Garden Notes: A Harvest to Remember (and a winner!)

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If he was still alive, my Grandpa Phillips would have turned 118 today. Born in 1898, he died in 1999 just before his 101st birthday. Our Jeffrey, who carries Grandpa’s name as his middle (“I want to name the baby after you,” I told him. “What’s your middle name?” He laughed and said, “I wasn’t important enough to have a middle name.” So, Jeffrey Ray it is.) wasn’t quite four months old when this part of his namesake passed. They met only one time before Grandpa fell ill. I have a picture of Grandpa beaming, a bundle of baby in his arms. Grandpa was a stubborn, independent, loving soul. He lived alone until the last year of his life. Even when arthritis and vertigo plagued him, he resisted moving in with my aunt as long as he could. He lived life on his own terms—farmer, father of nine, lover of automobiles and babies—I still miss him sometimes. His wife—my Grandma—died when I was five years old. He lived another 25 years without his beloved. One time I asked him why he never remarried. “I didn’t want anyone but my old woman,” he said, tears in his eyes.

When I was a little girl, Grandpa had the biggest, most beautiful garden. I remember staring wide-eyed at his strawberries every summer; I remember Grandma’s well-stocked pantry of home-canned goods.

Last night, I pulled up what was left of my pole beans. They were still producing, petite white blooms speaking promise here and there. But the Mexican bean beetles had made lace out of every heart shaped leaf on the vine. I spent two hours pulling up the beans by root, searching out the beetle larvae and destroying it. Then I cleared the bed of any leaf debris, hoping to deter any overwintering beetles.

It’s been a bad summer for my garden. As I looked out over my little patch of land I wondered if Grandpa ever had such a sad harvest. Something inside me felt like I’d let him down. I’ve had little energy to nurture the tender shoots of growing things these past few months. I’ve had little energy for much other than what is required.

This week our women’s group begins a new Bible study on the life of Nehemiah. In preparation I’ve been reading through that book of the Bible, freshening my memory to the details of Nehemiah’s story. Nehemiah felt moved to leave a prestigious position in Susa to lead the Jews in rebuilding the city walls of Jerusalem. At one point, in fear of attack from their enemies, Nehemiah says,

From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried material did their worked with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. … Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.” (Neh. 4:16-18, 23)

How does one rebuild a thing while constantly standing guard? When you can’t even take a drink of water for fear of being ambushed by one thing or another?

Did my grandfather ever stand looking out over the garden of his life and wonder if what he was building would ever hold up? He lived through the Great Depression, two world wars, the struggle for civil rights, free love, and raising nine kids. His oldest son was a prisoner of war during the Korean Conflict, for Pete’s sake. His youngest son married at age 18—to a 16-year-old girl (my mother). He lost his wife of 53 years to cancer. And remained faithful to a memory for another 25.

And yet, in my memory he is always smiling.

The word remember is mentioned frequently in the book of Nehemiah. I’m paying attention to that. Today I’m remembering my Grandpa—Ray Phillips. And remembering feels like a rich harvest.

The winner of Laurie Klein’s beautiful book of poetry, Where the Sky Opens is Dolly! Yay, Dolly :). I’ll be in touch soon :).

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Manna (and a giveaway)

The poplars are yellowing and turning brown around the edges. Soon the rest of the trees will follow suit. Chaucer is credited with saying, “Time and tide wait for no man” but I’m sure he must have been paraphrasing the wind. How long has mankind lamented the quick passing of the seasons? Moments disappear so rapidly these days that I celebrate the tiniest of accomplishments.

When we were in New Orleans on our family vacation back in July, Jeffrey wanted to go to The Museum of Death. I know, right? Morbid. He’s always had a curious mind and since we encourage him to stay curious, his dad and I consented. We walked our two sons up to Dauphine Street where the museum was but declined to participate in the tour. As Jeff and I strolled back to the hotel, we passed a little gallery. All the colorful paintings caught my eye and as I window-shopped, I noticed some movement behind the locked door. Before I knew it, a Boston Terrier approached the glass front where we stood gawking and tilted his head to the side, questioning our interest in his space.

