Times Terrifying and Beautiful

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These days are terrifying and beautiful. After all, in times when we are harried with work responsibilities, we might just say, “I wish I was home in my pajamas!” So here we are at home — maybe in our pajamas — settled in, comfortable, rested, and maybe restless. At least some of us are settled in at home. Some of us are rested. Others, no doubt, find themselves restless. It makes me wonder if the opposite of rested is restless. So I turned to my trusted thesaurus to find out. It turns out that the antonyms — the opposites — of “restless” are peaceful, quiet, relaxed, settled, calm and unworried.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be an antonym of restless. That is, if a person can even be an antonym in the first place. I doubt it, but what I do not doubt is the existence of the kind of human resilience that can weather pandemics. Be assured that human resilience is not a “grin and bear it” state of being. Resilience is not merely being resigned to a situation or just sticking it out. Resilience is not passive acquiescence to challenging situations. Resilience resides in a soul that is able to persevere, to rest calmly through struggle, to abide in a state of mindfulness, to meditate on the goodness of God, to walk in the darkness until the light reappears.

I can certainly identify with the quote that has recently been going around: “And the people stayed home.” It’s striking that, in the midst of the fear and anxiety people feel in these pandemic days, many have recalled and published parts of this quote. Let us spend a few moments contemplating the quote in it’s entirety:

And The People Stayed Home

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

– Kitty O’Meara

To be clear, I am not suffering this pandemic as one who has contracted the virus. I am suffering the forced isolation, the inability to reach for someone’s hand, to touch a friend, to embrace my grandchildren. And I have not been isolated only because of this pandemic; I have been isolated from others since my kidney transplant on November 12. That’s a very long time to be separated from my community. Through that time, a friend or two visited me, but we could not touch one another or be in close proximity.

And now the coronavirus has isolated virtually everyone, and I suddenly realize that we’re all in this together. It makes me wonder what everyone is doing at home. And it makes me hope that at least a few of us are doing as Kitty O’Meara writes, “Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows.“

On the idea of meeting our shadows . . .  I consider Lent to be a time of confession, a time of looking into my heart of hearts, my soul of souls, confessing my sins to God and receiving God’s mercy and pardon. I emerge from my confession with my soul cleansed. Only then am I ready. I am ready to steel my heart and set my face toward the journey with Christ to the cross. and then prepare my heart for glorious resurrection.

My confession today is that I have cursed my isolation rather than giving it to God and allowing myself to enter into a place of rest and re-creation, a sacred space that would heal the anxieties of my soul. I confess that I did not dance or pray. I did not rest or make art. But the pandemic changed my soul’s response to my isolation. I found that I was no longer in post transplant isolation, I was now in pandemic isolation and it felt very different to me. It felt dangerous and potentially fatal. It felt far-reaching, pervasive and rampant. It felt lethal, at least potentially lethal.

In the face of the pandemic’s imminent danger, my soul stopped its complaining and began its healing, my healing. It was the healing I needed all along, but now an ominous virus flipped a switch inside me. I did art again for the first time since the transplant. I sang, I prayed, I meditated. And I met my shadow and re-discovered the hidden place where fear reigns within me. That was not a bad thing. Rather, it was a good thing that said to me, “Do not give power to your hidden fear. Let your hidden resilience have the power and let it rise up within you. You will be healed!”

I believed those words — literally, as I hoped for physical healing after my transplant; and completely, body and soul, as I accepted the spiritual and emotional healing my soul craved. I want to leave you with a poem written on March 11, 2020 by Lynn Ungar.

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Blackdeath.   Wikimedia Commons

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath —
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love —
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Lynn Ungar is a poet, and wrote this poem on March 11, 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

 

 

 

 

Back to Arkansas

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Beautiful Hot Springs, Arkansas

My thoughts today take me away, out of this house, out of this state and back to Arkansas. It’s not so much about feeling trapped inside my house because of illness. It’s more about my need to heal, to experience something new, something of beauty that also feels like home. That place would be Arkansas.

Arkansas was most definitely not a place I would have chosen as my home when we accidentally moved there in 1982! It had to be an accidental move because neither Fred nor I knew anything at all about the state of Arkansas, a landlocked state that was constantly maligned by folks that have ever been there. At first, I detested being there, but after living there for 33 years, I grieved deeply when we left our Arkansas home in 2015. It made little sense really, that a born and bred Alabama girl would fall in love with Arkansas, but I did just that.

So today my mind slips away to my Arkansas home. With a lump in my throat, I travel to that beautiful state, lush with green and dotted with stunning lakes and the magnificent Arkansas River. I visit my son and my grandchildren in my imaginary travel, and my spirit somehow feels filled with what I needed today. I walk through what was my dream house and I visit the church I pastored for nine years. I stop by the hospital where I served as a chaplain and by Little Rock City Hall and the Pulaski County Courthouse where I spent much of my time advocating for abused women and children. I head to the banks of the Arkansas River that graces Little Rock and I gaze for a few minutes at the Little Rock skyline.

