(88) deep breath

across the field

It’s a small house just a few hundred feet back from the highway, behind a line of big juniper trees. There’s a bird bath and a few bird houses mounted on tall stakes beneath one of the trees. A big pecan tree shades the garage and a rose hedge divides the back garden from the dusty open field where herds of “goat head” thorns wait to pierce unwary feet. We throw the trash all together into the big burn barrels, but Grandpa stopped burning the trash years ago, they tell us. Now someone comes by to pick it up. There’s an old paper box under the sink, lined with newsprint, and we send it out to the burn barrels a few times a day with one of the uncles or cousins. One of the grandkids swings up into the tree in the back grass and a cousin starts a pick-up basketball game, launching the ball toward the goal mounted over the storeroom door. An uncle makes sausage gravy and I make biscuits from a mix and we serve up a hearty breakfast around the counter in the kitchen where Grandma and Grandpa always used to eat and watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.

at breakfast

basketball goal

The house expands with an effortless deep breath and we all rush in to taste the memories together. We pull down a few old photo albums and relive the glory days of the house, when the grass was greener and the irrigation tank was surrounded with willows. It was like another world, their own forest right in the front yard. The tank was bulldozed years ago. Grandpa used to flood the yard to water the grass and there are pictures of all those little boys – especially the 6 older grandsons – splashing around in it. My husband is second-oldest and he remembers it all so well. This is one of his favorite places in the world, he tells me. “Your other favorite place is wherever I am, right?” I joke to make him smile.

back yard sunset

This house knows how to hold a big family. It doesn’t feel crowded, even when we’re all milling around, overflowing through the kitchen and onto the mauve recliners and flower-print sofas, great-grandkids rushing in and out through the front and back doors, just as happy to play here as their dads always were. They’ve taken my 23-year-old brother-in-law, the youngest cousin, captive and he seems happy enough to acquiesce to their wishes and play with them. We play cards and CatchPhrase, drink a lot of Coke and Dr. Pepper, and eat New Mexican-style Mexican food almost every day. And we muddle through the mess of family together too. Love covers a multitude of sins, it’s written, and we do our best to love over and through the hurtful words and hurt feelings, trying to hear all sides to the stories and judge not, lest we be judged.

living room sitting

catchphrase

The funeral is on Saturday afternoon. In the morning, we go and say goodbye to Grandpa’s body. Grandpa’s wearing a purple tie and so is my husband. I bring him a handful of tissue and hug him tightly, as if a hug could soothe the ache of grief. Six of the 8 grandsons are here this weekend and they’re enlisted to wear white gloves and carry the casket. It’s strange to think of all the times he swung them up onto his lap or carried them around as babies and now they carry him. After the graveside, we escape the bright sun and tumble back into the cool church gym where they’ve laid out a Southwestern potluck feast, fried chicken, potato casseroles, a spread of salads which include pasta and Jell-O, and a table heavy with red velvet and pink lemonade cakes.

coffin

That night, the house is fuller than it might be ever again and I know that Grandpa is loving every moment. I hope Grandma feels the joy too, but she’s at her new home, where it’s clean and cool and they look after her 24/7. Her daughters told her with heavy hearts that Daddy had died, but maybe it’s a blessing that she can’t remember anything for long. When we visit and she asks us if her sweetheart will come to visit later, we say maybe he will, but he’s busy now. “He’s a wonderful man,” she tells us and we agree.

with Zacks gma edited

And then the house breathes out and we disperse again. By Tuesday morning, all the extended family is gone. By Wednesday afternoon, it’s just my husband and I. A day or two later and we’re cleaning to leave it nice, just like Grandma and Grandpa would have liked. The spare key is hidden for when his aunt and uncle come by on the weekend. We leave the light on over the sink and in the hallway and say goodbye to every room. All the beds are made up and we’ve washed a couple loads of towels and washcloths, the last evidence of the big family visit last weekend. There are a few to-go containers filled with cake still on the kitchen counter and I feel bad throwing them away. My husband stops the grandfather clock and the finality of the goodbye sets in hard and heavy.

Grandpas shoes

The house is quiet and empty as we drive away that last time. When will we be here again? Sometime soon the daughters, his aunts, will divide out the furniture, the knick-knacks, and sell the house and the farm. This precious place won’t ever be the same, not without Grandma and Grandpa here. The memories are strong and sweet with gratitude, accompanied by that edge of grief burning our throats.

One last glance over our shoulders and we’re off. This is the life we are living, a life of loving and letting go.

looking back

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(87) a wake up call

“The Wake-Up Call for the One is feeling a sense of intense personal obligation…” (The Wisdom of the Enneagram)

Funny that this little line should land in my inbox tonight.

