Putting the Pieces Together

Piecing a quilt is easier when a pattern is the starting point.

I know. That’s a no-brainer, but every so often I try something without fully considering the ramifications, and making Sara’s new quilt falls into that category.

I realized she needed one when I visited last summer while she was expecting my grandgirls. The one I made when she started college, which has since traveled around the world with her, was more than a little frayed. The threadbare fabric was starting to split. I embroidered hearts over many of the small tears, but the more I patched, the more tears I found.

Before beginning the new quilt, I decided I wanted it to match the ones I made for Paige and Avery. My mom used to dress us in matching mother-daughter outfits. (I have the pictures to prove this.) I occasionally made matching outfits for Sara and me when she was small. I could not imagine my fashionista dressing to match her girls, but I could imagine her appreciating that private symbol of their bond.

I also decided, before beginning, that I wanted the quilt to have a hearts and butterfly theme. As my girls could tell you, those symbolize one of the guiding principles of my parenting style – roots and wings.

I believe parents give their children roots when they provide stability and love them unconditionally. I believe we give our children wings when we cultivate self-confidence so they can pursue their dreams. That is what I wanted for my girls – roots and wings. No matter where their dreams carried them, I wanted them to go boldly, knowing they went with my blessing and love.

I did not think it would be difficult to find a quilt pattern incorporating hearts and butterflies. Both are popular. I was wrong. I spent hours looking through magazines and searching the Internet. Yes, I could find butterfly patterns. Yes, I could find heart patterns. No, I could not find a single pattern that incorporated both.

Sometimes I can be stubborn. (Don’t tell anyone, OK?) I was not going to give up simply because I didn’t have a pattern. I decided to design one myself.

I’d adapted patterns before and seen others do it as well. I was sure I could blend elements from heart and butterfly patterns I liked. I pulled out some grid paper and went to work. After several (dozen) tries, I came up with a design I found visually appealing and developed a pattern from it.

Unfortunately, after making the blocks, I discovered they didn’t go together quite as I had imagined. Instead of a visually striking medley of butterflies and hearts, I had — well, a bland mess. I decided to put it away for a while. Sometimes I can be overly critical of my own work. On those occasions, I need to allow time to separate my expectations from the finished product.

That approach didn’t work this time. When I pulled the quilt top out of the trunk after three months, it still looked like a bland mess, so I decided to take it apart. Once I’d separated the blocks, I started playing with them. What would happen if I did this? What would happen if I did that? Eventually, I realized I just needed to incorporate some jewel-toned strips.

Such a small change, but what a difference! It doesn’t even look like the same quilt!

Life is like that sometimes. It’s just not working. Parts of it are OK, but as a whole, it leaves us feeling dissatisfied.

When I was young, I used to think that inchoate feeling of restlessness required a dramatic change of some sort. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate what small changes can do.

Several years ago, I stopped drinking caffeinated beverages after noon. As a result, I started sleeping better. Once I was sleeping better, it was easier for me to get up in the morning. When I didn’t have to rush around before work, I was less stressed starting my day, which in turn affected my attitude.

Small change, big difference. Other small changes have had similarly dramatic results. The tough part is figuring out what small change is needed. However, it is possible with a little trial and error, and with a little patience. At least, that’s been my experience.

A Matter of Perspective

I admit it. My mind was wandering during Mass this morning, and I barely heard the homily.

I experienced another of those kaleidoscopic shifts that occurs from time to time when I read or hear the Word of God, and my thoughts were captured by what I had never seen before. (Sorry, Father, I’m sure your homily was excellent.)

For those who aren’t Catholic, or who are Catholic but didn’t attend Mass or reflect on the readings privately, today’s gospel reading was one of the parables in Matthew’s gospel, the one in which the landowner hires workers throughout the day and gives them all the same wage (Matt. 20:1-16). Like many folks, I’ve spent most of my life putting myself in the place of those all-day workers and thinking, “That’s not fair.”

This morning, though, as I heard the gospel, I was in the marketplace with the workers. I saw the hardiest chosen first to work in the vineyard, and saw the man weakened by hunger because he’d not been chosen for three successive days overlooked. I saw the man who had been up all night with a sick child and his distraught wife catching a nap and being overlooked. I saw the man hobbling on a crutch because he’d been injured the previous day lose hope when he was not chosen either.

And I saw, over the course of the day, each one being given an opportunity. I saw the gratitude with which the workers hired late in the day received their wages, and I saw the arrogance – yes, arrogance – of the workers chosen in the morning. They didn’t need anyone to help them. They were able to take care of themselves.

