Table for Three

   My Nanny and I went to visit Mrs. Ruby the other day at the nursing home. She is one of the happiest people I know, while also being honest. She was born ninety-six years ago during a snowstorm in North Dakota, into a community of Norwegian immigrants. After the war, she and her husband returned there and built a house together, and she misses it.

    We brought blueberries, one of her many favorite things, and sat on the bed and talked to her. We talked, mostly, about her room, which, even in her pleasantness, fell from perfection as totally as the demons themselves. She has lived here eight years and it has taken her that long to tire of pretending that she likes it. There is not enough space for her few possessions, the door has no lock (enabling old men to wander in at all hours) and the windows overlook the congestion of downtown Augusta’s medical complex. She is not allowed to hang anything on the walls.

    “What would you say that was?” she asked, pointing to the one abstract and mass-produced picture.

    “Maybe goldfish?” I said, squinting, head cocked.


    There was a mirror over the little sink, but directly in the middle of it was a large metal paper towel holder.

     “I can’t see myself,” she said, moving on, clockwise. “That blocks my face completely. I asked them to move it. They just smiled and nodded. I may be old and senile, but you have to be some kind of stupid to design something like that. But the worst, the worst, is the food. It’s horrible to see what they do to vegetables. It’s a massacre, that’s what it is.”

   Visiting her in this place, even with the offering of blueberries, was not enough. Mrs. Ruby wanted out. The difference I’ve found, between girls and women, is the wherewithal to follow through.  I had all sorts of plans as a little girl. The plans continue to be hasty and ambitious, but results follow, and people even move in response, most of the time. It is so hard for the aged to lose this ability. It is a special, tenuous gift to be able to say, “Let’s get out of here and find some place good to eat!” and then accomplish it, in a matter of minutes. If this doesn’t seem like a marvel, you can neither remember your childhood, nor imagine your old age, and you’re missing out.

    So I found myself driving through lunchtime traffic with two of my favorite ladies, two delightful and fragile and trusting ladies, crossing the river bridge, getting a little corner table at Antonio’s and ordering pizza and salad. Nanny and I held hands and prayed, unable to get Mrs. Ruby’s attention, and then foolishly ate like Marines. For the next two hours, we sat and watched as Mrs. Ruby feasted. She ate the onions first, then the cucumbers with the dressing, then the pizza, picking it up with her hands, then the lettuce, all the while moving slowly, carefully, pleasurably, forgetful of us and absorbed in the experience. She ate it all, every last bit.

    I had just read that morning the verses in Deuteronomy about the Feast of Tabernacles. If there ever was a dispersed Israelite, living in a makeshift present, Mrs. Ruby is that one.  “Thou shalt rejoice in thy feast,” it says, and she did. With joy for what was— the home in North Dakota, the pheasants and moose, her own kitchen full of vegetables treated right, her husband and children. With joy in what is— the little table at a downtown pizza joint. And with joy in what’s to come— soon, a better feast than any she has known.

    There was a routine cognizance test waiting for her when we got back. The nurse had a list of mechanical questions. Can you spell ‘world’ backwards? Can you draw two octagons overlapping? Would you write me a sentence at the bottom of this page?

     Mrs. Ruby took it bravely on the chin. I thought of a few questions of my own. Could you leave your home in the vulnerability of your old age, cheerfully? Could you be bossed, herded and institutionalized and still have the heart to love blueberries and onions and cucumbers? Still have the pluck to enter the outside world and return again, unshaken? Could you wake up every morning in one of these unfeeling rooms and exhale thank you?

    As the nurse turned to leave, I looked over her shoulder at the clipboard. At the bottom, Mrs. Ruby had written in her clear, familiar script:

    It is a beautiful day to be in Augusta, Georgia.


Take it Slow



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.


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.


Treasure in Earthen Vessels



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.


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.”



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


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!


Bits of Summer

Many of these were rushed phone pictures, but such is the nature of summer days.  We’ve been harvesting sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers and savoring each eggplant.  Our hands are stained with bug guts and blackberries.  We welcome every summer storm and gust of wind to move the air.  We’re swimming every chance we get and making ice cream each weekend and running up and down the road to those we love.  It’s glut time, with eggs and milk and weeds and weddings running over, and so of course, we get a new kitten.

I’ve been listening to these talks.  And reading this.   And continuing to pray for the persecuted in the Nuba mountains , the unborn, the elderly and the helpless.

I am so thankful to the Lord.  I know I say that every time, but what else can I say?   This beauty is all His grace.

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Earth’s Lap Grows Lovely

Well.  She has come.

I’ve never been happier to see Spring.

“Actually, Spring is my favorite”, my friend Avery would say.

(As if we were having a conversation about it and someone suggested otherwise.)

But to emphatically confirm the truth never hurts.

So.  Actually Spring is my favorite.


I’ve been wading through Beowulf (Heaney’s translation is awesome) with a friend.

