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I seem to have the gene which compels one to find as many ways as possible to make their surroundings beautiful, organized and tidy. It can be pretty tiring work, and in some ways, never ending. Knowing this about myself, I should not be surprised by how hard it is for me to work on a project for any length of time, expending a lot of effort and have the results be less attractive than before the work began.

Its spring in the Pacific Northwest at long last. You can always tell what sort of winter we have had in the Evergreen State by the number of fallen branches that the wind has tossed about the yard. This year was especially windy, most trees have several less branches than they did at the end of summer, and the needles on the evergreens have been drastically reduced and redistributed, the bulk of them on my front lawn. All this adds up to wheel barrows full of thatch, moss and blow down that must be removed allowing the awakening blades of grass room to breathe and unfurl . My “beautification” gene kicked into high gear this weekend and two dozen wheelbarrow loads later, after numerous back breaking hours flailing around with three different types of rakes, I found myself shocked for some reason to find that my lawn had only been masquerading as a lushly verdant carpet. Once unmasked, it real self was revealed– a barren muddy mess. How disappointing. I instantly started trying to find ways to be okay with this revelation, telling myself it would be okay after a reseeding and some fertilizer. I found little consolation.

The “problem” seems to have struck a deeper chord than the superficial lack of green. This ugly, scarred, landscape is a lot like my interior landscape at the moment. It’s been a rough winter, marked by the death of three very important people in my life, a special friend, a dear sister-in-law and most recently, my beloved father. Without them, I am facing some empty spots in my heart, in my routines, nothing is feeling very normal just now.

Today would have been my father’s 90th birthday. He really wanted to be 90, but he just didn’t quite get there. Missing that momentous occasion by just shy of three months seems so unfair to me and yet he still lived a long and courageous life. That doesn’t make today any easier, it’s a bit like that muddy mess of a lawn out there. I am expecting grass, and in the back of my head, I am pretty sure that’s what I will get, eventually, if I follow all the proper lawn restoration guidelines, but right now, nothing is green.

I have been asking myself why it has to be green. Is there some rule that says all houses must come with an attached golf course wanna-be? Or maybe since this is the Northwest, it could just be moss. After all God said “Behold I make all things new”, he never said that would be “the same”. New can mean all kinds of things. Maybe this is the year to quit trying to grow a lawn, it’s a lot of work after all.

Today I am noticing that the deep gouges my thatch rake and I created in the soil have attracted a lot of attention from the robins. The word has gotten out that there are grubs for easy picking. Aw, there is a blessing in all that not so beautiful landscape. And I begin to see the resurrection in this mess.

Shifting my thinking this way is softening my need to rush in and fill the void created by so much loss. Maybe today I can sit in the emptiness of my father’s birthday without the quest of honor. The pain of his absence, not be able to bake a beautiful cake for him, knowing that my siblings are also hurting, takes no less of a toll on my heavy heart. I think for today I can sit in the empty spot and ignore my need to fill it with beauty and just let it be.

What I know beyond question is that I have been promised that ALL THINGS will be made new again.  I don’t know what that will look like yet, but there will be a resurrection.  And I can’t wait!!

I am a daddy’s girl. I openly and proudly admit that. And as such, I realize that about half of you cannot relate, purely by virtue of gender.  However, I am quite sure that if you think about it, either you share the affections of your wife with her own father, or you have a daughter that is a daddy’s girl. At the very least, you know someone who is.

A true daddy’s girl is pretty convinced that her father is the biggest, smartest and best dad on the planet, and in my case, it really was true. My dad was a really big guy; his size 14 shoes were meant for dancing on. His massive hands completely swallowed up my own, something which made me feel so secure. His long legged gait required four of my steps to every one of his.

My dad was brilliant, his brain a container for not only scientific data, but minutia and trivia that would boggle most minds. He could rattle of the exact date and time, or address of some adventure that happened decades earlier. The rare word or two that might elude him in conversation, was written on a little sheet of paper neatly tucked in a pocket or carried in his wallet for nearly instant retrieval.