Why would I make this journey today of all days? I don’t feel well at all physically, and I really don’t feel up to this level of nostalgia. I don’t want to weep for a loss that still lingers with me. And yet, this experience is strangely comforting. It feels almost like opening my arms to a place I loved and allowing myself to feel the lump in my throat for the loss of it. It feels like making peace with the past — embracing it, mourning it, allowing it to comfort me and then walking back to my present home just a little bit healed.

This is what is needed for healing after loss. I am aware that when I stop smothering my regrets and my sorrow, I will have moved my soul and spirit to a new place, a better and healthier place and a place that is open to joy and a sense that all is right in my world. Healing doesn’t happen all at once. It takes some time and some intentionality. It takes walking right through the middle of sorrow until I get to the other side. It takes a sense of knowing when I am finally standing firmly on the other side of grief.

So I journeyed back to Arkansas today to find some joy and to take it back home with me. It was a worthwhile journey. I did return a little more healed. I have learned over many years and through many losses that my spirit knows how healing comes, but sometimes my mind gets in the way, blocking the healing I need. The sign of better times is when my spirit and mind join together to create healing. I think that’s exactly what happened for me today. My mind — my imagination — took me to the place I loved and lost, and while I lingered there for awhile, my spirit tended to the healing.

Thanks be to God for my mind and spirit and for God’s healing of wounds new and old.

Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it . . .
To regret deeply is to live afresh.

— Henry David Thoreau

 

 

A Safe and Gentle Presence

D10C41D6-4875-479D-B4BC-40762C72FD3CIf you know me well, you will know that I have a love affair with trees. I always have, ever since I was a little girl playing among the protruding, gnarly roots of the enormous, beautiful magnolia tree in our yard. I would stay there for hours sometimes, finding under the tree’s canopy my own personal and private hiding place. Though it was ill advised, the tree endured carvings in its trunk without complaining even once. That tree had multiple carved hearts, each with an arrow and the names of boyfriends that came and went.

Today I was reminded how much I love trees when I received a mailing from the Arbor Day Foundation asking me to complete a survey, which I promptly did. As a token of appreciation for completing the survey, the Arbor Day Foundation will send me a calendar, a tree book and ten free trees.

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, dreaming of having ten new trees in my yard, but of course, knowing that the free trees they send me will be five inches tall. No matter. I’ll plant them and nurse them and hope for the best.

I was also prompted by the Arbor Day Foundation to wonder about state trees. Fred and I tried to guess a few, but eventually resorted to Wikipedia for a list. Interesting list, ranging from common trees like the ubiquitous pine all the way to more exotic-sounding trees like Utah’s Quaking Aspen, Pennsylvania’s Eastern Hemlock and Arizona’s Blue Palo Verde.

23E0BDA9-6047-4A1B-AE2A-131CC85D8385Now that you’ve had a lesson on state trees that you did not ask for, I will tell you what’s up with me and trees. The lifelong connection happened when I was just a little girl. I lived with an abusive father who made my home a very unsafe place. Other forms of violence were prevalent as well: shouting and abusive language, threats of physical harm and a violent uncle that came with a gun and broke into our house by smashing the glass in our front door.

I was a child of fear, constant fear, and so I found hiding places under our trees, two huge magnolias, an even taller pecan tree, and even under the branches of Miss Martha Tebshereny’s plum tree. An occasional plum was a bonus!

Here’s the best truth: that it is incredibly powerful that out of a troubled childhood, I brought happy memories. I brought with me into my adult years images of safety; moments of playfulness; an appreciation of nature’s beauty; the taste of fresh figs, plums and pecans; a lovely collection of magnolia cones; the treasure of memories and an abiding love of trees.

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She wept a river of tears
holy water, sent to soften the sharp edges of sorrow
a gentle hollowing out, carving new chambers in her heart
a hallowed vessel . . . 
Kate Mullane Robertson

There was healing under the weeping branches of those trees. There was hope. I think it was Holy Ground.

That’s something for which I am very grateful. I am grateful to a loving and compassionate God, who, I am quite sure, met me a few times under one of those childhood trees. God, who knows how important it is to protect children,  and graced me with a safe and gentle presence. Because of that, I made it out of a home filled with violence to a better, safer world.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

Lost

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When our Jonathan was a toddler, we took a trip to the mountains of North Carolina. Not a child who ever liked his car seat, his reaction on this trip was far worse than usual with a great deal of squirming, fussing and whining. All of a sudden, he cried out in a panicked voice, “I don’t know where my home is!”