Here is a taste, with a nod to Spring:

“It was a wonderful thing, the way it all melted as ice melts when the Father eases the fetters off the frost and unravels the water-ropes.  He who wields power over time and tide:  He is the true Lord. ”  

“Wind and water raged with storms, wave and shingle were shackled in ice until another year appeared in the yard as it does to this day, the seasons constant, the wonder of light coming over us.  Then winter was gone, earth’s lap grew lovely, longing woke in the cooped-up exile for a voyage home….”


If you haven’t read Beowulf, you should.  But it is my opinion that it must be read out loud…..

To your friends, your family, your dog or even your cat.  I suppose.  If you must.


Lenten Roses (the Latin is Hellebores, no relation to the rose family) are incredible.  They grow in the deep shade and do not need much water.  They are evergreen, deer resistant and goat resistant too (don’t ask me how I know this : D).  But most importantly, they bloom before anything else, even before the daffodils.


The drooping “flower” that you see, in shades of cream, green and pink, is actually not the true flower, but the sepal, or protection for the true flower which is found in the blossom center…


Thus making it perfectly legitimate to lay down in the ivy to see them all.

Soon the flowers will turn into seed pods, but the sepals, though faded, will remain for months.

As I walk past, I often think of the last lines of Joy Davidman’s epitaph, written by Lewis: …. In lenten lands, hereafter may resume them on her Easter Day.

This is such a hopeful time of year.


Here are some pictures from the last few days, with praise to the One who makes all things new!IMG_0042.jpgIMG_0037.jpgIMG_0043.jpgIMG_0068.jpgIMG_0081.jpg

So,  Spring has come- like she always has-  but with no less the wonder and grace.

It’s the same old story, but the one that gives life and meaning to all the others.

Praise the Lord for regeneration, for the glorious fact of life after death and new creation!

For old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

With Harper I shout:  “Hurrah!IMG_0065.jpg

Little Things of Late

We’ve had our first snow!


And now that we’ve had this thrill, I say- Well!  That was lovely, wasn’t it?  Let’s move on.  To Spring!    But despite the first blooms of the lenten roses and snowdrops, I’m afraid we may still have an ice storm ahead.

(We’ve had one, yes.  But what about Second Winter?) 

Our first goat babies of the year have come….


Although I love to be at the births, there is something wonderful about walking in the barn and finding them waiting…. dry, bright eyed and absolutely perfect.


(It was a little humbling, I’ll admit, the first time. YOU MEAN THEY DON’T NEED ME?!)

And for fun, in closing, here’s a recent piece I wrote for the weekly prompts I share with my friend Sarah:

My daddy was a military kid. He was hauled all around the world as he grew up: Japan, Germany, California…. And interestingly, the base he was born at,  Fort Gordon in Augusta Georgia, was the last base of his dad’s career. So dad’s birth place became his resting place, for (as there was no reason to move around anymore)  he stayed right where he was.

Growing up, Daddy’s favorite “home spot” was in Esto, Florida. There was no military base there, just my grandmother’s extended family, and this is where they would go when they couldn’t travel with my grandfather. My great-grandparents were rooted deep in Esto. They had a farm complete with two mules (Ater and Gater were their names) who they came to a woeful end one day when they wondered onto the railroad tracks.  But that’s another story.

So for once, my daddy belonged to a place, because he belonged to a family that belonged there. He was one of the Sheffields, and those mules were his too.

I suppose this is why he took on the accent of North-West Florida. His years there were relatively short, but in their language, he found his own. In a hundred different words you can hear the drawl and pull and natural other-ness. But mostly in a handful of words that end in a “s” sound, for a “t” is added. For instance:

“Sarah, you’re gonna have to do something about Angus. He was on the road, not oncet, not twicet… but three times.” 

And again, in a most tender example, but one that always makes me grin:

“Oncet again, dear Lord, we ask for your mercy, oncet again.”

“Where’s your dad from?” Someone will ask. “It’s southern, I know, but there’s something else in there too.”

“He’s from everywhere,” I say. “But He picked up that “something else” in Esto, Florida and he’s held onto it ever since.”


That’s all folks!  Happy February!


“These autumn days will shorten and grow cold.  The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall.  Christmas will come, then the snows of winter.  You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world… Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond.  The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will wake, the warm wind will blow again….. this lovely world, these precious days….”

~E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web


Fall is such a unique time here in the Southeast.  In the last roses and first fires, it’s like Summer and Winter hold hands for a little while.



It is a glorious season, lovely in it’s own time.  I relish the wind especially, and the leaves flying and swirling.  It is the quickest season, it seems.  It’s a preparation, a strong beauty-memory to get us through the long winter, the feast before the battle.

You can read so many flowery things about it.  Autumn is a second spring, they say, when every leaf is a flower.  That’s very prettily said, I think, but not how I feel at all.

To me autumn is a man of war, armed and brave.  He comes, rallying creation for the last battle, the prophesied defeat, bleeding red and gold.

“Well, if we are to die”, he says, “let us die like men.”

And that, my friends, is Autumn.

It’s also why I couldn’t write for Hallmark.  : D