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.