The Beautiful Words of 2016

You’ll hear it everywhere you go: 2016 was a _______________ (insert word) year.  That choice of word ranges anywhere from awful to terrible—with many other descriptives in between.

I really don’t know if 2016 was any worse than many other years, but I do know that it was surprisingly challenging and wearing for me.  I arrived at the last week of the year feeling like I desperately needed to let go of a heavy weight of fatigue.  Marvelous things had happened, but the effects of sadness and stress weighed a ton.

In addition to the multiple deaths and loss of friends and family I had a very personal challenge handed me when my landlord arrived at my doorstep on April 1 with a letter in hand.  I wasn’t home at the time so my houseguest accepted the letter and put it on the mail stack without another thought.

When I saw his writing on the envelope later that day I dropped everything to grab for it. It was one of those letters I raced through to get to the bottom line as fast as I could, I needed to know the big picture story before I had brain space to consider the details. Just tell me! Tell me!  The key phrases: I retired today, putting the house on the market, buy it or move out, 90 days.  Things—everything actually, can change so quickly: News of death, news of health changes, news that your home isn’t secure….  Here in one of the craziest housing markets in the country this was not simple news and it was definitely not good news as a renter.  There were few housing options available but good decisions still had to be made very quickly.

I’ll go straight to the bottom line for you, it all worked out. It was a long, difficult, and extremely stressful  4-plus month wait to get to closing.  How I became the homeowner instead of the renter is quite a story that involves people from around the world.

To change my perspective I needed to take the long view, take the time to remember how it happened, how it worked out.  The first thing for me to remember was that people prayed. Before any decisions were made people said, “I will pray,” and they did.  Then a decision to move ahead was made with input from an expert who had offered to help.  And then, from many places came more of the most beautiful words in the world: I will help. We want to help.  Of course, we’ll help.  Will you let us help?  I want to be part of your story, please let me help.

As the year ended I stepped out from under the fatigue of the hard work and stress with an improved view.  2016 is the year that help came.  This change feels so much better and helps me look forward to the new year with a lighter, more joyful outlook.  Happy New Year.

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Still in the Land of the Living

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It’s been a long time, and as always happens it’s awkward to start again—it seems the same with relationships and writing, which in the end are very much alike.

There have been many significant life changes this year, and with two shockingly unexpected deaths in the last few months my best energies have gone into comforting and consoling those around me and taking care of often-times worn out self.

In mid-August I stood in the humid South Carolina heat and saw my brother’s casket safely into the ground while all the others retreated to the air conditioning of the funeral home.  It wasn’t only the heat that took them away, they couldn’t bear to watch.  For a brother who was close in childhood but very distant geographically and emotionally as an adult, I stood there to honor the value of both his body and his life. The burial place was quintessentially Southern, under the limbs of a massive tree dripping with moss.   His casket, beautifully built of satin-smooth oak reflecting our family’s long heritage of expert woodworking, didn’t make it very far into the ground.  Using a winch the funeral director and the man from the vault company lowered it slowly, and when it stopped the top of the casket was barely 18” below the surface.  I asked if it was stuck, and was told that this was all the farther it would go the water table being as high as it is.  They pushed the heavy gold-colored lid of the vault into place and lowered it permanently.   The funeral director looked me over and wondered if I might be the sister of the deceased.  When I nodded he expressed his regrets, swatted at the flying bugs and left for the cool air of his office.  Before the vault man started with the dirt I tossed in a red rose pulled from the casket spray I’d sent.  When the job was finished I shook the man’s hand and thanked him.  It was an unexpected moment for both of us.

On another occasion I will write about the death of a friend a month or so later.  But what seems important from both of these experiences is that as an older person it was my turn not only to comfort, but to help people know what to do.  I saw something common between my nieces and their husbands with no idea about how to handle themselves, and later with friends wondering how to approach their newly widowed friend: people were afraid.  People were afraid of their own emotions more than anything else.  Being able to identify that fear was, in both cases, very helpful.

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It is nearly a new month and I have accepted my daughter’s challenge to do NaNoWrimo with her.  I have successfully completed the challenge in the past, but we will see if I can do it again.  This will be an interesting challenge between us and she is on the other side of the world and has never written fiction.  I’m looking forward to enjoying the ups and downs of this with her.

A Shopping List

I shop at a “Low Price Leader” grocery store, and I love going there.  You can see the world at WinCo—people with very limited means, the well-off wanting to save a buck, people from many countries and ethnicities, and the in-between folks like me.  I’ve shopped there long enough to have made great in-store relationships with many of the long-term employees and I look forward to seeing them when I go to the store.