Aha! That was the emotional issue at play here. Jonathan had lost his sense of home and the safety and comfort his home gave him. All of us lose our sense of home at times, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally. From experience, I can attest to the fact that losing home is a trauma. Years ago, a house fire destroyed parts of our home and many of our belongings. We were displaced for months waiting on the house to be restored and live-able, and in that time, I experienced a great deal of unease and anxiety.

And then there’s the fear of getting lost, for me an irrational fear that simply comes over me at times. It’s a feeling of panic when I feel as if the people and places that mean “home” for me are out of my reach, and I am impossibly and hopelessly lost. For instance, the simple joy of walking in a corn maze terrifies me. So I suppose I must admit to having a phobia just as real as the one Jonathan had when he lost home. 

Some of the most beautiful, comforting words in all of scripture are the words of the Psalmist in the 139th Psalm. I can almost imagine these words coming from a person who knows what losing home feels like. His message to us, and even to himself is this: “It is not possible for me to be lost. No matter where I travel — from one end of my world to other worlds far away — I am not lost. For there is One who holds me fast.”

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

Amen.

 

 

 

“Are you upset, little friend?”

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Charles M. Schulz

These days, I find myself in the very center of worry and discontent. I feel vulnerable, out of place in a new place I never expected to make my home. The problem is, I think, that I have not really made this place my home, and that reality has left me unsettled. I left forever friends behind when we moved here. I think the reason for my worry, my occasional despondency, even my fear, is that I feel alone. I recalled this week the well-known lyrics of a Carole King song from the seventies.

When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again;
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you
Should turn dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind should begin to blow;
Keep your head together
And call my name out loud, yeah
Soon I’ll be knocking upon your door . . .

It is a frightening state of being facing worry or illness or aging or loneliness, finding yourself disconsolate at times, and alone, without a loyal friend. But we have a mystical, magical force that leads us through the dark nights of the soul every time, without fail. I’ll name it faith.

A dear friend who just faced some devastating news reminded me of a deep-down, rock-solid truth about faith when she wrote, “My faith is bigger than my fear.” And that’s how we live a life filled with times of worry, aloneness, days of grief, fear, and sometimes mourning that engulfs us hard and long.

No person escapes such times, for they are an inevitable part of life. So we meet hard times face-to-face, up close, and we survive. We are, as the Bible says, “troubled on every hand, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair . . . cast down, but not destroyed,” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

To be sure, we are left with scars of the soul and spirit. Yet we live on, knowing that after times of despondency, we are stronger than we were before. There is no deeper consolation than the words of Scripture proclaimed by the Prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.

— Isaiah 43:2

I hang on Isaiah’s words, and I have rested on them so many times when sadness overwhelmed me and fear had its way. These Isaiah words are enough, more than enough for my disconsolate times.

But then I happened upon just the right message of consolation for me in this particular time of my life. And I found it in a most unlikely place. It’s a delightful little message of real and true comfort that speaks so sweetly to me, and perhaps to all of us who need a friend and an extra boost of encouragement in a time of worry.

Are you upset little friend? Have you been lying awake worrying? Well, don’t worry . . . I’m here. The flood waters will recede, the famine will end, the sun will shine tomorrow, and I will always be here to take care of you.

― Charles M. Schulz

Amen.

Even There!

D2954ADE-75B4-4134-8B99-77B434376264Today, my pastor reminded me of a cherished truth, that we are not just loved by God, we are also known by God. Today’s scripture, Psalm 139, is indeed a precious gift. The Psalmist assures us that God knows when we sit down, when we lie down, and when we rise up.

The Psalmist declares that God knows our every thought. God knows our path. God knows our ways and the words we will speak, even before we speak them. The miracle? God truly and thoroughly knows us — every flaw, every bad habit, every unkind action. And God loves us anyway.

But for me, even more comforting than that grace-filled promise, is the truth beginning in verse seven, that God is with me when I feel alone. In the past few weeks, in fact, I have felt very much alone, far away from my child and grandchildren, far away from close friends, living in a new place that does not yet feel like home.

I am blessed with a loving husband of 48 years, my very best friend. We enjoy each other. We love being together day in and day out. We live in a lovely place in a pleasant neighborhood. But we are not really home.

So from the place I find myself these days, I find great comfort in hearing the Psalmist speaking, maybe even singing, about God’s abiding presence. In this part of the Psalm, one of the most meaningful scripture passages of my faith journey, I find the promise of God’s presence with me. The message calms my soul and consoles my heart.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there shall Your hand lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:7-9 (NKJV)

Wherever I go, even there God’s Spirit is with me. Wherever I am, even there God is with me. Even there!

Thanks be to God for the gift of presence.

