At first glance, keeping our word impeccable seems easy enough. We imagine ourselves quite separate from those who would wish ill on others, or who would do anything deliberately which could damage another living thing.
And, then, a bug crawls across the sofa, and we smash it without a second thought.
Being emotionally available, and able to express oneself, is a two edged sword. On the one hand, those of us inclined can be counted on to be, at the very least, genuine; in short, we always mean what we say because our words come – albeit readily – from the latest, authentic impulse to pass through our cortex.
The fact that others may not wish to be subject to our earnest thoughts never occurs to us until, out of nowhere, we find ourselves avoided or dismissed.
Those who keep their emotional selves locked and loaded fare far better. Nobody ever knows what they are truly thinking or feeling, so being in the presence of such a person is no immediate threat to a stable social atmosphere. And, rooms fill with people who put forth little by way of authenticity, all of them interacting and exchanging with one another without rancor or incident. The play, within the play.
Keeping one’s word impeccable, according to the author of the book cited, is really about being sure never to allow a single disparaging comment to escape our lips or our pen. This rules out any expression of frustration, agitation, offense, or other negative feeling; in short, while we may feel it, we are not to speak it.
I wonder where the author puts his genuine feelings about others’ behavior? Does he just ruminate, in silence? Perhaps he encases them in some fictitious character, so as to flesh out his reactions to them…
Does the scale of justice tip of some inherent volition?
I seriously wonder whose role it is to expose wrongdoing. Who protects others from exploitation, from malignment, from abuse? Who, or what, calls out the offender – a lightning bolt, from God Almighty?
My grandfather was a street preacher. He roared his judgments across North Park Row to the center of State Street. He declared his beliefs, publicly. He held forth inside, as well, from the pulpit of the Gospel Assembly Hall on East Avenue. And, when the parents of a married woman were ex-communicated from the assembly because of their daughter’s behavior, he stood and loudly defended them. This action pronounced a reaction upon him by the one man permitted to do so; accused of “railing”, my grandfather was also ex-communicated from his beloved fellowship.
Whence the role of the impeccable word, here?
On this day which celebrates love in all its forms, perhaps we could spend a moment contemplating how we go about living in peace. Is it by turning a blind eye to corruption, to manipulation, to crimes against humanity?
We anticipate the loss of family members. We agree ’til death do us part, at the altar.
Did we all have one?
John was my first love.
By that, I mean John was the first who loved me, too.
We were 21. The setting was at once predictable and incongruous: a Bible conference. Yearly, those from among our fundamentalist sect knew full well that a week spent on the beautiful, sprawling, verdant campus of Grove City College would bring together all the young to wed. And, every summer, with manic anticipation, we girls would giggle our way onto the grounds in our newest Sunday fare, a wardrobe meticulously planned for each morning, afternoon, and evening of seven blissful days away from everyone else on the face of the earth. Jesus was the reason, but….the boys. The boys were what made the purpose desirable, irresistible, and unbearably delicious.
He’d been a stand out, from the first. Most of the young men English, Germanic or otherwise Midwestern, this one was short, honey haired, and Polish/Armenian?, with the most luminously large dark eyes in the room. And, those almond orbs had looked back at me across the gymnasium seating, meeting my own deeply set brown ones – fixed, locked, a slow smile on his mouth to confirm I wasn’t dreaming. I can’t remember anything that happened after that – until we stood, at dusk, on the sidewalk leading to the girl’s dormitory, he with his Bible clasped between both hands and his enormous dark eyes never leaving mine for a moment. With one hand he’d taken the tip of his index finger and touched the center of my belly, and a spark of fire ignited my whole body. I would not know this as a hormonal response. I wouldn’t care. Completely and without any hesitation I was his, from that moment until the end.
The end came harshly.
But, in between, the blush and glorious ecstasy of true love.
Seven years earlier, I’d had a brush with profound spiritual terror. Formal operational thought having kicked in spontaneously that summer, I’d gone in the space of one week at the conference from “ho-hum” to “Is God even real”? So agonizing and mind blowing was the maelstrom of doubt that, after two years of fixated poring over any literature on the subject available to me, I’d resigned to a detachment from all things related to religious faith in order to preserve my emotional sanity. If I didn’t think about any of it, then none of its power – good, or evil – could any longer either suffocate or scare me to death.
But, then, along came John.
And, he was, first and foremost, an intellect.
