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.