Sunday, December 26, 2010

Finding Comfort

I awoke to six inches of snow, and it is still falling. It is mystical, magical, serene, silent, and beautiful. The cafe is taking a snow day. I'm a little discom- bobulated. I have not sat at my kitchen bar to write this blog. I'm not sure I can put the words together here! I was all set to venture out in my all-wheel drive--looking forward to it actually. The scone and coffee don't taste quite the same here. Regroup.

Last week the yoga teacher led us into a painful contortion of some sort, I don't remember the name of the pose, but it involved hips and was one of those "you've got to be kidding" moments. She said, "Settle in. Get comfortable." Right. She knew we were thinking that because she laughed and admitted it was not a comfortable position, but to "try to find some comfort in an uncomfortable place." So when, on Christmas Eve, the meditation at church was about finding light in the darkness, I had already been considering what that meant to me.

There has been a lot of darkness in my life the past two decades. And a lot of light. It is more my nature to dwell on the light, which is a good thing. But I have been learning that the darkness cannot be locked in a closet. It can be a good thing to acknowledge it. I am also not a Pollyanna, finding the goodness in everything. For me that is not a healthy place. There is darkness, and it does little good to try to circumvent it. Light may come from the darkness; maybe come because of it. But dark is dark. And uncomfortable is uncomfortable. Learning to see in the dark is my aspiration. As I sit at my counter looking out at the snow piled on the slender tree branches, every now and then it gets too heavy, or the wind blows with a bit more force, and in a silent "whoosh" the branches dip and bushels of snow fall to the ground. My personal darkness is kind of like that; when it has been enough, when I have learned all I can from it, it lets go and the light returns. But first, I have to learn to see in the dark.

This morning I have watched the birds at the feeder, their tiny bodies finding the small space under the feeder's overhang. My cat, Smudge, truly thought she wanted to go outside, and she crept down the inner edge of the steps protected from the snow under the overhang of the roof. Finding comfort in the uncomfortable. I looked around at the flickering candles in the darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve, lighting the faces of all of us--those who are living in the light and those who are drowning in the dark. The light of the Baby found all of us. And in all of us is the light. On the way I home, I walked down the streets in Raleigh's historic district near my home and looked at the strings of light illuminating the darkness outside the houses. Regardless of what might have been going on inside, they were bejeweled. I arrived at my little house sitting in the dark with candles in the windows and Christmas tree lights glowing from within. Light in the dark. I thought of the shepherds and the wiseones following the star to the Babe who was to save the world from the dark; but we can't be saved, not really. At least we can't make it go away. The dark will always be with us. But we can bring light into a dark world. And that is what the One who is More brings us--and it shines through us. Early last Tuesday morning, at the beginning of the shortest day of the year, I watched the earth's shadow darken the full moon. Though I didn't see it, because the clouds rolled in and obscured the rest of the event, I know that the shadow kept on moving and eventually the light came out on the other side. And that is the way of the dark. Sometimes there is darkness in our lives, but we learn to see what light there is in spite of the dark; and eventually the fullness of light comes back on the other side and shines into the dark night.

 Solstice Eclipse

I sat on the porch step
wrapped in a blanket

against the cold

early this morning and
watched the earth’s shadow
darken the moon.

The last time it
happened on the
shortest day of the year,
the pilgrims
were the watchers.

In the distance
out for the event
made their whooping
presence known
and dogs howled
along with them
as the moon disappeared.

A cat crept across a
and a silhouetted figure pulled
back a curtain and
peered out
then came out the door
looked up
and went back inside.
Look at lunar eclipse.

I watched the sliver of
moonlight grow smaller
and smaller until
the eclipse was
the only light
a ring around
the edge.

My cat clawed
at the door
not comprehending why
I left the warm bed and
was out in the dark
and the cold.
But when I came in
wouldn’t I like to give
her some food.
As long as
I was up.

On TV later
an astronomer was
trying to explain the
but Matt was making
such fun and
at what the astronomer
was forced to call the most
boring of all
galactic events,
that I couldn’t make
heads nor tails of
the explanation.
And it pissed me off
that they were
light of the

I just know the moon
went dark
and it doesn’t happen
and it got me up
out of the comfort of bed
to the porch step
in the cold and the dark
to bear witness.

December 21, 2010

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Eyes of a Child

When my son Nicholas was small, about the age his son Max is now, and he was less than enamored with something--peas and other green things on his plate, shampoo in his hair, wind in his face--he wrinkled up his little nose, squinted his bright blue eyes, and, without moving his lips, forcefully whined, "I can't like that!" The phrase has come to my mind several times this week: the alternating Wednesday yoga teacher saying "lay" instead of "lie" at least a dozen times; and the unexpected Julie-substitute on Friday was...well, I won't even go there. The cold that was too intense to open the damper and build a fire. Working on a snow day (distinguishable from a snowy day in that schools and, as it turned out, my workplace closed) because I was at work before I knew I wasn't supposed to be able to safely get there--and because I had too much to do to indulge in the luxury of a day off. Learning through the movie channel that comes with my cheapest-possible cable package that yes, Virginia, there is indeed such a thing as Obama Chia Head, as well as Washington and Lincoln, and as a bonus, the Statue of Liberty. (They are available at K-Mart and various drug stores, if you are interested.) The list goes on, but I will stop there. I just needed to get it out so I can move on.

It's the last Sunday of Advent. Regardless of how I feel about Christmas--a difficult holiday for me because it does not match the perfect Rockwellesque scenario in my head--the baby will be born. In one of my favorite of Ann Weems' poems, she writes, "For someone on earth will see the star, someone will hear the angel voices, someone will run to Bethlehem, someone will know peace and goodwill: the Christ will be born!" It may or may not be me this year. But if I close myself off from the possibility, I won't notice it if it is. And new life will be born, even if I can't see it. According to the Christmas story, things were not exactly up to snuff for Mary and Joseph, either. But apparently they made the best of it. What if I try to view Christmas through a child's eyes? What if I let lie the adult knowledge of reality that taints everything, and look squint-eye at what is good and true in spite of it all?

