West Virginia Morning: What David Oyelowo Taught Me About Faith

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This morning when I take Bonnie out, amber and violet hold hands in the meadow behind our house, coloring these early hours with sun-kissed hues dipping gently in the breeze. The bright waves of goldenrod and ironweed compliment each other perfectly, and I stand for a moment on the rim of our yard to let beauty settle in my soul. My eye follows the color trail along our property line, but something strange happens when I look beyond to where the meadow butts up against our neighbor’s yard. No golden waves dip between greens, no purple clusters kiss the sky. Instead, there is white laced into the grasses, as far as my eye can see.

The meadow behind our house looks like a tickertape parade, but behind our neighbor? There is a wedding banquet.

I have been having trouble ordering the days. Now that my editing job is over, there is a little more room in life and each day I try to make up for all the things I neglected when the deadline was king. At the slow winking of the end of each day, I find myself exhausted and dissatisfied.

Yesterday, I awakened with a terrible cold and am now forced to rest. I am feeling puny and ineffective, all the more aware that no matter what work I choose to do, there will always be something left undone. This transition leaves me questioning everything; I am wondering again about the best use of my time.

I have been trying to live more deliberately from a place of being loved—not let the things I do, the world’s definition of value, perceived success or failure, the actions of others—not allow these things define me. When a woman knows she is loved, it changes the way she lives in the world. I’ve had to grow into this beloved skin—still am on many a day. This question is a remnant from my chaotic childhood, “Am I worthy of being loved?” My husband’s eyes tell me yes, the arms of my children tell me yes, my faith tells me yes; but during times of transition, the soil I was planted in leaves my heart wondering anew.

God uses many things to speak into a life and not too long ago he used a movie star to whisper love in my ear. In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, actor David Oyelowo was asked how being descended from a royal family has impacted his life now.

Laughing, Oyelowo downplayed this part of his history, saying, “You know, royal families are a dime a dozen in Nigeria. It’s more like being the king of Sherman Oaks, really.”

But then he went on to share a very profound way his family lineage has shaped his outlook.

… the effect that knowing that I was from a royal family had on me—I mean, it had no real monetary or positional benefits … as is the case with a lot of African royal families. There’s actually no real financial remuneration. It’s more born out of a tradition. But what it gave me, that is undeniably something I hugely value, is a sense of self that has enabled me as I’ve gone into my life in the West to carry myself in a way that flies in the face of the world in which I live in. You know, there are a lot of challenges I undeniably have faced as a black person, both in the U.K. and in the U.S. that contrived to make me feel lesser than what I am. And I can absolutely see that in the African-American experience in this country. If you feel like the beginning of your history is rooted in slavery, that really, I think, messes with your sense of self, your self-esteem and your self-worth. But to know that you came from a lineage of kings, to know that you came from a place whereby every opportunity afforded within that society is yours for the taking, it makes you get out of your bed a very different way than if you feel like today is yet another fight. And so that is something I carry with me that I know has been of huge benefit as a result of, you know, my family and where I’m from.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about his words since I heard them. Our country has had a rude awakening in the past few years when it comes to race relations. Everything I thought I knew about such things turns to dust in my mouth when I try to speak of them. But Mr. Oyelowo’s words teach me about more than the troubles of our culture. They teach me about myself.

What if I lived my life as one descended from royalty? What if I treated every person I encounter in this same way? Yes, I am worthy. I am a daughter of the king.

This morning, I look out over the meadow at an endless sea of white. Its name is Tall Thoroughwort, my wildflower book tells me. But I name it Promise. It’s a royal wedding feast.

West Virginia Morning: Hidden

 

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‘As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,’ Thoreau wrote. You don’t want to kill time but to welcome it, to pick off its leaves and petals one by one, second by second.” ~Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

I found his hiding place this morning while filling the finch feeders. Black oil sunflower seeds dropped down plastic tubes and out of the corner of my eye I saw the morning breeze exhale across silken threads. One does not usually get to enjoy such artwork before sunrise so I padded over to gawk, wet grass clinging to bare feet.

He wasn’t home but I made myself comfortable anyway, let my eyes linger on light-studded gossamer as a cardinal complained noisily in a nearby tree at my continued presence.

There it was again—faint ripple in the design and as the toile work lifted and fell it was as if an invisible string joined my soul to its gentle rise. In your light, we see light, the Psalm I read this morning said, and I can feel eternity stir inside of me—the place that beauty always touches.

Things are changing around here. The house feels empty with Teddy gone, but the fire of expectation burns the empty into promise. The earth models for us how to handle these transitions with grace and my hungry eyes seek its tutelage. Autumn whispers on the edges of the days and last night I noticed the fireflies have made themselves scarce.

“From now on we lose two minutes of daylight every day,” my friend Frankie told me yesterday at work. “And in November, we lose an hour.”

Later today I will pull up my ramshackle beans, what’s left of the tomatoes and squash. Then I will plant the fall crop of greens. I texted my mother-in-law this morning, “Am I too late?” And she said, no, there is still time.

As I wait for the spider to appear, the sun burns off the morning dew. I feel time move over me—my shoulders, my neck, the curve of my cheek. I’ve been reading Emily P. Freeman’s new book, Simply Tuesday, and in it she celebrates all that is my life—the beauty of the small, the joy of each common moment. As I read her words I am feeling seen, for the first time in a long time, perhaps. And I know this tender ache of missing my boy is something beautiful, something to be celebrated, just as is the coming of light each day.

Slowly, sweetly, the light saturates the morning, and my unseen spider friend’s hiding place becomes invisible once again.

West Virginia Morning: Fierce Convictions

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Already the heat clings to the windows, resting heavy on petals and leaves. Every blade of grass drips. In the meadow, the goldenrod is nectaring and the ironweed waves good morning. I stand among the flowers and listen to the honeybees begin their long day of work.

The light slowly spreads and I feel a sense of urgency. I am Niggle, coloring in his leaf, and time is water. I want to drink deeply; I want to stop the fast arc of the second hand. Yesterday, I listened to Dr. Dan Allender talk about how play does this—slows the ticking. When we play, “[T]ime no longer seems to be binding,” he said. It’s when we allow ourselves total abandon to the moment that we are able to stay fully present within it. I lose this awareness so easily in trying to hold too tightly. It’s only in the letting go I am able to transcend the chronos and be filled with kairos moments.

There is no hurry, I tell myself, as I bend to study the way light reflects the world in a drop of water. There is more than this one life, I remind myself. Eternity is written on my heart and I can feel its steady pulse with each breath I take.

But how do I live an extraordinary life right here, right now? I think of Hannah More and all that she accomplished for this world in her one wild and precious life. Poet, philanthropist, slave abolitionist, women’s rights activist … Did she feel time like water as I do? Maybe the answer to the extraordinary life is hidden in each ordinary moment. When we surrender to each moment, let go of the lists and plans, when we are fully present in each passing breath … isn’t this when we are able to make the moments matter?

The birds are leaving. Last night, as we walked, I felt small as I watched great flocks cross the sky. Everywhere is the feeling of summer giving up the green, fading. From glory into glory, each season its own currency.

I promise to notice it all, to write it all down and live the saturated moments. This, my fierce conviction: make this one-leaf-life beautiful.

In honor of Hannah More’s extraordinary life and the contribution she made in support of the founding of the school we are taking Teddy to this weekend, I’m giving away a copy of Karen Swallow Prior’s beautiful book Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Just leave a comment for a chance to win. I’ll announce the winner next Wednesday, 8/26.

 

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West Virginia Morning: How to Be Washed Clean

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This morning, the fog settles in over the meadow, skimming the blanket of Queen Anne’s Lace with white until it becomes a sea of flowery ghosts. I go out in the yard in my bare feet, let the same moisture that kisses their upturned faces be my foundation. I want to walk in beauty today.

It feels like we have miles to go before we sleep. So much work to do to get ready for the next season.

In the Russian tale “Vasalisa the Wise” the sweet girl Vasalisa is sent into the woods by her jealous stepmother to retrieve a coal to reignite the fire in their hearth. In the forest, Vasalisa encounters Baba Yaga—a witch who represents the wild old mother in each of us (just as Vasalisa represents the innocent, too-nice, naïve part of our psyche). Baba Yaga makes the child perform certain tasks to earn the coal she will give her: wash her clothes, sweep her yard, prepare her food, separate mildewed corn from good corn, and see that everything is “in order.” Vasalisa performs all the tasks successfully with the help of a little doll given to her by her mother when she was on her deathbed (the doll represents the intuition handed down through the ages).

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés says that these tasks Baba Yaga puts before Vasalisa teach her “how to take care of the psychic house of the wild feminine.” Washing the old hag’s laundry, in particular, is a beautiful symbol for “cleansing and purification of the entire bearing of the psyche.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this cleansing ritual lately. As we sort through Teddy’s things, making lists and deciding what he needs to take with him to school, it feels like a fine comb is being run over my spirit. I wash his new towels and sheets, take inventory of underwear and socks, cast aside the outgrown or unworn … and something inside of me is being scrubbed down, rubbed hard up against the washboard.

 … to wash her laundry is a metaphor through which we learn to witness and take on this combination of qualities [strength, endurance], and also to know how to sort, mend, renew these qualities by the purificatio, the washing of the fibers of being.”

It is a strange truth that saying goodbye to one part of myself means welcoming in another. Always, always, there is another skin growing over this scaffold of bones and blood, this limping heart. This is the way of God—to continue conforming me to the image of his son. These seasons I move through edge me closer and closer to the holy. Oh, how far I have to go.

Still, the moments creep up on me lately, and I am often surprised by an unexpected and sudden flow of tears.

Another kind of washing.

West Virginia Morning: Cicada Song

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This morning, I fill my feeders to the brim with black oil sunflower seeds, whispering a blessing over my feathery visitors as I move silently through what Frédéric Gros calls “the undecided blue hour.” I have been watching through the window for the better part of an hour as a Downy Woodpecker creeps and clings to the dead branches of our plum tree. We have been talking all summer about hiring someone to clear away this sad reminder of the harsh winter, but still, it stands—naked in its death, branches slowly giving way to the brittleness of time. The woodpeckers have found it inviting and for this reason I am in no hurry to cut it down.

The Downy flits away to the meadow as I draw near. I watch his retreat—that undulating flight the woodpeckers are known for. He disappears into a nearby tree and I can hear his familiar pik, pik, complaining about my invasion.

“I’m sorry,” I say, to the sky. “I hope you like this little treat.” I fasten a suet cake into the holder that dangles from the dead tree.

My Audubon Field Guide tells me the Downy is recognizable by “…its habit of tapping on branches hardly thicker than itself.” I smile as I pass under the thin branches of the plum. I’ve often thought of it as an umbrella, the pliable branches cascading down over the earth it grew out of.

I will miss this tree.

Over by the coneflowers I find an empty cicada shell. Every evening we are lulled into letting go of the cares of the day by the steady thrum of the cicada song. I stoop and study its casing, the memory of membrane on its abdomen. “Thank you,” I say, to the empty eyes.

So many songs belong to nature. This life contains so many different worlds.

Yesterday, on my way home from work, a large foreign object appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the air and crashed into my windshield—on the driver’s side, right where my head was. It happened in high-speed traffic and so fast that I couldn’t do anything but brace myself. The window was shattered and I was covered in glass. I was only a few miles from home so I limped my van on down the road in a state of shock, I think.

Life feels fragile.

There has been a lot of talk lately about online community verses flesh and blood community. I am glad for the conversation. It is good to look closer at the different worlds—to look deeper for the good of each and leave the undesired behind. After my windshield was shattered, I stayed unplugged the rest of the evening. I only wanted to be with my family and celebrate our life together. This doesn’t diminish the community I have found online—it only informs it, defines it better, I think. We should never stop learning, never stop looking deep, always asking questions. We shouldn’t shy away from what we don’t understand; but listen, study, learn.

A hummingbird does a flyby so close to my head that I feel the air from its fast-moving wings on my cheek. I duck involuntarily and the little bird is gone in a flashing moment—time on fire.

Today I am giving thanks to God for a strong windshield and good auto safety standards, for my family and all the small moments we share, for my online community and my flesh and blood community who both prayed gratitude at my safety, and for all the different songs of nature. Life is short. We will never live long enough to learn about all the different worlds out there. But I will keep trying.