THE CHRISTMAS PAGEANT: salvation revisited

Perhaps I was 10, certainly no older, and I longed to be saved. I wanted Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, the entire trinity, to inhabit me – not Mary, that was the Catholics’ thing – and lift me out of Iowa’s “Lord God Almighty, the flatness does go on, doesn’t it?” landscape. I wanted to soar, to be chosen. I wanted my cells burst and my mind split in two “… or more gathered in His name.” I was ready to give my all but I needed help. I needed proof. I needed evidence.

I had been asking God to show Himself to me since before I could write anything much beyond my name. Well, I could write my own name and my brother’s name, and I knew that God was spelled “G O D.” My few words were all in caps because that’s all I knew. I was four years old.

I put a paper and a Funk’s G Hybrid pencil – my father sold their seed corn – on my night stand each night and asked God to write “G O D” on it. After a year or so, I asked Him to just make a mark on the paper. I was older now and understood He couldn’t let others know He played favorites, He couldn’t make His preference for me known, so if He could just please draw a line, or a squiggle, I would know it was Him even as He was assured I couldn’t go bragging on it to others.

By age six all I asked was that He move the pencil. I’d memorized the position. By age seven I took a break from God searching.

But the urge to be saved remained. A Bible fell open once – maybe when I was 8 or 9 – to some verse about “Oh, ye, of little faith.” It gave me a moment’s consideration, but not for very long. I didn’t need chastisement, I needed visitation.

country church, church, old church,

The West Fork Evangelical United Brethren Church in Franklin County, Iowa was 2 1/2 miles from our farm. It was wooden, white, had a steeple of sorts, a bell rung by a long rope that hung in the entry. You entered by walking up concrete steps – or a side door if you were going down to the Sunday school classes in the basement.

I would be delivered to Sunday school and picked up afterwards by my mother, though sometimes she and I stayed for Sunday services. By the time I was 13, I played the church piano for most services, and later the organ when we got a Wurlitzer. Or my brother played the piano and I played the flute. Or I played the piano or organ and my brother sang. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My father only went to church on Christmas Eve, possibly Easter, as I remember it. We did, though, have a painting of Jesus at the last supper painted on a polished slice of wood (the bark still on it) hanging in the dining room. We never prayed, and never discussed religion.

It was I who secretly longed. Or if anyone else longed, it was an even better kept secret since no one in our house talked with anyone else.

In principle, I wasn’t asking specifically to be saved on Christmas Eve. It was such a beautiful night just as it was. Every year the men would bring in a tree so high it almost touched the ceiling. Underneath were mounds of presents, and apples and oranges and walnuts for everyone. We sang Christmas carols, lights shaped like candles were in each window, and the youngest children were angels, and shepherds, and wise men, and Joseph and Mary.

The year I was saved, I was too old for costumes. I had been given a poem to recite, a rather long one as I remember.

To prepare for this Hallmark night – it always snowed – I took a bath, rubbed my body with Lanolin Plus (a yellow viscous lotion), put on my best dress, and a pair of black Mary Jane shoes.

The moment of salvation was after my poem, about an hour into the program. I was in the third row of pews. Smaller children fidgeted around me.

Salvation crept in, tickled itself into my awareness, and grew into a crescendo of waves. My life was being transformed right then, right there! I was immobile, awe-struck. The Holy Ghost had scanned that church from somewhere near the top of that tree and selected me. God knew, I had been waiting.

My visitation lasted through the rest of the pageant and songs and prayers and the handing out of fruit and nuts – which I declined to do, feeling this was a personal quiet thing, not to be trashed by motion. Besides we were not a church of holy rollers but of quiet Germans and a few Dutch. We did not make spectacles.

When it was time to leave, I made my way to the doors trying not to touch anyone and emerged into the night and annual Christmas Eve snow that always wafted and never blew. It was not until I was in the back seat of the Chevy, riding home in the dark, that I realized salvation was starting to itch.

I went to my room, took off my cloths, and saw hives over my entire body. I waited until everyone was through in the bathroom and went in, locked the door, and soaked in the tub, silent. My mother knocked and asked if I was okay. I said, “I just wanted to take a bath.”

Lanolin has not touched my body since then so far as I know, . . . but the Holy Spirit still lingers in the vicinity.