My favorite Christmas movie is "Miracle on 34th Street," the old one with Maureen O'Hara and young Natalie Wood. You know the story: six-year-old Susan doesn't believe in the miracle of Santa Claus that is every child's birthright and was stolen from her by her no-nonsense mother, until it is proven in a court of law. A child's  eyes see the wonder of Christmas. When we add grown-up knowledge we lose the ability to believe the impossible. My other favorite Christmas stories are "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "The Polar Express." The nameless boy in "The Polar Express" still hears the bell ring when he becomes a man, because he believes he will; and the Whos in Whoville find that Christmas lies within their hearts, and it cannot be stolen.

Faith (perhaps not unlike magic) is believing in things even when common sense tells us  not to. We know reindeer can't fly, we know there couldn't have been a virgin birth. But if we can go through our heart, instead of our brain where knowledge has crowded out the ability to believe in the magical, even as adults we can see the world as a child does. As I watch the seasons cycle, and the progression of plants come and go and come again in mental time lapse, how can I not believe in miracles? As I watch snowflakes drift through the air, examine ice-encased berries and branches and icicle droplets on branches this cold, cold week, I am in awe of creation. I think I would "can't like" to be a botanist or a meteorologist and have too much knowledge of exactly what reality makes that all happen. I would rather just see it as wonder.

Every now and then this week I find myself thinking about Christmases past. One year, after all our presents were opened, and my sisters and I were completely satiated, my mother suddenly remembered gifts that had not shown up under the tree. She disappeared to her bedroom and returned with things long-hidden in the recesses of her closet that she had forgotten to wrap! If she felt bad about the imperfection of that, she needn't have. It is one of my most memorable Christmases. My big sister, five years older than I, as a teenager and beyond was the queen of creative wrapping. One year she put all her gifts in shoe boxes and decorated them like train cars and hooked them together under the tree. Now, as a knowledgeable and responsible adult, she puts gifts in reusable cloth bags. I know it's green--and I have used the bags, though not to regift as intended; one is in my suitcase for dirty traveling clothes and one holds my knitting needles--but I miss the creativity. Some bit of wonder is lost. And then there was the year 2-year-old Nicholas wanted an airplane. Those were the years I had more time and creativity than we had money. I don't know what exactly Nicholas had in mind, but I made him a very large, stuffed biplane with struts and propeller, and after he went to sleep on Christmas eve his dad and I hung it from the ceiling light in his room. On Christmas morning, we heard him stirring in his crib. We heard the crib rattle and squeak as he stood up. What followed was not his usual morning babble and the sound of pages of his books being turned, but a long moment of complete silence. And then, in soto voce, we heard, "It's an airplane!" The memory of that moment of his wonder, even as I write this, brings tears to my eyes. I was Santa that year. I don't think he had a clear picture of what he wanted, but I gave it to him.

As a child I loved the traditional carols telling the familiar fairy-tale Christmas story. The story has it all: the impossible virgin-birth beginning, the simplicity and improbability of a king born in a stable to ordinary parents and welcomed into the world by animals; the happy-ever-after-ness of angels, adoring fans, and expensive gifts. I didn’t notice in my youth, though, that the familiar carols often underplay or entirely leave out the darkness of the fairy tale archetype: a frightening and confusing pregnancy, difficult travel, full hotels, a child giving birth to a baby, and an evil king. I realize now that it is the darkness out of which miracles are born that may be the most important part of all our stories. A carol I most love now is "In the Bleak Midwinter." The words speak to me of the beauty and love that can come unexpectedly in the midst of imperfect times. It calls me to let loose of what I cannot do or have; to let go of fear and anxiety; to trust in a God who loves and cares for me, and who reveals the More through the love of friends; and to embrace the magical wonder of this season.

What can I like this Christmas? My children and their significant others, and beautiful child Max will spend some time with me. How about instead of lamenting that it won't be as much time as I would like and won't look the way I wish it did, I let it be whatever it is? I get some time off from work before the month from hell. What if I enjoy the needed break and not worry about what awaits me on the return? Although I didn't much feel up to it at the time, I issued invitations for a winter solstice party. Now I am so glad I didn't let my annual impending holiday gloom dictate what I might need a month later. What better way to celebrate the season than a candlelight gathering on the longest night of the year with those dear to me.

As I sit at my cafe table writing this, a text message comes in from a dear friend, that blows me away. How does she know? Now that is magical. She writes: "Ring the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen) As we look out from the dark night of our soul, the light of the Christ child enters in--through the crack--softly and quietly as a mother’s kiss.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Baby, it's cold outside! The bit of snow that fell on my gardens, lawn, and deck last Saturday did not disappear until yesterday. The purple heart at the front step, which was blooming up until last weekend, turned into a slimy brown mess, and has been removed from where it sprawled on the front porch, its roots waiting out the winter under a mulch blanket. The cheerful hot pink, pale pink, and purple balls of the bachelor's button, that brightened the front garden on and on through the late summer and long fall, are brown; and the Mexican petunia is ready to cut down. The hydrangeas have finally given up their insistence on putting out new growth.

The pansies, though, the pansies are the winter garden's hardy little faces. They appear to be defeated under their blanket of icy snow, but already today--though it is just a bit warmer, they have perked back up. Rather than killing them, the snow insulates and protects them. In places, such as Florida, fruit trees are intentionally sprayed with water when temperatures become unusually cold. When the water freezes, the sensitive blossoms or immature fruit are protected at 32 degrees from the much colder air temperature. It is interesting to me that something can survive by being frozen. Everything, apparently, has its breaking point. The ice insulates.

