Trees, in their giantess of spirit, talk to me on a daily basis. Thank God, or I don’t know who I’d go to for advice.
It’s the end of a long day—a Monday to be exact—and as hectic, overflowing Mondays have the uncanny habit of following slow, afternoon-nap Sundays, I fight the desire to head out to the edge of my property and simply be with my dear friend. No words necessary. Oak always understands.
I wouldn’t have to go into the tedious details concerning the weird dream where I painted a dirty wall then promptly tossed a blanket over a messy box that really deserved to be cleaned out, but, in dream-world impossibility, the blanket would simply have to do.
No need to explain the emails. How does one respond to sincere attempts to communicate in a world where opinions rampage like charging horses in a medieval joust, and it’s frankly disloyal—perhaps even disingenuous—to cheer?
Gordian knot, you’re playing with me.
Today’s foraging through the shops demanded keen instinct—keep to the designated list despite the fact that items left over from the holidays were practically a steal. Who wants to steal holiday decorations when looking forward to spring? Yeah, sure, there’s always next year… But tonight’s dinner quandary demanded my attention more. Fruits and vegetables. A last stand between winter and spring festivities. That or admit that ol’ Oak and I have more in common than I’d like to admit in matters of girth.
Noon found me strolling. Oak greeted me, always the gentlefolk, waving last seasons crumpled brown leaves, rustling a soothing tune. I still had a story to write, online school plans to cajole, money matters with which to contend, and dinner to devise.
Oak didn’t mind a bit of it. The wind blew. Clouds scuttled. With plaintive meows, cats arched their back in invitation, and dogs raced like puppies. A red bird shot onto the woods, a blue bird flashed by, and an eagle soared. If I wasn’t one with nature, it wasn’t for Oak’s lack of trying. Steadfast par excellence.
Pasta with two kinds of toppings kept the kids’ bodies and souls in happy coexistence. Presently sage and citrus incense burn over the glowing heater while Henrietta hamster daintily chips away at her carrot. I am staring at dark windows, knowing full well that Oak is still and quiet this time of night. He doesn’t need to speak. He just needs to be.
Maple out my bedroom window wakes me each morning with waving branches, seasonally decorated. I’m waiting for the spring-fairies to visit. Any day now. Pines pierce the sky, tossing their still-green branches in see-what-I-still-have proud display. A forgotten nest sways, unbroken, a hopeful reminder of summer guests.
In a time-is-running-out reality dotted with doubt, my arboreal familiars offer more than words can say. They speak in rustles, rough texture, variegated colors, off-white tones, but most honestly in their very existence. To be is their way.
No proof. No judgment. No certitude or pride.
To have been created says all. Alive. Perhaps not always perfectly. Rot infests the best of us. But speak, they do well.
Advice is best offered after sampled, and so, I find it true.
I’m not overly fond of Lent. The whole discipline aspect sets my teeth on edge. Isn’t life hard enough? What good is it to offer up a bit of sugar in my morning coffee? Or stifling honest irritation over vexing situations?
Strangely enough though, by the end of the second week, I’ve changed pretty much all my original sacrificial intentions and come to a whole new perspective on what God is asking of me. No voice-overs telling me that He doesn’t need the blood of bullocks to make His meaning clear. Life does that well enough, thank you.
Perhaps the swelling buds on trees, the sun peeking over the horizon earlier each morning, the contrast of melting ice and nesting birds has something to do with my appreciative understanding. Or the natural fact that eating better, getting a good night’s sleep, and sticking to chosen goals actually makes me feel better.
Lent reminds me that I make choices on a daily basis, and if my life feels out of control, it’s on me to deal with it. There are a host of things that I can’t control. But Lent insists that I bear not only the power but the responsibility to acknowledge my part in human affairs.
On the weekends, some of the girls and I pick a television series to watch together. Fun and comforting as that can be, I’ve also found it to be discombobulating to the extreme. Nearly every modern show, no matter the setting or the venue, has heavily accented a homosexual perspective. Apparently, homosexuality is the new crisis of our age. Though not new at all, really. Like abortion, it delves into the messy, dark side of human experience—the oft repeated strangled scream, “No one understands my pain.”
