.

I love words. I can't say I wasn't predisposed toward them even before I arrived in your classroom with the dusty computers and light from the previous decade, but I found the vocabulary tests thrilling. They showed how big the world must be, for there must be a thousand ways to use each of them. If there were so many words in the world, there must be such wonderful nooks and crannies from whence they came. Discovering them depended on these words.

You taught us mythology and Shakespeare. O, raptures, to trace such beloved storylines back to a fond time in one's youth, from whence it is easy to remember and love things; remember that you love them. I can see in my mind the dot-matrix printed title page to the mythology packet you prepared for us: "It all started with a beauty contest." I would not realize for many years the impact of this great golden apple on the whole of Western Civilization, including my own life, but there you were, feeding it to us in delicious slices.

Under your tutelage, we lived in stories and explored relationships with peers by acting in plays. We became grammarians, beholden to the division of meaning given us at Babel. We read important books; I still regret faking my way through A Tale of Two Cities in sixth grade and still wish I really had really read all of it. You used to say, "Tough potatoes, tough bananas, tough whatever-you-like," and we knew it was a good lesson that we should learn. And of course, you encouraged our writing.

One day in particular, though, a day I felt low and ridden with the angst of pre-teen self-loathing, I sat by a window doing my homework and not paying attention to passers-by. Later in the day my father repeated to me an exchange he'd had with you: you told him you had walked by and seen me, a student you had known for years, but had not recognized me at that particular angle, or maybe a curtain of hair hid my face. You'd asked yourself who that beautiful young woman was, and then you saw that it was me.

You did that for your students. You saw us and knew us to be beautiful. What you taught us was real and we knew, because you trusted us with that which was real and beautiful in the world, that we, too, must be real. We mattered. We would change and then you would see us again.

I remember thinking, as a child, that you must be old. Forgive me. Maybe all children think this way about their teachers. Children have no idea of the pace time uses as life stretches on. I don't know how old you are now, or where you live, or how to find you, and I worry that I never will find you or just miss you when this thing goes to print, so I want to write it now.

To Irene Becker, who first made this real.

Is that schmaltzy enough for you? Too much? Good. I don't care. Anyway, I might change my mind on the exact copy some time between now and when the manuscript is finished, which is plenty of time to consider the perfect phrasing of one atomic sentence (or is it?). I wanted to "get something down on paper"* as you so often exhorted us to do. I've finally learned my lesson on that one. I wish I could take all your classes over again or somehow relive those afternoon hours in that weird old brick building. Thank you for encouraging children. Thank you for loving us in your tough way. Thank you for loving important things in a way that we could love them too.


*Funny, considering the medium, and what I am dearly trying to do is to get something down on paper.

20 May 2011

Is It Legitimate to Wring Ones Hands About the Uses of Technology on the Internet?

Dear Denomination-Specific Christian Publishing House From Which My Church Body Obtains a Majority of its Materials,

I received an email inviting me to participate in an online market research survey about products and services available via the Internet and for smartphones and/or e-readers. I hesitated to take the survey because I know myself as a consumer. I am conservative in many things, including but not limited to consumering, theology, and technology. I figured the questions you would ask me wouldn't really apply to me.

I took the survey anyway, mostly because by taking it I was promised a chance to win a Kindle, which I would kind of like to have, despite my conservatism, for two peculiar purposes (which, in my opinion, make me different from the target market of e-readers). First, I spend a good deal of the day nursing an infant who will not tolerate my reading a book while I am feeding him. In fact, he tolerates very little, other than my quietly sitting while he takes his meal, and I think that the passivity of propping and occasionally touching an e-reader next to me on the couch would not disturb this baby's sacred requirement for tranquility. Secondly, I want to read the thirteen volumes of Anton Chekhov's short stories translated by Constance Garnett, which are available at bargain-basement prices as ebooks, and I don't want stare at my computer screen to read these stories.

To my justifiable dismay, I discovered a survey that takes for granted my unmitigated approval of almost any use of technology in the life of the church, asking me to evaluate products and services based upon potential usefulness to my church's ministry and perhaps, because my denomination tends to get persnickety, upon the theology of the content. I say justifiable because, if you don't know it by now, you're the closest thing to the Magisterium the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (there I said it) has. Professors at the seminaries can write all the journal articles or CTCR (Commission on Theology and Church Relations) documents they want to, but the average Lutheran layperson will study the Bible in a format that you have developed and published; the average laychild will memorize the scripture that you have chosen and the VBS songs and characters that you have created; the organist will play and the congregation will sing hymns that you have chosen and compiled. Due to your thorough service of our church body, there isn't a single facet of church life you haven't touched. Certainly, a pastor, teacher or musician may cull media from other sources, but only this publishing house prepares materials with a uniquely Lutheran perspective, and we wouldn't be Lutheran if we didn't value of a uniquely Lutheran perspective.

