Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Girl Scout

Chickens, when they first begin to get their feathers, are awkward, ugly, oily, vulnerable and more or less useless. They are something like middle-school girls.

If you have a pre-teen or know one, you understand that this is an age of vast confusion and nameless dissatisfaction. Being a middle-schooler is a bit like the view from the window of an airplane at 30,000 feet. All the particulars are lost in a vague wash of neutral color and cloud.

I must have learned something in sixth and seventh grades, but I am at a loss to say what it was. In sixth grade, we tried to get Mrs. Cochran started on the subject of Mexico so that she would forget about arithmetic or English. In seventh, we were all aghast that Mrs. Diggs hadn’t heard of the New Look and wore her skirts too short. Only piano lessons were exempt from criticism. Mrs. Pack was a cool deity and everything she had to say was Received Wisdom.

My poor mother sewed pretty clothes for me, only to have colorful little dresses hang in the closet in favor of whatever was dumpy, gray or brown. She cooked meals which were pushed about on the plate. She took me to hairdressers to try to do something about my looks. Photographs from that time show an unhappy girl with pink glasses and a permanent.

I mostly lived in a dogwood tree in the back yard, even after my father built me a playhouse so I could get out of the rain. I played Tarzan, picked blackberries, hid under the bed and sang to myself. I was not turning out to be the genteel little lady Mother had hoped for.

She signed me up for the Girl Scouts. She sprang for the full uniform, beret, belt, scarf, pin, probably in place of a winter coat for herself. She bought me a Girl Scout knife and put my name on the list for Camp Trefoil. I got my tree finder’s badge and put it in a cigar box with my treasures. Up in the dogwood tree, I whittled kite sticks, bows and arrows with my Girl Scout knife.

When we were moving Mother to the rest home a few years ago, I found the Girl Scout uniform hanging in a closet. The hem had been let out. I had grown taller during my brief tenure with the Troop, but the troop leader had quit and no replacement could be found. The uniform went unworn and unhemmed, but there it was in the closet after all those years.

I liked being a Girl Scout as well as I liked anything in those days, and I was sorry the troop disbanded for lack of a supervising adult. I’m sure it wasn’t much fun trying to interest a bunch of middle-school girls in anything besides finding fault.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Gerasimos and His Lion

Today is the feast day of the Fifth Century monk Gerasimos, who had a lion as companion and servant.

Gerasimos was a desert hermit who, while meditating, encountered a hurt lion near the banks of the Jordan River. After he doctored the lion, the beast refused to leave him. It accompanied the saint back to the monastery and was put to work guarding the community’s donkey, which fetched and carried water for the monks.

Apparently Gerasimos and the lion have been written about extensively (possibly even inspiring George Bernard Shaw’s tale of Andronicus and the Lion), but I first made their acquaintance in this morning’s church bulletin. The story is based on the writing of the Byzantine chronicler Sophronios of Jerusalem, himself observed as a saint by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

A passing trader stole the donkey while the lion was sleeping. The lion, after searching far and wide, returned alone to the monastery. The monks concluded that the lion had eaten the donkey, so they gave the lion the donkey’s job of carrying the saddle pack with four earthen jars to and from the river.

When later the thieving trader passed by with the stolen donkey and three camels, the lion recognized the donkey and, roaring, frightened the trader away, returning to the monastery with the four beasts. “Knocking with his tail on the door of the saint’s cell, he acted as if to show that he was offering them to the elder as game,” the church bulletin said. Gerasimos then named the lion for the first time: Jordanes.

The lion was freed, but returned once a week to the monastery to visit Gerasimos. When finally the lion returned to find only Gerasimos’ grave, he lay down on the grave and died.

Scripture from earliest days is full of lions, and it is not much of a stretch for a cat-lover to imagine a solitary male attaching itself to a community of monks, making friends with the only other beast in the area, or taking a nap while the donkey grazed.

I don’t know about the part where the lion knocked on the door with his tail. St. Sophronios didn’t write about the lion until the next generation, by which time a wonderful tale probably had become even more wonderful. However, very old paintings show Gerasimos with, not angels, but a lion and camels. There is little doubt that there was a Gerasimos who founded a monastery, Deir Hijla, in 455 A.D. The monastery still stands on the north side of the Dead Sea, and there is statue of a a lion in the yard.

And all of us cat-lovers know about twitching tails.