Obviously, there’s the spiritual lesson regarding our dependence upon God, because most of us – in one way or another – really are like workers hired later in the day. We all need a little help in some area of our life.

But, what struck me this morning is how at odds this parable is with our society. I suppose I was especially sensitive to that since I had a conversation last week with a man whose attitude toward the poor is quite different than mine. We especially disagreed about credit card companies that prey on the poor.

I think those who prey on the poor should be shot – metaphorically, of course. I can remember when my girls were growing up and my income was limited – even though I was working two jobs because I couldn’t get a better paying position in the field for which my college education supposedly prepared me. I had one of those high interest cards for emergencies, because I didn’t qualify for one with better terms. Car repairs would cost two or three times what the repair shop charged by the time I had paid off the bill. Buying groceries was all-too-often an emergency expense in the winter when I had high fuel bills.

It was a miserable existence, but I survived. We do. Something in the human spirit is resilient.

The individual I spoke with imagined the poor racking up credit card bills buying useless things like jewelry they’d never wear. He thought they deserved to pay high interest rates if they didn’t have more sense than that. I have to wonder if he knew someone like that, or if he just liked that image because it absolved predators of their accountability.

I didn’t ask. I could tell we were both entrenched in our positions. Because there was nothing to be gained by prolonging the conversation, I changed topics.

While this conversation appears to have nothing in common with the parable, my mind made an intuitive connection. The hardy, all-day worker had advantages the other workers did not have – not because he was inherently better than the others. He simply did not find  himself handicapped as they had been by circumstances in their lives.

In the same way, some are attuned to money – the way it works in our society, what it means – in ways others are not. If the parable were a reflection of our world, those with that aptitude would not collect more at the end of day. They would collect a fair wage, but so would other workers. However, the parable does not reflect our world.

We live in an age when money talks even more loudly than it has in the past, and all too often it says, “I want more.” Like the all-day worker in the parable, it sees it’s own worth but not the value of others.

I can understand. I’ve read that gospel and heard that gospel dozens of times. Each time, I’ve put myself in the shoes of the all-day worker who felt cheated because others, who obviously didn’t work as hard or do as much, earned the same wage he did. But today, seeing the others with the eyes of compassion, I can see not only the generosity of the landowner but the fundamental need each of us shares to appreciate what others bring to the human family.

Obviously, I can’t change the way our society functions, but I can say this: To the extent that we belittle others, their lives and the choices they make, in order to justify our own actions and our own decisions, we diminish ourselves. Our hearts grow smaller, our worldview becomes narrower, and the light we could bring into the world grows dimmer.

Only when we are compassionate in dealing with others, when we see and appreciate their inherent worth, will we experience the fullness of life that cannot be achieved by accumulating more money.

It Just Takes One

I haven’t made eye contact with anyone on the street this week.

Usually, when I walk to and from work, I smile at folks and greet them. But, it’s Rally week in the Hills, and that’s just not felt safe to me.

I keep hearing that bikers who come to Custer are professional people and are not the rowdy rabble that congregate in Sturgis. That may be true. However, having noticed all the tattoos and hair pulled back in ponytails, I’ve been having a hard time imagining these folks as doctors, attorneys and business owners in their non-Rally lives.

People also keep telling me how friendly bikers are. I suppose if I had the guts to make eye contact and engage a few of these folks in conversation, I would find that to be true. I know some awesome people who are bikers.

The gal who helped me move to Custer is a biker. A retired couple in Lake Preston who have an active ministry through the Christian Motorcyclists Association are – obviously – bikers. My all-time favorite Elvis impersonator is a biker. I know for a fact that at least three of those four have attended the Rally in past years, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover the fourth has as well.

I love these people, so why do I assume the people arriving en masse are any different? Obviously, walking to or from work in the rain – and it rained the first three days of Rally week – because there’s no downtown parking didn’t set the stage for a positive attitude. Too, the sheer racket of bikes and screeching guitars (sorry folks, but I don’t consider that music) which seems to be the sound track for the event have given me a never-ending headache.

However, a close encounter of the negative kind before the Rally even started sparked the fear that has influenced my behavior this week. Unfortunately, it just takes one experience to plant the seeds which shape a person’s attitude and behavior, and I am as human as the next person in this regard.

For those who have never visited Custer, the main intersection in this town of 1,800 people is at the junction of Fifth Street North and Mount Rushmore Road. That’s also the point at which U.S. Highway 16, coming into Custer from the north makes an abrupt right and heads west into Wyoming. A left turn takes folks through town and out to Custer State Park.