Adversity sends some flora and fauna underground, while others are more resilient, but they all find their own ways to insulate themselves against the cold. Some, like the purple heart, must go underground for protection; the hydrangea canes turn woody to insulate their core, and in the spring leaves and new green stems emerge from the hard stem. The yellow blooms of the winter jasmine began appearing last week; it is the heat that is adverse to it. And others, like the pansies and the Creeping Jenny, hang tough in the elements. I don't know where the moles go--do they hibernate?--but I am glad they are gone. I saw a raccoon lumbering across the snowy yard in the moonlight last weekend. And Smudge has grown her heavy coat and continues to want to go out into the cold first thing in the morning. Insulation comes in many forms.

Elizabeth Edwards was laid to rest yesterday, next to the grave of her beloved son, Wade. I visit Wade from time to time on my cemetery walks. I wonder who, now, will care for the garden that is his, and now Elizabeth's, final resting place. I never saw Elizabeth, or anyone else, there; but her presence is clear. Every now and then a new plant or bit of garden art has shown up. I have sat on his bench and told him that his parents were doing the best they could, and none of the mess in their lives was his fault.

Both John and Elizabeth insulated themselves in their own ways against the pain and grief and stress in their lives. Elizabeth was engulfed in her profound grief at Wade's death. I can only imagine that it must have been hard on her family. I understand that she underwent rigorous fertility treatments to get pregnant two more times, at an age when surely that was not in their original plan. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 55, she had not had a mammogram in four years. Why? Did she choose not to? Did she forget? Did she think she wouldn’t get caught? John, though less has been heard about it, surely also profoundly grieved the death of his son. He already worked hard in his career; did he put in even longer hours before deciding to throw himself into politics, and their family into the public spotlight? Did John consciously make a decision to seek another woman as a place of insulation from the grief and stress of home and work? Did he convince himself it wouldn’t hurt his family and his career? Did he think he wouldn’t get caught? I don't think they thought about it. I don't believe they were capable of thinking about it. It just was.

I neither condone nor condemn either of them for the ways they found to cope. I am uncomfortable around conversation that vilifies John while elevating Elizabeth to saint status. I do not believe either of them intended to heap greater pain on the other; but they were both careless--Elizabeth with her health and John with his expressions of love. And in the end they each hurt the other; and they both left the life they had made together. That society demonizes those who deal with their pain in some ways while martyring--or at least turning a blind eye toward--those who cope in other ways, goes against the teachings of what I know of the Book. Jesus forgave the adulterous woman; can we do less? And yet, we keep throwing stones.

Why do we hurt each other? Why do we insulate ourselves in ways that cause pain to those we love the most? I believe we are capable of great pain only because we are also capable of great love. (And there are many who cut themselves off from love in order to avoid the pain.) But I am not convinced that we always choose our actions. We don’t always have the strength required to do what somewhere deep down we know is the right thing. Right in our heart, and the hearts of those we love, that is; conventional mores should not be at the top of our list of that to which we conform. Society doesn't always get right what is acceptable and what is not. Sometimes ourselves are all we are capable of considering--and it gets us in trouble whether our actions are visible to a world beyond or only to our own small world, or perhaps only within ourselves. When our actions are sure to lead to destruction, I am sure we would choose differently, if we could but choose.

We read in the news this past week that members of the small family church in Kansas that protests at military funerals to demonstrate its opposition to homosexuality were planning to be in Raleigh to demonstrate at the services for Elizabeth. This because she was vocal in her belief that people should be allowed to love whomever they love. The North Carolina Council of Churches issued this statement to newspapers statewide: "The protesters from Kansas have come many miles to spread their hatred at Elizabeth Edwards' memorial service. Let us be clear: the Bible calls us to kindness and respect for one another, and Jesus Christ preached throughout his life that we should love one another. The protesters' appalling and repeated violation of the sacred services by which we honor our dead, along with their representation of themselves as messengers of Christ, are offensive and misrepresent Christian faith." Reportedly 200-400 (depending on which story one read) people planned to form a "line of love" in a two-block perimeter around the church to insulate the Edwards from the expected ten protesters. That makes me proud to live in Raleigh. I would be very proud if the population of humanity would forgive John for his duplicity; and I will forgive Elizabeth for not paying attention to her health. And I will continue to get an annual mammogram and do monthly self-checks at home.

As winter sets in, I light my fire against the cold. I will dress warmly and continue my cemetery walks. It is most beautiful in the barrenness of winter and in the snow. I do not want to insulate myself in ways that keep out beauty. (And, by the way, Cate Edwards in her eulogy yesterday, said that her mother taught her many things, including to beware of wearing prints, but that she would never regret solids. Apparently she failed to tell her to wear a coat over her short, sleeveless solid black dress when it was 40 degree drizzle outside.)

In nature, when the air warms again, the protective ice will melt from the pansies and the fruit trees and let the sun in. Humans, however, tend to hold on to our insulation beyond its need. This Advent season, my prayer for all of us is that we may let go of any unhealthy protection from pain, grief, disappointment, and anger that keeps out hope, peace, joy, and love. And no matter the season in which I leave this garden for whatever lies beyond, and let go of the healthy and unhealthy ways in which I insulate myself, I want Joy to the World to lead me out. Thank you, Elizabeth, for all of the ways you modeled beauty and resilience. Rest in peace.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


It seems, according to an NPR story yesterday, that Saturday mail delivery is again being considered for discontinuance. As far as I am concerned, they could have ONLY Saturday delivery; keep all that fourth class mail to one humongous box full. I wonder, though, if house-to-house mail distribution will one day be only a distant memory to my grandson, Max; and completely unknown to his children. As milk delivery, the clinking of the glass bottles against the wire basket announcing its arrival on the front porch, is to me and mine.

