It amazes me that we humans ever understand each other given our robust ability to mess with syntax, translations, and meaning.
Some years back, the kids and I visited my dad in Kansas. My youngest, only about five at the time, was very impressed by something my dad shared with her. I was clueless.
After we returned home and I was making bread in the kitchen, my little one climbed up on a stool, watched me for several minutes, inflating my ego no small sum. Me thinking that my exceptional ability to knead dough actually impressed her developing mind.
She looked at me and inquired, in that adorable way small children do, with big searching eyes, “We’re related to pastry-people, aren’t we, Mom?”
I stopped kneading. Flummoxed. My eyebrows must have spoken for me.
Her voice rose with her determined desire to be understood. “You know, Pastry People. Granddad said we’re related to PASTRY PEOPLE!”
Thank the Lord of Heaven that daughter number four wandered through the kitchen at that appointed moment in history. I stalled her with a well-aimed, albeit desperate attempt to clarify our ancestry. “Uh, do you know anything about…”
She stared at me, furrowed her brows, pursed her lips, then smiled as light dawned. “Oh, yes, Granddad did say something about us being related to the Danish.”
Danish. Pasty-people. Get it?
I forgive you if you’re slow on the uptake. It took me a moment.
I don’t know if my youngest has yet forgiven me for merely being related to some of the greatest sea-faring humans in history, Hans Christian Anderson, and kings and castles rather than pastry-people. Though the discoverers of butter cookies are relatable!
When I took my ancestry test last March and got the results in May, I discovered that Dad was pretty much on the mark. 61% Irish, 26% English and northwestern European, 6% Scottish, 4% Welsh, 3% Swedish, I’m a mixed lot to be sure.
At an Irish pub with friends—back in my Chicago days—an Irish gentleman discussed ancestry with me and, when I shared my mixed heritage, his eyes rounded in something akin to horror. “You’re made up of people who hate each other, Love.” Add the fact that going generations back, we have mixed religious affiliations as well—heck, it is surprising love survived long enough to grow new lives. To say nothing of generations of lives.
It seems that everyone wants to be different these days. The irony is that we are different. Go back far enough, we all travel through the highways and byways of DNA history. And no one journeys unscathed. That’s what makes us the same. What unites us and makes us strong.
Nobility of character, depth of soul, worthiness as fellow human beings reflect both our shared human-kind but also the choices we make as individuals, including the stories we tell our kids and what’s put on the supper table.
So, though my daughter has to accept her nature as non-pastry-people, she does share our heritage as a chosen race—beings that our Creator willed into life. On a good day, we make bread and conversation, nourishing bodies and souls to journey on.
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