Arlo Guthrie and the Circle of Life
The phone shrilled while my daughter Catie and I were neck deep in preparations for her trip to live and work in England. “Cate, can you get that?” I implored. Cate listened to the telemarketer’s spiel until the caller wound down, and then she replied, “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that. I don’t live here. “It was the
vinyl siding guy,” she said after she hung up.
“What do you mean, you don’t live here?”
She gave me a look of unadulterated truth, mixed with a pinch of
sorrow. “Mom, after next week, I don’t.”
I pursed my lips but said nothing.
What could I say?
Catie was scheduled to graduate community
college five days before her flight. She’d also opted to have
long-postponed foot surgery that same week. That last week was a blur of all-nighters, commencement rehearsals, passport cliffhangers, and foot soaking. She limped through her graduation. Her pet turtle died. She left her wallet at an insurance agent’s office twenty miles away. She dyed her clothes. She dyed her hair.
On Saturday she stayed out all night with two of her oldest friends
and limped back into the house Sunday at 5 a.m. I urged her to sleep, but she said no. “I have to say good-bye to the church people.” But she slept anyway, drooping over a bowl of cornflakes until she agreed to take a catnap. I steered her to a living room chair and went back to my own Sunday preparations. I put on
a kettle so Catie could have tea when she woke up, and I gathered a quilt and pillow. But when I tiptoed into the living room I saw that she had already covered herself.
I went back to the kitchen and cried. She’d come back for
visits, maybe stay with us between jobs -- but she would never be my “little girl” again. We would never share the inside jokes, the odd moments, the casual kindness of people who lived together. Time together would have to be arranged.
On that spring Sunday morning, I thought about God. Yes, He wants
us to have formal devotions, a set time of joy and closeness.
But He wants to be part of our everyday routines, too, the good and bad, the private jokes and minor annoyances. He wants to live with us. And it grieves Him when we don’t come home.
What does it mean to live daily with God? How do we even begin?
Small talk is big talk
First, we need to remember that He’s interested in all of it, even the tiniest problem -- and even those things that aren’t problems at all. If anyone cares about the day-to-day, He does.
I learned this first-hand when Cate phoned from the U.K. Her early
calls were harried and frantic, asking us to send things she’d forgotten. Then one night she called just to talk -- and I panicked. I could tell her my tomatoes were coming in; or I could tell her she had brought me immense joy for 22 years and I was proud of the person she’d become. But there was no middle ground, nothing worth wasting pricey transatlantic minutes over, and I
eventually put the phone up to the television set, where a popular local weatherman was giving his nightly spiel. A bit of home, and better than anything I had to offer.
But Jesus had no problem with the small talk --
or the big talk.
He cared about the minutiae of His followers’ lives. He knew and cared about the nights when they didn’t haul in any fish. He knew the names of their children. He knew about and healed their illnesses.
In the carpenter shop, He knew about the days
when a tough piece of wood was hard to plane, or a customer changed her order at the last minute. He even knew about tripping and spilling the nails, and spending a precious ten minutes of workday retrieving them. Because He lived His
life among the disciples,
He knew and cared when they “spilled the
But this kind of communication only came about because He dwelled
with them. And it can only come about for us if we dwell with Him,
Only by abiding in Him can we bear His fruit. He says in Jn. 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who
abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit; for apart from me you can do nothing.”
How can we bear fruit for the Kingdom if we don’t know
the King? How can we introduce people to someone we don’t know ourselves? And why would we want to?
When Cate was a newborn, she seemed at first like a
marvelous extension of myself. I didn’t know, or much want to know, how it felt to have empty arms. (Since her sister came along 18 months later, that was one problem I never had.)
As Catie grew she developed her own mind -- to put it
mildly. She had her beliefs and opinions, and she’d go to the wall for the smallest of them. “Who is she? Where did that come from?” I would wail,exhausted, after losing a skirmish.But as she slipped into
adulthood, I began to see traces of my husband Dave and myself in her. They were traces of our better qualities, I’m pleased to say now.
He is the Vine and we are the branches. How can we see God in ourselves? How can others see Him in us?
Abide in Him!
When Cate telephones, I recognize her sweet and still-girlish
voice instantly. But I wouldn’t be able to identify any of her new English friends’ voices, nor they mine. I know Cate’s, because I know her. But that knowledge had to grow.
When Cate was a newborn, I couldn’t pick her cries out
of the cacophony in our church nursery. I had to learn to recognize her wails. By the time she was a toddler, I could identify her voice in a crowd.
How do you know God’s voice? This knowledge doesn’t come overnight, either. Sometimes He speaks in an audible way. He thundered to Moses, “What is that in your hand?” He told him exactly what to do with those tablets -- twice.
He whispered to Elijah in the cave, in a still small voice.
Sometimes he’ll speak to you through an open door -- or a closed
one. We can’t recognize God’s voice until we know Him and have walked with Him. But when we do, such riches! He encourages, comforts, steers us off the wrong path onto the right one, and whispers His “Well done” when we leave this
Are you being served?
Jesus’s Last Supper sermon
overflows with promises. I especially like this one: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.” (Jn. 15:7) “Ask whatever you will.” Isn’t it easier if the ask-er knows the ask-ee?
When Cate went abroad we had to adjust to a time difference. Once she called me at 5 a.m., our time, over a minor crisis. “Mom, I’m sorry to bother you so early...”
But I had snapped right into mother-mode, grateful and happy
to hear her voice. “Cate, it’s no bother. What can I do for you? What do you need?”
So it is with God. If we make Him part of our lives, He’s there for
us, morning, noon and night. Time, space, or phone cards do not bind Him. We have unlimited minutes with Him. And as the minutes
turn into hours, days and years, we become interwoven with who He is. We don’t have to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” We know and we do it without thinking twice.
Cate stepped off an airplane that November. She bore a physical resemblance to the girl who left in the spring, but six months of independence and growth left their marks on her. She’ll stay at home for a while and leave again. Some day, if I’m lucky, she’ll take me into her home, cover me with a quilt and bring me a cup of tea, while I get ready to meet Jesus face-to-face.
R. Tubefat and the Newmarket Morning
From the late 90s, but still one of my favorite pieces.
While attending UNH, I worked a series of part-time jobs. One winter, I
cleaned house for a professor's family in Newmarket.
Every Wednesday morning I hitch-hiked from Durham to Newmarket,
and waited for the professor or her husband to pick me up.
I usually arrived in town by 7:30, and killed time until one of them collected me at 8. Sometimes I got a cup of coffee from a now-extinct coffee shop. I would stand outside, my fingers clasped around the cup, and watch my cold breath mingle with the steam from the coffee. I liked watching Newmarket wake up. It was such a normal
little town, with people going off to factories and shops and offices. Sometimes I felt isolated in Durham, like a figure in a snow globe. Newmarket seemed more like real life to me.
Those Newmarket mornings grounded me during my painful sophomore year. It was a watershed time for me, when I began to shed my hippie ways but had little to replace them. None of the pieces fit. I did not know why I was in college, and my grades reflected that.
I thumbed out to Newmarket the morning after I didn't break up with Leo. We couldn't break up, he had explained at great length, because we had never actually been going together.
"Yeah, right," I said wearily. "Leo, will you please go?"
From this vantage point -- actually, by the end of that day -- I could see that Leo was lousy boyfriend, let alone husband, material. Leo barely made the human race. But on that chilly morning I felt that yet another prop had been kicked out from under me.
The music lifted me up, up and away,
I shot this picture of kids sampling pure maple sap
when I was covering Northwood.
Nickeled and Dimed, Drawn and Quartered
For years, my father-in-law drove a vehicle which we famously referred to as the “Chinese Junk.” It was a 1960s station wagon that, with judicious replacing of parts, he had kept functional well into the 80s. He eventually got a better car for himself, but he kept the Chinese Junk as a spare and his children and extended family drove it when we were between vehicles or having our vehicles worked on. (We do not go to the kind of places that have loaner cars, sigh.) Toward the end of its life you had to connect two wires under the hood to start it, but there was no question in any of our minds that the Chinese Junk worked.
