Good Grief, Charlie Brown

Come now, my friend, how can you say, like a bird up to his mountain I should fly away? All hope is gone. This is the end. Now retreat’s the only course that you would recommend. My friend, your counsel of defeat is like a coal. It burns my soul. (Psalm 11, My Soul Among Lions)

In the evenings, Pop would talk. The darkness was heavy; anxiety would find him. He could hardly move those last few weeks.  Can you imagine the madness, especially for a strong active man, of sudden immobility in the dark?
So he would talk, a little wildly sometimes, and I was there each night beside him.  Toward the end the fear was palpable, like an unwelcome guest in the room.  The old, like the young, are simpler. The nightmares were horrible but understandable.  He had seen war.  He was in war again. He was wounded in a trench, they had left him here to die.
When he heard my voice beside him, I would enter into his narrative.  I was a fellow soldier, his mother, his wife, myself, just a young girl… it changed and it didn’t matter.  I was with him.
Will they come for us?  He asked.    Yes.
Will you stay with me?
Yes. And Jesus is with us.
Yes, he said.

Well, everyone who knows me knows how I have missed this old man.  All the memories from those last months, every single dear word and the supervision of slow death…. I am still sorting it all out.  He was a precious friend, residing for twenty-four years in the interlining of the innermost circle of my heart.  He went to Jesus and it was good.   Even still it is true that I have mourned him every day and despised the sin of the world that brought separation with the fire of a thousand suns, and this grief blinds me sometimes to the sweeter truth.  This world is too heavy for me.  My brow is furrowed and my little lips recede into my face.

Then, mercifully so:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.   (Tolkien, The Return of the King)

I wish I could stop neatly here, but honesty compels me to say:  before I get to the light and high beauty moment, I am always found in that forsaken land of Mordor.  I have come to realize (to my shame of course which doesn’t help the situation) that I am generally a melancholy soul.  I am a woeful combination of a bleeding-heart and crusade-spirit, making me a comical real-life version of Lucy from Peanuts, alternatively giving psychiatric advice and hitting people in the head with a football.

The problem with Fixers is that they need to be fixed.  If I speak a counsel of defeat to my own soul, how can I offer words of life to my friends?

I read in a Calvin commentary years ago – “In thinking of the future, it is best to prepare for the worst, to lay in for the long siege.”
This is solid wisdom that I need to hear, but I have found that on either side of truth there is a chasm of error and a handy-dandy catapult with free rides from one pit to the other.  Mine is an aimless, indulgent and immature generation.  As Zack Eswine said in the book, Spurgeon’s Sorrows:
“… when we find ourselves impatient with sadness, we reveal our preference for folly, our resistance to wisdom, and our disregard for depth and proportion.”   However if I am, in response, morose and defeatist concerning the problems that plague me most (that is, my own) I have surely missed the boat of God’s good truth.

My friends and family have been so kind to let me grieve.  No one has rushed me, but I know myself that it is time to look up.  I will still miss Pop everyday; I told him I would (and he was pleased to hear it!) and he told me in return things I will cherish all my days.  And now?

Now I preach to my soul.  Now I cultivate joy.  Now I read Scripture like a traveler reads his map.  Now I strive to think, when the truth is dark and depressing:  My friend, but you forget the Lord is on His throne, and we’re His own.

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Sunny Days

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Four generations of feet right here.

I grew up in the public school system, which strikes me now as a rather twisted experiment with the human psyche.  I had a teacher that often referred to our ignorance of and unfitness for “the real world”.  We thought she was crazy, but she was right.

Since my last day in school, not a single bell has ushered me from one room to the next.  I haven’t raised my hand to ask a question, or been with 60 people my own age.  And I haven’t- not once- even seen a chicken ring, much less eaten one.

Kids are resilient and even after a decade in this pseudo-reality, we can move on and engage in normal human activity, but every now and then something jogs my memory and I am there again.

One such moment comes every year in May.  Before I even open my eyes in the morning, I can feel it.  I am free.  Set loose.  It is the morning of the year of jubilee. Summertime!

Growing up, Summer was the time of real living.  It was my favorite season.  In the same way I’d hurl my backpack on a Friday afternoon, that bright May morning for over a decade I hurled my cares.  Just chucked them in exchange for

My sister (mine, my very own)
Catching fireflies
Running through the sheets on the clothesline
Crushing berries to paint myself
Creek sliding, lake swimming, night fishing
Boiled peanuts, Sweetened condensed milk, tomatoes
No tests, no pressures, no need to gag on my toothbrush at the unrighteousness hour of 6 AM

Quickly I remember that I have been grown and free for years, with 365 days a year available to smear crushed berries on myself if I wished, but with my first sip of coffee I smile to think of all the kids waking up to that good feeling.