And there stands Lent, refuting the foot-stomping message that no one understands. God does understand. He is our Creator. We are the created. That reality informs and shapes us, our families, friends, and the entire known universe. It’s a sticking point, to be sure.
Our human experience isn’t defined by current cultural crisis: our sexual orientation, when life begins, human rights, or what makes us happy. The crux of human experience—on the most basic level—is a matter of truly accepting God as God, our existence as Created Beings, made in His Image, with the freedom to accept or reject what that means for us, (personally and as a member of the human race) now and in an unseen future.
Lent demands self-discipline. Without some effort at self-control, offering up the silly to the sublime or making an effort at self-improvement, inside and outside, it isn’t really a Lenten offering.
Lent is an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be Christian, a son or daughter of God, the created being of our Creator, who nourishes our lives at the root level, knowing better than we do what we really need.
And there lies the challenge. We don’t get to decide our parental DNA, our family heritage, our sex chromosomes, when life begins, or a host of other realities that we struggle with each day. We fight and argue, insisting that we know best—but do we?
Pushing against known boundaries has literally brought us closer to the stars. But has denying God’s Image at the core of our bodies, minds, and souls led us to the ends we really desire?
This year, when the kids and I plan our garden, though we have a great deal of freedom as to what to plant where, we still have to take into consideration factors that are beyond our control: weather, soil, time, and our own limitations.
Balancing human freedom within God-given realities does not make me less free, it makes sense of my existence. This human journey is not all about me. It’s about God and me and the rest of my human family. Lent reminds me that, like all serious relationships, this journey with my Creator involves sacrifice and self-control.
My coffee is more bitter of late, but beyond all expectations, my life is sweeter.
Charles would never be able to look his sister in the eyes again. He stared at the slumped form in the cage and whistled low. It can’t be. But it was. Dead.
Once he had cleared out a nest of mice from the garage, so the irony of failing as a hamster caretaker struck everything but the funny bone.
Three years ago, Robin had been diagnosed with cancer, one that might prove fatal or might go into remission forever. A chancy thing that Charles could not understand even after researching it online till his eyes ached.
This last hospital stay meant that someone had to take care of Henny.
He had said he would.
And he had meant it.
But life got in the way, and he forgot.
Now Henny lay like a petrified rock before an empty feed bowl. Dried crust rings adorned the empty water dish.
Mom’s voice raced up the stairs. “Charles?”
He had to answer. He was in Robin’s room. Mom wouldn’t ask about Henny. Never cross her mind. “Yeah?”
“Dad and I are going now. The hospital said that one of us could pop in for a visit if we get there in the hour.”
No explanation needed. He knew all the restrictions and why he was not on the short list of visitors. “Fine.”
“Bye, honey. Keep an eye on the chicken in the crockpot.”
The front door shut with all the force of a late winter wind behind it.
Charles sighed. He opened the cage and did the needful. Despite the frozen ground, he’d give his sister’s pet a decent burial. It was the least he could do.
Online classes set Charles’ nerves on edge. There were so many more interesting things he could be doing with his time. He googled hamsters and discovered that there were a few within his price range. No one would know…except Robin, of course. She had a mama-bear’s sensitivity. One whisker out of place, and her eyebrows would rise sky high.
He sighed and drummed his fingers on his desk. How on earth could he replace hamster-love? Clearly, with her frequent hospital visits, another pet wasn’t a good option. A game? How about a craft they could do together? She liked nature walks—he could take her to the park every week. Or a boyfriend? He could set her up with— Charles shook his head. She was only twelve, for heaven’s sake. What am I thinking?
His phone buzzed, and his stomach tightened. Either his teacher or his mom. Nether a welcome distraction. He checked his text messages.
Hey, Sweetie! Great news. They’re letting us take her home today. Just got a few things to finish up, and we’ll all be together again🙂
Get the chicken ready, and Dad will pick up some dessert on the way to celebrate.
Hearts and smiles,
If a national emergency had been declared, and he was being sent to the front lines, Charles’ heart could not have pounded any harder.
From the sound of boots stomping into the living room, hearty laughter, and voices chattering way too loud, Charles knew something was off. He had cleaned up the remains of Henny’s house; her empty cage stood in the corner of his closet, out of sight. He hoped out of mind.