Now, last I checked the Confessions, there's very little about the use of digital technology, or indeed any technology. If anything, we Lutherans should embrace the advantages afforded to us by "technology", seeing as we are the direct and possibly most famous beneficiaries of the printing press. Just as the descendants of the Puritan Pilgrims to North America thank the Native Americans for saving their cold heinies that first winter by fertilizing corn with fish carcasses, we thank Mr. Gutenberg for his felicitous invention and give it credit as the vehicle by which the Reformation was driven. If it weren't for the printing press, one might posit, Martin Luther might have remained an obscure but dissatisfied Catholic monk in Germany, and if he was excommunicated, he couldn't have made any difference and his only legacy would be that of a defeated heretic. And so we bless the printing press and the god of technology who situated it thus in history.

If I may, I wish to apply Luther's famous question, "What does this mean?" to some of your digital products and services, both present and pending. For example, let us pretend that my pastor elects to train ushers and other volunteers with an online tutorial that you might offer. What does this mean? It might mean that the pastor thinks he has better things to do than to gather with the hands and feet that will serve his congregation during divine worship. It probably means that any union these individuals might have felt as a group is greatly diminished. It definitely means that any habit of meeting together, as is our habit in training volunteers, is utterly neglected. Take it from a mother of two very young, and because of their youth, mysterious boys: more than know-how, people need people. I need my internet connection a lot less than I need the support my own mother and the wisdom of her experience. My children appear to thrive without a single digital device but even an orphan in possession of a Nintendo DS is pitiable for a good reason.

The online usher tutorial was reason enough for dismay. How interested, the survey continued, would I be in using an online elder tutorial? An online tutorial for evangelism and outreach? Only if it covers preaching to, and possibly converting, the Internet trolls (unless they're pastors hotly commenting on theology blogs).

And maybe I would be interested in online learning courses for dayschools, laypersons, high schools and seminaries if I were only a brain with eyes and fingertips. But I'm not, and neither is anybody else. The curriculum is more than just the pixelated word on the screen or ink on the page. What I do with my body teaches me, ultimately, to discern between good and bad, right and wrong. If I use my body to stare at a screen and interact with others anonymously through a depersonalizing interface, and if I learn that this kind of socialization is okay, I become one kind of person. If I use my body to find my way to a classroom, greet fellow students, raise my hand and make eye contact when I ask a question, I become another kind of person.

More and more, the curriculum of culture is forming, whether we realize it or not, the former kind of person as it opens its arms to technological advancement, which amounts to a gospel of convenience and a Babelesque story of humans-conquer-time-and-space. Even though we know the old story, we humans still don't seem to be able to consider the drawbacks and the costs of any new technology until after we have let it run rampant all over this frustrated creation. You can argue the good side of the Industrial Revolution, the assembly line, the combustion engine. But you do have to argue.

Your survey asks about Bible apps, Sunday School apps, and children's book apps, some of which I can only assume are to be used by children. Boy, does that open up a can of worms. Seems like somewhere along the way we forgot what makes an appropriate plaything or learning tool for a child. I might have to write you a whole separate letter on behalf of Lutheran children everywhere, the most malleable in the Body of Christ. I'm trying to teach my own to worship with their bodies, and I don't really want to confuse things with a smartphone that shows them pictures of Jesus.

Finally, I don't know what "online 'on-demand' confirmation" is, but I don't seem to be able to put a good construction on it.

I understand you have a business to run and so you seek to provide goods and services to meet the needs and wishes of your customers in a time of budding possibilities, so I do not ask that you abandon the use of digital technologies. After all, I'm not using papyrus here myself. I do ask that you count the costs. Whenever possible, members of Christ's body should gather together in person. Digital technology that makes fellowship old-fashioned is not a good idea. If we're going to love our neighbors, love in deed and in truth rather than word and talk, and offer our bodies as living sacrifices (I think I heard about that somewhere), we have to know our neighbors and use our bodies. If we believe that the Gospel Of Jesus Christ is formative to the whole human person, we had better act that way. There is a theology in the medium, even when the materials themselves are "theologically correct". Our church body looks to you to be discerning about these things. Thank you.