I have experienced some really fine, life affirming moments at Winco.  A few times I’ve been able to quickly and quietly help someone who was in immediate need, and other times people have said something to me that either made my day or put a beautiful balm in a sore place in my heart.  Tanya, who works in the deli reminds me every now and again that, “You look just like a movie star—you know, that one in Waking Ned Devine.”  Seriously, a movie star?  She’s the only one who thinks so, but it makes me smile every time.

Being a student of people and a lover of words it’s no surprise that one of my top shopping thrills is to I find a grocery list that someone left behind.  Last week I made a quick after-work stop at WinCo and as I walked through the entry I tugged at the front of the next available grocery cart and was surprised with a slightly crumpled piece of paper taped to the handle of the cart.

I love that this piece of paper was so purposefully put where it would be most useful.  This person had practice, years of practice. (How many people take tape to the grocery store?) Not only were there groceries to buy there was also a list of things to do, and with the completion of their shopping trip washing the car would be the only thing left to do.  The words on this piece of paper show many good things about this person. Without knowing anything about life details we see someone who is organized and methodical, someone who takes pride in their home and belongings, and someone who has a well-developed work ethic.  And, someone who might well be preparing for a BBQ in their backyard.   

Winco list 2The thing about the grocery store is that the act of gathering food, for survival or celebration is a common denominator of humankind  It is a task of dignity and care.

A Fascinating Life

 

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Petroglyphs, Lava Beds National Monument

 

In the last months between May and August I feel like I’ve been around the world several times without ever leaving my geographical area.  I’m sure most people feel that way at some time or another, and these last few months have been my turn.  It’s not been all bad by any means, but it has required terrific amounts of stretching and growing, praying and trusting, and the courage to do the next right thing when I really had no idea how things were going to turn out.

A friend recently said, “I am so fascinated to see what goes on in your life—I’m very glad it’s not my life, but I’m learning so much from watching you, from hearing the stories, and seeing the God-things happen.  Thanks for letting me be a part of it.”

I said, “You’re welcome,” but it gave me pause (again), thinking about why and how we all experience life so differently even though we live side by side, or at least in fairly close proximity. Some of us seem to be magnets for challenging circumstances that apparently come either to help us grow or to benefit someone in need, but that sometimes make no sense at all.

I believe that some of this has to do with calling.  This morning I watched a video that wrapped up an 8-lesson book study.  The conclusion was that your life calling is usually more than one thing—it’s more about having a portfolio life, different experiences, a variety of strengths—different ways of using your abilities. Like someone who checked in during the class said, “My calling is to be an encourager and a truth-teller.” Or, based on my recent on ongoing experience it could be, “I’m willing to put myself on the line to help people through difficult situations.”  Same thing, different terms.

Much of my encouraging and truth-telling happens around my dining room table, or while working in the church kitchen, or in helping my elderly friends and clients and their adult children.  Gentle work on the whole.  But over these last few months that life calling to encouraging and truth-telling led me to stand directly between two raging professional co-workers who let the racial tensions of our country spill over into the workplace. It was loud, ugly, and frightening; I literally stepped between them before further damage could be done.  It took weeks of searching prayer and careful, hard, wise work to help them find their way to reconciliation and to encourage them to peace.  It’s continuing process of growth and challenge for all of us.   

At the same time, I was working through a few large faith-and-patience-producing issues of my own that involved a serious health issue and the decision to move forward in buying a home without any money of my own.  Off my feet for over a month I had time to pray and work through these challenges and to tell my thoughts and resultant God-stories to anyone who came to my kitchen to listen.  And that part, I believe is just as important as doing the actual hands on work.  Telling the story makes people aware of things they may not have experienced or even considered, telling the story offers truth in a very authentic way when people can hear about struggles and doubts and then become part of the process that searches for God and watches for answers. Telling the story leaves markers and signs for others who will need to know and be encouraged.

In the end my life may be fascinating only because I’m willing to tell it.  

It’s May!

I love this month; I think it’s the prettiest of the year.  There is so much hope and excitement blooming everywhere one can’t help but feel optimistic and cheerful, even in the face of uncertainty.

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Wonderful, magical, sweet scents of English roses and ripening fruit.  The roses smell like a mix of luscious berries to start with, then add multiple flats of strawberries, trays of apricots, pineapples, and melons mellowing and sweetening before the wedding on Saturday. The rest of the array, bright red cherries and various colors of grapes are chilling in the extra refrigerator. This glorious fruit is still a precious commodity this time of year, but at least we’re far enough along in the season for all of it have been harvested in California and Arizona—not as bad as shipping it from South America.