John wasn’t just the boy who’d been saved at age 14 from hallucinogenic drugs. He was a Christian thinker.
John was an apologist.
We spent that week facing headlong every dumbfounding question, he with his ready analysis, all delivered with the softest, most gentle timbral inflection. He eagerly addressed my countless questions with answers more stimulating than the next. The hours we spent in dialogue, about Francis Schaeffer, Rookmaker and, his beloved favorite, C.S. Lewis, long since ceased being numbered; they began directly after morning Bible study, continuing on the walk to lunch, resuming during the afternoons across the bridge, and persisted until the sun was soon to set, campus curfew tested by every tantalizing dilemma left for the next morning.
And, every encounter so sensate, he with his continuous caress. Every nerve ending, from the soles of my feet to the corner cubby of my frontal cortex, was electrically charged by his mind and body.
By the end of the week, I was committed. This boy was perfect, in every way. With him, I could return to a faith which was expansive, all encompassing; with him, I could find my identity both as an artist and a devout woman. He would be my husband, and I would be his wife, and we would be together forever.
But, melodrama would have its day.
Evil would cloak, and creep.
By the final morning of our conference that summer, word would leak; some girl with a crystallized reputation had let a story slip into the gossip chain, a shocking accusation which involved my John. And, so many of the women in attendance ripe for a life-affirming scandal, talk of it flew through the wireless air like emergency radio. I gave it all a mere passing scoff. Couldn’t be true; this was my man. If it were, so be it; he was still to be mine, God ordained. I’d never been more sure of anything in my life.
However, the hierarchy of control which held our desperate sect together had received their call to arms. By the time he’d arrived home to Baltimore, four men had already flanked him; ordering him to appear before their court, he was to accept their full assessment. And, their conclusion was swift: John was to be removed from the fellowship, and placed under an indefinite period of discipline.
I would have none of it.
Re-enrolling in college that fall, I would commence a switch from fine art to a rigorous major in music education with a looming recital requirement. After the six hours each day spent alone with my cello, he and I would spend as many, on the phone, four hours at a stretch, and every weekend he could not be with me. Once per month, he’d drive the spider infested rattle trap car with no heat that he got for one dollar all the way across Pennsylvania to western New York to be with me for two, enraptured days at school. For Christmas, I gave him the very first flip phone, so he could talk to me in private; from him, I received a diamond necklace, from Zales. This was a promise gift, he’d said.
My dreams grew. John was a pure math major, at Towson. Had a job, as a draftsman. I could transfer to Peabody Conservatory, where my professor was urging me to go, and switch to performance. When we got married, I could shoot for the Baltimore Symphony.
But, the tribunal would not be mocked.
His own mother, he’d said, was wondering about this girl from PA. She’d never even met me, but had come to an unsettling conclusion; I was too “independent-minded” for her son. I’d likely not be right for him, as a helpmate. Perhaps his disciplinary period should include time away from this relationship, to leave room for a companion more willing to subject herself to God’s authority.
Once again, my resolve deepened. Let anybody try to separate me from the love of Christ, as manifest in this, the love of my life.
Then, the letter came.
Hand writing in blue ballpoint ink, John poured out all his carefully analyzed reasons for ceasing our communication. For every in-depth conversation we’d created together, this was the razor’s edge. I was cut, and cut, and cut again.
Enraging grief overtook me. They had stolen him away. The whole army of them – the tribunal; the entire, alleged fellowship; and: his mother. This was beyond abandonment. This was destruction.
For weeks thereafter, I drifted. Tried a surrogate, a Jewish boy, same size, no further resemblance. Crushed on a pianist, who shared his dark eyes and gaze. Then, succumbed to the charms of a tall rock and roller, with similar intellect. He rejected Schaeffer’s apologies, writing blasphemous comments in the margins of the books John had sent me, and then dumped me for a psych major with buck teeth willing to go all the way.
I was lost.
We’d had one more chance, a few years later. I sang at his best friend’s wedding. We rode to DC, in the dark, and lay on the sidewalk under the stars at the Lincoln Memorial. But, I’d been spoiled. There was no going back. Not for me. I’d been all in, and left to paddle ashore alone. One doesn’t jump back into the brink.
He married, raised a family. I married. Divorced.
We grew old.
Today, word came to me. This morning, John died.
And, I wept.
