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.

 

Spirituality and Spandex

I belong to the church of the physically fit. Members do marathon mudders. They sprint up stairs.  They are at peace with their lean to fat ratio because they  have nothing to put in the denominator. They run. They jump. They bench press twice their weight. And they look good in spandex.

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In my day, spandex was tights which, unless they were anchored in place by a leotard, succumbed to gravity pretty quickly. School girls suffered until bathroom breaks allowed them to hitch those buggers back up. By 3:00 P.M., my tights had settled into Shar-Pei like wrinkles down my skinny legs and I was walking funny. After a few years of this,  I switched to knee socks for school, reserving the troublesome tights for dance class.

Eventually even dance tights changed. I’m not sure when the modern dance movers and shakers decided to take the feet out of their tights, but by the late 1960s, I was dancing barefoot. I can only assume that this bit of brilliance eventually evolved into the leggings that most of the church ladies wear. Truth be told, I even own a pair. I ordered them in a spirit of rebellion. To heck with arthritis and tendonitis!  I’d wear my leggings as a proclamation of life, or tribute to freedom, or to who I used to be- but I’d be sure to wear a long tunic top. . . with freedom comes responsibility. Until I ordered the leggings, I hadn’t realized how closely I associated life with movement. “Moving slowly these days, Deb? You must have less life.”

Really?

Life does not consist of the things I can do. That list has become embarrassingly short. Life comes from God. The person sitting in a wheelchair at the back of the church might just be the most “alive” person there- deceptively quiet on the outside, but bursting with life on the inside, his “spiritual stem cells” multiplying lickety-split, connecting him to his Creator in all kinds of wild and crazy ways. Who’d have guessed it?

Jesus promises us life. He told the Samaritan woman that whoever drank of the water that He gave would never thirst, but that it would “become. . . a well of water springing up to eternal life.” (John 3:14) There is apparently no shortage of life. We just need to know where to find it.

 

Hunting for Thanksgiving

 

 

 

It’s November. Leaves are falling, skies are gray, and my son-in-law has been here visiting the deer. While he’s with us, I never need an alarm clock. I wake up abruptly just before dawn, smelling coffee and hearing the front door click shut. The hunter exits like a ghost, neither waking  his brothers-in-law nor the four dogs. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that our pony ignores him as he threads his way through the barn, down the gulley, and into the woods. Once he reaches his destination, he stays there all day watching and waiting. When he comes back to “deer camp” after dusk, he will, if pressed, talk about his days’ adventures. I’ve learned a lot because, being deer camp cook, I pump him for information while he devours his dinner.

I enjoy hearing his wildlife stories but I’ve learned more by watching him. Apparently, hunting is not just sitting up in a tree for a couple of hours shooting at harmless Bambis as they stroll beneath you. It’s clinging to that tree in rain, wind and sleet while your extremities stiffen with cold. It’s holding a drawn bow forever while your prey decides whether or not to come your way. It’s getting up early and coming home tired. It ain’t that simple. And I am torn between my compassion for the beautiful animals and my admiration for- well, I’ll call him “Uncas.”

While I want Uncas to bag a buck, I secretly wish the buck could go home with him as a pet and live happily in his back yard. Of course, being a meat-eater, I see the inconsistency of this attitude, and admit that my method of procuring meat is cowardly in comparison (buying plastic-wrapped muscle on styrofoam is so much easier). Oddly, the easy method of acquiring food doesn’t automatically make me more thankful for it. As long as I don’t have to watch an animal die, the only obvious cost is the one stamped on the package. Custom and convenience have numbed me to the fact that blood was shed so that I can live.

In ancient times animals were killed not only for food, but for forgiveness of sins. We don’t offer animal sacrifices anymore-  a circumstance for which I am profoundly grateful. I mean, if the necessary killing of animals for food bothers me, imagine how badly I’d feel if I had to regularly slaughter a lamb because of my sins. But maybe that was the whole point. Although the “inner animal lover” in me cringes at this idea, I do think that gazing into the eyes of that lamb might be revelatory, a shocking reminder of the darkness of sin.

 

 

For the Christian, the animal sacrificial system ended with Christ. I Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God…” It’s done. No more animal sacrifice. Because He shed His blood, the blood bath is over. And when I look at this last sacrificial Lamb, I see  not condemnation but love. My burden of guilt is forever exchanged for the burdens of praise and thanksgiving. How unexpected. How remarkable. How glorious!

