Turn Aside and Look: Full of Darkness

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photo by Josh Scholten

 

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
~Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow”

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The bright sadness of Lent
is a box full of darkness
given to us by someone who loves us.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if we ever do,
this gift with which we are entrusted
is meant to
hand off to another and another
whom we love just as well.

Opening the box
allows light in
where none was before.
Sorrow shines bright
reaching up
from the deep well
of our loving
and being loved.

Turn Aside and Look: To Laugh and To Cry

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It is in these afflictions, which succeed one another each moment,
that God, veiled and obscured, reveals himself,
mysteriously bestowing his grace in a manner
quite unrecognized by the souls
who feel only weakness in bearing their cross…

~Jean Pierre du Caussade from The Sacrament of the Present Moment

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The past few mornings have been unveiled in snow flurries, mist and fog, tentative spring dawns of freezing air and warming soil trying to break loose from the vise grip of a tired and dying winter.

I am struggling under the load of 14 hour days working with despairing and suicidal people,  in addition to keeping a barn clean and animals and humans fed.  Even sleep is not restful when there is so little time to quiet myself in reflection and gratitude.

I am keenly reminded of my weakness as my strength wanes at the end of a long day, having slipped in the mud while trying to gain traction unloading a couple hundred pounds of manure from the wheelbarrow.  Landing on my backside, my pants soaking through,  I can choose to laugh or cry.

I choose to see the baptism of mud as a sacrament of the present moment,  reminding me of my need for a cleansing grace.

I laugh and cry.

Though obscured from view, God is nevertheless revealed in these moments of being covered in the soil of earth and the waste of its creatures.

He knows I need reminding that I too am dust and to dust shall return.

He knows I am too often wasteful and a failed steward,
so need reminding by landing me amidst it.

He knows I need to laugh at myself,
so puts me right on my backside.

He knows I need to cry,
so sends me those with the saddest stories and greatest needs.

He knows I need Him, always and ever more,
to restore a sacrament of grace evident in the present moment
and every moment to come.

To be known for who I am
by a God who laughs with me,
weeps for me
and groans with pain I have caused~
I will know
no greater love.

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When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound;
when Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.
~William Billings

 

Perfectly and Completely Rotten

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O lovely apple!
beautifully and completely
                 rotten
hardly a contour marred–

                 perhaps a little
shrivelled at the top but that
                 aside perfect
in every detail! O lovely

                 apple! what a
deep and suffusing brown
                 mantles that
unspoiled surface! No one

                 has moved you
since I placed you on the porch
                 rail a month ago
to ripen.

                 No one. No one!
~William Carlos Williams “Perfection”

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“When a newspaper posed the question, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:

‘Dear Sirs:
I am.
Sincerely Yours,
G. K. Chesterton.’

That is the attitude of someone who has grasped the message of Jesus.”
~Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton, 2008)

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No one of us escapes the rottenness that lies not-so-deep beneath our shiny surface.  We are full of wormholes allowing the world inside to eat us alive.

We are the problem and the problem is us. That is why we need rescue by a Savior who is the one good apple among a barrel of contagiously bad apples. We are so tainted, it takes Someone who truly is Perfect to transform us from the inside out.

We’ve elected someone who is emphatically a reflection of who we are — bad and rotten and more than willing to spoil the barrel with his history of immoral and unethical behavior, his contentious and profane words, his complete lack of humility and his unwillingness to admit his flaws.

May we hang on to hope that our dis-united states will once again survive an imperfect leader, just as we’ve survived the other rotten apples we’ve placed over us.

We get exactly what we deserve in a President and no one should be celebrating that today.

May we fall to our knees, weeping and grateful, that Christ, who is the Leader of all in His Kingdom, will grant us a grace and sanctuary we emphatically don’t deserve.

Now that would be reason to celebrate.

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North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely,
[Signed, ‘E. B. White’] from Letters of Note

Savoring the Gray

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I like these cold, gray winter days.  Days like these let you savor a bad mood.
–  Bill Watterson in Calvin and Hobbes

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After too many days of very cold crisp northeast wind and bright sun, I’m looking longingly for a weather prediction for rain later this week.  I want to be back to gray, wet and miserable, right where we were for most of December.

What a relief that would be.

There has been too much perfection for too long:  360 degree views of snowy mountains and foothills that gleam in the sun, glistening crystalline fields of frost, sparkling clear waters in Puget Sound,  and bright blue cloudless skies is hard for any northwest native to tolerate.    It is hard work keeping up the smiles and general good humor that goes with excellent weather.   There is always a clear expectation that one must be outside enjoying the rare sunny day, when it is far more appealing to curl up with a good book and a warm dog by a roaring fire, pretending not to notice how nice it is out.