My dad was the son of a teacher. In fact his grandmother and his mother were both teachers, so it is no wonder that he too was a teacher in his own right. From spelling, to grammar to physics and botany, our home was a virtual classroom.  My dad taught me that there is one “r” in sherbet, and two in library, (which doesn’t make either word any easier to pronounce).

I learned that catsup is “thixotropic” and that a room does not reach 70 degrees any faster by turning the thermostat up to 80. By the age of five I learned that this plant is called “echeveria” and that one “portulaca”.

Not every lesson was serious however. A lesson in horticulture included the aeration of our lawn – he would strap spikey shoe-like contraptions to his feet and dance around singing the “Johnny Appleseed song”. Now that was scientific.

I spent a period of my early childhood imagining other ways to get to school, perhaps motivated by some bullying that was happening between home and the schoolyard. I had decided that I would rather travel to and from by hot air balloon, or at least my 8 year old version. I told my father that I was going to need some helium balloons and a bed sheet, and asked if he would help me. I find it remarkable that this scientist with a whole lot more important things to ponder, did not offhandedly dismiss. Rather, he told me that he would talk to his workmates about it the next day and get back to me. He did precisely that. Upon returning from home the next evening, he sat me down and explained just how many bed sheets it would take to contain the phenomenal number of helium balloons required to carry my then very small body the distance between our house and the elementary school. I quickly abandoned the idea as it seemed I would be far too conspicuous.

Of course the next idea required even more math as he explained just how many neighborhood kids with buckets and shovels it would take to help me dig a tunnel from our backyard to school.

img055What I can tell you about my dad, pales in comparison to what I either did not know or knew very little about until this last week or two. Certain parts of my father have always been a mystery to me. As a four year old, all I knew about my father’s naval career was that he went to sea.

And his job was far outside my comprehension. Explaining what my father did for a living to the kids at school was difficult. Unlike those children whose fathers were policeman and doctors, If I told my classmates he was an inorganic chemist, I was met with that glazed over look. If I tired to clarify with, “he works in a metallurgy lab”, I received more blank stares.  Eventually, I would resort to saying something, like, “he makes parts for space ships”. That would at least get the attention of the boys.

I am saddened by the things I never took the time to learn about him. As a seamstress, how I would have loved to know that he quilted, something I would never have known had I not found a beautifully executed quilt sample in his personal effects.

As someone who has studied a few languages, mostly dead, or otherwise not so conversational, I would have delighted to know that he had spent hours charting the different characters of several different languages, comparing them one to another. Had I known this I might have shared my charts created in much the same fashion. Who knows, we might have had that conversation in Greek or Hebrew.

I have studied religious art and architecture yet had no idea he had been to many of the very shrines and temples that I have only seen in text books. How rich it would have been for him to personally describe each magnificent and sacred site to me form his memory.

My father is still teaching me – one of the greatest lessons yet: Parents, talk to you children; kids, ask your mom and dad questions. Find out what makes them tick, what is it that they love about the color blue and where have they traveled to?  Don’t waste a minute, find out who they are, and then celebrate them.

Yesterday morning, before the sun arose, my father “crossed the bar”; from this life to the next,quietly, without fanfare, in his sleep.

I suspect that he wanted it this way, much like Tennyson, in his poem written in the late 1800’s, “Crossing the Bar”; the poet wished no fuss, no sadness about his departure. He hoped for a crossing that was aided by the tide, with no moaning, without “sound or foam”.

My father knew a lot about poetry, he would have told me that this one combines a mix of iambic meters. But in the end, I am comforted by the meaning I find within its metaphors of liminality.

For the poet, and for my father, making their way through the “thin-space” in the evening was an answer to a call they had received, culminating with a face to face with their God. A crossing without barriers, I am grateful for the safe voyage to the final harbor in this man’s amazing life.

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Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
 

I am also grateful to my little brother, who brought this jewel to my attention. May he find solace in its wisdom as well.