He had changed his dirty shirt and finished his biology assignment—one focused on rodents—only adding to life’s cruel fate.
He sucked in a deep breath and marched down stairs.
Mom was bustling every direction, humming some ridiculous tune in the kitchen, and Dad was helping Robin get settled on the couch. Lots of pillows and extra blankets.
Twelve? She looked eighty. Her sunken eyes peered at him as a smile quivered on her lips. Brave but doomed. He knew it. She knew it. And now she knew that he knew it.
Henny’s slumped form flashed before his eyes, and a lump rose to his throat. He forced it down, strode to the couch, and plunked down beside her. In his fifteen-years on earth, it was the bravest thing he had ever done.
He nudged her shoulder.
She nudged him back. Her smile widening and real this time.
“So, you’ve come back to plague me with song requests, I suppose? Twenty new tunes you want uploaded?”
“Only seven—but I found a game we can play. You just have to set it up.”
Huge, long-suffering sigh. He nudged her again.
Mom called from the kitchen, “Dinner’s ready!” with all the practice of a spring lark. All hell could be breaking loose, but as long as she had dinner ready, cheerfulness reigned supreme.
Dad sprang into action, his arm ready, his hovering presence all that Robin needed to get to the kitchen table.
Eating wasn’t difficult. It was impossible. But Charles managed it anyway.
A Netflix movie—a Jane Austin romance that made Charles and his dad exchange eye-rolls every other scene—and evening prayers completed the night.
Sweating bullets every time Robin offered an inquisitive glance his direction, Charles prayed that she’d forget about Henny until tomorrow.
No such luck.
Ascending the steps, she clutched her dad’s hand and hit Charles square between the eyes. “How’s Henny been? I feel bad, leaving her so long. But I’m sure you’ve taken good care. She’s so silly.”
What does silly have to do with it? She wasn’t a silly hamster. She was a rodent. Nothing to shed tears over. His vision blurred. “Can you wait till tomorrow? I’m really tired tonight.”
She nodded. “Me too.” She slipped off to bed.
Laying in the dark, facing the monsters chasing him down the corridors of his imagination, Charles knew his days were numbered. He couldn’t live through this. He didn’t want to.
After a night of dreams skewered by nonsense nightmares, Charles swallowed each bite of cereal in the same way that a camel manages with cactus leaves. Ignore the prickles and force it on down.
Dad, his protective armor on, patted Charles’ back as he strode into the kitchen. “You doing okay?”
There was no good answer, so Charles simply shrugged.
The phone buzzed. A loud conversation upstairs, Mom’s laughter, and then Mom skittering down stairs with the phone held out. “Jason has everything set, but he wants us to there to make sure it’s what we want. Then he’ll bring it over right after he gets it loaded.”
Apparently, the message made sense to Dad. He nodded, grabbed his coat, and snatched his keys.
Mom leaned in to Charles. “She’s still sleeping. We won’t be gone long. If she wakes up, get her something to eat so she doesn’t try to take the stairs, okay? We’re getting the bed the doctor recommended, so she’ll be more comfortable.”
After an affirming nod, they were out the door.
Silence pervaded the house for the next fifteen minutes. Then the shuffling steps of a very old or very sick person padded overhead.
Charles trotted upstairs and rushed to his sister’s room. But she wasn’t there. He glanced at the bathroom. Empty. His heart thudded as he approached his room. There she stood, the closet door open, Henny’s cage pulled out, empty and forlorn.
“I’m sorry. It was all my fault—”
Surprisingly strong, Robin’s voice warbled across the room to the doorway. “She was three years old—that’s ancient for a hamster.”
But you’re only twelve. Tears stung Charles’ eyes.
She turned and faced him. “I was thinking…maybe you could walk outside and take pictures, text ‘em, then call me, and describe stuff. Then—well—I won’t miss spring completely.”
All through February and deep into March, he sent pictures of Snowdrops, Crocus, maple buds, early, eager bees, and the first Robin to come bob-bobbing-along. She responded with hearts, googly-eyed smiling faces, and other ridiculous emojis that made him laugh out loud.