Well, you know how I feel about Boston Terriers.

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Enough said.

We did what we call “Scooby talk” extensively to this gentle sir through the glass. Finally, his owners came into the room and unlocked the door so we could make over their boy in person. His name was Tyson and he was a rescue dog. He was recovering from a terrible case of heartworm disease, but he seemed healthy and happy during out little visit. Long story short, his daddy was the artist in residence of the little gallery, Martin Welch. We loved his work so much we ended up buying three prints and some notecards.

Since my father-in-law’s death, the prints have been sitting on the kitchen counter—waiting to find a home on our walls. I mentioned recently how I’m working on my imagination. I’ve been taking a poetry class online. I made a new friend, who is also a poet and her words have become part of my morning prayers. This song has been singing to my heart. I’ve recently dusted off my water colors. And these prints now grace my walls.

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This is the tiny accomplishment I celebrate today.

I once heard an artist say that “The purpose of art and religion are the same: Transformation.”

“Art creates space,” he said. “Effective art creates a liminal space …”

That word, “liminal?” It means “threshold.” This friend was telling me that art—beauty—creates a doorway that, when stepped into, takes us to a new place where transformation is more likely to occur. The Celts call this a “thin place.” It’s a place where the veil between heaven and earth is a thin membrane, and the holy is felt as close as a breath on the cheek.

As I listened to him talk about the ways the arts make a space for transformation, I realized how mysterious this process is. Who can name the many ways a heart might be moved? We were created in God’s image, and thus, creating is part of who we are at the deepest level.

For me, art is manna. My daily bread.

I want to celebrate that by giving away a copy of my friend Laurie’s book of poetry: Where the Sky Opens. Leave a comment by Tuesday evening, September 20st for a chance to win and I’ll announce the lucky one Wednesday morning.

Exile

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This morning I awakened in the kind of pain that makes it difficult to move. I knew what it was, knew what was needed, and so for the second time in ten years, I called in to work to let them know I would be staying home today. I’ve been resting, using ice, and stretching. I am doing better—still moving gingerly, but better. My friend Shelly says that if we neglect our Sabbath time, sometimes we will enter into a time of forced Sabbath. I must admit this feels good—to stay in my PJs late into the morning, listen to my body and heed its call.

The truth is, work has been hard lately. Just yesterday I suffered a bit of disillusion after an exchange with some of my colleagues. Sometimes a system can feel too big to change unless we work together, and often the people we serve take the brunt of this kind of stagnation. Sometimes a system can feel so big that individuals get caught up in their own agendas and resist working together for change because it might require much. I feel myself being pulled toward this way. Yesterday, in a very small way, I felt like Jeremiah—my voice falling on empty ears. It was a hard place to be and I didn’t like it. So, this morning I am resting my tender heart, collecting the manna of this moment.

Eugene Peterson defines exile as “being where we don’t want to be with people we don’t want to be with.” Of course, he was speaking of the Jewish exiles in Babylon at first, but he is skillful to draw a quick parallel to our lives today. That’s how I felt yesterday. Like I was in exile.

When the Israelites are in Babylon, Jeremiah sends them a letter from Jerusalem. “Build houses and make yourselves at home,” he says. “Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. Marry and have children. … Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.”

“The aim of a person of faith,” says Peterson, “is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible—to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love.”

Today it feels like I am hiding from the reality of life. But tomorrow? I pray I will be able to jump back in, to “discover truth, create beauty, act out love.” I will continue in this discovery of what it means to belong to God in this place I do not want to be.

Exile.

 

Garden Notes: Velveteen (or One Way to be Really Real)

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Saturday night shimmered with the first fireflies. They beamed at us from high in the Maple tree, announcing summer with each winking light. It has been hot, more like July than May. And now June comes calling with her promise of fresh-mowed lawns and swimming pools. It feels like I blinked and missed spring.