We native Washingtonians are congenitally grumpy people, born to splash through puddles and lose our boots in footwear-sucking mud.    We don’t carry umbrellas because they are useless when our horizontal rain comes from the side, not from the top.   We wear sunglasses on mid-winter sunny days because we can’t possibly get our eyes to adjust to so much brightness.   We wear hoods, sometimes even when we are indoors, just in case,  because you never know.

Gray is preferred.   Gray with wet and cold is even better.   No one even questions a bad mood on days like this.   A good mood would be highly suspect.

So I savor the opportunity to be disgruntled with such obvious justification as a rainy evening.

Downright crabby.  No apologies needed.  No excuses given.

It’s almost enough to put a smile on my face.

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That Still Room

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The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year,
and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to,
for sifting through the things we have done
and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who,
for better or worse, we are becoming.

We cling to the present out of wariness of the past.
But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need
—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—
to enter that still room within us all
where the past lives on as a part of the present,
where the dead are alive again,
where we are most alive ourselves to turnings
and to where our journeys have brought us.

The name of the room is Remember—
the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart,
we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
~Frederick Buechner

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In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.

The tree straddled more than just two rooms.  Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away.

Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of memories within me.  I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.

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Preparing the Heart: Fighting the Long Defeat

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He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted . . . and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings

 

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It is only 10 days before we bid farewell to autumn and accept the arrival of the winter solstice signaling the long slow climb back to daylight. This giving-way to the darkness has felt like a defeat we may never recover from.

Yet the sunset becomes a startling send-off for fall, coloring Mt. Baker and surrounding an almost full moon with purple in the eastern sky. Our farm, for a deceptive few minutes, appears rosy and warm in crisp subfreezing weather. Then all becomes gray again, and within an hour we are shrouded in thick fog which ices the asphalt as darkness fell.  It becomes a challenge to avoid the deep ditches along our country roads, with the white fog line being the critical marker preventing potential disaster.

The ever present evening fog this time of year cloaks and smothers in the darkness, not unlike the respiratory and gastrointestinal viruses that have hit many households hard this week. Plenty of people have been vomiting, feverish, coughing and snuffling, unable to leave the bathroom or see past the ends of their swollen noses, as if the fog descended upon them in an impenetrable gray cloud. It is an unwelcome reminder of our vulnerability to microscopic organisms that can defeat us and lay us low in a matter of hours, just as a sudden freezing fog can lure us to the ditch. We are forced to stay put, our immune systems fighting back at a time when there are dozens of responsibilities vying for attention in preparation for the holidays. Little gets accomplished other than our slow wait for healing and clarity–at some point the viral fog will dissipate and we can try climbing back into life and navigating without needing the fog lines as guides.

Ditches have been very deep for some folks recently, with the diagnosis of cancers and devastating surgeries swallowing up their light and joy. Despite profound losses and pain, people courageously continue to fight, climbing their way out of the darkness to the light.

The day’s transition to night becomes bittersweet: these bright flames of color herald our uneasy future sleep after fighting the long defeat on this soil.

The sun “settles” upon the earth and so must we.

Be at ease, be comforted, put down the heavy burden and rest. We can celebrate, with chorus and gifts, the arrival of brilliant light in our lives. Instead of darkness overcoming us, our lives become illuminated in glory and grace.

The Son has settled among us.

 

Sure on this shining night of star-made shadows round,
kindness must watch for me this side the ground,
on this shining night, this shining night

The late year lies down the north
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth,
hearts all whole
The late year lies down the north
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth, hearts all whole
Sure on this shining night,
sure on this shining, shining night

Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars
Sure on this shining night, this shining night
On this shining night, this shining night
Sure on this shining night
~from James Agee’s poem

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum.
Ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio:
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum
Alleluia

 

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A Blessing Just to Be

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Before the adults we call our children arrive with their children in tow
  for Thanksgiving,

we take our morning walk down the lane of oaks and hemlocks, mist
  a smell of rain by nightfall—underfoot,

the crunch of leathery leaves released by yesterday’s big wind.

You’re ahead of me, striding into the arch of oaks that opens onto the fields
  and stone walls of the road—

as a V of geese honk a path overhead, and you stop—

in an instant, without thought, raising your arms toward sky, your hands
  flapping from the wrists,

and I can read in the echo your body makes of these wild geese going
  where they must,

such joy, such wordless unity and delight, you are once again the child
  who knows by instinct, by birthright,

just to be is a blessing. In a fictional present, I write the moment down.
  You embodied it.
~Margaret Gibson “Moment”

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I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
~Jane Kenyon “Otherwise”

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On this day,
this giving-thanks day,
I know families who surround loved ones
fighting for life in ICU beds,
more families struggling to find gratitude
in their pierced hearts
from loss of a child in an overturned school bus,
or their gunned down police officer son/husband/father,
or their soldier coming home under a flag.

It is the measure of us, the created,
to kneel grateful, while facing the terrible
and still feel loved and blessed,
to believe how wide and long and high and deep
is His love for us,
we the weeping, the broken-hearted.

 

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