My father-in-law nickeled and dimed that car for years. The Junk gave up its particular ghost when the mechanics in the family couldn’t FIND parts, but even then it refused to die and it’s rusting somewhere in a secluded part of my brother-in-law’s property. Now that was a car. And also, probably by today’s standards, not legal.
You can nickel-and-dime a car, but only for so long. Trust me on this. Eventually even the Chinese Junk had to be retired, though family members still raid IT for parts.
But there are other areas of our lives where we can’t take the nickel-and-dime approach, and we shouldn’t.
Not depressed enough
I stood up with eagerness as the medical researcher came back into the room, but her expression told me I had nothing to be eager about. “You didn’t qualify for the depression study,” she told me. “The doctor said we need someone who’s actively depressed.”
She said she’d try to get me a check for the time I spent on the screening, and as I walked out to the reception area she patted me on the back. “Look at it this way, at least you’re not depressed.”
For several years my husband and I have done medical research trials to help with an ever-expanding budget and ever-shrinking paychecks. I had had my eye on this one for catching up on our property taxes. But as I started my car, I knew that God would provide for the taxes in His own way and His own time.
It wasn’t always that way.
We have struggled financially for most of our marriage, from Dave’s college days to the recession, which isn’t receding fast enough for me. I clipped coupons, looked for deals on everything, and found secondary ways to make money. When I had full-time jobs, I always freelanced around the side; and when I lost one of those jobs due to budget cuts, I never collected a dime of unemployment. At one point during the laid-off years, I had six different income streams. At once.
But they never did what I hoped they would.
I would plan on a certain check to come to take care of a certain need, and when it came, another, more certain need nudged it out of the way. So I’d roll the need over to the next freelance check, bonus or medical trial compensation. And the “need” would get eaten up by something else, a more urgent one.
There was never enough to go around, and my plans for what there was always fell through.
This financial patchwork quilt, with plenty of holes, has extended into our sixties. When friends paid off their children’s student loans and their houses, I continued to scramble for freelance jobs. Sometime I got them, sometimes I didn’t.
Until the day I was grousing about yet another need going unmet because another need had superceded it. And the Lord spoke to me. Not a burning bush thing, I’ve unfortunately never had those, but it was clear enough: “Kathy, you are never going to nickel-and-dime your way out of your financial problems. If you could, you would have done it by now.”
Was that what I had been doing? I’d thought it was Good Financial Planning.
And maybe it had been, but God had a bigger plan. A spreadsheet I couldn’t argue with. I still plan, but I’m a lot more flexible in allowing Him to meet our needs.
I asked myself what else I’d been approaching this way, or seeing other people dealing with in the nickel-and-dime way.
Could you nickel and dime a marriage? Could one go into that most intricate of human relationships with a checklist?
Only if one or more of the parties walked away with a broken heart.
If Dave or I had had a checklist, we wouldn’t be here today. Not together, anyway. There is no earthly reason why we should be together. But God wanted it that way, and the three of us are greater than the sum of our parts.
Arlo Guthrie column: first published Jan. 1996
The standing-room only audience did nothing to make the huge, vaulted old church any
warmer. My 15-year-old daughter and I managed to secure two back-row folding chairs for Arlo Guthrie’s last public concert of 1995.
crowd had a convivial air. People pew-hopped, visiting with friends. In the standing-room-only section, a young, bearded man propped his six-month-old daughter against his shoulder. Outside the tall windows, a full moon rose over the city roofs. I reached out to warm my hands on the register.
The lights dimmed and there he was – a single small figure, with silver hair flowing past his shoulders. He looked exactly how you’d expect Arlo Guthrie to look at midlife. The audience erupted. He acknowledged them with a wave, and crashed into the chords of his first number.
It had been 30 years since Guthrie released his most famous work, the quirky “Alice’s Restaurant.” He was celebrating the event with an updated version and his last public performance of “Alice” for a while. He wants to do new things; can’t blame him for that.
Guthrie, an established raconteur, spun stories between songs. His voice was the same – raspy, like Bob Dylan without the anger. The music rose and swelled and filled the cavernous old church.
The crowd responded with the affection of people who’d grown up to this music. When he played the opening chords of a familiar song, they greeted it with whistles and catcalls. They had their children here; his grown son Abe accompanied him on the keyboard.