I hope someone buys them a big bag of boiled peanuts and fireflies visit them soon.

the Plain Old Truth

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Sweet is the melody, so hard to come by- It’s so hard to make every note bend just right, you lay down the hours and leave not one trace but a tune for the dancing is there in its place    ~ Iris Dement

To die slowly, or to care for someone who is dying slowly, is exacting business. You think “this is all I have” and then more is required, but you are still there and mostly alright, so you were wrong, but that doesn’t keep you from thinking it again the next day or five minutes.

The human spirit is a profound mystery.   In the medical field it is an unescapable mystery. There are no atheists in the foxholes, they say.  No, nor on particular floors of the hospital either.  Maybe in surgery or labor and delivery we can be duped into thinking we’ve got this.   But in the rooms where they remove the monitors because the end of their researching has come, the elephant in the room is the soul.

Going through this the last few months, I’ve grown older and learned a great deal, all of it confirming “there’s really nothing new to say, but the old old story bears repeating and the plain old truth grows dearer every day” as Rich Mullins wrote.

Beside a death bed and through weeks of exhaustion, frustration and sorrow, we learn who we are when we can’t help it. Our wills fail so easily and the curtain of our practiced discipline parts to reveal the long-formed hidden character.

I have never been more deeply and humbly grateful to be a Christian.  Salvation as a undeserved gift seems more than ever true.  Grief and turmoil hit us all like a semi, but for those in Christ there is simply Someone There to sustain you, restrain you, nourish you, put you to sleep, make the sun rise, surprise you with joy.

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I’ve also never been more grateful to be a homemaker.  Pain is clarifying and I have discovered at the end of the day, at the end of a life, the ones who took care of you, with your real physical, personal needs, are the ones with genuine worth. The ones who have loved you in your daily mundane cares, mess and hunger are those you love, and there is no greater calling on this earth than to love and be loved.

Homemaking is not just for the married.  It is for any woman who wants to meet the pressing needs, which are unpaid, untitled and culturally inglorious, but fulfilling and meaningful, especially when pursued faithfully and with courage.

Dying people need mothers.

Homemaking, I’ve discovered, is about pots and pans, shovels and brooms, laundry hampers and grocery lists.   It’s also about a welcoming hospitable heart.

It takes fortitude to open the door to needy people and humility to recognize your need and step inside the door graciously yourself.

We were each other’s guest and each other’s welcomer, wrote Wendall Berry on marriage, and it seems to me the bottom line of domestic tranquility and impossible to accomplish in marriage if you’re not accustomed to living this way already.

And lastly, I’m grateful for morning coffee and afternoon tea.  Having survived several days this week without either, I can testify that God’s greatest gifts are often, indeed, his commonest.

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Bright Sadness

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I was conflicted and torn-up on the way home that night. My whole world had changed and I couldn’t see beyond the brights and dims of the SUV.  My sister and constant companion had married and we’d all had a lovely day, rejoicing, feasting, speaking, smiling. But it is hard to be watched by so many while so full of emotion, so truly happy and yet so anxious for time to slow down, to just stop for a minute and let you think, all while the fancy boning of the pretty dress presses on your diaphragm.

I bet I said some pitiful stuff to my friend, Kelly, who was driving me home. It was just the two of us. She had come across the country for this day, and we hadn’t seen each other in many years, but she was still the same – wise beyond her years, calling me to wisdom beyond mine. Maybe I was crying and complaining, I can’t remember much, except this:

“Have you studied the names of God?” she asked, so obviously missing the point. “Do you remember El Roi?”
“The God Who Sees,” I said.

In this Kelly admonished me implicitly, to buck up, to grow up, not on my own strength but on His, because it really didn’t matter who I was.  And I think it a tender evidence of His grace that I cannot remember my own pathetic ramblings that night, but rather His Name, which truly “calms our fears and bids our sorrows cease” as the hymn-writer said.

Time seemed to bolt on that wedding day, like a horse from the barn after a long storm, but since then it has kept close and moved slowly. Maybe because I am more zealous to hold it by the reins.

Liturgy comforts me. I don’t press hard for order in my daily life, but I do love order. Order outside myself, order I don’t have to control. Order above me, not below me. Order indifferent to the chaos of humanity. Order sans Sarah.

(And do you know, the world still twirls wonderfully?)

A dear friend sent me this poem recently by Arthur Hugh Clough:

It fortifies my soul to know
That, though I perish, Truth is so:
That, howsoever I stray and range,
Wherever I do, Thou dost by change.
I steadier step when I recall
That, if I slip, Thou dost not fall.

I love the liturgy of the seasons. The springtime and harvest, blessedly repetitive, rhythmic, reliable.

I love the great light who rules the day and the lesser lights who rule the night. I respond to their rule. There is peace in that, you know.

I’ve come to love the liturgy of the church calendar, though I’m still a novice at it.  It’s not the high-churchism I love; not the robes or outward marks or even the feasts and fasts.

It’s the low-churchism. It’s the similarity of the pattern to the soil.  In the cold nights, short days, naked branches, dying seeds, the very earth cries out: “Surely, surely, he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows!”

In the swollen pregnant bellies of the livestock, the earth waits. In the haunting song of the searching geese, the earth yearns.

Lent is a time for Bright Sadness, they say, which is something more fierce than melancholy, I’m thinking.

When David cried those chilling words, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalam! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”, He only echoed God’s anguish. The God Who Sees knows our sorrows and they grieve him. They are his own. He knows our sins and they grieve Him too. These also He took on Himself.

He is passionate, He weeps.  He is masculine, He moves – for there came a Warrior Ransom, a Perfect Son of David who died in the place of our Absalom-wicked hearts.

Yes, His Joy is as fierce as His Sorrow. But we mustn’t rush it.

Don’t be like those roosters who wake me up at 3:00 AM, please. Wait for it.

The sap rises in the grapevines, the new leaves hunker down in the final frost and in the cold night sky there shines Betelguese, whose name means The Branch Coming and Rigel below, meaning The Foot That Crusheth, and they sing again the battle story,

of that night when the The God Who Sees said,  “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death, remain here and watch with me.”

Painful Pruning

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I’ve been pruning roses.

A seminary student came to the farm once and asked about our muscadine crop. There had been little rain that year and a pitiful harvest, but I had read that the sweetest grapes grow in drought years, and told him so.
“That’ll preach,” he said.

I often think of that in the garden, where just about everything will preach if you will listen.

It’s hard to prune.  A neighbor stopped by and watched me, saying, “I’ve got a few roses, but I don’t think I can do that to them!”  It does feel cruel to take off so much, two-thirds of the strong green shoots, already bushing out at the top.  I must conscientiously remember the old lady in the rose gardening documentary.  I remember watching my grandfather and sister do this every February.   I remember the radical “prunings” in my life and in the lives of others, prunings that felt much more like butcherings at the time.   In remembering, I know it will be okay.

Remembering is what gardeners do in the winter; it’s as essential as fertilizer and as nourishing as rain. Without it, no seeds would be planted, no beds mulched over and no roses pruned.

With the bright red Felco pruners, newly sharpened and cleaned, the process begins. First, you look her over. Queen of the Violets, she is called and in her sprawly, confident posture, I remember the thousands of full, heavily scented flowers and the Green Lynx Spider that makes a home in her every summer.  I see the trellis we had to build in the ground behind to support her.  She is the only purple rose, and she shoots out in all directions, as if she knows her own importance, and strives to make herself seen above the others.  I know this rose, but as I squat to see the dead stock, as I look for disease and fungus, as I consider where she must be cut, she becomes fully known.

In pruning out the dead, it must be remembered that the presence of the barren, dry stock is not a failure.  Roses are regenerating things.  They are always dying, always being reborn.  Do not be deceived by the deadness. “It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present to us: it is the very sign of his presence,” was part of a Lewis quote that a knowing friend recently sent me, sensing the discouragement with my own dirt and deadness.  And so with the rose.  The dead is only seen when the Gardener is standing there, present, and eager to help.

I look for a scar, concentrating on the science of the thing, for this part preaches a bit too loudly for comfort and squirming is not helpful in making a clean cut.  A scar is where the job must be done, for there is something in that old hurt that can come alive.  With the direction of the cut and the position of the scar, I train the bush to open up, to spread out to the world, not into herself, to form a vessel to receive the sun and rain, and in return to give her gifts to others.