WHEN MOM WAS MY AGE, or who am I now?

My mother is 96 years old. She has lived in a community center, i.e. nursing home, for almost five years. We talk by phone three nights a week, and see each other on Skype most Thursday mornings. She has outlived my father by 26 years and my brother by 14. Lately she has slipped a lot, it seems.

Chit Chat cafe, Iowa

Mom and Kevin in front of the Chit Chat cafe in Thornton, Iowa, which collects Marilyn memorabilia.

My cousin, now also my adopted brother, visits her . . . well, until the past couple weeks he visited her every day and taken her out for lunch (mostly to the “Chit Chat” or “Jean’s”) every Sunday and Monday, and then taken her to her home where he has lived with her or alone for decades. My sister-in-law, my cousin-in-law, and I recently convinced him that he must take Tuesdays off for himself.

Mom and I live far from each other but I’ve heard her say thank you for “rounding out my day” probably a thousand times. (The first two years I called every day.)

When Mom was my age, she had already fallen on the wet kitchen floor, broken her hip, had a metal pin inserted, and was walking with a walker. She’d had a heart attack that was followed two days later by a cardiac arrest that was, at that time, the longest heart stoppage ever at Mercy Hospital in Mason City, Iowa, and the second longest ever at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where she was transferred. She was in and out of consciousness for more than a week. The doctors came to me three times to sign papers to let her go if she started to slip away again. I told the doctors to go away, they didn’t know my mother.

Generations of women, grandmother and granddaughter

My daughter, grand-daughter, and mother at the nursing home.

When my sister-in-law told her I was there, she didn’t recognize me but tried to take off her wedding ring. She had told me years before that it would come to me. Two weeks later she sat up in bed and started doing crossword puzzles. That was 26 years ago.

Now we talk about the weather. It is cold in Iowa, she doesn’t like it, but “we have to take what’s given us.” She played cards today, or did she? She feels good “considering.” She asks how I’m doing and says “Oh, I’m glad” to my answer. We repeat this a day or two later, or maybe again in the same phone call. We no longer talk about books she is reading, because a year ago she stopped reading books. She reads magazine articles and local news items. They are short and she doesn’t have to remember the storyline from day to day. She made the transition seamlessly and never explained, but I didn’t need an explanation.

I yawn when she talks, not out of boredom but from releasing accumulated tension. I have a mother and she is the loving gentle creature that she was not when I was young. So what if the conversations are repetitive, the sound of her voice has become a mantra I hear as “You have a mother.”

Mom and daughter, Iowa

Mom and me in what’s left of Dougherty, Iowa. We lived on a farm five miles south.

It is holiday time and I am becoming obsessed with my family, those alive and those gone. I think about who my mother and father were aside from our parent-child mismanagement. In the last months I’ve revised memory and history to make them more comfortable and intriguing. Mom has done it for years. In her, it is called senility. In me, it is called “erasing and embracing.”

I am nothing like my mother at my age. I am more alive than ever. My health reports have never been better. I feel good and look good, my mind is snapping and passions are rising. I will be snorkeling in the Galapagos in January and expect to be taking photographs and doing interviews in Afghanistan or Gaza this spring. There is nothing I really want to do that I can’t do except marry someone half my age. That’s a bit of a bummer – but marriage as a concept has lost much of its charm anyway.

And I am not alone. My life is overflowing with (usually single) women “of a certain age” who shine. We are burnished and glow. We are vintage with bouquet. We are graciousness over steel. We have the energy, talent, and often love lives of women decades younger, and we cap it off with experience, style, compassion, beauty, and humor. We laugh a lot.

Yet we haven’t all made it. Some of us are ill or gone. This closeness of loss makes each day more vital, precious, and to be savored.

1410907_10151867228101969_1526881581_o copy

My daughter at her aerial recital.

I am at the pivot point in the expanse of what I experience as my family, those gone or leaving and those emerging. Looking one way, I see a frail 100-pound woman trying to remember what she did that day. The other way, I see my daughter as a spokesperson for NASA or twirling upside-down from red ribbons at her aerial recital.