Intense personal obligation.

You mean about things like feeling responsible and stressed about issues with someone else’s child’s health insurance, a matter I cannot help with or solve and one they are handling perfectly fine?

Or somehow being available in relationship, all the time, to just about anyone who crosses my path, from the stranger at the back of church, to the friend I haven’t talked to in half a year who calls out of the blue, to the family I live with?

Or possibly about orchestrating peace at a funeral weekend with a large extended family, some of whom I haven’t yet met, and between whom there are a variety of very confusing and seemingly volatile relationships?

This last one is a heavy burden at present, although it’s a burden no one asked me to shoulder. When parties on all sides are loudly calling on everyone else to grow up and act like adults, well, I feel infuriated and queasy, wondering if I’ll even be able to hold myself together and act like an adult in the middle of it all. I am just not that good at hiding my anger or other emotions. As much as I’d like to bring peace with me, I don’t exactly know how one becomes a peaceful person. If peace is a feeling, I’m not feeling it right now. If it’s a gift, I’m not sure I’ve received it.

It would always be easier to face this kind of thing if I was in “a good space,” you know, centered. But then again, more often than not, it seems we’re thrown into these sink or swim occasions without all the proper preparation we believe necessary and, more often than not, that turns out to be okay, or even a good thing.

In the middle of it, in the sinking or swimming, in the raging, nauseating, unjust craziness of it all, well, I suppose I can learn to trust Jesus.

He knows the stories. He knows these people, inside and out. He even has me figured out on a level I can only begin to imagine and He isn’t worried. Maybe if I can lay down that intense personal obligation and just reach out for His hand — forget sinking or swimming — I can walk on water.

(81) a year ago today

A year ago today, we got up early in the dark, probably got coffee on the short drive from the hotel where I’d worked and where we’d spent the night and drove home for the last time. I remember stopping at the 24-hour Safeway for something, maybe cleaning supplies. He dropped me off and went to work, his last day at NAS Whidbey. I remember sitting on the floor in the living room for a while. We’d loaded the moving truck for hours the night before, just us and a few brave friends who helped wrangle furniture, even our small piano, into the 26-foot Penske truck. The loading ramp was narrow and steep. It had been drizzling rain. At one terrifying moment, I’d found myself braced on the ramp, the only one in place to keep the piano from rolling back down as the guys scrambled into the truck to pull it up from the other side.

On this morning, the living room was mostly empty. But there was still a lot to finish. I called a cleaning company and scheduled them to come clean the carpets that night around 6 p.m. Then the day was a scramble and a rush. My friend Jaimie came to help me clean the kitchen that Friday afternoon, January 25, 2013. She glanced around and said dubiously, “You’re definitely not leaving today.” Then she set about emptying and scouring the fridge. “Just don’t look,” she said as she threw away a bunch of perfectly good food. At that point, I knew I couldn’t care about everything and let it go.

Zack came home from work and a friend or two came by to help again. I was non-relational, cleaning the oven as I told them what was ready to be thrown into the truck. The rooms emptied out quickly. Most of the cleaning was getting done. The carpet cleaners came as scheduled and Zack went to get us Subway for dinner while I finished cleaning the kitchen. At the last minute, I realized I hadn’t cleaned the windows, but it was too late for that anyway. We walked on socks over the wet carpets. All the rooms, all the cupboards were empty. A note for our landlord and all our keys were on the kitchen counter. Of course there was one more cupboard in the laundry room with a few things in it. These were emptied into a grocery bag. Zack swept the garage floor and loaded all the trash bags that wouldn’t fit in the can into the truck.

We walked through one more time, then locked the doors and left. What a wonderful first home this had been! We stopped at the hotel where I’d worked and said goodbye. I had one last paycheck to pick up. And my boss let us throw our trash in her dumpsters. She offered to let us stay the night again, but we were anxious to just get going, even though it was late, maybe 10 at night. Then we were off, leaving behind our first home of a year and a half and on to make a new home elsewhere.

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.” (from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien)

(76) the thing about Christmas

The thing is this: I just don’t feel ready for Christmas. I’m unprepared.

I’m listening to the music and everything. I’ve been to a couple Christmassy concerts. I’ve walked in the snow and marveled at the lights. I’ve even been participating in the Nativity fast as a means of preparing.

And yet…

Only very recently did I realize that Christmas actually wasn’t 3 weeks away anymore, but rather next week. In my mind it had been 3 weeks out for a while and I guess I expected it would somehow continue to be 3 weeks out forever and ever amen. Not so however. Which led to a small fantasy world (the fantasy world in which Christmas was perpetually at a distance) breakdown. Because I’m unprepared. Christmas cards hadn’t been written. Gifts haven’t been collected and wrapped and mailed. Baking hasn’t been done.

Then I went into philosophical freaking-out over-analyzing mode (oh-so-difficult to imagine me plunging into this, I know), because one of the Big Problems is that I don’t actually know why we buy all these gifts. Part of me felt anxiously compelled to rush out (or online) and quickly buy and mail! But the louder part was just confused. Remind me again, what exactly is the point here?

I realized that I know what I want the gift to communicate. I want it to say to the recipient: I love you, I’ve been thinking of you, even praying for you all year, then I saw this goofy little thingy-bop and it made me chuckle and I hope you’ll at least smile, maybe not because the gift is all that great, but because now you know for sure that I was thinking of you.

All of that in a silly little gadget that they might not even need. All of that somehow communicated unspoken in a thing – just how plausible is that really?

My motives are cloudy. The cultural tradition of gift-giving is muddied with materialism. And I live in a peculiar situation among the majority of the world in that most of the people I would give to don’t actually need anything, not really. Which makes it all seem kind of empty. And at this point, it seems too late anyway. I’m just letting it go for now. I’ll try to explain my conundrum in person to the affected parties. I anticipate that everyone will let me off the hook this year, excuse what feels like a moderately messy failure to me. Maybe if I just plan ahead, if I started thinking about this in July next year…(although this is ironic, since I have actually been thinking about this Christmas gift conundrum for a couple months at least, but took no action because I apparently was in denial that Christmas would tangibly come).

I am actually stuck at this point in the story right now. I’m writing this from the middle of it, not at the end when I can sum everything up in a brilliant one-liner. But here are a few things I’m gleaning today:

I think the so-called Christmas spirit might be more of a way of living to practice (one of generosity, compassion and unconditional love), rather than a transient wave of emotions. Which means that I can practice living the Christmas-way anytime. And this also means that it is fully unsurprising if it is, in fact, difficult to practice this Christmas living. It seems that all good practices are difficult along the way.

And I was reminded of two iconic Christmas figures as I sort-of trudged home from the store tonight, wrapped up in angst about all this:  Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch. Both stories are about someone missing the point of Christmas and then coming to his senses and finding joy. I do not enjoy being challenged to embrace joy when I’m in the middle of a good sulk. Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, I enjoy sitting down in my distress. But do I really want to join the ranks of those missing the point? Maybe all I need sometimes is to step out of my distress, throw my energy into loving and expect to see the big reality of God bursting the seams into my mundaneness.

Which brings me to this last thing, a quote that our pastor sent out tonight that is somewhat overwhelming, yet also makes all my words and worries seem small in the shadow of what is Really Going On Here in Christmas:

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him…

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.”

– St. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Christmas Morning”

Come, let us observe the Feast.

Yes. Let’s do that.

(72) a long letting go

If I had something profound to say about letting go, I would say it here. A morsel of thought to open a poetic blog post. Suffice to say that I recognize that this is a theme:  letting go. So I probably could stop being surprised when it surfaces and resurfaces, along with its charming companion, acceptance-with-joy (thank you, Hannah Hurnard).

***

This is what I remember from the last weeks of September and the month of October: The expected, yet saddening, end of Grandpa’s life (9/14; at least his life here with us), a mad flurry and rush out the door for a wedding, a funeral and a reunion, the first week that I produced 1,200 lines per day, 4 out of 5 days, was my last week of work before a month-long break, seeing Grandpa, remembering all the delightful times we shared together and weeping, missing him, realizing that my niece will not even know him (of course, I don’t know my great-grandparents either). Then said niece struggled with sleep that week and we all — mama, aunties, grandma — took shifts bouncing, rocking, driving around town at midnight. And my dear husband’s flights were canceled, delayed, overfilled and we hashed and rehashed plans A, B and C, until I was so frustrated, exhausted and desperate I was convinced I didn’t care if he even made it home on leave at all. And the truck’s alternator gave up the ghost suddenly and providentially on the street outside my parents house (thanks be to God, our extended warranty covered that very expensive repair and the dealership repaired it in just one day). And I drove to my mother-in-law’s home, closer to the airport, on a Friday night in hope that he would arrive in the morning, but not quite knowing if he’d even get a seat on the plane. Yet again, thanks be to God, he got the last seat leaving his tiny island and the second-to-last seat on the flight to the States.

