West Virginia Morning: Cricket Symphony (and a winner!)

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The Crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summers ending, a sad, monotonous song. “Summer is over and gone,” they sang. “Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.” The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days of the whole year—the days when summer is changing into fall—the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change. ~ E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

This morning, as I walked Bonnie around the house in the dark I was surrounded by a cricket symphony. We crept under the waning crescent moon hanging like a smile in the sky—Jupiter a shiny dimple on his right cheek. The Big Dipper stood up on the end of its handle, pouring starlight over our steps. I shivered in my housecoat under the cool of autumn, but the crickets kept singing. I tried to count the number of chirps per fourteen seconds to guestimate the temperature, mindful of Dolbear’s Law, but Bonnie would not cooperate with my calculations, pulling lustily on her leash to chase after one smell or another.

Fall has fallen in our little valley and it leaves me beside myself with joy.

Something about the slow-baring of the landscape creates more room in my spirit and I am enabled to receive the moments more readily as gift. The way the trees slowly release their leaves, blanketing the earth and burying her spring promises speaks love into my heart. I’ve been thinking about love these past couple days.

Early in the week I sent Teddy a Halloween care package. In it was not only a bag of his favorite fun-size candy bars, but some orangey lights, a light up jack-o-lantern, silly miniature hats attached to headbands, and various glo-items. Last year I was stricken with grief when I realized it would be our first Halloween without him. Our long-standing practices of visiting the farmer’s market to pick out the pumpkins and then waiting for precisely the right time to carve them seemed lonely and lost with him gone. So I sent him a similar package, a mother’s whim, filled with corny Halloweeny stuffs to share with his friends. He sent me a picture of a group of them, sporting the light-up pumpkin necklaces I’d included. It made him happy, I think, to share with his friends. And so, I thought I’d repeat the process. This year, the text came.

I got the package.

I waited, but that’s all it said. So I responded. Did you like the stuff?

Yes. He said. The lights are up.

The pumpkin lights up too, I responded.

It does! He said.

And that was it. No “thank you.” No “cool, mom.”

Nothing. Just silence.

Last night, I went to hear a lecture by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed. She’s written a couple books about Thomas Jefferson and has extensively researched his relationship with Sally Hemings. Her talk was smart and poignant and really made me think about the ways we look at people and groups of people. At one point, a woman from the audience stepped up to ask a question. She commented on some of Dr. Gordon-Reed’s observations about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. You talk about the length of their relationship (38 years), that there is no evidence there was any other woman in his life during that time, and about the children they had together (I’m paraphrasing here) but what is keeping you from saying that they might have possibly been in love?

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Dr. Gordon-Reed took a deep breath. She alluded to the fact that this may have been true. “It strikes me as unlikely that he had a purely physical relationship with her for 38 years,” she said. But she was very cautious, going on to say, “It’s tough here because people will romanticize things and minimize the impact of slavery. And you can’t do that.”

Throughout her talk, she continuously reminded us that Sally Hemings was “enslaved.” She never had the freedom to refuse a relationship with Thomas Jefferson, whatever her feelings for him were. She was fourteen years old, scholars believe, when their relationship began. That likely means she never had the opportunity to fall in love with another man, to flirt, to feel that wild fancy-free feeling of attraction.

We will never know Sally Hemings’ feelings on the matter, because she remained silent. She never spoke about her relationship with Jefferson, for good or ill. Likely, they were very complicated. But I left the lecture with this thought impressed upon my mind: To love, to truly love, we have to be free.

And yet, how many things in this life hold us captive? As frail humans, we are subject to so much brokenness keeping us from freedom. Addictions, insecurities, dysfunction, our tangled-up-messed-up histories … Not one of us is free to love in the ways we were created to love. Some of us are freer than others, but all have some strings pulling on our hearts, enslaving us to our fallen nature.

There is only One who loves perfectly. Only one who is completely free and has done the work to assure our freedom. But in this already-done-not-happened-yet kind of freedom, we still wait. We wait and we wonder.

Freedom. I’ve had glimpses—kingdom glimpses that set my heart on fire. But really, I have no idea what it means to love. But I am learning. And one day I will know.

Yesterday, I read Teddy’s less-than enthusiastic texts about my gift-package with a little feeling of let-down.  Then I let it go.

The winner of my book book bundle giveaway that includes Shelly Miller’s Rhythms of Rest, Lisa Whittle’s I Want God, and Emily P. Freeman’s Simply Tuesday is Jen Martinson! Congratulations! You are going to love each one of these books. I’ll be in touch soon!