Making It All the Way Home

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“Close your eyes and follow your breath to the still place that leads to the invisible path that leads you home.”

~ St. Teresa of Avila

With aging, I have experienced an emotional and spiritual “returning home.” The years have brought a sense of well-being in some very real ways. It happens to us all, I think, as we follow the usual life paths of grief, loss, fear, hopelessness, and yes, joy. The difficult paths are the important ones, in fact. Each assault, each time of suffering, makes us seek who we really are inside.

In a conversation last night, I made this comment:

The passing years are taking some of my intensity away. I now see my younger self as a very different person than who I am today, looking back on the years in which I was driven to save the world. But I’m happy that the frenetic drive has lessened for me over the years. If I had not settled down, I think I would have died. And the kidney disease year had a profound impact on the person I used to be. I miss myself sometimes, but mostly I’m very grateful to have relaxed.

The beginning of a brand new year brings a pensive season for me, a time when I want to know myself, my real self. My self-assessment, then and now, reveals how I eventually made it through life’s chaos to the serene present. So I am happy that I made it all the way home to this place, this still and holy place that nurtures my life.

Our Huge Bread Bowl

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For as long as I can remember, there was a huge pottery bowl in our kitchen. I call it my grandmother’s bowl, although I don’t really know that the bowl had an actual owner. I can’t remember when it appeared or if anyone purchased it. It was just always there. The bowl had a singular purpose, mixing and kneading big loaves of sweet bread, Vasilopita, and Greek cookies called koulourakia.

In my mind, bread simply could not be made without that smooth, shiny pottery bowl. It was very heavy, so kneading the dough was no problem. When the dough was ready, smooth and elastic, my grandmother would use a big knife to cut a cross in the top. Now the dough was ready to rest in a warm place for two or three hours and magically rise. Those hours seemed endless to us, and we must have asked dozens of times, “Is it ready yet?”

The dough always did what it was supposed to do in that bowl. It was covered with towels and we always watched the towels rise far above the bowl’s rim, telling us that delicious New Year’s Bread, called Vasilopita, was not far away.

Our bowl always promised an adventure in our family. It made a home out of a house. The dough inside it held many handprints because everyone helped with the kneading and shaping — my grandmother’s strong, skilled hands and our tiny hands, barely able to make the smallest dent.

Each year, the bowl was used by either my grandmother or my Aunt Koula. The baker might have changed, but the bowl and the bread was always the same. And the family experience of baking the bread never changed.

Through some act of pure blessing, the huge bread bowl is now a part of my home. It sits on a shelf waiting for New Year’s Eve when the bread-making begins. Our bowl is a family treasure, an ordinary object filled with warm, sweet memories of years gone by.

This blog post is dedicated to my brother, Andrew, and my cousin, Tasia, who love the bowl as much as I do.

Out of Africa

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Sunset over the Nile River in Uganda

One never comes out of Africa. It is said that once you have been to Africa, you will never come all the way back. I can identify with that statement. Coming back from living in Africa was one of the most difficult times of life for us. It was a magical place to live, filled with wonderfully friendly people, acres of lush banana groves, rolling hills spotted with growing things, verdant tropical rain forests and mountains capped with snow.

On the plains of Africa we saw elegant giraffes, gazelles, zebras, elephants and cape buffalo meandering through swaying grasses that move with the breeze. The hippos splashed in the water only an arms reach from our boat. The Ugandan kob ran gracefully across the vast expanse. The great Rift Valley invited a sense of awe with cliffs several thousand feet high.

It was an experience to remember always. But even more significant than the natural beauty of Africa was the experience that we shared with the people of Uganda. Stripped from all of life’s comforts by the brutal reign of Idi Amin, the people were so eager to move into a better life. We joined them right after Idi Amin was deposed. It was a time of digging water wells, taking seeds, fertilizer and gardening tools into villages, offering blankets, medicines, protein supplements, sewing supplies, books and other educational materials, sports equipment and Bibles. It was a time for grieving their losses, healing, and rebuilding their lives. Sharing that time with them made it seem unfathomable to leave.

But we did, and we returned to America with a huge piece of Africa in our hearts, where it remains after more than thirty-five years. It is really true: once you’ve lived in Africa, you’ll never come all the way back.

Simple Pleasures

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Today will be a quiet day, a day to recuperate from our 12 hour trip from Little Rock. We had rain, stormy rain, and traffic delays at every turn. The trip was exhausting. But we spent an exhilarating week with family, good friends, and our three grandchildren.

We were so tired we slept late this morning, our bodies moving toward normal through extra rest. Our emotional and spiritual selves will need their own special kind of re-creation. That part of us took a hit because we had to say goodbye to our grandchildren and our son. So today we will spend a day close to home.

We need rest and peace. We need the simple pleasures of home.

After all, I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.  ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea