Something Better

 

My freshly mowed lawn looked like a bald head fringed with straggly green hairs, and I spent two hours pulling, poisoning, and whacking weeds.

Hedge Row

I quit when the weed-trimmer ran out of cord, and hobbled inside, collapsing on the couch, naively hoping to take a nap. But of course, tout de suite, bored grandchildren arrived with a request. They wanted to explore the under-stair storage space. Although there is nothing special about that spot, the entrance is covered by bookcases which swing inward when certain boards are removed— a  feature which attracted the Nancy Drew-loving eleven year old  like an electromagnet attracts iron.

Treasure chest

For an hour, my nap was interrupted by thunderous little feet running upstairs and down. The pint-sized explorers brought me, among other things, thirty year old piano sheet music, a small Curious George toy, a wooden ruler, and the report of a mysterious gray and white dollhouse. Soon, the children had excavated all items of interest, and moved on to other activities. The eldest plopped herself down on the piano bench and sight-read an old Faber piano book —apparently, it’s never too early to learn Christmas carols. I lazed on the couch, listening to holiday songs written in C major, and ruminated over what made the kids so enthusiastic about searching through old junk.

I had sold the kids’ adventure short.  Contrary to my pessimistic predictions, they had found plenty of gold. It came to me that, somewhere along the way, I’d stopped believing in treasure hunts, which seems to be a common plight among grown-ups. Adults get stuck in the doldrums, where longing is limited. Adventure has passed us by; all the islands have been named and tamed.

Gloom can invade thought without our noticing. On Mother’s Day, for example, I read countless sad posts about mothers who had passed away. These invariably included pictures of flowers, candles or angels, and— I get it. I really do. I miss my mother and wish we were together.  I don’t want anyone to forget her. If she were here, I’d give her the most beautiful rose I could find. She would enjoy it, and I’d feel good. But, as it is, she has embarked on an adventure from which I am temporarily excluded. If I were to write a post to her, it would be something like:

“Mom. . . I wish I could see what you see! It must be fantastic!”

I’d do this because I am confident that she is better off than I am. At least, that’s what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote to the sea-faring Corinthians:

“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Co 5:6-8)

 As believers we have every reason to live with an extravagant sense of adventure because the first leg of the journey has already begun, and what awaits us is much better.  Grief is great, but it must not have the last word. Death, after all,  is merely a harbor from which we will again set sail.Free stock photo of sea, landscape, mountains, nature

 

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Staying in at Recess

 

In the sixties, staying in from lunch recess was a punishment and disgrace.  For in that hour, we were free as the breeze to wander in a grassy field punctuated by mature trees and honeysuckle bushes where a wood and steel, low-tech playground  offered manifold delights.  Teachers didn’t organize games for you back then; they just heaved a relieved sigh and cut you loose to play.  Recess meant the freedom to mull over problems,  whoop and holler with friends, or just sit quietly, lost in dreams, before returning to the stifling confinement of the schoolroom. It was a kind of sabbath, and if a child had to miss it because of bad behavior (or the bad judgment of an evil teacher), he would be wildly envious of his liberated friends.

backyard, chain, grass

I only remember one really crazy/evil teacher from my elementary years, and if you, Mrs. Roberts, are still out there, I haven’t forgotten. I can’t recollect what drove her to shake me, screaming, “You never smile! You never smile!” and make me sit alone in a dark classroom while she and my classmates marched off to lunch and recess. Neither do I recall what inspired me to track her down at the teacher’s table where she was dining with her associates, and ask when I could eat. The memory of her subsequent behavior, affecting concern and telling the other teachers I was sick, and taking me to lie down in the principal’s office is not particularly painful (although I never did get to eat lunch). What hurt was the exclusion, and the implication that I was inferior and did not deserve to eat or play. I expect that my parents would have raised cain about the incident, but I never told them.

Years away from the classroom, and teachers, good and bad, I occasionally catch myself  feeling like that ostracized eight year old. What my particular woes are makes no difference; the point is that I appear to be suffering more than my friends and I don’t like it. “If I weren’t inferior, intractable and unlovely,” I tell myself, “I might be having more fun.” God, like Mrs. Roberts,  is keeping me in from recess, and my subconscious conclusion to the endless question of “why ” is that He must love me less. But the electrifying truth is that He doesn’t love me less, because God doesn’t do things by halves. Where God loves, He loves totally. Tozer wrote:

“It is a strange and beautiful eccentricity of the free God that He has allowed His heart to be emotionally identified with men. Self-sufficient as He is, He wants our love and will not be satisfied till He gets it. Free as He is, He has let His heart be bound to us forever.”

The truth is liberating.  Regardless of what is going on around me, a deeply personal principle is in operation:  namely that God loves me according to His nature, and that means fully, always. Good times, hard times, He always desires what is best for me. Knowing this, I can be glad that—  if I have to sit out recess sometimes—He will sit right there with me.