Eulogy

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Our vacation was cut short a day, we drove a long fifteen hours in one chunk when we learned someone we love was in the ICU. We left white-sanded beaches, soft lilting waves, and sun-tilled waters to hurry home and arrive just in time to say goodbye, to weep with family and hold vigil together. We buried my father-in-law on Monday and time has taken a deep breath, creeping slowly as the things that matter most come to the forefront.

All the weeks this summer we’ve driven back and forth to the hospital and, in the end hospice, the Queen Anne’s Lace spilled over the edge of the roads we traveled, calling my name and spinning me into memories. This wildflower will forever remind me of this hard season of letting go when we held this gentle man in love.

The morning of the funeral when I walked the dog around the house I noticed the meadow behind our back yard is also stitched with Queen Anne’s Lace. When we first moved to our home, it was different—the meadow was tame. A retired couple owned the land and tended it meticulously. They kept it mowed, pristine, and often, when I would be pushing my babies on our swing set, the Mrs. would stop on her riding mower and tell me how my boys reminded her of hers.

Now the meadow is a tangled mass of trees and shrubs and Queen Anne’s Lace. It’s hard to tell what hides in all that underbrush. Somewhere in there are the apple and pear trees her little boys used to climb for sport. When I think of all that is hidden from our eyes in this visible world, it sets my heart on other things—things so precious, so mysterious—things we cannot touch or see. And I remember this: my father-in-law is free. And for this, I rejoice.

But still, I cry when I see the birds flock across the sky, the sudden lift of their wings birthing anew within me the awareness of my feet of clay—I am earthbound. Gravity holds me, but also all other things of this good earth cup my body tenderly; I move and breathe as part of entire system of things: the spiderweb, the pollen sifting through the air, the grass heavy with morning’s respiration … I am reminded that God so loved the world and when I walk through it I can feel this world he loves waiting, expectant, longing for Christ’s return. When death will lose its sting. But God so loved this world, and what we do in this life matters.

In the end, it is the little things—rocking a baby to sleep, walking together, eating together, sitting side-by-side—it is the little things that make a life. We do these things because our heart compels us to and this is how we honor the one wild and precious life—as the poet Mary Oliver calls it—this is how we honor the life we’ve been given. Yes, this life matters. My father-in-law knew this. He leaves behind a better world for having been in it. I will miss him, but I know this is not goodbye. We will meet again.

Of this I am sure.

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.

To Remember:

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I’m reposting this in loving memory of my friend Helen, who passed away earlier this evening. 

She is barefooted, sitting on the porch when I arrive. I’ve been trying to get over to see her for a month—ever since her birthday. She’s a blessing to me because she lets me bless and Helen and I have been doing this for a while now.

Several years ago my women’s circle adopted the women of Helen’s circle—we put their names in a basket and each one of us from the “younger” group drew out a saint’s name. Some are with us no more and some have moved away and some just never did follow-up. But Helen and I have fallen into a rhythm and I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have Helen to write to, to think about, to surprise with a sit under the Mimosa tree.

Today I bring her a hanging basket, dripping gold and violet. When she sees me coming up the drive she says—in that grumpy way she has, “You don’t need to be wasting your money on flowers for me.”

But she surveys the petunias and gestures to a hook dangling from the porch roof.

“Put them up there, that’s a good place for them.”

I hide my smile and do as she says.

Helen and I are sitting on her porch, in the shade of the Mimosa tree and she shows me her swollen feet and talks about her latest doctor appointment. She talks about the ants on the picnic shelter around back and tells how a wasp got in the house this week too.

My mind never wanders when I’m with Helen—the way that it does all day long … wandering from one thing to another, ticking off the to-do list. There is something so precious in being with her and I always feel time pull the emergency break as the wheels of my mind comegrinding and squealing to a stop.

She is a fascinating lady and she never runs out of things to say. She once told me about a trip to Dubai she took when she was younger (I’ve never been to Dubai. I’ve never been out of the country or even out west). She also still is the chairwoman of the Community Cupboard—the local food pantry that she helped get started back in 1982. She drives across town two days a week to oversee that benevolence.

“I don’t drive anywhere except around the valley anymore,” she says, as she catches me up on Cupboard doings.

But the thing about Helen that draws me to her is how much she is who she is.