Change. It is inevitable, whether we welcome it or not. Change can cause upheaval and challenge, and it can bring renewed energy. The new (to me) yoga teacher led her first Wednesday gentle class this week. I could have not gone. I could have decided I would rather do without than learn a new teacher’s way of teaching. But I went--because, after all, it’s the practice of yoga that is important. And it was okay! Every teacher teaches different poses and puts them together differently. The change was actually a good thing--it gave me new energy. Teachers aside, I have noticed again recently that my body is continuing to respond differently to one pose or another, as it steadily relearns and expands its boundaries, to stretch and open through the practice. What strikes me this week is that the words “prepare for pigeon pose” no longer strike terror when I hear them gleefully announcing the coming torture. 

My co-workers and I heard this week the recommendations for staffing changes. If approved, there will be considerable change to my position. I am choosing to welcome the change and view it as a possibility for new challenges and new energy. I also know that there will be activities required of me that I won’t enjoy. Change is rarely all good or all bad. One thing I do know about myself is that I need some change from time to time. In fact, I need it pretty regularly. I get restless. Last Sunday, after thinking there was no other viable configuration, I rearranged the furniture in my hearth room--where I spend most of my time. It works; perhaps not as well, but it is good to have a different feel to my living. The important thing to me is that I didn’t settle for “it can’t be done,” even though I couldn't imagine it. (What I also know about myself is that I am a visual person.) I took the plunge, even with doubts.

Yesterday was a magical day. I went to the Farmers’ Market and chose a Christmas tree. I haven’t had one for the past two years. I just haven’t felt up to Christmas itself, let alone the hassle and stress of dragging out all those decorations and then having to put them all away. I guess I thought that maybe if I didn’t do Christmas things, it would just go away sooner. The truth is, I have not enjoyed Christmas for many years, as I wrote in a recent blog. Something has shifted this year, though; something has changed in me. I have been having fun with the preparations. I have even thought up some new creations, and resurrected traditions. A winter solstice party. Baking my special Christmas bread. Returning to worship for Advent. And so, a tree.

I arrive at the Market and quickly realize that my $40 limit is going to be impossible, the range being more like $55-$70. I am very particular about Christmas trees. Okay, I am a Christmas tree snob. My forester father always asked the woodsmen who annually brought a trailer-load of trees from the tree farm to the employees and their families, to bring us three skinny noble firs. Noble firs have short, stiff branches in widely-spaced whorls. There is plenty of room between the branches for the ornaments to hang freely, and without weighing down the branches. He put the three trees together in his specially designed three-hole triangular stand; the result was beautiful and unique. I dare say no one else in town (or in the universe) had a Christmas trees(s) like ours. The tree of choice in the Pacific Northwest back then was Douglas fir, their limp branches perfectly trimmed into a dense cone shape. When my own family lived in Mississippi, I insisted on a Frazier fir imported from North Carolina and damn the cost that we could not afford. No pine tree perfectly trimmed into a dense cone shape would do. And cedar? Spare me. Later, when we moved to NC, my family would endure hours with me searching the lots for something that looked vaguely like a noble fir. No Frazier fir, perfectly trimmed into a dense cone shape would do. Yesterday, actually before too long as I whip from vendor to vendor, I find a lonely 6-foot tree with space between the branches. And a $30 price tag. Apparently what I like is considered defective, and priced to sell. Lucky for me. At home, I manage once again to accomplish a two-person job solo, and haul the tree in its stand into the house. I drag the boxes of decorations from the under-the-eaves storage and more carefully than ever adorn my perfect tree with 250 white lights and put on ALL the ornaments, while Pink Martini Christmas music soars through the house.

And then, wonder of  wonders, it begins to snow. Has it ever snowed here as early as the first week in December? I put on my jacket, grab my work gloves and get to my other planned task for the day: cutting down the frozen and brown banana tree, the elephant ear, and the translucent yellow hostas lying prostrate on the ground. As the snowflakes float through the air around me, I pull the coleus, the geraniums, and the rest of the impatiens. Interestingly, there are two perfect impatiens with cheerful white flowers among the frozen ones; and a tightly furled new banana leaf hidden down among the curled and crumpled brown ones. Life protected by death. I am tempted to leave the banana stalk that holds the new leaf, but I know that without the protection from the elements provided by the other stalks, it will be frozen by daybreak. How often, I muse, do we protect a sliver of life from our past when the end is inevitable; allowing that tiny shred of familiarity to keep us from moving on as long as it remains?

More insidious, perhaps, is how often we let the dead past keep the spark of new life from emerging. We keep what is or might be struggling to emerge firmly trapped within the brown leaves of fear, complacency, familiarity, resignation, can’ts and shoulds; we allow ourselves to  distracted by all that is superfluous. We learn to ignore the quiet voice of the One Who is More calling to us to come out, come out, come out. She called to Moses, and Moses said surely you don’t mean me. I have a speech impediment. She called to Jonah. Jonah preferred to risk death than to answer the voice. All wrapped up in their leaves of familiar protection.

Among the very odd tasks that the staff at the church performs (under the guise of “other tasks as assigned,” I suppose), this week some of us hung a 12-foot vinyl banner of a very pregnant black Mary (from original artwork created by my dear friend Dori) from the third floor windows to adorn the exterior wall at the church entrance. (Yes, we broke a pane of colored glass, but it has already been replaced; all is well.) Of course we could have left her rolled up on the top shelf of the storage and sound, free from controversy. But we got her out. The church will probably be in the paper yet again. Mary. A very young girl, called by God to be the Mother of the Messiah. Talk about change! Talk about controversy! I suppose she could have said, “hell no!” After all, what could possibly have been more terrifying, more life-changing, than a tween having a baby (and where the heck did it come from?), let alone THIS baby. It seems a bit much to ask. But she accepted the challenge; and we know the rest of the story.