And I see a 6-year-old boy captivated by math and the size of the universe and the size of quarks, and a 4-year-old girl who stops giggling only long enough to assert her will, and who dresses herself in wondrous absurdities, and whispers, “When Mommy’s gone, let’s have dessert before dinner and not tell her.” This is my family and it extends from when my mother was born until when my grandchildren leave.

That’s what I see from my catbird seat, and I say, “Yeah, this works.” Or as my mother tells me at the end of every call, “Have a beautiful night and a beautiful tomorrow.”


Some things are perfect in themselves, require no explanations. Flower petals, for example, are not metaphors for other things, they are wholly themselves, unexplainable, irreducible. Bird song, the same.


Laces painted by Rembrandt require no explanations, they are irreducible, they are their own reality, larger somehow than what they represent. (All images in the blog can be enlarged for better viewing.)

The paint of them, the white of them, the brush strokes step outside of time and history and reference, the way feathers are timeless, the way whispers are forever, the way intrigue and make-believe and dress-up travel through time.

Rembrandt, lace


That’s sort of the way with Rembrandt, though the humanity in his self-portraits shocks you into knowing the man behind the painting, the real human of complexity who understood white and lace, especially against black.

Last Friday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC) the laces stopped me on my way to see the Vermeer paintings a few galleries further on. Surrounded by hundreds of masterpieces, the laces are stunning in their confidence of what they are.

Rembrandt, lace

Rembrandt, laceRembrandt, lace


STENDHAL SYNDROME or Florence syndrome: a psychosomatic disorder, a sort of attack, named after the 19th century French author Stendhal who was taken over by it on an 1817 visit to Florence. He wrote that when he visited the Basilica of Santa Croce he saw Giotto’s frescoes for the first time and went into “… a sort of ecstasy, … absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … where one encounters celestial sensations …. Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. I had palpitations of the heart. I walked with the fear of falling.” Named in 1979 by an Italian psychiatrist who observed more than 100 cases among visitors to Florence, the illness includes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion, and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to particularly beautiful art or a large amount of art in a single place, such as what would happen at the Uffizi.

Today it happened to me. At the Neue Galerie in NYC. With Vasily Kandinsky. Direct transfusion from the canvas to my sensory receptors. Lights popping. Knees weak. And why not? If not today, when?


VASILY KANDINSKY (1866-1944): first artist to formulate concepts of an art, and create art, of abstraction that would generate emotions without needing or using specific subject matter.

It’s mostly about the colors being “just there,” hanging out, having conversations with each other. “Black Form” can be dissected into about ten different sections, each a marvel of jewel tones nudging each other or shooting across one another. Then you put it all together and … become speechless.

Black Form (1923). Click to enlarge.

Black Form (1923)
Click to enlarge

It’s not that I suddenly discovered Kandinsky. He’s had a special file in my brain for decades. What is it about these Russians? I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov in the play “Man with a Case,” based on two Chekhov stories, at the Shakespeare Theater last week and the effect was about the same.

No, I’ve always know about Kandinsky, I’ve just never seen so many of his paintings in one place, and there are 80 separate works at the Neue Galerie at 5th Avenue and 86th Street, New York.




The mansion was completed in 1914 and lived in by industrialist William Starr Miller and later by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III before being purchased by Ronald Lauder and Serge Sabarsy in 1994 to become an art museum. The Neue is home to several famous Gustav Klimt paintings, and has a charming Viennese café specializing in savory krauts and decadent desserts. I had the Linzer Torte.

Back to Kandinsky and colors: a week ago I wrote about sensuality v. sexuality and how sensuality incorporates the entire body’s responses to touch, taste, sound, sight, and smell. His paintings enter through your sight, of course, but he was greatly influenced by his love of music, especially of Arnold Schoenberg’s compositions that broke from having a central motif and are referred to as “pantonal,” though more familiarly known as “atonal.” Also he was intrigued by the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art that combines art, music, and theater. Further, he experienced color as sound and sound as color, which had to have been a handy gift.


White Sound (1908)
Click to enlarge

SYNESTHETE: one of the very rare people, including Kandinsky and other brilliant people such as Nabokov, Liszt, and Richard Feyman, who saw colors when other senses were stimulated. (For Feyman, it was his physics equations.) For Kandinsky, he saw the colors for his paintings when hearing music. Here for your viewing, and perhaps listening, pleasure is “White Sound.” While it may take a moment to absorb the first onslaught of color, once you have, it turns into something amazing.