Her mind is wily and bright and she has a handful of girlfriends she likes to spend time with and if they neglect her … she gets mad. She expects to be treated like someone special. Because she is. There has been no slipping gracefully into the twilight years for this gentle lady. She likes to laugh and keep up on things and stay busy. She still talks about her husband like he is alive sometimes but there is no feeling sorry for the self in her.

We sit on the porch and the sun is moving up her swollen feet and I am sweating in jeans and long sleeves. We listen to the breeze blow through the bushes and when we are still, that’s when I hear it: the sweet song of a Meadowlark. My eyes scan the Mimosa tree, the Oaks in Betty’s yard next door and the Sycamores out back. But he doesn’t want to be seen—just wants to woo me and Helen with his lyrical whistle.

I cock my head to the side, close my eyes and listen. I can’t see him. But he’s announced his presence in the sweetest of ways.

Helen and I? We are not alone.

Where Bravery is Needed

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It was a drug-related shooting. That’s what the paper said the next day. A twenty-two year old black man, shot in broad daylight. Drug-related. As if that explained it away. As if the killing of a twenty-two year old boy could ever make sense. As if he never had dreams or hopes or ever fell in love.

We were invited to an awards luncheon that day, my co-workers and I. Our team had been nominated by one of our patients for a prestigious award from the hospital where we work. We had to travel off-campus for the banquet, so we carpooled and dined on salmon, potatoes dauphinoise, and chocolate swans. We didn’t win the award but we returned to work feeling valued and full. As we walked the block from the parking lot to the hospital, we noticed there were several police cars outside of the Emergency Room, which we must pass to get to the staff entrance. As we approached, we saw there were groups of people—all African-American—in clusters around the entryway. They were varied ages; beautiful doe-eyed women held babies on their hips, gray-haired grandmothers wept on the sidewalk, young boys stood, hunched—hands in pockets. There were so many, they spilled out onto the street, standing and peering expectantly into the glass doors of the hospital. A young man leaned up against the sturdy brick of the building, sobbing uncontrollably.

We trespassed through the scene of this tragedy, silenced by grief. I passed within a breath of that weeping young man. I wanted to wrap my mama arms around him, bear up the pain just a little. Instead, I walked silently by, climbed the steps to the second floor, closed my office door behind me, gripped the edges of my desk and let tears come.

What can be done? Children are killing children. Blind to the sanctity of life, their hearts turned to stone by too many ugly days, too soon. I walked through that grieving throng, a witness.The next day was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. And the front page of the newspaper read, “Drug-related.”

That evening, we took our son shopping for a new pair of shoes. We were getting ready to take him back to college—he needed some winter walking shoes. We went to the mall to make a night of it. When we entered the shoe-store, my boy and his dad headed over to the brown suede, heavy-tread section and I made a beeline for four-inch heels and wedge booties.

There was one other woman in the store with me—a black woman (“I’ll be sixty-two this year,” she told me) who was surrounded by a gaggle of teens. The kids kept flocking to her and then dispersing. Finally, she and I were left alone to try on shoes. Her smile was so lovely. I could feel her goodness (“I inherited two children about ten years ago, one with special needs,” she told me). We tried on steep wedges together, discussing the dangers of walking. We laughed and she never stopped smiling. I felt like I was shopping with a sister.

What is so difficult about love? What is so exceptional about seeing beauty in someone who looks different than I?

The Triune God delights in the diversity of the three-in-one. The diversity of this world is a direct reflection of the beauty of God. Belden Lane says,”The Trinity delights in all its varied communications of itself, seeing it’s beauty replicated in every species. Each one turns God’s beauty back onto its source, sharing in the dance of desire from which everything comes.”

Lane was referring to variety in nature to make a case for more responsible ecology; but if all of nature glorifies the Creator in this way, how much more does the diversity among the cultures of human kind—those very creatures extolled as bearing the image of God?

I wish this story had a different ending. I wish I could say I wrapped my arms around that weeping young man and my embrace was welcomed. I wish I could say there haven’t been several more shootings on that same end of town. I wish I could say I asked the lovely smiling woman in the shoestore her name, took her number, or even a selfie to post on Facebook later. But life has these invisible lines we rarely inconvenience ourselves to cross over, doesn’t it? And it is inconvenient, frightening even, to enter into another’s world, to let myself be vulnerable to rejection. I know it’s much more complicated than having courage to put myself out there, but how much of the way things are might be changed by the bravery of an embrace? By taking the time to truly connect with a stranger? By letting someone know I see the Holy in them?

Maybe not much, but I want to find out. I’m praying for another chance. And for courage.