Ch-ch-ch-changes. Change moves us forward. Refusal keeps us stuck. If life is a process, so is gardening, and so is this blog. Each step on the journey is a continuation of what has gone before. Sometimes the steps are giant leaps, but more often they are barely discernible. For me, writing about it helps me to see it. What happens when there is no more process? In life you die, if not physically, then emotionally. Boredom is not being open to seeing the process; not being able to say yes to change. Death is staying locked in and protected by the dead leaves. Life is learning to say yes, or at least maybe.

“Have a pleasant stay here, and wherever your continuing travels may take you.” (American Airlines) Journeying on. Saying yes to change.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gratitudes Large and Small

The first hard freeze crept through in the night. This morning the Persian shield, the coleus, the elephant ear, and the banana tree have frozen. The flowers of the lantana and penta that were orange and purple yesterday are brown today. The leaves that remained on the neighbor's Japanese red maple are on the ground. On this first Sunday of Advent, the earth has turned inward to prepare for re-birth.

If the only prayer you say in your entire life is thank you, that will suffice. ~Meister Eckhart

This Thanksgiving week I name some of those things, big and small, for which I say "thank you."

  1. The corner table at Cafe Carolina. Each week for the past 10 years or more, I have occupied a coffee shop table with my Fresh Market blueberry scone and my journal. Ritual becomes home. The table changes, the scone changed for a time, but the sense of home remains.
  2. That I could pay for the new battery my car unexpectedly needed today; even though I didn’t like having to. (But now my radio doesn’t work, thanks to the “anti-theft” device. The car thinks the radio was ripped out of its housing to sell on the black market.) And for my car that still gets me where I need to go in spite of having traveled nearly 200,000 miles.
  3. The beautiful old cemetery: a lovely and interesting garden in which to walk, to think, to just be.
  4. That people read my blog. My Mac that makes blogging possible for me.
  5. An invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.
Hem your blessings with thankfulness so they don't unravel.  ~Author Unknown

  1. The 7 a.m. carillon wafting across the airwaves from St. Augustine’s college and in through my open window. 
  2. The honking of low-flying geese.
  3. A foggy morning.
  4. The location of my work: close enough to the church’s bank to walk there each week on work business and to Cameron Village and the YMCA. That I can walk.
  5. Berries that color the garden when everything else has retreated.
  6. Finding, in a 12-year-old file, the code to reset the car radio.
Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.  ~William Arthur Ward

  1. Smudge in the morning. Each morning after dawn (never before), she sits by my head watching; eventually slowly extending her leg to butterfly-gently touch my nose with her paw. I am reminded of waking from a nightmare and standing silently at my mother's side of the bed, willing her to wake up--gently touching her shoulder with one finger if she doesn't--so I can get in bed with her and feel safe.
  2. That I can get up at 7:17 (unintentionally) and pull into the church parking lot at 8:00, without hurrying. I live that close.
  3. The roses at a house near mine that won’t stop blooming and catch my eye on the way to and from work.
  4. Emma, who stays in nearly daily contact. The technology that makes that easy.
  5. Being confident at and enjoying my work.
  6. Smudge at night, greeting me at the door, warming my lap as I sit on the sofa.
  7. Green tomato /black bean soup and green tomato muffins from the freezer. The product of my garden bounty.
At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us. ~Albert Schweitzer

  1. Jokes on the radio that make me laugh out loud on the way to work: “The last time Carl Castle was patted down at airport security, he made such an impression the agent slipped a dollar into his belt.”
  2. My good and thoughtful friend who paid a surprise visit to my office at 8 a.m. with a hug and a Christmas cactus, expressions of her gratitude for me.
  3. A not too warm, not too cool day; just right for a mid-day walk to Fresh Market for a tiny cup of coffee and blueberry scones for the weekend.
  4. And, speaking of FM, I am grateful for that sweet little grocery that plays classical music and is a peaceful place to hang out, even when I need no groceries.
  5. That I am not allergic to cats and red wine and dark chocolate.
  6. The beginning of a four-day weekend. Not because I don’t like to be at work, but for the opportunity of renewal that comes with a change of routine.
Belief isn’t always easy. But this much I have learned-- if not enough else--to live with my eyes open. ~Mary Oliver

  1. Old, new, and renewed friendships.
  2. Clean sheets, a bed to put them on, water to wash them in, a washing machine in my own house, a job to pay the mortgage.
  3. Japanese maple red.
  4. Mary in the garden, and for keeping my house for me.
  5. The friend who encouraged me to give Brussels sprouts one more try. And the recipe I found with pistachios and dried apricots.
  6. My family: sisters, son, daughter, daughters-in-law, grandchild; and my 94-year-old mother's presence in this world and her good health and strong, happy voice on the telephone.
 To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.  ~ Johannes A. Gaertner

  1. The pale moon hanging in the early morning mottled sky. I grab my camera, but I am too late--the clouds blow in and hide it.
  2. Gray days.
  3. The opportunity to observe the details of the rise and fall of autumn. It doesn’t go down without a fight. The banana tree has two new unfurling leaves, even while the top most ones are brown-edged from the cold. The hydrangea has new growth. The lantana and penta bloom on; and even the lorapetalum has some blooms. The new burning bush and weeping Japanese maple, and my small “ordinary” Japanese maple lost every leaf this week; but the huge dogwood and the larger Japanese maples in my and others’ yards are still bright red beacons in the gathering gloom.
  4. That I live in this country--however flawed--where people voluntarily stand in line for hours to get an i-phone on sale; rather than in a country where people are forced to stand in line for a loaf of bread. There is something seriously wrong with that.
  5. Clementines ("Give thanks. Give Cuties"). Redbox. A new Pink Martini Christmas CD. Digital cameras.
We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.  ~Thornton Wilder