My daughter nudged me. “Can you see OK, Mom?” she whispered. “I can move.”
“I’m fine,” I whispered back. My daughter, taking care of me.How far we’d come.
Arlo split for the intermission, and most of the crowd spilled out into the foyer. Close to the register, we left well enough alone. My daughter said, “Mom, you’ve got this glazed look on your face.”
“I’ve never heard him when I wasn’t stoned,” I replied. “For the first time, I understand everything he’s saying.”
After his break, Guthrie launched right in to “Alice.” Maybe he wanted to get it over with. He seemed a little formatted on this one, but nobody minded. The single spotlight silhouetted him and Abe against the back wall. He exhorted the audience to sing the song “when it comes around again,” and they did. In the back, the man with the small daughter waltzed her in a circle.
I watched the moon rise outside the church windows. And wondered. Where would we all be in another 30 years? What were the chances of doing this once more? I shivered, and this time it wasn’t from the cold. Parents, children. When the song came around again, who would be
After the concert, we could see our breath as we hurried to the car. We talked about Arlo possibly having the disease that took his father Woody Guthrie. I said I might have the disease my mother died from. It tends to be hereditary, more than not. My daughter shoved her hands deeper into her pockets. “Don’t worry about it, Mom,” she said. “You gotta live.”
I unlocked the car and maneuvered us out of the city. With the resilience of youth, my daughter fell asleep. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve, told myself it was the cold, and followed the full moon home.
New Year's, Boston, 2012. Fireworks and the Cycling Murrays.
The professor was late and I didn't really care. Dazed, half-blind, I drifted up and down Main Street. At last I stopped before a basement apartment. I had noticed it before because of the hand-lettered sign:
"R. Tubefat, the Human Jukebox." Tubefat, his sign proclaimed, could play any song ever written for one thin dime.
I stood there for a few minutes. Well, why not? I thought. By golly, if he says he can, I'm gonna make him prove it. Got nothing better to do. And I had a dime.
I rapped on the window. Minutes later, the door opened a crack, and a rumpled head peered up at me on the sidewalk.
"Songs for a dime," I said brightly.R. Tubefat rubbed his eyes, then let me in.
The one-room apartment had a hot plate, an unmade bed and a guitar. He ran a few experimental chords. "What do you want to hear?"
"John Lennon," I said. "In My Life."
Tubefat began to play. I leaned back, on a metal folding chair, and closed my eyes. The plaintive melody wove around me, in and out, like the strands on a Maypole.
His voice was thin, less distinguished than Lennon's, but it lifted me up, up and away, from Durham and Newmarket, from tests and grades and the last vestiges of Leo.
When all else fails, I remember thinking, there is always music.
I handed him another dime.
Tubefat was totally awake now. "What next?" His eyes snapped and his grin was a challenge.
"Bob Dylan," I said. "My Back Pages."
Tubefat's version was not Dylan's, not the Byrds', but something forged on his own. I sat back and let the music rock me into that Newmarket morning.
I was so much older then, and I'm younger than that now. And there are faces I'll remember all my life, though some have changed.
The Jabez Prayer: “Oh that thou wouldst bless me, and enlarge my borders, and that thy hand might be with me, and that thou wouldst keep me from evil that I might not cause pain.”
I Chron. 4:9-10.
I sat at my cluttered desk, with my head in my hands, and wept quietly. The newsroom was silent and cool in the early summer morning. Soon enough the phones would ring, the keyboards clatter.
The visiting Pulitzer-Prize winner had visited the day before and complimented a colleague, saying she had what it took to “make it to the top.” She was a recent college grad, while I had been honing my skills for 25 years. It hurt.
It was shortly after dawn, and I had come in early to get a start on my day, for what it was worth. I was always a beat behind everyone else, like the last person in the room to get a joke.
But instead of organizing my projects, getting in there first with the most, I sat in the cool, silent office and prayed. “Lord, what am I doing here?”
I had taken an editing job to help support the family, but my heart was in writing. Always had been. I took on extra writing projects at the paper, sometimes for overtime, sometimes because there was a story that needed to be told. Now, it appeared, I couldn’t even do that well enough.