Person Jumping Photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebration in Chaos

Free Stock Photo: a pair of chickens (roosters) on a farm

Last month we celebrated Chinese New Year: 2017, the year of the rooster. Needless to say, with my Irish/Italian heritage, it was a first for me. St. Patrick’s Day —sure. Columbus Day—sometimes. But Chinese New Year! Blame it on my affection for Asian cuisine, my lovely daughter-in-law, and a desperate need for color during a hard, dreary winter month.

Chinese recipes are notorious for including a list of esoteric ingredients as long as your arm, and the prep time is e-tern-al: chopping, mixing, and stuffing galore. About half-way through the long afternoon, I wondered whether this was a big mistake, but I kept on chopping, pleased  that my grandmother’s grater still produced feathery piles of cabbage.

I was still chopping when David and Joy showed up with their offerings: sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, and wontons ready to be filled,  and—oh, glory—to be deep fried in the Fry Baby. The chaos to calm quotient rose by a factor of ten as we criss-crossed each other back and forth from counter to stove to sink and back again. Three small children, batting balloons around in the adjoining living area, crying out in shrill voices, and occasionally arguing, drove the ratio up still further. As we stuffed sausage mixture into wonton wraps, two of the children performed an impromptu symphony on harmonica and ocarina, while the littlest grabbed for the sausage mixture, indignantly protesting as she was hauled off for hand washing. We told her that raw pork could kill her and she subsided. At this point, family number three arrived.

A remarkable ruckus is raised when six little cousins meet. Not one sentence was received intact by adult ears; instead, we heard a flurry of high-pitched, excited phrases as each child, eager to share his news, spoke over the other. The Chinese presence in our family remained calm in the tumult, but those of Italian/Irish descent emitted terse messages such as, “Settle down,” “Go downstairs if you have to run,” Don’t grab his balloon,” and my personal favorite (courtesy of Bob Newhart), “If you do that again, I’ll bury you alive in a box.” We finally finished cooking and filled their plates.  Our little ingrates asked if they really had to eat the : fried rice with peas in it (“Peas!”), the steamed dumplings (“Ooh, they look slimy”) or the popcorn chicken (“I don’t like this kind of meat.”). However, there was no griping about the cream cheese wontons.

After dinner, the poisoners of peace migrated upstairs to loll around on Nana’s bed and watch a movie while we adults filled our plates and talked about the day. Some of us had had it rough—  the rest could only listen. In the end, we could be thankful for the gift of the present moment, all of us seated around the scratched oak table, each one of us sustained by the living hope we share.

It may be that thankfulness was the best part of this celebration, although the presence of pandemonium — a hot pink thread woven through pale blue cloth—  was undeniable. Somehow, in spite of the problems, noises and crazy interruptions, I was  thankful. Thankful, of course, for the big things of faith and family. Thankful also for the myriad small things that make up my life: little feet running, dogs playing, chicken frying, clear glasses of pale yellow wine. Grateful for conversation—serious and silly, for old jokes and new ideas, for calls to prayer and words of encouragement. After all, some people say that it is gratitude which opens the gate for joy. 

When the stage manager in Our Town gives Emily advice about choosing a time to return to earth, he says, “Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.”

Celebration through the trivial, the chaotic, the painful? It may be not only the best way to live; but the only way to survive.

Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100: 4-5)

 

The Periscope Problem

It was time to upgrade my lab experiment on light, so a friend of mine sent me some ideas— most of which exceeded both my cognitive and competency levels. For example, she sent me this:

” You can do a diffraction demo using a rectangular glass pyrex dish. If you touch the edge of a 12″ ruler to the surface of water with regular frequency, you get a series of waves in lines. If you then add a pin hole with some kind of barrier in the middle of the dish, when the waves reach it they come out the other side in a spherically expanding pattern. It took some trial and error to get the width of the hole and the frequency of the ruler waves to work right, but you can definitely see it happen. I did it on top of an overhead projector and the class could see it on the screen.”

I read the paragraph twice, calculated the amount of time it would take for me to properly set up the experiment, and decided against it. I didn’t think I had that many years of life left.

Next on the list was making periscopes. All right! Now she was talking. I began working on the periscope prototype at lunchtime, gathering materials (cardboard, duct tape and mirrors) from the back of my car and hauling them to the kitchen. After acquiring a cutting board and a box cutter, I was ready to begin. If the youtubers could do it, so could I.

Trial #1: Subject failed to cut thick cardboard in straight lines. Tube is lopsided. Do it again.

Trial #2: Subject attempted to bend the thick cardboard in straight lines. Epic fail. Do it again.

Trial #3: Subject cut the 45° angles the wrong way. Do it again.