I wept for every moment of hope. For every chapter in the book that was never published. For all the dreams of that fantasy life of mutually deep and lasting love. And, for John, because he had to die at the hands of a disease which destroyed his body.
His mind and mine had been so beautifully aligned. Then, the stars of imperious power over the spirit crossed, and wrenched us apart.
Beyond all the horizons of deepening mystery, where we can all slip these bonds, know as we are known, and be together in one Spirit, there will be a place.
There are all kinds of traits which, science is now disclosing, are expressed rather automatically because, well, they appear as genes along the strands of our DNA helix. We are so proud, we humans; we’d like to think that we never intended to be the person we actually are.
But, in large part, we get dealt a hand and then the game plays itself out.
Or, does it?
My mother was one of four daughters. Her father’s name was Henry Thomas Sweet. He said his parents were from Cornwall, on the English coastline. Ancestry.com lists:
“This Anglo-Saxon last name has three origin theories. First, it is a baptismal surname meaning “the son of Sweet”…. Second, it derived from the nickname “the sweet”, a good, pleasant, or agreeable person, from the Middle English word swete. The old English personal (first) names Sweta and Swete also derive from this word and may by the source of the surname. Third, as asserted by William Arthur in his book An Etymological Dictionary of Family and Christian Names, the name refers to a Swede, a person from Sweden or who was native to that country. Fourth, it can be an Anglicized version of the German/Jewish surname Suess ….. The given names Suet and Suot were documented in the Domesday Book of 1086 AD, which was a survey of England and Wales ordered by William the Conqueror. Fifth, the book English Surnames by Mark Antony Lower claims it’s a nickname for a person “who has either a vinegar face or a foxy complexion”.
One wonders if “agreeable and pleasant” married “a vinegar face or foxy complexion” to form the genetic expression handed down to me by my mother’s father.
Sort of a vague reference to guileless, I guess. Gentleness comes to mind, in tandem, along with pleasant countenance. Ain’t no bitch face in the sweet one.
I can say that “The Sweet Girls”, as they became known – Dora Mae; Lydia Elisabeth “Betty”; Frances Magdalene, and Martha Louise, if ever they bore common “sweetness” would have largely been due to the nature of their mother, Mae. Rather, each had an immediate feistiness, manifest more readily by the first, third, and fourth born. Mum’s was demonstrated on her own turf, where she ruled the roost with a formidable tone, but hidden in public behind a radiant grin and a gullibility born of her Aquarian dreams.
So, what’s in a name? Any number of ultimate aspects, all of them inherited.
Mary M. “Peggy” Zeppenfeld, however, was truly sweet. She was a flute player, in the Erie Chamber Orchestra and Erie Philharmonic, and a music teacher. Her students adored her. Her family adored her. Her colleagues did, too. She was “kind”. She was “devoted” to her students, and to music education, an “extraordinary teacher”, generous of spirit. Her maiden name was Munro, Irish to Scotland to fight for William Wallace. Robert Munro served Robert The Bruce; Alice Munro would descend to write sterling short stories, her characters never socially important but always both starkly recognizable and memorable.
Peggy Munro was entirely without ego. Preferring to observe from a distance, watch she did; I can remember more than once looking up, from my seat at the front of the orchestra we shared, to see her gaze directed at me. Peggy was keenly aware; she likely picked up signals from body language that others missed entirely. Perhaps she was just alarmed by any number of reactions which I so irrepressibly demonstrated, but I often wondered if Peggy was the only musician in the room who perceived my needs. Whenever I felt frustrated, or dismissed, or ignored, I could feel Peggy’s eyes on me.
Peggy’s career in the world of professional performance wasn’t so brief – 25 uncelebrated years. Like me, she came to it all by default, receiving an appointment at a time when someone with her qualifications seemed right. And, just as quietly, when the players at the card game increased in power and might, she lay down her hand and bowed out.
This past week, Peggy died. She was only 55 years old, nobody with the power or might to prudently diagnose the disease which took her life having stepped up to save it. And so, another sweet one escaped the earth, to leave behind all those whose hearts hurt because they were so touched.
And, these were innumerable. So many young, eager students. So many colleagues. So many family and friends. And, even one such as I, from the distance between her eyes and mine.
I will miss you, too, Peggy.
Perhaps some are born to live briefly. All are born to die.
It’s the nature of life.
Thank God for those who are born to bring the sweet.