Pretty soon there wouldn’t even be newspapers, colleagues warned darkly. We needed to change to adapt with the times. And I was older, an even more lethal drug on the market.
I’d been praying the Jabez Prayer on and off for a few years, and I prayed it then.
I’m not a mystic. My faith is much more hands-on – I could out-Martha Martha. But that morning I heard the Lord speak to me, barely a whisper in the office. “My child, I have something better for you.”
It was good enough. He knew. I launched into my work day and didn’t think about it much over the next few weeks.
I thought about it plenty one month later, when I received the news that my position had been eliminated.
I was stunned. Shocked. Scared. I had worked for that company for 12 years and done freelance work for them for years before. I didn’t know anything else. But as I grappled with severance pay, unemployment and the thousands of details of a layoff, the words of that cool summer morning came back to me. “I have something better for you.”
When I’d thought about His message at all, I’d assumed the “something better” was a position inside the company. Boy, was I wrong. The “something better” was outside – somewhere. Like Abraham, I set out going I knew not where. I didn’t have time for anger, depression, bargaining or denial. I needed to move, and fast.
Bathed in prayer, I set about looking for work. I was 54, and it was hard going. I was “not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg.” I had the experience for some jobs, but not the physical strength. (One “public relations” position included moving tables to and from trade fairs.) For others, I had the experience but lacked the veneer, and the job went to some 24-year-old with an anchorwoman haircut, even though the employers knew she was only going to stay two years. There were rejection, humiliation and insulting offers. And in the meantime, we had to eat.
To keep a cash flow going, I picked up some freelance writing jobs. The jobs came and came faster, some lucrative, some less so, all welcome. I wrote for three newspapers, including my former employer, and two regional magazines. People began calling me. At one point I had six income streams.
And I never collected a dime of unemployment.
Our needs were met, and continue to be met. I was able to testify to my friends and former co-workers about God’s provision. We never missed a mortgage payment. We paid off a couple of credit cards, and had our best Christmas ever.
He did indeed have “something better” for me.
But it wasn’t what I’d thought.
With the need for survival in a stressful job, I’d let my devotional time slip. My prayers were focused and consisted mostly of, “Lord, please help me through this day.” With that 8,-, 9- or sometimes 10-hour block of time ripped from my life, I had the time to seek His face. He “expanded my territory” and “kept me from evil” – but most of all, He blessed.
As we swung from paycheck to paycheck like Tarzan, with nothing below to catch us, I gained a new appreciation of the One who would not let me fall. Yes, He allowed our needs to be met in a miraculous way. Yes, I eventually got a full-time job, and then some. Yes, he kept his promise in that lonely newsroom. But as I drew closer to Him, I knew that the “something better” wasn’t a job or even getting the bills paid.
It was Him. And the best part of His message wasn’t the “something better.”
It was the “my child.”
Continued from left
Nickeled and Dimed
But God wasn’t done with me even then, as He pointed out that we can’t nickel-and-dime our salvation, either.
I thought I’d mastered that one. Raised in a liturgical church, I’d looked for redemption through sacramental observances and good works for most of my childhood and teen years, and thrown that off in the tumult of the 60s. When the Lord found me, a drugged, directionless little hippie girl, I learned that the road back wasn’t paved with good works, and I joyously accepted salvation by faith.
But there was still a lot to learn, and as with my finances, the idea of doing it myself wouldn’t go away. When there was a need I tried to fill it, even when He had other plans. I was Doing and not necessarily Being.
Until I couldn’t. Age caught up with me, along with a demanding job, and I couldn’t necessarily Do. Who would Do if I Didn’t?
I could never be good enough, smart enough, “Christian” enough for God. And He knows that. He knew it when I was born, He knew it on that fateful Friday 2,000 years ago. But that’s never been what He wanted.
We can’t nickel-and-dime the way to heaven. But when faced with the sacrifice of everything He was in spite of everything we are, really, who would want to? Wouldn’t you rather be loved with an Everlasting Love than check off, or be checked off a punch list?
He wants me, and you, to Be first.
And He’ll take it from there.