Trial#4: Subject throws thick cardboard in the trash and empties two half gallons of milk, modifying the cartons to make a periscope. Woohoo! It worked! Subject is euphoric on being able to view the chandelier through the periscope. She only needs 20 more containers of milk—and another plan.

Trial#5: Subject photocopies a periscope template from Google images. Mirrors don’t fit. Do it again.

Trial #6: Subject photocopies another template. Mirrors do fit. Hallelujah!

Elapsed time: 3.5 hours.

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After spending a whole afternoon cutting cardboard and snipping off duct tape, I finally “succeeded” in producing three working periscopes (four, actually, but we won’t include the Barbie- sized one made from the first tiny template). The first was sturdy but lopsided; the second was fat and waxy; and the third was flimsy, but kid-friendly. I surveyed the mess and the three rookie periscopes and not being a fan of mediocrity, was discouraged.

Some say that it’s all about the journey and not about the destination. I doubt it. I want my tomatoes to grow and my lessons to be clear. I want stitches to hold and umbrellas to keep off the rain.  In that sense, it is  just about the destination—about making it work. But if meaning only resides in successes, I shall have lived a fairly futile life. It would be foolish to ignore that there is also something powerful about the process itself.

Endeavor can create a conduit to the Creator, and failure is better at doing that than success. Imperfection makes me look beyond myself. It humbles me and reminds me of the truth: I am not “only” human; I am “merely” human, and everything I say or think or do— even constructing flimsy periscopes — should be an act of worship. And worship is about relationship not results.

Why then, should I strive for the perfect periscope? Because it’s fun. Because it’s important. Because striving is one of the things I was designed to do. I just have to remember that I was not designed to do it alone!

“Whatever you do, do your work heartily as for the Lord rather than for men. . . ” (Galatians 3:23)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Greatest of These

It was the fall of 1971, and three friends left Birmingham to attend Auburn University. Our parents drove us because we didn’t have cars. I didn’t even have a driver’s license. Two of us ended up lodging in the oldest dorm on campus— the kind with community bathrooms and cold showers. The third amiga got lucky and landed a spot in a newer dorm with larger hot water heaters and. . . air conditioning! While Jenny and I sweated in front of a box fan, Donna enjoyed refreshing “bought” air. We were envious. Donna also ended up with a stranger for a roommate. This girl hailed from  Georgia,  pronouncing pecan “pee’ kan” instead of “pe kahn'”. We were wary at first. Yet, soon we realized that out of a risky roommate crap-shoot Donna had been handed a gem.

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She had peanut butter brown hair and eyes to match, pronounced cheekbones and an enchanting cupid’s bow upper lip. Since one of her legs was a little bit longer than the other, she stood slightly akilter. The first time I met her she was wearing an orange-red polo shirt with navy blue polyester slacks, and her curly hair was pulled back on either side with tortoise shell barrettes. When she smiled, the small gap between her front teeth showed. She was friendly and funny and we caved in to her charm. Now it was four amigas.

For two years, we traveled as a pack, then Donna left to experience North Carolina, and we were three. Jenny graduated, Debbie married, and I stayed on for graduate school— we were a different three. After a time, I married a classmate, and we were back to four.

Couple friendships seldom work out, but this one did. Even after Pat and Debbie moved away to start a hog farm, we visited each other, eating hamburgers and drinking cold sweet tea. When Jon and I graduated and moved to the Midwest, we would still come to see them when we made our semi-annual treks back to Alabama. In time, there were six, and conversations became more difficult to sustain, but we just shrugged and laughed. They moved a couple more times and had more children; we moved a couple more times and had more children. Visits with them were rare, but we kept in touch. Each of my children owns a quilt she made.

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Debbie was always making things. Originally an art major, she brought color into our lives long before Pinterest existed. In the early days, she made Christmas cookies that looked like the four of us, and unique Christmas ornaments. She made me a felt figure of the Little Prince that hung on my tree for years. She painted and drew. She gardened. She listened to the operas her father had loved. And she read, sharing her literary discoveries with me. Sometimes those discoveries were picture books. In the later years, they were poems.

I was searching for something yesterday, and came across a familiar packet tied with an orange-red ribbon. It contained the correspondence between us the year before she died of a brain tumor at 45. I sat down and read every letter. Sometimes, it was hard to make out what she had written. She couldn’t retrieve words that she knew she knew, and would substitute others, trying to express deep thoughts with a dwindling vocabulary. She never failed to say she loved me. Near the end, she became more and more emphatic about it: “I do not know what to say to you. All I can say—I love you, love you, love you. I can’t say any more.  I will love you.”

Back then I considered the repetition a side-effect of her illness. But I was wrong. Time was short; words and breath were scarce. Despite terrible pain, she was pounding home a message she considered vitally important. Later, she sent me another message, a paraphrase of the words of Christ to His friends in John 16:22: “So you will have pain now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

Debbie, I’m looking forward to it. Happy Valentine’s Day! I love, love, love you!