This overlay of art forms captivated him. Perhaps because it is how he experienced the meshing of his senses, i.e. his sensual life. He compared painting to composing music, saying “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” He called this devotion to inner beauty and intensity of spirit and spiritual desire as an “inner necessity.” His book “Concerning the Spirituality in Art” was published in 1910.

improvisation 31

Improvisation 31 (1913).
Click to enlarge.

In the largest exhibit room were several of Kandinsky’s most famous and beautiful works, including a personal favorite, “Improvisation 31, Sea Battle.”

I know if you look for them, you will see figures and things in his work. Particularly in “Picture with an Archer.” And that is charming and all. Some evidently refer to Russian or German villages and folktales. A bit of Chagall-esque stuff, but to me it’s irrelevant. Remember I’m in Stendhal syndrome. It’s about pure sensation, not story lines.


Archer (1909)


The abstraction is the color. You can touch and taste it. And somehow the man mastered paintings that are visually 2 – 4 feet deep. They are neither 2-dimensionally “flat” on the canvas nor give the viewer a long depth of field. It’s as though you could reach in behind the surface and rearrange the parts if you wished, but only for a couple feet of depth.

In 1914 he painted four panels for the villa of Edwin R. Campbell, co-founder of the Chevrolet Motor Car Company. At that time a Chevy looked like this:

Chevrolet Baby Grand

This should give you perspective on Kandinsky’s breakthrough genius. He was doing these gliding, flying, succulent beauties, these first abstract paintings, when cars were tin buggies.

The Campbell panels are below. The exhibition is open until February 10, 2014. Stendhal syndrome, too, can be yours!

Panel for Edwin R. Campbell No. 3   campbell panel 2   Campbell3  Campbell panel 4


A cool scalpel, slice-thin, and so clean,
Hands sanitized, gloves two seconds away,
Mask in place, breath dew already forming on my upper lip.

Separating past from now from future,
No place for dreams, or wishes,
A basin ready to receive them, cut away, refuse.

Why are we not allowed ornamentation?
Why this minimalist line?
What harm fantasy, a moment’s dream?

Don’t tell me I don’t know reality.
I know reality, it is the dreams,
Real as vapor, hard as crystal,
Or sometimes onyx. I hold onto my illusions,
And flee naked, gown flapping, from the OR,
Down the hall, screaming.

As my surgeon smiles, kindly even, sure surgery
Is necessary, and that I will return worse for the wear.
Best not delayed is how she sees it.

… while I curl into a cluster of small damp flowers,
Smelling the earth as dirt from which all life grows, beautiful, oblivious,
before reasoning sets in with its sister: dreaming.


KISSES: photos included

This blog is about kisses, the kind usually done in private . . . or in Paris in public. This is my third draft on this subject, and I’m going with it no matter where it goes.

2013-10-24 11.21.43 copyThe first place it is going is that kisses are better than wine. Great kisses, that is, are better than great wine. The opposite is also true, bad kisses tend towards the vinegar-esque.

The second place it is going is that great kisses may or may not be sexual but they are always sensual, just as good sex must be sensual (a personal observation) while sensuality may or may not be sexual.

The third place is it going is to confront the innate problem of writing a blog about kisses. If I only write a paean to, and attempted deconstruction of, mind-blowing kisses, . . . well, not everyone has the requisite partner(s) or relationship(s) for such kisses, and I don’t want to set people up for lamentations or a sense of missing out.

So, instead of focusing on kisses per se, which may or may not be within your reach, let’s look at the overall context of sexual vs. sensual – their differences, overlap, and nuances – because, while transmission of sexual energy usually requires two or more for full ignition, sensuality requires only one person in heightened awareness and receptivity.

No physical partner is needed for you to experience the pleasures of sensuality even while any emotion or response brought on by the creations – music, art, fashion, food, writing – of another human means in some sense that another person is present even if their body isn’t. It’s simply a factor of unaligned time and space.

couple kisses

Further: sensual enjoyment is your birthright. You came into the world equipped as a sensual being. Look at a baby’s goofy smile when a finger is lightly traced down its belly. That is sensuality, as in experiencing the senses of touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste.