Half an hour later, stepping back to see, I’m glad my neighbor did not stay, for, although I am satisfied, it is a humble sight.  I haul the branches to the goats, who love the dark new leaves and the occasional rose-hip.  Getting scratched in the process, I smile at the memory of the girl who stepped out of the mini-van in her blue Converse shoes and basketball shorts.
“Umm, why do you have so many thorn bushes?” she asked.

Walking back to the now much smaller, lowlier rose, I do the final thing.  It’s silly, I know, but the poetic nature of the painful work I did compels me.  Gardening lends itself to fools. “You are Queen of the Violets! ” I say.

If a rose could disbelieve, she does.  Yet it is so.  Someday soon she will know, even as she is fully known.  I hope my neighbor and the girl with the Converses come and see.

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Take it Slow

 

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Staring at my schedule book on December 1st, I wrote: Take it Slow in big script at the top, right above the bullet hole straight through every Monday (this accident happened early in the year and proved prophetic: Your schedule is shot.)

I want to take these advent days gently. I want to feel them all, as Mary felt her belly swell and the life kick, and I want to ponder it all in my heart, just as she did.

But there are fifty meat chickens to be processed and put in the freezer, beeswax candles to dip, sugar cane to be pressed and boiled down, two leaks in the house and one in the barn roof, stalls to be cleaned, goats to milk, three meals a day with expected (and unexpected) guests, muddy tracks across the floor, cows escaping, firewood to haul, fireplaces to clean, all sorts of Christmas to-dos (and oh, by the way, did you see the “Rush! Live root stock, plant immediately!” package at the door?).

So how am I supposed to take it slow, Lord?

I will provide the grace.

He will provide the grace, like he did for Mary, every jarring bump along the way to the ill-timed census.

It is not about my circumstances. I know too well how unclean stables can be. I have held a woman gripped in birth pains. I can only imagine what having a death warrant from a king would be like.

No, it is about a heart-tender with the capacity to treasure and ponder all things sent.

Sometimes it’s fifty dead chickens on a cold rainy day and I’m in the gutting section and my nose is dripping. Sometimes it’s watching your grandmother unwrap every ornament slowly and gently and talk about each one. Sometimes it’s climbing on the roof to look at the leak, trying hard not to let it show that something essential in your back just stretched beyond its ability. Sometimes it’s sitting at a beloved concert, all beautiful and true, and realizing that the goosebumps aren’t going away and your whole body has gone numb in the glory of the story, the true tall tale as old as time and yet new every year, every morning.

Things will not be ideal. Life and work and needs will go on in December like always. Taking it slow is not the same as taking it easy.

This proper stillness comes in the inner sanctum. It ought to be there in the walled garden, where the foxes can’t enter to ravage, nor strangers disturb, that shelters from the wind.

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When I look outside it seems like creation is waiting at ease on death, but the wonder of Christianity is in the cry of the baby, unmistakable and poignant in the dark night on the streets of David’s town. When Mary received the troubling visit and her schedule was undone with the angelic message, despite the myriad distractions and daily chores that surely continued, she sang. What’s more, she made the song she sang, from the still quiet place of her poet’s heart.

She took it slow.

And today, by the grace of her Baby Boy, so will I.

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Treasure in Earthen Vessels

 

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There once was a man, found him a treasure
buried out under a tree, sold all he had,
just to own it forever
The treasure is you, you see.¹

There was a time when I wanted an experience of God in an extraordinary way, but since I have learned to see Him in His servants, I realize that I have more of Him than, quite honestly, I can usually handle in my frailness most days. I’m walking through a garden of a thousand burning bushes², as one songwriter put it, for I am well surrounded by friends.

Seasons change and people change, I know, and although I can’t imagine who I would be without them, it is the way of life on earth for relationships to move throughout the seasons. It may be naive of me to say this, but I do not think a thousand autumns could alter my love or appreciation for those surrounding me today.

The life-giving words spoken to me this past year have flooded my way with light. Each person who let me see their broken vessel and did not hide their cracks, (as I so pitifully could not hide mine if I tried); from those deformities shone the light of the gospel of the glory of God, as it says in Second Corinthians. And without fear of mixing metaphors, because God does it so often, I was like a ship through troubled waters, and each bright hopeful star that lead me home was a hole in the earthen vessel that was my precious friend.

And- this is where it gets me- somehow, I am that for them too.

