Lost and Found

My mother used to say I’d lose my head if it weren’t screwed on tight enough. I guess that means that I frequently misplaced things as a child, although I don’t have any recollection of that  fact.

My experience has been that usually, things are not themselves “lost”; they are simply in a different place than where we think they ought to be. I am finding that with age, I am growing into my mother’s perception of a scatter brain. “Lost” things are turning up in more and more peculiar places. Cereal in the refrigerator and milk in the cupboard kinds of places.

I have observed over the years that the harder I look for a lost treasure, the further missing it goes. All the fretting and scurrying about to locate a thing that does not want to be found is quite non-productive. The better approach seems to quietly retrace ones steps, visually reconstructing the day’s activities. This coupled with prayer is a lot less taxing and much more useful in the end.

One of my most precious treasures was my great grandmother’s wedding ring given to me by my beloved grandmother in my early teens. The stunning silver and turquoise heirloom was much to small for even my thin fingers, so it took its place on my pinky from the start. My little finger was broken several times in my childhood and is quite crooked, and curls inward toward my palm, a nice feature for the safety of a ring that was just lose enough to turn freely and always felt as though it was about to become airborne. I inherited my father’s trait of talking with my hands and the more animated I become in a conversation, the more wildly more hands flail about. Occasionally the ring would launch clear across the room in the middle of such a conversation, and a few times it did so without my noticing.

The first time was just a few years after I received it. The decorating committee of a St. Valentine’s Day dance held in an high school auditorium thought a foot of shredded newspaper on the floor was somehow appropriate. The room was dark, and all that shredded paper made it a very bad place to lose a ring. I remember not being too keen on being there to begin with and was feeling conspicuously single at a dance meant for couples. It wasn’t long before that and my shyness got the best of me. I was making an early departure when I noticed that the ring was no longer on my finger.

Devastated, I frantically began telling everyone that would listen about the loss and asked them to keep an eye out for my ring. I eventually realized the futility of looking for it and went home.

I spent the weekend resigning myself to the fact that I may not see my precious ring again.

On Monday morning, I was barely listening to the announcements over the loud speaker, that is until I heard my name. I am not fond of having attention drawn to myself and always tried to keep a low profile. While I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, a summons to the office was not a welcome way to start the week. I left the classroom as unobtrusively as possible and hurriedly made my way to the office. Thankfully it was the school secretary that I encountered once there. She was a warm and welcoming spirit and much less intimidating than the principal. I began to try to compose myself and was perhaps only listening to about half what was being said. And then I saw it, a silvery glint in the secretaries outstretched hand. It was my ring, found by a young man who had attended the Friday night soiree and when home, discovered my ring in his cowboy boot. Somehow it had filtered up out of all that shredded paper and wound up in his boot. If that was not miraculous enough, he was also an honest boy who had been paying attention, remembered that some girl had lost her ring, and brought the ring to the office before school began Monday morning. I don’t think the secretary told me the boy’s name, but as I slipped it onto my crooked little finger, I counted my blessings.

I wish I could say the ring stayed put forever after on my hand, but I did after all have a legacy to live up to. My mother’s insinuation that my head was precariously perched and in danger of being lost.

Sing it Like You Mean It!

My mother was tone deaf. She often told us that as kids. Her open confession usually preceded an off key rendition of an Andy Williams favorite or an old Burl Ives standby. Watching her carefully place the Harry Belafonte album on the turntable meant it was cleaning day and she would soon be belting out “one foot, two foot, tally me bananas”. Her words tumbled out a few beats ahead of the record with a sort of reckless abandon that I have never been able to muster.

Each of us had a song, and some of us, two or three which were chosen for reasons unknown to us. Our song was uniquely ours and never sung to a sibling. Danny Boy made perfect sense for my brother’s special lullaby, as did Bonnie Annie Laurie for mine; we are, after all of Scottish heritage. “You are my Sunshine” chosen for my baby brother was absolute genius. He lived up to that song in every sense.

When all other methods of consoling me proved ineffective, my mother would softly coo her own rendition of “Hi Lily, Hi Lily, Hi Lo” or “Scarlet Ribbons”. Many years later those old songs will bring about an emotional deluge on some days. It’s not so much the words, and certainly not the melody since I am not even certain she had that part right. It is the fact that for my mother, singing was something she was compelled to do. It was uncensored, carefree, yet not careless.

I was not blessed with the gift of voice. I am a shy person with a timid voice and a perfectionist. Deep inside of this quiet spirit is an exuberant gospel singer. In my dreams I see myself robed in glorious purple satin singing “How Great Thou Art” as loud and as joyously as the best of them. But my inner music critic does not allow for anything that grandiose. In fact I am quite sure that is an experience even my closest friends and family would prefer not be subjected to.

None the less, there is something to be said for living a life without filters. It is a sad fact that my talents do not include masterful singing of spirituals and ballads. But even sadder reality is that my children and grandchildren will never be able to associate a song sung tenderly to them with the warmth in my heart and the love I have for each of them. What it might cost me in embarrassment or shame has barred me from ever giving them or myself that treasure. My mother’s greatest gift was the ability to lay all that aside and just sing to her hearts content.

The Brown Places

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!!

On Being A Daddy’s Girl

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.

Crossing the Bar

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 Langua…

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