Relishing, savoring, being immersed in, swooning over, salivating, feeling the back of your head zoom into space, having your knees give way, knowing there is no other color red in the world like the one you’re looking at right now, knowing no musical segue ever before was so sweet, being lost in Now and giving up your identity to Wholeness . . . yup, that’s what a great kiss feels like, but . . . oh, sorry, I wasn’t going to go there.

Sexuality might be embedded in sensuality, but sexuality urges you towards a completion, to a release. It is a grabbing and claiming, an escape from the mundane.

Sensuality gathers you in its arms and takes you into the knowing of More. It reveals the exquisiteness that a moment before had been camouflaged as mundane.

Sexuality takes you away from washing the dishes. Sensuality reminds you of the feel of china, the smell of good food, and the comfort of warm water.

At its fullest, sensuality ushers you into an ecstatic love inside and outside of yourself by going through the senses of your body and mind. Sex may have love as a component, but sensuality reveals the streaming love that has always been there, timeless without boundaries. Sensuality is the powerful play between you and beauty where you yield in order to expand beyond identity and ego instead of being a power play between people striving for dominance and control in the dynamics of sex.

Sensuality without sexuality is leagues ahead of sexuality without sensuality. They don’t occupy the same planet, even though sensuality that includes sexuality is what premier cru kisses are made of . . . oh, I wasn’t going to go there.

Well, yes, let’s actually go there. I have all these photos of people kissing in Paris I want to share.

About kisses:

Each kiss is unique even when it is a pile up of the same old same old between two people. It is always a communication, even when sometimes, sadly, it is a “kiss off.” Kisses cannot avoid communicating even though most are half-felt, half-given, half-received, and half-registered.

There are kisses we give to children and babies, the elderly, long-time friends, and pets. These kisses ask for nothing, and we give them because we feel safe enough to express our affection and tenderness. Message given, message received. Bonding has been done. Nice.

But what I am mulling over these days are kisses between people who are discovering each other, who need to figure out, confirm, or explore a sexual or highly affectionate relationship.

Here is where we need to become more fluent. We need to learn the language of kisses, the accents and dialects, the give and take, daring, shyness, boldness, yielding, claiming, and whispers louder than shouts. This language demands trust. Kisses cannot be fluent in sensuality without trust.

The kissTo be sure, sex can occur without trust, but exquisite sensuality cannot. This is why mature adults, those of us not prone to random sex, paid partners, swapping, sending Instagrams of our private parts, or seeking younger bodies to make us feel potent, want meaningful relationships based on honesty and trust. We know the difference between sexual and sensual and that sexuality without sensuality is too much like puberty. To be avoided.

Trust requires knowing we are loved and cherished, and we become instinctively less interested over time if our partner wears us down by neglect, or being a workaholic or other addict, or being unable to engage in things that have meaning to us. And why do I suddenly remember an ex-husband’s wish that we linger in the uncomfortable chairs after dinner so we could bond over his explaining international finance to me? I mean, I would have become an expert in euros and renminbi if there had been reciprocity, but . . . oops, I probably shouldn’t go there either.


Back to sensuality, because that is the prize, that is the goal, that is the birthright, that is the joy, that is the expansion that is yours. I believe the closest we can come to knowing god is through truly experiencing life through our senses; and I believe that when two or more come together in His name (i.e. in love and sensuality), there He is also.

Okay, I really stepped into it because I don’t believe in a sentient entity keeping score beyond interstellar space even though I do believe in my parking angel – and I probably should have said “goddess” anyway. That is, I believe in the tendency of energies to solve problems in harmonic ways. I believe peace wants a chance. I believe synchronicity happens every second. I believe health wants to happen. I believe there are morphic fields of knowing and evolving and sharing of our collective minds.

And I believe kissing is a master art and only those who approach it in adoration can taste its full beauty.

And I believe the potential for sensual joy surrounds us at all times. It is music, it is taste, it is birdsong, it is morning sun, it is dance, it is cascading into laughter, it is a wet rock in the sand, it is dirty dishes. It is opening our senses and being fully alive. It is where we partner, as two or more gathered, in ecstasy with Now.