Sunday, March 20, 2011


Wooden tiles snap against a wooden table, clicking like the keys on the old typewriter in Dad Connors' den on Rolling Green Drive. Thin flat squares of sanded grainless wood, probably pine, polished and stamped on one side with a letter from the alphabet. Gathered from an old Scrabble game, we keep the collection of consonants and vowels in a small canvas satchel in the flour bin drawer of Gram's old baker's cabinet. The game board is long gone. We don’t need it anyway.

Years before, Aunt Becky and Aunt Mae had sucked us into one of their games when they were here visiting, later than late at night, probably more like early in the morning when the menfolk had gone to bed and it was just us women-folk left chittin' away the hours. Mae had dumped her little sack of tiles on the dining table, scooted to the front of her dining chair, back erect, hands moving swiftly and intently as she turned the tiles upside down, blank sides up.

"OK," she said, "Draw 7 tiles."

We reached into the pixelated collection in the middle of the table, feeling for ones that had the aura of success. Once drawn, we were instructed to turn them over and begin assembling words, connected like crossword puzzles. They called it Speed Scrabble.

"When you've used all your tiles shout 'GO'", Aunt Becky said, never looking up, working the letters into words as the talked.

We scrambled to make sense of our random collections, scampering in our brains like teenagers in a library the week before term papers were due, searching for treasures of the lexicon.

"How in the heck am I supposed to make a word with no vowels?" I say, slumped in my seat, elbow plunked on the table, head leaning on my extended palm. "Would someone hurry up and say Go?"

Someone uses up their tiles, calls the word, and we all reach for two more. I draw two more consonants. Are you kidding? My tiles just pile up in front of me waiting for some a,e,i,o or u to make them complete.

Again someone gets their tiles used up and gives us permission to draw two more letters.

“Finally,” I grumble aloud, “an A!"

I never do catch up to the rest. By the end of the round I have something like 47 points. The objective is to use all your tiles and have 0 points.

Danged vowels. You never realize how important they are until you don’t have them.

Tr_ t_ c_mm_n_c_t_ w_th__t th_m!

Like most things in life, we don’t really appreciate them until they’re gone.

The converse is true as well. Sometimes we don’t realize me need something until we get it.

When Kate was in grade school she had a hard time getting up in the morning. It’s ironic that now she rises for school every day, including Saturdays, at 5 am. However, in first grade, 8 o’clock was really hard. In an attempt to help her rise through the mist of her dreams and enter the “real world” without too much agony, I used to go into her room and softly scratch her back. The sensory stimulation helped her come into consciousness.

One morning I could feel her breathing quicken, though her face was turned away from me as I tickled her back with my fingernails. She laid there a while, letting me scratch, her soft little girl skin warm and silky, stretched on her strong back and broad shoulders. Finally, she turned her head and looked up at me, maneuvering her back so I could continue as she talked.

“Funny thing about backs,” she said, her voice raspy from the silent night, “Sometimes you don’t even know it itches ‘til someone scratches it.”

Kate has always been really good at gathering the stuff of life and presenting it neatly on tiny little verbal platters. A few weeks ago she said something that has been crucial to my sense of self. We were talking about teaching, about our stewardships. She is a teacher of adolescent boys and girls. Well over a hundred of them. She teaches in a KIPP school in Houston. The philosophy of KIPP is to immerse the student in learning, among other things. So the KIPP student’s school day starts at 7 am and continues until 5 pm, 6 days a week. Indeed, Kate teaches on Saturdays, too. If you get a chance to see the movie Waiting for Superman you can get a sense for the demands of her job. But it’s a noble thing she does, and hopefully she is paid in tender wages. Still, she is teaching adolescents – 11-13 year olds. Disadvantaged 11-13 year olds. They’re a tough crowd.

I have a stewardship to a couple dozen teenage girls in our church, known as the Young Women. We meet every Sunday for spiritual lessons, and every Wednesday for an activity, and we have Girl’s Camp and Youth Conference every summer and other activities throughout the year. It’s a very demanding job, though not unfulfilling. I do love the girls! But they are teenage girls. I get worn out, exhausted with worry and effort. I wonder if the girls are getting anything at all out of the efforts I and a bunch of other YW leaders put into our callings.

A few weeks ago I spent about 10 hours preparing for an activity, which was probably a mistake on my part. But that evening as I presented what I had prepared three of the girls sat playing with each others’ hair and tickling each other’s arms, and one of them outright said to me, as I was talking, “Can we be done now?”

I had to fight back the tears as I tried to ignore her and finish up. But it hurt. More than I want it to have hurt.

Kate called that night and we were exchanging our struggles with teaching kids.

“I guess we can’t expect the people we teach to tell us if we are doing a good job or not.” Kate said, trying to find a way to comfort me as well as herself.

She was right. She often is. Most of us don’t know how we are being changed until after we are changed. We cannot appreciate a fire in the daylight.

Sometimes, in life’s big game of Speed Scrabble, we get a wad of consonants and not a single vowel. It’s not fun. It sometimes even feels unfair, until you realize it was you and no one else who drew those wooden tiles from the pile. Still it’s a downer. But we keep playing, waiting for someone to shout “Go”, hoping that one of the new tiles we draw will contain a vowel and we can get back in the game.


  1. i suppose i need to join in at the table and play a little more speed scrabble instead of observing from the couch! i am in awe of your abilities! you are indeed a hip, with it, techno, cool matriarch!

  2. Nice article! If you haven't already tried it out, you might be interested in online Speed Scrabble.

  3. Okay. Now I'm trying to think of ways to score a used Scrabble game. Beyond that, I know what you mean - about teaching, and about making sense with no vowels. Actually, I think we have to do that a lot of the time. We had a death in the family this week, and it uncovered questions I hadn't known I would ask. Not "why did this happen," because that kind of view of God doesn't interest me. But this: how to you sort out what happens on purpose and what doesn't? How can you give credit to Heaven for what it does without being able to see clearly? And most: seeing as it would be just as hard to live a good life even if you knew for sure who God is and what he looks like, why the veil? I am tired of questions. They are the vowels for me - the missing vowels. You know, in hieroglyphics, or maybe hieratic, there were no symbols for vowels. The Reader just knew from the consonants and the context what the words were. But we, coming fresh from the future, with no context and very little understanding, try to make words out of what we see - and end up, after all our scholarship - only guessing at what the vowels might have been.

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