  1. This country--however flawed--where I am free to be me: a woman, a lesbian, a liberal-thinker, a voter. A country where I don’t fear for my life at the hands of those “in charge” for being any of those.
  2. Candlelight and fireplaces, with and without friends to share them.
  3. Public libraries and the books that fill them.
  4. Yoga. A body able to stretch.
  5. A lifetime of better-than-good health. 
  6. A church community to which I can return after hiatus and feel at home.
  7. My garden.
 Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.  ~Melody Beattie 

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Autumn is that thin place between the abundant color and hot, sweaty days of summer and the barren landscape and cold night of winter. The morning light greets brisk, lung-clearing air, which gives way to warmer afternoons with a fair interspersion of foggy mornings and drizzly-damp afternoons. (Well, that last hasn’t happened yet, but perhaps if I write it, it will soon be true. I am a strange southerner, with a northwesterner's love of fog and drizzle.) The trees turn brilliant color almost overnight. The beauty of the red-gold-orange trees arching over the city streets is almost painful. Driving borders on dangerous, with attention diverted. The late-season flowers in my garden take their last gasp bloom-burst as the leaves blaze into completion of their cycle and then let go, like a dizzyingly spinning ice-skater just before she digs her blade tip into the ice to bring her performance to an abrupt, arms-raised, face-tilted-upward, triumphant end.

And then it’s gone. The perennials begin their descent into the ground for the long winter rest; and with one good wind storm the leaves loosen their hold on branches and fall to yards and sidewalks where they can be shuffled through on foot. The weeping Japanese maple I planted this year is at its golden peak mid-week and by the weekend the delicate leaves are shattering onto the ground. With the winter solstice just a month away the nights grow longer and colder. The sun gets increasingly weak. Windows, finally opened after the endless summer heat, are closed again for the duration. It’s over. Autumn. Like the intense passion of a love affair, you have to stay awake for it. Throw yourself into it. Soon it’s only memory. Memories to keep you warm through the winter wait for spring—and new life. Autumn is a visible surrender to the reality of cycles.
It is not quite here yet, but I await with restless anticipation this time of winter stillness. My introvert personality gets exhausted by the intensity of summer activity. I put the garden to bed under a mulch comforter--leaves this year, instead of expensive bagged bark mulch. I am ready to come indoors; to wrap up in my afghan, light the candles, and build a fire against the darkness and the cold. Ready to settle in with a glass of wine, book or knitting, and my lap-cat. Ready for the sound of the wind rattling the windows and rain rushing through the downspouts. Ready to hope for a city-shutting snowfall. I confess, though, at this moment I am enjoying sitting under the dogwood tree, that weak sun slanting through the translucent leaves and warming my face. A soft breeze rattles the leaves and assists them in their swirling dance to the ground.

I feel an urgency in the fall. I want to clean up; make the garden tidy to begin its long winter’s sleep. I pull weeds and spent annuals, and any of the past season’s iris leaves that surrender easily to my tug; new growth has already emerged. I want to prune the blooming camellia and berry-laden pyracantha leaders that shoot up from the top of the bushes; but though the messiness bothers me, I am afraid the seventy-degree days are still too warm, and cutting them back will only encourage growth. An error I have already made once, and now they must be pruned back again. Last weekend I picked a last bowl of grape tomatoes so I could pull the vines. They are ripening in my kitchen window. I expect the vines would have produced more, but the fruit is no longer sweet; and besides I am tired of them.

The leaves carpet the ground. I shuffle my feet through them, loving the crunch and the color. I wish I could be as lighthearted about all that has fallen from my tree of life. The holidays are an annual test. I still want them to be what I anticipated twenty years ago they would be: children and partners and grandchildren home for the holidays, filling the family home again with their sounds and their presence, the smell of baking in the air. Laughing over memories of days gone by; complaining that the larder contains "nothing to eat"; playing games and watching movies. Nothing can make up for the fact that the holidays are not that; at least not for me. But dead leaves left to lie, kill the grass the way sorrow, regret, and anger held close for too long kills joy. I rake up the leaves and move them to the new beds I have made, compost to turn into the soil in the spring in preparation of new growing things. Every last leaf does not get raked up. Like bits of sorrow they blow and bounce across the yard, until even they, too, disappear. Surrendering to the season, and the way things are.

As the garden descends back into the ground, the plants are sustained by the earth--protected from the elements, covered by their blanket of leaf mulch. It reminds me that the dead, dark, barren places that live in all of our souls--whether or not we are able to acknowledge them--have a right to be, and an authentic place within the protection of our beings. 

I go to great lengths today to skirt the pre- Thanksgiving Christmas parade traffic to get to the Farmers’ Market for a load of firewood. On the way I stop and, at long last, put air in the wheelbarrow tire so I can haul the wood from the car to the stack under the deck. At the market, while studiously avoiding the east end where Christmas trees are being unloaded, I find myself looking for red and green, even as I resist the commercial season. It is here in abundance: tandem displays of pink lady and granny smith apples, collards and sweet potatoes, red and green peppers, zucchini and new potatoes, red tomatoes next to green. Surrendering to the fact of the season.

Fulfillment is so much about surrender, demanding that we let go. The work is done and we must detach. We finish a big project and fall again into the abyss of unknowing. Empty. Autumn in the garden is like that to me. But the loss brings with it the freedom to open up to what will come next. Lying fallow is not doing nothing. In our nakedness and emptiness, we make room for the One who is More. We open up to mystery. Advent. I lament that in the south, fall collides with commercial Christmas. But commercialism aside (would that it could be ignored), this week I am noticing that with one week of leaf fall left before the beginning of Advent, perhaps it is all part of a meaningful continuum. The trees, and with them their own inner beings, surrender to an ending just as we commence to lie empty as we await the coming of the Baby.