Anne Tinetti

19 May 2011

To a Lost Pen Pal

Dear Beth Rockney,

I'm trying to remember the particulars of how we met and became friends, because I think these two events were separated by at least a year during which we did not see each other at all.

At an age when I did not yet appreciate a writing friend, I signed up for a writing activity during summer camp. To the best of my memory, the counselor in charge of this enterprise told us to go sit in the forest and write something. He or she may or may not have suggested sitting quietly and waiting for the setting to inspire. All the campers went and found a rock or stump to sit on. I don't recall what I wrote and I vaguely remember swatting insects during the process. At some point I made your acquaintance and observed that you had a suitable sense of humor; we could be friends. But you lived at base camp and I lived at outpost and our only other shared activity was the campfire where it was too dark to find anyone you knew. Let's face it, we were looking for boys anyway.

We both ended up at L--- High School, and what was the name of that ridiculous play? A Midsummer Night's Scream. The closest I come to describing it is an episode of Scooby-Doo written for the stage and (gratuitously?) incorporating Shakespeare. Yet somehow this experience sealed our friendship, and when I moved to California before my sophomore year, we entertained each other with long letters and multiple postscripts.

This correspondence was a highlight in a sad time for me. My mother put up with my endless rendition of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" played in a living room with no other furniture but packed cardboard boxes. I remember describing to you the awful carpet of this, our rented house, along with a litany of other things I was unhappy about, I'm sure. Then, at some point, we didn't have as much in common anymore and our exchange slackened.

I've reached a point where I appreciate a writing friend. If we get the chance, it would be nice to exchange letters.

17 May 2011

To (My?) Mourning Family

To the Family of Frederick R. Suriman (May He Rest in Peace),

A few weeks ago I learned of Fred's death. I am very sorry for your loss. I never knew Fred and he never knew me. However, I was a little surprised to find nothing of my husband and children in his obituary, and I was quite surprised to see no record of my mother-in-law, and her mother. Had Fred made different choices, we would have been the ones mourning now.

Fred had another family before those listed as surviving him. His first marriage was to Ida Crane and they had a daughter, Martha. He abandoned this family when Martha was yet an infant. I married Brian, the elder of Martha's two sons (the younger is Scott). Martha kept her maiden name so that Fred might have a way of finding her if he ever wished to. He didn't, but the story goes that he owned a restaurant in Kalamazoo, and Martha's husband Tom visited a time or two to make himself known, and Martha, by proxy. Nothing ever came of it.

The reason I write is to make some connection between the past and the future, especially for the sake of my children. I don't hold any of you responsible for the decisions that Fred made, but I do mourn the rift in the life of this family. You see, when I saw the picture accompanying Fred's obituary, I saw the face of my seven-month-old son Arthur: eyes, cheeks, chin and mouth. I know that with Fred, clues to my children's identity passed away. While they will never meet him, I want them to be able to climb their family tree. My sons' names are Max and Arthur, two years and seven months, respectively. I ask on their behalf, and on behalf of our children yet to be born, simply for a willingness to tell stories about Fred and his life, should the children ever pursue it.

Again, my deepest condolences for your loss during this time of grieving.
Elena Tinnon

16 May 2011

To a Highschool Hero

Dear Molly Erwin,

I thought of you yesterday when I was looking in my rearview mirror to put on lipstick, because I noticed that there was a little bit of lipstick that had found it's way onto a tooth, requiring the delicate business of reaching in past the painted lips and removing it. I had to make a funny sort of buck-toothed bunny face. "This wouldn't have happened," I thought, "if I'd done Molly's no-lipstick on the teeth trick." You know what I'm talking about. The trick where you put your finger in your mouth and drag it out, taking any errant smudges with it. It's not for polite company yet somehow it never seemed anything but ladylike when you would touch up before Mr. DeGrandmont's 3rd period chemistry class.

When I met you, though we were only a year apart, you were an upperclassman and I was a lowerclassman. At such an impressionable time, it is possible to become someone's hero with only a year of life to put you ahead. I loved your smart dark brown bob and your powdery pink skin and your wine colored lipstick. I loved how you wore neck scarves and handmade clothing and didn't give a hoot what people thought of you in a black-and-white highschool (and town) made up of the popular people and the losers. I didn't know you to be cynical about it, though. I knew you to be a comedienne; the kind of person who is only half serious (or exactly half-serious) about applying wine-colored lipstick before Mr. DeGrandmont's 3rd period chemistry class. I also knew you to be kind.