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 1st Peter Blues

I live in the boonies- it takes twenty minutes to get to the grocery store; water is collected in cisterns, and everyone has a gas generator.  Nothing is convenient, but everything is beautiful- the river, the hills, the wildlife.  Unfortunately, the domestic beauty requires effort.

Last week, I was grubbing out weeds from flower beds with sweat  stinging my eyes, and I thought about how hard and how long Jon could work.  His stamina coupled with his desire to complete a project was incredible.  I, being a take-a-breaker, travel the low road. Work hard for a while and then reward myself for it – that’s me.  For Jon, the work was his reward.  And at our house there was plenty of work to satisfy him.

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We grow stones up here- some of them huge- and it has been a constant battle to dislodge them.  Shortly after we moved here, Jon introduced me to the “spud -bar”, a heavy tool used to pry or break up rocks. Our horticultural efforts included:  take a step, use the spud-bar; walk another step, use the spud bar.  Over and over and over again.  I thought, “To heck with it.  Build raised beds, or plant around the rocks”, but  Jon just kept digging them up.  Characteristically, he moved from one problem to another, working toward solutions, motivated to “get it right”, while I dashed  to get by the problems, hoping that “Happyland” was just beyond them.  The problem is that there is no Happyland. There’s no getting around it- life requires a spud-bar.  I call this phenomenon “the 1st Peter blues”.

   

 

Peter and I go back a long way.  I couldn’t begin to count the number of I Peter studies I’ve sat through because of Jon.  “Let’s do something else,” I would say, “how about John or Philippians?”  But in the end, it was mostly  Peter  because Jon identified with him.  I avoided Peter like the plague. Because he was trouble.

When Peter writes:  “… even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials”, my “fight or flight” mechanism wakes up.  Whoa.  Hold it right there.  Right off the bat, I see Peter addressing troubled people and telling them their trials are necessary.  Suddenly, I turn into an intercessor for appliances.  I pray that the dryer drum will keep circling, that the oven will keep heating, that the computer won’t get a virus for which it has not been immunized.  But these are just the fears I acknowledge.  There are much deeper ones.  Peter’s audience would have been thrilled to exchange persecution for minor domestic inconveniences.

Of course these things are everywhere- hardships of one sort or another.  Some we just deal with and move on; others paralyze us.   Peter was certainly no stranger to hard times and tragic events, but he was able to see past them because he knew the risen Christ.  Therefore, he closed his first epistle with an encouragement:  “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.”  

Jon, it’s taken a while, but Peter and I are finally good friends.  I don’t enjoy trials, but I acknowledge the value of facing them with an eternal perspective, knowing that there is a purpose behind them.  A purpose with a promise.

 


 

Over the Mountain with Mom

 

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Libby was busy, determined, and quick.  A petite whirlwind, she took care of us with high speed devotion and pretty much wore herself out doing it.  She wanted us to be good, to be accomplished, and for heaven’s sake- to look nice!   I attribute my relative indifference to fashion to Mom’s fixation with it, but that is beside the point.

She sewed all of our “Sunday” clothes- matching suits for my brothers and fluffy dresses for me.  The dresses were beautiful, but I was mostly ungrateful.  It’s not that I disliked dresses- I liked to twirl as much as the next girl- but to achieve the right amount of volume, Mom had to add some kind of netting underneath.  And it made me itch.

And then there was the hair.  I had long dark hair, as unlike Shirley Temple’s as possible, but Mom spent forever winding damp sections of it around her fingers so that I would have ringlets.  She knew that my hair held its shape, and the shape she wanted was cylinders.  So while she meticulously molded my tresses into chocolate slinkies,  I waited in sullen rebellious pouting.  Depending on the degree of  rebellion, she’d either ignore me, or pop my twitchy little butt.  By the time I was five, I’d had enough of the Shirley Temple treatment, so I sneaked Mom’s pinking shears,  did a zigzag pattern across my forehead, and lopped off the side hair.  That was the beginning of the “pixie” cut era.  So long Shirley!  Hello freedom!