I spoke with a friend today about life seasons. “You are in the support season,” she said without hesitation. I nodded, imagining myself strengthened and buoyed by her and all my loved ones.
“You are holding people up,” she said. And I laughed to realize that she was imaging an opposite image from mine— of me supporting others.

It’s all happening at once, you see.  We’re not taking turns,  it’s not like, you get to be the jar of clay today and I’ll do it tomorrow.

When I was little I often pondered on something until it hurt. I would consider eternity until my brain felt like it would explode, and I liked that feeling, so I would do it again, trying to imagine a new color not derived from any other, or a creature not based on any I have known, like something from Revelation. That’s the feeling I have now when I imagine this:

I am made by God into who He wants me to be, largely through those darling second causes surrounding me, and then I make them who they are too, and we each form a different inner circle, sometimes overlapping, yet quite unique, and then the influence and leaning gets more and more complex and intricate and unfathomable as you go out and out. God is making it, and He’s got it all under control and it is beautiful. Sometimes you get glimpses of it, as when my friend told me about her uncle who had changed her life as a child and I see that, in her, he changed mine too. Or when my sister tells me what she is going through, and although I may never experience it, I really don’t need to now, in order to empathize with some stranger who has.

I’m not sure we can really stop this process, but we can reject the grace of it. We can isolate ourselves, seek foolish friends, live in fantasy lands and tell people who love us to back off. Even this does not thwart the plan of God, but it is a tragedy, because the glory of God on earth is men and women fully alive, people who, when broken, blaze that Gospel light to illumine the way for those around them, people who gladly walk through their days in the brightness of others. This is when the reality of our standing as sons and daughters of God becomes believable to those who watch, and to ourselves as well.

It is no wonder C.S. Lewis said, “If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.”  For, when sanctified, a Christian in context— holding, held, speaking, listening, offering, receiving, touching and feeling— is what the good fight, the worthy race, is all about.

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If, my forbearing reader, you are still with me, in the words of the iconic television salesman: But wait! There’s more!

For, as beautifully supportive and powerful our friends are, they will fail us. Individually and perhaps, some dark night, corporately.  Loss, betrayal, abandonment, division, mere frailty… those things are real.  And what then?

Then Jesus becomes the fairest of ten thousand to your soul.

Then the hymns you grew up singing become your heart-cry:

Dear Refuge of my weary soul,
On Thee, when sorrows rise
On Thee, when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies
To Thee I tell each rising grief,
For Thou alone canst heal
Thy Word will bring a sweet relief
For every pain I feel³

And the glorious Word of the Dear Refuge says, “I have called you friends.”

Jesus is the hub of every living inner circle!  He is the light of every broken vessel!

For, wonder of wonders, not only does He love us, but He lets us do some of His loving for Him, despite the likelihood of us messing it up.  You see, our frailty and weakness is the treasure, for it shows that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.

I once heard a man say that Christ’s greatest display of leadership was not His miracles, His dying, or His defeat of death through resurrection, but His leaving, for slowly and surely He would make us His hands and feet.  Through the work of the Spirit, the Comforter, He will have His friends in every inner circle in the world, till every knee bows and every tongue confesses Him as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

All through friendships. Illustrated, in my life, by an old man on the phone, a little girl reading a story, a plane ticket purchased from across the sea to my hometown, coffee-stained letters on my desk, crocheted gloves on my hands, sticky-notes for me all over the house of an old lady, a tea party written in on my calendar, a busy man sitting with me on a swing, a hot drink made sweet and creamy without request, daily words on the lips of my sister, the teasing of my brother and in the giggle of the baby who enjoys my funny face, in counsel, in jokes, in warnings, in stories, in silence, in song, in frustration, in uncontainable affection, in prayers…

In short and in the words of Charles Williams written to his friend, C.S. Lewis, “My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day.”

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¹“You Can Always Come Home to Me” Andrew Peterson  ²“A Thousand Burning Bushes” Andy Gullahorn  ³ Hymn by Anne Steele, click here to listen

A Bull, Solitude and the Garden Plan

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I found myself alone in the garden, ‘working the plan’ as Mama would say, although we both know there is no plan, or perhaps just the bare bones of one: to keep it relatively tame and to eat.

I feel an ownership over this fall garden, more especially than in seasons past. I have been often away from home this year, with many good things drawing me elsewhere, so my ‘home days’ have been relished.  I am glad all the barn animals have kept themselves alive in my absence.  I work in the garden with gusto.  I sit at my desk with a silly grin and could cry with joy in my happy place.