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The Domino Effect

Has it really been four years since Jon died? It feels—not like yesterday—but like half an hour ago. There he is pulling Cessna six niner eight zero x-ray out of the West Point hangar, sitting at the soundboard with headphones on, tossing haybales up to the barn loft, riding the John Deere, playing fetch with his Labs, studying I Peter, singing at the piano. . . I can still see his eyes crinkle when he laughs, feel his rib-cracking, flannel-shirted bear hug, hear his interminable work-related phone conversations.

Some memories are so vivid, that when they emerge, I melt right back into them. One of my favorites is of Jon playing dominoes with his grandfather.image

 

They appeared uncannily alike to me then—they laughed alike; they had the same stocky build; both had bright blue eyes. Old Jon and young Jon sitting across from each other, a good natured challenge between them. Young Jon said, “I’m gonna whip you this time.” Old Jon said, “Go right ahead and try. It’ll do you good to lose.” I remember watching them closely because I’d never played the game, but I kept getting distracted. They laughed so much I’d lose track of points.

“Gimme a dime,” Jon would call out

” I’ll take fifteen,” Cody would reply.

On it went, the domino trail getting longer and crookeder until one of them (usually Cody) sang, “I’m out!”, and worked his way into a paroxysm of belly laughter.

 

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Jon would feign disgust and shuffle the dominoes for another round. Fascinating to watch- it was as if the patio table between the men was a time-line connecting them. I assumed I was seeing what Jon would be like in his nineties. That was a  slight miscalculation on my part. . .

Although Jon didn’t quite make it to 90, he’d learned a lot in his 58+ years. So shortly before he left us, someone thought to ask him about the most important lessons he’d learned in his life. His answer was staggeringly simple, but so profound he repeated it: “I only know Jesus. I only know Jesus.” With that remark, I heard dominoes click, one after another as each family member comprehended its significance.image

Some might argue that one memory is happy and the other is sad, but that is not true. In the first, Cody is nearing the end of his life, and in the second, Jon is at the end of his, so grief stands, as it always does, in the background of both.  Yet grief doesn’t have the last word, for something bigger connects the memories,  something that makes one an example of love, and the other an explanation for it.

Jon understood what that something was.

 

 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.  By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.” 1 John 4:7-9

 

 

 

The Poinsettia Project

 

I am not an adventurous person. Like Bilbo Baggins, I appreciate a solitary fireside and cup of tea, and I avoid what is unfamiliar. When it comes to teaching little children however, I morph into a Ranger from the North. A topic presents itself; my eyes glaze over; and I begin to scan the horizon of youtube videos for exciting science experiments. My stated goal is to teach them this or that. My secret goal is to make creation exploration a great adventure.  So when the time came to discuss plants with my first and second graders, I wanted them to observe the leaves and feel the soil. I wanted them to get their hands dirty.

Plant day arrived, and I loaded my red wagon with pots and potting soil, immense plants and rooting hormone. We were going to do something different this trimester—no more grass head chia pets —we were going to take cuttings and propagate them. In a burst of optimism, I bought a beautiful poinsettia with bright red leaves to show the kids the plant’s potential. I also brought in last year’s poinsettia to take the cuttings from—a bit scraggly— but still green and growing. I thought using a traditional Christmas plant for the experiment was brilliant until I remembered, too late, that it was also slightly toxic. Oops. . .

Placing the green plant next to the red plant on the table, I explained that the “flowers” were really leaves that had turned red because of light deprivation. “Today,” I declared, “we’re going to pot our own Christmas plants and next year, if you’re careful, you can make them turn red too.” They grinned— happy that they were going to take something home. But once I pulled the dirt out of the wagon, you’d have thought Santa had arrived. I could hardly calm them down long enough to explain how to take a cutting and plant it. It’s certain that they never heard my few sentences about caring for their poor poinsettias, and the MESS!!! I am now convinced that dirt is a euphoria-inducing drug for kids.

After much soap and water, sweeping and swiping, the children and the room were cleaned and detoxified. The kids left, and the room was empty except for me and a box of plant babies, each in a sticker-decorated pot; each covered with a zip-lock bag; each looking fragile but hopeful. I doubted that any would make it a week.

Jesus’ beginnings weren’t terribly promising. Seven hundred years before His birth, Isaiah predicted that He would be like a “tender shoot and like a root out of parched ground” (Is 53:2), a fragile plant arising from an unnourishing soil. Yet He lived and fluorished and died to give us a chance at life. We may not see Him again for many days, but He is coming, and He will arrive triumphant—no longer despised, forsaken or rejected. The poinsettia He created reminds me that after this interval of darkness is over, His glory will be revealed.