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Mom eventually gave up on movie star hair, and by the time I took my first dance lesson, it was long again.  Dance lessons were necessary because Southern girls had to be graceful as well as attractive.  So on Tuesday and Thursday nights, she packed me and my brothers in the car, and drove to downtown Birmingham, so that I could unclumsify myself. At that time, we lived in a village planted on the northwest face of Shades Mountain, and the trip up could be either picturesque or perilous.  One night we encountered thick fog.  Mom piloted our Plymouth up the mountain, creeping through the cloudy atmosphere.  She knew (and knew that I knew) that somewhere to the right of us earth gave way to air.  I remember how tightly she gripped that steering wheel, how she watched the road’s center line,  and how cheerfully she sang.  Somehow, her singing became more substantial than my fear, and the scary  world was manageable.

Normally, we expect people to remember our strengths, so it’s odd that Mother’s singing made such a strong impression.  She liked to sing of course, but she certainly wasn’t a soloist; her voice was small and her range was limited.  No, it wasn’t how she sang that made it memorable; it was when.  Her habit of singing through the darkness revealed her faith.  Better than dresses, better than dance lessons, my mother gave me a more powerful gift; she gave me a triumph tune to sing in the night.

Psalm 96

Sing to the Lord a new song;
Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
 Sing to the Lord, bless His name;
Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day.
Tell of His glory among the nations,
His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised

 

 

Old, But Not Done (with thanks to the Olivers)

 

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I have really good friends- the kind who will keep my gelding for me when my fences have gaps in them; who feed him chopped up, organic carrots; who let him pick fruit off their little apple tree, and who injure themselves fixing up a shed for him.  Why any horse would want to wander away from digs like that and people like that is beyond me, but a week ago, he did it.  Frolic discovered an open gate, hauled his bony behind up the long hill to my house, and followed his nose to the garage where we keep his feed.

I was shocked to find him there, but it was a much greater shock to my border collie puppy, who must have thought the ancient Welsh pony was Horsezilla.  Seamus bravely planted his little feet in the instinctive “prey stance’ and froze.  I didn’t expect him to make a sound – he was much too busy sizing up his enemy- but the other three dogs  were barking their heads off.  Unconcerned, Frolic, shifted from foot to foot,  and swished his tail, patiently waiting  for me to make a plan.

Eventually, it was done.  The bony pony was imprisoned in his old stall, quietly slurping up geratric formula, shifting from foot to foot, and swishing his tail.  The puppy was calm and crated,  chewing on a toy.  The disappointed adult dogs  had wandered off to bask on the back porch.  And the menagerie owner was seated at the breakfast room table, sipping hot tea, resting her knees and thinking.

How is it that an old horse, gaunt, arthritic, and lonely, can find motivation to trudge up a long, steep hill, ignore the threatening sounds of prey animals, and patiently wait for his owner to arrive and provide for him?  If I weren’t old and arthritic myself,  I might not even be wondering – but I can identify with the pain in his knees,  and  marvel at his perseverance.  At 32, he still cares about grass,  feed and water.  At 32, he still follows his nose wherever his legs will take him.  Does he remember better days, when he jumped hurdles, took trail rides, and grazed with a herd?  Who knows?  What I do know is that every time I ask the vet whether he’s suffering too much, she says, “No, he’s still got spunk; he still cares.”

When the Israelites were conquering Canaan, an old man did an amazing thing.   At 85, he began to conquer the hill country of Hebron.  Having fought alongside his brothers for many years, helping them to claim their inheritance, he started off on a quest of his own.

“Now behold, the Lord has let me live, just as He spoke, these forty-five years, from the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, when Israel walked in the wilderness; and now behold, I am eighty-five years old today. 11 I am still as strong today as I was in the day Moses sent me; as my strength was then, so my strength is now, for war and for going out and coming in. 12 Now then, give me this hill country about which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day that Anakim were there, with great fortified cities; perhaps the Lord will be with me, and I will drive them out as the Lord has spoken.”  Joshua 14: 10-12

What motivated Caleb to begin a new quest on his 85th birthday?  What kept him adventurous and inspired him to climb steep hills in pursuit of his goals?  I think the text tells us:  “…the Lord has let me live…”, “the Lord spoke this word…”, “give me this hill country about which the Lord spoke…”, “perhaps the Lord will be with me…”, “I will drive them out as the Lord has spoken.”  Apparently- God had something to do with it.

I don’t think Frolic worries about his life. In meandering through the pasture, searching for clover and flicking flies, he is content.  The fact that life is harder than it used to be doesn’t seem to matter to him, because he knows instinctively, what humans can only know through faith- that as long as we live, we have purpose.