It had been a long time between the last time I thought of you and putting on lipstick in the car yesterday. I bet you're doing pretty good; I bet you're a happy person. I think it would be interesting to see what your house looks like, find out if you are married, have children. I also bet you have made beautiful things and have friends who love you a lot.

Your friend,

19 October 2010

The Woodcutter

A trip to the cabin required an accounting of many things. I was a child, though, and all I had to think about was to bring the clothes that I didn't mind getting dirty. I'd brought the ones that couldn't get dirty before because I was a little girl. Then, in the forest, some bacchanalian impulse would always whisper to me, and the clothes would never be the same when we came home, even after the laundry. So I would bring the pants with the patched knee and the worn sweatshirts and last year's shoes. A flashlight, a book, and maybe a toy. Certainly not my new and most favorite toys, and no toys with pastel fabric or moving parts which could become gummed with sap or dirt or pine needles.

I never wanted for lack of something to do at the cabin, though, or at least I don't remember. There was pretending to be done between all those trees, and we would be gone from there for such long stretches that when we visited again, the pretend magic would have all grown back, and the pretending would have to be done all over again. Pretend stew made from a fallen, rotting tree, pretend sweeping with a twig broom, pretend living in a secret fort in the woods. These were all my thoughts; nothing more weighed on me.

But as I say, there was much more that needed provision, because there were neither running water nor electricity at the cabin. My mother prepared all the meals beforehand, or planned them, and managed to fit every perishable necessity into an ice chest or maybe two. There would be water to fetch right after unloading the station wagon. Mom would remain in the cabin to arrange things and Dad would take my brother and me to the spring to fill our dozen empty plastic gallon jugs. I would undo the lid and place the jug within reach of Dad and my brother at the spigot. Some of them still smelled like milk, the way it smells after sitting out for a just a while. A little sweet. We would make repeat trips throughout the week as we emptied batches of jugs.

Most important, however, was the tidy economy stacked beneath the raised foundation of the cabin. Aside from filling up the kindling boxes, I never had to bother with it. Even in my teenage years, I was never asked to split logs. The times I had asked Dad to try it ended in splinters.

But the woodcutter could do it. He adopted a rhythm. Pick up the log, put it on the block. Swing once to stick the axehead, swing again to split it. My dad could do this for an hour or more, taking breaks to arrange the split logs under the cabin. I could see it was hard work, but I had to wonder if he didn't enjoy the skill of lodging the axe right in the center of the circle, the stroke describing the diameter of the tree. My mind's eye places meat the perimeter of split-log-flight-distance watching each stroke to see how near the middle it would come.

Once I took a photograph of my brother cutting wood. He was a college student and he had taken off his shirt. His lean body gave a faint shine of perspiration and his shaggy hair was a little damp.The photograph catches his axe in the air, above his head, and his face clenched.

13 September 2010

Cramped Quarters

Day 281

Dear Diary,
Sometimes the walls in here change a little. Everything gets hard and tense. It's been happening for awhile. But lately, at those times, I like to push my head down into the small space just below me. It's snug and close and my head just fits. When it happens again and again, the big movements stop. My whole vessel becomes very still.

This happened last week, again and again. At first it was very tight each time. The vessel became still as it repeated. Then, slowly, it wasn't so tight any more. At first it almost seemed like the walls were trying to push me out. I guess the only place for me to go would be down, but I don't understand how. The snug place below me doesn't seem to go anywhere. Everything is still dark, anyway. I liked the feeling of the walls, though, even though I don't know where I would go.

Anyway the walls pushed like that for awhile and then they just stopped. I wonder what would happen if they would keep going.

Sometimes, when I kick my feet or move my arms, I start to feel what it would be like to straighten them out. I think I might like to try that. But there's not very much room in here; it seems to get smaller all the time. I have to nudge everything around in order to get anywhere.

Still hearing the same noises. Whoosh, and a high song, and a low song, and a bouncy song.
I always hear the whoosh, but sometimes I stop paying attention to it. I notice that sometimes the songs all sing, and sometimes only one or two of the songs, and sometimes none of the songs. Sometimes I hear songs that don't sound like the main ones. I like the high and the low and the bouncy songs the best.

That's all for now.