After the last thaw in mid-April when the temperatures finally rose again, he tread across the slushy grass, box under his arm and a spade in hand. He stopped before the fresh mound. It might take years for grass to grow over the site. He clasped the stained container and, with the aid of his spade, made a small hole at the foot of the grave. He placed the box front and center, then covered it with all the care of an operating doctor finishing a procedure. He patted the earth and leaned on the spade handle.
“Together again, best I can arrange it. Dumb mistake to forget Henny…but sometimes, it’s hard to see stuff.”
A red-breasted Robin hopped close and cocked its head.
Charles knelt on the muddy ground and lifted his hand. They stared at each other for a long moment.
Christmas—the birth of God as human being. What a concept!
For my kids’ generation, I have to translate it in terms of an alien coming to Earth, revealing Himself as the seed of human origin. We are more likely to believe in aliens than angels these days. But, be that as it may, the human experience, despite 5000 years of conversations with God and 2000+ Christmases, our life-on-earth journey remains much the same. We are born, we live, and we die.
As I consider this unlikely year 2020, amid all the changes and challenges of our fast-paced technological developments, social and political upheavals, a contracting world amid an expanding universe, pandemics, increasing information, and diminishing trust, I have chosen to focus on what really matters to me.
Family, home, community, my critters, and the little piece of Earth under my care, given by God, offer my life purpose and meaning. Joy even. The happiness of service, becoming a part of more than my petty self, my particular needs, my thin view.
Each day, I attempt to manage my daily-do, taking care of those within my family and community sphere. But the larger world matters, too. In that respect, I have been blessed to interact with three generous stewards of God’s life and love. I am sure there are many others as well.
The mystery of Christmas, for me, is not so much that God became human and offers us Eternal life with Him in Heaven—He being God, that perfection is reasonable, even expected—but that despite our faults and failings, our petty selfishness, we humans can and do respond with generous spirits, in imitation of the God who made us.
To join with fellow human beings who so love the world that we offer our lives, in big and small matters, in monetary offerings, time and talent, heartfelt conversations, prayer, solace, nobility of spirit, courage, anonymous kind acts, speaks to a humanity that can rise and grow beyond our worst tendencies, our weakest links, our nefarious faults.
This Christmas season, I choose not to focus on our many problems or the murky swirl of an uncertain future, but rather, I lift my gaze to God in gratitude for His presence among us and for my fellow human beings who live in generous, noble love. Nowhere do you shine so bright as in these dark days. May your light continue to shine in the coming months and years, and may the Good God who created you for Eternal life, offer you the strength and hope to persevere, come what may.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16
I went to election judge training yesterday, taught math, English, history, helped with online classes, made dinner for the kids, took a walk with a neighbor down the road, and chatted with my daughter on the phone.
This chilly September morning, as I enjoyed a hot cup of coffee, I wondered what this day would bring to me and what I would bring to it. One of the first things that caught my attention was a quote used in my daughter’s textbook:
“United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.” ~Patrick Henry
This textbook was copyrighted well before the COVID pandemic, the mask wars, the deepening tensions between Republicans and Democrats, worldwide anxieties covering everything from crumbling icebergs to riots in our cities. Yet Patrick Henry’s quote spoke as clearly now as when it was originally written over two hundred years ago.
At the moment, cicadas resonate across the yard, frogs, birds, and bees go about their end-of-summer business. The maple leaves are still mostly green, but my porch flowers are fading fast. I harvested the last of the tomatoes and peppers, and I just tossed my heaviest blanket on the bed for the coming night temps are slated to dip into the 40s. I am not ready for frost. But it will come nonetheless.
The inevitability of change means that even when we don’t see something, it does not cease to exist. The mystery of love and hate hidden in hearts alters lives far into the future. On personal, family, and societal levels, what we do today changes tomorrow, for better or for worse.
At election time, it is an army of faithful volunteers who buttress the integrity of our elections. It only takes a few malcontents to strike at our confidence and damage our security.
Patrick’s words strike a chord within each of us. Either we maintain our personal integrity or lose the base upon which we all stand. The devastation of disunity affects everyone.