It’s virtually impossible to pass through Custer without going through this intersection, which means it tends to be busy. However, crossing Mount Rushmore Road usually doesn’t bother me. I stand at the corner until the pedestrian light says “walk,” and I cross the street in the designated crosswalk. I don’t dawdle, but I also don’t race across because in South Dakota, pedestrians have the right-0f-way.

Last week, a couple bikers decided their desire to make a left turn took precedence over my legal right to cross the street on a green light. One raced in front of me before I could react to the shock of realizing he wasn’t going to yield as required by law, coming so close I felt a draft and the heat of the bike. When I halted in reaction, the second raced behind me, yelling something nasty.

I continued through the crosswalk and up the hill to my apartment. My heart was racing the entire time. By the time I had mounted the stairs to my apartment, I wanted one thing only – to stay there until the Rally was over. I wasn’t injured, but I kept thinking, “Next time I might not be as lucky.”

Next time I might not be as lucky.

And, that’s why I have been on guard all week. I have no way of knowing which of the bikers are like my friends and which are like the reckless drivers who threatened my safety for the fun of it. I’ve been around long enough to know you don’t judge a book by its cover – or a person by his or her appearance. Both my daughter and my son-in-law sport tattoos, and some of my dearest friends who are artists have long hair.

So, rather than put my safety at risk, I’ve just been trying to keep a low profile. Have I missed the fun this week had to offer? Probably, but I’d rather be safe than sorry – which only goes to prove the old adage, “it just takes one.”

Life and death

I don’t know if the practice of keeping a journal leads to the habit of mulling things over, or if a penchant for mulling things over leads to keeping a journal. Either way, I have a tendency to do both.

For the last few days, a juxtaposition of stories on the front page of Friday’s Rapid City Journal has been occupying my thoughts. Across four columns, with two stunning pictures, was a story about the ordination of the Most Rev. Robert Gruss, Bishop of Rapid City. In the remaining column with a thumbnail photo and a smaller headline was an update on the sentencing trial of Briley Piper.

Had I not been Catholic, I might not have paid much attention to the story about the ordination or noticed the juxtaposition. Being Catholic, I was moved by both. Life and death lay side by side, challenging me to choose.

For me, this was especially true because I was struck by something Bishop Gruss said in his remarks following his ordination, but prior to the final blessing which would end Mass. He quoted Pedro Arrupe, who died in 1991 but had served as superior general of the Jesuits, saying, “What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Arrupe, of course, was speaking of falling in love with God, but I strongly suspect the same is true regardless of whom we love or what we love. We begin to be shaped by that love. I know this has been true for me. The love I have for my children has shaped me. The love I have for my friends has shaped me. The love I have for my faith has shaped me.

And therein lies the crux of this reflection. Although detours through evangelical Christianity and Zen Buddhism have given me tools which have deepened my faith as Catholic, the sacramental life of the Church and her teachings have shaped me – and continue to shape me.

As a result, I have a deep awareness of the dignity of every human being. That’s a theme which runs through the Church’s teachings, and has for a number of years been revealing its implications in all areas of my life. Friday’s paper challenged me to consider again where I stand on the death penalty.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, our all-purpose reference book, states, “the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way to effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (CCC 2267).  However, it goes on to say, “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime. . . the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’ (CCC 2267).

What about a case as horrendous as the one under consideration last week?

I put myself in Dottie Poage’s shoes and wonder how she can get through a day – or night – knowing how her son died. Compassion compels me to stand in solidarity with her grief, especially in light of the suffering her son endured during his final hours on earth. She must have imagined his mental anguish and his physical pain dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the past decade, and felt as though she were being eaten alive.

I cannot ignore that suffering, and I cannot imagine how anyone can abandon human decency to treat another with the abominable cruelty Briley Piper, Elijah Page and Darrell Hoadley showed Chester Allan Poage. Considering those factors, only one position would be appropriate, to support Dottie Poage in her desire to see her son’s killer die.

However, I find myself wondering if that will bring healing into her life. And I find myself reflecting upon the times in my life when I have been injured by injustice. On those occasions when I have nurtured a desire for vengeance, the wound festered, grew and consumed me. When I have sought to forgive, even if it took years, the wound healed, sometimes leaving scars, but freeing me nevertheless to move on.

I won’t presume to know what is best for Dottie Poage or challenge the way in which she is channeling her grief. The death of a child is an almost unimaginable burden for a parent to bear, and the circumstances of this one must make it worse.

However, after mulling this over, taking into consideration not only the circumstances of this case but also what the Church teaches regarding the dignity of human life, I do find myself wondering whether South Dakota should even have the death penalty on the books. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And, where does that get us?

Maybe we need to promote a culture of life and healing instead. Maybe it’s time to change the law. It is, I think, an idea at least worth considering.