Last night, I picked the last of the kale from my garden. I took the kitchen shears and snipped the leaves down to the quick. Then, I separated out the stems, meticulously pinching each sharp-smelling leaf from it’s purpled anchor. I left a pile of stems and discarded, yellowed leaves for the bunnies over by the fence. Don’t ask me why I would feed those thieving rodents. They ate most of my first kale crop. In the past, I’ve had trouble with deer, trouble with goats, and trouble with a red-bellied woodpecker, but the rabbits have never discovered how to hop up into my raised beds until this year. And those rascals are picky! They feasted on kale but left all my lettuces untouched. But yesterday, as we peered out the bay window while nibbling dinner, a tiny baby bunny peeked out from underneath my lilac bush. My heart melted. Velveteen, I thought, remembering my favorite children’s tale. That tiny face reminded me to love better, to be real.

I only wonder if baby bunnies like kale stems. We shall see. I have other plantlets to worry over now. The pole beans I planted under the greens are already vining up toward the sun, and my cucumbers and summer squash have poked through their seedy beginnings to lift helicopter faces through the soil. I’ve planted about half the tomato and pepper plants for the season, but must wait until I clear out the remaining lettuce to finish the planting.

Have I mentioned how gardening helps me slow down? The mental health benefits of gardening have long been documented. Researchers have linked gardening with everything from reduced stress to reduced belly fat, but for me? Tending this little patch of earth is a way of loving. With each leaflet I free from this loamy bed, I step out of myself and into the beginnings of nourishing. Not just my family, but my soul. When I think of the first garden, I get lost in the wonder of it all—this big magic of growing things, seed planting, pruning, and praying over a patch of soil.

Gardening is a way of changing the world.

And I’ve always wanted to be a world changer. When I grow and eat my own food, share it with others … this is a way of bringing the Kingdom into the here and now. The Holy comes close as I tend this little patch of earth I’ve been given.

That’s really real. Velveteen.

Holy Ghost

rhododendron scales

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This morning when I go to fetch the paper and take Bonnie around the house, I notice our front porch is covered in bud scales from the rhododendron. The bush is bursting with pink, heavy from last night’s rain. I bend in to study the emerging flowers and marvel that I’ve never noticed how they shed an outer skin as they open to the sun. The pasty yellow-green scales overlap like shingles, providing protection for the sleeping bud. When petals begin to unfold, fanlike, the shingles drop away, making room for light and bumblebees to have their way.

All around my yard, color succumbs to time. The irises flop over on their sides, surrendering to the exertion of holding up heavy, bearded heads. The peony cascades like a fountain, splitting down its leafy middle. The lilac bush already fades to brown at her tips, rustling like paper in the breeze.

Spring is tired.

Time greens on nearby hills and I am stalled, lost in a deep inhale. In a couple hours, we will make the long drive to pick up our boy for the summer—his first year of college already a memory. This morning I gather up a few words, trying to slow down the moments, trying to let the breath escape slowly between my lips.

I’ve asked it over and over through the years: How do I slow down time?

It’s the same old cliché, same old fate we all fall into. The more I am trapped by the busy, the less I see the holy in each ticking second. To slow down time, I must be present, right where I am.

Sunday is Pentecost and I have sown that missing button on the one red blouse hanging in the closet. It’s the day we celebrate God sending the Holy Spirit down to us—we call it the birthday of the church. There will be balloons and streamers, probably birthday cake. But this week, as I have contemplated that old story of the tongues of flame falling from heaven, I have been more gentle with myself. I don’t mind singing Happy Birthday in church, it’s fun, to be sure. But as I contemplate this truth, that God lives inside of me, I wonder why my life doesn’t look … different.

Once again I make a promise to myself and to God: I will do better. It’s a lesson in seeing; a lesson in being. When I tune my senses to my immediate surroundings, I am aware of the temple I inhabit—I feel the Spirit stir inside me. Jesus said that a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die before it grows. This must be how the dying feels.

I bend again and look at the scales from the rhododendron’s bloom pod. And I wonder anew at the beauty that can come from this kind of slow surrender.