Then a month of friends, family, more meals out-to-eat than I can count (local restaurant owners of multiple towns, you’re welcome), catching up on all the foods he’s missed, sleeping on an air mattress, sleeping on a futon, a few sweet nights in a charming B&B, courtesy of some generous friends, driving, driving, driving. A few moments of looking at each other and asking, what do we do when we’re together?” and many moments of thankfulness in shared company, of “I can’t believe you are here within reach right now!” and enjoying the convenience of saying exactly what we’re thinking, right when we’re thinking it, rather than waiting for a scheduled phone call or Skype date. Of course, we had to wait until the last minute, but again thanks be to God, his leave was extended and we came “home” to Utah together. And got to go to church and work in the yard and sleep in our own bed. And there were many long conversations and many games of Settlers of Catan and a lot of laughter and a few movies watched.

Then I took him back to the airport. Just dropped him off at the curb this time, instead of going in and waiting like I did in February. I cried. And then I went home to start this life-without-him-here again. This time at least we know how to do it. At least it isn’t an unknown. And I feel busy, busy, busy. Almost too busy to feel stuff, much less write about it.

***

let go, let go, let go.

When I am living in the middle of the story, all I want to do is hold on to something. To a plan. To a goal. To a promise. Yet weirdly in retrospect, the letting go actually works out okay.

I guess when they say let go and let God, they are certainly not kidding.

***

I love November. November and March are my two favorite months, seriously. Even this time of year is reminding me to let go, like the leaves releasing the branches, or is it the branches that unleash the leaves? I haven’t slowed down at all (perhaps that’d be good), but I feel nature’s rhythm slowing somewhat, like a long sigh. The days have been extraordinarily gorgeous, yellow leaves, blue sky, cold mornings, warm afternoons, even a day with snow on the ground. I am aware that I do not pause long enough to live well in this beauty, to become part of it. I would like to. But I have this fierce drive to check things off a multiplicity of lists.

When I rake the leaves, I am actually annoyed when the wind ruffles the raked piles and sweeps another scurry of leaves into the tidy-for-a-moment lawn.

If that doesn’t blatantly reveal how uptight I can be, well then…

***

I am wondering just now if perhaps priorities amble hand-in-hand with letting go and acceptance-with-joy. Priorities like relationships and living in the beauty, rather than just checking things off the list, might gently help me release even the list itself.

One more thing to release in the long letting go that is life.

 

(70) close to the ground

Humility is the real Christian virtue. It means staying close to the ground (humus), to people, to everyday life, to what is happening with all its down-to-earthiness. It is the virtue that opens our eyes for the presence of God on the earth and allows us to live grateful lives. (Henri Nouwen)

In certain standing yoga poses, I’ve often heard instructors say to “ground down through all four corners of your feet.” And so I wiggle my toes and bring awareness to the outline of my feet, planted firmly into the mat, remaining steady, relaxed, balanced. I need this rootedness in regular old life too.

This kind of deep, close-to-the-ground rootedness reminds me of Jesus saying, “Remain in me.” Stay with me, steady now, plant yourself here.

Sometimes, humility is admitting that I have no clue what I am about, what I’m doing here or what might be the best next step. And sometimes it is really deep crying when there is no “best thing,” just a lot of dreams to let go of, and hoping that the letting go will leave space for Jesus to be bigger.

When I am closer to the ground, more rooted in this moment, then I am also closer to God’s heart, to the remaining, abiding, that I so greatly desire. So that I can love without hesitation or reservation, and let go more quickly and embrace more fully.

I hope that God will find me with my hands deep in the dirt, smelling of sweat and fuzzy tomatoes. I hope He will find me with all four corners of my feet planted into the earth and my heart planted in the present moment, willing to be all there. And I hope I will find myself rooted in His heart.

(61) lines, boxes, a bush on fire

Theotokos (Mother of God/God-bearer) of the Unburnt Bush

***

We draw the lines trying to keep the dangerous stuff out.
Thick lines of what to do and mainly what not to do
It’s supposed to keep us safe
From all that bad stuff
From evil, from sin.

Or we put all the dangerous stuff in a box and lock it
and shelve it, really high up where it can’t be reached.
Out of sight
Out of mind.

But the real problem is not locked in the box
on the top shelf of an ignored but never-forgotten closet
or trapped securely outside the wide and tidy lines

The real trouble, the real danger is within my heart.

***

I want to live in the bright, open spaces
with a heart exposed to the light and holy fire,
with a heart empty of pride and resentment

where lines are erased and choices made
not because of rules, of lists of “do” and “do not”
but from within love and through love and for love

And in that broad place of love and brightness
I think I may also find the truth of holiness
a way of being that is like the burning bush in Exodus
like the Virgin Mary, who carried in her body the fullness of God
to be a dwelling place of God, to be on fire, yet not consumed.

Because it just is not all about the rules.