And on the seventh day, God surrendered to the need for rest. Surely the seventh day was winter.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Planting Promises

Finally, the leaves are turning jewel colors; some are even falling off the trees. On a walk during the work day this week, I suddenly realized why the approach of Christmas sneaks up on me every year: because autumn in the south doesn't conform to the calendar year. The leaves are the same colors as the Christmas decorations in Cameron Village; lights that should be on bare trees, glow through red foliage. Granted, commercial Christmas comes way too soon. I heard the first TV commercial the day after I heard the last political campaign ad.

The leaves are beautiful; and so much is blooming at the same time. In my garden are azaleas, camellia, roses, lantana, penta, violets, wild phlox, gerbera daisies, geraniums, Mexican heather, cosmos, salvia, and of course the pansies and violas I just planted. The dogwood is a lovely burgundy and the Japanese maples glorious red. The ruffled-leaf coleus continues its variegated red and green output, the Persian shield still wears its purple coronation garb, and the burning bush glows brighter and brighter. The Lenten rose is putting out new growth, which surprised me last fall; this year I watched for it.

Yesterday I planted more than 150 bulbs: narcissus, tulips, anemone, dwarf iris, alium, and freesia. Planting bulbs is planting promise--a true act of faith with no immediate gratification. Think about it: a gray/brown/black, dried up bulb with only the slightest evidence of a root is planted several inches underground at the tail end of the growing season, just before the ground freezes solid. And then you wait through darkness, weak sun, ice and snow (if we are lucky). Usually you forget where you planted them, perhaps even lose the memory of planting them at all. And then in the spring, little green shoots; sometimes poking through snow. Then the glorious color. But for now there is only promise. 

I made myself a promise this month. Actually, I amended a promise I made nearly four years ago. After I bought my house--before I moved in and before I embarked on my gardening adventure--I renewed a promise I had made to myself many years ago: not to live out my days in the North Carolina Piedmont. I had no idea then how or when I would keep that promise. I felt very mired in the status quo. Four years ago, as I revisited that vow for the umpteenth time, I set a ten year goal for myself. When I was 65 I would return to the mountains, either the Appalachians or the Pacific Northwest. I made a list of all the reasons that would be a good time. Mostly, though, my list was all the facts that were keeping me stuck here now, at least in my mind. Relationships, job, my church community that I couldn't imagine doing without or being able to replace, the house I had just purchased. Fear. This month, though, as I sat under my dogwood tree surveying my garden and all that I have created in the nearly four years I have lived in my not-so-big house, I woke up. My list of reasons to wait has dwindled away to nothingness. Some of the facts remain, but they no longer seem like reasons to postpone my next big adventure. As I have said, I am a traveler; and I am getting restless. (Smudge has even boxed herself up, ready to go.)

There is a maxim on a greeting card I once saw (I am sure it comes from somewhere other than a greeting card): "Start living the life you imagine." My quandary is I haven't known what I imagine; so I have changed it to "start imagining the life you want to live." Life has always happened to me. Of course, I have taken the initiative to act on the inevitable, but I have only rarely planted a promise for myself. As I start imagining, I find that the fear of change, of moving forward into the unknown, holds less power over me.

Some years ago, my dear friend encouraged me to "just be open to the possibility of a new significant relationship." I tried, but I am now realizing that it is hard to be open to something I don't really care about. I pulled most of the rest of the vinca and impatiens yesterday; leaving only what is in places that will lie fallow over the winter. Letting it lie means I won't have to pull anything up to put the spring plants in the ground. Perhaps I have been afraid of engaging in a relationship that might keep me from fulfilling my promise to myself. I prefer to keep the land fallow so that I won't have to pull up anything more. Finally that promise needs to come first. Opening myself this month to the idea of moving back to my soul home, has me very excited. I have amended my promise from ten years to five--most of it already gone by. Sometimes the bulbs don't come up on our timetable; we just keep watching. But left unplanted, they will never come up. I put cuttings from the coleus in a vase in my sunny upstairs window. I am watching to see if it puts out roots to be replanted in the spring garden.

Leaves have been falling from my tree of life for some time now. Relationships have changed as other people move on in their lives; church has become hard for me and I am currently not attending; my visions for my garden are nearly complete; there probably isn't much hope that my house will increase in value, as there was when I bought it; while I still enjoy my job, it is just a job. Two more leaves fell off this week. My spirited sister-bottom-dwelling co-worker in the basement, windowless offices, moved upstairs. I feel a bit abandoned. And gentle Julie yoga instructor told the class that she will no longer be teaching the gentle yoga class on Wednesdays. To say that she changed my life is probably a bit dramatic; but she certainly contributed significantly to altering its quality. Had I begun yoga--nearly two years ago--with any of the instructors who have subbed for her, I don't think I would have continued. Thank you, Julie. Namaste.

Change. Change is hard. Change often comes unbidden, but we can choose to let it be a slamming door or make it one opening to opportunity. The forced changes that I have experienced have mostly resulted in opportunity, because I made it so. It is more difficult to choose change… I believe I am nearly ready. I know I am ready to begin planting promise.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Lost and Found

Dichotomies. There can be no gain without loss, no found without lost, no happy without sad. This past week I was more in tune with loss and sadness than I have been in a while. Perhaps that is what comes with autumn. This is a time of falling back, the springing forth is in the past--and in the future. The seasons of nature are tied with the seasons of my soul. Spring and fall are visual and emotional onomatopoeia. And round and round the seasons go in an endless cycle.

It feels like loss when the trees lose their leaves and the perennials go underground. Just as it feels like loss when I plant something that doesn't thrive. In fact, more does not thrive than does. May Sarton, wrote: “A garden is always a set of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.” There has been much loss in my life: lovers, friends, my sense of what "family" should look like, jobs, home, family members. And, of course, there has been much gain--more than a few triumphs--sometimes as a direct result of the loss. Without the losses I would not be who I am; my life would not contain much of what I love about it.

