Tuesday, June 24, 2008

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOEL

This morning at St. Mary’s of Sewanee, we heard readings about John the Baptist, the wild man of the desert who prepared the way for Christ. An icon behind the altar had been changed to one that showed his image, and Sister Lucy said that in preparation for her homily about John, he had kept her awake half the night! Some of my favorite former sermons concerned John the Baptist, but I won’t be boring readers by putting in a homily this morning, regardless of how much I respect the ministry of John the Baptizer. Instead, I’ll comment on another commemoration, my grandson Joel’s birthday today.

Like Elizabeth of the New Testament, who bore John in her old age, my daughter Elizabeth bore her last son, Joel after she had raised her family. Joel, my grandson, celebrates his fifth birthday on this day of commemoration for John the Baptist. He was born a “preemie,” and my Elizabeth nearly died with toxemia bringing him into the world. Like John, Joel lives in desert country – among the Joshua trees and the San Gabriel Mts. of High Desert in Palmdale, California. On this day five years ago, I was in the delivery room to help bring Joel into the world, and he emerged with the ferocity of a John the Baptist. By the time he was two years old, he was listening to Gospel music, a little cricket singing on the hearth and holding an imaginary mike, chirruping “This is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it,” and I was saying, “This is Joel whom He has made, rejoice and be glad in him!”

Joel loves desert creatures, especially lizards, and one of the books I have written for him, yet unpublished and illustrated by my young friend, Ben Blanchard, is about a prehistoric toad from Africa called the Beast Beelzebufo. I know Joel will appreciate it because he loves all “creatures great and small.” I tell my daughter Elizabeth that Joel, four pound wonder who reached up to grasp the oxygen lifeline as he swung out into the world, is the best thing she has done for us and “thank you, Elizabeth Alice,/for such simple packaging of soul,/this small goose babbling/a wild and unknown language.”

Here are two poems commemorating Joel’s fifth birthday written several years ago. They are part of an unpublished book of poetry entitled RESURRECTION OF THE WORD:

JOEL GOING ON THREE

lives in a house
at the edge of roses,

large pink and red faces
he touches each morning,

retreating from “pokeys,”
like a dapper Gospel singer

he changes shoes four times daily,
singing “It was a great, great thing

pat-a-cake for me,” (you did for me),
reports a red doodle bug flying

then crashing into backyard cottonwoods,
into his forecast of desert weather:

sun and abandon, always balmy.

YOU FIND THEM EVERYWHERE

Joel’s wooden snakes
wriggling in the fireplace,

in the shiny planked room
they lie, like living sausage links

stretched full length
to taunt Darla,

the miniature Doberman
who barks at nothing,

and Sam the fat cat
too plump to escape,

frightening the grandmother
as she enters her nightly bath,

the snakes no less menacing
because Joel has pulled out

their bright red fangs.
With his help the snakes still slither,

calculated protection,
defense against play invaders,

like his grandmother,
and her pristine notion of security,

…an old skin not yet shed.
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