I know that it will be cold tonight, but my heart wants to keep the doors and windows open a little longer. I’ll suffer the price of my choice until I admit that I am not an amphibian. The price of unity means that we have to give up pursuing unreasonable ends. We have to seek reconciliation, practice compassion, and observe heroic humility. We cannot dismantle the past, but we can build a future.
The fathers and mothers who offered their wit and wisdom to found a nation under God did so without getting everything they wanted. They put just laws and merciful order—the embodiment of sacrificial love even to the point of dying for others—as the solid foundation upon which the next generation stands. Humility and humanity do more than sound alike, they work alike, altering our complex multi-faceted vision into a panorama view that ennobles the whole world.
Winter will come. Human institutions crumble. Yet, the grace of our existence speaks to communion. Winter does not deal death and destruction to those who build strong homes on solid foundations. Not all homes look the same. Not everyone faces winter the same way. In trial, opportunities arise. In winter, we take stock of our inner selves, our families, communities, nations, and world, and seeds for spring are gathered.
Tomorrow brings a host of unknowns, but even as night closes in I can choose to stand with the best of humanity—unique in our unity.
Being the glorious season of scarlet leaves, burnt orange pumpkins, tawny grass, caterpillars seeking the perfect abode to wrap themselves in a snug cocoon for the winter, geese flying low honking encouragement to their fellow travelers, (Though conceivably, they could be telling the last in line, “Hurry up, Bub, or you’ll get left behind!”) and the annual apple harvest for the winter’s supply of apple sauce, apple juice, and apple pie, autumn gets a lot of attention.
Even the bees get excited, hurrying hither and yon, with the inner awareness that the summer supply of nectar is about to crash in a seasonal apocalypse. There literally is nothing left for bees to do but huddle up and survive the coming freeze of all that is good and holy in their universe.
Birds adapt with sensible charm. Some fly off, like the aforementioned geese, honking their goodbyes as if to taunt the fools below. They know cold and snow are coming without a clue that humans and their appointed pets and other citizens of the animal kingdom, including a few feathered friends, have adaptions at the ready.
Critters, flowers, twigs, and trees realize that the game’s up, and the world of sunshine and plenty is about to collapse. They do what they must to either die with dignity or huddle into a catatonic “I’ll come back when things are better” attitude.
I know perfectly well that my son is gunning the mower ready to take down the last of the straggly garden, the porch flowers bend in limp acquiescence to shorter, colder days, the pool must be drained and excused from duty for the next six months, and that fun shorts and t-shirts will soon to be ridiculously inappropriate, but, still, I’m pleased about the seasonal change of guard.
It’s not because I’m skipping pages in the Farmers Almanac, imagining next spring. It’s not because bundling on layers of clothes and scrunching up close to my bedroom heater in hopes of maintaining feeling in my fingers excites my survival instinct, or that a daily tussle between battling the north wind or staying indoors until I resemble one of Count Dracula’s wives amuses my inner drama queen.
It’s because I’ve been endowed with a fairy-like fancy—I love autumn. I enjoy the slow decay of grass stems, the crumbling of the garden’s glory, sweeping grey clouds hovering with a threat of rain, chilly mornings ordering me to tug on long pants and a heavy sweater, bracing myself with stinging cheeks against a biting frost, the perfect rhythmic reality of change involving loss and endurance.
I’ve never had a relationship’s springtime last more than a few months. At some point, a misunderstanding sneaks in like a cold wind, or a different opinion edges it’s way to the surface, crumbling the green garden of interpersonal contentment. Culturally, nationally, historically—anyway I want to view my world—spring and summer never last. God, in His wisdom, prepared a place in me not only to accept the inevitable challenge of change, loss, exasperation, and suffering but to welcome the fullness of the natural life cycle. To accept that which I cannot change through the grace of a soul in love with more than what the birds know, the bees expect, and the decaying plants offer.
I am content at the sight of scarlet leaves and a well-stocked woodpile. I know my own autumn days draw near, and that thought should haunt me. But it doesn’t. My soul rejoices in the spirit of endurance and the welcome dawn of each new day, no matter how cold winter might get.
True light, beauty, and the joy of life emanate from inside—making every season glorious.