As I watch my niece marry her love this weekend and hear their promise to love each other and take care of each other through thick and thin until death, I feel the sadness of that heartfelt vow in light of the fact that sometimes it just isn't possible--and you have no idea. I meant it when I said it to her uncle. I thought that was what would be. When, nearly 20 years later, I came to know myself as a lesbian, I knew I had to break that vow in order to be true to myself. It was a terrible choice, one fraught with loss and pain. Stay true my vow or true to myself? Last night, as Lori's parents shared a private dance in celebration of their 28th anniversary, were joined by Lori and Shawn just beginning their marital life, and then by their older daughter and her husband of five months, I began to weep. I wept for the beauty of their traditional family as I sat at a table with my children and their father and stepmother. We will share no moments like that. I hoped it would be different. I hoped we would be an enlarged family, rather than a fractured family. But, although we are an amiable group--evidenced by the fact that I am here this weekend--we are not what I had imagined. We are me and them. It is a loss.

I have a wonderful son, and he has a lovely family. And I feel like I failed him. I know deep inside in a place he may not have been able to access, he felt abandoned--and adolescence is a terrible time to feel that you have lost your mother; whether or not it was true. It was an additional confusion in a developmentally confusing time. And I felt like he left me. How much was the typical path of an adolescent male and how much was my coming out and leaving his father, is not mine to know. But it still feels like something lost. I hope that who he is now, at 31, is in some part a testament to who he has known me to be, both before and after his picture of family shattered. I have faith that it is so; and that the found is greater than the lost for him.

And what have I found? I love my life. I love making decisions just for myself, from what to have for dinner to what to create in the garden to where to go on vacation to what is next in my life. I have found strength buried in myself. I am happy. So much of what is and has been my life the past decade and a half would not have been, if I had chosen to lose myself in order to hang onto the traditional family. I have not spent the last 16 years forcing myself into a life that didn't fit. I watch my daughter, in her long, strapless dress and her hair styled into the mohawk that fits who she is, precede her cousin down the aisle; and I rejoice that she generally doesn't have to squeeze the mohawk life into the long black dress life. After college, she spent two years in the Peace Corps in a remote African village, then moved across America to begin her next adventure. She has transitioned with ease from who she thought she was in the 4th grade when I came out, to who she knows herself to be today at 26. Did I pave that path of ease and comfort for her? I can't know what it would have been like for her without my journey; but I do know, whether or not I felt it or she recognized it, I modeled courage and integrity to her. I looked fear in the face and honored my self.

I have made big changes more than once. And I have been afraid each time. And each time I have found new kinds of fulfillment and happiness. When I was a child, my mother sang me the lullaby, Hush Little Baby. And I sang it to my children (though I changed the language to be more inclusive, just as I have changed the language for God, because I don’t believe God to be exclusively male, or female). The song is a promise that when one thing doesn’t work out, another opportunity will come along, and someone will be there to help us on the journey. Kate Maloy (A Stone Bridge North) writes "...a series of changes through my life were like freight cars, the first carrying cargoes of pain and anxiety, the next ones bearing excitement, adventure, delight, and thanksgiving--but all of them, I have learned, rumbling on a solid track.” Faith is the solid track. It is not unwavering confidence. Faith is knowing and not knowing. Fear and strength. Doubt and acceptance. Confusion and clarity. And round and round. The strength of faith is the repeated cycles, in life and in nature. For faith to work, you have to give it room to move around. If we don't step out on faith, we have no need of it.

My roving friend, Charly, grieved for so long the loss of her picture of what she thought would be and fought so hard the idea that she could be happy without a replacement life that looked as similar as possible to that picture. Now, in a gradual instant, she is living--truly living--into what is. She does it scared; she has been doing it scared for the past several years. She pushes through her fear of change, her sadness of all that has been lost, carrying it all with her even as she moves on into exciting new ventures. She is beginning to understand that what she has found is at least as important to her as what she has lost. She is one of my heroes.

Faith is hacking away my plants for winter in the belief that spring will come again and grow them back. There is no indication right now that this will happen, only history. I also know that the garden in the spring won’t look just like the one that is disappearing now. The hosta at the foot of the stairs might not be as glorious, but the banana tree might actually grow to the rooftop.  When I start disaster-izing--thinking I will not survive some sadness or event or decision--I remember what a therapist once said to me: Where is the evidence that the bad result you imagine will actually happen? Think back to similar situations and outcomes. Did you curl up and die from it? Or did it make you stronger? Was your life shit forever after? Or did you live into what was gained and rejoice in a life that was different from what you expected? It happens in a gradual instant. Both Charly and I grieved our losses for a a long time; then suddenly, it seemed, the grief eased. And we will grieve again. Those old losses will always bring remembered sadness for they are part of our being. And we will push through again, more quickly each time, because we always have.

I pull more of the vinca and impatiens this week and plant more pansies and violas; but I am still holding on to some of the summer plants, not quite ready to pull them all. I find myself thinking again of what might be next in my life. What am I holding onto? What is ready to pull up? What am I getting ready to plant? I already know that next spring I will replace the front shrubs I have dug up with roses; I am ready to try something new in the garden. In the past few weeks I have felt a strengthening stirring for the next big thing in my life, too. I am learning to have faith that I will recognize the right time, rather than manufacture and insist on just the right conditions. And when the time comes, there will be more lost and more found. I know it will be so, because it always has been.

I look out our hotel window this weekend at the St. Louis Gateway Arch. It is the symbol of expansion, exploration, and growth. It was built with faith that the two parts would meet at the top, and that the two legs would not topple before the keystone could be put in and hold it together. I hope to never stop expanding my horizons and looking for new directions in which to grow. I want to have faith that all the parts of who I have been, who I am now, and who I will be will come together and form a whole life; and that the lost will always be balanced by the found.