Despite the excitement and busyness of this schedule, I have also met solitude for the first time.  My sister will be married two years come March, and it has taken me that long to accept- and then appreciate- being alone.

It is not uncommon for someone to holler (sorry for the colloquialism, but there is no better word for what we do), “Sarie! We’re goin’ in town (or to the sailboat, or to the cows). Be back in a couple hours!” And that couple hours slips into something more as the sun shifts across the sky.

Solitude is an opportunity. It’s like a clean garden bed.

Solitude is a calling. It’s like the crest of the bull I read about long ago: On one side of the beast stands  a plow, on the other an altar, and underneath, the inscription: Ad utrumque paratus- Ready for either.  I always loved that image, in a terrified kind of way.

So today I found myself alone in the fall garden, uniquely my own. The reason being that, for the first time, I grew the season’s plants out from seed and transplanted them successfully by myself. My sister was formerly the seed-girl. She is gentle and orderly and quiet, just the sort of person for the job. This year things are… different.

Postmodernism would call me ‘artsy’ but I’m afraid a more truthful generation would say ‘a mess’. I failed to label the seed beds sufficiently and cole-crops, as you may know, look remarkably similar when they are babes. (Thankfully I had the empty seed packets as evidence that I didn’t grow out 200 cabbage plants.)  So I just transplanted them into their permanent beds in any which way.
“We’ll figure it out,” Mama so sweetly said. “I mean, there are only so many things it could be. Broccoli, Collards, Cabbage.”
“Red Cabbage, Swiss Chard, Kale, Russian Kale, Brussels Sprouts, Kohlrabi, Bok Choy or Purple Cauliflower.” I added.
“Oh.” She said, “Fun!”
I like her a lot.

And then, as the Summer holds on, with a final tomato and cucumber flush, successive plantings of green beans, and peppers, eggplant, zinnias and roses still going strong, I just squeezed the winter plants in wherever I could, resulting in a sort of novel hide-and-seek-mystery-gardening method in our Fall 2016 Mr. Bones Plan.

As I mentioned, solitude- that is, sane and happy solitude- did not come to me quickly and although I learned some things along the way, it has come at last as a given thing, and not my achievement.

When I see my ‘mostly companions’ leave the gate, I feel this pressure, not to maximize the time to myself or to chill (usually), but a Pressure of Presence.  Never less alone than when alone.  I wonder if this isn’t the monastic appeal?  It’s not like I’m sitting in the garden meditating (I really wish I was better at that), it’s like, with all the work before me, I know He’s there more really than I do when surrounded by people.  He fills the space left empty.  And my choices- to fold laundry or paint at my desk- are less mine than they ever were. And something else I’ve noticed to my surprise, is that the decision- to scrub the floor or to study the book, to the plow or to the altar, you might say- is equally appropriate and pleasing to, well, to us.

There is a hummingbird that likes to visit (distract? dive-bomb?) me when alone in the garden.  I often attempt to work with the chunky telephoto zoom lens on the camera slung around me to capture him in a still frame.  It becomes disturbingly evident in moments like this that I am a ‘dabbler’, for I have yet to learn the art of the quick manual focus.  Inevitably, when I put the camera down, he will come and sit demurely five inches from my face.  John Buchan said fishing was “the art of something illusive, yet attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope” and this is true.  Although I wonder if Mr. Buchan ever tried to get a picture of a taunting, exuberant hummingbird?

I am so thankful for the silence and solitude of the garden, showing me what God wants me to see.  He says:  You were made for this, right here and now.  It was made for you.

I’ve had to learn, sometimes painfully, to be flexible to the Master Gardener’s plan (which is far more intelligent, coherent, successful and fruitful than mine, but still, I think, with it’s own unique, luxuriant, sprawling, less-than-tidy glory), and which He works zealously, at all times, in all things.

My garden plan (and the subsequent reality) is, at best, a demonstration of weakness touched by grace and all too often an illustration of Emily Dickinson’s maxim: When I try to organize, my little force explodes.

God’s plan is not so. If it seems random or repetitive, that’s because He likes it that way.  As Chesterton said, “Perhaps God makes all daisies the same because he never tires of making them.”  We may wonder why he left a bed of weeds, only to discover they were not weeds after all.

Here in Autumn, we all, like the engraved bull, have something palpable on either side of us: the Summer and the Winter.  But we are all experiencing this seeming dichotomy in life, the unknown aspect to the day’s calling, in many other ways:  Will it be solitude or companionship, sunshine or rain, peace or conflict, fullness or hunger, accomplishment or frustration, deep sleep or wakefulness, a plow or an altar?