Beginnings:  This weekend, a wedding!  The bride, a young woman in our Family of Friends, raised alongside my own children and loved as much.  I’m not catering the whole reception but I am gifting them with beautiful fruit trays designed to round out their afternoon dessert buffet reception.  Happiness abounds.

Next up to read: Plainsong, by Kent Haruf.  It is a book that was highly recommended to me last year.  I had it on my wish list but had not made plans to buy it until summer.  Then I went to Minnesota….

On a very cold clear day in January I was on a walking tour of downtown Redwing with a longtime friend.  She steered us into her favorite bookstore, Fair Trade Books on Bush Street. It was such a relief to get out of the cold wind, but then it’s always a relief to go into a bookstore, especially one with old wooden floors, big windows, interesting displays and that paper-and-ink smell.  My friend introduced me to the owner and I looked around while they visited.  I wandered back at the end of the conversation and the bookseller said, “I almost forgot your book—I always give a book to first time visitors.  What do you like?”  I looked at my friend and then back to the man and said, “I like what she likes and I’m a poet. I like thoughtful literature.”  The only catch was that the owner would choose the book, and that I would recommend the store to someone else.  That sounded like a win on multiple levels so I continued my wandering while he perused the shelves deeper into the store.  It wasn’t too long before I heard him coming back and he had Plainsong in his hand.  It was a heartwarming surprise which left me wondering, how did he do that? (And no, my friend had never read it either.) If you go to Redwing, Minnesota drop by Fair Trade Books (www.fairtradebooksredwing.com). Maybe he’ll find something great for you, too.

Writing: I am working to stay faithful to my journal which is a challenge during my own very uncertain times.  I feel like I put so much careful work into doing the things I have to do that I forget to write about it, too.  I’m finding that bulleted lists of short paragraphs are working well.  I also wrote a deeply considered letter to the author of a new book, his first.  I loved his book and felt like he’d written with me in mind—he seems to be my kind in thought, experience, and use of language.  I told him so and thanked him for writing it.  Extra points for mailing the letter.

Endings:  First names and lines from three recent obituaries.  The lines made me smile and I thought about these people for days.

Larry, who was a proud grandfather and random conversation artist… an honored husband, father, grandfather, brother and son.

Sybil, who took her coffee pure and undefiled, spoke Cat fluently and knew German, French and some Russian.

Shirley, who in lieu of flowers would like everyone to have a slice of pie and a cup of good coffee with friends and family.

Thanks to these three for their thoughtful lives and to those who wrote so carefully about them.

Anticipation

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My world looks different than it did a few weeks ago.  My sidewalk, street, and neighbors have disappeared.  Branches, nests, power lines and roof ridges are disappearing as well.  The leaves are back; they are lush, beautiful, and full of life but they obscure the view of what lies beneath and behind. I forget and then am surprised at everything that is revealed when the leaves go away in the fall.

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The idea of things being hidden and later revealed fascinates me every spring and fall.   (Sometimes I feel like a small child staring at her hand, turning it over and looking from every angle.  Stopping to look intently and getting a glimmer of something different for just a little while.)

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My life has recently taken some big turns, and the heavy leaves of newly changed circumstances make it impossible to see what lies beyond.  I can only trust and pray as I move forward, because I can’t see a thing. A poor analogy, perhaps, but it helps me remember that circumstances are usually temporary (like leaves), and that things have not really disappeared, I just can’t see them.

As I think about the immediate future I know for sure that there are some very challenging times ahead in my personal life and in my work.  But I also know that I need to make room for the good things—for God’s blessings as they arrive, because they surely will. 

I chose a word to help me watch and wait: ANTICIPATION.  I printed it and put it above my desk at work and I have it at home as well.  A quiet watchword to remind and encourage while the leaves obstruct my view.DSCN1178

Extravagant Signs of Life

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Even though buds and blossoms always come in the spring, every year I marvel that these delicate, fragrant signs of life come from something that looked dead a short time before.  Beautiful blossoms in colors from pale to vibrant emerge from living plants that are usually bare, sharp, and covered in rough, scarred bark.  It seems so unlikely but we expect it, and know with certainty that it will happen.

I wonder at the picture of it—the cycle of extravagant flowers bursting out of bushes, shrubs and trees remind me that hard, desolate, dormant times can produce surprising beauty in us as well.   Shouldn’t we then expect, encourage, and celebrate it in ourselves and those around us?