A Secret Language

of Friendship between Women

I am fascinated with rose petals. In each of the stages of the development of a rose, from tiniest bud to fullest bloom, every petal’s unique intricacy, how the petals overlap and intertwine, create such a thing of beauty. While there is no question that the rose’s beauty is hard to surpass, one cannot neglect the simple elegance of a single petal.  I am perhaps biased by the fact that my June birth right is the ability to claim the rose as my “flower”.

I think that the use of the metaphor of the rose is so appropriate when speaking about community. As I examined one exquisite petal after another in my garden this morning, I thought of each and every one of you and just how gorgeous, and talented and wise you are all. It only makes sense to me then that combined, we create something as magnificent as a rose.

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.” – Winnie the Pooh

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in community. I am a loner and introvert by nature. I would be very happy cloistered away in my studio for weeks and need very little contact with others. I recognize this neither as a particular gifting nor as a deficit, but a part of what makes me who I am. I also know that it could possibly be a disservice to both myself and others by not being engaged in “community” more often and yet my natural propensity is not to purposely seek out friendships or public gatherings. In fact, retreat situations were tortures to be avoided for most of my life. Assumptions might be unfairly made about my social skills, when shyness and hypersensitivity to external stimuli might be more accurately to blame.

I tend to cultivate relatively few friendships and keep those closely held relationships for many years. I was raised with a lot of brothers so I have to really practice at having “girlfriends”.

As I prepare to teach for a week at a wonderful place of retreat and community, the Grunewald Guild in Plain, Washington, I am gearing up for spending time with many like-minded artists and creative sorts. For more information about the Guild you can go here, or visit Jan Richardson’s site, the Painted Prayer Book here for a reflection on the Guild and a glimpse into the community and Liturgical Arts week over the past few years.

When I determined to stretch myself a bit this summer and not only teach at the guild during the Liturgical Arts Week but volunteer to facilitate a week at an online monastery that I am a part of, I knew just what I wanted to explore in preparation. There is a beautiful little book written by Lisa See, published in 2005. “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is a sweet insight into another culture and what friendship and love between sisters (LaoTong) or “old sames[1] is like. While the circumstances of the main characters, Lily and Snow Flower are far outside my comprehension and include foot binding, promised marriages, taboos and the role of women in 19th century China, the core of the book addresses how it is to be in close relationship with the other women in our lives. Snow Flower is set in a time when women were illiterate and kept from thinking or having any emotions, including love.

Within this culture in a remote country, women created a language of their own, with beautiful script form, which they used to communicate with one another. NuShu or “women’s writing” is the only known form of gender specific written language[2]. Men did not use the language and it is unclear if they even knew about it. I find the concept of a secret language fascinating and will bring greater detail around this later in our discussions.

Young ladies were often paired with an “old same” by a professional matchmaker with someone who had a similar astrological type[3]. Isolated women who were subjected to incredible hardships formed bonds tied by contracts and sealed with special symbols in some cases. These relationships were not to be broken and last lifetimes. They shared details of their arranged marriages, child-bearing, joys and painful moments over the years through a system of writing and embroidering on silk fans or in leaves of journals.

“By writing, so much suffering disappears,” – Yang Huanyi

The movie based on the book[4], portrays the painful practice of foot binding in a very graphic manner. This incomprehensible practice, while intolerable in our western minds, has been compared to the sexual mutilation of girls in other cultures. I am not knowledgeable enough to draw that parallel, but the practice might have some parallels that resonate with us on other levels.  I found the author Lisa See’s integration of this practice into her novel an interesting tool for opening the concept she explores in-depth about a type of love and relationships best described by the love that mothers have for their children. See states that “Women took great pride in their feet which were considered not only beautiful but also their best feature”.[5] In her novel she adds that the “Chinese character for “mother love” or teng ai consists of two parts: one meaning “pain” and the other meaning “love”. With that in mind and with a peak at the culture of the Hunan region of China in the 19th century, one can instantly get a feel for a kind love that abides torturing a child’s foot, knowing full well that one in ten will die by the practice. The untenable act that might make a daughter more “marriageable” created a foot with seven attributes. The perfect foot would be “small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched”.[6]  A foot that resembled a folded Lotus bud roughly the size of your thumb was the highest ideal.

For the purposes of this discussion, the examination of communities of women, how we communicate with, support, and stand by one another have much to teach us about women in relationship, their friendship and love for one another and how important the different types of communication between women is, even for the introverted silent types among us. This sort of presence goes well beyond a physical showing up; it is a heart connection that often spans countries and generations.

Questions to Consider:

Where might you find yourself bound up, stifled or forced to conform to rigid structures that keep you from being fully yourself?

Do you find that having your “hands tied” (or feet bound), or other analogies to physical binding are metaphors that frequently enter your vocabulary when justifying a decision not to be included in a group activity.

What aspects of being bound together, either by contract, circumstance or some other sort of pre-arrangement feel safe and comfortable to you? Are “family-ties” symbol of security or imprisonment?

Are they any aspects of the LaoTong relationships of 19th century China that are similar to your own friendship bonds?

[1] written: 老同 in Mandarin

“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See[i]

[2] Orie Endo 2001, http://homepage3nifty.com/nushu/PinInhtm , 6/28/2010

[5] See, Lisa, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Random House, 2005, Study guide, p. 268.

[6] See, Lisa, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Random House, 2005, p. 26

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Tiniest Fingers

Around the Feast of the Saints, celebrated by some churches on the Sunday after All Hallows Eve, I often think about my ancestors, and all those who have gone before me who have had an impact on my life in some way. At some point in this practice, I began to connect with my rootedness and ancestry in  a very literal way. I have always felt very connected to the trees that surround our home and they have begun to symbolically embody the spirit of my deceased friends and family members. I find this notion comforting and being amongst the trees offers me a sense of protection on a number of levels.

I created a walking labyrinth for prayer and meditation on our property for this reason, locating it in a circle of incredibly tall cedar trees. The space is very womb-like and when I am in its center, I feel nurtured and safe.

A couple of days before All Hallows Eve this year, my newest grandchild was born. He came rushing into the world two months early and was delivered by emergency surgery to protect both his life and the life of my daughter-in-law who had a very serious medical condition. The intensity of this event, and the absolutely beautiful outcome, gave me pause to think about all those little souls who never made it onto this plane, as well as all my ancestors and friends who lived long and productive lives, or had their lives cut short, and are no longer here.

Standing in the forest amongst the tall timbers, nature reminds me how precious life really is. Things you expect to live on forever suddenly perish, and miracles happen and life begins anew. I am so grateful for life, each breath I draw, every step I take and for my ancestors, my children and my grandchildren.

My grandson is a sermon in a very tiny package, and he preaches to me each day, all three pounds, eight ounces of his precious body teaches me just how little I know about this world. My response to this is similar to what  I suppose the Psalmist might have experienced as he or she took a pen to hand or musical instrument and voice, I can only sing praises to my God and Master.

A Psalm of the tallest trees

I sing to you my praises, O my Lord,

as I watch your tallest timbers quiver and bend.

They lean toward the ground, swaying ever so far.

As I marvel their strength to endure every gust,

I learn that it is you that have taught them this wind dance.

When I think that I know what my master has planned,

You topple your tallest trees, and upend someone’s home.

Roaring lion or howling gale storm; your mighty hand blesses.

I sing to you my praises, O my Lord,

as I witness parched desert dwellers, thirsty and tired

bend to drink from a dry stream bed. It is here that I learn

how you’ve taught the rocks to quench from just a trickle.

When I think I have figured out just how the stream flows,

then the banks of the little creek start to rage and flood

and a river takes its town; your mighty hand blesses.

I sing to you my praises, O my Lord,

when fear strikes my heart and mysteries abound,

for your lessons have taught me of your power and might.

And just when I am sure I know how vast you really are,

I watch as child is born, and you bend to kiss its cheek.

You breathe into its tiny lungs and make its eyes blink.

Ten little fingers curl round my heart and tug;

and I learn that what I know can never really be

much more than a little glimpse into your mastery.

Tiniest Fingers

 

Once in the garden, basking in the restorative glow, feeling nurtured and inspired, it is often difficult to drag oneself back into the world. Sometimes I feel a bit like Moses might have felt after his encounter with God on the mountain, unable to enter the everyday routine before shaking off the effects of the blazing glory of God’s being. They call it the “shekinah glory”, this highly illuminated, other-worldly, transfiguration. The English version of a feminine Hebrew word meaning dwelling or settling can also mean nesting, but in this instance it is a word we use to try to describe the divine presence of God. We cannot take in all that God is. We are told that God answered Moses’ request to let himself be seen by flashing him with his backside , anything else would have been more than a human, no matter how spiritually mature, could possibly handle.

Peter, James and John must have had this same “how do I come down off the mountaintop” feeling after being with Jesus . As a child, I really wanted to know what it would be like to catch a glimpse of shekinahness. That is my made-up word for what I guess we only come close to when we have some sort of up close and personal experience with something that touches us so deeply that we are never the same again. Maybe a runner has something akin to this after a 10k or a half marathon or a sports enthusiast or rock fan after enjoying the privileges of a backstage pass with their hero. I, like Peter, who wanted to pitch some tents on the mountain and just hang out for a while, have a tendency to want to hang on to any little bit of my mountaintop experiences. I have prayed for the effects of a retreat where I have had some sort of spiritual epiphany to stretch out a little longer. This is what happens to me in the garden, I want to stay, hang out with all the critters and smell the soggy soil some more.

Eventually, most of us will have to come in. Knowing this, I try to find ways to bring some token of my time in the garden with me. A votive if you will, brought from the other side of one of these thin spaces that will not only remind me of my time in the garden, but also somehow enrich someone else’s life. A gorgeous flower, some juicy ripe fruit, or even an interesting shaped rock. This helps me cross the threshold, and journey back to take up my space in the world. It reminds me that I am called to this ministry, of seeing a certain way, and then sharing it with others. That hospitality really is a gift, a fruit of the spirit, and my work in the world. As such, I am to do this work to the glory of the Lord, making it a sacred act.

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry septembre

There is a wonderful relic of Medieval art that you will find in some books of hours, those little prayer books which often were made for wealthy women and used to guide their prayers throughout the hours of the day, a way of marking time and seasons. Within the margins of these books were elaborate and highly detailed drawings representing the work of rural life commonly done in a given month. They were called “Labours of the Month” and often were set against the signs of the zodiac. These things happily co-existed within the realm of Christian art alongside Christ set inside a mandorla, a sort of heavenly frame and central to the whole configuration. You will find this same expression in large sculptural figures or stained glass in cathedrals, or marking the entrances of churches. For the Medieval or Renaissance Christian, this did not pose a theological problem. These charming images were easily recognized by a medieval agrarian society, but not so much today.

The principle remains the same, honoring the seasons, the times of day with our work, and with our bodies is a much more natural way to live. We would do well to follow the customs of our predecessors in this way. Forcing ourselves to work into the wee hours under artificial fluorescence, growing bionic vegetables with mechanical heat and light in chemically enhanced soils is a bit like trying to swim upstream. If we can allow ourselves to follow the seasonally ascribed activities found in these Labours of the Months, we might discover greater joy in our work.

This is how I find the sacred in the ordinary. Especially in the fall, during the abundance of the harvest, it is easy for me to understand the ways of my Midwestern ancestors who planned for cold hard winters by “putting up” the fruits of their harvest. If I really listen out there in the garden to what my body is telling me, I hear it saying, take, eat, this is a bountiful harvest for you, and for your neighbors. Make good food, share it, it is a sacred gift. This brings me out of the garden, into the kitchen, and the world where I can be God’s hands and feet. I am rested, rejuvenated and inspired, now I must go and be His servant in the world. Thanks be to God, and my garden.

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