This is life.  A given thing.

Here in Autumn, with the greatest respect for the competent and steady bull, yet with more likeness to the inexperienced and flighty hummingbird, I long to say: Ad utrumque paratus!  Ready for either!

 

Potpourri

(I’m gratefully stealing this idea from Scribo:Girl.)

This summer has been a wonderful season in literature (and letters!) for me, so here are pictures from the last few months with some highlights from my reading….

 

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“This has been a wonderful day!” said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”  

“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “Never been in a—you never—well I—what have you been doing, then?”

(from The Wind in the Willows  by Kenneth Grahame)

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As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space ’twixt the marsh and the skies:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God:
Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within
The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.

(from the poem The Marshes of Glynn by Sidney Lanier)

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Having my identity in an eternal Father gave me the freedom to explore better how to love best…  Often it is messy but that’s okay.  Abundance tends to look that way.

“Your education here has included your conversion, or, put better, your conversion has marked the beginning of your real education.  Your time here has not only honed your intellect, but hopefully it has contributed to the shaping of your spirit, so that as you now walk off your ‘ledge of familiarity’, you will also be able to walk with those you meet every day….. People assume that our dignity only lies in our choices, in what we think we so powerfully will and wield.  But it can reside in our reactions, too, in our decisions about how to respond.”

(from Surprised by Oxford by Caroline Weber)

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The humblest and at the same time most balanced and capacious minds praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least… Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.

(C.S. Lewis as quoted in Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer)

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 “Your daughter is a very superior person,” he told dad. “Most of the girls nowadays are all tops and no taters…”
Jane liked Uncle Tombstone too. In fact, nothing in her new life amazed her more than the ease with which she liked people. It seemed as if everyone she met was sealed of her tribe. She did not realize that the change was in herself. She was no longer rebuffed, frightened, awkward because she was frightened. Her foot was on her native heath and her name was Jane.

 “Does your Pa put live people in his stories?” asked Penny.
“No.” said Jane.
“Everybody round here says he does. Everybody’s scared he’ll put them in. He’d better not put us in if he doesn’t want his snoot busted. I’m the toughest boy in Lantern Hill.”
“Do you think you are interesting enough to put in a story?” said Jane.
Penny was a little scared of her after that.

(from Jane of Lantern Hill, by L.M. Montgomery)

 

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“We learn to do things by doing the things we are learning to do.”

(Aristotle, as quoted in a letter from R.)

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The effort to say freshly is a way of seeing freshly. The effort to say strikingly is a way of seeing strikingly. The effort to say beautifully is a way of seeing beauty…. The effort to put the excellencies into worthy words is a way of seeing the worth of the excellencies. The effort to say more about the glory than you have ever said is a way of seeing more than you have ever seen.

(from Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully by John Piper)

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“Stand still. In a moment I will blow. But first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart, and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”

( from The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis, as quoted in a letter from S.)

 

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“Long after the final i-gadget has been discovered, we’ll still yearn for hugs, kisses and personal conversations.  When we’ve traveled to the last exotic place and finished participating in the last recreational or entertainment venue on our list, we will want a haven and we will call it home.”

(Joel Salatin, as quoted in a letter from A.)

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I live to shew his power, who once did bring
My joyes to weep, and now my griefs to sing.

(from the poem Joseph’s Coat by George Herbert)

 

 

 

Beauty in the Commonplace

“Mitford would simply like to be the pause that refreshes.”
— Jan Karon

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I grew up seeing the Mitford books line the shelves of my dear grandmother’s little brick house.  The collection expanded as the latest one came out.  I remember staring at the covers before I learned to read, which seemed to take a painfully long time, but then when I did learn, I was going to read everything, and Mitford was surely on the map.  Then I became a snob.

I was all about the classics those days and scorned best-sellers. If everyone read it, well then, it couldn’t be for me.  Then one day a preacher- a Christian man of culture, wisdom and experience- made a side comment about the wonderful Jan Karon and the highly recommended Mitford Series.

To use one of her own quotes- I “turned away for a moment, smacked by the beauty of complete surprise.”

And so I was chastened and began to read them, and have been a frequent visitor to Mitford ever since.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Mitford is a small fictional town in North Carolina. The Anglican minister, Father Tim, is the central character of the stories, but the characters in the periphery pop-up so frequently that you can almost forget it at times.  You age with them, and their stories unfold softly, just like in real life.

I consider Jan Karon the ultimate “gentle fiction” author.  She is good for you- good for your heart and eyes and weary head.  It’s in a joke well told, tears well spent, common lives worth the living.  I can pick up any Mitford novel, flip to any page, and have a wonderful time and experience the blessed kinship of knowing that thousands of other people feel the same way.  They are the best books to read and carry for random conversation, at least in my circle (which is the waiting room at the doctor’s office, the mid-day grocery store line and generally people over 60- but hey : D )

Autumn had come to the mountains at last…. Avis Packard put a banner over the green awning of The Local:  Fresh Valley Hams Now, Collards Coming.
Dora Pugh laid on a new window at the hardware store featuring leaf rakes, bicycle pumps, live rabbits, and iron skillets.  “What’s th’ theme of your window?” someone asked.  “Life.” replied Dora.
– from These High, Green Hills

Perhaps why I love these books so much is because it is my world.  She captures a hundred common things I fail to see the glory of, or the irony in, or just simply fail to appreciate the realness of. The misprints in the local paper, what everybody had for lunch, the new car on the street, the eccentricities of relationships… not much to write of, right?   I wouldn’t bet on it.

Around noon, I swung into Blowing Rock and dropped by to see friends who were mountain natives and Main Street store owners.
“Had lunch yet?” I asked.
“Yep, did you?”
“Yep.  Two packs of Nabs.”
Two packs?”
“Two packs.”
“Hon, did you hear that?”
“What’s that?”
“She had two packs.”
“Two packs of what?”
“Nabs.”
“Well, I’ll say.  Two packs.  How about that.”
“My, my.  Two packs.”
“Nabs.” Long, pondering silence. “I declare!”
This exchange invoked a kind of reverie that felt slightly akin to being wrapped in swaddling clothes…..  What the above conversation was all about was perfectly clear to me.  It was about passing time, and relishing even the smallest of pleasures- as one might savor the minuscule sweetness of a single currant in a scone…. It doesn’t take much for me, as my sister-in-law often says.  What she actually says is, “You can make more out of nothing than anybody I know.”

– Jan Karon from the Mitford Bedside Companion

Thinking of these things reminded me of a John Piper quote about C.S. Lewis, an author who had a profound effect on him (and me as well!).  He said:  “Lewis gave me an intense sense of the ‘realness’ of things.  The preciousness of this is hard to communicate.  To wake up in the morning and be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the warmth of the sun’s rays, the sound of the clock ticking, the sheer being of things (‘quiddity’ as he calls it).  He helped me become alive to life.   He helped me to see what is there in this world- things that, if we didn’t have, we would pay a million dollars to have, but having them, ignore.”   ( John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life)

This is what Jan Karon has done for me.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been again smacked by the beauty of complete surprise, when, in some common scene, I realize that the dialogue I overhear is delightfully interesting and profound.  Familiarity breeds contempt, I have heard it said to my sorrow, and found it all too often to be true.  Sometimes what we need is a visit to another place to open our eyes to what is before us and Mitford is the perfect spot for such a purpose.

So go and read!  I would start at the beginning, though I admit I haven’t read the whole series myself.
My favorites are At Home in Mitford (#1),  A Common Life (#6), Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good  (#10) and the Mitford Cookbook.  Also the Mitford Bedside Companion is wonderful for a little dose of comfort, and I do not blush to confess that my copy really is on the night-stand.

“Uncle Billy stood as straight as he was able, holding on to his cane and looking soberly at the little throng, who gave forth a murmur of coughing and throat-clearing…
“Wellsir, this old feller an’ ‘is wife was setting’ on th’ porch, an’ she said, ‘Guess what I’d like t’ have?’
“He said,’What’s that?’
“She said,  ‘A great big bowl of vaniller ice cream with choc’late sauce and nuts on top!’
“He says, ‘Boys howdy, that’s be good.  I’ll go down to th’ store and git us some.’
“Wife said, ‘Now, that’s vaniller  ice cream with choc’late sauce and nuts.  Better write it down.’
“He said, ‘Don’t need t’ write it down, I can remember.’
“Little while later, he come back.  Had two ham san’wiches.  Give one t’her. She looked at that sandwich, lifted th’ top off, said, ‘You mulehead, I told you t’write it down, I wanted mustard on mine!’ ”

-from A New Song